Archive for A Walk with Love and Death

The Hitman and Her

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2019 by dcairns

I didn’t like PRIZZI’S HONOR that much at the time — but I just read Richard Condon’ s source novel, which is terrific, so I gave the movie another shot. Nope, still don’t like it much, but for different reasons.

I wondered at the time if John Huston were getting a free pass from critics because was obviously nearing the end of his run, and because everyone was relieved this wasn’t another ANNIE or ECAPE TO VICTORY. I’m pretty sure now that’s EXACTLY what was happening. But I’m kind of glad it did: we got THE DEAD, maybe as a result of this one doing quite well, and THE DEAD is maybe a great film, certainly a great note to end on. Its cinematic qualities are very slight, but everything is good enough to let the writing and performances carry it, and they do. Result: majesty.

PRIZZI’S HONOR is quite extraordinarily faithful to its source, which turn s out to be a good thing in this case: even the photographs mounted behind William Hickey at the ceremony he throw s to announce his son’s quasi-retirement are as Condon describes them: Toscanini, Pope Pius XII, Enrico Caruso and Richard M. Nixon.

The supporting actors resemble their characters as described in the book to a startling degree: Don Corrado has tiny, steely eyes so William Hickey, playing a man thirty years older than himself, causes his normal-sized eyeballs to shrink by will alone. He’s a 100% convincing octogenarian in his late fifties, and it has nothing to do with the vampire makeup they’ve given him. (A critic once complained that Hickey wasn’t realistic in some play he was doing: Hickey remarked, “People don’t go to the theatre to see REALITY, they go to see AAAAAAAAAAAAAAACTING!“)

Here’s Condon describing Maerose Prizzi through protagonist Charley Partanna’s eyes:

“Maerose was a great woman even if she had messed up. She was a very wop looker, all eyes and beautiful bones among the grabbing domes and dunes. She was almost as tall as Charley, with sad eyes and long fingers. She was a woman who had done everything right — except once.”

Easy to picture John Huston reading that and thinking, I know who’d be just right for it. Of course, Anjelica Huston isn’t Italianamerican but of all the WASP actors in the cast she gets it the most right. And she’s stylised but real, like Hickey. She overplays everything and makes you like it.

The film’s problem is Jack Nicholson. It isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw that he doesn’t resemble the Charley Partanna in the book, a physically imposing tough guy. “Jesus he was big. He was like a tall rectangle of meat and hair.” But his dumpy appearance gives Kathleen Turner severe motivational problems when she has to act falling in love with him.

Huston at the time remarked that most of the takes in the film were take one, thanks to Jack. Looking at it now, I think it needed a few more takes, all the way through. Maybe not Kubrickian numbers, that had a weird effect, but just a few more to let him calm down and let his co-stars get used to him.

Nicholson plays the thing with a prosthesis in his upper lip which does make him look like a mook, but does nothing for his supposed seductiveness and is a bit distracting: we know he’s NOT a mook, just Jack Nicholson with a thing in his lip. He also overplays Charley’s dumbness, adding to our puzzlement about why Turner should be attracted to him. In the book this is all made clear with prose from her point of view: she needs to seduce Charley to pull off the scam she’s running, then falls for him because nobody was ever so kind to her, and he’s fantastic in the sack. None of this is really present in the film.

Kathleen Turner struck Fiona as “just kind of plastic,” which I think is because what she’s acting against makes no sense to her and she has to try to shut it out and project a fantasy co-star to act opposite. She must have seen Nicholson was a problem — dumb, slobby and ugly — but her director was apparently enamoured of the guy. Maybe JH should have taken Turner’s role.

The editor is obviously smitten too: scenes which could cut sharply on a funny line are allowed to expire slowly over a lingering dissolve. Nicholson has one of these unconvincing phone calls where nobody says “‘Bye,” and instead of cutting, which could have solved that nicely, we have to look at him vamp while waiting for his director to say “Cut.” Sometimes those moments are golden. One shouldn’t say “Cut,” until every possible thing has happened. But then one should be brutal in the edit. Here, Nicholson shifts awkwardly on his feet, then LOOKS AT THE PHONE QUIZZICALLY. Something nobody ever did. Ever! And it gives us plenty of time to wonder if the phone call is over. Aren’t they going to say goodbye?

Find a woman who looks at you like Kathleen Turner is pretending to look at Jack Nicholson here.

Stanley Kubrick wanted to cast Nicholson as Napoleon, which we all know would have been hilarious because we’ve seen him in uniform in THE TERROR, but his reasoning was that Nicholson projected intelligence, “the one quality that can’t be faked.” Ridiculously untrue: write intelligent lines for an actor and he can learn not only the words but their meaning, say them like he just thought of them, and look intelligent. Huston knew this from FREUD, where Montgomery Clift was barely functioning. “On the screen, he looked like he was thinking. God knows he wasn’t.”

Nicholson’s trouble is that he can’t fake dumb: he’s an incurable wise-ass and he has to wink at us to let us know he’s not really this dumb jerk of a mob guy.

A shame, because with DeNiro or… or maybe we’ve even found a role Stallone could play? … and a decent editor and a decent font and some better medicine for the director this really could be the film reviewers said it was.

But I’ve been wrong before. As an 18-year-old in 1985 I was confused by Huston’s uncertain period setting — it’s, in fact, a modern film made to feel like a period one, just like WISE BLOOD; and I didn’t like that the lovers were fatally parted. I thought the movie’s job, having put this insuperable barrier of mob life between them, was to somehow solve the problem. I think the film fails as a comic tragedy, whereas the book succeeds because you really feel something for the characters, loathsome as they ought to be (we hear a bit about Charley’s career zotzing people and it’s blood-chilling). A lot of the book’s best writing occurs inside the characters’ heads, and naturally, that’s the stuff the (really quite accomplished) script can’t do.

But it did lead to THE DEAD and it did give us Anjelica Huston, who was, whatever the reviewers said, GREAT in her dad’s A WALK WITH LOVE AND DEATH and is great again here.

PRIZZI’S HONOR stars Jack Torrence; Dolores Benedict Hfuhruhurr; ——Morticia Addams; Dick Laurent; Arthur Hamilton; Rudolph Smuntz; Anton Bartok; Joe Cabot; Mo’at; The Horla; and Stanley Kubrick.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Shot Missing

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 4, 2018 by dcairns

The film within the film in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND is also called THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. Welles described it as a film he would never have made — it’s supposed to tell us about its fictional author, Jake Hannaford, played by John Huston, not about Welles. It represents, in other words, a Hollywood has-been’s pathetic attempts to be hip and radical and appeal to the youth audience, and emulate the art cinema of Antonioni and Bergman et al.

An OTHELLO image.

Counter-arguments are available: David Bordwell remarked, reasonably enough, that the film has more in common with colour supplement photography and advertising than with arthouse imagery, though we could carry on that argument to point out that commercials started being influenced by art movies back in the sixties and so maybe a Jake Hannaford movie WOULD look like THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND. We know Welles didn’t care for Antonioni’s style and mood and especially pacing (“I’m not a director who like to linger on thing […] Antonioni is the king of it,”) but I don’t think TOSOTW2 is meant as a straight pastiche of Antonionionioni. It could hardly justify the amount of screen time given it in TOSOTW1. Welles seemingly wanted it to be half the movie, according to Jonathan Rosenbaum, but it’s a lot less than that in the Netflix cut.

In spite of the attempts to frame the movie within as a Jake Hannaford film or a sub-Antonioni film, it’s also very much a Welles film. While the framing film has qualities in common with the patchwork style of F FOR FAKE, the inner movie practically quotes THE TRIAL, LADY FROM SHANGHAI and others. It’s full of trick reflections, forced perspective tricks (characters at different distances walking along the same horizon line) and extreme close-ups. If the film parodies arthouse imitations, it’s more in the cack-handed symbolism (giant phalluses destroyed by scissor attack) and the sheer EMPTINESS.

Welles and reflections: LADY FROM SHANGHAI comes to mind, but he was playing with multiple and overlaid images from KANE on.

Welles seems to have nailed the kind of cargo-cult art film gaining a toehold in Hollywood. You might compare TOOTW2 to the movie within a movie that begins STARDUST MEMORIES, which is also a kind of pastiche: the kind of film Woody Allen’s character, Sandy Bates, would make. Depressing, earnest, wearing its influences on its sleeve, aspiring to Bergman and Fellini but not quite making it. But if TOSOTW2 were a real film without a framing narrative to protect us from it, it might be Dennis Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE (and how apt that Hopper appears here), but also Roger Corman’s THE TRIP (thanks to Noel Vera for pointing this resemblance out) with which it shares four cast members, including Hopper again but also Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg and little Angelo Rossitto, enjoying the wildest party he’s been to since FREAKS. But also Christian Marquand’s gloriously pointless CANDY (1968) which also featured John Huston, and especially CAN HEIRONYMOUS MERKIN EVER FORGET MERCY HUMPPE AND FIND TRUE HAPPINESS? (1969), a truly boggling vanity project from Anthony Newley which shared with the Welles a rare late-career appearance by comedian George Jessel (as “the Presence”).

Oja Kodar and train stations: Welles met her on THE TRIAL, then filmed her on a train for F FOR FAKE.

The movie might also be a rather mean mockery of John Huston’s occasional forays into artiness, but here it seems wide of the mark in a way that suggests Welles wasn’t trying to score a direct hit on his star. Huston did make one, beautiful and arguably empty Euro-art film, A WALK WITH LOVE AND DEATH, which is far better than its terrible reputation suggests, but usually when he tried to be stridently “cinematic”, it took the form of photographic experiments like the aureate tinge of REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE or the tinted flashbacks of WISE BLOOD. Though the late career of Huston certainly features some commercial hackwork (ANNIE, PHOBIA) his actual attempts at making good films add up to a remarkably dignified body of work. It’s arguably in his acting roles that he was guilty of trying too hard to be with it (CANDY, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE, DE SADE, and on the plus side, CHINATOWN) but he always claimed not to take his acting career remotely seriously, so this might just be a case of him saying “Yes” to anything offered, and ignoring John Carradine’s sound career advice to his sons: “Never do anything you wouldn’t be caught dead doing.”

A frame not in the Netflix cut.

Thanks to the late, much-missed Paul Clipson I was able to see extended versions of Welles’ cut of Oja Kodar wandering around Century City, and running about nude on a movie backlot in a lot of noir stripey shadows, and can confirm that those scenes sustain the attention effortlessly. And the psychedelic club with the ultrawhite toilet full of orgiastic activity is a stunning set-piece, as is the nocturnal car sex scene and the crazy desert bit. Would longer versions have worked in the context of the movie, interrupting the slender narrative of the party sequence with dreamy, plotless interludes? Maybe it would be useful to get Mel Brooks in to pontificate over them, as in THE CRITIC?

As with every posthumous Welles release or discovery, I find myself wanting multiple versions, the way we have several TOUCH OF EVILS, OTHELLOS, ARKADINS. If anyone could ever be said to (a) be large and (b) contain multitudes, surely it was Welles.

The ’68 Comeback Special: Charlie Bubbles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2013 by dcairns

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Running a themed blogathon at the same time as two alternating columns (The Forgotten and this one, shared with Scout Tafoya who writes it every other week) presents the amusing challenge of coming up with a Thursday article which can fit both the theme of Thursday’s regular feature — the movies that were to have competed at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival — with the theme of the blogathon. In 1968, the hot directors were mostly young, so finding a last film from the line-up might seem a tricky task, but fortunately the Cannes selection committee have provided me with a choice of two — critic Michel Cournot’s LES GAULOISES BLEUE and Albert Finney’s CHARLIE BUBBLES. Both films are the first, last and only films directed by these luminaries, though both have substantial non-directing careers (and Finney co-directed a TV play in 1984).

I’ve plumped for Finney because it’s cheering to see another GOOD British film after GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE and the nightmarish memory of HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH hanging like a miasma over my psyche. And besides, Cournot’s Godard-imitation doesn’t seem like my cup of tea. Hopefully Scout can cover that one…

I’m often skeptical of film stars becoming directors, simply because they can — they often do it on a whim, carried by their box office clout and the studios’ understandable desire to curry favour. But though Finney’s film didn’t win many passionate defenders at the time, and he seems to have slumped back into acting (albeit with less enthusiasm and care than before), I think the movie stands up remarkably well. It’s one of the least fashion-conscious films of the bunch, in no hurry to yell about how with-it the filmmakers are, and of course this works against it dating like the Cardiff and Donner films (though their cringe-making qualities are probably timeless and were apparent even to contemporary observers), but it’s still very much en courant in its subject.

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Writer Charlie Bubbles is a northerner in London, a huge financial success with his novels and their various adaptations. We first meet him arriving at a swank restaurant for conference with various agents, publishers and accountants, all full of schemes to make and save him/them money. Charlie, who’s uncommunicative at the best of times, ditches these boring parasites in favour of a food-fight with fellow Northerner Colin Blakely (whose Yorkshire accent keeps veering into his native Ulster cadences, but whose crazily erratic timing with dialogue is as beautiful as ever).

Drunkenness ensues, then Charlie returns home for a cheese sandwich from his domineering housekeeper Mrs Noseworthy, a Danvers manqué (but he doesn’t eat it), then returns the soused Blakely to his forgiving wife and heads oop North in his Rolls to visit his ex-wife and son, taking with him American student and acting secretary Liza Minnelli, as “Eliza Heyho”, whose first movie this is (apart from guest spot as baby in her mom’s movie, a sort of carry-on role).

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John Simon wrote “The supreme deadweight in the picture is Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland’s daughter, whose screen debut proves easily the most inauspicious since Turhan Bey’s. Miss Minnelli is so untalented and homely, and so blithely unaware of it all, that her performance must rate high on the list of any collector of unconscious camp.” Marginally witty, offensively sexist and mean, and of course deeply stupid, since how would Liza’s performance be improved by a knowledge of her supposed homeliness and lack of talent. We can easily compare Minnelli’s reception with that accorded Angelica Huston for her work in her dad’s rather lovely film maudit A WALK WITH LOVE AND DEATH. Simon wrote of her, “the face of a gnu and a body of no discernible shape,” and critics united in hostility at what they saw as an amateurish, flat performance lacking in the panache expected from a leading lady. Of course Huston is now universally admired, and it’s probably assumed by many that decades away from the screen studying her craft caused her to improve, but her amazing, fresh, unstudied, unshowy and touchingly believable perf in dad’s movie (which she didn’t really want to make) already demonstrates her abundant talent. The critics just didn’t see it because, like Minnelli, she was performing in a register of idiosyncratic naturalism unrecognizable to them. Once you get used to an unusual actor, you can usually tell they’re good, but at first it can be tricky. There was even a review of THE GRADUATE denouncing Dustin Hoffman as having “no acting ability whatever.” The mainstream critics have rarely embraced anything qualitatively new.

Of course, few filmmakers work alone, and Finney has the help of Peter Suschitzky on camera, Fergus McDonnell (ODD MAN OUT) as editor, and a lovely score by Misha Donat, who did THE WHITE BUS the same year and little else. And speaking of that Lindsay Anderson film, we must acknowledge that both it and BUBBLES were the work of author Shelagh Delaney, whose film career promptly ground to almost a complete standstill in wake of this double box office disappointment. At least she had literature.

But Delaney’s voice is definitely one I miss in cinema. She had a blithe way of combining fantasy and reality, and the realistic and the surrealistic, which emerges here in subtle, disconcerting ways. THE WHITE BUS has one of my favourite moments ever, when we see Patricia Healey at work in an office, then cut to her legs dangling lifelessly from top of frame as if she’s hanged herself, while an unconcerned cleaner vacuums in the background, then we cut back to her typing. A momentary fantasy.

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Some of the cutting in CHARLIE BUBBLES makes me think of that moment, even when no fantasy is at play. By dropping in shots of unconcerned diners while Finney and Blakely are smearing fine foodstuffs all over each others’ kissers, McConnell’s cutting makes one wonder whether it’s really happening at all, but a breezy cut to the two soiled Mancunians parading down the street confirms the evidence of our eyes.

A film full of erratic elevators — the one in Charlie’s townhouse doesn’t work, and the one in the hi-rise hotel takes forever for the doors to close, as the operator fumbles diligently with the controls and the bellhop rolls his eyes heavenwards, before ascending. Is this an in-joke? Lindsay Anderson produced IF… using Finney’s offices, and lost several crewmembers on the way to a production meeting. “So this is how it ends… trapped in Albert Finney’s elevator… possibly forever.” I’m paraphrasing David Sherwin’s account but the world-weary comic despair is accurate.

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A bold move for Finney to play a character so low-energy and indifferent to everybody around him. His lack of reaction to the offer of sex from Minnelli is hilarious, if cruel. Her baby-fat peachiness is incredibly alluring to me in CABARET, but without the dynamic poses it’s easy for them to make her look puddingy, which they proceed to do. But the joke isn’t on her, it’s about Finney/Bubbles disaffection and ennui. Each stage of her undressing seems to depress him more, but he carries on stripping her, with defeated dutifulness. Why can’t everybody just leave me alone?

Gratuitous Yootha Joyce. Which we like.

Billie Whitelaw, the pinnacle of just about everything. We have to wait an hour for her — she’s like the Colonel Kurtz at the end of this journey into the heart of British low-affect despond. And then there’s what feels to my inexpert eye like some really acute observation of the dynamics of the ex-marrieds with kid. Coming into the household from outside, Finney sees problems, but is perceived as having no moral right to intervene or voice an opinion. He abrogated that when he left home. Also, she’s the only one in the film he looks at with interest, longing, pain.

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“Why don’t you go into the parlour and write a book,” she snaps. And her refrain, “There’s no need for that.”

This is what the film is interested in — allusiveness, the unspoken, strange moments. Not story and not even drama. The sharpness of the observation justifies everything. On first encountering his small son, Charlie happens to have been looking at Billie’s false eyelashes, so he immediately affixes them to the lad’s upper lip, fashioning a dapper moustache. Finney gets great stuff from little Timothy Garland — not so much performance as behaviour. Stuff of him laughing at a TV show that just isn’t acting, it’s real, but it’s blended into stuff where actors act.

The film’s theme, I guess, has something to do with the new classless hero of British culture, who comes from a proletarian background and achieves a dizzying success which completely cuts him off from the mainspring of his creativity. Did Delaney experience this herself (do novelists actually GET as successful as Bubbles?) or did she borrow it from Finney. I can well believe he experienced it. And it later affected his playing — had he carried on as a director he might have avoided such ennui. He might have at least avoided SCROOGE, LOOKER, ANNIE… But a movie star always has an escape hatch — a film director who can do something else probably will do it — he’s not going to starve if he doesn’t direct…

Charlie, incidentally, is offered food all through the movie, but only eats what Billie Whitelaw offers. And only a little of that. And then he catches a balloon and sails away. As Sydne Rome says in WHAT?, “It’s the only way we can end the movie!”

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