Archive for Seth Holt

An Inspector Falls

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2015 by dcairns

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It was in New York — enjoying cocktails with critic/filmmakers Dan Sallitt and Jaime Christley — I *THINK* — that the subject of Robert Hamer’s 1949 THE SPIDER AND THE FLY was mentioned, I *think* by Jaime. A Manhattan was consumed at some point so the whole thing’s blurry. But I had had a copy of this movie gathering dust for years, and had never watched it. The jist of the conversation was that I should blow off that dust and get the thing watched, and that I would not be disappointed.

In certain respects the film, starring Eric Portman as a French detective and Guy Rolfe as a master criminal, foreshadows Hamer’s better-known, later film FATHER BROWN (generically retitled THE DETECTIVE in America in what seems like a bid to obscure the Unique Selling Point). Both films are structured around a cat-and-mouse pursuit between a dogged detective and an aristocratic thief. But FATHER BROWN (a) gets shown on TV quite a bit and (b) isn’t very satisfactory — it lacks the uncanny quality of Chesterton’s source stories, and though it isn’t as committed to Catholic propaganda, what it substitutes, a bland moralism, doesn’t seem to interest the maker of KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. THE SPIDER AND THE FLY (a) never gets shown and (b) is very good indeed, with a proper complexity and a non-judgemental approach.

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Portman is a rather cold, clinical chief of police, determined to net the equally ruthless Rolfe (suave, cynical, linear as linguini in outline). He falls for a woman (Nadia Gray) whom Rolfe uses in  a job and allows to take the fall. But Rolfe is beginning to have feelings for her two. Will Portman resort to dirty tricks to get his man AND get the girl? And, more excitingly, what will happen at the one hour mark after both of those questions are unexpectedly answered? There’s undoubtedly a slight judder as the film has to reboot its entire narrative with just half an hour to go — maybe it could have been longer and that switcheroo might have sat more comfortably as a midway break — but by and large the benefits of bamboozling the audience outweight the risks to structural integrity.

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The cast is excellent. Portman, as ever, looks as if he might pour glue in your hair when you’re not looking, which adds a certain intensity to every scene he’s in. His character is a type I find appealing — the outwardly cold expert who falls passionately when he does fall. I didn’t really know Rolfe, though he seems to have slithered into everything. He’s wonderfully louche here. His frame, alarmingly attenuated, spaghettified as if by flirting with an event horizon suggests a stilt-walker. He’s the kind of master-criminal who probably leaves at each crime scene, as a calling card, a two-metre-long trouser leg. Supporting cast includes a skinny young Arthur Lowe who manages to look older in 1949 than he did in 1982, a whey-faced George Cole, James “Mr. Kipling” Hayter, and May Hallett as a very different housekeeper from the one she played in BLACK NARCISSUS.

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Lowe. left.

Best of all, it’s serious like IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY but witty and ironic like KIND HEARTS. Seth Holt edited it, Geoffrey Unsworth shot it, and the smudgy production design by Edward Carrick makes nearly every set look like either a smeared charcoal sketch or a dripping wet clay model slapped together crookedly and then somehow populated by life-sized, breathing people.

Alongside Alec Guinness, who did his best to prop Hamer up as his drinking slowly dissolved his mind, Eric Portman seems to have been Hamer’s favourite actor. He can bring the crisp coolness of Dennis Price to a heavier, more dramatic role. It looks as if he’ll never be appreciated the way some of his contemporaries are. A CANTERBURY TALE shows what he could do, but it doesn’t quite do for him what COLONEL BLIMP does for Roger Livesey, probably just because it isn’t as beloved a film. But its strangeness suits him. Portman fans looking for more viewing recommendations are directed towards DAYBREAK, my contender for the Saddest Film Ever Made.

Air Hordern

Posted in FILM, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2015 by dcairns

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Michael Hordern gave the wing commander a very hard stare indeed.

After enjoying Leslie Norman’s work on X: THE UNKNOWN, we popped THE NIGHT MY NUMBER CAME UP into the Panasonic and let her fly. I guess Norman is one of the missing links between Ealing and Hammer, but he never caught on at Hammer (he was fired from the staggering LOST CONTINENT), unlike Seth Holt whose taste for sensation made him arguably a better fit there than he had been as a producer at Ealing (where he had produced THE LADYKILLERS, an atypically subversive work).

But, excitingly, TNMNCU *does* have supernatural elements, though they are not of a suitably sensational quality to satisfy the House of Gore. The place: Hong Kong. Michael Hordern has a strange dream, which he tells to Denholm Elliott, who blabs it to a group of associates at a party. The dream involves a flight crashing on the Japanese coast. And the next day, all the circumstances of that dream begin to come true. Elliot, a heroic airman who cracked up after the Battle of Britain, is on the flight, as is his boss Alexander Knox, who has never flown before, and Michael Redgrave and Sheila Sim and various others. The exact makeup of the party changes at the last minute and comes to exactly resemble the dream. Then the radio breaks down, just like in the dream. The plane is lost in thick cloud… fuel is running low…

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The elaborate model shots are recognisable as just that, but they’re very impressive all the same.

The screenplay is by R.C. Sherriff, a James Whale associate who wrote JOURNEY’S END and worked on all the famous Whale horror films after FRANKENSTEIN. This manifests not so much in the uncanny element, as in the extreme Britishness and the unexpected dashes of humour — the ending, in particular, is a delight, a left-field gag like the abrupt laugh that finishes Hitchcock’s second MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Hordern delivers it with supreme aplomb.

Until then, it’s a slow simmer of suspense. It’s not as if that much is going wrong with the flight for most of the movie — it’s just the creeping dread as reality takes on more and more of the qualities of that damned (prophetic?) dream. An abstract kind of fear with a very concrete smash-up waiting at the end of it.

The film also deserves credit for its unusual structure: we begin after the crash, with search parties scouring Japan in search of wreckage, but then Hordern turns up and says they’re looking in the wrong place altogether. Refusing to say how he knows, he simply says that he knows. Being Michael Hordern, he’s very convincing, and the search may be diverted…

Then we go into flashback to the dinner party before the flight, and Hordern is prompted to tell his dream. Then we get a flashback within a flashback showing a dream sequence. Possibly a first for British cinema.

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And then we get to enjoy Knox’ tight, nervous grin, Redgrave’s slowly accentuated voice-quaver, Elliott’s glassy-eyed sense of subdued panic… The whole movie is a single sizzling slow fuse, ably illustrating Polanski’s dictum that “anxiety has no upper limit,” while the passengers delight their author by passing the time in feverish meditations upon free will and predestination. A philosophical disaster movie.

Unbandaged

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2012 by dcairns

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The director had hiccups. A really bad case — they lasted days. It was a real problem because he might hiccup at any point, during a take, and ruin the sound. It became a running joke — the production hiccups.

Then one day he didn’t come in to the studio. He was dead. Apparently hiccups can be a sign of an approaching heart attack. Who knew?

With Seth Holt out of the picture, the picture was finished by the talentless Michael Carreras, the man who destroyed Hammer films with his terrible ideas and equally terrible ambitions to write, direct, produce, none of which he had the slightest knowledge of or capacity for. But BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB is still a pretty interesting show.

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It’s got Andrew Keir, the best film Quatermass, and James Villiers, and George “I was in CITIZEN KANE and now this” Coulouris, Aubrey Morris (Yay! P.R. Deltoid!) and Valerie Leon, known in the UK as the Hi Karate Woman. A fine actress with enormous juicy breasts.

The musique concrete is by Tristram Carey, who also scored THE LADYKILLERS, which Holt produced. He’s one of the very few filmmakers who worked at Ealing and Hammer, and he must have liked the dysfunctional family atmosphere — he might have fitted well into the BBC. Holt’s wife said that he and director Sandy Mackendrick should never have worked together, since rather than anchoring one another and compensating for their excesses, they hyped each other into a frenzy and made everything twice as crazy as it needed to be. Which is perhaps why THE LADYKILLERS is such a brilliantly extreme film. (Say, I’m writing a book about it, aren’t I?)

Kenneth Tynan wrote NOWHERE TO GO, consciously intended as the last Ealing picture (perhaps a good film to watch for this Blogathon!), a dark thriller which Holt served up with bracing savagery. TASTE OF FEAR, aka SCREAM OF FEAR, was Hammer’s best DIABOLIQUES knock-off, with the corpse sitting calmly at the bottom of the swimming pool destined to traumatize a young Tom Hanks when his mother, in a confused state, led him into the wrong cinema. Not BAMBI at all.

Holt’s best movie is surely THE NANNY, with a powerful and relatively controlled performance from Bette Davis, great work from the child actors, and a really gripping use of interior space — shot by Harry Waxman, who was always at his best in black and white (cf BRIGHTON ROCK). Davis described Holt as “a mountain of evil” or something, somewhat to the bafflement

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Late Hammer films are typically portraits of the disintegration of a stolid but efficient studio organisation, derailed by monumentally clueless management. TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is actually really good, but the powers that be cut off the whole climax, leaving Christopher Lee and Satan apparently vanquished by a small pebble hurled at the Great Man’s dome by Richard Widmark. This one manages to hold back on the nudity apart from a couple of modest, not-too-distracting instances, and balances creepiness with camp in an unusual way. The asylum scene, with the maniacal flurry of canted angles and ludicrous toy cobra, was actually helmed by Carreras and it may be the only good thing he ever did — I’m inclined to credit Holt’s shooting plan or DoP Arthur Grant, who’d begun in quota quickies with Michael Powell and had worked at Hammer throughout their glory years —

UK: Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb [DVD] [1971]

US: Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb

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