Archive for Seth Holt

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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“…I shall think that insubstantial death is amorous…”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2008 by dcairns

I’ve given up commemorating birthdays here on Shadowplay because whenever I do it, the subject promptly keels over in a state of rigor mortis. I homaged Richard Widmark and Jules Dassin in my first month and look what happened to them. I thought about mentioning Hazel Court, missed the date, and she STILL died. So, no more birthday celebrations here.

Obituaries, however, are fair game — I can’t see what harm I can do there. And Friday’s Guardian obits page was fairly thronging with film talent: Tristram Cary and Julie Ege have both crossed the river to the Western Lands. The link between them is Hammer films.

Alec the dalek

Cary scored THE LADYKILLERS, which is enough to make him a Shadowplay hero in itself. That film is one of the most perfect feats of stylisation in British cinema, and the score plays a big part: Cary not only wrote the music, but also arranged the sound effects, to create the kind of unified effect often rendered impossible by the compartmentalisation of film production. The big bass drum that sounds as characters topple from a great height into a freight train is an example of music crossing over and BECOMING sound. The build-up to Alec Guinness’ entrance is a symphony of music and sound in perfect harmony, with Peter Sellers impersonating a parrot and a ringing doorbell as seamless parts of the mix.

The producer of THE LADYKILLERS, Seth Holt, used Cary again for the little-known but rather fine BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB, but it’s his work in electronic music, at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and elsewhere, that is Cary’s other great claim to fame. Apart from scary electronica for Dr. Who, Cary crafted many of those oddly neutral-but-bleak themes used in BBC educational programmes in the ’70s. They create quite a strange mood, like lying in a flotation tank and thinking about the relentless march of time, destroying all things.

A different sort of mood is associated with Norwegian model-turned actress Julie Ege. A genuinely guilty pleasure, Ege’s career touches on greatness with ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (the best Bond film, the best Bond!) and Robert Fuest’s THE FINAL PROGRAMME, but is more customarily found amid the depths of NOT NOW DARLING, THE AMOROUS MILKMAN, UP POMPEII, etc. A film festival gathering of her comedy output could easily induce mass suicide, but that’s not her fault. The simple fact is that prior to the late ’60s, the British low-brow sex comedy was about sexual failure — grotesque, cheerfully depraved working-class halfwits failing to get their end away. The moment anybody actually scored the laughter died in your throat, because nobody wants to picture Sid James engaged in the physical act of love. Not even with Julie Ege.

Ege’s scream queen career ought to have offered more quality, since there were some decent horror films made in the ’70s in the UK, but her roles were in LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (standing decorously by as Hammer films jump on the Kung-Fu bandwagon), CRAZE (getting picked up by Jack Palance at the Raymond Revuebar) and CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT (the third of Hammer’s dinosaur movies — the one where they left out the dinosaurs, story, and the tops halves of the fur bikinis), films that seem to compete with the sex farces for sheer depression and poverty of imagination. These are all important works for the true student of dreadfulness. Julie Ege’s beauty and casual approach to clothing makes them perhaps slightly less unwatchable than they might have been, but her greatest contribution to society was becoming a nurse, something which we really should value more highly than a willingness to appear onscreen without knickers.

My fondest memory of Ege is a parody of this archetype in The Making of the Goodies’ Disaster Movie, a spin-off book from the legendary TV comedy The Goodies. Ege appears in the book’s copious illustrations, playing a starlet who is outraged at the film-makers’ suggestion that she keep her clothes on for a part, even if it IS essential to the plot.

Julie’s movies, while nearly all terrible, provided sex-starved Brits with cheap thrills during the years when America was getting its rocks off to DEEP THROAT and the like, and by contrast the British films are quaint and sort-of innocent, if sexist. That’s really the reason I can’t celebrate Ege’s contribution to film more wholeheartedly — she made many of us happy by baring her bits, but she did so in films that were dismal celebrations of bimbosity, often portraying women not as objects, as feminist criticism usually argues, but as mentally deficient obligatrons, autonomous, apparently sentient beings whose desires and behaviour just happen to conform to the densest fantasies of the average Razzle-reader.

NOT NOW DARLING is available to rent or buy.

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