Archive for Albert Whitlock

Juice Ex Machina

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 7, 2014 by dcairns

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The perfect cocktail recipe — a bit like Bunuel’s but with traditional vermouth, not Angustura bitters. Just one of the helpful life lessons imparted in this film!

I remembered liking COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT — someone recently suggested I revisit it — Fiona has an idea for a movie about artificial intelligence — she hadn’t seen this one since she was a teenager — so it seemed right to look at it again. Probably the last screening I experienced was pan-and-scanned, and it’s a lovely widescreen film with magnificent blocking.

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I’m a great fan of Joseph Sargent’s THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 and it was exciting to note that some of that film’s best tropes are trotted out here too (strengthening the case for Sargent as artist rather than just journeyman) — we have a nice example of the Fritz Lang cutting that binds together PELHAM, with one scene’s opening shot or line answering a question or completing a thought introduced at the end of the preceding sequence — it is of course entirely right for a film about a superbrain dictator to borrow from MABUSE in this manner. We also have a dynamically, shockingly abrupt ending, though “Never” here isn’t quite as strong as “Gesundheit” in PELHAM — the editor, Folmar Blangsted, having I think gotten overly caught up in an arty splitscreen sequence to the detriment of the character.

Speaking of character — my memory of the film was that all the humans in it were kind of flat, not in a 2001 way (though that movie must have been an influence), where the deliberately low-affect perfs were a bold attempt at authenticity — astronauts MUST NOT be excitable people — but more like THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, where Michael Crichton’s inability to write human beings filtered through into the movie and left us with a rather dowdy, gray set of central figures. But actually COLOSSUS strikes a neat balance between realistically low-key and frustratingly cold — Eric Braeden is simply masterful in the lead, not too endearing, not too frosty, and with enough ironic humour to humanize and ironize the proceedings. We found ourselves just adoring every little thing he did.

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Fiona: “Why isn’t this a celebrated classic?”

Also: some lovely Albert Whitlock matte paintings. Jazzy music by Michel Colombier (an unexpected escapee from the universe of Jacques Demy) who interacts with the actors movements around the widescreen frame and the clickings and whirrings of the amusingly antiquated Colossus (it uses punch-holes! bless its silicon heart) in a snappy, syncopated style. The smart script is by James Bridges, and it has to balance the requirements of a thriller with more cerebral concerns — nobody ever seems to strain to close the gap between the two.

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May 6th

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2013 by dcairns

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Without any particular plan, we watched THE HINDENBURG on Friday. We were supposed to be getting married, but we watched THE HINDENBURG instead. I can’t actually tell you whether this was a wise choice, because I haven’t had the experience of getting married, but now that I have watched THE HINDENBURG I can say that married life doesn’t have a great deal to live up to. It ought to be able to knock Robert Wise’s 1975 disaster movie into a cocked hat.

The interesting bit is that we were watching on May 3rd, and part of the film takes place on May 3rd. And then the Hindenburg blows up today, May 6th, only in 1937, giving me plenty of time to write about it.

Basically, most of the film is a snooze. Nelson (THE HAUNTING) Gidding’s screenplay doesn’t manage to make all these sympathetic Nazis very sympathetic, and the unsympathetic ones don’t get to do any real Nazi stuff — Charles Durning in particular is terribly wasted — and there just isn’t a lot of human emotion to it. Oh the humanity! What humanity?

Edward Carfagno’s meticulous production design, apparently extremely accurate, could serve as an analog for the whole project — the Hindenburg’s gondola resembles a 1970s conference centre. It’s pretty small, and doesn’t offer the epic opulence of a Titanic. Against this accuracy, there’s the fact that the film’s sabotage plot is bullshit, but at least it gives William Atherton a chance to be twitchy, and George C. Scott something to brood about. Most watchable of all is Anne Bancroft, even though she has little to do.

We can see the cunning of James Cameron, who made a banal little drama the focus of TITANIC, with all the spectacle simply as dynamic backdrop. Whereas HINDENBURG really is about the Hindenburg, and nothing but the Hindenburg. As boring as the first 90 mins of TITANIC are — and admit it, they’re awesomely boring — at least the romance gives the characters something to do, something which would matter dramatically even if the ship were not sinking. All the action of the airship movie is about stopping a bomb from going off — a bomb which we know IS going to go off. We even know when.

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“Jesus–not Hitler!” I guess a lot of people were thinking that same thought.

I like a lot of Robert Wise films, though I’ve never quite forgiven him for screwing with MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Perfect for him to make a film about a sympathetic Nazi who’s only following orders. That’s harsh, I know. But it’s brought to mind by the film’s deliberate quoting of CITIZEN KANE, with a newsreel (above) at the beginning and the burning sign at the end…

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Ah yes, the end. My favourite bit, because suddenly this staid non-thriller goes batshit crazy. A weird optical effect has the bomb go off like something from a James Bond title sequence, and the movie goes into b&w — purely so as to incorporate the actual newsreel footage of the disaster. Now, it seems unfair to make a disaster movie called THE HINDENBURG and then not stage the climactic destruction yourself. Possibly poor taste, too. But even if you’ve got Albert Whitlock, which they have, I guess it was impossible to create anything as impressive as the reality using 1970s technology. Still, for a colour movie to go into monochrome the second a towering inferno breaks out seems perverse. But the madness has just begun.

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Bottom centre — the burning sign –” Hindenbud!”

Determined to get some sense of urgency into his cinematic dirible, Wise starts zooming randomly, in the modern manner. The newsreel footage freeze-frames for no apparent reason, repeatedly. I guess to try to say, Yes, we know this is stock footage. Look how we’re making it stop and start. There’s one really great high angle where everybody on the ground suddenly grows a long shadow — magnificent stuff. Atherton, mortally wounded, frees a dalmatian from the baggage car — and we spend the whole climax wondering if it got out OK. We don’t care about Burgess Meredith. We don’t care about Rene Auberjonois. Even Anne Bancroft takes a back seat to the dog.

People leap from high places, some of them on fire. The guy from Hogan’s Heroes seems to drop thirty feet without the aid of a stunt double. Small children are flung similar distances, amid flaming debris. Charles Durning smolders, and not in a good way.

Then we get the roll call of the dead. A narrator reads character names, and says “Dead. Dead. Survived. Dead.” as little pictures of the cast appear. After a while he stops bothering to name the minor players. “Dead. Dead. Dead.” Finally, we get the dog. “Survived.” Hooray! The movie ends on a high note.

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Dog — bottom left.

Then it gets better — against Michael Shire’s lovely, elegiac theme music, we get the special effects departments miniature Hindenburg drifting majestically against matted-in blue skies, while the famous real-life news reporter totally loses his shit on the soundtrack. It was a mistake to hire Franklin Pangborn to narrate an air disaster, I feel. False economy.

It’s a really nice and interesting sequence, and probably it should have gone at the start, thus admitting what we already know about the story. But that would have left the movie even less to impress with at the end.

Albert Whitlock’s Edinburgh

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2010 by dcairns

Looking down on an artificial Greyfriars Kirk, with an artificial Castle behind it.

To entertain Fiona’s brother, Roddy, we screened Disney’s GREYFRIARS BOBBY: THE TRUE STORY OF A DOG, and wound up being hugely entertained ourselves. A surprisingly sophisticated, authentic and somewhat dark tale, it takes liberties with the historical record but serves up a rather neat tale. Don Chaffey directed, and the cast included Lawrence Naismith, one of Chaffey’s original Argonauts, as well as Donald Crisp, the bloke who bludgeoned Lillian Gish to death in BROKEN BLOSSOMS, and the face at the window that terrified Buster Keaton in THE NAVIGATOR. Both gents were superb.

The titular dog (given the Val Lewton treatment here) runs away from Gordon Jackson’s farm to follow his master, an aging crofter (Alex MacKenzie, THE MAGGIE, wonderfully moving) to Edinburgh. A city of torrential rain and loud drunks, then as now. The whole first act is watching this simple old man die, refusing a doctor. Impressively dour stuff for a family show. When MacKenzie’s buried, the dog refuses to leave his grave at night, and gradually the two old men who have tried to make Bobby behave like a normal domestic animal give in and help him to achieve his own lifestyle choice. For the dog is just as stubborn and difficult (in Scots we say “thrawn”) as his master was.

Kids appear, of course, played by the future editor of Paris Vogue, Joan Juliet Buck, and the talented Vincent Winter, who won a special Oscar for his role in THE KIDNAPPERS. Special Oscars were for children, cripples, and black people, you see. Winter’s co-star and co-winner, Jon Whiteley, went on to star in Fritz Lang’s MOONFLEET and Roy Ward Baker’s THE SPANISH GARDNER. THE KIDNAPPERS is a fantastically charming affair, with one of the worst soundtracks I’ve ever heard, an insistent barrage of inappropriate noise (hang your head, Bruce Montgomery), whereas GB:TTSOAD has a lovely score by Francis Chagrin, possibly his career high point.

The artificial Grassmarket viewed from the artificial Cowgate.

And I love imaginary landscapes, so I was delighted to see my home city turned into a series of them, courtesy of Albert Whitlock’s matte paintings. Very much an authentic portrayal of the 19th-century capital: it was even disappointing when they used an occasional location shot. The matte paintings are augmented by Michael Stringer’s stylised sets, which use forced perspective and big backdrops and are thoroughly charming. He even builds a convincing replica of Greyfriars Kirkyard, the original of which can be seen here. I immediately looked him up to see what else he’d done, and found A SHOT IN THE DARK. I have fond memories of Herbert Lom’s office in that one, with a view out the window of a miniature Paris. This is one of the benefits of being a Parisian police chief: they give you a miniature city, so you can step out the window and rampage like Kong, or just tower over it all like Fantomas. It’s a wonder Lom’s so frustrated when his job comes with a perk like that.

This angle delights me because, even though there’s no reason for it to be a painting, it is.

There was a recent version of the tale, not an official remake but another riff off the historical account, and my costume designer friend from CRY FOR BOBO, Ali Mitchell, worked on it. When she saw John Landis’s BURKE AND HARE recently she was able to spot much of the same costumery hired for BOBBY, and a few things she’d had made herself. I like spotting props and stuff reappearing in different films, but I’m not expert enough to identify costumes, normally — except all the FORBIDDEN PLANET gear that gets reused in QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE and a dozen other B-flicks.

Buy the original for your kids (better quality than my frame-grabs) ~

UK: Greyfriars Bobby [DVD] [1960]

USA: Greyfriars Bobby