November 2006

Saturday, 18th November, am
159.V: G. Pontecorvo: Burn!: (Qeimada!) 1970, colour, full screen, DOG, mono, from Channel Five broadcast, July 1999, 105′22″

Gillo Pontecorvo and the phrase One-Work-Wonder seem to follow each other glibly enough. The Battle of Algiers has lost none of its power. I spotted it recently on the obscure low-rent E-4 channel, a complete widescreen subtitled print too, albeit with a DOG. The DOG was a fate which also befell Burn! when it got a rare outing in the early days of Channel Five.

Those were the days when this new channel on the analogue scene broadcast on fewer transmitters than was advisable and its shows were watched, if at all, through a snowstorm. Add to that the problem that MGM had cut about half an hour of footage from this slavery epic and the print was scanned and panned. Then there is the language problem: it was presumably made in polyglot fashion. I am glad to have the English language version of The Leopard: it was made that way and Burt Lancaster suffers when dubbed in the DVD version. I am sorry to have given away my English Language version of The Damned, if only on account of Bogarde’s delivery being missed in the Italian dub. All Visconti’s pictures tend to suffer from these issues.

Following this line of thought, you might think I’d be glad to have Brando’s own voice on the soundtrack of Burn! The trouble is that he is doing an English accent and coming badly unstuck. George Sanders seems to have been his model. It is an unsympathetic part to begin with; presumably Brando was tempted by Pontecorvo’s political credentials. He looks handsome enough but it is hard to know why the film centres on this figure. The strength of The Battle of Algiers is its depiction of a range of figures in a detailed political fix.

The script of Burn has a curious and unlikely friendship between English agent Brando and the rebel-leader. The Portuguese rulers are not depicted in any depth. I can only assume that the script suffered by having the star’s part inflated at the expense of the overall picture. A few striking scenes make the film worth seeing once; undoubtedly there was a film to be made on this subject. As it happens, Herzog’s Cobra Verde came along in 1987 to deal rather more effectively with similar material.

Sunday, 12th November, am

178.V: R. Mamoulian: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, 1932, b & w, from BBC broadcast, January 2001, 91′13″

MGM-badged, this print reminded me that they had taken this Paramount film out of circulation when the 1941 version came out. This Mamoulian version, starring Fredric March had been well and truly gelded for its post-code reissue in 1938. Even back in 1932, when it was submitted to the bbfc, the distributors had pre-cut the film to eighty minutes. The movie re-emerged from the MGM vaults in the seventies in something approaching its original form. The opening reel is audaciously filmed in subjective fashion, encouraging the viewers to identify with its first faceless anti-hero. It was a triumphant celebration of camera mobility at a time when talkies had become very static.

Startlingly erotic in their day, the frills and garters seem nicely historic now, though strangulation is never pretty. The transformation scenes are celebrated, being accomplished mainly by special make-up and filters. March’s performance encompasses the elegant Jekyll as well as the simian Hyde, giving the latter a gleeful energy which becomes swashbuckling in the climactic reels. I wonder how far Mamoulian’s designers were inspired by another Victorian monster, Spring-Heeled Jack? As March leaps around in his cape, the image seems to have sprung from some very familiar Victorian prints of that acrobatic villain.

Most cinematic versions of the story follow the US theatrical tradition of introducing a sexual theme. In fact, Mamoulian’s version is mainly a tale of sexual frustration. The transformation by chemicals might as easily be effected by a man donning a mask to become a sexual predator. It was a theme taken up in the more-or-less synthetic cinema myth of The Wolf Man. Stevenson’s story is devoid of major female characters, however. His Dr Jekyll, like any body-snatching doctor, may have need of commerce with some rough trade types. In Stevenson’s version, the double-life of a respectable medic was exposed as a whitened sepulchre and the sexual connotations were themselves somewhat masked.

Considering its age and history, this was a very watchable print with a rich range of grey tones. Some scratching and speckling was present as well as fluctuating light levels which a modern transfer might iron out.

Tuesday, 7th November, am

016.V: C. Crichton: Hue & Cry, 1947, b & w, from BBC broadcast, August 1994, 78′14″

In a scene strangely foreshadowing The Lord of the Flies, a noisy urchin imitates the noises of warfare while his tribe scurry out of the débris left by the Blitz. By the end of the film, their youthful underground will have mobilized an army of kids to join battle against a small gang of black-marketeers. While Hue & Cry is a comedy, it has surprising depth, due mainly to its being filmed almost entirely on location in battle-scarred London. Harry Fowler is the adolescent lead, trapped at the start between childhood and manhood. Still attracted by comics but ashamed to be seen reading one, even when it falls from heaven above. The suggestively-named Trump is a call to arms and it will prove a book of Revelations about the nature of the world around him. The choirboys at the start may recall Angels with Dirty Faces and the gang, billed as The Blood & Thunder Kids may have been intended as Britain’s answer to The Dead End Kids. While the American junior wise-guys drifted towards slapstick comedy by default, this British variant uses the optimism of its youthful cast to question the nature of the post-war economic reconstruction. We see a wicked woman on her way home to an untouched leafy suburb, passing through building sites of new private housing. Meanwhile, bosses, police and parents prove to be inadequate or morally corrupt. The appeal to sheer numbers in the final scene is as close as we were likely to get to an insurrection in a 1947 picture.

Above it all, in a space defined by its expressionist staircase and cat, we get Alastair Sim, the unwitting author whose comic narratives have been subverted by the crooks. Faced by such outrageous camping, his young visitors are disconcerted by the proffered lemonade. However, when the tables are turned and they have the opportunity to threaten a woman, the kids tie her to a chair and hold a knife to her throat. A small boy shows a slightly perverse desire to tickle her feet, while the most effective means of extracting information turns out to have come out of Room 101. By time-tunnel, presumably.

Nor had The Third Man stolen all the thunder for a sewer-scene. You saw it first in Hue & Cry. While Orson Welles refused to film on that Viennese location - his part was filmed on a studio reconstruction - the young stars of Hue & Cry were sent down into London’s underground for real! No wonder one laddie appears to be genuinely upset by the experience. The film is unique in its effortless melding of pure fantasy with gritty realism: though bloodless, some of the violence is startling. In its use of working-class heroes, the film was way ahead of its time. Harry Fowler would seldom again be the leading-man, as he matured into a useful character-actor, more often than not on the wrong side of the law.

One more curious foreshadowing should be mentioned. As the boss of a Covent Garden greengrocery business, Jack Warner ridicules our youthful hero for imagining he has corpses buried among his spuds. Warner would spend so much of his later career in a bobby’s uniform that he is reported to have affected it in real life to lecture juveniles. It was another actor, famed as a television cop, who would be dealing with potatoes and other toes in Hitchcock’s Frenzy at the same location thirty years on.

The film was seen on an ancient VHS tape, slapped in with low expectations. Though the sound was sometimes a little rough, it served to remind me that analogue television could be excellent before the power was turned down. Though not flawless, the BBC print was visually very pleasing. I also suspect that videotape was of a higher grade in the early nineties.

Saturday, 4th November, am

10.V: M. Robson: The Seventh Victim, 1943, from BBC broadcast, December 1996, b & w, full screen, VHS, 67′51″

Though it only ran 71 minutes - a favoured RKO length - The Seventh Victim was abridged by the British censors. I’d guess we lost the brief sighting of a prostitute with her customer and probably the close-up of the hangman’s noose in the locked room. But the baleful atmosphere of the piece is pervasive. This broadcast version was probably nearly intact, running nearly 68 minutes on PAL, though I suspect the words of the Lord’s Prayer were trimmed for religious scruples. I gather that the BBC bought a package of the RKO film library many years ago and have the right to broadcast some of the Lewton pictures as often as they like. This print had fluctuating brightness at some points and the soundtrack was hissy.

Set in an imagined Greenwich Village populated by poets straight out of La Bohème or Dante, actors and Sapphic cosmeticians, the Seventh Victim remains morally off-kilter even by today’s standards. Even the good characters seem infected with a moral malaise and there is a curious toleration of triadic relationships which extends to any resolution by marriage at the end: does the death of a sister clear the way for Mary to marry the husband? Only, by special dispensation, I think, in most religions and some civil juristictions. Our sparky heroine is, in any case, remarkably excluded from the final scene, one which is uniquely haunting and bleak.

The shower-scene is often cited as an influence on Hitchcock’s Psycho. I wonder if Clouzot also knew the picture: his Les Diaboliques features scenes at a morgue and missing-persons bureau which parallel those here. The fishing for clues among library loans may bring to mind a more recent picture with Seven in the title.

Not all the details have much relevance to the plot. The curious Trademark for example. What are these Palladists doing running a cosmetics business? It is weirdly suggestive of those paranoid rumours which surround the Marlboro cigarette packet! The cult in the movie are referred to as Palladists, a name reminiscent of the Palladian Freemasonry associated with Albert Pike, around whom a vast mythology continues to revolve and evolve. The Greenwich Village cult in the film appears however to be a symbol of urban ennui and possible sexual non-conformity rather than any specific magical sect. That only serves to make it seem pervasive. The presence of Tom Conway, brother of George Saunders, in the cast reminds us that Saunders took his own life, complaining of boredom.

Friday, 3rd November, am
158.V: A. Resnais: Providence, 1977, from BBC broadcast, May 1999, colour, widescreen, VHS, LP speed, 102′43″

The poshest werewolf picture of them all, Providence uses lycanthropy along with gunshots, crumbling buildings and insurgency as metaphors of the civilized personality besieged by sickness. A wild man of the woods pleads to be put out of his misery. A soldier obliges and is brought to book. Prosecuting council is stern but by the end of the picture, the barrister will be the executioner and the soldier will be the woodwo or Woodward. Despite the opulent spaces they occupy, the civilization represented by these characters is called into question. Since they all can be seen as aspects of a single flawed personality, there is not much warmth on display.

Resnais’s first English-language picture, Providence is more playful than intellectual, though some formidable essays have been devoted to mystifying it. Filmed in Belgium, France and Providence, Rhode Island, it uses location to undermine location, time to dislocate time and personality to blur into personality as the drama sinks beneath a sea of anaesthetic white wine. Gielgud as the drowning, would-be Prospero is magnificent. He relishes the salty profanities of his part, finding a vein of common humanity and courage in this wicked old sinner which is unusually touching; he was never better on film than in this rich, late part.

Bogarde enjoys himself a little too much in his nasty rôle, Elaine Burstyn is elegant enough in her externally-observed part and Elaine Stritch does what she can as a emanation of both mother and mistress. David Warner is thrown into the mix as an shaggy sphinx in an impossible jumper, unlikely soldier, lover, philosopher and werewolf.
There are tiresome moments and some viewers will loathe its pretensions from square one. The eruptions of a footballer into the proceedings are intentionally baffling and, I think, funny. Resnais, unlike Hitchcock, always means his process shots to look synthetic. The long night is relieved by a glorious sunlit coda which functions as an exposition, explaining what we have seen in the distorting reflections of a broken mirror.

It is a wonderful film and not the least of its delights is an elaborate score by Rozsa, harking back to Hollywood melodrama but also rooted in European concert music. Purely by accident, my old VHS recording was made at half-speed and looks less than ravishing. Enough has been preserved to see how fine it should look on DVD. Inexplicably, there is no such thing yet.