Archive for Clifford Odets

The Big Dead One

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2015 by dcairns

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I’d seen bits of THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS (1956) on Film4 and it looked like a snooze, but the Anne Billson said she liked it so I investigated.

Ronald Neame was never what you’d call an exciting director, but he was always an affable one. Having made his Significant Contribution to cinema in his collaborations with David Lean, he settled into Lightly Likable for most of his career, apart from a few bloated floaters at the end.

And talk of floaters brings us to this movie, in which British intelligence plants a corpse at sea carrying faked documents to fool the Nazis into expecting an attack from the wrong direction. It’s unlikely stuff, and largely true — I’m now reading Ben MacIntyre’s enjoyable Operation Mincemeat, which details exploits of the various eccentrics who put this plan together, a plan for which the word “cockamamie” might have been invented, assuming that word ever was invented.

Here’s MacIntyre’s character study of coroner and co-conspirator Bentley Purchase ~

“He found death not only fascinating but extremely funny. No form of violent mortality surprised or upset him. ‘A depressing job?’ he once said. ‘Far from it. I can’t imagine it getting me down.’ He would offer slightly damp chocolates to guests in his private chambers, and joke: ‘They were found in Auntie’s bag when she was fished out of the Round Pond at Hampstead last night.’ A farmer by birth, Purchase was ‘rugged in appearance and character’ with ‘an impish sense of humour’ and a finely calibrated sense of the ridiculous: he loved Gilbert and Sullivan operas, toy trains, boiled eggs, and the model piggery he ran near Ipswich.”

Tragically, Purchase doesn’t appear in Neame’s film (scripted by ace novelist Nigel Balchin of THE SMALL BACK ROOM fame), but my old friend Sir Bernard Spilsbury does, embodied by the ever-impressive Andre Morell. Who better than a former BBC Quatermass to play this august pathologist?

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The first half of the film IS a little dull — it’s a procedural in which none of the details are surprising once we get over the macabre plot, with only some nifty comic timing from Laurence Naismith to liven it up. The scenario allows the inclusion of a couple of American actors — a very shiny Gloria Grahame is allowed since, after all, there must have been some Americans in London in 1943, and Clifton Webb can play an English officer because, after all, he’s snooty and gay which is almost as good as being English. The man he’s playing, Ewen Montagu, was brother of Hitchcock producer and Soviet spy Ivor Montagu.

Churchill goes unseen, like Celeste Holm in A LETTER TO THREE WIVES or Jesus in BEN-HUR, but Peter Sellers does the voice, with perhaps a little too much comic glee.

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Then Stephen Boyd enters as an Irish Nazi spy, sent to ascertain if the fictitious character invented for the corpse was ever real. Now some actual jeopardy is injected, since Boyd might upset the whole plan and also, HE’S in danger of being caught and hanged. And even if he is a Nazi spy, he’s a Personable Movie Star and we’re spending time with him so naturally we become implicated in his mission. Boyd is really good here, avoiding any show of overt villainy and just playing a rather exciting fellow doing a job. His charisma is at its peak. Fiona was impressed by the amount of detail in his bumpy forehead. “There’s a lot going on there. He’s like a Klingon!”

The only trouble is, he’s entirely fictitious. We had broken the Nazi codes by this point and had captured, executed or turned every single spy they had in Britain. I must say, though, he’s an admirable invention — he keeps the whole thing afloat, if you’ll pardon the expression. Boyd, and cameos like Naismith and Miles Malleson (“He won’t be doing the crossword tonight”) make the sedate Cinemascope entertainment just watchable enough. And then there’s the haunting bit of poetry at the graveside and it all goes very eerie and moving — out of left field, emotion enters the film, like a phantom, and sweeps through it, swinging the door shut as it goes.

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“Last night I dreamed a deadly dream, beyond the Isle of Sky, I saw a dead man win a fight, and I think that man was I.”

As if on cue

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2014 by dcairns

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I confess to mixed feelings about Lewis Milestone’s film of Clifford Odets’ script of THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN. The orientalism and exoticism (exoticism, remember, is racism’s sexy sister) and yellowface makeups are both seductive and repulsive, and the narrative at times decidedly silly. Rather than playing Odets’ flamboyant dialogue “hard and fast,” as the author preferred, the actors (Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carrol and Akim Tamiroff among others) have a tendency to linger on it, as if they can’t believe they’ve been handed such classy material. Delivered at speed, as in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, an Odets line *can* sound as if the actor’s just thought of it, the impossible cracked street-poetry tumbling out in a mixture of verbal genius and a kind of fervid desperation to find le mot juste before another millisecond goes by. Hanging about tends to expose just how preciously contrived it is.

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Still, there’s a whole hell of a lot to admire. The Paramount high gloss look, with Travis Banton costumes, gorgeous three-point lighting, elaborate sets and a pulse-pounding score by Werner Janssen combine with Milestone’s atmospheric angles and moves to create a work that’s never less than compelling. It’s a bit like Sternberg with the swooning eroticism blended with a more two-fisted romanticism. The ending is pretty ridiculous, and I find myself agreeing for the first time with Graham Greene, a great film critic but one whose opinions I habitually clash with. He though the ending was silly too — but it’s beautifully staged.

A really interesting moment was point out in the comments section earlier by David Boxwell — a match dissolve between a round doorknob and a gleaming cueball on a pool table. It seems a moment of self-conscious bravura motivated by nothing other than the smooth whiteness of the two objects. But it’s actually a fascinating, odd piece of prefiguring.

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The doorknob is attached to a door through which Gary Cooper has just exited, and the dissolve takes us to a pool hall where Madeleine Carroll is part of a group laying plans antithetical to Coop’s. So arguably the crossfade suggests an imminent connection between the two.

But it’s paid off in grand style later. Carroll seduces and betrays Cooper, rather against her judgement, and doesn’t expect to see him again. When he turns up wounded in the magnificently grotty hotel, he swears he’ll kill Carroll “in half” if he ever sees her again — whereupon Dudley Digges with wax eyelids opens the door to the parlour and reveals the guilty blonde herself, playing pool. She drops the cueball, which rolls up to Coop’s feet. So the connection of door — cueball — Coop & Carroll — is a sort of engram, or compound symbol, carefully planted to prefigure this meeting.

The rare use of match dissolves made me wonder if Milestone had seen and admired my own favourite movie, Victor Sjostrom’s  HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, an early twenties Lon Chaney clown tragedy containing numerous such effects. The match dissolve from a ring of chickens to a circus ring in THE RED PONY made me suspect this even more strongly. When I saw THE NIGHT OF NIGHTS, a fairly undistinguished 1939 Broadway weepie (Milestone’s creative energies were clearly more occupied with OF MICE AND MEN that year), I became fairly convinced I was right —

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Clown-slapping. The slappee is Pat O’Brien, the slapper is Roland Culver.

No wonder I’m so keen on Milestone! We have the same favourite movie.

The play with objects and space relates to another Milestone trick, where he cuts to an object which seems to be part of the scene we’ve just watched, only to reveal that we’ve actually moved somewhere else. A kind of deliberate surprise/confusion generally excluded from the classical Hollywood rulebook at this time, where establishing shots were the order of the day, and obvious scene transitions were insisted upon. In THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, the young Martha speaks of fetching candles, we cut to them being lit, only to realise that the candelabra is in the hands of Dame Judith Anderson, downstairs. In OF MICE AND MEN, a tasty-looking dinner is consumed by the ranch-hands, but when we cut to a pie being sliced a sudden feminine hand reveals that we’re now in the home of the rancher himself. And in HALLS OF MONTEZUMA this occasional device becomes a recurring trope, dazzlingly deployed to transition into flashback. Each major character has a sequence showing his life before the war. Milestone will have a character drop something. A closeup shows it land on the floor. But when the character picks it up, we discover, within that same closeup, that we’re now elsewhere and elsewhen.

And this never fails to startle us! Clever fellow, that Milestone.

“Between you and me and the lamppost…”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2010 by dcairns

The sailor suit — an important artifact in Woolrich’s personal iconography…

When Alexander Mackendrick was prepping the classic THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, he was anxious about the script. Partly because it wasn’t finished, of course. That never helps. But also because it seemed kind of… hammy. Screenwriter Clifford Odets reassured him —

“‘My dialogue may seem somewhat overwritten, too wordy, too contrived. Don’t let it worry you. You’ll find that it works if you don’t bother too much about the lines themselves. Play the situations, not the words. And play them fast.”

The  only trouble with Nicholas (OUT OF THE PAST) Musuraca’s cinematography is that I want to grab a still from every shot…

And so to DEADLINE AT DAWN (1946), adapted by Odets from a Cornell Woolrich yarn, the only feature directed by Broadway champ Harold Clurman. The combination of Woolrich’s flakey plotting and doom-laden mood with Odet’s florid phrase-making is an enticing one, and the cast is quite incredible — Bill Williams was the unknown factor for me, but he’s very good here, and in addition we have Susan Hayward, Paul Lukas, Joseph Calleia, Jerome Cowan, Stephen Geray, Al Bridge…

One thing that strikes you straight off: this is what happens if the director doesn’t follow Odets’ advice. The dialogue is slower and more emphatic than in Mackendrick’s film, and has more time to register as strange. Clurman’s direction occasionally lumbers, with stilted blocking and strenuous dramatics, a result of his inexperience in cinema, I guess. And the characters are not sleazy media jackals like those in TSSOS, they include a simple-minded sailor, a hard-bitten taxi dancer, an idealistic old taxi driver, a gangster, etc. So the verbal fireworks seem less plausible, and aiming for naturalism in the performances doesn’t make the issue go away. Odets’ “poetry of the streets” has nothing much to do with the way anybody really talks or ever did talk.

And yet — after marveling at the oddness of it for ten minutes or so, I got right into it and enjoyed the film excessively. It’s the lighter side of Woolrich’s world, with mostly appealing characters — even Calleia’s vicious hood ends up on the side of the good guys, sort of, and his energy and drive make him someh0w likable. And he never does anything terribly bad.

This is Woolrich’s No. 1 plot, where a web of circumstantial evidence enfolds an innocent person, and someone close to them must clear their name against a tight deadline — usually an impinging execution date. This serves Woolrich and his adaptors well in PHANTOM LADY, BLACK ANGEL and CONVICTED, and probably others. Here, the deadline is 6 am, when sailor Bill Williams should be catching the bus back to his naval base, so the whole situation seems less severe. However, Woolrich throws in one of his favourite devices, the amnesia blackout, so that Williams is not entirely certain he’s not after all guilty of murdering the floozy who picked him up earlier in the night.

The mental instability of the lead — he seems to be a bit punchy, and has a childlike naivety to go with his memory lapses — adds a touch of darkness to the tale, augmented by the nocturnal setting. This is a movie about running about desperate in the early hours of the morning, getting increasingly tired and increasingly hopeless. One of the most haunting moments is when a fugitive man with a mysterious box, a possible suspect, proves to be a janitor trying to get his sick cat to the vet. He’s too late.

Hayward: “Golly, the misery that walks around in this pretty, quiet night!”

Lukas: “June, the logic that you’re looking for, the logic is that there is no logic, but you’re too young to know it. The horror and terror you feel, my dear, comes from being alive. Die and there’s no trouble; live and you struggle. At your age I think it’s beautiful to struggle for the human possibilities — not to say, “I hate the sun because it don’t light my cigarette!” You’re so young, June — you’re a baby! And love is waiting outside any door you open! Some people say, “Love’s a superstition!” Dismiss those people, those Miss Bartellis, from your mind. They put poison bottle labels on the sweetest facts of life! You’re only twenty-three, June. Believe in love and its possibilities the way I do at fifty-three! Right now I hear in you the musical sounds of feeling for that boy, June! And no matter what else happens, that’s the real mystery tonight; how a casual, passing stranger can change your entire life! Am I understood? I think I am…”

Williams, for whom all seems lost, implausibly recruits dance hall hostess Hayward to his cause, and together they start following a series of unlikely leads in vain hope of catching the real killer. They’re discovered by Lukas’s philosophical cabbie (“Statistics tell us…”), who decides to help them rather than report them. When they’re investigation leads them to former mobster Calleia, the victim’s sister, he at first wants to kill Williams, but them, partially persuaded of the kid’s innocence, he joins them in their quest.

Basically, it’s like THE WIZARD OF OZ, only in Manhattan. No wait, that’s THE WIZ. And AFTER HOURS. But this is like that too, the way our wide-eyed hero picks up his ragtag band of helpers as the story goes on and the night darkens. Or else it’s like one of those Bertrand Blier films where the confused hero finds himself at the head of a growing crowd of equally misguided misfits.

Odets weaves a more upbeat yarn than Woolrich normally does, but the darkness glows through, which creates an exciting mix of tones. And there’s so much charm to its oddball mix of people and cunningly developed story. Premier noir.

Calleia!

“Just imagine, at my age, to have to learn to play a harp.”

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