Archive for The Lady from Shanghai

Axe and ye shall receive

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2022 by dcairns

Having taken care of my curiosity about DEMENTIA/DAUGHTER OF HORROR, I thought I might as well tick off DEMENTIA 13 as well — I’d failed to watch it on VHS when I rented it from Alphabet Video back in those days, put off by the pan-and-scan and muddy sound and so on. Now you can see it properly, or nearer properly.

Written and directed by Francis Coppola before he added the Ford, subtracted it again, and then re-added it, DEMENTIA 13 can be regarded as the first film in his informal Irish Trilogy. He followed it with FINIAN’S RAINBOW, you may recall. The third film in the trilogy, CUCHULAIN VERSUS VICTOR MCLAGLAN, has yet to occur to him.

Bits of DEMENTIA 13 are the work of Jack Hill, I believe, brought in to rescue the results of Coppola’s very short shoot, done on the back of Corman’s TOMB OF LIGEIA. I recall being told, though it may not be true, that Roger snapped a pencil when he saw Coppola’s edit, the strongest emotion anyone could recall him ever displaying.

Despite this, if it’s true, the film is rather accomplished. The acting inclines to the “over” variety — and I’m not even particularly talking about Patrick Magee. In scene one the scheming blonde femme fatale has to monologue about her problems and objectives, and that tendency to spell things out for the viewer creeps into most of the actors’ work, whether it’s by arching an eyebrow here or stressing a syllable there. Rather than being simple and truthful, they’re trying to tell the story. A lesson Coppola quickly learned.

The only performance that reaches the heights of entertaining badness is that of Karl Schanzer, cast as “Old Simon”, an aged poacher. Apparently no suitable actor could be found in Ireland so a 31-year-old schmoe from Connecticut is equipped with a bogus cookie-duster and turned loose with a stage brogue calculated to make Orson Welles in LADY FROM SHANGHAI seem like Brendan Gleeson. It’s not his fault, though. (Thinking about it, all Old Simon’s scenes may have been shot back in the States as pick-ups to add a bit more mayhem, which would account for the odd casting.)

I’m not usually sharp-eyed about continuity errors (but I spot mismatched angles) but when the scheming female dives into a pond in her underwear (to plant some dollies on a string — useless to ponder why) I did notice that her panties changed from white to dark grey (who knows what colour they really were?). And then, as I had guessed, we were into the fairly effective murder sequence Coppola filched and played on a psychedelic nightclub wall in YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW. So that was kind of a spoiler.

It’s a shame to lose Luana Anders, though, she’s the most interesting character — even though she’s a bitch, she has clear goals and is an active schemer. We’re supposed to empathize with the nice girl, Mary Mitchel, but she’s not given any particular needs or wants for us to get interested in.

Now that I can see and hear the film clearly, it’s striking how generally elegant and tasteful Coppola’s filming is. This is not the work of a kid drunk with the possibilities of film, floundering in all directions — he knows what he wants and why he wants it.

One problem: I’m two-thirds of the way through and there are two main suspects. I feel like I won’t be at all surprised whichever of them it is. And I won’t be surprised if it’s somebody else, though I might feel cheated as we’ve had a good look at the killer in silhouette and he’s obviously male, not old, not Patrick Magee. So let’s see if the movie, patterned largely on PSYCHO but with traces of the gothic and LES DIABOLIQUES, can pull off a legit twist.

(We might not expect it to, since Coppola sold the idea to Corman with an improvised set-piece scene, and then concocted a story to go around it, like that weird collar Kermit the frog wears.)

OK, fifteen minutes from the end there’s a big reveal, in which suspicion is lifted from one of the main characters. At this point I decided it was definitely him, on the basis that his being guilty would have the strongest impact on the heroine. (I reached the same conclusion with JAGGED EDGE, the first version of Joe Erzterhaas’ only story.) And I count this as a victory because five seconds later the movie revealed that it was indeed him.

(But there might still be another twist in store.)

Yay! Another twist! Not exactly clear how the first twist is invalidated, it just is. Forget you saw the incriminating clue. But the ending has some strong moments even if it’s wildly unsurprising in plot terms — Patrick Magee turns out to be THE HERO of the film — mud and blood are photographically identical in b&w and so the film is able to deliver some powerful images of abjection without bringing down the censor’s blade — it’s quite a nice tale, on a par with Hammer’s DIABOLIQUES knock-offs, though those sometimes had actual surprise endings.

DEMENTIA 13 stars Koloth; Ellen Sands; Hank (uncredited); Script Supervisor (uncredited); The Chevalier du Balibari; Eileen O’Leary; and Schlocker.

The Sunday Intertitle: The King Gets Off

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2022 by dcairns

Intertitle from THE SACRIFICE, a stupid home movie made by Lord Mountbatten at the time of THE CIRCUS’ shooting, and starring Chaplin as a South Sea tribal monarch. Badly shot, titled, acted, preserved and transferred, it makes me resent every second Chaplin wasted hobnobbing with the upper class. But hey, it gives us a title! The first useful thing it’s achieved in almost a hundred years of existence.

“Sheer perseverance to the point of madness” was how Chaplin described his approach to getting ideas. The phrase could also apply to the shooting of THE CIRCUS — the film was completed despite a storm destroying the big top (a “blow-down” in carny-speak), lab problems which rendered several weeks’ worth of rushes unusable, a horrific divorce that halted filming for eight months (the show was “sloughed,” in carny terms), a fire which swept the Chaplin studio, destroying sets and equipment, and the theft of the entire circus train on location by a gang of playful students who were narrowly prevented from torching the lot for kicks. Several difficulties that the carnies don’t even have terms for.

With all that stress, little wonder that Chaplin omitted the film (and the marriage) from his autobiography.

By the time THE CIRCUS was released, there must have been doubts as to whether the public would even accept Chaplin again, so scandalous was his divorce. Among the lurid details exposed was Chaplin’s fondness for oral sex, then illegal in California (I believe it’s compulsory now). The sex secrets seem pretty innocent now, though Chaplin’s lust for teenage girls less so. He paid a penalty for that this time. One possible consequence is that the romances in Chaplin’s next few films become EXTREMELY chaste. Already, in THE GOLD RUSH, Georgia Hale is an impossible aspiration for Charlie, but she IS a sex worker, and he DOES keep her picture under his pillow. Future leading ladies are virginal, and so, it seems, is Charlie.

The film begins with a song Chaplin recorded himself when he scored the movie in 1970 — he seems to have rearranged the opening to introduce his co-star Merna Kennedy along with the song “Swing, Little Girl.” He makes sure to give himself a credit for this, whereas Josephine the monkey isn’t credited for her contribution, and Henry Bergman’s training Chaplin on the tightrope goes unmentioned. (As David Robinson points out, the hard-to-picture circumstances in which the portly HB acquired this knowledge are unrecorded by showbiz history, and this must be deeply regretted.)

The fun of the big top segues rapidly into dark melodrama as Kennedy’s ringmaster father looms over her with his whip. The score continues to play festive circus music, but more dimly, so this is score-as-source, a useful dramatic counterpoint to the cruel scene.

He’s even mean to the clowns: “And you’re supposed to be funny!” he snarls. So, two story problems are set up in under three minutes: Merna has a rotten father, and clowns aren’t funny.

At last — three minutes is plenty of time to spend waiting for Charlie — our star is introduced, “Around the Side Shows, hungry and broke.” Chaplin always, or nearly always, does something fun with his entrance, capitalising on the most famous silhouette in the business. Here he enters from the back, in longshot, as part of a crowd, from whom he instantly pops out via movement and costume.

This begins a complicated pickpocket routine which seems to find an echo a decade later in LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS. The broken-nosed thief (Steve Murphy, who also played louts for Keaton in SHERLOCK JR and Lloyd in SPEEDY), caught by his mark, plants the incriminating wallet on Charlie, and then has trouble getting it back.

But this gag sequence is interrupted by another, in which Charlie robs a tiny child of his hotdog. It’s all done with kindness. Chaplin makes googoo faces at his mark-in-arms, charming him until he’s practically shoving the revolting meat product down the tramp’s throat. This kind of bad behaviour is whimsically charming, especially when Charlie adds ketchup to the r.m.p. The kid, in fact, does seem a bit eager to cooperate, and we cut just as he seems about to hand the entire bun to his robber.

Murphy now strikes, and is caught by a kop trying to steal from Charlie the wallet he’d previously stolen from (checks IMDb) Max Tyron, a German thesp whose only other known role is in GREED. Charlie is astonished at the recovery of a wallet he didn’t know he had, and his reactions as the kop makes him check the contents are a delirious dream. He’s having a good day, really, though a strange one.

Charlie, buying more meat, is apprehended by Tyron, who recognises his wallet and watch, and flees, joining Murphy, who has slipped away from the kop and is also fleeing. A moment of astonishment and irony as they recognise their shared situation. We can also appreciate Charles Daniel Hall’s sideshow sets.

The mirror maze sequence looks forward to LADY FROM SHANGHAI and back to the day in 1917 when multiple Chaplins were hallucinated all over America, and to various events in which whole crowds dragged up in tramp attire for a lark. Chaplin’s very uniqueness seemed to inspire fantasies of multiplication.

More false Chaplin as our man impersonates a jerking automaton on the front of the sideshow, taking the opportunity to repeatedly cosh Murphy when the crook is forced into a similar imposture. The fact of Murphy being unable to retaliate without breaking character (the kop is watching) is deliciously mean. Chaplin’s old bullying instincts get plenty of expression in his later work, but he’s careful to play an underdog who has only momentarily got the upper hand, and is making the most of it. I guess already here the circus is trying to absorb Charlie, or he’s trying to get absorbed by it, and it’s not quite happening.

Fleeing the last kop, Charlie finds himself in the ring where he disrupts the clowns’ act and the magic show and convulses a moribund audience. This gets him unexpectedly hired, and we enter into the section of the film dealing with Charlie as clown. Critic Walter Kerr is really harsh on this trope, seeing it as inescapably false: Charlie can’t get laughs by deliberate capering, only by accident. To Kerr, this is denying the hard work and artistry that goes into Chaplin’s work. He has a point, but I’ll try to mount another couple of readings of what’s going on here, and maybe offer a defence.

In Chaplin’s films, the other characters don’t normally find Charlie funny. We’re in on a joke they’re not in on, and that he’s not generally in on, which gives us a slightly smug feeling of superiority and therefore a comic distance from the action.

Chaplin’s films, clearly, are happening in a comic universe, in which situations we find absurd are treated with the utmost seriousness by all concerned. No doubt this is partly because it’s hard to see the funny side when you’re in trouble (“Comedy is a man in trouble.” ~ Jerry Lewis) but in a way that’s just an excuse to stop the characters laughing and make room for the audience to do so.

Certainly things get a bit mixed up when Chaplin, a silent clown, plays a man playing a circus clown in a movie. But I think we have to forget about this being Chaplin’s analysis of his own creative process: Kerr is right, it’s not an adequate portrayal of that. But I think it’s an excellent portrayal of something else Chaplin may have felt.

In the sequences where Charlie manages to make the circus customers laugh, he’s really experiencing serious discomfort or danger. This is analogous to Chaplin the artist’s situation: he presents his (real) suffering, and we the audience laugh at it. I think Chaplin may have sensed the strangeness of the way he was recycling his experiences of poverty and also loneliness (which continued, intermittently, long after he became hugely successful) and getting big laughs with it.

We can also look at the character of the tramp as being different from Chaplin. The way one finds success as a clown need not be the way the other does it. In the comic universe of Charlie, what has to happen in order for his antics to be seen as funny, rather than irritating? (Most of the people he comes into contact with seem to find Charlie hugely annoying, which should be relatable for non-Chaplin fans, but doesn’t seem to help them any.) It seems that all he needs to do is step onto a stage or into a sawdust-strewn tent, and his floundering is seen as amusing. We may see some of this come back in LIMELIGHT, Chaplin’s other key film about performance (maybe MONSIEUR VERDOUX also counts?)

Act One of THE CIRCUS fades out with a title card and an image depicting Charlie’s new status, and his obliviousness to it. He’s asleep in a chariot, a vehicle with an air of pomp and regality to it, unaware that the world has repositioned itself under him while he slumbers…

Mondo Rondo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on January 29, 2022 by dcairns

I’ve just learned that I was runner-up for best interview, along with Daniel Ricuitto and our subject Barbara Steele, in last year’s Rondo Awards. Back in March. This was for the Sight & Sound piece which you can read here.

Good to know! I guess they didn’t know how to get in touch. If you ever see me nominated for anything, don’t assume I’ve heard about it.

More on Barbara soon…

Meanwhile, some limericks, this time about the 1950 D.O.A. (here, here and here) and Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI.