Archive for The Klansman

Things I Read Off the Screen in UNKNOWN WORLD

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2023 by dcairns

There were two excellent reasons to watch UNKNOWN WORLD, the 1951 sci-fi movie directed by Terry O. Morse (here credited as Terrell, to give the thing gravitas. There were probably a thousand excellent reasons NOT to watch it, but these need not detain us since I ran the bloody thing.

  1. This is the only other movie to feature MONSIEUR VERDOUX’s ingenue, Marilyn Nash. Nash had planned to become a doctor and here she plays one. Married to screenwriter Philip Yordan, she had met Chaplin through tennis activities, as did so many people it seems.
  2. I’ve just published a novel about journeying to the centre of the earth in a drilling machine (parodying Verne and Burroughs) and here’s a movie that does the same thing with a painfully straight face.

This is an earth’s core movie for the atomic age, with its intrepid team of spelunkers motivated by the urge to preserve a nucleus of humanity underground, safe from atomic war.

We begin with a newsreel, and the comparisons with CITIZEN KANE, unflattering to this movie though they are on every level, seem to be conscious, as the newsreel turns out to be produced by a man named Thompson. He has a son, a rich playboy type (Bruce Kellogg) who agrees to fund the core mission, if you’ll excuse the term (that’s one pun I failed to get into my book, you can have it for free) for kicks.

Director Morse was an editor more often than a director, and he was responsible for interpolating Raymond Burr into GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. His solutions to special effects and narrative questions tend to be editorial, which is why this film has so much text in it. Cutting to a bit of writing is so much cheaper than showing actual lava or caverns or interior seas.

It’s the contention of this film’s Lindenbrook/Challenger figure that the earth is actually cooler on the inside, which makes the volcanos which feature so prominently in the plot a mite inexplicable. Still, I’m pleased to see the team of subterranauts decamp to a deserted island to start their descent, just as mine do. We’re at the world’s largest fictitious extinct volcano, Mount Neleh, which the Prof (former Hawks team player Victor Kilian, wisely going uncredited) pronounces as “Mount Nelly,” because why should he impart any more dignity to this tripe than he has to spare?

The “cyclotram” used as conveyance — described as a crossed between a submarine and a tractor — doesn’t have to do to much digging, as the earth’s frigid interior is supposedly riddled with conduits. Burrowing from one to another is child’s play if your tractor has a drill bit mounted on the front.

The cave locations — not JUST Bronson Caves but Carlsbad Caverns also — are atmospheric and would be perhaps even more impressive if the print were better and you could see an actor’s hand in front of his inexpensive face.

Recklessly ripping off his gas mask, Kilian declares “The air is fresh and clear!” with such wonderment that you have to ask why, if he were expecting sulphurous asphyxiation, he chose to unmask. It’s not as good a piece of scripted idiocy as “Good old H2O!” in AMAZON WOMEN ON THE MOON but the line reading makes up for it.

Actual filmmaking — as the scientists embark on an unnecessary explanation of the formation of stalactites and stalagmites, Morse cuts rapidly between shots of drips forming and falling and splashing down. As usual, it’s an editor’s mind we see working, but it’s rather poetic for a film of this kind. “About an inch every thousand years.” The How and Why Wonder Book of Science might put it better, but the visual accompaniment here has the advantage of motion.

That’s what we do at Shadowplay — find beauty in ugliness, down dank holes and in dank films.

The question now confronting us is, will we encounter a lost civilisation, or some enlarged iguanas, or something equally photogenic at the earth’s core? Of it this film going to be entirely composed of murky caves, plus close shots of actors in Davey lamps in an underground tram, with occasional insert shots of the instrument binnacles?

Instead, the film pursues a psychological angle, with the crew bickering under the pressure of isolation miles underground. This is honourable, but with the D-list actors and duff psychology, it’s not a route the movie is well-equipped to explore. The inexperienced Marilyn Nash does at least as well as her co-stars, but the writing isn’t there to support them.

Screenwriter Millard Kaufman has some interesting credits, though: GUN CRAZY, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK and, uh, THE KLANSMAN (messing up Sam Fuller’s draft, reportedly — the film is appalling — the bits that feel Fullerish aren;t any good either).

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is one of the few sci-fi films of this period with much humanity in it — actual human behaviour or an acceptable movie-ish analog of the same. I’ve read defenses of the stodgy characters in sci-fi prose, where it was alleged that the IDEAS were so wild the characters just HAD to be wooden or else the readers’ heads might explode. I think Kingsley Amis, a genre fan, actually accepted that canard. It reminds me of the creators of The Simpsons deciding to make it the most boring nuclear family based set-up conceivable, so that they could then run amuck with the style and the humour.

Maybe the problem here is that the characters are largely defined by attitudes and outward appearance, without much else going for them. Writer Kaufman may be struggling with a genre he doesn’t understand, although the concern for the nuclear threat seems sincere.

Mild peril is produced in super-cheap ways — toxic gas, a polluted water supply. These do have the benefit of being credible, but they’re not too exciting. Morse never modulates the pace for tension, despite all the cutaways of knobs and dials he’s got hanging in his trim bin, waiting to be spliced into the action like so many shiny Raymond Burrs.

“Haven’t you ever been romanced before?”

“Not nine hundred miles below sea level.”

Occasionally the troupe take a stroll outside in the caverns and Morse substitutes his dials and switches for inserts of crampons and suspensefully fraying rope.

Finally, a giant, mysteriously illuminated cave with an underground sea is happened upon — Pismo Beach, and all the clams we can eat! According to the IMDb, this really IS Pismo Beach, which is perfect — the destination Bugs Bunny was forever tunneling towards, forever diverted by his failure to make a left turn at Albuquerque. We do get a nice multiplane animation painted landscape, too, though.

“Let’s face facts, Morley: this is a desert! The very word means ‘deserted by life.’ And you talk of ‘crops!'”

It gets worse — the little bunny rabbits Nash has been tending give birth to corpses (baby rabbit ones — I saw you looked nervous). “We can’t bury ourselves in the earth and expect to live.”

Finally, some lava! Along with a deluge of stock shots, animated lightning bolts, miniature volcanos — an internal apocalypse sends the cyclotram sinking towards the MAXIMUM POSSIBLE READING.

Fortunately, for no reason, the cyclotram reverses its descent and bobs up towards the surface — an extended Kuleshove experiment follows with shots of turtles viewed through the windscreen and the smiling faces of the three surviving cyclotramists.

Fade out on them all beaming from a porthole at a tropical island. The fact that the film would OBVIOUSLY have been improved by the eruption of a mushroom cloud at this juncture sadly did not occur to anyone with the clout to make it happen.

Department of the Interior is RIGHT!

UNKNOWN WORLD stars The Girl; Deerslayer; Tiny Davis; Dr. Heinrich Von Loeb; Red Ryder; Leatherstocking; and Official (uncredited).

While you’re waiting for this to get the 4K Criterion treatment, buy my book! Is Your Journey to the Centre of the Earth Really Necessary? is available from Amazon UK, US, and everywhere else.

The Sunday Intertitle: Nightie swimming

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2020 by dcairns

The Mating Call from David Cairns on Vimeo.

THE MATING CALL (1928) is directed by James Cruze, whose films, though not often great, are agreeably peculiar. THE GREAT GABBO would be a terribly good example here.

This one is produced by Howard Hughes and was controversial, not for its Ku Klux Klan storyline, but for its nude scene by René Adorée (why do I say “by,” as if she authored it?). It’s pretty startling — frame grabs of my copy don’t work in terms of showing what the moving images so clearly displays. Let’s just say it wouldn’t have the effect it does if RA were not so clearly brunette.

Hughes was known to use the N-word regularly, and the depiction of the Klan (or “clan” — they’re not 100% identical to the real deal but the deniability is minimal) is as a bunch of vigilantes keeping erring townsfolk — drunks and wifebeaters — on the straight and narrow by terrorizing them. Or, in one particularly recalcitrant case, tying the perp to a cross and bullwhipping him. The race angle is largely absent.



The climax is typical of Hollywood vigilante movies — they get the wrong man, the hero, and tragedy looms. Kubrick, talking about why his humble narrator in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE had to be so very wicked, told Michel Ciment that vigilante movies always got it wrong by focussing on the danger of punishing the wrong man (THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, an excellent film, is the best example). But everybody always assumes they have the right man, and everybody knows the law makes mistakes too, so this argument wouldn’t ever sway a torch-burning mob. The argument should be about the wrongness of ex-judiciary punishment.


The movie, based on a Rex Beach source novel, ends with the vigilantes and cops faking evidence together to ensure a “just” outcome, making this probably the second most repellant Klan-based movie in Hollywood history. Apart from the nude scene. Although the general sexing-up of the issues involved calls to mind Terence Young’s gross THE KLANSMAN.


Under the Hood

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2018 by dcairns

If I was Kim Newman I’d begin this post on Spike Lee’s BLACKKKLANSMAN by pointing out the existence of the 1966 Ted V. Mikels joint THE BLACK KLANSMAN, and the black sort-of klansmen in SHOCK CORRIDOR and THE KLANSMAN (O.J. Simpson, name-checked in Lee’s film). And then reference THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, Ivan Dixon’s genuinely revolutionary version of the conceit, in which a black man joins the CIA to learn guerrilla techniques he can use in the struggle. But I’m not Kim Newman. I don’t even own a cape.

I would cheerfully go along with the critical mainstream and call this Lee’s best film in years, but I stopped watching his stuff around the time of SUMMER OF SAM, which I thought was really hatefully ill-thought-out. Lee was attacked for exploiting real-life murders in a way that seemed, and was, unfair, since nobody, or nobody much, ever used similar grounds to attack Richard Fleischer (COMPULSION, THE BOSTON STRANGLER et al), Richard Brooks (IN COLD BLOOD) or the countless other filmmakers to labour in the true crime genre. But Lee’s movie has, for example, a throwaway reference to THE FLY — a talking fly as part of the killer’s hallucination. Lee’s director’s commentary at this point explains his choice: “hommage to THE FLY.” But what he doesn’t explain is why he thinks that belongs in this film. (Lee has always had a screwed-up willingness to go a mile out of his way in order to include a meaningless and inappropriate hommage, and it still hasn’t left him, even in this much better movie.)

So, in a sense, the criticism of this film was justified — it used real-life murders as an excuse to include a joke about a fifties horror movie. If I were the relative of a victim, I’d be offended. In fact, I’m just someone who’s seen THE FLY and I’m still offended.

But I did belatedly see INSIDE MAN and liked it a lot, so I’ve been thinking about giving him another chance.

The Independent has a fairly good, informative piece on where Lee’s film departs from the facts of his latest true crime story — probably best read after you see the movie which, as I’m trying to imply, is well worth seeing. The screenwriters seem to have invented A LOT, though the story’s unlikely set-up is indeed “fo’ real.” I wondered, after reading it, if the film’s romantic interest even existed in reality. The piece doesn’t tell me. She’s at the centre of an ethical dilemma involving the hero — is he sleeping with her while undercover? — which the movie never answers. (Turns out she didn’t exist — the real Ron Stallworth had already met his future wife before this story begins.)

The movie is shot on 35mm for an authentic blaxploitation look, although the design seems to consistently situate it bang in the middle of that decade. Nothing said 1979 to me, although maybe Colorado Springs moved a touch slower than elsewhere. Having just watched THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT, whose attention to verisimilitude was a little marred by some unconvincing wigs and cookie-dusters reminiscent of Spike Jonze’s Sabotage video, I was relieved that the wig-work here was convincing and, to me, the movie didn’t cross over into seventies parody. Any time you watch an actual blaxploitation movie, there will be several costumes worn in apparent earnest that you could never use with a straight face in a modern movie set in that period.

What the movie does give us is some excellent performances — John David Washington is an instant star, funnier than his famous dad, Adam Driver is as good as we’ve come to expect, and there’s an extremely powerful cameo from Harry Belafonte which forms a major part of the best sequence I’ve ever seen from Lee. Now THAT’S an hommage, if you like. (Lee’s always been good at finding roles for iconic black actors, and I’m grateful to him for giving Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis plum late-life parts). And at the end there’s one of his patented dolly-the-actors-with-the-camera shots, and it’s the best iteration of that particular conceit I’ve seen from him. And I got a fleeting sense, from the way the movie folds in bits of Griffith’s BIRTH OF A NATION and implicates it in the resurgence of the Klan, that the technique has some special meaning for Lee (it must, for him to use it so insistently), having something to do with the intrusion of movies into life.