“What the Butler Saw” (1950)
God bless English servitude, for without domestic help, with whom would the eccentrics of the privileged ranks commiserate? “What the Butler Saw”- not to be confused with the Joe Orton play of the same name -is a comedy which derives its humor equally from both the standard formulas of cross cultural clashes and the introduction of disorder into the life of a figure whose role in life is defined by the observance of orderly propriety, in other words, an example of the long standing British tradition of simultaneously exalting and kicking the ankles of their titled classes.
Returning to his estate after an absence of ten years as the Governor of the Coconut Islands, a dotty Earl (Edward Rigby), accompanied by his stalwart butler Bembridge (Henry Mollison), begins to unload crates filled with hunting trophies (these Pacific islands somehow fully stocked with alligators, crocodiles and leopards and …is that a rhino?) when Bembridge discovers a stowaway: native Princess Lapis (Mercy Haystead), Hiding within one of the shipped boxes, the young royal is eager to continue what has obviously been a heavily romantic relationship with the not-quite-unflappable servant. Her presence creates a greater strain between the snooty class disdain of the Earl’s daughter, Lady Marly (Eleanor Hallam) and grandson Gerald (Michael Ward), who is prone to expressing exasperation over what both the Earl’s behavior and Lapis’ surprise appearance will have on his position at the Foreign Office. Attempting to contain a possible scandal becomes secondary when Lapis’ father, a King on one of the Islands, asserts declarations of a possible war sparked over his mistaken belief that his daughter has been abducted.
Based on a screen play by A. R. Rawlinson and E.J. Mason (itself based upon a story by Don and Roger Good, while also obviously owing a debt to the writings of P.G. Wodehouse, J. M. Barrie and Rudyard Kipling), “What the Butler Saw” is a mere scrap of a film, running a brief 61 minutes, yet introduces a progressively inflating comic premise, littered with a welcome menagerie of colorful supporting characters of the type which, at one time in movie making, seemed effortless, offering additional layers of eccentricity adding invaluable contributory quiet lunacy (that even in the midst of utter chaos, the panicked grasp to retain a British stiff upper lip, even among the hired help, is the core of consistency in the movie’s jest), especially in a well-meaning gesture that escalates the contained comic disarray to possible public exposure. The film, naturally, leaves no opportunity unexplored for comedy by way of cultural juxtaposition, with the Brits dismissively regarding both Lapis and her people as “jungle savages” , whereas the primitive (read: uninhibited) Lapis appears sans clothing at several inopportune moments, creating frozen consternation with the titled class and a far more explosive offense expressed by the servants (one of the subtle points of humor is the willingness of the British working class to openly react with the intensity the upper class are too repressed to exhibit). However, the Earl himself is unfazed, as, in the usage of a Kiplingesque literary conceit, he has “gone native”, and so too has, in a more restrained but conflicted form, Bembridge.
Where the Earl has, in the Islands, found a place to easily reconcile his dismissal of arch British propriety and the elaborate trappings of peerage,he finds contentment in a more undemanding, simpler existence. Bembridge’s “conversion” is of a more pragmatic sort, combining a sense of practical desire to contribute to the foreign society, while enjoying the more pure lifestyle of the native class. These sympathies eventually lead to a satisfying twist finale, which casually but logically borrows a reworking of class reversal familiar as the thematic trope in J. M. Barrie’s “The Admirable Crichton”.
The cast features a roster of player both seasoned (Rigby, Mollison) and new (Haystead, Peter Burton), who cohabitate the film form a delightful band of merrymakers; with the only regret being that there weren’t more scenes between the amorous Lapis and the dutiful but willing Bembridge (the few moments in the picture when he breaks his stolid appearance and breaks into a boyish smiling surrender are comic delights). Hardly consequential, but skillfully packing an impressive amount of incident and memorable characters into a breezy 61 minutes, this unjustly ignored, unheralded bit of British whimsy is certainly worth the investment of its barely feature length running time.
“Four Sided Triangle” (1953)
Commonly, science fiction films unwisely minimize (or altogether eliminate) the human element in favor of exploiting the more fantastic elements of the story, the greatest commonality of creative exhaustion manifested through the appearance of invasionary aliens or spectacular atomic mutations. Now, since SF is fundamentally engaged with science and technology and its applications in how it affects Man and how he socializes, progresses, exists; it would seem an ungrateful contradiction to complain of a film in which the “human factor” is preeminent. Promoting such a rare divergence from the surrender to gaudy sensation is Terence Fisher’s “Four Sided Triangle”, a film in which the scientific backdrop of the story finds a pronounced catalyst in the emotional foibles of the human heart. The film’s simplistic conceit is a wish fulfillment fantasy in which romantic longing finds a second chance; though the context of the theme’s exploration is so preposterously conceived as to surrender to the perils of even rudimentary considerations of logic, not to mention common sense. But, being that this is science fiction, what could possibly go wrong?
The film, narrated by kindly country physician Dr. Harvey (James Hayter), recounts the story of Lena, Robin and Bill, inseparable as children and reunited as young adults with the trio collaborating on the development of a device called a “reproducer”, a scientific breakthrough which converts energy into matter and produces a doppelganger of any object placed in the duplication chamber. The machine is a success, and the brooding Bill, mentored by Dr. Harvey after years of abuse by his drunken father, reveals to the good doctor that he is in love with Lena, a confession fatefully ill-timed as it immediately precedes Robin’s announcement that he and Lena are to be wed. The forlorn Bill then conceives of a plan to duplicate Lena as a means to pursue his own romantic obsessions.
Despite the rather fantastic premise, Fisher’s directorial approach is typically reserved bordering on the pedestrian, though there is an interesting visual shift with a dip into the pool of Gothic shadow corresponding with the unlacing of Bill’s reason. The film is well mounted and well performed (with especially fine work by Stephen Murray who wisely resists the temptation to go over-the-top in Bill’s more torturous moments, and Barbara Peyton, charming and surprisingly delicate in a dual role as Lena and her duplicate Helen), but the script forces the film into the realm of the morally unprincipled (given approval by Dr. Harvey, who heretofore has demonstrated a remarkably consistent ethical presence of mind), a turn that would be more acceptable were it not that the shift results in the more disturbing and obvious psychological implications being given little to no consideration. The practicality of the film’s conceit of romantic duplication ignores the most fundamental thread of psychological logic; conspicuous to anyone in the audience, but apparently invisible to a group of educated individuals, one who is lauded as a genius. For once the human elements of the story make the absurd scientific conceits appear rational by comparison.
“Dracula Prince of Darkness” (1966)
Religious piety receives a refreshing shot in the arm in Terence Fisher’s “Dracula, Prince of Darkness”- the long delayed direct sequel to the 1958 “Horror of Dracula” (or “Dracula” for purists situated outside of the 50 States) -in the form of Andrew Keir’s Father Sandor, who is a cross between Van Helsing and Quatermass; a know-it-all who is also a good sport: a teddy bear vampire killer with a hair-trigger intolerance for stupidity and an even shorter fuse toward superstition, despite his encyclopedic level of knowledge of supernatural lore. (Not the least example of the film’s distracting quantity of unexplained contradictions.) Keir also provides a solid authority to which the forces of darkness are less than likely to emerge victorious without the aid of a series of illogical actions which are the essence of the enervated script by John Sansom (a nom de plume for regular Hammer scribe Jimmy Sangster) to invent momentary lapses of logic or oddball convenient circumstances in which the most obvious of vampiric gambits might fortuitously operate without detection.
Taking its cue from the closing moments of the Fisher original (this sequence is, not surprisingly though quite disappointingly, the best moments of the new film), the film leaps ahead a decade or so until a quartet of travelers- the Kents, brothers Charles (Francis Matthews) and Alan (Charles Tingwell), and their respective wives, Diana (Suzan Farmer) and Helen (Barbara Shelley) -through circumstances too contrived to briefly summarize, (why is it that carriages always venture to dangerous points to discard their hapless passengers in these film, when it would be just as prudent to continue past these midpoints of certain doom?) decide to find lodgings at Castle Dracula, despite the fervent warning of Father Sandor. The castle reeks of mystery, not the least of which is the incautiously odd behavior of this group who think nothing of diving into a set dining table without ever being announced to anyone who may be inhabiting in the house. The foursome settles in for the evening by accepting the invitation of the belatedly appearing lone manservant Klove (who is immediately identifiable as untrustworthy by the excess of ghostly pancake make-up he is wearing), who later butchers Alan in a gory sacrificial ceremony in which the ashes of the dead undead Count Dracula (Christopher Lee) are resuscitated to full red-eyed glory. At this point, several glaring questions arise, not the least of which is just who is Klove? Since the film begins as a continuation of a film in which his existence isn’t apparent, just where did he come from? And from whom did he receive instructions as to how to raise his master from the grave? And if all it took to revive Dracula was the blood of an innocent, why the decade long delay when surely such economy in the process of resurrection would have been more expediently possible by grabbing the nearest random wandering traveler?
The film also brings into question the reach of Dracula’s supernatural capabilities and with that consideration, the contortions by which scenarist Sangster is willing to bend the rules of vampire lore and common sense in order for the events of his story to gain even perfunctory acceptance. For example, the arrival of the Kents at Castle Dracula is preceded by the appearance of a riderless carriage which immediately whisks them off to the vampire’s residence, a show of power over the animal kingdom- a power not unknown in past films and literature -but while the vampire is alive (in the best undead sense of the word) and not consigned to the contents of a dustbin. (Since the revisited finale of “Horror of Dracula” show the Count’s ashes scattered by a sudden mysterious sirocco within the walls of the castle, just how did Klove manage to collect the remains anyway?) Are Dracula’s powers endowed with a permanence of effect regardless of his current status of existence (as might be presumed by the evidence of all past literature and film representations), or is his hypnotic influence unburdened with boundaries of expiration? Or is this simply another example of Sangster’s typically lazy script writing which has a tendency to shortcut on connective logic in order to keep the plot rolling along?
If the remainder of the film feels uncommonly sluggish, it may be due a sensation of overfamiliarity in that the film is an almost slavish replication of the narrative points of “Horror of Dracula” (and thus, dozens of other vampire films) with only logistical backdrops and character names changed to protect the viewing suspicious. Thus the ill-advised visit to the castle is a copy of Jonathan Harker’s in the previous film. So too the conversion of an unlucky woman into an undead state finds similar representation with Lucy in the 1958 film, as well as the entire trip to Sandor’s abbey as a measure of protection being a tepid update of Van Helsing’s fortified protection of Mina in the first film. There is even a pale imitation of the literary and film (played most memorably by Dwight Frye in the 1931 original) Renfield in the form of an equally insect obsessed mental patient, cleverly disguised by calling him Ludwig. If horror demands (beyond the tension of dread built by well crafted anticipatory elements) a certain level of surprise for a successful implementation of it’s goals, then “Dracula: Price of Darkness” is wholly illustrative of the problem inherent in Hammer’s “classic” monster cycle: the creeping staleness of repetition which weighs down every one of its series’ successive features.
Christopher Lee is wasted in his return to the role of Stoker’s vampire, merely acting as a pasty faced, bloodshot-eyed outline of a character, (he doesn’t have a single line in the film) whose presence which might have just as easily been substituted with a life-size promotional cutout. However, the splendid Andrew Keir is boldly charismatic as Sandor and Barbara Shelley manages the transformation from neurotically harried wife to would-be succubus with ease, though Terence Fisher’s characteristically flavorless direction does what it can to siphon every ounce of possible eroticism from her role. Finally, on the less fortunate (by way of biological circumstance) end of the scale, Francis Matthews continues to distract with a voice so approximating that of Cary Grant that one is in constant search for a menacing cropduster to swoop into the frame.
American “hack novelist” Mark Kendrick (Alex Nicol) sits at a yacht club bar and relates what amounts to a confessional to an unseen stranger (though the intended effect is that he is breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the audience). His story is a typical one for film noirs- overly so -involving an icy seductress of a wife, convenient circumstances which impulsively turn to murder and the usual duplicitous double crosses between supposed lovers. If there’s a lesson to be learned from film noirs, apparently it’s to never trust a married blonde.
“The House Across the Lake” is a strictly by-the-numbers low rent imitation James M. Cain tale of murder and deception, with the aping of the blonde femme fatale formula adhered to in such a rigorously obedient fashion that the predictable plot turns are practically announced in the dialogue so as to not cause undo stress or consternation to the viewer by the threat of any story development that might generate a hint of surprise. This British noir (yes Virginia, they do exist) by Ken Hughes (which he adapted from his own 1952 novel High Wray), is comprised of unmistakable echoes of seemingly half of Hollywood’s morally corrupt output from the 40’s including (but certainly not limited to) “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, “Double Indemnity” and “The Lady From Shanghai”, though the resulting mix serves as evidence that no matter how fine the initial ingredients, imitation is no proof of equitable quality, with even the limpid and uninspired voiceover narration (the overuse of this particular genre ingredient seems present here to vainly grant the simplistic narrative an illusion of structural complexity) emphasizing the strain Hughes’ script is under to provide a fresh coat of color to an already shopworn premise.
If predictability turns out to be an antidote to successfully wrought noir, it is still possible that effective casting and performance might yield limited compensatory benefits. Unfortunately, as is consistent with many co-productions of Exclusive Films and American distributor/producer Robert Lippert, there is an importation of Hollywood and not always of the most dynamic of players, a situation which magnifies the fatigue of the material without a more magnetic acting core. Alex Nicol is a bland amalgam of the more cardboard aspects of Peter Graves and Russell Johnson, while Hillary Brooke– as Carol Forrest, the betraying with willful impulses of extreme spousal disposal -though properly stately in her socialite garb, is so frosty in her manner that is impossible to think of her as a seductress unless her targets of illicit amour are wearing snow mittens. When her husband Beverly (Sid James, giving the film’s most interesting and sympathetic performance) refers to her romantic constitution as “Carol’s in love with Carol”, it doesn’t quite ring true as Brooke’s ennui is so completely emotionally deadening it is difficult to imagine her working up the energy even for self-admiration.
While his basic narrative is arid of inspiration, Hughes also fudges opportunities to explore his stereotypical characters in uncharacteristic ways. Kendrick is portrayed as a worldly and compassionate fellow (his initial encounter with Carol leaves him revolted at her behavior toward Beverly with whom he strikes an almost immediate friendship), yet a few come hither glares from Carol sends him spiraling into willing complicity to murder, despite the substance of his moral protestations every step of the way. Why not explain his compulsion with Carol since it’s the at the heart of the film? (The story also presumes- considering later betrayals -the unfolding of events which couldn’t possibly be foreseen, eliciting a whole new set of problems as far as narrative credibility.) Characters are allowed their contradictions as long as they follow a logic dictated by circumstances, and not merely at the chaotic whims of a writer stuck on a plot point while trying to make a round peg fit into a square hole. Much of the dialogue, especially in exchanges between Beverly and Mark during their initial encounters, is fresh and incisive of character, yet when the film returns to the mechanics of the noirish plotting, the discourse is flat, simplistic and unconvincing, tainted by a strange compulsion for the characters to announce their every action or impulse as if they were conducting a production story conference. As the investigating policeman Inspector MacLennon, Alan Wheatley is imbued with that kind of prescience seemingly bottled by British movie police detectives, though perhaps the case was easy for him to unravel since he probably already saw it at the movies.
“Stolen Face” (1952)
Given the fixation the studios had in manipulating audiences, is it any wonder that the “Golden Age” age cinema is awash in overly produced symphonic assaults on the soundtrack, designed to emphasize to the audience the desired way in which they are to emotionally respond to what’s in front of them, no matter how ludicrous? This is immediately apparent in the 1952 Terence Fisher film “Stolen Face” in which the soaring, hyperactive strings of Malcolm Arnold’s ferocious scoring might possibly exhaust the audience before the opening credits conclude. suggesting a maelstrom of consuming and deep dark secrets- this while identifying script continuity and sound recording technicians. Once the film settles down, we are introduced to the eminent plastic surgeon Philip Ritter (Paul Heinreid) who is introduced with great attention given in demonstrating his broad streak of altruism by following him to a women’s prison where he tests his theories of rehabilitation in correcting physical malformations in prisoners whom he feels are compelled to commit crime due to their cosmetic disadvantages. By taking the aphorism “beauty is only skin deep” seriously to lunatic levels, the logic of Ritter’s theorem would lead a woman suffering from a sudden cold sore into a spiral of felonious villainy. Ritter meets just such a convict in the form of Lily Conover (Mary Mackenzie), a disfigured victim of London blitz bombings who has descended into a pattern of pathological criminality. In an explosion of professional conceit always interpreted as admirable in melodramatic reel life, though in real life would be irresponsibly reckless hubris, Ritter guarantees Lily of his procedure’s success and that it will restore her life to one of vital normalcy.
Unrealistic (though characteristic of filmed melodrama) expectations aside, Ritter is presented as an impossibly humane surgeon, a man whose philanthropy (almost every one of his surgeries seems gratis though he lives in palatial opulence, leading to many unanswered questions) is balanced by his impatience of what he refers to as the “vanity” of matronly women. However, disturbing cracks in his character appear almost immediately, during a stopover at a rural inn where he encounters the lovely concert pianist Alice Brent (this unremarkable inn seems a magnet for guests of eminent stature) with whom Ritter falls into a whirlwind romance, begun by a bit of theoretically charming but intrusively forward seduction under the guise of an impromptu “house call”, and later highlighted by the usual montage of romantic interludes accented by frenzied musical scoring (lest the viewers miss the nuances of what is right in front of them), climaxing in a curious scene with the townspeople gathered about the tavern piano singing a boisterous rendition of “Rolling Home “, obviously a reference to the similarly rousing “La Marseillaise” scene with Henreid in “Casablanca”.
Romantic bliss is interrupted by Alice’s deep dark secret: that she is already engaged to a perfectly swell fellow named David (the perpetually civilized André Morell) and when Ritter suddenly proposes to her, she disappears from the inn, returning to her fiancé and her concert tour. The despondent doctor returns home and is reminded of his promise to the disfigured Lily, a project he returns to with renewed vigor when he decides to reshape the unfortunate’s face into an exact duplicate of his beloved Alice.
Clearly “Stolen Face” is a thematic precursor to the more admired 1958 film, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”, though the credible psychology featured in either film leaves much to be desired, though the method of creating a mirror image of the protagonist’s obsession is far more disturbing in the earlier work, as during its transmogrifying process, the woman’s alteration is accomplished by an actual invasive change in her physionomy rather through mere cosmetology and mannerisms. Interestingly, the theme of obsessive duality was touched upon in several other Hammer Films, most notably 1953’s “Four Sided Triangle” and “1959’s “The Mummy”, both, coincidentally also directed by Terence Fisher.
That the film, nor anyone in it, ever addresses the moral, ethical or legal consequences of Ritter’s appropriating a woman’s face to satisfy his personal romantic longings is indicative of the film’s confusion toward- among other things -medical ethics, women, ageism and class warfare. Soon after her surgery, Ritter’s colleague Jack (John Wood) expresses alarm over Ritter’s announcement that he will marry Lily, but his objections stem not from the violation of ethics in seducing a patient but are merely concern for Ritter’s welfare in marrying below his station- not merely a woman with low breeding, but one with a criminal history as well. The film does celebrate women, but only those that are fashionably attractive and youthful, the one prominent older woman, presented in the beginning as a possible candidate for Ritter’s surgery, is made to look the fool and needlessly ridiculed for vanity by the good doctor, despite the fact he breaches every canon of medical ethics for the rest of the picture, for the sake of his own emotional satisfaction. Oddly, the universe in which Ritter operates is blind to every one of his caprices, thus when he marries Lily, once she is converted to his new version of Alice, there is no expression of disapproval toward his actions or his motivations, nor, even more bizarrely, is Alice repulsed by this extraordinary act of psychological stalking. Ritter would clearly have to be unbalanced, perhaps even mad, as evidenced by his actions- for which he never for one moment demonstrates a moment of introspective reflection -yet he is never regarded by the filmmakers critically, instead becoming a victim of what is perceived as Lily’s inherent lack of character; a scathing indictment of the unclean lower classes and their inherent criminality, as opposed to the film’s view of the privileged class who may indulge any whim, no matter how ludicrous, without fear of condemnation.
Similarly, being of a lesser social stature, the film dismisses Lily as an individual, becoming a character whose only function is to be used by the doctor, and later, when Alice returns to Ritter (David wisely senses her mind is on another and gracefully backs out of their relationship), is instantaneously disposable, without even the duplicated Alice expressing any disgust or surprise over Ritter’s perversely obsessive actions. Once Lily’s function as Ritter’s psychic arm candy has ended (when she asserts her own personality, i.e. preferring jazz to opera music) the film sends her spiraling back into a life of thievery (which makes little sense as she may obtain anything she wants lawfully) out of narrative convenience, to be considered repugnant by the high standards of the good doctor and, in a preposterously convenient finale, thrown out like a bag of trash, her broken body bid farewell with a crassly obvious line of intended irony.
The film would have the viewer disregard the entire range of Dr. Ritter’s appalling behavior; with the brief exception of his introductory examples of altruism, he spends the entire length of the film engaged in illegalities that would not only normally land any doctor in malpractice and criminal courts, but more than likely faced with several counts of sexual harassment. The teasing willingness of Alice Brent in engaging in de facto adultery by betraying her fiancé and leading Ritter on an emotional leash is also most charitably forgiven, all of the villainy placed on the shoulders of Lily, though in the film’s context, she is more guilty of being lower class than a criminal, through in the script’s skewered perspective the comparison is more of a redundancy; the story’s view that criminality is a natural extension of lower class life is readily apparent, and thereby contrives a convenient, though unconvincing, antagonist for the wrongs of the two main characters, when, in fact, Lily has simply been a pawn in the romantic infantile gamesmanship of two people whose selfish deceptions are given more priority important than preventing a chain of events which brings harm to many.
The story extends the boundaries of moral abjection that would not have been allowable if strictly produced under the Production Code (being a British production, the producers were only answerable to the BBFC, a similar though less despotic censorial entity) and “Stolen Face” certainly raises ethical ramifications of greater psychological debasement than most Hollywood films of the day, not that the level of behavior is antithetical to Code standards observed in the average film noir (a genre to which the film has often been misappropriately attached), but the film, as written by Martin Berkeley and Richard H. Landau (from a story by Alexander Paal and Steven Vas), is an uncomfortable pastiche of convoluted narrative tropes from the most manipulative genres of the studio era- overripe romantic melodrama, film noir, the classical Gothic horror film -finding an iconoclastic voice only in the peculiarity of its conceptual hodepodge, though failing to connect the disparate elements into a reasoned dramatic arc. For instance, Ritter’s baser motivations are never made clear- the situation is not helped by Henreid’s characteristically distant performance -whether they emanate from a purely romantic idealization run amok or whether his obsessions have a deeper sexual genesis; his post-wedding behavior toward Lily is almost creepily chaste, in startling contrast to the almost uncontrolled pawing of Alice he engaged in from their first meeting, where a simple doctor’s visit had the surgeon practically crawling into her pajamas. Ritter’s objections to Lily’s marital behavior are also confused, as he seems not particularly disturbed by her unconvincing backsliding into criminality than with her suggested infidelity; conjuring a rage which manifests itself, not as jealousy, but a loss of a possession- not of a wife, but of his deluded image of Alice. Nor are the darker, perhaps homicidal impulses which take hold of Ritter explored; resolution is achieved only through a typical Hollywood plot turn of almost supernatural convenience, a (perhaps) murderous rage is (perhaps) averted when a (perhaps) accidental fall from a moving train brings the film to its impossible happy ending.
The film is directed by Terence Fisher with zest and an admirable avoidance of self-congratulatory stylishness, while keeping all of the ill-fitting components of the story appearing as if they might be, at least visually, from the same box of Cracker Jacks. This, however, conveys no escalation onto its stature in the cinema firmament, but it bestows an interesting demonstration of a skilled director’s ability to drive an unremarkable film to its destination while the writers remained blissfully asleep at the wheel.