Archive for Leo McKern

“People melting, indeed!”

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2015 by dcairns

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The above scornful remark by a Scottish policeman in X: THE UNKNOWN (1956) recalls the words of the burgomaster in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN: “Monster , indeed!” And screenwriter Jimmy Sangster probably knew his Universal horrors, as he was about to write CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

The perils of a little knowledge: IMDb attributes the film to Leslie Norman, the credited director, and Joseph Losey, and I thought I could see traces of Losey’s trademark snaky tracking shots, but reading more I learn that Losey was removed before production began. as star Dean Jagger refused to work with a blacklisted commie. A shame. Losey had made a short film for Hammer (the turgid A MAN ON THE BEACH) and would eventually shoot THE DAMNED for the studio, but he wasn’t too sorry to be removed from this hokum. Hammer had wanted a Quatermass sequel, I believe, but author Nigel Kneale had refused to allow his creation into the hands of another writer. A shame, in some ways, since the character played by token yank Jagger is closer to Kneale’s conception than the bellowing lout played by Brian Donlevy in THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT.

I had tried to watch this with Fiona once, but we got bored of the muddy quarry setting, which seemed to go on forever. The grumbling squaddies played by the likes of Anthony Newley and Kenneth Cope got sick of it and their lack of enthusiasm was infectious. Seeing it properly, I can’t understand this, as the movie is OK and for heaven’s sake, it’s a quasi-Quatermass set in Scotland. We should have been all over that shit.

My friend Alex, with whom I’ve been writing a Quatermass-inspired project, said he remembered this one improving as it went on. But later, when we discussed it, it turned out that he’d mentally grafted the last half of QUATERMASS II onto the front half of X, so naturally it improved. And somehow the bits went together quite well.

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If the film were in colour you’d be able to see that hapless young Kenneth Cope, centre, is wearing a red shirt. Yes, that’s a Star Trek joke.

The monster in the Scottish Quatermass turns out to be mud, which seems kind of apt given the weather. Radioactive mud from the earth’s core, explained by a shambolic bit of Sangster pseudo-science. But, as often with Sangster’s all-thumbs scripting, apparent mistakes or clumsy inconsistencies can be oddly evocative. On the surface, the film has little of the anti-militarism of Kneale’s writing, although the army try to dynamite the monster and then cement over the fissure it oozes from, so they’re idiots. But the best bit is the Geiger counter test — a group of soldiers are training in the use of Geiger counters when they happen to stumble upon the exact spot where the radioactive monster is going to emerge. It’s a fairly global coincidence, but that isn’t the best bit. The inevitable Michael Ripper tells his men that in a real radiation situation, they would be required to mark the spot and get out fast, as radiation can be very nasty. When, seconds later, the pale and trembling young Kenneth Cope does indeed find real radiation, he is ordered to stand on the spot so everyone can see where it is. He dies horribly.

This cheered me up no end, and made me feel the movie would be worth watching as soon as we could get out of the muddy quarry. And we do, to a couple of nuclear labs and a few simpler sets. The nearby village, Lochmouth, is scene of a great bit once the blob gets properly oozing — forced perspectives allow a very small blob to pretend to be a very big blob. For most of the film, the blob is absent, like Godot, though Leslie Norman does grant us a couple of blob’s-eye-view attacks. Before there was Michael Myer, there was X: THE UNKNOWN. X is also an unusual character in that he gets to physically embody his own main title, a gloopy X of rippling oily matter. Even Marlon Brando never got to embody a title, though clearly such an approach could have greatly enhanced his later work.

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Red-hating Dean Jagger is, appropriately, on the right, whereas Leo McKern is, like, whatevs.

Then Leo McKern turns up. Like chocolate, Leo McKern makes everything a bit better. I think even chocolate-coated rabies would be a bit better than the normal kind. But I’m unsure if a chocolate-coated Leo McKern would sort of cancel himself out. Anyway, I suspect he was Losey’s idea — his next film would be TIME WITHOUT PITY for that director. I was a little disappointed that McKern’s policeman character wasn’t given more to do — Sangster has crowded the film with largely benign authority figures who get on much too well together — and he accepts with complete credulity the theory that the radiation slayings plaguing this rural locale are the work of some mud. A scene of Leo angrily rejecting such a supposition could easily have been the best scene in the picture.

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Priest rescues little girl from blob, which is trickling listlessly through gap in dry-stone wall in front of a painting of Scottish scenery — and the little girl wins the movie’s best acting award by laughing her head off throughout. Nobody, it seems, had the heart (or energy?) to dub on screams.

Instead, the best bit is when makeup guru/top splodger Phil Leakey and effects wiz Les Bowie make a doctor melt. The doc has arranged a romantic tryst with a sexy nurse in the hospital’s “radiation room.” Because what woman can resist a proposition like that? The amorous medico’s disintegration is served up with two shots, a swelling finger closeup which suggests a Tom & Jerry hammer-to-the-thumb gag, while also looking forward to that staple of seventies and eighties horror, the bladder effect. Then there’s a LOST ARK type flesh-melt,all the most striking for its brevity. Lucio Fulci would have gotten a full minute out of that bit, but HE WOULD HAVE BEEN WRONG.

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Ha! The sign omits to mention that it’s the SEXY Radiation Room. OF DEATH.

So now commie-hating Dean Jagger has to kill the mud with special science. I liked the fact that the film’s ending hinges upon the need to zap the mud before it decides to rampage through Inverness. The film is a product of a gentler age, in which our empathy for Inverness was presumed to be strong enough to motivate a film’s climax. And I like the fact that Jagger is persuaded to use an experimental technique which, if it fails, is going to cause a gigantic explosion much more devastating than the mud monster.

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And then I *really* like the bizarre ending, when the mud-monster is blown up, and there follows a mysterious second explosion from the bowels of the earth. Dean Jagger is deeply perturbed. It shouldn’t have happened. Every one else is, like, whatevs, we blew up the mud didn’t we? But Jagger remains perturbed. And then the film abruptly ENDS, a colossal fuck-you to the curious. It’s not enough to constitute a typical horror movie closeup-of-a-bee sequel promise. It’s not pointed enough, specific enough. It’s just bloody weird, like Sangster started to write a final twist and then couldn’t be bothered, and then couldn’t be bothered XXX-ing out the bit he’d started.

Maybe they used up all their Xs in the title.

Things I read off the screen in “Lisa” AKA “The Inspector”

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 22, 2008 by dcairns

We have to give this film both titles, because neither one is remotely adequate: LISA could be anything, whereas THE INSPECTOR works only as a cop movie, and preferably one where there’s something a bit funny about the titular investigator. But this isn’t a cop movie — after the first ten minutes, our hero (Stephen Boyd) stops acting as a policeman and quickly becomes a fugitive from the law. But somehow the two titles conjoined have a pleasing effect.

The 1962 drama, adapted by Nelson Gidding (THE HAUNTING) from the novel by Jan de Hartog, and “helmed” as Variety would say, by screenwriter-turned-director Philip Dunne, suffers from several kinds of flatness, but maintains a trembling grip on the viewer’s interest via some unusual plot elements and a meandering, unpredictable narrative.

HOEK VAN HOLLAND.

This is kind of a road movie avante la lettre, and we begin on a train — the credits appear over weirdly blue-tinted railroad tracks rushing past, a little iris effect allowing us a bubble of natural colour in the centre of the (pan-and-scanned) Cinemascope frame. This seems a little psychedelic, but turns out to be cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson’s best stab at day-for-night rail travel.

VERBODEN TOEGANG

Lisa (Dolores Hart, whose brief gesture at movie stardom was about to burn out) is on this train, in the company of shady import-export man Marius Goring (who’s by this time grown into his increasingly sinister face) and being shadowed by cops Boyd and Donald Pleasence. The supporting cast of this film is an amazing array of Brit talent. Everybody alights at the ferry station to embark from England, and we get some Dutch signage.

FOR HIRE

These words are upside down, which signifies that the London cab is NOT for hire. Because upside down letters mean the opposite of right-side up ones! That’s an important thing for visitors to London to know. Boyd takes the taxi to Scotland Yard, passing some blitzed-out ruins, which give us a sense of period — the movie is actually set in the immediate post-war period.

DANGER: FALLING DEBRIS

Perhaps this sign, posted at the ruins, is a forewarning of Boyd’s condition. In the next scene we get exposition by the clog-full: Boyd’s fiancee is dead; Goring is an ex-Nazi white slaver exporting girls to South America, but the Brits have no evidence to hold him on; Lisa’s family died in the war and she’s a concentration camp survivor. Boyd vows to stop Goring by any means, even though he has no legal authority on British soil.

Anthony Mann, who directed Boyd in THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, considered him “no movie star”. The problem is that Boyd, so effective in his death scene in BEN-HUR, is really a character actor who’s interesting when he’s BIG, and dull when he underplays. Mann thought it was something to do with the brown eyes. Certainly Charlton Heston, who lacked Boyd’s versatility and sensitivity, makes an impression with facial micro-movements that Boyd, will all his skill, can’t match.

BLUT UND EHRE

The slogan is printed on a fake S.S. dagger which Goring displays when Boyd calls on him. Goring’s “legitimate” business is this tacky souvenir trade, while his real job is providing flesh for “a kind of house” in Brazil. Boyd punches the guy out and barely restrains himself from shooting the fallen creep. Here he’s a little like Robert Ryan in ON DANGEROUS GROUND, but just enough to make you wish Ryan was playing the role.

Boyd finds Lisa outside — she’d already left by the fire escape. She tells him that Goring had promised to take her to Palestine, where Israel is being formed. She didn’t trust him, but was sufficiently indifferent to her life that she was willing to take a chance. When Boyd tells her Goring’s true plans, she LAUGHS: “Sorry, it’s a private joke,” and this teaser to the film’s biggest, weirdest plot point, kept me watching for a bit longer. So did Dolores Hart, who’s very natural and alive and immediate as Lisa. She doesn’t manage to quite portray the character’s journey from battered cynic to loving, revitalised girl, because she’s too vital at the start, but she’s a winning presence. Movie stars tend to control their faces and make each expression count, whereas her face is all over the place, and she throws smiles and frowns around as if leaving a trail. It’s refreshing.

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Number tattooed on Lisa’s wrist.

Boyd, touched by Lisa, promises to get her to Palestine. Taking her back to Rotterdam, he brings her home to mother, who notes the girl’s resemblance to Boyd’s late fiancee, who was killed by the Nazis, and assumes Lisa is a prostitute who has bewitched her son. Lisa angrily explains that this is impossible — she was detained in Auschwitz’s medical wing.

Right. Yikes. The movie never goes into clinical detail, which is a relief, but also sets the imagination working horrible overtime. What kind of damage has been inflicted that would physically prevent Lisa from working as a prostitute? I can’t think offhand of another film whose plot hinges in this way on the condition of the heroine’s downstairs parts. Boyd is still unaware of this gynaecological bombshell, and the film makes much of the poignancy of his falling in love with Lisa as he tried to transport her to the new Jewish homeland, and her resistance to the idea, based on her belief that she can never have sex, let alone children.

STRYDPERK VAN DODGE CITY

A book being read by Leo McKern, a smuggler who takes Boyd and Hart on as crew for his barge (Finlay Currie, the convict from Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS, sets Boyd up with the position). This should get the duo as far as Morocco, but there’s a problem — Marius Goring has been found dead. According to later plot developments, Boyd and Hart each suspect the other of murdering the Nazi pimp (can there be a more unsavoury job description in any language? “What do you do for a living, Marius?”), but this potential source of suspense isn’t really brought out. Boyd’s old partner Donald Pleasence colludes in his escape from Holland and the group hit the seas.

LYNCH WET DE RED CREEK

Another of McKern’s paperbacks: he likes his westerns.

We get to Morocco and the signs disappear for a looong time. Hugh Griffith plays another, more sinister smuggler, a Welsh Dutchman (complimenting Boyd’s Irish Dutchman and Currie’s Scottish Dutchman) who offers to take the pair to Palestine but at a cost: Boyd must work for him for a year as payment for Lisa’s passage. But there’s an alternative: an American (Neil McCallum, a Canadian who made a steady living playing Yanks in Britain) will take them without such conditions — but Lisa must have a medical examination, since the Israelis don’t want any diseases coming in. The examination terrifies Lisa, I think partly because it’s to be conducted by a character apparently called DOCTOR METROPOLIS*. I certainly wouldn’t want anybody named after a Fritz Lang movie fumbling with my undercarriage. Although DR MABUSE would be worse, I guess.

The medical turns out to be a cathartic release for Lisa, who experiences a quasi-flashback as she tells Doc Metrop her story. Appropriately enough, this features a multi-image shot of eyes borrowed straight from Lang’s METROPOLIS. I wonder if the Doc’s character name preceded/inspired the reference? 

It all ends in a fade to white, and is the liveliest bit of filmmaking in the whole show. The need to treat the sequence allusively rather than directly unlocks some imaginative muscle in the director. Maybe the film has unseen compositional merits obscured by the wretched pan-and-scan treatment dished out by some long-ago TV broadcaster, but it’s the plot and guest-stars that allow it to survive a viewing. Malcolm Arnold’s score tries to convince us that THIS IS CINEMA, but actually just gets in the way.

(Once in a while I find somebody who wants to swap movies, but doesn’t have anything I particularly want, so I take pot luck, and thus I find myself with a film like LISA AKA THE INSPECTOR. And it sits, unwatched, for years, until the night I randomly pluck it out and slot it in the machine.)

Oh, I almost forgot, we also have Robert Stephens as a navy man, sloping around like a spy after Boyd. “You Dutchmen, always on the go!” he rejoices, and I think this may well be the line Robert Stephens was BORN TO SAY. There is such a line for all actors. Anthony Hopkins’ line is “I’m a mercenary ham with the head of a whale!” but no one has written it into a script for him yet.

Stephens informs Boyd that tests have show that Goring died accidentally, falling on his S.S. knife. The authorities would like Boyd to return and clear the matter up, but he’s not being charged with murder. And nobody much liked Goring anyway.

BUT! Browne the American doesn’t want Lisa to go to Israel: now that he knows her history he wants to pack her off to Nuremberg to testify about what was done to her.  It’s clear this would be destructive to her psychologically, and she still really wants to go to Israel, where she’ll finally feel safe. This part of the film was the most powerful for me: some well-meaning people are quite willing to destroy Lisa in order to create a powerful effect at the war crimes tribunal. A sensation of desperation.

At this point, signposts suddenly reappear, helping Boyd chart his way through the unfolding narrative:

AIR ATLAS

Stencilled on the plane to Germany which Lisa doesn’t get on, because Boyd realises she’s in love with him. They make a deal with the Welsh Dutchman and set sail with Arab Harry Andrews. After numerous examples of nationality-muddled casting, the film finally presents a Brit browned-up. Andrews is appalling casting. His accent fluctuates across the globe’s entire surface, and at one point he gets water splashed in his face and turns lighter. Absurd.

MADRE DOLOROSA

Not the most encouraging name for a ship (shades of Dario Argento!), but if Harry Andrews is the captain and he’s wearing body makeup, I guess things can’t get much worse. More double-dealings and plot twists turn up, but after the quasi-resolution of the love story, none of it matters too much. The final leg of the journey puts me in mind of Clouzot’s MANON, which likewise ends with a trip to the new state of Israel, but Clouzot’s conclusion is both bleaker and better. He’s a real director, and Philip Dunne just isn’t. Despite the strange lack of star-power in the central roles, his movie does deliver a couple of unusual characters who engage the interest and the sympathy. It doesn’t quite find a narrative structure that uses and resolves these people, but I’m still reasonably glad I saw it.

Having recently seen an Arab documentary, THE ARABIAN DREAM,  which as you might expect took a more sceptical view of the founding of Israel, this was also fascinating to see as a time-capsule from an era before the Israeli dream really started to turn sour…

*Actually it’s “Dr. Mitropoulis”, silly.

Tick Tock

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2008 by dcairns

TIME WITHOUT PITY continues my exploration of the work of Joseph Losey — pith helmet on, machete in hand.

The plot — Michael Redgrave is an alcoholic novelist newly emerged from a sanatorium to discover his son convicted of murder and due to be executed. Armed only with an unshakable faith in his boy’s innocence, Redgrave attempts to redeem his dissolute life and failed parenthood by finding some “tangible evidence” to save the son from execution.

The script is faintly derived from Emlyn Williams’ play Someone Waiting, but screenwriter Ben Barzman  (a fellow blacklistee of Losey) has completely exploded the plot and reassembled it in a radical new shape: Williams’ play takes place entirely AFTER the son’s execution. Despite completely remodelling the narrative trajectory, Barzman retains most of Williams’ characters, and some of the clues by which the murder is cunningly solved, including a very unusual alibi.

The film boldly begins by revealing the true killer, in a starkly lit murder scene that certainly catches the attention, with Tristram Carey’s clamorous score blasting at us, swaying lights and looming shadows, a sexy victim, and the bulbous form of Leo “Number Two” McKern. Nevertheless, I felt it may have been a mistake to discard any mystery at this early point. It’s true that Leo McKern turning out to be the killer would be unlikely to surprise anyone, but perhaps a solution might have been to recast the part with someone softer and rewrite the character to make him less of a shouty caricature of capitalist vulgarity. Without someone as blazingly guilty as McKern, naturally shifty performers like Paul Daneman and Ann Todd would have moved into prime suspect mode. But then we wouldn’t have McKern, which would be kind of a shame.

As Redgrave begins to investigate, Losey lets rips with some mirror-maze visuals and allows us to see just how pathetic a figure the hero is. This really works. Not only is the man faced with a horrific deadline (like THE BIG NIGHT, this film compresses its narrative into a tight frame), but he’s hopelessly ill-equipped, both physically and psychologically, to tackle the task in hand. All he has going for him is utter desperation.

Redgrave is the perfect man for the job — in his youth, the kind of light comedian Britain abounded in, as demonstrated in Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES, by middle age Redgrave was our finest neurotic, able to make weakness of any kind both sympathetic and compelling. He’s perfectly fitted to this role, and makes one wish the film were about, say, 15% better to bring it up to his superb level. 

Guest stars! Peter Cushing as an expository plot function; Joan Plowright as a showgirl (!); Renee Houston as a drunken Scotswoman surrounded by clocks. Houston, a recent discovery of ours, brings a welcome touch of music hall grotesquerie to any film. Here she’s in full harridan mode, with Bride of Frankenstein hair, but brings enough nuance to her role to justify the excessive symbolism of her cacophonously ticking, ringing and chiming flat. Hefting a clock, she slurs:

“One of the little pleasures in life, Mr. Gage, I can now give myself: just to hear it ring, and know you don’t have to go anywhere.”

Good scenes like the above, and each of Redgrave’s painful visits to his son (each starting with calm and reconciliation, degenerating into despair and recrimination, driving home more fully each time what a failure our hero is), are somewhat let down by bad ones. A visit to the offices of an MP campaigning against the death penalty allows for some dramatically redundant and boring speechifying, delivering points which should be illustrated dramatically by the plot. (But is that a frivolous Dirk Bogarde cameo, or just some cut-price Dirkalike?)

Losey’s artsier moments are enjoyable, but his more restrained ones are excellent too. Tracking from a wide shot into an over-the-shoulder, moving his actors out of frame to have them rediscovered by the camera seconds later, he choreographs the film with economy and elegance, with impactful cutting and subtly emphatic framing. British producers hoping for a bit of Hollywood dynamism from their blacklisted Americans got their money’s worth from Losey.

Not to spoil the end, but of course Redgrave must stake his own life to save his son’s — here there’s evidence of censorship and mucking about, with unlikely carelessness with guns and lip-flap from a major character, who presumably said something politically or morally questionable (the more you look at censorship practice the more it always seems to have a political point to limit thought). But the main thrust of the conclusion is excellent, even if the details are weakened — it confirms Lars Von Trier’s verdict on capital punishment: a very bad thing, but excellent for drama.

(But before you ask — I LOATHE Von Trier’s DANCER IN THE DARK.)