Archive for On the Night of the Fire

Gypsy Malady

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2011 by dcairns

Edinburgh Filmhouse and the BFI’s Screening the Archive series is a really nice initiative to project on the big screen neglected British items that don’t always get the attention they deserve — we saw Brian Desmond Hurst’s remarkable proto-noir ON THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE a few months ago. Two months back we were sorry to miss a double bill of rare early Boulting brothers thrillers. Last month, GYPSY MELODY, a long-lost musical comedy starring Lupe Velez was the star attraction.

The movie, a 1936 musical travesty, was considered lost for 75 years before being unearthed in the Cinematheque Francaise — the print was then passed on to the BFI for restoration. The film’s French director, Edmond T Greville (BEAT GIRL), a real maestro of the guilty pleasure (he’d just completed a lavish Josephine Baker atrocity, PRINCESS TAM TAM), is not particularly celebrated in his native France, perhaps because he had a tendency to denounce French cinema as a load of rubbish. Shuffling back and forth across the channel, he managed a bilingual career that also included THE HANDS OF ORLAC with Christopher Lee, and NOOSE, a fun 1948 crime pic with a great spiv turn from Nigel Patrick, swarthy villainy from Joseph Calleia, and perky news gal levity from Carole Landis.

NOOSE makes an interesting parallel with GYPSY MELODY — both feature US stars (Landis and Lupe Velez) whose careers were sliding, slumming it in the UK. Both stars made two Brit flicks back-to-back, and later committed suicide. NOOSE is by far the more accomplished film, but that’s not so much due to a fluctuation in Greville’s ability — he frames up some very attractive shots in GM — as to the inherent limitations of the material he’s struggling with here. A plotless Ruritanian romance, the movie nominally stars bandleader Alfred Rode (as Erik Danilo, the surname being a clue to the Lubitschian aspirations). Since Rode (who appears to have had little if any Romany blood) plays a mean fiddle but can’t act to save his life, the bulk of the dialogue is shifted to the annoying comedy relief characters, and poor Lupe’s romantic interest is given nothing to do but express wonder at indoor plumbing and stage a brief spitfire moment when Rode is flocked by female fans.

Despite his inexpressiveness and apparent discomfort in front of the camera, Rode had a substantial film career, but most of it was either in France, where perhaps he was more at home with the language, or in the form of musical guest spots.

It’s interesting to read, in the Filmhouse’s accompanying flier, a Monthly Film bulletin review from the period which refers to comedy support Jerry Verno as “the Jewish hatter” — it wasn’t crystal clear to me why we should interpret the character as being Jewish. A case of anti-semitic assumptions, or character coding that’s unreadable to modern eyes? Or just background knowledge about Mr. Verno?

Thankfully, racial profiling in film reviews is on the decline in Britain today.

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Things I Read Off the Screen in “On the Night of the Fire”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on February 17, 2011 by dcairns

This week’s Forgotten, over at The Daily Notebook, examines Brian Desmond Hurst’s melancholy slice of British proto-noir ON THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE. Edinburgh Filmhouse screened an excellent print of this last month as part of their From the Archive series, and Fiona and I were much impressed, and delighted to see the rare movie on a big screen in 35mm.

“Shaving”

The film is also full of advertising and signage, something I have a weird kink for — it’s frequently evocative and suggestive and strange, I find, whether on a dressed set, where every little thing has been placed just so, or out in the messy world where hoardings and signs assail the eye from all angles.

Taken out of context, such written material seems like a fragmented synopsis or a cut-up poem calling the movie into existence. Some silent films exist only through the censor’s record of the intertitles, floating sentences clutching at a vanished narrative.

15. HABERDASHER. PILLEGER.

Mr. Pilleger, the blackmailing haberdasher, has a suggestive name, and seeing it written is useful so it doesn’t come across as TOO descriptive of his rapacious personality. And signage completes the illusion of a real street, when what we’re looking at is a studio mock-up.

What would be the best film to examine in the light of its printed matter? FAHRENHEIT 451, perhaps?

Text establishes class, the great God of British society and cinema, either through evoking the industrial landscape, or the uneducated background of the authors ~

Later American noirs were less verbose — in fact, US films seemed to have less lettering in them altogether. A striking neon sign or a tattered poster, a dead end sign or a street name, were usually all you’d get. ON THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE burbles with the long-forgotten brand names of products lost to antiquity. What was JULYSIA? A hair cream, apparently. Who was TOM LONG and what was his product? And here  —

At lower centre, a poster for BORACIC LINT, a medical dressing which was also cockney rhyming slang for “skint”, meaning flat broke. Which seems fitting, in a film all about the destructive power of money…

This has been an entry in For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon. Read more about it here and here. Donate to save a classic film noir by clicking here ~