Modern films


In his essay The Decline and Fall of the Movie, Leslie Halliwell uses the following quote from Jonathan Swift to encapsulate his attitude to the cinema, and in particular to explain how his love of Hollywood's golden age could sit happily alongside an almost total disinterest in and disdain for its present:
."I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth."
.It's an opinion I more or less share. I too have my Peters and Johns, but the overwhelming majority of post-sixties cinema leaves me cold.
In particular, I have a loathing for the supposedly great works of seventies Hollywood - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, that one in space with the laser swords and the little robots, forget the name of it for a minute - that verges on the certifiable.
Even films I saw ten years ago and liked rarely hold up for me once a little water has flowed between us. Titanic, for instance, I initially had pegged as a glorious, old-style tear-jerker: the petty resentments of stuck-up critics who mocked the script and performances, I confidently predicted, would come to look as transparent and silly as those few who tried to write off Gone With the Wind. I was amazed to watch it again recently and see that they were right: it's a terrible film. Even the effects no longer impress overmuch: what we took to be realistic was in fact merely state of the art, and the trickery already looks almost as distancing, and fully as much a product of its time, as that of a fifties sci-fi movie.
.Now, by and large, nobody gets uppity when I say that I hate the taste (and indeed the thought) of mushrooms. But for some reason I've often noticed people getting strangely resentful when I say that I don't watch new movies, listen to modern music or watch any television at all, as if I was expressing a judgement about their taste rather than mine.
Some of the more popular responses:
I'm being pretentious.
I'm cutting off my nose to spite my face.
It's a shame I'm so unyielding, because I don't know what I'm missing.

Though it baffles me personally, there is of course no a priori reason why a person cannot like both classic and modern cinema. The thing that strikes me as odd is the almost automatic supposition that if one likes the former, one would, or should, like both.
It's a supposition that rarely works the other way round, I've noticed. I wouldn't expect anyone who rushed out to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ("screenplay by Ehren Kruger, based on Hasbro's Transformers action figures": now there's a credit to fill you with hope for the future of the medium) to enthuse about Monroe Owsley, have strong opinions about whether Charley Chase is better in silents or talkies, or feverishly collect Irene Ware films.
Yet when I, to whom all of the above applies, say that I'd rather spend a week underground with a mobile phone salesman than another minute looking at Will Ferrell's face... suddenly I'm the one with the big attitude.
I have known people laugh when I say I regularly watch black and white films, as if I'd said I liked reading Beowulf by candlelight in a Hebridean cave. Black and white! The idea! I've met people who thought I was joking when I said I liked silent films. (Often old people, dismayingly enough.)
Well, choosing to spend ninety minutes in the company of Tom Cruise, or Lars von Trier, or Ken Loach, or Wes Anderson strikes me as pretty wacko too.

But the much more important point is this.
Of course there are some modern films that I have enjoyed, especially from non-English-speaking Europe, where, for the moment at least, both depth and style remain fashionable, but even these do not strike me as examples of the same thing as the classic movies with which I am obsessed.
I mean, what do they really have in common?
Just this (and, increasingly, not even this): they are both forms of visual representation created by passing a beam of light through a strip of celluloid on which photographic impressions of human activity have been recorded.That's it, ladies and gentlemen. That's the common factor. That's the obvious and vital link that makes Mr Deeds Goes To Town an example of the same thing as Being John Malkovich, and makes me a crank or curmudgeon for loving the one like a firstborn child and hating the other with the kind of passion I ordinarily reserve for religious fanatics and salad.
How dare I?

Yet as I understand it, if you love old Hollywood, not just the list of approved masterpieces but the whole world and scent and flavour of old Hollywood, then you are in love with something that simply does not exist anymore, regardless of how good the occasional half-watchable film may still be on its own terms.
Classic Hollywood cinema is - and I mean this not as a judgement but as a simple statement of fact - a unique phenomenon, product of a unique set of circumstances and individuals, operating in a unique way at a unique point in time.
The studio system, long gone, produced a body of work that is to cinema generally what an illuminated medieval manuscript is to books generally. Shot almost entirely in studios, by contract artists, operating under an imposed censorship system, so that each studio had its own instantly recognisable atmosphere, regular stable of players, and totally artificial style.
This is what I love.
When that changed, as first the studio system and then the Hays Code collapsed, a clear before and after line can be drawn in the product.
The stars migrate from studio to studio, individual studio styles disappear, real locations, widescreens and other forms of pseudo-realism replace the artistic creations of the old studio photographers and set designers with drab singularity, and uniformity of manner and message gives way to a thousand discordant voices all vying to see who can shout loudest for your dollar.
These things, that make the earlier films so fundamentally different from what followed, are the specific things that attract me to them.
I have no passion for modern cinema. Even among the films I admired, hardly any have added something to my life, or given me any strong desire to see them again. Whereas if you told me I had just watched The Old Dark House for the last time I'd cry and fall over. Films are an interest, old Hollywood is a passion.
That's the difference.

Now, this all seems so straightforward to me that I wonder if the problem isn't somewhere in the very terminology we use.
'Classic' is a slippery term. On the one hand it can be used as a judgement - to be deemed a classic is a marker of quality - on the other it is used as a description, to mean films of a certain age. (Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide covers all films pre-1960.)
For most people I think it means a combination of the two - a retrospective bestowing of approval on a film that has been around long enough to have stood the test of time, hence the tentative use of phrases like 'modern classic' or 'future classic' to refer to Fargo or American Beauty or Christ knows what other ordure happens to be flavour of the month this month.
I'd like to see these two meanings divorced, so that we can talk about classical and modern cinema just as we talk of classical and modern music. Yes, everyone knows classical music is better than modern music, especially those who claim otherwise, but that's not what the term means. It refers to a style only, and any related associations of higher quality spring incidentally from the terms of the drawn distinction itself.
So how about continuing to use 'classic' as a qualitative term to recognise individual quality, but 'classical' as a quantitative term to define that whole world, and way of doing things, that existed between the creation of American cinema and the collapse of the original structures and strictures, somewhere in the fifties.

One final point. I do realise I have spoken only about old and new mainstream Hollywood.
Many have written that yes, American pop cinema is a parched field of rotting weeds, but salvation is at hand in the great third way: avant-garde, art and independent cinema.
Personally, I find even less here to attract me than in the average Hollywood blockbuster. If classical Hollywood is Mozart - or at least Puccini - and modern Hollywood is Justin Timberlake, then this lot is Stockhausen. (I even saw Peter Greenaway's name come up - a sobering reminder that there are indeed corners of the world where this pompous buffoon retains the respect long withdrawn by those of us who have to share a country with him.)
I really don't mind whether I see Marley and Me again or not, but if you wanted me to sit through Broken Flowers a second time you'd have to nail me down.
More genuine creativity, inspiration, effort and love of cinema went into Police Academy 6 than Being John Malkovich.

Tod Slaughter, the villain they loved


In 1956, at the very dawn of Hammer horror, a British actor passed away more or less without notice at the age of seventy.
One of the most unlikely of thirties film stars, with his round, teddy bear face and tubby physique, at a first glance he seemed most suited to kindly, paternal roles, and had indeed often played such characters in his earlier theatrical days.
But in a long career on stage and screen, Tod Slaughter had established himself as the nation's foremost villain and fiend, revelling in his status as the star audiences loved to hate: for him hisses and boos were like laughter to a comic. Without him, there may have been no Hammer horror at all.

He had been born Norman Carter Slaughter – yes, Slaughter was his real name – in 1885. He made his acting debut at the age of twenty, becoming an actor-manager in the grand tradition. In the twenties he ran his own theatres in Chatham and Elephant and Castle, where his revival of many of the old melodramas of the Victorian music halls cemented his reputation as (to quote the publicity tag appended to one of his later films) “the villain they love”.
One of those imperishable one-offs who seem simultaneously to debase and enrich the culture that begets them, he is an acting law unto himself; he stalks across the screen, leaps, cackles, leers, looms, rolls his eyes and rubs his hands together.
Sometimes he addresses his lines directly to the audience rather than characters; in one film, after some especially dastardly bit of evil plotting, he looks at us and slowly nods his head. And no actor before or since has matched the glee and panache with which he delivers lines like: “Be loyal to your trust and it will repay you handsomely, betray me and I’ll feed your entrails to the pigs!”

His films invariably follow a strict theatrical pattern. He’s usually a wicked squire or some other trusted authority figure engaged in a secret life as a master criminal (often with names like ‘The Tiger’ or ‘The Spine-Breaker’). He always kills for profit or gain, yet takes clear sadistic pleasure in the act of murder, cackling and gloating beforehand. He is also lecherous, and obsessed with the conquest of beautiful virgins.
Typically, his lust for some innocent girl leads him to frame the man she loves for one of his own crimes. His villainy is usually revealed to the audience from the outset, and he shares it with them from then on, Christmas pantomime-style, even as he attempts to deceive the other characters. About half way through the hero and heroine get the true measure of him but are not believed; he is arrested, she is put in mortal or maidenly peril, and only some last minute intervention saves the day.
Then, when confronted with the often pretty flimsy evidence of his criminality, Slaughter instantly switches from swaggering arrogance to ranting, gurgling madness and screams for mercy. (Mercy which is needless to say not extended: the audience would have rioted if it were.) .

The subjects of his melodramas were the same that preoccupied the authors of penny dreadfuls and sensational ballads; that residue of grim English folklore stretching back to the highwaymen and grave-robbers, and on to Dr Crippen and Jack the Ripper.
His debut, Maria Marten, or: The Murder in the Red Barn (1935, note the bill-board theatricality of the title) was based on a notorious murder that took place in the Suffolk village of Polstead in 1827. (Maria was a mole-catcher’s daughter made pregnant out of wedlock by a wicked local squire named William Corder. On the pretext of eloping, he arranged to meet her at a red-tiled barn on his property, where he murdered and buried her. The body was eventually discovered and Corder, who had fled to London, was hanged in public in front of Bury St Edmunds jail. Visitors to the local museum can still see a selection of gruesome relics associated with the crime, including Corder’s scalp and an account of the crime bound in his skin.)
In Britain this sort of thing was considered frightfully tasteless, pandering to the worst instincts of the lowest common denominator. Indeed, the scene in Maria Marten in which he lures poor Maria to the barn and murders her is not explicit in any modern sense, but the inordinate amount of time separating his telling her she is about to be killed and his actually doing it, accompanied by her screams and pleas, give the film a prurient quality that almost anticipates the serial killer movies of the nineties.

As well as Maria Marten, many other of his films give a melodramatic gloss to real life crimes and mysteries, including the story of Edinburgh ‘ressurectionists’ Burke and Hare (The Greed of William Hart), mysterious Victorian villain Spring Heeled Jack (The Curse of the Wraydons) and, by far his most famous role, Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936).
.Slaughter played this role countless times on stage, and was still recreating it in novelty spots on tv in the fifties. The film version catches him at his very best, telling his customers how they have “a beautiful throat for the razor”, and concluding with relish “I’ll enjoy polishing you off!” before sending them plummeting through the trap door that takes them to the basement of Mrs Lovett’s pie shop…
But unlike on stage - where Tod delighted the crowds with a prop razor that spurted gore - the British censor has here insisted that the horrors be toned down to a point where it would be difficult for audiences unfamiliar with the story to be sure what is going on. The trap door under the barber's chair is operated before Todd cuts the incumbent's throat, and the ultimate destination of the corpses is never stated outright. The closest we get is an innuendo, as a sailor chomping on a hot pie wonders aloud what the killer does with the bodies.

Just as Maria Marten had begun, rather like Olivier’s Henry V, as a modern stage production which gradually becomes a film; so the narrative of Sweeney Todd is recounted in flashback by a modern day barber, whose horrified customer ends by fleeing, still lathered, into the street and bumping into a hot pie vendor. The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936), meanwhile, is staged as an episode of the radio show In Town Tonight, beginning with a comic song from the musical comedy duo Flotsam and Jetsam and other irrelevant items before Slaughter is brought on, his interview segueing into the narrative. (Asked about his favourite methods of murder, he replies: "I keep a perfectly open mind on the matter.")
Of course, the chief purpose of all these odd-seeming additions is to distract the censors. After all, Hawke proper begins with a scene in which Slaughter lures a small boy into the bushes and callously breaks his back - were the film to begin that way it would never have been passed.
Perhaps the cleverest of all these tricks can be seen in It's Never Too Late To Mend (1937), which opens with a rolling-caption disclaimer claiming that the book upon which it was based was directly responsible for prison reform, and was read and approved by the Dear Old Queen. As additional insurance, the film is presented in association with something called the Dawn Trust ("under the direction of the Reverend Brian Hession"), at whose instigation, one must presume, the film has been landed with a heroic priest character, who confronts Slaughter at the end Dracula-style, with only an outstretched crucifix for protection.
With this cover safely in place, Slaughter runs riot as Squire Meadows, a sadistic magistrate who gets his jollies visiting prisons and taunting and flogging the prisoners, who he calls "my children".

His film work goes through two distinct phases. At first he is Slaughter the novelty, in films that deliberately emulate the look and atmosphere of the stage plays on which they are based.
Then, from about 1937 onwards, he is Slaughter the bona fide film star, in (comparatively) cinematic vehicles crafted around his new movie fame.
He was even picking up support work in other movies around this time: a clear reflection of his new legitimacy as a film actor. He turned up as guest villain in a Sexton Blake movie, Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror, in 1938, and as a sex-pest gypsy in Song of the Road (1937), a lugubrious drama about a middle-aged freelance farm labourer and his beloved horse struggling to find work after the invention of the tractor. (And they wondered why British films lacked international appeal.)
If Sweeney Todd is the defining film of his first phase, the best-remembered title among the second crop is surely The Face at the Window (1939, subtitled “a melodrama of the old school, dear to the hearts of all who unashamedly enjoy either a shudder or a laugh at the heights of villainy”), remembered chiefly for receiving a glowing review from Graham Greene in his days as a film critic. (He even went so far as to compare Slaughter approvingly with Charles Laughton.)
The film casts Slaughter as ‘The Wolf’, a killer in nineteenth century Paris, who stabs his victims while their attention is distracted by the horrifying face of his hulking halfwit brother pressed against their window pane. When he's not out staring through windows, Slaughter keeps him locked in a cage. .

Less famous, but even better in many ways, is the last and most impudent product of his golden era: Crimes at the Dark House (1940). By Slaughter's standards it's a prestige production, as befits its unprecedentedly highbrow source. The film is in fact an adaptation of Wilkie Collins's classic Victorian novel The Woman in White, but don't worry: it begins with Slaughter hammering a tent-peg into a sleeping man's ear, and follows it up with him impregnating and then murdering a helpless servant girl. ("So you wanted to be a bride, my dear Jessica did you? So you shall be : a bride of death! He, he, he! Heh, heh, heh!")
The big cliffhanger: will he or won't he rape the heroine? ("Back in Australia I used to break in fractious horses - now I'm going to break in a fractious mare!") In a scene that would surely have been impossible in a Hollywood film under the Hays Code, we begin by seeing him downstairs, preparing to deflower the young bride waiting unwillingly in his bed. We cut to her, crying pitifully. He goes to join her, and a series of disembodied close-ups emphasise his intentions: his feet slowly climbing the stairs, his hands gripping the banisters, then her face again, suddenly lit as the bedroom door opens... Slaughter's joyless laugh fills the soundtrack, and the scene fades. Heh, heh, heh...

The majority of the pre-war vehicles were produced and directed by George King (1900-66), maverick producer of quota quickies and second-features, and one of those enterprising and energetic chaps in which the early British cinema abounds. The war, however, gave him a chance to raise his game: British Aviation hired him to produce propaganda films like The First of the Few and Tomorrow We Live (both 1942). But while King scampered upmarket, his former star, in a corresponding reversal of fortune, was prohibited from producing such unwholesome films during the war years, though he was allowed to tour army camps with his Sweeney Todd stage show.
He returned to the screen for two last barnstormers when the war was over but he was sixty now, visibly older, even rounder, and time had moved on. Neither The Curse of the Wraydons (1946) nor The Greed of William Hart (1948) really compare with the pre-war films except in fleeting moments, such as the beautifully scary close-up of his leering face in Wraydons, filling the screen as he advances on the woman he is about to strangle in a leafy, sun-dappled forest.


William Hart, meanwhile, is most notable for its ingenious response to Slaughter's last ever set-to with the censors. The British censors declared that no film could be made about the Burke and Hare murders that used the killers' actual names. The only trouble was that by the time the producers realised this, the film was already in the can. Obviously it would have been impossible to go back and reshoot every scene in which the names 'Burke', 'Hare' and 'Knox' are mentioned, but the solution they hit upon seems scarcely less difficult: to laboriously post-dub every individual use of each name.
This was plainly a labour of Hercules: hardly a scene goes by that doesn't mention at least one of them, and the sudden substitution of the new names (Moore, Hart and Cox), with tell-tale errors in intonation (rather like those piecemeal voice messages you get on railway stations and telephone answering machines), is often distractingly comic in its obviousness. (Further evidence of this policy can be seen in the British release print of Val Lewton's The Body Snatcher, where every reference to Burke and Hare - though not to Knox - has been crudely excised, from the single word 'Burked' in Karloff's line "This is how they Burked 'em!", to the entirety of his song ["Nor did they handle axe or knife, To take away their victim's life / No sooner done than in the chest, They crammed their lately welcomed guest"]. The version of the film released on video in Britain in the late eighties by VCI is of this British cut, and I had watched it for years in ignorance of what was missing and why, until the revelation of the recent Lewton DVD box set. Note also how, though not filmed until 1985, the film of Dylan Thomas's forties screenplay The Doctor and the Devils retains substitute character names: Fallon and Broom, and Dr Rock.)
.
After William Hart, Slaughter returned to the boards, supplementing touring versions of Sweeney Todd and his other great roles with occasional bit-work in supporting films and tv.
He died of coronary thrombosis in 1956, after a good meal and one last performance as the wicked Squire Corder in Maria Marten, a role he had been technically too old to play in 1935, and had never stopped playing since.
Slaughter was, without doubt, the founding father of the British horror film. In the later examples his spirit is everywhere: you can imagine slipping him into, say, Baker and Berman's madly stylised Jack the Ripper (1958) and it hardly missing a beat. Can't you seem him as Dr Callistratus in Blood of the Vampire (1958)? Or the head of the Grisbane clan in House of the Long Shadows (1983)? Or any of the ranting deviants essayed by Michael Gough in the films of Herman Cohen?
Wasn't he born to play Edward Lionheart in Theatre of Blood (1973)?

Frank Tuttle


All the major studios had their own style in the early thirties: MGM had society opulence, Warners had urban authenticity... and Paramount had European sophistication.

I like to think of the studio as an exclusive school: Paramount's early thirties school of European Style. Lubitsch was the headmaster, Mitchell Leisen the art teacher, Rouben Mamoulian the drama teacher (who also did the special effects for the school plays), Dorothy Arzner was the games mistress, DeMille the classics master, and Cukor the head boy.
But what of Frank Tuttle? Well, Frank Tuttle, perhaps, was the caretaker.

Actually, no, he was much more than that; though that, I suspect is as much as his reputation will allow him. David Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film warns outright that "there is no reason to build him up as an important director," albeit in the same breath that it calls him"a sign of the quality of Paramount in the 1920s" and concedes to his work "a brisk, sophisticated eye for glamour".
Tuttle is one of those men (Norman Z. McLeod is another) invariably overshadowed by their stars and the efficiency of the formulae with which they worked, but whose individual contributions to the general pot always seem to stand out a little, leaving little recourse other than to say, 'well, maybe this boy really did have something going for him beyond competence...'
Tuttle simply made too many great films to allow to mere chance and the happy assembly of tested ingredients.
Yet he had come to the movies (first as writer, then soon graduating to direction) with altogether loftier ambitions. A Yale man, he co-founded The Film Guild in 1922, an organisation with aims to break the stranglehold of pappy, sappy romances and similar lowbrow entertainments in the movies and offer patrons more elevated work along the lines of New York's Theatre Guild.
It's possible that some of his earliest films have something of this earnestness of ambition, but fortunately he soon succumbed to the tinsel, and by the mid-twenties he was firmly ensconced at Paramount as one of their most reliable handlers of crowd-pleasing froth.
They most valued him, it would seem, as a developer of specific acting personalities, so that he swiftly acquired a reputation as 'the guy that does Clara Bow pictures', or 'that Bebe Daniels feller' or whatever, before being shunted on to the next star.
The choice of artistes is telling: a Dietrich needs a von Sternberg; Bing Crosby gets Frank Tuttle.
He directed Bebe four times in 1924 and 5, their collaborations marking a transitional
phase between her established later persona and the image she had sustained somewhat improbably in DeMille's films as a flighty seductress. He also formed a brief alliance with her occasional DeMille antagonist Gloria Swanson, penning the screenplays for Her Love Story and Manhandled (both 1924) and directing The Untamed Lady in 1926. (His work with Swanson is especially interesting, because this is a woman who existed as a series of directorial allegiances, and posterity's take on her reputation comes to seem almost a punch-up between the versions chosen by each director: will she be remembered as Von Stroheim's drama queen, DeMille's glamourpuss, Sam Wood's thoroughly modern heroine? Ironically it is one-shot Wilder's Swanson that etched itself into history, with a kind of composite DeMille-Von Stroheim phantom, the one that Norma Desmond was rather than is, flitting between the lines. Tuttle chose characteristically to emphasise her comedic gifts, especially as a gum-chewing shop girl in Manhandled.)
The American Venus (1926) began a notable association with Louise Brooks. The film itself is tragically lost, but Brooks and Tuttle got on like a house on fire, and Louise seems to have been one of the few stars to have really rated him as a director.
"Frank Tuttle was a master of easy, perfectly timed comedy which demanded that kind of acting rather than the wildly energetic style popular in Hollywood," she wrote many years later. "An intelligent man, he never interfered with two classes of actors - great actors and non-actors. In the first class was Osgood Perkins, who needed no direction. In the second class was I, who, had he directed me to be funny, would have become an immobilized personality... I didn't even know I was playing comedy until I saw it with an audience. I played it perfectly straight, and that's the way he wanted it."
A fan of hers since her days with the Ziegfeld Follies, he nicknamed her 'babbling Brooks' and personally lobbied for her to get the part.


Tuttle's complicated working relationship with Brooks would stretch over four films. The second, and the first film in our Tuttle festival, was Love 'em and Leave 'em (1927), with Brooks in full flapper mode as Janie, feckless younger sister of respectable shop girl Mame, played by Evelyn Brent. While Mame is struggling to keep their heads above water in a one-bedroom apartment, Janie is out all night, winning male admirers and dolls in Charleston contests.
If the premise sounds familiar, that's because it was remade only two years later as one of the best Clara Bow talkies, The Saturday Night Kid, with Clara as Mame and a young and squeaky Jean Arthur as Janie. Oddly, Tuttle was not called back for the rematch, though he would be assigned Clara duties on her subsequent four films, and had already directed her twice in silents.
The two films make for interesting comparison pieces. Brooks is more kittenish and less bratty than Arthur, and she and Brent really do seem a generation apart, whereas in Kid we end up resenting Arthur much more because we can see that Clara is a young, fun-loving gal too, whose responsibilities won't permit her the freedoms her sister flaunts and takes for granted. Where Arthur's Janie is a sullen manipulator, Brooks - as usual - is the victim of forces beyond her control: "I can't help it, can I, if he likes me the best?" she asks after swiping her sister's boyfriend. (She plays it like Christina Ricci in The Opposite of Sex.)
As William K. Everson wrote: "What a marvelously exciting film it would have been had Clara and Louise been co-starred in the original version... One just can't blame the hero for straying from Evelyn to Louise - but having to choose between Clara and Louise would really provide food for thought."
"You may not be real bright, Jane, but you're some snappy dresser," the big sap tells her at one point, and Tuttle cuts to long-shot to show us Louise sashaying and turning like a catwalk model as she basks in this highest of praise. At the end we see her at the department store's annual fancy dress ball, wooing the big boss and dancing the Black Bottom. (As one contemporary reviewer put it, more than reasonably: "At the end of the film she goes to the store's masquerade ball sans skirt and does a Charleston: who could ask for anything more?")
.



Never again would Tuttle and Louise work together in such joyous circumstances. It was Tuttle who directed the retakes and new scenes of The Canary Murder Case (1929), after it was decided to convert it from silent to talkie. Louise couldn't have hoped for a more sympathetic overseer of her first venture into talking cinema, but she petulantly withdrew from the project, and more or less killed her Hollywood career. (More on this film here.)Nonetheless, Tuttle retained his admiration and affection for her, and when she was given a demeaning cameo in It Pays To Advertise (1931) in order to work out her Paramount contract, he ensured that she dominates what screen time she gets.
As showgirl Thelma Temple (of the Broadway revue Girlies Don't Tell), she is the star of the opening scene; she's funny, perky and gorgeous. In her one chance to shine in a film she will almost immediately exit we see her surrounded by a crowd of journalists ("just raise the skirt, just a trifle...") awash in adoration. She reduces the audience to the same degree of helpless rapture - and then she's gone.
It Pays to Advertise, however, remains another of the great, great Tuttle films, and I discuss it further
here.

Another star that Paramount was somehow finding far more troublesome than was necessary or warranted was Clara Bow, and for a time, Tuttle became her regular director in talkies. My favourite of their collaborations is probably True To The Navy (1930), one of her lightest and most inconsequential confections, rushed into production to capitalise on the unexpectedly delighted public response to her song number I'm True to the Navy Now, directed by Tuttle for Paramount On Parade (1930).
Here she gets another song (There's Only One That Matters To Me
) and seems generally at her most relaxed and perky (the Tuttle factor again?) as an employee of Harry Green's drug store (she makes eyes at all the customers, he sells them out-of-date, rock hard marshmallows as presents for her; it's probably Green's funniest performance too.)
As opposed to the sailor with a girl in every port, Clara is the girl with a sailor on every ship, until, after much farce, she settles for Fredric March, also in lighter than usual mood, as the good-natured gob who falls hardest for her.


 Which brings us to Sweetie (1929), another in Paramount's legion of college pictures, crossed with the chorus line musical. (Send for Tuttle!)
As well as the full gamut of college film clichés, with which Horse Feathers had such sport, we have Jack Oakie rewriting the staid school song as a Jolson pastiche, Alma Mammy, and above all we have Helen Kane. And Helen Kane, what's more, at her most infantile and absurd (fellow Kane-worshippers will know that this is no small claim) as a pupil of 'Miss Twill's School For Girls', where the young ladies sit in rows of desks on the lawn saying things like "cream or lemon?" in unison. She sings Prep Step and He's So Unusual
 and makes her entrance in the film falling out of a tree.
As well as the matchless majesty of Helen Kane, there's tons more about the big football game, and Nancy Carroll becoming president of the college, and more songs, and a major plot thread about Nancy's on-off romance with one of the freshmen, and a lively subplot about Stuart Erwin trying to pass an exam... and oh, you just wish it would never end.



Tuttle was briefly assigned to the Marx Brothers' Monkey Business in 1931 but lost out to Norman McLeod - the thought of this near-miss between the Tuttle and the Marxes is so much more frustrating than if their names had never been linked at all - but don't despair: the switch-over freed him to take on a run of wonderful pictures climaxing with perhaps my favourite of all Paramount society soufflés: a glorious thing called This Is The Night (1932).
As general familiarity with the Paramount house style recedes further into prehistory, the critical standing of this film sinks ever lower.
No mention of it fails to dismiss it as an imitation of Lubitsch, as if any Paramount film of this time was anything but! Yet even on these terms I find it every bit as good as the master's own work.
It is one of those infectiously delightful films (DeMille's Madam Satan, made in the Paramount style with MGM resources, is the other big example) that belie their low critical standing so obviously and all-encompassingly that to bother constructing a critical defence is pointless. All you have to do is watch the film. Far better simply to celebrate it, and let the naysayers catch up at their own pace.



Among other things, it was Cary Grant's first feature film, and he gives a very funny, totally untypical performance as an Olympic javelin-thrower who catches his wife - Thelma Todd! - in the act of planning a dirty weekend with her lover - Roland Young!!! - forcing Young to invent a fictitious wife whom he must then hire an actress to impersonate. Charlie Ruggles is around too, effortlessly hilarious as ever, Lily Damita is the hired wife, and the whole thing plays out as a series of beautiful farcical episodes in Venice and Paris.
As with Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight and several other Paramount films around this time there are some absolutely wonderful sequences in which characters drift in and out of song, songs are passed around from character to character and extra to extra, and ambient noise becomes subsumed within the music. Grant's first appearance as he catches Ruggles attempting to deliver the tickets for Thelma's tryst is played hilariously in part-spoken, part-sung dialogue and there is a glorious opening sequence where Todd's dress is caught in a taxi door, stripping her to her underwear, as the watching crowd launch into a jaunty number called Madame Has Lost Her Dress ("Whoops! In stepping from the car her dress caught / I only wish that I were Madame's escort!")
Obviously Lubitsch is the reference-point, obviously Trouble In Paradise and Love Me Tonight are being evoked... but obviously - this film is fantastic.
Variety, at least, got the hang of it, calling it a "smartly produced and directed Frenchy bedroom chase" even though in its "satirical application of music to comic situations and the tongue-in-cheek treatment from start to finish, Frank Tuttle's meg work cannot escape comparison with Lubitsch brand." The paper went on to note, in its own evocative vernacular, that "dialog on the whole is spicy for the screen, with a strip that's somewhat Minsky by Miss Damita, and some leg stuff for comedy and other purposes boosting the s. a. total... Thelma Todd is tall, blonde, stunning and perfect. It's hard to tell about Cary Grant in this talker due to limitations of his role, but he looks like a potential femme rave."



Through the thirties, Tuttle was Paramount's resident Mr Light and Frothy, always on call for a college film or a Big Broadcast, a Crosby picture or Charlie McCarthy, Detective (1939), a film that manages by no common alchemy to be even more enjoyable than it sounds. He corralled Eddie Cantor, Gloria Stuart and Ruth Etting in Roman Scandals (1933), and Martha Raye, Burns & Allen and a screenful of Paramount starlets in College Holiday (1936). The latter, some seventy-odd years after it was first seen, remains the funniest film ever made about eugenics.
As the shadows lengthened in the forties, he rounded out his career in thrillers, to which he was ill-suited, but which he always brought in professionally in the absence of more suitable assignments. (It wasn't so much that he was no longer being considered for the kind of films he did best, more that they just weren't making them any more.)


Still, one of this final batch, at least, is a bona fide classic, so we round out the festival with This Gun For Hire (1942), the first and best teaming of Lake and Ladd. It's fully as sharp and riveting as anything Warners were doing with Bogart at the same time, even though Ladd looks too delicate and baby-faced to be a tough guy, and at five-foot-five was even shorter than Bogart. Here, however, he cuts an impressively unsympathetic figure as Raven, a hired killer whose aims correspond with those of the American government when he goes after a double-crossing client attempting to frame him for robbery, who also just happens to work for a gang of fifth columnists. En route, his path crosses with Lake’s nightclub novelty chanteuse, acting undercover for the government and after the same man, whose policeman boyfriend is after Raven.
The whole film has a bleakness that makes it a most unusual product of the war years: the villains may be enemy agents, but good guys are in conspicuously short supply. Ladd’s Raven, though he does redeem himself to some extent, is a cold-blooded professional killer, pursuing the film’s main villain for reasons of purely personal revenge. We first see him at work in a chilling sequence in which he turns up at the apartment of his next hit to find the victim’s innocent girlfriend unexpectedly present, and mechanically murders both.
The real hero is Lake’s spunky Ellen; by no means merely decorative, she is intelligent, brave and resourceful (note how she creates a trail for the police to follow when Raven abducts her) and acting from selfless and honourable motives. And there are no prizes for guessing that she's Tuttle's favourite half of the partnership: the only time the film stops frowning is during her fabulously eccentric nightclub numbers (dubbed by singer Martha Mears): Now You See It, Now You Don’t, sung while she pulls cards, silk scarves and canaries from nowhere and appears and disappears impossibly with trick photography, and I’ve Got You, performed with a fishing rod, hat and heart-stopping black PVC outfit.
.

To recap: my recommendations for a Frank Tuttle film festival are:
1. Love 'em and Leave 'em (1927)
2. Sweetie (1929)
3. True to the Navy (1930)
4. It Pays to Advertise (1931)
5. This Is The Night (1932)
6. This Gun For Hire (1942)
And if you only have time to see one: This Is The Night.
So here's to the great Frank Tuttle - have a big cream cake with Clara on me.

Ken Russell



It is, I would have thought, impossible to dislike Ken Russell.
.
He (and the equally taken for granted Michael Winner) are Britain's only flamboyant, old-style autocrat film directors. The other greats of British cinema - the Leans and the Reeds; even Powell - were shirt-sleeves-rolled-up men, who went to work with a pencil behind their ears and a job to do, whereas Winner consciously apes the strutting despotism of a DeMille ("a team effort is lots of people all doing what I say"), and Russell, perhaps, is our von Sternberg, even our von Stroheim.
He is clearly a man of vision and passion. (And how can you not hold a corner in your heart for anyone who includes Michelle and Romy's High School Reunion alongside Citizen Kane and Metropolis in their list of the ten best films ever made?)
And yet, when I look through his filmography I am surprised at how few films I love without reservation. Even The Devils (1971), once one of my favourites of anybody's films, now seems to me overblown in its hysteria.
His most interesting works, for me at least, are the biographical ones, specifically those concerned with great composers and the creative process. But even here, his tendency toward push-button iconoclasm leaves many of them seeming quaintly dated in their excesses, whereas the more sober efforts, such as the tv films Elgar (1962) and Song of Summer, his film about Delius (1968), are timeless in their perfection.
These two, in fact, are unquestionably my favourites of all Russell's works, they are simple and beautiful, magnificently photographed in black and white, and the restraint that is presumably imposed on Russell from above has the paradoxical effect of liberating his imagination, denied as it is the easy recourse to sensationalism and deliberate anachronism.

The trouble I have with Russell when he goes crazy is that the wildness of his imagination is not matched by any comparable liberation in technique. Everything is shot in the same unimaginative and prosaic manner, so the end result is bathos; it just looks silly.
He is capable of poetry, most certainly, but it most reliably comes forth in the service of conventional narrative points, as in Elgar, which is an endless stream of telling images, conveying yards of meaning in simple, unpretentiously beautiful pictures.
Others strongly disagree, I do know. There is a school that dismisses the chocolate box pictorialism of Elgar et al most vehemently. (With this I have no truck.)
But it is a strange feature of his work that a lot of it is generally judged too tasteless, the rest too tasteful. Rarely is he deemed to have set his tasteometer just right. Only Women In Love (1969), I suppose, and even that was tasteless to many at the time, and too tasteful for many now. It is certainly hard to believe that Elgar and, say, Crimes of Passion (1984) are the work of the same man. There are two Russells (at least): one who loves being outrageous - and really naff erotica - and one whose experimentalism and occasional sensationalism are underpinned by a deep and sensitive commitment to high culture.
Mahler (1974) in particular shows these two Russells at war: much of the film is straightforward and fine, then Russell the iconoclast bursts forth, and the effect is lost in the service of non-shocking shocks, non-frenzied frenzy, down to earth insanity.
(His own take on biographical dramas in his book Directing Film is telling: "how I wince when I see the words 'Based on a True Story' flash on the screen, because you can bet your bottom dollar it's going to be harrowing, horrible and banal. And so you are blackmailed into enduring the most awful claptrap on the grounds that the subject matter is worthy. Frequently they're about saints, disabled people or repentant rapists.")
In a sense, Elgar is his most truly rebellious film: in its pastoralism, its sobriety and its unabashed admiration for a key icon of unfashionable Empire Britain, it went against the emerging anti-establishment and London-centric mood of sixties Britain.
.
............................... .....The Ken and I, 2007

An Interview With Douglas Wilmer



Douglas Wilmer was a distinguished British character actor, best remembered for his appearances as Sherlock Holmes on BBC television in the sixties, and in such major movies as Richard III, El Cid and Cleopatra. (Even if you don’t immediately know the name, you’ll surely recognise the face, the profile, and the rich, brown voice…)
He also enjoyed many years of success on the British stage.
Now 89 and long retired, he has just published Stage Whispers, a fascinating memoir in which he looks back over his long and varied career and recalls many of the celebrated names with whom he has shared stage and screen. (Among many fascinating recollections, it includes the funniest anecdote about Rex Harrison I have ever read.)
I visited Douglas at his home in the charming town of Woodbridge, Suffolk for the following interview.


MC: I’d like to start by asking about your very first acting appearance, which had something to do with your ‘scoundrelly looks’.

DW: Yes, I was cast in the school production of Richard of Bordeaux. This was at King’s School, Canterbury. The headmaster was visiting rehearsals and decided the boy playing the Archbishop of Canterbury was not right. He looked around, saw me and said: “You with your scoundrelly looks, you’ll do. Go away and learn the part.” I had never acted in my life and this was two days before the performance. The boy that was booted out later became a Bishop actually!

And that was when you decided you wanted to be an actor?

No, no, I was absolutely terrified! I had never acted before in my life, I only had two days to learn it in, and I never really got to grips with the lines properly at all. In fact, I had to play a long scene with one of the other leading characters, and I kept putting him back to the same place, and we’d go through it again. I remember he had to say of his father: “He had a fine seat on a horse”. And he said that three times! I was really terrified, and I didn’t enjoy it at all.
But Dame Sybil Thorndike came to see the play because her nephew Dan Thorndike was playing one of the parts in it, and she told the headmaster that the boy playing the Archbishop might be able to make a go of acting if I wanted to. And he rather ill advisedly repeated this to me.
Anyway, I was in the next play with rather more preparation the following year. Then, after that, Dan Thorndike was cast as Hamlet and I was cast as the King. And that I thoroughly enjoyed. I think it was then that I seriously thought that this was what I’d like to do.

You went to RADA, where you say you found the curriculum “surprisingly old-fashioned and disappointing”.

Yes, it was really rather dull. It was run on very snobbish lines. I felt that the principal, Sir Kenneth Barnes – no, I didn’t feel, I knew – was a frightful snob.
When I went back later to teach there, there was an actor called Percy Herbert and I cast him as Sergius in Arms and the Man. He was totally unsuited for the part, but then I cast everybody against type to give them an opportunity, as it was only a student production and nobody was going to see it, to play something that they would never actually be cast as, in order to sort of broaden them out a bit. And the students themselves were most pleased with this.
Anyway, Percy Herbert had at that time a very strong cockney accent. He went on to play a lot of cockney parts like his performance in Bridge on the River Kwai. And at the end of it all, we were all summoned to Sir Kenneth’s office; I perched myself on the end of his desk and the actors seated themselves on the floor while he gave each one a rundown.
When he came to Percy Herbert, he said: “I thought that was rather a common performance. Didn’t you, Mr Wilmer?” I said: “No, I thought it was a most uncommon performance!”

The war intervened at the end of your RADA training, during which you served with the 1st West African Anti-Tank Battery. You were eventually invalided out after contracting TB, and it was only after a prolonged period of convalescence that you were able to return to acting, which was in weekly rep, rehearsing one play during the day and performing another at night. How did you avoid getting the two mixed up?

Well it’s like… I don’t know what it’s like doing, really. It’s like having done a reconnaissance on one road and then having to go to another place on the same day: you don’t suddenly switch to the other road!

It sounds incredibly difficult to me.

Oh, it was difficult! One needed to be young, and rather more alert than I am now.

I was struck in the book that your recollections of the celebrated actors you worked with as your career began to take off, people like Olivier, Redgrave, Gielgud, Quayle and others, show a side of them that I have never really come across in any other film or theatrical memoirs. They’re not mean-spirited, but they are penetrating and very frank, and they make the subjects come alive in a new way. Why do you think so many actors’ memoirs are so much more reticent?

Because I think they are rather more fearful for their careers than I am. People don’t like to appear to be slinging mud at icons. But, I mean, the mud was there. I didn’t sling it. It was there.

They didn’t want to make costly enemies. Especially of some of the troublesome leading men you worked with, like Richard Harris and George C. Scott…

I say, you are rather dwelling on all the villains!

In Olivier’s case, you seem to suggest that there was a coldness to him as a person that is conveyed by the performances he gave.

Well, I felt that he was an actor who could really excite and stir you; he had tremendous flair and dash, but I sometimes felt that his performances were a little lacking in heart. Some of them, I felt, were totally lacking in heart. And as heart is one of the main ingredients of nobility, noble parts like Othello I thought escaped him completely.

And this you link to a certain remoteness in the man…

I don’t think that he was remote, or if he was, he was remote from himself as well. It always seemed to me at least that he was curiously empty when he didn’t have a role to play. Others who knew him better may dispute this, but I never found him an especially easy man to get to know.

Your big break in movies occurred at a time when Hollywood was producing a lot of big epic movies, many of them shot in Italy and Spain, and classically trained British actors were much in demand for their casts. And so you appeared in El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire and Cleopatra, among others. I don’t know how recently you’ve watched these films, but I wondered if you had a favourite? It’s always seemed to me that El Cid stands head and shoulders above the others.

Well I would say that El Cid was probably the best. Although I did think it was a bit long, mainly because the whole of the middle part I wasn’t in. (Laughs)
In Cleopatra, I dished out all my lines to somebody else because I wanted to go and make another film!

You got to know Richard Burton very well, and you talk as others have of the two warring halves of his life, the one leaning towards classical acting, the stage and the academic life, the other towards Hollywood and the big bucks and the booze and little creative reward. I suppose you got to know him, during the making of Cleopatra, right at the moment when the Hollywood side won.
Yes, it was during the course of that film. He could have been our greatest actor. And I remember him telling me how guilty he felt, at having acquired so much so easily. He certainly couldn’t resist Miss Taylor, and felt very guilty of that at first.
And I’d see him on the set holding a huge brandy balloon half full of something that I don’t think was cold tea at something like seven-thirty in the morning before going on and acting. I don’t know that it was a problem at that point. I mean, I certainly couldn’t do that, but it never seemed to interfere with his work.

The word while Cleopatra was being made was that it was shaping up to be a major disaster, spiralling out of control, massively over- budget, different directors, etc. What was the atmosphere like on the set?

Well Mankiewicz was very professional; I don’t remember any other director…

Rouben Mamoulian had started on it.

Yes, but that was way back, long before I arrived on the scene. I found Mankiewicz a good director. I thought he was very patient, very kind, and really one of the pleasanter people I met as film directors.

Unlike Anthony Mann, the director of El Cid

Well, I found that he appeared to enjoy uncomfortable situations, which made actors appear in some sort of humiliating light, rather too much. And we’d all suffered from this throughout the film. One of the first scenes in the film was actually the last to be shot, in which I was brought on in front of a Spanish mob that were told to throw stones at me. And he did take after take after take of this, rather enjoying seeing all these stones bouncing off my nut. And I began to get pretty annoyed.

What were they made of?

Well they were made of a sort of a hard rubber. So, they were not amusing.
Then he said, “I’m coming in close now, and one of the stones is gonna hit you just under the eye. And you’re a prince, you understand? You don’t flinch, you don’t flinch.”I said: “Well I may be a prince but I’m also a human being, and I defy anyone to not blink when they’re hit in the face with a stone. It can’t be done.”
He said: “Why not? You’re an actor aren’t ya?”I said: “Yes, I believe I am. Could you do it?”
“Sure I could!”I said: “Then do it!” And I picked one up and flung it at his face.
And everybody just crept away! Heston was there; I saw him sort of melt away. And I was left with this furious man, hopping up and down like a dancing dervish, screaming at me that I’d never work again!

Though he in fact went on to employ you again in his next film, The Fall of the Roman Empire.

Yes, oddly enough he did. I can only imagine that he rather liked being stood up to, in a curious sort of way. But he never referred to it again to me, never. Other actors did. Alec Guinness came to me and asked if it was true, because the story had got round!
But that was certainly the thing I remember most from making El Cid. Apart from my friendship with Heston, who as well as extremely professional I found extremely kind and generous also.

You worked with him again in Antony and Cleopatra, which he also directed. What was he like as a director?

He was very good, except that I don’t think he was experienced enough as a director to take on the leading role and at the same time direct. He directed another actor of roughly the same height, who had to learn all the lines, so he could see how it would all look, and then he took the guy out and he went in himself and the camera shot it. But I don’t think he was ideally cast as Antony.

You say in the book that he had an almost puritanical streak that sanitised his love scenes with actresses, a kind of physical reticence.

I don’t think that he felt he was reticent; I think they felt it… I don’t think it was reticence so much as a lack of chemistry. I mean, he went through all the motions… He never looked at another woman besides his wife. I think he’d had a bit of a fright early on in his career in that sort of direction, and vowed that he’d never have anything to do with leading ladies ever again. So there was always this distance, and a lack of chemistry. He never paid the least attention to Sophia Loren on El Cid.

Heston and Wilmer in El Cid: "You're a prince, you understand? You don't flinch; you don't flinch..."

One of the surprising omissions from the book is that there’s no mention of Peter Sellers.

Well, I did actually write a chapter on Peter Sellers, and by some oversight forgot to send it. When I looked in the index to see where Peter Sellers was, I was amazed to find that he wasn’t there!

You worked with him on A Shot in the Dark and Revenge of the Pink Panther, both films during the making of which, according to director Blake Edwards, he was on his very worst behaviour, to the extent that on the latter they would only communicate via a third person who ferried messages back and forth. What is your recollection of working on those films?

No, I don’t think so… That’s certainly not my memory of it. I mean, I didn’t have an awful lot to do in Shot in the Dark; I had rather more to do in the second film, where I was the commissioner. But no, I don’t remember any kind of terrible atmosphere like that.
Ordinarily he was a fiend for giggling at his own antics. By the time you came to about take five or six one would be getting a bit stale. You’d go on and on and on repeating the thing and he’d break down laughing each time, and one would get thoroughly cheesed off.
He had been fitted with a pacemaker, which made him a bit wary of smoke, and we had a scene where he had to accidentally set fire to my office. He was determined to get through that without any giggles or laughs because he didn’t want to do a retake. Though in any case the whole shebang had gone up in smoke, so it would have been impossible to do any retakes!

Let’s move on to Sherlock Holmes. When you were first offered the role, did you have any feeling that this might be the part of all parts, or was it just another job?

The part interested me very much because I’d never really, I felt, seen it performed to its full capacity. There’s a very dark side to Holmes, and a very unpleasant side to him. And I felt that this was always skirted round which made him appear rather sort of hockey sticks and cricket bats and jolly uncles… a kind of dashing Victorian hero. He wasn’t like that at all. He was rather sardonic and arrogant, and he could be totally inconsiderate towards Watson. I tried to show both sides of his nature.

Had you been a fan of the stories?

I’d enjoyed them very much, but I can’t say it was a thing to which I went back, re-reading and re-reading, no.

I regret to say that the only two I’ve seen are the two the BBC issued on video, The Speckled Band and The Illustrious Client, both of which I enjoyed very much. The first was a one-off, wasn’t it?

It was a pilot, yes.

And I think I read in one of the books on Holmes on tv that you weren’t happy with your performance in that first one, and that by the time of the full series, beginning with Illustrious Client, you had made some changes in how you played him.

I don’t remember saying that, no. I wonder where you read that! Certainly we had the finest director on that first one, a very good director. I have seen those two recently because I thought I’d better look at them again before writing the book. I don’t remember being unhappy with my performance in the first one; looking at it this time, I thought it was rather better.

I must track that quote down, then.* The series itself was unfortunately beset by production difficulties, scripts not being delivered on time, problems with financing and so on.

It was nothing to do with finance, just incompetence.

Where was the blame for that?

At the top. I’m not going to particularise! (Laughs) It was the administrative department. The scripts came in late and some of them I rejected and rewrote myself. They went straight into the waste paper basket; I simply refused them. The Red-Headed League had fourteen characters that don’t exist in Doyle, and I said no way. This is not on. And they all sounded when I read the script – before throwing it into the waste paper basket – as if they’d been borrowed from Damon Runyan. One was called Harry the Horse.

Did you watch any of the later Peter Cushing ones?

I watched some of them. He was very ill advised to take it on; two other actors had been offered it and refused it, for the same reason that I did: the terrible shortage of rehearsal time. Although that wasn’t the only reason. I felt very wary about doing it again anyway, purely and simply because it was such a disagreeable experience.

Did you feel any apprehension about doing it again because it’s a part that has traditionally had a tendency to take over an actor’s career and stop him doing other things?

Well, I suppose the thought occurred to me but I don’t think it had any influence on my decision. My decision not to do it was immediate. As soon as I was asked, I said no. They had cut the rehearsals down to ten days and I told them it just couldn’t be done. At least I couldn’t do it.

You worked with Peter Cushing a few years later on the Hammer film The Vampire Lovers.

Yes, and he told me it had been the worst experience of his career. He said he’d rather sweep Paddington Station than do it again.

I wish the BBC would issue more of your programmes; six of the Cushings are now available…

Well, I think for one thing mine were in black and white, and Peter Cushing’s were made in a more modern format, and they’re probably in better nick. Also, I think that people have forgotten who I am and they haven’t forgotten who Peter Cushing is.

I’m going to make a confession to you now. I’m a big fan of the Fu Manchu films. And when I got your book, I went straight to the index to look them up, and was amazed to find that you dismiss them as “preposterous twaddle.” And you talk about Christopher Frayling alerting you to the fact that they have a cult following, and I’m surprised that you didn’t already know that.

Well I did know it. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t think they’re a bunch of nuts as well. I suppose that has to include you now!

I’m afraid so, yes. You say you get a lot of fan mail on account of your appearance in Octopussy; do you not get a lot of Fu Manchu fan mail?

No.

Really not?

I don’t think I ever had any. I don’t think I was very good in the part. As I say in the book, when I watched it, the impression I got of watching myself in it was of a suit of clothes walking about.

The character is obviously based on Sherlock Holmes…

Without the touch of genius that Holmes had.

So I suppose you would think of your performances in those films as a bit like the standard portrayal of Holmes that you had come along and moved forward.

No, I don’t think it was even as good as that.

Another performance of yours that gets very short shrift in your book is your reprise of Holmes in Gene Wilder’s Adventure of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother.

Don’t tell me you’re a fan of that as well!

I do enjoy it, I’m afraid… (Wilmer laughs heartily at the very idea.) Were you Wilder’s own casting?

I was definitely Wilder’s own casting, yes. Because there was some sort of difficulty about my doing it at one point, and he said “But then we’ll have no Sherlock Holmes!” He seemed to think that nobody on God’s green earth could do it except me. But I was so regretful about having done it; I really felt I shouldn’t have done it.

Do you have any memory of it at all, I mean of the finished film?

No, not really. I remember seeing it, of course…

Because I have to say, there is a very, very fine piece of comic playing by you in it. If you don’t remember the film too well, it’s the first scene, and you and Thorley Walters as Watson are sat just as we are now, and there’s an ugly six foot three inch murderer peering through the keyhole, seemingly unbeknownst to either of you. Watson is reading a book and you are writing something on a piece of card with a conspiratorial look on your face. Then with an expression of mischievous glee you turn the card around so Watson can see it, and it says: ‘Ugly Six Foot Three Inch Murderer At Keyhole’. And we cut to Thorley Walters, who is reading this with a big smile on his face, until the import of it hits him and he explodes with fear. Whereupon, still with this impish smile on your face, you turn around another card, which reads ‘Act Naturally’.

I remember something to do with cards… I remember thinking it was rather footling at the time.

But your actual performance of it is a very good piece of comic acting of which you can be proud. (Wilmer smiles with bemused tolerance, interviewer recognises defeat and moves on.)
Finally, then, if the circumstances were entirely to your satisfaction, could the right project come along that might tempt you back to acting?


Definitely not.

Totally in the past?

Totally, yes. I’m incredibly ancient, you know! My wife might try to pummel me until I agreed to do it, perhaps. But I still wouldn’t.

*“Following the remarkable success of a try-out instalment, the BBC wasted no time in throwing its considerable resources behind a full 12-part series of Holmes adaptations starring Douglas Wilmer as the Great Detective and Nigel Stock as Watson… Wilmer watched the 25 September repeat of The Speckled Band, but was unsettled by his own performance, thinking his Holmes ‘too smooth, urbane and civilised’. Over the next few months he would develop the character, hoping to capture ‘a much more primitive person, more savage and ruthless. He was a surprisingly unfashionable individual for a Victorian writer to portray, really – completely unsentimental in a very sentimental age.’” – Alan Barnes, Sherlock Holmes On Screen

Hitchcock on television


Twenty previously undiscovered Alfred Hitchcock films were recently unearthed in a vault in California.
.Okay, it’s not true, but I challenge anybody to come up with a statement likely to cause a greater degree of child-like excitement within the international film-going community.
Hitchcock remains the most popular filmmaker in history, the master that needs no introduction, no hard sell, no special handling. You can still make real money with Hitchcock films, on DVD and reissues; they can still attract real audiences on television. His popularity is reinforced by his high critical standing (you’re not just enjoying yourselves watching Psycho: you’re absorbing cinematic art) and his high critical standing is reinforced by his popularity (you’re not just absorbing cinematic art watching Psycho: you’re enjoying yourselves).
It is happy coincidence that in addition to its visceral effectiveness as cinema his work also offers limitless potential for interpretation and reinterpretation, ensuring its survival within an airless academic community ever on the lookout for something fun to watch. (They don’t really want to sit through Derek Jarman films any more than the rest of us.) Scholars are splitting into camps; there are specialists in Hitchcock’s British films, in his American films, in single films only.
Where pre-video accounts of his work focused breathlessly on their emotional impact to the first, second or third-time viewer, most modern discussions adopt a more cerebral tone that speaks of considerable reacquaintance with the material. Whole books have been written about Psycho alone. His wartime shorts Aventure Malgache and Bon Voyage (both 1944) have been recently released on DVD (for the second time) with a fanfare scarcely commensurate with their value as artefacts, Hitchcock movies, or anything else.
Running tandem with this has been the systematic redeeming of his critical or commercial failures. It seems incredible now to recall that there was a time when I was driven to frustration by the fact that Rope, his best film, never received a good word in print. Marnie, Torn Curtain and Frenzy have likewise all been recalled from oblivion, and who today remembers that that is pretty much where Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds started out, critically speaking.
Every Hitchcock fan has their favourite ‘underrated one’. (Now that everyone knows Rope is a classic I’ll opt for Jamaica Inn, but Under Capricorn, I suspect, will be the next to make the trip across.)
So whatever the nature of our personal involvement with Hitchcock’s films, be we students, lecturers, writers or just people who like good thrillers, it would be good news for all of us if there were somehow a whole bunch of new ones.
But in a sense there is: that outrageous claim I made at the head of this article is almost true. They’ve never actually been lost or forgotten about, but few recall with much more than indulgent fondness the twenty short films Hitchcock made for American television in the fifties and sixties.
Why should this be? Everyone knows about Alfred Hitchcock Presents, with its jaunty theme tune (Gounod’s Funeral March of the Marionettes) and Hitchcock’s jokey on-screen introductions and sign-offs.
The latter, in particular, are frequently recalled both for their originality and their importance in helping cement his popular image. But the fact that he actually directed twenty of them is taken curiously for granted. Most critical studies rush through them, treat all the films in the series as a lump, at best noting that the few Hitchcock made personally do have a distinctive flavour, but letting it go at that.
Truffaut’s groundbreaking study scarcely mentions them at all, other than in Hitchcock’s own observation that Psycho was made by “a television unit” and “under the same conditions as a television show”. He doesn’t even say ‘my’ unit or ‘my’ show.
He made three a year between 1955 and ’59 (as well as To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo and North By Northwest), two each in ’60 and ’61 (as well as Psycho) and one in ’63 (as well as The Birds), mostly for his own show but in a couple of cases for other anthology series (NBC’s Suspicion and Ford Star Time).
This makes the years ’55-’63 clearly the most concentratedly productive of his professional life – in itself a good reason for taking the tv work seriously. (“I was feeling very creative at the time, the batteries were well-charged,” he says to Truffaut of his work in this period.)
Television at this time was still basically close-up theatre, a simple affair of interiors and the most basic exterior sets, medium shots and talking heads, no special effects, no experimental camerawork. Rather than revolt and die of hubris, Hitchcock wisely challenged himself to sculpt something original of the same clay, resolving to make every basic set-up and close-up a striking image, angling and lighting each with variety and invention. (As such they should hold a special appeal for those ascetics among us who on the whole prefer the understated quality and freshness of the British Hitchcock, as opposed to the Hollywood pro for whom the constant recycling of a small handful of themes - or commercial failure if he dared step away from them - led him to seek diversion in technical precocity and self-set logistic challenges.)
True, with intros and sponsor’s messages removed they only run about twenty-three minutes each, (with the exception of three of the later ones, made to fit a one-hour slot) and they were of course made quickly and without the long process of script gestation that Hitchcock favoured and in which most of his best ideas were formed. As a result, the tv work sticks to the format and plots of the short stories on which they are based (by Roald Dahl, John Collier and others) with a respectful fidelity never accorded his literary sources at the movies.
But on the other hand, they certainly don’t conform to the distancing norms of hazy, videotaped fifties television. They are shot on film, with a higher budget and longer shooting schedules than most tv anthology series of the time. Indeed, what they look most like - what they sometimes in fact look an almost eerily hell-of-a-lot like - is Psycho.
This is no accident – Psycho and all twenty tv films were Shamley Productions, the company Hitchcock set up to make the series (named nostalgically after Shamley Green, near Guildford, where he had bought a cottage shortly before the birth of his daughter Patricia), and filmed at Universal’s Revue TV studios (which is how the iconic set of a film made by Hitchcock’s own company and distributed by Paramount ended up a key attraction on the Universal Studios tour).
Psycho itself was a conscious experiment in shooting a feature film using television techniques, a television crew and a comparatively modest budget (of $850,000). Either it's just a feature-length episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or the other episodes of Presents he directed are short films. They are good enough, and certainly interesting enough, to warrant the term.
Hitchcock shot the tv films spontaneously and without excessive preparation, certainly without extensive storyboarding, concentrating instead on what he deemed the three or four key images and letting the rest fall into place around them.
Faces familiar from Hitchcock’s work both past and future make up the casts, among them Joseph Cotten, Vera Miles, Cedric Hardwicke, John Williams, Barbara Bel Geddes, Doreen Lang, Claude Rains and John Forsythe.
The majority share the same basic structure. Hitchcock seems to cut each script into thirds, aiming to achieve a different mood and pace in each. The first third, starting either abruptly or with deceptive languor, sets up the premise and introduces the (usually few) characters as quickly and economically as possible in simple (though always elegant) set-ups.
The mid-section establishes the plot and themes, usually through dialogue, the idea being to convey information in a manner as interesting as possible without actually distracting the audience from the who did whats and whens.
The final stage differs from that of most Hitchcock movies (but, again, not from Psycho) in that it usually builds to a macabre twist, the final line or image played as sick punchline to a grim shaggy dog story.
That they often leave the villains unpunished is tidied up, insincerely but presumably to the sponsor’s satisfaction, in Hitchcock’s outros, but if we think of these films (correctly) as separate from the other elements in the programme then clearly Hitchcock is here exercising a creative freedom officially denied him by both television and cinema censorship at the time. As a result, moments such as the end of The Perfect Crime (1958), in which criminologist Vincent Price, his professional pride irked at discovering he had helped sentence an innocent man to death, stuffs his informant into an oven and turns him into a vase, are the closest thing in Hitchcock’s work to spending an off-the-record evening with the man as he regales you with anecdotes and black jokes.
Most famous of all, perhaps, is Barbara Bel Geddes in Lamb to the Slaughter (1958), killing her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then serving it to the officers investigating the crime as they ponder the question of what and where the murder weapon might be. Charlotte Chandler, in her book It’s Only a Movie, recalls Hitchcock telling her years later that the leg of lamb was “the most perfect murder weapon of my entire career”.
These are classic Hitchcock moments and should be remembered as such.
Not all the tv films are of a uniformly high standard. A few go astray through misjudgement: the trick ending of Banquo’s Chair (1959) glibly renders the work Hitchcock’s only supernatural film, while Mr Blanchard’s Secret (1956) rewrites Rear Window as deliberate anti-climax: the neighbour has not murdered his wife after all. Oh, well. Good for her, I guess.
The best ones are usually the simplest. Revenge (1955) is a cruel joke about a woman (Vera Miles) who is raped by an unseen assailant in the caravan park where she is living; later in the car with her husband she sees the man in the street, the husband follows and kills him, then when he sets off again the wife identifies another man, then another, then another.
Revenge, clearly conforming to the three-part structure outlined above, gives a clear insight into Hitchcock’s working methods on tv. The first third is a relaxed, straightforward evocation of a sticky afternoon in a trailer park (with Miles more luminously photographed and conforming to Hitchcock’s sexual ideal than on any other occasion during the five years he had her under contract). The arrival of the husband after the unseen attack jerks Hitchcock from this erotic stupor and the change of gear is conveyed by the switch to a more intense, staccato rhythm, a patchwork of angled close-ups and jagged cuts, with no soundtrack beyond the gentle, ominous ticking of a bedside clock. The last act - the pursuit, murder and final revelation – is the first to take place outside of the claustrophobic central location and to introduce movement; it contains Hitchcock’s other big set piece, the fatal assault upon the innocent man, with Psycho again evoked in its motel setting and waist-level shots of the husband stalking his quarry, a spanner behind his back. The killing itself is shown in short cuts and conveyed through shadows and inferred violence: the Psycho template filtered through the regulations of tv censorship.
Transference of guilt is as common a theme in these films as in the features, and a number of them invite us to share the uneasy kind of identification we feel for Marnie or Norman.
Wet Saturday (1956) uses this trope not as icing but as the cake itself; with Cedric Hardwicke, never quite alienating us as he switches from anguished father to cynical rationalist to cold-blooded villain, as a staid patriarch finding himself in deeper and deeper water as he attempts to cover up a murder committed by his unstable daughter. The ending is perhaps the most overtly censor-baiting of all the tv films, as the family, after many close shaves, successfully get away with murder. (Hitchcock’s rush to claim otherwise in his direct-to-camera send-off may have satisfied the regulations board, but I doubt it actually convinced them.)
The murder itself has already happened before the film begins, and the film relies entirely on the exploitation of the audience’s sense of empathy for its effects. Apart from an extended sequence showing the father’s attempt to eradicate the physical evidence (seemingly something of a preoccupation of Hitchcock’s around this time and always filmed as methodically and meticulously as the activity itself) the film is shot in a single set and relies almost entirely upon dialogue to build and maintain tension. In this respect it is reminiscent of both Rope and Dial M For Murder from each of which it borrows one of its main players, Hardwicke and John Williams, cast effectively against type as bully and weakling respectively.
.
Hitchcock contractee Vera Miles appeared in The Wrong Man and Psycho, but her finest work for Hitchcock preceded both: in Revenge (1955)

When the world fully catches up with these films, I strongly suspect that One More Mile To Go (1957) will be recognised as the best and most confidently Hitchcockian of the whole bunch. It seems beyond question that Hitchcock consciously borrowed many of its effects when preparing Psycho, but the film’s excellence is by no means attributable solely to the many uncanny similarities to the later film. In fact, it could be the most single-minded exercise in pure style of all his films, a bravura demonstration of the puppet-master’s art, a model of orchestrated tension, construction and assembly.
We start with a murder viewed through a window: we see a violent argument between man and wife but cannot hear what they are arguing about; the camera only joins them inside after the husband (David Wayne, often a pleasant light comedian in Adam’s Rib and similar) has dealt the fatal blow with a bent poker. (In fact there is not a word of dialogue until half way through the film.)
For the next few minutes he is Norman Bates: he stares at his bloody hands, wraps the body in sheeting and dumps it in the back of his car. Then he is Marion Crane; the camera, staring through the windscreen, scrutinises his facial expressions as he drives his car through the night, process shots of a nocturnal highway in the window behind.
A highway policeman flags him down to tell him he has a defective rear light; he peers through the side window and asks to see Wayne’s license. (More Psycho as he tries to take it from his bag without revealing the bloody cuffs on his shirt.)
The policeman insists he goes to a nearby gas station to have the light fixed; he reluctantly agrees and begins a nervous conversation with the attendant about being in a hurry. The policeman pulls up at the moment it is discovered that the bulb does not work. Positing a loose connection he suggests opening the boot, but Wayne claims to have not brought the key. The policeman fetches a crowbar shaped identically to the murder weapon and is just about to burst open the boot when the light begins to work.
Wayne hastily drives away, but soon realises the cop is again following him. When he eventually stops he discovers that this is simply because he has forgotten his change, but as the two men talk it is discovered that the light has again gone out. The policeman tells him to follow him to the station, where the force mechanic will open the boot for him. As Wayne drives impotently to certain discovery, we see what neither man can see: that the bulb has once again flickered back to life.
As this précis shows, the film is incredibly similar to Psycho in its ambiance, set-ups, style and even dialogue. It is also incredibly simple as a narrative. It relies for its suspense upon our sharing the anguish of a killer we have no reason whatever to root for, his despair as the boot is almost opened and his relief when the moment of discovery is temporarily averted. We are even invited to share his (and Hitchcock’s) fear of the police: this is not run of the mill American television of the nineteen-fifties. It is absolutely and unquestionably a Hitchcock classic fit to share the table with his cinema films.
So it is at the very least odd that these films continue to receive such little critical scrutiny. While scholars rack their brains to find something interesting and exonerative to say about even the fluffiest and least successful of the features, there really is a world of entertainment, virtuosity and elastic subtext awaiting serious attention in these twenty fascinating little films.
And to think we knew they were there all the time.