Archive for The Ghost Ship

The Sunday Intertitle: Blackfeet, red face

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 25, 2011 by dcairns

Heap big thanks to Ihsan Amanatullah and the National Film Preservation Foundation for Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938, a typically smashing box-set trove of films, fragments and ephemera. These collections are among my very favourite things.

One item of particular interest is Gregory La Cava’s third feature as director, and his first for Paramount. WOMANHANDLED is a romantic comedy from 1925 that pokes good-natured fun at the myth of the west, in much the same way as Doug Fairbanks did in WILD AND WOOLLY (reviewed here). The film is incomplete, but Treasures gathers enough scenes to form a reasonably coherent narrative.

In both films, a western community transforms itself into a fantasy vision of the past to fool a romantic visitor: in this case, it’s heroine Esther Ralston who has the hots for cowboys, and her beau, Richard Dix who sets out to live up to her fantasy.

Only the jaunty front wheels defy the frame’s robust squareness.

The whole film’s very pretty, with some flat-on establishing shots that are actually breathtaking in their graphic simplicity. It’s not especially hilarious: as other commenters have noted, neither of the stars is a particularly gifted comedian. Ralston is simply decorous, whereas Dix does try to get into the spirit of things, hamming it up a little at times. He’s a very sweet hero, though, smiling earnestly at Ralston even as her horrendous little cousin (and ancestor of the pint-sized monsters who would plague W.C. Fields, sometimes in La Cava films) sets about his achilles tendon with a tomahawk. You can’t associate him easily with the captain of THE GHOST SHIP, coldly threatening to shoot the hero “in the abdomen.”

Funniest moments are those that puncture the air of charming whimsy with some bracing nastiness, as above. When Dix orders some horses, the nags that turn up are virtual walking skeletons. Casually, without even seeming to think, Dix hangs his straw boater from the protruding pelvis of one shriveled mare.

Worse (and better) yet, Dix induces the “colored help” to don redface and impersonate Indians.

When Ralston naively asks what tribe this family is from, Dix improvises –

The friend I tried this line on went into a sort of strange loop of conflicted response — “That’s funny — but terrible — but funny — but terrible…” Join him in his world of pained amusement! As IMDb reviewer and legend F. Gwynplaine MacIntryre puts it, “At this point “Womanhandled” enters the delirious realm of double-decker racial stereotypes.”

This disc comes with copious notes and commentary tracks —  apparently, 1925 was the Year of the Western, with a third of all American movies going west. Esther Ralston’s career, it’s noted, is hard to assess since so many of her films are lost, including THE AMERICAN VENUS, whose trailer features in an earlier Treasures, and Sternberg’s THE CASE OF LENA SMITH. I know her mainly from a late-life interview in the documentary THE SILENT FEMINISTS: AMERICA’S FIRST WOMEN DIRECTORS, where she’s asked about Dorothy Arzner and goes into a protracted, unstoppable and very funny rant about how Arzner kept trying to get her to do sexy scenes until she complained to the studio boss. I get the impression this wasn’t the kind of insight the earnest documentarists behind the camera were after, but they cheefrully included it anyway, for which we can be grateful.

Buy: Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938

Paranormal Inactivity

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2010 by dcairns

I reported the slightly ungenerous opinion of my late friend Lawrie Knight, regarding filmmaker Vernon Sewell (“As far as I could tell, Vernon never had a brain in his head”) and then I heard from Sewell’s godson, advising me to look deeper. So I did.

It’s unfortunate that the three films I watched descended in quality from one to the next, but there was quality, and to correct that negative impression, I’m reversing the order and starting with the worst first.

GHOST SHIP (1952), starring Hazel Court and her husband Dermot Walsh, is a supernatural thriller — as were the other two films sampled. All three films use parapsychological explanations to fold their ghostly happenings into a scientific worldview, and all three feature cosy ladies who act as mediums (or should that be “media”?), as well as making substantial, and somewhat unconventional, use of flashbacks. This one was of particular interest to me because Lawrie had mentioned it — “He bought a boat, to use as studio. And I think he did make a couple of films on that boat.”

Unfortunately, Sewell hadn’t cracked a system for filming in the cramped quarters of his steam yacht: the result is lots of empty frames, into which characters protrude from the sides, before having discussions in lifeless flat two-shots, before exiting and leaving us with an empty frame again. Contrast this with Polanski’s dynamic use of even tighter environments in KNIFE IN THE WATER.

His story also takes ages to get going, with early manifestations limited to disembodied cigar smoke. Eventually a murder mystery is explicated via the medium’s intervention, and the middle-class couple can get back to yachting in peace. Best fun is the no-nonsense psychic investigator with his tuning forks, who realizes that the heat from the engine room acts as a trigger for spooky appearances ~

“The greater the heat, the more these vibrations are evident. Has it ever struck you how so many apparently inexplicable things only ever happen in hot countries? I mean, nobody’s seen the rope trick outside India. Voodoo’s only practiced in South/Central America. Firewalkers, fakirs, witch doctors: all in tropical climates. It’s like developing a photographic negative: the hotter the solution, the quicker the picture appears.”

Delightful. And all conducted with the aide of a set of tuning forks, too.

We also get a very young Ian Carmichael as a comedy drunk, holding up the action just as it gets promising, and a painfully young Joss Ackland. Having Danny Glover drop a packing case on his head in LETHAL WEAPON II was all in the future for young Joss.

A good bit better is LATIN QUARTER, also known as FRENZY, a tale of a murderous sculptor whose crime haunts his studio, necessitating the intervention of another pukkah psychic investigator and another mumsy medium. This movie integrates its flashbacks better, and it has Frederick Valk (the shrink from DEAD OF NIGHT) as the investigator, Joan Greenwood as a murdered model, Valentine Dyall (THE HAUNTING) as a prefect of police — lots of enjoyable players. The bad guy actor rejoices in the name of Beresford Egan, so we had to like him. Derrick deMarney is the hero, but you can’t have everything. Lots of Germans in this studio Paris, I guess because it was 1945.

Best of all was the modest HOUSE OF MYSTERY (1961), which reprises most of the plot of GHOST SHIP with a better, more involved flashback structure, more like THE LOCKET or The 1001 Nights. And the filming is MUCH better, with a mobile camera and slightly fogged style. The haunted cottage carries a genuinely intriguing mystery story which mixes ghosts, straightforward murder, and science fiction of the Nigel Kneale variety — lots of talk about buildings acting as recording instruments for the emotions enacted within them. Oh, and a really nice twist at the end. The cast here is very low-key, with Nanette Newman the best-known face, but the lack of star-power works with the film’s quiet, unfussed approach to the eerie. No wonder Sewell didn’t really thrive in the later world of British horror — his gaudy BLOOD BEAST TERROR, CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR and BURKE AND HARE aren’t a patch on these mild-mannered chillers.

Whistling in the Dark

Posted in FILM, literature, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2010 by dcairns

I’d never seen THE WHISTLER nor any of its sequels, so I didn’t know what to expect from MARK OF THE WHISTLER, based on the radio show and also on a Woolrich novelette called Dormant Account.

Elucidating the tricky nature of the film series may take more time than summarizing the movie’s screwy premise. The Whistler himself is a sinister narrator, a bit like The Shadow, only he whistles. The Shadow never whistles: completely different character. The Whistler is morally respectable but does everything he can to appear deeply frightening and mysterious: he appears only in shadow or silhouette (trench coat and fedora), and speaks in a voice a bit like Orson Welles’s wheedling Shadow, with a dash of Vincent Price in Heavy Irony mode. And he has nothing to do with the stories he tells.

So, the radio series was an anthology of different crime-based stories, strung together by a narrator who is quite removed from the stories he tells. In the film series, mostly helmed by sensationalist wizard William Castle, things are a touch more complicated, since the Whistler actually casts his shadow into the scenes he’s talking about, a sort of non-diegetic half-presence in the story.

Complicating things further, the bulk of the Whistlers are tied together by a common leading man, Richard Dix (best known to me as the amiable psychopath in charge of Lewton’s THE GHOST SHIP). Since this is an anthology series, Dix plays a different character in every film, sometimes good, sometimes evil. Odd, no?

Bits of my copy of MARK OF THE WHISTLER were so grainy and dark, Fiona said they looked like they’d been animated with sand. And in one scene the actor fades from view altogether, resulting in an effect perhaps more atmospheric than the original intent.

William Castle, with his love for cheapjack entertainment and head-spinning plot turns, is a natural adaptor for Woolrich. It would be useful to set aside Castle’s later penchant for publicity gimmicks like Emergo (plastic skeleton on a string slides over heads of audience) and Percepto (electric joy buzzers volting audience’s asses) and focus on his love of bizarre story angles. After all, the years of gimmickry make up only a small portion of Castle’s career, which took in westerns, low-rent epics, and plenty of noirs. What serves better to bind it all together into the work of a distinctive crap artist is the love of weird, semi-nonsensical storylines predicated upon absurdities, veering into insanity, trailing off into delirium. HOMICIDAL goes one better than PSYCHO, planting its transvestite character right in plain view (and using every cheat from body doubles to revoicing to sell the deception); THE TINGLER deals with a parasite fed by fear, leaching nervous tension from the base of the spinal cord, and neutralized by screaming; SHANKS is a semi-silent comedy about electro-galvanism starring Marcel Marceau. And this realization also drags in films produced by Castle but not personally directed by him: not just fluff like BUG, in which the fire-raising insect army have a group intelligence that enables them to spell out messages on the wall with their bodies, but more respected films like LADY FROM SHANGHAI (whose “I want you to kill me!” plot is pure Castle schlock) and ROSEMARY’S BABY (spinning on an “is it real?” conundrum like a Philip K Dick sci-fi yarn).

In MARK OF THE WHISTLER, Richard Dix is a good-natured bum who discovers a bank advertising for somebody to claim the contents of an abandoned bank account. Since by chance he shares the name of the missing party to whom the money belongs, Dix decides to impersonate the fellow. Making a deal with disgruntled haberdasher Porter Hall (a delightful curmudgeon from the Preston Sturges stock company, anatomically incomplete without a jutting cigar), he bones up on the missing person and successfully trousers the sum being held, a considerable sum by 1944 standards. The build-up to the imposture is fascinatingly slow, methodical and tense, with the always quiet and understated Dix a rather hypnotic presence.

Now comes the plot twist — the missing man is missing with good reason, since there’s a bad guy out to kill him. Dix has so successfully assumed the wanted party’s identity that he can’t shake it off when he needs to. Further twists, which rather stretch plausibility to the point of snapping-and-pinging, are on their way.

This was all enjoyable enough, so I was happy to try RETURN OF THE WHISTLER, which proved to be the last in the series. Richard Dix having drunk himself to death, and William Castle being busy making other, perhaps even cheaper pictures, this movie stars Michael Duane and proceeds under the helm of D Ross Lederman (should a B-movie maestro really use “DRoss” as a name?) — it’s unexceptional but quite watchable, and uses a favourite Woolrich device…

Duane is trying to marry his French fiancée, but can’t find a justice of the peace, so they’re forced to spend the night apart in a strange town. Checking his spouse-to-be into a hotel with a surly night clerk, in the a.m. he’s alarmed to find her vanished, or do I mean he’s alarmed to NOT find her, vanished? And the clerk denies she was ever there. This one adapts Woolrich’s All At Once, No Alice, with echoes of Phantom Lady and of course THE LADY VANISHES, but plays like a lesser version of You’ll Never See Me Again, one of the author’s most horrific, agonizingly tense, and twistedly autobiographical stories.

In YNSMA, the hero’s wife walks out on him after an argument early in their marriage, returning to her parents, whom he’s never met (Woolrich plots often depend on such unlikely and contrived circumstances. Never mind.) This of course uncomfortably echoes Woolrich’s own short marriage. In the story, the hero goes after his wife but finds she never arrived at her destination, triggering a weird and disorientating investigation that tests Roman Polanski’s very Woolrichian observation that “anxiety has no upper limit.” The climactic revelation punishes the wife even more horribly than the story has already tortured the husband: her mother murdered, she’s been entombed alive by the killer. The rescue does not make for a wholeheartedly happy ending.

RETURN OF THE WHISTLER is altogether lighter, but our leading lady has been unjustly committed as insane by grasping relations, so the dark side is certainly there. The Whistler himself is on hand to poke fun at the struggling hero from time to time ~

It lacks Dix’s ineffable embers of charisma, and Castle’s occasionally imaginative direction, but it’s a decent time-waster with authentic Woolrich elements, even if it shortchanges us on the angst and paranoia.

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