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Posted: Feb 3 2006, 04:41 AM
Member No.: 62
Joined: 18-October 04
THE BURNING COURT (1962)
Sometimes, I have had enough of movies. Loud, shiny and shrill. I’ll move on thank you! And than sometimes the affair begins anew. While not a “great” or “important” movie, this is sure to please those who dream on the esoteric and obscure. The first sentence may pack too much of a punch, but I assure it will make one curious about what is out there. The movie has all the trappings and trimmings that made Hammer, films, AIP, those Jolly Italian movie chillers so memorable. A remote family estate, bodies of water, a history of a burning witch, foreshadowing of past and future events, a disappearing and reappearing and disappearing corpse. It comes from a pair of unexpected sources; Julien Duvivier and John Dickson Carr.
The story begins with a pair of brothers Marc and Stephan (Jean-Claude Brialy and Claude Rich) returning to the family Desgrez estate with the aims of pleasing a rich and dying uncle (Frédéric Duvallès). Brialy arrives with his wife Perrette Pradier and both of whom are displeased with the younger brother. Invited is a newspaper writer (Walter Giller) with wife (Edith Scob). All of the principle characters are descendents of a family curse of a burning witch that has lived and haunted the family. All of this leads to the foreshadowing of events recited from the past. A recreation of past glory (of sorts) is planned for a dinner amusement. Afterwards, the Uncle’s Nurse Myra Schneider (Nadja Tiller (a dead ringer for Ashley Judd thus being the performance ever from Ashley Judd) alerts the family that a glass of eggnog should be delivered for the Uncle. Later that night the assigned maid sees a ghostly figure delivering the drink to the Uncle. While peering through the doorway, the figure disappears into a wall. The Day After, Uncle Desgrez dies. An affair is quickly revealed between “good” brother Marc and Nurse Myra whom have been plotting all along to poison the uncle. Yet it was not them that delivered the drink in question and they rightly alarmed. The uncle’s death now points to them. From here the mystery begins. Who poised the uncle and why? Was it the witch from the burning court?
As it is, the movie is overflowing with excellent set pieces. There is the opening sequence of a sports car approaching the castle. This was recently duplicated in OCEAN’S TWELVE right down to the mark. A funeral service with waltzes of Strauss. A funeral procession set to John Philip Sousa! Perhaps, reference to the novel itself. “The Burning Court” as written in novel form is set in the Philadelphia Jazz Age, not the regions of rural France. There is also a Drowning by Waterfall that is a chiller. Finally there is the “Eggnog sequence”. Its will be hard NOT to compare it Hitchcock or Cocteau. Yet it forms its own identity within the story. The sequence is both dreamy and sinister. The word surrealism is often misused. Trust me when I write that this is vintage surrealism.
Ultimately the mystery is not the most challenging. Anyone who has read a dozen or so can detect a pattern. The back-story isn’t as fleshed out as it should be. It’s easy to call it a red hearing but helps give a perspective to the characters. It is almost as if the fated reenactment or curse was disrupted by the murder. Back-stories such as this have worked better in stories like “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and Walerian Borowczyk’s THE BEAST. A recreation with the principle actors would have given the movie a feel for rhythm that movie is lacking. Yet, the filmmakers have fun and are admirable at attempting to mask the nature of the characters at hand. The best example would the younger, wilder Stephan dressed in a gown. He pleads for money, like a kept woman. Of course, Stephan is singled out by his brother. Yet, later the more responsible brother is seen dressed like wise for “fun”. That the brothers stand to inherit a great deal, the cross dressing excels at masking the identities and the motives. For this movie, it isn’t the mystery of the story that is fun. It’s the being there that is. Being within a house and all that accompanies it.
While not an acting tour de force this is a movie of merit for featuring the likes of Jean Claude Brialy (KING OF HEARTS) and Claude Rich (MALE HUNT). Both actors kept busy in the 60s in a dozens of international productions. Here they play brothers, later both of them would be menaced by Jeanne Moreau in THE BRIDE WORE BLACK. It’s also a treat to see Edith Scobb outside of Georges Franju’s Judex or EYES WITHOUT A FACE. Ultimately, she is underused and her part serves more melancholy emotions for the uncle in the first act. Her interactions with Uncle Desgrez foretell the storytelling an history from the aforementioned THE BEAST. Still it’s worth seeing her in a separate environment awaiting something by the lake.
Now for those who know more about George Lucas than John Cromwell, Julien Duvivier fashioned one of the most remarkable and fatal gangster films of his time (or any time) with PEPE LE MOKE (1936) with Jean Gabin. Pepe is a love sick criminal trapped in the Cashbah of Algiers. Yes, this is the movie that was remade as ALGIERS with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lemarr. “Come meet me at the Cashbah”. For all the ink spilled over Gus Van Sant’s photocopy remake of PSYCHO, director John Cromwell (and a backing studio) did the same thing with ALGIERS and BETTER than Zant could possibly imagine. They even used some of the same footage. It was ALGIERS' popularity that convinced Warner Bros to produce CASABLANCA. Now that MAY be more apocryphal than true but I still stand by these words, if you love CASABLANCA than there is no reason to ignore something like THE BURNING COURT. Duvivier paved the way. A lack of popularity had fallen on him by the 60s and the New Wave critics wanted nothing to do with him. He finally ended his filmography with a once omni present Public Domain staple titled DIABOLICALLY YOURS with Alain Delon.
As far as the writing goes I’m not sure who is more important. John Dickson Carr wrote the novel that it’s based on but the changes are many. The original is more supernatural in its tone and outcome. While that might be enough to upset some of the purists, cincephiles know that this is common for Euro adaptations of American and British writing. (Look no further than Germany’s krimi cycle, or the French crime /noir adaptations Charbol’s 10 DAYS WONDER, Truffaut’s THE BRIDE WORE BLACK, and DANCE OF DEATH that sort of featured The Saint (depending on which version you saw). Still the atmosphere for terror is there. It was surely due to Carr’s writing. A once popular novelist, like Edgar Wallace he seems to fallen away to the margins. Too literate for cinema, he is not often adapted. One is more apt to find him in used bookstores or through radio adaptations from the 30 and 40s. In U.S.A. he is more known for his association with the Doyle estate as continuing the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and authoring a bio on Arthur Conan Doyle. His stories would appear is several juvenile mystery collections, but not lately.
At his core, Carr is a logical writer. There is a method. The adaptation is credited to Charles Spaak. I suspect that he added a certain flair that this adaptaion would not have had otherwise. He collaborated with the likes of Jean Renoir and Robert Siodmak but is perhaps best known and loved for fathering Catherine Spaak. To be honest it was hard to pick up on any details that script may have provided because the print from Sinister Cinema . It was one of those prints where the volume changes after a “cigarette burn” or a reel change. In fact the LAST line of dialogue (of course the key to mystery) of obscured by the scratchy A/V. But hey where else are you to find it? Nowhere! But the movie still moves at an entertaining clip despite its flaws for the aesthetics and technical. It’s a testament to the nice little gem of a mystery. Oh. And anyone who fathers Catherine Spaak deserves to be mentioned.
So feast your eyes on THE BURNING COURT. It is not necessarily a lost masterpiece but instead it may open a doorway of discovery. For this is a movie that will make one want to see more movies that one has never heard of. Its inviting and intoxicating, you might get a fever from this one.
|William S. Wilson||
Posted: Feb 3 2006, 09:45 AM
Member No.: 8
Joined: 17-October 04
Thanks for that review. I'd never even heard of this before (suprise, surprise) and it certainly does sound like it is worth a view. A quick Google search found these awesome covers for editions of the book.