Reviving film fantastique

Master of Shock directs mime genius

Published: Oct 22 2013, 01:01:am

Monday, October 24, 1973
DEROCHE, B.C. — A more unlikely pair of creative collaborators would be hard to imagine:  William Castle, plain-spoken producer of B-budget screamers, and the mime Marcel Marceau, renowned as the world's most sensitive artist of silence.
    Unlikely, too, is the location. The seemingly mismatched film-makers were set up in a cow pasture in the shadow of a mountain not far from Harrison Hot Springs. For five days early last month [September, 1973] their crew shot exteriors in and around Agassiz and Deroche. Despite some visible abrasiveness on the set, the two had nothing but praise for one another when interviewed about the project.
    Said Castle of Marceau: "He's a genius."
    Said Marceau of Castle: "He's a Master.
    Castle, 60, has been plying his craft the longest. A native New Yorker, he began his show business career as a stage actor, heading to Hollywood and the movies in 1937. He first moved behind the camera to take a job as a dialogue director at Harry Cohn's hard-driving Columbia studios. It was not long before he got a crack at a full-scale project. In 1943, he directed a Boston Blackie programmer called,  fittingly enough, Chance of a Lifetime.
    By contrast, Marceau, 50, is a cinematic newcomer.  Though he has been in front of documentary cameras at least 20 times  (recording his various stage creations), he has only appeared in a dramatic feature once before.
    On that occasion, he was playing Professor Ping — "only a cameo" — an ally of Jane Fonda's Barbarella in Roger Vadim's 1968 film. "You see, Vadim was a friend of mine, and he asked me to play a cameo," he said. "I will never do it again, because it does not give you a chance to express yourself as an actor in films . . .
    "The cameo I did in Barbarella made me unhappy because I was cut very much and the shot became very small. I said to myself, 'I don't want to do any more films where I play the cameo.' I want to star in films or to do nothing, because I think I have something to say."
    The Castle project, with the French mime playing a dual role, will definitely be a starring vehicle. According to Castle, the script has been tailored to Marceau's unique talents, with the star actually choreographing the rest of the cast's on-screen movements.

    "There are three geniuses that I've seen work in my lifetime," Castle said. "Many people use the word — it's a strange word — but the word genius means 'can do everything in the field.' They're brilliant, surpassing any other person.
    "When I was a kid in my 20s, I had the privilege of being a friend of Charlie Chaplin, and I watched him direct. Anybody who's seen his works knows they're just as timely today as when he made them — City Lights (1931), Modem Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), Limelight (1952).
    "I watched him on several pictures, and I learned an awful lot from Mr. Chaplin. And then, when I started in films, early in my career, I met a guy called Orson Welles, who had done a review of a picture of mine, and thought I was a pretty good director.
    "It was a picture called When Strangers Marry, and it was one of the first pictures that Robert Mitchum made. [Made in 1944, the film is sometimes seen on TV under its 1947 release title, Betrayed.]  He gave me a marvelous review.  He was working for The Graphic then, in New York.
    "We met and he was very impressed with a story I had, which was called If I Die Before I Wake, which later became The Lady from Shanghai [made in 1946, directed by Welles
with Castle as associate producer]. It gave me a chance to see the second  genius at work, and he was truly a genius in every respect.
    "Orson could act, he could direct, he could produce, he could write, he could compose. He could have run his own Hollywood because there was nobody like him . . .  
    "He had one fault a genius can have sometimes. He was intellectually way beyond his years. When he was 25, around the age when we were making Lady from Shanghai — he was intellectually like a man of 70, not in age, but in wisdom and knowledge.
    "Intellectually, he was a giant. Emotionally, he was younger than his years. He was 15. And never did the emotional part of him and the intellectual part ever meet.  And that was what defeated Orson Welles .  . .
    "The third genius is Marcel Marceau. He is a true genius in every sense of the word. lt's very difficult sometimes . . . He is way ahead of himself, at all times creating, and I can't keep up with him. I've got to etch before I paint, but he's already got it painted, and he's waiting for me to catch up with him.
    "Sometimes I forget the infinite artist he is. It's difficult for me, because I don't have that genius. All I have is what I have. lt's very difficult for me to catch up with him because he's got the whole thing etched, painted and ready to shoot when I'm just starting in to block it.
    "So, consequently, like most geniuses — and I say this in all sincerity and love — he will say, 'I want to see you. Rlght away!,' and break my train of thought . . .  It's just his wanting to make this picture the best picture that Bill Castle ever made."

        On this particular Wednesday, their set is the Three Linden farm, just off Brook Road not far from Deroche. A half dozen vehicles line the tree-shaded access lane. Some 30 people, among them the cast, crew and a sprinkling of local spectators, are preparing for the shoot.
    Castle and his collaborator are pacing the ground. The director, a big, hulking man in denims and a casual grey cardigan, moves with the deliberate gait of a Calgary rancher. A spreading tonsure is beginning to show through his thick, silver grey hair, and, as they talk, he brandishes an enormous cigar.
    At his side, in costume, is the slight, curly-headed Marceau, a study in precise, controlled movement. In this scene, he plays Malcolm Shanks, a mute puppeteer who becomes tangled in a web of unnatural circumstances.
    "He's involved in a thrilling adventure," Marceau said, "where mime has a big part. That means the visuals and the timing are important . . . He does not act like a monster, he does not become an infirm. He acts very naturally. He reads the lips of the people around him. He can understand and, even if he doesn't hear, he acts absolutely normal.
    "Here the mime helps me very much to act exactly like Chaplin or Keaton would have acted . . . . Then, I also play another character who is a scientist and whose name is Old Walker, and he speaks. But, when I do the character who speaks, the public will not recognize me. They're two completely different characters."
    The script, by British writer Ranald Graham, came to him by a somewhat circuitous route. Originally titled The Death of Beethoven, it was, according to Marceau, "not for grown-up actors. (It) had two children as the heroes."
    In subsequent versions, it was named Childhood of the Dead, then Shock. The project began to jell when Castle saw the public — and especially the youth — response to Marceau in performance. "I first saw Marcel In Los Angeles at the Schubert Theatre."

    "I saw something I'd never seen before. It was the first time I'd ever seen the Schubert Theatre packed with 2,000 people. And there was standing room . . . I thought that the ones who'd like Marceau would be the people of my own years. But the audience was filled with all young people. I don't think there was anybody in the audience, except half a dozen people, who were over 30.
    "This is my moviegoing audience,' I said to myself. 'My God, this must be a whole new cult.'  At the end of the performance, he took about 15 curtain calls. I'd never seen this before, except for maybe Mick Jagger. That audience got on its feet — now, these are all youngsters — and they cheered him.
    "I'd never seen anything like this. I didn't believe It. His performance was great and brilliant but, I said, 'Why? Why would young people relate with it?'
    "I went back a second night, and it's the same thing. Two thousand people, standing room, they got on their feet, threw flowers. So I went back again. Same thing. Then I approached him backstage.
    "I said to myself, 'If I can translate what he has in pantomime, without pantomime, into the motion picture field, why can not a great mime give a performance as an actor?' A good actor has to have pantomime.
    "The whole moving-picture business started without words. Everybody in those days was somewhat of a mime. Then sound came out and we talked ourselves to death. I said, 'why can not he give a performance?' and I said, 'no reason.'
    "I went back and was introduced to him.   He knew of me. He had seen most of my pictures. He'd seen Rosemary's Baby [produced by Castle in 1968]."
    Describing their encounter, Marceau said: "For years he wanted to meet (me), who for him was like Lon Chaney, the man with 1,000 faces. He was a great admirer of Lon Chaney because his father had also worked in the film industry, and he was a kid when Lon Chaney was a hero.
    "And then he saw my (Los Angeles) show, the Mask-Maker. He came back to see the show three or four times and he asked me If I wanted to be in his picture."
    "We spoke till about four or five in the morning at my house," Castle added. "We stayed up about two or three nights till about four o'clock, conceptualizing, and at the end he said, 'I'd love to do It.'''
    At the end, the title of the film was changed once more, to Shanks, after Marceau's character Malcolm Shanks. "I thought Shock was a B title," Castle said.

    "Then the question was, 'who's going to direct it?'  We hadn't decided that, so he says, 'Would you do it?' And I said, 'No. No way would I direct.'"
    "You can't produce and direct, and I just didn't want to work that hard. Yes, I'd done it before, but not with a genius. It's a tremendous responsibility. With a genius, don't forget, I have my insecurities . . . directing is for young people, the Bogdanoviches. I don't want to direct any more."
    Although Castle directed an episode of his own television series, Circle of Fear (
1972-73; originally aired as Ghost Story), his last feature film project had been in 1968. A superior bit of B-budget science fiction set in the year 2118, it was called Project X.
    "Marcel had to go back to London. Then, one morning at four o'clock (London time), I get a telephone call. He said, 'I can't sleep.' I said, 'pourquoi?' Why?' He said, 'Bill, the only way I'll undertake to make this picture is if you direct.'
        Six years earlier, producer Castle had turned over the directorial duties on his film Rosemary's Baby to the 34-year-old Roman Polanski. "'I can't, Marcel," I told him. 'I won't.'" An hour later, in a second call, he reconsidered, the decision that would bring  them to this Canadian farm field.
    Sixteen years earlier, Castle made another career-altering decision. "I was in television at the time, and hated it," he said. "I was making a series called Men of Annapolis and Meet McGraw (both 1957-58). I hated them, because of the bureaucracy and the sponsors."
    "It was after I saw Monsieur (Henri-Georges) Clouzot's Diabolique (1955) in the theatre that I realized that there had been nothing for audiences around the world from Hollywood since the early days of Karloff and Lugosi. That was about a 15 year gap.
     "I realized that, in that 15 year span, none of the young people had really seen a horror picture in the true tradition. I said, 'Here's a perfect opportunity.'" Castle decided return to feature films as America's Master of Shock, going on to direct a series of now-classic gimmick-driven movies.
    "The first one was Macabre (1958), and that was a very strange film," he says. "I made it with my own money because nobody would back me. I made it for very little money and got all my friends to act in it."
     Once it was finished, "I looked at it, and it wasn't as frightening as I had hoped it would be. It needed something. I looked at it, and was very honest with myself, and said 'A Diabolique it isn't.'

    "'What can you do with $50,000 and seven days?' I said. 'I need something, otherwise it's just going to be a second feature on the bill. I need something to bring the audience in.' And that's when I thought of my first gimmick.
    "I got insurance policies. I had Lloyd's of London issue it, and I paid for everybody's life. Anybody that died of a heart attack or fright, I'd pay $1,000. We advertised that and gave out actual Lloyd's of London policies. People had to sign it. They actually bought the policy when they went in. That was the big attraction. The picture did $3 million."

     Despite the crowds, Macabre managed to complete its run without a single fright fatality. Castle was faced with coming up with a new gimmick for his next feature, The House on Haunted Hill (1959).
     "I had to top myself on that," he said. "I had Emergo. That was where the skeleton left the screen and went back to the screen. (In the movie) Vincent Price reeled back an actual skeleton (that was suspended over the audience on a cable). The third one was The Tlngler (1959), and that's when I wired all the seats. That cost me more than the picture.
    "Then I did the money-back guarantee (for 1961's Homicical). That broke into Life, Time, and all the magazines. I had remembered Hitchcock, and Psycho (1960), with its 'nobody seated after the picture starts' rule. I thought I could out-Hitchcock Hitchcock with this thing. So, I said, 'I'll give them their money back in the last minute of the picture, if anyone is too frightened to stay in the theatre.
    "That's where the exhibitors fought me. 'Give passes. Don't give money away.' What I did was say, 'Let's take a chance and preview it.'
    "So I went to Youngstown, Ohio, to try it out. Every exhibitor was there, every head of the studio was there. The house was packed. The last minutes of the picture, my voice comes on the screen. 'Ladies and gentlemen. You have 60 seconds until the end of the picture (begins). So if you're too frightened to stay, and want to be a coward, go back and get your full admission price refunded.'
    "Half the audience got up and walked out. I tell you, my heart sank. The exhibitor punched me. 'What kind of a jerk are you?'

     "I said, 'What happened?'
    "'Well,' the manager said, 'you know, something's wrong.'

     "I said, 'What?'
    "He said, 'At the end of the first performance, nobody came out except a few people. They'd stayed to see two runnings, so they could get their admission back out of one.' He couldn't get them out.
    "I hadn't thought of that — that people would sit through it twice! So the next performance, we sent to the five-and-ten-cent store and bought all the red, blue and green cards that we could get. All the executives were cutting little red, blue, green cards so that for every performance you got a colour corresponding to that performance, and if you were in the second performance you had the wrong colour and they wouldn't give you your money back.
    "After that, there was very little that we had to give back."
    Gimmicks for their own sake are a thing of the past for Castle. Says Marceau: "I think, since Rosemary's Baby (1968), William Castle wants to produce something different from horror films he has done, which were very popular in America. He wants to go more in the direction of a refined style."

    "He feels there is a new wave. a young generation coming up that will love the thrilling overtones more than the horror.  There's too much violence in this world and too much of it is horror already. He is a very sensitive man who has realized that, and he doesn't want to make a horror film.
    "The public," continued Marceau, "is fed up with sex, crime and violence . . . Bill Castle said he saw a number I do on stage called Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death, which are the four stages of the life of man. He said that he wants the concentration in this film to be on youth, because there are many children in the film; maturity, which is Malcolm Shanks; old age, which is Old Walker; and death because, unfortunately, there is also death.
    "There is a fight between death and the living, where the dead are less dangerous than the living people. And it becomes symbolic."
    Unlike North American film-goers, the French are quite precise about their classification of films within genres. In the case of horror movies, they recognize several different kinds. "There's a difference," says Marceau, "Les  Diaboliques, by Clouzot, was not a horror film. It was a film fantastique.
    "Or, let's say La Belle et la Bete (Jean Cocteau's 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast). "It was a film merveilleux. There are different categories. Horror films are completely different."

     Within each category there is room for a genuine appreciation of the filmmaker's craft. "We have many cine-clubs," said Marceau. "There is a revival of the fantastique going on now in Europe. But we do not forget the masters of the fantastique.
    "There was Dr. Mabuse and (The Cabinet of Dr.) Caligari, in the time of German expressionism in the movies. Today, it is still Hitchcock, it is Roger Corman, and it is Bill Castle in America. The great masters are Anglo-Saxon. In France, we have only Clouzot and Jean Cocteau . . .
    "I think," said Marceau, explaining the current popularity of films with supernatural overtones, "that people now not only want to see their ordinary dreams, but they like to have them surrealistic. This is the kind of film that starts in fact and reality and slowly becomes fantastique.
    "I think this is because there is a need for more stylization — stylized  theatre and stylized film — where the visual element becomes very important . . . the young today have a great need for visual theatre and for going a back to the sources of reality and epic. This why there is such a great following for mime. It's visual, like ballet. There's a big come-back of ballet, also."

    For Marceau, the Shanks project is part of an extended program of personal artistic broadening. If it is successful, he looks forward to making a movie or two a year for the next five years. "My career in the theatre has been settled," he said, referring to his established reputation as a theatrical performer.
    "If I had not met Bill Castle, I would now have a company of mimes, a production company of my own where I could do what I want to do in films. That means not only thrillers, but the fantastique and the merveilleuse, to introduce a visual world and be above reality. The time is right for that. Bill Castle has given me this chance," he said.

     "I'll continue my career as a mime in the theatre, of course. I'm going to Russia, and then I'll go back to the States in '74. The film comes out next May or June."
    A painter and a writer as well as a performer, Marceau has set out to master as many of the lively arts as possible. "Unfortunately, we don't live seven lives. Maybe we live through others later. But in this lifetime, I am aware that there is not so much time left.
    "Life is so short, so quick. But I want to make it timeless. This is why I want everything I do, to make it very strong.
    "Once you have reached a point where the public expects much, when you arrive at a certain perfection in your art, you have to be very careful if you choose film. It could destroy not only the image, but everything . . . The other films I want to do after have to be very, very carefully chosen so as not to destroy what I've created in the theatre.
    "I would like to do The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, [a 1959 novella] by Henry Miller. He has written a beautiful story about two clowns.  He came to see me in my house. He spoke about that project and he would be willing that I co-direct and star in it.
    "I'm also to co-produce The Best of Marceau. That means it will have have the best of my numbers that I have done on stage for the new generation to come. That means that I could slowly give up the theatre as a one-man show and consecrate myself to a company, where I would direct, and do films like the one I'm doing now.
        "It has to be done in the five years to come," Marceau said. "I want to do it when I'm at the peak of my abilities. I'm now mature and I've  arrived at the peak of my career and I would like now to give the best of myself to the arts."
    Both Castle and Marceau see Shanks as a milestone in their respective careers. Despite his success  as a promoter, Castle has never been taken seriously  by the important American critics. This is a film that he to plans to have ready for the 1974 Cannes Film Festival.
    Marceau sees even broader horizons and pursues more ambitious cinematic goals. "I hope," he said, "that our civilization will be preserved and the people on other planets will see it. "We don't know what will happen in 2,000 years. Many people say "who cares?' l never say that. I think that man has to live as for eternity. It's the only way that culture is preserved. If he lives only for himself, he's already dead."

The above is a restored version of a Province interview by Michael Walsh originally published in 1973. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

AFTERWORD: The first thing I said to William Castle was "Thank you." It was an expression of gratitude from the 14-year-old boy who'd gone with friends to Toronto's Glendale Theatre in 1959 to see The Tingler.  Standing in line on a midsummer evening, two young men made the acquaintance of three young women, and they decided to sit together during the show. By chance, they happened to sit in one of the two rows equipped to deliver the "Percepto" shock (actually an intense buzz created by surplus Second World War vibrators wired beneath the seats). At the moment in the movie when the tingler "escapes" into the theatre, their whole row felt the buzz, and a pretty blonde girl actually levitated into the lap of the boy sitting beside her. "You're welcome," Castle said to me, smiling.
     As became clear during our interview, both Castle and his collaborator Marcel Marceau were striking out in new creative directions based on their reading of the cultural Zietgeist. Sadly, their version of fantastique was not the direction in which audiences were headed. Disaster movies (such as Earthquake and Towering Inferno) and broad comedies (Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein) were the top-grossing films of 1974. Nor was Shanks screened at Cannes. Castle would produce just one more film (1975's Bug) and an autobiography (Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America: Memoirs of a B-Movie Mogul; Putnam, 1976) before his death in 1977, at the age of 63. Marceau would step back from the cinematic ambitions he revealed in our interview. He appeared in only one other feature film (a gimmick cameo in Mel Brooks's 1976 comedy Silent Film). He died in 2007 at the age of 84.

SEE ALSO: Matinee (1993); Shanks (1975)