Archive for Joan Fontaine

Cat’s in the Bag

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


THE WITCHES (1966) predates ROSEMARY’S BABY but isn’t as good — but it really does play many of the same tricks, with the audience meant to be unsure if Joan Fontaine is crazy or if the charming English village really is swarming with diabolists. THE WICKER MAN is also strongly recalled by the rural terror angle.

Of course, we were watching because the movie is scripted by Nigel Kneale. I don’t suppose many people watch for director Cy Frankel. Poor Cy. Fontaine’s casting suggests all those Hollywood horrors in which former leading ladies are cruelly reshaped as monsters, from BABY JANE on, but in fact she’s playing a fairly resourceful heroine, and the movie is more inclined to ignore her age rather than exploit it for queasy chills.


Fontaine could have used a stronger director, though — she overacts horribly in places. Shown round her new cottage home, she pulls hyperactive cutesy faces at everything, like a neurotic schoolmarm. Admittedly, she’s playing the character of a neurotic schoolmarm, But you don’t want to play a neurotic schoolmarm LIKE a neurotic schoolmarm. It makes for an appalling display. But she reins it in later.


How to seduce Joan Fontaine #3,412: Cod Psychology.

Lots of other pleasures in the cast — Kay Walsh, Duncan Lamont (the jumping leaping man from QUATERMASS AND THE PIT) and Leonard Rossiter in the Charles Grodin part, as a doctor we can’t quite be sure about. Plus Michelle Dotrice, who gets all horny at the black mass, just as she would in BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, still playing a teenager five years later. Between these two films lies Robert Fuest’s tense AND SOON THE DARKNESS, so there’s a trilogy of terror alright, but the world is still waiting for La Dotrice to get overexcited at her third sabbat.


The erotic power of the bowl.

It’s a shame the film leaves the sleepy/creepy village for a stretch in the middle, breaking off some nicely building suspense, and one could have wished the final plot revelations had been fed in more gradually. But the idea of an aging person planning to insert their consciousness into a younger donor body is very interesting — the same idea is used in NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT, but with a mad science angle rather than sorcery. And we get another great Kneale rhyme —

Grow me a gown with golden down,
Cut me a robe from toe to lobe,
Give me a skin for dancing in.

Maybe it comes from the book, I don’t know, but it sounds like him.

The one truly alarming bit is this —

The cat in the bag — a cloth doll twitching on the floor, repulsive and uncanny and incomprehensible until we realize what it is we’re looking at.


Poor kitty!

Citizen Eyre

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2014 by dcairns


Not quite fair to follow the exquisite Cary Fukanaga JANE EYRE with Robert Stevenson’s 1943 Gothic potboiler, though normally I’d be likely to prefer the older film (produced by Orson Welles!)

In this Hollywood England, everyone is plummy, with occasional hints of Scots accent for the harsher characters (Henry Danielle in particular) — the only Yorkshire accent is possessed by Ethel Griffies (the ornithologist from THE BIRDS) as Grace Poole, the madwoman in the attic’s nurse. She appears so late in the story that her authentic speech comes as an illusion-shattering shock.


In the leads, of course, we have Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, each in their own way slightly disastrous, together a cataclysmic calamity which nearly tears the film from its sprockets. But it’s not a total disaster — with atmospheric studio artifice — Thornfield as Castle Frankenstein — and Bernard Herrmann at his most chromatically characteristic, the movie is beautiful to see and hear, and there are fragments of good scenes and good ideas throughout. Stevenson, assisted and harassed by Welles, and with a mainly intelligent script her co-authored with Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, manoeuvres his way through the long, convoluted narrative quite deftly, distorting quite a bit and being too obvious much of the time, but hitting the key points…


You’ll grow to love Joan’s “concerned simpleton” expression or, if you don’t, it won’t be from lack of opportunity because it NEVER LEAVES HER FACE.

But we never believe the love story, do we? Orson is able to look offscreen with affecting tenderness — helped, I suspect, by his custom of playing his closeups against thin air. But when he’s intercut with Fontaine’s simpering features, we wonder what is inspiring such compassion, since Fontaine is cycling through her limited repertoire much faster than usual and too more wearying effect. (It’s a bit like DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, this intercutting of closeups that seem to technically correspond but betray the manipulation usually concealed — we KNOW, Kuleshov be damned, that these shots don’t belong together.)

Listen — I like Fontaine, who is great in REBECCA and LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and numerous other things. But look — in the screen tests for REBECCA, happily preserved, we can see a small army of Hollywood lovelies trying and failing to grab the role of the meek and mild “I”. The character actually has a line about being shy, but Loretta Young plays it lush and saintly, while Vivian Leigh looks like she wants to tear Maxim DeWinter’s trousers off. Fontaine’s looks like the most intelligent reading by far, but maybe it’s just that her mannerisms suited it better? She can play shy. As Jane Eyre, she’s supposed to be spirited — and she gives us the most submissive, eyes-downcast, passive performance we ever saw. A case of an actor needing to be broken from her habitual performance and shoved out into terra incognito, not an easy thing when the actor is a star. Also a case of playing the lines, which are technically submissive as it’s 19th century employee-to-employer dialogue, rather than playing the subtext. (I just watched The Secret Life of Books on the BBC, in which awful journalist Bidisha struggles with the politics of the book — she loved it at sixteen when she read it for pleasure, but now she’s thinking deeply about it, it all seems so incorrect — partly because her attempts to shoehorn it into a modern PC paradigm interfere with her ability to actually read and understand.)


Welles plays his happy scenes as Charles Rochester Kane, wears his pants absurdly high and affects a piratical puffy shirt and a false nose, but is very good in places. I like listening to his voice and we can believe him as temperamental, domineering, haunted — during those moments when we can believe him as a human being at all.


As you can see — great visuals, particularly in long shot.

The script hews closely to the cornier aspects of the book’s ending, though Jane never becomes rich — but we do get Rochester’s miracle recovery from blindness and the birth of a son to the house of Rochester, though this is all in the form of Fontaine’s tremulous narration, so Sonny Bupp is deprived of a plum role. As far as I recall, other adaptations are content to end with Jane and Edward reunited and “Reader, I married him,” as the inevitable future outcome, skipping any suggestion of a cure and letting the audience imagine the oncoming domestic bliss, such as it may be.

People Who Died

Posted in FILM with tags , , on December 16, 2013 by dcairns



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