Cheating

BITTER VICTORY, directed by Nicholas Ray, is really outstanding — it must have seemed even more striking in 1957, since it shows one British officer contriving in the death of another. It’s the same year as BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, which attempts to reduce warfare to “Madness!” but it goes much further, in that the real conflict is between two “brother officers” over a woman. In the event, the lush, colourful jungle movie made millions and won Oscars, and the dry, barren desert movie in b&w was mutilated differently for every territory and virtually vanished without trace.

But I want to talk about one cut. Godard, one of the few critics to praise Ray’s film, singled out the brio of the cutting in the early scene where the three principles meet. It’s a fine example of psychological editing, three medium close-ups interwoven in such a way that we think we’re following the words but it’s really thoughts and glances that motivate the changes.

But the sequence (really a couple of sequences) has one strikingly awry cut, when Richard Burton stands to leave. If you note the distance between Ruth Roman and Curd Jurgens, it goes from a cranny to a chasm all at once. It’s also an eyeline cross, since Jurgens and Burton, looking at one another, seem to be somehow looking in the same direction. Maybe that’s what stops Ray from getting away with it.

Because it’s not really a mistake, it’s what we in the business (or with a bare toehold in it, like me) call a cheat. Ray has rearranged the seating to make pleasing compositions. In theory, if the shots are pleasing and our eyes are drawn to the right parts of the frame, the disjuncture is erased and we simply see the drama. Unfortunately, the shots are arranged so that the Roman-Burton eyeline matches, but the cut happens when Burton is looking at Jurgens. So we’re being subliminally nudged to feel that something’s not quite right, and then there’s a strong chance we notice NOTHING IS RIGHT.

It’s a moment of uncertainty/discomfort, is all.

Here’s a whopping cheat from THE LADYKILLERS —

Astonishingly, this one works. Clearly, the gang of men are in two groups of two with a yawning abyss between them, and Guinness is separated in depth, and then suddenly they’re in a single line of four. The only consistent factors are Guinness’ distance from the others and his relationship to the door, and the ordering of the other goons, from left to right in shot one, and right to left in the reverse.

But Guinness in the foreground of shot two completely absorbs the viewer’s attention, and then Katy Johnson walks into what was virtually her POV, and that also distracts us. The two compositions are extremely pleasing and dramatic, the big point being made is that Katy’s position in the centre of frame/the lions’ den makes her seem vulnerable.

Director Alexander Mackendrick hasn’t finished screwing with us. After Guinness crosses frame in the second shot, he gives us a shot-reverse on Johnson and Guinness, decorating the background of each with two gang members apiece. This creates the visual impression that the guys are still standing in a line, but in fact each group must have shuffled several paces in order to appear in each frame, and the gap between them must now be an ocean. But onscreen it seems logical and continuous.

It’s worth remembering that Mackendrick was under the influence of the German expressionists, who would sometimes (according to Edgar Ulmer) build multiple sets for a single scene, each designed to look their best in one camera angle. Mackendrick is doing the same with human bodies, restructuring the whole set-up from shot to shot for optimum effect. Most filmmakers do this to a limited extent, except the multiple camera guys.

I just had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Ray, and we talked about the imperfections in her late husband’s films, and how Truffaut defended them by saying Ray got moments of emotional truth out of seeming chaos that other, more “professional” filmmakers never touched. “Do you know about wabi-sabi?” she asked.

BITTER VICTORY stars Mark Antony; Wernher von Braun; Anne Morton; Fantômas (voice, uncredited); Sir Andrew Ffoulkes; Professor Dippet; Col. Rice, Moon Landing Crew (uncredited); Scaramanga; Hercules; Lucky Dave’s Clumsy Barman. (uncredited); Windy; and Volumnius.

THE LADYKILLERS stars Obi-Wan Kenobi; Mr. Todhunter; Chief Insp. Charles Dreyfus; Inspector Jacques Clouseau; Morgan Femm; PC George Dixon; Miss Pyman; Bildad; Francis Bigger; Hengist Pod; Six-Eyes Wiener; Herod; Miss Evesham; Wally Briggs;

19 Responses to “Cheating”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Godard didn’t only give “Bitter Victory” a rave review in “Cahiers” he dedicated “Made in USA” “to Nick and Samuel” (Fuller of course) and reproduces the Ray cutting style you note here throughout the film.

    “Bitter Victory” was scripted by Gavin Lambert, btw.

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, one of the films my Chair never heard of, let alone Nicholas Ray. since I refused to teach “something popular with the students” he banished me to Freshman Composition. I got my film class back last year after grievance threats. Peculiarly, all students I taught Nick Ray to loved his films.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    No mystery as to why. Nick Ray always sympathized with the proms of the young in films as different as “They Live By Night,” “Rebel Without a Cause” and “We Can’t Go Home Again'”

  4. Tony Williams Says:

    I like the scene in WE CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN when Nick explains his shaken stance to a student as resulting for going to a faculty social!

  5. Yes, Ray is always on the side of youth. I do wonder what Bitter Victory would have been like with Burton in the Jurgens role (and Jurgens in a smaller part) as originally planned. But the film we have is great, once we get over the shock of Jurgens fighting for England.

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    He is, South African in that role isn’t he? Also, wasn’t he anti-Nazi during WW@?

  7. Apparently so, he was interned, and then took Austrian citizenship after the war.

    The South African alibi here is a band aid, and surely every newspaper critic would have commented on the oddity of his casting here. But you can overlook it after the initial boggling.

  8. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Bitter Victory is a Ray film I respect more in terms of mise-en-scene and tone. I don’t love it like other Ray films. It’s got nothing to do with the chaotic manner in which it was made. I love Wind Across the Everglades and it had a worse run of it then Bitter Victory did. The oddity of Jurgens’ casting definitely hurts the film in my view.

  9. Jurgens is probably too much the heavy, also. There’s lots of good writing to undercut Burton’s hero status, but more complication of CJ’s villain status would be good. The late James Harvey, in Movie Love in the Fifties, suggests that Ray couldn’t get what he wanted from the actor, and so settles for having Burton’s character describe him a lot. But he loves the effect.

    I’m getting to like it more and more.

  10. I do feel as if the film didn’t really vanish, at least in critical circles. It’s one of a handful of Ray films that Sarris italicized in the yearly lists in THE AMERICAN CINEMA, which would have been enough to put it in the auteurist canon in the US; and I’m pretty sure that Godard wasn’t the only Cahiers critic to praise the film. Someone sang its praises in Movie magazine too – V. F. Perkins?

  11. Tony Williams Says:

    No, it did not “vanish” critically but it was suppressed by those Chairs who never heard of Nicholas Ray and faculty pandering to student demands prejudiced against “old films”, especially if they were black and white.When I taught my Ray classes students appreciated its difference from the dreck showing outside.

  12. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I had a chance to teach Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place in my class on literary adaptation and the students responded well to it, likewise.

    The problem I think with Ray is that film studies rests on a stereotype of the Hollywood Golden Age as static institutionalized cultural arbiter (which to a large extent it was of course) and so it’s focused on genres, but Nicholas Ray subverted every single genre and story he worked in (Noir, Western, Musical, War film in the case of Bitter Victory) as well as movies that don’t really fit genres (Rebel Without A Cause, Bigger Than Life, The Savage Innocents). Even King of Kings, the first 30 minutes or so is studiously historically researched and recreation of the Roman Occupation of Judea. So he’s perennially underappreciated.

  13. Ray’s restless reinvention of genres is very visible in In a Lonely Place, a noir and a Hollywood movie in which the murder is offscreen and the murderer barely appears, and no movie is ever made. And the source novel is about a murderer, while the script Ray was supposed to shoot ended with Bogart’s character becoming a murderer, which he changed.

    Bitter Victory vanished as a commercial release, is what I meant: it was barely seen by the public, and always in mutilated versions. And it’s not on Blu-ray, I don’t think.

  14. Tony Williams Says:

    As SR says, Ray subverted every genre he worked on and he presents a challenge to the stereotype of “The Golden Age” as well as those Chairs who want Film to be a “feel good” class in their departments and assign those who have no experience, let alone publications, to give the “customers” what they think they want.

    Now, the non-challenging prose of HARRY POTTER (and film versions) rules in most English Departments eager to jettison challenging literature of whatever period and location in favor of appeasing what they see as the limited intelligence of students. Woe betide anyone who proves them wrong! That is why, with the deterioration of higher education everywhere, Film is now best explored outside the institution and this site is one good example.

  15. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    The Dorothy Hughes novel which Ray adapted is thematically quite interesting and dense and Ray’s film (though I doubt he read the novel) is quite faithful in spirit to themes of the book even if the character and ending is different. Both the novel and the film is about male entitlement and misogyny, and men underestimating women. It’s just done differently. Gloria Grahame’s Laurel is a more prominent character in the film than in the book but her becoming the co-protagonist in the second half of the film and seeing Dix from her perspective is quite striking. Gavin Lambert claimed in his memoir that Ray disliked women, and of course a number of Ray scholars have seen his movies as self-criticism, or rather attempts at self-criticism which he never seemed to take all the way into his life.

    In a Lonely Place began independently of Ray. It was a popular book and optioned by Bogart’s production company and the first draft was done before Ray was signed on (and before Andrew Solt did the second draft). So the movie would have been with or without him, but Ray took this project and made it into a truly personal film.

    It’s among the Ray films that really exist as he wished (alongside They Live by Night, The Lusty Men, Rebel Without A Cause, The Savage Innocents). The others are various forms of compromises or studio-tampered works, and in four cases taken from him and butchered by producers as well as a result of his own erratic behavior (On Dangerous Ground, Wind Across the Everglades, King of Kings, 55 Days), and then movies like Bigger Than Life and Johnny Guitar which have his touches but was made as a result of chaotic situations as well as censorship mandates (in the case of BtL the fact that it’s about a father who in the end tries to murder his family and must end the film as a redeemed patriarch). Bitter Victory falls somewhere between the two.

  16. Even Rebel was edited after Ray walked out. There’s that magnificent closing shot he did filmed from inside the observatory dome, which slowly closes, so the widescreen gradually narrows into a slit, then darkness.

    Still, instead of that we have an end shot where Ray himself walks through frame, looking for his next job.

  17. movies like Bigger Than Life and Johnny Guitar which have his touches but was made as a result of chaotic situations as well as censorship mandates (in the case of BtL the fact that it’s about a father who in the end tries to murder his family and must end the film as a redeemed patriarch). Bitter Victory falls somewhere between the two.

  18. Bigger Than Life certainly had to dance around the difficulties of criticising American medicine, which was forbidden. (So many holy cows in the fifties, a whole herd.) I don’t think there was ever any thought of not providing a happy ending, albeit one which encourages the audience to question it.

  19. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Ray said in an interview later that he had issues with the ending, and that he also wished he avoided naming the drug as cortisone, because he wanted to abstract it from a specific condition. Of course it’s not clear what he meant by that. There was also a scene that Ray planned which had Marilyn Monroe show up in a cameo in a dream sequence. I have read conflicting reports as to whether this scene was shot or was only ever written and planned. Eventually it was cut. However, Bigger Than Life was also a movie that was difficult because Ray found it hard to work the script and during production he and Gavin Lambert consulted Clifford Odets and Odets had his own weird ideas (he tried to make it the wife’s fault that her husband is insane which Eisenschitz sees as a sexist projection on his part owing to Odets’ marriage difficulties).

    Then Ray and Lambert also decided to make it like Death of the Salesman and used “Attention must be paid” as a slogan for the screenwriting. It’s a great film but I think the greatness comes from a deliberate confusion. I’ve seen the film many times and each time it’s quite surprising because the ideas visually, dramatically, and in writing, are shifting constantly. Almost dialectically.

    Ray worked best with collaborators and with a strong spirit of improvisation and finding stuff in the moment. The surprising thing should be that he managed to succeed far more often with that approach than he should have.

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