EXPLORING THE ALCOVES OF CULT CINEMA …

Comedy

Dennis Price: Very Nearly A Star

Describing himself in a 1969 TV Times interview, Dennis Price wryly said he was “very nearly Britain’s biggest film star”. By the late 1960’s, after experiencing 30 years of ups and downs in British films, Price had seen all too clearly how haphazard the life of a “movie star” could be. For my money, Dennis Price is up there with Olivier, Richardson and Guinness (more on him later!) as the consummate British actor, but he is now almost a forgotten name, certainly a neglected one, even among film buffs. The reasons are many fold and pretty much a textbook example of a tragic film career. A brief look through his film roles offer possible answers as to why he is such a forgotten star, but they also remind us how he was one of the greatest actors of his generation.

His first film role could hardly have been any grander – a starring part in the excellent 1944 war drama A Canterbury Tale from the prodigious Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, which sees Price in thoroughly serious acting mode, hiding the naturally dry comic style with which he became known. The film was not a box office hit but is now regarded as one in a number of Powell & Pressburger classics. But the Dennis Price of this era seemed just another in a line of dashing leading men appearing in slushy melodramas that were ten a penny from Gainsborough studios, albeit with some good performance notices. But his leading role in The Bad Lord Byron (1949) didn’t even have those and met with a critical backlash, halting any chances of a move to Hollywood.

Then things took a turn with Kind Hearts And Coronets, the film that if anything Price is today best remembered for. His role as the devilishly suave psychopath Louis Mazzini showed how charismatic and funny Price could be. But he was cast against a certain Alec Guinness, appearing chameleon like as no fewer than eight members of the doomed D’Asgoyne family, a feat which largely stole the film’s plaudits. But Price’s performance in the film is absolutely pitch-perfect, a model of ruthless manipulation and cruel composure, surveying his victims as obstructive nuisances to be neatly swept aside. Despite his top billing, and being arguably Price’s best film and best role, Kind Hearts And Coronets is now only ever referred to today as the ‘classic Ealing black comedy” or ‘the film where Alec Guinness plays eight parts’. Another false start, it seemed. Price never made another Ealing comedy and Guinness went on to star in another four before launching an international career. Price seemed to make do with lesser comedies such as Lady Godiva Rides Again (1951) and a run of B-movie crime thrillers.

Thanks to the Boulting Brothers, Price finally got another slickly diabolical role to get his teeth into with Private’s Progress (1956). Sharing top-billing with Richard Attenborough, Price’s performance as the corrupt Brigadier Bertram Tracepurcel simply oozes ‘dispicable bounder’ from every pore. Invited to reprise the role in the landmark sequel, I’m All Right Jack in 1959, Price more than holds his own in a cast of British comedy goliaths: Peter Sellers, Terry-Thomas, Irene Handl and Margaret Rutherford.  But once again, Price’s role is somewhat neglected, given the stellar cast, the fact that the wonderful Ian Carmichael pretty much dominates the action and, like Guinness in 1949, Peter Sellers won all the plaudits in 1959. Price provided sterling support in many comedies from this British golden age – in The Naked Truth (again with Sellers and T-T), School For Scoundrels (with T-T and Carmichael), Double Bunk and What A Carve Up! (both with Sid James), and Go To Blazes (1962), but these roles were often all too throwaway and barely did his talent justice.

The 1960’s showed Price making a number of brief pit stops with stardom, mostly in notable supporting roles. In 1960 he was Sophia Loren’s analyst in The Millionairess (again with Sellers), but then the same year Tunes Of Glory presented a rare chance for Price to combine his persona of inscrutable upper-class cad with his some real dramatic meat. But yet again his role is somewhat obscured, given that the film is essentially a two-hander between John Mills and Alec Guinness (who actually used his considerable clout to make sure Price was cast, clearly demonstrating a professional respect Guinness had for him). It’s well worth revisiting Tunes Of Glory to take in Price’s delicate and subtle performance. The following year he gave what many considered a deeply personal performance as an actor blackmailed over his homosexuality in the controversial drama Victim, with Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms. A small role but an effective one, contemporary critics have made much about how Price’s own homosexuality informed the part, which no doubt it did, but more striking is how it perhaps laid bare Price’s own insecurities about the trappings of fame and the fragile nature of success.

A late career upturn took place with the role of Jeeves in the BBC’s The World Of Wooster (1965 – 67) but sadly recordings of the show barely exist today. Continued financial troubles forced Price to become a tax exile on the island of Sark in 1967, making it hard for him to accept regular work. So it’s always a bonus to see Price briefly crop up in some good comedies of this era – The Magic Christian (1969), Some Will Some Won’t (1970) and The Rise And Rise Of Michael Rimmer (1970).  For the last few years of this life however, Price fell into something of an undignified trough and many a cult horror fan will recognize him for his many bit parts in a whole range of horror films – from the half-decent Twins Of Evil, the enjoyably bad Haunted House Of Horror and Horror Hospital, the below-par for Hammer Horror Of Frankenstein, to the downright awful Tower Of Evil and Vampiros Lesbos! One of his last roles was a good one though, as a bitchy theatre critic in the deliciously over-the-top Theatre Of Blood (1973), but Price died of heart failure after a hip fracture and a long battle with alcoholism before the film’s release.

So Dennis Price, one of the great underrated British film stars? There are a dozen film roles which stand as testament to his huge talent and natural gift for comedy, a handful of striking dramatic roles, and a flurry of enjoyable supporting turns. But perhaps he never fulfilled the potential he displayed in Kind Hearts And Coronets. Although did he ever really hunger after the role of revered leading man? As he once admitted, with sharp self-awareness: “I am a second-rate feature actor. I am not a star and never was. I lack the essential spark, you see.” Of course, he was quite wrong about the spark.

Recommended reading: Elliot J. Huntley’s excellent and thorough Dennis Price: A Tribute – The Life And Death of Dennis Price, which had a limited print run but it’s well worth tracking down a copy.

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Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End (1970)

deep-endWest Germany/GB, 1970  Dir: Jerzy Skolimowski

Starring Jane Asher, John Moulder-Brown, Diana Dors, Karl Michael Volger, Christopher Sandford

“If you can’t have the real thing – you do all kinds of unreal things.” Deep End kicks straight in with a splash of darkest red paint (or is it blood?) hitting the screen to the sound of Cat Stevens’ But I Might Die Tonight, from which point the film takes it’s  hold and doesn’t let go for 90 minutes. The sordid and unglamourous view of a London bathhouse in the 1970’s could only have been the product of a foreign filmmaker. Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski’s outsider view perhaps reveals more about the quirks and vices of our nation than a homegrown talent could, ranking alongside Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) as uniquely skewed depictions of ‘swinging’ London. Deep End was a co-production between Britain and West Germany and was filmed in both countries, the mix of English actors and peculiarly dubbed German actors adding a bizarre tone to the film’s already-bewitching style.

The plot concerns 15-year old Mike (John Moulder-Brown) taking his first job in a public bathhouse, once a proud monument to Victorian respectability but now mostly a haven for unsavoury characters and their sexual urges. So, maybe not the best place for the naive and idealistic Mike to get his baptism of fire, surrounded by mature lady clients looking for their sexual kicks, various depraved middle-aged men and a scarily perverse swimming instructor. deep-end-still-1Amidst this bubbling decadence, Mike’s attentions turn to his colleague, the provocative and beautiful Susan (Jane Asher), who soon becomes the focus of his dangerously obsessive adolescent fantasies. Asher’s Susan is no shrinking violet however, being manipulative and impulsively cruel almost on a whim – it’s a fascinating performance. The way she toys with Mike’s feelings, notably by seducing him in the cinema and then reporting him to the police for assault, reveal both her selfish and reckless streak. Moulder-Brown’s Mike is a captivating central character, not always likable but causing much empathy despite being frantically wayward, his soft plummy accent and sudden fits of rage raising the character above the usual coming-of-age teen. As the film swirls towards it’s shocking climax, the viewer is plunged deeper into the dark recesses of Mike’s ever more twisted psyche.

The brilliant centrepiece of Deep End is an extended sequence set in and around the seedy clubs of Soho, as Mike embarks on a crazy nighttime odyssey into London’s weird underworld. The repeated encounters with the hot dog vender (played by Burt Kwouk and incidentally the only genuinely likeable character in the film) have been compared to Wong Kar Wai’s similarly ultra-real snack bar scenes in Chungking Express (1994). Mike stalks Susan in and out of clubs and backstreets, stumbles across a chatty prostitute with a broken leg, steals a life-size cardboard cut-out of Susan (or is it?) and buys hot dogs for a couple of Liverpudlian girls. But to describe it is to take away the spontaneous surrealism of the events. The whole sequence is set to the sound of Mother Sky by Krautrock pioneers CAN, a 14-minute blast of grimy pulsating bass rhythms, trippy guitars and hazy vocals. It’s no exaggeration to describe this as the most audaciously demented quarter of an hour ever put into a mainstream narrative film!

deep-end-still-2Watching Deep End feels like you’ve somehow imagined it in a fevered dream, as if Mike’s confused desires spill out and effect the film’s aesthetic. The improvised quality of the performances and the blending of realist and surreal styles have the combined effect of a documentary as seen through an acid trip. The film lurches from absurd comedy (Diana Dors’ memorable scene as a sex-starved harridan; the out-of-control fire extinguisher) to startling symbolism (the ethereal underwater shots). In one scene, as passions increase in the bathhouse, a strange little man begins painting the wall dark red in the background, typical of the odd touches and vague symbolism that Skolimowski splatters throughout the film.

Funny, tragic, disturbing and delirious, Deep End is a singular masterpiece which sits right at the top of my choice for the most underrated British film and, along with Ken Russell’s The Devils, from the same maverick era, the film most deserving an urgent DVD release. Until then, bootleg copies are doing the rounds and I strongly recommend you find one.

Update 20/01/10: New Information On Official Deep End DVD Release! http://tinyurl.com/ydvo77b


Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979)

being-there

USA, 1979  Dir: Hal Ashby

Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley Maclaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Richard A. Dysart, Richard Basehart.

This week sees the 30th anniversary DVD release of Hal Ashby’s comic fable Being There, the film which gave Peter Sellers his last great role. Sellers had become obsessed with Jerzy Kosinski’s novella Being There since the early 1970’s, fascinated by the character of Chance the Gardener, a man with hardly any personality but whom others see in him whatever character they want to see. Clearly tapping into Sellers’ anxiety of ‘who was the man behind the actor’s mask’ (he was famously quoted as saying “there used to be a me behind the mask, but I had it surgically removed”), the character of Chance represented the ultimate challenge for the actor. The story concerns the quiet and simple Chance, isolated from the world as a gardener in a private townhouse and learning all he needs to know through television, who through a chain of fortuity and misunderstanding becomes an important and influential figure in US high office, to the extent that his associates ultimately consider him as a Presidential candidate. Chance’s lack of personality and his short uncomplicated replies are seen by others as highly intelligent statements of great depth and profundity, essentially using Chance’s blank canvas to paint any picture they want on to it.

The film is deliberatley slow paced, befitting Chance’s measured nature, but there are several wonderful scenes throughout. As Chance first embarks on his lonely path back into society and towards his fate, we see him walking down the centre of a busy highway accompanied by a funk version of Also Sprach Zarathustra a la 2001: A Space Odyssey, highlighting the exploratory nature of this all-new territory. Later, when Shirley Maclaine’s sexually deprived Eve seduces Chance, she is unaware that he is entirely focused on watching television, resulting in one of the most bizarre sex scenes in cinema history! The film ends in the realms of the fantastic, with Chance apparently walking on water, raising questions as to whether his fated path was really so coincidental.

beingthere-1Being There is surely the most gentle and thoughtful black satire ever made. Hal Ashby’s delicate direction is underrated, given that the film is generally regarded as a ‘Peter Sellers movie’, but afterall it was Sellers’ last film completed and released during his lifetime (his last film, released after his death, was a weak comedy of Fu Manchu, and the least said about the cobbled together Pink Panther sequels the better!). Sellers’ performance is understated and mesmeric (he said he had partly based his interpretation on the lackadaisical style of Stan Laurel) and netted him his first Oscar-nomination for Best Actor since Dr. Strangelove in 1964. Sadly he lost out to Dustin Hoffman in Kramer Vs. Kramer and to rub salt in the wounds his co-star Melvyn Douglas won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Sellers died from a heart attack on 24th July 1980, aged just 54. This delightful story of chance remains a fitting finale to a career encompassing many compelling and hilarious performances.


Robert Fuest’s The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

abominable_dr_phibes1

GB, 1971. Dir: Robert Fuest

Starring: Vincent Price, Joseph Cotton, Peter Jeffrey, Terry-Thomas, Virginia North

“Love means never having to say you’re ugly”. And so the poster tagline sets the tone for this hilarious little British horror from the early seventies. Vincent Price stalks around his art-deco jazz club, dragging with him a gramophone wired to his vocal chords and harbouring a peculiar grudge against nine people who tried to save his wife from dying. It’s that kind of film.

From an era when horror films were designed to be tremendous fun as well as being gruesome and frightening, Dr Phibes features one revoltingly elaborate death after another, but is done with such enjoyable panache you may well find yourself laughing at the bits that are meant to be funny. Yes, there’s no ‘so bad it’s funny’ awfulness here – Dr Phibes is a rollicking slab of comedy horror that knows exactly when to play it for laughs (which is actually for 90% of the film!). In one scene, Terry-Thomas is desperately trying to get rid of his old maid in order to watch some twenties-style porn (which, if you’re interested, involves a woman trying to swallow a snake!) before being interrupted by a girl who drains him of all his blood.

Price’s performance oozes delicious melodrama, remarkable considering he never speaks once in the film, all his lines are instead pre-recorded and played through the gramophone. And any film which has the line “A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.” has to be worth your consideration.