Vendetta and Fugue

Got a packet of DVDs in the post, always an exciting thing! In some cases, the rarity value was balanced by a certain extreme visual decrepitude — Bresson’s FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER looked like it had been projected on a chipped door and video’d with somebody’s phone. The white balance was OK for some shots, while others blew out into garish abstraction:

An admittedly extreme example.

Also, the subtitles flare up into luminous smears, illegible except during the four frames when they’re fading in or out. Practice your speed reading!

However, I was glad to have it – it’s nearly impossible to see (I have a copy now and I’m still struggling to see it) and there’s something interesting about weirdly unreadable images.

SON OF HITLER, a frankly upsetting 70s “comedy” starring Bud Cort and Peter Cushing (the dream team!), which was so bad it went entirely unreleased except on the festival circuit, is in better shape, although you can occasionally hear people moving around in the room where it’s being telecined, giving it a haunted, possessed feeling. Also, a patch of “hair” (actually celluloid shavings) gathers at the top of frame almost immediately, and hangs around for the whole movie, looking like a disembodied Hitler ‘tache. Creepy.

In a spirit of perversity, the first disc I decided to watch was VENDETTA, a Howard Hughes production which appeared to be transmitted to me through the ether from a long-dead civilisation:

“I have no interest in these part-works,” said Douglas Sirk, talking about the features he’d directed only a bit of, and he’s basically right: if the director’s job is to be considered important at all, it’s because s/he synchronises and synthesises the different aspects of cinema, the sound, the image, the performance, in a way that the writer, who after all originated the whole thing, cannot. So if the director is replaced or is otherwise prevented from exercising their own best judgement, the film, however interesting, no longer represents anybody’s unified cinematic vision.

VENDETTA is a pretty extreme example of the part-work, even by Howard Hughes’ standards. Preston Sturges wrote a script based on Prosper Merimee’s Columba, and was set to co-produce with Hughes. On his friend René Clair’s recommendation, Sturges selected Max Ophuls as director. According to most accounts, Ophuls had fallen massively behind schedule after two or three weeks shooting, and Sturges felt compelled to fire him (Ophuls seems to have alternated between extreme efficiency and major schedule and budget difficulties, through most of his career). Sturges took over the directorial reins, but a confused argument with Hughes over some bills from a stable-owner resulted in the dissolution of their partnership. (Sturges had been borrowing horses to go riding. He thought this was for free. But the stable-owner sent bills to Hughes,  who then thought Sturges was trying to scam him. Like many millionaires, Hughes was very upset at the thought of being taken advantage of.) Stuart Heisler was brought in to finish the film, but became ill, so was replaced for some scenes by Paul Weatherwax. Hughes then decided on a new ending, so actor Mel Ferrer somehow landed the job of directing pick-ups (another actor, Peter O’Crotty, winds up with screenplay credit). The resulting mess landed on Don Siegel’s editing table and he had the task of fitting it all together.

(Ophuls avenged himself on Hughes with CAUGHT, a later film where Robert Ryan plays a Hughes surrogate, a neurasthenic millionaire who sends “agents” out to pick up hot women for him.)

So the film is extremely handicapped in the business of forming a coherent artistic statement. To the extent that it HAS a presiding genius, that must be Hughes, who had more control than any of the relay team supposedly calling the shots. And indeed, the film exhibits most of the hallmarks of other Hughes productions: pedantic over-explanation, choppiness, moments of inexplicable prolonged stasis, flashes if surprising sadism, and inappropriate brandishing of female cleavage (here we get Faith Domergue tit-shots while she’s mourning her murdered father). Hughes’s other big favourite, the wanton violation of basic character psychology, erupts only in Ferrer’s tacked-on coda.

Adding to the film’s problems is a lack of star power. Faith Domergue, the starlet who tried to kill Hughes and Ava Gardner with her car, if you recall THE AVIATOR, plays Colomba, a fiery Corsican bent on avenging dad’s murder. She’s not actually terrible, and her lusciousness certainly explains Hughes’ interest in her, but she doesn’t set the screen alight. George Dolenz (father of Monkee Mickey) is a bit of a stiff, playing Orso, Colomba’s brother. He’s just in from Paris and doesn’t believe in this Corsican revenge malarkey — think Michael Corleone in the first GODFATHER. Joseph Calleia as a bad guy mayor and Nigel Bruce as Orso’s girl’s dad are reliably characterful, and that’s about it.

Some extra heat is generated by Colomba’s incestuous longing for her brother, so overt as to knock the prefix clean off of “subtext”. This is TEXT, baby. Hot, lusty brother-on-sister text. Of course, those who know their production code can guess roughly how this has to end.

We begin with murk and voice-over: a droning narrator tells us what the code of vendetta means. Then he tells us again. Then he explains just what he means. Then he sums up. A couple of scenes pass, setting up the particular vendetta this film is to cover, and introducing the distinctive cultural situation in Corsica, and then the narrator comes back to clear up any lingering confusion about vendetta. Having now established that he’s going to be a recurring presence throughout the film, the narrator collects his cheque and fucks off, never to be heard again.

BUT! In spite of all the mangling the film received at every stage of production, and the inconsistency that would seem its birthright, VENDETTA is quite Ophulsian. I had wondered whether it would be possible to tell an Ophuls long tracking shot from a Sturges one, given the confused production history of the film, but many of these shots feel utterly distinctive. The camera not only glides along ahead of a character, but then allows them to catch up, and tracks alongside, then lets them overtake and follows them. A great many of the scenes begin with shots that drift through densely forested sound stage, awash in dry ice, the many layers of branches passing before the lens absolutely typical of Ophuls’ fondness for having foreground details partially occlude our view of the action.

Murk!

What generally happens then is that the scene devolves into clunky medium shots, hacked together with somewhat random angle changes. The set-up is Ophuls, the development is everybody else. It’s possible that, having established the principle of beginning every scene with an exploratory track, Ophuls departed the project having set some kind of pattern that the other directors followed. But some of these shots are unmistakeably his.

And then comes the climax, where Orso hunts through the forest for his opponent, and Domergue rushes to warn him that a second opponent is waiting in ambush. So many sinister, gliding dolly shots, with so much foreground material passing between us and the characters. An effective sense of spatial confusion, rendered dramatically coherent by matching angles on every character, and then a gorgeous discovery shot where the camera glides around Orso to reveal the enemies he’s uncovered. Catching the bad guys, Orso wants to hand them in to the French authorities, but Domergue intervenes with tooth and claw, provoking a double-barrelled massacre. This graphically brutal sequence suggests the Hughes of THE OUTLAW (remember Billy the Kid getting his earlobe shot off?) and the extreme frontal angles, with characters looking, and shooting, straight into the lens, has a cartoony feel in keeping with Hughes’ tastes, but it’s without precedent in Ophuls’ work — see for instance the opening of LA SIGNORA DI TUTTI.

At any rate, it’s a sensational ending, defaced by the unnecessary, awkward and out-of-character scene that comes after (a Corsican bandit offers a speech in favour of modernisation and the rule of law!). One thing for sure: if we consider VENDETTA as, in some compromised way, an Ophuls film, it’s perhaps the only one to feature a duel at the end which we actually get to see.

Of course, in LIEBELEI, LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and MADAME DE… it’s more effective NOT to see the duel.

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19 Responses to “Vendetta and Fugue”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    Howard Hughes was a horrible human being who had no sense for cinema and raped RKO studios into the derelict ghost town it became in the 50’s(where Lang shot ”Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” and ”While the City Sleeps”). His sole contribution must be saving Nicholas Ray from the blacklist. But then he ruined ”On Dangerous Ground” as atonement for his arbitrary contribution to Hollywood.

    Ophuls’ ”Caught” is a frightening and canny portrait of Hughes’ megalomania and sadism. And one of his greatest films. Godard called it, “Max’s best American film”. Of course ”The Reckless Moment” is also a masterpiece.(”Letter from an Unknown Woman” was an independent studio production and the story is too obviously Viennese to be American).

    I only saw ”Vendetta” once and it was to me absolutely unwatchable. I don’t care to see it again.

  2. On Dangerous Ground isn’t quite “ruined”, but the happy ending is a damn shame.

    Vendetta has to be watched like a piece of detective work, unpicking the styles and influences. I couldn’t say whether it’s really any good… the climax is fantastically lurid, and seems like that impossibility, an Ophuls-Hughes blend. My guess is, capturing this amazing sequence is what pushed Ophuls behind schedule. And probably a lot of people think Ferrer did it, since we’re told he “reshot the ending”.

    The filmmaker whose fingerprints are totally erased in Vendetta is Sturges, whose dialogue has been rewritten, and whose style is nowhere to be seen (he didn’t consider the story his kind of subject in the first place). If any of his work remains, it’s either subsumed by Ophuls, or chopped up into a fruit salad with the other directors’ work.

    With the contributions of Howard Koch and John Houseman (who talked Ophuls through a crisis of confidence) I’d call Letter From… an American film alright. But thanks to Ophuls it has an incredibly accurate ambience. Even visiting modern Vienna reminded me intensely of the film (also: the Third Man, Bad Timing — it’s a good Film City).

    Films genuinely wrecked by Hughes: Jet Pilot, Macao.Some people like them, they have great bits, but they drive me CRAZY.

  3. Arthur nails Hughes. He was a true horro. He haunts the American national psyche like no one else. Some very good f lms have been made about him — F For Fake and The Aviator spring immediately to mind along with Caught — but he made no good films himself save for Hawks’ Scarface. He liked melodrama, and women with big tits. “Who doesn’t?” you ask. Well those of us who do know how to make movies a hell of a lot better than Hughes. He clearly suffered from all manner of neurotic disorders — but that’s no excuse.

    “Happy Ending,” be damned, On Dangerous Ground is fantastic. Ryan’s sado-masochistic cop is the most authentic policeman ever put on fil. Ida Lupino is lovely, and it contains one of Bernard Herrmann’s greatest scores.

  4. Madame Bresson is holding on to the remaining works of her very naughty husband (I have a piece about Anne Wiazemsky and her shocking memoir “Jeune Fille” coming up this Fall in “Film Comment”)
    like grim death. That’s whay you’ve got only that shitty copy of Four Nights of a Dreamer with the lovely Isabelle Weingarten and the even lovelier Guillaume des Forets (son of Louis-Rene de Forets. Bresson loved spuds!)

  5. Arthur S. Says:

    Actually the thing with ”On Dangerous Ground” is that the happy ending, the reconciliation between Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino’s character which was improvised by both actors was okay with Ray. What Hughes messed up was the structure of the film. Like that scene where Ryan’s character explodes and says, “What kind of job is this. It’s garbage” shows up at the end of the urban section was actually part of the film’s climax. As was the rape/murder of that call-girl. Hughes wrecked that completely. The film is still great and potent though but obviously Ray’s original vision would have been more poetic and fluid and the ending would have looked less like a tacked on, easy happy ending in his conception of it.

    As for the nationality of ”Letter from an Unknown Woman”, this is where I’m stepping on a touchy issue made moreso thanks to organizations like AFI’s blissful poaching of British films simply because they have one or two Americans in the credits. To me a film’s nationality of funding isn’t enough to qualify it as belonging to it. Exactly which society, community to which it belongs to should be clear from the style or the mood of the film.

    Like ”The Third Man” was rated as the greatest British film of all time but to me it’s a film about Post-War Central Europe, so it should ideally rank among the best Austrian films. On the other hand, ”The Thief of Bagdad” though set in Iraq is obviously a British venture as is ”Casablanca” in no way or form Moroccan or any of Lubitsch’s films about Paris or any nationality for that matter. ”To Be or Not To Be” though set in Poland and is an anti-Nazi comedy is likewise not in any way Polish. On the other hand, Jean Renoir’s ”This Land is Mine!” is French as is ”Diary of a Chambermaid”.

    To me Max Ophuls’ ”Letter from an Unknown Woman” though in English and shot on sets and studios is a Viennese film. Martin Scorsese stated that no film gave as much a sense of the romanticism of pre-decline Austro-Hungarian Vienna than that film.

  6. National identity is a fascinating conundrum. What was Welles? An American, yes, but the better part of his oeuvre is european. His Othello was submitted to the Cannes film festiavl under the flag of Morocco! Speaking of which, what is one to make of Gavin Lambert’s Tangier-made one-shot Another Sky? Is it a British film? Or does it fly the flag of Paul Bowles?

    Bertolucci is another auteur without a country. He starts his career in Italy with many personal links to France and the U.S. (via Alan Midgette.) The Last Emperor was shot on location in China — in English. Is it an Italian film? In Partner Pierre Clementi often speaks French while his co-stars speak Italian.

    Is Last Tango in Paris a French film or an American one?

    On the documentaries that come with the DVD set ofThe Last Emperor Bertolucci speaks French.

    And here’s the last shot on Lola Montes.

    As you can see it begins to German, moves on to French, and ends in English. To whom does it belong?

  7. Arthur, I didn’t know that about On Dangerous Ground’s structure, thanks! That makes a lot of sense and makes me want to watch it again.

    Nationality is indeed a complex thing and in some cases may not even matter. Where the director’s origins synch up with the source of funding I usually have little difficulty. Since The Third Man shows post-war Vienna through the eyes of a variety of non-locals, and the makers hail from all over the globe, it’s a tricky case but the one thing it doesn’t have is a Viennese viewpoint. The natives are all comparitively minor characters.

    (When Korda got his British citizenship he broke out the champagne at the studio and raised his glass in a toast: “To hell with the foreigners!”)

    Letter is also complex, but you can read it in terms of the production code and the habits of American independant producers, whereas an analysis in terms of Austrian filmmaking wouldn’t help you understand it. Ophuls was a German who’d only spent a few weeks of his life in Vienna but obviously understood the milieu brilliantly. The only Austrian involved is Stefan Zweig, without whom it obviously wouldn’t exist but who played no active role in the production whatsoever. So to me it’s an American film about Viennese life — what confuses things is that, atypically, it actually feels accurate, thanks to Ophuls experience and talent.

    It was strange to hear Scorsese praising Hughes as a filmmaker at the time of The Aviator. Hell’s Angels is obviously a massive feat of production, and a real oddity (everything’s at 18fps except the dialogue!) but not a work of artistry (and Wellman’s Wings achieves at least as much aerial spectacle). It did at least provide James Whale with his first movie job, as dialogue director. No info on how he got on with Hughes.

  8. Arthur S. Says:

    Another one is Luis Bunuel. He’s respected as universally the greatest Spanish-language director yet only three of his films are Spanish(”Las Hurdes”, ”Viridiana” and ”Tristana”), his Mexican films are Spanish language but it’s a different culture than the one Don Luis grew up in. Then of course while in Mexico he made two English language ventures, an adaptation of ”Robinson Crusoe” and ”The Young One” a film set in the US, in the Deep South but shot in Mexico, a screenplay written by a blacklistee and starring Zachary Scott in the greatest role he ever got(which is itself a direct parody of his second greatest role in ”The Southerner”).

    His final film, ”Cet Obscur Objet du Desir” is Bunuel musing on both his French and Spanish aspects of his life. One one hand he resented France for their ignorance of Spanish culture(which Bunuel obviously considered himself a part of) when the two were neighbours and yet he admired the France of de Sade, of the Surrealists.

    As for who does Lola Montes belong to, it belongs to everybody, but above all it belonged to Max Ophuls(I do wish they mount a proper restoration for this film. This clip does it no justice). Ultimately every every great film transcends it’s national, cultural boundaries. Alfred Hitchcock for instance isn’t fully British or fully American and Charlie Chaplin who grew up as a street-kid on London’s East End is a true citizen of the world.

    Then there are figures like Dovzhenko or Ritwik Ghatak who’s national boundaries are murkier even in their own community. Dovzhenko was an Ukrainian who spent his entire career in the USSR under observation from the State because of his strong loyalty to his native Ukraine and Ghatak grew up in a part of Bengal that was twice partioned and who’s films were about the dark side of Independent India.

    Perhaps the ultimate cosmopolitan was Joris Ivens, a Dutch guy whose earliest work on film dates from 1912, his last in the late 80’s(wonder if he met Manoel de Oliveira in a bar sometime in the 30’s) who covered the Spanish Civil War, American farms during the Depression, East Germany, Vietnam, France and other parts of the globe. Jean Rouch is a close second but his focus was generally on Africa and colonial/post-colonial societies with an occassional return to France. Then we can’t forget Chris Marker. Born in Mongolia, (but according to some of his more creative fans, an alien from a distant planet) worked in the French Resistance and a lifelong globetrotter.

  9. Arthur S. Says:

    Much of the information on ”On Dangerous Ground” is from Bernard Eisenschitz’ great biography on Ray(translated by Tom Milne). It’s out of print now sadly. It’s a great book and really goes into the production history film-by-film.

    What I meant about ”The Third Man” in terms of nationality is that it’s really about the Post-War mood of Central Europe. It’s about the corruption and decadence of that society which is still there after the war. Harry Lime’s famous speech at the top of that Ferris Wheel about the people who are to him dots is a reflection on Shoah. Indirectly but it’s there. Harry Lime and Holly Martins being two Americans, one diabolical and the other a pulp writer with a heart of gold(or the nearest approximation of it) probably is a reflection on the fact that Americans now ran the world.

    As for Scorsese praising Hughes. It was he who personally took a leading role in the restoration and re-release of ‘”Caught” in the 90’s. And I find it inconcievable he’d not know about it’s connection to Hughes. I suppose for publicity sake he figured talking about ‘”Hells Angels”’ might be where he’d be able to talk about Hughes without faked admiration.

  10. I’ve got, and read, the Ray bio but somehow misfiled all the info you quoted on On Dangerous Ground.

    I guess you might be right re Scorsese: there’s no way for him to promote The Aviator by saying that Hughes was a terrible filmmaker.

    What kind of interests me re Hughes is that he imprinted his (unpleasant) personality and (fetishistic) tastes on his films more effectively than any other producer, even including Selznick. He’s an auteur of bad taste and bad filmmaking. Even Scarface shows his influence, although it reconfigures his trademarks to make a great film. Come to think of it, Vendetta recycles the incest angle from Scarface…

  11. I think Marty got into Hughes as a filmmaker when he researched just how long it took forHell’s Angels to get made. The sheer obsessiveness of it was catnip to him. I love the card that read “Hell’s Angels — Year Two.”

    I like to call The Aviator “The History of Color Cinematography’ in that it begins in two-strip, moves to three and ends in Glorious Technicolor.

  12. Arthur S. Says:

    ”Scarface” was mostly out of Hughes’ hands. He just put up the funds and did his best to defend the film from the censors. Hawks in his interview with Bogdanovich stated that he and his crew had absolute freedom on that film and the idea of incest between Tony and his sister was based on an idea of the real life alleged incest between Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia way back in Renaissance Italy. That was how he pitched the film to Ben Hecht who wasn’t interested in doing another gangster film after ”Underworld”.

    Hawks felt that reference was useful since Camonte was Italian-American, even the whistled music from Pagliacci was based on the popularity of Enrico Caruso among gangsters. Gangsters had good taste then. I love the scene in ”Scarface” where right before a shootout, Tony discusses Somerset Maugham’s ”Rain” with his pals. Now they hire thugs who are just as aching to shoot their pals as the people they set out to hit.

    My personal favourite bad-taste producer-auteur is Albert Zugsmith, unbelievably vulgar but he gave us two Sirk masterpieces(including the best damn adaptation of Faulkner), ”Touch of Evil” and his own ”Confessions of an Opium Eater”.

    Scorsese in his ”Il Mio Viaggio in Italia” when dealing with ”Stromboli” mentions that Hughes ruined that film for it’s American release by strapping on a happy ending by way of voice-over(which says that Ingrid Bergman got down the mountain and went back to her man and lived happily ever after) and in that context, although he doesn’t raise his voice, you can sense that Scorsese thinks that Hughes is a no-good bastard.

  13. Beautiful! Yes, Zug is pretty interesting, and mostly kind of benevolent in his sleaze. Ross Hunter clearly left his stamp all over Sirk too — looking at Madame X or whatever you can see what Sirk brought to RH and what Hunter imposed on DS.

    Hughes apparently suggested, after seeing a car wreck in Scarface, that they wreck some more cars, and Hawks was happy to do so. Nothings succeeds like excess.

  14. Ah! Fiona was just discussing Ken with another Ken, Mr. K. Anger. More on this next week.

  15. THIS was discussed, I’ll wager

  16. Oddly, I’m not sure it was. I’ll get the full details and report back. It’s a bizarre, celebrity-studded week we’re having.

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