2017-02-28

sovay: (Claude Rains)
In which I attempt to make some dent in the backlog of unmentioned movies which accrues from being sick three out of the four weeks of an already short month. Not helped by the internet cutting out for a couple of hours tonight. RCN, we left Verizon for you. Don't make anybody regret it.

It should go without saying that when a film turns up on TCM with a circus setting and Ben Lyon in the cast, [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel and I need no further enticement to watch it, though in this case the one-line summary "A romantic triangle involving a hypnotist and two trapeze artists threatens to destroy a circus" was admittedly pretty attractive. I am pleased to report that it rewarded our benefit of the doubt: John Harlow's The Dark Tower (1943) is a neat little B-picture that gets an agreeable quotient of thrills and chills out of its modest budget and even managed to surprise both of us by the finale. Plus now I know that William Hartnell was shockingly beautiful when he was my age and I wasn't expecting that.

The film was a transatlantic co-production of the generation that followed quota quickies, produced by Warner Brothers at Teddington Studios with an American star and an otherwise British cast; theoretically adapted from the short-lived stage play of the same name by George S. Kaufman and Alexander Woollcott,1 it has pleasingly more in common with the pulp fiction of its time, tracking the seedy but not hopeless atmosphere of a traveling circus in tough straits and the unglamorous but not uninteresting lives of the performers going on around the edges of the plot. Brothers Phil (Lyon) and Tom (David Farrar) Danton are co-owners of Danton's Empire Circus, the former being the American-accented "guvnor" in charge of the practicalities while his more dashing younger brother works the high wire with longtime love interest Mary (Anne Crawford), but in wartime the crowds are thin and the takings thinner and the "feast of equine dexterity and acrobatic marvels" which opens the movie ends with Phil forced to admit to the company that the money's run out. He's taking a vote on whether they'd rather disband now and get it over with or soldier on to the next town when their fortunes are unexpectedly saved by the appearance of Stephen Torg (Herbert Lom), a penniless drifter whose dark eyes and deep, cold voice are the outward show of an extraordinary magnetism: he calms a fractious lion with nothing more than an unblinking gaze and a few masterful gestures. "What a good fellow is Pasha," he croons to the subdued big cat, before explaining coolly to his human audience, "It's very simple. I make them obey my eyes—I make them like my voice—and then they do what I want them to do." The suggestion that he hire the stranger as the new lion trainer gives Phil a brainwave. Could Torg repeat the same trick with a person rather than an animal—Mary, perhaps? Under hypnotic control, might she be serene and sure enough to perform a high-wire act without any of the customary props used for balance? If Mary's willing, of course. Mary is indeed willing, even a little intrigued by this shabby, saturnine young man whose reticence about his origins does not conceal his arrogance about his skills. The test run is encouraging. The act is a smash success. With the spellbinding assistance of the now-"Dr." Torg, Mary can perform the most death-defying of stunts without tremble or hesitation, the kind of nail-biting that really packs an audience in. Once word gets out, it's all the way to the Winter Palace with Danton's Empire Circus: except that Torg is rapidly alienating his new family with his work-shirking, his fancy spending, and his bruising disdain for every other act under the tent, and while everyone from the abrasive sharpshooter to the enthusiastic publicist can see for themselves that Mary and Torg are spending more and more time together, it's increasingly and upsettingly unclear if it's love or mesmerism. The night that Tom falls during a trapeze act with Mary and avoids death only by a narrow margin of broken bones, it's impossible for Phil to escape the conclusion that Torg had something to do with it, but he can't see or prove how. He can't even get rid of the man without endangering the entire circus—the hypnotist is a bigger attraction now than the trick riders, the ice skaters, the low-wire clown. "I'll go," Torg promises darkly, after Phil's misgivings boil over into a physical altercation at the center of the after-hours ring, "but in my own time." And when he leaves the big top, obediently, Mary follows.

The opening titles contain the marvelous credit "Circus staged by Reco Brothers" and while I can't find much about this circus online beyond some mentions in Billboard, it is their participation which lends The Dark Tower its part-documentary feel, as the majority of the action takes place under the big top—performances and rehearsals—or in the ring of wagons where we observe the circus folk out of the spotlight, mending costumes, doing dishes, chatting with their neighbors, being entertained and slightly weirded out by the waxwork novelty their publicist brought home. When we watch the circus on the move or the big top being raised, I'm pretty sure it's just footage of Reco Brothers on the road for the season. The acts are good, too. There are precision cyclists, a standing bareback rider. The trio of ice skaters are astonishing: on a square of ice that can't be more than ten feet by ten, they perform high-speed, multiple-person spins, lifts, and spirals, a dizzying testament to the power of centripetal force. The best as far as I was concerned was the low-wire burlesque of Mary's act performed by Reco himself, a bald-pated tramp clown with a genius for entangling himself in the very tightrope he's trying to walk. He wears a mime's white gloves right up until the point where he steps on them while holding a pose more normally assumed by pretzels. I respect beyond words the degree of balance and grace it takes to wobble and flail that wildly while never actually falling. At the finale, of course, he looks the whole six feet down and panics and topples, Coyote over cartoon air. This ordinary realism is part of what keeps the story grounded even after it shifts gears into a kind of mystery-horror. It helps, too, that the stakes are never higher than the survival of the circus and Mary's health and happiness—which is plenty high for an invested viewer—and that Torg at his worst is never megalomaniacal or diabolical, just ambitious, frustrated, and unethical. At times he resembles a devil's bargain, appearing from nowhere with an offer too good to refuse, but despite his accent he's no Svengali.2 He was a bullied boy who came from nothing; now he's a man who has to have the best of everything if only so that he can rub it in other people's faces, whether that means a swanky car in a community that lives out of caravans, a girl whom everyone knew was in love with another man, or a controlling interest in a circus he despises. "It's a great thing, power. It makes you feel a king, especially if all your life you've been made to feel a beggar." Just once, he looks as young as he really is and not so sure of himself, confessing his love to Mary, but as soon as she gently rebuffs him, his face cools again. Anyone who knows Lom only as Peter Sellers' increasingly unhinged boss in the Pink Panther movies should check out Jules Dassin's Night and the City (1950) and Alexander Mackendrick's The Ladykillers (1956), but they should see him in this movie, too. It was his fourth English-language role and the star-making one.

And the rest of the cast look like they're having fun. Despite his top billing, Lyon is more of a high-profile supporting part than a lead in his next-to-last screen role (he didn't die, he just moved into radio), but at this point I'd enjoy him if he read me a want ad for soap flakes and the important thing is that he convinces as the kind of circus director who's sharp and generous enough to have earned the trust of his company even when no one's getting paid, but just slightly too much of a nice guy to believe that things are going to get as bad as they've gotten already; Josephine Wilson has to supply the cynicism he lacks as the tart-spoken, chain-smoking sharpshooter with a soft spot for her "guvnor" and no love for the mysterious Stephen Torg. I had good memories of Crawford as the snobbish but not stupid factory girl striking sparks with Eric Portman's working-class foreman in Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder's Millions Like Us (1943) and she certainly couldn't be replaced by a blender here, but she suffers from the usual problem with spending half a movie in a hypnotic state—Mary is most interesting in the early scenes when she's fully herself, her eagerness to run the experiment of the "Slide for Life" suggesting both a scientific curiosity in and an erotic response to Torg's powers. With his thick dark hair and his long jawline, Farrar makes a rugged, credibly acrobatic romantic lead in the first half of the film, then puts his physical weakness to bitterly sensitive use in the second half as his body knits itself back together while his heart takes its time; it is not the actor's fault that I don't find him at his most beautiful here, having been introduced to him at a pitch of outrageous sexiness in Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947). Besides, I'm still trying to figure out how Hartnell—still credited here as "Bill"—got typed as cops and sergeants and other hard men when he's adorable as Jimmy Powers, the floppy-haired publicist with an excitable stammer that doesn't stop him talking a mile a minute when he wants to pitch an idea. He has one of those high-boned, clean-lined faces with very dark, very soft eyelashes and brows to match, a quick-cornered smile and sleek fair hair that keeps coming out of its brilliantine while he runs around the fairground like an eager art student in his pullovers and flat cap. I couldn't tell if it was saying something about his sexuality or just accurately reflecting carny talk in the wild, but he provides one of the few examples I've heard of pre-Round the Horne Polari when he calls a blustering but ineffectual ringmaster "a pompous pot-bellied palone." He has some plot significance, but his stammer doesn't.

I'm a little sorry there isn't a pulp novel of this film, really, because then Hard Case Crime could reprint it and I could shelve it next to Gypsy Rose Lee's The G-String Murders (1941). Also then maybe Warners would bring it out on DVD and I would not have to refer you to the questionable internet if you want to watch it between its periodic appearances on TCM. I never know why most of these movies are obscure. Director Harlow was unknown to me, but cinematographer Otto Heller would go on to do distinctive work on films as diverse as Thorold Dickinson's The Queen of Spades (1949), Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), and Sidney J. Furie's The Ipcress File (1965),3 and the editor was just some guy named Terence Fisher. The title is absolutely meaningless to the finished film. Now I want to rewatch Millions Like Us and see if I can track down more films from William Hartnell's adorable period. This feat brought to you by my mesmerizing backers at Patreon.

1. As far as I can tell, the film retains only the title, the sense of romantic threat, and the key concept of an artist performing in an altered state of mind. What interests me most about this setup is that Warner Bros. had already filmed a more faithful adaptation in the U.S., about a year after the play's 57-performance Broadway run, under the title The Man with Two Faces (1934). It starred Edward G. Robinson and Mary Astor and I will almost certainly try to check it out sometime just for the cast and the comparison. I would love to know why the studio chose to sort-of-not-really remake it almost a decade later.

2. Herbert Lom was born Herbert Charles Angelo Kuchačevič ze Schluderpacheru in Prague in the next-to-last year that city could be located in Austria-Hungary and I actually like that while his accent suggests not one of us, the script itself makes no effort to mark him out as foreign, any more than it attempts to explain why one of the Danton brothers has a British accent and the other is American as the day is long, in slang as well as sound: "All the time you thought she was high-hatting you. That wasn't Mary—that was a dummy and Torg was her vent!"

3. I am retrospectively impressed with myself for recognizing some likeness between the latter two films in 2010, although it did not apparently then occur to me to check whether they shared any crew.
sovay: (Rotwang)
Yesterday I made a concerted effort to get out of the house for something that was not a doctor's appointment or a political event, though I have several of the latter on my calendar. I met Dean at the Harvard Business School in Allston and he showed me some of the small arts and treasures scattered throughout the campus: the sun clock outside the Class of 1959 Chapel and the water garden inside, containing the first ornamental carp I have ever met that did not boil up out of the water at me in hopes of snacks; the eight-sided mosaic of Tethys from Roman Antioch, set into the atrium floor of Morgan Hall and surrounded by spilling water, the goddess herself circled by fish and dolphins; the oak-and-brass horseshoe trading post of the Old New York Stock Exchange in the basement of Baker Library; the marriage-like bronze frieze of "Credit: Man's Confidence in Man," originally displayed at the 1939 World's Fair and now residing in one of the tunnels that link the buildings of the Business School and wider Harvard. We came aboveground into an exhibit on Edwin H. Land and Polaroid Corporation that I would like to revisit, assuming they'll let me back in when unaccompanied by someone with library privileges. I finished John le Carré's The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (2016) on the way over and returned home with a copy of David A. Moss' Democracy: A Case Study (2017) and a signature from Dean who helped prepare a number of the cases. The flourless halva brownies from Tatte's are impressively dense and sticky and should probably not be eaten by people in the act of walking to catch a train, but here we are. For dinner [livejournal.com profile] derspatchel and I made Totally Inauthentic Dalcha (tamarind pulp yes, curry leaves no, substituted Aleppo pepper for red chili powder and as God is my witness I thought we had turmeric) with the lentils we had soaked since last night and the lamb chop in the freezer. I had some idea of watching a movie, but instead I wrote about one while the internet intermittently went out. Today has been mostly work and the news being mostly bad. Autolycus has decided that the best place in the apartment is sprawled across the keyboard while my hands are attempting to use it; he purrs at a pitch of extreme emotional blackmail, grooms my hands in hopeful distraction, and I fear has discovered that the volume on my computer changes when he steps on the function keys. He is a very good cat.
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