Archive for Renee Houston

Duet for harpsichord and bongos

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2009 by dcairns

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When graphic designers go odd…

So, a puzzled Keir Dullea, surrounded by antique-style furniture, turns around and sees himself as an old man. What film are we watching?

Award yourself 10 points if you answered “2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY”, and eleventy million points if you added “or DESADE.” Since DESADE is a film about a man trapped in an infinite time loop, the sense of deja vu Dullea must have experienced from his work as astronaut Dave Bowman may have helped him get into character.

Donatien Alphonse, Marquis de Sade, embodied by Dullea, is on his death bed, adrift in visions from his past life (it doesn’t so much flash before his eyes as trundle) in this late work from blacklistee and ZULU helmer Cy Endfield, produced by AIP. One wonders what must have gone wrong with Endfield’s career to bring him to this point — and thence to the horrors of UNIVERSAL SOLDIER? After 1965′s SANDS OF THE KALAHARI, he didn’t work for four years, and when he did…

…he got a project already rejected by Roger Corman. Corman told his bosses at AIP that this movie wouldn’t work, since the censors would let them show what they needed to show in order to make a respectable life of Sade. He also voiced concerns with their choice of replacement — there was some doubt that Endfield would be able to bring himself to include the exploitation elements the film needed in the marketplace. The whole thing was a balancing act between the censors and the box office. Endfield faithfully promised to shoot a spicy yarn, but seemingly chickened out when it came to the crunch, so Corman was roped in to shoot some extra skin.

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How we laughed. Pouring hot wax on prostitutes — I guess you had to be there.

You can pretty much identify the Corman interpolations: he shoots the orgies in slow motion through a thick red filter, just like Hazel Court’s satanic rite in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH. It pretty well robs the scenes of erotic potential, since we lose the flesh tones, and gain only the opportunity to observe jiggling cellulite at 100 fps. Also, everybody’s laughing in Dullea’s orgies. The relationship between sex and humour is a complex one, but generally speaking, if you’re throwing an orgy (does one throw orgies? Or organize them, like posses?) and the “guests” or “participants” or “fuckers” or whatever you call them, are in a constant state of hysteria, is anything going to get done? Is anyone going to get done?

Leaving aside the sex, we have the story, at least in theory. It’s a kind of biography-by-hallucination, comparable to Raoul Ruiz’s more recent KLIMT, only written by Richard Matheson. I admire Matheson’s work, and his contribution to cinema is as fine as his contribution to genre fiction, but I have to admit his bad-guy dialogue is inclined to the fruity. He really needs Vincent Price to get away with some of these lines. A few years later, acting in a TV version of Huxley’s Brave New World, Dullea would display the camp chops necessary to pull off a Vincent, but here he lacks full confidence in his flounce and pout, so it’s left to older hams to relish the rich flow of Matheson’s verbiage.

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Darling Lilli — still porcelain-perfect, but huge black eyes like mouseholes.

Lilli Palmer is in fine fettle as Sade’s mother-in-law (and WHAT a mother-in-law!), and John Huston has disruptive fun with the part of Sade’s wicked uncle, the Abbé. He even plays his first scene with some kind of stage Oirish accent, just because he’s John Huston and nobody can stop him. He also gets the most disturbing scene, the primal scene, if you will, where Sade as a boy spies on his uncle molesting a maid, and then gets caught and punished. The future arch-pervert’s young mind forms a lasting association between sex, cruelty and voyeurism. It’s all very dollar-book Freud, but it’s passable as motivation, and the sequence is genuinely distressing. I’m not sure you could even film it nowadays.

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Eyes Wide Crossed.

Complicating the psychodrama is his love for his sister-in-law. He’s forced to wed plain-jane Anna Massey (in the middle film of her sadeian trilogy, sandwiched between PEEPING TOM and FRENZY) despite being hopelessly in love with glamourpuss Senta Berger. This embitters him and sets him on his path of sexual turpitude, if turpitude is the word for it.

vlcsnap-854234Senta’s little helper.

Matheson may have a simplistic but clear angle on Sade’s psychosexual upset, but he’s forced to short-change us on Sade the philosopher. The do-what-thou-wilt catechisms we associate with Sade’s books are here either ignored, in order to present us with Sade the lovelorn drip, or they’re given to the Abbé, the real villain of the piece. This rather falsifies the story, and is the aspect of the film the Divine Marquis would no doubt have despised the most. In fact, Sade’s writing barely gets a look in.

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“Ooh, I could crush a grape…”

Paul Schrader observed, when he was making Mishima, that the only way to film a writer’s life was by dramatizing his stories. With a composer, you play the music; with a painter, you show the work; but a novelist is unique since you have to actually adapt their art into a whole new medium just to give some (unavoidably falsified) idea of what they do. I’d be interested in a radical solution to this problem that involved lengthy recitations, but I can’t think of one of hand. All I can think of is films that dramatize the work (MISHIMA, DREAMCHILD, GOTHIC) or films that don’t, and fail (IRIS). And oh yes, a third category, which DESADE falls into –

– along with Cronenberg’s NAKED LUNCH — the films which create a phantasmagoria, the life of the artist merged with their work, or filtered through their style. That’s what Matheson has tried to write, but he’s unable to get to grips with Sade’s pornographic side, and unwilling to get to grips with his world-view (which is arguably even more unpleasant). But at least it gives him an unusual style and structure. Increasingly the film plays like the last act of Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL, with reality and fantasy cascading together in an avalanche of dream.

How do you solve a problem like the Marquis? I confess I haven’t seen MARQUIS, in which the naughty nobleman’s life is enacted by puppets designed by renaissance man Roland Topor, with the Marquis’s most satisfying relationship being with his talking penis, but that sounds like the most realistic version conceivable. Nor have I seen Peter Brook’s film of his stage success, THE MARAT/SADE. I have scant regard for Brook as a filmmaker, but that might be at least a bit interesting. Saw the play once. It was a bit interesting. Philip Kaufman’s QUILLS falls flat because again, it’s reluctant to admit how nasty Sade’s fantasies were: when it tries to do so, the film’s rather jovial tone disintegrates, which would be fine if it were an intentional effect, but it doesn’t seem to be. Pasolini’s SALO is still the most unadulterated, apocalyptic version of Sade put on screen, and that was promptly banned in nearly every country on Earth. I believe it was legal to screen it on the Moon, but the film came out three years after the last manned flight there. I’m not sure astronaut Eugene A. Cernan has seen the film to this day.

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Their royal lownesses, the King and Queen of Lilliput.

Returning to the Endfield: he directs it with some pictorial flair (although my MGM DVD seems to cut things off at the top), aided by decorous locations, but there’s sometimes a lack of good sense in his shooting: after showing the newly married Dullea and Massey advancing between two lines of people, he cuts to a reverse angle, seemingly a POV, but shot from knee-height as if the protagonists had been abruptly munchkinated. He’s also inclined to masturbate the zoom lens a bit.

Somehow, the film is still a decent watch, maybe because it has enough bad taste  to compensate for its lack of bad taste. It’s not offensive as porn or very upsetting as drama (apart from that one scene), but it’s decorated with enough lapses of common sense to make it amusing. The opening credits, in which Sade is envisioned as a ball-playing winged fish, are ludicrously abstract, and the music by the wonderfully-named Billy Strange chooses to equate decadence with modernity, so that the faux-18th century chamber music segues into bongo jazz or wah-wah guitar whenever anything juicy threatens to happen. Like most bad decisions in films scoring, this approach has a perfectly sound reason behind it: it’s just that it doesn’t work. I expect Michael Mann to try something similar any day now.

Here’s some more sado-erotic action with Lilli Palmer, thirty years earlier in Carol Reed’s pre-make of SHOWGIRLS, enticingly entitled A GIRL MUST LIVE. Lilli’s Scottish opponent is the great Renee Houston.

The Mummy’s Curse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2008 by dcairns

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“Bloomin’ Ada!” as my Mum would say. I have been tagged with a meme, using the parlance of our times. Next thing you know I’ll be participating in flash mobs and Anne Summers parties and other symptoms of this age we live in. I have been tagged by the Self-Styled Siren, who runs my favourite blog on classical Hollywood cinema (and occasional other subjects too) so I guess that means I have to comply. The meme (I’m not explaining that one: go pound on Professor Richard Dawkins’s door) requires me to list twenty actresses, and originated here. The idea is that they should be your twenty favourites — the Siren wisely narrowed that to twenty actresses whose mere presence in a film would be enough to make her watch it, and she’s hinted that she expects “classic choices”, so I’m guessing that tends to eliminate Little Nell, Daisy and Violet Hilton, Buck Angel or even Maria Montez. As well as this woman.

But I still feel  the need to whittle further, both to avoid repeating the Siren’s excellent list (I’ve just started on the THIN MAN films, and Myrna Loy is much on my mind), and to impart a unique something-or-other to the proceedings. I note that most of the actresses being selected are extremely beautiful, and since if I were to choose twenty actors, they might include numerous fellows I don’t actually admire physically, I thought it would be interesting to choose twenty actresses who… how shall I put this? Must find a classy and gentlemanly way of saying it.

Twenty actresses whom I would always be glad to see in a film, although I have no real desire to “do” them.

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1) Margaret Rutherford. I’m appalled to realise that I’ve had THE BEST DAYS OF YOUR LIFE for over a month now without watching it, and after spending ages trying to source a copy. Rutherford, who George Harrison, back in his Beatles heyday, would choose if challenged to name a favourite actress, had a face rather like a very old man’s neck, but was both a dexterous eccentric comedian and a powerful tragedian, as witness her speech at the end of Orson Welles’s CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT. She exemplifies what I’m talking about here, since sexuality didn’t really play much of a role in her art or life: apparently she and her husband both referred to lists of instructions — crib sheets –  to see them through their honeymoon night, so ignorant were they of matters erotic.

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2) Agnes Moorehead. Not so sure here, since I never bought the idea that Agnes was ugly, and the warmth and admiration I feel for her is akin to romantic love, so maybe, under the right circumstances… but sexiness wasn’t part of her screen repertoire, which included all kinds of genius qualities, including the ability to throw hysterical attacks so convincing that terrified studio execs demanded retakes on both MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES, to make her less effective. (It might seem perverse for studios to demand such a thing, but I suspect studio interference is nearly ALWAYS based on a desire to make films less effective.)

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3) Margaret Hamilton. A very different actress, but with a parallel to Moorehead in that both were typecast as spinsters and crones at an age when they could have been playing ingenues, had nature arranged things differently. The Wicked Witch isn’t in enough films, but over the decades she did enough obscure work that her appearances are often a surprise, as in the Sean Connery heist film THE ANDERSON TAPES. I always get very excited whenever she turns up, like a small child experiencing his first mouthful of cocaine.

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4) Una O’Connor. Usually delivered in small doses, which was probably wise — her shrieking performances in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN might conceivably appear irritating if overextended. (You think?) But I just saw Renoir’s astounding THIS LAND IS MINE, where she keeps an impressive lid on it for most of the show, only allowing those deadly lungs free rein at one key moment.

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5) Spring Byington. Utterly fabulous actress, often excelling in warm-hearted, matronly roles, but check out her bone-chilling nastiness in DRAGONWYCK, which I maintain she steals from under everyone else’s noses. The point where her character is inexplicably forgotten about by the plot is the point where the movie loses interest for me, even as a tired rehash of REBECCA.

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6) Speaking of that film, Mrs. Danvers herself (strangely impossible to picture MR. Danvers, I find), Dame Judith Anderson, deserves a mention. Often called upon to inject menace or else matriarchal might, she turns her hand ably to comedy in René Clair’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.

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7) I’m on shaky ground again with Ethel Waters, because I do think she’s beautiful, and always appealing, warm and engaging (in contrast to her knife-wielding offscreen behaviour!), and I wouldn’t like to think I’m shoving her into some character actor Siberia just because she’s heavy. But CABIN IN THE SKY allows ample opportunity to compare and contrast her with Lena Horne, and then certain subjective truths become inescapable. My love of Ethel is entirely platonic. My love of Lena is entirely otherwise.

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8) Irene Handl. When you have a figure as beloved in old age as Irene Handl, once in a while you get the urge to see what she was like when young. But with Irene Handle, youth appears to have been a condition she never experienced. A brilliant eccentric player, she forged an unlikely career, given her unusual appearance, but she always made an impression, even in the smallest role, because she was incapable of leaving a part without fully investing it with life. So she could quite often make more impact in thirty seconds than the stars did with the rest of the film.

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9) Kathleen Freeman. You know this one? Always saying “He’s such a nice boy,” in Jerry Lewis movies. Lewis is generally brilliant at casting his supporting players, and he knew he was onto a great thing with Freeman.

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10) Dandy Nichols. Able to effortlessly take the manners and mores of social realism, 1960s style, and flip them into farce. Has a great moment in THE BED-SITTING ROOM, looking uncomfortable on a horse. That should be enough for anyone.

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11) Katie Johnson. She’s in other films, but it’s for THE LADYKILLERS she’s remembered. So old and frail at the time that she failed the insurance exam and had to be replaced with a younger actress, who promptly dropped dead, so Katie got the part in the end, and a good thing too. Her combination of physical fragility and steely moral certainty is exactly what the film needs.

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12) Flora Robson. I saw her interviewed on TV when I was a kid and she was pretty old, and the interviewer kindly said that she had grown more beautiful with age, while the glamour girls could only fade. It’s kind of true, but what an amazing career she had with her big Rondo Hatton face — it no doubt kept her from many parts, but she was able to command some corkers. And actually, her flirtation with Errol Flynn in THE SEA HAWK is entirely charming and credible.

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13) Marie Dressler. DINNER AT EIGHT is actually kind of a yawn for me, but I do love her spectacular double-take when Jean Harlow says she’s been reading a book. Anybody who does a gigantic double take is tops with me.

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14) Thelma Ritter. Her presence here at number 14 makes it VERY clear, I hope, that this list is in no particular order.

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15) Esther Howard. A little obscure here? But SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS fans will know her as the randy widow Joel McCrea flees, jumping out the widow’s window rather that submitting to her wiles. Which is to say, sexuality is a part of the Howard repertoire, but it’s a comedy version, and what’s most important about her is her overbearing “charm”, deployed to very funny effect in HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and about a hundred and fifty other films and TV shows. I’ll even add one not listed among her credits on the IMDb: WHAT A WAY TO GO!

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16) Megs Jenkins. One of my favourite larger ladies in British films, as seen in GREEN FOR DANGER and THE INNOCENTS. Her appearance is sort of Kathy Bates-like, but she has an incredibly beautiful and unusual voice, and I feel all warm and snuggly whenever I hear it. I would probably trade one of my less necessary limbs in exchange for about 1000 hours of Megs reading audio-books.

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17) Renee Houston. Had to have one Great Scot on the list. Renee was very pretty in the ’30s, but wasn’t making any films I’ve seen, so I know her from her later roles as battle-axes, drunken baggages and generally rambunctious females. She generally inspires a loud cheer in my household when her name appears in the credits, as it does in TIME WITHOUT PITY.

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18) The alarming Gail Sondergaard. I have no excuse for it, but I actually like her dragon lady yellowface stereotype turn in THE LETTER. And she’s terrifying in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, without seeming to try.

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19) Patricia Collinge. Cinema’s greatest mum, apart from mine, that is, who can be seen briefly from the back in extreme longshot in my short film CRY FOR BOBO, and who recently complained that I’d made her look dumpy or something.

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20) Aline McMahon, but then actually I do think she’s extremely beautiful and under the right circumstances, if I were a younger man, etc…

And twenty who do fill me with indecent cravings:

Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Annabella, Joan Blondell, Myrna Loy, Olivia DeHavilland, Paulette Goddard, Veronica Lake, Ava Gardner, Joan Greenwood, Gene Tierney, Natalie Wood, Claudia Cardinale, Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik, Britt Ekland if I’m honest, Susannah York (I’m coming to believe she makes an even better Julie Christie than Julie Christie), Jeanne Moreau, Genevieve Bujold, Maggie Cheung, Charlize Theron… I could go on…

Tick Tock

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2008 by dcairns

TIME WITHOUT PITY continues my exploration of the work of Joseph Losey – pith helmet on, machete in hand.

The plot — Michael Redgrave is an alcoholic novelist newly emerged from a sanatorium to discover his son convicted of murder and due to be executed. Armed only with an unshakable faith in his boy’s innocence, Redgrave attempts to redeem his dissolute life and failed parenthood by finding some “tangible evidence” to save the son from execution.

The script is faintly derived from Emlyn Williams’ play Someone Waiting, but screenwriter Ben Barzman  (a fellow blacklistee of Losey) has completely exploded the plot and reassembled it in a radical new shape: Williams’ play takes place entirely AFTER the son’s execution. Despite completely remodelling the narrative trajectory, Barzman retains most of Williams’ characters, and some of the clues by which the murder is cunningly solved, including a very unusual alibi.

The film boldly begins by revealing the true killer, in a starkly lit murder scene that certainly catches the attention, with Tristram Carey’s clamorous score blasting at us, swaying lights and looming shadows, a sexy victim, and the bulbous form of Leo “Number Two” McKern. Nevertheless, I felt it may have been a mistake to discard any mystery at this early point. It’s true that Leo McKern turning out to be the killer would be unlikely to surprise anyone, but perhaps a solution might have been to recast the part with someone softer and rewrite the character to make him less of a shouty caricature of capitalist vulgarity. Without someone as blazingly guilty as McKern, naturally shifty performers like Paul Daneman and Ann Todd would have moved into prime suspect mode. But then we wouldn’t have McKern, which would be kind of a shame.

As Redgrave begins to investigate, Losey lets rips with some mirror-maze visuals and allows us to see just how pathetic a figure the hero is. This really works. Not only is the man faced with a horrific deadline (like THE BIG NIGHT, this film compresses its narrative into a tight frame), but he’s hopelessly ill-equipped, both physically and psychologically, to tackle the task in hand. All he has going for him is utter desperation.

Redgrave is the perfect man for the job — in his youth, the kind of light comedian Britain abounded in, as demonstrated in Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES, by middle age Redgrave was our finest neurotic, able to make weakness of any kind both sympathetic and compelling. He’s perfectly fitted to this role, and makes one wish the film were about, say, 15% better to bring it up to his superb level. 

Guest stars! Peter Cushing as an expository plot function; Joan Plowright as a showgirl (!); Renee Houston as a drunken Scotswoman surrounded by clocks. Houston, a recent discovery of ours, brings a welcome touch of music hall grotesquerie to any film. Here she’s in full harridan mode, with Bride of Frankenstein hair, but brings enough nuance to her role to justify the excessive symbolism of her cacophonously ticking, ringing and chiming flat. Hefting a clock, she slurs:

“One of the little pleasures in life, Mr. Gage, I can now give myself: just to hear it ring, and know you don’t have to go anywhere.”

Good scenes like the above, and each of Redgrave’s painful visits to his son (each starting with calm and reconciliation, degenerating into despair and recrimination, driving home more fully each time what a failure our hero is), are somewhat let down by bad ones. A visit to the offices of an MP campaigning against the death penalty allows for some dramatically redundant and boring speechifying, delivering points which should be illustrated dramatically by the plot. (But is that a frivolous Dirk Bogarde cameo, or just some cut-price Dirkalike?)

Losey’s artsier moments are enjoyable, but his more restrained ones are excellent too. Tracking from a wide shot into an over-the-shoulder, moving his actors out of frame to have them rediscovered by the camera seconds later, he choreographs the film with economy and elegance, with impactful cutting and subtly emphatic framing. British producers hoping for a bit of Hollywood dynamism from their blacklisted Americans got their money’s worth from Losey.

Not to spoil the end, but of course Redgrave must stake his own life to save his son’s — here there’s evidence of censorship and mucking about, with unlikely carelessness with guns and lip-flap from a major character, who presumably said something politically or morally questionable (the more you look at censorship practice the more it always seems to have a political point to limit thought). But the main thrust of the conclusion is excellent, even if the details are weakened — it confirms Lars Von Trier’s verdict on capital punishment: a very bad thing, but excellent for drama.

(But before you ask — I LOATHE Von Trier’s DANCER IN THE DARK.)

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