Archive for The Small Back Room

Sacrifice

Posted in Comics, FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2016 by dcairns

quit

Regular Shadowplayer Mark Medin sent me this 1926 ad/announcement by one John McDermott who, true to his word, never lifted megaphone to mouth again. Harold never called. I thought it would make a nice little item for The Late Show which, characteristically, is running past its alotted week…

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We also watched THE 300 SPARTANS, believing it to be the last film by cinematographer-turned-director Rudolph Maté. It isn’t, but it’s a very late one, followed briskly by SEVEN SEAS TO CALAIS, ALIKI MY LOVE, and a massive coronary. I’d had quite good reports of SPARTANS via chum David Wingrove, who characterised it as an unusually literate and intelligent peplum. True — that doesn’t quite turn it into a wholly dignified, proper film — it’s still a peplum. But a peplum with pep.

Lots of Brit acting talent to give it “class” — David Farrar of all people plays the dastardly Xerxes, and for once seems to be enjoying himself. “He’s a terrible actor,” pronounced Fiona, which is pretty severe but pretty true. I have to acknowledge that the one film he’s genuinely good in, THE SMALL BACK ROOM, could still be improved (great though it is) by the casting of any other Brit leading man of the era. Kenneth More wouldn’t be any worse, though less handsome. Dirk Bogarde would be better, David Niven would be better, Roger Livesey would be totally wrong but vastly better…

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But anyway, he’s a decent pantomime villain here, and then there’s Ralph Richardson, who has evidently shot all his scenes in the studio, necessitating overdubs to explain why he’s somehow always indoors. After hearing Ralph debating Laurence Naismith (whose presence along with Kieron Moore and certain Greek locations gives it all a very Harryhausen feeling) it’s a shock to have yank Richard Egan dumped in our lap like a giant concrete bicep.

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But as the movie develops, you get used to him. I can’t say I ever worked up any kind of rapturous pleasure at his screen appearances, but I grew accustomed to his face, to the extend that I would have been sincerely sorry if, say, Donald Houston had bitten it off or something.

The story itself is martial, stirring, hawkish stuff, but it slightly soft-pedals the brutality of the Spartans and does a goodish job of presenting them as characters we should support (although the emphasis on Persia being a “slave empire” is undercut by young Barry Coe, i think it is, promising to bring back a flock of Persian slaves for cutie Diane Baker. Face it, everyone in history is awful).

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“About your Immortals, sire. We might have to change the name.”

The whole time I was watching, I was imagining little Frank Miller seeing this innocent, rather noble entertainment, which even manages a bit of emotion, as an awestruck kid, and then years later giving us his comic 300, and thence the movie 300, which dehumanizes, brutalizes and stupidifies the original on every level. The remake LOOKS nice, in its way, but it’s a horrible, fascistic, mean-spirited thing. A film for our times. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Zack Snyder becomes Trump’s Riefenstahl.

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The Couch Trip

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2012 by dcairns

I read Nigel Balchin’s The Small Back Room some years back, being a fan of the Powell-Pressburger film. It’s very good, and the film is very faithful, apart from softening the ending — Balchin had a weakness for bleak, all-is-lost finales.

I haven’t seen SEPARATE LIES, filmed by Julian GOSFORD PARK Fellowes, from Balchin’s A Way Through the Woods. Is it any good? But I do like 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET, which Balchin scripted. He did quite a bit of screenwriting, in fact.

This year I tracked down Darkness Falls from the Air, Balchin’s novel of the London Blitz, which is devastating (I guess they said the same about the Blitz). It’s not surprising that one was never filmed — for a book written in wartime, it’s quite spectacularly un-jingoistic. Again, Balchin’s pessimism prevents him from offering any pathway to victory: there’s an argument for the stripping away of bureaucracy to allow the can-do chaps to get things done, but no real hope that such a thing will ever happen. The nation will strangle in red tape as the bombs ceaselessly drop. All of this is tied up in a truly agonizing, wretched love story: the hopeless agony of the lovers in The Small Back Room seems actually desirable compared to the quandary of the stoic desk-jockey and his tender-hearted, unfaithful wife.

Pair it with Patrick Hamilton’s wonderful The Slaves of Solitude.

So, then I read A Sort of Traitors (terrible title, good book) and then Mine Own Executioner, which I discovered was a movie, scripted by Balchin himself and directed by Anthony Kimmins. I was intrigued: the book really doesn’t feel like it has a film in it. Having now seen the film, I kind of feel vindicated: there wasn’t a film in it, or anyway not a filmic structure: the action climax comes twenty minutes ahead of the supposed emotional climax.

But it’s very interesting stuff. The protagonist, Felix Milne, is a lay psychiatrist with a wife (Dulcie Gray) he’s ambivalent about, who has a sexy sister he’s somewhat less ambivalent about. He takes on a war-damaged patient (Kieron Moore) who has recently attempted to strangle his wife while in a fugue state. Most synopses of the story suggest that it’s a “physician heal thyself” yarn about a man who can solve others’ problems but is powerless to tackle his own. But in fact, Milne does eventually sort out his domestic sphere, whereas his efforts with Moore…

Milne is played by Burgess Meredith, because this was an era of frantically shoehorning Americans into British films wherever we could (how little has changed). Meredith is a good choice in that he seems intellectual enough, but a problematic one in that he seems a bit creepy. It’s not a quality BM can turn on and off, it’s just inherent. So that when the lovely Barbara White, as Moore’s wife, first describes the strangling incident, and Milne perks up, thinking “This case is more interesting than I expected,” Meredith’s rendition of this reaction inescapably suggests a man becoming sexually aroused by an account of attempted asphyxiation. Not what’s needed here.

Then, since he’s a psychiatrist, Milne must perforce smoke a pipe, and whenever we see Burgess with the stem clamped between his teeth, we’re reminded of his seminal turn as the Penguin in TV’s Batman, with his long cigarette holder (why the association of penguins with cigarette holders anyway?), and that’s kind of unfortunate too. Burgess doesn’t actually resemble a penguin, of course, he resembles a small, rat-like dog, eyes glinting with cunning and lust. His chemistry with John Wayne in IN HARM’S WAY is so good precisely because at any instant we expect him to start fervently humping the Duke’s leg.

Still, Meredith has that magnificent wet-gravel voice, so effective in the truth serum scene quoted below…

(And he directed the stage production of DUTCHMAN, developing the performances which were transferred direct to the movie.)

Everybody else is cast very well. I couldn’t work out what Moore was doing with his accent: it at first sounded like Welsh valleys, but maybe it’s Moore’s own Irish, a brand I perhaps haven’t encountered before. But it seems to change from scene to scene.

“The trauma lies in your childhood… your childhood… your childhood…”

Balchin is very faithful to his own novel, except that he’s forced to condense one subplot down to a series of montages (always a sign that something really ought to be discarded) and muffs one emotionally climactic death scene by rushing it badly. But Moore’s more extreme episodes of insanity and dissociation are chillingly powerful: the way he slides from first person to second person when describing his own actions, his inconsistent mood, and his mental blurring of the different people in his life is all very effective and convincing. The psychobabble is less so: “He’s a bad schizo,” says Meredith, concerned. But it’s slightly better than most Hollywood attempts at this kind of stuff.

Balchin himself worked as an “industrial psychologist”, a job his hero casually rejects in this book and film: he helped develop Black Magic chocolates, based on the absence of the colour black in the sweetshop window (economics plays a part too: the black box was cheap to make, allowing Rowntree to spend all the money on the choccies themselves).

Here’s the cinematic highlight.

Mine Own Executioner from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Anthony Kimmins had an odd career, swerving from George Formby comedies to this bleak and noirish melodrama. And then onto the reputedly dreadful BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE. This may be his high point. The framing and lighting in the psychiatrist’s office is great, but the subjective camera flashback (the first of several) is a stunner. Mucho credit to W. Percy Day for the process work, Ned Mann for the models, and special effects supervisor Cliff Richardson. If Kimmins conceived the idea for this, a major tip of the hat is in order.

Meredith’s therapeutic methods may be unconventional, but he GETS RESULTS, damnit! 

Blind Tuesday: As Farrar as the Eye Can See

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2011 by dcairns

Extraordinary! No sooner have I watched one obscure blind-person-in-jeopardy movie starring a BLACK NARCISSUS alumnus (Kathleen Byron in MADNESS OF THE HEART) than another comes along (David Farrar in NIGHT WITHOUT STARS) And they’re practically the same movie!

Novelettish title: check (the night is without stars because he’s BLIND, geddit?). Southern French setting: check . Miracle cure around halfway: check. Insanely jealous incestuous relative: check. But this movie, directed by Anthony Pelissier, is quite a bit more compelling and less cheesy than Charles Bennet’s potboiler, even if nobody in it’s as compelling as la Byron.

Jumble up the first film as if in a dream, and you have the second film. Winston Grahame (MARNIE) scripts, from his own novel. Farrar is a veteran who lost most of his vision in the war. Holidaying in France, he falls for a girl, Alex, widow of a resistance fighter, but suddenly she has a hostile fiance. Farrar gets to demonstrate impressive sang froid while dealing with this Gallic lout —

“Go on, go on, before I keek you downstairz!”

“I don’t think there’s much danger of that, do you?”

“I zuppose you seenk your blindness protectz you?”

“On the contrary, I should have thought it’d make it easier for you.”

Suave.

But then, a panicked phone call — in French, which DF doesn’t speak — from Alex, inviting her over to the guy’s apartment on an urgent matter. He comes. Nobody seems to be there. As he prowls around, cinematographer Guy Green (GREAT EXPECTATIONS) lights him with a follow spot, emphasizing his isolation — the light beams onto whatever Farrar touches, making us feel the limitations of his senses. As he moves about the deserted apartment, finding a smashed vase and strewn flowers, an abandoned piece of jewelry, a gun… a loud ticking sound builds, oppressively…

Of course it’s Farrar’s giant alarm clock from THE SMALL BACK ROOM, tockative companion to the more famous giant whisky bottle. Has to be. In the insane Wikipedia article of my mind, Farrar had it in his contract that both items had to accompany him on every set, in case he wanted to time himself having a big drink. Or no, maybe the alarm clock sort of STALKED him, like the one that stalks Captain Hook in Peter Pan from inside a crocodile. Or maybe the sound just sort of imbued itself into Farrar’s cinematic presence. Sound men would protest when he was cast, because they knew they could record him in conditions of absolute silence and yet still on the tape, at the end of the day, would be heard that phantasmal tick-tock… That’s why there’s so much John Barry music in BEAT GIRL, it’s to drown out the beating of that infernal clock!!!

THE SMALL BACK ROOM.

Ahem. A nasty moment follows when Farrar sits on the bed and the fiance’s corpse slumps over on him. He flees, waits for police reports, but nothing. Then he discovers that the cafe where he used to dine with Alex has vanished, or rather it has a different name and a different proprietor. Alex herself has vanished. WHAT is going on?

Anthony Pelissier, who directed THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER, had an occasional tendency to stylistic verve (the climactic “rocking” scenes of that film are visually WILD), tamped down by the time and place he was working in. I suspect if he’d been able to get started earlier in the forties we’d have seen some masterpieces from him, exploiting the feeling of innovation and brio in the air. As it is, this is a twisty thriller with a stiletto-hurling bad guy and a third act detective inspector deus ex machina to sort everything out. Farrar’s experience with matte-painted mountainsides comes in handy at a dicey moment, and we establish for certain that bottle bottom glasses are not a good look for him. And Nadia Gray is tres charmant (although actually Romanian, not French).