Build my Gallows High (1947)

When it’s on: Monday, 27 August (12.40 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

I never saw her in the daytime. We seemed to live by night. What was left of the day went away like a pack of cigarettes you smoked. I didn’t know where she lived. I never followed her. All I ever had to go on was a place and time to see her again. I don’t know what we were waiting for. Maybe we thought the world would end.

If you have never seen Build my Gallows High (or, to give it its US title, Out of the Past), then do yourself a favour – stop reading this, set everything you were going to do to one side for 96 minutes, and watch it. Do yourself a second favour and record it also, because one viewing isn’t enough. Build my Gallows High is darn near a perfect film where this site is concerned, a taut and gripping thriller filled with heart and emotions so powerful they dribble from the screen, one in which barely a moment is wasted and where every shot counts.

Director Jacques Tourneur already had a fair old body of work to his name before taking on the project. Best known for a series of lean horror films made on a shoestring and produced by Val Lewton, he brought a reputation for lean storytelling to Build my Gallows High, packing meaning and imagery into just about anything the camera pointed at. It was written by Daniel Mainwaring, who adapted his own book, whilst Tourneur was fortunate enough to call on a dream central cast. Kirk Douglas was loaned to RKO from Paramount, combining with Jane Greer and relative newcomer Robert Mitchum to incredible effect.

The film’s plot actually starts in the middle of the story. Mitchum is Jeff Bailey, a gas station owner in quiet Bridgeport, California. He’s assisted by a deaf and dumb kid, played by Dickie Moore, and has a local sweetheart, Ann (Virginia Huston). All seems well until a man arrives in town who recognises Jeff from the past and makes him take a trip to meet rich Whit Sterling (Douglas). Before leaving, Jeff fills Ann in on the background. He’s not called Bailey at all, but Markham. He used to be a detective and some years ago he was hired by Whit to find a girl who’d shot him and run away with $40,000. Jeff’s trail leads him south into Mexico, and ultimately to Acapulco, where he not only finds Kathie (Jane Greer) but falls heads over heels for her. For a time, the pair dream about leaving their past lives behind and staying together, but eventually they’re discovered by Jeff’s old partner, who has been hired by Whit in turn and demands money from them. Kathie kills him, flees, and Jess winds up forging his new life in Bridgeport.

But it’s a temporary reprieve, and whilst Jeff tries to get on with things, there’s a sense of fatality about his return to Whit that suggests he knows it. Mitchum is a nigh on perfect fit for the character, expressing naturally his laconic manner, his submission to the whims of fate. His scenes alongside Douglas are just brilliant. They should be natural enemies, especially once it transpires they’ve both been with the same woman, but the film doesn’t go for obvious stereotyping and allows room for Whit’s charisma and gregariousness to shine. Best of all perhaps is Greer. Within the film noir genre, I struggle to think of a femme fatale who has been quite so angel-faced. The film proffers a mysterious energy upon her, dressing her in white when she first appears and making her subsequent dresses get darker throughout until she’s all in black by the end. It’s also worth noting that most of her appearances find her walking out of the shadows and into the light, a stark contrast with Mitchum who oscillates between being bathed in extremes of light and darkness.

The rest is atmosphere. Build my Gallows High develops a sombre mood of impending doom, like all the characters are in a mutually driven spiral of doom. Better still, they all come across as real human beings, ones with deep flaws. For all her badness, Kathie’s basically a survivor, but one who can make mistakes, such as hedging her bets on Jeff. Whit never appears to be the film’s villain; he’s all smiles and easy company, though Douglas gives the impression of steel beneath the grins and the way he blows his cigarette smoke at his opponents surrounds him in unease. And then there’s Jeff himself, the almost maddening way he throws himself to the fates and hopes for the best. But aren’t we all guilty of that sometimes?

In terms of the quintessential film noir experience, it’s at the top of the pile for me, and I imagine most fans would have it on at least the last one hundred metres. There’s a lovely passage in Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy in which he almost leaps out of the body of his protagonist to lavish praise on the film, particularly the very last scene. It’s sublime, yet there’s little within its running time that’s anything less. It even has an influence that lasts in far more recent film making. The lesser remake, Against all Odds, from the 1980s is forgettable, but strong shades of it exist in one of the best films of the last decade, A History of Violence, and that’s no mean achievement. An essential afternoon’s entertainment.

Build me Gallows High: *****

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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

When it’s on: Friday, 11 May (4.45 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

A strange twilight world opened up before me, and I felt as the first man to set foot on another planet, an intruder in this mystic garden of the deep.

Film4 spoil us with an end of the week treat in the shape of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a Disney production into which serious money was sunk and one that found itself the second highest grossing picture of the year (behind White Christmas).

As always, I read various peoples’ reviews of films after watching them and here, more than usual, I found critical opinion often giving way to the warm glow of nostalgic memories. By all accounts, going to see 20,000 Leagues in 1954 was a magical experience, exactly the sensation Walt Disney wished to elicit from his movies. The closest I guess we kids of the next generation came to it was Star Wars, yet in a way 20,000 Leagues was more important because of the respect it paid to its audience. Both flicks are at heart adventure yarns, but the earlier release has something profound to say about the world. Captain Nemo lives underwater and attacks warships due to a disillusionment with the world. He’s terrified about giving up the secrets of the Nautilus because of what people might do with the technology. I don’t suppose it’s any coincidence that Nemo’s concerns would have chimed with Cold War era audiences.

Nemo is played by the great James Mason, oscillating ever between genius and madness. Mason was a casting coup for Disney, who didn’t normally attract performers of his calibre, and the role requires a heavyweight, someone who can convey his character’s conflict and come across as a villain, but not altogether evil. Into his watery world comes Professor Pierre Arounax (Paul Lukas), who’s been researching accounts of the sea monster that devours ships (i.e. being rammed by the Nautilus, which appears above the surface of the sea as an oncoming, terrifying  pair of huge green eyes) and in whom Nemo senses a kindred spirit. The academic brings along his apprentice, Conseil (Peter Lorre), and a salty seaman with the ironic name of Ned Land (Kirk Douglas).

Lorre is on hand as the largely comic sidekick, whilst Douglas provides the broad-shouldered muscle. I’m used to seeing the latter play far more intense characters in serious films, so catching him in a light-hearted role was a real surprise. Watch! Douglas sings! He performs with a seal! He’s actually very good value as the guitar strumming Land, and apparently he had great fun making the film.

Fun is the bottom line as the Nautilus goes about its underwater business, demonstrating that life can be enjoyed to the full beneath the waves, providing you like smoking seaweed cigars. The effects work is breathtaking for the era – the model filming isn’t as obvious as it so clearly appears to be in other pictures, and even the giant squid attack works. No Ray Harryhausen style stop motion stuff here. The tentacle wires and animatronics are masked largely by the decision to film the scene in a thunderstorm at night, which also has the nice side effect of increasing the drama. Filming the scene was something of a struggle, and no less a figure than Disney himself ordered a full retake when the original, set in a calm sea, exposed too much of the squid’s artificial workings. My DVD contains the original squid attack as an extra; they made the right choice.

Richard Fleischer directs steadily, letting the film flag slightly in the middle as the full scale of what the Nautilus can do is revealed. Even by 1954 standards, as the USA launched its first nuclear submarine, there must have been a feeling of ‘Huh?’ from viewers who were quite used to a world containing submersibles. It’s for this reason the film retains the Victorian era setting, the one in which Jules Verne wrote his novel. This ensures the submarine is a set of considerable delights, with its rivets, brass instruments and Nemo’s amazing pipe organ.

Elsewhere, 20,000 Leagues may very well be the perfect family film. The Disney formula of cute animals, songs and lame gags is minimised in favour of action and a refreshing philosophical undertone. This is why it’s a gift of a film, especially in an era when what we get from cross-generational visits to the cinema are computer animations and telegraphed narratives.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: *****

Detective Story (1951)

When it’s on: Monday, 30 April 2012 (1.10 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

I’m drowning – drowning in my own juice…

The more times I watch films by William Wyler, the more it’s becoming apparent he’s one of my favourite directors. 90 Take Willie, a perfectionist renowned for filming scenes over and over until he’d got exactly what he wanted from them, might be better known for his three Academy Awards for directing, and for filming on vast canvases as in The Big Country and Ben-Hur, but Detective Story is an altogether smaller affair. Filmed almost entirely on a single set (the 21st police precinct in New York) and focusing on a day in the life of both the cops and robbers who frequent it, the picture’s an intimate portrayal of one man’s descent into despair.

At first, Detective Jim McLeod (Kirk Douglas) appears to have it all – the glamorous wife (Eleanor Parker) and uncompromising attitude to law-breakers. His policy of zero tolerance might very well make him the Daily Mail‘s perfect copper as he switches from case to case with crisp, almost insouciant ease. But there are flaws in his armour, witnessed by those around him (reliable character actors like William Bendix and Horace McMahon) who realise he’s a timebomb of hate and anger and spend part of their day trying to temper his force of nature. McLeod’s darker side rises to the surface with the appearance of Dr Karl Schneider (George Macready), an accused abortionist with the blood of many women on his conscience. The detective’s been trying to bring him to justice for a year and grows increasingly frustrated with his unwillingness to confess, beating him savagely on a trip to the hospital to visit a witness after Schneider suggests he has information that concerns McLeod himself.

That information turns out to concern Mrs McLeod in a story teased out by the detective’s boss, Lieutenant Monahan (McMahon). And here, McLeod’s thin veneer of self-control starts to unravel. His harshness to the mainly petty criminals brought in increases, notably to Arthur (Craig Kindred), a first timer who’s committed an offence of burglary against his employer. McLeod’s partner, Brody (Bendix), thinks that Arthur’s made a young man’s mistake and can be let off with a warning, but the detective’s having none of it, seeing Arthur as inevitably starting on a slippery slope that will lead him to the career criminality exhibited by two harder cases who’ve been brought in.

Detective Story is adapted from Sidney Kingsley’s 1949 play. Wyler uses his limited set to film from all angles, largely reflecting McLeod’s state of mind. The early shots are more controlled as he’s in calm control, concentrating mostly on the apparently endless series of cases brought to the precinct and the staff’s attempts to keep on top of everything. Later, the space surrounding Douglas seems to compress, shutting him in. The rooms he uses to talk with his wife become more cramped and claustrophobic, and it’s no surprise that the ‘talking to’ he gets from Brody takes place on the roof, the wide open cityscape at night mirroring the possibilities of a bright future he’s hearing.

The film relies on strong performances from its cast and it gets them. Douglas is at his most commanding, but there is time to explore the other lives and especially affecting is the turn delivered by Lee Grant, the petty shoplifter who’s being booked and from whose perspective much of the story unfolds. Grant was one of several cast members who reprised her role in the play, and she earned an Oscar nomination for her playing of the bewildered woman trying to cope with the dizzying blur of activity into which she’s been thrown.

Detective Story: ****

The Vikings (1958)

When it’s on: Saturday, 21 April 2012 (3.15 pm)
Channel: Channel 5
IMDb Link

With a respectful nod to Mad Men, my favourite show on TV at the moment is Game of Thrones, the lavish adaptation of George R R Martin’s historically inspired series of fantasy novels. HBO have done a fantastic job of bringing a complicated, adult narrative to the screen and doing so reverentially whilst introducing elements that weren’t in the text. The casting is almost entirely spot on, producing some top drawer acting. There’s a feeling of authenticity to its sets and locations; real care has been put into its production values, which reach easily the impeccable standards we’ve come to expect of HBO. If I have a small criticism of the show, it is the endless shoehorning in of nudity and sex. I’m no prude and Martin’s books are by nobody’s measure safe for the faint-hearted. Yet an episode can’t pass without a visit to the brothel, or a coupling of some kind, often a sex scene that is only implied as taking place in the text but here made clear and graphic.

It seems a strange thing to have a beef about, but then I’m not 14. Sometimes, I’d prefer it if this kind of thing happened off-screen, insinuated without the need to unfold before my eyes in messy detail. It makes me hark back to a cinema age when this is exactly how sex was dealt with, when the most we saw was a passionate kiss with all the promise it suggested. It makes me reminisce over a matinee classic like The Vikings, sort of a forebear to Game of Thrones with its culling of historical sources for the purpose of entertainment.

The Vikings is now more than fifty years old, and in places it feels like it. Some of the dialogue comes straight from that rotten stable of clichés and stilted hackneyism, the rotten nonsense you imagine the actors having to stifle the giggles whilst quoting. In an almost unbearable courtship scene between Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, the former has to come out with ‘Let’s not question our flesh for wanting to remain flesh’ and keep a straight face. Fortunately, the chemistry is intact thanks to the pair being real-life spouses at the time, but it’s arm-gnawing stuff.

Like all historical epics, there’s a certain obviousness to the plot that was utterly standard for this fare, yet otherwise The Vikings is a definite cut above. For one thing, there’s the trim running time. It sails home at under two hours, ensuring the padding that slowed many of these films down just isn’t there. Perhaps this was because Viking villages weren’t as costly to replicate as Roman sets, so the camera didn’t need to linger on them. The slowest it gets is during the scenes of merriment in Ragnar’s (Ernest Borgnine) mead hall; elsewhere the pace is consistently nifty and dull moments are rare.

The research that went into The Vikings was impressive. Longboats were built to real historical specifications; it was gleaned almost too late that human beings were generally shorter and stockier a thousand years ago, which made being an oarsman on set a cramped experience. Village sets, costumes and weaponry were also designed to comply with what is known of the time. That’s a real Norwegian fjord the longboat’s sailing alongside, etc. The sense of and need for authenticity was practised as well as preached by the film’s star and co-producer, Kirk Douglas, who not only spent the majority of it wearing an enormously painful contact lens but also performed the famous oar run for real, several times, he and the stuntmen who were doing it alongside him.

Veteran action film director Richard Fleischer was drafted to do an economical job of helming the picture (which led to his nomination for Outstanding Direction by the Directors Guild of America), but the real credits belong elsewhere. Jack Cardiff was Director of Photography, churning out those wonderful, evocative shots of longboats cruising home, or disappearing into the mists. In one breathtaking scene,  Douglas’s character hears Ragnar’s ship approaching. He leaves his house to take a look, which just happens to be down a sheer cliff face, the boat a toy in the distance. I also fell in love with Mario Nascimbene’s score, which carried shades of Wagnerian grandeur and sweep but also seemed kind of melancholic. The arrangement as the Vikings leave their home for the Kingdom of Northumbria suggests the reality – not all of them are going to make it back…

After that, the rest of the film’s treats come in a generous shower. The Vikings has one of the loveliest credit sequences I’ve seen in any film, a series of animated scenes inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry as we are treated to a potted history of the people, which is narrated by the appropriately grandiose Orson Welles. That’s just the opening salvo, a promise of adventure, brotherly feuds, brilliantly staged sword fights with the music muted to let the satisfying clang of the blades ring true, Douglas and Curtis at their lusty best, Leigh at her most incredibly beautiful… There’s even a chance it could teach a thing or two to many newer productions.

The Vikings: ****