Archive for Charles Durning

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.

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Never Put Durning in the Corner

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2015 by dcairns

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A warning to all — never put Charles Durning at the point of an “A” composition. This may be a little academic now that Durning is no longer with us, but it’s still a valid point.

I shall elucidate. An “A” composition is a flat two-shot with a third party in the background. You can see how this forms an A lying on its back — the edges of the frame are the feet of the A, the distant figure is the point, and the eyeline between the two profile characters makes the horizontal strut of the A.

The third party can look from one principal player to another, and adds interest to the shot — you get extra depth, possibly A LOT of depth if the third character is far away, and you get someone who is full-face, which gives you more emotion than the two profiles. And by being attentive, this third character can subtly tell the audience that they should pay attention too. By looking from one profile to another, the third character can even signal to the audience which character to focus most attention on at a given time.

John Frankenheimer is a huge fan of the “A” — his live television days accustomed him to working with extreme deep focus, and he used every trick in the book to replicate the KANE-like effect in his movies, hence all those diopter shots that split the focus into two parts, or even three.

I WALK THE LINE (1970) is a pretty good southern drama with Gregory Peck straying from his usual straight-and-narrow, stalwart roles, as a sheriff who falls hard for moonshiner’s daughter Tuseday Weld. The smart, honest man is out of his depth once he falls to intrigue, and is easy prey for stupider characters, like Deputy Durning and moonshiner paterfamilias Ralph Meeker, since they’re used to living their lives in the shadows, manipulating and spying on others.

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This is a scene where Peck is under pressure from Federal man Lonny Chapman to do something about the moonshine trade. Durning suspects already that for some reason Peck is reluctant to do so. I’m not saying what he does here is wrong, precisely, but it certainly puts the entire attention on him, leaving Peck and Chapman as blurry silhouettes, featureless despite all Frankenheimer and DoP David M. Walsh’s deep focus.

Durning actually leans in, seemingly to get a better listen but blatantly just to be more clearly seen himself, and to attract our attention. And he makes a stupid, hilarious face, as if frozen in the act of eating a sandwich while grinning.

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The movie is quite good — Weld is enticing and natural as ever. Peck can do conflicted. He can’t quite do lust, and looks a bit uncomfortable as he tries hard not to seem fatherly. Estelle Parsons is touching as Peck’s wife, who does not inspire him with Tuesday Weld type passion. Never has. The marriage is very much like the bleak, lifeless one at the start of SECONDS, only Parsons quotes from Reader’s Digest to try to fill the yawning silences.

There is also a major example of the Frankenheimer Dog.

Frankenheimer, as I will argue in a forthcoming piece for Masters of Cinema (watch this space), has a particular affinity for emptiness, and he finds his ideal image in a deserted house, former home to pack’s deceased mother and sisters, which he tries to use as a love nest. The ruined residence affords Frankenheimer just all kinds of compositional pleasure.

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Music is by Johnny Cash, including the title song. All the music is in the form of songs, which, as is the way of such brilliant ideas, creates a tricky problem during one scene of trauma that just wouldn’t be helped by lyrics, no matter how gravelly. Frankenheimer dubs in a LOW DRONE — not, I think, a Johnny Cash composition. A sound like feedback from an incorrectly inserted audio jack. The sound of disconnection, of emptiness.

May 6th

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2013 by dcairns

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Without any particular plan, we watched THE HINDENBURG on Friday. We were supposed to be getting married, but we watched THE HINDENBURG instead. I can’t actually tell you whether this was a wise choice, because I haven’t had the experience of getting married, but now that I have watched THE HINDENBURG I can say that married life doesn’t have a great deal to live up to. It ought to be able to knock Robert Wise’s 1975 disaster movie into a cocked hat.

The interesting bit is that we were watching on May 3rd, and part of the film takes place on May 3rd. And then the Hindenburg blows up today, May 6th, only in 1937, giving me plenty of time to write about it.

Basically, most of the film is a snooze. Nelson (THE HAUNTING) Gidding’s screenplay doesn’t manage to make all these sympathetic Nazis very sympathetic, and the unsympathetic ones don’t get to do any real Nazi stuff — Charles Durning in particular is terribly wasted — and there just isn’t a lot of human emotion to it. Oh the humanity! What humanity?

Edward Carfagno’s meticulous production design, apparently extremely accurate, could serve as an analog for the whole project — the Hindenburg’s gondola resembles a 1970s conference centre. It’s pretty small, and doesn’t offer the epic opulence of a Titanic. Against this accuracy, there’s the fact that the film’s sabotage plot is bullshit, but at least it gives William Atherton a chance to be twitchy, and George C. Scott something to brood about. Most watchable of all is Anne Bancroft, even though she has little to do.

We can see the cunning of James Cameron, who made a banal little drama the focus of TITANIC, with all the spectacle simply as dynamic backdrop. Whereas HINDENBURG really is about the Hindenburg, and nothing but the Hindenburg. As boring as the first 90 mins of TITANIC are — and admit it, they’re awesomely boring — at least the romance gives the characters something to do, something which would matter dramatically even if the ship were not sinking. All the action of the airship movie is about stopping a bomb from going off — a bomb which we know IS going to go off. We even know when.

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“Jesus–not Hitler!” I guess a lot of people were thinking that same thought.

I like a lot of Robert Wise films, though I’ve never quite forgiven him for screwing with MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Perfect for him to make a film about a sympathetic Nazi who’s only following orders. That’s harsh, I know. But it’s brought to mind by the film’s deliberate quoting of CITIZEN KANE, with a newsreel (above) at the beginning and the burning sign at the end…

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Ah yes, the end. My favourite bit, because suddenly this staid non-thriller goes batshit crazy. A weird optical effect has the bomb go off like something from a James Bond title sequence, and the movie goes into b&w — purely so as to incorporate the actual newsreel footage of the disaster. Now, it seems unfair to make a disaster movie called THE HINDENBURG and then not stage the climactic destruction yourself. Possibly poor taste, too. But even if you’ve got Albert Whitlock, which they have, I guess it was impossible to create anything as impressive as the reality using 1970s technology. Still, for a colour movie to go into monochrome the second a towering inferno breaks out seems perverse. But the madness has just begun.

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Bottom centre — the burning sign –” Hindenbud!”

Determined to get some sense of urgency into his cinematic dirible, Wise starts zooming randomly, in the modern manner. The newsreel footage freeze-frames for no apparent reason, repeatedly. I guess to try to say, Yes, we know this is stock footage. Look how we’re making it stop and start. There’s one really great high angle where everybody on the ground suddenly grows a long shadow — magnificent stuff. Atherton, mortally wounded, frees a dalmatian from the baggage car — and we spend the whole climax wondering if it got out OK. We don’t care about Burgess Meredith. We don’t care about Rene Auberjonois. Even Anne Bancroft takes a back seat to the dog.

People leap from high places, some of them on fire. The guy from Hogan’s Heroes seems to drop thirty feet without the aid of a stunt double. Small children are flung similar distances, amid flaming debris. Charles Durning smolders, and not in a good way.

Then we get the roll call of the dead. A narrator reads character names, and says “Dead. Dead. Survived. Dead.” as little pictures of the cast appear. After a while he stops bothering to name the minor players. “Dead. Dead. Dead.” Finally, we get the dog. “Survived.” Hooray! The movie ends on a high note.

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Dog — bottom left.

Then it gets better — against Michael Shire’s lovely, elegiac theme music, we get the special effects departments miniature Hindenburg drifting majestically against matted-in blue skies, while the famous real-life news reporter totally loses his shit on the soundtrack. It was a mistake to hire Franklin Pangborn to narrate an air disaster, I feel. False economy.

It’s a really nice and interesting sequence, and probably it should have gone at the start, thus admitting what we already know about the story. But that would have left the movie even less to impress with at the end.