Forgotten Old Movies

I’ve found a television channel that seems to show old black and white movies that have slipped through the historical net and ended up forgotten. In some cases, it’s quite justified but I’ve seen a couple of films lately that are absolutely remarkable, with well-known actors and good scripts. I’m baffled why they’ve ended up on some obscure satellite channel rather than being on mainstream TV, even if it on a weekday afternoon. I know I’d rather watch an old film than yet another run in with Jeremy Kyle.

The first film I caught was Suddenly!, a 1954 film noir starring Frank Sinatra as a gangster hired to assassinate the president (given the date, I’m assuming it’s Eisenhower). The majority of the action takes place in two rooms – and would probably be quite easy to adapt as a stage play – but the script is excellent. Sinatra and his henchmen have commandeered a house to set up the gun in readiness for the arrival of the President at a sleepy California town, as the house has a perfect view. It soon becomes clear that Sinatra’s character is a psychopath who kills for the fun of it, and the actual target is irrelevant to him. The script is taut, the dialogue is sharp and the acting is top notch. Given that Sinatra was nominated for an Oscar for this movie, it’s pretty criminal that (1) I’ve never heard of it before and (2) it’s only been shown on TV on this back of beyond channel.

The other film I’ve come across is also a film noir, a 1947 psychological thriller starring Edward G Robinson called The Red House. It’s not a gangster movie, but has some wonderfully gothic elements surrounding a derelict house in woods owned by a handicapped farmer. If you’re familiar with the genre, you could probably work some of the plot out, but given its age it’s actually really exciting. It’s a good story with an excellent cast who do extremely well with the relatively poor script. Again, this is a great afternoon film that seems to have been buried under the blockbusters, and it’s a great shame.

I’m hoping that I catch up with some other cracking old movies, because they really are worth watching if you like sparkling scripts, well-dressed actors and plots that don’t rely on special effects.

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Du Maurier – The Birds’ Other Stories 2

THE LITTLE PHOTOGRAPHER

One of the ladies with whom I work is obsessed with class. If someone annoys her, it’s all because of class and privilege. Like me, she is staunchly working class and to us it’s often obvious that the “higher classes” have a very different outlook on life. This story has a very strong class element but it’s the “just desserts” aspect that I found particularly pleasing, especially as it had an unpromising start.

The majority of the action takes place somewhere on the Riviera, at a beach resort where a Marquise is on holiday with her two children and their nanny. She’s wealthy, bored and attractive and although she doesn’t actively seek a lover, her husband is more focused on his business than his wife. The little photographer is club-footed (well, it didn’t do Byron any harm) and although he works as a semi-professional photographer, he also takes pictures in his spare time of the landscape, the sea and the local wildlife.

One thing leads to another and…

I’m not going to give the end away, because I have to admit I found it quite delicious. If you believe that all actions have consequences – no matter how remote – and that nobody is untouchable, you will love it. It reminded me a lot of The Talented Mr Ripley, despite not having any similarities of plot or location – it’s vintage, it’s glamorous, it’s exotic and very, very wicked.

KISS ME AGAIN STRANGER

I was amazed to discover that this short story had also been filmed, this time starring a young Leonard Nimoy – presumably before he gained immortality as Spock – in the lead role. The story itself is simple and takes place over one evening; a shy young mechanic, finding himself at a loose end in London, goes to the pictures and ends up on an impromptu date with one of the usherettes. Falling madly in love (at first sight), what he discovers the following day changes everything.

Which, if you’re a suspicious old bat like me, has probably given the game away – but there is very little in the story that actually does so until the last couple of pages. Unfortunately, like other stories in this collection, it hasn’t aged very well although I think the fact that it is set in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War actually works in the story’s favour – I suspect that the filmed version moved it to contemporary (early 1960s?) times and changed the location.

I must admit to guessing the twist wrong, although I got the suspect right – well, that was always going to be obvious really. It does make me miss the ice creams and orange juice I used to get at the cinema when I was a kid. Unfortunately the days of two features, an intermission, ice creams and drinks for less than a pound are long gone – you need a second mortgage for the cinema these days. I wonder if my obscure TV channel that shows old movies will think about putting this one on in the future. I’d quite like to see what they’ve changed.

THE OLD MAN

After reading six of Daphne du Maurier’s short stories one after the other, you would think I would have learned not to take things at face value. Clearly I haven’t, because the last paragraph of this wonderful short story completely took me by surprise. It really wasn’t what I thought it would be.

It is, essentially, the story of a family observed by a man who visits a riverbank regularly. The family live near the river, and he watches the couple as they bring up a family of four. He has given them names, but the son, in particular, is the focus of the story as his relationship with his family is much more dysfunctional. The story ends as tragedy strikes and the twist is revealed.

I really cannot say any more because that really will give the game away. It’s a beautifully dramatic little story, a perfect length and seductively told. Aside from The Birds, I think it is probably the best story of the lot. If you can, do try to pick it up and read this – and let me know if you worked out the twist before the end.

Du Maurier – The Birds’ Other Stories 1

MONTE VERITAS

This is another story in the collection of Daphne du Maurier stories that I’m reading, and (as far as I can tell) it’s not very well known. It tells the story of a mysterious sect in the mountains in Europe (presumably Italy, Switzerland or somewhere like that) whose members are supposed to be immortal and who are shunned by the local community. I’m not really doing it any justice at all with that description, which is fine because I really want people to read it themselves, so even the vaguest overview of the plot works for me.

It’s a strange, unsettling story because – particularly in its latter stages – it reminds me a lot of HG Wells, in particular his Land of the Blind story, which I have mentioned elsewhere and also old stories of Shangri-La (popular in the early 20th century), a paradise found in the mountains near Tibet. I understand that du Maurier was influenced by a health farm which preached natural living, which makes me wonder if this is supposed to be set in Switzerland – but the location, apart from the title mountain, is never named so this is pure speculation on my part.

However, one thing that du Maurier is careful to do is remind readers that such idyllic lifestyles come at a price – but I’m not going to give away the downside to this particular Eden, except to say that I’m not sure it’s one I would like to pay. She even has one of the characters state bluntly “Monte Veritas. The Mountain of Truth. It is not paradise. If it is paradise you want, you won’t find it here.” And that’s something worth thinking about in re-reading the story (it does benefit from more than one reading, I must say). What is it about this story which is so unnerving? I can’t put my finger on it, and the more familiar with the story I become, the less I think I want to.

THE APPLE TREE

Some of the later stories in this collection are quite a bit shorter than the first two – although this story straddles the two extremes – and seem to be much less subtle which in turn makes them less effective as a “creepy story”. This tale, about a man who is haunted by an apple tree in his garden after the death of his neglected wife, Already it’s reminiscent of a story by HP Lovecraft, about a young sculptor convinced that a tree next to his best friend’s tomb inhabits his spirit.

I find this story troublesome in a number of ways. It feels horribly dated, stuck in the 1950s like a fly in amber – complete with all the prejudices and assumptions of the time. The husband is vile, the wife initially unsympathetic – but then to modern sensibilities, one would wonder why she put up with him – and the other characters faceless ciphers, just there to provide voices. You can spot the ending coming and it feels disappointing. Even the prose is ordinary compared to the sense of siege in The Birds and the joyful wonder of Monte Veritas.

All of that said – and you can tell I didn’t really enjoy it – this is a thought-provoking story, but only if you look at it from the perspective of the psychology of grief. The action takes place very soon after the wife’s funeral and it could be argued – as one character does – that what the husband is experiencing is psychological, all “part of the grieving process”. Is it? Du Maurier is careful never to say either way, allowing us to view things from the husband’s point of view – the tree is haunted, out to get him, etc. – or as an objective bystander – poor soul, missing his wife terribly, can’t cope without her.

He’s still vile at the end though. At least the tree survived.

Du Maurier – The Birds

I’m working my way through some of Daphne du Maurier’s short stories at the moment and the volume that I have starts with one of her best known stories, The Birds. I was quite excited about this, as I enjoyed Hitchcock’s film version (the one with the crows, not giving too much away); but I have to say that the film bears next to no relation to the story. This is by no means a bad thing – just don’t expect the two to be identical, because they’re not.

The first difference is the location; rural Cornwall has its own mystique and the idea of sea and land birds suddenly turning homicidal is rendered even more sinister by the bleakness of the landscape. Rugged coves and acres of farmland offer a desolation that one simply wouldn’t find in an urban setting, and du Maurier really uses that isolation to good effect, building a siege mentality as the Hocken family try to survive each avian onslaught.

The second – and for me, the main – difference is the birds themselves. My memory of Hitchcock’s classic (I haven’t seen it for a while) is that all the birds are crows or ravens; large black corvids, in any event. In du Maurier’s story, it is every species of bird which is involved. The attacks start small, with robins, wrens and tits attacking the Hocken children before the attacks – and birds – increase in size. Near the end, the birds of prey, raptors and gannets, attack the house, ripping at the wooden window frames and door panelling.

If you’ve come across the news reports of gulls attacking humans – either just territorial dive-bombing or to steal food from children – you will probably appreciate the horror of masses of gulls swarming in the sky in preparation for an attack. It’s very disconcerting without being graphically horrific and plays on every human’s wish to avoid being pecked in the eyes. I can understand why Hitchcock changed the story to suit his film, but – good as it is – it’s nowhere near as creepy as the original.

Dore – Lucifer In Hell

Gustav Dore was very well known in the late Victorian era as an illustrator, mainly for the Illustrated London News but also on his own account. His etchings illustrated the realities of living in London for many poorer people – which shocked a nation of middle class and tradespeople – and also a number of books. Some of his best known work illustrated a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy and this illustration would have been found at the end of the Inferno, when Dante and Virgil reach the lowest circle of Hell.

The final canto of the Inferno, Canto XXXIV, describes Dante and Virgil’s perusal of Lucifer, who is so horrific as to defy human imagination. No matter what Dante says, it will never fully show Lucifer’s full terrifying glory – for want of a better word. He is encased in ice up to the torso, unable to move; he has three faces, each of which are gnawing at the torso of a noted sinner for all eternity (as the sinner will never die); beneath each of these faces is a pair of wings which beat constantly to create the winds which keep his circle frozen. The three sinners are Judas, Brutus and Cassius, all who betrayed their benefactors which Dante considers the most heinous crime of all.

Compared with more traditional depictions of Lucifer in Hell, Dante’s is almost unique in its depiction of Lucifer being punished as well as punishing – indeed, Milton views him as reigning over a chaotic kingdom of demons rather than suffering for his own sin of ambition against God. I think this point of view makes sense within the theology of the poem (and allowing for the fact that I am a committed pagan) as it shows that even Lucifer in sinning is not beyond punishment. Then again, he wasn’t making the political points Milton was, which may account for the differences.

I do like the detail in Dore’s illustration – he gives a good idea of the difference in scale of Lucifer’s world to the much smaller figures of Dante and Virgil – although I have to admit I can’t see all the faces and he’s omitted the eternally chewed sinners. Which is perhaps just as well, I don’t think many Victorian readers would have appreciated that. It’s a fittingly dramatic illustration of a dramatic climax to the first part of the epic poem, and I think it works very well indeed.

Boudicea and Harry Potter

I expect that most people at least recognise the name Boudicea and recall that she was the Queen of tie Iceni who defeated the Romans in battle before a rather ignominious death and magnificent burial. In fact, she has rather more in common with Harry Potter, in that everything we know about her comes from texts provided by other people. In Potter’s case, we can blame JK Rowling for his biography; in Boudicea’s case, we look to Tacitus and Dio.

Unfortunately for us, two thousand years after the event, it’s not only clear that Tacitus and Dio’s biographies of Boudicea disagree on virtually every aspect of the story – up to and including her name, location and tribe – but there is also very little in the way of concrete archaeological evidence about her. What there is plenty of is speculation; she may be buried under Platform 8 of King’s Cross Station, or under Stonehenge, or goodness knows where. The fact is, we simply don’t know for definite.

So this puts Boudicea in the same place as Harry Potter, in that everything we know comes from a story. The difference is that modern readers understand that Harry Potter is a fictional character; I am not aware that we have any evidence that Boudicea was not. For all I know, she is a symbol, much like Robin Hood, of people’s rebellion against the ruling classes. My fear is that in two thousand years’ time, people will seek the entrance to the Hogwarts Express by excavating platform 9 of King’s Cross Station in the hope of finding the magical passageway.

I don’t wish to detract from what evidence of that period that does exist. There is plenty of evidence that a huge rebellion took place about 61 AD, and that many people died. It’s just that there is nothing conclusive to say that any of this is Boudicea. It may be that, like Robin Hood, Boudicea didn’t actually exist; but if she did, I want her to look like a cross between Merida from Brave and Brienne of Tarth.

When Is A Rebellion A Rebellion?

Somewhere in the depths of my comic collection is a short four-issue comic called The Hopeless Savages; the central characters are a family of counter-cultural punk rockers who live off-grid and rebel against the social and political norms – so they are left wing if the government is right wing and so on. It all goes a bit pear-shaped when their oldest son decides to rebel against his parents – as children are wont to do – and accepts a job at a large global coffee corporation (based on Starbucks, I don’t doubt), which causes concern amongst the family.

It’s not a great comic, much as I love it – it doesn’t have the emotional impact of Sandman at its best, for example – but I thought it did raise an interesting point about rebellion. In similar circumstances (i.e. parents are already viewed as countercultural) is following the pack the only form of rebellion? And is it really rebellion if one chooses to follow in the parents’ footsteps, becoming countercultural oneself? It does bring back memories of Marlon Brando somewhat: “What are you rebelling against?” “What’ve you got?”

As a question, it’s proved fairly pertinent, as I am now struggling my way through a more difficult Camus (given how wonderful I found The Plague), his book long essay on revolutions, The Rebel. It’s not an easy read, but given how I seem to be carrying around the plight of the Hopeless Savages in the back of my brain, it is proving an interesting one. I wonder if there is ever a point where it is no longer rebellious to rebel?

I fear I’m lapsing into semantics now, so I’m going to read a little bit more and see how I get on.

Busting Some Goth Stereotypes

Or in other words, how to respond to certain things you will almost certainly hear (and I certainly have over the years):-

1. It’s a phase, you’ll grow out of it – Well, I stopped growing when I was 12, and I was quite the baby bat at that time, so perhaps that explains a lot. I have said previously that I don’t believe Goth is a phase; it’s an entire philosophy of life and so it would be very difficult to grow out of if it provides meaning.

2. You’re a bit morbid – On the contrary, I think the Gothic attitude towards death is entirely healthy. We face death head on, it doesn’t scare us and we understand that it’s an important aspect of living. Without death and decay, life itself cannot exist; it’s just that rather than pretend it doesn’t happen, or it’s a terrifying thing, we approach it rather more rationally than that.

3. You’re all psychos – That only applies to me at Victoria station on work days. Seriously, though – some Goths do have mental health problems, but then so do some non-Goths. Perhaps by not trying to put a brave face on it, or brushing it under the carpet, but acknowledging that the thought processes might be a bit skewed is actually the healthier option?

4. You’ll regret that when you get older – Said to me after every piercing, tattoo and new corset. I’m still waiting. Basically, if you’ve thought carefully about it and have made the decision carefully, regrets don’t enter the picture.

5. You’re all miserable – Some of the funniest people I know are Goths, but then I love black humour. Perhaps it’s that we find other things funny than the “normal people” do.

6. You’ll never get a job looking like that – I’ve got one. Many Goths of my acquaintance have well paid positions in professions ranging from sciences, medicine, law and journalism through to the creative arts and music. I have found that many Goths are fiercely intelligent, which can only help them when looking for paid employment.

7. It’s just another uniform – I disagree strongly with this. Not all female Goths try to resemble Morticia Addams, nor do all male Goths seek to look like Marilyn Manson. There’s more uniformity on the racks at Primark. If a girl wishes to wear black bondage trousers and a Cradle of Filth t-shirt, or a lad would rather dress like Lord Byron, then fair play to them.

8. You’re all devil worshippers – Not quite sure how this one comes about, but I think it has something to do with the fact that there is a fair bit of pagan or pseudo-Christian iconography on the scene. People often forget that the devil is, by and large, a Christian concept – and if you’re not a Christian, you can’t really believe in the devil, so you can’t worship him. The Old Gods are a different matter, and if idiots wish to brand them as devils, it says more about them than about you.

9. You’re too fat/old/young/disabled to be Goth – And the person who said that is too stupid to understand a sensible answer. Don’t dignify them by trying to provide one.

10. You’re not a real Goth – The only possible response to this is identical to that given to number 9 above.

I hope this is of some help to interested readers – and of wry amusement to others – but if you choose to walk the path, walk it your way and do it with your head held high.

London’s Old Prisons

London used to be full of prisons. Most of them were extremely well known and some names are still familiar – more so if you read nineteenth century novels. Yet apart from Wormwood Scrubs, Pentonville, Holloway and Wandsworth, the overwhelming majority of prisons simply aren’t there any more. Having read Oliver Twist and Affinity (by Sarah Waters), I thought it might be interesting to have a look at some of the better known of London’s lost prisons.

Dickens mentions many of London’s prisons in his novels; in Oliver Twist it is Newgate, which at that time was the central criminal prison in London. The inmates were famous, and their exploits were regularly published in The Newgate Calendar, which also gave details of executions and sentences as well as the crimes. Some of the old cells now form part of the Old Bailey – I think they are holding cells for defendants on trial – but they can be viewed by appointment I believe.

Dickens also used the Marshalsea Prison as a setting in his novel Little Dorrit. Unlike Newgate, the Marshalsea was a debtors prison and it was demolished in 1852 with the inmates being moved. Dickens’ father was a debtor in the Marshalsea and all that remains of the building is a part of the original wall. It was situated in Southwark, just overlooking the river, and also housed men convicted of crimes at sea. However, given that nearly half London’s population were inmates of debtors’ prisons, you can guess what the majority of the inmates were there for.

Sarah Waters sets her second novel, Affinity, in Millbank Prison, a beautifully designed prison in Pimlico. It was both a men’s and women’s criminal prison and a holding facility for convicts awaiting transportation. It was loosely based on Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, his vision of an ideal prison, being built in a “flower” shape. Unfortunately, the site was redeveloped, and Tate Britain now occupies most of the land, with the remainder forming part of Chelsea College of Art and Design.

Another ancient prison in London is The Fleet Prison in Farringdon, which started as a criminal facility and ended as a debtors’ prison. It went on to form part of Ludgate Station which, in turn, was redeveloped to be part of City Thameslink. However, if you want to find out what these old prisons were really like, it is possible to visit The Clink Prison Museum in Bankside, on the site of the original Clink Prison (“clink” is also a London slang term for a prison). They have put a great deal of effort in recreating some original cells and it would be a really interesting insight into (for example) Little Dorrit, if you happen to be reading that.

I must admit that given the number of Victorian prisons still operational – I live quite close to one – I’m surprised that so many have been mothballed. It is fair to say that the conditions weren’t wonderful, but given the current crisis of overcrowding, perhaps bringing some back online on a short term basis might not be a bad idea.

What Oliver Twist Tells Us About Funerals

It’s only a short episode near the beginning of the novel – indeed, I think Dickens ever so slightly skims over it to get on with the delivery to Fagin and the fun bits of the book – but for a while, Oliver Twist was a funeral mute. These were very common at Victorian funerals – the middle classes wouldn’t be seen buried without them – but they’re no longer used as burial itself has gone out of fashion. So what was their role in the funeral?

According to that bastion of knowledge, Wikipedia, the main purpose of a funeral mute was to stand around looking sad, initially at the door of the deceased’s home before leading the funeral cortege to the churchyard, and then at the door of the church. They were almost all employed by the undertakers rather than the bereaved, and formed part of the funeral package alongside the coffin and the service. They were considered symbolic protectors of the dead until their committal into the ground.

This practice died out with the onset of the First World War, partly due to the sheer number of deaths in that period but also because of the increased popularity of cremations, partly as a result of increased secularisation but also (especially in the UK) due to lack of space. As funerals became more expensive, people realised that they couldn’t afford a horse-drawn hearse with plumes, half a dozen mutes, two professional mourners and a three hour requiem mass (or CofE equivalent). So non-essential elements simply dropped away – virtually nobody has professional mourners and mutes anymore, although you do still see the occasional horse-drawn hearse, especially in the East End of London.

The Victorians had a very definite way of doing death and it’s possible that they went over the top – I certainly don’t fancy spending five years in mourning when my husband dies or three years for my daughter – but they had some lovely traditions which, if you can afford them, you really should think about bringing back.