Archive for Conrad Hall

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 two 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.

Advertisements

The 13th Monkey

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2012 by dcairns

A day of time travel stories —

To the cinema! To see Rian Johnson’s LOOPER. Big fan of his BRICK and I think THE BROTHERS BLOOM deserves more credit than it got even if it didn’t quite make it. After this hit, maybe more people will see it at least. But LOOPER is tough to talk about without spoilers, and it’s new so lots of you haven’t seen it. I’ll just say that Jeff Daniels berating Joseph Gordon-Levitt for copying his style from movies that themselves copied their style from older movies seems a very witty self-critique on Johnson’s part. We’ve already seen JG-L stand before the mirror and adjust his tiny duck-ass quiff in homage to Delon in LE SAMURAI… a movie which, like most Melville, transfigured moments and shots and set designs from old Hollywood noirs.

So it’s not the time to get into LOOPER, even though the film is current. We both really liked it, but I’d always rather talk about old stuff anyway.

The Outer Limits — watched the Harlan Ellison scripted Demon with a Glass Hand the same day as LOOPER, to get our heads nicely a-buzz with time travel ideas. Ellison sued the makers of THE TERMINATOR over its similarities to two of his stories, this and Soldier. Odd, since LOOPER owes much more to THE TERMINATOR, but one can’t imagine anyone suing over that resemblance. In Demon, Robert Culp (who can play both supermasculine and intellectual) comes from the future and has a cybernetic hand that tells him stuff, but can’t reveal the whole plot until it gets all its fingers back. This is a crazy, charming plot device, much more effective to deliver exposition than the scenes where Culp forces his enemies (who all look like Uncle Fester, as Fiona pointed out — except for the one who looks like a pitifully young Iggy Pop) to reveal what they know. They’re all remarkably loquacious, despite the fact that Culp is going to kill them anyway.

Byron Haskin, an old genre hand, directs, and rather delightfully the whole thing (apart from the above studio shot) plays inside the Bradbury Building, famous from BLADE RUNNER and a million other things, a building supposedly envisioned by its architect in a dream. Somebody should shoot some kind of cock-eyed compendium film of DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE there, since all of those came from dreams too. The ultimate oneiric movie.

The deserted office building at night is a vivid way to encapsulate the hero’s existential aloneness, which Ellison, lays on thick as you’d expect. He’s like a purple Kafka. Time travel per se plays little active role until the stinger at the end — the bad guys are aliens and removing their medallions could just as easily zap them back to their home world as forward in time. It’s interesting to me how baggy most of the Outer Limits scripts are — the one hour running time demands more complicated premises than Twilight Zone, but often the complications are stray stuff, padding or the narrative equivalent of patio extensions.

A case in point is The Man Who Was Never Born, which begins with a wholly superfluous astronaut character going through a time warp before the story actually begins. The true protagonist is Martin Landau as a futureworld mutant, traveling back in time to kill the scientist who’s going to invent a plague that sterilizes mankind and causes Landau’s disfigurement. So this story, by Anthony Lawrence, actually has more in common with THE TERMINATOR (and T2) than the Ellison story. Yet it’s prefigured too, by John Wyndham’s Consider Her Ways, which became a memorable episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Lawrence claimed his biggest influence was Cocteau’s LA BELLE ET LA BETE (Shirley Knight makes a radiant Beauty), and Conrad Hall’s fairytale cinematography actually conjures a comparable glamour using a very different palette.

The same day we watched LOOPER and the Ellison, the BBC screened the season finale of Dr Who, so we had a serious dose of time travel. Stephen Moffat’s run as script editor has been up and down — he allowed the Doctor to step hideously out of character in one episode, vindictively murdering a bad guy. It seems like there’s a quality control issue in the selection of writers, probably because Moffat doesn’t have time to read script samples and write his own episodes and rewrite everybody else’s.

In principle, I think the Weeping Angels who first appeared in the stand-out episode Blink are a one-trick pony and probably shouldn’t have been re-used. The basic gag of statues which only move when you aren’t looking, is terrific, but somehow stopped being scary after the first show (where it was terrifying). Which means that the pleasures of this episode came from the actors  — Mike McShane rather wasted, but Alex Winter Kingston (d’oh!) zesty as ever. Farewell to the best assistants the doc has ever had, but we still have Matt Smith as the Time Lord himself, a completely wonderful embodiment of the character. It pains me to say, but I think Smith really will struggle to find suitable roles when his stint finishes. As with Tom Baker, when you’re that good at playing an alien/funny uncle/Christ figure, it can be hard for casting directors to see you any other way. But I hope I’m wrong — in terms of emotional range, Smith can play anything, and generally comes at the emotion from a surprising angle, which made the climactic farewell scene here really affecting. Moffat wrote it very nicely, Smith and Karen Gillan (who assuredly will have a great post-Who career) played the hell out of it, and the awful music did its best to smother the whole affair in treacle but couldn’t quite succeed.

Duckman

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on June 22, 2009 by dcairns

Sam Mendes In Person

The Film Festival’s Sam Mendes interview was pretty good value. I think he got into a bit of a fankle, mentally, when he started talking about how he was more concerned with “truth” in his new movie, and had been more interested in “stylisation” beforehand — I don’t see the two as incompatible, and indeed I feel that expressing a truth is actually the PURPOSE of stylisation. Why do it otherwise? “Unreal but true,” was Orson Welles’s battle-cry. This disconnect between the mythical realms of form and content may be the source of my creeping dissatisfaction with stuff like AMERICAN BEAUTY.

But Mendes was delightful when discussing the late Conrad Hall. “He was seventy-five when we did ROAD TO PERDITION,” he recalled, “and he would forget he was wearing his headphones, his cans, like an old guy with an iPod, he would shout. So when I look at that scene, I remember filming it, and at the end of the shot Tom Hanks had run right up to us and was standing behind Conrad, who was looking at the monitor, and Conrad yelled, ‘Jesus, Tom Hanks runs like a fucking duck!'”

Conrad Hall will be missed.