Archive for Peter Lorre

Enemy Agent

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2021 by dcairns

Black Sunset by Clancy Sigal, with its catchpenny subtitle Hollywood Sex, Life, Glamour, Betrayal & Raging Egos, was a chance discovery – they had a copy at St Columba’s Bookshop, which is the destination of my favourite long walks (my new low-carb diet requires exercise to accompany it, also apparently random blood-sugar crash collapses). They had the book in the movie section, which is correct, even though it looks like and reads like a thriller, or almost.

Sigal was, it seems, a genuine Hollywood agent working for Sam Jaffe (not the High Llama guy) at the time of the blacklist. His memoir seems trustworthy, since although he fills it with celebrity cameos and broiling tension, he doesn’t concoct anything resembling a plot. He writes propulsively, which is impressive since he was apparently 90 when this was published. He died a year later.

It’s hard to know for sure how factual it all is, but asides from consistently spelling Joseph Cotten’s surname incorrectly, it all seems to be in keeping with the known facts. Numerous names are changed to protect the guilty by association — the only writer I could ID from Sigal’s description (a woman working on the script of the first Hollywood film to feature Nazi murder camp footage is a pretty specific description) is Decla Dunning, the film being Welles’ THE STRANGER.

Among those cameos are Joan Crawford, discovered throwing up on the Universal lot, Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, both Jaffe clients. Lorre’s chapter is terrific —

On learning of Sigal’s rep as a killer agent who even resorts to violence: “What’s that I hear? You beating up people for Mister Jaffe? THEN WHY DON’T YOU DO IT FOR ME, FAULER SACK? [lazy shit]”

On learning that, as a soldier, Sigal had gone awol to attend the Nuremberg Trials with the intention of assassinating Goering, but had muffed it: “You were there and did nozzing! Schwachkopf! […] Idiot! No wonder you get me only these crazy parts. […] You noodle, why didn’t you shoot?”

On HUAC members anti-semitic tendency to call unfriendly witnesses by their foreign, rather than their Americanized names: “Wait until they get to Ladislav Lowenstein.”

There are also a memorable walk-on by Martin Berkeley, a psychotic case who named more names that anyone alive, compulsively, like a ratfink tic. He named names he didn’t even know. His brief scene here suggests a psychological explanation: he felt guilty after naming names, so he named more names to convince himself it was nothing to be ashamed of. And felt MORE guilty, so named MORE names… And there’s a guest appearance by William Alland, Thompson and News on the March from CITIZEN KANE, by now a B-movie scifi producer at Universal, who seems equally demented.

With images like movie stars and agents gathering for a rooftop party on the Jaffe offices to watch a nearby atom bomb test, this could make a great movie, but you’d have to invent a plot. Sigal’s life was too disorderly to provide one, it seems (he later partnered in R.D. Laing’s experimental mental asylum, had a relationship with Doris Lessing, and co-wrote Julie Taymor’s FRIDA.)

20,000 Leagues of Their Own

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2021 by dcairns

Inspired by the Karel Zeman documentary we didn’t watch a Zeman film but instead looked at Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. First time I’ve made it through the thing, more or less, without drifting off. And yet, it’s not THAT boring.

It’s an impressive technical feat — everything they need to do, they pull off, and Bob Mattey’ giant squid is a wow. No wonder they brought him out of retirement to do Bruce the shark in JAWS. Quick! What was Richard Fleischer’s lawyer’s name? If we knew that, we would know what the squid should be called.

Melvin? Ken? Diablo?

Jules Verne’s episodic, meandering novel has given the adaptors some trouble — scenarist Earl Felton had written a couple of LONE WOLF movies (yay!) and a few small-scale works for Richard Fleischer, including the fantastic THE NARROW MARGIN, and suddenly he’s charged with penning this undersea epic which never had much of a plot. Once the protagonists are taken prisoner by Captain Nemo (James Mason) there’s nothing to do except wander around the magnificent Victorian sub, and go for the occasional jaunt. It all looks great but there’s no dramatic ticking clock to say anything in particular needs doing.

It’s interesting that Nemo is an ambiguous character and the fellow most sympathetic to him, Professor Arronax (Paul Lukas) is also most sympathetic to us. No strong decision seems to have been taken as to who Peter Lorre is playing, so the film’s best actor is somewhat rudderless, although as Fiona pointed out it’s kind of nice to see him playing somebody basically nice. And then there’s Ned Land, whaler and troilist, an appalling lout-hero, ably personated by Kirk Douglas, giving it both knees as usual. This seems to connect somehow to the Harryhausen/Juran FIRST MEN IN THE MOON — both feature delightful Victorian scifi vehicles (see also Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE) and thuggish heroes contrasted with appealing but powerless intellectuals. The Harryhausen movie actually made this WORK, though. (And this almost brings us back to Zeman, since his BARON PRASIL begins with a modern cosmonaut meeting Munchausen on the moon, much like FIRST MEN’s NASA opening, drafted by Nigel Kneale.)

THE BLACK HOLE, it’s been pointed out, is Disney’s unofficial remake of LEAGUES — Maximilian Schell even borrows James Mason’s beard (well, he had no further use for it) — to the extent of stealing the maelstrom from Verne, which doesn’t appear in the movie, and putting it front and centre and calling it a black hole. Where LEAGUES is meandering, though, HOLE is violently incoherent, though it does have an insane psychedelic/religiose ending which elevates it to the category of something or other that happened.

This must surely have been storyboarded to within an inch of its life but, curiously enough, Fleischer’s compositional genius isn’t much in evidence. I guess it’s his first Scope film.

Asides from the actors named above, the movie has one other favourite figure, Percy Helton, who turns up at the start as a salty sea-dog, looking less grotesque than usual in a beard of his own. He should’ve kept it, or vice versa. It’s one of those no-moustache Irish jobs, which usually make people look worse (Lincoln pulled it off, sorta), but dear Perc has the kind of face you can’t disimprove upon, so he ends up looking quite cute — from goblin to garden gnome.


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2021 by dcairns

I showed my students a bit of the dream sequence from STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) as part of a class on expressionism — my ultimate aim being to break down the barriers between classic German expressionism — painted shadows — film noir — real shadows — and modern dramatic cinematic storytelling which seeks to MAKE THE SCENE LOOK AND SOUND AND FEEL a certain way, often the way the characters feel.

What popped out in viewing the sequence in isolation, along with Nicholas Musuraca’s jagged lighting, was the hammy expostulating of all the supporting characters. I mused/bullshitted that maybe, just maybe, this was all a deliberate choice by director Boris Ingster, who after all went on to produce The Man from UNCLE and so couldn’t, presumably, have been a complete fool. Dreams, I mused, are unconvincingly acted. But just as our bodies are paralysed during sleep, so are our rational-critical faculties, so we are forced to accept whatever nonsense we’re served, like kids in front of Saturday morning TV. It’s only on waking that we say, “That was bizarre.”

Orson Welles, who did much to popularize the striking graphic look that STRANGER throws out, was expert at this dream affect, both in the general atmosphere of THE TRIAL, and in moments of LADY FROM SHANGHAI — the way both Glenn Anders (on the cliff in Rio) and Rita Hayworth (in the mirror maze) stare, seemingly blindly, at Welles, catches something about the autistic performance style of the people we meet in dreams, whether strangers or alien simulacra of loved ones.

And when I re-viewed STRANGER in full as part of our weekend watch party, I was pleased to see that the acting in the surrounding scenes was more traditionally “good.” Peter Lorre was fantastically idiosyncratic and uncanny, but not cartoonish, and the leads, the more traditionally photogenic John McGuire and Margaret Tellichet, though a little bland and earnest, were every bit as convincing as the story needed them to be. The supporting players were reliable types like Elisha Cook, Charles Halton and Ethel Griffies (the ornithologist in THE BIRDS) and they manage to find a mid-ground in their acting style so that without seeming to change character completely in the dream, they can slot into its oneiric stiltedness and get with the program.