Archive for The Skull

The Shadowplay Impossible Film Quiz

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on January 4, 2010 by dcairns

Win £££! Using a permanent marker on your monitor, plot your way through Mr Antonioni’s perspex labyrinth.

By popular demand – The Shadowplay Impossible Film Quiz.

Some of you may know some of the answers. Some of you may know none of the answers. But the questions have been chosen mainly for their ability to inspire interestingly wrong answers. So have a guess! Prizes will be awarded more or less at random.

Round (1) The Quotations round. What films do these salient remarks stem from? For extra points, who said them, and what was going through their minds at the time? For extra, extra points, what were they wearing?

a) “Was the smudge trying to warn Clive of danger?”

b) “Does this mean Ann-Margret’s not coming?”

c) “They have a wonderful way of baking the cheese on it so that it’s very crispy.”

d) “All that leaping up and down in those… That’s what I behaviour!” (sic)

Round (2) Lowest Common Denominators round. What do the following groups of films have in common?

a) The Piano; The Ghost Ship (Robson); Susan Slept Here.

b) American Beauty; The Devil’s Backbone; The Honeypot; Sunset Boulevard.

c) Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb; The Student of Prague (1935 version); A Dandy in Aspic.

d) The Poseidon Adventure; Night of the Hunter; A Place in the Sun (looking for something fairly specific).

e) The Pink Panther Strikes Back; Raiders of the Lost Ark; The Abominable Dr Phibes.

Round (3) Images round. Identify the films depicted here.

Round (4) Lowest common denominators Part 2. What do the following directors have in common?

a) Francois Truffaut; Rainer Werner Fassbinder; Ted Tezlaff; Jacques Tourneur.

b) Paper Moon; Kind Hearts and Coronets; The Invisible Ghost.

c) Julien Duvivier; Alan J Pakula; FW Murnau.

d) Leni Riefenstahl; Terence Young; Shin San-Ok.

Round (5) Who did what to whom?

a) Who has or had a screening room with a seat wide enough for three?

b) Who was seeing critic Gavin Lambert and actress Marilyn Monroe at the same time?

c) Who was found trussed up in the bath, dead, with rude words written on him in lipstick?

d) Who was, allegedly, choked, or possibly bludgeoned, to death with a gold statuette modeled on Valentino’s erect penis?

Round (6) Actors. What do the following groups of actors have in common?

a) Eric Campbell; Desmond Llewellyn; François Dorleac.

b) Peter Firth; Robert Shaw; Wayne Sleep; Gert Fröbe.

c) Michael Gothard; Michael Lonsdale; Caroline Munro.

d) Anne Parrilaud; Marcello Mastroianni; Marshall Thompson.

Round (7) Missing limbs round. In which films can you see the following?

a) An (apparently) eyeless Jennifer Jones?

b) An (apparently) eyeless Ida Lupino?

c) A 53-year-old albino hypnotherapist with a wooden leg?

d) A severed head attempting oral sex?

e) A headless John Malkovich doing pratfalls?

Round (8) The Forgotten. Who has amnesia and who’s faking?

a) Mr Arkadin

b) Harry Angel

c) Gertrude Kockenlocker

Round (9) Before they were famous. Who started out as

a) The Living Hypnotic Corpse

b) Worthless Willie

c) Joseph McGinty Nichol

Round (10) The halt and the lame. Tex Avery, John Ford, Nick Ray, Fritz Lang, Andre deToth and Raoul Walsh all had eyepatches or missing eyes. But who –

a) Had a steel plate in his skull?

b) Had a thumb mangled in a mangle as a child?

c) Had fingers blown off by a stick of prop “dynamite”?

d) Claimed to have no belly button (possibly)?

e) Had a third nipple?

Prizes will be negotiated for those who seem to deserve them! Ludicrous guesses are at least as valuable as correct answers. And it may interest you to know that I wrote the first six questions in December but when I came back to them today I couldn’t remember or figure out some of the answers so I had to change the questions. It’s THAT difficult.

The System

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2009 by dcairns

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The official story is that Hitchcock, under contract to Paramount, somehow felt that he hadn’t given Warner Bros full satisfaction during his time there, and made THE WRONG MAN for them for free as a sort of parting gift. I have a hard time swallowing that. If Hitch worked for nothing, it must have been because he really wanted to make the film, and he made it at Warners because the story, a true crime narrative “torn from the headlines,” was their property. Fortunately, he was able to take his team with him, including Bernard Herrmann and Robert Burks, as well as Vera Miles, whom he had used on TV and was grooming for stardom.

Sidebar — the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents starring Miles, a grim little number called Revenge, also featuring the mighty Ralph Meeker, is a plainly-told little masterpiece of horror, serving as an illustration of the old adage, “He who seeks revenge should first dig two graves.” In both Revenge and THE WRONG MAN, Vera Miles suffers a breakdown, presented in a harrowing but realistic and un-showy fashion. But ultimately Revenge is a yarn, what Hitch called “an old-fashioned plot,” even if it ends in such a dark place that Hitch, appearing at the end to sum up, is forced to drop all his lugubrious jocularity and more or less apologise for subjecting us to this ordeal.

Hitch shot, but did not use, a cameo appearance for THE WRONG MAN, electing instead to introduce it personally, something he had just started doing on TV. But the High Expressionism of Robert Burks opening frame prepares us for a very different kind of Hitch — the shadow that elongates towards us is quite different from the chubby profile on NBC — and this has a more powerful effect than what Hitch is telling us: his lines about this being a very different kind of suspense thriller seem more like a showman’s come-on than adequate warning of the Bressonian blackjack we’re about to get slugged with.

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In THE WRONG MAN, Miles’s depression is triggered by her husband’s arrest for a series of neighbourhood stick-ups (he bears a chance resemblance to the real criminal). Fate conspires to rob him of a demonstrable alibi, and a chain of circumstantial evidence sends him clanking through the machinery of the justice system like an animal on its way to slaughter. The narrative proceeds with the deliberate, chilling pace of a conveyor belt. When Hitch films the police van conveying Fonda to court, it’s under a vast iron bridge, the world cut into mechanical pieces by the shadows of the girders. It suggests prison bars, but even more it calls to mind some vast unfeeling apparatus — and this is the film’s subject.

Fonda’s arrest is notably Kafkaesque: the cops drive him from one neighbourhood store to another, instructing him to enter, alone, walk the length of the store, and then exit. He does so, his perplexity and fear stamping him as suspicious from the moment he appears.

The cops are at once decent, unsensationalized professionals, and immensely cruel. Hitch does not criticize the authorities in anything anyone says, but we notice that Fonda doesn’t get his phone call, isn’t read his rights, and is deliberately thrown off-balance by the detectives, who obviously hope to make him crack. Fonda is such a good citizen that he goes meekly with them from his own doorstep, rather than insisting on telling his wife what’s happened (he hasn’t been formally arrested yet, so there’s nothing official to stop him doing as he pleases).

Hitch apparently found the real-life Manny Balestrero rather undramatic as a character — the man could not express to Hitch what his experiences felt like. I can see how in reality this would have made Balestrero’s plight worse: an inexpressive, emotionally inarticulate man would have had trouble both convincing the cops of his innocence, and reassuring his worried wife. It hardly matters in the movie — Hitch is recreating his own primal scene in its purest form — the terror of inexplicable arrest by the authorities. (Supermodel Jinks Falkenberg and her husband once pranked Hitch by sending a cop to ask for him — never mess with peoples’ phobias! This shit is serious.)

To solve the problem of dramatizing an undramatic man, Hitch worked with semi-regular collaborator Angus MacPhail (perhaps the originator of the term “MacGuffin”) and famed playwright Maxwell Anderson. The low-key but quietly passionate character devised for Fonda suits his performance style perfectly. And Hitch had always wanted to work with Fonda, I think he’s one of the few stars mentioned in Hitch’s 1930s essay, written upon his departure for Hollywood, that he actually got to direct. Gary Cooper and William Powell always eluded him.

bmailFirst arrest: 1929.

We’ve seen the arrest procedure before, in BLACKMAIL. But there, the hero was a cop and the suspect a thuggish career criminal, well-used to imprisonment. In Hitch’s original ending, we would have seen the process repeated with heroine Anny Ondra, which would have been powerful stuff. But being thrown into the strange rituals of confinement and judgement, seeing it through the eyes of our blameless hero (loving husband, brilliant father), with the most insistent use of extreme POV shots in all Hitchcock, that’s something else.

A witness places her hand on Fonda’s shoulder to identify him, and we see the shoulder as if from Fonda’s own eyes.

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As the cops drive Fonda around, we see his POV looking past each of them in turn, left, right, straight ahead, as the free world speeds past, unreachable, outside. Amusingly, this sequence was ripped off with perfect precision by Freddie Francis in THE SKULL: substitute Peter Cushing for Henry Fonda. Of course the effect is different: context is everything in the Hitchcock. The fear we feel (and this film is more genuinely uncomfortable and frightening than anything Hitch had made to date) is all to do with where we are in the story and how we feel about the characters.

In his little cell, Fonda looks around, and we get a succession of banal objects: a wash-basin; the corner of the ceiling — and the simplicity and solidity of everything is hellishly oppressive. Hitch then produces one of his few outright flourishes, a spinning camera that causes Fonda’s head to gyrate giddily about the frame: things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

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Some, like official biographer John Russell Taylor, have remarked on the incongruity of Hitch, who declared “Some make slices of life; I make slices of cake,” doing a substantially location-set (the real Stork Club), documentarist piece of social realism. But there’s nothing incongruous about the experience of watching the film, since it all works so well. The few obvious directorial flourishes are well-chosen and are complimented by a wealth of intelligent detail that doesn’t draw attention to itself. And the whole thing aims at a psychological effect rather than a social one. If Hitch uses a real place or a convincing replica, he does it not to show us what something looks like, but to inflict upon us the emotional impact of the real thing. And it’s all focussed through the central character, who acts as a kind of lens for Hitch’s personal terror, which is thus beamed into the viewer at concentrated strength.

Balestrero’s job as bull fiddle player motivates the jazz-inflected score, which uses sparse instrumentation to create memorable soundscapes of slow anxiety. As always with Hitch, there’s some kind of motif at work, something woven into the narrative, although here it’s a lot more elusive than the two compositions that play key plot roles in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. When we first see Vera Miles with her husband, she says, “Sometimes I’m so frightened waiting for you to come home at night,” — and this is the first hint we get that she is more than normally insecure. The moment is underscored by a series of soft chimes, played on a triangle, which come out of nowhere and initially suggest a carriage clock or a musical doorbell, something diegetic, but are then joined by the double bass and sax. The chimes return later, only once, when Miles loses her mind and strikes her husband with a hairbrush. She retreats to a distant chair and murmurs, “It’s true, Manny, there is something wrong with me. You’ll have to let them put me somewhere.”

Ting. Ting. Ting. Ting.

The effect is chilling because it happens so utterly on cue and thus suddenly seems mechanical — this happens, so you hear this sound — part of the overall impersonal forces pushing Manny towards imprisonment and destruction.

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Fiona: “Was this film a terrible flop?”

Me: “It sure was.”

Nevertheless it’s profoundly impressive.

As hairy script guru Phil Parker is always saying, injustice is such a powerful event in our lives from childhood on (“When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair!’ the child can be trusted.” ~ A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS) that it makes a powerful narrative hook. Hitch’s previous nightmare scenarios don’t exploit this as fully as TWM, because in the chase film the unjust suspicions of the authorities are mainly a spur for the character and plot, driving us along to the next situation and preventing the interference of reinforcements. In THE WRONG MAN we get Hitchcock with the mask of entertainer removed, and the story is this: even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayer at night may be crushed by the impersonal forces of the world he lives in.

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When Fonda prays, and the real culprit appears before us and is apprehended by heroic storekeepers (how we cheer these plucky citizens!), Hitch pulls off a remarkable coup, foregrounding his Catholicism via a magnificent lengthy dissolve that literally supplants Fonda’s face with that of the actual stick-up artist (this is Hitch’s most Bergmanesque movie!) It’s presented as a miracle, and the beauty of the transition reinforces that. but, unbearably, when Fonda goes to tell Miles that he’s finally a free man, she’s too sunk in depression for it to mean anything. “I was hoping for a miracle,” admits Fonda, ruefully. He’s already had one.

Mental illness, by the way, is something movies nearly always get wrong, if what you’re looking for is either clinical accuracy or emotional insight. There are valid approaches to any subject that are not realistic ones, but most movies have a hard time being even truthful here, and too often demonize the mentally ill in a way that would be considered unacceptable with any other minority. So I applaud THE WRONG MAN’s portrayal of a mostly quiet, desperate slide into confusion and misery, which feels absolutely authentic and beautifully observed. Hitchcock filmed in a real psychiatric hospital with real staff (a rather nice-looking one) and, although the doctor’s description of Miles’ complaint is overly poetic and general, it’s not the dollar-book Freud of PSYCHO.

THE WRONG MAN is a tough watch — maybe the only Hitchcock film to attain this status through strengths rather than weaknesses. It’s intended to be hard on the viewer. All that stuff about it being Hitchcock’s most Catholic film — possibly true, but not an observation that’s necessary to in some way justify the film’s existence, which it sometimes seems to be used for. All that stuff about the oddness of Hitch doing realism — this is psychological realism. This is pure Hitchcock. And it’s a stone-cold masterpiece.

wrong8Mr Right Meets Mr Wrong.

UK buyers: Hitchcock DVD Collection – Dial M For Murder / I Confess / Stage Fright / The Wrong Man / Strangers On A Train / North By Northwest

US buyers: TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Hitchcock Thrillers (Suspicion / Strangers on a Train / The Wrong Man / I Confess)

Bad to the Bone

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2009 by dcairns

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THE SKULL, directed by ace cinematographer (and not-quite-so-ace director) Freddie Francis, will live in infamy as the film in which Peter Cushing plays Christopher Maitland and Christopher Lee plays Sir Matthew Phillips. The lovely, unusual, imaginative names (sarcasm alert) indicate precisely the kind of plywood bore Milton Subotsky’s script, from a story by Robert Bloch, is.

(That “is” doesn’t look right, all at the end there, does it?)

Through involved circumstances, Peter Cushing acquires the skull of the Marquis de Sade, which is apparently still animated by a malign intelligence. Cushing’s friendly rival, Lee, believes that the Marquis was “something worse than mad.” Hmm, worse than mad, you say? What would that be, Sir Matthew Phillips? Sane?

The titular head-bone has turned up in the possession of shady curio-hawker Patrick Wymark, an ambulatory Toby jug who guested in a number of ’60s horrorshows — REPULSION, BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, WITCHFINDER GENERAL — and he would have undoubtedly done more save for his tragic implosion in 1970.  Wymark narrates the cranium’s tragic history, which allows the canny producer (Subotsky again) to slip in another guest star, George Coulouris. It becomes clear that Subotsky has written this thing with the sole purpose of shoehorning in as many guest stars as the screen’s fabric can contain without splitting like P.J. Proby’s trousers.

Soon, swivel-eyed detective Nigel Green and police surgeon Patrick Magee are on hand, Jill Bennett is wasted as Cushing’s dull wife (her impressive scream of horror is the only moment when the film reaps any benefit from her unique gifts) and the guy who did the voice of Pigsy in the dubbed Japanese TV show Monkeyturns up. Fiona felt this was the film’s only interest — “Seeing Pigsy’s body at last… perambulating about under its own will.”

I admired the way Francis generated visual interest even when there was zero dramatic interest. He’s aided by rich set decoration, which he foregrounds at every opportunity, padding out the film’s slender running time by filming Cushing as he reads a bio of Sade (bound in human skin, naturally) from every conceivable angle and from behind every bit of bric-a-brac in the room, sneaking from one occluding prop to another like a cautious Rodent Of Unusual Size.

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Having narcolysed the audience with this display of silent book-reading (although the attractive visuals prevent total somnolence), Francis then delivers a pointless-but-wonderful dream sequence in which Cushing is taken away by sinister “policemen” and driven towards an unknown destination.

Anxiously, Pete looks out the car window.

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Shops.

He tries the other side.

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Shops.

“We’ve had props, now we’re having shops,” observed Fiona.

“Next it’ll be cops,” I hazarded.

It was.

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The car stopped.

“And stops,” I concluded.

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Handsome in its widescreen colour cinematographer, and graced with the screwy “skull-cam” POV shots, the film nevertheless struggles to create any interest in any of its sluggish meanderings, and made us both nostalgic for Larry Blamire’s spoof THE LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA, which has better, badder bad dialogue, and a talking skeleton. If Sade’s skull had spoken like the one in Blamire’s film, we might have had something. “Hi, Betty, it’s me — the skeleton!”

However, a lot of people enjoy this film, for its bountiful cast of supporting players (Subotsky often made compendium films, because with five or six stories there was more opportunity to grab a movie star like Chris Lee or Sylvia Sims or Herbert Lom for a day or two and bolster the marquee value — THE SKULL is like a compendium film with no story instead of five) and sumptuous visuals. The lack of forward momentum forces Francis to noodle inventively, coming up with crazy angles, sinuous camera moves, and lurid colours. Even at 82 minutes, the film feels heavily padded, but the padding is quality stuff.

(When Richard Lester accepted the job of directing his first feature, IT’S TRAD, DAD, for Subotsky, he was handed 23 typed pages, which he took to be a synopsis. It was the final draft script. Those were the days!)

Finally seeing this allowed me to tick off another film illustrated in Denis Gifford’s seminal A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. I’ve vowed to see every film depicted in this book before the end of the century.

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This is the still Gifford uses, although his is b&w. I think Cushing actually spent more time behind a magnifying glass than any other thespian — his various appearances as Sherlock Holmes aren’t the half of it. The gag in TOP SECRET! where he removes the magnifying glass to reveal that he really has one enormous eye makes more sense (although it’s still vaguely upsetting) when one bears this in mind.

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