Archive for Anne Baxter

Good Faith

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on April 22, 2019 by dcairns

MIX ME A PERSON is quite a good death row race against time drama, with Adam Faith in the Diana Dors role. Anne Baxter, doing a creditable English accent, runs the investigation, and Donald Sinden is the weak element. Based on a Jack Trevor Story novel (the man who wrote THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY and got paid £150 for it by Hitchcock, who used a fake name to keep the price low).

The teenage stuff is wild, man: check the coffee bar singalong above. Real gone. Characters have names like Socko and Dirty Neck and Gravy and Nobby. All very Grange Hill.

Leslie Norman (Barry’s dad) directs and at times looks like a real stylist, but can’t quite maintain the intensity or invention to make the movie remarkable. But the camera noses through doorways and there are some very interesting transitions…

Story’s story is more critical of authority than you expect at this period — and he hadn’t had his appalling experience being crippled by the Metropolitan police yet.

Adam Faith was really terrifically naturalistic in BEAT GIRL, which didn’t deserve him, whereas the weepy elements here are more of a train. He’s a proper movie star, though.

Seen on Talking Pictures TV,

MIX ME A PERSON stars Eve Harrington; Ronald ‘Budgie’ Bird; Dr. Gideon Fell; Mike Rawlins; Professor Abronsius; John Tracy; the Duke of Norfolk.

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Movie of the Week

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2015 by dcairns

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My friend and collaborator Niall Greig Fulton — Edinburgh Film Festival Programmer and actor — has put together an enticing season of American TV movies for this year’s fest, including such classics as Salem’s Lot, Duel, The Jericho Mile and the rarely-seen Noon Wine. It’s all about finding the cinematic in the televisual, and with an array of directors like Hooper, Spielberg, Mann and Peckinpah, the exercise is clearly going to be worthwhile.

I’ve seen a few interesting pieces from this era of US TV — A Cold Night’s Death is about killer psychic chimps at the North Pole, which is pretty non-generic. You can watch that one here. I wrote about Gene Roddenberry’s bizarre Spectre here, a show which introduced me to the thrills of Robert Culp. Rod Serling’s The Man looked at the travails of America’s first black presodent. But I wanted to dig a little deeper to see what else I could find, because really, I remember American TV of the seventies as a HORRIBLE WASTELAND. Growing up in the UK we saw a lot of it, you see, and the good bits were very much overshadowed by the transcontinental miasma of blandness. It was apparent that things like The Rockford Files were a cut above. But on the whole, everything looked the same, was shot the same, used the same locations, the actors all seemed to look the same and dress the same and talk at the same speed, the credits were all in yellow blocky letters, and it kept fading to black in the middle of scenes, where the BBC had removed the ad breaks. I think you could make a pretty good case that any show that fades to black in the middle of a scene and then fades up again with everybody still standing in the same position (with meaningless musical sting as we fade out and in) just shouldn’t have been on the BBC at all.

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The first thing I looked at was Stranger on the Run, an early (1967) TV Movie of the Week, given the class treatment — it reunites star Henry Fonda with his 12 ANGRY MEN writer Reginald Rose, though Rose’s story has been fleshed out by screenwriter Dean Riesner (coincidentally the son of Chuck Riesner). The director is Don Siegel, and how these talents fit together within the context of a TV movie is sort of interesting.

The story transposes to the west and then inverts the premise of 12 ANGRY MEN (itself a TV play before the more famous movie) — Fonda is now the suspect, an alcoholic drifter hunted by a surly posse of railway company thugs for murdering a woman. The debate about his possible innocence (of course we know he’s innocent) occurs among the posse as they track him, which in theory should make it more exciting and filmic. In fact, Riesner’s dramatic values — he was a writer for Siegel, on COOGAN’S BLUFF, DIRTY HARRY and CHARLEY VARRICK, which I would characterise as a desire to play out a story’s themes in the form of action, without philosophising about it — rather clash with Rose’s, since he sets things up deliberately to provoke debates about personal and social values. In 12 ANGRY MEN these are filtered through some strong, sweaty characters, so it’s still solid drama. Here, the genre action doesn’t seem to reinforce the deeper themes, though there’s some good talk in there. When Fonda mourns that the day of testing whether he’s a man has passed, and he failed the challenge, Bernie Hamilton cheers him with a hearty “That just means you’re lucky — you’re going to get another chance!” An upbeat way of viewing the present situation, which is that a gang on armed men are coming to kill him.

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The movie is crammed with interesting actors — Anne Baxter is top-billed after Fonda. They’re good together, and he’s particularly effective as a broken-down hobo, not trying to make the character more initially appealing than he should be. Michael Parks, Dan Duryea, Sal Mineo, Tom Reese and Zalman King (!) make a characterful posse. Plus Lloyd Bochner and the reliably strange-looking Walter Burke.

In the early scenes, Siegel seems to have a lot of trouble covering scenes with all these mugs, no doubt due to the tight schedule. He does fine in the exteriors, but most interior scenes get treated with one wide shot that’s too wide for comfort — it serves to establish where everyone is, but then you can’t look at it any longer because everyone’s miles away — then he’ll cut to individual closeups that are too tight — we lose all context and quickly get a little disoriented. In general, critics don’t talk about the problems of shooting large groups, but it’s an absolute nightmare. You never have time to shoot a single on everyone, and if you do, it confuses the audience. I had some fun with the worst ever example of this, here. A far better approach is to make each shot work as hard as possible, tying in one character to another to keep the audience cognisant of who is where in relation to whom. A truly amazing example, from Otto Preminger, is discussed here. Siegel’s best strategy might have been to spend all his time picking a great master shot and then hold it, as he would on CHARLEY VARRICK, for instance, but TV, with its low-res image and demand for close-ups, wouldn’t have allowed that.

Ultimately, Stranger on the Run feels like a B-movie with ideas above its station, ideas which overstuff it and overbalance it, and the plethora of characters (who never quite develop into a caseload of suspects for us to wonder about, as they would in a well-plotted mystery) spread the drama too thin. The production values are OK — the desert cycloramas are a lot more convincing than in Siegel’s more celebrated THE KILLERS (originally made for TV but fobbed off on the big screen after concerns about the violence). But it isn’t clean and simple like, say, THE LINE-UP, and the look has a generic quality, that made-for-TV feel, which dulls down the possibilities of the form.

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Chris Schneider recommended The Outsider, a 1967 PI story directed by Michael Ritchie and crammed with aging Hollywood greats — the presence of Ann Sothern, Edmund O’Brien and Audrey Totter could almost put this in the league of something like THE OUTFIT. Then there’s Shirley Knight, Ossie Davis and Joseph Wiseman. In the lead, Darren McGavin is surly and deadpan and very, very enjoyable, with Roy Huggins’ script providing plenty of zingers (it’s no surprise to learn Huggins created Jim Rockford and thereby trained up David Chase).

Best of all, it’s directed by Michael Ritchie, just about to break into features on the big screen and eager to show what he can do, even on the kind of schedule where the grips start disassembling the tripod before you’ve said “Cut!”

McGavin’s down-at-heel gumshoe is, per genre requirements, perpetually sleep-deprived and roughed up, though the scenario comes up with novel ways of mistreating him — a near-garrotting and a drugging with chloral hydrate that leads to the stomach-pump. Even Jim Rockford didn’t have it this tough.

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My favourite bit started off looking like it would be an embarrassment. Having tracked his would-be strangler to a beach-side shack, McGavin finds the suspect’s mother, Ann Sothern, who tells him that the guy is inside, tripping with a friend and won’t be coherent for interrogation for several hours. They go in, and there’s sitar music playing and hysterical laughter from the next room, which is kind of ridiculous. And here’s Joseph Wiseman — Dr. No himself, as the acid guru, who starts lecturing McGavin about the joys of turning on and experiencing the cosmic laughter. And all this while, Sothern is plugged into headphones and smiling at a TV game show where various sub-lebrities are trying to guess the phrase “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Big closeups and surprise angle changes start to suggest all this is getting to McGavin. The world has slipped out of joint. In other words, while the young hood is having a TV movie acid trip next door, with laughing and freak-outs and sitar music and a fisheye lens on a handheld camera — McGavin is having a REAL acid trip in the front room — an experience in which reality comes to seem unreal.

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That sensation is one which the TV movie genre could profitably have pursued more doggedly — it is well within the constraints of time and budget, it can work within all kinds of genres, and it is familiar enough to anybody paying attention to the real world that it ought to be highly commercial, a staple of entertainment like romance or tension.

Father Benoit’s Bicycle

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2009 by dcairns

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USA link:
I Confess
UK link:
Hitchcock DVD Collection – Dial M For Murder / I Confess / Stage Fright / The Wrong Man / Strangers On A Train / North By Northwest

Hitchock’s confession: “The whole treatment was lacking in humour and subtlety.” He’s right: I CONFESS is entirely devoid of comic relief or comic commentary, apart from Father Benoit’s bicycle, which does raise a smile, and a party game where Brian Aherne balances a glass of water on his head. In fact, Benoit is beneficial on a second level, because the thick Quebecois accent of Charles Andre makes the name sound exactly like “Father Bunuel”, and there IS something quite UN CHIEN ANDALOU about the cleric at the handlebars. The idea of Bunuel as a priest is delicious — although Benoit looks a bit more like Pasolini.

Some of the French critics regarded I CONFESS very highly, and while I agree it’s a decent film, I fear the seriousness of theme and aspect may have given it a respect it does not altogether earn as art. But the overt Catholicism makes it a very illuminating film in Hitchcock’s career. A lot of people have commented on the central idea, that Montgomery Clift, as Father Logan, cannot reveal the murderer’s identity, even to save himself from suspicion, because he learned it under the seal of the confessional. As Hitchcock admitted to Truffaut, “We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous!'”

Perhaps the problem could have been alleviated in the dialogue — in Jimmy McGovern’s TV show Cracker, I recall a very clear exposition of the idea that the secret of the confessional is paramount — all other considerations are secondary to it. It doesn’t help that, by the very nature of the story, Monty can’t discuss his problem with anyone else. William Archibald and George Tabori’s screenplay certainly hits most of the story points with a leaden thud, but somehow glosses over this centrally important point. (Tabori is best known, perhaps, for the barmy SECRET CEREMONY, while Archibald’s only other significant screenplay credit is THE INNOCENTS, although he didn’t actually contribute much to that great film.)

Fortunately, Monty can discuss his problem with the audience, using his intensely expressive eyes. Hitchcock at one point planned to have Clift effectively identify the murderer with a glance, a very Hitchcockian idea, but Catholic chief censor Joseph Breen objected that this still counted as a violation of Catholic doctrine. I think Hitchcock privately agreed, which is why he wanted to kill Clift’s character at the end.

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DIRECTION. We all love the DIRECTION signs dotted around Quebec. They seem to add a fateful, doomy quality. The Hitchcock cameo is deliberately early: Hitch worried that audiences would be distracted looking for him, and in a serious film like I CONFESS that would be especially harmful. The stairs in Georgetown down which Jack MacGowran and Jason Miller tumble in THE EXORCIST are known as “the Hitchcock steps,” presumably because of this shot.

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Great noir photography by Robert Burks, cementing his position as Hitchcock’s cameraman of choice and exploiting the cobbled streets and dark, heavy skies. The Tiomkin score (recycling familiar themes like the medieval death mass) and Burks’ lighting emphasise the darkness and gloom of the story, and may be my favourite things about it, along with Clift’s performance.

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As Truffaut pointed out, it’s a remarkable coincidence that the priest O.E. Hasse confesses to has a covert relationship to the murdered man, which makes him a suspect. I guess, as in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, the murder benefits the hero, in this case by ridding him of Anne Baxter’s blackmailer, which adds a metaphysical guilt to his shoulders. We never find out what Clift was planning to do to make the blackmailer stop blackmailing…

Tabori’s and Archibald’s dialogue really doesn’t satisfy me. Charles Andre spends his first scene talking about PAINT, which is a very minor plot point indeed. And he does it in that acc-ent, so it’s “Do you know of enny pain’ zat does not smirl?”

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That flashback! I thought the Dutch tilt of Baxter coming downstairs in slomo was preposterous when I first saw it. I guess the O.T.T. romantic schmaltz allies the flashback to Baxter’s POV, though, and Truffaut apparently felt this made it a “lying flashback” like the one in STAGE FRIGHT. It’s certainly a heavily slanted one, and it’s notably silent on the subject of whether Clift had sex with Baxter that night in the gazebo.

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Monty gets into a fight with Monsieur Hulot.

This all means that what I thought was the worst thing in the film, the vulgar and overblown flashback, is maybe the most interesting. It may not be successful, but it opens up intriguing possibilities.

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What else? Hasse has wild eyes, which he manages to keep under control, and there’s one great scene of him hassling Clift as Clift walks swiftly down a corridor and through a couple of rooms, Hitch cutting fast and rhythmic, piling on the pressure. That’s something the whole film tries to do, crush Clift under the weight of evidence and suspicion and shame. Karl Malden’s detective isn’t a bad guy (the cops in THE WRONG MAN are much meaner) but he’s ruthless as hell, and Hitch indulges his fear of law enforcers while remaining fair to the character. The nightmare is that Malden’s actions are all quite reasonable.

Clift is great, of course. Everybody talks about his eyes, in which we can read everything, but I also like the little smile he gives whenever one of his interrogators says something that’s true. “You’re getting warm,” he’s telling them. It’s a beautiful little smile too. Of course, they all miss the signs.

If the film seems minor to me it’s partly the lack of humour and distinguishing touches in the dialogue, and perhaps even more so the lack of logic at the end. Of course, Hitch is famously illogical, as we’ve seen, but this movie sets up certain expectations in its sombre style, and in the way each event is inexorably forced on by the last. So when Hasse basically goes nuts at the end, it’s unsatisfying. He’s gone through an interesting and credible arc, starting as an incompetent criminal who kills by mistake and experiences persecution mania and guilt, but slowly being corrupted by his desire to escape punishment, so that he deliberately frames Clift. But at the end, he shoots his wife, who was the reason he committed robbery in the first place. Worse, he shoots her to stop he denouncing him, which makes very little sense since he does it in the middle of a crowd. And then, rather than recognizing that the gig is up, he takes everyone on a protracted chase through an irrelevant hotel, wounding or killing someone else (RFK-style, in the hotel kitchen) solely to generate some kind of suspense sequence. We don’t really believe that Clift is still in the frame as a murder suspect (he’s been cleared by the court, and Hasse’s homicidal behaviour is sure to change the tide of public sympathy) and so the only tension is whether Clift will get himself killed. Worse, Anne Baxter leaves with her husband while that question is still unanswered, which seems frankly incredible.

I think I CONFESS deserves to be held to a higher standard of probability than NORTH BY NORTHWEST or even PSYCHO, because the whole narrative problem is a social and psychological one. It’s a good little film, but not quite the triumph Clift’s performance deserves.

I’ll be away most of today — teaching, and then a film translation by Mr Wingrove — but I’ll reply to any comments this evening. Meanwhile, dust off your red-and-blue glasses for next week’s 3D extravaganza…

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Heavy symbolism. Earlier, Clift stares balefully at a lobby card for Warner Bros’ THE ENFORCER…