Egg and his face

Jon Whiteley in HUNTED prepares to suck eggs.

John Cleese, while working with Charles Crichton (either on A FISH CALLED WANDA or on one of the corporate training films they made together) once asked his director, “Were you the best director at Ealing?”

“No,” said Charlie. “Sandy [Mackendrick] was the best. I was the second best.”

HUNTED, starring young Whiteley and Dirk Bogarde, ably demonstrates Crichton’s skills — it’s beautifully shot and cut. Unfortunately, the script seems, well, unfinished — the tale of a criminal who takes a runaway boy with him as he tries to flee justice, it never produces a satisfactory explanation for why Dirk drags Jon along for the journey in the first place, and leaves us with a frustrating uncertainty as to the final outcome. Along the way, there’s terrific acting from the principles, and some terrific scenes.

Poor Dirk must have had a tough time — filming with a kid, and in Scotland, to boot. (Dirk was raised in Glasgow, and detested it.)

The highlight is Whiteley, in his debut role. He won the Oscar the next year for the second of his five films, THE KIDNAPPERS. He’s fantastically natural, with a serious, mournful air — the solemnity that makes him so funny in THE KIDNAPPERS and so moving in Fritz Lang’s MOONFLEET. But his best moments are obviously not acting at all, they’re just kid behaviour captured by a patient and prepared filmmaker.

Piercing his egg with a twig, little Jon almost loses it completely. Like most wee boys, he’s thrilled by mess, so the sudden sensation of exposed yolk/yuck places him in a helpless state of hilarity, mingled with a frisson of horror. “WHAT NOW?” his face signals, contorting itself in a fast-moving flickbook of emotion.

The other great bit is laughing and eating — again, impossible for this to be acted. Strangely exhilarating to watch.

A fish called supper.

In real life, kids’ faces move about all the time, as if attempting break loose from their skulls and run amok. And in real life, people’s faces sometimes move in more extreme ways than movie actors allow. Actors learn restraint, and to stop waggling their eyebrows, and generally they also lose the wonderful unselfconscious writhing, puffing and grimacing of the untutored countenance.

21 Responses to “Egg and his face”

  1. Jon Whiteley is at his most charming in this outing with Dirk, I think. The Spanish Gardener, though a less innocent movie (and with Dirk being the most un-Spanish Spanish person ever!) is less endearing and young Jon less natural. And thank you for what you say about peoples’ faces … I shall use that as my excuse for every single photograph I’ve ever had taken capturing me pulling a daft face!!

  2. I’m working up to The Spanish Gardener, a movie where Whiteley is as oddly cast as Bogarde, arguably. It’s fascinating to realise that Hunted was his first film — it really makes little sense that he’s Scottish, whereas had Dirk been Scottish, that’d have made perfect narrative sense.

  3. Arthur S. Says:

    Child actors rarely get as much credit as they deserve. Whiteley is quite good in MOONFLEET. He’s a real natural.

    As for Ealing’s best, I always felt it was Robert Hamer.

  4. Hamer has the strongest personal sensibility. Mackendrick and Crichton are better with the camera. So ultimately, Hamer wins. Crichton, as primarily a technician (in my view), naturally respected Mackendrick more.

    What Whiteley’s out-of-control moments above show, is how deliberately muted he made himself the rest of the time. Utterly convincing as a child, but quite unlike the performances associated with even very good child actors, who often have something precocious about them.

  5. Watching some of the stock expressions and mannerisms that are supposed to be acting I often have the inclination to do something completely different with my time. The whole idea of teaching acting seems the wrong approach – acting should be learnt, and individual.

  6. There are certainly more ways of doing it than most teaching seems to allow. The traditional quest to be “in the moment” produces some interesting results, mostly quite unreal (but enjoyable, sometimes(, while Bresson went the opposite route, convinced that human beings are rarely ever “in the moment” in real life, so rendering his actors semi-conscious through endless repetition produced a truer effect. I like minimalists and I like flamboyant hams — I like honesty and I like schtick.

    Read an interview with Rory Kinnear where he talked about his dad, the incomparable Roy. “I look at his work and sometimes think, “Crikey, that’s a bold choice,’ or ‘Not sure I believe that.'” I suspect Kinnear fils has many of the same instincts and abilities as Kinnear pere, but is too inhibited to let rip and mug furiously like his dad. I’d like to see him cut loose.

  7. Judy Dean Says:

    I’m glad you got to see Hunted and agree with me about Whiteley’s performance. It’s a measure of his intelligence that he didn’t attempt to make the transition to adult actor and opted for another career.

    Bogarde in Hunted looks and sounds authentic as a working class Londoner – suitably undernourished with an accent that seldom falters. It’s not a bit tired and cliched as are some of his later Rank performances. What a shame that, by 1956 and The Spanish Gardener, he’s making no effort at all and the wry smile, the raised eyebrow and the arch manner are all fully in place.

  8. Bogarde certainly didn’t stop taking his acting seriously though — I suspect he just decided that being Spanish was definitely outside his range and the only thing to do was coast on charm. He’s committed to his work in Hunted because he knows he can pull it off, and it’s more interesting than Simon Sparrow.

    Hard to imagine what kind of actor Whiteley might have been as an adult, although I guess kitchen sink realism would have accepted his regional accent OK. His co-star from The Kidnappers, Vincent Winter, went on to be an assistant director at Hammer films.

  9. mackendrick was in deed Ealing’s best. Be sure to get ahold of a copy of “Alenxander Mackenrick On Filmmaking” — his collected lectures. In a tour de force he compares and contrasts Ernest Lehman’s script for Sweet Smell of Success with Odets rewrites.

  10. David Boxwell Says:

    “Is it just me?” or: The SG quivers with forbidden man-boy lurve.

    Lang directed kiddies in M, MOONFLEET, THE BIG HEAT (a yucky moppet in that one, but supposedly adorable enough to incite a “hate binge”) and, um I can’t think of any more…

  11. On Filmmaking is one of the best practical guides to the craft ever assembled. I must post the bits of video I found where he goes over some of the lecture material not included in the book, including a cinematic analysis of the TV coverage of the Watergate trial.

    There’s a baby in Die Nibelungen which suffers an unfortunate fate. All in all, it’s striking how rarely Lang features kids — but not at all surprising, considering the kind of stories he was drawn to. Only Moonfleet has a child in the central role.

  12. It’s not just you, Mr. Boxwell.

  13. David Boxwell Says:

    Whereas kids are crawling all over Hitchcock’s films (my favorite is the birthday party scene in YOUNG AND INNOCENT).

  14. David Boxwell Says:

    Oh, and I love those kids in SHADOW OF A DOUBT. They always seem to remind me, whether they are boys or girls, of how Patricia looked as a kid.

  15. Oh absolutely, that little girl is a Pat-a-like.

  16. Definitely.

    Leave us not forget the kids in The Night of the Hunter

  17. Was Sarah Polley ever as engaging as she was in Baron Muchausen? At least Christian Bale still cuts loose.

  18. Well, Polley claims she got post-traumatic stress from the ordeal of Munchausen, so that might explain her greater restraint in later roles. But I still find her a very interesting presence. She’s pretty interesting in Splice.

  19. I expect now that Polley is a director, any acting restraint will fly out the window. Yes, that’s a joke, I’ve liked Polley in the 4 or 5 films I’ve seen her in. What’s interesting is naturalistic child actors have been discussed, but not the other kind who seem to have gone to The Mickey Rooney School of Histrionics.

  20. Rooney is just a ball of energy — he couldn’t NOT act like that, or he’d burst. Was interesting to see Bobs Watson in On Borrowed Time recently — he’s very excitable too, prone to blubbering and mood swings and very big emoting, but he’s also incredibly convincing, and he sustains gigantic takes with Lionel Barrymore.

    Then again, just saw another Crichton, The Third Secret, which has an early teenage Pamela Franklin. Also very good in long takes, but she and Stephen Boyd are terrible together, hamming it up in alternately shrill and glutinous fashions. I blame Boyd.

  21. You’re right in that Rooney couldn’t not act the way he did, but some kid actors I’ve seen affect overacting in a manner aping Rooney’s. A couple of local actors I watched could put on the hyperactive mask and then drop it as soon as their scenes were done. There wasn’t anything spontaneous about it.

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