Archive for Leslie Banks

Drag Race

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2011 by dcairns

WINGS OF THE MORNING (1937) — shown to a select few as part of Filmhouse’s beloved “Projecting the Archive” programme — was Britain’s first Technicolor film. The great Jack Cardiff, trained in the ways of three-strip at MGM, was camera operator, but Ray Rennahan (an old hand from the two-strip days of DR X) was cinematographer. Harold D Schuster directed, but we don’t care! What concerns us is the gorgeous, soft, muted hues and the bizarro plot turns and genre shifts.

Technicolor is very much under the supervision of Natalie Kalmus, estranged wife of the bloke who invented it — she was drummed out of Hollywood after her dictatorial demands about how colo(u)r should be deployed ran up against the expertise of photographers and designers who could get great results by ignoring her. GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) seems to have been the test case: Kalmus demanded restraint, they cut loose for one scene, found they liked the more vivid look, and booted her off the set. Thereafter Nat K would find herself working exclusively in Britain, getting kicked off sets by Michael Powell. But that hasn’t happened yet in 1937, where it’s forever gentle earth tones, and Natalie Kalmus and her law of restraint holds illimitable dominion over all.

But hey! There’s something to be said for it. The warm pastels compliment the actors’ skin tones, and when a few scenes pop out louder due to unavoidable red London buses and the like, you really feel the vibrancy. This film isn’t good in any recognized sense of the word, but it coasts along on prettiness and peculiarity.

Although this is a 2oth Century Fox production, it’s uniquely British owing to its inadequacies in casting and plotting, but these are so off-the-wall as to instil it with fascination. Only in Britain do we regularly seem to find major top-of-the-line product put together by people who manifestly don’t know the first thing about movies and stories. This one commits an elementary beginner’s mistake by opening twenty years before its main characters are born. For no reason. Never do this: it’s frowned upon in the industry. This protracted prologue presents an unlikely romance between portly landowner Lord Clontaf (pronounced variously by the cast) and a young gypsy “princess” (they like giving themselves extravagant titles, we’re told). He’s Leslie Banks, disastrously — this is one of those films which doesn’t know what to do about his dramatic facial scarring, so as in Powell’s quota quickie THE FIRE STARTERS, they always show him in profile, Like Dick Tracy. But his mouth is distorted by the wound, and so this is much worse than just letting us see him properly: we find ourselves edging round in our seats, leaning across our neighbours, trying to get a better look. What’s wrong with his face? In HOUNDS OF ZAROFF and THE SMALL BACK ROOM and even THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH the face is more or less displayed to full effect, and we don’t mind the scar at all.

The girl is played by Annabella, just before she married Tyrone Power. her accent is thick, charming and unexplained by narrative contrivance. Once the prologue us disposed of her character ages into Dame Irene Vanbrugh, who has a richly English accent, and now we meet a second Annabella, playing the great-granddaughter of the first, having been raised in Spain with the same French accent as before. The Civil War is raging so Annabella escapes the country disguised as a boy — Duchess Maria of Leyva becomes Duke Mario, and then, having wound up back in Ireland where the action started, she carries on in drag for no reason. The insanity of this is questioned by none of her gypsy friends, but it’s basically the source of all the entertainment for the next half hour. For two reasons –

1) Annabella makes a stunning boy. She’s obviously having the time of her life, also. Given that she did marry Tyrone Power, she’s been the subject of rumours, and I’m just going to declare them all true based on this performance alone. And it’s sort of a sweet thought: this wasn’t a lavender marriage where the affection was false. Instead we have two randy bisexuals assuming respectability via holy matrimony, shagging each other senseless and also shagging everything else in sight. If that’s how you roll, it seems a productive arrangement.

I like Annabella well enough as a girl, but she exerts even more attraction in a suit and beret, puffing on a cigar. I’m at a loss to explain it. At this point I would begin to question myself, except I can’t think of anybody else I fancy who wears a suit and smokes cigars, so I don’t really know where to begin.

2) Annabella meets Henry Fonda, playing a Canadian horse trainer. (British films are often coy about shoehorning American stars into the action, so we call them Canadians.) Like Leslie Banks in Part 1, he’s initially far more interested in her horse, but soon he’s sparring aggressively with Duke Mario, spanking him/her, kicking him/her up the arse, and calling him “shrimp.” Hank F probably has less homoerotic fervor about him than any leading man who ever lived, so this sequence doesn’t sparkle with forbidden allure quite as it might with Ty Power in the role (the celluloid would combust!) but that adds to the surreality and giant overhanging question mark about what will happen next. In fact, Fonda learns the truth the hard way by physically tearing Annabella’s shirt off in a bush (long story) — we watch from without as the branches wave and a shrill scream sounds forth. Fonda emerges, visibly shaken, clutching the torn chemise, and stammers “I’m sorry!” Which puts me in mind of this –

Drag artiste Jessie Matthews is revealed in all her girlhood in FIRST A GIRL.

Thereafter, all it takes is for Henry to see Annabella in a beautiful evening gown and he forgets his dislike of the “spoiled brat” and falls madly in love. At which point the movie “introduces” the “world famous tenor” John McCormack (“How can you introduce someone who’s world famous?” asked David Wingrove, on my left) and the movie grinds to a deadly halt as he sings three — THREE!!! — “old favourites.”

Seconds out, round five– having tried its hand at period romance across the class barriers, Spanish Civil War drama (briefly), transvestite romp, and deadly musical, the movie now turns into a racing picture, with Annabella’s great-gran (remember her? She used to be Annabella! DO keep up, will you?) and Hank both entering horses in the Epsom Derby. Cue stunning colour shots of London and humorous Derby Day characters (I’m particularly intrigued by King Honolulu, King of the Derby, a black guy with gold teeth — “I got a HOOORSE!!!”) and a frantically edited finish. If Annabella wins, she’ll be forced to marry snooty Don Diego, but if she loses, her family will be ruined but on the other hand she can marry Hank? How can this be resolved satisfactorily? I know, but I’m not telling.

Fonda also has a very funny dog, called Scruffy, which was my first boyhood dog’s name.

Most images swiped from this excellent article by Murray Pomerance.

Quick Fire

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2010 by dcairns

THE FIRE RAISERS is a Michael Powell quota quickie with a couple of familiar names in its credits –

Alfred Junge on art direction: Junge designed several of the great Powell-Pressburger films of the forties, before Powell decided to replace him with costume designer Hein Heckroth. (Junge’s reluctance to place a Coke machine in the anteroom of the afterlife in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH decided Powell that the man was no longer on his wavelength. Still, for a while, Junge was one of the key Germans in Powell’s team.)

Derek Twist on editing: Twist rescued EDGE OF THE WORLD from disaster, in Powell;s view, and later got a directing gig on END OF THE RIVER, although jungle sickness meant he didn’t actually direct for much of it.

Leslie Banks as leading man: apart from being THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH for Hitchcock, Banks would later appear in THE SMALL BACK ROOM. In that mature masterwork, Banks’ prominent facial scarring works fine for his character, an old-school army general. In the Hitchcock, his scar is ignored — British films often seemed indifferent to such things as scars, bad teeth or what we might think of as general physical unsuitability for leading man status. But here, Powell seems to see the scar as a problem, so he shoots Banks’ right profile more or less continuously. Banks always drives his car from left to right, always sits on the left of screen, only turning around in long-shot, and when his face is featured in three-quarter view, Powell has him adopt this pose –

The constant side-views get a bit Dick Tracy for my liking.

The movie itself is entertaining, with Banks as a roguish insurance investigator whose unethical practices eventually slip into wholesale criminality, when he hooks up with arsonist and fraudster Francis L Sullivan (later of NIGHT AND THE CITY fame). Sullivan gives the best performance (oily villainy was his stock-in-trade) but Banks is very good. The detective on their trail, named Twist in order of the film’s cutter, is played by Lawrence Anderson, father of Michael Anderson, who directed THE DAMBUSTERS, LOGAN’S RUN, etc.

Francis Sullivan (right) gets all the best bits.

Powell shows signs of real creativity a few times. “It’s time we did a fade-out,” says Anderson at one point, and Powell fades to black, a po-mo touch reminiscent of the famous “One is starved for Technicolor up there,” in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. And in this scene, we get a torture-by-mantra moment that recalls the “Is it safe?” routine in MARATHON MAN, as well as the montages of villains that would feature in Sergio Leone’s westerns.

This was Powell’s eleventh film in four years, and he’d hardly had a moment to absorb the lessons being flung at him, but we can definitely see him start to flex his muscles in this one — even if the results are a little ridiculous at times.

Who Knew?

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2009 by dcairns

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I went into THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, Hitch’s comeback film after the “lowest ebb” of WALTZES FROM VIENNA (Hitch also used the ebb-slam to dismiss his earlier CHAMPAGNE, which like WFV is not without its pleasures regardless) thinking I knew it fairly well and wasn’t too keen on it. Certainly THE 39 STEPS is a more ambitious and confident work. But it’s amazing how seeing MAN WHO KNEW in sequence, after experiencing all Hitchcock’s extant previous work, crystallizes the film’s merits, making clear that it was indeed a leap forward in his development as (cliche ahoy!) the Master of Suspense.

Let me simply enumerate a few of the film’s many points of interest.

1) Settings. St Moritz. This was the Hitchcocks’ favourite holiday destination in real life, so they begin the film there, making this the first thriller Hitchcock made with an element of globe-trotting to it. Glamorous and exotic locations became a standby of Hitchcock’s films, and indeed he had exploited foreign shooting in his very first film, THE PLEASURE GARDEN, as well as in EASY VIRTUE and especially RICH AND STRANGE, which is the story of an exotic holiday. THE MAN WHO begins with a pair of hands leafing through holiday brochures — Hitchcock’s first pre-credits sequence! — and continues to an Alpine skiing resort recreated largely in the studio (the film was a fairly low-budget affair).

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London. Hitch told Truffaut that the contrast between the open spaces of Switzerland and the dense streets of London was central to his conception of the film. For the first time since the opening of BLACKMAIL, Hitchcock’s camera invades the mean streets of working class areas, in this case, darkest Wapping.

The Albert Hall. Returning to this landmark last seen at the climax of THE RING, Hitch repeats the trope of BLACKMAIL of staging a climax in a familiar landmark, but improves on the idea by building the setting into the story, rather than having it appear in an arbitrary fashion. He also uses this sequence to weave the soundtrack into the plot, with an assassination attempt timed to coincide with a cymbal clash in the orchestral piece being performed at the hall. The idea of integrating music in this way, touched on in earlier films such as MURDER!, reached its first full flowering in the otherwise atypical WALTZES FROM VIENNA, and here is applied to the thriller genre for the first time. It won’t be the last.

2) Autobiography. Charles Barr, author of the terrific English Hitchcock, likes to think of MAN WHO as a quasi-sequel to RICH AND STRANGE, and I can see what he means. That film saw the suburban couple reaffirming their ailing marriage by determining to produce a child. The couple played by Leslie Banks and Edna Best in MAN have a young daughter, a little older than Patricia Hitchcock was at the time, but the family is once again in danger of tedium or splintering. The crisis of the plot rescues the nuclear family.

Barr perhaps makes too much of the hints of friction or instability in his book, but he’s onto something: every line exchanged between Banks and Best stresses their alienation, albeit in a lighthearted way. There’s much joking about Best’s infatuation with Pierre Fresnay, for instance. And between Best and her daughter, Nova Pilbeam, there’s likewise a lot of playful sniping. The performances make it clear that none of these lines (“Never have children,”) are meant seriously, but they’re so insistent that they’re clearly more than an ironic build-up to the daughter’s kidnapping.

3) Successive drafts. Knowing a bit about the project’s history sheds a fascinating light on what’s onscreen. Reuniting with Charles Bennett, whose play had provided the source for BLACKMAIL and who would be the key collaborator in all of Hitchcock’s British thrillers until THE LADY VANISHES, Hitchcock produced a treatment entitled Bulldog Drummond’s Child, but was unable to get it produced. When Michael Balcon visited Hitch on the set of WALTZES, he asked if Hitch had anything lined up, and the director took the opportunity to resurrect the project, but ditched the familiar character of Drummond. A cross between the stiff-upper-lip stoicism of Biggles, and the globetrotting adventurism of James Bond, Drummond was a pulp favourite who had already been played by Rod la Roq and Ronald Colman. The year of MAN, 1934, saw him embodied by both Colman and Ralph Richardson.

Abandoning the traditional hero leaves a somewhat weakened character for Banks to play. I wondered if Hitchcock and Bennett took the protagonist’s heroic reputation for granted, so that they forgot to give him anything daring or manly to do, but then I suspected that Hitch had deliberately moved the character away from the professional adventurer type he always affected to dislike. Banks’s character becomes a rather ordinary, albeit prosperous, husband and father. We never learn his profession, but we have no reason to assume it’s in any way glamorous. Making the hero an ordinary man is a key step in manufacturing the template for future Hitchcock adventures in the NORTH BY NORTHWEST mould.

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THE MANWHOKNEWRIAN CANDIDATE.

Another pair of plot points that mutated during the script’s development are Edna Best’s status as an outstanding markswoman, and the villains’ use of hypnotism. The first version had the bad guys brainwashing the heroine and using her as their assassin. But Hitchcock balked at what he saw as the implausibility of this, and declined the opportunity to make the original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Instead the hypnotism gag was reduced to a side-show to the main event (it could easily have been eliminated altogether) and Frank Vosper is introduced as a rival sharp-shooter. Best’s dead-eye skills are introduced as a means of having our English holidaymakers encounter the foreign assassin, and the secret agent who is spying on him, and they pay off at the climax when Best rescues her daughter with a policeman’s rifle (I like how the cop casually yields his firearm to a bystander!).

Actually, the most economical solution would have been to eliminate hypnotism altogether and use the threat to Best’s kidnapped daughter to motivate her to carry out the terrorists’ plan, but perhaps that would be too simple.

4) Influences. Barr astutely identifies John Buchan as the key inspiring force here. The cryptic message than must be decoded in MAN (“WAPPING G. BARBOR MAKE CONTACT A. HALL MARCH 21ST”) strikingly resembles that in Buchan’s Greenmantle (“Kasredin. cancer. v.I.”), and another of Buchan’s sequels to The 39 Steps, The Three Hostages, features hypnotism, a child-kidnapping, and hero Richard Hannay and his wife making separate excursions into the districts of London to thwart a threat to world peace, all plot elements used in MAN. To this I would add Berthold Viertel’s LITTLE FRIEND, which introduced child star Nova Pilbeam to the world. The story here, of a poor little rich girl whose mummy is being lured away from her stodgy dad by an exotic Lothario, seems to be spoofed in the opening sequences of MAN.

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5) Cast. What an interesting bunch they are.

The scar-faced Leslie Banks would never have been granted a leading man role in Hollywood, where he was unhesitatingly cast as the psychotic Count Zaroff in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. It seems a harsh treatment of a man who got his facial injury fighting for his country in World War I. He’s a little stiff here, but his ineffectiveness is partially the result of a script so keen to deprive him of Bulldog Drummond superheroics that it allows him to miss out on the climax altogether.

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Edna Best is fine, but one has to prefer the actors in Hitchcock’s own remake. Nova Pilbeam is pretty extraordinary, though, with her savage, wide-spaced, electro-magnetic eyes, porcelain overhang of brow, and sharp little nose lips and chin (she is a living rebuke to anyone who suggests lips can’t be sharp). She’s an incredibly compelling performer, quite apart from her wonderful mad face.

The presence of Pierre Fresnay, moonlighting from a West End stage production, adds a welcome lightness to the opening scenes, and an intriguing foretaste of the actor’s work in two movies by Clouzot, “the French Hitchcock.”

Frank Vosper is a good sleazoid bad guy (the only obvious thing Hitch took from WALTZES), but obviously Peter Lorre is the important character here. Although the plot throws out a whole gallery of malefactors, including an old lady with a revolver, a threatening dentist, and an evil hypnotist, Lorre dominates effortlessly, just by constantly making strange. Still sporting the carnival-float head of solid fat he modeled in Lang’s M, and decorated with a skunk-like white stripe and a dueling scar to match Banks’, Lorre as “Abbott” drools cigarette-smoke and apologises to the hero after striking him. He’s good-naturedly contemptuous of his own hired hitman, devoted to his nurse, and prefers to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, but his goal is to plunge the world into war. 

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6) Politics. “Tell me, in June 1914 had you ever heard of a place called Sarajevo?” While taking advantage of global instability to build a scenario based on international intrigue in a contemporary setting (films of Buchan novels had stuck to the build-up to WWI for their settings), Hitchcock uses the assassination scheme as almost a pure MacGuffin — we never learn what countries are involved, or who Lorre is working for. Perhaps the name “Abbott” is intended to defuse the actor’s foreignness somewhat, since Lorre would undoubtedly have been perceived as German by a British audience.

Nevertheless, the alliance of British characters and a French one against a gang led by a teutonic one, is suggestive.

Hitchcock ran afoul of the censors by modeling his climactic shoot-out on the real-life siege of Sidney Street, an east End gun battle he recalled from his youth, which was regarded as a blot on the British police force (and upon then home secretary Winston Churchill, who was criticised for using the mayhem as a photo opportunity) and had been banned by the censor’s office from any screen adaptation. The sticking point turned out to be the idea of policemen turning up with rifles, so Hitch had them requisition firearms from a convenient gunsmith’s, and apparently the force’s honour was saved. It’s fascinating how openly political British censorship was, although no doubt the establishment regarded criticism of the police as outwith the scope of mere politics.

7) Psychology. Barr again — he points out that with the light-hearted but somewhat barbed romantic triangle introduced at the film’s start, there’s something funny about Pierre Fresnay’s death. He’s dancing with Edna Best, who has just teased her unromantic husband, so Banks attaches her knitting to Fresnay, causing it to unravel and entrap the waltzing couples. A shot rings out, and Fresnay slowly collapses (a magnificent effect: “I’m sorry,” whispers Fresnay, dying). 

Barr suggests that this is almost as if Banks planned it, fixing his rival in position for the sniper’s bullet. That’s not literally true, of course, but the idea that the bullet comes as if willed by Banks is a fascinating one, especially as it connects the scene to the opening of Bunuel’s THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ. In that film, once again a bullet SPINGS through a window pane, leaving a neat hole, and kills a character as if at the wish of an onlooker. It’s tempting to suppose that Bunuel may have been inspired by Hitchcock, but if so, he never admitted it, being content to receive Hitch’s praise for TRISTANA: “That leg!” Hitch exclaimed, admiringly.

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Despite all Hitchcock’s efforts, and the public’s enthusiasm, his enemy at Gaumont, distributor C.M. Woolf, released the film on the second half of a double feature, with the result that the film’s colossal box office takings were officially credited to the “A” picture. Made cheaply, and attracting a massive audience, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH went down on the company’s books as a flop.

But Hitch had shown what he could do, and his producer ally Michael Balcon encouraged him to continue down this path with his next project… so it’s off to Scotland next week!

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