Archive for Rosalie Crutchley

Take My Life — Please

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on October 17, 2014 by dcairns

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TAKE MY LIFE (1948) is Ronald Neame’s directorial debut. As you might expect if you know of Neame’s background as cinematographer for David Lean, the film is often very beautiful. And as you might expect if you’ve seen other Neame directorial jobs (eg GAMBIT, HOPSCOTCH), it’s a mildly diverting thriller — though of course he had other strengths (THE HORSE’S MOUTH, THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE).

What stops it from reaching the Hitchcockian heights it presumably aspires to (it’s a wrong-man thriller, after all) is perhaps a shortage of truly tense scenes, and a slightly dodgy structure, where it seems to be missing most of a second act. It’s based on a novel by Winston Grahame (MARNIE) and inventively folds its set-up into a summing-up by portly prosecutor Francis L. Sullivan with illustrative flashbacks, the last of which reveals that arrested man Hugh Williams is not the culprit — instead, joy of joys, we get Marius Goring, aged up with some grey streaks to his hair and face, as a Scottish schoolteacher secretly married to the victim. Now, Williams’ wife must investigate for herself, locating and somehow incriminating the sepulchral Scotsman.

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As lit by Guy Green, star Greta Gynt displays Norway’s most alluring complexion. Her character’s career as opera singer allows for some nice visuals early on, and her artistic temperament ultimately triggers the circumstance that gets her husband incriminated (strict structuralism demands that this temperament return to play a role in the plot later, but it doesn’t). Hugh Williams, being imprisoned for much of the plot, can only look guilty — of what, we never know, since we know he’s not the murderer, but with his oiled beetle-shell of hair and somehow untrustworthy fleshy features, he is physiognomically incapable of projecting innocence.

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After the stylish and moody opening, the film has to rely on the threat to Williams to supply all dramatic tension, since Gynt’s efforts to clear his name do not put her in peril, do not give her problems she can struggle with, and rely on a wild and lucky coincidence to come to their resolution. Only when Goring is reintroduced and comes face to face with her can some proper suspense be created (Didn’t Goring ever play a vampire? He should’ve.) Apart from the ageing makeup, which looks fine in medium shot and goofy in close-up, he seems to have elongated the shape of his face, I think just by putting the tips of his teeth together rather than clenching them. At any rate, sometimes you can’t quite believe it’s him.

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The film’s other pleasant surprise is the darkly beautiful Rosalie Crutchley, whom I normally associate with her gloomy housekeeper role in Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING. Here she gets to be a bit glam, and makes me wish she had gotten leading roles exploiting her slightly Latinate charms. An impossibility in the British film industry of the time, I fear.

 

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Halloween Film Club: Sick Building Syndrome

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2009 by dcairns

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The revelation in watching THE HAUNTING for me this time was that while Robert Wise’s filmmaking still holds up, and there’s a lot to say about that, the things that popped out most in the screenplay were the tin-eared blunders. Nelson Gidding (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM) has done a good job compressing the incidents and realigning the characters from Shirley Jackson’s uncanny classic The Haunting of Hill House (wherein, for instance, Eleanor is attracted not to the investigating doctor but to the spoiled heir), on a structural level, but he really doesn’t have anything like the prose style or ear for dialogue he needs. Here’s Jackson’s opening —

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Feel the goosebumps? Gidding has given the job of transferring Jackson’s intro and history lesson into the voice of Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), which means jettisoning some of the flourishes and sometimes injecting an unwelcome note of jocularity which is one of Markway’s least appealing traits ~

An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.

That first sentence, I think, does little but deaden the overall effect, whereas Jackson’s abrupt change of direction between sentence 1 and 2 is deliciously jolting. After the credits (simple sans-serif font, with a big spooky production number for the main title — why?) Then the narration continues, with Wise providing spectacular visual accompaniment — absolutely gorgeous cinematography by Davis Boulton, whose career seems otherwise quaintly undistinguished: I like CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, but IT! and SONG OF NORWAY?

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Bad stuff in the VO: there’s no equivalent in Jackson’s book for the awful phrase “big tree,” which sounds comically awkward even with Richard Johnson’s manly tones behind it, although Jackson is responsible for the equally uncomfortable “ah, lifeless, I believe is the phrase they use,” and she also gave us the name of the builder of Hill House — Hugh Crain. Sounds like Ukraine, not good. Gidding changed many of the character names, aimlessly (Vance becomes Lance, Montague becomes Markway) but saw fit to leave that one. And we learned he “died in a drowning accident,” a horrendously clunky phrase.

Great stuff in the visuals: the slow lap dissolve transformation from childhood to senescence:

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And all those ANGLES. Wise asked Panavision if they had a good wide-angle lens. They said they were working on one, but had rejected all their prototypes so far because they caused too much distortion. “Perfect!” said Wise, “That’s just what I want.” “No no no,” advised Panavision, “We really think these are a bit more distorted than you’d like.” “I assure you that’s impossible,” stressed Wise. Panavision were insistent. They were really embarrassed by these warped bottle-bottom things. In the end, Wise had to sign lots of documents promising he wouldn’t sue Panavision for sending him funhouse lenses.

vlcsnap-797819The convex mirror is one of Wise’s little jokes about his unconventional lens kit.

Emerging from this sensational, moody tape-slide presentation opening, we get Fay Compton (Emilia in Welles’ OTHELLO), one of my favourite old ladies, although she does say “Ho ho ho!” once too often in this scene. And here we meet Richard Johnson, a bluff, plummy actor who can do solemn without getting sepulchral. An actor friend of Fiona’s attests that Mr Johnson, who is still extant, greets old acquaintances with a loud cry of “Who’re you fucking?” It’s a lovely image.

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Johnson, as anthropologist Markway, is off on a ghost-hunting jaunt, and is forced to take Compton’s delinquent young nephew along — Russ Tamblyn, imported by Wise from WEST SIDE STORY. Tamblyn’s legendary physical prowess will come in handy on a couple of occasions: a very intelligent actor who thinks with his body.

Now comes the plunge into despair as we meet Eleanor (Julie Harris), the deeply unhappy protagonist who is the key element in this film that could not exist without Shirley Jackson’s imagination. In researching haunted houses, Jackson tells us that she discovered a book by some parapsychologists investigating an old house, and the accounts of spookiness they recorded were unmistakably, to her modern mind, the products of their own neuroses. Eleanor is Jackson’s tool for unleashing the horrors of Hill House — if we take this little behind-the-scenes tale at face value we have to accept that there are no ghosts, only the demons that haunt Eleanor, manifesting through her latent telekinesis.

Eleanor’s horrible home life is sketched in economically, but still feels unbelievably oppressive, which may be a result of all that damn internal monologuing she does. Not my favourite movie device, but it works well here, draping a curtain of gloom over the events and reminding us of the story’s interior nature.

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This movie always seems to get away with being shot in Britain, dragged up as America, rather lightly. The street scenes are less than fully convincing, and then the housekeepers, Valentine Dyall with his ludicrous attempt at a New England accent by way of Kentucky, and Rosalie Crutchley who’s just English. Hill House itself is English, and now a hotel, real name Ettrington Park (anybody stayed there?).

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Hill House — the exteriors are mainly shot on infra-red stock, so the sky is black and clouds are white, giving the whole image a strange feeling. As Jackson puts it ~

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity.

Wise’s chief tool to create an equivalent in images to Jackson’s anthropomorphism is his editing, and to facilitate the work of invocation he has furnished himself with many many angles. Wise was an editor (CAT PEOPLE and CITIZEN KANE of course, but also THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, our first Film Club film) before he was a director, and the trait that lifts his best work out of the journeyman class, it seems to me, is his mastery of visual rhythm. The gunshot at the end of WEST SIDE STORY is a great example. Here, although Eleanor’s VO cues a lot of the eerie sensations, it’s the multiple shots of watching windows and statuary that confirms to us her impression that the house is alive and maleficent.

Fiona points out that as soon as Eleanor enters, we see her reflected in the floorboards (a beautiful shot) and in a decaying mirror, “as if she’s already being absorbed into the house.”

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Theo! The last of our adventurers. Claire Bloom adds to the insistent Englishness of the thing, but her character is so enticingly exotic that her country of origin counts for naught. A mindreader AND a lesbian, as she keeps frantically signalling to us, Theo is not so much a telepath as an empath, like Persis Khambatta in Wise’s later plunge into turgidity, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. And she uses her powers for evil: what IS it with Theo? She’s constantly noising up poor Eleanor, then running after her to make friends. Needy bitch. It’s as if Gidding has decided that lesbians are inherently alien and nothing they do makes sense, so he can just have her blow hot and cold at random and call it characterisation. Bloom doesn’t seem to have any particular interpretation in mind, she just plays it dead casual and chic in her Mary Quant (pre-mini-skirt) costumes. One can’t help but enjoy her.

(At the wonderfully obsessive eleanor-lance.com, the theory is put forward that Theo has a crush on Eleanor, and so her bitchy reactions would be triggered any time she sees Eleanor getting too cosy with Markway. I guess I always discounted this because the chic Theo doesn’t have much cause to be enticed by this dowdy spinster type, but I suspect it’s the correct interpretation.)

The remainder of the film, now that we’re in situ, can be divided into set-pieces and pontification, held together by Eleanor’s slow decline into madness. Julie Harris is Hollywood’s idea of a plain jane, and she’s quite affecting. She has that pale mole along from the corner of her mouth that always looks like a teardrop. And she gets that terrifying line about sleeping on her side to wear her heart out quicker. If Gidding invented that then I forgive him everything and prostrate myself at his feet.

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Something at the door! A symphony of sound effects, and the starting-point for Polanski’s great REPULSION. I have a hard job choosing a favourite between the Wise and the Polanski, both of which seem heavily flawed in ways that don’t matter, and deeply great in ways that do.

Again, Wise covers the scene with a zillion angles, trying his damnedest to always pop out of a different door and surprise us, hardly ever repeating a  shot. His crew must have thought him crazy. If he was shooting this for Lewton he’d have to do it in about eight set-ups. Compared with anything in CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE or THE BODY SNATCHER, THE HAUNTING has big-movie gigantism alright, but the guiding intelligence is so shrewd that the lumber of epic bloat is dispelled: it’s a graceful colossus.

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“Whose hand was I holding?” Another great set-piece, with astonishing sound and the world’s most sinister wallpaper. What are the great wallpaper movies? Anybody want to try a Top Ten?

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Then Miss Moneypenny turns up. Lois Maxwell was one of these Americans who came to live in England and scooped up tons of work whenever an accent was required. Like William Sylvester in a skirt. Inserting a new character at this point, one whose existence has been established but not revealed to Eleanor, adds new energy, dashes Eleanor’s romantic dreams, and accelerates us into the climax, with Mrs Markway vanishing and Eleanor starting to act very strangely indeed. The balancing act required here is prodigious: if Eleanor goes utterly irrational, no amount of VO will help us stay with her, and if she stays rational, there’s no movie. And if the other characters become too distant and unsympathetic, that will hurt the plausibility, but they must seem a bit distant if we’re to feel Eleanor’s alienation. I think the movie manages this well.

The drama of the swaying spiral staircase is pretty tense, and I wonder if Wise has been looking at THE RED SHOES — those fast tracks of Julie Harris’ feet running, and the spiralling journey up the stairs… plus the idea of a heroine pulled along by forces beyond her control.

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Fiona is very anxious I should talk about THE SOUND. Uncredited electronics wiz Desmond Briscoe seems to be a key name here. A founder of the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Briscoe is no doubt responsible for the very odd resonant poundings, and maybe some of those other, less identifiable noises. I seriously dig the weird mumbling prayers, with their mis-stressed phrases, that perfectly catch the sense of hearing something without being able to hear it — a psychological phenomenon that’s very hard to reproduce in a movie soundtrack, where something is either audible or not. Interestingly, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, an inferior but nonetheless enjoyable spook-house melodrama which is majorly indebted to this one, features a score by Delia Derbyshire, another Radiophonic alumnus (who wove the electronic tonalities of the classic Dr Who theme tune).

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In cinema, which exploits only two of our five (or is it more?) senses, anything which is not visible must be audible — unless it’s implied by what happens when you’re not looking. In Hill House, where doors close unaided, but only when unobserved, the unseen presence is constantly evoked by the restless camera and the shifting of camera angles, which prevents us getting orientated. Apart from big features like staircases, we never have any sense of the shape of a room, and even size seems unreliable. While Alexander Mackendrick built a house for THE LADYKILLERS (scored by yet another Radiophonics man, Tristram Carey) without a single right angle or true vertical, Wise and his designers creates more a sense of vast space, populated by a bewildering variety of animate mirrors, statues, and pictures. Accelerating the pace of cutting when we least expect it, he keeps us on our toes by forcing us to reorient ourselves with each fresh angle. One shot, an ECU on the eye of a cooked fish (a pun on those warped lenses?) always throws me completely.

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The End. The idea of Eleanor joining the spirits in the house seems like a big influence on THE SHINING, while the other idea, that the house was not actually haunted until now, is bleaker. Rephrasing the VO from the beginning and giving it to Eleanor (making this another entry in the series of films, beginning with SUNSET BOULEVARD and continuing through THE SEVENTH CROSS to AMERICAN BEAUTY, to be narrated by the dead) is a lovely idea, although once again the screenplay fumbles the correct sense of things — “and we who walk here, walk alone.” The pluralisation makes nonsense of the aloneness. As Joel McCrea protests in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, “How can I be alone if you’re with me?”

Cop Show

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2008 by dcairns

OK, here’s the answer to CLUES… probably a disappointing one since few have even heard of it and it’s not that special…

Sixties policier GIRL IN THE HEADLINES has a rather exotic feel since everybody’s so posh. Even the heroic chief inspector is comfortably middle-class: Jane Asher plays his daughter, for heaven’s sake. It’s all the more bizarre because the story deals with murder and drug-running, yet our cast includes fashion models, a retired opera singer, a knighted captain of industry, a painter, and a TV actor. All plausible drug USERS, but hidden among them are diabolical smugglers and hot-blooded assassins.

Our lead cop is Ian Hendry — “eyes like piss-holes in the snow,” Michael Caine says of him in GET CARTER, but here he’s younger, fresher, has suffered fewer disappointments and put away less booze. Hendry was the original lead of the series that mutated into The Avengers, and had an apparently bright future ahead. By the time of GET CARTER he’d done REPULSION and THE HILL, but things weren’t working out. Mike Hodges says that in Hendry’s main scene with Caine there was a real tension, a resentment from Hendry towards the more successful actor, that seethes in the background.

Hendry is assisted by Ronald Fraser (and it’s weird seeing HIM get second billing), a somewhat grotesque character player with a head like a turnip and the world’s smallest mouth — basically a glorified pore. He provides comic asides and non-sequiteurs like a Dragnet sidekick.

Filling out the rogue’s gallery we have Jeremy Brett and James Villiers, both of whom there’s lots to say about. Brett, like his best friend Robert Stephens, had mixed fortunes with the role of Sherlock Holmes. Stephens hated working for Billy Wilder so much on THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES that he attempted suicide to get out of it, yet now it’s the role he’s most remembered for. Brett, much later in life, scored a great success as Holmes in TV adaptations of the entire Conan Doyle Holmes canon, but suffered terribly from manic-depression and a feeling that he could never escape the role. Treated with lithium, which caused him terrible physical problems, he reached a low point where he prostrated himself on the pavement of Baker Street begging the shade of Sherlock to release him.

Here he’s young, strikingly handsome, strong AND sensitive, and obvious star material. But I suppose the British cinema was moving into a phase where it wasn’t looking for a dashing leading man. Brett might have tried Hollywood, where his mental illness would scarcely have been noticed.

James Villiers plays a homosexual TV star (has small yapping dog, frequents all-male jazz cellar). Descended from the Earls of Clarendon, Villiers brings his customary aristocratic elan and a rather likable feyness to bear on a character we are clearly meant to despise. “I think he’d like to marry me,” suggests Hendry, though Villiers has shown no sign of any such infatuation.

Rosalie Crutchley, haunted and beautiful, plays housekeeper to the retired opera singer mixed up in this somehow. Known for her housekeeping — fans of THE HAUNTING can quote her “No one will come. In the night. In the dark,” — Crutchley brings solemnity and compulsion to her scene.

Michael Truman, the director of this modest, pleasant, unmemorable whodunnit, was a successful TV man who dabbled in film. The producer was John Davis, whose name lives in infamy as destroyer of the British film industry. Michael Powell savaged him in PEEPING TOM, creating a studio boss called Don Jarvis who says things like “From now on, if you can see it and hear it, it goes in!” — purportedly a true-life quote. As head of production at Rank, Davis presided over the collapse of the British film industry and the demise of Powell’s career.

(Powell’s cinematographer, Christopher Challis, reports that he had a job sitting on a committee at Rank to discuss the ailing industry. He hated the work, and resolved to get himself fired from it. His chance came when a report was read out, saying that Rank had quizzed punters leaving its Odeon cinemas, asking if there was anything the organisation could be doing to bolster film-going. The public had given them the thumbs up: nothing need be done. Challis stood up and said that since statistics showed that the majority of Brits never went near an Odeon, maybe the pollsters should be talking to THEM instead.

He was not asked back.)

It struck me as I was watching GIRL IN THE HEADLINES that Britain doesn’t really DO police procedurals anymore. Asides from HOT FUZZ, there hasn’t been a Brit cop film I can think of since the seventies. Of course it’s easy to blame TV for flooding the market, but other nations with healthy TV industries manage to present cinematic cop thrillers too. The French and Americans certainly have no problem making great televisual police drama and great cinematic police drama, and they know the difference, too. In GIRL IN THE HEADLINES the main characters don’t experience any profound change during the story — they just do their jobs. Which would be essential in a TV show where the characters have to resume duties next week, but it’s almost fatal to a one-off drama. I think the reason Britain doesn’t make cop films is a lack of confidence in being able to deliver the required cinematic qualities that would separate film from TV. These qualities are:

1) A character arc which results in a transformed lead character.

2) A story with a unique selling point, or high concept, to get people out from TV-land and into the cinema.

3) Visual style to lift the film from the run of TV police procedurals.

I’m speaking purely of the most basic commercial cinema and traditional dramatic form — there might well be other approaches that could be successful, but the above three points would be enough to make a cop movie populist and accessible. I think the fact that our cinema lacks confidence in its ability to pull off those three qualities in a cop film indicates a lack of confidence in cinematic storytelling altogether. It’s notable that Edgar Wright of HOT FUZZ is clearly bursting with confidence and overloads his film with the three factors cited — even though point 1 need not necessarily apply to comedy.

Swan's Way

And THAT should be the theme for a blog post in itself — comedy and character arcs.