Archive for The Four Musketeers

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.

All for nothing?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2011 by dcairns

Richard Lester is some kind of favourite director of mine, and his THREE MUSKETEERS and FOUR MUSKETEERS have a special place in my affections. So his last dramatic feature, RETURN OF THE MUSKETEERS, is something of a problem. Haunted by tragedy, hampered by budget shortages, flawed by script problems, it can never be “a worthy successor” and most reviewers have been content to dismiss it. I love a lot of the picture, but can’t in earnest embrace it as a whole.

Lester’s final film, GET BACK, a Paul McCartney concert flick, truly does deserve rapid dismissal — to linger on its faults would seem merely cruel. McCartney was not the performer he had been, the footage is inadequate (especially the oft-repeated shot of an attractive audience member — was she the only ticket buyer under forty?) and the whole thing feels redundant and nostalgic — there’s some kind of tentative desire to do more, but the tools aren’t there for a thoughtful reappraisal of the sixties.

RETURN has much more going for it than GET BACK, although the nostalgic impulse is there also. The movie reunited all the characters who survived the first films and the intervening years, to deliver a fairly faithful adaptation of Dumas’ Twenty Years After — fortunately, Lester only waited fifteen years, so his cast were still comparatively spry, or are made to appear so. Unfortunately, their star profiles had dimmed considerably in the time since 1974, so that the presence of Michael York, Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed, Geraldine Chaplin and Christopher Lee (who apparently died, quite conclusively, in the previous movie, but is a specialist in resurrection) signalled “B movie” in 1989. Frank Finlay and Roy Kinnear were always character players rather than stars. So a lot depended on the new blood, and C. Thomas Howell and Kim Cattrall didn’t enhance the film’s standing — he had fallen from his brat pack heights, while she was in between the two successful periods of her career.

(But it’s a good, hearty, thigh-slapping performance from Kim, and Howell, the son of a stuntman, is a convincing swordsman.)

It’s easy to ignore all that now, but harder to deal with the effects of Roy Kinnear’s tragic death during the shoot, when his horse slipped, he fractured his pelvis and succumbed to heart failure. I remember the news reports and it’s easy to spot the scene in the film where the accident occurred, although no footage of the fall was used or exists. It’s also easy to spot the stand-in who replaced Kinnear in long shots, and the overdubs replacing lines Kinnear wasn’t around to re-voice himself. It seems abandoning the film wasn’t a legal option, or maybe it was emotionally easier for Lester to simply charge forward with production. It clearly cast a pall over the film, a non-diegetic aura of sadness and confusion that in no way helps the film’s ambition to be a rollicking romp.

Had the movie been more ambitious, like its predecessors, it might have coped better, but the focus is very much on the lighter aspects of the story. While FOUR MUSKETEERS ended with heroes and heroines tragically slain, this one has the arch-villain escape at the end, borrowing a note from ROYAL FLASH (also written by George MacDonald Fraser) which hadn’t worked too well the first time.

So why talk about the film at all? Only because the good bits are often very good — it was great seeing Oliver Reed back on the screen in something at least vaguely worthy of his talents, throwing himself into the fight scenes with sweaty intensity and authentically murderous/suicidal gusto. Frank Finlay’s ebullient delivery and silly comedy voice are as welcome as ever, and Kinnear is wonderful when he’s around — his role as Planchet, D’Artagnan’s long-suffering servant has been built up, in keeping with the film’s more consistently frivolous tone. An opening tavern brawl is an excellent showcase for Lester’s slapstick skills, as Kinnear poaches food from the rafters using a fork on a stick, eventually provoking a series of misunderstandings down below which escalate into a comic riot.

The fights are as inventive as ever, mixing balletic grace with authentic moments of clumsiness and bad luck (all of which can feel unfortunate given the film’s troubled history) and the overall idea of the first films is continued — the political backstory and the scheming royals and clerics are eyed sceptically, the romance is ironically undercut, the swashbuckling is blended with slapstick to make what must be called either swashstick or slapbuckle, but somehow all of this is kept under control so that there’s still room for excitement and character empathy. It’s a very tough balancing act. What keeps the films in line is their critique of history — like Keaton’s THE GENERAL, everything is “so real it hurts”, and the best jokes come from an evocation of poverty, violence, squalor, venality or stupidity, founded in bitter fact. This is something THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films don’t get. Michael Powell said that Lester’s first two MUSKETEERS films showed him the tone he’d failed to get with THE ELUSIVE PIMPERNELL, but the difference is that that film takes its romance and heroics seriously but its world is mere scenery. In Lester’s films the settings are three-dimensional and the characters two-dimensional, quite intentionally.

Kinnear, fleeing pursuers, jumps on planks projecting from the back of a cart, but when the cart trundles off, the planks stay put, being part of an entirely different structure — a compositional joke straight from Keaton.

Howell and Cattrall embrace passionately — Lester cuts to a ball being thrown through a hoop, with a little grunt of exertion, a bathetic parody of the sexual act.

Expressive lines that are funny not because of jokes but because of how they encapsulate character. Frank Finlay, being dragged behind a carriage as a nobleman stabs a rapier at his chest: “D’Artagnan! I am at a loss!”

Insane but convincing period detail — Finlay does some target practice by firing his musket at wooden doves on sticks held aloft by hapless servants crouched in a pond, as he rotates on a tiny carousel hand-pushed by more liveried schmoes.

Comedy overdubs — a nobleman escapes prison in extreme longshot, forced to clamber over his own men. “Use my head, sir — ouch — sorry about my head, sir.”

Cattrall traps the musketeers in a diabolical booby-trapped house, all trap doors, sliding panels and snapping manacles in chair arms — the workings are eventually exposed, a control room manned by dwarfs, all black-clad like stagehands or highwaymen.

Scot-mockery! King Charles II of Britain appears, playing golf, and he’s Bill Paterson, with Billy Connolly as his caddie.

Brit-mockery! When D’Artagnan insists that the British public will never stand for the execution of their king, Oliver Reed tells him, “The British public will put up with anything except an increase in the price of ale or the mistreatment of pack animals.” Screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser was, after all, a journalist.

Twang!

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2010 by dcairns

Hollywood producer Ray Stark makes a cameo appearance.

Before we all sit down to discuss ROBIN AND MARIAN on Friday, there are a few background facts I want to spout out, as perhaps forming a useful context to the film and the director’s intentions. Richard Lester, the gleaming dome of British sixties cinema, had somewhat reinvented himself after a forced break of four years, coming back with THE THREE MUSKETEERS and its part two (not really a sequel as both halves were shot at once and intended as one film) THE FOUR MUSKETEERS. ROYAL FLASH came after that, firming up the idea that Lester was now a director of comedy swashbucklers. But while FLASH is more broadly farcical than MUSKETEERS (which has a distinct serious side and a fairly bittersweet ending), ROBIN AND MARIAN was shot under the title THE DEATH OF ROBIN HOOD, and was intended from the start as a serious and sombre film.

Reviewers often view one film through the lens of another — I can be guilty of this myself — meaning that what’s actually on the screen can either be intensified or obscured. If you read the contemporary reviews of R&M, it’s striking how critics seem to feel cheated, or disappointed at least, by the film’s solemnity. Lester has protested that “there’s not one deliberate joke in the whole film,” which is an exaggeration, I think — he can’t resist having a knight hurt his finger while loading a boulder into a siege machine, which subsequently misses its target pathetically — but his jokes derive from an acute awareness that life is, and always has, included a portion of the absurd and surreal. The comic moments are part of the film’s realism, not separate from it. My parents couldn’t work out if the film was meant to be serious or funny, and consequently disliked it. I kind of wonder how you can enjoy life if you need to make that distinction.

Along with altering the title (which would have served as a useful warning of what to expect in the film), producer Ray Stark rejected Michel Legrand’s score, held a competition among prominent movie composers for the gig, and hired John Barry, all without telling Lester. Barry dutifully provided the lush, filmic movie score Stark had demanded, ignoring Lester’s calls for a more restrained approach inspired by Sir Michael Tippett’s early string compositions. It’s possible to enjoy the Barry score as a typically romantic and sweeping work, but it tends to push a more light-hearted flavour at odds with the film’s true purposes. Since Lester was never able to finalize the Legrand score, a director’s cut is not possible.

Some violence has also been trimmed from the movie — Lester wanted to undercut any impression of fun action, more forcefully than he had in the MUSKETEERS film, where there’s a constant tension between slapstick and bloodshed — and this is weakened by trims made to the moments of brutality. The idea that an audience can be educated out of enjoying violence onscreen by being exposed to more and more extreme forms of it is a rather discredited one, I feel, but Lester always had the ability to bring in the unpleasant action in a surprising way, so he was not dependent on extremes of gore, but on extremes of contrast. It compares somewhat with Robert Altman’s sudden tonal shifts from comedy to horror.

Despite these compromises, I think we can have a fun time with this movie – -I hope to re-watch it tonight. Join me on Friday and Saturday for the post-match analysis.

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