Archive for Irving Pichel

And lead us into TEMPTATION…

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2015 by dcairns

David Melville fills the gap between his series on Mexican melodrama and his upcoming series on… but that would be telling… with a special piece on a neglected 1946 melodrama sure to be of interest to Shadowplayers everywhere ~

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Was there ever a better year for Bad Girls than 1946? Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun, Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman. Each one stronger, smarter, sexier and more subversive than…well, just about any woman since. But one lady, that same year, could hold her own with any of them. An actress who’s been criminally underrated, in a film that’s been tragically forgotten. I’m talking about Merle Oberon in Temptation.

If the title doesn’t ring any bells…well, it’s not an easy film to see. Directed by Irving Pichel and produced (lavishly) by a long-defunct entity called International Film Corporation, Temptation is unavailable on DVD or any other home video format. It survives (just about) in blurred copies recorded from TV in the 90s. Not that it doesn’t still look splendid. The cameraman, Lucien Ballard, was Merle Oberon’s second husband. (He also photographed her in The Lodger (1944), This Love of Ours (1945) and Berlin Express (1948).) She married him, presumably, because he was the one man who could make her look more exquisite than she did already.

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So what is Temptation about? Many things…not all of which are directly apparent on screen. It was based on Bella Donna, a novel by the English author and aesthete Robert Hichens (1864-1950). A member of the camp gay circle that surrounded Oscar Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, he is best remembered today for The Green Carnation (1894) – a witty if rather scurrilous roman á clef about the, er, home life of his two famous friends. He also wrote the kitsch masterwork The Garden of Allah (filmed in 1936 with Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich) which, like this story, has a North African desert setting.

Temptation opens in Cairo in 1900. Merle plays an outwardly genteel Victorian lady, who gets into a spot of bother over some compromising letters sent to an Egyptian gigolo lover (Charles Korvin). Dare we suspect this story has autobiographical echoes? We do know Wilde and his pals spent almost as much money paying off blackmailers as they earned in royalties. (More, perhaps, in the case of the sexually voracious Lord Alfred.) It’s tempting to see Merle’s character (who boasts the achingly exotic name of Ruby Armine) as a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. She could – if only this film were better known – win herself a cult following to rival Bette Davis in All About Eve.

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We see her first in long-shot, drifting through the garden of her sumptuous villa in a plush suburb of Cairo. (I was not aware, until now, that Cairo had plush suburbs.) A vision in a long and trailing white gown, with a white lace parasol to match. Her clothes are by the great Orry-Kelly and Merle herself remarks within the first few minutes: “The things I remember best are the hats and gowns I wore – and the way I felt when I wore them.” At the risk of sounding shallow, I must admit much of the pleasure in Temptation comes from seeing what our heroine will wear next. Let’s just say Merle Oberon is never knowingly underdressed.

As the star wafts her way slowly through the garden, we learn that a sinister Egyptian police inspector has come to call. By the time we see her in close-up, it’s clear she’s wanted for questioning about a murder. Her dreary archaeologist husband (George Brent) does not seem unduly concerned. He’s too busy pondering the opening of a long-lost tomb. But his close bachelor friend, a gimlet-eyed Jewish doctor (Paul Lukas), has distrusted and disliked Ruby from the start. A flashback in London tells us she was once what’s euphemistically called an ‘adventuress’. Her first husband divorced her on “urgent medical advice” from Lukas, who then tried to dissuade Brent from marrying her “as I would stop an infectious disease from spreading”. We wonder, momentarily, if the poor girl has some sort of VD. Or is the doctor one of those movie characters (normally played by Clifton Webb) who seem to regard any woman as ‘unclean’?

With these two dullards as her day-to-day companions, it’s hardly a surprise when Merle (still in a flashback) decides to have a little fun on the side. ‘Fun’ comes in the form of a bogus Egyptian prince called Mahmoud Bahroudi. He’s played by the Hungarian actor Charles Korvin – the one actor with a cleft chin more prodigious than Kirk Douglas or Cary Grant! In any other department, he’s not much of a threat but Merle likes him from the start. They first meet when he tries to blackmail a young acquaintance – and are drawn together by recognition of each other’s mutual depravity. “You’re the first person,” marvels Korvin, “who lies as well as I do.” To put it more simply, the two are a perfect match.

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Korvin, of course, is only out for money. But all of Merle’s is under the control of her husband. “I wish he were dead,” she says with an air of mild annoyance. Her lover promptly hands her an untraceable poison in an exotically carved antique box. Soon enough, she’s found a villainous servant who can stir it discreetly into anything poor Brent eats or drinks. In the tensest moment, some poisoned tea is placed strategically on a tray with six or seven other cups. The servant swivels the tray, with a dexterity that is truly breathtaking, to make sure that hubby gets the right one. Merle’s beautiful dark eyes follow the tray’s every move. They glow anxiously as her husband lifts the drink to his lips – and puts it down twice, untasted.

It’s a truly mesmerising piece of silent-screen acting, made all the more offbeat and effective by the fact that it takes place in a talking film. In forty years as an internationally famous star (stretching from her doomed Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933 to her even-more-doomed vanity project Interval in 1973) Merle Oberon never enjoyed much reputation as an actress. The focus was on her exotic Anglo-Indian beauty and her early life as a ‘nightclub dancer’ (among other things) in the back streets of Calcutta. Yet anyone who doubts her ability to carry a film should track down a copy of Temptation. It’s a banquet of a role and she chomps it down and swallows it in one gulp. Only the lynx-eyed Lenore Ulric, as her sinister and possibly lesbian French maid, gets to steal even a tiny corner of the screen.

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Am I spoiling any surprises if I say that Merle/Ruby does reform before Temptation is quite over? Hichens’ friend Wilde deplored “the modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice” but that is what Hollywood in the 40s forced most movies to do. It’s reassuring to note that – while she is still satisfyingly wicked – Oberon sports a truly eye-popping dress with a black-lace-and-diamante bodice, festooned with pyramids and sphinxes and other Egyptian motifs. Surely no girl who wears a gown like this could ever be that good?!

David Melville

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Aunt Julia Vs the Scriptwriter

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on November 9, 2010 by dcairns

In MURDER BY THE CLOCK, Aunt Julia (Blanche Friderici) is a nasty old woman with a morbid fear of premature burial. Taking a leaf from Poe, she’s installed the family crypt with a kind of horror horn, which she can sound off should she awaken unexpectedly entombed. Meanwhile she’s changed her will, various grasping relatives are plotting her assassination, and her “idiot” son Philip (Irving Pichel) has an unhealthy obsession with murder: when she asks him what he’d like to do in life, he replies “Kill!”

I was seeing this movie as part of my ongoing odyssey to view every movie depicted within the quaint and curious A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford, and it just happened to tie into Poe Week, via the premature burial theme, so it serves as a suitable aftershock of that festivity. It’s not great, but it’s from 1931 so it’s a fascinating historical artifact, showing how the fear film hadn’t yet gotten to grips with the supernatural can of worms opened by DRACULA. Here we’re in CAT AND THE CANARY terrain, with every creepy event solidly rooted in the criminal psychology of melodrama.

Apart from Mr. Pichel (above, right), who would go on to direct SHE and co-direct THE HOUNDS OF ZAROFF, we have clown-faced Regis Toomey, stalwart William “Stage” Boyd, and sultry Lilyan Tashman (above, left), who seduces three men into killing for her. Her husband is particularly unfortunate: strangled by Tashman’s lover, he’s revived by an adrenalin shot to the heart, Uma Thurman-style, then nearly stabbed to death by the lover, and finally scared to death by the spectre of his resuscitated aunt, before he can name the man who originally throttled him. Unlucky stiff.

With its witless comedy and on-the-nose dialogue, this creaker is no classic — it makes James Whale’s often rigid FRANKENSTEIN look fluent and pacy, and lacks that movie’s moments of the sublime. But it is extremely handsome, photographed by Karl Struss in the Paramount soft-focus style, which makes for an unusual-looking horror film. Director Edward Sloman sure lives up to his surname, but obtains good perfs, especially from the sly Tashman and amiable maniac Pichel.

Seeing as how most talkies by 1931 had shed the stumbles, cracklings pauses and enunciation of the early sound misfires, I guess it was deliberate policy to play horror movies slower, for creepy atmos and suspense. Makes sense. But when it doesn’t quite work, it feels like the movie’s slipped back to 1929…

Messing About in Boats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2008 by dcairns

“You know, I haven’t been out in a boat since I saw AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY.” ~ Groucho Marx, HORSE FEATHERS.

Irving Pichel, left, plays a strong D.A. with a strange M.O.

Now, thanks to a marvellous man in in Kentucky, I too have seen Josef Von Sternberg’s 1931 film, which I have been simply ulceratingto get my hands on since around the time I saw my last Sternberg-Dietrich. And it’s a pretty good copy, too, recorded off what seems to be The Love Channel(the word LOVE appears in the bottom corner of the screen occasionally, and I don’t think Sternberg put it there, although ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE WITH THAT GUY).

The film had something of a chequered history, what with Murnau and Carl Mayer ripping off a chunk of the plot for SUNRISE (based on this and NOSFERATU, a case could be made for calling Murnau the cinema’s most brilliant plagiarist), Eisenstein writing a screenplay for Chaplin to produce (it never happened) and then Sternberg, on a break from Marlene Dietrich projects, making his film at Paramount, who were then promptly sued by the book’s author, Theodore Dreiser. Read all about it HERE.

Sternberg claims in his dryly hilarious autobiography Fun In A Chinese Laundry that Dreiser, upset that the film misrepresented the book, pointed out several outrageous changes in the movie, which Sternberg then showed to the court were actually faithful reproductions of scenes in the original novel. It seems quite possible.

Plotting a course…for MURDER!

Without having read any Dreiser (which, in a pre-Internet world might well disqualify me from writing anything at all about the movie, but hey, aren’t you lucky?), I get the impression that a great amount of incident has been retained from the book, which a more conventional, less faithful adaptation would have discarded. This results in an odd structure and odd pacing, with leading man Phillips Holmes (why “Phillips”, plural? Does he contain multitudes?) in particular barrelling through some amazingly on-the-nose lines. Long sentences are reeled off without pause, one after the other: people don’t make statements, they produce arguments followed by evidence, counter-arguments and conclusions, and whenever one speech ends, another character will barge in with some more. It’s quite a curious effect, and different from any of the familiar brands of “clunkiness” one might expect to find in an early talkie. Sternberg was a tireless experimenter, particularly with the properties of the new soundtrack, and was always finding new ways to make dialogue sound weird. Dietrich was a great help in this, of course, with her bizarre stresses and rhythms, and one only needs to look at SHANGHAI EXPRESS, where the entire cast was drilled to speak in the rhythms of a train engine, to see Sternberg’s peculiar mind at work.

Compare with SCARFACE, also shot by Lee Garmes. Hawks was always stealing from Sternberg! (Compare UNDERWORLD and RIO BRAVO opening scenes.)

One result of the compression of a fat book (I may not have read any Dreiser but I’ve held them in my hands and winced) into a tight 95 minutes is a certain brusqueness to the characterisation. People are always telling each other flat out what they feel, so subtext has no foothold and any actual acting is rendered redundant, since everything is already being expressed verbally.

Holmes makes the most of this by being as flat as possible, announcing his involvement in a hit-and-run accident to his mother as if he was giving her a recipe for crumbly nut roast while in a bit of a hurry. It makes for a fascinating viewing experience, and renders his character’s attraction to the opposite sex quite mysterious. Fiona, who found Holmes quite winning as a helpless sap in Howard Hawks’ THE CRIMINAL CODE, lost all patience with him here: “Why do all the women fancy him? He’s a BORING BASTARD! And he’s CRAP.”

“Women love a crap, boring bastard,” I told her.

Trees are important in this movie. See how many of them YOU can spot.

Not for nothing is Sternberg renowned as a great director of women, and the two contrasting female leads are radiantly photographed and allowed to be more interesting, although the script murders any real feeling of energy or depth. Sylvia Sydney uses her breathtaking smile to great advantage, though, and is so inherently adorable that she creates audience sympathy without any assistance from the film.

And Frances Dee is much more seductive than I’ve previously seen her. Hard to believe it’s the same actress in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. I guess that’s the effects of the Production Code for you. Also, a sign of Miss Dee’s versatility, and Sternberg’s famed ability to bring out the best, or baddest, in a female performer.

My favourite actors further down the cast list were Irving Pichel as the sneering D.A. (Pichel was also a director himself, but his immoderately reptilian performance here suggests a man not in full control of his faculties) and Charles Middleton as Holmes’ defense counsel, the Emperor Ming. I love the fact that most of Holmes’ cross-examination takes place while he’s sitting in a boat in the middle of the courtroom. I love the fact that his lawyer is Ming the Merciless. And I especially love how the two lawyers square off for a bout of fisticuffs in mid-trial, as if to settle the defendant’s guilt with bare-knuckle violence. The most powerful legal argument in the world: face-punching.

Ming for the defense.

Throughout the story, Sternberg provides helpful intertitles, silent movie fashion, to cover the narrative ellipses, some of which may come from the necessary book-to-film compression: “Summer”, “Late Autumn” etc, until the film starts to feel like a bunch of Ozu movies bolted together. But this is another opportunity for Sternberg to emphasise part of the film’s imagery: water. And trees again.

I love all the strangeness of early talkies. Early soundies are great too — where they have music and FX but people still communicate by intertitles. And I go into raptures over PART-TALKIES, where a silent movie suddenly starts chattering away to itself, then randomly STOPS. Beautiful.

Of course, Sternberg being the perverse individualist he was (read his book, it’s like a Rosetta Stone for the films, an illuminating — yet still mysterious — experience unlike any film autobiography I’ve ever encountered) is obviously responsible for a lot of the film’s strange power. It’s not just a function of the film’s age. The strangest thing perhaps is that it DOES have power. The slow plod of the unfolding narrative, the hinged wooden movements of the characters, the utter lack of sympathy engendered for the protagonist, none of these things prevent it having a weird magic. Apart from some scenes of luminously lovely cinematography (from the mighty Lee Garmes, who shot three of Sternberg’s Dietrich movies), there’s also the really soul-freezing moment when the sentence is read out in court and Holmes reacts to the news of his impending execution…