Archive for Nanette Newman

Paranormal Inactivity

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2010 by dcairns

I reported the slightly ungenerous opinion of my late friend Lawrie Knight, regarding filmmaker Vernon Sewell (“As far as I could tell, Vernon never had a brain in his head”) and then I heard from Sewell’s godson, advising me to look deeper. So I did.

It’s unfortunate that the three films I watched descended in quality from one to the next, but there was quality, and to correct that negative impression, I’m reversing the order and starting with the worst first.

GHOST SHIP (1952), starring Hazel Court and her husband Dermot Walsh, is a supernatural thriller — as were the other two films sampled. All three films use parapsychological explanations to fold their ghostly happenings into a scientific worldview, and all three feature cosy ladies who act as mediums (or should that be “media”?), as well as making substantial, and somewhat unconventional, use of flashbacks. This one was of particular interest to me because Lawrie had mentioned it — “He bought a boat, to use as studio. And I think he did make a couple of films on that boat.”

Unfortunately, Sewell hadn’t cracked a system for filming in the cramped quarters of his steam yacht: the result is lots of empty frames, into which characters protrude from the sides, before having discussions in lifeless flat two-shots, before exiting and leaving us with an empty frame again. Contrast this with Polanski’s dynamic use of even tighter environments in KNIFE IN THE WATER.

His story also takes ages to get going, with early manifestations limited to disembodied cigar smoke. Eventually a murder mystery is explicated via the medium’s intervention, and the middle-class couple can get back to yachting in peace. Best fun is the no-nonsense psychic investigator with his tuning forks, who realizes that the heat from the engine room acts as a trigger for spooky appearances ~

“The greater the heat, the more these vibrations are evident. Has it ever struck you how so many apparently inexplicable things only ever happen in hot countries? I mean, nobody’s seen the rope trick outside India. Voodoo’s only practiced in South/Central America. Firewalkers, fakirs, witch doctors: all in tropical climates. It’s like developing a photographic negative: the hotter the solution, the quicker the picture appears.”

Delightful. And all conducted with the aide of a set of tuning forks, too.

We also get a very young Ian Carmichael as a comedy drunk, holding up the action just as it gets promising, and a painfully young Joss Ackland. Having Danny Glover drop a packing case on his head in LETHAL WEAPON II was all in the future for young Joss.

A good bit better is LATIN QUARTER, also known as FRENZY, a tale of a murderous sculptor whose crime haunts his studio, necessitating the intervention of another pukkah psychic investigator and another mumsy medium. This movie integrates its flashbacks better, and it has Frederick Valk (the shrink from DEAD OF NIGHT) as the investigator, Joan Greenwood as a murdered model, Valentine Dyall (THE HAUNTING) as a prefect of police — lots of enjoyable players. The bad guy actor rejoices in the name of Beresford Egan, so we had to like him. Derrick deMarney is the hero, but you can’t have everything. Lots of Germans in this studio Paris, I guess because it was 1945.

Best of all was the modest HOUSE OF MYSTERY (1961), which reprises most of the plot of GHOST SHIP with a better, more involved flashback structure, more like THE LOCKET or The 1001 Nights. And the filming is MUCH better, with a mobile camera and slightly fogged style. The haunted cottage carries a genuinely intriguing mystery story which mixes ghosts, straightforward murder, and science fiction of the Nigel Kneale variety — lots of talk about buildings acting as recording instruments for the emotions enacted within them. Oh, and a really nice twist at the end. The cast here is very low-key, with Nanette Newman the best-known face, but the lack of star-power works with the film’s quiet, unfussed approach to the eerie. No wonder Sewell didn’t really thrive in the later world of British horror — his gaudy BLOOD BEAST TERROR, CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR and BURKE AND HARE aren’t a patch on these mild-mannered chillers.


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2010 by dcairns

Really gorgeous art-nouveau intertitle from THE WRONG BOX, directed by Bryan Forbes.

Fiona always says, when BF’s name comes up, that when he dies the British will suddenly appreciate that a major film talent had been in their midst. Perhaps the problem has been that Forbes, a spiky personality with a strong sense of his own worth, has appreciated himself too much and not left room for anyone else. He was the only filmmaker polled by Sight & Sound magazine who chose one of his own works for his personal Top Ten Movies of All Time. Forbes selected WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND, which at least shows he has good taste.

THE WRONG BOX is certainly an uneven piece, with some narrative slackness and muddle slightly spoiling the effect of the loving period recreation (John Barry score, Julie Harris costumes, Ray Simm art direction) and astonishing all-star cast. It’s particularly impressive to a British viewer, since every single face in the movie is somebody known from TV or movies. Major roles for Peter Cook & Dudley Moore, Ralph Richardson, Wilfred Lawson and Peter Sellers (to name only those who give career-high accounts of themselves) are supplemented by walk-ons by the likes of Leonard Rossiter, Graham Stark, Hilton Edwards, Thorley Walters, Irene Handl and the Temperance Seven. And of course there’s the inevitable Nanette Newman (criticism of Forbes’ tendency to cast his wife in everything is a sore point with him, understandably. But I find I’m coming around to Nanette.)

Anyhow, the above intertitle always cracks me up. Clearly influence by HELP!, made the previous year, although the influence really goes back to the cinematic playfulness of the nouvelle vague, it’s especially amusing by way of its utter redundancy: like the comic book sound effect captions in SCOTT PILGRIM, the intertitle describes something we can perfectly well hear for ourselves.

The strangled crier.

THE WRONG BOX is adapted so loosely from Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osborne’s novel that another version seems like a perfectly good idea — the book has some very funny bits of its own, with only the idea of a corpse in a trunk in common with Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart’s busy script. Osborne’s influence on Stevenson seems to be to rid him of his moralistic side, and the short novel is an exercise in infernal bad taste. I enjoyed it considerably.

The Words of the Prophet are Written on the Subway Wall

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2007 by dcairns

Seance on a Wet Afternoon. Written for the screen and directed by Bryan Forbes. A Beaver Film.

Starring Kim Stanley and a false nose driven by Richard Attenborough.


“FORECAST 2/-” This is inscribed above each window of a derelect building where Sir Dickie Lord Attenborough stashes a Rolls Royce he’s stolen while abducting a rich little girl. I have no idea what this signage means, but perhaps everybody in 1964 would have understood it perfectly. It adds a weird little mystery for me though, and connects to the film’s psychic theme.

“BREAD”. This is written on a bread bin in Kim Stanley’s kitchen. Bread is what they feed the “borrowed child” and bread is what they demand from the girl’s parents.

“TY-PHOO”. This is written on the side of a bus. It’s a popular brand of tea — perhaps relating to tea-leaf reading?

“Get on the trail of the happiest ale. BEN TRUMAN.” Another bus. This is also a detective story, and the police will soon be on the trail of a less-than-happy Dickie.

“THE PUBLIC EYE”. Big ad for a play, seen behind a crowd scene as Dickie makes himself furtive in the foreground.

“MUST END.” To do with the play, but we see a Greater Significance, and this is the first of several signs tainted with ominous subtext.

“SEEDLESS”. Written on a box of grapes in a market stall. Possibly a comment on Dickie’s impotent character, seen loitering nearby.

Also around here is a Max Factor ad but I can’t quite read the product name. “Coiffure Italienne”? I am reminded of an anecdote of uncertain veracity told me by my late friend Lawrie Knight, and since Lawrie knew Bryan Forbes slightly, I’ll reproduce it here:

Lawrie was running an ad company in Soho and he was approached by someone from Max Factor and offered the lucrative Max F account. But there was one condition: to prove his abilities, Lawrie was instructed to make a copy of a mysterious film handed to him by the Factor factotum.

He runs the film in his screening room and it’s hardcore porn. He tells his projectionist to get it duped. The projectionist hurries off, but soon reports back that no lab will touch it — this is the sixties and such material is very illegal. Lawrie says he’s sorry but the man will have to get the film copied or he’s fired. (Lawrie wasn’t this harsh when I knew him, but it’s, like, necessary to the plot, so we’ll accept it).

Next day the projectionist proudly presents a copy of the film. They run it for Max Factor man and the first thing up is a title, “The BBC Proudly Presents,” or some such, followed by the standard erect cock. Which means that the film is a kinescope. Which means that it’s a recording of a TV broadcast. Which means that the projectionist had taken the film to BBC Television and bribed somebody to transmit this hardcore porn extravaganza to the entire nation in the middle of the night when there were no official broadcasts and nobody was watching… except maybe some drunk somewhere, nodded off in front of the telly, awakened by sudden grunting and unable to believe his bleary eyes.

End of digression.

“GENTLEMEN.” Sign on a public lav. Which is an odd thing for it to say, when “POO AND PEE” would give you a more accurate account of the likely contents of the establishment.

“WALPAMUR Petrifying Liquid”. This is printed on a canister in Dickie’s garage, which a policeman searches. Again, I don’t know what this one means but it’s bloody terrifying. I’m going to have Walpamur-based nightmares tonight, I can tell.

“CLOSING DOWN”. Another sign weighted with foreboding.

“LONGFELLOW. AM READY TO OBLIGE. CHARLES.” The cryptic personal ad by which the child’s father signals his willingness to cough up the swag.

Now Dickie descends into the Underground, and suddenly his whole world is a speeding mass of signage. Only a few can be by read in all the flurry of ransom-collecting:


“People With Interest In The Future”. An ad, and another reference to crystal-gazing etc.

“Leave Something Solid Behind You,” another ad, certainly full of possible significance for Dickie. Could also serve as a slogan for the “Gentlemen”.


A few years back Bryan Forbes, along with many other directors, picked his ten favourite films of all time. He was the only one to choose one of his own movies. He picked WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND with performing prodigy Hayley Mills, which is an outstanding film, but  he could have equally picked this one. (My late friend Lawrie did not find it at all surprising that BF would nominate himself. I think it’s a rather splendid thing to do, personally.)

We have a suburban Lady Macbeth with whispery voice, in supposed communication with her still-born son Arthur, pushing her sappy hubby into this crazy abduction venture in order to prove her psychic abilities to the world. The domestic conspiracy scenes are quietly skin-crawling — this is a matrimonial horror film. Kim Stanley’s softly domineering Myra has the absolute faith of the true believer, which tells her that whatever she feels like doing is RIGHT, while Dickie is the weak man with no particular beliefs except a vague sense of right and wrong, which really proves his salvation.

I’ve never been very taken with Attenborough’s films as director, but as a performer he’s often remarkable: a fidgety, actorly outside, fussing away at bits of business, while a fierce-burning core of intense emotion rages behind the eyes. Here it feels like his big bald forehead is going to burst like an egg from the incredible pressures building within.

Also appearing: Nanette Newman as the kidnapped child’s mother. Forbes’ wife and frequent star, NN is a sort of English Rose type only her face looks like an Identikit of Sophia Loren: all the features are slightly the wrong size, which is definitely a good thing in this case. Patrick Magee as the Third Act Detective Inspector. This is the most restrained I’ve ever seen Madman Magee. He doesn’t even look as if he WANTS to start drooling and gnawing the chair legs. And he’s mesmeric.

Attenborough’s partner in Beaver Films was Bryan Forbes, a good actor and an often marvellous director. Here he seems to have picked up some tricks from the nouvelle vague and maybe the British New Wave: raindrops spatter on the lens turning the scene into a funhouse mirror wibble-wobble; we direct-cut from scene to scene and dissolve DURING scenes; we wipe between scenes just once, almost randomly. And this is combined with a staunchly classical mise-en-scene, strong compositions and elegant camera moves, especially around the seance table, which we circle counter-clockwise opposite Kim Stanley as she prepares to Make Contact.

British films have often seemed conservative to the point of petrification, a touch too much Walpamur Liquid perhaps. It’s not surprising to me that we made a film celebrating Douglas Bader, a war hero with tin legs: he has the perfect gait for our pictures. But in between the crazy dreamers like Michael Powell, and the plodding craftsmen like, well, 90% of everybody else, there are a few clever, skilled storytellers like Forbes who sometimes make contact with the beyond.


A vision from KKurosawa's SEANCE.

Footnote: Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s SEANCE is inspired by Forbes’ film. It shatters the neat structure, deploys an even more elliptical approach to narrative, and is a very interesting flick in it’s own right. The British film resists the supernatural without ever quite denying it altogether: offscreen spirits seem to breathe into its rooms. The Japanese quasi-remake teeters on the edge of total irrationality, and its protagonists plunge headlong into the terrible place that we sometimes see reflected in Attenborough’s glassy eyes.