Friday, February 19, 2021

Classic Films in Focus: THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL (1934)

Adapted from the thrilling tales penned by Baroness Orczy in the first years of the twentieth century, The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) is an essential part of the swashbuckler genre even though it's not exactly an action picture. Instead, Leslie Howard and Merle Oberon, its stars, are primarily involved in the romantic difficulties that arise when couples keep secrets from each other, but their rocky relationship provides plenty of melodrama to make up for the missing fight scenes. The original novel's themes would become ingrained in later swashbucklers and super hero stories, but the 1934 version of The Scarlet Pimpernel is enjoyable for its own merits as well as its influence, and Leslie Howard is particularly fun to watch in his duplicitous role as the daring Pimpernel hiding behind the persona of a superficial fop.

Howard stars as the English gentleman Sir Percy Blakeney, who rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine in the bloodiest days of the French Revolution. To protect his mission, Percy presents himself as a vain, foolish lightweight in London, where French spies are doggedly trying to unmask the hero and his band. Even Percy's beautiful French wife, Marguerite (Merle Oberon), doesn't know the truth, which leaves her unhappy with her seemingly shallow husband. When the villainous Chauvelin (Raymond Massey) offers to trade Marguerite's captured brother for the Pimpernel, she doesn't know that her husband's life is on the line. Percy, meanwhile, launches his own effort to rescue his brother-in-law and other prisoners of Robespierre's merciless regime.

He might not be engaging in any sword fights, but Leslie Howard is very much the star of this picture, and he gives a delightful performance as both daring, brilliant hero and outrageously refined fop. The playboy act that hides a secret identity is, of course, well-known to fans of Zorro and Batman, but Howard's Percy takes pains to be as vapid and useless as possible. He abandons any interest in preserving his dignity or reputation, even to his own wife, mainly because he believes that she exposed a French family to arrest and execution before her departure from France. The tension between Howard and Oberon crackles as they alternately long for and distrust one another; they duel with sharp glances and burning hearts rather than swords, but they're really the chief combatants in this tale. Merle Oberon is perfectly cast as the passionate, fascinating Marguerite; we understand why Percy loves her even when he thinks the worst of her, and she carries the third act in truly heroic fashion. Sir Percy fights with his disguises and schemes rather than weapons, which makes him a more cerebral hero than some of his swashbuckling brethren, but his penchant for dressing up connects him with Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Zorro, and other clever tricksters, and the intellectual nature of the Pimpernel's heroism suits Howard really well.

While it eschews the violence of duels, The Scarlet Pimpernel endeavors to convey the horrors of the French Revolution as poignantly as possible, especially in the opening scenes of the film. You won't actually see heads chopped off and held high for the cheering crowds, but you might think you did because of the careful way the shots are constructed. The most powerful scene unfolds in the prison where the former aristocrats await their fate; the camera lingers especially on women and young children, some innocently playing or passing the time, others posed like martyrs with their eyes turned toward Heaven. Here we are introduced to Suzanne de Tournay (Joan Gardner) and her parents, whom the Pimpernel risks his own life to save. They help us invest in the plight of the overthrown aristocrats and sympathize with Sir Percy's cause even if we know the gross inequality and lofty ideals that first set the Revolution in motion. The movie ends with the Revolution still underway, but most people know that the mastermind, Robespierre, who in the film gives the fictional Chauvelin his orders, would meet the guillotine himself in 1794. By the end of the Reign of Terror, almost 17,000 people had been executed. 

A TV movie adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel appeared in 1982 and is beloved by many Gen Xers; it's well worth tracking down if you want a different take on the story. If you enjoy seeing Leslie Howard in quirkier roles, see It's Love I'm After (1937) and Pygmalion (1938). Howard returned to a Pimpernel inspired role in Pimpernel Smith (1941), this time rescuing victims of the Nazis in Germany. Don't miss Merle Oberon in The Dark Angel (1935), Wuthering Heights (1939), and The Lodger (1944). Harold Young, who directed The Scarlet Pimpernel, is not particularly well known today, but his career includes some minor horror entries like The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Frozen Ghost (1945), and The Jungle Captive (1945). 


Thursday, February 11, 2021

Classic Films in Focus: THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS (1960)

The notorious Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare supplied the insatiable cadaver market with "made to order" corpses in the early 19th century, and they've been nightmare fuel for popular culture ever since, with multiple horror films revisiting their crimes. Among these is The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), which benefits from the presence of Peter Cushing as the cadaver purchaser, Dr. Knox, and Donald Pleasence as the relentlessly amoral William Hare. Although the title is ultimately more lurid than the actual film, the continental cut of The Flesh and the Fiends justifies its X rating with plenty of topless female flesh and a couple of extended murder scenes that emphasize the victims' plight. It's not as glossy as some of the better Hammer horrors where Cushing became a genre icon, but this Triad version of a Hammer picture is worth watching if you're interested in historical horror or enjoy the particular appeal of a really devilish Donald Pleasence villain.

Cushing plays the real life receiver of the corpses, Dr. Knox, who doesn't much care how he gets the cadavers that supply his medical students with "subjects" for study. Knox's constant demand for fresh bodies keeps the local grave robbers busy, but Burke (George Rose) and Hare (Pleasence) stumble into the trade when one of Burke's lodgers dies still owing the rent, and Hare realizes that there's an easy way to turn the loss into a gain. Soon the pair are dispatching lodgers and locals at a brisk pace and lining their pockets with Knox's guineas, even as Knox's assistant, Dr. Mitchell (Dermot Walsh) begins to suspect the cadavers' origins. Meanwhile, Knox's troubled student, Chris (John Cairney), discovers a different part of Edinburgh's underbelly when he begins a romance with prostitute Mary (Billie Whitelaw), but the lovers prove to be too close to the murderers' orbit for their own good.

The performances of the main characters drive the interest here, with Rose and Pleasence like a comedy duo from hell as the opportunistic killers. They're almost cartoonish in their exaggerated appearance and mannerisms, but once they start knocking off their neighbors they become really unnerving. The attacks on Mary and Daft Jamie (both real victims of the historical killers) drive home the violence of the acts but also highlight the differences between the two murderers, with Hare feverishly unhinged and Burke brutally cruel. Both men are monsters without any humanity in them, but they're fascinating monsters nonetheless. Cushing provides some contrast to the pair as the erudite but ethically questionable doctor, with the actor as reliable as ever in his role. Still, the film pulls its punches with Knox, trying to invest him with some redeeming qualities through the devotion of his niece (June Laverick), his assistant, and his many students. Neither the situation presented in the picture nor the historical record justify Knox's escape from punishment for his part in the crimes, and the scenes of Knox's domestic life do nothing to advance the plot. Of the secondary characters, Mary is the most interesting and tragic, even though every viewer starts the picture knowing that a hard-drinking prostitute has very little life expectancy in this kind of story.

The Flesh and the Fiends would be a better picture without the niece's romantic subplot and with more emphasis on the other characters who aid or fall victim to the killers' schemes, and its artificial studio atmosphere doesn't do the sublime creepiness of period Edinburgh justice. The nudity of the continental cut was provocative for 1960 but pretty tame even by the standards of the 1970s and thus not a real concern for a modern audience. The horror of the murders and the sad fate awaiting the victims are the compelling elements of the story, although the rough justice meted out to the killers provides some satisfaction while also highlighting the extreme privilege that protects men like Knox. In short, this isn't the best Burke and Hare picture of the lot, and it's certainly not the best of Cushing's horror roles, but there's enough here to warrant a viewing for fans of the genre and its primary players. Pleasence alone is worth the time and effort required.

John Gilling, who wrote and directed The Flesh and the Fiends, also made The Gamma People (1956), Fury at Smuggler's Bay (1962), and The Mummy's Shroud (1967). If you're interested in more horror inspired by Burke and Hare, try The Body Snatcher (1945), Horror Maniacs (1948), Burke & Hare (1972), or Burke and Hare (2010). A visit to modern Edinburgh reveals the enduring appeal of the gruesome history of Burke and Hare, where you can find their crimes recreated at The Edinburgh Dungeon or see the actual skeleton of William Burke on display at the Anatomical Museum. You can also find walking tours devoted to tracing the steps of the murderers and their victims.


As of February 2021, The Flesh and the Fiends is available for streaming on the horror subscription service, Shudder.