Archive for Miles Malleson

The Big Dead One

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2015 by dcairns

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I’d seen bits of THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS (1956) on Film4 and it looked like a snooze, but the Anne Billson said she liked it so I investigated.

Ronald Neame was never what you’d call an exciting director, but he was always an affable one. Having made his Significant Contribution to cinema in his collaborations with David Lean, he settled into Lightly Likable for most of his career, apart from a few bloated floaters at the end.

And talk of floaters brings us to this movie, in which British intelligence plants a corpse at sea carrying faked documents to fool the Nazis into expecting an attack from the wrong direction. It’s unlikely stuff, and largely true — I’m now reading Ben MacIntyre’s enjoyable Operation Mincemeat, which details exploits of the various eccentrics who put this plan together, a plan for which the word “cockamamie” might have been invented, assuming that word ever was invented.

Here’s MacIntyre’s character study of coroner and co-conspirator Bentley Purchase ~

“He found death not only fascinating but extremely funny. No form of violent mortality surprised or upset him. ‘A depressing job?’ he once said. ‘Far from it. I can’t imagine it getting me down.’ He would offer slightly damp chocolates to guests in his private chambers, and joke: ‘They were found in Auntie’s bag when she was fished out of the Round Pond at Hampstead last night.’ A farmer by birth, Purchase was ‘rugged in appearance and character’ with ‘an impish sense of humour’ and a finely calibrated sense of the ridiculous: he loved Gilbert and Sullivan operas, toy trains, boiled eggs, and the model piggery he ran near Ipswich.”

Tragically, Purchase doesn’t appear in Neame’s film (scripted by ace novelist Nigel Balchin of THE SMALL BACK ROOM fame), but my old friend Sir Bernard Spilsbury does, embodied by the ever-impressive Andre Morell. Who better than a former BBC Quatermass to play this august pathologist?

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The first half of the film IS a little dull — it’s a procedural in which none of the details are surprising once we get over the macabre plot, with only some nifty comic timing from Laurence Naismith to liven it up. The scenario allows the inclusion of a couple of American actors — a very shiny Gloria Grahame is allowed since, after all, there must have been some Americans in London in 1943, and Clifton Webb can play an English officer because, after all, he’s snooty and gay which is almost as good as being English. The man he’s playing, Ewen Montagu, was brother of Hitchcock producer and Soviet spy Ivor Montagu.

Churchill goes unseen, like Celeste Holm in A LETTER TO THREE WIVES or Jesus in BEN-HUR, but Peter Sellers does the voice, with perhaps a little too much comic glee.

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Then Stephen Boyd enters as an Irish Nazi spy, sent to ascertain if the fictitious character invented for the corpse was ever real. Now some actual jeopardy is injected, since Boyd might upset the whole plan and also, HE’S in danger of being caught and hanged. And even if he is a Nazi spy, he’s a Personable Movie Star and we’re spending time with him so naturally we become implicated in his mission. Boyd is really good here, avoiding any show of overt villainy and just playing a rather exciting fellow doing a job. His charisma is at its peak. Fiona was impressed by the amount of detail in his bumpy forehead. “There’s a lot going on there. He’s like a Klingon!”

The only trouble is, he’s entirely fictitious. We had broken the Nazi codes by this point and had captured, executed or turned every single spy they had in Britain. I must say, though, he’s an admirable invention — he keeps the whole thing afloat, if you’ll pardon the expression. Boyd, and cameos like Naismith and Miles Malleson (“He won’t be doing the crossword tonight”) make the sedate Cinemascope entertainment just watchable enough. And then there’s the haunting bit of poetry at the graveside and it all goes very eerie and moving — out of left field, emotion enters the film, like a phantom, and sweeps through it, swinging the door shut as it goes.

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“Last night I dreamed a deadly dream, beyond the Isle of Sky, I saw a dead man win a fight, and I think that man was I.”

The First Day

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2014 by dcairns

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Over at the always exhilarating Observations on Film Art, David Bordwell, whom I finally met in Bologna along with his lovely partner Kristin Thompson, summarises the Cinema Ritrovato experience by writing up a single day’s viewing, thus giving us a sorta-kinda idea of what the overall buzz is like. I thought I’d steal the idea, as a way of reliving the glory and because there are plenty of enjoyable screenings that wouldn’t quite make a full blog post on their own.

I got into Bologna — or at any rate the outlying suburb-thing of Pianora, on the Saturday the fest began, late at night, so I missed such goodies as BEGGARS OF LIFE (recently enjoyed in Bo’ness) and Aleksandr Ford’s THE FIRST DAY OF FREEDOM, acclaimed as a masterpiece by those who saw it, and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE on the big, big screen in the Piazza Maggiore. And finding a bus on a Sunday to take me into town proved troublesome, so by the time I’d arrived and registered and had a cappuccino alongside new best pal Jonathan Rosenbaum and met longtime correspondent Neil McGlone and fellow Scotsman Mark Cosgrove, it was 12.15 and the only thing to see before the long, civilised lunch break, was the program of musical shorts previously discussed here.

Said program also featured YES WE HAVE NO… (the missing word is BANANAS), a silhouette-film seemingly directed by the ludic Adrian Brunel (it was found in his collection, anyway) and produced by Miles “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight” Malleson. A cartoonish treatment of the torment inflicted by catchy earworms, popular songs of the moronic variety that burrow into your consciousness and jam the controls on “REPEAT.”

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After lunch with the man I really must stop calling J-Ro, who gave me some useful pointers for stuff to see, I made perhaps a mistake and went to see a William Wellman double feature instead of THE TEMPTRESS, which looked extremely alluring, was only on once, and proved to be one of the hot tickets of the fest, the kind of thing for which the safety inspector averts an eye as the aisles fill up with perspiring bodies. But the Wellmans were good/interesting — YOU NEVER KNOW WOMEN starred Clive Brook, Florence Vidor, El Brendel (ack!) and Lowell Sherman, whose villainous smoothy is excellent value. Wellman starts with a spectacular building site disaster. A labourer rescues the chic Vidor from cascading scaffolding. Sherman steps in and takes the swooning beauty from his muscular but filthy grasp. “I think I can do this sort of thing better than you,” he suggests, via intertitle, and proceeds to take credit for saving her life.

The story goes on to be a backstage melodrama with Clive Brook as jilted lover, Sherman as interloper, El Brendel as a colossal pain in the ass even without dialogue, the whole thing a warning as to the inconstancy of woman. But it’s not nasty about it or anything.

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THE MAN I LOVE was an early talkie, and showed Wellman struggling, sometimes inventively, with the new technology. Sometimes he has three cameras running on a scene but they’re all badly positioned for the action as blocked, so the editor’s attempts to maintain audience engagement by shuttling from one bad view to another come to naught. But sometimes he throws the microphone aside and shoots mute, as in the boxing scenes, which have some impressively RAGING BULL-esque movement and vigour. And sometimes he simply stays on a decent shot, and lets the actors, a mulish Richard Arlen and an uncertain Mary Brian, wreck things for him.

Just up the hill at the Cinema Jolly, I could see UNE PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE and LA CHIENNE, so I did. I’d never seen the latter, so comparing it to Lang’s remake, SCARLET STREET, was extremely interesting. Obviously the original is not a noir, and has a weird serio-comic tone of its own which leaves some strange moments undigested in the Lang, particularly the big punchline of the dead husband’s return. And Renoir is able to end the film in an anti-moralistic way: with a change of emphasis Lang could have his hero cheat the law and get away with murder, but be nevertheless destroyed by his guilt, and by the fraud already perpetrated against him. But in Renoir, the protagonist may be down on his luck, but he no longer cares. To society, he would seem to have been punished most severely, but he’s a perfectly happy guy. That’s much more unsettling.

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UNE PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE is a masterpiece, of course.

Jonathan R had recommended Paradjanov’s SAYAT NOVA, which I had always known under its Soviet-imposed name of THE COLOUR OF POMEGRANATES, so I clocked in for my last show of the day at 9.30 at the Sala Mastroianni. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen all of it before — it’s that kind of film. But the familiarity induced by the abrupt ending convinced me I must have, probably in Derek Malcolm’s Film Club on BBC2 or something. Probably a VHS recording of same, in fact.

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A film about a poet that is in itself poetic is a rare thing. In fact, it’s very hard to tell whether Mr. Nova was any good as a poet — much of his verse is presented solely as title cards in Cyrillic, so you can’t even tell what it would sound like. And the bits that are translated have an almost adolescent whining tone — “I’m a really unhappy guy. Life stinks. Everybody hates me.” The one line that stuck out was “The world is a window.” Which is, you know, GREAT. Especially with Paradjanov’s stunning images as accompaniment.

Worrying about the poetry turned out to be part of a pattern with me — the last film of the day was usually one I had trouble getting into, owing to tiredness (with two magnificent exceptions — THE MERRY WIDOW and A HARD DAY’S NIGHT.)

The film, now restored in its Ukrainian version, is so fantabulous that it’s quite wrong of me to want to use it simply as a stick with which to beat Peter Greenaway. The temptation still arises, though, because it would make such a terrific, all-annihilating stick.

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)

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