Archive for Burt Kwouk

Going To The Candidate’s Debate

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2008 by dcairns

Watching THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (version original) with friends — Fiona had never seen it — and it was striking how, for a very good film (it IS a very good film) it’s full of very silly, awful things that would sink a lot of lesser movies. So in a way I feel I’m celebrating the flick’s real virtues by listing some of its more gaping dreadfulnesses.

1) Opening credits. A badly airbrushed THING — a bundled flag? Then it acquires a playing-card face. OK, that’s pertinent. Then it sort of STRETCHES in order to fit in more credits. How does it do that? WHAT IS IT?

David Amram’s music works quite well in the film, but when you hear it more or less by itself, as here, it kind of makes you want to slip quietly out of life and start decaying.

Korean? Right.

2) Henry Silva as a Korean. “Of Spanish-Sicilian descent?” someone must have said, “Close enough!” Or maybe they just wanted someone Sinatra could hang out with. I like Silva, he has the face of a clever shark, but he is nobody’s idea of oriental. And he has to do kung fu! They could have got Bruce Lee, surely. Not Korean, either, but you know, CLOSER. It is ASTONISHING that, in 1962, a filmmaker might voluntarily cast this way, especially in a small role where there would have been no real pressure to insert a big name star.

With one mighty chop! I think it’s the placement of the couch that makes this bit funny.

3) Kung fu. Sinatra is many things (he’s terrific in this) but he’s actually not the most graceful athlete. It’s particularly funny, the contrast between the feeble movements of the lumbering Caucasians onscreen, and the EFFECT they have, smashing through tabletops and doors with their mighty chops. It’s just mad. Several of Sinatra’s “moves” seem to have been borrowed from the classic “dirty fighting” scene in Lang’s CLOAK AND DAGGER, where, despite being some years older and having a bad back, Gary Cooper acquitted himself rather better in the action hero stakes than the bandy-legged crooner from Hoboken.

Send in the stunt men! If you watch the equence at regular speed, it is in no way obvious that it’s not Frank and Henry here. But it’s still funny.

The sequence is laughable partly because it seems to have served for the inspiration for all the wildly destructive martial arts combat in the later PINK PANTHER films, but only partly. Shouting “No, Cato, now is not the time!” at the screen doesn’t actually make the sequence funnier than it already is. It shares with Blake Edwards’ slapstick scenes the abrupt, unmotivated start, the massively elevated levels of destruction, and the unhealthy, unskilled posture and movement of the fighters (though Burt Kwouk and Henry Silva certainly have the edge on Peter Sellers and Frank Sinatra).

4) Janet Leigh. Now, I love Janet Leigh, but there is actually no reason for her to be in this picture save to assure us that the Frankie is heterosexual, in case we were for any reason worried. After all, shorn of love interest, he spends most of his time making puppy eyes at Laurence Harvey. Screenwriter George Axelrod (THE 7 YEAR ITCH) breaks out his best cutesy dialogue to try and give Janet something to SAY, at least, since she has nothing to do, and Sinatra suffers so effectively in these scenes that they kind of get away with it. Of course, a lot of women’s roles were created for this very reason, and still are, but usually they’re more thoroughly woven into the narrative, so that their presence actually achieves something else too.

5) Laurence Harvey going on about being “lovable”, a word he uses about 47 times in one speech. Overdone, maybe? However, L.H. is, if not exactly adorable, extremely effective and touching here. My old friend took a dislike to the Lithuanian Lothario after witnessing him urinate from the window of a moving car, but if wanton micturation were something that disqualified one from screen greatness, Lee Tracy and Robert Mitchum would both be disbarred from the Walk of Fame. As well as all those cockney actors who, by long tradition, use the dressing room sink rather than the toilet (Barbara Windsor, James Hayter and Jessie Matthews, I’m talking about you).

6) Not a flaw, but a definite TRAIT: Frankenheimer directs this with a great deal of invention but very little cohesion. While most of it uses wide-angle lens deep-focus photography in a way that draws upon CITIZEN KANE while looking ahead to Frankenheimer’s much more extreme SECONDS, the film uses just about every style yet invented. Mostly location-shot, the film has some bizarre process shots when Harvey and Sinatra are meant to be in Central Park, even though the wide shots show them actually there. Arriving at a political rally, we suddenly go handheld, in a pastiche of Pennebaker’s PRIMARY (see also THE BEST MAN and SEVEN DAYS IN MAY — this is obviously the default mode for filming political activity, pre-Zapruder). Ten minutes from the end, there are a couple of WIPES, for no readily explainable reason.

Winged victory.

The stylistic confusion could be said to apply to the film’s politics as well, except that I think both are intentional, and pretty clever. It’s obviously an anti-McCarthy fable, but at the same time the film confirms the Reds-under-the-beds paranoia by having its McCarthy character turn out to be a communist agent. Senator Jordan voices the film’s message, but when he’s assassinated the bullet passes through a carton of milk on its way to his heart, so he appears to bleed milk. Frankenheimer stated that this was a satirical swipe at the character’s milky liberalism.

But all that double-bluff and counter-espionage makes the movie smarter and more interesting than some piece of agit-prop.

Pretty much everything else seemed great, Angela Lansbury in particular. Let’s talk about HER sometime!

Cliff Richard IS Bongo Herbert

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2008 by dcairns

 bachelor boy

Yeah, I laughed too, but that is the premise of this film (EXPRESSO BONGO) and we must ACCEPT IT UNQUESTIONINGLY.

Anyway, the good news is that Sylvia Syms is still VERY MUCH ALIVE, and first became VMA on this very day, some 74 years ago, and is still working. Long may she reign.

I saw S.S. talk at the Edinburgh Film Festival many yonks ago, and I remember her forthright and robust humour. During a lull in questions she ran through her entire C.V. — “ASYLUM, in which I get dismembered: I still get fan mail about that one. THE QUARE FELLOW with the terrible Patrick McGoohan…” I like McGoohan… but then I’ve never worked with him. Reminds me of Alan Bennett on Christopher Plummer: “Christopher is his own worst enemy, but only just.”

Look but don't touch.

Syms plays a burlesque artiste in Val Guest and Wolf Mankiewicz’s pop-culture spoof EXPRESSO BONGO, and shares the stage with go-go girls in pasties, mini-kilts and G-strings during an eye-poppingly bizarre “history lesson” number. No G-string for our Sylvia, though: as a highly-paid Featured Player she gets to wear Proper Human Underpants as befits a star. As a Scot, I detest all forms of Tartan pageantry, so I quite liked seeing it dragged through the sewer like this. There’s another good and weird tartan musical number in Bunuel’s first Mexican film. Nobody does Tartan like the Mexicans.

Mary Queen of Scots

Syms played a lot of what Jean Simmons calls “poker-up-the-arse” parts, which is not an Edward II kind of thing, but a reference to the straight back required to play stiff middle-class WIVES (Syms does this very well in the commendable VICTIM), so it’s great to see her excel here as a nice working-class girl who happens to earn a living in porn.

Guest’s movie HITS THE GROUND RUNNING, with titles spelled out in neon signs, restaurant menus and sandwich boards (production designer Tony Masters is the real mega-talent on this film — he went on to 2001 while Guest went on to CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER), and within instants we spot a nubile Burt Kwouk (“No, Cato, now is not the time!”) buying a hot-dog from a Soho stand, where eleven years later he will be seen working, in Skolimowski’s DEEP END. And they say there’s no such thing as progress.

a sandwich in soho

absolute beginners

And then we meet Laurence Harvey as a very yiddisher agent on the make (such ethnic overtness in a lead character would have been impossible in a Hollywood film, even one about Jesus). He’s like Tony Curtis in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS or Richard Widmark in NIGHT AND THE CITY, except that the movie is more like THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, a brash, lurching satire about music and mammon.

Teen pop idol Cliff Richard (real name Harry Webb) plays teen pop idol Bongo Herbert (real name Bert Rudge) with his customary adequacy, but with a surprising Elvis sneer that was soon honed from his act as he went safe and mum-friendly. B.H. is Harvey’s discovery/creation, and we follows the ambitious fifty-per-center as he exploits the hapless naif through the London media world of 1960.

This is where the film works as a time machine: first, by transporting us back to a bygone age when Soho was the only spot where a cup of espresso could be obtained. We get real T.V. presenters and a checklist of then-current entertainers and location shots of an all-but vanished habitat. There are also topical film quirks, like a split-screen phone conversation between a semi-dressed Harvey and Syms, mirroring PILLOW TALK from the year before (Guest had a long-standing aim to get sex into British cinema, it seems).

But the film (Prophetic Cinema Alert!) also projects forward into the future, our present: in his desperation to leave no aspect of human life unexploited, Harvey yolks his prodigy to the cash-cow of RELIGION, having him sing a maudlin number about shrines and Madonnas: Mankiewicz and Guest obviously view this melding of pop and church as grotesque, vulgar and tittersome (and are laughing at how Jewish moguls churn out cynical Christian propaganda),  but it’s the exact path followed by Sir Cliff in subsequent years, and the results are just as awful, though more degrading to music than to faith.

(Cliff today is a still-virginal, botoxed crooner, who would surprise nobody if he came out of the closet, though I hasten to add that he’s not in the closet so far as I legally know and if he was he’d no doubt be sprinkling Holy Water in it and generally doing Good Works.)

Cliff went on to a film career of feelgood musical pablum (under the directorial aegis of Sidney J. Furie, among others) and thence to playing a plastic puppet in THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO, which is really typecasting when you think about it.

not gay

My favourite line in EXPRESSO BONGO: “And now, straight from New York, Hollywood and Las Vegas, we are very happy to be able to afford the fantabulous, the fantastico, DIXIE COLLINS!!!”

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