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at the Tate Modern 28 May  –  3 October 2010

Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera surveys voyeuristic photography from the 19th Century until the present day, juxtaposing images from both famous and amateur photographers. The theme of voyeurism is covered by undercover, paparazzi and salacious photography, but also stark images of death, execution and war.

If you can’t make it to the exhibition you can still order the catalogue, available here: Amazon UK / Amazon US. Be warned that the book contains some disturbing imagery beyond what is featured in the exhibition.

Here I will be taking a brief closer look at five works found in the show.

1. Greta Garbo in the Club St. Germain, Paris (Georges Dudognon, circa 1950s) [San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Members of Foto Forum, 2005.200 © Estate of Georges Dudognon]

Georges Dudognon: Greta Garbo in the Club St. Germain, Paris ca. 1950s

The face in the paparazzi image above is actually The Face: Greta Garbo. One of the most famous and admired women in the world, Garbo became a New York recluse after retiring from films at the beginning of the 1940s. Sightings of her were rare, and this 1950s image captures the conflict between a movie star’s public persona and private life. Now older and with her face obscured, Garbo is unrecognisable, but once understood to be her it becomes a contrasting reference to all those images of her as an icon of beauty and stardom. It is also perfectly composed: notice how Garbo’s eye is perfectly in focus yet the hand is not, and how her eye fits perfectly between the end of the little finger and the brim of her hat. It is one of those miraculous images that appear to be both a product of chance and a skillful photographer.

2. Lovers with 3-D glasses at the Palace Theatre (Infra-red) (Weegee [aka Arthur Fellig], 1943)

Lovers with 3-D glasses at the Palace Theatre (Infra-red), 1943.

Image co. of: http://www.rachelhulin.com/blog/2009/09/ten-from-weegee-and-amber-online.html

Weegee was a crime photographer who was always in the right place at the right time, stealing striking to-the-point images of violence, chaos and murder on the streets of New York. He also took shot of city life more widely, including several fascinating shots of audiences in movie theatres. These often focused on kissing couples in the crowd, oblivious to the movie on the screen. These images (some of which I believe were actually staged, with couples brought into the cinema) hint at the love-in-the-dark culture that had been prevalent in cinema-going from its earliest days. One of these images actually takes place in the midst of a 3D movie, the audience bespectacled in their green-and-red paper spectacles. Some of the audience look entertained, but the kissing couple appears to be bored. (Maybe they’re readers of The Classic Film Show.)

The above image would have required a pretty powerful flash to light the scene, surely a major distraction to the movie.

Further images by Weegee can be viewed online here. http://www.amber-online.com/exhibitions/weegee-collection

He also took this fascinating, candid photograph of Marilyn, skirt lifted, on the location set of The Seven Year Itch.

Marilyn Monroe Seven Year Itch Weegee Arthur Fellig

Image co. of: http://www.tate.org.uk/modern/exhibitions/exposure/theme2.shtm

3. Many Are Called (Walker Evans)

Walker Evans Many Are Called

Image co. of: http://visualingual.wordpress.com/2008/12/30/subway-portraits-by-walker-evans/

A famous series of images by Walker Evans shows portraits of unsuspecting travellers on the New York subway. To capture commuters unaware, Evans made these images covertly using a hidden camera stowed away in his coat, only really made possible by the greater portability and low-light capabilities of modern cameras. What resulted were unselfconscious images of daily New York life, and what is life in the city but a series of arduous journeys back and forth?

This series is available in a quality hardback by the Museum of Modern Art, (Amazon.com / Amazon.co.uk) which will surely become a collector’s item pretty soon.

4. Hyères, France 1932, Henri Cartier-Bresson

Hyères, France 1932, Henri Cartier-Bresson

Image co. of: http://loinsbongo.blog.co.uk/2009/10/28/la-vie-en-noir-et-blanc-7264520/

The exhibition contains some of the most famous images in photography, including this Cartier-Bresson image of a bicycle captured perfectly within the limited space of the composition. It is often claimed that Cartier-Bresson took the most perfect snapshot, an image that crystalised ‘the defining moment’, in Behind the Gare St. Lazare, Paris. In the above image Cartier-Bresson found his composition in the twisting lines of the bannisters but waited for something to fill the space. When a bicycle came along he clicked at the above moment. Spontaneity in photography can be a difficult effect to achieve.

5. Sophie Calle – The Shadow

Sophie Calle is a French artist who came to prominence in the 1970s with her combination of text and photography in her art-as-life narratives. She took elements of detective fiction and connected them to her real life. In one project presented by the exhibition, she asked a private detective to tail her and send her a report, in essence following herself. It’s a piece that would resonate with anyone familiar with noir movies or the nouvelle vague and is a storyline that would fit well in a postmodern noir tale.

But there are also some truly chilling and disturbing images: a body falls from a hotel window in a desperate escape from a fire; a suicidal man jumps from a bridge after the crowd below collectively encourage him; the decayed remains of a victim of the Rwandan genocide has sunk into the earth.

Elsewhere in the exhibition are works by famous photographers such as Paul Strand, Garry Winogrand and Dorothea Lange and as a whole provides an overview of the entire medium of photography.

Again the catalogue is available here (Amazon UKAmazon US).

More information about the exhibition, which runs until 3rd October 2010, can be found at the Tate Modern website.

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TCM Spotlight: The Charlie Chan Collection Sidney Toler

Available from 8th June 2010.

The Charlie Chan Collection is available from Amazon.com.

Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan was created by novelist Earl Derr Biggers in 1923 and went on to feature in fiction, comics, radio, television and at the movies. In all there have been a total of fifty-seven film adaptations of the character.

Warner Oland starred as Chan in 1931’s Charlie Chan Carries On and went on to make a total of 15 films as Chan for Fox. After his death in 1938 Sidney Toler took over as Chan and made another 11 films for Fox. Toler himself bought the rights to the character after Fox ceased production on the Chan movies, and took the character to Monogram Pictures, one of the key minor studios on poverty row, where he continued to star as Chan.

This Chan collection contains three films starring Sidney Toler and one starring his successor Roland Winters.

Charlie Chan has been well served on DVD with five box sets already available, covering a total of 24 of the Fox Chan films. But this four-disc TCM Spotlight set is notable for two key reasons: they contain four Chan films made by Monogram Pictures and the prints have been restored, resulting in an image and sound quality that are remarkably clear for films made on poverty row.

Dark Alibi (Monogram Pictures, dir: Phil Karlson, 1946)
starring Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland and Benson Fong.

Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan in Dark Alibi

Dark Alibi (1946)

Dark Alibi is the most satisfying of the four films in the set, kicking off with a surprisingly authentic noir sequence: gunmen in dark glasses raid an atmospheric, shadowy bank vault. It’s a visually stark and surprisingly violent sequence, and triggers a narrative about Chan attempting to get an innocent man off death row. As a detective Chan is calm, measured, and experienced – like many detectives he is always one step ahead (in some cases inexplicably so). He is joined by his son Tommy Chan, played by Chinese-American actor Benson Fong, who constantly tries to impress his father with his own amateur sleuthing. Chan’s other sidekick is chauffeur Birmingham Brown, played by Mantan Moreland, and along with Fong provide comic relief as a convincing double act.

The plot of Dark Alibi contains a chain of clues based around fingerprints forgery. The Chan films are clearly B-movies that function in the realm of pulp crime fiction, and for fans of the genre Dark Alibi is a particularly entertaining example of that.

One of the pleasures of B-movies is noticing moments that contrast to mainstream movies. In this case it takes the shape of unusual compositions, such as an economically composed shot of Chan, Brown and Moreland in a car, perfectly composed from an angle towards the side so that all three are in view. When Chan visits the  prison cell of the wrongly accused, through the bars we see a back projection of the prison corridor moving off into the distance, producing a striking visual effect.

This is also a really interesting film about race. It is not unusual in American cinema to find Caucasian actors playing characters of different races, and here Chan is played by Toler, a white Scottish-American. The mechanics of Sidney Toler’s performance as Chinese are as follows: a slight accent and affected use of English, prosthetics around his eyes, and a thin beard. While these are certainly symbols associated with stereotypes, in this case they almost act as elements of costume. They become signs for the audience that Toler is playing a Chinese-American character without requiring you to be entirely convinced that he is actually Chinese-American. In that sense the performance is quite self-conscious, as though Toler is letting the audience know that he is only playing a part. This is further backed-up by the juxtaposition of Toler with Benson Fong, the Chinese-American actor who plays his son.

Of course black actors in classical Hollywood were often sidelined into minor parts, parts that perpetuated stereotypes, or ignored altogether. In this series, the actor Mantan Moreland at least is allowed a decent amount of screen time. Yes, he provides much of the comic relief along with Benson Fong, and he does play Chan’s chauffeur, but the space provided to him does allow him to display his talent as a comic actor. One very interesting and funny moment sees Moreland engage in a quick-fire double-act routine with another black actor during the prison sequence, which could have been a routine straight out of vaudeville. Frankly exchanges between two black actors in mainstream Hollywood cinema was very rare at the time, and it suggests that these B-movies and other films by Monogram Pictures catered for audiences neglected by mainstream Hollywood.

Extra Features: None.

Dangerous Money (Monogram Pictures, dir: Terry O. Morse, 1946)
starring Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland and Victor Sen Yung.

Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan in Dangerous Money

Dangerous Money (1946)

Unlike Dark Alibi, Dangerous Money takes on the shape of a straight whodunit in the mode of Agatha Christie: several confined passengers of different nationalities are all suspected of murdering a member of the United States Treasury Department. There is a knife-throwing assassin on-board to contend with, so skilled that he can throw a knife through impossibly narrow spaces. No one seems to notice that it was actually Chan who led the victim to his death; he persuades him to head to the dining room instead of his own quarters, and he is promptly assassinated. Here Benson Fong is replaced by Victor Sen Yung, playing Chan’s ‘Son Number Two’.

Extra Features: None.

The Trap (Monogram Pictures, dir: Howard Bretherton, 1946)
starring Sidney Toler, Mantan Moreland and Victor Sen Yung.

Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan and Victor Sen Yung as Son Number Two in The Trap

The Trap (1946)

With pulp crime fiction you can often expect suspension of disbelief to kick in. With this whodunnit tale of showgirls living in a beach house you may require more than usual. When one of their number is strangled, the girls decide to go on living there and continue having carefree fun on the beach. Of course another of their number is swiftly killed. Part of the enjoyment of pulp crime fiction is watching convoluted plots unfold, and there are some enjoyably absurd sequences to be found in The Trap.

Extra Features: None.

The Chinese Ring (Monogram Pictures, dir: William Beaudine, 1947)
starring Roland Winters, Mantan Moreland and Victor Sen Yung.

The only film in the set to star Ronald Winters as Chan, The Chinese Ring concerns a plot about a murdered Chinese princess. It’s a standard pulp narrative, but a series of new vivid characters livens up the action and pull it back from the more contrived moments of the The Trap. Winters steps into the role of Chan with ease, and the transition from Toler is very smooth; after a few minutes you’re completely at ease with Winters as Chan.

Extra Features: None.

Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan in The Trap

The Trap (1946)

About the Prints

B-movies often fall victim to neglect, with titles going out of copyright and damaged, duplicated prints circulating in the public domain. Warner Bros. have done an excellent job in making sure these films look as good as possible. By doing so Warner are giving the films the respect they deserve, and making sure they are presented in as optimal a condition as possible. This is especially admirable in the case of these Monogram titles. Since they weren’t even produced by Warner, the work they have done on this suggests that they have a genuine interest in the preservation of cinema more broadly than their own production history.

Overall

For any fans of Charlie Chan, this is an obvious purchase. But it is also recommended to anyone interested in detective fiction, poverty row cinema, or depictions of race in 1940s cinema. They are also damn entertaining, with excellent prints, and at their hour-long running times they make an easy watch.

Buy The Charlie Chan Collection from Amazon.com.

Sidney Toler Charlie Chan Dark Alibi

Dark Alibi (1946)

Contact Me

Christian Hayes
classicfilmshow@gmail.com
christianhayes.net
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