Archive for Kind Hearts and Coronets

Forbidden Divas: A Woman of Her Importance

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2015 by dcairns

Our regular guest Shadowplayer David Melville returns with another in his series, Forbidden Divas.    

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A WOMAN OF HER IMPORTANCE

When I wanted your trust, I didn’t get it.

Now that I have your trust, I don’t want it!

Dolores del Río, Story of a Bad Woman

On the long list of places I’ve never been to, Argentina is the one that makes me most curious. I’ve heard that Eva Perón – a prostitute who married a dictator – is still revered by many as a saint. That the tango is popular only in the capital, Buenos Aires, and reviled elsewhere in the country as vulgar and salacious. That decades of conflict over las Islas Malvinas (known to imperialists as the Falklands) have done nothing to blunt a perverse but enduring fascination with all things British. According to one old saying: “An Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, works like a German and tries but fails to dress like an Englishman.”

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So perhaps it’s weirdly fitting that Argentina (not the UK) has produced the smartest and most elegant screen version of an Oscar Wilde comedy. Historia de una mala mujer (which translates literally as Story of a Bad Woman) is a liberal but pitch-perfect adaptation of Wilde’s 1892 play Lady Windermere’s Fan. Made in 1948 – when Argentina still rivalled Mexico as the leading film industry in the Spanish-speaking world – it’s the work of one Luis Saslavsky, a brilliant but little-known auteur who fled into exile in the 50s and spent the bulk of his career in Europe. Its star, Dolores del Río, was a legend in both Mexico and Hollywood. Here she pays a gracious goodwill visit to points further south.

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Sinuous in its camerawork, eye-wateringly lavish in its costumes and sets, Story of a Bad Woman may be the best film ever made from an Oscar Wilde text. The other contender for me is Carmelo Bene’s 1972 version of Salome, with 60s supermodel Veruschka shedding a skin of jewels off her nude body while her director/co-star writhes in understandable lust. That film was an Italian avant-garde epic – so perhaps, in order to film Wilde successfully, you have to slice his text to ribbons and translate him into a foreign language. The one truly Wildean film in English, Robert Hamer’s 1949 black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, is not actually based on Wilde at all.

While British and American directors tend to preserve Wilde’s bonbons of wit in a glaze of stiff and flavourless aspic jelly, Saslavsky uses the text as a springboard and sets his camera free to do its job. He opens at the opera, at a gala performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. As in Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954) – which opens at a performance of the same opera – there’s far more drama in the audience than on the stage. Every pair of opera-glasses in the house is trained on a single empty box, in which the scandalous femme fatale Mrs Erlynne is due to appear. Once the lady shows up, she does not disappoint. In a black velvet gown with a long trailing black-and-white cape, Dolores del Río is an Aubrey Beardsley illustration sprung to life.

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Stalking the corridors at the interval, Dolores gives Saslavsky and his team a chance to show they have read other works by Oscar Wilde and not just the one they are adapting. She runs into an old admirer called Arthur Savile (Francisco de Paula) – who retrieves her glittering serpent bracelet when it falls off her wrist onto the floor. (The device used to entrap the villainous Mrs Cheveley in An Ideal Husband.) But her main purpose of the evening is blackmail. The world-weary husband (Alberto Closas) of an insufferably priggish young socialite (María Duval) has unaccountably started paying Mrs Erlynne’s bills. Given that this lady’s wardrobe alone could bankrupt a small South American nation, we know that ugly and long-buried skeletons are fairly beating on the closet door.

Or that, at any rate, is what the neighbours think. A bevy of gossipy old crones spy out through the windows of one house – and in through the windows of Mrs Erlynne’s house next door. At last, the camera seems to grow tired of their world and glides, seamlessly, through a pane of glass into the salon where Dolores sits at her piano. (For sheer bravura, this shot is easily a match for the famous glass ceiling shot in Citizen Kane (1941), whose director Orson Welles was a real-life admirer of Dolores.) Having found its way into her home, the camera now enters her mind. A flashback shows us how Dolores, once a dutiful wife and mother, lost custody of her child when her husband suspected her of an affair.

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Apart from The Importance of Being Earnest, all Wilde’s comedies contain a strong dose of melodrama; Saslavsky is perhaps the one filmmaker to give this aspect its due. The flashback is staged and lit like a Gothic horror movie, all blazing candelabra, crashes of thunder and flashes of lightning outside the windows. He resurrects this Sturm und Drang later on in the movie, for a scene that reveals Dolores is actually the long-lost mother of the prissy Duval. (My God, does heredity count for nothing?) That, of course, is why the husband is paying her money. If not, she might reveal The Truth and destroy the family’s good name.

Not that Duval is any model of discretion. She flirts quite openly with a smarmily handsome dandy played by Fernando Lamas, a few years before his Hollywood career as a ‘Latin Lover’ to the likes of Esther Williams and Arlene Dahl. Lamas describes her as “a charming puritan” (well, he’s half right) and does his utmost to lure her away from her admittedly dull husband. In fact, nobody in this film has much appeal apart from Dolores – who grows only more radiantly beautiful (like some queer and monstrous orchid) the more other characters prattle on about how depraved she is.

One of those stars whose acting verges on the subliminal, del Río transforms herself from dewy-eyed victim to hardened adventuress with barely a trace of visible effort. She may rival Greta Garbo and Catherine Deneuve for the crown of Great Actress Who Is Most Unlike Meryl Streep. At the film’s climactic ball (which resembles a luxuriant dress rehearsal for Vincente Minnelli’s in his 1949 Madame Bovary) she makes her entrance in a gown of purest virginal white. Wielding an outsize bouquet of stainless white flowers, just in case we miss the point!

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At the ball, her irritating simp of a long-lost daughter looks set to compromise herself (yet again) with the lusty Lamas. Without hesitating, Dolores sacrifices her own reputation to save her child – who is still unaware they are related. This new scandal costs her the love of her latest suitor, who offered her the fleeting prospect of respectability and marriage. (Yawn!) She stands without flinching as the man slaps her publicly across the face. The camera – taking its cue, perhaps, from Dolores – does not move either. We stay in a tight close-up as her face runs the gamut of shock, defiance, hope, anguish and despair. It’s not for nothing that Dolores del Río began in silent films.

Moments like this may make you prefer Story of a Bad Woman, not just to other Wilde adaptations, but perhaps even to Wilde’s original play. Lady Windermere’s Fan climaxes with a cloyingly sentimental mother-daughter reunion and ends with the ‘dangerous’ mother safely married off to a benign elder gent. In Luis Saslavsky’s version, mother keeps her identity to a secret to the end. She strides out of the movie – much as she strode into it – alone and resplendent. Immaculately styled and radiantly gowned, her head held high. “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.” Wilde must have had Dolores in mind when he wrote that.

David Melville

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An Inspector Falls

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2015 by dcairns

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It was in New York — enjoying cocktails with critic/filmmakers Dan Sallitt and Jaime Christley — I *THINK* — that the subject of Robert Hamer’s 1949 THE SPIDER AND THE FLY was mentioned, I *think* by Jaime. A Manhattan was consumed at some point so the whole thing’s blurry. But I had had a copy of this movie gathering dust for years, and had never watched it. The jist of the conversation was that I should blow off that dust and get the thing watched, and that I would not be disappointed.

In certain respects the film, starring Eric Portman as a French detective and Guy Rolfe as a master criminal, foreshadows Hamer’s better-known, later film FATHER BROWN (generically retitled THE DETECTIVE in America in what seems like a bid to obscure the Unique Selling Point). Both films are structured around a cat-and-mouse pursuit between a dogged detective and an aristocratic thief. But FATHER BROWN (a) gets shown on TV quite a bit and (b) isn’t very satisfactory — it lacks the uncanny quality of Chesterton’s source stories, and though it isn’t as committed to Catholic propaganda, what it substitutes, a bland moralism, doesn’t seem to interest the maker of KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. THE SPIDER AND THE FLY (a) never gets shown and (b) is very good indeed, with a proper complexity and a non-judgemental approach.

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Portman is a rather cold, clinical chief of police, determined to net the equally ruthless Rolfe (suave, cynical, linear as linguini in outline). He falls for a woman (Nadia Gray) whom Rolfe uses in  a job and allows to take the fall. But Rolfe is beginning to have feelings for her two. Will Portman resort to dirty tricks to get his man AND get the girl? And, more excitingly, what will happen at the one hour mark after both of those questions are unexpectedly answered? There’s undoubtedly a slight judder as the film has to reboot its entire narrative with just half an hour to go — maybe it could have been longer and that switcheroo might have sat more comfortably as a midway break — but by and large the benefits of bamboozling the audience outweight the risks to structural integrity.

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The cast is excellent. Portman, as ever, looks as if he might pour glue in your hair when you’re not looking, which adds a certain intensity to every scene he’s in. His character is a type I find appealing — the outwardly cold expert who falls passionately when he does fall. I didn’t really know Rolfe, though he seems to have slithered into everything. He’s wonderfully louche here. His frame, alarmingly attenuated, spaghettified as if by flirting with an event horizon suggests a stilt-walker. He’s the kind of master-criminal who probably leaves at each crime scene, as a calling card, a two-metre-long trouser leg. Supporting cast includes a skinny young Arthur Lowe who manages to look older in 1949 than he did in 1982, a whey-faced George Cole, James “Mr. Kipling” Hayter, and May Hallett as a very different housekeeper from the one she played in BLACK NARCISSUS.

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Lowe. left.

Best of all, it’s serious like IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY but witty and ironic like KIND HEARTS. Seth Holt edited it, Geoffrey Unsworth shot it, and the smudgy production design by Edward Carrick makes nearly every set look like either a smeared charcoal sketch or a dripping wet clay model slapped together crookedly and then somehow populated by life-sized, breathing people.

Alongside Alec Guinness, who did his best to prop Hamer up as his drinking slowly dissolved his mind, Eric Portman seems to have been Hamer’s favourite actor. He can bring the crisp coolness of Dennis Price to a heavier, more dramatic role. It looks as if he’ll never be appreciated the way some of his contemporaries are. A CANTERBURY TALE shows what he could do, but it doesn’t quite do for him what COLONEL BLIMP does for Roger Livesey, probably just because it isn’t as beloved a film. But its strangeness suits him. Portman fans looking for more viewing recommendations are directed towards DAYBREAK, my contender for the Saddest Film Ever Made.

Formby follows Function

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2010 by dcairns

Matthew Sweet, in his chatty history of marginalized British cinema, Shepperton Babylon, amusingly referred to ’30s-’40s musical comedy star George Formby as looking like ” a human being reflected in a spoon,” which is unkind but not unfair. It implies “like a human being but not a human being,” which is also fair enough. There’s something of the Australopithecus about our George, and no mistake.

Of course, we don’t require comedians to be handsome, nor should we. It can even be a disadvantage: Louise Brooks said that one shot of Buster Keaton in THE GENERAL was so beautiful it took her breath away and left her unable to laugh for the rest of the film. But Keaton tethers his soulful beauty to his earnestness as a comic character, and makes it work for him. Chaplin suppresses his faun-like lustiness with felt mustache, out-of-proportion clothing and funny walk, so it only emerges when he wants it to.

Jerry Lewis, with his child-like and vaguely special-needs persona, “the kid,” is much closer to Formby’s character, who has a child’s love of the smutty and fear of the genuinely sexual. But Jer doesn’t look as genuinely warped as George, it’s merely an effect, or series of effects, which he can produce at will. Jerry is the most protean of comics, in fact, having morphed through at least four completely distinct appearances, without yet assuming the mantle of actual old age. Skinny young television Jerry became the fuller-faced Jerry as solo movie star, advanced into graying and bespectacled middle-aged Jerry, where he still seems to reside, with a brief interval as bloated and leonine Jerry,  a side-effect of the meds he was taking for a life-threatening condition, which he now seems happily quite recovered from. During all those periods except perhaps the ill one, he had a promiscuous range of sub-faces, rubber masks he could stretch and distort out of his facial apparatus, suggesting all kinds of deformity, mutation, funhouse distortion and transdimensional interference.

George, by contrast, is just George, stuck with the face a jesting or maleficent creator inflicted upon him. His body is normal, indeed quite muscular and well-developed, but that just seems part of the gag/tragedy, the human shape crowned with a monkey’s confused head, wondering how it got there. And the voice seems to be George’s own, a Jerry-kid nasal whine pitched at an octave anyone can hear but only dogs want to.

Fred Astaire’s singing voice has been described as “unlikely but effective.” George’s is extremely unlikely indeed, but effective in its perverse way, especially when paired with his banjo ukulele. When it comes to the banjolele I must pronounce myself on the side of Bertie Wooster and against Jeeves, as counter-intuitive as that sounds — I find it a uniquely pleasing instrument, which makes me quite able to enjoy a Formby song despite the shuddersome features gurning at me from the screen. It’s a comedy instrument, I suppose, but it has the edge over the “Jew’s harp” or “swannee whistle” in that it can play a range of actual notes, and at high speed.

What of the films? Here, a fascinating evolution can be seen. BOOTS! BOOTS! from 1934 was George’s first starring part (he was by now well-established as a stage star in his native Lancashire), intended for Northern English audiences and making no effort whatever to reach a wider range of social classes or geographically distributed punters, nor to adapt to the structures and possibilities of the motion-picture medium, except in the minimal sense of allowing lights, camera and microphone to be present while George and co perform their play.

Bert Tracey’s film begins, promisingly, by tracking down a hotel corridor, observing the various items of footwear left out for George the bootblack to work his magic upon. Then the film proper begins, with an almost audible slamming of the door in the face of film language, as Tracey serves up a series of long-shot single-take compositions, where each set seems to come with its own camera set-up, which will never vary no matter how many times we go away and come back.

Long shots like the above go on for minutes at a time, the characters separated from the movie audience by great distances of gray, grainy space, their voices echoing off the four edges of the screen. Whereas great old movies make you wonder at the fact that all the actors in them are now dead, and yet immortally alive and present forever, this one brings home to you just how dead they all are, and makes you say a silent prayer of thanks for the fact.

But George stuck at it, and within a year had made two films, OFF THE DOLE and NO LIMIT, which made great strides forward in terms of cinematic technique. Ie, they allowed it to be present. Soon, George was introduced to dizzying concepts like “the close-up” (not a natural friend to George) and “the edit,” which could be used within scenes and not just as a means of stringing them together. That’s basically about as sophisticated as George’s movies ever got, although the camera might track to introduce a scene or follow movement. Reliable third-tier directors like Monty Banks and Marcel Varnel took charge of the films, and at Ealing the cast might include actual movie talents like Googie Withers, and other credits might include Basil Dearden as writer, Ronald Neame as cinematographer (on LET GEORGE DO IT!) and Robert Hamer as editor (TURNED OUT NICE AGAIN).

Sadly, despite the considerable talents assembled, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone concerned that a Formby vehicle might aspire to, or even benefit from, artistic merit. Everything is crammed in at the minimum standard expected by the average uncritical audience. The exception is the songs, or almost: often they come up with a catchy bit and then just repeat it ad nauseam, but at their best they can be rather pleasing.

There’s much to dislike about George: he made bad film after bad film, he was notoriously mean, although unlike other famously stingy comics he came from a wealthy background and never knew poverty, and he had, it seems, a horrendous wife, Beryl, who was convinced that any woman in proximity to George, especially his co-stars, had designs on her man, seduced by his outlandish allure and powerful miasma of sexual magnetism. Beryl even appears in his first two films, and such was her fame that she is credited solely by one name, “Beryl,” like Arletty, or Pink.

But on the positive side, Formby’s films were unashamedly working class in their appeal and subjects, in an era when British cinema was often tebbly tebby posh. Or else concerned with the antics of unconvincing cock-er-nees. Formby took British cinema north of Watford, and his audiences did not feel patronized by him. (WHISKY GALORE!, an excellent Ealing comedy from 1949, is set on a fictitious Scottish island, but it’s treated very much as foreign turf, which the audience must be carefully introduced to, with an ethnographic flavour, before we can be trusted to feel at home.)

Ealing pictures would look elsewhere to achieve their best successes in the comedy field, films they’re actually remembered for. A new format was assembled, often using an ensemble cast rather than a “leading man,” and seeking to capture some sort of national spirit — and this was effective until the format became more rigid and recognizable. Indeed, the best films from the Ealing school depart either intermittently or completely from the group comedy structure favoured by producer Michael Balcon in PASSPORT TO PIMLICO. In KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, Robert Hamer sought quite consciously to make a film “unlike any attempted before.”