Archive for Les Miserables

French Farce

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2014 by dcairns

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Things done –

Pere Lachaise Cemetery – people kept asking me if I knew where Jim Morrison was, but I was avoiding him. Also Edith Piaf. The only famous person I met was Ticky Holgado, whose terrifying sepulchre, depicted above, evokes the awe and horror of death better than any of the more tasteful tombs.

Charcuterie. With two ex-students: one is working as a nanny and being bitten all over by small children while pursuing her documentary career, the other was attending a fantastique film fest (but they weren’t showing LET US PREY so I’m safe).

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Coffee at the Hotel du Nord, from the film of the same name, avec Phoebe Green, who sometimes appears in these pages as La Faustin, and who was our translator on NATAN. You can’t get a view of the hotel through the bridge as Marcel Carne manages in his film — having rebuilt the whole neighbourhood in the studio he could shuffle things around, lose a few trees, and arrange things to the camera’s advantage.

Lunch at the Cinematheque – boeuf bourgignon where I bought many postcards, also some awesome KING KONG flipbooks. It’s quite something to have Kong waving his arms about in the palm of your hand.

There’s a lovely Truffaut exhibition on just now, with letters and photos and other souvenirs – not the Jeanne Moreau letters, she’s sitting on those – and it was a chance to nod sadly at the image of Marie Dubois, one of our recent departures for realms unknown. Truffaut ought to feature in the Late Movies Blogathon, come to think of it – I have a soft spot for VIVEMENT DIMANCHE! And THE GREEN ROOM is one of the most apt late films of all.

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Truffaut’s boyhood notebook — LE CORBEAU, he recorded later, was the first film he saw twice. But what caught my eye, of course, was the Pathe-Natan LE MISERABLES, which must have been on its post-war re-release, hopefully with the Jewish names restored to the credits which were removed under the Nazis.

St. Sulpice, a large church featuring some impenetrably dark works by Delacroix.

Many many bookshops, where my inability to read French prevented me from making many an extravagant purchase, like the giant book of stereoscopic images of diabolical tableaux – little dioramas with miniature imps and demons frozen in the act of cavorting with pitchforks and other accoutrements — co-authored by Brian May of Queen. The kind of book one SHOULD own. But I couldn’t walk away from the little pamphlet by Samson Raphaelson, his memoir of working with Lubitsch. It was only four euros, and reading the first few sentences I was pleased to discover that my schoolboy French did not leave me wholly in the dark. Actually, I need to modify the expression “schoolboy French” lest I be seen to traduce the educational system. Some qualifier like “concussed schoolboy French” or “sleeping schoolboy French” gives you a better idea.

Now, since I need to see a movie, obviously, and I need a movie I have a chance of understanding, preferably, I have been drawn to the Cinema Desperado, whose Romy Schneider season is featuring WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT. I’ve never actually seen the whole thing. TV versions were always pan-and-scanned and just TOO SMALL to allow Richard Williams’ elaborate titles to be enjoyed… the documentary series Hollywood UK more or less accused this film of ruining British cinema, since it led to the excesses of CASINO ROYALE and the belief that throwing enough gaily coloured, fashionable shit at the screen would be enough to attract and keep an audience. And I have a complex, mostly abusive relationship with the works of Clive Donner, though it’s never been entirely clear whether it’s abusing me or I’m abusing it. Here goes nothing…

(Typed at 17:41 in a café with no internet.)

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Later – well that was highly enjoyable. Can’t remember the last 35mm projection I saw – probably THE BOFORS GUN at EIFF. The cinema belongs to Jean-Pierre Mocky and shows all his films, a different one every day.

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The film is a hot mess, as expected, but there are very funny, silly bits, and some clever bits too. The editing is all over the place – continuity is appalling, but that is sometimes evidence of a cutter following the rhythms, or creating them, and saying the hell with making stuff match. But there are clear signs of whole sequences having been moved about on a whim (probably that of increasingly erratic producer Charles K. Feldman), characters show up out of the blue (not Ursula Andress, who does so literally, as a deliberate gag, but people like the bomb-throwing anarchist, who the script must have intended to set up earlier as Paula Prentiss’s boyfriend), and Paula Prentiss’s early scenes appear to have been set upon with a meat cleaver – the conversations have been hacked into nonsensical soundbites, set-ups for gags that never come or punchlines to gags never set up.

Fortunately, Peter O’Toole is usually able to find his way through a scene if it’s allowed to proceed in sequence, dragging co-stars behind him, and Peter Sellers augments the best lines of Woody Allen’s script with nonsense of his own (therapist Fritz Fassbender curses upon soaking his thighs with petrol: “Geschplund!” A straight Goon Show quote if ever there was one).

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It’s a shame about the messiness because feckless dithering in the control room is the last thing a tight farce needs, and there’s some evidence that Allen had constructed such a farce. The idea is a sound one – a shameless philanderer decides to get married and be faithful, and suddenly he’s besieged by beautiful women. Capucine’s nymphomaniac Mrs. LeFevre is possibly the funniest actor in the film, despite not getting any actual jokes. She just has beautiful timing and emphasis, and makes the other actors funnier in turn (Sellers: “You look ravishing in zat whistle”). The colossal beach whore from EIGHT AND A HALF, dressed as a Valkyrie, is also good value.

The whole cast gets assembled for a climax at a country hotel, with a rampant Andress in dropping into O’Toole’s lap from the heavens (“I yam a paris-chew-diss!”), stripping off her aviatrix jumpsuit to reveal a seductress jumpsuit underneath, then ditching that too. Oddly, despite the crummy continuity, Andress running through the hotel in her undies always has her undies disarrayed the same way from shot to shot, left butt cheek bulging out.

Disappointingly, after scene after scene of stunningly beautiful, chic Parisian sets by Richard Sylbert, the hotel is mostly a dowdy location, and rather than giving us a satisfactory conclusion there’s mere chaos, and O’Toole getting nagged by his new bride at the fade-out. Still, as she accuses him of looking at another woman (Francoise Hardy!), O’Toole enunciates acidly: “I *had* to look at her, she was *speaking* to me. I Turned in the Direction of the Sound.”

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The Madness of War

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2014 by dcairns

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An entry in Movies Silently’s super-blogathon, the Snoopathon. Subject: ESPIONAGE!

There’s an eye-opening bit in Sam Fuller’s epic war memoir, THE BIG RED ONE, where Lee Marvin’s soldiers raid a Nazi base in a Belgian insane asylum. Amid the skirmish, dazed inmates carry on eating, oblivious to the firestorm around them — an unlikely concept, given that mad people (and people with learning difficulties, who are also included in this fictitious Walloon-y bin) would be likely to be MORE upset by submachine-guns blazing away over the dinner table than even such as I. Then one inmate snatches up a gun from a fallen soldier and gleefully wastes a couple of his fellow patients, crying, “I am like you! I am sane!” And we recognize, hopefully, that Fuller has one foot planted firmly in the terrain of allegory, and is Making a Point. In a scenario where some people are peacefully eating dinner and some are shooting each other, who is crazy? And if the killers are the sane ones, how else should one prove one’s sanity?

(My dad once replaced the wiring in a mental hospital, and met a chap on his way out who had been issued a Certificate of Sanity to help him find work. My dad felt vaguely jealous. HE doesn’t have a Certificate of Sanity.)

The other most obvious films about madness and war which come to mind are CATCH 22, which is TOO obvious to discuss here, and KING OF HEARTS, which some people like but I find twee. Alan Bates and Genevieve Bujold are both lovely, but the film seeks to set war (bad) and madness (lovely) as opposites, and has to lie through its teeth to do so. Or maybe it’s just total ignorance bout mental illness, I don’t know. The point is related to Fuller’s — mad people don’t make wars — but it’s not really true, as CATCH 22 can demonstrate.

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So I had worries about Raymond Bernard’s UN AMIE VIENDRA CE SOIR… (A FRIEND WILL COME TONIGHT…) would tackle its subject, an insane asylum in the dying days of Nazi-occupied France. But, since I knew Bernard’s work from his Pathe-Natan super-productions CROIX DES BOIS and LES MISERABLES, I shouldn’t have worried. The only weaknesses in this 1946 movie are that, coming right after the war, it portrays its German characters in broadly stereotyped terms, and contains a little too much triumphal material on the heroes of the Resistance. Both those stances are broadly true and respectable, but rather simple and uninteresting dramatically — but one can see why the French would have needed to hear them in ’46.

The film’s strengths are in its unsentimental portrayal of the mad, and the crafty plotting which sees a number of imposters planted amid the staff, inmates and neighbours of the asylum. There’s a Jewish fugitive, a British parachutist, a couple of Resistance fighters, a German spy, and one Resistance leader whose true identity is known only by… but that would be telling.

The actors who may or may not be playing those roles include the great Michel Simon, in the guise of a sweet-natured innocent with Boudou beard, who rejects the existence of evil and has declared himself President of his own republic of one, and romantic Madeleine Sologne, embarking on a tentative romance with a Swiss doctor, Paul Bernard (a favourite of Jean Gremillon). Oh, and Howard Vernon, whose experience in covert shenanigans here would doubtless stand him in good stead for his future collaborations with Jesus Franco.

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The treatment of madness allows for some humour, but I think that’s permissible — the movie is quite clear that mental illness is not a delightful escape from reality, but often a torment and something which makes the sufferer unable to function socially. The treatment of war is a touch bloodless, except in the startling references to Nazi death camps and the campaign of sterilisation and extermination, preceding the war, carried out in the name of eugenics and exciting no major opposition from outside Germany, which rid the world of those whose physical and mental disabilities had them classified as “life unfit for life.”

Both the spying and deceit, and the insanity, are great excuses for Bernard to deliver up his trademark Dutch tilts, a staple of his filmmaking since at least the early 30s (LES MIS is full of them). I haven’t seen THE CHESS PLAYER (1927) so I dunno if he was leaning to the side even then, but I know it intercuts a piano recital with military activity — something repeated here.

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The movie, which I think is a great one, may also be suggesting that the strife of war will send France itself, and possibly its director in person, mad. Raymond Bernard was Jewish, and had spent the war in hiding, in fear for his life, while his father, the writer Tristan Bernard, was interned at the camp at Drancy, which ruined his health and led to his death just after this film was released.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)

 

Millie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2014 by dcairns

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Paramount star George Raft visits Lewis Milestone and “General Pappy” on the set of THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, in which GP has a featured role, though not the title part.

What this is, is a kind of biography-critical overview, to be expanded upon in a further piece on Milestone’s war pictures. Where I’ve written about a film more extensively in the past, I link through to it.

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Lewis Milestone was a pretty funny guy. There’s the famous exchange of telegrams when he was filming THE CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA on location on a real ship in bad weather with a cast including John Gilbert and some other serious drinkers. “HURRY UP THE COST IS STAGGERING” wired the producer. “SO IS THE CAST” replied Milestone.

Earlier, on ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, “Millie” replied to a request by studio boss Carl Laemmle (“Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very big faemmle”) to provide the film with a happy ending by offering to let the Germans win the war.

Late in his career, Milestone adventurously went into television, “to see how it works.” His verdict: “Slavery.”

I’m not actually sure that one is a joke.

He was born Lev Milstein in Russia. While in away in high school, he received money for his father for a Christmas trip home, and instead used it to go to America. He had an aunt in New York. When she was unable to help him, he wrote to his father optimistically asking for more money. The reply: “You are in the land of opportunity–use your own judgement.”

Milestone did odd jobs and enlisted in WWI, where his duties included gathering and photographing severed body parts. He also shared a unit with Frank Tuttle and Josef Von Sternberg.

Entering the movie business, he swept floors for Sennett and Ince and became an assistant editor, editor and assistant director to William Seiter. Seiter preferred playing golf to directing so Milestone had ample opportunity to study his craft.

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The ‘twenties: one important job was cutting WHERE THE NORTH BEGINS in 1923, the first major Rin Tin Tin movie. Huge amounts of location and dog footage was pouring in, from two units who were working from different scenarios. Milestone screened all the material for weeks and eventually cut the film like a documentary, building a story from the footage rather than fitting the shots into a story. The film was tested and went through the roof. All three Warner Bros congratulated Milestone for saving their investment. But when Lee Duncan, the dog trainer, was seen shaking hands with most of the audience as they left, they asked him what was up. “Well, this is my home town, so naturally a lot of these people know me.”

The film was re-tested further afield — and was an even bigger success.

After a row with Gloria Swanson, Milestone walked off FINE MANNERS and began work on THE KID BROTHER for his friend Harold Lloyd, but Warner Bros kicked up a stink about his contract violation and he was forced to quit that one after maybe only a few days. Somewhere in there he’s supposed to have contributed to TEMPEST too.

Milestone’s first big hit was TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS, or at least it’s the earliest one anyone remembers. Something of a carbon copy of Walsh’s WHAT PRICE GLORY? it made a star of smush-faced Louis Wolheim and made fine use of rising star William Boyd, before he became Hopalong Cassidy.

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Milestone directed THE RACKET for Howard Hughes but heard, when shooting was complete, that HH was recutting it. Furious, since he had legal right of final cut, Milestone confronted his boss, catching him in flagrante with the cutting copy and dragging him from the building. To calm his director down, Hughes got him into his limo and drove at terrifying speed until Milestone lost the edge of his rage and began instead to fear for his life. Then Hughes announced that the film was being released just as Milestone left it. Out of his own personal curiosity, he had wanted to see what would happen if he reduced each scene by ten per cent, so he had been tinkering just for the sake of it.

(An interesting insight into Hughes, who also took a projector to pieces to see how it worked, thus delaying a screening of rushes. Cutting everything by ten per cent is a very obsessive-compulsive trick to try. It’s also an amazingly uncreative approach to a creative job. Don’t try to make each scene work as well as it should. Don’t try to balance the length of the scenes to create a satisfying structure. Just take ten per cent out of everything. Boneheaded.)

Milestone’s first talkie, NEW YORK NIGHTS, is a gangster picture with an unconvincing gangster, John Wray, and the director thought it a disaster, trying unsuccessfully to take his name of it. Largely forgotten, it’s pretty interesting — Milestone shoots from a real car on real streets (rear projection hadn’t taken off yet), tracks energetically all over the place, and even puts the camera inside a dumb-waiter and rides it between floors.

RAIN is even more experimental, and THE FRONT PAGE, again made for Hughes, satisfied Milestone that a talkie could combine the qualities of a good stage play with cinematic values. But ALL QUIET is where he’s able to minimize dialogue for much of the picture and exploit purely audio-visual means. A tough, uncompromising film, a troubled shoot, and a colossal critical and commercial success, it became Milestone’s millstone — he grouched to the end of his days about the tendency of the ignorant to think of it as the only film he ever made.

The ‘thirties:  Milestone experiments zanily, restlessly. HALLELUJAH I’M A BUM is a jaw-dropper, and even a rather weak project like ANYTHING GOES has moments of visual energy, wit and imagination. THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN is a Sternbergian melo with socialistic tendencies and baroque poetry-of-the-streets dialogue by Odets.

It doesn’t make any sense to blame Milestone for his inconsistent career — it’s full of false starts, aborted projects, and movies he walked off of rather than make intolerable compromises. But this sometimes paid off — when Hal Roach fired him from ROAD SHOW, Milestone sued, and as settlement, Roach agreed to finance OF MICE AND MEN, which became Milestone’s most acclaimed film of the decade. Milestone bagged the great reviews, Roach carried the can financially, and audiences stayed away. Justice! But the audience’s loss.

The ‘forties: an erratic period for Milestone, but I like a lot of the films nobody else including their director seems to care for — LUCKY PARTNERS, NO MINOR VICES. ARCH OF TRIUMPH was supposed to be the blockbuster, but the mob found it turgid. Milestone’s wartime output was geared to propaganda, and the skills used to make a pacifist point in ALL QUIET could be turned just as easily, it transpired, to stir the blood and encouraged enlistment. Some of these films are good, some are very problematic indeed, especially if one wants to see Milestone as an auteur. I’ll be talking about some of these films in more detail later.

Attempts to propose a consistent subject or theme for Milestone founder. Some have argued half-heartedly that he is obsessed with groups of men on missions, like Hawks or Ford, but this forces us to ignore most of his output. I have no trouble seeing him as a man interested in many things, and I don’t think that makes him less interesting than those filmmakers who pursued a more narrow range of subjects in their work. Are conversationalists who can only deal with one topic more interesting than those with eclectic tastes?

Milestone’s fluctuating view of war is a bigger issue, because one does want integrity in ones artists. I think the fact that he pursued a left-wing agenda and tried to smuggle in thoughts about group unity and responsibility does give his work the consistency we look for.

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As soon as the war was over, A WALK IN THE SUN took a more considered view of the conflict, and his sole noir, THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, partook freely of that post-war malaise everyone is always talking about with regards to this genre. The references to Van Heflin’s military service are brief, but pungent — nobody respects him for serving his country, not even the cops.

The ‘fifties: Milestone’s leftist connections brought him under the eye of HUAC — he was protected somewhat by Zanuck, the studio boss least hospitable to the blacklist, who sent him abroad to work. (Fox exec Raymond Griffith, the former silent comic, played his last acting role in ALL QUIET.) Fox had money tied up in Australia that they wanted to spend, so Milestone shot KANGAROO, the most faux-Australian film imaginable. Before the credits are over we’ve enjoyed the titular marsupial hopping all over the frame, koalas in trees, and then we repair to the office of a policeman, who promptly brushes the monitor lizards off his desktop to make room for his boomerang.

In England, Milestone shot THEY WHO DARE, a run-of-the-mill Technicolor war movie with Dirk Bogarde and Denholm Eliot stiffening their upper lips in Greece, and a rather interesting, unfaithful and truncated film of LES MISERABLES. “It had been done before. I hope it will never be done again.”

I haven’t been able to see Milestone’s Italian film, LA VEDOVA X (THE WIDOW) — if any reader has a copy, let me know.

The ‘sixties: Returning to the states, Milestone made a Korean was drama for Gregory Peck, PORK CHOP HILL, which Peck recut and subverted to add patriotism. Milestone walked away, straight into OCEAN’S 11, a big hit but an unhappy experience. I see Milestone in the figure of Akim Tamiroff in that film (an actor who had worked with Milestone several times before) — saggy, grumpy, melancholy, droll, tired, ignored or slighted by his rat pack collaborators. But he did deliver the coolest last shot in cinema history.

Milestone then sensed the chance to get rich with MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. The production had rumbled on for a year, Carol Reed had just walked off, and Milestone thought he could polish it off quickly. In fact, almost nothing had been shot, and Milestone was unable to accelerate the production, which was at the mercy of Marlon Brando. Brando didn’t take direction, and had his own set of signals to communicate with the cameraman, cutting the credited director out of the loop. Incidentally, I like the film a good deal.

The ‘seventies: Ill health kept Millie from working further. Somebody stole his two Oscars, which were only retrieved after his death. He spent ten years in a wheelchair.

Milestone on Hollywood: “A fear and psychosis pervades the town, engendered by the recent witch hunts on the national, state and community level. Producers are asking for and getting pictures without ideas. In the frantic effort to offend no one, to alienate no groups, to create no misgivings in Congressional minds, studios are for the most part obediently concentrating on vapidity. The public… did not not ask that pictures be sterilized of ideas; the notion was self-imposed.”

From Wikipedia: “Lewis Milestone’s final request before he died in 1980 was for Universal Studios to restore All Quiet on the Western Front to its original length. That request would eventually be granted nearly two decades later by Universal and other film preservation companies, and this restored version is what is widely seen today on television and home video.”

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Principle sources: Kevin Brownlow’s interview with Milestone. Philip Kemp’s profile in World Film Directors Vol 1. Richard T. Jameson’s piece in Richard Roud’s Cinema A Critical Dictionary (better than David Thomson’s book, fine though that is). And thanks to Phoebe Green!

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