RSS

Tag Archives: British Films

Contraband (1940)

Contraband is a comic romantic spy thriller in the vein of The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich. It also marks the second time that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger worked together. Not as well known as their later films, or as Hitchcock’s early spy thrillers, Contraband nevertheless is an unexpectedly fun film.

Though the film was released in 1940, the story is set in 1939, before Britain was at war with Germany. Captain Hans Andersen (Conrad Veidt) is the captain of a Danish freighter bringing supplies to his homeland. But his ship is stopped by the British Navy. Though not yet at war, the British are in a state of military preparedness and are stopping all ships to check for contraband intended for the Germans. But while his ship is moored near London, Captain Andersen is drawn into the intrigues of several of his passengers, including the mysterious Mrs. Sorensen (Valerie Hobson).

When Contraband was released in America, it was titled Blackout, which Michael Powell later admitted was a more appropriate title. Nearly all of the story occurs during one night, with London subject to a blackout (nightly blackouts which would last for the entire war). All outdoor lights are off, windows are blocked with heavy curtains, cars drive without lights, air raid wardens roam the city looking for any light peeping through windows and warning people not to light matches, traffic signals are a pale fraction of their size, and pedestrians must grope their way through the city. It’s a fascinating look at London during the war, as well as a great setting for a story about German and British spies.

It is also fascinating to see Conrad Veidt – the king of silent German expressionist horror – in a heroic and lightly comic role. He even looks rather dapper and shares an unexpected, zesty chemistry with Valerie Hobson as two people who get a kick out of excitement and danger.

There is comedy in the story, verbal wit (several Nazis responds to Captain Hans Andersen’s introducing himself by saying they are the Brothers Grimm). Captain Andersen’s first mate, Axel (Hay Petrie), has a favorite brother who owns a restaurant in London, which is staffed by a number of Danes ready for a good scrap against the Nazis. The film presents Denmark and Britain as natural allies against the Nazis. Sadly, only a month after Contraband was released in Britain, the Nazis invaded Denmark.

Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson

Both Conrad Veidt and Emeric Pressburger were refugees from Nazi Germany. Veidt left with his Jewish wife in 1933, not long after they were married and Jews were banned from working in the film industry. Pressburger was a Hungarian Jew, though working in Berlin when Hitler came to power, and also left Germany. He would later become a British citizen and would form the extraordinarily creative The Archers production company with Michael Powell.

The plot of Contraband is fairly inconsequential. Like many of Hitchcock’s films, the journey and thrills are what count. It’s a fun film and I would definitely recommend it, especially if you are a fan of The Lady VanishesNight Train to Munich, Conrad Veidt, or Powell and Pressburger. And who isn’t a fan of at least one of those?

 
10 Comments

Posted by on March 11, 2017 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Comparing Two Oliver Twists: The Jackie Coogan Show and Film Noir Dickens

poster-oliver-twist-1922_03Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist seems to be one his most often adapted novels. I’ve seen five different film versions, but there are many, many more, from musical to British miniseries to feature film to silent to talkie. Last week, however, I saw the 1922 silent Oliver Twist and David Lean’s 1948 Oliver Twist.

Olive Twist (1922)

I think the best way to think of the silent Oliver Twist is as The Jackie Coogan show. Jackie Coogan is the most full of personality, vital and alive Oliver Twist I have seen yet. He manages the unique feat of being able to co-opt his own story, something that not even the fictional character of Dickens’ novel is able to do. The character of Oliver Twist is, in the words of Norrie Epstein in The Friendly Dickens, a “blank slate” on which all the character seek to put their own stamp. But not Jackie Coogan. He even manages to upstage Lon Chaney as Fagin, though Chaney is certainly good.

Olivr Twist was made one year after Coogan appeared with Charlie Chaplin in The Kid, which feels like an appropriate follow-up film. According to Epstein, Oliver Twist was Chaplin’s favorite novel, which isn’t surprising since Chaplin’s very childhood is essentially Dickensian.

Jackie Coogan has wide, innocent eyes that look up at the camera so mournfully, you wonder how anyone can be cruel to him. But he also brings perhaps just a touch of mischief, which is not something one usually sees in an Oliver. Coogan was eight years old, only one year younger than Oliver’s actual age in the book, But Oliver is usually played by a boy who looks closer to eleven or twelve, making Coogan look so young. It’s hard to imagine anyone imaging that adorable child could be a hardened criminal.

oliver-twistThe movie is actually quite faithful to the book, hitting all the key plot points and characters, but the only other actor who has a chance to make an impression is Lon Chaney as Fagin, though it is still a relatively small role. He shows his remarkable ability to not only transform his face, but his entire posture and manner. But what makes the film work is how Coogan makes us root for and relate directly to the character of Oliver Twist. I can see why he was such a beloved child actor.

Oliver Twist (1948)

David Lean opens his Oliver Twist with a Gothic flourish, as Oliver’s mother makes her way through the rain and storm to a workhouse, where she gives birth. With the storm, it’s like she’s being persecuted by nature itself. But once she arrives in the workhouse, the film switches from Gothic nature to grim London city, with shadows and grime and the seedy side of life, looking occasionally like a film noir, proving that noir is perfectly compatible with the grim, dirty reality of a Dickens novel.

As a result, this Oliver Twist belongs far more to the villains and grifters of the film. Alec Guinness plays Fagin with considerable zest and heavy makeup. It’s amazing to think he played Herbert Pocket in Lean’s Great Expectations just a few years ago. Initially, Guinness seems to be having some fun with his role, but gradually he reveals him to be the one who embodies real evil as he eggs on Bill Sikes (an effectively brutal Robert Newton) into murdering Nancy (Kay Walsh).

mv5bmjexndu3ota1of5bml5banbnxkftztcwnzy3mdyxmq-_v1-_cr7233264427_ux182_cr00182268_al_All Oliver Twist adaptations unashamedly build up to the murder of Nancy. It’s the unacknowledged high-point of any film and filmmakers know audiences are waiting for it with a mixture of anticipation and horror. It has to be one of the most famous murders in literature and Dickens himself was fond if reading that passage aloud to audiences.

And because the film modifies the story somewhat – eliminating the Maylie thread of the story entirely – it leaves more room for Nancy to emerge as the real heroine of the story (which she is in the book, but she must compete for attention with Rose Maylie). Kay Walsh, I thought was very effective as the prostitute who is touched by Oliver and manages to be the only one to stand between him and the combined forces of Fagin, Sikes and Oliver’s evil half-brother, Monk, even though it kills her. This also makes the horror of the murder all the greater and Lean uses this murder as the spur that brings down Fagin and Sikes.

In some ways, the center of the film actually feels like Fagin’s lair. We even get a last stand, with the angry mob outside and Fagin, Bill Sikes and a number of terrified young boys holed up inside. Poor Oliver Twist kind of disappears in his own story during the last bit of the film, but the film is no less effective for it.

Oliver is played by John Howard Davies, who looks a few years older than nine, but plays him with a kind of deadened acceptance of the privations and cruelties of life. He initially looks like a concentration camp survivor, as do all of the children at the workhouse, with their shaved heads and listlessness. It’s one of the most effective dramatizations of the horror of the workhouse and does full justice to Dickens sense of outrage and horror.

As a side note: Alec Guinness wanted his makeup to be modeled after the original illustrations of George Cruikshank and his resulting appearance and especially his nose caused a sensation because of how it evoked traditional, negative depictions of Jews. America in particular was uncomfortable with it and it took three years for Oliver Twist  to be shown in the US, with several minutes of footage of Fagin deleted. My understanding is that his is the last overtly Jewish depiction of Fagin in any film adaptation.

 
10 Comments

Posted by on November 23, 2016 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

“Try It, You’ll Like It” – Horror of Dracula (1958)

horror_of_dracula-1958-usa-posterHorror of Dracula is my contribution to the “Try It, You’ll Like It! Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently. The purpose of the “Try It, You’ll Like It!” Blogathon is to share films that can serve as a “gateway” to classic films for people who are either resistant to or unfamiliar with old movies.

Of course, not all movies will appeal to all people and the key is to know your audience. Male? Female? Teenager? Child? Adult? Sci-fi fan? Romantic comedy fan? Musicals? Action heroes?

My target audience for this film is the young superhero lover. Do you know a teenager or young adult who loves superhero and YA fantasy films, but says they are tired of the sameness of superhero and YA fantasy films? Even the recent Dracula Untold managed to look like a re-hash of a Marvel movie. If you’ve heard this complaint voiced, one film to suggest is Horror of Dracula, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. It worked for my teenage cousin, who subsequently became interested in the early Universal Horror films. Not that you have to be a teenager to like this film…or even a fan of superhero films. You could be a Jane Austen miniseries and Fred Astaire musical enthusiast (ahem).

What makes this film so accessible is that though it has less action than most teenagers are used to, there is a lot they are familiar with. It’s in Technicolor, still retains its creepy vibe, weird powers, cool British accents (which always goes over well in the U.S, where college students love nothing more than to imitate a British accent) and has the benefit of starring two actors nearly everyone is familiar with today, thanks to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings: Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin) and Christopher Lee (Saruman and Count Dooku). Grand Moff Tarkin vs. Count Dooku? Learning this is like a whole new world and most people are fascinated to discover that the two men appeared in 22 films together and were good friends.

Peter Cushing gets star billing, but we don’t actually meet him until twenty or so minutes into the film. The movie actually opens (after a thundering crash of music with garish red-orange letters streaking across the screen) with Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen), who has come to work as a librarian at Count Dracula’s castle (Christopher Lee)…or so he says. He soon reveals in his diary that he is really a vampire hunter and is there to destroy Dracula.

Dracula 2

Christopher Lee…making an entrance

But his plan is ruined when a woman at Dracula’s castle (Valerie Gaunt) begs him to save her from Count Dracula. He says he will, but unfortunately his neck looks too inviting and she can’t prevent herself from taking a bite, much to the rage of Count Dracula.

Christopher Lee’s appearance at his point is unforgettable. When Harker first meets him he looks and sounds like a reasonably polite, if brusque and physically imposing, English gentlemen…with a cool cape that swishes nicely when he walks up stairs. After Harker is bitten he emerges onto the scene transformed, with blood dripping from his fangs, red, wild eyes and an almost animalistic intensity…after which entrance we never hear him speak a line of dialogue again.

But before he is killed by Dracula, Harker manages to kill the woman – Dracula’s bride – by driving a stake through her heart. In revenge, Dracula goes to town (by shipping himself off in a coffin) so he can turn Harker’s fiance, Lucy Holmwood, into a replacement bride. And finally, Van Helsing appears (Peter Cushing). He is looking for his fellow vampire hunter and traces him to Dracula’s castle. He finds Harker’s body, but since Dracula is gone, he returns to inform Harker’s fiance and her family of his death.

The majority of the film consists of Dracula preying on the family: Lucy Holmwood (Carol Marsh), her brother Arthur Holmwood (Michael Gough) and his wife, Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling). Van Helsing fails to save Lucy from becoming a vampire, but he does much better after he tells Arthur the truth about vampires and the two of them must fight to save Mina. One of their main troubles is that Dracula seems to have an uncanny ability to invade the house and find his way to the women’s bedroom without anyone realizing it.

Half the tension in the film is knowing that Dracula is about to appear and wondering when. We see an empty doorway and expect he’s going to come through at any moment. When he finally does, the affect is not disappointing. He has a habit of suddenly appearing, either standing still with all the power of his tremendous height (6′ 5″) and presence, or coming through the doorway. He walks through doorways very effectively.

Peter Cushing...wielding a cross

Peter Cushing…wielding a cross

But Peter Cushing makes a superb match for Lee. His Van Helsing is incisive and precise, but also with a will. He is every bit as capable of physical activity when called upon, which stands in marked contrast to the original Dracula of 1931, which resembles nothing so much as a drawing room horror story.

But in this film vampire hunting is not synonymous with superheroism. These vampire hunters (Van Helsing and Harker) are doctors and scholars, educated men who have devoted their lives to understanding and eradicating vampires. They are, admittedly, on the fringe of the scientific community, but are still able to pass themselves off as eminent men and not mere crackpots. Van Helsing is a modern man, who uses a phonograph to record his thoughts and is capable of administering blood transfusions, which was no easy thing in the 1800s (blood types were not then understood).

As a complete rabbit trail, my sister was wondering if vampires are subject to the same blood type concerns as mere humans. Could a vampire with blood type A drink the blood of someone with blood type B or would that be a problem? Someone really ought to look into that.

I was a little confused by the geography of the film. In the novel and 1931 film, Dracula’s home is Transylvania but he leaves to terrorize London. Here, Dracula’s castle appears to be near Klausenburg, a German village. Harker comes from somewhere not far off, only one night’s ride away, so presumably he lives in Germany, too. Everyone has a British sounding name and speak with British accents, but the setting is clearly Germany. Maybe British expatriates?

But Horror of Dracula is a British film produced by Hammer Film Productions in London, a studio best remembered for the horror films they began making in 1957 with The Curse of Frankenstein. Unlike Universal Studio’s horror films, Hammer horrors had blood, gore, low cut necklines and were altogether racier, more Gothic and more energetic…all in color, which made a distinct impression on audiences. The Curse of Frankenstein was so successful that the following year they paired Cushing and Lee again in Horror of Dracula.

Christopher Lee...making another entrance

Christopher Lee…making another entrance

The Curse of Frankenstein is really about Frankenstein – played excellently by Peter Cushing – and Christopher Lee has relatively little to do as the monster. But although Lee is only in Horror of Dracula less than 20 minutes and has scarcely any lines, the film made him a star and he would go on to play the role so often that he grew to dislike it. Peter Cushing also appears in a few Dracula sequels, but he was more noted for appearing in his own monster franchise: Frankenstein.

Both men are dynamic together, especially in Horror of Dracula, which is perhaps the best showcase for them as rivals. Along with The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula they made The Mummy (you can probably guess who plays the mummy) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (with Cushing as a delightfully zany, arrogant and eccentric Sherlock Holmes and Lee unexpectedly cast as the Baskerville heir Holmes must protect – it was the first time I had seen Lee in a regular suit; he always seems to be wearing tunics, cloaks, or robes). But as an introduction, you can’t beat Horror of Dracula.

I am extremely excited to be participating in the “Try It, You’ll Like It” Blogathon and am grateful to Movies Silently and Sister Celluloid for hosting! For the complete list of “gateway” films to the classics, please click here.

sis-tryityoulllikeit-blogathon-1

 
16 Comments

Posted by on December 5, 2015 in Movies

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: