Archive for The Ladykillers

Route of all evil

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2022 by dcairns

Following Danger Man back to the native land of Bond, we discover Richard Johnson, who would play Bulldog Drummond in a couple of passable spy romps, working in a much more sombre and hard-edged thriller, DANGER ROUTE. Forgettable, generic title, and nearly a forgettable film, but it has moments.

It has a proper filmmaker in the director’s chair, too, though one in decline. Seth Holt would die during the shooting of his next production, BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB — an amusingly persistent case of hiccups turned out to presage a massive coronary. He’s on intermittently good form here — the inconsistent MUMMY movie is more persistently engaging, but he brings his talent fully to bear on the movie’s bitter climax.

The film is pitched somewhere between the brutality of Bond and the morose Le Carre worldview. Not so seedy, but grey and downbeat. Our anti-hero is a government assassin, and the first scene depicts two spymasters planning his final mission in a cinema (on the screen is the director’s previous film, STATION SIX SAHARA, an amusing in-joke though not as pointedly meta as the moment in CAPRICE where Doris Day hides from enemy agents in a cinema showing… CAPRICE), and the make it clear that if agent “Jonas Wilde” survives the job, a female agent has been put in position to destroy him afterwards.

There’s a distinct lack of glamorous locations — the Channel Islands are the height of escapism in this film, and the production values, courtesy of Amicus, are on the thin side, with unconvincing dioramas ob view through every window. Harry THE THIRD MAN Waxman is cinematographer, and the shots are sometimes expressive in a subtle way, but it’s no thrill-ride. A single Deutsch tilt, on a cross-channel ferry. The plot moves forward with some bold elisions, which helps a bit.

“A mountain of evil,” was Bette Davis’ summation of Holt on THE NANNY (probably his best film), which seems to have baffled his friends on the crew. There’s an intriguing comment also from his widow, who said that when Holt worked as producer on THE LADYKILLERS, rather than calming one another down, which is what both needed, they would tend to hype each other into a frenzy. Possibly that was good for the film?

A better script would help this one: good actors make a limited impression with thick eared, hackneyed dialogue. It’s not overtly clumsy but nobody comes to life. Johnson seems at home being glum and angry, but hits that same note too hard and often; Carol Lynley is seductive and sweet; Barbara Bouchet effective when mysterious, but when the mask comes off, what’s underneath is unconvincing; Sylvia Sims, Diana Dors, are as professional as ever, same for Harry Andrews, Maurice Denham and Gordon Jackson.

MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT

The final betrayal comes with a slick reversal — Johnson, a creature of habit, has fixed himself a Bacardi. He’s told by his girlfriend, Carol Lynley, that the ice cubes were poisoned — he’ll start to notice the creeping paralysis now.

He replies that the ice cubes are in the goldfish tank — he’s anticipated the betrayal.

His assassin looks to the tank, where the fish are floating lifeless — a school of substitute Johnsons. And Holt shows the next action — Johnson slaying his lover with one mighty chop — only in the shadow on the glass.

DANGER ROUTE stars Dr. John Markway; Ann Lake; Moneypenny; the Queen Mother; Frau Poppendick; Lord Lucan; Filipenko; MacDonald ‘Intelligence’; Professor Henry Harrington; Mime; and Kreacher.

Cheating

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2021 by dcairns

BITTER VICTORY, directed by Nicholas Ray, is really outstanding — it must have seemed even more striking in 1957, since it shows one British officer contriving in the death of another. It’s the same year as BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, which attempts to reduce warfare to “Madness!” but it goes much further, in that the real conflict is between two “brother officers” over a woman. In the event, the lush, colourful jungle movie made millions and won Oscars, and the dry, barren desert movie in b&w was mutilated differently for every territory and virtually vanished without trace.

But I want to talk about one cut. Godard, one of the few critics to praise Ray’s film, singled out the brio of the cutting in the early scene where the three principles meet. It’s a fine example of psychological editing, three medium close-ups interwoven in such a way that we think we’re following the words but it’s really thoughts and glances that motivate the changes.

But the sequence (really a couple of sequences) has one strikingly awry cut, when Richard Burton stands to leave. If you note the distance between Ruth Roman and Curd Jurgens, it goes from a cranny to a chasm all at once. It’s also an eyeline cross, since Jurgens and Burton, looking at one another, seem to be somehow looking in the same direction. Maybe that’s what stops Ray from getting away with it.

Because it’s not really a mistake, it’s what we in the business (or with a bare toehold in it, like me) call a cheat. Ray has rearranged the seating to make pleasing compositions. In theory, if the shots are pleasing and our eyes are drawn to the right parts of the frame, the disjuncture is erased and we simply see the drama. Unfortunately, the shots are arranged so that the Roman-Burton eyeline matches, but the cut happens when Burton is looking at Jurgens. So we’re being subliminally nudged to feel that something’s not quite right, and then there’s a strong chance we notice NOTHING IS RIGHT.

It’s a moment of uncertainty/discomfort, is all.

Here’s a whopping cheat from THE LADYKILLERS —

Astonishingly, this one works. Clearly, the gang of men are in two groups of two with a yawning abyss between them, and Guinness is separated in depth, and then suddenly they’re in a single line of four. The only consistent factors are Guinness’ distance from the others and his relationship to the door, and the ordering of the other goons, from left to right in shot one, and right to left in the reverse.

But Guinness in the foreground of shot two completely absorbs the viewer’s attention, and then Katy Johnson walks into what was virtually her POV, and that also distracts us. The two compositions are extremely pleasing and dramatic, the big point being made is that Katy’s position in the centre of frame/the lions’ den makes her seem vulnerable.

Director Alexander Mackendrick hasn’t finished screwing with us. After Guinness crosses frame in the second shot, he gives us a shot-reverse on Johnson and Guinness, decorating the background of each with two gang members apiece. This creates the visual impression that the guys are still standing in a line, but in fact each group must have shuffled several paces in order to appear in each frame, and the gap between them must now be an ocean. But onscreen it seems logical and continuous.

It’s worth remembering that Mackendrick was under the influence of the German expressionists, who would sometimes (according to Edgar Ulmer) build multiple sets for a single scene, each designed to look their best in one camera angle. Mackendrick is doing the same with human bodies, restructuring the whole set-up from shot to shot for optimum effect. Most filmmakers do this to a limited extent, except the multiple camera guys.

I just had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Ray, and we talked about the imperfections in her late husband’s films, and how Truffaut defended them by saying Ray got moments of emotional truth out of seeming chaos that other, more “professional” filmmakers never touched. “Do you know about wabi-sabi?” she asked.

BITTER VICTORY stars Mark Antony; Wernher von Braun; Anne Morton; Fantômas (voice, uncredited); Sir Andrew Ffoulkes; Professor Dippet; Col. Rice, Moon Landing Crew (uncredited); Scaramanga; Hercules; Lucky Dave’s Clumsy Barman. (uncredited); Windy; and Volumnius.

THE LADYKILLERS stars Obi-Wan Kenobi; Mr. Todhunter; Chief Insp. Charles Dreyfus; Inspector Jacques Clouseau; Morgan Femm; PC George Dixon; Miss Pyman; Bildad; Francis Bigger; Hengist Pod; Six-Eyes Wiener; Herod; Miss Evesham; Wally Briggs;

The Sunday Intertitle: Moriarty-craftsy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2019 by dcairns

I watched the John Barrymore SHERLOCK HOLMES because I’m going to be doing something about Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK, JR and I wanted to see if this film, released just a couple of years previously, had influenced it. Nothing very very specific, but a general sense that Keaton’s conception of his role and the world of Holmes had more to do with Albert Parker’s film than a close reading of Conan Doyle.

The film is pretty nice! I gave up on it one time before, mainly because it presents Holmes as a moony romantic lazing about country lanes, and knowing Watson when at uni. But it otherwise manages to fold Moriarty into Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia and has a very nice cast.

Roland Young in a silent film, hmm — apart from some good slouching, he kind of disappears when he can’t use his voice. But the film gives a lot of the sidekicking to a very young William Powell anyway. Fascinating to see both men with their own hair. (I’m obsessed with hair at the moment because my own hair is retreating like the Maginot Line.)

DW Griffith sweetie Carole Dempster is leading lady, and we get appearances by the likes of Louis Wollheim, instantly recognizable from the way his nose has been compressed into his head until it is visible as a small bump on the back of his neck, and David Torrence, whose brother Ernest would work with Keaton as Steamboat Bill, Sr, and play a memorable Moriarty in the enjoyable 1932 William K. Howard farrago.

Best of all is the Moriarty here, the magnificent, and magnificently named Gustav(e) Von Seyffertitz, the Greater Profile, whose drooping scarf and expressionistic gestures reminded me forcibly of Alec Guinness’s Professor M (for Marcus) in THE LADYKILLERS. Now, it’s known that Guinness modelled his teeth and cigarette-smoking on critic Kenneth Tynan (an actor’s revenge!) but I wouldn’t be surprised if he, or director Sandy Mackendrick, or the costume designer Anthony Mendleson, was influenced by Gustav(e)’s great look.

There’s a fairly purple intertitle gushing about the coldness of Moriarty’s blood —

It got me wondering if the scarf, and the claw-like, expressionistic hand gestures (another Guinness connection) were because Moriarty is literally cold all the time — he’s characterised as a kind of spider, and spiders always start turning up dead at this time of year. I like the idea of a villain whose cold-bloodedness causes him seasonal discomfort.