Archive for High Noon

Two Tales

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 22, 2011 by dcairns

My two favourite stories from Fred Zinnemann, An Autobiography.

To prepare for THE MEN, Brando spent a lot of time hanging out with the paraplegic vets, drinking at the Pump Room where the door had been widened for wheelchair access. Nobody there new he was an actor, he had his own wheelchair and he was learning to be one of the guys.

“Sympathetic people often turned up at the Pump Room, even religious cranks — California is full of them — and one day a lady came in, already three sheets to the wind. She spotted the veterans in their wheelchairs, climbed on a bar stool and began to tell them that they could surely get up and walk if they only had faith in God. The fellows wearily pointed to Brando, who thereupon gave one of the great performances of his career…”

You guessed it. Brando started small, with “a tiny spark of doubt” in his eyes, which was duly spotted by the lady and fanned into a hot cinder of hope. She harangued him, exhorting him to rise, and he seemed to get more and more impressed. The room fell silent. Waiters paused with full trays. Finally, he dared an attempt — with herculean effort, he stood, and took a faltering step. A gasp and a hush.

Then Brando laughed, danced a little jig, and ran from the bar. Moments later he returned with an armful of newspapers, shouting joyously, “Hurray, now I can make a living!”

“He did have a cruel sense of humor.”

What’s strange is to see this scene recreated in BEDTIME STORY, starring Brando himself.

Anecdote 2:

HIGH NOON — Zinnemann used striking symmetrical shots at various times in his career: the pageantry of A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS and THE NUN’S STORY exploit the formal, unnatural tension of human beings arranged into ordered rows like dominos. In HIGH NOON there’s the splendid low angle looking right along the railroad track at the vanishing point, the point from which crazed killer Frank Miller is coming, inevitably.

Floyd Crosby, ace cinematographer, and Zinnemann, were on the railway tracks at the train station location in Sonora (most of the film was shot on the back lot, with smog helpfully masking out modern LA in the longshots). The train appeared on the horizon line. Black smoke spouted from it — an excellent effect, thought Zinnemann. A train of death!

What he didn’t know was that this was the driver’s signal that the brakes had failed. The camera rolled, the two men crouched on the tracks, and eventually it dawned on them that the train wasn’t stopping. Slow motion. Scrambling off the tracks. Heavy 35mm camera. Tripod leg catches in track. Get off the line!

The train roared past, a train of death indeed, smashing the camera to scrap. The magazine survived and the shot’s in the film!

Nobody was hurt.

It occurs to me that there’s not much point having a black smoke signal for brake failure if you don’t tell the people crouching on the tracks beforehand that such a signal exists. I guess the engineer thought “Well, everybody knows that!”

High Noon at Marienbad

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on October 26, 2011 by dcairns

I’m not trying to be boastful or anything, but when I first got the idea for the above cut-and-paste composograph, I got very excited. And then for a while it was apain in the neck, because I don’t have Photoshop and other equivalent tools just don’t compare. But then, when the end was in sight, I got this incredible SUGAR RUSH. So I think it’s good.

If I come up with enough of these, maybe I can publish a set of copyright-violating postcards.

Pull up a chair

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2011 by dcairns

The bit in HIGH NOON that always impresses me the most is outlaw Frank Miller’s empty chair.

Of course, the real-time approach to story is fascinating and very novel, and leads directly to the omnipresent clock shots, each more ominous than the last. Dimitri Tiomkin’s ballad started a (somewhat regrettable) trend, but still sounds fresh, with its unusual frog-burp rhythm. The cinematography, pasting bleached-out skies behind flat-lit action, influenced by Mathew Brady’s period photos, violated the traditional Hollywood aesthetic and opened up new possibilities. Cooper’s age works to the film’s advantage, Lon Chaney Jnr gets one of his rare decent roles, Grace Kelly is radiant in her second role (a disciple of Flaherty, Zinnemann realized he could use her inexperience to illuminate the character).

But I’m obsessed with that chair.

First time out, the chair is mentioned — “That’s the chair Frank Miller sat in when he was sentenced!” Second time, during the final ticking-clock montage which revisits every character we’ve met as they await the stroke of noon, Zinnemann tracks in on the empty chair. This isn’t exploring space, roving POV, following movement or storytelling, so it must be the fifth kind of camera movement motivation: psychological. This is where we track in on a character as they think deep thoughts or feel a surge of emotion, and the movement makes us sense the thought/emotion building within them. The difference here is, the man who sat in the chair and felt the emotion did it months before the movie began. He’s not there anymore. But, like the spectres in THE SHINING, he’s left a trace of himself, and that’s what Zinnemann is filming. He’s tracking backwards in time, like Ophuls or Tarkovsky or Sokhurov, the only difference being that the temporal movement doesn’t reveal itself visually, only by mental impression.

Zinnemann’s fellow Viennese, Von Sternberg, wrote of his desire to photograph an idea — Zinnemann, it seems to me, has done this. Although I think the shot was probably a huge influence on Spielberg, who likes tracking in on objects to imbue them with significance and make us consider their narrative import, I think F.Z.’s shot goes markedly deeper, creating a sense of brooding lust for vengeance out of nothing more than empty air and a piece of furniture designed to receive the buttocks.

I haven’t tried this myself, but I suspect that if you watch this scene wearing the polarising glasses used to make the phantoms visible in William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS, you would get surprising results.

Film criticism, which used to see Peckinpah and Leone as the Men who Killed the Western (with realism, parodic exaggeration, and the destruction of moral certainties), now seems to have turned the clock back to put the blame on HIGH NOON and the psychological western. Suddenly there was liberal angst in the West, neurosis and concern about whether people are truly good, and that is seen as the first nail in the coffin of a genre built on certain shared assumptions. Maybe that’s why Hawks reacted so badly — he sensed the writing was on the wall. In many ways, HIGH NOON does seem to prefigure the decline of the genre — we have Gary Cooper looking old, the small community is no longer a source of final virtue and courage, and something strange and disturbing has happened to the style…

Leone quoted shots from HIGH NOON throughout his career, as Sir Christopher Professor Frayling would tell you, as well as borrowing Lee Van Cleef, one of the villain’s henchmen (as Peckinpah borrowed Katy Jurado). The musical fob watch in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is just an excuse to re-stage the above musical build-up three times in one movie. And of course ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST opens with a ten-minute compression of Zinnemann’s whole show. If Leone had fulfilled his dream of casting Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef as the three killers waiting for the train, Van Cleef’s appearance would have been a double joke.

To Leone, HIGH NOON seems to have been just a good western to swipe from, like YELLOW SKY (watch the ending of that one and HIGH NOON with the opening of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY!), not some departure from the norm. But Zinnemann is using the visual language of film noir — sweaty, intense close-ups, looming into a wide lens, porous, scowling, faces crowded together — in a western. If the climax of ACT OF VIOLENCE (face-off, with long walk, at a railway station) resembles a western duel in negative — which it does, because I just said so — then HIGH NOON is a film noir in negative, the sky a bleached-out Moby Dick white. And as we know from THE SHINING, some things are scarier in the bright light.

So what this ultimately means is that HIGH NOON is the source for a good 75% of Leone’s overall visual approach… so maybe Zinnemann DID kill the western, or at least supply the weapon that fired the shot.

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