Archive for Theremin

The Sunday Intertitle: Things I Read Off the Screen in Blackmail

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2015 by dcairns

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Glasgow! With silent film accompanist Jane Gardner, to see BLACKMAIL with live score by Neil Brand, under the baton of Timothy Brock. This was preceded by a special concert of Hitchcock scores — Webb, Rosza, Tiomkin, Waxman and of course Herrmann. It’s quite something to have VERTIGO blasted at you live. As for PSYCHO, a young couple to my left obviously regarded the shower scene as their song: as the violins shrieked, he mimed stabbing her in the back with an invisible knife, to her apparent delight.

Getting there, mind you, was a journey of Hitchcockian suspense — taking the bus to meet Jane we got caught in football traffic (ugh! the worst kind of traffic — even worse than badminton traffic) and arrived late, then scooted off in her Fiat 500, struggling to find a parking spot near the venue and then struggling to find the venue, eventually arrived seconds before the lights dimmed.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra did us proud, and there was a surprise treat in the form of a theremin for SPELLBOUND — I wasn’t at all sure such a thing would be provided — there are, after all, entire recordings of the SPELLBOUND score without a theremin — some wretched fiddler taking the part, I guess, I haven’t troubled to listen to such abominations. This was a delight.

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Then BLACKMAIL, which I hadn’t seen since Hitchcock Year, Maestro Brand’s score was thrilling, of course — with many playful references to the musical spirit of Hitchcock to come. The most overt was the extract from Gounod’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme (I know, I know, he didn’t write it for TV) played when Hitch makes his first true guest appearance. I wondered whether such references would distract me,  but in fact, the playfulness was discrete — it must have taken restraint not to turn the scene where artsy rake Cyril Ritchard waits while Anny Ondra changes into something more comfortable into a straight reprise of the similar scene in VERTIGO.

The score, in fact, worked wonderfully, the proof being that despite the visible presence of the orchestra between us and the screen — Brock’s hands would occasionally rise into the bottom of the frame as he signalled a particularly vigorous moment — for much of the show we forgot the music except as part of the enjoyable experience of watching a story unfold on a screen. A smooth artistic synthesis was achieved!

Hitch’s cameo got me noticing how incredibly well handled all the extras are. The small boy who torments Hitch on the underground ends the scene, having been told off, standing on his seat and simply glowering malevolently at Hitch, like a raven from THE BIRDS. He doesn’t realize that Hitch has a short way of disposing of children on public transport. From then on, I was aware that each individual walk-on character, however crowded the scene, had a bit of personal business to distinguish them, and each performed his role perfectly.

I also started noticing writing. Some of what follows was noted during the show, some found afterwords, perusing the DVD.

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Receiving a radio message — “Flying Squad Van 68 — Proceed at once to Cambri” — the rest is unfinished — the van makes a 180 turn into Looking-Glass Land, where all the shop signs run backwards into a kind of cod-Russian cypher. Evidently nobody had shot a background plate traveling in the right direction, so they simply flipped the film. The store Dollond & Aitchison glimpsed here, is also advertised on the London Underground scene later.

Perhaps due to this confusion, when the Sweeney arrive at their destination, it isn’t Cambridge Street or Place or Circus of Terrace, it’s Albert Street. Perhaps close to Eastenders‘ Albert Square? Certainly in the mysterious East. Less salubrious than Hitch’s native Leytonstone.

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A slew of text inside. The criminal is reading The Daily Herald. An ad for Wrigleys in the bottom corner. Another newspaper lies on his desk, bearing his watch and revolver. We can read a headline about MURDER TRIAL and, at the bottom, the words I’VE FOUND IT! — probably another advertisement. Most amusingly, above the bed is a religious motto, GOD HELPS THOSE WHO HELP THEMSELVES. Ironic, since it seems our friend in the nightshirt has been helping himself a little too freely.

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The note Anny has received proposing a secret assignation ~

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Torn from a cocktail menu, it suggests a whole furtive nocturnal backstory. I like the abbreviated slogan “NIPPY” COCK — a partial directorial signature?

Anny’s despondent walk after she’s killed Ritchard is full of printed cues and clues. For one thing, she passes a poster advertising the climactic fight from THE RING, Hitchcock’s previous film, starring Carl Brisson, Anny’s lover from THE MANXMAN. The fight is staged at the Albert Hall, looking forward to THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH.

A neon sign in Piccadilly Circus, advertising Gordon’s Gin “The Heart of a Good Cocktail” dissolves so that a cocktail shaker outline becomes a hand stabbing with a kitchen knife — a ludicrous idea, but bold, and the call-back to the “nippy” cocktails is appreciated.

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IS PRAYER ANSWERED? A significant question in Hitchcock, directly addressed at the film’s climax, when Ondra apparently prays, and her decision to confess her crime is answered with the death of the blackmailer. See also THE WRONG MAN.

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Ondra’s family newsagent yields a plethora of signage! My eyeballs dart like frightened mice, from one corner of the screen to another to try and catch all the little textual nudges. Alice’s first sight of home is viewed through the reverse side of a shop sign, so we get mirrored lettering AGAIN — Alice is through the looking glass! The earlier accident begins to look deliberate. Confirmed when Alice stares at herself in her dresing table mirror just moments later.

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PICTURE SHOW — lower right. Ah, if only Anny had gone to the pictures with John Longden, we wouldn’t be where we are now. The reference may also remind us of the pieces of art in Ritchard’s sex garret, each of which has an accusatory role in the narrative. One is a laughing, pointing jester, the other is a sketch on canvas signed by Ondra.

When we see the phone booth again, from Longden’s POV, that sign has vanished, in the best ROOM 237 manner. On the left of frame is a possible explanation — a MYSTIC ERASER. Just what Anny needs to obliterate the past 24 hours as neatly as the obliterated her incriminating signature from Ritchard’s canvas.

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The booklets and other props around the phone booth will continue to change randomly throughout the scene, an uncanny peekaboo of discontinuity.

Ondra’s dad, Mr. White, is explicitly framed with a halo reading the word WARLOCK. Not sure why. But the shopkeeper dad is obviously a stand-in for Hitch’s own father, with whom he associated his fear of arrest. So although Mr. White is kindly, Hitch makes him a source of anxiety with this supernatural halo of occult lettering.

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Ondra has mentioned Edgar Wallace earlier — now a poster at floor level refers to Sexton Blake, stalwart hero of schlock thrillers, whose exploits had been printed in the Union Jack since 1894. The threat from ‘D’ (no idea who he is), “If Sexton Blake comes to Yorkshire, I’ll get him!”, gives the blackmailer’s first appearance a further underscore of menace.

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And finally ~

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SHAG (middle left). Obviously a reference to another fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, whose favourite pipe tobacco this was.

CINE DORADO: O is for La Otra

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 20, 2013 by dcairns

David Wingrove returns with another installment in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama. One correction — the first theremin in movies featured in Miklos Rosza’s score for THE LOST WEEKEND, in 1945.

 CINE DORADO

The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama

O is for La otra (The Other One)

A life that could have been but was not.

A fate that chose the most twisted and tortuous paths.

– Dolores del Río in La otra (1946)

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Watching the credits to La otra, you could be forgiven for expecting a sci-fi movie. The camera drifts in outer space, planets aglow in varying shapes and sizes, while a theremin wails frantically on the soundtrack. (The use of this instrument in La otra may well be a movie first.) We might be at a low-budget, black-and-white preview of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! Yet this film, as we shall see, takes place on a planet infinitely stranger and more glamorous than Mars…

In the opening scene, a crowd gathers to mourn a dead millionaire. His widow – her face hidden by a black veil – steps daintily out of a hearse. A mousy woman with glasses pushes through the crowd and fights her way to the widow’s side. As the ladies stand shoulder to (padded) shoulder by the open grave, the inconsolable wife turns to the intruder and hisses: “Couldn’t you find something better to wear?”

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The first big hit for its director Roberto Gavaldón, and an acting tour de force for its star Dolores del Río, La otra (1946) is the Mexican melodrama that defines the entire genre. It is also one of the grandest and most flamboyant ‘women’s pictures’ of the 40s. The lovely Dolores plays not one but both those ladies at the graveside – who are, in fact, twin sisters. The wealthy Magdalena is vain, frivolous, grasping, cruel, selfish and generally vile. Her impoverished sibling, María, is pure, virtuous and hard working. Yet her life is poisoned by jealousy and hatred of the sister who has everything she does not.

Such casting was par for the course in the 40s, when no movie diva of any stature was content to play just one role in a film. In 1944, audiences in Mexico had thrilled to María Félix as blonde and dark femmes fatales in Amok and – from that other film industry north of the border – Maria Montez as good and evil twins in Cobra Woman. In the same year as La otra, Hollywood made ‘twin’ movies with Bette Davis (A Stolen Life) and Olivia de Havilland (The Dark Mirror). Davis – in a final bizarre twist – would remake the plot of La otra in her 1964 vehicle Dead Ringer.

Yet while the twin sisters in Hollywood films embody polar opposites of Good and Evil, the siblings in La otra are both corrupt and vicious to varying degrees. After the funeral, the two repair to the wealthy sister’s mansion, a fantasia of white caryatids and chessboard marble floors. Taking pity for once on her sister, Magdalena flings open her closets (a scene that foreshadows Written on the Wind) and throws a few unwanted designer gowns in her direction. “No, not that one!” she says, having second thoughts. “I’ve promised that one to the maid.”

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While callous Magdalena is fretting over her mourning outfits, poor frumpy María sits at the dressing table and wraps herself, for comfort, in one of her sister’s priceless fur stoles. The butler comes in to announce tea and sees her reflection in the giant mirror. He assumes, naturally, that she is the lady of the house. A strange light flickers, momentarily, in María’s eyes. We know, at that moment, that a dangerous (and probably lethal) plot is about to be hatched.

Leaving the mansion, María overhears the staff gossiping about the 5 million pesos her sister stands to inherit. Out in the street, it’s Christmas Eve and the whole of Mexico City is lottery-mad. The jackpot, of course, is 5 million pesos! This sum passes her on the sides of buses, flashes at her from neon signs. It even hangs over the bar where she goes with her detective boyfriend (played by Argentine tango singer Agustín Irusta). When she rails against her poverty, he says in horror: “I don’t recognise you when you talk like that. It’s as if you’d become another woman!”

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In the film’s bravura set piece, María telephones Magdalena and announces she is going to commit suicide. Mildly annoyed by such histrionics, Magdalena summons her chauffeur and drives to the squalid garret where her sister lives. She climbs the stair in the courtyard, as firecrackers explode around her and children sing hymns in a candlelit procession. At the top of the stairs, María is waiting with a gun. She points it at Magdalena – but we do not see or hear the shot. Instead, a child smashes the head of a piñata hanging in the courtyard; it bursts open, with a deafening bang.

Upstairs, Magdalena is slumped in a rocking chair. Dead. In a scene too graphic and visceral for a Hollywood film, María strips naked in silhouette. She then begins, slowly, to peel off the dead woman’s silk stockings. Finally, dressed in her sister’s clothes, she walks down the stairs to the waiting limousine. (She almost forgets to take off her glasses – but she leaves them on the table, with a suicide note, in the nick of time.) She gets into the car and drives off towards her new life.

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Not that she ever has much fun. Soon, she has to witness the late husband’s will. Unable to forge Magdalena’s signature, she burns her right hand with a hot poker so she can sign with her left. We watch the poker as it heats up slowly on an open fire; we get a close-up of del Río’s exquisite face as it contorts in agony. A few scenes later, a sleazy moustachioed gigolo (Victor Junco) shows up and demands her gratitude – sexual and financial – for helping her to poison her husband. Poor María has no choice but to give in. As she was clearly too respectable to sleep with her boyfriend, we wonder if this new man will notice she’s a virgin…

But even Mexican movies, at their most florid, have to draw a veil over some things. A triumph for Gavaldón’s operatic mise en scène – all multiplying mirrors and ominous shadows – La otra is the equal of any classic Hollywood melodrama of the 40s. The performance(s) of Dolores del Río can rank with the best of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck. Mind you, I’m still not sure why they needed those planets. La otra is in a dimension all of its own.

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David Melville

Let’s Pretend

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2010 by dcairns

THE PRETENDER —

Well, OK, this is a William Lee Wilder film that wouldn’t, all by itself, automatically make you think of him as Billy Wilder’s idiot brother. A brother of inferior talent, certainly, but not absolutely hopeless. The deciding difference is either John Alton’s moody noir photography, which is always a pleasure, even coming at you through a gray fog of low-def VHS, or the script, which has one very nice idea — sleazy stockbroker Albert Dekker (he of the appalling death) seeks to marry a rich client to stave off bankruptcy (she’s so rich she has the Emperor Ming, Charles Middleton, as a butler), but she’s set her sights on someone else. So he hires a gangster to procure a hitman to rub out his rival, thinking he’ll catch his gal on the rebound. But meanwhile she ditches her loverboy all by herself and proposes to Dekker. He can’t believe his luck. But he’s told the gangster to put the hit out on the guy whose picture appears in the paper as his girl’s fiance, and so when his own pic is printed he has to urgently call off the job — but a clusterfuck of plot contrivances immediately piles up in his path.

Wilder films conversation scenes in unimaginative and static flat two-shots, but when there’s tension or psychological dissonance afoot he and Alton achieve some charming noir effects, aided by a theremin borrowed from the smarter brother’s LOST WEEKEND. And while Wilder’s sci-fi and horror stuff always showed complete disinterest in character, here the lack of sympathy actually has a point, since the plot hinges on the protagonist’s treacherous and unworthy nature.

The track-in to close-up with theatrical lighting change to introduce internal monologue either comes from DETOUR or from some common noir ancestor, but it’s very nice here.

WOMANEATER, on the other hand, by Wilder’s directing partner Charles Saunders, is an unmitigated howler. George Coulouris (frequent victim of the hit-and-run Z-movie crowd) is a mad scientist who attempts to create a reanimation serum by feeding women to a tropical plant. It’s not quite clear how this will be a boon to humanity, unless I suppose each victim produces enough serum to revitalize two corpses. The arithmetic is never explained.

Eat Drink Man Woman.

Bubbly Vera Day is very funny, without really trying, as the heroine, a showgirl who loses her job and becomes George’s housekeeper. With her comedy comely figure and natural working-class accent, she is, on the one hand, a stylised comic-book character, and on the other, far too credible for a film like this. She seems odd because she’s the only actor with one foot in reality. Oh, apart from Joy Webster as another bit of walking plant-food, who plays her role with the kind of tired contempt that ought to have come naturally in such surroundings.

Crazy.

Jimmy Vaughn, as “Tanga, the native” is utterly hilarious at all times, but I can’t really find any argument to defend his cheerfully awful work here. He kind of seems like he’s just stumbled into the movie, or else maybe he was hired more for his bongo playing than his thespian abilities. And the local constable, Edward Higgins, is spectacularly ill-at-ease in front of the camera, making his every moment cherishable. While Vaughn has no other credits, Higgins’ screen career spans fourteen years of uniformed bit parts — I shall certainly be watching out for him.

NB: Womaneater is also a fine Britney Spears song.

The Woman Eater

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