Archive for Joan Greenwood

Les’s Girls

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2018 by dcairns

We’d enjoyed the documentary LESLIE HOWARD: THE MAN WHO GAVE A DAMN on Talking Pictures TV, and this led us to record THE GENTLE SEX, a propaganda film about women in WWII that Howard directed. It’s a little overextended and lacking in plot, but it has some really striking things that make one suspect that, had he lived, Howard could have made some great films.

The pattern of this one is similar to Carol Reed’s THE WAY AHEAD (aka IMMORTAL BATTALION) which did the same thing only with men, and where it differs is where it’s weaker. Rather than showing a disparate group of draftees from all walks of society being shaped into a fighting unit, putting aside their petty differences, it shows a group of volunteers being divided up into different units, performing different tasks and not really overcoming any particular difficulties. One woman is snooty and learns to get over herself, but that’s about it for character arcs. And the tasks performed are things like driving some trucks overnight, which could in theory have been rendered dramatic, but a fair bit of invention would have been required… instead, it’s just a very long sequence of driving.

The film really starts off well, though — Les himself narrates, and is glimpsed from the back as a shadowy figure looking down condescendingly at a bustling railway station, speculating on the movements of the women he sees — “They think they’re helping, I suppose, rushing about. What good can it do, for us? Well let’s swoop down [cue crane shot] and take a closer look at them.”

Les then selects a group for his camera to follow invisibly during the ensuing action. It’s fanciful, almost supernatural, and Howard seems already a kind of ghost of the war. Over the course of the film, his condescension will evaporate as he sees the brave efforts and important accomplishments of the women — HE’S the one with the character arc.

The cast is enjoyable, though most of them are given only one or two characteristics (always a risk in these ensemble pieces the Brits were addicted to) — Rosamund John is (unconvincingly) Scottish and dispenses sweeties; Joan Greenwood is small (but sexy); Barbara Waring is bitchy.

But Lilli Palmer is the whole show — a Polish refugee whose family were killed by the Nazis, she’s motivated by revenge, and has an astonishing speech when her tragic secret finally emerges after much teasing by the script. The scene plays out in the baggage car of an overcrowded train where the women have been forced to camp, and the cattle-car vibe adds a resonance that nobody at the time could have intended.

Even stronger is her reaction when she sees her comrades shoot down an enemy plane. Fiona was wide-eyed at this bit of performance —

           

There’s excitement — anxiety (that the plane might escape) — then a kind of orgasmic ecstasy — a tenderness like she’s looking at a lover — triumph — this is all pretty unsettling, better dissolve to another scene…

Extraordinary. The script is by multiple hands, two men and three women, and something must have been indicated on the page. But kudos to Palmer for coming up with such an extraordinary detailed range of unexpected reactions, and to Howard for recognizing what he had and privileging it in the edit.

 

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Mr. Peachy, murderer

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on September 2, 2014 by dcairns

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THE OCTOBER MAN (1947) is written and produced by Eric Ambler and directed by Roy Ward Baker, the team who would make the best Titanic movie, A NIGHT TO REMEMkyER. It’s a modest little thriller with John Mills as a vulnerable chap released from psychiatric hospital after a breakdown brought on by a bus crash in which a child in his care was killed. (At times of stress he tugs knots in his handkerchief, recalling the rabbit he made from his hanky to entertain the kid in Scene 1.) He moves into a guest house full of rather unsympathetic people, and then there’s a murder and he becomes prime suspect.

The film takes an age to get underway and then wastes its most interesting personality, Joan Greenwood, in a colourless girlfriend role, but Mills gets to do his tormented bit, and others like Kay Walsh and Catherine Lacey are on hand. I very much enjoyed the dingy atmosphere, all studio-created, and the names — the hotel is run by Miss Selby, there’s a Mr. Pope and a Miss Heap. The previous occupant was Mr. Leaper, but he left for Australia so we don’t meet him. Best of all is Mr. Peachy.

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It’s no spoiler to reveal that Peachy is the killer — not only do we realize this as soon as someone turns up throttled, we realize he’s going to be a murderer before anyone is dead. Maybe it’s his glasses. Disturbingly, as played by Edward Chapman he looks a bit like Eric Ambler himself. He’s psychotic, with a creepy sexual fixation on his eventual victim, but he’s also devilishly cunning. I kind of wish he’d been more sane because then it would have been nasty sane person versus nice mentally-fragile person.

Interestingly, it turns out that Peachy is not his real name, leading us to wonder what kind of man would CHOOSE to be called Mr. Peachy? A madman, I suppose.

I have been working on a script set in a boarding house in the forties with lots of silly names, which my collaborator and I enjoyed making up. I will tell you one: Eustace Crump, armchair bully. But poor Eustace was surplus to requirements so we deleted him after a few pages. Some other time, Eustace!

Paranormal Inactivity

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2010 by dcairns

I reported the slightly ungenerous opinion of my late friend Lawrie Knight, regarding filmmaker Vernon Sewell (“As far as I could tell, Vernon never had a brain in his head”) and then I heard from Sewell’s godson, advising me to look deeper. So I did.

It’s unfortunate that the three films I watched descended in quality from one to the next, but there was quality, and to correct that negative impression, I’m reversing the order and starting with the worst first.

GHOST SHIP (1952), starring Hazel Court and her husband Dermot Walsh, is a supernatural thriller — as were the other two films sampled. All three films use parapsychological explanations to fold their ghostly happenings into a scientific worldview, and all three feature cosy ladies who act as mediums (or should that be “media”?), as well as making substantial, and somewhat unconventional, use of flashbacks. This one was of particular interest to me because Lawrie had mentioned it — “He bought a boat, to use as studio. And I think he did make a couple of films on that boat.”

Unfortunately, Sewell hadn’t cracked a system for filming in the cramped quarters of his steam yacht: the result is lots of empty frames, into which characters protrude from the sides, before having discussions in lifeless flat two-shots, before exiting and leaving us with an empty frame again. Contrast this with Polanski’s dynamic use of even tighter environments in KNIFE IN THE WATER.

His story also takes ages to get going, with early manifestations limited to disembodied cigar smoke. Eventually a murder mystery is explicated via the medium’s intervention, and the middle-class couple can get back to yachting in peace. Best fun is the no-nonsense psychic investigator with his tuning forks, who realizes that the heat from the engine room acts as a trigger for spooky appearances ~

“The greater the heat, the more these vibrations are evident. Has it ever struck you how so many apparently inexplicable things only ever happen in hot countries? I mean, nobody’s seen the rope trick outside India. Voodoo’s only practiced in South/Central America. Firewalkers, fakirs, witch doctors: all in tropical climates. It’s like developing a photographic negative: the hotter the solution, the quicker the picture appears.”

Delightful. And all conducted with the aide of a set of tuning forks, too.

We also get a very young Ian Carmichael as a comedy drunk, holding up the action just as it gets promising, and a painfully young Joss Ackland. Having Danny Glover drop a packing case on his head in LETHAL WEAPON II was all in the future for young Joss.

A good bit better is LATIN QUARTER, also known as FRENZY, a tale of a murderous sculptor whose crime haunts his studio, necessitating the intervention of another pukkah psychic investigator and another mumsy medium. This movie integrates its flashbacks better, and it has Frederick Valk (the shrink from DEAD OF NIGHT) as the investigator, Joan Greenwood as a murdered model, Valentine Dyall (THE HAUNTING) as a prefect of police — lots of enjoyable players. The bad guy actor rejoices in the name of Beresford Egan, so we had to like him. Derrick deMarney is the hero, but you can’t have everything. Lots of Germans in this studio Paris, I guess because it was 1945.

Best of all was the modest HOUSE OF MYSTERY (1961), which reprises most of the plot of GHOST SHIP with a better, more involved flashback structure, more like THE LOCKET or The 1001 Nights. And the filming is MUCH better, with a mobile camera and slightly fogged style. The haunted cottage carries a genuinely intriguing mystery story which mixes ghosts, straightforward murder, and science fiction of the Nigel Kneale variety — lots of talk about buildings acting as recording instruments for the emotions enacted within them. Oh, and a really nice twist at the end. The cast here is very low-key, with Nanette Newman the best-known face, but the lack of star-power works with the film’s quiet, unfussed approach to the eerie. No wonder Sewell didn’t really thrive in the later world of British horror — his gaudy BLOOD BEAST TERROR, CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR and BURKE AND HARE aren’t a patch on these mild-mannered chillers.