Panning for Gold with Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka

Eureka 1 I have a real soft spot for that strange period after the ‘70s when all the British filmmaking enfants terribles tried to wedge their styles into a movie landscape that had radically changed in front of them. Ken Russell tore into the American cinematic arena with Altered States (1980) and Crimes of Passion (1984); Lindsay Anderson veered from satirical outrage with Britannia Hospital (1982) to genteel drama with The Whales of August (1987); John Boorman went phantasmagorical with Excalibur (1981) and primitive with The Emerald Forest (1985); Derek Jarman dispensed with narrative entirely for The Angelic Conversation (1985) and The Last of England (1988). Then there’s the strange case of Nicolas Roeg, who was riding high after the triple punch of Walkabout (1970), Don’t Look Now (1973), and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Needless to say, the early ‘80s took him in some very surprising directions, first with the very ill-received Bad Timing (1980), which is now regarded as a transgressive classic, and what remains one of his most neglected and misunderstood films, Eureka (1983), airing on TCM in the appropriately wee hours of Friday. [...MORE]

That Ealing Touch

Alec Guinness in The Lavendar Hill Mob
If you know the name “Ealing Studios,” chances are it makes you think of a string of astonishing comedies the British studio cranked out in the decade or so after World War II, usually starring Alec Guinness, including such essentials as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951, seen above and airing this Saturday, September 10), The Ladykillers (1955), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), and Whiskey Galore! (1949). If you haven’t seen any of those, put them at the top of your “to watch” list pronto! However, there’s much, much more to the Ealing name than most Americans ever saw, and only in recent years has it been possible to really appreciate the scope of its output.  [...MORE]

We’re Off to See the Zardoz

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In the pantheon of wildly ambitious, certifiably insane major studio films released in the go-for-broke 1970s, few can hold a candle to Zardoz (1974). Director John Boorman was riding high on the success of Warner Bros.’ Deliverance two years before, so he was essentially given free rein to choose whatever story he wanted as long as the budget was right. The 20th Century-Fox production was envisioned by Boorman as his second vehicle with Burt Reynolds, but when the mustachioed superstar proved too ill to sign on, Sean Connery was brought on instead. The result is a hallucinatory and utterly unique fever dream of a film, as much fantasy as sci-fi despite its marketing (perhaps because Boorman was still frustrated at being unable to launch an adaptation of The Lord of the Rings), and once seen, it’s certainly not easy to forget. [...MORE]

Tripping through England with The Wrong Box and Time Bandits

The Wrong Box This Saturday you’ll have a great opportunity to take a little crash course in British comedy courtesy of a double feature of two period films (more or less): Time Bandits (1981) and The Wrong Box (1966). In addition to featuring once-in-a lifetime rosters of talent in front of and behind the camera, both are the result of some of England’s most enduring contributions to comedic pop culture in radio, TV, and film, showing how profoundly media could shape the approach to screen humor from one decade to the next. [...MORE]

Fay Wray: The Clairvoyant (1934)

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“When Fay Wray was a child she wasn’t permitted to scream because her throat muscles were delicate and it was feared her voice would be ruined. When she grew up she screamed her way to fame in horror pictures!” – from a 1934 issue of Hollywood magazine

TCM’s annual Summer Under the Stars celebration is underway and today Hollywood’s first ‘Scream Queen’ gets her due. Fay Wray was an independent actress who operated outside the star system and refused to sign a long-term contract, which allowed her to work with many Hollywood studios. Despite her best efforts to carve out a distinct identity as a free agent, she was typecast as a horror starlet after appearing in Doctor X (1932), The Most Dangerous Game (1932), The Vampire Bat (1933), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and King Kong (1933), which cemented her scream queen moniker.

Following the huge success of King Kong, Wray was inundated by proposals to appear in more horror films and thrillers but she was tired of being pigeonholed. In an effort to dodge expectations, she accepted an offer from Gainsborough Pictures in England to costar with Claude Rains (fresh off the set of The Invisible Man; 1933) in an unusual film called The Clairvoyant (1934). Wray, eager to make dramas and comedies, apparently thought the film would broaden her acting opportunities but when her plane landed in the U.K., she was greeted by BBC reporters who immediately asked her to scream for them. Despite Wray’s best efforts to change the trajectory of her career, The Clairvoyant is actually an interesting addition to her horror résumé and you can catch it airing on TCM today. It’s also currently available on TCM On Demand.

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Give Us Absolution

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The passing of screenwriter and playwright Peter Shaffer this summer (June 6, to be precise) is another reminder of how most successful writers tend to be remembered for one or two signature works. In this case, all of his obituaries focused on two titles, both of which he translated from stage to screen himself: Equus, filmed in 1977 by Sidney Lumet with Richard Burton and Peter Firth, and Amadeus, turned into an Oscar-winning 1984 film directed by Milos Forman with F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce.

Less remarked upon but not entirely ignored was the fact that Peter was preceded into this world by five minutes in 1926 by a twin brother, Anthony Shaffer,  who also turned a successful, Edgar Award-winning 1970 play into a hit film: Sleuth (1972), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and starring Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.  (Harold Pinter later overhauled it considerably for a 2007 version directed by Kenneth Branagh, with Caine switching roles opposite Jude Law.) [...MORE]

Beware of Birds: Crow Hollow (1952)

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Actress Natasha Parry, star of Crow Hollow (1952)

Crow Hollow (1952) is a little seen low-budget British B-movie typically categorized as Film Noir in the few books where I’ve seen it mentioned. After catching up with it recently I discovered that it had much more in common with Gothic mysteries, Gaslight (1940) inspired thrillers and classic “Old Dark House” movies. Directed economically by Michael McCarthy, who excelled in television and made a number of suspenseful WW2 dramas such as The Accursed (1957) and Operation Amsterdam (1959), the film lacks the stylish flourishes and sophisticated set pieces that the material cries out for. But it is held together by some sharp performances and a twisty plot based on a book by Dorothy Eden and it’s Eden’s involvement that drove me to watch Crow Hollow.

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Fatal Charm: Cast a Dark Shadow (1955)

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On Monday, October 12th TCM is airing a batch of suspenseful films focusing on “Treacherous Spouses.” Most critics wouldn’t classify any of these films as horror but some of them contain genuinely horrific moments. The impressive line-up includes Experiment Perilous (1944), Suspicion (1941), Strangers on a Train (1951), Dial M for Murder (1954), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) Elevator to the Gallows (1958) and the day’s programming commences at 6am EST/3am PST with Cast a Dark Shadow (1955).

You can’t go wrong with any of these fine thrillers but today I’d like to single out Cast a Dark Shadow, a gripping and remarkably grim British production starring Dirk Bogarde as a suave young Romeo who seduces wealthy older women for financial gain and then murders them in cold blood. Clocking in at a brisk 82 minutes and featuring some stellar talent behind and in front of the camera, Cast a Dark Shadow presents an interesting early example of a seductive and unscrupulous serial killer who will stop at nothing to satisfy his basest urges.

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Elisabeth Lutyens: Horror Queen of Film Composers

LutyensFemale film composers are a rarity but there are some wonderful examples of talented women working behind the scenes who managed to flourish under the tight deadlines imposed by film studios while creating memorable music for the movies.

One of my favorite female composers is the late Elisabeth Lutyens who was born on July 9th in 1906. On the occasion of what would have been her 109th birthday if she had managed to live that long, I thought I’d celebrate her career in British horror films where Lutyens earned her “Horror Queen” moniker by composing some of the genre’s most innovative, accomplished and unsettling soundtracks.

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Corridor of Mirrors

 

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It took Christopher Lee’s obituary in the New York Times to remind me of Corridor of Mirrors (Terence Young, 1948). About two years ago I came across information suggesting that Corridor of Mirrors may have influenced Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958). The film was not available at my local video store, Netflix, or Hulu. On Amazon I was able to find a couple out-of-print VHS copies going for about a hundred bucks each. I bought one and had a buddy transfer it to DVD. A Sharpie was used to hand-scribble the title onto the disc and it then got added to a spindle of other DVD’s. The spindle disappeared as more DVD’s got added to the tower. Movies for a rainy day. It was raining hard outside my window when I read the following sentence from Lee’s obituary: “Lest he tower over his fellow actors, Mr. Lee remained seated throughout his first film appearance, as a nightclub customer in Corridor of Mirrors.” [...MORE]

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