Archive for Kiss the Blood off my Hands

Always On Sunday

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2009 by dcairns

IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY — the title was almost literally true in those days, since the factory smoke seeded the clouds during the week, and on the one day when the factories didn’t belch their fumes skywards, the clouds would take the opportunity to drop their watery payload.

Rain predominates in Robert Hamer’s post-war British noir, a genuinely oppressive and glum film, typifying the Ealing fondness for “network narratives” (David Bordwell’s useful phrase) branching out from families or neighbourhoods or institutions. Here, a group of honest and dishonest citizens in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London, go about their business, breaking hearts and by-laws, while housewife Googie Withers shelters her ex-lover, John McCallum who’s just escaped from Dartmoor Prison.

When we learn that McCallum’s been given “the cat” — his back is a lattice of scares from the prison whipping — I believed it, having learned that this appalling punishment was still being practiced in postwar Britain after raising doubts about Burt Lancaster’s flogging in KISS THE BLOOD OF MY HANDS. But I think I would have believed it anyway — Hamer’s movie reeks with authenticity, unlike Norman Foster’s slick comic-book thriller. Despite a reliance on studio work, the movie convincingly evokes East End life, with a surprising emphasis on Jewishness and a reasonable authenticity of dialect all round. Of course, the cockney’s have all had V-chips installed so they can’t swear, but I always get a kick out of characters saying “Sweet Fanny Adams” in Ealing movies. The expression may need some explaining for non-Brits. The etymology of the phrase is pretty convoluted, but my favourite reading of it sees it as word substitution code for “sweet fuck-all.” So its frequent use represents a triumph over the British Board of Film Censors.

Here’s Hamer’s fellow Ealing director Alexander Mackendrick, quoted from On Film-Making ~

“Though common in television, group stories seem to have died as a form of cinema these days.” (Well, they’re back now.) “They used to be much more common, and if I have a prejudice against them, it is probably because the English studio at which I got some early training was addicted to the kind of stories that had multiple protagonists (the Ealing comedies PASSPORT TO PIMLICO and WHISKY GALORE! for example).

“I have never been sure why writers and directors of that era were so happy with this formula. I think they believed it provided the opportunity for not only more variety of characters but also a lively pacing that could be achieved by intercutting the progression of the subplots. After one film of this kind I began to dislike the structure because I felt it weakened the drive of the narrative rather than strengthened it. All of the characters essentially became cameo roles that couldn’t be developed in any depth, and the multiplicity of minor tensions was apt to reduce the tension of the main theme.”

Now, it seems to me, we have enough successful, artistically interesting examples of the network narrative to see Mackendrick’s objection as signposting a potential pitfall rather than a necessary weakness of the form. And IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY stands as perhaps Ealing’s finest achievement with this manner of storytelling, centered upon the Withers storyline but spreading out to take in the adventures of her different family members, various east End characters, and the detective trailing McCallum (Jack Warner, Ealing’s favourite copper).

Flashback to a blonde Googie, echoing her early screen appearances (see THE LADY VANISHES).

When I looked at the movie years ago, I found its persistent gloom oppressive, stifling and itchy, which it is, but that’s the brilliance of the filmmaking. Hamer manages to make his widespread narratives all as claustrophobic as the adventure of the escaped convict in the tiny two-up-two-down house. I was also struck by the mysterious resemblance the film bears to Clive Barker’s HELLRAISER: in both films, the mother secretes her fugitive lover within the marital home, betraying her husband and clashing with her (step)daughter. The main difference is the substitution of Doug Bradley’s Pinhead for Jack Warner’s detective, and the fact that the lover in HELLRAISER has no skin. I wonder if Hamer’s film was an influence on Barker. It’s a powerful storyline, which seems capable of shifting through yet more genres: it has one foot in bedroom farce (“Quick, in here!”) already.

Hamer, who two years later would triumph with that greatest of black comedies, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, largely shuns humour here, defying Ealing’s usual chirpy manner and sinking us in meanness and corruption. There is a persistent strain of pessimism in British film of this period, perhaps stemming from our disappointment with the “land fit for heroes” we’d been promised in the war. This acerbic strain was gradually extirpated by the bureaucrats running the film business in the fifties, but would make a savage return with greater realism in the sixties.

The movie’s climax, a chase at the railway yard, magnificently lit by Douglas Slocombe, is marred by a couple of rather inexplicable model shots, but is nevertheless tense and expressionistic and dynamic — the crime story really does seem like the best way to make realism palatable to a wide audience as entertainment.

IAROS is based on a novel by Arthur LaBern, whose Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square was filmed much later, by Alfred Hitchcock, as FRENZY. In that movie, realism is no longer the keynote…

Ealing Studios DVD Collection – Champagne Charlie/The Maggie/It Always Rains On Sunday/Whisky Galore

Hello, Moto

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

Great stuff, this vodka. It gets you drunk, did you know that? Brilliant.

I had recourse to the bottle, left behind by visiting thespians, since Fiona was getting her roots done with our friend Nicola (officially deemed “too disturbing for Channel 4″) and while they were assailing each others’ hair with “colourants” I thought I’d distract myself with what turned out to be a vodka-fuelled triple-bill of MR. MOTO movies.

Peter Lorre starred as Japanese importer/detective Kentaro Moto eight times between 1937 and 1939 (whew!). My discs had a few extras as well so I supplemented my viewing with an interview with Lorre’s stunt double Harvey Parry, and a meditation on the historical significance of the man Moto. The thesis seemed to be that casting the sinister-of-aspect Peter Lorre as Moto was a way of acknowledging the mixed feelings had about the emergence of Japan on the world scene.

Wow, blogging drunk is weirdly EFFORTFUL (hic!).

I think the documentary mouthpieces had it slightly wrong about Moto. One weird thing about the films I saw was that in all three (THINK FAST, MR. MOTO; THANK YOU, MR. MOTO; MR. MOTO’S VACATION) there were Germanic actors playing Russians: Sig Ruman, twice, and Victor Varconi, once. So the suspicion formed that in a strange way, casting Lorre as Japanese was a way of de-Germanising him. The effect of a German playing Japanese, while obviously disturbing by the time of Pearl Harbour (he’s a one-man Axis!), was basically to render the actor and character as an all-purpose exotic. His precise ethnicity is blurred.

(Sig Ruman appears once with beard – prompting loud cries of “Don’t point that beard at me, it might go off!” and references to “Concentration Camp Erhardt” from Nicola and I — and once without, exposing a bare and raddled chin like an old man’s bottom.)

The Ruman chin in all its naked awfulness. Get that thing behind a beard!

My, the films are entertaining, though (and you don’t even need to be drunk). Lorre, slim and rather beautiful, but equipped with jangling European teeth, is elegant and always surprising as Moto. If you can forgive the horrible idea of casting a white man in yellowface, that is. Assisted by Harvey Parry, Moto deploys a peculiar variety of ju-jitsu that frequently culminates in a sock in the jaw or a blast from a small-calibre pistol. Like Sam Spade, Moto follows his own code of honour, which makes him worthy of our respect, and always capable of being surprising. For the first couple of films, the writers definitely play with the idea of Moto as a suspicious character — might he turn out to be the villain? He does not.

That sexy, sexy man.

Lorre adds to Moto’s surprising qualities with his own. His line readings are always unique, seductive, playful, sardonic, melancholic or slightly tipsy, and it’s not always easy to tell which. Plus there are the great luminous eyes, round and wet as soap bubbles. They appear to be enlarged by his glasses, until he takes his specs off and we realise that his particular googliness owes nothing to magnification.

The MOTO films are swift, getting the job done in just over an hour, and follow a harum-scarum, making-it-up-as-they-go-along system of plotting which may well be more carefully worked-out than appears. And they’re decorated with guest stars. The three I saw had John Carradine (being Spanish), Sidney “Satan is his father!” Blackmer (being German), Lionel Atwill (being Atwill) and J. Carroll Naish (not sure what he was trying to be). Also Joseph Schildkraut, a man whose Hollywood career went into mysterious decline after he let it be known that Louis B. Mayer moved his lips while signing his name.

Unlike the CHARLIE CHAN series, also produced by 20th Century Fox and at the same time, Moto’s adventures tend not to be whodunnits, but more generalised capers, filled with action, plots, reverses and disguises. They’re a bit more feverish and non-Cartesian, although just about possible to follow if you haven’t had a skinful. Rather than slowly winding themselves up by way of exposition and scene-setting, they begin in media res, with violent action which won’t be explained for several reels, after an apparently unrelated plot is already in full swing. The Chan films are slightly stiffer, like their middle-aged hero, though occasional propulsive track-ins at dramatic moments, and aberrant moments of comic surrealism, keep them frisky enough.

All three of the films I watched were directed by Norman Foster, who also made JOURNEY INTO FEAR for Orson Welles and Mercury Productions, and Shadowplay favourite KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (A.K.A. STEAM THE SEMEN OFF MY SPATS, and BLAST THE LINT OUT MY NAVEL). In interview, stuntman Parry calls Foster “a very serious man”. God, making those films must have been hell for him.

Our hero throws a ship’s steward to his death in a fit of pique.

Years later, a director asked Peter Lorre for a retake. “I only do this shit once,” the actor slurred back.

“Then how did you survive all those MR. MOTO films?”

“Easy. I was on drugs.”

Peculiar Crimes and Unexplained Deaths

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2008 by dcairns

dead cool

I’ve got an alternating thing going on with my reading at the moment — first I read one of Derek Raymond’s frazzled pulp nasties featuring his nameless police sergeant investigating horrific cases for department A14, Unexplained Deaths, the crappiest, least respected division of London’s Metropolitan Police (“the Met”) –

– then I read one of Christopher Fowler’s warmly elegiac, highly imaginative and thoroughly researched crime shockers featuring octogenarian detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, investigating bizarre crimes for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, a crappy and little-respected offshoot of London’s Metropolitan Police.

It seems to provide the variety I need.

While Raymond’s relentlessly downbeat policiers can put you into a bit of a suicidal depression, staved off only by the shameless purple-noir vivacity of his prose, (“He gave me one look, one of the straight kind, turned and got into the back of the Rover. It took off in a puff of rubber fury.”) and hilariously dated yet brilliant dialogue, Fowler’s more gentle work combines lashings of noir grimness and evil with the warmer Agatha Christie tradition in which crime-solving is a civilized, intellectual pursuit. It’s a lovely blend. White Corridors features a classic John Dickson Carr type locked room mystery, as well as a more psychological plot in which the readers perceptions are cunningly twisted around.

It was Carr who created The Department of Queer Complaints to solve Impossible Crimes, and in some respects Fowler’s Peculiar Crimes Unit is a descendant of this august body. Both writers eschew the supernatural while simultaneously evoking it: crimes and settings redolent of the unearthly are shown to have rational explanations, but in Fowler there’s little sense of the paranormal being “explained away” — an eeriness still lingers. His books are also crammed to rupturing with obscure lore and local history, much of which I’m filing away in the drawer of my brain labelled “Useless Information That Makes Life Worthwhile.”

Apparently there’s a movie/TV option on the Fowler books, while I’m trying to interest anybody I can find in films from the Raymonds (Chabrol has already done one — Raymond was always more welcome in mainland Europe, even writing a Parisian policier specifically for the French market) so this post isn’t entirely off-topic.

I feel I should intensify this London crime mood with some suitable film viewing — the wonderful DEATHLINE (known as RAW MEAT in the US — how dreadfully vulgar!) would seem to form a sort of stylistic link between the two series of books. In that sensational ’70s horror cult classic, Donald Pleasance’s irascible Inspector Calhoun manages to royally piss off everyone he meets, much like Raymond’s Sgt. or Fowler’s cantankerous fossil Bryant, while tracking down a cannibal navvie on the Underground.

It’s a film I’ve enjoyed numerous times, particularly for the irrepressible chemistry between Pleasence and his subordinate, Norman Rossington (the Beatles’ manager in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT). But I hope soon to have the DVD in my sweaty mitts so I’ll be unable to resist giving it a spin. (If only they’d made a whole series with Pleasence as Calhoun, tackling a modern Spring-Heeled Jack, hippie satanists and the Highgate Vampire. Calhoun is the true embodiment of the British copper’s particular brand of sarcasm. Are all policemen sarky? Our Johnny Hoppers seem particularly good at it.)

Norman Rossington story: when screenwriter Charles Wood spotted Rossington, playing an enlisted man, up front with the officers in the preparation for the final CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, he asked why Rossington wasn’t with the rest of the troops. “Because *I* am a highly-paid featured player,” retorted Rossington. Quite right.

Well, there are only five of Raymond’s series and six of Fowler’s, so this ecstasy can’t last, but while it does I’ll be steeped in London pea-soupers and cockney rhyming slang.

Here is some Cinephile’s Rhyming Slang, which will allow you to discuss movies without The Law getting wise to you:

Apples and stairs = featured players. (As in, “Who are the apples in that new Soderbergh?”)

Hoochy-coochy = Bertolucci.

Dirty Den = mise-en-scene.

La Dolce Vita = Cinecitta. (Also works the other way around.)

Bronx cheer = Lars Von Trier.

Dame Kiri = auteur theory.

Demon barber = Manny Farber.

Aneurin Bevan = SE7EN. (As in, “It had a moody, Aneurin-style title sequence.”)

Medically Ethical = Apeechatpong Weerasethakul.

“It puts you in mind of the days of Jack the Ripper!”

I love the London street scenes in KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS, even though they don’t look remotely like London streets. This being Universal Studios, I suspect they might be using bits of the mittel-European village set from FRANKENSTEIN.

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