Archive for Andre DeToth

Do you get all your equipment from Kellogs?

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2017 by dcairns

Ken Russell’s film of BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, deliriously wacky though it is, is actually closer to Len Deighton’s source novel than the previous movies in the Harry Palmer series, apart from the ending. (Deighton’s climax is even grimmer than a LeCarre: as ever with this series, the filmmakers have sought something punchier, but even here, the big Finnish finish is suggested by a speech in the novel.)

But the opening scene is all new — series regular Guy Doleman as Colonel Ross (mentioned only once in the book) breaks into the HP Detective Agency — above a surgical appliance shop, reached via a dismal neon-lit stair yowling with cats — and performs a search. Herky-jerky handheld shot follows a flashlight beam and reminds me of the search in BLADE RUNNER that turns up a snake scale in the bath, filmed in a similar way because Harrison Ford wasn’t available for a reshoot. Excellent gag, reminiscent of REAR WINDOW and CHINATOWN both — a filing cabinet marked DIVORCE yields two photos, one of a couple surprised in bed, the other of the chap swinging his fist at the lens. The next drawer down contains a smashed camera.HP himself (Michael Caine) arrives, armed, and Doleman spills Corn Flakes over the floor when he raises his hands. Jump cut to Caine shoveling it up, at Doleman’s feet (again). MI5 want Palmer back. He refuses. A package arrives — a key and money. The phone rings. Computer voice gives Palmer instructions —JUMP CUT! Palmer’s trademark spectacles LEAP off his face into the foreground as computer font lettering flickers and Caine, in the background, squints at his suddenly displaced specs. Richard Rodney Bennett is freaking out on piano like a drunken Rachmaninoff and lots of little Caines are voguing about in strange loops — it’s a particularly brilliant Maurice Binder title sequence, sans naked silhouettes but giving the distinct impression that this installment will be splashier, more sexy and exotic, more Bondian, than its predecessors. But the pre-creds sequence also assures us that our hero remains an underdog.

Palmer picks up a package. A thermos. He takes it to a shoeshop and subjects it to the Pedoscope — I am old enough to remember, dimly, X-ray machines in shoeshops. A brilliant idea — lets you see if your toes are cramped, in case you can’t feel it. Also gives you foot cancer, I suspect. Palmer’s thermos is full of eggs. In the book, he’s just given eggs. This is better — adds another layer of mystery, and the  just leaves things more mysterious. I’d like to make the first film shot entirely in Pedoscope.

Our clever screenwriter is Scots playwright John McGrath, who also co-wrote PLAY DIRTY for Andre DeToth, here a producer — De Toth’s bio is full of good Ken Russell stories. The whole business of Palmer no longer being at MI5 is McGrath’s invention too — and it actually makes him being recruited by another organisation more plausible.

Palmer’s instructions pack him off to Helsinki, where Francoise Dorleac gets a brilliant introduction. A tiny “big wheel” spins against the low sun. It’s second rotation flips the camera off into a fast pan that finds Caine, waiting for his contact. Sudden, dazzling Francoise close-up, speaking right into the lens. No context for where she is. Back to longshot, Caine turns, she’s behind him. Very MOD. Uses confusion as a means to attain clarity in a more exciting way. A bit like the eggs in the thermos, only in terms of mise-en-scene. Deighton’s Signe in the book is now the more pronounceable Anya, but she’s the same crazy bitch. Dorleac being marginally older than the character means she has less excuse for her extreme flakiness and so she’s correspondingly less sympathetic.

Shakicam ski-bike ride to an isolated sauna and Karl Malden — this is the movie that gives you Francoise Dorleac, swathed in furs outside a sauna, and Karl Malden naked inside it. In the book, he’s Harvey Newbegin (great name, if obvious) but since our nameless spy is now a Harry, in the movie he has to be Leo Newbegin, which will take some getting used to.

Dorleac is reprising her role from CUL DE SAC, as the fickle tramp who’s lured a wealthy middle-aged man away from his stable marriage. Malden’s slightly crazed gusto perfectly suits the role, as he seems desperate for Palmer to approve his new love match. Palmer has just snogged Dorleac and so is a bit skeptical.A most original conception, your majesty — the birth of Venus.

Russell & McGrath get through exposition joyously — Caine is discomfited by nudity in the first section, then lounges in a bubble chair looking fatuous with a cigar while Dorleac drones tunelessly on a cello and Billy Williams’ camera soaks up Syd Cain’s design. Williams would follow Russell onto WOMEN IN LOVE, which was the reason he was making this in the first place. Amazing design as Palmer discovers a corpse — in the book, the scene is a laboratory in an apartment. Here, it’s a mansion walled in classy porn and jungled up with potted plants — hilarious, beautiful and surreal. The body (a fat one) is slumped facing an open window so his face is frosted. Then Palmer is chloroformed.

He wakes up in the back half of a car in front of a process screen. Rear projection never works in colour/widescreen movies of this time, but Russell gets some added value out of it by pulling out from the grainy street footage and panning onto Caine, so it’s like he’s woken up in a movie. Ross threatens to frame Palmer for the previous scene’s murder, and he’s forcibly recruited back into Her Maj’s Secret Service, to spy on Malden’s organisation from within.A spacious loft set — one of numerous vaulted chambers of this design in Russell’s oeuvre. The titular brain is mentioned, but all we see is a desktop terminal. Spurious drama — Malden is ordered to shoot Dorleac. He doesn’t.REPORT TO TEXAS FOR INDOCTRINATION

Shock cut from hockey mask to multiplying bacilli suggest Russell was impressed by PETULIA the previous year. I think Mad Ken and Richard Lester were checking out each other’s work, influenced but also rejecting a lot of influence. I think they both felt the need to keep track of what the other was up to.Palmer is flown to Latvia with Vladek Sheybal, a Russell favourite. On a train — a teenage Susan George, Caine’s future co-star (THE JIGSAW MAN). And we meet Oscar Homolka in a scene containing broad farcical elements which is nevertheless straight from the book. Homolka was a memorable presence in FUNERAL IN BERLIN so it’s lovely to have him back, cackling insanely, an avuncular dumpling you nevertheless believe capable of terrible things. Russell was particularly amused by the book’s casting of Americans as villains and Russians as the good guys — he exaggerates it somewhat, as was his wont, but it IS true to the novel.

Here in Latvia the film seems to have lost a Beatles song from its soundtrack — the Latvian “freedom fighters” employed by Malden — his cousins — also traffick in bootleg western goods. I REMEMBER this song from a TV screening.A double-cross — Malden wants Caine dead. And we get the film’s most beautiful image, cossack-like riders emerging from the winter sun. Like the private eye he briefly was, Palmer is knocked unconscious again. An occupational hazard for anyone in the Marlowe racket.

And awakens in a bath-tub full of corpses (the book). Grim comedy hi-jinks — a guard comes in as he’s contemplating escape. Awkward eye contact. The man begins to undress. Uh-oh. Sigh of relief — he’s just come to use the loo. (This is the third scene to wring comedy from men undressing together.) Two more guards enter, rush Caine, seizing and subduing him… soak a towel from the sink… and give his face a nice wash.

Shostakovich — Russell is just wild about all things Russian — limbering up for THE MUSIC LOVERS — a crimson bar, where Sheybal is apprehended and Caine compromised — Dorleac, who travels fast, is snapping the compromat of him being chummy with Homolka using a very obvious but chic spycam.Back to Helsinki — Palmer partners up with Newbegin (who just tried to have him killed) in his scam — claiming massive expenses from crazed American patriot General Midwinter to foment revolution in Latvia — and we’re off to Texas at last!

Except Texas is one place the movie didn’t go — looks like they filmed in Finland and England only — so Middlesex is doubling for Texas. By setting the whole thing at night and making it rather surreal anyway, Russell gets away with this — a sort of Nazi rally/square dance/barbecue — in the book, Midwinter’s organisation is called Facts For Freedom (“The fact free people,” the unnamed spy’s boss calls them) and the three Fs form a sort of grid logo. Russell has the M and W of Midwinter’s name pressed together to form a sort of involuted swastika. Not subtle, this stuff, but satire rarely is. A Trump rally, basically.

Midwinter is a bit subtler in the book too — he’s of Latvian descent and wants to free his former homeland. In the movie, he’s just a nutty American super-patriot. They got rid of his artificial arm, also — too much? What exactly would constitute “too much” in this context? “My arm is long and my vengeance is total!” bellows Ed Begley, eyes aglint with blazing insanity. Very good use of his Humpty Dumpty shape, apart from his egg (torso + head) he seems to be all legs.The brain itself — the facilities of Honeywell (do they still have a building on the road between Edinburgh and Glasgow?). Russell’s love of Lang’s METROPOLIS shines through. The other giveaway that we haven’t crossed the Atlantic is Donald Sutherland, oddly enough, fussing over terminals, at the tail-end of his European sojourn (Perth Rep, various cheapo horrors). His computer “expertise” perhaps earned him his role in SEBASTIAN the following year. Big Bondian set, all greatly amped-up from the book. Here, we begin to conclusively depart from the source, in interests of a big ending —Karl Malden escapes and Caine, about to be shot due to Dorleac’s compromat, strikes a deal with Midwinter to capture him. Two henchmen in stetsons accompany him back to Finland for this purpose. Attractive sequence in greenhouse! Stetson men shot at train station, Dorleac flees, having double-crossed Malden for those eggs (remember those eggs? Imbued with deadly germs stolen from Porton Down, Britain’s biological and chemical weapons facility — just saw a BBC documentary about it). Malden falls weakly into line now with Caine’s plans — must warn Midwinter not to invade Latvia as he’ll start WWIII. (Earlier, Malden has his own crazy moment — WWIII means nothing to him as long as he’s making a profit. Nicely underplayed (yet MASSIVE) moment from Malden, and it strikes me as psychologically acute — there are evidently people who simply refuse to imagine nuclear destruction or climate change.

Happily the movie omits Deighton’s description of Newbegin pressing his nose against a train window. One imagines a vast, ever-spreading pink pancake blotting out the sun if Malden were to attempt this.

The big Finnish finish — Midwinter’s cracker army advances across the ice, so Homolka bombs the ice and sinks them all — all lifted from Eisenstein’s ALEXANDER NEVSKY, but staged with trucks and a really impressive, weirdly fake day for night — I think they just erected black backdrops — it sort of does look like how the scene might be if it were floodlit. Disturbing mass drowning — also kind of funny, in an unpleasant sort of way. General Midwinter dies as he lived — a bellowing dwarf.

Caine awakens draped on the ice floe like Lillian Gish. Somehow the only survivor. Homolka magnanimously returns the eggs and says a dismissive eulogy for the “stupid” Begley. Caine returns to London —The eggs hatch. Amusing coda, not in the book, but Deighton might possibly have considered it if he’d thought of it.

In the novel, our hero assassinates Newbegin to stop him defecting to the Russians. Kind of violates Deighton’s own rule about not letting his hero solve problems with violence — but has he really solved anything? In a way, being forced to kill IS the problem.

 

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Snowbound

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 28, 2015 by dcairns

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In this movie, there’s actually eight!

With Tarantino’s frosty western gorefest about to splatter all over us in glorious 70mm (it opens in the UK while I’ll be busy shooting my own, much, much smaller film), and with this being the season when I quite like looking at snow without having to touch it, I popped Andre DeToth’s DAY OF THE OUTLAW in the Panasonic, wowing Fiona, who is not normally an enthusiast of the oater. “Am I mellowing, or was that really good?” she asked, afterwards.

The story, credited to Philip Yordan (a talented guy, but he fronted for so many blacklistees I’m never sure he’s the actual author), based on a novel by Lee E. Wells, depends on a silly coincidence — plot #1, a standard cattle men versus farmers fight, with an adulterous love affair thrown in, gets interrupted just as the central figures, including tower of spasming muscle and venom Robert Ryan, square off for a climactic duel. Plot #2 now commences, in which this one-horse town is held hostage by Burl Ives and his band of savages, a Quantrill’s Raiders bunch of psychos, introduced by Ives in a cool/scary/hilarious role call.

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This new plot is much more compelling and high-stakes, and it has the advantage of making the rather unappealing antagonists of plot #1 — fuming near-psycho Ryan and peevish Alan Marshal — become relatively sympathetic, so bad are the bad guys and so awful is their new situation.

For people who don’t care for plot, this movie would serve as a good illustration of the value of a strong dramatic situation. As Billy Wilder put it, “A guy comes in the door, you got nothing. He comes in the window, you got a situation.”

DeToth, that fearsome bullet-headed Hungarian cyclops — many Hollywood directors were tough eggs, not many conspired, as DeToth seems to have done, to get his leading man decapitated (on HOUSE OF WAX), benefits from the script, the cast, and Alexander Courage’s glittering music and Russell Harlan’s cinematography. The landscapes are impressive, but so are the compositions for straightforward compositions. Though DeToth is a little happier to hold a flat two-shot than he ought to be, I think, he also delivers packed and dynamic shots that bristle with tension.

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The empty chairs formerly occupied by Tina-Louise’s husband and child earn their place in the shot as a kind of barrier between T-L and RR.

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Snow!

Thundering Beef

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 31, 2015 by dcairns

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A religious motto in the background establishes Joel McCrea’s righteousness — as if that were necessary! — as he opposes the villain’s hubris.

The title RAMROD was guaranteed to reduce my inner smutty schoolboy to helpless sniggering, but the re-teaming of Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, with Lake’s husband Andre DeToth at the helm, merited more serious attention, clearly. Olive Films have released the picture on a good-looking Blu-ray so serious attention is perfectly possible for anyone with the cash to spare.

The movie begins with a clusterbombing of exposition, characters heaping up without much introduction, so that my sleepy self quickly started to despair of being able to follow things. Also, DeToth’s noir sensibility seemed to be inflecting everything with twistiness and ambivalence — black hats and white hats seemed apt to get swapped at any moment, and usually lovable or at any rate amicable actors were already sliding out of place into shadowy terrain — Veronica Lake seems spoilt and stroppy, Charlie Ruggles is severe and inhumane, Joel McCrea drinks too much, Donald Crisp is a vacillating lawman, Preston Foster is a power-hungry cattle baron and Lloyd Bridges… well, that guy always did a nice turn in psycho hoodlums, so it’s no surprise to find him sneering from the sidelines.

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The exposition was so deep after a few minutes of in media res backbiting that I was expecting a noir flashback to give us a second go at understanding things, but this never happened. In other respects, though, this is far more noir than western. Moral certainty is filled full of lead early on and never rises from its sickbed.

Gradually I perceived the fault lines running through the town and family at the film’s centre — think Mann’s THE FURIES, another western by a noir specialist with ranchers as Borgia-gangsters, fraught father-daughter relationships, violent passions and murderous politicking. McCrea, despite a token alcohol problem and an inability to decide between the two leading ladies, does preserve his righteous image, but it takes a little more of a shaking up than usual.

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Maybe that’s part of why McCrea disliked the film. He also didn’t care for DeToth either personally or professionally — he didn’t like all the beautiful elaborate tracking shots winding through it (“John Ford didn’t need that”) and felt DeToth’s relationship with Lake harmed his ability to direct her. He told Patrick McGilligan, “When you work with the director’s wife, this is for the birds. Because he’s not going to be tough with her, you know, or she’ll kick his ass when he gets home at night.”

Mind you, I saw DeToth in person, and though he was in his nineties at the time, it was hard to imagine anyone kicking this bullet-heated Hungarian cyclops’ ass.

Those snaky tracking shots and crane shots are very gorgeous, animating the scenery (DeToth always liked to seek out less familiar locations for his westerns) and making the environment more than just backdrop. He pulls off some punchy compositions too, frequently boxing Lake in as if he wanted to build a protective house around her.

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It’s a really interesting role for Lake, maybe the only femme fatale she ever got to play? — and the outcome is interesting too, because she’s not punished for her various crimes and manipulations, other than not getting her man at the end. She wins everything else, with an outcome that’s almost a Revenger’s Tragedy until you reflect that a surprising number of nasty characters are still walking around, either partially redeemed or simply judged not important enough to be worthy of Stern Western Justice.

Early on, Lake blows her top at her father, who’s been trying to fix her up with the wealthy cattle king as husband. Her rebellion against him emerges in a startlingly bitter and aggressive tirade, which seems both utterly sympathetic and too real to be just acting. Lake, who had been pushed into movies by her mother, renamed and restyled and boxed in, lets rip at this parental figure who’s trying to plot out her entire life for her with a fury that’s surely authentic. DeToth reported that she hated movie acting, but it sure looks like she’s getting something out of this scene.

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Oh, also, her character name, Connie, is her own real name. Veronica was her mother’s name.

So I loved the hell out of this. A western without the more clichéd visuals and without the cosy moral certainty. Particularly good work from Don DeFore as the most ambiguous character of all, the womanizing cowhand who is loyal yet a traitor, murderous but just, bad but noble. His schismatic nature is magnified across the whole movie. Amazing.

Ramrod [DVD]