Archive for William Dieterle

Forbidden Divas: Oh, Doctor, I’m in Trouble

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 2, 2021 by dcairns

Yesterday’s piece from Chris Schneider malfunctioned slightly going into WordPress and lost a couple of paragraphs. They’re restored now. Today’s piece is also from a regular Guest Shadowplayer, David Melville Wingrove, who takes us through Loretta Young’s stations of the cross in William Dieterle’s THE ACCUSED.

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

Oh, Doctor, I’m in Trouble

or

Confessions of a Psychothymiac Cutie

“You hit me right in my inferiority complex.”

  • Robert Cummings to Loretta Young, The Accused

When first we see Loretta Young in The Accused (1949) she looks as if she’s impersonating Humphrey Bogart. A huge slouching fedora hat hangs low over her beautiful face; a vast baggy trench-coat envelops her dainty ballerina’s physique. She is staggering away slowly, haltingly, from the scene of a killing. It is a crime where she was both perpetrator and victim. A cute but undeniably psychotic young man has tried to rape her in his car. Her instinctive and natural response was to grab a handy metal object and bludgeon him to death. Then she got a bucket, filled his lungs with water and sent his corpse hurtling over a cliff and down to the sea and rocks below.

There is crime passionel and there is cool premeditated murder. This one is both. What makes it worse is the fact Loretta knows that. She is Doctor Wilma Tuttle, a rising professor of psychology at a small but prestigious California college. Not many Hollywood stars can play an academic convincingly and Loretta is one of those very few. (Just try to imagine Joan Crawford in the role. Or rather, do yourself a favour and don’t.) Her looks here are strictly Movie Star Frump. Stark and mannishly tailored suits, hair wound so tightly in a bun that it looks like an excrescence of her skull. But she still has those delicate cheekbones, those haunting and luminous eyes. When she takes a jittery puff on a cigarette or anxiously grasps the receiver of a telephone, we are riveted by her exquisitely long and sinuous fingers.

But then Loretta Young was always famed for her contradictions. Tales abounded of both her fierce Roman Catholic piety and her voracious appetite for sexual adventure. “Every time Loretta sins she builds a church,” went the joke. “That’s why there are so many churches in Hollywood.” In the 30s she gave birth in secret to an illegitimate child by her co-star Clark Gable and then made a public show of ‘adopting’ this poor motherless girl. When the child grew up to have freakishly large ears, she challenged her mother as to why she had never told her the truth. “How could I?” replied the star. “You are a walking mortal sin.” Both on and off screen, Loretta Young played the image of a perfect lady. But in her most effective movie roles, that image is seldom if ever the full story.

Like many academic high-flyers, Doctor Tuttle is somewhat less than sophisticated outside her chosen and desperately narrow field of expertise. Hailing originally from Kansas, she has a childlike fear of the ocean and has no idea what an abalone is until someone explains it to her. That someone just happens to be a handsome but unruly male student who flirts with her blatantly in class. The professor is in no way blind to his appeal. In fact, his appeal is spelled out hilariously by the fact that the actor who plays him is called Douglas Dick. Undeniably easy on the eye – and perhaps not wholly without talent – this actor was hampered by more than his impossible name. He seemed unable to appear in any movie without being murdered in the first act. His other role of note was as the victim of the gay killers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope.

Once his professor has unwittingly killed him, her chief concern is how to cover up the crime. In a decision only a movie star would make, she goes out and buys a new and far more stylish wardrobe and lets her hair tumble loose about her shoulders in long and luxuriant curls. That is to make sure that no witnesses (if there were any) will ever to connect her with the killing but also to make sure that Loretta Young’s adoring fans get their money’s worth in terms of glamour. Her best or, at least, her most eye-catching outfit is a classic Edith Head atrocity. A sharply tailored black suit with white gloves, a white lace collar and twin sprays of white lilac on either side of her black hat. The psychology in The Accused is necessarily Freudian in tone. Hence it is imperative that our heroine be visibly torn between poles of Light and Dark.

Her incipient schizophrenia carries over into every aspect of the movie. Not one but two conflicting love interests seem to materialise out of nowhere. Robert Cummings is a dashing lawyer who was the dead boy’s legal guardian. Wendell Corey is a tenacious cop who investigates the case. The tailoring of their suits is alarmingly alike; the styling of their hair is all but identical. Of course, Cummings is handsome and Corey is not but apart from that they might be identical twins. They can be slotted neatly into the Freudian grooves of Eros and Thanatos. One has the power to seduce our sexually uptight heroine and, eventually, to screw her senseless. The other has the power to send her (however unwillingly) to the electric chair. In case you think this is an accident, please note the director is the veteran German Expressionist William Dieterle. Note also that Expressionism did not die. It just moved to California where the light was better.

It seems distinctly cruel when Cummings drags Loretta to her first boxing match. Predictably, the young man being pummelled into unconsciousness is a dead ringer for the boy she has but lately beaten to death. (Dieterle even superimposes one actor’s face over the other, just in case anyone in the audience has stepped out for popcorn and might otherwise miss the point.) This barbaric spectacle reduces her to an ever-so-ladylike fit of the vapours. We know it cannot be long until The Truth comes out. Her young victim describes his killer, oops, sorry, professor in his end of term exam as ‘a psychothymiac cutie.’ I confess I have no idea what a psychothymiac is but I do think Loretta plays one superbly. It is critical cliché that nobody can play a bad girl like a good girl and nobody can play a good girl like a bad one. Unless you are Loretta Young, in which case it is anybody’s guess.

David Melville

The Sunday Intertitle: Wax, Lyrical

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 30, 2020 by dcairns

The new restoration of WAXWORKS, out soon from Flicker Alley (US) and Masters of Cinema (UK), was screened in the online Il Cinema Ritrovato and looks amazing. You could step onto Paul Leni’s sets (and get promptly ejected) or stroke Ivan the Terrible’s beard (hard to say how he’d react, but you’d be taking you life in your hands). Fiona plonked herself ten-year-old fashion on the floorboards smack in front of our TV to soak up the expressionism at close range. You’ll ruin your eyes!

As a “Case Study” discussion hosted at the fest made clear, the German negative is lost, the original intertitles along with it, and the censor’s file, which usually contains records of what every title card says, came up empty. Drafts of the script survive, but differ significantly from the movie so don’t serve as a reliable guide. So we’re still dealing with the English-language intertitles in which, for what I suspect are censorship reasons, Jack the Ripper is incorrectly described as Spring-Heeled Jack. The Ripper murders were within living memory, and very unpleasant: SHJ seems not to have done any serious harm, just scared the crap out of people, and although he had been reported active as late as 1904, by 1924 there was probably less belief in him. His MO resembles that of the Men in Black in that it consists of unaccountable behaviour designed mainly, it would seem, to make an impression. He definitely DESERVES a waxwork, but Werner Krauss isn’t it.

We also learned from the discussion about the mysterious fourth figure: Rinaldo Rinaldi (third from the left — the figures are arranged in order of intended appearance). To my amazement he’s apparently played by the film’s leading man, William Dieterle, the Iron Stove himself, who acts as protag in each of the film’s embedded narratives. RR was a celebrated Italian bandit, and his story was to have been about him rescuing a kidnapped girl (hearts of gold, those bandits). But the money could not be raised and the sequence was never shot. A shortage of cash (post-WWI German mega-inflation) may also be the reasons Krauss’s Ripper sequence wound up so short. Though the version screened at the premiere seems to have been a good bit longer, the cuts don’t seem to have come from this section.

But as I say, though the vicissitudes of history prevent this original version from being reconstructed, what we get from the Deutsche Kinemathek and Cineteca di Bologna restoration is a far sharper and shinier vision, layers of accrued muck swept away so the movie greet us with startling immediacy.

From Hindquarters

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2020 by dcairns

A fingerprint besmirches the hindquarters of a deco figurine!

FROM HEADQUARTERS is one of William Dieterle’s best pre-codes, and I’m surprised I haven’t written about it before. I think I watched it shortly before I started blogging so it got lost in the shuffle.

We screened it as one half of a double-feature in our latest Warren William Weekend, even though the film does not feature WW. By chance, the last time I watched FH, I also ran Dieterle’s THE SECRET BRIDE, which does feature WW and links up in an odd way: in both films, characters look into microscopes and see… the SAME BULLET. How did it get from one film to another and kill Kenneth Thomson in one film and Douglas Dumbrille in the other? It must be one of those magic bullets we’ve all heard so much about.

Warner Bros were into saving money in all kinds of odd ways. “Jack Warner has oilskin pockets so he can steal soup.”

Anyway, THE SECRET BRIDE ought to be exciting and emotional, with what James M. Cain called a “love rack” at its centre, the romance creating the suspense, but the concealed marriage of WW and Barbara Stanwyck in the title role never really feels in jeopardy. When Warners went middle-class, they often lost a lot of their oomph. Also, there can be a big difference between 1933 and 1934 Warners pictures — the Code has come in.

But FROM HQ is terrific stuff — part of Warners’ Great Project to document every facet of American society — here, it’s the life of the police station, so we’re in for a kind of CSI: Pre-Code — plus director Dieterle has suddenly gotten really into elaborate and dynamic blocking, with characters crossing frame at speed alla time, the camera relaying from one busy body to another, and Eugene Pallette jumping into shot like an over-inflated jack-in-the box, bellowing his swollen head off. His character is called Sgt. Boggs and that’s just right.

George Brent is the lead and his sleepy delivery turns out to be just what the film needs, since everyone else is so overwrought. Margaret Lindsay does a lot of elaborate hand-ringing. Hugh “Woo-woo” Herbert is an ambulance-chasing bail bondsman, offering rates “that’d almost surprise you.”

Dieterle also stages multiple flashbacks to the events around a killing, in long-take subjective camera shots, including one that goes from objective to subjective in a oner, his camera discretely tucking itself into a manservant’s head to look out through his eyes, giving us an actual “what the butler saw” or “first-person butler” sequence.

FOG OVER FRISCO has been described as one of the fastest movies ever made but this one could give it a run for its money. Asides from being a murder mystery, it fits snugly into Warners’ Grand Project to document every aspect of American life: this one stars the police station itself, and spends the first few minutes observing the processing of arrestees, before lingering over forensics, ballistics, interrogation, and even the filing system. Punch cards! High-tech stuff.

Dieterle reportedly hated the pace of Warners films and, left to his own devices, would happily crank out slowies like 6 HOURS TO LIVE, which is only 72 mins but feels like it’s in real time. The strange part is that when Jack Warner cracked the whip, Dieterle went just about faster than anyone else. The actors get splashed with his sweat. FROM HQ goes like a rocket, with the same amount of smoke, noise, sparks and sputtering.