Archive for Wolf Rilla

Nothing’s Wasted

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 3, 2020 by dcairns

The good thing about running a blog is that nothing’s wasted. So I’ve inadvertently written over a thousand words for an essay that doesn’t need them, and I can find a home from them here —

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My impression of previous British cinematic treatment of the working class is that it was unconvincing and reeking of music hall exaggeration. There were stars like George Formby (a grotesque northern gump with a savant-like talent for the ukulele) and Gracie Fields (a braying fishwife with a singing voice that could shatter concrete) enjoyed periods of great popularity, especially in the same northern industrial areas which would later birth most of the new realism.

Films such as IN WHICH WE SERVE and THIS HAPPY BREED did make an effort to sympathetically and convincingly portray the 99% of people who did not live in Mayfair and drink cocktails, but there was always a strange distance from reality. Screenwriter Noel Coward and star John Mills had gone to such efforts to eradicate all trace of their modest, regional origins that their resumption of it had a gingerly quality which didn’t suppress all emotion by any means (both films are quite moving) but did keep naturalism at arm’s length. Added to that was the studio-bound nature of most British cinema at the time. Other centres of excellence like the Archers (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) and Ealing mostly kept working class characters as amusing or pathetic supporting characters, again with a somewhat theatrical playing style.

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But there were exceptions. The gifted journeyman Wolf Rilla directed THE END OF THE ROAD (1954), a little-known gem about a factory worker (Finlay Currie) struggling to cope with retirement after a long, productive life in industry. The depiction of his home life, sharing a tiny flat with his son, daughter-in-law and grandson, is convincing, compassionate and wholly lacking in condescension (script was by James Forsyth and Geoffrey Orme. It also spiced up its naturalism (lots of location filming by canals) with expressionistic touches such as Dutch tilts to convey its elderly protagonist’s disorientation.

What was lacking in early efforts like this was sex appeal. The arrival of Albert Finney, David Hemmings, Terence Stamp, Michael Caine, Sean Connery et al was part of a weakening of old class-based restrictions that had prevented anyone with a regional accent from being seen as glamorous or desirable. (There were sadly fewer female stars, and only the most conventionally well-spoken of them, Julie Christie, has enjoyed a really long stardom. Carol White died tragically young and the iconic Rita Tushingham is unique in every way.)

The Milkman Always Rings Twice

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2018 by dcairns

I’ve been hoping to see a good Wolf Rilla film for ages: his work on VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED is so smart, and yet everything else I’ve been able to see was a letdown. THE BLACK RIDER was the one that used to turn up on UK TV, and it’s really pathetic — a crummy motorcycle film with a Scooby Doo plot. I wasn’t looking for the amusingly bad, but the unexpectedly good. Fiona and I once bumped into the Great Man’s son, Nico, at Edinburgh Film Fest, and he suggested THE WORLD TEN TIMES OLDER was a cult item that might be worth checking out, but I couldn’t get interested. But MARILYN — know in the US as ROADHOUSE GIRL, which sets you up for all manner of disappointment — has been gathering quite a strong reputation.

I guess the setting is, technically, a roadhouse of sorts, but we’d call it a greasy spoon cafe (pronounced “caff”) or maybe a tea-room. It’s that exciting. Vamped up to project class and glamour mid-film, it acquires the name Marilyn, after its owner, an impossible development — a cafe could be called Marilyn’s, conceivably, but not Marilyn. Snack-bars with human names? What’s next, a brasserie called Derek? Perhaps this is a case of the Berlin-born Rilla not being quite familiar enough with British idioms. Certainly the dialogue in his self-penned script is strangely flat and repetitive, and his cast are not resourceful enough to repeat a line two different ways, so whenever they echo themselves it sounds like they’re practicing their lines, or like multiple takes have been spliced together by an experimentally-inclined cutter.

The actors include Maxwell Reed (Mr. Joan Collins), who’s tall, and Sandra Dorne, who’s blonde (they were made for each other!), and Leslie Dwyer, the Punch and Judy man from TV’s Hi-De-Hi! It’s basically James M. Cain at a garage in the Home Counties. Also featuring Count Von Krolock and Hengist Pod. But the movie belongs to Ealing stalwart Vida Hope.

Reed gets a job as garage hand and spends time posing erotically under a sign reading LUBRICATION SERVICE. Dorne falls for him, they bump off the jealous husband more or less by accident, and then she starts pursuing more promising romantic prospects in the form of suave Ferdy Mayne, who must have played suave in a hundred quote quickies of this kind, filmed in a week or two and released to deafening silence in possibly-empty auditoria. Hope plays the waitress/confidante who’s obviously in love with Marilyn, the only daring aspect of a movie that bowdlerizes Cain’s “love rack” narrative at every turn. Even at the end, when the cops turn up, I was racking my brains to figure out if anything seriously criminal has actually been done. It would be a good Cain-style narrative if they ended up being done for murder, when WE saw it was an accident, and insurance fraud when it was basically on the level. But the movie ends, or runs out, before that can be dealt with.

But Rilla directs with admirable intensity — his angles are good, and he cuts to juicy close-ups at the most effective moments. And, As Matthew Sweet has argued, there’s something appealing about the sheer drabness of it all. Even the romantic music is lugubrious, despondent, like the rubber band’s gone on the gramophone. The actors are all road-company versions of the bare archetypes they’re attempting to evoke. The whole affair has a real post-war misery. This is to IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY as DETOUR is to THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. To quote Errol Morris’s best line, “Despair enacted on cheap sets.”

Inventive and lively direction keeps us engaged with a production that’s totally “from poverty,” and the script engages with the lack of glamour. Best line is when Dwyer rants about how his wife should show more gratitude: “I work my fingers to the bone so you can have all the comforts. Look around you: a gas fire in every room. Electric light!”

Wow. This is living.

Crossing the Line

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 11, 2018 by dcairns

It’s not worth getting into any lengthy comparison of John Carpenter’s VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED with Wolf Rilla’s. Why kick a film when it’s down? “It’s not his worst film,” observed Fiona, kindly, but the only response to that one are not kind, so I’ll refrain. Although writer David Gerrold did come up with a put-down that’s so acid and perfect I can’t not quote him.

“Carpenter (n): one who works with wood.”

It was Ambrose “Bitter” Bierce who remarked that for each of us there exists an insult so apposite that, once applied, it will stick forever. “Our enemies have but to find it.”

In fact, the film has numerous nice touches, it’s just that whenever you look at the way the original movie (or the book) handled things, the nice touches aren’t as nice as the earlier ones.

A key moment early on illustrates the weaknesses running through Carpenter’s vision. The town of Midwich has been knocked unconscious by some mysterious force. The authorities, headed by Kirstie Alley, determine the perimeter of the strange knockout bubble, and draw a line on the rad marking the border. A bold soldier in gas mask steps forward, with a rope around him so he can be dragged back to safety if overcome.

 

He walks slowly forward. Topples. Is dragged back to the point of safety, and revives.

In terms of incident, this is much like what happens in the Wolf Rilla show. But Rilla keeps his camera on the safe side of the line. With the observers, we watch the pointman proceed forward, our anxiety synchronised with theirs. By respecting the line, Rilla makes the threat seem more real. We feel, in a way, that if he tried to film from OVER THERE, the operator and focus puller would collapse into coma, the lens tilting slowly down to gaze at the road surface until the magazine ran out. Even though in other scenes he’s swooped all over Midwich in a camera crane, recording the plague of narcolepsy. For THIS scene, the line matters.

And of course, Carpenter is all over the place, following the lone soldier as he walks into danger, as if he were a character or something, jumping back to the actual characters, just shooting the shit out of the scene but without the strong focus that comes from a strong idea, or from asking (drum roll) Mike Nichols’ Three Questions.

What are the Three Questions? Any of you know?