Archive for Peter Cushing

The Murderers

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2014 by dcairns


“Larry is deeply, and I mean deeply, stupid,” says Orson Welles to Henry Jaglom. But it can’t have been altogether true, can it? Of course, some great artists may be brilliant in their own field and painfully naive outside of it, but I’d hold up Olivier’s first three films as evidence that he had something on the ball. Of course, they each have one foot in theatre, and so does their star — how could it be otherwise? But when a filmmaker like Polanski comes out and says Olivier was a great movie director, one should take notice.

I enjoyed Olivier’s RICHARD III in its splendidly restored Criterion release, looking brand new and almost painfully crisp. Fiona disliked his nose and didn’t stay for the rest. “It’s not human!” she protested. I pointed to Douglas Wilmer, down the cast list a bit, sporting a comparable schnozzola. “I think Larry saw that and said ‘Get me one of those.'” Both snouts proceed at a thirty degree angle like an exact continuation of the actors’ foreheads. I was still marveling at this feat of nature and the makeup department when Stanley Baker shows up with his brow overhanging dangerously, a cranial escarpment that defies gravity. His eyes look like they’re straining to hold it all up.

Olivier apparently felt he made a mistake casting Ralph Richardson, and wished he could have gotten Orson for the part of Buckingham. I see his problem — Richardson is a shade too real. While Gielgud makes a song out of everything, and Olivier is Mr. Punch made flesh, Richardson plays a political villain with no hint of artificial “characterisation” — he just says the words beautifully, guided by their rhythm, letting his steely, slightly mad stare hold our attention. Explaining his decision to use theatrical sets in HENRY V, Olivier said he feared otherwise the audience would say, “So that’s a house, and that’s a tree, and that’s a field; why is everyone talking so funny?” Heightened artifice in the production design matches Shakespeare’s blank verse. So the problem with Richardson is that his very convincing-ness isn’t in keeping. It’s not that he’s naturalistic — Richardson was slightly unreal even in real life — it’s just that he’s not one the (putty) nose, like everyone else. If Olivier’s Richard is a villain, what is Ralph? I expected him to turn out to be a good guy.


We also get a nubile Bernard Hepton (I think I spotted him blowing a bugle), also credited quaintly for “sword play”, but most enchanting are the murderers, played by Michaels Gough & Ripper, two giants of the Hammer horror realm which doesn’t even exist in 1955. But who could be better? I’m reminded that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are both in Olivier’s HAMLET, separately. Presumably, when I watch HENRY V again, I’m going to suddenly recognize Madeline Smith and Ingrid Pitt.

Towards the end, Richard draws the positions of his troops in the dust using his sword-point. And Olivier cuts to a wide of Bosworth Field, and the full-scale army is painted into place by a giant sword-tip, descending lightly from the heavens. Maybe it’s the kind of thing that, when you have something like it, you need to have a couple more things like it to make it fit into the overall style. But it’s brilliant and bold and breathtaking — this man is not stupid.


Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2013 by dcairns


Pretty experimental for 1940, no?

The conventional wisdom (read: baloney) on George Stevens is that WWII changed him from a fleet-footed comedy director to a leaden dramatist — one shakes one’s head sadly, understandingly — he did, after all, witness the liberation of the camps, after which  the prospect of romantic comedy surely seemed unappealing — and perhaps one thinks of the hero of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the dangers of the message movie.

In fact, VIGIL IN THE NIGHT, released in 1940, shows how Stevens was already itching to get to grips with more sombre subjects: after all, the movie, a medical drama, kills a cute kid in the very first sequence. He perhaps didn’t have the chops for it yet, but that would come. Like Leo McCarey, Stevens went from frivolous nothings to incredibly elegant and accomplished comedies, but unlike McCarey his move into more serious films opened up fresh stylistic possibilities. Whatever you think of the lap dissolves of A PLACE IN THE SUN or the tableau style of THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, these devices stretch the conventional language of Hollywood storytelling.


There’s some of that on display in VIGIL, where the desire to simulate the dark environment of Northern England (the story is from a novel by A.J. Cronin, author of The Crucible The Citadel) involves Stevens in some weird stylisation with his lavish but grimy sets. This is obvious from the start, when he pans from a SFX lighthouse across a miniature landscape, onto a full-scale set of the hospital Isolation Ward, where nurse Carole Lombard is ministering to a sick child. Stevens then cuts inside, and a short while later has Lombard look out the window. Instead of seeing the sea, which is what we’ve just been shown lies beyond the glass, she sees a busy street. Maybe she’s gone to a different window, but check this: panning along the far building, in a continuation of Lombard’s POV shot, we then discover that it’s the Isolation Ward — the very building Lombard is in! Time and space seem to have formed a Moebius strip to allow Lombard to look at herself.

The plotting carries out similarly weird contortions. At one point, Lombard is riding a bus with other hospital staff, and one nosy parker is on the point of revealing the dark secret from her past — suddenly, CRASH! The bus, magically reduced to miniature size, hurtles off the road and smashes itself to pieces in a cataclysm of quick cuts. Lombard receives a few cuts to the face, which we are presumably meant to see as the source of her sexy little scars, but that other nurse sure shut her mouth. It seems like Lombard has the fabled Medusa Touch. When, later, she tells Dr Brian Aherne that he’s going to get the modern hospital he’s been fighting for, because she saw it in a dream, we believe her. If, in fact, Carole Lombard can make things happen with the power of her mind, and is controlling the whole plot of the film, things make a certain sense. Of course, her shallow sister (Anne Shirley), for whom she took the rap for that child’s death, and who repaid her by stealing her fiance (Peter Cushing, sporting one of the few Northern accents), has to die. The only surprise is that Carole doesn’t have her explode like John Cassavetes at the end of THE FURY.


Another example of the film’s odd relationship with realism. The matron (Ethel Griffies, brilliant as the bird lady in THE BIRDS) bans cosmetics on her nurses, but of course all the women look immaculate all the time. But in her sick-bed, Shirley has a convincingly natural look, with the kind of skin tones only previously seen on children. Death, the great leveler and the great skin cleanser.


Was Cushing destined for Hollywood stardom? He apparently couldn’t wait to get home, though anemia prevented him joining up for WWII. His movie roles in America were all small, though VIGIL sees him, briefly, playing Lombard’s romantic interest, and he does very well in a scene of drunken despair, filmed by Stevens mainly in bleak wide shots. It’s a very good performance all round, but perhaps evidence more of what Cushing lacked as a lead — though quite the lover-boy offscreen, he doesn’t really create any kind of spark with his leading lady, and if Lombard doesn’t make you hot under the collar there may be no hope. Back in Britain, this quality of a sexuality which doesn’t show up on film proved no barrier at Hammer, where the sex was all sublimated into vampirism anyway, and Cushing would embody the man who showed up to punish it with a wooden stake to the cleavage. It’s doubtful if such opportunities would have come along in the US.


Whoopee Cushing

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2013 by dcairns


Fun Fact: in 1940, during the brief stint as an up-and-coming Hollywood star, Peter Cushing (far left) made a skimpy appearance in the Laurel & Hardy feature A CHUMP AT OXFORD.

Less Fun Fact: Fiona is quite ill with depression at the moment. We’ve been concentrating our viewing on lighter fair, and Laurel & Hardy seemed a good fit. You often hear it said that such-and-such a comedian could cure depression, but usually this is not so. During her last major illness, eight years ago, Stephen Fry’s quiz show QI could sometimes make Fiona smile, or even reluctantly laugh, but it did not effect a cure. However, a good Laurel & Hardy film is about the most reliable comedy there is, if your funny bone happens to incline in that direction (some poor souls are not amused at the boys’ antics: we make no judgement on these unfortunates, but pass on in silence). Though not as big an L&H fan as I (Fiona really digs the Marx Brothers), Fiona was up for trying an experiment: Stan and Ollie Versus Clinical Depression.

Unfortunately, for our first try, choosing A CHUMP AT OXFORD was probably a mistake. The duo was usually better in shorts than features, and ACAO was originally a short feature which was then padded with a twenty-minute prologue having nothing to do with the rest of the picture. However, this sequence does feature “knobby Scot” James Finlayson, who provoked an involuntarily, slightly painful laugh, from my poor partner. Finlayson has only to appear and a smile can be sensed around the edges of the face.


After the disjointed opening, the film repairs to the dreaming spires of Oxford, and Cushing appears as one of a gang of nasty students, ragging Stan & Ollie with prolonged practical jokes. More interestingly than amusingly, several of these have an element of the macabre. Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy are made to get lost in a maze that’s straight out of THE SHINING (and nothing much to do with Oxford), and then Cushing helps one of his chums dress up as a wraith and chivvy the boys about at midnight. It’s a sort of dress rehearsal for CAPTAIN CLEGG.

Fiona becomes fixated on the film’s title. “But there’s two of them,” she protests, in a low-affect deadpan that would be funny if deliberate. A depressed person taking issue with a Hal Roach film title sounds like a normal person delivering tragic news: “It’s metastasized,” “War is declared,” “Winterbottom’s done it again.”

All this stuff seems based on a poor understanding of the kind of situation Laurel & Hardy are funny in. They’re so dumb that practical jokes played against them strike the audience as unfair — too easy! It’s more amusing to see the boys creating their own problems, and also fun to see them creating problems for officious enemies or perfectly innocent bystanders, who can be relied upon to react angrily and thus bring more misfortune on themselves. All without any real malice from the boys, who are generally just screwing things up through sheer incompetence. Cushing and his gang with their studied malevolence don’t fit into this scenario at all.


When Cushing next appears, he’s disguised in a voluminous false moustache. Oddly, when this is removed, he has a smaller, real moustache underneath, although his upper lip was quite nude when last we saw it. In the course of the night he’s somehow acquired this decoration. I wonder if the ‘tache might have been grown for THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK (by horror legend James Whale), released the previous year? In that film, Cushing has a small role, but originally had a much larger one. In the split-screen scenes where Louis Hayward, playing royal twins (one good, one evil!) acts with himself, Cushing played stand-in, appearing in the cast-off halves of the screen, while Hayward’s halves were retained. Alas, the Cushing offcuts have not survived so far as we know.

Towards the climax of ACAO, which involves some pretty funny knockabout stuff, Stan gets caught in a window, and THE SHINING is recalled once more. A blow on the head cures him of lifelong amnesia and he reverts to his true self, an English lord. This leads nowhere in particular, but we get to see Stan play an English lord, which is worth seeing. It made Fiona smile a bit.


A trifle dissatisfied with ACAO, we looked at DO DETECTIVES THINK? a silent which isn’t that great either but has Finlayson again and some more examples of the Laurel & Hardy Uncanny —




Incidentally, Cushing enjoyed quite a long collaboration with another much-loved comedy duo, Morecambe and Wise — beloved in the UK (and the favourite TV show of Cary Grant) but largely unknown elsewhere. Enjoy —

An entry for the Peter Cushing Centenary Blogathon.



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