Archive for Forbidden Divas

Forbidden Divas: All At Sea

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2018 by dcairns

Hey everybody! David Melville is back with another plunge into the murky waters of forbidden divadom ~


All at Sea

“Where a beautiful woman is concerned, all men are curious.”
-Charles Korvin, Thunderstorm

Pity the poor actress who is more famous off the screen than on it. Linda Christian was a beautiful Mexican starlet who married Tyrone Power in 1949. The more cynical Hollywood insiders may say that was acting of a sort. But “the wedding of the century” (as the tabloid press described it) certainly kept the fans on the edge of their seats. Power and Christian became the most glamorous and golden of movie couples and their two children are minor celebrities in their own right: Romina as a pop star in Italy – and the lead in Jess Franco’s Justine (1969) – and Taryn as a swashbuckler in epics like Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). But when the couple divorced in 1955, Linda Christian slipped back into an obscurity she had never quite escaped.

One film, at least, suggests her fate was undeserved. Thunderstorm (1956) is a tale of tempestuous seas and torrid passions, set in an impoverished (but photogenic) fishing village on the Basque coast of Spain. One day, a rugged young fisherman named Diego (Carlos Thompson) finds a small yacht adrift in the bay. The vessel is leaking and half-waterlogged. But a gorgeous and only slightly dishevelled blonde lady lies unconscious on the cabin floor. She is, of course, Linda Christian. But she goes by the name of María Román. She declines to say who she is or where she comes from. She has a strange and almost otherworldly aura; dark portents of doom seem to follow wherever she goes. She is a B-movie variant of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea crossed, perhaps, with Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. After all – as the script wastes no time in telling us – the local fisher folk are convinced such creatures do exist.

Most disquietingly of all, she is styled to look as much as possible like Grace Kelly – who was, at that time, Hollywood’s biggest female star. That is a shame because Christian (on the basis of this movie) has a natural and unaffected elegance of which the pallid and glacial Kelly could only dream. She is also a vastly warmer and more expressive actress. That tiny suitcase she packed for her cruise holds a seemingly inexhaustible stock of designer clothes. Wandering about the village like a sort of living poster for the New Look, Christian appears puzzled when local women – who spend most of their lives scaling and gutting fish – gape as if she were The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The men stare after her in naked and ill-disguised lust. The tyrannical mayor (Charles Korvin), his wastrel son (Garry Thorne) and his drunken brother (Tito Junco) all want to get in on the act. Stray hints tell us that Christian is not exactly a stranger to male attention.

The director, John Guillermin, photographs the village (its name is San Lorenzo) with almost as much relish as he photographs his star. Known today as a high-budget hack, Guillermin hit his stride in the 70s with a string of films – The Towering Inferno (1974), King Kong (1976), Death on the Nile (1978) – that required little more skill than switching on a camera and not standing in front of it. Yet here he shows a flair for moody and eccentric camera angles such as Orson Welles might envy. With a multiplicity of low-angle and high-angle shots, swooping overhead vistas and one bravura moment in a bar fight – where a bottle smashes in close-up and liquor floods over the lens – the tiny village starts to resemble a labyrinth by Piranesi or a Pop Surrealist drawing by Escher. As the smouldering intrigue around her heats up, Christian’s glamorous blonde castaway seems like a harbinger of Jessica Lange in the catastrophic rehash of King Kong. Indeed, it is this film – and not the 1933 creature features classic – that John Guillermin’s King Kong feels like a remake of.

Not that life in San Lorenzo is non-stop action. The village is a real Spanish location and most of its inhabitants are actual (dubbed) Spaniards – apart from the stars, who are a Mexican, an Argentine and a Hungarian. Yet the locals spend interminable screen time yammering over what size of oceangoing vessel would maximise their haul of fish. Thompson argues that small ships – which they all currently use – are no good for fishing in deep waters, where the richest stocks are to be found. Korvin – who owns all the boats and is too stingy to pay for new ones – insists that large ships could never sail in and out of the town’s tiny harbour. Literally every member of the cast (apart from Christian) seems to have an opinion on this. What’s more, they feel the urge to express it at wearisome length. Where, we ask ourselves, are those stringent European Union fishing quotas when we really need them?!

At one point Thompson, in a fit of derring-do, commandeers a large vessel from up the coast. He sails it into San Lorenzo harbour, narrowly avoiding the jagged rocks that loom up on every side. To be honest, Guillermin swings his camera so perilously close to the rocks that we start to feel a trifle worried. Thunderstorm is a visibly low-budget film; it seems most unlikely the producers could afford a new one. Yet the effect comes a whole lot closer to 3D than any of the 50s films that were actually shot in that overhyped and cumbersome process. We root for Thompson to sail home free and it almost looks as if he might…but then, suddenly, he glimpses Linda Christian posing provocatively on top of the highest rock, luring him to his doom like a siren out of some pagan Greek myth. In the end, he is forced to admit that Size Matters.

For all its flashes of visual flamboyance, Thunderstorm never did establish John Guillermin as an art-house auteur. No more did it establish Linda Christian as a motion picture star in her own right. But it is hard to dislike any movie that strives to outdo From Here to Eternity (1953) when it comes to steamy sex on the beach. In one swimming scene, Christian rises Venus-like out of the surf with her nipples clearly visible through her bra. Later, Thompson pins her down on the sands in a passionate clinch. The waves wash voluptuously over them, tried and tested symbols of movie passion. But then, alas, the waves grow larger. Swelling almost to the size of a small tsunami, they drag the lovers out to sea and Thompson all but drowns. The scene is ludicrous, but nobody could complain that it lacks boldness. You might say the same for Thunderstorm as a whole.

David Melville


Forbidden Divas: A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2017 by dcairns

David Wingrove’s back! With another Forbidden Diva piece, although, as he put it to me, “Perhaps it’s not really a ‘diva’ movie (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray, anyone?) but the director Leslie Arliss seems like a candidate!” Now read on ~

A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

“It might be good to have a man about the house.”

– Margaret Johnston, A Man about the House

Do you adore films where genteel Victorian ladies feel their hearts start to throb with genteel and tumultuous passions? Do you revel in swarthy Latin seducers, their dark curls aglow with Brylcreem, their bronze torsos a-glisten with spray-on studio sweat? Do you yearn, above all, to travel to exotic back-projected locales where roistering peasants stomp riotously – the strains of a wild tarantella – on vast and overflowing vats of grapes? Or where palatial villas cling precariously to a cliff-edge, while the waves pound orgasmically, over and over, on the rocks below?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, A Man about the House (1947) may well be some sort of High Camp Holy Grail.

Two demure Victorian sisters (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray) have been forced to live in ‘reduced circumstances’ and run a girls’ school in the wilds of suburban London. We experience their horror as their pupils play bum notes on the piano and, occasionally, use an incorrect form of the subjunctive! One day they receive an inheritance from their eccentric and long-vanished Uncle Ludovic, who moved to Italy and became “an artist” – and whose name cannot be mentioned in polite circles. (The exact nature of his offence is left to our imagination; perhaps not a great deal is needed.) This inheritance includes a large sum of money and a plush, if slightly dilapidated villa on a cliff-top outside Naples.

The two ladies make the journey down in inclement weather. They are still swathed in dour mourning black, not for their uncle – Heaven forbid! – but for their father, who has also recently died. Their names, by the way, are Agnes and Ellen Isit. This is pronounced EYES IT and not IS IT, which is a bit of a letdown. Personally, I can think of few things more fun than being named after an existential conundrum. The starchy and severe Agnes (Johnston) brings along her Scotch terrier; the sweet and rather fragile Ellen (Gray) brings her large and lazy tabby cat. Their train pulls into Naples as the rain pours down in torrents. Agnes is outraged to see that the stop has been marked NAPOLI. “Why can’t they call it Naples,” she sputters, “as we do?” She is the proud embodiment of a Little Englander abroad. No doubt Nigel Farage would find a use for her special talents.

But a stranger is waiting on the platform. A tall, dashing and vaguely sinister Italian named Salvatore. He was the uncle’s general factotum at the villa; he has come to welcome the ladies to their new home. Exactly what his relationship with Uncle Ludovic may have been is left, politely, to our imagination. We can hazard a guess when Ellen – on her first morning at the villa – unveils one of the late uncle’s paintings, which was shrouded in a heavy velvet curtain. It is an image of Salvatore, fully nude, in the homoerotic guise of the Great God Pan. Unusually for a portrait in movies, it is filmed strictly from the waist up. We see Salvatore’s nude and muscular chest, his impish and rather perverse smile, the twist of roses and vine-leaves in his lustrous black hair. The sisters may only have just met him, but we can tell – from the look of frozen shock on their faces – that they have got to know this man rather well.

As played by the swoonily handsome Kieron Moore, Salvatore is the one Italian in captivity who speaks in Neapolitan dialect with an Irish brogue. Moore is best remembered today for the disaster that all but destroyed his career, his pallid turn as Count Vronsky in the 1948 remake of Anna Karenina opposite an exquisite but rather bored-looking Vivien Leigh. In fairness, not a great deal can be done with a role like Vronsky – but the lovely Moore failed to do even that. Yet he was an up-and-coming heart-throb in British films of the 40s. Leslie Arliss, who wrote and directed A Man about the House, cast him a number of times. The leading auteur of bodice-ripping Gainsborough romances, Arliss had previously made a star of James Mason (The Night Has Eyes, The Wicked Lady) and Stewart Granger (The Man in Grey, Love Story). It is safe to say he was a connoisseur of dark and brooding male beauty.

It does not take long to work out that Salvatore is up to no good. His ancestors were a dynasty of feckless aristocrats; they once owned the land the villa is built on. Quite naturally, he feels the whole place is his by right. Our main element of suspense is about which of the two sisters will succumb to him first. His eye, of course, is on Agnes. She is the elder and heir presumptive to the estate. For the most part, Agnes glares at him in dour disapproval. (She has the air of Theresa May on a jaunt to Brussels – a stolid and unimaginative Englishwoman, forced against her will to have dealings with disreputable foreigners.) Yet one morning, Agnes discreetly but provocatively undoes the top button of her dress. She wanders out to meet Salvatore in the villa’s sunlit garden. There she sees him holding Ellen by the arm. Flying into a jealous rage, she promptly storms back inside. Salvatore had taken her sister’s arm only to stop the girl tripping over a stone. But in the warped eyes of Agnes, he is already guilty of betrayal.

Things come to a head at the annual grape harvest. As in any film with a pastoral Italian setting, the peasants pour them into an enormous vat and stomp on them with gay abandon. Salvatore frolics with a lusty local wench, whose bosom is in constant danger of spilling out of her blouse. He even induces Ellen to join the fun and tread some grapes herself! Agnes stays locked in her room, obsessively playing games of patience. Suddenly, she can endure no more. Flinging open the door to her balcony, she stands there like Death in a story by Edgar Allan Poe – glaring balefully down on the festivities. She shrieks out a single word: “SALVATORE!” All at once, he leaves off roistering and bounds up the marble staircase to her chamber. The soundtrack rising to a thunderous frenzy, he runs inside and the door swings slowly shut. A Man about the House may not be a Gainsborough production, but it has the same inimitable blend of depravity and coyness.

It is not long before Agnes and Salvatore are married. Every morning, he lovingly prepares her a special egg-flip. She begins to suffer from headaches, nausea and fatigue. When the Scotty dog dies after licking a spilled egg-flip off the floor, even Ellen starts to grow a tad suspicious. Having started off as a blend of Black Narcissus and A Room with a View, the film now morphs bizarrely into a Victorian remake of Suspicion. Never one to indulge in excessive displays of originality, Arliss even places a light-bulb in the drink that Salvatore carries up the stairs to his wife’s sickbed. Yet quite unlike the ending of the Hitchcock film, the finale of A Man about the House actually does make sound (if deeply disquieting) dramatic sense. Kieron Moore’s was a star career that never quite got off the ground, so a director was under no pressure to show that he was actually a nice guy.

Ultimately, A Man about the House is ‘not nice’ and all the better for it. Yet a full seventy years before Brexit, its message is alarmingly clear. It implies – and not even too subtly – that solid and respectable Britons would do well to steer clear of dodgy Continental types. It shows that any dalliance of that sort can only end in tears.

David Melville

The Birds in Peru

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2016 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove is BACK — with another Forbidden Diva column…



Something for the Birds

“If you are face to face with the impossible, all you can do is give in.”

~ Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Birds Come to Die in Peru

A naked woman lies on a beach, her arms spread wide in a crucifixion pose. Her face is hidden by a white mask, smooth and empty of features. The mask does not belong to the woman; it covers the back of a man’s head. The man is making energetic, even violent love to the woman. He pumps away at her but she does not respond. Her hands, in close-up, clench until her fingernails dig savagely into her flesh and draw blood. Stigmata. She wipes her palms on the mask, until its pale cheeks are stained with blood tears. On the sand, around the copulating couple, lie a score or more of dead seabirds. A trio of other men lie among the birds. They are dead too, or maybe just exhausted, dressed in ragged carnival clothes. One wears an 18th century frock coat and powdered wig. Another wears a plastic suit of armour with a matching mask. The third, who wears a gaudy matador outfit, sits some distance apart and strums on a guitar. Suddenly, the man who is on top of the woman climaxes and rolls over, half dead. The woman stares up at the camera, her eyes blank and exquisite, unfulfilled…

Five minutes into Birds Come to Die in Peru (1968), you may be fleeing up the cinema aisle and spilling your popcorn as you run. If not, you may be sitting there transfixed and feeling you are in the presence of something great. Perhaps the most wilfully bizarre erotic fantasy ever recorded on film, it is the brainchild of the French novelist and occasional film director Romain Gary. (The illegitimate son of the silent Russian star Ivan Mosjoukine, this man absorbed his devil-may-care flamboyance straight from his father’s sperm.) Gary conceived the film as a perverse valentine to his then-wife, the transatlantic American star Jean Seberg. Discovered as a teenage nymphet by Otto Preminger – in Saint Joan (1957) and Bonjour Tristesse (1958) – the glacially lovely Seberg had an oddly schizophrenic career. At once an icon of the French Nouvelle Vague – Breathless (1959) for Jean-Luc Godard – and a bimbo in the squarest of Old Hollywood schlock – Airport (1970) for Ross Hunter. Yet her most indelible screen legacy, here and in Les Hautes Solitudes (1974) by Philippe Garrel, finds her in the service of outright and unapologetic weirdness.


Her role in Birds Come to Die in Peru is that of Adriana, a frigid nymphomaniac of ineffable glamour and seemingly boundless wealth. All she does, it seems, is travel the world in search of the one man who can bring her sexual satisfaction. Doomed as that quest may be, there is no denying that she goes about it in grand style. Her husband, a sinister Middle Eastern tycoon played by Pierre Brasseur, combs the beach in search of her in his silver-grey Rolls-Royce. Their hunky chauffeur (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) wears a tailored black uniform and looks like a sexy Angel of Death in a Jean Cocteau movie. He sports a pair of black leather gloves that poke up, suggestively, from one shoulder of his jacket. His job is not so much to find Adriana as to keep her husband company on his search. “Wherever she goes,” he quips, “she does wonders for tourism.” A dark and doe-eyed youth in a white suit (Michel Buades) stalks Adriana and watches her from behind rocks. Is this lad her Guardian Angel? Or is he just a horny local beach boy who has not yet got lucky?

Once the five-way orgy is complete, Adriana – still unsatisfied – sees the sun is rising over the pounding surf. The beach around her is positively littered with dead birds. She takes refuge in an old clapboard whorehouse, which is run by none other than the classic French movie icon Danielle Darrieux. The lesbian Madame Fernande takes a none-too-discreet shine to Adriana; they share an unseen interlude behind a closed wooden shutter. As magnificent as Darrieux undoubtedly is in classics such as Madame De… (1953), I tend to find her chilly and remote. Here she is overtly raunchy and vulgar – and wears a rainbow-hued sequinned gown of consummate and eye-popping hideousness. Asked if she is truly French, she snaps back: “My heart yes, but the rest is international.” That is a touching tribute to her rival diva and fellow wartime collaborator Arletty. At the risk of disqualifying myself forever as a film critic, I confess that I have never found Darrieux as oddly likeable as I do here.


Fearful that her husband and his chauffeur are closing in, Adriana flees the brothel and wanders a bit further down the beach. She stops and pays homage to a giant vulture that crouches atop a boulder – unsure, maybe, as to which of the multiplicity of dead or dying seagulls to snack on next. Feeling that her life is just too desperately empty, she wades out into the surf and tries to end it all. Has she perhaps been watching Joan Crawford in Humoresque (1946)? Like all of Adriana’s efforts, this too is doomed to failure. A dashing ex-revolutionary and failed poet (Maurice Ronet) just happens to glimpse her drowning herself through the giant picture window of his beach house. He runs after her and sweeps her up in his arms; carries her back to the safety of his bedroom. No sooner has Adriana come to than she and Ronet realise, in the same instant, that they are made for each other. Neither one of them has ever met another human being who was quite so poetically disillusioned, or quite so glamorously doomed.

These two outcasts spend the morning making love. At one point, we suspect that Adriana might almost be about to have an orgasm. But Jean Seberg, in her exquisite porcelain pallor, is an actress who makes Catherine Deneuve look like Anna Magnani. We suspect that undergoing (or at least miming) the throes of highest sexual ecstasy might cause her to break into tiny glass splinters. A more expressive actress might well come a cropper in Birds Come to Die in Peru. In a film so outré and flamboyant, any bravura emoting would surely be redundant. The face of Jean Seberg, as callow and coldly perfect as that mask in the opening scene, is a cipher of hidden neurosis and frustrated lust. Her performance blends the cool lasciviousness of Deneuve in Belle de Jour (1967) with the icy anguish of Liv Ullmann in a Bergman psychodrama. We know better than to hope that she and Ronet will settle down to any sort of happily-ever-after finale. Yet the ending is a warped twist that – even having sat through 90-odd minutes of insanity – we are unlikely to see coming.


Needless to say, Birds Come to Die in Peru was a career-killing catastrophe for everyone involved. Savaged by critics and shunned by the public, it was released in America under a shorter title – Birds in Peru – that made it sound like a nature documentary. Unavailable today in any commercial format, it survives in blurred TV copies that utterly ruin its spectacular Franscope photography by Christian Matras. Seberg and Gary would make only one more film together – a 1972 political thriller called Kill! – before her real-life political sympathies (allegedly) wrecked their marriage. A fervent supporter of the radical Black Panthers, she died in mysterious circumstances in 1979. The official cause was suicide but rumours of FBI involvement persist to this day. Birds Come to Die in Peru still features regularly on lists of the worst movies ever made. Yet I defy anyone who has ever seen it to forget they have – or to say they have seen anything quite like it. A mediocre work of art will almost invariably resemble other artworks. Only the Greatest (and the Worst) art is entirely unique.

David Melville