(This is the third of film critic F.X. Feeney‘s interview with filmmaker Roger Corman, whose body of work is being honored with a special Oscar at the 82nd Academy Awards on May 7. On Demand from Comcast is celebrating Corman’s work through mid-March by showcasing a number of his movies, and Fancast also has a compliment of his movies you can watch free online. Read parts 1 and 2 of the interview here.)
Roger Corman tried comedy because he’d grown weary of straight horror as a genre, and he adapted Edgar Allen Poe for the same reason: “I was ready to move on. American International Pictures, with whom I had a relationship, had asked me to do two black & white horror pictures back to back in ten days. But I said to them, ‘Let me have the budget for one fifteen-day color film instead: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher‘.’ I had no thought of making a ‘Poe series,’ but it turned out to be the biggest grossing picture that AIP had ever had.
“The reviews were very nice, and the audience reaction was good. So they asked me to make another. In the end, I did five or six. And I could’ve made more – but after a few years of Poe, I was ready to move on again. Enough was enough: I’ll always pursue an idea to its limits, but I never like to feel I’m repeating myself. I always look for ways to break out of any feeling of ‘uniformity.’”
Corman unexpectedly blends comedy with Poe in ‘The Raven‘, because the poem on which it was based had no “plot,” as such – only a sinister black bird, a guilty narrator, and a lovely name tormenting the man’s conscience: “Leonore.” The film provides a playful explanation, one involving a clumsy magician and a leading lady who is believed dead at first but proves very much alive. There was some unexpected comedy behind the scenes, too: the Raven perched on Jack Nicholson’s shoulder suffered diarrhea. “It [blasted away] on everybody and everything,” the actor laughed, years later: “Endlessly. My costume’s right shoulder turned a shade of white we couldn’t wash off, after a time.”
After six adventures with Poe, Corman turned primarily to what he describes as “period action” films – of which he counts ‘The Wild Angels‘, which he argues was a “period piece of its time. I’ve always liked that type of film, particularly gangster films.” One gem ripe for rediscovery through free online viewing on Fancast is a World War II adventure, ‘The Secret Invasion‘, in which a team of criminal misfits (among them Mickey Rooney and Raf Vallone) parachute into Nazi-occupied Italy – a forerunner by three years to it most famous imitator ‘The Dirty Dozen‘, a good three decades ahead of Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Bastards‘, and one of Corman’s finest – a lean, suspenseful and completely unsentimental film.
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Many of the ‘Secret Invaders’ are sympathetic characters, but few if any come to happy ends. More renowned as a career-best is ‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre‘, Corman’s largest-scale production ($2 million dollars), made for 20th Century Fox – in which Jason Robards struts about memorably as 1920s gangster Al Capone. Finally, there is ‘Von Richthofen and Brown‘, filmed in Ireland for under a million dollars, using World War I era biplanes left over from two bigger budget films, John Guillerman’s ‘The Blue Max‘ and Blake Edwards’ ‘Darling Lili‘. Corman saved money by erecting a 30 foot platform from which he could film low-flying planes at such an angle that they looked airborne; other scenes were shot using a survey plane he borrowed from an oil company. Crew were routinely costumed pressed into double-duty as extras.
One young woman working as an assistant, Julie Halloran, donned a helmet and played a gunner in one bit – and not long thereafter, she became Mrs. Roger Corman. This made for an enormous change in the filmmaker’s life – he quit directing for the next two decades, to raise a family. He came back in 1990 to direct ‘Frankenstein Unbound‘, but after 1970 primarily devoted himself to producing, and distributing. His company became the American distributor for such international classics as Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’, Fellini’s ‘Amarcord’, and Volker Schlondorff’s ‘The Tin Drum’ – all of which won Academy Awards. For years, the gold-embossed “certificates of nomination” (each with their prominent image of Oscar) were on proud display in Corman’s office.
Now they have a statuette in his name, to go with them.
Corman turns 84 in April, but is still going strong – reporting to his office nearly every day, plotting new ventures, dreaming up fresh variations on the nightmarish fantasies and satiric themes which have been his life’s work, and fortune. Right now, he’s in talks with the SyFy channel to plan what he chuckles is “a creature-feature” whose lab-produced monster – a “Sharktopus” – will be genetically designed to attack terrorists and Somali-style pirates, in places where the US Navy cannot go. Rest assured, he says, “Everything that can go wrong, will, because the monster’s maker is a sinister corporation modeled on the likes of Blackwater and Halliburton.”
This is straight out of a vintage Corman playbook: Light-hearted Morality Tales, culled from today’s headlines. The Maestro is living proof that this is a healthy way to work. “I hope,” he says in conclusion, “that people new to my work will enjoy the exciting balance we struck between what we intended to do, and how we executed those intentions – especially in relation to our low budgets, and the period. It’s interesting to see what our techniques were capable of in those times, in relation to one of our graduates, Jim Cameron, and ‘Avatar’. The historical evolution is certainly interesting.”