Archive for Christopher Challis


Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2018 by dcairns

Orson Welles may have called John Guillermin “one of the truly outstanding incompetents” and a viewing of the Franco-Anglo-Irish director’s KING KONG movies might seem to bear that out, but I can’t help but feel there’s some merit there, in the earlier works, indicating that while some are born incompetent, others go on to achieve incompetence.

My late friend Lawrie knew Guillermin quite well. On noticing one of the maestro’s lesser works, EL CONDOR, in his Radio Times, I started to read the synopsis: “Slick, nasty and superficial…” “That’s John!” declared Lawrie jubilantly, but with a certain affectionate indulgence.

Talking Pictures TV kindly screened NEVER LET GO (1960), an earlier Guillermin, from when he had B-picture zest. It’s certainly slick, nasty and superficial, but it’s also very effective. Fiona was WILDLY enthusiastic about it. It has no really appealing characters, but it’s relentless, event-packed, and looks and sounds great, thanks to Powell & Pressburger photographer Christopher Challis and new composer on the block John Barry. But what really tips it over the edge is a ferocious performance by Peter Sellers, another of Orson’s favourite people (“Where’s our thin friend today?”) in, I believe, his first serious role.

Richard Todd plays a cosmetics salesman whose car is stolen by a gang of hoodlums led by Adam Faith (the best pop-star actor, I’d say, and a uniquely naturalistic one — he’s also fantastic in BEAT GIRL, the other great Barry-scored exploitation romp of 1960. Todd has staked his whole future on this uninsured Ford Anglia, and slowly transforms from a meek, bespectacled underdog (he’s worked out a very good, unassuming/defeated WALK) to a would-be Paul Kersey, bristling at Scotland Yard’s slow-but-sure investigation and taking the fight to the “legitimate businessman,” Sellers, who deals in hot vehicles.

There’s also good work by Carol White, the Battersea Bardot, in a somewhat thankless early role. Faith gets to alternately menace and be menaced, whereas White is entirely put-upon, a care home girl Sellers has taken as mistress, installing her in a downmarket shagging palace and leering over her with panting, bared-teeth menace. It’s an electrifying performance from him: when an actor goes all-out to be repellant, and has such resources, the effect is overwhelming. Guillermin’s dramatic low angles emphasise the pudginess of Sellers’ “jawline,” while the actor makes full use of his thin lips and sharp little teeth to suggest the lurking sadism of this mediocre criminal. He also plays it with a suppressed northern accent, hinting at the character’s social aspirations, along with his constant reiteration that he’s got a “legitimate business.”

“I know the term ‘fight in a warehouse’ is supposed to be pejorative…” said Fiona, as Todd and Sellers try to tear each other apart in a garage at the end. The whole place is a death trap, with big jeroboams of battery acid (never used: just planted there to terrify us) a descending car platform that threatens to crush Todd’s skull, chains and crowbars and planks with nails in…

If the film was as tough as it thinks it is, Todd’s car would have been totally trashed in the fight, Sellers would have been killed, and our vigilante hero would have been jailed for murder — instead, Sellers is only stunned, then arrested, and Todd goes home to his wife. But the happy ending is pretty crazy, considering the number of crimes he’s blatantly committed, and which the Yard has decided to sympathetically overlook. Still, at this stage in John Barry’s career, a filmmaker could do just about anything if he had that guy’s music to paper over the narrative cracks.



Posted in FILM, Mythology, Science with tags , , , , , on April 16, 2016 by dcairns


ROBOT DISCOVERS LOCH NESS MONSTER shrilled the press. I’m old enough to remember when LOCH NESS MONSTER DISCOVERS ROBOT would have been a less startling headline.

What had happened, of course, is that an exploratory underwater robot had stumbled upon a sunken prop from Billy Wilder’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, a favourite film of mine (and others of my generation: Mark Gatiss,  Jonathan Coe, who discovered it on TV as kids). Nessie-ologist and famed beard guy Adrian Shine (“I liked his beard” — Werner Herzog in INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS) explained that the monster had been built with two humps, as in legendary sightings, but Billy Wilder took against the humps and ordered them removed, despite concerns being voiced as to how this alteration would affect the creatures flotation. The faux-plesiosaur subsequently capsized and has lodged on the lake bed ever since.

I was a bit skeptical about this, since Shine was using lots of words like “apparently” and “it is suggested,” but Wilder was always one to say he couldn’t judge a scene visually until it was projected — PLOSH DoP Christopher Challis was astonished at this great filmmakers refusal to look through the camera. “He just said he wouldn’t know until he saw it on the screen. If he didn’t like what he saw we’d do it again. Extraordinary. But look at the films he’s made.” So he might have signed off on a humpy dinosaur and then changed his mind when he saw the rushes.

And then there’s THIS —

Sherlock Nessie 3

A shot of a clearly reduced-scale Nessie, its face matching the one in the movie, being towed by a boat. So this version of the creature was built for establishing shots on location. The one seen most prominently in the film is a full-sized head and neck clearly photographed in a studio tank — this is the image most of the newspapers used to illustrate their story, misleading their readers into imagining some thirty-foot colossus embedded in the silt and the loch’s bottom.

Sherlock Nessie

Anyway, all this reminds me that my producer’s favourite film is THE APARTMENT, which I introduced to him, and then I lent him PLOSH, and I still haven’t got it back from the bastard.

Donkey con

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , on August 14, 2013 by dcairns


A Michael Powell story.

“A donkey was duly called by the property department and reported to Pinewood Studios on the appointed day at 6 a.m. complete with its owner, a diminutive cockney from Covent Garden Market. Immediately on arrival he was taken to wardrobe and fitted out with a ballet costume, tights, shoes, etc. Then followed make-up and hairdressing  where he was given the full classical look. This he endured without comment of complaint, being a man of few words who had prepared himself for the peculiarities which he might have to face in a film studio. His donkey, equally phlegmatic, grazed on a patch of grass outside the window. He was then taken to the crowd dressing room where h sat, silent, in the farthest corner, surrounded by other male dancers with whom he was totally identified in looks, if not in spirit. He waited patiently for something to happen, all the while keeping his own counsel, apparently unmoved by all that went on around him. At last, his patience rewarded, the dancers were called on to the set with him leading his donkey, which by now must have become his only link with the outside world. The market square sequence had been fully rehearsed the evening before, so all that was required was a quick run-through before shooting.

‘Quiet, everybody, for a final rehearsal,” shouted the assistant director. ‘Playback, please,’ and with the magic word ‘action’ and to the sound of the recorded music, the crowd leaped and twisted their way across the stage with pirouettes and entrechats, all perfect apart from the ‘dancer’ with the donkey, who stood immovable and expressionless. ‘Cut, cut!’ shouted Michael above the sound of the playback, never endowed with great patience on these occasions. ‘What’s wrong with everyone? It was rehearsed last night. Pull yourselves together and let’s go again.’

And so we did with exactly he same result. With the third attempt ‘cut’, Michael strode angrily through the crowd to confront the dancer with the donkey. ‘What’s the matter with you? Everyone else knows what to do. It was all rehearsed last night. You can hear the music like the others, you’re a dancer, aren’t you?’

‘Of course I f…..g ain’t! I just brought the f…..g donkey!’

From cinematographer Christopher Challis’s memoir Are They Really So Awful? Challis was camera operator on THE RED SHOES. However, the story above may not be 100% reliable since I have yet to spot any form of donkey, mule or ass in the corps de ballet.

But this story struck a bell with me because my pal Lawrie Knight, who was third AD on TRS and also on A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, reported a precisely similar story — a friend was visiting him at the studio, but didn’t appear to meet him as planned. Suddenly Lawrie recognized one of the jurors in the heavenly tribunal — his friend, in fancy dress. “What are you doing in that costume?” he asked. “I… don’t know!” replied his befuddled visitor.


I love the idea of Pinewood as a place where anybody stepping through the gates would be bundled into costume and makeup and forced in front of the cameras. It’d make breaking into the movies a lot easier.