Hello, Twins!

Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror.

Olivia de Havilland in The Dark Mirror.

Last night I went in search of diversion down my favourite road – the always perfumed Memory Lane, where the trees are perpetually in flower, even though the cherry blossom be made of tissue. I went not to Manderley again but looked at beautiful and fascinating Olivia de Havilland in the 1946 psychological thriller The Dark Mirror. Her co-star here (apart from herself) is a worn-looking Lew Ayres, once the second Mr Ginger Rogers, whose career suffered from his wartime pacifist stance. I hadn’t seen this movie for decades, in fact I think my previous viewing was a dubbed version on German tv over 30 years ago.

It’s very good! Olivia plays twins – Terry and Ruth. “One of them is insane” and has stabbed a man to death. But which one? Doctor Lew Ayres has to find out. The special effects when the girls are on-screen together are remarkably adroit and convincing, and de Havilland’s characterisations are highly accomplished and subtle. Even with identical clothes, hair and make-up the viewer can soon tell the girls apart – or thinks he can.

Reader, here’s where I had to keep putting the film back for another look – and another. Towards the climax the now clearly psychopathic Terry dolls up for a late-night appointment with Dr Ayres, posing as her own sister. In black satin and sequins she nips into the bathroom and dabs on perfume – the finishing touch. A discreet little bottle – we can’t tell what it is – but it lurks beneath the cabinet containing sleeping pills, the pills with which she is fuddling her poor sister Ruth. We take the hint that director Robert Siodmak has already cast perfume as a murderess’s accomplice: but then when Terry arrives at Ayres’ apartment he kisses her – and the camera catches his face as he smells her fragrance.

Such a wry grimace! Such scorn and contempt! He turns away, repelled. He knows already he’s kissing Terry: the scent does not reveal her deception. He is revolted either by the idea that the Good and Evil twin should share the same perfume, or (and I think this more likely) perceives the use of scent as final proof that the wearer is depraved. Old Hollywood was always puritanical and reactionary in her attitudes: any mention of perfume in the movies usually heralds trouble. But, take a look sometime – ‘judge for yourselves’ as Lillian Gish once said.

Kiss me, my fool.

ThedaBarawikimedia

To celebrate the centenary of its release I sat down and watched ‘A Fool There Was’ on the You Tube: the great sex shocker of 1914 which propelled Theda Bara upon the world, the first screen femme fatale: The Vamp. Hard to believe that an almost mythic movie has played for 100 years. Bara (nee Goodman) died, not old, the year I was born. Refused a certificate in Great Britain, the movie still retains the power to shock, not by its prurience but in the final shots of a man reduced to human wreckage and total physical & psychological degradation. I squeaked aloud in my chair. ‘Some of him lived / but the most of him died’ reads the title card. It’s a theme that von Sternberg and Dietrich returned to with even greater effect some 15 years later: a pillar of society reduced by sex to a baying, dying beast.

Theda Bara has less to do in the film than I had imagined: she is taller, too, and rather more attractive. She was probably the cinema’s first brunette leading lady, the original wicked dark-haired temptress, a creature of the Night destroying the daughters of Light and their lawful wedded husbands. Her wide mouth is covered in lip rouge which photographs as black, and her huge inky eyes are liberally smeared with Vaseline and candle smoke. She is heaped with clothes in the especially hideous styles of the day; in one sequence her feet become entangled in her fish tail train. I can’t decide whether this is a cute device to give the viewer an eyeful of her ankles or whether the director either didn’t notice or couldn’t be bothered to cut.

Roses, cruelly used, are her leit motif. We first see the Vamp smelling two flowers, then tearing them to pieces: the destruction of her prey, the denial of her own femininity, the end of innocence. In one sequence of startling phaliic symbolism she disarms a rejected admirer who draws a gun on her by stroking the the revolver – now detumescent and redundant – with the rose she carries. Whereat the wretched man shoots himself.

The Vamp and her confreres play cards, loll around half-dressed, let down their back hair and indulge in a lot of what my mother used to call ‘posturing’. But interestingly perfume is not part of the picture. Scent does not appear though the viewer rather anticipates shots of atomisers and drenching showers of musky fragrance as an additional sign of shameless sin. After all this film was made in a Golden Age of perfume: L’Heure Bleue, Jicky, Quelques Fleurs, Narcisse Noir, Phul Nana, Shem-El-Nessim and the early Coty repertoire were all by then on the dressing tables of the rich & fashionable.

Maybe Theda Bara’s director – Frank Powell – felt that his Vamp should exude her own seductive and noxious aroma, like a night-blooming flesh-eating flower; that she should lure men to their doom by an involuntarily secreted deadly & delectable unnatural odour. Writings and novels of this period describe scent as being emitted by hair, clothing, furs, fabrics and furnishings rather than by the skin …” a faint delicious fragrance hung about her..”. But perfume actually poured onto the skin? Or oozing from it? A subject then ‘too difficult even to talk about’ as the adverts used to say. Too animal, too raw, too downright carnal: ideal for Theda Bara.

Now all you have to do is run the movie!

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Woman in a Dressing Gown

From http://notreallyworking.co.uk

A universal cliche holds it as a truth that you cannot portray or even talk about perfume on film or tv without extreme difficulty: ” they can’t smell it, don’t you see?”. I don’t at all agree, holding with that apocryphal but accurate endorsement of radio that the pictures on the wireless are better. I believe that imaginary smells may be more pungent if the correct stimuli are applied to the senses. Do you remember that gruesome children’s game – was it Murderer in the Dark?  – when we all sat in a circle with the lights off while peeled grapes, lumps of meat, pickled onions and egg yolks were passed from hand to hand, purporting to be parts of a dismembered corpse? (Childhood still retained its innocence in the 1950’s). Parents worked very hard preparing the objects for this tableau vivant and there’s no doubt it left a lasting impact on the players and the development of their imaginations.

If you think about it, film has always been able to suggest smell and scent; using them as part of the holistic mood of a movie. I don’t mean that handful of novelty features which pumped smells into the auditorium or used scratch cards to release odours on cue.(“Smell-o-vision” being one such process). No. I’m talking about aromas released in the viewer’s head via the screenplay, the dialogue, the camera. “Out of the character comes the movement; and out of the movement comes the dialogue”, Louise Brooks used to say. Maybe out of the camera comes the perfume.

And out of the vision of a gifted director. Think of Germany’s first talkie, Dietrich’s breakthrough picture The Blue Angel. Setting the action mainly in schoolrooms and the backstage of  tavern cabarets Von Sternberg enhances his banal and sordid theme with a battery of smells, mostly unsavoury, implied by sets, characters and action. A dead canary thrown into the stove, a performing bear, Marlene’s knickers repeatedly gloated over by the camera, face powder blown in Emil Jannings’ face, tatty costumes, beer, cheap champagne,coffee, smoke, tobacco, broken eggs, a pineapple, chalk dust, old books, sweaty wigs…well, see for yourselves sometime. Then take a deep breath on Sunset Boulevard. I don’t know whether (as Caron used to claim) Billy Wilder really sprayed the sets with Narcisse Noir but there’s certainly the dead monkey, the decaying house and pool, the Isotta Fraschini upholstered in leopard in the damp garage, Norma’s Egyptian cigarettes (“Abdullahs”), her tuberose perfume, her “half an inch of makeup”, the rats, the untouched buffet at her New Year party. Plus, what is she smoking in that curious wire holder on her finger? I’m now on series 4 of Mad Men and a holder just like Norma’s is used to puff marijuana at a wild club. And we all used to think it was the champagne making her talk so silly.

But the olfactory movie par excellence must be the more modest Woman In A Dressing Gown, Ted Willis’s 1957 British slice of kitchen sink: Amy (Yvonne Mitchell) in the throes of unrecognised undiagnosed depression, surrounded by her ghastly menfolk and her own hopeless mess at 23 Nightingale House. She’s past bothering to dress, just throws on the eponymous dressing gown.  Her first appearance is accompanied by an beast-like snuffling and sniffing as the breakfast toast burns, followed by a huge close-up of the charred slice shot from under the grill. We’re off!

The camera lingers obsessively over Amy’s dreadful cooking – the blackened bacon and eggs, soaked in fat and the plate wiped on her gown; the burned fillet of plaice and chips (“Smells Good!” – doesn’t taste it though); and yet another supper treat, “cold ham, cold veal, cold pork”. All are served with a battery of bottled sauces, and everything smells of confusion, anxiety and a desperate longing to nurture and please. (Jimbo’s mistress, of course, cooks like an angel in the kitchen: a beautifully presented Sunday roast to mirror her skill in quite a different room).

From breakfast we cut to Jimbo shaving in a steamy bathroom and segue into laundry, hot irons, baby-minding, pawnshops (an old old coat being popped), timber yards, the river, raucous pubs, a hairdressing salon run by Olga Lindo, Tallulah’s understudy in the 1920’s and now a gruff dragon-manageress with a golden heart. And the rain pours down: black, mucky, sooty city rain – used as so often in old cinema as a metaphor for sex, a symbol of illicit passion. Wasn’t film so much more interesting when we had to familiarise ourselves with all these codes and ciphers which faded away so quickly with the collapse of censorship? The film ends with the saddest “happy ending” you ever saw and a threat that the dressing gown may be discarded, even washed. Like dogs, the characters have returned to their own vomit, reassured by the smells of their own debris and failure, safe if not happy in their soiled bedding.

Image from: http://notreallyworking.co.uk

All The Silly Dreams…

Brief Encounter is a great favourite, and as is the case with all great movies you read it differently with each viewing. Last night I remarked how desiccated and sour Laura Jesson’s life has become: the rather tiresome children seem to get on her nerves; her supposed friends are all hateful. How has this apparently highly sensitive person fallen in with the company of such shallow mean-minded treacherous women? She has no real friends at all. She spends every Thursday at the pictures and is dissatisfied with everything she sees: except for Donald Duck. What appeals to her about him? “His furious energy and his blind frustrated rages.” Go figure, as the young people say.

Laura’s energies are confined to a boring, narrow if relentless routine – reserving new books at Boots Library, dodging bores, and changing into the same dowdy dress for dinner with reliable affectionate Fred who appears interested only in his food, a quiet life and the crossword puzzle: in fact he’s the only person in the movie who genuinely cares for Laura’s wellbeing. Then she meets the glamorous doctor: is he all he seems? Alec may easily be seen as an cynical serial seducer, preying on lonely and impressionable middle aged ladies with not enough to do with their lives. The scene of him barging in Laura at the Kardomah cafe and suggesting, as he gobbles bread roll, that he come to the pictures with her can be romantic or horribly creepy, depending on your own mood. We only have his word for it that he has the alibi of a spouse (“his wife…Madeleine…”) and children at home. And what of his ambiguous relationship with the vile surgeon, Stephen, who lends Alec the keys to his arty service flat where he keeps tropical fish on the mantelpiece above a live fire. Though evidently not with assignations with virtuous housewives in mind: Laura’s appearance there provokes the most appalling outburst of vindictive spite from Stephen. In fact the two doctors (in the 1940’s, unimpeachable pillars of the community) compare very badly with Fred and Mr Godbey the ticket-collector at Ketchworth Station who are protective, loyal, reliable and full of soothing common sense: the two men who are – and how ironically! – satirised as figures of fun.

Is the tale we are narrated by Laura actually true? She is a dreamer; the story of the film is told in a flashback of sad reverie – she dreams within the dream, sitting in a darkening railway carriage spinning fantasies “like a romantic schoolgirl, like a romantic fool”.

Has Laura imagined the whole thing? Was there really any love affair at all? Does the whole romance simply take place in her head, prompted by the chance encounter with Alec who takes the grit from her eye? Is the rest of the film just her fantasy, as she sits in her chair sewing, of what might have been? A hash of everything she’s ever seen on the cinema or read in a toiletry catalogue? “ Then all the silly dreams faded”…..

I don’t think Laura Jesson is much of a user of scent and I suspect that Fred would probably dislike it, though he doesn’t mind his wife smoking providing it’s not in the street. She disparages frivolous hats and too much make-up; the malevolent friend (sic) Mrs Norton is seen plucking her eyebrows like a bird of prey, while Laura stumbles through her poor little lies on the telephone. Laura likes the smell of her chemist’s (“nice things: herbs and soap and scent”); maybe she dabs a little eau de cologne on her hanky for special occasions, but no doubt has a horror of “common” perfumes such as Evening in Paris and Californian Poppy. In this she is unlike her creator, Noel Coward, who was a promiscuous and liberal lover of scent on stage and off: Arpege, Narcisse Noir, No 5 and Mitsouko were all grist to his mill. But Laura is a lover I’ll bet of scent stories and beautiful bottles, anything to feed that starving imagination like the barrel organ music that so delights her. (“Strange how potent cheap music is”). That movie that she and Alec walk out of, Flames of Passion, sounds like the name of a Woolworth perfume, all promise and no fulfilment.

As the lights come on at the Odeon is Laura left with a fragrant memory or a cheating whiff of lies? Top-notes of exciting illusion with no base in fact?