Archive for Secret Beyond the Door

The Big Box Set

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2017 by dcairns

Thrilled to be a part — or several parts — of Arrow Academy’s Four Film Noir Classics box set. I have provided video essays on Fritz Lang for SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR (House of Lang), and Joseph H Lewis for THE BIG COMBO (Wagonwheel Joe), both in collaboration with editor Timo Langer. Those were huge fun and should serve as helpful intros to the filmmakers work while hopefully providing interest and entertainment even to those who are very familiar with their oeuvres. For the hardback booklet (can a hardback be a booklet?) I wrote a piece on Robert Siodmak and THE DARK MIRROR, which puts me alongside pieces by Tony Rayns, Michael Brooke and Andrew Spicer, which is pretty good company to be in. I feel like a fraud!

This means the only film in the set I didn’t get to talk about is Abraham Polonsky’s FORCE OF EVIL. Awww, why not? I love that film!

Momo the crazy Tonkinese did nose this set onto the floor, but the incident wasn’t captured on camera. You’ll have to take his continuing enthusiasm for my work on faith.

The set is available now ~ here.

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Gertie Getting Guttered

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 2, 2016 by dcairns

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A full study of expressionist dream sequences in 40s movies (a trend seemingly begun by Charles Vidor’s BLIND ALLEY, 1939) would be fun to research. I’m particularly interested by those in comedy films, where the nightmarish imagery is often more disturbing and less funny than in the dark thrillers. Vincente Minnelli’s FATHER OF THE BRIDE would be a good example — ALL Minnelli’s comedies have a feeling of inexorable nightmare about them — and this one employs imagery later recycled with a straight face in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (the floor turning to quicksand).

GETTING GERTIE’S GARTER is a vigorous, unfunny farce made by Allan Dwan during a brief phase in his long, long career when he was working as a farceur — UP IN MABEL’S ROOM has the same plot and some of the same cast, and there’s BREWSTER’S MILLIONS too. Sex farces where the hero is a love rat trying not to get caught suffer from a lack of sympathy (and would get banned in the 40s), and those where the hero is innocent tend to be silly and undermotivated. (George Axelrod complained that THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH became rather trivial once it became a film and the hero could no longer screw the Girl upstairs and feel guilty about it.) Joe Orton could bypass the problem by highlighting it — unsympathetic protagonists make a satirical point in his work — he’s making a case for what he believes humanity and society are really like. And he makes it funny. The other farces I’ve enjoyed are mainly every single episode of Fawlty Towers, where the character’s neurotic confabulations are true to character.

GGG, typical of many stage farces, distorts character and has people doing things they would not, or could not, ever do, for the sake of plot. Having introduced the hero as a professor who’s absent-minded to the point of dementia, having him then turn out to be a quick-thinking, sociopathic yarn-spinner, and everyone he knows be incredibly dense and willing to accept absurd explanations for absurd actions, is problematic since it’s unbelievable not in real-world terms but on its own terms.

But the nightmare scene is eye-catching. Hard to believe it was made BEFORE Lang’s SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR… but it was. I guess STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR’s extended legal nightmare scene was an inspiration. I include these images without the narrative points which explain them, because they’re better unexplained.

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Early Nothing

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , on June 30, 2015 by dcairns

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A conversation with a friend years ago comes back to me. We debated the strange blandness of the interiors in Fritz lang’s American films. Strange because his German films were known for their elaborate, stylised and striking production design. When he returned to his homeland in the fifties, his Indian duology and to some extent his final Mabuse movie returned to the elaborate sets of the pre-war era. He had trained to be an architect, and gave us the first city of the future. But those American films have a distinct, flat, bleak quality to their look. In THE BIG HEAT, Gloria Graham even comes up with an aperçu to describe the decor: “Early nothing.”

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Looking more closely — frame-grabbing, in fact (a new critical weapon which not much has been written about) — I find that, firstly, you have to make an exception for the films with period or foreign settings, where the art direction works hard to create the required exoticism. Secondly, the design isn’t really all that flat. Even a film like WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, which has a kind of pulpy, comic-book quality to it anyway, isn’t afraid of letting the sets make a splashy statement from time to time.

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I think it has more to do with Lang’s shooting style. The distance between the actors is one factor. Lang’s readiness to shoot actors from behind, which you see again and again. His willingness to pull way back and show the characters frozen in longshot, those aforementioned gulfs between them. It turns out Cinemascope isn’t just good for snakes and funerals, it can suck the warmth out of a scene and turn movie stars into distant planetoids signalling to each other in Jodrell Bank bleeps. There are quite a few shots, especially in SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR, which just show empty rooms, abandoned by any visible characters. Lang will flatten the set by shooting it straight on, or creating a crisp geometry even when the angle is more oblique. The very care of his composition, which certainly hasn’t slackened off from the German films, has a cold, clinical quality. The sense of America as a frosty, unwelcoming place, makes the country feel as it might to an exile.

As if al that weren’t enough (it IS enough — it’s too much — STOP!) Lang subdivides the frame, using architectural features, doors, windows, corners, to box his characters into their own little cubicles. Like prisoners in adjacent cells (for obvious genre reasons, cells recur) they can talk to each other but they’re still in solitary. The world is in solitary.

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(Lang’s German films were opulent, and so was his home — African masks on the walls, modern art, and all kinds of glamorous, slightly decadent stuff. No wonder he didn’t want to leave, and supposedly hung around almost long enough to be adopted by the Nazis as an official filmmaker — though Lang’s well-practiced anecdote about that may be a convenient fiction.)

Scorsese speaks of the way Lang’s tracking shots make his characters seem fated, in lock-step with their destinies — as if the very nature of the means by which the camera moved made existence a train track towards death. Meanwhile, Lang plotted out the actors’ movements like dance steps, measuring out their paces himself, though Lilli Palmer complained he made no allowance for their difference in stride. So with minute care the figures in his puppet theatre are slid from mark to mark, framed and reframed, staring at each other with longing as they are shuffled like playing cards.

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The classic Lang space is the corridor or stairway. All his rooms aspire to the status of interstitial spaces. Comfortless, more empty than full, propitious rooms for murders to happen in. Crime scenes in waiting.

Pics: THE BIG HEAT, YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS, MINISTRY OF FEAR, THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW, SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR.