Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Steamboat Bill Jr (1928)

Steamboat Bill Jr came towards the end of an incredible run of films for Buster Keaton, a run that helped shape many aspects of cinema, and whose influence is still felt today. Like all the best Keaton films, it is equal parts thrilling, spectacular, hilarious, and poignant without being sentimental.

"Steamboat” Bill Canfield has two prized possessions – a dilapidated paddle steamer, of which he is the owner and captain, and his student son, William Jr (Keaton), whom he has not seen since the lad was a baby. When Bill Jr comes to stay, fresh out of college, dad is disappointed to find his offspring is not the hulking macho man he was expecting. Instead, he sees a small, slight awkward fellow, with a ukulele, a pencil moustache, and a beret, not the sort who can help him compete with rival businessman John James King and his shiny new, luxury riverboat.

To make things worse for Canfield, Junior is in love with King's daughter Kitty, his ship is condemned as unsafe, and he ends up in jail for assaulting King - just as a cyclone hits town. Can Junior step up, prove himself a man, and save his love, his father - and his father's boat?

Even if you do not know the film you may well know the most famous scene, arguably Keaton's most famous scene of all, where, after stopping to catch his breath in the middle of the cyclone, the front wall of a two-story house crashes down over him. Keaton emerges unscathed his body perfectly framed by an open window. It still looks as impossible, and unthinkably dangerous today as it ever has. Goodness knows what was going through his mind at the time, but at least it was not two tons of house.

However, Steamboat Bill Jr is more than just one scene, and Keaton (Carl Harbaugh is listed as writer, even though Keaton claimed it his really his work. Whatever the truth behind that, it is difficult to picture Keaton not having a major say in the finished product) showed that he was prepared to spend time crafting the film. While it may not have the rigid, symmetrical story structure of The General, the film Keaton made directly before, this is by no means a slapdash screenplay.

The jokes are the usual mix of hair-raising spectacle with the more outrageous aspects all underpinned by Keaton’s deadpan demeanour, and more small scale, knockabout humour, such as the routine with Bill Sr trying to buy a new hat for Bill Jr. However, by now Keaton is adept and confident at telling a story, and building characterisation, and the routines also serve those purposes. For example, the business with the hats is a great way of showing Dad's increasing frustration with his son, and the massive difference between the two, both in appearance and personality, something which makes the scene somewhat poignant.

Father figures are a regular feature in Keaton films, second only to lady love interests. Plot wise, Steamboat Bill Jr makes a good companion piece to The General, as both feature a lead character who has to perform seemingly impossible (for him at least) tasks to impress his dad (and to impress a lady as well, of course).

The spectacle comes in the form of the extended cyclone sequence, clearly shot on location, not on a sound stage, and using life size street sets, designed to be torn to pieces by gigantic wind machines with Keaton, when not battling the breeze, being swung around on a giant (out of shot) crane. Throughout it all he maintains his trademark calm in the eye of the storm

Keaton would only approach these creative heights one more time with The Cameraman, a film which marked his move from independent film maker to MGM employee. Eventually, the studio interfered more, Keaton cared less, and the films became pale shadows of what had come before. Still, aspects of his work remain influential in various ways. Jackie Chan sites him as a major influence, something easy to see in Chan's fluid acrobatics and life threatening set pieces, while Johnny Depp's stonefaced performance in Edward Scissorhands is clearly a loving tribute. Cinema owes him a huge debt, for showing that you could make a film longer than 2 reels, with a story, a character arc, and visual spectacle, all of which can only be done within that medium.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Top Hat (1935)

The well-worn legend goes that an RKO screen test report on Fred Astaire read "Can't sing. Can't act. Can dance a little....” However true the legend may be, such an assessment of Astaire is simply not true, and this is easily proved with Top Hat. Despite being nearly 80 years old, this film is still breathlessly exciting and thoroughly charming fun, as well as being a perfect vehicle for the astounding, seemingly effortless talents of Astaire and his most famous on screen partner, Ginger Rogers. It is also interesting to see the film as part of the early ongoing development and increasing complexity of cinema as a medium.

American superstar dancer, Jerry Travers, played by Astaire, is in London to star in a show, and falls hopelessly in love with Dale Tremont (Rogers), the woman in the hotel room below him. Unfortunately, she is under the misapprehension that Travers is actually her best friend’s husband, Horace Hardwick, the producer of his show (whom she has seemingly never met). Can Jerry rectify the identity crisis before Tremont does something rash – like marry another man?

Astaire’s dancing looks astonishing, not least because he makes it look so effortless, and spontaneous, no mean feat considering how much rehearsal and preparation he must have undergone. It is also interesting that the routines do not just explore the movement of the human body, but also the fascination with the sound and rhythms of tap dancing, rhythms that sometimes sound like a machine gun.

What is equally astonishing is finding a second person who can match him move for move, and Ginger Rogers is more than up to the task. At times during their routines, they seem to hit a bewildering, supernatural level of synchronisation, and when combined with the joyous music, and the smiles of sheer joy on their faces, it is almost impossible not to get caught up in the euphoria.

Obviously, the dancing cannot last forever, and while the plot does not stand up to much scrutiny, the screwball elements and dry, witty dialogue (“have you any objections if I scare your husband so that he'll never look at another woman?” “No husband is ever too scared to look”) keep the energy and interest going between dance numbers. The fact that there is a plot is significant in itself as only a few years earlier, music and narrative were still often kept apart with the likes of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 consisting largely of a static camera pointing at a staged-based variety show, and while some, such as The Broadway Melody had a plot of sorts, it was still a revue format cutting between several characters. Top Hat helped to show that you could focus on two main characters, base a story arc around them, and still incorporate musical numbers that were not irrelevant.

The stars clearly have chemistry on the dance floor, but away from it, you would be hard pushed to claim it is a tumultuous sexual or romantic one. Fred Astaire is no alpha male and Ginger Rogers is wonderfully bold and brassy, making for a much more balanced dynamic than you usually see in films of the day.

Astaire has never struck me, as natural leading man material (and perhaps the originator of the mythical note had similar thoughts) but his unique looks, voice and unimpeachable dancing skills are precisely what has made him so memorable. His singing may lack the drama and coolness of a crooner like Sinatra, but it has a simplicity, and clarity, along with impeccable timing that make it both a companion and a counterpoint to his dancing, as well as delightful to listen to.

Another, equally significant way that Top Hat shows the increasing complexity of cinema during the 1930s is the shooting style, and while it may not be particularly sophisticated in itself, like the plot, the fact that it is there is what makes it inherently significant. The dance sequences are shot in an unfussy, straightforward style that allows the skills of Astaire and Rogers to shine through, with the camera tracking from left to right with their movements. This may not sound like much, but it is the first flowerings of the realisation that by focusing on very specific people or things, filmmakers can direct and manipulate the view and attention of an audience in a way that the theatre cannot, and you can see a similar style being used years later by the other great pioneer of male cinematic dance, Gene Kelly, in films like Singin' in the Rain.

Of course, aside from the technical innovations, the films of Fred Astaire were also successful enough to establish the musical as a distinct genre, one that, like any genre, ebbs and flows in popularity, but always seems eventually to come back into fashion.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Dracula (1958)

It is always good to go back to an old film favourite and find something new, and a recent viewing of the Hammer Studios 1958 take on Dracula provided just such an opportunity.

Made nearly 30 years after Tod Browning's equally ground-breaking,iconic and financially successful Universal version starring Bela Lugosi, director Terence Fisher crafts something just as distinctive and unique, helped both by a first rate cast and a punchy script by Jimmy Sangster, one that never forgets that the audience wants to be entertained. Sangster takes the basic premise from the Bram Stoker novel but tinkers with the story quite significantly, stripping the plot to the bare essentials, moving the action from England to Germany, changing some characters (Jonathan Harker is upgraded to Van Helsing’s undercover sidekick, and is fully aware of the Count’s night-time activities), and playing down or eliminating others, such as Dr Seward. 

The main theme of Good v Evil is left in place, along with the absolutist, black and white definitions of each, and this film taps into many of the tropes associated with vampires and Hammer films, such as the gloomy castles, frightened villagers and lush Gothic ambience. However, despite the changes from the source material, the underlying themes are still in place too, and as any media studies student knows, vampires are about two things - addiction and sex. The former is undisguised, with the vampires depicted as slaves to their craving for blood, and Van Helsing explicitly comparing it to narcotic dependence.

Sex is there too, in an overt rather than explicit manner. The main source of the sex is the Count himself, with Christopher Lee lighting up the screen as six feet five inches of charm, testosterone and magnetism. Of course, if you go with the "neck biting as intercourse" theory, he is not only seducing other men's wives, but other men too, (in the climax between Van Helsing and Dracula, after their initial skirmish, look quickly and you can see Van Helsing checking his neck to make sure he hasn’t been penetrated by the Count). This imagery gives a queasy undertone to the sight of Harker’s fiancĂ©e Lucy, turned into a vampire by Dracula, trying to abduct her niece and seduce her brother,.

The lurid sexual tone is backed by an equally violent one, albeit tamer than we see nowadays, with lashings of very red blood, and a new slightly extended gruesome sight of Dracula disintegrating, thanks to some recently rescued footage taken from a previously lost Japanese version of the film.

The other thing that I had not properly appreciated is the energy, intensity and swashbuckling demeanour of Peter Cushing. His version of Van Helsing is a world away from the elderly, more academic characterisation by Edward Van Sloan in the Browning film, and the final battle between him and the Count could almost have come right out of an Errol Flynn film.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Asylum (1972)

Asylum is one of a series of anthology films made by the Amicus studio during the 1960s and 70s, as they tried to rival the Hammer Horror movies. The acting and writing vary from story to story and are at times the best and the worst elements of the film, leaving a patchy but still enjoyable slice of 70s British Horror.

The script is by none other than Robert “Psycho” Bloch, based on four of his own short stories. As is standard practice for a compendium film, each tale is linked by a framing story, in this case that of Dr Martin (Robert Powell), a young psychiatrist who arrives for a job interview at an isolated asylum for the incurably insane. Doing the interview is Dr Lionel Rutherford, currently wheelchair-bound due to an attack by an inmate. Rutherford says he will give Martin the post, if he agrees to interview four patients, listen to their stories and correctly guess which one is Dr Starr, the psychiatrist who ran the asylum, until a nervous breakdown made Starr an inmate.

The opening credits play out over the strains of Mussorgsky's Night on a Bare Mountain, suggesting a tone that is loud, lurid and portentous almost to the point of parody. What follows is thankfully not quite like that, and of the four tales, the first two are the most successful, for different reasons.

The first, “Frozen Fear” starts with a woman called Bonnie, who tells how she plotted with her lover Walter to bump off Walter's wife, dismember the body, hide it in a freezer and run off with her money. However, sometimes, you can't keep a good corpse down... While the situation is not so original and the characters are bland and forgettable, the segment succeeds due to the creepy denouement, EC comics style cruelty, and some fairly well executed special effects.

By contrast, the second segment, "The Weird Tailor" works so well because of the lead actor, with Peter Cushing at his effortlessly chilling best as the mysterious Mr Smith, who hires down-on-his-luck tailor, Bruno (Barry Morse) to make him a suit. There are some strange conditions attached though - Bruno can only work on the suit after midnight, and it must be made entirely from an unusual, glowing fabric. Cushing moves subtly from cold and determined to desperate, as the reason for the suit becomes apparent, while Morse is believable as a hard working honest man, also driven to desperate measures. Director Roy Ward Baker had an eclectic career working in a number of genres, but shows in this story great understanding of how to make this work as a horror story, keeping the direction simple and letting the actors get on with it. His only misjudgement is the ending, which feels hurried.

Sadly, neither the writing nor acting can save the third segment. Here we meet Barbara (Charlotte Rampling) and find that this is not her first time in an asylum. Her story starts with her being released from the facility, and going to stay with her brother George and a nurse. The only relief from the boredom of her confined life is when her mischievous friend Lucy (Britt Ekland) comes to visit and plots to help her escape - but is Lucy all she appears to be? A very easily guessed twist ending, coupled with some wooden acting from Ekland make this a real test of patience.

In the final segment, Martin speaks with a Dr Byron (Herbert Lom), who is using his incarceration to work on his plan to transfer souls into miniature automatons and end what he sees as Rutherford’s reign of terror at the asylum. The episode feels rushed in execution and the automaton models look very silly, but at least it cleverly links to the main story, and Lom is never less than entertaining.

Beyond the merits and faults of the stories themselves, there is one point of particular interest about the script. The unreliable narrator is a well-used idea in storytelling, but here, instead of one, we get several - in fact, none of the characters could be who they say they are. This also means that we never see the world beyond the asylum other than through the characters, and much of that world is indoors. While this may have been for budgetary reasons, it also gives Asylum a subtle feeling of claustrophobia.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Othello (1952)

Orson Welles' take on Shakespeare's Moor of Venice is a brave but flawed film. While visually striking, the disjointed and distant feel of Othello makes it hard to connect with the story or characters.

Welles sticks faithfully to the story, with the titular Venetian General falling foul of the scheming of his supposedly faithful servant Iago, and being tricked into doubting his wife’s fidelity, with tragic and deadly consequences. However, trimming a three hour play in half creates two problems. Firstly, the pacing becomes so frantic that the story becomes confusing and garbled at times. Secondly, the cuts mean we lose some of the characterisation and ambiguities that make the play so rich. Subsequently, the characters are not as interesting, and the scenario of a dignified intelligent person being destroyed by mix of a devious scheme from a master plotter (and a fizzing energetic bundle of evil) and his own insecurities, becomes a slightly dim man being tricked by a slightly devious man. Desdemona is similarly diminished as a personality, from the fiery, independent woman of the text, defying her father to marry the man she loves, to a simpering helpless, passive girl. Some of the shots seem designed to put distance or a barrier between the audience and the figures on screen, which, when combined with the two-dimensional characters makes for uninvolving viewing, lacking the emotional core that can make Othello so devastating.

Welles plays Othello in “Blackface” make-up, which looks more silly and distracting than offensive nowadays. There is little to read into this in terms of racism as he was simply following the theatrical convention of the time, and indeed, race is one of several themes left unexplored thanks to the copious chops made to the text.

Having said all of that, Othello looks magnificent, making full use of the locations in Venice,Tuscany, Rome and Morocco where it was shot. Given the nightmare Welles had making the film, with frequent lengthy breaks in production, while he went off to make other films to raise money to finish this one, it is obviously a labour of love, and he deserves recognition and credit as someone who broke new ground in transferring Shakespeare from the stage to the screen, and making good use of the medium along the way.

One for Welles completists, and cinematic Shakespeare completists, but this version of Othello may leave the more casual viewer cold.

Monday, 6 October 2014

The Falcon's Alibi (1946)

The penultimate entry in the RKO series of Falcon mystery thrillers, The Falcon's Alibi is one of the most enjoyable, thanks to two actors who nearly outshine the lead, as well as the film taking a more "hard boiled" approach to crime than usual.

The story starts with the Falcon aka Tom Lawrence (played as usual by the suave and charming Tom Conway) befriending a lady at a racetrack. The lady in question is Joan Meredith (Rita Corday), secretary to wealthy socialite Gloria Peabody. Mrs Peabody is unaware that some of her expensive jewels are missing, and Joan is concerned that suspicion will fall on her. Lawrence steps in to help, but along the way falls foul of the police, a gang of LA crooks, a terrified nightclub singer, and a radio DJ who may not be everything he appears to be.

The format for these films is solidly in place by this stage, with Lawrence stumbling into a mystery without even trying, aided and abetted by a sidekick (in this case the semi-regular character Goldie Locke) and dimwitted police detectives, charming his way to a rather rushed conclusion. However, what lifts The Falcon's Alibi above the norm is the intriguing supporting cast, and their story. Elisha Cook had his big break playing the creepy but hapless low-rent crook Wilmer in John Huston’s groundbreaking version of The Maltese Falcon and here as Nick, the local radio DJ he brings the same sort of unsettling intensity. He is excellently complemented by the alluring Jane Greer as Nick’s wife, nightclub singer Lola Carpenter. Greer gives her a believable vulnerability and likeability. Their doomed, crumbling relationship becomes a more intriguing storyline than the missing jewels, to the point where you sometimes feel, jumping between them and the Falcon, as though you are watching two different stories, one of which is not going to end well.

Cook and Greer would continue to shine in Film-Noir classics such as The Big Sleep, The Killing, and Out of The Past, but sadly the future was not so bright for the Falcon, as the waning popularity of the series would see RKO make one more before pulling the plug.