Thursday, 23 June 2016

Deathtrap (1982)

Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Jay Presson Allen, from the play by Ira Levin
Stars: Michael Caine, Christopher Reeve and Dyan Cannon
Somehow I hadn’t seen Deathtrap before, even though it was a successful movie in 1982, both critically and commercially, though a host of critics noted similarities to Sleuth, which the lead actor, Michael Caine, had made a decade earlier. Before it was a movie, it was a play, written by Ira Levin and produced on Broadway, where it was nominated for a Tony award and racked up a record run, its 1,793 performances the longest for a comedy thriller. Marian Seldes, who plays the female lead, Myra Bruhl, appeared in every one of those performances, earning herself an appearance in the Guinness Book of World Records as ‘most durable actress’. She wasn’t cast in the film, however, her part going instead to Dyan Cannon, perhaps not a good choice given that she was Razzie-nominated for her trouble, but at least that speaks to the prominence of the film, given that the Golden Raspberries don’t tend to notice small picture. Mad magazine even parodied the movie as Deathcrap, which is a mark of success in its own way.

It’s an intricate piece, which can’t lose its origins on the stage. Almost the entire movie takes place at Sidney Bruhl’s home on Long Island, which is a delightfully open plan affair inside a converted windmill. Such a memorable location, right down to the intricate mechanisms in the roof above the bedroom, is perhaps the most important component that the film can provide but the play can’t. However, it’s a stretch to imagine anyone watching the movie not envisaging the action unfolding on a stage, especially given that Andrzej Bartkowiak shoots much of it from a distance, as if rendering us a theatre audience. It’s ridiculously simple to give spoilers when reviewing this, so I’ll be careful and merely highlight that it’s about both a playwright and a play, also called Deathtrap, while referencing previous plays from the pen of Bruhl, both through dialogue and through use of props from their productions, which adorn the walls of Bruhl’s gorgeous study. The script feeds upon itself vociferously to make all those twists possible.
We even start on Broadway, where Bruhl’s latest play, Murder Most Fair, is failing horribly on its opening night. ‘The worst play I’ve ever seen,’ whispers an audience member, too far away from the back of the theatre for Bruhl to hear. He realises that it’s flopped, metaphorically hearing the critics sharpening their hatchets. ‘So much for truth in advertising,’ comments one. Whodunit? Sidney Bruhl dunit. And in public too. And so he heads home by train, pissed as a newt, to shout at his drama queen wife in a performance that feels like it could be on stage too. He’s had four bums, he says, all of which stink. He’s written out. He’s descended far from the glory days of The Murder Game, the longest running thriller on Broadway. And what’s worst of all is that he has a copy of a stunning play in his hands; it just isn’t his. It was sent to him by a student, Clifford Anderson, who attended a seminar he gave a year earlier. It’s so great that, ‘Even a gifted director couldn’t hurt it,’ he suggests in one of many wonderful lines dotted throughout the script.

Those of you with twisted minds will already be imagining where the plot will take us next and, sure enough, Bruhl runs through a host of options. He promptly fantasises about killing Anderson with the mace which was used in Rigorous Child or attempting to get the play produced under his own name. It’s flippant at first, of course, but then he starts to seriously think about the ramifications. Would he literally kill for another hit play? If we weren’t thinking that already, his wife Myra asks it of him aloud. And yes, he just might! After all, this appears to be the only copy in existence, Anderson having sent his ‘first born child’ to its ‘spiritual father’. He has no family and he’s currently house-sitting for folk travelling abroad. Who would miss him? Who would connect him to Bruhl? This is a dream scene, because it’s literally the job of a mystery writer to figure out how to kill people without anyone finding out. In fact, they do it more often than actual killers, because they never have to worry about being caught. Well, until now.
Sidney Bruhl was played by Shakespearean actor John Wood in the original play, eventually handing the part on to actors as varied as Stacy Keach and Farley Granger. The film role, however, went to Michael Caine, perhaps as an opportunity to progress from the supporting role he played in Sleuth to the lead, as indeed he did in the remake of that film in 2007. He’s well cast, easily able to shift between shouty scenes and calm ones at the drop of a hat, and he sells the multiple levels of the script well. His co-star was a major name in 1982, having been launched to fame as the title character in Superman, a role which he’d reprised in his previous film. Yes, Christopher Reeve plays Clifford Anderson and he’s decent too, if a little more stagy than Caine, underplaying deliberately: young, enthusiastic and very naïve. With Somewhere in Time, Deathtrap and Monsignor, the other three movies that he made in and amongst the first three Superman pictures, Reeve was clearly aiming to diversify his roles and avoid being typecast as a superhero.

I’m far less sold on the performance of Dyan Cannon though, but a debate raged in my head throughout the picture about whether that was a fair judgement or not. Sure, Myra is a histrionic drama queen of a wife who screams like a ditzy blonde waste of space, but then she is, right? Sidney often talks to her like she’s a child, with patience and small words because she’s clearly not on the same intellectual level and she’s her own worst enemy, as highlighted by the pills, cigarettes and lack of any defining purpose. Yes, she’s frickin’ annoying but she’s supposed to be, right? Was she nominated for a Razzie because she was so annoying as Myra or because Myra was so annoying and she played the part precisely right? I couldn’t choose which side I’d take in that debate but ended up noting that the fact that I was debating during the film instead of being caught up in the story’s flow, which might well be an answer all in itself. Of course, is that bad acting from Cannon or bad writing from Levin or screenwriter Jay Presson Allen?
Now, how far can I go without providing spoilers? I should certainly point out that Bruhl invites Anderson to stay with them, with the view of revising his play into something that can be produced. He’s hardly going to own up that it’s perfect already! I ought to highlight the cleverly written scene in which Myra tries to talk her husband out of murdering their guest, while he’s in the room, without letting him in on the fact that it’s even being considered as an idea. That leads to a gloriously tense follow-up where Bruhl traps Anderson in a pair of Houdini’s handcuffs, then proceeds to joke about killing him with his mace. Perhaps I can get away with pointing out that he strangles him to death with a chain instead, given that it happens only a third of the way into the movie, or in stage talk, at the end of the second scene of act one. Reeve was credited above Cannon and had only just showed up, so clearly the script has more for him to do than simply appear and die. That would be overdoing the billing even for Superman!

But I can’t really go any further, except to introduce the fourth major character, Helga ten Dorp, especially given that she’s played by Irene Worth, the reason why I’m watching this movie as she would have been a hundred years old today, 23rd June. Helga is an awesome opportunity for an actress, given that she’s foreign, characterful and the personification of the unexpected. If the film is about Sidney Bruhl and his cleverly constructed murder plan, then Helga ten Dorp is the wild card that he simply couldn’t predict. We’re first introduced to her through conversation between Sidney and Myra; she’s some sort of psychic who assists the police in solving murders in her native Holland and she’s taken a local cottage for six months, which in this sparsely populated part of Long Island means that she’s their temporary neighbour. However, she shows up in person, right after the murder, walking right in and traipsing around feeling pain in the air. She dominates immediately, acting circles around Cannon and Caine lets her run with it.
Worth is remembered far more for her stage work than anything that she did on film, but that’s only a mark of how important she was off screen. She won three Tony awards over the span of a quarter of a century: winning Best Actress for Tiny Alice in 1965 and Sweet Bird of Youth in 1976, then adding Best Featured Actress in 1991 for Lost in Yonkers, a role she reprised two years later when it was adapted to the big screen. Working in a world where critics are notorious for cruelty, Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Times after seeing her play Hedda Gabler that, ‘Miss Worth is just possibly the best actress in the world.’ She made few films, only sixteen over half a century, but they included many notable roles as foreigners, including a seamstress in the French Resistance in Orders to Kill, which which won her a BAFTA. She also played French opposite Alec Guinness in The Scapegoat, but British in Seven Seas to Calais (playing Queen Elizabeth I, no less), German in Forbidden and Russian in both Nicholas and Alexandra and Onegin.

Here, she’s Dutch and she comes very close to stealing the show, even though she doesn’t really have a vast percentage of screen time. Part of it is certainly that Helga is a gift of a part to any talented actress, but the greater part is that she’s the talented actress who brings her to life. As the script unfolds and the paradigm shifting twists proliferate, we never forget that Helga isn’t far away and could easily show up at any moment to throw a psychic spanner into the works. Surely I wasn’t the only one watching not just to grin at the intricate genius of Sidney Bruhl’s plans but to find the one thread that would unravel the whole thing? That old line from Robert Burns floated invisible in the air around him, that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. And there was never any doubt in my mind that it would be Helga who found that one thread and yanked it out from under him, all the more for her continued conspicuous absence through much of the film.
I’m happy to have finally caught up with Deathtrap, especially having watched Sleuth so recently. I grew up in the eighties and I’m well aware that nostalgia currently sees them as the most embarrassing decade culture ever birthed, just as the sixties were when I was a kid and the seventies were to my younger friends. However, every decade is embarrassing when you choose to see nothing else and this is a great and timely reminder that the eighties produced much of substance, even if most of it is currently obscured by the fashionably awful. It’s always fascinating to watch Michael Caine, who has reinvented himself decade on decade. It was fun to watch a young Christopher Reeve, if not much fun to watch a histrionic Dyan Cannon. It was fascinating to find a masterpiece of writing twists upon twists written while M Night Shyamalan was still in short pants, especially one that’s literate and self-effacing. And it was great to discover another great performance from Irene Worth on what would have been her hundredth birthday!

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

Director: Robert Siodmak
Writers: Mel Dinelli, from the novel, Some Must Watch, by Ethel Lina White
Stars: Dorothy McGuire, George Brent and Ethel Barrymore

Index: 2016 Centennials.

Ethel Lina White isn’t a name that resonates today, even for aficionados of the crime fiction which she wrote, let alone fans of film who experienced her work only through adaptation to the big screen. However, she was a Welsh novelist who was very successful in her day back in the thirties. She wrote seventeen novels, most of which fell into the crime genre; three of them were adapted into major motion pictures, though all were retitled for the screen. We may well be excused for not recognising novels like 1933’s Some Must Watch, 1936’s The Wheel Spins and 1942’s Midnight House, also released in the US as Her Heart in Her Throat. However, film fans ought to recognise what they became: The Spiral Staircase, filmed a number of times but first by Robert Siodmak in 1945; The Lady Vanishes, whose many adaptations include an oustanding one by Alfred Hitchcock in 1938; and 1945’s The Unseen, a thematic sequel to Paramount’s hit of the previous year, The Uninvited. All are well worth seeing.

I’m reviewing that original version of The Spiral Staircase, the most recent of those three films but the earliest of the source novels, as Dorothy McGuire would have been a hundred today, 14th June. She had a highly successful career, nominated for an Academy Award for Gentleman’s Agreement and worthy in films as varied as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Old Yeller and Three Coins in the Fountain. She even played the Virgin Mary in The Greatest Story Ever Told, but I chose this personal favourite to celebrate her career because she gets to lead a fantastic cast, above Elsa Lanchester and an Oscar-nominated Ethel Barrymore, all while portraying a character stricken mute because of childhood trauma. It’s a fantastic opportunity and she gives a strong performance without the benefit of dialogue that reaches superb on occasion and never fails to depict her as a delightful young lady, an appropriate target for a killer who has it in for girls with disabilities or afflictions. Because she has no voice, he literally sees her with no mouth.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

The Lost World (1960)

Director: Irwin Allen
Writers: Charles Bennett and Irwin Allen, from the novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Stars: Michael Rennie, Jill St John, David Hedison, Claude Rains and Fernando Lamas
Irwin Allen, who would have been a hundred years old today, is a rare example of someone who is still remembered by two utterly different audiences. Anyone who grew up watching movies in the seventies knows him as the ‘Master of Disaster’, the man behind the biggest of the disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, not to mention lesser films with less catchy titles that followed in their wake, like Flood!, Cave-In! and The Night the Bridge Fell Down. However, audiences a decade older are more likely to remember him for sci-fi shows he produced for television like Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants, many of which I saw on British TV in later re-runs. The source of both of these aspects of his career, though, is really Victorian adventure fiction, as highlighted by the trio of films he directed between 1960 and 1962, his first serious efforts in the director’s chair after a few movies he created mostly out of stock footage with a few new scenes shot with major stars late in their careers.

I’ll mention these films in reverse order. Last up, in 1962, was Five Weeks in a Balloon, which was based on the novel by Jules Verne, a cornerstone of Victorian adventure. Before that, in 1961, was Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, an original story but one which could easily be mistaken for a Verne adaptation, given what it does and where it goes. It’s notable that the Seaview, a nuclear submarine at the heart of the story, was based on the real USS Nautilus, in turn named for the fictional Nautilus of Jules Verne. Kicking off the thematic trio was this picture, The Lost World, adapted in 1960 from a novel by another pivotal author in the Victorian adventure genre, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes. I should emphasise that not all connections are valid. The real bottom of the sea is the Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench, named for HMS Challenger, the survey ship that recorded its depth, but it was no nod to Doyle’s legendary explorer, Professor Challenger, introduced in The Lost World, as the ship came forty years earlier.
What is obvious from this trio of films is that Irwin Allen was clearly a big fan of Victorian adventure fiction and he felt an urge to adapt it to the big screen. He wrote each script in collaboration with Charles Bennett, who is best known today for his early work with Alfred Hitchcock on films like The 39 Steps, Sabotage and Blackmail, the latter of which was based on his own play. Incidentally, Bennett’s final picture took him back to Victorian adventure with City Under the Sea, loosely adapted from a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. What’s also obvious is that this material fed both the sci-fi shows Allen made for television and his disaster movies. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was successfully adapted to TV and Allen pitched The Lost World for similar treatment but it wasn’t picked up, even though this film is as episodic in nature as any season of any of his shows. The final scenes of the source novel, with a live pterodactyl escaping into the skies of London presage the entire disaster movie genre, but Allen didn’t have the budget to do it.

What he did have was some star power, though I have to question some of his casting choices. Claude Rains was an accomplished actor with a range that lent him success in films as diverse as The Invisible Man, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca. I’m not buying him with ginger hair and beard as Professor Challenger though. He has the irascibility down pat and his banter with fellow scientist, Professor Summerlee, ranks as the most faithful this film gets to the original material. However, the original Challenger was an imposing physical specimen, with broad shoulders, a barrel chest and head and hands of remarkable size; Rains, at 5’ 6½’’, really doesn’t fit that bill in the slightest. It unfortunately defuses his angrier scenes and shifts them far too far towards comedy. I took a while to buy into Michael Rennie as the big game hunter, Lord John Roxton, too, but because of his soft spoken voice rather than his size. He has the composure, surety and height to be the leader of this party, but he’s a different sort of authoritative.
The best scenes are actually the early ones, as the script adheres closest to Doyle’s novel. We meet reporter Ed Malone as he tries to interview Prof Challenger on his return to London Airport from the ‘headwaters of the Amazon’. He’s belted over the head with an umbrella for his troubles and left in a large puddle. David Hedison, four years away from his most famous role as Captain Lee B Crane in Allen’s TV show, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, is clearly a better actor than Jill St John, who rescues him and whisks him over to Challenger’s presentation at the Zoological Institute that night. She’s Jennifer Holmes, who serves as the glue between the characters. When Challenger is laughed at for proclaiming that he’s seen living dinosaurs in South America, the expedition to find out for sure is financed by her father and includes Malone, whom she rescued, and Roxton, whom she aims to marry. It’s no shock to find that her own adventurous soul joins the party too, complete with younger brother, pink wardrobe and little poodle.

At least St John is easy on the eyes, because she isn’t tasked with doing much except being inappropriately independent for a girl early on and then conventionally useless once actually thrown into adventure. While her lines are too carefully delivered, she’s a surprisingly good tomboy and her sass is believable. Unfortunately, all her early promise is wasted by a script that sees her as half eye candy and half damsel in distress. To be fair, nobody is written well here, surprisingly given Bennett’s history in scriptwriting. Each and every character is a cartoon take on Doyle’s originals, not even interested in struggling to escape their one dimension. It falls to debate only to decide which is worse. Perhaps its the girly girl with her poodle but perhaps its the skeptical scientist, brash reporter or greedy coward. Maybe it’s the smouldering helicopter pilot, silent native girl or quietly tough hunter. Not one of them fails to escape their respective stereotypes and it’s fair to say that some of the actors are better than others at hiding it.
Once the company arrives on top of Challenger’s mysterious plateau by helicopter, thus marking a firm departure from the novel, the film begins to be notable for other unfortunate reasons too. I like the matte paintings a lot but they look like matte paintings. The waterfalls look amazing but they’re major landmarks and not all from this neighbourhood. The extra characters taken to the plateau clearly have no viable purpose to be there and the new romance angle is a weak one indeed. And, worst of all, but perhaps most spectacularly of all, there are the dinosaurs. Willis O’Brien, the pioneer of animating dinosaurs with stop motion techniques, had created amazing footage for the silent 1925 version of The Lost World and Allen brought him back for this version. O’Brien shot nine minutes of animated dinosaur footage with his most notable successor, Ray Harryhausen, but for Allen’s 1956 documentary, The Animal World, not this film. His talents were reduced here to sketching concept art and his animation skills were sorely missed.

At the end of the day, while Doyle’s The Lost World contains both thrilling adventure and social commentary, any film adaptation of the novel is going to be accepted or laughed at on the strength of how believable its dinosaurs are. These dinosaurs are clearly not believable by anyone over the age of four, because they’re not stop motion animations, they’re real animals in disguise. We aren’t shown a dinosaur until the 34 minute mark, around a third of the way into the film. Prof Challenger may identify a brontosaurus rubbing up against the miniature greenery, but it’s clearly a monitor lizard with stegosaurus scales on its back. Like most kids, I’d fallen in love with dinosaurs young and I wouldn’t have bought this as a brontosaurus at the age of five. A gigantic iguana wearing a pair of fake horns in a standoff with Frosty the poodle is no more ludicrous. Neither is the neon green superimposed giant spider that Malone shoots while he’s chasing a scantily clad but somewhat entirely decent young native woman.
It’s the battle of the behemoths that leaves the worst taste in the mouth though. In the red corner is the returning monitor lizard, flicking its tongue like there’s no tomorrow and roaring like a beast on heat. With Malone and Holmes evading its attentions, it has to face off against a caiman with horns and spikes added everywhere that wouldn’t fall off. As you can imagine, this disqualifies the film from the familiar disclaimer we see on any movie nowadays that features even one living creature: ‘no animals were harmed in the making of this film.’ The American Humane Association has monitored filming of Hollywood movies since 1940, including a couple of thousand productions a year, but that’s only about 70% of animal action and this film was clearly part of the exception. I can’t help but describe the monitor lizard vs caiman battle as a cockfight in lizard form, similar to the real life battles captured on African safaris by tourists with cameras, only staged here for entertainment. I doubt either animal survived their tumble off a cliff.

There really aren’t a lot of dinosaurs in this film, if we count these real life reptiles as dinosaurs. There’s no T Rex to be found, no pterodactyls, none of what readers of the novel might expect. That’s sad but explainable given that Cleopatra was already bleeding 20th Century Fox’s coffers dry three years from eventual release. What’s saddest of all is that there isn’t anything else of value to replace them. We’re given cardboard characters whose clichéd attributes are mirrored by the clichéd situations into which they’re placed. The natives are purest exotica, little more than an unwelcoming collection of facepaint, tiki statues and tribal drums. Doyle kept his adventure as scientifically sound as he could; Allen and Bennett don’t seem to know what science is. They don’t even let anyone get dirty in the jungle, even when running for their lives in white suits from giant frickin’ lizards. Almost everything was shot indoors on sets at Fox with as much dry ice as was needed to hide how fabricated everything was. It’s embarrassing.
A five year old might get a kick out of the cliffhanging nature of the piece: here a roaring dinosaur, there a carnivorous plant; here a vicious betrayal, there an honourable self sacrifice; here certain death and there a magnificent way out. Older audiences will find all of these a stretch, especially as the story had been adapted before and relatively well by Harry Hoyt in 1925 with the believable casting of Wallace Beery and Lewis Stone as Prof Challenger and Lord Roxton, as well as the glorious stop motion animation of the master, Willis O’Brien. In fact, older audiences are far more likely to thrill at the frequent sight of Jill St John’s camel toe than any of what they’re supposed to be watching. The cast is strong, Richard Haydn and Fernando Lamas both acquitting themselves well in support of Rains and Rennie; David Hedison clearly didn’t want to be in the movie but stuck it out anyway. Only Irwin Allen got any momentum out of this and that was a career in episodic shlock, forged from The Lost World and presented on ABC.