Archive for Conrad Hall

Time Travails

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2020 by dcairns

Chris Schneider returns, with a look at a particularly evocative episode of The Outer Limits.

There’s talk in “The Forms of Things Unknown,” a gorgeous and atmospheric OUTER LIMITS episode which has stuck with me through the years, of overlapping strands of time, of the past intermingling with the present. Which is appropriate, since “Forms” itself is filled with overlapping imagery from different familiar stories.

First “Forms” reminds us of LES DIABOLIQUES, since we’re shown two women (Vera Miles, Barbara Rush) plotting to kill a demonic man (Scott Marlowe). Then, what with the corpse stuffed in a car, it’s PSYCHO — a resemblance accented by the involvement of PSYCHO’s Joseph Stefano as writer. Then, since there’s talk of parallel time tracks accompanied by the sight of Miles looking beauteously vicious, it’s that TWILIGHT ZONE episode with scary Miles entitled “Mirror Image.” Finally, once Miles and Rush have taken shelter from the rain in the rural home of blind Sir Cedric Hardwicke and odd young David McCallum, it’s COLD COMFORT FARM-style tales of “I saw something *nasty* in the attic room!”

Stefano, as we say, wrote it. The director is Gerd Oswald of A KISS BEFORE DYING. The first-rate cinematography is by Conrad Hall — including one of the earliest (1964) examples to come to mind of a freeze-frame in commercial tv storytelling. An additional bonus is the first use by composer Dominic Frontiere of his famous theme for THE INVADERS (“Dah-dah DAAHH!”).

“Forms” has, as one 1930s character once phrased it, “stacks of style” — even though that might mean more atmosphere than, um, clarity. It functions as an “old dark house” story, with distraught Rush seeing flashes of seemingly-dead Marlowe and the possibility left open that this is a product of her hysteria. The uncertainty of it all extends to Hardwicke and McCallum. Hardwicke appears to be the enigmatic butler for McCallum, but it’s Hardwicke who’s the host and McCallum the guest.

To the extent that there’s a coherent plot, it’s this: once upon a time McCallum, while working on his odd clocks-and-strings time-travel device, accidentally killed himself, but … something in the device *worked*, and he was revived. At present, his device has revived Marlowe, but the conclusion is reached that Marlowe is thoroughly objectionable— and Something Must Be Done. We learn, as an afternote, that McCallum began this fiddling with mortality as a child when his mother died and he determined not to return to school until he found a way of bringing her back.

Lots of atmosphere here, be it repeated. The initial murder, which involves Miles and Rush wading fully-dressed in a lagoon — ah, the pervy game-playing! —in order to bring Marlowe his (poisoned) drink looks like it takes place in a debauched Eden. There’s a lot of hypnotized staring, later on, at the mechanical figure of a tightrope walker, accompanied by a Frontiere waltz. And did we mention the WILD STRAWBERRIES-style funeral apparition?

Vera Miles is always more appealing being “evil” than when she’s earnest, and she’s wonderful here. Hardwicke, who’s unsettling, comes within a hair’s-breadth of the camp of Noel Coward in BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING. Rush is ever shrieking and holding up her hands, while running, as if to avoid ruining her nails. Surely some of the comedy of this not-so-young (infantalized?) ingenue and her voluptuous distress is deliberate. Marlowe laughs and looks good semi-undressed. McCallum has a wide-eyed, slightly inbred quality which is not mad and not *not* mad.

The style of “The Forms of Things Unseen” is definitely mid-‘60s — camera zooms included — but style there is, and plenty of it. To be cherished, for the most part.

My urge was to cherish, certainly, the moment I heard Miles mutter “Nobody ever helps a grave-digger …”

*

The cast, as David Cairns would say, includes Lila Crane; Jehan Frollo; Vito Pellegrino; Joyce Phillips; and Ducky.

Gumshod

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2019 by dcairns

THE DROWNING POOL — 1975 — so it took them nine years to make a sequel to HARPER — I think that officially qualifies as belated. This time the director is Stuart Rosenberg who also did COOL HAND LUKE which I have some fond memories of. Maybe it was the first film I saw as a kid with a downbeat ending. I was fired up with the injutice of it!

Not so much to get fired up about here. Newman is introduced having seatbelt trouble with his rental care, another bit of “relatable” humour to get us on his side. The script is credited to three guys, Walter Hill, Lorenzo Semple Jr and Tracy Keenan Wynn, so I was disappointed that it wasn’t a cross between ALIEN, FLASH GORDON and THE LONGEST YARD. Maybe as a result of its patchwork authorship, the film moves a little disjointedly, with scenes fizzling out or lurching into new locations in wats that seem disorienting in unintended ways.

Always nice to see Andy Robinson

Gordon Willis, Prince of Darkness, shot this one so it has a super-gloomy look, more modernist than its glossy predecessor. I found myself preferring Conrad Hall’s work, by a hair. Willis is pushing what the film stock can do, resulting in those milky blacks I never warmed to. (I recall Julia Phillips’ triumph, in her score-settling memoir, when she found a cinematographer who disapproved of Vilmos Zsigmond’s stock-pushing — “If you have good film stock, why would you do that?” But look at the work those guys did, at their best! They more than satisfied Howard Hawks requirements — provide a couple of great scenes and your allowed a few ordinary ones and one bad one.)

My favourite performer in it was Murray Hamilton as a demented bad guy — his attempt at water torture, hosing Newman down in a disused asylum, leads to the film’s titular highlight, as Newman and his fellow prisoner attempt to escape by flooding the room so they can float out the skylight… which then refuses to break open, threatening them with drowning. It’s very exciting and well staged and I like the logic of it. Fritz Lang would have recognised it.

HARPER starred Butch Cassidy; Vivian Rutledge; Eleanor Vance; Charlotte Haze; Dr. Jeremy Stone; Dr. Carl Stoner; Marion Crane; Scarlett Hazeltine; Number Two; Juror Twelve; Kid Twist; and Mulvihill.

THE DROWNING POOL stars Butch Cassidy; Beatrice Hunsdorfer; Polo Pope; Mr. Robinson; Dorcas Trilling; Charlotte Haze (II); Linda Forchet; Chuck Jefferson; the Scorpio killer; and Mercy Croft.

Spadework

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2019 by dcairns

Paul Newman’s two Lew Harper films — based on two of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels — are kind of like the square old Hollywood movies celebrated, or at any rate documented — in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Both have extremely gifted mod cinematographers, though: Conrad Hall shot HARPER in 1966 and Gordon “the Prince of Darkness” Willis shot its belated sequel THE DROWNING POOL in 1975. I double-billed them but I’ll mainly talk about the first one here.

Jack Smight, a truly square director but not untalented, allows or encourages or inspires Hall to pull off a few spectacular shots in HARPER (see top), perhaps aware that it’s just a reasonably good Raymond Chandler knock-off. As Donald Westlake complained, Ross MacDonald recycled the one about the rich, dysfunctional family until everyone was screaming at him to quit it for chrissakes — basically The Big Sleep ad nauseam, and here we have Lauren Bacall to remind us of past glories. So making the most of the widescreen and colour is essential to stop this from seeming like warmed-over stuff from an earlier decade — what’s harder is to stop it seeming like TV stuff. The down-at-heel, long-suffering private eye would be incarnated par excellence by James Garner in The Rockford Files who had a natural word-weariness Newman can’t match.

The first movie is quite diverting, with a spectacular comic turn from Shelley Winters (I felt bad about all the fat gibes in William Goldman’s script though) and very good work from Arthur Hill, Pamela Tiffin and a host of others. Strother Martin’s hillside cult temple is one of my favourite places I’ve ever seen in a movie. There’s a fight there between Newman and a hundred silent Mexicans (a short fight) which has a nice surreal vibe, like the multiple Agent Smiths in THE MATRIX.

Maybe the problem is that these stories never effect any change in the hero, making them more suited to series TV… though they used to work fine in the ‘forties. This one has too many corpses and complications, and Goldman’s misogyny gets grating, and I think sometimes Newman tries too hard to be “entertaining.” Here he is, reacting to the sight of Pamela Tiffin in a bikini:

Goldman writes about the film’s opening sequence in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. He’d started his script, sensibly enough, with the private eye showing up to get briefed on his case. The studio called to say they needed some action to put under the credits. Well, what could he write that happens BEFORE the case?

In desperation, he scripted the early morning routine of his hero, and put in a gag about running out of coffee. Harper looks in his waste bin where there’s yesterday’s discarded coffee filter. Dare he recycle it?

He does. Closeup of Newman pulling disgusted face when he tastes the result. The audience laughs. It’s a nice gag — it humanizes the character, it’s gross but still relatable — it makes him a bit of an underdog. Down these mean streets a man must walk with a horrible taste of used coffee in his mouth.

What Goldman omits to mention is that, normally, opening a script with the hero getting up in the morning is a TERRIBLE idea, a huge cliche and a watse of the audience’s time. Don’t do it, he should be saying, especially as his book is a kind of screenwriting guide (written before there were a million of the things). It happens to work this one time.

The other bad thing is Newman thinking about whether to make terrible garbage coffee. It’s a classic Hitchcock set-up: show him looking, show what he’s looking at, and show him looking some more. We will do the thinking and project that onto the image. No acting required. You could remove the coffee grains and insert a shot of Pamela Tiffin or Robert Webber or the Serengeti plains and it would still work, if the angle was right.

But here’s what we get from Newman, the great method actor:

Boy, he’s thinking HARD, isn’t he? I bet if he thought that hard about the kidnapping case he has to solve the movie would only be twenty minutes long.

Newman is very affable generally and has that contradictory laid-back intensity that’s so useful in a star. It’s just that sometimes maybe somebody ought to sit on his head.