Archive for Miles Malleson

Grey Matter

Posted in FILM, literature, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2015 by dcairns


I’ve been known to mock Curt Siodmak, to refer to him as the great Robert Siodmak’s idiot brother. “Is he your favourite idiot brother?” my friend Alex asked the other day. He isn’t even that, I was forced to admit — W. Lee Wilder is a still more remarkable specimen of the breed.

But I was really impressed by TV movie Hauser’s Memory — teleplay by Adrian Spies, based fairly faithfully I think on Siodmak’s novel. And then I stumbled on a copy of Donovan’s Brain, young Curt’s best-known book. It was filmed three times officially — as THE LADY AND THE MONSTER with Erich Von Stroheim and Vera Hruba Ralston, as DONOVAN’S BRAIN with Lew Ayres and Nancy Reagan (wouldn’t they make a houseful) and as THE BRAIN, by Freddie Francis with Peter Van Eyck, but Curt hated all three versions. The radio production with Orson Welles is better — probably. I’ve been saving it for last.

The book is really enjoyable, with memorable characters in its cold-fish narrator, a rather inhuman scientist who steals the brain of a dying millionaire, and various sleazy types he meets once the brain starts to telepathically force him to do its bidding. The formula is similar to Hauser’s Memory  — a dead character possesses a live one, so while there’s a battle to maintain personhood by a character invaded by a foreign mind, there’s also a kind of investigation/puzzle where we want to find out the secret motivation of the mental invader.


Siodmak had the unenviable task of retraining himself to write in English after he fled Hitler. Other filmmakers managed to adapt readily, but for a writer the challenge was far greater. Language was Siodmak’s instrument. Like his former collaborator Billy Wilder, he never quite got the American idiom down pat, but Wilder always worked with brilliant co-writers to smooth out any linguistic kinks. In his novels, Curt has to struggle along by himself. He would write sentences like “The moon leaped like a giant in the porthole,” which possibly plays better in German, though I’m not wholly convinced of that.

Donovan’s Brain has sentences like “I woke at a very early morning hour,” which is weirdly OFF. In German, “very early morning hour” is probably one word, some beautiful compound noun a foot long. He gets his commas wrong here: “It might like a blind man, feel the light or, like a deaf one perceive sound.” I had to read that a couple of times to make sense of it, did you? And then there are bits where he reaches for an effect and his awkwardness with English makes him fall flat on his face: “Even the fact of our marriage had been dissolved in my work’s acid domination.”

But despite this, the book is a really good read! And it has bizarre stuff in it that’s never made it into any screen version. At one point, disoriented by the brain’s long-range control, the hero falls into a ditch and gets his vertebrae compressed by a steam shovel. He has to wear a full torso plaster cast that makes him look like a turtle for thirty pages. And this has no real impact on the plot at all. But it’s something I’d love to see in a film. It would particularly suit Von Stroheim, I feel.



Young Curt was scathing about the changes inflicted on his book by filmmakers. In the Stroheim atrocity, directed by the sometimes skilled George Sherman, the mad scientist lives in a castle — in Arizona! — and the plot stops for a Spanish speciality dance before the brain has even been hatched. The novel goes like a train, but there’s no chance of zip with Erich setting the pace. The filmmakers supply him with a limp, just to slow things down even further, and instead of being an antihero he’s made a straight villain, with Richard Arlen as one of those useless heroes whose only purpose is to protest each new plot development. Ralston is fabulously bad, flashing her eyelashes with every other line to give “significant” looks.


Felix Feist’s fifties fiasco is a lot closer to the letter of the book, but while Siodmak’s protagonist was somewhere between autism and Camus’ L’Etranger, Lew Ayres plays it repulsively HEARTY, and says things like “C’mon, get with it, baby!” I wanted to slap his brain. The more the script tries to render him likable, the creepier he gets. But I liked Gene Evans, who doesn’t seem like a movie surgeon at all, and who therefore may resemble a real one, I’m prepared to believe. And the future first lady vivisecting a monkey makes it kind of worthwhile.


Freddie Francis (who also made THE SKULL!) brings more visual panache to his version than his predecessors, though the monkey brain earlier on is one of the most laughably inept props ever — it looks like a half-deflated balloon with the crenellations drawn on in magic marker. Anne Heywood, Bernard Lee, Cecil Parker, Maxine Audley — the supporting cast is excellent, even before you get to Miles Malleson as a sherry-swigging coroner (who fails to say “Room for one more inside” despite ample opportunity) and Jack MacGowran as a blackmailing morgue attendant. Peter Van Eyck is the closest anyone has gotten to capturing the icy callousness of Siodmak’s protag, though he’s also curiously antic. But the plot gets caught up in scheming and forgets all about the poor brain. The balance is upset. Siodmak complained that the filmmakers added a stripper, but there’s no sign of her in the print I viewed.Though Anne Heywood, always game, flashes a nipple for about four frames.

Now I guess I have to watch CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN.


The Big Dead One

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


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?


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.


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.


“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


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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