Archive for David Melville

Forbidden Divas: All At Sea

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2018 by dcairns

Hey everybody! David Melville is back with another plunge into the murky waters of forbidden divadom ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

All at Sea

“Where a beautiful woman is concerned, all men are curious.”
-Charles Korvin, Thunderstorm

Pity the poor actress who is more famous off the screen than on it. Linda Christian was a beautiful Mexican starlet who married Tyrone Power in 1949. The more cynical Hollywood insiders may say that was acting of a sort. But “the wedding of the century” (as the tabloid press described it) certainly kept the fans on the edge of their seats. Power and Christian became the most glamorous and golden of movie couples and their two children are minor celebrities in their own right: Romina as a pop star in Italy – and the lead in Jess Franco’s Justine (1969) – and Taryn as a swashbuckler in epics like Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). But when the couple divorced in 1955, Linda Christian slipped back into an obscurity she had never quite escaped.

One film, at least, suggests her fate was undeserved. Thunderstorm (1956) is a tale of tempestuous seas and torrid passions, set in an impoverished (but photogenic) fishing village on the Basque coast of Spain. One day, a rugged young fisherman named Diego (Carlos Thompson) finds a small yacht adrift in the bay. The vessel is leaking and half-waterlogged. But a gorgeous and only slightly dishevelled blonde lady lies unconscious on the cabin floor. She is, of course, Linda Christian. But she goes by the name of María Román. She declines to say who she is or where she comes from. She has a strange and almost otherworldly aura; dark portents of doom seem to follow wherever she goes. She is a B-movie variant of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea crossed, perhaps, with Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. After all – as the script wastes no time in telling us – the local fisher folk are convinced such creatures do exist.

Most disquietingly of all, she is styled to look as much as possible like Grace Kelly – who was, at that time, Hollywood’s biggest female star. That is a shame because Christian (on the basis of this movie) has a natural and unaffected elegance of which the pallid and glacial Kelly could only dream. She is also a vastly warmer and more expressive actress. That tiny suitcase she packed for her cruise holds a seemingly inexhaustible stock of designer clothes. Wandering about the village like a sort of living poster for the New Look, Christian appears puzzled when local women – who spend most of their lives scaling and gutting fish – gape as if she were The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The men stare after her in naked and ill-disguised lust. The tyrannical mayor (Charles Korvin), his wastrel son (Garry Thorne) and his drunken brother (Tito Junco) all want to get in on the act. Stray hints tell us that Christian is not exactly a stranger to male attention.

The director, John Guillermin, photographs the village (its name is San Lorenzo) with almost as much relish as he photographs his star. Known today as a high-budget hack, Guillermin hit his stride in the 70s with a string of films – The Towering Inferno (1974), King Kong (1976), Death on the Nile (1978) – that required little more skill than switching on a camera and not standing in front of it. Yet here he shows a flair for moody and eccentric camera angles such as Orson Welles might envy. With a multiplicity of low-angle and high-angle shots, swooping overhead vistas and one bravura moment in a bar fight – where a bottle smashes in close-up and liquor floods over the lens – the tiny village starts to resemble a labyrinth by Piranesi or a Pop Surrealist drawing by Escher. As the smouldering intrigue around her heats up, Christian’s glamorous blonde castaway seems like a harbinger of Jessica Lange in the catastrophic rehash of King Kong. Indeed, it is this film – and not the 1933 creature features classic – that John Guillermin’s King Kong feels like a remake of.

Not that life in San Lorenzo is non-stop action. The village is a real Spanish location and most of its inhabitants are actual (dubbed) Spaniards – apart from the stars, who are a Mexican, an Argentine and a Hungarian. Yet the locals spend interminable screen time yammering over what size of oceangoing vessel would maximise their haul of fish. Thompson argues that small ships – which they all currently use – are no good for fishing in deep waters, where the richest stocks are to be found. Korvin – who owns all the boats and is too stingy to pay for new ones – insists that large ships could never sail in and out of the town’s tiny harbour. Literally every member of the cast (apart from Christian) seems to have an opinion on this. What’s more, they feel the urge to express it at wearisome length. Where, we ask ourselves, are those stringent European Union fishing quotas when we really need them?!

At one point Thompson, in a fit of derring-do, commandeers a large vessel from up the coast. He sails it into San Lorenzo harbour, narrowly avoiding the jagged rocks that loom up on every side. To be honest, Guillermin swings his camera so perilously close to the rocks that we start to feel a trifle worried. Thunderstorm is a visibly low-budget film; it seems most unlikely the producers could afford a new one. Yet the effect comes a whole lot closer to 3D than any of the 50s films that were actually shot in that overhyped and cumbersome process. We root for Thompson to sail home free and it almost looks as if he might…but then, suddenly, he glimpses Linda Christian posing provocatively on top of the highest rock, luring him to his doom like a siren out of some pagan Greek myth. In the end, he is forced to admit that Size Matters.

For all its flashes of visual flamboyance, Thunderstorm never did establish John Guillermin as an art-house auteur. No more did it establish Linda Christian as a motion picture star in her own right. But it is hard to dislike any movie that strives to outdo From Here to Eternity (1953) when it comes to steamy sex on the beach. In one swimming scene, Christian rises Venus-like out of the surf with her nipples clearly visible through her bra. Later, Thompson pins her down on the sands in a passionate clinch. The waves wash voluptuously over them, tried and tested symbols of movie passion. But then, alas, the waves grow larger. Swelling almost to the size of a small tsunami, they drag the lovers out to sea and Thompson all but drowns. The scene is ludicrous, but nobody could complain that it lacks boldness. You might say the same for Thunderstorm as a whole.

David Melville

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Fever Pitch

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 2, 2017 by dcairns

Running a blogathon in early December nicely replaces the childhood excitement of an advent calendar — instead of opening little panels in a cardboard object with a bad painting of the nativity on it, I’m getting articles through email or the comments section, little treats more sweet than chocolate. “And the day Jesus was born, that was equivalent to a double-sized bit of chocolate!” Actually, in my day, the tabs opened to simply reveal more, smaller bad art underneath. So this is MUCH better.

David Melville Wingrove essays the final film of Gerard Philipe below, and finds it marks and end point in more ways than one. Philipe died at the age of 36, like Marilyn Monroe. Like Bela Lugosi, he had himself buried in costume — in his case, as Don Rodrigue, El Cid. Why?

FEVER PITCH

La Fièvre Monte à El Pao has one of those titles that invariably sound better in French. Its literal English translation – “The Fever Rises at El Pao” – sounds more like an idea for a movie that never got made than a lavish international screen epic. This tale of passion and politics on a sweltering Caribbean island was the last film of its star, the French matinee idol Gérard Philipe. Perhaps the most consummate romantic hero in screen history, Philipe is cast (uncomfortably) as an ineffectual bureaucrat trying to reform a corrupt and brutal system from the inside. As befits the perversity of such casting, La Fièvre was also the last vaguely disreputable film by its director, the Spanish provocateur and surrealist Luis Buñuel.

In fifteen years as a peripatetic hack-for-hire, Buñuel had turned out a fair few masterpieces (Los Olvidados, El, The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz). Yet much of his work was frankly awful and even his most vocal fans fall silent after watching Gran Casino or Cela S’Appelle L’Aurore. Whether for better or for worse, Buñuel lacked the whorish mentality required to handle cheap melodrama as if it were High Art. Unlike the masters of the genre (Douglas Sirk, Teuvo Tullio, Roberto Gavaldón) he made no effort to hide his contempt for his material. He seemed – in his very worst movies – to want to punish his audience for paying money to watch such tripe. In his choice of camera angles and mise en scène, Buñuel did his utmost to ensure a philistine movie public would derive no pleasure from its experience whatsoever. With luck, they might not darken the doors of a cinema again!

A Franco-Mexican co-production from 1960, La Fièvre Monte á El Pao was the last film Buñuel would ever make in this vein. A year later, he returned to his native Spain to shoot Viridiana, a scabrous black comedy that won the Palme d’Or at the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. Like all his best work, it was cold, brilliant and almost wholly devoid of conventional entertainment value of any sort. Its success not only garlanded Buñuel as a gilt-edged international auteur, but also ensured that his later films – whether they were great (Belle de Jour) or abysmal (The Milky Way) – would hereafter be venerated as Art. Although it was by no means its director’s last film, La Fièvre marked the end of one career and heralded the start of another. Fitzgerald may have insisted there were “no second acts in American lives.” But movie-makers have as many lives as they can persuade a producer to pay for.

So how interesting is the film itself? The chief fascination of La Fièvre lies in the sheer epic folly of its star pairing. The script would have us believe Philipe’s character – a meek and rather unappetising little fellow – has been nursing a secret passion for María Félix, the voluptuous man-eating wife of the island’s brutal governor. Like other barn-storming divas of her ilk – Bette Davis, Anna Magnani, Joan Crawford – Félix found it next to hard to find a leading men strong enough to hold their own against her. She was cast most effectively opposite icons of Latin machismo (Pedro Armendáriz, Arturo de Córdova) or, failing that, young men so handsome but insignificant that a director might just as well have borrowed a tailor’s dummy out of Wardrobe.

Quite clearly, Gérard Philipe is neither one nor the other. It may be possible, just about, to dream up a more incongruous romantic duo. Jeremy Irons and Carmen Miranda, perhaps? Or maybe Greta Garbo and Adam Sandler? Still, it is hard to picture Félix and Philipe in the same movie – let alone on the same island and least of all in the same bed. But that does not stop Buñuel from trying. When the governor gets assassinated, his widow (Félix) and his secretary (Philipe) promptly become lovers. They set about reforming the island’s penal colony along humane and liberal lines. Well, Philipe does anyway. Félix spends the film prowling about like a bored panther, wondering if Philipe has enough flesh on his bones to make a square meal.

From an audience point of view, the arrival of a new governor (Jean Servais) is a not entirely unwelcome distraction. He soon pegs Philipe as a dangerous liberal and forces Félix to go to bed with him, as a way to keep her lover out of prison. This sexual encounter is the one vaguely memorable scene in the entire movie. A man of somewhat ‘specialised’ tastes, Servais has the bedroom decked out as if for a funeral, with black crape curtains round the bed and a plethora of phallic votive candles. A none-too-subtle strain of necrophilia creeps through many a Buñuel film – from Abismos de Pasión/Wuthering Heights to Viridiana to Belle de Jour – and this scene is nothing if not true to form. Would it be rude of us to suspect that Félix actually has a better time with this monster than she ever has with poor befuddled Philipe?

The rest of La Fièvre Monte á El Pao is flat and rather boring – which is, for a melodrama, the one unpardonable crime. A lesser director than Buñuel would have revelled in the gratuitous sadism of the island’s prison guards. He might, in so doing, have egged on the audience to share in the mounting spirit of revolt among the prisoners – which spills over (largely off-screen) in a bloody and calamitous rebellion. Yet Buñuel seems to have thoroughly digested Hannah Arendt’s notion of “the banality of evil.” The guards on this island are not sadists, simply bored functionaries doing their job. By the same token, Philipe’s character is not a hero – just a weak and well-intentioned liberal bent on reforming a system that is inherently beyond reform.

Philipe’s position seems ironically akin to that of Buñuel himself. Judging from what we see on screen, Buñuel’s only aim in directing this melodrama (apart, naturally, from the money he was paid) was to display his unalloyed contempt for his material and his own Olympian superiority to melodrama as a genre. That is a deeply unlikeable position for a director to be in – but when did Luis Buñuel ever want to be liked? His promotion to full-fledged auteur status, the following year, would turn out to be nobody’s loss and everybody’s gain. Not least because he could finally leave steamy and melodramatic trash like La Fievre to those of us who really enjoy it!

David Melville

Forbidden Divas: It’s a Magic Number

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2017 by dcairns

Just as I jet off to Bologna, David Melville Wingrove slides into my place to offer up another Forbidden Diva close to his heart ~FORBIDDEN DIVAS

IT’S A MAGIC NUMBER

“My mother always said I’d marry two men.”

“Only two?”

“Yes, but at the same time.” ~ Charlotte Rampling, Three

The only film by the novelist and occasional screen-writer James Salter, Three (1969) is a queer triangular love story involving two boys and one car. One morning in the wilds of France, a door of corrugated grey metal grinds slowly and laboriously open. Two young Americans – Taylor (Sam Waterston) and Burt (Robie Porter) – wheel out an old and battered Peugeot, caked with dust. The car at first looks as every bit as grey and dreary as the garage door. Once they wipe away the dust, it turns out to be sombre hearse black. Its wheels and interior are an intense, almost iridescent blood red. The boys drive off on that weird and quintessentially 60s quest for something called freedom. But what exactly is freedom? How will they find it? Will they recognise it when they see it? And what might they do with it when they do?Lying side by side in a sun-baked field of dry grass, they converse in the weird non sequiturs that long-term travelling companions tend to fall into. “Did you ever grow a beard?” “No, but I fell out of a tree once.” They are, of course, looking for girls. But they seem a lot more comfortable with one another. One consciously poetic shot shows Burt – a corn-fed blonde Adonis – naked in bed in some Italian hotel. His creamy torso emerges from beneath the blanket. His arm, wrapped about his head, reveals a delicately sculpted armpit, dusted with light gold hair. Taylor, dark and soulful and sad-eyed, is the one observer there to see. Once in Rome, they pick up two girls (Gillian Hills and Edina Ronay) but that encounter predictably goes nowhere. That is precisely where most things in Three seem to go. On one scorching afternoon, an Italian waiter offers the boys a spremuta di limone. He then remembers, at the last moment, that they are out of lemons.It all changes once the boys get to Florence. They wander through the Uffizi Gallery, as the camera glides lovingly over Verrocchio’s painting of the martyred Saint Sebastian, his body naked and pierced by arrows. Suddenly and barely for a second, Taylor catches sight of Charlotte Rampling – who was, in 1969, the sexy Swinging London chick du jour. She too is a tourist at the Uffizi and it is hard to think of a more dazzlingly appropriate setting for her. She looks, in equal parts, like a perverse Botticelli Venus and an androgynous, pouting youth by Leonardo da Vinci. It turns out she has a boy’s name (Marty) and slouches about, for most of the film, in a wardrobe of jeans and boy’s shirts. She is, beyond a doubt, an object of heterosexual desire. Yet she also seems to embody the covert homoerotic tensions between the two men. If Three were a film from the 30s, she could only be Marlene Dietrich.In fact, the film is based on a short story by Irwin Shaw. Its central trio have remarkably little in common with the Flower Power folk. Their behaviour and attitudes seem more redolent of the gilded Lost Generation of the 20s, familiar from the novels or Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald – and, invariably, bungled very badly by Hollywood. This means that Three was not a massive counter-cultural hit like other road movies of that time, such as Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969) or Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970). James Salter’s film sank very quickly into obscurity and has been notoriously difficult to see ever since. Rampling herself has said in interviews how she had a hankering to see it years later. She rang up Salter and asked him – but even he was unable to locate a copy. Yet the film’s very lack of modishness means that it has dated barely at all; Easy Rider, in context, looks embarrassingly like a time capsule. It is in the nature of a road movie to transcend the limits of place, but very rare for one to transcend the confines of time the way Three does. Three evokes a world where – as Taylor remarks wryly – “Everyone lives somewhere else.”

Rampling agrees, all too readily, to travel with the two boys. It is obvious, from the outset, that she is attracted to Taylor and subtly dislikes Burt. Yet the three make a pact that she will never “choose between” them. In other words, should she engage in sex with either one, the deal is off. She takes them to villa in the hills above Florence, where the aristocrats are so world-weary and soigné that they seem barely alive. She leads them, on a beach, in a three-sided game of tag. Her bikini is a hideous shade of near-fluorescent orange; she manages to look coolly glamorous even in that. Driving with them back into France, she dons a clinging silver lamé mini-dress and entices them to a casino. Here she effortlessly wins a fortune at roulette and showers her two escorts deliriously with money. Her role seems to be morphing from Jeanne Moreau as a ménage a trois temptress in Jules and Jim (François Truffaut, 1961) into Jeanne Moreau as a compulsive gambler in La Baie des Anges (Jacques Demy, 1962).Elsewhere, the film is a litany of events that do not happen, of climaxes that do not take place. The three drive to the Southern French town of Dax for a bullfight – but they find the bullring deserted. They have misread the poster and come on the wrong day. By the sea, they see a sailboat capsized and a man in the water calling for help. Taylor strips naked and swims out to save him. Yet his attempt to be a hero is pointless. Before he can get to the drowning man, a rescue boat comes along and saves him first. His relationship with Marty seems to be similarly inconclusive. One night when Burt is out wooing an available French woman (Pascale Roberts), Marty turns the full force of her lynx-eyed, silver-ice gaze onto Taylor. It is one of the earliest and most dazzling examples of that unique Rampling phenomenon known as The Look. “I’ve forgotten what American kisses taste like,” she purrs. But can he ever reconcile his attraction to her with his attachment to Burt?Three is a film about sexuality rather than sex (another reason, perhaps, for its box-office failure) so answers to this and other questions will not be easy to find. The triangle of tension between Marty, Taylor and Burt is fluid and enigmatic, amorphous and ever-shifting. There are long stretches in which nothing whatsoever seems to happen. Rightly, because people are seldom at their most active when all their energies are focused on finding what direction – if any – their lives will take. The absurdly scenic French and Italian roads down which they travel may seem to wind on forever, but their erotic and emotional cul-de-sac offers little if any hope of an escape. Yet we know, by the same token, that it cannot possibly last. This trio is doomed to break up and one vital question is bound to emerge. Who gets to keep the car?

David Melville