Archive for Fear in the Night

The Dream Detective

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2010 by dcairns

The top movie opens like whorling  ink and oil and blood in a madman’s plughole. The lower movie opens like a five-dimensional bezoar viewed through a kaleidoscope — abstract clouds of translucent hair that seem to pass through us as we delve deeper. After that opening title though, they are the same.

Behold! The Floating Head of Death in NIGHTMARE and FEAR IN THE NIGHT.

Maxwell Shane liked Cornell Woolrich’s story Nightmare so much, he made it twice, first as FEAR IN THE NIGHT, which was DeForest Kelley’s first feature (and seeing the very fine performance of the Dr. McCoy guy in JJ Abrams’ STAR TREK reboot reminded me how warmly I feel towards DFK), in 1947, and again in 1956 as NIGHTMARE, with Kevin McCarthy in the lead but with Edward G Robinson accorded senior billing, as is only right.

In fact, it seems Robinson, who had previously starred in a real Woolrich classic, NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (not very faithful to the source novel, but very good), made this film mainly to clear his name after he’d had some trouble with HUAC. The Z-list producers, William Pine and William Thomas (known in the trade as “the Dollar Bills”) seem to have had some power to rehabilitate stars who were under a cloud: if you worked for them, you were judged OK.

According to unreferenced internet sources, Maxwell Shane himself was a writer for Black Mask magazine, linking him to the Woolrich tradition of pulp-noir writing, and he later worked on Boris Karloff’s Thriller show, where the Woolrich story Guillotine was adapted for TV.

Incidentally, in Woolrich’s 1947 story A Night in Barcelona, the hero is called Maxwell Jones, and he’s a jazz musician, like the hero of NIGHTMARE, although unlike the hero of the 1947 FEAR IN THE NIGHT. Make of that what you will. And Woolrich reused the name, according to CW authority Francis M Nevins, in his last completed novel, Death is My Dancing Partner.

It begins — with a nightmare! Kevin McCarthy, the chin who walks like a man, sees himself in a mirrored room, stabbing a man with an ice-pick/awl, and stashing the body in a closet. “I felt as if my brain was in handcuffs,” he narrates, absurdly. During the struggle, he tears off one of the man’s jacket buttons, and after hiding the cadaver he pockets the key. And when he wakes up — you guessed it, he has the button and key on him. Also bruises and bloodstains.

This, then, is the mystery. McCarthy, sweating and jutting his jaw, is convinced the murder was real, but he doesn’t consciously remember it, and he doesn’t, so far as he knows, know the murdered man.

There’s a faint echo of this scenario in MINORITY REPORT, Spielberg’s “science fiction film noir“, which makes me ponder the death of noir and the limitations of a lot of neo-noir. I have a suspicion that noir died as a result of creeping self-consciousness, and that the very act of naming the genre was a nail in it’s coffin. But I also think that noir succeeded in its heyday because the filmmakers were sincere about the paranoia and fear that fueled the stories they told, and nobody was more sincere than Woolrich, who lived the life of loneliness and alcoholism. It’s hard to think of a sensibility less noirish than Spielberg’s, isn’t it? So in his movie, a man is really driven to the brink of murdering somebody he doesn’t know, and he’s all set to do it, as predicted by a psychic (Philip K Dick’s original story is very Woolrichian — both are ham-and-eggs pulp writers with weird imaginations), but then Spielberg wusses out and needs an additional forty-five minutes of screen time to come up with a happy ending in which malevolent fate is replaced by a nonsensical bad guy with a foreign accent, played by a guy who played lots of Nazis and the Emperor Ming.

Meanwhile, Kevin McCarthy ditches his girlfriend, a big-voiced jazz singer (Connie Russell, impressively full-throated) and visits his convenient cop brother-in-law, Eddie G. Who doesn’t believe him, until a family picnic is interrupted by a thunderstorm and McCarthy leads Robinson to the house he dreamed about, the house with the mirrored room. (The room also appears in Shane’s FEAR IN THE NIGHT, which is shot-for-shot near-identical to this one, save for a lower budget and no jazz subplot. FITN appeared the same year as Welles’ mirror-magic-show THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI.)

Now we learn there’s been a real murder in this house and things are not looking good for Kevin. The only real clue comes in the reading material favoured by the unseen householder ~

Suspicious!

Do you sense a hypnosis plot lurking in the wings? Do you suspect that the old adage about hypnosis being useless to make somebody act out of character was possibly not extant at the time of this movie? How right you are!

Along the way we get further nice ideas like McCarthy searching for the haunting, sleazy and scary tune he heard floating through his dream, quizzing his jazz cohorts in a dutch-tilted montage sequence to find out if anybody can Name That Tune. And we get a few nice ceiling fans and shadow shots.

As long as I’m kicking MINORITY REPORT for its feelgood finale, I should really be consistent and smack NIGHTMARE for the cheery family-values-and-jazz coda that wraps things up into a neat bundle at the end. There were ample opportunities to kill or permanently dement McCarthy along the way. But the conclusion is put over with some enthusiasm and good spirits, and it’s pretty economical, and the song is nice. This is from late in the noir cycle, so one doesn’t expect too much (TOUCH OF EVIL and KISS ME DEADLY notwithstanding), but the movie is a snappy, happy little opus with a great crime jazz score, good New Orleans locations, and a few very pleasing visuals. Here’s a moment where Kevin thinks he sees a vision from his dream ~

Gotta love that split mirror image. In fact, the whole scene is part of the padding inserted to blow up the B-movie original to a beefier 1 hr 28 mins. McCarthy picks up the girl and goes home with her, and by way of Big Easy atmos there’s a black female voice singing blues in the night, and it really is atmospheric and kind of eerie, especially because the whole thing has nothing to do with the plot ~

“My closet’s full of men’s clothes / And no man to put ’em on / Gonna find a man to love me / Before this day is gone.”

NB: DREAM DETECTIVE is the title of a film by Shinya Tsukamoto. I like his work, but that title is so evocative for me I almost don’t want to see it. How can the film be better than the title and the thoughts it conjures?

NB2: Francis M Nevins is right to say that FEAR IN THE NIGHT is the superior version. Now that I’ve watched it all, I can say that Paul Kelly in the Edward G Robinson role makes the difference — he’s always an alarming and unpredictable presence, c.f. that terrifying scene in CROSSFIRE…

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Frankenstein Must Be Annoyed

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2008 by dcairns

Well, he’s forever losing his patients (sorry).

This one DOES have a nice singalong theme tune by James Bernard.

So, some clever people on the IMDb have worked out that maybe the best way to make sense of the Hammer FRANKENSTEINs, leaving aside HORROR OF, which substitutes Ralph Bates for Cushing (how do we feel about this? I’d say it’s an interesting alternative in theory, in keeping with the Baron’s history of sexual ambivalence, beginning with Colin Clive. I’m renting HORROR, because I quite enjoyed FEAR IN THE NIGHT, which HORROR helmer Jimmy Sangster also directed). According  to Elsa4077  you need to swap 1967’s FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN with 1969’s FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, and regard EVIL OF as a dream. This allows the firey climax of DESTROYED to serve as the missing explanation for the Baron’s burned hands in CREATED WOMAN. It’s a pretty good theory, especially since Cushing’s hands are fine throughout DESTROYED, but damaged again in FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, the last in the series. which makes no sense if the stories run in the order they were shot in.

It doesn’t explain what became of “Dr. Franck’s” Harley Street practice or his partnership with Francis Matthews, though. I propose an exercise in fan fiction, dealing with the London-centric mad science that brings about Dr. Hans Kleve’s death, amid welters of Kensington gore, and leads to the Baron fleeing back to the continent. Let’s call it FRANKENSTEIN HAS RISEN FROM BELGRAVIA, and have the London experiments result in the mysterious figure known as Spring-Heeled Jack. Douglas Noble, AKA Stripforme, suggests that the Baron could end up as Jack the Ripper, but he CAN’T, silly! We all know that Jack the Ripper was really Martine Beswick in DR. JEKYLL AND SISTER HYDE.

We first meet the Baron this time in a natty spats and latex monster mask combo (his cheek bones still show through, says Fiona), decapitating a doctor in order to supply his latest creation with a suitably educated brain. An intruding burglar leads to the destruction of this monster-to-be, and the discovery of the Baron’s secret lair. Plus an impressively nasty moment when, fighting with the baron, the burglar is knocked over and finds himself touching the severed head. Jeepers!

In his memoir, Rungs on a Ladder, production manager Christopher Neame (son of Ronald) reports that the actor playing the burglar was so distressed by the rushes, he was found pacing a corridor clutching his head to ensure it was still attached.

This opening, and the rest of the film, is considerably more energetic than the previous entries in the series, with series regular cameraman Arthur Grant using wider lenses, getting in closer, and moving the camera sharply in nearly every shot. Terence Fisher’s increased liveliness behind the lens is all the more remarkable considering he was walking with the aid of a stick after recently been seriously injured after drunkenly wandering into traffic.

Next we meet incompetent Inspector Thorley Walters, playing a quite different kind of idiot from his kindly assistant in CREATED WOMAN — officious, and in a perpetual state of umbrage. He’s a bit like Raymond Walburn’s apoplectic authority figures in Preston Sturges’ films. Assisted by long-suffering police doctor Geoffrey Bayldon (another veteran of these things) Walters is lots of fun, although the investigative part of the film fails to really catch up with the rest of the narrative. But the comic dialogue is surprisingly sharp (screenwriter Bert Batt was an A.D. who had never written a film before) and the acting by everybody is just DELIGHTFUL: Robert Gillespie as the dry-witted mortuary man — “I last saw him on the day I slid him into the drawer,” — Allan Surtees as the sergeant, reporting as if it were a mere formality, “His head’s been cut off.” Priceless.

The Geoffrey and Thorley Comedy Show.

Needing a new place to set up shop, Baron F moves into Veronica Carlson’s lodging house. I suggested last time that having used up the pseudonyms “Stein” and “Franck”, he would have to start calling himself “Dr. En”, and he almost does — he’s “Dr. Fenner” now. Mad genius that he is, he’s soon blackmailing Veronica and her doctor boyfriend, Simon Ward, who’s been dealing coke on the side to support Carlson’s ailing mother (another plot thread that goes nowhere, but let it pass). This strand of the story shows Frankenstein at his most unsympathetic (and he’s not exactly the most warm-hearted fellow in the other films), forcing Carlson to make him endless cups of coffee, then raping her. Then getting her to make more coffee, which I thought was going a bit far.

The controversial rape was added in at the behest of the distributor, supposedly, and everybody was compelled to go through with it even though subsequent scenes had already been shot. It’s a pretty appalling insight into British cinema circa 1969 that a gratuitous rape scene was considered a way to bolster the entertainment value and commercial appeal of an already pretty gory horror film. Terence Fisher shot the scene under protest, and both Cushing and Carlson found the experience mortifying. Cushing, ever the pro, throws himself into it with gusto, and interestingly the sequence is the most dynamic in the film, with a powerful subjective camera track in on Cushing ominously offering the door-key to Carlson, and then a flurry of violent handheld camera as he wrestles her on the bed. Now, Fisher HATED handheld photography: “The camera never stops moving, and the audience quite rightly wonders why,” and he uses it just once elsewhere in this film, so there’s a suggestion that it’s use here was a gesture of contempt for the offensive material. But it works, making the scene properly ugly, rather than the titillation the distributor had wanted.

There’s a serious question about whether this scene (damnit, these are SERIOUS FILMS!), tacked on late in the day, damages the Baron as a character. We know from his liaison with the French maid in CURSE that he’s not solely dedicated to his work. He’s a lusty kind of fellow (as was Cushing). But he’d always behaved like a gentleman, of sorts. If we take the films to chart a descent into depravity, this scene shows the Baron having become even more heartless than ever, and it’s in keeping with his committing a gratuitous murder later on, just because his plans have been thwarted. For all his Man Of Science act, the Baron is a rather headstrong, emotion-driven guy. And also evil as fuck.

The plan this time is to abduct Frankenstein’s crazy partner, Dr. Brandt (the skin care specialist?) from the asylum where Simon Ward works, and cure his madness with a groundbreaking trepanning procedure. But the mad scientist suffers a heart attack, and Cushing is forced to transplant his brain into the body of Freddie Jones, as you do. This film is very big on brain transplants, with everyone acting as if they’d never been done before (REVENGE is all about brain transplanting, with even Cushing joining in himself), but remembering the recent work of Christian Bernard transplanting the first human heart in 1967, it’s easy to see why this stuff was of special interest at the time.

Gurgle.

Freddie spends much of the movie in a comatose state, having his head drilled and milksyphoned into him, which is no way to win an Oscar, but then he wakes up and gives what Fiona suggests is THE BEST GUEST-STAR PERFORMANCE EVER IN A HAMMER FILM. Desperate to be reunited with his wife — the great Maxine Audley from PEEPING TOM — who believes him dead (she’s seen his old body) he escapes from the Baron’s HQ andclimbs in her window. What follows is a wooing-by-proxy scene, with Jones speaking from behind a screen, that practically echoes CYRANO DE BERGERAC, and is the certainly most emotional material in any of the Frankenstein films.

It turns out the Baron only brought Brandt back to life and sanity in order to get from him an important MacGuffin formula which is raised rather late in the proceedings and never explained, but at least it’s clear that Frankenstein is acting in the interests of science, not charity, which is consistent with his M.O. Cushing arrives at chez Brandt to get the formula, but the brain-transplanted Brandt is waiting for him…

Things then erupt in what I can only call a fiery denouement, expertly staged and cut (Fisher was a former editor who had a real mastery of building scenes from simple but effective blocking). It looks like it’s possibly be done with multiple cameras, a necessity considering the special effects involved, but it doesn’t rupture the carefully designed shooting style of the film. There’s a rhythmic quality to the slamming and opening of doors and hurling of lanterns, and Cushing’s work here, particularly stylish in longshot, reminds me of the reason Scorsese gave for his gang’s enthusiasm for this actor: “We admired the precision of his movements within the frame.” They must have had some great 42nd St cinephile discussions, those boys.

Freddie can sling a lantern with the best of them.

Well, a real, honest-to-God fiery denouement is exactly what one wants in a Frankenstein film, and they pull out all the stops here, throw them on the floor and burn them. The credits pop up as Freddie’s house goes up, just like at the end of APOCALYPSE NOW. The horror! It’s never explained exactly how the Baron escapes cremation to ride again, but at least this acts as a belated explanation for his singed mitts.

All in all, this seemed like both the most dynamic film in the series to date, as well as the best-written, with comedy relief brought in early enough so that it doesn’t jar, unlike in the Sangster scripts, and a reasonably solid structure and controlled pace, unlike those written by John Elder. If it doesn’t have the cerebral and metaphysical qualities of CREATED WOMAN, it benefits from keeping it’s brain on the subject at hand — demented surgical mayhem — and not being distracted with stuff about souls and force fields. A shame Bert Batt didn’t write more.