Archive for Sesame Street

Things Roddy said during “Dracula AD 1972”

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2010 by dcairns

“Here he comes… the most exciting, scariest vampire you’ve ever seen!”

Fiona’s brother Roddy likes horror movies — I have to qualify that by saying he likes specific ones, like Universal FRANKENSTEIN movies or Hammer DRACULA ones. Christopher Lee is without question his favourite actor. So during Roddy’s Christmas visit there was no question what we were watching. Fiona screened the original Hammer/Lee DRAC while I was wrapped the parcels, and on Boxing Day I ran AD 1972, the penultimate film in Hammer’s loose series (not counting the later LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, which maybe I should, even though it’s pretty poor, even by the dubious standards of vampire kung fu crossover flicks).

I like the two modern-day DRACS, although I shouldn’t. The period sequels got dull pretty fast, and even a transfusion of fresh ideas in TASTE THE BLOOD OF D didn’t entirely dispel the air of deja vu. Not that this bothers Roddy, who likes to repeat pleasurable experiences: like a lot of people with learning difficulties, and a lot of children too (Roddy just turned 50) he’s comforted by repetition and predictability.

I’ve never asked him if he prefers historical Hammers to funky modern ones, but I doubt it makes too much difference. I certainly know Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are big parts of the pleasure: although the title BRIDES OF DRACULA always raises his interest, once he discovers Lee isn’t in it, he goes off the idea; a shame, as it may be Terence Fisher’s best film in the “series”.

Hyde Park — a Victorian Hansom approaches. “I think this is the one where they’re fighting — him and Dracula!” declares Roddy as  Cushing and Lee appear, wrestling on the roof.

Lee is dispatched with a spoke through the heart — curiously, Roddy, a traditionalist in matters of vampire slaying, doesn’t object to this. Cushing dies, we get an attractively-shot funeral, and unknown hands rescue a sample of Dracula’s ashes, along with his ring. I’m not sure the identity of this Draculite is ever dealt with, but it’s a nice mystery — he’s obviously an ancestor of the disciple we meet later, since he’s played by the same actor, but it’s not clear why he leaves it so long before attempting a resurrection.

Alan Hume’s Dick Bush’s cinematography makes attractive use of both long lens and wide angle lens effects.

Pan up from grave, past now-ruined church, to catch jet plane flying overhead, a shot which makes me think of the falcon turning into a fighter plane in Powell & Pressburger’s A CANTERBURY TALE. Funky music, shots of cranes forming cruciform shapes against the skyline, a steak house, a red London bus, and on to the wild party.

Cushing appears again, this time as his own grandson, and Stephanie Beacham is his buxom granddaughter, Jessica (inexplicably replaced by the more streamlined Joanna Lumley in the sequel the following year). Jessica is hanging with a wild crowd, including Johnny Alucard (prettyboy Christopher Neame).

“They’re dancing too fast!” complains Roddy during the party-crashing scene. People with Williams syndrome are usually quite musical, and Roddy is a good drummer. With his sense of rhythm, he spots that the partygoers are dancing to the wrong music.

“Would you smile at a policeman?”

“Uh, there he is. Why’s he got a bow tie on?”

“Carpathia? Where’s that?” Roddy must ask this question every time he watches the film. One never knows if he forgets the answer or if he just likes asking the question. People with Williams’ syndrome are notoriously chatty, and Roddy asks questions not just to obtain answers, not even primarily, but rather to keep the conversation going.

Alucard and his gang (including babes Caroline Munro and Marsha Hunt) attempt a black mass, accompanied by the music of The White Noise (featuring David Vorhaus, son of film director Bernard, and Delia Derbyshire, electronic genius behind the Dr Who theme) and raise Christopher Lee, who eschews dialogue as much as possible (Lee hated the scripts’ departures from Stoker, and particularly disliked the modern ambience).

Neame should have been a bigger star, it seems to me. He’s perfectly attuned to the movie’s camp sensibilities, and he looks great. If you’re going to have a character called Johnny Alucard, and I’m not for a minute suggesting you should, this is what he should look like.

“Here comes the smoke — or is it steam?”

This may be the movie where the makeup team pranked Lee by fitting him with Union Jack contact lenses…

Cushing prepares to strike back as Jessica’s pals go missing, and a montage shows him collecting holy water and melting a crucifix to make a silver bullet. This scene is why I’m never watching this movie with Roddy again, because he ALWAYS objects to the idea of silver bullets as a vampire-killing measure. “That’s for werewolves!” And he won’t be told otherwise, even if I quote the entry from my copy of Monsters and Mysterious Beasts (Carey Miller, Piccolo, 1974, my childhood source on all things monstrous) ~

1) A wooden stake made from aspen or hawthorn wood must be driven into the vampire’s heart or navel;

2) Small stones or rains of incense must be placed in the coffin so that the vampire has something to nibble if he awoke, to delay him leaving the coffin;

3) Garlic must be stuffed in his mouth;

4) Millet seed must be scattered over the vampire’s body for he could not leave the tomb until every grain had been counted;

5) The vampire’s body must be buried face downwards;

6) Wild, thorny roses must be strung outside the coffin in order to hinder the vampire’s progress from the grave.

There are other legendary ways of killing a vampire, like shooting him with a silver bullet or burning his coffin so he cannot return to it.

By the way, that millet seed thing only works if the vampire is the Count from Sesame Street.

Cushing tracks Alucard to his lair pad, and after an exciting confrontation where Johnny calls Van “man” about fifteen times, the creature of the night perishes under the clear running water of his shower. He also offends Roddy by calling Cushing “bastard!”

“Language, Dracula!” That’s not Dracula, I remind him. “Language, vampire!”

Alucard, being a recent vamp, doesn’t disintegrate when slain, he just turns a bit soapy.

Ouch! Stephanie has really hot tits!

Cushing corners Lee in his desanctified church and there’s a stirring battle. I like it when Hammer came up with complicated deaths for Lee (while I hate it when he gets struck by lightning), and this is a doozy, with holy water slung like acid, and a plunge from the steeple into a booby-trapped grave. Cushing finishes him off by driving him onto the spike with a jab from his shovel.

“That’s done the trick!”

Rest in Final Peace, reads the end title, a proposition immediately turned into a lie by next year’s sequel.

A shame Hammer didn’t make a true-life adaptation of the case of the Highgate Vampire, which would have given them an AMITYVILLE HORROR kind of documentary vibe. But I must admit I enjoy this tosh, and only wish director Alan Gibson could have been put in charge of the HARRY POTTER series, which might be enlivened by a jazz funk soundtrack and great yawning chasms of female cleavage.

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The Spy Who Came Down with a Cold

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Science, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2009 by dcairns

Nearly done, old boy…

My inhalations and exhalations sound like the sand whirling around in a hula hoop, my chest is constricted as if there are elastic bands wrapped round my lungs, my head has the thickness of lagging and throbs like a Rick Baker bladder effect, while my nose… it’s simply better not to touch upon my nose.

I have a cold.

Which may not have been a bad way to finally watch TORN CURTAIN, one of those Hitchcock films that had always politely resisted my attempts to watch it. Fiona, too, would drift off within minutes of its starting. Having finally obtained a widescreen copy (Universal, worthless organization that they are, having issued all Hitch’s 1:1.88 movies in 1:1.33 ratio) we determined to give it a fair whack.

A nice Edward Hopper shot, and as close as I want to get to Julie in that repulsive outfit.

It’s not that bad: the right aspect ratio immediately sharpens up the filmmaking, which appeared lackadaisical when pan-and-scanned. Hitch’s mise-en-scene is as crisp and thoughtful as ever, and is sometimes inspired — whenever Julie Andrews isn’t around, he seems to perk up. But Andrews is a massive problem — you simply cannot watch this film without somebody saying, about three minutes in, “She really has no sex appeal at all, does she?” I remember trying to watch the film with my Dad, decades back, and him saying that, and now Fiona said it. “Or warmth,” she added, damningly.

“She’s perceived as being warm in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, isn’t she?” I ask. But then, Andrews’ big roles are both nannies, rather than mothers, which may be significant. She offers professional care. It’s her main quality as an actor. And I bet she can create warmth on stage. But in this movie, Paul Newman must be sexy enough for two: in fact, that’s easy for him, but Julie is like a damp rug thrown upon his smoldering embers.

Well HELLO, professor!

Welcome to the cinematic world of Lew Wasserman, Hitch’s former agent and now studio head at Universal, who basically cast this film, pressing Hitch to take two big box office stars. But of course, Andrews was only a hot property in a particular type of family film. The audience for gritty espionage thrillers surely would have been put off by her presence. How do you solve a problem like Julie Andrews?

Nifty opening montage of name-tags to introduce our protags in the sack, Hitch trying to sex up Julie’s image, which is like strapping a dildo to Mickey Mouse. Edith Head lets the side down with a horrible outfit for our heroine. “It’s not even green. What is that colour? Mustard?” asks Fiona. I liken it to baby shit.

Hitch and his Mini-Me.

Hitchcock’s cameo is nice, but Richard Addison’s rather quaint score offends me by quoting Gounod’s Funeral March for a Marionette, AKA the theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Here’s my problem with it: in an interview, Elmer Bernstein once noted that in 1930s Hollywood scoring, if you saw a French ship, the soundtrack would be Max Steiner’s version of La Marseillaise. “An intellectual idea.” The man who undercut all that corn, scoring only the emotion of the scene, was Bernard Herrmann.

Here I should correct one of the few serious errors in Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. McGilligan imagines Herrmann playing Hitch a recording of his score for TORN CURTAIN, and Hitch stopping the recording partway through, followed by the argument which ended the two great artists’ collaboration forever.

The truth is more dreadful and dramatic — it was at the recording session that the bust-up took place, before a full orchestra. Hitch didn’t switch off a tape player, he cancelled the score midway, even though Herrmann argued that as the orchestra was already paid for, they might as well complete the recording and Hitch could think about it. Instead, Hitch fired his composer in the most public and humiliating manner.

The seeds were sewn by Universal, who seem to have pressured Hitch to record a more popular kind of score, perhaps with a song for Julie Andrews (which at any rate they never got). Hitch telegrammed Herrmann early on to warn that the modern audience was “young vigorous and demanding” and that successful European filmmakers had “sought to introduce a beat and a rhythm that is more in tune with the requirements of said audience”. This slightly vague concern was answered by Herrmann with assurances that he could produce something suitable. Perhaps unable to grasp what Hitch was driving at, the composer trusted in his talent to come through. And his score is excellent — you can see the scenes he recorded as extras on the DVD.

John Addison’s music at times seems appropriate for a 1930s-set caper, and insofar as it shows a coherent musical strategy, it would seem to be striving to lighten the picture’s tone. This was probably Hitch’s trouble with Herrmann’s music: he had made a glum, monochromatic film, and Herrmann had produced a dour, unmelodic score to go with it. All through preparing the project, Hitch had tried to inject some lightness, but his subject (cold war armaments and espionage), his settings (Helsinki, East Berlin, Leipzig), his writer (Brian Moore, author of the tragic The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) and his mismatched stars had deferred any lilt or zing to the last possible stage of post-production.

Moore himself hadn’t wanted to write a film, but was persuaded by his lawyer that he needed the money. Hitchcock pitched him an original story, Moore developed it into an outline, introducing the idea of the painful, drawn-out murder, which Hitch then acted out with relish (I would love to see film of this impromptu performance, but none was taken). All the while Moore was aghast at what he saw as Hitchcock’s lack of character insight. Moore only really invested himself in the character played, like a demented elf, by Lila Kedrova, a Polish émigré hoping to escape to America. Her character, and that of Gromek the security man killed by Newman, are the only really living people in the film.

It is worth mentioning Newman’s cab driver, though — Peter Lorre Jnr. No relation to the real Lorre, this was a semi-crazed fan who changed his name in honour of his hero, and was sued by the original. I wonder if Hitch knew he’d hired a fake?

The scene where Gromek stalks Newman through an art gallery is the first striking set-piece, although the development of Newman’s defection and Andrews’ following him to East Berlin are interesting enough. Since Hitch’s two stars between them cost more than half his budget and dictated his shooting schedule, the film was almost entirely shot in California, mainly on the Universal lot (it shows), and so the gallery is a series of Albert Whitlock matte paintings. Only the floors were built. They’re very beautiful, and since the whole scene is composed of these artificial settings, they don’t pop out as distractingly fake. It’s like a chase through a virtual reality. Later, some of Hein Heckroth’s phony Leipzig exteriors will look like cast-offs from OH… ROSALINDA!!!! and not in a good way.

The Whitlock Gallery recalls Hitch’s reconstruction of the British Museum way back in BLACKMAIL.

Ah, Gromek! How I long for an entire film detailing your brief period in New York (“corner of 88th Street”) which you recall so nostaligically. Gromek is played by Wolfgang Kieling, the German voice of Bert from Sesame Street. We must thank the IMDb for its little nougats. Gromek, with his black motorcycle and crappy East German cigarette lighter, is wildly endearing and formidably sinister, and although his murder is the highlight of the film, I do wish it came an hour later so we could enjoy him for longer.

“I didn’t order this!”

The skirmish starts when the farmer;s wife (Carolyn Conwell, another great character, actually) interrupts Herr Gromek’s phone call with a sloppily-aimed bowl of rice pudding. He tries to get his lighter to work. Newman tries to strangle him. Years later, Hitch’s summary of the scene’s premise, “It’s very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time… to kill a man,” became the slogan for the Coen brothers’ BLOOD SIMPLE. The farmer’s wife takes up a carving knife, which memorably breaks in Gromek’s chest — for some reason, that detail is nastier than all the successful stabbing in PSYCHO. The shovel to the knees is next — ouch — then the long haul to the gas oven, with Gromek gamely strangling our hero all the way. His head stuffed within, Gromek’s chubby little hands begin to flicker and dance, like fleshy butterflies, then lie still.

Note that, as Dan Auiler discovered, Hitchcock’s original notes requested music for this scene, which Herrman duly provided, and very powerful it is. The scene is still a stand-out with no score, but one wonders what else Herrman might have done for the plodding thriller. At any rate, the silence augments the risk of discovery that prevents our heroes using a gun to off Gromek.

Newman picks up the dead man’s lighter, which now sparks into flame on the first try. He leaves the farmer’s wife to bury the body and the motorcycle. We rather wish she’d entombed him astride it, like Nicky Henson in PSYCHOMANIA.

Despite working without his regular cinematographer, Robert Burks, Hitch achieves consistently striking shots.

By contrast with the effulgent Gromek, Professor Lindt is rather a stock figure, a bearded physicist with a brusque manner. Professor Littleoldman! And here the film reaches its fatal flaw, one Moore and Hitchcock apparently missed, and script polishers Ted Willis and Keith Waterhouse (BILLY LIAR) weren’t authorized to address. After the incredibly long and uninteresting diagrams on a blackboard scene, in which case the need for a simple MacGuffin becomes blindingly obvious, Newman and Andrews must flee back to the west. Their lovers’ misunderstanding resolved, and the secret information now secured, they have basically won. Of course, apprehension would still mean utter defeat, so we expect a further climax of suspense, but instead we get a long journey back to Berlin by bicycle and bus, then Kedrova and a long wait in a post office, which is not as exciting in this film as it would be in real life, and a trip to the ballet, where at last Hein Heckroth can do what he does so well.

This is why the film seems so overstuffed. It should be called BURST CUSHION. The third act is practically half the film, and the suspense sequences don’t quite come off (Herrmann would have helped immeasurably), so it’s not only structurally malformed but ineffective on a scene-by-scene basis, apart from the incidental pleasures.

The prima ballerina looked familiar until I realized I knew her from THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. The subliminal freeze-frames Hitch pulls on her pirouettes are amazing — he must be reprinting the last frame of each shot just two or three times. I’ve no idea why nobody seems to have copied this striking effect.

The ballet, Tchaikovsky’s treatment of a character featured in Dante’s Inferno, climaxes the story’s metaphorical arc, which Peter Conrad in The Hitchcock Murders rightly describes as Dantean: Newman embarks on a journey into the underworld, in this case, the Eastern Block. Even the refugee/spy organisation’s name, π, suggests the circle of Hell. Newman’s quest, to steal missile secrets, is Promethean, and the film’s opening titles, a montage of anguished faces amid blue and red clouds of smoke, seem like an analog of Hell.

Conrad notes that the film begins and ends with its characters huddled under blankets, but doesn’t quite make the obvious point that the film could thus be read as a shared nightmare. Hitchcock may have aimed to make “a realistic Bond,” but realism was never his preferred mode, and it seems more profitable to judge the film, with its grey-filtered, shadowless monochrome (shot using reflected light), for its successful expressionism rather than its doubtful authenticity.

Conrad is also excited to see Hitchcock following Paul Newman into the gents’ lav to decode his secret message onto a square of toilet paper. Sometimes a critic’s work is done for him.

Paul leads Julie up the garden path in what looks like Hein Heckroth’s take on INVADERS FROM MARS. One of the few bursts of colour is permitted for this happy moment of truth.

Hitch originally toyed with the idea of Newman discarding the formula he’d worked so hard to get, an idea only Alma liked. It wouldn’t have made sense, but it connects to Hitchcock’s consistent portrayal of espionage, in all his films, as a dirty business with a horrible cost. But the whole idea of Newman as amateur spy is unconvincing, as is the anti-missile missile plot — though it’s been suggested that it inspired Ronald Reagan’s expensive and unworkable Star Wars defense scheme.

TORN CURTAIN isn’t terrible, although it could at least be shorter (Hitch had just lost his usual editor), but we should recall that Hitch really wanted to make MARY ROSE, scripted by Jay Presson Allen and ready to go, a deeply personal film, a departure from his normal turf, and a fascinating story. It’s Universal who are to blame for this film, as they are to blame for TOPAZ, when Hitch wanted to make KALEIDOSCOPE / FRENZY. Their poor decisions, made with a view to protecting the Hitchcock brand, soured much of the last stages of his career, and his friendship with MCA-Universal boss Lew Wasserman prevented Hitchcock from fighting for his most promising subjects. In the meantime, years were wasted. As we shall see, Universal were very kind and considerate to Hitch during his last years, but in a way their concern was damaging to Hitchcock the risk-taking artist. At the end of TORN CURTAIN, the Universal logo appears ghost-like over an extreme close-up of a blanket, possibly wet.


The Hitchcock Murders
Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks