Archive for Akira Kurosawa

The Laddie and the Lake

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2019 by dcairns

I feel like wallowing in Paramount’s Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake pictures for a while (there are three, really, but I suppose I might get around to STAR-SPANGLED RHYTHM in which they cameo separately).

I used to think that the tiny Veronica Lake was invented specially so that the tiny Alan Ladd would have somebody to star opposite that he could look down on, but no, her stardom predates his. You might more convincingly argue that she made him possible. So it’s unfair that her stardom sputtered out before his, principally because she was forced to change her peekaboo hairstyle, but no doubt also because she didn’t have the right allies at the studio to keep her career going in the face of such an obstacle (her wartime, factory-safe new ‘do didn’t suit her as well as the old one, but something could have been worked out).

Her smile at the end of her sequence here is heartbreaking, because it’s The End and she doesn’t know it.

There was a lot more to this girl than a spectacular and distinctive (if inconvenient/dangerous) hairstyle. Lake is pretty much always the coolest, most modern player in any film she’s in, even giving noted underplayer Joel McCrea a a run for his money.

Now. Someone explain to me how THE GLASS KEY got made, and got past the censor? The whole “Crime Must Not Pay” dictum is gleefully thrown out the window here, like it annoyed Brian Donlevy or something. Everybody’s a gangster, fixer or moll, the respectable people are crooked too, and the cops are just a nuisance likely to pick up the wrong guy. Nobody reforms, and the happy ending allows vice and corruption to continue untrammelled. And we feel pretty good about it all. Well, leading man and leading lady are united, so at least the matrimonial norms are to be respected. Some liberties are no doubt taken with Dashiell Hammett”s original, but it’s still a wow on all fronts.

I must watch the George Raft version, curiously enough directed by Frank Tuttle who helped make a star out of Ladd in the previous Ladd-Lake vehicle, THIS GUN FOR HIRE. It should have been a precode but isn’t. Then there’s the other adaptation, MILLER’S CROSSING, for which the Coens could plausibly have been sued for plagiarism, and there’s YOJIMBO, which is theoretically an unlicensed version of Red Harvest — serves Kurosawa right that Leone ripped off his rip-off with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS — but which steals the giant sadist character (played by William Bendix here and by a pituitary case in YOJIMBO) from The Glass Key, quite unapologetically. Kurosawa’s claim that The Servant of Two Masters was his real source strikes me as untrue and lawyered-up.

I once read a Michael Caine quote where he claimed, with what accuracy I don’t know, that in Japan, being a lawyer is not a very respected profession because, “In Japan, if someone cheats you and gets caught, they kill themselves. Whereas over here, they try to kill you.”

Anyway, THE GLASS KEY. Very stylishly directed by Stuart Heisler, who had great talent but only occassionally seems to hit the ball out the park. Here, he smashes a floodlight with it, to explosive and scintillating effect. The luminous Paramount style adapts well to noir if you take it by the throat and talk softly to it. Fiona points out the weirdness of Ladd getting a spectacular introductory shot in his SECOND scene, which does seem like a blunder, but it’s still a nice shot (see top).

And we have an ideal cast, with Donlevy just the right kind of honest-hearted crook (Spencer Tracy would have worked too but maybe he’d have wanted to get the girl. Or the guy?). With his elevator shoes he can just barely see over Ladd & Lake. Bendix is extraordinary, unlike any other role he had, as Fiona remarked. A guy with a very distinctive look suddenly seems like someone you’ve never seen before — a malign garden gnome, shaved and soaked with oily sweat and somehow pumped up to giant size with an injection of testosterone right in his nose. His demonic glee in beating up Ladd is clearly sexual, even more so than in the book.

Ladd is beyond perfect. For me, he only works in anti-hero roles. Allow him a measure of rectitude and he’s a colossal small bore. Even playing a gunfighter in SHANE he’s a little too nice. Here, he gets his cold smile out a lot, and is a real Hammett hero, cards close to his chest, which beats with an icy heart. We’ll allow that he has a code, but it has nothing to do with legality or conventional morality, just maybe his own idiosyncratic understanding of the latter.

Anyway, by the end he’s found love and can express warmth but that’s OK because the movie’s over and we don’t need to see him again.

THE GLASS KEY stars Shane; The Girl; Quatermass McGinty; Nancy Drew; Hunk Jordan; Det. Maurice Obregon; ‘Babe’ Ruth; Nyoka Meredith; Big Mac; and the voice of the Senior Angel.

 

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Catch a Falling Tsar

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2019 by dcairns

NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA is one possible answer to the question “What would a David Lean movie be like without David Lean?” A question nobody but Sam Spiegel would think to ask, I suspect. N&A may not be the best answer, but it’s the only one we have*. I assume Spiegel was jealous of his former star director’s box office triumph DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and thought he’d do one better.

Franklin J. Schaffner, who we like at least partly because his name is Franklin J. Schaffner — a name that positively chomps its own cigar — did some lively work on potentially lumbering epics like PLANET OF THE APES. He’d go handheld at unexpected moments. In PATTON we also see his flair for highly formal compositions to contrast with the explosive set-pieces. Well, the formal shots still turn up in N&A, but it could do with a shot of handheld chaos to get it on its feet.To speak of this film is to speak of tedium — the sheer amount of tedium makes it the film’s most interesting trait. One wouldn’t have thought it possible to cram so much boredom into a movie also containing a cast of thousands, a mad monk, one Russo-Japanese war, one world war, two revolutions, and both the cream of the British acting establishment and a lot of young and soon-to-be-nude hopefuls (Robin Askwith turns up just to rip the skin of a rabbit). And yet it’s quite remarkable how dull things are for long stretches.

Schaffner seems in awe of his material, so he’s on his best behaviour. Nobody’s at their best when they’re on their best behaviour. Designer John Box creates a very convincing Russia out of various Spanish and Yugoslav locations, but the great Freddie Young’s photography is surprisingly overlit much of the time. How did the wretched White Russians get their palaces to look like daytime soaps with only candles at their disposal. I don’t require the full BARRY LYNDON every time, but a bit of atmosphere would be welcome. (I’m only using the more gorgeous shots for this post — there are, admittedly, lots. But the movie only really impresses visually when it ventures outside, or when night falls, or when it’s dealing with the plotting Bolshies. (Michael Bryant makes a very good Lenin — his story would be worth telling.)And of course there’s Tom Baker’s Rasputin. If ever an actor and role were more suited on paper — Baker was an actual monk, ffs — I can’t think of the occasion. And while Baker is impressive and brings the stately proceedings to relative life (the only kind of life on offer), he’s actually disappointing compared to the version of “Tom Baker as Rasputin” that plays through my head when I think of that glorious phrase. I think it’s because all Old Greg’s atrocities, as portrayed here, are so mild and tasteful. His murder is pretty lurid — though utterly outdone by the Battle of the Barrymores in RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS. This one has lots of homoeroticism thrown in, though, including Tom making eyes (and WHAT eyes!) at a dragged-up flautist. It perks things up. Also some good snivelling hysteria from Michael Jayston’s ex-Tsar when he sees his missus for the first time after abdicating. Shame cuts the puppet emperor’s strings and he collapses lopsidedly. “I didn’t mean to do it!” is all kinds of pathetic. And he becomes human in our eyes for the first time.James Goldman (assisted or hampered by rewrites from Edward Bond) really can’t make us care about Tsar Nicky, an absolutely appalling leader combining weakness with arrogance, able to vacillate stubbornly and be obdurately spineless, neither of which should even be possible. The problem of “our son, the little bleeder” (if only they’d cast Burton & Taylor they might have gotten some healthy vulgarity into their show — but they’d probably still be shooting it) is supposed to make the royals sympathetic, but mainly it gives them a problem they can’t do anything about.

Goldman’s best idea is to show the Tsar becoming a better man after he abdicates, which is based on no particular historical evidence but at least gives him an arc. It doesn’t make much difference though, since the entire royal family is reduced to total helplessness at this point, passengers through their own story on their way to a historically foreordained execution.

For which Schaffner finally pulls out all the stops. His formal compositions are almost as striking here as in the celebrated opening of PATTON, and he milks the suspense — which ought to be nonexistent — a bunch of people with little personality who have done nothing effective or good for the previous three hours of screen time are about to die, and we know it’s going to happen — to breaking point. If it makes sense to milk something to breaking point. Can you break a cow? See NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, the film that breaks a cow. NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA stars Lewis Carroll; Cleopatra; Emanuelle ‘Bunny’ O’Neill; Pola Ivanova; Ralph Gurney – 13th Earl of Gurney; Goneril; Koura; General Allenby; Mr. Tow-Wouse; ‘Maxim’ De Winter; Harry Dominion; Doctor B. N. Wallis, C.B.E., F.R.S.; Professor Harrington; Wick Blagdon; Peter Brock; Mrs. Chasen; Robert McKee; Lord Ludd; Bilbo Baggins; Leopold Mozart; Encolpio; Bumbo; Woodrow Wilson; Wernher Von Braun; Master Robert Shallow; Colonel Breen; Timothy Lea; Sherlock Holmes; and the voice of Colossus.

Or, to put it another way, since none of the up-and-coming young thesps strutting and fretting here went on to more big movies (not right away, anyway), we have the future stars of THE MUTATIONS: THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW; VAMPIRE CIRCUS; Hammer House of Horror; SCHIZO; CRAZE… eventually, of course, many of them hit their stride again, but it really doesn’t look like this movie helped anyone.

*I tell a lie: Akira Kurosawa thought he was going to be co-directing TORA, TORA, TORA with David Lean, but got Richard Fleischer instead. Then he quit, and they hired Kinji Fukasaku, making T,T,T both a Lean film without Lean and a Kurosawa film without Kurosawa. Enjoy!

The Frozen Moment

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2018 by dcairns

I was looking at THE DEVIL’S OWN, the remarkably non-excellent late Alan Pakula thriller, which has a very impressively staged, if overblown and morally indefensible, street battle at the start. Amid all the mayhem, Pakula (and editors Tom Rolf & Dennis Virkler) freeze the action with a quick, beautifully-composed shot of a corpse. It fractures the all-movement flow of the edit and injects an icy feeling that partially redeems the scene from its gung-ho pyrotechnics.

It also rang a bell with me, and I found myself trying to figure out whether Pakula had pinched the idea from some other film I’ve seen.

The first thing that came to mind was this shot from John Milius’s DILLINGER ~

It has a similar look, but it appears at the end of the scene so it has a different, less disruptive effect. I had an instinctive suspicion that there was a common source both Milius and Pakula were swiping from, and I knew that I KNEW that source, if I could but remember it.

I started wondering if, given Milius’s tastes, the answer might be Kurosawa. I remembered these shots, in RAN (another late-ish film, and one ABOUT lateness, old age) ~

Kurosawa intersperses the apocalyptic battle that occurs midway in this film with static snapshots of the slain, their busy, living former comrades hurrying past them in foreground or background. He takes you out of the desperate action and briefly drops you into a more contemplative, restful space. Called death.

But RAN was made some time *after* DILLINGER, so couldn’t be the influence. THE SEVEN SAMURAI seemed a possibility, reminding me that it’s been far too long since I watched it. But I couldn’t actually remember such a shot used in such a way, so that couldn’t be the specific thing I was remembering.

Then I did a class on Orson Welles for my 1st year students, and there it was, in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT ~POSITIVELY the shot I was trying to remember, coming as a sudden, shockingly still interruption of the hand-held chaos of the celebrated and influential Battle of Shrewsbury sequence. By coincidence, the appearance of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND reminds us that Milius and Welles apparently knew each other at least well enough for the latter to parody the former as a character in his movie-world movie. And I can well imagine Milius and Pakula admiring CHIMES enough to borrow an effect without particularly paying attention to what the effect was FOR.

Welles actually pulls this trick twice. Each time, the shot contains furiously racing characters but our eye goes to the face of the fallen man, and the camera’s stillness puts us in sympathy with him, not those running about madly behind him.

But it’s still possible that this touch is to be found in earlier battles by Kurosawa OR — a distinct possibility, this — Eisenstein. If anybody knows for sure, point me in the right direction.