Archive for Bernard Gordon

White Russian, Red Face

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2012 by dcairns

For my birthday I had a bunch of people round and we drank white Russians (vodka + kahlua + milk) and watched HORROR EXPRESS, a movie I’ve always been indecently fond of.

Screenwriters Julian Zimet and Arnaud d’Usseau (who later co-wrote the mighty PSYCHOMANIA) look to have been blacklistees, hired by producer Bernard Gordon, who definitely was barred from working in Hollywood. They cobble together an amusing QUATERMASS-type yarn set on the Trans-Siberian Express, chuffing across the tundra from Peking to Moscow, bearing Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, an amok neanderthal specimen, and a Rasputin wannabe (prolific giallo star Alberto de Mendoza).

I’d always heard that the movie was made to exploit the availability of a model train from NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, a perfectly decent reason for making a film… guest David Wingrove felt some of the train footage looked familiar from DOC ZHIVAGO… online I find references to the train model and set both being recycled from Gordon’s previous production, PANCHO VILLA, aka VENDETTA. That film starred Telly Savalas, who turns up here as a cossack. That alone is a reason to love the film.

Note the unusual way of holding a cigarillo — Savalas was one of the screen’s great smokers until he gave it all up for lollipops. The Savalas career includes a notable Spanish Period, with LISA AND THE DEVIL (the film where he discovered lollipops, on the recommendation of director Mario Bava, as a way to quit smoking) and the immortal A TOWN CALLED BASTARD, which co-star Dudley Sutton described to me as “the crookedest film I was ever in.” Dudley also had some story about Telly being “out of his face on LSD the whole time.”

That rogue caveman soon busts out of his crate — we started a drinking game to swill back a white russian every time he escaped his box — this was soon replaced by a game to drink whenever a supporting player turned up with white, featureless eyeballs. It turns out the hominid is infested by an alien intelligence, trapped in the ice millennia ago. This being can drain the minds of those it comes in contact with, absorbing their knowledge and leaving their brains as smooth and featureless as a baby’s bottom, or Jeffrey Hunter’s face.

It can also transfer from host to host, making it hard to catch and subdue. Rival scientists Cushing and Lee set out to trap it, but the Rasputin-alike pledges his allegiance, as a kind of beardy Renfield character, offering up his own brain for draining. The entity snootily declines, stating that the monk has no knowledge worth filching. Instead he eventually uses Raspy as his new host body, before the authorities shunt the train down a siding leading conveniently to the precipice of obliteration. John Cacavas’ haunting (well, it haunted twelve-year-old me) theme tune resounds from the miniature wreckage, a spaghetti western whistle associated with the monster, implying that the beast lives on, perhaps having transferred its vast intellect to the film’s optical soundtrack…

The movie also seems to imply that this alien, if it made it to Moscow, might have started the Revolution — communism is a virus from outer space! A strange phenomenon that filmmakers too left-wing for Hollywood should find themselves reconstructing Tsarist Russia in Franco’s Spain. If we can swallow that, why should the scene where an image of the Earth seen from space is found imprinted on the caveman’s retina give us any trouble?

Buy: Horror Express (Blu-ray / DVD Combo)

The Sunday Intertitle: Rise of the Footsoldier

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by dcairns

Not easy finding an intertitle in Anthony Mann’s oeuvre. Lots of opening titles thanking the people of New Mexico etc, and lots declaring the factual nature of the story we are about to see — although Mann seems to have preferred VO for such direct announcement. But this card, from MEN IN WAR (1957), just about satisfies my stringent requirements, even if it’s only “inter” the main titles and the film.

It does neatly tie the story, an Korean war existentialist crisis drama, into the historical record, connecting it to other Philip Yordan scripts filmed by Mann — EL CID and THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and THE LAST FRONTIER and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE. Yordan seems to embrace both the mythic and universal properties of the western and other period subjects, and the more specific, historically-rooted possibilities.

I’m a little wary of generalizing about Yordan as an artist though, since he fronted for so many blacklisted writers (taking a healthy cut of their fees). When it cam time to restore the names of the true authors to the films’ credits, Yordan had apparently fallen out with some of his “collaborators” and refused to confirm their involvement. This strikes me as rather improper. And since Yordan was working as producer on the Bronston epics his name is attached to as writer, I have some concerns as to whether he actually did any writing. Bernard Gordon’s memoir, Hollywood Exile, makes no mention of Yordan doing any real writing on 55 DAYS AT PEKING (great stuff about Nick Ray though).

– EXCEPT —  a viewing of THE MAN FROM LARAMIE shows so many thematic concerns and character scenarios in common with TFOTRE that it becomes inconceivable that Yordan wasn’t a prime mover on that script.

In a weird way, Yordan’s name is still quite a good badge of quality on a film’s credits though, since he chose to work with talented blacklistees whose approach was sympatico to his own. So there’s a kind of pseudo-authorial style detectable anyhow.

As both the uber-generic title and the intertitle suggest, MEN IN WAR is a microcosm of the whole history of armed conflict. At times it almost feels like this dwindling platoon are on their way back to caveman times. Characterisation is briskly confined to what we can see and hear of the men’s behaviour — large numbers of them are left largely blank, with only Robert Ryan, Aldo Ray, Victor Mature, James Edwards (above) and Robert Keith making strong impressions: but those impressions are VERY strong. But I can never work out which one is Anthony Ray, and the normally distinctive LQ Jones is hard to recognise.

The conflict between Robert and Aldo is very interesting because it flies in the face of traditional war movie dynamics. Not just because Ray is looking out for himself and his Colonel, having counted himself out of the war. In most war films, there’s a character who’s right and a character who’s wrong. In this movie, Ray is consistently right, in the sense of acting in a way that ensures his survival. But it’s far from certain that Ryan is wrong. Most of the time he’s an effective officer, though given to self-doubt. Many of the personal clashes arise from the fact that he’s intent on contributing to the war, and Ray just wants to get out of it alive (I’m on Ray’s side).

On a first viewing, the ending, where Ryan reads out the names of his fallen men so Ray can award them posthumous silver stars, seemed like the movie was backing into more conventional patriotic territory. But the fact that Ray is tossing the medals into the dust rather disproves me. Each man is being true to the character he’s shown throughout the story. Only the tiresome song on the soundtrack attempts uplift (Mann seems PLAGUED by rancid balladry — GOD’S LITTLE ACRE has one of the more listenable ones, which isn’t saying much, but THE LAST FRONTIER and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE’s title tracks could be used in aversion therapy to put people off fifties movies for life).

MEN IN WAR is a really great work, I think, in a genre I have no naturally sympathy for (supposedly Robert Ryan, a former soldier himself, shared my contempt for the glamorizing of armed conflict — but I suspect he dug this movie). As with all Mann’s best movies, the tactile/visceral strengths are inseparable from what might seem to be the contrasting quality of thoughtfulness.

UK buyers –

Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist (Texas Film & Media Studies Series)

US –

Men in War

END of Anthony Mann Week. Tomorrow: something else! Tuesday: The Shadowplay August Impossible Film Quiz.

Quote of the Day: 55 Drinks at Peking

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2008 by dcairns

Screenwriter Bernard Gordon (55 DAYS AT PEKING) on Nicholas Ray ~

The Green Ray

“Nick was trying hard to battle a long alcohol dependency, but his approach struck me as weird and unproductive. He didn’t allow himself any wine or liquor but kept a bottle of an Italian digestif, Fernet Branca, at hand. Almost every bar had this drink in stock, ready for patrons who’d eaten too much and were suffering from acid indigestion. Ergo, digestif. I tried it myself. It worked much better than Alka Seltzer, but it was a vile-tasting concoction made from something like fermented artichoke hearts; sipping it was only slightly less unpleasant than suffering from heartburn. It was actually a strong alcoholic drink. From the taste, I suspected it was about a hundred proof. Keeping to his vow and his promise to stay off the sauce, Nick sat all evening, sipping his digestif, consuming almost the entire bottle. Toward the end of the shooting on PEKING, Nick became seriously ill. I blamed that corrosive drink.”

~ From Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Stop Worryng and Love the Blacklist.

peking blues

Gordon’s stories from this one shoot are incredible. With an alcoholic director, and an alcoholic star (Ava Gardner, who walked off the film partway, necessitating an offscreen death for her character), the film was what you might call troubled. When David Niven, who had cheerfully signed up without reading a page of script, protested that his character wasn’t active enough, an English writer was brought in to help Gordon flesh out the role. Robert Hamer, the most serious alcoholic of the bunch. It was said at Ealing Studios, latterly Hamer’s home, that if by some freak of chance, endurance or depravity you managed to misbehave more appallingly than Hamer on a night out, he would be unable to face you the next day for shame of having been outperformed in the degeneracy stakes.

Gordon found Hamer charming, but completely unproductive.

He reports that Philip Yordan, handling the production for Samuel Bronston, was an eccentric sort of chap (Yordan, a writer himself, was a “front” for many blacklisted scribes. When all the blacklisted writers names were being restored to the credits of films they’d worked on, Yordan provided information about who had done what — except where he’d had a falling-out with the writer. Then they could go unnamed forever as far as he was concerned). Returning to their hotel from a late meal, Gordon saw Yordan purchase a stack of astrology magazines.

“You don’t believe in that stuff, do you?” asked Gordon, amazed.

“Do you know of a better way to predict the future?”

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