Harry Lachman’s Inferno

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Looking at Willy Pogány’s work last week I was reminded that as well as illustrating books he worked in Hollywood for a while as an art director and set designer. Among those jobs was a credit for “Technical staff” on the only film for which director Harry Lachman is remembered today, a curious 1935 melodrama, Dante’s Inferno. This stars Spencer Tracy as a fairground barker whose talent for drawing an audience helps an old showman boost the attendance at his moralising “Dante’s Inferno” attraction.

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Entrance to the fairground attraction.

A hubristic rise and fall follows for Tracy, and the film spends much of its running time in routine business and family scenes. What sets it apart is some striking fairground designs (no doubt Pogány’s involvement) and a truly startling self-contained sequence when the old showman describes for Tracy the true nature of the Inferno. This sequence takes Gustave Doré’s celebrated illustrations and brings them to life in a series of atmospheric tableaux which even manage to contain brief glimpses of nudity. Hell, it seems, is the one place you can get away with not wearing any clothes. I’ve read many times that this sequence was borrowed from an earlier silent film, also called Dante’s Inferno, but have yet to come across any definite confirmation. It’s certainly possible since studios at that time treated other films in a very cavalier fashion; when a film was remade the studio would try to buy up and destroy prints of the earlier film. If anyone can point to more information about the origin of the Hell sequence, please leave a comment.

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Stone tombs from the Inferno sequence.

If the Inferno sequence wasn’t already stolen in 1935, it works so well that it’s been plundered many times since; Kenneth Anger borrowed shots which he mixed into Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Derek Jarman did the same for TG: Psychick Rally in Heaven (1981), and Ken Russell slipped some tinted scenes into Altered States (1980). I tinted the entire sequence red and dumped it into the one-off video accompaniment I made for Alan Moore and Tim Perkins’ stage performance of Angel Passage in 2001; it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s been used elsewhere. As with many of Hollywood’s products, Lachman’s film pretends to condemn prurience—Tracy’s character exploits Hell’s lurid attractions for gain—while revelling in the opportunity to show as much bare flesh as the censors would allow. As with Doré, Lachman’s Inferno seems populated solely by men and women in the peak of physical fitness.

Inevitably, you can see the Inferno sequence on YouTube here and here. The film doesn’t seem to be available on DVD but it’s worth seeking out to watch in full. In addition to the infernal delights, you also get to see 16-year-old Rita Hayworth’s screen debut as a dancer on a cruise ship.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Willy Pogány’s Lohengrin
Willy Pogány’s Parsifal
Maps of the Inferno
A TV Dante by Tom Phillips and Peter Greenaway
The art of Lucio Bubacco
The last circle of the Inferno
Angels 4: Fallen angels

Maps of the Inferno

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Dante’s Inferno, Map of Whole Hell (1587?).

Continuing the theme of yesterday’s post, Wikimedia Commons has a substantial section devoted to Dante’s Inferno including some maps, the best being this one and another, both by Giovanni Stradano aka Stradanus (1523–1605).

And taking a broader view, there’s Michelangelo Cactani’s depiction of Dante’s entire cosmos showing the pit of the Inferno, Mount Purgatory and the spheres of Heaven. This was the version we used in Robert Meadley’s A Tea Dance at Savoy (2003) and includes my addition of titles and a frame.

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La Materia della Divina Commedia di Dante Aligherie (1855).

Previously on { feuilleton }
A TV Dante by Tom Phillips and Peter Greenaway
The art of Lucio Bubacco
The last circle of the Inferno
Angels 4: Fallen angels

A TV Dante by Tom Phillips and Peter Greenaway

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More cult stuff from Ubuweb, you lucky people. Being a big Tom Phillips enthusiast I’ve been watching A TV Dante (1989) for years, having taped the one and only broadcast of the series. I also bought the accompanying booklet (below).

This ambitious program, produced by the award-winning film director Peter Greenaway and internationally-known artist Tom Phillips, brings to life the first eight cantos of Dante’s Inferno. Featuring a cast that includes Sir John Gielgud as Virgil, the cantos are not conventionally dramatized. Instead, the feeling of Dante’s poem is conveyed through juxtaposed imagery that conjures up a contemporary vision of hell, and its meaning is deciphered by eminent scholars in visual sidebars who interpret Dante’s metaphors and symbolism. This program makes Dante accessible to the MTV generation. Caution to viewers: program contains nudity. (8 segments, 11 minutes each)

Given the nature of the collaboration, this can’t be compared to many other TV productions. Greenaway wasn’t staging a drama, he was using the TV screen as a flat space like a moving painting, or a series of diagrams and connected symbol systems. The division of the screen has a parallel in some of Phillips’s paintings (and his artist’s book of the Inferno) and makes use of Phillips’s familiar stencil lettering. There are actors: as mentioned above, Sir John Gielgud took the role of Virgil, with Bob Peck as Dante and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer as Beatrice. And there are recurrent motifs: triangle, concentric circles, cardiograph displays, Muybridge animations and so on. “Footnotes” were provided by a company of experts who appear in small inset panels to comment on the text while it’s being read. Phillips himself is one of the principal commentators since it was his translation being used.

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Peter Greenaway’s feature films have never interested me very much, I prefer him when he’s doing things like this which probably explains why I like Prospero’s Books, his version of The Tempest; much of that film’s approach seems to have been developed from A TV Dante. It’s a shame that only eight of the Cantos were filmed in this way. There were plans to film all thirty four using other directors (with Greenaway to return at the end) but this endeavour took place at the end of the period when Channel 4 was still a haven for unusual arts projects. Regime change subsequently charted a course for the lowest common denominator. And with the two leading actors now dead it wouldn’t be possible to resume the project. In the end this doesn’t matter too much. What remains is an introduction to a perennially fascinating book and an example of how television could—if someone had the courage—ditch the clichés of drama documentary and try something genuinely new.

The official Tom Phillips website
The Tom Phillips blog

Previously on { feuilleton }
John Osborne’s Dorian Gray
20 Sites n Years revisited
The last circle of the Inferno
20 Sites n Years by Tom Phillips