Archive for Night of the Demon

Tourneur Classic Movies

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2014 by dcairns

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Two Jacques Tourneur movies came out in 1957, both superb, which is remarkable because he’d had quite an up-and-down career, mostly.

NIGHTFALL, from a David Goodis novel, has some classic noir illogicality, adding to its waking nightmare feel. It also has one of the genuinely sweet heroes, played by raspy-voiced tough guy Aldo Ray — Anne Bancroft also plays a nice person, and the tension between their sweet characters and their respective edges (Ray carries an inherent roughness, Bancroft a brittle and bitter flavour) is magnificent.

Fiona suggested that the above ironic foreshadowing would make a nice tie-in with the snowy footprints (with its case full of money, blackly comic psycho duo, and snowy scenery, the film seems an influence on FARGO) and hence with the earthier prints in Tourneur’s other triumph of ’57.

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Unfortunately, the footprints only register in motion — Tourneur’s camera tracks alongside the invisible demon as it advances implacably, leaving smouldering holes in the forest loam, but said holes are too indistinct to get a good image of. I settle for this ~

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I’m tempted to make a fan edit of NIGHT OF THE DEMON with the big demon removed, but of course I have no specific instructions from the director about how to do this. Tourneur said that the black panther that attacks Dana Andrews should have been edited down to flashes — in the finished film, you can clearly see the thing is a product of taxidermy rather than diabolism — and the demon likewise. Effecting such changes would wreak havoc on Muir Matheson’s scarifying score, and would amount to a fair bit of work which I’m not technically qualified to do. But it could be GREAT —

At present, Andrews’ skeptical scientist is a slightly annoying clod, which is often the case with skeptics in films of fantasy (in THEM!, the use of an irritating skeptic was a cunning choice to deliberately make the audience WANT to see this pompous ass proved wrong). This would be less true if it weren’t for the demon showing up, larger than life and grinning like a muppet, in the opening sequence — we know Andrews is wrong from the start. We NEED a little doubt to make the story play properly. The fact that in spite of the producer’s ham-fisted interference, the film is a classic, is testimony to the skills of Tourneur and his team.

When I spoke to star Peggy Cummins last week, she said “It’s an absolute icon, isn’t it? In England and America. I don’t know how it’s regarded in your country, Scotland…” I assured her that it was a Halloween favourite. Seek it out this season!

I’ve been making a video essay about Tourneur. More on this soon.

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Goodbye Piccadilly

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2014 by dcairns

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I swear I’m not doing this on purpose! I stuck a disc of EAST OF PICCADILLY (1941) in the Maidstone, thinking it looked like an amusing Brit B-movie, and knowing it featured the alluring Edana Romney, star and author of the suis generis Cocteauesque Gothic drama CORRIDOR OF MIRRORS in one of her few other roles. And it turned out to be co-written by our chum J. Lee Thompson. Is there no escape?

Writing with Leslie Storm (I know! Leslie Storm!) Thompson this time serves up a more likable light-hearted murder romp in which Romney injects some valuable melancholy — she gets one scene, as the victim, but it’s a doozy. “Have you ever heard of Sadie Jones,” she asks her shadowy murderer-in-waiting, after putting a Sadie Jones song on the Victrola. “No, nobody has and nobody ever will,” she answers for him. Heartbreaking, since she’s about to die, and we know from the cast list that she’s Sadie Jones.

The rest of it is lighthearted thriller about a crime writer and a lady crime reporter joining forces to investigate, and bickering amusingly. Another master of the macabre is along too, Niall MacGinnis, the warlock from NIGHT OF THE DEMON, and he’s practically thrown at us with a lamp under his chin to make him a suspect. So he CAN’T be the killer… or can he? Or can he?

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He and Martita Hunt both do those strangulated cockney accents people used to do in old British films — either the actors were faking being working class, or they were real working class but trying to be comprehensible to everybody. In this case Martita was born in Argentina but was naturally a grande dame, whereas MacGinnis was a Dubliner. Their cockney is no worse than the attempts by real cockneys of the time. I enjoy seeing Julian Karswell and Baroness Meinster together in the same scene.

It opens with what looks like the same car footage of neon-lit London that begins MURDER WITHOUT CRIME. Not a bad way to begin, mind you — I would be delighted if a modern Brit thriller began that way, but the closest thing to that we’ve had is RUN FOR YOUR WIFE.

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There’s also a goofy red herring character played by George Hayes with demented glee. He’s a former Mr. Memory from the music halls who decided to go on the legitimate stage and lost his money, memory and marbles. Now, in the best THEATRE OF BLOOD manner, he keeps mutilated effigies of the top London drama critics in his closet — one of them, Ivor Brown of The Observer, is actually named — presumably he gave a particularly bad review to a work by Thompson or Storm.

Leads Sebastian Shaw and especially Judy Campbell have appeal, but it’s peculiar the way the film drops discomfiting moments of real tragic feeling in and then moves briskly along to the next quip. The ending makes unnecessary distress out of the killer’s capture and then slides into romance, then looks forward to the forthcoming blackout and blitz (the film was released in 1941) with a wholly un-foreshadowed ENGLAND CAN TAKE IT spirit of romantic pluck.

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Also — it shares with Thompson’s MURDER WITHOUT CRIME a grubby fascination with single girl’s flats, and the way said girls leave underthings hanging up to dry. Here, a stocking becomes a murder weapon used against someone the film’s detective actually refers to as “a daughter of joy.”

Blind Tuesday: Where is love and who turned out the lights?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2011 by dcairns

An obscure one — I’d never heard of MADNESS OF THE HEART until I stumbled across it. It has no reputation, but it does have points of interest: it’s written and directed by Charles Bennett, who collaborated on a half-dozen or so key Hitchcocks between BLACKMAIL and FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (including most of the late-thirties espionage cycle, all reviewed elsewhere on this site as part of Hitchcock Year) and also adapted NIGHT OF THE DEMON for Jacques Tourneur, incorporating a number of Hitchcockian ideas, including the master-villain with the sweet, doddering mum.

And then there’s Kathleen Byron, reprising her mad love act from BLACK NARCISSUS, only with a cod French accent. Powell told her that Sister Ruth was a great part, the only problem being she’d never get a better one, and he was right. So basically repeating the role here seems a reasonable option: it beats Freddie Francis’s CRAZE.

In brief: plucky doctor’s receptionist Margaret Lockwood meets and falls for French aristo Paul (Who He?) Dupuis. Then she’s struck blind, and the best medical minds, including the one she works for (yay! Maurice Denham!) conclude there’s no hope. After an unsuccessful turn as a nun (blind AND a nun? doesn’t Audrey Hepburn have automatic dibs on that?) narrating the story so far in flashback (the structure’s a mess but so’s this sentence) she hooks up with Dupuis again and he marries her, blindness and all. FINALLY we arrive at the family château in the South of France where Kathleen Byron plays an old flame of Dupuis, determined to destroy Lockwood so she can have him for herself… Now things can get going, and going is precisely what they get…

Spoiler alert! The next paragraph contains plot details written in invisible ink: highlight to read.

A daft plot twist allows Lockwood to cure her blindness and return, faking it, in order to entrap her unseen enemy. This frustrates one of the best tropes of the blind person in jeopardy thriller, which is the disabled character triumphing over both unspeakable evil and their own disability. In fairness, this convention isn’t set in stone and hadn’t really been established at this time: WAIT UNTIL DARK really fixed the template. But when you see it done decently, it’s satisfying in obvious ways that alternatives, like the boyfriend barging to the rescue in SEE NO EVIL, really aren’t.

End spoiler.

Oddly, Bennett directs this one better than he writes it, but he’s dealing with a cheap novelette as source material (ugh! that title!) and struggles to inject real humanity into it. On the other hand, his filming is often stylish, aided by Desmond Dickinson’s moody photography.

Listening to Fiona’s extremely zestful reactions to Byron’s acts of wickedness against her sightless rival (from repositioning a wine glass to attempting to arrange a drowning), I was struck by how films like this encourage a complicity with the bad guy. At times, Fiona was virtually egging the madwoman on. This wasn’t due to any dislike of Lockwood, who embodies pluck, but simply because in a film like this, nothing entertaining can happen unless the villain is plotting villainy. If the supporting cast were full of amusing bit players, there might be some welcome distraction from the main event, but asides from Thora Hird as a no-nonsense maid, there’s nothing doing. So we require constant perfidy from la Byron or the thing is going to just lie there.

Kathleen in a saucy two-piece, something I never thought to see.

Fortunately, K.B. does not disappoint, seizing one of her last chances to be interesting in a dull film. No act of spite is too petty for the ironically named “Verity”, who amusingly goes from leaving sharp objects near the maid’s baby so Lockwood will get the blame, straight to murder attempts, then back to faking love letters (to a blind woman?), and back to murder again. In this she’s aided by the château’s offscreen architect, who for some reason has supplied the building with a door opening onto a fifty foot drop. Perhaps the castle was assembled from a kit, like the Keaton homestead in ONE WEEK?

Why didn’t Kathleen Byron go from strength to strength? Simply because the British cinema of the ‘fifties was too weedy to contain her, I think. There weren’t enough psycho-bitch roles to typecast her successfully, and nobody was bold or imaginative enough to see her in more varied parts, despite the proof offered by THE SMALL BACK ROOM that she could be really excellent in a less extreme characterisation. (The reason David Farrar’s so uncharacteristically strong in that film is that she lends him fire. And he’s strongest in BLACK NARCISSUS when she’s around.)

There’s also the sad fact that she was apparently a little difficult, as talented people often are.  With the supremely difficult Michael Powell around to help her, that didn’t matter so much, but when they were no longer an item and his career was on the slide, that impetus was gone. (BTW, she always said Powell’s description of her, in his memoir Million Dollar Movie, standing naked and threatening him with a revolver, was sheer confabulation.) And nobody else owed her sufficient goodwill to help.

That was stupid: with the Rank Organisation embracing sappy bourgeois mediocrity in the ‘fifties, British cinema really needed a fierce talent who could heat up a moribund flick with a dash of hellfire.