Archive for Helmut Dantine

When Worlds Collude

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

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“This is a terrible film,” said Fiona, mid-way through STRANGER FROM VENUS. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that this low-budget British sci-fi effort wasn’t exactly ROME: OPEN CITY, but it had started so promisingly. Within moments of the first UFO sighting, we got a quick scene of the great John Le Mesurier as an archetypal Man from the Ministry, on the hotline to somebody or other, saying something or other… we were too thrilled to really pay attention to the words uttered. But after those all-too-brief seconds, Le Mes departs the film, never to be seen again, and interest markedly slumps. To offer us John Le Mes and then take him away again so suddenly is a like a cruel cinematic version of orgasm denial.

On the plus side, we then get Patricia Neal, her presence calculated to affirm with every passing moment that this is not THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Though it closely resembles it in many ways, all of them making for an unflattering comparison. As in Robert Wise’s terrific picture, a stiff-necked extraterrestrial lands and delivers a message of peace — backed up with apocalyptic threats.

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Like every other sci-fi movie made in Britain, the setting is a pub, in this case a roadside inn where the stranger takes up residence while demanding a congress with the world’s leaders. There’s a time limit on all this since his ability to breathe our earthly air will eventually give out, when he runs out of oxy-gum or something. Despite all this suspense, the film manages to be sluggish, with numerous scenes devoid of any discernible dramatic tension, and most of the plot consisting of desultory waiting.

As a result, the high-points are early on: director Burt Balaban (of the Balaban dynasty) shows a penchant for filming his cast from the back, which becomes a full-blown fetish when the Venusian interloper enters, his face hidden from us for long minutes. Eventually, the agreeably chiseled features of Helmut Dantine are revealed, and Patricia is of course drawn to the sexy stranger from Planet Lurve. His cheekbones call to her cheekbones.

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Space Helmut has an important message to deliver but can’t do so just yet, so there’s plenty of time for (excuse the expression) mooning after Patricia, and the fact that she has a fiancée who is a government official (the heavy, space-gauntleted hand of coincidence lies heavy upon the scenario) adds complication, but none of this adds up to either romantic agony or mild curiosity for the viewer. The ending manages to preserve the status quo while (somewhat) questioning it, making this a half-hearted bit of liberal fantasy that can’t quite bring itself to be surprising or radical or scary or exciting. The climax hinges upon the theft of Space Helmut’s communication device (a flat cylinder looking suspiciously like a make-up compact) from an army tent, an operation so tedious the film doesn’t even bother to present it.

The very end is quite nice, actually — bittersweet, I suppose you’d call it. But I still feel like we’re owed an apology for the premature withdrawal of Le Mesurier.

 

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Sizzling Quislings

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2014 by dcairns

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Lewis Milestone directed EDGE OF DARKNESS (a much-reused title) in 1943, the same year he made THE NORTH STAR, which is virtually the same film on the face of it. While EOD is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Norwegians starring Walter Huston, TNS is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Russians starring Walter Huston. THE NORTH STAR became something of a career embarrassment to all concerned for its celebration of commies, but EOD, co-written by Robert Rossen, also sneaks in some slightly left-of-centre politics (the wealthy industrialist played by Charles Dingle is the most enthusiastic Nazi collaborator, to no one’s surprise).

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Couldn’t resist this shot.

The movie really stars Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, two WB beauties, with Huston playing Sheridan’s father and Ruth Gordon (!) her mother. The older players overact a little in this one, but the youngsters are spot on. The movie works like a microwave oven full of tin cans: it heats up and sparks and crackles until the tension is unbearable, then it explodes all over the place. At this point, Milestone brings out his full kit bag of propulsive camera moves, rushing sideways as armies rush forwards, with the addition of a zoom lens — I know! Completely ahistoric — NOBODY was using the zoom between 1935 and at least the late 50s, and yet here it unmistakably is, used for several key shots, and quite distinct from any dolly move or optical enlargement. The influence may have come from combat photography. What’s weird is that though Milestone was active during the late twenties and early thirties, the first heyday of the zoom, he never used it then.

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It IS slightly disconcerting to see Milestone deploy the same kinds of propulsive tracking shots he made his name with in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT for a very different purpose — to SELL war rather than to condemn it. Sure, the film makes it clear that nobody likes war except evil Nazis, but then even the pastor who condemned the resistance fighters is seen blazing away with a tommy gun from the church spire. It’s all very dynamic and very persuasive. If you oppress the audience with a bullying, sweaty Helmut Dantine for 90 minutes, and Milestone certainly does, then they’re prepared to welcome any amount of carnage as relief from the tension.

I’m reminded of how Sam Peckinpah started by saying he used slomo to capture the agony and adrenalin of deadly force, but as early as THE GETAWAY he’d started using it for shots of smashing headlamps. The device celebrates movement, and that’s all it does, unless the context provides it with further meaning. A tracking shot may be a moral choice, but the same movement can have totally different meanings applied in different movies or situations.

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Gratuitous Judith Anderson in leather!

It’s such a collective movie that Errol gets sidelined for considerable stretches of the action, and even when the plotting resorts to the cheapest manipulation to push him into action — his sweetheart is raped by Germans (you can tell by the torn shoulder of her shirt, a strange, oblique movie convention that’s nevertheless impossible to misread) — he’s persuaded that taking personal revenge would be wrong when the whole town is biding its time for the propitious moment to attack the occupying forces.

Two hours of sterling WB melodrama, spectacular model shots to simulate a Norwegian port without sailing into Nazi-held territory, and Milestone’s vigorous visuals made this a pretty damn good watch. I certainly found it more compelling from the start than THE NORTH STAR, which starts as a mind-boggling piece of socialist realism celebrating Soviet collectivism through the medium of song (music by Aaron Copland, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) — a musical that morphs into a war movie.

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It’s strange how the smart left-wingers of Hollywood would become dumb when faced with the subjects of psychoanalysis and the Soviet system. These filmmakers were much better at exposing faults than at celebrating things they thought were great — and indeed, the former is much better fuel for drama than the latter anyway. The whole first half hour of this thing is just jolly, hearty Russians (Dana Andrews! Farley Granger!) talking in an odd, stilted way and carrying on with their picturesque lives in a William Cameron Menzies Russian village. I was soon praying for Nazis to invade and save the day. Nobody can be that cheerful with Martin Kosleck AND Erich von Stroheim giving them the fish-eye.

The dialogue is really weird. In the best of Hollywood’s foreign-set WWII pics, the foreigners (Germans in THE MORTAL STORM, French in THIS LAND IS MINE!) talk mainly American, with a careless smattering of other accents thrown in. Here, they’re all Americans alright, and they all have American accents, but they speak a weird denuded English from which every trace of life and idiom and slang and sass has been siphoned off. Lillian Hellman becomes a terrible writer as soon as she’s trying to be positive. Once some actual drama appears, Milestone, Hellman, Copland and Menzies (reunited with the director from the Oscar-winning TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS) can actually play to their strengths ~

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With the apocalypse underway, things brighten considerably, and the gigantic first act lull almost feels like necessary preparation for the onslaught, in which Milestone seems determined to exterminate every cast member whose name isn’t Walter. Milestone in horrors-of-war mode with his rocketing lateral tracks accompanied by Menzies’ violently skewed compositions is quite something (Milestone always worked with a storyboard, and Menzies liked to draw out all the shots even for films he didn’t direct, so the team is a natural — they also produce great scenic effects in ARCH OF TRIUMPH, dramatically inert though that is).

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Lillian Hellman could have used the above crib-sheet.

We weren’t quite Milestoned out so we ran ANYTHING GOES, a mangled version of a Wodehouse/Cole Porter musical, with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman. It’s a mess, with bowdlerized lyrics and a shambling narrative (mess with Wodehouse’s immaculate construction at your peril, Mssrs. Lindsay & Crouse!) but it does have some freewheeling visuals from the director, rushing all over the art deco ocean liner sets and luxuriating in the Travis Banton costumes. Lots of queer humour too —

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Fiona had woken up feeling tired, taken a nap, and slept for the entire day. She watched this film in a state of hypnagogic disbelief, convinced she was hallucinating. There’s a long sequence about shaving a Pomeranian in order to procure a false beard for Bing. There are even lyrics on the subject. The Spanish subtitles on our copy of the film certainly didn’t make it any less peculiar.