Archive for Dalton Trumbo

Igneous Schlock

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-07-26-22h38m58s457

THE MAN WHO TURNED TO STONE (1957) has a bit of interest and originality, even though it isn’t any good. There might be potential for a remake, if we made this kind of B-movie anymore.

The dialogue is atrocious (“Oh look, now, Tracy, you’re not going soft and spooky on me now, are you? I like you much better when you’re your hard-bitten old self.” “Just the same I’ll bet you a box of girl scout cookies that somebody died last night.”) and sadly it’s by Bernard Gordon, blacklistee — I presume his gig for poverty row producer Sam Katzman was brokered by Dalton Trumbo. But the story has some intrigue.

vlcsnap-2016-07-26-22h39m40s300

Basically, the top staff at a girl’s reform home are all immortals from the eighteenth century, kept spry by regular treatments of mad science. Their procedure requires the sacrifice of a human victim, so naturally they’re preying on the inmates, knocking them off practically nightly according to what we see, which causes some consternation among the higher authorities, but not half as much as you’d expect.

Eric (Friedrich Von Ledibur) is now so old that the treatment is starting to fail, causing him to petrify, to look poorly made-up, and to have a pounding heartbeat audible from across the room. He’s also mute, hulking and (with an effort of imagination upon the viewer’s part) scary looking — stalwart Doc William Hudson sizes him up with the words, “Coarsened features — could be Mongoloid.” Well, nobody ever looked less like they had Downs’ Syndrome. And thank you so much for the crassness.

vlcsnap-2016-07-26-22h39m57s714

Miscasting of this key lummox role robs most of the action of menace, but the lead nasty is played by Victor Jory, who brings conviction, understatement, and Dignity, Always Dignity to the part. Other decent thesps Paul Cavanaugh and Victor Varconi round out the rogue’s gallery, which also includes a woman, Anne Doran, who does too much eyebrow calisthenics but suggests a kind of cold dedication to Jory that’s sort of interesting.

The film actually works much better before Hudson takes over as boring hero — the young female staff member who first suspects jiggerpokery and her prisoner/trusty chum are ineptly written and performed but make more interesting, unconventional protagonists. The film’s sympathies are with the prisoners and you can, with only a few strained neurons, see the story as the kind of leftist parable commie screenwriters were accused of smuggling into pictures. Good for them, I say. It makes sci-fi hokum a bit more interesting. The trouble with this movie is it doesn’t have any arresting imagery to compliment the ideas — Laszlo Kardos’ direction is flat and grey, the mad science equipment doesn’t take any advantage of the possibilities implied by its supposed eighteenth century origins (An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump could provide all the visual ideas the movie needs) and the hulking behemoth is a skinny old guy with an unhealthy pallor. There’s a writing error too — this guy’s decline from sentience into zombiehood needed to be SHOWN, to give us the horror, rather than opening the film with him already subhuman. Oh well, better luck next time — as producer, Gordon would eventually give us the rather more successful HORROR EXPRESS.

Advertisements

Unfriendlied

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-02-23-08h38m41s133

TRUMBO breaks new ground, as a dramatic film about the blacklist, by featuring an actual communist as its hero. When Irwin Winkler was preparing GUILTY BY SUSPICION, he worked with Abraham Polonsky as screenwriter for a spell, but the partnership broke up over AP’s insistence that the protagonist had to be a communist and Winkler’s insistence that he couldn’t be. Prior to TRUMBO, only the BBC TV film Fellow Traveller had the guts to take an actual leftie as lead.

Put it this way — do you prove that the blacklist was an injustice by demonstrating that some people who were not communists got blacklisted? Would you be proving that the law against murder is wrong by making a film about an innocent man wrongly accused of murder?

vlcsnap-2016-02-23-08h38m59s50

So director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara are to be congratulated for not making the million-dollar mistake, especially in a time when right-wing pundits in America have been attempting to restore McCarthy and HUAC to favour. They do offer excuses for those who were tempted by the Party — perhaps a stronger, simpler defense would be the one used in THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT — we don’t like what these people do, but in a free society they have a right to do it.

The film has been greeted by quite a lot of grumbling, not for its politics, but for its quality. I would group it along with movies like KINSEY and THE NOTORIOUS BETTY PAGE (though it doesn’t rely on musical montages to popular, on-the-nose hits, thankfully) — a biopic which struggles to craft a solid dramatic story out of its subject, or to find a satisfying cinematic style.

vlcsnap-2016-02-23-08h39m11s172

A film on this subject cries out to be a film of ideas, since a writer’s life usually entails little action, certainly when he’s at work. To McNamara’s credit, he includes useful discussions illustrating the slippery moral slope one embarks on when trying to cooperate with HUAC, to the extent that Edward G. Robinson, chosen as main example of the friendly witness/traitor, can still seem somewhat sympathetic — he made the wrong choice, is all.

What’s rather lacking is strong emotional, dramatic scenes. Trumbo’s HUAC testimony is rather rushed through, which is unfortunate since it’s one of the rare occasions where he comes up against his enemies. Instead we have many, many short scenes in which he argues with friends, notably Louis CK, excellent in the role of a combination of various members of the Hollywood 10. Balking at crowding the screen with nameless pinkos, the screenplay is probably wise to conflate a few of them, but by name-dropping Dmytryk and other offscreen personae to no particular effect, and making the point repeatedly that there are ten of these guys whom we never get to see, the film is guilty of failing to have its cake and failing to eat it. There’s a feeling the real drama is happening elsewhere.

vlcsnap-2016-02-23-08h37m12s253

vlcsnap-2016-02-23-08h37m13s13

As director, Roach is… OK. He was on surer ground with the AUSTIN POWERS films. He makes a terrible misstep in beginning Trumbo’s HUAC testimony as a newsreel, hauling us a way from what should be the most dramatic moment yet and putting the thing into the past tense before it’s happened, and the genuinely moving moment when Trumbo sees his name on the credits of SPARTACUS after years of enforced anonymity gets a flashy reflection shot it really doesn’t need.

That should be a simple moment for letting the actors act, which Roach is otherwise quite happy to do — whatever the consequences. Bryan Cranston’s mannered perf may reflect Trumbo’s real personality, but it still feels forced, especially, as Fiona pointed out, when Louis CK and Diane Lane are being completely natural opposite him. I wonder if what was needed was a more naturally flamboyant personality, or at least a character actor with certain built-in quirks, so that the eccentricity would seem innate rather than assumed. I love Bryan Cranston, and I worry that he’s painted into a bit of a corner — any TV show he does is bound to be compared unfavourable with Breaking Bad, which means he’s pushed into movies at just the time when the smart talent i heading the other way. And movies haven’t found the best use for his talents.

(Actually, if he took part in an ensemble piece like the magnificent American Crime Story, I don’t think there would be any negative comparisons with BB.)

vlcsnap-2016-02-23-08h39m24s45

This movie also features some odd lookalikes and sortalookalikes and lookunalikes. The Edward G Robinson surrogate, Michael Stuhlbarg, bears zero resemblance to the man he’s playing, except when turning up with a beard in old age, when it’s rather too late. Perhaps wisely, he doesn’t try to sound like Robinson either. Dean O’Gorman seems to be putting all his efforts into sounding slightly like Kirk Douglas, which doesn’t help him sound like a human being or give a performance, and he still fails to call the star to mind with the force of a Frank Gorshin TV impersonation. Berliner Christian Berkel makes a good fist of the Viennese Otto Preminger, though my Facebook friend Matthew Wilder thinks the role should have been his. What that says about Matthew I leave to your own judgement.

 

Afghan Rogue

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-07-11-11h11m41s73

Saddened to hear of the death of Omar Sharif, and then bloody annoyed by the BBC obituary, which accompanied the line “as the years went on, the films grew worse,” with a cut to a clip from JUGGERNAUT. JUGGERNAUT is an excellent film, and its director was likely to be watching. You don’t want to hear of the death of a collaborator (the fourth in as many months, counting costume designer Julie Harris, and actors Christopher Lee and Ron Moody) and get insulted at one at the same time.

While the obit stressed Omar’s being more interested in playing bridge than making movies, which he admitted himself, Lester told me he had been convinced, shooting JUGGERNAUT, that Omar would direct something himself, so keen was his fascination with every aspect of the production — not doubt stimulated by the fact that Lester’s process was so different from the conventional approach.

vlcsnap-2015-07-11-11h10m03s118

We marked Omar’s passing by viewing John Frankenheimer’s THE HORSEMEN (1971), also starring Jack Palance, Leigh Taylor-Young and David de Keyser, inexplicably uncredited in a major role originally earmarked for Frank Langella, who got an earful from the volatile Frankenheimer when he opted to do THE WRATH OF GOD instead and sleep with Rita Hayworth.

vlcsnap-2015-07-11-11h10m24s72

More temperament — the great cinematographer James Wong Howe walked off the shoot after disagreeing with Frankenheimer about a lens. The great Claude Renoir took over. Nice to be able to choose and discard great cinematographers as easily as lenses. The film is wonderful looking, with plenty of helicopter shots showing off the unique locations, and inventive diopter tricks to allow Frankenheimer to indulge his passion for deep focus. (The massively wide lenses used for shooting TV plays in the fifties gave him this taste for depth.)

The movie is set — and shot — in Afghanstan and is thus an unusual project for Hollywood — all the characters are Afghans. Probably nobody would have contemplated making it if Sharif hadn’t come along. What we need is more Sharifs. Instead we have one fewer. The main one.

vlcsnap-2015-07-11-11h09m51s5

Sharif’s character is relentlessly unsympathetic and the values all the characters live by quite alien to a western, Judeo-Christian, “civilized” audience. None of the main actors is an Afghan — Peter Jeffrey has been cast because of his big nose, but his plummy accent is a  bit of a shock in this company — everyone else is trying to sound a bit non-specifically foreign. The dialogue is written in that uncomfortably blank, formal idiom used for historical epics. I suspect Taylor-Young has been dubbed, but she’s quite effective otherwise. Screenplay is by Dalton Trumbo, from novel by Joseph Kessel (BELLE DE JOUR, ARMY OF SHADOWS).

I do believe animals may have been harmed during the making of this film — not so much the horse falls, though those occur — they’re not of the spectacular and wince-making order of THE LONG RIDERS. But we see all these animal fights — camel wrestling, in which the beastly bactrians snake their long necks round each other and gnaw one another’s humps to hamburger with foaming maws; bird wrestling, where the adorable little chicks have their beaks meticulously sharpened the better to shank each other; and ram-fighting, whereby two sheep-things batter each other into submission. Points are awarded according to the Glasgow coma scale.

vlcsnap-2015-07-11-11h09m39s117

“Say, buddy, are you OK? How many horns am I holding up?”

An odd film, but an absorbing one, and a moving snapshot of an exotic land before the Russians, before the Taliban, before us. Probably still irretrievably messed up, but not as badly as now.