Archive for M

No Gentleman

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on April 7, 2020 by dcairns

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The biggest surprise about THE SERVANT is what it’s not.

It sounds, from synopsis, as if we’ll get a critical commentary on the British class system. One would expect, from director Joseph Losey’s history as a man of the left (fleeing American and HUAC) that the theme might come out in the dialogue, ponderously, as it does in his US films such as M and THE LAWLESS, or more subtly, in the action, as it does in the superior THE BIG NIGHT or THE PROWLER. The latter is about “false values,” as Losey put it, which meant the story could simply illustrate where those values might get you, without the need for commentary, and it would be a perfectly clear morality tale from a left-wing perspective.

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But we have to factor in Harold Pinter as scenarist, and the source novel I guess, though I’m afraid I don’t know anything about it. Pinter’s involvement guarantees that things won’t be so simple, or direct.

What I was expecting, nevertheless, was a structure where Dirk Bogarde’s manservant, Barrett, is exploited by his “master,” Tony (James Fox), and then rebels. Instead, Barrett is mysterious, conspiratorial, from the start, and Tony is weak and arrogant, occasionally mean, and crumbles with little apparent assistance from Barrett. His girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig) seems to be on to Barrett from the start, so that her genuine nastiness towards him (some great Pinteresque questions, “Do you use a deodorant?”) are almost justified.

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And then, hilariously, just when you might expect persecution, master and servant turn into schoolkids in one scene, a bickering old married couple in the next. There’s not really a sense of escalation, just frequent and perplexing transformation. And then, after the fabulously louche party scene, it stops. I can imagine being quite frustrated with that conclusion if I’d seen it in the cinema.

What the movie resists most obviously is taking sides, even though Bogarde is frequently seen as sinister and Fox never is. Wendy Craig’s casting makes me think of THE NANNY, which starts with the little boy as antagonist and then switches sympathies to make Bette Davis the monster, and then manages to find sympathy even for her. I like that film a lot. But THE SERVANT manages to do something much more complex, where our sympathies rarely land squarely anywhere, the natural class enemy gets more sympathy and is more comprehensible than the worm-that-turns underdog, and maybe PERSONA is a better comparison? Also, the suggestion that, when class barriers crumble, we’re all going to lose our identities and enter a delirious, hazy flux of psychological disintegration, feels more like a right-wing anxiety than one of the left, in a way.

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All of which is a confession, really, that I don’t “get” THE SERVANT the way I get other Losey or Pinter films, but I like the feeling of disorientation it produces. More on it as the day goes on.

Wall Eyed

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on November 30, 2019 by dcairns

Masaki Kobayashi’s THE THICK-WALLED ROOM is a corker. All his films seem to cork, really, and I mean that in a good way.

Japanese war criminals await release. Many of them don’t understand why they’re imprisoned while the men who gave the orders go free. But the way to peace lies in acceptance of guilt — not made easier when there’s no bloody justice in the world, of course.

Kobayashi considered himself a hardboiled realist at this point, and he certainly doesn’t shy away from tough and challenging scenes, but his realistic detail is delivered with a lot of stylisation. The soundtrack is particularly important, with the noise of prison rock-breaking continued across scenes where it couldn’t be present, creating an oppressive, unrelenting effect.

So Kobayashi is an expressionist as well as a realist (and he has the Dutch tilts to prove it). The film features flashbacks and the transitions into them are really interesting — one set are delivered via a hallucination sequence in which the titular room is blasted into Swiss cheese via gunshots which sound more like the blows of the masonry hammers. When the terrified prisoner looks through the newly-created spyholes he sees scenes from his past, including one where he’s forced to use a bound man for bayonet practice.

But then Kobayashi cuts to a reverse angle taken from inside this temporal peepshow and we can see a huge eye in the background, staring from the landscape. Not an optical effect — a big, constructed prop. I want to listen in on the production meeting where MK explained what he wanted and why. But I don’t speak Japanese.

Stephen Prince, in Masaki Kobayashi: A Dream of Resistance, relates this eyeball to the big sky-eyes painted on the cyclorama in KWAIDAN. An audience gazing from outside of our spacetime. But maybe they are ourselves, from some future vantage point.

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Oh — Fiona also noted that when a character on day release is hypnotized by a shop display of knives, it’s a fairly direct quotation from M. I can put the images together and make one sequence:

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Lang

Blind Tuesday: Mother of Tears

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on September 29, 2015 by dcairns

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The return of our occasional series of Tuesday thrillers about people who don’t see too good. We’ll get around to WAIT UNTIL DARK one day, I swear.

But for now, let’s stay Argentinian, with Carlos Hugo Christensen’s NO ABRAS NUNCA ESA PUERTA (DON’T OPEN THAT DOOR), his 1952 Cornell Woolrich compendium. We might also consider this Cornell Woolrich Week Revisited.

The first story in the film is graced with spectacular, exotic production design, but takes a while to get going and is a little unsatisfactory, at least for me, in narrative terms — which is fine, because I want to talk about the second half, which deals with a blind woman and her son, who has been away for years but returns as part of a gang of armed robbers on the run from police but already planning their next heist. All this poor woman’s hopes have been wrapped up in the idea of her prodigal’s eventual return, and now she realizes, via a tune he whistles, that he’s a dreadful criminal. The conjunction of blindness with recognition via a tune recalls Lang’s M, which was also referenced in Christensen’s other Woolrich adaptation, IF I SHOULD DIE BEFORE I WAKE. The idea of the giveaway melody also recalls CLOCKWORK ORANGE and makes me wonder if M was an influence on that? Bear in mind that Alex’s spirited if misguided rendition of Singin’ in the Rain does not occur in the Burgess source novel and was an inspiration of star Malcolm McDowell…

The story makes free use of all the traditional superpowers of blind people — the mother has acute hearing, and can easily find her way about her home due to her perfect recall of furniture placement. Like Edward Arnold in EYES IN THE DARK and Audrey Hepburn in WAIT UNTIL DARK, she renders her enemies helpless by disabling the lights. She also has to fumble about as they sleep, locating their sidearms and removing them — the film’s most suspenseful scene. Watch out for that bottle!

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Christensen again proves himself a master of suspense — this half hour entertainment, with its thoroughly satisfying and tragic twist, would stand out as a perfect episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It’s real yell-at-the-screen tension.

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Yaaah!

Delightfully and heroically, Eddie Muller’s Film Noir Foundation has rescued the film just before its negative decayed — what we need now is a DVD release so the rest of the world can enjoy it in something better than a scuzzy off-air recording.