Archive for The Small Back Room

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).

Blind Tuesday: Where is love and who turned out the lights?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 13, 2011 by dcairns

An obscure one — I’d never heard of MADNESS OF THE HEART until I stumbled across it. It has no reputation, but it does have points of interest: it’s written and directed by Charles Bennett, who collaborated on a half-dozen or so key Hitchcocks between BLACKMAIL and FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (including most of the late-thirties espionage cycle, all reviewed elsewhere on this site as part of Hitchcock Year) and also adapted NIGHT OF THE DEMON for Jacques Tourneur, incorporating a number of Hitchcockian ideas, including the master-villain with the sweet, doddering mum.

And then there’s Kathleen Byron, reprising her mad love act from BLACK NARCISSUS, only with a cod French accent. Powell told her that Sister Ruth was a great part, the only problem being she’d never get a better one, and he was right. So basically repeating the role here seems a reasonable option: it beats Freddie Francis’s CRAZE.

In brief: plucky doctor’s receptionist Margaret Lockwood meets and falls for French aristo Paul (Who He?) Dupuis. Then she’s struck blind, and the best medical minds, including the one she works for (yay! Maurice Denham!) conclude there’s no hope. After an unsuccessful turn as a nun (blind AND a nun? doesn’t Audrey Hepburn have automatic dibs on that?) narrating the story so far in flashback (the structure’s a mess but so’s this sentence) she hooks up with Dupuis again and he marries her, blindness and all. FINALLY we arrive at the family château in the South of France where Kathleen Byron plays an old flame of Dupuis, determined to destroy Lockwood so she can have him for herself… Now things can get going, and going is precisely what they get…

Spoiler alert! The next paragraph contains plot details written in invisible ink: highlight to read.

A daft plot twist allows Lockwood to cure her blindness and return, faking it, in order to entrap her unseen enemy. This frustrates one of the best tropes of the blind person in jeopardy thriller, which is the disabled character triumphing over both unspeakable evil and their own disability. In fairness, this convention isn’t set in stone and hadn’t really been established at this time: WAIT UNTIL DARK really fixed the template. But when you see it done decently, it’s satisfying in obvious ways that alternatives, like the boyfriend barging to the rescue in SEE NO EVIL, really aren’t.

End spoiler.

Oddly, Bennett directs this one better than he writes it, but he’s dealing with a cheap novelette as source material (ugh! that title!) and struggles to inject real humanity into it. On the other hand, his filming is often stylish, aided by Desmond Dickinson’s moody photography.

Listening to Fiona’s extremely zestful reactions to Byron’s acts of wickedness against her sightless rival (from repositioning a wine glass to attempting to arrange a drowning), I was struck by how films like this encourage a complicity with the bad guy. At times, Fiona was virtually egging the madwoman on. This wasn’t due to any dislike of Lockwood, who embodies pluck, but simply because in a film like this, nothing entertaining can happen unless the villain is plotting villainy. If the supporting cast were full of amusing bit players, there might be some welcome distraction from the main event, but asides from Thora Hird as a no-nonsense maid, there’s nothing doing. So we require constant perfidy from la Byron or the thing is going to just lie there.

Kathleen in a saucy two-piece, something I never thought to see.

Fortunately, K.B. does not disappoint, seizing one of her last chances to be interesting in a dull film. No act of spite is too petty for the ironically named “Verity”, who amusingly goes from leaving sharp objects near the maid’s baby so Lockwood will get the blame, straight to murder attempts, then back to faking love letters (to a blind woman?), and back to murder again. In this she’s aided by the château’s offscreen architect, who for some reason has supplied the building with a door opening onto a fifty foot drop. Perhaps the castle was assembled from a kit, like the Keaton homestead in ONE WEEK?

Why didn’t Kathleen Byron go from strength to strength? Simply because the British cinema of the ‘fifties was too weedy to contain her, I think. There weren’t enough psycho-bitch roles to typecast her successfully, and nobody was bold or imaginative enough to see her in more varied parts, despite the proof offered by THE SMALL BACK ROOM that she could be really excellent in a less extreme characterisation. (The reason David Farrar’s so uncharacteristically strong in that film is that she lends him fire. And he’s strongest in BLACK NARCISSUS when she’s around.)

There’s also the sad fact that she was apparently a little difficult, as talented people often are.  With the supremely difficult Michael Powell around to help her, that didn’t matter so much, but when they were no longer an item and his career was on the slide, that impetus was gone. (BTW, she always said Powell’s description of her, in his memoir Million Dollar Movie, standing naked and threatening him with a revolver, was sheer confabulation.) And nobody else owed her sufficient goodwill to help.

That was stupid: with the Rank Organisation embracing sappy bourgeois mediocrity in the ‘fifties, British cinema really needed a fierce talent who could heat up a moribund flick with a dash of hellfire.

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