Archive for Once Upon a Time in the West

Christ Recrucified

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 26, 2012 by dcairns

I hadn’t heard of Valerio Zurlini until Shane Danielsen programmed a retrospective of this fascinating figure at the Edinburgh Film Festival some years back. Being strapped for cash at the time and not possessing a press pass, staff pass or filmmaker pass, I wasn’t able to see very many of the films, so it was with pleasure that I recently caught up with BLACK JESUS, enabling me to write a few words about it for The Forgotten. Thanks to retrospectives like Edinburgh’s, Zurlini isn’t as hugely forgotten as he was, but he’s still far from being what you might call a household name. Even in my household.

If the idea of Woody Strode, the same year as his iconic cameo in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, playing at one and the same time Patrice Lumumba and Jesus Christ, doesn’t tickle your fancy, I have to ask if your fancy isn’t perhaps overdressed for the weather.

A Kitten isn’t just for Christmas…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2008 by dcairns

We went round to my friend Kristin’s to admire her new kitten, Jonathan:

Jonathan did not disappoint!

Then, after crisps and cake and wine, I suggested watching CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY, which I had copied for Kris because she wanted to see Gene Kelly being evil. As a fan of musicals and all things evil, how could she resist that combination?

Beautiful death-mask lighting by Woody Bredell.

It was quite a strange viewing experience. Even with the lights dimmed, Jonathan refused to settle, so the movie played out with an adorable bundle of fur skittering across the floorboards throughout. Then there was Kris’s TV, which has a failing tube or something, so that the top right of the screen is green and the rest is blue, sometimes creating a strange 3D effect where the background of a shot is tinted differently from the foreground. And then there was the tape itself (I recorded it on VHS since Kris’s DVD player was busted) which had been recorded over something in LP mode, so that in the audio background, strange slurred voices could be heard conversing or maybe arguing or singing in ssslllooowww mmmoootttiiiooonnn.

All in all, a strange way to see a film, and likely not one screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz nor director Robert Siodmak had in mind. But the film survived.

It’s a long-standing joke that audiences going to see a film called CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY with Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly must have been pretty shocked with the doomed noir love story they got in place of sentimental musical comedy. With that cast, a different title would really have helped, but the name of the film actually resonates beautifully with the story (original author Somerset Maugham had good taste, after all). The time-span of the tale is literally the duration of a soldier’s Christmas leave, and although Kelly inhabits the meatiest part of the story, it’s as much the jilted G.I.’s tale. But Siodmak, a star-maker all his life, didn’t manage to turn Dean Harens into a headliner, and the young hero kind of backs out of the limelight when faced with authentic moviestar wattage.

On Kris’s TV, Deanna was completely silhouetted except for the gleaming teardrop. Nice.

As fallen woman Deanna (terrific performance, completely different face and body language in the flashbacks to more innocent times) narrates her story, both he and she experience the beginnings of an emotional transformation. The flashback structure calls to mind Mankiewicz’s most celebrated work, CITIZEN KANE, while there’s at least one transition that’s very much in the KANE mold: Gene Kelly says, “You don’t believe me,” Deanna Durbin retorts, “I do,” and on those words we cut to the wedding ceremony.

Kelly gives a peach of a performance as charming psychopath Robert Mannette (“little man”?), tormented by the feeling that he’s a disgrace to his noble family name. The film seems to be having fun teasing us with Kelly. We wait almost half an hour for the putative star to turn up. when he does, he’s in silhouette, and he’s just killed a bookie. The next flashback shows how Deanna met her husband (the structure is tricky that way) and he asks her to dance. But just as they reach the dance floor, the song (“Always”, which Deanna gets to sing, twice, very slowly) ends. A brief conversation, and then the band strikes up. Gene takes Deanna in his arms, and just as we’re finally about to see Gene dance, Siodmak fades out.

But minutes later, Kris would remark, “He’s always dancing.”

Which is true. As is: “The mother’s really scary.”

Ah yes, Gale Sondergaard. “When it was all over, the psychoanalysts would say that Robert’s relations with his mother were pathological.” It wouldn’t be a Siodmak noir without a bit of dollar-book Freud. Or astronomy. One or the other. (THE KILLERS and UNCLE HARRY plump for astronomy. THE FILE ON THELMA JORDAN, THE DARK MIRROR, PHANTOM LADY, THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE plump for d-b F. Later on in Siodmak’s career, his great NIGHTS, WHEN THE DEVIL CAME can be said to be about unconvincing scientific explanations for aberrant behaviour.) Sondergaard is never more alarming than when she’s being caring and motherly:

She’s just too corpsey. It’s a beautifully pitched performance, where Sodergaard seems to simply allow the lighting and the lines of her face to carry the sinister implications.

A gripping climax: Kelly has escaped from prison and seeks to kill Durbin for her perceived infidelity. The irony: Durbin has never stopped loving him, and her life as a prostitute has been a self-inflicted punishment for her perceived failure to save her husband from himself. It’s pretty sick stuff.

“How did he get out?” Fiona wanted to know. Women have a way of asking awkward practical questions like that. I showed ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST to director Morag McKinnon, and at the climactic flashback, when Charles Bronson’s brother is being hanged from a stone arch, she asked “Where’s the ladder?” To which the best answer is, “Maybe they just used the camera crane.”

“He escaped,” I attempted to explain.

“Yeah, but how?”

“Violence.”

“And dancing.”

“Yes. A deadly combination of violence and dancing.”

Deanna Durbin transcends the squalor in a Wagnerian climax as the clouds part and Tristan Und Isolde plays on the soundtrack, and as Glenn Kenny points out, the combination of Wagner and (yes!) astronomy connects irresistably to Bunuel’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU, but in the absence of any proven interest from Siodmak in Bunuel’s work, I have to question whether this is influence… or just a beautiful synchronicity.

The Farmer Takes a Knife

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2008 by dcairns

THE COTTAGE is a new British horror film from writer-director Paul Andrew Williams, who had a critical and commercial hit in 2006 with LONDON TO BRIGHTON.

The Smiler with the Knife

Backstory: after trying for three years to get THE COTTAGE made, PAW approached producer Rachel Robey and offered her the script of LTB, provided she got the budget (£65,000) very swiftly — he was sick of waiting.

They shot the thing with private investments, then got completion money from The Film Council’s Paul Trijbits (Richard Stanley’s bête noir) and had a festival hit on their hands.

Road trip

I haven’t seen the result, but Fiona has and was very complimentary — she expected to hate it, as it’s that kind of low-budget “gritty realism” much in fashion in the UK and especially Scotland, seemingly because nobody has any idea what else cinema can be. But it also has a gripping narrative hook, and is a thriller and sort-of road movie. Fiona saw the thing at the Edinburgh Film Fest in 2006, where she attended one of the big parties and saw Rachel R being spanked by Brian DePalma (he tried to get her to sit on his lap, she refused, and received swift bottom-related justice from de palm of DePalma). Fiona relayed this gossip to me that night, and I was glibly recounting it to a friend the next day when I realised to my embarrassment that the subject of the story was sitting behind me. But Rachel is a very good sport.

After scoring with his feature debut, PAW suddenly had no trouble finding support for THE COTTAGE —  The Isle of Man paid him to come to their benighted land mass to shoot it, and The Film Council stumped up a considerably greater sum. Yet Williams has sounded rather muted when “promoting” his resulting dream project in interviews.

The film is a mess. Two incompetent kidnappers (Andy “my precious” Serkis and Reece Shearsmith of TV comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen) come to the titular cottage with sweary hostage Jennifer Ellison. It’s immediately clear that the film is madly off-target. Jokey credits that fly in from all directions for no damn reason (and without any of the wit of Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST titling) and 10th generation Danny Elfman rip-off music (LOUD! HEAD-ACHY!) give way to mismatched performances from the annoying and unsympathetic characters. Serkis and Ellison are relatively naturalistic, but Shearsmith is shrill and “comedic”, which might be more appropriate to the kind of film this is, but stands out as unconnected to the other players, and is rather tiring on the ears and nerves. Inexplicably, the two kidnappers are brothers, sharing a house since childhood, but Serkis is cockney and Shearsmith clearly from Hull. Similarly, Ellison is Scouse but her step-brother, who’s in on the caper, is a soft southern bastard and amusingly middle-class to boot. Played by Steve O’Donnell, he’s the only funny one, with his constant mild air of failure although he’s party to all the “these characters are unbelievably stupid” stuff, which is a major part of the film’s massive irritation factor.

The Big Mouth

Plot holes… so many, and so glaring. Starting with the title — it’s called THE COTTAGE, and there is a cottage fairly prominent in it, but the centre of terror proves to be a farmhouse. Ellison’s gangster dad is forever on his way to wreak mayhem, but never turns up — a stab at Waiting For Godot? (Fiona’s diligant research turns up the fact that Stephen Berkoff cameos in this role after the end credits — somebody was optimisitc enough to hope the audience would stick around). The farmhouse’s occupants have some kind of backstory that’s hinted at in diaries, photos and news clippings, but it never makes sense or adds up to anything evocative. A bog-standard TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE set-up is all we really get. The role of farmer’s wife wastes the excellent Scottish actress Katy Murphy, so maybe there was more material originally. Another lacuna involves the brothers and an incident in a greenhouse from their past — referred to several times, never elucidated, and never acquiring any resonance from being kept mysterious. One character has a moth-phobia. Of course he’s confronted by masses of moths at one point, but the effect is a big “so what”? He isn’t destroyed by his fear, he doesn’t triumph over it, he just leaves the room.

Subjecting the characters to their worst nightmares is what the film is all about, I suppose. But it’s all so unimaginative — they get bones broken, bits lopped off, other bits impaled, they eventually die. It’s like a literal execution of brain-dead “script guru” Dov SS Simmons’ dictum, “send seven characters into a house and chop them up.” Not very enlightening. The complete lack of character sympathy negates suspense and helps kill laughter too. PAW tries to find some compassion for the central duo about ten minutes from the end, by which time it’s an exercise in pointlessness on a par with the rest of the film. Everybody in the story is a stereotype and they behave accordingly, with only the tiniest amount of development permitted, and no surprises anywhere. Inexplicably, the kidnap victim is portrayed as the most unpleasant of them all, in keeping with a pervasive tone of misogyny that’s completely unexamined by the script and direction.

Cambell's Kingdom

A proper film.

It’s not FROM DUSK TILL DAWN — the music and overacting tip us off to the intended genre shift before the story’s even started. It’s not EVIL DEAD II — the violence is graphic and unpleasant, rather than cartoony and funny. It’s actually worse than CREEP, which was also full of plot holes and lacked any kind of explanation, but took itself seriously, which at least allowed for a small amount of dramatic tension.

What we have is a combination of the two genres beloved of The Film Council, genres it has consistently failed to master — the gorefest and the mockney gangster romp. Everybody got sick of the latter about eight years ago, with only SEXY BEAST winning any friends since, through its sheer demented originality. Suturing a brainless crime comedy onto a mindless splatter film does NOT make anything new or different or interesting.

I can’t work out what’s gone wrong with PAW — my best guess is that, having made LONDON TO BRIGHTON he actually found a style and tone that suited him better than his intended “crowd-pleaser”. Given the opportunity to make the film he’d hoped for, he found suddenly that it held no interest for him, was shallow and devoid of humanity compared to what he’d found himself capable of. He couldn’t bring the depth and passion of LONDON TO BRIGHTON to it because the whole idea lacked any weight or relevance to the real world (the inbred serial killers inhabit a yokel village an hour outside of modern London), was just a compendium of horror clichés put together with no love for the genre or affection for the characters. It would be torture porn only it lacks any actual sadistic relish, which in the context of this deadening mishmash would actually constitute a redeeming feature. And it’s flatly made in a joyless televisual style that confirms again the serious lack of visual literacy in the UK film industry.

I don’t LIKE using Shadowplay to be mean about films. I want British genre films to be made with love and to deliver pleasure to people who care about cinema. I can even just about tolerate something that’s mean-spirited and nasty if it shows a love of CINEMA.

Michael Powell had an expression he’d use when he saw a disappointing film, and it’s apposite here: “He didn’t teach me anything.”

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