Archive for Joseph Mankiewicz

Peace On Earth

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2011 by dcairns

P.O.E. Peace On Earth. Purity Of Essence. That’s the three-letter code obsessing Sterling Hayden in DR STRANGELOVE, and he returns to the subject in Carol for Another Christmas, a TV production from 1964, scripted by Rod Serling and directed by Joe Mankiewicz — and all three are at the top of their game.

Haden plays Grudge, a Cold War Scrooge (his name is the least subtle thing about this impassioned polemic), committed to withdrawal from the world behind a wall of nuclear weapons, convinced by the death of his son in Korea that involvement is to be avoided at all costs. Unlike Dickens, upon whom the work is closely modeled, this show depends on a series of interlinked arguments about charity, international engagement, the threat of the bomb, which don’t necessarily cohere perfectly but are put across with great force and flair, moment by moment.

I’d actually hold this up as exhibit A to convert anyone who thinks Mank was just a dialogue guy, a straight shooter of snappy talk. There are some ghostly effects in the first fifteen minutes or so that appear strikingly modern (Amenabar ripped off one of Mank’s tricks from THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR for THE OTHERS), as when a reflection suddenly appears in a glass door swinging shut — this is the same year as REPULSION… Figures disappear or are duplicated within single takes, as the camera looks away from them for just a second…

Thinking about this, I’m drawn to the conclusion that Mankiewicz must have been looking at Japanese stuff — both UGETSU MONOGOTARI and THRONE OF BLOOD use this technique, letting the long, continuous shot insist upon the reality of what we see, even as the crucial event happens outside of frame. Both those movies were pretty big back in the day, so it’s quite plausible he saw them, and as a fan of long, fluid takes anyhow, he’d no doubt be impressed.

The Ghosts — Steve Lawrence is The Ghost of Christmas Past. I know him from THE BLUE BROTHERS (“Look at you, still in those fakakta suits!”) and Jerry Lewis DVD commentaries. I had no particular expectations of him as an actor. I get the feeling that some in America would have chiefly negative expectations of him. But he’s GREAT. He plays a WWI veteran’s ghost as a hepcat, but that’s the way it’s written, and Serling does write great hepcat. He’s met on a ship laden with war dead, all nations, then leads Hayden through a doorway into searing light and the aftermath of Hiroshima (cameo from James Shigeta). Little girls, swathed in bandages and draped in translucent netting represent the mutilated victims of the First Bomb. One sings a haunting shamisen.

Hayden tries to shrug it off: alright, these are innocent victims of the fight for democracy, for them the news is all bad, but for their children –

Shigeta stifles a laugh of pure pain (an amazing effect): “Children? From these girls?”

Ghost 2: Pat Hingle as Christmas Present. Know him mainly as Commissioner Gordon in Burton and Schumacher’s BATMAN films. He’s brilliant here — gluttonous, avuncular, ferocious. His bit is about the present, the 10 million displaced persons, “the Barbed Wire Set.” Starvation and deprivation. It begins to become clear that this show is still utterly contemporary.

This, the shortest section, takes place at a banquet table under a chandelier amid black void — which lights up to reveal barbed wire and prisoners at a word from Hingle.

Ghost 3: Robert Shaw. You have to admire Mankiewicz’s courage in taking on Shaw, Hayden AND Peter Sellers. John Gielgud wrote that although iambic pentameters say you stress every second syllable, you can only REALLY stress one word per line. I guess otherwise overemphasis means that meaning gets less clear instead of more clear. Well, Shaw clearly doesn’t believe that, he stresses every single syllable as if it were his last and his listener were a long way off. When he really wants to make a point, though, he hits a word so hard it can punch through cinderblock.

This is the postnuclear section, in the shattered remains of Hayden’s local town hall, where mad jester king Peter Sellers stands for the Me Generation — pilgrim fathers jacket with Santa trimmings, stetson with glittery ME printed on it. Preaching a grotesque gospel of self-interest, he stands for a world where egotism will literally take us down to the last man. It’s a startling role for Sellers, who plays it to the hilt, his voice part Clare Quilty and part the Texas accent he couldn’t quite get for Major Kong in STRANGELOVE. Sellers, of course, was the naked ego run rampant, glazed behind the insane conviction that he had no personality of his own at all. “I used to have one, but I had it surgically removed.” Nothing is more dangerous than an egomaniac with zero self-awareness.

Also appearing: Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, Britt Ekland.

Hayden, as you’d expect, doesn’t overplay his character’s conversion, making him the first Scrooge on record not to come across as a raving maniac in act 3. It’s a striking, harmonious note of restraint in a big, hammy, epic, heartfelt, articulate piece from a major American filmmaker, and shockingly unavailable to buy in any form.

Bizarre, Bizarre

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2008 by dcairns

A Fever Dream Double Feature.

Being as MILLION DOLLAR LEGS stars W.C. Fields as the president of a tiny Ruritanian country, there’s an obvious temptation to pair it with DUCK SOUP, which stars Groucho Marx as etc etc. But that might do a disservice to MDL, which can’t compete on the laugh-count with the unstoppable comic juggernaut of DS.

Instead I propose Marcel Carné’s DROLE DE DRAME (A.K.A. BIZARRE, BIZARRE) which has approximately the same demented whimsy and unsettled forward momentum, pitching one aberrant situation after another at the punchy audience until end titles set in. Both films are premised on the idea of government, police, and all human institutions being fundamentally cock-eyed and probably malevolent, but do so without anger but with instead a shrug, wink and surreptitious extrusion of the tongue at authority. Neither film gets that many belly laughs, but both score heavily on peculiarity and brimming reserve of absurd ideas.

W.C. Fields is prez of Klopstokia because he can arm-wrestle any man to a stand-still. His nearest rival, Hugh “woo-woo” Herbert (who somehow manfully restrains himself from saying “woo-woo” at all in this film) is plotting against him with the aid of the entire cabinet and a spy, Ben Turpin, who remains a silent comedian throughout, popping up in various disguises and hiding places, his pupils aiming across each other at opposite edges of the screen. Jack Oakie, that large, shiny, alternately simpering and beaming fellow, is a brush salesman smitten with Fields’ daughter, who seeks to win pop’s approval by solving the nation’s financial crisis. This entails entering the Olympics, a promising plan since everybody in the country is a superhuman athlete (also, all the women are called Angela). The Hugh sans “woo-woo” plots to sabotage the team using Mata Machree, the Swedish siren, whom no man can resist.

The story is by Joseph Mankiewicz, and mines levels of silliness not to be found in any of his later films as auteur. There is also uncredited throughput by Ben Hecht, who certainly did have an antic side, and credited scripting by Nicholas T. Barrows, a man with a substantial Keystone Studios pedigree, and Henry Myers, who would later co-write DESTRY RIDES AGAIN. The result is much as you might expect if you stirred all those authorial voices into a soup.

It’s not exactly hilarious but it’s consistently amusing, and frequently eye-popping. Should be seen (to be believed) and luckily can be seen as it’s in the superb and essential W.C. Fields DVD box set, along with the truly great Fields films and plenty of other oddities.

A year or so ago there was virtually no Fields commercially available. Now virtually all of it is. And some people will say there’s no such thing as progress, as the planet slowly boils to a crisp.

DROLE DE DRAME, made before Carné and Prevert’s, like, immortal classics,  is one I need to revisit as I can barely recall the specifics of it (I first saw it on faded VHS with illegible subtitles, and have yet to check out my shiny new DVD). I know that Michel Simon plays an expert on the mimesis of the mimosa. Jean-Pierre Barrault plays a bicycling madman. Louis Jouvet plays the Bishop of Bedford in a kilt. My favourite moment is when Simon, who’s suspected of murder, returns to his home in a false beard, worried that the police may be tearing the place apart. They ARE, but not in the way he expected: they’re just MUCKING ABOUT like little kids, pushing each other around on a drinks trolley, etc. Delightful.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 359 other followers