Archive for Leslie Philips

The Art of Gilling

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2015 by dcairns

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My respect for John Gilling is rising as I begin to see him more as the idiosyncratic weirdball he was, rather than as a jobbing journeyman, my earlier impression. Certainly, realizing he had written for Tod Slaughter and made OLD MOTHER RILEY MEETS THE VAMPIRE long before his Hammer days made me appreciate that his association with horror movies came from love, not mere convenience. But 1956’s THE GAMMA PEOPLE (recommended — by which I mean “casually mentioned” — by Joe Dante) is something else.

Faced with an artifact like THE GAMMA PEOPLE, a luminous and misshapen lump of aggregated and mysterious material, like a kryptonite meteor fallen from who knows where, one is forced to concoct theories to account for its existence — the human brain, a question-and-answer organ, is simply unable to accept the object as found and describe it. We must fall prey to the deadly Intentional Fallacy and try to fathom what was going on in the minds of those who created this conundrum. Is it an alien probe, buried for decades, the product of natural but unknown processes, or a chunk of frozen piss that fell off the side of an aeroplane?

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My theory may not account for all THE GAMMA PEOPLE’s peculiarities, but it works for me. I think Gilling and his co-writer John W. Gossage were aiming to make a Charters and Caldicott film, and inspired by both the success of Abbot & Costello’s horror spoofs, and Gilling’s own experience with Arthur Lucan/Old Mother Riley, they decided to write a Charters & Caldicott versus Mad Science scenario.

The business of the characters being in a train carriage that gets disconnected and abandoned in a Ruritanian dictatorship is straight out of THE LADY VANISHES, so that’s exhibit A. The pair’s polite, befuddled reactions clinch this theory for me.

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However, two things occurred to make this attempt at forging a new double-act turn out quite wrong. One is the decision to make the film a dumb sci-fi movie, about which more later. The other is a two-parter: first, you can’t just invent a double act. The best of them seem to happen by accident, when two people come together and have comic chemistry, and somebody else, besides the audience, notices. William Powell and Myrna Loy were teamed as leading man and leading lady, but BECAME a double-act because the teaming worked so well. Martin & Lewis were thrown together with basically no materials and there was an explosion of comedy energy which still reverberates.

The second part of the double-act problem is that at some point it was decided that the film needed an American, and so Paul Douglas, fresh from JOE MACBETH (New York gangster version of Shakespeare filmed in England) was wheeled in to team up with Leslie Phillips. Impersonated by such mismatched talents, the Naunton & Wayne effect is seriously distorted and blurred, only just discernible. Phillips, a great comic force, gets the tone alright, but is vaguely dashing and randy, always, so his version of the Englishman abroad is apt to be racier than the Hitchcock original. Douglas is a lumpen golem, a two-fisted Frankenstein Mobster who’s very nearly cuboid in shape. He looks incongruous in any of the film’s throng of genres.

So the set-up is so misguided it’s kind of delightful in spite of itself. Then we add the plot, which is about a fugitive scientist trying to create child geniuses with gamma radiation (hey, it worked for the Incredible Hulk). He’s also creating learning-disabled “goons”, though it’s never clear whether these are accidents or deliberate. For no reason explained, all the goons are adults and all the geniuses are kids. This would make sense if his intent were to fashion a sort of zombie army.

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The IMDb tells us that the original story was by Robert Aldrich (uncredited) — I guess it could have formed a nuclear trilogy along with KISS ME DEADLY and the lesser WORLD FOR RANSOM. Aldrich being chums with Joseph Losey forms a strange connection with Losey’s atomic kid drama THESE ARE THE DAMNED. Plus there’s the Hammer connection. But THE GAMMA PEOPLE was produced by, of all people, Cubby Broccoli, with money from Columbia which seems to have facilitated considerable European location filming — probably in Germany.

Best joke: a scream is explained away by a suspicious character: “One of our poor burghers met with an accident,” and Sir Leslie P says, with the most magnificent straight face, “Oh? What happened to the poor burgher?” Possibly the kind of joke you have to play so deadpan it looks like you don’t realize it’s there, so the censor won’t leap from his chair and wave at the screen like Norma Desmond, or press a secret button on his arm rest that causes four men to charge into the screening room carrying a giant blue pencil.

Walter Rilla, whose son directed VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, is clearly the ideal choice to mass-produce spooky Aryan super-kids.

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But the leading lady is Eva Bartok, best remembered for Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. I’m always haunted by her real-life end: she wound up indigent in London, was hospitalized, and tried to tell the doctors and nurses that she had been a movie star. No one believed her. That’s the strange thing about life and films. Her fame evaporated, then she evaporated, but her films are still here.

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Dyer Straits

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2013 by dcairns

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I was very excited about Ray Cooney’s return to the cinema. The west end farceur made two films, or “films,” in the seventies, both based on his stage hits. I have shown several of them to friends. I don’t see most of those friends much now, strangely.

Those seventies classics are NOT NOW DARLING (1973) and NOT NOW COMRADE (1976) — just from those titles you can see that Mr. Cooney was empire-building, attempting to carve out a niche in the British comedy market somewhere between the CARRY ON films and the CONFESSIONS films. Just from the years of production and the fact that there’s only two of them, you can see that he didn’t succeed. I suppose nobody in those days realized that the saucy British comedy was on the way out, killed off by TV, which could replicate most of the same sauciness and be watched free of shame behind drawn curtains at home, and by the intrinsic rottenness of most of the films — those Robin Askwith movies are like one very long public service film promoting chemical castration.

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Cooney’s films don’t deserved to be considered with the very bleakest of the sex farces (along with the CONFESSIONS movies I’d include death-gasps like THE AMOROUS MILKMAN and I’M NOT FEELING MYSELF TONIGHT and of course the jaw-dropping, COME PLAY WITH ME, the release of which was equivalent to the British film industry taping a sign to its forehead reading SHOOT ME), films which I’m convinced were part of a government conspiracy to stop the working classes from breeding by depressing and disgusting them to the point of sterilisation, a scheme I have decided was almost certainly called Operation Prolewipe. But Cooney is still guilty of minor crimes against comedy, humanity, and cinema.

NOT NOW DARLING stars Leslie Phillips, who certainly has cinematic comedy chops, along with Cooney himself, who sadly doesn’t. Whatever abilities he brings to the stage as actor, writer and director simply don’t transmit to film — all his intended laughs are echoing endlessly in some twilight zone wormhole of mistimed punchlines and ill-conceived innuendo, where the translucent spectre of Arthur Askey holds illimitable dominion over all. Plot involves Phillips as a furrier trying to arrange a free fur coat for his girlfriend without his wife finding out. Julie Ege is the girlfriend, Moira Lister the wife, and a barely-clad Barbara Windsor is also included without fair warning or apology. As I recall, the film was shot multi-camera using some live vision-mixing system that saved time and money and made everything look a bit murky. So you get all the awkwardness of an under-rehearsed long take with all the awkward cutting of a live broadcast. And an insulting approach to the audience that panders by serving up nudity for inane non-reasons. “Here, you like tits, I’ve heard — let me shove this representative pair into your eyeballs.”

Cooney is apparently a nice man, but his films kind of make me want to hate him. I will resist the urge.

I don’t remember NOT NOW COMRADE so much, but it’s a “satirical” take on the cold war with defections and stripper’s pasties. Roy Kinnear is the token talented one, managing to wring just one laugh from the material, and there’s one moment of accidental genius when the cheap set is deserted by the cast, there’s an Ozu-like moment of emptiness, and then the dwarfish Don Estelle wanders myopically into frame in a loud check suit, hesitates a moment, and wanders off. Surreal and kind of beautiful, but entirely ruined when he turns up again later and turns out to have something to do with the plot.

These two movies are really among the worst things that have ever happened to British cinema, even if they’re not as ugly as the full-frontal Askwith stuff. So I was, as I said earlier, excited about RUN FOR YOUR WIFE, and the film’s reception, taking £747 at the UK box office, led me to believe that Cooney had lost none of his power to appall and stultify.

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In fact, not only has age not withered him, it has in some respects enhanced his capabilities. The film, like the play, tells the sorry tale of a London cabby with two wives who don’t know about each other. Concussed when trying to stop a mugging (some superannuated youths trying to steal a handbag from a bag lady played by Judi Dench — the first of many astonishing cameos — but why do they think this homeless lady is worth robbing?) he loses track of his careful schedule which allows him to (somehow) juggle two households. With hilarious consequences.

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One can see why Cliff opted for a disguise, considering the company he’s in.

Stuffing the film with cameos, Cooney contrives to include cast members from several decades’ worth of stage productions of this inexplicable hit, making it a bit like Alain Resnais’s YOU AIN’T SEEN NOTHING YET!, released at around the same time to slightly more acclaim. Although I think Cooney was probably aiming for something more like LE TESTAMENT D’ORPHEE, a dreamlike reiteration of all his artistic obsessions, in which dropped trousers and squashed cakes recur like leitmotifs.

Cooney is joined in the director’s chair by one John Luton, presumably brought in to enhance the technical side of things, and bringing his experience cutting a Lindsay Shonteff James Bond rip-off to the table. Filming farce is notoriously difficult — let’s be fair, here — and one thing that film history seems to tell us is that the longer the takes can be, the better it works. The greatest cinematic farce on record is Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME (although it’s also much more than that), and it achieves some of its staggering effects by holding its shots even as the action seems to overflow them — we’re as breathless as the camera, which can’t seem to quite capture all the action. Cooney and Luton boldly jettison all this accumulated wisdom and set about chopping every scene into nuggets a couple of seconds long, so that nothing breathes and no honest interaction between players is ever captured.

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This might, however, be a mercy, as the actors on display include Danny Dyer (whose involvement is seemingly, somehow, enough to get any film made, whether it be repellent art film, repellent gangster film or repellent comedy); television presenter Denise Van Outen; pop singer (Girls Aloud) Sarah Harding… there are others with far more comedy experience hanging around to back them up, but by some strange bad movie alchemy, they’re even worse. Christopher Biggins and Lionel Blair play homosexuals unconvincingly — I tend to blame the writing here — and Neil Morrissey is, from what one can discern through the blipvert cutting, terribly poor. Honorable mention to the two police inspectors, Nicholas le Prevost and especially Ben Cartwright, who manage not to make you either angry or embarrassed on their behalf.

It’s best, really, not to watch the film as a comedy, but as a kind of endurance test horror film, like FUNNY GAMES or SALO. The sets are retina-scouring in their vibrancy, and one”comic climax” involves a flood of red dye that transforms half the cast into bystanders from BRAIN DEAD. The gurning faces in close-up, the chocolate cake smeared on Neil Morrissey’s buttocks, the endless cameos by elderly and half-forgotten comics (making this not only the PARTING SHOTS of the twenty-first century, but the WON TON TON, THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD)… There’s also the strange subplot about the breakdown of civilisation…

I should explain: since Cooney’s play was written decades ago, the plot, to work, must be protected from modern technology, which would ruin it. So mobile phones are mislaid, the internet is down, sat nav is absent, and lines of dialogue establishing this are dropped in here and there, giving the impression of a London beset by some terrible technological calamity. It’s like a version of LIFEFORCE where the space vampire apocalypse hasn’t been noticed because everybody’s trousers are falling down.

In fact, the late, lovely Richard Briers appeared in both this movie and COCKNEYS VS ZOMBIES so close together that it’s not easy to be sure which was actually his final film. But my apocalyptic subtext reading of WIFE suggests that they’re actually the same movie anyway.

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Lionel Blair was in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Fact.

Kicking a film when it’s down is a critic’s favourite sport, of course. And there’s nothing really to be said in favour of such brutality. In this rare case, however, I would argue that my appraisal might actually make some people want to rent the film, as I did, to see how amazingly strange it could possibly be. Such fools will not be disappointed.