Let the Shadows Play
Maurice Binder’s titles for Ken Russell’s THE BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (the second sequel to THE IPCRESS FILE with Michael Caine).
Saul Bass gets a very good press, and rightly so, but maybe we should also talk more about Maurice Binder? While Bass is more consistently elegant and tasteful, Binder could be guilty of breathtaking kitsch (those later Bond titles!), as well as more classical work.
ARABESQUE is a film made by Stanley Donen, who told his cinematographer, the great Christopher Challis (TALES OF HOFFMAN) that the script was so bad their only hope was to try every crazy photographic trick in the book. It works! The presence of Sophia Loren and Alan Badel also help compensate for the fey script and the usual Gregory Peck drag-factor.
A similar contempt for the story enlivens THE IPCRESS FILE, where director Sid Furie started the shoot by tearing up and stamping on his script in front of the whole crew. “THAT’S what I think of THAT!”
Michael Caine supposes he must have had to borrow somebody else’s copy for the rest of the film.
Anyhow, Binder certainly gets these films off to a groovy start. I once asked production designer Ken Adam about Binder. The two had worked on many of the same James Bond films. I made the mistake of pronouncing the name “Morris Bynd-er”. But Binder was a German like Adam himself:
“Maw-reece Bin-der,” he enunciated, “was a lovely man, who liked, very much, to photograph silhouetted naked ladies.”
Binder himself told the story of his struggle with a model’s pubic hair, which stuck out in a censorable mohawk formation, visible as she turned in silhouette. ‘She wouldn’t shave, so I thought I’d smooth it down with vaseline. I was just patting it down when [producer] Cubby Broccoli walked in. He just looked at me, then said, “Maurice, I think maybe I am paying you too much.”‘
Maybe sometime I’ll post the titles of Billy Wilder’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, a favourite film of mine. Elegant and witty credits by Binder, with Miklos Rosza’s finest and most melancholy score. ‘Why is it so SAD?’ asks Fiona. The violin theme started life as a concerto by Rosza, and Wilder listened to it while writing the script. The sadness seeped into the comedy, making for Wilder’s most deeply-felt work since maybe THE APARTMENT. It’s also Wilder’s SCOTTISH FILM and makes better use of Robert Stephens’ unique gifts than any other movie — although working with Wilder was so stressful for Stephens, he attempted suicide partway through the shoot.
(While Mitchell Leisen would annoy Wilder by cutting his scripts to make things more comfortable for the actors, Wilder, it seems, never did ANYTHING for the comfort of his actors…)
My friend Roland suggests that you tend to find the best title sequences attached to the worst films, and there are certainly cases of that, but as long as there are films like TPLOSH around, I can’t subscribe to that as a guiding principle.