Tuesday 15 November 2011

Howl (2010)

HOWL is an American biopic / courtroom drama that was directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and released by the independent Werc Werk Works company in January 2010.  It stars James Franco, David Strathairn, Jon Hamm, Bob Balaban, Mary-Louise Parker, Alessandro Nivola, Jeff Daniels and Treat Williams.  Part dramatisation of Allen Ginsberg's ground-breaking poem, part dramatisation of the obscenity trial which followed the poem's publication and part biopic of Ginsberg himself, HOWL is that rare thing in cinema: a film about the process of writing.

Writing is self-evidently an uncinematic endeavour and consequently films have tended to steer clear of attempting to depict it.  It's not so much that films are anti-intellectual: there have been numerous biopics of painters, composers, musicians and even dancers.  I think it's more to do with the fact that writing is perceived to be a solitary, silent and private pursuit that produces an end result which is consumed in a similar fashion.  However, poetry - for the most part - is intended to be heard and this is particularly true of Allen Ginsberg's work.

HOWL works because as well as exploring who Ginsberg was and how that led to the writing of the poem, it contains a performance of the poem itself.  And not only does the film show Franco as Ginsberg reciting the poem at the Six Gallery in 1955 but it also uses music and animation to visualise the text.  In effect, the film-makers have recognised that the act of writing - the literal act of putting pen to paper, finger to typewriter - is, unlike painting or dancing, merely a mechanical process and that what is of real interest is what is being written and how it came to be written.

The court-room stuff, which dramatises the 1957 obscenity trial of Laurence Ferlinghetti for publishing 'Howl and other poems', is less essential in my view but I suppose what it does is provide a social and cultural context to the poem.  I think the problem with those sections is that they settle for a rather obvious Us and Them / Squares vs Hipsters / Good vs Evil opposition; clipped, straight-laced David Strathairn is the prosecutor and beefy, heroic Jon Hamm (from TV's MAD MEN) is the defence attorney.  The witnesses who think Howl has cultural merit are groovy liberals and those who think it obscene are straight-laced reactionaries.  I'm sorry to say I don't know enough about the US in the late '50s, or the trial itself, to know for sure but I'd like to think it wasn't as binary as that.  Nevertheless, I can only assume that the dialogue from these sequences is taken from transcripts of the trial and therefore it is possible to say that cultural and social freedoms were being fought for by some very brave people.

Jon Hamm (L) and David Strathairn (R) await the judge's ruling
Central to Ginsberg's identity and therefore to his poetry are his homosexuality and his mental health problems. The film understands that it was not Ginsberg's homosexuality which caused his mental health problems but his fear of facing the difficulties society's reaction to his homosexuality would cause.  Ginsberg's friendships with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and other members of the Beat Generation, with their broad-minded attitudes to love and life and their embracing of fluid sexuality, were crucial to his personal and professional development and in many ways these are the most interesting parts of the film.  It's perhaps surprising that given the enormity of their influence on post-war US (and therefore international) culture that the Beat Generation has rarely, to my knowledge, been represented in film.  Which I suppose brings me back to my opening point.

James Franco as Allen Ginsberg
I would hate to give the impression that HOWL is dry, absurdly literary, inaccessible or otherwise a chore.  It's not a film that follows the classical narrative model, that's true, so it may disappoint those looking for a straight, if you'll pardon the pun, Ginsberg biopic.  But if you love books, ideas, images and indeed love, then there is a lot to enjoy.  The final few minutes - the recitation of the Footnote to Howl - are incredibly powerful and uplifting and about as far from being obscene as it's possible to be.  Franco is a talented young man and he does a good job of mapping out Ginsberg's interests and obsessions; he's also very good at performing the poem and, when you get right down to it, that's what this film is all about.

Monday 14 November 2011

The Naked Prey (1966)

THE NAKED PREY is an American adventure film that was directed by and stars Cornel Wilde.  It was distributed by Paramount and premiered in 1966.  Alongside Wilde, the film features Gert van den Bergh and Ken Gampu.  Set in South Africa during the colonial era, it tells the story of a white safari leader who along with his party is captured by a tribe whom they had earlier insulted by not offering gifts as a toll for passing through their territory.  The other members of the party are executed in bizarre ritualistic fashion but, because he had attempted to do the right thing before being overruled by a racist South African, the safari leader is given the chance to win his freedom.  He is stripped naked and taken to the edge of the tribal village by a group of young warriors; there an arrow is fired into the distance.  He is allowed a head start as far as the arrow flew and then, one by one, the warriors follow to hunt him down.

Cornel Wilde is someone of whom you don't hear very much these days but he was a real oddity among Hollywood stars and his life and career are absolutely fascinating.  Born Kornel Weisz in 1912 in what was then Hungary but is now Slovakia, his family emigrated to the US in 1920.  He was evidently a gifted young man: he won a medical scholarship to Columbia University and qualified for the US Olympic fencing team in 1936, but decided to pursue an acting career instead.

Gert van den Bergh (L) and Cornel Wilde (R)
His big break came when he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Chopin in A SONG TO REMEMBER (1945).  After that he carved out a decent career for himself in Hollywood, appearing in a mixture of movies that made good use of his athleticism and swarthy good looks.  The first film of his that I remember seeing is THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952) which, typical of his career, has him as a trapeze artist in a circus show; it's an indicator of how popular a star he was that he was billed above Charlton Heston and James Stewart.

He directed his first feature in 1955 and went on to direct eight others over the next twenty years.  Of those that I have seen, it's quite apparent that Wilde's personal interests are writ large in his films: rugged individualism, physical fitness, honour, and the nature of the bonds between men.  THE NAKED PREY is a case in point.  Wilde was in his fifties when he made this movie and he's on screen for virtually the entire movie, often clad only in a loincloth (or less) and really puts himself through the wringer.

Shot on location in a variety of southern African countries, the film strives for a rough authenticity and, in my view, achieves it.  I'm not going to pretend that the depiction of colonial dominion and its effects are dealt with in a profound or even sophisticated way but it is dealt with and the film makes its point in a basic but effective manner.  Essentially, while not denying that men (particularly hunters) have a right to go where they wish, the film shows that traditions and customs are to be respected absolutely; the punishments meted out to transgressors may be unusual but they are just according to local law.  There is also a powerful sequence in which a gang of slave-raiders attack a tribal village.

What I liked about the film was that, unlike many adventure films, it uses the locations as more than merely a pretty backdrop (although there are some stunning shots of the landscape) and uses the indigenous people as more than merely cannon fodder.  Wilde interacts with the environment rather than just acting in front of it.  Similarly, the tribesmen hunting him are shown to be individuals rather than just villains and there are a couple of sequences which demonstrate this well.  First, they bicker among themselves about whether they should carry on with the hunt - some are exhausted, some are frightened, some overcome with grief at the loss of their companions.  And in a second sequence, they act as a group to assist one of their number who has been bitten by a snake.

I ought to say though that the film isn't preachy, at least not in a moralistic way.  What it is is a tense, gripping, matter-of-fact adventure movie of a sort that was very popular in the '50s and '60s but which has fallen out of favour.  I would recommend it heartily, all the more so because it is available through the peerless Criterion Collection so you know you'll get a pristine print and plenty of instructive extras.  I would also recommend checking out the three films Wilde directed after this one.  BEACH RED (1967) is a graphic WW2 movie that pre-dates the overwhelming opening of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1997); NO BLADE OF GRASS (1970) is a flawed but interesting post-apocalypse drama; and SHARK'S TREASURE (1975) a bizarre adventure movie featuring the great Yaphet Kotto.

Film anorak notes:
  • Gert van den Bergh who plays the hunter who causes all of his party's troubles plays Adendorff ("They're saluting fellow braves!") in ZULU (1962).
  • Ken Gampu, who plays the leader of the hunting tribesmen, featured in a lot of South African-shot movies in the '60s and '70s, including THE DEATH OF A SNOWMAN (1978), THE WILD GEESE (1978) and ZULU DAWN (1979).

Saturday 12 November 2011

Eye of the Devil (1966)

EYE OF THE DEVIL is a British horror film that was directed by J. Lee Thompson and released by MGM in August 1966.  It stars Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Donald Pleasence, Edward Mulhare, Flora Robson, Sharon Tate, David Hemmings, Emlyn Williams and John Le Mesurier.  It tells the story of an Anglo-French aristocrat who is summoned back to his family estate in France because a drought has affected the vineyards.  When his wife and children join him there, they find he has become obsessed with the pagan belief that a sacrifice must be made to save the crops.

This is very much a prestige production: it was made by a major studio, has major stars, expensive location shooting and what you might describe as a 'literary' feel to it.  It's a bit like what you'd expect if Merchant-Ivory ever made a horror film; in other words it's stately, refined and sadly rather dull.  That's not to say literary horror films, for want of a better expression, can't work; THE INNOCENTS (1961) is a good example of one that does; THE HAUNTING (1963) another.  But EYE OF THE DEVIL doesn't work, in my opinion, and I'll try to explain why.

I think the main reason the film fails is because of the nature of the production.  MGM were clearly trying to attract an audience that wouldn't normally choose to see a horror film.  As I said earlier, the talent attached to this project indicates high quality, refined entertainment and I think the film was actually made with that goal in mind.  That is to say, the focus was not so much on producing a frightening or disturbing film as it was on producing a glossy, 'quality' piece of work.  I don't get the impression from watching the film that at any time anyone actually sat down and said 'Right, how are we going to frighten the punters?'  In fact, it's almost as if the producers specifically wanted to reject anything that might associate the film with low budget, low status genre pictures, e.g. Hammer productions.  And I think that's it in a nutshell: this is a genre film that doesn't want to be a genre film; this is a horror film that wishes it wasn't; this is a film that wishes it could jettison the plot and just be an elegant film about elegant people in an elegant setting.

David Niven, urbane as ever
The upshot is that what remains looks elegant but completely fails to engage as a story.  The photography (by Erwin Hillier) is exemplary throughout but the film is restrained when it should be insane, it's bloodless when it should be graphic and it's dull when it should be thrilling.  The casting doesn't help: David Niven is urbane enough to look like a French aristocrat but isn't able to convince as a man driven to the point of insanity by the weight of tradition.  David Hemmings and Sharon Tate are modishly cast and given nothing to do.  Moreover, Tate is dubbed throughout which suggests she was cast for her looks and media profile rather than acting ability.

Deborah Kerr (L), Sharon Tate (C) and David Hemmings (R)
That said, a couple of moments stand out and they both feature Tate.  One sequence sees her bewitch Kerr and lead her to the edge of the battlements on the chateau's vertiginous roof.  Another sees her masochistically revelling in a whipping meted out to her by Niven.  The latter in particular shows a glimpse of the abandon that is required to bring these pagan stories to life; think of THE WICKER MAN (1973) and how that is handled.

Sharon Tate
One final word about the setting.  EYE OF THE DEVIL was shot on location at the Chateau de Hautefort in the Dordogne and it's absolutely stunning, a natural film location if ever there was one.  You can read about it and see images here.

Film anorak notes:

  • Director J. Lee Thompson was your quintessential director for hire and just about the last person you would ever consider applying auteur theory to.  He seemingly took on just any job that was offered to him and did a professional but totally anonymous job on them all.  Credit where it's due though, he was capable of turning out efficient movies: ICE COLD IN ALEX (1958), THE GUNS OF NAVARONE (1961) and CAPE FEAR (1962) are all his.  After the hits dried up he took to working in genre pictures, often with Charles Bronson.  He also made a couple of sequels in the PLANET OF THE APES series, and the long-winded slasher HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981).
  • Sharon Tate was just making her way in movies when she was murdered by the members of the Charles Manson gang, a crime still shocking today for its brutality and senselessness.  Roman Polanski, who was Tate's husband and father of the baby she was carrying when she died, was naturally profoundly affected by her murder; his first film to be released after her death was the bleak, disturbing and blood-soaked adaptation of MACBETH (1971).
  • Edward Mulhare, who plays Deborah Kerr's best friend, was best known as Devon Miles - The Hoff's boss in the TV series KNIGHT RIDER.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Xtro (1982)

XTRO is a British sci-fi horror film that was directed by Harry Bromley Davenport and released in August 1982.  It stars Bernice Stegers, Philip Sayer, Simon Nash, Danny Brainin and Maryam d'Abo.  It's about a little boy who believes his absent father has been abducted by aliens; when the father suddenly returns everything seems to be fine until he starts behaving oddly.

Very much in the wake of ALIEN (1979), XTRO is a low budget effort that takes (if not steals) a few of the most unpleasant bits from Ridley Scott's film and attempts to construct a film around them.  The budget is so low that the alien has to come to Earth and even then is offscreen for virtually the entire film while the action, such as it is, centres on a dreary flat in London.

I think what happened was that most of the budget was eaten up by the film's centrepiece scene in which a female character (who doesn't even warrant a name and is just listed as 'Woman in Cottage') who has been attacked by the alien gives birth to a full grown man.  If the film is remembered for anything it is for this scene, which at the time was deemed strong enough to briefly warrant video nasty status.  It's a revolting idea, although logical enough in its own demented way and, more importantly, is germane to the plot for this is the means by which the father returns.

"Breathe Mrs Woman in Cottage, you're nearly there."

"Congratulations Mrs Woman in Cottage: it's a boy, er, man."
The main thrust of the story is actually quite good - absent father returns but is it really him? - but is hardly original, serving as the basis for LE RETOUR DE MARTIN GUERRE (1982) and SOMMERSBY (1993), among others.  Unfortunately, having set up a potentially interesting situation, the second half is all over the place.  Tony, the little boy, suddenly develops the ability to turn his toys into animate objects and uses them to kill a couple of people in his building who have been annoying him.  There's nothing wrong with that in itself but it seems like it belongs in a different movie.  And as if that wasn't bad enough, this whole section features a malevolent dwarf clown.

I could explain what's going on here but you'd laugh at me

Tony's Action Man brought to life
Davenport directs with zero flair and his cast are all at sea because they've basically got nothing to do except react to the ludicrous goings on.  As you can probably tell, I really loathed it.  It was made at what must have been close to the lowest point of the British film industry and all I can surmise is that someone with no interest in cinema saw a chance to make a quick buck ripping off a far better film and chose someone with no talent for cinema to make it for him.  This lazy, cynical approach to film-making is something I can't abide; say what you like about Edward D. Wood Jr, Andy Milligan or Jess Franco but at least they cared about films and about the genre in which they chose to work.  Yes, producing consistently high quality work was far beyond their abilities but they gave it their all and they loved making films.  I don't detect any passion behind anything in XTRO save for making a profit.

Film anorak notes:
  • Bernice Stegers, who plays the mother, has been in one or two delirious movies in her time, notably Lamberto Bava's MACABRE (1980), but probably enjoyed her highest profile moment as the snooty shop assistant who quickly figures out how much money Hugh Grant doesn't have in FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (1994).
  • Philip Sayer, who plays the father, was a jobbing actor on stage and screen who sadly died of cancer at the absurdly young age of 41.
  • Maryam d'Abo, who plays the sexy nanny and whose debut this was, did quite well for a while in the late '80s, including star billing in the Timothy Dalton-era Bond movie THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS (1987).
  • Anna Wing, who plays the crotchety old lady downstairs, was most famous for playing the crotchety old lady Lou Beale in EASTENDERS.
Anna Wing

The Conspirators (1944)

THE CONSPIRATORS is an American espionage thriller that was directed by Jean Negulesco and released by Warner Brothers in October 1944.  It stars Paul Henreid, Hedy Lamarr, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.  Set in WW2 Portugal, it follows the attempt by Dutch resistance leader Vincent Van Der Lyn (Henreid) to escape the clutches of his Nazi pursuers.

This was the final film in my Greenstreet / Lorre marathon and was another attempt by Warners to repeat the success of their own CASABLANCA.  As I pointed out in my review of PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES, Warners had several goes at rejigging the CASABLANCA formula using their contracted stars and directors.  In PASSAGE... they had Michael Curtiz, Bogart, Rains, Greenstreet and Lorre but no Bergman or Henreid; in THE CONSPIRATORS they just had Henreid, Greenstreet and Lorre.  As fine as those three individuals were, they arguably represent the three least interesting, or inessential, elements of CASABLANCA.  No doubt Warners realised that too, adding the top-billed Hedy Lamarr.

Henreid and Lamarr
I haven't checked so I'm happy to be corrected on this point but I'd hazard a guess that THE CONSPIRATORS probably marked the end of Warners attempts to cash in on CASABLANCA.  I reckon they'd wrung as much out of it as they could, which would explain why this film has an air of 'after the Lord Mayor's Show' about it.  It's not so much that you can point the finger at any particular weaknesses, more that it had literally all been done before; and because I watched most of those movies back-to-back the recycling of plot and settings became all too apparent.

This may be the same map Warner Bros used in BACKGROUND TO DANGER
It's a shame actually because judged solely on its own merits it's a perfectly decent WW2 thriller.  Okay, so the vast theatre of WW2 is reduced to the scope of a handful of individuals but the duplicity, brutality and self-interest of war are not skimped on.  The second half becomes a cross between a whodunnit and a nick-of-time climax as Henreid and his underground group try to figure out who the mole is before the Portugese authorities come crashing down on them.  It all ends up hinging on a game of roulette and is deftly handled by Negulesco, who earlier in 1944 had directed Greenstreet and Lorre in the excellent THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS.

Greensreet and Lorre together again
Film anorak notes:

  • Arthur Edeson was back on board for this one so the cinematography lacks the class of James Wong Howe's work on PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES.  Another credit too for Perc Westmore, Warner's make up maestro.
  • Victor Francen, who plays the aristocratic Hugh Von Mohr, and Eduardo Cianelli as the Chief of Police, were both in the aforementioned DIMITRIOS and also PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES, as was Vladimir Sokoloff.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Sue Lloyd (1939 - 2011)

Only found out last week but I was sorry to hear of Sue Lloyd's passing on 20 October.

Although she enjoyed a long and varied career on TV and occasionally in films I think it's fair to say that she never really delivered on the promise of her turn in THE IPCRESS FILE.  Nevertheless, she has the classic Cinema Delirium-approved series on her CV: THE SAINT, JOURNEY TO THE UNKNOWN, DEPARTMENT S, and THE PERSUADERS among many others.  She's also in a particularly good episode of THE AVENGERS called "A Surfeit of H2O".

Sue Lyon with Patrick Macnee (R) in The Avengers

Film-wise, she popped up in Hammer's HYSTERIA (1965) - the one where Robert Webber can't remember who he is - but a career low must have been her appearance in NO. 1 OF THE SECRET SERVICE (1977) directed by Lindsay Shonteff who is responsible for two of the worst films I've ever seen: BIG ZAPPER and BIG ZAPPER'S BLADE OF VENGEANCE (both 1974).  Although having said that I don't imagine she was terribly proud of her work in THE STUD (1978) and THE BITCH (1979); the British film industry really was in an dreadful state in the mid- to late Seventies.

But we judge our favourites not by the depths to which they sink but the heights to which they rise and she was terrific as Jean Courtenay in THE IPCRESS FILE (1965), one of my favourite espionage films.  I feel a bit daft confessing it but I occasionally like to practice my impression of Nigel Green as Dalby saying her name as he introduces her to Harry Palmer.  She plays the operative who is sent to get Palmer into bed and indulge him in careless pillow talk.  She's slinky, seductive and sophisticated and that's how I'll always remember her.

Sue Lyon 1939 - 2011

Passage to Marseilles (1944)

PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES is an American thriller that was directed by Michael Curtiz and released by Warner Brothers in March 1944.  It stars Humphrey Bogart, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre.  It tells the story of how a pilot escapes imprisonment on Devil's Island and joins the Free French forces in England.

Another cash-in, this time of CASABLANCA using a lot of the same personnel.  One thing I haven't mentioned in my reviews of all these Warner Bros WW2 movies is the Hollywood studio system which was very much in operation at the time.  Essentially what this means is that the major Hollywood studios operated a vertically integrated business model whereby they owned the means of production, the means of distribution and the means of exhibition.  That is to say, the studios made the films, they distributed the films to cinemas and they owned or controlled the cinemas in which the films were exhibited.  A very cosy system for the major studios and it kept things a tightly closed shop for quite a while.

The bit of particular interest in terms of the films I've been writing about over the past couple of days is the studio itself.  Each studio, in this case Warner Bros, had certain stars, director and writers under exclusive contract to work only for that studio and the studio bosses (all those names you've read about - Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, and so) would decree which stars would appear in which picture.  When a studio had a major hit they would often repeat the formula, with one or two slight changes to cast, plot and setting, to try to repeat the success.  Thus Warner's CASABLANCA (1941), directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Bogart, Rains, Greenstreet and Lorre, begat, among others, PASSAGE TO MARSEILLES, also directed by Michael Curtiz and also starring Bogart, Rains, Greenstreet and Lorre.

Warner Bros were practically begging comparisons with CASABLANCA by using shots like this
Cynical, you might say, but business is business.  Mayer, Warner, Goldwyn and the rest may have cared about the quality of their product but they were under no illusions about whether they were trying to create art or trying to make a profit.  In their defence, while some of the studios' output was formulaic, they had to produce far more films in those days than they do now and, it has to be said, with far less reliance on remakes and sequels.

Humphrey Bogart and Michele Morgan: they'll always have Paris too
What of the film itself?  Well I enjoyed it actually.  It's notorious for at one point having a flashback within a flashback within a flashback but that's a kind of trainspotter-ish thing to remark on because while you're watching it passes by without incident.  There's some escapology, some romance (with Michele Morgan instead of Ingrid Bergman) and some great stuff on board ship with Sydney Greenstreet as a vile collaborateur.  It isn't as good as its forebear of course but why would it be?  What the studios failed to realise was that classic films achieve their classic status through a thousand small things, including luck or coincidence, coming together at the right time, rather than through contrivance.

Film anorak notes

  • Perc Westmore with the makeup again.  Since I mentioned him yesterday I read a small piece about him which said that he was just one of an enormous Westmore clan that had moved from England to Hollywood and pretty much come to dominate the make-up side of the movie business, at various studios.
  • Apparently Jay Silverheels - best known as Tonto to Clayton Moore's Lone Ranger in the TV serial - is an extra in the boat scenes but I can't say I spotted him.
  • Helmut Dantine, an extremely good looking Austrian actor in Hollywood, plays one of Bogey's fellow escapees.  Dantine had a wildly varied career, ranging from King Vidor's stab at WAR & PEACE [1956] to Sam Peckinpah's BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA [1974] and THE KILLER ELITE [1975].

Helmut Dantine (L) and Peter Lorre (R).  Also a beautiful example of James Wong Howe's camerawork.
  • The cinematographer was James Wong Howe, one of the great names of his profession.

Monday 7 November 2011

Across the Pacific (1942)

ACROSS THE PACIFIC is an American thriller that was directed by John Huston and released by Warner Brothers in September 1942.  It stars Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet.  After being dishonourably discharged from the US Army, embittered Rick Leland boards a ship bound for the Orient.  Aboard he meets ex-pat Dr Lorenz who makes him an unusual and dangerous job offer.

Let's be honest, with those credits this whole enterprise screams MALTESE FALCON.  But there are cash-ins and there are cash-ins.  At least Warner Brothers had the sense to retain the best talent which means that despite  not being in the earlier film's class this one was never going to be a stinker.  Think of the difference between JAWS and JAWS 2.  For the sequel, Zanuck and Brown only managed to retain Roy Scheider and bloody Lorraine Gary, losing Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss and Steven Spielberg; if you're going to try to successfully recreate the success of an earlier movie your first task is to retain the same talent.

The three stars of THE MALTESE FALCON reunited, plus Victor Sen Yung as Joe (R)
What ACROSS THE PACIFIC also does is play to the strengths of its cast: Bogart is another outwardly cynical but inwardly patriotic and heroic tough guy; Mary Astor is another beautiful and charming young woman who may not be everything she seems; and Sydney Greenstreet is another bluff and genial but utterly ruthless villain.
Sydney Greenstreet
In some respects though the film is overshadowed by its production history.  Apparently, the original version of the story had Leland thwarting a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; when they did actually attack Pearl Harbor the setting was hastily changed to Panama.  No-one remembered to change the title though; so, notoriously, the Pacific doesn't come into it.  Also, the US entry into the Second World War spurred John Huston into leaving the production before it was complete in order to make war documentaries (such as REPORT FROM THE ALEUTIANS (1943) and SAN PIETRO (1945)) and he was replaced by Vincent Sherman.
In case you don't know where Panama is or what its significance is
It's all good fun and in one sense is more enjoyable than THE MALTESE FALCON because it is a straightforward adventure yarn with plenty of wisecracking interplay between Bogart and Astor and without any of its predecessor's intensity and brutal greed and cynicism.  But for the same reasons it is less memorable.
Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart
Film anorak notes: the cinematographer Arthur Edeson was another member of the MALTESE FALCON team, as was make-up expert Perc Westmore.  The special effects were by Byron Haskin who went on to become a director, most notably of the innovative ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS which I've written about previously.

Sunday 6 November 2011

Background to Danger (1943)

BACKGROUND TO DANGER is an American espionage thriller that was directed by Raoul Walsh and released by Warner Brothers in 1943.  It stars George Raft, Brenda Marshall, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Turhan Bey.  Set in Turkey during the Second World War and based on a novel by Eric Ambler, it's about an American caught up in the middle of  a Nazi plot to provoke the Turks into joining the war on their side.

I got on to a bit of a Greenstreet & Lorre roll back there in August and they certainly do their bit to liven up this exotic tale of spies, Commies, Nazis, agents provocateur and cheerfully pro-US locals.  It's all very much in the wake of CASABLANCA and while entertaining enough it doesn't have that films stature.  And that's partly because there's a massive Bogart-size hole right in the middle of it, into which steps the second-rate George Raft.  They both made their name playing tough gangsters but Raft, unlike Bogey, never transcended those parts to become a proper actor.  In fact, he didn't really make much of a go of playing the good guy, as can be seen in BACKGROUND TO DANGER.

George Raft as Joe Barton
I think the problem was that in playing tough gangsters didn't require Raft to do a great deal of acting as he grew up in Hell's Kitchen and, notoriously, was on good terms with many underworld figures.  When required to be charming or heroic he just didn't seem quite the same; or rather he came across as a slightly shifty hero, one in whom you couldn't completely trust.  I suppose what I'm trying to say in a ham-fisted way is that Raft was good for playing hoods and not much else.

I love the maps you get at the start of these exotic movies, to clue in those punters who don't know where Europe is
However, that serves Raft well in this picture because being a WW2 espionage movie morality comes in shades of grey.  While the villains are still signposted clearly - Nazis are rotten to the core - the good guys take some figuring out.  So as well as shifty Raft you also get Peter Lorre in one of his trademark roles where you're never entirely sure whether he's a suave traitor or a snivelling hero.

Peter Lorre as the wonderfully named Nikolai Zaleshoff
I liked the spycraft stuff - particularly the laborious method of getting past the cigar store which fronts the local OSS outfit - and it's performed with gusto but I suppose in the end it's all too obviously a CASABLANCA cash-in and therefore you can't really help but compare it unfavourably.  Raft is no Bogart, as I've said, and Brenda Marshall is definitely no Ingrid Bergman so much of your attention is drawn to the supporting characters.  Greenstreet and Lorre are terrific obviously but also worthy of note is Turhan Bey, an American / Turkish / Czech actor who relied on his boyish charm and exotic good looks to carve a niche for himself in Hollywood in the 1940s.  He's still alive, remarkable enough, aged 89 and no doubt regaling eager interviewers with tales of the Golden Age of motion pictures.

Turhan Bey in his tobacco shop / OSS cell
Film anorak notes - Don Siegel is credited with 'montages', which could mean anything but which I take to mean basically second-unit photography and the sharply edited mini-sequences which set the scene.  Also another credit for make-up wizard Perc Westmore.

The Verdict (1946)

THE VERDICT is an American period thriller, released by Warner Brothers in 1946 and starring Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and George Coulouris.  It is notable for being the debut feature of one of the great American directors - Don Siegel, who made among many others INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS [1956], THE KILLERS [1964], THE BEGUILED [1971] and of course DIRTY HARRY [1971].

Everybody has to start somewhere though and for Siegel it was here in a very un-Siegel like setting of foggy London cobbled streets, Scotland Yard and a hoary old suspenser.  The set up is that Sydney Greenstreet is a respectable old detective who inadvertently sees an innocent man convicted and hanged.  Summarily dismissed from his post and replaced by a loathsome incompetent, he sets about righting this wrong.

To be honest there's very little in this that would make you sit up and think the director was destined for greatness.  It's an efficient little supporting feature, what Leslie Halliwell used to call "a programmer", no more, no less.  I suppose if you were really stretching a point you could say that there are pointers towards the violent amorality of the police that we would see later in DIRTY HARRY and perhaps a hint of the ambivalence towards authority that ran through most of Siegel's work but it really would be a stretch.

Sydney "By gad sir, you are a character" Greenstreet
Peter "You're hurting my arm" Lorre
So rather than wear yourself out looking for things that aren't really there, I'd suggest you wait for a rainy Sunday afternoon, stick THE VERDICT on and enjoy the incomparable Greenstreet and Lorre.  A couple of film anorak points worth mentioning.  First, the cinematography is by Ernest Haller who, up until his death in 1970, was one of those industry veterans whose life and career coincided almost completely with the emergence and development of cinema. He lensed his first film in 1920 and was still going strong into the mid-1960s.  His work in the 1940s is synonymous with Warner Brothers, to whom he was contracted, and he is largely responsible for the look of many of their classic output.  The make-up is by Perc Westmore, an Englishman who moved to Hollywood in the 1920s and worked on literally hundreds of films; a forgotten name now to all but the cognoscenti but this guy has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Finally, the special effects are by Robert Burks, who went on to become Hitchcock's favourite cameraman.

Le grand Meaulnes (1967)

LE GRAND MEAULNES is a French romantic drama that was directed by Jean-Gabriel Albicocco and released in September 1967.  It stars Brigitte Fossey, Jean Blaise, Alain Libolt, Alain Noury and Juliette Villard.  It is one of at least two films I'm aware of that are based on Alain-Fournier's 1913 novel of the same name in which Francois Seurel, a young schoolteacher, recounts his boyhood friendship with Augustin Meaulnes, a charismatic but restless soul.

The novel is a personal favourite of mine but is impossible to adequately describe for those who have not read it; more than any other novel I have read, it captures the heady days of youth and the impossible longing for them to return.  Such feelings rarely translate to the screen, so I was dubious about watching this film.  A faithful adaptation seemed too much to hope for and I dreaded a disrespectful trashing of a novel I feel very passionate about.

For the most part though, I'm happy to say it's pretty good.  Key to this, I think is the casting.  Albicocco went for an unknown to play Meaulnes, which was a very good idea because there is an essentially unknowable quality to Meaulnes, an almost mythic aura which would have been difficult for a well-known actor to bring off.  Meaulnes' great love Yvonne de Galais is an idealised version of woman, a wholly perfect creation; so Brigitte Fossey, who at 21 was achingly beautiful, was also a good choice.

Brigitte Fossey as Yvonne de Galais

Jean Blaise as Augustin Meaulnes

It's as difficult to say how the film manages to convey the sense of longing as it is to say how the novel manages it.  I think it is simply that Meaulnes' dreamlike adventure at Les Sablonnieres and subsequent attempts to recapture the essence of what he experienced that night speak to all of us who feel the exquisite agonies of lost youth.  Purely in terms of technique, Albicocco uses a variety of lenses to give that slightly off-kilter look to the film, and must have got through a mountain of Vaseline in order to achieve the hazily recollected scenes of memory.

Jean Blaise returned to obscurity following this film, making only two further screen appearances.  Quite the reverse for Brigitte Fossey, who has had a long career in European and occasionally American movies.  Jean-Gabriel Albicocco only made a handful of films after this one and died in 2001.  Alain-Fournier's reputation rests solely on Le grand Meaulnes; without having completed any other works, his life was cut short by the First World War.  He died on 22 September 1914.