Archive for Jimmy Sangster

Stalk Press

Posted in Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 11, 2016 by dcairns

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Even though I grew up watching old movies and seventies US TV, I was too young to appreciate what slightly older Americans were getting. On prime-time, they could watch (mostly dreadful) TV shows in which the aging guest stars were decrepit versions of the same actors in the late night movies. Like depressives with diurnal variation, or like vampires, or like, well, actual astronomical stars, the stars came to life at night.

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Telemovies The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler and follow-up series Kolchak: The Night Stalker display this phenom beautifully, though we were watching for other reasons. We got the familiar faces as a bonus. Here’s Charles McGraw, his once-chiseled features, his lightning-bolt profile, all turned to melting waxwork folds and softness, as he reads his lines off a sheet of paper. Beside him is a crusty Kent Smith, playing a horrible politician, the kind of interesting part he never got when he was young and smooth as an apple. Here’s Elisha Cook Jnr, who spent the seventies battling the undead, it seems, whether it be Janos Skorzeny, Kurt Barlow or Blacula. Here’s Claude Akins, looking more and more like General Aldo from BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES, the first role I saw him in, and here’s Ralph Meeker. Ralph has still got it, it just takes him longer to find it.

I had seen a little of this series and hadn’t been impressed, but then everybody had a great time with the original movie at the Edinburgh International Film Festival when Niall Fulton programmed it in his TV movie season, and I missed out. And the first two are written by Richard Matheson (story by Jeff Rice).

The Night Stalker is fairly dumb for a modern-day vampire story. It doesn’t gain much by transplanting an old-time horror character into the modern age. Maybe if he’d been played by one of the aging hams, that would have granted some pathos. But I will say that Barry Atwater, the guy they chose, has a great face. The main innovation is seventies-style cynicism about authority figures — it’s hard to believe this is pre-JAWS, since it anticipates the head-in-the-sand “don’t panic the tourists” official stance, and adds a big cover-up at the end for good measure. THAT I liked. It’s surprisingly bleak.

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What’s also impressive is the sheer pace, especially the opening. Matheson crams his set-up into brisk, violent scenes with Darren McGavin’s snappy narration propelling it along. John Llewellyn Moxy brings plenty of his namesake quality to the staging. There are occasional good lines.

Then comes the sequel, in which Jack the Ripper is stalking Seattle, and one realizes that it’s EXACTLY the same as the first movie. Strippers get murdered. McGavin shouts at and is shouted at by his boss. Crepuscular hams of the week: John Carradine (impressively restrained!), Scott Brady, Margaret Hamilton, Al Lewis, Wally Cox (wonderful – television cannot contain him). The only development is that we get to meet and talk to the monster, nicely played by Richard Anderson (“Steve Austin’s boss!” exclaims Fiona) in his lair of dry-ice and mummified family. The floor-hugging disco mist is exactly the reason these things struggle to scare: the accumulation of thoughtless visual clichés.

The other thing that becomes apparent is the misogyny, which lies low but creeps into everything, like dry ice. In the second film, there is no compelling reason why all the victims have to be female. Women are just assumed to be natural murderees. Why kill a guy when you can kill a woman, which would be more heterosexual and therefore normal? McGavin’s commentary is an anthology of shocking victim-blaming (woman out at night: “She wanted to get ahead. She should have settled for staying alive.”) and salaciousness (a corpse is “luscious”). This kind of thing carries on into the series, where Kolchak is more than once paired with fat chicks, who are there to be patronized and abused. Of course it was slightly forward-thinking at the time for an American TV show to even admit the existence of women not shaped like Carol Lynley (girlfriend, first film) or Jo-Ann Pflug (girlfriend, second film).

This stuff is all on YouTube, by the way. Have only dipped into the series itself, but it does benefit from the involvement of David Chase on script. The Sopranos creator has been around a long time! When a zombie terrorizes Chicago gangsters, it becomes apparent that the writer has researched the mob and is able to supply convincing detail about how they operate. It’s the first sign that Kolchak, purportedly a modern character in the modern world but really lifted from 20s newspaper movies (“If you see a guy who looks like he stepped out of a road company production of The Front Page…”) is actually operating in contemporary reality.

The series seems to alternate between the unwatchably hackneyed and the possessed-of-an-occasional edge, so we may dip into more. Jimmy Sangster wrote one! Phil Silvers is in it! Some of these might surface during The Late Show: the Late Movies Blogathon (early December — please contribute!)

 

Memory Monday: The Ass on the Bathroom Door

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2015 by dcairns

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So, I’m revisiting those filmmakers I devoted Official Weeks to in the past here on Shadowplay. Joseph Losey got his own week because I had a sense that I hadn’t seen nearly enough Losey and that I hadn’t appreciated him enough — a sense that, actually, I might have some kind of antipathy to his whole approach. As Richard Lester said to Soderbergh, Losey was the last person you would use the word “zany” about, and in fact I found there was a lack of humour which was almost heroic at times. MODESTY BLAISE is the one film Losey made that could be called a comedy, and indeed is absolutely dependent on whimsy since it refuses to be what the producers evidently intended, a campy James Bond sex-and-violence wallow. The only part of that equation Losey didn’t have a fierce antipathy to is the “campy” part, and yet even that was kind of alien to him, which is how he was able to make BOOM! a great piece of unconscious camp.

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I somehow didn’t have a copy of THE CRIMINAL to hand when I did Losey Week, though I knew I would like it when I saw it. When Losey played thrillers more or less straight, they were gripping. When the movie insists on providing a commentary on what it’s about, instead of just being about it, you could get problems, as with the stuff with the gangsters in Losey’s maudit remake of M: the movie insists on offering up a pinko analysis of organised crime as a manifestation of Capital. THE GODFATHER succeeds simply by allowing this idea to play out as drama, not even as an allegory, but as a simple statement of fact. Nobody needs to point it out.

Losey described THE PROWLER, another excellent noir I didn’t get around to writing about, as “a film about false values,” and such stories are powerful and compelling as long as the scenarist can resist inserting a mouthpiece to put it all into words. “The playwright should show conditions and leave it to the audience to draw conclusions,” as Brander Matthews put it.

And so to THE CRIMINAL (1960), which does just that. I think the avoidance of proselytising is something Losey ultimately found very sympatico in the British writers he worked with, which is what led him to bond so well with Pinter, who NEVER tells you what’s on his mind. Here, the writer is Alun Owen, later to pen A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Richard Lester remarked to me that Owen had a multiplicity of useful hats he could put on, as both a Scouser and  a Welshman, and he had a wealth of life experience which informed his work. Very unusually for a British crime film, THE CRIMINAL sets out simply to record a series of events, into which the viewer is invited to read meanings. What it avoids is any Marxist or Freudian analysis of what leads to a life of crime, though you can hunt for clues if that’s your bag.

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We begin in prison, though Owen has written a careful gag, a high-stakes poker game between Brit-flick stalwarts such as Murray Melvin and Patrick Wymark (shockingly young, a tufty-haired rolly-polly joker with a sinister edge, not quite the Toby Jug he would morph into just a few years later). We’re clearly meant to be taken by surprise when we discover the game is being played with matches by lags in a cell. But Losey takes his directorial wrecking-ball to the gag, framing Melvin against a painted brick wall pasted with suggestive imagery (I think that might be Abbey Lincoln and Frances Bacon!), and even before that there’s a short of a prison gate with the producers’ credit over it. This is either a crass insertion by Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy of Anglo-Amalgamated, who had just made PEEPING TOM and were considered the dregs of the industry, or else Losey himself couldn’t resist sticking their names over a shot of a prison gate (maybe he had more wit than I credit him with).

Losey had earlier made a short for Hammer, A MAN ON THE BEACH (1955), a dull Tales of the Very Expected thing entirely predicated upon the shock revelation that Donald Wolfit’s character is blind. Wolfit, whose tread could be as leaden as Losey’s at his worst, plays the whole thing with an unblinking middle-distance star and groping hands, telegraphing “I can’t see a bloody thing” from his first entrance, rendering the whole enterprise pointless. So Losey is one of those filmmakers with a constitutional aversion to the “pull-back-and-reveal” gag, it seems.

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Jimmy Sangster, who apparently originated the story of THE CRIMINAL as well as scripting that benighted short, based a lot of his career on that very narrative trope, churning out DIABOLIQUES rip-offs for Hammer, so Losey’s rejection of the approach is an early sign of an exciting battle of sensibilities. Unlike Sangster, Owen is drawn to narrative sidetracks, and invents a whole prison populace of distinctive characters who don’t really need to be there for story reasons, but are essential for world-building. Asides from Melvin and Wymark (and it’s typical the show opens with such minor figures), we’ll soon get Gregoire Aslan (chucklesome charm subdued into lizard-eyed menace), Tom Bell and Kenneth Cope, who fulfills a similar function here as in X: THE UNKNOWN, which Losey nearly directed and may well have cast him in: turn up, look scared, suffer An Appalling Fate.

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As always, Patrick Magee, of the curling lip and watery eye, who plays the corrupt prison warden Burrows, threatens to rip the whole thing apart with a performance evoking paranoid schizophrenia, satanic possession and narcissistic personality disorder all at once. The only way Richard MacDonald’s spectacular prisons set can contain him is for Owen and Losey to open up other avenues into disintegration, safely channeling the Magee Overflow. Most eye-popping occurs during a monologue by mentally-ill prisoner Brian Phelan, where Losey pushes in fast to a tight closeup and actually irises in to shoot the actor in a vignette, suggesting simultaneously his frightening isolation from reality and his inability to reach Baker on any meaningful emotional level.

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Baker himself is astonishing, the kind of actor without whom this kind of film would be unimaginable. Unapologetically macho — and also willing to associate closely with the film’s themes of sexual variance. His close-quarters combat with Bell and Neil McCarthy has sexual intimations, even down to the “nothing-happening-here” pretense when Caught At It by the warden. Tough guy Clobber (Kenneth J. Warren) has pugilists on his walls and a tender relationship with Phelan.

The film, unusually, contains two long prison sequences, as we meet Baker the day before his release, and when arrested again he arranges an escape. In the outside world, an agressive, overstated heterosexuality reigns. Baker’s swinging crim pad is awash with nudes, both artistic and actual. He playfully spanks the full-length odalisque on his bathroom door. She has a nice behind, but come on — who spanks a door? When former squeeze Jill Bennett is edged out by newbie nudie Margot Saad, she’s more naked that I would have thought was possible in 1960 Britain, unless you were Pamela Green. The value of eroticism was probably the one area where Losey’s interests coincided with Anglo-Amalgamated’s.

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The film has hilariously little interest in its heist, apparently forged in a masterplan by grinning idiot John Molloy inside — we never even see the full robbery, just its aftermath, and never learn the plan, just the betrayals afterwards. These involve sad-eyed copper Laurence Naismith, purring creep Sam Wanamaker, and swaggering Nigel Green, enormous in an overcoat with padded shoulders, inflating his physique to Honey Monster proportions.

It is tempting just to list the cast, isn’t it? But the film is shot by tetchy genius Robert Krasker (THE THIRD MAN) and edited by Reggie Mills who cut most of Powell & Pressburger’s movies. He’s wonderfully sloppy about continuity, and incredibly tight about narrative and psychology, and he has his own taut sense of rhythm. There’s a riot scene which energises all of these talents, and the ragged-edged cast, around MacDonald’s panopticon prison set and allows Losey to really break loose with the camera, which cocks its head like Ygor, crabs fast like Astaire, swoops in like Baron Harkonnen, combining the sardonic glint, the grace, and the leering aggression of all three of those figures. I should add that Johnny Dankworth’s score adds immeasurably to the atmosphere and drama, its romantic longing largely in counterpoint to the hard-edged action.

It’s a bleak film. “Miserable time of the year,” remarks Magee. “If we could only have some flowers. Down there. In summer it’s a blaze of colour.” Here’s the prison garden:

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Here’s a park.

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Here’s a field.

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England as a BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN no-man’s-land. Losey is starting to feel at home.

“People melting, indeed!”

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2015 by dcairns

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The above scornful remark by a Scottish policeman in X: THE UNKNOWN (1956) recalls the words of the burgomaster in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN: “Monster , indeed!” And screenwriter Jimmy Sangster probably knew his Universal horrors, as he was about to write CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

The perils of a little knowledge: IMDb attributes the film to Leslie Norman, the credited director, and Joseph Losey, and I thought I could see traces of Losey’s trademark snaky tracking shots, but reading more I learn that Losey was removed before production began. as star Dean Jagger refused to work with a blacklisted commie. A shame. Losey had made a short film for Hammer (the turgid A MAN ON THE BEACH) and would eventually shoot THE DAMNED for the studio, but he wasn’t too sorry to be removed from this hokum. Hammer had wanted a Quatermass sequel, I believe, but author Nigel Kneale had refused to allow his creation into the hands of another writer. A shame, in some ways, since the character played by token yank Jagger is closer to Kneale’s conception than the bellowing lout played by Brian Donlevy in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT.

I had tried to watch this with Fiona once, but we got bored of the muddy quarry setting, which seemed to go on forever. The grumbling squaddies played by the likes of Anthony Newley and Kenneth Cope got sick of it and their lack of enthusiasm was infectious. Seeing it properly, I can’t understand this, as the movie is OK and for heaven’s sake, it’s a quasi-Quatermass set in Scotland. We should have been all over that shit.

My friend Alex, with whom I’ve been writing a Quatermass-inspired project, said he remembered this one improving as it went on. But later, when we discussed it, it turned out that he’d mentally grafted the last half of QUATERMASS II onto the front half of X, so naturally it improved. And somehow the bits went together quite well.

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If the film were in colour you’d be able to see that hapless young Kenneth Cope, centre, is wearing a red shirt. Yes, that’s a Star Trek joke.

The monster in the Scottish Quatermass turns out to be mud, which seems kind of apt given the weather. Radioactive mud from the earth’s core, explained by a shambolic bit of Sangster pseudo-science. But, as often with Sangster’s all-thumbs scripting, apparent mistakes or clumsy inconsistencies can be oddly evocative. On the surface, the film has little of the anti-militarism of Kneale’s writing, although the army try to dynamite the monster and then cement over the fissure it oozes from, so they’re idiots. But the best bit is the Geiger counter test — a group of soldiers are training in the use of Geiger counters when they happen to stumble upon the exact spot where the radioactive monster is going to emerge. It’s a fairly global coincidence, but that isn’t the best bit. The inevitable Michael Ripper tells his men that in a real radiation situation, they would be required to mark the spot and get out fast, as radiation can be very nasty. When, seconds later, the pale and trembling young Kenneth Cope does indeed find real radiation, he is ordered to stand on the spot so everyone can see where it is. He dies horribly.

This cheered me up no end, and made me feel the movie would be worth watching as soon as we could get out of the muddy quarry. And we do, to a couple of nuclear labs and a few simpler sets. The nearby village, Lochmouth, is scene of a great bit once the blob gets properly oozing — forced perspectives allow a very small blob to pretend to be a very big blob. For most of the film, the blob is absent, like Godot, though Leslie Norman does grant us a couple of blob’s-eye-view attacks. Before there was Michael Myer, there was X: THE UNKNOWN. X is also an unusual character in that he gets to physically embody his own main title, a gloopy X of rippling oily matter. Even Marlon Brando never got to embody a title, though clearly such an approach could have greatly enhanced his later work.

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Red-hating Dean Jagger is, appropriately, on the right, whereas Leo McKern is, like, whatevs.

Then Leo McKern turns up. Like chocolate, Leo McKern makes everything a bit better. I think even chocolate-coated rabies would be a bit better than the normal kind. But I’m unsure if a chocolate-coated Leo McKern would sort of cancel himself out. Anyway, I suspect he was Losey’s idea — his next film would be TIME WITHOUT PITY for that director. I was a little disappointed that McKern’s policeman character wasn’t given more to do — Sangster has crowded the film with largely benign authority figures who get on much too well together — and he accepts with complete credulity the theory that the radiation slayings plaguing this rural locale are the work of some mud. A scene of Leo angrily rejecting such a supposition could easily have been the best scene in the picture.

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Priest rescues little girl from blob, which is trickling listlessly through gap in dry-stone wall in front of a painting of Scottish scenery — and the little girl wins the movie’s best acting award by laughing her head off throughout. Nobody, it seems, had the heart (or energy?) to dub on screams.

Instead, the best bit is when makeup guru/top splodger Phil Leakey and effects wiz Les Bowie make a doctor melt. The doc has arranged a romantic tryst with a sexy nurse in the hospital’s “radiation room.” Because what woman can resist a proposition like that? The amorous medico’s disintegration is served up with two shots, a swelling finger closeup which suggests a Tom & Jerry hammer-to-the-thumb gag, while also looking forward to that staple of seventies and eighties horror, the bladder effect. Then there’s a LOST ARK type flesh-melt,all the most striking for its brevity. Lucio Fulci would have gotten a full minute out of that bit, but HE WOULD HAVE BEEN WRONG.

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Ha! The sign omits to mention that it’s the SEXY Radiation Room. OF DEATH.

So now commie-hating Dean Jagger has to kill the mud with special science. I liked the fact that the film’s ending hinges upon the need to zap the mud before it decides to rampage through Inverness. The film is a product of a gentler age, in which our empathy for Inverness was presumed to be strong enough to motivate a film’s climax. And I like the fact that Jagger is persuaded to use an experimental technique which, if it fails, is going to cause a gigantic explosion much more devastating than the mud monster.

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And then I *really* like the bizarre ending, when the mud-monster is blown up, and there follows a mysterious second explosion from the bowels of the earth. Dean Jagger is deeply perturbed. It shouldn’t have happened. Every one else is, like, whatevs, we blew up the mud didn’t we? But Jagger remains perturbed. And then the film abruptly ENDS, a colossal fuck-you to the curious. It’s not enough to constitute a typical horror movie closeup-of-a-bee sequel promise. It’s not pointed enough, specific enough. It’s just bloody weird, like Sangster started to write a final twist and then couldn’t be bothered, and then couldn’t be bothered XXX-ing out the bit he’d started.

Maybe they used up all their Xs in the title.