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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29th 08 - 2006 | 3 comments »

Audrey Rose (1977)

Director: Robert Wise

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

When Robert Wise was given the assignment late in his career to direct this film of an apparent reincarnation “gone wrong,” he was well prepared for the task. During his long career, Wise directed many tales of the eerie, such as the brilliant The Body Snatcher (1945) and The Haunting (1963). He also directed some of the finest women’s films around, including I Want to Live! (1958) and So Big (1953). He also created two classic science fiction films, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Andromeda Strain (1971). His respect for the subject matter of each of these disparate genres, his knowing direction of the women in his films, and the skill he brought to bear to create the appropriate mood for any story come together in Audrey Rose, a disturbing film that stands with the best of his work.

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From the very beginning, Audrey Rose juxtaposes a happy, privileged family in New York City with a stranger in their midst. At first, that stranger can only be noticed by the observant viewer who doesn’t glaze over during the first few minutes of a movie. As Janice Templeton (Marsha Mason), her husband Bill (John Beck), and their 11-year-old daughter Ivy (Susan Swift) walk and play in Central Park, a figure in a trench coat makes passing appearances–standing beside a tree, sitting among the empty seats of the park’s bandshell. Later, this figure, a man with an enormous beard, stands outside Ivy’s school. Janice notices him and becomes spooked, sure that he is after Ivy. She reports the encounter to Bill, whose entreaties to the police to protect their daughter cannot be acted upon; the stranger has done nothing but appear in public places, and there’s no law against that.

As concerned as Janice is about the stranger, she is even more concerned about Ivy. Her daughter has been having nightmares and screaming fits, which occur around her birthday. These fits seem to have intensified over the years, and neither Janice nor Bill have made headway against them. One day, Janice is late meeting Ivy after school. She searches the school, then sees Ivy run down an alley. She calls out, but Ivy doesn’t answer. She chases Ivy into a dead end, but Ivy has vanished. When she turns around, she sees the stranger. He approaches her and says he is sorry for all the subterfuge and the disguise, but he had to be sure before they met.

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The Templetons receive a Who’s Who clipping in the mail that identifies the stranger as respected scientist Elliott Hoover (Anthony Hopkins), an apparent attempt to show he is not a crackpot. Eventually, the Templetons consent to meet him at a restaurant. There he tells them a tragic story of a car accident 11 years before that claimed the lives of his beloved wife and 5-year-old daughter Audrey Rose. Wise showed us this horrific accident in the opening sequence of the film. The car plunged down a ravine, rolled, and burst into flames. Hoover tells of his long period of mourning, broken when two spiritualists said that his wife’s spirit was at peace but that Audrey Rose was alive. He recounts his odyssey in India where he studied Hinduism and came to believe in reincarnation. Then Hoover drops the bomb. He believes that Ivy Templeton is the reincarnation of his daughter, a “wrong” reincarnation that happened before her soul was able to come to terms with her short life and violent death. Bill and Janice’s sympathy turns to anger, and they storm out of the restaurant and warn him to stay away from them and Ivy.

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Of course, Hoover does no such thing. He comes to their home and talks his way in. The home is exactly as the spiritualists had described it. He is more sure than ever that Audrey Rose’s spirit is alive in Ivy. He tells Janice that medical examiners determined that Audrey Rose lived a full five minutes after the car stopped rolling, was burned, and died of smoke inhalation. He gives his daughter’s time of death. Janice reveals that Ivy was born a mere two minutes later. While he is there, Ivy has another screaming fit. Hoover calls to Audrey Rose as Ivy screams for “Daddy,” and is able to soothe her. Janice is starting to doubt her own beliefs. Bill warns her not to be taken in and to keep Hoover well away from their home.

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Hoover attempts to come by again. Janice tells the doorman to refuse his entry. But then Ivy has another fit. She starts banging on the windows of her bedroom. The palms of her hands are burned, though a cold autumn rain is pelting the windows. Frantic, Janice tells the doorman to let Hoover in. He is able, once again, to calm her. Janice is starting to believe his story, but Bill is furious, feeling usurped as the father of Ivy and head of the household. He insists that Ivy needs psychiatric help, nothing more.

Ivy has another uncontrollable fit. Hoover appears again, but this time he removes her from the apartment. The doorman confirms that Hoover has sublet an apartment in the building. When Bill brings the police to Hoover’s door, Hoover is arrested on a kidnapping charge. The rest of the film revolves around his highly publicized trial, which ends in a dramatic attempt by the prosecution to debunk Hoover’s reincarnation defense—a past-life regression under hypnosis.

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Reincarnation, Indian mysticism, and past-life regression were all the rage in the 1970s, when Frank De Felitta’s 1975 book, Audrey Rose, became a runaway best seller, and at the time this film was made, giving Audrey Rose a ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Never during the film, adapted for the screen by De Felitta, are the acts of the apparently reincarnated Audrey Rose surrounded by excessive “spookiness” or violence, which keeps the story from devolving into the horror film it somewhat resembles in storyline and set-up—The Exorcist (1973). Anthony Hopkins seems a bit too twitchy for my tastes, a bit too effete and intense. He was not yet completely in control of his technique, but nevertheless, we get the sense of a man shattered by grief and galvanized by a belief that events seem to justify.

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John Beck, who has the thankless task of being the blustering heavy, actually comes across as a loving family man fighting for custody of his child against a man who has a claim that his wife comes to believe is legitimate. He is frustrated that Ivy runs to Hoover instead of him in her time of need, though when she is fully Ivy, she considers Bill to be her father. Indeed, she never really knows that Hoover thinks she is his daughter, because she only comes to him as Audrey Rose in her death throes. Susan Swift performs this emotional trauma over and over with utter conviction and fearlessness.

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Marsha Mason is the real revelation in this film. I’m used to seeing her in lighter fare from Neil Simon, but I always recognized that she has a prodigious acting talent. Wise gets it all out of her and then some. She moves through a wide range of emotions believably and seamlessly, and comes to her belief in Audrey Rose honestly and with an enormous amount of love for her daughter. Wise’s respect for the feminine point of view, developed on the women’s films he directed, prevents Janice from being a mere foil for the men in the film or a flaky dupe.

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This film comes down squarely on the side of reincarnation and the danger of meddling in matters of the spirit. As such, the ending is a bit too pat and optimistic, the only betrayal of the truth the film creates within its unique point of view. I was thrilled to be reminded what a wonderful director Robert Wise was. Audrey Rose is a lesser-known but no lesser effort from the master.


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