Archive for Clive Donner

French Farce

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2014 by dcairns

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Things done –

Pere Lachaise Cemetery – people kept asking me if I knew where Jim Morrison was, but I was avoiding him. Also Edith Piaf. The only famous person I met was Ticky Holgado, whose terrifying sepulchre, depicted above, evokes the awe and horror of death better than any of the more tasteful tombs.

Charcuterie. With two ex-students: one is working as a nanny and being bitten all over by small children while pursuing her documentary career, the other was attending a fantastique film fest (but they weren’t showing LET US PREY so I’m safe).

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Coffee at the Hotel du Nord, from the film of the same name, avec Phoebe Green, who sometimes appears in these pages as La Faustin, and who was our translator on NATAN. You can’t get a view of the hotel through the bridge as Marcel Carne manages in his film — having rebuilt the whole neighbourhood in the studio he could shuffle things around, lose a few trees, and arrange things to the camera’s advantage.

Lunch at the Cinematheque – boeuf bourgignon where I bought many postcards, also some awesome KING KONG flipbooks. It’s quite something to have Kong waving his arms about in the palm of your hand.

There’s a lovely Truffaut exhibition on just now, with letters and photos and other souvenirs – not the Jeanne Moreau letters, she’s sitting on those – and it was a chance to nod sadly at the image of Marie Dubois, one of our recent departures for realms unknown. Truffaut ought to feature in the Late Movies Blogathon, come to think of it – I have a soft spot for VIVEMENT DIMANCHE! And THE GREEN ROOM is one of the most apt late films of all.

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Truffaut’s boyhood notebook — LE CORBEAU, he recorded later, was the first film he saw twice. But what caught my eye, of course, was the Pathe-Natan LE MISERABLES, which must have been on its post-war re-release, hopefully with the Jewish names restored to the credits which were removed under the Nazis.

St. Sulpice, a large church featuring some impenetrably dark works by Delacroix.

Many many bookshops, where my inability to read French prevented me from making many an extravagant purchase, like the giant book of stereoscopic images of diabolical tableaux – little dioramas with miniature imps and demons frozen in the act of cavorting with pitchforks and other accoutrements — co-authored by Brian May of Queen. The kind of book one SHOULD own. But I couldn’t walk away from the little pamphlet by Samson Raphaelson, his memoir of working with Lubitsch. It was only four euros, and reading the first few sentences I was pleased to discover that my schoolboy French did not leave me wholly in the dark. Actually, I need to modify the expression “schoolboy French” lest I be seen to traduce the educational system. Some qualifier like “concussed schoolboy French” or “sleeping schoolboy French” gives you a better idea.

Now, since I need to see a movie, obviously, and I need a movie I have a chance of understanding, preferably, I have been drawn to the Cinema Desperado, whose Romy Schneider season is featuring WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT. I’ve never actually seen the whole thing. TV versions were always pan-and-scanned and just TOO SMALL to allow Richard Williams’ elaborate titles to be enjoyed… the documentary series Hollywood UK more or less accused this film of ruining British cinema, since it led to the excesses of CASINO ROYALE and the belief that throwing enough gaily coloured, fashionable shit at the screen would be enough to attract and keep an audience. And I have a complex, mostly abusive relationship with the works of Clive Donner, though it’s never been entirely clear whether it’s abusing me or I’m abusing it. Here goes nothing…

(Typed at 17:41 in a café with no internet.)

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Later – well that was highly enjoyable. Can’t remember the last 35mm projection I saw – probably THE BOFORS GUN at EIFF. The cinema belongs to Jean-Pierre Mocky and shows all his films, a different one every day.

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The film is a hot mess, as expected, but there are very funny, silly bits, and some clever bits too. The editing is all over the place – continuity is appalling, but that is sometimes evidence of a cutter following the rhythms, or creating them, and saying the hell with making stuff match. But there are clear signs of whole sequences having been moved about on a whim (probably that of increasingly erratic producer Charles K. Feldman), characters show up out of the blue (not Ursula Andress, who does so literally, as a deliberate gag, but people like the bomb-throwing anarchist, who the script must have intended to set up earlier as Paula Prentiss’s boyfriend), and Paula Prentiss’s early scenes appear to have been set upon with a meat cleaver – the conversations have been hacked into nonsensical soundbites, set-ups for gags that never come or punchlines to gags never set up.

Fortunately, Peter O’Toole is usually able to find his way through a scene if it’s allowed to proceed in sequence, dragging co-stars behind him, and Peter Sellers augments the best lines of Woody Allen’s script with nonsense of his own (therapist Fritz Fassbender curses upon soaking his thighs with petrol: “Geschplund!” A straight Goon Show quote if ever there was one).

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It’s a shame about the messiness because feckless dithering in the control room is the last thing a tight farce needs, and there’s some evidence that Allen had constructed such a farce. The idea is a sound one – a shameless philanderer decides to get married and be faithful, and suddenly he’s besieged by beautiful women. Capucine’s nymphomaniac Mrs. LeFevre is possibly the funniest actor in the film, despite not getting any actual jokes. She just has beautiful timing and emphasis, and makes the other actors funnier in turn (Sellers: “You look ravishing in zat whistle”). The colossal beach whore from EIGHT AND A HALF, dressed as a Valkyrie, is also good value.

The whole cast gets assembled for a climax at a country hotel, with a rampant Andress in dropping into O’Toole’s lap from the heavens (“I yam a paris-chew-diss!”), stripping off her aviatrix jumpsuit to reveal a seductress jumpsuit underneath, then ditching that too. Oddly, despite the crummy continuity, Andress running through the hotel in her undies always has her undies disarrayed the same way from shot to shot, left butt cheek bulging out.

Disappointingly, after scene after scene of stunningly beautiful, chic Parisian sets by Richard Sylbert, the hotel is mostly a dowdy location, and rather than giving us a satisfactory conclusion there’s mere chaos, and O’Toole getting nagged by his new bride at the fade-out. Still, as she accuses him of looking at another woman (Francoise Hardy!), O’Toole enunciates acidly: “I *had* to look at her, she was *speaking* to me. I Turned in the Direction of the Sound.”

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Sim City

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2014 by dcairns

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By some strange quirk, the great Edinburgh-born actor Alastair Sim seems to have spent most of his later career in the sauna. In the subject of this fortnight’s edition of The Forgotten he appears in two scenes, steaming himself in both. In ROYAL FLASH he also appears in two scenes, one of which is a magnificent Victorian Turkish bathhouse designed by Terry Marsh complete with a foot-pedal-powered brass shower for Malcolm McDowell to enjoy. Sim’s character, fully dressed in gentlemanly finery, does not look like he’s enjoying himself quite so much.

One the DVD commentary, McDowell reports meeting Sim again when he went to loop a few lines. Sim looked exhausted. “I wish I could just say a line,” he moaned. The actor had, by this time, become such a master of the stutter, the hesitation and the silent working of the jaw, that replacing a line became torture, because the words never came out in a straight line. His talent was also his torment.

I should think the hardest actor to loop would be Leonard Rossiter, though, who developed a level of wordless chuntering even more extreme than Sim’s — particularly on the sitcom Rising Damp, Rossiter would flap his gums soundlessly, or else accompanied by a high, hesitant drone like a distant mountaineer plummeting, waiting for the words to actually form, for a long time before actual speech emerged, and part of the comedy was that you never knew at what point the facial calisthenics and faraway yodel would resolve into language. Lucky, then, that he worked with Kubrick, who tried to avoid dubbing whenever possible, and a little unfortunate that Sim was paired with Lester that one time, since Lester virtually rewrote his films in the dub.

But still, it’s delightful to see Sim in a Lester comedy.

None of this has anything much to do with today’s column, the Peter O’Toole tribute edition, which is available here.

Royal Flash [Blu-ray]
Royal Flash [Blu-ray]

And meanwhile, at Apocalypse Now, The ’68 Comeback Special returns with Scout Tafoya’s take on 24 HOURS IN THE LIFE OF A WOMAN starring the great Danielle Darrieux.

Scroogeathon

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2013 by dcairns

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We were round at our friends Nicola and Donald’s place, along with Marvelous Mary, eating, drinking and watching Scrooges. The weather outside was frightful — rain and sleet gusting in multiple directions as umbrellas turned inside out like kinetic sculptures. Inside, all was warm and festive, though there was a brief crisis when Nicola’s beloved DVD of THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL could not be located. But I found it, to great relief.

Nicola: “When you blog about this — and you will — be kind!”

We also watched smatterings of other Scrooges, and all of the Albert Finney musical xmastravaganza, a post-OLIVER! flop which is actually really good, except for the songs. So the purpose of this post is to consider the varied approaches of directors, screenwriters and actors when tackling Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.


Fiona and I agree that the gold standard is Alistair Sim, both in SCROOGE, the 1951 feature directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, and twenty years later in Richard Williams’ animated TV special, which captures the feeling of Victorian pen-and-ink illustrations and evokes a nightmarish quality that marked the young Fiona for life.  We like our Christmas Carols scary, and we deduct points from any version which leaves out the starving children under Christmas Present’s robe.

Extra points are awarded whenever it looks like Scrooge might have a point, actually — Finney does well here — and notes are taken when the performance post-reformation suggests that the old miser’s mind has snapped under the strain. Sim seems genuinely unhinged, and Bill Murray in SCROOGED is probably going to go on a killing spree right after the credits roll, laughing maniacally the while.

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Williams film has to move over — we have a new champion for visual splendour and creepiness — Ronald Neame’s musical may not have the tunes, apart from “Thank You Very Much” (and it gets a few points just for having a number called “I Hate People” which should be a Christmas standard), and it’s hampered by Finney’s inability to really put over a song, but the production design by Terence Marsh (art director on OLIVER!), costumes by Margaret Furse (Lean’s OLIVER TWIST) and photography by Oswald Morris (OLIVER! again) are all stunning — Scrooge’s home is a wreck, with every crevice lovingly blow-torched so the cracked-paintwork forms a texture you could reach out and stroke — and Leslie Bricusse departs from the source text outrageously by sending Scrooge to Hell, a gorgeous scarlet inferno with Kryptonite trimmings. The night sky full of wraiths is MUCH too frightening for kids, and generally speaking the film misses few opportunities to freak us out with the scary stuff. No Hunger and Want though.

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Finney’s Ebenezer doesn’t seem that old, which is an interesting departure, but the film gains from having an actor who can convincingly play the young Scrooge and the middle-aged one. He treats the character stuff as an opportunity to trot out his Wilfred Lawson impersonation, which also forms part of his acclaimed perf in THE DRESSER. It’s a very good impersonation, but may cause bafflement to those who don’t know the original. Finney also scores well on the emotional side, helped by Neame’s willingness to give him lingering, painful close-ups at key moments — and the make-up, more middle-aged decay than old-age, bears up remarkably well in these giant face-shots.

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We also looked at a couple of thirties Scrooges. Reginald Owen at MGM waggles his head too much and has to work hard to dispel his inherent gentleness, but his paunchy frame and high britches give him a suitably unpleasant arachnid quality. The makeup isn’t up to Finney standard though — it looks like cracking plaster on his face. Over in the UK, Seymour Hicks took the role in 1935, having already done it in a short silent. Hicks was famous for the role on stage, and may be the fastest Scrooge on record — he bangs out his dialogue like a Vickers Machine Gun, creating a whole different rhythm for the scenes. It works! As does his appearance, which is Yoda meets Grinch. I’d read Hicks described as incandescent with anger, but he’s more nasty than angry, stabbing each sentence into his interlocuters’ underbellies. Unfortunately, Hicks is only good at being nasty, and his reformation results in a slowing of tempo to that deadly pace associated with the worst of the stiff, British, theatrical tradition.

The George C. Scott tele-movie takes a wholly different approach. It’s stately, as a “literary classic” (really just a potboiler by Dickens’ standards) is supposed to be, but takes its pace from Scott’s performance, which is frosty, glacial, monumental on the surface but animated by those eye movements, all fire within. Clive Donner’s best approach might have been to devote the entire movie to closeups of his star…

Fiona regretted that Michael Caine couldn’t have done a straight version of the story, since his Scrooge is quite good enough — positively Satanic at the start, before crumbling most effectively. The singing once more lets him down, though Paul Williams’ numbers for A MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL are much better than Leslie Bricusse’s efforts for the Neame-Finney. Director Brian Henson has good comic timing and can compose genuinely funny shots (though he should lay off the focus-pulls), but is this a good way to tell the story?

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Dickens’ original provides some model cinematic scenes and scene-changes, with Scrooge whisked through time by the three ghosts in a manner which seems to anticipate movie editing. With Scrooge as audience-surrogate to moments from the past, present and future, it’s redundant to add in the Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat as narrator and foil — they become an audience of an audience of the action, with little room left for the audience watching the scene — some effectively spooky stuff is spoiled by their badinage.

As much as one admires the decision to give Jacob Marley a brother called Robert (a joint reference to the reggae singer and to Robert Morley, star of THE GHOSTS OF BERKELEY SQUARE?) and cast Waldorf and Statler, Alec Guinness is a definitive Marley, owing largely to his decision to play the role as if underwater. Dickens provides the fascinating detail that Marley’s coat tails and pig-tail and the tassels on his boots bristle — Guinness deduces that this is because the Ghost, a spirit, is suspended in our material world as if in water. The effect is uncanny and wonderful, and might even have influenced the drowned child in THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE.

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Though he sports the bandaged head, Guinness never unwraps himself to let his jaw drop down to his chest (although given the film’s sumptuous production values, such a special effect seems achievable) — that’s left to the animated wraith voiced by Michael Hordern in the Williams toon, and to Frank Finlay in Clive Donner’s TV movie with George C. Scott as the miser. Finlay does it entirely with acting. (Hordern may be the only actor to have played Marley AND Scrooge, essaying the latter in a 1977 TV version. That version, which today looks retro-stylish with its early video effects, has a Marlowe played by comic actor John LeMesurier, who drops his jaw and gargles to no horrific effect at all — rendering Hordern’s cowering surreally inexplicable.)

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Despite all that scary lighting can do, Hordern proves, as Fiona predicted, too avuncular and sweet an actor to be taken seriously as a meanie.

Other ghosts — Williams’ multifaceted Christmas Past is definitive, but Fiona was impressed by Anne Rutherford as a SEXY Christmas Past in the Reginald Owen attempt. Given that the role has also been taken by Joel Grey, Robbie Coltraine, Gary Coleman, Paul Frees,  Roscoe Lee Browne, Patricia Quinn and Steve Lawrence, I think we can agree this is the most heterogenous ghost of the lot.

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Christmas Present is always the same, and Kenneth More fits the bill fairly perfectly — off-puttingly matey and hearty. With your open dressing gown, chest hair and splayed legs, I fear thee most of all. It did come as a shock to see that Brian Blessed has never played the role. I mean, he’s ALWAYS playing it. To actually cast him in the role would be an economy, really. Can we make that happen?

In the same way, Nigel Havers is always Nephew Fred, isn’t he?

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Christmas Yet to Come is also comfortably consistent, and I must admit I admire the muppet design, with his eerie poor proportions — long arms and apparently no legs, making him the only honest muppet, since the others always pretend to be ambulatory but we all know there are men down there.

It’s regrettable that so many of the adaptations seem determined to prove their classiness by bloating the whole affair up and emphasizing respectability over drama — the MGM film plays its credits over a reclining studio lion, while the Brit flick opts for the inevitable turning pages of a leather-bound volume. Surely we don’t need to be TOLD Dickens’ moral tale is good for us? At least the Muppets are devoted to fun.

seasonally yours,

Haig P. McScroogian.

Versions not watched:

THE PASSIONS OF CAROL (’70s porno-Scrooge)

That Robert Zemeckis abomination.

Any good ones I missed?

STOP PRESS: We got limericks! Link.