Archive for Lucien Ballard

Wallflower

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2019 by dcairns

A shot — just one of several — that got a WOW! from Fiona. From John Brahm’s film of THE LODGER.

The movie is full of bold images, courtesy of Brahm and Lucien Ballard. This one takes us by surprise since star Laird Cregar’s position has changed since we last saw him, and because, presented as co-star Merle Oberon’s POV (she and Ballard were married, and he lavishes care on her lighting), it seems an outrageous optical cheat: SHE hasn’t pressed her face to the wall to look at Laird. But in fact, the layout of the room makes the shot quite feasible. I wonder if the idea for the dramatic composition preceded and inspired the design, or followed on from it with James Basevi & John Ewing’s set giving Brahm the opportunity for a startling composition.

Merle walks blithely into a little nook of her dressing room. Cregar, having emerged from behind a screen, speaks off-camera ~

Merle turns, startled. And we cut to the image at top: the view from her nook.

Mr. Cregar is the subject of a profile I’ve written for The Chiseler, inspired a viewing of THIS GUN FOR HIRE: I hope you’ll read and share.

Expect more on TGFH and LODGER soon…

Also of note for noir-hounds: the great and powerful Imogen Sara Smith on DECOY.

 

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And lead us into TEMPTATION…

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2015 by dcairns

David Melville fills the gap between his series on Mexican melodrama and his upcoming series on… but that would be telling… with a special piece on a neglected 1946 melodrama sure to be of interest to Shadowplayers everywhere ~

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Was there ever a better year for Bad Girls than 1946? Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun, Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman. Each one stronger, smarter, sexier and more subversive than…well, just about any woman since. But one lady, that same year, could hold her own with any of them. An actress who’s been criminally underrated, in a film that’s been tragically forgotten. I’m talking about Merle Oberon in Temptation.

If the title doesn’t ring any bells…well, it’s not an easy film to see. Directed by Irving Pichel and produced (lavishly) by a long-defunct entity called International Film Corporation, Temptation is unavailable on DVD or any other home video format. It survives (just about) in blurred copies recorded from TV in the 90s. Not that it doesn’t still look splendid. The cameraman, Lucien Ballard, was Merle Oberon’s second husband. (He also photographed her in The Lodger (1944), This Love of Ours (1945) and Berlin Express (1948).) She married him, presumably, because he was the one man who could make her look more exquisite than she did already.

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So what is Temptation about? Many things…not all of which are directly apparent on screen. It was based on Bella Donna, a novel by the English author and aesthete Robert Hichens (1864-1950). A member of the camp gay circle that surrounded Oscar Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, he is best remembered today for The Green Carnation (1894) – a witty if rather scurrilous roman á clef about the, er, home life of his two famous friends. He also wrote the kitsch masterwork The Garden of Allah (filmed in 1936 with Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich) which, like this story, has a North African desert setting.

Temptation opens in Cairo in 1900. Merle plays an outwardly genteel Victorian lady, who gets into a spot of bother over some compromising letters sent to an Egyptian gigolo lover (Charles Korvin). Dare we suspect this story has autobiographical echoes? We do know Wilde and his pals spent almost as much money paying off blackmailers as they earned in royalties. (More, perhaps, in the case of the sexually voracious Lord Alfred.) It’s tempting to see Merle’s character (who boasts the achingly exotic name of Ruby Armine) as a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. She could – if only this film were better known – win herself a cult following to rival Bette Davis in All About Eve.

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We see her first in long-shot, drifting through the garden of her sumptuous villa in a plush suburb of Cairo. (I was not aware, until now, that Cairo had plush suburbs.) A vision in a long and trailing white gown, with a white lace parasol to match. Her clothes are by the great Orry-Kelly and Merle herself remarks within the first few minutes: “The things I remember best are the hats and gowns I wore – and the way I felt when I wore them.” At the risk of sounding shallow, I must admit much of the pleasure in Temptation comes from seeing what our heroine will wear next. Let’s just say Merle Oberon is never knowingly underdressed.

As the star wafts her way slowly through the garden, we learn that a sinister Egyptian police inspector has come to call. By the time we see her in close-up, it’s clear she’s wanted for questioning about a murder. Her dreary archaeologist husband (George Brent) does not seem unduly concerned. He’s too busy pondering the opening of a long-lost tomb. But his close bachelor friend, a gimlet-eyed Jewish doctor (Paul Lukas), has distrusted and disliked Ruby from the start. A flashback in London tells us she was once what’s euphemistically called an ‘adventuress’. Her first husband divorced her on “urgent medical advice” from Lukas, who then tried to dissuade Brent from marrying her “as I would stop an infectious disease from spreading”. We wonder, momentarily, if the poor girl has some sort of VD. Or is the doctor one of those movie characters (normally played by Clifton Webb) who seem to regard any woman as ‘unclean’?

With these two dullards as her day-to-day companions, it’s hardly a surprise when Merle (still in a flashback) decides to have a little fun on the side. ‘Fun’ comes in the form of a bogus Egyptian prince called Mahmoud Bahroudi. He’s played by the Hungarian actor Charles Korvin – the one actor with a cleft chin more prodigious than Kirk Douglas or Cary Grant! In any other department, he’s not much of a threat but Merle likes him from the start. They first meet when he tries to blackmail a young acquaintance – and are drawn together by recognition of each other’s mutual depravity. “You’re the first person,” marvels Korvin, “who lies as well as I do.” To put it more simply, the two are a perfect match.

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Korvin, of course, is only out for money. But all of Merle’s is under the control of her husband. “I wish he were dead,” she says with an air of mild annoyance. Her lover promptly hands her an untraceable poison in an exotically carved antique box. Soon enough, she’s found a villainous servant who can stir it discreetly into anything poor Brent eats or drinks. In the tensest moment, some poisoned tea is placed strategically on a tray with six or seven other cups. The servant swivels the tray, with a dexterity that is truly breathtaking, to make sure that hubby gets the right one. Merle’s beautiful dark eyes follow the tray’s every move. They glow anxiously as her husband lifts the drink to his lips – and puts it down twice, untasted.

It’s a truly mesmerising piece of silent-screen acting, made all the more offbeat and effective by the fact that it takes place in a talking film. In forty years as an internationally famous star (stretching from her doomed Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933 to her even-more-doomed vanity project Interval in 1973) Merle Oberon never enjoyed much reputation as an actress. The focus was on her exotic Anglo-Indian beauty and her early life as a ‘nightclub dancer’ (among other things) in the back streets of Calcutta. Yet anyone who doubts her ability to carry a film should track down a copy of Temptation. It’s a banquet of a role and she chomps it down and swallows it in one gulp. Only the lynx-eyed Lenore Ulric, as her sinister and possibly lesbian French maid, gets to steal even a tiny corner of the screen.

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Am I spoiling any surprises if I say that Merle/Ruby does reform before Temptation is quite over? Hichens’ friend Wilde deplored “the modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice” but that is what Hollywood in the 40s forced most movies to do. It’s reassuring to note that – while she is still satisfyingly wicked – Oberon sports a truly eye-popping dress with a black-lace-and-diamante bodice, festooned with pyramids and sphinxes and other Egyptian motifs. Surely no girl who wears a gown like this could ever be that good?!

David Melville

Moontide Torrents

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2008 by dcairns

So, I finally figured out, sort of, how to download movies by bittorrent, which is a horrendous headache I wouldn’t recommend to anyone except my goodness the things you can find. Expect more absurdly rare stuff to feature here soon.

Now, a Fever Dream Double Feature.

Since I’ve been reading a lot about the recent DVD release of MOONTIDE, it was a delight to snap up a copy. Written by John O’Hara and directed by Archie Mayo after Fritz Lang dropped out due to complications in the bedroom (both he and the film’s star were sleeping with Marlene Dietrich), this was a star vehicle for someone who was not yet a star in America, a delicate operation designed to introduce Jean Gabin to the US. Gabin was temporarily in residence stateside as his native homeland was enduring the German occupation.

Introducing a star is a tricky proposition, but the Hollywood studios had plenty of practice. They must have sensed a challenge with Gabin, however, since he could hardly be introduced as a newcomer and built up in the public consciousness through small supporting roles — he had to be given a vehicle that showed what he did as a star, his distinctive persona. One problem with this was that Gabin’s French films have distinct qualities that do not translate, or could not be translated, into Hollywood terms. The fact that Gabin played an army deserter in QUAI DES BRUMES (a film which Jean Renoir reportedly blamed for France’s early defeat in the war) gives some clue to this. Nevertheless, MOONTIDE tries to reproduce the Gabin persona in a new context.

Borrowing its foggy dockside setting from QUAI DES BRUMES, and giving Gabin a dog as in that film and fits of homicidal rage as in LA BETE HUMAINE, the makers cast him as a drunken dockworker, an undependable, vacillating kind of character who often does the wrong thing, but cannot be relied upon to do so. Not a type that was regularly welcomed by American audiences. The poetic realist school of French cinema was driven by fatalism, even more so than film noir (no wonder, if this was the national mood, that the country crumbled in the face of invasion!) and so its anti-heroes are regularly ineffective, passive, fickle, misguided, discouraged or just inept. This works like gangbusters in the French films, but has serious repercussions when combined with the Production Code’s insistence that vice must be punished and virtue rewarded, and must have represented a challenge to audiences used to the easy morality plays of the standard Hollywood productions.

Nevertheless, MOONTIDE, as photographed by Charles Clarke and Lucien Ballard, is visually stunning, touching, and endearingly peculiar. Mayo has an odd habit of cutting directly down the line at the action, jumping from medium-shot to medium-close-up, without any apparent dramatic purpose, but he only does it a few times and otherwise his work is unobtrusive and effective. The superb lighting carries the film otherwise.

Gabin is excellent — I’d never heard him speak English before! His accent isn’t too strong, although his friend Nutsy (Claude Rains) unfortunately sounds like “Nazi” when Gabin calls him by name. Whether it’s from taking her cues from Gabin’s simmering underplaying, or because Mayo’s got her tightly under control, or whatever else, Ida Lupino is spectacularly effective, a very modern, muted kind of performance that holds everything back for the key moments. And I like Ida anyway. She’s doing her natural cockney accent with a soupçonof Californian, and that seems to help her attain an unusual level of naturalism. We care far more about her than we do about Gabin, which works fine for the film.

Thomas Mitchell and Claude Rains are as excellent as one would expect, although Rains doesn’t quite get into the swing of the underplaying — he’s always very measured and clipped, and has a formality that’s perhaps very slightly out of keeping with the general air of relaxation. Mitchell, looking like a schoolboy whose suddenly SPROUTED, makes a weird and memorable villain, although by characterising him as a weak parasite, the script robs him of the chance to add serious dramatic tension to the meandering plot, at least until the end.

The Production Code seems to have imposed strange limitations on the film (Lupino’s past life appears to have been a shameful one, but the occupation given her – hash-slinger – hardly seems sufficiently sinful), yet at the end Gabin is effectively a murderer twice over, which seems odd, to say the least. Not unwelcome, but odd. The movie is a decidedly eccentric addition to Fox’s output, but a welcome one. Nevertheless, the makers might have capitalized on Gabin a bit more…

Mistake One: introducing Gabin drunk, and then hungover (there’s a magnificent expressionistic drunkenness montage) means it’s a very long time before we get to see him as he naturally IS. It’s a striking entrance, struggling with his dog leash and demanding a pint of whisky, but it takes a definite chance. Thomas Mitchell in this scene appears more like a comedy sidekick than a villainous blackmailer, and he appears to have no hold on Gabin whatsoever, which has fairly disastrous effects on the narrative tension. He can only reassert himself by towel-whopping a naked Claude Rains — the movie has driven him to this extreme!

Mistake Two: Gabin strips to the waist to rescue Lupino from drowning, and the sight is awe-inspiring. No Hollywood leading man was this ripped. He makes Johnny Weissmuller look doughy and wan. The mistake was in not having him partially denude every twenty minutes, on the slightest pretext. Audiences wouldn’t have been able to believe their eyes. Wives would have regarded their husbands in a new and dimmer light. Gabin, clothed, always has something of the schlub about him, albeit a strangely intense and fiery schlub, so this stripshow is particularly startling. He never did it in France, that I can recall, but had he done so in Hollywood he would have eroticized the hell out of the place. The sexual revolution would have started early.

Mistake Three: I can’t really call it a mistake, because looking at it now, MOONTIDE gains a great deal from it’s jerky plot movement and aimless characters, but jettisoning some of this gallic ennui and injecting some good old American THRUST would probably have worked wonders at the B.O. But I’m kind of glad they left it like this, a fogbound peculiarity, out of time and place.

THE IMPOSTOR, directed by Julien Duvivier from his own story, was Gabin’s second assault on the US market. Weirdly, his accent is stronger and he’s harder to understand in this one — presumably because Duvivier, as a Frenchman himself, was less able to troubleshoot on matters of pronunciation. It’s no big problem though.

Gabin plays virtually the reverse of his QUAI DES BRUMES deserter, this time being an escaped convict in conquered France who inveigles his way INTO the army, borrowing the uniform and papers of a slain war hero. Gabin’s introduction is splendid, as he plays an arch-cynic as indifferent to his own execution as he is to the policeman he’s killed in a riot. As the German bombs drop in this distance, he muses, “Makes the guillotine seem a little old-fashioned, no?” Soon those bombs, acting on behalf of fate, have freed him.

The film bogs down slightly as Gabin escapes with the remnants of the French army to colonial Africa. Now that Gabin has to keep his cynicism to himself, in order to blend in, he’s less fun for us to be with, and the plot seems to lack momentum. There are also unfortunate ironies: “This is French soil,” enthuses commanding office Richard Whorf, trying to inspire his men, conveniently overlooking the fact that this tropic jungle is French only by the same law that says Paris is now German. Duvivier’s attitude to Africa and the Africans (it was at least continent he knew, having filmed there several times) is a recurring problem in the film.

A particularly beautiful scene, full of tightly crammed deep-focus figures sheltering from a monsoon at Christmas, shows Gabin’s comrades reminiscing over Christmas in France, while he fumes at his lack of any such warm memories. This section of the story deals with Gabin’s gradually bonding with his comrades (a banker, a farmer, an actor). Not only does he reconnect to humanity, but to life and a sense of his homeland. There’s almost a supernatural sense of him being taken over by the identity he’s adopted. This is one of the film’s greatest strengths: its poetic realist weirdness, which undercuts the flag-waving message with fatalism and tragedy. The Production Code makes it pretty clear that Gabin will end by dying for his country… what’s surprising and rather grim is how he ends up dying without an identity.

Meanwhile there’s more awkward and unattractive racial attitudes to deal with: the ex-actor proposes setting up a business after the war to sell perfume and makeup to the Africans (because Africans smell bad and are ugly, see?) which in a Clouzot film would just be a sign of how obnoxious everyone is, but here is jarring since we’re supposed to find these guys appealing. A woman shows up and everybody makes a fuss. “A black girl?” asks one fellow, roused from his sleep. “Do you think I’d disturb your beauty sleep over a black girl?” It’s quite credible that Frenchmen of this period would talk this way, but it’s not clear that Duvivier doesn’t share their prejudices. Not that he should announce his disapproval in some obvious way, but the fact that he includes such sentiments in what is still a piece of war-time propaganda is disturbing.

The moment that actually becomes interesting, as opposed to just uncomfortable, is when the men stand around and listen to La Marseillaise over the wireless. Actually a moving and powerful scene, and I’m normally highly resistant to any appeal to patriotism, especially if it involves the suggestion of laying down one’s life — one’s single, fleeting life — in the service of the immortal state. After cutting from closeup to closeup of the emotional soldiers, Duvivier actually ends on a group of Africans, listening with unreadable expressions. Either this is meant to be an inclusive gesture: “These, too, are Frenchmen” — in which case it’s too little, too late in my opinion — or Duvivier is pointing to this other conquered nation and actually equating France and it’s colonies to Nazi Germany and its occupied territories. Which would be very interesting and provocative, and casts a different light on the racist remarks quoted earlier.

The fact that these ambiguities exist, when Duvivier was certainly smart enough to eradicate them and create a full-on call to arms flick with no disturbing elements if that had been his goal, makes THE IMPOSTOR more uneven but also more interesting, more akin to the ambivalent and tormented cinema of poetic realism.

Now I want to see more Gabin English-language films, but I CAN’T. HE NEVER MADE ANY.