Archive for the Theatre Category

High Wire Actors

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2019 by dcairns

How nice! Out of the blue, regular Shadowplayer Chris Schneider offers me a piece on Elia Kazan’s oft-dismissed cold war/iron curtain circus drama, MAN ON A TIGHTROPE. And I am delighted to receive it, and pass it on to you ~

What a joy to find out that the Kazan-directed MAN ON A TIGHTROPE is every bit as good as one hoped it would be.

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I had vague memories of seeing MAN ON A TIGHTROPE as a child. A decade or two later, I chanced while channel-surfing on Terry Moore and Cameron Mitchell being swept by a river with “The Moldau” on the soundtrack. This time ’round I watched because of the names Elia Kazan and Gloria Grahame, the latter visible as a circus-director’s sluttish second wife. And I’ll stand by my verdict offered midway through: heavy-handed, yes, but drippin’ with atmosphere and good performances.


Franz Waxman’s score for this story of a Czech circus is heavy on the “Moldau.” Also on the Harry Warren tune “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” which must have made the Fox studio people happy. The clowns dance to it, you see.

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MAN ON A TIGHTROPE stands midway, in Kazan’s credits, between VIVA ZAPATA! and ON THE WATERFRONT. We get Kazan as director, Robert E. Sherwood of THE PETRIFIED FOREST as scenarist, and Gerd Oswald of A KISS BEFORE DYING and CRIME OF PASSION as one of the producers. Also, crucially, there’s out-of-studio shooting on Bavarian location, which makes for a look that’s black&white, bleak, and full of mittel-europaische detail.


Gloria Grahame is always worth seeing. I’ve yet to watch MANSION OF THE DOOMED, but I probably will. Hell, I’m even happy with her talking at the tv contestants in MELVIN AND HOWARD.

Here Grahame’s fine, at the end, tossing aside a life-sized doll, one of the clown props, with the implication that she’s tossing aside her assigned role as pretty useless wife. There’s a good MARNIE-esque bit with husband March veering and the camera getting closer and closer.

Not exactly defensible, this last bit of behavior, but effective as pathology.


I should probably expand on that “heavy-handed.”

This is very much a Cold War film. Fredric March, as protagonist, plays the weary cuckolded director of a shabby circus who leads his people in an escape from behind the Iron Curtain. (That’s a phrase my Spellcheck keeps changing to “Zircon Curtain.”)

March “regains his manhood,” if you wanna call it that, and the respect of wife Grahame in this escape, leading the circus from a place where authorities demand that he adjust — and ruin — the ideological implications of a clown act to a place where U.S. border guards laugh at the clowns freely. In other words: it’s a case of “East Europeans, glum; U.S. representatives, uproarious.”

There’s also the presence of Adolphe Menjou as a party lackey who smirks and threatens March. Similar in function to the Ward Bond role in JOHNNY GUITAR, I thought; both instances of off-screen rep adding to on-screen menace.

Which leads to that river and “The Moldau” sweeping along March’s daughter Moore and her Americanski boyfriend Mitchell. A bit reminiscent, this, of that old James Agee joke about tendentious WW2 melodramas and how “You cannot keel da spirit off a free pipples!” Or words to that effect.


People complain about the atmosphere of guilt and humiliation on display in MAN ON A TIGHTROPE. But isn’t that the bread-and-butter of circus pictures, from HE WHO GETS SLAPPED up through SAWDUST AND TINSEL and onwards?

“Women are not angels,” Grahame half-sings at one point. Neither are the people who made MAN ON A TIGHTROPE. And that includes directors who name names.


I admire the atmosphere of MAN ON A TIGHTROPE.

I admire the performances — even by a post-LITTLE SHEBA Moore playing what one lyricist once called “a nice girl who’s really not too nice.”

I admire the film’s passing bits of schmerzlich-suss … such as, f’rinstance, Alex D’Arcy’s lion-tamer remarking that his curse has been his good looks.

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The film itself is schmerzlich-suss. Indeed.

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Great Guns

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , on November 16, 2018 by dcairns

Had never managed to watch Richard Attenborough’s OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR — TV screenings in my youth made it look unwatchable due to panning and scanning or maybe I just didn’t have a big enough telly. It’s a very handsome film on a decent sized screen with a DVD, and I should think a 35mm viewing would be almost overwhelming in its beauty. The design and the cinematography are really top-notch, and it’s all on a colossal scale.

Richard Lester described it as “GENEVIEVE with guns,” because the overall effect is nostalgic and reassuring, whereas Joan Littlewood’s source play created a feeling of desperation. And I think that nails it — Attenborough is trying to fuse Littlewood’s Brechtian epic theatre with David Lean’s epic cinema. Politically, the two seem unlikely to fit together neatly. Certainly a defiant middlebrow like Attenborough seems a preposterous choice to attempt the deed: to his credit, the movie seeks to preserve the theatricality and the revue-style plotlessness, which would count as bold in any era other than the sixties, but this is a sixties movie. Tony Richardson or Joseph Losey might have brought the necessary whiff of Godardian agitation.I think part of the problem here is that the theatrical devices tend to be in the wrong place: a gorgeous wrought-iron palatial interior serves as a sort of Olympus for a bunch of theatrical luminaries cast as the key political and military leaders of the war. They move like trundling waxworks through this lambent, tented space, intoning lines from history in the most stilted way you could ask for, or that Dickie Attenborough could ask for.

Whereas the war scenes tend to look REAL, except everybody’s bloody singing and dancing. It genuinely gives the impression that some of this war was fun, in a musical comedy manner. And it doesn’t manage to make you feel any tension between our idea of war’s reality and this all-singing, all-dancing, all-mustard gas version. You don’t feel anything. There’s a bit of mud, but no other unpleasantness really: no blood, dysentery, maiming, mental illness, rats, frostbite, desertion or firing squads. Lots of gallows humour, poppies and white crosses.Some of this SHOULD work — you ought to be able to imply the slaughter and horror without overplaying your hand. Most of it shouldn’t work, has no chance of working, but one can admire the skill and splendour. I do admire it. But if that’s the main takeaway, then it’s not an antiwar movie at all.

(Attenborough’s all over the place: celebrating Gandhi and Biko but also Churchill and the battle of Arnhem. Vaguely liberal, I suppose, but the kind of cinema he aspires to has CONSERVATIVE written all the way through like Brighton Rock.) Really lovely titles. The movie is co-produced by writer Len Deighton, who also did ONLY WHEN I LARF which also had super, sort of similar titles. My theory is that Deighton’s Sunday supplement magazine cookery column experience put him in touch with great layout people who could transfer those skills to the movies…

OWALW guest-stars Bilbo Baggins, Gustav Von Aschenbach, Louis XIII, Henry IV, Richard III, Elizabeth I, General Allenby, Captain Scott (of the Antarctic), Lord Fortnum (of Alamein), Alice ‘Childie’ McNaught, Professor Minerva McGonagall, Professor Bernard Quatermass and Doctor B. N. Wallis, C.B.E., F.R.S.

Au Hasard, Joey

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2018 by dcairns

Since WWI finally ended on Sunday, I thought I’d watch something suitable. Unfortunately, the film that leapt out at me was Spielberg’s WAR HORSE, which I’d picked up cheap on DVD and never watched. I had just been picking out clips to show students to illustrate the art of scene blocking, which Spielberg has a real gift for. So I was feeling positive, even though friends had described WH as a right load of old guff.

I have smart friends.

The Spielberg fireworks display goes full blast in this one, and there’s much to admire from a technical standpoint. But this was a children’s book, turned into a play that used technically impressive but stylised theatrical techniques, now turned into a big budget film with a Hollywood-real aesthetic. So it’s like somebody adapted Tom Sawyer into Equus and then into GONE WITH THE WIND. The qualities of the children’s story which were perfectly acceptable in a storybook — the naiveté and sentimentality and romantic implausibility — all become glaringly obtrusive on the big screen with real people (well, actors) and a real horse (when it’s not CGI).

“Don’t do it, Steve,” said Fred Schepisi when he heard Spielberg was going to make SCHINDLER’S LIST. “You’ll fuck it up: you’re too good with the camera.” An immortal line. To the extent that Spielberg did not fuck it up, we can credit his success to the decision not to storyboard and to go handheld when possible. Handicapping himself. His decision to shoot the start of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN like a documentary also helped stave off problems. But since WAR HORSE is about long-ago events more remote than the forties, he evidently decided to let himself go full David Lean. There are some beautiful images ~It is, in fact, absolutely pornographic. The famous debate about the tracking shot in KAPO is very relevant here. But imagine ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT crossed with LASSIE COME HOME and that gives some idea. But don’t forget that, on top of all that, it has a thick coating of John Williams poured all over it. And Richard Curtis on script.

(All the nice WWI art is, in a sense, sickening. The giant display of poppies (sponsored by the British weapons trade) spilling like blood from a wound was striking, but what it accomplished was the transformation of something raw and bloody into something pretty and inoffensive. As effective a pro-war statement as you could wish for. I’ve seen people saying “Dulce et decorum,” on social media, leaving out the fact that Wilfred Owen used those words with savage irony.)

Despite the skill and effort put into it, it’s insulting. Horses charge a German camp. Stylish mayhem. The machine guns open up. Charging horses. And then suddenly horses are leaping over the guns. And we realise they’re all riderless. A clever cinematic idea, but the empty horses gag simply couldn’t happen, because you can’t shoot a man off a horse whose riding right at you because the horse’s head would be in the way. Any effective shot would also fell the horse. Now, you might get away with that kind of impossible illogic in a kids’ book or play (but it’s an inherently cinematic idea, you have to give it that) but its an absurdity here. I wouldn’t accept it in an Indiana Jones movie, but it wouldn’t bother me much.There’s one scene that manages to apply a bit of restraint: Toby Kebbell and Hinnerk Schönemann (I think) underplay a scene where they rescue the titular horse from barbed wire in no man’s land. The restraint pays off and the dialogue is less on-the-nose. And in reality, soldiers did sometimes risk death for their horses… generally to put a bullet in their brains as a mercy. So there’s a basis in reality… except here the horse lives and it’s all combined with a bit of Christmas Day Armistice sentiment. Can I have an extra rum ration, sir?

To take the taste away we had to run Losey’s KING AND COUNTRY. In order to FEEL something moderately genuine. The war horse in that one is a dead donkey full of rats.

WAR HORSE stars Swanney, Jackie Du Pré, Professor Lupin, Loki, Alan Turing, César Luciani, Koba the bonobo, Inspector Lestrade and Davos Seaworth.

KING AND COUNTRY stars Dr. Simon Sparrow, Billy Liar, Gerald Arthur Otley, Klang, Bob Rusk and Dinsdale Gurney.