Archive for Robin and Marian

Blind Tuesday: Justice is Blind

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2014 by dcairns

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A return of our intermittent series of posts on thrillers about the sightless. This one is kind of a departure though. Nobody in the movie is blind or pretends to be blind.

CRIME UNLIMITED is a 1935 Warner picture made at their UK studio in Teddington. Being post-code, it reconfigures some of the plot tropes of earlier films, adjusted to make them morally uplifting — for instance, James Cagney’s jewelry store scam from BLONDE CRAZY gets trotted out again, only here the perp is an undercover man seeking to ingratiate himself with a gang of heisters, so it’s all above-board, really.

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The leading lady is a heartbreakingly young and succulent Lilli Palmer, but of more interest to our jaded sensibilities is the fact that the hero is played by Esmond Knight. During WWII, Knight was blinded for real during a battle at sea with the Bismarck. He lost one eye and was almost totally blinded in the other — some sight returned to it in his extreme old age. He can be seen, minus glass eye, at the start of ROBIN AND MARIAN, but he played numerous sighted characters for Michael Powell, including a film director (parodying Powell’s own temperamental style) in PEEPING TOM and the Maharajah in BLACK NARCISSUS, which required him to ride a donkey through a forest. “I’ll be fine,” my friend Lawrie reported him as saying, “The donkey doesn’t want to hit a tree any more than I do.”

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Slightly eerily, the CRIME UNLIMITED features scenes where Knight is blindfolded and led to a baddie’s lair.

He also reports to his superiors by standing at a window and moving his lips. A deaf man in the building opposite reads his lips with binoculars and passes the info to Scotland Yard.

The movie is a reasonably enjoyable potboiler, well made (by Hollywood director Ralph Ince) and decently acted. Knight is an adequate leading man, but he was really waiting for a few years to pile on to turn him into a fine character actor. One does miss the more mature moral ambiguity of the pre-code era. One has to settle for fated social attitudes instead — Raymond Lovell plays a club owner in league with the crooks as a nasty Jewish stereotype. A good accents man, the portly Canadian would redeem himself during the war by specialising in Nazis.

Background Artistry

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2012 by dcairns

“Keep going, Reggie, it’s filling up.”

“I’m going as fast as I can.”

“Not good enough.”

With Paul W.S. Anderson’s MUSKETEERS atrocity coming out already forgotten, a few newspaper critics have muttered about the good old 1973 THE THREE MUSKETEERS directed by Richard Lester. This is gratifying attention for a film (and its sequels) too rarely mentioned, but doesn’t go into what makes it special. The implication seems to be that Lester’s movies delivered the required action, romance and spectacle in a sensible manner, without all the steampunk tomfoolery of the newfangled & crapfangled version befouling our 21st century megaplexes.

This is true, but doesn’t go far enough. Lester’s films work as a satire of the assumptions of swashbuckling cinema, while still delivering the pleasures associated with it. In this, they’re perfectly in keeping with Dumas’ original novel, although they arguably exaggerate its skeptical attitude. A clue to this comes in Charlton Heston’s memoir: he asked Lester, before starting the role of Cardinal Richelieu, how much comedy to put into it, since this was an area he had little experience in. “None, damn it,” was Lester’s reply, as reported by Chuck (the phraseology sounds more Hestonian than Lesteroid). Lester then made the point that Richelieu was the only competent character in Dumas’ book — he’s only defeated because his stooges are even less cunning than bumpkin D’Artagnan and his enthusiastic, apolitical cohorts.

Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, authors of the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies, are great admirers of Lester’s films — using them as a model rather than the usual Spielberg influences gives them an edge, but they’re not really competing in the same arena: their films combine slapstick and swashbuckling — to make something we could call either swashstick or slapbuckle — but they have no satirical viewpoint, partly because their films are set in a vague never-neverland rather than a precise historical moment.

Everything in Lester’s films is historically researched, even the cowhide submarine, which at least existed in blueprint form at the time. By having his characters fall in the mud or miss their targets when swinging from ropes, he’s not just being amusing (though the best gags have a Keatonesque flair), he’s taking the piss out of the characters and their aspirations. He manages to do this without eliminating the pleasure of seeing elaborately costumed people doing dangerous things, having learned in the sixties that “Brechtian alienation is a synonym for audience’s backs seen disappearing down a street”),  but it should be hard to miss the genial contempt these movies have for the royalty, the military, religion and politicians.

Part of the films’ armoury of narrative contraptions for achieving this is the artful use of extras. Rather than just being scene-fillers, these are very much self-directed characters in their own right, generally cast as victims of the royal, military, religious and political plotters moving across the foreground. Lester loves to create bits of business for them in pantomime, then dub on lines in post-production, adding another draft to the script. His use of sound seems influenced by Tati, and it’s pretty bold at times. The comedian Ronnie Barker quit the dub of ROBIN AND MARIAN because Lester wanted him to add a line where his lips weren’t moving. “Nobody’ll notice,” promised Lester. Barker walked out and was re-voiced by David Jason. So, not everybody likes this approach.*

Which brings us to THE THREE MUSKETEERS, which has several great moments illustrating the value of the extra + overdub. Having broken into the palace, D’Artagnan is faced with a roomful of querulous aristocrats — he grabs the rug they’re standing on and attempts to yank it from under them. A thin strip of it tears off in his hands. He drops it and runs. The aristocrats just stand there. “He’s torn our carpet,” remarks one, sniffily (they all have their backs to camera: the line is an overdub).

Then there’s the dedicated drinkers who go on getting sloshed during a tavern brawl, rapiers flashing within inches of their reddening noses. These guys communicate solely in grunts. A cleaning woman keeps scrubbing the steps as D’Artagnan repeatedly bumps into her while he’s apologizing to Oliver Reed for bumping into him.

Our first real look at Paris — a little girl watches in fascination as a “dentist” extracts teeth in the street, a woman pour a bucket of shit from a window — onto an unlucky greengrocer, a tree is wheeled past (testimony to the passion for landscape gardening at the time) and the rat-catcher’s latest acquisitions, swinging from a pole over his shoulder, slap into D’Artagnan.

And then there’s the liveried manservants at the King’s part, seen at the top of this post — the fountain of wine has been installed without adequate drainage, so these poor guys are on hand to keep drinking to prevent the ballroom overflowing with burgundy. Well, it’s a living.

Interestingly, the other filmmaker with a gift for using bit-players and extras to undercut historical romance is the rather different… Max Ophuls. Consider the freezing old man on the bicycle whose job is to make the scenery go past as Louis Jourdan and Joan Fontaine enjoy their imaginary train ride in the Volksprater, or the musicians who are dying to finish work but have to keep playing as long as the lovers dance… Of course, in Ophuls the romantic still wins out over the cynical, which is partly why he moves the camera so much and Lester moves it so little.

*Lester doubts Barker’s recollection here.

Carry On Noir

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2010 by dcairns

Had a great time showing NIGHT AND THE CITY to my class a couple weeks ago, a movie I always enjoy, for all kinds of things, from the London noir atmosphere, Francis Sullivan’s eloquently tortured fat man bad guy, and Richard Widmark’s sweaty desperation (ALL the characters in the film are studies in desperation of one kind or another). Despite the seedy atmosphere, the film seems to have had an oddly healthy effect on its participants, with Widmark and director Jules Dassin surviving well into their nineties, and co-star Googie Withers still being with us today. But this time I was taken with a minor player who was not so lucky.


The thug in the car is an actor names Peter Butterworth. Not somebody one associates with thug parts, actually: Butterworth is chiefly known for his roles in the CARRY ON series, often as an incompetent underling to stars like Harry H Corbett (CARRY ON SCREAMING) or Kenneth Williams (DON’T LOSE YOUR HEAD). He’s also in three Richard Lester films, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, THE RITZ and ROBIN AND MARIAN, where he plays a barber-surgeon failing to extract an arrow from Richard Harris’s neck.

Melancholy and an end-of-the-pier seediness seem to coalesce around the private lives of the CARRY ON team, few of who reached particularly ripe ages (so it’s pleasing to have Barbara Windsor as an uncharacteristically perky Dormouse in Tim Burton’s mess of an ALICE IN WONDERLAND). Butterworth’s death, aged sixty, from a heart attack while waiting in the wings to go onstage at a pantomime show (I’d previously read “while entertaining at a children’s party” but I’ll go with the IMDb), has a sad sound to it, although you can configure a Hollywood Version easily enough: the sound of laughter/applause ringing in his ears. And it probably beats being bashed with a brick, which is what happens to his co-thug in NIGHT AND THE CITY.

Butterworth was a splendid comic, who could quietly hold his own amid the chaos of a CARRY ON farce — it was actually good from to upstage your fellow players in these things, since the only way to make the experience lively for the audience, with the inert staging, corny gags and clunking editing, was to have a few faces emoting at once, each trying to outdo the other in enthusiasm. Situate Butterworth in the background and he’d add a whole mini-drama just by being endearingly daft. He spends the whole climactic exposition of FORUM struggling to get his sword from its sheath, and faffs around behind Richard Harris in R&M, taking the curse off the script’s poetic musings with a welcome infusion of bumbling.

Here’s a bit of SCREAMING which illustrates a number of the painful pleasures of that series. Fenella Fielding is a great underused resource of British cinema, best known internationally for revoicing Anita Pallenberg in BARBARELLA. Kenneth Williams, always alarming, is especially so as the reanimated Dr. Watt, his voice a-quiver with vibrato suggestiveness. Then, about three minutes or so in, we get Butterworth, who hardly says a word but stands behind the other players and mugs genially. Jim Dale tries to match him twitch for twitch, and you get a sort of doubling of affect as they do a kind of facial dance-off behind Harry H Corbett (once praised as British theatre’s answer to Brando, now a magnificently resourceful farceur with TV’s Steptoe and Son as, essentially, his entire career) and Williams.

You can also appreciate Gerald Thomas’s bad filmmaking. He serves up passable angles in which we can enjoy the mugging, but they don’t cut together at all well — there’s no reason for the angle changes except to serve up a spurious variety to the coverage, and break the scene into manageable-sized segments. Kevin Smith must have been taking notes.

Oh, and the big guy at the start is Bernard Bresslaw, who nearly got the role of the Creature in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, just losing out to Christopher Lee. Imagine what a fun alternative universe that would be!

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