Archive for Alexander Mackendrick

The Sunday Intertitle: Moriarty-craftsy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2019 by dcairns

I watched the John Barrymore SHERLOCK HOLMES because I’m going to be doing something about Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK, JR and I wanted to see if this film, released just a couple of years previously, had influenced it. Nothing very very specific, but a general sense that Keaton’s conception of his role and the world of Holmes had more to do with Albert Parker’s film than a close reading of Conan Doyle.

The film is pretty nice! I gave up on it one time before, mainly because it presents Holmes as a moony romantic lazing about country lanes, and knowing Watson when at uni. But it otherwise manages to fold Moriarty into Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia and has a very nice cast.

Roland Young in a silent film, hmm — apart from some good slouching, he kind of disappears when he can’t use his voice. But the film gives a lot of the sidekicking to a very young William Powell anyway. Fascinating to see both men with their own hair. (I’m obsessed with hair at the moment because my own hair is retreating like the Maginot Line.)

DW Griffith sweetie Carole Dempster is leading lady, and we get appearances by the likes of Louis Wollheim, instantly recognizable from the way his nose has been compressed into his head until it is visible as a small bump on the back of his neck, and David Torrence, whose brother Ernest would work with Keaton as Steamboat Bill, Sr, and play a memorable Moriarty in the enjoyable 1932 William K. Howard farrago.

Best of all is the Moriarty here, the magnificent, and magnificently named Gustav(e) Von Seyffertitz, the Greater Profile, whose drooping scarf and expressionistic gestures reminded me forcibly of Alec Guinness’s Professor M (for Marcus) in THE LADYKILLERS. Now, it’s known that Guinness modelled his teeth and cigarette-smoking on critic Kenneth Tynan (an actor’s revenge!) but I wouldn’t be surprised if he, or director Sandy Mackendrick, or the costume designer Anthony Mendleson, was influenced by Gustav(e)’s great look.

There’s a fairly purple intertitle gushing about the coldness of Moriarty’s blood —

It got me wondering if the scarf, and the claw-like, expressionistic hand gestures (another Guinness connection) were because Moriarty is literally cold all the time — he’s characterised as a kind of spider, and spiders always start turning up dead at this time of year. I like the idea of a villain whose cold-bloodedness causes him seasonal discomfort.

Zero Tolerance

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2019 by dcairns

A producer I was discussing the vicissitudes of the film business with once described it as “a process of continually deferred satisfaction” (credit where due: it was Eddie Dick) which seems about right.

Proof of this lies in THE PRODUCERS, where Mel Brooks can lay claim to having written an as-good-as-perfect script (OK, the first scene is like twenty pages long, but it’s GREAT) and assembled an as-good-as-perfect cast to play it. Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder are so good together, astonishing (it’s worth seeing RHINOCEROS, the Ionesco adaptation they’re in together too, although I would prefer Alexander Mackendrick to have made his version, with either Tony Hancock or Peter Sellers and Peter Ustinov. He was going to matte rhinos into London landscapes.)

The first woman to wear lipstick in New York, and the man from whom Brooks stole the Elephant Man’s hairstyle.

BUT — to prove that there is no real satisfaction to be had for the labourer in film, Brooks was dissatisfied with Mostel’s performance throughout the shoot. Editor Ralph Rosenblum, in his excellent memoir, describes how Brooks filled the cutting room with explosive rage at Mostel’s intractability. He couldn’t let go of it and concentrate on the editing, his mind was still chewing over the trauma of the shoot, where he had tried to get Mostel to imbue Max Byalistock, conceived as a kind of humanoid id, with a form of sweetness and likability. If you see Nathan Lane in the role in the remake, you’ll see exactly what Brooks had in mind — Lane became his vision of the part.

The end credits list Zero merely as “Zero,” which seems affectionate — maybe Rosenblum is responsible, or maybe it’s phony showbiz affection, or a hidden gibe, or maybe Brooks loved Mostel as a man even if he hated — HATED! — the performance. A little mystery.

Yet I find Mostel ideal, and don’t find him remotely lacking in sweetness and likability, (“The most selfish man I ever met,” says Leo Bloom, affectionately.) But I agree with Mostel’s interpretation that the man is in essence villainous. Mostel played a lot of villains and finks in his pre-blacklist period, and being blacklisted probably didn’t make him any less explosive. But he’s always hugely human, therefore loveable.

(When The Producers stage musical was to open in London and Nathan Lane was unavailable, Brooks cast Jonathan Cake, who had played Mosley, then fired him for playing it too villanous. Nathan Lane somehow became available.)

Mel Brooks has had as long and rewarding a career as you could wish for, achieving wonderful things as director and producer and star and writer and lyricist. But by some cruel caprice of fate, he can’t see how magnificent the lead actor in his first film is.

This one is a doozy

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , on September 28, 2018 by dcairns

Spent all day yestersday watching the Brett Kavanaugh sideshow, so my head isn’t exactly buzzing with film thoughts just now. Alexander Mackendrick taught a whole class based on the live editing of the Watergate hearings, but I don’t have anything like that.

On Twitter, Laura Ingraham managed to wrench her arm down from a Nazi salute long enough to type that this was “a performance, not a legal seminar.” “Performance,” is an interesting word in this context. My feeling, or one of them (along with nausea, horror, pity, anger) was that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was natural, real, not performing, interacting in a polite and pleasant manner with her questioners (none of whom were actual Republican committee members). Judge Brett Kavanaugh WAS giving a performance, one that certainly contained real emotional responses, but ones that weren’t necessarily what they appeared to be.

Students of acting might study the two Q&As, but I would think Kavanaugh’s weird, shouty, face-pulling performance would be most useful in a “what not to do” context. I kept asking myself if I were an innocent falsely accused, how would I appear? Not like this, I like to think, but who can really say? (I think he’s guilty, obviously, but the thought experiment seemed worthwhile.) Accused of anything, we all tend to feel a little guilty, we all try to ACT like an innocent person, which of course can make our denials less convincing. We might reach for spurious arguments, and I suppose we might even misstate the case against us, or lie about details, in a misguided attempt to cast off suspicion. Kavanaugh definitely did all of the above. It COULD be the response of an innocent but badly flustered man. But then I look at Ford, and I believe her.

The man was clearly on the verge of a complete meltdown, but other than that it was hard to make out what his emotions SIGNIFIED. I think the fury that he led off with was, to some extent, excuse the expression, trumped up. Performative. He’d been told he needed to show defiance and righteous anger so he attempted to produce them by yelling and by stressing every single word in a demented forty-five minute tirade. I think he WAS angry but was straining to SHOW it, to channel the emotion the way an actor might use stage fright or first night nerves and transmute it into the emotion required for the scene. I think, personally, the anger came from an outraged sense of entitlement: how DARE anyone question his right to be SCOTUS (what a horrible acronym. Uglier than POTUS, even.)Marlon Brando said something to the effect that an actor might summon up a genuine emotion but it might still not be suitable if it were expressed in an ugly way. Well, we know what he means now. Kavanaugh’s sniffing, tongue-lolling performance was extremely grotesque. People under strain often are. But what was the tongue literally in the cheek about? Or lolling around his underlip? Dry mouth? The bottled water was right there. Even Olivier at his most salacious would have shied away from Kavanaugh’s attempts to lick the entire underside of his face. It was often accompanied by his voice cracking and him tearing up a little, or sounding like it (no actual tears), and this always happened when he talked about his family. But was this sorrow for his family, self-pity about being humiliated in front of his family, or shame about being caught and exposed? Or all three? The extreme WEIRDNESS of the particular manifestation made me guess at some conflicted feelings or cognitive dissonance — perhaps from guilt.

There was at times a resemblance to the hunchbacked executioner in BLAZING SADDLES (can’t uncover who the actor is*), who seems to be imitating Charles Laughton a bit. Same sense that his tongue is a possessed, writhing intruder worming around trying to escape. Like some tiny voice at the far back of his head were trying to seize control of the vocal equipment, vainly striving to resuscitate a vestigial, long-atrophied relationship between tongue and truth, and blubber a desperate confession.

*Apparently it’s Robert Ridgely, as “Boris.” Thanks to Jez Connolly for the tip-off.