Archive for Billy Wilder

Naval Gazing

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2015 by dcairns

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When I was a kid, the big military entertainments didn’t really mean that much to me — I don’t even remember for sure if I’ve seen WHERE EAGLES DARE. But the naval films were probably the worst, though not as noisy as air ones. So although Britain produced endless naval films both during and after the war — re-fighting the old battles all through the white heat of the technological revolution, I have seen David Lean’s IN WHICH WE SERVE and Michael Powell’s THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE and little else. And those are two of my less-favourite Lean and Powell films.

GIFT HORSE (1952) dates from a time when at least some of the US war pictures were starting to take a more considered, less triumphalist view of the conflict, now that the need for propaganda was over. Britain, feeling less secure, kept on flag-waving — but director Compton Bennett had a gift for melancholy and the five writers include the talented William Rose, whose THE LADYKILLERS conceals an iconoclastic sensibility. The film’s best moments have to do with the malfunctionings of the leaky tub gifted to embattled Britain by the US before America entered the war, and the malfunctionings of Trevor Howard’s rustbucket of a face. He’s a broken-down captain hauled out of mothballs for the war and given one last chance to salvage his holed reputation. Joining him for the voyage are numerous trusty supporting players, the kind of people these films always throng with —

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There’s no Jack Hawkins, whose involvement in RIVER PLATE was considered essential by the Admiralty — they simply couldn’t imagine taking seriously a sea picture without him, Here we benefit from less stalwart faces — a great slab of Bernard Lee, jug-eared and limpid-eyed, and the equally soulful Richard Attenborough, the babyish features that turned up with eye-glazing reliability. Here he’s amusingly cast as a former trade unionist turned “sea lawyer” — a sailor who knows his rights, knows the regulations, knows when he’s due overtime, and ends by lecturing his German captors on the Geneva Convention. His appearance is ever-predictable in these things but he always gives value for money.

The surprise bit by Hugh Williams had me rubbing my hands with glee — his oiliness always gives satisfaction, and results in an amiable surprise when he turns out to be a decent chap here. The weirdest casting is James Donald as a free-and-easy Canadian. It’s not just that he can’t do the accent, can barely suggest it in an embarrassed way, it’s that nobody was ever less free and easy than James Donald. If you want someone to stare wide-eyed at carnage and mutter “Madness. Madness!” James Donald is your man. But if you want someone with the gleam of gaiety in his eye and a devil-may-care sparkle in his smile, then please hire him and make him stand in front of James Donald. What James Donald projects is the cares of the world, boring out of his eyeholes with a soft whimper.

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Asides from the movie’s bracing melancholy — the ship fails to perform at every turn, and so do the crew, and their final victory is achieved by ramming a port, using the ship as a cudgel, then blowing her up — it also has a startling fight scene, a bar brawl in Sid James’ pub. Like the man himself, the character is an ex-pugilist, the walls of the house decorated with photographs of his past fights — the pub as metaphor for British cinema? But look what Bennett does with it ~

The Sid James Centre from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Something between COLONEL BLIMP’s jump-cut trophies and Richard Lester.

Then I turned to SINK THE BISMARCK, a 1960 Fox production in ‘Scope, but still British to the core. Doughty, doughy Kenneth More takes the Jack Hawkins part this time, playing an entirely fictitious commander parachuted into the true story because, presumably, the real sea lord didn’t want to be made into a Boy’s Own hero, or to be played by Kenneth More.

Sea battles aren’t close-quarters, which is probably why the young me didn’t care for them. They have the quality of board games, but with added death by immolation and drowning. Here, More never even gets his feet wet, directing operations from deep underneath Trafalgar Square with the beauteous Dana Wynter at his side, while the heroic death-blow at sea is struck by, of all people, Michael Hordern. In a long and varied career I doubt he had that privilege very often.

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Journeyman director Lewis Gilbert keeps the thing trundling along relatively briskly, and the only painful bits are the hackneyed scenes with Admiral Lutyens, played by Karel Stepanek, who can do nothing with the boilerplate Nazi they’ve written for him. In a misguided attempt at expressionism or something, Gilbert introduces the character (left of frame, above) with his back to us, head apparently ablaze. We sense that he’s smoking some evil brand of National Socialist tobacco, but the illusion that his scalp is on fire is inescapable and inappropriately amusing.

The other interesting bit of weak direction comes when More gets the news that his son is lost at sea (and the production, to their credit, did manage to find an actor with the same cuboid head as More). Hearing the tragic news on the phone, More closes his eyes in silent grief.

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Later, hearing on the phone that his son has been rescued, More closes his eyes in silent relief.

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Calling Comrade Kuleshov! Ken More makes the same face for grief and relief! Since the rest of More’s face is just a frowning thumb, I wondered what other choices were open to the filmmakers, and remembered Billy Wilder’s advice that you should always try to film actors getting bad news from the back. And then I remembered Werner Herzog listening to that guy getting eaten by bears in GRIZZLY MAN, and how he instead filmed someone else simply watching him listening to it, without being able to hear it, setting the snuff recording back by about three removes from the eventual audience. So I figured Gilbert should have cut to Dana Wynter, who has a far lovelier and more expressive face than More, and watched her watching her, capturing her reaction as she realizes what’s happened.

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SINK THE BISMARCK! is edited by Peter Hunt, a very talented cutter who helped set the pacey style for the Bond series, and directed one of the very best, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. But I think his talent was more for the action stuff than for scenes or emotion.

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Both movies cope mostly with real ship manoeuvres filmed specially, closer views of crew taken in the studio against variable cycloramas, and stock shots from the war, but both have occasionally to resort to special effects, and these sometimes get a bit psychedelic (above), though not as surreal as those watery explosions in DAMBUSTERS. Bennett and Gilbert both favour a stationary camera, which does the action no favours — I’m not calling for Paul Greengrass but a bit of sway would help things — but at least Gilbert has good model shots to work with — even the sea, usually a dead giveaway in model shots, looks convincing.

Whore Leave

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2015 by dcairns

 

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“If she’s not a whore, she’s a bore,” was one of Billy Wilder’s writing rules, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. In an era where women were typed as sexually virtuous or otherwise (unlike today, of course), Wilder excelled because he rejected such black-and-white distinctions, always looking for the lustiness of the virgin or the romantic leanings of the slut.

THE WORLD’S OLDEST PROFESSION is a 1967 compendium film which largely misses any such nuance, but it’s of some interest since it’s one of the few places where you can see the nouvelle vague and the Cinema du Papa butting up against one another. What makes the whoring boring is that nearly all the (male) directors adopt a jocular tone which seems quaint to the modern viewer, and not particularly funny. It probably doesn’t help that the film’s chronological traipse through history prevents the producers from leading with the strongest short. Michele Mercier dons fur bikini for Franco Indovina, showing prostitution to be as old as the sabre-tooth, Mauro Bolognini visits ancient Rome ahead of Fellini with Elsa Martinelli as an aloof empress, Philippe de Broca posits Jeanne Moreau in the age of the French Revolution, but none of them has any real wit, perhaps because none of them really has anything to say about the subject. It’s sometimes the case in anthologies that the one with the least reputation will try the hardest, and here German TV director Michael Phleghar Pfleghar transcends his unattractive surname, which sounds like a nasty lung infection, with a jaunt through the Belle Epoque in the company of Raquel Welch. For all its breezy tone, trendy technique (zooms AND freeze frames, Herr Pfleghar?) and luscious art nouveau sets, this earns points for daring to suggest that making a living on your back might not be all jollity and multiple orgasms.

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Claude Autant-Lara tackles sex work in the sixties. Perhaps he was desperate to show himself up-to-date and with it. But actually, though he doesn’t have any point to make in particular, his tall tale about a belle de nuit and her chauffeuse/poncette is the most amusing of the film’s chapters. It has a walk-on by the great Dalio, who outclasses everyone around him, and it has a number of daft ideas bolted together in a ramshackle but at least unpredictable manner.

The next transition is where it gets exciting, as we cut directly from a director who dates from the avant-garde scene of the twenties, to Monsieur Contemporaire himself, Jean-Luc Godard, who effortlessly blows his predecessors out of l’eau with ANTICIPATION, OU L’AMOUR EN L’ANS 2000, a slight reprise of ALPHAVILLE and a farewell to wife/muse/collaborator Anna Karina. I’m sure I read somewhere that the movie was a contemptuous send-off, with JLG humiliating his straying wife with a shot where she drinks from a spray can, framed to look as if she’s being urinated on. I’m not sure I buy this. One would have to ask what Godard has against his male star, since he films him the same way, and one would have to assume that Karina had no idea what was going on and was incapable of defending herself. The spray is a fine mist, not a squirt of liquid as it easily could have been, and just seems part and parcel with the movie’s bizarro sci-fi nonsense.

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Judge for yourself. Hmm, it may be a tiny bit sexual.

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Heh heh heh.

Whereas Lemmy Caution drove into Alphaville from outer space in a car, our slow-talking hero (from a world where time moves at a different rate) jets into planet earth by plane, in shots recalling LA JETTEE, only moving. As with his ETRANGE AVENTURE, the director conjures his future world entirely from available locations, in this case CDG Airport and an anonymous hotel. The first woman provided for our weary traveller doesn’t stimulate him because she won’t talk, though she does have a remarkable dress, which she removes — Godard serves up b&w photography, avant-garde soundscapes, and full-frontal nudity, making his segment seem like not just a different era but a different century of cinema from the rest.

(It’s interesting that when intellectual filmmakers like Herzog (in WILD BLUE YONDER) and Godard do scifi, the science tends to be completely bogus pulp nonsense. The genre conventions of sci-fi are ripe for satire always, but are these smart guys really so ignorant or uninterested in the way things work? And throwing in random science words is only a very vague approximation of how pulp space operas operate.)

Karina is shipped in as replacement and explains that in the far-flung year 2000, prostitutes all specialise, so that they either do physical stuff or just talk. So Karina just talks, or rather recites. Like Captain Kirk, the visitor must show her the ways of love… The show isn’t any more progressive politically than those before it — Godard was pretty slow to “get” feminism (BRITISH SOUNDS, made for Granada Television in the UK, addresses women’s issues with a short discussion in voice only while the camera stares impassively at a naked pubic triangle, as tone-deaf a visualisation as you could wish for; and as late as ARIA he was still using naked women as set dressing) but cinematically it’s advanced, alright. The writer B. Kite once suggested to me a good way to view the old and new waves. There was undoubtedly brilliant popular music before rock ‘n’ roll, but its arrival released a lot of energy.

Fleisch-Auswirkungen

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2013 by dcairns

Something's Got to Give (1962)

Billy Wilder, attempting to define the mysterious potency of Marilyn Monroe, said that “She had great flesh impact,” which is an absolutely VILE phrase, calling to mind the image of an overweight naked person colliding with one’s windscreen (I should never have drunk those pina coladas and smoked that crack!) but we kind of know what he means. Interestingly, the physical sense of corporeal heft and presence is strong for Monroe both in colour and black-and-white, though subtly different in each. Her nude scene in the never-completed Cukor SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE is all impressionistic light-on-water sparkle, yet she still comes across peachy and squeezy. In SOME LIKE IT HOT she’s a topographical riot in a highly censorable Orry-Kelly creation that’s halfway between a dress and a shadow.

So the term has use. In RASHOMON, which is Kurosawa’s most tactile film, Mifune has flesh impact too —

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Machiko Kyo makes expressive use of the Mifune shoulder-flesh.

But it’s such a horrible phrase. Wilder, a great writer, surely sensed that, but being Wilder he probably didn’t care — his films commingle the desirable and the icky in highly personal ways — “It’s just your basic slashed-wrists love scene,” he told his cameraman on SUNSET BLVD, and in A FOREIGN AFFAIR he outraged his co-author Charles Brackett with the insistence that Marlene Dietrich should spit toothpaste at her lover.

I wondered if it sounded better in German, and using Google Translate I found out. “Fleisch auswirkungen” is what was suggested. It still sounds vile, but strangely cool and scientific at the same time. Add it to your glossary of film terminology now.

Who else has flesh impact? Don’t say Eugene Pallette — I would argue that, apart from his head, a magnificently crenellated pudding which certainly packs a torso’s worth of beef into a confined space, he’s more of a boulder than a body. Think more lateral-subtle-surprise. Who?

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