Archive for Peter Van Eyck

Grey Matter

Posted in FILM, literature, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-1569350

I’ve been known to mock Curt Siodmak, to refer to him as the great Robert Siodmak’s idiot brother. “Is he your favourite idiot brother?” my friend Alex asked the other day. He isn’t even that, I was forced to admit — W. Lee Wilder is a still more remarkable specimen of the breed.

But I was really impressed by TV movie Hauser’s Memory — teleplay by Adrian Spies, based fairly faithfully I think on Siodmak’s novel. And then I stumbled on a copy of Donovan’s Brain, young Curt’s best-known book. It was filmed three times officially — as THE LADY AND THE MONSTER with Erich Von Stroheim and Vera Hruba Ralston, as DONOVAN’S BRAIN with Lew Ayres and Nancy Reagan (wouldn’t they make a houseful) and as THE BRAIN, by Freddie Francis with Peter Van Eyck, but Curt hated all three versions. The radio production with Orson Welles is better — probably. I’ve been saving it for last.

The book is really enjoyable, with memorable characters in its cold-fish narrator, a rather inhuman scientist who steals the brain of a dying millionaire, and various sleazy types he meets once the brain starts to telepathically force him to do its bidding. The formula is similar to Hauser’s Memory  — a dead character possesses a live one, so while there’s a battle to maintain personhood by a character invaded by a foreign mind, there’s also a kind of investigation/puzzle where we want to find out the secret motivation of the mental invader.

ladyandthemonstera

Siodmak had the unenviable task of retraining himself to write in English after he fled Hitler. Other filmmakers managed to adapt readily, but for a writer the challenge was far greater. Language was Siodmak’s instrument. Like his former collaborator Billy Wilder, he never quite got the American idiom down pat, but Wilder always worked with brilliant co-writers to smooth out any linguistic kinks. In his novels, Curt has to struggle along by himself. He would write sentences like “The moon leaped like a giant in the porthole,” which possibly plays better in German, though I’m not wholly convinced of that.

Donovan’s Brain has sentences like “I woke at a very early morning hour,” which is weirdly OFF. In German, “very early morning hour” is probably one word, some beautiful compound noun a foot long. He gets his commas wrong here: “It might like a blind man, feel the light or, like a deaf one perceive sound.” I had to read that a couple of times to make sense of it, did you? And then there are bits where he reaches for an effect and his awkwardness with English makes him fall flat on his face: “Even the fact of our marriage had been dissolved in my work’s acid domination.”

But despite this, the book is a really good read! And it has bizarre stuff in it that’s never made it into any screen version. At one point, disoriented by the brain’s long-range control, the hero falls into a ditch and gets his vertebrae compressed by a steam shovel. He has to wear a full torso plaster cast that makes him look like a turtle for thirty pages. And this has no real impact on the plot at all. But it’s something I’d love to see in a film. It would particularly suit Von Stroheim, I feel.

vlcsnap-2015-09-01-11h10m25s182

 

Young Curt was scathing about the changes inflicted on his book by filmmakers. In the Stroheim atrocity, directed by the sometimes skilled George Sherman, the mad scientist lives in a castle — in Arizona! — and the plot stops for a Spanish speciality dance before the brain has even been hatched. The novel goes like a train, but there’s no chance of zip with Erich setting the pace. The filmmakers supply him with a limp, just to slow things down even further, and instead of being an antihero he’s made a straight villain, with Richard Arlen as one of those useless heroes whose only purpose is to protest each new plot development. Ralston is fabulously bad, flashing her eyelashes with every other line to give “significant” looks.

vlcsnap-2015-09-01-11h07m35s29

Felix Feist’s fifties fiasco is a lot closer to the letter of the book, but while Siodmak’s protagonist was somewhere between autism and Camus’ L’Etranger, Lew Ayres plays it repulsively HEARTY, and says things like “C’mon, get with it, baby!” I wanted to slap his brain. The more the script tries to render him likable, the creepier he gets. But I liked Gene Evans, who doesn’t seem like a movie surgeon at all, and who therefore may resemble a real one, I’m prepared to believe. And the future first lady vivisecting a monkey makes it kind of worthwhile.

vlcsnap-2015-09-01-11h02m56s59

Freddie Francis (who also made THE SKULL!) brings more visual panache to his version than his predecessors, though the monkey brain earlier on is one of the most laughably inept props ever — it looks like a half-deflated balloon with the crenellations drawn on in magic marker. Anne Heywood, Bernard Lee, Cecil Parker, Maxine Audley — the supporting cast is excellent, even before you get to Miles Malleson as a sherry-swigging coroner (who fails to say “Room for one more inside” despite ample opportunity) and Jack MacGowran as a blackmailing morgue attendant. Peter Van Eyck is the closest anyone has gotten to capturing the icy callousness of Siodmak’s protag, though he’s also curiously antic. But the plot gets caught up in scheming and forgets all about the poor brain. The balance is upset. Siodmak complained that the filmmakers added a stripper, but there’s no sign of her in the print I viewed.Though Anne Heywood, always game, flashes a nipple for about four frames.

Now I guess I have to watch CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN.

 

Advertisements

Stir Crazy After All These Years

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on May 11, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-05-11-08h23m18s201

TOUS PEUVENT ME TUER (1957) translates as EVERYONE WANTS TO KILL ME, an amusing title the film doesn’t quite stand behind. But reliable warhorse Henri Decoin (his writing career started in silents — he directed his last in ’64 — other warhorses like Gabin viewed him as a trusted collaborator in contrast to those nouvelle vague scallywags) gives it a dynamic noir feel, with many tilts and splashy chiaroscuro lighting.

Hapless Andre Versini allows himself to be sucked into master-crim Peter van Eyck’s heist scheme, whose novel element is that it requires the entire gang to get busted for drunkenness and B&E right after they’ve pulled off their jewellery snatch. In this way, by faking drunkenness, they provide themselves with an airtight alibi for the earlier offence. Sentenced to a year inside, they can sit tight while the heat dies down and collect their swag upon release. Versini’s time inside may be tougher than the others’ since he has Anouk Aimee waiting for him on the outside — in other words, he’s an idiot.

vlcsnap-2015-05-11-08h23m41s160

The plan goes awry when someone starts bumping off the gang in the prison (a striped-shadow panopticon offering opportunities for numerous punchy compositions). Did someone talk, or is a member of the dwindling clique intent on trousering the entire takings for himself? Can Peter van Eyck ever be wholly trustworthy?

The script by Decoin, Versini and Albert Simonin, pulls in too many subsidiary characters, like the amusing prison director, and doesn’t establish its team of miscreants strongly enough for us to care, even in a LADYKILLERS comic way, as they meet their ends, but the inventive plot idea and the extremely atmospheric lensing of Pierre Montazel (TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI, many others) makes it a (mild) pleasure to watch.

vlcsnap-2015-05-11-08h24m40s248

The Chauffeur Always Honks Twice

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-01-06-11h44m00s158

RETOUR DE MANIVELLE is a French adaptation of a James Hadley Chase novel — apart from changing a few names, esteemed scenarist Michel Audiard doesn’t seem to have Europeanized it much, even leaving rich drunk Peter Van Eyck’s Cadillac unchanged. Even in French, the origins of Chase’s story are obvious enough — the James M. Cain “love rack” structure, in which a wild love affair is used as motor for an escalating suspense thriller. But Chase has come up with some ideas of his own, including an insurance scam involving the triangle of unwanted husband, scheming wife and dopey hero which DOESN’T actually include a murder. That *is* unusual.

vlcsnap-2015-01-06-11h41m43s47

Without getting into second act spoilers, I can say that Van Eyck devises an improbably scheme to torment his cheating wife — he blows his brains out, leaving a vast insurance policy which doesn’t come into effect until the following day, and which specifically excludes suicide, So, in order to claim, icy hotwife Michele Morgan and horny chauffeur Daniel Gelin have to conceal the death, preserve the body, and then fake the suicide to look like murder (no chance of making the bullet to the skull look like an accident). This is complicated by sweet young Michele Mercier and third-act detective inspector Bernard Blier, who is awfully good value. His smart working cop has a clever answer for every occasion, but is continually led up the garden path by all the manufactured evidence strewn in his way, with ultimately black irony. Gelin, who I mainly knew as the young lover in LA RONDE (and for being Maria Schneider’s estranged father), is very effective in  tougher role.

vlcsnap-2015-01-06-11h43m01s81

But it’s Morgan’s film — she excels at coldbloodedness, as she always does, but what really chills the marrow is when she acts sweet — because she plays it so convincingly, despite our knowing it’s all fake. She could give Robin Wright lessons in House of Cards, which is saying a great deal. She’s accompanied by a sculpted torso, a gleaming reminder of how the men in her life have objectified her, and is able to make the character both terrifying and, in a feminist light, sympathetic or at least understandable.

Unfortunately, as far as I could tell the plot ceases to make sense in the third act. Given the improbable set-up (“We are not concerned with whether the thing WOULD be done, only if it COULD be done,” said fictional detective Dr. Gideon Fell), everything has been just about plausible until then, so it’s a shame. But it does deliver us into the right emotional place, which counts for plenty.

vlcsnap-2015-01-06-11h44m38s26

Directed by Denis de la Patilliere, with some low-key sexual frankness, expressive use of depopulated frames and a relish for the white, palatial and underfurnished mansion where most of the intrigue takes place. He had a long life and career and was predictably loathed by the Nouvelle Vague.