Archive for John Stratton

Frends at Sea

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 9, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-04-09-11h07m36s197

OK, a little gentle nudging got me to look at Charles Frend’s unofficial trilogy of WWII sea pictures. When we get to THE CRUEL SEA it’s as good as it’s cracked up to be, so be patient…

First up, THE BIG BLOCKADE (1942) isn’t purely a sea picture, it’s about the economic war on Germany. It’s pure wartime propaganda, Ealing’s bit for the war effort, just over an hour long and a kind of sketch film, written by former Hitchcock collaborator Angus MacPhail. Forced jocularity and British actors playing Germans and Italians and Russians. Historically interesting, of course. The Germans are the baddies — we’re encouraged to laugh as the factory management are threatened with Dachau if they don’t keep up production — the Italians are just a joke. “You violate me in international law!” protests a wop captain. “Wouldn’t dream of it, old boy,” comes the dry response.

vlcsnap-2015-04-09-10h59m07s216

Robert Morley as a Nazi is a sight to see. Even more lip-smacking than usual.

The ocean-going bit involves Will Hay, popular British comedian — certainly a better character actor than George Formby or Arthur Askey, so I suppose we should be grateful. But his whole scene is basically a lot of information shoveled down the audience’s throat without enough comedy to make it halfway palatable. In the flying bit we get John Mills and Michael Rennie — Quatermass and Klaatu! — on the same plane. No wonder we won.

vlcsnap-2015-04-09-10h57m44s174

I enjoyed the film mainly for the model shots and the sometimes bizarre stunt casting. Nazi Germany as Toyland.

Naval pictures are quite weird animals. They consist on the one hand of miniatures and special effects — the fantasy cinema of Georges Melies where everything is flimsily constructed and presented with a magician’s sleight-of-hand — and on the other hand, of stock footage, actuality material of the real war, with real waves, ships and (implied) death. In between these two extremes are the actors, sometimes on location, sometimes in sets. They have the tricky job of gluing it all together with dramaturgic paste. All Frend’s skills as a former editor are needed to maintain an illusion of cause and effect.

vlcsnap-2015-04-09-11h02m40s65

SAN DEMETRIO LONDON (1943) is Ealing Studio’s tribute to the Merchant Marines, with a no-star cast but some favourite character people turning up amid the ensemble, such as Mervyn Johns and a baby-faced Gordon Jackson. Script is by Frend with Robert Hamer and F. Tennyson Jesse, whose novel A Pin to see the Peepshow was Hamer’s dream project as director. The team concoct some amusing banter.

“Nice bit of gun, that.”

“Ah, guns is like women, you never know until you’re in action. And then it’s too late.”

And Hamer’s reputation as a boozer is confirmed by some nicely observed drinking rituals. “Drink?” “At this hour? Thanks.”

vlcsnap-2015-04-09-11h05m18s77

The first surprise is when the titular boat is shelled at sea and the crew have to man the lifeboats. One lot endure a rocky couple of nights in an inky ocean which is actually rear-projected in negative. It’s like the coach ride from NOSFERATU, an intersticial realm between filmic dimensions of reality — I suppose they slipped into it owing to that weird gulf between archive footage and miniatures.

The second surprise is when, spotting what they think is a rescue ship, the lifeboat survivors find it’s their own bloody ship again, still ablaze but miraculously unsunk and unexploded. In a gingerly fashion, they get aboard and try to make her shipshape, since another night in the lifeboat seems unsurvivable. So what we have is a tale not of warfare but simple survival. It’s all quite compelling, low-key and restrained in the British tradition. The really touching bit involves the men getting a cash bonus for salvaging their own vessel. Ealing’s love of camaraderie and the common man shine through. In fact, the studio was somewhat socialistic, and Ealing boss Michael Balcon was on a secret committee tasked with preparing the British public for a Labour government after the war. Here, the sailors share in the profits of their toils as we were all supposed to.

vlcsnap-2015-04-09-11h23m34s41

SAN DEMETRIO LONDON ends in Scotland, and THE CRUEL SEA (1953) begins there, as Jack Hawkins gets his new vessel and new crew. The immediate dramatic issue becomes Stanley Baker, loudmouthed first mate, a used car salesman in civilian life (the other officers are all respectable middle-class solicitors and copywriters and such). He has to be gotten rid of with what’s either a duodenal ulcer or neurotic malingering. It’s suggested that he wouldn’t have had the mental resilience for war — although two of the remaining men show marked signs of strain later. Baker certainly makes a strong impression, snarling and sneering as if on the verge of erupting from sheer class resentment. He even vomits angrily, in what must be the most shocking emetic sequence of fifties British cinema — it’s not that it’s explicitly depicted, it’s just what Baker is able to do with the power of acting alone. That man could puke for Wales.

vlcsnap-2015-04-09-11h18m54s62

With Baker out of the picture, genteel Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliot and John Stratton supply Hawkins’ support, and the film gets into its stride. When Elliot died, Dennis Potter appeared on TV to testify to his chum’s unique ability to suggest, by the merest contractions of the muscles around the jaw, the good impulses in a bad man struggling to get out, or the bad influences in a good man struggling to get out. He’s already doing it here!

The whole movie is about the psychological effects of war: living at close quarters in unpleasant conditions, fear of death, dealing with suffering and mutilation, and ultimately, being forced to make decisions that are hard to live with. The kind of material dealt with would have been impossible to show in wartime, I think. IN WHICH WE SERVE features civilian casualties and isn’t all upbeat flag-waving, but it’s hard to believe they could have gotten away with a captain sacrificing men in the water in order to depth-charge an enemy sub — that might not be there.

The sequence is boldly conceived and brilliantly cut. Realizing he needed a shot of the dead bodies drifting away from the ship, a shot he’d neglected to take, Frend reversed a shot in which the bodies are coming closer. So the emotional climax of the scene features seagulls whirling in the air tail-feathers-first, something nobody ever notices since the attention is riveted upon the centre of dramatic interest.

vlcsnap-2015-04-09-11h17m11s31

Hawkins is excellent, of course, in the role that made him. He’d been bumming around the British film industry since the early thirties, appearing in a talkie version of THE LODGER where his great jack-o-lantern head bobbles about atop scrawny scarecrow limbs, made the more ghastly by pallid greasepaint and dark lipstick. Hawkins the Death-Clown. Putting on a bit of weight was essential to balance off that vast cranium — once he turned into a toby jug he was somehow acceptable, and made a fine character player for Reed, Powell, Gilliatt, Dickinson, Mackendrick. But he wasn’t usually asked to carry so much of the show as he is here.

Frend helps his actors along with some striking uses of sound, no doubt indicated in Eric Ambler’s script. As dead men float on the waves, we hear their memories, as if their brains, winding down to a long sleep, were replaying a few stuck phrases… and when Hawkins gets his new command, he momentarily hears screams coming from the speaking tube, a stray memory of the sinking of his last ship. I think these unusual effects come jointly from Ambler’s background as a novelist and Frend’s as editor, pushing the emotional dial up to a near-unbearable pitch by sheer brilliance of technique.

Advertisements

Frankenstein Must Be Unemployed

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2008 by dcairns

The end of an era: 

Terence Fisher’s last film, and Peter Cushing’s last turn as Victor Frankenstein, now calling himself Dr. Carl Victor, having used up every last syllable of his name in his previous pseudonyms. Remember how there’s always a character called Karl? Now Frankenstein himself has fulfilled his destiny by becoming that Karl.

After the splashy big-budget (by Hammer standards) production of FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED, with it’s actual night-for-night photography and fiery denouement, F.A.T.M.F.H. is something of a chamber piece, confined after its first scenes (featuring the beloved Patrick Troughton as a grave-robber) to a lunatic asylum (The Ingolstadt Booby Hatch for Stereotypical Nutters), where the Baron has been confined, before basically taking over the place by means of blackmail.

Fiona was surprised and pleased by the film, having previously judged it by the standard of Dave Prowse’s rather O.T.T. makeup. Why hire a muscleman and then coat him in a fake muscle suit? It is a rather overdone neanderthal effect, although I’d argue only slightly more extreme than that guy in THE KILLING.

A weirdness: Madeline Smith plays a hysterical mute (screenwriter John Elder shamelessly plagiarising his own work on EVIL OF F), cured by a second trauma. Director Fisher made some of his best work after being hit by car during an inebriated stroll — his work on THE DEVIL RIDES OUT and FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED was some of the best of his career. But between those films and this one, he got drunk again, and got hit by a car again — a second trauma! — and relapsed into the more sedentary style of his early ’60s work.

Fisher wasn’t the only team member to have suffered. This is the only time Cushing played the Baron after the death of his beloved wife, Helen. Much has been written about his devotion to her, and he spent the remainder of his life in a state of mourning, requiring persuasion to emerge from seclusion to make films. To the end of his days, he would sign letters “Peter and Helen”.

Big Victor.

There’s more to this, and the first hint came from actor Brian Cox, who starred with Cushing in an episode of Hammer House of Horror. “I think there was a bit of guilt involved in all that, because he had an eye for the ladies.”

The full story, apparently: Helen Cushing was unable to enjoy sex, and told her husband that it would be alright if he wanted to seek satisfaction elsewhere. This understanding was gradually stretched until Cushing was rogering girls in the bedroom upstairs while his wife did the housework downstairs. Then, on her death bed, she told him he’d broken her heart and she could never forgive him.

Ulp.

Leaves From Satan’s Book.

The film begins: clumsy slapstick grave-robbing, grubby hamming from Troughton (he kept two families, you know), dim lighting and cramped sets and framing. Then, hope: prettyboy Shane Briant, who Hammer were grooming for stardom, plays Dr. Simon Helder, an aspiring Frankenstein who’s read all the Great Man’s works, is arrested for sorcery, although as described by the judge it sounds like something even more unspeakable: “You have been found guilty of one of the vilest of crimes. How a man of your breeding and education could fall so low as to contaminate himself with this disgusting performance…”

Actually a pretty GOOD performance!

Thrown into the nuthouse, Briant becomes Bosie to Frankenstein’s Wilde, helping the Baron with his latest bodybuilding project. Screenwriter Elder, having played fast and loose with series continuity in the past, now makes amends by giving the Baron those injured hands last seen in CREATED WOMAN, and having him attribute the injuries to “a fire… in the name of science.” Of course, regular viewers will recognise this as a little white lie, or at least a grotesque distortion. But it allows us to conclusively place MUST BE DESTROYED earlier than CREATED WOMAN, although a case could then be made for CREATED WOMAN coming after this one, but let’s not go there.

Why doesn’t the Baron have Bryant replace his hands? A mystery.

(I’m reminded why I must NEVER FORGIVE John Elder: that subplot of EVIL OF F about the Baron trying to win back his stolen furniture.)

Since he can’t operate with his scorched mitts, Doc Vic has been assisted by mute Madeline. This is a departure for Smith, since she was basically cast as an ambulatory bosom in most films of the era. Here, both her mammoth bust and tiny voice remain unexploited for most of the film (she gets a few lines at the end). It’s a touchingly inept performance, seemingly modelled on the facial expression you get on a young Springer Spaniel, all big wet eyes, but it’s powerless to mar the film. It’s kind of RIGHT. Smith seems a lovely lady in interviews, although she has a strange tendency to denigrate feminism (I guess a lot of feminists denigrated her and her work), suggesting that the entire women’s movement was the work of flat-chested viragoes jealous of her gigantic attributes (Am I distorting her argument here? Well, a bit).

The Baron is initially quite kindly here, protecting inmates from the cruelty of the warders (Ernst and the inevitable Hans) and the sexual depredations of the Director (fun actor John Stratton, not Terence Fisher). But he’s been using the inmates as a sort of talent pool, harvesting their body parts to create his latest monsterpiece, an eyeless cro-magnon lump of latex in a cage. Body of a genetic throw-back, hands of a master-craftsman, and brain of a musical and mathematical genius, as soon as Cushing can drive the brain’s owner to suicide (hanging by violin string — nasty!).

With Briant now performing the scalpelwork, we get the series’ most graphic and unpleasant operation scene yet, as the chalk-white corpse has his scalp lifted off, a literal skull-cap, and his brain (bigger than we’ve been used to seeing) deposited in the Incredible Bulk. Alone, unshaven and exhausted after the lengthy procedure, Cushing muses to himself, “If I have succeeded this time, then every sacrificewill have been worthwhile.” Add up the body count from the previous films, and those sacrifices could form quite a heap. This is the Baron’s most introspective moment in any of the films, and spoken by the haggard, aged Cushing (always gaunt, but now prematurely shrivelled at 60) it has chilling resonance.

The asylum setting, with its array of novelty inmates (the geezer who thinks he’s God, the cackling lady who spits her medicine out in a scene borrowed, astonishingly, from Kurosawa’s REDBEARD) allows both for echoes of the Val Lewton classic BEDLAM (since we spend all our time inside after the opening sequence, the madhouse becomes the world of the film and vice versa) and the life and work of Sade (and Peter Brook’s film of Peter Weiss’s MARAT/SADE, which featured future patient of Frankenstein Freddie Jones). It seems apt that a critic suggested a new certificate for REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN: “The S Certificate — for Sadists Only”.  Although arguably the willing suffering of a horror movie audience is more akin to masochism.

Pathos alert! The monster weeps, as the kindly-yet-demented violinist trapped within the hulking frame is horrified at his new pecs and hirsute appearance. Soon, a Cartesian dilemma presents itself: the body is overpowering the brain, asserting its dominance. Elder could have perhaps explained this with hormones and such, but prefers to mangle his science, as has been traditional throughout the series. But Cushing is undaunted: a more perfect specimen can be created by cross-breeding the artificial man with mute Maddy: “Her true function as a woman can be fulfilled.” This marks a new low for the Baron, who has just been sympathetically recounting the cause of Smith’s traumatic aphasia: attempted rape at the hands of her father. Now he’s proposing to make her brood mare to his orang-utan-man.

Briant, like previous assistants, rebels against this new abomination, resolving to mercy-kill the monster, now descended to subhuman brutishness. But the beast escapes, low-budget mayhem ensues, a past evil is avenged, and then poor Prowse is dismembered by excited inmates, harking back to Cushing’s fate at the hands of the poor in REVENGE. Cushing is injured but undaunted — the monster was a failure, but lessons have been learned. Credits role as he cheerfully sweeps up the debris, planning his next atrocity, with every suggestion that Shane and Maddy will remain by his side, assisting him.

Playful self-reference: Cushing recreates a famous moment from CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

It’s a little pedestrian in pacing, but after the uncertain beginning, this film is more than worthy of the series. I actually prefer it to REVENGE and CREATED WOMAN. The Monster is preposterous (and not from Hell) but then, Christopher Lee’s makeup was just a lot of silly putty. The Baron’s theory that a beautiful mind would render those features agreeable was never really put to the test, was it?

What emerges most clearly of all in this film is that the Baron’s plans never work because he is incapable, being inhuman himself, of taking into account human behaviour. He never foresees his creations turning upon him, though they generally have sound reasons to do so, and he is likewise blind to his various assistants’ moral qualms. The series charts the decline of a scientific mind into a quagmire of brutishness, due to its inherent blindness to human nature, the very thing it is seeking to master.

Here endeth the Frankenthon.