Here’s the film — the first Czechoslovakian stop-motion movie — head over to The Chiseler for the accompanying article. I don’t think it matters too much if you read the piece before watching the movie or vice versa. If you have to choose, I guess I’d rather you read the article, because I have feelings, damnit.
Archive for the Politics Category
During WWII, British Intelligence identified a fatal flaw in the enemy’s thinking: the German spymasters were prone to what the Brits called “wishfulness.” When an agent offered his services, or when a piece of possible positive information came to light, the Germans would tend to get so excited about how good it would be if the agent were genuine or the information were true, that they could pretty soon find themselves believing in it without proper evidence. As an amusing result of this, all of Germany’s spies in Britain were either double agents working for us and feeding the Germans misinformation, or entirely fictional agents invented by British intelligence. Eventually, we had so many fictional agents sending bogus intel to the Nazis that we had to form a special subcommittee to catch or kill off a few of them in the interests of realism. We were also able to bamboozle the Boche with some fake documents in a briefcase chained to a corpse floating in the sea. Like Fox Mulder in later years, the Germans wanted to believe.
But we were guilty of wishfulness on a much larger scale. Entire campaigns were launched based on the exciting hope of success rather than on a realistic assessment of the risk of failure. Watching THEIRS IS THE GLORY got me curious about the Battle of Arnhem so I picked up Arnhem 1944 The Airborne Battle by Martin Middlebrook from the library. It’s a substantial, impressive work which tries hard to be fair to everybody (it also confirms that Dickie Attenborough’s A BRIDGE TOO FAR is pretty accurate in its account, unusually for these kind of epics). Middlebrook points out the benefits a victory at Arnhem would have brought — a much earlier end to the war, quicker liberation for Holland and the shutting down of Germany’s rocket attacks on London, and an Anglo-American conquest of Germany that would have put us in a much stronger bargaining position at Yalta: Germany might not have been split down the middle, the East enduring decades of communist rule. Someone remarked that Germany’s biggest disaster in the war was winning the Battle of Arnhem.
But this is wishfulness. British military command discovered that Arnhem was heavily defended with tanks, but as this info was discovered awkwardly late in the planning stage of the attack, it was simply suppressed. Thousands of men were air-dropped to pretty much certain death. The plan was a very fragile one. The RAF didn’t want to fly too close to enemy defences so they dropped the infantry miles from their targets, sacrificing the element fo surprise which was the main advantage of an airborne attack. Here’s a quote from Brigadier ‘Shan’ Hackett which is hilarious in its analysis of the tragic absurdity of the plan.
The airborne movement was very naive. It was very good on getting airborne troops to battle, but they were very innocent when it came to fighting the Germans when we arrived. They used to make a beautiful airborne plan and then add the fighting-the-Germans bit afterwards. We brigade commanders were at one of the divisional commander’s conferences […] where this lovely plan was being presented. The Polish commander, Sosabowski, said in his lovely deep voice, ‘But the Germans, General, the Germans!’
(Sosabowski is played, incompetently, by Gene Hackman, in the Attenborough film, probably the only time I’ve seen Hackman be bad. He seems to have thought he could do a Polish accent without research, by effort of will alone, or else he just has a tin ear for accents.)
Anyway, I think filmmakers can fall prey to wishfulness too. Wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true, and the marvelous rewards available if a thing comes off does not make it any more likely that it WILL come off.
Art Linson recounts preparing an action-comedy in the nineties, and finding none of the appropriate leading men available. Willem Dafoe was suggested. An up-and-coming young star. But Linson wasn’t convinced he was a light comedian. He asked his wife one night, “Do you think Willem Dafoe could make you laugh?” She replied, “I don’t know, but I saw him smile once and I had nightmares for a week.”
But with nobody obviously bankable and better suited to be found, Linson talked himself into it. And had to burn the negative. The whole film was abandoned, and I think they managed to somehow claim the insurance, or else there was a fortuitous accident and they used it as an excuse. There you go.
When w e made CRY FOR BOBO, ace producer Nigel Smith (far right) and I packed the script with every gag we could think of. We wanted to win the commission, so we wanted it to sound as impressive as possible. But the film had to be under ten minutes long. We used lots of formatting tricks to pack a lot of content into less than ten pages — the theory is that one page = a minute of screen time, but if you have a disproportionate amount of action to dialogue, and if you pack the prose tighter than a Dashiell Hammett shopping list in shorthand, that all gets thrown out of whack.
Having won the commission, we should have then pruned the script a bit, but we fell in love with our own material and then tried to shoot all of it. I had to drop a banana skin and plank gag, but nearly everything else got shot — and the first cut was fourteen minutes long without credits. That’s half again as long as it needed to be.
Working with Nigel, the late, great Bert Eeles as editor, and resourceful assistant editor Anna Mehta, we somehow managed to hack the thing down, preserving the best jokes, keeping the story coherent, and stopping the pace getting so hectic it would just irritate everyone, but it wasn’t easy. We had convinced ourselves that we could make it ten minutes long just by playing everything fast. Wishfulness. It’ll get you in a lot of trouble. Fortunately, we didn’t have German tanks shooting at us on this one.
The best bit in Richard Attenborough and William Goldman’s A BRIDGE TOO FAR involves Frank Grimes, a young intelligence officer who breaks the news to Dirk Borgarde’s General Browning that there are a bunch of German tanks at Arnhem which could scupper the whole plan. Browning, in reality, refused to alter the plan and did not inform his superiors, his peers or his men about the tanks. Goldman had the job of writing dialogue which would explain Browning’s reasoning, or unreasoning if you prefer. I think he did a great job.
“I doubt they’re fully serviceable.”
“Then why would the Germans conceal them, sir?”
Browning realises this is weak. “We’ve had dozens of aerial photographs taken and these are the only ones that show tanks!”
Ye-es. But they DO SHOW TANKS.
“Do you seriously expect us to call off the biggest operation mounted since D-Day… because of three photographs?”
PHOTOGRAPHS OF TANKS.
An effective scene which utilises a human attribute insufficiently exploited by modern movies — our ability to get infuriated by idiocy. I think it’s very tempting to suspect that modern movies don’t try this because they don’t respect the audience enough to credit them with that reaction.
So, I’m revisiting those filmmakers I devoted Official Weeks to in the past here on Shadowplay. Joseph Losey got his own week because I had a sense that I hadn’t seen nearly enough Losey and that I hadn’t appreciated him enough — a sense that, actually, I might have some kind of antipathy to his whole approach. As Richard Lester said to Soderbergh, Losey was the last person you would use the word “zany” about, and in fact I found there was a lack of humour which was almost heroic at times. MODESTY BLAISE is the one film Losey made that could be called a comedy, and indeed is absolutely dependent on whimsy since it refuses to be what the producers evidently intended, a campy James Bond sex-and-violence wallow. The only part of that equation Losey didn’t have a fierce antipathy to is the “campy” part, and yet even that was kind of alien to him, which is how he was able to make BOOM! a great piece of unconscious camp.
I somehow didn’t have a copy of THE CRIMINAL to hand when I did Losey Week, though I knew I would like it when I saw it. When Losey played thrillers more or less straight, they were gripping. When the movie insists on providing a commentary on what it’s about, instead of just being about it, you could get problems, as with the stuff with the gangsters in Losey’s maudit remake of M: the movie insists on offering up a pinko analysis of organised crime as a manifestation of Capital. THE GODFATHER succeeds simply by allowing this idea to play out as drama, not even as an allegory, but as a simple statement of fact. Nobody needs to point it out.
Losey described THE PROWLER, another excellent noir I didn’t get around to writing about, as “a film about false values,” and such stories are powerful and compelling as long as the scenarist can resist inserting a mouthpiece to put it all into words. “The playwright should show conditions and leave it to the audience to draw conclusions,” as Brander Matthews put it.
And so to THE CRIMINAL (1960), which does just that. I think the avoidance of proselytising is something Losey ultimately found very sympatico in the British writers he worked with, which is what led him to bond so well with Pinter, who NEVER tells you what’s on his mind. Here, the writer is Alun Owen, later to pen A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Richard Lester remarked to me that Owen had a multiplicity of useful hats he could put on, as both a Scouser and a Welshman, and he had a wealth of life experience which informed his work. Very unusually for a British crime film, THE CRIMINAL sets out simply to record a series of events, into which the viewer is invited to read meanings. What it avoids is any Marxist or Freudian analysis of what leads to a life of crime, though you can hunt for clues if that’s your bag.
We begin in prison, though Owen has written a careful gag, a high-stakes poker game between Brit-flick stalwarts such as Murray Melvin and Patrick Wymark (shockingly young, a tufty-haired rolly-polly joker with a sinister edge, not quite the Toby Jug he would morph into just a few years later). We’re clearly meant to be taken by surprise when we discover the game is being played with matches by lags in a cell. But Losey takes his directorial wrecking-ball to the gag, framing Melvin against a painted brick wall pasted with suggestive imagery (I think that might be Abbey Lincoln and Frances Bacon!), and even before that there’s a short of a prison gate with the producers’ credit over it. This is either a crass insertion by Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy of Anglo-Amalgamated, who had just made PEEPING TOM and were considered the dregs of the industry, or else Losey himself couldn’t resist sticking their names over a shot of a prison gate (maybe he had more wit than I credit him with).
Losey had earlier made a short for Hammer, A MAN ON THE BEACH (1955), a dull Tales of the Very Expected thing entirely predicated upon the shock revelation that Donald Wolfit’s character is blind. Wolfit, whose tread could be as leaden as Losey’s at his worst, plays the whole thing with an unblinking middle-distance star and groping hands, telegraphing “I can’t see a bloody thing” from his first entrance, rendering the whole enterprise pointless. So Losey is one of those filmmakers with a constitutional aversion to the “pull-back-and-reveal” gag, it seems.
Jimmy Sangster, who apparently originated the story of THE CRIMINAL as well as scripting that benighted short, based a lot of his career on that very narrative trope, churning out DIABOLIQUES rip-offs for Hammer, so Losey’s rejection of the approach is an early sign of an exciting battle of sensibilities. Unlike Sangster, Owen is drawn to narrative sidetracks, and invents a whole prison populace of distinctive characters who don’t really need to be there for story reasons, but are essential for world-building. Asides from Melvin and Wymark (and it’s typical the show opens with such minor figures), we’ll soon get Gregoire Aslan (chucklesome charm subdued into lizard-eyed menace), Tom Bell and Kenneth Cope, who fulfills a similar function here as in X: THE UNKNOWN, which Losey nearly directed and may well have cast him in: turn up, look scared, suffer An Appalling Fate.
As always, Patrick Magee, of the curling lip and watery eye, who plays the corrupt prison warden Burrows, threatens to rip the whole thing apart with a performance evoking paranoid schizophrenia, satanic possession and narcissistic personality disorder all at once. The only way Richard MacDonald’s spectacular prisons set can contain him is for Owen and Losey to open up other avenues into disintegration, safely channeling the Magee Overflow. Most eye-popping occurs during a monologue by mentally-ill prisoner Brian Phelan, where Losey pushes in fast to a tight closeup and actually irises in to shoot the actor in a vignette, suggesting simultaneously his frightening isolation from reality and his inability to reach Baker on any meaningful emotional level.
Baker himself is astonishing, the kind of actor without whom this kind of film would be unimaginable. Unapologetically macho — and also willing to associate closely with the film’s themes of sexual variance. His close-quarters combat with Bell and Neil McCarthy has sexual intimations, even down to the “nothing-happening-here” pretense when Caught At It by the warden. Tough guy Clobber (Kenneth J. Warren) has pugilists on his walls and a tender relationship with Phelan.
The film, unusually, contains two long prison sequences, as we meet Baker the day before his release, and when arrested again he arranges an escape. In the outside world, an agressive, overstated heterosexuality reigns. Baker’s swinging crim pad is awash with nudes, both artistic and actual. He playfully spanks the full-length odalisque on his bathroom door. She has a nice behind, but come on — who spanks a door? When former squeeze Jill Bennett is edged out by newbie nudie Margot Saad, she’s more naked that I would have thought was possible in 1960 Britain, unless you were Pamela Green. The value of eroticism was probably the one area where Losey’s interests coincided with Anglo-Amalgamated’s.
The film has hilariously little interest in its heist, apparently forged in a masterplan by grinning idiot John Molloy inside — we never even see the full robbery, just its aftermath, and never learn the plan, just the betrayals afterwards. These involve sad-eyed copper Laurence Naismith, purring creep Sam Wanamaker, and swaggering Nigel Green, enormous in an overcoat with padded shoulders, inflating his physique to Honey Monster proportions.
It is tempting just to list the cast, isn’t it? But the film is shot by tetchy genius Robert Krasker (THE THIRD MAN) and edited by Reggie Mills who cut most of Powell & Pressburger’s movies. He’s wonderfully sloppy about continuity, and incredibly tight about narrative and psychology, and he has his own taut sense of rhythm. There’s a riot scene which energises all of these talents, and the ragged-edged cast, around MacDonald’s panopticon prison set and allows Losey to really break loose with the camera, which cocks its head like Ygor, crabs fast like Astaire, swoops in like Baron Harkonnen, combining the sardonic glint, the grace, and the leering aggression of all three of those figures. I should add that Johnny Dankworth’s score adds immeasurably to the atmosphere and drama, its romantic longing largely in counterpoint to the hard-edged action.
It’s a bleak film. “Miserable time of the year,” remarks Magee. “If we could only have some flowers. Down there. In summer it’s a blaze of colour.” Here’s the prison garden:
Here’s a park.
Here’s a field.
England as a BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN no-man’s-land. Losey is starting to feel at home.