Archive for The Intimate Stranger

BANG BANG

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2008 by dcairns

“The filthiest man I ever met!”

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This was my late friend, assistant director Lawrie Knight’s recollection of Ken Hughes, who once sub-let a flat from Lawrie, and had to be turned out after complaints from the landlady about his rowdy and disgusting ways. Infuriatingly, I know no more about this.

Hughes, best remembered as director of children’s perennial CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, began his career with a lot of little thrillers, and as a BANG BANG fan I always wanted to see some of these. Turns out several can be downloaded and there are collectors of obscure UK stuff who have accumulated others. So I got my sweaty mits on CONFESSION and, even more excitingly, THE ATOMIC MAN.

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“This film is f*cked,” protested Fiona, pronouncing the asterisk very distinctly, at first sight of the fuzzy copy of CONFESSION, and refused to watch it. I persevered, partly through an interest in Sydney Chaplin. Son of the rather more famous Charles, Syd always appears as a passionate and interesting witness in documentaries about his dad’s life, so I was intrigued to see if he had the same impact as a screen actor. Not quite, sadly. Maybe he had to grow into his talent, and by the time he had, the heat had gone out of his acting career. As a youngster, Sydney was a strikingly handsome fellow, like a beefier version of Chaplin Snr, but his looks had faded a little by the time he appeared in Hughes 1955 crime thriller, as a crook who tries to kill the priest who heard the confession of a man he killed… it’s complicated, but at any rate he doesn’t have sufficient faith in the sanctity of the confessional.

It’s not a strong film, alas. The climax, with a convincingly gruesome death plummet (you hardly ever see bodies actually hit the ground in these things, which always frustrated me as a bloodthirsty kid, but Hughes plays faitr and includes the final earthly impact) is pretty good, as our baddie is blasted from the belfry by swinging bells — killed by God! And the first killing, set to the screeching of a nearby train, is pretty dynamic and effective. But too much of the film is just our man ambling around, not feeling particularly guilty as far as we can see, and not taking any dramatic action, nefarious of otherwise, to resolve his problems.

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Reviewers liken the movie to Hitchcock’s I CONFESS, and say that the narrative problem is a tricky one — how to spin a compelling drama out of the priest’s conundrum? But Hitchcock makes that problem work just fine (I’m sure it works even better for Catholics) — his real problem is with a priest as hero. No romance, really. No humour, much. Hughes, who scripted his own movie, uses the priest as a minor plot device, and isn’t really exercised by the same issue, but fails to come up with a compelling dramatic problem to replace the priest’s. He doesn’t even seem to have really decided who his main character is. Clearly it ought to be former Hollywood bad boy Sydney, but Hughes seems reluctant to make an out-and-out villain his hero. A shame.

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THE ATOMIC MAN has a lot more momentum and panache and silliness. Set in a Britain bursting with Americans, including a loutish Gene Nelson (“Delaney”) and a peevish Faith Domergue (“Lebowski”), it details the enigma of a man hauled from the Thames with a bullet in his back, whose presence causes photos to fog and who resurrects after pronounced dead. Is it Jesus? No, Jesus was not atomic. This guy is atomic.

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They try to x-ray him, but he ends up x-raying them, or something.

Wait, if he can’t be photographed, how come we can see him in this film?

My enjoyment was marred slightly by this copy being even more f*cked than CONFESSION. It looks like the print, which is scratchy and embossed at several points with a giant apostrophe –

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– has been projected onto choppy water and then video-taped by an ancient camera whose tube has been scorched repeatedly by Arthur C. Clarke’s laser. It’s like watching a movie from inside Fritz Lang’s lung.

Never mind that, is it good?

Better say diverting. But there’s one hugely enjoyable conceit — our atomic fellow has been mentally blasted 7 seconds into the future: though his body remains in the here and now, his mind is there and then, which means he tends to answer questions before they’re asked. This blows rather a big hole in the concept of free will if you ask me, which I notice you’re not. If he answers your question, doesn’t that mean you’re now compelled to ask it?

A similar space-time infarction seems to be taking place when, in the midst of all this sci-fi espionage (fat Brazilian spymaster, plastic surgeon, impostor, project to transmute base metals), Barry and Domergue are interrupted mid-muse by the spectre of Charles Hawtrey, CARRY ON-film regular, giving exactly the same comic performance of dirty-minded gay schoolboy that he would give in countless low comedies for Rank. He bursts through a door and snaps “‘ello ‘ello, what’s going on ‘ere, I wouldn’t be surprised!” and his appearance smacks so much of refugee-from-another-film syndrome that it’s doubly surprising when anyone else actually acknowledges his presence. One had assumed he was the result of a printing error at the lab.

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When the explanation for the time-shift comes along, it’s insanely protracted, hideously convoluted, and utterly nonsensical. Starting from the semi-sensible springboard idea of the character having been clinically dead for 7 seconds, the neuro-psychologist mouthpiece character delivering the expos soon finds himself on very thin ice, and shortly thereafter at the bottom of a wintry pond of pseudo-science and 14-carot baloney. But I found it enjoyable.

Alec C. Snowden, who produced and fronted for Joseph Losey on what I call THE INTIMATE FINGER, produced this one as well. Good!

This has been a Fever Dream Double Feature.

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The Intimate Finger

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2008 by dcairns

Bright Eyes

Not really, of course. Joseph Losey’s pseudonymously-directed 1956 mystery was released as THE INTIMATE STRANGER (great title, and apt!) in the UK, and FINGER OF GUILT (sappy, generic title) in the US. So I’ve simply combined the two titles into one SUPER-TITLE. Richard Basehart plays the titular finger.

For its blacklisted director (working as “Joseph Walton” in the UK version, using producer Alec C Snowden as a front for the US release) and writer (the celebrated Howard Koch, writing as “Peter Howard”) it was a payday and a chance to establish themselves in the UK film industry. Koch dismissed the result as entirely undistinguished, but it led to better things.

I’d never taken notice of Richard Basehart much before except in IL BIDONE, where he’s dubbed. Here it was a shock to hear him sounding like John Huston — since Basehart played Ishmael in Huston’s MOBY DICK the same year, I’m assuming this is a deliberate impersonation, decades before Daniel Day-Lewis made off with Huston’s gravelly purr for THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

One thing that’s fascinated me about all the Losey films I’ve run recently is the element of autobiography. From Michael Redgrave’s alcoholism in TIME WITHOUT PITY to the tortured father-son relations in THE BIG NIGHT, each Losey film seems to declare some personal significance. Most blatantly of all, FINGER-STRANGER deals with a blacklisted filmmaker driven out of the US and targeted by a conspiracy in a British studio. The atmosphere of paranoia and persecution must have been something both Losey and Koch could relate to.

STRANGER-FINGER begins with an eye examination, the bright light being something which will return at the climax:

Bright Light!

At the start.

Lights! Cameras! Action!

And at the end.

Basehart begins to tell his life story and we delve into flashback, and eventually wonder “Hang on, why is he sharing all this guff with his OPTICIAN?” then we realise that the eye-man must actually be a head-shrinker only the film just kinda forgot to mention it. The framing structure is wholly unnecessary anyway, but as with Losey’s earlier THE SLEEPING TIGER, it takes us back to that innocent ’50s faith in psycho-analysis — a lot of the lefties who got drummed out of Ho’wood had the same trust in Freud they showed in Stalin, but then Freud was huge all over tinseltown, where the Big Lie is what business is founded on, and all the couch-space in town is eaten up by rich fruit-loops.

The story gimmick — young exec is tormented by mysterious letters, recalls the opening of Altman’s THE PLAYER, but this one develops differently: a young woman writes to Basehart and his wife (daughter of studio boss Roger Livesey) claiming to have had an affair with Basehart. He has no memory of her, yet she’s insistent, and seems sincere.

Alas, the first half is quite unbelievably stately, with the editor lingering on every scene after the protagonist has left. Maybe the movie was too short? Losey’s filming is fluid, but rarely provides the flash of Hollywood excitement he brought to the best bits of SLEEPING TIGER.

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All that holds the attention during this opening trundle is the central question — who the hell is this girl and what is she all about? — OK, two questions — plus some spectacularly inappropriate and loud stock music. All early British Losey films seem to feature scenes where women put on loud records then attempt to talk. At times the score here is effective, as it must be: if you play tender moments with CRIME JAZZ and suspense bits with Liberace schmaltz, it WILL WORK at times, and when it does it’ll be better than if you did it the sane way round. Half the time here it doesn’t work at all, and drunkenly pulls you out of the film, but there’s one romantic clinch where the timpani freak-out accompaniment fairly gets your pulse going and you think, “Golly, THIS IS CINEMA!” for maybe the only time.

So, the police attempt to cherchez la femme fatale, but she keeps her cool and doesn’t change her story, and they wind up doubting Basehart. For a moment it looks like her long recitation of her imaginary past life with Basehart is going to lead into a flashback, which would give us a flashback within a flashback within an opticians, but she cuts it short and saves us the detour.

Stranger of Guilt

There’s a heavy spoiler alert now, because if I give away the ending then there’s no real reason to see this underwhelming effort, which might be a good thing, but it’s your choice, OK?

Basehart finds out that the whole thing was a set-up. His boss’s assistant, played by diminutive Welsh house-elf Mervyn Johns, resenting Basehart’s ascendancy, has hired an actress to destroy his life. That’s studio politics for you.There’s a tiresome false ending where Basehart thinks Livesey was behind the frame-up, then Johns gives himself away by repeating the whole plot in a dubbing booth with the mic on and broadcasting his (finger of) guilt to the whole sound stage — oops! Then Basehart persecutes his nemesis with an arc light (like all Celts, he instinctively fears bright illumination) before clubbing him to the studio floor with his powerful Richard Basehart fists. Regrettably, a climax where a muscular young man beats up an elderly, out of shape guy half his height into a tiny, defenseless Welsh pulp is not exactly a nail-biting suspenser.

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Shadowplay!

Now the film pauses yet again to admire sultry Mary Murphy (from THE WILD ONE), who has been enticingly cool throughout, then reunites Basehart with his estranged wife, who somehow got the news he’s innocent before anybody else knew.

Not a great film, but a great central enigma, and the blacklisting angle (not explicitly political — Basehart had a fling with a studio boss’s wife) is enticing. At the end, Basehart furiously calls Johns “an informer”, and the rage in that scene feels… personal.

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The producers would like to thank Fiona Watson for the phrase “tiny, defenseless Welsh pulp.”

Sleeping Tiger, Crouching Dirk

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 12, 2008 by dcairns

“Must be hard getting servants these days,” muses Dirk Bogarde –

– before tripping the poor skivvy and sending her crashing to the floor amid crockery and glassware –

– and leering over her misfortune in sexual fashion…

THE SLEEPING TIGER is a somewhat eggy juvie delinquent melodrama made by Joseph Losey, recently blacklisted in Hollywood and now using producer Victor Hanbury as a front — while no blacklist applied in England, it was thought wise for blacklistees to work pseudonymously to avoid any problems with American distribution. Within a few years Losey would be working openly under his own name, but he would never film in the States again.

Joe and Dirk both reported;y thought this film was sheer hocum, but got on well and saw each other’s potential, resolving to work together again on something worthwhile. THE SERVANT in 1963 would give them that opportunity in spades. Dirk plays Frank Clemmons, a troubled young criminal taken in by psychiatrist Dr. Clive Esmond, played with unbridled lassitude by Alexander Knox. Knox, a Canadian who worked in Hollywood before settling in Scotland, would soon play another woolly liberal for Losey in THESE ARE THE DAMNED.

Inspector Hugh Griffiths of the Yard casts a beady eye over some dodgy Joan Miro.

Mrs Esmond, token yank Alexis Smith, is soon smitten with the arrogant D.B. Catching him bullying the servant, she blazes, “I wish I were a man!” before snogging him violently. It would be ungentlemanly of me to suggest that the feeling was mutual.

Losey puts far more into this film than into his next British time-waster, FINGER OF GUILT / THE INTIMATE STRANGER. Although much of the film passes in short, montage-like sequences devoid of any tension or dramatic gristle, whenever there’s a longer scene of interpersonal conflict, he pulls the stops out and goes for maximum sizzle. Extreme angles and sinuous camera moves provide nicely modulated variation between snapping whipcracks and seductive oozings of emotion. The seeds of THE SERVANT are sewn. The film actually aspires to the theatrical, and through it reaches the cinematic, in fits and starts. There are genuine flickers of that Pinter Wonderland of menace and powerplay, often stifled at birth by the rather inane script. Every fade-out feels like a betrayal.

Since Dirk is committing robberies while under Doc Knox’s care, AND cheating with the Doc’s wife, we can’t help but feel that the liberal head-shrinker is a bit of a sap. Which leaves the film without a point, unless it’s a right-wing Daily Mail type point, since Dirk should clearly be in jail, Knox should be struck off, and Smith should take a cold shower.

“One day we should run up to Scotland,” suggests Knox, who lived there. Bogarde, who endured an unhappy childhood in Glasgow, makes a sour face.

Losey goes mad in the jazz cellar scenes, just loving it, daddy-O, and here we see what a really inventive director he is: the same dynamic style showcased in the scenes of domestic conflict, but sexed up with music and mood lighting and eroticism and WOW!

Far from being a second feature, SLEEPING T unites Losey with the editor of THE RED SHOES, the future composer of BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI and cinematographer Harry Waxman (THE WICKER MAN) all of whom acquit themselves admirably, when the sketchy plot allows them space to do so. Harry Waxman’s photography of nocturnal London streets is particularly fine, and Losey has him try even more trick mirror shots than are found in THE SERVANT.

I keep trashing the script, which is by blacklistees Harold Buchman and Carl Foreman, but as Gavin Lambert wrote, “There is a splendour about this film, which has one of the most absurdly extravagant plots on record, and never flinches from it.” Which shows that Lambert was way ahead of the curve as far as appreciating Losey in the UK. I just wish the film (which is a pretty nippy 89 mins) allowed the psychodrama time to build, while avoiding all the scrappy little scenes of fishing and horse-riding which do nothing for the plot (and really, how could they?).

Then, unexpectedly, the shrink has a Dirk breakthrough and our juvie is cured, alright. Several minutes of desperate vamping ensue as the plot seems to be over, then Dirk announces he wants to go to jail to pay his debt to society, but it’s really to escape the doc’s clingy wife, and now suddenly SHE’S the psycho one, and it all ends in a high-speed car chase with a thrilling syncopated jazz fusion abstract montage smash-up into a symbolic tiger billboard!

Moral: women are evil.