Archive for The Trial


Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2022 by dcairns
Some of these insert shots have an Argentoesque intensity

TV director William Sterling’s one feature film, ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (1972) assembles lots of great people and looks nice. It’s not my idea of wonderland, though.

As you can see, the copy I scraped up isn’t very good, so I may not be doing the film justice. It’s a lot better than most adaptations — fairly true to the text. It doesn’t become an incoherent mishmash of Wonderland and Looking Glass, as so many do. But being true to the story and characters isn’t the same as capturing the spirit. On the other hand, you can legitimately aim to capture a DIFFERENT spirit. I’m not sure if that’s what happens here.

I remember some piece that discussed the film, and spoke very critically of Michael Jayston’s visible panty line. He plays Charles Dodgson, and the film begins with a boat outing with the Liddell sisters, but does NOT have these characters reappear in Wonderland, disguised, as Lewis Carroll does: he, the stammering Do-do-dodgson, becomes the Dodo. But Jayston doesn’t stutter, he speaks beautifully. Seductively, in fact. He also neglects historical accuracy in his choice of Y-fronts, which show through his white trousers in a way sure to inspire disapproval in a Von Stroheim undie perfectionist.

Fiona Fullerton, a perky Alice, has been told to smile a lot, and does. Her perplexing adventures seem to amuse her greatly. This strikes me as wrong, but given what she’s been asked to do, she does it charmingly, though she’s too old. But if the film is about anything, which isn’t certain, it may be about coming of age — indeed, the soft-focus boat ride looks very much like what I imagine a David Hamilton adolescent smut film must be like (haven’t seen one).

Wonderland is all sets. Quite big ones, but things still get to seem a little airless. The transition occurs when the dream begins, rather than when Alice goes done the rabbit hole, which is a distortion, but an acceptable one. The budget allows for some very interesting visuals. A well decorated rabbithole, a Dali-meets-Geiger sky, an infinite corridor for the key business.

One blunder is carried over directly from the Paramount version: there’s a terrific cast, and most of them are rendered unrecognisable under Stuart Freeborn’s makeups. As usual, the humanoid characters come off best in such circumstances: this may be the only adaptation of the book where the most amusing character is the Duchess’s cook, played in a maelstrom of fury by Patsy Rowlands. Robert Helpmann is a perfect Mad Hatter (though I don’t understand why Kenneth Williams never did it). Peter Bull is a pretty unbeatable Duchess, Flora Robson slightly out of her element as the Queen of Hearts, Dennis Price very much IN his as the King (he does nothing but recite Lewis Carroll in the same year’s PULP). Tiny playing card parts are stuffed with familiar faces like Rodney Bewes, Dennis Waterman, Ray Brooks and Richard Warwick.

Smothered under prosthetics, Peter Sellers still does well as the March Hare, Dudley Moore copes as the Dormouse, Spike Milligan capers and goons as the Griffin, but it’s all schtick and no character. The only bit of Michael Hordern you can see in his Mock Turtle outfit is his lower face, but the rest of the makeup gives him some kind of jowl-lift, so even that part doesn’t look like it’s his. Michael Crawford’s stylish White Rabbit ears and whiskers allow him to do his thing relatively unimpeded (as with Sellers, it’s all in the eyes and voice) but Roy Kinnear has lost most of the Cheshire Cat’s lines AND business, and barely registers, an astonishing fate for such a great scene-stealer. Ralph Richardson has quite wisely refused to don a caterpillar’s head, and can be seen and enjoyed.

There are fewer laughs, I’d say, than in Jonathan Miller’s BBC version, which only had a few. Miller, however, had decided that this was a Victorian child’s dream, and his choices were mainly consistent with that. I’m just not sure what Sterling has decided on. A panto, perhaps. We have songs by John Barry with lyrics by Stanley Black, which edge out many of Carroll’s own superior words. Barry has gone fully into soupy strings mode, with a bit of the pizzicato guff he did in the early sixties. His main theme is almost identical to the one he foist onto ROBIN AND MARIAN.

Not as alienating as TALES OF BEATRIX POTTER, another children’s film from this period (it looks amazing but positively declines to deliver any tales, or any entertainment at all), it still feels like it would have baffled me as a kid. The Disney version made me feel stoned, as I recall, though I didn’t know what that was. I may have made some suggestions in the past for how the books should be treated, but if I did I’ve forgotten, so here goes —

Get good actors, and I don’t know that they have to be comedians. Give them some signifiers — the White Rabbit can have ears, for instance. Otherwise, dress them like the Tenniel illustrations and leave their faces on display and let them act. I hate hate hate the Tim Burton version but the idea of using CG to turn actors into live-action cartoons (giving Bonham-Carter a huge(r) head) was decent.

I would tend to favour locations over sets, even though Michael Stringer’s were very good here.

I think, controversially I know, that Alice should be a child. Get one who can act (which Miller inexplicably failed to do).

I think it should be a bit like Welles’ THE TRIAL, really, just slightly funnier, slightly less sinister. But A BIT sinister. (And the Welles is already pretty funny, funnier than this anyway).

When I read the book I was struck by how funny it was, which the films rarely seemed to be. I wonder if Richard Lester would have wanted to do this: it has eleven of his actors and numerous crew. And there’s the Goons connection. Carroll isn’t as rambunctious as The Goon Show, but he has his moments. It’s a funny thing: the book has almost never been filmed by a comedy specialist.


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2021 by dcairns

I showed my students a bit of the dream sequence from STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) as part of a class on expressionism — my ultimate aim being to break down the barriers between classic German expressionism — painted shadows — film noir — real shadows — and modern dramatic cinematic storytelling which seeks to MAKE THE SCENE LOOK AND SOUND AND FEEL a certain way, often the way the characters feel.

What popped out in viewing the sequence in isolation, along with Nicholas Musuraca’s jagged lighting, was the hammy expostulating of all the supporting characters. I mused/bullshitted that maybe, just maybe, this was all a deliberate choice by director Boris Ingster, who after all went on to produce The Man from UNCLE and so couldn’t, presumably, have been a complete fool. Dreams, I mused, are unconvincingly acted. But just as our bodies are paralysed during sleep, so are our rational-critical faculties, so we are forced to accept whatever nonsense we’re served, like kids in front of Saturday morning TV. It’s only on waking that we say, “That was bizarre.”

Orson Welles, who did much to popularize the striking graphic look that STRANGER throws out, was expert at this dream affect, both in the general atmosphere of THE TRIAL, and in moments of LADY FROM SHANGHAI — the way both Glenn Anders (on the cliff in Rio) and Rita Hayworth (in the mirror maze) stare, seemingly blindly, at Welles, catches something about the autistic performance style of the people we meet in dreams, whether strangers or alien simulacra of loved ones.

And when I re-viewed STRANGER in full as part of our weekend watch party, I was pleased to see that the acting in the surrounding scenes was more traditionally “good.” Peter Lorre was fantastically idiosyncratic and uncanny, but not cartoonish, and the leads, the more traditionally photogenic John McGuire and Margaret Tellichet, though a little bland and earnest, were every bit as convincing as the story needed them to be. The supporting players were reliable types like Elisha Cook, Charles Halton and Ethel Griffies (the ornithologist in THE BIRDS) and they manage to find a mid-ground in their acting style so that without seeming to change character completely in the dream, they can slot into its oneiric stiltedness and get with the program.

Exhumed ex-humans

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2019 by dcairns

The credits of CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD aka LA NUIT DES VAMPIRES aka DER FLUCH DER GRUNEN AUGEN aka BLUTRAUSCH DER VAMPIRE  (1964/5) feature the guy with the greatest Halloween nickname ever, as his real name: Stane Sever.

It’s a West German-Yugoslavian co-production. Alone amid the Eastern block countries, protected by Tito, Yugoslavia made some fun cheesy horror movies in the sixties. Michael Reeves made his first film there, THE SHE-BEAST. This one, however, is directed by Akos V. Ratony, aka Akos Rathonyi, who was nearing the end of his thirty-year career.

Intrepid, boozy, sex-mad detective Adrian Hoven (later a PRODUCER of Euro-horrors) is sent to investigate a series of mystery deaths near a “famous grotto,” each fatality accompanied by a power cut. A story David Lynch might enjoy.

His car conks out just as he arrives at the inn — electromagnetic pulse? or something more sinister, but stupider? Amusingly, when power is restored the next day, the radio is still playing the same tune. That’s how it works, apparently: the radio will pick up where it left off, but maybe play slightly faster until it catches up with the current live broadcast. Either that or Radio Belgrade only has one record to play.

We meet a tavern keeper, a cavern creeper, a wise woman, an unwise woman, a professor who can make his big black candles flame up by breathing on them, like WC Fields, and a deaf mute who’s “harmless, really,” but keeps attacking people — plus he plays the accordion. Not that I’m holding that against him, but it seems inconsistent with his deafness. I suppose he can enjoy the vibrations though. Maybe that’s also why he keeps attacking people. He enjoys the vibrations from his fists thudding into them. While it was, in a way, refreshing to find a hard-of-hearing character portrayed in this unusual way, I felt the other characters were wrong to constantly refer to him as deaf. The thing about this guy isn’t that he’s deaf, or mute, or maybe slow-witted or whatever. The thing about him is that he’s a surly, violent arsehole. The dialogue should not be, “Don’t mind him, he’s deaf,” but rather “Don’t mind him, he’s a violent, surly arsehole. Or maybe do mind him, and give him the occasional punch in the breadbasket.”

There’s also a black manservant working at the local castle (John Kitzmiller from DR. NO). While he’s portrayed as superstitious re vampires, this is perhaps forgivable as he’s RIGHT. More interesting is the fact that the villagers are superstitious of HIM, because of his race, and they’re NOT right. Despite working for the mad scientist vampire troglodyte, he’s thoroughly decent.

I became convinced that at least one, maybe two of the dubbed voices were the same as one of the detectives in Orson Welles’ THE TRIAL. Well, those scenes were seemingly shot in Yugoslavia… but would they have been dubbed there? It seemed unlikely. But I couldn’t shake it. Maybe it was the cavernous echo, and that constipated quality dubbing actors all seem to have because they’re trying to voice three or four different characters. (Welles did a lot of the voices in THE TRIAL himself, and I’d always assumed he was doing that detective. With accompanying strain in voice.)

Really, really shoddy script — we never find out why there are power failures, though we do helpfully cut to the power station at the end where they’re puzzled, too. But old Akos seems to be having fun with a few spooky shots and clever transitions, and his native land has coughed up some good locations.

Am reminded that John Landis conceived AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF OF LONDON after witness a body being buried at a crossroads at midnight on location in Yugoslavia while he was working on KELLY’S HEROES. He later shifted the location to Yorkshire, because they both begin with a Y, I guess.

CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD stars Professor Henri Vollmer; Jo le Suedois; Dr. Mabuse; Quarrel; and Stane Sever.