Archive for Robert Florey

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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Pre-code Love

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2012 by dcairns

My scavenging through the archives to find films for my Forgotten Pre-Code season at The Daily Notebook naturally threw up some interesting entries that didn’t make the final cut — here are some thoughts.

THE GIRL IN 419 (1933)

This medical/crime thriller was one of the best things I saw, but arrived too late to be prominently featured. Thanks to La Faustin for the disc. Dr James Dunn refuses to let patient Gloria Stuart die — “She’s too beautiful!” and falls in love with her while she’s still comatose. You’ve seen her act, there’s really no point waiting. If the central love interest is a trifle anemic, the comedy relief from Vince Barnett and the villainy from William Harrigan and Jack LaRue more than compensate. La Rue gets a spectacular death scene, after shooting everyone in sight. One survivor is David Manners, whose slightly bland demeanor is brilliantly exploited by the script’s final moments. Although this is a Paramount Picture, the social microcosm and throwaway black humour is reminiscent of the best Warners capers. Jules Furthman wrote the story, no doubt laying down the creepy, sick tone — he was Sternberg’s go-to-guy for scriptwork at this point, and the medical gallows humour here parallels the death row skittishness in Sternberg’s THUNDERBOLT.

DOWN TO THEIR LAST YACHT (1934)

~ is even weirder than it sounds. It starts out with a family of millionaires, busted by the Crash, reluctantly agreeing to sail a bunch of horrid nouveau riche types around on the titular last yacht. Shipwrecked on an uncharted island, they fall under the thrall, if “thrall” is the word I want, of Mary Boland, an insane dowager who’s declared herself Queen of the native population. The plot disintegrates before our eyes, nobody seems to know who or what the film is about, but every so often there’ll be a sideways snarl from Ned Sparks or a bit of fey haplessness from Sterling Holloway. A fever dream.

THE WITCHING HOUR (1934)

This is the earliest Henry Hathaway job I’ve seen. It’s a slightly stagey mystery/drama/thingy with telepathy, hypnosis and a ghost thrown in. Best thing in it is Sir Guy Standing, who previously I’ve mocked because I find his name funny, but he’s wonderfully natural for a theatrical knight. (ERROR — I am confusing Standing with John Halliday, who looks a touch similar and gives the best perf in this) I guess he never made a canonically recognized great film, although LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER was rumoured to be Hitler’s fave.

Sir Guy John Halliday plays the owner of a gambling house who can always anticipate raids due to his mysterious sixth sense. One evening he hypnotizes his prospective son-in-law, as you do, to cure him of a phobia pertaining to cat’s-eye rings. Unfortunately, he unconsciously implants a post-hypnotic suggestion to kill Halliday’s enemy, which the obliging youngster does. Much of the plot turns on the quest to find a lawyer eccentric enough to take on this case — while one can appreciate the difficulty of such a chore, it’s just about the least interesting tack the drama could have taken. Hathaway directs with somewhat bloodless efficiency, but with some nice low angles.

THEY LEARNED ABOUT WOMEN (1930)

Vaudevillians Gus Van and Joe Schenk lack screen chemistry, but Bessie Love plays her ukulele nicely, and you know how I love a good uke. Interesting to trace Love’s progress from Hollywood starlet to character actress in Britain (THE RITZ, REDS, THE HUNGER). And no, that wasn’t her real name (it was Juanita Horton).

THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET (1933)

Oddly structured but affecting, with Kay Francis suffering and Ricardo Cortez dependably oleaginous. Robert Florey merits more love: he made a slew of great pre-codes, some decent 40s films, and some excellent TV episodes (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits). Pair him up with John Brahm as a pro with expressionist chops. It all dates back to THE LOVE OF ZERO in 1927, with cardboard designs by William Cameron Menzies. Nothing as baroque here, but Florey was in synch with the pre-code era, for sure.

UP THE RIVER (1930)

Early John Ford, but really it’s primo Maurine Dallas Watkins, the snappy women-in-prison stuff being the highlight. This is also Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart’s only movie together (it’s a co-ed prison), but Bogart isn’t really Bogart yet — the rather preppie young fellow can act a bit, but doesn’t compel attention. Tracy is in his loutish, disorderly, proletarian Irishman mode, much better value than his stolid paterfamilias trudging later on. The surviving print is incomplete, with some missing scenes and some scenes spliced into blipverts by absent frames. This adds a not-unpleasant, but quite unintended William Burroughs feel to the jaunty hi-jinks.

BIG CITY BLUES (1932)

Mervyn LeRoy, in his most insanely prolific phase, presides over this little beauty. Eric Linden is the naive goof trying to make his way in New York, Walter Catlett is his rip-off artist distant relative taking him for a ride. The mood darkens when an uncredited Lyle Talbot and Bogie crash the party. Bogie gives us a news bulletin –

I enjoyed this so much I forgot to even notice the solution to the whodunnit part. Most of the film is Linden and la Blondell, typically soulful. Grant Mitchell bookends it with a nice turn as station agent, commenting on our hero’s prospects, or lack thereof, in the big smoke.

MIDNIGHT CLUB (1933)

When Billy Wilder pitched DOUBLE INDEMNITY to George Raft, what the actor wanted to know was “When do I flip my lapel and show her the badge?” He assumed his character, outwardly a stinker, must turn out to be an undercover cop. Well, MIDNIGHT CLUB is the origin of that misconception, with Raft flipping his lapel for fire-and-ice Helen Vinson. This diverts the film from its weird starting point, in which heist team Vinson, Clive Brook and Alan Mowbray operate under the noses of the law by hiring lookalikes to impersonate them at the titular club, providing a foolproof alibi. These unruly doppelgangers threaten to develop into some kind of storyline, but never do. Hall & Somnes, who helmed this, also made the more successful GIRL IN 419 (see top). Alexander Hall went on to a long-ish career, Somnes packed it in.

CHILD OF MANHATTAN (1933)

Lugubrious rewrite of a Preston Sturges Broadway hit, with only a few moments of real wit –

“While my carriage was detained, I looked around.”

“Naturally, Miss Sophie.”

“Naturally or not, I looked around.”

Nancy Carroll seems like she could have handed out the required pep if they’d given her the authentic Sturges script, but John Boles would have dragged it down no matter what. Watchable, in a thin way. Luis Alberni would get some proper Sturges dialogue in EASY LIVING — I can’t work out why Sturges didn’t pick him up for his rep company of gnarled bit-players. Still, we’ll always have Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis.

This scene strikingly anticipates the big shopping trip in THE PALM BEACH STORY. You can certainly see how such sequences would have resonated with depression-era dreams.

The Sunday Intertitle: Mad March Flair

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 13, 2011 by dcairns

My copy of The Believer, featuring my article on William Cameron Menzies, arrived in the post today. I photographed it by torchlight and it came out looking funny. Probably due to ghosts.

Of course, this calls for a Menzies-related intertitle, so here’s one from THE LOVE OF ZERO, an expressionist short directed by Robert Florey (a director seemingly fated to work in low-budget B-pictures, and then TV, for life, despite his obvious imagination).

I’m not sure how Menzies, a highly-paid studio employee, came to be working on this  avant-garde adventure in style, made for $200: presumably he was just tempted by the possibility of breaking rules and indulging himself. He did later go on to produce musical shorts in the early ’30s so he obviously had no prejudice against the short form. But most Hollywood employees have a prejudice against not getting paid, so it’s somewhat remarkable that he branched out so far.

The film also features text on screen that’s actually a prop positioned in frame with the actors — walk-in intertitles, or outertitles, or something. A unique case?

The plot sure ain’t much, but it’s a visual feast, showing the clear influence of CALIGARI on Menzies’ distinctive style.

Ah, here it is on YouTube ~

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