Category Archives: Film

My Desert Island Discs

I’ve been drawn back to this BBC warhorse for many a year now. Most often, the eight records constitute benign interruptions within a rambling biography of the guest. So rare and precious are those occasions when the records seem to stand for constituent pieces of that human’s soul. On that basis, I’ve made choices that I hope would outshine any biographical ramblings. I’m not terribly interested in writing my biography; still less is the public in reading it. But combine all the pieces – with their bizarre voices, their baroque theatricality, their deep vein of harmless melancholy – and there you have me, in inchoate musical form. When the BBC finally invites me over, I will no doubt be venerable, grey-haired, and fixed on markedly different choices. But I like to think a few of the below would make it.

Newley MicAnthony Newley’s ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ – Each us who loves Newley carries our own version of him. Here’s mine: a Newley of grandstanding showmanship and big-hearted schmaltz, forever prone to unsparing confessionals. In this song, Newley mixes some very disjointed showbiz images – circus, stand-up, vaudeville – as a channel for his abiding self-pity. I’m sure it’s unlistenable for some. But once you reach an accommodation with Newley, even his self-pity becomes rousingly cathartic, generously human. Key to navigating Newley is getting to know his unique voice, that caramel discharge of rumbling, reverberant emotion. The climaxes of ‘The Fool Who Dared to Dream’ (robust vibrato) and ‘I’ll Begin Again’ (a more aged, tremulous vibrato) are exemplars of where the Newley voice could go – and each is, for me, perfect in its imperfection. Newley’s vibrato has sometimes reduced me to tears. This time, Newley translates his talent for building to these devastating climaxes into a different form: a short story that runs down musical tracks. I’ve previously written on ‘The Man Who Makes You Laugh’ at length: by all means have a look. The song is a balm for any and all disaffected entertainers; and should I ever acquire a singing voice, I damn well want it to be Newley’s.

Lee DraculaJames Bernard’s ‘The Victory of Love’ from Taste the Blood of Dracula – For its acolytes, Hammer Films represents a distinct world, one that might as well exist. There is its surface terrain of quaint inns, drawing rooms and churches in muted shades – which then explode with the high-coloured, galvanic demonism of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It’s close to a surrogate religion – the imagined other world, the heaven-and-hell divide – which might be why this Bernard piece works on me so. It closes the film, just after Lee’s Dracula suffers his fourth ignoble destruction (he had three still to come). The strings build up, up, up – seemingly to the heavens – before their release in the love theme from the film’s beginning. And all within the confines of the village church. There’s a persuasive argument that the Gothic Revival was built on a superficial (and often camp) regard for high church trappings; thus the tricksy medievalism of The Castle of Otranto. Bernard accomplishes this for me in musical terms. His yearning strings reminds me how transporting the trappings of faith can be, if not the substance. I would make for a first-class lapsed Catholic. For me, Bernard’s other most evocative themes are the main titles for The Curse of Frankenstein and, especially, Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (the film that inducted me to Hammer). All prove that so-called horror films can be breathtakingly beautiful.

SamsonRegina Spektor’s ‘Samson’ – This song is a melancholy prism. It speaks to me of people I love (it was recommended me by a close friend); it reminds of people I used to love (the line ‘your hair was long when we first met’ carries me right back to scenes at university); and it reminds me of people I’ve loved but lost (Samson’s long hair has fallen away; it is a song of cancer as much as myth). ‘My sweetest downfall’ is a brilliantly economical way of expressing how we’re at once destroyed and created in opening ourselves up to other people. Kindness and acceptance will leave us as quivering and vulnerable as any cruelty. Spektor has a wonderfully haunting voice. It’s a little tarnished, cracked, smokey; a fine crystal tumbler filled with clouded water. As with Newley, any quirks of sound production are less mannerism than idiosyncratic sincerity. The piano anyway gives that quirkiness a stabilising background.

BrideFranz Waxman’s ‘The Creation’ from Bride of Frankenstein – I’m no longer sure that this is my favourite horror film. But it’s certainly one that I can’t do without. This piece is straightforwardly thrilling, scoring as it does the ‘birthing’ of the monster’s mate. The pulsing drum mimics her beating heart, which Frankenstein has in his laboratory. There’s a primal excitement to that; a womb-like imperative to gather life from the rhythm. But the keynote is anarchy. James Bernard’s scores are the Gothic distilled. Franz Waxman is happier to subvert, turning his ‘Creation’ into a melting pot of widespread cultural influences. There are dissonant flashes that remind me of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring; alarming creaks that put me in mind of that Looney Tunes stock piece ‘Powerhouse’; and a decadent, intoxicating glamour that reminds me that this heady perversity emanated from Golden Age Hollywood. The unforgettable theremin looks ahead to 1950s sci-fi, not to mention ‘Bali Hai’ from the musical South Pacific. It reminds me of the diverse reasons I fell in love with vintage horror films. And makes me question why I devote my time to anything else.

Giants SkyStephen Sondheim’s ‘Giants in the Sky’ from Into the Woods – My favourite of all of Sondheim’s songs – although it has stiff competiton from ‘Move On’, ‘I’m Still Here’ and ‘Not a Day Goes By’. Funny, actually, how all of these titles have a spatial dimension. ‘Giants in the Sky’ harnesses space with innocence and awesomeness both: locating the imagination way, way up in the clouds. It transports me back to the fairytales of early childhood, when the likes of Disney’s (grippingly macabre) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs constituted my whole imaginative universe. I love the child-like boldness of expression: the heaping-on of adjectives in ‘big, tall, terrible’ is genius, as are the breathtaking exclamations of ‘not till the sky!’ and ‘after the sky!’. Throughout is a note of nagging yet gentle acceptance – something I’d argue as the most painful but necessary of emotional rites. I stumbled on this song just before leaving university, in the bittersweet twilight between last exams and graduation. These words in particular rang out: ‘And you’re back again only different than before’.   My Sondheimian runner-up would be ‘Loving You’ from Passion, which follows acceptance into the darker territory of emotional martyrdom.

Orange TreeDamien Rice’s ‘Dogs’ – A puzzle to be solved on each hearing. Thanks to its striking images, lightly (and ambiguously) worn, the song encourages a meditative state, a heightened concentration. Aside from that, it’s very pleasing to the ear. Playful lyrics, full always of circling, child-like motion; I’m particularly fond of ‘we drive around and she drives us wild’. The gentle tweakings of the acoustic guitar. Rice’s voice, soulful almost to androgyny. There’s also a structural reason to like it: on Rice’s album 9, ‘Dogs’ comes directly after ‘Rootless Tree’. Which is deadeningly bleak. It is therefore like the sun coming out – just as in Fantasia, where ‘Ave Maria’ follows ‘A Night on Bald Mountain’. A phoenix from the ashes. It’s given me hope in darker periods. This hope is so much more precious for being hard-won; equally precious are Rice’s other brighter spots, in the likes of ‘Older Chests’ and (more arguably) ‘Colour Me In’. Rice seems to average one fit of optimism per album. ‘Dogs’ is a modern transposition of the sun-dappled, life-giving finales of Dickens’ greatest novels. We know that despair and death are real, but we are content, for the present, to bask in the sun.

Frollo-3Tony Jay’s ‘Hellfire’ from The Hunchback of Notre Dame It’s been ten years since Tony Jay left this planet. He took with him my all-time favourite voice. In many respects, it’s a peculiarly constrained voice: the thickened diction, the narrow range, a timbre alternately bone-dry and clammy as the tomb. But it carries with it an outsize, all-pervading Gothic atmosphere, ideally suited for Victor Hugo. ‘Hellfire’ puts Jay’s voice through its paces – composer Alan Menken was determined that Jay sing it just slightly beyond his comfortable vocal range. Jay’s voice is also a magnificent throwback: within it, I divine traces of George Zucco and Henry Daniell, to name but two. Underrated character actors, much like Jay himself. But all have found an immortality in the cinema. Tony Jay bears much responsibility for getting me interested in acting (I saw the Hunchback a good six or seven years before Lon Chaney sealed my fate). Quite apart from Jay’s contribution, the song is laudably audacious. Its central ‘hellfire’ refrain, amplified by the choir, transposes ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’ to a minor key. Thus, one can take the villain song as the film’s dark heart. It has always seemed so to me. I’ve written on ‘Hellfire’ in a wider context here.

Wanda-posterJohn Du Prez’s ‘Finale’ from A Fish Called Wanda – This piece I find purely and ecstatically joyful. Precisely why is a bit elusive. I’ve a degree of affection for the film, particularly its depiction of a beautiful eighties London (it holds a certain romance for those of us lucky enough to not actually have been there). Yet I’ve never found it as funny as John Cleese’s other works. I do vibrate to the saxophone – the end of ‘Old and Wise’ by The Alan Parsons Project, for instance, and Lisa’s immortal ‘Jazz Man’ from The Simpsons. As with ‘Dogs’, there’s the beauty of the acoustic guitar. Perhaps all that’s enough. But let’s chalk it up to a choice intersection of music and moment. I recall being drawn to the film, aged thirteen or fourteen, because Stephen Fry has an incredibly brief cameo. Fry was a figure who gave me a certain hope about my (then dread-inducing) future as a gay man. The likes of Wilde, Williams, Crisp and Callow were to follow and eventually usurp him. It’s that long-ago spark which imbues it with hope for me. Along with Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique (the third movement, specifically), it might be my gay anthem.

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Filed under Dracula, Essays, Film, Frankenstein, Personal Excavation

The Mystery of Christopher Lee

Most of my heroes in acting are long dead. Karloff, Wolfit, Irving – there’s no need for me to come to terms with their absence. I have known them always as completed by death: their narratives lying fully writ. So it was a considerable shock to me when Christopher Lee passed away. A full acceptance isn’t possible when you’ve gotten used to someone’s life and work developing before your eyes. Even now I feel cheated of closure. As I prepared to play Frankenstein’s Creature – Lee’s breakthrough role, back in 1957 – I started to meditate on the great man’s legacy.

Lee Portrait

Christopher Lee remains a mystery to me. For over half my life, family and friends have brought me his newspaper clippings; warned me of his television appearances; accompanied me to Tim Burton films, just to hear his two or three fateful utterances. And yet I can explain practically nothing about Lee – neither the actor, the man, nor the uncanny filmic hinterland where the two fused as one.

Lee’s life reads to me like an old mystery play: a profound and dazzling romance, founded throughout on the supernatural. And as with the mysteries, there is a return from the dead. Taken collectively, Lee’s performances as Dracula constitute a dark parody of the Christian Resurrection. His Stations of the Cross are frenziedly theological; particularly Christ-like are his impalements on a giant crucifix and, a century later, on a hawthorn hedge. A principal delight of the Hammer series was in witnessing how each successive film – with varying results – undid the death in its predecessor. Now death has come for real – but the romance is still hanging in the air.

Lee Thorns

For it has been a romance. Albeit one conducted mostly within my head, across many years of prizing up the holy relics. Such has also been my experience with Lee’s compatriots in terror cinema: with Lon Chaney; with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff; with Vincent Price and Peter Cushing. Only Christopher Lee was very much alive and, until recently, very active. Primary contact is lost in the fog of early childhood, though it was probably his King Haggard in The Last Unicorn. My first really conscious inheritance was Lee’s Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring. Captive in the cinema, aged only ten, I awakened to the beauty of that smouldering voice:

Smoke rises from the Mountain of Doom. The hour grows late, and Gandalf the Grey rides to Isengard, seeking my counsel. For that is why you have come – is it not? My old friend…

Old friend indeed. For somehow, strangely, I had intimated that this was Christopher Lee whilst watching him. It was something in the long, angular hands, in the dark Italian skin and the noble features (albeit compressed by a false nose). A dormant memory, perhaps. I had previously been fascinated by a photo of Lee’s Dracula in the Osborne Book of the Haunted World: spattering blood over Melissa Stribling’s throat, a long hand hovering suggestively close. I put Dracula aside for a time, and applied myself to impersonating Saruman on the secondary school field. Striving (ever vainly) to channel Lee’s voice became one of my first experiments in acting.

I first came to Hammer with Dracula Has Risen from the Grave. A pan-and-scan viewing on grungy VHS, recorded by my dad in the early hours. Yet the film still bled its autumnal colours upon its heaps of Catholic iconography – the candlesticks, the prayer-books, the vestments, the crosses – with all heightened into ritual by James Bernard’s funereal score. At the centre was Lee’s majestic Count Dracula, backed by infernal red sunsets, never more picturesque. I soon saw Dracula: Prince of Darkness – courtesy of my grandma, another late-night VHS – in which Lee’s wordless vampire became a solely picturesque entity. Then, aged just twelve, I gained the unholy trinity. Lee’s founding Hammer monsters: in The Mummy, in the original Dracula – and in The Curse of Frankenstein, which for a while was my favourite of all of them.

Lee Creature

Lee’s Creature is the jagged heart of this elegantly brutal film. It remains a spectacularly underrated performance – because, as ever, Lee operates by stealth. Not that his Creature lacks for visceral impact; The Curse of Frankenstein is a powerful reminder that, for a decade at least, Lee was regarded as the most frightening actor in the world. There is the scene of the Creature’s first unveiling. Lee is revealed standing in the laboratory, swathed entirely in dripping bandages. He then tears them away to reveal his horrendously scarred head, the camera barrelling in for an overwhelming screen-filling close-up. A dead eye, decayed teeth, that blotchy, corpse-like skin. In 1957, the effect must have been paralysing.

Lee’s Creature is cemented as destructive juggernaut when he encounters a blind man in the forest. This Creature struggles to comprehend, misinterprets, then brutally murders the man (and, we are led to believe, his grandson). It’s a pitiless rewriting of the most sentimental passage in Mary Shelley’s novel, not to mention Universal’s Bride of Frankenstein. Karloff’s Monster seemed always to be a gentle, soulful being: the Hollywood equivalent of the noble savage, an impression augmented by a clean, streamlined makeup. Lee’s Creature hasn’t a hope in hell. He’s an abortive, soulless automaton, with a cut-and-paste visage to match (as one critic put it: ‘a road accident’). To watch him is acutely painful, like watching a brain-damaged animal that must be put out of its misery.

Yet there’s much more at play in Lee’s Creature. Very few actors can make you believe in the supernatural as Lee did. Paul Scofield was one. When Scofield, as the Ghost in Hamlet, says ‘I am thy father’s spirit’, you believe him. When Lee plays Dracula – with deadly sincerity, in the direst of films – you believe him too. There are other connections with Scofield: the regal bearing, the resonant voice, the Italian appearance, that haughty demeanour punctuated by unexpected impishness. Nor was either actor particularly ostentatious, despite roles that offered countless opportunities for extravagance.

The significant difference is that Scofield was regarded as legitimate, by virtue of his work in the fashionable theatre. Lee was not. Like Henry Irving, his Gothic-knight precursor, Lee stood for the Gothic. But unlike Irving, Lee belonged to an age when the Gothic was afforded little respect. It is sad that Lee’s imaginative achievements have therefore been downgraded. Scofield could afford to refuse a knighthood (and so he did, several times). Lee owed it to the Gothic to accept.

As with Scofield, there remains something fundamentally unknowable about Lee. Neither man ever discussed acting in any depth. Lee’s memoirs, whilst detailed, contain scant clues about his process. When pressed, Lee might quote Ralph Richardson on acting as ‘dreaming to order’. But he seldom went further. It’s tempting to say that Lee couldn’t go further. Much like Richardson, Lee cultivated (perhaps unintentionally) an image as a cantankerous old dinosaur, all no-nonsense blustering and portentous secret-keeping. Such was the sustaining joy of his late-career interviews. And such a man is not to be asked his opinion on the artistic process.

In his approach to acting, then, Lee might well have been a mystic. It is perhaps the only way that such a man can be an actor. I think of the great mantra of Claude Rains, another of these invisible actors: ‘I learn the lines and pray to God’. It’s an excellent summation of a process that remains thoroughly mysterious. As far as Lee was concerned, there was nothing to be discussed.

Lee Creature Again

These are thrilling grounds on which to engage with Lee’s performances: as dreams, quite unreadable. The earliest Gothic fictions were derived from dreams. So were the first Gothic films. This is confirmed by a glance at The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a film compounded of such stuff as dreams are made on. Here we find the template for Lee’s Creature: in Conrad Veidt, who was Lee’s great acting hero. Veidt’s Somnambulist shares much with Lee’s Creature: the juddering, puppet-like movements; the light-sucking black garments; the gawkily expressive hands. Above all, there is the fascinating spectacle of a beautiful man giving his all to remould himself as grotesque.

Lee can’t have been oblivious (or unreceptive) to these parallels with Veidt. Emulation is vital to an actor’s early development. But in later life, Lee seemed to become his own strange creation. Here the mystery only deepens. For we can study Lee’s transformation, preserved on film across his incredibly long-drawn career; a nearly seventy-year journey from clean-cut youth to bearded magus. Perhaps only Angela Lansbury affords a more sustained view of an actor’s development. Yet her transformation has been nothing compared to Lee’s.

The most intriguing physical specific is Lee’s toupée. To keep knowledge of it from the public, Lee gave it an inconsistent mythology. At times, he claimed to have shaved his head for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; at others, to have worn a bald-cap. When filming The Mummy, Lee apparently refused to remove his toupée, subjecting it instead to his heaviest makeup. There is also the matter of Lee’s changing voice. Robert Quarry avowed that the famous ‘Christopher Lee voice’ was a rank affectation, a put-on. Quarry was a weirdly hostile co-star; yet there’s also that celebrated outtake from The Fellowship of the Ring (‘I cannot get up these goddamn steps smoothly!’), where Lee, caught off guard, speaks in a higher register than his tightly-clamped bass. Although voices change with age, Lee seems to have cultivated his. It’s disarming how unlike himself Lee sounds in the 1958 Dracula. But ten years on, in Dracula Has Risen From the Grave, the stentorian growl of Saruman is creeping in. With time, Lee became exactly what he pretended to be. A lesson for all actors.

In his recent tribute, Ian McKellen described Lee’s Saruman as possessing ‘the air of a stern yet benign Pope’ with hidden reserves of ‘cruelty and spite’. Perhaps Lee’s greatest gift was in revealing where the sacred and the profane came together. It’s naturally central to the Frankenstein myth: the sanctity of God-created life versus the blasphemy of the devilish Creature. Lee’s Jekyll-and-Hyde embodiment in I, Monster was also sensitive and engaging. But there are yet more daring examples. His Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man is a man who sacrifices with a disarming smile. His performance as Rasputin: The Mad Monk contains many potent moments, distilled in some mesmerising speeches:

During the time that I’ve been here, you’ve tried to teach me that confession of my sins is good for the soul. You also removed all temptation from among us so that there’s no chance of any sin here. I merely tried to put that right. When I go to confession, I don’t offer God small sins, petty squabbles, jealousies. I offer him sins worth forgiving.

Lee Rasputin

Whenever Lee played the monster hunter – in The Gorgon, or The Devil Rides Out, or Horror Express – he cut a figure almost as forbidding as the monsters themselves. Ultimately, Saruman resides on the same continuum as Count Dracula: evil fused with a sense of religious ritual. Flowing, lustrous garments. Precise and commanding gestures. A terrain half-castle and half-church. And above all, that sense of authenticity – that belief which Lee brought to everything he played, whether Stoker’s gaslight melodrama or Tolkien’s Black Speech.

Lee Tears

So formidably dour was Lee’s persona that it’s easy to overlook the raw humanity in his best performances. In 2011, the fabled Japanese reels for Dracula were found – and it was discovered that Lee’s Dracula cries human tears. Astonishingly brave, astonishingly unexpected (Lee’s constant creed in acting), and more effortlessly poignant than anything in Gary Oldman’s overblown opus. Lee held fast to his mystery, though, and kept the front up in public.

In this way, Lee stood apart from his terror contemporaries. Vincent Price was so amiably dedicated to promoting the arts that he seemed eminently approachable. Peter Cushing’s sorrow at his wife’s passing was deeply humanising, and a comfort to many. Lee, by comparison, came across as rather cold. It wasn’t so. Those who saw the mask drop at the BAFTAs knew it. The behind-the scenes footage from Flesh and Blood is also heart-warming, Lee swapping Looney Tunes gifts and voices with Peter Cushing. Lee’s reminiscences about the long-lost Cushing and Price were never less than moving. It’s certainly the highlight of his revised memoirs, this sense of Lee communing with absent friends. We horror fans live vicariously through the emotional lives of its stars. It’s a comfort to know that Dracula cries; that he might even cry for a friend. It places a beating heart within the Gothic skeleton. On receiving his knighthood in 2009, Lee privately remarked that the honour was meant for Cushing.

My years spent with Lee come back to me in a haze now. I was disheartened when he was cut from The Return of the King; I was thrilled when he was impersonated by Stephen Fry on QI (Fry was then another really formative influence). I looked forward to dissecting Lee’s bewildering Christmas Messages, those increasingly free-form capsules of mortality. I was even a patron of Lee’s widely reviled singing career. In my first year at Cambridge, I fell in love whilst listening to Lee’s intoxicating ‘Name Your Poison’ from The Return of Captain Invincible. A few weeks later, I found cassettes of Lee reading Peter and the Wolf and The Soldier’s Tale in a charity shop, thus rounding off a very heated term. I’m listening to them now.

Lee Saruman

It’s fitting that my last sighting of Lee was in the cinema where I’d seen The Fellowship of the Ring. Now, more than half a lifetime older, I bore witness to the credits of the final Middle Earth film. There again was Saruman – just as I’d seen him first – now an etching, fading to white, to the elegiac accompaniment of ‘The Last Goodbye’.

Only it isn’t goodbye. Closure isn’t necessary. Not just yet. As long as there are still films of his that I haven’t seen – and there are well over a hundred – then that last goodbye need not come. Christopher Lee was a part of my development, my self-creation. And I am certain his legacy, however mysterious, will continue to shape my life.

God preserve you, my hero. Have a ball with Peter and Vincent.

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Filed under Acting Theory, Dracula, Essays, Film, Frankenstein, Personal Excavation

Into the Black Lagoon

Here begins an attempt to chronicle my preparations for Sikes & Nancy – shortly to be rehearsed, teched, dressed, prodded about the country and then (lovingly) hurled into the West End. Consider it a diary of sorts. Charles Dickens began a diary – his very first – in January, 1838. It terminated on the fifteenth:

Here ends this brief attempt at a Diary. I grow sad over this checking off of days, and can’t do it. CD.

Solitude, sometimes swelling into loneliness, is inescapable in the one-man play. This may also be true of diaries. It falls to the actor to alleviate this solitude by any means possible: above all, by direct contact with their audiences. But there are other ways too. It’s my hope that, in converting my daily meanderings into text – meanderings which often drive me to aggravation, so great is my blindness to their wider point – I can better discover their meaning, possibly even a light wisdom. Accordingly, I will steer well clear of the Dickensian school of life-writing (sample entry: ‘City people and rather dull’) and record only that which has helped my journey to the heart of Sikes & Nancy.

1ST SEPTEMBER. A dream in the early hours: an imagined performance review at the Dungeon, in which I’m winningly told how ‘undisciplined’ and ‘uncontrollable’ an actor I am. Funny, really, the cast-iron continuity of an insecurity. Ever and always do I worry that my acting is somehow inappropriate, embarrassing, uninhibited through personal wreckiness rather than ease (or – God help me – bare-faced ‘ham’). Perhaps it’s as well that this is my last day at the Dungeon. Happily, it’s a day that looks forward. I start with a long stint on Ghosts: grim period storytelling with a flavour of Poe’s first-person murder narratives, precisely what I get up to in Sikes & Nancy. There are also shorter bursts on Turpin (playing a character not unlike Bill Sikes), Entrance (what more forward-looking than being out of the building?), and, unexpectedly, Torture (coincidentally, the last show I gave at the Dungeon in 2013). On finishing my shift, I annotate my script over a pot of tea, then proceed to my class in the Alexander Technique: tonight, a pleasing mish-mash of tightrope-walking, saddle-sitting and back-lying. Of all my efforts to exalt my spine from the dimensions of a slightly crushed paper cup, the Alexander Technique has been the most effective. On getting home in the evening, I set up a Facebook Page for the show (which looked very much like this) and select a film to put me in the Sikes & Nancy mood. Having read so many of the Newgate novels that swirled about Oliver Twist on its first serialisation – Jack Sheppard, Eugene Aram, Paul Clifford – I’m trying to connect to films with a like sensibility. I settle on Hammer’s Edwardian murder-fest Hands of the Ripper. I last about half an hour, dropping off some time after Dora Bryan is impaled on a door.

2ND SEPTEMBER. Another anxiety dream: this time, I sit reading the newspaper reviews for Sikes & Nancy. They fill me with bowel-clenching dread, brimming as they do with negatives phrased as positives: ‘this was one of the least disastrous moments in Swanton’s performance’ and the like. I’ve already vowed to abstain from all reviews of the show – but, as in the dream, I’ll be dying to know what’s been said. Today proves little more productive than brooding on one’s own reviews: every time I get working on the script, the phone seems to ring with a new production issue. One such call reminds me to start booking digs for the tour. I get five or six places sorted – hotels, houses, hovels, all – and read Peter Ackroyd’s mighty tome Dickens come afternoon. Dickens’s mixed response to being pushed about America steel me somewhat for my shufflings across England. Dickens’s thoughts on the Separate System in American prisons are also helpful: ‘I looked at them with the same awe as I should have looked at men who had been buried alive, and dug up again’ and (Dickens’s italics) ‘What if ghosts be one of the terrors of these jails?’ Sikes & Nancy unfolds in precisely that uncanny valley: the Narrator looks on scurrilous criminality from afar, yet succumbs to all its blackest terrors. My Alexander class passes in a haze of foot-rubbing, chest-compressing and cushion-strapping. A slightly harassed and lonely day. That night, I watch more of Hands of the Ripper. As I do so, I make out my Sikes coat, burning through the darkness against the white wardrobe door. Perhaps it’s Krook, dispatched from Bleak House to torment me. Or one of those ghosts that haunt the American prisons.

3RD SEPTEMBER. Certain I had another dream. Can’t for the life of me remember it. Perhaps the coat beat it back. In any case, finishing Hands of the Ripper is a fine substitute. It’s sorely overlooked, even by Hammer standards: beautiful music, the most atmospheric use of St Paul’s since Mary Poppins and a fog-bound cityscape that could comfortably house Fagin and Sikes. I’m always deeply touched by the idea of the April-December romance, here between the middle-aged doctor and the Ripper’s virginal daughter. What makes that so? The idea of love beating back death? A permutation of Beauty and the Beast? It may be even simpler: so much of Sikes & Nancy is primed on inappropriate loving feeling. Endlessly relatable, these loves we are told should simply not be – and central, I think, to my dabblings in the grotesque. As I annotate the script, I’m struck by the need to more carefully pattern Nancy’s speech; to lessen that generalised gloss where my brain clicks into the ‘EMOTE!’ setting. Perhaps mining the Narrator will be key. He’s my enigmatic quarry. To say that the Narrator is really Dickens, or me, or a complete non-entity (ah: already said ‘me’) is a cheat. And a simplification. For the Narrator is everyone: an embodiment of multiple characters, a fulcrum of unspooling grotesques. He’s somewhat like Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Past: ‘being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body…’ The Narrator becomes a crucible for the textured nastiness disclosed within Sikes & Nancy; the figure that makes it possible for the actor to step forth and embody an entire world. More practical, today was my first attempt to limit my dairy intake to keep down my catarrh. Whoever the Narrator is, he should not be mucusy. Nor should he be self-conscious: today’s dose of Alexander Technique is beset by this. My teacher notes that my eyes turn inwards and I cease to breathe when running lines in my head. This cannot be! Some business with finding the feet and pointing, and, better yet, bean bags, goes some way towards remedying this. The self-consciousness is senseless, all told. The main point of Sikes & Nancy is to look the audience square in the eye and tell the story. An evening of reading (Oliver Twist and The Invention of Murder), admin and admin-lite (for ‘admin-lite’ read ‘pratting about on Facebook’), before starting The Spiral Staircase, another film with the phunk of the Newgate gallows.

4TH SEPTEMBER. A pleasing morning. The script grows ever deeper, a headlong plunge into a black lagoon. It’s a register that reminds me of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: I sense a near-impenetrable blackness, from which objects briefly emerge before descending from view. Perhaps I’m lured into this trance by the bean bag technique. This requires throwing a bean bag in the air and catching it to correspond with phrases in the script, all the while directing your eyes to specific focuses through a window. A difficult adjustment, but thereafter helpful: no longer is my focus turned inward. The Alexander Technique is more encouraging today, trying to get my thighs to ease up and do less work (I have a peculiar gait where my knees seem to propel my legs about). Then to the Dungeon’s end-of-season party. I enjoy parties, really I do, but I’m never sure how to behave at them. I’ve lately settled on a garrulous buffoonery – a success, in that it brings me more joy than awkwardness. Yet I can never shake the feeling that, were I only to crack how to act at parties, I would stumble, quite naturally, on the much better party going on in the next room. Acting and personal dislocation go hand in hand. We’re a race terrified of being left out, overlooked, forgotten, transferring our professional anxieties to day-to-day life. Or is it the other way round? The best diagnosis I’ve found is in Gordon Craig’s visionary biography of Henry Irving, which I read in February. Craig is romantic yet profound in asserting that Irving was all actor:

It was not only in his face – it was all over him. It was not put-on – not acting in that sense – but it was such a concentrated essence of love for that to which he had devoted his soul that it became positively terrifying, unless by chance you knew what it was that he was thinking of, seeing, hearing, and noting … For it meant the whole of this world and the next, with Irving, to be an ACTOR, and in his innocence, his proud innocence, he supposed it meant as much to every other performer.

As with Irving, I feel that virtually everything in my life is either founded on or pointing towards acting. A blessing and a curse. Irving’s personal life was by no means good. It may also be true that the finest actors have something in their lives which has nothing to do with acting. Yet as I type, I can discern Irving’s lanky spectre at my shoulder: ‘So, er – why, um, have a party, m’boy? Why, the acting was the party!’ Fortunately, the one-man form transforms this monomania into a positive virtue. Besides, I’ve never been so good at anything that I can afford to go at it on a part-time or non-obsessive basis. If you’re after a real go at acting, what other way to do it?

5TH SEPTEMBER. The sort of day where exceptionally little gets done. I manage a few line-runs: first at home with the bean bags, then in walking through the countryside (or what passes for countryside in the sterilised wilds of Acomb and Poppleton). I also attend my last Alexander Technique class, which contains some practical, play-focused advice. I am now forbidden to think about the Technique whilst acting. You learn it in order to forget it. You trust that it’s there on some level and then you get on with your craft. Reassuring, as I believe that a conservative degree of ‘over-doing’ is indispensable to Sikes & Nancy. I belong to the Henry Irving school of murder: you can’t orchestrate killings in the theatre without some stormier madness at work. An audience will sense you faking. In playing Mathias in The Bells, Irving would, by sheer imaginative force, cause the blood to drain from his face and his pulse to soar. He employed the same in reciting ‘The Dream of Eugene Aram’ (an item that Dickens’s ‘Sikes and Nancy’ may have been designed to top):

Oh, God! that horrid, horrid dream
Besets me now awake!
Again – again, with dizzy brain,
The human life I take;
And my right red hand grows raging hot,
Like Cranmer’s at the stake.

The above perfectly encapsulates Sikes’s flight through the countryside. I’m perplexed that the poem is all but forgotten. A good deal juicier than Poe’s ‘The Raven’. On walking home, I listen to Damien Rice’s ‘Rootless Tree’ and ‘Loving You’ from Sondheim’s Passion. Both strike me as a distillation of Nancy’s predicament, the latter especially: ‘I will live and I would die for you.’ My acting must aspire to the condition of music – something quite possible within the one-man form, where it’s down to set the rhythms. Had a nice conversation with Jack Gamble, which returned me to madness, this time in the form of Ruskin’s haunting self-portraiture. More of The Spiral Staircase, then sleep. A week tomorrow till rehearsals start in London. And so tomorrow I must speak the text.

6TH SEPTEMBER. Great productivity. Great happiness. With the house empty and the windows closed – to be overheard is unendurable – I wander about and speak the words. I do this for just under three hours, ruminating on the first two-thirds of the script: shaping and reshaping the sounds (it’s not sufficient to parrot the old rhythms), listening all the while to the vibrations. The sensation is enjoyable. And, as though conducting a séance, I’m luring back the old character voices (this after luring back my higher register – always a fatality at the Dungeon). Fagin and Sikes will take a few weeks to materialise, but the others come on splendidly. Some new discoveries: Nancy requires a certain breathiness to take hold, Bolter an oily gusto; the Narrator, meanwhile, can borrow much more from my own voice. I also feel I’m seeing the piece more clearly: seeing the people I’m addressing, seeing a London drenched in perpetual night, seeing as far as I can into the black lagoon. After this exhilaration, it’s back to assembling quotations for the Sikes & Nancy post-show discussions. In doing so, I’m reading (usually re-reading) the words of Dickens and his contemporaries, as well as passages from The Jew of Malta and Macbeth. In Barabas I find the monstrous essence of Fagin: ‘For so I live, perish may all the world.’ In Macbeth I access the visual qualities of the piece: ‘light thickens’ – and in his Lady those bloodstains that never go away: ‘all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand’. That night, I dream I’m backstage on Broadway for The Phantom of the Opera. Cavernous wing space – quite unlike any real theatre – into which dry ice and organ music flood. A sign, I hope, that the melodrama’s entering the blood and the bones.

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Filed under Acting Theory, Experiences, Film, Henry Irving, Personal Excavation, Sikes & Nancy, The York Dungeon

Happier Tortures

My last torture essay focused on The Raven (1935) and – as much as I relish that juicy melodrama – wasn’t especially kind to it. Here, then, is an attempt to make amends: a study of those tortures in classic horror that remain legitimately horrifying. To simplify (as much as I ever manage that), I’ve divided my argument into three basic points. The whole involves somewhat less Raven-bashing – though a total absintence proved impossible.

First: torture must be hidden away to horrify. The dungeons of the Inquisition are the ideal example – the setting, incidentally, for Poe’s story ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, one of the dubious inspirations for The Raven. No attempt was made to translate Poe’s oppressive seclusion: Vollin invites four house guests as additional audience for his torture spree – and, presumably, witnesses to his crimes. This dimension turns The Raven into the equivalent of the public execution: repulsive to be sure, but more straightforward entertainment for the masses; auto-da-fé rather than sheltered dungeon.

The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat (1934) – Universal’s Poe-inspired predecessor to The Raven – did get this principle of hiding spectacularly right. The film climaxes with Bela Lugosi skinning Boris Karloff alive, but with an admirable reliance on suggestion. The Black Cat invites favourable comparison with Paramount’s Island of Lost Souls (1933), which ends with Charles Laughton suffering vivisection without anaesthetic. In both films, Lugosi is chief torturer, anticipating the cruelty with dialogue that makes the best of his unique grasp of intuitive rhythm. In The Black Cat, Lugosi’s passion is such that he invents a new verb for skinning: ‘Did you ever see an animal skinned, Hjalmar? That’s what I’m going to do to you now! Tear/pare/flare the skin from your body! Slowly… Bit by bit!’ Meanwhile, Island of Lost Souls requires no more than Lugosi’s rhapsodic upward inflection as he utters ‘the House of Pain…!’ Both films then proceed to shots of gleaming razors being collected. This is particularly nauseating in Island of Lost Souls, as the razors are taken up by the island’s hideous beast-men. It creates a quite striking contrast of glass and metal – gleaming, polished, manufactured – and beast-flesh – dirty, atavistic, repulsively organic. Much of the terror is that these filth-encrusted beings are not organic but, like the razors, created.

Island of Lost Souls (1933)

Most importantly, though, both films hide their tortures at the crucial moment. The Black Cat collapses into a chain of shock cuts: the screaming heroine, Karloff’s writhing hand, and a crucifixion-like shadow of Karloff on the rack, Lugosi’s razor merrily flicking away. Island of Lost Souls has the camera discreetly glide away, eventually settling on an exterior shot of the House of Pain. The viewer’s last glimpse of Laughton is of the beast-men swarming in on him. As they block him from sight, the nauseating, Frankenstein-like contrast is completed, the dazzling white suit of Laughton’s civilised scientist surrounded and encased by hairy horrors. Interestingly, both sequences are completed by a scream. Laughton’s scream is an orgasmic hollering, drawn-out and discomforting (but quite in keeping with Laughton’s gallery of sex-haunted monsters, from Nero to Moulton-Barrett to Quasimodo). Karloff’s scream is so bizarre that it seems doubtful it was even performed by the actor: a sudden wolfish eruption, part heave and part hiccup. The early sound film was well-equipped for suggesting its tortures. It clung to the silent cinema’s aesthetic of images teased from shadows, whilst contributing a visceral edge through primitive sound techniques. The interferences of the burgeoning Production Code didn’t hurt either.

Second: torture is more horrifying when women are the victims. There are deep-rooted reasons for this disturbing truth – too tangled to go into here, but probably best distilled in the fact that men are biologically stronger than women. It’s disturbing also to find a general historical bias: whilst the execution and even torture of men often went on in public, it was hidden away when done to women. (For example, female ‘witches’ were seldom left hanging from trees in England. It was thought distasteful that decomposition should produce female nudity. A sadly misjudged modesty.) The few instances of women being tortured in Golden Age horror are downright horrifying. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) is particularly vile, with Lugosi (again!) draining the blood of a prostitute bound to a beam in his laboratory. Her ‘rotten blood’ gives rise to misogynistic rantings of ‘You cheated me! Your beauty was a lie!’ and an unceremonious dumping through a trapdoor into the River Seine. Universal may have learned their lesson: in The Raven, it’s Bateman’s outrage at the thought of a woman being crushed to death that leads him to betray Vollin.

Bondage scenarios were commonplace in classic horror – Fay Wray seldom got to the end of a film without being tied up – but interestingly it was usually men who were tortured in this context. The best example is The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), in which the naked torso of the young hero is stroked and ogled – across multiple scenes, beautifully photographed in the MGM house style – by Karloff’s gently gay Fu and his whip-crazed daughter. For a film about romantic obsession (one inspired by Poe, no less), The Raven is, by contrast, almost bashfully sexless.

Even unrealized horror tortures depended more on sadistic women torturing men. In 1933, John Balderston was planning all manner of whip-and-chain scenarios for Dracula’s Daughter (1936), none of which made it into the film:

The use of a female Vampire instead of male gives us the chance to play up SEX and CRUELTY legitimately … We profit by making Dracula’s Daughter amorous of her victims … The seduction of young men will be tolerated whereas we had to eliminate seduction of girls from the original as obviously censorable.

Unbelievably, bondage was also considered for Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Still in existence is a detailed story treatment called ‘The Captured Prince’ (the link provides some eye-opening production information). Yet the gendering renders the torture a mild thrill rather than an out-and-out horror show.

At the outset of the sixties, however, actress Barbara Steele became the centrepiece for two of horror cinema’s most nightmarish tortures. Bava’s The Mask of Satan (1960) opens with Steele tied to the stake, swearing vengeance on her tormenters as they prepare the eponymous iron mask. As the mask is brought forth, there comes a striking subjective shot of its inlaid spikes. Finally, the mask is hammered onto Steele’s skull with ghoulish zeal. There’s a quite startling attention to the resulting putrescent outpour – an effect repeated in Bava’s stomach-churning use of poached eggs to suggest regenerating witch-eyes.

The Mask of Satan (1960)

Even more effective is the ending of Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961). The film’s survivors stand atop a dungeon staircase. Their intention is to close the dungeon up for all time: ‘No one will ever enter this room again.’ Leaving, they close the door behind them. Then the camera whips round to an Iron Maiden. Steele’s still-living eyes gaze, catatonic, through the device’s window. Fadeout. Credits. The film’s climax has been so packed with event – notably a certain outsize pendulum and Vincent Price running amok in full Inquisitorial dress – that the viewer has forgotten Steele’s dilemma completely. It’s an exquisite variation on torture by suggestion (now set in a literal Inquisition site), with the viewer’s imagination left to complete the agony.

The gender problem is central to the tortures in both films. Each torture is (in part) a punishment for untamed female sexuality: vampire-witch seductions in The Mask of Satan, adultery in Pit and the Pendulum. This is accentuated by the dual horror of constraint and penetration (by tapered iron spikes) that defines the tortures, an unpleasant sexual analogy. But most effective is the focus that both films provide the eyes, ensconced and engirdled in medieval wrought iron. There is no more emotive image to sum up the human pain at the experience’s centre.

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)

Third: torture is most horrifying when it makes least sense. Now, The Raven very often fails to make sense, but in a way that draws attention to its absurdity. How, for example, has Vollin constructed his numerous industrial torture devices? Why is his modest American house undermined by a cavernous medieval dungeon? What made him such an idiot as to attempt all this – and on the flimsiest of justifications? Regrettably, the answer to all three is that The Raven is just an assembly-line potboiler. Yet the best of the Golden Age horrors (such as The Black Cat, made by the same studio only a year earlier) transcended mere formula to become genuine classics. As Karloff later commented on The Raven: ‘Here was an attempt to pile on the thrills without much logic.’ The Raven presents Vollin as a supreme egotist: early on, he describes himself as ‘a god – with the taint of human emotions’ (conceited devil). But to truly threaten, torture has to represent something much more threatening, and much less explicable, than one man’s ego. George Orwell’s 1984 is an excellent example of this orchestrated senselessness. The tortures of Room 101 can’t be traced to any one individual – least of all the shadowy Big Brother, who, like Goldstein, may not even exist. The ambiguity is central to the horror.

With The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Theatre of Blood (1973) – two artful proto-slasher films starring Vincent Price – much comedy comes from the tortures making an over-abundance of sense. In each film, the murders follow a pattern delineated by a canonical literary source. The Abominable Dr. Phibes seizes on the Bible’s Ten Plagues of Egypt. It’s appropriate to the god-like aura of Phibes himself, a being neither living nor dead who smites down those who invoke his wrath. Memorably gruesome is a re-engineering of the frog-plague as an oversized frog mask at a masquerade – a mask fitted with a device that makes it tighten, inexorably, about the victim’s throat. Cue much writhing and blood-splattering.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

Theatre of Blood improves on even this, in harnessing the god-like delusions of (certain) actors. The film has an old Shakespearean, Edward Lionheart, pick off his critics with murders culled from the Complete Works. This is a pedant’s darkest dream: beheading from Cymbeline, cannibalism from Titus Andronicus, even burning alive from the little-known Henry VI. There are also a few tortures that never made it into Shakespeare – such as a version of The Merchant of Venice where Shylock finally gets his pound of flesh.

Theatre of Blood (1973)

Yet the Price films commit so thoroughly to their premises that they become disturbing as well as funny. Price’s supreme gift as a horror actor was in portraying fanaticism. He pushed his characters to the limits of self-parody – and then kept on going, where meeker actors feared to tread. So committed are Phibes and Lionheart to following their literary sources, that they pass into the vale of a frightening internal logic. This is aided by the parallel plotting in both films, alternating between scenes of gaudy bloodshed and the surrounding police investigation. These investigation scenes are funnier than even the murders, with the arbiters of law and order expressing baleful admiration for Price’s homicidal genius. Particularly good is a one-liner from Ian Hendry in Theatre of Blood: ‘It’s him all right. Only Lionheart would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare.’ The Raven never quite makes the same leap; Lugosi never quite grasps the joke of fanaticism and runs with it. Had he been equipped to do so, Price would have had a hard act to follow.

In closing, it’s worth acknowledging the project that’s provoking these sadistic ramblings: In the Penal Colony at the Arts Theatre, West End. I urge you to book your tickets as soon as possible. I’ve the distinct feeling it’ll provoke more varied and searching reflections on suffering than any number of Bela Lugosi films.

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The Comedy of Torture

In preparing for In the Penal Colony at the Arts Theatre, I’ve been examining torture through the reliable prism of the classic horror film. This entry focuses on the Holy Grail of Golden Age torture-horror, Universal’s The Raven (1935); the next entry will take in snapshots of more successful tortures in the wider horror cinema.

Torture has often uprooted a good horror film. For example, there are the Hammer films that don’t feel like Hammer films – The Camp on Blood Island (1958) and The Terror of the Tongs (1961) – in light of their focus on tortures plucked from recent history. None of Jesus Franco’s torture-horrors have ever worked, except, perhaps, as legitimate torture: his 1970 version of de Sade’s Eugenie is excrement marvellous rare. Franco’s The Bloody Judge (1970), starring Christopher Lee as Judge Jeffries, might be the dubious exception. Yet it’s a film that Lee refuses to see:

In the film, instead of somebody just being hanged – it’s worth noting that Lee was a witness to the last public execution in France – I gather that [they filmed] the most hideous scenes, about which I knew absolutely nothing at all, because they were done long after I’d finished my part: hideous and appalling scenes of torture and brutality and mutilation – hanging and drawing and quartering and worse … That’s why I’ve never seen it. I can’t bring myself to look at things like that.

Like Lee, I won’t pretend I’ve endured the torture porn rigours of Saw and Hostel and The Human Centipede – although I do hold a candle for the fiendishly inventive Cube (1997).

But what of torture in the Golden Age of horror? The founding Gothic in the Hollywood canon is The Phantom of the Opera (1925), which constantly hints at torture as the reason for the Phantom’s deformity. The Phantom’s back story, outlined in a curt police clipping, brims with tantalising inference: ‘Born during the Boulevard Massacre. Self educated musician and master of Black Art. Exiled to Devil’s Island for criminal insane.’ Here are three potential reasons that the Phantom bears a death’s head: torture through revolution or devilry or incarceration. Matters are complicated by the Phantom’s appearance at the Bal Masque, where he imperiously states: ‘Beneath your dancing feet are the tombs of tortured men – thus does the Red Death rebuke your merriment!’ The reference to Edgar Allan Poe – author of torture paradigm ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ – is suggestive, though not so much as the eleventh-hour revelation of the Phantom’s underground torture chamber. Later versions explained the Phantom’s deformity by subjecting him to a face full of acid. Horrific, yes, but never again as interesting.

Whipping became commonplace in the early horror film. Frankenstein (1931) contains a memorable torture scene: Boris Karloff’s Monster howling in chains, enduring the whippings and tauntings of the hunchbacked Fritz. The chains may be painful enough (the Chinese once had the torture of ‘kneeling on chains’); the whip reminds of flogging’s prime place in torture across all ages and all cultures (because a painful but ‘clean’ means of punishment). In the same year’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, whipping rears its head more sadistically. Ivy the streetwalker exposes her naked back to Jekyll – revealing the marks that he, as Hyde, has inflicted on her: ‘Pretty, ain’t it? It’s a whip, that’s what it is – a whip!’ The sadism went up a notch in the 1941 remake, where Spencer Tracy’s Jekyll whips the women in his life in a Freudian dream sequence.

Most potent is the reliance on suggestion. There’s Cleopatra’s transformation into a legless, shrieking ‘bird woman’ in Freaks (1932), where the audience sees only the aftermath; the waking vivisection of Dr Moreau (another chap fond of the whip) in Island of Lost Souls (also 1932), the camera discreetly pulling away as Moreau’s creations pull him apart; and Karloff’s Expressionist ‘crucifixion’ in The Black Cat (1934), conveyed almost entirely in shadow. Perhaps surprisingly, suggestion was usually the result of censorship as much as artistic vision. Freaks originally laid out Cleo’s destruction in gory detail, a tree felling her in a storm before her torturers swarmed in on her (surviving prints substitute a very abrupt fade); The Black Cat had some ghastly script business where a skinless Karloff hobbles across the floor to frighten Lugosi. Island of Lost Souls never required more than the half-laughing screams of Charles Laughton – at once darkly comic, kinky and blood-curdling. Sound can be graphic.

The Raven (1935) - Poster

It was The Raven (1935) that handled torture most brazenly. To the point where it got horror banned in England for a few years, thus shutting down Hollywood production of horror. And yet it’s utterly ridiculous. The Raven has a sister film in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) – almost equally gaudy in its approach to torture, filtering its devices through comic-book exaggeration, MGM production gloss and regrettable Chinese stereotypes. There’s a later comparison in Tower of London (1939), in which prisoners flop from iron maidens like boneless fish. But neither film approached torture with the concentration – and therefore absurdity – of The Raven.

Ware, Hinds, Lugosi

The plot deals with Dr Richard Vollin (Bela Lugosi), an eminent neurosurgeon and Poe obsessive, who falls in love with Jean Thatcher after saving her on the operating table. But when her father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), intervenes to prevent the budding psychotic infatuation, Vollin snaps. After imprisoning and mutilating on-the-run gangster Edmond Bateman (Boris Karloff), Vollin exploits him as his pawn in subjecting Judge, Jean, fiancé and friends to the Poe-inspired torture devices in his cellar.

The Pendulum

There’s always something gently amusing about Samuel Hinds moaning under Lugosi’s great big pendulum – politely accepting his fate, now and then mouthing such serene platitudes as ‘Oh, try to be sane, Vollin!’ Given that torture is the blackest of all human practices, it becomes staggeringly funny in The Raven.

Revamped Jail

The hilarity might stem from the strangeness of time in The Raven: medievalism rooted in a modern context. In our first trip to the cellars, Vollin declares his collection ‘a most unique museum of torture’. But it’s only really unique for clearing out the ‘torture’ section of Universal’s prop warehouse. We see balls-and-chains, a mysterious leaden coffin, the rack, a tiny cage (‘Little Ease’ perhaps?) and what looks to be the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg; there’s even one of the gibbets that turned up in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948; it goes without saying that every onscreen prop would be recycled for 1939’s Tower of London). The mood of ancient Gothic is enhanced by the wrap-around dungeon background. It’s another direct steal, this time from Universal’s Frankenstein series: the sets are taken from Charles D. Hall’s jail and watch-tower scenes in Bride of Frankenstein (also 1935). In the context of The Raven, the schlocky medievalism becomes fairly distancing. It’s an illustration of Henry Fielding’s famous remark: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ The moment Vollin enters his museum, The Raven may as well take place in Oz or Narnia.

Revamped Laboratory

Vollin’s fixation on Edgar Allan Poe is complicit in the distancing effect. The long-dead author extends the anachronism in yet another direction, adding his own weird patina of New England gaslight to the generic swirl of ‘The Past’. Although even the apparent present of The Raven is desperately strange: it’s a deranged, never-neverland 1930s, teeming with yuppies who play at horse-racing in the drawing-room. What else can you expect with supporting players named ‘Spencer Charters’ and ‘Maidel Turner’? It was probably just as distancing in 1935.

Aside from his air of anachronism, Poe has been so ritually demonised in western culture that it’s become ridiculous. A fine example is the film Torture Garden (1967); a Bloch-derived portmanteau rather than an adaptation of Mirbeau. The best segment by far is ‘The Man Who Collected Poe’. It’s a satire on fanatical (and Vollin-like) collectors: in this case, a fellow who’s so mad on Poe that he has, quite literally, collected the long-dead author – by resurrecting him via a pact with the Devil. As in the villain song tradition, Poe becomes, for all intents and purposes, the Devil himself; cackling, deranged, at the centre of a blazing inferno, as he damns the soul of a human victim.

Such demonisation of Poe is vital to The Raven. Bela Lugosi’s big speech is a minor masterpiece of melodramatic dialogue:

Melodramatic Speech

Poe was a great genius. Like all great geniuses, there was in him the insistent will to do something big, great, constructive in the world. He had the brain to do it. But – he fell in love. Her name was Lenore… ‘Longing for the lost Lenore’… Something happened. Someone took her away from him. When a man of genius is denied of his great love, he goes mad. His brain, instead of being clear to do his work, is tortured. So he begins to think of torture. Torture for those who have tortured him.

On balance, though, David Boehm’s screenplay for The Raven is badly written – or at least badly conceived, which amounts to much the same. Now, the fruitiness of the dialogue can be one of the highlights of classic horror. And there is a delight in hearing Bela Lugosi give shape to such lines as the following:

Death Will Be Sweet

I am the sanest man who ever lived. But I will not be tortured. I tear torture out of myself by torturing you! Fifteen minutes… There’s the clock – you can see it… Torture! Waiting! Waiting! Death will be sweet, Judge Thatcher!

Walls Come Together

Yet there’s something stubbornly uncinematic about such dialogue in The Raven. It seems to be trying to do the work of the images – and, regrettably, umpteen configurations of the word ‘torture’ do not make up for an absence of well-presented torture. Witness, once again, Samuel Hinds under that great big pendulum. Or the lovers in the room where the walls come together (they seem as politely unaffected as Hinds). Properly contained, the dialogue of classic horror can galvanise a film, its theatrical bravado animating that which is already living (see The Old Dark House, 1932, where great dialogue melds with an appropriately great production). Given that Vollin’s endless epistles to torture never take the shape of a believable reason for the character’s machinations – that is, beyond stultifying sadism – its foregrounding in the script becomes a nagging irritation. The dialogue in The Raven seems to be searching for a container. Devoid of one, it’s just unbridled excess.

Lugosi

The strangeness of The Raven is felt keenest in the imbalance of the lead performances, the now-legendary Lugosi and Karloff. As Vollin, Lugosi takes the film almost too seriously. In doing so, Lugosi does a great service to his audiences, following the formula for melodrama laid out in Gordon Craig’s Henry Irving: ‘Melodrama was not and is not afraid of the spectacular or the heroic, of bravura, or the impossible. It shuns one thing purposely – the matter-of-fact.’ Certainly, the sight and sound of Lugosi throughout The Raven is alarming: an unending cavalcade of bat-like grimaces, staccato cackles and throat-rending eruptions of Hungarian passion, all delivered with Shakespearean aplomb. Even today, it’s unnerving how much Lugosi seems to believe in the script’s cardboard character. And that really is the problem: Lugosi can never do more than dress the cardboard. Which he does effectively enough – just as the art department dresses its ill-conceived setting with a stock ball-and-chain, or the screenplay dresses its dearth of character motivation with a repetition of the word ‘torture’. Of course, to really work, melodrama requires an equal force of belief from everyone involved in the enterprise. And had director Lew Landers believed in the project to the extent of Lugosi, it’s probable that The Raven couldn’t have been released at all. The Marquis de Sade would have made it to Hollywood.

Karloff

Karloff, always the more astute judge of scripts, takes and plays his character as simple pulp. Karloff’s Edmond Bateman is perversely memorable, and certainly no weaker than Lugosi’s characterisation: a breathy, petulant, fish-eyed grotesque. This studied detachment probably relieved Karloff of a lot of unnecessary pressure: his infamous onset remark that ‘this whole place is a toilet’ is a measure of his disenchantment with rinky-dink Universal. Nonetheless, Karloff is responsible for the film’s only potent emotional stab at torture, on awaking to discover his disfigurement at the hands of Lugosi. Even here, the scene is effective against the odds: the Jack Pierce makeup, not bad in principle, is so inadequately lit and photographed that it appears flat, grey and (paradoxically detrimental) lifeless.

Still, The Raven survives as a valuable insight into how differently the premier gentlemen of horror attacked their craft. Lugosi was almost naively diabolic, erupting from within his pedantic cage of calculated baroque stylings; Karloff, more dangerous (and following the example of Lon Chaney), went to the heart to horrify. But seemingly everyone entangled in The Raven appears to be acting in a different film. The imbalance is at least interesting, even if it makes the film that much harder to take seriously.

Despite so much pecking, my affection for The Raven isn’t greatly diminished. On its own borderline psychotic terms (and perhaps there’s no other way to take it), it’s delirious, breathless fun – in spite of (possibly because of) its tasteless subject matter. It does, however, beg a question: when does the representation of torture become hideous, monstrous, unacceptable? I have three strong thoughts on this, all of which bolster The Raven as an unintended burlesque. I’ll save them till next time; we’ve suffered enough for now.

In closing, it’s worth observing that The Raven was remade in 1963. This time as an intentional horror-comedy. One torture-focused sequence featured Boris Karloff (back again, now a wizard) threatening to singe Vincent Price’s daughter with a magically floating red-hot poker. ‘I offer you a choice!’ he fawns. ‘The secret of your hand manipulations, or this – against this!’

A fair effort. But I still think of Samuel Hinds under that great big pendulum.

Revenge of the Pendulum

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Devil Music

I’m ever more convinced that the villain song is the modern equivalent of Victorian melodrama: that wonderful tradition of plays that set a dazzlingly charismatic evil-doer at centre stage. The villain song accomplishes this, if only for a few minutes. A villain song is a set number in a musical (or movie musical) where the villain explains and justifies their wickedness, or puts some wicked scheme into practice, or simply gloats over the joys of being wicked. The opening soliloquy in Richard III – ‘I am determined to prove a villain’ – accomplishes all of the above; were it set to music, it would prove the most comprehensive of villain songs.

But that does little to explain the unexpected complexities that turn up. ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ from, er, The Phantom of the Opera disperses its villain’s aura across an overture, umpteen orchestral reprises, a twisted love duet, and the hysterical cries of chorus girls. The result is, to put it mildly, distancing. In like fashion, villainy is transferred to the crowd for ‘The Mob Song’ in Beauty and the Beast and ‘Savages’ in Pocahontas. As echoes both of James Whale’s Frankenstein, this transference makes sense: angry villagers are the real villains, not the so-called Monster. And a song such as ‘Die unstillbare Gier’ from Tanz der Vampire builds sympathy for the villain out of all proportion to the story’s alleged goodies, completing the monster’s conversion to tragic hero.

Trouble with the Fireplace

‘Hellfire’ from The Hunchback of Notre Dame is also atypical. Judge Claude Frollo is certain that he is ‘a righteous man’, and his song is angst-ridden wail rather than moustache-twirling villainy. Yet I’ve never really doubted that ‘Hellfire’ is the greatest of all villain songs. It stills floods me with deranged elation. I can’t conceive of a time before ‘Hellfire’ entered my brain; like most of the highlights of childhood (or a Lovecraftian Elder God), it feels as though it always existed.

I can try to deconstruct ‘Hellfire’, but it’s a very tall order. So many elements make it ignite. At the centre, there’s the acting: the Shakespearean villainy of Tony Jay. In my estimation, Jay possessed the greatest voice of all time: a tight-coiled spring, crackling with dark, sepulchral majesty. It’s about the only voice that could make ‘the common, vulgar, weak, licentious crowd’ ring true (Frollo surely has the most literate vocabulary of any Disney villain: ‘Why invite their calumny and consternation?’ is another favourite). That Alan Menken raised the pitch of ‘Hellfire’ to make it a slight strain on Jay’s voice may account for the performance’s tattered emotion.

It’s vindicating to know that Frollo was Tony Jay’s salvation from a lifetime of junky (if fun) roles in Western animation. As he said at the time: ‘It’s my bid for immortality.’ Jay also had some outspoken views on the Hunchback, as this rare interview makes clear:

It’s a marvellous movie, you know … Disney pushed the envelope there, in an evolutionary sense. They took it a little farther than they normally do, and a lot of people stayed away because of that. There were things they couldn’t understand, but it wouldn’t maim them for life … It only made $102 million. By Disney standards, that is disappointing. It was not as much as Pocahontas made, but it was ten times the film Pocahontas was.

Jay’s voice completes the remarkable character design of Frollo, derived in part from the formalised paintings of van Eyck: the incredibly complex head (Frollo has to be the hardest Disney character to draw; his face has the emaciated complication of Peter Cushing circa Twins of Evil), the black-and-purple robes ever-swirling (a classic Disney colour combination, imported from Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty), the spindly legs. It’s wonderful, perfect. All credit to supervising animator Kathy Zielinski, a more powerful actor than the vast majority of actors. I can hang up my performing shoes in peace once I’ve achieved anything as incendiary as Frollo.

She Will Burn

On top of that, there’s the sound design. The roaring fire and the howling winds; the Latin chanting; the full-blooded organ-heavy orchestrations. And the art direction is glorious. We are privy to nightmare figures: a disarmingly sensual Esmeralda (reanimated by a worried studio, to make clear she’s wearing at least some clothing), a choir of red-robed monks. It’s also profoundly disorienting, with stone walls shifting – in seemingly every other shot – into a cycloramic expressionist void. The climax of the song is especially powerful. What’s casting these trailing shadows? The red-robed monks again? Knight paladins? Crusaders? Figures plucked from burial tombs – or Notre Dame herself? It’s never explained (how could it be?), and more unsettling for it. There are select moments where Disney enters onto the sublime – tracts in Fantasia, the evocation of St Paul’s in Mary Poppins – and this is certainly one of them.

God Have Mercy

There are so many other gems in ‘Hellfire’. There’s fact that the Latin comes from the Confiteor (the ‘mea culpa’ refrain also opens Judge Turpin’s ‘Johanna’ in Sweeney Todd, a likely source for ‘Hellfire’). There’s the way the song’s full perversity only insinuates itself when children turn adult, having lost their primary innocence, and entered, in a sense, into the Frollo way of life. But most thrilling of all? The fact that ‘Hellfire’ is a minor-key reprise of the Hunchback‘s title song, ‘The Bells of Notre Dame’. For me, that locates it at the dark heart of the melodrama. For all of its wisecracking gargoyles – an ill-conceived effort to wrest stone monsters into inoffensive play – it’s the purely Gothic that dwells at the film’s core.

I remain adamant that The Hunchback of Notre Dame was the last glorious laugh of the Disney Renaissance. The next year’s Hercules is tremendous fun, but a few steps down in my reckoning. I think largely because it no longer takes its villain seriously (or provides him a song, a trend that continued in Mulan and Tarzan). A good melodrama needs something to pull against.

Really, it needs the Devil.

It strikes me that ‘Hellfire’ has an exalted precedent – in the Brocken scene of Henry Irving’s 1885 Faust. The Brocken scene was a shameless and spectacular reimagining of the Witches’ Sabbath found in Goethe’s original Faust (Irving’s play was the work of Lyceum stalwart W.G. Wills). The scale was breath-taking, reckless, prodigal: the Brocken’s inaugural stagings boasted up to 500 supernumeraries clad as goblins, imps, witches, sprites, and associated nasties. As Michael Booth wrote in his Victorian Spectacular Theatre: ‘The Brocken scene was one of the grand spectacles of nineteenth-century theatre, and probably the most extraordinary scene of its kind ever performed on the English stage.’

Mephistopheles

There are numerous echoes of the Brocken in ‘Hellfire’. There’s the use of infernal choirs and music (Faust had a pit orchestra of between 35 and 37 – less theatre than grand opera); the vision of a maiden through the chaos (Ellen Terry’s Margaret); most importantly, the all-pervading fire, produced by a rain of gold tinsel, sparks of electricity and red-tinted gaslight. And then there’s the dominating figure at the centre: in this case, Irving’s red-clad Mephistopheles, who controls and manipulates the fire. The best compliment I can pay ‘Hellfire’ is that Sir Henry would have approved of it. And possibly even have thought it indecent. Incidentally, Irving would have made a fascinating Frollo. His most renowned performances (particularly Mathias in The Bells) were centred on a soul-destroying guilt. One of Irving’s greatest roles was as Louis XI, who Victor Hugo makes into a comically black villain in Notre Dame de Paris.

There’s a long-standing nonsense put about that W. G. Wills’ version of Faust was astonishingly bad. I took it upon myself to read it in the British Library and it’s a good deal better than its detractors give it credit for. Its verse is rough-hewn, yes, but always robust, pitched somewhere between John Webster and Dr Seuss. In the Brocken scene, Wills’ raucous verse aspires to music:

What a crowding, pushing, squealing!
What a roaring, grinning, screaming!
Whirl! leap and chatter! shine and spirt!
Give us the true witch element!

Wills also seems to gather inspiration from his contemporary, W. S. Gilbert – whose ghost-suffused Ruddigore might be another contribution to this Witches’ Sabbath on stage. Faust may not be high art, but it is very far from bad – and (returning to ‘Hellfire’) I think that Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics are often underrated in this respect. As with any good lyric, the words are completed by the music – and, more than that, the event. It’s as Irving’s Mephistopheles closed the Brocken: ‘Now music wild, hellish, infernal, and then mad!’

The theological origins of the Witches’ Sabbath are fairly murky. The Sabbath creeps into fiction with the likes of Lewis’s The Monk and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, in which dubious Catholic officials persecute their ‘witches’ in the dungeons of the Inquisition (not so far removed from Frollo’s treatment of Esmeralda). The Sabbath found a still-unrivalled realistic depiction in the silent cinema, with a vivid sequence in Benjamin Christensen’s 1922 Haxan. It’s a film that demands to be seen, matching (and exceeding) The Exorcist in giving a sense of real evil forces. In a curious twist, it was Disney itself that created the twentieth century’s most enduring Witches’ Sabbath, via the ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ sequence in Fantasia. Here, again, are the elements that make ‘Hellfire’ so bewitching: pervasive flame, undefinable demons, and a glorious musical accompaniment. It’s also, ironically, a villain song without words. The dreadful fellow looming from the mountaintop, Chernabog, speaks nary a word, yet remains the studio’s purest evocation of evil. The dark side of Disney should (and possibly does) have a book devoted to it. It’s the aspect of their imagination that’s stayed with me.

These elements fall into yet sharper focus in later villain songs, in which witchcraft becomes explicit. Take, for example, ‘In the Dark of the Night’ from Don Bluth’s Anastasia – the honorary Disney villain song (from the film everyone assumes was made by Disney). Anastasia is a campy and diverting mess of a movie, worlds removed from Bluth’s The Secret of NIMH: punch-drunk Broadway spectacle rather than considered chamber piece. Its villain might be its most successful aspect. Rasputin is an interesting proposition: a decaying litch (‘a corpse falling to bits!’) in a children’s film. And this a good few years before Voldemort started growing his body back. Happily, Rasputin ensures that voiceover king Jim Cummings gets his day in the sun; he’s the actor who filled in (uncredited) for Jeremy Irons in the last verse of ‘Be Prepared’ in The Lion King. Then there’s ‘Friends on the Other Side’ from Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, sung by ‘Shadow Man’ sorcerer Dr Facilier. It’s something of a masterpiece, particularly come the frenzied climax, suffused in ghost-train pinks and greens. The music blooms into a variation on Raymond Scott’s ‘Powerhouse’ – the insistent ‘bohm-bohm-bohm-bohm’ from the Voodoo masks seems a direct channeling – helped along immeasurably by Keith David’s vocal pyrotechnics, alternately cavernous and oozing.

It’s interesting too that most villain songs find a way to get the Devil in. We need look no further than the offbeat selections of the second paragraph. ‘Die unstillbare Gier’ turns positively Miltonic with the line: ‘I want to be an Angel or the Devil himself…’ ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ doesn’t mention the Devil – but the Phantom casts himself in that mould later on: ‘this loathsome gargoyle / Who burns in hell…’ (quite a falling-off from the Angel of Music). The imagery of ‘The Mob Song’ derives from the baby-eating antics of the Witches’ Sabbath: ‘Set to sacrifice our children to his monstrous appetite’ wouldn’t look out of place on a Haxan intertitle. Meanwhile, ‘Savages’ hits satanic saturation point: ‘their skins are hellish red’, ‘dirty shrieking devils’, ‘the paleface is a demon’ and (most bombastic of all) ‘Demon! Devil! Kill them!’

More Trouble with the Fireplace

‘Hellfire’ is a particularly strong villain song in light of the above. It converts Frollo into a surrogate wizard – like a Rasputin or a Dr Facilier, he manipulates the forces of darkness even as they engulf him. The idea that the self-deluding Frollo is in unconscious league with the Devil is compelling in light of Victor Hugo’s novel, in which the citizens of Paris suspect Frollo of sorcery: ‘From the cloister, his reputation as a learned man had passed to the people, among whom it had changed a little, a frequent occurrence at that time, into reputation as a sorcerer.’ Although Disney – toiling as they do in religion-happy America – chose to downgrade Frollo’s official standing from archdeacon to justice (the same change that shaped the 1939 film), there remains that confrontation with religion. Not with the church institution, as such, but the underlying idea of religion – it’s the very notion of good that comes under siege.

Perhaps the true greatness of the villain song is in troubling the divisions between good and evil. In ‘Hellfire’, religion and devilry play out in symbiosis – yes, the Devil may attack the Church; but then, the Church might create a Devil and deploy it as a weapon. It’s these shifting relations that make this Devil Music so thrilling to listen to. One of the finest lines in ‘Hellfire’ goes: ‘He made the Devil so much stronger than a man…’ But thanks to the infernal mechanics of the villain song, this remains a debateable proposition.

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Living in Film (2011-13)

A continuation from last time. For 2008-10, as well as the rationale behind these film lists, kindly click this link.

2011

The Elephant Man (1980)

1. The Elephant Man (dir. David Lynch, 1980)
2. The Blood on Satan’s Claw (dir. Piers Haggard, 1971)
3. Suddenly, Last Summer (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959)
4. Scarface (dir. Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson, 1932)
5. The King’s Speech (dir. Tom Hooper, 2010)
6. The Leopard Man (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
7. Shakespeare in Love (dir. John Madden, 1998)
8. Now, Voyager (dir. Irving Rapper, 1942)
9. Stranger on the Third Floor (dir. Boris Ingster, 1942)
10. The Dresser (dir. Peter Yates, 1983)

Four entries on this list exemplify a running theme: legitimate cinema fighting horror. Stranger on the Third Floor is a realistic (if noirish) drama, yet with a courtroom dream sequence worthy of The Bells; similarly, Scarface places Boris Karloff, fantastical horror personified, in the middle of Chicago mob-land. Suddenly, Last Summer boasts the legitimising presence of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, thus glossing over its Bacchic stew of depraved sexualities and orgiastic cannibalism. (It’s worth noting that playwright Tennessee Williams has since acquired a patina of respectability – one that certainly didn’t exist in censor-happy 1959.) The Elephant Man consolidates these clashes of style, veering between weepy sentimentality and dark carnival histrionics that outdo Tod Browning. This schizophrenia resounds in the gulf between John Gielgud’s saintly Carr Gomm and Freddie Jones’ dyspeptic Bytes. It’s a character coupling worthy of Dickens: they seem not to belong in the same universe. I find it satisfying to see these semi-horrors alongside unabashed (and relatively obscure) horrors. I will stand up any day and defend The Blood on Satan’s Claw, in all its supernatural, folky absurdity, over the better known Witchfinder General (1968; rarely has Vincent Price appeared more ill at ease). Likewise, The Leopard Man is a good deal better than some of the more critically lauded Lewton pictures, particularly The Seventh Victim (1943; so obtuse it ceases to engage).

There’s a high concentration of British films on this list, including two Geoffrey Rush starrers: Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech (a dull choice, I know; I’ll chalk it up to the delight of the cinema experience). Rush is Australian (nothing wrong with that), but the other Brit flicks are made for me by their homegrown theatrical talents: The Dresser has Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney, both playing wonderfully dangerously; Shakespeare in Love is worthwhile for the chance to see theatrical Geminis Simon Callow and Antony Sher in the same film. My old favourite Bette Davis has sunk below the water-line on other lists, so it’s particularly satisfying to see Now, Voyager here. These previous films were also fighting in more competitive years: for example, Davis’s Dark Victory (1939), Old Acquaintance (1943) and Mr. Skeffington (1944) all made it into the top twenty – but not the top ten – for 2009. (The pattern struck with a vengeance in 2013, with The Old Maid (1939), The Letter (1940), In This Our Life (1942) and Deception (1946) all making the top twenty.) Historically, America’s greatest actors have been women rather than men; another of these sacred monsters, Gladys Cooper, makes a fine villainess in Now, Voyager.

2012

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

1. The Lady Vanishes (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)
2. Les Triplettes de Belleville (dir. Sylvain Chomet, 2003)
3. Three Cases of Murder (dir. David Eady, George More O’Ferrall, Wendy Toye, Orson Welles, 1955)
4. House of Whipcord (dir. Pete Waler, 1974)
5. The Uninvited (dir. Lewis Allen, 1944)
6. Hamlet (dir. Laurence Olivier, 1948)
7. Fanatic (dir. Silvio Narizzano, 1965)
8. The Clairvoyant (dir. Maurice Elvey, 1935)
9. Death Line (dir. Gary Sherman, 1973)
10. They Knew What They Wanted (dir. Garson Kanin, 1940)

2012 seems to be a year that gestures to other films I like – and sometimes much better than the ones on the list! The Lady Vanishes ensures that a Hitchcock has at last come out top, though I’m not sure I admire it as much as some that featured lower down in previous years (The 39 Steps and Vertigo in particular). Three Cases of Murder stands for the portmanteau film, a British horror institution that runs from 1945’s Dead of Night (featuring Charters and Caldicott of The Lady Vanishes!) to Amicus, whose best efforts are probably Tales from the Crypt (1972) and From Beyond the Grave (1974). Fanatic represents the psycho woman subgenre: triumphantly started by Bette Davis’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and thereafter propped up by a series of fading dames (in this case, Tallulah Bankhead, pleasingly unsettling). And The Uninvited and Hamlet stand for the ghost film. The Uninvited is compelling and at times poetic but lacks the cast-iron conviction of The Innocents (1961; a film I seem to be watching almost every month lately); even its (very good) apparitions can’t compete with the unexpected scariness of the Ghost in Olivier’s Hamlet (a film worthy but somewhat dull in other respects – Peter Cushing’s peacock Osric excepted). The titles above are a superb illustration of how diversely cinema attacks the Gothic. Horizons stretch further than monochrome monster movies.

2012 also contains a number of films that are made gripping by their actors. Claude Rains raises The Clairvoyant to the status of forgotten classic, whilst Charles Laughton makes his improbable casting (a rotund, almost offensively Italian grape farmer) in They Knew What They Wanted almost cosmically heart-breaking. I’m still at a loss to explain how Laughton does it. Lesser lights also shine brightly: Sheila Keith (chillingly androgynous) startlingly prefigures Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull in House of Whipcord; Donald Pleasence brightens the sewer-rat aesthetics of Death Line with an off-kilter slew of very British tea-rejections. It’s appropriate that these acting highlights are rounded off by Les Triplettes de Belleville – an animation inventive, attenuated and bottomlessly grotesque. The grotesque is that primordial ooze from which my own acting gremlins hobble (go on, have a click), and animation one of the arts that started me on the journey (that one too).

2013

It's a Wonderful Life (1947)

1. It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946)
2. This Land Is Mine (dir. Jean Renoir, 1943)
3. Portrait of Jennie (dir. William Dieterle, 1947)
4. Up (dir. Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, 2009)
5. Cash on Demand (dir. Quentin Lawrence, 1962)
6. Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (dir. Cyril Frankel, 1960)
7. Gladiator (dir. Ridley Scott, 2000)
8. All This, and Heaven Too (dir. Anatole Litvak, 1940)
9. Witness for the Prosecution (dir. Billy Wilder, 1957)
10. The Penalty (dir. Wallace Worsley, 1920)

This list reminds me how much the forties appeal to me for film. What was it about the ambience of that decade? Scrutinising the four entries here, it strikes me as a time when Hollywood turned to making hopeful stories, human interest stories; love stories, I suppose – and yet always interestingly overshadowed. By World War most obviously, the First of which figures in It’s a Wonderful Life, the Second in the almost unbearably moving This Land Is Mine. Although the spirit of War creeps into subjects where it’s not explicitly mentioned: I’ve heard The Wolf Man (1941) discussed in this light (come to think of it, I argued the case in my Tragedy paper at Cambridge); it certainly holds for the more fragile and melancholy Portrait of Jennie. There’s a more sensual punch too: the studio system in full, seductive swing. The glossiness of this era’s black and white film stock is something I increasingly relish. It’s also to do with the orchestral music, the impossibly deep sets and the star power: three elements which make All This, and Heaven Too so beguiling (partly because so little known), a near-perfect melding of Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940). I wrote on Portrait of Jennie in this earlier blog post. It might be my favourite of director William Dieterle’s unofficial Gothic trinity, the previous entries in which are also exquisite: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and All That Money Can Buy (1940). I also wrote on The Penalty in that entry, so I won’t bother harping on about it here. But it is fantastically good.

Also on the list are two low-key thrillers from Hammer Films, whose outer limits I’m delving into more and more. Cash on Demand is a remarkably tense update of A Christmas Carol (and a cynical British antidote to the forgivable schmaltz of It’s a Wonderful Life), with Peter Cushing and Andre Morrell delivering razor-sharp, Pinter-style performances (I want to see them in No Man’s Land now). Never Take Sweets from a Stranger is a horrifying drama (but not really a horror) centred on paedophilia; Hammer’s version of M, perhaps. It boasts a transformed Felix Aylmer, worlds away from the doddering old man schtick that enlivened Olivier’s Hamlet and Kenneth Williams’ repertoire of talk-show impressions. Witness for the Prosecution adds a third black and white British-made thriller to the list: like This Land Is Mine, it’s made by Charles Laughton. There are also two relatively modern films on the list. Up was another blessed reminder that I really love animation. All the same, I think Pixar’s grown into itself: I remember finding Toy Story (1995) visually ugly and astoundingly charmless as a child. Gladiator was just plain good. If modern film serves a purpose for me, it’s fitting that it’s in giving utter believability to the past.

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