Archive for Robert Florey

The Batman

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2015 by dcairns

The Batman from David Cairns on Vimeo.

This is from the Robert Florey-directed THE PREVIEW MURDER MYSTERY (1936). At a certain point in the story, we get glimpses of different movies being shot on different stages of a studio which is being targeted by a murderer/terrorist, who turns out to be… well, I won’t spoil it. But we get to see Hank Mann and Snub Pollard as clowns doing crosstalk patter instead of the slapstick they were famed for (Mann plays the drunken millionaire in CITY LIGHTS, among many other roles through a long career beginning at Keystone), but much more interestingly we witness the shooting of an expressionist horror movie, featuring a character called The Batman. He wears a dark cape and is accompanied by a grotesque figure with a painted grin.

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THE BAT WHISPERS

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THE MAN WHO LAUGHS

This is all very interesting as the DC Comics Batman (known as THE Batman in his early appearances) didn’t make his first appearance until 1939. Creators Bill Finger & Bob Kane always credited the movies, though they mentioned THE BAT WHISPERS (1930) and THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928). And indeed, the Bat and Gwynplaine look a lot more like the comic book characters than these doofuses, with the quaint twist that the Bat was a villain and Gwynplaine a hero, rather than the other way around.

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I’m also slightly amused that The Batman in Florey’s film looks so much like Brandon Lee in THE CROW, a much later descendant of the costumed crime fighter.

Florey, of course, directed for-real horror movie MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and *nearly* got to do FRANKENSTEIN, but for me the more relevant credits are his early shorts, THE LOVE OF ZERO and THE LIFE AND DEATH OF 9413, A HOLLYWOOD EXTRA. Both are made in a Caligariesque kind of cardboard expressionism, and the latter is even a behind-the-screen story of moviemaking like THE PREVIEW MURDER MYSTERY.

As for the actors — the screen’s first Batman turns out to have been German character player Henry Brandon, best known for playing Scar in THE SEARCHERS. IMDb refers to his sidekick as “the gnome,” and the actor is my hero, John George, from TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS. A dynamic duo by anybody’s standards!

Five Little Dancing Fingers

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2014 by dcairns

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Getting in the mood for Halloween. It had been years since I saw THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS — I remembered it being slightly disappointing, and Fiona didn’t remember it at all. The heart sinks slightly at Curt Siodmak’s script credit, yet his scenario isn’t in any way laughable. It does have dull stretches, though. Director Robert Florey seems to come awake in fits, thrusting wildly canted angles or serried rows of faces at us, then falling back into soporific busywork. But from the time of the first death, the good scenes start to slowly outnumber the dull ones, and there’s always Peter Lorre…

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It’s surprisingly brutal for its time, with the severed hand scuttling about like it owns the place, flashing its stump brazenly. There’s a wet, meaty back view complete with wrist bones, apparently painted trompe-l’oeil fashion on the hand actor’s wrist, while the rest of his arm is blacked out. Apart from the various stranglings, it’s the hand who suffers most of the violence, crucified and burned by the neurasthenic Lorre (playing a character called Hillary, a mild-mannered name that doesn’t seem to quite suit him).

The source novel surely owes a debt to Guy de Maupassant’s short story The Hand, which likewise plays with the idea of a disembodied hand strangling victims from beyond the grave, only to offer a not-quite-reassuring rational explanation. But we can go further back and credit the inspiration to Algernon Swinburne — when Maupassant saved the poet from drowning, he rewarded his rescuer with an ashtray made from a human hand. As you do. I have to presume that the young writer, sat at his desk, Gauloise in hand, casting around for inspiration, seized upon the first interesting thing to catch his eye. A good thing for French literature he didn’t alight upon his waste-paper basket made from a human arse, or his paperweight made from a fossilised spleen. In fact, Maupassant’s study was decorated with the disassembled parts of an entire human being, gifted to him by Swinburne. Possibly they were the parts of Swinburne himself. But astute readers will have realized I stopped telling the truth here some time ago, though they may be surprised to learn how late in the paragraph the fantasy takes over.

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A very good bit — Lorre hears scuttling, and the previous astrology books on his shelves start to nudge outwards in a creeping series — the hand is crawling behind them! Swiping the volumes to the floor, Lorre searches out the stray extremity, and Florey tracks along INSIDE the bookshelf, behind the books, until the wriggling thing is discovered, cornered, and Lorre smiles with genuine pleasure at catching it. He then hammers a nail through it, seals it in the safe, and reports to Robert Alda, “I locked it up.” But Fiona misheard this, owing to Lorre’s thick accent, as “I looked it up,” and imagined that he had somehow tracked it down on the bookshelf under H for Hand, or possibly B for Beast. It’s a nice idea — why has there not been a remake to exploit this possibility? One thinks, of course, of the very good “A Farewell to Arms” gag in EVIL DEAD II…

The Verdoux Defence

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 2, 2013 by dcairns

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“I’m as pragmatic as a soldier or a politician […] You don’t see any regret from Tony Blair, in fact he’s making a fortune from his war crimes.”

So, 60s serial killer Ian Brady is in court (or anyhow a mental health tribunal), trying to get moved from a secure psychiatric hospital to an ordinary prison. And he describes his actions (torturing and murdering several children) as “petty crime,” and points to Tony Blair as the true criminal, since the politician’s actions have caused, at a minimum, tens of thousands of deaths.

“I’m a comparative petty criminal to global serial killers like Blair and Bush.”

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This, of course, is the same argument used by Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux in the film of that title to justify his career murdering widows for their money. “One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero. Numbers sanctify…”

(The real Bluebeard, Henri-Desire Landru, used his trial as a public forum to prove himself smarter than his prosecutors, rather as Brady is doing. I.B. has referred to his apparent insanity as “a Stanislavskian performance,” explaining the term in detail in case they’re not familiar with it.)

“It’s all about identifying with the heart and soul of the character or symptoms you are trying to portray.”

Brady may be a psychopath rather than insane, just like Landru and maybe Verdoux. But Chaplin keeps the murders offscreen, never allows Verdoux to kill anyone likable (even monstrous lottery-winner Martha Raye is spared, and rightly so), and shows Verdoux being merciful, as well as being kind to animals, children, and his disabled wife. Chaplin’s homicidal tendencies are a plot device and a philosophical conceit rather than a true condition, which is fine for a work of fiction. (But how do Verdoux’s wife and son end up dead? The only solution barring a messy and random act of God would be for Verdoux to euthanize them when he can no longer afford their upkeep, but I’m far from convinced this is the intended inference. I guess Chaplin simply eliminated from the plot rather than have them around to confuse things at the end.)

“‘I’m not interested in being analysed. Some of the psychiatrists I have encountered, I would throw a net on them. I wouldn’t allow them on to the street. They are worse than patients.”

What do we think of the Verdoux/Brady defence? Tony Blair is undoubtedly a safer person to leave your kids with (though maybe not your much younger wife) than any serial killer, but is responsible for far more suffering. And he’s unquestionably a criminal — leading a country to war under false pretenses is seriously treasonous. Any intelligent defence would have to argue that Blair didn’t know he was lying, such was his almost religious faith in his own infallibility. It could further argue that Blair honestly believed his actions were for the best, but that would still make him guilty if he consciously lied about the evidence for war. I think Blair’s own, divinely-inspired personality disorder might just be extreme enough for him to swear that there was incontrovertible evidence of WMD in Iraq, confident that the facts would turn out to support his lies. How could God allow it to happen any other way?

“Most people don’t recognise the fact that Britain is a psychopathic country. It’s been invading countries for the last 300 years.”

When I interviewed Mike Hodges, he made the same point about Blair’s lack of remorse — Blair said he felt nothing about the deaths in Iraq. Blair later said he was forced to take that stance because the papers would have leapt on it if he had expressed remorse or doubt. Which suggests he’s saying he actually lied to the Chilcot Inquiry.

“Most prisoners are perfectly mentally healthy compared with the paranoia of prison officials.”

Anyway, we watched MONSIEUR VERDOUX again. Uneven in places, but worth it for the moments when Chaplin drops the charm and stands unmasked and Satanic.

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The hasty dissolve from Chaplin’s sinister grin here puts me in mind of the cross-fade from Norman Bates to his mother’s smile…

Does anybody know the precise nature of Robert Florey’s contribution to this one? He’s billed as “Associate Director” along with Wheeler Dryden (a bit-part actor who was also AD on THE GREAT DICTATOR). This job title has no standard meaning, so I’m curious, as Chaplin wasn’t anxious to share credit and seems not to have used a co-director behind the camera like Keaton, probably relying on cameraman Rollie Totheroh and the luxury of viewing his rushes and reshooting anything which didn’t please him.

“Why are we still talking about Jack the Ripper over a century on? Because of the dramatic background: the fog, the cobbled streets … it fascinates them. With the Moors it’s the same: Wuthering Heights, Hound of the Baskervilles, that sort of thing.”

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