Archive for Night of the Demon

The Death of the Arthur: Knights of the Two Semi-Circular Tables

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 27, 2023 by dcairns

Cornel Wilde’s SWORD OF LANCELOT (1963) is on YouTube, so I had a look.

Wilde’s THE NAKED RUNNER PREY has a decent reputation, I feel. Criterion released it, though that was in the early days and possibly it was cheap. His NO BLADE OF GRASS is an ugly mess, botching a compelling John Christopher apocalypse novel. It’s possible that he only found the right kind of material once, because LANCELOT ain’t it.

There’s a lovely brutish insensitivity to his directorial choices which may be instructive. The opening credits play out over still photographs by the great Karsh. The idea of getting a world-class photographer to shoot your stills is a fine one — Kubrick was about to do the same by getting Weegee to shoot the set of STRANGELOVE. Showcasing the results in the movie itself proves to be a very silly idea: there’s a reason why period movies often use archaic fonts or calligraphy, old-fashioned illustrations, scrolls and stuff. Photos (and photomontages, as here) feel modern. Karsh’s images make me feel like I’m looking at either set photography, in which views of the camera crew, boom operator or script supervisor would not be out of place, or at news pictures of a historical reenactment society on manoeuvres. The film might as well begin with a caption in some Gothic text saying AD 1963.

Wilde, leading man as well as director, has, however, come up with a plan that aims to keep him from sticking out like fellow Americans Robert Taylor in KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE or Alan Ladd in THE BLACK KNIGHT. Lancelot is French. Wilde will play him weese un out-rah-jos Franche ack-sont. It’s a bold effort and probably not the worst French accent ever. (Lancelot is never played by an actual Frenchman, except in Bresson’s LANCELOT DU LAC where everyone else is French also. But if Franco Nero can play French — STOP PRESS he can’t — Wilde is entitled to have a go.)

The rest of the casting is erratic and unstellar, though Wilde has noticed that the lovely Reginald Beckwith (above, far right) — the comedy medium from NIGHT OF THE DEMON — is at heart a medieval man, so he’s positioned him as a court jester. It’s never been recorded that Arthur had one, but after all why shouldn’t he?

Good big set for CAMELOT, but Wilde’s attempts to explore it with camera moves are hesitant, wobbly and un-epic. The round table is two C-shaped bits, which is just nuts.

Disguising Wilde’s accent leaves the only other American, Wilde’s wife irl, Jean Wallace, awfully exposed as Guinevere. She’s introduced as mute witness at a joust, which Wilde stages better than the dialogue scenes, with decent build-up, ritualistic presentation of the weaponry, etc. I’m waiting for her to sound like Lina Lamont.

To prepare us for this jarring moment, Wilde carefully seeds the trial by combat with shots of extras wearing ludicrous nylon wigs.

He does get away with quickly including a rear projection shot of himself charging on horseback — filmed tight enough and cut quick enough that it’s not too distracting, and we don’t see the stuffed horse he’s being bounced around on. It’s effective enough that it MIGHT actually be a location shot with Wilde seated on a dolly (which would have made a great behind-the-scenes snap for the opening titles).

And then, the duel ends with a surprisingly graphic sword chop down through the opposing champion’s helmet, anticipating the gore effects of Bresson and Gilliam. Wilde seems to be most at home with violence — the most facile form of cinematic drama. Still, I enjoy a good head-cleaving as much as the next sedentary pacifist. It’s also fun to imagine the effects team lovingly packing the helmet with meat and bags of finest Kensington Gore. The out-takes would be amusing to see also.

Finally JW gets a line, as Lancelot escorts Guinevere to be married to Arthur. It’s decently worked out as a story — better than CAMELOT. The young knight gets a chance to make an impression on the Queen-to-be BEFORE she meets her much older spouse (Arthur is Brian Aherne). Wilde’s co-writer is Richard Schayer, who had a hand in FRANKENSTEIN back in ’31, and wrote the story for THE MUMMY the following year, which would be more impressive if that story weren’t a straight rip of the Lugosi DRACULA.

And Wallace copes well — she’s discernibly American but is talking as far back in the throat as possible, and managing to interpolate some vaguely English vowels. Pretty creditable and not as distracting as Wilde’s ‘Allo ‘Allo! performance.

Delivered into a studio pond for a sexy swimming scene with Lancelot (who has been established as the first man in England to use soap, giving him another erotic advantage over smelly old Arthur), Wallace is required to shout instructions to her maidservant, at which point her attempts at an accent falter and her inner Lamont emerges a little.

The costuming department has done some interesting and innovative work to enable Wallace to appear in a wet and clinging shift without offending, or poking, the censor’s eye with verboten mammary papilla. It’s quite hard to figure out what’s going on here — the bosom seems to have support, and be covered with more than the filmy fabric seen on the upper slopes. It looks to be a somewhat concealed cantilever bra. This of course would be an anachronism, but the attempt at boundary-pushing sexiness suggests to me that Wilde may have been more actively involved than previously suspected in the celebrated moment in THE BIG COMBO where co-star Richard Conte descends out of frame while kissing Wallace. Director Joseph E. Lewis claimed credit for the innovation and said Wilde, producer as well as star, wasn’t in on it. But now I wonder. Sex and violence seem to be Cornel’s bag.

Against my better judgement, I’m going to finish watching this. Which means this piece is now —

TO BE CONTINUED.

Maybe I can do some kind of crazy joint review with the last hour of ADVENTURES OF SIR GALAHAD?

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.

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.”