Archive for Roddy McDowall

Ballads Ancient and Modern; Tam Lin (1971)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2019 by dcairns

Our first guest writer at Project Fear is film afficianado Mark Fuller, who (or whom? is this a whom?) I met in Bologna, and then introduced Fiona to the following year. It’s hard to describe how excellent he is if you haven’t had the experience. Mark is a proud Remoaner and music is another passion of his and so in a way this piece combines all three passions — though in fact his terrific essay focusses on an Anglo-US production. Well, Britain is still in Europe, and seems set to continue to be so until at least January…

“There is a story in verse, that belongs to this country, the border of England and Scotland. It is hundreds of years old. It tells the adventures of a young man held in thrall by The Queen of The Faeries, who, in the centuries before Pantomime, was reckoned a dangerous lady. It is called The Ballad Of Tam Lin.”

So intones an uncredited Scottish voice seven minutes into this film; he is not wrong.

The first known reference to the Scots Ballad dates from 1549, but it may well be centuries older; in the way of folklore things, the tale within has many close parallels to other ancient European folk tales, and a few elements common to the better-known Beauty and The Beast, and back to Cupid and Psyche. A tale as old as time, indeed…

Tam Lin came down the centuries in various forms via oral tradition before being picked up and straightened out or adapted by folklorists and writers, the most prominent being Robert Burns; he published his own take in the 1780s.

With the late 60s counterculture, interest in things pagan and folk revived; the first version thence to achieve prominence was Fairport Convention’s take, released in 1969 on their album Liege and Lief, a concept album of horror folk, as opposed to folk horror, albeit played by a rock band with folk leanings. This is the version I’ll mostly be quoting… because I love it, so there… whether it had any influence on the making of the film I have no idea, but it is not an impossibility. Many, many versions by various artists followed. In the film there are snippets by the more jazz-folk combo Pentangle, but it was recorded for the film, and they didn’t record a version for their own purposes until many years later.

          Anyway, the film. We have already had an introductory prologue; through an etched-glass window showing scenes from the tale in an Arthur Rackham style, we meet the main protagonists in their luxurious bed. Or rather, her bed. It’s the bed of Mrs Cazaret, with her latest lover Tom Lynn (see what they did there??) in the luminous soft-focused forms of Ava Gardner and Ian McShane. He professes his love; she bemoans the ageing process; he demurs…she whispers….”I love you, I love you, I’ll love you and leave you for dead” Spoilers !!!

We meet a cool sax-playing dude who helps the exposition along by being zonked out by Ava’s yellow-tinted glasses – magical ??- and having the set-up explained to him; this is Ava’s harem-cum-gang of beautiful people, and she is rich, people stay for as long as they want, or she wants. He stays. But it’s road-trip time, and the Beautiful People decamp into a fleet of exotic expensive cars, from Swinging London, North up the A1.

As this happens, we get introduced to the Beautiful People through a cine-camera viewfinder, Peeping Tom style… and they are indeed Beautiful People…including Joanna Lumley, Madeleine Smith, Sinead Cusack, Jenny Hanley, and a needy wheedling young Bruce Robinson. The rest seem like and are as disposable as knitting pattern models. A credit sequence plays over the convoy heading North until we hit the Scottish border, night falls (properly, not day-for-night, thanks for that, Roddy) and our narrator makes his only sonic appearance.

           I forbid you maidens all, who wear gold in your hair; to travel to Carterhaugh, for young Tam Lin is there

     Enter the third corner of the love triangle, cycling down a country lane; it is Janet, an auburn Stephanie Beacham sunlit from behind to give her, indeed, gold in her hair. She stops at the ancient manor house, Carterhaugh, to be entranced by the spectacle of…Beautiful People playing frisbee rather badly. She is delivering a puppy and wends her way through the Beautiful People doing what was done in the 60s…al fresco Tarot readings and vibrophone recitals, apparently. She alights on Madeleine Smith; playing a lass either drug-addled, or really simple, perhaps both; and Ava Gardner takes control, smiles kindly, and hands her over to her factotum Elroy; a delightfully sinster and reptilian Richard Wattis, in possibly the performance of his career. All through this, McShane snaps away in true David Bailey fashion. Janet, it transpires is the local vicar’s daughter; said vicar is Cyril Cusack, as if the cast could get any better.
           

Bruce Robinson’s character is no longer wanted; despite his protestations, he is to be driven away, literally, from this slightly sinister commune; exteriors filmed on location at Traquaire House, the oldest inhabited house in Scotland says its website; it does BnB bookings; I think I’ll give it a miss…. the days of Beautiful People, Ava admiring Ian McShane’s arse amid impeccably laundered satin are probably long gone. I don’t think I could keep pace with the drinking going on, either.


         None that go by Carterhaugh but they leave him a pledge,
         Either their mantles of green or else their maidenheads.
         Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee,
         And she’s gone to Carterhaugh as fast as go can she.

In fairness to our Janet, she hasn’t been warned or forbidden from doing so, but true to form she dons an all-green ensemble and walks cross-country to Carterhaugh, to the first appearance of Pentangle’s rather limp version of the song. En route she meets Tom Lynn, wearing those glasses, at a bridge over a stream, one of many bridges we see throughout the film; those liminal places…..and we go into a strange sequence of still shots that gives the effect of fast-forwarding a DVD, which seems to portray a meet-cute, nothing much more. A minute later, closer to the house, they walk to another bridge, and Tom stops her from going further. “Why did you let me do IT ??” he asks… it’s an odd choice, a moment of coyness both for the time, and within the film. We’ve already seen him in the buff, Miss Beacham doesn’t undo a blouse button. This latter moment is witnessed by the shadowy Richard Wattis. No good will come of this…

           Later, Tom caddishly proclaims his undying love to Mrs Cazaret once more, to the sounds of soft sax in soft grass… and back to parlour games in the old manor. Tarot cards, divination through objects… the usual stuff. There turns out to be something very wrong about the glasses… moodily shot, the first hint of eerie music, and the emergence of Oliver, one of the Beautiful People as more sinister than first suspected.

Tom pays a return visit to Janet during her father’s sermon, which is on the topic “We must love one another or die, or rather love one another AND die” and thus on point. The bad omens are racking up. If there was a Cyril Cusack in every pulpit there would be a greater Sunday attendance, I would say. Tom gets invited to a Vicarage lunch… word gets shipped back to the Manor. Ava has a rival.

In all the film, this is the only sequence where the commune, in the shape of Tom, and Oliver to an extent, interacts with the local community in the shape of the congregation and its vicar. Throughout, they are seemingly self-sufficient, isolated, Other. Which of course works perfectly with the theme of the Ballad; there, the Faeries are about as Other as you can get. Here, the commune are the interlopers, the second-homers, the invaders; a lot less tonally deaf than in, say, The Wicker Man, where English rural traditions have been imported to a Scottish Isle by its laird, the locals inculcated, the Scottish traditions repressed and we all know what happens to the representative of Scotland’s society when he turns up…….. this may not be the reading intended by Robin Hardy, but it is there. The ‘Tradition’ he falls foul of is a cuckoo in the nest. Here, the interlopers are acting out a genuinely local piece of folklore.

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The Torpid Collection, as the Beautiful People have become to Ava, are dragged into a party game where Tom and Oliver end up in a fight. Elroy – Elroy “doesn’t play with the children” we are told – takes Tom aside to warn him what might happen; with an exchange of pleasantries – “Rancid old Queen,” “Don’t you dare touch me”- poor Richard – Elroy recounts two fatal car accidents, in 1955 and 1962, and insinuates…. and the song restarts;

        And at the end of seven years, she pays a tithe to hell………..

Whether through love of Janet or through Elroy putting the wind up him, Tom tells Mrs Cazaret he wants to go; she pretty much begs him not to. Then back to Janet. He really has got the wind up. Fabia Drake turns up as the least likely procurer of abortions/provider of advice I can imagine; the final conclusion being

           I think you go with child…
           Well if that be so, Janet said,

           Myself shall bear the blame

 but she will also bear the address of an abortionist. A bit too radical four hundred years earlier, one assumes. Tom and Mrs. Cazaret strike a deal, she will let him go… after a date. Boy, is this the date from Hell. The cabaret singer sings about death, the couple don’t exchange a word… until she lets him know he has a week. Until she hunts him down and kills him, said to a jazz funk backing. Well, we’ve all had bad nights…Tom flees. Janet arrives and questions Mrs C, who can’t help her find Tom, so she heads to the abortionist as Ava turns monochrome.

She stops at a flowerseller outside, where she

       pulled a double rose, a rose but only two

and she is spotted by Tom. There’s magic in those double roses… ask Belle.

Tom is hiding out in a caravan parked on the riverbank between the old and new Firth Of Forth bridges…. a bit of a comedown frankly, but if they are on the South bank, safe… because Scottish witches can’t cross rivers. Elroy, however can. And Tom has blown that week…Tom is kidnapped, back to Carterhaugh, and the horror finally, finally begins; Tom will die; Mrs. Cazaret, it seems cannot. Tom is drugged before being given a Hobson’s Choice opportunity to escape pursued by the new Less-Beautiful-More-Sinister People recruited by Elroy.

Much of this seen in a pretty effective POV sequence, as seen through the drugged haze, hallucinatory versions of what is apparently there; Ava Gardner is at last The Queen of The Faeries, her minions the Faery Folk of myth, not pantomime. These are “Creatures; they’ll tear you to pieces” He takes the white Aston Martin to find Janet waiting. Unfortunately, Tom is driving….

         But tonight [ ] the fairy folk ride, those that would their true love win

         At Mile’s cross they must hide. [ ]

         Quickly run to the white steed 

   And pull the rider down

         For I’ll ride on the white steed, the nearest to the town,

          For I was an earthly knight, they give me that renown.

So the car gets wrapped around the border scenery, and hallucinating Tom runs off… again, we see both his hallucinations as he becomes a bear, fights a snake, catches fire, and the reality, as the creatures hunt… and Janet stays with him to keep him alive in the marsh; him semi-naked, Janet hugs him as Mrs C., Elroy, Oliver and the creatures arrive; Tom has sobered up; Janet and he have beaten the Faeries.

       Oh they will turn me in your arms, to a newt, or a snake

         But hold me tight and fear not, I am your baby’s father

         And they will turn me in your arms into a naked knight,

         But cloak me in your mantle and keep me out of sight

        [ ] She heeded what he did say and young Tam Lin did win

We are spared the parting curse of the ballad;

     Had I known, Tam Lin, she said,

     This night I did see,

     I ‘d have looked him in the eyes

     And turned him to a tree

Other versions have the threat of his eyes being removed and being hung from said tree. Here, we see Mrs C., Elroy and Oliver heading stateside in Business Class. “I have money everywhere” she says, handing Oliver those glasses.

It really is both an interesting film and a bit of a misfire; I can find no online-published memoirs or accounts of the making of it, the thought processes, the inspirations. We just seem to have the film to go on.

So many questions; it has to have been a personal project for debutant director Roddy McDowall; but why so ambitious (and it had to have been expensive) and it isn’t so bad that it deserved to end his directorial career.

The script; it is a pretty clever adaptation of an ancient tale, one set in a mediaeval age of witchcraft and Faerie Folk, and brought roaring into a contemporary Britain in a surprisingly faithful-to-the-original manner; so had McDowall commissioned it from William Spier, had it been on a Hollywood shelf for a decade, or had it taken a decade to get the finance together ??  Because William Spier had received no writing credits for a decade prior to this, and only TV credits at that. It’s odd.

And then the piecemeal release; what happened ?? It didn’t get out in the US for a couple of years, and then under the nonsensical title The Devil’s Widow. It sank pretty much without trace, and despite Martin Scorsese restoring it and giving it a Bluray release a decade ago, (US only, annoyingly) still very few people have heard of it. At least a very good copy is on YouTube.

The film has style and intelligence; the symbolism of the bridges, a staple of European folklore for millennia; the use of lemon tints for the POV shots of the glasses-wearers; the fade to monochrome of Ava Gardner chills the screen at the right point; the still-frame sequence is a little odd, and coy, but it isn’t ordinary.

The cinematography is sumptuous throughout, interiors carefully lit and matching the mood as the film darkens; Ava Gardner is shot lovingly, and moves through the gears from vulnerable to spiteful to evil while remaining as glamorous as only she could, even nudging fifty. Opposite her McShane acquits himself well, going from cocksure to terrified; Stephanie Beacham too, in an underwritten role. Apart from Cyril Cusack and Fabia Drake, given delicate cameo parts, the rest are pretty much cyphers, as intended; a torpid collection of Beautiful People.

Final mention must go to Richard Wattis; as Private Secretary/Chief Eunuch/Familiar Elroy to Ava’s Queen, he hovers at the corners of frames, in the shadows, coolly mysterious, frightened almost as much as frightening, and camply malevolent. It’s a great part, and he comes close to stealing a film he actually has very little screen time in. If he gave a finer film performance, I haven’t seen it. Had the film got a proper, timely release would we have been celebrating Richard Wattis as the actor who had a late blossoming in Giallo rather than walk-on parts in Sykes???

But it doesn’t entirely work. Is it TOO faithful to the source ?? That could be argued. Does the slightly underwhelming version of the song used, help, especially compared to the dramatics of, for instance, the Fairport Convention version?? Possibly not.

Is it merely enough to be sinister when you’re over half-way through a film?? Is there enough genuine horror at the climax?? Probably not. The original ballad is more horrific, and McShane (or his stunt double) in a bear suit is pretty risible, as is the fake snake. The fiery special effect is pretty good… but the climax of the chase does end weakly and inexplicably (If you don’t know the ballad).

The film does end in a way that suggests the further adventures of Mrs. Cazaret and Elroy in the United States. Sadly, there was to be no sequel to this fascinating, flawed, forgotten entry into the folk horror genre.

Thanks are due to Amy Harris for prompting me to look into the film, and Melanie Selfe for the discussions thereafter, and David Cairns for his patient editing.

Cleopatter

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2018 by dcairns

YES! The Cleopatra Papers is every bit as good as David Ehrenstein has suggested. Basically, two Twentieth Century Fox publicity men preserved and edited their correspondence accumulated during the production of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s epic gabfest, CLEOPATRA, and the result is a unique window into the life of that embattled studio and production. Along the way, the authors, who are profoundly sympathetic to Mank’s approach and genuinely seem to think he’s making a masterpiece (we’ll agree to differ), get in pot-shots at the (other) turkeys on the Fox roster, including obscurities I’ve written about there.

LISA aka THE INSPECTOR is dismissed as a bunch of shots of people getting on and off barges on Dutch canals, which is a brisker dismissal than the one i managed HERE and hilariously accurate. Reductive in a way, yes, but as I look back on the film I can’t seem to remember much else. “What can I say? You won’t believe me if I tell you. All right, I’ll tell you. Dolores Hart and Stephen Boyd getting on and off barges in Amsterdam canals. Philip Dunne, on whom we can always rely, has directed one of Fox’s all-time stiffs. Charlie is readying an all-out sex campaign for the picture though, and if it doesn’t save the picture at least it’ll probably get him investigated by some congressional committee.”

Leo McCarey’s SATAN NEVER SLEEPS is viewed with appropriate through-the-fingers dismay. McCarey himself hated the film, and its true that William Holden’s (uncharacteristic) refusal to die onscreen harms it, but the whole thing is a disaster, a burning hay-cart of a film trundling ever so slowly and wretchedly forwards while torching the credibility of everyone involved and the entire medium of cinema itself. “I just saw the ad in the Sunday Times on SATAN NEVER SLEEPS, and it needs no comment. A Chinese girl raped in front of a priest and Fox is trying to tell the world it’s another GOING MY WAY!” And “The reviews are enough to begin bankruptcy hearings here.”

“It never stops. Yesterday we saw CALIGARI. Not the CALIGARI but the Bob Lippert reproduction. Charlie, deadpan, told the meeting that the picture was better than PSYCHO — which Martin Moskowitz thought it only as good as — and Charlie said the picture is baffling and therefore will be all the rage, just like LA DOLCE VITA and L’AVVENTURA. SPS said, ‘You’re right, Charlie. We’re better than all those Europeans and I don’t know why people talk so much about them.'”

Other movies I haven’t seen: “Saw THE COMANCHEROS last night. We may not make it to Christmas.” “We haven’t seen TENDER IS THE NIGHT as yet […] but saw the trailer today and it’s not to be believed — this middle-aged, twitching woman (a serious Alice Pearce) rolling on floors, on beds, on beaches, in clinch after clinch with world-weary, grat, lined and creased Jason Robards jr. (JUNIOR!) It’s going to hurt this company, I tell you!” Later: “It is so awful. Can Henry King have read the book? Don’t they know this in’t Fannie Hunt, man, this is Scott Fitzgerald?”On CLEOPATRA, the writers are of interest less for their middlebrow enthusiasm than for the gossip and observations about the central players. Rex Harrison gets off lightly, apart from a nasty jab he made at Roddy McDowall (how could ANYONE be nasty to Roddy?) — RM asked him to take his picture and Sexy Rexy is reported as replying, “I’m terribly sorry and everything but I just don’t like you.” Seems typical of Rex that he would be gratuitously offensive in an apologetic, polite way.

 

Of course it’s Burton and Taylor who come in for close analysis. It’s observed that Taylor has grown up in movies and so in a way hasn’t grown up at all, has a very strange, distant, starry view of reality. We learn that, when offered a script, she only ever looks at her part, which might help explain some of her later career choices. Though nothing can really explain the Losey films. I guess she doesn’t play her character as dying in BOOM! because the scenes where her illness is established are scenes where other characters are discussing her in her absence, and so she simply never knew that was the intention.

Burton confuses them a bit because he’s clearly both smitten with her and hitching a ride cynically on her fame. For a while it’s expected he’ll go back to his wife because he always has in the past. At some point, his career move became an amour fou, and maybe it always was.

ANYWAY — highly recommended. I got it for cheap in a reprint with a blank green cover and maybe you can too?

Censored!

Posted in FILM with tags , on July 13, 2008 by dcairns

Inspired by the recent revelations here about Roddy McDowall’s double-jointed sexual ouroborous (Comments section, here), I wrote a light-hearted piece speculating upon the masturbatory habits of the great film directors.

Then I realised I couldn’t post it — my Mum reads this blog. And some of the stuff I invented was actually kind of sickening. To me. God knows what it would do to somebody else.

After all, Shadowplay is intended for family viewing. Scottish parents gather round the glowing screen with their offspring on a Saturday night, eating their fish suppers and Battenburg cake, washed down with sparkling Red Kola, and enjoy the latest critical insights on the world of cinema.

Anyhow, if you want to read the thing you’ll have to ask me to e-mail it to you.