Archive for Broken Blossoms

The Wronger Man

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2020 by dcairns

I’d always meant to watch John Brahm’s 1939 criminal justice melo LET US LIVE, and now I know why I held off — I got a chance to watch it streaming from Bologna in a gleaming fresh copy, better than any grungy old version I might have tracked down.

Henry Fonda plays an innocent cabby wrongly convicted of armed robbery and murder. Maureen O’Sullivan is his bride-to-be, frantically trying to prove his innocence before he goes to the chair. The movie anticipates Hitchcock’s THE WRONG MAN in plot terms, but Brahm gives it all a glossy Hollywood expressionism more showy than Hitch’s gloomy death march.

How to account for Brahm’s fluctuating visual style — here in this relatively early work (he’d done his remake of BROKEN BLOSSOMS in the UK, and three B pictures for Columbia before this one) his arresting use of chiaroscuro and violently off-centre framing is fully developed. In later films it comes and goes. It could be the amount of prep time, the skills of the cinematographer he was working with, or the amount of enthusiasm he could muster.

(Brahm films to see: THE LODGER and HANGOVER SQUARE, THE LOCKET, GUEST IN THE HOUSE, his Twilight Zones and some of his Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes. He never had what you’d call the best scripts to work with.)

One cut to Fonda’s face made Fiona gasp, exactly as happened in THE LODGER with Laird Cregar. Remember Billy Wilder’s line about a close-up being like a trump card in a game of bridge, to be used sparingly where it’ll really count? But how many times has a simple cut to a character, already established as being present in the scene, taken your breath away?

My new ambition — if I can get to direct one more thing, I’d like to make that happen. I know the trick — the face or expression must be new and arresting, and the face appear in an unexpected part of the screen in an unusual, off-centre composition. Now somebody give me a million bucks before I forget.

The Sunday Intertitle: Smile

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on August 9, 2015 by dcairns

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What with Film Club coming up, I thought this week’s intertitle ought to come from Buster Keaton, since he was such an influence on Richard Lester. In GO WEST, Buster is able to parody Cecil B. DeMille’s THE VIRGINIAN, with a paraphrase of its most famous line (above), and Griffith’s BROKEN BLOSSOMS with his own reaction. Buster is literally unable to smile to save his life, so with a six-shooter aimed at his heart he resorts to the Gish Manipulation ~

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(My maternal grandmother told me that, seeing Lillian Gish force a smile like this in BROKEN BLOSSOMS struck her and her young friends as hysterically funny when they saw it, which puzzled me, as I assumed Griffith’s films were taken seriously in their day. Then I did my sums and realized she must have seen it on re-release, probably the sonorized version, in the late twenties or early thirties — and Griffith’s Victorian melodrama would have seemed high camp to the young people of the jazz age. Did Edinburgh have a jazz age?)

Lester’s debt to Keaton isn’t just a fondness for slapstick, or a tendency to use accelerated motion to evoke silent-film action (only in a few films, from 1964-1966). There’s a whole philosophy of composition. We could start with the famous dictum “comedy is long shot, tragedy is closeup,” and then add in the love of flatness, emphasizing the screen’s two-dimensional aspect rather than trying to transcend it. The simple, flat, graphic composition is easy for the eye to read, and clarity is the most crucial factor in visual comedy. It also stylises everything, removes it from reality (look at Wes Anderson’s similar love of the planimetric shot), making it easier to achieve comic distance.

Lester credits Keaton with being the first to really use the space around the comedian as part of the joke. With Chaplin, he’s said, you always sense the proscenium arch (though Chaplin was certainly careful to get the right distance between subject and lens). With Keaton, somehow the shot itself is funny. Lester has used the example of Keaton and the cow in GO WEST — extremely beautiful, and inherently funny just by the arrangement of objects in 2D space.

I wasn’t exactly sure which shot he meant. But he could have meant all of them. You can tell this is a comedy, can’t you, just from the shapes?

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Waif Goodbye

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on April 16, 2015 by dcairns

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I guess D.W. Griffith wasn’t to know that 1936 would be his last chance for a comeback, but young John Brahm certainly seized his chance at a debut. What Emlyn Williams (above) thought he was doing was anybody’s guess. Over at The Forgotten.