SINCE LIFE SHOULD HAVE A SOUNDTRACK ALBUM: While reading the following reviews, reward your ears with the delicate strains of John Barry’s masterful score.
“The Divorce of Lady X” (1938)
After a brief immersion in the London fog, the pastel carnival of colors assaulting the viewer’s eyes at the start of Ted Whelan’s “The Divorce of Lady X” is not unlike Dorothy’s later emergence from sepia toned Kansas to the hallucinogenic Munchkinland spectrum, except that in the case of this film the sudden visual onslaught actually distracts from the initial expository minutes and will prove an aesthetic weight from which the featherweight material of the comedy will prove insubstantial to justify.
Nor is the success of the film assisted by that most curious of “Golden Age” cinema phenomena: the compromised attraction of the featured romantic coupling by far more interesting and accomplished supporting character actors; in this case, the charm deficient duo of self-assured socialite bulldozer Leslie Steele (Merle Oberon) and suitably flummoxed barrister Everard Logan (Laurence Olivier) is overshadowed by the delightful secondary (in credit ranking only) performances of Ralph Richardson, Binnie Barnes, Gertrude Musgrove and Morton Selten.
Stranded in a London hotel due to heavy fog, the patrons of a costume ball find themselves with a shortage of sleep worthy accommodations. After the aforementioned young barrister (Olivier) sternly refuses to surrender his spacious suite of rooms to a group of ladies, the aforementioned flighty socialite (Oberon) bullies her way into his bed and pajamas, all within the boundaries of good, chaste mischievousness, though both the mechanics of the plot and its execution are lacking both the sparkle of energy and invention to be found in the best screwball comedies.
The film relies entirely on a familiar genre formula of escalating, obsessive ardor being the result of deliberate scheming by one party (usually the woman) fixated on a romantically paralyzed dupe, coupled with that most patience taxing of comic premises: the simplest of misunderstandings ballooning catastrophically out of control due to the fact that none of the characters speak honestly nor make a clarifying inquiry. In the case of “The Divorce of Lady X”, this strained pattern of choreographed concealment cannot disguise the labored paths on which the characters must travel for the narrative not to completely collapse under the weight of its own foolishness.
Naturally, much of the film’s initial gravitation to the unconvincingly precious is directly attributable to the script (based on the play Counsel’s Opinion by Gilbert Wakefield which had been previously filmed in 1933, though comparisons to the original movie version are speculative at best since that film is currently considered lost) which foregoes any opportunity for the advancement of genuine romance while the tiresome plot mechanics championing duplicity and deceit are promoted with gleeful abandon; so much so that the climax of the film which reveals the mistaken identity masquerade, rather than offering up the expected much delayed meeting of hearts and minds, instead offers a shared enthusiastic humiliation of the aforementioned dupe. Hardly a satisfying conclusion though the film offers an awkwardly tacked on epilogue as compensation for those demanding of romantic closure- no matter how contrary the convolution of logic to what has previously transpired -but which makes as little use of the concept of rational behavior as Logan’s initial entrancement. The film presents the baffling notion that it is Logan’s behavior which requires corrective redemption, as his chauvinistic attitudes are expressed early in a volatile tirade in court, yet the film has the temerity to conclude with a shocking about face in his opinions when he has just been subject to the same brand of duplicitous, self-serving behavior for which he was earlier lashing out. Ultimately, “The Divorce of Lady X” offers a strange invitation to the viewer: to enjoy behavior which champions a mockery of love while at the same time the film extols its redemptive value, as long as that behavior is rendered with the decorative ribbons and bows of movie artifice complimented with Natalie Kalmus-designed peppermint pastels and the candy coated overload of Miklós Rózsa’s leaving-nothing-to-the-imagination (supposedly) comic insertions of musical chirping which presumes the audience to be a pack of yokels in need of a symphonic version of a prodding laugh track.
If Ted Whelan’s direction seems particularly languorous for a screwball comedy, one can only marvel at how the same lack of comedic spark afflicts his two stars. Of the unfortunate Merle Oberon, one can only observe that she trades heavily on a self-assurance of her own attractiveness, with her entire performance limited to posturing with coquettish coyness. Worse yet is Olivier’s is painfully forced performance, with the actor hurriedly delivering his lines as if he were perpetually late for a train. There is also a singular detachment to his fellow actors; a sense of professional entitlement perhaps? There seem a moment in the film where the actor relaxes and does not give the impression he thinks the material is beneath him. Fortunately, there is amusing salvation in presence of Gertrude Musgrove as a maid who unwittingly gives false witness of adultery which sets the legals wheels of divorce in motion for the spirited pairing of Ralph Richardson and Binnie Barnes (who played the role of Leslie in the 1933 version) as the presumed cuckold and his suspicion weary but savvy spouse. Rewarding too is the delightful performance of Morton Selten as Leslie’s grandfather, the judge Lord Steele. These last three provide continuous amusement- a welcome break from the insoluble romantic chemistry of the two stars -until the unfortunate final scenes in which the film turns unaccountably mean-spirited.
“The Jigsaw Man” (1983)
Featuring a story which obviously taking its cue from real-life double agent scandals (just where would half of the British espionage films have found their inspiration without Kim Philby?) Terence Young’s “The Jigsaw Man” is a spy thriller which seems to take more pleasure in the diversity of oddball eccentricity it presents as representative of British Intelligence than in making sense.
Beginning as if it intends to be a continuation of “Scream and Scream Again”, traitorous former head of MI6 Philip Kimberley (whose backstory sounds suspiciously like details from the life and times of Philby and Guy Burgess) who is now living in the bosom of Mother U.S.S.R. is unceremoniously whisked away to undergo a session of secretive surgery involving major facial reconstruction, the result being a miraculously undetectable transformation from Kimberley (Richard Aylen) into defector Sergei Kuzminsky (Michael Caine), who has agreed to return to England to hand over his former “insurance policy”: a pay list of every Soviet spy operating in Great Britain, for the meager price of one million Swiss francs. However, the altered Kimberley has plans of his own, including a reuniting with his estranged daughter Penelope (Susan George) and double-crossing the KGB by selling the critical documents to the British Secret Service for one million dollars. Naturally the Soviets anticipate this deception (then why allow Kimberley the opportunity?) and they seem to have no problem in locating the supposedly wily Kimberley no matter how elaborate his machinations, despite being depicted as some of the most obvious and incapable agents ever to grace the screen.
Enter a visibly frail Laurence Olivier, in a wildly inconsistent performance (is he wearing a clip-on beard?) that wavers between variations of Z.O.W.I.E.’s Lloyd C. Cramden and an Anglophilia version of Big Daddy Pollitt, playing Admiral Sir Gerald Scaith, chief of MI5 whose role in national security seems fairly limited to swinging his formidable cane or spitting out what are probably meant to be literate witticisms but emerge as he rantings of demented lunatic. (Is it possible that the source novel by Dorothea Bennett, the director’s spouse, was this bad?) He is eager to make a deal with Kimberley for the list (everyone seems to be a little too forgiving of the conspicuously harmful double agent who resorts to ridiculous fatal karate chops whenever he feels inconvenienced), in part, suspecting that there is another highly placed Soviet mole.
If “The Jigsaw Man” ever baffles with the labyrinthine internecine complication expected in a densely plotted spy film, it is only due to Jo Eisenger’s script busily fussing with entirely irrelevant business that give the illusion that a great deal is going on. The film makes a mockery of the idea of narrative logic. Why, for instance, is it relevant for Penelope to be dating one of the agents actively pursuing Kimberley when his efforts neither assist nor contribute to any direct advancement to the plot? And why would Penelope send her friend to stay at her flat she herself has been warned as being under surveillance by the Soviets, ensuring her friend’s kidnapping, torture and death? And why wouldn’t the surveilling KBG have a photo of Kimberley’s daughter to avoid the misidentification of Penelope’s friend, with whom she has not the slightest resemblance? And what is the point of despoiling the image of the talented Charles Gray with an obvious bald cap that makes his cranium look like a Tibetan relief map?
“The Jigsaw Man” concludes with every expression of duty or loyalty betrayed to justify, for some inexplicable reason known only to the filmmakers, the inclusion of Hallmark card moments which (undeservedly) wistfully suggest that loyalty to country need run only as deep as a hug or the first offer of bribery; perhaps not a surprising message from a film that has gone to great lengths to characterize the dedicated people of intelligence services as perverse caricatures, clowns and sociopaths.
“Trottie True” (1949)
“Trottie True” (stupidly retitled for U.S. distribution as “The Gay Lady”) is a colorful not quite rags to riches story (more like a tale of working class to upper crust ascendancy) embellished with song and dance, all in the service of the not too original message that money and prestige don’t necessarily lead to happiness, though they certainly can be tangible inducements when genuine affection makes a happy intrusion as part of the overall equation.
Though there would appear to be little in the film that hasn’t been done before- the parade of noble working class stiffs who carry on with a chipper optimism that might make Betty Hutton blush; sympathetic and subtly fun loving servants; a ruling class whose armor of superiority (easily distinguished by the timely placement of an arched eyebrow) can be effortlessly thawed with a coquettish flash of dimple and a cheery song -it all works to a surprising degree, in no small part due to the film’s stubborn refusal to capitulate to the seeds of melodramatic discord simmering just beneath the movie’s sunny surface. There is a charm to the film that is not only undeniable but infectious, though it a charm easily won without the challenge of dramatic material which honestly addresses the real issues of class and sexual politics that are put to use as topical backdrops. Not unlike most musical features, any weight relevant to its subject is insubstantial by design.
Fixated on a career as a music hall star since childhood, Trottie True almost effortlessly becomes a crowd pleasing favorite, eventually graduating to musical comedy vehicles (imagine a Gentile version of “Funny Girl” absent the self-aggrandizing histrionics) and then a enjoying prominent position among the glamorous Gaiety Girls. Early in her career, she attracts the kind mentorship as well as the affection of fellow performer Joe Jugg (a wonderful Bill Owen, whose absence in long stretches of the film is keenly felt) as well as the ardor of the more persistently enamored balloonist Sid Skinner (Andrew Crawford), though both are blithely discounted with the introduction of stage-door Johnny and nobleman Lord Digby Landon (James Donald), whose own expressions of infatuation for Trottie rapidly evolves from stiff upper lipped indifference to the clumsily awkward to the unexplainedly desperate; a pattern of contrary behavior on Digby’s part which is in no way clarified by the unnecessarily abbreviated dramatization of the couple’s courting. This may explain why the accomplished Donald falters in a stock role he should have been able to perform in his sleep; the one lapse in an otherwise flawless cast.
It is here where the pitfalls of the film’s unwillingness to acknowledgement the nurturing sustenance of psychological depth will detract from the film’s eleventh hour developments in which Trottie’s rather charmed existence will be tested, as the victory for any enduring devotion appears to be constructed of a flimsy house of cards in which any instinct toward selflessness appears absent in her character. As portrayed with a go-for-broke exuberance by Jean Kent, Trottie maintains the illusion of a plucky innocence amid a story that, if presented in more straightforward dramatic fashion, would revealed itself as more than a little tawdry, with its unapologetic celebration of the Gaiety Girls as little more than theatrically legitimized courtesans for the titled class. Jean Kent’s performance is all of a piece; a valentine to fortifying power of unbridled optimism. That the film allows itself to charitably distract from Trottie’s lesser personality traits- vanity, stupidity and selfishness -affords the occasion for characters one might presume as less than sympathetic to emerge with a grace that is consistent with the film’s unblemished fairy tale viewpoint, This earnest warmth with which the dramatis personae are drawn invests the movie with its few unexpected and, not coincidentally, truly affecting moments: the capitulation of a certified bounder shrugging off a half-hearted attempt at seduction and unhesitatingly sliding into the unlikely role of platonic friend, and a particularly well written encounter between Trottie and her mother-in-law, the Dowager Duchess of Wellwater (Mary Hinton) who perceptively explains why Trottie’s more common character traits make her ideally suited to elevate her role as both aristocrat and daughter-in-law.
As a cinematic trifle, though Trottie True” is an undeniably pleasing experience, it’s best approached with the remindful caveat that as with so many other richly sweetened confections, there is no enduring aftertaste.
“A Pair of Briefs” (1962)
If one were to leave the theater a mere two minutes after the start of Ralph Thomas’ “A Pair of Briefs”, one might conclude that between the suggestively saucy title and the opening scene, in which Mary Peach is seen practicing her trial orations while clothed only in the most intimate apparel, that the film is an example of one of those cheeky sex comedies of which the British film industry found a peculiar fondness, despite the outward appearance of being able to carry on with only a stiff upper lip. In fact, “A Pair of Briefs” is a slight, if charming, comedy which manages that most British of cinema exercises: the pursuit of chaste romance while gently skewering one of the grandly pompous institutions of the Empire, in this case, the judicial system.
The film’s success rests entirely on the charm of its principals, with jurisprudence suffering unfold fraudulent offenses in the service assuring that the road will be paved, without obstructions, for the enamored couple (who in typical movie fashion, fail to express the most basic admissions of mutual attraction until the Happily Ever After fade out); with the consummation of family friendly levels of romantic declarations far outweighing the concerns of the Realm. As a legal comedy, it is a featherweight confection, with nary an cutthroat antagonist nor a despicable lawyer in view; an optimistically naïve professional view that, if not realistic, is nonetheless rather refreshing.
Junior barrister Tony Stevens (Michael Craig), frustrated over his stagnating career, is upset when Frances Pilbright (Mary Peach, who brings a bright, button eyed buoyancy to her role) the niece of his boss, is introduced into the firm as his equal. Tony carries about with a swaggering braggadocio concerning his legal victories, when in fact his days are mired in trivial disputes concerning sewers. The pair have been previously briefly introduced during a minor traffic antagonism that reeks with the type of antagonistic patter pregnant with barely disguised flirtation that would be obvious to anyone within earshot except the two protagonists. When a case involving a restoration of conjugal rights is made available for Frances to act as defense advocate, acting out of professional jealousy, Tony impetuously pursues the role of prosecutor through his solicitor friend and roommate Hubert (an outstanding John Standing in his feature film debut). The case involves Gladys Worthing (Brenda de Banzie), an amnesiac wartime bride who is seeking a reuniting with her heel of a husband Sid (Ron Moody, in his screen debut), despite the fact that due to the Blitz, all records of their marriage were supposedly destroyed.
“A Pair of Briefs” is a typical product of the heyday of British film comedy, in which eccentricity bubbled forth in such abundance, that the even simple expository scenes were touched with a giddiness set off by a remark, a gesture or the demeanor of characters both major (especially the delightful Liz Fraser as Sid’s morally oblivious girlfriend Gloria, whose brain seems addled by an excess of helium) and minor to the point that they serve no genuine function save to contribute delight to a scene. The film is populated to the brim with such eccentrics: secretaries, exotic dancers (Judy Carne makes her brief debut as a saucy dish who claims to perform with a “vacuum cleaner”), barmaids and civil servants. The set piece is, of course, the extended courtroom sequence which must rely upon the comic tension between Frances, Tony and the presiding judge, Justice Hadden (a role played with typically affronted zeal by the inimitable James Robertson Justice) while all three battle the constant intrusion of the aforementioned lunacy of the participants (though the abrasive personality of Sid and the featherbrained evasiveness of Gladys eventually test the viewer’s patience) during which the dialogue by Nicholas Phipps (substantially based upon the play How Say You? by Kay Bannerman and Harold Brooke) is brightly written and pleasingly farcical with the emphasis less on proper legalese than in verbal jousting in which stolid legal temperament is at odds with the unorthodox emotional outburst of the inexperienced Frances as she is seduced by the human aspects of the case, which often seem in direct collision with (as she sees it) the heartless constitution of the law.
However, the film comes crashing back to Earth with a third act that finds it necessary to explain every rusty gear of the narrative’s mechanics. Not once, not twice, but three times are the true motives for the trial painstakingly revealed; unveiling a core of unpleasantness in what had initially seemed a genuine amusing product of cinema artifice. Somewhere the filmmakers have clearly forgotten that often the flimsy structure on which the weight of comedy rests is often best left unexamined. Even once.
“The City of the Dead” (1960)
A caveat: the following article may reveal destinations of plotting that may despoil a virginal viewing of the film. Reader discretion is advised.
“The basis of fairy tales is in reality. The basis of reality is fairy tales.”
Uncertainty is as important to the horror film as faith is to the religious epic; as it marks the tenuous line where reason is engaged in an unceasing battle with the subconscious in fortifying the more cogent side of the mind against the sharpened claws of our most primal fears. Those fears, which we are told, are best kept at bay in the coldly clinical light of reality. Horror films endowed with a superior intelligence (those which seek a greater purpose than boogeyman scare tactics) employ this psychological schism in the advancement of constructing a scenario in which sources of dread credibly coexist with the rational world.
A lean, intelligent little occult thriller with atmosphere to spare, John Llewelyn Moxey’s “The City of the Dead” (stupidly and dismissively renamed “Horror Hotel” in the States to virtually repel it’s most likely appreciative audience from attendance) makes use of the fertile territory of phantasmagoria that laid forth the power of dread by suggestion in the classic Val Lewton productions of the 1940’s and admirably carried forth by Jacques Tourneur (himself an alumnus of the Lewton creative team) in his remarkable film translation of M.R. James’ short story Casting the Runes, “Night of the Demon” (aka “Curse of the Demon”). Similar to Tourneur’s film, “The City of the Dead” pits the rational against the supernatural with the involvement of the most conspicuous of adversarial antagonists: the man of reason (represented by science) versus the practitioners of faith (represented by Satanists).
When Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) wishes to pursue research for a midterm paper on witchcraft, her history professor, Alan Driscoll (Christopher Lee), advises her to visit the remote New England town of Whitewood, Massachusetts, where centuries before a practitioner of witchcraft, Elizabeth Selwyn was burned at the stake. Despite the protests of her boyfriend Bill (Tom Naylor) and brother, science professor Richard Barlow (Dennis Lotis), both of whom are dismissive of her interest in what they regard as a nonsense field of study, Nan travels for brief visit to the village, never to heard from again. The remainder of the film recounts Richard’s investigation into his sister’s disappearance.
The film dismisses the notion of mystery from the very first scene, with a vivid depiction of the execution of Elizabeth Selwyn (Patricia Jessel), a sequence clearly meant to emulate the persecution of witches in Salem, though the substitution of traditional European immolation rather than the historically correct American death by hanging is a clear indication of the film’s British origins. This opening exposition serves up the particulars of the Theistic Satanism and the relevant major practitioners accounting for the film’s source of villainy with a powerfully impactful economy. This sequence also serves an invaluable link to the core intellectual dissension when the events are revealed to be a flashback dramatizing a lecture by Prof. Driscoll to his students, including the ill-fated Nan and the vocally skeptical Bill. Interestingly, upon later entering Whitewood, any dangers present are equally visited upon all parties regardless of their initial acceptance or resistance to the concept of witchcraft, as their common behavior leans toward incautiousness (for completely different reasons) bordering on the reckless: Nan, in allowing an academic curiosity blinded by naiveté to lead her straight to her demise, and both Richard and Bill, whose intellectual snobbery fails them in identifying the reality of the danger until it is too late.
Substantively there is very little which is wholly original in the spare, literate scripting by George Baxt and Milton Subotsky for “The City of the Dead”, but it is the execution of the material which is extremely satisfying. Moxey accentuates both the unreality and the timelessness of the village of Whitewood (and its immediate outskirts) with a continual bathing in fog and darkness, suggesting a place that has been corrupted to the point excluding the purifying light of day. Both shadow and fire play key roles in the visual design of the film, especially in a truly impressive scene within the Whitewood-located Raven’s Inn (operated by the polite but severe Mrs. Newless, also played by Patricia Jessel, who is obviously a reconstituted Elizabeth Selwyn) where a darkened lobby is frenetically decorated by fireplace flames which ironically mimic the opening conflagration consigning Selwyn to her (presumed) death, resembling a Hadean chamber of fire and brimstone. (In fact, flames are so prominent a recurring feature of the film’s mise-en-scène that it suggests an elemental link to a different agent of Nature as a weapon in combating your neighborhood witch: water in “The Wizard of Oz”.) Interestingly, Moxey’s “The City of the Dead” was originally released in Great Britain simultaneous with the UK release of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, though what appears groundbreaking in the latter film is casually tossed off without notice in the former: the central female character dispatched halfway through the film. (The effective final revelatory shot of Selwyn/Newless is also extremely reminiscent of the “reveal” in the fruit cellar of the Bates residence, though Moxey’s film doesn’t require a narrative coda used as a verbose psychological cheat sheet to help the audience catch up on the action.)
The film dips into the realm of the sensational without descending into the lurid (though a brief moment of Venetia Stevenson garbed in a provocative bit of couture, more suitable for a Minsky’s burlesque show than academic fact checking, leaps uncharacteristically out of nowhere), nor does the film once hedge its bets by relaxing its air of sobriety with any concession to self-deprecation (often excused as a buffer to ease tension, when, in fact, it is more often likely that the filmmakers are plagued with an embarrassed uncertainty about their material), thus making the material all the more potent. The climax is simply one of the great horror film sequences produced in the British cinema.
Happily, most performances are uniformly serviceable, which is all that is required to maintain a certain air of formality that never descends, regardless of the plentiful opportunities, into cringe inducing histrionics. However, one thespian who merits special commendation is Patricia Jessel, who in her dual role manages to convey the continuation of spirited defiance while imbuing a truly admirable (if faux) nobility to her portrayal of Mrs. Newell; in her hands, a surprisingly complex woman never to be taken lightly. Were there not myriad other reasons to see the film, her performance alone would justify serious attention.
“Tread Softly Stranger” (1958)
When gambler Johnny Mansell (George Baker) overextends his bookie debts, he flees London, returning to his working class hometown of Rawborough to visit with his steel mill accountant brother Dave (Terence Morgan), who has embezzled from the company to buy expensive baubles for his ersatz girlfriend, the oversexed bar hostess Calico (Diana Dors), who conveniently lives in an adjoining rooftop flat which will make the constant frantic exits and entrances demanded of the film’s increasingly fevered inclinations toward excited strategic arguments between the three (after Dave’s attempt to rob the mill’s payroll to disguise his earlier theft goes sour, resulting in the shooting death of the night watchman, the father of a childhood friend) that make the film, at times, seem as if it intends to be a melancholy film noir version of a door slamming bedroom farce (this may also hint at the film’s stage origins). Complicating the growing stress between the threesome over the homicide (Johnny was spotted at the scene attempting to halt the robbery, while Calico supplied Dave with the murder weapon) is a sexual tension between Johnny (who feigns resistance) and the faithless Calico that adds further grist to Dave’s rapidly deteriorating grip on reality.
Gordon Parry’s film impressively takes fairly routine material and cranks up the tension by manipulating subtle variations in editing tempo and through the use of ingeniously effective camerawork by Douglas Slocombe in which Dave’s consuming paranoiac panic is reflected in the film’s visual design. Interestingly, the movie is shot in a relatively dispassionate workmanlike style until the robbery scene, in which the mise-en-scene shifts into a dark descent into chiaroscuro fueled images symbolic of a fall into an abyss of moral damnation. (The exceptions to the earlier unaffected visual design, are anything but subtle punctuations which make no mystery in identifying Calico as an amoral succubus, who preys on the weakness of Dave’s clueless affections; she is often shot in provocatively come hither poses, with the film cutting to the steamy expulsions of the steel mill as if the entire town were in the throes of an orgasmic discharge generated by her overheated sexuality.)
Ultimately, the movie rests solely on the claustrophobic chamber drama in the confines of the rooftop flats; in a keen maneuver to keep the audience unsettled as to whether Dave’s gnawing panic has merit, the progress of the police investigation is concealed. Only the suspicions of the dead man’s son Paddy Ryan (Patrick Allen) are dramatized, and these are filtered entirely through Dave’s paranoiac haze, making the actual status of the investigation elusive save for his psychic delusions which begins to chip away at Calico and the outwardly cool Johnny, who finally unravels in the film’s last second twist.
The screenplay by George Minter and Denis O’Dell (based upon the play Blind Alley by Jack Popplewell) follows a familiar film noir path with an innocent sap seduced into bad acts by the siren call of a gold digging seductress, though in the case of “Tread Softly Stranger”, the corruption is doubled, first with the lovestruck Dave, and secondly with his brother Johnny who, despite being a layabout whose sole source of earnings is gambling, is nevertheless possessed of an honorable code of conduct (he is against the idea of a robbery from the outset), especially loyalty toward Dave, a weakness exploited in the rather cruel machinations of the plot. Even Calico, who initially seems irredeemable in her hunger for reward (in men’s attention which leads to exorbitant gifts that are treated as victorious trophies) later recants her behavior as a product of desperation, in a confessional to Johnny when she realizes that she has actually fallen for him. Weakness of character is actually the key to the rather interesting character dynamic which turns the narrative wheels, not in a natural affinity toward criminality, but in the lack of resistance in finding a more responsible plan of action than in the eventual concession to a catastrophic event meant to redress what was, in ironic retrospect, a far more minor offense.
With the exception of one important cast member, the performances are commendably accomplished, with Diana Dors outstanding as the embittered yet vulnerable Calico and especially George Baker, as Johnny, creating a sympathetic portrait of a man who too late tries to summon a sense of responsibility that has long lay dormant; a not so tough guy who unwittingly finds himself the last defender of the ill-fated. As the overwrought Dave, Terence Morgan is the only weak link in an otherwise superior if minor drama, his prematurely hysterical performance giving away his complicity to such a degree it renders the need for any investigation unnecessary.
__________________________________________ “I Am a Camera” (1955)
The first thing one notices in “I Am a Camera” is that the tone is completely wrong. In Christopher Isherwood’s Farewell to Berlin, the second of two novels comprising The Berlin Stories, the quote comprising this film’s title is a seemingly offhand but indelibly important moment of self-assessment both explaining his function as narrator to his story, and as a remarkably astute thumbnail characterization of his observational method of writing, in which he manages the neat trick of assuming neither the role of protagonist nor antagonist during the events which form the narrative, but strictly as observer, offering astute and colorful trails of objective description for which his subjective voice is skillfully neutralized, allowing characters and events to speak for themselves; his literary surrogate relinquishing the role of an active instigator of events. In this manner, Berlin is able to be experienced by the reader with a remarkable nonjudgmental clarity in all of its manifestations: mysterious, decadent, dangerous, yet vibrant, exotic and startlingly alive.
How the film manages to undercut Isherwood’s unique voice, almost immediately, is to dispense with the author’s artful objectivity and replace it with an uncharacteristically acerbic voiceover, ill-served by the harsh intonations of a misdirected Laurence Harvey as the author. The actor’s manner, from the start, reeks of condescension; exacerbated by smugly dismissive observations that often times make the narration feel like cheap film noir pulp. Isherwood’s narration neither observes nor sympathetically commentates, but rather disagreeably grumbles while throwing petty barbs. It’s not that Harvey is irretrievably damaging to the film, but that the film seems to find comfort in conforming to his rather distant actor’s persona.
There is so little interest shown in the observance of Berlin and its people, that when Isherwood later achieves a small triumph of writer’s success in publishing an article A Portrait of Berlin, one cannot help but wonder where his insights come from since he spends an inordinate amount of time sulking in his room, removed from both people and experience? Worse yet is the film’s resistance to depicting Isherwood’s Berlin as anything more than a featureless back lot; the rich sense of place in the novels replaced with a setting so generically homogenized that the story might be taking place in Canada. There seems to be a deliberate dearth of German characters essential to the film’s depiction of what is supposed to be the German capital, and while Isherwood’s novel(s) are brimming with expatriates, they function in concert with characters of local origin in ways that both expose a seedy underbelly of corruption and act as human barometers in anticipation of the rise of the Nazi as a political force. Yet, in “I Am a Camera”, even the Nazi presence is perfunctory and the foreigners act as mere inebriated party guests without connection to (or notice of) local society or national politics. The inevitable rise of fascism is granted a few brief mentions, without any consistent sense of impending dread, nor is the mounting tension against Jews depicted with any sense of immediacy; represented mainly with an offhand disparaging remark or in one character’s late crisis of identity, which, considering the absence of a sufficiently dramatized historic context, reeks uncomfortably of screenwriting prescience. If one were entirely ignorant of history, nothing of the forthcoming horrors nor of the atmosphere which incubated them would be detectable in the colorless events to which the rich tapestry of the novels have been reduced.
We do, however, get a healthy portion of Sally Bowles. Far too much, in fact. Isherwood’s most recognized character (though by no means the most interesting), has been ill-served by repeated authorial tinkering by the time screenwriter John Collier’s reimagining (after John Van Druten’s theatrical adaptation) transforms the idiosyncratic libertine into a flighty fugitive from a tepid screwball comedy. The theatrically hyperactive interpretation of Julie Harris doesn’t help, as her performance is notable for an unbecoming tendency to consume the screen. On a brighter note, as the Jewish furniture heiress Natalia Landauer, Shelley Winters is soft and affecting, if a bit too old for the part, and Anton Diffring is silky perfection as her inamorato, the conflicted gigolo Fritz Wendel.
Director Henry Cornelius never gets a handle on the material nor seems to know what sort of film he is working toward (an inexplicably lengthy and unnecessary party scene is staged as a scrap from “Hellzapoppin” until it shifts gears into mock Gothic horror), while John Collier’s screenplay eviscerates every provocative element from the original source material, from creeping Naziism to Communism to Isherwood’s own homosexuality (muted in the book, but perceptible nonetheless). In this unfortunate cinematic incarnation, Isherwood is no longer neutral but neutered.
______________________________________________________ “Sleuth” (2007)
In their peculiar and particularly unsatisfying production of Anthony Shaffer’s play “Sleuth”, scenarist Harold Pinter and director Kenneth Branagh have fashioned not so much a reworking of the popular thriller, nor even merely a reinterpretation, but a savage evisceration that reduces a fizzy confection to mere bad faux Art. If Pinter’s adaptation is characterized by only the trace remains of the plot outline of the original, he seems quite content to stuff the empty carcass with his own signatory brand of elliptical, obtuse conversation and stony pauses. Compounding the felony is it is aesthetically matched- and then some -mise-en-scene, engulfing the action in a suffocating shroud of creeping, claustrophobic blue-tinged paralysis by the director and his cinematographer Haris Zambarlookos. Seldom has an entire filmmaking team seemed laser locked in perfect unison to the production of a singular vision so spectacularly wrongheaded on every visible level; a vision which encompasses not only a total substantive reconception of the original’s thematic core, but of the willful desire to deny entertainment. While there is nothing expressed wrong with the concept of remake by way of reinterpretation (this is actually preferable than a retread based solely upon commercially impelled creative sloth), it becomes fair critical game to question the reasoning compelling those responsible for said interpretive shift; especially with the marketing materials shamelessly s blaring BRANAGH….PINTER, as if the mere mention of the names were a generic signpost to a consumer guarantee, promising a cultural epiphany.
Beginning with a complete rewrite of the play’s text, Pinter has transformed a deliberately stylish cat-and-mouse into an exercise in groundless tedium that is under the miscalculated delusion that ham-fisted exchanges of smirky but witless japes are a substitution for cleverness. Even the conceptual set-up of an escalating game of wits is undone from the very start by placing the players are on an equitable footing (entirely foregoing the original’s blatant- but essential -subtext of classicism), as if both had enjoyed a prenumbetory insight into the script. Situations don’t arise from the natural flow and consequence of events, but at the whims of a convenient charting of narrative course (otherwise known as a concession to creative laziness), to the point where later twists begin to crumble under the scrutiny of common sense; effectively undermining the plausibility of a supposed (but necessary to a critical point of misdirection) emotional collapse which is effectively undone by the brevity of the set-up. What is the rush? Perhaps a realization the more extended the plotting, the more the danger of exposing the latent of transparency in the script’s trickery, which may explain but hardly excuses Branagh’s annoying penchant for distracting visual asides which fail to emphasize the obsessions of a particular character as did similar but more successful visual footnoting in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ 1972 version. In Branagh’s hands these diversions merely feel like ill-designed attempts at padding an empty scenario with a vacuous techno bric-a-brac.
Nor is the effort effective in making the story more contemporaneous by stripping the protagonist, mystery author Andrew Wyke of his status upon the pantheon of more traditional detective whodunnits and reformulating him as the writer of grittier, more profane mysteries. The resulting departure from the defense of generational (as well as class) differences of attitude deprives the narrative of one of it’s primary sources of conflict. The resulting elinimation of even a rudimentary class foundation for each character strips the scenario bare, leaving little but the exposed crude mechanics of the Tinker Toy plotting. Nor is there a plausible case made for sympathy toward either character as both emerge as equally callous, immoral, selfish and mean-spirited. Pinter’s reinterpretation presents the two main characters as being filled with the obnoxious satiation of their own cleverness; a cleverness that couldn’t possibly blossom outside of the morbid isolation chamber that is the film’s setting. When, by the glacial tone of the film, you are not encouraged to care about either of the main protagonists, it becomes fairly obvious that the gamesmanship at the heart of the play- as originally conceived -becomes, not a spirited match of cunning and wits, but a cruel and pointless meeting between two equally unpleasant antagonists for whom there is no apparent victory to which either might arrive.
The film is shot with the aura of a meat locker, with the camera deliberately and relentlessly employed in a dreary exercise in obfuscation of visual exposition. The film recaptures a little steam in what is the play’s second act with the appearance of the film’s reconceived investigating detective, a belligerently coarse agent of New Scotland Yard, but this portion of the film is short-lived and feels prematurely abbreviated as if the director couldn’t contain himself from taking a bow for introducing a modicum of energy into an otherwise moribund production. The setting has been importantly shifted from a stately Georgian manor house (a genuine character in itself) filled with objects defining Wyke’s obsessions, into a boxy manse of no character, which is supposed to have been decorated by Wyke’s wife Maggie, whose professional skills seem limited to the design of morgue drawer interiors. What is this setting supposed to reveal about Wyke, and why does so much of the production design seem to make sense only if it were specifically designed to be usable in the film’s plot? The performances contribute little in fleshing out the aridity of written characterization, with Michael Caine, so fine as Tindle in the original, finding no branch on which to take hold of the elder role, while Jude Law is inconsistent; best when assuming an eponymous role.
It is abundantly clear that Pinter’s reconception intends to move the mystery genre setting from its more traditional rooting which imposed the classicist schism between the two protagonists, to the far more graphically cynical, pathologically violent mysteries of today, and while there are ample creative excuses for such a transitional metamorphosis, the resultant scripting gives no indication that such a bold transition has been thought through, with the eventual motivational incitement being handed over to a unconvincing turn into homoeroticism which seems lifted more as a fleeting nod to an earlier Caine role (“Deathtrap”) than as a logical revelation of character. Hopefully Pinter can’t be suggesting at this late stage of his career that the very hint of homosexuality automatically imbues a character with a taint of deeper malevolence; for what seemed thematically novel in Losey’s “The Servant” now suggests prudery.
Quite right. Odd about Branagh as a director in that he can direct Shakespearean films which are entirely accessible yet fill a popular entertainment with such a flood of pretension you’d need a space capsule to stay above it.
I saw the trailer for “Murder on the Orient Express” and said to a friend that by playing Poirot, Branagh may finally have found a character equal to his conceit.
He’s playing God?