Archive for Percy Kilbride

All About Evil

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2008 by dcairns

All About Evelyn

Help! I’ve just watched John Brahm’s psycho-thriller GUEST IN THE HOUSE and it blew the top clean off my Thrillometer, spouting adrenalin across the room. This will take weeks to mop up! (This will take weeks of me ignoring it until Fiona breaks out the squeegee in exasperation.)

Anyhow, the title is abysmal, carrying with it no promise of mystery or tension or even basic drama (STRANGER IN THE HOUSE would have worked much better, and made sense), although the film’s re-issue title, SATAN IN SKIRTS, works as pure camp. The movie is impure camp, not quite silly enough to dismiss out of hand, far too outrageous to take totally seriously.

Some years before playing the artfully concealed embodiment of Evil in ALL ABOUT EVE (isn’t that character supposed to be based on Lizabeth Scott? One hopes not!), Anne Baxter is seductively sinister as demented bunny-boiler Evelyn, due to marry the young doctor son of a nice upper-middle-class American family. Anne maybe never looked more glamorous, her wickedness adding to her allure and her obvious youth and radiant good health clashing intriguingly with her role as an invalid with a weak heart.

Since “Doctor Dan” has to go off and earn a living, Evelyn is assigned the guest bedroom in the home of Ralph Bellamy and Ruth Warrick, where she sets about poisoning the minds of everybody and breaking up the happy marriage. The film has a decidedly conservative side to it, with the sick outsider viewed as purely malevolent, while middle-class family values are to be preserved at all times, but there are some intriguing fractures in this scheme. One reading would see the household as deeply flawed, just waiting for an Iago plot device to set its disintegration in motion. Certainly everybody’s all too willing to suspect the worst in everybody else.

The cast is so strong, while avoiding any hint of the A-list, that they’re worth working through in some detail.

Ralph Bellamy — was ever an actor so apparently unpromising, actually so versatile and impressive? His everyman looks seem to cut him out for an endless succession of thankless hero’s-best-friend roles, but Bellamy was memorable as comedy schnook in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, tender romantic rival in HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE, satanic gynaecologist in ROSEMARY’S BABY and millionaire comic villain in TRADING PLACES — there’s nothing he can’t do. Here he’s a can-do commercial artist who slips into sullen alcoholism and neurosis with the slightest of pushes, and he’s sympathetic and individual all the way.

Ruth Warrick is much more likable and natural here than in CITIZEN KANE, which isn’t a question of her having grown as an actress, just that she’s skilfully playing a more likeable and natural character.

Deep joy comes with the presence of Percy Kilbride and Margaret Hamilton as servants. Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West, is always good value, but Kilbride is an underrated demi-god of the silver screen. Watch him fail to make a fist in FALLEN ANGEL, slapping a limp wrist into his palm to express his steely indignation! Watch him perform the world’s most awful wedding ceremony in THEY LIVE BY NIGHT. A withered noodle soaked in melancholia and left to dry on the chipped counter of a hardware store, he’s an invaluable addition to any film, especially one that might otherwise be too exciting. I love him like a wonderful dead uncle.

And then there’s Aline McMahon! What is wrong with America that this great matriarch was never elected to high political office? With her lovely amphibian countenance, eyes limpid as poached eggs, she exudes the wisdom of the ages, along with compassion and strength. She could make economic troubles fade with but a wistful smile, end wars with a quip. “Why you’re nothing but a mean old woman,” remarks Jimmy Stewart in THE MAN FROM LARAMIE. “Ugly, too,” she agrees, affably.

John Brahm directs with his customary zeal and delirium (Andre DeToth also contributed, according to the IMDb) and makes the most of a magnificent set, where most all of the film takes place. The titular house is attractive and spacious, but very low-ceilinged, which allows for unsettling angles and an oppressive feeling when required. The movie is a masterclass in interior filming, with shots split-screened by doorways, gliding smoothly from one space to another, regularly surprising us with new unusual angles.

At the climax, McMahon, a watchful presence throughout, comes into her own in an “all women are bad” plot turn, and Brahm pulls one of his customary freak-outs, jolting the camera around and smacking us with alarming high angles, as Baxter, her lid flipped for permanent, staggers around in terror of imaginary canaries.  It’s giddy, kitsch and highly imaginative stuff — prime Brahm!

Seems to me only Brahm would have tried a crazy composition like this — THE LODGER is full of them, generally at play upon the outsize kisser of Laird Cregar.

Pulitzer-prize winner Ketti Frings scripted (she wrote the story for the magnificent HOLD BACK THE DAWN), which is a worry considering the traces of misogyny, but there’s some wisdom too. When family friend Jerome Cowan shows up and INSTANTLY diagnoses the neurotic true nature of Anne Baxter’s little schemer (and, doubly impressive, he does it without smoking a pipe) he points to the manipulative tendencies of the invalid. It’s not completely unfair. Of course, sick people can be manipulative — relying as they do on healthy people for their care and comfort, emotional as well as physical, the only power they can exert to get their way is through first, polite requests then, if that fails, emotional blackmail. It’s only human.

Admitting that much, it’s still a bit harsh to portray a neurotic invalid as a horror-movie monster, especially when one’s natural impulse is to side with the stranger being introduced to a new family (double-bill this with MEET THE PARENTS, for much-needed balance). This kind of problem niggles away at most of the Brahm films I’ve seen, eroding their greatness (THE LOCKET is maybe the most fully satisfying, ending aside) but I like what he does with the camera so much I’m going to continue to seek out his stuff.

Right after I buy a new Thrillometer.

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Fallen on her feet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2008 by dcairns

Dangerous Curves 

I just read this fine piece on DAISY KENYON by Zach Gallagher Campbell, Dan Sallitt and Damien Bona, and then this nice review by Glenn Erickson, which alleges that Preminger’s 1945 noir FALLEN ANGEL, embodying his long-take, fluid style, has only ten shots in its first fifteen minutes. I was actually surprised, because I know the opening fairly well, I’ve studied it and taught it, but I’ve never counted the shots. It had seemed to me that while Preminger does sometimes go for pretty long takes, what’s most impressive is the way he makes the shots WORK HARD for him, with the camera moving for several different reasons at once. I don’t think the sheer bravado of his his shot duration compares to Ophuls’ monster sequence-shots, but the shots are complex and intricate in other ways. So I was tempted to go back to the scene, not to check the shot-count was correct, because I’m sure it is, but to analyse more closely how and why Preminger moves the camera, something which had distracted me from the actual length of the takes.

I think there are FIVE MAIN REASONS for a director to move the camera in narrative cinema. When I’m working with Scott Ward, a fine cinematographer, we often talk about the camera’s MOTIVATION for moving, in exactly the same way you’d discuss an actor’s motivation for doing something. A director might want to achieve a particular visual effect, but unless a lucid motivation can be devised for the actor or the camera’s action, the result will be phony. So, the FIVE MOTIVATIONS are:

1) Following a moving subject. This seems like the most basic and crude reason of all for camera movement, but it can be tackled in the most subtle and curious ways. It also includes moments where the camera might move COUNTER to the subject, but still in reaction to its movement. When Mifune backs away from his turncoat army in THRONE OF BLOOD, the camera moves FORWARD, following a parallel line but in the opposite direction. A shot that had been looking past Mifune at his men, taking in his POV, is now flipped so that we’re looking AT Mifune from an angle approximating the POV of his men — the camera has changed sides, and now Mifune’s REALLY in trouble.

Miffed

Tosh

2) Giving us the POV of a moving character. Again, this seems simple enough, but it’s the essence of much of Hitchcock’s direction, forcing us into the character’s position (but for another view, see Mr. Sallitt again). Taking this to the kind of extreme that Hitchcock rather disapproved of, we get DePalma’s endless subjective stalkercam shots. I’d love to see BDP confronted with Hitchcock’s pooh-poohing of this kind of technique in the Hitchcock-Truffaut interview book. No doubt he’d have an answer, but I’d like to hear what it is.

Days of CABIRIA

3) Exploring space. Most common in establishing shots, this use of the moving camera allows the audience to explore the scene in three dimensions. As a scene develops, narrative concerns often force this type of action to a halt, so that the audience can focus more on developing plot points. I’ve always had a suspicion that the Italian cinema has more of an investment in this kind of movement than any other, beginning with CABIRIA and the like, where the camera movement was a necessary device to allow the viewer to take in the size of the sets. Griffith adapted this for the tracking elevator shots of INTOLERANCE — crudely put, the shot’s purpose is to show of the scenery, but this has dramatic values too.

4) Telling the story. The camera can become authorial, prowling around IN SEARCH OF CLUES, as in the opening of REAR WINDOW. Hitchcock’s camera here becomes a curious observer, a character in its own right, gliding from object to object, gathering information that helps to bring us up to speed with the in media res narrative.

5) What am I forgetting? There’s always one… ah yes, the psychological tracking shot. A character thinks, and the camera moves towards them (usually), and their thought seems to acquire real importance. An early example of this might be Jannings reading his letter of dismissal in THE LAST LAUGH. The first Hollywood instance I can think of is in HAND ACROSS THE TABLE. Fred MacMurray smokes pensively and broods, and Mitchell Leisen pushes the camera towards him. Nothing is motivating this camera movement save THOUGHT ITSELF.

There are all sorts of other purposes behind camera movement, but I think of these as side-benefits. They may be incredibly important (adding excitement and animation, increasing audience identification) but they are not sufficient in themselves to actually get the camera moving. As Aki Kaurismaki once facetiously said, the camera’s a big heavy thing, and if you’ve been drinking the night before it’s going to take quite a lot of effort to get that thing moving. Also, I think a director who swings the camera about JUST to “create excitement” is likely to be a dumb filmmaker. See Michael Bay.

So, by way of that massive discursion, we return to the opening of FALLEN ANGEL.

The Driver

The Passenger

The Face of Another

SHOT 1. As the titles end, we find ourselves on a bus, looking at the driver’s back. Noticing something behind us, the driver parks the bus and gets up, passing the camera, which pans after him and follows him down the aisle (Motivation 1). The driver and camera both stop standing over Dana Andrews. The driver then shakes Andrews awake and tells him his ticket “ran out at the last stop”, at which point Preminger restarts the camera movement to get closer to Andrews and let us see his face (Motivation 4). This not only “establishes” the protagonist’s face, it also imparts some special significance to him. It’s some kind of a “hero shot”, you could say. Andrews then stands, forcing the camera back Motivation 1 again) and leaves frame, having retrieved his coat and bag from the luggage rack.

The Big Bus

The first cut:

Bus Stop

The big Street

SHOT 2 shows Andrews leaving the bus, and it’s a real beauty. Starting wide and high, we start to close in on Dana, fine fellow that he is, as the bus drives off screen right — that is the sideways bus movement triggers a forwards camera movement, towards Andrews, a weird abstract combination of Motivation 1 and 3 and 4 with maybe even a touch of 5 (I did say Preminger was fluid). Worse yet for my neat distinctions, Andrews, having paused for another heroic photo op, turns and heads off, and now we’re following him in a clear case of Motivation 1, until we reach the town signpost and he pauses to look at it — the camera has now framed Andrews and the sign, in something that could be read as Motivation 2 (POV) at one remove, or Motivation 4 (the authorial move, feeding us geographical info), but which was clearly just Motivation 1 at the time we were actually moving.

Our Town

SHOT 3. Dissolve to a seaside diner.

 On the Beach

Secret beyond the Door

Andrews walks into shot, forcing a pan, and we start tracking after him, nearing the door of the establishment. Opening the door, Dana gives us a nicely framed little scene at the counter, and we pick up a line of dialogue from proprietor Pop (Percy Kilbride). The frame has transformed into a sort of over-the-shoulder view, which is cut off as Andrews carries on inside and closes the door in our face, forcing a cut.

Juke Box

Intervista

SHOT 4. So far the film has been nothing but sequence shots, each scene a single take, but now comes a very complex scene of narrative set-up, character introductions and interaction, so the cutting hots up, understandably. The first shot of the scene shows Andrews finishing the shutting of the door, and follows him to the counter where we get another, closer OTS shot on the discussion between Pop and Charles Bickford’s detective. Here we learn there’s a missing person report being filed.

The Old Man and the Sea

SHOT 5. The first stationary shot of the film — Looking past Bickford and his cop pal at Pop. It establishes Pop’s appearance more clearly, and allows us to momentarily forget Dana, who has been set up as witness to all this but can now by sidelined.

Le Cop

Bruce LaBruce

SHOT 6 is a reverse favouring Bickford, but it swiftly develops beyond that. The cop exits and we pan with him to the door, where we find ugly old Bruce Cabot, seen in passing as Andrews entered, who now walks to the counter, necessitating a pan back the way we came. This is all Motivation 1, but it’s made satisfying and complex by the way we lose one subject and find another in a nicely choreographed fashion. Now we’re back on Bickford, who gets some dialogue that establishes him as something of a blowhard, then Cabot walks off, necessitating a Motivation 1 pan, which discovers Andrews again — the Motivation 1 has served the purpose of an authorial move, only more discretely. Andrews orders coffee.

Still the same damn shot!

And this

(Pause while Cairns goes and makes some too.)

Mmm, coffee.

Now, that shot on Andrews (still the versatile shot 6) becomes an over-the-shoulder when Pop steps in to take his order, which then allows us to cut to –

SHOT 7, a reverse on Pop, over Dana A’s shoulder (note: this is a different set-up to the previous Pop-shot, which was at the other end of the counter). Now we get a hairy moment — as Pop obligingly walks off to fix coffee and a burger for Andrews, his movement is meant to pull the camera off to one side to end up on a shot looking past Andrews at Bickford. I’m not 100% certain if this is Motivation 1 or Motivation 2, as Andrews shifts his attention to Bickford at the same time. It’s a nice move, but the ambiguity isn’t too helpful: maybe it would have been better to let Pop walk off then have Andrews’ shifting in his chair motivate the reframing?

Poppy

Cash on Demand

Jingle! Someone’s at the door.

Enter the Linda

High Heels

SHOT 8 and Holy Wow! It’s Linda “What I got don’t need beads” Darnell. A beautiful entrance, and then we follow her to a seat, the camera pivoting around Andrews’ back to keep her in view as she removes her feet. Linda is the former missing person, now the returning prodigal, with sore feet. Cut to:

Charley

Fists in the Pocket

SHOT 9. Preminger’s desire to make each shot complex and multi-functional becomes almost EXCESSIVE — rather than just have Bickford enter Darnell’s frame, he cuts to a medium-closeup expressive of lust and authority, pulling away from Bickford as he advances right at us, and slipping round the side into a sleazy two-shot. Just as we can’t bear looking at this a second longer, Pop’s voice is heard OS, motivating a cut to —

Coffee and Cigarettes

Three Men and a Little Lady

Good Burger

SHOT 10. Pop practically drops his tray when he sees Linda, ruining a perfectly good medium close shot almost immediately but pulling us into a really useful group shot that situates Andrews as outsider/observer. Linda steals his burger. Preminger reframes slightly after Bickford leaves, almost unnoticed (his sexual menace ignored by the contemptuous L Darnell) and D Andrews swaps seats to get his damn coffee. Then Andrews swivels on his bar-stool to frankly eavesdrop, and Preminger eases in on Linda as she stuffs her face with processed meat (Mmm, processed meat), a camera movement that simulates Andrews’ narrowing focus of attention (Motivation 2 crossed with 5, kind of). When Andrews gets up, the shot pulls back again, a straightforward Motivation 1 reframing. When Linda forces Andrews to break his last banknote paying for the coffee (this is where her unpleasantness of a character assumes strangely ALLURING proportions) the camera pulls back a tiny bit with NO MOTIVATION AT ALL, save a sort of abstract Motivation 1 response to  Pop’s exit, and we don’t seem to mind a bit, discovering only at the end of the move that this pull-back allows Pop to be seen as he works the cash register in the background.

Cafe Metropole

Dana exits.

Appearing in only three shots, Linda Darnell has neatly pocketed the whole movie, which will struggle to stay on its feet when she departs around the two-thirds mark. Meanwhile, Preminger has shown how comfortable he is moving the camera with more than one motivation, frequently creating subtle dramatic emphases while appearing simply to be following characters around…

Oh, I buzzed forward to the ten-minute mark, and I find Mr. Erickson’s shot-count slightly off — there are eighteen shots up to then by my reckoning, not counting the credits sequence which eats up the first of those ten minutes. But the general point is quite correct: Otto milks his shots until they squeak.