Archive for Bernard Herrmann

Phantom Ride

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , on July 4, 2018 by dcairns

  

There are reasons, beyond the eerie effect of Bernard Herrmann’s last score, why these shots in TAXI DRIVER became iconic (and much-copied).

Attaching a camera to a vehicle is an old idea, common long before purpose-built dollies existed. Do the car chases in D.W. Griffith movies count as tracking shots? Kind of.

But in all that time, I’m not aware of anyone using the car clamp to photograph details of the car itself. You film the road from the POV of the car, or maybe cheat with a lower angle to add dynamism. You film the people IN the car. But the bumper, the wing mirror, this is unheard-of. Scorsese has a real thing for unusual detail shots. He wants us to see things in a new way.

Scorsese had previously attached his camera to Harvey Keitel for the Rubber Biscuit drunk scene in MEAN STREETS. This is similar: Travis Bickle’s cab is, in a sense, an extension of him. The effect is not the natural one of a traveling shot through a city, or a view of a man in a vehicle. We’re aware of how the cab seems solid and fixed, the city transitory and fleeting. A similar effect to that created as an accidental by-product of the rear-projection in older movies, where the moving background is a film within a film, slightly diffuse compared to the solid hero and the half a car he’s driving.

THIS kind of shot is pretty common in modern cinema — the extreme shallow focus — but very rare in the seventies or earlier. Like with Travis’s autistic fascination with a glass of Alka-Seltzer, we get a dissociated, alien view of a familiar surface, stretching away like a metallic landscape seen by a myopic fly. The old idea of “making strange” used to assist the feeling of alienation.

TAXI DRIVER, in fact, is one of very few films where the montages of time passing are among the most striking and emotionally effective sequences. There’s the music and VO, of course, but also the fact that Travis’s feeling of drifting through time, unanchored by social ties, one day seeming like another, is a big part of what the film deals with, and montages are ideally suited to expressing this sensation. Normally, having to show time passing in between the dramatic scenes is a burden on a film, breaking up the narrative and deflating tension. Here, the glimpses of Travis’s hacking life, “drifting through an open sewer in a metal coffin,” as Paul Schrader once put it, give you the strongest feeling that all this is indeed heading somewhere. Somewhere worrying.

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Joined at the Hip

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2018 by dcairns

SISTERS (1972) was the first film where Brian De Palma, hitherto a maker of provocative comedy, turned Full Hitchcock. It still feels the freshest of his thrillers, even when it’s secondhand — the PSYCHO playbook must have been open at Brian’s bedside while he was dreaming it up. We also see clearly where BDP differs from the Master — split-screen shots never figured in Hitch’s visual vocabulary, though one robbery sequence in MARNIE seems to hint at the possibilities with a divided frame ~

The tone is also much different — BDP’s feints towards Wagnerian grandeur are largely absent, but his “impish” humour (remember, imps are creepy, stunted, discoloured little guys) is more prominent, and still has an element of satire. (Whereas what is the comedy in RAISING CAIN actually about? Purely self-reflexive, I fear.) So the opening game show sequence — Peeping Toms, a kind of Candid Camera affair where the victims are encouraged to cross ethical boundaries — makes for a funny and weird intro. I especially liked the pan across the audience with the weird guy (De Palma’s pal William Finlay) reading a book in the front row. I’d have liked him even better if he’d just been a pure visual non-sequitur. He is in fact a plot point, and by standing out in a crowd he’s mimicking Bruno at the tennis match in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

The opening establishes Lisle Wilson’s character as a nice guy, since he resists peeping at Margot Kidder, and the TV show serves as a meet cute. Other De Palma films have not been so rigorous in making us care about the people. Wilson, of course, is being set up for the Janet Leigh role in PSYCHO. The charming couple go on a date at the ridiculous African Rooms (waiters in grass skirts with the top halves of tuxedos, piped-in jungle noises, SATIRE!) and she gets sloshed, which combines attractively with the French-Canadian accent she’s affecting. Kidder is so cute here — before she got painfully thin — I don’t know how we didn’t all notice on SUPERMAN that this woman was in some kind of trouble — maybe because she’s so damn good in it we gave her a Karen Carpenter-style pass.

Lisle Wilson went on to appear in the wretched INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN, whose poster appears on a wall in BLOW OUT (I think it’s a missed opportunity that the Pennsylvanian exploitation filmmaker in that one isn’t played by George Romero — a man who hated going to the dubbing suite). His niceness may be compromised a bit by the fact that he takes the inebriated Kidder back to her place and sleeps with her — is she too drunk? Or just right? They’re followed by the sinister book-reading man.

(At his Edinburgh Film Fest appearance, some oddball in the audience asked BDP what books he’d read lately, phrasing the question as “You’re obviously an intellectual guy…” BDP rambled on, agreeing, and mentioned a TV series he’d been watching on PBS. So, not a big reader, I guess.)

In the morning, Kidder has an argument with her offscreen twin (and we’ve had a big closeup of the unconvincing and overdone lumpy scar on her hip) and runs out of her mysterious medication. De Palma shows the pills accidentally falling down the plug hole in slomo, another trick he likes far more than Hitchcock — see also Sean Penn’s discarded bullets in CARLITO’S WAY. Lisle goes out to get her more pills and also acquires a birthday cake since he’s learned it’s the twins’ birthday.

“Now I know my ABC…”

AND THEN spoiler alert HE GETS MURDERED. Really great creepy physical performance from Kidder here and she turns chalk-white. The movie’s made-up psychosis, which is apparently triggered because she’s half an hour late with her pills, seems to have aspects of epilepsy thrown in. Also, weirdly reminiscent of Peggy Lynch in THE ALPHABET. White person on bed plus splatter. Raspberry-hued blood, the most unconvincing ever. For some reason, all stabbing victims in this film get it in the upper thigh. Femoral artery — genuinely nasty. Also, Brian is teasing our castration anxieties (see also: DRESSED TO KILL and the Gratuitous Penectomy Conversation).

Then he gets stabbed in the MOUTH, which is fucking horrible, even though the tattered latex prosthetics are completely lousy, not even attempting to look like a knife-wound, just doing what the materials want to do, which is shred and flap. But it doesn’t matter because it’s so unpleasant conceptually and so disfiguring. You feel bad for the guy — not only does he die, he dies wearing unconvincing make-up.

Splitscreen as Lisle crawls to the window and scrawls HELP in his own blood — mirroring the icing on the cake he helped prepare (which totally changes from shot to shot, by the way). He’s seen by intrepid and mildly counterculture journalist Jennifer Salt — later she talks about witnessing the entire murder, which is weirdly not what she sees at all.

Oh, and Bernard Herrmann’s score, which is excellent, is FREAKING OUT during the murder. It’s like the most extreme sound he ever made. The savagery of PSYCHO but with the delirium of TAXI DRIVER (still unborn). It’s like the composer himself is being traumatised by the New Hollywood. Or like Benny is saying, “Gee, these kids are really amping things up — I better do likewise.” He’s about the only example of a film composer of his generation doing major work with the movie brat generation, and those films otherwise tend to depend on source music, or sound design, or pop songs, or gentler scoring by low-key minimalists like the aptly-named Michael Small. John(ny) Williams noodled around for years doing modest and quirky stuff before connecting to old-school grandeur and oomph with JAWS.

From here on, there is some depletion of interest. We have not only lost the sympathetic Lisle, we’ve kind of lost Kidder, since she now seems to be conniving to conceal her crazy twin’s murderous act — in fact, we are SO far ahead on this… BDP will spend about an hour investigating and expositing what we guessed as soon as we saw the rubbery hip scar and overheard the “conversation” “between” the “sisters.”

In fact, despite the plot’s tacky nonsense-science, there’s a smidgen of truth. I saw a documentary about conjoined twin separation once, in which only one child survived. She was only about three. “She seems to be having some trouble with her identity,” reported a clinician. She was sometimes referring to herself by her sister’s name. She couldn’t work out where her sister had gone, and it was somewhere between a bereavement and a phantom limb. There was a suggestion that, in operating while the kids were so young, the doctors may NOT have acted for the best, but only time would tell.

So the big reveal here, that the “normal” Kidder twin has SPOILER created a psychic substitute, a split personality which keeps her sister alive (EXACTLY like Mrs. Bates, yes) is perhaps not so dumb. Only the film’s treatment of the idea is crass and silly. But kind of entertaining.

For light relief, we get a comedy-relief annoying mom (Mary Davenport), also straight out of Hitchcock, and Charles Durning as a private eye (likewise), who brings a lot more interest to the role than the writing suggests. There’s a big hypno-flashback that’s kind of tacky but amusing but redundant since we already guessed everything, and then a funny, unlikely ending which kind of ties off the plot in an intractable knot. Salt has a hypnotic suggestion implanted which causes her to deny the murder ever happened — so the once-skeptical cop, who now WANTS to listen to her, can’t learn anything. And the dead body of Lisle is sealed up in a folding sofa-bed, impossibly, and shipped to Canada. During follows, waiting to see who collects the couch. And he waits. And waits… anyone who knows about the couch is dead or in custody or brainwashed…

De Palma, in his next production, should include a shot of a skeleton dangling from a telephone pole in order to pay this one off.

A Train of Death

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2016 by dcairns

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The story is told, by Elmer Bernstein, that he once sent a tape of Sidney Lumet’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS to legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, figuring Richard Rodney Bennett’s score might appeal to the old guy. (Lumet says in his book Making Movies that this was the one film he made were he really wanted the audience to be aware of the score. Lush, romantic, exotic, period. The dubbing editor had laid an amazing bunch of tracks for the scene where the train starts its fatal journey with pistons and steam and even a TING as the light came on. Lumet threw them all out when he heard the score.

The score made the famously choleric Herrmann apoplectic with rage, “Did the composer not understand,” he asked, “that this was a Train Of Death?”

Bernstein’s point in relating this was that Herrmann, though a genius of film composition, was perhaps a little heavy at times and might take things over-literally. Lumet did not intend his all-star murder mystery to be doom-laden.

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I found myself using the expression “Did the composer not understand-?” while watching IT HAPPENED IN BROAD DAYLIGHT, a skillfully made Swiss thriller scripted by Friedrich Durrenmatt. FD later came to believe that the script he’d written was not plausible, and reshaped it as his novel The Pledge: An Elegy for the Detective Story.

In the movie, directed by Ladislao Vajda, a detective (Heinz Ruhmann, usually known for comedies) becomes convinced that the vagrant who hanged himself after confessing to a child murder (Michel Simon) was not actually guilty, and sets out to catch the killer using a forensic profile and live bait.

In the film, this succeeds, but the novel reverses this by throwing in the randomness of real life — the killer never makes it to the trap that’s been set, and the detective goes to his grave never knowing for sure if he was right. It’s an amazing book.

One thing that lets the movie down, despite a strong cast and good noirish visuals, is the score, which is fine to listen to and good and dramatic, but did cause me to utter the time-honoured words “Did the composer not realize-?”

In this case, what’s missing is dramatic irony. The composer — OK, let’s name the poor man, Bruno Canfora, he may still be alive — does good bombast for moments of straight-up shock, but let’s the side down when a more subtle effect is called for.

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Little girl playing in woods.

Looks up and sees Gert Frobe. Gert fucking Frobe. Being a puppeteer magician dude. This is how he grooms kids before killing them.

At sight of Frobe, Canfora lets out a shocking scream, via his orchestra. In principle, it’s effective. It’s playing along with what we know about this perilous situation. But how much creepier to play along with the little girl’s understanding? A strange, mysterious and magical man has suddenly appeared in the forest, and wants to play with her. Treat it like Disney, maestro Canfora, and we will be truly creeped out.

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A similar but opposite blunder — the danger is known and the kid has been safely locked indoors. But she escapes, to go playing. Canfora accompanies her exit with gentle, whimsical playing music. Maybe he would have got away with this if he’d kept to the child’s emotions earlier, but now we expect music of terror. We know this kid is potentially skipping to her demise. You MIGHT, as I say, be able to play this lightly if you’d established a capacity for lightness. But the music doesn’t even bring us into the little girl’s world. It’s sentimental, parental music, that looks at a playing child from a distance and says “Aww.” If we’re not going to be in HER world, we need to be in our own, in which case the music should now be screaming a warning…