Saturday, 22 January 2011

AFED #21: Dead Men are Dangerous (UK, 1938); Dir. Harold French. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Italy/Frace, 1956); Dir. Jean Delannoy

Now in its 45th season, the Gothique Film Society is a peculiar but quaint anachronism. The Society meets on Friday nights roughly monthly over the winter to screen obscure old horror, crime and suspense films. Many of these films, most regulars would admit, are not very good.

I've been attending the Gothique, on and off, for over five years now but am still one of the youngest there. A large number of the membership are pensioners and a few could be politely described as 'eccentric'. Like the dodgy projector (liable to break down at the most inopportune moments) and uncomfortable seats it's all part of the 'Gofeek' experience.

As usual tonight's event was a double bill. First up came Dead Men are Dangerous, an above average 'b' movie starring Robert Newton as a struggling and debt-ridden writer who fakes his death by switching his identity with that of a suicide victim.


After the police investigation reveals the man's suicide was actually killed Newton's character finds himself on the run for his own murder. To borrow one regular's adroit description it's like Reggie Perrin meets The Fugitive. Before long the true killers are also in pursuit, believing Newton may be in possession of the dead man's (presumably incriminating) diary.

Although the ending is ridiculously abrupt it's a fairly tight little suspense with a decent central performance. There are some notable set pieces, including a nighttime police manhunt through Hyde Park and it gives a sense of the kind of fervour and speculation a real-life murder mystery aroused in the thirties public. Newton's character can't turn his head without seeing headline or billboard about the crime, or passers-by idly speculating about the 'Templemere Murderer'. Whilst a dramatic device it also puts one in mind of George Orwell's nostalgia for pre-war tabloid journalism in his essay Decline of the English Murder.




The second and main feature was a 1956 adaptation of the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I can only assume there are virtues to Victor Hugo's original novel that have yet to make a successful transposition to celluloid as I've never understood its appeal to filmmakers.

Anthony Quinn stars as Quasimodo; less horrific than some versions of the character and sounding like a punch drunk Brooklyn boxer. As the object of his adoration Gina Lollobrigida's Esmeralda pouts, sways her hips and does her best to distract from her acting.

It's a turgid film, which probably explains why this version has lived in the shadow of the Chaney and Laughton adaptations. Too much time is spent on scenes which contribute little to the dramatic thrust and dwell on characters of no significance to the unrequited but doomed romance at the heart of the story. There are some interesting parallels to Esmeralda's trial as a witch and those being conducted under the auspices of Senator McCarthy but whether this was an intentional metaphor is difficult to judge.

Still, that's the Gothique in a nutshell. By definition of their obscurity these films are seldom classics but you're glad to have experienced them.

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