Archive for The Phantom Carriage

The squeaky wheel of Death

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , on December 27, 2012 by dcairns

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Over at The Daily Notebook, an all-too-brief, but undeniably seasonal edition of The Forgotten.

Film Stocking Fillers

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2011 by dcairns

A wild west Christmas tree from LES PETROLEUSES.

I hate lists, generally — too much film writing is based on the list structure, and at this time of year, “best of” lists proliferate horribly. But if I’m honest, the reason I never participate in them is I can never remember whether I saw something in the last year or the year previous. Or the year before that.

However, the idea of a list of neglected Christmas movies did seem potentially worthwhile — if you have access to nay of the below, or they turn up on TV, they might plug an otherwise unproductive gap in your schedule as you lie replete with turkey and pudding, or might even unite homicidal family members in yuletide bliss for ninety minutes. Anyhow, they’re all films I like, and many of them can be explored further on this site or elsewhere — links will be provided.

REMEMBER THE NIGHT — the first Christmas edition of The Forgotten focussed on this lovely genre-twisting 1939 charmer from screenwriter Preston Sturges and director Mitchell Leisen. What begins as a contrived screwball comedy, with assistant DA Fred MacMurray saddled with jewel thief Barbara Stanwyck over the holidays, dips a toe into rustic tragedy, settles into bucolic sentiment, then takes a side-swerve into near-tragedy. While Sturges typically pulled tonal shifts out of a seemingly bottomless hat and shuffled them like playing cards, here the film sticks to each emotion long enough to settle, which makes the mood swings all the more surprising, but also effective. And it captures some of the authentic family experience — good and bad.

L’ASSASSINAT DU PERE NOEL — not as iconoclastic as it sounds. Christian-Jacque directs this snow-bound murder mystery, with Harry Baur as a definitive Santa. The opening titles, where he lumbers, Frankenstein-like, out of darkness, sets a disquieting tone otherwise eschewed in favour of the peculiar cosiness a good whodunnit so often generates. An air of magic fringes on Cocteau territory, the feelgood fuzziness of the ending is accompanied by the funniest wrap-up to a mystery I ever saw.

LYDIA — Julien Duvivier’s not-exactly-remake of his own CARNET DU BAL doesn’t come on strong as a Xmas flick, but there’s enough studio-bound sleigh-ride romance to make it qualify. You may NEED to shed those tears, this time of year — otherwise you’ll be lugging them around in your ducts like ballast for another twelve months. No movie with Merle Oberon and three suitors sitting around with great wads of latex all over their heads should have any claim on our emotions, but this one does.

THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG — I like it when the Christmas spirit ambushes you, leaping from behind an Esso station and slugging you across the skull with a sack of presents when you’re least expecting it. And said spirit includes a fair share of melancholy, right? Of course, not every film with snow at the end is a Xmas film — I wouldn’t make that claim for FAHRENHEIT 451, although come to think of it, that red fire engine is kind of festive.

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE — the concentration is on New Year’s, an even more tragic and melancholy time than Xmas, but this still counts. The Sjostrom version is a true classic, but the Duvivier remake deserves more love too — it has Louis Jouvet, and amazing constructed snowscapes, and the same morbid, redemptive storyline: it’s a little like Scrooge, only he has to die.

Stuff I saw on TV as a kid which I haven’t revisited recently enough — Chuck Jones’ A Cricket in Times Square and its sequels, the Harry Alan Towers production of CALL OF THE WILD (with an epic, emotive Mario Nascimbene score), and the Richard Williams animation of A Christmas Carol.

Your own suggestions, please!

The Sunday Intertitle: Quick, a Cognac!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2009 by dcairns

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“Chapter 3, in which two mysterious cars play a major role, and a young woman appears who, for the time being, wishes to remain anonymous (Mady Christians), as she is being pursued by a descendant of Ivan the Terrible (Robert Scholz).”

Along with the fantabulous MABUSE box set I got from Masters of Cinema for being clever, along came a complimentary set of Murnau’s PHANTOM and THE FINANCES OF THE GRAND DUKE. Now, PHANTOM is the one with the reputation, and since you can see Murnau rehearsing the psychological effects of THE LAST LAUGH (a street that topples over to crush the protagonist, mentally) and hijacking Sjostrom’s transparent coach from THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE, it is probably the film upon which most attention deserves to be focussed.

But FINANCES surprised and kinda tickled me. Most commentators consider Murnau to be less than perfectly suited to comedy, and FINANCES is a sort of Ruritanian romance with Lubitschian undertones. Langlois reported that his top cinephages (including Godard?) had to sit through three back-to-back screenings of it until they could venture a hypothesis as to what the devil old FWM was playing at. I found it diverting, and actually fairly funny.

As rom-com, the film does have disadvantages. As the title suggests, high finance plays a role in the narrative, which doesn’t sound too promising. Said narrative is the work of Thea Von Harbou, proboscis monkey-faced Nazi and wife of Fritz Lang, not usually associated with puckish wit or drollery. And the supporting cast includes Max NOSFERATU Schreck, as “the sinister one” — damn you, typecasting!

This makes me think of one of Art Linson’s stories: he was thinking of casting Willem Dafoe (who would go on to reprise Schreck’s most famous role in SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE) in a comedy, and asked his wife, “Do you think Willem Dafoe could make you laugh?” “I don’t know,” she mused, “but I saw him smile once and I had nightmares for a week.”

vlcsnap-80616An unusually antic Mr Schreck (centre).

But oddly, it turns out that Max, largely confined to longshots, isn’t so very sinister as to make chuckles corpsify in the throat, Murnau is by no means ill at ease with the demands of the pacy caper, and Harbou can actually write gags. My favourite being when easy-come-easy-go hero Phillip Collin, boy reporter (Alfred Abel, 45) comes to the aid of a Princess in distress/disguise in a restaurant. She faints, overcome by emotion (something that happens a lot). Collin calls a waiter — “Quick, a cognac!” The waiter returns. Collin drinks the cognac. “I immediately get weak when anybody faints,” he explains.

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Elsewhere, we get people who disguise themselves as animals, professionally — for no reason; an “interesting” hand-held shot filmed from a docking rowboat; a vigorous hunchback; a full-scale revolution enacted apparently by four people; financial chicanery; a fast ship; escapes; captures; sulfurous caverns; and further confirmation of my pet theory that all the landscapes flown over in FAUST’s magic carpet ride are to be found in Murnau’s other films — here, it’s the dreamy Mediterranean vistas. And while the plot clearly takes place before the Russian Revolution of 1917, everything on display is pure 1920s chic.

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