Archive for Leslie Arliss

Forbidden Divas: A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2017 by dcairns

David Wingrove’s back! With another Forbidden Diva piece, although, as he put it to me, “Perhaps it’s not really a ‘diva’ movie (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray, anyone?) but the director Leslie Arliss seems like a candidate!” Now read on ~

A Villain in the Villa or A Room with a Screw

“It might be good to have a man about the house.”

– Margaret Johnston, A Man about the House

Do you adore films where genteel Victorian ladies feel their hearts start to throb with genteel and tumultuous passions? Do you revel in swarthy Latin seducers, their dark curls aglow with Brylcreem, their bronze torsos a-glisten with spray-on studio sweat? Do you yearn, above all, to travel to exotic back-projected locales where roistering peasants stomp riotously – the strains of a wild tarantella – on vast and overflowing vats of grapes? Or where palatial villas cling precariously to a cliff-edge, while the waves pound orgasmically, over and over, on the rocks below?

If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, A Man about the House (1947) may well be some sort of High Camp Holy Grail.

Two demure Victorian sisters (Margaret Johnston and Dulcie Gray) have been forced to live in ‘reduced circumstances’ and run a girls’ school in the wilds of suburban London. We experience their horror as their pupils play bum notes on the piano and, occasionally, use an incorrect form of the subjunctive! One day they receive an inheritance from their eccentric and long-vanished Uncle Ludovic, who moved to Italy and became “an artist” – and whose name cannot be mentioned in polite circles. (The exact nature of his offence is left to our imagination; perhaps not a great deal is needed.) This inheritance includes a large sum of money and a plush, if slightly dilapidated villa on a cliff-top outside Naples.

The two ladies make the journey down in inclement weather. They are still swathed in dour mourning black, not for their uncle – Heaven forbid! – but for their father, who has also recently died. Their names, by the way, are Agnes and Ellen Isit. This is pronounced EYES IT and not IS IT, which is a bit of a letdown. Personally, I can think of few things more fun than being named after an existential conundrum. The starchy and severe Agnes (Johnston) brings along her Scotch terrier; the sweet and rather fragile Ellen (Gray) brings her large and lazy tabby cat. Their train pulls into Naples as the rain pours down in torrents. Agnes is outraged to see that the stop has been marked NAPOLI. “Why can’t they call it Naples,” she sputters, “as we do?” She is the proud embodiment of a Little Englander abroad. No doubt Nigel Farage would find a use for her special talents.

But a stranger is waiting on the platform. A tall, dashing and vaguely sinister Italian named Salvatore. He was the uncle’s general factotum at the villa; he has come to welcome the ladies to their new home. Exactly what his relationship with Uncle Ludovic may have been is left, politely, to our imagination. We can hazard a guess when Ellen – on her first morning at the villa – unveils one of the late uncle’s paintings, which was shrouded in a heavy velvet curtain. It is an image of Salvatore, fully nude, in the homoerotic guise of the Great God Pan. Unusually for a portrait in movies, it is filmed strictly from the waist up. We see Salvatore’s nude and muscular chest, his impish and rather perverse smile, the twist of roses and vine-leaves in his lustrous black hair. The sisters may only have just met him, but we can tell – from the look of frozen shock on their faces – that they have got to know this man rather well.

As played by the swoonily handsome Kieron Moore, Salvatore is the one Italian in captivity who speaks in Neapolitan dialect with an Irish brogue. Moore is best remembered today for the disaster that all but destroyed his career, his pallid turn as Count Vronsky in the 1948 remake of Anna Karenina opposite an exquisite but rather bored-looking Vivien Leigh. In fairness, not a great deal can be done with a role like Vronsky – but the lovely Moore failed to do even that. Yet he was an up-and-coming heart-throb in British films of the 40s. Leslie Arliss, who wrote and directed A Man about the House, cast him a number of times. The leading auteur of bodice-ripping Gainsborough romances, Arliss had previously made a star of James Mason (The Night Has Eyes, The Wicked Lady) and Stewart Granger (The Man in Grey, Love Story). It is safe to say he was a connoisseur of dark and brooding male beauty.

It does not take long to work out that Salvatore is up to no good. His ancestors were a dynasty of feckless aristocrats; they once owned the land the villa is built on. Quite naturally, he feels the whole place is his by right. Our main element of suspense is about which of the two sisters will succumb to him first. His eye, of course, is on Agnes. She is the elder and heir presumptive to the estate. For the most part, Agnes glares at him in dour disapproval. (She has the air of Theresa May on a jaunt to Brussels – a stolid and unimaginative Englishwoman, forced against her will to have dealings with disreputable foreigners.) Yet one morning, Agnes discreetly but provocatively undoes the top button of her dress. She wanders out to meet Salvatore in the villa’s sunlit garden. There she sees him holding Ellen by the arm. Flying into a jealous rage, she promptly storms back inside. Salvatore had taken her sister’s arm only to stop the girl tripping over a stone. But in the warped eyes of Agnes, he is already guilty of betrayal.

Things come to a head at the annual grape harvest. As in any film with a pastoral Italian setting, the peasants pour them into an enormous vat and stomp on them with gay abandon. Salvatore frolics with a lusty local wench, whose bosom is in constant danger of spilling out of her blouse. He even induces Ellen to join the fun and tread some grapes herself! Agnes stays locked in her room, obsessively playing games of patience. Suddenly, she can endure no more. Flinging open the door to her balcony, she stands there like Death in a story by Edgar Allan Poe – glaring balefully down on the festivities. She shrieks out a single word: “SALVATORE!” All at once, he leaves off roistering and bounds up the marble staircase to her chamber. The soundtrack rising to a thunderous frenzy, he runs inside and the door swings slowly shut. A Man about the House may not be a Gainsborough production, but it has the same inimitable blend of depravity and coyness.

It is not long before Agnes and Salvatore are married. Every morning, he lovingly prepares her a special egg-flip. She begins to suffer from headaches, nausea and fatigue. When the Scotty dog dies after licking a spilled egg-flip off the floor, even Ellen starts to grow a tad suspicious. Having started off as a blend of Black Narcissus and A Room with a View, the film now morphs bizarrely into a Victorian remake of Suspicion. Never one to indulge in excessive displays of originality, Arliss even places a light-bulb in the drink that Salvatore carries up the stairs to his wife’s sickbed. Yet quite unlike the ending of the Hitchcock film, the finale of A Man about the House actually does make sound (if deeply disquieting) dramatic sense. Kieron Moore’s was a star career that never quite got off the ground, so a director was under no pressure to show that he was actually a nice guy.

Ultimately, A Man about the House is ‘not nice’ and all the better for it. Yet a full seventy years before Brexit, its message is alarmingly clear. It implies – and not even too subtly – that solid and respectable Britons would do well to steer clear of dodgy Continental types. It shows that any dalliance of that sort can only end in tears.

David Melville

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03 Giovedi

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2014 by dcairns

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Yeah, I haven’t finished trawling through Bologna yet, have I?

One thing about Il Cinema Ritrovato — unlike a lot of good experiences, it isn’t over quickly. Once you hit the wall (which happened to me before I was really halfway through), time slurs to a near-halt like Wendell Corey on a steep slope, accelerating or dissolving away during screenings and conversations — the minutes flit, but the days stretch on, impersonators of infinity. It’s nice!

I had now adopted a policy of seeing things loud enough to keep me awake — other anti-sleep qualities were strong narratives, speed, and familiar faces. This made the early Japanese talkies and the Polish widescreens a bad risk, but I still hoped to catch some (I failed with the ‘scopes).

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Chaplin’s WORK was supposed to begin the day at 9, but I was too sleepy. I think the first thing I made it to was THE HORRIBLE DR HICHCOCK at 10.45. In the intro it was explained that despite valiant efforts by restorers, legal wrangles prevented the movie from being repaired, so the print we saw was somewhat pinked, badly spliced, and missing at least one whole scene. I think it may have been missing more, because although I’ve seen it before I didn’t remember it making QUITE so little sense. But it’s an Italian horror movie so anything’s possible. I wished they’d screened THE GHOST instead.

And then it was lunchtime already — after which (I’m sure it was a good one, but I didn’t take notes) I finally saw one of the Italian compendium episodes that had been getting such raves throughout the fest (Alexander Payne declared one to be the best thing he saw, but nobody could tell me WHICH one). I’d been a touch resistant, since in the compendia I’d seen, only the Fellini episodes tended to be any good. Shows what I know. This one was from Alessandro Blasetti’s TEMPI NOSTRI, the follow-up to his ALTRO TEMPI, which inaugurated the who anthology-film craze in Italy.

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It was introduced by Blasetti’s daughter, a voluble nonagenarian, and I realized why these screenings were all overrunning by half an hour. But the background she provided was ESSENTIAL — the episode starred Vittorio De Sica and was SUPPOSED to re-team him with Gina Lollobrigida, with whom he’d formed a popular couple in the previous movie. But Lollobrigida balked at playing a deceived wife, arguing that it was not plausible that a man married to her would ever stray. Blasetti was forced to recast so Elisa Cignani is on jiggling duties instead (literally, she vibrates her body in every scene, sometimes by bouncing one crossed leg, sending tremors through her torso which assume Vesuvian proportions beneath her blouse), but director and co-writer also rewrote the script, I can’t think why. We can see that Cignani was supposed to be De Sica’s wife, but now she’s his parents’ ward, raised as his sister, and the narrative turns not on her jealousy and his infidelity but on her silent love for him and his blindness, until he realizes he shouldn’t think of her as a sister anymore… It doesn’t quite work, but what’s left is the comedy of De Sica as an ebullient Neopolitan bus driver, with a sour-faced supervisor who wants to sack him. It’s just like On the Buses, in other words, if that 70s sitcom were charming and sexy instead of ugly and repulsive.

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My vim somewhat restored, I stayed for TOBY DAMMIT, though the print turned out to have subtitles only for the English bits. I’ve seen it often enough that I could follow it. It was better than the old DVD that dubbed it into French — Fellini’s mulit-lingual melange is essential to the hallucinatory experience.

A spirit of randomness kept me in my seat for OIDHCHE SHEANCHAIS, which looks like I just collapsed on my keyboard but is in fact Irish Gaelic for NIGHT OF THE STORYTELLER. Robert Flaherty’s long-lost movie was the first film in that language, and its apparent loss left a puzzling hole in the tragic record. To everyone’s amazement, a print has turned up in America (it was assumed the film, of only local interest, was never exported) and can now be seen. It’s terrible, but at least it can be seen. A kind of footnote to MAN OF ARAN, it has clear historical interest, but nothing else. My objection is that Flaherty films the whole twenty-minute piece with five locked-off set-ups. Wide shot, storyteller, listener, listener, listener. Utterly inexpressive. Somewhat typical of the approach to early talkers seen elsewhere at the fest (Japan, Wellman) but applied here with a rigorous lack of creativity. Then there’s the storyteller himself: some said they could have closed their eyes and enjoyed the music of his voice without the need for translation (and certainly without the need for pictures) — I found his a snore. Admittedly, I was now permanently sleepy from insomnia and the heat.

Then there were three shorts with Peter Sellers, two of them freshly discovered and the third part of the set. That one ran first. It had a couple of laughs — Sellers attempts to cure his cold by wearing a sock full of mustard round his neck, which ruptures in a disgusting welter — b&w film so it’s like a magma flow of porridge slow-oozing into Sellers’ VERY HAIRY CHEST. Disgusting but sort of funny. But the film wasn’t good, and I only stayed for a few minutes of the first redisocvery, DEARTH OF A SALESMAN (mis-spelled in the program, presumably leading some to expect a proper Arthur Miller piece). When the shorts’ rescue hit the news, I discussed them with Richard Lester, who said “I hope they show more artistic ambition than THE CASE OF THE MUKKINESE BATTLEHORN.” They show less. Though not quite at Flaherty’s level of soporific inertia, what I saw of DEARTH was enjoyable only for the hilariously mismatched angles, with Sellers’ position transmuting instantly between every shot.

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Then there were some Soviet films about Hitler, (“Good evening, Hitler fans”) screened in the Il Cinema in guerra contro Hitler season. Some nice zany shorts — Hitler, for some reason, was always a comedy figure to the Russians — maybe if you’re working for Stalin, you just can’t help laugh at Hitler. The main feature was THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SCHWEIK, a follow-up to the popular WWI comedy, with Schweik (a really irksome clown, kind of a Soviet El Brendel) getting drafted by the Nazis but defecting to aid the partisans in Yugoslavia. Weirdly, the ending, in which Hitler is captured and exhibited in a cage, and somehow mutates into werewolf form (as inexplicable as Cleopatra the Chicken Lady — “Maybe it as the storm?”), directly echoes a passage in the previous evening’s Hitler entertainment, Pabst’s DER LETZTE AKTE, where Adolf has an infernal monologue about how he’ll never surrender because the allies would show him off as a caged freak…

More synchronicity — Olaf Möller and Christoph Huber had just explained to me their theory about the donkey — that ever-golden cinematic axiom which adds lustre to every opus — and SCHWEIK was well supplied with asinine entertainment, including an animatronic donkey hind legs– an ass’s ass — which kicks various characters. This had Olaf swooning with the possibilities. Has the apparatus been preserved in some Russian film museum, fur flaking off to expose the cybernetic fetlocks beneath? If so, Olaf will gladly drop a kopeck in its slot to make it buck again.

Exhaustion was setting in — I had a good dinner, and didn’t feel able to face another movie, but LADY FROM SHANGHAI was showing in the Piazza Maggiore and it was on my way home, so I thought I’d just look in and see how it was looking. It’s not a reconstruction — no missing footage was found — but it is a very attractive digital presentation — and as it turned out, it was just about to start (everything starts late in Bologna) as I appeared. So I sat on the curb, all seats being occupied, and surrendered to the inevitable…