Archive for Tristram Carey

Unbandaged

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2012 by dcairns

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The director had hiccups. A really bad case — they lasted days. It was a real problem because he might hiccup at any point, during a take, and ruin the sound. It became a running joke — the production hiccups.

Then one day he didn’t come in to the studio. He was dead. Apparently hiccups can be a sign of an approaching heart attack. Who knew?

With Seth Holt out of the picture, the picture was finished by the talentless Michael Carreras, the man who destroyed Hammer films with his terrible ideas and equally terrible ambitions to write, direct, produce, none of which he had the slightest knowledge of or capacity for. But BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB is still a pretty interesting show.

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It’s got Andrew Keir, the best film Quatermass, and James Villiers, and George “I was in CITIZEN KANE and now this” Coulouris, Aubrey Morris (Yay! P.R. Deltoid!) and Valerie Leon, known in the UK as the Hi Karate Woman. A fine actress with enormous juicy breasts.

The musique concrete is by Tristram Carey, who also scored THE LADYKILLERS, which Holt produced. He’s one of the very few filmmakers who worked at Ealing and Hammer, and he must have liked the dysfunctional family atmosphere — he might have fitted well into the BBC. Holt’s wife said that he and director Sandy Mackendrick should never have worked together, since rather than anchoring one another and compensating for their excesses, they hyped each other into a frenzy and made everything twice as crazy as it needed to be. Which is perhaps why THE LADYKILLERS is such a brilliantly extreme film. (Say, I’m writing a book about it, aren’t I?)

Kenneth Tynan wrote NOWHERE TO GO, consciously intended as the last Ealing picture (perhaps a good film to watch for this Blogathon!), a dark thriller which Holt served up with bracing savagery. TASTE OF FEAR, aka SCREAM OF FEAR, was Hammer’s best DIABOLIQUES knock-off, with the corpse sitting calmly at the bottom of the swimming pool destined to traumatize a young Tom Hanks when his mother, in a confused state, led him into the wrong cinema. Not BAMBI at all.

Holt’s best movie is surely THE NANNY, with a powerful and relatively controlled performance from Bette Davis, great work from the child actors, and a really gripping use of interior space — shot by Harry Waxman, who was always at his best in black and white (cf BRIGHTON ROCK). Davis described Holt as “a mountain of evil” or something, somewhat to the bafflement

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Late Hammer films are typically portraits of the disintegration of a stolid but efficient studio organisation, derailed by monumentally clueless management. TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER is actually really good, but the powers that be cut off the whole climax, leaving Christopher Lee and Satan apparently vanquished by a small pebble hurled at the Great Man’s dome by Richard Widmark. This one manages to hold back on the nudity apart from a couple of modest, not-too-distracting instances, and balances creepiness with camp in an unusual way. The asylum scene, with the maniacal flurry of canted angles and ludicrous toy cobra, was actually helmed by Carreras and it may be the only good thing he ever did — I’m inclined to credit Holt’s shooting plan or DoP Arthur Grant, who’d begun in quota quickies with Michael Powell and had worked at Hammer throughout their glory years —

UK: Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb [DVD] [1971]

US: Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb

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Halloween Film Club: Sick Building Syndrome

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2009 by dcairns

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The revelation in watching THE HAUNTING for me this time was that while Robert Wise’s filmmaking still holds up, and there’s a lot to say about that, the things that popped out most in the screenplay were the tin-eared blunders. Nelson Gidding (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM) has done a good job compressing the incidents and realigning the characters from Shirley Jackson’s uncanny classic The Haunting of Hill House (wherein, for instance, Eleanor is attracted not to the investigating doctor but to the spoiled heir), on a structural level, but he really doesn’t have anything like the prose style or ear for dialogue he needs. Here’s Jackson’s opening —

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Feel the goosebumps? Gidding has given the job of transferring Jackson’s intro and history lesson into the voice of Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), which means jettisoning some of the flourishes and sometimes injecting an unwelcome note of jocularity which is one of Markway’s least appealing traits ~

An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.

That first sentence, I think, does little but deaden the overall effect, whereas Jackson’s abrupt change of direction between sentence 1 and 2 is deliciously jolting. After the credits (simple sans-serif font, with a big spooky production number for the main title — why?) Then the narration continues, with Wise providing spectacular visual accompaniment — absolutely gorgeous cinematography by Davis Boulton, whose career seems otherwise quaintly undistinguished: I like CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, but IT! and SONG OF NORWAY?

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Bad stuff in the VO: there’s no equivalent in Jackson’s book for the awful phrase “big tree,” which sounds comically awkward even with Richard Johnson’s manly tones behind it, although Jackson is responsible for the equally uncomfortable “ah, lifeless, I believe is the phrase they use,” and she also gave us the name of the builder of Hill House — Hugh Crain. Sounds like Ukraine, not good. Gidding changed many of the character names, aimlessly (Vance becomes Lance, Montague becomes Markway) but saw fit to leave that one. And we learned he “died in a drowning accident,” a horrendously clunky phrase.

Great stuff in the visuals: the slow lap dissolve transformation from childhood to senescence:

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And all those ANGLES. Wise asked Panavision if they had a good wide-angle lens. They said they were working on one, but had rejected all their prototypes so far because they caused too much distortion. “Perfect!” said Wise, “That’s just what I want.” “No no no,” advised Panavision, “We really think these are a bit more distorted than you’d like.” “I assure you that’s impossible,” stressed Wise. Panavision were insistent. They were really embarrassed by these warped bottle-bottom things. In the end, Wise had to sign lots of documents promising he wouldn’t sue Panavision for sending him funhouse lenses.

vlcsnap-797819The convex mirror is one of Wise’s little jokes about his unconventional lens kit.

Emerging from this sensational, moody tape-slide presentation opening, we get Fay Compton (Emilia in Welles’ OTHELLO), one of my favourite old ladies, although she does say “Ho ho ho!” once too often in this scene. And here we meet Richard Johnson, a bluff, plummy actor who can do solemn without getting sepulchral. An actor friend of Fiona’s attests that Mr Johnson, who is still extant, greets old acquaintances with a loud cry of “Who’re you fucking?” It’s a lovely image.

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Johnson, as anthropologist Markway, is off on a ghost-hunting jaunt, and is forced to take Compton’s delinquent young nephew along — Russ Tamblyn, imported by Wise from WEST SIDE STORY. Tamblyn’s legendary physical prowess will come in handy on a couple of occasions: a very intelligent actor who thinks with his body.

Now comes the plunge into despair as we meet Eleanor (Julie Harris), the deeply unhappy protagonist who is the key element in this film that could not exist without Shirley Jackson’s imagination. In researching haunted houses, Jackson tells us that she discovered a book by some parapsychologists investigating an old house, and the accounts of spookiness they recorded were unmistakably, to her modern mind, the products of their own neuroses. Eleanor is Jackson’s tool for unleashing the horrors of Hill House — if we take this little behind-the-scenes tale at face value we have to accept that there are no ghosts, only the demons that haunt Eleanor, manifesting through her latent telekinesis.

Eleanor’s horrible home life is sketched in economically, but still feels unbelievably oppressive, which may be a result of all that damn internal monologuing she does. Not my favourite movie device, but it works well here, draping a curtain of gloom over the events and reminding us of the story’s interior nature.

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This movie always seems to get away with being shot in Britain, dragged up as America, rather lightly. The street scenes are less than fully convincing, and then the housekeepers, Valentine Dyall with his ludicrous attempt at a New England accent by way of Kentucky, and Rosalie Crutchley who’s just English. Hill House itself is English, and now a hotel, real name Ettrington Park (anybody stayed there?).

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Hill House — the exteriors are mainly shot on infra-red stock, so the sky is black and clouds are white, giving the whole image a strange feeling. As Jackson puts it ~

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity.

Wise’s chief tool to create an equivalent in images to Jackson’s anthropomorphism is his editing, and to facilitate the work of invocation he has furnished himself with many many angles. Wise was an editor (CAT PEOPLE and CITIZEN KANE of course, but also THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, our first Film Club film) before he was a director, and the trait that lifts his best work out of the journeyman class, it seems to me, is his mastery of visual rhythm. The gunshot at the end of WEST SIDE STORY is a great example. Here, although Eleanor’s VO cues a lot of the eerie sensations, it’s the multiple shots of watching windows and statuary that confirms to us her impression that the house is alive and maleficent.

Fiona points out that as soon as Eleanor enters, we see her reflected in the floorboards (a beautiful shot) and in a decaying mirror, “as if she’s already being absorbed into the house.”

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Theo! The last of our adventurers. Claire Bloom adds to the insistent Englishness of the thing, but her character is so enticingly exotic that her country of origin counts for naught. A mindreader AND a lesbian, as she keeps frantically signalling to us, Theo is not so much a telepath as an empath, like Persis Khambatta in Wise’s later plunge into turgidity, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. And she uses her powers for evil: what IS it with Theo? She’s constantly noising up poor Eleanor, then running after her to make friends. Needy bitch. It’s as if Gidding has decided that lesbians are inherently alien and nothing they do makes sense, so he can just have her blow hot and cold at random and call it characterisation. Bloom doesn’t seem to have any particular interpretation in mind, she just plays it dead casual and chic in her Mary Quant (pre-mini-skirt) costumes. One can’t help but enjoy her.

(At the wonderfully obsessive eleanor-lance.com, the theory is put forward that Theo has a crush on Eleanor, and so her bitchy reactions would be triggered any time she sees Eleanor getting too cosy with Markway. I guess I always discounted this because the chic Theo doesn’t have much cause to be enticed by this dowdy spinster type, but I suspect it’s the correct interpretation.)

The remainder of the film, now that we’re in situ, can be divided into set-pieces and pontification, held together by Eleanor’s slow decline into madness. Julie Harris is Hollywood’s idea of a plain jane, and she’s quite affecting. She has that pale mole along from the corner of her mouth that always looks like a teardrop. And she gets that terrifying line about sleeping on her side to wear her heart out quicker. If Gidding invented that then I forgive him everything and prostrate myself at his feet.

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Something at the door! A symphony of sound effects, and the starting-point for Polanski’s great REPULSION. I have a hard job choosing a favourite between the Wise and the Polanski, both of which seem heavily flawed in ways that don’t matter, and deeply great in ways that do.

Again, Wise covers the scene with a zillion angles, trying his damnedest to always pop out of a different door and surprise us, hardly ever repeating a  shot. His crew must have thought him crazy. If he was shooting this for Lewton he’d have to do it in about eight set-ups. Compared with anything in CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE or THE BODY SNATCHER, THE HAUNTING has big-movie gigantism alright, but the guiding intelligence is so shrewd that the lumber of epic bloat is dispelled: it’s a graceful colossus.

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“Whose hand was I holding?” Another great set-piece, with astonishing sound and the world’s most sinister wallpaper. What are the great wallpaper movies? Anybody want to try a Top Ten?

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Then Miss Moneypenny turns up. Lois Maxwell was one of these Americans who came to live in England and scooped up tons of work whenever an accent was required. Like William Sylvester in a skirt. Inserting a new character at this point, one whose existence has been established but not revealed to Eleanor, adds new energy, dashes Eleanor’s romantic dreams, and accelerates us into the climax, with Mrs Markway vanishing and Eleanor starting to act very strangely indeed. The balancing act required here is prodigious: if Eleanor goes utterly irrational, no amount of VO will help us stay with her, and if she stays rational, there’s no movie. And if the other characters become too distant and unsympathetic, that will hurt the plausibility, but they must seem a bit distant if we’re to feel Eleanor’s alienation. I think the movie manages this well.

The drama of the swaying spiral staircase is pretty tense, and I wonder if Wise has been looking at THE RED SHOES — those fast tracks of Julie Harris’ feet running, and the spiralling journey up the stairs… plus the idea of a heroine pulled along by forces beyond her control.

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Fiona is very anxious I should talk about THE SOUND. Uncredited electronics wiz Desmond Briscoe seems to be a key name here. A founder of the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Briscoe is no doubt responsible for the very odd resonant poundings, and maybe some of those other, less identifiable noises. I seriously dig the weird mumbling prayers, with their mis-stressed phrases, that perfectly catch the sense of hearing something without being able to hear it — a psychological phenomenon that’s very hard to reproduce in a movie soundtrack, where something is either audible or not. Interestingly, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, an inferior but nonetheless enjoyable spook-house melodrama which is majorly indebted to this one, features a score by Delia Derbyshire, another Radiophonic alumnus (who wove the electronic tonalities of the classic Dr Who theme tune).

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In cinema, which exploits only two of our five (or is it more?) senses, anything which is not visible must be audible — unless it’s implied by what happens when you’re not looking. In Hill House, where doors close unaided, but only when unobserved, the unseen presence is constantly evoked by the restless camera and the shifting of camera angles, which prevents us getting orientated. Apart from big features like staircases, we never have any sense of the shape of a room, and even size seems unreliable. While Alexander Mackendrick built a house for THE LADYKILLERS (scored by yet another Radiophonics man, Tristram Carey) without a single right angle or true vertical, Wise and his designers creates more a sense of vast space, populated by a bewildering variety of animate mirrors, statues, and pictures. Accelerating the pace of cutting when we least expect it, he keeps us on our toes by forcing us to reorient ourselves with each fresh angle. One shot, an ECU on the eye of a cooked fish (a pun on those warped lenses?) always throws me completely.

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The End. The idea of Eleanor joining the spirits in the house seems like a big influence on THE SHINING, while the other idea, that the house was not actually haunted until now, is bleaker. Rephrasing the VO from the beginning and giving it to Eleanor (making this another entry in the series of films, beginning with SUNSET BOULEVARD and continuing through THE SEVENTH CROSS to AMERICAN BEAUTY, to be narrated by the dead) is a lovely idea, although once again the screenplay fumbles the correct sense of things — “and we who walk here, walk alone.” The pluralisation makes nonsense of the aloneness. As Joel McCrea protests in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, “How can I be alone if you’re with me?”

Tick Tock

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2008 by dcairns

TIME WITHOUT PITY continues my exploration of the work of Joseph Losey — pith helmet on, machete in hand.

The plot — Michael Redgrave is an alcoholic novelist newly emerged from a sanatorium to discover his son convicted of murder and due to be executed. Armed only with an unshakable faith in his boy’s innocence, Redgrave attempts to redeem his dissolute life and failed parenthood by finding some “tangible evidence” to save the son from execution.

The script is faintly derived from Emlyn Williams’ play Someone Waiting, but screenwriter Ben Barzman  (a fellow blacklistee of Losey) has completely exploded the plot and reassembled it in a radical new shape: Williams’ play takes place entirely AFTER the son’s execution. Despite completely remodelling the narrative trajectory, Barzman retains most of Williams’ characters, and some of the clues by which the murder is cunningly solved, including a very unusual alibi.

The film boldly begins by revealing the true killer, in a starkly lit murder scene that certainly catches the attention, with Tristram Carey’s clamorous score blasting at us, swaying lights and looming shadows, a sexy victim, and the bulbous form of Leo “Number Two” McKern. Nevertheless, I felt it may have been a mistake to discard any mystery at this early point. It’s true that Leo McKern turning out to be the killer would be unlikely to surprise anyone, but perhaps a solution might have been to recast the part with someone softer and rewrite the character to make him less of a shouty caricature of capitalist vulgarity. Without someone as blazingly guilty as McKern, naturally shifty performers like Paul Daneman and Ann Todd would have moved into prime suspect mode. But then we wouldn’t have McKern, which would be kind of a shame.

As Redgrave begins to investigate, Losey lets rips with some mirror-maze visuals and allows us to see just how pathetic a figure the hero is. This really works. Not only is the man faced with a horrific deadline (like THE BIG NIGHT, this film compresses its narrative into a tight frame), but he’s hopelessly ill-equipped, both physically and psychologically, to tackle the task in hand. All he has going for him is utter desperation.

Redgrave is the perfect man for the job — in his youth, the kind of light comedian Britain abounded in, as demonstrated in Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES, by middle age Redgrave was our finest neurotic, able to make weakness of any kind both sympathetic and compelling. He’s perfectly fitted to this role, and makes one wish the film were about, say, 15% better to bring it up to his superb level. 

Guest stars! Peter Cushing as an expository plot function; Joan Plowright as a showgirl (!); Renee Houston as a drunken Scotswoman surrounded by clocks. Houston, a recent discovery of ours, brings a welcome touch of music hall grotesquerie to any film. Here she’s in full harridan mode, with Bride of Frankenstein hair, but brings enough nuance to her role to justify the excessive symbolism of her cacophonously ticking, ringing and chiming flat. Hefting a clock, she slurs:

“One of the little pleasures in life, Mr. Gage, I can now give myself: just to hear it ring, and know you don’t have to go anywhere.”

Good scenes like the above, and each of Redgrave’s painful visits to his son (each starting with calm and reconciliation, degenerating into despair and recrimination, driving home more fully each time what a failure our hero is), are somewhat let down by bad ones. A visit to the offices of an MP campaigning against the death penalty allows for some dramatically redundant and boring speechifying, delivering points which should be illustrated dramatically by the plot. (But is that a frivolous Dirk Bogarde cameo, or just some cut-price Dirkalike?)

Losey’s artsier moments are enjoyable, but his more restrained ones are excellent too. Tracking from a wide shot into an over-the-shoulder, moving his actors out of frame to have them rediscovered by the camera seconds later, he choreographs the film with economy and elegance, with impactful cutting and subtly emphatic framing. British producers hoping for a bit of Hollywood dynamism from their blacklisted Americans got their money’s worth from Losey.

Not to spoil the end, but of course Redgrave must stake his own life to save his son’s — here there’s evidence of censorship and mucking about, with unlikely carelessness with guns and lip-flap from a major character, who presumably said something politically or morally questionable (the more you look at censorship practice the more it always seems to have a political point to limit thought). But the main thrust of the conclusion is excellent, even if the details are weakened — it confirms Lars Von Trier’s verdict on capital punishment: a very bad thing, but excellent for drama.

(But before you ask — I LOATHE Von Trier’s DANCER IN THE DARK.)