Archive for Vera Miles

Time Travails

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2020 by dcairns

Chris Schneider returns, with a look at a particularly evocative episode of The Outer Limits.

There’s talk in “The Forms of Things Unknown,” a gorgeous and atmospheric OUTER LIMITS episode which has stuck with me through the years, of overlapping strands of time, of the past intermingling with the present. Which is appropriate, since “Forms” itself is filled with overlapping imagery from different familiar stories.

First “Forms” reminds us of LES DIABOLIQUES, since we’re shown two women (Vera Miles, Barbara Rush) plotting to kill a demonic man (Scott Marlowe). Then, what with the corpse stuffed in a car, it’s PSYCHO — a resemblance accented by the involvement of PSYCHO’s Joseph Stefano as writer. Then, since there’s talk of parallel time tracks accompanied by the sight of Miles looking beauteously vicious, it’s that TWILIGHT ZONE episode with scary Miles entitled “Mirror Image.” Finally, once Miles and Rush have taken shelter from the rain in the rural home of blind Sir Cedric Hardwicke and odd young David McCallum, it’s COLD COMFORT FARM-style tales of “I saw something *nasty* in the attic room!”

Stefano, as we say, wrote it. The director is Gerd Oswald of A KISS BEFORE DYING. The first-rate cinematography is by Conrad Hall — including one of the earliest (1964) examples to come to mind of a freeze-frame in commercial tv storytelling. An additional bonus is the first use by composer Dominic Frontiere of his famous theme for THE INVADERS (“Dah-dah DAAHH!”).

“Forms” has, as one 1930s character once phrased it, “stacks of style” — even though that might mean more atmosphere than, um, clarity. It functions as an “old dark house” story, with distraught Rush seeing flashes of seemingly-dead Marlowe and the possibility left open that this is a product of her hysteria. The uncertainty of it all extends to Hardwicke and McCallum. Hardwicke appears to be the enigmatic butler for McCallum, but it’s Hardwicke who’s the host and McCallum the guest.

To the extent that there’s a coherent plot, it’s this: once upon a time McCallum, while working on his odd clocks-and-strings time-travel device, accidentally killed himself, but … something in the device *worked*, and he was revived. At present, his device has revived Marlowe, but the conclusion is reached that Marlowe is thoroughly objectionable— and Something Must Be Done. We learn, as an afternote, that McCallum began this fiddling with mortality as a child when his mother died and he determined not to return to school until he found a way of bringing her back.

Lots of atmosphere here, be it repeated. The initial murder, which involves Miles and Rush wading fully-dressed in a lagoon — ah, the pervy game-playing! —in order to bring Marlowe his (poisoned) drink looks like it takes place in a debauched Eden. There’s a lot of hypnotized staring, later on, at the mechanical figure of a tightrope walker, accompanied by a Frontiere waltz. And did we mention the WILD STRAWBERRIES-style funeral apparition?

Vera Miles is always more appealing being “evil” than when she’s earnest, and she’s wonderful here. Hardwicke, who’s unsettling, comes within a hair’s-breadth of the camp of Noel Coward in BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING. Rush is ever shrieking and holding up her hands, while running, as if to avoid ruining her nails. Surely some of the comedy of this not-so-young (infantalized?) ingenue and her voluptuous distress is deliberate. Marlowe laughs and looks good semi-undressed. McCallum has a wide-eyed, slightly inbred quality which is not mad and not *not* mad.

The style of “The Forms of Things Unseen” is definitely mid-‘60s — camera zooms included — but style there is, and plenty of it. To be cherished, for the most part.

My urge was to cherish, certainly, the moment I heard Miles mutter “Nobody ever helps a grave-digger …”

*

The cast, as David Cairns would say, includes Lila Crane; Jehan Frollo; Vito Pellegrino; Joyce Phillips; and Ducky.

Blind Tuesday #2: Waterloo Sunset

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2011 by dcairns

David Melville’s away on holiday so his A-Z of the Cine Dorado takes a break, and we return you to our semi-regular Blind Tuesday feature, examining sightless person thrillers of yore.

23 PACES TO BAKER STREET has a nifty title going for it, even though when it actually turns up in the film’s dialogue it proves to be a complete red herring. Henry Hathaway directs with his usual efficient, slightly bloodless efficiency, although his use of widescreen in confined spaces is reasonably imaginative, exploiting the opportunity to show activity in two rooms at a time… The screenplay is by novelist Nigel Balchin, and fans of the Powell-Pressburger classic THE SMALL BACK ROOM can find fascinating connections with that movie, which is based on a Balchin book. In both stories the disabled hero is good at his job but lacks confidence and is tortured by his injury, which he takes out on a long-suffering girlfriend. The l-s gf is nicely depicted as someone who refuses to be a doormat, she’s supportive but somewhat aggressively so — she won’t take any of the hero’s defeatest self-hating bullshit.

But this is a blind person in jeopardy film, so Van Johnson’s disability has much more to do with the plot than David Farrar’s tin foot. He’s an American playwright in London for the West End opening of his latest mystery, and he uses a tape recorder (no dictaphone, but a big chunky reel-to-reel job, think THE CONVERSATION) in his work. His ex, Vera Miles (yay!) is vaguely trying to get back into his life, and like all movie dysfunctional couples, what they need is an adventure.

Adventure comes in a kidnapping plot overheard in the local pub — we see the shadowy silhouettes of two people, Van hears what they’re saying and smells a whiff of perfume. Hastening home he reconstructs the conversation, doing both voices, on his tape deck, and tries to interest the authorities. Better yet, he enlists the aid of Vera and comedy relief Cecil Parker to gather evidence.

The blind leading the bald: Van Johnson, Cecil Parker and Maurice Denham.

Cecil Parker is the whole show! Damnably funny and adding much-needed humanity and humour, compensating for the inevitably Van Johnson drag factor. Van’s not bad, by any means, but one can’t help imagining a lot of other, preferable actors in the part. Or a sturdy wardrobe, come to that.

Patricia Laffan has an interesting part too, but she’s underused.

Seems to me, if we’re going to have remakes, this is the kind of film that should be remade — it’s very well constructed, which means it’d survive updating, and while Cecil Parker can’t be improved upon, the film can. Masterpieces ought to be respected, with no nonsense about “introducing them to a new generation” by trying to supplant them with new versions. A stronger lead would be enough reason to do this one over. Still, I’m just as happy if they leave it alone.

Most interesting character is the shadowy Mr. Evans, kidnap plotter — years later, this seems to have inspired a character in Grant Morrison’s amazing Doom Patrol comic, The Shadowy Mr Evans — 0nly here he was basically Noel Coward with a periscope coming out the top of his head. I don’t think that would have fit in 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET, but it fit perfectly in Doom Patrol. Just shows you what a good comic that was.

Alfred Christmas Presents

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2009 by dcairns

Before we run out of Hitchcock Year, I just wanted to run through the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents directed by the master, so I can say I’ve done ’em.

Breakdown is a real mini-masterpiece, reuniting Hitch with two-time collaborator Joseph Cotten. There’s an extremely nice conflation of theme, character and plot in this one, which gives the impression of being a simple exercise in suspense and subjective camera. Many of the best AHPs do this: deceptive simplicity at the service of an idea.

Revenge went out as the series opener, bumping Breakdown into a secondary spot, purely because Hitch was so pleased with Vera Miles. She co-stars with Ralph Meeker in a very dark, upsetting little conte cruel, strong meat for 1950s TV.

The Case of Mr Pelham I’ve already discussed, and it’s a nice, inexplicable fantasy tale with Tom Ewell and Tom Ewell. Hitch’s intro and outro actually expand the story nicely.

Mr Blanchard’s Secret is basically comedy — I think Hitch was often drawn to these episodes as a way of working outside the thriller genre which his feature films committed him to. This is a tiresome, overplayed story, with a very annoying performance by Mary Scott as a crime writer (a frequent Hitchcock character/stand-in) with REAR WINDOW style suspicions about a neighbour. I found this so tedious the first time, I’m deliberately leaving it unwatched in Hitchcock Year. Because nothing should ever be really complete.

Maybe because it’s so dull, the episode escapes mention altogether in Charlotte Chandler’s filmography in It’s Only a Movie, Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography.

Back for Christmas is a marital murder romp (lots of wives and husbands get the chop in these things), undistinguished as a story but enlivened by the presence of John Williams, sometimes called Hitchcock’s most frequent star. Williams also crops up in —

Wet Saturday, a fairly delightful John Collier adaptation with Sir Cedric Hardwicke, another actor Hitch enjoyed greatly. Collier’s stories also graced The Twilight Zone, and one, The Fountain of Youth, got the experimental treatment by Orson Welles. If you haven’t sampled his short fiction, I highly recommend it. In amoral little comedies like this, Hitch’s outro is often used to placate the censor with a tacked-on “happy” or “moral” ending.

One More Mile to Go is another neat little suspense situation, referred to in my PSYCHO post. David Wayne (the killer in Losey’s M) plays another sympathetic wife-murderer in search of a body of water to lay his wife to rest in, and pestered by a persistent traffic cop and a faulty tail-light. A lot of these pieces nicely balance the sympathies of the audience, as deftly manipulated by Hitch, with the demands of morality and censorship.

Perfect Crime is enjoyable enough, the story not being anything special, but the pleasure of seeing Hitchcock direct Vincent Price is a unique one.

A Dip in the Pool is a comedy with uncertain sympathies but a very nice twist. Keenan Wynn stars, and it’s nice to see Fay Wray in a supporting role. Spectacular stunt, also (above).

Poison — almost missed this one! Will watch it tonight and report back.

Lamb to the Slaughter is the famous one where Barbara Bel Geddes kills her policeman husband with a leg of lamb, which she then cooks and serves to his investigating colleagues. Even better than the idea suggests, although it is basically a typical Roald Dahl piece, stronger on its central gimmick that anything else. This shot of BBG seems to anticipate the end of PSYCHO.

The chair against the wall, the slow track in to a smile…

Banquo’s Chair is a fairly predictable story, in which a fake ghost is to be used to trap a killer, but the cast is magnificent: John Williams, Kenneth Haigh, Max Adrian. The VERTIGO echoes are amusing too, with impersonation, faked supernaturalism, a retired detective hero, and a Ferguson.

Arthur is a black comedy about a homicidal chicken farmer, with a lovely sinister and charming perf from Laurence Harvey, and the always-welcome Hazel Court.

Crystal Trench crams most of Fred Zinneman’s 5 DAYS ONE SUMMER into half an hour, with this tale of a woman waiting decades for her lover to be freed from the glacier in which he perished. Evan Hunter, preparing to take the job of writer on THE BIRDS, came by the set, and the block of ice shipped in nearly melted while Hitch entertained Hunter’s attractive wife.

Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat is another incredibly drab comedy, with no bad-taste or homicidal element whatsoever — it shouldn’t have been done on the show, let alone by the master himself.

The Horseplayer could be said to have similar issues, but the religious setting is intriguing for Hitch, and the presence of Claude Rains (and Percy Helton!) means the piece can’t be considered a total loss. Quite enjoyable.

Bang! You’re Dead is another masterpiece, and a great note to end on. It’s not the last ever episode of Hitch’s show, but it’s the last he directed himself. The story is so nerve-wracking, Hitch dispenses with humour in his intro in order to justify the torture he’s about to subject us to. It’s a little gun-safety lecture wrapped up in another basic suspense situ: a small boy with a loaded gun. The small boy is Bill Mumy. As he aims the pistol at his mother, neither of them realizing that it’s a genuine weapon, the effect is both frightening and deeply shocking, almost blasphemous. Various parties are placed in danger as the story goes on, and the jeopardy mounts as the kid keeps adding bullets to the gun, so what starts as Russian roulette ends with the certainty of a shot being fired…

Hitch guesses that we don’t expect him have the kid assassinate his own mother, so for the climax he aims the pistol at the family maid. We’re calculating… is Hitch going to go through with this? He wouldn’t kill the other, that would be too much. But maybe the maid? After all, she’s not a family member, she’s not white, she’s not middle-class… You’d think the mother might produce the maximum suspense, but it’s the maid, because she seems more… disposable.

Hitch and his writers have thought it all through, of course.

British readers can support Shadowplay by shopping here:

Fancies and Goodnights (New York Review Books Classics)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents – Series 1 – Complete [DVD]
Alfred Hitchcock Presents – Series 2 – Complete [DVD]
Alfred Hitchcock Presents : Complete Season 3 [1957] [DVD]