Posts Tagged With: Hitchcock

Buio Alpha (Before The Darkness)… Mino Guerrini’s THE THIRD EYE Reviewed

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Il Terzo Occhio (“The Third Eye”), 1966. Directed by “James Warren” (Mino Guerrini). Produced by “Louis Mann” (Luigi Carpentieri and Ermanno Donati). Written by “James Warren” (Mino Guerrini), “Dean Craig” (Piero Regnoli), “Phil Young” (=?) and “Gilles De Rays” (?!?) Cinematography by “Sandy Deaves” (Alessandro D’Eva). Edited by “Donna Christie” (Ornella Micheli). Production design by “Samuel Fields” (Mario Chiari). Music by “Frank Mason” (Francesco De Masi). Starring “Frank Nero” (Franco Nero), Gioia Pascal, “Diana Sullivan” (Erika Blanc), “Olga Sunbeauty” (!) (Olga Solbelli), Marina Morgan, Gara Granda, Richard Hillock, Luciano Foti.

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Mino Guerrieri’s The Third Eye concerns itself with the murderous misadventures of an uptight young man who’s dominated by his mother and spends too much time on his hobby of taxidermy… hm, remind you of anything?

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Said young man is a spoilt aristo who goes off the rails when his beloved fiancee carks it. He picks up young floozies and has it off with them in the company of his enbalmed paramour then does away with them, with the collusion of his infatuated housekeeper. Everything’s going swimmingly until his fiancee’s identical twin turns up… remind you of anything else?

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Yep, Mino Guerrini’s The Third Eye is the missing link between Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Jolly Joe D’Amato’s Buio Omega / Blue Holocaust / Beyond The Darkness / Buried Alive (1979). That domineering mother figure, who’s absent from the D’Amato flick and only exists as a figment of Norman Bates’ warped imagination (albeit a pivotal one) in Psycho, is present here in the all too fleshy form of Contessa Alberti (Olga Solbelli) and the resentful, calculating housekeeper (Gioia Pascal’s “Marta”), completely missing from Psycho, foreshadows Franca Stoppi’s spectacularly overplayed Iris in Buio Omega.

The Third Eye 3.jpgThese two alpha females go mano a mano over young Count Mino (Franco Nero) but are smart  enough to call a pragmatic truce when his fiancee Laura (Erika Blanc) threatens to eclipse both of them in his affections. At the suggestion of The Contessa, Marta drains the brake fluid from Laura’s car and she ends up dead in a pond. Having witnessed this sorry spectacle, Mino returns to the family chateau to be informed by the local gendarmerie that his mother has died after a fall down the stairs (in fact Marta pushed her)…

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Mino’s definitely had better days but his response to these events, traumatic as they are, can only be classified as overreaction. After Guerrini’s given him a goofy nightmare sequence, he starts picking up a string of strippers and hookers (the first of whom reminded me more than a little of Ania Pieroni) and making out with them until they object to the presence of the mummified Laura, at which point he throttles them to death.

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Screams were heard in the night as the result of him stuffin’…

“I’ve done it again…” Mino confesses to Marta (who’s already mopping up the evidence of his latest homicide) before protesting that he didn’t want to … his third eye made him do it!!! That’s OK then… After Marta has assisted on a few clean ups, she has sufficient leverage over Mino to extract a promise of marriage from him… perhaps a happy, if seriously twisted ending is in prospect? No, because now Laura’s identical twin Daniela (Blanc again, obviously) turns up and things start getting really wiggy!

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For Franco Nero, who’s about to overtake Donald Pleasence and may well live to challenge Malcolm McDowell or possibly overhaul John Carradine in terms of sheer quantity of screen appearances, 1966 was a particularly busy and fruitful year, even by his standards… we’re talking this, Margheriti’s War Of The Planets and Wild, Wild Planet, no less than three important Spaghetti Western’s (Corubucci’s Django, Fulci’s Massacre Time and Ferdinando Baldi’s Texas, Adios) and playing the role of Abel in John Huston’s The Bible, among others. The following year, the role of Galahad in Joshua Logan’s Camelot would elevate Franco into the firmament of international stardom, though he continued to maintain a healthy prsence in Italian genre Cinema. It’s a single note performance that he gives here, but perfect for a part in which he’s effectively dominated by the female characters. Veteran Solbelli impresses as the Countess. Gioia Pascal as Marta chews nowhere near as much scenery as Franca Stoppi in Buio Omega but delvers a performance so solid that one is surprised to learn that this, only her second screen appearance (after Franco Indovina’s Menage Italian Style, the previous year) also turned out to be her last.

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Was Guerrini attempting some kind of auteurist statement by naming the character after himself? He directs well throughout, with his own distinctive eye for the camera angles and compositions that will best enhance the telling of his sick little tale, though hereafter he marked time as a filone hack-for-hire.

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Just as Hitchcock, feted for the “tastefulness” of Psycho’s signature shower murder, felt empowered by shifts in Cinema community standards to get a whole lot more brutal twelve years later in Frenzy, so Joe D’Amato (never the most shrinking of violets anyway) had no qualms whatsoever about bringing the viler implications of the Norman Bates legend to the screen in 1979. Mino Guerrini was never going to get away with anything like that level of explicit sadism in 1966 and any grand guignol eruption of guts, filmed as here in black and white, was going to lose much of its impact anyway. Picking up on hints in Riccardo Freda’s Dr Hichcock brace (1962/3), The Third Eye cracks on more in the manner of Italian Gothic (coming right at the end of that particular cycle) than the giallo as which it has sometimes been identified… presumably by pundits who haven’t actually seen it. Last time I checked, it was still available (subtitled) on Amazon Prime, complete with shots from the first stripper killing that were excised from some releases. What are you waiting for, you sick puppies?

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Yellow Telly: Italy’s Hitchcock Opens THE DOOR INTO DARKNESS

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DVD. Region Free. Dragon Film Entertainment. Unrated.

Over the years, Dario Argento has blown hot and cold over the “Italian Hitchcock” label that’s so often attached to him (and frankly, the worst of his post-Opera output makes comparisons with Ed Wood seem more appropriate) but his high media profile in Italy is largely down to four hour-long TV movies that he presented under the “La Porta Sul Buio” banner on RAI (the Italian equivalent of the BBC) in 1973, a clear attempt to emulate Universal’s iconic “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”, which ran between 1957 and 1962 in The States (and syndicated world-wide).

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The enormous domestic viewing figures (in the region of 30 million) racked up by Argento’s mini-series are often contextualised with the observation that Italy only had two TV channels (RAI Uno and Rai Due) at the time, but in fact the playing field was even more uneven than that, as Rai Due had only recently started broadcasting and still couldn’t be picked up by more than 50% of the Italian population.

The captive audience digesting their Cena in front of the first episode on a September evening in 1973 were greeted by the spectacle of Argento, in a fetching ’70s pullover, fretting over his dead car. Aldo Reggiani (one of the doctors in Four Flies On Grey Velvet) and Laura Belli offer him a lift and after a desultory bit of conversation (Argento compliments them on the cuteness of their baby) our master of ceremonies alights and waves them off into the first episode…

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“The Neighbour”

That young couple are off to spend their first night in the seaside apartment that will be their new home. It seems improbable that Belli’s character would put up with this ramshackle property, sight unseen. Even more so that Reggiani could sit up to watch a Frankenstein film when much has already been made of the fact that the apartment’s electricity is off. As for the killer upstairs, who goes out to dig a grave for his wife, whom he’s just drowned in the bath, oblivious to what the new neighbours might think of such shenanigans… well!

Despite the deficiencies in Luigi Cozzi’s script, his competent direction keeps this zero budget variation on Rear Window (whose themes Cozzi would expand into the rather excellent giallo The Killer Must Kill Again later in the same year) just about watchable, right up to a climax that’s taken straight out of the Edgar Allan Poe playbook. For anyone who didn’t spot the Hitchcock allusion, the killer is played by Spagwest heavy Mimmo Palmara (who also supervised the series’ post production sound-synching), conspicuously greyed up to look like Raymond Burr.

Il Vicino Di Casa was the second episode shot and originally planned as the broadcast follow-up to its predecessor in the shooting schedule…

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… but at the last minute this order was reversed. Argento wrote and edited The Tram utilising the pseudonym “Sirio Bernadotte”, because after three theatrical features it was felt that TV directing might be construed as a retrograde step in his career. “Sirio” introduces this episode with a bit of inconsequential waffle and by bringing on Commisioner Giordani (Enzo Cerusico, who would star in Argento’s non-giallo feature Five Days In Milan the same year). The mystery facing this guy is how a woman could be stabbed to death and stuffed under the seat of a busy tram without anybody noticing. To crack it, the obsessively finger-snapping cop restages that fatal tram ride with the participation of as many of her fellow passengers as the police can trace. The solution isn’t that hard to work out (and with it, the killer’s identity) but Argento’s polished direction of The Tram makes for a more consistently engaging ride than Il Vicino Di Casa, right up to a half-assed ending which pays lip service to the suggestion that white collar criminals regularly commit worse crimes and get away with them, a theme explored with more conviction and clarity by, among others, Aldo Lado in any number of his films.

RAI’s ambivalence about the whole project, in which their desire for new cutting edge material rubbed up against their conservative instincts, is nowhere better illustrated than in their veto of any depiction of knives in the climactic stalking of Giordani’s girlfriend Giulia played by Paola Tedesco (whose blonde locks in this one make her a bit of a Barbara Bouchet looky-likey)… so instead she’s stalked with a (presumably more politically correct) meat hook! If this character’s name hasn’t already clued you in, the whole episode is an expansion of a scene cut from the screenplay for The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). Likewise…

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… the third episode (whose introductory section, in which Argento quizzes a fat cop about the most colourful cases he’s ever conducted, suggests it was originally conceived as the series closer) is a stripped down version of plot and themes from the recently wrapped Four Flies On Grey Velvet. Argento rewarded his long-term assistant Roberto Pariante with the direction of The Eye Witness but the dailies apparently revealed that he had been promoted beyond his competence and after a few days Argento enlisted Cozzi (his co-writer on this section) to reshoot Pariante’s existing footage while he handled the remaining scenes. In the finished article (still officially credited to Pariante), Liz Taylor clone Marilù Tolo (with whom Argento promptly embarked upon a two-year affair) is driving home late one night when a stabbed woman staggers out in front of her car. Our heroine calls the cops but by the time they arrive, there is no sign of the corpse. Is Marilù losing the plot or is somebody (maybe her apparently devoted husband?) trying to drive her bonkers? Anyone who’s seen Four Flies On Grey Velvet will have little difficulty in supplying the answer…

RAI insider Mario Foglietti (who co-wrote Four Flies with Argento and Cozzi) was given a rare chance to direct on the final  episode to be broadcast, which he co-wrote with Marcella Elsberger…

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The Doll

This one kicks off with a dangerous schizo absconding from a medical unit, all rendered via the nutcase’s POV. In fact throughout, Foglietti deploys techniques from Argento’s bag of visual tricks in the service of a bloodless thriller (the murder of genre icon Erika Blanc in an iconic fashion house setting plays out as a disappointingly stylised, anaemic affair) that runs more on existential angst than violence. This depressing giallo tendency would reach its nadir in Umberto Lenzi’s Spasmo the following year and anyone who’s ever suffered through that one will break out in a cold sweat when they clock the presence here of its star Robert Hoffman, stalking Mara Venier with apparent psychotic intent, though you’d have to be pretty slow on the uptake not to spot the climactic narrative switcheroo coming. I particularly cherished the deployment of police resources in this episode, i.e. the chief investigating officer is driven up and down the high street observing pedestrians in the hope that he’ll spot his quarry!

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Giorgio Gaslini scores all the episodes with Morricone-esque suspenseful flurries and for the main series theme, stabbing, Emersonesque piano passages. Each instalment is passably presented (the original elements having long disappeared) on this 2004 double disc set from German outfit Dragon. Interviews with Luigi Cozzi give the background to the series and introduce each episode individually. For the authentic experience, he requests that the viewer watch La Porta Sul Buio in black and white, as broadcast, rather than colour (as shot and presented here).

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Possibly conceived as a goodbye to the giallo (before the failure of Argento’s projected breakout feature Five Days In Milan sent him back to the genre, with Deep Red and Tenebrae to come), La Porta Sul Buio is a historically interesting but compromised affair, part of whose historical interest resides in the very compromises that it had to make. Its episodes are a lot more watchable (on every level barring that of kitschy trash) than the vignettes Argento (and Lamberto Bava) contributed to RAI’s short-lived (October 1987 to January ’88) TV game show Giallo.

Devised and hosted by veteran presenter Enzo Tortora (coming back after his acquittal in a notorious drugs case) and broadcast in a much more heterogeneous and competitive, post-Berlusconi Italian TV environment, Giallo was an indigestible concoction of game show (contestants had to guess the killer) and chat show (a surviving clip shows Dario interviewing a tangibly listless post-Roger Waters Pink Floyd), with glamorous hostesses thrown in for good measure but regrettably no sign of Dusty Bin.

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No “Sirio Bernadotte” subterfuge, this time out, for a director whose career after Opera would consist of nothing but retrograde steps…

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Dizzy Blondes… VERTIGO Goes Go-Go In Lucio Fulci’s PERVERSION STORY.

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BD. Region Free. Mondo Macabro. Unrated.

By 1969 Lucio Fulci, the self-proclaimed “terrorist of the genres”, had compiled a solid track record of domestic box office success with every filone he ever waded into… youthsploitation pictures, comedies, caper movies, spaghetti westerns… it was inevitable that he would be given the opportunity to try his hand in the newly faddish field of giallo. His maiden entry in the thriller stakes, with Una Sull’Altra (“One On Top Of The Other” aka Perversion Story… the original Italian title resonating far more cleverly with what actually goes on in the film) preceded the model that Mario Bava had been refining since The Evil Eye (1963) and Blood And Black Lace (1964) hitting critical mass with Dario Argento’s international crossover hit The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970). Before that smasheroo prompted descriptions of Argento as “The Italian Hitchcock”, Fulci was fusing the bonkbusting formula of Romolo Guerrieri and Umberto Lenzi‘s Carroll Bakerthons with his own take on The Master’s Vertigo (1958), with a few noirish clichés (e.g. waiting on a gubernatorial reprieve in the condemned cell) thrown in a for good measure).

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Ah, The Jacey. Subsequently an evangelical church, then knocked down to build a shopping mall.

Jean Sorel had starred in Guerrieri’s template-setting The Sweet Body Of Deborah (1968) and would take the male lead in such subsequent variations on that theme as Umberto Lenzi’s A Quiet Place To Kill (1970) and José María Forqué’s The Fox With The Velvet Tail (1971). His bland, masculine good looks will inevitably tempt viewers of these films into suspecting that he’s got to be up to something nefarious although sometimes, of course, there’s a double bluff going on and there really is nothing more than an ineffectual numpty lurking beneath that smooth exterior.

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In Perversion Story Sorel plays Dr George Dumurrier (a subliminal Hitchcock nod in itself), director of the San Francisco clinic that takes his name. Ever the opportunist,  George has got more of an eye for the bottom line than the Hippocratic oath and wastes no opportunity to hype the clinic with such gimmicks as announcing heart transplants that he’s in no position to deliver. In the process he pisses off his sensible brother / junior partner Henry (Alberto De Mendoza) no end and his neglectful careerism and indiscrete affair with Jane (Elsa Martinelli) alienate his sickly wife Susan (Marisa Mell). When a mix up between her asthma medication and sedatives lead to Susan’s death, the discovery of a life insurance policy with George as her beneficiary looks bad enough … but things take an even more sinister turn with the discovery of Monica Weston, an “exotic dancer” who’s a dead ringer for Susan. George and Jane’s investigations into the ever-deepening mystery lead him further and further down a dark path which will terminate in the gas chamber at Alcatraz…

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Perversion Story proves that Fulci hadn’t been wasting his time since assisting Steno in the early ’50s (including on the first Italian features to be shot in colour) and directing nearly 25 of his own pictures in the meantime. Throughout this one he alternates spacious panoramas of San Francisco in automative action with claustrophobic, geometric compositions and deep focus shots that testify to his visual imagination and the technical virtuosity of DP Alejandro Ulloa and camera operator Giovanni Bergamini.

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Ditto the periodic eruptions of split screen work. Coincidentally, round about the time Fulci was making Perversion Story, Martin Scorsese was splitting Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (released 1970) into panels and Brian De Palma (for whom split screen and depth focus would become part of his directorial signature) was incorporating more of the same into Dionysus In ’69 (another 1970 release). As for the sex scenes apparently shot from inside red satin sheets…

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All of this distracts admirably from Perversion Story’s many glaring narrative failings (on which more in a moment…)

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Perversion Story represents the first occasion during which Lucio Fulci was let loose on American locations and the film fair crackles with his love of that country’s cinema and of America itself. To the appropriately beatnik jazz stylings of Riz Ortolani’s overheated OST, Fulci presents a visual paean to Neal Cassady’s vision of the USA as cars, girls and an endless road… although of course the road comes to an end on the West Coast and had already run out for Cassady, dead at 41 by 1968. The beatnik / hippy scene was also dead on its feet by the time Fulci arrived in San Francisco, with straight tourists trying to snatch a fleeting sniff of its remains in seedy “swinging” establishments like the one wherein Monica plies her exotic trade.

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Frustrated fuddy-duddies would also rub up against happening hep cats, again with discouraging results, in Fulci’s next giallo, the following year’s Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (click the link for a discussion of the impressive job Mondo Macabro already did on that title). The Summer of Love is over and the world belongs to suited’n’booted bastards like George Dumurrier. He’d like to think so, anyway, but as the man says: “If the finger print matches, it’s the gas chamber for you, Doc!”

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The go-to edition of Perversion Story prior to this one was Severin’s 2007 DVD release (now out of print) which came with a nice bonus CD of Ortolani’s score. Mondo Macabro’s Blu-ray provides a predictable step up in image quality (unimpaired by any significant grain gain) and clocks in ten minutes longer but if you’re hoping for any clarification of the film’s wayward plotting… well, don’t hold your breath (unless of course you’re reading this in a gas chamber, in which case by all means hold your breath!) I do love Perversion Story but every time I rewatch it, I become more aware of how little sense is made by its storyline (concocted by Fulci, Roberto Gianviti and Jose Luis Martinez Molla, though the latter is conceivably billed merely to fill co-production quotas). Yes, I know that Vertigo itself  seriously stretches credibility at certain points but “far-fetched” barely begins to do justice to Fulci’s film. Not only does it beggar belief that Mell’s character could set up such an elaborate parallel life for herself (I’ve got no qualms about dropping “spoilers” here, I mean we’ve already established that PS is a Vertigo variant)… indeed, that she could carry off two such fabrications (“Susan Dumurrier” is ultimately revealed to be as ersatz a construction as “Monica Weston”) but it’s difficult to see what she might ever have gained from the arduous effort that must have gone into creating Monica. Surely, having framed George for the killing of Susan, she should have just disappeared into a discreet and anonymous alias (though of course in that event, Fulci would have had significantly less of a saga to unfold and we the viewers, considerably less eye candy to contemplate).

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A likely story…

Fittingly for a Hitchcock pastiche, Fulci himself pops up in probably the most substantial of his early cameos, as a forensic scientist, looking well fed but thinning a bit on top (though what he’s got has been teased into impressive quiffage of which even Adriano Celentano might have been proud). After a couple of minutes presenting slides of handwriting that seem to push George even closer to his appointment at Alcatraz, Fulci signs off with: “I’ll be next door, writing up my report”, though in fact he hangs around, badgering some laboratory underlings at the back of the shot for another minute or so, old ham that he is.

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No bonus CD here but there’s the now mandatory overview from Beyond Terror author Steven Thrower, who’s always worth listening to, plus interviews with Elsa Martinelli and Jean Sorel, who just seems to look more distinguished with every passing year and here remembers Fulci more as a collaborator and family friend than via the usual recitation of flakey behaviour. You also get a trailer, which points out that death chamber attendants and technicians actually appear in the film, as they do (but can’t resisit gilding the lily by claiming that they were hot from a recent execution) and a truly wild reel of excerpts from current and upcoming Mondo Macabro releases.

This looks like being the definitive presentation of Perversion Story for quite some time to come.

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You might think she’s crazy, but Marisa Mell wants you to lick her decals off, baby…

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Back In Black… Arrow Academy’s FOUR FILM NOIR CLASSICS Box Set Reviewed

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Cornel Wilde endures the Siren’s song in Joseph H. Lewis’s The Big Combo…

BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. Arrow Academy. PG.

Labels make things easier. Sometimes too easy. Especially when applied retrospectively. In his seminal 1973 tome A Heritage Of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946-1972, David Pirie labelled three films that had been released almost a decade-and-a-half earlier (Horrors Of The Black Museum, Circus Of Horrors and Peeping Tom) as “Anglo-Amalgamated’s Sadean Trilogy”. While effectively differentiating these films from the Gothic Horrors of Hammer and their imitators, this appellation managed to misleadingly elide the simple-minded (albeit inventive) gory thrills of the first two with Michael Powell’s masterly analysis of scopophilia. Donning my music hack head here for a moment, nor have I ever been entirely convinced that such a thing as “the UK Freakbeat Scene” (diagnosed by Phil Smee almost twenty years after the alleged event) ever actually existed.

And so it is with film noir… although coined by Nino Frank as early as 1946, this term for b/w Hollywood crime epics of the ’40s and 50’s (that were more commonly known, in their day, as “melodramas”) didn’t really catch on in critical circles until the 1970s and again, the nomenclature covers a bewilderingly disparate collection of titles and scenarios, from stirring tales of two-fisted dicks (though never, sadly, the converse) tangling with The Syndicate and assorted femmes fatales to more sophisticated efforts that presented their proverbially pulpy, Chandler, Hammett and Woolrich-patented anti-heroes in Expressionist compositions and confronted them with Freudian conundrums… in a further refinement, the films gris took it upon themselves to critique The American Way itself.

Arrow Academy’s box set is a useful sampler of this cinematic phenomenon (it would really be pushing it to describe film noir as a “movement”), comprising four pictures that illustrate its length (the earliest was made just after the end of WWII, the latest mid-way through the ‘ 50s) and breadth (in stylistic and thematic terms).

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Robert Siodmak’s The Dark Mirror was made in 1946, the year in which its director also managed The Spiral Staircase and The Killers…. boy, they used to knock ’em out in those days! Olivia de Havilland turns in a tour de force performance or two in this one, starring as the identical Collins twins Terry and Ruth, one of whom has murdered a former lover and one of whom is covering up for her sibling. Without the latter’s co-operation, Lt. Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) can’t pin the kill on either of them and in exasperation he calls in Dr. Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres), renowned psychiatrist and expert on twins, to see if he can distinguish the psycho from her over-loyal counterpart. The doc falls in love with Ruth (or is it Terry?) and both of them take a shine to him. Given that it was precisely this triangular arrangement which aroused the emotions that led to the original murder (of another eligible doctor), the closer Elliott gets to the truth the shorter his life expectancy starts looking…

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Psychiatrist Scott Elliott gets in over his head with Ruth (or is it Terry?) in The Dark Mirror.

With the aid of some nifty process shots, Siodmak and screen writer Nunnally Johnson adeptly keep the viewer guessing as to who’s who in the sisterly configuration and what each of them is up to. Engaging stuff, for which you’ll have to keep your wits about you… and a clear influence on the subsequent likes of Basic Instinct (1992).

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If Siodmak’s picture dabbles a toe in the waters of aberrant psychology, Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond The Door (1947) jumps straight in there, right up to its impeccable Expressionist arse. While Lang exerted an undeniable influence over much of Hitchcock’s output, SBTD is a pretty blatant rip of Sir Alfred’s Rebecca (1940) albeit with hysteria levels ramped up to (at least) 11.

Slumming it in Mexico, bored heiress Celia (Joan Bennett) undergoes a whirlwind wooing at the hands of charismatic chancer Mark Lamphere (the perennially troubled and troubling Michael Redgrave) and before you can say “spot the loony” she’s married him. Talk about “marry in haste, repent at leisure:… on arriving chez Lamphere, Celia finds it inhabited by the intense Lamphere Jr, her snotty new sister-in-law and a jealous governess who’s pretending to be facially scarred (as you do). The joint is also (metaphorically) haunted by the spectre of Mark’s deceased first wife. Just to put the tin hat on her newfound domestic bliss, Mark (whose moods swing more energetically than Hugh Hefner) has taken the “man cave” thing to extremes, turning six rooms in the place over to commemorations of infamous wife-killings. A seventh room is locked against all comers and of course instead of legging it, Celia resolves to stick around and find out to whose upcoming murder it is has been consecrated… well, duh!

Although Celia laughingly slights psychoanalysis at one point, this film ultimately puts more faith in the instantaneous curative power of catharsis than Freud himself ever did.. Certainly Celia does, confident that the truth about a childhood trauma will stop Mark in his murderous tracks…

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“Calm down, calm down…”

… though the suggestion that something as trivial as said incident, when revealed in all its banality, could have driven Mark to the brink of murderous madness makes you doubt that the film’s happy ending is going to stick. This is psychoanalytical schtick pitched scarcely higher than in any run-of-the-mill giallo (e.g. the guy in Lamberto Bava’s Blade In The Dark who develops a pathological fear of hearing ping-pong balls bouncing in the night, or whatever it is). *

Predating Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus and its imitators, there has been an honourable (well, sometimes) tradition of couching the proverbial battle of the sexes in violently metaphorical terms that can be traced back through the likes of Pedro Almodóvar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1989), Piero Schivazapa’s The Frightened Woman (1969), … even unto The Taming Of The Shrew (1590-92). Crossing the line that delineates finely-wrought from overwrought, The Secret Beyond The Door rapidly drifts way out of its psychological depth but is consistently difficult to tear your eyes off, pitched, as it is, camper than a row of tents.

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A theme that emerges at several points in the supplementary materials on this box is that many of the seminal noir directors were dissenting refugees from Nazi Germany and that this background lent the films much of their dark edge. Abraham Polonsky, whose  family escaped earlier Russian pogroms, emerged in his as turn as a stalwart of left-wing intellectual New York Jewry. His first significant venture into film noir was writing Robert Rossen’s Body And Soul (1947), in which an ambitious but principled up-and-coming boxer (played by John Garfield, “the Jewish Brando”) faces his toughest fight outside the ring, struggling to maintain his integrity in the face of professional pugilism’s shadier side. That film’s influence over Raging Bull (1980) is signified here by a Martin Scorsese introduction to the third film in this collection, Polonsky’s directorial debut Force Of Evil (1948).

Garfield stars again as Joe Morse, an ambitious mob lawyer attempting to square his conscience by looking out for his brother Leo (Thomas Gomez), whose small time numbers racket is being swallowed up by The Syndicate, his efforts only serving to open up a further succession of ethical worm cans. The temptation to cite these moral complexities and Garfield’s anguished weighing of them as “Shakespearian” is only intensified by Polonsky and cowriter Ira Wolfert’s decision to render their dialogue as blank verse. The “my brother’s keeper” theme serves as another pre-echo of Raging Bull and admirers of The Godfather might also detect shades of Force Of Evil in Coppola’s 1972 biggie. Nor are the film’s closing shots from under the Brooklyn bridge entirely dissimilar from ones featuring the Golden Gate bridge in Hitchcock’s masterful Vertigo, made ten years after Force Of Evil.

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View from the bridge… John Garfield’s moment of moral awakening in Force Of Evil.

By having Joe turn his back on his former life and prepare (we are led to believe) to spill the beans to the The Law, Polonsky satisfied the Hays Office’s Motion Picture Production Code while slipping through a sly screen parable in which Capitalism is explicitly identified with gangsterism, as the small time numbers runner grind out a living in the shadow of Wall Street. No prizes for guessing that he would fall foul of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951 after being ratted out by Sterling Hayden. Resolutely refusing (as did Garfield) to follow suit and point the finger at others (earning himself the description of “a very dangerous citizen” by Illinois Congressman Harold Velde), Polonsky was blacklisted for decades, writing subsequent pictures (e..g. Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959) only with the aid of a “front” and directing a mere handful of further films after HUAC had itself fallen into disrepute.

film-noir-the-big-combo-poster1.jpgBy the mid-fifties artists of the calibre of Lang, Siodmak and Polonsky had, for their various reasons, vacated (or been obliged to vacate) the noir stage, leaving it to more, er, workmanlike types such as Joseph H. Lewis. Although he’d directed The Bowery Boys, Bela Lugosi during the fallen Horror Great’s Monogram period and some other real dross, Lewis clearly picked up a bit of technique along the way (even if much of it could be considered “idiosyncratic” to say the least… his habit of breaking up the foreground of shots in his formulaic Westerns earned him the moniker “Wagon Wheel Joe”) and his Gun Crazy (1950) attained a brief vogue, a few years ago. His best film, though, is probably the one that rounds out this box, 1955’s The Big Combo.

Cornel Wilde’s intense Police Lt. Leonard Diamond (rough Diamond, right?) obsessively pursues Richard Conte’s stone-cold psycho hoodlum Mr Brown (Hm, wonder if Quentin Tarantino ever saw this one?), his moral mission complicated by his equally driven desire for the bad guy’s girl Susan (Jean Wallace). But is this infatuation itself driven by an unconscious desire to have what Brown has… to be what he is? The Big Combo could easily have turned into formulaic stuff but Wilde’s undercharismatised performance and Wallace’s wet Nelly screen non-presence are amply made up for by the brilliance of the bad guys.

Conte proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that once your character has been established as a dangerous psycho, there’s no need for you to chew the scenery (a lesson Anthony Hopkins could have learned from him, if not from Brian Cox). What does Susan see in this guy? Well, as Helena Stanton’s Rita, her showgirl rival for Diamond’s affections, puts it: “A woman doesn’t care how her man makes his money… just how he makes love” and there’s a scene in this film during which we can only infer that Mr Brown is performing cunnilingus on Susan. As if Lewis hadn’t already steered sufficiently close to the wind with that, there are other Production Code-testing scenes in which the dialogue and body language between Mr Brown’s favoured hit men Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman) strongly suggest that they are in a committed homosexual relationship. Mingo seems to address Fante as “Fanny” and is told by him at one point that “the cops will be looking for us in every closet”. When not perpetrating such mischief, Lewis can be found – in cahoots with influential noir cinematographer John Alton – subverting the climax of Casablanca (1942)…

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… or supplementing his visual tricks with such audio devices as the final “favour” that Brown does for turncoat henchman Joe McClure (Brian Donlevy, in the same year as he debuted as Hammer’s Quatermass). The Big Combo benefits further from a sleazy big band jazz OST, courtesy of David Rasksin.

Arrow have stuffed this set with attractive extras. Each of the main features gets the commentary track treatment from an interested expert and is accompanied by featurettes, trailers and image galleries. Best of all, three of them are accompanied by contemporary radio productions… an audio rendering of The Dark Mirror, in which John Dehner stars alongside Olivia De Havilland… in honour of its folk tale inspiration, Secret Beyond The Door is paired with a moralistic adaptation of Bluebeard, geared towards a juvenile audience… for Force Of Evil, Arrow wheel out a radio version of Body And Soul (in which Garfield plays opposite the original Mrs Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman) and Hollywood Fights Back, in which Charles Boyer hosts 40 plus tinsel town titans, denouncing the poison of McCarthyism.

This is an excellent primer / incitement to further studies in the field of film noir, a vibe which has continued to resonate on screens as recently as this year’s Blade Runner 2049. Other noir box sets are available and hopefully Arrow have got a few more up their sleeve, too.

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Buy the box or Fante and Mingo will be having a word with you…

* Much has been made of the influence Lang exerted over the look of Dario Argento’s Four Flies On Grey Velvet (1971) but for his far from run-of-the-mill giallo (sic) Suspiria (1977) Argento pinched Joan Bennett, flowers with a secret significance, hidden levels in an imposing building and a fiery climactic conflagration from Secret Beyond The Door.

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Dark Dreams Of A Knight Of The Realm… ALFRED HITCHCOCK by Peter Ackroyd, reviewed

norman1Alfred Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd. Chatto & Windus. H/B. ISBN 9780701169930

The virtuous man, according to Plato (in a passage frequently cited by Freud) is the one who’s content to dream what the wicked man actually does. If this is true of us regular folk, how much more so of those possessed by “Genius”?

Freud also opened a hotly contested can of worms when he declared that “Biology is Destiny.” Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) was cursed by physiognomy, doubly so by the strictures of a Catholic education. Making a virtue of necessity, he presented himself as a desireless creature, even joking that his daughter Patricia had been conceived in the sort of turkey basting scenario subsequently celebrated in Sunset Beach. On the silver screen he subjected the blonde ice goddesses of his dreams (Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Tippi Hedren) to his sublimated resentment and revenge.

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On the studio lots they had to suffer his smutty jokes. In later life, encroaching senility (and possibly alcoholism) reportedly reduced him to the level of a sex pest. Critics who are fond of berating the successors to Psycho for explicit violence that Hitchcock would never have countenanced have obviously never watched the maestro’s 1972 effort Frenzy, certain scenes in which pay perverse and explicit tribute to John Reginald Halliday Christie and his misdeeds at 10 Rillington Place and elsewhere, towards which Hitchcock maintained an unabashed fanboy attitude.

Hitch, encircled by his own fears and insecurities, found fame and fortune exploiting those of others. Uneasy with people, he turned himself into a brand, the avatar of which was the physical appearance that so dismayed him. A voyeur, he hated people looking at him. A card carrying cockney, he became a U.S. citizen, then a Knight Of The Realm…rich pickings there for any biographer.

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Although Ackroyd is a respected practitioner of that craft, who’s previously tackled Chaplin, Dickens, William Blake, Wilkie Collins, Thomas More, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, alarm bells started ringing when I noted the slimness of this volume (a mere 259 pages to cover a figure so massive – in every way – as Hitchcock?) and registered the misuse of certain terms (e.g. “neuralgia”) within the first few of those pages. Happily, Ackroyd’s proof readers wake up as he commences a worthy,  economical handling of Hitchcock’s life that concentrates on the filmography but manages to pack a lot of personal stuff around it, revealing (if not fully illuminating) the substratum of dark dreams upon which the cinematic wonders were erected. Initially I was tempted to dismiss this biography as “Hitchcock at half cock” but it’s really a  lot better than that, a useful primer that might well inspire the reader to seek out weightier tomes by Truffaut, Spoto (“The Dark Side Of Genius”, indeed) et al.

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