Dr. Crippen, his wife and his mistress, in a psychological portrayal that gave rise to very comical reviews.
“It is beautifully photographed,” Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times, “with the same tactile quality that may have been the only really distinguishing feature of Blow-Up”, on the same day exulting that Coe & Lover’s The Dove had fooled “a number of patrons”.
“Smoothly done but impenetrable psychological poppycock,” says Halliwell’s Film Guide, “what is fact and what is fancy, only the author knows.” Thus began Medak’s film career.
The Ruling Class
The structure, a psychological case, is conveyed in the opening sequence. The 13th Earl of Gurney, eschewing the Army but desirous of a career in Art, has been allowed to enter the Law as a concession, he is a judge. His aberration, this nostalgic peer who speaks of “the memory of England”, is to hang suspended by the neck until satisfied, whilst wearing a cocked hat and dress tunic and a tutu.
Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred, 14th Earl of Gurney, believes himself to be Jesus Christ, God of Love. Persuaded out of this by another mental patient who believes himself to be the electric Jehovah, the Earl comes to his senses as a Tory peer of the reactionary sort but suffers under the delusion that he is Jack the Ripper, assassin of prostitutes. Having killed his wife, he reverts to childhood.
The case is fairly simple, the material is unusually rich, though you wouldn’t know it from the critics.
A day in the death of Joe Egg
“As you know, I’m not normally religious. Oh, I make the usual genuflections to Esso Petroleum and Julie Andrews, heh. No, but one day in the kitchen, I got down on my knees and I prayed to God!”
“What did you say?”
“God, I’ve only just found her, the only woman who’s not soppy or witless, the only woman who shares my belief that You are a manic-depressive rugby footballer.”
That presents the pickle in a nutshell, cf. Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle (dir. Barry Davis or Richard Loncraine), Bergman’s Autumn Sonata. The opening is adapted from the play, camera for crowd, recalling the prologue to Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra in which Ra addresses the audience, “hearken to me then, oh ye compulsorily educated ones. Know that even as there is an old England and a new, and ye stand perplexed between the twain...” The title character a projection of withered hopes and the like, some vestige in a Brave New World taking its course, something like that, Bri and Sheila artistic types. The Socialist tycoon (“I tend to raise my voice when I’m helping people”) and his upper-class wife define the limits of society, and Grace (Bri’s mother) the old order, salt of the earth. Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (dir. Mike Nichols) come home to roost, as it were, “this seems to me defeatism.”
The direction, amongst other things, gives at moments a perfect representation of the play onstage, the ending throws a light on it from Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (dir. Irving Rapper, Michael Elliott, Anthony Harvey or Paul Newman), cf. Schaffner’s Nicholas and Alexandra, where again Suzman has the role (the play gives the tragic or if you prefer Beckettian sight of Joe in her wheelchair abandoned on the single set at the end).
Canby’s New York Times review is a great prize, “some experiences are so special that it’s impossible to imagine how one might react to them until they come to pass: being in an air raid, winning a million-dollar lottery, losing one’s sight or one’s pants.
“Death, the commonest mystery and usually inevitable, is like that. So too is the experience shared by... a difficult movie to describe properly. It is beautifully acted, funny, moving, but infinitely depressing...
“The only distance left in it is anything but Brechtian... seems more depressing than it need be... worrisome indeed, difficult to recommend, since it isn't grand enough to go much beyond its special experience, but easy to admire in isolated instances...”
Variety, “splendid adaptation... simpatico direction... stellar playing... superior black comedy-drama”. Molly Haskell (Village Voice), “a perversion of ordinary feelings? Yes. But then look at ordinary life.” Time Out, “a brave undertaking”. TV Guide, “good performances all around save the material from becoming totally tasteless.” Catholic News Service Media Review Office, “intense drama”. Judd Blaise (All Movie Guide), “darkly humorous... uneasy laughter”. Halliwell’s Film Guide, “well-filmed”, citing Stanley Kauffmann (The New Republic), “not to be missed.”
Halfway through the film Medak excavates Joseph in the well, but that is still not the basis of it, rather a superb analysis of Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the final result.
There are nuances in the filming from Dreyer’s Vampyr, and the swaying chandelier of the finale is from Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar (The Music Room), other influences are not far to find.
None of this made itself known to reviewers, who praised (Variety) or not (Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, Monthly Film Bulletin, Time Out Film Guide, Halliwell’s Film Guide), according to their fancy.
The suburban Rasputin exposed, a variant of Losey’s The Servant, and exhibiting a closely allied technique to that of The Romantic Englishwoman, Roeg, etc. The dénouement particularly brings to the fore an assimilation of Hitchcock greatly liberating the camera, and the style rises to the diapason of Martha Scott’s speech in Our Town (dir. Sam Wood), as the babysitter wanders the closed house whose former occupants had the misfortune to employ her.
The freedom and variety of the stylistic treatment encompasses psychological naturalism and surrealism with the greatest of ease, and Medak is a director intimately knowledgeable about his American cousins.
Long takes, close-ups, faultless compositions, all work to the end of revealing the characters and advancing the plot, with never a moment wasted.
The Gay Blade
The Alcalde of Los Angeles and his terrible exactions among “the pipples”.
Don Diego Vega, a ladies’ man from Madrid, and his twin brother Ramón, now styled Bunny Wigglesworth of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth, a ponce (“sink me,” quotha), the sons of El Zorro.
A Bostonian lady opposed to tyranny.
Florinda, the Alcalde’s wife, fond of masked balls.
The gear and tackle and trim behind the opening titles tell a tale, the film is dedicated to Rouben Mamoulian et al. and achieves among other things the paroxysm of Jerry Lewis’ Which Way to the Front?.
Nabokov on Kafka
At Cornell, with Professor Nabokov’s emendations of the standard English translation (“The Metamorphosis”). The audience is sympathetic, laughs at the “Gogolian” office where Kafka worked.
The direction aims to get at the understanding conveyed in Nabokov’s now-published lecture by other means, the lighting changes, the camera moves in, Plummer as N. casts his voice about for the proper intonation, lo, the inimitable horror of the piece set forth with a very great deal of accuracy, between actor, director, translators and commentator.
This is a comical way of arriving at Nabokov’s written voice by way of his variously accented English. Medak negotiates the currents like Hitchcock’s drunk in a storm at sea (Rich and Strange), the reading is perfectly rendered in a lecture hall like a laboratory, “the passion of the scientist, the precision of the artist.”
The Tweedledum and Tweedledee of London crime, one a ‘omo.
The prevailing ennui is certified by an allusion to Corman’s Bloody Mama for the dominion of crime plain and simple.
Brilliant actors enliven the craven periphery.
The prologue representing the first landing on Mars posits a world of yahoos with sanity only to be found locked away in the Garberville Psychiatric Institute, and if proof were needed, the critics provided it. Steven Spielberg, however, reworked the whole thing into Minority Report and created, if not a better film, at least one better than anything since Duel.
Where the Mars landing takes stock of a line of films since Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (including Ridley Scott’s Alien), the rest of the film begins with an evocation of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis—Eve in her mirrored cage. The powers that be are represented by an unscrupulous Senator and a Marine Corps colonel whose facial disfigurement is an allusion to Captain Ahab’s in John Huston’s Moby Dick.
The hero of the piece is first seen demonstrating a hostage rescue at the Hungarian Embassy, and the joke material is fairly continuous. Beyond the science-fiction logic of the script is a satirical discourse in the images proper, which condense into a telling of Jack the Ripper redeemed after the manner of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (dir. Robert Wise)—although, in another sense, the alien monster dies when injected with negro blood.
The many overtones and undertones come from very widely separated sources, such as Russell’s Crimes of Passion and Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Rilla’s Village of the Damned, creating a logic of its own (note that Eve’s removal on a stretcher at the close echoes the flight of Jo Ann Pflug in Altman’s MASH, whereas her escape scene reflects Astronaut Bowman’s entry through the emergency hatch in Kubrick’s film). So much for what critics have concurred is a mindless, incompetent film.
By the Pricking of My
Agatha Christie is notoriously difficult to film really well. It’s those interior monologues at the beginning of Ten Little Indians that give the clue. Pollock took a point of departure, Lumet threw all his big guns into the fray. Medak takes a cue from both.
The complete sense of Christie’s architecture is there by a very hardworking feature-length script. “It’s almost a very good painting,” says Miss Marple inspecting a cottage picture festooned with clues, “but for the blotches of amateurism,” like the two or three deliberate anachronisms in the dialogue.
A village Jane Eyre is screened at the hall, a perfect representation of what a film would be under such circumstances in 1948.
Tommy & Tuppence have the case of his Aunt Ada’s death in a retirement home. Miss Marple is a visitor. Purists have objected to this, a film is not a book, as Christie knew perfectly well.
There’s such a profusion of details, it’s easy to see why Fred Astaire loved the mad English. Tuppence is the main character, a big, beautiful woman who drinks surreptitiously while her husband is away for MI6, she might have done that, too, but for the children. She bakes a cake for Aunt Ada, who doesn’t want it. In the kitchen, where she has been sent to see that the cake is distributed amongst the ladies, Tuppence observes the matron clandestinely mixing something from a blue bottle.
Miss Marple explains, after Aunt Ada’s death, that it was the house tonic the matron was diluting, a barmaid’s economy. Tuppence is set right about this, but another old lady had spoken of a child behind the fireplace, and a letter from Aunt Ada warned this woman was “not safe”. The writer speaks of danger to herself, and now the other lady has vanished. Tuppence and Miss Marple go to Farrell St. Edmund.
Tommy joins them later, incredulous at Tuppence’s discoveries and having no idea who Miss Marple is, until a phone call to Scotland Yard enlightens him.
The lord of the manor bought the place years before as his wife’s ancestral home, abandoned after a thousand years when the family died out. She lost their child at birth, and then her mind. After killing a village girl, she’s been kept in various homes under the names of Mrs. Lancaster and Mrs. York.
The beautiful cinematography complements the makeup, hair and costuming. “Who do I have to bless to get a decent drink around here,” asks the depressed vicar, a “fellow soak” to Tuppence. Medak has a gag here on the chlorotic period pieces English television puts on lately, the walls of the inn where Tuppence and Miss Marple stay are green. Polanski leaves one stitch undone in his Oliver Twist as homage to the acting style of such productions.
The USAF puts in more than one appearance, giving the girls a lift into town when Tuppence’s new roadster bogs down, and drowning out a snippy starlet’s farewell address.