Friday, 31 August 2012

Friday Night Film: The Spiral Staircase

‘The Spiral Staircase’ is a film as twisted as its title. Only an hour long, it is foot down, full tilt gothic noir from start to finish, imaginative, creepy, scary as hell, the Hollywood machine in top gear: and this was a b picture!



George Brent.

Readymade victim, Helen.
Directed by German horror and thriller specialist, Robert Siodmak, ‘The Spiral Staircase’ is a film about a sick serial killer (is there any other kind?) who is obsessed with wiping out ‘imperfect’ young women in a small New England town. It’s just a matter of time before the psycho gets to Helen, a young maid struck mute as a result of a psychological trauma – in fact, it’s surprising he hasn’t got her already as, not being able to scream she’s a readymade victim.

As the killer sees her.

Scream or die.
Helen lives and works in a large, old dark house and is surrounded by odd bods and eccentrics. In fact, everyone in the town seems either cracked enough to be the killer or nice and innocent enough to provide a shock twist. The tension is palpable way before Helen is in actual physical peril, and the odd factor is racked up by point of view shots through the killers warped eyes. It’s actually quite disturbing. By the time we get to Helen being chased around the mansion we’re on the edge of our seats. Will she scream? Will she die? Maybe a bit of both?



Superbly done, the film is awash from gothic signifiers – thunder cracks, lightning strikes, billowing curtains, candles are blown out, all to the otherworldly wail of a theremin. I don’t like to bang on about cinematography and all that because I don’t like to bang on about cinematography and all that, but it’s a work of art, all filigree and shadow and deep focus. A great little film.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Monday, 27 August 2012

A Trip To Greeneland

'A Gun For Sale' (1936)

For many years, Graham Greene made a strict distinction between his ‘novels’ (the big, deep stuff) and his ‘entertainments’ (popular fiction), rather like The Human League did with their ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ singles (Dance and Pop, respectively). Later on, reputation assured, just like The Human League, he dispensed with the categorisation, either because he thought it unnecessary or because he now thought that everything he wrote was really important (i.e. like when The Human League did 'The Lebanon').
‘A Gun For Sale’ is very much an entertainment, so much so that it was snaffled up by Hollywood to provide a classic noir vehicle for little Alan Ladd. Naturally, the golden haired, handsome Ladd doesn’t resemble to novel’s protagonist, Raven, in any way: Greene’s character has a hare lip and a complex about it that makes him hate the world enough to tip it into catastrophe.
A hired killer, Raven has assassinated a leading political figure, and the ensuing crisis looks likely to lead to war. He bears this responsibility lightly – he is far too embittered and lonely to care about anything as distant as other people – but when he realises he has been paid in counterfeit notes, he sets out to put things right with his paymasters.  
What follows is a typically seedy trawl through Greeneland, a place of wet back streets, stifling trains, provincial theatres and dingy boarding houses. Even a brand new estate becomes a venue for a kidnapping, the darkness of the old city enveloping the shiny suburbs. Mostly there’s the stench of violence and corruption– the fatalistic Raven slowly moving towards his revenge – and his death, like an even less principled Jack Carter.

Greene is absolutely in his milieu when writing about Britain inbetween the wars - a declining Empire that tries to forget that it is forever on the edge of chaos by drawing its net curtains and hoping for the best. But worse was to come, of course, much worse, which probably suited Greene down to the ground: he liked chaos and uncertainty and the dark side of human nature, which is perhaps why he called his books about these subjects 'entertainments'. A bit like The Human League, in fact.*

* Not much like the Human League, really. I just thought the comparison was funny. Yes, I am a tosspot. 

Friday, 24 August 2012

Friday Night Film: The Glove

'The Glove' threatens to transcend its low budget origins on a number of occasions and become a genuinely interesting and well made film, but it meanders around and squanders chance after chance until it suddenly ends and you're left bemoaning what might have been.

Kicking off with a bizarre theme song (Frankie Laine meets Blaxploitation) and some striking credits, it starts with a tremendously moody sequence where a huge man (Rosey Grier) in a crash helmet and body armour puts on a metal knuckled gauntlet and then uses it to pound at least seven shades of shit out of prison guard Aldo Ray, knocking lumps off his car as he does so. It's a promising start, full of excitement and guerilla film technique. 'Ah', you think, 'this is going to be brilliant'.

John Saxon with A glove, not THE glove.

It's gratuitous in the film, too...

Meat fight.

Saxon takes the meat fight to the next level...

Then we are introduced to star John Saxon as a down at heel bail bondsman with a gambling problem and, after an entertaining fight with a homosexual couple, things start to wobble. Saxon's character is actually pretty good, a sort of updated Philip Marlowe with a comb across, although his constant smartarse narration gets tired very quickly. The trouble is that the film makes this character the absolute focus of everything and, while we're kept busy following his problems with child maintenance, his on off relationship with Joanna Cassidy and a scrap in a meat warehouse which ends up with him and his opponent whacking each other with legs of lamb, the big man with the nasty glove who we're really interested in is pushed to the margins, although we know that the climax of the film will come when the two meet.




More revenge.
It's quite a revenge orientated film, really.

Admittedly, we do get to see the big man don the glove and smash up another prison guard's bathroom (and face), and we get a very brief flashback that shows him on the receiving end of the glove in prison (it is apparently a riot glove, 'two pounds of steel and lead' invented to deal with student riots and used in the penal system as a disciplinary method) to establish his motivation, but we're always left wanting more. It's a shame, as what could have been an offbeat masterpiece ends up not so much an interesting failure as a series of wasted opportunities.

Sans Glove, he's a nice guy.
Here's the credits and that ridiculous theme tune. Listen out for the classic lyric 'you can't escape from the kiss and rape of the glove' - actually, you can't miss it, they say it about a zillion times.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Gormless George

Loser: George Roper

George knows what he's missing with Mildred, he just doesn't care. Almost all physical passion he once had has been diverted into budgies, betting and avoiding work - especially in the bedroom. He does have a stack of 'art books', though, so he obviously likes to keep his hand in...  

Mucky Mildred

Shagger: Mildred Roper

Let's face it, Mildred Roper was a dirty bitch and that made her sexy. And if she bit you, you'd know it. Mildred's biggest problem? George, her shag shy husband.   

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Oh, Wicked Wanda!

Bookshops are rubbish, aren’t they? All selling the same boring stuff, desperately chasing the easy money, book-club recommended, safe, prole-friendly junk. No imagination, no joi de vivre. Waterstones, I spit on you. Remember when bookshops took pride in having a bit of character, maybe specializing according to the owners’ cultural persuasion, with nary a whiff of Costa coffee, only the musty dust of aging books to stimulate the nostrils? Even the faithful second-hand book market ain’t what it used to be as Oxfam and the charidee shops focused their sights on exploiting the collectibles market. Actually, I don’t begrudge that too much, but the over-inflated market they created has robbed me of the satisfaction of getting many bargains any more, one of life's small pleasures.
Forced to find shelter from the rain the other day, during what is wryly described as summer here, I ducked into a chain bookstore and mooched through the comics (graphic novels, if you must). The usual dull fare of superheroes was punctuated by equally predictable ‘indie’ offerings and hipster fare such as Kramer’s Ergot. I flicked through waiting for the downpour to abate and lo, lurking at the back of KE no.8 was a smutty madeleine, poorly reprinted and slightly shrunken, but a nugget of ribald gold – Oh, Wicked Wanda!

I first made acquaintance with the charming buxom comic heiress at the tender age of ten. Precocious, yes. Actually it would probably be called neglect nowadays, but compared to what’s available to kids via the interweb this was pure innocence. My mate Charlie’s house had a large basement where we’d hide out, drink cream soda (It’s frothy, man!) and, after a sufficiently respectable pause, dive into his dad’s secret cupboard under the stairs to explore a young man’s vault of discovery (more Aladdin’s cave than Plato’s).

An enticing array of guns, smoking pipes (I say Carstairs, corncob or meerschaum today?), a sword, typewriters, Pirelli calendars, assorted junk and best of all an enormous stash of smut, which we would study in a gentlemanly fashion before ramming them back into the shelf and running back upstairs when we were called for our fish fingers and beans. The ladies in the magazines were majestic enough, but made only a temporary impression. Wanda’s strip (groan, ed.) had much more longevity in my pre-pubescent imagination.

I will direct readers here for the full facts and figures – bit of a cop-out, I know, but my meager knowledge is no match for Wiki.

Messrs Mullally & Embleton, smutters extrordinaire
Writer Frederic Mullally’s cultural and political jokes, caricatures and allusions were rather lost on me, but Ron Embleton’s lines and curves were faultless, the artist’s id given free rein to produce tasteless smut perfect for the simple-minded young man. Bryan Forbes’ early psychedelic illustrations are great too, a little more graphic and tasteful. Viewed today, many of the gags struggle to remain funny (were they ever funny?) and despite the strong female lead the misogynistic male take on lesbianism is undeniable. But with the general air of playful nonsense, daft plots (a touch of Michael Moorcock?) and post-sexual revolution libertarianism, it’s a captivating period piece.

Most of Wanda’s adventures were collected in a Penthouse anthology, long out of print, and used copies are rare and expensive. So come on Kramer’s Ergot and you trendy hipsters, it’s time to sort out a proper reprint and allow a new generation to appraise Wicked Wanda’s fulsome assets.

[In the meantime, there may be a further reading in the comments, ahem]