Friday, 18 April 2014

Helpmates (1932)

Helpmates is one of the best of Laurel and Hardy's short talkie films, a textbook example of them doing what they do best. The blueprint is a familiar one: a simple task for the pair to carry out, which means there is ample room for them to mess it up, in a permanently destructive manner.

In this case, while his wife is away, Olly has held a particularly raucous party. Next morning, it's panic stations, as a telegram arrives, informing him of the imminent return of the love of his life. Clearly not thinking straight, Olly, turns to the one person he thinks can help get his house back in order – Stan.

The direction is straightforward, apart from some cinematic touches at the beginning, with the camera panning around the post-party wreckage, and Olly giving a lecture on the evils of partying – which we pull back to reveal is being addressed to himself in the mirror. However, when the gags are this good, the performers this engaging and the running time so short, this lack of anything flashy is not a problem.

The humour comes from the classic Laurel and Hardy formula of slapstick and wordplay, with the pacing deliberate and calculated, compared to the sometimes frantic pace of their silent work. Gags are set up and allowed to work at a natural, unrushed pace, sometimes repeated and built up to an excruciating but hilarious climax.

It is interesting to note how much of the situation Olly brings on himself. Obviously, throwing the party was his idea in the first place, and expecting to involve Stan and not experience some complications is naïve at best. But, beyond that, along the way, there are also small lapses in concentration (tripping over a sweeper), oversights (leaving the gas on) or losses of temper (throwing a plant pot) that have wider consequences.

Nevertheless, he is not an unsympathetic character, largely because, thanks to one brief scene of dialogue, and a less than flattering photograph,
we are left with no doubt about what a truly awful human being his wife is. Different Laurel and Hardy films focus on different aspects of their personalities and lives, but when the focus is on domestic life it is rarely a blissful existence, although, again, this is usually their own fault.

When Olly finally gets out to the station to pick up his wife, he is wearing an ornate military uniform, complete with feathered hat and ceremonial sword, the duo having destroyed every other item of clothing he owns. When he returns, he has a black eye

but more significantly, the sword, the symbol of his manhood has been bent out of shape.

This is not the only time they have trashed a home, but unlike the work they did on James Finlayson in Big Business, this is entirely accidental. Nevertheless, here they are again desecrating that most sacred of middle class status symbols, the well-kept, well-decorated and well-furnished home, and while many of their fans, not just in the US, but around the world would be suffering from the effects of The Great Depression, maybe having lost homes of their own as a result.
Joan Crawford is once reported to have said "I never go outside unless I look like Joan Crawford the movie star. If you want to see the girl next door, go next door", and it is probably true that the appeal of many celebrities is that they are so utterly different from us normal folk. This is not the case for Laurel and Hardy though, as their appeal feels more like something we can identify with, folk engaged with constant and sometimes futile struggles against everyday life and everyday people, struggles often entirely of our doing. Even if we cannot learn anything from Stan and Olly, we can take heart in knowing that it is not just us.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Take the Money and Run (1969)

Take the Money and Run is the directorial début of Woody Allen and is essential viewing for anyone wanting to trace the evolution of the man as an artist. More importantly, it is a very funny film in its own right, and one that has elements that pre-dates a range of comedies from Airplane to This is Spinal Tap.

Shot as a fake documentary, the film traces the life of Virgil Starkwell, the archetypal loser criminal. Virgil goes from bullied child, to falling in with a bad crowd, to a series of bungled crimes and prison time. Footage of him in action is intercut with interviews with the likes of his long suffering wife, a shrink, and his cleverly disguised parents

In one aspect, it is apparent that perhaps Allen is still learning his craft, as nearly all of the scenes feel like sketches, and loosely connected ones, rather than parts of a whole story. This is understandable given that this is what he would have been used to writing on TV, as well as in stand-up and his pieces for the New Yorker, which much of the dialogue sounds very similar to with its offbeat non-sequiturs. However, so many of the sketches are brilliantly funny, which surely should be one way of judging the success of a comedy film.

Take the Money and Run is one of the first examples of a “mockumentary”, and I think it is the first made as a feature film for cinema release. It is certainly sets the template for how the comedy works in this genre, with the serious nature of the documentary style constantly clashing with the stupidity of the characters, or the surreal silly circumstances on screen, such as Starkwell's complaining over his choice of wardrobe for a bank job (“I have happened to have ironed your beige shirt. Do you wanna wear that?” “Who wears beige to a bank robbery?”)

Aside from Allen’s own later film Zelig, the most obvious example to take up this style would be This Is Spinal Tap. However, while both of those films are ostensibly set in the real world (or a realistic depiction of it), Take the Money and Run frequently veers into the sort of surreal tangents later to be seen in Blazing Saddles, or Airplane, with jokes such as Starkwell in a car trying to chase and run down a blackmailer inside her own living room, or an experimental drug with the side effect of turning him into a Rabbi.

The use of voice-over (something that would crops up frequently in Allen films) allows us to quickly speeding through any back-story and set up the scene for a gag without losing momentum. In addition, using Jackson Beck to perform the voice-over is a stroke of genius, as his deadpan deep baritone delivery adds gravitas, and works to play up the parody of the documentary style.

There are other touches that would crop up again later throughout his work, such his underrated skill for physical comedy (perfected a few years later in Sleeper), as well throwaway references to things such as psychoanalysis and Jewishness. Also worth a mention is Marvin Hamlisch's score, which, with its recurring themes and motifs, helps go some way to creating a coherent feel amongst the chaos of the script.

The film also stops just in time, as even Allen's unpredictable non-sequiturs start to get predictable. This is less of a problem in later films where he has fleshed out characters and a meatier story, but here, where there is nothing but gags, a slight monotony sets in during the final few moments.

Take the Money and Run was originally supposed to end on a downer, with Virgil being gunned down in slow motion, a la Bonnie and Clyde, but was talked out of it by Ralph Rosenblum, the man hired as editorial consultant. Rosenblum also helped shape and tighten the remaining footage, and Allen was suitably impressed with his work to collaborate on a further five films, including Annie Hall

Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Saint Strikes Back (1939)

Before Roger Moore made the part of Simon Templar his own in the 1960s TV series, the smooth talking gentleman thief and amateur sleuth appeared in a series of B pictures made by RKO. After putting Louis Hayward in the title role for The Saint In New York, the studio switched for the effortlessly debonair George Sanders for the follow up, The Saint Strikes Back.

Loosely based on the novel Angels of Doom, by Saint creator Leslie Charteris, the plot sees Templar come to the aid of the daughter of a San Francisco police officer, a man who committed suicide after being framed by a mysterious gangster. Can our hero clear the name of the innocent party, and unmask the crook?

George Sanders is one of those actors who nearly always plays a variation on the "George Sanders" character, someone who is charming, witty, and impervious to the doubts and emotions that plague us mere mortals. Unlike later films such as The Picture of Dorian Gray or All About Eve, the "George Sanders" here lacks the malevolent edge of Lord Henry or Addison DeWitt, which is in keeping with the roguish but basically decent character of Simon Templar, but is slightly less fun to watch.

I have seen The Saint described as a "Robin Hood-like" character, but if anything he seems like a precursor to Dr Who, someone whose motives are vague and wanders into situations seemingly by accident, solving problems, charming the authorities, then disappearing off into the sunset with no material reward.

The rest of the cast are competent enough, with significant roles given to Jerome Cowan, who would be immortalised as Miles Archer, the doomed partner of Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, and Neil Hamilton, later to play Commissioner Gordon on the Batman TV show.

The direction from John Farrow is also competent and workmanlike, with no expressionistic or artistic flourishes, apart from one brief and unexpected scene of a policeman having a nightmare about lobsters on trapezes. Farrow works hard to convince us we are in the City by the Bay, with some nicely foggy ambience. Screenwriter John Twist moves the action here from the original novel's English setting, and packs the dense screenplay with plenty of twists and turns, and some witty dialogue.

An enjoyable bit of fun, The Saint Strikes Back ends on a slightly downbeat note. For all Templar's cool, detached persona, at the end we are left with the impression of a lonely man and the final scene sees him quoting Kipling (“he travels fastest who travels alone”) before the camera tracks back, leaving a solitary Templar, leaning on a lamppost in the fog, whistling in a slightly resigned, almost melancholy fashion.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Seytan (1974)

Taking pity on Turkish cinemagoers in the 1970s that wanted to see William Friedkins's The Exorcist, but were unable, due to the unavailability of any prints, some enterprising producers dashed off a largely identical work to fill the gap. Unfortunately, Seytan dilutes the elements that make the original work, while adding little new, leaving an end product that is not horrifying, thought provoking, disgusting, or even that much fun to watch certainly compared to other rip-offs from that country.

The filmmakers stick rigidly to the plot and characters of the original, giving us not just a scene-for-scene remake, but in places shot-for-shot and word-for-word (and note for note, as Tubular Bells crops up several times, albeit wonky and badly dubbed). However, as 99.8% of the Turkish population identifies as Muslim it is perhaps not surprising that the major change is that the Catholic imagery and rituals have been removed and replaced largely, although not entirely, with Islamic equivalents.

However, the one major change to one of the lead characters comes from removing not replacing the religious element. In The Exorcist, Father Damian Karrass is both a psychiatrist and a priest, losing his faith and wracked with guilt over his inability to do anything to help his mother and her deteriorating health. In Seytan, the Karrass character, Tugrul Bilge, although also guilt ridden over his senile mother (a lifetime of poorly paid academia, rather than a lucrative career in medicine, has left him unable to afford decent health care) is a completely secular person, and without the spiritual crisis, he just comes across as a bit of a loser.

The other major change is that most of the obscene and blasphemous language and imagery has also been removed or altered (the infamous scene with the crucifix is replaced with one involving some sort of Devil shaped knife). This strips out another layer of interest from the source material, where the foul-mouthed demon contrasted with the quiet dignity of the priest.

Beyond the changes, the main problem is that is simply not as well made as the original. It was churned out in a cheap and hurried fashion and it shows, with the flat cinematography lacking the atmospheric touches of The Exorcist. The acting is melodramatic, hammy, scenery chewing stuff, with some, presumably, unintended comedy, such as the scene where the Doctor is hit in the groin being reminiscent of a Benny Hill sketch.

The terrible special effects do not help either, although it is hard to pick a low point with so many to choose. There is the papier-mâché demon, or the bouncing bed, where it is blatantly obvious that it is a group of people underneath the bed pushing it up and down. There are the scenes where the girl is supposed to be having electro shock therapy, which consists of what appear to be mini jack hammers pounding into either side of her skull while she gurns, mugs and rolls her eyes. There is also their take on the 180-degree head spin too, but in fairness, that looked pretty silly in the original, and the one here is not much worse.

These provide some cheap laughs, and much needed sparks of energy, but are too few and far between to save Seytan from being a largely grim and dull watch.

Friday, 28 March 2014

The Tenant (1976)

The third in a loose trilogy (along with Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby) linked by themes of urban living, paranoia, and mental decay, The Tenant is one of Roman Polanski’s most personal works. Although bearing some stylistic and thematic similarities to those other two films, it is strikingly different, not least because, by casting himself in the lead, Polanski offers us a troubling journey into his mind.

Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski), a shy man who works as a bureaucrat, takes an apartment in Paris, not knowing the previous tenant, a lady called Simone Choule, tried to commit suicide by throwing herself out the window. Although he is happy at first, the concierge (Shelley Winters), the tough landlord Mr Zy, and the oddly behaved neighbours, all start to get to him. Is he slowly losing his mind? Or, do they want him to go the same way as Simone?

Coming after Chinatown, an American film with American stars, The Tenant feels like a deliberate decision by Polanski to get back to his lower budget, European roots. Pretty much the whole film is seen through the eyes of Trelkovsky, using the classic device of the “unreliable narrator”, and starts in a fairly straightforward, even low key fashion, playing many of the scenes for laughs, albeit sometimes uncomfortable ones (and showcasing Polanski’s skill as a comic actor). However, as the tone gradually turns increasingly dark, surreal and paranoid, the plot twists and camera angles grow ever more disorientating.  The bleak world created is one where the weak will always be harassed and bullied by those stronger than them, or worse, those just as weak as they are, and the other characters are largely grotesque caricatures, in keeping with the nightmarish and darkly comic feel.

The casting by Polanski of himself in the lead role is one of the most interesting aspects of The Tenant, and there are a few reasons that I can think of as to why would have done this. First, is narcissism, and why not, as at the time he certainly had a reputation as an egomaniac. Secondly it may have been for practical reasons, as, working without Hollywood dollars, why not save some cash on stars salaries? Thirdly, as well as an egomaniac, he also had a reputation as a control freak, and after his well-publicised run-ins with Faye Dunaway on Chinatown, perhaps he wants a lead actor he can easily exert some control over.

However, what if it was done as a deliberate artistic decision?  This would make the film an intensely personal vision of his own paranoia and persecution complex, inviting us in to share it, as opposed to Repulsion, where he is inviting us to watch someone else, from a distance. It comes from the period after the murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn baby at the hands of the Manson Family, and just before fleeing the US and possible jail time for sexually assaulting a 13 year old girl, so there would be no shortage of dark things going on in his head.

The "twist" ending is the only real disappointment in The Tenant, and anyone who has seen a few episodes of The Twilight Zone or Tales of The Unexpected will see it coming. Aside from that, this is a disturbing vision of hell, a hell created by oneself as much as by other people.