Monday, 30 January 2012

Dogme 1914? … The Mysterious X (1914) (aka Sealed Orders)

This is a quite astonishing film.

Made in 1913 and released in March 1914, Det Hemmelighedsfulde X (The Mysterious X or Sealed Orders) displays a level of technique way ahead of most films I’ve seen from that period. Incredibly, it was also writer and director Benjamin Christensen’s first film. He had spent a number of years acting in theatre and then film and brought a huge amount of inventiveness and consistency of vision to the project.

Those who think the good stuff only really began in 1915 better look away now…

In this film, Christensen uses stunning outdoor shots, he shoots directly into the Sun, there are close shots, vertical and horizontal camera pans and multiple story strands intercut to generate the most breath taking of intricately timed conclusions.

He places clues and devices in the scenes that will come to propel the story onwards and makes superb use of mirrors in well-designed sets.

He seems master of all the light in this film and is also not afraid to use the dark with many scenes showing the action through a small portion of a day-lit door or under the dark of a locked hatch. He seems to be using natural daylight for some interiors or at least subdued artificial lighting: Dogme 1913 anyone?!

There are many beautifully composed exterior shots, not least the silhouette of the hill topped by the mysterious windmill. This is pivotal to the story and is an image repeated a number of times. The windmill is also the scene of an expertly shot summer party, midnight trysts for spies and, finally, a raging battle through which the heroine charges to find the truth – so realistically done, it’s a match for modern day action shots.

The story itself is perhaps typical for the time but is engaging and vividly brought to life by the direction and by the cast.

Christensen plays a naval officer, Løjtnant van Hauen who is called up on the brink of war and issued with the vital sealed orders covering the war’s first major action. His wife and children are the apples of his eye but the former, superbly played by Karen Caspersen, has become infatuated by the duplicitous Count Spinelli (Hermann Spiro).

Casperson (also known as Karen Sandberg and, born as Karen Kruse Kragh Moller ) is another amazement: very naturalistic and grimly understated as she endures the betrayals and bad fortune of the story. Christensen gives her plenty of direct close shots to show her emotional states and there are even a couple of times when the camera pulls in towards her during particularly emotional scenes.

Fru van Hauen’s flirtation with Spinelli proves disastrous as the latter reads the sealed orders and tries to alert the enemy. His carrier pigeon is intercepted and the home forces conclude that the Lieutenant is responsible. Finding out about his wife’s wandering affections, van Hauen elects to take all the blame and certain death at the hands of the execution squad beckons.

His son tries to rescue him and there are more excellent scenes when the youngster breaks into the naval base, through darkly lit ramparts. There’s a lovely sequence when he runs through a dark corridor, stopping, silhouetted in the alcoves to almost strobe-like affect.

Fru van Hauen’s attempts to find Spinelli, the boy’s rescue mission and the procedure through court martial towards execution all play out simultaneously and against the backdrop of the war. There's also a jaw-dropping sequence when the shape of her child's paper elephant is superimposed over a sleeping Caspersen as her dream reveals the location of the secret...

It’s a tightly directed film and Christensen edits the story well and things flow very smoothly. And that’s maybe the biggest surprise about the film. It is one of the most purely enjoyable silent feature films I’ve watched from this early period. I shouldn’t be surprised after watching the films of Urban Gad and August Blom which show a greater sophistication and more realistic tone than most Americana of the time.

Nor should the excellence of the acting be a surprise after seeing the controlled skill of Asta Nielsen. Benjamin Christensen is good at conveying his role and later went on to make an impressive appearance in the Dreyer’s Michael (covered elsewhere in this blog) amongst others.

Most notably, Christensen, directed the wondrously eccentric Haxan - a powerful and unique film that only gets more unsettling with time. Whether or not his fascination with light and so much dark was there from the outset is debatable. What cannot be denied is that he made an extraordinary innovative film using techniques that were not to feature in mainstream cinema until well into the First World War.

Det Hemmelighedsfulde X is available, alongside Blind Justice (1916) in an excellent quality print from the Danish Film Institute. It is accompanied by an expert score from Neil Brand who adds subtle tone and highlights to the film.

You can get it direct from the Institute or through Amazon. I got mine from those nice people at London’s BFI shop…lots of other treats there to go back for!

Monday, 23 January 2012

Theda Bara... A Fool There Was (1915)

Film appreciation is so very subjective and there has to be a certain level of reasoned argument in support of opinion, tempering enthusiasm and explaining yourself - that's the challenge. Sometimes, however, you just don’t have much evidence to go on, and, as stated elsewhere, there is often a huge amount of preconception to over come, much of it the legacy of studio spin-doctors. Good mud sticks, so long as the PR message is simple and powerful enough.

Take Theda Bara for example. She was a ground-breaking actress who brought an aggressive female sexuality to the fore and had a lasting impact on the way that screen actresses could behave and be seen.
But there is so little of her work left to view. There are plenty of still shots that reinforce the legend of the “vamp” and which on occasion, feature her cavorting with skeletons and other morbid signifiers. The whole sex and death thing was very much in vogue (don't ask me why, I'm a Jungian...) and some bright spark at the studios even came up with the fact that her name was an anagram of Arab Death. What is that all about?!

She was the first real sexy symbol in Hollywood and one of the most persistently hyped actresses of all time.
But, was she any good?

Watching A Fool there Was, just about the only surviving full feature and the film that made her a star, you have to conclude that yes, she was a clever actress of some depth and wit. Not at all the histrionic “glowerer “ or under-dressed, over-expressive arm waver I’d expected. She was actually rather charming.

Already aged 29 and looking like one of Siouxsie Sioux's Bromley Contingent in the summer of Punk, Bara carries the whole thing off with a haughty humour and a twinkle in her huge black eyes. She looks very self aware and seems happy making herself the figure of scorn knowing full well that the men in the audience would be sympathetic in so many ways...

The film was based on the play which itself was based on a poem from Rudyard Kipling which forms the basis of the intertitles and is also featured in full in the Kino DVD extras. This literary backbone helps give the film its cutting edge as there are to be no compromises: “fool” they say and fool is what you get.
Bara plays “The Vampire”, a social leach who literally sucks her victims dry, ensnaring them in a world of almost unending and irresistible decadence. They only have to say no but they are all too weak and fall like husks once she has taken all their money and their vitality.

I’d expected this to be a bit overly-melodramatic and less than believable, but Bara’s playful performance convinces you. In once sequence she prevents an ailing suitor from shooting her then shows not a flinch of remorse when he shoots himself. She casually twists men’s minds and moves on, with singular purpose, to her next objective.
There is little characterisation beyond this but The Vampire is clever as well as commanding. She takes aim at the hapless diplomat, John Schuyler (Edward Jose, who puts in a hard-working performance!) who is just waving goodbye to his family on the boat to Europe. She playfully taps him on the shoulder and makes him notice her. Very soon he is draped over her in stultified exhaustion in Italy…some way away from his intended destination of London and far gone from his family.

Schuyler is disgraced and fired from his post. He returns to America but cannot be prised away from The Vampire – rebuffing even the attentions of his daughter. And, every time we see him, he staggers around more desperately with a little more life sucked away. He drinks, makes merry and is robbed of his life force as surely as if The Vampire was a more cinematically-typical one.
It’s uncompromising but Bara performs so intelligently that you believe in the story.

She was more interesting than I expected and more subtle. She seems quite relaxed and occasionally almost looks directly at the viewer with a half smile as her plans roll on the way she expects: she is in control throughout. This is very much “pre-code” in its a-morality apart from The Fool getting the end his foolishness deserves smashed against the iron self-interest of The Vamp.
Bara went on to be one of Hollywood’s major stars for the next four years or so, up there with Chaplin and Pickford. Mostly she played the same kind of “vamp” character but there were some attempts to broaden her pallet to include more traditionally sympathetic roles. Sadly, pretty much all of these films have now been lost.

There are two other early films, The Stain (1914) and East Lynne (1916) as well as some short 20’s comedies and The Unchastened Woman from 1925 when she was past her prime. A tantalising half-minute of her legendary Cleopatra (1917) survives – it looks very saucy indeed – but that’s it so far as is known. No other actor with a star on Hollywood Boulevard has had so many films lost.

Ah well, at least we have this film and I would recommend the Kino version for its clarity – a decent print – although you can also watch/download from the Internet Archive.

There’s also a fascinating 1936 radio interview on YouTube which shows her approach to the movie business. She sounds pretty smart and relaxed about the “pantomime” and you just wish there was more.

She married Liverpool-born film director Charles Brabin in 1921 and they stayed married for the rest of her life. Not quite the behaviour you'd expect from a vamp perhaps but proof of the distance between actress and actuality.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Of time and the city* - Gumshoe (1971)

*Rose-tinted UK regional references warning…but please bear with me.

After back-to-back viewings of the excellent Otley (now out on US DVD – details below!) and this film, my wife informed her mother and the world in general, that I clearly wanted to go live in late 1960’s Britain. This is an outrageous slur… but may well be (partly) true… I would like to poke around the market stalls in Notting Hill Gate when they held genuine bargains, sup a pint in smoky Newcastle ale houses with Michael Caine and drive a Lotus Europa round Liverpool’s exhaust-fume coated Georgian centre.

How much do we actually want to be in the movies?

The Lotus Europa was just about my favourite car growing up and it’s great to see the lovely white model featured in Gumshoe. It’s perfect for this updated noir that transposes the Maltese Falcon to Merseyside, land of my forefathers. Flashy and fast it was a brave attempt to produce a super car but was still not quite top drawer … for that you’d need an Aston Martin DB8 or an E-Type Jaguar. But we’re also not in London or New York and this is Albert Finney we’re watching and not Humphrey Bogart.

Made in 1971, when Liverpool was still someway off hitting rock-bottom, the former second city (and I know a few who claim it’s still actually first!), provides a suitably grim setting for this wise-cracking detective story. Raymond Chandler comes to Crosby…Sam Spade drinks scotch in Scotty Road, Albert Finney meets the Albert Dock - we never know when to stop do we!

Directed by Stephen Frears (his first feature) and based on a novel by local lad Neville Smith, Gumshoe tells the tale of one Eddie Gimley part-time bingo caller, comedian and wannabe private dick. Albert Finney plays Gimley with quick-firing Bogart wit and a dodgy accent – well he is from Yorkshire after all.

His disapproving brother, William, played with menace (and an even worse Scouse accent) by Frank Findlay is a successful businessman, importing and exporting all kinds of material from his dockland base. William is married to Ellen (the monumental Billie Whitelaw – what an actress!), the Lotus’ driver and former squeeze of Eddie’s. Ellen is trapped, loving both brothers and wanting the one she can’t have.

Eddie advertises his services as a private eye and unknowingly stumbles into a genuine case – hired to take out a local academic (the sublime Caroline Seymour) who is the daughter of an influential South African. So far, so confusing, as the plot runs away with itself and everything and everyone becomes connected with each other: drug smuggling, gun running, African politics all tangled up with an occult bookshop in London and fraternal betrayal…

It packs a lot into a relatively short time and, at a distance of 40 years, feels as much a period piece as the black and white classics of post war Hollywood it apes.

Finney is excellent, accent aside, and wisecracks his way believably through the chaos. He is ably supported by a great cast including Fulton Mackay as a pro hitman and Janice Rule as the ruthless schemer behind most of the mess.

Then there's Bill Dean (who lived down the road from me in the Mersey hinterland of Maghull) who basically plays himself, as Eddie’s club boss, Tommy and a host of genuine local acts performing at The Broadway, the club where Eddie works. There are also brief cameos from a young Maureen Lipman and Wendy Richard who give Eddie the chance to flirt like Bogie with two dolly-bird Bacalls.

Lotus Europa aside though, the real star for me is the city of Liverpool. I’m biased, but the site of Georgian glories such as Gambia Terrace (John Lennon lived there awhile) and a grimy Falkner Square (now whitewashed and a little like Notting Hill North), the still teeming docks and bustling business centre (where my father worked) fills me with nostalgic civic pride.

My wife’s right but I already did live there, albeit as a boy, travelling through these scenes en route to see friends and relatives or to watch football matches. To this extent, Gumshoe provides me with a glimpse of how the grown-ups saw the city. How my parents would have taken it for granted as much as Eddie does.

But Gumshoe works on its own merits and you don’t have to be a soft scouse sentimentalist to appreciate the dialogue, performances and the direction. This is a bold attempt to claim “drama” for a British city in the same way that American films do with ease. These events could happen here – you don’t have to be in LA or Chicago - and they could happen to anyone.

Ultimately the dreamer at the heart of the story becomes a man of action who ends up finding a more certain course for himself and doing some good. Isn’t that more worthwhile than a snuff of nostalgia?

Isn’t that the place were, actually, we’d all like to be?

Gumshoe has been a bit rare over the years, but is now available in decent quality DVD. I’d urge you to try it - some of the attitudes are now unfortunate but the spirit of the thing is universal. Good wins out in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Otley, the Tom Courtney demi-classic covered elsewhere in this blog, and set a few years’ earlier in swinging London, is also now on DVD. Basic but good quality.

I’d recommend both for hopeless time-travellers, fans of English cities when grime was king and lovers of artfully witty films. Order them now sweetheart, you won’t regret it, not today and certainly not tomorrow or soon...

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Norma Talmadge ...between thought and expression – Going Straight (1916)

Some silent stars live on as half-remembered shadows famous in name only, the odd still photograph and by association with others. It may only be in a routine list alongside Pickford, Gish and Bara that I first heard the name Norma Talmadge and yet she was one of the most popular stars of silent era and arguably more popular than some of the aforementioned at her peak.

This is my ignorance and as part of my ongoing mission to rediscover and reconnect, I set out to right any wrongs I may have done Ms Talmadge through omission. And, as with so much of the arts, when the deeper you go the more you can differentiate and understand…Norma is no longer just a name on a list but someone I can see had a high level of skill and a quite unique presence.

Norma Talmadge featured in hundreds of short films for the Vitagraph Company from 1910 to 1915. Then, having joined Triangle Pictures, she made longer form films of which Going Straight, made in 1916, was one of the first. Directed by Chester M. Franklin and Sidney Franklin the picture clearly shows the guiding influence of DW Griffith who oversaw a lot of the production at Triangle. There are expert intercuts and parallel scenes, close ups reminiscent of Pig Alley and the action is tightly marshalled throughout.

Talmadge is superb, acting naturalistically and given ample close ups to demonstrate her restrained playing which has more in common with Gish and Pickford than some of the more dramatic queens lof the era.

She plays Grace the wife of successful businessman, John Remington, played by Ralph Lewis. The two live in wedded bliss with their young family in one of those sizable wooden properties we brick-bound Brits envy. However, inspite of this apparent normality, both Grace and John were once part of a group of professional criminals known as the Higgins gang. Grace finds a clipping about their trial and a flashback explains their violent past.

There are some exciting action scenes as the police chase the gang down streets and over walls as shots and fists fly. There’s some great intercut close ups of the various protaganists as the chase nears its conclusion – really well directed. The police break into the gang's hideout and there’s an almighty scrap between all parties including Higgins/Remington and his second in command Jimmy Briggs, played by the excellent Eugene Pallette.

Both men are caught but Grace manages to evade capture. After John has served his time, the two decide to live an honest life and are obviously succeeding well in this. But all is threatened when John is spotted by their old cohort Briggs, who gratefully accepts John's money but refuses his help to start himself on the straight and narrow.

Briggs threatens to reveal Grace’s criminal past and John has little option but to join him on one last robbery. He goes to commit the crime with Briggs whilst Grace stays over at a well-healed friend’s house after a card party. As it turns out – in a coincidence not too uncommon at the time – Briggs and John are burgling the same house.

Whilst John works on the safe Briggs drifts upstairs to find jewels. He encounters Grace and the two struggle with one of her children being seriously injured, John comes to the rescue but Briggs escapes. Will their child survive and will Briggs succeed in gaining revenge and ruining their new life?

It is undeniably melodramatic but Talmadge is believable and understated even in the most fraught moments. She has a number of close ups that allow her to illustrate the emotional shifts in the story and she does so mostly through facial expression and without the flailing “acting arms” of some contemporaries.

She has what my father would have described as a "handsome" face and one that makes it hard to believe she could ever have been a gangster but, all the same, we accept that she was. You can understand her versatility even from this one film and see just why she won the admiration and affection of so many.

She’s another whose looks appear to be “out of time” and could have made her successful in any period of screen acting. It’s a face you enjoy watching on many levels and has a fascination and a depth that would ensure her a long career at the top.

She remained popular right up until the turn of the 30's making a couple of talking pictures. She spent months having her voice coached before making New York Nights (1929). She’s good in that film, which has some interesting ideas but not enough story or style (although there’s a teenage Harlow in there if you look hard enough!). By this point she was in her late-30s and lacking the kind of roles to help transition into both talkies and middle age, she bailed out telling her fans “I don't need you anymore and you don't need me."

There’s frustratingly little of her work widely available even though more exists than was once assumed (for more details, see the excellent Norma Talmadge Website). Going Straight is available on Grapevine DVD along with the less impressive Children in the House. It is well worth watching to see why she was such a dominant force in early Hollywood.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Pristine Jean Harlow! Bombshell (1933) Remastered

Santa bought an extra present, a little late and with a note from the customs fairy asking for some import duty but… it was most welcome none-the-less. I’ve wanted to watch Bombshell again for some time and here it now was not just on DVD but remastered to boot. Hurrah!!

Reputedly one of Jean Harlow’s best films and long unavailable save on second hand VHS or dodgy DVD, Bombshell is indeed a treat. It’s from an era when talkies became almost "shouties" such was the determination to quick fire as much dialogue as possible into the eager ears of the watching throngs. As if the density of sound had to match the impact of the images or at least to make Warner Brothers feel it had its money’s worth of microphones!

The script is very witty and knowing in its relentless spoofing of not just Hollywood but also its stars (ultimately us watchers as well). It is directed with panache by the great Victor Fleming purveyor of superior films from Fairbanks Senior to Oz and beyond.

Supposedly based on Clara Bow, the film is just as applicable to Harlow herself, especially when she's shown in film with Gable and gets called on set to do some Red Dust re-takes (the barrel scene naturally enough!).

Events mirror life and there’s certain sadness in watching her Lola Burns being abused by the studio, her publicist and her dipsomaniacal family. But Lola gives as good as she gets in spite of being heavily outnumbered.

It’s as if she knows this is the price to be paid for the satin gowns, the house and the fame. Plus ca change.

Lola’s tormentor in chief is the studio’s PR guru E.J. "Space" Hanlon, played by Lee Tracy, a man of relentless ingenuity who always has a plan to keep the ball rolling. He and Lola are in hate but the film’s too smart to take the easy way out for these two.

There’s an unresolved conflict at the heart of Bombshell and that is to do with having cakes and
wanting to eat them too: career can’t come without compromise. Given economic circumstances, maybe audiences of the time wanted their stars to be human, hard working and, above all, grateful for their success?

Lola’s father, Pops Burns (the Wizard himself: Frank Morgan) is keen to take as much credit (and on credit) as he can to help lubricate the watching of horse racing, betting and pursuit of unlikely female companions. Her brother Junior (Ted Healy), is a chip of the old sleazy block and isn’t seen sober throughout the film.

Even Lola’s girl Friday, Mac, played by a young Una Merkel, is asset stripping and borrowing her clothes: “your day off is sure brutal on your lingerie”, wisecracks her boss.

Lola’s life is lived as fast as the dialogue is delivered. She’s made up and driven through adoring crowds and a stalker, to the film lot – an office not dissimilar to that used in Sunset Boulevard… While she’s getting even more made up, Space is firing more ideas at her through the window. Then she gets the call to do those Red Dust re-takes… so far, so post-modern.

Her euro-trash boyfriend arrives, Hugo, Marquis Di Pisa Di Pisa (Ivan Lebedeff) annoying the director, (Pat O’Brien), who then gets really wound up once Pop arrives. Space manages the chaos…just.

Lola thinks she may adopt a baby and escape the mad whirl…but her Brangelina moment is wrecked by familial intrusion and a neatly scheduled scrap between O’Brien and the Marquis.

She runs away to Palm Springs where we see some rare outdoor shots. Lola goes horse riding and Jean looks so relaxed on horseback it reminds you what a sporty person she was…more at home in jodhpurs than the silken gowns she wore so well.

There's some great dialogue, again all-knowing and deliberate. Lola is romanced by the seemingly-moneyed, Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone) who comes out with the corn: "Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I'd like to run barefoot through your hair!"

Space fits her up in grand style but it’s only for her own good…. Lola and he are made for each other…or are they?

Ultimately, Lola ain't dumb and she tells everyone exactly what she thinks of them. She knows you need to be genuine to be a real phoney and we're sure she'll survive whatever they throw at her with good grace and some cussing'!

This remastering, as part of the centenary box set from Warners, is superb and the print looks pristine: far better than the clips I’ve seen of this film before and proper tribute to one of the greats. Harlow is so obviously having a ball in this film and you can spot the odd moment of genuine Jean as she laughs along...

This is indeed up there with the best of Harlow alongside, Dinner at Eight, Red Headed Woman and Red Dust. She was a natural comic actress with great timing and delivery – able to match the wildness of Tracy as much as Gable’s mix of smarts and sexuality. Her beauty is also an unique mix of homeliness and …stunning art deco curves, whilst her platinum hair and complexion were perfect for monochrome.

Ultimately, Jean Harlow was someone of honest likability, who seemed to be down to earth and working hard to make the most of the chances she was getting.

In the box set there are also remasters of Reckless and the Girl from Missouri and it is to be hoped that a similar process is extended to the superb Red Dust: just about the only major Harlow film not on DVD as bemoaned elsewhere on this blog.

Bombshell is available from US stores as part of the box set marking the centenary of Jean’s birth. It's worth it for the great job done on this one film alone but you can also get it on its own here.