As if on cue

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I confess to mixed feelings about Lewis Milestone’s film of Clifford Odets’ script of THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN. The orientalism and exoticism (exoticism, remember, is racism’s sexy sister) and yellowface makeups are both seductive and repulsive, and the narrative at times decidedly silly. Rather than playing Odets’ flamboyant dialogue “hard and fast,” as the author preferred, the actors (Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carrol and Akim Tamiroff among others) have a tendency to linger on it, as if they can’t believe they’ve been handed such classy material. Delivered at speed, as in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, an Odets line *can* sound as if the actor’s just thought of it, the impossible cracked street-poetry tumbling out in a mixture of verbal genius and a kind of fervid desperation to find le mot juste before another millisecond goes by. Hanging about tends to expose just how preciously contrived it is.

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Still, there’s a whole hell of a lot to admire. The Paramount high gloss look, with Travis Banton costumes, gorgeous three-point lighting, elaborate sets and a pulse-pounding score by Werner Janssen combine with Milestone’s atmospheric angles and moves to create a work that’s never less than compelling. It’s a bit like Sternberg with the swooning eroticism blended with a more two-fisted romanticism. The ending is pretty ridiculous, and I find myself agreeing for the first time with Graham Greene, a great film critic but one whose opinions I habitually clash with. He though the ending was silly too — but it’s beautifully staged.

A really interesting moment was point out in the comments section earlier by David Boxwell — a match dissolve between a round doorknob and a gleaming cueball on a pool table. It seems a moment of self-conscious bravura motivated by nothing other than the smooth whiteness of the two objects. But it’s actually a fascinating, odd piece of prefiguring.

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The doorknob is attached to a door through which Gary Cooper has just exited, and the dissolve takes us to a pool hall where Madeleine Carroll is part of a group laying plans antithetical to Coop’s. So arguably the crossfade suggests an imminent connection between the two.

But it’s paid off in grand style later. Carroll seduces and betrays Cooper, rather against her judgement, and doesn’t expect to see him again. When he turns up wounded in the magnificently grotty hotel, he swears he’ll kill Carroll “in half” if he ever sees her again — whereupon Dudley Digges with wax eyelids opens the door to the parlour and reveals the guilty blonde herself, playing pool. She drops the cueball, which rolls up to Coop’s feet. So the connection of door — cueball — Coop & Carroll — is a sort of engram, or compound symbol, carefully planted to prefigure this meeting.

The rare use of match dissolves made me wonder if Milestone had seen and admired my own favourite movie, Victor Sjostrom’s  HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, an early twenties Lon Chaney clown tragedy containing numerous such effects. The match dissolve from a ring of chickens to a circus ring in THE RED PONY made me suspect this even more strongly. When I saw THE NIGHT OF NIGHTS, a fairly undistinguished 1939 Broadway weepie (Milestone’s creative energies were clearly more occupied with OF MICE AND MEN that year), I became fairly convinced I was right —

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Clown-slapping. The slappee is Pat O’Brien, the slapper is Roland Culver.

No wonder I’m so keen on Milestone! We have the same favourite movie.

The play with objects and space relates to another Milestone trick, where he cuts to an object which seems to be part of the scene we’ve just watched, only to reveal that we’ve actually moved somewhere else. A kind of deliberate surprise/confusion generally excluded from the classical Hollywood rulebook at this time, where establishing shots were the order of the day, and obvious scene transitions were insisted upon. In THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, the young Martha speaks of fetching candles, we cut to them being lit, only to realise that the candelabra is in the hands of Dame Judith Anderson, downstairs. In OF MICE AND MEN, a tasty-looking dinner is consumed by the ranch-hands, but when we cut to a pie being sliced a sudden feminine hand reveals that we’re now in the home of the rancher himself. And in HALLS OF MONTEZUMA this occasional device becomes a recurring trope, dazzlingly deployed to transition into flashback. Each major character has a sequence showing his life before the war. Milestone will have a character drop something. A closeup shows it land on the floor. But when the character picks it up, we discover, within that same closeup, that we’re now elsewhere and elsewhen.

And this never fails to startle us! Clever fellow, that Milestone.

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13 Responses to “As if on cue”

  1. I remember finding THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN pretty turgid, but I’m not much of an Odets fan. I do want to watch it again sometime, because I did also think it looked great, if nothing else.

  2. Yes, I think I’ll probably enjoy it more when I revisit it. Knowing in advance what’s wrong with it I’ll be less bothered. Its merits are considerable, and include the amazing visuals, the music, and the star power. Plus it’s so unusual! A bit of Sternberg, a bit of Hawks, and a dash of leftist philosophy.

  3. Do you think Victor’s fortunes fell because moguls kept referring to him as The Clown Slapper?

  4. Randy Cook Says:

    Some great Odets dialog here….wait, it’s S .J. Perelman
    http://direland.typepad.com/direland/2006/12/bah_humbug_a_di.html

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    Interpretation of match dissolve between doorknob and billiard ball: beautiful! (I just thought it was cool and stylish, and didn’t think it had any real significance). I love this rather strange movie more than any other of LM’s.

    More ripe Odets for the hearing: Clurman’s sailor-on-leave noir DEADLINE AT DAWN (46).

  6. Yeah, I love Deadline at Dawn. Once I got over the disappointment that it wasn’t about fast-talking newspapermen, I adored it.

    Thanks, DB!

    Perelman nails Odets, of course. Is it OK to like both?

    I’m reminded suddenly that I have Sjostrom’s first talkie, and still haven’t watched it. But I ran a later one, Under the Red Robe, and he’s still doing cunningly planned overlapping images, including one where he puts Raymond Massey’s head in a noose.

  7. Subject for further research: Clurman’s wife Juleen Compton

  8. Michel wrote this for Compton’s The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean

  9. That was lovely!

  10. It’s one of my favorite Michel songs. The movie it was written for has barely been seen by anyone in the States. Compton is held in high esteem by Cahiers. Luc Moullet is a great fan of hers.

  11. Well, watching this a second time, it still had me rolling my eyes in between widening them in awe. I’d forgotten how much it’s trying to look like a Sternberg film, particularly SHANGHAI EXPRESS. But boy do I hate a lot of the dialogue in this film. Maybe I hate the monologues even more. You’re dead right about the ending, which is completely, idiotically ridiculous, but wonderfully staged. Loved the shot of the two lines of men pointing guns at each other in the fog. Still, the Sternberg comparison doesn’t do this film any favors. Just compare Cooper in MOROCCO to his role here. I’ll take Cooper with a flower behind his ear any day.

  12. I like the guy he’s playing in this, I just wanted him to play him about 50mph faster. And I like Madeleine Carroll’s world-weary type. But more speed would have helped shake up the Sternbergian aesthetic, which is pretty far removed from Milestone’s usual field.

  13. I should mention another scene I really loved: when Coop shoots Carroll’s father. The staging of *that* was pretty brilliant as well, but the dramatics also landed quite a punch. Through some kind of weird alchemy, it made the reconciliation of the lovers make sense. I’m not sure what that was. Transference?

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