Archive for Brecht

Damon Knight

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2020 by dcairns

Mark Damon, now a producer (MONSTER), then a rakishly handsome movie star big in Italy, stars in Vittorio Cottafavi’s last feature, I CENTI CAVALIERI (THE HUNDRED HORSEMEN, 1964), screened in Bologna in Techniscope and Technicolor, looking fantastic.

After an ennervating start (the traditional bickering lovers turned up to eleven, Italian style) this turned out to be really interesting. Cottafavi appears in Richard Roud’s cinema dictionary alongside Bava, suggesting one who presents as an amusing pictorialist, so it was a surprise to find him quoted in the festival programme describing his Brechtian intentions, and almost a bigger surprise to find them carried out in this jaunty peplum-type historical romp.

The Moors ride into a neutral Spanish town and take over, behaving like Nazis (they’re led by Dr. Mabuse, Wolfgang Preiss). Farmmboy Damon becomes a warrior, aided by his militaristic uncle, the mayor’s feisty daughter, a bandit gang led by a comedy dwarf (verfremdungseffekt!), and a wily priest (Gaston Moschin, of whom we needed more).

Well, there’s a lot of dumb comedy and action in this film, but also strange thoughtful moments. As a for-instance: when someone demonstrates a newly invented suit of armour, visor down, a priest speculates that the warrior of the future will be even more unseen, striking at a distance, with civilians, property, whole cities destroyed in this “clean” manner. And before the spirited Robin Hoodery gets going, we pay a visit to a spectacular castle (the scenery in this is Lean-worthy, animated by Cottafavi’s athletic camerawork) populated entirely by amputees, shut away in anticipation of war, lest the sight of their varied mutilations sap the peasants’ martial spirit. This skeptical attitude to war seems forgotten until the climax, another clangorous, Wellesian montage, suddenly plunged into monochrome with chilling effect…

Not as successful overall as DONNE E SOLDATI (the comedy too broad and not often funny — but arguably its true purpose is to disrupt, not amuse) this incredible bargain-bin EL CID is still fascinating and betrays an intellectual ambition utterly lacking in Cinecitta’s usual he-man spectacles.

Fritz bits

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by dcairns

The real Heydrich was NOT shot in the spine, but in the spleen… my guess if, Fritz Lang may have seen images like this when injured in WWI (three horses shot out from under him) and chose to include it…

“Bert” Brecht’s scenario for HANGMEN ALSO DIE! includes a HUGE number of supporting roles, some with only a few lines. Director Fritz Lang fills the dramatis personae with memorable faces and wrings a whole panoply of peppy performances from them. In the lead, Quatermass McGinty (Brian Donlevy) is better than he ever was elsewhere, suggesting by minimal means the moral strain of a man who knows hundreds may die in consequence of his actions. America’s first largely prosthetic actor, not counting Kong, whom he slightly resembles, Donlevy never made a move without his elevator shoes, corset and toupée, but couldn’t do anything about his startlingly short arms, like those of a T-rex. Couldn’t Bud Westmore, who made Harold Lloyd’s special lifelike glove to hide his missing fingers, have knocked together a couple of arm extensions for McGinty?

Really good work from Walter Brennan, cast way against type as a professor — anti-Nazi films always have a professors, it seems, and professors everywhere have beautiful daughters, and so here we have Anna Lee, also excellent. These characters are even more moving in THE MORTAL STORM, as you’d expect with Frank Borzage in charge, but Lang’s harder edge also has its advantages. We also get Margaret Wycherly, looking like a haunted tree™ as usual, and Dennis O’Keefe, whose tendency to turn up whenever his fiance is in what looks like a compromising position, seems like good prep for all those farces he made later in the forties.

But I want to talk about smaller roles. Janet Shaw fascinated me. She played the dead-eyed slattern of a teen waitress in SHADOW OF A DOUBT and was just remarkable. Anytime she shows up in a film, I get fascinated. Here she’s a little TOO perky, perhaps, as a factory worker and patriotic saboteur, her eyes darting vivaciously around the faces assembled at a meeting of the resistance. But she has a great moment later when arrested, spitting fire and defiance at her captors.

See here and here for previous appreciations.

We also get Charles “Ming the Merciless” and Dwight Frye and a defenestrated Lionel Stander, star-spotters!

But the film’s array of Nazis is its best point (aside from Lang’s bleakly beautiful mise-en-scene, of course, and his crisp cutting, many scenes joined together by questions asked in one scene and answered in another, or phrases begun in one place and completed elsewhere. Is this where Welles got the idea for KANE’s scene-linking?).

The decision to have the “Nazis” play their roles as comedy is a surprising one. It doesn’t attract much comment in discussions of the film. HANGMEN ALSO DIE! is far from being a comic film, but its treatment of those running the Protectorate is almost Lubitschian. All the various types of Hollywood Nazi are represented here — and the idea seems to be to refute the German claims of superman status with an insistence on the pathetic, grubby human foibles that make these guys on the one hand, no better than the rest of us, and on the other, considerably worse.

There’s Heydrich himself, Hans Heinrich Twardowski (from CALIGARI) in a big rubber Mabuse nose, conforming to the stereotype of the Nazi pansy (usually Martin Kosleck’s department). This isn’t an accurate depiction of Heydrich, but the goal is partly just to INSULT, using exactly the terms we assume would be most offensive to the Nazis.

There’s the spotty Nazi (Tonio Selwart), with a big set of Marcellus Wallace sticking plasters on the back of his neck and a gleaming chancre on his brow, later seen lovingly squeezing a pluke in the mirror — an undreamt-of image in Hollywood cinema or anywhere else — I equate this to Dennis Hopper picking his nose in LAND OF THE DEAD (which I equate to stuff like Paul Wolfowitz caught licking his comb on camera) — a concentration on the undignified, messily human aspects of the supposed superman.

There’s the lightweight sadist (Reinhold Schunzel, THE THREEPENNY OPERA), not an imposing figure, more like a mean schoolteacher, but one with a whole state apparatus backing him up. He tortures an old woman using only a loosely assembled chair, and the power behind him. Personally, he’s a buffoon, with a Sig Ruman-like delivery, cracking his fingers as he gloats behind his desk. Without a desk and armed guards at his command, he’d be pathetic. He IS pathetic. Time will tell.

And then there’s the detective (Alexander Granach, the Shadowplayer from WARNING SHADOWS; Knock, the gibbering Renfield figure from NOSFERATU), the most competent figure we meet on the enemy side. He frequents whores and is addicted to Czech beer, so again, his lack of “purity” and his vulgarity and human frailty are front and centre. But he’s a worthy opponent. The big trick staged by the resistance in the film’s third act would never work if he were around to study it. His innate shrewdness and unerring mental leaps (signalled with a pantomime snap of the fingers) means he’s only ever a step or two behind the heroes, and frequently a step or two ahead. Thwarted for the moment, his finger-snap is exchanged for a first pounding into a palm. Very theatrical, but with all this comedy Lang is not only making a satirical point, he’s finding a way to leaven the  film’s grimness.

Lang wasn’t too great at comedy — the jokes in WESTERN UNION, with Slim Summerville slowly starving, seem sadistic and depressing. Sometimes, laughs can spill out into places they don’t belong, as in the campy, though still compelling, HOUSE BY THE RIVER. Lang is a harsh, heavy filmmaker and humour isn’t his element — but this kind of nasty wit seems ideally suited to his temperament and, crude though some of it is, it’s very effective because it’s so surprising in this context.

A lot of American films made fun of the Nazis — it was understood that they would hate this, and its was felt better to despise them and sneer at them than to be afraid of them. James Harvey in his book Romantic Comedy points out how strange it was, in this context, that Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE was thought to have gone too far. He identifies the problem being located in one line from Sig Ruman to Jack Benny, his insulting review of Benny’s acting: “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland.” The joke turned auditoria ice-cold at the time, apparently — other attempts at humor by the Nazi characters are deliberately rather gross, but this one asks us to laugh at the effect it has on Benny. In other words, the Nazi wins this round, though he doesn’t know who he’s talking to. Audiences at the time were not prepared to laugh at the thought of Nazis winning anything.

Lang is on safer ground — the humour is present merely in how the Nazis are portrayed, by artful, expressionistic actors, whose style contrasts elaborately with the simplicity of the Americans playing Czechs (plus one Brit, Anna Lee). So there’s a satisfying (Brechtian?) distance between how the Nazis see themselves — superior, in a word — and how both the performances and the plot encourage us to see them — as nasty buffoons.

Or, as Fiona put it, it’s like a long episode of ‘Allo, ‘Allo!

It’s also defensibly close to reality — though the film omits the massacre of Lidice, it surprises by showing the Nazis murdering all the hostages they had promised to release, a smaller but dramatically equivalent atrocity. Lidice, in fact, boomeranged badly, becoming the signature crime used in propaganda to denounce Nazi Germany. The Nazis handed the Allies a club with which to beat them. It’s not funny, but it’s certainly oafish.

“He understands machines.”

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 18, 2008 by dcairns

Topol the World!

Losey’s GALILEO, closely adapted from Brecht’s play, is a piece of filmed theatre pure and simple, made for The American Film Theater, a rather high-minded body that sought to capture great plays and performances on film. In the few years they were running they did some good work. Although, as a lover of CINEMA, I sometimes suspect there’s a basic flaw in this idea. Much of the effect of theatre comes from the physical PRESENCE of the actors, the experience of being in the room with them. Even a skilfully filmed play can’t capture that.

I won’t bother protesting that filmed theatre excludes much of what cinema can do. All artists work within limitations, either imposed by circumstances or chosen for aesthetic reasons. So the limitations of the stage play need not preclude great cinema. They might make it harder

Foxy

It’s a terrific play! I had the usual alienation effect at school, where we we conned ourselves into believing Brecht was dull, but it’s a testament to the quality of the writing that the thing comes over so well in a two-hour plus film without any added “filmic” elements. Losey had a long history with Galileo, having directed, or refereed, a version for the stage starring Charles Laughton and involving the active collaboration of Brecht himself. THAT is a theatrical production I wouldn’t mind seeing captured on film. But this version has Topol, who’s tip-top, and an amazing supporting cast, including previous Loseyites Clive Revill, Patrick Magee, Edward Fox, Michael Gough…

The period and theatrical setting, and the inquisition side of things, make it at times reminiscent of THE DEVILS, also a somewhat Brechtian production. But this one is a little more sedate. Michael Lonsdale demonstrates that while a paunchy man stripped to the waist is not the most appealing sight, the effect can be enhances with a neatly trimmed beard. It’s obscene!

The Beard

Topol says it was good to have a “coherent” director for once. Topol’s teeth are like exuberant gravestones. Topol also played Professor Zarkoff. Topol is Mr. Science.

But LOOK!

 

Shadowplay

How on earth did they do THIS? You can’t get a BLACK shadow on a white wall, certainly not with other light sources around — the light bounces all over and partly fills in the shadowy bits. Yet here it is. You can see from the floor shadow and the modelling on the faces that they’re NOT being lit by one giant light at the front left, low down. Where are the shadows coming from?

Shadow Puppets

We wondered if the wall was a translucent screen and actors behind it were mimicking the actors in front, creating shadows for them (I THINK that’s what’s happening in the opening shot of Borzage’s MOONRISE). But this quickly becomes absurd — every tiny shake of the head is duplicated. Those shadows belong to those actors. It gets weirder.

Shadow Cabinet

The messenger walks in with his proclamation, casting a whopping shadow on the white wall, but no shadow on the splendid Kenneth (THE DEVILS) Colley, standing right behind him. Colley seems to shimmer out of the shadow, as if emerging from a rippling black pool.

I *THINK* I know what’s going on. The white wall was really a blue screen. In the lab, a high-contrast matte was created that reduced the actors and scenery to silhouettes. This new image was shifted up and to the left and inserted in where the blue screen was. Now everything that protrudes beyond the back wall of the set has a very sharp black shadow…

Except, damnit, the shadows show the characters at a slightly different angle to the camera (in the second image, the kneeling actress on the right has a thinner neck in her shadow image, because the light is hitting her from below). The shadow IS being projected from a low angle. So maybe the shadow has been optically enhanced, maybe it was a blue screen and all they’ve done is take a real shadow on it and bump up the contrast to stark b&w? Or else it’s just a real shadow produced with a special magic light on a special magic wall?

It’s driving me NUTS, I tells ya!