Archive for The Man Who Haunted Himself

Chart a Course for Hell

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2015 by dcairns

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Once saw the last half hour of THE SHIP THAT DIED OF SHAME (1955) on TV and thought, That looked really good. Then forgot about it, mostly, and wasn’t even sure of the title, but when someone mentioned it in a comment here a while back, I remembered and made a mental note, and managed not to misplace it.

Basil Dearden directs, from a novel by Nicholas Monsarrat of THE CRUEL SEA fame. A British WWII gunboat sees active service, but after the war is bought up and used by three former crewmembers in a smuggling operation. In a semi-supernatural story element, the ship itself rebels against this dishonourable use. Dearden was very good with low-key occultism — he did some of the best work in compendium DEAD OF NIGHT, and THE HALFWAY HOUSE is not bad. His last film, THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF, is quite a bit cheesier, but its hoaky yarn of Roger Moore surviving a motorway crash only to be stalked by his doppelgänger gains a bit of atmosphere when you learn that Dearden himself subsequently perished in a smash-up on the same stretch of road depicted. Heart attack at the wheel.

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Here, he has a very sweet romantic couple, George Baker and Virginia McKenna, but that doesn’t last long, and then the film belongs to the blokes, with Baker lured into sin by a mephistophelean Richard Attenborough. Bill Owen, Roland Culver and Bernard Lee class up the joint.

There are many Richard Attenboroughs — you could say he was underrated, or that some of his aspects were.

Stout, dependable Dickie barely gets a look-in here, except as a front for devious doings.

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We do gets suggestive flashes of Psycho Dickie, the compelling front man of BRIGHTON ROCK and 10 RILLINGTON PLACE — Fiona’s favourite Dickie. She was shocked to find how sexy his Pinkie was. The dead-eyed lizard stare is something he does extremely well.

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Shitty Dickie, however, is much to the fore — the same spiv-like wide-boy foregrounded in THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, PRIVATE’S PROGRESS, I’M ALRIGHT JACK, ONLY WHEN I LARF (for Dearden again). He’s awfully good at subverting his own pleasant persona. It’s often the way — actors who have a sweetness about them are always particularly loathsome when they get to play baddies. Tough guys in baddie roles are never so horrible (apart from Mitchum in CAPE FEAR). Think of Robin Williams; utterly unapologetic when cast as nasty pieces of work, but sometimes too ingratiating when playing sympathetic.

Baby Dickie, the limpid-eyed, star-child of the forties, is barely to be seen, the overlay of years having modified his Starchild face to something able to suggest a touch of the debauched.

Saint Dickie, the one who clones dinosaurs for all the children at Christmas, has not crinkled into being yet.

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Since this is an Ealing film, we can assume that the ship is The Ship of England. Boats are always societal microcosms — SAN DEMETRIO LONDON (1943) was about how, after the war, those who had taken part would share equally in the good fortune coming our way (studio head Sir Michael Balcom was part of a secret group tasked with preparing the nation for socialism). THE MAGGIE (1954) was a miniaturized Scotland, which is itself a miniaturized UK, and it’s about taking the Yanks for a ride, harmlessly, to skim a bit off their enviable wealth.

If the ship is always Britain, or the Empire, then this is Ealing’s bleakest statement about the post-war world, where the nation has sunk from self-sacrifice and daring during the war (not overly glamorized, though), to dog-eat-dog criminous capitalism. The only solution is to kill off the guilty and let the ship sink itself. Perhaps this pessimism has something to do with Balcom selling his studios to the BBC — he tried to keep the company going without a permanent base, but it inevitably fragmented and eventually submerged.

Flying Scots

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2008 by dcairns

Leisen shows his hand.

Mitchell Leisen’s Regency romp KITTY and Joseph Losey’s espionage caper MODESTY BLAISE don’t have much in common, or anything in common, really, but I am resolved to make a Fever Dream Double Feature of them.

I guess they do both have women’s names as titles, but the spurious point I’m going to concentrate on is the strange preponderance of Scots in both films. The Scots have been widely ignored in both British and American cinema (although not as badly as the Welsh, it should be admitted), so it’s always surprising to find a film with not only a single token Scot, but a handful of them stinking up the place.

Monica Vitti — not Scottish, alas.

MODESTY BLAISE continues Joseph Losey’s interest in the Celtic peoples, already well established by his use of Stanley Baker, whose Welshness he emphasised in BLIND DATE and EVA. Losey had a real passion for the intricacies of British society, particularly with regard to class, but also with the different tribes of Briton. Gordon Jackson’s little turn in BLIND DATE is an early example of the Scottish influence.

The first Scottish voice heard in MODESTY BLAISE is that of Alexander Knox, in reality a Canadian of Scots descent who had bought a home in the tiny town of Longniddry, just down the coast from Edinburgh. I made a film there once. Despite advantages of ancestry and habitation, Knox’s comedy Scotsman is more imaginative than realistic, bearing a close resemblance to Freddie Jones’s rogue psychiatrist in THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF. In other words, it’s a silly voice, and as such, quite amusing. The way to do a comedy Scotsman is to speak in a very high voice, with clipped diction, so each word is a Separate! Little! Squeak! The accent is usually Morningside, a somewhat fictitious form of posh Scots associated with the Edinburgh district of that name, and with Maggie Smith’s performances in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN  BRODIE and the HARRY POTTER films.

But making the Foreign Office chappie a Scot isn’t enough for Losey. He also has New Zealand man-of-many-accents Clive Revill play the arch-villain’s accountant, McWhirter (he also doubles as a comedy Sheik). Revill was a character star for about ten years, landing plum supporting roles and bringing a caricaturist’s observation to bear upon various Italian hoteliers, Russian balletomanes, English psychic investigators, etc. Then he suddenly stopped being somebody audiences had heard of, although he continues to this day, providing many voices for both animated and live action Hollywood films.

The third Scot is a surprise, since Terence Stamp’s character, Willie Garvin, while cockney through and through, sports a Scottish surname, dating back to 1651. Based on all this, MODESTY BLAISE must be Losey’s most Scottish film. Since the movie is to some extent a Bond spoof, maybe this is directed at Sean Connery, in some obscure way?

KITTY (1945) is a terrific period comedy-drama from the great Mitchell Leisen, who threw himself into the design and historical research work, without this time losing sight of the story and performances. Paulette Goddard gives possibly her very best performance, with a mostly convincing and always enjoyable cockney accent borrowed from Ida Lupino’s mum, and displaying physical comedy skills perhaps derived from her years as Mrs Charles Chaplin. Her Kitty starts as a buckle-thief, stealing footwear from gents dismounting from carriages, and rises through society until she’s on nodding terms with royalty, her voice having had the Henry Higgins treatment.

But the accents that concern me are northern ones. First, Mr. McNab, tailor to the film’s leading man, Ray Milland. McNab, as is too often the way with tailors, wants paid. Milland delays the dreadful hour by complaining about the quality of McNab’s workmanship. The jacket and waistcoat must be refitted before he will pay a penny. He will drop in on Mr McNab when he has time. The crisis is deferred and the stingy Scot sent packing. Alec Craig, a real Scot from Dunfermline, Fife, plays the role. By a startling coincidence, I’d just seen him play a man on a park bench in Jean Negulesco’s witty THREE STRANGERS (1946), his final performance (he died before the film came out).

Next, Milland turns his mind to fleecing another Celt, his neighbour, an ironmonger named Selby. By marrying Pygmalion-style reformed guttersnipe Paulette Goddard to the tradesman, Milland is able to secure a dower, plus whatever Paulette can steal from Selby’s strongbox. It all ends badly — for Selby. He’s played by an Englishman (gasp!), Dennis Hoey, who’s best known for playing Inspector Lestrade to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes.

Now widowed, Kitty/Paulette continues her rise up the social ladder by marrying the Duke of Malmunster, Reginald Owen. Owen’s a delightful comic player whom I mainly know from THE GOOD FAIRY. “Did you see his eyes,” remarks Frank Morgan in Preston Sturges superb script, “Like angry marbles!” Here he’s less angry but he’s very old, so the news of his son’s birth (in reality, the ironmonger’s) is a bit much for him. This sequence allows Leisen the opportunity for some amazing sustained camera moves, showing off his fantastic sets, gorgeous lighting, but also creating a slightly eerie effect. The character’s ill-health having been established in advance, the longer the sequence goes on, the larger Malmunster’s home is revealed to be, the more certain his eventual demise comes to seem.

It’s at this point that we meet the Scottish nanny. This film is dripping with Scots. This one is Glaswegian bit-part specialist Mary Gordon (no relation to namesake M, habitue of the Comments section here!), another graduate of the Sherlock Holmes series, having played faithful landlady Mrs Hudson. She can also be seen in THE BODY SNATCHER, bringing some much-needed local colour to the film (I might be the best person to write about that film’s Scottishness, its relation to Stevenson’s story and to history — I should do this), and she crops up in BRIDE OF FRANKESTEIN too, bringing still more disruption to a film that positively revels in the wanton clash of accent upon accent.

Thus to the memorial service, which is accompanied by bagpipes. I wonder if Leisen is attempting to make up for the sins of ARISE MY LOVE, in which Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script relocated the Hebrides to “off the coast of Ireland”.

OK, Mitch, we forgive you.

Jonesing

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2008 by dcairns

Freddie Jones, thespian genius, plays a rogue Scottish psychiatrist (R.D. Laing?) with the worst accent on record (Star Trek‘s James Doohan would laugh at it) who has seemingly invented a new form of therapy, based largely on burling the patient about in a swivel chair. The treatment relies on centrifugal force to bring hidden traumas out from the depths of the brain, where they lurk and fester, to the surface, where they can be drawn out through the skull by vigorous scalp massage.

THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF contains possibly Freddie Jones’ worst performance and possibly Roger Moore’s best performance. In a sad irony of fate, Jones’ performance is nevertheless BETTER than Moore’s performance. But it should be said: Moore is touching in some scenes and convincing in some scenes, and sometimes both at once. He does actually raise one eyebrow at a climactic moment, something he was ruthlessly parodied for doing on puppet sketch show Spitting Image: the Moore puppet would hoist one brow upwards, accompanied by the sound of a squeaking pulley, as if unseen stagehands were effecting this miracle of showmanship.

It’s unlikely that THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF ever really frightened anybody, but apparently the trailer did. Director Basil Dearden had a long but slightly unsatisfied career directing all kinds of material, but every now and then he would evince an astonishing talent for what Michael Powell would call The Composed Film, and Hitchcock christened Pure Cinema. The climax of DEAD OF NIGHT, where all the stories in the compendium crash together in a surreal nightmare mash-up, and the carnival scene of SARABAND FOR DEAD LOVERS both show this talent in full flow. Well, the climax of THE MAN WHO… is a bit like that, but not quite as good. Much of it can be seen in the trailer, including the glowing tinted lights and the astrological pool table. Heady stuff, I imagine, if you saw this trailer as a kid, and many did.

Those were the days when kids going to see Disney cartoons could be subjected to trailers for any old filth. I already blogged about my childhood encounter with GOODBYE EMMANUELLE, and my friend Robert’s viewing of trailers for TOMMY and  SHIVERS while on an innocuous visit to BAMBI? He didn’t venture back into a cinema for ten years.

The truly spooky thing about THE MAN WHO… is its onscreen-offscreen synchronicity. In the movie, Roger Moore survives a nasty car crash only to be persecuted by a malevolent doppelganger (also played, in an unforgiveable casting error, by Roger Moore. Two Moores is one-and-a-half Moores more than any decent film can sustain). In reality, Basil Dearden was killed on a stretch of road close to the film’s accident site, shortly after finishing it. While not quite as resonant as the tragic demise of F.W. Murnau, this incident does add a certain frisson of interest to Dearden’s final film.