26th 08 - 2015 | 2 comments »

Famous Firsts: Corridor of Mirrors (1948)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut feature film of: Terence Young, director

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Back in November 2008, Rod posted a “Famous First” on Dr. No (1962), which marked the first screen appearance of the James Bond character. The director of Dr. No was Terence Young, and so it is with some sense of continuity that I write about the first of many films in the long and successful career of this underrated British director who peaked in the 1960s with the Bond films, including From Russia with Love (1963) and Thunderball (1965), as well as The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965), Wait Until Dark (1967), and Mayerling (1968).

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Young began his film career as a screenwriter, most notably penning the scripts for On the Night of the Fire (1939), Dangerous Moonlight (1941), A Letter From Ulster (1942), and Theirs Is the Glory (1946), which were directed by his good friend, the Belfast-born director Brian Desmond Hurst. On the Night of the Fire is often considered a good example of early British noir, and this film may have given Young a few ideas about the look he wanted when it came his turn to direct. Shot in Paris, Corridor of Mirrors has the moody shadows and skewed camera angles of a proper film noir. However, it offers a story reminiscent of the horror/thriller Vertigo (1958) of a man searching for a lost love and creating a living woman in her image. Further, there may have been something lingering in the air from the fantasy films the French made when the Germans occupied their country during World War II. Corridor of Mirrors is a dreamy, gorgeous film that, whether Young intended it or not, rips the veil off the nightmare of the Occupation that the subjugated French banished from their filmmaking, making it something much closer to gothic horror film than noir.

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The film starts with the noirish voiceover of our female protagonist, Mifanwy Conway (Edana Romney), a half Italian-half Welsh country wife and mother who tells us that she is hiding a dark secret that puts a lie to her respectability—she is leaving for a few days to meet her lover, who has been writing to her persistently for the past few months. Her rendezvous is to take place at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in the creepy chamber of the notorious that contains lifelike French nobility having their heads lopped off during the Reign of Terror. We look around for her lover and are surprised when she reaches up to take the hand of a wax figure. His is the likeness of Paul Mangin (Eric Portman). We won’t learn what he did to earn a place at the wax museum until much later, once Mifanwy finishes her reminiscence of the strange and intense affair that began in a nightclub when she first saw his fascinating face and determined that she had to get to know him.

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Paul is fabulously wealthy and lives in an enormous and opulent mansion, surrounding himself with rare and beautiful items. His particular passion is for 15th-century Venice, and he preserves all the courtly charms of that bygone era. He drives Mifanwy to his home in a hansom cab and compliments her unconventional dress as being in keeping with his own anachronistic tastes—but he can’t abide her cigarette habit. She returns several times to his home, and one day finds herself alone in it, save for the discreetly hidden servants, and invited by note to have a look around. She discovers a corridor of mirrored doors, behind which are lavish period dresses and jewelry. Unable to resist, she tries one on and is admiring herself when Paul comes up behind her and finishes the look with the necklace and tiara that accompany it. He has had all of these costumes made for the day the woman of his dreams appears; of course, that woman is Mifanwy, the spitting image of the Italian spitfire who made his life a living hell when they both lived previous lives in Renaissance Venice.

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This twist definitely tips Corridor of Mirrors into the horror category, with Paul offering a strong model for the genteel type of Dracula that would become a staple of England’s Hammer Studios, a strangely apt approach considering that this marked Christopher Lee’s big-screen debut, as a party-hearty companion of Mifanwy and her night-clubbing friends. Further, we have a Renfield character in the form of Edgar Orsen (Alan Wheatley), the designer of those fabulous garments who hates Paul for dallying with his lover, Caroline (Joan Hart), but remains chained to his generous patronage. We’re even offered a crazy housekeeper (Barbara Mullen) for the purposes of plot and added menace.

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French cinematographer André Thomas is really the making of the film, setting up a genuine air of romance and dread that carries it through to its somewhat ridiculous conclusion. The first dance between Mifanwy and Paul is a whirl, like a spider slipping a very delicate web around its prey. Who is the predator and who is the prey doesn’t really seem to matter as both people look equally in thrall. The benign first scene in the corridor of mirrors gives way to fear and confusion as Mifanwy’s panic at Paul’s delusions about past lives and worries about his stability have her running through the corridor anxiously looking for the door that will aid her escape, but being confronted by blank-faced mannequins at every turn and reflections of madness. She learns her laugh disturbs Paul, and the sound design of her echoing laugh in Paul’s head matches the multitude of mirror images Thomas captures.

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The script, partially written by Romney, is kind of a mess when it comes to her own character. We are supposed to think Mifanwy is a modern girl who is simply intrigued by Paul’s world and whose cruelty matches that of the ancient Italian she resembles down to the last detail, signaled by her attraction to a poison bottle a la Lucrezia Borgia in Paul’s display case. The switch is neither well-planned nor well-executed, and the consequences of her rejection don’t strike the tragic note they probably should have—and certainly not with the grotesque happy ending the film has in store for us.

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If this and other implausible plot twists are redeemed at all, it is because Eric Portman is such a magnetic and pleasant character to spend 90 or so minutes with. The lavish costume ball he throws to celebrate the rediscovery of his lost love is absolutely enchanting, and Young and company achieve that difficult task of making us feel as though we have really entered another time occurring within our own, as opposed to watching a straight period piece that can be viewed more dispassionately. Thomas and Portman pay close attention to the faces of the players, a handsome and exotic bounty that does much more to put the story across than the expensive-looking sets. All in all, Corridor of Mirrors casts a rather intoxicating spell that fans of classic and horror films should find worthwhile.

Grade
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8th 06 - 2009 | 4 comments »

Lovely by Surprise (2007)

Director/Screenwriter: Kirt Gunn

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There’s great appeal to stories in which imaginary characters take on a life of their own. How magical that an imaginary, perhaps idealized world can suddenly become real! Of course, the flip side of that wonder is the fact that when our real and imagined lives start to cross, we most likely have lost our marbles. Stranger Than Fiction was a comedy that took the easy way out of this dilemma by having the fictional character at the center of the film, relieving his creator of charges of lunacy. Lovely by Surprise centers on a first-time novelist whose characters escape from her book because she has been untrue to herself. This much more serious literary and human dilemma adds depth to the fanciful wish-fulfillment that stories of this type traffick in.

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Marian (Carrie Preston) has been consulting with Jackson (Austin Pendleton), her former writing teacher, about her work in progress. As Marian reads to Jackson, we see her main characters, brothers Humkin (Michael Chernus) and Mopekey (Dallas Roberts), dressed only in their undershorts, on a ship in the middle of an open plain. They fish for their food, fearing a shark at the end of the hook, but bringing up boxes of cereal time and again. They spend their days opening these boxes to get the prizes inside, waiting for a driver to deliver milk so they can eat the cereal, playing word games, and watching television. Marian says Mopekey is happy to stay on the ship, but that Humkin wants to explore the world. Jackson thinks the book has promise but that it lacks a central conflict. He tells Marian that she should have Mopekey kill Humkin for wanting to leave him behind. Marian is deeply disturbed by this idea, saying that her book is about optimism; Jackson calls her a coward and insists that’s what the book needs. She says she will think about it.

The scene shifts to a salesman named Bob (Reg Rogers) sitting behind a desk talking with a customer about buying a car. Bob tries to assuage the customer’s uncertainty with soothing, medium-pressure tactics. When he convinces the man to buy the car, Bob changes course and asks him if he really wants, really needs a new car. His old car is full of wonderful memories, isn’t it? He’s missing quality time at home with his family right now by sitting with Bob discussing a deal, isn’t he? The man agrees and leaves without buy a car.

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Bob’s boss Dave (Richard Masur) displays fatherly concern for his good friend, who we learn has recently lost his wife, gives him a pep talk, and tells him he’s two hours late in retrieving his 6-year-old daughter Mimi (Lena Lamer) from school. Bob fetches Mimi, who, also traumatized, has been refusing to speak. He gives confusing instructions about who will make dinner, drops her off on the street to walk home, and goes back to the dealership. When another customer flees after Bob scares him away with admonishments to spend time with his loved ones before it’s too late, Dave confiscates Bob’s company car and promises to return it the minute Bob makes a sale.

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These two stories, which not only seem disparate in focus, but also in time—Marian in the present and Bob wearing leisure suits and selling 1970s cars—come together when Humkin, destined to die under the milk truck, runs “like a rocket” right into Bob’s dealership. Bob, who has been warned he must not scare another customer away, takes the scantily clad Humkin for a test drive. Finding Humkin to be rather insane, Bob takes him home for the night. Mimi is delighted with Humkin, and soon starts to come out of her shell. Marian, in the meantime, is going frantic looking for Humkin (“the best part of me”), whom she realizes after finding sheets of paper scribbled with dialogue strewn around her apartment, is now alive and fleeing from her.

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Lovely by Surprise maintains a delicate balancing act, keeping the audience confused about the direction of the story for quite some time, while offering clues to the observant viewer as to what Bob and Marian have in common. It’s fairly easy to stay with the film because screenwriter and first-time director Kirt Gunn has created a very likeable cast of characters. Bob and Dave, beautifully played by veteran character actors Rogers and Masur, look like used-car salesmen and speak in the clipped patois so reminiscent of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross hucksters. But Bob and Dave are warm, kind men, and it’s hard to imagine that they live down to the reputation of their profession. Bob’s pain and frustration with Mimi, needing her to console and likewise console him, never really become explosive or scary.

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Marian is a person anyone can relate to—though, of course, writers will relate to her most closely. She’s young, trying something hard, something that requires her to dig deep into unexplored areas. Her fear drives her to seek the advice of a man who not only can’t do what she can, but also wishes to seduce her. Austin Pendleton always seems a bit slimy just by the shape of his front teeth, and his Jackson is pushy and offhand with Marian, but he also manages to come through for her. For that matter, Jackson’s dizzy wife Helen, wonderfully played by Kate Burton, knows when to be drunk and when to be sober; she’s never as oblivious as Jackson or the audience may think.

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I absolutely adored Humkin. He spouts nonsense that he’s learned from the television, and is an utter innocent. But he knows what has been happening to him and understands what Bob needs to do to reach Mimi. He’s comic, and huggable, and certainly is the best part of Marian, that is, if she wishes to remain a child.

I thought the script was very well written, cleverly constructed, and varied in tone to create the two worlds Marian and Bob inhabit. I also liked the use of the Memphis locations, perfectly chosen to reflect the fantasy world of Humkin and Mopekey, the suburban milieu of Bob, and the intellectually rarified world of Jackson and Helen. I even liked Marian’s garret!

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But there was just something missing. The story Gunn tells is moving, yet I felt fairly unmoved. I liked and cared about these characters, but my feelings just didn’t go very deep. Carrie Preston is very sweet as Marian, but like her character, she may have shied from taking that leap of faith to the underlying emotions that power her story. Yes, this film was surprising and lovely, but it was perhaps just a bit too delicate.


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