Archive for Tigon

Eyes in their Stars

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2009 by dcairns

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Stephen Murphy (makeup effects); Morag McKinnon (director); Kiyoyuki Murakami (translator/sound recordist); some pie (comestible). 

So, my friend Kiyo, visiting from Japan, left on Wednesday. Last time he visited and left I got bushwhacked by sudden emotion, which would probably have happened again, except for the comedy relief he thoughtfully supplied. “Thank you for your hospitality, and… thank you for everything you did to me,” he said, as he got into the cab, then sat down, missing the seat and landing on his arse on the floor. “That was a good one, wasn’t it?” he remarked, cheerfully.

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I always found these space aliens, from the Japanese WARNING FROM SPACE, completely adorable in the movie stills I saw. With Kiyo departed and myself in nostalgic mood, I shoved the disc, a gift from composer Matt Wand, into the Panasonic and let ‘er rip. 

A ready-made Fever Dream Double Feature, the disc consists of both WARNING FROM SPACE and the uncannily similar THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE, an Amicus production that likewise features astronomer heroes, meteors that land in formation, extraterrestrials that take human form, and plot twists that shift the invaders from hostile to sympathetic and (sometimes) back again.

The other film BEYOND SPACE (the moon is beyond space? That’s a conservative estimate of the size of the universe, isn’t it?) resembles is another British UFO flick, THE BODY STEALERS. But that one, a Tigon production, is beyond dull. Despite being shot by the talented John Coquillon (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID) it contains only one striking shot:

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A body worth stealing.

The Amicus effort is a lot more interesting, thanks to occasional wisps of inventiveness from director Freddie Francis, and excellent production design in the aliens’ lair, and even in the astronomers’ HQ, where a psychedelic floor painting livens things up. Francis was generally a weak director, at least compared to his brilliance as a cinematographer, but he could rise to the challenge when a film offered him something of visual interest to get his teeth into. Oddly, here and in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF, it’s the photography that often lets things down, with awkward transitions from day-for-night to night-for-night, something that NEVER works (honourable exception: THE PROFESSIONALS, shot by Conrad Hall). 

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Robert Hutton is our hero, a stiff bit of imported American timber, whose characterisation consists of (a) driving a vintage car, like Jon Pertwee in Doctor Who, and (b) having a metal plate in his skull, which turns out to protect him against alien possession. This results in an endearing bit where Hutton’s pal, Zia Mohyheddin, must fashion a brain-shield out of golf trophies and spend the rest of the film looking hilarious. Things like this keep the film going: most B-movie scifis are painfully lacking in ideas, seeming to equate creativity with expense. This one throws in a new novelty just often enough. A senior security guy from the secret service suddenly contract freckly plague — apparently by telephone. Staggering from the phone booth, he dies in seconds and immediately infects the doctor who rushes to his side. The delirium of the pace is dreamlike, aided by the surreal intensity of the doctor’s performance: we think of dreams as slow and floaty, but this sequence captures the abruption and ellipsis of dream-narrative very well. 

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The biggest mistake is probably the casting of Michael Gough as “the Master of the Moon”. Stressing every other word and thrusting his head about like a querulous chicken, Gough is very much on form, but when he has to convert back to being the human being possessed by the M of the M, he plays “Arthur Grey” in exactly the same manner, which leaves the ending in a terrifying limbo. Does this mean that all the humans possessed by the invaders are permanently strange? Are we doomed to become a race of Michael Goughs? Look around you! Can you be sure it isn’t already happening?

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WARNING FROM SPACE isn’t quite as full of surprises, but does switch genres in midstream, from invasion film to disaster movie. The starfish eyeball people from beyond infinity turn out to be warning mankind of a terrible threat, a comet (resembling a sun, in fact) on collision course with Earth. Cue lots of shots of screaming civilians evacuating Tokyo, apparently unaware that the surrounding countryside is still technically Earth. 

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It’s all decent entertainment if you’re as mentally twelve as I am, although maybe the film could have actually gotten by with fewer ideas. I would have been quite happy to just watch the starfish guys wandering about Tokyo, trying to buy beer or chat up the locals. When you have aliens as delightful as this, plot just gets in the way. Instead, the alien leader transmogrifies herself into a celebrity lookalike, travels to Earth, is washed up in a lake, and is quickly suspected of being what she is — her tendency to leap six feet in the air while playing tennis, and to teleport through plate glass, as well as the fact that she’s the doppelganger of a famous cabaret performer, tending to promote suspicion.

Also, because of the period it was made in, the colour process and the settings irresistibly recall Ozu’s late work, although director Koji Shima throws in the odd Dutch tilt, which is surely enough to disbar him from the transcendental style lodge.

The film was pan-and-scanned, the colour was faded, and the dialogue was dubbed (English dub by Jay Cipes, who married Edgar Ulmer’s daughter Arianne — and I think that might be Arianne’s voice playing the alien leader). So arguably I haven’t actually seen this film at all. But if I’m about to mutate into Michael Gough I don’t suppose it matters.

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Circle of Safety

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2008 by dcairns

I was all excited — I’d discovered that there was a Jacques Tourneur film set in Scotland — CIRCLE OF DANGER. I’d also heard it was very minor, which proved to be the case. A thriller without any thrills or jeopardy, the film is enlivened solely by performances and Tourneur’s combination of bold imagination and impeccable taste in filming them.

I once got into an intractable cyber-squabble with a fellow who insisted that all he wanted from cinema was beautiful mise-en-scene. He didn’t care about story or performance, all he enjoyed was the way the director moved the camera and actors together in a kind of dance. I rather felt that a good deal of the purpose of that dance was to bring out story and character values and present the performances to the audience, so our minds did not, so to speak, meet.

Tourneur was a director much admired by both of us, and for similar but not identical reasons. The second-generation film director (his father, Maurice, was considered by some to be among the top three or four picture-makers in the world, in the late ’20s) was known for taking whatever job was offered him and filming the script as he found it. His work was always excellent — there are barely any weak performances in his films (Merle Oberon in BERLIN EXPRESS takes the prize for lameness) and his decoupagea thing of elegance and ingenuity. Only the last few films can really be faulted for his contribution. But, even though I’m a director myself, I can’t really find sufficient interest in a Tourneur film unless there’s a good script.

THE FEARMAKERS, an incredibly tedious confection with no drama whatsoever, is the test case. Without interesting situations to present, all Tourneur’s skill is essentially rudderless. Although it’s true to say that his approach is not obviously devoted to presenting each moment at its most impactful, but rather at weaving a mood of poetic intrigue, Tourneur is seriously hampered if the scenario doesn’t offer him a spark of tension.

Dana Andrews in happier days: NIGHT OF THE DEMON.

CIRCLE OF DANGER isn’t as moribund as FEARMAKERS, but it could certainly do with some added suspense. Ray Milland is trying to find out what happened to his brother, killed in action in WWII. His investigation brings him into contact with… some nice people. He gets angry at one of them, but it’s all a misunderstanding. Some thriller. It’s a tribute to Tourneur’s mastery and the charm of Ray Milland (oily variety) and Patricia Roc (a natural nice girl) that the thing is watchable at all. Fiona floated off into a magazine after ten minutes. What follows is a summary of most of the things I found to appreciate.

Peter Butterworth as an American salvage diver in Scene One. CARRY ON film stalwart Butterworth must have been proud of his Amurrican voice — he gets it out again in Richard Lester’s THE RITZ, in which his disguised accent is intended to transport us from Twickenham Film Studios outside London, to a gay sauna in Noo Yawk.

An office in the Ministry of Defence. Having just watched the tedious THE BODY STEALERS, a Tigon Production which completed my Neil Connery retrospective, I was impressed with the different quality Tourneur brought to his scenes, aided by designer Duncan Sutherland.

Wee Neil Connery surrounded by a pervasive ugliness.

While THE BODY STEALERS spends much time in brown and undistinguished offices, which are cramped and ugly without making a dramatic virtue of the fact, Tourneur shoots out onto a facing window, through which other office workers can be seen going about their miserable humdrum lives. It opens out the scene while actually emphasising the claustrophobic discomfort of the environment. It’s drab, but STIMULATINGLY drab.

Scotland. Only about a third of the action takes place in the Highlands, but there’s a little bit of nice scenery and it’s pleasant to think of Tourneur coming here. Otherwise, the film gets some good use out of its London locations, and also includes scenes set in Wales and Birmingham. No Brummie accents, but there’s an incomprehensible Welsh coal miner.

Everything involving Marius Goring. While most of the performers satisfy Tourneur’s usual requirement of dreamy restraint (Patricia Roc, a limited but endearing player, is particularly well suited to Tourneur’s approach), Goring, with his sinister pointy teeth, is allowed to be a firebrand from the word go. Since he’s the only not-too-nice person we meet, his appearance is doubly welcome. Better yet, he’s an ex-commando, known for his savagery in battle, who’s now directing a ballet, and he’s very obviously meant to be gay. The surprise factor of a heroic and fearsome soldier who’s camp as knickers is pleasing enough, so that the character’s unpleasantness can be forgiven, but it gets better.

(How do we know he’s gay? His job, plus the fact that when Milland hears that the male dancer is being difficult, he tells Goring, “I think you should spank him. Hard.” Later, Milland will refer to Goring as “it” and “that freak”.)

Goring seems to be associated with fellow balletomane Reginald Beckwith (who later returned to Tourneur’s fold, playing the medium Mr. Meekin NIGHT OF THE DEMON), who’s certainly “light on his feet”, as they say, but he also appears devoted to taciturn Scotsman Hugh Sinclair, his commander in the war. At one point, Goring seats himself at Sinclair’s feet and leans into the man’s crotch to light his cigarette with a lighter Sinclair’s holding at groin level. Furthermore, the film’s “surprise ending” does surprise in one sense — Goring turns out to be a wholly positive character, whose rude manner hides a heart of gold, and he averts a tragedy that the pigheaded Milland was on the point of causing.

Based on this, and despite its numerous weaknesses as drama, I would have to say that CIRCLE OF DANGER presents possibly the most positive male homosexual character not only of 1951, but of all mainstream cinema up to this point. A tip of the hat to Tourneur, Goring, writer Philip MacDonald and producer Joan Harrison.

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