Archive for Michael Powell

Conrad Veidt: The Sound Years. Part 2 – Der Mann, der den Mord beging/The Man Who Murdered 1931

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2020 by dcairns

Hello. I’m Fiona Watson, Mrs Shadowplay, and I’m back to carry out my threat to review Conrad Veidt’s sound career, in chronological order, or at least, the order listed on the IMDb. Because there’s far more to him than the kohl-smeared, expressionist flailer of the Silent Era.

I would have liked to review EA Dupont’s Menschen im Käfig/ Men(People) In A Cage/ The Love Storm 1930, shot in England at British International Pictures (made in English as Cape Forlorn), but I can’t because this film is listed as missing. (The English language version ISN’T missing) What I can offer you instead, is the opinion of an unknown journalist in Variety who writes, ‘Conrad Veidt still has much of the demon whom the little girls once upon a time used to adore, therefore unreal and posing.’ Short of nipping into a time machine to a screening in Berlin at Gloria Palast, there’s nothing I can do to refute this opinion.

So, here we are in 1931, and it’s a busy, busy time for Connie. The Last Company 1930 was a big hit in Germany and would herald his brief stint as an almost conventional leading man. In this year alone, he had four films released. Unfortunately, Die Nacht Der Entscheidung aka Der General/The Night Of The Decision is missing presumed lost, which is a great pity.

The English language version, The Virtuous Sin 1930, was directed by George Cukor, who Connie would later work with on A Woman’s Face. The 1931 German version gave us Connie doing romantic dramedy (Yes. I know!) whilst looking dashing as a WW1 Russian General. Unfortunately, there’s probably more chance of finding the jaunty Cossack hat he wears in it than the film itself. Could someone please make an effort etc…

Actually there is a way of recreating this lost movie. Just watch the Cukor version and imagine Connie in the Walter Huston role and Olga Tschechowa in the Kay Francis role. You can thank me later. Especially when you imagi-create the bit on the seesaw.

But back to the mainstream of this evening’s symposium. The Man Who Murdered is an adaptation of a play by Pierre Frondaie, itself based on a novel by Claude Farrère. It’s a slow-moving, technically impressive, if not exactly riveting drama, reuniting Veidt with Kurt Bernhardt who helmed The Last Company. Bernhardt was one of the directors who seemed to get the best out of Connie. He gives one of the most restrained performances of his life in this film. It’s notable for its naturalness and detail.

SYNOPSIS – Just before the First World War, the Marquis de Sévigné (Veidt), a French military attaché stationed in Istanbul, falls in love with Lady Mary (Trude von Molo – who was married to the director at the time), the wife of Lord Falkland (Heinrich George), a boorish, English aristocrat. He tries to protect her when the marriage, crumbling under Falkland’s infidelity and tyranny, is given the final death blow when he threatens to separate her from her small son, Georgie. Sévigné is put in an intolerable position. What lengths will he go to to save her?

Open on the vistas of Istanbul, shot on location by the second unit, headed by the great John Alton. Long shot of the dome of the Hagia Sophia Mosque. Match dissolve to painting of the same dome being hung on the wall in Connie’s apartments. Nicely done Kurt! Kurt is also keen on long tracking shots, and he really indulges himself in this movie. Very lovely they are too.

It’s a long way to Connie’s table, isn’t it?

On to performance. Something I’ve noticed about Talkie Connie is that he’s no longer gesticulating and gurning and throwing himself around like a madman, but he’s still a very physical actor.

He’s become elegant and balletic in his body movements, while his face is extremely expressive without him having to pop his eyes or leer. Even in the not-very-good, soft-focus print I saw, he conveys so much with his face and body. As I said in my introductory essay, A Face You Can’t Forget But Apparently Have, he’s pared his silent style down to the bare minimum, whilst simultaneously taking on board a whole new set of sound acting rules.

Check this out. Look at the way he turns round, well, it’s more like swings round and at the same time the smile falls off his face. (He’s expecting to see his lady love but it’s someone else.) His body movements are completely in sync with his face. The arms drop as the smile drops. Beautiful.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that in all his performances, his hands are rarely at rest. They’re almost always doing something, usually in an extremely aesthetically pleasing way. It’s as if he’d become completely paralysed if he couldn’t move his hands. He’s one of the great Hand Actors of all time. But it’s not fussy (although hilarious), Donald Pleasance Hanky Acting; it just seems to flow out of him naturally.

Just a very sweet moment of Sévigné interacting with Georgie. In real life Connie adored children and animals. Yes, that incorrigible Nazi and Expressionist nightmare was an adorable giggler.

If I could just go off on a tangent, I spoke before about Connie possibly having had ADHD. As I have it myself I was intrigued by this fan theory so I spent some time researching it. I think it’s very likely, although I’m wary about retroactively diagnosing someone when we’ll never know the truth.

One of the things that persuades me is that he’s physically restless. He’s either shifting about from one foot to the other, bouncing on the spot or swaying slightly. By a supreme effort of will he can make himself move in slow motion or even be as still as a statue. But his default setting on screen is movement.

And never more so than with his hands. He’s always using them to emphasise things. He points a lot and fidgets with objects. He touches his face or head, running his fingers through his hair, or bringing his fingers up to his lips contemplatively. Sometimes he’ll even rub his lips or pull on them. He also touches people, invading their personal space in a slightly alarming way. If he didn’t do it so charmingly you’d probably punch his lights out.

Famously, his hands had a life of their own in Orlacs Hände.

I’ve noticed that I employ very similar hand gestures when I’m talking myself. If I get very excited, my arms start flailing around like a windmill. I observed this inability to speak without moving my hands when I started making video essays with David and had to record voice-overs. I was completely stilted if I didn’t move my hands, but if I allowed them to weave about in the air, as I usually do when I talk, my speech was much more fluid.

I’d go as far as saying that ADHD informed Connie’s performances. There’s an energy and restive quality to him that’s sometimes ruthlessly controlled and sometimes not. I know that in his private life he suffered from extreme emotional dysregulation which is another dead giveaway.

There’s also his boyishness. Individuals with ADHD are very enthusiastic and childlike, sometimes to the point of seeming manic or high. All of these things were present in Connie and would sometimes pop out in his performances. The next time you watch him, especially in Contraband (especially especially in the “Which Button Would You Press?” scene with Hay Petrie), where he basically plays himself. I’m not wrong.

From 1:18:28 to 1:19:05 – In all probability, this is a representation of the real Connie getting flustered in a lift. Bless ‘im. Thanks to Dubjax 30.

Another thing I observed, much to my horror, is that The Entire World is Connie’s ashtray. He’ll casually tap cigarette ash wherever he is, indoors or outdoors, with or without an ash receptacle. And he does this in most of his sound films. Were other actors doing this at the time? I haven’t thought to look. I pray to god he wasn’t like this at home, but I fear he was.

His wife Lilli described him as “messy, things lying about all over the place”, when he wasn’t working, but the moment he had a job, he’d spring into action, tidying up and organising like a six-foot-three whirlwind.

Back in the film, the six-foot-three whirlwind confesses his love to Lady Mary, but inexplicably, she’s shagging a braying idiot called Prince Cernuwicz (Gregori Chmara) because she thought he could help her keep her son. Everyone’s getting their leg over except Connie. Even the repulsive Lord Falkland is having an affair with his cousin, Lady Edith (Friedl Haerlin).

The repellent Prince Cernuwicz and the repulsive Lord Falkland.
*thinks* I don’t even know what you’re doing to your wife at this juncture in the film and I want to murder you right now!

I feel I should caution you that there are tits in this film, which surprised me. The mammaries had no particularly surprising attributes of their own. It was their being in such an early talkie that startled me. Falkland, Cernuwicz and Sévigné all go out on the town. (Sévigné actually wants to gather evidence against “that bulldog.”) They end up in a bizarre cabaret that combines striptease with the circus trapeze: Stripeze if you will. Confronted by nipples and asked what he thinks of them, Connie, cunningly blending in with his mucky pretend mates declares them to be “Excellent.”

Watching ‘Stripeze’, the wildly popular combo of stripping and the flying trapeze. It’s not as exciting as that sounds.

There’s an interesting moment where Mary and Sévigné have a secret tryst where she tells him all about the terrible situation she’s in. They deliberately walk away from where the mic is hidden and walk back again, so the conversation fades away to nothing then fades up again. It’s not a successful effect but it does show us that Bernhardt wasn’t afraid to experiment.

Connie doesn’t even get a kiss for all the trouble he goes through for this wretched woman, that trouble being murder as the title suggests. And here we come to Connie Trope No 1 – He doesn’t get the girl. No matter how noble and devoted to duty he’s been, he can never end up in a final clinch with the woman of his dreams. This trope would be repeated many times over in his filmography.

The woman of his dreams avec son.

The dark deed done, he reports to his superior, hinting at the deadly truth of the matter. He’s told to skedaddle off to another city, which he duly does, leaving a note for Milady. It’s been a somewhat turgid melodrama with beautiful cinematography, some nice tracking shots and a delicate, yearning, elegant performance from Veidt, and now this. That’s it! That’s the end of the film! Talk about an anti-climax. Still, at least he gets to live! Just not in Istanbul Not Constantinople. The Connie Death Scene is a trope for another day.

Mylady, I have the honour to bid you farewell. I am leaving Stanbul. I take this opportunity to thank you. Your most devoted servant, de Sevigne. PS – I’m The Man Who Murdered your husband. PPS – I’m too noble for my own good. Next time you need someone murdered, do it yourself. xxx

As I researched this rather dreary thing, I uncovered a wealth of information about the talents involved in making it. Henry Koster as Hermann Kosterlitz, is listed as one of the screenwriters. He’s probably most famous as the director of Harvey and The Bishop’s Wife, but check out his hugely dramatic and entertaining IMDB Bio, Trivia and Quotes sections. “I thought Richard Burton was a wonderful man. He still is a wonderful man, no matter how many times he marries Elizabeth Taylor.” Amazing.

And then we have one of the other screenwriters, Carl Mayer, listed as working on dialogue. Yes. THAT Carl Mayer. The man who co-wrote The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari and worked on the scripts for Journey Into The Night, The Haunted Castle, The Last Laugh, and Sunrise, all for FW Murnau.

Bringing up the rear are cinematographer Curt Courant who shot the first The Man Who Knew Too Much, and The Passing Of The Third Floor Back (one of the best of the bunch of Connie’s British Period), Editor Laslo Benedek who directed The Wild One, and Hermann Warm, who was Art Director/Production Designer on The Student Of Prague 1926 (Connie version), Caligari, The Passion Of Joan Of Arc and Vampyr.

Phew! And relax…

Join me as we explore the next film in the little discussed Veidt sound filmography, Die andere Seite/ The Other Side, in which German actors all play British soldiers in an adaptation of R. C Sherriff’s Journey’s End.

Danke.

Byronic

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2020 by dcairns

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JY wrote to request I say something about the late Kathleen Byron, born on this day 99 years ago (what are we all going to do for the Sister Ruth centenary?).

It’s taken for granted that Michael Powell was right when he told Byron that she’d never get another role as good as Sister Ruth — and of course he was. But we should stop to note that in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, a very nearly perfectly cast film, she’s a very striking presence, and THE SMALL BACK ROOM, which I adore, would not be the same without her.

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Rank, of course, did not know what to do with her, and her later career becomes a game of spot-the-Byron, as she turns up for minute, often thankless and sometimes literally wordless roles in distinguished films like THE ELEPHANT MAN and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and altogether less celebrated works like CRAZE and NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. It can look as if she was embracing obsolescence, accepting Powell’s prophecy, but I think it’s more likely she was still hoping to prove him wrong and knew she’d better keep her hand in if there was to be any chance of landing the great role when it came by.

Maybe people were a little scared of her — not just because she’s so intimidating in BLACK NARCISSUS, but she seems to have been a formidable person in real life. Powell’s unexplained reference to her threatening him with a revolver while naked in Vol II of his autobiography appears to be a complete wish-fulfillment confabulation on his part, but they were intimate, and she wasn’t afraid to stand up to him.

My late friend Lawrie Knight, a third assistant on BN, confirmed Byron’s account of her refusing to take Powell’s direction when Sister Ruth visits Mr. Dean’s hut. She’d decided for herself that Sister Ruth was PERFECTLY SANE and she was damn well going to play it that way. Of course, most viewers still perceive Ruth as mad — her actions are a bit extreme, but unrequited love, frustration and jealousy aren’t mental illnesses, though they may have many of the same characteristics. Whatever was behind Byron’s choices, the effect on screen is incredibly powerful and convincing. Powell went off in a huff, Byron worked out the scene with David Farrar, then they showed it to their director.

“Well, it’s not what I wanted but I suppose it’s all right,” he harumphed.

To his credit, he let her do it, he cast her once more, and he gave her some of the greatest close-ups in British cinema.

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(What ARE the greatest close-up in British cinema? When Deborah Kerr looks up from the pencil in her hand and sees Ruth staring at her, that’s one. Christopher Lee coming downstairs and saying hello, that’s two. Yootha Joyce in the hairdressers in THE PUMPKIN EATER, that’s three. Hmm, they’re all quite scary. I’ll need to think of some romantic ones — I think COLONEL BLIMP offers several…)

Beyond the Paleontology

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2019 by dcairns

Officially, the blogathon is supposed to be over — but I have three guest posts on their way, and I’ve kept watching late films too…

So, I guess I saw ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING when it came out in 1975, a long time ago — when dinosaurs ruled the earth, or my world, anyway. Aged eight, I was a little disappointed that there were no live, stampeding dinosaurs in it. As moderately amusing as the conceit is, if Disney had made a proper version of THE LOST WORLD and followed Willis H. O’brien and had a rampant brontosaurus in Victorian London… IMAGINE how entertaining that would have been!

But even if they were determined to carry on filming David Forrest’s long-forgotten novel The Great Dinosaur Robbery, being an animation studio they could surely have had an animated prologue or something showing how the dinosaur came to be a skeleton in the British Museum?

Still, the film begins with a really jaunty Ron Goodwin score, then it has Derek Nimmo in old age makeup telling us the story from a leather armchair in his club, presumably in modern times… this is all fine.

Then it gets racist FAST and HARD — young Nimmo is escaping a matte painting of China in yellowface — his glued-on Fu Manchu moustache is brown to match his hair — then he’s gliding over a model of the Himalayas — then he’s rescued by a yeti — the eight-year-old me must have been thrilled by that, but it left no trace in the memory banks.

Then we’re in London and it’s even more racist. Peter Ustinov is somewhat embarrassing as a Chinese master spy, although once you get over the offense, it’s a very inventive bit of ham. An actor full of tricks… well, he’s ALL tricks. But he does get all the laughs. Clive Revill, in a sort of yellowface death mask as his henchman, is horrifying to look upon. He actually gets a couple chuckles in extreme longshot because he’s an able physical comedian but every time the camera ventures closer you feel sick.

Helen Hayes is a nanny, everyone’s after a formula of some kind… it may be racist as shit but it passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. A good big role for Joan Sims.

They spent money on this thing! Clearly armies of inept gag writers have laboured to stuff it full of crap slapstick, and nobody’s in charge of quality control. All of these gags are big and expensive, and they involve bringing in extraneous shit just in order to be able to stage the gag, whereas gags which use the elements already in play in your story will result in a more cohesive show. Plus, gags with a strong cause-and-effect construction, and gags that build up and form chains of connection are the best for a story. Nobody at Disney in the seventies seemed aware of that.

The plus side is that the film keeps wheeling on beloved British comedy actors, because it has all these extra gags to cycle through, so although the material is giving no pleasure whatsoever, the pageant of Carry On actors, sitcom stars, Richard Lester background people and elaborate sets and costumes has a mild nostalgic appeal.

Two of the stars of ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING actually appear in this, but that’s probably a coincidence caused by the sheet preponderance of Brit talent roped in. We also get a second or two of Kathleen Byron. Michael Powell, we should remember, was unemployed, forgotten and living in genteel poverty at this time.

Curious that it was Ustinov’s turn in CHARLIE CHAN AND THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON QUEEN that prompted protests. Petrol-bombing Disneyland would have been a measured response to OOUDIM. Historians with only these two films to work from would deduce that a lot of social progress was made between 1975 and 1981.

Racism and caricature are uncomfortable bedfellows — most of us feel we can tell the difference, but blurred lines happen. Caricaturing the qualities of a specific person is acceptable if the intent is clear. Caricaturing on purely racial lines is clearly offensive. This movie is making fun of an ignorant idea of the Chinese, but it doesn’t appear knowing. In other words, it seems to accept the idea, and then mocks Chinese people for supposedly conforming to it. Ha ha, they make nonsense noises! It all comes from lazy ignorance, which is never an interesting way to approach anything.

The model work is pretty incredible, I will say that. It was only while framegrabbing afterward that I realized how much of this movie is miniature. And there are… images:

It’s the penultimate film of Robert Stevenson (his best colonialist romp is the much earlier KING SOLOMON’S MINES, which somehow manages to be less obnoxious), and it’s slightly more convincing as a film than ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD which I was dragged to see as a seven-year-old (the back-projected lava was exciting — I do still like the matte paintings and the miniature airship effects). Stevenson would make THE SHAGGY D.A. and then bow out aged eighty-one.

They put his credit over a drawing of a traffic cop.

ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING stars (deep breath) Hercule Poirot; Madelon Claudet; Lady Ruff-Diamond; Emperor Palpatine; Bungdit Din; P.C. Corky Turnbull; John Glynn Haggard; Hazel the McWitch; King Bruno the Questionable; De Nomolos; Planchet; Sgt. Grogan; Miss Marple; Pte. James Frazer; Ives ‘The Mole’; Dr. Fettle; Sister Ruth; Marie Curie; the Minister of the Inferior; Reverend Timothy Farthing; and Cleo(patra).

Speaking of Michael Powell, here are two more limericks.