Archive for Robert Louis Stevenson

The Sunday Intertitle: Tales of Witless Madness

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2015 by dcairns

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Richard Oswald made UNHEIMLICHE GESCHICHTEN twice. The 1932 one is covered here, but for some reason it’s taken me ages to get around to the 1919 one, which stars Conrad Veidt (pre-CALIGARI), Reinhold Schunzel (better known, by me anyway, as a director of thirties comedies), and famed dancer Anita Berber. I knew it used a different sampling of spooky fiction to make up its “uncanny tales” — Poe’s Black Cat appears in both, as does a loose adaptation of Stevenson’s The Suicide Club, but the rest of the bits are different. But I didn’t know that the three actors from the framing structure –who play Death, the Devil and the Whore, coming to life from their portraits and running amok in a bookstore, before leafing through the various volumes in search of diverting yarns — also appear in all the separate storylines, in a variety of guises. It’s a nice idea to bind an anthology together.

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It does cause a slight sense of the repetitive, since nearly all the stories become romantic triangles, and for some reason Schunzel is insane, or goes insane, in most of them. But this minor problem is nullified by the film’s extraordinary tone, which is a kind of Weimar cabaret of grotesque humour. In fact, the movie plays like a spoof of its own remake. The actors are obviously having great fun at the expense of the material. Schunzel proves to be a great creepy toad, prefiguring the qualities Peter Lorre would bring to his early roles in German film, and Veidt gets to do some fine clutching hand stuff. Berber alternates between sexy and horrible at will, and in her final installment, an out-and-out parody of the form, she has a manic schoolgirl naughtiness reminiscent of Miranda Richardson’s Elizabeth I in Blackadder II.

To my surprise, the first story turns out to be a variant on the story — an urban myth — that inspired both SO LONG AT THE FAIR and, less directly, THE LADY VANISHES. Schunzel plays a madman in it who turns out to be a complete red herring.

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In the second episode Schunzel kills romantic rival Veidt and is haunted by his vengeful revenant. Some nice imagery here: Veidt rehearses his HANDS OF ORLAC schtick to campy but chilling effect, becomes a huge translucent Floating Head of Death, and manifests as a series of disembodied footprints, appearing one by one in a series of jump cuts, perhaps the first time that trick was tried. Carl Hoffman’s cinematography frequently surprises and delights with its spooky low-level lighting. All the more sad that Murnau’s film of Jekyll and Hyde, DER JANUSKOPF, with Conrad Veidt, is a lost film: Hoffman shot it.

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I expect that cat’s quite old now.

Then, in The Black Cat, he kills Berber. It was her turn, I suppose. Unlike in the later version, there’s no spooky visuals of the entombed bride, but the cat is endearing, and Schunzel goes off his chump again.

In The Suicide Club, Schunzel finally gets to be hero, and in the last story he’s a cowardly knight humiliated by a fake Scooby Doo ghost show put on by Veidt to scare the interloper away from his flighty wife.

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R. Schunzel, R. Schunzel, let down your hair!

Fun stuff for your next Halloween, I would suggest. The light-hearted approach is novel, and it’s slightly surprising to see a genre being gently ribbed before it’s finished being invented.

The Sunday Intertitle: Heckle and Hype

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on October 28, 2012 by dcairns

I thought I’d watched all the silent versions of DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE but I’d missed a doozy, the 1913 feature with King Baggot. K.B., who has a fantastic name, proves to be quite the performer. His Jekyll is a stiff plaster saint in the Fredric March mould, for sure, but his Hyde… OH, his Hyde!

Now we see where Jerry Lewis drew his inspiration for Professor Julius Kelp. Baggot dons a set of comedy teeth and spasms at will. Most actors playing the role have assumed that the physical transformation of one’s entire body and face, brought on by consumption of a fuming flagon of peculiar poison, would be painful, and effect their metamorphosis by writing about in agony. Baggot stands stock still and transmutes via slow dissolve into his alter ego — THEN goes into paroxysms of contortion and crouching. He plays the whole part in a crouch, buttocks scuffing the pavement as he shuffles along, like Toulouse-Lautrec with intestinal cramps.

It’s an arresting spectacle. Director Herbert Brenon assists the weirdness by framing his shots for an erect man, so that his star wriggles wormlike across the bottom of the screen, great tracts of empty discomfort occupying the frame above his head. He also inserts some wonderfully confusing intertitles, with a less-is-more approach to grammar. Nearly every bit of text provokes minutes of head-scratching, greatly enhancing the overall effect of baffling strangeness.

Rather than the “vague sense of deformity” Stevenson’s characters attest to feeling in Hyde’s presence, the supporting players here either start in horror at the mere sight of Baggot, or fail to notice him altogether as he wiggles by like a Russian dancer.

Baggot was one of those silent stars who stuck it out but wound up an extra, probably unrecognized by the new generation of actors and directors he worked with. He’s an unbilled Courtroom Spectator in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, and Man on Subway in Minnelli’s THE CLOCK. I like to think that this fall from stardom was occasioned by a perverse decision to play all his rolls crouching, almost curled into a ball, hopping and staggering around and gesticulating spasmodically with splayed, twitching fingers. Sadly, that’s just a fantasy, easily disproved.

But if I say that Baggot liked to polish his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame by doing his patented Mr Hyde walk over it so that the seat of his pants dusted the shiny sidewalk emblem, who among you can prove I speak false?

Mystery Men

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2011 by dcairns

LOST HIGHWAY and THE NEW CENTURIONS. Two videos that kind of resonate with each other. In fact, maybe if you play them both at once you can get some kind of interesting conversation going.

The lynch film is, I hope, sufficiently well-known to most Shadowplayers as to require no elucidation from me, although I can report my conversation with its director during an Edinburgh Film Festival satellite hook-up interview conducted by Mark Cousins. The interview had been arranged with many warnings from Lynch’s people — “David doesn’t like to explain his work,” etc. So Mark was faced with the challenge of interviewing an acclaimed maker of enigmatic and surreal mysteries, without asking him to clear up any of the mysteries. Lynch appeared on the big screen, sometimes fading in and out myseriously as his voice continued twanging on, rather like Virginia Madsen at the start of DUNE. Mark, anxious about publicly quizzing the Great Man, had steadied his nerves with a drink or two. The first clip was played, showing Bill Pullman in the death cell mutating into Balthazar Getty, all mixed in with an image of a shack exploding in reverse. Mark’s first question: “So, what’s going on there?”

Lynch, despite the dire warnings, was affability itself and was quite happy to talk about the scene, without, of course, explaining anything. I remember he did say that he’d chosen to avoid digital morphing “Because it seems like everyone and his uncle is doing that.” And he talked about how the exploding shack was the result of a sudden inspiration which came to him while filming a later scene at that location. “I just got this image, so I called the special effects guy and asked what kind of really powerful explosives he had. And he said that he had a lot, but that he could get more.”

As the audience were invited to ask questions, I knew it was no good to ask for explanations, but I did ask, since we saw the Mystery Man with a video camera, whether it was reasonable to assume he was the one who was sending Pullman VHS tapes at the start of the film. I also sneakily asked where he got the idea of casting Robert Blake. Of course, if you ask someone two questions, they get to choose which one to answer. He told me he cast Blake based on his Johnny Carson appearances. But he also said of the Mystery Man, “I don’t want to tell you who he is. He’s someone we’ve all met.”

THE NEW CENTURIONS is Richard Fleischer’s Joseph Wambaugh adaptation, dealing with the travails of LAPD patrolmen George C Scott, Stacy Keach and Scott Wilson. Sterling Silliphant scripted, eschewing any overarching plot and avoiding traditional structural forms — it’s episodic yet oddly of a piece, and quite a superb piece of filmmaking. The above scene (with its gorgeous LA light) occurs after George C has retired and is at a loss to what to do with himself. I’ve cut it off before the end to avoid a gross spoiler. I always like to watch a violent crime movie set in a place I’m going to visit — I prepared Fiona for our New York trip by screening THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (version originale).

This post is somewhat inspired by the weirdness of talking to Fiona via Skype from LA, looking back into my flat from the other side of the looking glass.

The other day upon the stair

I met a man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

Oh how I wish he’d go away!

Robert Louis Stevenson

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