Archive for the Politics Category

Do you get all your equipment from Kellogs?

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2017 by dcairns

Ken Russell’s film of BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, deliriously wacky though it is, is actually closer to Len Deighton’s source novel than the previous movies in the Harry Palmer series, apart from the ending. (Deighton’s climax is even grimmer than a LeCarre: as ever with this series, the filmmakers have sought something punchier, but even here, the big Finnish finish is suggested by a speech in the novel.)

But the opening scene is all new — series regular Guy Doleman as Colonel Ross (mentioned only once in the book) breaks into the HP Detective Agency — above a surgical appliance shop, reached via a dismal neon-lit stair yowling with cats — and performs a search. Herky-jerky handheld shot follows a flashlight beam and reminds me of the search in BLADE RUNNER that turns up a snake scale in the bath, filmed in a similar way because Harrison Ford wasn’t available for a reshoot. Excellent gag, reminiscent of REAR WINDOW and CHINATOWN both — a filing cabinet marked DIVORCE yields two photos, one of a couple surprised in bed, the other of the chap swinging his fist at the lens. The next drawer down contains a smashed camera.HP himself (Michael Caine) arrives, armed, and Doleman spills Corn Flakes over the floor when he raises his hands. Jump cut to Caine shoveling it up, at Doleman’s feet (again). MI5 want Palmer back. He refuses. A package arrives — a key and money. The phone rings. Computer voice gives Palmer instructions —JUMP CUT! Palmer’s trademark spectacles LEAP off his face into the foreground as computer font lettering flickers and Caine, in the background, squints at his suddenly displaced specs. Richard Rodney Bennett is freaking out on piano like a drunken Rachmaninoff and lots of little Caines are voguing about in strange loops — it’s a particularly brilliant Maurice Binder title sequence, sans naked silhouettes but giving the distinct impression that this installment will be splashier, more sexy and exotic, more Bondian, than its predecessors. But the pre-creds sequence also assures us that our hero remains an underdog.

Palmer picks up a package. A thermos. He takes it to a shoeshop and subjects it to the Pedoscope — I am old enough to remember, dimly, X-ray machines in shoeshops. A brilliant idea — lets you see if your toes are cramped, in case you can’t feel it. Also gives you foot cancer, I suspect. Palmer’s thermos is full of eggs. In the book, he’s just given eggs. This is better — adds another layer of mystery, and the  just leaves things more mysterious. I’d like to make the first film shot entirely in Pedoscope.

Our clever screenwriter is Scots playwright John McGrath, who also co-wrote PLAY DIRTY for Andre DeToth, here a producer — De Toth’s bio is full of good Ken Russell stories. The whole business of Palmer no longer being at MI5 is McGrath’s invention too — and it actually makes him being recruited by another organisation more plausible.

Palmer’s instructions pack him off to Helsinki, where Francoise Dorleac gets a brilliant introduction. A tiny “big wheel” spins against the low sun. It’s second rotation flips the camera off into a fast pan that finds Caine, waiting for his contact. Sudden, dazzling Francoise close-up, speaking right into the lens. No context for where she is. Back to longshot, Caine turns, she’s behind him. Very MOD. Uses confusion as a means to attain clarity in a more exciting way. A bit like the eggs in the thermos, only in terms of mise-en-scene. Deighton’s Signe in the book is now the more pronounceable Anya, but she’s the same crazy bitch. Dorleac being marginally older than the character means she has less excuse for her extreme flakiness and so she’s correspondingly less sympathetic.

Shakicam ski-bike ride to an isolated sauna and Karl Malden — this is the movie that gives you Francoise Dorleac, swathed in furs outside a sauna, and Karl Malden naked inside it. In the book, he’s Harvey Newbegin (great name, if obvious) but since our nameless spy is now a Harry, in the movie he has to be Leo Newbegin, which will take some getting used to.

Dorleac is reprising her role from CUL DE SAC, as the fickle tramp who’s lured a wealthy middle-aged man away from his stable marriage. Malden’s slightly crazed gusto perfectly suits the role, as he seems desperate for Palmer to approve his new love match. Palmer has just snogged Dorleac and so is a bit skeptical.A most original conception, your majesty — the birth of Venus.

Russell & McGrath get through exposition joyously — Caine is discomfited by nudity in the first section, then lounges in a bubble chair looking fatuous with a cigar while Dorleac drones tunelessly on a cello and Billy Williams’ camera soaks up Syd Cain’s design. Williams would follow Russell onto WOMEN IN LOVE, which was the reason he was making this in the first place. Amazing design as Palmer discovers a corpse — in the book, the scene is a laboratory in an apartment. Here, it’s a mansion walled in classy porn and jungled up with potted plants — hilarious, beautiful and surreal. The body (a fat one) is slumped facing an open window so his face is frosted. Then Palmer is chloroformed.

He wakes up in the back half of a car in front of a process screen. Rear projection never works in colour/widescreen movies of this time, but Russell gets some added value out of it by pulling out from the grainy street footage and panning onto Caine, so it’s like he’s woken up in a movie. Ross threatens to frame Palmer for the previous scene’s murder, and he’s forcibly recruited back into Her Maj’s Secret Service, to spy on Malden’s organisation from within.A spacious loft set — one of numerous vaulted chambers of this design in Russell’s oeuvre. The titular brain is mentioned, but all we see is a desktop terminal. Spurious drama — Malden is ordered to shoot Dorleac. He doesn’t.REPORT TO TEXAS FOR INDOCTRINATION

Shock cut from hockey mask to multiplying bacilli suggest Russell was impressed by PETULIA the previous year. I think Mad Ken and Richard Lester were checking out each other’s work, influenced but also rejecting a lot of influence. I think they both felt the need to keep track of what the other was up to.Palmer is flown to Latvia with Vladek Sheybal, a Russell favourite. On a train — a teenage Susan George, Caine’s future co-star (THE JIGSAW MAN). And we meet Oscar Homolka in a scene containing broad farcical elements which is nevertheless straight from the book. Homolka was a memorable presence in FUNERAL IN BERLIN so it’s lovely to have him back, cackling insanely, an avuncular dumpling you nevertheless believe capable of terrible things. Russell was particularly amused by the book’s casting of Americans as villains and Russians as the good guys — he exaggerates it somewhat, as was his wont, but it IS true to the novel.

Here in Latvia the film seems to have lost a Beatles song from its soundtrack — the Latvian “freedom fighters” employed by Malden — his cousins — also traffick in bootleg western goods. I REMEMBER this song from a TV screening.A double-cross — Malden wants Caine dead. And we get the film’s most beautiful image, cossack-like riders emerging from the winter sun. Like the private eye he briefly was, Palmer is knocked unconscious again. An occupational hazard for anyone in the Marlowe racket.

And awakens in a bath-tub full of corpses (the book). Grim comedy hi-jinks — a guard comes in as he’s contemplating escape. Awkward eye contact. The man begins to undress. Uh-oh. Sigh of relief — he’s just come to use the loo. (This is the third scene to wring comedy from men undressing together.) Two more guards enter, rush Caine, seizing and subduing him… soak a towel from the sink… and give his face a nice wash.

Shostakovich — Russell is just wild about all things Russian — limbering up for THE MUSIC LOVERS — a crimson bar, where Sheybal is apprehended and Caine compromised — Dorleac, who travels fast, is snapping the compromat of him being chummy with Homolka using a very obvious but chic spycam.Back to Helsinki — Palmer partners up with Newbegin (who just tried to have him killed) in his scam — claiming massive expenses from crazed American patriot General Midwinter to foment revolution in Latvia — and we’re off to Texas at last!

Except Texas is one place the movie didn’t go — looks like they filmed in Finland and England only — so Middlesex is doubling for Texas. By setting the whole thing at night and making it rather surreal anyway, Russell gets away with this — a sort of Nazi rally/square dance/barbecue — in the book, Midwinter’s organisation is called Facts For Freedom (“The fact free people,” the unnamed spy’s boss calls them) and the three Fs form a sort of grid logo. Russell has the M and W of Midwinter’s name pressed together to form a sort of involuted swastika. Not subtle, this stuff, but satire rarely is. A Trump rally, basically.

Midwinter is a bit subtler in the book too — he’s of Latvian descent and wants to free his former homeland. In the movie, he’s just a nutty American super-patriot. They got rid of his artificial arm, also — too much? What exactly would constitute “too much” in this context? “My arm is long and my vengeance is total!” bellows Ed Begley, eyes aglint with blazing insanity. Very good use of his Humpty Dumpty shape, apart from his egg (torso + head) he seems to be all legs.The brain itself — the facilities of Honeywell (do they still have a building on the road between Edinburgh and Glasgow?). Russell’s love of Lang’s METROPOLIS shines through. The other giveaway that we haven’t crossed the Atlantic is Donald Sutherland, oddly enough, fussing over terminals, at the tail-end of his European sojourn (Perth Rep, various cheapo horrors). His computer “expertise” perhaps earned him his role in SEBASTIAN the following year. Big Bondian set, all greatly amped-up from the book. Here, we begin to conclusively depart from the source, in interests of a big ending —Karl Malden escapes and Caine, about to be shot due to Dorleac’s compromat, strikes a deal with Midwinter to capture him. Two henchmen in stetsons accompany him back to Finland for this purpose. Attractive sequence in greenhouse! Stetson men shot at train station, Dorleac flees, having double-crossed Malden for those eggs (remember those eggs? Imbued with deadly germs stolen from Porton Down, Britain’s biological and chemical weapons facility — just saw a BBC documentary about it). Malden falls weakly into line now with Caine’s plans — must warn Midwinter not to invade Latvia as he’ll start WWIII. (Earlier, Malden has his own crazy moment — WWIII means nothing to him as long as he’s making a profit. Nicely underplayed (yet MASSIVE) moment from Malden, and it strikes me as psychologically acute — there are evidently people who simply refuse to imagine nuclear destruction or climate change.

Happily the movie omits Deighton’s description of Newbegin pressing his nose against a train window. One imagines a vast, ever-spreading pink pancake blotting out the sun if Malden were to attempt this.

The big Finnish finish — Midwinter’s cracker army advances across the ice, so Homolka bombs the ice and sinks them all — all lifted from Eisenstein’s ALEXANDER NEVSKY, but staged with trucks and a really impressive, weirdly fake day for night — I think they just erected black backdrops — it sort of does look like how the scene might be if it were floodlit. Disturbing mass drowning — also kind of funny, in an unpleasant sort of way. General Midwinter dies as he lived — a bellowing dwarf.

Caine awakens draped on the ice floe like Lillian Gish. Somehow the only survivor. Homolka magnanimously returns the eggs and says a dismissive eulogy for the “stupid” Begley. Caine returns to London —The eggs hatch. Amusing coda, not in the book, but Deighton might possibly have considered it if he’d thought of it.

In the novel, our hero assassinates Newbegin to stop him defecting to the Russians. Kind of violates Deighton’s own rule about not letting his hero solve problems with violence — but has he really solved anything? In a way, being forced to kill IS the problem.

 

Fritz bits

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by dcairns

The real Heydrich was NOT shot in the spine, but in the spleen… my guess if, Fritz Lang may have seen images like this when injured in WWI (three horses shot out from under him) and chose to include it…

“Bert” Brecht’s scenario for HANGMEN ALSO DIE! includes a HUGE number of supporting roles, some with only a few lines. Director Fritz Lang fills the dramatis personae with memorable faces and wrings a whole panoply of peppy performances from them. In the lead, Quatermass McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is better than he ever was elsewhere, suggesting by minimal means the moral strain of a man who knows hundreds may die in consequence of his actions. America’s first largely prosthetic actor, not counting Kong, whom he slightly resembles, Donlevy never made a move without his elevator shoes, corset and toupée, but couldn’t do anything about his startlingly short arms, like those of a T-rex. Couldn’t Bud Westmore, who made Harold Lloyd’s special lifelike glove to hide his missing fingers, have knocked together a couple of arm extensions for McGinty?

Really good work from Walter Brennan, cast way against type as a professor — anti-Nazi films always have a professors, it seems, and professors everywhere have beautiful daughters, and so here we have Anna Lee, also excellent. These characters are even more moving in THE MORTAL STORM, as you’d expect with Frank Borzage in charge, but Lang’s harder edge also has its advantages. We also get Margaret Wycherly, looking like a haunted tree™ as usual, and Dennis O’Keefe, whose tendency to turn up whenever his fiance is in what looks like a compromising position, seems like good prep for all those farces he made later in the forties.

But I want to talk about smaller roles. Janet Shaw fascinated me. She played the dead-eyed slattern of a teen waitress in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and was just remarkable. Anytime she shows up in a film, I get fascinated. Here she’s a little TOO perky, perhaps, as a factory worker and patriotic saboteur, her eyes darting vivaciously around the faces assembled at a meeting of the resistance. But she has a great moment later when arrested, spitting fire and defiance at her captors.

See here and here for previous appreciations.

We also get Charles “Ming the Merciless” and Dwight Frye and a defenestrated Lionel Stander, star-spotters!

But the film’s array of Nazis is its best point (aside from Lang’s bleakly beautiful mise-en-scene, of course, and his crisp cutting, many scenes joined together by questions asked in one scene and answered in another, or phrases begun in one place and completed elsewhere. Is this where Welles got the idea for KANE’s scene-linking?).

The decision to have the “Nazis” play their roles as comedy is a surprising one. It doesn’t attract much comment in discussions of the film. HANGMEN ALSO DIE! is far from being a comic film, but its treatment of those running the Protectorate is almost Lubitschian. All the various types of Hollywood Nazi are represented here — and the idea seems to be to refute the German claims of superman status with an insistence on the pathetic, grubby human foibles that make these guys on the one hand, no better than the rest of us, and on the other, considerably worse.

There’s Heydrich himself, Hans Heinrich Twardowski (from CALIGARI) in a big rubber Mabuse nose, conforming to the stereotype of the Nazi pansy (usually Martin Kosleck’s department). This isn’t an accurate depiction of Heydrich, but the goal is partly just to INSULT, using exactly the terms we assume would be most offensive to the Nazis.

There’s the spotty Nazi (Tonio Selwart), with a big set of Marcellus Wallace sticking plasters on the back of his neck and a gleaming chancre on his brow, later seen lovingly squeezing a pluke in the mirror — an undreamt-of image in Hollywood cinema or anywhere else — I equate this to Dennis Hopper picking his nose in LAND OF THE DEAD (which I equate to stuff like Paul Wolfowitz caught licking his comb on camera) — a concentration on the undignified, messily human aspects of the supposed superman.

There’s the lightweight sadist (Reinhold Schunzel, THE THREEPENNY OPERA), not an imposing figure, more like a mean schoolteacher, but one with a whole state apparatus backing him up. He tortures an old woman using only a loosely assembled chair, and the power behind him. Personally, he’s a buffoon, with a Sig Ruman-like delivery, cracking his fingers as he gloats behind his desk. Without a desk and armed guards at his command, he’d be pathetic. He IS pathetic. Time will tell.

And then there’s the detective (Alexander Granach, the Shadowplayer from WARNING SHADOWS; Knock, the gibbering Renfield figure from NOSFERATU), the most competent figure we meet on the enemy side. He frequents whores and is addicted to Czech beer, so again, his lack of “purity” and his vulgarity and human frailty are front and centre. But he’s a worthy opponent. The big trick staged by the resistance in the film’s third act would never work if he were around to study it. His innate shrewdness and unerring mental leaps (signalled with a pantomime snap of the fingers) means he’s only ever a step or two behind the heroes, and frequently a step or two ahead. Thwarted for the moment, his finger-snap is exchanged for a first pounding into a palm. Very theatrical, but with all this comedy Lang is not only making a satirical point, he’s finding a way to leaven the  film’s grimness.

Lang wasn’t too great at comedy — the jokes in WESTERN UNION, with Slim Summerville slowly starving, seem sadistic and depressing. Sometimes, laughs can spill out into places they don’t belong, as in the campy, though still compelling, HOUSE BY THE RIVER. Lang is a harsh, heavy filmmaker and humour isn’t his element — but this kind of nasty wit seems ideally suited to his temperament and, crude though some of it is, it’s very effective because it’s so surprising in this context.

A lot of American films made fun of the Nazis — it was understood that they would hate this, and its was felt better to despise them and sneer at them than to be afraid of them. James Harvey in his book Romantic Comedy points out how strange it was, in this context, that Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE was thought to have gone too far. He identifies the problem being located in one line from Sig Ruman to Jack Benny, his insulting review of Benny’s acting: “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” The joke turned auditoria ice-cold at the time, apparently — other attempts at humor by the Nazi characters are deliberately rather gross, but this one asks us to laugh at the effect it has on Benny. In other words, the Nazi wins this round, though he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. Audiences at the time were not prepared to laugh at the thought of Nazis winning anything.

Lang is on safer ground — the humour is present merely in how the Nazis are portrayed, by artful, expressionistic actors, whose style contrasts elaborately with the simplicity of the Americans playing Czechs (plus one Brit, Anna Lee). So there’s a satisfying (Brechtian?) distance between how the Nazis see themselves — superior, in a word — and how both the performances and the plot encourage us to see them — as nasty buffoons.

Or, as Fiona put it, it’s like a long episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

It’s also defensibly close to reality — though the film omits the massacre of Lidice, it surprises by showing the Nazis murdering all the hostages they had promised to release, a smaller but dramatically equivalent atrocity. Lidice, in fact, boomeranged badly, becoming the signature crime used in propaganda to denounce Nazi Germany. The Nazis handed the Allies a club with which to beat them. It’s not funny, but it’s certainly oafish.

Ace Up My Sleeve

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , on June 15, 2017 by dcairns

Only disappointed I didn’t quote in full the lyrics from the airman’s song about being in a wreck and having various machine parts embedded in his body — like if THE FLY, CRASH or TETSUO were a musical… The film is ACE OF ACES and it gives me another chance to bang on about John Monk Saunders, over at The Notebook.