Archive for The Seven Faces of Dr Lao

The Man of Tomorrow

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2012 by dcairns

I had no fond memories whatsoever of George Pal and Byron Haskin’s THE POWER, but having enjoyed THE SEVEN FACES OF DR LAO so much on revisiting it, I thought I’d give it a try. Pal’s cinema seems to swing from the rather dry spectacle of WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE or DESTINATION MOON to something mixing the poetic and strange in with its pulpier elements, as in THE TIME MACHINE.

In fact, THE POWER is a good bit more interesting than I remembered — I’d probably never watched the whole thing, and had probably been put off by a certain surface blandness: late sixties studio espionage thriller + George Hamilton… it’s the kind of film where computers are all whirring tapes and blinking lights and everything is clean and colourful. But in fact I enjoyed it so much I might give DOC SAVAGE, MAN OF BRONZE a try next — now that was a film I couldn’t get along with as a kid at all.

So, there’s this top secret agency devoted to torturing people in order to test human endurance for NASA, but one day some intelligence tests reveal that one member of the team there has an abnormally advanced brain — so intellectually powerful that s/he can be assumed to have weird telekinetic abilities. This makes no sense, but everybody accepts the dubious logic even as they doubt the premise. And soon, somebody is causing the scientists to die, starting with LAO’s Arthur O’Connell, who falls into a trance and accelerates himself to death in a human centrifuge — cue a grisly makeup effect by William Tuttle —

George Hamilton goes on the run with Suzanne Pleshette (I’d like to team her with Diane Baker in something I’d call Hitchcock’s More Interesting Brunettes) and tries to trace a single name that could explain what’s going on. Along the way he meets — guest stars! Lots of guest stars! Yvonne De Carlo, Aldo Ray, Michael Rennie, Nehemiah Persoff and “Miss Beverly Hills.” It all ends in a spectacularly weird psychic face-off which should remind us of SCANNERS but actually gets into peculiar ALTERED STATES imagery — even including a shot of the hammer dulcimer that’s playing Miklos Rosza’s theme music, a shot that’s as non-diegetic as the music itself. That vaguely Eastern European sound always has the effect of making you see Reds under the beds in a film like this, which is ironic as this is one Cold War thriller in which neither the Russians not the Chinese play any role at all. Probably, when Homo Superior gets through with us, there will be no nations at all…

Miss Beverly Hills actually has some pretty interesting credits, but screenwriter John Gay (adapting a sci-fi thriller by Frank M. Robinson, who was Harvey Milk’s speechwriter and plays himself in MILK) takes the cake — Minnelli’s FOUR HORSEMEN, NO WAY TO TREAT A LADY, SOLDIER BLUE, A MATTER OF TIME… crazy stuff.

When I first saw this big old bag of mismatched elements, which feels like what you might get if you blended Gay’s entire CV in a human centrifuge, I wondered who the hell it was for, and I suspect 1968 audiences did too. But now I have the answer — it’s for me.

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Carnival of Latex

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2012 by dcairns

The red balloon.

7 FACES OF DR. LAO, an uncategorizable western fantasy from George THE TIME MACHINE Pal, achieves some of the grand, poetic, mysterious beauty it aims for, despite inexplicably looking like an episode of Star Trek much of the time — low-horizon prairie cyclorama sets alternating with overfilmed scrubland locales.

(Fellini claimed he felt surprise at seeing the Trevi Fountain still standing after he’d filmed it: like all sets, it should have been torn down after serving its purpose. And the camera is known to steal souls. By that logic, Bronson Canyon ought to have been erased by now, swept away by the camera pans restlessly caressing its boulders.)

I’m inclined to blame the cinematographer, Robert J. Bronner, an experienced MGM pro who did fine work on musicals like IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER and SILK STOCKINGS, but he employs the same bright, colourful look here — everybody else involved seems well aware that this is not, despite advertising to the contrary, a kids’ film*. What it needs are shadows, both to enhance mystery and to hide the cheapness of the sets. Few films would have benefitted more from black & white.

Pan pipes.

Or from Orson Welles behind the camera. George Pal is no Welles, but I don’t want to be harsh about him, because he got this made, and he occasionally pulls out just the right shots — as in the mad spinning of the Pan sequence. Sweaty, gasping Barbara Eden emotes hotly as the camera burls round her, and her POV is an incessant pan, following Pan, whose goat-legged prance is wonderfully antic and teasing but wouldn’t amount to anything were it not for the brazen eroticism of her performance…

I dream of Eden.

Whew. That’s one of the centrepiece good scenes, the others being the incredible, brutal demolition of a fading widow by the fortune-teller Appollonius, and the Giant Serpent’s take-down of bad guy Arthur O’Connell is equally harsh and memorable.

This is the original of what became Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (and then Stephen King’s It) but Charles G. Finney’s book (titled The Circus of Dr Lao) is sharper and weirder, since Lao’s circus is neither straightforwardly benign nor malign, it inhabits a Willie Wonka Wonderland of rather cruel magic working in the service of … what? Humanity? Or Dr Lao’s private amusement? Charles Beaumont, that excellent scribe of Twilight Zones and Corman Poes, softens Lao considerably and gives him a more linear mission statement, but traces of the original remain. In the most intriguing adaptations, not all the nails are knocked flat.

Pal’s performers are rather excellent. Eden does the buttoned-down librarian act rather well, but really throws herself into the unbuttoning. The Pan scene is about eroticism in a way that seems distinctly unusual, not just for a kid’s film, but for any mainstream Hollywood product. Sex is generally part of something else, love interest or plot point, to give it plausible deniability: this is about lust and frustration and how good/bad frustration feels.

THAT’S why I think of  Star Trek — the snowman could be the Salt Vampire’s twin!

Of course, Tony Randall is “the whole show.” With a series of excellent William Tuttle makeups (WT won an Oscar for this before the make-up Oscar actually existed) he plays Lao first as a crudely stereotyped “old Chinaman,” then with a standard American accent, suggesting that Lao is actually taking the mickey out of his listeners’ expectations, then with a series of disparate and mostly quite terrible accents — his Scottish one starts out sort of identifiable, at least, before morphing into (I think) Irish and (I think) Welsh. Rotten accents aside, it’s a terrific perf, or series of perfs: his abominable snowman is just a man in a suit; his Medusa is a memorable drag act, but basically just a single facial expression, Joan Crawford green lips parted in wickedness; but the sombre Apollonius, insinuating serpent (voice-work for a combined glove puppet and stop-motion creation), dithering Merlin and Lao are all exceptional characterisations. And we get a glimpse of the real T.R. too —

Holy crap, just realized that the shallow widow is Lee Patrick, Effie from THE MALTESE FALCON. (Somebody should write a series of detective novels about Effie. Well, they shouldn’t, but I’m surprised they haven’t.) We also get John Qualen, Miser Stevens from THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, doing one of his Yumping Yiminy turns.

Leigh Harline’s Chinese-Western score is very nice, and he finds, at last, a good use for the bagpipe: it makes the perfect sound to simulate the Loch Ness Monster inflating from minnow to plesiosaur — a combination of mass air-pumping, alien drone and screeching horror. Harline also scored Disney’s SNOW WHITE.

Nessie, animated by legend Jim Danforth, is a splendid creature, even if the optical work enabling her to interact with Royal Dano (who’s also in SOMETHING WICKED, oddly) and Tony Randall is distinctly sub-par, resulting not only in shimmering matte lines, but wild fluctuations of colour. Seems like rear projection would have worked better, but I don’t know if this problem was always apparent, or was caused by the film aging. Perhaps somebody out there can tell me? The other animation, on the Great Serpent, is remarkable for how smoothly integrated it is — most of the time, the serpent is a glove puppet, but for particularly tricky bits, like catching a cigar in his mouth, sucking it in and reversing it, he’s stop-motion.

And then there’s THIS psychedelic weird-out —

Young minds were warped… but then, that’s what they’re there for.

***

*It totally enthralled me as a kid, but that was because of its adult feeling, the sense of being let in on secrets normally forbidden to kids. Jan Svankmajer is very much opposed to the whole idea of films for children, feeling that they stifle imagination and infantilise us. His dream of an all-adult cinema is impossible, commercially, of course: the poor parents need something they can safely dump kids in front of without the momentary expectation of screeching trauma at the stuffed rabbit with the real tongue. What I’d settle for is kid-friendly films with adult themes — NOT a few adult in-jokes thrown in to divert the moms and dads, but actual issues dealt with in exactly as subtle and intelligent a way as we’d expect in good mature films. “But the kids won’t understand!” Yet kids cope with reality, on a day to day basis, without understanding that, either.

Let Lao explain it —

“The whole world is a circus if you know how to look at it. The way the sun goes down when you’re tired, comes up when you want to be on the move. That’s real magic. The way a leaf grows. The song of the birds. The way the desert looks at night, with the moon embracing it. Oh, my boy, that’s… that’s circus enough for anyone. Every time you watch a rainbow and feel wonder in your heart. Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel, there in your hand. Every time you stop and think, “I’m alive, and being alive is fantastic!” Every time such a thing happens, you’re part of the Circus of Dr. Lao.”

Kid: “I don’t understand.”

Lao: Neither do I. “

FC4: arty of the irst art

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2009 by dcairns

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In THE SEVEN FACES OF DR LAO, a rather beautiful movie and the best thing George Pal ever did, Arthur O’Connell has a conversation with an animated snake which is one of the most moving and remarkable conversations with animated snakes I’ve ever seen, and yes I do include Sterling Holloway in THE JUNGLE BOOK. So I’m always glad to see Arthur O’Connell in a movie, although I’m quite glad I don’t have to smell him in ANATOMY OF A MURDER, where I’d have whisky, cigarettes, and in one scene beer and hard boiled eggs to contend with. But fortunately, Otto Preminger, despite his modernist fondness for jazz soundtracks, Saul Bass credits, filming on location, defying censorship restrictions and using every inch of his wide screen, never made a movie in Odorama. Although if anybody had offered him Ottorama it’s unlikely his ego, as vast and shiny as his big bald head, would have allowed him to resist.

Maybe we should stop calling this Film Club and just call it John Qualen Club, since that lovely character actor, Miser Stevens in our first Film Club, is here again as the jailor. Or “yailor,” since he plays it with a Yumping Yiminy kind of accent.

Yes, I’m starting with the “little people” and working my way up. Will I even talk about the plot? Not sure yet.

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Eve Arden, as Jimmy Stewart’s legal secretary, very cool and appealing, one of the great secretaries, I’d say — she gets to do a little unpaid detective work on the side. Maybe because secretaries don’t have much to do in most films where they feature, I often wonder if they should be used more or if I like them because they’re effective in small doses? Like Sam Spade’s secretary, the marvellous Effie (Lee Patrick, in Huston’s film of THE MALTESE FALCON) is so capable — has nobody considered giving her a book of her own? Of course, a sequel to Dashiell Hammett would be blasphemous. But I do like Effie. Wait, Lee Patrick’s in DR LAO too? That’s just weird.

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Joseph N Welch, of “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” fame — an attorney playing a judge, and such a fair and mild and pleasant judge. In many ways ANATOMY OF A MURDER paints a rather unappealing portrait of the justice system — how do we read that last shot of a brimming garbage can? — but Welch does rather make me feel warmly towards the idea of human justice. Is it odd that an attorney would play a judge as such a charming and human fellow? At any rate, I’d want a judge like that if I ever put five bullets in anybody.

Good oily work from Murray Hamilton. Kathryn Grant, the future Mrs Bing Crosby, is stunningly beautiful and very good — and I’m delighted to see she’s got a substantial role in a new Henry Jaglom film. Anybody know anything about this?

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The first name in the list of minor players is George C. Scott, who really has a major featured role but wasn’t a big name yet. Nobody seems to get famous playing prosecutors, maybe because prosecutors in trial movies always seem dislikable — even though they’re just doing their jobs. Maybe that’s why Scott spent the next few years in TV, despite being sensational here.

“My God, George is sexy… even though he’s… practically deformed,”  gasped Fiona when she first saw this, some years back. And it’s true. His nose, sculpted by boxing gloves, forms a sort of pincer with his chin. His hooded eyes have a lizardly coldness. He makes little, tight smiles that admit no pleasure. And yet, sexy and dangerous. Given the character name, Clause Dancer, and his status as fancy city lawyer, you expect some kind of effeminacy, but George doesn’t deliver (might not be within his range, actually) except for the elegance of his movement, his immaculate appearance, and a slight fussiness (Brooks West, in real life the producer of Eve Arden’s TV show, does bring a little Franklin Pangborn to the role of DA).

Moving on up…

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Ben Gazzara carries a lot of the film’s ambiguity — one unstated theme is the uncertainty of anything we don’t personally see or hear, and how the courts try to stamp a mark of certainty upon past events but this has only a social meaning. So we don’t know quite what’s going on with Gazzara, though it’s fair to say we don’t like him. An unsympathetic client is pretty unusual in a courtroom drama. The fact that Gazzara seems guilty doesn’t mean he might not be innocent, but I think it’s pretty clear that the insanity defense is an act cooked up with some hints from Jimmy Stewart, who’s very scrupulous about not telling Gazzara what to say, but certainly points him in the right direction.

There’s one particular gesture where it looks like Lt. Frederick Manion is giving a performance for Stewart’s benefit… His description of his “irresistable impulse” is a lot like Ginger Rogers talking to Adolph Menjou in ROXY HART ~

“…and then everything went purple!”

“Purple?”

“Black?”

“Mmm, purple’s good… it’s new.”

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Lee Remick (replacing Lana Turner after an argument about costuming) — “That’s a very odd way to portray a rape victim,” said Fiona, and I once more agree. Again, part of the film’s deliberate neutrality on the question of guilt/innocence. Was Laura Manion raped? She doesn’t act like it. The only time she acts particularly upset is when Dancer challenges her story. Her flighty, flirtiness seems out of keeping, and I suspect Preminger has Remick her overstress it just to sew doubt in our minds. It certainly appears, from all outward evidence, that the rape took place.

Given her airhead detachment, Laura shouldn’t be that appealing but somehow Remick makes her winning. Star charisma I guess. And the way she’s surprising, inappropriate, off — something that we tend to welcome more in films than in life because it makes things interesting. Although I did worry about her leaving her terrier, Muffy, balanced on a narrow wall. That’s no place for a dog!

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James Stewart as Paul Biegler. Fond of fishing and jazz (and that preference serves as the perfect alibi to allow a superb score  credited to Duke Ellington but in reality a collaboration with Billy Strayhorn, the first major movie score by African-American artists). A bachelor. Drifting along, skirting bankruptcy, dispirited, Biegler gets a new lease of life from the case and manages to turn around his friend Parnell (O’Connell) too. Like William Wyler’s COUNSELLOR-AT-LAW, this movie is a hymn to the restorative power of work.  This positive side compensates for the film’s rather skeptical view of the legal system, and the sordid nature of the case itself.

And of course, Stewart’s presence lightens things, making the most of Wendell Mayes’ witty lines, and also creating quite a bit of humour just from facial reactions. It’s a very funny film, in fact — the sparring is consistently witty and Stewart makes it seem even wittier. He’s so good that I wish he didn’t blow up quite so often, because it makes his character look unprofessional. Lawyers seem to agree this is one of the most realistic courtroom dramas, but they couldn’t resist spicing up the emotions a bit — at least the judge rightly tells Stewart to get a grip on himself whenever he’s out of line.

With that long, slow opening, Preminger prepares you for a movie about process, not a thriller at all (although the trial is exciting — like a good chess game). And that’s perfectly suited to the style he’s been developing. This is far less showy than FALLEN ANGEL, a movie I love, a firecracker of dynamic long takes and unpredictably choreographed shots. Here, the fluidity of the Preminger frame conceals its own artifice, so it doesn’t announce itself as either snappy and bold or economical and sleek, although all of those qualities appear. It’s a very nice approximation of a documentary feel, without using any documentary techniques except real locations and naturalistic lighting.

“Music can’t help a realistic story, it just makes it less realistic,” my friend Lawrie used to say, and while that’s no hard-and-fast rile, it’s a useful principle. The music works here beautifully, perhaps because it’s frequently woven into the story. I think Duke Ellington’s guest appearance maybe works against the overall tone, but it’s not a crazy gesture like the moment in BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING where the film stops for a whole Zombies song to play out on a pub TV. The music allows Preminger to protract scenes to an extraordinary degree (especially that opening), so it calmly makes itself necessary, and I can’t question it after that. Also, the Mr. Magoo crime-scene credits by Saul Bass, combined with that score, and leading into the shot of Stewart really driving a real car (nicely mirrored at the end) must have been like ice-water in the audience’s face, but prepares for the shocking modernity of all that talk about panties and intercourse without completion.

Hit it!