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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Another Horrific Detour For A Star On The Slide

Joan Fontaine Makes The Devil's Own (1966) Bargain with Hammer

There were degrees to degradation among movie queens brought down in the 60's to exploitation shockers. For all of high-profile Bette Davis achieved with Baby Jane and follow-ups, it was maybe Olivia DeHavilland that drew the nastiest of the lot, Lady In A Cage, which unlike ones that have dated into kitsch, is still unbearable to watch. So Olivia was again one up on sister rival Joan Fontaine, whose work for Seven Arts-Hammer in The Witches (called The Devil's Own over here) was a most restrained of horrors done by actresses of awkward aging. It was a first lead for Fontaine in a long while, she having surrendered to TV and support work in features unworthy of her. The Devil's Own was a miss, but not a humiliating one for the actress. In fact, it plays familiar for those who'd remember Fontaine in female gothics to which she excelled in the 40's. There was effort at something literate, gore minimized, and good performances by English players well schooled in unspeakables beneath civilized surface (Martin Stephens, the creepy kid from The Innocents and Village Of The Damned, has here grown to teen age). The Devil's Own starts and middles better than it ends, results not so pleasing as Hammer's few-years-later (and similar) The Devil's Bride. Fontaine would surely have got vapors had she noted 20th Fox toss-off of The Devil's Own in the US: it played second to Prehistoric Women in a Hammer combo aimed square at kids and exploit market. The pic had been made for a price, $330K, that should have got twice that back, but domestic rentals of $224K left red ink on 20th books. Region Two has lately given us a Blu-Ray that looks fine, a boost for this show that needs what visual help it can get.


Blogger Tom said...

I've never seen Lady in a Cage, but just the thought of watching a film in which the charming heroine of numerous Errol Flynn fantasy adventures is terrorized by young thugs is an extremely unpleasant one to me.

8:09 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer expands on the topic of Joan Fontaine and "The Devil's Own":

There is some good in "The Devil's Own," but not enough to make it other than disappointing. That it is restrained and fairly literate probably has much to do with Joan Fontaine's participation in the production. At the time, she had all but given up film work for regional theater and occasional appearances on Broadway. With the success Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had enjoyed--commercial success, at any rate--this project probably seemed a good way to exploit her fading movie stardom. She owned the story and took it around to various studios, finally making a deal with Hammer Films. There's no surprise that it was made for a price, but Hammer at least put out product with a certain lurid style, rarely anything as unimaginative as this. Possibly there was a certain antipathy between the studio and its star--not for her would there be something as ghastly as "Trog"--until finally everyone just wanted to get it done and over with. The director, Cyril Frankel, was quite active in British television, especially for ITC. He did a lot of "The Avengers" episodes. "The Devil's Own" has that televison look to it, with its flat lighting and lack of montage. At least "The Avengers" had some wit about, though. The screenplay here could have been much better, given its source material in a novel by Norah Lofts, with its intriguing rural background. The writer, Nigel Kneale, was known for his Quatermass series, but had a great antipathy towards such things as witches and covens. His own effort was a bit of sendup of the story, which only resulted in a hurried rewrite that smudged whatever distinction it had. The opening scenes suggest the missed opportunities, with Fontaine as missionary in Africa suffering a nervous breakdown after an attack by witch doctors, then back in England, being interviewed for a position as head mistress in a school. It would have been better had the film opened with the interview with this apparently disturbed woman, with the reasons for her disturbance--and for her being hired despite that--only being gradually revealed. The approach should always have been an oblique one, emphasising the psychological states of the characters or their beliefs--which always have a reality, even when what they believe in does not--and not the literal one followed, which only demonstrated the lack of imagination or believeability of the story. As suggested, the ending is risible, with no more weirdness than a Halloween party in the basement of a small southern fraternity house. The pity is that Joan Fontaine gives a rather fine, sincere performance that is not far removed from her work in "Suspicion" or "Jane Eyre." Having a Hitchcock or Robert Stevenson at the helm of a David O. Selznick or John Houseman production, however, was far removed from what she found with Hammer. Would it have been different had Michael Reeves been the director? No doubt it would have been very different, indeed, but the lady would have had to have shown up on the set for the second day's shooting, something that would have been highly improbable, given how strange and rough Reeves' "The Witchfinder General" was two years later. This would be her last big screen performance.

2:39 PM  
Blogger iarla said...

"Lady in a Cage" is a tough, ferocious film, and features some of De Havilland's best - and least sympathetic - work. "The Witches" is forgettable trash.

8:41 PM  
Blogger iarla said...

P.S. Regarding the colour still of Fontaine 'in the grip' accompanying your article. Its a favourite of fans, one in a series of simple albeit undignified pose's Fontaine succumbed to in order to publicise a film she had a stake in. Years later a friend of mine sent it to her amongst a batch of vintage publicity stills which Joan was all too happy to sign -all but this one. On the back she had scribbled, simply "NO WAY!".

9:32 AM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

Makes one appreciate Myrna Loy all the more for refusing to join her contemporaries and descend into this sort of mess.

11:32 AM  

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