Archive for The Woman in White

This Was Your Life

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2009 by dcairns

Eammon Andrews is a murdering swine!

From THREE CASES OF MURDER. It’s a slightly strange idea, getting a loveable TV presenter (from This is Your Life) to present your compendium murder movie, but I guess Roald Dahl hadn’t been thought of. Say what you like, for me this works, especially as there’s something disturbing about his casual approach to homicide — checking his victim has truly expired before adding the word “efficient”. Cold-blooded, Eammon.

Eammon recounts three tales of murder, two of which I’ve briefly referred to here, the third of which is of actual serious interest. Also, two of the stories involve supernatural or unexplained elements, while one doesn’t. So the movie isn’t terribly well thought out, structurally. It longs to be an Amicus horror anthology avant la lettre, but doesn’t quite have the guts. But my favourite episode, IN THE PICTURE, is like a Twilight Zone episode gone inexplicably queer.

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Wendy Toye directs, and this was obviously her reward for the well-received short THE STRANGER LEFT NO CARD. Unprepared to give her a full feature to direct, Wessex Film Productions allowed her a third of one, and brought her composer Doreen Carwithen along too. This despite the fact that Toye had already proved her reliability with THE TECKMAN MYSTERY, a whodunnit starring Margaret Leighton. The year of THREE CASES, 1955, Toye also directed two more features, the domestic comedy RAISING A RIOT with thick plank Kenneth More, and ALL FOR MARY, a sort of romcom in the Swiss Alps. Toye complained that her more ambitious ideas were more or less automatically nixed by the studios, in the dull days of John Davis’s reign at Rank, and the decline of British cinema from its post-war heights.

But in the short format she was unfettered. I’ve just discovered that another short film, ON THE TWELFTH DAY, which I remember fondly from my childhood when it used to play on TV at Christmas, was directed by Toye. It’s charming, imaginative, and cinematic, as I recall. And IN THE PICTURE is something else. Building on the nakedly sadistic and fantastical elements of THE STRANGER LEFT NO CARD, it capitalizes once more on an eccentric and florid performance from Alan Badel, who appears in all three segments of the anthology. (I hadn’t realised that Badel was ever so famous that featuring him in this way would make sense. A pity Hammer didn’t pick up on his colourful talents, he could have been their own Vincent Price.)

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Badel plays Mr. X, who is both the long-dead artist responsible for a curiously disturbing landscape painting, and its principle inhabitant. X strikes up a conversation with an attendant in the gallery where the picture hangs, in what seems rather strikingly like a homosexual pick-up, then leads him intothe painting itself. Toye achieves this effect with a perfect blend of special effects and strong direction, and over the shoulder shot that changes to a POV, zooming up the oily garden path to the house in the painting, until the door opens and the characters enter frame again…

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Inside, all is floaty dutch tilts, with the camera swinging smoothly from one jaunty angle to the next, as tattered draperies drift in the breeze. Mr X introduces the gallery guard to his wife, whom he treats with supremely weary contempt, and finally to the monomaniac taxidermist Mr Snyder. It all ends rather badly for the poor guy, who is entirely blameless and undeserving of his fate.

Mr X is a fascinating figure, played to the hilt by Badel with a lot of camp theatricality (I first saw Badel in one of his last roles, playing Count Fosco in The Woman in White on TV — an indelible impression). He’s fantastically indifferent to anything human, but devoted to his painting — to the point of living in it. His entire motivation is to light a candle in the upper window, in order to complete the effect — but it’s clear that this painting will never be complete, its artist can never be satisfied with things as they are.

While the taxidermy subplot certainly comes out of left field, and its never quite made clear whether the inhabitants of the painting are demons or the damned, these elements of incompletion or confusion actually make the film more unsettling, imaginative and stimulating. It opens up dark and hostile worlds.

Slaughter House

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 26, 2008 by dcairns

CRIMES AT THE DARK HOUSE is what the usually-wrong Leslie Halliwell quite rightly calls a “cheeky” rendition of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, a classic shocker which has been adapted several times, always more faithfully than this magnificent travesty. There’s a very decent version with Sidney Greenstreet as the villainous Count Fosco, and I have fond memories of a BBC TV version from my childhood which was blessed with a magnificently fruity turn by Alan Badel, and served as my introduction to that fine fellow (cinephiles may recall his sinister Arab in ARABESQUE, oozing suavely with a falcon on his arm).

This version is a star vehicle for barnstorming actor-manager Tod Slaughter, a genuine exponent of your actual melodrama, a man who actually made his living by cackling and twirling his moustache. It’s directed by George King, whose half-hearted praises I sang off-key here. King, a spirited B-movie professional, is in slightly muted form here, perhaps just disgusted by the awful bollocks he has to aim his camera at, or perhaps just strained by a hectic schedule. But the production values seem pretty good — this isn’t a shoddy “quota quickie” as they’re usually imagined.

The main departure from Collins’ popular classic is the addition of a whole series of gratuitous murders, with even more gratuitous cackling as accompaniment. Start as you mean to go on: Tod begins the very first scene by hammering a spike into a sleeping man’s head, which seems to strike him as particularly amusing.

Stealing the identity of the sore-headed corpse, Tod becomes Sir Perceval Glyde, or anyhow a Percival impersonator. An impercevalator, if you will. Discovering that all his scam has netted him is a mortgaged manor house and a heap of debts, the gesticulating ham plots to marry innocent local hottie Laura Fairlie (Sylvia Marriot) for her money. He’s assisted in his scheming by two citizens of Dundee, actors Hay Petrie and David Keir, who play a quack asylum superintendant and a lawyer respectively. Petrie is of particular interest — he can ham it up without becoming tiresome, and he has a decent role, demoted from lead villain in Collins’ book. Petrie acted in a wide range of stuff, including Powell & Pressburger classics like THE RED SHOES and Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s THE FALLEN IDOL. It’s fun to see him cut loose with a bigger part in a dafter movie.

Hay Petrie with Tod Slaughter, a man so evil he actually curses trousers.

Throughout the film, the crimes at the dark house fall to Mr. Slaughter, who proves himself very successful at murdering, acceptable at raping, but very bad at fraud. His first fraud having actually landed him in debt, he tries to murder his way out of every problem that arises. One has to respect his fighting spirit. Not so much a case of “never-say-die”, as “always-say-die-Die!-DIE!!!”

Slaughter also gets to indulge in what are practically asides to the audience. His trademark evil cackle is for our benefit, and he licks his lips lasciviously whenever anyone with breasts is to hand, but he also talks to himself. The late great Ken Campbell once proposed that there are two ways to handle a Shakespearean aside: firstly, you can act as if you’re talking to yourself, thinking aloud as it were. Or, you can adopt what Campbell called the “My chums the audience” approach and welcome the punters in to a warm embrace, sharing your wickedest secrets with them. This seems to me the only way to treat Iago or Richard III’s monologues, for instance.

Slaughter is clearly of this latter camp, and it’s obvious that his nastiness is all a big joke for the delectation of the working-class audiences who flocked to see him. It really is a comedy performance from beginning to end, and it’s remarkable how sick the whole thing is: “The false Perceval Glyde” (we never learn his real name) a maidservant he’s knocked up, the mother of the real Glyde’s illigitimate daughter, and Fosco (although this doesn’t take). He also murders a pneumonia sufferer by moving their bed to the window and opening it — cue ludicrous cartoon howling wind FX.

As the melodrama ripens, Slaughter’s tendency to demented soliloquy grows more pronounced. Trying to burn the church records that will expose his imposture, Slaughter finds himself trapped in an inferno. “Curses, the key!” he laments. Smashing a window with a chair, he looks at the drop outside and exclaims, “Oh! I can’t go down that way!”

“He’s so evil he’s narrating his own death!” I thought. That’s hardcore evilness.