Archive for Darryl F Zanuck

Frankie and Trevor

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2022 by dcairns

I had vague positive boyhood memories of VON RYAN’S EXPRESS — it turned out I had slightly conflated my memory of Frank Sinatra running for a train with a scene from THE 5-MAN ARMY, the Argento-scripted spaghetti western in which Tetsurô Tanba runs for a train FOR A LONG TIME. You couldn’t possibly get Frank Sinatra to run that long. This meant that the film’s surprising and effective ending was surprising and effective all over again. You wouldn’t get an ending like that now. Already, in 1965, US cinema is groping towards the downer endings of the 70s.

This may be Mark Robson’s best film after his Val Lewton phase. (Or maybe CHAMPION, PHFFT or PEYTON PLACE?) It’s THE GREAT ESCAPE on a train, basically. And I guess TGE made that ending conceivable. It even has John Leyton in it, and he doesn’t go everywhere, you know.

WWII prison camp films seem to capture the spirit of school — the secret activities, the getting away with stuff — it all becomes hi-jinks. Helped along here by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which apart from a few lamentable comedy noises is inventive, sprightly, distinctive — it has a theme you can whistle (important for a GREAT ESCAPE knock-off) but lots of other fun elements too, plus the snare drums Darryl Zanuck would have insisted upon.

The scourge of war films — and they are a bit of a scourge, however nostalgic we might feel about some of them — all comes from WWII. If you look at First World War films, they made propaganda movies while the war was on, then largely stopped talking about it, and then when they returned to the subject it was to talk about how dreadful war was. THE BIG PARADE, WINGS, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. You could lighten the mood with a romance or a bromance, but that was mostly to contrast with how dreadful the war was. Not too many exceptions.

“You said it, miste – oh, wait”

But with WWII the propaganda continued even after the end of hostilities, as if we had to carry on convincing ourselves that it was a noble venture. Britain became hopelessly locked into war nostalgia, as did 20th Century Fox, the studio that came to embody Zanuck’s mid-life/late life crisis of masculinity writ large.

Does VRE get away with turning the war into a school romp just by slapping on a moment of tragedy? Does THE GREAT ESCAPE? My point is not that we mustn’t enjoy them, but that we should remain aware that they’re slightly poisonous.

Anyway, Sinatra is an American airman, Ryan, who becomes the ranking officer in an Italian prison camp where he’s mostly surrounded by Brits including Trevor Howard. He aquires the “Von” nickname by standing up against murdering camp commandant Adolfo Celli. But then he masterminds a daring takeover of the prison train carrying the men towards Germany, rerouting it to Switzerland. It’s faintly preposterous but done with panache.

There he is, doing his running!

Robson, a former editor, gets most of his effects by intercutting straightforward shots. The first reveal of Sinatra is beautifully staged in a Maurice Tourneur-style blocking reveal, though. The direct cutting of the nouvelle vague had found its way into LAWRENCE OF ARABIA but Robson is having none of it. I like dissolves personally but an elephantine thing like this might benefit from more nimble and surprising transitions. Robson is surprisingly flatfooted about scene endings, even when the script supplies him with zingers. He also says things like “Clue me,” which didn’t strike me as period-accurate, but I could be wrong.

The Italian war was all about male nudity: see also CATCH 22.

VON RYAN’S EXPRESS stars Frankie Machine; Captain Bligh; Princess Salirah; Harry Luck; Teocrito; Willie ‘Tunnel King’; Capt. Daniel Gregg; Dr. Mabuse; Clark Gable; Bertram Garvay; Emilio Largo; Nazorine; Don Jarvis; FBI Director Denton Voyles: and King Minos.

King of the Movies

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2019 by dcairns

King of the Movies was the title of an interview show done about Henry King for the BBC when the old master was ninety. I enjoyed King’s work at Il Cinema Ritrovato — they could only show a small sampling of his 108 credits — and two of them, STATE FAIR and OVER THE HILL, would easily make my top ten of films I saw in Bologna.

But I’m not convinced of his greatness, as a whole. At Fox in the early thirties, he channeled the house style, which favoured long tracking shots and misty atmosphere — as well as any other director. But then, like Ford and Borzage, he seemed to lapse into a less showy, more conventional form of coverage.

“Style should be invisible,” was the prevailing idea. To me, if it’s invisible it’s not style. Style has to be perceptible to the senses to qualify. Which is not to discount subtlety. But if you’re alert and you know about film technique, good style can be detected however low-key, though in a very entertaining or engaging film you might forget to look for it. (When Ford and Borzage minimized their style, a distinct artistic identity remained visible. With King, not so much.)

The fact that King could make so much of the visuals while at Fox is significant — someone like Alfred Santell in THE SEA WOLF, gifted with an elaborate dockland set, just sat the camera on sticks and went to sleep. But once King stops gliding, his principle attributes become good dramaturgical taste and an ability to marshall the resources of a big production effectively.

TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, his WWII bomber movie, illustrates King’s abilities and limitations. It’s extremely well-crafted, and the acting, from a fairly un-starry cast (Gregory Peck is supported by Gary Merrill, Hugh Beaumont Marlowe, Millard Mitchell and Dean Jagger) is fine. There’s a moderately interesting flashback transition early on, and then the horrific discussion of the fliers’ injuries starts it off as an unusually frank war movie. The screenwriters were both involved in the air force and Wyler’s MEMPHIS BELLE so they knew their stuff.

Maybe my frustration with King is that he just isn’t as progressive as I’d like. (Yet some right-wing directors are extremely interesting!) Having set up a depiction of air war that’s surprisingly brutal, the movie largely backs away from this. Gregory Peck’s tough methods result in fewer planes being lost, but they also seem to end completely the kind of nasty injuries and fatalities suffered early on (“What do I do with an arm?”)

Some serious ambivalence does enter the movie when Peck suffers his — quite convincingly detailed — mental collapse. Peck plays this pretty well, considering he’s Gregory Peck. (But imagine Robert Ryan, or Jimmy Stewart!) But it proves to be a Tom & Jerry breakdown — he’s all squashed, but then he springs back into his original form in a single scene. Though the movie preserves some doubt — he’s better, but is he ALL better?

In 1949, with Huston’s LET THERE BE LIGHT still banned, no Hollywood picture was going to end with its protagonist catatonic, and the movie impresses with how far it’s willing to go. But whereas in a good Anthony Mann film we would end with some kind of discomfort — maybe even a sense that the film couldn’t quite work because it had ventured so far into darkness that its contradictions couldn’t be resolved within a Hollywood format (and if only Mann had lived through to the seventies, what troubles he’d have seen, and illuminated!), in a King film, the resolution rather discourages us from thinking about the more troubling aspects. (It’s also a Zanuck film, and Zanuck had something of a passion for war — maybe he had the most interesting sensibility of the studio bosses, but he was in some ways the most militaristic.)

Footnote: there’s a B-17 in this called Leper Colony, which is also the name of the B-52 flown by Slim Pickens in DOCTOR STRANGELOVE — the name indicates that the crew is composed entirely of no-hopers not fit to serve with skilled airmen — which illuminates the nature of Major “King” Kong and his crew in the Kubrick film.