Archive for Alexander Mackendrick

Cheating

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2021 by dcairns

BITTER VICTORY, directed by Nicholas Ray, is really outstanding — it must have seemed even more striking in 1957, since it shows one British officer contriving in the death of another. It’s the same year as BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, which attempts to reduce warfare to “Madness!” but it goes much further, in that the real conflict is between two “brother officers” over a woman. In the event, the lush, colourful jungle movie made millions and won Oscars, and the dry, barren desert movie in b&w was mutilated differently for every territory and virtually vanished without trace.

But I want to talk about one cut. Godard, one of the few critics to praise Ray’s film, singled out the brio of the cutting in the early scene where the three principles meet. It’s a fine example of psychological editing, three medium close-ups interwoven in such a way that we think we’re following the words but it’s really thoughts and glances that motivate the changes.

But the sequence (really a couple of sequences) has one strikingly awry cut, when Richard Burton stands to leave. If you note the distance between Ruth Roman and Curd Jurgens, it goes from a cranny to a chasm all at once. It’s also an eyeline cross, since Jurgens and Burton, looking at one another, seem to be somehow looking in the same direction. Maybe that’s what stops Ray from getting away with it.

Because it’s not really a mistake, it’s what we in the business (or with a bare toehold in it, like me) call a cheat. Ray has rearranged the seating to make pleasing compositions. In theory, if the shots are pleasing and our eyes are drawn to the right parts of the frame, the disjuncture is erased and we simply see the drama. Unfortunately, the shots are arranged so that the Roman-Burton eyeline matches, but the cut happens when Burton is looking at Jurgens. So we’re being subliminally nudged to feel that something’s not quite right, and then there’s a strong chance we notice NOTHING IS RIGHT.

It’s a moment of uncertainty/discomfort, is all.

Here’s a whopping cheat from THE LADYKILLERS —

Astonishingly, this one works. Clearly, the gang of men are in two groups of two with a yawning abyss between them, and Guinness is separated in depth, and then suddenly they’re in a single line of four. The only consistent factors are Guinness’ distance from the others and his relationship to the door, and the ordering of the other goons, from left to right in shot one, and right to left in the reverse.

But Guinness in the foreground of shot two completely absorbs the viewer’s attention, and then Katy Johnson walks into what was virtually her POV, and that also distracts us. The two compositions are extremely pleasing and dramatic, the big point being made is that Katy’s position in the centre of frame/the lions’ den makes her seem vulnerable.

Director Alexander Mackendrick hasn’t finished screwing with us. After Guinness crosses frame in the second shot, he gives us a shot-reverse on Johnson and Guinness, decorating the background of each with two gang members apiece. This creates the visual impression that the guys are still standing in a line, but in fact each group must have shuffled several paces in order to appear in each frame, and the gap between them must now be an ocean. But onscreen it seems logical and continuous.

It’s worth remembering that Mackendrick was under the influence of the German expressionists, who would sometimes (according to Edgar Ulmer) build multiple sets for a single scene, each designed to look their best in one camera angle. Mackendrick is doing the same with human bodies, restructuring the whole set-up from shot to shot for optimum effect. Most filmmakers do this to a limited extent, except the multiple camera guys.

I just had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Ray, and we talked about the imperfections in her late husband’s films, and how Truffaut defended them by saying Ray got moments of emotional truth out of seeming chaos that other, more “professional” filmmakers never touched. “Do you know about wabi-sabi?” she asked.

BITTER VICTORY stars Mark Antony; Wernher von Braun; Anne Morton; Fantômas (voice, uncredited); Sir Andrew Ffoulkes; Professor Dippet; Col. Rice, Moon Landing Crew (uncredited); Scaramanga; Hercules; Lucky Dave’s Clumsy Barman. (uncredited); Windy; and Volumnius.

THE LADYKILLERS stars Obi-Wan Kenobi; Mr. Todhunter; Chief Insp. Charles Dreyfus; Inspector Jacques Clouseau; Morgan Femm; PC George Dixon; Miss Pyman; Bildad; Francis Bigger; Hengist Pod; Six-Eyes Wiener; Herod; Miss Evesham; Wally Briggs;

A Buccaneer and a Half

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 29, 2020 by dcairns

A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA, available on Blu-ray but not to stream, is this fortnight’s Forgotten By Fox feature — here, on The Notebook at MUBI.

Pg. 17, #3

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2020 by dcairns

Mackendrick accompanied Relph to Prague to scout locations. As always, his enthusiasm was tireless: Relph describes him “rushing up every steeple in Prague when you could see perfectly well from the ground that it wasn’t any good. But he would never take anybody else’s word.” Mackendrick, for his part, retorts that “Michael is covering up for the fact that he doesn’t like heights. One of the spires was very tall, with a tiny balcony and this terrific bird’s eye view of Prague. I managed to get Michael up the stairs, but when he got outside he turned his face to the wall and wouldn’t turn around. So he never saw the view.”

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Checkmate. When you were interviewed by Bianco e Nero in 1958 you said that modern directors had eliminated the “problem of the bicycle.”

*

…Morning sunlight at the Onwentsia Club, where Father has just given me a beautiful pony of my own, a retired polo pony. I go riding with a groom from the club’s stables. My retired polo pony is, of course, neck-broken, he works with one hand, but I don’t know this and I must do something with the reins, because abruptly the pony has started back where we came from and I am swinging in the air on the other end of the reins doing the big loop.

*

It was altogether different in those days, because we had no dialogue or anything. I learned a great deal about pantomime from him, people telling the story just by their looks, their eyes and their hands. I learned about movement from him, of course, because most of his pictures were what we always called a “run-to-the-rescue.” That means that the girl is on the railroad tracks, the train is coming, her lover is coming on the horse and he gets her off just as the train goes by. All the pictures in the early days had that.

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Most of the writers who have contributed to this dictionary belong either to the generation for whom Citizen Kane was the first great revelation of the cinema or to the generation for whom Godard’s A Bout de Souffle performed the same function. But they are alike in one very important respect: neither generation was brought up on silent film. Almost all the writers in the Dictionary discovered silent film after their experience of sound film. This is important, because they are therefore almost obliged to have a different view of montage.

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The weird part of it is that it never occurred to anyone, including Clark and me, that all this might have had a bad effect on the mood, or on our ability to play a love scene convincingly. But that’s the way it was. The way it always is. The way it is today, on any movie set…

*

Of course, there was the zoo, with caged lions — that was before those ridiculous concrete rocks were built for them — and they made me cry. The seals, on the other hand, seemed to me to be happy; at least they had their water, and kilos of fish thrown to them by a keeper who addressed them only in German.

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This week I excerpted only film books. It makes it harder to create a crazy mixed-up storyline or conversation, but what surprised me is that the coincidental connections created have little to do with film and more to do with transport.

They are: Lethal Innocence: The Cinema of Alexander Mackendrick, by Philip Kemp; Encountering Directors, by Charles Thomas Samuels (being flummoxed by Antonioni); Preston Sturges on Preston Sturges by Preston Sturges; Film Crazy: Interviews with Hollywood Legends, by Patrick McGilligan, interviewing Raoul Walsh (pictured) with Debra Weiner about D.W. Griffith; Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, edited by Richard Roud, from his introduction; Film Makers Speak, edited by Jan Leyda (the speaker is Mary Astor, referencing Clark Gable); Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be, by Simone Signoret.