Friday, 18 November 2016
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2013)
Before I had ever heard of her as an actress or director, my somewhat unlikely introduction to Mai Zetterling was through a remaindered copy of her novel Shadow of the Sun, which – attracted by its Elisabeth Frink dustjacket of variously twined couples – I bought from a bookstall in Southampton Railway Station sometime in the early 1980s. Reading it, I entered its pungent world of madness, incest and mystical union, a world of outcasts and strays whose souls need a home, existing to one side of the society in which they find themselves. It’s a sense that is particularly strong in the semi-autobiographical main story of a troublesome child seeking a spiritual home and body.
My next encounter was some years later, when clearing out my mother’s house, I was distracted by reading through ageing piles of Hampshire, the County Magazine from the 1960s and 70s. There, in among John Arlott on books, cricket and villages and Norman Goodland on country matters, was, in the pages of the June 1970 issue, Mai Zetterling talking about the hidden treasures of Hampshire, getting her guests to gather sacks of leaf-mould for compost or taking them out for a fish supper in Portsmouth. It didn’t tally with the first impression I had gained from the novels, and nor did this square with the actress that I later came across in her 1940s and 50s English films. However, her 1985 autobiography, All Those Tomorrows, confirmed her as a shape-shifting being with amazing powers of reinvention, always the outsider, no matter how much she would have liked to fit in, if and when she cared about such things. Indeed, at the end of the book she writes, ‘perhaps I am a mad-hatter Swede who got lost in the world ... I feel very far from the norm of just about everything.’
She was the 14 year-old school dropout who became a voracious reader and the owner of a 12,000 book library, the teenage Stockholm girl in hopeless dead-end jobs with leery bosses, cutting out pictures of Tyrone Power from glossy film magazines who a few years later would be in a relationship with Tyrone Power; the fearful, hopeless, untrustworthy child who, years later, when asked what subject she wanted to pursue in the multi-director film about the Munich Olympics, Visions of Eight, chose wrestling because that was the thing she knew least about; the girl who worshipped Shirley Temple after sneaking into a Stockholm fleapit and catching sight of her on screen, whose 1966 film Night Games caused the same Shirley Temple to resign as director of the San Francisco International Film Festival in protest at its screening; and she was the serious stage actress who Jean-Paul Sartre described as ‘a tragedienne of our times’ who became a ‘dangle-dolly’ (her term) in a number of British films in the 1940s and 50s, when she was wince-inducingly dubbed ‘Britain’s swede-heart’ (she was, understandably, unimpressed by being made to sound like a prize root crop), and the aforementioned dangle-dolly who ended up directing social documentaries and feminist features in the 1960s and 70s.
Nor did critics know what to make of her when she left the zone of familiarity behind; ‘she writes like a witch’ said The Listener’s review of Shadows of the Sun, while ‘she directs like a man’ was one of the more nonsensical comments about her directorial feature debut, Loving Couples.
Although most of her documentaries seem destined to remain unseen or lost, at least a few of the films she made as an actress in England are available on DVD and it’s these I’ll take a look at now.
In Basil Dearden’s Frieda (1947), she stars opposite the saturnine David Farrar as the German girl who helps him escape enemy territory. He marries her, or half-marries her – she is Catholic, he not – under fire in a bombed-out church in No Man’s Land. He returns with her to his home in Denfield. ‘Nothing to be frightened of there’ he reassures her, ‘it’s like any other town in England’, somewhat underestimating the task of winning over the townsfolk by introducing a German girl into their midst while the war is still on. Casting a German girl in the part was still too contentious so soon after the war so Zetterling was chosen for her English language debut. Shy and fearful at first, clad in the protective layer of her leather coat, she is gradually allowed to relax a little into English life, and even let her hair down (quite literally as she loses her tightly coiled German braids) – but then a surprise Christmas visitor threatens to tear up all the careful groundwork of acceptance.
The following year she was back in Britain, after having returned to Sweden to star in Ingmar Bergman’s Music in Darkness, having a little fun in the Facts of Life segment of Quartet, the 1948 anthology of W. Somerset Maugham adaptations, as a smiling, thieving seductress whose wiles are unwittingly bested by the innocence of a young tennis player. Later, a twinkling streetwise scampishness does battle with a world-weary melancholy in her role as an author and imposter in the satisfying drawing-room comedy, Hell is Sold Out (1951), in which Herbert Lom and Richard Attenborough play the wartime prisoners of war who court her.
One of her most interesting roles comes in the strange, complex and ultimately rather offensive 1952 psychological drama Tall Headlines (aka The Frightened Bride – and with good reason). In the film, she plays the wholly innocent and undeserving victim of what seems to be the sublimated violence of suburban England, as embodied by Michael Denison’s nervy young Philip who fears that, having the same genes as his brother Ronald who was hanged for murdering a 19 year-old girl on Putney Heath, he is going to do the same to Mai Zetterling’s Doris. He doesn’t, but he might as well have done, the result being the same -– except that no-one except for him seems to care. When he first meets Doris he treats her with contempt (‘you’re a menace, that’s what you are, you’re the type that gets a fellow strung up’) – even though she is nothing of the kind – as his surest defence against her supposed wiles and his familial shame. Then one day, his sister nicks a fatal chink in his defences when she says that Doris is just like Ronnie’s girl. Soon they are off getting married by special licence against his family’s wishes – certainly against those of his repellent sister who writes a letter condemning him for going off to live with ‘that little slut’. It’s the ending of the film however that makes explicit its unpleasant subtext. After the tragedy has occurred and Doris has died, the father (André Morell), when confronted with his son’s confession that he thinks he has done away with her, makes plans to spirit him out of the country with the complicity of the rest of his family on realising there were no witnesses. Then, after Naunton Wayne’s police inspector has told them it was all an accident and that, moreover, Philip doesn’t look like the kind of chap that has it in him to kill a girl, the mother (Flora Robson) weeps with relief. ‘Oh thank God,’ she says, ‘it’s all over now, you can put it right out of your head, just forget everything’. And so they do, putting their son’s nasty adventure with that little minx out of the way and moving back to the old home they had left in the wake of their first son’s crime. As the strings swell on the soundtrack, the family – a would-be criminal, a mother surviving on sleeping pills and spiritualism, a damaged young man and his mean, vindictive sister – discover a house filled with gifts of flowers from the residents of Lauderdale Avenue, and a welcoming basket of fruit from the Avenue’s representative in the person of Sid James. After Flora Robson manages a slightly timid wave to her neighbours, the End title card comes up over a shot of the entrance to their home in the suburbs, the real victor here, whose dignity and position must be defended at all costs. Poor innocent Doris is forgotten, utterly – except by Philip, who we last see ascending the stairs with a measured and laborious tread recalling that of his brother descending them at the same rate into the care of the police at the beginning. Perhaps for him the story is not yet over.
Ten years later, the film’s director, Terence Young, was helming Dr No, and Mai Zetterling was also directing her own film, a brilliant pithy short called The War Game, in which global political madness is played out as adolescent bravado in a London high-rise block. It won the Lion of St Mark Shield for the best short narrative film at the 1963 Venice International Short Film Festival (where the award was presented in her absence to a ‘Dr Max Zetterling’. Filmed by Chris Menges and Brian Probyn, it follows two young boys on a London housing estate, one with a cap gun, the other with a gun that looks all too real and probably is. Their cowboy and indian play soon turns into a game of chicken as they jostle and square up to each other through the concrete world of balconies, corridors and pavements, ascending winding stairs, then a latticework of metal grids that leads to the roof, and then ever higher, by ladder into a world of skyline on the roof of the roof from where there is no further to go. Neither want to be there but both are there, and they stand on the edge, reconciling their fear with their loss of face as the lift mechanism clanks and whirrs nearby. One drops the gun, both reach for it, the film freezes and ends with their outstretched hands.
Of her other films as an actress currently in print, she is elegant and dignified in Dance, Little Lady (1955), a melodrama in which she plays a ballerina whose glittering career is cut short after her loathsome snake of a husband and impresario crashes their car. It ends in a tense and fiery climax, but the film is stolen by a pair of 10 year-olds, in this case Mandy Miller, whose bright-as-a-button ballerina-to-be gives some tough love to an unhappy, suspicious, puppy-fatted Richard O’Sullivan so that he will dispense with his crutches and also take to dance. And if Terence Morgan as her husband seems a little too rough-cut for the rarefied air of ballet, then it was a role he took to with relish a few years later in Piccadilly Third Stop – a tale of dishonour among thieves in which Zetterling plays an upstart gangster’s bored wife looking for out, though in the film she is little more than a tea maker, record changer and, fatally, getaway car driver.
In Faces in the Dark (1960) she is the coolly scheming wife, Christiane, to John Gregson’s bristling and abrasive factory boss, a man whose irascibility is in no way lessened after he blinds himself in an accident when testing the prototype of a new light bulb in a lab. On the verge of leaving him when it happened, she is now the one person he can trust in his sightless world. Reprising his emotionally stunted man-child act from Tall Headlines, Michael Denison appears as his business partner, who exudes shiftiness through every pore. The story is from Boileau-Narcejac (Vertigo, Les Diaboliques) but the adaptation lacks the motivation and menace that Clouzot, say, would have extracted from the situation. One problem is that Gregson’s bull-headed performance rather sucks the life out of the rest of the picture.
Two years later, she acted opposite Peter Sellers in Only Two Can Play (1962), scripted by Bryan Forbes from Kingsley Amis’s novel about the life, loves and fantasies of a librarian in a small Welsh town. After some quite static roles in previous films, playing opposite domineering men, it’s nice to see her get the chance to breathe a bit and have some fun with a role. With the stage her first love and opinion of film acting not very high, it’s no coincidence that her best roles out of these films were the ones closest to stage-plays, with the drawing-room comedy of Hell is Sold Out and the comic by-play with Sellers here allowing her to be more of an equal player.
And what of Mai Zetterling now? Her features have (as of 2016) never seen the light of day on DVD in the UK (The War Game especially is crying out to be a BFI Flipside extra on an appropriate film), her documentaries are all but lost (she mentions making a Van Gogh film, Vincent the Dutchman, with Michael Gough in the lead, but that isn’t even listed on her IMDB page), her candid autobiography and books are out of print, but readily available, as are a number of her 1940s-50s English films. Her spirit, ever unafraid of moving on or trying something new, outlasts it all.
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2013, i.e. before the restoration and subsequent release of Asquith’s innovative 1927 film debut as director, Shooting Stars)
A DVD release from the BFI that occasioned justifiable excitement was that of Anthony Asquith's 1928 silent romantic thriller, Underground, which joined his 1929 film, A Cottage on Dartmoor, on DVD (Blu-ray too for Underground). They are two fine examples of late silent filmmaking in Britain, not least because they were made by a man still taking his first steps in the industry and experimenting with film’s visual language, garnering influences from diverse styles and using them for his own storytelling ends. A Cottage on Dartmoor came out in the same year as Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, which cast it rather into the shadows. I’ll look at those two together a little later – it’s fascinating to contrast Asquith and Hitchcock’s style – but for now I’ll begin with Underground.
Underground is, as the opening title card tells us, a tale set in ‘the “Underground” of the Great Metropolis of the British Empire’, a ‘story of work-a-day people whose names are just Nell, Bill, Kate and Bert’. It’s also a stirring tale of romance and madness, booze, bad doings, betrayal and electricity. Briefly, Nell is a shopgirl who finds herself nonplussed to be courted by two men on the same day. There’s Bert, a troublesome sort with a predatory aspect who she meets in a tube carriage, a man whose snarl and sneer comes as readily as the winning smile he can produce when the occasion demands. There’s also Bill, a calm, even-keeled sort who works as an underground porter. Bill and Bert are sort-of friends, or pub pals at least. Nell welcomes Bill’s advances, shuns Bert’s – but Bert has fallen hard for her. As hard as Kate – a yearning, desperate dressmaker who lives upstairs from Bert – has fallen for him. Her cringing submissiveness in his unreciprocating presence is painful to see.
And so the stage is set for a film whose unpredictability is one of its pleasures. It starts off with a jostling for romantic position with lost gloves and chance meetings laying out the characters’ predilections. And then, in one amazing smoky, boozy, smeary pub scene at the centre of the film, everything changes. It opens with Bert flinging darts at some point behind the camera and then holding court for the winkng, nudging men at the bar who goad him on while an unimpressed barwoman looks on. A pianola tinkles its tune and snooker balls are pocked around the cushions. Then Bill walks in, and – in payback for his jokey trip on Bert in an early scene at an underground escalator – is given a push over a man crouching behind him, whereupon Bert dusts him down exaggeratedly – as Bill did to him – but this time it’s threatening and there’s a glint of menace in his eye. One jibe about Nell too many and Bill hits him to the ground, whereupon Bert picks up a snooker ball, throws it at Bill and smashes a mirror. Bill turns and lumps him – and the camera – one, but at that point of the mirror cracking, something cracks in the films too and lets in madness.
Neil Brand’s music curdles at this point as a bloodied, humiliated Bert walks out the bar, and, recalling Bill’s fist, conjures up an image of Kate, waiting at home for him. Alcohol is seeping through his pores and we fear the worst, the spectre of Battling Burrows in Broken Blossoms arising before us. Thankfully there the similarity ends but the menace remains as Bert uses Kate to get back at Bill with a false accusation, the film taking us into areas we could little have expected at its beginning, with a thrilling, at times vertigo-inducing chase scene around Lots Road power station.
Some various delights of the film: the silhouette of a couple on the stairs above Bill and Nell as they make a date; Bill landed with a woman’s baby just before he meets Nell at the bus stop, and then the pair of them seen through people boarding at the bus doorway as it is just about to move off without them; Kate – in a shot from the expressionist style guide – peering down from above to Bert’s doorway, her eyes blackened by the shadow of the banister as moonlight falls aslant through the skylight; Nell’s hand holding her single glove fading to Bill holding its pair as he distractedly roasts a chop on the fire, and Bert’s stern face superimposed over the looming chimneys of the power station. If this sounds like Asquith was adopting a pick and mix approach to what worked, well that was a tendency he also showed in A Cottage on Dartmoor.
The memorable quote about A Cottage on Dartmoor, from the writer Raymond Durgnat, is that the film ‘out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock, before Hitchcock became Hitchcock’. It’s an eye and ear-catching line but much as I hate to disagree, I don‘t think it stands up to scrutiny, as a comparison of Asquith’s film with Hitchcock’s Blackmail, released the same year, will show.
A Cottage to Dartmoor begins with the bare branches of a lightning-blasted tree and lowering clouds. A man drops to the ground in front of a stone wall and sets off in flight, scattering cows as he runs through moor fires to sink to his knees and lap at the water in a pool, which dissolves to the water in a child’s bath. The lovelorn hairdresser Joe has escaped from prison, out for revenge on manicurist Sally and the customer she has taken up with, the older farmer, Harry. Fate – by way of a note lost from a posy of flowers too excitedly handled – has led Joe to feel slighted, betrayed after an unwitting sign of encouragement was innocently given to him. He snapped and threatened Harry with a razor to his throat while he sat in his barber’s chair.
At times when watching A Cottage on Dartmoor, one is struck by the sheer virtuosity of sequences, such as the rapid-fire switch cutting in the cinema between its patrons, the band and Joe’s imaginings as he sits, hawk-like, eyes pressing in on Sally and Harry from the dark of the balcony, or the odd and effective angles as Joe leans in on Harry to shave him and the unforgiving ceiling light shines down, or the moment of madness that follows when Joe cracks and the screen flashes red, or the aftermath of his act, as a bottle of hair oil gloops out on to the floor, the staff standing around in silenced shock. Or quieter moments, as Sally holds up some almost transparently white baby’s clothing as she first suspects that she has heard something suspicious outside her house.
However, one of the criticisms of the film at the time was that it didn’t quite all add up, that its techniques and trickery perhaps masked an emptiness at its core. The Evening Standard said that ‘it has all sorts of cleverness – Russian cutting and symbolism, German drama and Asquithian puckishness – but is not a satisfying whole’. Viewing the film now when our reactions are lensed through grateful good fortune of being able to watch any survivals at all from the silent era – especially ones as good as this and in such good shape – it’s harder to sympathise with this point of view, seeing instead a catalogue of bravura techniques brought to the aid of the story to be told. And yet, watched a second time you can start to see what is meant. And this is what leads into the comparison with Hitchcock’s Blackmail.
After cracking off like a Fritz Lang thriller in Blackmail – all motion and technology sending policeman on their way to pull in an unwary old lag – Hitchcock soon asserts his theme. Distorted reflections of the two policemen in a thin mirror in the criminal’s room, then distorted reflections of people’s moving shadows in the brass plate of New Scotland Yard serve to equal out everyone in Hitchcock’s purview. Then there are the hands – the film is a veritable hand ballet, from the policemen in the washroom with handcuffs and hands in pockets, to Frank playing pocket billiards as he trawls the apartment for clues, to the pointing hand of the jester in the murdered man’s painting – laughing at Alice, the girl who killed him after he tried to assault her, and at her detective boyfriend Frank who is assigned to the case. Distortion, restricted views of people – it all adds up to a coherent, cynical view of humanity whatever their apparent station in life. Hitchcock, viewing all with a gallows humour, sets his sights pretty low and is unsurprised when his human subjects don’t even reach these. He expects no better, knowing that a civilised veneer is stripped away all too easily and readily. In Blackmail in particular – and Hitchcock’s films in general – everywhere is a crime scene, actual or potential. The same could not be said of A Cottage on Dartmoor, where places are settings for drama, or redemption even (and there’s an un-Hitchcockian word), but not crime. Where are we, the viewers in Hitchcock’s scheme? On one hand we are in on the joke. I can’t imagine Asquith putting a modesty screen in a room so his heroine can change – and then setting up the shot from behind the screen so she changes in full view of the camera and the viewer. On the other hand, we shouldn’t get any ideas above our station – the joke is on us too, and never so clearly as in the final scene when the painting of the jester – a portly not-quite Hitchcock figure but close enough for you to wonder – is carried through the doors of the police station, still guffawing, ever louder seemingly, and pointing out of the screen at us.
Hitchcock’s gleefully sardonic nature runs throughout the film. I think of the signs that Alice sees after she has committed the murder – ‘A New Comedy’ advertises a theatre sign; ‘Gordons – White for Purity’ flashes the advertisment (before it metamorphoses into a stabbing knife). Asquith uses signs too at the end of Underground, where after Bill has battered Bert into submission in the underground lift, theatre posters comment obliquely on the action, with a man’s ‘Blind’ neck-hanging sign and the Fortune Theatre poster combining to make ‘Blind Fortune’, and then ‘The Vagabond King’ as Bill stands over Bert’s body. However, they are less obtrusive here, more of a subtle dab of tonal variation. In Blackmail, they are part of the very fabric of Hitchcock's vision.
As a final comment, in A Cottage on Dartmoor, Asquith allows more complex shades of emotion and ambiguity within a framework of a certain fated weariness. His is a world in which understanding is allowed and forgiveness is possible. In Blackmail, Hitchcock’s characters live with guilt and its consequences, in A Cottage on Dartmoor, Asquith’s characters live with forgiveness and its consequences. It’s the difference between peering out from behind oneself and living wholly.
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2013)
John Krish’s name and films are a little more widely known now thanks to a number of DVD releases from the British Film Institute that have appeared over the last few years. First there was a light sprinkling of his films to be found on various volumes of the British Transport Films and COI series, then a more significant outing in Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Postwar Britain. This was followed by the collection A Day in the Life: Four Portraits of Postwar Britain (which despite the name actually contains six of his films) and his Children’s Film Foundation film The Salvage Gang, which came out on the first volume of films from the CFF archives. Now we have another set devoted to films from Krish, released on the BFI’s Flipside strand, containing five of his films, Captured, H.M.P., Sewing Machine, Searching and The Finishing Line, further showcasing his filmmaking range, craftsmanship and versatility.
The film that gives the collection its name is Captured, a Central Office of Information instructional film made for the Home Office in 1959 – and if that makes it sound like some dry technical exercise, think again. Based on the experiences of veterans from the Korean War, it’s a lean and unflinching look at the eventualities of capture and likely methods of physical and psychological torture. It might have been made as a training film, but it looks like a pared-down and flinty existential PoW movie. A strong drama, with good actors speaking his own dialogue; Krish was hoping the film would be his visiting card in to the world of features, but when he took it to the War Office, they said it was exactly what they wanted – and that he would never be able to show it to anyone. It was marked ‘Restricted’ and, outside of the ranks of the senior military, was unseen for 41 years.
For the film, Krish turned a blowy piece of Surrey, near Chobham, into a north Korean village. There the men were taken and filmed in authentically recreated conditions, twelve to a hut meant for two or three, the continual physical proximity producing a simmering tension that was all part and parcel with the morale-breaking techniques of discomfort and division – or even a sympathetic ear and rewards – which were used to get men to talk.
Watch it carefully and you see just how effective the camerawork in the film is. There’s no unnecessary fancy stuff, just the right angles and background for maximum effect for what the scene is trying to convey. This could mean filming from low down in a crowded hut, so that a change of position accentuates the jostling and disturbance created by any movement across the room, or filming on the same height as the faces of a Chinese interrogator trying to claim kinship with a disaffected PoW who was in the International Student Movement before the war. It could mean pulling back to show the face of a whimpering soldier left paralysed on the ground after being refused assistance, an interrogator facing his foe with nothing but inky blackness between them, or a brief, bracing close-up of a face, bristling with quietly menacing authority.
‘Do you think of yourself as a brave man,’ asks his Russian interrogator of Daniels. ‘Not out of the ordinary,’ he responds. Indeed, there’s no heroism of the movie sort here, just grit, doubt and bloody-mindedness, and the everyday sort of bravery that gets broken anyhow, perhaps in ways that aren’t so immediately obvious. At the end, we know that Daniels, the intelligence officer, is going to be led off for more questioning, another bout of simulated drowning under a wet towel, or cooped up in the wooden box jokingly referred to as the kennel club. It’s humour that might get you through and keep you sane; there’s no guarantee mind, but you’ve only got that and the determination not to say anything until after the next flood of water in your face. And death’s a possibility, as happens with one of the PoWs who had mentioned the Geneva Convention. One of the military advisors on Captured, a man who had undergone capture and torture in a Korean war camp, had to leave after 10 days when seeing his experience re-enacted proved too traumatic. That’s the man I have in mind as I watch Daniels fronting up to his captors.
Krish had worked as an uncredited assistant on Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain, and the invigorating final words of Captured, in which, responding to repeated platitudes abut the communist regime’s great leniency, a young man summons up a bit of resilient spirit and tells his captor to ‘get stuffed’, reminds me a little of the ending of Jennings’ Fires were Started, in which, after a draining night of firefighting down at the Docks, and a colleague lost, the grey morning finds the fire crew exhausted, damp, chilled through. As they disconsolately drink a mug of morning tea, one of their number wakes the troop into the resilience to face another day with the words, ‘come on chums, snap out of it’. What else can you do? There’s a war to fight and life goes on.
One of Krish’s skills was to turn whatever brief he was presented with – and as he says, ‘I was never handed a brief by a civil servant that would make a film’ – into good cinema whose message was enhanced by his alternative treatment. This could take the form of a 60 second filler such as Searching, a public information film about the danger of leaving matches in the reach of children, in which a family’s desperate, disembodied voices replay the trauma of a house fire as the camera searches through their drenched and smoke-blackened house. It contains more chilling dread in its 60 seconds than some horror films manage in their entirety and was one of the films that earned Krish the nickname of ‘Doctor Death’ for the amount of accidents that populated his work.
At the other end of the scale is H.M.P., an hour-long film made for the Home Office in 1976 for the purposes of recruitment to the prison service. Again, you would be forgiven for thinking that the subject matter might not readily lend itself to great cinema, but Krish’s approach is both innovative and intriguing, bringing to the fore the large grey area of initiative and negotiation required as warder while also making it seem a rewarding occupation. As the Head of Prisons said on viewing the film, ‘this is how it is’.
So, what’s special about it? Well, as Krish mentions in an interview accompanying the films on the set, he wanted none of the stuff of prison melodrama, so there are no slamming cell doors, no rattling keys, no barbed wire and no threatening shots of the prison wall. For an environment so governed by walls and doors and locks and keys and bars, it’s remarkable just how few of these elements are shown. An internal gate here, the door from the carpentry block there, a warder locking a door as they move through to the segregation ward. This all has the effect of focussing on the human participants in an ongoing process of communication. Krish certainly didn’t want to be at the centre of the film – ‘I had no place there,’ he says – which led him to the idea of using trainee prison officers as his guide. So, the film follows an ex-navy man, an electrician and a grocer as they endeavour to find out something about working in a prison from the warders.
Krish is always sensitive to what's going on in the background of the shot, so for example not wishing to draw unwarranted attention to a man lingering in the borstal farmyard, nor to a failed weightlift in the prison gym (though in this instance not able to exclude it from the shot, though you can tell he wanted to). Generally, there is an air of not wanting to invade people's privacy – or whatever might count for privacy in such an environment.
The central scene in H.M.P. listens in on a discussion between the three trainees and the prison chaplain, who explains that instead of talking to the men as a ‘client’ or a ‘patient’ as they might be seen by a welfare officer, or doctor, or psychologist, he – ‘to use an old word’ – sees them as souls and his role to ‘to keep alive the broken spirit’. This ‘keeping alive of the spirit’ provides a linking theme to a number of Krish’s other films in fact, whether at a more immediate, visceral level as in Captured, or at a more gently nurturing level, as in Return to Life or I Think They Call Him John. It’s certainly the mark of a director whose humanitarian concerns are to the fore.
The chaplain talks of an ‘arrogant’ officer who slams a door behind a woman and child as they leave the prison after a visit. Another man talks of closing doors gently so as not to appear spiteful. This is a central concern: do you reinforce the feeling that doors exclude and bar, or encourage the thought that they might open into a different world?
The film takes us from arrival at the prison – a change of clothes, and allocations of soap, clothes brush, toothbrush – to the release hostel, in which men stay for up to 6 months before release to help them acclimatise to the outside world. An ex-warder who looks after the hostel outlines some of the problems that we take for granted. How do you adapt to feeling wind on your face for example when you haven’t really felt it for years, and how can you prepare a man for life outside the prison when, for the length of his sentence, he hasn’t been able to see in a straight line for any distance, his view interrupted or ending in a wall. As he says in the film’s final words, ‘how the ruddy hell do you expect a man to go straight if he can’t see straight?’.
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2013)
‘My eyes were my voice, and my eyes were the journeys that we, myself and my eyes and my feelings, travel through and we brought back these images.’
Two photographs. In the first, an old woman holds two sticks in front of her to help her flee from gunfire but she is lame and her legs will not hurry, will hardly move, despite the coaxing of a young British soldier, concern battling with impatient frustration in his face. The woman looks at the photographer and out of the photograph from dark, deep-set eyes, her own face the still centre of the picture, balanced between helpless resignation and curiosity.
In the second picture, a suited man holds the old lady like a rag doll in his arms, her sticks held in her hand, pointing the way. Her other hand clings on to his shoulder as, in an almost farcical scene, he runs her out of danger, his trousers flapped around his legs, his face gaping and gasping with effort, the trees behind them blurred.
These two photographs – the first, taken by Don McCullin, of an elderly woman unable to escape gunfire in Cyprus, and the second, of McCullin himself, having put down his camera and picked the woman up, running her to safety – contain some of the ever-present themes both in his photography and in this important documentary portrait of the man and his work. There are questions of the role and actions of a war photographer, of dignity, humanity, doubt and moral responsibility – the words occur time and again in McCullin’s interviews – and then there are the recurring qualities in the photographs themselves, no matter how horrific their subject, qualities of empathy, composition and nerve. And the viewer keeps coming back to the eyes of the photographed, eyes questioning, challenging, wondering, but rarely daring or accusing or silently screaming their discomfort and displeasure at being pictured. As McCullin says, those were the photographs he didn’t, couldn’t, take. ‘It’s not about photography, it’s about humanity,’ he says, adding that he now detests the label ‘war photographer,’ the occupation to which he has given so many years of his life. ‘Empathy is something you can’t fake,’ says Harold Evans, his ex-editor at The Sunday Times, where McCullin was given free rein to edit his pungent photographic essays from hotspots across the globe.
The film takes us from his early days in Finsbury Park and the ‘Guv’nors of the Seven Sisters Road’ – pictures of people from the tenements where he grew up, the local gang posed in the skeleton of a derelict house – and he talks (without apparent irony, given his subsequent profession) of photography as an escape from the violence and bigotry of his childhood background. At the very least it stood him in good stead for the violence, intolerance and bigotry that he would encounter on a world scale, in cold war Berlin, Cyprus, Congo, Vietnam, Biafra, Cambodia, Northern Ireland. He found himself troubled, after the adventure had worn off, by the thought that the people he was photographing doing terrible things seemed to be assuming his tacit legitimisation. That wore off though. His photographs were just too honest to take the side of anyone but the shattered innocents. As he says, he learned that ‘it’s better to be on the side of humanity’ in his line of work. ‘Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.’ As he says, growing up poor in a rough part of London helped put him on the right side of things.
A photograph taken in Stanleyville, in the Congo in the mid 1960s. A man in a vest is cowed as a dog on the ground, his face down in the earth. He is held there by five rifles pointed in his direction from above by spectacles-wearing soldiers. One is hamming it for the camera, outsize gestures for a diminutive man who in another life might be the joker in a musical group, the showman vocalist. Another soldier looks down on the pitiful creature on the ground as if he is already dead, which he soon will be. Three men stand to the side, petrified. They will soon be dead too.
‘I’ve never forgotten it,’ says McCullin, time and again during his interviews and you can tell this is the truth as he recalls the nightmarish scenes in which he has found himself. His voice pauses and catches as he recalls photographing Turkish Cypriot men murdered in a house in their village and their family surprising him in the act of photography; a dawn execution in Saigon in 1965; Congolese police dragging people behind trucks with wire, skinning some of them alive, the open eyes of a 12 year-old boy in Stanleyville, shot by a Rhodesian mercenary in the night for some trumped-up reason, or in Hue in 1968, during the Tet Offensive, men flattened into ‘Persian carpets in the road’, or the children’s department of a hospital in Beirut where, after days of shelling, he saw fly-spotted children tied to their beds. No wonder McCullin talks of his darkroom as a haunted place and his archive of photographs at one end of his house, full of pictures of devastation, pain and suffering as a place of noise, unquiet, dark energy and mischief.
In a Radio 3 interview with John Tusa, McCullin said, ‘If you look into many of the books that I have published; the books on the Palestinians and Beirut, and other books which contain Vietnam and … Biafra, you’ll find many of the people in my pictures just looking at me, as if I’m the victim’. And it’s the eyes of people in his photographs that hold you, again and again.
Some pictures. One, taken in Vietnam, shows the grimacing mask of a face crushed into the ground, mouth and nostrils distended as if stilled in the act of an explosion, or caught in a wind tunnel, cheeks lined with the imprint of fabric, jaw crushed, a smashed, distended, rubberised face whose eyes, just peering through their lids still, seem alive with outrage.
A shell-shocked marine has eyes that are nowhere and focussed on nothing that can be seen. They are hardly present, existing only in tones of grey whereas the rest of face, the stubble, the shadow between his lips, is darker with life. His eyes are looking up – McCullin talks of the Goya-esque attitudes and expressions of the grief-stricken and helpless, the wounded and the injured looking up in war, for succour, for salvation, for god – and they will never lose what they have seen. They are divorced from the physical presence of the rest of his body, from his hands that hold the barrel of a rifle, from his hunched shoulders.
And from Biafra, a 16 year-old girl, sitting with a calm, composed demeanour on the edge of a wooden table, a forgiving look in her eyes, a wry smile even. Her naked skeletal body is shrunken and leathery and she is inches away from death, Her name is Patience, her clothing is total dignity.
One of the underlying themes of the film is how much McCullin’s photography owed to the times. As he says, ‘the sixties were packed with opportunities if you wanted to go to war’. And he admits that for a while he was a ‘war junkie’, needing an ever more frequent hit of conflict. But he also had the good fortune to be working under enlightened editors whose commitment to a strong, challenging pictorial story was not compromised by the needs of advertisers. ‘I’ve got to make sure that when they look at my pictures on a Sunday morning after breakfast that it’s going to hit them hard,’ says McCullin, in words scarcely credible today in a world awash with Sunday magazines filled with lifestyle and celebrity junk. Take a look at those striking, challenging Sunday Times magazine covers from the era that flash up through the film and reflect upon how far away such days seem now. As McCullin says, the rule book has been rewritten and telling the ‘unvarnished truth through the medium of film’ is at risk, contending that ‘the real thing, the price of war, the suffering and the loss’ may not be seen or printed again. Or even understood as such if it was.
As Susan Sontag writes in her 2003 book, Regarding the Pain of Others, we live in a ‘culture in which shock has become a leading stimulus of consumption and source of value’. McCullin’s images can be shocking alright, but one thing they can never be accused of is being a ‘stimulus to consumption’. Sontag adds that ‘there is shame as well as shock in looking at the close-up of real horror’. McCullin knows this all too well, has spent his life photographing this very edge, but it seems to be something that the rest of us are now encouraged to forget. And especially now the chief medium for seeing images of the world is a screen, of whatever size. McCullin’s images, reduced to the status of one momentary fascination among countless many on a monitor, or touchscreen, lose impact, meaning, context. All is reduced to the medium of the screen itself.
Harold Evans said, in response to McCullin's doubts about his photographs having any effect, that ‘the ripples go out’ and you can’t tell where they end. ‘Those are the consequences – look on these and think again,’ he says Evans of McCullin’s images and humanitarian approach to his work. Not to do so would be to devalue the suffering in his photographs, the scenes shot at the edges of insanity, to belittle McCullin’s experiences and to downgrade the quiet, insistent pleading of the countless eyes that command our attention from his photographs that such madness should not be wrought again – yet always is.
This essay takes a look at that run of gleaming dark miniatures that Lawrence Gordon Clark made for the BBC’s ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ series in the 1970s, beginning with The Stalls of Barchester in 1971.
It was Clark himself who suggested an MR James adaptation as suitable Christmas fare for that year. The producer agreed, Clark was given a budget and a free hand, and, as he says, left to ‘sink or swim’. The result, The Stalls of Barchester, was shot in 10 days on location for the sum of £8,000. It’s a rather ingenious piece of work that sets the tone for the adaptations which followed. Indeed, reading the original story is to realise just what a well-scripted and fittingly designed adaptation it is – truthful to the register of the story but not following it with too dogged a devotion and allowing the opportunities of a different medium to bring it to life. Clark rightly praises the contribution to his series of films made by cameraman John McGlashan and sound recordist Dick Manton, both of whom worked on all of the James adaptations up to 1975’s The Ash Tree. Nowhere are their contributions more evident than in The Stalls of Barchester. Unafraid to film in the deepest shadow, lit only by lamp or candle, McGlashan’s lighting is as low as it dare go, all the better to reinforce the solitude of the haunted Archdeacon in his large house, while layered snatches of sounds assail him from the staircase and passageways.
The quality of the production commences with the opening credits, as the focus is tightened on Clark’s new character of Dr Black, played by Clive Swift, the researcher who will discover and interpret the Archdeacon’s story. He is pictured first through an ancient flint window, then through a grand entrance to the cathedral, then a smaller gateway until he finally enters the low-ceilinged cathedral library, there to catalogue what at first seems to be a ‘profoundly uninteresting’ collection. Until, that is, the librarian shows him the chest containing the papers of the late Archdeacon Haynes, whose troubled thoughts and curious end now take over the narrative. It’s filmed from interesting angles – a conversation between Dr Black and the librarian is shown from beneath Haynes’ chest of papers, while the photography – rather like Dr Black himself in fact – focuses close on the details, the dust and the bindings of his work. Later too, on the Archdeacon’s shaking hand holding out a taper to light a final candle against the dark of his misdeed.
The Stalls of Barchester set something of a template for the films that followed. It has a strong central performance, here from Robert Hardy, whose Archdeacon’s pride and barely-concealed vanity crumble as he faces the terrors of loneliness brought on by his guilt. It also has memorable cameos in the service of the film, notably here Martin Hoyle’s creepy, servile verger, who manages to be both subservient and superior at one and the same time when talking to the Archdeacon. There is a sense of restraint in the tale’s telling which only heightens the feeling of dark, elemental forces arrayed against marked humans whose attempts to avert their fate are futile; this is backed up by telling details such as a close-up of a choirboy’s face as if he is regarding the Archdeacon with interest, having heard rumours. There are also one or two deliciously wicked cuts - such as when we move from old Archdeacon Pulteney’s lifeless, staring head at the bottom of the stairs down which he has just fatally tumbled, straight to the Archdeacon’s sister, Letitia, cracking her breakfast egg.
The following year’s James adaptation, A Warning to the Curious, in which an amateur archaeologist, Paxton, heads to the Norfolk coast, drawn by the lure of treasure in the form of a buried Anglo Saxon crown, also features the ‘irritable intelligence’ – Lawrence Gordon Clark’s words – of Clive Swift, whose character of Dr Black happens to be holidaying in the same hotel as Peter Vaughan’s archaeologist. The film was given the go-ahead the month after The Stalls of Barchester proved a success. With 18 days of filming and consequently more material to edit, it’s a looser, slightly more impressionistic film than the earlier one. It is again a very free adaptation too, in which Clark makes the protagonist a recently unemployed man, literally on his uppers – something which the sneering boots at the hotel picks up on very quickly. Peter Vaughan is excellent in the part, giving a very plausible impression of a man for whom the knocks of life have lent a resigned self-sufficiency – not that ingenuity and honourable intentions count for anything against his implacable fate. His conviction is shown through his eyes, which are eager, wary, desperate and in the end, terrified.
Lawrence Gordon Clark had a background of documentary making and maybe it’s this eye for detail, trained to pick out telling objects in a given environment instead of trying to create one from a props department, that lends an air of credence to the film. I think of the stuffed fox, glinting with mischief that we see before Paxton enters the antique shop on his quest for maps of the area. This was all to change the following year however, when, after the success of the first two MR James adaptations, the idea of an annual ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ attracted the attention of the BBC drama department, who took the productions under its wing, affording them its resources and polish (though not a greater budget, nor time – whereas A Warning to the Curious was shot in 18 days, the following year’s Lost Hearts was only given a tight 12).
The three tales which followed from 1973-75 were again all drawn from the writings of MR James, specifically his first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904). Two of the tales – Lost Hearts and The Ash Tree – brought James (and the TV series) as close to the stylings of outright horror as he ever came. All the tales begin with a place, invariably a country house, into which a person’s arrival awakens a curse, falls into an ancient trap, or otherwise provokes a crisis, revealing latent forces that lie uneasily in the grounds.
Lost Hearts is, according to Clark, a tale ‘about the monsters that children fear’. It opens with the clip and chink of a horse and carriage making its way through Lincolnshire’s November fog to the keening of a spare and haunting flute, as a young orphaned boy arrives at the country residence of his eccentric cousin, whose purpose of bringing him to his home is only gradually, horrifically, divined. With his jerkily eccentric gait taking its cue from Robert Wiene’s figure of Dr Caligari, Joseph O’Conor fruitily essays the solitary scholar, Mr Abney, who longs for a time ‘before the mechanical sciences cast their rude shadow over the world’. His reading of the ancients has led him down dark ways. The title is literal; two children have gone missing. The third, his cousin, will – he hopes – grant him immortality. ‘He may be an old bachelor, but he’s very partial to children,’ says housekeeper Mrs Bunch to young Stephen in one of scriptwriter Robin Chapman’s wicked lines. This dark humour is a consistent theme in fact, as with Mr Abney’s airy expostulations about climbing trees being good for the circulation, or borage exhilarating the heart revealing the nature of his dark preoccupations all too well.
At the heart of the film is again Clark’s eye for telling detail and cameraman John McGlashan’s evocative photography. This is a story filmed in shadows and candlelight, firelight and moonlight, with everyday objects lent a suggestive air of the uncanny. What looks like leaf mould on a cupola is revealed as awestruck cupids, the bilious lemon yellow candles of Stephen’s birthday cake have shadows that recall the unearthly incisions made in Stephen’s door, while the ox-blood walls of Mr Abney’s study match the colour of the missing gypsy girl’s dress.
One area that the drama department took over from Clark was scriptwriting, and, despite some unnecessary over-eggings, the tales are interesting exercises in interpretative adaptation. The Treasure of Abbott Thomas is the most altered of James’s tales, with scriptwriter John Bowen replacing the tales’ German setting with an English one, adding the subplot of a fake seance, and also turning the twice reported narrative of the original story into a direct (if disavowed) treasure hunt.
It features a captivating central performance from Michael Bryant as a Reverend Master at Oriel College who, along with one of his charges, finds himself embarked upon the trail of a hidden stash of coins, though any base motives are denied. ‘The gold – if it ever existed – is likely to be very base coin by now’ he says, and for as much as he professes that he ‘is not entered into this investigation for any motive of gain or greed,’ his true thoughts on the matter seem to have been predicted all along by the devious alchemist Abbott who set the trail for his treasure.
Again, the quality is in the details; the hands of a seance seen from above, the blemish in a glass plate photograph that appears to resemble a face, a leopard slug crawling across the face of a gargoyle, the Reverend’s face, his restless eyes talking in the knowledge that he is on the right trail and computing the worth of the bag of riches that is within his grasp.
One of the most impressive characteristics of this adaptation is the sparing and effective use of sound, from Geoffrey Burgon’s eerie opening of chant and drum to the scratch of a trowel against pitted glass or a nib against paper, or the way that the character’s actions – the tap of a pen or the hammering of a lock – join with the percussive score to lead the characters to their goal, in this case, ‘a thing of darkness and slime, an unholy thing’. The nature of this ‘thing’ deserves a word. The original story features one of James’s most strangely unsettling creations – a dampish leather bag that, in the darkness of a well, puts its arms around the seeker’s neck and crawls over his face with the cold stench of mould and the ooze of coal black slime. It is the difference between what can be filmed and what can only be imagined and felt, and here, James’s imagination trumps any attempted depiction or substitution.
The Ash Tree finds John Rudkin (writer of Penda’s Fen) turning James’s material into a narrative collage that effectively and eerily interleaves past and present. As in Lost Hearts, it opens with a horse, this time bringing the new squire to the manor. The servants are lined up to greet the arrival. ‘Why is the new Sir Matthew’s face such a funny colour?’ asks a child. ‘Not Sir Matthew child, Sir Richard – new squire, new man,’ says her mother. But the child knows better, and soon the whispering insistence and entreaties of the past impress themselves upon the squire’s mind, as visions and sounds of his uncle’s uncle’s time come to claim their place. All is not well at Castringham; there is sickness among the beasts on the farm; it is a place where the master’s children remain unborn, hence the skewed line of inheritance. When Sir Richard declares himself ‘a pestilent innovator’ (the words taken from the original story), the local vicar becomes sombre: ‘please God not,’ he says.
‘The dead are dead’ says Sir Richard, giving permission to exhume a witches’ grave, a woman put to death by his ancestor, so he can erect a new pew. in James’s original, the woman – Mistress Mothersole – has ‘There will be guests at the Hall’ as her last words. In Rudkin’s adaptation, they are, ‘Mine shall inherit,’ which she cries to the land after she is dragged to the gallows, ‘and no sweet babes shall now mine be’, she adds in the direction of the squire and his lady with child. Nor are they indeed, though whether the numerous malevolent residents of the ash tree that abuts the house needed to be anything but glimpsed as they suckle in the half-light upon the master in his bed, is a moot point - especially when allied with the shot of the witch herself, dried and leathery in a position of endless birth at the base of the tree.
Details that linger: a broken glass and the spill of red wine that tell the crack of the noose in an earlier time, the vicar and the master walking in front of the roll of silvered waves, the scream of a woman before her hanging, as chilling as the squeal of a foxed rabbit.
There was one more period adaptation before the series was brought into the present day with contemporary scripts, namely The Signalman. Realising that the BBC drama department’s budget wouldn’t stretch to Scandinavian location filming for an adaptation of James’s Number 13, Clark turned to Dickens for his 1976 entry. Some elements are immediately familiar: a fog-shrouded landscape, a solitary figure on open ground, a man sleeping uneasily in his bed, but a different writer brought a different threat. Instead of MR James’s victims – antiquarians and over-curious meddlers who in some way call up their own fate – Dickens’ tale allied a ghost story to the impersonal, indifferent might and undeserving deaths of the industrial age. This was something of which he had first-hand experience, having survived a terrible train crash the year before he wrote it.
The story, adapted by Andrew Davies for the screen, is essentially a two-hander played out by Denholm Elliott’s railway signalman – a man whose nerves are frayed to breaking point by spectral visitations that foretell tragedy on his steeply banked stretch of line – and Bernard Lloyd’s visitor to whom he relates his tale. The latter’s entreaties to rational thought as a means to overcome the railwayman’s dread apparitions are found wanting in the face of fate. ‘The screams of the injured and the dying echo in a most persistent way’ says the unfortunate haunted man, marked out for a calling beyond his reason or understanding: ‘why me for heaven’s sake, a poor signalman on this station! Why not go to somebody with credit to be believed, and power to act?’. No answer is forthcoming except for the shriek of a train’s whistle as it enters the tunnel on his stretch of line.
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2012)
The first of two articles about the films in the BBC’s ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ strand. The second looks at Lawrence Gordon Clark’s adaptations from MR James that formed the core of the channel’s 1970s output, while this piece concentrates on one of the great small screen horror films, Jonathan Miller’s 1968 film, Whistle and I'll Come to You.
‘This is a tale of the supernatural,’ announces Jonathan Miller at the film’s opening. He continues, ‘it's a story of solitude and terror and it has a moral too. It hints at the dangers of intellectual pride and shows how a man’s reason can be overthrown when he fails to acknowledge the forces inside himself which he simply cannot understand.’ As he speaks, we see a man walking rangily across the beach towards us, casting a backward glance as he does so. There is a low, winter sun, immense in the sky above rolling North Sea waves. Before the spare credits show on the screen, the sound of a wind rises, the kind of wind that troubles the windowpanes of a sleepless night – only for it to be smoothed out by the briskly efficient maids, making the bed for a new arrival at the hotel, in this case Professor Parkin, arriving at that moment at the railway station. ‘Anybody there?’ he asks, twice, on his entry to the hotel’s morning emptiness. It’s a question to which he will soon find an unwanted answer.
Michael Hordern’s performance as the distracted, slightly impatient academic Professor Parkin, full of tics and mumbles, is fully engaging, his consternation growing as he is forced to turn his unpractised gaze inwards, away from the defences of his books and studies. Appropriately for the off-season hotel room in which he is to come face to face with the tangible form of suppressed fears, he is first seen in a mirror as he enters. The camera is no benign presence through the film either. In his room it subtly tracks his movements, observes him from behind the mirror, or a bedpost which partially obscures our view and gives a feeling of voyeurism in our gaze. It’s not much, but it’s enough to give the impression of his being watched, and that we are the ones watching his solitary performance, played out to himself for the purpose of keeping the silence at bay. His fussiness fills the emptiness of the room which even sounds cold in its silence.
Miller’s distaste for MR James’s prose, which he once described as ‘ludicrously stilted’ and the sort of writing that is savoured by ‘port-bibbers’, led him to strip away the dated affectations of his style, as well as some of the characters in the story, to get to the central psychological question of how a sceptical academic could be disturbed by this thing termed ‘the supernatural’ after he makes the mistake of blowing a whistle that he finds in a clifftop cemetery. In this light it’s as well to remember that in this programme, made for BBC’s Omnibus, Miller was using the skeleton of Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad to create a film essay on the themes and preoccupations found in James’s writing; it’s not a straight reproduction of the story. This partly accounts for the character of Professor Parkin in his adaptation. Miller elsewhere has talked of ghost stories as ‘conundrums and jokes spun by clever boys,’ boys who remained top of the class in their lives, but who never grew into men. Much of Parkin’s characterisation derives from this. There is his garb for one. As he enjoys his packed lunch in the marram grass of the dunes while he replays his bons mots from breakfast (‘there are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth’), his cap and satchel make him resemble an overgrown boy, albeit one who now has deep furrows in his brow, who has never lost the trappings of school. Nor the mannerisms of its speech: ‘finder’s keepers,’ he says when he comes across the whistle; ‘one hundred and one things a boy can do,’ he mutters when, alone in his room, he finds a way of making the inscription on the whistle legible with the aid of pencil and paper. ‘Dirty’ is the single word he utters in the same scene as he tips the years’ accumulated dirt from the whistle, hinting at another level of disavowal in his psychological make-up, one more connected with the crisp, clean sheets with which the film opens. Certainly fear of the opposite sex, whom Miller introduces in the form of a fellow guest and diner at the hotel, a woman who thoroughly discomfits Parkin’s composure merely by smiling languorously in his direction during dinner and walking past him in the corridor afterwards.
For all Parkin’s parsing of a question about ghosts with a guest at breakfast, coming to a preliminary conclusion that such discussions are based on nothing more than ‘a logical difference of usage’ in the terms, he is defenceless when it comes to facing his fears in the middle of a sleepless night as, eyes narrowed, he listens to the rumpling of sheets as the inhabitant of the other bed in his room tosses and turns. Nor do such niceties of argument avail him of much when it comes to his dreams in which he is pursued across the sand by a thing of rags accompanied by the trudging, pumping insistence of his own heartbeat. It’s a brilliant sequence in the film; first he is woken by the sound of a cough that disappears on waking, then to the sound of silence, and then, finally, to the walrus-like groans and honks that accompany his pursuer. He admits defeat, and turns on the light switch, which clinks against his metal bed frame. At the end of the film, his own voice approximates the inchoate sound of his nightmare, as his regression to childhood with his thumb in his mouth, is complete. Miller might have updated the story from the era of candles to that of electric light, but the cause of the disturbance is the same.
There are a number of nicely observed details in the film such as the maid shaking her left hand dry after testing the Professor’s bath water (she would never have dried it on her pinafore), but perhaps the best little trick of the piece is one that you only realise as the layout of Parkin’s room reveals itself through the course of the film – that the bed the maids were making in the opening scene was not the Professor’s, but instead that of his night-time visitant.
I’m going to look at Lawrence Gordon Clark’s 1970s adaptations of MR James’s stories in my next piece – And Yet, Traces of Uneasiness Impinge – so I’ll skip over them for now and instead give a few thoughts on the versions of his stories that were made in the 21st century.
After three decades of sleep, the annual ghost story was briefly revived with James’s stories, A View from a Hill in 2005 and Number 13 in 2006. Watched in the light of hazy memories of the 1970s output, I can see how they would have been hailed as a films in the mould of the originals – albeit with a few contemporary modish filming tics – but viewed soon after the earlier films, they seem a little second-hand. They’re not bad, just weightless.
With its concentration on the shoes of the visiting antiquary and the man’s orderly laying out of his washkit in his room in A View from a Hill, the film checks off elements of Clark’s A Warning to the Curious and Miller’s Whistle and I'll Come to You in its first few minutes. And then there is the obligatory restless night in the presence of undefined scratchings or rustlings in the bedroom. Of course, the inclusion of such elements is part of the reassuring enjoyment of the genre, but after a while – especially when you are watching another man, this time Andersen in Number 13, laying out his washkit and books with punctilious precision in another bedroom – then it does begin to look derivative, as if Miller’s singular interpretation of James’s words in his adaptation of Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad, namely, ‘he was made welcome at the Globe Inn, was safely installed in the large double-bedded room of which we have heard, and was able before retiring to rest to arrange his materials for work in apple-pie order upon a commodious table which occupied the outer end of the room…’ had somehow become source material itself. Number 13 also has another direct nod to Miller’s Whistle and I'll Come to You in the dining scene, when we see another fussy professor, breakfasting alone, so discomfited by the arrival of two women at breakfast that his chewing is interrupted and his sausages left uneaten on the plate. In this case it is filmed from almost exactly the same angle, and with the same intention, as Miller’s film from 38 years before. Number 13 has also been filmed with that curiously unsatisfying period drama lighting that brightens and cleans everything, making even mighty edifices such as Winchester Cathedral appear rather artificial.
Another entry in the series is Andy De Emmony’s 2010 film of Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad. Based on Neil Cross’s radical revisioning of James’s story, it leaves only its barest bones of a man visiting the seaside out of season, entwining it with a tale of dementia, care, guilt, and that most un-Jamesian of concepts – love. Gemma Jones plays the woman who is no longer reachable either by kisses or tender words; John Hurt her husband of many years who has left her in a weirdly lifeless care home while he revisits an old seaside haunt of theirs, where he has to face his loneliness and lack of direction without her. ‘Call me if you need me,’ he says, perhaps unwisely, before he leaves her. There are a number of borrowings from the earlier version here – Hurt snacking in the marram grass, the obscured views of him in his hotel room – with these added to more contemporary stylings taken from, for example, Japanese horror films such as Ring. However, the biggest difference seems to me that it is set in a much changed, crueller world, in which the trappings of professional service and so-called care mask a nullity and deep indifference. The tragedy is that the one relationship of any depth and meaning here is also the one that is most destructive.
Accompanying the films on the BFI DVDs are notable extras in the form of Christopher Lee’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, which see him reading The Stalls of Barchester, A Warning to the Curious and Number 13 in the personage of a Cambridge don to a select group of students at Christmas. Although Lee claimed not to be playing MR James, through him we do have a valuable direct link to the original storyteller, Lee having met James when he took his scholarship exam for Eton in the early 1930s. His dark and mellifluous tones have an edge of sly mischievousness that is persuasive, and helps to reclaim James the storyteller, and his stories, as tales to be read, and listened to (Jonathan Miller might not agree).
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2012)
The anthology film RoGoPaG, or to give its full title, Let’s Wash our Brains: RoGoPaG, came out over half a century ago, in 1963 (some more or less relevant markers: this was six years after the publication of Vance Packard’s expose of the dark arts of consumerist manipulation, The Hidden Persuaders, the year after the first Bond film, Dr. No, a few months after the Cuban missile crisis and the week after The Beatles recorded Please Please Me); it is therefore at times quite startling that its four films – from Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Ugo Gregoretti, hence the title – through examining the anxieties of their own age should make such a prescient diagnosis of the strains and fractures of our own.
Exploring questions of freedom of thought and action and also the possibilities left for love in the atom age (both atomic and atomised that is), the films in their various ways depict a world whose pressures and professions make distance between people – both emotional and physical – more natural than intimacy. The resultant space, defined by insecurity and need, can be filled with consumer goods and filmed. There is plenty of humour here, but as you might expect from a film whose introduction talks of ‘four stories by four authors who limit themselves to recounting the joyous beginning of the end of the world,’ it’s wry, melancholy, sacrilegious and caustic by turns.
In Illibatezza (Virginity/Purity), Rossellini’s treatise on love, lechery, loneliness and cine-cameras, Alitalia air hostess Annamaria provides the maternal bosom that captures the obsessive and unwanted attention of a lonely middle-aged American – Joe – in Bangkok. She fills the space of separation from her fiancé that her work requires by indefatigable filming of her surroundings, from hotel rooms to temples and markets, sending him the films and telling him everything of her encounters – including those with Joe, who has also filmed her to rather different ends. At least her actions enable her fiancé, and his psychologist friend, to provide some remote counselling for her predicament and how to rid herself of the bothersome pesterer. As instructed, she sheds her chaste image for a more provocative one and, as predicted, provokes the disgust and insults of Joe, thereby getting him out of her hair, but probably – given the reactions of her colleagues to her new svelte blonde image – brings a whole lot more unwelcome attention her way. It’s a solution of sorts but no-one ends up particularly happy – neither Annamaria, uncomfortable in her new skin, nor her fiancé for prompting her to lose the reserve, purity and honesty that attracted him, and least of all Joe who is left trying to hug the wall of his hotel room on which he has projected the image of an air hostess he once encountered on a flight to Bangkok.
We are also left with the slightly unpleasant feeling that in amongst all the artificiality on show in the film – air hostess expressions, stilted poses and fake smiles filmed by a colleague in a hotel room, back-projected tourist scenes, the photographs of temples which sees our main characters cine-filming photographs – the most authentic emotions on display here are also the most unpleasant, namely those demonstrated by the attempted maulings of a self-pitying drunk, trying to crash the barriers of artifice in – as the film has it – ’the sad search for a protective womb’.
The second film in the anthology, Godard’s Il Nuovo Mondo (The New World) describes ‘the absurd and unpredictable consequences of an atomic future that may have already begun’. There is a nuclear burst in the skies above Paris (or so we are told by the newspapers who announce the ‘super-explosion atomique’). Barring the sight of people nervously throwing pills down their throats in the street and women donning an Ursula Andress style dagger in their trunks, nothing much seems to have changed – which makes the fact that the customary bonds between a couple have entirely broken all the more disconcerting.
It’s a typically offhand, take-it-or-leave-it, slice and splice Godard that is nevertheless based around an important core of truth, announced in the film’s preface, which reads, ‘it will be the small, slight changes that inevitably destroy us’. It captures something of the loss of freedom that comes with the illusion of its triumph – a change reflected in the film’s vocabulary in which Alessandra’s conversational use of ‘evidently’ is replaced by ‘absolutely’. Morality in the film has mutated into a world of ‘ex-love’ and spontaneous meaningless gestures of empty affection which Godard films, flirting, as always, with the continual bewitching lure and predictable deceit of beauty.
In Pasolini’s La Ricotta (for which the director was handed a four-month suspended prison sentence for ‘publicly undermining the religion of the state’), a man – mocked and less well-fed than an actress’s pampered dog – until he gorges himself on the food he’s been trying to eat all day – dies on a cross in a farcical restaging of the crucifixion and deposition, the latter reconstructed from 16th century altar pieces by Fiorentino and Pontormo. As this excess of candy-coloured biblical ‘good taste’ (as Pasolini described it) is jostled by extras twisting away the wait for their call and saints heading off to the bushes with unsaintly purposes in mind, Pasolini’s Stracci – ‘a symbolic hero of the Third World,’ as he describes him – finds a way, the only way perhaps, of cutting through the empty chatter of grinning dignitaries who have arrived to amuse themselves by seeing some real-life filming action. ‘He had to die to remind us he was alive,’ says Orson Welles’ director, making a film in a world in which symbolism is more important than succour – and the filming of such symbols is more important than either.
At least there is plenty of stuff to buy in this disorienting new world of uncertain morality and unmoored desires. Ugo Gregoretti’s Il Pollo Ruspante (Free Range Chicken) is a biting satire on consumption and acquisition which starts off in a symposium on “Development of consumption and increase in production: New perspectives offered by knowledge of the secret ‘I’ of the consumer”, overseen by one Professor Pizzorno, a marketing guru whose temporary affliction to the vocal cords and consequent use of an electrolarynx marks him out as a predecessor to Godard’s sinister supercomputer Alpha 60 in Alphaville. “The average consumer is an incalculable reserve who allows production to maintain the levels already met, and greatly surpass them, provided that he is constantly controlled, monitored, spied on, prompted, pushed…,” he says, as the couple whose story is told in parallel are churned around in an ad-man’s paradise of cynical consumerist manipulation in which their children spout advertising slogans, their car isn’t is big as it should be and the first thing their new HP TV shows is a Topo Gigio cartoon telling them that their model is already outmoded. And the plot of building land they are gracelessly shown – a hill marketed, improbably, as ‘the Switzerland of Lombardy’ – isn’t as big as it really should be either. Size matters. If only the Professor could know just how effectively and rigorously his vision of “systematic dissatisfaction” has since come to pass, his gladhanding croak at the film’s end would be more exultant than it already is. It’s all a very recognisable world indeed.
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2012)
If there was ever a filmmaker to defy stereotypical expectations of a national cinema, it’s Boris Barnet, a director described as ‘the greatest forgotten master of the golden age of Soviet cinema’. Here I am going to look at three films – his 1927 silent comedy, The Girl with the Hat Box, his humanistic WWI drama from 1933, Outskirts, and his enchanting lyrical bathe in the light and water of of an island in the Caspian sea, By the Bluest of Seas, made in 1935. That was the first film of his that I watched, and that’s the film I’ll start with.
And there is no better place to start than with the words of Barnet’s biographer, Mark Kushnirov, who said of By the Bluest of Seas, ‘it’s an amazing film. A salty, windy, sunny film. You don’t seem to watch it or listen to it, you’re simply absorbing it, like the blue sea air, gulp after gulp.’
A lovely, windblown ‘cinematic fairytale’, its storyline is simplicity itself: two sailors fetch up on an island in the Caspian sea after their boat is shipwrecked and find work at the ‘Lights of Communism’ fishing collective. They also both fall in love with the same girl - the winsomely smiling farm manager Mashenka (Yelena Kuzmina), who teaches her lovesick suitors a lasting lesson about love and faithfulness. It's all done with a smile and an occasional song, and the film is thoroughly imbued with its island environment, this signalled early on by numerous shots of the sun sheening a turbulent sea, the rolling sparkle of waves, and gulls wheeling in front of an immense sun. Barnet’s entrancement with the elements is given form by Mikhail Kirilov’s sublime cinematography, his ingenious long-lensed filming of the sea prompting lead actor Lev Sverdlin to remark that he ‘captured the sea’s emotions on film’. At one point his camera even briefly takes the perspective of a flying fish.
A common theme in commentary on the film is that though people agree that it is exquisitely enjoyable, they find it hard to put a finger on just why this is so. This unfettered enjoyment in visual delight gives a partial answer. Its guilelessness means that you can do nothing but take the film on its own terms. You know that the people and places in the film were clearly and truly seen in a spirit of affection and curiosity and therefore memorably recorded. In this it has a close relation in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, made the previous year, another film whose indelible images can be called to mind years after being seen. As the director Otar Iosseliani says of Barnet, ‘he was a poet at a time when cinema had thrown out all its simple, unmannered poets’.
I think of Mashenka and suitor Youssouf eating lemons as they walk the shoreline and share sour faces; a silhouette of fishermen rowing across a sun-silvered sea and then bringing their boat home, Man of Aran-like, against the crash of waves; the slow-motion tumble of glass beads to Mashenka’s feet as she rips them from her necklace. I think of the curious dreamlike sequence in which somnolent comrades in a meeting give the floor entirely to the complaint of Youssouf against his friend Alyosha, or their mysterious disappearance when Alyosha takes the floor to reply.
Unsurprisingly, the film’s script was officially derided at the time for its ‘emotional’ nature, and the director chided for cutting up Sergey Potosky’s swelling score. That’s the least of its subversive crimes. As Nicole Brenez says of the film, ‘nothing stems from negativity, the only antagonism is between desire and fidelity, By the Bluest of Seas is a film of full and continual euphoria’. To make such a film in Stalinist Russia in 1935 seems remarkable indeed.
It’s a film to discover; as a viewer I can’t help but feel like Alyosha - one of the smiling, shipwrecked stripy-topped sailors who can’t quite believe his luck as he gazes in wonder at the lovely girl who just happens to be sitting in a boat nearby on the beach where he has just fetched up. All of a sudden, life is better.
Two years previously, Barnet had made Outskirts – a tale of the First World War told from ‘the outskirts of Tsarist Russia’ – that begins in 1914 with … ducklings waddling through the wavering reflection of a church in a puddle. Russian soldiers will leave for the Front; German prisoners of war will be relocated to the town; soldiers will die; who or what will fill the space of their senseless loss is the question – though the spirit of the times, and Barnet’s own approach to the subject, make the answer plain, justifying the comparisons with Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion, made four years later. This is a story that emphasises brotherhood and the community of a trade over narrow nationalistic boundaries. Meanwhile, young Man’ka - played by Yelena Kuzmina, the same winsome girl from By the Bluest of the Seas, at the time the director’s spouse - again seeks to build bridges with a ready smile, though her task is much more difficult this time round, as others – not least her father – are less willing than she to welcome the presence of nationals from the country with whom they are at war into their lives.
It’s a slightly flintier film than the other two -– it is about the divisions and ruin caused by war after all -– but you can still never quite be sure just where the film is going, and whether comedy, tragedy or a disorienting mix of the two, is just around the corner. This starts early in the film and runs throughout. When Sen’ka, one of the brothers who goes off to war, scoots up to the woman sitting with her dog on a bench, he shuffles along at right angles and swings his leg over, accidentally booting the dog off the bench in the process. He then strokes the dog, perhaps in appeasement, perhaps in an effort to impress its owner – but when this has no effect, gives up and throws it to the ground. More bench humour of a silent film variety recurs later in the film when Man’ka first attempts to strike up an acquaintance with a German PoW, her futile effort ending with a sudden bump as he rises abruptly from one end of the bench and she, just as abruptly, is dumped on the ground at the other. The uncertainty of what to expect even happens in moments of solemnity, as Sen’ka embraces his new lover before he leaves to go the front. Putting his arm around her neck, he ends up hanging (non-fatally) the long-suffering dog by its string. When the soldiers head to war, the train joins in with the three cheers with blasts of steam.
In the first of a number of surprising and innovative uses of sound in the film, after the opritchniks on horseback have dispersed the striking workers who have gathered in solidarity, we hear what we fear is the rattle of machine-gun fire – which turns out to be a young boy who walks into shot making a din with a rattle. Later, Sen’ka is in the trenches, looking forlorn and petrified after having seen the death of a colleague in a shell attack, marked by an extraordinary electronic whistle and whine. A comrade removes a boot from the dead man’s foot; ‘anyone need it?’ he asks. No-one responds so he flings it into the air – whereupon it lands on the floor of the cobbler’s, hundreds of miles away, where Sen’ka’s father is making more boots for the soldiers. His employer flings ever more boots onto the floor, then flinging one which lands as a shell that dumps even more earth on the soldiers’ heads. Sen’ka’s brothjer Kolya feigns death, and increasingly desperate, Sen’ka tries to rouse him, to no avail –- until Kolya wakes with a start and laughs in his face, the rest of his troop laughing with him as Sen’ka sobs and moves his dirt-covered shaven head into the shadows. Things will not end well for him.
Throughout, Barnet softens the edges of scenes, structurally and emotionally, disrupting the formalism of the settings. Some examples: early on, a horse and cart with its rider walk into view at right angles to the camera, as part of the rather constructivist beginning to the film, all squares and diagonals of movement, but, as if refusing to be tied in to such a scheme, the man is asleep and nodding and the horse whinnies a line of dialogue, complaining ‘oh my god,’ in the intertitles. A little later, when Sen’ka finally gets the girl, he turns and gives a crafty wink to the camera, the pair of them walking directly away from the camera.
And then there is the war-weariness; a half-dead German falls among Russians, saying ‘don't kill me, I have a cow and a child at home.’ ‘Explain it to me,’ says an old solider, ‘we don't want to fight, they don't want to fight – but we are in the fourth year of war’. Later, he says he is ‘just delirious’ at the news of revolution taking place at home, but the news is mostly greeted with the shrug of those who have been too long at war. His form of celebration is to dream of home, of Russia’s land and lakes, his reverie interrupted by industrial boot-making equipment working at full speed with a machine-gun clatter.
‘Soldier deputies have taken some Winter Palace or something,’ says the same old soldier to a dying Kolya, shot by his countrymen for sticking a bayonet in the ground, breaking the cycle, raising a white handkerchief and greeting his supposed enemy. As the sound of Bolshevik revolution carries through the air, with Man’ka foremost among the marchers, the old man’s fur cap is turned up at the sides, giving the impression that he is listening to the approaching music. There is always room for a little wry humour.
Humour of a much more acrobatic, rambunctious and physical sort comes with Barnet’s 1927 feature debut, The Girl with the Hat Box, a film made to promote the sale of premium bonds for the State Peasant Loan. It doesn’t sound promising, but it’s a thoroughly jaunty caper that blends winsome naturalism with a healthy dose of slapstick, creating a film to which it is a pleasure to return.
It tells the tale of the eponymous hatmaker Natasha (Anna Sten), a lovelorn railway cashier and homeless student Ilya. After Natasha offers the student the room that is fictitiously held in her name (so the owner can have more living space) at Madame Irene’s, the Moscow hat shop to whom she sells her creations, expediency turns to affection. Complicating things however (but perhaps not in the manner you might expect), is a lottery ticket with which Natasha was paid in lieu of wages.
With a ready and infectious smile, Anna Sten shines out as the sparky, spunky heroine (hoping that he had found the ‘new Garbo’, Samuel Goldwyn tempted her to Hollywood in 1932, only to release her from her contract after a few unsuccessful attempts to break her into the movies there), while Ivan Koval-Samborsky channels the great silent physical comedians in his portrayal of Ilya.
It’s surprising just how physical and irreverent the humour is. Madame Irene’s maid is more acrobat than housemaid; in the tearing about and scuffling at the climax Natasha’s grandfather gets dumped in the snow, twice, and at one point the film censor’s office even objected to the way that Ilya washed himself (with ‘an air of hooliganism’ they said). However, the film balances youthful zest with lyrical interludes and charming tenderness, as in a beautifully-judged scene in which Natasha and Ilya spend a chaste night in an almost bare room. Add to this a number of scenes filmed on the snowy Moscow streets, inventive framing and focussing and subtle comic repetition, and there is much to enjoy. Throughout it all, there is a feeling (familiar to anyone who has seen Barnet’s By the Bluest of Seas) of reconciliation and a ready smile always winning out over comedy or tragedy.
Sunday, 6 November 2016
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2012)
Recently, I’ve been spending time in the silent film world of Frank Borzage, with its shared sensual spaces, its certainty and sparkle, its bemused and knowing faces, their gazes and rapture, its cinematic fairytales of innocence and experience. The films are those found on the two volumes released under his name from the BFI, the first containing the 1927 and 1928 films Seventh Heaven and Street Angel, while the second has the 1929 film Lucky Star, the early sound film Liliom, from 1930, and the surviving portions of his extraordinary 1929 film, The River, whose erotic directness still catches one off-guard today. Here are some thoughts from my viewing.
Borzage’s characters do not live in a world that recognises the word ‘perhaps’. I think of Seventh Heaven, a film set in Hollywood dream of 1920s Paris, where a sewer dredger can be a man who lives on the seventh floor of an apartment building, from where, through his open window, he can touch the stars. ‘It’s wonderful!’ says Diane, the waif that he rescues from her maddened sister’s grasp, and the room, and indeed the film, is a place of wonder, a Raymond Peynet-like world where a sewer worker’s lunchtime onion is a violet, where love is sustained through sheer willpower, and where the stars can be reached out to and gifted to a lover’s eyes.
Likewise it is a place where we know that, as soon as Chico is out of the frame, the wicked sister will return to take her vengeance – or give Diane a chance to exact hers – and that, in Lucky Star, the vain, boastful, no-good swaggering captain who caused Tom to lose his legs in wartime will return to nip any growing attachment between Tom and the simple farm girl up the road in the bud, or as before, be the catalyst for the confirmation of their love.
In The River, Charles Farrell’s backwoods boy Allen John is interrupted in his journey downriver by a construction camp for a dam whose workers are breaking camp for the winter. One of the only people left behind is Mary Duncan’s Rosalee, the lover of the boss who has been taken away for murdering a man in a fight. When Allen John says to her that he is going to catch the train, she lays a table for him. ‘Are you expecting somebody?’ he asks when he returns, seeing the place set for two, ‘No-one but you,’ she replies, ‘I knew you’d never make that train.’
Her look, somewhere between amusement, the fixing of prey and a certain weariness that the cycle has recommenced so soon, sees through all his innocent dissimulation about their relationship. ‘Get me some wood,’ she says, and as he walks in the door of the cabin her gaze cuts to the quick of the matter at hand, not whether this man is destined to be her future lover, that much is already apparent, but one that stares right through that knowledge, on into the winter ahead and beyond. For 18 seconds, across two shots, we watch her watching him, firstly as he enters the cabin, wood in arm, and then when he holds it in his hands as she leans provocatively against the sink and he nervously taps his fingers against the logs, discomfited by the directness of her gaze that he might like to imagine is unfathomable, but knows is anything but. She is gauging what she has got, a guileless, wholesome man-boy – ‘6 feet 1 going on 2’ – with a ‘say’ and ‘gee’ prefacing his sentences. ‘Say, I’ve got to make the next train, it’s the last one till spring,’ he says, as she takes him in from her rocking chair in her silk dressing-gown and then sits in the doorway watching him admiring his own woodcutting skill, smiling with the certain knowledge that he will never make the train.
It’s said that Borzage’s background as an actor made him sympathetic to how they would be portrayed on screen, but his skill in picturing them goes beyond this into the realm of making his central characters, male and female, irresistible. They are people into whose dreams you can lose yourself. Before Diane meets Chico in Seventh Heaven she returns to the bare boards of the room where her whip-wielding absinthe-craving sister awaits. On her way she passes a lamplighter, and leaning against the stones of a church, she is shown held in and transfixed by the warming glow of the newly-lit street lamp. That’s a director whose film you want to be in.
I think too of Rose Hobart, in Liliom, her first film. A strange early talkie set in a minimal, abstract and at times surreal setting, it sees an almost unrecognisable, kinky-haired Charles Farrell play the petulant fairground barker with whom she falls in love, a love that is as incomprehensible to her as it is to anyone else, and yet is unquestioned. It is.
Despite its voices, Liliom looks like a silent, and watched silent its images are as captivating as any of the films in the two volumes. Indeed there are some breath-catching moments, all of which involve Rose Hobart. She offers a beguiling naturalism and her presence is both bewitching and bewitched. Part confident innocent, part prowling huntress, her stern and certain gaze is softened by a bewilderment at her own quiet rapture.
In the minutes Borzage’s camera spends on her face in the cafe, where Liliom has invited her for a drink, it watches her face shift between guileless smiles and nervousness masked by a calm demeanour, to occasional subdued seriousness in which she tries to communicate her love for Liliom to his eyes, and tries to understand it herself too. The scene culminates in Liliom holding her chin and looking into her eyes, the camera shifting so her close-up face is gazing just past us with an inscrutable look. There is a slight quiver of the lips, a slight lift of the eyebrow, an acceptance of the melancholy seriousness of profound fatalistic love – no wonder Liliom is discomfited, knowing only that he has been touched, deeply, but not knowing how to respond other than by drinking from his stein of beer. I’m left thinking how much I would have loved to see Rose Hobart photographed by Man Ray.
After watching the films I came away with image after image of characters’ eyes in my mind – they are central to Borzage’s silent world. When Chico responds to the implacable military call, his last sight of Janet Gaynor’s Diane is in the wedding dress he has bought for her. She has learned to skip across the rooftop walkway as easily as he, and enters in the dress through the window, a relation of Dita Parlo’s Juliette in her wedding dress on the barge in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, and stands before him, marionette-like beneath the clock that chimes the hour for Chico’s departure. ‘Let me fill my eyes with you,’ he says. When he eventually returns, from the dead perhaps, blinded and wearing the inward gaze of the shell-shocked, he says the only thing possible: ‘My eyes are still filled with you,’ to which Diane responds, ‘I will be your eyes.’
These films are often filled with a shared sensual space. It’s in Seventh Heaven certainly in the rooftop apartment where Chico gives Diane the gift of solace, the gift of a night to gaze at the stars before sleeping in peace beneath them and waking without fear, and where the morning smells of coffee and a new start. No wonder when Chico can’t bring himself to say baldly, ‘I love you’ to her, he comes up with his own version: ‘Chico – Diane – Heaven,’ he says, ‘Say it again,’ says Diane, ‘Chico – Diane – Heaven,’ he says, ‘Say it again,’ says Diane.
And then there are the times when lovers collapse the space between them, sometimes quite literally, as in Street Angel, when painter Gino whistles to a stilt-walking Angela from the harbour wall, and she falls, as if the recently-charged space between them had to be closed. Later, in their house in Naples, they whistle to each other from their separate rooms, encircling their created space with sound.
I think too of Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan in her cabin in The River. The night is drawing on and they are measuring each other’s relative height, she standing, chest thrust forward, back to his chest, and then, shoes prised off as she slinks across the table before his unnoticing self, standing head to chest as he pulls her head to him and measures her in sexless child's play – except that it is anything but, and when they turn heads together and look at each other's eyes, Allen John realises that his holding of her in a brotherly embrace exactly fits the contours of of a leading man taking a lover into his arms … and his arm goes limp with the realisation and his sureness is replaced by the fidgets. The midnight train comes to his rescue, or rather doesn’t as it’s apparent he is going to miss that one too. For a brief moment the two of them stand in the doorway of her cabin and as he looks upwards at the opportunity he has persuaded himself he needed to take, she is all knowing and amused. For a brief moment of shared space their hands drop to their sides and they look as if they are clasping hands in a cinematic illusion of intimacy.
Something similar happens in Lucky Star, when Mary doesn’t feel she can enter Tim’s house any more, so they share tea at a table set on his doorstep. For a moment, we see them filmed from behind Tim’s back. We see the light outlining Mary’s Tam o’ shanter as they appear to lean into each other, igniting the briefest suspicion that they night be kissing; the impression lasts only a second but it serves to unite them in the sensual space they deserve.
In The River again, when Allen John has returned to Rosalee’s hut in winter, she lights a lamp which throws a threatening shadow of Marsdon’s crow and its cage on the cabin walls, sits and faces him across the bed. ‘You're still thinking of Marsdon,’ says Allen John, ‘I’m thinking of you Allen John,’ says Rosalee; words that may not sound much, but spoken in a snowbound cabin in a deserted construction camp in the middle of a snowy winter imply much and charge the atmosphere.
It’s impossible to watch these silent Borzage films without noticing the sparkle that time and again lights the characters’ eyes. In Seventh Heaven it’s in the tears in Diane’s eyes when Chico asks her to stay with him. By Lucky Star, this sparkle seems to have transferred itself to the objects and elements in the central couple’s lives: it’s in an upper window at the poor widow Tucker’s farm early in the morning when Mary lights a lamp; it’s in the gleam on the insulators on the telegraph pole that Tim climbs early on in the film when he still had the use of his legs; in the shine on his toolbox as he walks the road, on the soundbox of the mended gramophone that Tim gifts to Mary, and in the sparkle of stream water from the pail with which he washes her hair, transforming it from a dull lifeless mat. And it’s in the ending of Street Angel, when Gino confronts Angela beneath his portrait of her, now doctored into an old master’s religious painting. ‘You must believe me Gino, look in my eyes’ she pleads, the sparkle of tearlight marrying them in the only meaningful reconciliation possible.