Archive for the Television Category

Cockleshell Hero

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2015 by dcairns

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I like to think that some Americans, and other friendly foreigners, seeing LOCAL HERO and loving it as most everyone seems to, wonder “Who is THIS guy?” when they see Fulton McKay as the aged beachcomber, the stumbling block in the plans of Burt Lancaster’s oil consortium (represented by Peter Riegert) to buy up the coastline of a quaint Scottish island.

Knowing a bit about writer-director Bill Forsyth’s methods, I see McKay’s old Ben as a particularly successful bit of writing. Forsyth loves character and dialogue and rather despises plot. Ben, by bringing the plot to an impasse which necessitates negotiation, forces talk to happen. And because Ben isn’t interested in negotiating, he keeps changing the subject. His digressions have dramatic value since they’re stopping the protagonist achieving his task, but through them Forsyth can enjoy what he’s really interested in, which is the talk itself.

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To British audiences, McKay was a familiar figure for one key role, though his career, in television particularly, was extensive. But it’s as McKay (pronounced Mick-EYE) in the TV show Porridge that he made his big impression. McKay was a tough, sardonic prison warden, the bete noir of the show’s convict heroes (Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale — father of Kate). McKay the actor played McKay the character sympathetically, even though he’s a bit of a hard case and the show’s nominal antagonist (though other, more vicious criminals could also make things tough for the heroes). He did a lot of lopsided smiling and quite a bit of one eye goggling, one eye squinting, like James Finlayson but subtler. Everyone, after all, is subtler than James Finlayson.

It’s in these roles of the seventies and eighties that FM made his mark on my memories, so I was intrigued to see him in THE BRAVE DON’T CRY, the last film produced by documentarist John Grierson, a Scottish-set film from 1951, directed by Philip Leacock (brother of documentarian Richard). A young McKay seemed inconceivable, since he’d seemed old when I was a kid. Would he even be recognizable, or would time have only kitted him out with all those attributes I knew so well further down the line?

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Fulton McKay is COMPLETELY recognizable, and what’s more the same qualities that served him so well in later life work quite nicely for the younger thesp. The way he crosses a room in wide shot, he’s immediately himself — something to do with the way his head bobbles ever so slightly, a cocky bobble — his head flares out like a cork and his neck is slender, so i guess a certain amount of jiggle is inevitable. His lips are very thin and his smile is oddly angular — uniquely, his mouth has more than the conventional two corners. And it only goes up on one side.

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Terrific actor. In the movie, he’s trapped down a mine with a group of other miners, his father killed in the subsidence. Lots of emoting to do. Then he breaks a leg. He’s not having a good day. The claustrophobic tension is strong, even on rather wobbly sets. I wish he’d done more movies — he’s very funny in Stephen Frears’ first feature, GUMSHOE, with Albert Finney — but at least he was always busy. It may be his best work is buried amid all that ephemeral TV. Likely it happened on stage in some rep theatre on a rainy day, seen by twenty people. But what we do have is pretty wonderful.

A Week Can Be a Long Time in Politics

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2015 by dcairns

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7 DAYS IN MAY (1964) — one of Frankenheimer’s very best, I’d say. It’s taken me ages to get around to it. Maybe the opening scene put me off, since I think the handheld, jagged cutting and multiple inserted red frames (Frankenheimer admired Hitchcock enormously, so he’s riffing on SPELLBOUND — there’s a good story about his Hitch idolatry, if you remind me) was a little overdone. And then there’s a very long build-up in which most of the terrific cast have little to do but repeatedly explain to us who they are and what their jobs are and what got done before the movie started. A slow pressure starts to build though as Colonel Kirk Douglas, all clenched reptile features and micro eye-darting, suspects something is up. When he reports to President Fredric March that General Burt Lancaster is plotting a military coup, at last the film takes off and begins to generate serious tension.

Frankenheimer commissioned the script from his old TV colleague Rod Serling, who does lay on the exposition a bit thick at the start, and the speechifying even thicker at the end, but it evolves into a cross-cut pattern of escalating, nerve-biting, nail-raising, hair-shredding excitement. We got this the same year as STRANGELOVE? No wonder FAIL SAFE failed. You can only have so many of these things in a year, I expect. Otherwise the nervous strain would be too great.

Serling’s exposition isn’t exactly bad, it’s just more obvious than I like it, with characters showing off unnecessarily just to shoehorn a little more information into their speeches, calling each other by name multiple times, and so on. But the groundwork is laid effectively enough so that once the plot really gets moving, you’re never confused despite the complexity. The speech-making is rendered more excusable by the fact that Sterling gives his villain convincing motivation — noble cause corruption, where the ends justify the means — making him as much a patriot as March.

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Edmund O’Brien, typecast as a drunk, is very enjoyable too. Every time I see him now I think of the story in WORKING WITH ORSON WELLES, Gary Graver’s shambolic but fun documentary — a couple of assistants on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND had the job of helping O’Brien (“Eddie is a magnificent ruin,” quoth Welles) pack his luggage after the shoot. And he had all this weird shit in his hotel drawers — raw meat and light bulbs and stuff. “Are you sure you want all this packed?” “Yeah yeah.” So every time we See O’Brien we make a crack about his meat ‘n’ light bulbs.

Having gotten his ebullient, experimental side out of the way early, Frankenheimer goes almost classical, eschewing his Dutch tilts but exulting in Kubrickian symmetry, deep focus and the frequent use of the “A” composition ~

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He has a lot of fun with TV monitors, a recurring device of his from MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE on. Easy to see why they figured in his imagery, given his years spent barking into a microphone in front of an array of glasse screens. He also has some shots here that are just expressively wonderful.

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Being a political drama of its day, the story is very male-driven (Martin Balsam: “I have a feeling this time next week we’ll all be laughing.” Fiona: “On the other sides of our faces. Which will have been blown off”). But there’s room for a lusty turn from Ava Garner, and a very very shiny one from Colette MacDonald, who turns out to have been Preston Sturges’ daughter-in-law. We both thought it was Karen Black.

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We correctly identified John Houseman, though, in his first screen appearance since TOO MUCH JOHNSON twenty-six years previously. In that one he was a Keystone Cop, in this one he is an admiral. Natural Authority.

John Gilling Presents

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , on July 4, 2015 by dcairns

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A curiosity — the intro to John Gilling’s 1948 directorial debut, a 38-minute quickie called ESCAPE FROM BROADMOOR, states that it is the first of a series, a sort of “John Gilling Presents,” themed around the concept of “psychic mysteries” — but Gilling made no further short films of this kind. His next, the following year, is an hour long (a feature!) and comes from a different company, so evidently the idea didn’t catch on.

Obviously, it’s not a true story at all, just some baloney Gilling has made up. A gangster meets the ghost of a previous victim. Or is she? Or isn’t she? Or are he?

All the early Gilling movies are crime thrillers, aspiring to be hardboiled, but he was already flirting with the horror genre he’s remembered for, scripting THE GREED OF WILLIAM HART, a Burke-and-Hare film a clef starring Tod Slaughter. So, unlike a lot of Hammer’s employees, I think he had a genuine interest in the macabre. Odd bursts of creativity erupt amid lifeless stretches throughout his career.

In ESCAPE FROM BROADMOOR, nobody escapes from the titular asylum for the criminally insane, or not onscreen anyway. Isn’t it cheating to name your film after something that’s pure backstory? The film’s psycho is played by a surprise choice, the usually sweet-natured comedy actor John Le Mesurier, famous in the UK for his role in Dad’s Army as a superannuated sergeant in the Home Guard. He was in gazillions of films, usually in small, ineffectual, bureaucratic roles, a nervous fusspot. He plays a very queer king courtier in JABBERWOCKY.

As a cockney gangster with mental health issues, he’s surprisingly effective!

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