Tag Archives: Edgar Allan Poe

The Tales of Hoffmann

The Tales of Hoffman
The Tales of Hoffmann

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Date: 23 March 2015

Distributor: Studiocanal

Directors: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Writers: Dennis Arundell, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Based on the French libretto for Jacques Offenbach’s opera by: Jules Barbier

Based on the stories by: E.T.A. Hoffmann

Cast: Moira Shearer, Robert Rounseville, Ludmilla Tchérina

UK 1951

138 mins

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1951 film of Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann – newly restored to its full 138-minute glory, including a delightful curtain call for all the performers as seen through the film’s magic spectacles – is eternally astonishing. That such a gorgeous, daffy, erotic, demented Technicolor pageant could emerge from the British film industry at a time when the dominant mood was black and white, emotionally and economically austere and inclined to drab realism remains a bizarre mystery. The makers must have been aware of this because they have conductor Sir Thomas Beecham defiantly stamp ‘made in England’ in gilt over the end title.

Mounted in the afterglow of the success of The Red Shoes, partly to find another showcase for red-headed ballerina Moira Shearer, Hoffmann is an entirely stage-bound fantasy based on an 1881 opera (which Offenbach didn’t live to see performed) based on a play based on the stories of E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822). By default, it’s a key horror anthology and an early instance of metatextually incorporating an author into his own world by mixing up his fantasies and his life. Offenbach and librettist Jules Barbier tease the historical Hoffmann by making him the fall guy of his own biography: the poet (Robert Rounseville) falls in love with a robot, is seduced by a Satanic harlot, can’t save a doomed singer and gets so drunk on his own storytelling that he lets the love of his life fall into the clutches of his shapeshifting arch-enemy Councillor Lindorf (Robert Helpmann). With highly stylised sets that play tricks with the eye and non-stop music, it has the feel of a Cabinet of Dr Caligari in colour and sound… and similarly slips between levels of reality in the telling of these tales.

The plot has Hoffmann passing the time before an assignation with Stella (Shearer), the ballerina he loves, in a Nuremberg beerhall where he entertains boozers with episodes from his own life (‘Olympia’, ‘Giulietta’,’ Antonia’), which are actually versions of his most famous stories (‘The Sandman’, ‘The Lost Reflection’ and ‘Rath Krespel’) and find him involved with women in Paris, Venice and a Greek Island. Hoffmann was one of the first great horror writers, and these stories influenced Mary Shelley, Poe (a lot), Sheridan Le Fanu and others. Each of these tales stands at the head of a sub-genre – lifelike doll/mad scientist, soul-selling pact with the Devil, Usher-like recurring family tragedy – and showcases a beguiling, yet strange woman. In the prologue, Shearer’s Stella dances in an insect costume tighter and more revealing than any female superhero has ever dared… but her role as Olympia, the life-size wind-up doll Hoffmann sees as real through magic specs, is one of the cinema’s great inhumans, along with Brigitte Helm in Metropolis and Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. Dancing and singing with impossible virtuosity, until she runs down and has to be wound up, Olympia is an unresponsive love object – she may not be real but the feelings she inspires are. At the climax of her dance (the aria is ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’, also known as ‘The Doll Song’), as her creators argue over her, she literally comes apart… that blinking severed head sprouting copper springs is a nightmare punchline for a joke that Powell takes seriously. Note the aside of ‘half-man, half-puppet’ Cochineel (Frederick Ashton) fetishising a severed hand.

In ‘Giuletta’, Hoffmann is ensnared by a courtesan (Ludmilla Tchérina) in Venice, who is collecting souls for the devilish Dappertutto (Helpmann). This story runs to an amazingly explicit orgy, a fast and peculiar duel in a gondola, the haunted Schlemil (Leonide Massine) sporting silver double eagle epaulettes, the stately yet creepy barcarolle (‘Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour’ – the hit of the show) and the seductress’s bare feet treading on the sculpted faces of damned victims. ‘Antonia’ is a precursor of the Corman-Poe films, especially ‘Morella’ from Tales of Terror and Tomb of Ligeia, with a consumptive heroine (Ann Ayars) led by sinister Dr Miracle (Helpmann) to sing herself to death under the influence of her dead mother. It’s a strong story, but the weakest episode because Ayars, who acts and sings, isn’t as inhumanly desirable or exotically terrifying a presence as Shearer or Tcherina. Pamela Brown, in drag as Hoffmann’s devoted (but slightly unhelpful) friend, is another weird, sexually confusing player, while Helpmann (who might be auditioning for a great unmade Dracula movie as the multi-faced villain), Massine (who does comedy and horror) and Ashton (funny yet poignant as broken-hearted jesters) show why dancers often make great screen performers.

This is a one-off, even in the extraordinary Powell-Pressburger filmography – there’s just so much in it. Make the effort to see this on a big screen.

Kim Newman

Watch the trailer:

The Fall of the House of Usher

The first of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, The Fall of the House of Usher features an iconic performance by Vincent Price in the lead role. A guest arrives at the Usher home, where he finds a house literally crumbling apart, in an echo of the mysterious illness that has infected the home’s inhabitants, including the woman he hopes to marry.

To mark the UK Blu-ray &#38 Steelbook debut of Corman’s chilling classic (released by Arrow Video on 26 August 2013), Jaime Huxtable imagines a conversation between Roger Corman and Edgar Allen Poe.

Comic Strip Review by Jaime Huxtable
More information on Jaime Huxtable can be found here.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel

Corman's World poster

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 26 March 2012

Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment

Director: Alex Stapleton

USA 2011

95 mins

Some years ago, I was invited to write a piece on a cinematic cult hero. I chose Roger Corman without hesitation. This was doubly fortuitous as I had just been lucky enough to have interviewed the misnamed ‘King of the B’s’. He was gracious, savvy, witty, charming, informed and possessed amazing recall of many of the characters who had graduated from the so-called Corman School. This was all the more noteworthy as he was already 81 and still had seven or so film projects on the go. Corman proved to be a gentleman and an inspiration, and so it is only fair to paraphrase - in this season of Shakespeare - the following line: ‘I come to praise Corman, not to bury him’. That is my caveat to readers of this review of Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, a long-overdue documentary on this unique (now 86-year-old) maverick producer/director now released on DVD, as this is a film for savouring, leaving all critical baggage in the hallway.

This documentary’s tone is by turns witty and irreverent while keeping a proper historical and biographical eye on things. It is as controlled a piece of presentation as one could desire given the breadth - not always depth - of the Corman oeuvre. Director Alex Stapleton has come up with an exemplary documentary that respects and plays with conventions and tropes of Corman’s style - and cheesiness - in a fascinating piece of ‘other’ Hollywood history. And what a history! You want to give a first chance to young directors? How about the following list, whose sophomore efforts were overseen by Corman: Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Robert Altman, Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg, Robert Towne, John Sayles, Monte Hellman, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Anderson, Paul Bartel and Richard Rush - to name a few. Young actors to play the parts? Pam Grier, William Shatner, Jack Nicholson (who breaks down and cries with his reflections), Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, Dennis Hopper, David Carradine, Barbara Hershey, Talia Shire, Sandra Bullock and Robert De Niro - not a bad list. Many of the above still hold Corman in great esteem and offer fine insights into the man during the course of the documentary.

As part of the legendary American International Pictures, Corman directed and/or produced the terrific Edgar Allan Poe cycle and dozens of low-budget drive-in ‘classics’ with titles like The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes, Attack of the Crab Monsters, Caged Heat, A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors. When he struck out on his own with New World Pictures he not only continued to make delicious drive-in fodder but commenced distribution of foreign language films that no one else would touch. It was due to Corman’s work in this field that American audiences were introduced to, among other films, Fellini’s Amarcord, Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum and Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Corman seemed to move seamlessly from drive-in classic to art-house classic with an unerring sense of both. Who else can compare? Corman is a one-off, and although Hollywood ignored him - though studios were happy to poach his subject matter - they eventually saw the light and honoured him (thankfully not posthumously) with an Honorary Academy Award, which is the touching ‘money shot’ of the film.

Almost worth the price of admission alone though, are the end credits that have a high-octane, spirit-raising rendition of ‘Do You Wanna Dance’ by the Ramones from Rock and Roll High School while clips from various films and decades - he made hundreds: 10 films in 1957 alone - literally explode onto the screen. Clips which highlight the maestro’s instinctive understanding of the cultural zeitgeist and the genres he developed for a growing baby boom audience: monster movies, sci-fi, horror (especially his apogee with the Poe cycle), beach party frolics, bikers, rock n’ roll sagas, speeding car spectaculars, gritty blacksploitation flicks, counter-culture tales - you name your sub-culture and Roger Corman was there, well before Time magazine could do a cover story on it. And all on miniscule budgets and legendary production miserliness - as he himself observes: ‘You can make Lawrence of Arabia for half a million dollars - you just don’t leave the tent’.

Thankfully there has been no ‘Premature Burial’ of either Corman or his cinematic products - as his co-producer wife of many years states when commenting on Corman’s attitude to on-set or professional set-backs, ‘the dogs bark but the caravan moves on’. My only real disappointment with this DVD is that it only lasts for a mere 95 minutes (which rush by) and not for at least 180!

James B. Evans