Archive for Act of Violence

Pull up a chair

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2011 by dcairns

The bit in HIGH NOON that always impresses me the most is outlaw Frank Miller’s empty chair.

Of course, the real-time approach to story is fascinating and very novel, and leads directly to the omnipresent clock shots, each more ominous than the last. Dimitri Tiomkin’s ballad started a (somewhat regrettable) trend, but still sounds fresh, with its unusual frog-burp rhythm. The cinematography, pasting bleached-out skies behind flat-lit action, influenced by Mathew Brady’s period photos, violated the traditional Hollywood aesthetic and opened up new possibilities. Cooper’s age works to the film’s advantage, Lon Chaney Jnr gets one of his rare decent roles, Grace Kelly is radiant in her second role (a disciple of Flaherty, Zinnemann realized he could use her inexperience to illuminate the character).

But I’m obsessed with that chair.

First time out, the chair is mentioned — “That’s the chair Frank Miller sat in when he was sentenced!” Second time, during the final ticking-clock montage which revisits every character we’ve met as they await the stroke of noon, Zinnemann tracks in on the empty chair. This isn’t exploring space, roving POV, following movement or storytelling, so it must be the fifth kind of camera movement motivation: psychological. This is where we track in on a character as they think deep thoughts or feel a surge of emotion, and the movement makes us sense the thought/emotion building within them. The difference here is, the man who sat in the chair and felt the emotion did it months before the movie began. He’s not there anymore. But, like the spectres in THE SHINING, he’s left a trace of himself, and that’s what Zinnemann is filming. He’s tracking backwards in time, like Ophuls or Tarkovsky or Sokhurov, the only difference being that the temporal movement doesn’t reveal itself visually, only by mental impression.

Zinnemann’s fellow Viennese, Von Sternberg, wrote of his desire to photograph an idea — Zinnemann, it seems to me, has done this. Although I think the shot was probably a huge influence on Spielberg, who likes tracking in on objects to imbue them with significance and make us consider their narrative import, I think F.Z.’s shot goes markedly deeper, creating a sense of brooding lust for vengeance out of nothing more than empty air and a piece of furniture designed to receive the buttocks.

I haven’t tried this myself, but I suspect that if you watch this scene wearing the polarising glasses used to make the phantoms visible in William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS, you would get surprising results.

Film criticism, which used to see Peckinpah and Leone as the Men who Killed the Western (with realism, parodic exaggeration, and the destruction of moral certainties), now seems to have turned the clock back to put the blame on HIGH NOON and the psychological western. Suddenly there was liberal angst in the West, neurosis and concern about whether people are truly good, and that is seen as the first nail in the coffin of a genre built on certain shared assumptions. Maybe that’s why Hawks reacted so badly — he sensed the writing was on the wall. In many ways, HIGH NOON does seem to prefigure the decline of the genre — we have Gary Cooper looking old, the small community is no longer a source of final virtue and courage, and something strange and disturbing has happened to the style…

Leone quoted shots from HIGH NOON throughout his career, as Sir Christopher Professor Frayling would tell you, as well as borrowing Lee Van Cleef, one of the villain’s henchmen (as Peckinpah borrowed Katy Jurado). The musical fob watch in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is just an excuse to re-stage the above musical build-up three times in one movie. And of course ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST opens with a ten-minute compression of Zinnemann’s whole show. If Leone had fulfilled his dream of casting Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef as the three killers waiting for the train, Van Cleef’s appearance would have been a double joke.

To Leone, HIGH NOON seems to have been just a good western to swipe from, like YELLOW SKY (watch the ending of that one and HIGH NOON with the opening of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY!), not some departure from the norm. But Zinnemann is using the visual language of film noir — sweaty, intense close-ups, looming into a wide lens, porous, scowling, faces crowded together — in a western. If the climax of ACT OF VIOLENCE (face-off, with long walk, at a railway station) resembles a western duel in negative — which it does, because I just said so — then HIGH NOON is a film noir in negative, the sky a bleached-out Moby Dick white. And as we know from THE SHINING, some things are scarier in the bright light.

So what this ultimately means is that HIGH NOON is the source for a good 75% of Leone’s overall visual approach… so maybe Zinnemann DID kill the western, or at least supply the weapon that fired the shot.

Tunnel of Hate

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 19, 2011 by dcairns

Fred Zinnemann Week infects The Chiseler now, with this fervid examination of ACT OF VIOLENCE, the Fred Zinnemann movie for people who don’t like Fred Zinnemann movies. And those who do.

Image via Cinemascope blog.

Christ Decrucified

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2011 by dcairns

THE SEVENTH CROSS was Zinnemann’s first major studio picture, after umpteen short subjects and two B pictures, and by his own account he lucked into it. He’d encountered the novel, and thought it would make a great film, and then was sent the script as a subject by pure coincidence. He liked Helen Deutsch’s treatment of the story, although he felt it added sentiment and commercial elements he’d have preferred to do without, but as this was his first major production, there was a lot of studio supervision and changing anything about the screenplay was not an option.

He was also extremely pleased to get Spencer Tracy as star, and writes enthusiastically in his autobiography about Tracy’s masterful subtlety. I sometimes find Tracy’s minimalism to be a kind of maximalist minimalism, everything reduced to simple form but writ large, but here he’s genuinely low-key, aided by a script that keeps him speechless for the first half hour, before allowing a few whispers and then more sustained speech as the character rediscovers his humanity after years of brutalization in a concentration camp. The same arc, kind of, gets a more realistic treatment later in Zinnemann’s haunting THE SEARCH.

THE SEVENTH CROSS neatly does two things. (1) it tells the story of seven escapees from a German camp. The commandant (Yay! George Zucco!) swears he’ll find them all and display them on crosses nailed to trees, and one by one, he does. But the last cross remains empty, as Tracy weaves his way across country and finds help to escape. (2) it tells the story of Tracy’s slow reawakening, his recovery of the humanity stolen from him, which is slowly developed by the small acts of kindness he receives from friends and strangers who help him.

The movie uses Christian imagery throughout, although at least the persecution of the Jews gets a couple of  mentions. I think Louis B Mayer and his colleagues felt that the war effort could best be served by stressing the universal nature of Nazi evil rather than focussing on anti-semitism, which maybe some American audiences might dismiss as someone else’s problem. So the issue is Christianized — there is the title cross, but also a lot of other imagery, such as the hero’s hands, injured while scaling a wall early on, so that he is marked out from his fellow men by stigmata. Requiring a pseudonym, he calls himself Krauss (Cross/Christ). This appeal to the common man is arguably a little dishonest, but it’s propaganda with justification.

An early encounter with an innocent child seems like a deliberate reference to James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN — Tracy is mute, large and animalistic, a possible threat to the innocent. But she’s also a threat to him. Maybe somebody recalled the Christ imagery Whale had applied to his monster?

Handshakes are also a motif in this film — see how many of them you can spot.

I would fight any man who tried to call the above a video essay, but I don’t think there’s much risk. It’s a highlights clip reel, emphasizing a couple of motifs. I’m hoping to re-hone my editing skills…

What a good movie — it has a big heart and combines modesty of scale with huge ambition for emotion and a little politics. “You need to know a lot to do the right thing these days,” muses former Nazi Hume Cronyn to his wife, Jessica Tandy (in her first movie — another great actor introduced to the screen by F.Z.). Also enjoy Steve Geray, Felix Bressart (above), Eily Malyon and George MacReady —

Ah, George! Hume Cronyn (the real heart of the film) visits George to get help for his friend Spencer. All we know about the man he’s seeing is he’s a successful architect who once swore he’d do something for the cause. Hume, a naive factory worker, stares at the decadent cubistic art on the wall and nearly goes crosseyed. This art marks George as a non-Nazi, but also, in Hollywood code, as genuinely decadent — MGM are no more forgiving of modern art than Hitler. Summoned into the architect’s bathroom, Hume finds him shaving, and we go “Oh fuck, it’s George MacReady, you’re screwed, Hume.” And sure enough, George is a vacillating aesthete with no moral backbone, which is good news in a way, because the only other role he’d be likely to get would be sadistic Nazi fiend.

Already thrown off-balance by the weird painting, Hume is utterly disoriented by George’s attitude, AND his bathroom, which breaks up space using mirrors in a way that echoes the multi-viewpoint art on his wall. Hume struggles to find his way out the door, nearly colliding with his own reflection. Left is right, up is down.

BUT the movie is even smarter than that, as George has a change of heart and attempts to man up and do the right thing — only he has no way of contacting Hume. Throughout the film, the struggle to create connections between different good guys, under the glare of their fascist overlords, is a major source of tension.

An underrated movie — shot by the great Karl Freund in true expressionist manner — which ought to be at least as celebrated as ACT OF VIOLENCE — not that that movie gets the credit it really deserves either.

This film also has the nerve to dissolve from George MacReady to a small child looking at a cake.