Archive for Christopher Plummer

Dumb and Plummer

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2020 by dcairns

So. For Blake Edwards’ third Clouseau film with Peter Sellers, he steals the premise of TO CATCH A THIEF, and brings in Christopher Plummer as “Sir Charles Phantom the notorious Lytton” (Clouseau getting his words in the wrong order is never actually funny, but they kept trying it), and he also steals the party-strangling joke from STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (I think of it as a joke, though it’s also alarming — curiously, it’s funnier in the original. THE PINK PANTHER already owed a huge debt to the Hitchcock, down to the party with police presence at the end (Clouseau saying to a pair of gendarmes dressed as a zebra, “I’ll have your stripes for this,” is both deeply, unforgivably stupid and quite, quite brilliant) so even the idea of stealing from that movie isn’t original to this one…

Edwards, in his PINK PATHER audio commentary, does credit one other idea to Hitchcock — the schtick of the old man trying to cross the road and the car chase continually interrupting him — that was done with James Finlayson in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT. Edwards restaged it with his grandfather’s property master, and did it a lot better. Now I have to see J. Gordon Edwards’ THE SILENT COMMAND, one of his few surviving films, with Bela Lugosi.

Edwards now knew how horribly crazy Sellers could be, having experienced his paranoid tantrums and no-shows on A SHOT IN THE DARK. The eleven-year gap between Clouseaus can be attributed to that experience, though we do have THE PARTY in there in ’68, and INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU, made without Edwards or Sellers or any artistic value.

RETURN plays like two different movies. Plummer is engaged in an almost straight thriller in “Lugash” (played by Morocco) while Clouseau is shadowing his girlfriend in Gstadt. They meet at the end for a “climax” played in a hotel room. It’s amazingly slight, but somewhat overblown at the same time.

Plummer in theory ought to be a good light comedy replacement for David Niven, but the film has him mainly break Graham Stark’s fingers, which is persistently appallingly not funny. Just horrid. It’s true that Edwards had a sense of humour that embraced physical pain more than is strictly normal. But it’s odd to find those moments where there seems to be no comedy aspect at all, it’s JUST torture, a strong guy abusing a little weak guy, and we’re still meant to laugh.

Clouseau does have some great moments. He’s first seen on patrol, busted down to gendarme, and he salutes a passing girl with his baton and hits himself in the eye. It’s always impressive to me how Edwards and his star can get a big laugh within seconds of introducing their hero.

Describing his addiction to cruelty, Edwards spoke of his chronic back pain as an influence, but also mentioned an incident where he was in a restaurant and Curt Jurgens came in and recognized him and waved, “Hiya, Blake!” and inadvertently stuck his thumb in his own eye. That seems like the direct influence here. The movie’s version is more inherently comic, whereas the brutal real life one is only funny because it’s Curt Jurgens.Another Sellers associate, John Bluthal, as the blind man, with some terrific staging of the background action — Clouseau misses a bank heist while quibbling with the phony blind man about his “minky,” then cudgels the bank manager who’s trying to stop it.

Inexplicably-still-Chief Inspector Dreyfus now has an ill-advised trick cigarette lighter that looks exactly like his service revolver. Hilarity and disfigurement ensue. This sequence features one of my favourite exchanges: “I Swear to God, Clouseau, if you’re not out of my office in ten seconds -” “Ten seconds is nothing, I can easily be out in three…” Clouseau not only gloriously misses the whole point, but in the most infuriating possible way.

The slapstick is fine, and the staging of it extremely skilled, but there are also completely gratuitous silly jokes, like “Follow that car!” stuff, where the cab driver jumps from his seat to pursue the target on foot, a dogged look in his eye. That kind of thing (introduced in SHOT with Clouseau giving instructions to his driver then watching helplessly as the car tears off without him) seems to presuppose a whole universe of idiots and maniacs, which isn’t a good context for Clouseau to stand out in. The best stuff I think involves Herbert Lom and Burt Kwouk. The Cato ambushes are now huge spectacles full of spectacular destruction. And Chief Inspector’s Dreyfus’s clouseaumania now starts to make him talk like Clouseau. A clue to the weird layers of transference going on. Because, in a way, Sellers is Dreyfus, driven crazy by not being able to get away from Clouseau. In a way, Edwards is Clouseau, trying to maintain the illusion of being in control.

Of course there’s no coherent illusion of continuity: we’re meant to remember the character of Dreyfus but conveniently forget that he, in his previous appearance, had a total breakdown and accidentally killed a dozen people while trying to off Clouseau. Everyone else has. Let bygones be bygones. We’ve all had days like that. In fact, even on his first appearance, Lom somehow felt like an established part of the franchise with a pre-existing relationship with Clouseau (pathological hatred). Not only can you watch the films out of sequence, as I did as a kid, it actually helps to do so. The only film that suffers from displacement is the first, ironically the most resolved and movie-like of the series. You miss the supporting characters and want more Sellers.

A very glossy heist scene at the start: some of this must surely just be Edwards trying to pad out the non-Clouseau parts so he has to deal with the maniac Sellers as little as possible, though apparently PS, coming off a number of flops including three films that didn’t even get a release, was pretty well-behaved here.I think I’ve been to this palace. During Marrakech Int. Film Fest. Emmanuelle Beart was there. Which was nice.

Catherine Schell mainly has to laugh at Clouseau’s disguises (Gustave Flournoy, telephone repairman, and Guy Gadbois, disco Lothario) and pratfalls, and her best stuff is where it really feels like they surprised her to make her laugh.Lots of jokes about electricity and wiring, Why? What’s going on with Edwards? I think it might be a psychiatric metaphor.

Herb Tanney, Edwards’ doctor, has by now started doing a cameo in every Edwards film, usually under a false name beginning with S. Why this was happening I can’t say. Maybe Edwards just really liked his doctor and wanted to have him around, pay him a little something extra. Maybe he spotted Tanney’s talent and wanted to bring it out. Maybe he had an opioid addiction. (He definitely DID have an opioid addiction…) Tanney’s most memorable roles are in S.O.B. as the dead jogger on the beach, and VICTOR VICTORIA as… an incompetent French detective.The climax is weirdly miniscule, just a chat in a hotel room, probably the least spectacular thing that happens, with the protagonists failing to take the story seriously except for Clouseau, who doesn’t know what’s happening, and Dreyfus, who’s mad. I was trying to figure out what Plummer and Schell’s playful attitude to the threat reminded me of. There seemed to be some exact correspondence. Then I got it: Grant & Russell teasing the blustering sheriff in HIS GIRL FRIDAY. It’s so close it MUST have been the influence. Though come to think of it, Niven and Wagner have a similar cocky scene in the original PANTHER.After the small-scale big finish, there’s a huge slomo smashup with Cato in a Japanese restaurant, and then a deeply strange, upsetting, but kind of brilliant end credits sequence with Dreyfus straitjacketed and scrawling KILL CLOUSEAU on the padded walls with a pen between his toes. And then Panther comes in, animated by Richard Williams, and Dreyfuss, being mad, can SEE him. And then the credits start to rise, and he can see THOSE, too. It’s not the only movie where a character can see the titles: you have comedies like THE COURT JESTER where Danny Kaye can even feel them, and THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT where Tom Ewell has power over them, but the unique element here is that Dreyfuss’s madness gives him a metacinematic ability to see those elements of the film which are hidden to his co-stars. He could probably feel a reel change. It would make his eye twitch.

RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER stars President Merkin Muffley; Captain Von Trapp; Maya; The Phantom; John Niles; Inspector Trout; King Brob; Jelly Knight; Hercule LaJoi; Prof Trousseau; Mr. Ming; Foot; Bhuta; Charles Bovin; Zoot/Dingo; the voice of the Book; and the voice of Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

 

 

A Star is Burned

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2018 by dcairns

Inside Daisy Clover from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I’m extremely glad I never watched the pan-and-scan copy of INSIDE DAISY CLOVER I used to own, so I could appreciate the proper super-wide-screen version I have now acquired. That said, there’s only really one scene in it that really comes alive, but BOY does it come alive.

Producer Alan Pakula and director Robert Mulligan (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) tackle Gavin Lambert’s novel (with the author himself adapting the screenplay), effectively a Judy Garland roman a clef, with a perfectly cast Natalie Wood as the waif-starlet abused by the system. There’s good, creepy work from Christopher Plummer as her studio boss (though no thirties studio boss was remotely as handsome — you were lucky if you got Darryl Zanuck, “he of the air-conditioned teeth,” as Orson Welles unkindly but accurately remarked) and Katharine Bard as his sinister sister wife. Ruth Gordon plays the crazy mama, a more benign figure than the monstrous stage mother in Natalie’s own life, and Roddy McDowell is rather wasted as a studio factotum.

Robert Redford is intriguingly cast as a dashing drunk, a Flynn/Barrymore composite who also turns out to be gay, something one can’t imagine Redford playing later. Since reading Peter Biskind’s gossip-fest book Down and Dirty Pictures, which characterises RR as, essentially, a passive-aggressive jerk, I can’t help see his characters as passive-aggressive, and it’s definitely a suitable filter for this one. Weird how an actor who’s been criticised for being bland and always playing sympathetic golden boys can be realigned as the movies’ biggest and best portrayer of arrogant jerks.

But the movie fails to catch fire. Wood is energetic and effecting as she always was, but the story’s progress is full of mysterious lacunae. Is it a problem that, in charting this aspirant screen goddess’s rise to fame and heartbreak, we never see her first day on set, meet her co-stars or directors, or see her actually notice her fame or meet her public? It might not have to be, if the lacunae were bridged by consistent narrative development. But Daisy is introduced as a girl who wants to sing, and then her singing drops out of the picture altogether. Sure, there are a couple of musical numbers staged by Herbert Ross, who, as his later PENNIES FROM HEAVEN shows, could certainly pastiche 30s style, but here seems to have been ordered to keep it vague as to period. Edith Head and team’s costumes likewise eschew anything smacking too strongly of the depression, and try to touch lightly on sixties styles. The movie’s planting its feet three decades apart makes for an uncomfortable pose.

It’ a strangely underpopulated film — giant studio barns, inside and out, a deserted boardwalk, a motel in a literal desert, a yacht at sea (always uncomfortable to see Natalie in such a setting, but Redford is there and he’s Mr. Boat) — scene after scene is stripped of extras and period detail, perhaps making a point about the loneliness of stardom, but not as vividly as showing the uncaring mob would.

Then comes the scene quoted above. Outstandingly edited by Aaron Stell, with a really creepy drone from André Previn on the soundtrack, and striking choices with sound editing that make the whole thing modernistically unsettling. There just weren’t Hollywood films evoking this kind of European unease at the time, or damn few: how many American directors really gave the impression they’d seen Godard, Fellini and Antonioni? Mulligan sure has.

I guess this is the pay-off to the character’s initial love of singing, the thing that makes her feel the world isn’t as crappy as it seems. Even that’s been taken from her. But there’s no real middle to that journey. Still, it gets a powerful ending.

The movie ends happily — either a cop-out or an act of mercy. Give Daisy the triumphant escape so few of her real-life counterparts achieved, why not? We also get perhaps cinema’s first instance of what is now a tiresome cliché, the Walking Away From An Explosion moment. Astonishing. Without Natalie Wood, no Wolverine.

Dialogical Exhaustion

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2017 by dcairns

Oh no! Kevin Spacey has been accused of sexual assault! It’s OK, though, he didn’t do it, not in Alan Parker’s last film, the 2003 death-house drama THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE.

This piece will be all about the spoilers, and the film has a twist ending that’s almost as good shit as ANGEL HEART, so stop reading now if, like me, you’ve been vaguely meaning to catch up with this one for the last twenty years.

This is not only Alan Parker’s last film (to date), it will also end up being Kevin Spacey’s because when they get around to digitally replacing him with Christopher Plummer in all his movies, this is the one they’ll stop at because Plummer won’t want to do it.Spacey with Rhona Mitra, the student who’ll do ANYTHING to get a pass. When your character has to actually apologise for being a retrograde cliché, it may be a sign that your character is a retrograde cliché.

One has to respect Parker, I guess, for announcing his retirement and sticking to it, something so few filmmakers can bring themselves to do. When Bergman announced that he was packing it in after FANNY AND ALEXANDER, he’d just made a masterpiece and also a really good Christmas film which would have fitted perfectly into this blogathon, but then he went on to make more than a dozen further works — OK, it’s nice that we have them, but those I’ve seen aren’t as good. Kieslowski announced he was through making movies, then changed his mind, then dropped dead. Parker has stuck to his guns.

And a good thing too, going by this. Parker bowed out with a movie that alternates between the sclerotic and the desperate-to-be-with-it. The latter tendency is apparent mainly in the awful flash-cuts of punchy words, taken from letters, emails, etc, jabbed into the edit as the camera turns upside down. By this means, Parker gets us into his flashbacks.

Scroll rapidly between these two images while blinking a lot.

The turgid stuff is actually a lot better. Because Spacey is/was a fascinating presence, and he has Laura Linney to bounce off of some of the time. Kate Winslet’s performance is less satisfying as she falls into Parker’s cliches too readily. Also, her character name is “Bitsy.” No excuse for that. Melissa McCarthy turns up briefly as “Nico the Goth Girl.”

“I’m sinking to my knees in slow motion! NOOOOOOO!”

(I like BUGSY MALONE by the way, I liked BIRDY back when it was new, THE COMMITMENTS, and, on TV, The Evacuees made a huge impression on me. And Parker was always an interesting, bolshy, curmudgeonly commentator on the British film scene.)

I knew the film had a big twist, and that most of the reviewers hated it. It’s kind of the starting point of late Fritz Lang movie BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, the idea of a man faking up evidence so he can prove that it’s possible for someone to get wrongly convicted of murder. Parker and screenwriter Charles Randolph (THE BIG SHORT) take that idea up to the next level, and don’t cop out as Lang and his scribe Douglas Morrow did. But their twist is pretty obvious (and Louis Cyphre’s cage elevator turns up at the end to remind us that Parker has form here) and the second twist doesn’t really add anything with emotional impact. And the whole scheme is pointless because a killer, a victim and a patsy collaborating to set up the frame is a sufficiently uncommon, nay, ludicrous occurrence that the lethal-injection-happy Texas governor need have few qualms that this sort of thing is going to happen a lot.

Kubrick pointed out that the trouble with anti-lynching movies is they always focus on innocent men being hanged. Since lynch mobs always think they’ve got the right man (or else they don’t care, so long as he’s the right/wrong race), they’re not going to be put off by this. In a way, Tim Robbins’ DEAD MAN WALKING is a much better anti-capital-punishment tract because it argues that even when a man is guilty of a heinous crime, maybe there’s a case against the state taking his life. But both TLODG and DMW are the movie Richard E. Grant is pitching in THE PLAYER. I remember an embarrassing interview where a journalist speaking to Robert Altman attempted to flatter him by saying he would be the man to make the uncompromised version rather than the happy ending travesty with Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts. Of course, Altman wouldn’t have touched either version, though I guess he did make THE GINGERBREAD MAN.I can see that it’s dated, and overheated, but I sort of miss Parker’s eighties pomp — blue or sepia-tinged images, every room full of smoke for no reason except to create shafts of light blasting through every window, every road slicked with rain. Only the last touch is present in TLODG, despite the fact we’re in Texas and we only see it rain once. Stripped of his ad-man’s imagery, Parker becomes rather a flat, boring filmmaker, who apparently hasn’t noticed he’s making a deeply silly film which would benefit enormously from outrageous stylistic brio if it were applied consistently. He could have his dreadful flash-cuts, if he must, if only he’d surround them with equally ebullient directorial pyrotechnics. This movie thinks it’s a deep and meaningful political drama, when by rights it ought to be THE COLOR OF NIGHT or FEMME FATALE.

Aptly, Spacey’s David Gale is the author of a supposedly brilliant book on philosophy called Dialogical Exhaustion. Which sounds very deep dish but translates as Running Out of Things to Say.

Theory: just as TLODG (why the unnecessarily boring title?) is about a man who tries to justify the abolition of the death penalty by willfully getting himself convicted of murder, Parker’s swan song could be interpreted as him trying to justify his contention that film is a young man’s game by willfully making a movie which is both tediously disengaged and frantically desperate to be exciting and “cinematic.” So we have no choice but to applaud the old bastard for stopping.