Archive for Robert Montgomery

Play Acting

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2022 by dcairns

I think NIGHT MUST FALL (1937) may be some kind of aberrational masterpiece. It’s kind of perfect, but peculiar. It shouldn’t really work. My guess as to what’s happened to make it the way it is, is this: MGM bought Emlyn Williams play, a very un-MGM tale about a psychopath, his unhealthy influence on a young woman, and what he’s got in his hatbox. They then tried to replicate a theatrical production — presumably the New York run. They imported Dame May Whitty from the stage show, and cast Robert Montgomery as Danny the psycho. Montgomery evidently studied Williams’ performance, because although his Danny claims to be Irish, he sounds Welsh (well, kinda). A bad Irish accent is easier to do (more familiar to the American ear) than a bad Welsh accent, so there’s really no other likely explanation.

Director Robert Thorpe — NOT a brilliant cineaste — Esther Williams remembered him mainly as grouchy — delivers a brilliant film. Montgomery’s accent isn’t a problem (we can imagine that Danny is lying about his origins, as he is about everything else), and the play’s suspense sequences transfer to the screen with tension and terror. Which either should or shouldn’t be the case, because Thorpe is shooting it as if he had the play in front of him. Hitchcock defined one of his better theatrical adaptations as “a play — photographed from the inside.” Meaning you don’t have an imaginary fourth wall, you have a real one, and the editing and camera movement allow us to see it. Cinema in the round.

Well, Thorpe doesn’t do that. His one concession to cinema is to glide from room to room (still viewing them as if from the stalls, but as if one had a wheelchair) and to cut in closer shots. He does edge around a bit when shooting singles, so everything isn’t absolutely flat on. But we only ever see one side of the set.

There are a few Hollywood England exteriors, including a gorgeous sweeping movement across miniature countryside. But the play is the play. A showcase for Montgomery-as-Williams, Rosalind Russell as the strange girl, and Whitty. The drama comes almost entirely from Williams’ stagecraft (he directed as well as writing and starring in the play), minimally from any cinematic devices except basic decoupage. And it’s really terrifically effective.

THIS lovely angle gains power by being just about the only one of its kind. Note the hatbox.

The Karel Reisz remake is worth seeing, but I think they made the mistake of tossing out the play for that one — what they come up with is persistently interesting, but falls apart at the end. I reckon they dismissed the original as a warhorse and thought they could come up with something better. But Williams’ plot is perfectly serviceable, a solid framework, and there’s nothing dated about his observation of psychopathy, which is quite uncannily accurate.

And speaking of uncanny… Montgomery was never so good. His image did not permit him to play many bad guys. He’s electrifying. An actor who always favours stillness, sparseness, simplicity, here he pares away all unnecessary movement. He moves with the elegance of a robot. His face, often with a cigarette drooping from it or with the mouth hanging slack, suggests idiocy, then animal cunning. His eyes, limpid but not especially large or gleaming, come to SEEM enormous.

I think the approach — big elaborate sets and a do-the-play philosophy — is symptomatic of the MGM aesthetic — the more expensive something is, and the more it resembles theatre, the classier it must be. But the play they’ve chosen to lavish all this attention on deals with the seductive power of evil, and makes us feel it. So the classy and respectable veneer fails to conceal something dark and subversive. It’s also self-consciously a play about performance — Danny is, he admits, always acting. Until the very end, when he addresses us not-quite-directly, using a mirror —

What’s a good remedy for a chilled spine?

Peptide

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 10, 2017 by dcairns

We watched RIPTIDE, or as I keep calling it, PEPTIDE, from the talented Edmund Goulding. Robert Montgomery AGAIN! Also Norma Shearer and Herbert Marshall (pictured).

“My God she’s awful,” complained Fiona, but I think Norma is good in this one, though the film isn’t. It’s certainly a very DETAILED performance. And with less striking of anguished or flirtatious or sultry poses. She’s in rather a flurry, in fact.

A third of this is screwball comedy avant la lettre — the married couple at its centre meet while attired for a sci-fi convention futuristic ball. Cosplay! Montgomery plays a loveable feckless drunk, whose pixellated interloping chucks a spanner into the marriage that even Mrs. Patrick Campbell can’t extract. The marital strife gets to be very tedious, though — not the best use of Herbert Marshall’s clipped repression, though God knows it’s a use the movies often put him to.

It’s typical of the film’s frustrating approach that, after teasing us with Herbert’s insect man costume and Norma’s scantily clad “sky [something] girl (they repeat the costume’s name numerous times, but it’s never clear what the hell they’re saying — sky POD girl? sky RIDE girl?), the characters then decide not to go to the ball at all.

The DeMille of MADAME SATAN would never have tolerated that.

You’ll notice that ALL my frame-grabs are from the opening sequence because basically I wanted the whole film to go on like that. They could have roped in Joan Crawford’s robot buddies from THE PHANTOM EMPIRE, if they’d thought of it (yeah, I know: chronology, the sworn enemy of fun).

Strabismus of Passion

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2017 by dcairns

THE DIVORCÉE (1930), an early talkie from MGM, is one those films that’s only really enjoyable when you watch it with my wife.

It’s so early, the MGM lion doesn’t actually produce any sound when he roars, he just sort of moves his lips like Jean Hagen.

This is the first image. So we know it’s going to be cutting edge entertainment. This cheeky fellow’s actually performing Singin’ in the Rain, because this is MGM — it segues into You Were Meant For Me a little later.

The film is stodgy and stagey, and what narrative drive it has is seriously hampered by awkward framing, acting and general pacing. Star Norma Shearer makes the mistake of marrying Chester Morris, overlooking in her ardor the fact that his nose is an extension of his sloping forehead, as if he were wearing a medieval helmet made of skin. When she finds out he’s cheated on her, she cheats on him with Robert Montgomery (only unclenched performance in the film) and then she actually clutches the drapes, so hard she leaves a permanent kink.

Fiona: “My God she’s terrible. And they must have used a lot of starch on those drapes.”

Me: “All that was left over from the cast.”

But the costume changes by Adrian kept us watching. “She’s a great clothes-horse.” Not just gowns but sportswear. Anything, really.

“She’s OK in THE WOMEN,” Fiona admits. Of which this is a clear precursor, having almost the same story but none of the funny, interesting or special qualities.

And Cedric Gibbons dresses the sets just as beautifully. The slow pace, and the desire to exploit the possibilities of offscreen sound, result in some nice empty frames of the kind you know I like.

“Look at that coffee set! My God, look at the creamer! I can’t remember ever being so excited by the china in a film. Look at that vase!”

Director Robert Z. Leonard manages to rustle up a montage of hands, the dialogue playing outside the frame, a sophisticated touch slightly deflated by the linking of shots by fades to black, in case things got too lively. There’s also a crazy drunken rear-projected car ride followed by screaming hysteria, smashed metal, bloody faces and stark lighting, an unexpected break from the drawing-room theatrics. And the turgid pace allows us to appreciate the invention applied to solving the problems of the immobile mic, location filming, unusual wide shots, etc.

“We need to watch another film as an antidote.”