Archive for George Sanders

Picking Up Clouseau

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2020 by dcairns

Having seized on the fact that there was more value to be gotten out of the character of Inspector Clouseau, Blake Edwards went in to A SHOT IN THE DARK with his eyes at least somewhat open — he’d had a hint of how crazy Peter Sellers could get, but he hadn’t yet had to direct him during a full-on delusional tantrum (I’m not aware if psychoanalysis or psychology or psychiatry have invented a term describing exactly what it is Sellers had, or was — perhaps we had best think of it as Peter Sellers Syndrome, and content ourselves with delineating its symptoms as best we can).

This film really births the Clouseauverse — if we’re going to focus on this idiot, then he needs a life, surroundings, people in that life. A boss, obviously. And how does this boss feel about Clouseau? The brilliant answer is to make Chief Inspector Dreyfus not only fully aware of his subordinate’s incompetence, and personally offended by it, one of those apoplectic police chiefs that American cop shows would become full of, but also someone who is so tortured by the mere idea of Clouseau — “How can I relax in world which has Clouseau in it?” — that he’s driven to madness. As Lom’s eyes close in distress, we cut to Clouseau an instant before his eyes widen with a look of messianic intensity. Alone in a vehicle he can believe in his fantasy of brilliance. Anywhere else, he has a front to keep up because he knows damn well he’s a clown.

Clouseau’s name seems to be a combination of Jacques Cousteau — famous Frenchman — and H.G. Clouzot — French crime exponent — and “clues” and “oh” — detection and disaster. Dreyfus’ name, on the other hand, calls to mind a famous case of unjust persecution, which is about right.

It’s absurd that Blake Edwards didn’t direct under his birth name, on the other hand. The name William Blake Crump is like a strip cartoon that builds up an image of spiritual poetry and ends with crashing to the ground in a tangle of bruised limbs.

We start with a sequence comprised mainly of two very elegant roving crane shots, telling a story which is mysterious — a bedroom farce viewed from the outside. With a tragic chanson that kind of quashes any humour. But that’s OK, we don’t need the film to be funny until Clouseau.Animated titles — with a different theme tune — I really love this bit of Mancini and I don’t know why it wasn’t used again. The cartoons are cruder this time, but in a lovely stylised way. Without a Panther to persecute the Clouseau cut-out, Depatie-Freleng resort to having the cartoon universe turn on him, with doors and lights and fizzing bombs from nowhere persecuting the poor guy, kind of like the hostile film Keaton gets stuck in in SHERLOCK JR (which will be a reference in future title sequences).

But we do get a nice gag about Herbert Lom’s Dreyfus being an adulterer. And he has a little desk guillotine for his cigars, that’s… sweet? Fiona became excited. “Of course he’s got a guillotine! That was Herbert Lom’s dream project!” And indeed, Lom wrote one book, Dr. Guillotine, about the inventor of the humane execution device that ended up being used to decapitate on an industrial scale. “Hoist by your own petard,” as Claudia Cardinale’s Princess would say. The idea of inventing something that proves to be a catastrophe for you seems pertinent to William Blake Crump and Richard Henry Sellers, too.

I have actually already written about this one, so you can check out my earlier appraisal here. It covers Lom’s account of his casting and the first shot of Sellers. But how quickly can Clouseau make an idiot of himself?

In his second shot in the film. He gets out of his car and immediately falls in the fountain. He doesn’t hang about. Each of THE PINK PANTHER films, of which this is one despite the lack of P words in the title, takes a different sub-genre of crime film/fiction — so this is a country house murder mystery, RETURN will be a Hitchcockian wrong man chase film, STRIKES BACK is a Fu Manchu/Bond master-criminal caper, and REVENGE is Eurothriller meets Mafia. I can’t remember anything about ROMANCE OF THE PINK PANTHER, the film Sellers planned just before his death, having wrested the character away from Edwards, but I’ve tracked down the script of this unmade monsterpiece, which I fantasise as akin to Norma Desmond’s SALOME, and if I can work up the courage I may read it and report back.

I’m not sure the post-Sellers films continue to neatly explore the byways of crime fiction — I think maybe they just fart about in the Clouseauverse.As a basis for the piece, Edwards and William Peter Blatty of THE EXORCIST fame, selected Harry Kurnitz’s adaptation of Marcel Achard’s play L’Idiot. In which the Clouseau-equivalent character was an examining magistrate played by William Shatner. Using only the bare bones of the story, Blatty and Edwards amused themselves with a convoluted series of murders all of which tend to implicate leading lady Elke Sommer, but which turn out to be (spoiler) the work of separate culprits with separate motives, a wrinkle even Agatha Christie never attempted.

The Mirisch Corporation had been developing the Kurntitz/Achard play for Anatole Litvak (yay!) to direct, but could never get a script they felt was filmable. Edwards accepted the job of fixing it in a hurry if he could have carte blanche, and he and Blatty grafted Clouseau into the piece on the boat over to England where filming was to take place (with a few second unit shots in Paris). So the idea of Clouseau having a boss who despises him comes from the play + the idea of putting Clouseau into it. And the boss in the play was Walter Matthau. I’d love to have seen Shatner as an idiot being yelled at by Matthau.Instead we get Sellers and Lom, who Edwards reportedly told (Lom’s version) “I’ve seen you in all these terribly serious films. I think you’re very funny.”

Another guy who should have used his real name, Herbert Charles Angelos Kuchacevich ze Schluderpacheru. I mean, if I were going to change anything it would be the Herbert. Dreyfus inherits the Charles bit, which was going spare.

Anyway, Edwards directs this one with panache — as an actor, he’d worked with “Ford, Wyler, Preminger – and learned a lot from them.” So his long, elegant sequence shots, so admired by the French, are much in evidence. Preminger, another widescreen specialist, seems like an apt model. And, as Vincent Price tartly observed, “Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine.” Edwards also has Christopher Challis, who shot a bunch of films for Powell & Pressburger, coming along at just the wrong time (THE ELUSIVE PIMPERNEL and OH…ROSALINDA!!), and had more recently done some super-stylish work with Stanley Donen. You only really sense it’s Challis when we get to the round of themed nightclubs with specialty dancers…

Oh, and there’s Cato. Since Madame Clouseau has departed the picture, and to refer to her at all would just raise awkward questions about story continuity which the series would continue to ignore, brazenly, Clouseau should have someone else in his life. Bruce Lee had caused a sensation in The Green Hornet TV show (a reference lost on me as a kid). Burt Kwouk, a tireless supporting player in British films — he was a henchman in GOLDFINGER the same year — makes his first appearance here and it doesn’t matter at all that we probably all know the joke by now. The brevity and relative lack of spectacle in these early fight scenes isn’t a problem. As the joke of Cato attacking at inopportune moments, often “romantic” ones — what Fiona calls Kwouk-blocking — became more and more familiar, the films were forced to pump excess production values into it, but the joke is still pleasing enough to stand on its own. With Cato, Clouseau is pretty unsympathetic, and we also feel for the long-suffering Hercule Lajoy (Sellers chum Graham Stark) — anyone who’s ever suffered under an idiot boss can admire his infuriating placidity. Dreyfus is interesting because he’s the heavy, but he’s also absolutely right about Clouseau, a truly lethal buffoon. But then, in the scenes with Elke, Clouseau gets to be sweet. His puppyish fawning over Capucine in the previous film was already touching. Here, the joke of him being so hopelessly smitten with his leading lady that he literally can’t see her obvious guilt, is neatly topped by the joke of her being innocent. The universe somehow conspires to protect the holy fool, whereas he who sees the truth gets it in the neck. Elke Sommer represents a kind of decline from the elegant femmes of the first film — a bourgeoise fantasy of Yves St Laurent frocks and ski chalets with built-in musical numbers is replaced by a marginally grittier Parisian setting, and the leading lady is now of the modern, booby school of sixties cinema. The role is also a bit of a cipher, since the character is intentionally unknowable for virtually the whole film. Elke does very well with what she’s given. The anxiety-dream naked-in-public car scene actually allows her to do some real acting, which movies didn’t often do.“And introducing Turk Thrust.” The nudist camp scene (a huge and hugely unconvincing interior set) gives us this pseudonymous Bryan Forbes, with a butch queen joke name later taken up by Roger Moore for his guest spot in CURSE, and also the medium from NIGHT OF THE DEMON, essaying a bizarre garbled accent that veers between Wales and the West Indies.

Clouseau has begun to disguise himself, perhaps inspired by the very funny costume party stuff in the first film, and this would later lead to Edwards wondering where the disguises came from, and so Auguste Balls would eventually be born…For now, we have some distinguished actors quite underused — George Sanders is mainly a sounding board for Clouseau’s mistakes, with more than one “reaction shot” showing no reaction whatsoever. Douglas Wilmer, a celebrated TV Sherlock Holmes, butles about snootily. Apparently the hilarity on set was so disruptive, Sanders proposed a fine of £1 for each actor who corpsed, raising £250 by the time a usable take was achieved. Stark and David Lodge, who can’t do a French accent alas, were Sellers’ mates and were frequently brought on to his films in the hopes they’d keep him happy and stop him acting up. Some hope. The Roger Lewis bio has Sellers calling up Lodge after a particularly vicious day and asking, “Was I really awful today?” Before his friend could answer with some mild scolding words, an evil chuckle sounded from the receiver.

The movie does over-rely on running gags, but I finally figured out why — Clouseau is incapable of learning from his mistakes, so he keeps trying the same thing, and he’s also too inept to make progress as an investigator, so the only way to advance the mystery is to keep piling up corpses. This seeming inadequacy of the character as an active protagonist will continue to trouble the series, with various solutions being attempted.In Sam Wasson’s Edwards study, Splurch in the Kisser, the director recalled, “Things were fine for the first half of filming, but then the shit hit the fan. Sellers became a monster. He just got bored with the part and became angry, sullen, and unprofessional. He wouldn’t show up for work and began looking for anyone and everyone to blame.”

Edwards called this relationship the enigma of his life. And that mystery, as much as the money and clout to be made from the franchise, may account for his obsessive worrying at the character and the relationship.Despite the genre-hopping, the next three films in the series do not show the invention of this one — having created Clouseau, Dreyfus and Cato, Edwards didn’t see any need to come up with many new elements. There might be some bad guys, and some leading ladies, but with Lom and Kwouk, there was a limited amount of room for new stuff, with only Balls and his hunchbacked assistant, Cunny, expanding the Clouseauverse in any lasting way. A format has been established.

A SHOT IN THE DARK stars Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake; Lisa Reiner; Addison DeWitt; Captain Nemo; Miss Scott; Professor Auguste Balls; Mrs. Leverlilly; Mr. Ling; Prof. Trousseau; Father Spiletto; Mr. Meek; Sherlock Holmes; Jimmy Winslow; and the Fiddler on the Roof.

 

The Stepford Sleuths

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2020 by dcairns

Hang about, this is more complicated than I thought.

I was aware it was odd: George Sanders gets bored playing Simon Templar, the Saint (boredom was a recurring problem he had), so he switches to playing Gay Lawrence, or sometimes Laurence, the Falcon. When he gets bored of that, he brings in his brother, mysteriously named Tom Conway, to play the Falcon’s brother, Tom Lawrence, and then lets him be the Falcon. Meanwhile, Hugh Sinclair has taken over playing the Saint. Fine. That’s sort of rational.

Not Hugh Sinclair

But the Saint was not the first reformed criminal gentleman sleuth. Nor was Michael Lanyard, the Lone Wolf, but let’s talk about him for a minute. I think of him being Warren William, the starving lion, and anyone else is an interloper, but WW by no means originated the part. Louis Joseph Vance’s hero first came to the screen in 1917, played by Bert Lytell, making his film debut. Lytell played the character three more times in the late twenties, but in between he essayed the role of Boston Blackie twice.

Now, Boston Blackie was the original reformed thief and gentleman adventurer, created by an actual reformed criminal, Jack Boyle. Bert Lytell was the original BB on screen, so the guy must have been suaver than his first name suggests.

While Lytell was on a break from playing the Lone Wolf and had given up playing Boston Blackie, Henry B. Walthall and Bertram Grassby and Jack Holt were busy filling his shoes as the all-new Lone Wolves and William Russell and Thomas Carrigan and Forrest Stanley and Bob Custer were personating Blackie. Nobody seemed able to make a go of it until Lytell returned to the Lanyard part and knocked out a few more installments, seeing the character into the sound era and round things off with THE LAST OF THE LONE WOLF, which was only true as far as he was concerned.

Meanwhile, Philo Vance (no relation to Louis Joseph Vance, though the author may have been on S.S. Van Dine’s mind when he penned his own suave sleuth) was operating a revolving-door policy of his own. A relative latecomer, he was played by William Powell in THE CANARY MURDER CASE which came along so close to the end of the silent era that it was hastily sonorized, with Louise Brooks refusing to have anything to do with it and thus getting badly dubbed. Powell stayed Philo for more creaky talkies before things took off with the snappy KENNEL MURDER CASE in 1933. Unfortunately, Powell then took off himself, making Nick Charles in THE THIN MAN his own. His part was taken by Warren Williams, who handed it off to Paul Lukas, who had played opposite his Vance just two films back, which seems a bit confusing to me. But one film later, Philo Vance bore a striking resemblance to Edmund Lowe, and then he was Wilfred Hyde-White in 1936, which blows my mind. That state of affairs couldn’t be expected to pertain for long, and sure enough, if you went to the movies a year later you got someone called Grant Richards, and the following year you got… Warren William, again. Are we sure this is Philo Vance and not Perry Mason or Michael Lanyard?

It couldn’t last. After co-starring with the title figure of THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE, WW was out and the tragically short-lived James Stephenson was in, which of course couldn’t last either,

Then the movies seemed to be tiring of gentleman sleuths, at least relatively speaking, as there was a seven-year gap before the character made his final movie appearances, played by both Alan Curtis (who?) and William Wright (who?). In separate movies, mind you. I think that’s where they went wrong. If they’d played him in the same movie, switching around randomly from scene to scene like Bunuel’s OBSCURE OBJECT, the character would have achieved the protean ideal to which he’d for so long aspired.

Failing that, Curtis could have played the front half and Wright the back.

That seems to have been the end of Vance for the movies, with only a couple of foreign TV versions thereafter. I’m not sure why he didn’t get a TV series in the fifties: everyone else did.

BUT MEANWHILE, back in the early thirties…

With Bert Lytell safely out of the way (retired? he made a comeback as the MC in STAGE DOOR CANTEEN), Michael Lanyon was anybody’s: Melvyn Douglas and Francis Lederer had their way with the Wolf. I plan to see the Douglas film: it introduces Thurston Hall as Inspector Crane, who would suffer through several subsequent incarnations of his lupine adversary, so it’s arguably the start of the Warren William series, and it’s directed by the gifted Roy William Neill, who made the SHERLOCK HOLMES series with Rathbone and Bruce his own.

THE LONE WOLF SPY HUNT introduces Warren William (at a surrealist part, above), with Don Beddoes as a Crane-like cop opponent with a dumb sidekick. Beddoes would, like several other co-stars, crop up in a perplexing variety of other roles later in the series. Jameson the butler or valet is Leonard Carey, who is no Eric Blore but he’s quite good. Blore joins the series in the next film and outlasts the ailing Warren William, who gets supplanted by Gerald Mohr and then Ron Randell and then the thing is finished with until its last gasp as a TV show starring Louis Hayward… who had actually been the first screen Saint.

Boston Blackie had been playing possum, but sprang back into action in ’41, played by the insufficiently suave Chester Morris, formerly the Bat. His sidekick the runt was Charles Wagenheim for this one movie, who would return in a ’45 sequel playing a different role, staring piteously at George E. Stone who was now firmly embedded in the sidekick position, and who had previously tangled with both Philo Vance (the Warren William one) and Mr. Moto. Battle-hardened.

Chester Morris kept banging them out until 1949, when both Boston Blackie and Michael Lanyard bowed out. Blackie got a brief TV show too, with Kent Taylor being the last actor to inhabit the sketchy role. He had cropped up in a Warren Williams’ Philo Vance movie back in 1939. Maybe it affected him.

Is Perry Mason a gentleman sleuth? He;s not a reformed criminal, like the Saint and Boston Blackie and the Lone Wolf, poachers-turned-gamekeepers all. At any rate, the Warner Bros films with Warren William exemplify the musical-chairs approach to casting I’m celebrating today. William is a constant, until suddenly and regrettably he’s Donald Woods, who had played third lead to William’s Mason just a few films back. Also, the tone of the series sways wildly from light comic thriller to outright farce, reminiscent of, but more successful than, William’s single turn as Sam Spade, of which we shall not speak. Allen Jenkins, future sidekick to the Falcon (George Sanders incarnation), recurs, a honking shapeshifter essaying different parts from film to film, and Mason’s Girl Friday, Della Street, is positively a different dame each time we meet her: she’s Helen Trenholme, Claire Dodd, Genevieve Tobin, Claire Dodd again (the repetition by now seeming more startling than the constant substitution), and finally Ann Dvorak.

With all of this… this… going on… delving into forties gentleman sleuth films is akin to an attack of the Fregoli delusion.

There must be some films in which two or three Lone Wolves or P. Vances or B. Blackies rub shoulders, their guilty pasts quietly embarrassing them, but I can’t think of any offhand, apart from ARSENE LUPIN RETURNS, which has two former Philos, one of whom is also the title character, a reformed jewel thief turned adventurer…

This is a case for…

I Came to Blow Up “They Came to Blow Up America”

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , on May 2, 2020 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2020-05-01-19h33m38s337

THEY CAME TO BLOW UP AMERICA (Edward Ludwig, 1943) has a good title (did they succeed? and how could anyone tell?) but I wasn’t enamoured of it, so as an experiment I decided to let it fade in memory before I attempted to write about it.

George Sanders is an all-American German-American (with an English accent picked up somewhere), but does he hide a dark secret? He seems to be a Nazi agent involved in Bund activity (the Germany-American Bund is portrayed as a hotbed of treason and terrorism, which is nice to see. Lots of members carried on in politics after the war without a stain on their characters and served in HUAC etc, which is less nice.

I think the Bund was pretty fascist-friendly but probably not as overtly overthrow-plotting as depicted here. It’s wartime so things are extreme.

vlcsnap-2020-05-01-19h34m43s864

The film is “based” on a real case of terrorism though — but the filmmakers didn’t have access to any of the facts, so they just made some up.

George, it soon transpires, is really working for the FBI (who had no involvement in this case). He’s sent back to the Fatherland undercover. There, he jeopardises his cover by trying to save an innocent girl, then the guy he’s impersonating — oh yeah, the guy who got shot, back in America — turns out to have a wife, who is Anna Sten.

vlcsnap-2020-05-01-19h35m38s155

George manages to convince top Nazi Inspector Lestrade — who has a Churchill dartboard, like a professionally-made Churchill dartboard, not just a dartboard with Churchill’s face pinned to it — that Sten is insane because she doesn’t recognise him, so she gets put away in the nuthouse, a business played for laughs, because she’s a Nazi too.

Later, realising he’s been tricked, Nazi Lestrade has Sten shot (with a Sten gun?) to save face. To be fair, his face is massive. Can the Fatherland afford to lose a face of such size?

vlcsnap-2020-05-01-19h41m40s575

George comes back to America on a U-boat, bribes a coast guard, and then I guess there must be some business about a plot to blow up America, with ticking time bombs, the clock hand ticking inexorably towards annihilation, but I have no memory of it. The whole business the title is predicated upon seems to have made no impression on me.

George is reunited with his lovely parents (those nice Gehrigs) but the family friend Concentration Camp Ehrhardt turns out to be a Nazi. The name should have been a clue.

That’s all I remember: the film is decently made but undistinguished, except the dissolves caught my attention when frame-grabbing.

THEY CAME TO BLOW UP AMERICA stars Addison DeWitt; Grouschenka; Inspector Lestrade; Concentration Camp Ehrhardt; Pop Gehrig; Mom Gehrig; Chingachgook; Geli Raubal; Dick Tracy; Sebastian Sholes; Colonel Haki; David Kentley; Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels; Sgt. Schultz; and Dr. Kluck.