Archive for Jimmy Sangster

The Oblong Box Set

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2013 by dcairns

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Delving into my Universal Monsters The Essential Collection Blu-rays Christmas pressie — I was drawn to some of the lesser titles, partly so they wouldn’t get neglected, partly so I could save some good ones for last. (All images here are from the lowly DVDs.)

First I ran THE WOLFMAN, which is not a very good film, alas. After THE OLD DARK HOUSE it’s nice to have another Welsh-set Universal horror — a pity they couldn’t have arranged for Melvyn Douglas to drop in as Penderell, or something. They manage to waste Warren William and miscast Ralph Bellamy, who doesn’t get to exploit his uncanny ability to remind one of that fellow in the movies, what’s his name? Ralph Bellamy, that’s it.

Screenwriter Curt Siodmak, idiot brother of the great Robert, knew that Lon Chaney Jnr was ridiculous casting as a nobleman, but doesn’t seem to have reflected too much on the implications of his story, which has a Gypsy tribe importing a contagion into peaceful Anglo-Saxon terrain. It’s a distasteful narrative for a German-Jewish refugee to serve up to American audiences during wartime, the more I consider it.

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As a kid, I was disappointed by the slow pace and lack of screen time awarded to Jack Pierce’s make-up, which I dug. But I was fascinated by Maria Ouspenskaya, who seemed genuinely uncanny.

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THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA seems to have always been a tricky property — it has seminal scenes, the unmasking and the chandelier drop and the general mood of skulking about in shadows in a cape, but nobody seems able to settle on what order they should come in or who the characters ought to be. I think perhaps a failure to realize that Christine is the main point-of-view character lies at the heart of many of the problems — this may be the big thing Andrew Lloyd-Webber got right. But Chaney was the only one to get a good makeup, and played the character without any cast backstory, as a mystery.

The forties Technicolor version that’s in the box set concentrates on singing and romance and comedy as much as melodrama, and top-loads the story with an origin for the Phantom that’s sympathetic but deprives him of mystique — it also leaves no time for his Svengali act, surely the heart of the story. Claude Rains is in good form, though his coaching scenes as a disembodied voice are underexploited — this should have been the perfect companion piece to THE INVISIBLE MAN.

Screenwriter Samuel Hoffenstein is more important here than second-string director Arthur Lubin: he did a great job on Mamoulian’s DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, so I don’t know why this is so muted — partly the Production Code, I suppose. His other finest credits are THE WIZARD OF OZ, LAURA and CLUNY BROWN,  and his gift for light comedy is more evident here than his knack for dramatic construction. The rather stunning ending, in which Jeanette MacDonald Susanna Foster chooses her career and her two beaux, Nelson Eddy and Edgar Barrier, go off together arm in arm to dinner, makes the thing worthwhile — they fade to black very fast at that point.

Oh, and the three-strip Technicolor is bee-you-tiful.

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(Screenwriter and memoirist Lenore Coffee quotes a couple nice lines by Hoffenstein, not from his scripts but from his conversation. In response to the Variety headline BABY LEROY’S CONTRACT UP FOR RENEWAL, the Hoff remarked “If they don’t meet his terms he’ll go straight back to the womb… a swell place to negotiate from!” And when the legal department asked for a progress report on his latest script, a slightly tipsy S.H. bellowed “How any department as sterile as a legal department could have the impertinence to inquire into the progress of any writer, however poor… What do you think I do? Drink ink and pee scripts?”)

I believe the scene where Claude Rains strangles Miles Mander had to be taken several times because Mander’s head kept detaching when shaken.

Hume Cronyn has a tiny part and it’s great fun watching him steal his scenes.

Backstory is a problem. I quite enjoyed the intro to Dario Argento’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, in which the baby Phantom, cast adrift in the sewers in his cot, is rescued by rats, who presumably raise him as one of their own, like a rodent Tarzan. Tarzan had a fine operatic yodel, of course. But Argento’s Phantom isn’t deformed, he’s Julian Sands, which leaves him no motivation to be masked or live underground or do any of the things the plot requires.

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The Hammer PHANTOM, which I recently watched too, borrows heavily from the 1941 version — impoverished composer, acid scarring, etc. Apparently Cary Grant had expressed an interest in playing the Phantom, but his agent nixed it. I kind of wonder if that’s why the meaningless hunchback character was added, in order to give all the murderous stuff to someone else. It’s completely nonsensical and wrecks the film, which Terence Fisher handles rather nicely. Michael Gough’s slimy Lord Ambrose is a one-note baddie, and Gough hammers that note with relentless enthusiasm. Herbert Lom gets almost nothing to do.

That one was cackhandedly written by Anthony Hinds, a Hammer producer. There are undoubtedly some great producers-turned-writers — Joseph Mankiewicz springs to mind. The trouble in general is that producers can give themselves the job of writing without having any ability at it, as I found when I worked for Tern Television. Both Anthony Carreras and Anthony Hinds at Hammer got a number of writing gigs, without having the slightest sense of story structure, or even apparent awareness of what a story IS.

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Also watched DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS since Fiona’s brother was visiting, which Hinds authored — but his ramshackle narrative was fleshed out by the competent Jimmy Sangster, and then the very droll Francis Matthews acted in it, with delivery that’s as close to Cary Grant as Hammer ever got. A line like “Well I’m sure it would be educational if we knew what was going on,” isn’t necessarily witty in itself, but he gets a laugh with it. And I have to take my hat off to Sangster for the line he awards Dracula’s sepulchral manservant, Klove: “My master died without issue, sir… in the accepted sense of the term.”

The UK release is cheaper than the American, though admittedly it doesn’t come in its own coffin ~

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray] [1931][Region Free]

Sapped

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2011 by dcairns

“Who you fucking?” This is apparently how actor Richard Johnson (83) greets friends he hasn’t seen for a while. It’s a pertinent question in DEADLIER THAN THE MALE (1967), in which RJ plays “Bulldog” Drummond, partially re-imagined for the James Bond era. Or, since the screenwriter in question is by Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster, we might say de-imagined. Despite his Bondifying, this manly protag is weirdly abstinent sexually, and some of his bedroom antics are treated with a weird attempt at “plausible deniability” as if the censor still cared how many ladies the hero laid.

As part of the refit, “Bulldog” is now a jet-setting businessman, or insurance man, or something, which doesn’t seem to amp up his glamour any to me. Also, nobody calls him “Bulldog” — almost as if they were ashamed to be making a “Bulldog” Drummond movie. They needn’t be — it’s a character with a long, dishonourable tradition. The highlight of poor BD’s screen career is probably the fact that THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, the film that kickstarted Hitchcock’s espionage cycle in Britain in the ‘thirties, started life as an idea for a BD movie. Anyhow, having rejected “Bulldog” as too laughable for the ‘sixties, Sangster is stuck with a hero whose first name is Hugh.

Rather than being accompanied by a near-deformed upper-class imbecile called Reggie, the new, disimproved Hugh is saddled with an American nephew called *can’t remember and can’t be bothered looking it up*. This blatant sop to out friends across the water is surely flawed by the fact that Nephew is an entirely useless character who gets captured and tortured a lot.

Ah yes, torture. The stories by “Sapper” apparently can be quite brutal (and racist) at times, and this is seized upon by Sangster, whose bread and butter was horror movies, after all. This results in some tonal lurching, as our hero threatens to break a thug’s legs by crushing them against a wall with his car (the guy gets off with badly barked shins), and Nephewman gets singed with lit cheroot and lighter by the sexy bad gals. Such nastiness sits awkwardly with the film’s flip, silly plotting and fun gimmicks like a giant remote-control chess-board.

Also, Johnson is a disaster as a sub-Bondian hero — he makes a tweedy professor seem sexy in THE HAUNTING by way of unexpectedness, but typecast as a staunch protag he’s as useless as Anthony Steele, and that’s saying something. Of course, the writing doesn’t help — while Bond movies always feature one or two scenes of pure exposition enlivened by gags and sparring with M & Q, Sangster fills the whole first half of the film with endless waffle, board meetings and chats with informants, which lack any dramatic tension. That stuff gets supplied by the in-between scenes where Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina wiggle about in revealing costumes killing everybody they meet.

In the first five minutes, Elke has killed an oil magnate with a novelty exploding cigar (it fires a bullet through his head, actually), blown up his private jet while parachuting into the ocean, and joined Sylva to speargun some poor guy to death while wearing startling bikinis. Later on, they’ll use curare to paralyse Leonard Rossiter before rolling him out the window of his penthouse shagging palace. All good clean fun, and helped by the film’s best writing (Koscina is always borrowing Sommer’s stuff, leading to lighthearted squabbling). Elke has little in the way of comic flair (beneath that curvaceous exterior throbs a talent of hinged plywood) by Sylva is pretty hilarious, giving her sadism a touch of knowing innocence that’s very Takashi Miike.

Director Ralph Thomas of the Thomas filmmaking clan (brother Gerald produced the CARRY ON series, son Jeremy has produced Bertolucci and Cronenberg) actually makes a fair fist of things, aided by Malcolm Lockyer’s John Barry impression on the soundtrack (title song by the Walker Brothers) — on this evidence, Thomas could have directed a James Bond movie at least as well as, say, Guy Hamilton. He has Nigel Green as the evil mastermind, which helps. But ultimately, the static, boring script sinks most of it, especially the low-grade quips. I envisage Sangster’s script being full of footnotes, pretty much whenever Drummond opens his mouth — “Insert wisecrack here.” But somebody forgot to do so, and thus we get devastating parting shots like “Hey, don’t forget your panties.”

Gas-s-s-s

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2009 by dcairns

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What is Peter Van Eyck doing under your floorboards? See THE SNORKEL, the film that dares to ask that question.

Directed by former David Lean cameraman (GREAT EXPECTATIONS) Guy Green for Hammer films, this is a bit like one of their psychological thrillers — think of TASTE OF FEAR or PARANOIAC — but it’s less of a knock-off of LES DIABOLIQUES. Intriguingly, it does something fresh with the locked-room mystery, starting with a complete revelation of how the trick is played, and following a suspenseful investigation, like an episode of Columbo, in which the dramatic tension is generated largely by the question of how the killer will be caught.

The first stand-out scene is the very beginning. No credits. Van Eyck moves around an opulent apartment, taping up the doors and windows, turning on the gas lamps, and then attaching the titular snorkel to his bulging Dutch head and hiding in a trap door. Rubber tubes connect his snorkel to the fresh air via a drainage pipe. Meanwhile his wife suffocates in the locked room, an apparent suicide.

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Titles.

And then a great suspense sequence as the body is discovered, the police called, an investigation made, and Van Eyck’s stepdaughter (Mandy Miller) informed of her mother’s death. All with Van Eyck still snug beneath the boards, sweating and listening. I was seriously thinking that the entire movie would play out like this, with characters coming and going, trying to figure out the motiveless suicide, while PVE awaits his chance to escape.

But the movie dispenses with this promising idea, then recovers smartly with enough intrigue and decent work from the players. The story is by Antonio Margheriti, interestingly enough — the worlds of British Hammer horror and Italian gialli rarely intersected — and the script is by the reliably leaden Jimmy Sangster, assisted by Peter Myers. So the dialogue isn’t too smart, but the structure is nice.

A word on Mandy Miller. This is the last feature film of a great child actress. She has a brief, memorable scene in THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT, and a leading role in MANDY, both for Ealing Studios and Alexander Mackendrick. Ealing films are revered in Britain but only seem to gradually becoming known outside. Mackendrick’s THE LADYKILLERS was arguably boosted by the Coen brothers’ wretched remake. Criterion have released Robert Hamer’s KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, which is also a favourite film of Bertrand Tavernier. So the situation seems to be changing.

Filmmaker Greg Pak once asked me what else Alexander Mackendrick had done, since he admired SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS so much. Well, THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT features arguably Alec Guinness’s best performance, and is a devastatingly wicked satire on all forms of human political thought, enlivened by Mackendrick’s shooting style, heavily influenced by Fritz Lang’s German work. MANDY is an emotional pile-driver about a deaf-mute girl which is striking for its time (1952) in the way it challenges patriarchal attitudes — quite a radical thing for a boy’s club like Ealing. Seven-year-old Miller is astonishing in it.

She’s a bit less natural as a teen in THE SNORKEL, but so is everybody (co-star Betta St John is another former child actor, having popped up in LYDIA), and this kind of genre material, and Sangster’s dialogue, are not made for total realism. But she’s charming and has a few brilliant moments, as when she torments her mother’s murderer on the beach by singing an extemporised song about snorkeling (she’s just figured out his secret).

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The other smashing scene is when Miller returns to the death villa to look for clues at night, a little visual concerto of shadows and gliding tracking shots, point-of-views and reactions. It’s beautifully shot by Hammer regular Jack Asher, more often confined to slightly lurid Eastmancolor imagery — ex-cinematographer Green no doubt had strong ideas about what he wanted visually.

Overall an enjoyable yarn, and a cute insight into the days when snorkels were pretty new stuff, and therefore subject to suspicion — could this innocent-seeming tube-and-mask arrangement be an instrument of death?

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