Archive for Key Luke

See-Thru Hats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2010 by dcairns

Where DID you get that perspex skull-cap?

PROJECT X is a 1968 William Castle sci-fi espionage flick which is, characteristically, extremely interesting and utterly bananas. I may have already spoken of my Big Theory about William Castle, but let me lead off with it again —

While known as a gimmick-meister, inventor of Emerg-O (plastic skeleton on rails flies over audience’s heads) and Percepto (electric joy buzzers beneath seats zap audience’s asses) etc, Castle might usefully be looked at as a pure eccentric, whose fondness for bizarre gimmicks extended into the plots of his movies as well as their promotion. This notion ties together many of the thrillers Castle made before discovering B-movie horror and selling himself as a cut-price Hitchcock — he had a love of weird plots which led him to adapt Cornell Woolrich (THE MARK OF THE WHISTLER) and to stuff HOLLYWOOD STORY with old-time silent stars playing themselves. This tendency flourishes in THE TINGLER, of course, but you can also see it in movies Castle worked on as producer — Orson Welles’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI, for instance, where the idea of a man hiring an assassin to pretend to kill him so he can escape the imminent atomic holocaust seems like pure Castle. Similarly, ROSEMARY’S BABY, with it’s upscale New York coven, and BUG, with its sentient fire-raising insects who can communicate with humans by spelling out words on a wall with their bodies, reflect a very individual sensibility. It’s fitting that Castle’s last film as director was SHANKS, a comedy about electro-galvinism starring Marcel Marceau. Some might argue that in fact, no, it’s NOT fitting, it’s INSANE. But it’s definitely more fitting for William Castle to go out that way than, say, David Lean.

So to PROJECT X, a twenty-second century spy thriller about a race to extract vital spy secrets from the mind of an agent in suspended animation and suffering from chemically-induced amnesia. Like the recent INCEPTION, the movie is wall-to-wall exposition, but unlike that big moneyspinner Castle can’t afford a slew of charismatic supporting characters to mouth his sci-fi pseudoscience. He has to settle for Harold Gould (dad from Rhoda) and Henry Jones. Jones, known to cinephiles as the snide coroner in VERTIGO, is Castle’s secret weapon, imbuing the most sinister experiments with a decaying glee. His morbid charm allows Castle to indulge his Charles Addams type gallows humour (the script is entirely void of comedy: Jones does it by twinkle alone).

The story, augmented with Star Trek sliding door sound effects and see-through hats, is both amazingly prescient and ham-fistedly goofy, which means the movie is always watchable. Since the hero’s mind has been wiped, Jones and his scientists plan to stimulate his subconscious by placing the guy in a fake 1960s setting (the character was a historian specializing in that period) with a fake personality/cover story, or “matrix”. Then they periodically blast his brain with holograms, which reconstruct what they know of his mission to what they quaintly call “Sino-Asia.” Apparently the Sino-Asians were planning to win World War III by mass-producing male children (I told you it was prescient!), but the hero found out something much more sinister

The holographic flashbacks are produced by Hanna & Barbera animation, weird superimpositions, and painted backdrops by comic book legend Alex Toth. All very stylish in their kitsch way. The real-world scenes suffer by comparison, being flatly shot in a fairly televisual manner by the reliably prosaic Castle, whose visual sense never could keep up with his crazy brain. He does manage a fair bit of camera movement, but his main technique is to hold a wide shot until the scene starts to crust over, and the light gets fossilized on its way to your eyes , then break it by moving an actor or the camera, just enough to maintain a baseline of viewer consciousness. But the nutty plot developments, which throw in telekinesis, germ warfare, brainwashing, virtual cigarettes, and a guest spot from Keye Luke, do keep us tingling with dazed anticipation. The leading lady, Greta Baldwin, is a Swedish dairy worker who stumbles into the story by accident and hangs around for purely decorative reasons, but her bizarre acting style is so winning that she actually compensates for the lack of conventional production values. The awkward way she walks, and her huge hands, and her bizarro line readings, are worth any number of exploding starships.

Meanwhile, the film’s vision of a Cold War still going strong after 150 years (but no mention of the Russians), even after crime has been (s0mehow) abolished, is a weird and quasi-fascist one. The Americans apparently dictate how many children their women can have, and indulge in mass sterilisation to keep numbers down (as we learn in a brief aside), so there doesn’t seem much to choose between the two sides. Oh, and the Americans all seem to be white, the only other colours of face appearing archive footage of 60s rioting… At least Trek hypothesized an uneasy detente between Earth and a vaguely oriental, vaguely slavic alien race, blatantly transposing ’60s concerns to its sci-fi universe, without actually accepting Mutually Assured Destruction as an eternal constant in human affairs.

Still, such gloomy thoughts seem inappropriate to such a cheerfully wacked-out fantasy as this. Nice to see a sci-fi movie that’s ludicrous while still getting things right — the future Americans regard Freudian psychology as old wives’ tales, although the movie does feature a Monster from the Id (my second this week, after SCOTT PILGRIM!) which strikes down an enemy agent in a hilariously, disturbingly protracted bout of synth-jazz, loud male screaming, fish-eye lens freak-out and solarized colours.

Who Killed Charlie Chan?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2008 by dcairns


MR. MOTO’s GAMBLE is an odd entry in the Moto series, in which German/Hungarian actor Peter Lorre plays Japanese detective Kinsaro Moto. It’s odd because it’s really a Charlie Chan movie, from the series in which Swedish actor Warner Oland played Chinese detective Charlie Chan, only Chan has been excised and replaced with Moto. Why?

The DVD supplemental documentary tells the story, which I pass on here at no extra charge.

After making approximately 9,000,000,000 Charlie Chan films for 20th Century Fox, Oland was tired. He was also alcoholic, miserable, and mid-divorce. He didn’t want to make CHARLIE CHAN’S GAMBLE, and his reluctance took the form of a strange protest. He refused to work on Stage 6 at the Fox studio, claiming that the facility was outdated and draughty and he feared catching pneumonia. Fox argued that this complaint was reasonless: the stage was identical to all the others, and since the sets for CHARLIE CHAN’S GAMBLE had been built there, that’s where the film would be shot.

Oland insisted, and the Screen Actors Guild were called in to negotiate. Money was being lost while the sets stood empty. Eventually a compromise was reached: Oland would return to work, but on Stage 7. But the wily Fox had a trick up their sleeve: rather than tear down and reconstruct those bulky sets, they simply repainted the number 6 outside with the number 7. Chan showed up for work and apparently never realised he was on the exact same stage as before. So the studio were proved correct: the different sound stages were identical.

But a day or so later, Oland took off again, and production was shut down. Desperate to get some kind of use out of the script and sets, Fox chiefs eventually recast Chan with Moto, simply erasing one name and substituting another in the script, just as they had renamed Stage 6. Moto was now hanging around with Chan’s Number One Son, still played by Keye Luke, and dispensing pithy eastern proverbs, just like Chan. Rather than being mysterious and a master of disguise, Moto was now ever-reliable, but with an impish sense of humour. A brief scene was inserted at random to allow him to demonstrate his judo skills and love of cats, but that’s as far as the rewriting went.

Against the odds, Oland’s mood improved as his divorce was settled, and he prepared to return to his most famous role. The studio were glad to have him back. He decided to go on holiday before beginning his next Chan picture, but once he got to Sweden for a rest, the actor quickly became ill with pneumonia. He never recovered.

Fox eventually replaced the cherubic Swede with a creepy Scot, Sidney Toler, but we are left to ponder Oland’s strangely prophetic sense of impending doom, and wonder about the fatal Stage 6, and the persistent strain of bronchial pneumonia that tracked him across the globe…


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

A young Persian gardener said to his Prince:

‘Save me! I met Death in the garden this morning, and he gave me a threatening look. I wish that tonight, by some miracle, I might be far away, in Ispahan.’

The Prince lent him his swiftest horse.

That afternoon, as he was walking in the garden, the Prince came face to face with Death. ‘Why,’ he asked, ‘did you give my gardener a threatening look this morning?’

‘It was not a threatening look,’ replied Death. ‘It was an expression of surprise. For I saw him here this morning, and I knew that I would take him in Ispahan tonight.’

~ Jean Cocteau, The Look of Death.