Archive for the literature Category

The Hitman and Her

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2019 by dcairns

I didn’t like PRIZZI’S HONOR that much at the time — but I just read Richard Condon’ s source novel, which is terrific, so I gave the movie another shot. Nope, still don’t like it much, but for different reasons.

I wondered at the time if John Huston were getting a free pass from critics because was obviously nearing the end of his run, and because everyone was relieved this wasn’t another ANNIE or ECAPE TO VICTORY. I’m pretty sure now that’s EXACTLY what was happening. But I’m kind of glad it did: we got THE DEAD, maybe as a result of this one doing quite well, and THE DEAD is maybe a great film, certainly a great note to end on. Its cinematic qualities are very slight, but everything is good enough to let the writing and performances carry it, and they do. Result: majesty.

PRIZZI’S HONOR is quite extraordinarily faithful to its source, which turn s out to be a good thing in this case: even the photographs mounted behind William Hickey at the ceremony he throw s to announce his son’s quasi-retirement are as Condon describes them: Toscanini, Pope Pius XII, Enrico Caruso and Richard M. Nixon.

The supporting actors resemble their characters as described in the book to a startling degree: Don Corrado has tiny, steely eyes so William Hickey, playing a man thirty years older than himself, causes his normal-sized eyeballs to shrink by will alone. He’s a 100% convincing octogenarian in his late fifties, and it has nothing to do with the vampire makeup they’ve given him. (A critic once complained that Hickey wasn’t realistic in some play he was doing: Hickey remarked, “People don’t go to the theatre to see REALITY, they go to see AAAAAAAAAAAAAAACTING!“)

Here’s Condon describing Maerose Prizzi through protagonist Charley Partanna’s eyes:

“Maerose was a great woman even if she had messed up. She was a very wop looker, all eyes and beautiful bones among the grabbing domes and dunes. She was almost as tall as Charley, with sad eyes and long fingers. She was a woman who had done everything right — except once.”

Easy to picture John Huston reading that and thinking, I know who’d be just right for it. Of course, Anjelica Huston isn’t Italianamerican but of all the WASP actors in the cast she gets it the most right. And she’s stylised but real, like Hickey. She overplays everything and makes you like it.

The film’s problem is Jack Nicholson. It isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw that he doesn’t resemble the Charley Partanna in the book, a physically imposing tough guy. “Jesus he was big. He was like a tall rectangle of meat and hair.” But his dumpy appearance gives Kathleen Turner severe motivational problems when she has to act falling in love with him.

Huston at the time remarked that most of the takes in the film were take one, thanks to Jack. Looking at it now, I think it needed a few more takes, all the way through. Maybe not Kubrickian numbers, that had a weird effect, but just a few more to let him calm down and let his co-stars get used to him.

Nicholson plays the thing with a prosthesis in his upper lip which does make him look like a mook, but does nothing for his supposed seductiveness and is a bit distracting: we know he’s NOT a mook, just Jack Nicholson with a thing in his lip. He also overplays Charley’s dumbness, adding to our puzzlement about why Turner should be attracted to him. In the book this is all made clear with prose from her point of view: she needs to seduce Charley to pull off the scam she’s running, then falls for him because nobody was ever so kind to her, and he’s fantastic in the sack. None of this is really present in the film.

Kathleen Turner struck Fiona as “just kind of plastic,” which I think is because what she’s acting against makes no sense to her and she has to try to shut it out and project a fantasy co-star to act opposite. She must have seen Nicholson was a problem — dumb, slobby and ugly — but her director was apparently enamoured of the guy. Maybe JH should have taken Turner’s role.

The editor is obviously smitten too: scenes which could cut sharply on a funny line are allowed to expire slowly over a lingering dissolve. Nicholson has one of these unconvincing phone calls where nobody says “‘Bye,” and instead of cutting, which could have solved that nicely, we have to look at him vamp while waiting for his director to say “Cut.” Sometimes those moments are golden. One shouldn’t say “Cut,” until every possible thing has happened. But then one should be brutal in the edit. Here, Nicholson shifts awkwardly on his feet, then LOOKS AT THE PHONE QUIZZICALLY. Something nobody ever did. Ever! And it gives us plenty of time to wonder if the phone call is over. Aren’t they going to say goodbye?

Find a woman who looks at you like Kathleen Turner is pretending to look at Jack Nicholson here.

Stanley Kubrick wanted to cast Nicholson as Napoleon, which we all know would have been hilarious because we’ve seen him in uniform in THE TERROR, but his reasoning was that Nicholson projected intelligence, “the one quality that can’t be faked.” Ridiculously untrue: write intelligent lines for an actor and he can learn not only the words but their meaning, say them like he just thought of them, and look intelligent. Huston knew this from FREUD, where Montgomery Clift was barely functioning. “On the screen, he looked like he was thinking. God knows he wasn’t.”

Nicholson’s trouble is that he can’t fake dumb: he’s an incurable wise-ass and he has to wink at us to let us know he’s not really this dumb jerk of a mob guy.

A shame, because with DeNiro or… or maybe we’ve even found a role Stallone could play? … and a decent editor and a decent font and some better medicine for the director this really could be the film reviewers said it was.

But I’ve been wrong before. As an 18-year-old in 1985 I was confused by Huston’s uncertain period setting — it’s, in fact, a modern film made to feel like a period one, just like WISE BLOOD; and I didn’t like that the lovers were fatally parted. I thought the movie’s job, having put this insuperable barrier of mob life between them, was to somehow solve the problem. I think the film fails as a comic tragedy, whereas the book succeeds because you really feel something for the characters, loathsome as they ought to be (we hear a bit about Charley’s career zotzing people and it’s blood-chilling). A lot of the book’s best writing occurs inside the characters’ heads, and naturally, that’s the stuff the (really quite accomplished) script can’t do.

But it did lead to THE DEAD and it did give us Anjelica Huston, who was, whatever the reviewers said, GREAT in her dad’s A WALK WITH LOVE AND DEATH and is great again here.

PRIZZI’S HONOR stars Jack Torrence; Dolores Benedict Hfuhruhurr; ——Morticia Addams; Dick Laurent; Arthur Hamilton; Rudolph Smuntz; Anton Bartok; Joe Cabot; Mo’at; The Horla; and Stanley Kubrick.

The Sunday Intertitle: Riders of the Purple Prose

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2019 by dcairns

Having missed Henry King’s film THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH in Bologna by rushing to the wrong cinema, I was happy to discover I own a good DVD copy of it, so we ran that.

Frances Marion adapts the script, a bit stodgily I’m afraid, and gets rather carried away with her desert similes and metaphors right at the start.

The desert, then, is a molten bowl AND an unconquered empress AND a tawny siren (more dangerous than the smaller barn siren) AND the End of the Rainbow. The desert, too, is sunk into the earth, whispers promises, and crushes out the lives of men with her poisonous embrace (?).

I recall John Huston being very dismissive of Frances Marion’s writing ability in An Open Book, which rather shocked me because I’d been taught to admire her as a powerful woman of early Hollywood. It’s true that she’s not actually great at words. Her gift was structuring the crowd-pleasing narrative.

Actually — IMDb lists Rupert Hughes as uncredited writer of the titles, which makes sense: HE was a commercial hack. It also adds Lenore Coffee, another powerful woman of early Hollywood and part of DeMille’s stable, or harem, of female writers, as another unlisted contributor.

It’s in the story structure that TWOBW adds support for Henry King’s claim to an artistic identity, since the shape Marion has hewn from “the famous novel by Harold Bell Wright” mirrors that of the later IN OLD CHICAGO to an uncanny degree.

Both films open with a fatality in covered wagon times. The child who loses a father will become protagonist (in IOC there are three children, and the child in TWOBW will lose both parents and get adopted). And both films end with a giant disaster movie climax which purges the undesirable elements (but is a bit hard on the innocent citizenry) and resolves the romantic plot (will Tyrone Power be noble enough to win Alice Faye? Will Vilma Banky chose Ronald Colman or Gary Cooper?)

Colman goggles
Cooper mans the theodolite

Both the flood in TWOBW and the great fire of IOC are extremely gratifying spectacles of mass destruction and group jeopardy. My point, however, is that probably only Henry King was thinking about the earlier film when he came to make the 1938 super-production. Therefore King deserves credit as auteur — for ripping off Marion’s structure.

The McCarey Treatment

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , on July 4, 2019 by dcairns

Why is it that Peter Bogdanovich’s interview with Leo McCarey, published in his indispensable book Who the Devil Made It?, contains passages that are basically identical to those in Serge Daney & Louis Skorecki’s interview that appeared previously in the February 1965 edition of Cahiers du Cinema? I don’t know, but I can offer theories.

Anything’s possible: maybe Bogdanovich asked similar questions to the Cahiers critics in the same order and the director, well into his anecdotage, repeated tried-and-true stories in the precise same words he’d used with earlier interviewers.

But Bogdanovich himself provides a clue to another possible answer. He reports that McCarey was seriously ill with emphysema, his memory impaired by oxygen starvation and his loquacity seriously hampered by breathlessness and painkillers. He admits that, “of course, I didn’t know him — I never really met Leo McCarey.” The Bogdanovich interview alternates between exchanges where McCarey is frustratingly brief, giving one-word answers, and much longer passages where he is voluble and articulate and tells long, amusing tales. These tend to be the bits that also appeared in Cahiers.

So I’m afraid that Bogdanovich augmented the slender pickings he was able to extract from the dying auteur with sections culled from Daney & Skorecki’s piece. Maybe he got their permission, but he certainly doesn’t give them credit anywhere I can see.

I really like Bogdanovich’s books, and his films. Why bring up this apparent lapse? Well, as Seymour Skinner once said, “I’m a small man in many ways. A small, petty man.”