Wednesday 21 September 2022

CHANNEL SURFING - Sydney's supercinephile Barrie Pattison uncovers - THE FLYING SCOTSMAN (Castleton Knight, UK, 1929), SHADOWED (John Sturges, USA, 1946), WHAT DID JACK DO? (David Lynch, USA, 2017) and more

Ray Milland (centre), The Flying Scotsman

I’ve been dipping into DVDs and on air material, if for no other reason, to remind myself that I’m never going to get to the end of my movie viewing. In fact, with the current deluge, the horizon is even further away. 

I got around to watching 1929’s The Flying Scotsman which offers one of the few accessible glimpses of early British sound film making, by some measures their first sound feature, clocking in just under an hour and competing with Journey’s End, Escape and Blackmail. In this one, it’s a jolt when the first reels of inset title dialogue and music give way to the location noises of the railway social club.


Another of the film’s claims to our attention is the on-screen debut of Ray(mond) Milland, who had already experienced Arthur Robison’s silent version of The Informer, when the producers recruited him from his regiment as a marksman for their shoot-up action. Milland was rather hard on himself (“I couldn’t act worth a damn” he told me in the sixties) Not unlike other beginner performers of the day - John Wayne - he registers better than the trained players around him and already has his recognisable ironic delivery.


Pauline Johnson, The Flying Scotsman

We note that pre WW2 European movie trains were continually menaced by murderous staff (Gance’s La Roue, Adrien Brunel’s Without Warning, Bernard Vorhaus’ The Last Journey) in the way that jet liners now contain mad bombers. This film generates a lot of its interest from railway detail - the prestige Flying Scot service priding itself on making the London-Edinburgh Waverley journey on schedule, the actors dwarfed by the giant locomotive wheels, carriage material filmed while the cars are moving, footplate scenes and the striking sequence of heroine Pauline Johnson (above) clambering along the side of the speeding train without safety roping.


The script is dim melodrama, with retiring veteran driver, Will Hay side kick Moore Marriott no less, getting his fireman Alec Hurley dismissed for drinking on the job. Meanwhile Hurley’s replacement, young Milland contrives to pick up Marriott’s daughter Johnson at a two & sixpence Dance Palais, before he discovers the connection. A mirror is smashed foreshadowing misfortune. Hurley plots his revenge on Marriott’s last run, which of course comes with the obligatory montage of rails speeding past, filmed from the train.


The train footage, it’s place as a marker in the arrival of sound film and seeing Milland’s career begin, all contribute to The Flying Scotsman’s interest. Director Castleton Knight worked in newsreels and won another spot in movie history for his feature film of the fifties coronation. The handling is competent. It unconsciously projects the familiar drabness of the British scene. I do however like the little old lady presenting Marriot a chocolate bar to thank him for completing her trip on time.


The Filmrise DVD is good enough.


There’s also a minimally ambitious 1957 support movie called The Flying Scot or The Mailbag Robbery made by Herbert Compton Bennet, of 7th Veil fame, which gets the odd run on Channel 92.


I saw Shadowed on its 1940s initial release, one of the first films I ever watched, and I was intrigued to find that I still remembered Lloyd Corrigan finding the body in the railway culvert and the very noir image of Anita Louise on the shadowed (get it) stairs. This one departs from the usual mean streets, being set in a leafy suburb where the golf course sprinklers spray on cue.


It is mainly notable as early John Sturges, less interesting than his The Man Who Dared  and The Walking Hills.His talent doesn’t really assert till we get to his thrillers at Dore Schary’s MGM.


Widowed Corrigan is a prosperous gardening implements business owner, the father of girls Louise and teenaged Terry Moore. He’s first seen rehearsing his “Good fences make good neighbors” speech for the district lodge Wednesday Club. However, as we expect in one of these, sinister forces enter his ordered life complete with bullet-riddled body, counterfeit currency plates and an incriminating golf ball. Brenda Weisberg’s script is weak and the sub-plot with Moore and her would be criminologist admirer is embarrassing. Patience-playing heavy Paul E. Burns totally lacks menace. In fact, the film’s one class element turns out to be portly Corrigan's reluctant hero best performance.


However, the texture is impressive for a B movie - resembling Anthony Mann’s Republic crime films, similarly done in by feeble scripts. Cameraman Henry Freulich, son of famous stills man Roman Freulich, also did Blake Edwards’ first movie, antagonising his director, who turned round as one of their more complex movements was descending into chaos, to find Freulich practicing his golf swing. Edwards had his operator, Philip Lathrop, promoted for their next film, launching a couple of major careers. The anonymous score turns out to be by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.


The YouTube copy is just all right.


And for those who have seen everything, what about What Did Jack Do? directed, written, edited, sound & design by David Lynch in 2017? Absolutely Lynch - perverse, funny, surreal and, at seventeen minutes, a treat. In B&W, with film dirt visible on the image, detective Lynch faces a talking monkey (remarkable effects work) who became obsessed with a chicken (“there were feathers everywhere!”) while off-screen trains pull out of the rail station where the interrogation is taking place. Railway waitress Emily Stofle delivers a coffee and the monkey breaks out in song before the final pursuit.


"...detective Lynch faces a talking monkey..."
What Did Jack Do?

Whether this one has any intent beyond disorienting the audience and indulging its author is speculative but the process is richly enjoyable.


Curiously funded as an art project, what we would think of it without Lynch’s participation is irrelevant. No one else would have considered it. His set construction credit is a match for Sissy Spacek’s on Phantom of the Paradise.


The copy on Netflix is suitably grungy.


The Italian Film Festival currently offers films by Gabriele Salvatores, Pif, Eduardo Leo, Silvio Soldini, Gianni Amelio & Giuseppe Tornatore - pretty well the top Italian cinema heavyweight contenders. The ones I’ve seen so far haven’t fulfilled that promise and a Pasolini retrospective reminds me I’m sorry I watched his films the first time. Events like that prop up the notion that Italian films start with Bicycle Thieves when it’s the Genina-Blassetti-Camerini era we know the least about.

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