Archive for Hitchcock

Village Fate

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2021 by dcairns

OK, so having watched A WOMAN OF PARIS, it’s not at all clear why it should be called PUBLIC OPINION in Europe. The subject never comes up in the story. Chaplin went through numerous potential titles for the film, and I’m wondering if this was just one of them. I can’t confirm the claim that this was its title abroad.

We begin in a small village, “somewhere in France.” BE MORE SPECIFIC! I yelled.

On my previous viewing, I had perceived the film as beginning with restraint before nosediving into melodrama at the two-thirds mark. But no — it’s a melodrama plot from the start, just one that’s handled with a certain subtlety of narration. That’s my main comment on this film: the plot is a big blowsy melo, but the storytelling is cunningly indirect, delivered via small details.

It begins really well: Chaplin’s shots are unusually expressive, the lighting strong and atmospheric. Each new angle makes a dramatic point. Really good. And some stylish composition-in-depth to allow more than one strand of the story to develop at once, as Miller and Purviance walk away from her home, watched by her father from the window.

And the set design, by one-shot wonder Arthur Stibolt, instead of Chaplin’s usual man, Charles D. Hall, is lovely, including the ergonomic escape route from Edna’s bedroom.

“What’s wrong with these people?” asked Fiona, after meeting the second unpleasant father. I guess the answer is, They’re in a melodrama. It’s a little inelegant, the need for TWO censorious dads, and the need for one of them to drop dead at an inconvenient moment. And we’re never told why they object so strongly to the love affair between Edna Purviance and Carl Miller. My objection is that it’s a bit boring.

The smoking pipe on the floor leads to the dramatic reveal, which is told through a reaction shot rather than directly. All this indirection is very Lubitschian, but also can connect to Eisenstein — “the shoe on the floor” he writes of in The Short-Fiction Scenario) and to Hitchcock.

Chaplin gets credit for reversing stereotypes — Edna will become “a woman of fate” — a kept woman. Miller will be seen as weak, mother-dominated, and his mother becomes an oppressive force, telling him he can’t be with Edna as she’s fallen from virtue. None of this seems all that shocking to us, but it has a negative effect on the story’s dramatic interest: Edna struggling to decide between love and luxury isn’t very sympathetic; Miller’s pisspants floundering is alienating; his mom is a prude.

But, despite its depending on stock situations and unexplained hostility, the first act is pretty nifty. The railway station, with its invisible train shown only by the sliding light from its windows, is an impressive image of fate. And Chaplin’s uncredited cameo as a porter is a joy: the careless way he dumps the trunk he’s carrying is made even better by the fact that he never even breaks his hobbled shuffle. Pair it with his cameo in A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG.

TBC

Dr. Crime

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2021 by dcairns

I’m rapidly buying up all John D.MacDonald’s Travis McGee books, and almost as rapidly burning my way through the CRIME DOCTOR series of Columbia B pictures with Warner Baxter. The McDonalds are better, but the Baxters have a comforting cosiness — not noir, though they’re shadowy thrillers all right. Every one of them has a somnolent scene of WB wandering around a dark interior by flashlight or candlelight. But they’re neat and unambiguous.

Michael Gordon, whose career makes no sense, did the first, in which the character’s radio origin story is replayed, and forgotten about thereafter. Like Arnie in TOTAL RECALL he goes from being a bad guy to a good guy by having his memory wiped. Seems like the prisons could save a lot of money by reforming prisoners with a simple blow on the head.

Olin Howland as a rogue phrenologist, COME ON!

The most cinematically important film of the series — which isn’t really important at all, but bear with me — is THE CRIME DOCTOR’S MAN HUNT, directed by William Castle. One can’t imagine that the directors of this series had much script input, but it’s a curious fact that Castle’s later fondness for publicity gimmicks and trick processes went hand-in-hand with a passion for tricksy plots. It’s sensibility that makes sense, unlike Michael Gordon’s (CRIME DOC, CYRANO DE BERGERAC, PILLOW TALK?). It even fits with his rep as a bit of a con artist. Narrative tricks and pranks. Remember also that he produced LADY FROM SHANGHAI and ROSEMARY’S BABY, and imagine how prosaic those movies would look if he’d been allowed to direct them.

Oh, we also watched THE WHISTLER, another radio spin-off directed by Castle and co-written by CRIME DOC scribe Eric Taylor, which borrows the “kill me” plot from Jules Verne’s The Tribulations of a Chinese Man from China, a wild variation on which turns up again in LADY FROM S. Decades later, Marc Behm would sell that plot to the Beatles as basis for their second film, with Ringo as the depressed man who hires a hitman to off himself — but then the team found out Belmondo was filming the same storyline, though Richard Lester didn’t know it was stolen from Verne until I told him…

But back to CD MAN HUNT, which isn’t about a man hunt at all — the titles to these things are pretty random, and a couple don’t even mention the Crime Doc, Robert Ordway, in the title. This one has a story by Taylor but script by Leigh Brackett. It’s no BIG SLEEP but it’s decent. There are signs of haste, like a character’s real name being revealed as Armstrong, seconds before a reference to “strong arm men.” A reference to “the Benway house” which clashes bumpily with the lead character’s name. But it’s a neat story. Major spoilers follow, but are you really going to watch the film? If so, use the embed above.

Ellen Drew appears in an apparent dual role as sisters, one good, one evil, but after that’s revealed (and it’s not too surprising, as Drew uses the same tragic delivery whether she’s wearing the bad sister blonde wig and specs or not), a new wrinkle is added: one sister is dead and the other has developed a split personality in order to replace her. After the mystery has been solved, Warner B. delivers a dollarbook Freud mansplaining that feels very familiar, but the film it’s recalling, PSYCHO, hadn’t been made yet.

It’s really kind of touching that Castle directed a film which seems to provide a template for PSYCHO — did Robert Bloch see the movie, I wonder? — and then later be reduced to copying Hitchcock with HOMICIDAL, which reverses the gender disguise element. And, again, gives us an insight into how prosaic PSYCHO might look if Hitch weren’t directing it.

Having watched about half the CD movies now, I am resigned to running out soon, but Eric Taylor has forty-odd other credits, including (ulp) BIG JIM MCLAIN, SON OF DRACULA, a bunch of Ellery Queen pics, BLACK FRIDAY…

The Soho Dialogues

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2021 by dcairns

Something different — Fiona and I bounce around thoughts on Edgar Wright’s LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, avoiding major spoilers — but if you want to go in clean and blind, you still might want to bookmark this for afterwards.

DC: So, we both enjoyed LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, though you loved it more than I did. It was certainly nice to see a filmmaker enjoying himself so much — several of my worries about the project proved quite unfounded. To start on a high note — I loved the dance where the two lead actresses keep substituting for one another, in a long take which uses framing and blocking rather than visible special effects to make the changes. Edgar Wright COULD have been using CGI to enhance the trick, but the beauty of it was that it wasn’t visible. Rather like the mirror tricks in our recent viewing, THE HALFWAY HOUSE. I enjoy special effects but in-camera stuff has it’s own thrill.

FW: At the end I wanted to stand up and applaud, but then I had an emotional connection to it that you didn’t. I empathised with Eloise so deeply that I was dragged in, almost unwillingly at first, into the narrative.

LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is such a tour de force of filmmaking. I didn’t frighten me, apart from one superb jump scare, I was just vibing on the emotions and the extremely clever steals from other movies. I struck up a conversation with a couple in their twenties who’d been seated behind us and I was really surprised when the guy admitted to being scared shitless by it. We, being old hands, had to explain that most of what we’d just witnessed was a wickedly clever homage to other films, so it was more of a hugely enjoyable box-ticking exercise for us. I really like that cinephiles and non-cinephiles can appreciate it together for different reasons.

DC: Agree that the story and dialogue do a great job of setting up the character and making us feel for her, by giving her such an implacably hostile environment, personified by the awful Jocasta. I have a slight question about why that evil woman scenario is the right way to set up a story about toxic masculinity and the patriarchy in sixties media, which seems to have been the foundation of Wright’s interest in the material. But that’s maybe one example of why it’s often best to ignore what the filmmaker says about their work. But it makes me wonder if the two writers were on the same page. There’s a tantalising story told by Wright that he had wanted to make all the sixties sequences musical numbers, and Krysty Wilson-Cairns talked him out of that. The idea being they could get more emotion in if there was dialogue, which strikes me as a failure to understand musicals. I kind of wish he’d made that version, because as stylish as the film is, that could have been truly remarkable.

FW: When you think about something like THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, you don’t have to give up emotion at the expense of the genre. I’d love to see Wright’s original conception of this movie. However, I also loved what Wilson-Cairns brought to the piece, so I feel a bit torn. I still felt like I was caught up in a maelstrom of film and being flung about hither and thither by its makers. Normally I don’t like feeling out of control, but this was just so deliciously delirious. When we got home, I started declaiming Wright as one of those rare British directors who take flamboyance to the next level. I was putting him in the same pantheon as Ken Russell, Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock. You, very wisely, pointed out that they were originals, so I came to the conclusion that Wright is more like a supremely talented magpie, exuberantly stealing ideas out of other filmmakers nests. 

Shall we talk about the ‘colour’ problem?

DC: Well, in term of the film’s colour palette there’s no problem, just a luscious blend of Bava, Argento, Clouzot’s pop-art phase and Hitchcock’s tests for the unmade KALEIDOSCOPE-FRENZY. 

In terms of race and representation, yes, we each picked up on different things. I found it strange that there are no gay characters in either the sixties section (Soho, polari, a vibrant queer culture) or the modern section (a fashion college). Homosexuality seems not to exist, even as a concept, so that Eloise never even wonders if the sympathetic John (Michael Ajao), who’s a fashion student who’s interested in her as a person, not a lust object, might be gay. There may have been something I missed, but if so it was very minor.

FW: I pointed out that I was surprised there seemed to be no people of colour in 1960s Soho, which was incomprehensible to me. Also, Eloise’s boyfriend, John (Michael Ajao) seemed almost tokenistic in his representation.

DC: That’s very weird, as you see all races even in British films of that milieu made at the time. The customers in the particular nightclubs depicted may well have been overwhelmingly white, but you have black performers in BEAT GIRL and JUNGLE STREET, and Burt Kwouk turns up on the Soho Streets in both EXPRESSO BONGO, eating fast food, and DEEP END, selling fast food. And then there’s FLAME IN THE STREETS and SAPPHIRE.

Wright’s movies have been pretty damn white — BABY DRIVER is the only one with a major Black character, but it was shot in Atlanta, where you might expect to see more than one. So, in a film that wants to cast a critical eye over the entertainment industry’s exploitation of women, is there no room for any other kind of representation? It’s great to see Ajao featured, but he has to stand in for the entirety of a multiethnic metropolis here.

FW: HA HA HA. I’ve just re-watched the trailer and they’ve put Psycho ‘stabs’ into Land Of 1000 Dances by Wilson Pickett the Walker Bros! Genius.

Shall we talk about the use of music? You seem to know more about the inspiration behind, and the making of, the film than I do, because I went in completely ‘blind.’ As we’re still writing about it, I’m really struggling not to look at other people’s reviews because I want my response to be pure and untainted. So far, I’m winning, but I’m teetering on the brink.

DC: I went in as blind as the trailer leaves you, but it was all interesting enough to make me want to read up on it. Wright has an impressive list of influences.

Since he’s adept at using music that’s quite on-the-nose, but never being clumsy in a Zemeckis way (e.g. the use of the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society in HOT FUZZ) I was waiting for a couple of songs to turn up: the Pogues’ beautiful A Rainy Night in Soho (produced by Elvis Costello) and Pulp’s Bar Italia (Soho is “where all the broken people go”) but the concentration on sixties tunes, even in the modern sections, ruled that out I guess. He’s said he liked the idea of using songs that have well-known cover versions, reintroducing the originals people might not have heard. What did you think of the use of songs and score?

FW: Oh God! She’s so adorable.

 Maybe we should talk about the performances and how great they are. And also how neither of the leads are English but they do flawless Cornish and London accents respectively.

DC: Almost nobody in this film is using their own accent: McKenzie and Rita Tushingham are being Cornish, Taylor-Joy is doing London, Matt Smith does Cockney. Only Ajao, Terrence Stamp and Pauline McGlynn are talking naturally, but you’d never know it because everyone’s so good.

FW: Anyway, back to the soundtrack. I loved it. It’s given as much importance as the visuals. The result is overwhelming, but in the best possible way. Triple threat Anya Taylor-Joy actually did cover versions for the movie.

Was just watching the Anya Taylor-Joy video and picked up ANOTHER cinematic reference. Last night, as our Halloween treat, we watched DEAD OF NIGHT. There are shots in LNIS that reminded me of Robert Hamer’s Haunted Mirror section from that movie. 

DC: Which goes back to your enjoyment of non-digital effects in LNIS. DEAD OF NIGHT and THE HALFWAY HOUSE are jam-packed with practical effects that are still incredibly impressive to this day.

FW: I guess Wright wanted to keep an element of “old-fashioned” filmmaking in his period-infused movie. There’s also superb editing going on, courtesy of Paul Machliss, who worked on Wright’s BABY DRIVER, SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD and THE WORLD’S END.

I was fascinated when you told me the cinematographer was Chung-hoon Chung, who’s probably known best for OLD BOY. When the Oscar noms are handed out, expect to see his name. He’s done an absolutely spectacular job on LNIS.

Production designer Marcus Rowland, another Wright regular, also deserves a nod.

DC: One missed opportunity in the film — there’s a sequence where Matt Smith’s bad guy bites Sandie and it’s Eloise who receives the hickey, so we learn that her link to the sixties is actually physical as well as audio-visual. What happens to Sandie happens to her. But this never recurs. Which seems like a missed opportunity (1) to develop and clarify the rules of the game and (2) to add jeopardy. There is actually another scene where Eloise experiences Sandie being injured, but this time she does NOT share the injury. Inconsistent, and weaker dramatically than it would be if they’d kept that idea going. (If you die in a dream you die in real life.)

FW: Yes. They had a marvellous opportunity to enlarge on that material and inject some real jeopardy. That loose end might have been caused by two writers coming together who hadn’t worked as a unit before, but surely someone else reading it could have pointed out that are real-life consequences to the events in Eloise’s dream world. You mentioned before that they might not have been on the same page, and this certainly seems to reinforce that idea.

Inspired by this, I started thinking about what I might have done with the material as a writer, based on my own experiences. As a child, growing up in an abusive household, I had such horrifying nightmares that I would dig my nails into the palms of my hands until they drew blood to stop myself from falling asleep. I think that once Eloise discovered that these wonderful, inspirational dreams had taken a very dark turn and were actually having an effect on her own body, she would do anything to stay awake – Do what I did. Drink gallons of coffee. ANYTHING to stop it. This would cause severe sleep deprivation in the ‘real’ world. Sleep deprivation can cause hallucinations. But she wouldn’t have any control over her autonomic nervous system, so she would fall asleep anyway, in the design studio, on the underground, anywhere in fact, leaving her in a constant state of terror. She would still want to solve the mystery, but this would be balanced with her need to stay safe and not get sucked into a potentially fatal situation in the dreams.

DC: I’m very glad that Diana Rigg got a decent role at the end of her life: the oldsters in HOT FUZZ were very welcome but it looks in retrospect a bit uncomfortable to have Simon Pegg kicking them in the head, when they were all so close to the end. Rigg’s role is juicy and doesn’t have the same kind of discomfort.

What else can we say? It embraces giallo style without indulging in giallo-style misogyny. I know Farran Smith prefers to use the word “sexist” when it’s adequate, but sometimes only the M word will do. The stuff that allows the film to escape misogynist sadism is the psychological and parapsychological angle, which tries to introduce fear unrelated to physical violence. And the #MeToo theme makes it imperative that leering sexism and sadism be avoided, and it mostly is. But the giallo is also a genre of crazy plot twists, and maybe overmechanistic plots have a tendency to pull filmmakers back to stereotypes and retrograde attitudes. I’m not sure why that should be, unless we accept Daniel Riccuto’s “narrative is evil” theorem. Which might be right. Or, at least, it might be right that when a creator is trying to follow what feels like the right narrative line, they’ll be unconsciously guided by hidden prejudices. At any rate, the need to make things turn out neatly turns a film about female victimization into something about female predation. Wright and Wilson-Cairns do inject some surprising tender beats into the climax which are commendable, but it’s almost like someone trying their damnedest to subvert a genre they really love and not quite admitting whether what they want to make is an anti-giallo. And then it’s weird to do all that and then serve up a female hate-figure like Jocasta.

FW: I completely agree. It’s an admirable attempt to do something different with a traditionally misogynistic genre. At the end I wanted to stand up and cheer. I’d been picked up and carried off by a cinematic twister, just like Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ, another film about alternate realities. It’s a tornado of film, throwing you about all over the place as you descend into the eye of the storm, then depositing you in a field, miraculously unharmed. And LAST NIGHT IN SOHO is not just about alternate realities. We’ve got time travel and the supernatural in the form of Stone Tape theory. It’s an exhilarating mix. I also connected to it emotionally in a way I wasn’t expecting.  I think I said, “Whoa! What a ride!”

But that ending. Are we supposed to feel pleased about what Eloise sees in the mirror, or disturbed that the image is still there? It adds an interesting element of unease.

MY VERDICT – Flawed but brilliant.

DC: I don’t have a fixed opinion — it seems quite likely I’ll love it or hate it more next time I see it, so I’ll record an open verdict on this unusual venture. More films like it would definitely improve the national cinema’s hit-rate, even if it took a few tries.