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director is replaced or is otherwise prevented from exercising their own best judgement, the film, however interesting, no longer represents anybody’s unified cinematic vision.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.
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.