Archive for Roy William Neill

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.

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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.

Original Syn

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2010 by dcairns

What a strange artifact this is: DOCTOR SYN (1937) is a rollicking British melodrama similar in some ways to the bodice-ripping romps of Gainsborough Studios — it even features Margaret Lockwood, THE WICKED LADY herself. But in the star role, as pirate and smuggler Captain Clegg, who has assumed a new identity as village priest Dr. Syn, we have George Arliss. The Iron Duke, as he was affectionately known, is a queer kind of film star, and an even stranger action hero. With a face like a feminine skull, nostrils so flared as to be positively bell-bottomed, and a skeletal frame of sharp angles like an elongated swastika, he resembles the mummified corpse of Kenneth Williams, animated by hidden pneumatic tubes. I guess the closest thing there’s been to him since was Peter Cushing, and indeed Cushing played this role in a Hammer remake in 1962.

The whole tenor of the film is pretty theatrical, in line with British cinema of the time generally, but Arliss himself is at times quite subtle. Describing himself as “a strange man,” he is as divided a performer as Clegg is a character, commingling sensitivity with a crisp kind of barnstorming. He’s no Todd Slaughter, though: his work is quite nuanced, and Katherine Hepburn credited him with teaching her film acting. (Come to think of it, Hepburn could have dragged up as Arliss quite convincingly.)

At the helm of the whole venture is Roy William Neill, a British-born director who’d made his career in Hollywood. Lured back to the UK to make a few movie, he was lined up to make the project which eventually became Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES, but political problems on location shut the production down. The designer of that film, Vetchinsky, creates an atmospherically angular, overhanging village for the shadowy goings on in Dimchurch.

This story has elements in common with every smuggling yarn the cinema has seen — as with MOONFLEET, the smugglers are mistaken for phantoms. (Neill would use a variation on this gimmick in his Sherlock Holmes movie THE SCARLET CLAW.) Rather than using a churchyard as entry to their secret lair, the criminal gang here use the coffin-maker’s house, and there’s a secret entrance behind a tombstone. As with JAMAICA INN, a pillar of the community is secretly a pirate chief. In fact, this premise seems to go back to the true story of Deacon Brodie, a respected town councillor by day and a burglar by night, a man whose dual nature seems to have played a role in suggesting the story of Jekyll and Hyde to Robert Louis Stevenson.

Asides from the Hammer remake and a Disney version starring Patrick McGoohan (possibly the most atmospheric and accomplished interpretation), the film seems to have inspired CARRY ON DICK, in which Sid James as Dick Turpin has a secret identity as a village vicar, a wrinkle not to be found in previous Turpin narratives, so far as I’m aware.

The strangest and most fascinating element of DR. SYN is the character played by Hungarian actor Meinhart Maur (a refugee who had worked for Fritz Lang in Germany). Known only as “the mulatto,” he’s disturbingly presented as a mute, subhuman creature who is used by the customs and excise officials as a kind of sniffer dog. As the story goes on, his unfolding backstory invites more and more sympathy, and the racist overtones recede slightly: we lean that he was mutilated and left to die by Clegg, his ears and tongue severed. He’s still portrayed as a horror movie monster (women scream at his appearance), but he actually has our sympathy. Only at the very end do we learn that Clegg was avenging his wife, whom the mulatto had “attacked” (an obvious code-word for something cinematic mulattos have a long history of attempting), clearing the way for a happy ending where the ethnically and physically handicapped avenger is blown to bits by dynamite.

British cinema can be creepy.