Archive for North by Northwest

Trapped in the Turret

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 2, 2022 by dcairns

“Trapped in the Turret” is a wonderfully lame title for the penultimate episode of FLASH GORDON. Some sense of escalation, of final doom to be averted, is presumably desirable at this point, but instead we have a description of an inconvenience.

I looked up the actor who plays “Commander Torch,” Ming’s earthbound (or mongobound) flying monkey. Earl Askam seems, in his armour and with his kidney-bean torso, like an actor who would play an unsympathetic cop in a Laurel & Hardy short, if Edgar Kennedy was preoccupied. Instead, of course, he was a B-western fixture. He died just a few years after making this, from a Bing Crosby-anticipating golf course heart attack, while playing fellow western star Kermit Maynard. Earl was also a trained opera singer, a talent I wish this serial had exploited.

Flash rushes to Dale’s aid, and his differently-shaped stunt double has an enjoyable rollabout with the playful tiger fearsome tigron, as Dale and her stunt double take turns watching in terror. Ming, in turn, watches on Zoom.

The closeups of Larry “Buster” Crabbe wrestling a stuffed cat corpse are tastefully interpolated — the trick is inherently obvious, but never becomes comically obvious the way it is in many more expensive productions. Flash uses his main talent — strangling — no doubt acquired on the polo field — to subdue the ravenous taxidermy exhibit.

“The sacred tigron has been killed!” gasps the Indian temple maiden. Flash Gordon, visiting district iconoclast, strikes again. Mongo will be an entirely profane planet by the time he’s got through strangling everything.

Prince Barin converts Aura to the cause by pointing out that arranging for Dale’s devouring is unlikely to win Flash’s love. “I shall intercede with my father the emperor,” she says, which depending on your reading is either bragging (my son, the lawyer) or exposition above and beyond the call of duty (it’s a big building with doctors in it, but that’s not important right now).

The wide shot of Ming’s palace is really lovely, even if it does have a big hair growing out of it in the frame I’ve selected.

Commander Torch (is he backed up by Sergeant Screwdriver, Corporal Sliderule and Private Flyspray?) belatedly remembers he has a firearm and subdues Vultan and Zarkov, aiming directly at the pretty flower on Frank “knobbly knees” Shannon’s onesie. Ming demands that Flash be found, “visible or not.” At which point, Flash and chums enter the throne room. And Ming STILL doesn’t look happy. He and Zarkov really ought to be friends, they have so much in common: both seem depressed and sullen about their lot in life , the clothes they have to wear, the words they’re expected to say.

Ming is immediately held hostage, his armed guards somehow powerless against Barin’s sword and Flash’s disapproving attitude. Aura, whose character arc resembles a crazy straw, has not only joined the forces of good, she’s SETTLED — accepting passively the meaty love of Barin. Ming promises the earthfolks can return to their “sphere” — but he does it while making Mr Burns-type evil finger movements. We discover he has a henchman called “Officer Ego.”

One is used to these stories being tales of foreign intervention, so the willingness of all concerned to leave Ming in charge, with no guarantee he won’t threaten the earth again, is baffling.

I’m struck by the fact that I found Vultan to be a fun character when I was a kid, whereas it’s now abundantly clear that he’s as dangerous as Ming, crazier by far, and has the mind of a three-year-old. Mike Hodges told me that he saw his FG as a satire on American interventionism, with the bounding idiot Flash (shades of Lang’s Siegfried) smashing the state without understanding anything that’s going on. I suggested there should have been a sequel where Mongo falls to pieces without its dictator, like a post-Tito Yugoslavia. He chuckled.

The non-interventionist Flash we see here, obeying some unstated Prime Directive issued to polo players on the off-chance of interplanetary entanglements, perhaps echoes American foreign policy circa 1936, explaining that late entry into WWII, whereas 1980 Flash is consistent with a new era.

The earthfolks and their buddies load “power units” onto Zarkov’s rocket, intent on visiting Vultan’s city for no clear reason. Commander Torch and his bitches watch warily.

First mention of the turret! “I am to meet the others at the turret-house, by the lake of rocks,” says Barin. I very much want to see this “lake of rocks.” I wonder if it’s a sacred lake of rocks? Or just regular.

Due to popular demand, director Frederick Stephani shows us the iguanas again. They watch Zarkov’s rocketship buzz overhead, licking their dry lips, and it is amusing to speculate what they might be thinking. Perhaps they are anticipating their appearance in an 80s surrealist cigarette commercial. Perhaps they are looking back on their acquaintanceship with that nice Mr. Darwin. One opens his maw to give throat to a fearsome cock-crow — apparently in valediction to the departing earthpeople. So long. It’s been emotional.

See you later, iguana.

Arriving at the turret-house, Flash, Dale, Aura, Vultan and Zarkov notice a rocketship bearing down on them. Like Cary Grant in NORTH BY NORTHWEST they stand for ages, dopily staring at it, too embarrassed to run or duck until its lethal intentions become completely unambiguous. It’s very human.

“It must be Prince Barin’s ship,” says Flash the optimist.

BOOM! It fires on them.

“Why should Prince Barin do that?” asks Zarkov, not rhetorically — he’s legit terrified at this new development. Friends have become enemies, enemies friends! Chaos!

“I don’t know!” says Aura, just as baffled. Nobody has the power to think during this scene. It’s scary. They’re trapped — and they’re not even IN the turret! they are trapped in a brainless limbo: the Sea of Rockheads. Five characters without the initiative to even search for an author. Stiff, hopeless illustrations of the doctrine of predetermination, they must now trap themselves in the turret to fulfill a chapter title not of their own choosing. But, when you think about it, isn’t that the plight of every one of us? Isn’t every one of us forced to trap themselves in a turret to fulfill a chapter title not of our own choosing?

The inside of the turret door looks very much like Bronson Caves. Explosion! Explosion-like wipe to closing title card! Next week, the chapter title Flash and his chums will be rigidly fulfilling will be —

U.N. memorable

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on August 18, 2021 by dcairns

Two images.

The top one is from NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

The lower one is from THE INTERPRETER. Obviously Sydney Pollack has positioned his camera as identically as humanly possible to whoever took the reference picture for Hitchcock, which was then turned into a glass painting. Hitch wasn’t allowed to film in the actual U.N. and Pollack was. Nothing against Pollack, but that just seems wrong. Sort your priorities out, United Nations. Next thing we know you’ll be allowing genocide.

I watched THE INTERPRETER a couple of weeks ago which means I have now completely forgotten it, save for a general impression that it was nice, sometimes suspenseful, well-crafted. Very pleased to see Britain’s own Earl Cameron in the cast, and Tsai Chin too.

Thanks to Randy Cook for pointing out this duplicate image. It feels like Pollack is tipping his hat to his producers by putting their credit over the Hitchcock copy, but for that to work he’d have to have told them about it. So maybe he just told them about the shot, and they said, “Can we PLEASE have our credit over that?” And at any rate I get the sense that Pollack was too modest a gent to put his own credit there.

The Sunday Intertitle: the thrill of the Chase

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2018 by dcairns

From Laurel & Hardy and Harold Lloyd’s work for Hal Roach, it seems natural to move on to Charley Chase, whose silent work in particular includes some of the greatest little farces ever put on screen. Leo McCarey, who directed most of them (though he credited Chase as the real creative mind), compared the films to The Dick Van Dyke Show — domestic comedies using farcical plotting. (And when DVD found Stan Laurel in the phone book and called him up to see if it was really him, he remarked, “I stole a lot from you,” to which Stan, a regular reviewer, replied, “Yes, I know.”)

I had a conversation with an eminent farceur recently in which we agreed that feature-length farces rarely work — “very hard to find a comic motor to sustain the plot,” was his diagnosis. So shorts in the twenties and thirties did it repeatedly, sitcoms can do it endlessly, but features usually sputter. In this light I’m fascinated that THE AWFUL TRUTH works so well. Part of its success is due to director McCarey having learned so many lessons from his work with Chase (plus Stan & Ollie and I guess Max Davidson). But part of it I think is the way it drops little emotional scenes in along the way to keep the stakes clear — we should feel that Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are an ideal couple and it’s a tragedy they’ve broken up, and then we can go back to laughing as they sabotage one another’s attempts to find a replacement mate.

Chase, working on two-reelers, doesn’t require any of that weight, but the films do want you to like and root for his character. Though a kind of cruelty is required, surely, to dream up such exquisite comic embarrassments, the audience is expected to wince in sympathy even as it laughs, and the ending is required to resolve the situation with a kind of poetic justice.

In INNOCENT HUSBANDS he’s married to the great Katherine Grant, in Mrs. Hardy termagant mode. She’s obsessively suspicious of her blameless spouse. Fate contrives to heap incriminating circumstances on the poor fish, really putting him through a lot of hell he doesn’t deserve, but the ending restores happiness and trust in a very McCarey way…

The film’s big idea is to combine two situations of compelling interest, the “Oh no! My wife!” bedroom farce and the mediumistic séance. Chase has to smuggles three people out of his bedroom while a spiritualist meeting sits in his living room, by disguising them as spooks. The contrivances involved to get us to this point are considerable, and almost too much — the key to this success is to make the contrivances themselves funny (as they never are in Ray Cooney type farces), playing up their absurdity or using them to point up character.

At the end of the story, Chase catches Katherine in an innocent compromising position with a man, forcing a very McCareyesque compromise: she promises not to be suspicious of him if he won’t be suspicious of her. As in THE AWFUL TRUTH, a successful marriage is like a conjuror’s trick: undeniably marvelous, but don’t inspect it too closely.

 

Then, just as peace reigns, one of the forgotten “guests” Charley has been trying to get rid off, comes tiptoeing through the back of frame. Charley sees her and cringes. Katherine, embracing him, does not. And then the character, on the way to the door, gets caught on a piece of cloth and starts pulling an ornament off its tabletop… Charley sees this too, and cringes some more…

But Charley has a revolver (established earlier) and so fires a shot at random in perfect sync with the smashing of the ornament — and the house detective (established earlier) pops out of a chest, rubbing his wounded posterior.

Amazing stuff — the condensed plotting is on a par with the final minute of NORTH BY NORTHWEST. It boggles the mind that such tightly-plotted, inventive and funny stuff was put together, at speed, by serious alcoholics (McCarey, Chase, Grant too). But maybe working alcoholics need to have more discipline than the rest of us, just to be able to pull of their (farce-like) double lives. Maybe so.