Archive for Caught

Caught — Totally

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 25, 2017 by dcairns

Max Ophuls’ film CAUGHT is an interesting film in many ways and in many ways a good one — the Ophuls visual style is restrained but still elegant — until its ending. The movie can be seen as Ophuls’ revenge on Howard Hughes, who had fired him from VENDETTA (as he would later fire Preston Sturges and Stuart Heisler). Robert Ryan plays a Hughes surrogate, millionaire Smith Ohlrig*, who sends slimy agents out to recruit girls for him. Barbara Bel Geddes marries him, discovers he’s a monster, and flees. Then she falls in love with James Mason, but discovers she’s pregnant with Ryan’s baby, and goes back to him, like a good Code-obeying wife.

All this is very dramatic and interesting and of course beautifully filmed by Ophuls. Mason is a slum doctor which means he can be saintly and preferable to Ryan in every way, but also a bit stern and domineering in an attractive James Mason kind of way. But now that the film has established its most dramatic problem, it gets just as caught as Barbara, and can’t fight its way out of the plot tangle. Genre convention and Hollywood preference dictates a happy ending — sure, Barbara started out as a bit of a gold-digger, but she’s learned the error of her ways. But the movie can’t bring itself to spell D-I-V-O-R-C-E, despite Ryan’s obvious cruelty and abnormality. So he’s going to have to die. And he can’t be killed by any of the sympathetic characters. The only possibilities are to bring in a secondary character with a grudge, bump him off in an accident, or have him expire of natural causes. The movie plumps for the last option, but the trouble is these are all deus ex machina solutions, getting the heroes out of trouble without them having to lift a finger.

The going gets really weird when it comes to Ryan’s unborn child. There seems to be no specific Code ruling to prevent Barbara having her late husband’s child, marrying Mason and raising it. But everybody seems to have felt really uncomfortable about this cuckoo in the nest. So the blameless embryo must perish, a victim of Ryan’s mistreatment of his pregnant wife. This winds up being weirder by far than the extirpation of Joan Fontaine’s child in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, who after all was the product of sex out of wedlock. Despite the evidence of the world’s innumerable thriving bastards, illegitimate offspring under the Code have a tendency to die young.

The miscarriage is actually a more successful part of the plot than Ryan’s convenient collapse, since after all, he had been mistreating Barbara. But now the movie wants to cram its cake into its gaping maw while hugging it simultaneously to its bosom, and so makes an ill-judged attempt to fold the miscarriage into the happy ending. It’s all for the best! A James Mason baby will obviously be cuter than a Robert Ryan baby. And at least slightly smaller! The transports of joy into which Mason persuades his newly bereaved bride-to-be in the back of an ambulance make for an extremely strange and awkward conclusion. Sometimes, there’s just no room to squeeze between the Scilla of Joe Breen and the Charybdis of the Hollywood Ending.

*The name Smith Ohlrig is so preposterous I figured it had to be an anagram, and so it is: of Girlish Moth.

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“I was blown up eating cheese.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2008 by dcairns

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Gary Cooper’s explanation of how he came to be injured is probably the line of dialogue that will stay with me longest from Frank Borzage’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS, which may just be a demonstration of how memorable dialogue is not really what the film’s for. It’s a beautifully absurd and anti-heroic line though.

The film, a WWI romance, to reduce it to the most basic level, begins with the strange miniature sequence cited earlier, which looks for all the world as if a one-legged man has gone to sleep in the middle of the miniature landscape from the flight sequence of Murnau’s FAUST.

Then we jump over to the miniature trucks, in one of which a man is bleeding to death as Gary Cooper snoozes. Arriving at a military hospital, Coop strolls sleepily off in search of assistance, but seems to get distracted by the sight of a nurse being sent home pregnant. This all set off a weird dissonance with me, since I was still worried about the injured men, still lying in their trucks awaiting attention while the hero is preoccupied with a knocked-up nurse.

Helen Hayes’ whose skeletal beauty always makes me see her as the little old lady who had a career renaissance in AIRPORT, and whom I encountered on the big screen when I was taken to see HERBIE RIDES AGAIN as a kid. It became increasingly necessary to thrust those images aside.

As in MOROCCO, Cooper is partnered with Adolphe Menjou, who here plays a comedy Italian army doctor who calls Cooper “Baby”, which is a trifle strange, but who can blame him? Cooper is a lumbering beauty, looking the way Colin Clive probably intended the Frankenstein monster to turn out, and there’s a sense that Menjou’s attempts to keep Cooper apart from his true love may be partly down to jealousy, a frustrated desire, not for Hayes, whom he’s wooing at the start, but for Cooper. It certainly seems like Hayes’ best friend Fergie (more inappropriate associations to contend with) is determined to keep the lovers apart for sapphic reasons of her own.

So, we’re in an Italian garden, and Cooper has just snatched Hayes away from Menjou (“Girls usually prefer him,” says Coop, implausibly) and it seems a bit cruel the way they just stare at him, waiting for him to get the message and piss off, and then they’re lying down together with beautiful snowflake-like crystals of light arranged in the background and then…

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Wait, did Gary Cooper just rape Helen Hayes? Sure seems like it. She’s protesting, and there’s a fade to black (which ALWAYS means penetration is occurring) and then she’s crying and he’s apologising. It seems he didn’t take her refusal seriously until he discovered she was a virgin. As if there was no other reason she could have had for refusing. I know he’s Gary Cooper, but that seems a bit conceited (no one likes a conceited rapist, Gary). But soon she’s fine and it seems this was one of those pre-code violations that nobody minds too much (see TARZAN).

Pre-code films are weird things. When you have the code, there are all sorts of values you can take for granted, and certain plot elements, like crime not paying, which can be predicted. Even the most bizarre moments, like the happy ending + miscarriage in CAUGHT, make complete sense when you factor in the peculiar rulebook movies were following. But in pre-code films, there’s not only greater license, there’s a moral free-for-all in which anything’s up for grabs and no normal standards can be assumed to apply. It’s a lot like what I imagine Amsterdam must be like.

Anyway, Coop and Hayes are now a couple, and then he goes to the front and cuts that near-fatal slice of cheese that lands him on the operating table of Dr. Menjou…

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Asides from the Murnau influence, fading slightly as the ’30s go on, the film shows the impact of Rouben Mamoulian’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, another Paramount production, when Cooper is transported by stretcher through a Milanese hospital, which appears to be a converted church or monastery or something. It’s a lot like going to Heaven. The Mamoulian connection is that the sequence is a prolonged P.O.V. shot, with characters talking to the lens as if it were Coop. I had thought that the subjective camera hospital admission shot dated from around 1946, with A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and POSSESSED vying for first place, but Borzage is there first by some considerable distance. It’s a magnificent coup de cinema, with elaborate forced perspective ceilings keeping up the tone of theatrical artifice.

The religious setting comes in handy for another incredible scene, a sort of unofficial wedding, with a priest mumbling the service over a recuperating Cooper and Nurse Hayes (“At least I’m in white,”) without telling them at first what he’s up to, and in defiance of the fact that he can’t legally marry them when, as enlisted soldier and nurse, they’re both basically the property of their country. The hushed quality of the scene, with the weird mumbling Italian and Hayes and Cooper going through an incantatory evocation of the ideal wedding they’d like to have (“No orange blossoms.” “I can smell them.” “No organ music.” “I can hear it plainly.” ) manages to be both holy and romantic, and I particularly love the sudden wide shot looking past the priest, which makes him look 50ft high.

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Deserting from the forces to be with his love, Cooper wanders ironically into the first real war scene, a chaotic montage that looks like Slavko Vorkapich got drunk and decided to blow up the sets from FRANKENSTEIN. Miniature planes arc through the air on invisible wheels, explosions shower sparks, and a pram filled with live chickens is overturned. Ain’t war hell? This Bunuelian poultry catastrophe is also accompanied by armies of crucifixes, part of the overall Christian slant here. In Borzage’s hands, the Hemingway novel becomes about a man coming to God through romantic love, which may well be the BIG THEME of F.B.’s whole career.

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Amazing moments are now piling up like rugby players. Hayes has confessed to a fear she might die in the rain, and Borzage, who believes in prophecy, cuts to a downpour as she is operated on. Her hand clutches the sheets and he cuts to Cooper’s hands rowing his  boat to get to her. Could be cheesy; isn’t.

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As Cooper finds Hayes, she’s lost the baby she was having, and is now mortally ill. Cooper crosses to a café, pausing to help a dog that wants to get into a covered pail (“There’s nothing there, dog,” — Borzage loves dogs) and prays. It’s an incredible scene. Everyone’s reading about the SURRENDER, and this is Cooper’s unconditional surrender to the Creator. He prays into the flower on the café table like it was a tiny petalled microphone (“You took the baby. That was alright. But don’t let her die.”) then, in an astonishing moment, eats the flower.

Cooper at Hayes bedside gets the full Wagner soundtrack, Tristan und Isolde at maximum volume, pausing for peace to be declared. Man, filmmakers back then just went for it with Wagner, didn’t they? I mean, Bunuel uses it rather slyly, but here and in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY it’s pouring out of the speakers without irony whatsoever.

This film may not entirely cohere, but that sort of works in its favour. Rather than being faithful Hemingway, which I gather it’s not, or a full-on religious tract, it’s much too mysterious to be a straight message movie. I believe the very expensive Borzage book, which is very good, suggests a reading of the work based on Mozart’s masonic opera The Magic Flute, which may be true, but I think I prefer the mystical confusion this film provokes to any precise allegorical interp.

Of course, you can get some lovely Christians, but it’s a way of seeing things I’ve never understood. Not only do I not believe in God, but the only God I can clearly envisage looks like Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural cartoon and acts like Dr. Mengele, so Borzage might seem like someone I would struggle to apprehend. But I quite like the struggle.

Borzage is a Christian from Mars! Not only is he shockingly devoid of prejudice and surprisingly open about sex (even for the pre-code era), he also appears not to care a fig for ecclesiastical convention — in both this film and MAN’S CASTLE, marriages are performed (having already been consummated) that are clearly designated as having no legal force or official recognition, but which we are obviously meant to accept as, if anything, all the more valid for that. It may form part of the answer to this mystery that Borz was a Freemason, though he had grown up under the influence of Catholicism and Mormonism, so his sense of spirituality was naturally both broad and rather quirky.

It’s an exciting adventure for me to delve into such a strange, alien sensibility, to explore the world of these films leaving my own prejudices at the opening credits, and collecting them at the end to find them slightly altered, hard to recognise.

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Vendetta and Fugue

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2008 by dcairns

Got a packet of DVDs in the post, always an exciting thing! In some cases, the rarity value was balanced by a certain extreme visual decrepitude — Bresson’s FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER looked like it had been projected on a chipped door and video’d with somebody’s phone. The white balance was OK for some shots, while others blew out into garish abstraction:

An admittedly extreme example.

Also, the subtitles flare up into luminous smears, illegible except during the four frames when they’re fading in or out. Practice your speed reading!

However, I was glad to have it — it’s nearly impossible to see (I have a copy now and I’m still struggling to see it) and there’s something interesting about weirdly unreadable images.

SON OF HITLER, a frankly upsetting 70s “comedy” starring Bud Cort and Peter Cushing (the dream team!), which was so bad it went entirely unreleased except on the festival circuit, is in better shape, although you can occasionally hear people moving around in the room where it’s being telecined, giving it a haunted, possessed feeling. Also, a patch of “hair” (actually celluloid shavings) gathers at the top of frame almost immediately, and hangs around for the whole movie, looking like a disembodied Hitler ‘tache. Creepy.

In a spirit of perversity, the first disc I decided to watch was VENDETTA, a Howard Hughes production which appeared to be transmitted to me through the ether from a long-dead civilisation:

“I have no interest in these part-works,” said Douglas Sirk, talking about the features he’d directed only a bit of, and he’s basically right: if the director’s job is to be considered important at all, it’s because s/he synchronises and synthesises the different aspects of cinema, the sound, the image, the performance, in a way that the writer, who after all originated the whole thing, cannot. So if the director is replaced or is otherwise prevented from exercising their own best judgement, the film, however interesting, no longer represents anybody’s unified cinematic vision.

VENDETTA is a pretty extreme example of the part-work, even by Howard Hughes’ standards. Preston Sturges wrote a script based on Prosper Merimee’s Columba, and was set to co-produce with Hughes. On his friend René Clair’s recommendation, Sturges selected Max Ophuls as director. According to most accounts, Ophuls had fallen massively behind schedule after two or three weeks shooting, and Sturges felt compelled to fire him (Ophuls seems to have alternated between extreme efficiency and major schedule and budget difficulties, through most of his career). Sturges took over the directorial reins, but a confused argument with Hughes over some bills from a stable-owner resulted in the dissolution of their partnership. (Sturges had been borrowing horses to go riding. He thought this was for free. But the stable-owner sent bills to Hughes,  who then thought Sturges was trying to scam him. Like many millionaires, Hughes was very upset at the thought of being taken advantage of.) Stuart Heisler was brought in to finish the film, but became ill, so was replaced for some scenes by Paul Weatherwax. Hughes then decided on a new ending, so actor Mel Ferrer somehow landed the job of directing pick-ups (another actor, Peter O’Crotty, winds up with screenplay credit). The resulting mess landed on Don Siegel’s editing table and he had the task of fitting it all together.

(Ophuls avenged himself on Hughes with CAUGHT, a later film where Robert Ryan plays a Hughes surrogate, a neurasthenic millionaire who sends “agents” out to pick up hot women for him.)

So the film is extremely handicapped in the business of forming a coherent artistic statement. To the extent that it HAS a presiding genius, that must be Hughes, who had more control than any of the relay team supposedly calling the shots. And indeed, the film exhibits most of the hallmarks of other Hughes productions: pedantic over-explanation, choppiness, moments of inexplicable prolonged stasis, flashes if surprising sadism, and inappropriate brandishing of female cleavage (here we get Faith Domergue tit-shots while she’s mourning her murdered father). Hughes’s other big favourite, the wanton violation of basic character psychology, erupts only in Ferrer’s tacked-on coda.

Adding to the film’s problems is a lack of star power. Faith Domergue, the starlet who tried to kill Hughes and Ava Gardner with her car, if you recall THE AVIATOR, plays Colomba, a fiery Corsican bent on avenging dad’s murder. She’s not actually terrible, and her lusciousness certainly explains Hughes’ interest in her, but she doesn’t set the screen alight. George Dolenz (father of Monkee Mickey) is a bit of a stiff, playing Orso, Colomba’s brother. He’s just in from Paris and doesn’t believe in this Corsican revenge malarkey — think Michael Corleone in the first GODFATHER. Joseph Calleia as a bad guy mayor and Nigel Bruce as Orso’s girl’s dad are reliably characterful, and that’s about it.

Some extra heat is generated by Colomba’s incestuous longing for her brother, so overt as to knock the prefix clean off of “subtext”. This is TEXT, baby. Hot, lusty brother-on-sister text. Of course, those who know their production code can guess roughly how this has to end.

We begin with murk and voice-over: a droning narrator tells us what the code of vendetta means. Then he tells us again. Then he explains just what he means. Then he sums up. A couple of scenes pass, setting up the particular vendetta this film is to cover, and introducing the distinctive cultural situation in Corsica, and then the narrator comes back to clear up any lingering confusion about vendetta. Having now established that he’s going to be a recurring presence throughout the film, the narrator collects his cheque and fucks off, never to be heard again.

BUT! In spite of all the mangling the film received at every stage of production, and the inconsistency that would seem its birthright, VENDETTA is quite Ophulsian. I had wondered whether it would be possible to tell an Ophuls long tracking shot from a Sturges one, given the confused production history of the film, but many of these shots feel utterly distinctive. The camera not only glides along ahead of a character, but then allows them to catch up, and tracks alongside, then lets them overtake and follows them. A great many of the scenes begin with shots that drift through densely forested sound stage, awash in dry ice, the many layers of branches passing before the lens absolutely typical of Ophuls’ fondness for having foreground details partially occlude our view of the action.

Murk!

What generally happens then is that the scene devolves into clunky medium shots, hacked together with somewhat random angle changes. The set-up is Ophuls, the development is everybody else. It’s possible that, having established the principle of beginning every scene with an exploratory track, Ophuls departed the project having set some kind of pattern that the other directors followed. But some of these shots are unmistakeably his.

And then comes the climax, where Orso hunts through the forest for his opponent, and Domergue rushes to warn him that a second opponent is waiting in ambush. So many sinister, gliding dolly shots, with so much foreground material passing between us and the characters. An effective sense of spatial confusion, rendered dramatically coherent by matching angles on every character, and then a gorgeous discovery shot where the camera glides around Orso to reveal the enemies he’s uncovered. Catching the bad guys, Orso wants to hand them in to the French authorities, but Domergue intervenes with tooth and claw, provoking a double-barrelled massacre. This graphically brutal sequence suggests the Hughes of THE OUTLAW (remember Billy the Kid getting his earlobe shot off?) and the extreme frontal angles, with characters looking, and shooting, straight into the lens, has a cartoony feel in keeping with Hughes’ tastes, but it’s without precedent in Ophuls’ work — see for instance the opening of LA SIGNORA DI TUTTI.

At any rate, it’s a sensational ending, defaced by the unnecessary, awkward and out-of-character scene that comes after (a Corsican bandit offers a speech in favour of modernisation and the rule of law!). One thing for sure: if we consider VENDETTA as, in some compromised way, an Ophuls film, it’s perhaps the only one to feature a duel at the end which we actually get to see.

Of course, in LIEBELEI, LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and MADAME DE… it’s more effective NOT to see the duel.