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Tag Archives: British Films

The Seventh Veil (1945)

The Seventh Veil is an excellent British psychological melodrama with a dreadful ending. Not quite on par with the ending of Suspicion, but pretty bad nonetheless. Though The Seventh Veil is actually in the top ten highest grossing films of all time in Britain (adjusting for inflation), so perhaps I am in the minority. Or perhaps the ending is simply overlooked for the sake of a fascinating film, and it is a very fascinating film.

The film begins with psychologist Dr. Larsen (Herbert Lom) treating a concert pianist, Francesca (Ann Todd), who is suicidal and has a fixation about her hands, convinced that she can no longer play the piano.

Dr. Larsen’s contention is that psychology is like surgery, you must unclothe the mind in order to operate. He says the mind has seven veils – like the notorious “Dance of the Seven Veils” in the opera Salome (though I’ve read that some sopranos like to do the dance of the eight or nine veils, just so they can leave a veil or two on). Employing narcosis, he induces Francesca to tell him about her past, which the movie reveals in a series of flashbacks.

As an orphan of fourteen, Francesca was sent to live with her distant cousin Nicholas (James Mason), a brooding, wealthy, sophisticated and rather sinister woman-hater with a limp who has little use for a child in his house (but he likes cats!). However, when he discovers that she loves music and can play the piano, he sets out to transform her into a concert pianist, teaching her himself for hours a day. The film follows his oppressive hold over her and her many attempts to break free of his influence, all the while indeed becoming the great pianist that he dreamed she would be.

In some ways, it makes me think of Red Shoes. Francesca can’t live without her music any more than Vicky Page can live without ballet. And they both have a Svengali-like controlling influence hovering over them, who are necessary to their success.

James Mason as Nicholas is, of course, perfect. Nobody can brood better than Mason, or be suavely sinister and yet intense at the same time in the way he can. He absolutely dominates her life…almost living musically through her, like she’s possessed by him.

Ann Todd and James Mason

And Ann Todd’s cool reserve as an actress actually enhances this, because although we know she cannot live without the piano, she rarely seems to take much pleasure in it. Her oppressive fear of Nicholas and of injury to her hands (going back to a childhood caning that destroyed her chance of a music scholarship, later exacerbated by Nicholas’s constant focus on her hands) seems to sap all the transcendent joy of playing. She’s like a zombie at times.

The film is highly claustrophobic, echoing Francesca’s sense of being trapped in a small world of Nicholas and her music. And who knew a piano concert could be so tense? At her debut, where she plays Edvard Grieg’s piano concerto, her psychosomatic fear of her hands swelling makes one honestly wonder if she will make it through the concert.

Ann Todd also does an excellent job of “playing” the piano. Pianist Eileen Joyce taught Todd how to move her hands and arms and look convincing as a pianist and it is clear Todd must have worked very hard at it, though any close-ups of her hands at the piano were done by Joyce. But the film by no means shies away from showing Todd at the piano and the result is very convincing.

(Plot Spoilers) But that ending! The film has its share of a melodrama’s improbabilities (the psychological angle makes for great cinema, but is hardly realistic, and Ann Todd is not even remotely convincing as a fourteen year old child in the beginning), but I confess that it is the ending that irked me. Though there are two other men who Francesca loves at different times in the story, by the end she is rescued from her suicidal thoughts by Dr. Larsen and realizes that her true love is…Nicholas! Abusive, controlling Nicholas.

Ann Todd, Herbert Lom, and a nurse

It’s the inverse of Red Shoes. Instead of killing herself because she cannot have both love and her piano, she sidesteps that issue by centering both her love and music on Nicholas. But I have a hard time believing that she could love him. She spends the entire film clearly resenting and fearing his control, unless we are to mistrust her flashback memories (which would ironically give the lie to Dr. Larsen’s idea that he can strip away all the veils). It seems inconsistent, and Nicholas far too sinister, for it to be a satisfactory resolution to the story. It would be like Trilby marrying Svengali and the author expecting his readers to rejoice. Or perhaps we are supposed to be made uneasy by the end?

But apart from the ending, it is a compelling movie that is well worth watching, especially for those who like James Mason or British cinema. The film fits squarely in that time period when Hollywood was also obsessed with psychology. The Seventh Veil was even released before Alfred Hitchcock released Spellbound. It’s well-acted (Herbert Lom is also excellent as the kindly Svengali-like psychologist), very much of its time, and has great music. It is also currently available on youtube.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2017 in Movies

 

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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?

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2017 in Movies

 

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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.

 
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Posted by on November 23, 2016 in Movies

 

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