Archive for Hay Petrie

Russian Lark

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2012 by dcairns

While doing a bit of side-research on THE 39 STEPS — side-research being the stuff that’s strictly work-avoidance — I ran KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR, the big Korda misfire, directed by Jaques Feyder, whose LA KERMESSE HEROIQUE I had just revisited.

This film does rather waste everything it’s got — it has a lot, so it can afford to waste a lot, but as I say, it wastes everything. I have a suspicion Jacques Feyder is not quite my bag, which means I tend to appreciate the bits of his films which seem least successful, hardest to explain. LA KERMESSE HEROIQUE is almost entirely composed of such bits, so I like it a lot. KNIGHT’s biggest handicap is its lack of shape and drama, odd in a film with so much killing, romance, and headlong pursuit. With a bit of practice I might get to appreciate the way the film endlessly postpones its excitement, then repeats the same capture-escape cycle for the last hour. As it is, there are little glimmers of interest along the way —

Here’s Michael Redgrave in what may be his first film role — unlisted by the IMDb! Gloweringly fervid, he’s actually too exciting for the film, but by no means hammy or “theatrical” in a bad way. (I’m not mistaken, I hope — I thought I spotted Hitchcock fave John Williams, but it proved to be Austin Trevor.)

And here’s Moscow, elegantly imagined by Feyder and Clair’s regular production designer, Lazare Meerson. Much of this film boasts enormous reconstructions of Russian revolution scenes, so it’s a little surprising to find such a minimalist Moscow. Very effective and convincing, though.

Dietrich and Donat (who have surprising quasi-chemistry) circle each other for the first half hour without meeting, thirty minutes devoted to explaining why Donat, an Englishman, has become a Red Comissar. First he’s a journalist, due to be kicked out of Tsarist Russia for his too-honest articles — a complete retread of Olivier’s role in THE YELLOW TICKET. But swiftly he’s recruited by His Majesty’s Secret Service, in a surprisingly convincing, low-key scene — the functionary buys him dinner and drops a hint. Then he infiltrates the revolutionary movement, gets implicated in an assassination attempt, spends two years as a prisoner in Siberia, and is liberated by the Bolsheviks and finally is placed in charge of aristocratic prisoner Marlene Dietrich (the only Russian with a German accent — the rest are English and Scottish and say things like “What the dickens?”).

During all this circumlocutory preamble, Marlene just swans about in frocks, searching for a subplot she can call her own, but without her usual success.

It’s 39 STEPS time again when Donat goes on the run with this blonde, hunted by both sides — but the promising cross-country pursuit is continually interrupted by captures and escapes which always depend on ludicrous amounts of luck. But the train station with the mad railway guard (Dundonian character thesp Hay Petrie’s finest role: in THE FALLEN IDOL he just walks in and winds the clocks) is very fine, and a scene of Donat reciting Browning to Dietrich is actually sublime — Donat’s voice, the verse, and Miklos Rosza’s underscoring and Marlene’s wide, luminous eyes… The Adam & Eve idyll in the forest is beautifully shot by Harry Stradling.

Peter Bull plays another commissar, a little glimpse into how the Russian ambassador of DR STRANGELOVE started his career, perhaps. There’s also Miles Malleson — “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight!” — and Raymond Huntley! Yay, Raymond Huntley!

Korda contract player John Clements gets to steal the show — a romantic Russian who dies for love, he basically usurps Donat’s role, leaving the whole thing to sort of fray away to a Grand Finally. We realize that the central relationship hasn’t developed past love at first sight, the jeopardy has all been of the same sort, and so the movie’s been running in place for an hour, as gigantic Meerson sets trundle past. No wonder the thing didn’t do well.

But as a sort of fantasy travelogue of the Russian revolution, sort of diverting, and never less than beautiful, visually. Haunted by history, since a traditional Happy Ending is impossible with Russia as one of the main characters. Impossible to this day, arguably.

Knight Without Armour (1937)

Slaughter House

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2008 by dcairns

CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE is what the usually-wrong Leslie Halliwell quite rightly calls a “cheeky” rendition of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, a classic shocker which has been adapted several times, always more faithfully than this magnificent travesty. There’s a very decent version with Sidney Greenstreet as the villainous Count Fosco, and I have fond memories of a BBC TV version from my childhood which was blessed with a magnificently fruity turn by Alan Badel, and served as my introduction to that fine fellow (cinephiles may recall his sinister Arab in ARABESQUE, oozing suavely with a falcon on his arm).

This version is a star vehicle for barnstorming actor-manager Tod Slaughter, a genuine exponent of your actual melodrama, a man who actually made his living by cackling and twirling his moustache. It’s directed by George King, whose half-hearted praises I sang off-key here. King, a spirited B-movie professional, is in slightly muted form here, perhaps just disgusted by the awful bollocks he has to aim his camera at, or perhaps just strained by a hectic schedule. But the production values seem pretty good — this isn’t a shoddy “quota quickie” as they’re usually imagined.

The main departure from Collins’ popular classic is the addition of a whole series of gratuitous murders, with even more gratuitous cackling as accompaniment. Start as you mean to go on: Tod begins the very first scene by hammering a spike into a sleeping man’s head, which seems to strike him as particularly amusing.

Stealing the identity of the sore-headed corpse, Tod becomes Sir Perceval Glyde, or anyhow a Percival impersonator. An impercevalator, if you will. Discovering that all his scam has netted him is a mortgaged manor house and a heap of debts, the gesticulating ham plots to marry innocent local hottie Laura Fairlie (Sylvia Marriot) for her money. He’s assisted in his scheming by two citizens of Dundee, actors Hay Petrie and David Keir, who play a quack asylum superintendant and a lawyer respectively. Petrie is of particular interest — he can ham it up without becoming tiresome, and he has a decent role, demoted from lead villain in Collins’ book. Petrie acted in a wide range of stuff, including Powell & Pressburger classics like THE RED SHOES and Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s THE FALLEN IDOL. It’s fun to see him cut loose with a bigger part in a dafter movie.

Hay Petrie with Tod Slaughter, a man so evil he actually curses trousers.

Throughout the film, the crimes at the dark house fall to Mr. Slaughter, who proves himself very successful at murdering, acceptable at raping, but very bad at fraud. His first fraud having actually landed him in debt, he tries to murder his way out of every problem that arises. One has to respect his fighting spirit. Not so much a case of “never-say-die”, as “always-say-die-Die!-DIE!!!”

Slaughter also gets to indulge in what are practically asides to the audience. His trademark evil cackle is for our benefit, and he licks his lips lasciviously whenever anyone with breasts is to hand, but he also talks to himself. The late great Ken Campbell once proposed that there are two ways to handle a Shakespearean aside: firstly, you can act as if you’re talking to yourself, thinking aloud as it were. Or, you can adopt what Campbell called the “My chums the audience” approach and welcome the punters in to a warm embrace, sharing your wickedest secrets with them. This seems to me the only way to treat Iago or Richard III’s monologues, for instance.

Slaughter is clearly of this latter camp, and it’s obvious that his nastiness is all a big joke for the delectation of the working-class audiences who flocked to see him. It really is a comedy performance from beginning to end, and it’s remarkable how sick the whole thing is: “The false Perceval Glyde” (we never learn his real name) a maidservant he’s knocked up, the mother of the real Glyde’s illigitimate daughter, and Fosco (although this doesn’t take). He also murders a pneumonia sufferer by moving their bed to the window and opening it — cue ludicrous cartoon howling wind FX.

As the melodrama ripens, Slaughter’s tendency to demented soliloquy grows more pronounced. Trying to burn the church records that will expose his imposture, Slaughter finds himself trapped in an inferno. “Curses, the key!” he laments. Smashing a window with a chair, he looks at the drop outside and exclaims, “Oh! I can’t go down that way!”

“He’s so evil he’s narrating his own death!” I thought. That’s hardcore evilness.