Sunday 29 July 2018

Behind the Door by Morris, Reed and Willat

Well, here's a bit of a departure. A silent film... And if you think silent films were naive, or tame, just listen to this brief synopsis. 

The place is America. The time is the First World War. Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth) is a retired mariner turned taxidermist. When America enters the war, he signs up as a captain in the navy.

His young bride Alice Morse (Jane Novak) stows away on his ship. They are torpedoed and  Oscar and Alice end up adrift in a lifeboat. They think they are rescued when a submarine surfaces.

But it's a German U-boat, commanded by the evil Lieutenant Brandt (Wallace Beery). 

The Germans kidnap Alice and leave Oscar adrift to die. 

Alice is horrifically abused, killed and her body fired out the torpedo tube of the submarine.

But Oscar doesn't die. He ends up as the captain of another ship. One which sinks Brandt's U-boat. Brandt has no idea who Oscar is, and accepts his hospitality in the captain's cabin as Oscar gets him drunk and prepares for his vengeance.

Which is where Oscar's taxidermy skills come in...

Behind the Door is renowned as the most horrifying movie of the silent era, and it still packs a tremendous punch. Both the assault on Jane and Oscar's excoriating revenge on Brandt take place behind closed doors. But the film is all the more powerful for leaving the details to our imagination.

The movie is based on a story by Gouverneur Morris (the credit's read "the Gouverneur Morris Superdrama") which was originally published in McClure's Magazine. 

Morris was paid $10,000 for the screen rights — about $180,000 in today's money. The magazine story appeared in July 1918 and the film was being shot a year later.

It was adapted for the screen by Luther Reed, who also worked on Howard Hughes' blockbuster Hell's Angels. It was Reed who added the torpedo tube disposal of poor Alice.
The director was Irvin Willat. The marvellous Flicker Alley Blu-ray I watched features a lot of details about Willat, who was a colourful fellow, to say the least. 

Both bigoted and eccentric, the two facts about Willat that stick in my mind is that he was anti-smoking fifty years before it became fashionable, and that he was accused of selling his wife to Howard Hughes...

Behind the Door is beautifully made, with gorgeous tints and tones (one evening shot is blue with a pink background) and it features a really impressive fight scene at the beginning.

So it's all the more fascinating to watch the interview with silent film expert Kevin Brownlow in which he declares that both the tinting and the fight are considerably inferior to other silent classics of the period...

There is something uniquely magical about silent films, and I have a yearning to explore them further. So don't be surprised if you read more posts on the subject... and if anybody has any titles to recommend, please get in touch!

(Image credits: The cover of the Blu-Ray/DVD is from Flicker Alley's website. The McClure's Magazine cover is from Flickr (no relation). The tinted images are from an excellent review by Gary Tooze on DVD Beaver.)

Sunday 22 July 2018

Going Up by Frederic Raphael

I hesitated over buying this book. I really get a kick out of reading biographies of screenwriters, and Frederic Raphael is one of the great British screenwriters: Nothing But the Best, Darling, Two for the Road, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Glittering Prizes.

But this first volume of his memoirs ends in the early 1960s, just before his career really gets started...

In the end I went for it, though, and I'm glad I did. It brings vividly to life a certain strata of English culture and society in the postwar years, and I found it fascinating. 

Memoirs are a mine field, because as we all know, memory distorts or fades. Not to be too self serving, but my own volume about working on Doctor Who, Script Doctor, works well because I kept diaries during those years, and they provided crucial source material for my book. I recorded incidents and dialogue exactly as they happened, when they happened. And that makes all the difference...

Frederic Raphael has done the same. In his early years he modeled himself on Somerset Maugham and this entailed observing life dispassionately and religiously writing up a detailed journal. Which proves priceless for Going Up (and hopefully for future volumes).

The title refers to 'going up' to university, in Raphael's case, Cambridge. To me this was one of the less interesting sections of the book, somewhat stopping the narrative flow and, I felt, leaving it rather becalmed by snobbery.

Raphael is never less than wickedly amusing in his observations, though —  "As a social climber, I have no head for heights" ...  "Envy and moral presumption are the twin propellers of journalism." 
And he's objective enough to be caustically self-critical. To fill his weekly column in a university magazine he soon begins attacking his friends. "I learned how easily journalism became a solvent of loyalties"

Anti-semitism is one of the key themes of the book, and it's shocking to learn how prevalent this was in British society after World War 2, when evidence of the Holocaust was just beginning to surface into public consciousness. 

As just one example, Raphael was deprived of a scholarship to Oxford because of the prejudices some evil bastards at Charterhouse, the private school he attended.

Frederic Raphael is such a great screenwriter that I was startled to discover he thinks of this as a reluctant sideline and sees himself primarily as a novelist. So it's only fair that I mostly illustrate this post with covers of his early novels.

But it's Freddie's deft and effective screenplays which really made an impression on me, and the cinema-related anecdotes are the bits of the book I was most hungry to read.

So I was fascinated by Raphael's description of how a chance viewing in a Paris cinema of the "asymetrical elegance" of Michaelangelo Antonio's movie L'Avventura "rekindled my interest in cinema."

However, on the same page of this book we are given a long anecdote in French which, if I want more than a ghost or a gist of it, will either have to be laboriously typed into Google Translate or read over the phone to a bilingual friend. Or I suppose I could learn a new language — I'm currently learning Spanish. 

But I wouldn't need just French and Spanish. Freddie also demands that the reader is fluent in Latin and Italian if they want to fully grasp what's happening in his book. 

Isn't this the most egregious form of snobbery? The kind where the writer is willing cut off his own art from a sympathetic, engaged and eager reader just to show how smart he is — and how ignorant they are?

It would have been a simple matter for the publisher to include a table of translations at the the back of the book. And, while they were at it, an index — which would have explained the mysterious Mr Gutwillig, and prevented numerous other characters from appearing and disappearing in the reader's comprehension like figures in a dense fog.

Nevertheless I'm looking forward, with sympathy, engagement and eagerness, to  Raphael's next volume of memoirs.

(Image credits: The colour cover of Going Up is from Amazon. The black and white cover is from BiteBack Publishing. Obbligato is from Mr Pickwick's Fine Old Books via ABE. Thank you, Mr Pickwick! The Limits of Love is from DP Paperbacks. The Earlsdon Way is from Penguin First Editions. The Trouble with England is from PsychoBabel & Skoob via ABE. Indmann is from Amazon. The L'Avventura poster is from CineMaterial, where they have a fabulous selection.)

Sunday 15 July 2018

Frederic Raphael's WW2 Ghost Writing

Frederic Raphael is an illustrious British screenwriter and novelist (The Glittering Prizes, Darling, Far From the Madding Crowd, Eyes Wide Shut, to name a few...).

Raphael has recently published the first volume of his memoirs, Going Up, which details his early years including — and of course, this is the bit which really fascinates me — his initial struggles and eventual breakthrough as a writer.

It's reassuring to know that even someone as poised, talented and ultimately successful as Frederic Raphael (he won an Oscar for Darling) also had to scuffle and hustle at first. 

In the 1950s, between occasional jobs writing for the stage and movies, he earned a living ghost writing World War 2 memoirs...

The first of these was They Arrived by Moonlight, Jacques Doneux's account of his unnerving adventures as a secret agent behind enemy lines in Europe — escaping from Paris clinging to the underside of a train was just one. 

Raphael polished Doneux's "artless manuscript" with considerable success: "Jacques had scarcely noticed how I had deleted his clichés and with what terse invention I had stocked his lacunae."

(If you're wondering what that last bit means, Doneux had a tendency to understatement, to say the least, so Raphael had to make up stuff to fill in the blanks.)

They Arrived by Moonlight went down so well that soon the publisher was "keen for me to do a second ghosting job about secret agents. They would pay £600..." for him to rewrite They Fought Alone by Maurice Buckmaster.

Raphael met with Buckmaster and asked "how he would like me to deal with events where key details were missing. He smiled and said, 'Oh, my dear Freddie, make up anything that looks plausible'."

Despite, or maybe because of this, They Fought Alone is highly regarded ("as a documentary source"!). It has recently been reprinted and is considered "a classic of secret warfare."

What Freddie describes as "my last ghostly effort" was the memoir of Captain William Richmond Fell, a New Zealander submarine commander and maritime salvage expert. 

(This book is actually called The Sea Surrenders though, unhelpfully, Freddie repeatedly refers to it as The Sea Shall Not Have Them, a much more famous and completely different  book. I know this because I wasted a lot of time on Google finding it out. Freddie's publishers should be hit in the face with a whip cream pie for not checking basic facts.)
"Now a confident cosmetician of gallant prose, I supplied Bill's book with a leaven of nautical dialogue of the kind that first seasoned Noël Coward's  In Which We Serve and was recycled in The Cruel Sea. 'Steady as you go' was a staple line."

William Fell was not very pleased: "I'd sooner not have it printed," he declared. But Raphael cleverly explained his rewrites in terms of a salvage operation, and the mariner got the point. In any case he was sufficiently mollified to allow the book to be published.

For all the fascination these ghost-written memoirs might exert, the one I'm really interested in is Frederic Raphael's own, ectoplasm-free, memoir Going Up which I'll be posting about here soon.

(Image credits: The paperback of They Arrived by Moonlight is from Bid or Buy. The hardcover is from Hedgerow Books via ABE. The vintage paperback of They Fought Alone is from Dead Souls Bookshop in New Zealand. The red hardcover is from Codename Pauline. The reprint is from BiteBack Books, who also, intriguingly publish Freddie's memoir Going Up. The Sea Surrenders is from Pic Click.)

Sunday 8 July 2018

The First Purge by James DeMonaco

Back in 2013 a film appeared, written and directed by James DeMonaco. It was a thriller called The Purge and it featured a brilliantly simple notion which turned it  into sociological science fiction.

in America in the near future a totalitarian government has institute 'The Purge' — one night a year, for 12 hours, all crime, including murder, is legal. 

This is purportedly to allow a cathartic cleansing of emotions and promote a peaceful society. It's actually a social control mechanism to keep the government in power...
The film followed one family locked into their fortress of a house and under siege during that night. 

It was successful enough to give rise to a sequel, The Purge: Anarchy, also written and directed by DeMonaco, and then another one, The Purge: Election Year.

Both of these sequels expanded the scope of their stories, taking us out onto the streets into the nightmare milieu of Purge night. One of the clever things about this concept is that it's like a zombie movie without zombies — just lethally armed, disinhibited, 'normal' human beings.

And both of these sequels were outstanding; I recommend them highly. Not least because they presented the almost unheard of spectacles of poor black American good guys gunning down rich white American bad guys.

In terms of racial politics, the Purge movies aren't up there with the magnificent Get Out, but they are still canny and biting social satires.

Now there's another Purge sequel in cinemas (cheekily released on the 4th of July): The First Purge, which takes the story back to its roots with a pilot experiment for the Purge which is limited to a sealed-off Staten Island.

Impoverished residents have been paid five grand each if they stay for the mayhem. Again social criticism is entwined with brutal action. Again James DeMonaco has written the script, but this time the director is Gerard McMurray.

Unfortunately The First Purge isn't up to the exhilarating standard of Anarchy or Election Year, but it does have its moments. Like a Klu Klux Klan murder gang being wiped out by heavily armed African American drug dealers.

And the grand finale is an amusing variation on Die Hard. The leader of the drug dealers (Y'lan Noel as Dmitri) goes alone into the high rise housing project to stop the white supremacists who are on a killing spree within. 

Dmitri is even dressed in a wife-beater vest, like John McLane in Die Hard.

So... good, but not great. If you're intrigued by the premise of the Purge movies you might want to check out the second or third film.

Or maybe you'd prefer to wait for the TV series, which is on its way.

(Image credits: A surprisingly large selection of posters — and some great ones (I particularly like the crime scene continent, and the burning ice cream truck) — at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 1 July 2018

Sicario 2: Soldado by Taylor Sheridan

Taylor Sheridan is my hero. He's probably the finest screenwriter working at the moment.  

He made his explosive debut with Sicario in 2015, and then followed it up with Hell or High Water and Wind River

An astonishing run of high quality movies marked by a flair for action, a sense of place, and strong characterisation.

So when I learned of this new film, I was very apprehensive. Not only was it Sheridan's fourth script, it was a sequel. And sequels are notoriously hard to pull off. I took my seat in the cinema both excited and braced for an almost inevitable disappointment.

This film, which in America is called Sicario: Day of the Soldado and in Britain Sicario 2: Soldado (both rather cumbersome titles) initially seemed to me to have a couple of difficulties to overcome...

Sure enough, it begins in the familiar brutal world of the US-Mexican border. The first image is of a rugged, primeval landscape which could be from a million years ago — and then a helicopter bobs into view, a menacing artefact of modern technology.

The story which is subsequently set out at first seems to hinge on intertwining the Mexican drug cartels with Islamic extremism. Hmm... Was this a contrived attempt to inject topicality?

More worryingly, this new film focuses on two characters returning from Sicario — Benicio del Toro's revenge-driven hitman Alejandro and Josh Brolin's cynical black-ops warrior, Matt. But it doesn't feature Emily Blunt as Kate.

In the original movie Kate was the anchor, the moral compass of the film. Whereas Alejandro and Matt are hardened, ruthless and accustomed to the nightmarish world they inhabit, Kate was still a normal person with values and feelings.

What would it do to the new movie to remove her from the equation?

Well, I need not have worried — about this, or anything else. 

Sicario 2: Soldado, or whatever the hell you want to call it, is spellbinding. It is a masterpiece. I loved every moment of it. 
Taylor Sheridan has done an astonishing job of constructing a film in which every scene has something fresh or fascinating to it. And it grips you relentlessly.

Sheridan does a superb job of enlisting the audience's sympathies and keeping us on the edge of our seat. There's also memorable characters,  unforgettable action sequences — including another terrifying cross-border excursion — and some great dialogue ("Beautiful day." "Yeah, blue skies... high calibre weapons... I just love getting out of the office").

Other than Taylor Sheridan, most of the creative team has changed from Sicario. 

The director this time is the Italian Stefano Sollima, making his English language feature debut. The cinematographer is Dariusz Wolski, who frequently works with Ridley Scott and recently shot All the Money in the World

The composer of Sicario, Johann Johannsson, died tragically young and he has been replaced by his collaborator the Icelandic cellist Hildur Guanodottir.

They all do a terrific job. But I regard this as Taylor Sheridan's movie. And it's a triumph.

In a summer multiplex environment congested with superheros and space ships, this is one sequel you mustn't miss. An exciting and disturbing action movie which manages to be moving, profound and thrilling all at once.

(Image credits: posters from Imp Awards.)