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Tag Archives: British Films

The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

In the various cinematic incarnations of Mary Shelley’s novel, Dr. Frankenstein’s record for creating life is one of overall failure, for one reason or another. He fails spectacularly, wreaking havoc both on society and the pathetic monsters that he creates. The 1958 Hammer Horror film, The Revenge of Frankenstein, stands out as something of an anomaly, however. Frankenstein actually succeeds in his experiments, only not in the way one expects.

The Revenge of Frankenstein is actually a sequel to The Curse of Frankenstein (starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), though it is not necessary to have seen the original to enjoy the sequel. In Curse, Baron Frankenstein is played by Peter Cushing as an out-and-out psychopath and the film ends with him being executed for his crimes. Revenge opens with Baron Frankenstein (still played by Cushing) about to be executed. He is saved, however, at the last minute, by Karl, a man with a hunched back and paralyzed arm and leg.

Years pass and the action moves to Carlsbruck, where Baron Frankenstein lives as Dr. Stein and has a flourishing practice, much to the dismay of his fellow doctors whose business he has attracted. He has both rich patients with imaginary illnesses and poor patients, who he treats at a pauper’s hospital. One doctor, Dr. Hans Kleve (Francis Matthews) recognizes Dr. Stein as Baron Frankenstein and blackmails him into allowing him to become his assistant. Frankenstein is not unwilling to have a new assistant, however (thus avoiding the classic movie scientist mistake of working alone), and shows Hans his life’s work.

He has figured out how to put a body together from scraps of human anatomy, but has discovered that the only way to animate the body is to insert a living brain. Thus Karl is willing to allow Frankenstein to insert his brain into a new and better body, with the eager assistance of Dr. Kleve.

(Spoilers contained in final analysis) The plot in The Revenge of Dr. Frankenstein definitely took me by surprise. Cushing’s second incarnation of Frankenstein is a little less overtly psychopathic, but nevertheless still obsessively driven. As in the original The Curse of Frankenstein, the true monster is him. Karl is simply a victim.

Karl’s body is successfully transferred into a new and better body (played movingly by Michael Gwynn, who nicely plays a conscious that feels alien to the body he is now in) and at first I was disappointed when a simple blow to the head renders Karl the presumed monster of the film, terrorizing the city. But it soon becomes clear that Karl is simply a tragic accident in Frankenstein’s unstoppable quest to create life. It brings up the question of what life is. What sets Karl off initially is his fear that Frankenstein is going to display both him and Karl’s previous body as scientific proof of his achievements and Karl poignantly protests that he’s always been an object people stare. He doesn’t want to be a figure of study again. He only wants to live his life.

Peter Cushing treating the poor

But it brings up the interesting question of Frankenstein’s desire to create life. Does he really wish to create life? Since to create life is presumably to create a living, autonomous being. If one truly creates life, then isn’t one obligated to let that new life free? Frankenstein’s plan to put Karl on show, to essentially possess him, is a denial of Karl’s life. One of the fascinating themes of many Frankenstein films is the sense of ownership and possession that Frankenstein feels towards his creation (or subsequent rejection of them).

Frankenstein repeatedly demonstrates a lack of respect for life, even animal life. He transfers lizard brains into frogs, frog brains into lizards, orangutan brain’s into chimpanzees. Unlike the other snooty doctors of the city, he treats the poor, but it turns out that he does so partly to obtain body parts to create new bodies to house fresh brains.

(Big spoiler)The ending in particular took me by surprise. With seven minutes to go in the film, Frankenstein is beaten nearly to death by angry patients whose body parts he as collected for his experiments. They kill his body, but Hans has learned from the master and, much to my surprise, is able to place Frankenstein’s brain into the second body that Frankenstein had cobbled together from the patient’s body parts (a rather macabre reflection that seems to bother Frankenstein not at all).

The new body is really just played by Peter Cushing, looking rather more piratical with mustache and tattoo on his right arm (taken from a pickpocket), but apparently healthy and determined to continue his experiments, apparently fully vindicated in his work. He just can’t show anyone what he has achieved. It rather took my breath away. The monster lives. And he has learned nothing from his previous experiments.

This has been my contribution to “The Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon.” Many thanks to Cinematic Catharsis and Reekweegiemidget for hosting! To read the rest of the posts, click here for Days 1, 2, and 3.

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2018 in Movies

 

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The October Man (1947)

It’s perhaps a bit late for October, but The October Man is worth seeing in any month. Like many films made in the post-WWII American and British film industry, it is a (British) psychological mystery/thriller, and stars John Mills, Joan Greenwood, and Kay Walsh. What makes it fascinating is not the mystery, though, but the exploration of how a character who is labeled “crazy” becomes the prime suspect in a murder case.

John Mills plays Jim Ackland, who, at the beginning of the film, is in a devastating bus crash that costs the life of the young daughter of family friends. He sustains a head injury and suffers from suicidal depression, blaming himself for the young girl’s death. He spends time in a hospital/sanitarium, but when he is released now must suffer, not only the after-effects of his injury, but also the stigma of having spent time in a sanitarium.

He gets a good job as a chemist and even begins dating the sister of one of his co-workers, Jenny Carden (Joan Greenwood), but there is trouble at his cheap hotel. When his neighbor, Molly Newman (Kay Walsh), who he knows slightly, is murdered, he becomes the prime suspect, not only for everyone in the hotel, but also for the police. Everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that because he’s a “loony,” he must have been the one to kill her, despite the fact that his mental condition is described by the doctor as acute depression and that the only person he’s ever tried to harm is himself.

Initially, Jim emphatically denies having killed her, but soon he begins to wonder. Did he kill her after all? There is a moment of time when he was walking, lost in thought, and could he have had a blackout? The police believe so and interrogate him repeatedly and so persuasively that they actually begin to bring Jim around to their way of thinking.

It becomes fairly obvious, though, who killed Molly and the viewer is rarely in doubt that Jim is innocent. What is interesting is how all mental illness is lumped under one term – “crazy” – and therefore grounds for suspicion, despite a lack of substantial evidence.

John Mills, Joan Greenwood, and random character

In fact, the police seem to understand that they lack sufficient grounds for conviction and their tactics look less like investigation than an attempt to break Jim until he confesses, so certain are they that he is the guilty party. The situation is compounded by one overt lie from the real murderer and speculative gossip from the rest of the hotel’s guests. Jim is forced to wade through the wary guests to discover what they have been saying about him.

Jim is essentially set up, not so much by the murderer, but by the police. My sister was telling me of a book she was reading, which discusses how interrogators have to be careful – if they want the truth – because if they work on a person long enough (even an innocent person) that person’s story will gradually start to sound like what they want to hear. This is especially true for Jim, who is already emotionally fragile.

I have always admired John Mills as an actor and he is up to his usual excellent standards in The October Man. Always sympathetic and retaining his dignity, he definitely ready to break apart at any moment. He doubts himself and is tempted to escape, either by killing himself or returning to the sanitarium. The only thing holding him back is his fiance, Jenny Carden, and his wavering conviction that he did not kill Molly.

Joan Greenwood was hilariously wicked and seductive in Kind Hearts and Coronets and Kay Walsh remarkably sympathetic as Nancy in David Lean’s Oliver Twist. Their characters, however, are not fleshed out much in The October Man. Kay Walsh has the more interesting role, friendly and open-hearted, but also involved with a married man and pursued by another, mysterious admirer, and one actually regrets that we do not get to know her more, which makes her more than a convenient corpse.

If one is expecting a puzzling mystery, the film can be disappointing. However, if you think of it as an exploration of how the perception of mental illness can affect a person and expectations of that person, it becomes far more engaging.

 
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Posted by on December 6, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Passionate Friends (1949)

The Passionate Friends was directed by David Lean during a period when he made three films with his lover and then wife, Ann Todd: The Passionate FriendsMadeleine, and The Sound Barrier. These films, however, tend to fall through the cracks between his early films such as Brief Encounter and his two Charles Dickens films and his later epics such as Lawrence of ArabiaThe Passionate Friends, however, just might be my favorite David Lean film that I’ve seen so far.

The story is based on a novel by, of all people, H.G. Wells. It is a romantic triangle, about a woman married to an older man, but she loves another, though the film does not develop as one expects.

The film unfolds through various flashbacks. Mary Justin (Ann Todd) is married to the wealthy banker, Howard Justin (Claude Rains). When she was younger, she was passionately in love with Stephen Stratton (Trevor Howard), a poetry-quoting young biologist. But she said she could not bear to belong to anyone; she wanted to belong to herself. Stephen maintained that if two people love each other, they want to belong to each other, but she said she did not like the clutching and grasping and instead chose to wed Howard, who understood that she did not love him, but felt that they could make a good marriage based on affection and a shared enjoyment of wealth and power.

But when Mary and Stephen unexpectedly meet years later, the powerful spark of attraction is still there and they begin a passionate affair, with Stephen convincing Mary to leave Howard. Before she can, however, Howard returns. He’s furious and he convinces her that she would not be happy with Stephen and she agrees with Howard, leaving Stephen flat. Nine more years pass and she and Stephen meet at a mountain resort in Switzerland. The spark of uncontrollable passion is gone, but Howard does not believe it and starts divorce proceedings, which threaten to ruin Stephen’s job, his reputation, and his marriage.

Mary and Stephen

(Spoilers are Rife) The way Lean begins the film is fascinating, because it is set up to make you think that Mary is trapped in a sterile relationship. She bumps into Stephen in a crowd of people. They are at a New Year’s costume party. She then joins Howard, who is sitting in a box high above the rest of the crowd, watching the crowd uninhibitedly kiss and dance and sing while Howard observes them from a detached perspective, even commenting that they look like puppets on a string. In our first sight of Howard, he turns around to face the camera looking rather like Mephistopheles. Stephen, on the other hand, is imbued with romanticism and their encounters are accompanied with romantic words and music. It makes one to expect Anna Karenina (or at least how Anna sees her story).

The brilliance of the film, though, is how by the end of the film, everything is reversed. “Do you know, Stephen, that we are practically strangers.” Mary says, when they meet again in Switzerland. Stephen has found more lasting, tangible love with another woman and has two children. Mary sees that he is happy. Not passionately happy, but contented and at peace with his life…perhaps a more lasting kind of happiness than their delirious love affair.

And it is clear that Mary’s marriage to Howard has not been as flat as it initially appeared. She considers it a success, they like the same things, clearly discuss politics and his work and seem to be a team with genuine affection for each other. She is highly self-aware, so that although she is carried away by romance, knows that romance is not enough. But the real irony is what happens to Howard.

Howard and Mary

Claude Rains as Howard Justin is absolutely magnificent. Ann Todd and Trevor Howard are good, but it is Claude Rains who really leaves an impression on the viewer. He plays a man coldly rational, a man who sees himself as a manipulator of events, such as when he contrives to let Mary know that he knows about her affair with Stephen. His rationality is repeatedly contrasted with the romanticism of Stephen. And yet in the end, he emerges as the genuinely romantic one while Stephen fades into staid gentility.

It’s an amazing transition that happens subtly. What has happened is that Howard has fallen in love with his wife, though he did not know it. He’s found unexpected depths of passion and initially reacts with furious jealousy. It’s shown subtly. In the beginning of the film, he seems complacent about his relationship with Ann. By the end, before he discovers that Mary and Stephen saw each other in Switzerland, he is almost boyishly excited to see his wife again. When he thinks he’s discovered that she’s been unfaithful to him again, his hurt is palpable rather than the mere anger he experienced the first time. He even cruelly tells her to get out and that he doesn’t want her anymore, which crushes her.

And he perhaps has some reason for feeling jealous. Because although nothing happened between Stephen and Mary – it served more as a lovely meeting that brought closure to their relationship – it seems that Mary does love Stephen in a new way. Less emotional, more mature, deeper. A love that seems to think about him rather than herself. When Howard sues for divorce and names Stephen, she is concerned about Stephen and how it will ruin him and his family, not herself, and even resolves on an Anna Karenina-like suicide in order to prevent the divorce from going forward.

Contemplating dying a la Anna Karenina

Howard, however, is the one who gets to rescue her. After dismissing Stephen’s love “as the kind that makes big demands,” of “nearness” and “belonging” and prone to “romantic hysteria,” he ends up loving a woman who does not love him and never will. A love that, essentially, makes no demands. The look of wonderment she gives him after he stops her from killing herself and asks her to come home is rather beautiful.

This post was written as part of the “Underseen and Underrated”, the CMBA Spring Blogathon. Click here for more posts!

 
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Posted by on May 16, 2017 in Movies

 

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