*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge: My 40 Favourite Movies – 9: The Third Man


Third

9: THE THIRD MAN : 1949. Director: Carol Reed. UK.
Crime thriller. Orson Welles. Trevor Howard. Joseph Cotten.
Alida Valli. Wilfred Hyde-White.
Adapted from an original Graham Greene idea with extensive contributions by Carol Reed, this has to be the best example of British film noir ever – ironically not set in Britain, but in late-1940s, post-war Vienna, still divided and under Allied and Russian occupation. Once again we have the happy harmony of director, script, camerawork, musical score, and the perfect cast, together with the added authenticity of much of it actually being filmed on location, making it a perfect time-capsule of what was a bleak and rather terrible time and place. It belongs to those movies that should forever exist in black and white – like The Maltese Falcon, or Kiss Me Deadly, or Psycho. Even better, this is a movie set in post-war Europe where the Austrians speak German and the Russians speak Russian, giving it that extra grain of truth. Reputedly, when Carol Reed and Graham Greene were asked by producer Alexander Korda to come up with a story, Greene remembered a single introductory sentence he had written years before of a man named as ‘Harry’, seeming come back from the dead. It was to be the basis of the story of Harry Lime, in the movie, the mysterious ‘third man’ after a supposed fatal traffic accident in Vienna. The rest is history. Greene wrote the draft, although Carol Reed (supported by studio boss David O. Selznick) insisted on the more downbeat ending, rather than a happy ‘Anna and Holly’ one. There were other changes along the way – all for the betterment of the final movie – the original narrator was to be Major Calloway; Harry Lime was to be English; Martins first name was Rollo rather than Holly. Movie legend attributed more influence to Orson Welles, who was initially rather reluctant at the comparative small physical presence he had, but while he apparently did add the famous speech comparing Borgia Italy with Switzerland, many years later, when asked by Peter Bogdanovich, he conceded his input was “minimal”, and “it was Carol’s picture.” Probably the best movies – like the best books or stories in general – are big on small things. The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca operate as a snapshot of ordinary, otherwise quite insignificant, people whose personal stories we view briefly within a greater setting or events. They have no influence or control over this bigger world, whether it be 1940s San Francisco, a Vichy enclave in World War II North Africa, or the ruined, military zones of 1949 Vienna. At the end of the story this greater world is the same as it was at the beginning. No wrongs have been righted, no tyrants toppled, no earth-shattering events written into the history books. They, like us, are the little people. This is their story.
All of the key dramatis personae were played by actors at the top of their game. Joseph Cotten (1905-1994) played Holly Martins, the somewhat naïve American “writer of hack westerns”, and Harry Lime’s friend. In real life he had been Orson Welles’ friend since 1934, and appeared in several of Welles’ classics, Citizen Kane (1941); The Magnificent Ambersons (1942); Journey into Fear (1943). He was another Hollywood star who had cut his acting teeth on Broadway, moving from theatre to modelling (when work dried up), to radio work, to a movie career from 1930 to 1981. Welles apparently rated him as a great comic actor. Here he plays a simple, decent man increasingly out of his safety zone. English actor Trevor Howard (1913-1988, born Trevor Wallace Howard-Smith), was best known for his leading role in another British classic, the 1945 David Lean movie Brief Encounter, but he is perfect in the role of British Army military policeman Major Calloway. Another actor originally from a theatrical background, his overall film list is impressive, many of which are in military roles. Howard’s own military service, with the Royal Corps of Signals during the Second World War, was less outstanding, however. Contrary to his, and the studio PR accounts, he was discharged in 1943 for “mental instability” and having a “psychopathic personality”. Never mind, his Major Calloway is intelligent, shrewd, determined and professional.
Refugee Anna Schmidt, with her forged passport, hopelessly in love with Harry Lime, was played by Italian actress and singer Alida Valli, aka the Baroness Alida Maria Altenburger von Marchenstein-Frauenberg (1921-2006), a quiet, but dignified role. At least one critic, reviewing her overall career from 1936 to 2002, said she was the only actress to equal Dietrich or Garbo. Quite an accolade. Finally we have Orson Welles himself (1915-1985), actor, director, screenwriter, producer, equally brilliant in radio, theatre or film, something of a multi-talented genius, larger than life, a true 20th century ‘Renaissance man’, but with a fascination for the darker side of humanity also. This proved ideal for him to play the outwardly charming, but utterly immoral, Harry Lime character. Later the Swiss got upset about his ‘cuckoo-clock’ story, pointing out cuckoo-clocks were made in Bavaria, not Switzerland. Whether it was ab-lib or scripted, Welles’ speech of Harry Lime justifying his indifference to suffering and contempt of the little people, inevitably became the memorable pivotal piece of the story’s character.
British character actor, Wilfred Hyde-White (1903-1991) had the small bit part of Crabbin, who seemingly ‘kidnaps’ Holly to give a speech at their book club. His filmography from 1934 to 1983 is impressive, but he perhaps best known for his role in My Fair Lady (1964).
Again the story is that Carol Reed heard Anton Karas playing the zither in a Viennese wine-garden and was immediately taken by the “jangling melancholy”, which eventually became the memorable sound-track. The zither, from the Greek cithara, is played by plucking or strumming the strings, and is a popular musical instrument found throughout Central and Eastern Europe, and Russia. In consequence of the movie, Karas (1906-1985) found global fame, playing before European royalty, touring North America in 1951, and Japan in 1962, 1969 and 1972, although he had supposedly retired in 1966. He was an unassuming man, who disliked touring and preferred to be home in his native Vienna. Despite his apparent fame, The Third Man theme was a one-hit wonder. Additional music for the movie was by Australian-born composer Hubert Clifford (1904-1959), under the pseudonym Michael Sarsfield. The movie was 108 minutes long, and (according to the-numbers.com) worldwide box office takings was $1,485,311.
There were several adaptions or pre-sequels, Lux Radio Theatre in 1951 (featuring Joseph Cotten) and 1954 (with Ray Milland in the Holly Martins role), and a British radio serial in 1951-52, The Adventures of Harry Lime, by Harry Alan Towers, apparently in collaboration with Graham Greene. Is the USA it was retitled The Lives of Harry Lime. They were a pre-sequel, in a lighter tone than the movie version of Lime, and there would appear to have been 52 episodes, featuring Orson Welles, who claimed (perhaps falsely) to have written at least six episodes – or was it really scripted by a ghost-writer? There was also a television spin-off, 77 episodes from 1959 to 1965, starring Michael Rennie, which may account for my vague childhood memory of the zither theme tune.
The English writer and journalist Graham Greene (1904-1991, born Henry Graham Greene) had already had his novel The Power and the Glory filmed as The Fugitive in 1947, and would go on to see many of his novels adapted into movies, some more than once – Brighton Rock (1947 and 2011); The End of the Affair (1955 and 1999); The Quiet American (1958 and 2002); The Comedians (1967); The Honorary Consul (1983). Having converted from atheism to Catholicism in 1926, the motif running through many of his novels were ambivalent moral and political issues. In his later life he called himself a Catholic agnostic. His writing revolved around travel, thrillers and espionage. He was recruited into MI6 in 1941, and actually personally knew Kim Philby, the Soviet ‘mole’. He resigned in 1944, but travelled extensively, using his experiences as background to his fiction – Serra Leona, Liberia, Mexico, Haiti, the Congo Basin of Africa, Cuba (where he became a friend of Fidel Castro), before moving to the South of France, and finally Switzerland, where he was friends with Charlie Chaplin. Perhaps crucial to his involvement with The Third Man, he was a friend of Michael Korda, brother of Alexander Korda. In 1948 Elizabeth Montague had given him a tour of Vienna, and he had met, and shared stories with, The Times correspondent there, Peter Smolke.
Several years earlier, in August and September 1945, the American-born photographer Lee Miller (1907-1977), in her role as US designated war correspondent for British Vogue magazine, had visited Vienna. Already mentally scarred by her experiences on the frontline, and having witnessed first-hand the liberation of the Buchenwald and Dachau death-camps, she found Vienna “a city suffering the psychic depression of the conquered and starving…[but still as] Gemütlich as ever [the Viennese] are drunk on music, light frothy music for empty stomachs.” Several of her photographs from this time show rubble-filled streets, and a huge Lenin poster in the Soviet zone, in the Kärntner Strasse. But, on another occasion, she visited a hospital, staffed by nuns, where children were dying for lack of drugs. She wrote: “For an hour I watched a baby die. He was a skinny gladiator. He gasped and fought and struggled for life, and a doctor and a nun and I just stood there and watched…This tiny baby fought for his only possession, life, as if it might be worth anything.” One has to wonder if Graham Greene had read Miller’s article when it was published in Vogue, and if that influence the hospital scene between Calloway and Holly.
My 1988 critical comments were less than favourable, but with subsequent viewings, I’ve come to appreciate the brilliant combination of acting, story-line (especially Carol Reed’s more downbeat ending, which even Graham Greene agreed was superior), and the authenticity and originality of this little classic. Below, then, are my earlier comments as written 24/02/1988:
I cannot remembering seeing The Third Man (director Carol Reed, 1949) before, but I vaguely recollect a television series and the distinctive theme music. That said, I did not know the story, or that Orson Welles played Harry Lime, or Graham Greene wrote the story. So I watched what is regarded as a classic. Disappointed? Just a little. The setting, the photography, is good, being immediately post-war Vienna. Germans speak German, which adds realism (how I hate it when they all speak perfect ‘Oxford’ English), showing it to be a British film – Hollywood would never have done that, or very few directors. A Graham Greene story should have warned me. I expected the twist; things not to be what they seem. Instead, apart from Lime’s faked death (how come the police never looked at the corpse?) everything is what it seemed. The American ‘Western writer who drinks too much’ is just that. The Czech-German Anna is a Czech-German girl in love with Lime, the crooks are crooks and Lime is the biggest crook of them all, ignoble, callous, ruthless and unlovable, despite the fact we have two people apparently infatuated with him.
Bred on a diet of Len Deighton, I really expected Lime to emerge as a goodie, perhaps masquerading as a crook to flush out the real villains; instead a series of shady, shifty, unlovable characters: the hack writer, the British military policeman, the smooth-talking Russian NKVD colonel, Lime himself. Perhaps the girl Anna was a sad case, forced to see the man she thought she loved die twice. Rates two stars, but predictable and the plot flawed. A good period piece though, but Len Deighton would have made it sing. Thought: did the Greene story influence Deighton’s work? The cast of characters reappear in several of his books, notably in Funeral in Berlin, Game, Set and Match, and even An Expensive Place to Die.

Danger Man: s03 e21 – The Man with the Foot


danger

For most of this episode I was hoping that it would all turn out to be a dream, or a hallucination, or even some equivalent of Number 6 reading ‘The Girl Who Was Death’ to the Village kids but my hopes were dashed. ‘The Man with the Foot’ was real, alright, and meant to be taken as an actual story. If that were so, then there was no explanation for why the whole thing made no sense whatsoever.

‘No explanation’ was the common characteristic of the whole episode. Things happened. They’re supposed to lead us into the expectation of introgue, espionage, danger, with the intention of leading us up the garden path, but the looseness of everything, especially the writing, betrayed an underlying laziness. It was supposed to be a puzzle, an enigma, so why botheer to make it at all plausible.

The facts are simple. In the open, Drake arrives at a lonely barn to rescue his superior, Derringham (Bernard Lee), who’s been kidnapped by Solby (Hugh McDermott). Who Selby is, why he’s taken Derringham and how he knows Drake is Drake and the recognition codes is never explained. But Drake is blown, and can’t operate whilst Solby is around. He is sent on holiday. He decides to take that holiday in sunny Spain, at a hotel in the south, near Gerona on the road to Barcelona. It rains incessantly. One consolation, for the viewer at least, is that the hotel is run by Maruja, and she is played by the gorgeous Isobel Black.

Drake’s hardly arrived when Monkton arrives at the Hotel. Monkton is being plated by Robert Urquhart, and this time it’s a comedy role, and not a funny one either. Monkton is also a spy, freelance, selling to the highest bidder, though how on earth such a bumbling cluck evrer learns anything successfully is beyond the scriptwriter’s imagination. Monkton is the man with the foot, so-called because of his habit of parking in wet places and stepping ankle deep into dark puddles.

This wet foot, for some reason that I think has nothing to do with Spanish hotel customs, gets him into Drake’s room to dry his shoe and sock at Drake’s fire. Seeing Drake, Monkton decides to stay. Drake leaving him alone in his room, as you do, leads Monkton to exaggeratedly pick the lock on his case. He decides to watch Drake, because something is obviously up. There is talk of lairs, Drake’s friend Gomez will have to shoot him if he succeeds. Patheticly obvious stuff.

Monkton takes his suspicions to Solby, who’s deliberately losing tons of money at the casino in Bierritz. Why? What was Monkton doing there, why does he contact Solby, is he working for him, does he know Drake to be Drake? Who knows? Drake’s supposed to be on holiday until Solby is taken, whereupon he’s unblown, but it doesn’t take a minute’s thinking to realise that that’s nonsense, and it’s doubly nonsense if Monkton also knows. If he knows. We don’t know, we’re only watching this.

Anyway, what Drake and Gomez are doing is tagging wolf cubs so their movements can be monitored. This draws Solby out into the open so he hadd Drake can have a chase scene, on foot and by car that goes on that it becomes obvious that it’s just there to fill airtime cheaply. Solby’s captured, Drake can go back to work, the episode is over, Patrick McGoohan is no doubt wondering why he has to put up with stiff like this after so many good episodes, and I’m going to to have to call this episode a complete clunker from top to bottom. Except for Miss Black, of course.

The Infinite Jukebox: Van McCoy and The Soul City Slicker’s ‘The Hustle’


Sometimes we have the radio on at work, broadcast over the TV screens. When we do, it’s usually crap being played, contemporary stuff, Heart Radio mostly. There was a spell, recently, where somebody had got the radio tuned to Heart Dance, day in, day out. I gritted my teeth for long periods but eventually started pleading for the channel to be changed to something bearable.
In doing this, I was very aware that I was being my parents.
But enough is enough and after five hours non-stop of this, I didn’t think I was being unfair in asking for a couple of hours of music I might like, or at least be able to tolerate. One time, they tuned in to Gold Radio, partway through the Small Faces’ ‘Lazy Sunday’. That, I thought, will do for me.
However, that’s not why I’m writing today. One of the managers has brought a radio in and is playing it from his desk. The first song I heard got me out of my seat and walking across to complain: he wasn’t playing it loudly enough, I was straining to hear it, and that’s not what you want to be doing if ‘My Girl’ by the Temptations is in the air.
There’s been nothing as good as that since but a few moments ago, as I write, something was playing that I couldn’t recognise. But although it wasn’t that specific track, there were ooh-oohs and swoops that triggered old and warm memories, because it made me think of ‘The Hustle’, of Van McCoy and the Soul City Slickers, and the summer of 1975, the one that was hot and dry but not as consistently so as the Drought Summer of the following year that overwhelmed 1975 in our memories.
And the summer of 1975 and Van McCoy – ‘Do the Hustle!’ – led inevitably to Friday nights and Saturdays nights, every weekend throughout the summer and the next year too, me and Alan, and Glyn and, more often than not his girlfriend Ruth, queuing down the steps into Placemate Disco at 10.00pm, because it was dead before then and at 10.30pm the entrance fee doubled.
And into Placemate 1, the main floor, the mainstream room, where the records were the straightforward disco stuff of that era, and all the classics would be played and the floor would get fuller and fuller until it was heaving. Van McCoy – ‘Do the Hustle!’ – Hamilton Bohannon’s ‘Disco Stomp’, K.C. and the Sunshine Band, The Trammps’ ‘Disco Inferno’.
We didn’t dance, well, Glyn and Ruth might occasionally but not Alan and I. There was a mini-balcony around the floor, little stairs, three steps down, and we would position ourselves by the top of the same stairs every time, where the girls heading to dance would have to squeeze past us, sometimes, many times, literally. It wasn’t that we were crowding them, but that Placemate was so popular at weekend nights, space was limited and we couldn’t have moved back if we wanted to, not by more than an inch, maybe two, but we didn’t want to move. This was the point. We weren’t going to ask any girls to dance, we would just stand there and look at them and drink until 2.00am when Placemate closed, after the slow romantic stuff, and then we’d go home.
I did ask a girl to dance once, when I was on my own at a place far from Placemate but that lasted the length of one record (‘Ms Grace’ by The Tymes, I remember these details) and our last disco night was a Monday in Altrincham, when we signed in as members at the same time as two girls, who then did their best to attract our attention. It worked on me, but not on my companion, who was staring at a tall, long-haired blonde wearing a rugby shirt that obviously belonged to the six foot plus bloke with her. He was driving so I couldn’t act independently, the evening was blown on the spot as far as I was concerned, the girls gave up on us and found two other blokes to dance with and I have never been to a disco since.
Friday night and Saturday night at Placemate. There’s an odd coda to all this. About a decade ago, writing a time travel novel, I planned to have my pair take a trip back in time to the legendary Manchester dance club, the Twisted Wheel. How many times had I heard about that place? And where the hell had it been? I never knew. But when I investigated, gore blimey, it was Placemate! Placemate had taken the club over! And I’d been there so often and never for one moment realised.
To look at me now, and also then, you’d never have figured me for a disco kid of any kind. And it’s true, I never really liked the music unless I was hearing it with a bass thump in Placemate, though ‘The Hustle’ was always a glorious exception to that, a bright, jaunty melody and all those ooh-oohs were just a pleasure to listen to, into and out of an underground club in the centre of Manchester all those many years ago.
I should remember those nights more often.

One of the Greats: Jimmy Greaves R.I.P.


When two of the lights in life pass away in the same day, I automatically shudder, remember 2016, and wait in trepidation for the third.

Jimmy Greaves, Tottenham Hotspur star, England’s fourth highest scorer, TV pundit and star, has passed away aged 81, after being confined to a wheelchair since a stroke in 2015. I am just too young to have seen and understood his heyday. His greatest and most devastating blow was that World Cup of 1966, when an injury in the final group game kept him out of the quater-final and allowed Geoff Hurst the opportunity that he seized with his head and both feet.

I admit his performances on Saint and Greavsie were not for me but they were for millions. My late Uncle Jack loved him. So now he joins the ever-increasing ranks of those who have left us behind. He and the recently-deceased Gerd Muller can talk goalpoaching tactics until they’re blue in the face. But don’t worry, we still have Alan Shearer to ‘enlighten’ us.

Sunday Watch – I Dream of Jeannie: e01-03 – The Lady in the Bottle/My Hero?/Guess What Happened on the way to the Moon


Jeannie

Probably the most famous instance of American sitcoms ‘pairing’ in the Sixties is The Addams Family and The Munsters. By all accounts, these two arrived sufficiently close together that it was highly improbable that either was attempting to copy the other. Sometimes, ideas are like that: there is a zeitgeist waiting and more than one person gets tuned into it, much as was the case between DC Comics’ Swamp Thing and Marvel’s Man-Thing. That’s not what we have here. I Dream of Jeannie didn’t appear until a year after Bewitched and everyone agress that, whilst it wasn’t a direct rip-off of Elizabeth Montgomery’s successful sitcom, it was aiming for the same effect.

Having watched the first three episodes, it’s clear to me that, whilst Bewitched hit its stride immediately, I Dream of Jeannie would need a little time to settle into its best manner. indeed, there’s a tremendous stylistic difference between the pilot episode and the series proper.

‘The Lady in a Bottle’ starts with unusual seriousness for a sitcom. Captain Anthony Nelson of the U.S. Air Force, on detachment to NASA, is preparing for a flight into space. It’s all done in the best dramatic fashion, including stock footage of genuine rocket launches, that blends in superbly with the film quality of the era. Something goes wrong, the mission has to be aborted, Tony Nelson ends up on a small, deserted, South Pacific island. He’s using wood and other found things to create a large S.O.S. sign on the beach for rescue. One of those items is a purple bottle of Arabian design that insists on roling out of line. Nelson unstoppers it, rubs it automatically – and a column of purplish smoke emerges and resolves into a genie. A girl genie. A beautiful, blonde doll of a Jeannie. Who kneels in sumission to her new master. And looks up. And her eyes light up. And the first thing she dores for her new master is to kiss him.

Now, bearing in mind that this gorgous honeypot of a genie is played by Barbara Eden, you and I and the gatepost would have identical thoughts on what was the second thing this Arabic speaking genie could do for us as her master (incidentally, what Jeannie speaks is actually Persian, not Arabic, because the Producer couldn’t find an Arabic tutor to teach Eden to say her lines phonetically, but he could find a Persian-speaker) but this is a 1964 American sitcom pilot, and besides, Tony is engaged to be married, to the lovely Melissa (Karen Sharpe), the daughter of his Commanding Officer, General Stone.

No, all Tony wants to do is get home. Which, after he’s christened his genie Jeannie, by accident, and wished her to speak English, also by accident, she magics up a rescue helicopter. She, having fallen in love with him, the first face she’s seen after 2,000 years in the bottle, wants to go with him. However, she being inexplicable on any rational level, has to stay behind, but Tony, considerately frees her. Which frees her to stow her bottle away with his things…

The rest of the episode plays, entertainingly, upon the gulf of understanding between Nelson’s perceptions as an Air Force Colonel, a rationalist in a technologically advanced role that requires intense security and the need to appear same and rational, and Jeannie’s ignorance of the mmodern world and her devotion as her master’s slave to fulfil his every need and wish and desire (except that one, though she would at the drop of a veil) by magic, instantly.

There’s the instant, and vital difference between the series in a nutshell. Samantha was not merely an equal, she was the star, the one who held the balance of power and weilded it brilliantly, Jeannie’s a dumb blonde in a fish-out-of-water fashion, a male wish-fulfillment figure.

The pilot featured General Stone and Melissa, who did not take kindly to arriving at her finace’s home to find a gorgeous blonde wearing only Tony’s shirt and showing far more leg than most American TV shows were prepared to admit women had, but come the series, neither were in evidence. They will make only one further appearance. Apart from Tony and Jeannie, there were only two holdovers from the pilot, these being Bill Dailey as Tony’s buddy, Roger Healey, who’d only had a tiny cameo in the pilot, and Hayden Rourke as Dr. Bellows, the base psychistrist, who’s worried about Tony.

It was immediately noticeable when the series was commissioned that the sexual element was drastically turned down. There was none of this kissing going around and Eden showed nothing like the amount of skin she had in the pilot. Yes, it’s a legend that not until the Eighties’ movies was Barbara Eden allowed to wear harem pants low enough to expose her belly-button (these Americans are crazy!) but in these two episodes she’s swaddled in lilac veils on non-traditional untransparency, so you can barely even see that bosom-flattening crop top that’s her genie costume. Indeed, they’re so swaddling that at one point I was convinced she was several months pregnant when she was filming episode 2.

That episode is very much Tony Nelson’s. Jeannie transports them back to the marketplace in Baghdad of 2,000 years ago for much hi-jinks as Tony is made slave to Princess Fatima and threatened with torture by the gigantic Ali, but, in a display of extreme stupidity, would rather be tortured with red hot pokers than marry Jeannie. Yes, I know. Jeannie, on the other hand, gets more play in the third episode, in which she intervenes to give her master a far too easy time of it on a survival course.

So, early days, and not quite focussed yet, but I know better things will come. Like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie was stripped five days a week by C4 in the Nineties and I look forward to getting further along, and getting the classic theme music as well.

Oh yes, and one more thing. The actor who played Tony Nelson, the hapless and confused victom of Jeannie’s magic? One Larry Hagman. Yes, that one, J.R. of Dallas. He was much better this way.

An End to Things: Greta Tomlinson R.I.P.


It’s a terrible thing to wake and the first thing you learn is of the passing of someone whose work enthralled you. Today, I’m barely awake and I’m having to commemorate the life of Greta Tomlinson, Greta Edwards in married life, who has died at the afe of 94. With her has gone, to the best of my knowledge, the last link to those madcap days when Frank Hampson and a team of perspiring assistants, produced Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future in a more than overcrowded lean-to in alongside a Southport house.

Greta Tomlinson was one of the original team of assistants that joined Hampson in the Bakehouse, a few weeks into the life of Dan Dare. She was the youngest of his assistants, fresh from Art College, who responded to an ad that led her to Southport. There, she looked at Frank Hampson’s work and thought it fantastic, and that when Hampson she had to get involved in this.

Like all the rest of Hampson’s assistants she was overworked mercilessly, to the point where her exhaustion led her to hallucinate, but like the rest she bore up under the strain, because of her belief in Hampson’s genius, and becase he never asked her, or any of them, to do anything that he would not do, and indeed did even harder than them.

Greta formed a close bond with Hampson’s former College friend and senior assistant, Harold Johns. Together, they worked on several short stories for Eagle Annuals but, most notably, it was this pair who took over the third Dan Dare story, ‘Marooned on Mercury’ when Hampson worked himself to illness and was prescribed bed rest for months.

Sadly, that artistc relationship resulted in their unjust dismissal from Hampson’s studio. Johns and Tomlinson could not be accomodated at Bayford Lodge in Epsom, the studio’s new and permanent location, and were based in town. Finding themselves under-used, the pair sought permission to take on outside work, permission reluctantly granted on the accepted condition that Hampson’s work came first, and then they were both sacked abruptly, for the crime of doing what they had permission for. It was a disgraceful and wholly undeserved ending, yet Tomlinson bore Hampson no malice.

I never met her, indeed I never met any of the Dan Dare team, though I would have loved to thank each and every one of them personally for what they did. My most vivid memory of Greta Tomlinson was in the lovely documentary, Future Perfect, that took her back to the Bakehouse and filmed her as she looked around, descrivbing cheerfully how it had been laid out as a studio, and who sat where, plainlyt seeing everyone around her, and suddenbly asking the Director to cut as those memories plainly overwhelmed her.

But Greta Tomlinson was more that just an artist, and more than just, I believe, the last one left of those men and women. As any Dan Dare fan knows, part of the strip’s success lay in Hampson’s use of his assistants to model panels in order to get exactly every nuance of expression, every shadow and every wrinkle of clothing. Some of his assistants and models were the exact model for characters in the series. Geta Tomlinson was Professor Peabody, the botanist, the scientist, the forthright, independent and highly intelligent feminist long before there were feminists. Greta Tomlinson’s passing takes Peabody with her: I mourn them both.

Men call him… The Phantom Stranger


I got into The Phantom Stranger just when it had stopped being good. The long-standing partnership of Len Wein and Jim Aparo had just been broken up by success: both were wanted for more prestigious titles and characters, and both ended up on Batman, leaving editor Joe Orlando two months to find an entirely new creative team: two, in fact, because at exactly the same time Marv Wolfman and Tony de Zuniga ceased producing the title’s back-up strip, ‘The Spawn of Frankenstein’.
Enter Arnold Drake and Gerry Taloac on the Stranger. Enter Steve Skeates and Bernard Bailey on The Spawn of Frankenstein. Exit all pretensions to quality. From that point onwards, to its cancellation with issue 41, The Phantom Stranger was doomed to a morass of shifting writers and artists, ironically paralleling the title’s early days.
Yet something about The Phantom Stranger triggered my imagination. I bought it regularly. I hunted out back-issues – it would actually become the first series of any substance that I collected as a full run: I still remember the thrill (and disappointment) of picking up the last five random issues I needed at one stall one Manchester Mart – but the real heart of the series was that Wein/Aparo run between issues 14 and 26.
It’s a long time since I let the series go. Now I have it back, in a set that not only includes those 41 issues but also The Stranger’s first run, as a six-issue series appearing between 1952 and 1953.

PS1

The first volume of The Phantom Stranger, written by John Broome and drawn by Carmine Infantino, was just one of those many series splurged out by a desperate DC, post-Golden Age, when it had no idea what might sell and was winding itself in financial knots trying to find something, anything that would.
Ironically, in light of his later existence, The Phantom Stranger debuted as a ghost-debunker, taking his inspiration from, of all people, Dr Thirteen, the Ghost-Breaker, who’d been introduced into Star-Spangled Comics the previous year. It’s fairly easy to summarise: each issue The Phantom Stranger appears in three six-page stories in which ordinary people find themselves in supposedly supernatural situations until The Phantom Stranger – and he is always and only addressed such, no matter how awkward it makes the dialogue – appears out of nowhere. He’s an ordinary dark-haired man who only ever wears a black suit with white shirt and black tie, over which he wears a bulky black topcoat and a black fedora. You’d think he was forever attending funerals.
Sometimes the Stranger knows what’s going on, sometimes he works it out as we go along. But it’s always a con, trickery or ingenuity or, in a couple of desperate moments, accidental connections with another dimension or time-travellers. Frankly, those stories stink.
It’s decent enough stuff – Broome and Infantino see to that – but it’s uninspired and undramatic, and muddled, in that the cover copy tries it on with ‘Is He Man – Or Ghost?’ above a slipshod wavy-lettered logo and the story always has the Stranger appearing and disappearing mysteriously, in a manner that makes Batman look like a stumble-foot.
One last criticism: as the series develops it seems that The Phantom Stranger becomes a world-reknowned personage, a recognised authority, but known to everyone as just… The Phantom Stranger, a touch that defies incredulity. Needless to say, it’s all a great contrast to the late Sixties version we all know.

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I’ve already written about the Stranger’s revival in Showcase 80, which spawned a second series long before any sales figures could have been produced. That makes the series another of those I characterised as Infantino’s Experiments, the big difference being that this experiment worked, to the extent of a run of over five years at a bi-monthly schedule.
The speed with which The Phantom Stranger was taken up as a series had a lot to do with how cheap the title was to produce at first, with 80% of it reprints, for which neither artist nor writer were getting paid.
The format was that each issue there would be some mysterious situation, reeking (lightly) of the supernatural. Both The Phantom Stranger and Dr Thirteen, Terry Thirteen and his wife Marie, would be drawn to the scene, one to investigate the supernatural roots of what was going on, the other to debunk it thoroughly. One would mildly suggest that there may be more to the situation than the restricted beliefs of the other was prepared to countenance, and Dr Thirteen would hurl multiple defamatory accusations at The Stranger, in which calling him a charlatan was probably the nicest.
The outcome would be justification for The Stranger and vilification from the Ghost-Breaker, who refused to accept the evidence of his own eyes.
In between, each would reminisce, in strict rotation, about past cases of which this situation would remind them – sometimes quite imaginatively – by way of reprints of old stories from the early Fifties. It was not an approach that could last, partly because the old stories were very much of their time, a decade and a half before, but in any event because there weren’t enough of them to sustain the concept very long.
At first, the Stranger is drawn pretty much as he was in the Fifties. Fittingly, he’s drawn as an older man, a little gaunt of face and grey-haired but the only real change is that he wears a long, wrap-around cape, and the suit and hat now are all dark blue. Intriguingly, when Dr Thirteen arrives on the scene, he says he’s ‘heard of’ The Phantom Stranger but the Stranger’s first words to him are, “Good morning, Terrence. I haven’t seen you in a long time.” Coming immediately after Dr Thirteen’s tale of his dead father, there was some speculation that the Stranger was Thirteen Senior, not dead but adopting this identity for some purpose of his own.
To the best of my knowledge, no-one has ever explained why the Stranger said what he did.
The framing story in Showcase, all eight pages of it, was written by former letterhack Mike Friedrich and drawn by Jerry Grandenetti. Once the Stranger was launched in his own title again, after the equivalent of a one bi-monthly issue gap, they were re-united for a standalone tale, pitting the two stars against one another, after a reprint each. It was already trite, especially Dr Thirteen’s increasingly hysterical denunciations of anything he didn’t understand.
The next two issues reverted into the reprints-within-a-frame format, but there was a surprise awaiting with issue 4, the first, but far from the last, change of direction. Behind a Neal Adams cover, Adams drew the whole story, changing everything. He introduced Tala, Queen of Evil. He put the Phantom Stranger into a white turtleneck sweater and a long cape held together by gold talismans. He put Dr Thirteen into horn-rimmed spectacles. He didn’t alter the squabbling, least of all the Ghost-Breaker’s monotonous accusations that everything was the Stranger’s fault. And worst of all, he introduced four teenagers – Spartacus, Attilla, Wild Rose and Mr Square – and wished their ludicrous and baleful presence upon the series for far too long to come (here defined as anything more than one panel).
The result was a confused and illogical mess.

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The same went for issue 5, which was written and drawn by Mike Selowsky, who kept ‘the Teenagers’, which was how the four pests were described, as if they were the only ones in the world. Apparently, these hip, modern and up-to-date teenagers of 1969 went to Jazz concerts, not Rock. Sekowsky’s second and final issue resurrected the story-within-a-story method, only these were new short stories. It also equipped Spartacus with a jive talk that made the Teen Titans look antique.
Adams 1, Sekowsky 2. The excellent Jim Aparo began his long association with the title in issue 7, initially with Robert Kanigher. Tala’s still causing trouble, trying to kill the Teenagers (I sympathise, but what has she got against them?), Dr Thirteen still accuses the Stranger of being a third rate magician preying on innocent people and laughing at them and the Stranger acts like the Stranger, and now Aparo has added the this-is-so-1970 medallion. This is not very good, not at all.
Nor was Denny O’Neill, writing the next issue, in which he has The Stranger prepared to sacrifice Dr Thirteen’s wife Marie to save the world from Ice-Giants in the Arctic, which is not a good look by any means, and could, in certain lights, be taken as a petty transference of frustrations at the offensive Ghost-Breaker (even mysterious figures with undefined magical powers can only take so much). Having Tala save the day was just a cheap convenience.
Why did I collect this series? We’re not up to the good stuff yet.
Sekowsky was back to write issue 9. The young Gerry Conway stopped by to write issues 10 and 11, the first of which introduced another recurring enemy, Tannarak, a man saturnine of features obsessed with immortality. No Tala, no Teenagers, not even Dr Thirteen for two blessed issues. But that made five different writers in just eleven issues. Consistency is obviously overrated.
As witness by Kanigher coming back for the next two issues. This was the issue that separated the Phantom Stranger from Dr Thirteen, who became a back-up strip. It was the perfect solution. The Ghost-Breaker immediately became perfectly palatable (well, perhaps not perfectly…) as soon as he could occupy his own Universe where rationality could be the dominant factor and remain unchallenged by the inexplicable presence of the Stranger.
The first Dr Thirteen solo, written by Jack Oleck and drawn by the Doc’s long-term artist, Tony de Zuniga, was an horrendous mess, set in a fog-ridden, superstition laden English village that has never existed anywhere, and where hanging still existed. Lazy writing wasn’t confined to Gerry Conway. But all that was about to end, at last.
Issue 14 saw Len Wein take over writing both halves of the series. There’s an immediate change of atmosphere on The Phantom Stranger: Wein still has the turtle-necked one address the reader directly and name himself but now it’s on a ‘men call me…’ at the end of a philosophical spiel that even then bordered on being overwritten, but the story is clear and concise.
A man named Broderick Rune, obviously of the evil party, has lured the Stranger to his mansion where he imprisons him by means of a spell and a pentacle, though it’s clear that Aparo has never in his life seen or even read about a pentacle and has just drawn a magic circle that looks more like crenellated iron: they’re supposed to have five points, not eight circles… Rune’s heart is failing: to restore his strength he has the Stranger’s heart transplanted into his own body! But the Stranger haunts him, demanding his heart back, even though Rune claims it’s his now, he spilt blood for it (what is this, The Merchant of Venice?). In the end, the Stranger drives him into another heart attack, but the transplant surgeon announces, aghast, that he hasn’t got a heart at all…
With Dr Thirteen able to operate at his own pace, Wein could cook up a super-scientific operation masquerading as some sort of swamp thing (heh heh) for the back-up, in perfect and effective peace.
Running parallel to The Phantom Stranger, Wein was also writing Swamp Thing for Joe Orlando, using his scripts to parade the classic monster symbols in a modern settings. He was doing the same here: an African tribal God who was also a robot (falling in love with an African woman called Ororo…), a Wax Museum of horrors, the return of Tannarak in a book-length story that also introduced a blind blonde esper with a penchant for purple jump suits, named Cassandra Craft, who loved the Stranger and was loved in return by him, though his role demanded that he wander the Earth.

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Aparo did all the work on that story so Tony de Zuniga pinch-hitted for him in issue 18, featuring the Flying Dutchman, as well as resuming on the Ghost-Breaker back-up, now written by Steve Skeates.
At Jim Aparo’s special request, Wein brought back the Ice Giants next issue but he shouldn’t have. Nevertheless, the consistency of the same writer for six consecutive issues now sustained a weak tale like this and Wein was back to the supernatural stakes immediately, making mention of a Dark Circle of sorcerors and wizards, gathering their forces across the Earth.
Note a curiosity: the villainous wizard of issue 21, again of the Dark Circle, was named Cerebus. Yes, Cerebus. In issue 23, among those commenting on this issue in the lettercol on this very issue is a young Canadian by the name of Dave Sim: to quote Dalgoda, ‘you can “doo doo doo doo” if it makes you feel any better’.
Len Wein was building up to a big story involving the Dark Circle, running over the next three issues. First, Cassandra Craft reappeared, kidnapped to draw the Stranger and then used to seemingly kill him, though of course he wasn’t dead. But though he meant to move on alone, Cassandra got him to take her with him, thanks to an effective impassioned appeal that was almost a demand to let her help him that, for a time at any rate, persuaded the Stranger to give in to his own wishes.
Only for a time, for two issues, one in Paris with a bell-swinging hunchback and a phantom at the opera who turns out to be Tannarak again, this time persuaded to throw in his lot with the Stranger and Ms Craft, and then a finale in Rio de Janeiro, where the Dark Circle’s dark, and no longer quite laughing and capricious mistress was revealed as the long-absent Tala, as the Four Horsemen were raised from beneath the statue of Christos Redentor, Tala and Tannarak condemned to the Abyss, and Cassandra rescued but left believing her friend was dead – and this time truly dead.
I only discovered The Phantom Stranger in its next phase, when things were very different, and worked my way back to this tryptich. It excited me, and the element of the frustrated love between the Stranger and Cassandra, especially the latter, stirred me. It’s still the best part of the series for me and it’s not just nostalgia that makes me enjoy it all over again. There’s an air of finality about issue 24, as if Wein has completed his story. Two decades later it might have been cancelled then. Yet Wein still had two more issues to write.
One was trite beyond belief, a write-up of someone else’s idea, of the ugly American who knew better than the ignorant savages and who was going to get his way because he was a tough guy. The Stranger tries to save him from himself but once his irredeemable ignorance costs a native girl her life, he washes his hands of the man, as so did I a lot sooner. It was the first of a type of story that would become ever more prevalent after Wein, where the Stranger is no more than a Cain or Abel type host, or no more than a moral voice trying to deflect the protagonist from their inevitable appointment with self-destruction.
Wein’s last issue was co-written with his great buddy, Marv Wolfman, and represented a merger of lead and back-up story.
There’d been a change in the back-up as of issue 23, or at least in it’s title, the now-serialised story becoming ‘The Spawn of Frankenstein’, the original Mary Shelley version of the creature being discovered frozen in the Arctic, brought back to America and revived, only for the laser to malfunction and kill the new generation Victor Adams. Unfortunately, on every level, Victor and Rachel’s best friends are called Terry and Marie – yes, the Thirteens – and the laser cuts down Mrs T, leaving her in a coma.
With his usual passion for scientific rigour, calm thought and evidence, the Doctor instantly concludes the monster done it, and deliberately. The level of consistency is so high that when the monster lifts a grid above him and uses it to stop the ceiling collapsing on everyone, Terry included, and killing them, our rationalist insists he’s only trying to kill them faster than the ceiling.
In short, it’s more shit, only shouted at a different poor sod.
But things were about to change. Wein and Aparo, Wolfman and a horribly crude Mike Kaluta, between issues Orlando was losing his entire creative staff to more popular series. At least he got a swansong out of them, a wrap-up tale that ended the brief and poor Spawn of Frankenstein series with a bang that only made things even more of a mess. Marie Thirteen and, by implication,Victor Adams are brought back to life and two demons appear out of nowhere to steal the show with all the best lines but it’s a piece of garbage and all we had to look forward to was a change in direction and story warned in the lettercol.

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Orlando would explain the true facts in a future lettercol, but for now everyone who picked up issue 27 was in for a rude awakening. The two series were still there, but the Phantom Stranger had been turned over to Arnold Drake and Gerry Talaoc. Frankly, the art was horrible to look at, fussy, misproportioned, frenetic and ugly, but Drake’s script, and the new direction was a mess. The Stranger found himself investigating pill-pushing Doctor Matthew Zorn, a new recurring villain, treating rock stars and fading film actresses by day and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by night, leading the latter into an implausible conspiracy to kill the President on the grounds he was a traitor. The Stranger solves the mystery by using his power to turn invisible (yer wot?). There’s a minor nod to the notion that this is in any way supposed to be a horror/mystery title by having Zorn’s drugs be made with supernatural ingredients, but that’s not where Drake’s at and that’s just the start.
The Spawn of Frankenstein continued too. Look, I know it wasn’t very good to begin with but was that any reason to sic Steve Skeates and veteran artist Bernard (The Spectre) Bailey onto it? I thought the US Constitution was supposed to ban cruel and unusual punishment. Sure, people weren’t buying the mag in great numbers but was that any cause to do that to those of us who were?
Then it got worse. And worse.
The Phantom Stranger 30 was the first issue I bought. I was slowly examining the DC market for 1974, contrasting it with what I remembered from the Sixties and usually finding the newer stuff better and more intriguing, an opinion that I’d reverse in a heartbeat if you gave me the chance now. I can only assume it was the idea of The Phantom Stranger that caught me because it couldn’t have been the story. Drake was writing something incomprehensible, a pseudo-Satanic Pied Piper tale with a car crash ending that made no sense and a hero he clearly had no sympathy with. And The Spawn of Frankenstein was even worse, with soulless the kindest word I can summon up. At least it was the last effort, and has never been returned to, for which sing Hallelujah! Surely the new back-up series could not be so plain awful, especially as it was The Black Orchid.
The incoherent lead story about a heroin-addicted soldier turned out to be Gerry Talaoc’s swansong for now, initiating a spell of musical artists. The Black Orchid started with a decent if not spectacular one-off story by her creators in Adventure Comics, Sheldon Mayer and Tony de Zuniga. But Orlando’s explanation of losing Wein (over-committed with deadline issues) and Aparo (snatched for Batman) included the lament that Mayer was ill and de Zuniga no longer available, meaning the back-up would next appear from Michael Fleisher and Nestor Redondo.
First though it was Bill Draut back, only too clean and clear, in a House of Mystery story with the Stranger appearing in five panels only, including the splash page. Then Mike Grell on a book-length team-up with Deadman involving Dr Zorn. For issue 34, Talaoc was back and so was Dr Thirteen, in an unused back-up from before the sad intrusion of the Spawn of Frankenstein. This was Drake’s last script and the word was that, after a perfectly decent and inoffensive single Black Orchid strip from Fleisher, Sheldon Mayer had written a two-parter. No comic can survive long in this chaos.

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The new writer was David Michelinie, then a newcomer and definitely intent on being a major Len Wein sequel. He started strongly, immediately putting all Wein’s stylistic flourishes back, and chucking out Dr Zorn to introduce Dr N Seine (groan), Nathan Seine that is. Seine was a brilliant scientist, emotionally dependent upon his shy wife Margaret, who had nearly killed her in a lab accident, was keeping her artificially alive but in great pain, not that he minded, and who turned to deals with the Nether Gods to grant her full life, which meant sacrificing the Stranger. But Margaret wanted to die and saved the Stranger at the cost of her own release, causing Dr Serine to accuse our man of murder and swear vengeance.
A neat little set-up, with potential, and far better than Arnold Drake’s total lack of understanding. So Michelinie’s second strip was one of these Stranger-warns-puny-human-who-ignores-him-and-comes-to-bad-end tales, which was pathetic. And he’s gone to make room for Paul Levitz. Sheesh. Whose first story was another one short on coherence. It was another book-lengther but whilst the Grell-drawn one was twenty pages, only four issues later book-length was now eighteen.
After insisting that Talaoc was here for the foreseeable future, Orlando had to make another change, with Fred Carillo taking on art duties for a Levitz four-parter, matched by a four-part Black Orchid also drawn by Carillo. How nice to have lead and back-up so perfectly in step, because the ghost was on the point of giving up and there was just enough time to get both in before The Phantom Stranger was cancelled with issue 41.
The Black Orchid back-up had scripts by Fleisher even though Orlando had said he was too busy to work on the series. It was a decent adventure, her longest to date, and clever in its conception, though not any better than… decent.
The cancellation was still abrupt. Levitz included Deadman again in his last three issues as a prelude to Boston Brand taking over the back-up slot in issue 42, which was never to be. At least those of us with fond memories of a certain blind, blonde esper who still favoured purple were given a taste of sweet nostalgia before the end. And that end, which I can make believe lasted forever, was with Cassandra Craft in the arms of the Phantom Stranger. At least we know she was truly happy.
Thus ends, again, the first series I was so enthused about that I collected it all. It clearly wasn’t all that good, but who looks back on the tastes of their youth and finds them all still strawberries and cream? Then and now are different things and always will be.
The DVD also contains the Phantom Stranger issue of Secret Origins which gave four different accounts of how the Stranger might have come to be, one of which is superb – as it should be, it’s by Alan Moore and as I give no fig for DC’s overly convoluted continuity any more, I believe in what I choose to believe among all the options – and the 1987 miniseries, which I have read but choose not to comment upon.

Zodiac: e02 – The Cool Aquarian


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I was wrong about Zodiac last week: my star sign is in the opening credits.

Unfortunately, I was right about the series in practically every other aspect, as episode 2 confirmed. There was an awful lot missing from this story, not least an explanation for how the kidnapped girl was found, and the focus of the series – the chalk and cheese relationship between the two principals, Esther Jones (Anouska Hempel) and Inspector David Gradley (Anton Rogers) – was given too much prominence, at the expense of anything making sense.

To explain: the episode opened up on Michael Gambon playing ruthless businessman and property developer Reuben Keiser (with a touch of the South African to him). We know he’s Reuben Keiser because he’s the kind of man who talks about himself in the third person. We know he’s ruthless because, after sending his associate Mark Braun (George Baker) to an auction to successfully bid on a very rare British Guyana one penny black stamp, he burnt it: now there was only one such stamp in the world, which he owned, and which value had suddenly sky-rocketed.

If you want confusion, try this: the winning bid at the auction was £75,000, which somehow translated into £30,000 ‘in real money’ whose destruction brought Keiser £20,000. Too damned clever for me.

Anyhow, our principals. They’re already a partnership. He, the cynical, hard-fact sceptic, is not only hanging around her, the astrologer because she’s tall, blonde and gorgeous, but also because the sceptic wants to use her astrological prowess to solve crimes. That’s the brief for the series, that and the endless banter batted back and forth between the pair which, sadly, came over in this episode as striving too much for effect. It wasn’t airy, it wasn’t anything like as clever as it wanted to be, and the sexual tension between the pair was next to non-existent, even before she got into the habit of calling him ‘Grad’.

There was a butler, too, hanging around Esther’s crowded little flat because he hadn’t had the mumps, and who seemed to be no more than extraneous clutter until he gives Grad a lesson in deducing character from letters, then he remembered he had had mumps afterall and shot off to his regular employers.

No, the story, such as it was, was that a young girl, aged 19, Kathy Selby, goes missing. She’s been brought up by her Aunt and Uncle, he being an ex-copper who worked with Grad at Hammersmith. They’re an old-fashioned couple whose type has completely vanished now, at least from television: the working class couple, stoically keeping themselves and their problems to themselves, very unemotional, indeed uncomfortable witth emotions. He was played by Bill Maynard in a very internalised fashion, and she by Betty Alberge. They knew their place, and knew better than to get above it.

So, Kathy’s been kidnapped. After pointing out just how many girls disappear from hme in London every day, Grad decides she has been kidnapped from, apparently, sniffing an old First Edition book Kathy treasured and wouldn’t leave behind.

Then kidnap letters turn up, hand printed. The kidnapper wants £100,000, and he wants it from Reuben Keiser who, incidentally, is a client of Esther (this hard-headed bastard believes in astrology?) and her Landlord. He’s got nothing to do with Kathy, he’s just a rich sod. He won’t pay. He says this to Grad, who delivers it to Esther with his own conviction Keiser will never pay, but she says he will, and he does, but not out of the goodness of his heart but rather to stem the tide of adverse publicity he’d get for letting the girl die.

In the end, Esther and Grad work out that the kidnapper is someone who knows Keiser. Esther divines that Kathy is being held near water, in a watermill, in the South of England, and so she is, if you count the well-known spa resort of Baden-Baden as being in England, and not near Lake Geneva, which is the place where the ransom is to be delivered. This is where the shift is pulled that gets Kathy out and into Keiser’s office where the culprit is revealed to be Mark Braun, which comes as no surprise because, one, there was no-one else in the small cast for it to be and, two, he’s an Aquarean, and he’s only in the bleeding title, isn’t he?

His motive? Aware he’s about to be replaced (out of left field), foregoing his Golden Handshake in favour of putting one over on Keiser because, well, Keiser’s the kind of disgustingly selfish bastards who goes around burning incredibly rare stamps.

No, I’m sorry, it’s already obvious why this was never going to get a second series. The idea’s good and potentially funny, but the execution misses the mark, and the show is undermined by the obvious cheapness of it’s budget. And being made in 1974 is not exactly an enhancing factor, either. Still, as I may have mentioned last week, it offers the chance to look at Anouska Hempel again, which is no chore. In fact, thinking of the times, I wonder if I could come up with something of similar length featuring Angharad Rees.

*Guest Post* Garth Groombridge: My 40 Favourite Films – 8: Black Narcissus


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8: BLACK NARCISSUS : 1946. Director: Michael Powell. UK. Melodrama. Deborah Kerr. David Farrer. Kathleen Byron. Sabu. Jean Simmons. Flora Robson. Esmond Knight.
Both produced and the screenplay co-written by Michael Power (1905-1990) and Emeric Pressburger (Hungarian-born British national, 1902-1989), adapted from the 1939 novel of the same name by Margaret Rumer Godden, English author (1902-1998). Cinematography by Jack Cardiff. Edited by Reginald Mills. Music by Brian Easdale. Matte landscape paintings by Walter Percy Day (1878-1963). Powell was introduced to the novel by actress Mary Morris. Godden had already adapted a US stage version for Lee Strasberg (1901-1982). Screen-time was 100 minutes. Budget was £280,000. As usual the US version was edited – or, more correctly, censored – with the flashback to Sister Clodagh’s life (and her failed romance in Ireland) before she became a nun removed completely (thus undermining the entire emotional motif of her character). The US Catholic National Legion of Decency condemned the movie as “an affront to religion and religious life”, and even demanded the pronouncement emphasising that the nuns were of an Anglican Order rather than Catholic! We know now how Catholic nuns treated orphans or unmarried mothers. Other aspects of the film’s sexual tensions – the character of the Indian girl Kanchi, for instance – were also watered down or removed, and in America were not restored until the 1980s. Least we get too smug about past efforts of self-appointed moralists to edit creative art to their own ends, now, of course, we have the equally self-righteous PC brigade, who get uptight about white actors/actresses ‘blacking up’ to play Indians – in this instance, Jean Simmons (Kanchi) and Esmond Knight (as the Old General), and Mary Hallett as Angu Ayah, the aged palace caretaker. The exception was the then young boy Indian actor Sabu (Sabu Dastagir, 1924-1963), who played the ‘Young General’, while other Indian extras for crowd scenes were apparently recruited from the Rotherhithe Docks, south-east London. Given the time, budget restraints, and other factors, it probably wasn’t that easy to find suitable Indian actors in 1946/47 Britain, but the tradition of ‘blacking up’ was an old one, at least back to Shakespeare. Generations of white actors played Othello, or non-Jews playing Shylock. Indeed, until at least the late 18th century, virtually all female parts on stage were played by men or young boys. To immerse oneself into a challenging, completely different role was what acting was supposed to be about. While it might bring new insight with a disabled actor playing a disabled character (Christopher Reeve in his later career), or a gay actor playing Oscar Wilde, or a First Nations Native American Indian playing Geronimo, it is nonsense to say only they can understand the psyche of such parts, or write or create them as authors. Any good writer or actor should be able to cross the boundary of their own gender, ethnicity or circumstance. Thankfully, we don’t insist that only Americans should play Americans, or – if filming a French novel for an English audience, for instance – still insist on French-only actors. To remark, as some latter-day critics do, that Michael Powell was ‘wrong’, or even a latent racist, by having Simmons playing the role of an Indian girl, is to apply 21st century ethics and thinking to a bygone age, and diminishing a piece of brilliant, classical cinema. Yes, using GCI, we could eliminate all those cigarettes Bogart smoked in character of, say, Sam Spade or Rick in Casablanca, but to what purpose? We must understand the past. We cannot change it. It’s worth reminding ourselves that Godden wrote the novel in 1939. It was just coincidence that the film was being made just as the British Raj was coming to an end. The film’s symbolism – especially of the nuns withdrawing from the mountain-top palace in the last reel – was probably more accidental than intentional.
Michael Latham Powell (1905-1990), has sometimes been equalled amongst British film directors to Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean. His filmography was from 1926 to 1972. His best known films were with Hungarian-born Emeric Pressburger, and they formed the Production Company The Archers. The two were originally introduced by Alexander Korda. There followed a succession of films together – many regarded as classics, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), I Know Where I’m Going (1945), A Matter of Life and Death (aka Stairway to Heaven, 1946), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffman (1951). And, indeed, Black Narcissus brought together a number of Powell’s favourite actors and actresses, including his former lover, Deborah Kerr (she always insisted it was pronounced ‘car’), who had featured in Colonel Blimp, and his then current lover, Kathleen Byron. In fact Powell had been briefly married in 1927, to an American dancer, Gloria Mary Ranger, then in 1943, to Frances May Reidy (they were not divorced until 1983). During this time he apparently lived with another actress, Pamela Brown, until her death in 1975. Eventually, in 1984, he married his long-time film editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Powell’s career suffered something of a major a setback with the hostile reception to his 1960 movie Peeping Tom; a dark, certainly rather misogynistic, murder movie in the Hitchcock mode, but his latter-day admirers include Francis Ford Coppola, George A. Romero, Brian De Palma, and Martin Scorsese. Indeed, Schoonmaker and Scorsese collaborated to restore Powell’s films after his death.
English stage and film actor David Farrar (1908-1995) played Mr Dean, the local Indian ruler’s British agent, intelligent and rather cynical, who has gone semi-native. Farrar’s filmography was from 1937 to 1962, when, in his own words, he “walked away from it all”. Powell rated him highly, equal to almost any other actor, remarking on how handsome he was, with “violet eyes…and exceptional timing”. Critic David Thomson, in Movies of the Forties (1982), described him as “a dark, Gary Cooper-like actor, apparently too moody to seize the stardom that Powell believed would have waited him…an ideal Powell hero: passionate but introverted.” Farrar certainly often played anti-hero types. He later appeared in the Powell/Pressburger film The Small Back Room (1949), as the semi-crippled, alcoholic bomb-disposal expert, starring opposite Kathleen Byron again. He was married to Irene Elliot in 1929 until her death in 1976, when he moved to South Africa to live with his daughter, where he eventually died. Perhaps, in retrospect, most of his other films are only for the film buff or connoisseur, Black Narcissus is what he will be remembered for. He was paid £4,500 for forty-five days shooting. Kathleen Byron (1921-2009), another of Powell’s ladies, played the mentally unstable Sister Ruth. Pressburger said she a “dreamy voice and great eyes like a lynx”, perfect for the part of the rather demented Ruth. Apparently Powell had wanted Greta Garbo for the role of Sister Superior Clodagh, but Pressburger wanted Deborah Kerr. This reputedly made for a certain behind-the-scenes tension – Powell’s ex-lover and his current one, rather echoing the sexual tensions between their characters in relation to Farrar’s rather sexy, shimmering, Mr Dean. Hitchcock, with all his blonde leading ladies, seemed quite chaste by comparison! Byron, born Kathleen Elizabeth Fell, in West Ham (now London, then Essex) had a filmography from several uncredited roles 1938, 1942, through to 1998. In 1943 she married a USAAF pilot and briefly lived in America. She played an angel in A Matter of Life and Death, so we presume her affair with Powell dated from about then. He was named as co-respondent when her marriage was dissolved in 1950. A brief stunt in Hollywood proved unsatisfactory and she returned once again to Britain, where she married journalist/writer Alaric Jacob (1909-1995) in 1953. Thereafter most of her roles were in minor, rather forgettable, movies, ‘B’ features or horror (Twins of Evil, 1971), comedy (One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, 1975), bit parts in The Elephant Man (1980), or Les Miserables (1998 – as ‘Mother Superior’, so promotion from a mere nun!) On television she appeared in Emergency Ward 10 (1957-67), Emmerdale Farm (1979), and Midsomer Murders (1999).
Deborah Kerr (1921-2007) was born in Glasgow, as Deborah Jane Trimmer. In 1945 she married Squadron Leader Anthony Bartley, RAF, and they had two daughters, born 1947 and 1951. They divorced in 1959. She married again, to writer Peter Viertel, in 1960s. Playing the role of the emotionally and sexually vulnerable Sister Clodagh – an acting tour de force by any standard – propelled Deborah Kerr into a life of successful stardom – in Hollywood, on the stage, and even television. She was paid £16,000. In total her filmography was from 1937 until 1986, playing opposite some of the greatest names of that movie era. Powell was of the opinion that MGM “never fully realised her potential”, but her versatility was such that – despite the usual attempt by the studio to typecast her into prim, upper class English lady roles, she inevitably broke free, and – as she had with Black Narcissus – gave ever greater depth, as well as often latent sexuality, to her characters. 1950 saw her in King Solomon’s Mines (with Stewart Granger); Quo Vadis (1951); Julius Caesar, Young Bess (with Granger and Jean Simmons); Dream Wife (with Cary Grant), and – memorably, From Here to Eternity (frolicking on the beach with Burt Lancaster, playing opposite Frank Sinatra, after Joan Crawford backed out of the role – all were in a busy 1953). 1955 saw The End of the Affair (co-starring Van Johnson and Peter Cushing); The King and I (with Yul Brynner); and Tea and Sympathy (both 1956); An Affair to Remember (Cary Grant again, 1957); Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (playing a nun again, with Robert Mitchum, also 1957); Separate Tables (David Niven and Burt Lancaster again, 1958); The Sundowners (with her good friend Robert Mitchum again, 1960); The Innocents (Michael Redgrave, 1961); and The Night of the Iguana (with Richard Burton, 1964). This list goes on, but the latter years are mostly comedies, perhaps notable for their more sexually risqué story-lines and male co-stars – Marriage on the Rocks, 1965 with Frank Sinatra; Prudence and the Pill, 1968, with David Niven; and The Gypsy Moths, 1969, with Burt Lancaster yet again. This was notable for being Deborah’s first (and last) nude love scene. However, typical of Hollywood, despite her talent, by the late 1960s there were few parts of still beautiful, middle-aged actresses and she retired from movies completely in 1969, although the 1970s saw her return to theatre, and the 1980s to television. Alfred Hitchcock had wanted her to star in his 1954 thriller, Dial M for Murder, with William Holden and Cary Grant. However, Holden and Kerr were unavailable, and Grant declined to play the villainous husband, so Grace Kelly took the part of the wife, opposite Ray Milland. Both had that same extraordinary beauty, although I would suggest (no disrespect to Kelly) that Kerr was the more versatile actress. It is interesting to speculate what Deborah might have brought to the part – Grace certainly made her suggestions and contribution, which Hitchcock acknowledged and adapted – but, of course, in retrospect it was a happy choice, with Kelly becoming one of his favourite blonde leading ladies, if not the favourite. From various anecdotes about Kerr, Hitchcock would have liked her rather down-to-earth, no-nonsense persona, and it is a pity, perhaps, that he never successfully persuaded her to feature in any of his later movies – how would she have played the Kim Novak role in Vertigo, for instance? Although she was a natural redhead rather than blonde (she dyed her hair blonde for From Here to Eternity), together they would have been a formidable team.
Rightly featured in Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, American critic and writer Kim Newman gives an excellent synopsis: “David Thomson probably overstates the case when he refers to Black Narcissus as ‘that rare thing, an erotic English film about the fantasies of nuns.’ Based very closely on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel, the picture follows a small group of sisters who are gifted with a building high up in the Himalayas that they attempt to turn into a convent school-cum-hospital. The drafty building was once a harem and is still adorned with explicit murals, while a cackling ayah left over from the times of licentiousness gleefully predicts that the sisters will succumb to the place’s atmosphere. On one level, Black Narcissus is a matter-of-fact account of the failings of empire: these sensible Christians arrive with good intentions but are in an absurd situation, teaching only pupils who are paid by the local maharajah to attend lessons which mean nothing to them, and doctoring only minor cases – since if they try and fail to save a patient, the hospital will be abandoned as if cursed. Directors Powell and Pressburger see the humor in the nuns’ frustrations, observing a culture clash without dismissing either the rational or primitive point of view, relishing the irony that it is the most religious characters who are the most sensible here (when they should be prone to all matter of unfounded beliefs), and the godless ones who are most inclined to superstition. Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), promoted too young, tried to keep the mission together like an inexperienced officer in a war movie, thrown together with the smouldering, disreputable Mr. Dean (David Farrar) and thus exciting the eventually homicidal jealousy of the most repressed of the nuns, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). As the obsessions begin to bite, the film becomes more surreal, with the studio-bound exotica glowing under Jack Cardiff’s vivid Technicolor cinematography and Kerr and Byron trembling under their wimples as the passionate nuns. Amongst the most startling moments in British cinema is the ‘revelation’ of Sister Ruth stripped of her habit, in a mail-order dress and blood-red lipstick, transformed into a harpie who tries to push Clodagh over the precipice as she sounds the convent bell. With a nearly grown-up Sabu (Mowgli in the 1942 Jungle Book) and a young Jean Simmons (with a jeweled snail on her nose) as the sensual innocents who set a bad example.”
In addition to Kerr, Farrer, Byron and Sabu, we have Flora Robson (1902-1984) as Sister Philippa, whose duties was tending the convent garden, but who becomes lost in the environment, and finishes up growing flowers instead of vegetables; Jenny Laird as Sister Blanche, aka ‘Honey’, who was supposed to teach lace-making; Judith Furse as Sister Briony, in charge of the infirmary, but who succumbs to ill-health herself, while a sick native child dies on her watch; May Hallett (who specialised in playing eccentric roles, 1876-1968) as Anya Ayah, the harem palace caretaker and confident to Mr Dean; Nancy Roberts as the Order’s Mother Dorothea. Finally, playing Kanchi, the young native girl of “erratic spirit”, we had a blacked-up, 18-year-old Jean Simmons (1929-2010), actress and singer, later wife, from 1950 to 1960, to Steward Granger, himself to be one Deborah Kerr’s later lovers.
The Anglican Order of the Servants of Mary is fictional. The habits were white, their design a mixture of Medieval styles, intended to contrast with the bright colours worn by the natives. The ‘Old General’ (Esmond Knight) is named as Toda Rai, Rajput, or ruler, of the princely state in the Himalayas, presumably in Nepal. The dilapidated palace perched up on the cliff and named as Mapu, had formerly been the secluded harem for his father’s concubines. The sisters optimistically renamed it St. Faith. The Old General hoped to have his heir, the so-called ‘Young General’ (Sabu), educated in Western culture prior to his trip to the UK.
Filming took place, between May and August 1946, at Pinewood Studios, Buckinghamshire (opened in 1936, owned by the Rank Group until 2001, used by both film and television productions), and at Leonardslee Gardens in Sussex. It is worth noting that the full-length habits of the sisters, set certain constraints on acting: everything had to be conveyed by voice and facial expression only, rather than body language.
Some have criticised the apparent theatricality of the palace/convent, but Powell was right that nothing would have been gained by blowing the budget on filming on location, actually in Nepal (and at a rather dangerous time, politically). The harem-cum-convent would always have to be studio created. It was a combination of full-size exterior building (with the oriental-style gateway that houses the convert bell, supposedly poised on the very edge of the precipice), together with scale models, and stunning mountainous Himalayan vistas reminiscent of Nicholas Roerich. And, in retrospect, with clever creative photography and the outstanding matte painting artwork by Walter Percy Day and his sons, the scenery is just as credible as Rick’s Bar and Casablanca, or Sam Spade’s San Francisco. Again these are carping criticisms from a later era where producers can waste mega-bucks on needless live location trips and expensive sets. Big is not always better. Less can often be more. At a time of ration books and shortages in Britain, Powell created the powerful, enduring image of exotic, distant foreign lands and people, while at the same time bringing together a great character-driven story, superb acting and direction, and a cinematic masterpiece that was exploring themes ahead of its time – the consequences and failure of Western imperialism and a celebration of the ‘other’ – from non-Eurocentric culture to the unspoken worlds of female desire. This is a rollercoaster of a movie – adventure; travel; drama and suspense; psychological; love, madness and desire. And, at the end, the emotional moment of Sister Clodagh and Mr. Dean parting – for ever – that lingering handshake, that unspoken feeling between them, her requesting he tend Sister Ruth’s grave, following by the sisters retreat as the monsoon rains start. Again Powell was right. That was the fitting finish. Anything that came next would only be anti-climax.

Danger Man: s03 e20 – I’m afraid you have the wrong number


danger

I’m getting cautiously hopeful that the run of naff episodes were merely a mid-series blip, because Danger Man is finishing its third, and sadly final full series, on a high. This somewhat awkwardly titled episode – it’s a code phrase – was a taut, mysterious affair, beginning with an unusually detailed open made all the more effective by being conducted in complete silence.

A man leaves a long blonde-haired woman at a stylish chateau. He drives off, but is intercepted by a professional and elaborate trap. He is injected with something whilst his ring is removed and transferred to the finger of a dead body that looks startlingly like him. His car is crashed, the body put behind the wheel and the wreck is fired. Obviously, the set-up is to make it look as if he is dead, but who is he, why has he been taken and who hasset this up?

For once, we don’t learn this until almost halfway through the episode. We’re in Switzerland, Geneva to be precise, there’s that wonderfully absurd fountain in the background underneath the credits. If it’s an airport, we know one of the pasengers will be John Drake, but here he is having his passport confiscated and being taken before the local security chief, Colonel Schulman (Paul Eddington, looking very young), who addresses him as Canton, and refuses to believe his guise.

Because for once Drake is alone, without allies, and without someone to discuss the set-up with for the edification of the reader. Instead, we have to make do with the Captain’s suspicions, which are that the ‘dead man’, Alexander Standfast, was a British agent, and so too is ‘Canton’. Drake’s all amusement at the very idea but Schulman makes it clear that foreign agents are not welcome, and that they believe Standfast to have been a spymaster, running a ring of confidants in various Embassies. This is, of course, completely correct.

The Captain is good at his suspicions because he accuses Drake of identifying the body as that of Standfast, even though it’s the wrong man (the fillings don’t match), but after an altercation in Standfast’s apartment with two heavies searching the place, not only does Drake come away with the precious microfilm with the agents’ contact details, he successfully maintains his cover story whilst doing so, much to the frustration of Schulman (who promptly disappears from the episode, much to the frustration of me).

The second phase consists of Drake contacting each of the agents in turn, summoning them to a meeting in a secluded space and allowing the betrayer to set a trap for him. Neither the rotund and cynically intelligent Leontine nor the timid and fearful Aurel do so and as soon as we see that the third, Leanka (Jeanne Moody), is the blonde from the open, we knpow it must be her and so it is.

Miss Moody puts in a good hypocrital performance. She claims to have been very close to Standfast, to have been in love with him, but she was found out and gave him up to save her own life. It’s a lie, of course, and you can see Drake not falling for it. Instead, he bugs her phone, enabling him to find where Standfast is being held and being tortured to get him to spill.

He then conducts a one man raid on this isolated villa and, despite the overwhelming odds and the impenetrability of the tortute chsmber, uses his wits, and Leanka, to get everyone out into the open where he can pick them off one at a time, and speed off with Standfast in a stolen car.

That’s the episode’s only flaw, and it’s one the series has been guilty of before, going for a melodramatic ending and leaving the logistical nightmare of the aftermath for the reader to fill in. No wonder Schulman was dropped, but he’s still got ‘Canton’s passport, not to mention his suspicions of both him and how do you think he’s going to react to a dead man appearing out of the blue, hale and whole?

But these are not and never were considerations for an audience of 1966, though they persist, like the memory ofan amputated limb.

There’s a lot of action this week, a constant level of tension and the usual spy gadgetry, but ultimately it was a better episode to watch, taking that in, than to write about afterwards. It seems like the series is going out with a bang: can it sustain this over the three remaining weeks?