Saturday, January 31, 2009

A few more movies

My continuing roundup of the movies we've watched since Christmas.

Fox Horror Classics vol. 2 - The main attraction in this collection is Dragonwyk, finally released to home video for the first time. I saw it years and years ago on TV, and always wanted to see it again. It features a very young and handsome Vincent Price as Nicholas van Ryn, and Gene Tierney as Miranda Wells, the distant cousin who comes to Dragonwyk to care for the daughter of her rich relations, and ends up marrying the master after the suspicious death of his wife. I suppose it's technically a horror film, but it's more of a gothic thriller with touches of the supernatural. Nicholas is a lot more captivating than he is in the book; you can see why a naive farmgirl might be taken in by him and fall in love. In the book, he was a real sociopath, and only a fool would get involved with him. I think there are hints still persisting in the movie about Miranda's motivation: Magda notices how she enjoys being waited upon, and how impressed she is by the richness of Dragonwyk, while after a few months in her gilded surroundings, even the admiring Dr. Turner says that they don't have anything to say to each other anymore, in contrast to the quick rapport they established when they first met. Miranda is sort of a sell-out; just as her father warned, she's led astray by the luxury of her rich relations, and she wants it for herself. But this theme is rather lost in the movie; Gene Tierney is just too sweet and beautiful to really be guilty of the misery that befalls her, and her father is too boxed into the "fundamentalist bigot" mold to be allowed to have insight and truth on his side. Though I must say, Walter Huston manages to make Ephraim Wells rise above the stereotype in places. We know that a Bible-thumping, ascetic father must be hopelessly out of touch, even if he isn't straight out evil, and Miranda obviously can't wait to get out from under his thumb. But we can't entirely shake the feeling that there's something admirable about him - an ogre couldn't have such a strong and impressive wife, (Anne Revere), and the fact that SHE respects and supports him tells us that he has qualities that perhaps the superficial don't immediately appreciate. Even Miranda, in spite of herself, finds herself quoting her father to the ignorant, snobbish ladies she meets at Dragonwyk, so on some level, she appreciates his strength and honor, even if she finds it confining.

Vincent Price is really great in this movie. Even if Nicholas didn't really love Miranda, and only married her to get an heir, there's a moment when the baby dies where Price manages to convey something emotional under his cold exterior. It's just a little muscular twitch in his throat, and then he turns away, but you can just feel something breaking inside. That's the moment when everything is over - there will never be a son, and Miranda will never be given another chance. His descent into drug addiction isn't sordid enough, but I think that was because of the censorship movie-makers operated under in the 40s; they just couldn't portray things like drug addiction very openly - even the murder of Johanna had to be soft-pedalled, for fear of shocking the audience.

I wasn't too happy with the way the movie ended, but I think the filmmakers weren't quite sure how to end it and did the best they could. Nicholas had to die somehow, but a bullet from a former tenant-farmer seemed a bit anti-climactic. He should have died facing the elements, as he did in the book - it had to be something big that could defeat that ego. and one little bullet didn't seem quite right.

There are two more movies in this set: Chandu the Magician and Dr. Renault's Secret. Chandu is the better movie, and it has Bela Lugosi as a completely over-the-top villain named Roxor. Edmund Lowe plays the hero, Frank Chandler, aka Chandu, who has learned the mysteries of the Yogi in India and now has supernatural abilities. Chandu has to rescue his brother-in-law, Robert Regent, from the clutches of the evil Roxor. Robert is a brilliant scientist and we see his lovable family - mom and the two kids - fretting over his disappearance. Roxor has kidnapped him because he wants the secret of his newly-invented death ray, so he can rule the world. It's interesting that Robert is someone we are supposed to be sympathetically rooting for - he's married to Chandu's sister, after all - and yet he has invented...a Death Ray. I mean, really. It's not even "an invention that has the power to do good, but, in the wrong hands, blah blah blah". No, it's a Death Ray, pure and simple.

Edmund Lowe just isn't right for the role of Chandu. Maybe it's that cummerbund wrapped around his waist and that neat little moustache, but he looks as if he should be sitting on the porch knocking back gin and tonics instead of creeping around in dark passages and escaping from coffins. He just looks too sedentary for that adventurous stuff. Bela Lugosi, on the other hand, gives a wild and weird performance as the power-mad Roxor. Every line sounds like it was poured out of a bottle of sulphuric acid. Someone on YouTube made a nice photo montage of the movie, with a bit of Roxor's great monologue at the beginning. It actually works pretty well, since this movie wasn't that far away from the era of silent movies, and the photos accompanied by the music give a nice impression of the acting and the crucial moments of the story.

Jane Eyre (1970), with George C. Scott and Susannah York. Oh boy. Where to start on this trainwreck? This is the WORST version of Jane Eyre I've ever seen - and yet, according to the comments on IMDb, there are some people who think that it's the best. The simple things first: George C. Scott isn't totally unqualified for the role of Rochester, but he just doesn't do it right. He's really too old, for one thing - Rochester is supposed to be nearing 40, and Scott looks like he's in his late 50s. He doesn't have that strangely playful, teasing quality that Jane brings out in Rochester. Mrs. Fairfax says (in the book) that he's hard to read, and one does not always know if he is serious or joking when he speaks. There's none of that in Scott - he's gruff and rude (and drunk his first night at home) but not amused or mischievous, which is his attitude to Jane at the beginning, and what intrigues and draws her in.

Susannah York is also too old, but she's also too pretty for the role. Her perpetually grumpy expression doesn't equal plainness, and just makes her personality as repellent as Rochester's. They are not supposed to be well-suited to each other in that way. The whole early part of Jane's childhood is omitted, but that's not unusual in film treatments - it starts with her arrival at Lowood. But the movie turns the place into a female Devil's Island, with Miss Skatchard as a sadistic screw who tortures Helen Burns to death for no reason but malice. There's no Miss Temple to be a positive role model, no typhus epidemic which results in Mr. Brocklehurst losing control of the school, just 8 years that pass somehow until Jane is herself a teacher. In the book, Jane learns a great deal at Lowood, and achieves a level of happiness and acceptance. Helen's martyrdom has a huge effect upon Jane, and she learns about Christian patience and acceptance of suffering, lessons which are reinforced throughout the book. Here, she is shown bitterly telling off Mr. Brocklehurst before leaving the school - an exchange which takes place over Helen's grave! So much for Christian patience and forgiveness. They might as well have had Helen gasp "Avenge me!" with her last breath, instead of telling Jane to trust in God.

The scenes at Thornfield would naturally have to be shortened to fit into a single movie, but there was one example of compression that I thought was pretty extreme. Before we're barely aware that Jane is becoming attracted to Mr. Rochester, he races off and comes back with Blanche Ingram and all her friends and family for a party at Thornfield. OK, so things are moving a bit fast, but it's still within reason. Mason then arrives, is attacked at night and leaves, all within about 3 minutes. Then, as his carriage is rolling down the driveway, Rochester tells Jane that he loves her! All I could think was, "Blanche is still in the house and he's kissing the governess on the front lawn!" How did he get rid of all those people? What did he tell them? We never hear of them again.

The most blatant indication that the filmmaker didn't know what to make of 'Jane Eyre' comes after the big reveal scene, when we discover that Rochester already has an insane wife living in the attic. He tells Jane "I loved her once as I love you." No, no, no, NO!! That was NEVER part of the story. The whole point is that Rochester was tricked into marrying a crazy woman he didn't even know and certainly never loved. He's a victim, trapped in a marriage in name only through the selfish manoeuverings and deception of his relatives. Changing this turns him into a cad. "I promised 'For better or for worse' but I've changed my mind and found someone I like better." Why would Jane marry him? She might as well be his mistress, since the promise means nothing to him; he could dump her just as easily when he's tired of her. It makes their entire conflict meaningless, but it's very much in tune with 1970s amorality, where feelings trump everything else.

The corruption of Bronte's theme continues with the St. John Rivers episode. The actor is far too passionate for Rivers; it's hard to believe that he DOESN'T love Jane, he's so earnest and insistent. This is the way Rochester should be played, not St. John. And when Jane refuses his offer of marriage, it isn't just because she knows it's wrong to marry without love, even in a good cause. No, she has to turn on him the way she did Mr. Brocklehurst at the beginning, and tell him that his religion is full of crap. SHE is the one who follows the true faith and really knows God, because she's got sentiment and emotion on her side, and that's what's really important. St. John is just a phony, with all his missionary work and talk of duty; the fluttering diaphragm and transports of ecstasy are where God is to be found. This is so absurd and contrary to the original text I hardly know what to say. Bronte NEVER treated St. John with scorn - he is portrayed as something close to a saint, with his single-hearted devotion to God. He's almost too pure - trying to keep up with him is like trying to breathe very thin atmosphere on top of a mountain. Jane can't do it, but it's not because there's something wrong with him; she just knows herself better than he does, and prevents them both from making a serious mistake. I think the last page of the book mentions St. John, and speaks of his approaching death in the missionary field - not only a saint, but a martyr! Jane has great love and admiration for him, as she did for Helen Burns.

She returns to Rochester - oddly enough, without the inheritance that made her an independent woman in the book. A movie that seemed to be edging toward a feminist reading of Jane missed the nice transformation at the end, where she is finally free from constraint and for the first time can choose where she wishes to go. I was left wondering if she had to borrow the coach fare back to Thornfield from St. John and his sisters.

Don't waste your time on this version. The best one is the 1973 BBC version with Michael Jayston and Sorcha Cusack. It's the most faithful adaptation ever made; most of the dialogue comes straight from the book, and the principals are perfectly cast. Here's a clip of one of the most enjoyable scenes, with plenty of repartee between Jane and Rochester:


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you ever see the TV version that was made many years ago with Timothy Dalton as Rochester? The weirdest part is when Jane says the line: "I should be lying if I called you handsome"! To Timothy Dalton!!

Ellie M.

8:17 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Yes! I saw that one, and I thought the same thing! Timothy Dalton, not handsome? Who are they kidding? He didn't look like Mr. Rochester, he looked like Mr. Darcy in need of a haircut. There is a woman out in Nova Scotia who has a blog about all things Bronte, and she's been collecting information on every Jane Eyre version ever made. She also thinks the 1973 one is perfect, but she's unearthed some real weirdies. There was one made a few years earlier, with Patrick MacNee as Rochester, and unfortunately the clip has disappeared from YouTube, but I remember him drunkenly pawing Jane at their first meeting, and delivering such boozy lines as "Donnnn't look down on me...ehhhehh..." It was too bizarre for words.

9:26 pm  
Blogger Dr. Mabuse said...

Here's her description of the Patrick MacNee version. Pretty weird, as I said. Lucky girl, she got to see it all!

9:32 pm  
Blogger Dr. Alice said...

Have you read Jasper Fforde's book The Eyre Affair? I thought it was quite good. He wrote several sequels, one of which has the heroine working with Miss Havisham as her mentor (awesome!), but the first book is really focused on Jane Eyre.

9:27 am  

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