Archive for Tod Browning

The Actual Sunday Intertitle: The Midnight Call

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2022 by dcairns

To the Cameo to see Murnau’s NOSFERATU, maybe the only film we’ll see at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. The only other retro screening is THE LAST WALTZ. The modern films may be excellent but I don’t know anything about them. I think not having a retrospective is a mistake.

NOSFERATU may be one hundred years old but he’s fresh as a daisy. The screening used the original score as supplied by Eureka! Masters of Cinema. No live accompaniment. I think that score is good but too bombastic. I felt a disconnect — Murnau’s film seems stately and creepy, and Hans Erdmann’s judgement of when the big moments are doesn’t align with mine. But it certainly has atmosphere — it’s reminiscent of Wojciech Kilar’s work on BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA.

I’d forgotten about the hyena, a bit of geographically astray fauna that anticipates Tod Browning’s famed armadillos and opossums. An intertitle indicates that we’re supposed to interpret this mournful-looking rather than laughing fellow as a “werewolf.”

A few interesting things I’d forgotten or else hadn’t noticed before, apparent on this very crisp big-screen presentation. When Hutter, terrified by Orlok’s nocturnal appearance, rushes to the window, Murnau provides his POV of a chasm and cataract, making it clear that there’s no escape via that route. But the POV shot appears to be UPSIDE-DOWN. The water trickling from the cliffs rains upwards. This seems to make it more dramatically vertiginous.

Quite possibly cameraman Fritz Arno Wagner is hanging by his feet to get this shot, so possibly the unusual angle was unintentional. They could have flipped it in the edit if they’d wanted to.

On my very first short I had a guy hang by his ankles to get a cliff shot. I was reluctant to let him, but he was very keen. (He was lying on a slope with the camera off the cliff — he wasn’t literally hanging but it was necessary to hold his ankles so he didn’t slide downhill…) My shot turned out rubbish.

Always intrigued by the psychic linkages. The art of editing spatially unrelated scenes together invites “spooky action at a distance” — the suggestion of mental links that cross gulfs of space. Ellen is psychically hooked into Hutter. Hutter, on the other hand, is oblivious to his distant wife, and indeed to everything else. Graf Orlok seems to wiretap Ellen’s psychic connection and reacts to her sleepwalking as he’s about to bite Hutter.

Knock, the Renfield character, becomes hooked in to Orlok’s plans. Seeing a ship arrive, he knows it’s his master’s, and he senses the death scene at the end. One of the barriers to fully accepting telepathy as a thing is that we don’t yet know the medium it would operate in. But in movies, it’s definitely found its medium. As in THE SHINING, montage = telepathy.

Books on my floor

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2022 by dcairns

I did crazy good this week on book purchases —

The Laughton and Altman books came from the All You Can Eat book shop, which is rarely open but always affordable. £1 each. I know Simon Callow’s Laughton book is probably better than Charles Higham’s, but a cursory glance revealed this one to have some merit, and Elsa Lanchester cooperated in it. The Altman book is great and makes me think I should spend a week just catching up with oddities from his long career which have hitherto escaped me, from Combat to THE COMPANY.

I figured I’d read a few snatches of the Laughton — page 17, maybe, and in fact I did read the bit on Sternberg — and then forget it was there, but Fiona grabbed it and devoured it cover to cover so it’s paid its way. Also, there are some wonderful artists’ impressions of the Great Man:

Two by Elsa, and —

One by James Mason and one, a collage, by Brecht.

The Polanski book came from a nearby charity shop. A pretty handsome volume for £5. Polanski provides quotes on each film. There’s not a lot of meat to it — I read it in an afternoon — but it’s glossy and handsome. Many many of the pictures show Polanski doing other people’s jobs — sewing or arranging fights, swinging a log at an outsize opponent.

The Tod Browning one cost the most, from secondhand record-and-bookstore Elvis Shakespeare, a regular stop on my constitutionals. It happened to tie in with a little project I have on the go, so I couldn’t very well pass it up. £15. It’s pretty good — a series of essays on different aspects of Browning’s work. There are some howling factual errors — Roger Corman directing Christopher Lee in DRACULA — but they’re all sort of off-topic. On Browning’s films, the book is informative and insightful.

Alonso and Michel’s Lowlife Reunion

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2022 by dcairns

The last day of Hippfest began, for us anyway, with a Laurel & Hardy triple bill — restorations of DUCK SOUP, TWO TARS and LIBERTY, all of which brought the house down, or would’ve if the Hippodrome had been less solidly constructed 110 years ago.

This was followed by A STRING OF PEARLS (YICHUAN ZHENZHU, 1926), one of the few surviving Chinese silents, a loose adaptation of Maupassant’s The Necklace, complete with happy ending. Though the whole point of the story, if it has one, would seem to be the utterly miserable ending Maupassant provided, the plot’s reworking was done with some skill and logic, and might have succeeded had not the screenplay, by Hou Yao, resorted to every possible means to pad the story from the original few pages to feature length. This became tiresome, but then hilarious, especially when we discover that one character, a wealthy businessman who looks oddly like a twelve-year-old girl in drag, is being blackmailed.

Little girl man looks thoughtfully at the blackmail note which demands a thousand pounds, “or I will reveal your secret.” Flashback: little girl man receives his first-ever blackmail note, demanding a mere one hundred pounds. Carefully he removes the money from his safe. Goes to meet the blackmailer. Pays him. We come out of this flashback. Little girl man wistfully remembers his second blackmail note. We see him receive it. It is identically worded, but demands two hundred pounds, “or I will reveal your secret.” He takes the money…

John Sweeney on piano accompanied this insane, ritualistic repetition with a straight face, somehow bringing out the comedy without spoofing. It was cheering to learn that the screenwriter published a book on the art of writing for films.

The intertitles were also a joy: decorative and bilingual, the English parts obviously penned by someone just as skilled at bluffing as Hou Yao. Maybe Hou did it himself. When little girl man (back in the present tense at last) refuses to pay the thousand pounds, the blackmailer sets about him with a dagger. Mrs. Little Girl Man visits her injured husband in hospital and asks, “Tell me. What’s the trouble between you and your murderer.”

The titles also featured some nifty animation (including pearls rearranging themselves into the Chinese character for “misfortune” and some random drawings of camels. This was probably the worst Chinese silent yet (I don’t even like the classic, THE GODDESS, that much — too much propaganda) and my favourite.

Then we had two films for which I wrote the notes — THE UNKNOWN and L’HOMME DU LARGE. Since the notes for the latter were written back in 2020 the programme has changed, and it was John Sweeney who accompanied that one with Frank Bockius, and very glorious it was. Johnny Best, who threw himself into a rambunctious accompaniment to the L&H trio (with Frank ram-Bockius on percussion), played solo for the Browning-Chaney film, where Alonso the armless knife-thrower finds that the course of tearing one’s rival apart with wild horses never does run smooth. Best, in this case, opted for a restrained, even muted approach, since what was going on up there on the screen was more than demented enough. In the L’Herbier, Charles Boyer somehow gets top-billing for a fairly tiny supporting role (well, he’s electrifying to watch even if Nosferatu-gaunt) and L’Herbier’s partner Jaque Catelain plays Michel, the no-good son of a sea-worshipping fisherman. Paul McGann narrated, since it would be a crime to stick subtitles on those beautiful art intertitles. Impossible to believe this film was made in 1920. The music, sonorous voice-over, and conducive setting all worked their magic…

The full array of Hippodrome programme notes is available here. I seem to have written quite a few over the years.