Archive for Madness of the Heart

Blind Tuesday: As Farrar as the Eye Can See

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2011 by dcairns

Extraordinary! No sooner have I watched one obscure blind-person-in-jeopardy movie starring a BLACK NARCISSUS alumnus (Kathleen Byron in MADNESS OF THE HEART) than another comes along (David Farrar in NIGHT WITHOUT STARS) And they’re practically the same movie!

Novelettish title: check (the night is without stars because he’s BLIND, geddit?). Southern French setting: check . Miracle cure around halfway: check. Insanely jealous incestuous relative: check. But this movie, directed by Anthony Pelissier, is quite a bit more compelling and less cheesy than Charles Bennet’s potboiler, even if nobody in it’s as compelling as la Byron.

Jumble up the first film as if in a dream, and you have the second film. Winston Grahame (MARNIE) scripts, from his own novel. Farrar is a veteran who lost most of his vision in the war. Holidaying in France, he falls for a girl, Alex, widow of a resistance fighter, but suddenly she has a hostile fiance. Farrar gets to demonstrate impressive sang froid while dealing with this Gallic lout –

“Go on, go on, before I keek you downstairz!”

“I don’t think there’s much danger of that, do you?”

“I zuppose you seenk your blindness protectz you?”

“On the contrary, I should have thought it’d make it easier for you.”

Suave.

But then, a panicked phone call — in French, which DF doesn’t speak — from Alex, inviting her over to the guy’s apartment on an urgent matter. He comes. Nobody seems to be there. As he prowls around, cinematographer Guy Green (GREAT EXPECTATIONS) lights him with a follow spot, emphasizing his isolation — the light beams onto whatever Farrar touches, making us feel the limitations of his senses. As he moves about the deserted apartment, finding a smashed vase and strewn flowers, an abandoned piece of jewelry, a gun… a loud ticking sound builds, oppressively…

Of course it’s Farrar’s giant alarm clock from THE SMALL BACK ROOM, tockative companion to the more famous giant whisky bottle. Has to be. In the insane Wikipedia article of my mind, Farrar had it in his contract that both items had to accompany him on every set, in case he wanted to time himself having a big drink. Or no, maybe the alarm clock sort of STALKED him, like the one that stalks Captain Hook in Peter Pan from inside a crocodile. Or maybe the sound just sort of imbued itself into Farrar’s cinematic presence. Sound men would protest when he was cast, because they knew they could record him in conditions of absolute silence and yet still on the tape, at the end of the day, would be heard that phantasmal tick-tock… That’s why there’s so much John Barry music in BEAT GIRL, it’s to drown out the beating of that infernal clock!!!

THE SMALL BACK ROOM.

Ahem. A nasty moment follows when Farrar sits on the bed and the fiance’s corpse slumps over on him. He flees, waits for police reports, but nothing. Then he discovers that the cafe where he used to dine with Alex has vanished, or rather it has a different name and a different proprietor. Alex herself has vanished. WHAT is going on?

Anthony Pelissier, who directed THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER, had an occasional tendency to stylistic verve (the climactic “rocking” scenes of that film are visually WILD), tamped down by the time and place he was working in. I suspect if he’d been able to get started earlier in the forties we’d have seen some masterpieces from him, exploiting the feeling of innovation and brio in the air. As it is, this is a twisty thriller with a stiletto-hurling bad guy and a third act detective inspector deus ex machina to sort everything out. Farrar’s experience with matte-painted mountainsides comes in handy at a dicey moment, and we establish for certain that bottle bottom glasses are not a good look for him. And Nadia Gray is tres charmant (although actually Romanian, not French).

Blind Tuesday: Where is love and who turned out the lights?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2011 by dcairns

An obscure one — I’d never heard of MADNESS OF THE HEART until I stumbled across it. It has no reputation, but it does have points of interest: it’s written and directed by Charles Bennett, who collaborated on a half-dozen or so key Hitchcocks between BLACKMAIL and FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (including most of the late-thirties espionage cycle, all reviewed elsewhere on this site as part of Hitchcock Year) and also adapted NIGHT OF THE DEMON for Jacques Tourneur, incorporating a number of Hitchcockian ideas, including the master-villain with the sweet, doddering mum.

And then there’s Kathleen Byron, reprising her mad love act from BLACK NARCISSUS, only with a cod French accent. Powell told her that Sister Ruth was a great part, the only problem being she’d never get a better one, and he was right. So basically repeating the role here seems a reasonable option: it beats Freddie Francis’s CRAZE.

In brief: plucky doctor’s receptionist Margaret Lockwood meets and falls for French aristo Paul (Who He?) Dupuis. Then she’s struck blind, and the best medical minds, including the one she works for (yay! Maurice Denham!) conclude there’s no hope. After an unsuccessful turn as a nun (blind AND a nun? doesn’t Audrey Hepburn have automatic dibs on that?) narrating the story so far in flashback (the structure’s a mess but so’s this sentence) she hooks up with Dupuis again and he marries her, blindness and all. FINALLY we arrive at the family château in the South of France where Kathleen Byron plays an old flame of Dupuis, determined to destroy Lockwood so she can have him for herself… Now things can get going, and going is precisely what they get…

Spoiler alert! The next paragraph contains plot details written in invisible ink: highlight to read.

A daft plot twist allows Lockwood to cure her blindness and return, faking it, in order to entrap her unseen enemy. This frustrates one of the best tropes of the blind person in jeopardy thriller, which is the disabled character triumphing over both unspeakable evil and their own disability. In fairness, this convention isn’t set in stone and hadn’t really been established at this time: WAIT UNTIL DARK really fixed the template. But when you see it done decently, it’s satisfying in obvious ways that alternatives, like the boyfriend barging to the rescue in SEE NO EVIL, really aren’t.

End spoiler.

Oddly, Bennett directs this one better than he writes it, but he’s dealing with a cheap novelette as source material (ugh! that title!) and struggles to inject real humanity into it. On the other hand, his filming is often stylish, aided by Desmond Dickinson’s moody photography.

Listening to Fiona’s extremely zestful reactions to Byron’s acts of wickedness against her sightless rival (from repositioning a wine glass to attempting to arrange a drowning), I was struck by how films like this encourage a complicity with the bad guy. At times, Fiona was virtually egging the madwoman on. This wasn’t due to any dislike of Lockwood, who embodies pluck, but simply because in a film like this, nothing entertaining can happen unless the villain is plotting villainy. If the supporting cast were full of amusing bit players, there might be some welcome distraction from the main event, but asides from Thora Hird as a no-nonsense maid, there’s nothing doing. So we require constant perfidy from la Byron or the thing is going to just lie there.

Kathleen in a saucy two-piece, something I never thought to see.

Fortunately, K.B. does not disappoint, seizing one of her last chances to be interesting in a dull film. No act of spite is too petty for the ironically named “Verity”, who amusingly goes from leaving sharp objects near the maid’s baby so Lockwood will get the blame, straight to murder attempts, then back to faking love letters (to a blind woman?), and back to murder again. In this she’s aided by the château’s offscreen architect, who for some reason has supplied the building with a door opening onto a fifty foot drop. Perhaps the castle was assembled from a kit, like the Keaton homestead in ONE WEEK?

Why didn’t Kathleen Byron go from strength to strength? Simply because the British cinema of the ‘fifties was too weedy to contain her, I think. There weren’t enough psycho-bitch roles to typecast her successfully, and nobody was bold or imaginative enough to see her in more varied parts, despite the proof offered by THE SMALL BACK ROOM that she could be really excellent in a less extreme characterisation. (The reason David Farrar’s so uncharacteristically strong in that film is that she lends him fire. And he’s strongest in BLACK NARCISSUS when she’s around.)

There’s also the sad fact that she was apparently a little difficult, as talented people often are.  With the supremely difficult Michael Powell around to help her, that didn’t matter so much, but when they were no longer an item and his career was on the slide, that impetus was gone. (BTW, she always said Powell’s description of her, in his memoir Million Dollar Movie, standing naked and threatening him with a revolver, was sheer confabulation.) And nobody else owed her sufficient goodwill to help.

That was stupid: with the Rank Organisation embracing sappy bourgeois mediocrity in the ‘fifties, British cinema really needed a fierce talent who could heat up a moribund flick with a dash of hellfire.

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