A River Runs Over It

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 19, 2015 by dcairns


Elia Kazan’s WILD RIVER  (1960)begins with a snippet of documentary so shockingly raw — a man describing how he lost all his children in a flood of the Tennessee River — that it seems indecent to tie it to a fictional drama, no matter how much time has passed between the original event and the movie’s date of production (certainly more than twenty years). But if we can forgive the ruthlessness, an important dramatic purpose is served — in the ensuing story, we might be inclined to favour the romantic, stubborn individualism standing in the face of “progress” — this moment hopefully makes its mark and reminds us that the dam which Montgomery Clift has come to clear the way for serves a vital human purpose.



In his path is Jo Van Fleet (forty-five playing maybe eighty, and damned convincing — a good face, excellent, well-observed makeup, and a brilliant performance making particularly effective use of posture), who owns an island in the river which is due to be flooded. She’s lived there all her life and has no intention of moving. Kazan discovered, in making the picture, that despite his (shaky) liberal side, he had more sympathy with her than with Clift’s New Deal progressive, but the film he made strikes a perfect balance — between the two sides, and between the love story/human interest and the wider concerns.

Clift is also very good here, the best post-accident work I’ve seen from him, asides from JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, which seems to use his disintegration rather than concealing it. And Lee Remick is astonishingly sexy — also a brilliant performance — the sexiness is part of that. “I’ve never found Clift sexy before, but he is here — why is that?” asked Fiona. “Reflected desire?” I suggested. She formed a question mark with her eyes (a neat trick). “She wants him so bad, so obviously, that it makes him seem desirable to you,” I suggested. The actor’s homosexuality is no obstacle — as Nick Ray said, “It doesn’t matter if an actor is heterosexual or homosexual, as long as they’re sexual.” Whatever sense memories Clift may be deploying to make us believe he craves Remick, they totally work.


Everybody — even Scorsese, to an extent — focuses on Kazan’s work with actors, which is of course key, and remarkable, but I feel his visual panache is underappreciated. EAST OF EDEN has that expressionistic intensity, of course. This one manages to make autumn lush. Ellsworth Frederick’s Deluxe Color Cinemascope photography reminded me of Leon Shamroy (LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN) in its rich use of complimentary colours, notably orange and blue light for night and dusk scenes. Some of the scenic stuff, particularly the miniaturized version of the island when the river rises, are stunning not only as compositions but for their emotional impact in the story. Kazan seems sometimes to follow Welles’ principle — cut your most beautiful shots down until they flash by almost subliminally. The sense of visual richness this gives is tremendously impressive to the onlooker.



After watching the film with Fiona, I realized my Spanish DVD was the wrong ratio, so I’ve now obtained a proper widescreen copy to run for my students — partly as an excuse for me to see it again.

Floppy Dummies

Posted in FILM with tags , , on November 18, 2015 by dcairns

Why is it that, in old movies, when people fall to their deaths, they transform into floppy dummies? I know they couldn’t have actual people fall to their deaths, no matter what childish theories Lewis Gilbert may have entertained, but were realistically jointed dummies really beyond the limits of technology back in the sixties?

I love the floppy dummies in Monty Python — but it’s amazing to me that a TV show was presenting as intrinsically ridiculous something that big budget movies expected us to take seriously.

What’s the movie — it’s a guys-on-a-mission film,I think a western — where some team leader makes the point while training his men that if you’re going to fall to your death, please do it silently, as otherwise you could be giving away the presence of your compadres. Subsequently in the film, two men fall silently to their deaths, their floppy dummies tumbling loose-limbed to their dooms in eerie scream-less silence. Without screaming to at least attempt to sell the illusion, the floppy dummies seem even more bathetic and amateurish. I used to be convinced this happened in ULZANA’S RAID but I seem to be wrong.

Perhaps filmmakers knew these shots were unconvincing but didn’t want to alarm the public with anything more real. But that can’t explain this one ~

Hahaha — his arm blatantly comes off, then reattaches in the next shot so he can be played by a human.

Peter Jackson, in his gory juvenilia phase, actually engineered the best falling dummy stuff I ever saw, for a scene where his own character is topped from a precipice. First, he used a rigid dummy, its joints bent as if midway to a foetal curl-up, with flexibility in the torso rather than the limbs.

(The fall is right at the end of this long, gory clip.)

But he still wasn’t satisfied. So he played in the edit and found that adding six frames of his face dropping backwards from extreme closeup to small-and-vanishing-from-frame (wide-angle lens), to the very start of the sequence, was enough to convince us that it was him falling all the way down.

King of the Hill

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2015 by dcairns


JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT is a Sidney Lumet I’d never seen — from 1980 — Fiona got very excited when she learned it was written by Jan Presson Allen (MARNIE, CABARET) from her own novel. I could never understand why writers should be forbidden from writing their own movie adaptations, providing they understand screenwriting. Allen learned from Hitchcock.

Alan King plays a tycoon and Ali McGraw is his mistress and business protegé. This could almost have been a 30s romantic comedy, except it’s a little TOO sophisticated even for that decade — McGraw disrobes and King uses the “cunt” word in front of Myrna Loy. (Water off a duck’s back to our Myrna. Fiona was also very excited about Myrna being in it.) Ultimately, Fiona kind of drifted away from the movie, not really liking the characters and put off by the score, which is indeed kind of diabolical. I was cheered to see that composer Charles Strouse had a distinguished career, so that this can be dismissed as a blip.


(In his terrific book, Making Movies, Lumet is a little defensive about his work with composers, saying that MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS was the only movie where he wanted us to notice the score, and we did, and it was Oscar-nominated. Bit he did get it wrong from time to time. GARBO TALKS is a charming comedy rendered unwatchable by its music — same problem as JYMWYW — playing the comedy; Quincy Jones contributed odd and inappropriate scores to THE DEADLY AFFAIR and THE ANDERSON TAPES, though elsewhere he’s been a versatile and sensitive accompanist. Q&A has a score by Ruben Blades that might work extremely well if it didn’t have bloody lyrics, which render the whole thing jumbled and distracting. And then there’s THE WIZ.)

The other thing that makes the movie modern is Alan King, who isn’t an old-fashioned movie star, and commits to playing a rather loathsome character in a way that no old-school star would. Cary Grant could have done the same stuff, but with a twinkle. King’s barefaced aggression and vindictiveness do make it awfully hard to care about the central relationship — I rooted for McGraw when she violently assaults King in Bergdorf Goodman, but not when she made up afterwards. Still, I wouldn’t want to lose any of the bad behaviour — the portrayal of this all-powerful businessman as a peevish child (with added lechery) has a frankness that’s appealing.


Also with: a painfully young Peter Weller, a painfully old Keenan Wynn (lovely), and Tony Roberts being gay.

This is Loy’s last movie, and she’s great in it as a hyper-efficient P.A. who has no illusions about the kind of man she works for, and manages to like him without looking the other way — up to a point. This could theoretically have run in The Late Films Blogathon, but I decided just to use it as a reminder. Dec 1st-7th. All are welcome!


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