Archive for March 19, 2008

Fallen Angel Face

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2008 by dcairns

Face Front 

Dual authorship — leaving aside the screenwriters, Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard (Otto Preminger would — later on, he more or less originated the “A film by” credit for directors in Hollywood) the RKO production ANGEL FACE can be attributed partly to Howard Hughes, who owned the studio at the time.

An obsessive control freak, Hughes acted as auteur or co-auteur on virtually all the studio’s releases. When he took over he sent out a memo: “From now on our films will all be about two things: fucking and fighting.” Sensing the writing was on the wall, ace producer Joan Harrison immediately quit.

True to his word, Hughes proceeded to make films that pandered to his own obsessions: firey women with large bosoms, and ultra-masculine men engaged in ultra-masculine activities. Viewed as auteur, HH has all the distinguishing characteristics — recurring themes and subjects, types of character, and even a visual style of sorts, although with the exception of THE OUTLAW (co-helmed with the other Howard, Hawks) he relied on underlings to actually call the shots.

The Lusty Man

SON OF SINBAD, to me, is Hughes’ greatest triumph, a blithering farrago of action, crummy jokes and endless belly dances, all spangled up and silly as hell, but a stone cold masterpieceif you’re a ten-year-old boy. I remember identifying deeply with Vincent Price as Omar Khayam (later, VP would play Thomas DeQuincey too — quite the poet).

THE LUSTY MEN escaped the full HH treatment by virtue of not having a completed script when it began. Director Nicholas Ray and Robert Mitchum (a star doubling as writer) were able to shape it themselves, and although it has the staples of manly activity (the rodeo) and fierce women competing over hulking men, it’s a considerable film in its own right and very much a personal Nicholas Ray film. Hughes protected Ray from the blacklisters, earning Ray’s respect and admiration. Ray later pronounced “a curse on anybody else who tries to make a movie about Howard Hughes.” Uh oh.

JET PILOT and MACAO brought Josef Von Sternberg out of retirement and seclusion in his modern-art masterpiece house with the symbolic moat surrounding it. But the experience was not a happy one for anybody. Bob Mitchum smeared limburger cheese on the engine of Sternberg’s custom-built limo (so it would stink when it heated up) and, as Von S ruefully recalled, “instead of fingers in the pie, a whole army of clowns rushed to immerse various parts of their anatomy in it.” One of the clowns was Nick Ray again…

Robert Stephenson was a gentle Brit who’d left England when war broke out, and this conscientous objector found himself working first for Hughes, and later for Walt Disney, two of the most militaristic, right-wing producers Ho’wood had to offer. He even made I MARRIED A COMMUNIST for Hughes, which Nick Ray and just about everybody else turned down.

The wildest film made under Hughes stewardship was probably THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR, a weird anti-war parable directed by Joseph Losey. Hughes hated it, but somehow the production scraped through with it’s somewhat leaden message undiluted. Child star Dean “In Dreams” Stockwell was called in to see Hughes, and politely refused to deliver a new speech explaining how America could ensure universal peace so long as it had the biggest army, navy and air force in the world.

Slap Her, She's French

Otto Preminger tells us in his memoir, Preminger, that ANGEL FACE came about because Hughes wanted to punish Jean Simmons. She was contracted to him and had cut her hair short after a row with HH. The aviator hated short hair on women, and resolved to make Simmons complete one more feature in the eleven filming days left on her contract, and do it wearing a long black wig. Preminger was borrowed from 20th Century Fox as a director who could be trusted to get Simmons’ scenes in the can in the allotted time. Preminger doesn’t say so, but the implication is there that he was chosen for the job to make things as unpleasant as possible for Simmons. But he recalls enjoying working with her. (Whether the experience was mutual I’m not sure. Simmons won’t even discussWilliam Wyler, who directed her in THE BIG COUNTRY.)

David Ehrenstein reminds me:

“On The RKO Storythere’s a teriffic anecdote from Robert Mitchum about the shooting of the film. There was a scene where He was required to slap Jean Simmons. Otto kept asking for take after take, and Mitchum quickly surmised that Otto liked to watch Jean getting slapped. So he turned the tables and slapped Otto.

There were no further retakes.”

So, given this history, does ANGEL FACE read like an Otto or a Howard? I would argue that it has elements of both. As Blake Lucas argues in The Little Black Book: Movies, Preminger –

“- seems not so intent on highly elaborate camera movement, beautiful for it’s own sake, as in, say, FALLEN ANGEL (1945), but as the film draws near to its close, a remarkable four minute sequence occurs… Diane [Simmons] is now all alone in the house where she has lived. She wanders from room to room, then into the quarters where her ex-lover Frank (Robert Mitchum) has stayed. A repeated camera movement, following her from a hall into a room, or out of one, becomes a motif of the sequence, which is entirely without dialogue, sustained by the superb performance of Simmons, the haunting music of Dimitri Tiomkin, and brought to a plaintive final note as she awakes in the morning, huddled in a chair, wrapped in Frank’s coat … In finding the space for a character to become something more than what she has been defined as, Preminger affords a rare vision of what aesthetic and moral nuance can attain together.”

Ah Jean!

This passage hints at an odd schism in the film’s style. Watching it with this in mind, I noted that the murder scene halfway through is a stylistic marker, after which the style becomes more elaborate and obviously Premingerian. The first repeated camera moves appear in the trial scene, where the prosecution and defence attorneys’ speeches are shot in exactly the same way. The whole movie becomes more stylish and fluid from then on. The first half is more choppy, blocky, and inclined to simple static set-ups with many medium close-ups, much more like a typical Highes production.

Here are some typically Hughesian things I detected in the film:

Manliness: Robert Mitchum plays an ambulance driver, and he wants to run a garage, but we also learn that he drove a tank in the war, and was a drag racer before that. Simmons keeps talking about getting him to compete in a car race, but this plot strand goes nowhere: the race never happens, or if it does, Mitchum isn’t in it. The race serves no clear plot function, seems only to be there for the thrill of having men and women talk about racing cars, something HH would have gotten a kick out of.

Lust in the Dust

The vacillating male. Parallel with their macho activities, Hughes’ RKO heroes often seem unable to make up their minds, unwilling to act directly in their own interests, self-destructive rather than self-actualizing. Mitchum  here follows the same weak-kneed course as both male leads in THE LUSTY MEN, and even John Wayne in JET PILOT.

Tough women fighting over a weak man. Here Mona Freeman and Jean Simmons conspire to win the weak-willed Mitchum. “I got a strong back and a weak mind,” as he remarks in THE LUSTY MEN.

Red Line 7000

Fast cars. A Hughes obsession. Jean Simmons proves adept in a masculine world, expert in the workings of her sports car, making a mockery of the suggestion that her car could have been sabotaged by anyone, “even a woman”. ESPECIALLY a woman!

Crashing cars. The film features not one but two lovingly photographed, apocalyptic smash-ups. Producer Hughes was responsible for Howard Hawks augmenting SCARFACE with a bunch of superfluous but juddersomely impressive auto wrecks. No stranger to life-threatening vehicle crashes himself, Hughes evidently enjoyed seeing them on the screen even more than he enjoyed being half-crippled in them for real.

Aimless characters. This goes beyond the vacilating male figure. In JET PILOT, it’s imposssible to figure what anybody is up to from moment to moment. John Wayne and Janet Leigh alternately love and hate each other, protect and humiliate each other, behave in a generally weird and opaque fashion. By contrast, Simmons gets quite a lot of psychoanalyzing, but remains kind of an enigma. Mitchum’s behaviour makes very little sense generally, but he’s exactly the kind of actor who can make that compelling.

There’s not much fighting in the film — but it’s all about Hughes’ other F Word, though of course that’s kept offscreen. The movie would make a great Fever Dream Double Feature with Cronenberg’s CRASH, both films which conflate coition with death and high-speed automobile mayhem.

None of this is intended to belittle Otto P’s great work on the film, nor that of his collaborators. But either Hughes played a greater role in developing the project than Otto admitted, or else the film was deliberately designed to pander to its producer’s tastes.

Or both.

The End of the Affair


Red Roadblock

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2008 by dcairns

Red Skies of Montana 

Well, the evening sky is bluing deeper, with a shapeless chunk of half-chewed moon glowing all the brighter in the orangy post-sunset light, and it’s time to try to watch RED ROAD. I ritually dust the TV screen — no sense letting this be any more unpleasant than it has to.

Andrea Arnold’s RED ROAD is an extremely attractive film, which is obvious from the get-go. An opening title announces GLASGOW and my prejudices kick in. But the imagery is really nice, making excellent use of the particular qualities of digital. Kate Dickie works in a room full of TV monitors, as a kind of benevolent Big Brother, watching the video piped in from the city’s security cameras. The cameras can zoom and pan in jerky, computerized motions, while the “live” footage of Dickie is loose and hand-held. Both kinds of material exploit the photogenic qualities of long-lens photography. Both partake of the observational aesthetic of Ken Loach, which I’m not to keen on. It’s a definite look (RED ROAD is much more concerned with creating a pleasing cinematic surface than Loach) and it fulfills a clear function in terms of realism, I just usually prefer being involved in a scene, as opposed to spying on it from afar.

Red in the Face

Seven minutes in and we get the statutory joyless intercourse scene, which no Scottish film can be without. I suspect The Film Council is trying to make the Scottish people vasectomize themselves out of existence in sheer horror at the ugliness of human procreation. The most radical and shocking thing a Scottish film could do nowadays would be to create the mood of romance you can find in early Bill Forsyth. But even he doesn’t do that anymore: GREGORY’S TWO GIRLS opens with the terrifying spectacle of John Gordon-Sinclair’s “Oh Face,” followed by a closeup of the damp aftermath of his wet dream on bedsheets. Thanks for that.

So far the only thing wrong with the film, per se, is a tendency to overemphasise Dickie’s reactions to the security camera footage. A man has a funny dog: she smiles warmly. It’s not bad acting, it’s bad direction, I think. REAR WINDOW uses this kind of situation, and proves that the person watching needn’t show any particular reaction at all, since the context gives us the meaning. Kate Dickie laughing at a dog won’t make the dog any funnier. Although it’s nice to see she CAN laugh.


Fiona reminds me that our chum Morag McKinnon, who’s directing the Dickie in ROUNDING UP DONKEYS right now, says that she has a really good sense of humour, is fun, etc. “Yes, but she keeps it off the screen,” I say.

There’s a good bit when Dickie finds herself on the street next to a man she’s spied on earlier. There’s an edge to the encounter and the handheld look really works for it, and the ability of digital to film basically by streetlight makes for glossy, strangely coloured beauty, augmented by eerie Muslim show tunes on the soundtrack.

Road Trip

A mystery is announced! Dickie is obsessed with a man she sees on cam, who’s on early release from a ten year prison sentence (Dickie keeps the old newspaper with the headline in a bag in her closet). This puzzling set-up, emerging twenty minutes in, seems rather late to act as a plot motor (it’s a common misinterpretation of the three-act structure that the story starts at the END of the first act, rather than the beginning) and evokes only a vague curiosity. The central character seems to have no successful relationships or clear goals, so apart from the desire to figure out why we’re watching this, it’s hard to figure out why we’re watching this.

I’m pretty sure an American movie would start by coming right out and telling us what the mystery man did and why it effects Dickie’s protag, and then we’d be watching not to get the puzzle cleared up, but to see what consequences this will all have. But it’s too early to say whether this film would work with that approach. All that can be said is that there’s not enough going on to create a compulsion to watch: at 24 minutes I feel an ocean of gloom closing in with the night, so I stop the disc. But I didn’t hate it, I will return for more tomorrow. Stay tuned. 

The author after 24 minutes of Red Road

(Old people — a boon to any film, because they have learned to be themselves.)

Footnote: my DVD suffers appalling combing when I try and frame-grab images, so apologies for the distorted stills, which don’t give an accurate portrayal of the lustre of Robbie Ryan’s photography.