When Anecdotes Collide
I collect movie stories in my brain. Some of them may just be stories. But sometimes two stories link up, and we have CORROBORATION.
A chap I know once worked on a commercial for Kwik-Fit, a garage company notorious for their cheesy musical T.V. ads. The cinematographer, bizarrely, was the great Douglas Slocombe, slumming it rather. My friend got a few stories out of the great man:
“I never use a light meter. I used to have one, but I was on a boat and I threw it at the director. It went over the side and I haven’t had one since.”
Now Slocombe measured the light just by looking at the shadow of his thumb on the palm of his hand.
When somebody asked Freddie Francis (Slocombe’s near-contemporary) about light meters, he said it was impossible to work without one. “You’ve got to bear in mind not just the difference in the light between 8am and 8pm, but the difference in your eyes.”
Anyhow, in Philip Kemp’s study of Alexander Mackendrick, Lethal Innocence, we hear about Mackendrick arguing with Slocombe about the lighting of a ship’s figurehead during the fraught shooting of A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA. Slocombe hurled his light meter at his intransigent director. “I think it missed him.”
My late friend Lawrie Knight worked in commercials after his career as an assistant director in British films such as THE RED SHOES. He recalled with awe his one glimpse of Orson Welles, emerging from a taxi in a foggy London street, swathed in cape.
Later that day he was in a recording studio and mentioned the dramatic scene. “Oh yes, Mr. Welles was in here today, doing a voice-over for fish fingers.”
Yet Lawrie was unaware, until I told him, of this famous set of outtakes:
(Incidentally, this clip has some of the smarter comments I’ve ever seen on Youtube: voice-over artists and directors supporting Welles against the ad people!)
The elusive Mr. Welles again. Many of you will have heard about how, while shooting OTHELLO, Welles ran up against various cash difficulties. The film was made “on the installment plan,” whenever Welles was able to raise enough cash by acting in other movies.
At one point, although the costumes had been made, they could not be delivered, due to a little matter of unpaid bills, so Welles brilliantly improvised the murder attempt on Cassio, staging it in a bath-house so that most of the characters would not require costumes, only towels or undies.
Flicking through the pages of Charles Drazin’s In Search of The Third Man, we learn that Welles, engaged by Alexander Korda to act in THE THIRD MAN, was charging his OTHELLO costume bills to the budget of THE THIRD MAN. (Some Welles fans would like to deny the confidence trickster side of his personality, I prefer to revel in it.) Knowing the importance of keeping your star happy, Korda shrewdly allowed this fraud to continue — until Welles had completed his scenes in Korda’s movie. Then he swiftly stopped payment.
The result would seem to be: a masterful piece of cinema flung together by Welles in a fit of inspiration to get himself out of a purely practical difficulty.
Drazin’s book is highly recommended, but Michael McLiammoir’s account of filming OTHELLO, Put Money in thy Purse, is even better. And then there’s Welles’ own documentary, FILMING OTHELLO. In some future Utopia where Welles’ heirs actually speak to each other, we shall have all the various edits of Welles’ OTHELLO together in a box set, with FILMING OTHELLO as the main extra. If we eat well and get some exercise, we may live to see this.