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Saturday, 26 March 2016

Terror in a Texas Town (1958)

Director: Joseph H Lewis
Writers: Ben L Perry, a front for Dalton Trumbo
Star: Sterling Hayden
This archetypal story is so familiar that what it reminds you of will vary depending on how old you are or which fresh take you happened to see first. For me, this is an early version of Nowhere to Run, with Jean-Claude van Damme and Rosanna Arquette. For others, it might be Road House or every other episode of The A-Team. Each generation has a dozen versions because it's a timeless story that cuts things down to the basics: good vs bad, right vs wrong, one man vs the establishment. Terror in a Texas Town is just one more take on that old chestnut about a town, the powerful man who owns it and the stubborn man who stands up to fight for what's right. Usually, only the names are different and here the town is Prairie City, TX, the affluent landowner is Ed McNeil and the Swedish whaler who takes him on is George Hansen, but there's an additional level to this take because what we see on screen also tells a story that resonates off screen too because the people making the film were fighting the system as much as any character in it.

The script was credited to Ben L Perry, who was acting as a front for the real writer, Dalton Trumbo, who few were aware had already won two Academy Awards. His first was for Roman Holiday in 1953, but he'd been fronted for there too, by Ian McLellan Hunter; his second was for The Brave One in 1956, which was credited to a pseudonym, Robert Rich, which he'd borrowed from the nephew of Frank King, the picture's producer. Of course, all of these shenanigans were to keep Trumbo, one of the very best in the business, working after he'd been blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was named as a Communist sympathiser in The Hollywood Reporter in 1947, refused with nine others to testify in front of Congress and served eleven months in a federal penitentiary for being in contempt. These were known as the Hollywood Ten and they were promptly blacklisted from being able to work in the industry. Trumbo moved to Mexico with his similarly blacklisted wife and churned out scripts under fake names.
The reasons why filmmakers worked with blacklisted writers in such a roundabout way varied, but in this instance, director Joseph H Lewis didn't care because this was to be his last film. He'd shot forty features before this one in a variety of B movie genres: westerns, adventures and horror flicks, but perhaps most notably, films noir like My Name is Julia Ross and Deadly is the Female aka Gun Crazy. He'd continue on for another seven years shooting western shows on television, but he was done with theatrical features and so really didn't care where his script came from, just as long as it was good, and Trumbo had written Lewis's most noted film: Gun Crazy. This one is hardly original but it does everything it needs to do and Lewis was able to build well upon it. I was impressed with his work from the very outset, as it uses great camera movement and placement to have us watch Sterling Hayden walk down a dusty road towards a gunfighter, shot from behind that gunfighter's holster.

We don't watch it immediately, of course, because it's our finalé. Trumbo just sets up where we're going and then backtracks through highlights of a number of other scenes which we haven't seen yet until the opening credits end and we watch the burning of Brady's farm, barn and livestock. As you'll be stunned to realise, this was a deliberate act of arson aimed at clearing Brady off his land and the rest of the folk in town have been threatened too. Apparently Ed McNeil breezed into Prairie City and claimed to own it all, with land grants to back up his story, he says but we don't quite believe. The townsfolk, most of whom have lived there for years, are resisting his claims so he's been trying a variety of tactics to make these 'squatters' leave. He's paid a few off with money and now plans on scaring the rest into hitting the road. And, if the Brady fire doesn't do the job, he has a new card to play: Johnny Crale, an old school gunfighter doing an old school job, even in changing times. His era is ending but his bullets kill all the same.
And here's where we leap back to the Hollywood blacklist, because Dalton Trumbo wasn't the only man involved in this movie who was on it. Nedrick Young was an actor who had been branching out by writing scripts, such as Elvis Presley's Jailhouse Rock in 1957. His screenplay the following year for The Defiant Ones won him an Academy Award, though his original story, which was adapted by Harold Jacob Smith, was credited to Nathan E Douglas (note the initials), because Young had been blacklisted too. He plays Johnny Crale in this film like the industry he and Trumbo, as well as so many others, were suffering from. He's a bully, an intimidator and, if that doesn't work, an assassin. His ways are old ones that are out of place in the modern world but he can't retire even with a broken shooting hand. His girlfriend Polly tells him that he can't walk into a town and walk out again the way he used to, with state police and rangers and the like now at work, but he is what he is and he can't be anyone else.

For a blacklisted screenwriter about to win a Oscar, Young is a rather interesting actor and Lewis knows exactly how to capture him. We meet him in McNeil's plush suite above the local saloon, where the boss hires him over lobster, even if his right arm has been mangled and he's learned to shoot with his left. An acerbic conversation between the two includes McNeil's 'secretary', who often remains silently in shot as the camera moves around the room and between the speakers. McNeil is a cheerfully controlling swine who doesn't trust anybody, even with Sheriff Stoner in his pocket. As Johnny Crale, Young roils overtly, even if his physical movements are kept to a minimum; he's like Humphrey Bogart in a back brace. And Marilee Earle as that secretary, Mona Stacey, seethes silently at her invisible leash. The camera knows exactly where to go and it elevates the scene magnificently. The banter is summed up by a telling line: 'As long as there are people like you,' Crale tells McNeil, 'there'll be work for people like me.'
This isn't a Nedrick Young film, though, even if he's the villain’s villain. It isn’t a Sebastian Cabot picture either, even though he's the Boss Hogg of the piece. It's a Sterling Hayden movie and I’m watching for him, as he would have been a hundred years old on 26th March, my birthday. He’s George Hansen, the son of the example that McNeil has Crale set to the town after Brady’s fire doesn’t dissuade them from opposition to his landgrabbing schemes. Sven Hansen used to be a Swedish whaler and so did George, who arrives to help his dad run their farm, only to receive the news of his murder on the way into town, from no less a person than Johnny Crale. ‘Did you know him?’ Hansen asks the hired gun in his Swedish lilt. ‘Not very well,’ replies Crale. ‘Not for long.’ This is brutal stuff but it underlines who Crale is because this is what he does and it’s the one and only thing he truly understands. ‘How did he die?’ Hansen asks. ‘Somebody shot him,’ calmly replies the very man who did the deed.

And so George discovers the lay of the land, which is that he’s very likely to get screwed out of the farm he’s been sending money over for after every voyage because, well, justice. Sheriff Stoner is a dead end; ‘How can I get in trouble claiming what is mine?’ asks the whaler, finding that if he sets foot on his land, he’ll be promptly arrested for trespassing. McNeil tries to buy him out and, getting nowhere, tries threats but Hansen’s honesty, stubbornness and ability to crunch any new scenario down to a simple question is an experience he can’t handle. He has a line on everything except honesty and that flusters him. There’s no real suspense to how the film progresses. We know he’s going to go to the farm anyway. We know he’s going to meet José Mirada, his father’s friend who witnessed his killing but kept quiet in order to keep his pregnant wife out of harm’s way. We know he’s going to get beaten up and thrown out of town. We know he’ll return because we saw it in the opening scene, with him bringing a harpoon to a gunfight.
We know all of this because the story is ruthlessly predictable, but it’s elevated by some neat character development in scenes that echo the struggle of the Hollywood Ten and the other filmmakers who were blacklisted by the industry. Hansen tries to find others to stand with him and finds none, albeit for a few different reasons. Some are scared, more feel powerless, while others, like their leader, a deacon called Matt Holmes, want to fight legally. Trumbo and the others in the Hollywood Ten did the latter, believing, as Americans, that they had the right to freedom of speech and could belong to any political party they wanted, even if it was the Communist Party. They appealed to the Supreme Court but lost their fight, an unexpected loss that’s clearly echoed in how the script deals with Deacon Matt. He’s probably right, the one man doing things according to the book, but he’s ignored and his belief in the law derided. Instead, the film calls on an old fashioned hero with old fashioned guts whom the Hollywood Ten surely needed.

Sterling Hayden plays a good old fashioned hero with old fashioned guts. While we know what McNeil is after, he doesn’t for quite a while so his fight is entirely on moral grounds. ‘The truth,’ Hansen tells Polly, Crale’s long suffering girlfriend, in a blistering scene. ‘That is not so difficult to understand.’ If the writer and his compatriots believe that they’re George Hansen but were treated like Deacon Matt, Ed McNeil is the corrupt US government and the old fashioned bully, Johnny Crale, is HUAC personified, then it’s not difficult to read Polly as the American people at the time. ‘Why do you stay with a man like this?’ Hansen asks her, because she’s clearly not happy with her boyfriend who won’t listen to her, won’t do anything she asks and will continue to work his wicked ways until someone else takes him down. There’s a lot of pent-up frustration in her reply. She needs him, pure and simple, because she knows that she’s low and Crale is the only person who’s lower than her. How’s that for a bitter take on the Communist witchhunts?
It’s those parallels to real life American politics that render this a blistering western morality tale, but it’s done really well even outside that. No, I don’t buy Hayden’s inconsistent Swedish accent, though he is a lot better at it than I would have expected, had I realised he was going to attempt such a thing. He’s the tall, strong, principled hero that the story calls for right down to a tee, just as Ned Young is superbly cast as the hired gun. ‘They all came here to see blood,’ he sneers and we can’t help but hate him with every fibre of our being, even if we don’t know what he represents. Sebastian Cabot is spot on as McNeil and I thoroughly enjoyed Carol Kelly’s deep self-hatred as Molly. The rest of the cast provide capable support, even if actors like Victor Millan perhaps overdo the simplicity, but it’s the combination of script, direction and camerawork that really sells this picture which, because of its undertones, transforms the new lands of possibility into a trap of corruption and deceit. It sits well with The Ox-Bow Incident and High Noon.

I have to come back to the camerawork of Ray Rennahan, the director of photography. He was massively experienced, having pioneered colour in Hollywood as far back as sequences in the 1923 version of The Ten Commandments. He had two Oscars under his belt, for Gone with the Wind and Blood and Sand, but it could easily be argued that he should have won more. There are a string of amazing shots in this film that are worthy of being highlighted but, to avoid spoilers, I’ll only mention a couple. One is that opening shot where we’re positioned behind Johnny Crale’s holster to watch Hansen approach from the bad guy’s perspective. Another accompanies the murder of Sven Hansen. Mirada was there with his son, Pepe, but, with Crale riding towards the farm, Hansen has them stay in the barn to keep them safe and Rennahan’s camera follows them right in to watch the whole thing unfold through the window. Terror in a Texas Town is a forgotten gem, made by a bevy of Oscar winners, and Rennahan is prominent among them.
Of course, I’m watching this to celebrate the centennial of Sterling Hayden’s birth and he does fine work here too, even if he never won an Academy Award of his own; the closest he got was a nomination for a BAFTA as Best Foreign Actor for Dr Strangelove. He was well cast here, with the exception of that accent, as he had been promoted by Paramount as ‘the beautiful blond Viking god’. At 6’5” he certainly towered over most of his co-stars and that helped him here. He was well established at this point, with films like The Asphalt Jungle, Johnny Guitar and The Killing behind him, though he hated acting, accepting roles to finance his sailing habit, and he despised the industry. As Lt John Hamilton, he served in the OSS in World War II, supplying Yugoslavian Communist partisans with what they needed to fight Nazis. His admiration for them led to a brief membership in the Communist Party; unlike Trumbo, though, he co-operated with HUAC and named names. He regretted that deeply and perhaps it prompted him to accept this role.

His life really didn’t help his career, beyond not actually wanting to act unless it paid for his sailing. What he cared about most was the sea, having discovered it at sixteen, dropping out of school and working on a schooner. He fished the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and worked as a mate or fireman on a variety of vessels in a similar variety of places, sailing around the world more than once. At only 22, he captained a square rigger from Gloucester, MA to Tahiti. No wonder his autobiography in 1962 was entitled Wanderer rather than some reference to one of his many memorable characters. His co-operation with HUAC meant that he was never blacklisted, but problematic custody battles with a wife he married three times and an awkward tax situation meant that he lived outside the US because he’d have been arrested on his return; he missed out on roles like Quint in Jaws because of that. Whether he liked it or not, most know his name as an actor, though, and this underrated film is worthy of mention alongside his many classics.

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Angel Baby (1961)

Director: Paul Wendkos
Writers: Orin Borsten, Paul Mason and Samuel Roeca, from the novel Jenny Angel by Elsie Oakes Barber
Stars: George Hamilton, Mercedes McCambridge, Joan Blondell, Henry Jones, Burt Reynolds, Roger Clark and Miss Salomé Jens
Sometimes reading up on a movie before watching it, even just synopses at IMDb that ought to be free of spoilers, can be rather misleading. Angel Baby kept me on the hop, because it does a lot more than what I was expecting and it does it in different ways to how it intends. For a start, there’s an opening text which recommends (rather late, I should add) that ‘you consider carefully this picture’s suitability for viewing by impressionable children.’ That suggests a salacious exploitation picture, albeit not too salacious as this is 1961, especially as IMDb plays up a clash between a woman ‘who believes she has been chosen by God’ and a ‘greedy promoter and his shrewish wife’. Well, you can safely ignore all that. This isn’t exploitative in the slightest, playing out instead as a melodrama with serious underlying themes. There is a clash, but not of the sort you might expect from that synopsis. Also, while we do have both a greedy promoter and a shrewish wife, they’re not married to each other and they feature in separate plot strands. Whew.

So, how to begin fixing that so you can watch without getting confused? Well, let’s kick off with the young lady who’s the title character. She begins the picture as Jenny Brooks, who has been mute since the age of eight, after her father hit her. Her devout mother, who’s poured all her money into medical treatments to no avail, brings her to a travelling evangelical preacher, Brother Paul Strand, in the hopes that she can be healed in a revival tent. Jenny is happy fooling around with bad boy Hoke Adams outside but Ma drags her in and, to her own amazement, Brother Paul manages to stir her into speech. It’s a miracle, ladies and gentleman, a miracle! And so when the show packs up to get back on the road, Jenny is there to go along for the ride and dedicate her life to serving the Lord. Now, if you’re imagining Brother Paul Strand as that ‘greedy promoter’, you’d be leading yourself astray. He’s a good man, spreading the gospel by whooping and hollering in summer revival meetings all across the deepsouth.
He’s also played by a young George Hamilton, so it’s no surprise to find young Jenny falling hard for him, especially as they’re of much closer ages than his wife, Sister Sarah, who’s the gatekeeper for their show. And, for all the exuberant praising of the Lord’s name, this is at heart a much more down to earth story, a good old fashioned love triangle which merely has Jesus hovering behind each of the three corners like a little angel on these folks’ shoulders, or perhaps a little devil because, of course, we’re not going to leap headlong into a happy ending. Hamilton wanted a happy ending of his own, deciding after four prior films to make ‘better, more serious movies’ mostly to impress his girlfriend’s family. I’m not sure how that story ended up, but he’s decent here as a holy roller with passion and verve, if not as a fighting man. The actor who debuted as Hoke Adams later commented that ‘George Hamilton beat me up in this film. Does that tell you something?’ That’s Burt Reynolds, a sexy muscled beast even if he hadn’t grown into himself yet.

Reynolds is surprisingly impressive for a supporting role in his first outing, but for all the testosterone on display in his scenes, this isn’t about the guys; it’s about the girls. It was named for a woman, based on a book by a woman, Jenny Angel by Elsie Oakes Barber and it stars three women, each of whom is far more interesting than their male colleagues. Jenny is played by ‘Miss Salomé Jens’, who lands an ‘introducing’ credit, because her future should clearly start here with a serious lead rather than her two previous titles, Showdown at Ulcer Gulch, a comedy short made by Chico Marx’s Disney animator son-in-law, and Terror from the Year 5000, a cheap sci-fi flick from Robert J Gurney Jr. She’s well cast here, pretty but plain, with the ability to look lost one minute and then let her eyes come alight and steal the show the next. It’s the exact combination that she needs to play Jenny and she does it well. She’d go on to a lot of TV work, like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but surprisingly few films of note.
She’s the lead, so we watch more of her than anyone else, but I couldn’t keep my eyes off her two female co-stars whenever they’re on screen. One is Joan Blondell, a vivacious thirties actress who progressed to more serious roles as she got older and larger. She’s Mollie Hays here, Brother Paul’s pianist who’s a little too fond of the juice. ‘Whiskey undid me,’ she tells Jenny, and it’s what surely prompts her drunken vision of something floating around the girl which she interprets as being an angel; and that’s how Jenny Brooks becomes Angel Baby. As won’t be surprising to anyone who’s enjoyed Blondell’s earlier movies, she’s the one with all the character here. Jenny is more notable for what she represents, but Mollie is more notable for who’s giving her life. She works well with Henry Jones, who plays her husband Ben, and she steals her fair share of scenes, whether drunk or sober. She also drives many of the key direction changes and stays on top of everything. She was more vibrant early in her career, but more interesting as time went on.

And that leaves Mercedes McCambridge as Sister Sarah Strand. As she would have been a hundred years old on 17th March and her screen husband here is currently a dashing hit on reality TV, we can safely say that there was an age difference and not in the usual direction for classic Hollywood. She had 23 years on George Hamilton, who, making his fifth feature, was younger than the debuting Burt Reynolds, who has a full three years on him. McCambridge was also by far the biggest star in the picture, having won both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her own screen debut in 1949, as Best Supporting Actress for All the King’s Men. She’s known for classic Hollywood roles in Johnny Guitar, Giant and Suddenly, Last Summer, not to mention an uncredited spot in Touch of Evil, whose auteur, Orson Welles, called her ‘the world's greatest living radio actress’. Yet her filmography is wildly versatile, as highlighted by her ending the sixties with The Counterfeit Killer, Women’s Penitentiary XII and Marquis de Sade’s Justine.
Of course, her most famous role is surely providing the voice to the demon that possessed Linda Blair in The Exorcist, making her role as a preacher’s wife here a neat contrast. There’s further contrast between the Strands too: Brother Paul is a New Testament kind of guy, healing the sick and believing in positivity; Sister Sarah, though, is Old Testament to the core, preaching hellfire and damnation with the fallen angel never far from her tongue. Her monologues are productions, perfect for a seasoned radio actress able to wrap her considerable talent around lines like those following their first contretemps over Jenny. ‘Oh, the devil has you in his grip,’ she mutters to him. ‘I know how swiftly Satan moves to coil his evil web around the heart.’ She escalates. ‘Why doesn’t God rain fire and brimstone down upon these women?’ she asks. ‘Show him the raging fires of Hell that burn in this woman’s eyes. Show him the Damned. Show him the fallen angels writhing in torment.’ Finally she gets to the point. ‘You must exorcise this devil, Paul.’

And so Angel Baby hits the road, with Mollie and Ben in tow to help run a new revival show: Jenny Angel, Miracle Girl, Preacher of the Ages. It’s here that we meet that ‘greedy promoter’ from the synopsis, albeit one who isn’t as outrageous as that suggests. He’s Sam Wilcox, a successful pharmacist and apparently a devout man, who witnesses Jenny in action as she persuades a murderer into a confession, then protects him from the mob until the police can take him. He proposes to manage and finance her with the spiritual line, ‘Are you cutting me in, Miss Angel?’ He’s no crook, he simply understands how money works and he sees her as just another product. Well, at least until temptation comes knocking and commandments are ready to be broken. There is a story here, after all, and Roger Clark gets to contribute plenty to its growth until the Strands inevitably rejoin it and we can move towards the finalés, one that follows Sister Sarah’s beliefs and one that follows Brother Paul’s. The very end could have gone a few ways but it works well.
From what I can tell, not having read Elsie Oakes Barber’s 1954 novel, this doesn’t follow it with any real zeal. For a start, it’s about Giannina Angelina who leaves a Boston slum for a mission, to be named Jenny Angel and marry Kendall Wyatt, before setting out as an evangelist. The Strands and the Hays appear to be the product of the scriptwriters; while Sam is in the novel, he seems to be rather different here; and a further subplot not in the film would appear to be the most important in the book. So this is a very loose adaptation and I wonder what it really aimed to accomplish. It appears to be pro-religion, pro-evangelist and even pro-faith healer, but it sets up awkward questions for the faithful in 1961. How did Sister Sarah pluck the 23 years younger Paul out of a choir to marry her and yet remain chaste? Are we supposed to see their different approaches to faith as equally valid or make a judgement call and call one false? And what of a love triangle between preachers? Marriage as purgatory doesn’t seem particularly biblical.

I’d suggest that the film sits uncomfortably between the passionate dramas of the fifties and the social exploration of the sixties. It’s late for the former and early for the latter, so it tries to do both and doesn’t quite succeed at either. It’s often compared to Elmer Gantry, an earlier novel by Sinclair Lewis which was adapted to the screen in 1960, a year before this film, with Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons. Given the many differences between Angel Baby and Jenny Angel, it’s no stretch to see Elmer Gantry as frequent a source as the credited one. It does well though, with its strong performances and confident camerawork, courtesy of Emmy-winning Jack Marta and double Oscar-winning Haskell Wexler, who died last December. The story remains the weakest link, because it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It’s engaging but predictable. It’s traditional but modern. It’s ambitious but careful. There are too many incompatible goals for it to truly stand out but it does remain an interesting member of the crowd. Can I get an amen?

Friday, 11 March 2016

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967)

Director: Roman Polanski
Stars: Jack MacGowran, Sharon Tate and Alfie Bass
Dance of the Vampires, the original British title of what soon became known instead in the United States as The Fearless Vampire Killers, either with or without the subtitle of Pardon Me, But Your Teeth are in My Neck, is a rather strange picture. The original title might suggest a European vampire tale in the style of Jean Rollin with abundant nudity. The new one clearly plays up the comedic angle and the subtitle hints at Carry On levels of farce. It’s most often described as a comedy horror film or a horror comedy, as if the order of those words suggests a priority, but it’s really none of the above. Yes, it’s humorous, but it’s very much in an old fashioned style of humour that isn’t going to have you laughing out loud or rolling on the floor. Yes, it’s about vampires, but there’s very little plot and what there is plays so archetypally that the easiest description is as cliché. It stuns me that few people seem to describe the film as what it really is, a fairy tale, especially as it’s truer to that ancient form than anything Tim Burton has conjured up.

It’s especially odd to me because, to my mind, this fails as a straight comedy or a straight horror movie, but succeeds magnificently as a fairy tale. Watch it the wrong way and you’re going to think something is missing. Everything here is fairy tale in its truest sense: a story full of folklore, myth and hand-me-down knowledge, all phrased as a cautionary tale. You can see Roman Polanski, director and co-writer, start in on this immediately, with the arrival of Professor Abronsius and his assistant, Alfred, in the snowy wastes of Transylvania. It’s easy to see the Brothers Grimm in the opening shot of their sleigh beset by wild dogs, which Alfred beats away with an umbrella while his master sits motionless because, as we soon discover, he’s been frozen stiff. It’s obvious when they arrive at an inn that everyone has their own remedy for his condition, whether that be hot beer and cinnamon or just putting his feet into a hot bath. Some disagree; one wants to rub snow on his nose, while another says to leave it alone.
And, of course, it’s impossible to miss how they all clam up when Abronsius recovers and asks about the garlic hanging from the walls and the ceiling. No wonder he comes alive at this point, because it’s his life work finally showing some promise. He’s been travelling around central Europe trying to find evidence of vampires, but to no avail. This quest has already lost him a chair at the University of Königsberg and it’ll lead to him losing a lot more. Without providing spoilers, there’s a Lovecraftian message in play here, an old faithful that seeking knowledge for its own sake is an inherently dangerous act which will surely lead to bad things, usually insanity; the ending to this movie endows that message with a delicious irony. The Professor has been very much on that path for decades, though he’s taken nothing but wrong turns until now, collecting vast amounts of knowledge but no practical experience. Finally, his persistence has paid off and, as he eagerly tells Alfred, ‘We are nearing our goal.’

Before they reach it, though, there’s more ritual and folklore, always introduced lightheartedly. We watch Alfred place heated bulbs onto his master’s back in the old Chinese technique of cupping. The innkeeper, Yoine Shagall, has a daughter, who likes taking baths; her father spanks her because of it. ‘No baths!’ he repeats like a mantra and even sneaks through the bedroom of our intrepid heroes at night to board up the bathroom door with a hammer, then tiptoes right back out again. The next day, the inn’s maid hides under Alfred’s table when a hunchback with club feet and buck teeth walks in and a patron spits on the floor after he leaves. Everything has rules in a fairy tale because that’s what it’s for: follow the rules and you’ll be safe, but break the rules and outrageously awful things will happen to you. Amidst all this, it’s easy to read hidden meaning into everything. Suddenly, the snowman that Alfred builds in front of the inn seems like a guardian for Sarah Shagall, who watches him from an upstairs window.
Not that it works, of course, because people are good at breaking rules. Sarah keeps on sneaking baths and her father neglects to hang copious amounts of garlic in the bathroom, so leaving the way open for the local vampire lord to breeze in through the window in the roof. In a wonderful little touch, Sarah first notices the danger she’s in when she realises that it’s snowing inside the bathroom. This sequence is an archetypal one, over quickly but with every component needed: a naked girl and a caped vampire, neck biting action, discovery too late, voiceless terror and pursuit in vain. It’s well shot too, with a memorable shot of the Professor breaking into the bathroom to discover an empty bath with blood stained bubbles. While I’m watching for Ferdy Mayne, who plays Count von Krolock, the vampire who took Sarah and who lives in the inevitable castle on the hill, it’s worth mentioning cinematographer Douglas Slocombe here, who died last month at the ripe old age of 103.

Slocombe was a legendary British cinematographer, having shot many of the great Ealing comedies like The Man in the White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob and Kind Hearts and Coronets, the latter of which had that amazing shot which assembled eight different characters, all played by Alec Guinness. Today, he’s surely best known for shooting the Indiana Jones trilogy, the first of which landed him his third Academy Award nomination. He never won an Oscar, even though his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark could easily be regarded as a textbook on cinematography. By that point, though, he’d already won three BAFTAs out of nine nominations, his wins for films as diverse as The Servant, The Great Gatsby and Julia. The British Society of Cinematographers honoured him with five awards, the other two being for The Lion in Winter and Jesus Christ Superstar, and, in 1995, with a Lifetime Achievement Award. I’d highlight other titles of his too, such as Circus of Horrors, The Italian Job and Rollerball.
Ferdy Mayne was even more prolific, though he rarely played lead roles in his half century in film. He made over 130 pictures and appeared in innumerable television shows, but surprisingly few capitalised on his European heritage. A German Jew, his family had the foresight to send him to England in 1932 to keep him safe from the Nazis and he became an informant for MI5 during World War II. After a couple of brief early appearances, one in a sleigh shot from behind and the other while he seizes Sarah, he gets a glorious introduction inside his castle that highlights both the serious and frivolous nature of the picture. Perhaps inevitably for 1967, he plays the count like a sort of cross between Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, the two most recognisable vampires at the time. He aims more at emulating Lee, but his 6’1” frame was the same as Lugosi’s and his voice shifts during the film from the deep resonance of the former into the accented enticements of the latter.

That’s not to say that his performance is merely a combination of influences. He adds details to the role, not just the grey hair that neither Lee nor Lugosi would countenance. Most obviously, he adds a timeless patience that’s different to what either previous star brought to the role. Lugosi endowed Count Dracula with the politeness inherent in a noble upbringing, but Mayne adds ennui to that. He’s lived a lot of lives and has settled into a routine that bores him and the arrival of the Professor, whose works he’s read, is a welcome distraction from what could well be centuries of repetition. He seizes this opportunity with what Abronsius describes, in a neatly clever double conversation, as ‘the mechanical need to fight against the torpor of hibernation’. He’s talking about a bat, but his entire spiel applies to von Krolock as well. Among the Count’s more blatant lines, like ‘I’m a nightbird. I am not much good in the daytime,’ it’s easy to miss clever details like Abronsius’s monologue, but they’re still there nonetheless.
Along with Slocombe and Mayne, the other big winners at this point are Krzysztof Komeda for his choral score and the team who built a gothic castle to the specifications of convention but without skimping on scale. It’s a delight in every way, a huge stone construction packed full of vast four poster beds, drooping candles and antique furnishings, whether on the floor or the walls, and a dusting of cobwebs decorates the abundant wooden panels. The geometry is dreamlike, the combination of presumably unconnected sets and Slocombe’s floating camera raising an appropriate disconnection as we try to figure out what leads where. Abronsius and Alfred get to explore more during the day than perhaps they’d like but needs must. When Koukol, the hunchback servant, in the suitably bulky form of Terry Downes, a middleweight champion of the world, blocks the door to the crypt, our intrepid duo take to the snow-covered roofs to find a way in. The professor gets stuck in the window and Alfred goes the long way around to free him.

Again, this is the sort of thing that we read about in fairy tales. There’s so much of this, more overtly with the progression of the film, that it’s hard to read it any other way, but then perhaps some don’t have any background in that sort of literature, imbibing their fairy tales at the bar of Disney rather than the library of Anderson and Grimm. There are some glorious scenes that run on fairy tale logic towards the end. One has Alfred being chased around a colonnade by the Count’s effeminate son, Herbert, only for the vampire to stop and Alfred to run all the way round and end up right next to his pursuer. Another has the pair talk to Sarah in snippets during the grand vampire ball that provided the film’s original title, as if none of the vampires with their enhanced hearing could hear them. Best of all is their escape from the dance, with a bevy of vampires following them in procession towards a mirror, in which a mere three figures are visible: Abronsius, Alfred and Sarah, the girl they’re attempting to rescue.
I’ve seen this film before and enjoyed it, but watching late one night while I was sleepy, I missed much of the detail and found it surprisingly slow. Watching afresh in the morning, it was back to the speed that I’m used to and I caught the little details that I liked so much in previous viewings. My favourite is surely still the moment when Yoine Shagall, now a vampire, climbs into the bedroom of the serving wench he’s been sneaking around with; she holds up a crucifix and he, being Jewish, laughs at her and points out that she has the wrong cross. I love the use of colour, especially during the ball, which is full of faded vampires in faded outfits. When Sharon Tate is revealed, dressed in a bright red costume, she stands out fantastically. I’d call out Jack MacGowran as Professor Abronsius, the massively experienced Irish actor who overdoes everything gloriously, but it’s Koukol who sledges down a hill in a coffin and Alfred who’s pursued by a gay vampire. The latter is played by Polanski himself, refusing a credit until the very end.

At the end of the day though, it’s Sharon Tate who shines brightest. This wasn’t her first lead role, but I’m much more fond of her work here than anywhere else. To my mind, she was perfectly cast, even though Polanski was set on Jill St John. Tate is so desirable that it’s believable that Count von Krolock wants her and Polanski got her, the two marrying a year later. Their marriage lasted just over a year and a half until Tate, along with their baby which was almost due, was murdered by the Manson Family at their house in Los Angeles. She left behind only nine films and a few TV appearances, including a run on The Beverly Hillbillies. Sadly, she’s remembered mostly for her murder, but we can see her talent grow through three major films: Eye of the Devil, The Fearless Vampire Killers and Valley of the Dolls. Polanski would go from strength to strength, of course, and Mayne would continue to be prolific, even playing Count Dracula in a German TV show called Teta. He would have been a hundred years old today, on 11th March.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Bwana Devil (1952)

Director: Arch Oboler
Stars: Robert Stack, Barbara Britton and Nigel Bruce
Time was that I knew the name of Sidney W Pink from the astoundingly awful 1961 monster movie known as Reptilicus, which he produced, directed and contributed the original story that Ib Melchior adapted into a screenplay. As epitaphs go, being the man behind Reptilicus is really not a good one. It’s much better to be remembered as the pioneer of 3D movies, having kickstarted the 3D craze of the early 1950s with this film, which he produced. It was his first major credit, having only been an uncredited assistant production manager before this, on Lost Horizon fifteen years earlier, but it launched his career. After this, he’d move on to write, produce and direct I Was a Burlesque Queen, then follow up with The Angry Red Planet, which applied a reddening effect during film processing to simulate the Martian environment, a technique which he named CineMagic. His last credit was in 1970, as the producer of The Man from ORGY, four years after he had ‘discovered’ Dustin Hoffman off-Broadway and cast him as the lead in Madigan’s Millions.

He would have been a hundred years old on 6th March and that’s enough reason for me to take a look at Bwana Devil in his memory. It wasn’t the first 3D movie, that honour going to The Power of Love, released as far back as 1922, when Sid Pink was only six years old, utilising a process invented by a Harry K Fairall. It was previewed in Los Angeles, then booked to play in Newark, NJ, but it didn’t make much of an impact and, only a year later, the film had been renamed to The Forbidden Lover and released flat. Today, it’s a lost film. Bwana Devil, on the other hand, was a phenomenal success which sparked a brief revolution in filmmaking, a two year period which the 3-D Film Archive calls ‘the golden age of stereoscopic cinema’. It began with the premiere of Bwana Devil on 26th November, 1952 and ended with Universal’s Revenge of the Creature, which premiered on 23rd March, 1955. This ‘golden age’ includes fifty English language 3D features, 48 of which were filmed between January and October of 1953.
Sadly, Bwana Devil is worth watching more for its importance to history than for any inherent quality, but it’s still an interesting feature. In fact, the story that it fictionalises is interesting on its own merits, which perhaps explains why it’s been told and retold. Bwana Devil, with Robert Stack playing Bob Hayward, was sourced from the same historical events as The Ghost and the Darkness in 1996, with Val Kilmer as John Henry Patterson, and 2007’s Prey, with Peter Weller as Tom Newman. Lt Col John Henry Patterson was the real historical figure, who in 1898 led a British project to construct a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya. Over nine months, two male lions terrorised the site, killing scores of locals and Indian workers and eating at least thirty of them. Patterson eventually killed both and published a book called The Man-Eaters of Tsavo in 1907. He kept the skins and used them for a quarter of a century as floor rugs before selling them to the Chicago Field Museum in 1924. They’re still there on display today.

This fictional adaptation changes Patterson into Bob Hayward, who is only in Kenya because his father-in-law is running the entire project from back in London. He gets to be the man on the ground and he clearly hates it. In fact, he arrives in the picture in memorable fashion: drunk driving a train from Mombasa into camp with the mail and a new cook. He remains drunk too, as if the liquor will somehow spirit him home to Blighty where he wouldn’t have to deal with the heat, the Hindu workers or the cool cucumber in a pith helmet, Maj Parkhurst, who commands the camp. ‘I’ve had enough of you,’ he slurs at the major, ‘and my father-in-law’s railway. I want to go home.’ Even when he hears about a lion that’s spooking the camp, he just heads out with a gun to chase it off. He can’t find it but fires off a bunch of shots anyway and expects that it’ll do the job. No such luck, of course. Fortunately, after the first victim is discovered, the new cook killed not by ‘those Masai devils’ but by a lion, he sobers up and becomes the lead the film deserves.
Thus far, we’ve had an intriguing opening credits sequence, in which the names stand out superbly from the background, even if the African chanting just repeats over and over on a loop. We’ve had very bright footage for 1952, because the picture was shot in Ansco Color; it was much cheaper than Technicolor but apparently holds up well, the copy I watched looking notably brighter than some of the faded Technicolor films that I’ve seen. We’ve seen a elephant filmed in completely different colour, as if Arch Oboler had no clue that viewers might see through such transparent shenanigans. We’ve met Nigel Bruce as the camp’s medic, Dr Angus McLean from Balloch, who is as Scottish as that suggests. And we’ve had a whole lot of nothingness. What’s oddest here is that nothing happens for quite a while. It’s all shot capably enough, if without much imagination, but the wild monkeys steal most early scenes until the film remembers what it’s supposed to be doing, kills someone off and focuses us back on the supposed man-eating lion.

It does get better, mostly because Hayward grows substantially as a character and because Robert Stack is up to the challenge, even if he occasionally appears to be wondering as much about what he’s doing in Kenya as his character. Ramsay Hill, who plays Maj Parkhurst, vanishes from the picture in rather a cheap fashion, his off screen death in Mombasa by scorpion bite being merely reported by the Commissioner. It means that Hayward is now in charge and he’d better sober up. The Commissioner comes from the grand old tradition of stiff upper lip English gentlemen, throwing out glorious dialogue which alternates between blissful ignorance of the seriousness of the situation and wild overconfidence about what he can do about it. He decides, of course, that he’ll just trap and kill the lion, because, well, the Indian coolies are ignorant savages or some such. ‘Great sport this, eh?’ he tells Hayward. ‘It’ll be a trophy by morning.’ Of course, it doesn’t go quite how he expects. He bags a hyena instead.
If much of this adaptation plays into cliché, not to mention melodrama, there are positive aspects beyond just the historical reasons to watch. Unlike most Hollywood productions, many of the Indians are actually played by Indians, with the film’s technical advisor, Bhogwan Singh, leading them. What’s more, the two lions are actually played by lions, albeit rather polite ones who seem to want to play more than to rend a man asunder. These lions do interact with the cast, unlike the many elephants, hippos and ostriches that Oboler shot separately, but there’s most definitely a plushie stunt double thrown at actors at points. It’s jarring to be shown Stack climbing into a kayak and paddling into a river, taking pot shots at hippos that look like stock footage, falling in and swimming out and appearing miraculously dry on the river bank to find the commissioner dead at the paws of one of the rather playful lions (if you ignore the screams), who couldn’t be more laid back without being horizontal. Believability is not one of this film’s strong points.

The best scene with a lion, however, is notably suspenseful, as Hayward decides to hire a set of wannabe warriors from the Masai to hunt down the lions. Apparently, they have a rite of passage that conveniently involves a boy not becoming a man until he’s killed a lion while armed with nothing but a spear. Just as a majority of the Indians are apparently played by Indians, so the Masai appear to be played by Masai. The movie does proudly announce at the outset that it was ‘photographed and recorded in the Belgian Congo, Kenya, Uganda and California.’ Just how much was shot in the latter, I don’t know, but it looks much more authentic than most Hollywood jaunts into the dark continent. These Masai surround one of the lions and close in the circle, surrounding it with shields and spears. The lion runs around in ever decreasing circles until making its escape out of the trap, leaving one dead in its wake. While attack scenes are mostly poor, this scene was powerfully done. It looks believably dangerous and that’s what this picture needed.
Of course, I watched Bwana Devil in 2D, but there are scenes that quite literally leap out as obvious shots for the 3D audience. Sadly, the one that Pink and writer/director Arch Oboler want us to remember isn’t a memorable one. Perhaps the native hurling a spear at the audience would have sold to folk in 3D glasses but it’s nothing but underwhelming without them. Even worse is the kissing scene, which tasks Stack and Barbara Britton with leaning romantically toward the camera with lips pursed in anticipation. After all, the film’s tagline was, ‘A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!’ I haven’t mentioned Britton until now as she’s shoehorned into the script with no subtlety, just to provide a love interest where there doesn’t need to be one. She’s Alice Hayward, Bob’s wife, and she shows up late in inappropriate clothing for the climate for dumb scenes like bathing a native boy then walking him over to where the men are digging a ditch. Little Mukosi actually has more reason to be in the film than she does, as he sparks plot points. She doesn’t.

Of course, we don’t watch Bwana Devil today to see Barbara Britton. To be fair, we don’t really watch it to see Robert Stack either, but at least he has opportunities and he does grow his character substantially as the film runs on. He’s the only actor willing to attempt to highlight how long the Tsavo lions terrorised the real life equivalent of Hayward’s camp; he does so by losing himself in the quest to kill them. It’s not hard to see them as personifying the entire continent for him, an albatross around his neck that he’s unable to lose and which is driving him mad. He has to kill these lions, not only because it will end the suffering of his men but because it will end his own suffering through an assignment that he hates. It’s no surprise to find that once he finally does so (and that really can’t be seen as a spoiler), the picture has no remaining purpose and wraps up in what must be less than ten seconds. It’s literally a blink and you’ll miss it finalé, one of the quickest I’ve ever seen in film.
While I’d argue that the location shooting, the inclusion of natives and actors of appropriate ethnicities is a draw, with Robert Stack’s performance a secondary reason to watch and the presence of Nigel Bruce an extra incentive, the main reason anyone watches Bwana Devil today is its historical importance to film. It was the first colour 3D feature and the gimmick succeeded in drawing audiences back into theatres from their television sets. Everyone else threw 3D films into production, though it took five months for them to reach screens. First up in April 1953 were Man in the Dark, a film noir from Columbia, and the picture that most people think of as the first 3D movie, House of Wax from Warner Brothers, with stereophonic sound and Vincent Price establishing himself as a horror lead. Bwana Devil beat them notably to the punch with its technique called Natural Vision, designed by Milton and Julian Gunzburg. Oboler and Pink were making a film called The Lions of Gulu, but scrapped ten days of footage and started over with Natural Vision.

It’s hardly surprising that critics hated it, though it isn’t as bad as many have made out. It’s dull for much too long and takes a long while to really get started. It has docile monsters and pointless subplots. It has plot convenience issues up the wazoo and the 3D bits are cheesy and embarrassing to modern eyes. It’s hard to understand what it meant to audiences in 1952 but they adored it and continued to enjoy 3D for a brief couple of years before the craze wore thin. Maybe they really thrilled to the spear being thrown at them through the camera just as audiences had reacted to Train Pulling into a Station, the 1895 Lumière Brothers short which has become legend. It’s notable that the Lumières, even at the tail end of the 19th century, were trying to create films in 3D. In fact, Louis Lumière reshot that very film with a stereoscopic film camera and screened it to the French Academy of Science in 1935. In many ways, Bwana Devil was history repeating itself yet creating something new in the process.