Archive for Tristram Carey

“…I shall think that insubstantial death is amorous…”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2008 by dcairns

I’ve given up commemorating birthdays here on Shadowplay because whenever I do it, the subject promptly keels over in a state of rigor mortis. I homaged Richard Widmark and Jules Dassin in my first month and look what happened to them. I thought about mentioning Hazel Court, missed the date, and she STILL died. So, no more birthday celebrations here.

Obituaries, however, are fair game — I can’t see what harm I can do there. And Friday’s Guardian obits page was fairly thronging with film talent: Tristram Cary and Julie Ege have both crossed the river to the Western Lands. The link between them is Hammer films.

Alec the dalek

Cary scored THE LADYKILLERS, which is enough to make him a Shadowplay hero in itself. That film is one of the most perfect feats of stylisation in British cinema, and the score plays a big part: Cary not only wrote the music, but also arranged the sound effects, to create the kind of unified effect often rendered impossible by the compartmentalisation of film production. The big bass drum that sounds as characters topple from a great height into a freight train is an example of music crossing over and BECOMING sound. The build-up to Alec Guinness’ entrance is a symphony of music and sound in perfect harmony, with Peter Sellers impersonating a parrot and a ringing doorbell as seamless parts of the mix.

The producer of THE LADYKILLERS, Seth Holt, used Cary again for the little-known but rather fine BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB, but it’s his work in electronic music, at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and elsewhere, that is Cary’s other great claim to fame. Apart from scary electronica for Dr. Who, Cary crafted many of those oddly neutral-but-bleak themes used in BBC educational programmes in the ’70s. They create quite a strange mood, like lying in a flotation tank and thinking about the relentless march of time, destroying all things.

A different sort of mood is associated with Norwegian model-turned actress Julie Ege. A genuinely guilty pleasure, Ege’s career touches on greatness with ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (the best Bond film, the best Bond!) and Robert Fuest’s THE FINAL PROGRAMME, but is more customarily found amid the depths of NOT NOW DARLING, THE AMOROUS MILKMAN, UP POMPEII, etc. A film festival gathering of her comedy output could easily induce mass suicide, but that’s not her fault. The simple fact is that prior to the late ’60s, the British low-brow sex comedy was about sexual failure — grotesque, cheerfully depraved working-class halfwits failing to get their end away. The moment anybody actually scored the laughter died in your throat, because nobody wants to picture Sid James engaged in the physical act of love. Not even with Julie Ege.

Ege’s scream queen career ought to have offered more quality, since there were some decent horror films made in the ’70s in the UK, but her roles were in LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES (standing decorously by as Hammer films jump on the Kung-Fu bandwagon), CRAZE (getting picked up by Jack Palance at the Raymond Revuebar) and CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT (the third of Hammer’s dinosaur movies — the one where they left out the dinosaurs, story, and the tops halves of the fur bikinis), films that seem to compete with the sex farces for sheer depression and poverty of imagination. These are all important works for the true student of dreadfulness. Julie Ege’s beauty and casual approach to clothing makes them perhaps slightly less unwatchable than they might have been, but her greatest contribution to society was becoming a nurse, something which we really should value more highly than a willingness to appear onscreen without knickers.

My fondest memory of Ege is a parody of this archetype in The Making of the Goodies’ Disaster Movie, a spin-off book from the legendary TV comedy The Goodies. Ege appears in the book’s copious illustrations, playing a starlet who is outraged at the film-makers’ suggestion that she keep her clothes on for a part, even if it IS essential to the plot.

Julie’s movies, while nearly all terrible, provided sex-starved Brits with cheap thrills during the years when America was getting its rocks off to DEEP THROAT and the like, and by contrast the British films are quaint and sort-of innocent, if sexist. That’s really the reason I can’t celebrate Ege’s contribution to film more wholeheartedly — she made many of us happy by baring her bits, but she did so in films that were dismal celebrations of bimbosity, often portraying women not as objects, as feminist criticism usually argues, but as mentally deficient obligatrons, autonomous, apparently sentient beings whose desires and behaviour just happen to conform to the densest fantasies of the average Razzle-reader.

NOT NOW DARLING is available to rent or buy.

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“I understand you have rooms to let.”

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2008 by dcairns

 smart alec

I blogged earlier about how I stole a bit of Alec Guinness’ entrance in THE LADYKILLERS for my short film CLARIMONDE.

While I put my hands up and admit this without shame, I’d like to trace the influences that led to actor Alec Guinness and director Alexander “Sandy” Mackendrick achieving what they do in that scene in the first place, to the extent that I can. Partly to show that everybody steals, which makes me feel good about myself, and partly to try and illuminate the evolution of ideas in cinema, through one small example.

Mackendrick quotes below are taken from Philip Kemp’s majestic Lethal Innocence, which should nestle next to Mackendrick’s On Filmmaking on your bookshelves.

Roger the lodger

Exhibit A: THE LODGER. Hitchcock pulls of many grand effects in the expressionist manner in this, his first thriller. It’s worth noting that for both Hitch and Mackendrick were greatly influenced by Fritz Lang and the German style of the twenties and early thirties. Also, both men were graphic designers before they were filmmakers…

Matinee idol and sexual unusualist* Ivor Novello enters with a scarf concealing his lower face (like Malcolm McDowell, 40 years later in IF…). Guinness will appropriate the scarf, and the idea of revealing his lower face first, but he uses the lowering of his hat to achieve this effect:

Mrs Wilberforce...?

Both Katy Johnson and the landlady in Hitch’s film are frail, older women (KJ to a markedly greater degree), afflicted with dowager’s hump, and there is an immediate sense of outrage that they might be menaced by this interloper. Both films play upon this unimaginable threat of violence being brought into a respectable home by some mysterious outsider.

The idea of showcasing Guinness’ trick teeth seems to have been present from the very beginning of the character’s conception. According to Mackendrick, Guinness at first saw the character in even more grotesque terms:

‘He sidled across my office as though he had a dislocated hip, which was quite gruesome but horrendously funny. So Seth and I had to say, “No, sorry, Balcon will never stand for it.” Alec got rather annoyed, and sulked for a little, and went and looked out of the window. And while I was talking about the script he was snipping away with a pair of scissors, and he made some paper teeth which he stuck in, then turned around and grinned at me.’

Guinness claims to have had in mind the Wolf from Red Riding Hood as his main model. But when he saw himself in makeup, he remarked to Mackendrick, “I look remarkably like an aged Ken Tynan; perhaps I’d better smoke cigarettes the way he does.”

Tynan weird

(Guinness work emulating Tynan’s way with a ciggie raises him into the pantheon of Great Dramatic Smokers. Of course, Bacall and Bogart look great exhaling smoke, as does Valentino and, in more recent times, rather surprisingly, Helena Bonham Carter in FIGHT CLUB. But for finding weird and impressive ways of actually handlinga cancer stick, I give you my Triumvirate of Nicotine: George C. Scott, Travolta, Savalas. Telly actually adopted the Kojak lollipop in order to wean himself off the snout, and the sweet solution was suggested by none other than Mario Bava, in whose LISA AND THE DEVIL the trademark lolly makes its debut. Now you know.)

Mackendrick went further, insisting that the entire performance was a gothic exaggeration of the Tynan persona, perhaps a revenge on behalf of the acting profession upon a famous critic (more on this theme soon). I don’t know if Tynan had ever been cruel about Guinness, but he called Ralph Richardson “the glass eye in the forehead of the British public,” which, as Sir Ralph noted, is uncertain as to meaning but doesn’t sound altogether complimentary.

But there is still more behind this characterisation. In LONDON BELONGS TO ME, directed by former Hitchcock scriptwriter (THE LADY VANISHES) Sidney Gilliat, Alastair Sim (native of Edinburgh) presents himself as lodger at the home of a middle-aged spinster, in an uncannily similar way:

recognise this?

The eyes are the windows of the soul.

I’ve ALWAYS felt that Guinness’ performance had something to do with Sim’s, in fact, as a child I believe I thought that WAS Sim playing the part in THE LADYKILLERS. Professor Marcus has the same shabby-gentile, vulpine weariness as Sim’s Dickensian fake medium, Mr. Squales.

And even then, there’s more. Moving beyond the character’s first few moments (about which there’s even more to say!), we get what seems to me a direct quote from Max Schreck’s iconic performance in NOSFERATU:

Orlok Guinness

To present this character in all his glory, Mackendrick and his team give him a big build up. Composer and sound designer Tristram Carey (later of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop) brilliantly organises music and FX to one end, creating a sort of dark cartoon soundscape where everything builds to a hysterical crescendo as Guinness rings the doorbell. Then there’s the beauty of the delayed appearance itself, as Guinness stalks Johnson to her home, a variety of pieces of trained furniture obtruding to conceal Guinness’ face. A high angle shot following the pair of them from roughly the POV of an invisible urban giraffe, seems drawn from John Brahm’s Hollywood remake of THE LODGER, though maybe it goes further back, to Lang’s M.

And on top of all that, Graham Linehan points out: “By the way, did you ever notice how Guinness is turning into a crow in ‘The Ladykillers’? Watch the way he lifts his coat up when he’s putting his hands on his hips.”

The Crow

Well, now that you mention it… Maybe this is why all the raven imagery in the depressing Coen Bros remake. I mean, I know it’s there because of Poe and the whole Southern Gothic thing, but maybe…

One moment of Sir Alec’s monstro perf seems entirely sui generis and without precedence in the annals of screen acting. On his way upstairs, forced to respond to remark by Mrs. W, he delivers his reply from under his arm.

It’s not exactly the shock of recognition, is it? But it’s grand stuff.

Good night, Mrs Wilberforce.

Anyhow, it is perhaps worth mentioning that the story of THE LADYKILLERS, like those other grisly tales FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA and DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, came to its author (American screenwriter William Rose) in a dream…

The movie has, in turn, influenced other filmmakers — Nick Park’s THE WRONG TROUSERS is probably the most famous that refers directly back to Mackendrick’s film.

*

*Novello’s penchant was to lie naked in a glass coffin, feigning death, while muscular workmen filed in and mourned him, sexually.