Archive for Gordon Douglas

Stentorian!

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on August 3, 2018 by dcairns

The FBI are watching you neck. But it’s all in the line of duty.

I followed up director Gordon Douglas’s THEM! with director Gordon Douglas’s WALK A CROOKED MILE, released on a box set of Columbia noirs. But it’s an example of that T-MEN school of pseudo-documentary procedural with stentorian voice-over that always strikes me as too authoritarian to qualify as real noir. In noir, there’s a fundamental problem in society or in human nature, which the story exposes. A rather overt example is ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW where, in telling a heist story, the film attempts to deal with racism. But that’s too obvious to be properly in the spirit of noir. What I really mean is the less explicit critiques of human nature implied by THE KILLING, OUT OF THE PAST, LADY FROM SHANGHAI. The proper ending for such stories is downbeat, though there are plenty of noirs with happy endings — it’s a very flexible form, resistant to the kind of prescriptiveness I’m offering right here.

  Raymond Burr is watching you neck! But only for his personal satisfaction.

But WALK A CROOKED MILE situates all the story’s problems outside American society — it’s eastern block spies that are the problem. The film functions as a detailed and somewhat terrifying portrayal of FBI methods in surveilling and apprehending these soviet skunks.

The almost-bellowing VO is part of the film’s pro-American stance. Talking a little too loud, a little too slow, and telling you all sorts of stuff you never asked to hear, it simulates the experience of being cornered by a friendly drunk in a bar, although the film ends before the narrator can declare you his best pal in the world.

Starring Monty Brewster, The Man in the Iron Mask (both of him), Lars Thorwald (in a rather fetching beard), and Dr. Franz Edleman, who had to play a rather colourless US general in THEM! but here has a slightly meatier bad guy role. Plus lots of what are called attractive San Francisco locations.

One sense in which the film seems noirish — nobody turns their lights on. And, with the film’s preponderance of location shooting, this starts to register as an overt stylistic choice and a slight violation or realism, which it never usually does. (We had a similar but different experience seeing SE7EN for the first time — as detectives probe Gluttony’s horrible apartment, we wondered why they don’t turn a light on. Then we realised that multiple lights already WERE on, they just were failing to pierce the Stygian gloom. Dark with something more than the blinds being closed.)

Good work by Gordon Douglas — all the compositions of crisp feds packed into tight rooms are brimming with dynamic tension. The story is by Bertram Millhauser, whose movie-writing career began with THE PERILS OF PAULINE in 1914, and in a sense this isn’t any more sophisticated, the good-guy/bad-guy lines starkly drawn and the verité style excusing any need to go deeper than the surface anywhere.

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Tomorrowsday #6: Ants Aren’t Gentlemen

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2018 by dcairns

a) CLUES

  1. Sugar
  2. No sign of theft.
  3. An abandoned pistol
  4.  Fragments of a doll’s forehead and dress.
  5. An unusual footprint.

Yes, since you ask, I have been watching Mark Kermode and Kim Newman’s TV series, Secrets of Cinema. It doesn’t have many actual secrets of the cinema, though, does it? It’s more about checklists of movie conventions, genre staples and narrative strategies. The only trouble with that is, genres live by their departure from the norm rather than merely their following of set conventions. So, in the episode on heists, so much emphasis was put on putting the team together that one-man jobs like THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR go unmentioned.

But the monster movie COULD profitably be analysed in terms of its conventions and their development, bearing in mind always that the more established these routines get, the greater the pressure becomes to break loose of them.

THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) uses the atom bomb as starting point for the first time. GODZILLA follows with almost indecent haste the following year.

And, the same year — THEM!

Though as a kid, monsters were my obsession — starting, maybe, with the prehistoric kind, but encompassing the Universal horror movies kind too, and with Dr. Who on TV as a reliable source also. Nearly all the films in the 1974 BBC sci-fi season had monsters (or robots) to enjoy, but THEM! was the only actual monster movie. It’s a good one to start with: I think it would still compel any seven-year-olds not prejudiced against black and white movies — and even then, it starts with a blast or lurid Eastman Color, which my family’s b&w TV wouldn’t have offered at the time ~

In the tradition of most subsequent monster movies, and indeed GODZILLA, the menace is introduced slowly with a series of clues. The traumatised kid is a particularly strong one, and I recall being fascinated by her. I don’t think I’d seen a character in shock before in a movie. (In real life, as a pupil of Parsons Green Primary School, I’d probably seen hundreds.) The ant footprint doesn’t look like anything much, and it’s a bit unlikely that its discovery would lead to the Doctors Medford being called in from the Department of Agriculture, when you think about it, but anything that brings Edmund Gwenn into a movie is not to be sneezed at, even if it’s a giant ant footprint deep enough to contain any amount of mucus,

b) THINGS I READ OFF THE SCREEN IN “THEM!”

  1. STATE POLICE
  2. CUBELETS
  3. TWIN PEAKS
  4. LOOK, JUST READ IT, OK?
  5. DITTO
  6. DITTO

The Twin Peaks one is striking. Though the image really recalls THE BIRDS, which is a similar, if more low-key monster movie, with a low-quality screwball comedy grafted on at the start to throw us off-balance (because genre films thrive on NOVELTY as well as repetition, dig?) I would bet Hitchcock saw this, since he seemed to see everything, and Edmund Gwenn was one of his favourite actors.

THEM!, with its storm drain climax, is very much HE WALKED BY NIGHT only with big ants, and HWBN is the movie that inspired TV’s Dragnet. What a different world it would be if Jack Webb had instead taken inspiration from this movie. The X-Files, thirty years early?

Monster movies tend to be detective stories/police procedurals, in a way, don’t they? Only we find out whodunnit way early, and the who is a what. And then the subduing of the perp is a lot more complicated.

ALIENS owes a lot to this one too.

The movie stars Brooks Hatlen, Santa Claus, Dr. Franz Edelmann, Davy Crockett and the Thing from Another World.

C) DEPARTURES FROM THE NORM

Though James Arness is a hulking he-man G-man, rumpled James Whitmore has a lot more screen time, and gets pincered to death saving little kids at the end (cue Wilhelm scream).

Though the dreaded “close-up of a bee” end (…OR IS IT) hasn’t been invented yet, at the moment of victory — before Romero, the authorities were generally competent and could be relied on to contain giant insect outbreaks — Joan Weldon asks the fatal question, “What about all the OTHER atomic bomvs we’ve set off? And Gwenn lets us have it — we don’t know what will happen, but we’ve OPENED A DOOR. A door into a new world… we’re now living in the Atomic Age, which is to say, science fiction, so we don’t know what will happen.

Though the authorities are generally competent and benign, when a man called Crotty (Fess Parker — as a kid I admired Disney’s Davey Crockett TV show, but I don’t know that I recognized its star here) is committed to a psych ward after reporting Unidentified Flying Giant Ants (the movie wisely never shows the big guys in flight), the heroes leave him in the loony bin so he doesn’t start a panic. He’s still there today.

Not a character arc in a car-full. Though Weldon, the notably tough lady scientist, who doesn’t take any crap from Arness about no girls being allowed in the giant ant nest, does put her hand tenderly on the wounded man in act 3, the movie is refreshingly free of romance, and the only other character development in sight is when people get mandibled to death.

Warner monster films quickly got stupid — I’m in awe of the sheer goofiness of THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE and RETURN OF THE FLY (aka ROTF, aka ROTFLMAO). But THEM! is surprisingly earnest, and manages to communicate that to the audience. Screenwriter Ted Sherdeman had been a staff officer for General MacArthur during the war. When he heard about the bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and threw up.” (As recounted in It Came From the Fifites! Popular Culture, Popular Anxieties.) He adapted the treatment by George Worthing Yates and poured his anxieties about the nuclear age into it.I never knew that extra-large marigolds were grown from irradiated seeds. I guess that’s maybe where the idea of nukes making things bigger came from. First ants, then spiders, then Glenn Langan.

From Wikipedia: “The sounds the giant ants emit in the film were the calls of Bird-voiced tree frogs mixed in with the calls of a wood thrush, hooded warbler and red-bellied woodpecker. It was recorded at Indian Island, Georgia, on April 11, 1947 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” I love this. What should giant ants sound like? One does have to think outside the box. Crickets are the noisiest insects I can think off. Flies and bees, I guess. But everybody knows that ants don’t sound like crickets, flies, or bees. But you want to look for a sound that’s somehow in the same… genre.

(Kong was a lion, slowed down and played backwards. Dinosaurs have been voiced by elephants and cats, also in slow motion. Speed up the sound on ONE MILLION YEARS BC and its pretty funny. OK, it’s already pretty funny. But when the T-rex becomes an annoyed housecat, it’s something else. The sound is PERFECT at the right speed, mind you — but it’s hard to unhear the speeded-up version.)

Finally, credits: Gordon Douglas directed. He was disappointed that budgetary limitations prevented the film being shot in colour. The ants were a disgusting greenish-purple and “They scared the bejeezus out of you.” I think the b&w makes it — that and the location shooting, and that the ants are life-sized, physically present for the actors to react to, or blast with flame-throwers. Douglas wasn’t an FX specialist like Byron Haskin or someone, so it helped that he could approach the ants with the same blunt force professionalism he applied to everything.

The locations — featuring lots of big props like planes and trains — work with Sid Hickox’s monochrome photography to give it that hard-edged, realist, torn-from-the-headlines quality that was dominating the crime movie at this time. That’s worth any number of lurid ant hues. Douglas would be allowed colour for his next movie — YOUNG AT HEART. There’s one guy who wasn’t typecast.

 

His Tropi Wife

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2016 by dcairns

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“That was, without question, the most fucked-up film I have ever seen in my life,” declared Fiona after watching SKULLDUGGERY (1970).

My human bride had been quite interested to see the pic, as it deals with the missing link, and features favourites like Edward Fox, William Marshall and Wilfred Hyde-White. And Burt Reynolds, practicing his up-the-creek manoeuvres for the forthcoming DELIVERANCE. Reynolds plays a dodgy adventurer in New Guinea who latches onto an anthropological expedition in the hopes of finding profitable phosphorous deposits. Along the way he finds lurve with Susan Clark, the sexy female anthropologist (for once, the sexy scientist seems not too removed from reality, since there have apparently always been anthropologist babes — this isn’t like Denise Richards playing a nuclear physicist in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH) and they also find a tribe of primeval hairy people they nickname the tropi.

Now, by the time Primitive Man shows his whiskery face, the movie has already reduced itself to rubble around us, with stupid and insulting humour about the African populace, and charmless romcom tosh in which the Reynolds’ character’s blatant villainy does little to endear him. We are encouraged to leer at native girls like a teenage boy grasping his first National Geographic in his sweaty palms. The uncomfortable ethnic stuff is made still weirder by the fact that all the tropis are played by Japanese actors.

tropi

Every image I had previously seen from this movie emphasised the female tropis’ busts, thrusting pertly from beneath their orange fur (not quite the orangutan shade, more the tangerine of Japanese people attempting to go blonde). But the movie is squeamish about ape-woman nipple, and indeed seems reluctant to offer a clear look at these crucial characters at all, as if someone, somewhere, were ashamed. Their anxiety might have more productively focussed on the script.

Burt puts the tropis to work mining phosphorus for him, paying them in tinned ham, which they love. Then the backer of the expedition seizes on the idea of the tropis as an invaluable source of slave labour, and Burt is the only one who objects. This seems inconsistent, to say the least. The scientists are apparently all for slavery, though so much of Edward Fox’s performance takes place beyond the edges of the 4:3 pan-and-scan area, it’s hard to say if he ever had more of a character arc about this. The plot now becomes a debate about whether the tropies are human, which then focusses on whether Burt’s best pal has drunkenly fathered an infant by a tropi mom. To force the issue, Burt claims to have murdered the baby, and we end up in court for an in-depth analysis of where mankind ends and the animal kingdom begins. An in-depth analysis as imagined by idiots.

Where this idiocy comes from is hard to guess, since this film is based on a book by “Vercors,” author of the classic French occupation novel La Silence de la Mer, filmed by Melville, and the screenplay is credited to Nelson Gidding who did THE HAUNTING. Neither one seems like a fool. But foolishness prevails. I suspect uncredited other hands may be to blame for the foul tonal inconsistency and brainless fumbling. This is supported by the background info that Orson Welles associate Richard Wilson was tipped from the director’s chair, his still-warm buttock imprint occupied by the sagging rump of THEM! director Gordon Douglas, whose approach to the material is not so much uncertain as absent, as if behind the glass eye of the camera lurked another glass eye, gazing blankly and without feeling.

Skullduggery from David Cairns on Vimeo.

We do have the pleasure of seeing Edward Fox react to an ape-woman flying a helicopter — I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wondered what Sir Edward’s response to such a spectacle would be — but the sheer offensive stupidity of the rest boggles the mind.

Clark attempts to prove to the court that establishing an individual’s species is more complicated than you’d think, by laying out skulls from a baboon, a chimp, a human and an aboriginal. Yes, you read correctly. The movie apparently thinks aboriginals aren’t human, or are at best some sub-species of the main branch. There’s a spirited debate between William Marshall and Wilfred Hyde-White in which Marshall is, of course, dignified and Shakespearian and Hyde-White is doddery and wry, his usual mode — all the more effective when his character turns out to be a white supremacist. The smartest thing in the film is this underplaying of evil, and it may have only come about because WHW just did what he normally did and nobody thought to stop him.

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Then the movie spoils its nanosecond of goodwill by bringing in a parodic Black Panther (he’s flown all the way from America, apparently, to make the case that the tropis, being pale skinned, prove that white people are less evolved, or something), part of the usual satirical escape clause — “Black people are prejudiced too!” — in fact, I just realized, SKULLDUGGERY bloody well *is* Bonfire of the Vanities, book and film, only it’s all gone Piltdown.

The most neglected character in all this is Topazia, the tropi wife, played by Pat Suzuki. She gets knocked up by a human (hairless variety), gives birth, loses the child, and then gets hauled into court in a cage. The film has absolutely no interest in her as a character, human or animal, despite the fact that far more happens to her than to any of the bare-faced ham-dispensers making up the upper echelons of the cast list. SKULLDUGGERY unfair to tropis.

At last — a Film of Ideas made by morons.