Ottocracy in Action

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2015 by dcairns

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More Otto Preminger Week Revisited.

Otto is one of those filmmakers you just CANNOT watch in the wrong aspect ratio. I’ve seen TAXI DRIVER in 4:3 and it was OK, although that’s obviously a travesty of the filmmaker’s intentions. To see a widescreen Preminger reduced to 16:9, though, renders it meaningless. The drama is often a little elusive at times, and without the spaciousness of the compositions, it dissipates mysteriously into nothingness. Plus you miss the detail packed into the edges of the frame on the crowded shots.

Fiona was astonished by ADVISE AND CONSENT — she found it talkie and dull for the first half hour, and she has flu, and she didn’t feel like looking at this all-star fishtank of largely cold, dry characters conniving and backstabbing. But once the movie has set its narrative in motion, and in particular once Don Murray’s awful predicament as a blackmailed senator with a homosexual affair in his past becomes apparent, the thing grips.

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For once, Charles Laughton is upstaged — by time-traveling Hugo Weaving on the right. He Gets everywhere!

In The World and its Double, Chris Fujiwara notes that Preminger and screenwriter Wendell Mayes were adapting and subverting a right-wing novel, and the result is interesting — it has Henry Fonda lying under oath, for one thing. As in THE BEST MAN, Fonda plays an “egghead” — Henry Fonda is Hollywood’s idea of a dangerous intellectual? What’s interesting, though, is this major star playing a character reduced to a political football, kicked around by the real players, compromising his ideals, finally reduced to irrelevance in a plot that moves on elsewhere.

Charles Laughton, in his last role, is chief antagonist, right-wing spokesman for the blacklist set. Preminger, who helped break the blacklist, allows him some humanity. The secondary antagonist is uptight, neurotic peacemonger George Grizzard, a hopeless politician full of passion and, it turns out, evil. And even he is somewhat sympathetic.

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This is an amazing shot: the camera arching around dramatically in response to quite small head turns by Grizzard (left).

People Preminger was mean to on this one: Franchot Tone, who hadn’t been in a movie for years. Paul Ford, of Bilko fame (“You’re not funny!”). He didn’t mess with Laughton, and Don Murray betrayed no weakness.

Preminger, trying to help out Gene Tierney, who had been institutionalized after a mental collapse, cast her as a society hostess and apparently treated her with the greatest gentleness. She was terrified of him anyway. You can’t be the purple-faced tyrant and switch to being lovable Uncle Otto when it suits you. Fiona’s eyes nearly popped out when Tierney’s character playfully calls herself a bitch — the word had not been used in American movies, at least since the Production Code came in (one thinks of THE WOMEN’s artfully circumlocutory “There’s a name for you ladies…” — but I think British movies had not been so gentle).

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What really amazed Fiona was the gay bar scene. Preminger was sailing very close to the wind, relying on a change to the Code that had not been ratified as he neared production. SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER had broken the taboo on cannibalism — I guess homosexuality was regarded as a degree worse than that. Preminger was warned not to feature makeup or effeminate types — he heeded the warnings but violated their spirit with physiognomy and performance. Seen through the tortured Don Murray character’s eyes, the place exerts both repulsion and attraction — some customers seem normal, appealing, others are George Grosz grotesques. Preminger’s innate streak of vulgarity can’t resist a good leer, but the approach makes sense and the scene hasn’t really dated. The senator’s religion isn’t mentioned, but he’s from Utah, making it highly likely that he’s a Mormon (I believe Bruce Dern’s grandfather was the only non-Mormon governor of Utah), making his inner conflict even more intense.

Preminger and Mayes plant just enough clues to indicate that the character’s marriage is, if not a sham, at least a deliberate construct, a life he’s been trying to lead, telling himself it’s right for him. He loves his wife and kid, but he’s straitjacketed himself into somebody else’s existence. It’s a rather sophisticated, nuanced piece of work, and Murray is excellent in the role: something about the tightness of his smile always suggests a man clinging on (he’s very fine in the underrated A HATFUL OF RAIN also).

You Misremember This

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 3, 2015 by dcairns

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All serious film-lovers are well aware that Mae West never actually said “Play it again, Sam,” and that Humphrey Bogart in CASABLANCA never asks Dooley Wilson to “Come up and see me sometime,” but film history is full of only slightly less famous quotations which never actually occur in the films cited. Here are a few examples.

In Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND, Gregory Peck never actually tells Ingrid Bergman, “I’m going to knock your fucking block off, you great Swedish cow.” Peck’s character is actually in love with Bergman’s, and thus would be unlikely to threaten or insult her in this way. Curiously enough, the line does actually appear in the Oscar-nominated 2002 spelling bee documentary SPELLBOUND, which  might be where the confusion originated, except that Donald Spoto, in his 1983 Hitchcock biography The Dark Side of Genius, insists the line is present and cites it as evidence of the director’s misogyny. Asked in an interview how such a line could get through the Breen office, Spoto appears to have replied, “Peck kind of mumbled it, and blew a raspberry to distract attention,” although Spoto’s own poor diction and accompanying sound effects make his exact words uncertain.

In WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966), Elizabeth Taylor never actually accuses husband Richard Burton of “prancing about like Dick Spanner’s mad auntie,” and given that the Gerry Anderson puppet series Dick Spanner, P.I. only appeared on television twenty years later, it’s hard to see how anyone could have imagined she did.

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Not Richard Burton.

On ON THE WATERFRONT, Marlon Brando is celebrated for his performance and for the much-mimicked line “A codda bunna cotoda,” but film fans would be startled to learn that rather than this abstract piece of beat poetry, what the famed method actor actually intended to say is the more prosaic “I could have been a contender.” Whether the film would have gone on to occupy such a central position in the pantheon of great film-making had anybody at all understood the line correctly must forever remain a mystery, like Donald Sutherland’s odd arm movement in the sex scene in DON’T LOOK NOW, its origins and purpose still a total mystery.

In Liam Neeson’s final scene in SCHINDLER’S LIST, he never actually says, in between repeatedly mourning his failure to save more lives, the line “I like broccoli, I don’t care what anybody says.” The first cut of the film did actually contain such a line, but director Steven Spielberg quickly realised that the insight into Oskar Schindler’s taste in vegetables was misplaced at this dramatic high point, and removed it, adding in some more blubbering instead. But somehow Stephen Zaillian’s script or the rough edit must have leaked out, because to this day Spielberg is often praised for his mastery of tone in slipping such an apparently humdrum detail into a scene of devastating emotional power, and Liam Neeson complains that fans often shout the line at him in the street, causing him to stroll angrily away to make another awful revenge film.

CASABLANCA contains another often-misquoted line. Contrary to popular belief, Claude Rains does not say “Round up the usual suspects,” despite that line later becoming famous and giving the title to another celebrated movie, Frankie Howerd’s UP THE USUAL (1972). Examination of the original screenplay reveals that Rains was actually give the line “Rump up the huge old soup sect,” since screenwriter twins Julius & Philip Epstein couldn’t think of a snappy line to reveal Captain Renault’s change of allegiance, and so resorted to picking words from a hat in order to meet their deadline. In a frankly incredible stroke of luck, audiences ever since have mistaken Rains’ crisply delivered reading for a far more logical and witty sentence, thus helping to ensure the film’s classic status.

 

Otto Complete

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2015 by dcairns

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Revisiting an old favourite — it’s Otto Preminger Week, Slight Reprise.

I think it was Guy Budziak who sent me a DVD of Otto Preminger’s THE CARDINAL some years back — thanks, Guy! — I immediately watched and drooled over the magnificent Saul Bass title sequence, then put it away, meaning to watch the rest later. Having finally done so, the main benefit received is probably that it got me to finally start reading Chris Fujiwara’s Preminger study, The World and His Double. The movie does embody a lot of the positive AND negative things about the Preminger style and personality.

Fujiwara cites plenty of testimony from concerned parties that Preminger mercilessly mistreated his leading man, Tom Tryon, eventually driving him to quit acting altogether. (Preminger felt Tryon should thank him for his subsequent successful career as a novelist.) Tryon’s own account is harrowing and heartbreaking — but I’m surprised that co-star John Huston’s version isn’t included. Huston claims he noticed Tryon was looking nervous and suggested that Otto might try soothing his star rather than berating him. Otto approached the trembling thespian from behind and bellowed “RELAAAAX!” in his ear.

It probably isn’t true, but poetically it is clearly COMPLETELY true.

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The perfect match of pillars and font (typographic, not baptismal)

The film also got me looking up Catholic history to see if the movie was fair and accurate. It’s not too shabby. Preminger apparently added all the stuff about the Austrian Anschluss, which the source novel didn’t deal with. The film shows faithfully how the church in Austria initially welcomed Nazi annexation, only turning against it when the Nazis started repressive measures against Catholics. But the movie can’t find room to show how Pope Pius XII pursued policies of appeasement and neutrality, decrying war crimes in generic terms while refusing to be specific. However, we do get to see some prime chickenshit religiose humbug in a sequence dealing with segregation in Georgia. When Ossie Davis comes to Rome to report his church being burned by the clan, the Italian cardinal berates him for his inflammatory behaviour in protesting that a Catholic school wouldn’t teach black children.

The fact that Tryon’s character stays with the church after this almost makes him a difficult character to respect, although in fairness he travels to Georgia and tries to help out. His biggest problem as a lead character is that he allows his sister to die — she’s pregnant, the doctor needs to sacrifice the baby’s life to save her, and Tryon refuses. Even Preminger knew this was a character flaw: whatever the law of the church says, as fellow humans in the audience we demand that Tryon’s character save his sister. No movie star could really play that part — the kind of characters movie stars play would somehow resolve things — or God would help out with a miracle and the sister would live.

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Tryon flanked by Lynley Mk II (right) and Dorothy Gish (left).

In a really creepy piece of filmmaking, Preminger casts the same actress, the lovely Carol Lynley, as both sister and grown-up niece (the movie’s story covers decades, and it seems like it too). It’s as if an act of cinematic metempsychosis has resulted in the mother literally living on in her daughter, so that the priest’s act of murder is erased. As Fujiwara observes, Preminger directs this sequence with so little conviction that the apparent intended meaning is substantially undercut.

Weirdness alternates with dullness. For the first twenty minutes, the script (Robert Dozier plus uncredited Gore Vidal and Ring Lardner — neither of whom knew the other was at work on the same project until a chance meeting exposed the farce) is content to offer no actual drama at all, just uncomfortable actors exchanging information, plus bits of ritual and music and nice location shooting. Then Cecil Kellaway brings in a little conflict, playing an avuncular rotter in a dog collar, whose sins are so petty, venial and squalid that it’s surprising Otto got the OK from the church, especially after his rows with the Catholic Legion Of Decency (CLOD, I call them) on previous movies.

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And then we get John Huston, and things get MUCH better. Also Burgess Meredith, at whose deathbed Huston has a moment that actually really moved me — not an emotion I expected to get from a Huston performance, though I often enjoy him.

Cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who restrains his usual Deluxe Color glorious excesses, was apparently quite smitten with Romy Schneider… one can well believe it.

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The movie was make-up supremo Dick Smith’s first credit, and he had to age Tryon throughout the movie. He was apparently a last-minute replacement for the great Maurice Seiderman (CITIZEN KANE), who quarrelled with Preminger and, as a parting gesture, ran his electric razor in a line right up the back of Tryon’s head. Poor Tryon, he got the worst of every encounter. Poor Smith, he had to spend months gluing little bits of hair to the back of Tryon’s scalp.

Fujiwara is probably right to regard this as major Preminger, but he does note the difficulties it presents — Tom Tryon is sort of right for it, but does not provide a strong centre.

Dwight MacDonald wrote of Preminger, “A great showman who has never bothered to learn anything about making a movie,” which is totally off-base. But he added, hilariously, “… no one is more skilled at giving the appearance of dealing with large, controversial themes in a bold way, without making the tactical error of doing so.” In a sense, he has Preminger cold, but a more sympathetic reading — that the former lawyer was always inclined to view a problem from both sides, if at all possible — is equally valid. When dramatic weakness or oppressive censorship impacts on this approach, the result can be dullness, as in several long sequences of THE CARDINAL. When Preminger is able to pilot a strong script through the cultural hazards, the results are striking.

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