Saturday, 16 May 2020

Hell is Empty (1967)


Director: John Ainsworth
Writers: John Ainsworth, from screenplays by George Fowler and Bernard Knowles, each in turn based on the novel Hell is Empty by J. F. Straker
Stars: Martine Carol, James Robertson Justice, Shirley-Anne Field and Carl Möhner



Index: 2020 Centennials.

Given that I’m watching and reviewing Hell is Empty for Martine Carol, born a hundred years ago today in Saint-Mandé, a high end department of the Île-de-France, it seems appropriate to remember her through this movie, produced by her last husband, because it’s quintessentially European. It isn’t just that it’s a British film shot in Prague, then in Czechoslovakia. It isn’t just that it has a set of European actors in prominent roles, like the Italian Isa Miranda and the Austrian Carl Möhner, or that they speak fluent English with accents that betray that it isn’t their first language. It isn’t just that there are two members of European nobility in the cast: Baroness Irene von Meyendorff was born in Tallinn, now the Estonian capital but then in Russia, while Catherine Schell, daughter of a Hungarian baron, is from Budapest. Ironically, the former was the most popular Nazi pinup girl while the latter’s family estates were confiscated by those same Nazis. It’s also that the film isn’t commercially available, so I found myself watching a dubious VHS rip with hardcoded Finnish subtitles. Needs must.

It’s not a good film but it is an interesting one, not least because it either had no idea what it wanted to be or because it aimed to be everything. I haven’t read the 1958 source novel by J. F. Straker, a maths teacher by profession, but he claimed to create books by outlining their beginnings and ends, then letting the middles flesh out as he wrote. That might explain why this picture, adapted from a pair of different screenplays, is so open to anything. At heart it’s a thriller but it also spends time as a courtroom drama, a heist flick, a polite mystery, a hospital drama and even a dubious romance during which the telling words “Stockholm Syndrome” aren’t ever mentioned. It isn’t even sure who to treat as the most important characters. The young crook who serves as our initial focus loses it pretty quickly. The romance angle hinted at early on is forgotten for most of the film. Martine Carol may be top billed and she may receive the most opportunities, but she’s hardly the lead. Characters come and go, their importance always unknown.

Part of the film’s schizophrenia surely stems from its troubled production. Depending on which source you trust, shooting started in either 1963, 1964 or 1965, but it stopped again, when Martine Carol either fell ill or died. She was certainly dead by the time the film was released, in either 1967, 1968 or 1969 but, as her unexpected heart attack in a Monte Carlo hotel room didn’t happen until 1967, I’m leaning towards a production delay because of illness. It isn’t difficult to see how her role could have been bigger, had she been available to shoot more scenes. On the other hand, perhaps her most crucial happens with her in hospital, wrapped with so many bandages that we can’t even be sure if it’s her or not. Maybe it wasn’t. Whatever happened, production resumed with a new director, John Ainsworth, who had directed a handful of TV show episodes, stepping in to replace the much more prolific Bernard Knowles, whose career went back forty years and included shooting films like The 39 Steps and Sabotage for Alfred Hitchcock.

Another French actress died during production too, though I’m not even sure where she is in the film. Maybe she’s one of the girls in the club when the heist is being put together early on. Whatever part she plays, she’s Patricia Vitarbo and she also died in 1967, at the age of only 27, during filming of a scene for Judoka-Secret Agent in Paris. While subtly reversing her vehicle towards the Seine, it went into the river and she drowned. None of this could have helped confidence in Hell is Empty. Neither could the change in the casting of what is arguably the lead role, Anthony Steel replacing Guy Madison as Major Morton, the architect of the heist that sits at the heart of the story. This may have been due to a shift in production company though, rather than any pause in the shooting schedule. I wish I could track down more reliable details about this film, which seems to have vanished into some sort of cultural black hole. We can only hope that it’ll get picked up by a cult reissue company who will do it justice with special features.
Initially, it seems to be a courtroom drama. Jess Shepherd is delivered to court by the police, where he’s charged with robbery and murder. The point is supposed to be that he pleads guilty to the former but innocent to the latter, though we’re more interested in the basics, like where we happen to be. This is a nameless town that might seem from its accents and uniforms to be somewhere on the continent, but its court feels British, in language and procedure, right down to its judge, played with appropriate sharpness by Sheila Burrell, a cousin of Laurence Olivier and soon to be a long term member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Just to confuse even more, that robbery was of 150,000 “dollars”, taken from the St. Juste Construction Company. So it must be one of those British European American towns. We soon see in flashback that Jess was part of the Major’s crew on this heist; it was hewho blew the safe and it was he who inadvisedly took off his mask in celebration, so prompting the murder of the guard who saw him.

So, guilty or not guilty? Well, ignoring the fact that this is a legal quibble that doesn’t need any other information at all to help the decision to form, we don’t remotely have enough to figure out whose side we’re on and the rest of the film is here to wend a weary way to a point where it might actually, eventually, contribute to the answer. In fact, we never really get to that answer, because the shenanigans at the conclusion render it moot. We could toss a coin to determine which of two conflicting witness statements we’re willing to believe and, even then, it doesn’t matter because of Shepherd’s reaction to them. In other words, he’s certainly a bad guy in one sense but he may or may not really be a good bad guy in another except that he’s actually a bad guy in a third, so it’s no skin off our nose if he gets locked up for being a bad guy in that first sense, even if he isn’t. Does that make sense? Surely not! Welcome to Hell is Empty, whose screenwriters want to leave it entirely to us. I may end up buying Straker’s novel just to see what he thought.
From a courtroom drama, we go into flashback mode for the heist, which is reasonably tense but also entirely routine. We learn in a strangely disconnected club scene that it’s Major Morton’s job and Shepherd has a quarter of the cut. Then it’s on and we watch a trio of masked men climb up the outside of the St. Juste building to get in behind the company sign. They knock out one guard, then force another to unlock a room, where Shepherd successfully blows the safe but, when he takes off his mask to celebrate, one of the others shoots that second guard dead. This idiotic young man doesn’t take that action as a pretty good reason to put his mask back on, so he waltzes on out of there, past the first guard, as a completely identifiable crook leaving a murder scene. At least, during the car chase that follows, there’s some good cinematography, even if the story is transparent and every word of the dialogue is cheap. And, dumping their own car to find a lift on the other side of a forest, we enter the hostage drama section of the film.

Here’s where we discover that the online synopses are all varying degrees of wrong. IMDb, for instance, suggests that “On the run from the police, a female thief and her band of robbers take refuge on a desert island where they discover a mansion inhabited by a family whom they take hostage”, while Wikipedia has “On the run from the police, thieves stumble upon an abandoned mansion on a deserted island”. Other sites that I checked went with similar synopses. Not one of them comes close to the reality of the film. The truth is that the thieves are all male and the Major’s “band of robbers” is two other men. They are indeed on the run from the cops, but the Major manages to sucker a car into stopping for him in the middle of nowhere, at which point he hijacks it at gunpoint. The couple in the car live in a mansion on an island, so they hijack that too and take the family of five who live there hostage. The island isn’t deserted, the mansion isn’t abandoned and none of the thieves are female. Other than that, IMDb’s spot on!
Then again, I can’t blame synopsis writers too much for getting this wrong because details are often hard to figure out. I’m not sure if this island is off the coast, on the other side of a river or in the middle of a lake. Certainly there’s local activity because the roof of the mansion that I’d happily buy for a dollar features a navigation light to protect water traffic, making this a sort of lighthouse. It’s also difficult to figure out exactly who lives in this mansion because the script doesn’t feel like troubling us with names particularly often. It ought to help that the actors almost entirely play characters with their own first names, but we do need to hear characters called a bit more than “old blind woman” to figure out who’s who and how they connect to one another. At least I’m able to explain the film’s title, which is a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here”. As that complete quote was also the title of an extreme metal album by Anaal Nathrakh, I have to grin at how culture cross pollinates itself.

Let’s see if I got this right. The couple in charge are Martine and Robert Grant, played by Martine Carol and Robert Rietty. They get quite the dynamic with their unwanted guests, given that Robert is a pacifist but Martine is a schemer. I believe that Robert’s father is Paul Grant, in the experienced form of Anthony Dawson, best known as Blofeld in From Russia with Love. The “old blind woman” is Isa Grant, presumably Paul’s wife; Isa Miranda has precious little to do in the role, which looked so initially promising for the script. Then there’s Catherine Grant, played by Catherine Schell. While it would be entirely appropriate for her to be Martine and Robert’s daughter, she’s actually Robert’s much younger sister because we’ll shortly bring in Uncle Angus to really stir things up. For now, I can happily highlight that it’s a family of five played by five actors of five different nationalities, if we treat England and Scotland as two. None of them are happy, of course, to be taken over by a band of thugs, but it’s here that Martine Carol takes over from them.
She was a strikingly beautiful woman, especially in her prime, but that hurt her career by ensuring that she was generally cast not for her acting ability but for her looks, an attitude only helped by the continual controversies that she found herself embroiled in. I should point out that she died at only 46, younger then than I am now, leaving four marriages and three divorces behind her, along with at least one public attempt at suicide over an ended affair with a married man, actor Georges Mareschal: she tried to overdose on alcohol and drugs, then threw herself into the Seine. With sexy roles in pictures such as Beware of Blondes, Adorable Creatures and Caroline Cherie, it’s hardly surprising that she was often described as the French Marilyn Monroe throughout the forties and into the fifties. Her heyday was the early fifties, with her highly regarded lead role in Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès following a set of films made for her second husband, Christian-Jacque, but her reign as France’s sex symbol was ended with the advent of Brigitte Bardot.

She tries more than anyone else to inject real character into this film, with the exception of James Robertson-Justice who can’t not endow character into a Shakespearean puzzler of a man. She plays Martine Grant with confidence and cleverness. She talks big and flirts outrageously with Major Morton; we assume it’s all part of a survival strategy but we can never quite be sure of that. Clearly the Major wants her, even if he says he never mixes business and women, and she never seems unwilling. I caught a lot of Giuletta Masina in this performance, especially emotionally, but without a drop of the innocence that Masina carried so well. This is a very knowing portrayal by Carol, a name she tellingly adopted because she was a fan of Carole Lombard, who was also so good at being knowing and willing on screen. Her birth name was the less catchy Marie-Louise Jeanne Nicolle Mourer. I liked her here, certainly more than her screen husband or the other members of her immediate family, who prove relatively useless in a crisis.
It helps that she gets most of the best scenes, whether they be verbal sparring with the Major; a sudden and rather surprising chase sequence in a speedboat with Martine as a human shield; or the finalé, with Martine bandaged up in hospital like the Invisible Man, right down to her face. Eventually, of course, we’ve found our way back, through competing flashbacks to the courtroom where the case comes down to a conversation about guns. Did Carl, the third crook, admit that Jess (who, if you remember far enough back, is on trial for murder as well as robbery) didn’t know that the Major had a gun and so didn’t shoot the guard? One witness says that he did and another witness says that he didn’t. However, we’re told that Martine apparently overheard this conversation, so she turns into a sort of deciding vote. Unable to leave the hospital, the court goes to her and Carol gets to perform in a scene that feels like its primary intention was to appear Oscar-worthy. Unfortunately, it’s deflated by the scene before it, which is terrible writing.

And, quite frankly, it’s that terrible writing that makes this film so fascinating. It’s really not a good film from any perspective, even if it isn’t stunningly bad in any, but it’s such a patchwork quilt of a movie that I found it impossible to look away and it continues to stay with me. Often I’ll remember a film because of one thing, because of its action or its drama or its cinematography; I remember this one primarily because it isn’t one thing. If there’s a second reason, it’s the fact that it’s the final film of so many of the cast and crew. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that two actresses died during production, given that production ran long. Carol survived being kidnapped by Pierrot le Fou, France’s first public enemy number one (he sent her roses in apology), only to die of something as mundane as a heart attack in a hotel room. Drama did continue after her death, though. She was initially buried in Père Lachaise but her grave was dug up, perhaps because of reports that her jewels were buried with her, so her body was moved to Cannes.
Along with a violated grave, three broken marriages and no end of controversy, she left behind a husband and forty-nine films, one a short. The best known is probably Around the World in 80 Days, but she only played “Girl in Paris Railroad Station”. The best may be Lola Montès, the lavish final outing for director Max Ophüls and the most expensive European film produced up until that point. Her others include films for many of the most recognisable names of the era, whether European—René Clair (Beauties of the Night), Abel Gance (Austerlitz) and Robert Rossellini (Vanina Vanini)—or not—Preston Sturges (The French, They are a Funny Race), Terence Young (Action of the Tiger) and Robert Aldrich (Ten Seconds to Hell). She also brought life to European names as famous as Madame du Barry, Lucretia Borgia and the title character in Nana, based on the Émile Zola novel. And, at the end of the day, I hope she becomes just as remembered for her work in films like these as for her short and spectacular life.

No comments: