Archive for Sig Ruman

Fritz bits

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by dcairns

The real Heydrich was NOT shot in the spine, but in the spleen… my guess if, Fritz Lang may have seen images like this when injured in WWI (three horses shot out from under him) and chose to include it…

“Bert” Brecht’s scenario for HANGMEN ALSO DIE! includes a HUGE number of supporting roles, some with only a few lines. Director Fritz Lang fills the dramatis personae with memorable faces and wrings a whole panoply of peppy performances from them. In the lead, Quatermass McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is better than he ever was elsewhere, suggesting by minimal means the moral strain of a man who knows hundreds may die in consequence of his actions. America’s first largely prosthetic actor, not counting Kong, whom he slightly resembles, Donlevy never made a move without his elevator shoes, corset and toupée, but couldn’t do anything about his startlingly short arms, like those of a T-rex. Couldn’t Bud Westmore, who made Harold Lloyd’s special lifelike glove to hide his missing fingers, have knocked together a couple of arm extensions for McGinty?

Really good work from Walter Brennan, cast way against type as a professor — anti-Nazi films always have a professors, it seems, and professors everywhere have beautiful daughters, and so here we have Anna Lee, also excellent. These characters are even more moving in THE MORTAL STORM, as you’d expect with Frank Borzage in charge, but Lang’s harder edge also has its advantages. We also get Margaret Wycherly, looking like a haunted tree™ as usual, and Dennis O’Keefe, whose tendency to turn up whenever his fiance is in what looks like a compromising position, seems like good prep for all those farces he made later in the forties.

But I want to talk about smaller roles. Janet Shaw fascinated me. She played the dead-eyed slattern of a teen waitress in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and was just remarkable. Anytime she shows up in a film, I get fascinated. Here she’s a little TOO perky, perhaps, as a factory worker and patriotic saboteur, her eyes darting vivaciously around the faces assembled at a meeting of the resistance. But she has a great moment later when arrested, spitting fire and defiance at her captors.

See here and here for previous appreciations.

We also get Charles “Ming the Merciless” and Dwight Frye and a defenestrated Lionel Stander, star-spotters!

But the film’s array of Nazis is its best point (aside from Lang’s bleakly beautiful mise-en-scene, of course, and his crisp cutting, many scenes joined together by questions asked in one scene and answered in another, or phrases begun in one place and completed elsewhere. Is this where Welles got the idea for KANE’s scene-linking?).

The decision to have the “Nazis” play their roles as comedy is a surprising one. It doesn’t attract much comment in discussions of the film. HANGMEN ALSO DIE! is far from being a comic film, but its treatment of those running the Protectorate is almost Lubitschian. All the various types of Hollywood Nazi are represented here — and the idea seems to be to refute the German claims of superman status with an insistence on the pathetic, grubby human foibles that make these guys on the one hand, no better than the rest of us, and on the other, considerably worse.

There’s Heydrich himself, Hans Heinrich Twardowski (from CALIGARI) in a big rubber Mabuse nose, conforming to the stereotype of the Nazi pansy (usually Martin Kosleck’s department). This isn’t an accurate depiction of Heydrich, but the goal is partly just to INSULT, using exactly the terms we assume would be most offensive to the Nazis.

There’s the spotty Nazi (Tonio Selwart), with a big set of Marcellus Wallace sticking plasters on the back of his neck and a gleaming chancre on his brow, later seen lovingly squeezing a pluke in the mirror — an undreamt-of image in Hollywood cinema or anywhere else — I equate this to Dennis Hopper picking his nose in LAND OF THE DEAD (which I equate to stuff like Paul Wolfowitz caught licking his comb on camera) — a concentration on the undignified, messily human aspects of the supposed superman.

There’s the lightweight sadist (Reinhold Schunzel, THE THREEPENNY OPERA), not an imposing figure, more like a mean schoolteacher, but one with a whole state apparatus backing him up. He tortures an old woman using only a loosely assembled chair, and the power behind him. Personally, he’s a buffoon, with a Sig Ruman-like delivery, cracking his fingers as he gloats behind his desk. Without a desk and armed guards at his command, he’d be pathetic. He IS pathetic. Time will tell.

And then there’s the detective (Alexander Granach, the Shadowplayer from WARNING SHADOWS; Knock, the gibbering Renfield figure from NOSFERATU), the most competent figure we meet on the enemy side. He frequents whores and is addicted to Czech beer, so again, his lack of “purity” and his vulgarity and human frailty are front and centre. But he’s a worthy opponent. The big trick staged by the resistance in the film’s third act would never work if he were around to study it. His innate shrewdness and unerring mental leaps (signalled with a pantomime snap of the fingers) means he’s only ever a step or two behind the heroes, and frequently a step or two ahead. Thwarted for the moment, his finger-snap is exchanged for a first pounding into a palm. Very theatrical, but with all this comedy Lang is not only making a satirical point, he’s finding a way to leaven the  film’s grimness.

Lang wasn’t too great at comedy — the jokes in WESTERN UNION, with Slim Summerville slowly starving, seem sadistic and depressing. Sometimes, laughs can spill out into places they don’t belong, as in the campy, though still compelling, HOUSE BY THE RIVER. Lang is a harsh, heavy filmmaker and humour isn’t his element — but this kind of nasty wit seems ideally suited to his temperament and, crude though some of it is, it’s very effective because it’s so surprising in this context.

A lot of American films made fun of the Nazis — it was understood that they would hate this, and its was felt better to despise them and sneer at them than to be afraid of them. James Harvey in his book Romantic Comedy points out how strange it was, in this context, that Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE was thought to have gone too far. He identifies the problem being located in one line from Sig Ruman to Jack Benny, his insulting review of Benny’s acting: “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” The joke turned auditoria ice-cold at the time, apparently — other attempts at humor by the Nazi characters are deliberately rather gross, but this one asks us to laugh at the effect it has on Benny. In other words, the Nazi wins this round, though he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. Audiences at the time were not prepared to laugh at the thought of Nazis winning anything.

Lang is on safer ground — the humour is present merely in how the Nazis are portrayed, by artful, expressionistic actors, whose style contrasts elaborately with the simplicity of the Americans playing Czechs (plus one Brit, Anna Lee). So there’s a satisfying (Brechtian?) distance between how the Nazis see themselves — superior, in a word — and how both the performances and the plot encourage us to see them — as nasty buffoons.

Or, as Fiona put it, it’s like a long episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

It’s also defensibly close to reality — though the film omits the massacre of Lidice, it surprises by showing the Nazis murdering all the hostages they had promised to release, a smaller but dramatically equivalent atrocity. Lidice, in fact, boomeranged badly, becoming the signature crime used in propaganda to denounce Nazi Germany. The Nazis handed the Allies a club with which to beat them. It’s not funny, but it’s certainly oafish.

Hello, Moto

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2008 by dcairns

Great stuff, this vodka. It gets you drunk, did you know that? Brilliant.

I had recourse to the bottle, left behind by visiting thespians, since Fiona was getting her roots done with our friend Nicola (officially deemed “too disturbing for Channel 4”) and while they were assailing each others’ hair with “colourants” I thought I’d distract myself with what turned out to be a vodka-fuelled triple-bill of MR. MOTO movies.

Peter Lorre starred as Japanese importer/detective Kentaro Moto eight times between 1937 and 1939 (whew!). My discs had a few extras as well so I supplemented my viewing with an interview with Lorre’s stunt double Harvey Parry, and a meditation on the historical significance of the man Moto. The thesis seemed to be that casting the sinister-of-aspect Peter Lorre as Moto was a way of acknowledging the mixed feelings had about the emergence of Japan on the world scene.

Wow, blogging drunk is weirdly EFFORTFUL (hic!).

I think the documentary mouthpieces had it slightly wrong about Moto. One weird thing about the films I saw was that in all three (THINK FAST, MR. MOTO; THANK YOU, MR. MOTO; MR. MOTO’S VACATION) there were Germanic actors playing Russians: Sig Ruman, twice, and Victor Varconi, once. So the suspicion formed that in a strange way, casting Lorre as Japanese was a way of de-Germanising him. The effect of a German playing Japanese, while obviously disturbing by the time of Pearl Harbour (he’s a one-man Axis!), was basically to render the actor and character as an all-purpose exotic. His precise ethnicity is blurred.

(Sig Ruman appears once with beard — prompting loud cries of “Don’t point that beard at me, it might go off!” and references to “Concentration Camp Erhardt” from Nicola and I — and once without, exposing a bare and raddled chin like an old man’s bottom.)

The Ruman chin in all its naked awfulness. Get that thing behind a beard!

My, the films are entertaining, though (and you don’t even need to be drunk). Lorre, slim and rather beautiful, but equipped with jangling European teeth, is elegant and always surprising as Moto. If you can forgive the horrible idea of casting a white man in yellowface, that is. Assisted by Harvey Parry, Moto deploys a peculiar variety of ju-jitsu that frequently culminates in a sock in the jaw or a blast from a small-calibre pistol. Like Sam Spade, Moto follows his own code of honour, which makes him worthy of our respect, and always capable of being surprising. For the first couple of films, the writers definitely play with the idea of Moto as a suspicious character — might he turn out to be the villain? He does not.

That sexy, sexy man.

Lorre adds to Moto’s surprising qualities with his own. His line readings are always unique, seductive, playful, sardonic, melancholic or slightly tipsy, and it’s not always easy to tell which. Plus there are the great luminous eyes, round and wet as soap bubbles. They appear to be enlarged by his glasses, until he takes his specs off and we realise that his particular googliness owes nothing to magnification.

The MOTO films are swift, getting the job done in just over an hour, and follow a harum-scarum, making-it-up-as-they-go-along system of plotting which may well be more carefully worked-out than appears. And they’re decorated with guest stars. The three I saw had John Carradine (being Spanish), Sidney “Satan is his father!” Blackmer (being German), Lionel Atwill (being Atwill) and J. Carroll Naish (not sure what he was trying to be). Also Joseph Schildkraut, a man whose Hollywood career went into mysterious decline after he let it be known that Louis B. Mayer moved his lips while signing his name.

Unlike the CHARLIE CHAN series, also produced by 20th Century Fox and at the same time, Moto’s adventures tend not to be whodunnits, but more generalised capers, filled with action, plots, reverses and disguises. They’re a bit more feverish and non-Cartesian, although just about possible to follow if you haven’t had a skinful. Rather than slowly winding themselves up by way of exposition and scene-setting, they begin in media res, with violent action which won’t be explained for several reels, after an apparently unrelated plot is already in full swing. The Chan films are slightly stiffer, like their middle-aged hero, though occasional propulsive track-ins at dramatic moments, and aberrant moments of comic surrealism, keep them frisky enough.

All three of the films I watched were directed by Norman Foster, who also made JOURNEY INTO FEAR for Orson Welles and Mercury Productions, and Shadowplay favourite KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (A.K.A. STEAM THE SEMEN OFF MY SPATS, and BLAST THE LINT OUT MY NAVEL). In interview, stuntman Parry calls Foster “a very serious man”. God, making those films must have been hell for him.

Our hero throws a ship’s steward to his death in a fit of pique.

Years later, a director asked Peter Lorre for a retake. “I only do this shit once,” the actor slurred back.

“Then how did you survive all those MR. MOTO films?”

“Easy. I was on drugs.”