Archive for December 18, 2010

Game Over

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on December 18, 2010 by dcairns

George Stevens’ THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN — had I even heard of this? I’m interested in testing the commonly-embraced supposition that Stevens went downhill after WWII, when he abandoned comedy for increasingly lumbering dramas. Those dramas include A PLACE IN THE SUN, the film which inspired John Cassavetes, so it’s a supposition that needs careful examination and doesn’t usually get it.

Widely decried as an $11,000,000 two-handed play, back when that was a lot of money, the film seems to have vanished utterly — my copy came from an almost impenetrably dark and fuzzy VHS, doing know favours to Henri Decae’s Vegas night scenes… and let’s stop and observe the striking fact that George Stevens, a former cinematographer himself for, among others, Laurel and Hardy, got Jean-Pierre Melville’s favourite cinematographer to shoot his final film.

The year is 1970, the self-adapted play is by Frank D. Gilroy, the stars are Warren Beatty, who passed up BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID to do this, and Liz Taylor. Who’s playing, in a fit of implausibility, a Vegas showgirl. Fiona got very excited, expecting CAMP. This is the 1970s Liz, dwarfish frame huddled beneath a vast Sontaran helmet of hair, hair flown all the way from Paris, we are told, just to make her wobble beneath its oppressive weight. Liz’s wigs are like Charles Laughton’s hump in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME — designed to make the wearer bend under them.

The younger, more elegant Beatty should be a mismatch, but there’s a rather perfect blendship at work — the movie, a pure filmed play with a few lame stretches of opening out/padding, would be sunk if the stars didn’t have chemistry. In fact, Beatty’s underplaying stays out of the soporific zone he’s latterly drifted towards, and Liz meets him halfway with a modest, likable portrayal, only getting the famous fishwife bray out when absolutely necessary (maybe once every ten minutes).

Strikingly, it’s NOT camp and it’s NOT embarrassing. It’s mildly touching. Sure, the rear projected car ride and fishing trip make you cringe (as they do in Melville’s last movies), and the whole thing is terribly overlong. But it has a certain charm. Being able to see the night scenes could only help it.

I always find myself watching out for signs of Stevens’ peculiar shooting style, often used as a stick to beat him with. “He shoots in a circle,” they say, covering the action repeatedly from all sides and all distances. Beatty, who notoriously takes twenty takes just to warm up, probably appreciated the exercise. In a few scenes, Stevens zip-pans dramatically across the little apartment set from one character to the other, in shots which seem unlike coverage, more like genuine direction. Occasionally, he does seem to have shot an amazing number of angles on simple scenes, and the editor has made the mistake of trying to represent a moment from each of them. But mostly, the shooting is elegant, effective, and if there are a gazillion feet of discarded material for every moment onscreen, that doesn’t affect the quality of what we’re seeing. Stevens always seems very skilled at shooting and cutting people moving from room to room while talking — this film is like a slowed-up, less comedic approach to his charming THE MORE THE MERRIER. It’s not as good, but it’s not bad. If this is as arthritic as Stevens became, there’s got to be gold lurking in his post-war back catalogue, and not just in the acknowledged classics.

What separates the movie from the incoming New Hollywood that Beatty was part of, is not so much the classical style (Coppola could do classical), as the romantic illusions. The title refers to marriage, and the solution to a gambling addiction in this film is to win big at roulette. Stevens dips a toe in the waters of modernity, but he still clings to the life preserver of conventional Hollywood narratives.

A nice moment — I’d never seen a character in a Hollywood movie sit down next to the fountains and have them SWITCH OFF, light and water wilting defeatedly.