Archive for 1941

We Are Not Alone

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2009 by dcairns


A barely-formed Glenn Erickson, of the mighty and indispensible DVDSavant, working in the model shop of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Glenn has been incredibly nice about spreading the word about Shadowplay via his powerful organ, boosting my stats to undreamed-of levels, for which I’m enormously grateful.

For Spielberg-heads (and you know, I still love quite a few of those films from my youth), Glenn has written excellent insider’s-view articles of CE3K and 1941. Check ’em out.

And via TV genius Graham Linehan’s Why That’s Delightful, where he condenses the internet into manageable form, we get news of the e-publication of the story conference notes taken when George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Larry Kasdan first got together to talk about Lucas and Philip Kaufman’s story idea for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Well worth checking out, for fans and foes alike. Haters will find much to sneer at as the moguls talk nonsense, embrace cliche, expose the covert racism of the INDIANA JONES series to the light of day, and posit Indie as a paedophile who may have seduced Marian (Karen Allen, eventually) at the age of 11 (Lucas seems particularly keen on this idea). Admirers will meanwhile gawp in wonder as a legend takes shape, and gain valuable insight into the exact contributions of the various talents involved — Lucas: production mechanics and commercial gameplan– Kasdan: character nuance — Spielberg: understanding that it’s a theme park ride in episodic narrative form. The absent Kaufman’s contribution seems to be the overall narrative shape and the biblical MacGuffin. As you can surmise, I have a rather schizoid attitude to the whole thing: my inner 13-year-old still loves the first movie, and my mor “adult” side appreciates the craft and artistry that’s gone into it.

I remember a very illuminating Kasdan interview from the time, where he listed the things he mentioned stuff that didn’t make the final cut — most of which is included here, and all of which got recycled in the sequels. Kasdan also talked about scenes he never quite cracked, which was fascinating — armed with this knowledge, you could see where Spielberg’s presentation skills were covering up script problems. I think the interview ran in Starlog or something, I wonder if anyone can find it.

He Shot Movies, Didn’t He?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 27, 2008 by dcairns

We were saddened to hear of the death of Sydney Pollack today. Always an enjoyable presence as an actor, he also directed some memorable movies. Not necessarily great art, but great movie-movies, intelligent entertainments that exuded the professionalism and confidence of a skilled craftsman.

The Pollack film I have most affection for is THE SCALPHUNTERS, which impressed me at an age when I found most westerns boring. The outsize charm of Burt Lancaster (a new thing to me at the time), the dignity of Ossie Davis, and the amusing pairing of Telly (Savalas) and Shelley (Winters)… it comes from that period when American westerns were trying to deal with the Italian newcomers, either by attempting to absorb some of that brio and vulgarity or by standing on their dignity and defining themselves against the Eurotrash. THE SCALPHUNTERS is of the former camp, but it doesn’t try too hard to be cool. It doesn’t need to. And it climaxes in a viciously dirty skirmish between Lancaster and Davis, all eye-gouging and ear-biting, which you’d be unlikely to see in a modern family entertainment. Like a Raoul Walsh brawler, it makes this disgraceful behaviour inoffensive and amusing. Whether that’s altogther a good thing, I don’t know, but to a little brat like me it was HEAVEN. I wasn’t a very physical kid but I’ve always responded to physical comedy (although maybe my tastes have matured).

It’s all a fantastic contrast to CASTLE KEEP, Lancaster and Pollack’s next collaboration, a weird piece of fringe theatre enacted on a grand scale with an absurdly high pyrotechnics budget. It’s like Spielberg’s 1941 as written by a team consisting of Kurt Vonnegut, Harold Pinter and William Peter Blatty. It would make the ideal Fever Dream Double Feature with Blatty’s THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, which is even freakier and also features the esteemed Scott Wilson. The pictures here come from it, and I’ve been meaning to post them since January.

Michael Burnside: Sexual Sniper

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2008 by dcairns

THE SNIPER (1952) deals with a psychotic misogynist who takes to shooting women. It comes to us from Stanley Kramer’s production company.

Here’s Paul Mayersberg on Stanley Kramer in Hollywood The Haunted House ~

“In Kramer you can see the real dilemma of the Hollywood director. He wants to be an artist and he wants to be popular. He doesn’t want to be the compleat middlebrow which is what he is, what he is forced to be. Kramer has not come to terms with popular culture in the United States. So where does he stand? Bang in the middle of Reader’s Digest country, but he is no philistine. To be cruel about it, Kramer is Hollywood’s answer to Arthur Miller.”

Far from being cruel, that’s probably the most sympathetic critique of Kramer I’ve read. Though middlebrow reviewers may like some of his films, those who see them as preachy and dull tend to be savage in their dismissal. Mayersberg gets at the root of the problem and shows simply and directly how Kramer’s good intentions make for bad cinema. (Yet when Kramer tried his hand at pure entertainment in IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD, the results were even worse. It’s Steven Spielberg’s favourite comedy, and thus we get Spielberg’s own bloated comedy corpse, 1941.)

THE SNIPER is a Kramer production, but it’s directed by Edward Dmytryk and it’s a thriller, so that gives it a slightly schizoid character. Kramer usually saw himself as above genre, which is part of where he goes wrong. As Mayersberg says ~

“Oddly enough, the subtleties of form occur in the genre movies rather than the theme movies, because in genres you are playing variations within certain conventions and you can be more experimental. We may be close to André Gide’s idea that ‘art is born of constraint and dies of freedom.'”

The schizoid nature of THE SNIPER comes from its script, direction and production. The script is at pains to lay everything out, to explain everything over and over, and to make us understand its central theme. A title crawl at the beginning tells us what this theme is. Then we see it nakedly expressed in the action of the plot. The characters discuss it and the psychiatrist character explains it so we can all understand. And the bit-part players keep up a running commentary on events also, so we get to hear what the man in the street thinks. The schism lies between this idiot’s approach to storytelling, and the intelligent and dynamic use of visual storytelling by director Edward Dmytryk.

Dmytryk had a weakness for the big theme too, but at least he liked to express it in visual terms. Maybe making socially conscious films like THE SNIPER was a way to reassure himself that he hadn’t sold out after he became a friendly witness and ratted on his former pals in the Communist Party.

Whatever his politics, Dmytryk didn’t automatically become a bad director when he turned stoolie (that came later). He directs THE SNIPER with flair, using striking deep-focus compositions (although he claimed to hate the use of wide-angle lenses for oncreasing depth of field, preferring to use them for psychological distortion). The great Burnett Guffey is D.O.P. here, making atmospheric use of San Francisco locations, transforming them at night with near-expressionistic lighting.

In an effort to stop his homicidal impulses, our sniper burns his hand on the oven ring, and Dmytryk and Guffey contrive a bizarre low-angle shot with the hot hob casting an implausible glow on the ceiling:

Each bullet from the sniper’s gun is effectively shocking and abrupt. Several of the murders aren’t even shown — Kramer and co are anxious not to make this an exploitation film. Hence all those screeds of verbiage. The insane killer is shown as a victim of his psychological disorder and of an uncaring society. It’s all very liberal and decent, and when Dmytryk is allowed to do his job and tell the story with sound and image it can be effective too.

Adolph Menjou is Detective Frank Kafka (yeah, I laughed too), which is a literary reference with no apparent point. Arthur Franz is attractive and charismatic as the killer. The terrific Marie Windsor appears only briefly, but is as warm and lovely here as she is harsh and brazen in THE NARROW MARGIN. And she has a mouth the size of Charles Durning, which is no bad thing:

Weirdly, the film classes the sniper as a sexual criminal, but the behaviour of the character doesn’t really suggest he gets a sexual charge out of his crimes, although he does kill attractive brunettes, often ones he’s failed to get off with. The police haul in assorted “peepers, rapists and defilers” and have them publicly humiliated in a lineup by a chubby interlocutor with the air of a stand-up comedian.

Then a psychiatrist explains that there’s no crossover in criminal insanity — none of these criminals could turn sniper. Incidentally he’s wrong — the absurdly-named Colin Pitchfork, the first murderer arrested on DNA evidence (read Joseph Wambaugh’s excellent The Blooding for the fascinating story) was a flasher who moved on to rape and murder as an extension of his initial perversion.

In its killer’s M.O. and San Francisco setting, THE SNIPER oddly looks forward to the Scorpio killer and his movie incarnations in DIRTY HARRY and SCORPIO. Where Don Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY portrayed its killer as a motiveless force of pure malevolence, and David Fincher’s SCORPIO uses him as a kind of defining absence at the story’s heart, the Dmytryk urges compassion and clinical care for the disturbed. It’s a very honourable film. But perhaps best watched with the sound off.