Archive for April 7, 2008

Quote of the Day: Guess who’s coming to lunch?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2008 by dcairns

pointy pointy

Can I just recommend Cocteau’s Diary of a Film very very wholeheartedly? It’s tremendously reassuring to us filmmakers, and I would think amazing and fascinating to everyone else too, that the making of such a beautiful, graceful, seemingly “effortless” work like LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE should be nothing but physical and mental anguish. Cocteau is having such an exaggeratedly bad time it becomes perversely amusing, even as you feel for him. Just as you can open Klaus Kinski’s autobio at random and find him trashing some colleague or shagging some actress (usually both) on any given page, so Cocteau’s pages are stuffed with skin rashes, toothache, carbuncles, rain, faulty electrics abd general existential angst.

It’s what I call a PAGE-TURNER.

“Wednesday the 26th, 11p.m.

“My face is only a shell of rashes, ravages and itches. It’ll take me all my strength to forget this task, and go on living underneath it. Rained this morning, but the barometer was up. Built the scaffolding etc. for the cameras whilst the artists were making up a changing. At eleven o’clock we’ll do the two shots which we missed yesterday. The light was very difficult owing to the smoke machines. Marais won’t use a double. And does the jump from the terrace with the help of a spring-board. After which we remember that he’d carried his hat in his right hand yesterday, whilst today he hasn’t got one at all.

“Marais and I lunched at Madame de Labédoyère. A strange meal. I sat on the right of the old lady; she was dressed all in black, while Marais, on her left, was still made up as the Beast. I dare say her little girls will always remember it.”

the Beast is yet to come

I first read this right after making my own first short, THE THREE HUNCHBACKS, and I identified deeply. It’s all so unpleasant, why do we do it? As Cocteau and Marais are afflicted by carbuncles, I developed an unheard-of boil at the base of my spine, like the attachment for a Cronenberg gamepod, only EXISTENZ hadn’t been made yet. Horrible.

You make a film; it gets inside you; and then it EMERGES through your skin.

Dressing Down

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2008 by dcairns

Five minutes in hell: 

Gowns by Jean-Louis 

Fiona was sat at the computer in her dressing gown, and I was just starting to watch WOMAN IN A DRESSING GOWN.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“It’s The Fiona Watson Story.”

Five minutes later she made me turn it off. I can’t say I blame her. Though very interesting cinematically, it’s also a hard film to be in the room with. Made in 1957, it’s an early precursor for the British New Wave films of the ’60s, detailing ordinary-ish working class life. What makes it peculiarly stressful is director J. Lee Thompson’s approach to mise-en-scene, and the grating, desperate performance of Yvonne Mitchell.

She grins a lot, furiously, and the air of frantic make-believe in her every action exhausts our patience and sympathy in moments, and it seems like a really fake, bad performance and maybe is but my god it’s exhausting and that somehow seems just right. The strenuous effervescence seems to mask soul-rending despair right from the off.

The Small Back Room

The film earned Godard’s disapproval for its constant camera movement, but Thompson seems to be influenced by Max Ophüls or something. His camera not only darts about with the characters (Mitchell’s housewife is flighty and disorganised, always beginning tasks and forgetting to finish them — the camera style suits her) but constantly frames them through foreground detritus, trapping them in a cramped domestic prison. And through it all the radio blares, adding a further layer of audio-clutter. It’s true, when Thompson films from inside cupboards and oven grills he may be getting carried away, but the overall effect is impressively claustrophobic, oppressive — and dynamic.


Thompson had a weird career. He managed to carve out a niche in the UK making hard-edged dramas like this one, and YIELD TO THE NIGHT (Diana Dors gets death) and ICE COLD IN ALEX (desert warfare with an alcoholic hero), before decamping for Hollywood just when British cinema was rising to his level. TIGER BAY, the last film of his British period, is an extremely tense drama that made a star out of the young Hayley Mills. Her jangling, uncontrolled energy is breathtaking.

In the US, JLT won the admiration of Gregory Peck after taking over THE GUNS OF NAVARONE from Alexander Mackendrick, whom the producers had fired. Following this with CAPE FEAR, he made the kind of brutal, powerful and nasty thriller he’d been aspiring to in his British work, but after that everything seems to go wrong. The tail-end of his career is nothing but a string of substandard Charles Bronson movies. Thompson had become the poor man’s Michael Winner, and you can’t get poorer than that. Like the once-great Richard Fleischer, he could have enhanced his reputation immeasurably by quitting ten, fifteen, twenty years earlier.

(Theory: the qualities that make a good director also make someone who does not know when to quit.)

WIADG is maybe a little TOO dramatically shot. It’s not that there aren’t ideas underlying Thompson’s decisions, it’s just that maybe the style is overpowering and a touch hyperbolic. But that’s Thomson for you. YIELD TO THE NIGHT also achieves most of its best effects by shouting at the viewer, leaving just a few quiet, gentle spots to achieve their impact by contrasting with the overall sound and fury.


We breath a sigh of relief as Quayle escapes his home and heads out into the clean lines of the modern housing estate. From the outside, the Le Corbusier-influenced neo-brutalist “machines for living in” look positively soothing compared to the scrapheap our Dressing Gown Woman has made of the interior. Then Quayle arrives at his girlfriend’s house (he’s pretended to be going to work), a pleasant, old-fashioned house, and things get even more comforting and relaxed — though Thompson still edits with severity and pace, jumping straight down the line into close shots as if covering an argument rather than an embrace. There IS an underlying tension to the scene as written, and this strategy foregrounds it emphatically.

This may be the most stressful opening five minutes I can recall sitting through. There’s tons of “Sid Furie Shots” — those peaking-through-the-shelves shots beloved of the director of THE IPCRESS FILE. They’re gimmicky but they serve a purpose, making us feel trapped along with the characters, hemmed in and hampered.


This film is a great discovery for me because it’s an early instance of the social realist approach that came to the fore in the early ’60s films of Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson, and which echoed the late ’50s Angry Young Man vibe of British theatre. I have a script project which requires a fusing of this aesthetic with the new movement in British horror of the late ’50s, inaugurated by Hammer’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. (I know that seems an odd thing to do, but that’s the way I am.) WOMAN IN A DRESSING GOWN fits the bill to perfection, not only because its gutsy, kinetic attack is a closer match for Hammer than most of the later Woodfall Films of Richardson et al, but because it’s made the same year as CURSE OF F, and both films feature future sitcom star Melvyn Hayes — in one film he’s the delivery boy, in the other he’s the young Peter Cushing.

he Melvyned me

The man’s a living legend — I should write him a part.