Of Flickering Silver (Part 4)

This feature was originally published in Issue 18, July 1st 2011. Content by Elton Townend-Jones.

Join me on my continuing mission, as I trawl through the contents of my DVD cupboard and watch every movie I own; not ‘the best of’, not ‘the all-time greats’, just the movies I own – in chronological order.  Last issue we entered the 1930s, where we’ll linger for a few issues more.

So, let’s travel back to 1934, where we stop to watch but one movie (and our first to be made in Britain)…

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH Alfred Hitchcock is a director whose appearances in this column are set to be quite numerous; this is not his first film, but it’s the earliest of his movies that I own.  I picked it up from a 99p shop on thoroughly un-re-mastered DVD, which also featured two other films that I’ll be covering soon.  Effectively, then, I took a punt and ended up buying three films at 33p each.  Not bad at all.

By the time he came to direct this picture, Hitchcock already had a wealth of movie experience and a number of other movies under his somewhat copious belt.  The Man Who Knew Too Much features a great many Hitchcock tropes and staples that would become increasingly familiar over the next few decades, the most crucial of which is suspense.  Here, an innocent couple are caught up in shadowy intrigue when their daughter (Nova Pilbeam) is kidnapped in order to buy their silence over the details of an imminent assassination that, perhaps as commentary on the all-too visible ramifications of Germany’s enforced reparations following the First World War, threatens to plunge Europe into yet another bloody conflict.

Hitchcock would remake this picture in the 1950s, and it is perhaps easy to see why.  Whilst I would not wish to diminish the witty brilliance of this film, it is clear that it well deserves a bolder re-imagining.  Whether or not that remake is a better film than this is a matter for another issue (but I’ll put you out of your misery and suggest that it probably isn’t).

Opening in the Winter Olympics, Hitchcock presents us with our leading players – Leslie Bates and Edna Best – and locates them in a jolly and urbane 1930s that looks utterly wonderful and is definitely the kind of place you’d like to spend some time.  Everything moves along so easily for these suave but plucky well-to-do’s with their dinner parties and dancing, but there is also a fascinating sense of women being far more liberated than I might have expected and the British being delightfully open with their emotions.

But then, under the influence of the sweaty, sibilant Peter Lorre – a man born to play anxious-looking villains – the murder, mystery and suspense puncture the happy white world of our protagonists.  A close friend of the family (Pierre Fresnay) hears a sharp cracking noise, looks down at his dress shirt to see a spreading dark stain and says ‘Oh look’, before falling to his knees and his death.  Soon, their daughter is taken from them and our heroes are thrust from their wintry paradise and plunged into a dark and foggy underworld that looks like something out of Sherlock Holmes (the London sequences are positively Victorian; dank grubbiness oozes from the screen with great atmosphere).  From secret messages hidden shaving brushes (hello, James Bond) to ransom notes and secret agents, the whole thing culminates in a grim and gritty little shoot-out in an urban church and a thrillingly tense climax during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

This is a little gem of a film, a masterwork of British Expressionism, full of jaunty visuals and tricks.  Yes, the camera set ups are very simple, but consequently there is a tidy clarity of exposition.  Nothing is ladled on too thickly and everything is executed with style and efficiency.  If all you know of Hitch is his later US work, then this (and his other British pictures) will remind you exactly why he remains a master among directors.

[3/5]

And now it’s 1935, where we crank up the generators, harness the lightning and bid welcome to…

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN

For this movie, we return to the US and Universal, the studio that gave us a trio of delightfully theatrical horror classics (Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy) and a curious turkey (The Invisible Man).  Bride of Frankenstein is, effectively, our first sequel and one of the very few examples of its type to have critics suggesting it is better than its progenitor.  Is this true?

Quite possibly.  Opening in stormy, stylised Geneva in the year 1816, director James Whale gets all post-modern and omni-textual by introducing us to Byron (Gavin Gordon) and Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester)– the author of Frankenstein in print and, by inferred association, the (much altered) first movie – who are telling each other creepy stories by a roaring fire.  Byron is a right old thesp, it turns out, growling his lines and rolling them over his tongue like a well-dressed lion desperate to get his teeth into some scenery – and just what is that accent of his?  His recap of the first movie is told with glee, accompanying a ‘greatest hits’ montage of the first film for all those who forgot, and the new movie is recounted by Shelley ‘herself’, picking up almost immediately from where we left off.  That a woman from 1816 is able to describe events that take place in 1934 can be accounted for perhaps by Mary’s track record as a dystopian visionary (see her novel The Last Man) and certainly explains the production design decision to elide nineteenth century peasant chic with twentieth century deco.  As I pointed out last time, this cod-gothic modernism is a wonderful device – our contemporary equivalent to be found in the films of Tim Burton, say – and allows for some vast and imaginative settings, from Frankenstein’s bedroom to the vast laboratory, all of which are beautifully lit to make the best of shadows and window-light.  There’s even a huge forest set, complete with waterfall, and a graveyard that manages to top the one seen in the last movie.

Happily, once we return to the creepy magic realist locales of the first movie, it is a joy to see Karloff (as he is now billed) returning as the Monster and Colin Clive as his creator, given that both had appeared to be irredeemably dead last time.  Baron Henry Frankenstein continues his obsession with conquering the realm of death, in spite of his near visit at the hands of his creature.  Even his new bride’s hysterical visions of his impending doom can do nothing to dissuade him.  Meanwhile, Karloff (whose first name is Boris, lest we forget) is given a script that allows him to take his Monster into new realms.  We see him despairing at his own visage in a quiet pool, rescuing a shepherdess from a lake (having finally learnt that immersion in liquid can be inimical to human life), enduring a symbolic crucifixion (at the hands of those more monstrous than he), toppling religious icons in a spectral graveyard and befriending corpses.  He even cries.  Many of the other returning characters have been re-cast, but this causes no particular problems, although Una O’Connor’s Minnie had my heart sinking, given that she had set my teeth on edge with her incessant screaming during The Invisible Man.  Here, she screams hardly any less and continues to get on the viewer’s wilting wick.  She’s the only sour apple in the barrel, though.

Of course, there are number of new characters in this picture.  Karloff is given a delightful sidekick in the form of a blind and lonely violinist (O.P. Heggie), whose music soothes the Monster’s hidden turmoil.  Together, these lost and lonely characters enjoy perhaps the most tender, tragic sequence of the whole movie, acting with expressionistic sincerity as each becomes the other’s first friend.  Here, the Monster learns to form words, to eat and enjoy a drink, to love music … and cigars!  It’s too good to be true, of course, and it all goes horribly wrong when lesser minds get involved…

Colin Clive’s new sidekick comes in the form of Ernest Thesiger, whose camp turn as Dr Pretorius threatens to steal Karloff’s thunder.  Immoral, sharp-featured and mean-spirited, he lisps and sneers his way across the screen, exuding arrogance, misogyny and madness.  More dangerous than the Baron,  more Black Magician than Scientist, Pretorius has grown six living humans in miniature and keeps them in specimen jars.  It sounds crazy – and it is.  The first time I saw it, after cringing at Byron I almost wailed in despair at the very idea of these little creatures, but the effects work is so skilfully executed and so befitting of this queer diabolicist’s character that one just has to sit back and enjoy the ride.  Whether he’s claiming gin (and, later, cigars) are his only weakness or taking a picnic with exhumed bones in a vandalised tomb, Thesiger’s every scene is filled with charm and menace.

But what of the eponymous ‘Bride’?  Certainly, the Baron has just married Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) and it is, to some extent, this bride that saves his life at the climax, but there is another ‘Bride’ here – that of the Monster.  Brought to life by lightning harnessed through kites, the Bride, when released from her mummy-like wrappings, is just as iconic as the Monster, with her piercing eyes and Nefertiti hair (shot through with white lightning bolt streaks).  Allegedly played by ‘?’ (later revealed to be the fabulous Elsa Lanchester, already seen as Mary Shelley), she only appears in the last five minutes, allowing the Monster just enough time to feel her disgust for his appearance and to make a moral decision about how things should finally work out for all concerned.  ‘We belong dead,’ he suggests.  Needless to say, they all go out with a bang.

So let’s recap: it’s beautifully filmed and acted, wonderfully designed, exceptionally well lit, it has cutting edge effects and make-up and even a very special musical score by Franz Waxman.  It may not be better than Frankenstein, but it has everything the original had and twice over.  Put it this way: if you haven’t already seen it, then it’s about time you did.

[5/5]

See you next time.

There’s more stuff from Elton Townend Jones at www.25yearstoolate.blogspot.com

He has written and is starring in The Diaries of Adam and Eve at Assembly Venue Three, Edinburgh from Thu 4 – Mon 29 August

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