Archive for Francis Lederer

Chambermaid of Secrets

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2013 by dcairns

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Burgess Meredith (above, left) must be the actor most associated with author Octave Mirbeau — he stars in the Amicus horror compendium TORTURE GARDEN, which admittedly owes nothing but its title to Mirbeau’s Le Jardin des Supplices, but he also scripted and appears in Jean Renoir’s film of THE DIARY OF A CHAMBERMAID.

Renoir and Meredith do right by Mirbeau’s unfilmable (but filmed several times: once by Bunuel) book, by making a film which one cannot conceive of as a Hollywood product. Paulette Goddard, who has turned hard-hearted after unspecified mistreatment by men and by the upper classes, enters her new position determined to find a rich husband and leave behind the world of manual toil. Immediately we sense trouble, as the mistress of the house is Judith Anderson. The master is kindly duffer Reginald Owen in a Boudou beard, playing a dreamy sort of Lord Emsworth dolt. Further eccentricity is provided by neighbour Burgess Meredith himself, who eats flowers and throws stones (but never the other way around — stones have no flavour).

Meredith seems like possible husband material, which shows how hard up Paulette is. He has money salted away, but when Paulette’s attentions over-excite him and he accidentally kills his beloved pet squirrel, she starts to suspect that being his fiancée might be fraught with peril.

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Does this sound like a Hollywood movie so far?

Then the young master comes home from his debauches, and he is Hurd Hatfield, which means that Paulette is sharing house with Dorian Gray, Mrs Danvers, Sherlock Holmes, Dr Watson and Ebeneezer Scrooge (Owen played the latter three). With the Penguin living just across the way. Anderson/Danvers sets about pimping out the new maid to persuade her psycho son, who is the apple of her eye but who despises her fervently, to stick around the family pile.

Hatfield is a surly invalid who reads the grimmer bits of Shakespeare (“Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres…”), clearly meant to suggest Sade. To Paulette, he seems a potential mark, but his mood swings and unhealthy relationship with mother tend to rule him out. Then a new prospect emerges from an unlikely quarter. Valet Francis Lederer (from CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY and PANDORA’S BOX) proposes buying a bar with loot raised by stealing the silverware, and Paulette is amenable.

The film’s only turn towards conventional Hollywood morality is Paulette’s last-minute conversion to righteousness after Lederer stoops to murder. Even then, the conventional romantic solution is undercut by an earlier, throwaway moment when Owen, reading the Paris newspaper, remarks upon the latest case of murder — WOMAN MUTILATED! — and we ask herself, who has been in Paris? Why has the line been placed there? What are you implying, Jean Renoir? As the happy couple head off into the sunset, we recall that both of them had been in Paris not long before…

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Bottom-scraping indie Benedict Bogeaus produced, and the film has a cheap feel — Eugene Lourie’s sets don’t convince, nor do they create a particularly alluring sense of fakery, and to be honest Renoir doesn’t do the best job of concealing the threadbare cyclorama. But he does whirl the camera about with some brio at the violent climax, and this may be the one US film on his CV that hits the notes of unsettling, tone-clashing weirdness that we find in some of his French films (the Lourie-designed RULES OF THE GAME, for one). Hurd Hatfield believed that Paulette was all wrong for the movie due to her “cheap-sounding” American accent, but in a movie where Lederer’s German and Owen’s English accents both represent French characters, where should one look for a barometer of linguistic authenticity? As with CLUNY BROWN (Owen’s second role as lord of the manor that year), Brits above stairs and Yanks below makes a feasible and not too distracting scheme.

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Francis L has a special spike for slowly murdering geese. Because that’s how he rolls.

We rather loved it. We watched SWAMP WATER the following night, and that one is a proper terrific film, but DOAC is bananas, the kind of thing where you can’t figure out why it exists but you’re glad it does. Fiona and I recognized it as a kindred spirit.

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Chlorophyllippino

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2010 by dcairns

The Chlorophyll Man! “Phyll” for short. This is the picture from Dennis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies which first introduced me to this handsome specimen of homo vegetabilis. I recall, as a boy, being told I could show the book to my little friend Rebecca, but that I should protect her from the more horrific images. This, the gory neck-wound from THE BLOOD DRINKERS (also a Philippines production involving Eddie Romero) and the axed blonde from Texan reimagining of THE BLACK CAT, were the images I chose to suppress. But Rebecca insisted, and I weakly complied and showed her the forbidden photos, and she pronounced solemnly in each case, “That’s not scary.”

In his photo caption, Gifford gave the title THE MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND, so I duly tracked that down, having come to full manhood in the meantime, and watched it with something approaching delight. Then I realised that confusing wording had made me watch THE WRONG FILM — Gifford’s still comes from what he calls BLOOD DEVILS, but is available today as BEAST OF BLOOD, the sequel to TMDOBI. But since BOB follows directly on from the events of TMDOBI, it made sense to ground myself in the first movie.

Bones protruding through flesh — an original, nasty touch.

There’s a Blood Island box set, by the way, including TERROR IS A MAN, the very first Blood Island jaunt, a Dr Moreauesque affair in moody black-and-white with the great Francis Lederer doing the mad science. It’s misty and atmospheric and practically classy compared to the movies that came after. Nevertheless, with its crazy doctor, who adds to the standard Moreau template a hint of Nazi atrocities, and its genuinely unsettling unpleasantness (the cat-man-monster is a bandage-swathed wretch in constant pain, tufts of fur and whiskers protruding from his gauzy coils), the first film does establish some of the qualities which distinguish the follow-ups.

I like it that this series is held together solely by an island.

BRIDES OF BLOOD uses the Blood Island location for an adventure involving radioactive killer plants, giant moths, and a rapist monster. Haven’t seen it. John Ashley plays a different character from the one he plays in MAD DOCTOR and BEAST. Or rather, he plays an identical character with a different name. Ashley, a lantern-jawed point-of-sale device, is distinguished only by his incredibly deep voice: the sound of waves of testosterone breaking on basalt rocks. You know that awkward quality that actors like Shatner would have when they took their shirts off and had to stand with their gut sucked in? Ashley achieves this with his shirt on. I grew to like him. Plus, if I read one scene correctly (and it’s so blankly performed that’s not easy) he appears to suffer from erectile dysfunction, so one’s heart goes out.

BEAST OF BLOOD deals with crazy cardboard-eared Dr. Lorca (Eddie Garcia, magnificently rigid, replacing sinister baldy Ronald Remy from the first film) and his cholorophyll men, who drink blood like the vegetable alien in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Established, and killed, in the first movie, they’re brought back to life by narrative sleight-of-hand and disposed of all over again in this fresh outing.

Some useful facts about Blood Island —

1) Principle export: blunt instrument trauma.

2) It’s called Blood Island because of a large rock in its centre, shaped like a corpuscle.

3) It’s part of an archipelago also containing Bile Island, Saliva Island and Synovial Fluid Island.

4) Mad doctors can stay there tax-free.

Sadly, Chlorophyll 2 doesn’t use the zoomtastic spasms of the first film, which feel like the filmmakers are taking a pneumatic drill to your temporal lobes. Perhaps that was the idea of the respected Gerardo de Leon, the movie’s co-director. For this one, Eddie Romero is going solo: style is limited to nice tight closeup compositions, and some fast tracking through forests during the numerous chases. There’s also a distinctive editing pattern, which emphasizes the distinctive performances. Since none of the actors are “good” in the conventional sense of being able to act, a cunning editor might attempt to disguise this from us by deft intercutting, flashing to the listener during dull speeches, creating a delicate sense of emotional interplay. But Ben Barcelon, the editor of BEAST OF BLOOD is more cunning still. Holding on each character after they’ve finished speaking, he creates a vivid sense of air escaping from the film as from a poorly-knotted balloon. When he uses two-shots, he manages to emphasise the fact that the actor not engaged in speech is in no way listening to or paying any attention to the actor speaking. They’re simply waiting for their turn to deliver some lines. In this way he creates the disturbing, yet hilarious, sense of a world populated by autistic puppets, automatically running through the predetermined movements laid down by some duff celestial screenwriter.

The film’s liveliest actor.

BUT — once we get to mad Doc Lorca’s hideout, there’s actually some surprisingly thoughtful dialogue.

“If I’m caught before I’ve completed my experiments, or after I’ve completed them and failed, I shall be regarded as a conscienceless, sadistic mass murderer, and be dealt with accordingly. If I succeed, I shall be a selfless, dedicated hero of humanity, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Whichever way it goes, there will be a solid body of evidence to support either judgement.”

In between writing those crazy plays and poems, Lorca has been busy. He’s now got a pen full of green-tinged victims, plus his original chlorophyll man, whom he’s subdued by the simple measure of cutting his head off and strapping the still-flapping torso to a slab. We get bloody glimpses of some deranged head transplant operation he’s attempting, but never really learn what it’s all for. In a wanton plunge into the abject, the filmmakers shoot ECU scalpel penetration of what is clearly a real throat, though I don’t know if it’s a shaved goat or a handy human cadaver. (This last seems all too possible: while shooting APOCALYPSE NOW in the Philippines, production designer Dean Tavoularis obtained a stack of real corpses to decorate Kurtz’s compound, under the impression that his supplier was a legitimate source who serviced the local medical school. Turns out the guy was a plain graverobber. The bodies were returned, unfilmed.)

After much running about in the jungle, our staunch (very staunch: practically coagulated) hero locates Lorca. “Well, doctor. Frankly I was hoping you’d retired,” he says, sounding like Elvis belching. The dialogue is getting positively pithy.

“So you’ve gone back to experimenting with human beings again?” asks Ashley, more in sorrow than in anger.

“Oh yes. Your original judgement has been thoroughly vindicated: I’m madder than ever!”

What a very great film this is. The hero’s islander friends stage a spirited attack on Lorca’s base camp, and the machete-hurling Liza Belmonte makes a strong impression as a kick-ass female character. As that other great Romero, George, observed, if you’re making a cheapjack exploiter, there’s no reason not to have strong female and ethnic characters, because the audience doesn’t care who’s IN it.

THUNK! Not sure how this shot was achieved, but I can tell you what it LOOKS like: it looks like she just threw a knife into that poor slob’s chest. Which I think may be how the shot was achieved.

In a climax not far removed from a Universal horror of the forties, Lorca is attacked by the headless cholorophyll man as his lab goes up in flames and the severed head watches sardonically from its life-support system of green fluid-filled coffee makers. One of the advantages of this kind of subtextless gorefest is that it’s over as soon as the monster/mad scientist is incinerated — no hanging about with the protagonist while he explores his issues.

Will John Ashley choose the frigid blonde reporter or the machete-hurling she-devil? Will he get over his impotence? Will the Blood Island Tourist Board get the budget increase they’re asking for? Will Dr. Lorca rise again, in time to write The House of Bernarda Alba? We await the next sequel with fetid breath.

The Blood Island Vacation (Brides of Blood / The Mad Doctor of Blood Island / Beast of Blood / Brain of Blood)

Teh Gay Deceit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2009 by dcairns

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William Wyler’s THE GAY DECEIT stars Frances Dee and Francis Lederer, who, as regular Shadowplayer David Wingrove puts it, looks “quite capable of a gay deceit.”

Wyler’s name is not commonly associated with humour, with the unutterably charming ROMAN HOLIDAY being the only really well-known comedy among his many celebrated films, but he did direct Preston Sturges’s script of THE GOOD FAIRY, probably the best example of Sturges writing for another director outside of Mitchell Leisen’s unbeatable EASY LIVING and REMEMBER THE NIGHT. Plus FRIENDLY PERSUASION has some good stuff with a duck.

But Wyler is not only an incisive director of emotional dramas (and don’t listen to anybody who accuses him of Strained Seriousness or any such alliterative allusion, at least without checking for yourself), he’s a good all-rounder. THE GAY DECEIT is pretty enjoyable from start to finish, although if anything it could probably do with more of a dramatic spine to hang the silliness on. Frances Dee is sweet and appealing and pretty good at physical comedy (nothing knockabout, just a bit of running and faffing around) and Lederer’s light comedy playing is delightful enough to make you almost completely forget that he once played Jack the Ripper.

The real pleasure, though, is in the supporting cast. If the posh hotel setting reminds us of the Hotel Louis in EASY LIVING, Luis Alberini, who played Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis, is on hand to cement the connection. And two actors who later played interchangeable comedy foreigners for Sturges in separate films, here play interchangeable comedy foreigners in the same film: Akim Tamiroff and Lionel Stander.

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Best of all is Lennox Pawle (centre), whom I’d never encountered before. Marvellous. He sounds like a duck being strangled at the wrong speed. And that face! Like an unfinished sculpture of a dyspeptic baby carved from an ice cream brick.

Alas, movies had just begun to talk in the later years of this fine comic’s life, so we never got to see him in a Sturges film. What an enjoyable man.