Archive for The Tell-Tale Heart

They Call It Puppet Love

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2021 by dcairns

We enjoyed ANNETTE, with reservations.

I certainly liked it better than the last arthouse musical I can recall seeing, DANCER IN THE DARK. Though it has a slight echo of Von Trier, in its literal-mindedness. The characters sing a song to say the show is starting. They sing a song about how much they’re in love. They sing a song saying they hope we enjoyed the show. And the dialogue/lyrics often have a slightly leaden, awkward quality, as if written by someone who doesn’t speak English as a first language. But the Mael brothers, who wrote it, are American, so is it purely director Leos Carax’s influence making strange, or just the fact that they’re not experienced screenwriters? Probably the latter.

The Maels have written an opera, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, and they were UCLA film students, so this isn’t all completely new to them. They also scored a Jean-Claude Van Damme action film, KNOCK-OFF. And some of the clunk has charm, particularly the intro and outro songs (stay through the end credits).

As the film got off to its slow start, I wondered if it had been really wise to make the protagonist/anti-hero (Adam Driver) a stand-up comedian. We get quite a lengthy set from him, and what I was wondering all through it was, Is this meant to be funny? It wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t — arguably the idea is to satirise edgy stand-up — the problem is the tone and intent aren’t clear. There’s a second routine, later in the story, which flops with the audience and is therefore easier to take — this is NOT meant to be funny, but it does contain some terrific stagecraft: Driver, speaking of death, lies flat on the stage, cruciform, laying his mic on his chest, and we hear his heartbeat. Stuff like that.

Anyway the first act felt LOOONG but there are some lovely visuals, mostly associated with Marion Cotillard’s character’s career as an opera singer. A scene of Driver driving and being tormented by visions from various operas kicks things up several notches. And it’s amusing how, in this film, characters sing while having sex, going to the toilet, giving birth. Then Driver’s character starts shedding all claims on our sympathy, and the plot runs through echoes of the Natalie Wood story and The Tell-Tale Heart (Carax thanks E.A. Poe in the end credits, but spells his name “Edgard” — in a way, that kind of idiosyncratic mistake is cheering in today’s era of machine-tooled cinema).

Sparks/the Maels are expressive and quirky lyricists, but not here. I’m guessing the pressure of having to create songs tied to a narrative has constrained their invention. But then why did the moments that seemed most plotty — the birth scene, and the police interrogation, for instance, give me the most musical pleasure? I think it’s because they each involve a little crowd of additional characters — so they bring in some exciting harmonies, and they don’t depend on Driver’s voice. Driver can sing, and he can sing emotionally — he really gives a dramatic performance while singing, which a lot of better singers can’t do, but his limited strength stops the music taking flight. On the other hand, he’s also a producer on the film and it’s doubtful we would have it if not for his input.

I don’t want to sound too down on the film — visually and musically, if not so much lyrically, it’s often extraordinary. And I enjoyed being back at Filmhouse. Didn’t enjoy the subtitles for the hard of hearing and couldn’t work out why they were there (are a lot of deaf people seeing this musical? If it was felt the lyrics needed help, OK I guess, but the sound effects didn’t need help).

Cotillard is strong, but the best perfs are Simon Helberg and singing sprog Devyn McDowall, a real prodigy. Of course they have the benefit of not having to carry the whole film, they breeze in like pint-sized breaths of fresh air, and in a film that’s almost entirely sung, you really need all the oxygen you can get.

See it, maybe not expecting perfection, and you should get something of value out of it.

Hume and Desire

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on February 14, 2011 by dcairns

Jules Dassin has a short way with stool pigeons ~

And this was before he got ratted out to HUAC.

The movie is BRUTE FORCE, really the beginning of director Jules Dassin’s run of good Hollywood films before he was compelled to work abroad (where he made more good films). Dassin tended to completely dismiss his earlier movies, forbidding their inclusion in retrospectives, although his short THE TELL-TALE HEART is excellent, and NAZI AGENT with Conrad Veidt is pretty good. He wasn’t wildly enthusiastic about BRUTE FORCE either, correctly remarking, “But all these prisoners are such nice, sweet people–they’re all so lovely–what are they doing in jail?”

Stuff like the drawn-out assassination the stoolie helps offset the sentimentality, and there’s a fine, nihilistic, quasi-apocalyptic ending, which shores things up. Flashbacks to the prisoners’ lives on the outset allow minute cameos for the likes of Ella Raines and Yvonne DeCarlo, who are always welcome, but they actually puncture airholes in the picture’s claustrophobic intensity, and let the pressure seep out. Inoffensive as scenes, they’re seriously damaging to the dramatic tension.

Fortunately, the movie is held together by the very different styles of Burt Lancaster (physical, simple and direct) and Hume Cronyn (crafty, contrived, but effective) as tough convict and fascist deputy warden. Cronyn is working to undermine his boss by fomenting trouble so he can take over, but he gets more trouble than he’d been counting on. In the concluding riot, the prisoners eventually transform into a foretaste of Romero’s ravenous zombies. It’s pretty alarming.

Well hello.

What makes the conflict more than usually juicy is Cronyn’s decision to play his role quiet, sibilant and coded gay, and Dassin’s collaboration in presenting him with a good bit of innuendo. The rifle polishing is downright suggestive. Torturing a prisoner with a rubber hose while Wagner blasts out of the gramophone is a pretty pointed bit of characterisation, with Hume’s fine array of Greco-Roman muscle art supplying a further raising of the eyebrow.

Dassin is one of cinema’s few likable sadists — his interest in the sexuality of violence or the violence of sexuality seems clear to me, highlighted by whippings in RIFIFI and THE LAW, and the perversity of BRUTE FORCE, but it never splurges out of its rightful place in the narrative. It’s also dramatically harnessed by the storylines of NIGHT AND THE CITY, UP TIGHT! and others, where the whole second half of the narrative consists of putting the protagonist through the ringer (has any leading man ever sweated so much as Richard Widmark in NATC?) — the idea of drama as a means of confronting the hero with everything he fears, everything that could destroy him, destructive testing for the human personality, is very much to the fore. Meanwhile, Melina Mercouri and Maximilian Schell’s relationship in TOPKAPI seems pleasantly kinky.

Furthermore, excusing Dassin’s relish for cruelty is the fact that, as a man, he was more sinned against than sinning. I know of no stories showing him to be cruel personally, but the blacklist certainly caused him to suffer. If he indulges a taste for fantasy violence in his work, that seems decidedly harmless by comparison.

BRUTE FORCE’s prison populace is dotted with familiar faces, like calypso singer Sir Lancelot, familiar from many a Val Lewton chiller, Jeff Corey, and Charles McGraw, whose whisky-singed snarl as one of the titular bad-asses in THE KILLERS should have qualified him for a bigger part, only Lancaster and Ava Gardner apparently stole all the attention in that one.

BRUTE FORCE is an effective prison drama as long as it keeps its mind on its job. Producer Mark Hellinger and screenwriter Richard Brooks are probably responsible for the editorializing from the prison doctor (Art Smith), who delivers drunken lectures at every turn about society’s responsibility to its convicts, but he raises the whole thing up into a tasty film noir stratosphere with his last lines, the absurdly heavy-handed, allegorical, yet rather thrillingly bleak “Nobody ever escapes!” Spoken with a crash of music from Miklos “Mr Subtlety” Rosza, and a pull-back through the prison bars from Dassin, showing the doctor as just as much a prisoner as everybody else, including the audience.

All this week, Shadowplay is participating in the For the Love of Film (Noir) film preservation blogathon. Read more about it here and here. There’s also a donation link, and all contributions go towards restoring Cy Endfield’s searing THE SOUND OF FURY, AKA TRY AND GET ME (reviewed here). This is a really worthwhile cause.

Hearts of Darkness

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on October 27, 2010 by dcairns

So many good versions of THE TELL-TALE HEART — of course, it hasn’t really worked as a feature film (Poe is, in general, tricky to expand to 90 mins or so) — but it would seem ideally suited to short form.

Here’s Vincent Price on TV treating it as a monologue. An absolutely delicious performance, inventive and detailed, giving the lie to the “ham” allegation — there’s nothing broad or clumsy about this, either in terms of behaviour or storytelling (it’s both a reading of the story and a performance piece). It’s funny because it’s witty — hits me like a sugar rush, so many bold and outrageous choices. And it’s not a spoof of Poe, just a relishing of the delirious and absurd elements.

Now here’s Jules Dassin’s short, made at MGM, which kickstarted his career. Best viewed as an exercise in the use of rhythm, deploying performance, sound, music, editing, camera movement and composition to create a poem in visual-narrative form. A very Poe-like approach, since rhythm is central to both the prose and poetry of Poe, and he wrote often about the need for a short story to create a single, unified effect. Say what you like about the auteur theory (and I like to rubbish it occasionally), in film, the director is generally the only person in a position to co-ordinate an approach like this.

And it’s as well he does, because in terms of adaptation, the film has suffered a lot of damaging rationalisation at the hands and minds of MGM — exactly the kind of studio who would balk at Poe’s unmotivated mayhem. Remember, a lot of verbiage is devoted to the important fact, in the story, that the protagonist kills for no good reason, purely because he doesn’t like the Old Man’s “vulture eye”. The MGM rewrite adds logic and motivation and removes interest.

Leading man Joseph Schildkraut had a good career going at MGM until he remarked publicly that he saw Louis B Mayer’s lips move as he signed a contract. Suddenly he wasn’t as in-demand.

Lovely UPA animated version, narrated by James Mason, who has a very different approach from Price but is generally good — it’s more about that amazing, distinctive voice than about detail of performance, although I find no fault there. This is an early UPA (and the first cartoon to get an X Certificate in the UK) and shares with the famous GERALD MCBOING-BOING the quality of ecstatic visual invention, in which design IS storytelling and vice-versa. It’s good and dark, surpassingly beautiful, and doesn’t stint on the maelstrom of angst and confusion that is Poe-try.

“It is the beating of his hideous heart!”