Archive for Christopher Lee

Creative Differences

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2021 by dcairns

I can’t write anything better about BITTER VICTORY than Jonathan Rosenbaum’s piece, which is one of his really good ones. He gets at the ambiguity of the two main characters — Curt Jurgens as Brand, essentially the villain, ought to attract our sympathies more than he does, and Richard Burton’s hero, Leith, oughtn’t to be as appealing as he is. Of course, a lot of this has to do with casting, and Ray’s relationships with his stars. Jurgens was forced on him. Burton, a fellow alcoholic, was sympatico, and Ray tried to get him for KING OF KINGS later, and Burton seriously thought about it.

Brand is a coward and a hypocrite, pathologically jealous, and somewhat brutal. But he’s TRYING to be brave, sometimes he is, and his anxiety about his wife’s fidelity is not wholly without foundation. I think she’s ready to take off with Burton if the circumstances allow it. Still, he’s an unattractive character, unattractively played. Jurgens kept protesting that he wasn’t sympathetic enough, but if Ray tried to fix that, his feelings about having Jurgens forced on him maybe got in the way. Ray was rewriting with Gavin Lambert, the psycho producer was rewriting with Paul Gallico, on another continent, and meanwhile the original author had script approval.

It’s interesting that Ray, by all accounts a supersensitive and uncannily perceptive guy, chose to make his European debut with a producer who turned out, according to Lambert, to be someone who enjoyed destroying directors. Given Ray’s noted self-destructiveness, it’s possible he chose Graetz, at some subconscious level, as just the kind of guy he ought to have nothing to do with.

The making of a film often seems to echo the story of the film, so it’s also easy to see Leith and Brand as portraits of Ray and Graetz. Leith, the romantic T.E. Lawrence figure — like Lawrence, an archaeologist, and someone who upsets his commanders because of his strange manner — Brand, the bully and desk-jockey who instinctively resents Leith, and who is constantly trying to prove himself against him. The reason Leith, and the audiences, give Brand no credit for drinking water that may be poisoned, is that it requires no physical courage, just a lack of imagination.

The one area where Brand’s imagination is on overdrive is his sexual jealousy of his wife and Leith. In fact, the two last met before Brand came on the scene, and they’re much too noble to do anything about their lingering emotions. But Brand evidently has a whole other movie playing in his head…

Ray had wanted Montgomery Clift as Leith, and Burton in the other role, as Brand. Had that been the case, Leith would certainly still have been more appealing than Brand (Burton could do nasty very well, Monty did soulful and vulnerable) but the balance would have been closer. Whether Clift could have made himself sound like a British officer is questionable. But part of the film’s interest is the way Leith’s perversity, self-destructiveness, crazy romanticism and sadistic goading of Brand play out as heroic and noble. The more you pick it apart afterwards the more interesting it gets.

I also love the look of the desert scenes, among the most barren ever filmed. LAWRENCE’s dunes are like feminine fleshscapes by comparison. In daylight, the contrast is so low the action is almost happening against an infinity curve, and at night there’s faux-lunar floodlighting against a jet-black sky, so we get warring voids.

Asides from the central trio (Ruth Roman is pretty good, but Ray wanted Moira Shearer), the only other substantial characters are a sympathetic Arab guide (Raymond Pellegrin, excellent) and the viciously mad Private Wilkins, played by the great Nigel Green.

Green can conjure a glint of madness like few other actors. It can just be THERE, not doing anything, suggesting a weird blinkered disassociation, like in THE IPCRESS FILE. But Wilkins is out where the buses don’t run. He’s evidently been doing this kind of thing too long. Everything’s a joke to him. We’re all going to die? That’s a good joke. We’re just going to suffer horribly? Still funny. Someone else is going to die instead? Equally good. Despite having just about the same attitude to everything that can or might happen, Green is electrifying in the role and Wilkins is terrifyingly unpredictable.

The other familiar face is Christopher Lee, playing another working class private. Lee rarely played plebeian, but is reasonable convincing, and of course he’s the most convincing commando. He MOVES awfully well. In Arab dress, at night, he totally evokes the kind of horror movie he was about become famous for. They should have let him show Burton how to ambush a man and stab him in the back, silently. Lee had actual military experience doing that. Burton’s approach gives the enemy plenty of time to yell and would not work. Still, at this very instant comes the extraordinary moment when Burton lets out a gasp — he’s doing the killing, but it’s like HE’S the one being killed. This close juxtaposition of the clumsy and the brilliant is what Truffaut perhaps meant when he remarked that Ray’s films were often not as “well-made” as other Hollywood filmmakers’, but he got moments of truth that nobody else would go near.

And, often, these moments involve violence.

The unfolding of the desert mission — retrieving enemy documents of completely opaque significance — kept reminding me of HOW I WON THE WAR. Running out of water, men cracking under the strain. Both films reference Lawrence without naming him. But it didn’t seem likely to have been a direct influence on Richard Lester. But it might conceivably have inspired novelist Patrick Ryan, who wrote the source book. The crazy, near-abstract mission is oddly close to satire, but markedly without laughs.

Teddy Kiss Atom

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2021 by dcairns

Caught a little of CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG on the telly over Christmas, and then on Hogmanay we ran my new Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Suddenly realized that one of the Six Tumbling Piccolos, the acrobatic midgets who turn up (minus two of their number, unfortunately gassed) in an Inverness graveyard in TPLOSH, is also seen in Gert Frobe’s Vulgarian court in CCBB.

And in fact those seem to be the guy’s only credits. And his name was Teddy Kiss Atom. His brother, Charlie Young Atom, is also a Piccolo. Or I assume they’re brothers. Pretty wild coincidence if two midgets called Atom wound up in the same film by sheer chance.

And I know “midgets” is not the preferred term, but it’s what they call them in the film. I think it used to be sort of useful to distinguish people who are small all over, like these Atom chaps, from people with short arms and legs, like the TIME BANDITS, who were called dwarfs.

Other observations, since this is proving so illuminating —

“That little wizard Mr. Trauner”, Billy Wilder’s favourite production designer, provides a Swan Lake fake swan with a built-in fake reflection, complete with sculpted ripples. But my DVD isn’t working and I can’t framegrab from the Blu-Ray (a technical issue that may be fixed in 2021) so you’ll have to check it out yourselves.

I always assumed the Diogenes Club was some suitably grand location hired for the day, but the maniacs built it, for ONE SHOT. Wilder really burned up his studio clout with this one. A producer friend has told me that his job entails assessing “the appetite” of a film — this one, from the production notes by Trevor Willsmer supplied in the disc booklet, was apparently insaciable.

I love this out-of-time film. But when Fiona asked why it flopped so badly, the answer seemed simple: “It was old-fashioned, it had no stars, and it promised to be naughty but wasn’t.” Some slightly smuttier stuff hit the cutting room floor (whole storylines), but the stars thing is strange. Apart from Christopher Lee, cast in a role that wouldn’t particularly appeal to his fanbase (Mycroft, not Moriarty) although he’s fab here, we have Robert Stephens, a Wildean Holmes, who has picked up a lot of his then-wife (but not for long) wife Maggie Smith’s cadences (well, she got them from Kenneth Williams) and Colin Blakeley (I guess A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is what got him the part), neither of them a box-office draw, but magically correct. Wilder had offered it to Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers… Sellers hadn’t forgiven him for the heart attack on KISS ME STUPID… The female lead being described as German made me wonder if Audrey Hepburn was ever considered. Instead, Genevieve Page was cast and is great. Like everyone else, she didn’t have the most terrific time (Stephens attempted suicide)… there was a plan for more nudity, a test was prepared, and Page being a redhead it was decided she was too pale and her nipples needed circling with lipstick, “which gave me the feeling that my nipples had failed, somehow.”

I rented this several times on VHS back in the day and showed it to two friends, BOTH of whom insisted on stopping and rewinding to watch the comedy constable react to the street sweeper… he’s so wonderfully crap. He’s doing all the appropriate silent comedy moves, but just somehow off. And it turns out that shooting went on so long (that appetite) that the appointed actor, Bob Todd, became unavailable, and Stephens’ chauffeur took the part. (Had Sellers been playing Watson, they’d have been covered, since his driver did visual comedy quite ably in THE RUNNING JUMPING STANDING STILL FILM.

Another thing TPLOSH perhaps has against is an unhappy ending… but then, it’s a tragedy from which Holmes & Watson will recover and we last see Watson… writing. Which can’t be an unhappy ending, from Wilder’s viewpoint.

Operazione Paura

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 13, 2019 by dcairns

It occurs to me that Boris Johnson would be good casting for HG Wells’ invisible man, with his unpigmented hair and psychopathic personality and thirst for power, but there he is, on television, horribly visible.

Mario Bava’s KILL, BABY… KILL! was released in Italy as OPERAZIONE PAURA, which loosely translates as PROJECT FEAR, so I should really have written about it in our Project Fear blogathon, and maybe I can catch up with it on Friday 13th December when the general election results come in. Instead, we watched THE WHIP AND THE BODY and HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (really more of a cleaver) but I didn’t get around to saying anything about them.

Bava notoriously made KBK from a script of, I think it was, twenty-five pages. Surely WHIP’s source document must have been ever shorter, given the amount of atmospheric prowling around gloomy corridors the director perpetrates to make up the time. Olivier’s HAMLET has nothing on this. The sadomasochistic relationship at the centre of the story is quite compellingly drawn, though, the photography is luminous, and Chris Lee looks good in that fringe he seemed to acquire for European movies around this time (his No. 2 hairpiece). Too bad he never recorded his own line readings: Lee with someone else’s voice is only half the pleasure.

This is another movie that screwed itself by being too much too soon, like WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? Arguably audiences weren’t ready for such naked sadism in 1963, and censors certainly weren’t, either banning it outright or cutting it until it no longer made even marginal sense.

HATCHET is basically AMERICAN PSYCHO, with similar games played with reality and perception. Stephen Forsyth shows us what that movie would be like with a genuine blank at its centre — a lot less fun to watch. He’s absolutely appropriate but not very entertaining. Bava shot this one himself, but it has neither the Gothic trappings nor the pop-art pizzazz of his finest work.

Interesting, though, for what Bava steals from others — the Hitchcock-Freud recovered memory plot — and from himself — a clip from his own BLACK SABBATH plays on a television.