Archive for Edgar Ulmer

A Solo for Three Voices

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2016 by dcairns

Just when everything seemed bleak and colourless like a sepia Kansas farmyard, David Melville Wingrove returns after a too-long absence to continue his series Forbidden Divas ~

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FORBIDDEN DIVAS

A Solo for Three Voices 

“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” ~ Oscar Wilde

No, The Love of Three Queens (1954) is not a movie about a gay ménage a trois. It’s a lavish and multi-stranded folly that showcases Hedy Lamarr – its star and its producer – as three of the Great Women of History. She plays the saintly Genevieve of Brabant in the Middle Ages, the flighty Empress Josephine in the Napoleonic Wars and the sultry Helen of Troy in Ancient Greece. Just in case that is not enough, she also appears in a framing story…as a fresh-faced ingénue (Hedy was forty at the time) who embodies all three women for a wandering Italian theatre troupe.

The term ‘vanity project’ might have been coined specially to describe this film. A sophisticated lady with a famously high IQ (she dabbled in scientific research between movies) Hedy Lamarr rapidly grew tired of the decorative roles foisted on her by Hollywood. Meanwhile, she took little if any responsibility for her own disastrous choices – allegedly turning down Casablanca (1943) and Gaslight (1944), but saying yes to The Conspirators (1944) and Experiment Perilous (1944)! Like any other bored but ambitious leading lady, she took to producing her own films.

She tried this first in Hollywood, with a degree of success. The Strange Woman (1946) was the torrid tale of a scheming backwoods vixen, with George Sanders memorably miscast as a lumberjack. Dishonored Lady (1947) – about a fashion editor with an overactive libido – was a flop, as the clothes were not stunning enough to compensate for the lady’s lack of morals. Hedy’s career, briefly, looked doomed. But then Cecil B DeMille cast her as the Biblical temptress in Samson and Delilah (1949). Nobody, before or since, had worn peacock feathers with such aplomb! Hedy clearly felt it was her destiny to play the legendary sirens of the ages…

1949  Hollywood screen goddess, Hedy Lamarr stars in "Samson and Delilah" directed by Cecil B. De Mille.

Hollywood, as usual, did not see it her way. So Hedy packed her bags, moved to Italy and sank most of her fortune into a production company all her own. Its one and only product, The Love of Three Queens, exists under such a baffling array of titles (Eterna Femmina, L’Amante di Paride, The Knights of Illusion) and in such a bewildering diversity of cuts (from three hours to under 90 minutes) that it is actually quite hard to describe it as a film at all. It has far more the aura of an open-ended and ongoing project, like Walt Disney’s Fantasia or Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, only with a shade more artistic self-indulgence thrown in.

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The framing story (at least in the version now on DVD) opens with a bunch of gypsy-style caravans trundling through a scenic Italian landscape. A nameless and faceless narrator follows by horse-drawn carriage. He is, he explains, “compelled by beauty beyond a poet’s words, by mystic loveliness that bore the name Leala.” As his voice speaks these words, the shutters on one caravan swing open – and Hedy gazes out languidly at the passing scene. Might she not overhear this narration? Perhaps, be embarrassed by it? Then it strikes us that Hedy – in her role as producer – must have given her full approval to the script and instructed Marc Allégret (the credited director) to shoot it in this way and no other.

Well, nobody ever got to the top in movies by being modest. Hedy/Leala is the star attraction of the otherwise shabby Teatro Romani. We and the narrator follow to the nearest town, where the troupe is playing that night. By using a tawdry theatrical framework for its flights of artistic and historical fancy, The Love of Three Queens anticipates a far more famous film maudit of the 50s, the doomed Max Ophüls extravaganza Lola Montès (1955). Both films were mangled and recut to the brink of incoherence and neither, at the time, was given a wide release. The difference is that Hedy’s film never became a cause célèbre with critics, has never been revived or restored and remains unavailable in anything like its original form.

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As her character on that first night, Genevieve of Brabant, Hedy looks fetching but incongruous in a blonde wig. This episode – unlike most of the film – was directed by Edgar G Ulmer, who helped her play a sizzling femme fatale in The Strange Woman. Her role here is a character of unimpeachable (and well-nigh insufferable) moral virtue – a pious medieval lady who tends the fields with the peasants, while her husband is away fighting the Moors. A lascivious nobleman tries to seduce her. After she refuses, the rotter accuses her of “unchastity” to her husband on his return. The husband, inexplicably, believes the man over his wife and promptly condemns her to death. “This cannot be happening,” says Hedy, looking mildly perplexed. We in the audience know exactly how she feels.

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Faced with this unwieldy and unbelievable plot, Hedy and Ulmer soon fell out. He walked off the picture (or was fired) and is grudgingly listed as ‘Associate Director’ in the end credits. Indeed – judging from her performance – it seems Ulmer could control his star only by keeping her in a state of permanent hypnosis. Visually, though, his work brilliantly evokes the art of the Middle Ages; the stylised colour schemes and flat or foreshortened perspectives seem to recall a Brueghel painting. Oh, and poor wronged Genevieve does not die. She escapes into the wild and gives birth to an adorable blonde son. Her erring husband finds them, years later, living in a cave and weaving garlands of flowers to adorn their herd of tame deer.

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The next episode (made after Allégret took over) is a shorter and livelier affair. Hedy looks wickedly stylish as the promiscuous Empress Josephine – in a red-white-and-blue outfit of military cut, her bonnet festooned with white plumes and tricolore ribbons. Travelling the back roads during her husband’s Italian campaign, she dismisses one lover from her carriage (“I suppose in war these things happen”) and invites the next available solder to take his place. But she is not a heartless floozy, just a vulnerable and tender-hearted woman baffled by Naploeon’s manic desire to conquer all of Europe. In the end, he forsakes her for an Austrian princess who gives him a male heir. Standing at her window, she listens to each cannon in the 21-gun salute. Her face grows, subliminally, more tragic and resigned with every shot.

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It seems Hedy was a lot happier under Allégret’s direction. Her portrayal of Josephine is as heart-rending as her portrayal of Genevieve is becalmed. Her third role, as Helen of Troy, is in a more languid mode. But that’s only right for this version of the story, which makes Helen the bait in a ‘honey trap’ – designed by wily Odysseus to trick the Trojans into war. Realising the sordid way she has been used, Helen does not so much fall in love with Paris (Massimo Serato) as leave her husband Menelaus in disgust. Of her fabled beauty, she says: “What has it brought me save sorrow? Desired, not for myself, but that men might envy the one who had me.” We are tempted to wonder if Hedy wrote this dialogue herself.

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The Trojan War, when it happens, is quite bereft of heroism of any sort. Troy falls in a surprisingly graphic orgy of slaughter and rape; guffawing Greek soldiers suffocate a helpless man under a shower of grain. When Menelaus comes to strike Helen dead with his sword, she throws open her black mourning robes to reveal a lining of bright crimson. As if, knowing the savagery of the world, she had already draped herself in blood. “May the gods forbid that any mortal woman be as desolate as I!” He spares her, but we get the distinct feeling she would rather be dead.

On one level, The Love of Three Queens is a silly and overproduced costumed charade. Yet running through it – and holding it together, if anything does – is an intelligent woman’s baffled outrage at the male fondness for brutality, conquest and war. Hedy’s first husband (married when she was just 18) had been the Viennese arms tycoon Fritz Mandl, who sold bombs to both Mussolini and Franco. (If he had no links with Hitler, it was only because he was Jewish.)  He also tried to destroy all prints of Hedy’s landmark film Ecstasy (1933) because she appeared in a very discreet sex scene and, later, swam in the nude. Her efforts to escape this marriage led Hedy to America and, eventually, a Hollywood career. In this return to Europe, she was not just making a movie; she was, perhaps, settling a few old scores.

The scores, alas, did not settle in her favour. The Love of Three Queens sank into an oblivion from which it still has yet to surface. Hedy married again (for the fifth time) to Texan oil tycoon Howard Lee, who insisted they settle in Houston. “How anyone who has seen anything of the world can live in Texas is beyond me,” said Hedy after the divorce. She made only a few more films and died in poverty in Florida in 2000. The Love of Three Queens survives, in much-mutilated form, as the most fascinating of flops. Try to imagine Intolerance remade as a glossy high-fashion chick flick. It could never have worked. And who but Hedy would have had the nerve to try?

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David Melville

Wicked World

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2014 by dcairns

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Husband-and-wife team Guy Maddin and Kim Morgan have programmed WICKED WOMAN (1953) as part of their mini-season at telluride this year, and their comments comparing it to Ulmer’s DETOUR (a favourite of both Errol Morris and Lucio Fulci) made it sound pretty damn intriguing. I tracked it down.

The comparison led me to expect too much, probably, but the film is at least as interesting as it is dull. It’s the work of writer-director Russell Rouse, who made some OK stuff before he made THE OSCAR (a gloriously wretched multi-car-crash of an all-star epic), with the wordless Ray Milland vehicle THE THIEF as a particular stand-out. Rouse created a sort of silent movie simply by having his leading man alone, at night, with no one to speak to. It creates a particularly bleak, lonely atmosphere.

While DETOUR derives a lot of its impact from forcing shots to extend until they become striking — who was it who said, “There’s nothing in it but genius, because they couldn’t afford anything else?”, WICKED WOMAN has a normal B-movie number of set-ups, and they aren’t particularly inventive. The speed of production didn’t compel Rouse to come up with crazy ideas, it just meant the lighting couldn’t be very elaborate and the camera couldn’t move much. The effect is televisual, with only the griminess of everything and everybody in shot to distinguish it from small screen fare. Apart from the very occasional moment —

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As far as thrills go, the movie is somewhat lacking. It’s kind of a noir, but the biggest crime contemplated is fraud, and the worst violence is when the titular W.W., Beverley Michaels, gets repeatedly shoved to the floor and bed by Richard Egan. But there IS Percy Helton, hump-backed orangutoad from KISS Me DEADLY, blackmailing Michaels into, ahem, being nice to him. If he were George Clooney, this would be distasteful, but he’s Percy Helton, so it’s intolerably skeezy. You have to rapidly assembled a firewall in your frontal lobes to disbar any images of that lipless, foam rubber face contorting in the throes of carnal ecstasy. Quick! Do it! Do it now!

Too late.

My favourite Percy Helton role is in the notorious Mandom commercial, where his fleeting appearance may be intended to remind us of the deleterious effects of not buying Mandom.

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What WICKED WOMAN does have is Michaels herself, a curious presence, six-foot plus and languorous like a moon-walking astronaut (though far less buoyant), her line readings alternating between depressive monotone and venom-spitting fury. Until she speaks, it always feels like the camera is running at 30fps. Just watching her cross a room is like Valium for the eyes.

And then there’s the movie’s vision, in which everybody, almost without exception, is crummy. Michaels, who commits fraud and adultery and sleeps with another guy and chisels and bullies, is just about the nicest person in it. The bar’s co-owner is an abrasive alcoholic, but I guess she’s basically OK. The short-order cook is a loud complainer, but decent. But Egan is a louse, all the bar customers are chubby sex pests, Michaels’ landlady and fellow boarders are vicious, braying jackasses, and Percy goes from being a seedy, needy dweeb for Michaels to exploit, to a blackmailing molester. The sex goblin versus the giantess. We kind of wanted Michaels to go on a killing spree at the end — she looks more than capable for throwing little Percy through the greasy rice-paper walls of her rooming house.

Bible Thumper

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2013 by dcairns

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I’ve wanted to see Frank Borzage’s last film, THE BIG FISHERMAN (1959) for a long time, but was resistant to seeing the wretched pan-and-scan copy that seemed to be the only thing available. So eventually I got a wretched letterboxed edition which at least allowed me to see the compositions, even if the actual imagery was blurry. A thousand thanks to Neil McGlone for helping me out with this. His DVD seems to have a very interesting provenance but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to talk about it.

Borzage’s long career had endured numerous ups and downs by this time. Much of his work during the 40s fell short of his best, but MOONRISE (1948) was a masterpiece, applying silent movie aesthetics to a contemporary story in a way that’s worthy of comparison to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Then Borzage endured ten years with just a few TV shows to his name. CHINA DOLL is a decent attempt to recapture some of his 1920s mojo (albeit resorting to self-plagiarism on a grand scale). Somehow the director who had seemed unemployable (no blacklist, but a drink problem is rumoured) got assigned the first Super Panavision film to be shot, a biblical epic intended to cash in on the massive success of BEN HUR. His producer and the film’s co-writer was Rowland V. Lee (SON OF FRANKENSTEIN), another old stager from the silent age, whose best work came in the pre-code era.

(Borzage has just one later rumoured film, uncredited work on SIREN OF ATLANTIS which is credited to Edgar Ulmer — another late film — a somewhat arthritic remake of L’ATLANTIDE. Draw a veil over that one.)

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Unfortunately, it must be admitted that the qualities, along with an epic sensibility (however you choose to define that) which are required by the writer of biblical epics for the screen did not reside abundantly in RV Lee, who crafts plodding and bellicose dialogue for his actors. (Wasn’t it Gore Vidal who defined the good/bad difference as lying in the distinction between “The food is not to your liking?” and “Don’t you like your dinner?” Neither one is more authentic than the other in terms of ancient-world etiquette, but only the second has a chance of sounding natural on an actor’s lips.) The story, from a Lloyd C Douglas (THE ROBE) novel, is decent enough, but as delivered here it comes front-loaded with exposition by the camel-load, dumped into speechifying and a flashback and resulting in boredom and confusion rather than clarity.

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What saves the film are three good actors. Howard Keel, a real-life atheist (“Well, if heaven’s like they claim it is, I don’t want to go. I’d get bored.”) injects energy as a pre-apostollic St Peter, a man who likes cracking skulls and catching fish, and he’s all out of fish. (Fiona flat-out refused to believe we were about to see a film called THE BIG FISHERMAN. “There’s no such film. You made it up. What’s it REALLY called?”) Susan Kohner brings naturalism whenever she can, smuggling it in if necessary. She’s playing a Arabian/Jewish princess (close: in real life she’s a Mexican/Jewish princess) in love with John Saxon. Saxon is typically fine, but the third major support this movie gets is from its villain, Herbert Lom (Herod Antipas). If your dialogue is hokey, you can fall back on your Freed Unit training like Howard and hoke it up for all its worth, or you can breathe life into it like Kohner and Lom. She does it just by seeming like a real person, whereas he uses tricks. After an assassination attempt, he plays the next five minutes out of breath, which works really well, contrasting with the heartiness with which he attempts to shrug off the attempt on his life.

(Kohner is underrated, perhaps because she retired young. Her kids are producers — so indirectly, we owe AMERICAN PIE to the star of IMITATION OF LIFE.)

It’s a shame the rest of the players seem direct from central casting, though Beulah Bondi is fine. Oh, and Dr Smith from Lost in Space has a plum role, to our joy. Jesus remains offscreen, as in BEN HUR, but the guy doing his voice is horribly sententious. The role does get a boost from this structure, which is kind of a Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead affair, interweaving a new storyline around the events of a rather familiar story — as a result, familiar gospel speeches can acquire a fresh resonance. Despite the wooden delivery of the anonymous ham, Christ’s “turn the other cheek” spiel gains something by being reflected through Keel’s two-fisted fishmonger character and Kohner’s vengeful princess. And the whole thing is aiming to send a pacifist message into the 1950s world, specifically to do with Arab and Israeli relations.

“It takes a Jew to make a picture like this,” said William Wyler while shooting BEN HUR. And it seems to be a Hollywood axiom, Cecil B. DeMille notwithstanding, that religiosity is best marketed by Jewish filmmakers. Borzage, a Christian, though an appealingly liberal and sexy one, was brilliantly at weaving his own personal iconography into his films, but seems overawed by the spiritual import of — what? The set dressing? It’s a Lloyd C Douglas potboiler, not the Gospel of Matthew!

But how does our director fair with the widescreen? Well, he has his moments. I particularly liked his opening shot, which literally opens out, taking us from a cramped canyon into a wide-open space, the whole landscape designed by John DeCuir, that master of ancient world art direction.

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Track back, pushed by our character carrying a sheep on his shoulders…

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He turns to his right and we pan left to follow him crabwise… <—

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Then he turns to his right again and we’re tracking forward, after him, towards an archway which finally gives us our expansive vista as the tracking stops and we let him shrink into longshot —

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“Hey Presto!” as the Christ almost certainly didn’t say when he did the business with the fish sandwiches.

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