Footsteps in the Fog (1955)

When it’s on: Thursday, 18 February (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Footsteps in the Fog is one of those apparently British films that’s actually backed by American money and therefore plays up to elements of UK life and culture that has a particular fascination for US audiences, most particularly the class system. At one point in the film Stewart Granger tells Jean Simmons that there are no class differences in America, a bit of an eye-popping statement in truth but in the world of the story it’s the essential difference between upstairs folk and ‘them downstairs’ that drives the plot. Had this one been made in the States, it would undoubtedly have emerged as film noir. Transported to Victorian London, all the external action taking place through clouds of pea-souper fog (another tick in the box to meet viewers’ expectations), it becomes instead a slice of Gothic melodrama.

Granger and Simmons were established as major Hollywood stars when it was made, and also made for a real-life couple at the time. Homesick and wishing to take advantage of a trend for films being made in Europe, the pair was shown a script for Footsteps in the Fog. Based on a short story by W W Jacobs, the malevolent and duplicitous characters appealed to Granger and Simmons, who oversaw a string of rewrites before filming commenced. The couple felt less appreciation for the choice of director, Arthur Lubin, in the 1950s best known for directing a series of light comedies about a talking mule, the Francis series (he’d eventually transfer the format to television in the shape of Mister Ed), however Lubin was also a consummate professional with countless credits already to his name including a successful adaptation of Phantom of the Opera in 1943. It’s a combination of the director and cinematographer Christopher Challis we have to thank for some delicious shots, including the principal characters framed below the portrait of Granger’s murdered wife to serve up all the major plot points in one scene.

Granger plays Stephen Lowry, a London society gentleman who at the film’s opening attends the funeral of his wife. She’s passed away at the end of a long fight against illness, but what no one knows is that Lowry has in fact been slowly poisoning her in an effort to take over both her money and status… No one, that is, apart from the house’s maid, Lily (Simmons). At the film’s start, Lily is the lowliest of the house’s servants, according to Marjorie Rhodes’s awful Mrs Park a ‘guttersnipe’ who’s up to no good. Her fortunes improve when she confesses to Lowry that she knows what he did and uses this knowledge to get the rest of the staff sacked and herself installed as Housekeeper. Lily is fatally in love with Lowry. She happily becomes his bed partner as well as the sole member of his staff, believing her logical end to be the future Mrs Lowry. What she fails to come to terms with is her master’s complete absence of morals. As soon as he realises that Lily effectively holds him in her power, Lowry attempts a botched and very public murder against her that fails. Having killed the wrong woman, an innocent police constable’s wife, and been eyewitnessed at the scene of the crime, only Lily’s alibi saves him from further trouble. But Lowry sees himself getting married to the beautiful and eligible Elizabeth Travers (Belinda Lee) rather than Lily, wanting nothing further to do with his useful but redoubtedly working class servant, and plans further machinations to rid himself of her.

One of the fine aspects of the film noir style was the attempt to build characters into more than plot drivers, giving even the most fatale of femmes genuine motives for the dark deeds with which they became involved. Footsteps in the Fog attempts the same, with varying results. There comes a point when you as the viewer realises that Lowry and Lily are made for each other. Neither sees tricky concepts like right and wrong getting in the way of the things they want, which should make theirs the start of a beautiful friendship. The fatal flaw of class difference takes sway, though. To Lowry it’s an impassable barrier, ensuring Lily can never be anything more than a plaything, a distraction, whereas for her there’s a fleeting moment of happiness when she’s at her most intimate with her master, filmed in a post-coital glow having enjoyed his attentions. Despite the murder that kicks off the plot, you hope they can make it work – perhaps Lowry will journey with her to America where the class system (apparently) doesn’t matter, and these amoral yet attractive people can enjoy the fruits of their grubby labours. But of course that doesn’t happen. Lowry, who in a nice little irony ‘married up’ in becoming the member of society’s elite that he now is, simply can’t see beyond his trappings and Lily therefore is an obstacle to his fortunes.

The film varies as a success because there’s little depth to Granger’s character. He’s just not a very nice piece of work and thoroughly unworthy of the rapt Lily, who is guilty of loving him beyond any sense of reason. Her character’s tragedy is her willingness to become his accomplice, even when she makes the fateful testimony that acquits him of the murder she knows was intended for her, and all this is beautifully performed by Simmons. Her greatest noir role was as the eponymous Angel Face, for Otto Preminger playing a seemingly sweet and innocent young woman who is anything but when the surface is scratched away. Lily is not quite as evil but she’s dangerously amoral, which naturally leads to tragic consequences. One of the film’s great shames is that you come away barely remembering any characters beyond the main pair. To an extent that’s fair because Footsteps in the Fog was transparently a vehicle for Granger and Simmons, but everyone else in the film is two dimensional, existing solely to jog the story along. That said there’s a neat supporting role for William Hartnell as a Cockney grifter; Bill Travers on the other hand, who plays Lowry’s friend and his love rival for Elizabeth, isn’t very memorable.

Footsteps in the Fog regularly appears in Film4’s schedule, nearly always in its early slot reserved for throwaway classics and that’s probably about right. It isn’t especially significant and its stars are much better known for roles elsewhere, but it is entertaining.

Footsteps in the Fog: ***

North to Alaska (1960)

When it’s on: Thursday, 5 July (12.45 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

This week’s second Stewart Granger film finds our man playing George Pratt, a prospector at the turn of the twentieth century who’s struck lucky in Alaska. Along with his young brother Billy (Fabian) and business partner Sam McCord (John Wayne), George settles down to a life of gold mining and defending the vein against ‘claim jumpers.’ Sam is dispatched to Seattle in order to collect supplies and bring back George’s fiancé. She turns out to have given up on George and married another in the intervening years, so Sam does what any man would and visits a burlesque house to pick up a substitute for his friend. Enter Michelle (Capucine), an exotic French prostitute who, to no one’s real surprise, is quite happy to drop everything and follow Sam north. But here the complications arise. Michelle takes a quick shine to Sam. Once in Alaska, Billy falls for Michelle. Sam has underlying feelings for her too, but these are mixed in with loyalty to George, and it’s anyone’s guess what he’ll do about this turns of events…

None of these issues are quickly resolved in North to Alaska, a light-hearted adventure flick switching from farce to slapstick to romantic comedy with the kind of overlapping that suggests it wasn’t an easy film to make. A writers’ strike was underway, which left the project without a completed script and ended the association of Richard Fleischer, its original director. Fox instead turned to Henry Hathaway, who had to move things along on a day-by-day basis, sometimes working on bits of script for that day’s shooting before a camera rolled. It must have been a frustrating experience, and the seven screenwriting credits imply a chaotic process of turning John H Kafka’s idea into anything approaching a polished script. The film’s around half an hour too long, bloated to a running time of just over two hours – economy appears to have been a victim of the production difficulties.

Wayne needed a hit. His personal losses from investing heavily in The Alamo took their toll on his fortune and prompted him to take any project that offered an easy buck. By now a bona fide screen icon, Wayne was beginning to look like the pentagenarian that he was, but this didn’t stop him from accepting a role that had him playing the romantic lead with a French actress young enough to be his daughter, and the comic elements just about overcome any discomfort. Besides, Wayne developed on his skills of comedy timing, putting in a winning performance that subverted and parodied his usual screen persona. His easy chemistry with Granger, a similarly aged veteran, shone with the pair emerging on screen as natural pals, which just leaves teen idol Fabian as the odd one out. Movies of the time appeared to demand a young, proto-Elvis heartthrob to make a play for the teenage dollar, and Fabian is never bad, perfectly willing to make a tit of himself for Capucine and only really striking a bum note when he hopelessly serenades her.

The film is bookended with two fight scenes that take place in Nome, Alaska’s harbour town on the chilly Bering coast. These brawls are filmed as mass, slapstick affairs, and it’s no surprise to note that Richard Tamladge, whose career stretched back into the silent era, was involved in shooting them. A range of comedy sound effects used in these scenes are either irritating or add to the charm, depending on your tolerance. The studio backlot that doubles as Nome looks suitably muddy, the streets churned into medieval levels of sodden muck, but the gold mine appears to have come straight from a picture postcard. In reality filmed in California (naturally), the panoramic shots of Alaskan mountain ranges are quite lovely, particularly when an animated Aurora Borealis puts in an appearance.

Despite its length and the slowing of any progress in the mid-section, North to Alaska is entertaining enough, carrying just about enough charm to sustain it. Wayne at his most charismatic certainly helps, and I enjoyed him more here than in that other comedy Western, McLintock!, which seemed to me to really labour for its few laughs. Ernie Kovacs shows up in the film as a grifter and the tangled web of his history with Capucine’s character is only teased at, though guessing their past story isn’t difficult. Guess you must, as the focus here is on good clean fun, with even the cut-throat business of claim jumping playing second fiddle to the pratfalls and innocent romance.

North to Alaska: **

Scaramouche (1952)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 3 July (12.55 pm)
Channel: Channel 4
IMDb Link

The first half hour of Scaramouche buckles no swashes. Instead, there’s talking. Exposition, and talking. Stewart Granger plays Andre Moreau, a libertine who laughs and loves in France on the cusp of revolution. He has an on-off relationship with Lenore (Eleanor Parker), a blousey actress, and lives off donations provided by an unnamed noble father of whom he’s the illegitimate offspring. The first segment of the film focuses on Moreau’s flighty existence, swanning through life while his best friend, Philippe (Richard Anderson) doubles as pamphleteer Marcus Brutus, responsible for the revolutionary phrase Liberté, égalité, fraternité that so rallies the common people and angers the aristocracy. Such a noble is Noel, Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer), the finest swordsman in France who is diverted from his killing machine ways by Marie Antoinette and instead charged with uncovering Marcus Brutus. The Queen also introduces him to one of her wards, Aline de Gavrillac (Janet Leigh), who ultimately becomes the love interest for both Moreau and Noel.

Once de Maynes happens upon and indeed kills Philippe, the film suddenly starts to become very good. Moreau’s now in danger. Having fought Noel for himself, only to be contemptuously dismissed and escaping with his life, he joins a band of Commedia dell’Arte players and takes the role of Scaramouche, a comic character who ever wears a mask to hide his ugliness. This has the lucky side-effect of landing him back in the arms of the feisty Lenore, whilst in his spare time Moreau trains in the art of fencing, tutored by great masters with revolutionary sympathies.

Two further duels between Moreau and de Maynes take place before the end of the film. The second is only a little less embarrassing than the first for our hero, but the final has them meeting as equals, with a theatre as the fighting ground and an entire audience on hand to spectate. This last fight is worth waiting for. Including a series of stunts, rope tricks, balletic pirouettes, furniture and props destroyed and Moreau every bit as deadly as his opponent, the duel lasts for eight minutes of pure choreographed brilliance. At the time, it was the longest fight sequence committed to celluloid, and the actors spent eight weeks training for it. Ferrer brought all his experience as a dancer to bear in his graceful movements, whilst Granger’s was more a performance of physical domination, his powerful 6′ 3″ frame dwarfing both the needle rapier and fellow duellist. It’s this quality that makes his on-screen improvement as a swordfighter so credible. Bludgeoning and crude in his early attempts at the art, Ferrer has to do little but shift his body out of the way, smiling all the time, as Granger thrusts futilely.

Most of Scaramouche is covered with Victor Young’s florid score, but this is absent from the fight scenes. It’s one of the best decisions made by director, George Sidney, who lets the soundtrack ring with the clash of hot metal rather than be clouded with orchestrals. One can very easily imagine a young George Lucas being in thrall to the duels, especially the climactic one, and resolving to end his Star Wars prequel trilogy with something that matched it. Only it doesn’t. Granger and Ferrer may cling from balconies, vault over sedans and fence across the rows of seats, but the impression they leave is of an epic fight that just happens to take place in a theatre rather than the CGI-driven videogame sequence that comes at the end of Star Wars III: The Revenge of the Sith. The photography is generally excellent, in particular the contrast between the colourful stage life of Scaramouche’s troupe and the mist enshrouded, earthy duelling scenes.

When he made Scaramouche, Granger was still in the early years of his contract with MGM. Destined to take over Errol Flynn’s swashbuckling mantle, this was the ideal project for him, and one he demanded as a stipulation of his agreement with the studio, having watched the 1923 silent as a youngster. A new version of the film had been in the pipelines for some years and appeared to be heading into musical territory, with Gene Kelly in the title role. This all changed with Granger’s involvement, and perhaps for the best. Once the dialogue-heavy first acts are over and Moreau’s on the run, Scaramouche just gets better and better. The only downside of the main cast is Janet Leigh, who takes the thankless, callow young lady’s role and is wiped off the screen by Eleanor Parker’s fiery redhead, indeed one wonders why Moreau’s affection remained when he had the gorgeous hellcat Lenore to grapple with.

Scaramouche: ***

Moonfleet (1955)

When it’s on: Thursday, 26 April 2012 (2.25 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Moonfleet is a 1955 offering by Fritz Lang that came towards the end of both the director’s American career and the studio system. Underfunded and unloved, the film ultimately found favour with French audiences who drew easy comparisons between its Gothic imagery and that of his earlier, German output.

It’s based on the 1898 novel by J Meade Falkner, but as is often the case the adaptation is a smash and grab of the text. The main diversion is a completely new main character, Jeremy Fox, who forms an unlikely double act with the book’s main character, young John Mohune. The setting, eighteenth century Dorset, is retained, as is the tale of south coast smugglers and skulduggery, though Fox looms large as the man with feet in both worlds – the gentleman of leisure, rubbing shoulders with the rich, and the leader of a motley crew of buccaneers. In Moonfleet, Fox is played by Stewart Granger at the apex of his box office clout. He finds the arrival of ten-year old John (Jon Whitely) an unwelcome diversion, but he’s strangely drawn to the boy, who turns up in Moonfleet at the behest of his dying mother; years ago she was Fox’s illicit lover. Back then, Fox was considered not good enough for the upper class Mohunes and was sent away with a flogging. But the years have been unkind to the family, now facing destitution, whilst Fox – thanks to his no-good profiteering – has become rich and powerful.

As the authorities steadily work out the source of Fox’s wealth, due in no small part to the testament of those he’s discarded along the way, his circumstances grow more desperate, and ultimately he comes to rely on John’s help in retrieving a long lost diamond that was hidden years ago by ‘Redbeard’ Mohune. Even in a lesser Lang there’s a dark edge, and it comes in the treacherous form of Fox, a morally bankrupt opportunist who is obviously going to double-cross John when the moment is right. This is made all the more tragic because the boy becomes swiftly devoted to his new benefactor, following him everywhere with adorable dedication and complete faith.

The reasons for the link between the two are telegraphed ahead without ever being made explicit and there are several lovely moments when Fox comes to John’s rescue without explaining why. The best of these comes in a duel between Fox and one of the treacherous buccaneers, the gentleman with his rapier battling the sort of enormous battleaxe that comes straight out of World of Warcraft. The final scene strikes an optimistic note that wasn’t in Lang’s original vision, but the director admitted later it was better than the dark and tragic climax he would have filmed.

Moonfleet clocks in at less than ninety minutes, giving it the feel of a Hammer-esque quickie that was in fact produced with 1962’s Captain Clegg, a smuggling yarn owing much to Lang’s earlier work. Captain Clegg is well worth checking out; it’s one of those Hammer releases made obscure because it didn’t deal in horror, but it deserves better and can be found tucked away on Universal’s Hammer Horror Series set. Moonfleet features less fun, yet stylistically it hits home. Much of the story is told in inky semi-darkness. Apart from John, its characters are a rogue’s gallery of grotesques. Our introduction to Fox’s gang of criminals is a shot of them glaring down at John, leering with menace and intent. The local poshos into whose company Fox works himself are little better. George Sanders puts in a reliable turn as Lord John Ashwood, who’s looking to make money from Fox’s capers. Lord John’s wife is played by Joan Greenwood, an altogether unlovely piece of work in fine silks.

Scarier than all of them is Moonfleet’s churchyard, according to legend haunted by Redbeard and concealing the hidden entrance to the smugglers’ cove. The pick of its jagged, shadowy gravestones is a glassy-eyed Angel of Death, perhaps the most frightening statue ever committed to celluloid and an early warning to John that all is far from well in the den of thieves into which he’s been sent.

Moonfleet: ***