Pipe Dream

Why am I so amused and bemused by this scene in the Don Siegel-directed melo NIGHT UNTO NIGHT, in which Ronald Reagan has an epileptic fit?

It isn’t because it’s Ronald Reagan — not everything he does is automatically funny. Admittedly, some aspects of his presidency were humorous, but I didn’t, on the whole, find the idea of this jocular, ruddy-faced buffoon hovering over the doomsday button particularly funny. I spent my adolescence in a state of terror. I would have probably been terrified anyway, for more general/biologically reasons, but I still hold him responsible for that part of my anxiety not linked to hormones.

And it isn’t because it’s an epileptic seizure — those aren’t funny at all, certainly no funnier than any other neurological malady.

It isn’t even the unlikely combination of Ronald Reagan having an epileptic seizure. Though that makes me smile a little bit.

It’s more to do with Siegel’s direction, which is weirdly ineffective and wrong. It turns out that his talent, on sure ground when dealing with direct, determined action — he would have made the best movie ever of a Richard Stark Parker novel if given the chance — falls apart when called upon to render the hallucinatory, the abnormal, the fugue-state. Instead of some kind of evocation of perceptual crisis, we get a low angle or two placing striking emphasis on Reagan’s smoking material. Pipes are just funny, I think, in a way that Reagan and epilepsy aren’t, always. Pipes are always a bit funny. Making a pipe the fulcrum of a dramatic neurological crisis experienced by Ronald Reagan is very funny.

And then there’s the dog. Interesting to note that was a montage director at Warners before his directing career took off. That’s not at all the same thing as being an editor. Siegel shot his own material to create montage sequences for other directors’ films, showing the passage of time, the development of a situation, or just the atmosphere of a place. It probably explains his admirable terseness. But nothing explains that very voluble dog, who barks and reacts for an extraordinary length of time. The shortness of the shots suggests that Siegel had trouble getting the mutt to understand his direction (Later he would have similar struggles with Shirley MacLaine, but succeed). It looks as if all the usable bits of dog footage have been spliced together — and then abandoned, left in the film without any narrative shaping. It’s quite peculiar.

But the pipe bit is the best.

 

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9 Responses to “Pipe Dream”

  1. James S Says:

    “It turns out that his talent, on sure ground when dealing with direct, determined action … falls apart when called upon to render the hallucinatory, the abnormal, the fugue-state”

    Didn’t you like The Beguiled? I’d consider that hallucinatory and abnormal, and also Siegel’s best film. Certainly the one that stayed with me the mostl

  2. “I didn’t, on the whole, find the idea of this jocular, ruddy-faced buffoon hovering over the doomsday button particularly funny.”

    I found it rather comforting. By the time he’d been woken up, been persuaded he was supposed to do it, and been reminded how to do it, everyone would probably have realised it was all a mistake. If they hadn’t, he’d probably miss the button anyway.

  3. Don also directed Ron’s very last (and IMO most memorable) performance.

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    Since Ronnie couldn’t do the emotional heavy-lifting by actually enacting the seizure, the pipe, the dog, the music, the chiaroscuro lighting, and the stunt arm all have to do it for him.

    In any case, Breen enforcing the Code probably wouldn’t have allowed a full-on representation.

    Still, Sam Wood managed to get something out him in KING’S ROW and “Where’s the rest of me?” scene, but that was a once-in-a-lifetime bit of gut-wrenching pathos.

  5. I agree The Beguiled is great but I never liked the attempts at a dreamlike feel made with optical effects. I’d say it’s effective in spite of that.

    It’s like with Peckinpah: I admire the slomo and cutting, but I dislike the splitscreen, accelerated motion, lap dissolves, ripple dissolves and freeze frames.

    I know the filmmaking here is intended to compensate for what they can’t show or can’t achieve, I just find it bizarrely ineffective and ludicrous.

    Reagan, being a dolt, felt he was mistaken to do The Killers and play an unsympathetic character. I guess from the point of view of a politician looking to capitalize on a heroic movie image, it wasn’t a good move, but he’s notably more convincing in the role than he was as a hero.

    He’s good in King’s Row. His big laughing scene is awkward, but I find it hard to imagine any actor pulling that one off — the fault is in the writing.

  6. Oh Ronnie boy, the pipe, the pipe is falling…

  7. I also like him as Bette Davis’ gay pal in Dark Victory.

  8. Did Ronnie know what he was doing in that one? It would be interesting to know.

  9. I’m sure he did. But you know how it goes — Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

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