Archive for Abel Gance

Litvak Lit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2020 by dcairns

“I may not be talented, but I am very, very intelligent!” yelled Anatole Litvak in an argument with his screenwriter, Peter Viertel (according to Viertel).

James Cagney called Litvak “a natural-born asshole,” and the seeds of his early retirement were sown in the making of Litvak’s CITY FOR CONQUEST. They just took a while to sprout.

Elia Kazan, directed by Litvak twice in his brief stint as a WB character mook, pondered, as Richard Schickel put it, “if this character could be a director, why not him?”

Trying to research Litvak a little, I find there’s one book, but rather expensive (but can anyone recommend it?) and most of the references I find in the university library system are about things like income tax, poker games, horse racing…

There’s an anecdote somewhere about Hall Wallis being furious because Litvak shot twelve takes of a close-up of Bette Davis and printed the worst. He was sure by take 12 Bette had forgotten what the scene was and why she was in it.

Bette herself, who was Litvak’s lover when they made THE SISTERS and ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO, called him “a slave to his preconceptions.”

Arthur Laurents rewrote “every line” of THE SNAKE PIT, he claimed, and seemed a bit annoyed that Litvak was “too busy” (shooting the film, in fairness) to come to the arbitration hearing, with the result that Laurents received no credit.

Litvak does not rate a mention in Sarris’s The American Film. Well, he had to find room for Theodore J. Flicker, get in on the ground floor of THAT major filmography-to-be. (THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST is one of my very favourite films, but still…)

So, Litvak or shit-sack?

Bertrand Tavernier claims a degree of shame for his neglect of the Russian/Ukrainian filmmaker: “we let somebody like Anatole Litvak die without ever meeting him – and he lived in Paris! Litvak is somebody whose films I’ve since discovered from the Thirties and Forties, as well as his documentaries for Capra: Litvak made the best of the Why We
Fight
series. But in the Sixties, Truffaut, in order to boost Bonjour Tristesse
(Otto Preminger, ’58), which he loved, knocked other directors who had
adapted Françoise Sagan. One of them was Litvak [Goodbye Again]. And stupidly, we followed Truffaut. Because Litvak s last films were bad, we refused to investigate his career. And his career had started in Russia; then he went to Germany and France, where masterpieces in the Thirties like Coeur de Lilas (’32) which contains scenes and a use of sound as imaginative as Renoir- as well as interesting films like L’Equipage…”

The late films aren’t even bad, I think. As with a lot of late work, familiarity with the earlier films and a bit of sympathy go a long way.

The Russian work Tavernier refers to is unlisted on the IMDb and because nobody thought to ask Litvak about it when he was alive, I’m uncertain we can know much about it. (Here’s where I wish I owned that expensive book.) The Encyclopaedia Britannica confirms that Litvak, after fighting in the Russian side in WWI, “began acting in his teens at an experimental theatre in St. Peterseburg,” then directed several short subjects for Nordkino studios, before he left for a career shuttling between Paris and Berlin in 1920. The earliest credits we have are as assistant director for fellow emigres Tourjansky and Volkoff, and on Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON, as well as editor on Pabst’s JOYLESS STREET, but there must be other credits we don’t have — he couldn’t, surely, have become an editor without first being an assistant. Still, those remarkable stylists must surely have exerted powerful influences on the budding director, adding to anything he’d soaked up from whatever Russian filmmakers he worked with.

“Tola” is often attributed with expressionistic tendencies, which is true enough. It’s assumed these were absorbed in Germany, but they might also come from Russia and France — one reason NAPOLEON is such a stonking piece of cinema is because Gance had seemingly absorbed every stylistic tendency the medium had thrown up.

Since none of Litvak’s Russian work is available or even identified to me, his first German film, DOLLY MACHTE KARRIER (1930) is unavailable, and frustratingly, though I’ve been able to see a sampling of the early French and German movies, I haven’t located two British versions of German and/or French originals, TELL ME TONIGHT and SLEEPING CAR, which feature interesting people like Magda Schneider, the awful Sonny Hale, Edmund Gwenn, Ivor Novello and Madeleine Carroll.

There are also odd bits of TV work and a short documentary about refugees that remain stubbornly buried. But all the films from Litvak’s US period on are accessible, which puts him ahead of the Cromwells and Milestones of this world. I won’t be writing about, or probably even seeing, ALL of them. But I aim to provide a bit of an overview of the man’s skills and incredible dynamism.

The charity shops are open again

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2020 by dcairns

My favourite is St Columba’s Bookstore.

Kevin Brownlow’s book on Gance’s NAPOLEON is amazing — the wealth of stills, and detail. Breathtaking.

Maybe I’d see The Autobiography of British Cinema about in the past but hadn’t looked into it because I didn’t know what it was. It’s collected interviews in fact, with everyone from John Addison to Freddie Young. Lovely for dipping into. Here’s Wendy Hiller:

“Carol Reed was not an intellectual, he saw life entirely visually, through little squares, as did David Lean.”

Here’s Thora Hird, in her eighties (most of her stuff is grumbling about early mornings):

“I liked working with Larry [Olivier] because we got on well, but there were little things about him that annoyed me. For a start, if I had to do complimentaries (standing off-camera giving him my lines while the took his close-ups), I would have to be in at eight-thirty in the morning for make-up because Larry insisted everyone be in character, even if they weren’t on camera. I asked him about it, and he told me he couldn’t act to the character if he was looking at meas me. I told him that everyone thought he could have done the scene without me even being there.”

Thora also says that she calls all her directors “Mr. De Grunwald,” “and they know I do it with respect.”

Glenn Mitchell’s A – Z of Silent Cinema is terrific. I had the feeling it might be useful sometime, also.

Charlton Heston’s memoir might also be useful for a potential upcoming project, but is interesting anyway. He seems like a dick, though.

Goddamn this War! is a WWI epic graphic novel by Jacques Tardi. Extremely grim and exhausting, but remarkable.

David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson’s Film History is sure to come in handy as well as being a readable and awe-inspiringly comprehensive work. I bought it because I’d never encountered the Sergio Leone quote where he calls Ennio Morricone “my scriptwriter.”

Three short stories by Shirley Jackson which I was almost certain I already owned in another collection, but the book was 50p and it turns out I was wrong. Read two last night and they’re excellent, of course.

Richard Schickel’s Conversations with Scorsese is fine and all, and covers stuff not in my copy of Scorsese on Scorsese. There are lots of bits where MS says something intriguing and I was rooting for RS to press him for more detail. No such luck.

Thurber’s Dogs. No explanation required, I assume.

Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diaries — I love Riddley Walker and liked several of his late books and am intrigued. Saw Ben Kingsley talk about making the film version once. Great talker, that man.

Irish Ghost Stories is tremendously fat, and has a very large amount of Sheridan LeFanu in it, which is no bad thing.

Movies: I hesitated about THE TRAIN on Blu-ray as I own a DVD but it’s a fine-looking film and the sterling array of extras provided by Arrow decided me. I didn’t hesitate on THE WILD BUNCH. I thought I owned THE ILLUSIONIST but didn’t, so now I do. TO THE SEA AND THE LAND BEYOND seems epic, and Penny Woolcock is revered among documentarists so I should check it out: the BFI provides quirky extras. THE WRONG BOX isn’t altogether satisfying but has great bits. I had an old DVD of LA DOLCE VITA in the wrong ratio so this is an upgrade.

Now I just have to find time to consume this stuff.

Bad Cinephile

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2017 by dcairns

I did get a lot watched on Monday at Il Cinema Ritrovato.

On Sunday there had been a discussion about whether to try the 1917 CALIGULA, since it partially overlapped a later screening I wanted to see, and a friend who shall remain nameless suggested just watching a bit. “You don’t need to see how it turns out,” he suggested. To another friend who had an overlap at the opposite end, he suggested, “You don’t need to see the beginning. What are you going to miss? The horse? You won’t miss the horse.” “Are you suggesting,” I asked, “that we treat CALIGULA like an installation?” But that is sort of what Monday felt like.

(In the event, CALIGULA was sold out to enthusiastic orgiasts before we got back from lunch.)

The day began with two by William K. Howard and one by Tod Browning, at the Cinema Jolly, which meant I could just take my seat and soak up three pre-code super-productions in as many hours. THE TRIAL OF VIVIENNE WARE was zippy (Lilian Bond, in her plummiest accent: “I’m going to show him how a warm momma gets hot!” Zasu Pitts: “I like horses, in a nice way of course.”), with rapid-fire patter and frequent whip pans, used to transport us across town, across a room, of back into flashback and out again. TRANSATLANTIC combined swank melodrama and crime with spectacular sets and camera moves. OUTSIDE THE LAW, the second film Tod Browning made under that title, had a strong story but, being a 1930 Browning, lacked pace. “Tod the Plod,” Andrew Moor Charlie Cockey called him. But it did have the bottomless man illusion, and a guest freak in the form of John George from TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS, in the role of Humpy the hunchback. I’m a John George completist so this made me happy. This is likely also the first film in which Edward G. Robinson says “See?” a lot, as a threat.

Then I went to THE TECHNICAL REFERENCE COLLECTION SHOW after lunch — we saw Technicolor reels from BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, THE JUNGLE BOOK, ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY… quite a range. HERCULES AND THE SLAVE GIRLS featured the line “This day is dedicated to Uranus.” Reg Park didn’t look as pleased as you might hope. Each reel ended JUST as we were getting snared by the narrative, so it was a frustrating as well as beautiful experience.

But these extracts set me off on a regrettable pattern of incompletion. I went to a programme of Russian fragments and saw the surviving reel of KULISY EKRANI (BEHIND THE SCREEN) from 1917, which stars Ivan Mosjoukine, Russia’s top film star, in the challenging role of Ivan Mosjoukine, Russia’s top film star. But the fictional version has lost an arm. It was good to see a younger Ivan, though he looked older than in KEAN. Other than that, I couldn’t tell much.

I’ve been seeing the Helmut Kautner films religiously because Olaf Moller told me to, and he’s bigger than me. But the Mosjoukine fragment made me late for EPILOG – DAS GEHEIMNIS DER ORPLID and it was standing room only at the back. I stayed through the early subjective camera stuff, then the soft-titles disappeared just as Fritz Kortner showed up. I slipped away quietly —

— and into KEAN, where I wanted to see the new restorations tinting and toning, which was indeed lovely. But three hours of Mosjoukine seemed rather ambitious after five and a half hours in the dark, so I slipped silently off to TWO MONKS, the biggest challenge to wakefulness yet.

This early thirties Mexican melodrama has stunning sets, interesting camera moves and cutting, beautiful lighting and some Gothic horror hallucinations which are very striking, but it’s also slow to develop and tells a slightly dull story TWICE. So I did nod off a bit and found myself dreaming more exciting plot developments, which sadly were knocked out of my head by the real story when I awoke.

Then I dined with Neil McGlone and his lovely wife Justine, and hit the Piazza Maggiore, which proved to be ram-packed — no seats, so I sat on the warm stone and saw the prelude to Gance’s LA ROUE with Arthur Honegger’s newly discovered orchestral score played live for the first time in, what, ninety years? That was something. But it was another fragment. And I was too tired to watch more than ten mins of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN afterwards.

A day in pieces. Leaving me feeling the same way, but happy.