Archive for Marlene Dietrich

The Chimp of the Perverse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2012 by dcairns

Revisiting the works of the late Richard Franklin, which I remembered as being pretty good. They are! But alas he perhaps never quite achieved a totally satisfying film… still, agreeable oddity, a likable spirit, and some camera panache counts for plenty.

Franklin was an Australian Hitchcock fan who studied film in America alongside John Carpenter. He was certainly the right guy to make PSYCHO II, from a smart Tom Holland script. If you’re going to do such a criminal thing, at least do it with respect and humour.

After a couple of softcore exploiters he didn’t much like to talk about, Franklin made PATRICK, a comatose telekinetic kid thriller, then the enjoyable ROAD GAMES, which we also watched. After PSYCHO II and CLOAK AND DAGGER (haven’t seen it) came LINK, his psycho chimp thriller with Terence Stamp, made for the late unlamented Cannon Films –

What most of the best Franklin films, and most of the best weird Australian films, have in common, is a script by Everett De Roche. Check his credits — besides the Franklin films, he wrote HARLEQUIN (Robert Powell as a modern Rasputin) and LONG WEEKEND (when everything attacks!) and RAZORBACK (JAWS in the outback with a wild boar!). Apart from the Peter Weir and Rolf de Heer Festivals of Strangeness, he seems omnipresent.

LINK is set in the UK (locations on the Scottish borders) but de Roche’s script makes Terence Stamp’s nutty primatologist an honorary Ozzie, with his matey, classless, no-frills manner. It’s a great way to take the curse off the scenario’s more fantastical elements — have them explained by a casual (yet intense) ordinary (yet impossibly handsome) bloke. Stamp is blocked on his latest opus –

“I was gonna call it Out On A Limb but Shirley MacLaine beat me to it.”

It’s actually one of Stamp’s nicest performances, and nobody appreciated it because it was in a killer chimp film. If A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE had a homicidal ape in it, we’d never have heard of Marlon Brando.

Stamp is joined at his isolated clifftop manor by a young Elizabeth Shue, who’s better than the average girl-in-jeopardy, although the script doesn’t do her as many favours as it does Terry. There’s a blandness in the role, and a bit of 70′s bloke sexism — I’m surprised the actress didn’t mutiny when called upon to answer the question “Can you cook, clean?” with “Well, I’m a woman, so I guess I have some kind of genetic aptitude.” The role, and the film, ultimately devolves into a lot of running around, rather as HOLLOW MAN would years later.

But what we were really watching for was the APES, and here LINK satisfies fully, if bizarrely. At the time, there was a certain amount of critical incredulity about the idea of chimpanzees as horror movie menace. The world is a bit better informed now about the dangers of apes run wild — a chimp is pretty much the most dangerous escaped zoo animal you could hope to meet. Stamp tells a charming story over dinner about one ape who savagely dismembered his human owner to try and sell us on this idea. “What had he done to the chimp?” asks Shue. “Oh, nothing. The chimp was just glad to see him,” smiles Stamp.

This is one of the few primatology-based movies to show signs of real, intelligent research. All of which is nearly overshadowed by the bizarre casting of the titular ape, a chimp played by an orangutan in blackface. Presumably because no adult chimp of sufficient training was available, some poor orang has been given a close-cropped haircut and a dye-job, then dressed as a butler (his character is a former circus artiste). It’s the simian equivalent of Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, an embarrassment to modern sensibilities. We were also shocked that none of the apes (three appear) were accorded a screen credit. I mean, that’s just good manners and good showbiz.

Whoever the anonymous ape is, he acquits himself well, aided by a few bits of prosthetic trickery, most of them well concealed. Unfortunately, orangs are pretty sluggish compared to chimps, so he’s not as adept at moving in a threatening way, but he sells the moments of sexual tension well, eyeing Shue’s body double with the sly lechery of a primeval George Sanders. It might seem like the movie’s most B-picture exploitation angle, but Link’s attraction to Elizabeth Shue (this is the same year as arthouse monkey-love epic MAX, MON AMOUR) is perfectly accurate in terms of simian behaviour. Captive apes often have crushes on humans. Lucy, raised as a human child, liked to relax with a glass of gin, a copy of Playgirl and a Hoover attachment.

Orangs, even in the wild, are known to be sexually rapacious. The name may mean “old man of the forest,” but it ought to be “dirty old man of the forest.” as Julia Roberts nearly learned to her cost.

“Pretty human!”

LINK is good fun — lots of problems, but only the score seems truly wrongheaded — Jerry Goldsmith has been encouraged to rip off his own GREMLINS theme, and it doesn’t work — although it gets better when he adds the timpani from Marlene Dietrich’s Hot Voodoo number in BLONDE VENUS, which Franklin quotes at the film’s start, in a bit of sub-Joe Dante pop culture referencing.

Russian Lark

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2012 by dcairns

While doing a bit of side-research on THE 39 STEPS — side-research being the stuff that’s strictly work-avoidance — I ran KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR, the big Korda misfire, directed by Jaques Feyder, whose LA KERMESSE HEROIQUE I had just revisited.

This film does rather waste everything it’s got — it has a lot, so it can afford to waste a lot, but as I say, it wastes everything. I have a suspicion Jacques Feyder is not quite my bag, which means I tend to appreciate the bits of his films which seem least successful, hardest to explain. LA KERMESSE HEROIQUE is almost entirely composed of such bits, so I like it a lot. KNIGHT’s biggest handicap is its lack of shape and drama, odd in a film with so much killing, romance, and headlong pursuit. With a bit of practice I might get to appreciate the way the film endlessly postpones its excitement, then repeats the same capture-escape cycle for the last hour. As it is, there are little glimmers of interest along the way –

Here’s Michael Redgrave in what may be his first film role — unlisted by the IMDb! Gloweringly fervid, he’s actually too exciting for the film, but by no means hammy or “theatrical” in a bad way. (I’m not mistaken, I hope — I thought I spotted Hitchcock fave John Williams, but it proved to be Austin Trevor.)

And here’s Moscow, elegantly imagined by Feyder and Clair’s regular production designer, Lazare Meerson. Much of this film boasts enormous reconstructions of Russian revolution scenes, so it’s a little surprising to find such a minimalist Moscow. Very effective and convincing, though.

Dietrich and Donat (who have surprising quasi-chemistry) circle each other for the first half hour without meeting, thirty minutes devoted to explaining why Donat, an Englishman, has become a Red Comissar. First he’s a journalist, due to be kicked out of Tsarist Russia for his too-honest articles — a complete retread of Olivier’s role in THE YELLOW TICKET. But swiftly he’s recruited by His Majesty’s Secret Service, in a surprisingly convincing, low-key scene — the functionary buys him dinner and drops a hint. Then he infiltrates the revolutionary movement, gets implicated in an assassination attempt, spends two years as a prisoner in Siberia, and is liberated by the Bolsheviks and finally is placed in charge of aristocratic prisoner Marlene Dietrich (the only Russian with a German accent — the rest are English and Scottish and say things like “What the dickens?”).

During all this circumlocutory preamble, Marlene just swans about in frocks, searching for a subplot she can call her own, but without her usual success.

It’s 39 STEPS time again when Donat goes on the run with this blonde, hunted by both sides — but the promising cross-country pursuit is continually interrupted by captures and escapes which always depend on ludicrous amounts of luck. But the train station with the mad railway guard (Dundonian character thesp Hay Petrie’s finest role: in THE FALLEN IDOL he just walks in and winds the clocks) is very fine, and a scene of Donat reciting Browning to Dietrich is actually sublime — Donat’s voice, the verse, and Miklos Rosza’s underscoring and Marlene’s wide, luminous eyes… The Adam & Eve idyll in the forest is beautifully shot by Harry Stradling.

Peter Bull plays another commissar, a little glimpse into how the Russian ambassador of DR STRANGELOVE started his career, perhaps. There’s also Miles Malleson — “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight!” — and Raymond Huntley! Yay, Raymond Huntley!

Korda contract player John Clements gets to steal the show — a romantic Russian who dies for love, he basically usurps Donat’s role, leaving the whole thing to sort of fray away to a Grand Finally. We realize that the central relationship hasn’t developed past love at first sight, the jeopardy has all been of the same sort, and so the movie’s been running in place for an hour, as gigantic Meerson sets trundle past. No wonder the thing didn’t do well.

But as a sort of fantasy travelogue of the Russian revolution, sort of diverting, and never less than beautiful, visually. Haunted by history, since a traditional Happy Ending is impossible with Russia as one of the main characters. Impossible to this day, arguably.

Knight Without Armour (1937)

Man Unwanted

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2010 by dcairns

“I’m your… secretary.” David Manners is quick on the draw.

One of the pleasures for the code-literate viewer watching movies from the post-1934 classic Hollywood era is figuring out how the writers are going to come up with an ending which pulls off a dramatic surprise, satisfies viewer requirements (not necessarily a happy ending, but an apt one) and gets by the production code. If the protagonist commits a crime, for instance, morality demands that they be punished, but box office demands they be somewhat sympathetic or anyhow compelling, so there’s a potential conflict of interest.

In pre-codes it’s different. Not only are subjects verboten in later years frequently dealt with or at least hinted at, the films’ attitudes to them are rarely predictable. Some of the movies are shamelessly sexist or racist, others would seem unusually sophistic, nuanced and acute if made today. In MAN WANTED, Kay Francis plays a magazine editor whose playboy husband is always urging her to take it easy, like him. But Kay loves her job. And does she lover her husband? The arrival or male secretary David Manners tests that proposition.

This is one of the slowest pre-codes I’ve seen (well, after we get past the early talkie slump, when everybody was enunciating like classically-trained zombies), but that works for the picture. The general rule seems to have been that rich folks led languid, relaxed lives, and so their stories have an easy-going, meandering approach, whereas the working class were all fast-talking go-getters, so a rambunctious tone and a rat-a-tat pace were compulsory. Here, the working stiff is Manners, who never had much rat-a-tat in him, poor boy, so the overall feel is elegant rather than hectic. Andy Devine rasps comedically in the background. The slow pace suits the story: a gradual creeping-in of illicit sexual attraction allows sympathy to be maintained even as everybody is cheating on everybody else.

Best of all, without the Production Code’s floor plan, we get lost in the story and have no trail of moralistic breadcrumbs to lead us out. Is divorce occasionally the lesser evil, and do some women like to earn a living outside the home? These conclusions are at least up for discussion in films of this period, and you might guess from my enthusiasm that the movie gets things right, but I don’t want to spoil anything…

“It’s too lovely an evening to wun down womance.” The writers entertain themselves by giving Kay Francis a lot of lines with R in them.

A more problematic, but nevertheless invigorating case is SHE HAD TO SAY YES. Loretta Young is in peril again! How could we say no? That title leers suggestively at you.

A movie which basically preaches that men are all fucked up could be accused of stacking the decks in its favour by casting Regis Toomey and Lyle Talbot in the lead roles, and indeed Toomey, though looking less like a plain-clothes circus clown than usual, is vile and pinched, but Talbot actually achieves sympathetic moments. The premise: young exec Toomey suggests that his firm use girls from the stenography department to “entertain” out-of-town clients. But he doesn’t want his own girl, Loretta, taking any part in that. At least until he starts an affair with office floozy Birdie (Suzanne Kilborn, in mysteriously her only movie role) and then it seems like a good idea to keep Loretta busy. Once Loretta becomes a hit entertainer, the unjust suspicion that she’s going all the way with clients provokes Toomey into breaking up with her, although he’s soon tormented by doubts. He’s the kind of paranoid-jealous type who seemingly NEEDS to believe his lover is cheating.

Meanwhile Loretta has met Talbot, one of the out-of-town clients, who drunkenly paws her. She tells him she doesn’t go for that stuff. “Perhaps you just haven’t been pawed properly! It’s really very nice.” Sober, he apologizes sweetly, and starts to win her heart. Talbot is actually quite good at the vulnerable stuff. God knows, he can’t carry off cockiness without provoking bemusement (“What’s this chump so cocky about?”) The early 30s was a thin time for genuinely attractive leading men, it seems to me. Cary Grant was still learning to act, the young Ray Milland looks like an Yves Tanguy abstract (cloth draped on sticks), and John Wayne’s mouth was still a Pandora’s Box, spoiling everything by opening. David Manners is easy on the eye, but he has a Ken doll’s sexuality.

A glance through Marlene’s roster of screen squeezes illustrates the problem neatly: yes, there was Gary Cooper, who makes up for a lot, but there’s also Victor McLaglan, for whom nobody can possibly atone. Cesar Romero, Clive Brook, Lionel Atwill… possibly Sternberg was just seeing how far he could push a grotesque private joke…

SHE HAD TO SAY YES is a pretty ferocious attack on the kind of man who wants a desirable woman, wants other men to desire her, and becomes psychotically jealous whatever happens next. And it classifies that type of men as ALL MEN. Which may have some degree of truth in it, or at least be a relevant analysis of a certain trend of male-female relations in the early 1930s in America. What it doesn’t lend itself to is the kind of happy ending where the hero gets the girl and the audience feels happy. The screenwriters attempt to be true to the box office formula of boy meets girl and produce an awkward, unconvincing and disturbing finale where Loretta joyously accepts a marriage proposal from Lyle minutes after he has tried to rape her. In between, all he has to do is punch out Regis Toomey to win her over. Admittedly, he earns our eternal gratitude for doing so, but it’s fair to say we don’t quite trust him yet.

Nevertheless, an ending that sits so uncomfortably can’t fail to provoke thought: one thought being that it’s perhaps impossible to make a solidly feminist piece with the underlying assumption that the girl must always end up as half a couple, no matter what. That darkened-bedroom moment, with Lyle Talbot in the throes of fervid lust-hate, wanting to believe Loretta is good so he can love her, but wanting more to believe she’s bad so he can screw her, and Loretta stopping him with the plaintive words, “Is that all you think of me?” is a pretty strong scene. I guess we’re meant to think he’s an OK guy at heart because he’s capable of stopping himself. I’m not convinced this is a sign of the film’s age, I think audiences have always had a higher ideal for their leading men characters than that.

Still, Winnie Lightner is around to provide snappy put-downs, and Hugh Herbert plays things surprisingly straight as a cheating husband, apart from a high-pitched laugh signaling the character’s sexual arousal/anxiety.
MAN WANTED is directed by William Dieterle, with shapely compositions and lots of art deco. SHE HAD TO SAY YES is directed by George Amy, a successful editor who only helmed a few films.
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