Saturday, 25 June 2016
One of the enduring real-life mysteries to intrigue amateur sleuths and professional historians alike for decades is the strange story of the Mary Celeste, a Canadian ship which sailed into Gibraltar Bay on December 13th 1872 with no sign of anyone on board. Upon being boarded, it was found that aside from missing Captain Benjamin Spooner Briggs who set sail with his wife, two-year old daughter and a crew of seven, there was evidence such as unfinished food to suggest a hurried evacuation – but no sign of any of the occupants was ever seen again. The tale became known to the public thanks to the fictional short story J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement written by Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1884. Its popularity as fiction eclipsed knowledge of the true events’ circumstances enough for some of his incidental details to be misinterpreted as the actual facts – Conan Doyle described the ship being in virtually perfect condition whereas in reality it was water-logged from rough seas. Also, the real vessel was missing one of the lifeboats (a possible explanation for the disappearances along with its condition) whereas the author chose to increase the mystery by not mentioning this. Also, the name of the vessel is usually known erroneously as Marie not Mary.
According to the website maryceleste.net, the most likely explanation seems to be that the crew and passengers took to the lifeboat in a panic to escape perilous conditions but tragically didn’t survive in such a tiny craft: “The records of the Servicio Metrologico in the Azores says that the weather deteriorated that morning and a storm blew up involving gale force winds and torrential rain”. The theory that a mutiny caused the fraught situation is unlikely as it was a relatively short voyage and the Captain and First Mate were assessed as being fair-minded rather than tyrants.
Either way, in 1935 The Mystery of the Mary Celeste became a film released as the second title by a little-known English production outfit called Hammer Films. The company was founded by amateur music-hall artiste Will Hinds in November 1934, inspired by his stage name of Will Hammer. That same year, Hinds met Spanish émigré Enrique Carreras and in May 1935 they partnered in the distribution company Exclusive which showcased their own Hammer films until the horror slump caused the latter to collapse in bankruptcy after only three more films in 1937. Exclusive survived the climate but it would be ten years before Hammer would surface again due to the pioneering entrepreneurship of Carreras’s son James in 1947 to become one of the world’s greatest studios of horror cinema.
Originally the film ran at 80 minutes but the only version that exists now is the 20-minute shorter American print titled Phantom Ship which we’ll refer to from here onwards. The director and co writer (with Charles Larkworthy) was Denison Clift who began as a scenarist for Cecil B. De Mille and continued as screenwriter while he directed, till after this move he focused entirely on writing for the screen and stage.
Phantom Ship aims to explain the mysterious real-life vanishings by creating a back-story of murderous revenge tinged with the supernatural. Before setting sail, a love-triangle - rather than the equally enigmatic Bermuda one - is presented to us between the Mary Celeste’s Captain Briggs (Arthur Margetson) his new bride Sarah played by Shirley Grey and his old friend, now fellow Captain, Jim Morehead (Clifford McLaglen of the large McLaglen acting family). We learn that Morehead had loved Sarah but Briggs made his move first, breeding a disturbing silence until Morehead seethes: “Your friend, yes. And you went behind my back…” On face value, this suggests the plot’s smouldering gun until a haggard sailor fetches up in a waterfront dive…
In the same way that Boris Karloff returned to England in 1933 to add dark lustre to British Gaumont’s hoped-for success in The Ghoul, Hammer had asked for Bela Lugosi to cross the Atlantic to bolster their murder-mystery. This is good news for Lugosi fans as in Phantom Ship he demonstrates the greater character actor range that was all too often lost in his post-Dracula typecasting. After a run of cookie-cutter, suave imperious Svengalis that may also have played on his vanity (he often alluded to the comedown from his days as a matinee idol back in Hungary), suddenly he turns up here eschewing the vain self-consciousness in favour of a touching vulnerability. Lugosi is Anton Lorenzon, a penniless sea-dog burdened with a heavy unspoken past. The debonair, self-styled romantic of earlier roles is unrecognisable with his grey hair, unshaven face and humbled demeanour, yet he becomes animated with fear at the mention of the Mary Celeste and Bilson, the First Mate.
Lorenzon joins the crew under the assumed name of Gottlieb, and soon falls foul of the imposing Bilson (Edmund Willard)’s sailor superstition by bringing a cat on board, causing a fight with him. To add to Lorenzon’s misery, he kills a fellow crew-member who attacks Sarah in the Captain’s cabin. Soon Lorenzon is established as the ship’s Cassandra of doomy foreboding: “When this ship sails, Death sails on her”.
For the first half of Phantom Ship, it’s a fairly dull crossing but then we discover that Lorenzen was shanghaied by Bilson on this same ship six years before and tossed overboard to the sharks when he proved too ill to work. Ever since, his desire for vengeance has burned within him and while we ponder the welcome intrigue of how he’ll do this, off-screen meanwhile the cast are gradually bumped off till there is just him, Bilson and the corpulent, tattooed Katz (former British Boxing Champion Gunner Moir). Bilson may be a lunk but he knows his deductive reasoning: “When the next man goes, I’ll know who it is. The one who’s left”.
There’s a chilling sequence where Bilson and Katz go above deck and while the camera lingers on a mournful close-up of Lugosi, a gunshot heralds Bilson coming down jubilantly to announce he’s shot Katz. Clearly, Lorenzon has some assistance or competition in the killing, but nothing will stop him taking his revenge. He recounts how he murdered the Captain and his wife when they tried to flee. Bilson is shot in cold blood and tossed overboard, retribution metered out by Lorenzon for his own inhumane treatment - yet here is where the paranormal comes into play. Lorenzon is struck by the yard-arm and witnesses the ship’s wheel turning a course as if guided by an invisible hand. Lorenzon becomes filled with confusion either from concussion or, more ambiguously, an evil entity and roams the boat searching for Bilson in terror.
What ultimately happens to make Lorenzon disappear is never explained, a nice touch of the supernatural that plays into the hands of imaginative theorists rather than a more prosaic ending. The ship is found empty making its way into Gibraltar port and amidst the questions, all Morehead can do is be consumed with grief: “"I am thinking of Briggs and her, dead!"
Overall, Phantom Ship has a convincingly hardened cast aboard, a pleasing whiff of the unexplained and a reminder of what Bela Lugosi could do when surrendering himself to a part…
Thursday, 23 June 2016
“There are things going on in this house that I don’t like”.
By the mid-1930, the horror film was spinning its wheels, killing time between its initial fever of box-office excitement that began with Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein (1931-32) through a gradual slump until the genre was revitalised again in 1938 by the surprise double-bill hit pairing of the two by an enterprising cinema owner in New York. Despite twitchings of hope such as The Mummy and James Whale’s The invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, the patient was in a coma during the middle of the decade.
Tod Browning’s Mark of the Vampire (released after a title change from Vampires of Prague) in 1935 is a good example, being a waste of numerous talents including Browning himself. The director had gone from the artistic high-point of his vampire classic and the sensationally controversial Freaks (1932) to what feels like a road-company re-tread of his better days. The M-G-M film was meant to be a remake of his lost 1927 London After Midnight for the same studio, but as David J. Skal points out in his book The Monster Show, it also bears a parallel resemblance to Browning’s Dracula, the comparison marked most starkly by an almost wordless, demeaning vampire cameo from the earlier movie’s star Bela Lugosi. Indeed most of the name cast are squandered and there are many other elements mirroring the Universal film.
The mysterious death at home of the wealthy Sir Karell Borotyn, (horror film stalwart Holmes Herbert) leads the locals to suspect vampirism due to the tiny puncture marks on his neck. Browning weaves in their superstitious fears via a graveyard prologue featuring a gypsy woman scared by the old (un) reliable ‘bat on a stick’. A holidaying English couple scoff at such myths: “They’ll never believe that at the club!” yet the villagers’ terror is much more real than the rubber bats. They speak in hushed tones of the legendary Count Mora, his name taken from the Bohemian word for vampire.
In comes the intrepid Inspector Neumann from Prague to investigate in the moustached form of an under-used Lionel Atwill, assisted by another character player, Donald Meek’s quivering Dr Dostil.
The dead Sir Karell leaves behind two children as well as Baron Otto who will run the estate for them. The Baron is Jean Hersholt whose film roles were over-shadowed by his humanitarian efforts on behalf of the industry that led to the Academy Award for such services given out thereafter in his name. Sadly, there’s not much aid that can help here as gradually more talent is drafted in to precious little effect. Elisabeth Allan is the beautiful daughter and main inheritor Irena, later required to essentially be the Mina Harker victim to the eventual vampire. Her brother Feydor (Henry Wadsworth) collapses upon entering in a weakened, delirious state after falling inexplicably near the castle. He bears a triangular set of needle-pricks to his neck as well.
This allows us a first glimpse of Lugosi as the evil Count Mora, accompanied by the hot but blank Carroll Borland as his goth paramour Luna. They have rented the nearby castle which, like his performance, references Dracula in all but name, right down to the scurrying armadillo, bats and splendidly-effective gigantic web that promotional photos used to great effect. We must rely on his trusty ‘menacing glower’ expression more than usual in Mark of the Vampire as unfortunately right up till the epilogue he is reduced to literally silent vamp-ing with his partner. The blood-stained residue of a bullet-wound to the temple is intriguing. Skal attributes this to a suicide back-story following incest with his daughter, however, due to the censor erasing any such distaste it is never referenced. Rather than a strategic cameo lent by a powerhouse name, this was a woeful waste of Lugosi, a talent who in a few short years was already reduced to taking what he could get.
Possibly the greatest contribution to Mark of the Vampire is the excellent cinematography by the celebrated James Wong Howe, (double Oscar winner out of ten career nominations for The Rose Tattoo and Hud). He was famous for filming actresses most flatteringly and without resorting to soft focus or gauze trickery - and was renowned for his artistic philosophy of collaborating with his director early in the planning stages and adjusting his technique to suit the material. Since by all accounts Browning had acceded the look (and some direction) of Dracula to the equally talented cameraman Karl Freund, one wonders to what extent he gave the same control to Howe as the most vivid aspect of the film is its visuals – the use of shadows and the foggy sets showcasing Lugosi and Borland work well. It’s also worth noting the sound design that enhances the creepiness of the atmosphere when the undead are lurking with a highly-effective soft breeze, the low human moaning of tortured souls.
In terms of performances, the sole one of interest is that of Lionel Barrymore (elder of the Barrymore acting dynasty and brother of John), whose Professor Zelen brings the occult knowledge that pinpoints him as the film’s homage to Count Dracula’s nemesis Van Helsing. He gives Zelen a beetle-browed, scholarly energy that enlivens the movie somewhat. Like his inspiration, he struggles to protect the family from the undead, urging the maid and butler to strew bat-thorn around the house. This cues an attack on the staff from Count Mora, appearing in a slapdash effect shot that crudely cuts from a jiggling, wired bat emitting smoke to Lugosi without any attempt at a merging dissolve. Barrymore’s enthusiasm provides a moment of amusement as he relishes the method of vampire dispatch, not knowing that Mora is outside the room. “The head must be severed with one clean stroke and a sprig of bat-thorn placed within the gaping wound”. Lugosi’s expression of concern as he hears this is priceless.
In the end, where Mark of the Vampire cleaves closest to London After Midnight is in the third act revelation that the whole setup has been conceived in order to trap Baron Otto into revealing himself as the murderer – including the vampires. He undergoes hypnosis causing him to re-enact his poisoning and marking of Sir Karell’s neck on the night of the crime. I’m no expert in law but would hypnotic ‘recall’ be viable in court as evidence of previous action – or thrown out as possibly an act of imagination instead?
I’m probably looking too deeply into this elaborate web which is more than Lugosi was able to do. After his own trance-like autopilot stalking, he only gets to speak at the very end when we see him and Borland revealed as travelling actors backstage next to their theatricals’ wicker basket. There’s a tragic irony to his grandeur when he says: “This vampire business has given me a great idea for a new act” as the next two decades were to see him terminally wedded to his most popular role, a tour de force becoming ‘forced to tour, slogging endless increasingly tawdry stage shows of Dracula around the U.S. until his death...
Saturday, 11 June 2016
In 1935 Republic Pictures, home of those beloved movie serials, released the horror film The Crime of Dr Crespi, a lacklustre, plodding mad scientist revenge piece principally of interest only because it features the former bad-boy director Erich Von Stroheim as its lead and a rare non-demented turn from Dwight Frye.
Based loosely on Poe’s The Premature Burial, it was directed by John H Auer who spent a long time with the studio culminating in TV shows like Whirlybirds. He co-wrote the script with two others, Lewis Graham and Edward Olmstead, which is hard to believe for what remains a very single-minded B picture. What the film boils down to is vengeance - carried out by Crespi upon his protégé, the eminent Dr Ross (John Bohn) who had stolen Estelle Ross (Harriet Russell) from him and now Crespi is seemingly the only man capable of life-saving surgery upon him. So far, ‘so hospital melodrama’. However, unbeknownst to Mrs Ross, Crespi goes through the charade of pretending her husband died on the operating table whilst actually administering a paralysing drug with the terrible side-effect of forcing his victim to experience his own burial – unable to move anything except his eyes, a payback “with compound interest”. The sequence of Crespi savouring his grisly revenge - “My friend – my very dear friend” he coos with velvety evil - is one of the few sparks of life in the tired unfurling of the plot, the blame for which rests largely on Stroheim. He spends most of the film reciting his lines in such an underpowered, conversational manner that it comes across as an actor’s boredom with the material. (The poster depiction of him smoking in a resigned posture is a very fair summation of his distracted performance). This may be due to the fall from grace he was recovering from, having previously been a prized and temperamental director of renown.
The Austrian-born Stroheim had risen from modest Viennese roots that he later lied about in interviews, claiming to be descended from nobility. He began his Hollywood career working for D.W. Griffith as both actor and as one of the assistant directors on Intolerance. The immense scale of this epic would perhaps influence his own future grandiose ideas. World War One gave him an opportunity to make his name as various near-enough German-accented officers in films like The Heart Of Humanity. He emerged as a skilled director in the silent era with famous films such as Blind Husbands (1919 and the lavishly-budgeted Foolish Wives in 1922, but with a notorious penchant for tyrannical and arrogant behaviour. (The Hollywood stereotype of the jodhpur-clad bully barking orders through a megaphone is based on both he and Cecil B. De Mille). This, coupled with his exhorbitant demands, would be his downfall as no cost-effective studio will endlessly bank-roll an unreasonable director’s ‘vision’. The crunch came with 1923’s Merry-Go-Round from which Stroheim was fired. His replacement, Rupert Julian, would parlay this chance into going on to helm Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera the following year (see my Chaney serialisation of 12/2015).
Stroheim’s most famous, indeed infamous work, was Greed based on Frank Norris’s novel McTeague, which ballooned to an original cut of ten hours. When Sam Goldwyn’s studio merged to become M-G-M, Stroheim found his film taken away from him to eventually be distilled down to just two and a half hours, an arguably ruinous editing . Sadly, we can never know for sure as the extra footage was irrevocably destroyed. Stroheim’s career almost went the same way due to his temperamental inability to compromise his needs in any way. He was fired from Queen Kelly in 1929 when Gloria Swanson could not get along with him.
Ironically, after being forced back into acting to make a living, perhaps his most memorable role was as a subservient assistant to the high-handed, faded star Norma Desmond, brilliantly essayed by Swanson in Billy Wilder’s hymn to the silent days, Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Between his illustrious heights as a director and his comeback for Wilder, movies like The Crime of Dr Crespi paid the bills for Stroheim if nothing else. This particular one certainly doesn’t repay close attention and he trots out his lines with a barely functional presence when not required to move along his hideous scheme. Dwight Frye attempts to inject a serum of energy into proceedings as the suspicious (of Crespi) Dr Thomas. Whilst it’s gratifying to see him escape from the typecast confines of the gibbering henchmen that made his name in Dracula and Frankenstein, Frye is soon incarcerated again when Crespi strangles him into unconsciousness and dumps him in a side room while he undergoes the pretence of attending the funeral as a respectful mourner.
Thomas teams up with Dr Arthur, (Paul Guilfoyle, who went on to The Grapes of Wrath and White Heat among other classics in a long career) and together they revive Ross, who shambles down the hospital corridor, his zombified appearance shocking the duty nurse who was just moaning about the boring shifts she works there. The movie culminates in a shoddily rushed and confused ending in which Ross enters Crespi’s office, to no surprise whatsoever from his tormentor, and dies slumped in a chair. Thomas and Arthur rush in, but by now Crespi/Stroheim is so jaded with the film that he matter-of-factly declares it’s all over and shoots himself. “Crespi!” gasps Thomas, with perplexing sensitivity toward a chap who only shortly before had throttled him and stuffed him in a closet. At least Frye gets a nice epilogue flirting promisingly with the nurse, while the audience has the feeling of a very unsatisfying end to a date.
The Crime of Dr Crespi is ultimately not one of murder, but artistic negligence.
The Crime of Dr Crespi is ultimately not one of murder, but artistic negligence.
Wednesday, 8 June 2016
This humdrum bottom-of-the bill offering is really only a very low-budget jungle adventure programmer spiced up with the grisly suggestion of mad scientist animal vivisection (mercifully never carried out). The Beast of Borneo was directed by Harry Garson from a script by Alfred Hustwick and Frank J Murray. It seems that most of the creatives on this film sank without trace from further screen endeavours which tells us a lot. The only notable appears to be Murray who seemingly later went on to become a Federal Judge. He may be guilty of being an accessory to a dreary film that was cobbled together from a lot of unused travelogue footage from Universal’s East of Borneo (1931). This explains why in one scene we see the actors performing in front of badly back-projected sets then intercut with long-shots of a real matching set as they go back and forth.
The plot revolves, like a wheezy old carousel, around the hunt by “the celebrated Anglo-Russian scientist Dr Boris Borodoff” for an Orang-utan he can experiment upon: “…getting a true human reaction from an ape”. Borodoff, played in halting English by Eugene Sigaloff, is arrogant, cruel and with an overweening God complex – at least his horror film credentials are perfect. A prologue screen card has already alerted us to a theme already of the Orang-utan being “the nearest living creature in thought and action to the human being”. The good news is that the unfolding film doesn’t use this as an excuse for another of those laughable illusion-breaking ‘man in a suit’ romps. The bad news is that instead the producers simply cut wherever necessary to stock footage spliced in of a real one.
Borodoff and his assistant, the comely Alma (Mae Stuart) enlist the professional services of John Preston’s Bob Ward, an explorer whose debatable conscience will only allow him to capture animals for menageries not lab experiments. Borodoff and Alma head out to Borneo to meet him, the scientist lying about his true motive for needing an adult Orang-utan. Ward agrees to lead an expedition and they set off, accompanied by Joe, a cute youngster of the species.
The party trap an adult male ape up a tree and bribe him down with food before netting him for capture. Soon, Borodoff confesses he has always loved Alma, spurred on by her fascination for the “self-sufficient, infallible he-man”. Any attempt to woo her is scuppered as Borodoff’s evil machinations bubble to the surface. Unwillingly, he is asked to help Ward’s friend, a native tracker, who falls ill. The tribespeople prove to be less gullible than the westerners by not trusting the scientist to treat him, which inevitably leads to the poor man’s death. Understandably, the natives have scarpered by the next morning, leaving whitey hardly any food.
By now Ward has rumbled Borodoff’s plot to operate on the adult primate – some wild and unpleasant guff about opening his brain to study his reactions before he dies. (Needless to say, they wouldn’t be optimistic). In trying to free him from his cage, Borodoff knocks him out by whacking him across the back with a piece of wood, the swine. However, the freed Orang-utan drags Ward off into the forest in what seems to be a protective gesture. Regrettably, the same cannot be said for little Joe who is tied up and stretched out by Borodoff on a bench as he prepares to at least examine the reactions of a two-year old if he can’t get the fully-grown one. This sequence is uncomfortable to watch as surely the ape would not know the difference between play-acting for the camera and real distress induced by movie folk for a shot. It’s a good thing animal rights on set are protected these days – unlike those of the viewer who must endure Borodoff’s hesitant delivery of lines such as: “Don’t be a sentimental…fool Alma”.
Joe manages to escape with helpful interference run by Alma and makes his way to revive Ward, while the adult Orang-utan first fends off a python attack and then kills the considerably easier yellow opponent of Borodoff. This leaves the happy reunion ending of Ward, Alma and little Joe.
The Beast of Borneo is a lacklustre effort to be sure, for some reason continues that strange Hollywood early 30’s fascination for our ape cousins and demonstrates more primitive life in its presentation than they do...
Saturday, 4 June 2016
Released by the suspiciously cheapjack-sounding ‘Hollywood Producers and Distributors’ comes this hysterically haphazard shocker complete with performances ranging from the finest wood-grain to the outlandishly over-ripe.
Maniac was directed by Dwain Esper, who’d already established his credentials at helming exploitation movies with Narcotic (1933) and would go on to such notables as Marihuana in 1936. His style ostensibly poses as educational warning whilst simultaneously mining every tawdry detail he can get from his sensationalist subject. In this film, there are so many title cards alluding to the medical conditions depicted (I counted six over the course of its 50 minutes) that they almost function as chapter headings, clumsily interpolated without caring about structure. At times, one wonders if this is a bad illustrated psychiatric text book instead of a horror film.
The origin of Maniac is loosely inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s The Black Cat, the tale of a man haunted by the moggie he hangs after torturing it. A similarly marked cat appears and plagues his waking life till, thwarted in his attempt to kill the new one, he kills his wife in an uncontrollable rage. He bricks up her body behind a wall but when police hear miaowing, it tips them off to break down the wall, revealing her hidden body and that of the cat.
Esper’s film, written by his wife Hildegarde Stadie, takes this premise and adds a mad scientist’s experimentation into the motivation. We begin with an introductory ‘Foreword’ warning the public against giving in to fear and a wonderfully vague stab at credibility quoting the Chicago Crime Commission’s study of 40,000 criminals that ‘found them all suffering from some mental disease’. This leads us to meet Dr Meirschultz (Horace B Carpenter), a bushy-haired medical madman in glasses who could be a lost member of the Grateful Dead. After ranting about needing a human guinea-pig for his experiments whilst brandishing an intimidatingly large hypodermic needle, he bullies his lowly assistant Don Maxwell who came to him from a failed career as a vaudeville impressionist: “Once a ham, always a ham”. He can talk. He seems to roar every line in an unspecified Eastern European accent like a scholarly version of Laurel and Hardy character player Billy Gilbert.
Meirschultz steals a beautiful female corpse from the morgue and injects her with his serum, a disappearance reported by an attendant to the humdrum Captain of the Bureau of Missing Persons. The doctor is not satisfied with this subject and shouts subtly to Maxwell: “What I want is a victim with a shattered heart”. Instead of waiting till his own performance puts him on the slab, he invites Maxwell to shoot him dead and then transplant his quivering experimental heart kept in a jar. Maxwell fulfils the first part and then decides rather than honour the bargain he will allow his boss’s soul to rest so that he can use his acting skills to impersonate Meirschultz, rendered easier by his employer’s disguise-like visage.
Another title card outlining ‘PARALYSIS’ leads us to Maxwell offering to help a Mrs Buckley (Phyllis Diller, namesake of the comedienne) treat her husband, a palpitating patient of the dead doctor who believes himself to be “the Orangutan from Murders in the Rue Morgue”. Using a dissolve photography effect that will occur a lot in the film, Maxwell has the Buckleys wait while he assumes his mentor’s appearance - plus some of his seething insanity: “Meirschultz would be missed. Maxwell never would.”
In his haste, Maxwell/Meirschultz mistakenly lays hands on the huge hypodermic, full of super-adrenaline which inevitably causes Mr Buckley to go into lunacy overdrive, “Stealing through my body – creeping through my veins!!” and run off outside to abduct women and tear their clothes off. For connoisseurs of rare early 1930’s American cinema toplessness, you’d be disappointed as the subterranean-budget for Maniac only allows exteriors to be shot in murky natural light. Meanwhile, Mrs Buckley cunningly plots to do business with ‘Meirschultz’, believing her husband may be turned into her willing slave – presumably if he can stop jumping on young women long enough.
After a brief interruption by a title-card depicting the ‘PARANOIAC’ condition, we see ‘Meirschultz’ bricking up the dead doctor down in the basement. By now the lame-duck Bureau Captain is now on the scene. There’s an amusingly Ed Wood(en) exchange between him and a neighbour, concerning the scientist, of such aimlessness I forgot he was supposed to be a professional (actor or investigator):
SHE: “Why, they even brought a dead dog back to life once”.
HE: “Well, that sounds very remarkable to me”.
Captain Compelling then uses his disarming interview non-technique on the other oddball local who keeps cats in order to sell their fur, an enterprising chap who harnesses an unsavoury symbiotic relationship between felines and rodents. His explanation is a ghoulish tribute to Dr Seuss and Ed Gein: "The cats eat the rats, the rats eat the cats – and I get the skins!”.
While Maxwell is spinning plates as his mentor, it seems he has forgotten all about his sassy platinum-blonde wife, one of four gossiping floozies in a hotel room, who is also scheming to get one over on her hubbie. Part Mae West and part talent gone west, she unwittingly lets Maxwell in on her plan by thinking it is Meirschultz she tells that there is a fortune due to Maxwell if she can find him. For some reason, this is randomly broken up with another unrelated word from our tutor sponsor about ‘MANIC-DEPRESSIVE PSYCHOSES’.
Fearing the cunning of both ladies, Maxwell tries to be clever in playing off his wife and Mrs Buckley against each other. Aptly, they fight like wild cats, the screen over-laid by grasping talon-like female hands superimposed (repeated thematic footage like this was taken from Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages – see my review 24/12/2015). Maxwell weighs in by slugging Mrs Buckley with a strangely handy baseball bat and then the cops arrive, headed by our Fedora’d friend from the Bureau. Referencing the Poe story, they are alerted to a feline cry from behind the wall and the real Meirschultz’s body topples out along with a scaredy-cat.
One more title card about insanity takes us to an epilogue where the jailed Maxwell defends his supreme impersonation to the audience: “I only wanted to amuse…to entertain”. Of this, Maniac is assuredly and at times unintentionally guilty…
Thursday, 2 June 2016
In 1928 Spanish director Luis Bunuel launched his challenging career as a film-maker with the infamous Surrealist short Un Chien Andalou. It was full of the themes that had obsessed Bunuel since childhood – and by collaborating with artist Salvador Dali ensured that its bizarre symbolic imagery deliberately made no concession to commonplace narrative logic.
Luis Bunuel was the eldest son of seven, born into a wealthy family in the small Aragon town of Calanda in Spain. His father Leonardo had inherited a fortune and rather than being a role model of the hard work ethic spent his days as a gentleman of leisure. Luis was similarly indulged by his mother who regarded her oldest boy as a saint, displaying a portrait of him on a makeshift altar of paintings of popes.
Bunuel’s character was hugely influenced by his environment - a closed, isolated community with a rigid hierarchy and strong Catholic faith maintaining a status quo of respect between peasant and landowner. Religion permeated all aspects of Bunuel’s life and he developed an ambivalent relationship with it and all forms of authority throughout his life. He went to a Jesuit college, a branch of the faith notorious for its strictness of discipline. There, the Brothers’ merciless views on abstinence crystallised in him an inextricable link between the forbidden ‘voluptuous’ pleasure of sex mixed with death.
Anthony Wall’s excellent BBC Arena documentary The Life and Times of Don Luis Bunuel (1984) features extracts from his autobiography read by Paul Scofield and revealing archive interview films. When asked what made him choose film as his medium of expression, he replied “Sheer bad luck” because he considered himself a lousy painter and writer. The weapon of choice Bunuel felt comfortable with was the filmed visual image. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he added: “Acting is a profession for layabouts. I’d have liked that…A nuisance but it’s well-paid”.
Bunuel studied insect science at the University of Madrid, which became a life-long fascination and shows up within the imagery of his films. His student years were a pivotal point of inspiration in his life, introducing him to his long-time friend and creative partner Salvador Dali from whom he became inseparable. He also became heavily immersed in the Surrealist movement, via such luminaries as Man Ray, amongst whom he would fraternise at La Coupole and other celebrated venues for the artistic café society set. Although the Surrealists were at face value a group of radical café intellectuals, they were not simply poseurs or aiming for artistic posterity in their work. They wanted to change the society around them, which they despised for its colonial imperialism and oppressive religious tyranny. Even though Bunuel was only involved with them for roughly three years, their mission statement added energy and purpose to his own expression.
After university Bunuel went to Paris to pursue the literature and arts scene. By now, cinema possessed him as a future career. His mother had already been horrified by this decision. Like many (including some professional actors as we have seen), she regarded movies snobbishly as something for the common-folk. In Paris, he drenched himself in the latest films – watching three a day. He loved the Hollywood comedy shorts of such performers as Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, but it was the work of director Fritz Lang that had the most profound effect upon him, in particular Destiny (see my review of 3/1/2016). Whilst in the city, he became apprenticed to influential French director and critic Jean Epstein which taught him much about form and technology as assistant to his cameraman.
Jean-Claude Carriere, later co-writer on many of Bunuel’s films, recalled in the Arena documentary that the director had always greatly respected the power of imagination. Bunuel made a point of training himself to allow uninterrupted daily time for flights of fancy and would obey wherever they took him creatively. This free-associative philosophy is very clear even in his first film. In fact, Un Chien Andalou came about through the most unstructured of free-form imagination - dreams recounted by himself and Dali in conversation one day. Bunuel dreamt of a knife cutting an eye. Dali imagined his hand crawling with ants. Such images became famous “irrational elements” in the final movie. Bunuel and Dali concocted a script together in seven days, which is easier to believe when you consider the ethos that guided their writing: “Refuse any image that could have a rational meaning”. Theirs was a truly democratic collaboration. Any image that impressed them for whatever reason was in. If neither liked a particular idea, out it went.
Un Chien Andalou was shot in Paris - financed, despite her earlier protestations, with money from Bunuel’s mother, the cinematography provided by Albert Duverger and Jimmy Berliet. The film is an oddly upbeat, bracing ride despite being heavy with dark symbolism. This is in part because ever since its premiere at La Coupole, it has always been presented matched to a soundtrack of spirited Argentine tangos and the opera Tristan Und Isolde (played on phonograph records behind the screen when first shown). The opening is a brutal, literal eye-opener as a man (played by Bunuel) sharpens a straight razor, gazes up at thin clouds crossing the moon and imitates this by slicing open the eyeball of a young woman (Simone Mareul). If it’s any remote consolation, the hairy face used for the victim is actually a donkey, (presumably already expired, bless him).
From here, the chain of events is tenuously linked in much the same way as dream logic jumps – the title cards alone indicate this in going at one point from ‘Il était un fois’ (once upon a time) to suddenly ‘sixteen years ago’ with no responsibility to show the effect of time’s passage. A young man (Pierre Batcheff) dressed in a nun’s habit and wimple with an ornate box around his neck cycles down a street and collapses, to the horror of the young woman from scene one. He appears dead. She lays out his garments and props on the bed in a ritual design. He re-appears at the door, his hand crawling with ants, recalling Dali’s dream and Bunuel’s fascination with insectoid life in an insert effect shot skilfully achieved. A young woman on the street below pokes at a severed hand with a stick, drawing a crowd till a Gendarme arrives and puts it into her box, striped like that of the young man now, in the apartment above. Somehow this, culminating in her being run over, turns him on as he watches events from the window, inflaming his desire to grasp at his partner’s breasts and buttocks while a close-up of his face portrays an upward expression of yearning reminiscent of Christ on the Cross (appealing to God)?. It’s far too tempting a proposition to analyse the meaning of some of the imagery on offer rather than letting it wash over one like hallucinogenic waves. His perverse passion next manifests itself in an image that neatly combines the director’s interwoven feelings about sex and religious oppression, as the man tries to drag himself across the room toward her whilst being harnessed to two grand pianos topped with dead donkeys, one of them bleeding gorily from one eye (having donated it in the first scene?) with a pair of bemused priests pulled behind for good measure.
The young man’s hand is trapped through a door, teeming with more ants - naturally. The door-bell rings, cutting amusingly to disembodied hands shaking a cocktail shaker – possibly symbolising merry opportunity - your guess is as good as mine. This introduces us to a slightly shady man in a Fedora (Batcheff again) who divests the protagonist of his ‘costume’ gear and throws them out of the window. He forces the hero to stand in the corner like a naughty schoolboy in class, the comparison all the more inviting as he is made to hold out text books in each hand. I suspect here Bunuel was raging against the cruelty of his Jesuit teachers as the hero’s props turn into pistols and he shoots the bullying doppelganger. His double then materialises in a forest clearing, attended to and then carried away by local men.
Marueil, back in her apartment, witnesses a death’s-head moth on a wall, a close-up hammering home its significance. We then return to normal obscure service by Batcheff in the room with her, wiping his mouth away to replace it nightmarishly with her armpit (a part of the anatomy repeatedly referenced in the film). She then appears on a beach with a third young man, with whom she discovers the washed-up remnants of Batcheff’s nun outfit and striped trinket box on the shore. The couple walk away, canoodling - but a happy ending is thwarted by the stark final image, ‘Au Printemps’ (In Spring), showing them buried to their upper torsos in the sand like disturbing shop mannequins.
At a pacey two-reels (21 minutes) Un Chien Andalou is a madcap and enjoyably daffy roller-coaster of Freudian cheese-dreams and a great concentrated example of Surrealism, early Bunuel and Dali (transplanted into film as the artist would later do with dream visions for Hitchcock in Spellbound). Dali wasn’t the only one of the twosome to go to Hollywood. The American movie capital thrilled Bunuel as a life-long fan of their works and he jumped at the chance of a highly unusual six-month contract offered by M-G-M that allowed him to study the departments of editing, writing and ‘studios’. His sabbatical sadly did not translate into immediate directing contracts, yet later on yielded his Hollywood projects Robinson Crusoe the first American film released in Eastmancolor in 1954 and The Young One (1960).
Bunuel’s place in movie history was to be assured though with such European classics as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and That Obscure Object of Desire in 1977.