Archive for The Maltese Falcon

The Sunday Intertitle: Domestic Blistering

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2021 by dcairns
Low-res turns Keystone’s crisply restored images into a grayscale version of the vile daubings of Jack Vettriano

Charlie is at home, with Mabel and their bawling infant. We haven’t seen him much in a domestic setting. Even when he’s at home, it’s usually been a boarding house or a hotel. So this is an interesting extension of the character.

Charlie is not particularly at home at home: he immediately kicks over a pot of boiling water, scalding his shoeless feet (we can see that he does not really need those big tramp shoes), then scorches himself on the stove. A series of rather ouchy, burny-burny gags. Each time he tortures himself he turns to Mabel reproachfully, as if it’s her fault. When she leaves, he reproaches the baby.

A cigarette hangs from his mouth. Charlie isn’t a heavy smoker on screen, but the dangling fag seems to suit him better than the clay pipe he sported last time.

That baby is not having a great time. Chaplin has met someone he can’t entertain. The kid seems to like Mabel better: her return actually stops the red-faced tyke from wailing. Also, weirdly, when Charlie starts improperly carrying the little beast around by the scruff of its Edwardian romper suit, it quietens right down. Seems to find the experience interesting. It would feel like flying, I suppose, only with an uncomfortable pressure in the crotch area.

Rather alarming gag where baby is playing with a real handgun while Charlie reads the paper. I’m reminded of the baby, fork and power socket gag in Mauritzio Nichetti’s ICICLE THIEVES: it depends on the audience’s understanding of the filmmaker’s goodwill: they’re not going to have anything actually terrible happen. The fact that Charlie is also reclining in the baby’s crib barely registers in the midst of this outrage.

A subplot is generated: Helen Carruthers is playing Clarice (a name with now-inescapable Lecterish associations), and she asks Ambrose (Mack Swain) to mail a letter which is addressed to her lover. Ambrose is married to Phyllis Allen, Keystone’s resident Marie Dressler type. Now read on…

Louis Reeves Harrison of the Montgomery Journal wrote this positive review about HIS TRYSTING PLACE: “The comic spirit is entirely too deep and subtle for me to define. It defies analysis. The human aspect is certainly dominant. It is funniest when it is rich in defects of character. The incongruity of Chaplin’s portrayals, his extreme seriousness, his sober attention to trivialities, his constant errands and as constant resentment of what happens to him, all this has to be seen to be enjoyed.” He then describes the burning stuff as if it were the highest of comedy, which in screen terms I guess it just about was at that time. Chaplin is interested in comic behaviour beyond the narrow Keystone limits of punching and kicking, and that’s all new in 1914.

Mack Swain exits his apartment building, sucking on the head of his cane in a perfect anticipation of THE MALTESE FALCON’s Joel Cairo.

Charlie also heads out, after giving a quick brush to his coat, boots, and fingernails (with the same brush, obvs). Mabel is distraught at his desertion, which is inexplicable really. Baby really brightens up for the first time, and is all excited about somebody standing just off-camera. The actual parent/orphanage superintendent? Before Charlie’s gone, however, there is some actual affectionate byplay between man and wife, and we learn that the baby’s name is Peter. I should go back in and use his name when referring to him, shouldn’t I?*

The family scene is so cute, Chaplin cuts in for a closer look. Then he leaves, blowing his nose on the doormat. This gag, like the brush one, satisfies two requirements at once: it displays Charlie’s grottiness; and it showcases his ability to repurpose or transform the common day-to-day objects of life.

Comedy racism! A black teenager loitering by the store is introduced with the title card A DARK OMEN. One would like to think that Chaplin wasn’t responsible for this cheap shot. I know, let’s blame Syd. He did rework the titles on a lot of his half-brother’s Keystone flicks, generally to add cheap(er) jokes exactly like this one. (The card is absent in the current YouTube copy, thankfully.)

Then, while Charlie’s in the store, since the jump cut hasn’t been invented yet, we cut to a close view of Mabel playing with her little Peter. It’s nice to see her being maternal, although this manifests itself in a very Keystone way: making baby kick himself in the face. Which, to be fair, he seems to really enjoy.

The black kid’s narrative purpose, now we cut back to him, seems to be to make fun of Charlie for buying a kid’s toy. And since I sense the toy is going to be significant later, really the black kid is there to make the toy-buying vaguely entertaining.

Now the farce aspect of the film starts to build, as Charlie and Mack Swain are going to meet at a lunch bar. The place is populated by exaggerated comic types: Filthy Overalls Man and Long Grey Beard Man.

Note something exciting: as Charlie pauses outside, we can see a herd of cows pass by, reflected in the window pane. L.A. was really still a frontier town, it seems.

More repurposing of the everyday: Charlie wipes his hands on the old guy’s beard. This is also another kind of transmutation, making Beard Man into an object. Suddenly I realise that Charlie’s jacket is in better nick than usual. As befits a husband and father, his whole look is less tramp-like. But this is definitely the same character, fairly well-established now.

Charlie in medium shot reacts to Mack’s soup-straining. Always interesting to see the people a little closer in their face-paint, even though the visual comedy usually require head-to-toe framing, which Chaplin provides. He’s starting to learn when closer framing can add something.

When the meal breaks into a brawl, it’s definitely more comic in wide shot. A pie is flung by Chaplin — and misses! And an intertitle helps us understand that Mack has fled with the wrong overcoat. Charlie flings a second pie which Kuleshovs from the film set into the street location across town and strikes some smartly-dressed rando, splurch in the kisser.

Charlie makes a magnificent exit in triumph, twirling his cane, accidentally smacking the counter with it, and spinning round at the noise in aggression/panic at the “noise”, not realising that he is himself the source. It’s by now fully apparent that Chaplin can take something ordinary, an exit, simple A-B stuff, and imbue it with comedy value and character, which his co-stars hadn’t really thought to do (maybe Arbuckle, a bit? and in France, Linder). They needed all that frenetic pace because without it, the knockabout would have been interspersed with dead air as the comics trotted from set-up to set-up, powerless without a a brick to throw or a hammer to swing. We’re also told that Chaplin had particularly concentrated on his exits and entrances because he knew the Keystone cutters wouldn’t be able to delete those.

The inevitable Echo Lake Park, with its distinctive bridge. Mack meets his Mrs. The swapped coat is going to come into play soon. It’s a ticking time bomb made of cloth.

Charlie returns home and Mabel, in her joy, burns him with the iron. He’s going to look like Freddy Krueger by the end of this one.

Now, looking for baby Peter’s present, Mabel finds the incriminating letter from Clarice. Is it made more incriminating by the fact that Clarice never sealed the envelope? I suppose it is. It doesn’t make any sense, but never mind, it fulfills the basic requirements of a domestic misunderstanding (the bar is set low on such things, as a glance at real life will tell you).

Hmm, Clarice has written “I could not live without seeing you again,” which is a bit scary since her letter now looks like never being delivered. Is the movie going to end with her lifeless body being fished from Echo Lake? Or will little Peter lend her his handgun? I do hope not.

Mabel reads the note and blows her top. The best bit is breaking the ironing board over Charlie’s head. (Missing from current YouTube version!) Probably the least painful thing that’s happened to him at home, if you think about it. I wondered for a moment if she might hit him with Peter, but she showed admirable restraint.

The same cannot be said for Mack Swain’s performance as he canoodles with Carruthers, sucking his cane in false-moustache ecstasy.

A kop appears, as is customary. He diagnoses Charlie as nuts after observing his distrait manner. Charlie then accidentally sits on Carruthers, which leads to striking up a conversation with her —

As if in a nineteen-tens version of TROP BELLE POUR TOIS, Mabel now comes to suspect that her husband is cheating on her with the matronly Carruthers. How could he? Or why would he? The ways of love are strange. But nothing a smack in the face with a loose jacket can’t fix.

Really great marital slapstick as Mabel beats up Charlie in and around a bin. These two play so well together now. (“You’re not my type. And I’m not yours,” Mabel told Charlie when he tried to flirt.)

Meanwhile, Helen Carruthers finds the baby’s bottle intended for small Peter, inside what she believes to be her husband’s coat. The implications are clear.

Swain finds Mabel raging, and attempts to console her, a good, or at any rate good-sized Samaritan. This earns him a kick up the arse from Charlie, something made inevitable by composition, framing, posture, anatomy, the whole enchilada. Rather than going for surprise, Chaplin builds up to the arse-kick with ritualistic care.

Mabel kicking Charlie so he head-butts Mack in the midriff and propels him into the bin is also rather beautiful. Simple knockabout has come a long way in a year. Keyestone always had these guys with amazing physical skills (circus artistes, many of them), but you didn’t see the gags cleanly played in suitable dramatic circumstances until around now.

Mabel starts yanking Charlie about by the collar and he does the accelerated motion head-waggle he’s make good use of later when Eric Campbell got him by the throat. This is, I think, its first appearance.

The kop turns up, holding the (abandoned) baby, and there’s a beautiful group scene of everyone trying to act normal for his benefit. Amazing.

Everything gets resolved. Then Charlie hands over the stray love letter and lands Mack right in it. We end, however, with a charming family scene, Mabel and Charlie and little Peter who, reunited with his father, starts bawling again.

*Did I remember to do that?

Warren William Weekends

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2020 by dcairns

Fiona and I have been having Friday evening watch parties with friends… for some reason we’ve settled on Warren William as the centre of the cinematic universe. We started with the Lone Wolf series, to which we may return like a lone wolf to its vomit, but we moved on to GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1933 where he gets to play a fatuous character instead of just playing a regular character in a fatuous manner (I LOVE WW’s fatuousness) and thence on to his Perry Mason films, which are of a slightly higher standard than the Lone Wolves — less generic, more eccentric. Since Mason doesn’t have a regular comedy sidekick or any regular co-stars, he gets to more comedy himself and this is no bad thing. Though of course Eric Blore would always be welcome.

Speaking of casting irregularities, we wound up watching THE CASE OF THE BLACK CAT which does NOT have WW in it. Riccardo Cortez who, like WW, had unsuccessfully played lead in a version of THE MALTESE FALCON, unsuccessfully plays lead here. He’d soon start directing films for Fox, not one of which is available even as an illegal download. That’s how good he was.

But the first film in our double-feature, THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE features a really ebullient turn by WW with professional sidekick Allen Jenkins backing him up, and strong support from character wizards like Olin Howland, Warren Hymer and Maya Methot. Michael Curtiz directs with a rocket up his arse and somebody’s just handed editor Terry Morse a shiny new optical printer so every scene ends with a zoom-in and blur effect FOR NO REASON. Morse later got the job of shoving another Perry Mason, Raymond Burr, into GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS. Stick with me, kids, it’s not much fun but it’s educational.

GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1933 stars Michael Lanyard; Lady Fingers; Hattie ‘Mom’ Frink; Peggy Sawyer; Philip Marlowe; Scattergood Baines; Caterpillar; Kitty Foyle; Screwball; Sir Alfred MacGlennon Keith; Chico; Sgt. Dickens; Max Jacobs; Montague L. ‘Monty’ Brewster; Sermon; Helen St. James; and the voice of Winnie the Pooh.

THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE stars Philo Vance; Doris Kane (Leo); Perry Mason; Vivian Rich; Jonathan G. ‘Goldie’ Locke; Steve Wilson; Lt. of Detectives Dundy; Inez Cardoza; Angelface; Mr. Davis – Schoolteacher (twice); Judge Thatcher; Uranium Prospector (uncredited); Peter Blood; Zedorah Chapman; Aramis.

THE CASE OF THE BLACK CAT stars Sam Spade; Tommy Thomas; Marie Donati; ‘Snoop’ Davis; Player Eating Bonnie’s Chicken (uncredited); Wild Bill Hickok; Colonel Skeffington; Sheriff Prettywillie; Mr. Waterbury; and Wax Figure (uncredited). Let’s face it, this wasn’t a stellar cast.

Grift to the Scaffold

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2019 by dcairns

Yes — THE GRIFTERS stands up well. I was maybe a little underwhelmed in 1990, though I saw Stephen Frears do a Q&A on it and that was fun. In fact, it’s excellent. Stylistically, Frears was probably at his most assured — the opening split screen should go further, I feel, and the magnificent blocking in the hospital waiting room confrontation isn’t quite as dazzling as the way the characters prowl around each other in DANGEROUS LIAISONS, but it’s still hugely effective, and the three stars are tops.

I was very slightly sceptical of David E.’s assertion that the film presciently captures the state of America now — but I immediately noticed that, while the film opens with a quotation designed to acquaint its audience with the outdated term in the title, that term is now being slung around by both US political parties. Though I think the word GRIFT may soon be replaced by the word GRAFT, which seems really useful in today’s emulumental world.

Frears, as I recall, affected a complete disinterest in John Cusack’s previous career — “I gather he was in some sort of teenage things” — THE SURE THING, for one, is excellent, as I recall — Cusack has got IT, in the best Elinor Glyn sense of the word. Frears talked about auditioning various people for the role of Lilly, and sensing how the film would be good, but entirely different, depending on who he chose. With Sissy Spacek it would have been about class, and white trash aspiration, but with Anjelica Huston it was going to be Greek tragedy. Complete with descent into the Underworld.

He acknowledged that the last but one scene — AH descends in a Fatal Elevator — was a hommage to her recently-departed father and THE MALTESE FALCON. I can’t understand, watching it now, why the film doesn’t end on this sensational pair of shots, instead of frittering out into a routine car on road fade-out.

He talked about the horrifying oranges scene, with Pat Hingle, and how watching Huston’s devastatingly convincing pain was “one of those days when you wonder why you do this job,” because it was so distressing to watch.

Annette Bening is interesting — I think she can seem kind of phony-saccharine, but here she’s phony-sexy and it’s perfect. Fiona did question why she had to be naked so much and was the only one doing it, but I guess she’s the one who uses sex as a weapon so there’s SOME justification.

I can’t, damnit, remember any discussion of screenwriter Donald Westlake.

Cute in-joke in the signage, which references two of Westlake’s many nommes des plumes. He does quite a bit of this winking in his pseudonymous novels.

There was some chat about OA Jim Thompson and how, though he wrote about low-lifes, he was very happy to see big movie stars cast in his stuff.

Delirious from his stomach injury, Cusack hallucinates a see-through mentor — like Obi-Wan? Or maybe the reference is to the tormentingly translucent Julie London in THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, whose co-star Henry Jones appears in this movie.

I think maybe I expected more twists, but I was glad it didn’t try to fool us too much. I always thought HOUSE OF GAMES was an awful piece of junk, depending for its success on the audience, and the lead character, never suspecting that the con artist characters might be orchestrating a con. So really THE GRIFTERS is about character, not convoluted tricks of narrative or “big store” schemes.

I also really like the way it’s set in a contemporary 1990 world with chunky computers and everything, but manages to feel much older, 1940s maybe, without this coming across as affectation or anachronism. Very hard to do. Neo-noir is nearly impossible to do, I think, without coming off all arch. Elmer Bernstein’s score is a big part of it, as are the costumes, the dialogue, the performances…

THE GRIFTERS stars Morticia Addams; Martin Q. Blank; Supreme Intelligence; Mousie; Commissioner Gordon; Baxter Wolfe; John Ehrlichman AND Bob Woodward; Mr. Pink (uncredited); and the voice of Vincent Van Gogh.