Archive for Karl Struss

The Sunday Intertitle: Lamplight

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2018 by dcairns

Incredibly beautiful.

I ought to be binge-watching Borzage for a project. Feels like I’m a bit behind. LUCKY STAR (1929) is one of the masterpieces Frank B. made at Fox as the silent era ended. Most famous is SEVENTH HEAVEN but STREET ANGEL and this one probably deserve to be right up there. Along with THE RIVER, which survives only as a fragment. The original titles of LUCKY STAR are lost also, so we have simple, tasteful reproductions which are probably a good deal less elaborate but at any rate don’t look jarringly anachronistic like all too many attempts to fake up authentic cards. And the film itself is in terrific shape. I’m just over half its age and I don’t look nearly so good.

Now check this out.

As Janet Gaynor hands over a lantern in this shot, you can see an electrical cable trailing from it (through the lower left window pane). But rather than get hyper-critical about the artifice (this whole film is studio artifice at its height), we should be impressed that they’ve figured out how to light a scene with a lantern, even a jerry-rigged electrical one. The great Nestor Almendros once pointed out that, for all the beauty of Murnau’s SUNRISE (1927) when a search party roves through the night carrying kerosene lamps, the lamps do nothing but glow faintly, far too weak to actually light the scene. Of course that film’s cinematographers, Rosher & Struss, could hardly have had a half-dozen power cables trailing from those prop lamps, since the search party are on boats. Even the lack Health & Safety culture of Hollywood’s Golden Age had to draw the line somewhere. But for LUCKY STAR, DoPs Chester M. Lyons (praised already here) and William Cooper Smith have worked out a way to have a convincing moving light source.

That lamp is obviously INCREDIBLY bright in order to light the interior: Gaynor has her eyes almost closed, trying not to be blinded, and she seems a little scared of this high voltage death-trap in her hand. Don’t blame her.

As you can probably tell, I’m not very far into this film yet, but I am impressed so far.

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Aunt Julia Vs the Scriptwriter

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on November 9, 2010 by dcairns

In MURDER BY THE CLOCK, Aunt Julia (Blanche Friderici) is a nasty old woman with a morbid fear of premature burial. Taking a leaf from Poe, she’s installed the family crypt with a kind of horror horn, which she can sound off should she awaken unexpectedly entombed. Meanwhile she’s changed her will, various grasping relatives are plotting her assassination, and her “idiot” son Philip (Irving Pichel) has an unhealthy obsession with murder: when she asks him what he’d like to do in life, he replies “Kill!”

I was seeing this movie as part of my ongoing odyssey to view every movie depicted within the quaint and curious A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford, and it just happened to tie into Poe Week, via the premature burial theme, so it serves as a suitable aftershock of that festivity. It’s not great, but it’s from 1931 so it’s a fascinating historical artifact, showing how the fear film hadn’t yet gotten to grips with the supernatural can of worms opened by DRACULA. Here we’re in CAT AND THE CANARY terrain, with every creepy event solidly rooted in the criminal psychology of melodrama.

Apart from Mr. Pichel (above, right), who would go on to direct SHE and co-direct THE HOUNDS OF ZAROFF, we have clown-faced Regis Toomey, stalwart William “Stage” Boyd, and sultry Lilyan Tashman (above, left), who seduces three men into killing for her. Her husband is particularly unfortunate: strangled by Tashman’s lover, he’s revived by an adrenalin shot to the heart, Uma Thurman-style, then nearly stabbed to death by the lover, and finally scared to death by the spectre of his resuscitated aunt, before he can name the man who originally throttled him. Unlucky stiff.

With its witless comedy and on-the-nose dialogue, this creaker is no classic — it makes James Whale’s often rigid FRANKENSTEIN look fluent and pacy, and lacks that movie’s moments of the sublime. But it is extremely handsome, photographed by Karl Struss in the Paramount soft-focus style, which makes for an unusual-looking horror film. Director Edward Sloman sure lives up to his surname, but obtains good perfs, especially from the sly Tashman and amiable maniac Pichel.

Seeing as how most talkies by 1931 had shed the stumbles, cracklings pauses and enunciation of the early sound misfires, I guess it was deliberate policy to play horror movies slower, for creepy atmos and suspense. Makes sense. But when it doesn’t quite work, it feels like the movie’s slipped back to 1929…

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.