Archive for Roy William Neill

Lone Wolf and Blore

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2020 by dcairns

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A classic Langian image — the phantom technological interrogator!

Since our friend Marvelous Mary is perhaps the western world’s most passionate fan of Eric Blore, but depends for her supply entirely upon us, I thought it was time we all tried the LONE WOLF series, in which EB co-stars as Jamison, faithful valet to the Lone Wolf himself, Michael Lanyard, played by Warren William and later Gerald Mohr.

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Naturally, we started not at the beginning, with THE LONE WOLF SPY HUNT (though WW’s first Wolf movie is rumoured to be the best, Blore does not appear, so it CAN’T BE) but with sort-of the end, WW’s final entry, PASSPORT TO SUEZ. Apart from the two movies directed by Edward Dmytryk, which we’ll definitely watch out for, it’s the only entry in the series with a top-notch (or second-from-top-notch) director (OK, the very first film treatment of Louis Joseph Vance’s detective hero, in 1917, was directed by Herbert Brenon, kind of a major figure, and Roy William Neill, before he tackled Sherlock Holmes, directed THE LONE WOLF RETURNS in 1935 with Melvyn Douglas, who did not return). But this one is the work of that cyclopean pirate, Andre de Toth.

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Mr. Veronica Lake the bullet-headed Hungarian directs nimbly, and the breathless comings and goings of the plot — a new eccentric character actor introduced and despatched every ten minutes — kept our attention glued. Warren William, always more a Starving Lion than a Lone Wolf, is suitably suave and unflappable. And, best of all, flapping enough for two, there’s abundant Blore, as Lanyard’s timorous, ovine accomplice, continually abducted and trussed up, delivering himself of several of the lines he was born to say:

“I hope you don’t think this is my favourite form of recreation, sir.”

“This is the very rope he tied me up with. Lovely lovely! There are moments when a man’s felicity reaches its zenith.”

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The script throws in characters called Rembrandt, Cezanne and Whistler, just for a laugh, waiting for somebody to notice.

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Memorable scene where a grinning man comes out of a wall. He continues to grin until shot, a couple of scenes later, and he’s very arresting, but I didn’t recognise him as Jay Novello, so good as the drunken mayor in WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY?

The support includes Ann Savage, Lloyd Bridges (as a Nazi called Fritz!) and Sig Arno. Or, put another way…

PASSPORT TO SUEZ stars Perry Mason; Mother; Sir Alfred McGlennan Keith; J. Edgar Hoover; Steve McCroskey; Phillip Musgrave; Geoffrey Musgrave; Jake Bjornsen; Mayor Romano; Smoke; Frances Chan; Carrefour; and Toto.

Thoroughly Moderne Killing

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on February 20, 2012 by dcairns

If you were a dapper man-about-town in the 1930s, you would be surrounded by art deco, but you wouldn’t know it because the term for art deco wasn’t invented until decades later, which seems a bit like being an Eskimo without a single word for snow. Your whole environment would be a nameless blur. Must be what being a Republican candidate is like. But in fact those bygone beings of an earlier era did have a term of their own, “moderne” — and so to THE NINTH GUEST, which anticipates Agatha Christie’s Ten Little N*ggers / And Then There Were None by five years and features most of its plot ideas.

Unfortunately for director Roy William Neill and his team, Dame Agatha was a talented plagiarist who improved on what she nicked, so watching 9G today one feels nostalgia for the later Rene Clair film, which is filmically and dramaturgically a far livelier show — and the lack of music in 9G is especially damaging.

But but but — there’s so much to enjoy! If the actors are a little bland, the dialogue clunking with exposition, and the copy on view sadly washed-out, it’s still a visual feast. RWN’s trademark style, employed on 40s noirs, horrors and Sherlock Holmeses, is fully-formed, with canted angles, expressionist shadows, giant foreground objects and snazzy composition in depth the rule rather than the exception. There’s no sense that his dutch tilts evoke a world out of balance, as in Carol Reed, they merely create Dynamism, Decoration and Danger (the 3 Ds). And with somewhat stilted material like this, you definitely need those Ds.

The sets, representing a Manhattan penthouse suite where the exits are electrified and the cocktails contain prussic acid, are delightfully chic, with an illuminated clock glowing smugly from INSIDE A WALL. There’s a big Bakelite radio broadcasting creepy threats, and RWN duly throws in a deranged POV shot filmed from inside it (he’s already given us the traditional Santa Claus shot from the fireplace).Some stretches evince an autistic fascination with lampshades (the camera peers round them like a shy child) almost as obsessive as that in DIAL M FOR MURDER or THE IPCRESS FILE, but the effect is different: wide-angle-lensed and proto-noir, where background figures get engulfed in shadow and midground ones get occluded by the looming trained furniture right in front of the camera. Neill must have loved peekaboo as a kid.

Apart from some textbook comedic faffing from Vince Barnett as a drunken assistant butler, the acting isn’t too colourful, but would have been OK if there were characters to play. The villain, once unmasked, does enjoy some surprising verve, a bit like Chester Morris in THE BAT WHISPERS — a normally lethargic or dendritic thesp reveals an unsuspected aptitude for cartoonish sneering. It’s always nice to watch somebody blossom like that.

Skelton in the Closet

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2010 by dcairns

I’m very glad I looked more closely at Roy William Neill’s work, because during this last hectic yet sedentary week of marking student’s films (and production files, screenplays etc), I barely had the energy to watch any movies at all. But Neill’s SHERLOCK HOLMES movies (he made eleven of them) are perfect entertainments for the tired academic — short (usually just over an hour), funny, atmospheric, and plotty without being too demanding. And the warmth of entering a cosy B-movie world peopled by familiar and loved character actors is not to be underestimated. Besides these restful merits, the films are stylish and witty, and managed the difficult (and somewhat unwise) task of removing Homes and Watson from their Victorian roots and planting them in WWII era settings, the better to shoehorn in propaganda messages, sometimes as overt as direct quotes from Churchill. Despite this potentially damaging decision, under Neill’s production and direction, the movies are thickly foggy, shadowy and authentic to the spirit of their source material.

Does anybody have a good source of info on Neill? What’s available online is patchy but intriguing. We learn that he was the Holmes expert on-set, deferred to by Basil Rathbone, who called him “dear Mousey.” He was born on a ship off the coast of Ireland. His father was captain. He died while visiting relatives in England, just after finishing the last Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movie, and the excellent Cornell Woolrich adaptation BLACK ANGEL. His was a Hollywood career, but he had returned to the UK to make DOCTOR SYN, with George Arliss, and nearly directed what ended up as Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES. His Holmes films benefit from a strong sense of Britishness, and in particular, oddly enough, Scottishness.

The Phantom! In THE SCARLET CLAW.

These “English relatives” fascinate me, because Neill is a Celtic name, suggesting Irish or Scottish roots, and Neill’s Holmes movies are peppered with Scottish characters and situations. In PASSAGE TO ALGIERS, Holmes and Watson are planning a Scottish fishing holiday. In THE SPIDER WOMAN they actually manage it, at the start of the movie. TERROR BY NIGHT takes place on the London to Edinburgh train, and HOUSE OF FEAR plays in a remote Scottish village, and amid the extensive cast there isn’t a single embarrassingly fake accent. THE SCARLET CLAW is set in Canada, where we naturally run into a couple of Scotsmen, including David Clyde, brother of silent comedian Andy. And every other film seems peppered with Scots cameos, from reliable bit-player Alec Craig, and series regular Mary Gordon as Mrs Hudson. Nigel Bruce himself, of course, was descended from Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland.

All of this could simply be in homage to Edinburgh-born Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. But such a tribute seems unlikely unless Doyle’s origins had some personal meaning to Neill, so I’m holding out for a Scottish connection until proven wrong.

Here’s Skelton Knaggs in TERROR BY NIGHT, as a Scottish hitman, a role he luxuriates in obscenely, coming across like a depraved rentboy from Kelvinbridge.