Archive for Arthur Laurents

A Cocktail for the Corpse

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2009 by dcairns

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“Well, the Davids of this world merely occupy space…”

1) In honour of Hitchcock’s experiment in long-take technique, ROPE, I was going to write this post in one very very long sentence, but then in view of the fact that Hitch begins the film with a blatant cut right after the credits, and features two more in the course of the action which he doesn’t bother to cover up by having actors block the camera with their jackets, I thought, “Why bother?” — although I did also wonder why Hitch had gone to all the trouble of shooting in that style and talking it up as a big experiment and then copped out in those few instances: I mean it’s not as if the idea was totally unsound (photographing a play in real time in a continuous flow of action, as it would be experienced by a theatre audience) or as if he wasn’t very close to achieving it — I even wondered if the second and third cuts were the result of problems in hiding the cuts at the reel changes, but dismissed this idea as improbable… at any rate, I decided to compose my piece in nine or ten long sentences, like Hitchcock’s (more or less) ten long shots.

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“I never strangled a chicken in my life!”

2) Room perhaps for a digression (Already?) — in the recent BBC series Psychoville, a macabre comedy written by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton of The League of Gentlemen, one episode was given over to a single-take experiment in the ROPE vein, using DePalma-style digital trickery to hide a cut or two in a subtler manner than Hitchcock was able to achieve (and I’ve often wondered why he couldn’t have had somebody pass briskly across the lens from side to side, or zip-panned around the room to hide a cut in a much more unobtrusive way), and playing on the audience’s familiarity with the original in some cunning and amusing ways,  as well as exploiting the fact that suspense plays and bedroom farces share a similar reliance on tension and dramatic irony to create their effects — although the piece isn’t flawless, sometimes shifting comic register too abruptly, and sometimes forcing awkward verbal gags in against the grain of plot and character (when the story is as morbidly amusing as Psychoville’s, you really needn’t strain to insert puns and “jokes”), it’s nevertheless an ambitious and very unusual bit of television, going well beyond straight homage, and I was interested to read the line, “I have done murder,” in the Rope play, since it seems to provide inspiration for a key line in Psychoville: “I did a bad murder.”

3) I’m a bit of a Patrick Hamilton fan, The Slaves of Solitude and Hangover Square being two of my favourite books, so I took this opportunity to finally read his play, the source for Hitchcock’s film, sometimes called Rope’s End but originally titled Rope by its author, who set it in London in 1929, necessitating some adaptation (by Hume Cronyn and Arthur Laurents) to transfer the action to post WWII New York, and from a first floor flat to a penthouse apartment — but the structure is largely unchanged, Hitchcock having carefully looked around for a play with continuous action (the play is in three acts, acts one and two climaxing at suspenseful moments, the action resuming after each break without any time having passed in the play’s world) and remaining true to his principle of not violently altering the shape of a play when bringing it to the screen, since playwrights generally take a good bit of trouble to get the structure right… nevertheless, there are plenty of small difference: a cinema ticket is used as evidence in place of a hat, a poker from the fireplace provides menace in place of a revolver, and a police whistle summons the authorities at the climax, rather than the implausible but dramatic device of having Rupert, the philosopher-detective fire a pistol out the window… in addition to this, there are intriguing anticipations of later Hitchcocks: a tie pin is used as a clue (FRENZY) and a character says, “You wouldn’t hurt a fly,” (PSYCHO) — I’m pretty sure these are coincidental, but they’re amusing nonetheless.

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“Well, murder can be an art, too.”

4) Some of the biggest differences between play and film come from the casting and playing, with Farley Granger a more sympathetic presence than that suggested by Hamilton (Granillo, the play’s version of Philip, is of Spanish descent, a very Agatha Christie way of making him untrustworthy) — although Fiona, who like me saw the film on its re-release in the 80s, found the performance of his lower lip annoying — and James Stewart, merely by being James Stewart, entirely changes Rupert Cadell from a war-weary cynic and homosexual intellectual with a cutting sense of humour, into, well, James Stewart, about whom nothing bad can be suspected — Arthur Laurents suggests that James Mason would have been a better match for the character (better even than Cary Grant, Hitch’s first choice, who found it much too close for comfort) — the result is perfectly decent but a lot less interesting than it could have been — one so rarely gets a snarky gay detective in a thriller, and just imagine a British version with Dirk Bogarde (STOP PRESS: according to Wikipedia, the great Denis Price played in two TV versions, years apart, playing Brandon the first time and Rupert the second: better casting I cannot conceive of)!

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“We all do strange things in our childhood.”

5) ROPE is not only Hitch’s first Technicolor film (adding a whole series of new burdens to a technically challenging production), it’s his first independent one, away from the control of Selznick or anybody else for that matter (except the censor, who flipped when some of the play’s dialogue was used: the English “dear boys” were adjudged unspeakably effeminate) so that he could experiment freely with the long take technique which he’d been interested in for some time, but which Selznick had always forced him to curtail — it might even been supposed that Selznick’s supervision distorted Hitchcock’s technique, causing him to make exactly the kind of technical experiment Selznick would have instantly vetoed, despite the fact that it flew in the face of his own theories about the importance of montage, and that he made the film in reaction to Selznick’s previous interference.

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“Nobody commits a murder just for the experiment of committing it. Nobody except us.”

6) Leopold and Loeb — Arthur Laurents claims that nobody ever discussed the true-life murder case that inspired Hamilton’s play, but true-crime enthusiast Hitchcock was certainly aware of it — while both play and film end with the supposition that both the killers will hang for their crime, in reality they got off lightly: life plus 99 years, thanks to smart lawyer Clarence Darrow, played by Orson Welles  in the movie COMPULSION (director Richard Fleischer notes with bemusement that Welles disliked being watched by his fellow actors, so when he made his speech to the jury they all had to close their eyes, a striking, dreamlike image which somebody should film one day), a movie which Loeb Leopold tried to block, citing invasion of privacy — anyhow, Leopold Loeb was killed in prison by a fellow inmate who claimed he’d tried to sexually assault him (Chicago Daily News: “Richard Loeb, despite his erudition, today ended his sentence with a proposition.”) but Loeb Leopold volunteered to be infected with malaria for a study of the disease, served his sentence, worked as a lab and x-ray assistant, and donated his organs: I’m guessing he’s the Farley Granger one.

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“Out of character for him to be murdered, too.”

7) John Dall isn’t the most charismatic actor (“He’s hideous!” — Fiona) but he’s effective here and in GUN CRAZY, playing entirely different characters in radically different styles, and these noirish roles have largely outlasted the source of his fame, THE CORN IS GREEN; Sir Cedric Hardwicke has to be the boring voice of moral authority (Hamilton in his character description makes out that this guy is “completely captivating” but rather fails to live up to this in the action and dialogue, whereas the moral voice of Rupert acquires startling power at the end of both play and film because it’s earned by the story and comes as a surprise to both him and us) so he can’t really shine here, but Constance Collier is an amusingly bizarre presence (Hitchcock’s films link up in the oddest ways: Hume Cronyn acted in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and LIFEBOAT and writes here; Emlyn Williams wrote for THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and acted in JAMAICA INN; and Collier was co-author with Ivor Novello of the play Downhill, which Hitch filmed with Novello in the lead role… I have previously remarked on the striking similarity of the set in ROPE to the one in THE RING) and Joan Chandler is perky and sweet (“Her shoulders are all the rage at the moment,” observes Fiona)… I guess some people would find Douglas Dick likewise charming, but his character is boringly conceived and the actor can’t enliven it — Hamilton’s young lovers are more maladroit, which makes them a little more appealing.

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“Well, now, you don’t really approve of murder, Rupert? If I may?”

8) Random odds and ends — Hitchcock has two cameos, walking buy in the first shot (the only location scene) and as a neon sign outline — this movie would make a seriously dangerous drinking game, all champagne and whisky, with Farley Granger alone enough to jeopardise the liver — remember, a full stop is just a hyphen coming right at you (Charles Fort) — Arthur Laurents reports that, since Edith Evanson was playing a maid, the other actors treated her AS a maid (the same kind of automatic prejudice that caused the actors playing chimps, gorillas and orangs to segregate in the studio canteen on PLANET OF THE APES!) — Evanson is good, in a role that doesn’t exist in the play, a sort of ineffectual mother figure for the boys (Hitch’s villains as often have weak mothers as domineering ones), a Thelma Ritter kind of role replacing the French cook in the play as part of the Americanizing process — the long take style throws up many side-benefits, not all of them obvious, like the extraordinary close-up of Stewart that plays out for about a minute of offscreen dialogue, and the low angle as the maid clears the fatal chest of plates and candelabras, a precursor to the safe-cracking sequence in MARNIE — what is this strange affinity, confirmed in VERTIGO, of James Stewart with green neon light?

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“They’re coming.”

9) Hitch’s independent company, Transatlantic Pictures, set up with Sidney Bernstein and intended to make films on both sides of the ocean, fulfilled its brief in a minimal way: ROPE, filmed in Hollywood, and UNDER CAPRICORN (which I’m in the minority on, since I rather like it) in England, two sort-of-minor but fascinating experiments in long-take storytelling, which form a bridge between the Selznick years and the years as a studio director with considerable but by no means total independence.

OK — can’t resist ending on a quote from the play ~

Rupert: (suddenly letting himself go — a thing he has not done, all the evening, and which he now does with tremendous force, and clear, angry articulation) What do I mean? What do I mean? I mean that you have taken and killed — by strangulation — a very harmless and helpless fellow-creature of twenty years. I mean that in that chest there — now lie the staring and futile remains of something that four hours ago lived, and laughed, and ran, and found it good. Laughed as you could never laugh, and ran as you could never run. I mean that, for your cruel and scheming pleasure, you have committed a sin and a blasphemy against that very life which you now yourself find so precious. And you have done more than this. You have not only killed him, you have rotted the lives of all those to whom he was dear. And you have brought worse than death to his father — an equally harmless old man who has fought his way quietly through to a peaceful end, and to whom the entire universe, after this, will now be blackened and distorted beyond the limits of thought. That is what you have done. And in dragging him round here tonight, you have played a lewd and infamous jest upon him — and a bad jest at that. And if you think, as your type of philosopher generally does, that all life is nothing but a bad jest, then you will now have the pleasure of seeing it played upon yourselves.

Brandon (pale and frozen) What are you saying? What are you doing?

Rupert It is not what I am doing, Brandon. It is what society is going to do. And what will happen to you at the hands of society I am not in a position to tell you. That’s its own business. But I can give you a pretty shrewd guess, I think. (He moves forward to the chest and swings back the lid) You are going to hang, you swine! Hang! Both of you! Hang! (Whistle in hand, he runs hobbling to the window, throws it open, leans out, and sends three piercing whistles into the night)

CURTAIN.

Mommie Fear Fest

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2009 by dcairns

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Occasional guest writer David Melville contributes a piece on Mervyn LeRoy’s GYPSY, screened recently at Edinburgh Filmhouse.

A year or so back, some callow critics dubbed Sweeney Todd “the first horror movie musical.” Understandable – given its lusty cannibalism and torrents of blood gushing from slashed throats – but not strictly true. Stephen Sondheim, the composer/lyricist of Todd, helped to create the genre as far back as 1962 (or 1960, if you count the Broadway original) with the profoundly terrifying Gypsy.

A musical biopic of strip-tease artiste Gypsy Rose Lee, the film was directed by Mervyn Leroy from a stage show with lyrics by Sondheim, music by Jule Styne (Funny Girl) and book by Arthur Laurents (The Way We Were). Rather than focus on the star herself – who, played by Natalie Wood, is surely the most winsome and genteel stripper in history, on screen or off – Gypsy is built around Rosalind Russell as her maniacally overbearing stage mother, Mama Rose. Here’s one lady who will do anything – and I mean anything – to see her little girl’s name in lights.

For much of the film, Mama Rose drags her two daughters (Louise, the future Gypsy Rose Lee, and her allegedly more ‘talented’ sister, Baby June) around the dustbowls of Depression-era America, performing in a vaudeville act of unique and awe-inspiring ghastliness. A platoon of chorus boys prance about inanely; there’s a dancing cow; it all ends in a rousing stars-and-stripes finale. Had it only been shown to Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, those scientists might truly have shocked him into submission

Whenever the act starts to pall, Mama Rose rallies her troops with one of those show-stopping songs that Broadway divas so relish – if only to wake up punters who are snoring in the back row. Rosalind Russell, who cannot actually sing, transforms her hit numbers – “Some People” and “Comin’ Up Roses” – into dramatic monologues. Think of Clytemnestra, about to be slaughtered by her children to avenge her murder of their father, only a bit more bone-chilling. (Ethel Merman, who created the role on stage, reprised “Comin’ Up Roses” for the 1981 inaugural gala for President Ronald Reagan…and fear took on a whole new meaning.)

At last, down on its luck, the troupe is reduced to performing in a sleazy strip joint. Horrified at first, Mama Rose nonetheless volunteers her daughter as a stand-in when the star stripper winds up in jail. It says a lot for the creepiness of Russell’s performance that this moment plays like a sordid and horrifying act of betrayal. (Just compare her to Susan Sarandon in Pretty Baby, who initiates her 12-year-old daughter into prostitution, but seems just a likeable good-time gal.) The little minx takes up the challenge and the rest is history – or, at any rate, camp showbiz history…which will do just as nicely, thank you, in a movie of this ilk.

As a study in deranged mother love, Gypsy is infinitely more horrific than Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho – which takes place in a far more sane and reassuring moral universe. We may intuit, from the tics and twitches of Anthony Perkins as Norman, what a devastatingly dysfunctional presence the deceased Mama Bates must have been. But we never see her alive on camera, as we do Russell – ranting and raging and looking, incidentally, far more like a Grand Guignol drag act than ever poor Tony does in his wig. Oh, that throaty drawl of a voice! Ah, those outsize mannish hands!

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That poor little Gypsy and her sister (who went to become the 40s starlet June Havoc) do not start disembowelling chorus boys in the shower, or finish the film in the confines of a padded cell, is a mystery to which they alone know the answer. The American critic Paul Roen is right, I believe, when he describes Gypsy as “a Technicolor prologue to the Crawford/Davis opus Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Released in the same year, the two films attracted – and continue to attract – a remarkably similar audience. One might say that Gypsy is scarier, while Baby Jane has better musical numbers.

In 1993, Gypsy was remade for TV starring Bette Midler. Although she is a vastly more accomplished musical performer than Rosalind Russell, the Divine Miss M falls flat as Mama Rose. Camp and cuddly and bursting with fun, her presence robs the story of its chilling emotional subtext. Simply put, she is just not scary. And fear, in its most primal and deep-rooted form, is what Gypsy is all about.

David Melville

With thanks to Nicola Hay.

Addendum — I just watched the film myself on the small screen. Mervyn LeRoy has certainly calcified a bit since his snappy days in the ’30s, but the widescreen filming of the stylised sets is pleasing, and everybody seems to be quite aware of the story they’re telling, in all its darkness. The “Hollywood ending” is cursory and deliberately unconvincing-as-hell. The screenplay adds an unnecessary voice-over from Russell that fragments things rather than holding them together, but whenever Laurents’ scenes are allowed to play out, they work as brilliant filmed theatre, and there’s not a weak song in it. The studio system may have been in decline, but this is one of its finer last gasps. DC.

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