Archive for Finger of Guilt

Tried to make me go to Ahab

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2018 by dcairns

Bits of John Huston’s MOBY DICK had Fiona’s jaw hanging open. If you could only reach into the screen, peal Gregory Peck’s image off it and replace him with someone else — Walter Huston would be right if his son had made it earlier — John himself would have been excellent, and you can see Peck straining to give Hustonian line readings — and one can imagine other leading men of the period being terrific — Robert Ryan was born to it (see BILLY BUDD), Trevor Howard could have nailed it, Robert Mitchum would have done something really surprising. Sterling Hayden had already worked with Huston so I can’t understand why he wasn’t thought of. Peck is certainly trying, but it’s a matter of essence, not just skill or willingness. And Peck’s essence is stiffness. “They’ve given him a nose and a scar and a wooden leg and he still can’t do anything!” declared a friend. He works himself into a suitable pitch, he takes risks, and none of it is particularly convincing or effective.

Maybe some of it is physiognomic: they glued on a fresh nose, but they can’t conceal the sensuous lips, which tend to look petulant rather than fierce.

However, this lack at the film’s centre seems to energize Huston — his blocking becomes both ornate and muscular, the build-up given to Peck’s appearance as Ahab is tremendous, and Philip Sainton’s score really gives it the hard sell — tragic that he never scored another film (apparently he was scheduled to do A KING IN NEW YORK, but quit, perhaps not wishing to merely transcribe his director’s humming.

Ossie Morris’s b&w/colour hybrid cinematography is consistently striking, and the whole thing has a visceral, weighty quality that even survives the unavoidable model shots — editor Russell Lloyd became a regular Huston collaborator after skillfully intercutting real whales, life-sized replicas, men and boats at sea and in the studio tank, and model shots completed months after principal photography, flicking from one to the other with such energy that the reality shifts are almost seamless. FX wise, it’s a weird case of the whale being impressive without being convincing; this at least places it a notch higher than Bruce the shark in JAWS who is neither. I mean, you know it can’t have been easy, but your hat remains on your head.

Richard Basehart is good — not too interesting, which seems right for the cypher-like Ishmael. A younger actor might have been more “right,” but Basehart being the wrong type adds the right kind of interest. His speech also has a Huston-like quality, and in Joe Losey’s FINGER OF GUILT the same year, he delivers cinema’s first full-on Huston impersonation, anticipating Clint Eastwood in WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART and Daniel Day-Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Best in show: Harry Andrews, who implausibly just seems to BE his hearty whaler character, and Leo Genn’s pensive Starbuck who can make underplaying hit hard.

An 8/10ths masterpiece. The Hollywood Gold Series Blu Ray delivers solid picture values (much better than the DVD used for these images).

MOBY DICK stars Atticus Finch, Ivan Karamazov, Sir Clifford Chatterley, Sir Lancelot Spratt, the 13th Earl of Gurney, Joe Gargery, Bob Cratchit, Tom Fury, Charles Foster Kane and the voice of the Lawgiver.

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A State of Violence

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2010 by dcairns

To say that REIGN OF TERROR, (Anthony Mann, 1949), AKA THE BLACK BOOK, is like a comic strip version of history is not to insult it, I feel, but to compliment and define its particular wild brio. To put it another way, as Fiona did after watching the first few minutes, “This film is nuts!”

Screening the film at home after seeing it for the first time in New York at the Film Forum (bought the T-shirt), I was struck anew by the Jack Kirby forcefulness of everything — this is a three-auteur movie (discounting the writers, as everyone always does), and all three of them are perfectly in synch and turned up to eleven: William Cameron Menzies designs and John Alton’s cinematography alike stress the bold, graphic and simple, with Anthony Mann adding a particularly extreme form of his choreographed aggression and thrust.

Why liken it to a comic book? One obvious clue is the film’s relentless Americanism — the celebration of Frenchness and democracy, and the incessant hammering at tyranny make it feel like a leftover WWII project, although the show-trials and talk of citizenry and revolution no doubt made it resonate among anti-communists at the time. The dialogue, by the prolific and sometimes brilliant Philip Yordan and the less-familiar Aeneas McKenzie (a Scottish islander who wrote for Borzage, Dieterle, Wellman, Dmytryk, Curtiz and DeMille, specializing in historical and military subjects) is fearlessly pulpy and Americanized, and the delivery backs it up. There’s not a single English accent to add spurious “class” and “verisimilitude” — it’s ridiculous to suggest that Arnold Moss’s crisp Brooklynese (“Whyncha eat yer bun?”) is any less authentic than the plummy tones of Michael York in THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Tout le monde aurait parlé français.

(When I met Glenn Kenny for dinner and mentioned what I’d been seeing, he greeted this title with an immediate cry of “Don’t call me Max!” echoing Robespierre’s funniest line. Robespierre, not normally a funny guy.)

Apart from the visuals, which really blur the distinctive styles of the three main contributors — chiaroscuro single-source expressionism from Alton, bulging closeups, aggressive symmetry and violent displacement upwards and downwards courtesy of Menzies, and punching and swiveling movements from Mann — there’s the narrative style, which seems to transfer the crazed twistiness of Hitchcock’s espionage stories to a historical setting — true cloak and dagger. The strategies and counterplots barely make sense and could never have been implemented in the film’s breathless hurtle through 24hrs of intrigue and assassination, but as long as there’s a reversal, suspense sequence, chase or new disguise adopted every five minutes or less (and there is, at least for the first and last half hours) the impossibility is judged irrelevant.

The cast is so amazing here that it can afford to squander Norman Lloyd (a veteran Hitchcock plotter) as a sympathetic agent, and Charles McGraw as a thug with barely a line (McGraw’s beard softens his chiseled weapon of a face, and the lack of lines robs us of his unique voice, which he must have got from having to introduce himself so often: “McGraw,” sounding both gravelly and raw, is exactly like his throaty utterances. You can’t SAY his name unless you drink some flaming whisky first).

In first place, we have Robert Cummings, or the Terror of Strasburg”, as I’m now going to start calling him. Cummings is probably nobody’s favourite Holywood leading man these days, if he ever was, but he’s pretty good here, especially in his spiteful sparring with Arlene Dahl. His character has had some kind of ill-defined CASABLANCA-style falling-out with the former cheesecake model prior to our story’s start, expressed in some spicy GILDA sexy-hatred dialogue and hot snogging.

With those two (especially her) filling the conventional roles, the rogues’ gallery occupies most of the rest of the cast, and here things get seriously interesting. Richard Basehart is an interesting fellow (in Joseph Losey’s sluggish FINGER OF GUILT, Basehart essays what may be cinema’s first John Huston impersonation — see also Sterling Hayden in THE FINAL PROGRAMME, Clint Eastwood in WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART and D-Day-Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD) and here he plays Robespierre as a dry, sexless-yet-somehow-perverted plutocrat and psychopath, a fanatic who uses his verbal skills and air of authority to conceal from everybody, including perhaps himself, his designs on power.

Jess Barker as the dangerous Saint Just is almost colourless by comparison, but scores with the way he disintegrates when things suddenly turn against him. But the real heart of the film, modern, campy and exuberant, is Arnold Moss as Fouché. Looking like the depraved elder brother of Adrien Brody, all hooded eyes, pointy, hooked chin and nose, a Mr Punch with a permanent erection, he sidles his way into our affections with his louche, droll demeanour and self-confessed treachery. When Cummings, playing up his cover story as a torturing swine, remarks that the guillotine is too mercifully swift, he suddenly finds himself in a flirtatious conversation about torture in which Fouché looks about to jump on his bones.

“Why aren’t there Arnold Moss Clubs all over the world, celebrating his greatness?” asks Fiona.

Sinister homosexual villains are a staple of Mann’s films, so much so that it’s tempting to assume some inner psychological component is on display, and not necessary simple (if it ever is simple) homophobia. Villains were the only male characters really allowed to step outside the ordained standards of masculinity, after the Production Code nixed out the comedy sissies of the early thirties, so having fiendish sexual inverts as bad guys would be one way to explore the subject (directors like Leisen and Cukor found other ways, but they weren’t making two-fisted men’s adventure stories).

Saw the movie in New York with Jaime Christley, who suggested that Mann’s enthusiasm for violence is what breaks through the beautiful mix of sensibilities. I mean, you can trace every aesthetic component of the film to Mann’s sensibility — all the visual tricks and tics displayed here recur in his work — but they’re also very much Alton and Menzies’ style. So the savagery (characters shot in the face at close range, the effect achieved by spraying them with stage blood) and sexual ambiguity is how Mann asserts himself. There’s a line from Robespierre about France existing in ” a perpetual state of violence,” and Mann takes that as his cue for the whole film. Even fluttering doves fly into shot as if fired from a sling.

The middle of the film, where Cummings and Dahl’s relationship has become boringly civil, and we escape the turmoil of Paris for a rural pursuit, is frankly less enticing than the hurlyburly machinations of Act 1, but a change of pace was probably necessary lest the narrative frenzy shake the cinemas apart like Lawrence Woolsey’s Rumble-Rama in MATINEE. The ending, a bloodbath followed by an ironic historical joke, is splendid, and it’s nice to see Arnold Moss survive: the Production Code would probably have insisted he die for his wickedness, but the historical record dictated otherwise.

BANG BANG

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2008 by dcairns

“The filthiest man I ever met!”

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This was my late friend, assistant director Lawrie Knight’s recollection of Ken Hughes, who once sub-let a flat from Lawrie, and had to be turned out after complaints from the landlady about his rowdy and disgusting ways. Infuriatingly, I know no more about this.

Hughes, best remembered as director of children’s perennial CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, began his career with a lot of little thrillers, and as a BANG BANG fan I always wanted to see some of these. Turns out several can be downloaded and there are collectors of obscure UK stuff who have accumulated others. So I got my sweaty mits on CONFESSION and, even more excitingly, THE ATOMIC MAN.

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“This film is f*cked,” protested Fiona, pronouncing the asterisk very distinctly, at first sight of the fuzzy copy of CONFESSION, and refused to watch it. I persevered, partly through an interest in Sydney Chaplin. Son of the rather more famous Charles, Syd always appears as a passionate and interesting witness in documentaries about his dad’s life, so I was intrigued to see if he had the same impact as a screen actor. Not quite, sadly. Maybe he had to grow into his talent, and by the time he had, the heat had gone out of his acting career. As a youngster, Sydney was a strikingly handsome fellow, like a beefier version of Chaplin Snr, but his looks had faded a little by the time he appeared in Hughes 1955 crime thriller, as a crook who tries to kill the priest who heard the confession of a man he killed… it’s complicated, but at any rate he doesn’t have sufficient faith in the sanctity of the confessional.

It’s not a strong film, alas. The climax, with a convincingly gruesome death plummet (you hardly ever see bodies actually hit the ground in these things, which always frustrated me as a bloodthirsty kid, but Hughes plays faitr and includes the final earthly impact) is pretty good, as our baddie is blasted from the belfry by swinging bells — killed by God! And the first killing, set to the screeching of a nearby train, is pretty dynamic and effective. But too much of the film is just our man ambling around, not feeling particularly guilty as far as we can see, and not taking any dramatic action, nefarious of otherwise, to resolve his problems.

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Reviewers liken the movie to Hitchcock’s I CONFESS, and say that the narrative problem is a tricky one — how to spin a compelling drama out of the priest’s conundrum? But Hitchcock makes that problem work just fine (I’m sure it works even better for Catholics) — his real problem is with a priest as hero. No romance, really. No humour, much. Hughes, who scripted his own movie, uses the priest as a minor plot device, and isn’t really exercised by the same issue, but fails to come up with a compelling dramatic problem to replace the priest’s. He doesn’t even seem to have really decided who his main character is. Clearly it ought to be former Hollywood bad boy Sydney, but Hughes seems reluctant to make an out-and-out villain his hero. A shame.

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THE ATOMIC MAN has a lot more momentum and panache and silliness. Set in a Britain bursting with Americans, including a loutish Gene Nelson (“Delaney”) and a peevish Faith Domergue (“Lebowski”), it details the enigma of a man hauled from the Thames with a bullet in his back, whose presence causes photos to fog and who resurrects after pronounced dead. Is it Jesus? No, Jesus was not atomic. This guy is atomic.

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They try to x-ray him, but he ends up x-raying them, or something.

Wait, if he can’t be photographed, how come we can see him in this film?

My enjoyment was marred slightly by this copy being even more f*cked than CONFESSION. It looks like the print, which is scratchy and embossed at several points with a giant apostrophe –

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– has been projected onto choppy water and then video-taped by an ancient camera whose tube has been scorched repeatedly by Arthur C. Clarke’s laser. It’s like watching a movie from inside Fritz Lang’s lung.

Never mind that, is it good?

Better say diverting. But there’s one hugely enjoyable conceit — our atomic fellow has been mentally blasted 7 seconds into the future: though his body remains in the here and now, his mind is there and then, which means he tends to answer questions before they’re asked. This blows rather a big hole in the concept of free will if you ask me, which I notice you’re not. If he answers your question, doesn’t that mean you’re now compelled to ask it?

A similar space-time infarction seems to be taking place when, in the midst of all this sci-fi espionage (fat Brazilian spymaster, plastic surgeon, impostor, project to transmute base metals), Barry and Domergue are interrupted mid-muse by the spectre of Charles Hawtrey, CARRY ON-film regular, giving exactly the same comic performance of dirty-minded gay schoolboy that he would give in countless low comedies for Rank. He bursts through a door and snaps “‘ello ‘ello, what’s going on ‘ere, I wouldn’t be surprised!” and his appearance smacks so much of refugee-from-another-film syndrome that it’s doubly surprising when anyone else actually acknowledges his presence. One had assumed he was the result of a printing error at the lab.

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When the explanation for the time-shift comes along, it’s insanely protracted, hideously convoluted, and utterly nonsensical. Starting from the semi-sensible springboard idea of the character having been clinically dead for 7 seconds, the neuro-psychologist mouthpiece character delivering the expos soon finds himself on very thin ice, and shortly thereafter at the bottom of a wintry pond of pseudo-science and 14-carot baloney. But I found it enjoyable.

Alec C. Snowden, who produced and fronted for Joseph Losey on what I call THE INTIMATE FINGER, produced this one as well. Good!

This has been a Fever Dream Double Feature.