Archive for Curt Jurgens

Creative Differences

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2021 by dcairns

I can’t write anything better about BITTER VICTORY than Jonathan Rosenbaum’s piece, which is one of his really good ones. He gets at the ambiguity of the two main characters — Curt Jurgens as Brand, essentially the villain, ought to attract our sympathies more than he does, and Richard Burton’s hero, Leith, oughtn’t to be as appealing as he is. Of course, a lot of this has to do with casting, and Ray’s relationships with his stars. Jurgens was forced on him. Burton, a fellow alcoholic, was sympatico, and Ray tried to get him for KING OF KINGS later, and Burton seriously thought about it.

Brand is a coward and a hypocrite, pathologically jealous, and somewhat brutal. But he’s TRYING to be brave, sometimes he is, and his anxiety about his wife’s fidelity is not wholly without foundation. I think she’s ready to take off with Burton if the circumstances allow it. Still, he’s an unattractive character, unattractively played. Jurgens kept protesting that he wasn’t sympathetic enough, but if Ray tried to fix that, his feelings about having Jurgens forced on him maybe got in the way. Ray was rewriting with Gavin Lambert, the psycho producer was rewriting with Paul Gallico, on another continent, and meanwhile the original author had script approval.

It’s interesting that Ray, by all accounts a supersensitive and uncannily perceptive guy, chose to make his European debut with a producer who turned out, according to Lambert, to be someone who enjoyed destroying directors. Given Ray’s noted self-destructiveness, it’s possible he chose Graetz, at some subconscious level, as just the kind of guy he ought to have nothing to do with.

The making of a film often seems to echo the story of the film, so it’s also easy to see Leith and Brand as portraits of Ray and Graetz. Leith, the romantic T.E. Lawrence figure — like Lawrence, an archaeologist, and someone who upsets his commanders because of his strange manner — Brand, the bully and desk-jockey who instinctively resents Leith, and who is constantly trying to prove himself against him. The reason Leith, and the audiences, give Brand no credit for drinking water that may be poisoned, is that it requires no physical courage, just a lack of imagination.

The one area where Brand’s imagination is on overdrive is his sexual jealousy of his wife and Leith. In fact, the two last met before Brand came on the scene, and they’re much too noble to do anything about their lingering emotions. But Brand evidently has a whole other movie playing in his head…

Ray had wanted Montgomery Clift as Leith, and Burton in the other role, as Brand. Had that been the case, Leith would certainly still have been more appealing than Brand (Burton could do nasty very well, Monty did soulful and vulnerable) but the balance would have been closer. Whether Clift could have made himself sound like a British officer is questionable. But part of the film’s interest is the way Leith’s perversity, self-destructiveness, crazy romanticism and sadistic goading of Brand play out as heroic and noble. The more you pick it apart afterwards the more interesting it gets.

I also love the look of the desert scenes, among the most barren ever filmed. LAWRENCE’s dunes are like feminine fleshscapes by comparison. In daylight, the contrast is so low the action is almost happening against an infinity curve, and at night there’s faux-lunar floodlighting against a jet-black sky, so we get warring voids.

Asides from the central trio (Ruth Roman is pretty good, but Ray wanted Moira Shearer), the only other substantial characters are a sympathetic Arab guide (Raymond Pellegrin, excellent) and the viciously mad Private Wilkins, played by the great Nigel Green.

Green can conjure a glint of madness like few other actors. It can just be THERE, not doing anything, suggesting a weird blinkered disassociation, like in THE IPCRESS FILE. But Wilkins is out where the buses don’t run. He’s evidently been doing this kind of thing too long. Everything’s a joke to him. We’re all going to die? That’s a good joke. We’re just going to suffer horribly? Still funny. Someone else is going to die instead? Equally good. Despite having just about the same attitude to everything that can or might happen, Green is electrifying in the role and Wilkins is terrifyingly unpredictable.

The other familiar face is Christopher Lee, playing another working class private. Lee rarely played plebeian, but is reasonable convincing, and of course he’s the most convincing commando. He MOVES awfully well. In Arab dress, at night, he totally evokes the kind of horror movie he was about become famous for. They should have let him show Burton how to ambush a man and stab him in the back, silently. Lee had actual military experience doing that. Burton’s approach gives the enemy plenty of time to yell and would not work. Still, at this very instant comes the extraordinary moment when Burton lets out a gasp — he’s doing the killing, but it’s like HE’S the one being killed. This close juxtaposition of the clumsy and the brilliant is what Truffaut perhaps meant when he remarked that Ray’s films were often not as “well-made” as other Hollywood filmmakers’, but he got moments of truth that nobody else would go near.

And, often, these moments involve violence.

The unfolding of the desert mission — retrieving enemy documents of completely opaque significance — kept reminding me of HOW I WON THE WAR. Running out of water, men cracking under the strain. Both films reference Lawrence without naming him. But it didn’t seem likely to have been a direct influence on Richard Lester. But it might conceivably have inspired novelist Patrick Ryan, who wrote the source book. The crazy, near-abstract mission is oddly close to satire, but markedly without laughs.

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.

 

 

Mini-Thems

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on February 28, 2018 by dcairns

I had fond memories of Laurel & Hardy’s BRATS, but I also remembered Leslie Halliwell saying it was disappointing, arguing that because L&H are so much like big kids, seeing them as little kids removes the amusement of inappropriateness. But Leslie Halliwell was dependably wrong on every point of opinion, criticism and analysis that ever came his way, just as he was dependably right on facts. BRATS, after all, gives us the familiar life-sized Stan and Ollie, in addition to the kiddie versions, so you’re not being deprived of anything. In fact, the irony of big men with childish minds is pointed up even more, since we can see how the boys have not progressed from their infantile selves.

Actually, we don’t quite get the familiar Ollie, because he’s had to shave his moustache to play his diminutive self, Ollie Jr. So adult Ollie is wearing a fake ‘tache that looks like it was drawn on with magic marker. Its sharp definition makes it look more than usually Hitlerian, or like the improbably square blot on the window in Father Ted.

Apart from a surprising animated mouse, there are only a couple of special effects shots, but these combine with the shot-reverse-shot schema in which both sets of the boys cut together using the Famous Kuleshov Effect to convince us they’re in the same space, looking at each other, when in fact the child versions are performing on impressively scaled-up sets. The effect is to make the kiddie duo uncannily small, TOO small. Because they have adult proportions, they don’t seem quite like real children, more like the victims of Dr Cyclops.

Because of the immature (or MORE immature) variant boys on display, this one’s even more violent than usual, with little Stan consistently getting the best of it. Most wince-inducing moment is Ollie getting the metal rod of a door-knob in the eye. Even more distressing to see this happen to a “child”. Ollie checks, gingerly, to see if his eye is still there.

Little Stan also delivers a wholly deliberate eye-poke, and right at the start of the film Big Ollie accidentally pokes his OWN eye. Is this an Oedipal theme or something?

Ollie’s self-inflicted injury reminds me of a Blake Edwards quote. Attempting to explain his sometimes grisly sense of humour (who else would attempt to raise laughs from a man stabbing himself in the side with a letter-opener?), Edwards described the funniest thing he ever saw: he was sitting in a restaurant when Curt Jurgens walked in, saw him, and waved — “Hiya, Blake!” and with the same movement, stuck his thumb squarely in his eye.

It’s funny because it’s Curt Jurgens.