Archive for Mad Love

My theory, Part 1: Welles = Universal Horror

Posted in Comics, FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2013 by dcairns

wellesrichardiiiIt was at Norman Lloyd’s house that we saw this Al Hirschfeld cartoon, published in the New York Herald Tribune in 1938, predicting the roles to be taken on the New York stage by the leading players that fall.

Norman is top left — Hirschfeld always drew him this way, though Fiona thought it a dubious likeness.

Orson Welles is dead centre, as Richard III with flat-topped head and lank black wig. In the end he never played the role, something he blames John Houseman for, I believe, in My Lunches with Orson.

But the image suggests to me Boris Karloff, and ties in with my theory that Welles was influenced, probably in childhood, by the Universal school of horror.

Was Karloff’s monster a good model for Richard III? Possibly not — the personalities are quite different. But Welles’ putative performance as the disfigured, limping king might easily have been influenced by the monster, who had so recently returned to the screen in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. And there is at least one image in existence of a teenage Welles playing Richard on stage at the Todd School with a big, built-up head like the one in Hirschfeld’s cartoon.

Then there’s the Mercury Theater radio production of Dracula, which owes nothing much to the Universal movie but certainly displays a keen interest in, and aptitude for, gothic horror.

CITIZEN KANE’s opening has much of the feel of a ’30s horror film — Xanadu is not only dark, looking, shadowy and surrounded by desolation, it is a painting, like Castle Dracula. If few were convinced by Pauline Kael’s suggestion that Welles’ old-age make-up bore the influence of Peter Lorre’s Gogol from MAD LOVE, we can at least agree that part of the movie’s style is at times somewhat Gothic — and this fed into the 1943 JANE EYRE, which Welles influenced greatly (though he disparages the production in My Dinners with Orson.

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And Welles’ MACBETH would be the clincher — I’m certain Welles said something, somewhere, about BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN being a visual influence on his papier-mache and dry-ice Scotland, “a violent charcoal sketch of a great play.” Whale occupies exalted ground, since Welles has comparatively few cinematic antecedents — he borrows liberally from Eisenstein in his first two Shakespeare films, and the smooth matching of his theatrical sensibility with Gregg Toland’s cinematic one obviously helped form him as a filmmaker, but apart from that, Whale is just about the only source you can point to. (He learned basic film grammar from running STAGECOACH, and maybe there’s some stylistic influence — but nothing that couldn’t be explained easier by Toland’s help and Welles’ pre-existing fondness for chiaroscuro.)

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Part two of my theory tomorrow, and starting soon — a major Shadowplay series on CITIZEN KANE. What else is there to say about that film? Maybe nothing, but I will say it with different punctuation.

Veidt Shadows

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2009 by dcairns

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The 1924 original version of HANDS OF ORLAC, from Robert “CALIGARI” Weine, is too classy a film really to fit in with my demented quest to see all the films illustrated  in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, but it is in the book, and I did see it, thanks to regular Shadowplayer Guy Budziak. There are horror movies you should see as a kid, and when you see them as a grown-up, you wish you’d seen them earlier (for me, THE BLACK ROOM, CURSE OF THE GOLEM and the silent THE LOST WORLD might be examples), but I don’t think I would have appreciated the lugubrious tone and pace of this one as a kiddie.

It’s also good that I’m seeing it now, since I can connect the stylistic flourishes of German expressionism to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, a student of the German school. This week’s Hitch, NUMBER 17, is a particularly Teutonic crime tale.

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Do you all know the story? Pianist Conrad Veidt plays Orlac, whose hands are smashed up in a train wreck, and is given the substitute extremities of a guillotined murderer. Strange stuff starts to happen, convincing Veidt that his paws retain the murderous proclivities of their previous owner. It’s all part of a fiendish plot by Fritz Kortner, the details of which are obscure enough to keep you guessing. For a while there, I thought that Kortner actually intended to make Veidt murder his own father, by convincing him that his hands were animated by malevolent will.  That plot, worthy of VERTIGO’s Gavin Elster in its twisted complexity, proves to not quite be the case.

Weine here achieves delirious effects without overtly contorted or theatrical sets, although the designs by Hans Rouc and Stefan Wessely are glossy, disconcerting and non-ergonomic. Fiona particularly relished Veidt’s weirdly low hospital bed, which actively compels everybody to loom over him. The best effects are a mixture of lighting (those deep dark jagged shadows, how we adore them!) and performance. Veidt is extraordinary, a floppy-haired stick insect, his brow furrowed into a taut brainscape of clenched convolutions. He does things in this film no actor has ever even thought of doing. I mean, he tries to throw his hands off! He tries to run away from them. Sometimes he literally holds them at arms’ length, as if they’re ablaze, or they smell really bad. At other times they try to crawl inside his face. At one point he looks set to moonwalk. “Michael Jackson!” Fiona cried. “It don’t matter if you’re black or Veidt,” I offered, lamely.

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Alexandra Sorina is Mrs. Orlac, her eyes rolling about like electrified pearls, barely contained by the rings of kohl surrounding them. Actively demented before anything’seven  happened, she does the impossible and keeps pace with Veidt’s physical insanity.

And then there’s Kortner, who has a hard job, appearing as a diabolical villain in such eccentric company, but he has a brilliant strategy — rather than wholeheartedly adopting the contortions and gesticulations of the expressionist style, or merging into the more naturalistic, low-key approach of the supporting players, he alternates between the two, so that you never know what you’re going to get next. Kortner also deploys his astonishing face and body extremely well: he looks like a malignant, pugilistic baby.

Of course, the pachyderm in the parlour is Karl Freund’s Hollywood remake, MAD LOVE, an excellent horror movie (the version to see when you’re twelve) that substitutes a fast-moving parade of grotesquerie and nonsense for the glacial creep of the Weine. The silent movie has nothing that can compare withPeter Lorre’s appearance as the decapitated, reanimated murderer, with black rubber prosthetic forelimbs, fetishistic neck brace, and clockwork cackle, fore-runner to the wind-up Nazi in Del Toro’s HELLBOY.

Lorre, playing a dude, pretending to be another dude — the most balls-out horrific thing in any 30s horror movie.

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But Kortner, deprived of Lorre’s snazzy costume, still does well, moving his plastic-bound arms as if they were stilts, somehow, convincing us that these are foreign appendages buckled to his lardy body. His clunkinessmakes a superb contrast with Veidt’s writhing and slinking.

It’s cinema as spastic ballet!*

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*The phrase “spastic ballet” is copyright Arthur Penn, who used it to describe what he wanted from Beatty and Dunaway when they’re machine-gunned to death at the end of BONNIE AND CLYDE. But on take one, somehow Beatty didn’t get the signal, and while Faye Dunaway spectacularly died in slow motion behind him, Beatty just stood there with a faint, puzzled grin as bits of his head blew off. “I wish I’d kept that bit of film,” says Penn.

Quote of the Day: Werewolf By Night

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2008 by dcairns

This is from Guy Endore’s The Werewolf of Paris, an epic and perverse gothic novel. Aymar has come to Paris in search of his nephew, Bertrand, an uncontrollable werewolf, whom he plans to stop at all costs. But Aymar gets caught up in the Paris Commune and its brutal suppression:

“The Commune shot fifty-seven from the prison of La Roquette. Versailles retaliated with nineteen hundred. To that comparison add this one: The whole famous Reign of Terror in fifteen months guillotined 2,596 aristos. The Versaillists executed 20,000 commoners before their firing squads in one week. Do these figures represent the comparative efficiency of guillotine and modern rifle, or the comparative cruelty of upper and lower class mobs?

“Bertrand, it now seemed to Aymar, was but a mild case. What was a werewolf who had killed a couple of prostitutes, who had dug up a few corpses, compared with these bands of tigers slashing at each other with daily increasing ferocity? ‘And there’ll be worse,’ he said, and again he had that marvelous rising of the heart. Instead of thousands, future ages will kill millions. It will go on, the figures will rise and the process will accelerate! Hurrah for the race of werewolves!”

~ Guy Endore, 1934.

Rather a terrific piece of pulp nastiness, with weird philosophical undertones. I’d compare it to Matthew Lewis’ anti-clerical masterpiece The Monk. Endore wants to have his cake and eat it, though, and his defence of witch-burning is frankly offensive, although it’s hard to know how seriously he means it.

Endore wrote in Hollywood, contributing to Tod Browning’s THE DEVIL DOLL and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, Karl Freund’s MAD LOVE, and the goofy Karloff-Lugosi THE RAVEN, which I wrote about here. And then, when he was still alive in 1961, Hammer films used his werewolf classic (which predates Henry Hull in WEREWOLF OF LONDON, Lon Chaney Jnr in THE WOLFMAN, and the Holocaust) as the basis for Terence Fisher’s CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, scripted by John Elder, perhaps Britain’s worst screenwriter
Wait, isn’t that his mother? Who dies in childbirth? Publicity stills can be SO IMAGINATIVE.
The film was initiated to make use of Spanish sets built for an Inquisition romp that had been nixed by the censor. Instead of doing the logical thing and turning to The Monk (too anti-Catholic), Elder took Endore’s story and transposed it from the historical background which is so central to it. While he could certainly have found equally bloody events in Spanish history, I guess he was forbidden to do so. But I can’t forgive the systematic ripping out of all of Endore’s best conceits. The author is purposely ambiguous right to the end about Bertrand’s lycanthropy. Does he really transform into a wolf, or only imagine it due to his uncontrollable cannibalistic impulses? And while Endore starts with a horrific account of a man entombed alive in an oubliette, Elder has his equivalent character locked in a jail, where he still has sympathetic human contact, yet somehow loses the power of speech. The chap goes mad and rapes an INSANELY busty wench and as a result, Oliver Reed is born with werewolfism. I always found that a pathetically stupid idea, and it’s a gross distortion of the book.
Even a slightly silly novel like Werewolf of Paris has a certain dignity in its perversity, and it deserves a more sympathetic adaptation. It’s not great literature or anything, but there are enough ideas in it for ten movies – all of them better than CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF.
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