Archive for Polanski

Halloween Film Club: Sick Building Syndrome

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2009 by dcairns

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The revelation in watching THE HAUNTING for me this time was that while Robert Wise’s filmmaking still holds up, and there’s a lot to say about that, the things that popped out most in the screenplay were the tin-eared blunders. Nelson Gidding (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM) has done a good job compressing the incidents and realigning the characters from Shirley Jackson’s uncanny classic The Haunting of Hill House (wherein, for instance, Eleanor is attracted not to the investigating doctor but to the spoiled heir), on a structural level, but he really doesn’t have anything like the prose style or ear for dialogue he needs. Here’s Jackson’s opening —

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Feel the goosebumps? Gidding has given the job of transferring Jackson’s intro and history lesson into the voice of Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), which means jettisoning some of the flourishes and sometimes injecting an unwelcome note of jocularity which is one of Markway’s least appealing traits ~

An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.

That first sentence, I think, does little but deaden the overall effect, whereas Jackson’s abrupt change of direction between sentence 1 and 2 is deliciously jolting. After the credits (simple sans-serif font, with a big spooky production number for the main title — why?) Then the narration continues, with Wise providing spectacular visual accompaniment — absolutely gorgeous cinematography by Davis Boulton, whose career seems otherwise quaintly undistinguished: I like CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, but IT! and SONG OF NORWAY?

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Bad stuff in the VO: there’s no equivalent in Jackson’s book for the awful phrase “big tree,” which sounds comically awkward even with Richard Johnson’s manly tones behind it, although Jackson is responsible for the equally uncomfortable “ah, lifeless, I believe is the phrase they use,” and she also gave us the name of the builder of Hill House — Hugh Crain. Sounds like Ukraine, not good. Gidding changed many of the character names, aimlessly (Vance becomes Lance, Montague becomes Markway) but saw fit to leave that one. And we learned he “died in a drowning accident,” a horrendously clunky phrase.

Great stuff in the visuals: the slow lap dissolve transformation from childhood to senescence:

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And all those ANGLES. Wise asked Panavision if they had a good wide-angle lens. They said they were working on one, but had rejected all their prototypes so far because they caused too much distortion. “Perfect!” said Wise, “That’s just what I want.” “No no no,” advised Panavision, “We really think these are a bit more distorted than you’d like.” “I assure you that’s impossible,” stressed Wise. Panavision were insistent. They were really embarrassed by these warped bottle-bottom things. In the end, Wise had to sign lots of documents promising he wouldn’t sue Panavision for sending him funhouse lenses.

vlcsnap-797819The convex mirror is one of Wise’s little jokes about his unconventional lens kit.

Emerging from this sensational, moody tape-slide presentation opening, we get Fay Compton (Emilia in Welles’ OTHELLO), one of my favourite old ladies, although she does say “Ho ho ho!” once too often in this scene. And here we meet Richard Johnson, a bluff, plummy actor who can do solemn without getting sepulchral. An actor friend of Fiona’s attests that Mr Johnson, who is still extant, greets old acquaintances with a loud cry of “Who’re you fucking?” It’s a lovely image.

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Johnson, as anthropologist Markway, is off on a ghost-hunting jaunt, and is forced to take Compton’s delinquent young nephew along — Russ Tamblyn, imported by Wise from WEST SIDE STORY. Tamblyn’s legendary physical prowess will come in handy on a couple of occasions: a very intelligent actor who thinks with his body.

Now comes the plunge into despair as we meet Eleanor (Julie Harris), the deeply unhappy protagonist who is the key element in this film that could not exist without Shirley Jackson’s imagination. In researching haunted houses, Jackson tells us that she discovered a book by some parapsychologists investigating an old house, and the accounts of spookiness they recorded were unmistakably, to her modern mind, the products of their own neuroses. Eleanor is Jackson’s tool for unleashing the horrors of Hill House — if we take this little behind-the-scenes tale at face value we have to accept that there are no ghosts, only the demons that haunt Eleanor, manifesting through her latent telekinesis.

Eleanor’s horrible home life is sketched in economically, but still feels unbelievably oppressive, which may be a result of all that damn internal monologuing she does. Not my favourite movie device, but it works well here, draping a curtain of gloom over the events and reminding us of the story’s interior nature.

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This movie always seems to get away with being shot in Britain, dragged up as America, rather lightly. The street scenes are less than fully convincing, and then the housekeepers, Valentine Dyall with his ludicrous attempt at a New England accent by way of Kentucky, and Rosalie Crutchley who’s just English. Hill House itself is English, and now a hotel, real name Ettrington Park (anybody stayed there?).

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Hill House — the exteriors are mainly shot on infra-red stock, so the sky is black and clouds are white, giving the whole image a strange feeling. As Jackson puts it ~

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity.

Wise’s chief tool to create an equivalent in images to Jackson’s anthropomorphism is his editing, and to facilitate the work of invocation he has furnished himself with many many angles. Wise was an editor (CAT PEOPLE and CITIZEN KANE of course, but also THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, our first Film Club film) before he was a director, and the trait that lifts his best work out of the journeyman class, it seems to me, is his mastery of visual rhythm. The gunshot at the end of WEST SIDE STORY is a great example. Here, although Eleanor’s VO cues a lot of the eerie sensations, it’s the multiple shots of watching windows and statuary that confirms to us her impression that the house is alive and maleficent.

Fiona points out that as soon as Eleanor enters, we see her reflected in the floorboards (a beautiful shot) and in a decaying mirror, “as if she’s already being absorbed into the house.”

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Theo! The last of our adventurers. Claire Bloom adds to the insistent Englishness of the thing, but her character is so enticingly exotic that her country of origin counts for naught. A mindreader AND a lesbian, as she keeps frantically signalling to us, Theo is not so much a telepath as an empath, like Persis Khambatta in Wise’s later plunge into turgidity, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. And she uses her powers for evil: what IS it with Theo? She’s constantly noising up poor Eleanor, then running after her to make friends. Needy bitch. It’s as if Gidding has decided that lesbians are inherently alien and nothing they do makes sense, so he can just have her blow hot and cold at random and call it characterisation. Bloom doesn’t seem to have any particular interpretation in mind, she just plays it dead casual and chic in her Mary Quant (pre-mini-skirt) costumes. One can’t help but enjoy her.

(At the wonderfully obsessive eleanor-lance.com, the theory is put forward that Theo has a crush on Eleanor, and so her bitchy reactions would be triggered any time she sees Eleanor getting too cosy with Markway. I guess I always discounted this because the chic Theo doesn’t have much cause to be enticed by this dowdy spinster type, but I suspect it’s the correct interpretation.)

The remainder of the film, now that we’re in situ, can be divided into set-pieces and pontification, held together by Eleanor’s slow decline into madness. Julie Harris is Hollywood’s idea of a plain jane, and she’s quite affecting. She has that pale mole along from the corner of her mouth that always looks like a teardrop. And she gets that terrifying line about sleeping on her side to wear her heart out quicker. If Gidding invented that then I forgive him everything and prostrate myself at his feet.

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Something at the door! A symphony of sound effects, and the starting-point for Polanski’s great REPULSION. I have a hard job choosing a favourite between the Wise and the Polanski, both of which seem heavily flawed in ways that don’t matter, and deeply great in ways that do.

Again, Wise covers the scene with a zillion angles, trying his damnedest to always pop out of a different door and surprise us, hardly ever repeating a  shot. His crew must have thought him crazy. If he was shooting this for Lewton he’d have to do it in about eight set-ups. Compared with anything in CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE or THE BODY SNATCHER, THE HAUNTING has big-movie gigantism alright, but the guiding intelligence is so shrewd that the lumber of epic bloat is dispelled: it’s a graceful colossus.

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“Whose hand was I holding?” Another great set-piece, with astonishing sound and the world’s most sinister wallpaper. What are the great wallpaper movies? Anybody want to try a Top Ten?

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Then Miss Moneypenny turns up. Lois Maxwell was one of these Americans who came to live in England and scooped up tons of work whenever an accent was required. Like William Sylvester in a skirt. Inserting a new character at this point, one whose existence has been established but not revealed to Eleanor, adds new energy, dashes Eleanor’s romantic dreams, and accelerates us into the climax, with Mrs Markway vanishing and Eleanor starting to act very strangely indeed. The balancing act required here is prodigious: if Eleanor goes utterly irrational, no amount of VO will help us stay with her, and if she stays rational, there’s no movie. And if the other characters become too distant and unsympathetic, that will hurt the plausibility, but they must seem a bit distant if we’re to feel Eleanor’s alienation. I think the movie manages this well.

The drama of the swaying spiral staircase is pretty tense, and I wonder if Wise has been looking at THE RED SHOES — those fast tracks of Julie Harris’ feet running, and the spiralling journey up the stairs… plus the idea of a heroine pulled along by forces beyond her control.

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Fiona is very anxious I should talk about THE SOUND. Uncredited electronics wiz Desmond Briscoe seems to be a key name here. A founder of the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Briscoe is no doubt responsible for the very odd resonant poundings, and maybe some of those other, less identifiable noises. I seriously dig the weird mumbling prayers, with their mis-stressed phrases, that perfectly catch the sense of hearing something without being able to hear it — a psychological phenomenon that’s very hard to reproduce in a movie soundtrack, where something is either audible or not. Interestingly, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, an inferior but nonetheless enjoyable spook-house melodrama which is majorly indebted to this one, features a score by Delia Derbyshire, another Radiophonic alumnus (who wove the electronic tonalities of the classic Dr Who theme tune).

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In cinema, which exploits only two of our five (or is it more?) senses, anything which is not visible must be audible — unless it’s implied by what happens when you’re not looking. In Hill House, where doors close unaided, but only when unobserved, the unseen presence is constantly evoked by the restless camera and the shifting of camera angles, which prevents us getting orientated. Apart from big features like staircases, we never have any sense of the shape of a room, and even size seems unreliable. While Alexander Mackendrick built a house for THE LADYKILLERS (scored by yet another Radiophonics man, Tristram Carey) without a single right angle or true vertical, Wise and his designers creates more a sense of vast space, populated by a bewildering variety of animate mirrors, statues, and pictures. Accelerating the pace of cutting when we least expect it, he keeps us on our toes by forcing us to reorient ourselves with each fresh angle. One shot, an ECU on the eye of a cooked fish (a pun on those warped lenses?) always throws me completely.

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The End. The idea of Eleanor joining the spirits in the house seems like a big influence on THE SHINING, while the other idea, that the house was not actually haunted until now, is bleaker. Rephrasing the VO from the beginning and giving it to Eleanor (making this another entry in the series of films, beginning with SUNSET BOULEVARD and continuing through THE SEVENTH CROSS to AMERICAN BEAUTY, to be narrated by the dead) is a lovely idea, although once again the screenplay fumbles the correct sense of things — “and we who walk here, walk alone.” The pluralisation makes nonsense of the aloneness. As Joel McCrea protests in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, “How can I be alone if you’re with me?”

Thugs with Ugly Mugs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 27, 2008 by dcairns

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Every private eye’s office should come equipped with a kookalorus to throw crazy shadows on the walls when the lights are dimmed. Standard equipment, along with the snap-brim fedora and raincoat.

My copy of THE BRASHER DOUBLOON turned out to be not exactly pristine. The 20th Century Fox logo looked like it had been filmed underwater, in murky conditions, which was a first, and the rest of the movie had a grubby, dirt-streaked quality as if I was watching it with dirty, dirty eyes.

“…Bunker Hill, which used to be the choice place to live in Los Angeles. Nowadays, people live there because they haven’t got any choice.”

It’s Philip Marlowe! Hello Phil. Phil’s looking a little different because he’s not Humphrey Bogart or even Dick Powell or James Garner or Robert Mitchum, he’s George Montgomery, handsome but not particularly characterful. But his private eye voice-over marks him out as Marlowe alright.

John Brahm, following in the footsteps of Edward Dmytryk’s FAREWELL MY LOVELY and Howard Hawks’ THE BIG SLEEP, does certain film noir things by the book, so Marlowe has a neon sign outside his office window, and a voice-over, and never manages to grab some shut-eye except when he’s sapped on the head, which is often. Also, someone is always pulling a gun on him and he’s always pulling a fast one on them. On the other hand, he smokes a pipe, which seems positively aberrant behaviour for a shamus.

“When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”  — Raymond Chandler.

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Brahm may not have the stars or the originality, but he has a vibrant compositional style, and a great eye for bit-part casting. Even the great, chunky and enervated Fritz Kortner pales alongside some of the rogues’s gallery he’s surrounded by here. I can think of few movies before Leone where the supporting bad guys and background schlubs have such grotesque and inspiring kissers. Maybe Fritz Lang’s M, and maybe some Sternberg. And Kurosawa — such care taken with minor creeps and losers in THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

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This fellow, with his straw boater and vaguely Mittel-European accent, is like a debauched ancestor of Polanski’s little bruiser in CHINATOWN. The sleepy eye is a winner. He’s an amazing physical actor too (who the devil is he???) — even his body language has a foreign accent.

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This raddled old coot actor rejoices in the name of Housely Stevenson. Houseley, there’s a name you don’t hear nearly often enough. Looking at his credits, I see he played the role of “Old Man” quite a bit. It’s good to have a speciality to fall back on.

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A face only a mother could love, and even then, only when viewing it through a welder’s helmet.

One could go on, but there is a fine line between appreciating a bit-part player and mocking the afflicted. I enjoyed Brahm’s film muchly (I read The High Window, the book it comes from, years ago), although viewed today, Marlowe’s eagerness to cure Nancy Guild of her phobia of being touched strikes me as a little more than professional. It’s the Dr. Louis Judd  method. The story comes off as more silly and contrived than I remember in the book, as does the whole movie, but “silly and contrived” is Brahm’s preferred mode — you don’t look to him for subtlety or depth. He’s Mr. Panache.

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Marlowe’s hit-on-the-head POV shot. Since this shot also appears in THE DEVILS, a Ken Russell comparison suddenly seems intriguing, except I think Mad Ken is more clever than Brahm, although he often pretends not to be.

Sound and Fury

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2008 by dcairns

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Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, filmed by Ken Hughes.

Yes! Ken Hughes films Philip Yordan’s Macbeth-as-an-Amurrican-gangster epic, in which lumpen Paul Douglas as the titular JOE MACBETH rises to the position of kingpin in a version of the New York mafia recreated on a small scale in England. The British version of America always seems like a cheap-ass solution, or at least it does when it’s obvious. Here we get reasonable but small sets, and a few obvious stock shots to broaden out the scope. What really gives it away is the cast.

Douglas and Ruth Roman (as Lily Macbeth) are the sort of affordable American stars who could be tempted over for a British film (Douglas had appeared in the minor classic THE MAGGIE a year earlier). The supporting cast is made up of a mixture of Americans abroad (Bonar Colleano, who’s very good here as a cheeky combo of Fleance and Macduff; beetle-browed Robert Arden of MR ARKADIN fame — both these guys appeared in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH) and those Brits who could muster a convincing yank accent. I’m inclined to think the following scene will be amusing to British movie fans:

After watching THE ATOMIC MAN, in which Charles Hawtrey intrudes like a music hall apparition, I’m beginning to suspect that Ken Hughes liked having Carry On film stars pop up and wreck his ambiance just for the hell of it.

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Also prominent in this scene is Ruth Roman. She does make a terrific Lady Mac, I take back anything bad I may have said about her. I think this kind of role maybe suits her better than the more tame parts I’ve seen her in. Her biggest problem is creating any kind of heat with the doughy Douglas, who’s good at freaking out, sweating and shaking his jowls as if he’s trying to physically detach them from his face and make them fly off and stick to the walls, but his baggy, Lon Chaney Jnr. appearance is a little unhelpful in more tender moments.

R.R. plays it fierce in the early scenes, and the snappy, snippy relationship reminds me of Douglas’ marriage in LETTER TO THREE WIVES. This is an unusual version of the play in that the Macbeths actually grow closer together. As a femme fatale, seducing her husband into murder, Roman, “the nicotine-stained goddess of the denim pantsuit” (here clad in revealing gowns) is very effective — Mrs. Mac uses sex as a weapon.

As one reared on Jon Finch in the Polanski version, I had trouble imagining how Douglas and Roman could have reached the age they’re at without previously showing the ferocious ambition that overtakes them. A straight rendering of the play would offer us a supernatural catalyst, whereas here, Roman’s fortune-telling friend is an insufficient motivation. Stripping the play of the uncanny does do it quite a bit of damage. Without the prophecies about Birnam Wood and “no man of woman born”, the climax loses it’s plot twists, although Yordan arguably improves on Shakespeare by bringing Macbeth and wife to their doom together.

The femme fatale scenes make me think that a straight noir approach would work better than a gangster one. For one thing, the underworld vibe is utterly generic, with Hughes concentrating his attention on creating a viable N.Y.C. in Pinewood or wherever, so that he has no opportunity to create the specific details that make a film like SCARFACE or THE PUBLIC ENEMY so memorable. And killing a kingpin lacks the moral outrage of killing a king: murder is a commonplace in Joe Macbeth’s world, so there’s a loss of dramatic force there too.

The best bits:

1) A distant bell tolls each time a kingpin dies. When Douglas has offed his boss (Gregoire Aslan, a surprisingly gallic mafiosa), the bell is accompanied by shrieking birds, and the killer’s moral torment is reminiscent of Sydney Chaplin’s downfall in Hughes’ CONFESSION.

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2) A completely unShakespearean character, Big Dutch, an oyster-munching vulgarian played by Harry Green, who has no reason to be in the film really, but frees everyone from the need to do a paint-by-numbers Shakespeare-goes-gangster movie. His grotesque, slobbering scenes are weirdly pointless but hypnotically repellent, focusing on the act of EATING to the exclusion of all else. “What an attractive man,” remarked Fiona, dryly. Accompanied by his food taster and two weird-looking blond girlfriends, Green’s ebullient schtick is almost Lynchian in its unashamed status as gratuitous cameo grotesque. Slurp!

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3) Bonar Colleano’s reaction to the death of his family. This always seems a near-impossible scene to play. How do you act a thing like that? Hughes holds on the speaker’s face for ages, with Colleano’s suffering hidden except as mirrored in the guy’s reactions. Then he does cut to B.C. and holds on him for ages too. And Colleano pulls it off. This guy got plenty of work as a stock American in the U.K. but either got stuck with some Brit screenwriter’s idea of what a yank should be, or played nationality-neutral roles (as in the fine DANCE HALL) where his American accent raised unanswerable questions. A shame.

4) Angus (Walter Crisham). A problematic role in the play. If memory serves, Polanski and Tynan made him a traitor, just to give him something to do. Ken Campbell speculated that the seemingly pointless role was just an opportunity for Shakespeare to do a walk-on (“Cos he always liked to be in ‘is own stuff, like Hitchcock,”). Here he’s the butler at the mansion house which passes from one kingpin to another, and his willingness to serve whomever’s in charge, coupled with his revealing just how often the place changes hands, is a nice warning of how short Macbeth’s reign will be.

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Mac.