Archive for Von Sternberg

North

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-04-13-10h59m08s202

For some reason, every film I watch lately seems to have an Overture, an Intermission, an Entre-Acte and Exit Music — it started with the Easter weekend of biblical pictures, but then Fiona wanted to follow up our THIN MAN marathon with Powell & Loy in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. The downside of these roadshow events is one gets half as many films watched. And then there was ICE STATION ZEBRA, which fitted in with my recent researches into the career of John Sturges.

This is a real roadshow picture, as whitely elephantine as one could wish — I remembered it from TV screenings, all those endless submerging and surfacing sequences, a voyage to the North Pole that seems to take forever (the first half of the three hour picture) and a lot of static scenes in cramped submarine interiors. Was DAS BOOT the first time a filmmaker realized you could move the camera in a sub? Wolfgang Petersen, for all his many and unforgivable subsequent sins, not only proved it could be done, he proved it OUGHT to be done. Mobilis in Mobili, is what I say.

Tempted to look at Robert Wise’s RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP, just to see if he manages a track here or there.

vlcsnap-2013-04-13-10h58m10s129

Anyhow, following on from THE SATAN BUG which is handsomely shot but also bloated rigid, Sturges is in the process of becoming the screen’s leading adapter of Alistair MacLean novels. MacLean really has fallen out of favour, hasn’t he? You don’t even see his books in Charity shops anymore, and the last adaptation was back in 1996. But in the late sixties and early seventies, you couldn’t move without slapping into a screen showing one or other of his thick-eared thrillers.

My English teacher at secondary school, Mrs Chapman, either knew MacLean or knew some someone who knew him, since he was a Scottish schoolteacher himself. She remarked with horror that his novels were all plotted on charts, with action and exposition mapped out at intervals, a cold, mechanical approach that horrified her.  I personally don’t see why author’s shouldn’t plan their stories on graphs — I just think ideally the finished book shouldn’t read like it.

McLean does not, so far as I can see, write good characters. Had Sturges applied the approach which served him so well with THE GREAT ESCAPE and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and stuffed the films with charismatic stars, some of this problem might have been diluted to a non-toxic level, but THE SATAN BUG stars low-wattage George Maharis (quite good, but definitely low-wattage) and ISZ has Rock Hudson in a severely underwritten, no make that unwritten role, which doesn’t capitalise on the actor’s light touch and sensitivity, nor on his impressive physique. Ernest Borgnine is quite good fun as a hearty Russian, and Jim Brown has a bad-ass military role which may be a stereotype but is a refreshingly un-racial one, but it’s left to Patrick McGoohan to carry the whole movie, nuclear submarine, polar cap and all.

vlcsnap-2013-04-13-10h59m21s75

Fortunately, our Pat is up to this challenge. Talking in a preternaturally clipped manner, through immobile, wooden lips, with irony dripping from his every utterance like seaweed, smiling tightly on one side like a very repressed stroke victim, glowering like a betrayed monitor lizard, and occasionally pounding tables violently and yelling at the top of his lungs without fair warning, he’s a live wire alright, and not the sort of thing that should be waggled about near water. But waggled about he is.

One extra-textual pleasure of the movie, which manages just about to scrape up enough intrigue to keep a patient viewer partially engaged, is that I’m told it was Howard Hughes’ favourite movie during his declining years. He’d run a scratchy old 16mm print of it again and again, as he watched in the nude (possibly with Kleenex boxes on his feet: one likes to think so, anyway). What a cheapskate millionaire, that he didn’t even have an Ultra-Panavision 65 print.

Easy to see why he liked it, though: the hardware, the engineering, the jets, the sub, the gadgets, the militarism, the manly men being masculine at each other, and the icy cleanliness of the environments. There’s no dirt at the arctic — not even any land. The lack of character psychology wouldn’t have mattered to him — in fact, he would have embraced it, just as he did in his own production JET GIRL, in which the only motivation that stays consistent is the kind provided by Janet Leigh’s twin thrusters.

vlcsnap-2013-04-13-10h59m44s48

More

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2012 by dcairns

theunholythree

As Barbet Schroeder is always saying: MORE!

Lon Chaney’s last film gets the once-over at Awkward Early Talkie Theater — hilarious and unsettling as the film itself.

Brandon’s Movie Memory digs into the memory banks and digs up the last films of Von Sternberg, Von Stroheim, Lang, and an obscurity by Varda which you won’t find much other info on… is that a late film? Well, Agnes is no spring chicken but we’re all rooting for her to achieve a career of at least Oliveira-like duration.

And now, set your brains to Portuguese, or set Google Chrome to autotranslate, as SARATOGA (last film of Jean Harlow) goes under the microscope at Critica Retro.

Now set them back to English, as Thrilling Days of Yesteryear racks focus to Humphrey Bogart’s final bow, in THE HARDER THEY FALL.

Pull up a chair

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2011 by dcairns

The bit in HIGH NOON that always impresses me the most is outlaw Frank Miller’s empty chair.

Of course, the real-time approach to story is fascinating and very novel, and leads directly to the omnipresent clock shots, each more ominous than the last. Dimitri Tiomkin’s ballad started a (somewhat regrettable) trend, but still sounds fresh, with its unusual frog-burp rhythm. The cinematography, pasting bleached-out skies behind flat-lit action, influenced by Mathew Brady’s period photos, violated the traditional Hollywood aesthetic and opened up new possibilities. Cooper’s age works to the film’s advantage, Lon Chaney Jnr gets one of his rare decent roles, Grace Kelly is radiant in her second role (a disciple of Flaherty, Zinnemann realized he could use her inexperience to illuminate the character).

But I’m obsessed with that chair.

First time out, the chair is mentioned — “That’s the chair Frank Miller sat in when he was sentenced!” Second time, during the final ticking-clock montage which revisits every character we’ve met as they await the stroke of noon, Zinnemann tracks in on the empty chair. This isn’t exploring space, roving POV, following movement or storytelling, so it must be the fifth kind of camera movement motivation: psychological. This is where we track in on a character as they think deep thoughts or feel a surge of emotion, and the movement makes us sense the thought/emotion building within them. The difference here is, the man who sat in the chair and felt the emotion did it months before the movie began. He’s not there anymore. But, like the spectres in THE SHINING, he’s left a trace of himself, and that’s what Zinnemann is filming. He’s tracking backwards in time, like Ophuls or Tarkovsky or Sokhurov, the only difference being that the temporal movement doesn’t reveal itself visually, only by mental impression.

Zinnemann’s fellow Viennese, Von Sternberg, wrote of his desire to photograph an idea — Zinnemann, it seems to me, has done this. Although I think the shot was probably a huge influence on Spielberg, who likes tracking in on objects to imbue them with significance and make us consider their narrative import, I think F.Z.’s shot goes markedly deeper, creating a sense of brooding lust for vengeance out of nothing more than empty air and a piece of furniture designed to receive the buttocks.

I haven’t tried this myself, but I suspect that if you watch this scene wearing the polarising glasses used to make the phantoms visible in William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS, you would get surprising results.

Film criticism, which used to see Peckinpah and Leone as the Men who Killed the Western (with realism, parodic exaggeration, and the destruction of moral certainties), now seems to have turned the clock back to put the blame on HIGH NOON and the psychological western. Suddenly there was liberal angst in the West, neurosis and concern about whether people are truly good, and that is seen as the first nail in the coffin of a genre built on certain shared assumptions. Maybe that’s why Hawks reacted so badly — he sensed the writing was on the wall. In many ways, HIGH NOON does seem to prefigure the decline of the genre — we have Gary Cooper looking old, the small community is no longer a source of final virtue and courage, and something strange and disturbing has happened to the style…

Leone quoted shots from HIGH NOON throughout his career, as Sir Christopher Professor Frayling would tell you, as well as borrowing Lee Van Cleef, one of the villain’s henchmen (as Peckinpah borrowed Katy Jurado). The musical fob watch in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is just an excuse to re-stage the above musical build-up three times in one movie. And of course ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST opens with a ten-minute compression of Zinnemann’s whole show. If Leone had fulfilled his dream of casting Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef as the three killers waiting for the train, Van Cleef’s appearance would have been a double joke.

To Leone, HIGH NOON seems to have been just a good western to swipe from, like YELLOW SKY (watch the ending of that one and HIGH NOON with the opening of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY!), not some departure from the norm. But Zinnemann is using the visual language of film noir — sweaty, intense close-ups, looming into a wide lens, porous, scowling, faces crowded together — in a western. If the climax of ACT OF VIOLENCE (face-off, with long walk, at a railway station) resembles a western duel in negative — which it does, because I just said so — then HIGH NOON is a film noir in negative, the sky a bleached-out Moby Dick white. And as we know from THE SHINING, some things are scarier in the bright light.

So what this ultimately means is that HIGH NOON is the source for a good 75% of Leone’s overall visual approach… so maybe Zinnemann DID kill the western, or at least supply the weapon that fired the shot.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 388 other followers