Creative Differences

I can’t write anything better about BITTER VICTORY than Jonathan Rosenbaum’s piece, which is one of his really good ones. He gets at the ambiguity of the two main characters — Curt Jurgens as Brand, essentially the villain, ought to attract our sympathies more than he does, and Richard Burton’s hero, Leith, oughtn’t to be as appealing as he is. Of course, a lot of this has to do with casting, and Ray’s relationships with his stars. Jurgens was forced on him. Burton, a fellow alcoholic, was sympatico, and Ray tried to get him for KING OF KINGS later, and Burton seriously thought about it.

Brand is a coward and a hypocrite, pathologically jealous, and somewhat brutal. But he’s TRYING to be brave, sometimes he is, and his anxiety about his wife’s fidelity is not wholly without foundation. I think she’s ready to take off with Burton if the circumstances allow it. Still, he’s an unattractive character, unattractively played. Jurgens kept protesting that he wasn’t sympathetic enough, but if Ray tried to fix that, his feelings about having Jurgens forced on him maybe got in the way. Ray was rewriting with Gavin Lambert, the psycho producer was rewriting with Paul Gallico, on another continent, and meanwhile the original author had script approval.

It’s interesting that Ray, by all accounts a supersensitive and uncannily perceptive guy, chose to make his European debut with a producer who turned out, according to Lambert, to be someone who enjoyed destroying directors. Given Ray’s noted self-destructiveness, it’s possible he chose Graetz, at some subconscious level, as just the kind of guy he ought to have nothing to do with.

The making of a film often seems to echo the story of the film, so it’s also easy to see Leith and Brand as portraits of Ray and Graetz. Leith, the romantic T.E. Lawrence figure — like Lawrence, an archaeologist, and someone who upsets his commanders because of his strange manner — Brand, the bully and desk-jockey who instinctively resents Leith, and who is constantly trying to prove himself against him. The reason Leith, and the audiences, give Brand no credit for drinking water that may be poisoned, is that it requires no physical courage, just a lack of imagination.

The one area where Brand’s imagination is on overdrive is his sexual jealousy of his wife and Leith. In fact, the two last met before Brand came on the scene, and they’re much too noble to do anything about their lingering emotions. But Brand evidently has a whole other movie playing in his head…

Ray had wanted Montgomery Clift as Leith, and Burton in the other role, as Brand. Had that been the case, Leith would certainly still have been more appealing than Brand (Burton could do nasty very well, Monty did soulful and vulnerable) but the balance would have been closer. Whether Clift could have made himself sound like a British officer is questionable. But part of the film’s interest is the way Leith’s perversity, self-destructiveness, crazy romanticism and sadistic goading of Brand play out as heroic and noble. The more you pick it apart afterwards the more interesting it gets.

I also love the look of the desert scenes, among the most barren ever filmed. LAWRENCE’s dunes are like feminine fleshscapes by comparison. In daylight, the contrast is so low the action is almost happening against an infinity curve, and at night there’s faux-lunar floodlighting against a jet-black sky, so we get warring voids.

Asides from the central trio (Ruth Roman is pretty good, but Ray wanted Moira Shearer), the only other substantial characters are a sympathetic Arab guide (Raymond Pellegrin, excellent) and the viciously mad Private Wilkins, played by the great Nigel Green.

Green can conjure a glint of madness like few other actors. It can just be THERE, not doing anything, suggesting a weird blinkered disassociation, like in THE IPCRESS FILE. But Wilkins is out where the buses don’t run. He’s evidently been doing this kind of thing too long. Everything’s a joke to him. We’re all going to die? That’s a good joke. We’re just going to suffer horribly? Still funny. Someone else is going to die instead? Equally good. Despite having just about the same attitude to everything that can or might happen, Green is electrifying in the role and Wilkins is terrifyingly unpredictable.

The other familiar face is Christopher Lee, playing another working class private. Lee rarely played plebeian, but is reasonable convincing, and of course he’s the most convincing commando. He MOVES awfully well. In Arab dress, at night, he totally evokes the kind of horror movie he was about become famous for. They should have let him show Burton how to ambush a man and stab him in the back, silently. Lee had actual military experience doing that. Burton’s approach gives the enemy plenty of time to yell and would not work. Still, at this very instant comes the extraordinary moment when Burton lets out a gasp — he’s doing the killing, but it’s like HE’S the one being killed. This close juxtaposition of the clumsy and the brilliant is what Truffaut perhaps meant when he remarked that Ray’s films were often not as “well-made” as other Hollywood filmmakers’, but he got moments of truth that nobody else would go near.

And, often, these moments involve violence.

The unfolding of the desert mission — retrieving enemy documents of completely opaque significance — kept reminding me of HOW I WON THE WAR. Running out of water, men cracking under the strain. Both films reference Lawrence without naming him. But it didn’t seem likely to have been a direct influence on Richard Lester. But it might conceivably have inspired novelist Patrick Ryan, who wrote the source book. The crazy, near-abstract mission is oddly close to satire, but markedly without laughs.

7 Responses to “Creative Differences”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Here’s a piece on it in “Senses of Cinema” citing Godard’s review in CdC.

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, DC, really good evaluation. This is the type of thing I used to stress in my Ray classes, the very issue of character complexity and challenge to viewers that most films avoid, both past and present. When I was removed from teaching film since I refused to do what was thought to be “popular”, namely HARRY POTTER (the written source for 13 year-old readers and the films OK but far below Ray and Co), it dawned on me that the challenging aspects of literature and film were being dropped in favor of a spurious notion of the market and “feel good” attitudes.

    It is a shame I can not do Nick Ray classes any more, falling enrollments and antipathy towards past worthy achievements, aside.

  3. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I was going to actually cite that link from Senses of Cinema, David E. Great that you did it.

    It talks in detail about René Hardy who in real history might have been a traitor who betrayed the French Resistance (and who is featured in Marcel Ophuls’ HOTEL TERMINUS extensively). The source material, in the book, is a kind of projection, an attempt to maybe justify his action in a “If I betrayed Moulin” OJ Simpson manner. So it was combustible material and circumstances.

    I feel that needs to be taken when we consider the film as “anti-war” or for the manner in which the story is about morally equivocating Brand and Leith, because in a way that seems close to what René Hardy was trying to claim, i.e. he shouldn’t be judged for what he did and so on. In a weird way the sabotage of the film’s production creates this rupture that leaves the film without a strong center.

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    So glad you brought up “Hotel Terminus” M. Ramani. A totally different film could be made about Hardy than the one Ray made. I am reminded in this regard of a scandalously neglected Eric Rohmer “Triple Agent”

  5. One of the great things about Chamberlin’s piece is it makes me want to argue with him. For instance, the idea that Curtiz has no characteristic style, which I know has been a popular misconception but is so obviously false (depending, I guess, on how one defines “style”, but the regular use of particular techniques in a distinctive way would seem like at least part of any working definition).

  6. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Don’t agree with everything Chamberlin has to say in that piece but it’s not like that’s the first time a writer in love with the sound of his thoughts contributes solid research into the circumstances and context of a film’s production.

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    In his last years Fassbinder moved his cinematic interests from Sirk to Curtiz who, he declared, was “a radical.”

    “Veronika Voss” is very Curtiz

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