Archive for the literature Category

Fair Weather

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2019 by dcairns

First full day in Bologna and we scored four out of four.

While our friends Nicola and Donald were viewing PEPE LE MOKO — can’t go wrong there — we took a chance on Franju’s NOTRE DAME, CATHEDRAL DE PARIS. I happen to think Franju’s short documentaries are even better than his features, which are of course frequently great. But he’s uneven — half the shorts are dullish, half are inspired cinematic poetry of the highest order. This was a good one, we thought, and in widescreen and colour! Of course, as Meredith Brody remarked afterwards, it played entirely differently under the present circs. I watched it with my jaw hanging open at the magnificent framing and a tear in my eye at the poignancy.

Afterwards, two half-empty plastic sacks of plaster in a corner of the Cinema Modernissimo, still in mid-restoration but opened as a pop-up for the festival, made me see a couple of weatherbeaten stone saints, and I realised I was seeing with Franju’s eyes, the eyes of a surrealist and a visionary poet. I wondered how long that would last. Then I emerged into the rain-slicked streets of Bologna and my eyes became those of a mere tourist again.

Henry King’s STATE FAIR is a masterpiece — a great piece of writing, particularly (a small army of ink-stained wretches laboured to convert Philip Strong’s Stong’s novel to a screen play). The subject of a week-long fair combines with a theme of impermanence, and a romantic scene is undercut with the image of a billboard advertisement for the fair peeling in the rain — to reveal THE END underneath.

Janet Gaynor and Lew Ayres are a lovely couple, and so are her parents, Will Rogers and Louise Dresser. Sally Eilers, admired in BAD GIRL last year, is seductive. Norman Foster is the same charmless lump he appeared as in all his youthful movies, but he’s perfectly cast (and I love his “comeback” in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND). A nubile Victor Jory plays a barker.

Terrific long tracking shots from King, and elaborate rear-projection shots of the fair, with some funny touches like two dialogue scenes between hogs, shot and cut just like regular conversations. Subtitles, however, were not provided.

John Huston’s MOULIN ROUGE, newly restored, looked magnificent — you can see a tiny crumb of charcoal flake from Lautrec’s pencil, and you can see the peeling edge of a prosthetic chin stuck to a dancer. I was struck by the strange similarity of the female characters’ faces — not an actual resemblance, just a sense that they had something in common. Then I realised that they all had lips Lautrec might have drawn.

This film is better than we’ve all thought.

Script supervisor Angela Allen, 90, was on hand to reminisce and answer questions.

We gathered in the Piazza Maggiore to see MIRACLE IN MILAN but the rain, forecast to end an hour before, was getting heavy. I might have braved it, but the womenfolk dragged me to the safety of the Cinema Jolly to see Felix E. Feist’s THE MAN WHO CHEATED HIMSELF, which was a really clever and slick B-noir, with Lee J. Cobb underplaying for the only time in his life, while John Dall as his brother projected every nuance from his face in letters a mile high.

It was produced by Jack Warner’s son and had a character named Quimby in it who was much as you’d expect.

More tomorrow!

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The Lawyers and the Pigs

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , on June 15, 2019 by dcairns

I picked up Levinson on Levinson secondhand because I was sure there’d be some good stuff in it. And sure enough, as soon as he starts talking about his days in live sketch TV comedy alongside Craig T. Nelson ~

“There was a sketch called ‘The Doctors and the Vikings,’ and it became like a running soap opera from week to week. Quite simply, we would do a lot of doctor talk, all very dramatic and serious, and then periodically a Viking would come through the operating room, blowing his horn, look at the situation, shake his head and then leave. That was the gag, and it became very popular. Popular, that is, for a local station, with maybe the fifty people who watched it.

“Then one week we decided to do an encore, called ‘The Lawyers and the Pigs’, with lawyers in suits speaking a lot of legalese as normal, but carrying a lot of little piglets under their arms. We’d make no reference to the piglets, and that would be the joke. When we rehearsed on the Sunday, we didn’t bother to get the piglets, as we thought that was just the gag, no need to bother. When we went into the show, and it’s live, we ran to find our piglets. Only these were not little piglets, but huge, 70-lb pigs! I could just about carry mine to the defence table — he was so heavy — but Craig’s started to crawl over his back. The judge had more sense, he actually got a piece of rope for his pig, but they started squealing and then peeing all over the stage. The audience began to laugh so loud they couldn’t hear us and we couldn’t hear each other. This was meant to be a quickie sketch, run two minutes and then boom and out, but it went on for thirteen minutes, with the pigs trying to break free and us trying to grab hold of them, but never talking about the problem. It was absolute anarchy, with the audience screaming with laughter. People tuning into the show were going, ‘My God, they’ve really gone off the deep end with this piece. This is the sickest thing on television!'”

Notes: The Lohman & Barkley Show ran on KNBC. This sketch, tragically, has not made its way to YouTube. But it makes me think of this famous bit of British children’s telly.

The Viking thing seems very Pythonesque, and indeed Levinson would soon be writing for Marty Feldman.

This is the only representative bit of Lohman & Barkley I could find. Quite dark.

Run and Gun

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2019 by dcairns

Humm, thought I’d already published this…

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THIS GUN FOR HIRE is, on the one hand, the first version of Melville’s LE SAMOURAI. It’s an adaptation of Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale (retitled This Gun for Hire in America: the credits seek to reinforce this literary connection even as the screenplay departs from the book in key ways). And a star-making turn for Alan Ladd, who is very, very good in it, in a seriously unusual leading man/villain role. Unusual when Delon did it, pretty well unique when Laddie took it on.

Greene was always rather snooty about the film, criticising the decision to make Veronica Lake’s character a singing magician, as if that was too ridiculous for words. But he’s the one who had the girlfriend of the detective hunting a killer happen to get on a train with the killer and end up kidnapped by him. Screenwriters W.R. Burnett (The Asphalt Jungle, Little Caesar source novels) and Albert Maltz do try to iron that wrinkle out by making Lake also a secret agent, so that both she and Ladd are trailing the same man (lovely Laird Cregar).

But the first ten minutes of the film are worth concentrating on, I think. Director Frank Tuttle, assisted by ace noirmeister John F. Seitz as cameraman, creates a whole succession of iconic images —

Ladd is supposed to have a childhood injury, a badly-healed broken wrist, a good, ugly makeup effect by Wally Westmore. Ladd and Tuttle do everything they possibly can to make you notice the affected limb in this sequence — and none of it works.

It’s very strangely. I think it’s because it’s simply too soon for us to be interested in this man’s wrist. In a wide shot, we notice that Ladd carries his arm oddly, but we don’t perceive the jutting bone. In close-ups of hand action, we notice what his hands are DOING, not what they or their attendant arms are like. Later, a newspaper prints a picture of his arm and we go UGH! And next time we see him, we notice it.

I think the boxy low angles, emphasizing the ceiling, feed directly into Melville’s rather jerky trombone shot which opens LE SAMOURAI, in which Delon’s basement apartment seems to expand and contract. This happens because (a) Melville had decided that his protagonist, “Jeff Costello,” is schizophrenic, and (b) he hasn’t done any actual research about what that means.

Alan Ladd’s character is at least as schizophrenic as Delon’s. In the conventional, incorrect sense of having a divided personality. We’re about to see Delon carry out a hit, and here we see him going over the paperwork and preparing his handgun — and we know he’s a hood because cops don’t live in apartments like this in movies, and who else carries a gun?

Then he tenderly feeds a kitten.

The San Francisco newspaper is a nice scene-setting detail, but do we really notice it in the midst of our “Awwwlookadakitty!”* moment? Doesn’t matter, detail is both good and necessary. Anyway, whenever I use the Pauline Kael “we,” to talk about what does or doesn’t get noticed, remember that on the big screen, “we” would notice a lot more.

Anyway, having the tough, crooked anti-hero give milk/cream to a cat is a Sternberg moment — the Paramount thriller is still, in 1942, indebted to UNDERWORLD, whose screenwriter Ben Hecht was appalled by this sentimental detail. Sternberg claimed credit for the idea, saying he wanted to show his hero/villain had a good heart, and implying that such broad brushstrokes were essential if you wanted to get through to the mainstream audience. He was sort of contemptuous of the audience and the approach, but not of his own cleverness in manipulating both.

Enter the slattern! A memorable turn by Pamela Blake, later a wide-eyed B-western heroine. Would it be too much to ask for a whole movie about this vulgar bitch-goddess. She enters, is mean to the cat, and Ladd slaps her and tears her top (adding a sexual tinge to his violence which doesn’t mean seem to mean anything, it’s just for titillation).

So we learn that ordinary people are nasty, and that this killer is in a way more sensitive than regular civilians.

Ladd leaves, there’s a quick exterior of his rooming house, the movie resists the impulse to show us Those Damn Hills, and then Ladd has a disturbing encounter with a little disabled girl in the stair of his target.

She’s meant to remind us of him, because of his wrist, but the effect is subtler, pleasingly mysterious, because “we” haven’t noticed his damn wrist.

The target: initially suspicious, then quite friendly. He offers Ladd coffee and cookies. Ladd actually eats the cookie of the man he’s about to snuff! That’s a clear violation of the rules of hospitality. If you’re going to kill a man you have to refuse all cookies.

Unexpectedly, a woman is present: the target’s “secretary.” The headline will read CHEMIST AND WOMAN MURDERED. Ladd is discomfited by this complication, but is able to complete his appointed task when the squeal of the kettle summons the “secretary” away.

*Copyright Glenn Kenny.

It’s another great room. Production design is by an uncredited Lynd Ward according to IMDb, who provide no other credits for this mystery man. Art direction is credited to the usual Hans Dreier & Robert Usher. This is a more salubrious joint than Ladd’s flophouse, but John Seitz’s low-key lighting makes all the settings a bit grubby. Even Veronica Lake’s eventual appearance can’t illuminate every shadow.

Look, the wrist! But I’m telling you, we don’t clock it yet. The blackmailing chemist target asks to be paid, and Ladd reaches in his briefcase, where we saw him put his gun.

This moment is extended for suspense purposes, and we get a little smile from Ladd. He’s enjoying, in a slightly sexy way, the feeling of power and the dramatic irony of this cookie-dispensing chemist smiling in anticipation of getting paid when in reality he’s going to get a slug in the ticker. It’s a VERY unsympathetic bit of characterisation, but of course it positions Ladd right alongside us, the audience, in pleasurable anticipation of a less attractive character’s demise at the hands of a leading man.

The inevitable occurs.

The “secretary” appears in the kitchen doorway.

“They said he’d be alone,” says Ladd. His tone is quite harsh, but the impulse to make such a remark is a sort of apologetic one. An attempt to explain why your regrettable death must now be implemented. It’s like in GROSSE POINTE BLANK. “Why are you doing this?” is answered with “It’s not me.” Which does nothing. It does not reassure. It’s more upsetting than anything else. But the impulse is apologetic, and so the audience notes that in the character’s favour.

The “secretary” retreats to the kitchen, presumably blocks the door with her body, and Ladd shoots her through the door. The fact that we don’t get a shot from inside the kitchen denies us a view of her terror and denies us a little bit of empathy with the “wrong” character.

Ladd forces the door open to check her (unseen) body, with a series of grisly nudges later borrowed by Kubrick in DR. STRANGELOVE (Mandrake/Ripper sequence).

Ladd’s mission also includes picking up the documents involved in the blackmail scheme he’s just Gordian-unknotted. Hilariously, David Buttolph’s score goes into a kind of Morse Code at this point, because there are dots and dashes in the nonsense chemical formulae.

Ladd leaves, and has another Disturbing Encounter with the little girl. She asks him to retrieve a dropped ball. (What kind of monster gives a disabled child a ball to play with?) He pauses, reaches for his briefcase, then retrieves the ball (religiose music).

So we learn that he has a conscience, or a weakness. He’s wicked enough to CONSIDER killing a little disabled girl, because he knows she’s a witness. But good enough to reject the idea AND give her her ball back. (She’s only going to lose it again.)

Net result: hey, we LIKE this cold-blooded assassin!

That’s how it works, folks.