Archive for James Whale

No Thanks for the Memories

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2015 by dcairns

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I remember — that word! — TV play Hauser’s Memory coming on TV when I was a kid. I was interested because I had been a fan of David McCallum in The Invisible Man TV show in which he would disappear and somehow the back of his polo-neck would disappear with him. Maybe it was backless. So, here was another science fiction thing with the Greatest Living Scotsman!

(David McCallum has, in a unique honour, been granted the title of Greatest Living Scotsman even after death, an event which we hope is a long way off, since he has basically not aged since 1955.)

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But there wasn’t much for a little kid in this dour drama about loss of personhood, death, castration and political exploitation and personal betrayal. The only thing I committed to memory were the opening credits, which I remembered as the closing credits, which is apt, because the credits sort of loop back from the last scene to create a perfect Moebius strip. If we’d had a video recorder in the seventies I might still be watching it.

Now look — you’ll hear a lot of loose talk around here about Curt Siodmak beng the idiot brother of the talent Robert S, but I have to give the affable old fellow credit here — allowing for the pseudoscience (an injection of RNA taken from the blenderized brain of a dying scientist allows McCallum to experienced the deceased man’s memories), this is an excellent piece of drama. I lost count of the number of simultaneous, interwoven plotlines that are really one big plot. Let me try to enumerate them —

The Americans (led by LESLIE NIELSEN as SLAUGHTER) and the Russians both want the formula the deceased physicist was working on at the time of his demise. The hope is that McCallum will remember it. But he begins to remember much more, and the mystery of his memory-donor’s life starts coming into focus.

But the late Hauser has needs of his own — he wants to make his peace with his loved ones (including widow Lilli Palmer) and avenge himself upon a Nazi persecutor.

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Seeking to achieve closure in his life, Hauser begins to take over McCallum’s brain, so it becomes a horrifying drama of loss of personality, the sense of no longer being who you are supposed to be. Weirdly enough, we can relate to this. It’s this aspect of the story that allows McCallum to turn in a moving performance that really should have won him awards. He has to play a Jewish biochemist and a German physicist and sometimes both at once or one pretending to be the other (the late Hauser proves to be a shrewd manipulator to further his own agenda).

Boris Sagal (THE OMEGA MAN, another candidate for 70s SF Week) directs, sometimes badly, but the psychedelic editing is quite good — it really would take a Resnais or Roeg to do justice to this idea, but the flash-cutting and fisheye POV shots are pretty effective. Susan Strasberg has a slightly thankless role as Mrs McCallum, Robert Webber gives it the crowning TV movie touch and says “baby” a lot.

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McCallum has memory trouble again in the Christopher Isherwood/Don Bachardy-scripted Frankenstein: The True Story. Fiona and I both saw this as kids. From Invisible Man to sub-Donovan’s Brain guy to a subsidiary monster-maker in this, David McCallum had quite a psychotronic decade (and there was still Sapphire & Steel to come). Slightly de-gayed by TVexecs, the two-parter is still provocative. The film still makes much of the attraction between creator and creature, understandable since Leonard Whiting is Frankenstein and Michael Sarrazin is his handiwork, and taking its cue from James Whale’s monster duology, the film contrasts the appeal of a respectable marriage with the frisson of playing in God’s domain with a male friend.

Like Branagh’s rather anemic movie version, this comes to lusty life in the scenes involving Frankenstein’s lost, then reincarnated love, here played by Jane Seymour. Appearing in Edinburgh recently for the Film Festival (with the movie BEREAVE, which Fiona discovered in her role as submissions editor), Seymour remembered James Mason reading The Times out loud while she was trying to learn her lines, getting to choose her nude body double from a line-up, and accidentally sitting in Ralph Richardson’s chair. “He didn’t say anything, he just circled me, like a dog.

Unlike the Branagh, this has sufficient run-time to explore the story in depth, and invents the new notion of a handsome creation who only gradually deteriorates into scabby monstrosity pockmarked with syphilitic gumma — his rejection by his father thus becomes a bit like an aging lover getting the heave-ho when his youthful bloom fades.

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Whale’s version transposed the first names of Victor Frankenstein  and the stolid Henri Clerval, who became slightly caddish Victor Moritz. This movie transposes the characters, so that Clerval (McCallum) is much more passionate about creating life than Frankenstein is, at first. Rude, sodden, sporting an anachronistic moptop and saying things like “yeah”, McCallum’s Clerval is a hell of a lot more fun than Whiting’s pallid Daniel Radcliffe act. When he dies, it’s a loss to the film, but his brain gets transplanted into the monster so that occasionally his voice echoes out of Sarrazin’s fleshy lips — he even gets the last line (and laugh).

Isherwood and Bacardy have cheekily plundered the Universal classics while claiming to honour Mary Shelley’s original, so we get the blind man, and James Mason as a fruity Dr. Polidori, very much inspired by Ernest Thesiger’s immortal Pretorius, but with crippled hands, a touch pilfered from Hammer’s Peter Cushing vehicles.

In terms of story logic, the script is free and easy, bending the rules whenever doing so will allow a cool scene or idea. When a severed arm Frankenstein has helped amputate grabs him by the wrist, McCallum cries in delight, “It knows you!” (My vote for most fervid line reading of 1973.) A new definition of muscle memory, perhaps. Yet, when McCallum’s brain is reborn in the monster, he suffers total amnesia. A touch inconsistent. Frankenstein teaches the monster to talk, but Mason, using hypnosis, contacts McCallum’s memory, still cradled somewhere within that jagged, scabby brow. A reminder that the myth of hypnosis as memory aid was very much in the air — see also The UFO Incident…

Air Hordern

Posted in FILM, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2015 by dcairns

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Michael Hordern gave the wing commander a very hard stare indeed.

After enjoying Leslie Norman’s work on X: THE UNKNOWN, we popped THE NIGHT MY NUMBER CAME UP into the Panasonic and let her fly. I guess Norman is one of the missing links between Ealing and Hammer, but he never caught on at Hammer (he was fired from the staggering LOST CONTINENT), unlike Seth Holt whose taste for sensation made him arguably a better fit there than he had been as a producer at Ealing (where he had produced THE LADYKILLERS, an atypically subversive work).

But, excitingly, TNMNCU *does* have supernatural elements, though they are not of a suitably sensational quality to satisfy the House of Gore. The place: Hong Kong. Michael Hordern has a strange dream, which he tells to Denholm Elliott, who blabs it to a group of associates at a party. The dream involves a flight crashing on the Japanese coast. And the next day, all the circumstances of that dream begin to come true. Elliot, a heroic airman who cracked up after the Battle of Britain, is on the flight, as is his boss Alexander Knox, who has never flown before, and Michael Redgrave and Sheila Sim and various others. The exact makeup of the party changes at the last minute and comes to exactly resemble the dream. Then the radio breaks down, just like in the dream. The plane is lost in thick cloud… fuel is running low…

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The elaborate model shots are recognisable as just that, but they’re very impressive all the same.

The screenplay is by R.C. Sherriff, a James Whale associate who wrote JOURNEY’S END and worked on all the famous Whale horror films after FRANKENSTEIN. This manifests not so much in the uncanny element, as in the extreme Britishness and the unexpected dashes of humour — the ending, in particular, is a delight, a left-field gag like the abrupt laugh that finishes Hitchcock’s second MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Hordern delivers it with supreme aplomb.

Until then, it’s a slow simmer of suspense. It’s not as if that much is going wrong with the flight for most of the movie — it’s just the creeping dread as reality takes on more and more of the qualities of that damned (prophetic?) dream. An abstract kind of fear with a very concrete smash-up waiting at the end of it.

The film also deserves credit for its unusual structure: we begin after the crash, with search parties scouring Japan in search of wreckage, but then Hordern turns up and says they’re looking in the wrong place altogether. Refusing to say how he knows, he simply says that he knows. Being Michael Hordern, he’s very convincing, and the search may be diverted…

Then we go into flashback to the dinner party before the flight, and Hordern is prompted to tell his dream. Then we get a flashback within a flashback showing a dream sequence. Possibly a first for British cinema.

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And then we get to enjoy Knox’ tight, nervous grin, Redgrave’s slowly accentuated voice-quaver, Elliott’s glassy-eyed sense of subdued panic… The whole movie is a single sizzling slow fuse, ably illustrating Polanski’s dictum that “anxiety has no upper limit,” while the passengers delight their author by passing the time in feverish meditations upon free will and predestination. A philosophical disaster movie.

My theory, Part 1: Welles = Universal Horror

Posted in Comics, FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2013 by dcairns

wellesrichardiiiIt was at Norman Lloyd’s house that we saw this Al Hirschfeld cartoon, published in the New York Herald Tribune in 1938, predicting the roles to be taken on the New York stage by the leading players that fall.

Norman is top left — Hirschfeld always drew him this way, though Fiona thought it a dubious likeness.

Orson Welles is dead centre, as Richard III with flat-topped head and lank black wig. In the end he never played the role, something he blames John Houseman for, I believe, in My Lunches with Orson.

But the image suggests to me Boris Karloff, and ties in with my theory that Welles was influenced, probably in childhood, by the Universal school of horror.

Was Karloff’s monster a good model for Richard III? Possibly not — the personalities are quite different. But Welles’ putative performance as the disfigured, limping king might easily have been influenced by the monster, who had so recently returned to the screen in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. And there is at least one image in existence of a teenage Welles playing Richard on stage at the Todd School with a big, built-up head like the one in Hirschfeld’s cartoon.

Then there’s the Mercury Theater radio production of Dracula, which owes nothing much to the Universal movie but certainly displays a keen interest in, and aptitude for, gothic horror.

CITIZEN KANE’s opening has much of the feel of a ’30s horror film — Xanadu is not only dark, looking, shadowy and surrounded by desolation, it is a painting, like Castle Dracula. If few were convinced by Pauline Kael’s suggestion that Welles’ old-age make-up bore the influence of Peter Lorre’s Gogol from MAD LOVE, we can at least agree that part of the movie’s style is at times somewhat Gothic — and this fed into the 1943 JANE EYRE, which Welles influenced greatly (though he disparages the production in My Dinners with Orson.

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And Welles’ MACBETH would be the clincher — I’m certain Welles said something, somewhere, about BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN being a visual influence on his papier-mache and dry-ice Scotland, “a violent charcoal sketch of a great play.” Whale occupies exalted ground, since Welles has comparatively few cinematic antecedents — he borrows liberally from Eisenstein in his first two Shakespeare films, and the smooth matching of his theatrical sensibility with Gregg Toland’s cinematic one obviously helped form him as a filmmaker, but apart from that, Whale is just about the only source you can point to. (He learned basic film grammar from running STAGECOACH, and maybe there’s some stylistic influence — but nothing that couldn’t be explained easier by Toland’s help and Welles’ pre-existing fondness for chiaroscuro.)

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Part two of my theory tomorrow, and starting soon — a major Shadowplay series on CITIZEN KANE. What else is there to say about that film? Maybe nothing, but I will say it with different punctuation.

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