Archive for James Villiers

What a Shocker!

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2008 by dcairns

Warning: this post contains what the MPAA calls pervasive language.

The mystery film from which the picture-quotes came is pretty obscure: it’s an Edgar Wallace Mystery Theater presentation called CLUE OF THE NEW PIN.

Edgar Wallace was an amazingly popular British thriller author in the twenties and thirties. As prolific as he was successful, he churned out all kinds of “shockers” — at one point it was estimated that a quarter of all books sold in the UK were by Edgar Wallace. Can this be true?

Wallace’s books were popular with the movies immediately — there’s a somewhat well-known film of his DEAD EYES OF LONDON starring Bela Lugosi, and Wallace even directed a couple of adaptations himself. His books are short on characterisation and nuance, long on suspense and action — they play neatly into the B-movie format (though some of the best Bs do have sophisticated characterisation and subtleties of all kinds). Wallace was eventually invited to Hollywood to work on the screenplay of KING KONG, but died soon after arriving. It’s been suggested that he hadn’t written a word of the script at the time of his death, but producer Merian C. Cooper kept his credit on the film because his name was box office.

Wallace adaptations faded from view somewhat in the ’40s and ’50s, then suddenly surged back, with two simultaneous series of films. In West Germany, the popular genre of krimi films most frequently derived from Wallace-penned sources. A clear fore-runner of the Italian giallo, these pulpy crime thrillers, with horror movie elements, were huge in Germany and mostly unseen elsewhere. Fritz Lang’s final film, THE THOUSAND EYES OF DR MABUSE, fits right into this genre — krimi maestro Harald Reinl directed two sequels to it.

At around the same time, British cinemas saw a series of “second features” — ie, B-movies, updated from Wallace novels. Cheaply and quickly made, they used new talent (“New talent works cheap,” — Roger Corman) and relied on Wallace’s name and expert plotting rather than star power. The films were then re-packaged for US TV as The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theater.

The link between CLUE OF THE NEW PIN and our last Clues feature, GIRL IN THE HEADLINES, is the presence of James Villiers, cast once again as a fey television personality. But here he’s actually the hero, and he’s apparently not meant to be gay, though the way he proposes marriage to the leading lady after meeting her twice would ordinarily make me suspicious.

We begin with a creepy bust of Edgar W looming from studio fog to the sound of some superb Bondian music by The Shadows— I don’t know if it’s an original composition but I suggest Hank Marvin should immediately retitle it The Mystery of the Twanging Guitar. It’s the last hint of modernity here, as we promptly plunge into a 1930s universe transplanted wantonly to 1961 via Merton Film Studios.

The story is a classic locked room mystery with a genuinely smart solution which, unfortunately, we learn half an hour before the end. And since the characters are wafer-thin chipboard effigies there’s not much chance of our keen interest surviving the revelation, so the whole thing trundles to an abrupt conclusion. But Villiers is a joy to behold.

As promised, my James Villiers story. I’ve no idea if it’s true, and I don’t want to be done for slander or libel or blogamy, so names will be changed to protect the guilty.

Villiers, according to this overheard anecdote, is appearing in a movie helmed by unacclaimed maestro Michael Victor (not his real name), director of trashy British comedies and trashy American thrillers. James V is waiting to do his scene when Herr Director appears on the set at the start of the day.

“Good morning Michael!” says a young actress, brightly.

“It’s MISTER VICTOR to you,” snaps the director of DEATH HOPE (not its real title), “and I hope your performance in front of the cameras today will be better than your performance in bed last night.”

At which point the heroic Villiers draws himself up to his full height and intones, “MISTER VICTOR, you are a dreadful cunt and I’m not going to work for you anymore.” And walks off.

Panic. Villiers’ part is unfinished. They need him. Worse, somebody remembers that he’s part of the English aristocracy, not short of a few quid, and he really doesn’t care if he gets blacklisted for breaking his contract. A panic meeting is called. Villiers begins by getting on the phone to his agent.

“Hello? Yes, I’m sitting here with that dreadful cunt Michael Victor. I’m walking off his awful film and you must back me.”

Pleading ensues. Apologies are tended. Feelings massaged. Finally, Villiers concedes, “Alright, I’ll finish your awful film, but THAT MAN is not to speak to me again.”

Victor finishes the film by conveying his directions to Villiers through an intermediary: “Mr. Victor asks if you could possibly…” etc, replied to loudly by Villiers, “Yes, you can tell the old cunt that’s alright.”

There aren’t that many stories of actors avenging themselves on nasty film directors — Robert Mitchum vs. Josef Von Sternberg is the best equivalent I know, but I actually feel a bit sorry for Sternberg. That’s not really possible with the director of THE NAUGHTY LADY and THE ROCK KILLER (not their real titles) so we can enjoy it with a clear conscience.

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Cop Show

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2008 by dcairns

OK, here’s the answer to CLUES… probably a disappointing one since few have even heard of it and it’s not that special…

Sixties policier GIRL IN THE HEADLINES has a rather exotic feel since everybody’s so posh. Even the heroic chief inspector is comfortably middle-class: Jane Asher plays his daughter, for heaven’s sake. It’s all the more bizarre because the story deals with murder and drug-running, yet our cast includes fashion models, a retired opera singer, a knighted captain of industry, a painter, and a TV actor. All plausible drug USERS, but hidden among them are diabolical smugglers and hot-blooded assassins.

Our lead cop is Ian Hendry — “eyes like piss-holes in the snow,” Michael Caine says of him in GET CARTER, but here he’s younger, fresher, has suffered fewer disappointments and put away less booze. Hendry was the original lead of the series that mutated into The Avengers, and had an apparently bright future ahead. By the time of GET CARTER he’d done REPULSION and THE HILL, but things weren’t working out. Mike Hodges says that in Hendry’s main scene with Caine there was a real tension, a resentment from Hendry towards the more successful actor, that seethes in the background.

Hendry is assisted by Ronald Fraser (and it’s weird seeing HIM get second billing), a somewhat grotesque character player with a head like a turnip and the world’s smallest mouth — basically a glorified pore. He provides comic asides and non-sequiteurs like a Dragnet sidekick.

Filling out the rogue’s gallery we have Jeremy Brett and James Villiers, both of whom there’s lots to say about. Brett, like his best friend Robert Stephens, had mixed fortunes with the role of Sherlock Holmes. Stephens hated working for Billy Wilder so much on THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES that he attempted suicide to get out of it, yet now it’s the role he’s most remembered for. Brett, much later in life, scored a great success as Holmes in TV adaptations of the entire Conan Doyle Holmes canon, but suffered terribly from manic-depression and a feeling that he could never escape the role. Treated with lithium, which caused him terrible physical problems, he reached a low point where he prostrated himself on the pavement of Baker Street begging the shade of Sherlock to release him.

Here he’s young, strikingly handsome, strong AND sensitive, and obvious star material. But I suppose the British cinema was moving into a phase where it wasn’t looking for a dashing leading man. Brett might have tried Hollywood, where his mental illness would scarcely have been noticed.

James Villiers plays a homosexual TV star (has small yapping dog, frequents all-male jazz cellar). Descended from the Earls of Clarendon, Villiers brings his customary aristocratic elan and a rather likable feyness to bear on a character we are clearly meant to despise. “I think he’d like to marry me,” suggests Hendry, though Villiers has shown no sign of any such infatuation.

Rosalie Crutchley, haunted and beautiful, plays housekeeper to the retired opera singer mixed up in this somehow. Known for her housekeeping — fans of THE HAUNTING can quote her “No one will come. In the night. In the dark,” — Crutchley brings solemnity and compulsion to her scene.

Michael Truman, the director of this modest, pleasant, unmemorable whodunnit, was a successful TV man who dabbled in film. The producer was John Davis, whose name lives in infamy as destroyer of the British film industry. Michael Powell savaged him in PEEPING TOM, creating a studio boss called Don Jarvis who says things like “From now on, if you can see it and hear it, it goes in!” — purportedly a true-life quote. As head of production at Rank, Davis presided over the collapse of the British film industry and the demise of Powell’s career.

(Powell’s cinematographer, Christopher Challis, reports that he had a job sitting on a committee at Rank to discuss the ailing industry. He hated the work, and resolved to get himself fired from it. His chance came when a report was read out, saying that Rank had quizzed punters leaving its Odeon cinemas, asking if there was anything the organisation could be doing to bolster film-going. The public had given them the thumbs up: nothing need be done. Challis stood up and said that since statistics showed that the majority of Brits never went near an Odeon, maybe the pollsters should be talking to THEM instead.

He was not asked back.)

It struck me as I was watching GIRL IN THE HEADLINES that Britain doesn’t really DO police procedurals anymore. Asides from HOT FUZZ, there hasn’t been a Brit cop film I can think of since the seventies. Of course it’s easy to blame TV for flooding the market, but other nations with healthy TV industries manage to present cinematic cop thrillers too. The French and Americans certainly have no problem making great televisual police drama and great cinematic police drama, and they know the difference, too. In GIRL IN THE HEADLINES the main characters don’t experience any profound change during the story — they just do their jobs. Which would be essential in a TV show where the characters have to resume duties next week, but it’s almost fatal to a one-off drama. I think the reason Britain doesn’t make cop films is a lack of confidence in being able to deliver the required cinematic qualities that would separate film from TV. These qualities are:

1) A character arc which results in a transformed lead character.

2) A story with a unique selling point, or high concept, to get people out from TV-land and into the cinema.

3) Visual style to lift the film from the run of TV police procedurals.

I’m speaking purely of the most basic commercial cinema and traditional dramatic form — there might well be other approaches that could be successful, but the above three points would be enough to make a cop movie populist and accessible. I think the fact that our cinema lacks confidence in its ability to pull off those three qualities in a cop film indicates a lack of confidence in cinematic storytelling altogether. It’s notable that Edgar Wright of HOT FUZZ is clearly bursting with confidence and overloads his film with the three factors cited — even though point 1 need not necessarily apply to comedy.

Swan's Way

And THAT should be the theme for a blog post in itself — comedy and character arcs.