Thursday, 13 May 2021

Gothic Originals / Exploito All’Italiana:
Nosferatu in Venice
(Augusto Caminito et al, 1988)

 The tragedy of ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ is that, under more favourable circumstances, it could so easily have been great.

The character of Nosferatu - first seen of course in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece and resurrected in the form of Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake - remains a potent, genuinely terrifying and comparatively underused figure in the horror pantheon, whilst the city of Venice meanwhile remains one of the best places on earth in which to set a horror movie, its atmosphere of decaying, historical grandeur seeming to elevate the quality of pretty much any film project lucky enough to shoot there.

Just imagine, the grand spectacle of the Doge’s winter carnival, the bridges and alleyways thronging with depraved revellers vainly clinging on to the remnants of Italy’s moribund aristocracy, whilst below the water level, in the ancient sewers and catacombs, Nosferatu lurks, rat-like, spreading fear and death through the blood-lines of their errant daughters and abused servants... amazing. The damned thing writes itself.

Given that producer, screenwriter (and eventual director) Augusto Caminito wrangled a fairly lavish budget for the production (bankrolled at least in part by future despot Silvio Berlusconi), as well as gaining a remarkable level of access to some of the city’s most evocative shooting locations, ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ should by rights have been a sure thing - a last gasp triumph of Italian horror cinema’s twilight years. Needless to say though, that’s not exactly the way things turned out.

It would be all to easy to blame the project’s collapse into infamy and disaster entirely upon the mayhem perpetrated by Klaus Kinski (of which more shortly), but in truth things seem to have been going awry before he even arrived on set. By that point, Caminito had already hired and fired two directors (Maurizio Lucidi and Pasquale Squitieri), and - if the version of the film which was eventually released is anything to go by - the wafer thin narrative and bamboozling morass of expositional blather which comprise his screenplay are not exactly suggestive of a lost masterpiece.

Suffice to say though, if Caminito didn’t exactly have his ducks in line here, it was blood and feathers as far as the eye could see as soon as Kinski made the scene. Tales of the actor’s outrageous conduct during the 1980s are, of course, legion, but, clearly aware that ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ lived or died on the basis of his participation, this particular shoot seems to have found the actor scaling ever greater heights of maniacal narcissism.

This was made immediately evident upon his arrival, when, famously, he refused point blank refused to wear the Nosferatu make-up which had been prepared for him, declaring instead that he would play the vampire, sans prosthetics, as a more ‘romantic’ figure, complete with his own long, thinning blonde hair.

Not only did this make a mockery of evoking the Nosferatu name in the first place (and indeed of hiring Kinski specifically to reprise his role from Herzog’s film), but even more gallingly for the producers, the crew had already shot and edited twenty minutes of footage - shot at great expense during Venice’s winter carnival - featuring a double wearing the full Nosferatu make-up.

Consulting the sketchy contract Kinski had signed for his appearance in the film, it was determined that there was nothing in place to actually compel him to wear the make-up… and woe-betide anyone who cared to try. With a substantial chunk of the budget already in the truculent star’s pocket, there was nothing to be done but surrender to his whims, ditching the pre-shot footage, re-jigging the script and trying to find something else that could inexpensively fill all that empty screen time.

The next disaster was quick to arrive when the film’s third director, “safe pair of hands” industry veteran Mario Caiano (best known to horror fans for helming 1965’s Nightmare Castle) quit after less than a day on set, walking out after a violent altercation with Kinski. Thereafter, Caminito took the reins himself, with significant (uncredited) assistance from second unit director / special effects supervisor Luigi Cozzi [also see: Paganini Horror].

We could continue discussing the difficulty Kinski provoked on set at some length here, but one anecdote related by Cozzi will hopefully prove sufficient. Apparently at one point, he and Caminito left the set for ten minutes, to make a phone call and buy some cigarettes. Returning, they found Kinski sitting alone in an empty room, the entire crew having apparently packed up their equipment and left with the intention of boarding the next plane back to Rome, so heinously had the star managed to offend them during the producer/director’s brief absence.

All of this though pales into insignificance compared to the rumours surrounding Kinski’s abuse of his female co-stars, which cast an ugly pall over whatever enjoyment may still be gleaned from ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ in its ‘finished’ form. Again, we don’t need to labour the point here, but the grisly details are easily google-able, and if true, they’re pretty horrendous.

In summary though, it seems that actress Elvire Audray (who plays the wife of the movie’s supposedly heroic doctor character, woodenly played by Yorgo Voyagis) left the film with immediate effect when - as per Cozzi’s recollections once again - Kinski disregarded an instruction to bite her on the neck during filming, and instead subjected her to what can only be described as a violent and sustained sexual assault.

(Even taking into account the progress which has been made on such matters since the dark days of the 1980s, it seems extraordinary to me that Kinski was not behind bars within hours of this incident, having essentially attacked and injured a woman in front of multiple witnesses and a rolling camera, but… who am I to speculate on the whys and wherefores of the situation?)

Be that as it may, Kinski remained on the loose, and tried the same tactics on the film’s ostensible leading lady, Barbara De Rossi, allegedly molesting her off-camera whilst shooting close ups for a scene in which Nosferatu seduces her character in her bedroom. Reportedly, De Rossi only agreed to continue work on the film after receiving a promise that she would never again be placed in close proximity to Kinski… thus necessitating further rewrites. (1)

Meanwhile, the star seems to have found what we must assume was slightly more willing recipient of his attentions in the shape of a young woman named Anne Knecht, who apparently caught his eye when she visited the set as Voyagis’s girlfriend. Despite Knecht having no prior acting experience, Kinski insisted she was cast as a hastily-scripted new character. (No wonder the female characters in the finished film are so ill-defined and interchangeable.)

Presumably to the great relief of the other cast members, Knecht went on to dutifully provide the bulk of the film’s requisite nudity, most prominently during the lengthy ‘love scene’ (I use the term loosely) which comprises the film’s the finale. Therein, we see a shockingly haggard looking Kinski groping and clambering around on Knecht’s impassive naked body for what feels like hours, whilst, in a particularly grim irony, the footage is intercut with shots of her real life boyfriend Voyagis grumpily stomping about in ineffectual ‘vampire hunter’ mode.

And so the chaos went on, until - thankfully for all concerned, I can only assume - Caminito called principal photography to a close after six weeks, despite having only acquired around two thirds of the footage he needed to complete the scripted film - in addition to ten solid hours of material ‘directed’ by Kinski himself, featuring his character stalking alone through Venice’s pre-dawn streets. (Ironically, these shots actually comprise some of the best stuff in the finished film.)

In view all the palaver outlined above, it’s hardly surprising that ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ emerged as an extraordinarily disjointed mess. Unreleased for several years after shooting was completed, the film’s editing (credited to Claudio Cutry) comprises the cutting room equivalent of a dazzling high wire act, splicing together pieces of mismatched, discontinuous footage into some semblance of narrative order, with… mixed results, in spite of what I take to have been herculean efforts on Cutry’s part.

The tragedy of it is though, there are bits of the film - sequences of shots here and there, or even entire scenes during the first half - which are genuinely excellent. The deep shadows and subdued, Gordon Willis-esque lighting favoured by DP Tonino Nardi lend a pungent, foreboding atmosphere to the Venetian location footage, whilst interior scenes featuring the film’s better actors (Christopher Plummer, Donald Pleasence, and Maria Cumani Quasimodo as ‘the princess’), apparently filmed in a genuine, suitably palatial Venetian villa, achieve a sense of brooding menace, reminiscent of such art-house horror staples as Borowczyk’s ‘Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes’ or Tony Scott’s The Hunger. “Terrible things happened in these chambers two hundred years ago,” we are repeatedly told, and for a while there, we can believe it.

Even the disjointed / discontinuous editing rhythms sometimes work in the film’s favour, bringing a murky, opiated haze to proceedings, suggestive of some incorporeal, space/time warping evil which feels entirely in keeping with the symbolic/metaphysical aspect of the Nosferatu character, whilst the thinly sketched, comic book weirdness of the, uh, ‘plot line’ invests everything with a haphazard surrealism which surpasses even the ‘80s output of directors like Cozzi or Lucio Fulci for sheer bewilderment.

So, speaking of the plot, let’s try to get this straight, shall we?

A perpetually silk-clad young woman, who lives alongside several other young women in a crumbling Venetian villa belonging to an elderly ‘princess’ afflicted by a cursed bloodline, invites a Van Helsing surrogate vampire expert to come and see her, because she has found an iron-bound coffin in the villa’s basement which she believes, for some reason, must be the resting place of the dread Nosferatu, who (it is apparently well known) was last seen in Venice exactly two hundred years earlier.

But, this cannot be so, the vampire expert (‘Professor Catalano’, played by Plummer) insists, because Nosferatu actually perished in a shipwreck somewhere far away, and now rests at the bottom of the ocean. But, everyone at the villa still feels some kind of psychic ‘connection’ to the bad ol’ vampire (reflecting both the cursed bloodline business, and the fact that he committed assorted atrocities in the villa back in 1786). So, what else do do but call in a medium and hold a séance with the intention of contacting the spirit of Nosferatu, thus prompting him to awaken from his slumber and bust out of his dusty coffin way over yonder in… some other place. (Not the bottom of the ocean, at any rate.)

After taking time out to engage in some lusty dancing with a group of gypsies who - in an interesting, if politically questionable, throwback to Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ - appear to hold him in high reverence, the revived Nosferatu employs a rather vague supernatural methodology to transport himself back to Venice, where, needless to say, he sets about biting necks, leching over ladies and indulging his inexplicable passion for throwing people out of windows.

Brilliant! All makes perfect sense, right? Italian horror movie logic, god how I love it.

Also hitting that late-era Italio-horror sweet-spot, consistently undermining the film’s intermittent attempts to achieve a more ‘classy’ feel, is Luigi Ceccarelli’s score, which - perhaps reflecting the lack of funds/enthusiasm which remained for this project during post-production - sounds as it was recorded on the cheapest synthesizer available, and transferred to the film via a warped cassette tape left for too long in direct sunlight. Whether the fact that I still enjoy the music speaks to Ceccarelli’s talents or just my personal fondness for such lo-fi aesthetics, I’ll leave readers to judge for themselves.

So, for my purposes at least, this is all pretty amazing as far as it goes - but, each time we’re ready to settle back and surrender to the intoxicating, oneiric groove of the whole thing, something completely stupid happens, crashing us straight back to reality. Again and again, the film catapults us from the sublime to the ridiculous in a matter of seconds, which proves a real buzz-kill.

Nosferatu’s aforementioned return to Venice proves a good case in point. A disconnected series of images sees him gliding across unguessed at landscapes before he is seen stalking recognisable Venetian landmarks in the eerie glow of the rising/setting sun, temporarily imbuing him with an ethereal, nameless menace matching the baleful rhetoric which has previously spouted about him in the film’s heavy-handed dialogue.

When he appears, silently, in the bedroom of the elderly princess, grinning like some imp of the perverse - or like Robert Blake’s white-faced man in Lynch’s ‘Lost Highway’ perhaps - the effect is truly horrific. Utterly malevolent, Kinski is all too convincing here as the personification of death, pestilence and misfortune, come to wreak cold, impersonal suffering upon all who cross his path.

We can only savour this exquisite dread for a few seconds though, because… then he jumps up and throws the old lady out of the window! An unconvincing dummy goes SPLAT on the inevitable spiked railings which surround a small patch if garden below, and we cut to an unedifying insert shot of the 78-year-old Maria Cumani Quasimodo - evidently not impaled upon the railings - with some stage blood dribbling down her chin.

Unbelievably, this exact same defenestration gag - a ridiculous way for a supposed master vampire to deal with his prey, aside from anything else - is repeated, equally unconvincingly, several more times during the film, as if someone on the production was convinced that a few good railing impalements was all it would take to win over a post-‘Omen’ horror crowd.

Even in terms of its gory horror business though, ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ is wildly inconsistent - consider for instance a frankly incredible shot elsewhere, when Nosferatu is hit point-blank in the chest by a shotgun blast. In what was apparently a green-screen effect orchestrated by Cozzi, we see Kinski raise his arms in a mocking, Christ-like posture, revealing a perfectly spherical hole in his chest, through which we can see traffic slowly passing on the canal behind him. It’s a pretty great moment.

Essentially anchoring the first half of the film, Christopher Plummer initially seems determined to bring his A game to a frankly dreadful script, lending an admirable amount of gravitas to the rambling passages of cod-vampiric lore he is called upon to recite. As the film goes on though, and the situations get sillier, we can almost see him disengaging, his patented “ah, I see now - this is a load of shit” expression becoming increasingly difficult to hide.

And indeed, his facial muscles have a point. Entirely dismissing the accepted ‘rules’ for vampirism, Caminito’s script instead opts to just, well… make up a bunch of random shit, as Plummer’s dulcet tones are employed to inform us that, amongst other things, the illegitimate children of illegitimate parents (and/or plague victims) will inevitably become vampires, that the only surefire way to destroy a vampire is to use bullets filled with liquid mercury, and that - rather like Waldemar Daninsky - a vampire’s spirit can only achieve true death after receiving the pure love of a virgin. (Boy, I bet Kinski must’ve loved that last one!) 

I wouldn’t mind so much, only… none of these novel innovations actually seem to have much of an impact on the film’s storyline?

Back in the real world meanwhile, I’m guessing that Plummer must have also left the production before shooting concluded - having presumably completed his contractually obligated number of days, or whatever - meaning that his all-too-noticeable absence from the film’s final act is rationalised by means of a hurriedly slapped together montage of unconnected shots, which attempt to visually convey the idea that, having despaired of his ability to defeat Nosferatu following a heated argument with Donald Pleasence’s priest character, Professor Catalano has committed suicide by jumping from a bridge into the canal!

Largely avoiding such indignities meanwhile, Pleasence (who seemed to have been specialising in bringing a touch of class to creaky gothic horror movies starring hell-raising sex-pests at this point in his career) here provides good value for money as usual, playing a weak-willed, gluttonous priest who attends the elderly princess.

As has been mentioned, Maria Cumani Quasimodo (who may be recognisiable to euro-cult fans for small roles in ‘Femina Ridens’ and ‘All The Colors of the Dark’), does fine work here too, as does Clara Colosimo (a wife, mother & maid specialist in Italian movies since the early ‘60s) as the medium. It’s interesting in fact to find two such strong roles for older women in a project which otherwise seems awash with misogyny on both sides of the camera. (One shot of Colosimo cruising through the canals in her private gondola, hair defying gravity, proves particularly memorable.)

So where, ultimately, does ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ sit within the cultural hinterlands of late ‘80s Italian horror? Even assuming we can temporarily put aside the legends arising its nightmarish production, is the weird, beached husk of a movie which remains ultimately worth our time?

Well, as difficult as it may be to defend from any objective standpoint, what can I say? We still watch ‘The Lady From Shanghai’ and ‘The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes’, don’t we? We still listen to Big Star’s ‘Third/Sister Lovers’ and The Beach Boys’ ‘Smiley Smile’. So why not ‘Nosferatu in Venice’?

The difference, I suppose, is that each of those works had the hand of a legitimate creative genius behind them, and seeing that hand slip or fail or tear itself apart carries a fascination which can sometimes even surpass that engendered by the greatest of artistic triumphs.

By contrast, ‘Nosferatu in Venice’ provides us with an equally fascinating example of a creative work which reached completion (in a manner of speaking) with no one at the wheel. Cruising into harbour like the empty, cursed ship which carries Nosferatu to shore in Murnau’s original film, there is a black hole at the centre of this movie - a void where the vision or direction provided by even a mediocre guiding light would normally be found.

Kinski may have established himself as the dominant presence on set through sheer force of will, but at the same time he was clearly happy to see the film crash and burn, interested solely in the opportunities it provided for him to pamper his ego and indulge his demonical lusts. Caminito meanwhile was obviously way out of his depth with regard to all aspects of on-set filmmaking, whilst everyone else simply kept their heads down and prayed for the damn thing to end.

Nardi’s lighting, Cutry’s editing, and the steadfast presence of Plummer, Pleasence and Quasimodo - these things came through to deliver 86 minutes of tangible celluloid which we can watch today without physical pain, but beyond that… the closest thing the movie gets to an auteur is probably Venice itself, the riches of its architecture and atmosphere infusing nearly every shot, pretty much cementing my long-held suspicion that literally anything shot in this extraordinary city will to some extent be worth watching.


 


 

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(1) Widely repeated around the internet, the film’s Wikipedia page sources the accusations concerning Kinski’s abusive behaviour on set back to both Roberto Curti’s book ‘Italian Gothic Horror Films, 1980-1989’ (2019) and Matthew Edwards’ ‘Klaus Kinski: Beast of Cinema’ (2016), whilst the stories are also reiterated to some extent by both Cozzi and soundman Luciano Muratori in the excellent documentary ‘Creation is Violent: Anecdotes from Kinski’s Final Years’, which accompanies Severin’s recent blu-ray edition of ‘Nosferatu in Venice’. We here at BITR can of course make no claims either way regarding the accuracy of these tales, especially if there are any legal professionals in the room. 

Friday, 30 April 2021

Noir Diary # 14:
Drive a Crooked Road
(Richard Quine, 1954)

Drive a Crooked Road. Now that’s what I call a great film noir title. Is it actually a great film noir movie, though? Well - yes, absolutely, I would argue, although admittedly you’d be hard pressed to really clock the film’s noir credentials from its sleek, contemporary (circa the mid-1950s) visual style.

For make no mistake, we’re in a clean, freshly laundered, proto-suburban Southern California here. The deep shadows, high contrast lighting and oppressive visual clutter which usually serve as noir’s visual signifiers have been thoroughly excised, swept away in favour of an ambient, sunshine grayscale, almost sinister in its lack of visual emphasis.

Our characters meanwhile observe a strictly smart cas dress code. Nobody here wears a hat (unless it’s a mechanic’s cap); very few of the men wear ties, irrespective of profession or social class. Being so comfortably attired, nobody seems to sweat very much, and the closest we get to a dingy dive bar is a faintly rowdy collegiate cocktail party.

A decade after Double Indemnity hit cinemas, the glamour and mystique of ‘classic’ noir has clearly been consigned to the past - a remnant of a more baroque and barbarous age, way back in the rear view mirror. It’s much easier to imagine the events of ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ taking place just around the corner than it is to picture Philip Marlowe snooping around, looking for trouble.

But, the essentials of storytelling and human psychology can’t be abandoned on the roadside quite so easily. With its tale of a desperately lonely man ensnared by the duplicitous charms of a beautiful woman, coerced into a series of criminal undertakings which will lead him, inevitably, to doom and desolation, Blake Edwards’ script for ‘Drive a Crooked Road’ scores a dead-on noir bullseye.

In fact, it feels to a significant extent like a rewrite of the 1945 Fritz Lang / Edward G. Robinson classic ‘Scarlet Street’, retaining much of that film’s slow-motion-car-crash accumulation of tragedy and unbearable sadness, even as the characters and settings are significantly rejigged and the plot machinations recalibrated for a leaner, less melodramatic age.

Key to the film’s success in this regard is a truly remarkable central performance from Mickey Rooney. By this point of course, there was already an established tradition of comic actors using pitch black noir projects to segue into more serious, dramatic roles - Dick Powell (‘Murder, My Sweet’, ‘Cornered’) and Fred McMurray (‘Double Indemnity’) immediately spring to mind. But, those guys were at least fairly conventional leading man ‘types’. The transition undertaken by Rooney in ‘Drive a Crooked Road’ is of an entirely different order of magnitude.

Turning a full 180 on both his on-screen persona as a hyperactive, pint-size song-and-dance man and his off-screen reputation as a hard-partying womaniser, Rooney here captures the essence of a particular kind of deeply introverted, socially disconnected single man with almost uncanny accuracy.

We have all, I daresay, known people like ‘..Crooked Road’s Eddie Shannon in our own lives (assuming we haven’t actually been one of them ourselves to a greater or lesser extent). Humble, quietly dignified men who perpetually avoid eye contact, as if constantly withering under the scrutiny of others. Speaking only when spoken to, they feel (or are treated) like outsiders in literally any situation. Engage them on their specialist subject however (car maintenance and motor racing in this case), and they will speak with an authority and depth of experience which defies their unassuming presence.

Incredibly, Rooney (who in real life was in the mid-way through his fourth marriage at this point, at the age of 34) is completely believable here as a man who has potentially never experienced familial love or real human connection in his entire life. As such, we can easily appreciate the extent to which Shannon finds himself twisted up beyond all comprehension when Barbara (Dianne Foster) - the very definition of the kind of ‘knockout dame’ Eddie’s chauvinist workmates at the repair shop spend their days drooling over - suddenly appears on the scene and takes an interest in, uh, ‘getting to know’ him.

We in the audience immediately recognise of course that no good can possibly come of this. With the best will in the world, there is no way in hell that a confident, attractive and apparently affluent woman like Barbara would take a legitimate, romantic interest in a nervous, emotionally stunted grease monkey who barely reaches her shoulders. So what’s her pitch, exactly?

Well, more observant viewers will figure the scam pretty quickly as soon as Eddie arrives for his first unofficial ‘date’ with Barbara, beachside in Malibu, and finds her sharing a towel with one Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy) - a man we first saw in the film’s opening scene, observing Eddie’s victory in an amateur motor race, and remarking to his associate (Harold, played by Jack Kelly) that the winning driver is a loner with no family, who “..lives alone, and hates it”, thus making him “perfect” for their as-yet-undisclosed purpose. Uh-oh.

Blissfully unaware of this, Eddie continues to pursue his nascent relationship with Barbara - his conduct characteristically restrained, but his mind clearly way up in the clouds, unable to even process the idea of such a life-changing development. In the pair’s first public outing as a ‘couple’, he accompanies her to a party at Norris’s rented beach-house, where, smooth, confident and casual to a T, the Ivy League scum-bucket of a host begins systematically grilling Eddie on his driving expertise and his experience of souping up old cars for racing.

At some point thereafter, Steve and Harold invite Eddie round for martinis (which of course he politely declines, preferring soda), and drop the inevitable proposition. Y’see, they’ve got a fool-proof plan to knock over a bank in Orange County, but, in order to succeed, they need a car and driver with the ability to - yes, you guessed it - drive a crooked road in twenty-two minutes flat, thus beating a police roadblock.

Of course, they know it’s a big ask, and they don’t expect Eddie to make a decision straight away, but… maybe he should talk to Barbara about it. They’re sure she’d want him to be a big, brave boy and earn himself enough dough to invest in the professional racing career he’s always dreamed of.

Needless to say, seasoned noir fans won’t exactly need a motoring atlas to figure out where this is all headed.

After much painstaking preparation, the heist goes off without a hitch. (The high speed blast down a perilous mountain trail, whilst it ain’t exactly ‘The Wages of Fear’ in the suspense stakes, is excitingly shot and edited.) Eddie’s subsequent realisation of how thoroughly he’s been had however, combined with the villains’ callous failure to even understand the extent to which they’ve shattered the poor guy’s heart, swiftly leads all concerned into a hot mess from which there is no good way out for anyone.

One of the elements I found most interesting within the unfolding of this grimly fateful tale is the portrayal of Steve and Howard as the villains of the piece. Whilst plot synopses of ‘Drive a Crooked Road’ tend to describe them as ‘gangsters’, they are really nothing of the sort. Instead, they are portrayed as smug, self-satisfied New York socialites who profess to have swung by the West Coast just for a change of scene. Crime for them is presumably just a summer holiday jape, rather than an economic necessity or way of life.

Somewhat reminiscence of the fictionalised Leopold & Loeb in Richard Fleisher’s ‘Compulsion’ (1959), or their surrogates in Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ a few years earlier, but with laziness and underachievement supplanting high IQs or intellectual rigour, they make for an exquisitely despicable pair. There is simply no excuse for, or meaning behind, the deception and abuse they pile upon both Eddie and Barbara in the name of their own self-aggrandisement.

Two years away from his career-defining turn as the paranoid everyman at the centre of Don Siegel’s ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, Kevin McCarthy also seems to be playing against type here, and his sweater n’ slacks demeanour and oily Madison Avenue banter feels spot-on, making Steve Norris into a far more hateful figure than a more traditional ‘heavy’ ever would have been.

(A scene in which these two jokers run up against some real crooks, and promptly get their asses handed to them, could have been a good addition to Edwards’ screenplay, but, satisfying though it may have been, perhaps would have been just a bit too on-the-nose vis-à-vis the movie’s implicitly class-based moral schema.)

Also worthy of note meanwhile is the way that the character of Barbara develops through the film. Within the conventions of the period, it would have been all to easy for Quine and Edwards to allow her to see out the movie as the nefarious, super-charged femme fatale we meet during the first act, but the filmmakers deserve credit for instead taking things in a far more interesting direction.

Though presumably cast at least partially on the basis of her extraordinary, statuesque figure (her wardrobe, it should be noted, will be worth the entry price alone for aficionados of the era’s fashions), Dianne Foster’s performance is also extremely good, and the changes her character undergoes as she begins to realise the damage her deception is inflicting on Eddie, and how thoroughly she herself has been manipulated by the selfish and abusive Steve, soon become integral to the film’s overall emotional impact.

Ironically, it is Barbara’s growing sense of hatred, helplessness and self-disgust which serves to ultimately align her with Rooney’s spurned sad-sack, as their shared sense of victimhood lends them a closer connection than their fake ‘relationship’ ever allowed.

It is this line of thought which plays off both beautifully and horribly in the film’s haunting final shot. A starkly tragic, existential conclusion worthy of any classic-era noir, this finds Rooney babbling away, offering meaningless reassurances to the hunched, weeping woman who never cared a damn for him in the first place. Her tears are shed not for him or his supposed romantic rival, but in recognition of the bleak future of trial dates and gas chambers which now hangs over both of them, as the torch beams of the cops close in across the sand.

Behind them, the shadow of that rented beach-house looms, as indelible as the castle in a gothic horror movie, its presence placing ‘Drive a Crooked Road’ squarely in a lineage that runs right from ‘Murder, My Sweet’ and Mildred Pierce through to Robert Aldrich’s bleakly futurist ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ (1956), and subsequently to the even more perilously ambiguous worlds of Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) and Altman’s ‘The Long Goodbye’ (1973).

Basically, just stay away from those damned beach-houses kids, and I’m sure everything will turn out just fine.


 

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Gothic Originals:
The House of Usher
(Alan Birkinshaw, 1989)

 One oft-overlooked wrinkle in the history of gothic horror cinema is the inexplicable revival of the form which seemed to take place at the close of the 1980s, nearly 20 years after the subgenre had last been considered a viable commercial prospect.

Largely (though not entirely) confined to the low budget/straight to video realm, this phenomenon is difficult to account for, but it is interesting to note in retrospect that it seems to have directly pre-empted the short-lived Hollywood gothic revival of the early/mid ‘90s, as epitomised by Coppola’s ‘Dracula’, Branagh’s ‘Frankenstein’, Neil Jordon’s ‘Interview with the Vampire’ and so on.

Could it simply be that, by the tail end of the ‘80s, slasher sequels, exorcist derivations and movies about stupid, rubber-faced goblin creatures were all thoroughly played out, yet the relentless thirst for new horror product down the local video shop yet remained unquenched, thus allowing a generation of directors and producers who came of age during the glory days of the 1960s (or in some cases directly contributed to them) to step in and pick up the slack..? I don’t know, but that seems as good of an explanation as any, so let’s go with it.

Possibly the best of these films was Stuart Gordon’s ‘The Pit & The Pendulum’ (1991), whilst the most unusual and original must be Roger Corman’s last directorial effort to date, ‘Frankenstein Unbound’ (1990). Elsewhere meanwhile, we find Argento & Romero’s oddball Poe anthology ‘Two Evil Eyes’ (1990), the Robert Englund version of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ (1989), a new, Corman-produced ‘Masque of the Red Death’ (also ’89), and, further out on the limb within the sub-genre, Ken Russell’s characteristically bizarre ‘Lair of the White Worm’ (1988) and Dan Golden’s Bram Stoker-derived ‘Burial of the Rats’ (1994).

Strangest and seediest of all these productions though are surely the two Edgar Allan Poe derivations shot back-to-back in 1989 under the auspices of our old friend Harry Alan Towers - a man whom I assume will need no introduction to readers who have spent a certain amount time toiling in the depths of horror/exploitation cinema.

Though his most famed / notorious productions may have been far behind him by this point, the indefatigable Mr Towers had remained busy through the 1980s, lending his production talents (credited or otherwise) to a bewildering cross-section of softcore, horror and action projects, each more tasteless and disreputable than the last, some bankrolled (almost inevitably) by Cannon Films, with many co-financed and/or shot in Apartheid-era South Africa (not too cool, man).

As the decade drew to a close though, Towers must have smelled something fetid and sepulchral on the breeze. Clearly no stranger to the prospect of jump-starting moribund / public domain literary properties via the injection of a few cheaply acquired stars and vague contemporary trappings, the idea of launching his own re-do of the Corman/Poe cycle seems to have taken hold.

And, who better to assist Towers in this noble venture than Alan Birkinshaw - the man who, a decade earlier, brought us the unfeasibly entertaining Killer’s Moon?

Add Oliver Reed (then hitting the very nadir of his booze-fogged b-movie purgatory, thanks in no small part to a series of Towers collaborations) and the always-up-for-a-laugh Donald Pleasence to the equation, and you’ll readily appreciate that House of Usher ‘89 is not so much “in my wheelhouse” as actually commandeering the wheel, bottle in hand, and ploughing full steam ahead ahead toward the nearest iceberg. When the opportunity to watch it recently arose, declining was simply not an option. 


So, how does the whole thing actually pan out then? Well, diverging from Poe right from the outset (not that there’s any shame in that of course), we begin with a wealthy and fashionable American couple - Molly and Ryan, played by Romy Windsor and Rufus Swart - taking a jog in Hyde Park as part of their sojourn in England, sweatbands and reeboks in full effect as they duck back into the entrance of the swanky Park Lane Hotel.

(If you find yourself amused rather than insulted when we cut directly to a cramped interior set which if surely not representative of the accommodations offered by the swanky Park Lane Hotel… well, long story short, I think this movie might be for you.)

Somewhat inevitably, it turns out that the couple intend to visit Ryan’s long-lost uncle / only surviving relative at his remote country pile, and, in the first of many arbitrary/unconscious borrowings from earlier horror films mixed into Michael J. Murray’s screenplay, the movie briefly threatens to turn into a re-run of 1978 dud ‘The Legacy’. Subsequent events however make it seem more likely that Murray was more likely to have been cribbing from David McGillivray’s script for the late Norman J. Warren’s ‘Satan’s Slave’ (1976).

Lost on the way out to Uncle Usher’s abode, the couple swerve off the road to avoid a pair of ghostly children (a random horror trope which is never really elaborated upon), precipitating a near-fatal crash which leaves Ryan unconscious. Fleeing to the nearby mansion in search of help, Molly is greeted by sour-faced, formally-attired butler Clive (Norman Coombes), who soon thereafter ventures out to the wrecked car with a crowbar in order to correct that whole “near fatal” thing vis-à-vis her severely injured fiancée.

It’s only after waking from her obligatory dose of heavy sedatives in an extraordinarily garish, neo-classical bed chamber that Molly is introduced to haughty, soft-spoken Roderick Usher (Reed, of course), who seems to have borrowed not only his general demeanour but even his moustache from Michael Gough’s sinister uncle in ‘Satan’s Slave’.

In some ways, making Molly’s ersatz Madeline figure the inquisitive visitor to the Usher household, whilst relegating her male counterpart to the coffin-bound narcoleptic role (as per Madeline in the source text, the exact state of Ryan’s health remains unclear throughout), seems like an interesting reversal of the gender roles baked into Poe’s text. But, of course, things soon take the path of least resistance, falling back into a series of familiar horror movie ruts.

In this Usher variation you see, Roderick is determined to propagate his cursed bloodline by any means necessary - and Molly, needless to say, is his chosen vessel. Roderick also appears to be receiving experimental, life-extending medical treatment from a sleazy family doctor (Philip Godawa), briefly adding an extraneous touch of Frankensteinian mad science to proceedings.

Clive the butler’s equally sour-faced wife (Anne Stradi) meanwhile acts as reluctant housekeeper for the warped household, even though Roderick is evidently no fan of her cooking (“Clive, will you tell your wife I do not expect horse meat to be served at my table?”), whilst the servants’ mute daughter Gwendolyn (Carole Farquhar) seems to represent Molly’s best prospect for a non-crazy/evil ally as she contemplates her escape from a nightmarish future as the heavily sedated recipient of Oliver Reed’s tainted seed.


Which leads us neatly on to the matter of Reed himself. Though viewers of a cynical disposition might be tempted to assume that what we are seeing here is actually take # 26 of any given scene, during which he finally managed to recite the voluminous passages of dialogue written up for him on off-screen cue cards without corpsing or falling over, I feel there are moments here in which he actually delivers a pretty good performance.

His inimitable, hushed voice is still in good shape, which certainly helps, and though fairly static and subdued, he brings a sense of preternaturally decrepit desperation to some of his early scenes, hinting at a vulnerability rarely seen in his on-screen (or indeed off-screen) persona. Later on however, the script’s graceless dialogue and absurd situations defeat his better instincts, with Shatner-esque… pauses… tending to… predominate (thus lending further weight to the cue cards argument).

If Reed’s acting is a tad lacking in energy though, he - regrettably - seems to have retained a great deal of enthusiasm for manhandling his leading lady, in a manner which becomes increasingly questionable over the course of several scenes which call for close physical contact between himself and Romy Windsor.

I have no idea whether Windsor ever spoke about her experience making this film, or what her thoughts were on working with Reed, but she certainly looks pretty damned uncomfortable as he more-or-less dry humps her live on camera on at least one occasion. Recalling numerous tales of Reed’s less than gentlemanly conduct during this era, it seems reasonable to assume that the gusto with which he approached this task was less than entirely fictitious.

Horrifying as this seems however, even worse is to come during a particularly grotesque, hallucinogenic dream sequence (presumably modelled after those in the Corman/Poe pictures) depicting a daemonic marriage ceremony between Reed and Windsor. Here, we see Reed pick up a slice of a gigantic, tottering wedding cake, force it into Windsor’s mouth, and pull it out again with his teeth! Lord in heaven, I’ve never seen anything so repulsive.

Again, we should probably refrain from making any assumptions about a movie’s behind the scenes production circumstances, but whatever the truth of the matter, you’d better believe that this sight will leave a scar on my memory far more severe than any of the film’s ostensible ‘horror’ moments. You have been warned.


Moving swiftly on, another aspect of this ‘House of Usher’ liable to scar one’s senses is Leonardo Coen Cagli’s defiantly excessive production design, which throw the film almost immediately into a realm of phantasmagorical theatrical camp.

Although a few brief exterior shots on the Usher mansion were shot - I believe - at Knebworth House near Stevenage (an impressive Tudor edifice previously seen in ‘Horror Hospital’ (1973) and the aforementioned ‘Lair of the White Worm’), the interior sets are once again comically ill-matched.

To give credit where it’s due, Molly’s aforementioned bedroom is genuinely impressive in a crazy sort of way - a vast, medieval chamber decked out entirely in nightmarish pastel blue, it’s the kind of space which would indeed have fit the bill for a latter-day Ken Russell movie. The main ‘entrance hall’ set, complete with marble staircase, gilt curtains, hooded, faceless statues and Rubik’s Cube-styled windows, is pretty overwhelming too, conveying a similarly OTT, dreamlike feel.


Other areas within the candy-coloured mansion fare less well however, with a distinct whiff of air-brushed polystyrene and Dulux applied straight to plywood often predominating. Worst of all in this regard must be the ‘chapel’ set, which some overzealous scene painter has decorated with little black twirls, flames and spray-painted skulls, putting me in mind of the ‘goth room’ in some provincial indie nightclub. 


Uncle Roderick’s briefly mentioned background as an artist appears to have encouraged the film’s designers to load these sets up with all manner of mismatched tat, from Rodin-esque modernist sculptures to looming gargoyles, all-seeing eye covered Klimt pastiches, Italianate murals, moth-eaten Turkish carpets, faux-marble angel-y crap - you name it, and so long as it looks awful, it’s probably in here somewhere.

(It would probably be snarky to question how exactly all this is supposed to jibe with Roderick’s “acute sensitivity to certain colours”, which early in the film forces Molly to change her evening attire to “something a little more tasteful”, even though her initial choice of dress, though admittedly horrible, was actually a pretty good match for the mansion’s decor.)

Not that any of this is so dreadful in-and-of-itself, I should clarify - if anything, I appreciate the film’s wild disregard for realism and poverty-stricken attempts to overwhelm our senses. The problem lies more I think with DP Yossi Wein’s photography, which for the most part is odiously over-lit, its relentless brightness allowing no real mystery or atmosphere to accrue within these unhinged surroundings, highlighting their artificiality and essential silliness at every turn.


For all this baked-in shoddiness though, ‘House of Usher’ ’89 will still prove impossible for some of us not to enjoy on some perverse, unheimlich level. As uncharitable as some of my comments here may seem, I nonetheless found Birkinshaw’s film to be an absolute hoot, and would wholeheartedly recommend it to any admirer of distressed gothic aesthetics or oddball British horror.

Clearly a product of the same warped well-spring of inspiration which brought us ‘Killer’s Moon’, it is packed with enough uncouth eccentricities, bad ideas and baffling non-sequiturs to leave even the most jaded of psychotronic movie fans reeling - the aforementioned ‘cake incident’ foremost amongst them. (Hint when doing a psychedelic dream sequence, by the way: cutting away to shots of the dreaming character thrashing around in bed tends to spoil the effect somewhat.)

Early on for instance, we get a leering, grand guignol fake-out worthy of Todd Slaughter, as Clive the butler appears (for no apparent reason) to jam his wife’s arm into a hand-operated mincing machine, convincing us for one breathless moment that we’re witnessing a psychotic outburst of sickening gore… only for her to raise her arm from behind the machine, revealing that it’s merely the meat for tonight’s dinner being ground up. What larks.

Actually, now that I stop to think about it, pretty much all of the film’s big ‘horror highlights’ are equally arbitrary, not to mention highly derivative; hungry rat in cage (courtesy of ‘1984’, or possibly The Virgin of Nuremberg), grabby arms emerging from wall (‘Repulsion’ and/or ‘Dawn of the Dead’), head on serving platter (‘Tales That Witness Madness’ poster) - you get the idea.


Elsewhere, there is also much amusement to be gleaned from Molly’s pre-Usher profession as a hair stylist to the rich & famous. Apparently for instance, she’s so dedicated to her work that she managed to squeeze one of those full size Bakelite helmet hairdryer things into her suitcase!

Later, as she weeps inconsolably after learning that her fiancée is dead, the ever thoughtful housekeeper - distant and rude to fault through the rest of the film - picks her moment and asks, “I know you’ve got a lot on your mind, but whilst you’re here, could you do something with my hair?” Ever professional, Molly’s response is to throw her a can of mousse - “men love spikes”, she advises. (Recalling ‘Killer’s Moon’ again, moments like this cause me to wonder whether Birkinshaw had once again called upon his sister Fay Weldon to throw a few curveballs into the script.)

More emotional cross-wires can meanwhile be found in the final act, when Clive the butler learns of the deaths of his wife and child in separate Usher-instigated rampages - incidents which would play as tragic, gratuitous or cruel in most films, but here Birkinshaw pushes us straight into comedy by getting Norman Coombes to deliver two identical “OH MY GOD!” reaction shots in quick succession.

Another inexplicable curiosity meanwhile arises the film’s delightfully low rent synth score, jointly credited to two composers - George S. Clinton and Gary Chang - who both went to to enjoy noteworthy Hollywood careers, unlikely as that may seem. IMDB authoritatively informs me however that the rather fine, Carpenter-esque main theme used throughout ‘House of Usher’ was originally composed by Chang for John Frankenheimer’s 1986 Elmore Leonard adaptation ’52 Pick-up’, of all things. Had Towers just been pilfering tapes whilst visiting Cannon’s offices or something? God Only knows.


But wait a minute - didn’t I state, way back in the opening paragraphs of this review, that Donald Pleasence is in this film? Well, he is indeed! Turning up in the last half hour, he plays… well, to intents and purposes, he’s playing Saul Femm from James Whale’s 1932 ‘The Old Dark House’.

As the heretofore unmentioned lunatic brother locked in the attic, he manages to convince our heroine that he’s a poor, unfortunate fellow prisoner, before revealing, once granted his his freedom, that he’s actually a ruthless homicidal loon hell-bent on destroying everything in sight! (As in Jack Hill’s ‘Spider Baby’, these Ushers are cursed with a degenerative blood condition which pushes them further into psychosis as they get older, meaning that Pleasence’s character is pretty far gone.)

As usual, Pleasence does great work here. Evidently aware of his character’s pre-war inspiration, he has a great time putting his own spin on Brember Wills’ unforgettable performance in Whale’s film, bringing a sense of gravitas to his dialogue which temporarily even convinces us to take the film seriously. (“Thank god, an ACTOR,” I recall thinking at this point.)

Pleasance’s character is confined to a wheelchair (OR IS HE?, etc), and, apparently on account of his penchant for sculpture, he has a domestic hand drill strapped to one of his arms. Though allegedly utilised in a few moments of gory (off-screen) violence, I was chiefly struck my how thoroughly UN-threatening this looks, particularly when - in a moment which in a sense seems to sum up this movie’s crazy charm perfectly - he responds to being shut behind a locked door by a fleeing Molly by angrily drilling a series of very small holes straight into the plywood walls of the set! Whatcha gonna do Donald, hang some pictures?


Needless to say, this whole farrago concludes the only way it possibly could, with a decent into blood-curdling hysteria which Oliver Reed and Donald Pleasence rolling around on the floor in a frenzied, mutually suicidal wrestling match (shades of ‘Women in Love’ perhaps?), as the Corman/Poe-mandated conflagration erupts around them, sending these horrendous sets up in smoke once and for all.

Meanwhile, having rescued her hunky fiancée from behind a polystyrene tombstone, Romy Windsor finally flees back out into the fresh air of Knebworth House, presumably contemplating an immediate change of profession. (Actually, she went on to roles in ‘Surf Ninjas’, ‘Camp Nowhere’ and ‘Howling IV: The Original Nightmare’, but safe to say no more Harry Alan Towers productions were forthcoming.)

Towers and Birkinshaw though ploughed straight on in the same furrow, ensuring that ‘House of Usher’ was released more-or-less back to back with their visionary re-imagining of ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ - a film so assaultively crass it makes this one looks like a model of respectful sobriety by comparison. All being well, we’ll hopefully be digging into the garish mysteries of Red Death ‘89 here soon, so gird your loins folks, and make sure you come prepared. (Blindfolds, tranquilisers and hard liquor are all recommended.)


Saturday, 20 March 2021

Deathblog:
Yaphet Kotto
(1939- 2021)

And so the bad news just keeps on coming. What a month.

Anyone who has read this blog for a while probably knows that I dig Yaphet Kotto. Truth be told, I was only distantly aware of his career when I signed up to take part in a Yaphet Kotto blogathon (ye gods, remember them) back in November 2010 (I wrote about Larry Cohen’s ‘Bone’ - see below), but since then, year on year, my appreciation of his work has grown immeasurably.

Leaving aside his higher profile roles in the likes of ‘Alien’ and ‘Live and Let Die’, and his critically acclaimed turn in Paul Shrader’s ‘Blue Collar’, Kotto is one of those actors who worked so relentlessly over the years, appearing in such a wide variety of movies, that his presence frequently makes the process of blind-watching lesser known, pre-2000 U.S. films a joy. (More than once, the conversation in my household has been; “is this really going to be worth watching?”, “well.. Yaphet Kotto's in it”, “ok”.)

I'm not sure if this comparison really holds water, but as I’ve caught more of Kotto’s performances over the years, I've started to think of him as a kind of American Klaus Kinski (hopefully minus the abuse allegations and actual insanity). Think about it - unforgettable face, intense and unpredictable performance style, herculean work rate (often in small/thankless parts), spiky off-screen persona. And, like Klaus, he does that glowering, “fuck this movie” thing beautifully.

Anyway, be that as it may - here by way of a small tribute to the range of the great man’s talent are five completely random Yaphet Kotto performances which I’ve enjoyed over the past couple of years, in movies good, bad and simply weird. R.I.P. to one of the greats. 

 

Across 110th Street (1972) 

As you’ll recall, my vote for the best film which I watched for the first time in 2020.

By rights, Kotto’s character (second billed, as per) should be an admirable /  heroic presence in this movie - the college educated black detective determined to bring fairness and equality to policing on the streets of Harlem. Instead though, he’s steely, delivering a closed off, cold fish performance which perversely pushes our sympathies in the direction of Anthony Quinn’s warmer, more immediately likeable old racist dinosaur, thus considerably deepening and complicating the film’s moral dynamic. 

 

Eye of the Tiger (1986) 


In this gloriously ridiculous, sort-of-post-apocalyptic-but-not-really cartoon revenge saga ostensibly built around Survivor’s hit song of the same name, Kotto plays vigilante cop Gary Busey’s best buddy - a jaded, verge-of-retirement small town deputy with an inexplicable passion for vintage aircraft. The movie’s action-packed finale thus finds him in the cockpit of a Red Baron style bi-plane, hurling dynamite at William Smith’s evil, drug-dealing biker gang whilst bustin’ sub-par ‘80s James Brown jams on his trusty boombox.

Pause, re-read that paragraph, and if you’re not immediately moving heaven and earth to try to watch ‘Eye of the Tiger’, I fear you may be reading the wrong weblog. 

 

The Running Man (1987)

Conventional wisdom would tend to suggest that there are two kinds of actors in the world: those who can pull off wearing a one-piece spandex body-suit, and those who can’t. In ‘The Running Man’, Yaphet Kotto single-handedly shatters this assumption, and give us a third category: those who simply do not give a fuck.

In truth, he doesn’t really get a lot to do in this movie, but that outfit… Jesus. 

 

Truck Turner (1974) 

I suppose it stands to reason that Kotto felt a certain amount of frustration at the lack of opportunity offered to actors by the increasingly self-parodic ‘blaxploitation’ cycle of the early ‘70s.

With great, naturalistic / low key lead performances from Isaac Hayes and Alan Weeks, authentic East-side LA street cruising footage and some jaw-dropping action scenes, I’d actually rate Jonathan Kaplan’s ‘Truck Turner’ as one of the genre’s most enjoyable and good-natured efforts, but the film’s studio-mandated pimp/hooker stuff is indeed pretty OTT, so it’s perhaps understandable that Yaphet was less than thrilled with his assigned role as uber-pimp / primary bad guy ‘Harvard Blue’.

Reportedly distant and uncommunicative on the set, he is on prime “fuck this movie” form here, his role seemingly cut down and limited to as few scenes - which, ironically, adds considerably to his character’s weird menace and mystique. I’m still not sure what the thinking was behind his extraordinary death scene, in which a handheld camera follows him in close up as he takes his final, blood-choking stumble across a quiet city street, capturing his final breaths over several, silent minutes, but it’s one of those extraordinarily weird instances of pure cinema which sometimes jump out without warning in the midst of low budget / high creativity exploitation pictures, and certainly sticks in the memory. 

 

Bone (1970) 

One of Kotto’s earliest significant roles, and still one of his best performances.

From the aforementioned review I wrote over a decade ago:

“Perhaps the key scene in the film comes when Kotto’s character, having pretty much given up on trying to menace the troublesome and assertive Joyce Van Patten, sinks into lethargy and delivers an absolutely astounding monologue, riffing on the uncertain future of his career as a ‘violent black criminal’, an occupation Bone treats as seriously as if he were a bank manager or newsreader.

Easing out of his schizo tough guy mannerisms, Kotto begins to open up, discussing the embarrassing failure of his attempted rampage like an athlete talking to his coach after an underwhelming training session - “this is demoralising – I mean what kind of a rapist am I?” (“Well, I don’t know… I’ve never met a rapist before, ” Joyce replies.) Warming to his theme, Bone next starts reminiscing about the days when all he had to do was look at a white woman to inspire terror;

“..now you go to a movie house, and it’s right up there on the screen – how about that, mixed couples all over the place! They went and took all the mystery out of it… they’re treating us like people now - you can see what sort of a position that puts a rapist like me in…”

After building up a rhetorical head of steam, cheerfully expounding on the ‘n*gger mystique’ that he’d built his career upon pre-Civil Rights, Bone abruptly shifts back into a kind of wounded anger, Kotto’s delivery perhaps reflecting the frustrations of a hugely talented black character actor trying to make a name for himself in a culture where African-American performers were given the choice of goofy bit-parts or one-dimensional caricatures;

“..then they changed it, they changed the whole deal and I found myself slipping. There I was, I was holding onto the past, because change is scary, and then they said, ‘EDUCATE YOURSELF’, ‘LEARN NEW TRADES’. What trades? The Pullman porter, the shoeshine boy and ME. What trades? I only know how to do one thing… at least.. I used to know how…”

[…]

A brief look at Yaphet Kotto’s subsequent filmography of bit-parts and straight to video roles, as contrasted with the crazy, Brando-scale charisma he’s throwing around in ‘Bone’, is all the indictment one needs of the genre codes and social conventions that Larry Cohen was seeking to tear apart here, and of how vital Kotto’s presence was in spearheading the attack.” 

---

POST-SCRIPT: 

Hey, did you know that Yaphet cut a record back in 1968? Me neither. Turns out it’s pretty great.

Friday, 12 March 2021

Deathblog:
Norman J. Warren
(1942-2021)

Back to the deathblogs yet again, as yesterday morning brought the terrible news that the great Norman J. Warren has passed away at the age of 78.

Surely one of the best-loved directors of British horror films (if not, necessarily, the director of the best-loved British horror films), Warren’s work has always been close to my heart, even though, inexplicably, I’ve never got around to writing about it on this blog.

All five of the horror films he directed between 1976 and 1987 are good-bordering-on-great, full of real charm and ingenuity, and the fact that he and his close collaborators managed to bang them out on shoe-string budgets during a period when the genre had otherwise pretty much disappeared in the UK lends them a very special feeling.

Beyond that though, Warren will also be remembered simply as a thoroughly nice man. Although I never had the pleasure of meeting him myself, stories of his good humour, gallantry and all-round friendliness are legion. (I’d always vaguely hoped I might bump into him one day at a London movie event and get a chance to tell him how much I appreciate his work - but sadly it was not to be.)

Listening to him speak in interviews and commentary tracks is always a joy, even as hearing him discuss the many amazing projects which he tried to get off the ground over the years, only for plans to collapse at the last minute, is pretty heart-breaking.

For readers in the UK, Warren’s work will likely need no introduction (stumbling across 1978’s ‘Terror’ post-midnight on BBC2 and thinking “what the hell is this?!” must have been practically a rite of passage for movie fans in my own age group), but for anyone who needs a refresher, I think we at Breakfast in The Ruins owe him at least a quick career overview/appreciation, which I will post within the next few days, as soon as I’ve had a chance to sit down and write it.

In the meantime though - R.I.P. Norman. I’m sorry I never got the chance to offer you an over-priced BFI pint and tell you that ‘Prey’ and ‘Satan’s Slave’ are tops, but I’m sure that many others said it for me.

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Noir Diary # 13 / Thoughts on…
Mildred Pierce
(Michael Curtiz, 1945)


I.

Ever since I decided to start writing up my viewings of ‘40s/’50s Film Noir a couple of years ago, I’ve found myself bedevilled by the question of where, precisely, the boundaries of ‘noir’ lie. It’s an issue I’ve wrestled with to some extent in pretty much every one of these Noir Diary posts to date, and, with every critic, fan, reference book and blu-ray label on earth drawing their preferred demarcation line somewhere entirely different from all the others, it is not a debate which seems liable to be happily resolved any time soon.

In trying to find a workable way to define ‘noir’ therefore, my current thinking is that, though we may treat it as such for the sake of convenience, noir is not a genre, in the conventional sense of the term. In some ways, this is a pretty obvious point to make - after all, no one in the USA prior to about 1975 ever sat down and said “I’m gonna make a film noir” - but I think it bears repeating.

Instead, I believe noir can probably be best understood as an ineffable essence - a kind of aesthetic virus, if you will - which infects a wide swathe of cinema and literature to a greater or lesser degree. As irreducibly ‘noir’ as the canonical classics of the form may seem, it’s worth remembering that they all simultaneously belong to other genres as well. To the people who wrote and directed them, the 40s/50s films we now categorise as noir were gangster movies, police procedurals, psychological thrillers, murder mysteries, or, in this case, even a quote-unquote ‘women’s picture’.

The germ of what we now call ‘noir’ is something which crept into them from outside, changing and perverting the material it infected; eating away moral clarity, tilting camera set ups and dimming the lights like some celluloid Dutch elm disease. And, like everyone’s favourite virus here in the second decade of the 21st century, the effects of this bug were varied and unpredictable in the extreme.

Some films emerged so slathered in the thematics and visuals of noir than their root genre almost shrivels up and dies; for others, noir simply hangs in the background, barely perceptible, like some eerie seed of doubt. Then, there are movies in which the noir is spread unevenly - confined to certain scenes or sub-plots, or hitting full strength in some reels whilst completely disappearing from others. In spite of its storied position in the noir canon, ‘Mildred Pierce’ fits perfectly into this latter category.

II. 

Considered as a standalone short film, opening fifteen minutes of ‘Mildred Pierce’ are as vivid and intoxicating an invocation of the 1940s So-Cal noir aesthetic as has ever been conjured before the cameras.

Straight out of the opening credits, the sound of six gunshots is foleyed over an exterior shot of a luxurious yet lonely Malibu beach house with a shiny black sedan parked outside. Cut to the interior, where a man in formal dress spins to face the camera, clutching his chest. He just has time to gasp the name of the movie’s titular heroine(?) before he hits the floor, as inert as the remains of the chic standing lamp he pulled down with him.

Cut to a breath-taking crane-shot of (a studio recreation of) a rain-sodden Santa Monica seafront, water gleaming on the wooden boardwalk in the light of neon hoardings for bars and seafood restaurants as the unmistakable figure of Joan Crawford - looking like a Cossack officer in her wide-shouldered fur coat and hat - strides away from us toward the pier. 

As she stares at the black waves below, her contemplation is broken by the sound of a beat cop’s baton tapping on the iron railings. The first words spoken in the film if we discount the murder victim’s final utterance, the cop’s ensuing lines (“if you take a swim, I’ve gotta take a swim. Is that fair? Because you feel like killing yourself, I gotta get pneumonia?”) give us a brilliant example of the approach to dialogue which will remain consistent throughout the film. Most readily attributable to sole credited screenwriter Ranald MacDougall, these lines are simple and to the point, lacking the literary self-consciousness of many post-war noirs, but are nonetheless attention-grabbing, memorable and devoid of cliché. (1)

(It is only on repeat viewings that we might note that, a few years prior to this in the film’s chronology, Mildred’s beloved younger daughter did indeed die from pneumonia after “taking a swim”, instigating a fatal shift in her mother’s psychological make-up.)

Anyway, the cop’s well-chosen words seem to do the trick, turning Mildred (for of course it is she) away from her watery grave and pointing her in the direction of a loud, claustrophobic seafront bar, where she immediately falls in with the lecherous, fast-talking Wally Fay (Jack Carson), an old friend who seemingly owns the joint. Clearly an inveterate hustler, Wally is suspicious when Mildred - who, we are given to understand, has routinely rejected his crude advances since time immemorial - invites him back to her pad for a quiet drink.

Mildred is clearly in an unsettled state of mind, but, like every noir fall guy, Wally prides himself on keeping his eye on the prize, never looking a gift horse in the mouth, etc etc. So, before we know it, he’s propping up the sleek, chromium bar back at that accursed beach house, boastfully bantering to himself, as Mildred slips out, ostensibly to change, and locks the door behind her.

By the time he finds the corpse, it’s too late. Careening around the increasingly labyrinthine beach house, Wally ascends winding, disorientating flights of stairs, dense lattices of shadow thrown by the house’s baroque / art deco accoutrements hemming him in from all sides, as he too cries Mildred’s name.

Photography by Ernest Haller, whose CV includes ‘Gone With The Wind’, ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and 183 other top-flight flicks, and art direction from Curtiz’s regular collaborator Anton Grot (also see: Doctor X), are, of course, fiendishly superb here, briefly bringing a touch of Orwellian nightmare sci-fi to proceedings.

Eventually making his exit by crashing through the French windows, Wally briefly staggers across the sand - inevitably reminding us of the unforgettable finale to Robert Aldrich’s ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ a decade later - before he is frozen in the beam of a searchlight, trained on him from the road above by the cops Mildred presumably called.

Soon regaining his wise-cracking composure once he’s back amongst other men, he tells them, “you know, this is a pretty big night for you guys; yeah, lots of excitement - there’s a stiff in there”. “Izzat so? And I suppose you were running right down to the station to report it?” retorts the younger cop, who’s clearly got Wally’s number.

Amazing. Just amazing. Really, if you’re in search of the condensed essence of ‘noir’, it doesn’t get much better than that my friends.

The subsequent scenes, in which Mildred is picked up from the opulent mansion she apparently shares with her adult daughter and informed that her husband(!) has been murdered, are equally great. The limbo-like inertia of the police squad-room - where thick-necked cops sit around, smoking, eating sandwiches or desultorily typing up their nightly reports as Mildred is forced to sit amongst them in her Cossack finery, awaiting the attention of the investigating officer, is brilliantly conveyed. (“Would you like a paper, lady?” some toad-like brute asks her, as if the wife of a murder victim might want to catch up on the sports pages or something.)

As she is eventually ushered into the strangely inviting environs of the interrogation room (incongruously low-lit, as if by firelight) and disconcerted by the smooth, logical and ingratiating tone taken by the detective within (“even his more courteous, somewhat friendlier types gave one pause for concern,” begins the IMDB bio of actor Moroni Elson), we know we’re sliding headlong toward extended flashback territory, as Mildred is coerced into recounting her sorry tale.

Even as we cross that one off our “Film Noir signifiers” bingo card however, first-time viewers expecting to file this one alongside Double Indemnity and ‘The Big Sleep’ are liable to be taken aback by the extent to which the film takes a stylistic handbrake turn as soon as the fairy-dust of noir glamour disappears in the flash of a back-in-time dissolve, leaving us adrift in the flat, sit-com greyscale of the (then novel) surroundings of pre-fab suburbia, where a somewhat fresher-faced Mildred Pierce exchanges her furs for apron and oven gloves, thoroughly immersed in the drudgery of domestic routine.

III. 

When I first watched ‘Mildred Pierce’, around twenty years ago(!) at this point, I didn’t get it. I was in the process of discovering Film Noir for the first time via a Film Studies module I was taking in college, and as such, my expectations of the “genre” chiefly revolved around gun-toting gangsters, scummy tenement apartments, crumpled fedoras and weary P.I.s striking matches on their unshaven jaws.

By failing to deliver on these hallowed signifiers of the hard-boiled idiom, ‘Mildred..’ fell flat for my younger, dumber self. I mean, not only does it feature only a single murder, which we see in the opening minute, but it then has the audacity to follow the day-to-day travails of somebody’s freakin’ mother - and like, who’s got time for that, right?!

Returning to the film as a respectable, wage-earning adult however, greater life experience and (I would like to think) more mature tastes have allowed me to engage far more deeply with the tale being told during the - entirely noir-free - central hour of their movie’s run-time.

Admittedly, I’ve not been through a painful divorce, raised a hateful harridan of a daughter or gone into the restaurant business during the interim, but what can I say? I suppose I can now at least relate to such quintessentially ‘grown-up’ concerns, meaning that, when Mildred’s extended confession begins, I no longer tune out.

At 114 minutes, ‘Mildred Pierce’ is a long film for its era, and it packs a hell of a lot into that run-time. Full of ostensibly repetitious character encounters, melodramatic contrivances and mountains of detail concerning the titular heroine’s property deals, legal transactions and business plans, this material could, in clumsier hands, have become a colossal bore. Indeed, one suspects that it is only the prestige Curtiz was still enjoying a few years downstream from the success of ‘Casablanca’ that prevented Warner Bros from scything through the screenplay in no uncertain terms.

But, thank god, they didn’t. And at the risk of stating the obvious here, ‘Mildred Pierce’s final cut is a fast-moving, thoroughly engrossing, friction-free joy to sit through - an example of ‘40s Hollywood artistry raised to its absolute zenith.

Always a gifted director, Curtiz brings both a steady hand and an unparalleled mastery of visual storytelling to proceedings, whilst MacDougall’s writing is, as mentioned, exceptional. Haller, Grot, editor David Weisbart and composer Max Steiner are also all at the top of their game, and in front of the camera, Crawford is - of course - magnificent, whilst the rest of cast is packed out with carefully chosen, lesser-known players who inhabit their roles just perfectly.

Basically - this crew could have made a film about the history of Battenberg cake and it would have been worth watching, so seeing them take on an inspired adaptation of a second tier James M. Cain novel is just dandy, thank you very much.

IV. 

The nebulous concept of the ‘women’s picture’ represents a distinct category within studio era Hollywood filmmaking - one which, predictably enough, been largely overlooked by the male-dominated critical / Film Studies establishment.

Being just as in thrall to the whims of said establishment as anyone else, I’m not really sufficiently familiar with the form to judge how indicative ‘Mildred Pierce’ is of its overall conventions, but certainly one suspects that many (now largely forgotten) movies aimed at female audiences must surely have followed the same basic trajectory seen in the film’s central hour; a steadfast, hard working wife/mother overcomes the obstacles life throws at her, negotiates her relationships with men, fights her corner in assorted melodramatic conflicts and misunderstandings, and so forth.

The big difference of course is that, in the regular run of things, one supposes that these stories would most likely have ended with their heroine finding true (legally sanctioned) love, securing a bright future for herself and her children, etc etc…. which is where the shadow of our old friend ‘noir’ begins to creep in once again.

One of the masterstrokes of ‘Mildred Pierce’ is the complex characterisation of the three men who play a role in its heroine’s life. Though all of them are eventually found severely wanting on the scales of the film’s moral schema, they are all somewhat fascinating characters in their own right, and, crucially, none of them are portrayed as entirely irredeemable. This adds a note of moral ambiguity to proceedings which takes us beyond the realm of boilerplate melodrama, even as Mildred is weeping into her oven gloves in her suburban kitchen as first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) walks out on her.

Openly conducting an affair with the oft-mentioned “Mrs Beiderhoff”, Bert Pierce is initially depicted as a cruel and gloomy sad-sack who refuses to acknowledge his own culpability for the failure of the couple’s marriage. But as the film goes on, and the machinations of the plotting become more complex, he emerges as something of a paragon of plain-spoken honesty, offering Mildred his heartfelt apologies and best wishes when she proves him wrong by achieving success on her own terms, and attempting - in a characteristically vague sort of way - to protect her from the sharks who are circling.

Significantly, Bert is also the only character in the movie who is not entirely fixated on making money. Unemployed when the flashback segment of the movie begins, he remains glum, dishevelled and content with with relatively lowly position in the economic hierarchy. Even after a brief bit of exposition informs us that he has eventually found work in (where else) the aerospace industry, he remains uninterested, it seems, in signing up to the crazed pursuit of the dollar which motivates the rest of the cast.

Framed more-or-less as Bert’s polar opposite meanwhile, the aforementioned Wally Fay is a ruthless opportunist, a loud-mouthed braggart and a shameless lecher who, as he repeatedly demonstrates, is willing to throw his business partners under a bus at a moment’s notice in pursuit of his own interests. But, despite all this, his fondness for Mildred seems genuine, he works hard to help make her business a success, and despite his boorish conduct, he never forces himself upon the female characters in the movie after they’ve rejected his overtly cartoonish advances.

Armoured against ethical doubts by the same spiel employed by carpet-baggers and capitalist ultras to this day (hey, it’s just good business, nothin’ personal, etc), against all the odds, we kind of end up liking the guy. There are even moments here when, fleetingly, Mildred and Wally seem to be operating as a pretty tight team - a kind of proto-power couple almost - until his roving eye for some amoral side deals inevitably gets the better of him.

Which just leaves the most fascinating gentleman of all, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Gifted with a name worthy of an Iberian dragon-slayer, this fellow has sometimes been likened by critics to a gender-reversed femme fatale (homme fatale?), but personally I’m not sure that glove really fits.

In stark contrast to the raw sexual magnetism generally assigned to yr average ‘femme fatale’ in fact, the root of Monte’s seductive charms remains rather elusive. With his receding hairline, cleft chin and skinny build, Scott leaves us with the impression that Joan Crawford could probably break him over her knee and send his remains wafting away on the ocean breeze, leaving him a far weaker, more compromised, figure than the ‘black widows’ who routinely preyed upon the protagonists of male-orientated noir.

Given that Beragon is also stony broke - and everyone in the movie seems to know it - it is presumably only his intangible aura of old world, aristocratic glamour which keeps a steady stream of debutantes and wealthy widows heading back to his heavily-mortgaged beach house. (Though the script is reluctant to address Beragon’s promiscuity directly, references to his notoriety in the ‘society pages’ and a running gag about the multiple bathing costumes he keeps on hand for his many ‘sisters’ make the point clearly enough.)

And, in good time, we get a first-hand taste of his talents too, as, thanks to Curtiz’s proven talent for handling romantic material, the scene in which Monte eventually gets Mildred alone in his ‘lair’ zings with more of a sense of inter-personal chemistry and genuine human warmth than the rest of the movie put together… even as bad news and piled up IOUs combine to douse their passion more or less immediately.

Between them, these three fatally-flawed suitors then add up to far more than mere shooting gallery ducks for Crawford’s world-beating super-woman to knock down, allowing the film to chart a surprisingly complex (if resolutely cynical) cross-section of the relationships between the sexes in the competitive, hot-house environment of post-war America. (2)

As Mildred’s loyal right-hand-woman Ida (brilliantly played by a scene-stealing Eve Arden) remarks at one point as the pair raise a lunch-time glass of bourbon, effectively cutting the crap and compressing a fair share of the complex machinations of the film’s plotting into a single sentence: “to the men we’ve loved… the stinkers”.

V. 

Though the relentless fixation on acquiring wealth which triggers the bulk of the conflict within the script could lead some to label ‘Mildred Pierce’ an ‘anti-capitalist’ film, several factors - not least the movie’s refusal to elevate Bert Pierce to a higher plain for his prioritising of emotional honesty over material gain - suggest that a slightly different moral dynamic is actually at work here.

If anything, the film functions primarily as a kind of unabashed celebration of the Protestant Work Ethic, promoting hard graft as the engine through which the put-upon proletariat can improve themselves and take revenge upon their social ‘betters’; a theme which I assume must go all the way back to Cain’s source novel, as such messages were often close to the writer’s heart, in spite of the nihilistic air which defines his best-known material.

Thus Mildred becomes an almost Christ-like figure for those who strive to better themselves and their families through hard work - an avatar perhaps for the overlooked female labour force brought to the fore during WWII - whilst the scenes demonstrating the success of her restaurant chain convey the sheer exhilaration of post-war American prosperity better than anything else in the era’s movies; a seething world of polished chromium, gleaming glass, imitation leather and bubbling grease, every inch of space filled by voluminous, big-spending customers whose gigantic automobiles idle outside, ready to send them roaring off to the next fashionable destination, amid the not-yet-polluted air of the Pacific Coast Highway.

Meanwhile, true evil within the film’s moral schema is reserved for those refined, Luciferian layabouts - as represented by the tag team of Monte Beragon and Mildred’s spoiled elder daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) - who scrounge their living off the hard work of others whilst mocking the honest toil which underpins their wasteful, dissolute lifestyles.

Stretching right back across the Atlantic and down through the annals of antiquity, this particular class-based dynamic can be traced through the whole deathless lineage of Europe’s debauched aristocracy, from the fall of Rome to the French and Russian revolutions, to the gout-addled, rotten borough squires of British popular fiction (an archetype splendidly lampooned by Charles Laughton in ‘Jamaica Inn’ (1939)), and, more pertinently, the related lineage of ‘Jane Eyre’-derived gothic heartthrobs who were busy menacing and abusing their pure, proletarian maidens in vast swathes of the celluloid which followed in the wake of that rather more celebrated Hitchcock/Du Maurier joint, 1940’s ‘Rebecca’. (3)

It is in in imitation of this legion of sub-Byronic cads - along with a touch perhaps of the aristocratic affectations of the silent era Hollywood elite - that Monte Beragon was presumably moulded, and in this sense, ‘Mildred Pierce’ becomes less of an anti-capitalist parable and more of an all-American class war diatribe, in which evil and corruption ultimately derive, not from capital itself, but from snobbery and laziness, from refined manners, bohemian self-indulgence and any remaining hint of old world entitlement.

A very different prospect from the kind of native-born, inherently American, corruption routinely unpacked in the literary noir of Chandler and Hammett… but, having said that, the rot lurking at the heart of the American dream can certainly be seen elsewhere in the film - if not in the figure of the foreign-coded Monte, then certainly in that of his protégé, and the movie’s ultimate villain, Veda.

VI. 

If I suggested above that man trouble accounts for a fair share of Mildred’s woes, it is the remainder which ends up being both far more significant and far more uncomfortable, ultimately swinging the picture firmly in the direction of Film Noir - and for better or for worse, it’s a very female pile o’ trouble indeed.

In general, I try not to make a habit of hurling misogynist insults at the screen whilst watching films, but if you can get through the first half of ‘Mildred Pierce’ without yelling “you BITCH” in the general direction of Ann Blyth’s Veda, well, your olde world manners must be more refined than my own, let’s put it that way.

Arguably the most memorable character in a film packed full of memorable characters, Veda functions as a magnet for audience hatred right from the outset. A full-on, ‘Bad Seed’-level monster whilst playing younger in her earlier scenes, the toxic snobbery and insincerity which seems to have taken possession of her - traits not obviously inherited from either of her parents - seems so inexplicable, it almost pushes the movie in the direction of horror. (Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine that the producers of the aforementioned 1956 film didn’t have Veda in mind to some extent.)

Beyond mere vindictive, bad-kid nastiness though, there is something so perversely vile, so cruelly idiotic, about the idea of a child attacking her own mother for her perceived low class breeding (“..you never talk about your people, or where you came from, do you mother?”), that Crawford’s inchoate reaction to her daughter’s behaviour can’t help but mirror our own.

In a more conventional, more sentimental story, it would be easy to imagine Veda learning the error of her ways as she grows up, redeeming herself as time goes by and becoming less of a conceited, duplicitous cow as a result. But - thankfully - that’s not the film we’re watching here. The essence of ‘noir’ has sunk deep into the bones of ‘Mildred Pierce’.

And so, under the questionable tutelage of Monte Beragon and Wally Fay, the teenage Veda is soon a fully signed up apprentice femme fatale - a Phyllis Dietrichson or Cora Smith on training wheels, complete with a side-gig as a night club bawler (clearly the money mummy spent on all those music lessons didn’t go to waste) and the future of at least one promising young man already crushed beneath her wheels.

There is a sense here that we’re supposed to see Mildred’s parenting - spoiling her daughter with gifts and luxuries whilst failing to put the time aside to actually build a relationship with her - as being somehow responsible for Veda’s beastly conduct, but to be honest, this intended bromide on child-raising is one element of the screenplay which never quite lands, which is perhaps for the best.

Better by far I think to just see Veda as some Satanic anomaly - a force of nature capable of bringing down her indomitable mother the way no mere man ever could. And indeed, it is the warped, rather obsessional nature of this mother / daughter relationship which really steers the movie back toward darkest noir territory during its final act.

As has often been noted, once Veda has flown what’s left of the family coop, Mildred - perhaps still mourning the tragic loss of ‘good’ daughter Kay - dotes on her as if she were a lost lover rather than an errant daughter, going to what we in the audience recognise as absurd, self-destructive extremes to try to win back her tarnished “love”.

Things proceed to become outright queasy, as the sequences depicting the eventual reunion of mother and daughter are shot more like passionate love scenes than parent/child interactions. There is some freaky, co-dependant kind of shit going on between these two we realise, altogether too late, and the result is… pretty weird, to be honest, bringing the sense of intoxicating gothic perversity which has been lurking deep beneath the surface of his story gasping, finally to the surface.

In cultural / symbolic terms, the extent to which Veda dominates the action in ‘Mildred Pierce’s second half causes the film to sometimes plays more like a prequel / precursor to the full-blooded Film Noir tradition than a fully fledged example of it. Through no fault of her own (?), Joan Crawford’s paragon of hard-working American motherhood, pursuing the American dream for all it’s worth, has given birth to a witch the boys back in Salem never dreamed of, ready to scour the underbelly of her mother’s rotten dream, devouring its losers and rejects with a relentless cruelty.

As critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito joke in the discussion included as an extra on Criterion’s blu-ray and DVD editions of ‘Mildred Pierce’, you just know, when the cops lead Veda away to the cells at the film’s conclusion, that she’ll be running that damn prison in a couple of weeks.

And as soon as she gets out, well… she’s gonna be heading straight for the nearest Robert Mithum or Fred McMurray, and the whole terrible cycle begins a-new; evil slouching toward Malibu to be born.

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(1) Although Ranald MacDougall takes the sole on-screen credit for ‘Mildred Pierce’s script, and I’ve assigned authorship to him in this post just to make everybody’s life a little easier, authorship of the screenplay is, as with most studio era movies, highly contested.

So - deep breath. First off, Warner Bros apparently commissioned no less than eight writers to produce treatments based on Cain’s novel (including an unused draft from William Faulkner), making it unlikely that everything except MacDougall’s effort went straight in the trash. Secondly, quoth IMDB trivia; “writer Catherine Turney [who wrote a number so Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis pictures at around this time] was credited on some release prints, but chose to have her name removed.” Thirdly, producer Jack Wald (who instigated the project) has taken credit for devising the opening sequence and the murder-based flashback structure. And finally, also from an anonymous posting on IMDB: “due to script problems, some of the film was improvised by the actors together with Michael Curtiz”! So in conclusion: who the hell knows who wrote this thing.

(I will at least say though that, if that last claim is to be believed, the cast must really have been improvising at the top of their game, because, as mentioned, the dialogue in ‘Mildred Pierce’ is consistently excellent, and seems (to my mind at least) to suggest the work of a single authorial voice.)

(2) As an aside, it’s interesting to note that, despite it being filmed whilst WWII was still being fought, the script for ‘Mildred Pierce’ does not address the war, or its potential effect on the lives of the characters, in any way whatsoever. Instead, the film seems to take place during the kind of exciting economic ‘boom’ period we’d retrospectively tend to associate with the recovery of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s - a fact apparently not lost on Warner Bros, who seem to have deliberately delayed the film’s release until October 1945, when the war was safely in the rear view mirror.

(3) Seriously, it seems like you couldn’t hurl a brick in ‘40s Hollywood without hitting a few of these ‘Rebecca’-type gothic romance movies. Just off the top of my head, you’ve got ‘Dragonwyck’ (1946), ‘Secret Beyond The Door’ (1947), ‘The Spiral Staircase’ (1946), ‘Jane Eyre’ (1943), ‘My Name is Julia Ross’ (1945), ‘Gone to Earth’ (1951)…. and no doubt many others which I’ve not bothered to watch, as I don’t particularly seek these things out.