Archive for Philip Kemp

The Greengrocer’s Apostrophe

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 20, 2013 by dcairns


From Robert Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS. “Employee’s only.” No wonder their armoured car gets robbed, they can’t even use basic English grammar.

Bunch of idiot’s.

Showed this one to students and was struck by how it really wants to be a portrait of a terrible love affair (trust is gone) and has to force itself to be a crime movie. Fortunately, the crime movie it’s forcing itself to be is a damned good one, even if the crime masterminded by dopey hero Burt Lancaster is a magnificently dumb piece of self-destruct planning. I mean, it doesn’t so much carry the seeds of its own destruction as the whole damn tree. Which is itself in bud.

The sub-sub-genre of armoured car robbery movies deserves a pamphlet of its own, from the shambolic overthinking of Lancaster’s scheme and its Soderbergh remake, THE UNDERNEATH, to the factual comedy of THE BRINK’S JOB (note the correct apostrophe) to Richard Fleischer’s self-explanatory ARMORED CAR ROBBERY and climaxing with the Mackendrick-Rose-Ealing-Guinness THE LADYKILLERS.

Philip Kemp’s Mackendrick bio, Lethal Innocence, has a good story about that heist. Mackendrick had a tendency to go all-out for authenticity in small matters, which he later identified as a diversionary measure to take his mind off the more intractable problems of the narrative at hand. Anyhow, in quest of realism he consulted the Metropolitan Police, appraising them of his fictional caper and asking if such a scheme could possibly work.

The detective took a long breath. “I’m very glad you decided to become a filmmaker, Mr Mackendrick. It would work only too well.”

The Best Of Ealing Collection [DVD]
Criss Cross (1949) Region 1,2,3,4,5,6 Compatible DVD. Starring Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo

When Anecdotes Collide

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2008 by dcairns


I collect movie stories in my brain. Some of them may just be stories. But sometimes two stories link up, and we have CORROBORATION.


A chap I know once worked on a commercial for Kwik-Fit, a garage company notorious for their cheesy musical T.V. ads. The cinematographer, bizarrely, was the great Douglas Slocombe, slumming it rather. My friend got a few stories out of the great man:

“I never use a light meter. I used to have one, but I was on a boat and I threw it at the director. It went over the side and I haven’t had one since.”

Now Slocombe measured the light just by looking at the shadow of his thumb on the palm of his hand.

When somebody asked Freddie Francis (Slocombe’s near-contemporary) about light meters, he said it was impossible to work without one. “You’ve got to bear in mind not just the difference in the light between 8am and 8pm, but the difference in your eyes.”

Anyhow, in Philip Kemp’s study of Alexander Mackendrick, Lethal Innocence, we hear about Mackendrick arguing with Slocombe about the lighting of a ship’s figurehead during the fraught shooting of A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA. Slocombe hurled his light meter at his intransigent director. “I think it missed him.”

Sandy looking cute


My late friend Lawrie Knight worked in commercials after his career as an assistant director in British films such as THE RED SHOES. He recalled with awe his one glimpse of Orson Welles, emerging from a taxi in a foggy London street, swathed in cape.

Later that day he was in a recording studio and mentioned the dramatic scene. “Oh yes, Mr. Welles was in here today, doing a voice-over for fish fingers.”

crumb crisp coating

Yet Lawrie was unaware, until I told him, of this famous set of outtakes:

(Incidentally, this clip has some of the smarter comments I’ve ever seen on Youtube: voice-over artists and directors supporting Welles against the ad people!)


The elusive Mr. Welles again. Many of you will have heard about how, while shooting OTHELLO, Welles ran up against various cash difficulties. The film was made “on the installment plan,” whenever Welles was able to raise enough cash by acting in other movies.

At one point, although the costumes had been made, they could not be delivered, due to a little matter of unpaid bills, so Welles brilliantly improvised the murder attempt on Cassio, staging it in a bath-house so that most of the characters would not require costumes, only towels or undies.

Big bathers

Flicking through the pages of Charles Drazin’s In Search of The Third Man, we learn that Welles, engaged by Alexander Korda to act in THE THIRD MAN, was charging his OTHELLO costume bills to the budget of THE THIRD MAN. (Some Welles fans would like to deny the confidence trickster side of his personality, I prefer to revel in it.) Knowing the importance of keeping your star happy, Korda shrewdly allowed this fraud to continue — until Welles had completed his scenes in Korda’s movie. Then he swiftly stopped payment.

The result would seem to be: a masterful piece of cinema flung together by Welles in a fit of inspiration to get himself out of a purely practical difficulty.

black market

Drazin’s book is highly recommended, but Michael McLiammoir’s account of filming OTHELLO, Put Money in thy Purse, is even better. And then there’s Welles’ own documentary, FILMING OTHELLO. In some future Utopia where Welles’ heirs actually speak to each other, we shall have all the various edits of Welles’ OTHELLO together in a box set, with FILMING OTHELLO as the main extra. If we eat well and get some exercise, we may live to see this.

“I understand you have rooms to let.”

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2008 by dcairns

 smart alec

I blogged earlier about how I stole a bit of Alec Guinness’ entrance in THE LADYKILLERS for my short film CLARIMONDE.

While I put my hands up and admit this without shame, I’d like to trace the influences that led to actor Alec Guinness and director Alexander “Sandy” Mackendrick achieving what they do in that scene in the first place, to the extent that I can. Partly to show that everybody steals, which makes me feel good about myself, and partly to try and illuminate the evolution of ideas in cinema, through one small example.

Mackendrick quotes below are taken from Philip Kemp’s majestic Lethal Innocence, which should nestle next to Mackendrick’s On Filmmaking on your bookshelves.

Roger the lodger

Exhibit A: THE LODGER. Hitchcock pulls of many grand effects in the expressionist manner in this, his first thriller. It’s worth noting that for both Hitch and Mackendrick were greatly influenced by Fritz Lang and the German style of the twenties and early thirties. Also, both men were graphic designers before they were filmmakers…

Matinee idol and sexual unusualist* Ivor Novello enters with a scarf concealing his lower face (like Malcolm McDowell, 40 years later in IF…). Guinness will appropriate the scarf, and the idea of revealing his lower face first, but he uses the lowering of his hat to achieve this effect:

Mrs Wilberforce...?

Both Katy Johnson and the landlady in Hitch’s film are frail, older women (KJ to a markedly greater degree), afflicted with dowager’s hump, and there is an immediate sense of outrage that they might be menaced by this interloper. Both films play upon this unimaginable threat of violence being brought into a respectable home by some mysterious outsider.

The idea of showcasing Guinness’ trick teeth seems to have been present from the very beginning of the character’s conception. According to Mackendrick, Guinness at first saw the character in even more grotesque terms:

‘He sidled across my office as though he had a dislocated hip, which was quite gruesome but horrendously funny. So Seth and I had to say, “No, sorry, Balcon will never stand for it.” Alec got rather annoyed, and sulked for a little, and went and looked out of the window. And while I was talking about the script he was snipping away with a pair of scissors, and he made some paper teeth which he stuck in, then turned around and grinned at me.’

Guinness claims to have had in mind the Wolf from Red Riding Hood as his main model. But when he saw himself in makeup, he remarked to Mackendrick, “I look remarkably like an aged Ken Tynan; perhaps I’d better smoke cigarettes the way he does.”

Tynan weird

(Guinness work emulating Tynan’s way with a ciggie raises him into the pantheon of Great Dramatic Smokers. Of course, Bacall and Bogart look great exhaling smoke, as does Valentino and, in more recent times, rather surprisingly, Helena Bonham Carter in FIGHT CLUB. But for finding weird and impressive ways of actually handlinga cancer stick, I give you my Triumvirate of Nicotine: George C. Scott, Travolta, Savalas. Telly actually adopted the Kojak lollipop in order to wean himself off the snout, and the sweet solution was suggested by none other than Mario Bava, in whose LISA AND THE DEVIL the trademark lolly makes its debut. Now you know.)

Mackendrick went further, insisting that the entire performance was a gothic exaggeration of the Tynan persona, perhaps a revenge on behalf of the acting profession upon a famous critic (more on this theme soon). I don’t know if Tynan had ever been cruel about Guinness, but he called Ralph Richardson “the glass eye in the forehead of the British public,” which, as Sir Ralph noted, is uncertain as to meaning but doesn’t sound altogether complimentary.

But there is still more behind this characterisation. In LONDON BELONGS TO ME, directed by former Hitchcock scriptwriter (THE LADY VANISHES) Sidney Gilliat, Alastair Sim (native of Edinburgh) presents himself as lodger at the home of a middle-aged spinster, in an uncannily similar way:

recognise this?

The eyes are the windows of the soul.

I’ve ALWAYS felt that Guinness’ performance had something to do with Sim’s, in fact, as a child I believe I thought that WAS Sim playing the part in THE LADYKILLERS. Professor Marcus has the same shabby-gentile, vulpine weariness as Sim’s Dickensian fake medium, Mr. Squales.

And even then, there’s more. Moving beyond the character’s first few moments (about which there’s even more to say!), we get what seems to me a direct quote from Max Schreck’s iconic performance in NOSFERATU:

Orlok Guinness

To present this character in all his glory, Mackendrick and his team give him a big build up. Composer and sound designer Tristram Carey (later of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) brilliantly organises music and FX to one end, creating a sort of dark cartoon soundscape where everything builds to a hysterical crescendo as Guinness rings the doorbell. Then there’s the beauty of the delayed appearance itself, as Guinness stalks Johnson to her home, a variety of pieces of trained furniture obtruding to conceal Guinness’ face. A high angle shot following the pair of them from roughly the POV of an invisible urban giraffe, seems drawn from John Brahm’s Hollywood remake of THE LODGER, though maybe it goes further back, to Lang’s M.

And on top of all that, Graham Linehan points out: “By the way, did you ever notice how Guinness is turning into a crow in ‘The Ladykillers’? Watch the way he lifts his coat up when he’s putting his hands on his hips.”

The Crow

Well, now that you mention it… Maybe this is why all the raven imagery in the depressing Coen Bros remake. I mean, I know it’s there because of Poe and the whole Southern Gothic thing, but maybe…

One moment of Sir Alec’s monstro perf seems entirely sui generis and without precedence in the annals of screen acting. On his way upstairs, forced to respond to remark by Mrs. W, he delivers his reply from under his arm.

It’s not exactly the shock of recognition, is it? But it’s grand stuff.

Good night, Mrs Wilberforce.

Anyhow, it is perhaps worth mentioning that the story of THE LADYKILLERS, like those other grisly tales FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA and DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, came to its author (American screenwriter William Rose) in a dream…

The movie has, in turn, influenced other filmmakers — Nick Park’s THE WRONG TROUSERS is probably the most famous that refers directly back to Mackendrick’s film.


*Novello’s penchant was to lie naked in a glass coffin, feigning death, while muscular workmen filed in and mourned him, sexually.