Archive for Joe Macbeth

Jack La Rue — Sexual Outlaw

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2009 by dcairns

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Apart from being a pre-code smut-holocaust, THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE is a quite weird adaptation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (later adapted by Tony Richardson, disastrously according to received wisdom). Some American TV writer once said of that book, “Faulkner thought he was going to the limit by having his heroine screwed with a coke bottle. He didn’t know television.”

But the anonymous wag is wrong, imputing the coke bottle of Fatty Arbuckle legend to Faulkner’s antagonist, impotent hoodlum Popeye, who in actuality uses a corncob to rape Temple. Although I doubt that distinction would cut much ice with a jury.

In bowdlerizing the story for the screen (even pre-code Hollywood had its limits), screenwriter Oliver HP Garrett (awesome pre-code credits including A FAREWELL TO ARMS,  NIGHT NURSE and CITY STREETS) has dispensed with the impotence and the corncob because you can’t have one without the other and you certainly can’t have the other. As a result, Popeye is transmuted to Trigger, a highly sexed bandit who has no problems whatsoever in the downstairs department, other than keeping it in his pants. The whole first half of the film becomes a quasi-pornographic fantasy along the lines of THE SHEIK, with Temple Drake, embodied by a smouldering Miriam Hopkins, characterised as a brimming flagon of lust who becomes a slave to her own desire awakened by Trigger.

All this is, if anything, more offensive than Faulkner’s classified pulp nasty, because of what’s implied rather than stated, if we take it as in any way representing anybody’s views about male-female relations. Taken as fantasy, this kind of thing was obviously very popular with audiences of both sexes back then, and the idea of a sexual passion that overcomes all moral scruples is still one that exerts some fascination.

The film’s second half, with Temple killing Trigger, and then being faced with the dilemma of whether to clear an innocent man for one of Trigger’s killings, even though this will incriminate her in his death, is quite a compelling moral maze melodrama, although it’s even further from Faulkner’s book, which takes a considerably darker turn.

Anyhow, apart from the seething Miriam, and Stephen Roberts’ strikingly fluid and sinuous direction (the great Karl Struss is on camera), and the odd sight of William Gargan as a lawyer in very obvious lipstick, the movie’s main attraction is Jack La Rue as Trigger. With his ugly/handsome face and implacable macho arrogance, he comes across like a cross between Treat Williams and an erupting sperm volcano. He’s a pinstriped obscenity and he’s looking right at us.

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Fast-forward fifteen years or so and La Rue is BACK! The film is NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH, a 1948 British flick that attracted unprecedented critical opprobrium (unmatched until PEEPING TOM, 11 years later) for daring to tell a low-class American pulp story in the UK. Ken Hughes’s JOE MACBETH somehow got away with this a few years further down the line, perhaps because it adds Shakespeare into the mix for that necessary touch of class.

Amusingly, the novel NO ORCHIDS is based on is by James Hadley Chase, a British bookseller whose real name was Rene Brabazon Raymond (!). Mimicking the snappy American dialogue he saw in movies, and cribbing from a dictionary of slang, Raymond/Chase turned out a string of sexy shockers which have proven popular with filmmakers — Patrice Chereau’s THE FLESH OF THE ORCHID with Charlotte Rampling, based on a quasi-sequel to No Orchids, is probably the finest adaptation.

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New York, England.

While the Raymond/Chase transatlantic literary drag act excited little critical distaste, something about the first movie adaptation shocked our middle-class pundits to the core, as Brian McFarlane observes in Outrage: No Orchids for Miss Blandish, an essay appearing in the collection British Crime Cinema, published by Routledge. Something about the idea of a British production erasing its own national signifiers and doing its best to merge with the lower end of the Hollywood mainstream was deeply offensive to British sensibilities — and we didn’t have the model of the spaghetti westerns to point to as a defense, not that that would have helped, since that genrewas despised for decades too. 1948 was a rather good year for British cinema — perhaps our best ever, so the film’s blatant embrace of American noir style and content seemed particularly offensive.

The problem is surely as much to do with class as culture. When American films shoot in the UK, we’re grateful for the $, and generally try to claim some of the glory (cf the Film Council boasting of record box office for British films, and including the Harry Potter movies, produced by Warners). Richard Lester’s THE THREE MUSKETEERS was nominated for an award as Best British Film, despite being a French story, shot in Spain, by an ex-pat American director, with a mainly American cast, and the production being listed officially as Panamanian. Nobody protested, although Lester was a bit nonplussed. If Michael Powell had decided to shoot a film of THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, recreating New York in the studios at Pinewood, as he had Tibet for BLACK NARCISSUS, it’s likely that the debate would have concentrated on whether the choice was artistically wise. But to film a trashy potboiler on these shores, with Dermot Walsh (a Scot) and Sid James (a South African) essaying Amurrican accents, was somehow beyond the pale.

Of course, the reviewers had to justify their outrage by claiming that the film was both shoddy (inferior to the American originals) and vile. The movie is actually decently made, although it lacks the sweaty intensity of TEMPLE DRAKE — Linden Travers is no Miriam Hopkins, and Jack La Rue at 46 is no Jack La Rue at 31. He looks OK, but his face has drooped, and his intensity has slumped from 11 to about 4. He’s more hangdog than horndog.

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As for vile, the film is pretty intense for 1948, with far more gratuitous violence than TEMPLE DRAKE, some of it quite protracted or explicit. The sex is mostly pan-to-the-fireplace stuff, although La Rue seems to place his big paw into the front of Travers’ dressing gown bathrobe at one point. But it’s probably the film’s attitudeto the transgressive stuff that caused the offense — and of course, since this was a faux-American film of a faux-American novel, a defense on the grounds of realism was unlikely to convince anyone.

Interestingly, writer-director St John Legh Clowes, in adapting the novel, has altered La Rue’s character, Slim Grisson, in much the same way Garrett changed Popeye to Trigger. Slim goes from being an impotent, mother-dominated loony nutjob to being a self-directed, sexually powerful alpha male. This time round the sex is consensual, since Slim is “too proud” to take a woman who doesn’t want him, but Blandish yields to his blandishments anyway. His behaviour towards her is rather gentlemanly, although he continues to murder everyone else in cold blood. What remains controversial is Blandish, a kidnapee, falling in love with her kidnapper, in what is presented as true love rather than Stockholm syndrome. 

At the film’s conclusion, the nice, normal people have managed to get Slim shot by the police and Blandish returned to her millionaire father, and they’re just congratulating each other on their virtue and effectiveness and normality normalcy and preparing to skip off into the sunset, when there’s a scream, and they rush into the Blandish boudoir. She’s gone out the window, unable to live without her bit of rough hunk.

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The defenestrated heiress lies dead on the pavementsidewalk twenty storeys down, with unfeeling pedestrians trampling the orchid lying by her outstretched hand. I can see the symbolism Clowes is aiming for here, but it’s actually pretty funny how every damn shoe manages to descend on the crushed plant. Apart from the inappropriate hilarity, what’s most striking is the slap in the face delivered to the healthy, happy-ending sexuality of the heroes — the film really is a celebration of the abnormal and anti-social. And that was an unheard-of thing for British movies in 1948… apart from in the morbid romanticism of Powell and Pressburger, of course.

Another film of NO ORCHIDS is Robert Aldrich’s ’70s remake THE GRISSOM GANG. I’ve been unable to ascertain whether Grisson or Grissom is the name used in the original book. Kim Darby is a bland Blandish and Scott Wilson plays Grissom as the damaged creep of Chase’s novel, in a faithfully grubby and unpleasant version. Projectionists had to sterilise the light after it passed through the celluloid.

Sound and Fury

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2008 by dcairns

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Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, filmed by Ken Hughes.

Yes! Ken Hughes films Philip Yordan’s Macbeth-as-an-Amurrican-gangster epic, in which lumpen Paul Douglas as the titular JOE MACBETH rises to the position of kingpin in a version of the New York mafia recreated on a small scale in England. The British version of America always seems like a cheap-ass solution, or at least it does when it’s obvious. Here we get reasonable but small sets, and a few obvious stock shots to broaden out the scope. What really gives it away is the cast.

Douglas and Ruth Roman (as Lily Macbeth) are the sort of affordable American stars who could be tempted over for a British film (Douglas had appeared in the minor classic THE MAGGIE a year earlier). The supporting cast is made up of a mixture of Americans abroad (Bonar Colleano, who’s very good here as a cheeky combo of Fleance and Macduff; beetle-browed Robert Arden of MR ARKADIN fame — both these guys appeared in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH) and those Brits who could muster a convincing yank accent. I’m inclined to think the following scene will be amusing to British movie fans:

After watching THE ATOMIC MAN, in which Charles Hawtrey intrudes like a music hall apparition, I’m beginning to suspect that Ken Hughes liked having Carry On film stars pop up and wreck his ambiance just for the hell of it.

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Also prominent in this scene is Ruth Roman. She does make a terrific Lady Mac, I take back anything bad I may have said about her. I think this kind of role maybe suits her better than the more tame parts I’ve seen her in. Her biggest problem is creating any kind of heat with the doughy Douglas, who’s good at freaking out, sweating and shaking his jowls as if he’s trying to physically detach them from his face and make them fly off and stick to the walls, but his baggy, Lon Chaney Jnr. appearance is a little unhelpful in more tender moments.

R.R. plays it fierce in the early scenes, and the snappy, snippy relationship reminds me of Douglas’ marriage in LETTER TO THREE WIVES. This is an unusual version of the play in that the Macbeths actually grow closer together. As a femme fatale, seducing her husband into murder, Roman, “the nicotine-stained goddess of the denim pantsuit” (here clad in revealing gowns) is very effective — Mrs. Mac uses sex as a weapon.

As one reared on Jon Finch in the Polanski version, I had trouble imagining how Douglas and Roman could have reached the age they’re at without previously showing the ferocious ambition that overtakes them. A straight rendering of the play would offer us a supernatural catalyst, whereas here, Roman’s fortune-telling friend is an insufficient motivation. Stripping the play of the uncanny does do it quite a bit of damage. Without the prophecies about Birnam Wood and “no man of woman born”, the climax loses it’s plot twists, although Yordan arguably improves on Shakespeare by bringing Macbeth and wife to their doom together.

The femme fatale scenes make me think that a straight noir approach would work better than a gangster one. For one thing, the underworld vibe is utterly generic, with Hughes concentrating his attention on creating a viable N.Y.C. in Pinewood or wherever, so that he has no opportunity to create the specific details that make a film like SCARFACE or THE PUBLIC ENEMY so memorable. And killing a kingpin lacks the moral outrage of killing a king: murder is a commonplace in Joe Macbeth’s world, so there’s a loss of dramatic force there too.

The best bits:

1) A distant bell tolls each time a kingpin dies. When Douglas has offed his boss (Gregoire Aslan, a surprisingly gallic mafiosa), the bell is accompanied by shrieking birds, and the killer’s moral torment is reminiscent of Sydney Chaplin’s downfall in Hughes’ CONFESSION.

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2) A completely unShakespearean character, Big Dutch, an oyster-munching vulgarian played by Harry Green, who has no reason to be in the film really, but frees everyone from the need to do a paint-by-numbers Shakespeare-goes-gangster movie. His grotesque, slobbering scenes are weirdly pointless but hypnotically repellent, focusing on the act of EATING to the exclusion of all else. “What an attractive man,” remarked Fiona, dryly. Accompanied by his food taster and two weird-looking blond girlfriends, Green’s ebullient schtick is almost Lynchian in its unashamed status as gratuitous cameo grotesque. Slurp!

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3) Bonar Colleano’s reaction to the death of his family. This always seems a near-impossible scene to play. How do you act a thing like that? Hughes holds on the speaker’s face for ages, with Colleano’s suffering hidden except as mirrored in the guy’s reactions. Then he does cut to B.C. and holds on him for ages too. And Colleano pulls it off. This guy got plenty of work as a stock American in the U.K. but either got stuck with some Brit screenwriter’s idea of what a yank should be, or played nationality-neutral roles (as in the fine DANCE HALL) where his American accent raised unanswerable questions. A shame.

4) Angus (Walter Crisham). A problematic role in the play. If memory serves, Polanski and Tynan made him a traitor, just to give him something to do. Ken Campbell speculated that the seemingly pointless role was just an opportunity for Shakespeare to do a walk-on (“Cos he always liked to be in ‘is own stuff, like Hitchcock,”). Here he’s the butler at the mansion house which passes from one kingpin to another, and his willingness to serve whomever’s in charge, coupled with his revealing just how often the place changes hands, is a nice warning of how short Macbeth’s reign will be.

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Mac.

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