Sunday, 17 February 2019

Reflections on ... Secret Ceremony (1968)

/ Italian movie poster for Secret Ceremony via /

Glittering hedonists Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the foremost show business power couple of the last century. (I’m sorry, but Kanye and Kim who?). As world-famous and tabloid-friendly as the tempestuous, jet-setting and hard-drinking duo were, the actual films they made together and individually during their marriage were mostly notorious mega-bombs. Some, though, were genuinely interesting and deserve reappraisal. Take, For instance, Secret Ceremony (1968).

Pop culture theorist Camille Paglia has rhapsodized about the impact of seeing Secret Ceremony on its original release. “One of the most spectacular moments of my movie-going career occurred in college as I watched Joseph Losey’s bizarre Secret Ceremony,” she would recall in her essay “Elizabeth Taylor: Hollywood’s Pagan Queen” in the March 1992 issue of Penthouse magazine. “Halfway through the film, inexplicably and without warning, Elizabeth Taylor in a violet velvet suit and turban suddenly walks across the screen in front of a wall of sea-green tiles. It is an overcast London day; the steel-grey light makes the violet and green iridescent. This is Elizabeth Taylor at her most vibrant, mysterious and alluring at the peak of her mature fleshy glamour. I happened to be sitting with a male friend, one of the gay aesthetes who had such a profound impact on my imagination. We both cried out at the same time, alarming other theatregoers. This vivid silent tableau is for me one of the classic scenes in the history of cinema.”

/ A vision in violet: via /

Seen today, peculiar London-set late 1960s psychodramas Secret Ceremony is the type of film John Waters would describe as a “failed art movie” – but that’s one of my favourite genres, and if you’re going to make a failed art movie, make it this wildly baroque, weird and claustrophobic! Screen diva Taylor (at the zenith of her zaftig double-chinned, caftan-wearing era) stars as Leonara, a blowsy middle-aged prostitute tormented by the memory of the death of her young daughter by drowning. One day profoundly disturbed and deluded poor little rich girl Cenci (post-Rosemary’s Baby Mia Farrow at her most waif-like) latches onto her and decides Leonara represents the return of her recently-deceased mother, dragging her back to her haunted art nouveau mansion in Holland Park. Leonora soon clashes with Robert Mitchum as Albert, Cenci’s sexually predatory stepfather. From there things just get progressively more twisted!

/ Elizabeth Taylor: the caftan years (albeit a caftan by Dior) /

/ Frankly psychotic nymphette Cenci. You may find Farrow's performance begins to grate as the film progresses /

Secret Ceremony keeps threatening to turn into a horror movie and never quite delivers – but it is satisfyingly jarring and gothic, nonetheless. Taylor in shrewish bitch goddess-mode is hypnotically compelling as only she can be. At one point, Leonara hungrily gobbles a big fried breakfast and loudly belches – a moment worthy of Divine! There’s a reason Taylor is revered as a campy queer icon! (Cruelly, the film repeatedly draws attention to Taylor’s matronly weight. “I’m so fat!” Leonara wails to Cenci, surveying herself in a mirror. Later, Albert tells Leonara “You look more like a cow than my late wife. No offense - I'm very fond of cows”).  The fragile and intense Farrow hams it up as a demented child-like pixie. Secret Ceremony is effortlessly stolen from them both, though, by the torpid Mitchum, who breathes complexity and humanity into the perverse role of Albert.  

/ Gruesome twosome: Albert (Robert Mitchum) and Cenci (Mia Farrow) /

/ The bathtub scene was apparently considered the hint of depravity in 1968, hinting at both lesbianism and incest /

No spoilers, but out of this freakily dysfunctional trio, only one will survive and they will mutter to themselves, “There were two mice fell in a bucket of milk. One yelled for help and drowned. The other kept pedaling around until, in the morning, he found himself on top of butter”. Watch for the closing credits, which announce Taylor’s wardrobe is via Dior and her hairstyles by Alexandre de Paris. The film is like a lesbianic, female-centred version of director Joseph Losey’s earlier, more celebrated movie The Servant (1963). Secret Ceremony almost certainly suffered at the box office by the failure of the even-more berserk Boom! (1968), the flop film based on a Tennessee Williams play Losey made with Taylor and Burton that same year - another movie I love!

Further reading:

My analysis of the other Elizabeth Taylor / Joseph Losey "failed art movie"of 1968 - the infamous Boom! - here.

The essential Dreams Are What Le Cinema is For blog goes in-depth on Secret Ceremony here.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Reflections on ... Sudden Fear (1952)

/ “Heartbreak … poised on a trigger of terror!” An agonized Joan Crawford in Sudden Fear (1952) /

From the Facebook event page:

Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s bar (Dalston’s most unique nite spot!) devoted to Bad Movies We Love (our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People), specializing in the kitsch, the cult and the camp!

For the first Lobotomy Room film club of the New Year, let’s revel in some old-school pagan diva worship with Sudden Fear (1952) starring cinema’s bitch goddess extraordinaire (and eternal Lobotomy Room favourite) Joan Crawford! Wednesday 16 January 2019!

In the 1950s the perennially-fierce Crawford made a cycle of melodramas in which she played middle-aged women-in-peril tormented by younger lovers, including Autumn Leaves and Female on the Beach. All these films are genuinely great, but the zenith is hard-boiled film noir thriller Sudden Fear in which Crawford is a wealthy San Francisco socialite menaced by the duplicitous Jack Palance and the pouty and perverse Gloria Grahame. (Bad girl Gloria Grahame and Joan Crawford in the same film?! You don't want to miss this!).

Doors to the basement Bamboo Lounge open at 8 pm. Film starts at 8:30 pm prompt!

Seven years prior to Sudden Fear, Joan Crawford had won the Best Actress Oscar for her triumphant comeback role in Mildred Pierce (1945). But Crawford’s lengthy career was characterized by peaks and troughs and by the end of the decade, the juicy roles had dried-up once again. You can’t keep a gritty and resilient veteran diva like Crawford down for long, though, and she bounced back in the early fifties with an impressive string of hit movies. Sudden Fear is perhaps the most notable: the film was both a critical and commercial success in 1952 and earned Crawford her third and final Best Actress Academy Award nomination. (She was defeated by Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba).

/ "Every Suspenseful Moment... Every Embrace... Every Kiss - A Breathtaking Experience!" /

I’m the first to admit I know nothing about director David Miller (and judging by his filmography, he was something of a journeyman who did everything from war films to Westerns to Marx Brothers comedies) but he confidently and stylishly navigates the twists and turns of Sudden Fear. Set in San Francisco, it begins as an absorbing, soap-y love story between wealthy middle-aged playwright and high-society heiress Myra Hudson (Crawford) and ambitious, enigmatic young actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) and then dramatically shifts tone and becomes a tense, white-knuckle ride thriller when Myra begins to suspect Lester intends to murder her.

/ “Her one love shattered - her rival laughing - her life in danger – a new high in suspense melodrama!” /

Crawford was 47-years old at the time and Palance was 33. Crawford was a pioneering onscreen “cougar” in the fifties, routinely partnered with significantly younger leading men. Around this time, Crawford made multiple films where she portrayed middle-aged women-in-peril tormented by younger lovers. Tough guy Steve Cochran had already slapped her around in lurid noir melodrama The Damned Don’t Cry (1950). Female on the Beach (1955) and Autumn Leaves (1956) would follow. While all these films are irresistible must-sees, Sudden Fear is arguably the definitive in the cycle.

Crawford’s contract entitled her to dictate her leading men and her first choice for Sudden Fear was her old friend (and former lover) from the 1930s, Clark Gable – who would have been entirely wrong for the role! (Not to mention too expensive for the film's relatively modest budget). Her second choice was Marlon Brando. She had to be persuaded that the young and then mostly unknown Palance was the right choice to play the sinister and duplicitous husband. Palance - a former boxer with a strikingly battered face and a nose that had been broken multiple times - brings the perfect amount of convincing Brylcreemed menace, charm and sleazy urgency to the part of Lester.

Sudden Fear is a romantic triangle and co-stars the sin-sational Gloria Grahame (below) as Jack’s treacherous secret girlfriend Irene. Luscious Grahame excelled at playing film noir tarts, floozies and bad girls and her sullen, cat-like presence instantly makes any film she appears in more interesting. No one else ever looked or sounded remotely like Grahame (that quivering nasal voice!) and any time she rocks up in a movie, you know there is going to be trouble! (I still haven’t seen the 2017 biopic Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool starring Annette Bening).

It just wouldn’t be a Joan Crawford film without her feuding with someone – and she clashed with both Palance and Grahame during production. Crawford and the younger Grahame were both temperamental, strong-willed women, so the two of them intensely disliking each other was perhaps inevitable.  This story feels apocryphal, but this is what IMDb claims: “According to Jack PalanceJoan Crawford and Gloria Grahame did not get along and got into a physical altercation at one point during the filming. The fight started after Grahame sat on the edge of the set during one of Crawford's close-ups and very loudly sucked a lollipop in an attempt to anger Crawford. It worked, and Palance noted that the all-male crew watched the fight for a few moments rather curiously before stepping in to break it up.With the intense Palance, she was mystified by his aloof moodiness and his commitment to then-revolutionary New York Actors Studio “Method”-school of acting. Watching Sudden Fear, the antipathy between the actors is probably a bonus, adding to the film’s sense of seething tension. Certainly, the trio of Crawford, Palance and Grahame is film noir heaven.  

/ “I was made to live for him … to die for him … but now I could KILL him!” / 

Ultimately, Sudden Fear succeeds as true gold-plated “star vehicle” designed to showcase the mood swings of Crawford to maximum advantage. (Note that Miss Crawford’s wardrobe gets its own separate screen credit, split into gowns, lingerie, furs and hats). Sudden Fear finds her at the height of her powers as a seasoned, authoritative mature actress. Crawford, of course, began her film career as a hungry young starlet in the silent cinema of the 1920 and there are powerful wordless sequences in Sudden Fear where Crawford is essentially drawing on that history of silent acting. Watch how Crawford uses just her eyes and facial expressions to convey her anguish when she listens in horror to the crucial tape recording in which Lester and Irene are heard planning her murder, or the later scene where she’s hiding in a closet (and tormented by that unforgettable mechanical toy dog!). As the perceptive critic Sheila O’Malley has eloquently extolled, “In her half-century career, Joan Crawford was a master of so many elements of her craft: gesture and silhouette (a lost art), using the shape of her body to tell the story (another lost art), stepping into key lights with emotions at full-throttle (lost art, etc.), as well as the eternal arts of great actresses through time: belief in the reality of the story, understanding her role on an intimate level and a fearlessness in showing qualities considered unladylike or unattractive (rage, ambition, envy).” All of these qualities are abundantly demonstrated in Sudden Fear.

It’s gratifying to see how Crawford continues to be rehabilitated in recent years as the memory of the reputation-destroying Mommie Dearest (both book and film) recedes in the popular imagination.  (Credit should also be given to Jessica Lange’s complex and nuanced, ultimately sympathetic depiction of Crawford in Ryan Murphy’s deluxe 2017 TV mini-series Feud: Bette and Joan). At her best, Crawford is utterly mesmerizing to watch. If ever anyone inquired, “What was the big deal about Joan Crawford?”, point them towards Sudden Fear.

The February 2019 film club:

Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s bar (Dalston’s most unique nite spot!) devoted to Bad Movies We Love (our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People), specialising in the kitsch, the cult and the queer!

Considering February is the month of Valentine’s Day, we’re presenting a love story: irresistible tear-jerking melodrama There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) by Hollywood’s undisputed maestro of deluxe “women’s pictures”, Douglas Sirk! Wednesday 20 February! Warning: this film is a masterpiece of romantic agony – you WILL cry! You bring the tissues, Fontaine’s will provide the cocktails!

There’s Always Tomorrow is unusual in the Sirk canon for two reasons: it focuses on the heartbreak of a man rather than a female protagonist. And it’s in black and white instead of Sirk’s trademark vivid Technicolour. Despite his outwardly perfect life, Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) is an affluent but unhappy Californian toy company executive in late middle age, taken for granted by his selfish family. Out of the blue, Norma Vail (Barbara Stanwyck), a former employee he hasn’t seen in years (now a chic and successful fashion designer) returns to his life – and represents one last chance at happiness. Will Clifford succumb to temptation? 

Doors to the basement Bamboo Lounge open at 8 pm. Film starts at 8:30 pm prompt. 

Event page.

Further reading:

Read my appreciation of Gloria Grahame in Human Desire (1954) - one of her definitive, masochistic roles - here. 

Read my reflections on Feud: Bette and Joan (2017) here.

Read my analysis of the 1956 Joan Crawford melodrama Autumn Leaves here.

Read Farran Smith Nehme's tribute to Crawford's performance in Sudden Fear here.

In August 2018 I spoke my brains to To Do List magazine about the wild, wild world of Lobotomy Room, the monthly cinema club – and my lonely one-man mission to return a bit of raunch, sleaze and “adult situations” to London’s nightlife! Read it - if you must - here. 
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