Archive for Val Lewton

Ripping Yarns

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 27, 2017 by dcairns

MAN IN THE ATTIC is something I meant to see years ago, as part of research for a Jack the Ripper project I was writing with Fiona. But no copy was to hand, and anyway, we’d found that all JTR films are historical travesties, usually disrespectful to the victims and usually with nothing to say on the many interesting subjects that naturally fall into the story.

MITA turns out not to be as offensive as most movies on this theme (part of the impetus for the script was Fiona’s horror at the 1998 “celebrations” or the centenary of the Autumn of Terror). And one moment, the reading of George Bernard Shaw’s letter to The Times about the case, actually shows a little erudition. But this is a dull remake of THE LODGER, only recently made with Laird Cregar far more memorable in the role than Jack Palance here.

I’ve had a bit of a down on director Hugo Fregonese, despite loving his Val Lewton western APACHE DRUMS. The script of that one is so spooky that old Hugo’s prosaic direction really irks me. The Apaches are described in supernatural terms by a dying Clarence Muse, setting us up for real terror — and then our director blithely plonks his first redskin into shot like a milkman or janitor. In fact, I’ve seen janitors given far more dramatic presentation.

Hugo displays the same flat-footed lack of flare here in what should be a stand-out scene — the lodger’s first arrival. Hitchcock, you will recall, presented an eerily still Ivor Novello, his face swathed in a scarf, with one pallid hand at his chest, looking like a wax sculpture. John Brahm pulled out all the stops with a gliding camera, dry ice, and a looming Cregar. Hugo gives us a plain shot/reverse shot of Palance and the landlady-to-be, not even bothering to hold back the first view of our Ripper’s scary face (Palance is not too bad, but never memorable).

The film’s atmospherics only come into play with the night scenes of the back lot, using a bunch of standing sets — effective London streets rubbing stony shoulders with what look to be the battlements of a castle and a medieval Scottish village (I think I recognize it from Laurel & Hardy’s BONNIE SCOTLAND).

Hammer’s more nakedly exploitative HANDS OF THE RIPPER is a good deal better, oddly enough. The plot is silly, and the portrayal of the Ripper as hideously disfigured by burns makes little sense and is there for no reason other to provide an added grisly image. This movie is offensive to burned people, among others. But it benefits from serious, committed work from Angharad Rees as the Ripper’s daughter, and especially Eric Porter as the shrink who tries to cure her. For much of its runtime it’s basically a Victorian MARNIE, only with multiple gory murders.

Director Peter Sasdy applies a lot of vulgar panache (I’m beginning to think I prefer the messier Hammer directors to the staid Terence Fishers and Freddie Francises) and gets to use more standing sets, this time Alexander Trauner’s forced perspective Baker Street and environs from THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Even the gratuitous Hammer nudity kind of works here — Porter loitering on the threshold while his patient bathes is decidedly un-Victorian, but it exposes his unacknowledged sexual interest in his attractive charge, which is presumably what causes him to embark on a course of treatment that ultimately proves fatal — to a number of people. It’s also really terrific that Porter, being a Victorian doctor, looks strikingly like the popular fantasy image of the Ripper himself.

When it’s clearly stated that our young heroine is not, in fact, traumatized by repressed memories from infancy, but POSSESSED BY THE GHOST OF A SERIAL KILLER, it’s kind of too late for us to scoff — we’re all set for the climax at St. Paul’s Whispering Gallery, probably the most poetic, beautiful, tense and unusual conclusion to any Hammer horror film. It even gets away with the typical Hammer hasty credits roll — no coda, no summary, no reaction from the characters left alive and grieving. It’s OK, I don’t like my films to hang around after their business is concluded, like tiresome guests or ’90s Spielberg films. But when something like THE REPTILE abruptly announces it’s leaving right after its titular lizard-girl has caught a chill and died, it feels like the filmmakers are saying “This film explores the universal theme of There was a Bad Thing but we killed it.” Sort of lacking in the layered approach.

Maybe HOTR succeeds better because — spoiler alert — it kills its “hero” as well as its “villain.” Since Porter is a strange mixture of Peter Cushing’s Van Helsing (tackling the unholy) and Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein (meddling with the unholy), he has to die, but we feel a bit sad about it. And maybe the muddle of the film’s central idea leaves intriguing space for imagination — after all, the movie establishes that our Jill the Ripper does what she does because her late father takes control — but it never remotely shows any interest in why HE does what HE does. The film’s rather horrified view of its prostitutes kind of suggests that we’re meant to think his violence is, at some fundamental level, a reaction we all understand and share.

Fascinatingly, nobody seems to know who this actor is. So the unknown murderer is played by an authentic unknown.

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Lost and Found Dept.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2014 by dcairns

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Lots of interesting feedback on yesterday’s post, which was about the not-particularly-interesting Kay Kyser movie YOU’LL FIND OUT.

Via Facebook, Jason Hyde points out, “That gorilla got around. It also pops up in the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film The Woman in Green. It was still getting work as late as 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Somebody should write a biography.”

I replied, “In 1972 they opened it up and found Charles Gemora, full of buckshot.”

But Randall William Cook had more information. The spooky mansion in this movie turns out to be a real treasure trove — as recounted in this DVD extra from the Peter Jackson KING KONG, video essay, several models from the 1933 original KONG can be seen as props in the villains’ lair, including various sizes of triceratops and some spiders from the famous deleted “spider pit sequence.”

We even see the odd, two-legged lizard that climbed a vine to get at Bruce Cabot.

And elsewhere in the movie, some very recognizable gargoyles (bottom of frame), last seen posing beside Charles Laughton in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.

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I imagine there’s stuff there from SHE and maybe THE HOUNDS OF ZAROFF, and all the Egyptian doodads are probably recycled from the Wheeler & Woolsey dud MUMMY’S BOYS — though it’s doubtful they were originally created for it.

The beauty of the studio system was that all this material was on call at all times, either in the (rubber) flesh or via stock footage. I previously investigated the bizarre rubber octopus (Steve) in CITIZEN KANE, dismissed reports of pterodactyls from KONG invading KANE, but found the ship from KONG reappearing in Val Lewton’s THE GHOST SHIP, heading in the opposite direction thanks to an optical flip that rechristens it from the Venture to the erutneV. Rechristening ships is said to be bad luck, and so it proves for the unhappy crew of the erutneV.

Much has been written about the reuse of the grand staircase from THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS in various Lewton horrors.

One day, when I am bored, I will track down the ludicrous gargoyle that decorates the background of Hammer’s TWINS OF EVIL but can also be seen, with a fresh lick of paint, in THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.

Goodnight, and good luck.

The Prussians are Coming!

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2011 by dcairns

MADEMOISELLE FIFI, with Simone Simon.

Guy de Maupassant is a fave of mine, although I’ve only read his short stories, not his novels. Among these morally complex, twisted works, are a few atypically simplistic propaganda-type pieces dealing with the Franco-Prussian war, one of which, Mademoiselle Fifi, became half of a fine Val Lewton/Robert Wise drama at RKO. The other half of that movie was based on the considerably more complex Boule de Suif, in which the Prussians may be brutes and tyrants but the French are self-centred snobs and hypocrites. Lewton skillfully uses the simple story to counteract some of the anti-propagandistic aspects of the complex one, so as to wind up with a film that could be released in wartime without drawing accusations of giving succour to the enemy.

This week’s edition of the Forgotten, over at the Daily Notebook, looks at PYSHKA, the last silent movie made in the USSR, and a much more faithful, hard-line version of Boule de Suif. I suspect you’ll find the images there most bracing.

PYSHKA.

Three facts about Guy de Maupassant which I carry in my mind:

One day while swimming he saved the poet Swinburne from drowning. As a reward, Swinburne gave him an ashtray made from a human hand, and this formed the inspiration for Maupassant’s first published story, The Hand, a creepy and hilarious thunderstorming mystery.

Maupassant liked to paint fake syphilis sores on his erection and chase his mistress round the room with it. What a card!

Contracting the disease for real, GdM wound up dying, blind and insane in the asylum. Towards the end, he was convinced there were diamonds in his urine.

Asides from the films cited above, the movie most alive to the spirit of Maupassant is perhaps Ophuls’ LE PLAISIR. Interesting how the marvelous overcast skies of PYSKHA (that amazing combo of heavy clouds and bright sunshine blasting in from the horizon line) followed Ophuls around and crept into his last shot.

LE PLAISIR, with Simone Simon again.

If the weather had been different that day, all cinema would be changed. For me, anyway.

UK: Le Plaisir [DVD]

US: Le Plaisir

Max Ophuls Collection: Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948), Earrings Of Madame De.. (1953) + Le Plaisir (1952)