Archive for Charles Laughton

Don’t Look at the Camera

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2016 by dcairns


Since I’ve been writing about those moments when characters can’t quite help but look at the machinery observing them, and by so doing make eye contact with the audience, documentarist Harry Watt’s memoir Don’t Look At the Camera fairly leapt off the shelf at me in Edinburgh University Library.

It was a short loan, so I just skimmed — school days, NIGHT MAIL and a surprise entry on Hitchcock’s JAMAICA INN.

Schooldays at Edinburgh Academy — I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, that Watt was an Edinburgh man. He talks about being both sporty and academically bright, and says he joined the rugby players in their unmerciful bullying of the swots. This struck me as in bad taste. Not only is he saying he was a bully at school, he’s proudly admitting it as an adult. I award extra points to anyone confessing and repenting childhood misdeeds. If the tone isn’t repentant, I think silence is best. British public school graduates should stay as quiet about their bullying as they usually are about their homosexual experiences. In fact, if our Tory leaders were more frank about those, some social good might be done.

NIGHT MAIL — Harry wants us to know that he directed the damn thing, though thanks to John Grierson (another mean Scotsman) the credits don’t say so. But he gives Cavalcanti fair credit for his revolutionary editing and sound design (revolutionary for Britain anyway) and says he doesn’t remember who thought of getting W.H. Auden to write a poetic commentary, but it wasn’t him. So the best aspects of the film aren’t his idea, but he did preside over them.


And then it turns out that H.W. had a brief turn as assistant director for Hitchcock and producer Erich Pommer. I’ll let him tell the tale in his own words. It’s funny, and then finally rather melancholic, and it’s probably useful to bear in mind that Watt is a bully and a dick, by his own confession (well, he doesn’t come right out and say “I’m a dick,” but he boasts of having been a bully which amounts to the same thing) and that he was a fairly unsuccessful director of fiction films for Ealing. His description of his own directing technique makes him sound pretty hopeless, if you’ve ever done it. If you haven’t, it sounds like he’s doing every reasonable thing a director could do to get a performance, which is obviously how he viewed it…


When I got on the set it all seemed easy. Nice set, good bunch of boys, pretty young actress. I do remember being irritated because she kept eating buttered toast, which dribbled and spoilt her make-up, but, what the hell, it was only one shot. I showed Maureen the hole in the wall, checked she knew the scene and what was supposed to be happening next door, and tried a rehearsal. She ambled up to the crack, stuck a huge violet eye against it, uttered the sort of squeak a girl makes when she’s been goosed at a party, and disappeared from the frame in the wrong direction. I wasn’t too discouraged. I had spent years handling amateurs, so I gave her a little chat, and tried again. It was worse! Now it was up to me to show what I could do. I gave her the works–that the man there next door, hanging by his neck, was the man whose touch she thrilled to, in whose arms she would lie naked, who would father her children, AND HE WAS CHOKING TO DEATH! I even did a choking act. ‘Right, in you go, kid, and remember, take a moment to realize the whole horror of it. Then, your eyes wide open, you hold the look for, say, two seconds, then you turn your head slowly towards camera, remember, towards camera, as though you are hardly able to grasp what is going on in the next room, and then try and let us see your sudden decision to rush off and get help. But don’t move until you have made that decision. Do you understand that now?’ Maureen understood perfectly, moved up to the hole, and gave an impression of someone watching ‘What the Butler Saw.’ She got the giggles! It was my choking act, she said. I think the camera crew watched carefully to step in before I did it to her.


I filmed that one goddam shot all afternoon–twenty odd takes, and then rushed off to Pommer: ‘Mr Pommer,’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t get a performance out of that O’Hara kid. I know why, mind you, she’s a virgin, and until someone gives her a good roll, she’s got about as much animation as a piece of wet cod. But I’m afraid I’ve let you down.’ Pommer, chewing nervously on an empty cigarette holder, as he always did, agreed with me, but speaking from his experience, cheered me up by saying she was so lovely that people would not worry about her performance.

At the end of the picture, it was discovered that she had been secretly married to an assistant director all the time. So much for my sixth-sense about actors.

There was a most unholy row when Maureen’s marriage became known. The Laughton-Pommer Company, Mayflower Productions, was proposing to go and make films in Hollywood, and one of their major assets was their dewy unspoilt Irish rose, who would no doubt be excellent bait for the financial tycoons. The whole matter was hushed up, and Maureen was shipped off to the States with assurances, I believe, to the boy that he would follow. But time went on, and by now immersed in the process of being groomed as a star, Maureen agreed to a discreet divorce to be arranged. I don’t think they ever saw each other again.

Blind Spots

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 29, 2016 by dcairns


Ray Walston, an unsatisfactory substitute for the indisposed Peter Sellers, and Cliff Osmond, an unsatisfactory substitute for the area of wall he’s standing in front of, in Billy Wilder’s arguably-still-great KISS ME STUPID.

One kind of directorial blindness is obvious — Quentin Tarantino giving himself the job of lisping narrator in THE HATEFUL EIGHT. I suppose the idea that he’s a recognizable voice and he IS the director could be said to justify that one, if the idea worked. But Tarantino casting himself in PULP FICTION is harder to excuse — an actor with Tarantino’s limited manner and range and skill set could never hope to get cast in that movie, with more lines than Rosanna Arquette, if not for the fact that he was the guy who could give him that part.

And then there’s someone like Jules Dassin, working with his wife Melina Mercouri, and evidently convinced that everything she did was sexy, adorable, funny and convincing. I like Mercouri, but she does get carried away sometimes, and Dassin was evidently not going to be the man to rein her in. I don’t think it’s because he was afraid to do so, I think it’s because his critical eye relaxed unduly whenever he gazed upon his tall thin Greek wife.


But, excepting such obvious cases of prejudice, what are the cases where someone who really should know better casts badly and fails to notice? I think the most inexplicable case on record is that of Billy Wilder’s affection for Cliff Osmond. Wilder, who had talent and knew talent, did not know that Osmond lacked talent. Not totally lacked, just lacked it enough to make his presence problematic when surrounded by really good people with really good material. Wilder went on the record saying that Osmond might be the new Laughton. And Wilder had worked, very successfully, with Laughton. Interestingly, he had planned to have Laughton play the character of Moustache in IRMA LA DOUCE, but Laughton became terminally ill. According to Maurice Zolotow’s unreliable Wilder bio, the director carried on meeting with Laughton, pretending that the actor was going to recover and play this comic role for his friend, thus comforting the great star on his death-bed. Lou Jacobi eventually took the role — but Cliff Osmond is in the picture too, as a policeman, making his first appearance for Wilder, and it is perhaps this connection that set in Wilder’s mind the curious idee fixee that Osmond was in some way Laughtonish. True, he was fat, and true, he wasn’t handsome, but many people are fat and unhandsome. Only Laughton is Laughton. Wilder might as well have cast me.

Osmond went on to prominent roles in KISS ME STUPID, THE FORTUNE COOKIE and THE FRONT PAGE. He’s in more Wilder films than Marilyn Monroe, Walter Matthau, Ray Milland, Fred MacMurray, Erich Von Stroheim or Audrey Hepburn. He’s level with William Holden.

I’m curious — who else do you think represents a blind spot in an otherwise talented director’s career? And more importantly, why?

Ottocracy in Action

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2015 by dcairns


More Otto Preminger Week Revisited.

Otto is one of those filmmakers you just CANNOT watch in the wrong aspect ratio. I’ve seen TAXI DRIVER in 4:3 and it was OK, although that’s obviously a travesty of the filmmaker’s intentions. To see a widescreen Preminger reduced to 16:9, though, renders it meaningless. The drama is often a little elusive at times, and without the spaciousness of the compositions, it dissipates mysteriously into nothingness. Plus you miss the detail packed into the edges of the frame on the crowded shots.

Fiona was astonished by ADVISE AND CONSENT — she found it talkie and dull for the first half hour, and she has flu, and she didn’t feel like looking at this all-star fishtank of largely cold, dry characters conniving and backstabbing. But once the movie has set its narrative in motion, and in particular once Don Murray’s awful predicament as a blackmailed senator with a homosexual affair in his past becomes apparent, the thing grips.


For once, Charles Laughton is upstaged — by time-traveling Hugo Weaving on the right. He Gets everywhere!

In The World and its Double, Chris Fujiwara notes that Preminger and screenwriter Wendell Mayes were adapting and subverting a right-wing novel, and the result is interesting — it has Henry Fonda lying under oath, for one thing. As in THE BEST MAN, Fonda plays an “egghead” — Henry Fonda is Hollywood’s idea of a dangerous intellectual? What’s interesting, though, is this major star playing a character reduced to a political football, kicked around by the real players, compromising his ideals, finally reduced to irrelevance in a plot that moves on elsewhere.

Charles Laughton, in his last role, is chief antagonist, right-wing spokesman for the blacklist set. Preminger, who helped break the blacklist, allows him some humanity. The secondary antagonist is uptight, neurotic peacemonger George Grizzard, a hopeless politician full of passion and, it turns out, evil. And even he is somewhat sympathetic.


This is an amazing shot: the camera arching around dramatically in response to quite small head turns by Grizzard (left).

People Preminger was mean to on this one: Franchot Tone, who hadn’t been in a movie for years. Paul Ford, of Bilko fame (“You’re not funny!”). He didn’t mess with Laughton, and Don Murray betrayed no weakness.

Preminger, trying to help out Gene Tierney, who had been institutionalized after a mental collapse, cast her as a society hostess and apparently treated her with the greatest gentleness. She was terrified of him anyway. You can’t be the purple-faced tyrant and switch to being lovable Uncle Otto when it suits you. Fiona’s eyes nearly popped out when Tierney’s character playfully calls herself a bitch — the word had not been used in American movies, at least since the Production Code came in (one thinks of THE WOMEN’s artfully circumlocutory “There’s a name for you ladies…” — but I think British movies had not been so gentle).



What really amazed Fiona was the gay bar scene. Preminger was sailing very close to the wind, relying on a change to the Code that had not been ratified as he neared production. SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER had broken the taboo on cannibalism — I guess homosexuality was regarded as a degree worse than that. Preminger was warned not to feature makeup or effeminate types — he heeded the warnings but violated their spirit with physiognomy and performance. Seen through the tortured Don Murray character’s eyes, the place exerts both repulsion and attraction — some customers seem normal, appealing, others are George Grosz grotesques. Preminger’s innate streak of vulgarity can’t resist a good leer, but the approach makes sense and the scene hasn’t really dated. The senator’s religion isn’t mentioned, but he’s from Utah, making it highly likely that he’s a Mormon (I believe Bruce Dern’s grandfather was the only non-Mormon governor of Utah), making his inner conflict even more intense.

Preminger and Mayes plant just enough clues to indicate that the character’s marriage is, if not a sham, at least a deliberate construct, a life he’s been trying to lead, telling himself it’s right for him. He loves his wife and kid, but he’s straitjacketed himself into somebody else’s existence. It’s a rather sophisticated, nuanced piece of work, and Murray is excellent in the role: something about the tightness of his smile always suggests a man clinging on (he’s very fine in the underrated A HATFUL OF RAIN also).