WAIT FOR THE MOMENT WHEN: Googie Withers…

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…puts her head in the gas oven at the climax of IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY. Not that the act itself is shown – not in 1947 – but we see the well-known dreadful preparations, so that for years I believed I had actually seen Mrs Sandigate kneeling on the kitchen floor and resting her head on a shelf. It was the much-whispered-about preferred method of suicide in my childhood: my grandmother talked about people making their last minutes more comfortable with a velvet cushion on the rack and trying to take the family pet with them – “but the cat jumped out”. There’s just such a cushion in Googie’s kitchen.

Unluckily for her, poor Rose Sandigate is discovered in time: she’s been found out sheltering her convict ex-lover in her husband’s house and now faces two years’ hard labour for aiding and abetting as well as prosecution for the suicide attempt. It’s a bleak ending only partially softened by the sop of having the cuckolded George (Edward Chapman)¤ sitting supportively by her hospital bed (” how are we’re going to get along without you?”) – but the uncompromising closing shot of the Tube station grille superimposed on her face reminds us of Holloway looming. We saw this railing before, at the start of the film: all the hapless denizens of Bethnal Green are caught like rats in the tightest of traps.

Googie is, as usual, superb with her magnificent Marie Antoinette profile, rich roughened contralto and heaving bosom. She was thirty but plays at least ten years older with the aid not of make up but with an air of quiet dark desperation which turns to panic when Tommy Swann¤¤ turns up soaked and starving in the Anderson shelter. Her hoarse laconic grimness (“What’s for breakfast?” “Haddock” ) is contrasted by a short flashback showing her in the old days as the flowery blonde barmaid at “The Two Compasses” who slips on rotter Tommy’s undoubtedly stolen engagement ring. Then he’s nabbed for a smash and grab, flogged to “a lump of raw meat”¤¤¤ and banged up. Rose marries an elderly widower, takes on his two teenage daughters (one nice, one nasty) and has her own son, Alfie, who has to sleep in the parlour. Nowadays I think she’s faute de mieux enjoying the “How To Become a Virgin” syndrome outlined by Quentin Crisp: a Madonna and Child hangs over her marital bed, while through the partition the girls’ walls are pasted with snaps of Larry Olivier, Bing Crosby and the like.

This is the East End at the nadir of post-war austerity; everything’s on the ration and everyone’s on the make. “A dose of salts or a good hiding” is the answer to any domestic difficulty. The house seethes with frustrated female sexuality as Vi (Susan Shaw) comes home “stinking. Fella took me to a road house……didn’t get back till after 3!” She falls into bed in her dance frock, but is later up to paint her toenails in the kitchen. “Tarting yourself up to meet your boyfrends – nice way to spend a Sunday morning” snorts her stepmother. Indeed. And, by a horrid irony, in the very next shot Rose discovers her own lover lurking in the shelter. Whereas George – presumably impotent – sublimates himself in pub culture, food and darts: and, of course, the only time he scores a bullseye Rose is not there to see…

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Other innuendoes are not so subtle. There’s a memorable exchange of rudery between Sidney Tafler as the saucy saxophonist – “the man with sax appeal” – and Susan Shaw who’s in want of a record*: “You come round to the shop in the morning and I’ll give you one….”. (The censor asleep again and much sniggering in the one and nines). Hermione Baddeley** indulges in a showy piece of bottom-scratching-acting as Mrs Spry, doss-house madam: worth noting because we see Maureen Delaney use exactly the same shtik in ODD MAN OUT (also 1947). I wonder which lady thought of it first.

The contemporary trailer for IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAYS is lurid in its implications to a degree, and of course once Tommy Swann is smuggled out of the shelter and up to the bedroom it is only a matter of time before Rose has sex with him. This is implied only by a lingering kiss, a fade out and the high-lighting of a sateen eiderdown. But then comes the poignancy of Rose bringing out that old cherished engagement ring and offering it to Tommy to fund his getaway. In a heartbreaking exchange reminiscent of Joan Fontaine’s fantasies in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948) Tommy fails entirely to recognise the ring or its significance:

“Nice stone – oughta fetch quite a bit. Where’d you get it?”

“Had it given”

Director Robert Hamer (an old hand with Googie) and producer Michael Balcon (Daniel Day Lewis’s grandfather) pile on the detail almost too richly in this uniquely British flim noir/cinema realiste, the influence of which, I suppose, finally dwindled down to TV derivatives such as Queenie’s Castle, Dixon + East Enders. But British postwar cinema was able to surpass any of these for cold grimness and the blackest humour. A subplot about stolen roller skates has Tommy Handley beating an avaricious old fence** to death – his false teeth fly shockingly and comically into a puddle with the violence of the blow: the murderer is hauled off to begin the inevitable passage to the gallows. The terrible and wonderfully lit scene# in the shunting yards as Tommy Swann tries to decapitate himself under a rolling truck is strong meat. Two abortive suicide bids, the failures of the failed: neither Tommy not Rose are allowed to escape the law by leaving life as and when they choose. The trap motif, once again: like the hutched rabbit fattening for the pot in the back yard of 26 Coronet Grove.

There’s a vindictive pansy newspaper reporter; and, anticipating Julian and Sandy by 15 years, we hear a bit of Polari from John Slater. Then IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY is also notable for its time in featuring explicitly Jewish characters, humour and and extensive expressive use of Yiddish to heighten the atmosphere. Youth Club organiser Bessie Hyams is the only character in the piece who seems to have any warmth for a Bethnal Green that everyone else is longing to get away from.

“What’s wrong with the East End anyway?”

“It smells”

“Certainly it smells – markets & fish shops & pubs….”

Of honest life and labour she means; and not of cheating, fleecing, dodging and fraud from infancy onwards. Sources of other odours are liberally scattered through the screenplay: the action takes place on March 23rd## so we see masses of daffodils which incidentally contribute to three plot devices. Roast beef (“bit overdone”) and Mrs Watson’s lamb (with mint sauce) are prepared for lunch; in her anguish, Rose leans too heavily on the pastry. Then there’s tea, coffee, bread & marge, cheese, Bessie’s strudel, sausage rolls, ham sandwiches, vegetables and gravy, beer, Guinness, Scotch, “rasher and bubble”: “just some grub, Rosie, that’s all I want”. 1947 audiences had not eaten well for eight years and were ravenous. We have talked already about the haddock. Imagine the redolence of that wafting through a damp bomb-damaged two-up, two-down on a wet Sunday morning.

“Greedy old bag!”

I’ll leave you with some more abiding olfactory images: the hung-over Vi crawling out of bed in that frock she’s danced and then slept in – and draping it on a hanger, ready for next time. (She washes her person and her undies in a bath in the kitchen). And then Sidney Tafler smoking and exhaling a cloud of tobacco preparatory to kissing Vi on the mouth. Finally, one can’t help think of George finding a very funny smell in his bed, what with Tommy having being in it all day after twelve hours on the run from Dartmoor and all that rain, sweat, sex and spilled gravy…

Disconcerting.

GOOGIE WITHERS 1917 – 2011

¤ once beaten up in a theatre dressing room by Olivier for slandering Gielgud.

¤¤ Australian actor John McCallum: Googie’s husband in real life. They were courted during filming, married in 1948 and died within months of one another in 2010 -11. Australia’s Golden Show Biz Couple – McCallum’s memoirs were endearingly entitled Life With Googie.

¤¤¤ it’s a nasty jolt to realise we were still giving prisoners a taste of the cat in 1947. More frivolously, McCallum’s naked torso as he shows off his scars reminds us very forcibly of a time when today’s universal gym phenonemon was entirely unknown.

* and guess what? When the credits roll we see this catchy tune is ‘Theme Without Words’, specially composed by Marlene’s old Berliner pal of the 1920’s, Mischa Spoliansky.

** the noisy maid in MARY POPPINS; the even noisier Ida in BRIGHTON ROCK.

*** the usually motherly Gladys Henson has a couple of lines as the victim’s tarty wife. She comes to the door on a Sunday afternoon in close-fitting satin and bracelets: hung with stolen jewellery.

#and the fabulous music by Georges Auric

# do you think there might be some Easter parable mixed up in this? There are certain clues…

You spoke of a room, a lovely room…

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Which is your favourite room of the house? I was told many years ago by a woman in analysis that my preference for living in the bedroom was a Bad Sign. She took me to task for making it a retreat from life, an opting out, exacerbated by my bedroom being at the rear of the flat, looking out over gardens and remote from the world. I should have been in the sitting-room, gazing down on a busy street, my blood thrumming in harmony with the traffic: not lulled by Hungarian goose feathers and muffled by pillows, a bottle of cologne tucked under the coverlet.

Well, at least I wasn’t living in the bathroom as Maria Callas did in her final years. I delighted in defying all these Freudian strictures and still love to make a cocoon of my bedroom which I can arrange exactly as I choose with all my favourite things about me and all my perfumes stacked in a deep dark drawer. It’s good to come in and find a memory of your current favourite hanging in the air. I like the informality of a bedroom, in the manner of an C18th print: an artful dishevellment, a private laxity in a room where shoes are not worn – or never should be, though I am constantly amazed that when folk throw themselves on beds or sofas on tv or in films they NEVER remove the footwear which has trekked in the muck of the streets.

You can see from the makeover shows and the magazines (not to mention the estate agents) that the kitchen is now more than ever the heart of the house. I’m all for this, although in this eccentric world of ours it seems to me that the bigger and better the kitchen the less people use it to actually cook in. Kitchens should be full of delicious smells, not just of meals in preparation but of warmth, stored ingredients, spicy dry goods, flowering plants, cleanliness and fresh air. We still bottom through here, with mop and bucket – I always get a Pavlovian jolt at the clang of a metal pail and the hot tang of Flash (or Flash-type cleanser) which takes me back over 50 years. Flash used to come in powder form in a packet: sodden, gritty and lumpy, emitting a strong smell of damp cardboard and bleach. Nowadays it streams liquid gold, the colour and scent of lemons, full of citronella, easy-to-pour from the bottle.

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Kitchen windows: keep them open! Florence Nightingale was a a great one for stressing the importance of having rooms sufficiently warm for health but simultaneously well-aired at all times. Nowadays there is a pleasing vogue for aptly scented candles in the kitchen – mint, lemon, herbs ,woods all go good. Don’t – obviously- burn a candle in a draught or by an open window: it will flare and sputter and the wax will burn unevenly. But what you can do is, create a little protective niche away from the air flow and have your candles there, quite still and safe, while the outdoors streams in and blends in. The scent of a coming meal in a kitchen is a perfect heaven; the odour of one long gone is a most unappetising thing. And I have noticed that since ‘No Smoking’ became the rule even the grandest of fine dining eateries often smell dismayingly of old stale food: the staff no longer throw the doors & windows wide to sweeten the place as they were happy to do in the days of brimming ashtrays and cigar butts. Nowadays when I enter a restaurant what I first take notice of is not menu, decor or staff promptitude but the smell.

I wonder if all the above has something to do with my wariness of a dining room. This is the room I have always instinctively avoided in a house. When I was a tot, the dining room had an alien remoteness about it: children ate there only on Christmas Day; adults occasionally held mysterious dinner parties, heard from the stairs but never actually witnessed. Dinner parties announced by peals of over-excited laughter, fumes of drink and loud exotic perfumes floating upwards to the bedroom landings. One might find short-lived traces of strange feasts in the dining room next day – a bowl of walnuts; rich crumbly forbidden Roka biscuits in a sharp-edged blue and yellow tin which hurt small fingers (“it does serve you right: those are for your father”); muddied decanters covered in stars like the ones that go mad in “Alice”. Otherwise the room reverted to its chilly solitary state. We ate in the kitchen: the dining room was used an occasional study by my father’s typist, a storage space and, in the very early days, as a television room.

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So there’s an eye-opener! – and I remember other households like ours in the late 1950’s. A tv set was (with qualms) subscribed to, but – as something slightly shameful – was hidden away in the dining room for limited viewing. “We have it for the children”: the children who were reluctant to sit in that unwelcoming chamber – a room as unnatural, unfriendly and stiff as best clothes – to watch it. It was only when Coronation Street and That Was The Week That Was arrived post-1960 that the television was promoted to the sitting room and the old social contract crumbled. Meanwhile the dining room was left abandoned once more.

The gloom of this room has nothing to do with decor or lighting – I have known dining rooms flooded with sunlight through French windows, opening onto gardens and terraces, furnished in ice-blue satin or pink leather and hung with ivy-patterned chintz. Some of them lovely and elegant but few of them exactly welcoming or inviting one to linger. The ones that do work are what I’ll call supper rooms, intimate cosy snuggeries just by the kitchen. Does anyone have an unnatural aversion to a particular room? I think my dislike of state dining rooms has something to do with an over-solemn approach to food, a business that’s always irritated me. More practically, the dinner loses essential heat as it is trundled down the draughty hall. And maybe too there’s a essential tristesse about a room devoted entirely to eating and the sustenance of the body but lacking the creativity and bustle of the kitchen.

‘Shall we join the ladies?’

WAIT FOR THE MOMENT WHEN: Bette Davis…

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…beautiful, blind and dying, plants the hyacinth bulbs in DARK VICTORY ; expires in the throes of syphilis in OF HUMAN BONDAGE; crazed for drink smashes open the cocktail cabinet in DANGEROUS; watches Herbert Marshall die on the stairs in THE LITTLE FOXES; goes bananas in the witness box in BORDERTOWN… . The First Lady of the Screen had so many extraordinary moments during a career of over 50 years that LW hardly knows where to begin. Let’s draw a bow at a venture and watch Bette at her zenith in one of her smoothest, most satisfying pictures NOW,VOYAGER (1942): a great cast, capable director & thrilling Max Steiner score, not to mention the leading lady’s lifelong approval of the finished product (very rare).

Fascinating movie: a glossy smoothly- buffed soap opera with a veneer of Hollywood’s then obsession with psychology & psychoanalysis. (What prompted this trend anyway? The trauma of the Second World War?). Or is NOW, VOYAGER in fact the other away about – an entire medical library of neuroses dressed up in Orry Kelly couture and sprays of camellias? My DVD bears the incomprehensible caveat “contains mild sexualised nudity”. In fact there IS no nudity, sexualised or otherwise, but there are a great many pools of dark deep water. Electra complexes¤, eating disorders, constant drinking – alcohol used as a crutch*/ “pre-drinking” – frustrated sexuality, mental sadism, broken marriages, adultery, unwanted pregnancies, unlimited guilt.

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NOW, VOYAGER is also a vast chocolate box of soft centre wish-fulfilment. Davis as the unkempt and sexually repressed spinster Charlotte Vale – ” ‘introverted, Doctor ‘” – in the grip of a nervous breakdown is transformed by psychiatrist Claude Rains (and unlimited money) into a glamorous femme du monde**. Furnished with trunks of stunning gowns Charlotte is sent on a cruise to Brazil*** where she is seduced by purring, sensitive, unhappily married Jerry (Paul Henried). In one of the many mirror images of the narrative we see that this is the second memorable cruise of Charlotte’s life: as an attractive girl she was deflowered by a ship’s officer and subsequently imprisoned – actually + emotionally – at home by her monstrous mother, Gladys Cooper•. In South America, Charlotte’s incandescent sexual fulfillment is thwarted once again, but now she sublimates her love for Jerry in caring for his highly disturbed daughter – in whom of course she sees herself as a child. At which point the movie becomes weirdly familiar as we recall similar plots and themes from other Davis hits which revolve around tormented or problematic motherhood, both actual and surrogate: THE OLD MAID, THE GREAT LIE, WATCH ON THE RHINE, ALL THIS AND HEAVEN TOO, THAT CERTAIN WOMAN, THE CORN IS GREEN, THE CATERED AFFAIR,THE NANNY, THE ANNIVERSARY…there are others.•• One may not immediately associate Bette Davis with maternity# yet it is a theme that dominated both her private and artistic life: one of her quasi-autobiographies is entitled ‘Mother Goddam’ – “I have often called myself this to my children”. No other of the great female stars played mothers in such great diversity and quantity. Was this one secret of Bette’s huge popularity, especially with female audiences? Davis later admitted to a series of abortions for the sake of her career before finally giving birth to a daughter – ‘B.D.’ – in 1946. This was the child (glimpsed as a teenage neighbour in WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?) who was to betray her mother in print at the very end.

Contemporary and later critics have carped that by 1942 every Davis performance had become an over-familiar exercise in mannerism and technique. Myself, I think she’s very much still on top form in NOW,VOYAGER which belongs to her golden age of performances covering a period of roughly eight years from 1935 : she was only 34 and still able to convince as the young Charlotte in flashback. The startling originality of vision, the freshness, zest, vast energy and attack are still there. And the thoroughness: she holds back nothing. She has the support of a sympathetic director and the energising tension (maybe also the competitive threat) of two highly magnetic and charismatic co-stars – Cooper## and Rains – who are more than capable of holding their own against her. Rains was the only actor (and they appeared in four films together) able to upstage Davis, as he does in the later grotesque – and highly diverting – melodrama DECEPTION (1946). And of course she loved him for it.

By the end of the War, however, Davis was ageing badly. Her tiny figure (5’2″) thickened, her notorious low-slung bosom became matronly and her face showed the strain of a personal and professional life of unremitting struggle and disappointment. She seemed to become exhausted by an inner fire of perpetual rage; and stimulated only by rare scripts such as ALL ABOUT EVE and WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? which re-ignited her extraordinary electric talent. She burned out consumed by her own energy and thwarted creativity; and I think by a certain bafflement at her own vast talent and how best to express it within the constraints of her time and circumstances.

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Everyone remembers the climactic shtik of NOW,VOYAGER: the two cigarettes, the moon and the stars. There are two additional leitmotifs which come from the original novel and are of particular interest to us students of fragrance.

” ‘ I have only a dried corsage and an empty bottle of perfume’ “. The flowers are Jerry’s camellias (his pet name for Charlotte is Camille, a nom de guerre resonant with tragic romance). The perfume is also gift from Jerry – “a slight offering” – after their first shore excursion: spent, with high irony, drinking and selecting gifts for his family. Much is made of this little bottle of scent: “A little bottle of perfume made me feel important…”

” ‘It’s a mixture of several kinds of flowers: it’s called Jolies Fleurs.’

‘I’ll put some on my handkerchief tonight’ “.

On her hanky, please note, not on herself. This may be 1942 but well-bred ladies from Boston are still not applying perfume directly onto the skin. (And we remember Bette as a colonial middle class Englishwoman in THE LETTER exhibiting a similar olfactory discretion). In fact on the ship-board night in question we do not see the perfume brought out; though the hanky is constantly on show, then and later. The scent itself is used to make a dramatic point a couple of reels further in when Charlotte is back in Boston coping with mum & the family; and being courted by a stuffy disapproving old widower. A bracing box of camellias arrives from Jerry (secret squirrels), and we watch Charlotte scenting her hair with the lightest touch of Jolies Fleurs as she dresses for the evening. The scent is her amulet, her talisman: like love, its magic spell is everywhere. Aren’t we all fortunate to be able to make use of it?

BETTE DAVIS 1908 – 1989

¤ not one but THREE problematic mother/daughter relationships: one playful but sinister – “you’ve heard of us? June and December?”; the other two a life & death struggle for existence.

* ” ‘…and because of the drink she lost her inhibitions…..I sound very depraved, don’t I?’ ”

** but Charlotte’s hair is still very tightly secured by numerous combs, and the elementary symbolism of the sequinned butterflies on her evening cloak is much discussed. Everything in old Hollywood pictures has a meaning, as it does in a medieval painting: the greatest difference, perhaps, between vintage cinema and that of today.

*** Latin America: another 1940’s movie obsession on account of the loss of the European cinema market during WW2.

• It is discreetly implied that Mrs Vale’s own sex life was distinctly chilly.

•• one might also reflect on the mother/daughter relationship of Margo Channing + Eve Harrington. Unless you are one of those who see their bond as essentially lesbian?

# contrary-wise, there is always the reference to her perpetual smoking: yet so many of her greatest hits have not a cigarette in sight. Start with all those costume pictures and keep counting.

## please take note of Gladys’s nurse: “‘Pickford’s the name. Dora, not Mary’ “. She’s played by Mary Wickes who had one of the longest careers in the movies: she’s the pawky old nun in all those SISTER ACT epics.

Down The Garden Path – Again!

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The author’s own garden.

I am always advising perfume lovers to re-appraise their scents regularly: our favourite fragrances change with our circumstances. The same applies to the living natural world. Whatever the Jonahs and Cassandras may say this has been a cracking summer so far – at any rate for gardeners.¤ Everything in the garden has been lovely: there must have been a singular balance of elements last winter which primed everything just right for strong healthy growth, the annihilation of aphids (remember the havoc they caused in 2014?) and a profusion of delicious odours, all subtly or radically different from previous flowerings.

For a start, the roses came right again after the disaster of last year. My pink Constance Spry climber has flowered for its allotted four weeks, great silken flowers like fragile baby cabbbages smelling of powdered myrrh and delicate skin. These are the sort of roses you see stitched onto hats in “Titanic” lifeboats and pinned to the the straps of vintage blue chiffon evening gowns. You stand there at sunset, gawping at them in the twilight, and every so often there comes the softest rustle and ‘plop!’ – ‘notto!’ as the Japanese say – as another full-blown blossom falls apart.

Roses smelling of cold cream, soap, tea, lemon, peaches and even one strangely like Lancome’s sweet treasure Tresor…and then there are the pale faint dog roses which canopy the the fox trails up the fields. I like to have a couple of stems in water with stalks of lavender (just coming out now – a bumper year for lavender). Someone told me how effective roses look in a glass arranged with sprigs of mint. And they do: but it seems to me it’s like the fatal mix of daffodils and tulips – the mint kills off the roses. In a bed together, however, they go good: I have nearly-black-peppermint, apple mint and variegated pineapple mint (eats well with tomatoes) in abundance. People always warn of mint being invasive but not in this poor soil: I would be quite happy to see it on the rampage, covering a few stubborn bald patches.

Mauve opium poppies cast their sour black dusty scent on the breeze, thickened by the sharpness of silver artemisia and the small white daisy flowers of the intensely bitter feverfew. I’m addicted to the fragrant cumin fumes of curry plant (helichrysum): its smell is even more beguiling than the slender golden flower sprays and metallic grey leaves. After rain, or when you brush against the feathery bush, the spiciness billows off it in mouthwatering waves reminiscent of curried baked beans “with added sultanas”. It has a cousin which smells of Parmesan cheese – or even bacon – and which sports round flat flowers like tiny yellow buttons. I used to confuse these two plants but they and their culinary odours are quite distinct & discrete. I nipped off a twig from a great woody thicket in a London street and it’s doing well in a pot, far from home but not at all astonished. Also new this year are angelica (can anyone advise of culinary uses apart from cake decoration?), and lovage whose seeds are redolent of celery.

The bearded iris – now long gone – smelled this year of the smoothest most luxurious dessert wine; the cow parsley and hemlock in the meadows were like the heady heavy sillage from the Paris Caron boutique; the luxuriant French marigolds emit the peppery bite of Malle’s Noir Epices. Now, these latter are quite hideous flowers in town parks, lined up in baked earth with parched salvias; but a few marigolds in a pot (maybe underplanted with colour-coded nasturtiums) are gorgeous. Their crude fiery hues are exhilarating and they keep flies out of the house if you grow them under windows or by the back door. If you like strong smells try clove pinks too, carnations and geraniums. I now have some wild garlic for the first time: the birds brought seedlings which took. Garlic has attractive clusters of tiny white or pale lilac flowers and the odd pungent whiff mixed with first the bluebells and now with meady honeysuckle or purple thyme is gorgeous, all the more so for being a trifle perverse and unexpected.

One thing which has struck me as entirely new – the nose, you see, luckily keeps on developing, even in one’s seventh decade – is the smell of elderflower. All my life I have known these spreading creamy plates of powdery sneezy blossom, sometimes brewed up to make sparkling elder champagne: but this summer for the first time that I can remember I have smelled the fruit yet to come in the flowers – the succulent juicy scent floating out on the warm evening air. Mouthwatering.

“Cheers!”

¤ all we need to watch now is this heat. The terrific thunderstorms at the weekend were the gardener’s friend but a week of baking temperatures has caused wilting, scorching and a good deal of anxiety. More rain, please, SS Anne + Agricola!

WAIT FOR THE MOMENT WHEN: Mia Farrow…

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…scatters the Scrabble letters onto the floor in ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) to spell out a nightmare revelation. “The name is an anagram”. It’s a scene which never diminishes no matter how many times you watch the movie – have I run it 100 times? – or read Ira Levin’s novel which Roman Polanski films almost line by line (expertly cutting and brisking up the dialogue). After initial bafflement Rosemary pushes the counters into place as smoothly and uncannily as an upturned glass gliding over a ouija board. A sunny room full of bright summer light and Rosemary’s fluffy (baby) blue slippers add counterpoint to a horror emphasised by shrieking music on the soundtrack and the uncanny coincidence of the leading man’s¤ name being almost an anagram of that of the devils in the adjoining apartment. Have you not noticed the similarity between ‘Cassavetes’ and the ‘Castavets’? The more you think about it the more disturbing it becomes, especially in the context of this scene.

Which is always terrifying, every single time. It has the implacable recitative ritual of a fairy tale, it plays on our atavistic reverence for the power of words and the magic of secret names which may not be spoken. THIS time, will the words come out different? No – once again the letters fall into the same order. Like a girl in a fable, a fairy – or, of course, a witch – Rosemary transmutes the mundanity of a board game into a revelation of Satan. Director Roman Polanski has Farrow made up and coiffed like a Vidal Sassoon elf, a sick changeling like the baby within her. Her huge slippers are like paws. Whereas John Cassavetes as Guy – “he’s so good looking” – is saturnine and far more like most folks’ notion of Satan than the scaly lizardy creature we see crawling over the flowery mattress during the Black Mass rape sequence.

Nothing in ROSEMARY’S BABY is what it first seems; the jumbled letters are a metaphor for the whole film. Guy, the terrible actor who can give a good performance only when lying to his wife. The apparently idyllic apartment with its concealed passages¤¤; the chocolate mousse/mouse with the chalky undertaste; the dippy old couple next door and their frumpy friends; the bouncy girl in the basement who we next see smashed to pieces on the pavement. Rosemary’s dreams – “I told Sister Veronica about the windows and she withdrew the school from the competition…”. And, of course, both the doctors: Hollywood’s stock symbols of respectability and normality subverted. Is “dream boy” Dr Hill really another witch after all, just like jovial bluff Dr Sapirstein*? Could well be – but by the time Hill betrays Rosemary to her captors we are as paranoid as the poor girl herself so it is hard to say for sure.

Polanski’s camera and microphones insinuate themselves through doorways and around corners, using shots and set-ups to make the viewer feel like an excluded eavesdropper, seeing and hearing only a part of what is actually going on; and (until the film is seen again and again) probably misunderstanding, as eavesdroppers often do. The director also uses ingenious aural clues – one might almost say aural puns – to enlighten the more alert members of the audience. Wait for the moment when Rosemary is writhing in bed with terrible stomach cramps and Guy pops out to fetch ice cream cones: then listen up. You may learn something to your advantage.

There’s a memorable sequence when Rosemary goes downtown to the Time & Life Building during the Christmas rush and gazes into a dim window display of something bleak and weird as a banshee wail on the soundtrack makes us jump out of our skins. Then our collective minds clear – we are looking at a Nativity tableau and the shriek is “only” Minnie Castavet doing her shopping. But then there’s deeper ambiguity here – for Minnie is a coven leader, expressly sent out like The Childcatcher to bring Rosemary ( the fattened festive lamb) home under escort.

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Now think about Rosemary absently chewing raw liver and then throwing up as she catches sight of her reflection in the side of a toaster: the primitive mirror (traditional witchy accessory)revealing the truth. Food is everywhere in ROSEMARY’S BABY: mundane canned goods, picnic fare, sandwiches, crisps, party canapes and eggs, but also sinister under-done steaks, creepy cakes and mousses plus of course Minnie’s freshly-made herbal vitamin drinks. Food – the staff of life, the nourishment of growth – becomes something evil and ( like the crack in W.H. Auden’s teacup ) another banality that opens up “a lane to the land of the dead”.

As does smell: we are continually being reminded and prompted by mention of odours and our instinctive response to them. Polanski and Levin lead us back to the animal response that what smells bad is likely to do us harm. Stinking tannis* root may be encased in exquisite silver filigree and (like Rosemary) the viewer may fleetingly persuade himself that it really is a lucky charm – but when Rosemary hangs the tiny pomander around her neck# we cannot help but remember it comes to her washed clean of a suicide’s blood. She recoils at the stench but – fatally – ignores her own instinct to have nothing to do with it. By the time she drops the dainty horror down a drain it’s all too late, things are entirely out of hand.

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Even then, Rosemary tries to right herself with perfume; to claw her way back to normality with fragrance: something we all do from time to time. She sprays herself heavily and refreshingly with Revillon’s 1953 silky aldehydic Detchema. I wonder why such a point is made of this. Do you think it’s the scent of her absent mother, back in Omaha? As she approaches parturition, Rosemary maybe seeks a kind of vicarious maternal comfort. Or is this lush floral, originally intended to complement the wearing of furs, a symbol of the worldly wealth and prosperity brought by Satanic intervention? “The sweet smell of success”. More straightforwardly, maybe it was simply author Ira Levin’s favourite scent. LW had his own funny little experience with Detchema some 20 years ago. Emerging with a bottle from a Nice parfumerie and radiating ylang ylang and iris, LW was at once propositioned by a very homely and traditional (shall we say?) fille de joie: “Allo, cheri!” It brought to mind a well-known advertising campaign for another fragrance – sex workers can’t help acting on impulse…… If only Rosemary had followed hers, right from the start.”

MIA FARROW b. 1945
ROMAN POLANSKI b. 1933
IRA LEVIN 1929 – 2007

¤ John Cassavetes – and of course ROMAN Castavet/ ROMAN Polanski. It’s unsettling: no wonder Mr Mia Farrow (cradle catholic Frankie Sinatra) forbade his wife to do the picture. Her defiance contributed to their eventual divorce.

¤¤ and inexplicably moving furniture.

* highly imaginative casting – dear old Ralph Bellamy: so safe and solid.

** “are you sure you don’t mean anise or orris root?”

# once again, listen to the gasps on the soundtrack.

Of Mice and Mint

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I don’t exactly jump on a chair and squeal at the appearance of a mouse in the house but it’s always a bit of a shock to find traces of rodent activity. Their euphemistically named ‘traces’ are, after all, faeces and I am told that the wretched things are chronically incontinent – they micturate as they move. I may have mentioned before that the smell of white mice is one the most abiding odours of my infancy. Some kind person had made me a gift of a blue tin cage with two white mice in it – all pink eyes and tails. Mice being mice, they fructified and multiplied at astonishing speed. Mrs Sarson, shuffling in on her dropped arches to help with us tots and do the ironing, would ostentatiously hold her nose – “Pooh! I tell yer!”. This became such a common theme (and maybe there was something about prolific mouse fertility that disturbed all of us) that the creatures were finally “given away”. That doom-laden phrase…

But they certainly smelled, that’s for sure: a sour musty animal reek which I can just about remember but which is quite hard to find these days – certainly not in the modern disinfected supermarket style of pet shop. As to mice in the house we’ve only had one problem infestation, and that was caused not by LW dribbling crumbs or flour about the place but by emigration from two houses along. When the dear old Greek lady died, they found she had divided her home into 40 cubicles which she’d been rack-renting since the last War. The builders moved in, the mice moved out and sideways.

We had them only in the sitting room: the poor girl downstairs discovered them even in the bed and the airing cupboard. Her beautiful black and white tomcat was far too laid back and contrary-minded to be a deterrent. Combings of his coat left lying about had no effect either.

Traps didn’t work and neither did poison (not really): in the end I got rid of our little visitors by dint of two tips passed on by folk wisdom and fellow sufferers. First thing, by placing icons and statues of St Martin de Porres (patron of small vermin) in their areas of ingress and access. The saint calms and reasons with the mice; persuades them to move on and out for good. To accelerate this exodus I bought a vial of oil of peppermint.

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Now mice cannot abide peppermint – in an emergency, if you’re temporarily out of oil, smear toothpaste on wads of Kleenex or pour a kettle of boiling water into a bowl on top of a tube of Polos. The mice run a mile. Consequently, having cleared out the pests in short order, I found I had the best part of a bottle of neat peppermint on my hands. This was the roasting August of 2003, the summer when thousands died of the heat and boiling London buses cooled their engines from church fonts. I thought to myself, I’ll take a delicious cooling peppermint bath.

Unfortunately I overdid the oil and instead of a few carefully measured drops I sloshed in most of the contents. Like Elsie in What Katy Did At School the heat had made me feverish and reckless. I hopped into the bath and a wonderful freshness enveloped me, as though wrapped in soft snow. But all too soon, like Socrates with the hemlock, an iciness began to invade me, creeping up from my toes. Taking fright as my knees and then thighs turned to livid marble I very fortunately then had the sense to clamber out while still able. A terrible shivering and shaking seized me: I had lost all my body heat. A form of hypothermia had set in and despite the air temperature being over 30•C, I had to put myself to bed with quilts, jumpers and a hot water bottle. “You might easily have died” a skilled aromatherapist friend told me next day. “NEVER fool around with peppermint!”

So, take heed! I wonder what the smell of it does to the poor mice?

WAIT FOR THE MOMENT WHEN: Orson Welles…

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… rolls & staggers into sex worker Marlene Dietrich’s establishment in TOUCH OF EVIL (1958) in search of Tanya’s pianola, chili and crystal ball. Hank Quinlan is an obscenely obese police chief on the U.S. / Mexican border: bloated, pocked and crippled by bitterness, prejudice, hate, alcohol and food.

“Have you forgotten your old friend?”.

Dark-eyed semi-gypsy Tanya glares at him blankly over the stained enamel cooking pot:

“I didn’t recognise you…you should lay off the candy bars …you’re a mess, honey”.

Tanya is a dusky cigar-smoking chili-brewing madam who offers all kinds of obscure pornographic services:

” The customers go for it. It’s old it’s new…we got the television too…we run movies…” (and the way in which she says this! Lewdness of lewdery!)”…what can I offer you?”.

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Dietrich and Welles were old friends – “when I’m with him I’m like a plant that’s been watered” – and he was fascinated by her, though apparently not sexually. She complained that he liked only blondes¤ but hinted that he saw her in a new light once she’d got Tanya’s black wig fitted.

That wig! Marlene apparently went through the wardrobe department and assembled her own costume of bits and bobs (a kind of hommage to Frida Kahlo). The wardrobe girls told her the wig had originally been worn by La Liz in RAINTREE COUNTY. Well, thought MD, it was made for a tart and I’m playing one so how apt. She loathed Taylor who had a disturbing trend of making off with her own lovers – Fisher, Todd, Wilding, maybe Burton…¤¤. Tanya has only four short scenes in TOUCH OF EVIL (all said to have been shot on location in a single night) – Dietrich and Welles were in high spirits improvising her role as they went along and giving Tanya the final (and best?) shot of the movie.

If you know THE BLUE ANGEL it is clear that Tanya is a sketch of Lola Lola grown well…not old, but ageless. She now has not only a pianola at home – “zu Haus in mein’ Salon” – but chili too : “Better be careful! It may be too hot for you.” Maybe she emigrated to Mexico pre-war or, more likely, was chased out of Germany in ’45 as a Mitlaufer. Lola is just the sort of little chancer who would have gone along with Hitler if she thought there was anything in it for her. Tanya’s cluttered dusty apartment is crammed with beaded fringed lamps, kitschy knick-knacks and even a stuffed bull’s head** that all remind us of BLUE ANGEL props. There are toys and so-shy’s (including a facetious plaster chipmunk) that echo the presence of Marlene’s own dolls that sat around in so many of her pictures in the early days. Above all there is the haunting rippling wonderful music (Henry Mancini’s finest hour) of the pianola (“at home my pianola Is played for all its worth”) echoing spectrally through the dusty, boiling hot-windy night which heaves with corruption, vitriol throwings, rapists and drug gangs; luring men and women to their doom like Lola’s burning moths.

This is still a shocking film, despite (or because of) being stuffed with outrageous black comedy – the Galgenhumor in which Orson and Marlene both revelled. Director as well as star, Welles has a lot of ironic fun with the placing & wording of signs – one of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s strippers, Zita, is blown to bits by a car bomb as her street wall poster – “ZITA: For this week only!” – is obliterated by acid. Back at Zsa Zsa’s joint there’s a sign prominently reading ‘Dining Room’ – presumably not an overused part of the house except for the proprietress’s preying on young flesh and the frailty of dirty old men. A dining room for vultures & vampires.

Charlton Heston (the good cop to Welles’s fiend: his face stained with the same walnut juice as used on Marlene) makes a call from a drugstore and the camera lingers on the placard “If you’re mean enough to steal from the blind help yourself “. Meanwhile the visually challenged proprietress exudes in close up a chumbling motiveless menacing
malevolence. At the climax of the movie Hank Quinlan commits murder in a hotel bedroom and fatally leaves his incriminating cane behind on the bed rail as the ” Stop! Forget Anything?” sign swings unseen on the door.

LW might write a dozen blogs on TOUCH OF EVIL without ever exhausting its wit and febrile fascination. But, for now, to touch on smells – if ever a movie stank it’s this; and there’s another Wellesian irony here because one of the main preoccupations of the camera is a knowing prurient voyeurism. The camera becomes the lubricious evil eye of Quinlan as Janet Leigh gratuitously lolls on her motel bed in boned white satin underwear – one of several prognostications of Hitcock’s PSYCHO. Then as Leigh is (apparently)*** gang-raped by Mercedes McCambridge’s leather gang – “I wanna watch!” growls the voice that later dubbed Linda Blair’s possession in THE EXORCIST. Mercedes was another chum of Welles and Dietrich – she doesn’t even get a credit for her terrifying cameo. All done just for fun. And so, to complement this voyeuristic motif, we have simultaneously a bombardment of words and images to conjure a powerful sense of smell and corruption: “it stinks in here! It’s a mess, a stinking mess!”. Choking clouds of marijuana; stained sweaty clothes; corrosive acid; chili; old perfume; grubby old beds; tobacco; blood; hair lacquer; Uncle Joe’s greasy toupee – “you lost ya rug!”; heat; petrol; cordite; electricity; leather jackets; hair cream; burning flesh; sex; fear; panic. And finally, the dark river choked with rot and ordure and refuse, with Hank Quinlan floating dead on his back in the black oil-slicked ooze. Tanya, lured from her den, wrapped in a coat that might be black silk or leather, watches like an omniscient ambiguous Aztec spirit of the night wind:

“What does it matter what you say about people? He was some kind of a man…”

Not half.

ORSON WELLES 1915 – 1985
MARLENE DIETRICH 1901 – 1992

¤ but what of his marriage to Rita Hayworth? Her famous red hair was of course dyed but Welles also had a long affair with gleaming brunette Dolores del Rio. Maybe MD was barking up the wrong tree here.

¤¤ a piece of paper was found in the avenue Montaigne apartment after her death “Open letter to Elizabeth Taylor … why don’t you swollow (sic) your diamonds and shut up?” Paris Match at once published it. MD was certainly dotty about Burton, though if they had an actual physical affair this has yet to come to light. “I’m behind you, Marlene!” – remember?

# and wait for the wonderful shot of Welles posed beneath the bull and its halo of banderillas – Quinlan’s own vision of himself as the brave old beast martyred in the pursuit of his duty.

* the naïve censor is placated by a weasel line of dialogue later on: Welles laughing up his sleeve again.