Archive for Marlene Dietrich

Everything that’s wrong with Stanley Kramer in one hilarious frame

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2014 by dcairns


This bit from the opening titles of JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG reduced Fiona and I to hysterics.

I know, it’s unfair. Miss Dietrich must have her gowns, and they must be by Jean-Louis, who must have his credit. Under a swastika?

In a way it sums up the film’s aesthetic, which is elucidating the darkest crimes of the 20th century using movie stars and the apparatus of Hollywood. Can commercial movies tackle such subjects? It would be more shameful not to try, I think. Maybe, as probably Claude Lanzmann would argue, the result is bound to be obscene in some way, but maybe it’s better to have that kind of artistic failure than to remain silent. Spielberg following Jews into the showers to create tension, or here, Richard Widmark narrating death camp mass burials, is undoubtedly a high-risk game.

Visually there’s some nice work, with Kramer enlivening his testimonies with a moving camera that creeps around the actors, examining them warily as if they were recently fallen space debris. He’s also discovered the zoom, and gets carried away, though one early crash in on Maximilian Schell is so powerful it causes him to CHANGE LANGUAGE. This must surely be the origin of the move-in on Peter Firth (as a character called Putin) in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, a real coup de cinema in which Firth switches to English from Russian on the word “Armageddon” (the same in any language), just as the camera reaches an ECU of his lips…

Abby Mann’s script, it seems to me, affords Kramer some excellent opportunities — I think everything that’s not a trial scene is, essentially dilution and a mistake, but the trial — if you can forgive the dramatic contrivances and what are probably blatant violations of courtroom protocol — is often riveting. Montgomery Clift proves he could still do it — his character is falling apart, so it’s hard to be sure how much is acting, but I *think* he’s actually in control of his performance. He certainly isn’t depending on an editor to manufacture it out of the most acceptable bits, as reportedly happened on his last film. He may have required a lot of special care to nurse him through it — Kramer was adept at that, dealing with Spencer Tracy’s alcoholism and later his declining health — but he offers up astonishing moments here, and I think he’s USING his physical and mental frailty.

Clift’s stuff is emotionally devastating — I would challenge any Kramer naysayer to sit through it without a pang — and I think it eschews cheap manipulation. Judy Garland’s far simpler performance is equally effective. Each of them is like a raw nerve, sat in the witness stand, getting pinged by Maximilian Schell.

Schell is also excellent — he doesn’t have sympathy on his side, but he has complexity, as he tries to make his character comprehensible, motivated, and even in some ways RIGHT — even while he becomes our hate-figure, standing in for the broad mass of Nazi Germany that went along with evil rather than initiating it.

And then Burt Lancaster is terrif, not in a feat of great acting to rank alongside his fractured co-stars, but as a towering monument of charisma, gravitas and contained energy. Star quality, with every muscle tensed trying to hold it in and focus it.

Spencer Tracy is also fine, but I could do without most of the between-courtroom filler, because what he does best here is LISTEN.

So, if one can accept the kind of film that has gowns by Jean-Louis and atrocity footage and isn’t afraid to juxtapose them almost directly, the real virtues of the drama here can be commended.

The Chimp of the Perverse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2012 by dcairns

Revisiting the works of the late Richard Franklin, which I remembered as being pretty good. They are! But alas he perhaps never quite achieved a totally satisfying film… still, agreeable oddity, a likable spirit, and some camera panache counts for plenty.

Franklin was an Australian Hitchcock fan who studied film in America alongside John Carpenter. He was certainly the right guy to make PSYCHO II, from a smart Tom Holland script. If you’re going to do such a criminal thing, at least do it with respect and humour.

After a couple of softcore exploiters he didn’t much like to talk about, Franklin made PATRICK, a comatose telekinetic kid thriller, then the enjoyable ROAD GAMES, which we also watched. After PSYCHO II and CLOAK AND DAGGER (haven’t seen it) came LINK, his psycho chimp thriller with Terence Stamp, made for the late unlamented Cannon Films –

What most of the best Franklin films, and most of the best weird Australian films, have in common, is a script by Everett De Roche. Check his credits — besides the Franklin films, he wrote HARLEQUIN (Robert Powell as a modern Rasputin) and LONG WEEKEND (when everything attacks!) and RAZORBACK (JAWS in the outback with a wild boar!). Apart from the Peter Weir and Rolf de Heer Festivals of Strangeness, he seems omnipresent.

LINK is set in the UK (locations on the Scottish borders) but de Roche’s script makes Terence Stamp’s nutty primatologist an honorary Ozzie, with his matey, classless, no-frills manner. It’s a great way to take the curse off the scenario’s more fantastical elements — have them explained by a casual (yet intense) ordinary (yet impossibly handsome) bloke. Stamp is blocked on his latest opus –

“I was gonna call it Out On A Limb but Shirley MacLaine beat me to it.”

It’s actually one of Stamp’s nicest performances, and nobody appreciated it because it was in a killer chimp film. If A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE had a homicidal ape in it, we’d never have heard of Marlon Brando.

Stamp is joined at his isolated clifftop manor by a young Elizabeth Shue, who’s better than the average girl-in-jeopardy, although the script doesn’t do her as many favours as it does Terry. There’s a blandness in the role, and a bit of 70′s bloke sexism — I’m surprised the actress didn’t mutiny when called upon to answer the question “Can you cook, clean?” with “Well, I’m a woman, so I guess I have some kind of genetic aptitude.” The role, and the film, ultimately devolves into a lot of running around, rather as HOLLOW MAN would years later.

But what we were really watching for was the APES, and here LINK satisfies fully, if bizarrely. At the time, there was a certain amount of critical incredulity about the idea of chimpanzees as horror movie menace. The world is a bit better informed now about the dangers of apes run wild — a chimp is pretty much the most dangerous escaped zoo animal you could hope to meet. Stamp tells a charming story over dinner about one ape who savagely dismembered his human owner to try and sell us on this idea. “What had he done to the chimp?” asks Shue. “Oh, nothing. The chimp was just glad to see him,” smiles Stamp.

This is one of the few primatology-based movies to show signs of real, intelligent research. All of which is nearly overshadowed by the bizarre casting of the titular ape, a chimp played by an orangutan in blackface. Presumably because no adult chimp of sufficient training was available, some poor orang has been given a close-cropped haircut and a dye-job, then dressed as a butler (his character is a former circus artiste). It’s the simian equivalent of Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, an embarrassment to modern sensibilities. We were also shocked that none of the apes (three appear) were accorded a screen credit. I mean, that’s just good manners and good showbiz.

Whoever the anonymous ape is, he acquits himself well, aided by a few bits of prosthetic trickery, most of them well concealed. Unfortunately, orangs are pretty sluggish compared to chimps, so he’s not as adept at moving in a threatening way, but he sells the moments of sexual tension well, eyeing Shue’s body double with the sly lechery of a primeval George Sanders. It might seem like the movie’s most B-picture exploitation angle, but Link’s attraction to Elizabeth Shue (this is the same year as arthouse monkey-love epic MAX, MON AMOUR) is perfectly accurate in terms of simian behaviour. Captive apes often have crushes on humans. Lucy, raised as a human child, liked to relax with a glass of gin, a copy of Playgirl and a Hoover attachment.

Orangs, even in the wild, are known to be sexually rapacious. The name may mean “old man of the forest,” but it ought to be “dirty old man of the forest.” as Julia Roberts nearly learned to her cost.

“Pretty human!”

LINK is good fun — lots of problems, but only the score seems truly wrongheaded — Jerry Goldsmith has been encouraged to rip off his own GREMLINS theme, and it doesn’t work — although it gets better when he adds the timpani from Marlene Dietrich’s Hot Voodoo number in BLONDE VENUS, which Franklin quotes at the film’s start, in a bit of sub-Joe Dante pop culture referencing.

Russian Lark

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2012 by dcairns

While doing a bit of side-research on THE 39 STEPS — side-research being the stuff that’s strictly work-avoidance — I ran KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR, the big Korda misfire, directed by Jaques Feyder, whose LA KERMESSE HEROIQUE I had just revisited.

This film does rather waste everything it’s got — it has a lot, so it can afford to waste a lot, but as I say, it wastes everything. I have a suspicion Jacques Feyder is not quite my bag, which means I tend to appreciate the bits of his films which seem least successful, hardest to explain. LA KERMESSE HEROIQUE is almost entirely composed of such bits, so I like it a lot. KNIGHT’s biggest handicap is its lack of shape and drama, odd in a film with so much killing, romance, and headlong pursuit. With a bit of practice I might get to appreciate the way the film endlessly postpones its excitement, then repeats the same capture-escape cycle for the last hour. As it is, there are little glimmers of interest along the way –

Here’s Michael Redgrave in what may be his first film role — unlisted by the IMDb! Gloweringly fervid, he’s actually too exciting for the film, but by no means hammy or “theatrical” in a bad way. (I’m not mistaken, I hope — I thought I spotted Hitchcock fave John Williams, but it proved to be Austin Trevor.)

And here’s Moscow, elegantly imagined by Feyder and Clair’s regular production designer, Lazare Meerson. Much of this film boasts enormous reconstructions of Russian revolution scenes, so it’s a little surprising to find such a minimalist Moscow. Very effective and convincing, though.

Dietrich and Donat (who have surprising quasi-chemistry) circle each other for the first half hour without meeting, thirty minutes devoted to explaining why Donat, an Englishman, has become a Red Comissar. First he’s a journalist, due to be kicked out of Tsarist Russia for his too-honest articles — a complete retread of Olivier’s role in THE YELLOW TICKET. But swiftly he’s recruited by His Majesty’s Secret Service, in a surprisingly convincing, low-key scene — the functionary buys him dinner and drops a hint. Then he infiltrates the revolutionary movement, gets implicated in an assassination attempt, spends two years as a prisoner in Siberia, and is liberated by the Bolsheviks and finally is placed in charge of aristocratic prisoner Marlene Dietrich (the only Russian with a German accent — the rest are English and Scottish and say things like “What the dickens?”).

During all this circumlocutory preamble, Marlene just swans about in frocks, searching for a subplot she can call her own, but without her usual success.

It’s 39 STEPS time again when Donat goes on the run with this blonde, hunted by both sides — but the promising cross-country pursuit is continually interrupted by captures and escapes which always depend on ludicrous amounts of luck. But the train station with the mad railway guard (Dundonian character thesp Hay Petrie’s finest role: in THE FALLEN IDOL he just walks in and winds the clocks) is very fine, and a scene of Donat reciting Browning to Dietrich is actually sublime — Donat’s voice, the verse, and Miklos Rosza’s underscoring and Marlene’s wide, luminous eyes… The Adam & Eve idyll in the forest is beautifully shot by Harry Stradling.

Peter Bull plays another commissar, a little glimpse into how the Russian ambassador of DR STRANGELOVE started his career, perhaps. There’s also Miles Malleson — “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight!” — and Raymond Huntley! Yay, Raymond Huntley!

Korda contract player John Clements gets to steal the show — a romantic Russian who dies for love, he basically usurps Donat’s role, leaving the whole thing to sort of fray away to a Grand Finally. We realize that the central relationship hasn’t developed past love at first sight, the jeopardy has all been of the same sort, and so the movie’s been running in place for an hour, as gigantic Meerson sets trundle past. No wonder the thing didn’t do well.

But as a sort of fantasy travelogue of the Russian revolution, sort of diverting, and never less than beautiful, visually. Haunted by history, since a traditional Happy Ending is impossible with Russia as one of the main characters. Impossible to this day, arguably.

Knight Without Armour (1937)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 386 other followers