Archive for Martin Kosleck

Sizzling Quislings

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2014 by dcairns

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Lewis Milestone directed EDGE OF DARKNESS (a much-reused title) in 1943, the same year he made THE NORTH STAR, which is virtually the same film on the face of it. While EOD is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Norwegians starring Walter Huston, TNS is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Russians starring Walter Huston. THE NORTH STAR became something of a career embarrassment to all concerned for its celebration of commies, but EOD, co-written by Robert Rossen, also sneaks in some slightly left-of-centre politics (the wealthy industrialist played by Charles Dingle is the most enthusiastic Nazi collaborator, to no one’s surprise).

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Couldn’t resist this shot.

The movie really stars Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, two WB beauties, with Huston playing Sheridan’s father and Ruth Gordon (!) her mother. The older players overact a little in this one, but the youngsters are spot on. The movie works like a microwave oven full of tin cans: it heats up and sparks and crackles until the tension is unbearable, then it explodes all over the place. At this point, Milestone brings out his full kit bag of propulsive camera moves, rushing sideways as armies rush forwards, with the addition of a zoom lens — I know! Completely ahistoric — NOBODY was using the zoom between 1935 and at least the late 50s, and yet here it unmistakably is, used for several key shots, and quite distinct from any dolly move or optical enlargement. The influence may have come from combat photography. What’s weird is that though Milestone was active during the late twenties and early thirties, the first heyday of the zoom, he never used it then.

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It IS slightly disconcerting to see Milestone deploy the same kinds of propulsive tracking shots he made his name with in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT for a very different purpose — to SELL war rather than to condemn it. Sure, the film makes it clear that nobody likes war except evil Nazis, but then even the pastor who condemned the resistance fighters is seen blazing away with a tommy gun from the church spire. It’s all very dynamic and very persuasive. If you oppress the audience with a bullying, sweaty Helmut Dantine for 90 minutes, and Milestone certainly does, then they’re prepared to welcome any amount of carnage as relief from the tension.

I’m reminded of how Sam Peckinpah started by saying he used slomo to capture the agony and adrenalin of deadly force, but as early as THE GETAWAY he’d started using it for shots of smashing headlamps. The device celebrates movement, and that’s all it does, unless the context provides it with further meaning. A tracking shot may be a moral choice, but the same movement can have totally different meanings applied in different movies or situations.

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Gratuitous Judith Anderson in leather!

It’s such a collective movie that Errol gets sidelined for considerable stretches of the action, and even when the plotting resorts to the cheapest manipulation to push him into action — his sweetheart is raped by Germans (you can tell by the torn shoulder of her shirt, a strange, oblique movie convention that’s nevertheless impossible to misread) — he’s persuaded that taking personal revenge would be wrong when the whole town is biding its time for the propitious moment to attack the occupying forces.

Two hours of sterling WB melodrama, spectacular model shots to simulate a Norwegian port without sailing into Nazi-held territory, and Milestone’s vigorous visuals made this a pretty damn good watch. I certainly found it more compelling from the start than THE NORTH STAR, which starts as a mind-boggling piece of socialist realism celebrating Soviet collectivism through the medium of song (music by Aaron Copland, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) — a musical that morphs into a war movie.

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It’s strange how the smart left-wingers of Hollywood would become dumb when faced with the subjects of psychoanalysis and the Soviet system. These filmmakers were much better at exposing faults than at celebrating things they thought were great — and indeed, the former is much better fuel for drama than the latter anyway. The whole first half hour of this thing is just jolly, hearty Russians (Dana Andrews! Farley Granger!) talking in an odd, stilted way and carrying on with their picturesque lives in a William Cameron Menzies Russian village. I was soon praying for Nazis to invade and save the day. Nobody can be that cheerful with Martin Kosleck AND Erich von Stroheim giving them the fish-eye.

The dialogue is really weird. In the best of Hollywood’s foreign-set WWII pics, the foreigners (Germans in THE MORTAL STORM, French in THIS LAND IS MINE!) talk mainly American, with a careless smattering of other accents thrown in. Here, they’re all Americans alright, and they all have American accents, but they speak a weird denuded English from which every trace of life and idiom and slang and sass has been siphoned off. Lillian Hellman becomes a terrible writer as soon as she’s trying to be positive. Once some actual drama appears, Milestone, Hellman, Copland and Menzies (reunited with the director from the Oscar-winning TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS) can actually play to their strengths ~

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With the apocalypse underway, things brighten considerably, and the gigantic first act lull almost feels like necessary preparation for the onslaught, in which Milestone seems determined to exterminate every cast member whose name isn’t Walter. Milestone in horrors-of-war mode with his rocketing lateral tracks accompanied by Menzies’ violently skewed compositions is quite something (Milestone always worked with a storyboard, and Menzies liked to draw out all the shots even for films he didn’t direct, so the team is a natural — they also produce great scenic effects in ARCH OF TRIUMPH, dramatically inert though that is).

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Lillian Hellman could have used the above crib-sheet.

We weren’t quite Milestoned out so we ran ANYTHING GOES, a mangled version of a Wodehouse/Cole Porter musical, with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman. It’s a mess, with bowdlerized lyrics and a shambling narrative (mess with Wodehouse’s immaculate construction at your peril, Mssrs. Lindsay & Crouse!) but it does have some freewheeling visuals from the director, rushing all over the art deco ocean liner sets and luxuriating in the Travis Banton costumes. Lots of queer humour too –

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Fiona had woken up feeling tired, taken a nap, and slept for the entire day. She watched this film in a state of hypnagogic disbelief, convinced she was hallucinating. There’s a long sequence about shaving a Pomeranian in order to procure a false beard for Bing. There are even lyrics on the subject. The Spanish subtitles on our copy of the film certainly didn’t make it any less peculiar.

Un Moose Andalou

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2010 by dcairns

Following Glenn Kenny’s lead, I’ve written before about the strange and abiding influence of Bunuel and Dali’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU on the work of Robert Siodmak. But this is a weird one ~

THE NIGHT BEFORE THE DIVORCE is a very early American Siodmak movie, a marital comedy set in England, odd and not very sympathetic material for the German noirist.

[Of the early American period, my view is that WEST POINT WIDOW is dreary, with Siodmak's every decision closely overseen by an interfering producer: "This picture is not good enough to be called a Siodmak picture," the director finally told him.

FLY-BY-NIGHT is a very amusing spy thriller with Richard Carlson as an atomic scientist. The Hitchcock model is plundered completely, and Hollywood's favourite Goebbels, Martin Kosleck, gets a rare sympathetic part.

MY HEART BELONGS TO DADDY is lightweight but nice -- the snowy settings allow Siodmak to flex his visual muscles, and it has a sweet perf by Richard Carlson as an "atom-smasher" -- a physicist, again. Mabel Paige, in her first movie since 1918, has a small role, and the puckish Cecil Kellaway has a major one as a taxi driver with expertise in everything (he describes himself as agraduate of the University of Edinburgh!). A movie nice enough to make me forget I normally hate screenwriter F Hugh Herbert's every word.

Then comes DIVORCE, then SOMEONE TO REMEMBER, the forgotten masterpiece that gives Mabel Paige her one starring role. Then comes SON OF DRACULA and the better known films, leading to THE KILLERS et al.]

The startling moment in THE NIGHT BEFORE THE DIVORCE comes during a dispute over which of the bickering protags is going to get custody of a moose head called Stinky. As the peevish hero attempts to prise Stinky from the wall, there’s a frightful crash, Mrs Bickering-Protag comes into the room, registers dismay, and we cut to her POV, a slightly tilted, expressionist angle on a pile of debris, including a spilled bottle. Tilt down from the bottle to THIS HORROR –

The spilled wine is making it look as if Stinky is crying, you see?

Since this “gag” isn’t particularly funny, and actually is disturbing and awful, it can only really be interpreted as a hommage to the rotting, honey-dripping burros in the piano in UN CHIEN ANDALOU. Am I right or am I right?

If I AM right, then it’s a startling reference to find in a middling American B-movie rom-com. Hooray for Siodmak. Hooray for Bunuel.

Lady Cab Driver

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on June 14, 2010 by dcairns

Janet Shaw (the waitress from SHADOW OF A DOUBT) in HOUSE OF HORRORS, a better-than-expected Rondo Hatton monsterpiece viewed as part of my ongoing pursuit of those movies with illos in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies. The lovely Janet, who appears but briefly, and whose beauty is commented upon approvingly by both the hero and heroine, seems like the kind of meaningless bit part included in studio movies so that executives, directors or stars (Errol Flynn, I’m looking at you) could nail some grateful tail. Shaw’s career arc, which took her from Beatrice, Nebraska, to Hollywood, California, and back to Beatrice, Nebraska, is suggestive of at least mild disillusion…

Also featured is Sweet Sue herself, Joan Shawlee, in an outfit which could only have gotten past the censors if they’d completely forgotten what a woman’s body looks like naked (hint: it looks exactly like Joan Shawlee in her outfit in this film). These are the normal characters, also including a manly commercial artist, his wise-cracking art critic girlfriend, and a smart-talking detective… all reasonably well written but yawn

What matters is the devilish double act of Rondo and Martin Kosleck, the demented and poverty-stricken sculptor who rescues Rondo’s Creeper from the drink and soon has him posing for a modern art masterpiece (Rondo’s skull reinvents cubism), as well as lumbering forth on nocturnal missions to snap the spines of Kosleck’s critics (a good double feature with THEATRE OF BLOOD is suggested– everybody loves to see critics murdered).

What a teaming this is! Apart from the pleasing physical contrast (Kosleck, the Gollum-like shrimp, Hatton, who looks like he’s wearing American football padding and helmet under his skin), there’s a contrast in acting styles which is never less than bracing. Kosleck seizes his moment, in one of his larger roles, and worries it to shreds, monologuing at the cat and evoking a keen audience sympathy which rapidly gets twisted into awe at his wickedness. By contrast to this total commitment approach, Hatton is minimalist, paradoxical in such a big guy. His sullen, low-affect delivery is somehow completely riveting, and effectively suggests the Creeper’s psychopathic personality.

Of course, Rondo doesn’t need to act to be interesting, and it’s questionable whether anyone expected him to pull out any stops whatsoever. But he works.

(His performance does make me wonder if he really wanted to be in movies at all. Most reviews of his career are pretty critical of Universal for exploiting the poor man’s deformity in horror movies, but what makes the sleaziness worse is the suspicion that Hatton may not have had any enthusiasm for the work, and perhaps only acted to survive, resenting the exposure of his increasing deformity and disability.)

Rondo Hatton as The Whistler!

Contrasting the crazy avant-garde artist with the manly commercial painter of Gil Elvgren type girlie art, the movie has a very conservative outlook, with the experimental seen as both foreign and sinister… but it’s in the world of Kosleck’s impoverished dreaming, ripe for corruption as soon as he’s achieved power via his hulking housemate, that the film lives, breathes and wriggles.

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