Saturday, February 02, 2008

Get Ready for Eddie

For the 32 years I spent researching and writing MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, Italian cinema stood immoveably at the very core of my being; I thought about Italy and Italian art and culture incessantly. When I finished writing the book, I felt a surprisingly sudden shift of that internal, emotional center toward French cinema and pop culture. Actually, France was always a part of my inner landscape; I've always been a devotée of Fantomas and Judex and Arsene Lupin, Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, Truffaut and Godard, Franju and Rollin, with a special place in my heart reserved for Eric Rohmer's films, but it was only within the past two or three years that I fell unexpectedly and violently in love with the music of Serge Gainsbourg (I'm listening to COULEUR CAFE as I write this) and, more recently, with the films of someone who promises to become another of my grand obsessions, Eddie Constantine.

Constantine -- a California native of vaguely reptilian complexion who talked like a Brooklyn native but found success as a singing protégé of Edith Piaf in Paris -- is best known to American viewers as the star of Jean-Luc Godard's ALPHAVILLE (1965), in which he plays a hard-boiled G-man with the unlikely name of Lemmy Caution. The transgressive irony of Constantine's being cast in an "art film", especially as Caution, was generally lost on Americans -- who generally didn't know that, before ALPHAVILLE, he had played the role in seven other pulp dramas (it would be wrong to call them "B-movies") primarily shown abroad. These films do exist in English dubbed versions -- POISON IVY (1953), DANGEROUS AGENT (1953), DAMES DON'T CARE (1954), DIAMOND MACHINE (1956), WOMEN ARE LIKE THAT (1960), LADIES MAN (1962) and YOUR TURN, DARLING (1963) -- but only because they filtered into circulation from 16mm prints struck for Canadian TV syndication. Most of them remain fairly hard to see in English.

Lemmy Caution was actually the creation of British thriller novelist Peter Cheyney, who featured him in more than a dozen novels and even more short stories (beginning with 1936's THIS MAN IS DANGEROUS), but Constantine laid claim to the name in much the same way that Dick Miller became Walter Paisley. He reprised the role in several projects after ALPHAVILLE and also starred in more than 100 other pictures, playing various shades of his two-fisted, whisky-chugging Caution persona, most of them going by the name "Eddie." He also played John R. Coryell's famous detective Nick Carter twice in the 1960s.
The first time I laid eyes on Eddie Constantine -- and this is when I was a kid -- I thought he would make a great Ben Grimm if they ever made a film of THE FANTASTIC FOUR. He had a granite look about him in middle age especially and, in ALPHAVILLE, he's fairly expressionless -- but in the earlier Lemmy Caution films, which are prototypical of the Bond films in many ways, he flashes one of the most ingratiating smile you'll ever see. French artists made the most of this happy-go-lucky, bon vivant smile when designing the posters for his movies, whether the art depicted him as leering at the ladies, hoisting a glass, or knocking a stooge for a loop in a billiards hall. I've been daydreaming of late about taking down all the posters currently on display in my house and replacing them with affiches showing Eddie revelling in the good life. They would probably impart a cheerier, healthier atmosphere than my current array of monster, severed head and drug delirium art.
I own only a few Eddie Constantine movies in English, and I've moved on from them into a couple of three-film DVD box sets that I ordered from Amazon.de: EDDIE CONSTANTINE COLLECTION VOLUME 1 - LEMMY CAUTION and EDDIE CONSTANTINE COLLECTION VOLUME 2 (in which two of the three films are Lemmies). These are German releases from Tobis, now notorious for withholding English subtitles or audio, but they do feature the original French audio tracks. French gives me only slightly less trouble than Italian, but I find I can navigate my way through the dialogue fairly well if I play the movies with the optional French subtitles activated. In the earliest of the Lemmy Caution films, LA MOME DE VERT-DE-GRIS (POISON IVY), I was pleased to find Eddie communicating with his FBI contacts in English, which made it that much easier to enjoy. Adding to the pleasure is the presence in the cast of Jess Franco stalwart Howard Vernon, looking younger than I've ever seen him as a white-tuxedoed baddie. And forget Veronica Lake and Gloria Grahame: the femme fatale of both this film and its follow-up LES FEMMES S'EN BALANCENT (DAMES DON'T CARE) -- Dominique Wilms -- scores a TKO against them both as "bad girl" pulp cover art incarnate. She's so impressive, she even knocked Eddie Constantine off his own movie poster for what I assume was the first and only time.
The films are low-budget but shot with economic style and imagination. LA MOME DE VERT-DE-GRIS features a remarkable scene that shows a pilot forced at gunpoint to land his plane on its belly in a desolate location, and the entire scene is pulled off entirely with camera set-ups and camera movement -- without the plane so much as moving. It also contains a scene where Lemmy is tied to a rope and dragged behind a moving yacht, which possibly inspired or influenced Ian Fleming's writing of such a scene in his novel LIVE AND LET DIE, published the year after the film's release. With only one exception, when he happened to be visiting a hospital, whenever Lemmy enters a new place, he either calls out for a whisky ("A big one!") or just helps himself -- even at FBI Headquarters, where he cuts past all the Miss Moneypenny horseshit in the reception area and makes like a masher with his superior's pretty receptionist. With all that Lemmy imbibes, he should be staggering through these movies like a Barrymore, but he never gets worse than happy, never oversteps his personal charm, and always comes out on top in every fight.
Five of the initial seven Lemmy Caution films were scripted and directed by Bernard Borderie, also known for his series of "Angélique" films starring Michele Mercier. With each new Borderie film that I see, the more convinced I am that his work should be better-known -- starting with Jess Franco fans, because much of the style found in Franco's early classical work (not to mention some of its casting choices) appears to have had its roots in the popular 1950s entertainments crafted by Borderie and contemporaries such as Henri Decoin.
I mention Decoin in particular because of his attachment to a movie called NATHALIE, AGENT SECRET (1959), which I first encountered -- and have only ever encountered -- as a trailer bearing the English title ATOMIC AGENT. I saw this trailer projected in 35mm at one of the countless kiddie matinees I attended, and I've never forgotten its quirky energy or the pride with which it listed the names of actors of whom I'd never heard: Martine Carol (who of course was Max Ophuls' LOLA MONTES), Howard Vernon, Dario Moreno (who I discovered only today, like Eddie Constantine, was also a recording star). Perhaps those names and faces resonated with me then because, on some level, I knew they would occupy an important place in my later life. If any of my readers happen to be in possession of NATHALIE, AGENT SECRET -- or better yet, ATOMIC AGENT -- would you please reward my efforts here by sending me a copy?
So what is it about Eddie Constantine that I find so compelling, so relevant, so fulfilling? Part of it is the way he projects a sense of comfort about his standing as a man of the world; he has no time for anything other than grabbing all the pleasure he can between Mission and Mission Accomplished. He may look like a thug but he carries himself with more than a measure of rugged grace. I also admire that he was an American who looks at home in Europe, which is the me I always aspired to be but haven't succeeded in becoming, except in the work I produce. I once saw someone on television who offered a valid definition of a writer: "A writer is someone who spends his entire life wondering why he isn't somewhere else." That, I suppose, is why, when I see Eddie Constantine on the screen, everything suddenly seems blessedly and uncomplicatedly right with the world.
Even though sometimes I can't understand a word he's saying.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Fieldsian Footnote

Mssrs. Mark Clark and Dan Craft -- two affably-disposed correspondents -- surprised me this morning with electronic epistles, both of them disclosing, with perfect independence of each other, that one of the features included in the R2 W.C. Fields box set -- SIX OF A KIND (1934), previously mentioned by me as exclusive to that set -- was also given an R1 release as part of a single-disc, three film Burns & Allen collection from Universal, which also includes HERE COMES COOKIE and LOVE IN BLOOM. The other two pictures were made in 1935.

How could I have failed to note this? I don't know... probably had too much to drink.

As it happens, I addressed my tawny peepers to the film in question last night and -- mother of pearl! -- I can't recall a drearier 59 minutes since I last had to drag my canoe single-handed through the brush to the banks of Lake Titicaca. Fields has only a supporting role in this one, which is more of a tepid Charlie Ruggles or Burns & Allen picture, tedious at half the length, but he manages to spank it to life for about five minutes in a graceful physical humor skit as "Honest John," a drunken no-account sheriff who tries with misleading alacrity to line up a billiards shot in the local pool hall. Thanks to the exigencies of YouTube, you can see this choice cut here and tell the rest to go to Philadelphia. Incidentally, Fields' co-star in this scene is Tammany Young, who played his stooge in a number of pictures before his early death in 1936.

Mr. Clark opines: "Fields is overdue for another comeback. It's true that Fields' occasional racial humor can sometimes be cringe-inducing (especially in something like MISSISSIPPI), [but] on balance I think our modern, touchy-feely, PC world could use a comedian who's willing to kick a baby in the ass."

To which I say, "Who could possibly disagree?"

Monday, January 28, 2008

HDracula

Cinemax HD hosted the first high-definition broadcast of Terence Fisher's DRACULA aka HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) early this morning -- at 5:15am eastern time. It wasn't the recently restored version shown in the UK -- HORROR OF DRACULA is still the onscreen title -- and the source element didn't quite have that IB Technicolor quality I still cherish from a boyhood screening, when I was captivated by the bluish hue of the smoke wisping off the candle in Harker's room; the smoke was only grayish here, but the stained glass windows in the room burned brightly.

Nevertheless, it was a full aperture, non-widescreen broadcast, which meant that the top of Christopher Lee's head was in frame for his classic library close-up -- which will make even the DVD-R I burn from this telecast superior to the official Warner Home Video DVD release -- and it was also colorful and sharp as a tack. Valerie Gaunt's staking included the shot of the old woman in the coffin, and Carol Marsh's staking had one shot of blood burbling up as the stake was hammered in. Nothing was added back into the disintegration scene at the end, but I could see more detail in Dracula's ashen remains than ever before. I can also testify that this is one of those vintage films that benefits greatly from HD clarity -- when Donna passed through the room and saw a scene out of sequence, she guessed that I was watching something from 1971 or '72.

The best TV presentation of this title I've seen to date, this is going to join a select number of titles I can't bear not to have on HD and will keep protected on my hard drive -- until I can find some way of transferring HD quality to disc, or until something better comes along.

A Bigger Box o' Fields

As frequenters of this blog and readers of my magazine should be well aware by now, there are literally hundreds of good reasons why every DVD devotée ought to invest in a region-free player. Pictured here is one of the latest, a beautifully designed British import from Universal that collects no less than 17 films starring early sound era comedian W.C. Fields.

I suspect that Fields is not well-known to young people today, but when I was a young, rebellious longhair of the original Woodstock era, fond of playing my Blue Cheer and Electric Prunes albums so that the poor people without stereos in Indiana could hear them, Fields was a hero of mine -- even at a time when I had seen none of his films, even though he would have been the first grown-up on the block to tell me to turn that goddam racket down. I can't recall where or how I first became aware of Fields, but impressionists like Rich Little probably had something to do with it; twenty (and twenty-five) years after his death in 1946, Fields' distinctive carnival-barker speaking voice remained prime fodder for voice men. (Richard Dawson and Ed McMahon were also, and remain, devout Fields devotées.) But I do remember that one of my four bedroom walls was dominated by a poster of his likeness, from MY LITTLE CHICKADEE (1940 -- though I did not know its origin then), peering scurrilously over a tightly clutched fistful of playing cards. The phrase "close to the vest" incarnate. I don't know why this image spoke to me so directly at that age and that time, but it did -- and I was not alone.

My investigation into Fields properly began with a book by Richard J. Anobile (I think it was DRAT!) and an entertaining record album of sound bytes from Fields' movies, narrated by Gary Owens of LAUGH-IN fame. I listened to that album till I wore it out, at which point I no longer needed it because Fields' unabashedly baroque way of speaking had thoroughly infected my gray matter. I got my first-ever A+ on an English paper when my class was assigned to conduct an imaginary interview with someone from history. I chose Fields and not only wrote a longer paper than was needed (because the old so-and-so just wouldn't shut up), but I couldn't stop laughing as I wrote it.

Q: Mr. Fields, you have had a long career and now stand at the very pinnacle of your...
A: Pinochle, yes pinochle! A delightful game, I do not mind telling you, at which I have had the good fortune to be Tri-state Champion. Why, it's taken me all over the world! I'm reminded of a time when I was but a hardy towhead in a woolskin cap, romping through the hinterlands of Afghanistan. It was just me and Jake, my trusty yak. He could sniff out truffles in half a tick..

And so on and so forth (how easily it all comes back). Evidently my English teacher, Mrs. Rose, had taken my little paper so deeply into the cockles of her heart that she not only accorded it with the aforementioned nonpariel gradation, but she impressed its shining example upon her fellow instructors, several of whom sought me out that day in the groves of academe to tender their heartiest congratulations. I thank you.

There is a streak of the Rabelaisian in Fields' carny-speak and, in retrospect, I can see how my infection with it may have played a role in my becoming a writer. Fields was a writer himself and took a hand in most of his film scripts.

During those early months of my Fields obsession, my attentions were rewarded -- sort of -- by TV GUIDE's announcement that Channel 16 would be hosting a week of W.C. Fields movies in their late night slot. Unfortunately, I was in Cincinnati and Channel 16 was in Dayton, Ohio; close enough to have their listings in our TV GUIDE but not always close enough to receive. Even on the clearest nights, the picture could be faint and snowy, unless I wrapped my calves and forearms in aluminium foil and stood to the right of my little television in the attitude of a flamingo. Even though I often couldn't see what was going on, I tuned in to every single broadcast -- just to hear the soundtracks in their complete and uninterrupted form, which had been edited down on the Gary Owens album to just the bon mots, so to speak. My perseverance was rewarded: the clearest night's reception I had that week was for IT'S A GIFT (1934), commonly acknowledged as Fields' masterpiece, which allowed me to see not only the classic "Carl LaFong" routine -- a highlight of the album -- but the even greater build-up to it, as Fields (unable to sleep in the same room with yappy wife Kathleen Howard) absconds to the outdoor swing for the peaceful repose that never comes.

Within the same year, my local theater hosted AN EVENING WITH W.C. FIELDS, which turned out to be THE BANK DICK (1940) and a selection of his early short films. A friend, whom I had also managed to infect with my record album, and I were there for the first showing with sleighbells on. The highlight of the show, for me, was THE FATAL GLASS OF BEER, which I proceeded to quote thereafter for weeks on end. That year, for my last Halloween as an active participant, I went about dressed as Fields -- in a bathrobe and plastic bowler hat, twirling a cane and sporting a fake nose artfully contrived of Silly Putty. As people gave me candy, I looked in my bag with "Godfrey Daniels" recoil and asked them entreatingly, "Haven't you anything stronger?"

So my love of Fields runs deep, but I had fallen out of touch with it. After ordering the 17-film import set, I found out that Universal had previously released two five-picture box sets, which had somehow escaped my notice -- good thing, too. The pair of them will set you back over $120 at Amazon.com, which is the sort of bitter pill that would discourage even the most stout-hearted Fieldsian from setting out to bag the bigger game.

When I heard about this import set (less than £55 from Amazon.co.uk), I knew I had to have it because, even after all these years, I had never managed to see most of Fields' early Paramounts in anything like watchable quality. Culled from Fields' stints at Paramount and Universal, the import box arranges its contents in non-chronologic, even higglety-pigglety order, most of them doubled-up on single discs while IT'S A GIFT and another title are stand-alones. ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933) and MRS. WIGGS OF THE CABBAGE PATCH (1934), which would have filled those gaps ideally, were for some reason not included -- though they are listed as part of the contents on the Amazon.co.uk sales page for the set. Perhaps those pictures were omitted because Fields appears only briefly in them, but that wouldn't explain how FOLLOW THE BOYS (1944), in which he also appears only briefly, got included. Should this set ever surface in the USA, Universal really should reconsider and include ALICE and MRS. WIGGS for the simple reason that they're part of Fields' Paramount story.

The complete contents of the import set are: THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 (1938), THE BANK DICK (1940), YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (1939), MY LITTLE CHICKADEE (1940), MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (1935), THE OLD FASHIONED WAY (1934), YOU'RE TELLING ME! (1934), SIX OF A KIND (1934), INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933), MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (1932), IF I HAD A MILLION (1932), MISSISSIPPI (1935), POPPY (1936), NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK (1941), IT'S A GIFT (1934), TILLIE AND GUS (1933) and FOLLOW THE BOYS (1944). The titles in orange are included in Universal's R1 W.C. FIELDS COMEDY COLLECTION VOLUME 1, the titles in blue are included in VOLUME 2. (THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 was released domestically by Universal as half of a "Bob Hope Tribute Collection" disc, paired with COLLEGE SWING.)

I dove right into the middle of the set with IT'S A GIFT for starters, then went back to the beginning and continued with Disc 1: THE OLD FASHIONED WAY (1934) and POPPY (1936). While IT'S A GIFT retains its wonder as a necklace of all-time-great Fields bits, and for former opera singer Kathleen Howard's near operatic, non-stop nagging, I had more appreciation for THE OLD FASHIONED WAY as a film and was delighted by Fields' underplayed emotion at the end of the picture. I am supplementing my viewing with James Curtis' 2003 biography of Fields, which informed me of how ill the Great Man was during the filming of POPPY and impressed me all the more with how much he was still able to contribute to it. All the stories are basically the same Depression-era fantasy about people, surviving on little more than their sly wit, who achieve wealth or at least safe harbor through extreme trial and error by the final reel -- and Fields isn't always likeable. Watching YOU CAN'T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN (1939) last night, I was startled to hear Fields' Larson E. Whipsnade refer to Eddie "Rochester" Anderson as a "pickaninny", to his black carnival workers as "Ubangis," and to a black-faced Charlie McCarthy as an "eggplant." When something goes wrong, he yells about there being "a Ubangi in the fuel supply" -- a sort of "Godfrey Daniels" twist on the old expression "a nigger in a woodpile." It erred one too many times on the wrong side of propriety for my liking... but the lady with the snake allergy nearly made up for it.

This is a flat-out lovely set and I'm having a ball with it. Every transfer is lovely and silvery. Fields' juggling routine in THE OLD FASHIONED WAY, the only record on film of the skill upon which he built his theatrical reputation, is still awe-inspiring; I can easily imagine some young person seeing it today (if not on this import set, then on YouTube) and being inspired to innovate some kind of 21st century reinvention of the forgotten art.

Suffice to say, my little plum, if you have the wherewithal and can afford to get into the game, by all means go to Amazon.co.uk and have their croupier deal you these 17 cards... er, discs. I promise you will hold each and every one of them very tightly to your vest.