The great unsung song-n-dance team of Blondell and Oakie in “Boulevardier From The Bronx.”

ALICIA MARKOVA, as photographed by John Rawlings.

A Look At Lethal Ladies

In my new Grand Old Movies blog post, I take a look at the newest film noir retrospective running from July 18 through August 7, 2014, at the Film Forum, NYC’s invaluable independent revival theater. “Femmes Noirs: Hollywood’s Dangerous Dames" surveys some of the classic, and classiest, femmes fatales to come out of Hollywood’s golden age of noir, from the 1940s-1950s (and also a sideways glance at some post- and proto-noirs for good measure). Included in the series are such lethal ladies as Barbara Stanwyck, iconic in her best-known role as deadly Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity; luscious Ava Gardner in The Killers; icy Gene Tierney in Leave Her To Heaven; sexy Rita Hayworth in Gilda; piquant Jean Simmons in Angel Face; and maybe the craziest, most manipulative noir dame of all, Ann Savage in Detour, a film that looks as if it was made for $1.98, but packs more noir angst, despair, and female venom in its 60-odd minutes than can be imagined. Mouth watering for more? OK, there’s lots more. Read my post here to find out; and check out the Film Forum schedule here.

Alicia Markova as Odette in Swan Lake.

Chameleon Man

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In my newest Grand Old Movies post, I’ve penned my impressions of the “Alec Guinness 100" retrospective that recently played at Film Forum, New York City’s premier revival and independent feature movie theater. The 25-film series was in celebration of Sir Alec’s 100th birthday, and highlighted this modest genius’s staggering range as an actor: from the rusty-voiced Dickensian fence and leader of child pickpockets Fagin in David Lean’s Oliver Twist, to the doughy-faced bank clerk in The Lavender Hill Mob who comes up with a brilliant scheme to relieve the Bank of England of excess gold bullion, to the lank-haired mad mastermind of a misfit criminal gang in the 1956 version of The Ladykillers, one of Guinness’s wittiest and most subtle performances.

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In writing the above paragraph, I’m a little bemused by what seems Guinness’s actorly concentration on lawbreaking characters, which seems a little out of character for such a quiet, mild-looking fellow. However, Guinness’s extraordinary talent was his ability to subsume himself in so many varied aspects of human experience—-hence his label as “chameleon” when it came to acting. Just witness his turns as Gully Jimson, the scruffy, ferret-faced painter of The Horse’s Mouth who will do anything to commit his vision to canvas; the aloof, conflicted Cardinal in The Prisoner, a religious ascetic who confronts his human frailty under sustained psychological torture; his proud Colonel Nicholson in his Oscar-winning performance in Bridge on the River Kwai, whose resistance to another kind of torture yet reveals another all-too-human weakness; and his lower-class and in-your-face-with-it Scottish major in Tunes of Glory (which he considered one of his best performances), who engages in his own psychological battle of wills with his regiment’s insecure new commanding officer.

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Yet throughout this astounding variety of high, low, and off to the sidelines human beings, I think you can detect an essential Guinnessean core, of an artist shorn of ego and dedicated to discerning each character’s quirky, unique humanity. Guinness was a Master (beyond even a Jedi one), one of the greatest actors of the 20th century, and I was glad of the chance to view his protean versatility. I only wish I had the chance to do so all over again. Please click here to read my post.

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GENE TIERNEY dressed as the Swan Queen in the 1953 film Never Let Me Go.

The M.R. James Files

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This is an introduction to a series of intermittent posts on the works of M.R. (Montague Rhodes) James, often considered—-an evaluation I agree with—-the greatest writer of ghost stories in the 20th century. My posts to follow will be based on his collected supernatural oeuvre in The Ghost Stories of M.R. James (St. Martin’s Press), comprising a total of thirty tales. James did write some supernatural juvenilia, plus a children’s novel and some incomplete stories, but I won’t be looking at those. (I also won’t be looking at James’s non-supernatural output. He wrote a staggering amount on medieval studies, as well as translating Biblical Apocrypha, cataloguing manuscript libraries, and collecting art for Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. Like so many Britishers of the late Victorian period, he displayed an astonishing energy and achieved an astonishing high-quality productivity.) Each post will be devoted to one story, and I’ll try to keep them in volume order. My reason for doing this is that I like the stories; I love James’s writing; and I want to express my opinions on what he wrote. I’ve been a ghost story aficionado for decades; I own many collections of ghostly tales; and I think James is tops. So I want to indulge this interest of mine.

So who was M.R. James? Born in 1862, at the height of  the Victorian age, he was a medieval scholar, a lifelong academic, an ‘antiquarian,’ as indicated in the title of his most famous short story collection, and provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and then of Eton College. James wrote most of his stories in the early 20th century, many produced for gatherings of friends; he often read to them at annual Christmas parties. One can imagine his fellow scholars and students clustered round bowls of wine and eggnog, while fires roared comfortably in huge hearths and snow dropped softly outside. You might be thinking, here’s a fellow, a late Victorian, whose writing must be awfully verbose, fustian, and dull, whose stories creak with Gothic castles occupied by frightened damsels and lusting lords, and who never passes on the opportunity to describe a dark and stormy night, à la classic Bulwer-Lynton style.

Actually—-no. In style, James is astonishingly modern. His writing is swift and to the point. Often he’ll begin a story with a dialogue passage that shoves you right into the plot, wasting no time on unnecessary set-ups or introductions. And he leaves a great deal to the imagination. There’s no lengthy exposition, no deep character study, and just about no explanation of what’s behind what’s going on. James will drop hints—-they often crop up in Latin phrases, so I suggest you take a good Latin dictionary along when you dip into his work (he almost never gives translations)—-but he doesn’t bother filling in subplots or back stories, nor on tidying up the messes that invariably result once the horrors get good and going. Many of his stories have been adapted for British television, and I think that’s because he is so modern. His work is strongly visual; he supplies stark, startling images that vividly strike the mental retina, like lightning flashes seen at the corner of the eye. A superb example is “The Mezzotint,” in which the odd activities described on the title object are etched in quick and disturbing strokes, as if James wants to groove them in your mind.

But there’s also an unsettlingly tactile quality in James’s work. He serves up horrors that are hairy or cobwebbed or armed with teeth, or stink of mold, damp earth, and the tomb. They provoke a thrill of disgust while you read. I’m sure that’s deliberate. The creatures attached to such sensations crop up so frequently that there seems a feeling of personal anathema attached—-as if these unpleasant objects are what James himself found shuddery, and he wants you to shudder along. (For any potential readers who have a horror of spiders: that’s a fear that James shared, and he won’t let you off the hook.)

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I think that sense of personal attachment is also what makes James’s style seem not only so modern, yet so compelling to his fans. He wasn’t penning this stuff for a mass market; he was writing out of his own obsessions. And he wrote what he knew, most of his plots arising out of his own professional interests. He was a medievalist, and his stories are marked by a preoccupation with that remote past. Narratives center on dusty tomes, ancient spells, rare documents, and arcane writings from the Middle Ages. It is writing itself, in the recording of runic phrases or cryptic words, in decrepit and obscure parchments, manuscripts, and books, that’s the dominant trope of James’s elegantly scripted tales. And it’s the writing that carries power. The very words, read or pronounced, are portals into another realm, where lurk terrors not to be spoken of. And there James will cut his narrative off, letting slip only vague hints as to What It Was. It’s as if at a certain point he slashes his pen across the page and refuses to elaborate further. It’s left for you to come up with your own words of explanation.

With this focus on writing, the tales usually center on writers: men (almost always), solitary, self-absorbed, caught up in odd researches and obsessions that, isolating them into dark, unexplored corners, leave them unprotected and alone. Frequently a story begins with a scholarly naïf—-James’s heroes are not worldly sophisticates—-encountering a singular text (sometimes in paper form, sometimes engraved on an object) and discovering something therein that leads to disaster. And frequently that disaster takes the form of a being that materializes from Who Knows Where. That’s the source of the horror—-these entities, whether demons, ghosts, or things, that intrude into the protagonist’s own existential plane. Or, worse, that have been summoned, whether by a device, such as the inscribed whistle in “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” or by a mysterious inner compulsion, such as the unfortunate traveler who finds himself wishing to meet the malign title character in “Count Magnus.” Never is the summoner a match for the summoned. The evil brought forth is too ancient, too powerful, to be controlled by the helpless protagonist. Often he’s lucky to escape with his life.

James’s own philosophy of supernatural horror emphasizes the horror, but horror as something not initially perceived. He described his stories as beginning with a “calm environment,” into which “the ominous thing put[s] out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.” And he believed that ghosts should be malevolent; the amiable wraith, he insisted, was for fairy tales. There’s always a sense as we read of truly, truly ghastly events happening; and not merely in the psychic or psychological, but in the physical sense, too. As James noted, he believed his craft should contain “a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded.” (“Carefully husbanded”: now there’s a Jamesian phrase!)

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Yet underlying so many of James’s most frightening stories is an urbane and slyly malicious humor, which seems not quite to take everything seriously. I often sense that James might even be enjoying, in a detached, tongue-in-cheek manner, his characters’ misfortunes (which they, out of ignorance or sheer obstinacy, usually bring upon themselves). But the horrors are there, and they are, when contemplated, most horrible. I find that his stories linger in the mind; they have that quality, like a ghost story told round a campfire, of becoming more frightening when you think about them later, when alone and in the dark.

James’s ghostly fiction can be analyzed in many ways, such as historical context or that of location; many of his stories are set in places where James lived, visited, or worked, and often include actual sites (such as the byways of Felixstowe in his masterpiece, “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”). Being that I am not an inhabitant of the British Isles, and, alas!, do not have the kind of income that would allow me to travel and indulge in such explorations, I am not able to take such approaches. My own posts will look at his stories from a purely literary angle. I’ll be examining the texts themselves, the plots, and the words and writing, as it were, giving my own take on James’s themes, how he achieves his effects, and as to what might be going on. Whether this will be useful or not, it’s a technique I’m well versed in, and one that I hope will give a bit of insight, no matter how slight, into his work.

A word to the curious (to paraphrase one of James’s titles): I would suggest to newcomers that James’s stories are best read as per William Wordsworth’s advice in another instance on the craft of writing—-that the feeling aroused should be “recollected in tranquility.” Such tranquil recollecting in a reading’s aftermath often brings forth the essential Jamesian horror: the return of ancient evil, sometimes appearing in the most banal of forms, to wreak havoc on its unsuspecting victim in the present. In such a process do the keen details of his narratives chill you. In conjunction, I would also suggest that James’s tales be enjoyed as does a connoisseur enjoy fine wines or exquisite scents—-as something best savored in small doses and not in a glut. James is not meant to be munched like popcorn but nibbled like expensive chocolates—-consumed one at a time. In such fashion can his stories’ real terrors be truly appreciated.

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Next post (when it comes) in the series: “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” (1894).

Loretta Young as a ballet dancer in the 1941 film The Men in Her Life.

Loretta Young as a ballet dancer in the 1941 film The Men in Her Life.

Platinum Blonde in Color

The Platinum Blonde wasn’t always platinum. In her first starring role, as the vampy English deb in Howard Hughes’s 1930 Hell’s Angels, Jean Harlow appears in a 7-1/2 minute color sequence, in which you can see her garishly gilded in pink, cream, and gold. In looking at this sequence in my newest Grand Old Movies’ blog post, I’m fascinated by what I see. Harlow is both unreal yet erotic in color; she shimmers like a flickering candle flame, but she also looks good enough to eat. What effect does such an iconically black-and-white actress have in color film? Please click here to read what I say in my latest post.