Archive for Jack Palance

Ripping Yarns

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2017 by dcairns

MAN IN THE ATTIC is something I meant to see years ago, as part of research for a Jack the Ripper project I was writing with Fiona. But no copy was to hand, and anyway, we’d found that all JTR films are historical travesties, usually disrespectful to the victims and usually with nothing to say on the many interesting subjects that naturally fall into the story.

MITA turns out not to be as offensive as most movies on this theme (part of the impetus for the script was Fiona’s horror at the 1998 “celebrations” or the centenary of the Autumn of Terror). And one moment, the reading of George Bernard Shaw’s letter to The Times about the case, actually shows a little erudition. But this is a dull remake of THE LODGER, only recently made with Laird Cregar far more memorable in the role than Jack Palance here.

I’ve had a bit of a down on director Hugo Fregonese, despite loving his Val Lewton western APACHE DRUMS. The script of that one is so spooky that old Hugo’s prosaic direction really irks me. The Apaches are described in supernatural terms by a dying Clarence Muse, setting us up for real terror — and then our director blithely plonks his first redskin into shot like a milkman or janitor. In fact, I’ve seen janitors given far more dramatic presentation.

Hugo displays the same flat-footed lack of flare here in what should be a stand-out scene — the lodger’s first arrival. Hitchcock, you will recall, presented an eerily still Ivor Novello, his face swathed in a scarf, with one pallid hand at his chest, looking like a wax sculpture. John Brahm pulled out all the stops with a gliding camera, dry ice, and a looming Cregar. Hugo gives us a plain shot/reverse shot of Palance and the landlady-to-be, not even bothering to hold back the first view of our Ripper’s scary face (Palance is not too bad, but never memorable).

The film’s atmospherics only come into play with the night scenes of the back lot, using a bunch of standing sets — effective London streets rubbing stony shoulders with what look to be the battlements of a castle and a medieval Scottish village (I think I recognize it from Laurel & Hardy’s BONNIE SCOTLAND).

Hammer’s more nakedly exploitative HANDS OF THE RIPPER is a good deal better, oddly enough. The plot is silly, and the portrayal of the Ripper as hideously disfigured by burns makes little sense and is there for no reason other to provide an added grisly image. This movie is offensive to burned people, among others. But it benefits from serious, committed work from Angharad Rees as the Ripper’s daughter, and especially Eric Porter as the shrink who tries to cure her. For much of its runtime it’s basically a Victorian MARNIE, only with multiple gory murders.

Director Peter Sasdy applies a lot of vulgar panache (I’m beginning to think I prefer the messier Hammer directors to the staid Terence Fishers and Freddie Francises) and gets to use more standing sets, this time Alexander Trauner’s forced perspective Baker Street and environs from THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Even the gratuitous Hammer nudity kind of works here — Porter loitering on the threshold while his patient bathes is decidedly un-Victorian, but it exposes his unacknowledged sexual interest in his attractive charge, which is presumably what causes him to embark on a course of treatment that ultimately proves fatal — to a number of people. It’s also really terrific that Porter, being a Victorian doctor, looks strikingly like the popular fantasy image of the Ripper himself.

When it’s clearly stated that our young heroine is not, in fact, traumatized by repressed memories from infancy, but POSSESSED BY THE GHOST OF A SERIAL KILLER, it’s kind of too late for us to scoff — we’re all set for the climax at St. Paul’s Whispering Gallery, probably the most poetic, beautiful, tense and unusual conclusion to any Hammer horror film. It even gets away with the typical Hammer hasty credits roll — no coda, no summary, no reaction from the characters left alive and grieving. It’s OK, I don’t like my films to hang around after their business is concluded, like tiresome guests or ’90s Spielberg films. But when something like THE REPTILE abruptly announces it’s leaving right after its titular lizard-girl has caught a chill and died, it feels like the filmmakers are saying “This film explores the universal theme of There was a Bad Thing but we killed it.” Sort of lacking in the layered approach.

Maybe HOTR succeeds better because — spoiler alert — it kills its “hero” as well as its “villain.” Since Porter is a strange mixture of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing (tackling the unholy) and Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein (meddling with the unholy), he has to die, but we feel a bit sad about it. And maybe the muddle of the film’s central idea leaves intriguing space for imagination — after all, the movie establishes that our Jill the Ripper does what she does because her late father takes control — but it never remotely shows any interest in why HE does what HE does. The film’s rather horrified view of its prostitutes kind of suggests that we’re meant to think his violence is, at some fundamental level, a reaction we all understand and share.

Fascinatingly, nobody seems to know who this actor is. So the unknown murderer is played by an authentic unknown.

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Whatever Happened to Mary Jane?

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2017 by dcairns

In SUDDEN FEAR, Joan Crawford stars as Mary Jane Hudson, a name with odd resonances (she’d later play Blanche Hudson opposite Bette Davis as Baby Jane). This was made right before TORCH SONG but it’s in b&w and Joan looks much, much better, and mostly acts better.

The film suffers from an unnecessary first act — we really don’t NEED to see the lady playwright meet the dashing-yet-alarming actor (Jack Palance) and marry him. It’s like the redundant opening stuff grafted onto Cukor’s GASLIGHT, but that was rendered reasonably compelling because our heroine has to overcome some obstacles to her romance. This is just women’s weekly stuff, though it’s kind of fascinating to see two such mismatched scary intense people pitching woo. Only when we discover Palance’s dish on the side, Gloria Grahame, do we get real lusty fireworks.

The plotting from here on is intricate and suspenseful — Joan’s dictation machine inadvertently records Jack and Gloria plotting her murder — since they believe she’s about to change her will, they have a narrow window of homicidal opportunity. Much angst from Joan — it’s basically a huge long scene of her wandering around the room in torment as the recording replays mercilessly from the speakers. And then she wanders some more and tosses on the couch etc. as the recording re-replays in her head. At this point, for the only time in the film, Joan goes full self-parodic drag queen, but she soon recovers.

Now Joan, having frustratingly fumbled and smashed the record which was her only evidence, resorts to her playwright’s imagination to slay one enemy and stitch up the other with an elaborately planned scenario. It becomes clear that UNFAITHFULLY YOURS must have been an influence on Edna Sherry’s source novel — the home recording device, the elaborate killing and frame-up. And, of course, the plan goes awry, mainly because Joan isn’t evil enough to pull it off — but this makes her wholly innocent and so fate is permitted, by the Production Code, to take a hand and make sure things turn out okay after all, in an admittedly ironic and rather messy way.

The endearing nonsense is very capably directed by David Miller, otherwise best known for atrocities — the mostly-dire Marx Bros “romp” LOVE HAPPY and MGM’s pointless remake of THE WOMEN, THE OPPOSITE SEX (Now with the new miracle wonder-ingredient, Men! Esther Williams turned that one down flat, correctly declaring that the rewrite robbed the original of its all-female USP). I’ve been meaning to watch Miller and Dalton Trumbo’s LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, and this encourages me. The guy had talent, seen here mainly in artfully-framed studies of Joan’s martyred features, and dynamic use of the Palance physicality.

The Big Wheezy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2015 by dcairns

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Pneumonic plague in New Orleans — that’s the set-up for Elia Kazan’s tense drama PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), which he claimed marked a turning point in his work. Having previously worked with the actors and filmed everything in medium shots — what Hitchcock would call “photographs of people talking” — here he decided to shoot it like a silent movie, to trust long shots and to try to make a story that could be understood without the words. I didn’t try watching it with the sound down, but the visuals are certainly a million times more dynamic than the staid GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT. (His first, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, is an exception because DoP Leon Shamroy handled the visuals, which made for some powerful, expressive compositions.) And he decided to follow the influence of John Ford, and “trust the longshot,” instead of shooting everything in medium shot, what he called a “theatrical style,” what we would call a televisual one. Kazan was also building on the use of all-real locations, a fashionable approach at Fox, which he had first exploited in BOOMERANG! (1947). The result: Kazan has abruptly become a filmmaker.

If the filmmaking is exciting — the dance of cast and camera is thrillingly choreographed — the world-view is quite conservative. New Orleans has been ethnically cleansed for the occasion, with only a few black sailors to represent the city’s ethnic mix. Sure there are some immigrants, a Greek restaurateur and an Irish dwarf (the ultimate minority?), but the story contrasts a respectable suburban naval doctor (Richard Widmark) and a tough cop (Paul Douglas, partnered more comfortably with Widmark than he was with Leslie Phillips in THE GAMMA PEOPLE) with the various disease-harbouring low-lifes who must be tracked down, arrested and decontaminated. So I’d argue the comfortable middle-class viewpoint stops it being noir. On the other hand, the family scenes (with Barbara Bel Geddes) are nicely drawn, and cute. And the lowlifes — what lowlifes they are! (But shouldn’t that be “lowlives”?)

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“Walter” Jack Palance (he would soon drop the first name) and Zero Mostel make a remarkable team. Palance, especially sinewy here, basically lost a layer of fat when burned in WWII. Mostel seems to have inherited that layer. The two men, one lean, impossibly dynamic and snarling, the other baggy, perspiring and whimpering, almost manage drag the movie down into the sewer where a good noir should live. You can practically see the germs swarming around them. Palance shoves and rolls Mostel before him, then drags him. The highly physical chase sequence at the end looks about to kill both men, though it isn’t as hair-raising as the opening, where Kazan has Patient Zero (Lewis Charles) wander in front of an oncoming train, for real, escaping messy death by seconds.

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Perhaps aptly, Kazan cast himself as a mortuary assistant.

This criminous double-act reminds me oddly of the cat and fox in  PINOCCHIO — ridiculous in themselves, they are nevertheless capable of bringing great harm.

Mostel has a dual role, as goofy cat to Palance’s wily fox, and as conscience to Kazan. I suspect every pre-testimony Kazan film features at least one incipient blacklistee, haunting the scene. Mostel is paunchy wraith from the future.