Archive for Christopher Olsen

Who Knew? (No.2)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2009 by dcairns

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“Style is self-plagiarism,” goes the saying, and Hitchcock certainly repeated or developed ideas throughout his career, but the 1956 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is the only instance of his remaking one of his own films in its entirety. And he famously said that the first film was the work of a gifted amateur, the second of a professional.

But some people prefer the original — the very quick delivery of plot points, snappy pace, and loose construction, with its greater room for eccentricity and gags, is indeed quote winning. And I will go so far as to say that John Michael Hayes’ script for the second TMWKTM does have a little fat: it takes a while to get going, and some exchanges between our lovely couple (James Stewart and Doris Day) feel like self-consciously “good dialogue” rather than anything which economically combines character expression with plot development — I’m thinking particularly of the scene where Jimmy and Doris muse about which of his patient’s ailing organs have paid for which parts of their Moroccan holiday.

But asides from that, and the regrettable lack of Peter Lorre, and the fact that Christopher BIGGER THAN LIFE Olsen isn’t as winningly odd as child-woman Nova Pilbeam, I’m afraid the remake has it all over the original. It has Robert Burks on camera, Bernard Herrmann on score, two perfectly suited stars who are great together, production designer Henry Bumstead joining the team, and some excellent bit parts too. Daniel Gelin takes over ably from Pierre Fresnay as the suave French spy who kicks off the story. The principle villains, Bernard Miles and Brenda DeBanzie, start the film so spectacularly colourless that we never suspect them of any role in the plot, and then he becomes increasingly sinister as she becomes more sympathetic. Richard Wattis,  a well-known comic face of the period, gets a tiny walk-on as a flustered underling and makes every second count. And the younger of the two taxidermists featured is played, brilliantly, by Richard Wordsworth, Caroon the mutating spaceman from the previous year’s Hammer hit, THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT.

All this and Carolyn Jones!

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Special mention needs to be made of Reggie Nalder as the assassin, Rien (good name!). Adding exotic creep factor where Miles and DeBanzie exude normality, the facially-scarred Austrian enters movie history with a few lines and an alarming smile. Like fellow Euro-creep Daniel Emilfork, Nalder is a good actor with a great face, someone who kept being discovered by moviemakers without acquiring full-on fame. See him in Argento’s THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, and Salem’s Lot, always adding unbeatable production values with his alarmingly taut smile. He looks like at any moment his skin might split and let his skull get at you. And he knows it.

Fortunately, there isn’t too much Reggie — an entertainment like this couldn’t stand it — and Hitchcock leavens the grim child-abduction plot with humour and intrigue. But he doesn’t fail to take the emotions seriously. Day’s big scene, where her husband dopes her before breaking the news that their child is gone, is a showstopper, fully justifying Hitch’s faith in his unorthodox casting choice (I’d love to have seen both Shirley MacLaine and Doris Day do more films for Hitch). And her utterly savage look when she re-encounters one of the kidnappers in Ambrose Chapel, London, is very impressive too.

Having been to the Marrakech International Film Festival (a luxurious affair, I recommend it if you get the chance) I always enjoy seeing the city on the big screen, even if much of the action here conspicuously takes place before a rear-projection screen. There are still some gorgeously vivid Technicolor ‘scapes to enjoy.

“The Muslim faith allows for few accidents.”

manwho3When the makeup man couldn’t find brown makeup for Daniel Gelin to wear that would rub off on Stewart’s fingers, exposing white skin, so at Gelin’s own suggestion Stewart applied white paint to his fingertips which would then smear pale streaks across Gelin’s blacked-up face. At any rate, this second appearance of blackface in a Hitch film is less uncomfortable than the drummer man in YOUNG AND INNOCENT.

One example of typically Hitchcockian cheek — when Daniel Gelin is chased through the streets by bad guys, he falls in blue paint, making him easy to pick out among the otherwise similarly dressed Arab populace. Then he’s stabbed by an assassin (Nalder?) and the police run right past him, after the knife-man. It seems slightly implausible that they’d disregard the man they’d apparently been chasing — and why were they after him anyway? The whole sequence seems rather hard for to make sense of in light of what we later learn. But it’s excellently staged.

London! The gang of showbiz cronies crashing in on Stewart and Day (as the McKennas — I dig how Jimmy Stewart usually has a Scottish name in his Hitch perfs, cf Scottie Fergusson) seem a little overstretched, but are actually the set-up to one of the most delightful last-scene pay-offs in any Hitchcock movie. And the scattered references to real life celebs like music-hall and movie star Bud Flanagan are pleasing, reminding us of the world of the original TMWKTM.

A slowly developing pleasure in this film is Bernard Herrmann’s score, which confines itself to non-melodic, vaguely eastern sounds in the Moroccan sequence, until Stewart gets the phone call announcing his son is a hostage, and then a familiarly Herrmannesque spiraling tinkle announces the start of the truly Hitchcockian scenario. And the music gets more and more archetypically Herrmann as we reach London — after THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, which is an exception because it’s not a thriller, this movie feels like the development of the Hitchcock-Herrmann style is going on as the movie unfolds before you. Beautiful.

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I love the deserted London streets, and the eerie POV/reaction sequence as Jimmy Stewart navigates the mean alleys of Camden Town and I love the inappropriate but welcome comedy relief of the taxidermists. Many things to cherish here: the slow, pointless intrigue of the elder Ambrose Chappell giving way to the younger. The fact that all the staff are in their dotage. A camera move that circles a big cat, only to reveal it is minus a back end. The shot that posits an extremely menacing tiger head behind Ambrose Jnr, for comically exaggerated menace. The fact that Stewart’s garbled story about the late Louis Bernard seems to be giving poor Mr Chappell the impression that Stewart is a maniac who wants to have his deceased friend stuffed and mounted. And the slapstick fight with swordfish and tiger as adversaries. Plus the prefiguring of PSYCHO.

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More deserted streets outside the real Ambrose Chapel, in darkest Bayswater, scene of a wonderfully scary approach and look to camera by the often-alarming Brenda DeBanzie. Some tricky coming and going manages to separate Stewart and Day, although it’s a little surprising how little in the way of set-piece drama is created (but the suspense never lets up, and unlike in the first version of this story, Hitch and Hayes keep the McKennas separated from their son right till the end). Surprising that Stewart has to break out of the church by shimmying up the bell-rope to the belfry, anticipating VERTIGO, when he could just have smashed a window on the ground floor.

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The Albert Hall assassination attempt manages to top even the matching scene in the original film, via dazzling shots like the one showing the shadow of the conductor’s baton (Herrmann in Hitch-style cameo) touching the top of each note in the score, and the amazing perspective along Nalder’s gun. This is the first musical motif to reach a climax, with the cymbal clash as signal for the hitman (also dig the percussionist’s POV shot looking between his cymbals!), and it’s quite quickly followed by the second, whereby Doris Day’s call-and-answer rendition of Que Sera Sera enables her to locate her son in the foreign embassy. (Which foreign embassy? While the thirties version kept its conspiring nation nameless, it clearly resonates with the pre-war tensions of the day; the remake shuns all reference to the Cold War and studiously avoids political meaning of any kind).

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Surprisingly, the sinister ringleader, Miles’s boss,  is never detected, despite being the mastermind of the whole scheme, and surprisingly we don’t care. As little Chris Olsen is reunited with his folks, Hitchcock, impatient with sentimentality, dissolves to our last shot, the aforementioned beautiful pay-off, so smart and unexpected and deftly delivered and hilarious that it reconfigures everything we’ve just seen as a splendid joke by the Master.

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We Can’t Have Nice Things

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2009 by dcairns

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Images m Nicholas Ray’s BIGGER THAN LIFE, in Gorgeous Lifelike Color by Deluxe. Showed this one to a small but appreciative batch of students at Screen Academy Scotland on Wednesday night, and it was interesting to discuss it afterwards. Since the film is both magnificent and flawed (note that I don’t say “but flawed”), a lot of the discussion was about things that didn’t quite live up to the high standard set in the movie’s best scenes, and in particular I got to thinking about the weird fight scene that climaxes the film.

I first encountered the movie in Scorsese’s American Cinema series, where as I recall the clips shown consisted mainly of (a) the broken mirror, (b) the PTA meeting that Mason almost turns into a fascist rally, (c) the scene of James Mason home-schooling his kid, his giant shadow looming on the wall, (d) the dinner scene with Ray tracking relentlessly in on the kid as he listens to pop berate mom — the move swiped in AMERICAN BEAUTY, and (d) the climax with Mason planning to “sacrifice” his son. I think his reading of the Bible, and the line “God was wrong,” may be the reason Eddie Izzard uses James Mason’s voice whenever he “does” God in his stand-up act.

What Scorsese does with these clips is create a miniature version of the film that’s even more brilliant and intense than the real thing. Although Ray’s film, unlike Scorsese’s, gets to build up more momentum, and sets up more nuances and resonances and themes and social critiques (like ripples in a pool, the narrative starts from a single point — a teacher gets sick — then spreads out to cover EVERYTHING), it also contains leaden moments and implausibilities that maybe work against it’s overall success. Or maybe not.

That fight — the Scorsese edit (not a version of the film, I know, merely a sort of helpful precis) ends with Mason, on the point of carrying out his child sacrifice with a pair of scissors, literally seeing red: after all the spots and splashes of red in Ray’s meticulous colour scheme, the entire screen is now engulfed in a sort of blood maelstrom, causing Mason to collapse and his son to escape. The full version of the film then has good old Walter Matthau come to the rescue, resulting in a kind of western brawl, with James and Walter crashing through a banister, smashing furniture to matchwood and tumbling over the couch, a sequence which rather reminds one of the incongruity of casting the slope-shouldered, bow-legged Matthau as a fitness-obsessed gym teacher. Yet the actors seem to struggle through without a lot of obvious stunt-doubling.

Now, once Mason has had his disabling fit of redness, and the kid has escaped, the worst-thing-that-could-happen (that event all stories are heading for) has been averted. So arguably the movie should climax there, without the domestic donnybrook that follows, proceeding directly to the reconciliation scene, with its shades of King Lear, at the hospital, and thence to fadeout. I couldn’t see the purpose of the big punch-up, and found it a bit… embarrassing. But, wrestling with it, I did come up with a sort of explanation for its presence.

Of the several Big Themes weaving their way through the narrative (a story shouldn’t really be able to handle this many, but somehow this one manages it), one of the most prominent is that of the lifestyle that causes sickness. At the film’s start, Mason is holding down two jobs, one of which is kept secret from his wife. To maintain a home befitting a middle-class pillar of the community, Mason must work part-time in a cab company, but he cannot admit to this, because the job itself is beneath his dignity. His illness is brought on by overwork.

Hospital bills then damage the family’s security even more, so that by the time Mason is discharged, under the influence of a miracle drug, he can no longer afford to be ill. This means that when the drug’s side effects start to cause psychosis, Barbara Rush, as Mason’s wife, tries her best to pretend nothing is wrong. Mason’s erratic behaviour at work cannot be excused by illness, because his employers mustn’t suspect he’s not fit to teach. Rush’s desire for the best of everything even emerges when she’s pleading for her son’s life: showing Mason a baby photograph, she reminds him of the “terrible second-hand buggy” they used to push Little Richie around in. It’s a touching, disturbing, and dreadfully funny moment.

All through the narrative financial concerns drive Rush to go along with Mason’s madness, while Mason’s first, and most consistent, symptom of insanity is an utter disregard for money. He buys new dresses for his wife, a bike for his son, quits his part-time job, and plans to go and live in a hotel, embarking on a lifelong educational project (“An entirely new kind of television programme”) that will be completely unpaid. He’ll even go to the hotel in a cab.

So, financial pressures make Mason ill, and madness allows him to escape financial pressures. The cause of these pressures is the family home, a spacious two-storey house with a TV and a boiler that constantly needs fixed. Ergo, the house is the villain of the piece, a sort of symbolic Amityville Horror home. When Mason is taken to hospital after collapsing, he has another attack at the threshold, causing him to clutch the door-jam and make the bell ring for seconds on end. I don’t quite know what that means, but I’m sure it means SOMETHING.

As the domestic conflict and insanity deepens and darkens, property damage mounts, with Rush ironically causing the first smash-up, when she slams the bathroom cabinet and breaks the mirror (uh-oh!). Mason causes further spillages through over-enthusiastic playing with his son, and then the final battle with Matthau produces an ecstasy of destruction — for once, nobody cares what the fixtures and fittings cost, everything can be sacrificed as long as the maniac Mason is subdued.

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“An entirely new kind of television programme…” Incredibly enough, it looks very much like little Christopher Olsen is standing in front of a set that’s showing a scene from THE TARNISHED ANGELS, a film in which he will appear two years later, trapped in the fairground ride we see and hear during this sequence. Weird.

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