Martin Scorsese

Fearflix 38

Q (OR Q THE WINGED SERPENT)

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The film has two titles. The main suspect for the extended alternative title is Samuel Z Arkoff. He was the head of American International Pictures and the inspiration for the less than honest film producer in the cynical comedy Get Shorty. Q is dominated by the performance of Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn. When a critic suggested to Arkoff that the film Q consisted of ‘fine acting by Moriarty surrounded by dreck’, the notorious producer and Hollywood role model smiled and replied, ‘The dreck was me.’   As a title, Q was not likely to attract a B Movie audience.  Arkoff, or someone, added the Winged Serpent. Samuel Z Arkoff was a man who was financially responsible, or, as his friends would have said, cute.

Although financed by Arkoff, Larry Cohen wrote, produced and directed Q. Most of his movies were low budget horror and Blaxploitation. These genres and his films were aimed at specific audiences, and quality was not always important. The films, because they had a lot of action, did not require an attention span.  The young could giggle at cheap special effects and be glib about dodgy dialogue. Larry Cohen also wrote scripts for TV. His responsibility to the networks was to provide the familiar and routine. His script for Phone Booth was accepted by upper-tier Hollywood, and a half decent movie was the result. Made with a proper budget Phone Booth demonstrated that there was competent work inside the man. Cohen enjoyed, though, being in control and was happiest as lord and master of low budget productions. Larry Cohen made 27 movies and wrote, produced and directed most of them.

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It is tempting to compare Cohen with B Movie auteur Samuel Fuller. The two men were friends, and Fuller appeared in a Cohen movie. The comparison, though, flatters Larry Cohen who said that the most enjoyable aspect of movie making was the feeling of omnipotence. ‘I felt I was infallible,’ said Cohen. That attitude ensures things get done but it has unfortunate side effects including contempt for an audience and valuing risk taking over successful creation. These side effects are evident in Q the Winged Serpent. It is a bold B movie but uneven. Scenes are rushed, and the film lacks rhythm. If Cohen could have slowed the action just a little, he might have been given credit for anticipating the capricious anarchism of Japanese master filmmaker Takeshi Kitano. The Chicago policeman disguised as a mime artist is an eccentric moment worthy of a Kitano thriller.

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The plot of the film is this. A winged serpent nests in the roof of the Chrysler Building. When not eating Chicago citizens, the bird worries about his offspring.  Apart from being very big the flying serpent is more than a bird. The winged serpent is a God evoked by Aztec rituals that are being practised on the streets of Chicago by a really crazy looking character.  The same character is underdeveloped which may be why he likes to wear an Aztec mask. The notion of an irresponsible and not particularly useful God is the most interesting idea in the picture.  Jimmy Quinn, who is on the run from jewel robbers, discovers the nest in the Chrysler Building and leads the police to the roof. First, though, Quinn insists on being paid a million dollars. His main concern is not the welfare of the Chicago population but transforming his day-to-day existence. Cohen has been described as a social critic but there is little debate about the limits of American capitalism in Q. Yet the movie has a hard urban edge, and the atmosphere between people is sour. Expletives feature and are frequent. They do not relate to exasperation or surprised amusement as they do in films today. The expletives are snarled by the inarticulate and they exhibit the defiant contempt of the disillusioned. The one relationship that is analysed in the movie, that between Quinn and his girlfriend, is a failure between a decent woman and a man who is unwilling to understand and mitigate his limitations. The authorities agree to pay the million dollars to Quinn but they neither honour the deal nor show sympathy for potential victims. Their main concern is their accountability to voters and bosses.

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Michael Moriarty is lively and inventive as Quinn but not as good as some critics have suggested. His performance is inconsistent. In his defence Moriarty was obliged to incorporate improvised lines from Cohen as scenes were being filmed. At times Moriarty is like Richard Widmark and in others he resembles young Robert De Niro. Although the changing tone of Moriarty is hard work for the viewer it is unsurprising because the film is pitched somewhere between the post-war cynicism of Samuel Fuller and the post-modern despair of Martin Scorsese. Despite the wandering style of Michael Moriarty the role of Jimmy Quinn resurrects two characters played by Richard Widmark.  Quinn may be a hustler driven by the need for money but he has an unrecognised gift as a piano player.  In Night And The City the character played by Widmark is described as ‘an artist without an art’.  And in Pick Up On South Street, the Samuel Fuller noir masterpiece, Widmark was excellent as a hustler who, because of his desire and need for money, ignored pleas to consider the greater good.

Unlike other humans Jimmy Quinn is ignored by the winged serpent.  The similarity of the names, Q compared with Quinn, suggests that Cohen thinks of his failed hustler as a character above normal humanity, something similar to how James Joyce imagined ordinary man Leopold Bloom in mythic terms. Quinn the failure may be reprehensible but he will experience an odyssey beyond successful men. ‘I am afraid of many things but I have never been afraid of heights,’ says Quinn. The conformists use their existence to achieve success and climb the social scale. What the conformists who avoid the hardship of failure do not realise is that they have an inverted form of vertigo that prevents them from facing hardship and insecurity or, as it is often described, life in the gutter. The ambition of normal men and women is timidity and a sacrifice of adventure.

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Names are important to Cohen in Q. The deaths caused by the winged serpent are investigated by two detectives called Shepherd and Powell. David Carradine plays Shepherd, and Richard Roundtree is Powell, The somnambulism of Carradine may have inspired the later sleepy performances of Keanu Reeves. Roundtree has energy and aggression. Shepherd is a good cop because he realises the responsibility to his Chicago flock. He exists to protect and save lives. Powell is the bad cop, and his name indicates he is in the job because he has an unsavoury need for power. There will be no odyssey for conformist Powell.  But the conscience and sense of responsibility of Shepherd are important to the rapport he has with the low life man who can be compared to Ulysses.

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Although there are a couple of good lines in Q the dialogue is mainly grim. It does not help that the scenes are played too fast and dubbing is overused. Michael Moriarty and Candy Clark work hard to lift the routine dialogue in their scenes of domestic strife but their excess effort is one of the reasons their characters lack focus. At times Moriarty looks like a man impersonating a kaleidoscope. Admittedly Cohen has his tongue in his cheek but the characters apart from Jimmy Quinn are dull, and, although they should be uninspired so they can be compared with the vital energy of Quinn, the clichés that come out of their mouths could have been trimmed. Despite the failures there are moments in the script that do appeal.

Powell asks Shepherd, ‘Did you ever find that guy’s head?’

‘Oh, it’ll turn up,’ says Shepherd.

When the really crazy looking Aztec enthusiast is confronted in the middle of his attempt to skin his next victim and prepare a sacrifice, Shepherd orders the villain, ‘Drop that scalpel.’

Somebody hopes that the winged serpent will be tempted to leave Chicago and nest in New York.  He believes that this might happen ‘because New York is famous for good eating.’

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But that is about as good as it gets.   There is, though, a pleasure in watching dull men somehow prevail in impossible circumstances.   At the end of the film the actors look as surprised by the defeat of the winged serpent as the audience must have been.   The Chrysler Building is a good location, and its Gothic style suggests a natural home for an uncaring and ravenous God. The final shootout at the Chrysler Building reverses what happens in King Kong but the winged serpent, like Kong, has a poignant death on a nearby roof where his giant wings flap as he expires. Of course, Gods are not destroyed as easily as random birdlife, and the end of the film makes clear that the dull human victors, despite being good eggs, will have more battles to fight.

Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fearflix 20

The Uninvited 1944

USA

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Two tiny figures climb the rocks to the Cornish headland. Without wide-angle lens and sharp photography from ace Hollywood cameraman Charles B Lang, the man and woman would be no more than dots amidst rocks.   This opening shot is important. Although an American movie The Uninvited has an old-fashioned British sensibility. It reveals a time when many British doubted the significance of events and ideas and resisted taking themselves seriously. Self-effacement and resignation were regarded as valuable British characteristics.

The characters in The Uninvited are sophisticated but free of pretension. Modern audiences may find them dull. Horror requires neurosis but in The Uninvited this is restricted to Stella, and she is an adolescent and has a Spanish mother. The man who loves her is Roderick Fitzgerald. He is a music critic and a talented musician but he dismisses any praise of his ability. ‘I’m brilliant? Oh, I’ll put on sunglasses.’ Roderick refuses to think that he might be exceptional and he glories in being ordinary. The Uninvited was made in 1944, and Britain was at war. For a while being unassuming meant being steadfast. It was a key element in British culture. The audience know that Roderick is talented because he plays the piano and writes music. His sensitivity, which he denies, is obvious because his music changes when an unseen ghost affects the atmosphere in the room. The artist studio is the room that the ghost haunts. Art has value but it is not pretension free. The room threatens stability and integrity. The final triumph of Roderick is that he somehow settles down with a neurosis free girl and becomes a creative musician. If this is unlikely, the movie finishes with a good joke by Roderick. The line is in character and more believable than his destiny. Aware that he belongs to an extended family and a community that existed before him, Roderick remains humble. He will not challenge the values of his neighbours.

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The music in the film does more than add mood and emotion. The grandfather is harsh but, when Stella is threatened, he makes the difficult walk to the haunted house. Despite his vulnerable health he waits in the room that contains the ghost. The meeting between Stella and her grandfather inside the room is splendid. It captures the intense concern of old flawed protectors for innocent grandchildren burdened with the future. The grandfather is transformed from being stern and authoritarian to compassionate and human. His comic theme tune, which is heard earlier when he walks to church, prepares the audience for the transformation. Like the best soundtracks of Bernard Hermann, the music of Victor Young exists as alternative narrative and provides added characterisation. Stella By Starlight was the theme tune of the movie. It became a jazz standard and was covered by greats like Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon and Ella Fitzgerald.

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The British sensibility is retained despite a cast that mixes British and American actors. For the down to earth British of the past, health was more important than enlightenment.   In the film curiosity is a means to an end and not an important value. The doctor in the village plays an unusual and more important role than normal. His curiosity is valued because he will make people healthy and able to enjoy the blessed English countryside in which the brother and sister had appeared as dots in the opening shot. Not just the doctor but everyone in the film is concerned about the health of someone else. Most worry about Stella but she worries about her grandfather. At one point the welfare of the dog and cat are discussed. Pamela Fitzgerald the sister of Roderick even worries that the ghost might be suffering. In the early part of his career the actor Ray Milland was a casting alternative to Cary Grant. When young, Milland was handsome and was good at being balanced and healthy. Grant personified this British quality for American cinema audiences. Before him Sherlock Holmes had an impact on readers because his sensibility challenged British tradition. The intellectual curiosity of Holmes meant strange insecurity and poor health, which was why he needed his Doctor Watson. Nobody ever considered Grant for the part of Holmes, but he would have been perfect in The Uninvited.

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The apparitions that threaten the people in The Uninvited are inside the house and modest. At the end of the film a spirit appears in a spectral form as mist. Lewis Allen the director wanted the ghost to remain unseen but the image and special effect works. The ghost is threatening but also tortured and frustrated. The other effects consist of loud noises, flowers that wilt, restless pets, flickering candle flames and what the actors tell us about the change in temperature. The ghost wants to force Stella over the precipitous cliff at the bottom of the garden but there are no threats of mutilation and gory destruction. No one watching the film will doubt that Roderick will protect Stella and prevail. Nevertheless the film has chilling moments. The stylish photography, shadows that dwarf the actors and careful timing maintain the tension. James Agee wrote two classic books in his lifetime, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and A Death In The Family and the script of Night Of The Hunter. He was a tough critic but he was compelled to count the 35 tingles the film gave him. Most of us are not that sensitive but The Uninvited does scare audiences. Martin Scorsese and Guillermo del Toro both rate the film as exceptional. There is a moment in the climax when the French windows blow open. This should be a tame thrill but it makes the audience jump. The strength of the movie, and the reason that it affects viewers, is that its uncomplicated heroes are vulnerable to surprise. Their incurious natures are forced to face the inexplicable. We do not think they will die but we are afraid for them. The potential for trauma haunts and tests not just Stella but her confident friends.

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The film is based on the novel Uneasy Freehold, which was written by the Irish historian Dorothy McCardle. Apart from having appeal for estate agents the title also mocks modest middle class ambition. McCardle was an Irish Republican and a feminist. She wrote an account of the Irish War of Independence and later criticised the Irish Free State for the slow emancipation of women. The novel and the film have elements that also exist in Rebecca. A young naïve girl falls in love with an older man, an older woman is obsessed with a previous beautiful companion and the history of the house weighs down on everyone.   Both Rebecca and The Uninvited are influenced by the creations of Bronte in Jane Eyre. McCardle would have been sympathetic to the feminist ambition of Charlotte Bronte. She leans on the plot of Jane Eyre to explain why the ghosts haunt the house. The Uninvited, though, has surprises, and the denouement has a satisfying revelation.  Miss Holloway the villain is like Mrs Danvers in Rebecca but she is not as narrow as the fierce housekeeper that du Maurier imagined. The mistakes of Miss Holloway are human and, when she remembers the possibly lesbian bond between her and the dead beautiful companion, she is both sympathetic and defiant. Her name, though, is significant. Miss Holloway has progressed by creating a prison for those she thinks she is helping.

The actress Ruth Hussey was a smart wisecracking reporter in The Philadelphia Story.   In The Uninvited she plays Pamela Fitzgerald. It is obvious Hussey has brains but, because of the English accent and the script, she is subdued. Unlike her brother there is no evidence that she has a job or needs one.   The Uninvited mixes romance and horror. The two men who discover the truth about the ghosts will also claim their future wives. Both men are older than their women. This gap in age is acknowledged in the film. When the sister is critical of the interest Roderick has for Stella, he responds, ‘Stop sending her back to school. Stella is twenty.’ Feminists, though, have expressed concerns about the film. When she played the part, Gail Russell was the same age as Stella. Russell was a tragic case. Insecure and shy she used alcohol to hide her nerves when performing. This began during the filming of The Uninvited. Russell is not just twenty years old. She is a very young and awkward girl. Innocence is important for both character and plot. Russell, though, is not ready for marriage. Outside the movie Russell was not ready for anything. Her last movie appearance occurred when she was thirty-six years old.   By then her beauty was tarnished, and she died in the same year she made her final film. Four years earlier Russell, when drunk, had driven her car into the window of a coffee shop. Hussey has tougher fibre but has to settle for a husband that wears glasses. Feminist critics have seen the women as too dependent on male power. They have a point but, although the men in The Uninvited are capable of action, Roderick and the doctor need the support of women to survive and face what really frightens them, the inexplicable.   Hussey smoking a cigarette in the dark and explaining to her brother what is happening inside the house may not qualify as equality and emancipation. Impressive, though, it is.

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Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His next book Choke Bay will be available this summer. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.