Archive for William Dieterle

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.

The Easter Sunday Intertitle: The Mill at World’s End

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on April 12, 2020 by dcairns

This is the magnificent but slightly baffling opening sequence of Karl Grune’s AM RANDE DER WELT (AT THE END OF THE WORLD, 1927). Grune is a somewhat obscure German silent director — are ANY of his films commercially available? DIE STRASSE is known mainly for one atmospheric still photograph.

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Really incredible sets — but few of them — the film takes place entirely in and around a windmill standing on the border between one fictional, unnamed country that looks exactly like Germany, and another fictional, unnamed country that looks exactly like Germany. Everything is lovely except for the enemy spy in the midst of ou miller family, and then — war comes!

The film stars Brigitte Helm, in Good Maria mode, sadly, and the Iron Stove himself, Wilhelm Dieterle, later a terrific Hollywood director, here a lumbering German actor, with sculpted features and an over-stuffed torso. Most of the principal cast spend the entire film dusted in flour, a fashion choice that should be adopted more widely. It makes them interesting. You can’t look away from any performance that’s being delivered through a chalky coating. Try it and see.

This should be a gripping little thriller — Grune has the unchained camera on his side — but everything is a bit ponderous and would-be-allegorical. It doubtless plays better on the big screen.

Everything is splendidly designed, except maybe intertitles, which I suspect are modern replacements, and the bucket-headed military uniforms, Hugo Boss was unavailable. But when a hand knocks on a door, the elaborate wooden panelling has been crafted to create the impression of sound waves radiating out.

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Elsewhere, stacks of flour sacks create threatening shapes, and the colossal cogwheels slowly grind overhead in a suitably menacing way.

The man responsible for both sets and costumes was Robert Neppach, previously unknown to me. His movie career ended with the rise of Nazism and he escaped to Switzerland.

When one of the good guys escapes disguised as a soldier, he appears to greet another uniformed man with a Hitlerian salute.

And, wearing a big daft nappy, DEATH bestrides the land.

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Juarez: What is it good for?

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on January 12, 2019 by dcairns

I can’t believe we watched JUAREZ right after NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA. How many films about impotent yet oppressive emperors can a person’s system withstand? We were about to find out.

The film is turgid, uniting the occasional leaden tendencies of director William Dieterle (exemplary in his fleet-footedness when Jack Warner cracked the whip or when entrusted with taut thriller material, fully living up to his German nickname “The Iron Stove” when pursuing some dim idea of “quality”) with the dullness of the standard biopic, the worthy period drama, and the “prestige” super-production. Co-writer John Huston blamed Paul Muni, cast as Juarez himself, for insisting on more lines. Muni talks slowly and low, which would work if he said little, but he’s dragging out great long speeches. “It was always heavy weather with Muni.”

Muni also seems to be wearing a FALSE HEAD, something like a Klingon.

In terms of performance, up-and-comer John Garfield and flatliner Brian Aherne (as the hapless Emperor Max) do best. Brian has to act through a ludicrous whorly beard. I think they should have abandoned historical likenesses for this movie, though they needed someone who could more plausibly suggest Indian heritage than Muni. Of course, we were watching for Bette’s mad scenes, which are indeed OTT, but not as hysterical as we’d hoped. But her character’s slide into insanity does give the film it’s best, by far, cinematic moment. After arguing her husband’s case with Napoleon III (an oily Claude Rains, always welcome), building into greater and greater frenzy of emotion, she breaks down completely, her hold on reality snapping. Claude turns into a Halloween devil, lit from below, which is slightly absurd (he’s already got the melodramatic villain’s twirly waxed mustache) —

And Bette flees the room —

Into OUTER DARKNESS. A completely black void, extending in all directions forever. Into this abyss she runs, and Dieterle’s camera plunges madly after her, and we’re swallowed up.

Now THAT’S expressionism. I can say it made the film worthwhile, though if I’d seen the clip in isolation that would have served me just as well. But then that would have made me watch the whole film, which would have been an even more unrewarding experience if I’d already seen the good bit.