The Big Wheezy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2015 by dcairns


Pneumonic plague in New Orleans — that’s the set-up for Elia Kazan’s tense drama PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), which he claimed marked a turning point in his work. Having previously worked with the actors and filmed everything in medium shots — what Hitchcock would call “photographs of people talking” — here he decided to shoot it like a silent movie, to trust long shots and to try to make a story that could be understood without the words. I didn’t try watching it with the sound down, but the visuals are certainly a million times more dynamic than the staid GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT. (His first, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, is an exception because DoP Leon Shamroy handled the visuals, which made for some powerful, expressive compositions.) And he decided to follow the influence of John Ford, and “trust the longshot,” instead of shooting everything in medium shot, what he called a “theatrical style,” what we would call a televisual one. Kazan was also building on the use of all-real locations, a fashionable approach at Fox, which he had first exploited in BOOMERANG! (1947). The result: Kazan has abruptly become a filmmaker.

If the filmmaking is exciting — the dance of cast and camera is thrillingly choreographed — the world-view is quite conservative. New Orleans has been ethnically cleansed for the occasion, with only a few black sailors to represent the city’s ethnic mix. Sure there are some immigrants, a Greek restaurateur and an Irish dwarf (the ultimate minority?), but the story contrasts a respectable suburban naval doctor (Richard Widmark) and a tough cop (Paul Douglas, partnered more comfortably with Widmark than he was with Leslie Phillips in THE GAMMA PEOPLE) with the various disease-harbouring low-lifes who must be tracked down, arrested and decontaminated. So I’d argue the comfortable middle-class viewpoint stops it being noir. On the other hand, the family scenes (with Barbara Bel Geddes) are nicely drawn, and cute. And the lowlifes — what lowlifes they are! (But shouldn’t that be “lowlives”?)


“Walter” Jack Palance (he would soon drop the first name) and Zero Mostel make a remarkable team. Palance, especially sinewy here, basically lost a layer of fat when burned in WWII. Mostel seems to have inherited that layer. The two men, one lean, impossibly dynamic and snarling, the other baggy, perspiring and whimpering, almost manage drag the movie down into the sewer where a good noir should live. You can practically see the germs swarming around them. Palance shoves and rolls Mostel before him, then drags him. The highly physical chase sequence at the end looks about to kill both men, though it isn’t as hair-raising as the opening, where Kazan has Patient Zero (Lewis Charles) wander in front of an oncoming train, for real, escaping messy death by seconds.


Perhaps aptly, Kazan cast himself as a mortuary assistant.

This criminous double-act reminds me oddly of the cat and fox in  PINOCCHIO — ridiculous in themselves, they are nevertheless capable of bringing great harm.

Mostel has a dual role, as goofy cat to Palance’s wily fox, and as conscience to Kazan. I suspect every pre-testimony Kazan film features at least one incipient blacklistee, haunting the scene. Mostel is paunchy wraith from the future.


Robert R. Service with a Smile

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 24, 2015 by dcairns


Start as you mean to go on — the opening shot of THE SHOOTING OF DAN MCGOO.

I got out my French Tex Avery box set — the gift that keeps on giving — and we ran two toons, both based on the same Robert W. Service — DANGEROUS DAN MCFOO (Warner Bros, 1939) and THE SHOOTING OF DAN MCGOO (MGM, 1945). The former features a Droopy prototype voiced by Mel Blanc to sound almost exactly like Elmer Fudd. The latter features Droopy himself, along with the wolf and the ubiquitous Red Hot Riding Hood figure, here recast as “the lady known as Lou.” Lou in the first film is a little dog styled after Bette Davis (though I still say the voice sounds more like Katherine Hepburn, a hound of a different pedigree). In the second film, Lou has a Mae West purr and a fuller figure. Plus, she’s a human, which I find helps make her attractive, though it does raise uncomfortable questions about her exact relationship with Droopy.



In a few years, Avery’s comic style had advanced markedly, with more absurd jokes and violations of filmic reality, and also much better character design. The WB films are still trying to be cute, even though Avery’s cartoon universe has only limited, and very subversive, uses for cuteness.

Both films rely heavily on puns to take the mickey out of the serious V.O. (the exact same extracts from the poem are read in both films), but the imagery this results in is far more bizarre in the MGM film. Oddly, for a wolfie movie this is fairly restrained — his reactions to Lou’s showgirl routine, apart from the initial eye-pop (“Go ‘way, boys, you bother me,” Lou tells the hovering orbs), are just about physically possible, or anyhow they’re versions of things that are physically possible. The wolf kicks himself in the head, howls, bays like a donkey, and bites chunks out of a wooden beam. The gags in RURAL RED RIDING HOOD reach far loftier heights of insanity. My favourite here is the wolf seizing his own neck and bashing his head off the tabletop — his head and neck become a long, flapping, fapping length of semi-tumescent gristle — Freudian readings are, as ever, quite redundant with Avery.


Though a lesser work on every level, the earlier film, viewed as a sort of preliminary sketch, is fascinating, and there are some good, bizarre gags. When the referee of the impromptu boxing match between the proto-wolf and proto-Droopy investigates an allegation that the bad guy has something in his glove, he shakes lose a horseshoe, then another, then another, then an entire horse. Sort of predictable, but it does yield the delightful image of a horse emerging from a glove. Freeze frame it!


You see — nothing impossible about that at all.

The boxing match (pretty sure there isn’t one in the Service poem) naturally requires a bell to signal the rounds, so Avery naturally has a trolley-car rocket into the saloon for that purpose.


On the other hand, the remake-thing has a barroom piano player say, in Jimmy Durante voice, “What a repulsive way to make a living!” which is inexplicably the best thing ever. And it has this ~


And this ~


And this ~


The Russian Revelation

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2015 by dcairns


DOCTOR ZHIVAGO always seemed boring on TV when I was a kid, and once it had started it never seemed to stop. But that’s because (a) it was pan-and-scanned into visual incoherence, losing the very qualities which redeem it and (b) it really is nearly three hours long. And never dull, actually, if you see it in the right shape. But not too involving, either, though my friend Morag is always terribly moved by the hero’s death scene. Watched it with Marvelous Mary, Nicola, Donald and Stuart, and we were all dry-eyed yet impressed.

Stuart and I won a prize for a short film we made in 1990, and ZHIVAGO’s esteemed cinematographer, Freddie Young presented it. Stuart even had a brief conversation with the great man in the BAFTA men’s room, but alas can no longer recall the gist of it. He thinks it may have been a general reflection on the quality of the BAFTA men’s room.


Whatever his merits as a conversationalist, Young was an outstanding cameraman and, after Nic Roeg was fired by a nervous David Lean (he had previously kicked Robert Krasker off GREAT EXPECTATIONS), he excelled himself here, aided by John Box’s meticulous and lavish reconstruction of Russia in Spain. Still, I think this is the beginning of Lean’s true decline — I find no fault with LAWRENCE, but I think Lean should probably have stopped working with Robert Bolt and Maurice Jarre immediately afterwards. Still, Jarre contributes that main theme, and Bolt does a decent job of shrinking down an unwieldy novel. What he can’t do is find a consistent and believable idiom for his characters to speak in (“The war’s over, daddy!” is the line that always forces an embarrassed guffaw from my lungs). He’s not helped by Lean’s wild casting, which asks us to accept Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif as half-brothers, and Rita Tushingham as the offspring of Sharif and Julie Christie. The styles of performance are also madly varied, with the Actors’ Studio jostling with the Rank Charm School, Royal Shakespeare Company with kitchen sink realists. Theoretically, this could all still gel, but it definitely doesn’t.

Everything Lean does well in this film, he also does badly. Spielberg rhapsodizes over the musical edits, such as when a doctor tosses aside a slide, and the “ting!” it makes chimes with the bell of a tram in the next scene, but Lean also cuts from Rod Steiger pawing Julie Christie in a landau, to a dragoon captain shouting “Mount!” as a backside settles into a saddle. He jump-cuts with the aid of a zip-pan in the restaurant, as if he were directing The Man from UNCLE. Increasingly nervous about the thrilling experiments with film form going on in Europe, Lean would sway back and forth between unfelt, unwise attempts at experimentation, and ever-grander, more solemn and self-serious epic filmmaking. The latter style suits him better and he’s genuinely, uniquely good at it. It’s not to everyone’s taste, I know, but Lean had a feel for it.


Kind of a flat composition, which is not an obvious choice if you’re aiming for epic scope. But the cross in the foreground gives it a huge and dramatic sense of depth. The funeral of Zhivago’s mother freaked me out as a kid — Lean fades up the sound of weeping women as the coffin lid is nailed shut, giving the scene the aspect of a premature burial. The shot of Mrs. Z. lying in her coffin, buried, seemingly the imaginative vision of her young son, is gorgeous and very scary.


I think Steiger’s quite good in this. He excels at being loathsome. It helps that his character’s right about nearly everything.


I’m pretty sure Lean is making a point about the objectification of women here. At any rate, Julie Christie’s dress is one of Fiona’s two favourite movie costumes, the other being Fenella Fielding’s velvet vamp outfit in CARRY ON SCREAMING.


I do think it’s a problem when Klaus Kinski shows up, his brow a throbbing tracery (SCANNERS could have saved a fortune in effects by hiring him) — firstly, we have another accent to add to the already strange mix (though the IMDb claims the inescapable Robert Rietty revoiced the mellifluous Klaus), but also he’s so damned INTERESTING. I wanted the film to abandon poor Omar and Geraldine and just follow Klaus on his wacky adventures. Maybe he could get a dog and solve mysteries, or maybe he could set up business as a fake medium and fleece silly widows. Anything, really.

Other people who are good in this ~

Omar, even though he’s playing an almost entirely passive character, mainly defined by things he doesn’t do — doesn’t become a GP, doesn’t become a teacher, doesn’t leave his wife, doesn’t get on a landau with Julie and Rod…

Julie, though she’s been better in other things. Sometimes Lean seems to be stifling her spontaneity.

Rita Tushingham. Her tears at her childhood memory of abandonment were the one bit that moved me, though I wasn’t sure the character should cry. Robert DeNiro, in an early interview, pointed out that people recounting traumatic memories most usually do it with no emotion at all, with a denial of the emotion.


Tarek Sharif. The one good bit of family casting — Omar’s real son plays the young Omar. He seems to have been dubbed by a young Englishwoman, giving him a VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED quality, but I can live with it if he can.

Tom Courtenay. Typically a callow, likable actor, he plays shrill extremists here and in KING RAT. He’s quite good at it.

People who are wasted ~

Ralph Richardson. Always nice to have him around, of course, but he has simply nothing to play.

Geraldine Chaplin. Potentially a more interesting actor than Julie Christie — look at her career — here, she’s purely boring in her nice pink hat, because her character is terribly, terribly dull. By avoiding being jealous she does defy the cliché, but she defies it in a way that lets the drama escape like leaking helium. Just wait for NASHVILLE, the rematch, though.

Jack MacGowran. It’s not a proper MacGowran performance if you can understand more than one word in ten. Lean seems to have insisted on enunciation, an alien custom to the Great Garbler.

Watching this with friends at home rather than on the big screen (I did have the pleasure once), you can’t escape the ridiculous plotting that has this rather small cast of characters forever bumping into one another by chance across the length and breadth of Russia. It seems like the book has even more of this. Nothing to be done. Looks like Bolt and Lean invented the scene which moved my friend Morag so much — one last chance encounter, and one last tram reference, isn’t going to do any harm, is it? Trams and trains haunt the narrative, perhaps because the human characters all seem to be gliding about on fixed rails too.


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