Archive for David Niven

Otto Smash

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2022 by dcairns

BONJOUR TRISTESSE is beautiful, odd, trashy at times — it perfectly captures the feeling if an endless summer, but brackets its lustrous Saint-Tropez Technicolor with monochrome scenes in Paris that make it all too clear the idyll is doomed. Preminger only mixed colour with b&w this one time, but it seems appropriate to his perversity that he used monochrome for the present tense. Of course it makes a clear emotional point about the joy having drained from our young protagonist’s life (and suits the particular looks of St Tropez and Paris) but of course it doesn’t withstand a literal-minded interpretation, and at the same time it’s too obvious to sublimate into symbolism.

Somewhat random side-note — just stumbled upon the fact that, while filming the Great Fire of London for FOREVER AMBER, Otto nearly incinerated Linda Darnell, eerily anticipating her eventual tragic fate by some years. It was a piece of collapsing set that did it, or nearly. And I thought, My God, Otto had form, because he nearly burned Jean Seberg to death making JOAN OF ARC, and did in fact take her eyebrows off. It may be unfair to blame him wholly, since a director is somewhat at the mercy of what the pyrotechnics people say is safe, but on the other hand, fish stinks from the head, and a director is quite able to say “That sounds kinda risky,” or “I’d like some more safety measures in place.” Otto instead follows in the tradition of his fellow Viennese Fritz Lang, who came close to creating Brigitte Helm on METROPOLIS.

There’s a smouldering death here, too, but off-screen, represented by a great black smoke signal against the azure Mediterranean sky, produced by car crash (see also ANGEL FACE), and anticipating Otto’s own accident when he was struck down and badly injured by a car (I imagine the driver’s astonishment at Mr. Freeze suddenly impacting his windscreen).

We’re in the world of Françoise Sagan, based on the novel she published at nineteen. Her youth seems to grant her a strong insight into the thought processes of teenage Cecile (Jean Seberg), with the slight disadvantage that everyone else behaves like an adolescent too. The one real adult, supposedly, Deborah Kerr’s character, is as extreme as everyone else, really, just in a different direction.

I wonder what the shoot was like? I mean, it looks like heaven: Paris and the Côte d’Azur (with Otto now starting his later shoot-it-all-on-location phase), attractive people, and David Niven on hand to stop Otto getting too beastly — Niv had stood up to Michael Curtiz (“Vhere is your script?” “I don’t need it.” “Run and get it!” “YOU fucking run and get it.”) and knew that all bullies are cowards. (It’s possible that everybody’s a coward, and bullies have just discovered a peculiarly extrovert way of handling it. It [a] works for them and [b] makes the world a more hideous place.)

The movie is a fashion show (Givenchy, Hermès, Cartier), and an art show, and a parade of beautiful, rich, foolish people we shouldn’t have any sympathy for and mostly don’t. But I found I still felt for Seberg’s spoilt brat a little, perhaps because Seberg herself was so tragic. Otto was determined to make her a star — she’d been roasted for JOAN OF ARC and the American critics wouldn’t accept her as French here either, as if it mattered. You accept she’s Niven’s daughter even though he’s English playing French. And if they’re French, what is the heavily-accented Mylene Demongeot? Doesn’t matter.

Critical hostility to Seberg was probably mostly about her flat Iowan accent, which Austrian Otto was perhaps not sensitive to — she can seem bad even when she’s emotionally on point — I remember her being wooden in THE MOUSE THAT ROARED, which came after this. Efforts to deaden the accent add layers of self-consciousness to someone whose charm ought to be in their naturalness. This is the movie where it all kind of fits.

Niven is very fine also, in a role with uncomfortable echoes of his own life — not the creepy Elektra complex stuff, the idea of the playboy who finally tries to settle down, only for fate to knife him in the back. Deborah Kerr seems like the kind of woman who could reform him. And here’s Martita Hunt, maybe the only actor to appear for Otto in the forties, fifties and sixties?

BONJOUR TRISTESSE stars Sister Clodagh; Squadron Leader Peter Carter; St. Joan of Arc; Milady de Winter; Lieutenant Joyce; Georgette Aubin; Mr. Silence; Miss Havisham; Lord Desham; Jackson’s Doxy; Sir Hugo Baskerville; Adrian Baskerville; and the Fiddler on the Roof.


Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2021 by dcairns

A weekend double-bill of Powell & Pressburger’s A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and Fritz Lang’s LILIOM provided food for thought, as well as entertainment and awe.

It feels certain that P&P were familiar with the earlier film, and as a cultured Hungarian, Emeric Pressburger was probably familiar with Ferenc Molnár’s source play. But the fact that Lang ends his film with a closeup of teardrops, which then find their way into Powell’s film, makes me think that the movie was at the back of somebody’s mind.

The concept of bells ringing in heaven also recurs from Lang to the Archers, and the whole idea of the afterlife as a bureaucracy, a very specific concept, seems to have been ported over. True, Molnar & Lang portray the place as a police station — the way the film’s carny antihero (Charles Boyer) might imagine it — and P&P give us something more benign, a kind of anticipation of the welfare state.

“Conservative by instinct, Labour by experience,” says Peter D. Carter (David Niven), when asked about his politics. The Archers were nothing if not High Tory, it pains me to admit (I’m indebted to Andrew Moor, author of Powell & Pressburger, a Cinema of Magic Spaces, for the information that Pressburger was in the habit of sending his shirts to Paris to be laundered, even in wartime if memory serves, a detail Moor considered absolutely to absolutely clinch the filmmaker’s arch-Tory tendencies). I imagine, since AMOLAD was originally intended as a propaganda film during the last days of the war, with the intention of demonstrating that the USA and the UK can overcome their differences (“We were all getting along fine,” Powell was told, “until we started winning.”), the filmmakers would have been at least somewhat party to the great secret project, chaired by Sir Michael Balcon at Ealing, to prepare Britain for a Labour government. So the version of the afterlife portrayed, where there are no differences in rank (an enlisted man calls his officer “brother” when he learns this), and where everybody can do the job he likes, might be the film’s fantastical prophecy of Britain’s future. Carter on the afterlife: “I think it starts where this one leaves off, or where it could leave off if only we’d listen to Plato and Aristotle and Jesus, with all our earthly problems solved, but with bigger ones worth the solving.”

We were talking about influences. And not just political ones. I’m struck by the similarities with a work by another writer-director team, Marcel Carné & Jacques Prévert, LES VISITEURS DU SOIR. Both films feature emissaries from the afterlife (but in the French film they come from Hell) who can stop time, a fairly distinctive idea. But it’s far from certain that, with the war raging, P&P could have seen P&C’s film. I guess there was just time: France was liberated in autumn 1944, AMOLAD was shot at the end of 1945. How quickly did the backlog of French movies shot during the occupation get seen in Britain? I would imagine not very quickly and not very completely, but Powell would have been greatly interested and he probably would have had better access than just about anyone. So a direct influence seems possible.

If the influence wasn’t direct, then France should still get some credit because the first time-stop/fermata film I can think of is René Clair’s PARIS QUI DORT of 1925, which I’m certain Powell & Pressburger knew. Powell was actually working in movies in France in 1926. And so it seems not chance alone that explains the fact that Conductor 71, P&P’s heavenly emissary, is a Frenchman.

Great Brain Robbery

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2021 by dcairns

RIP Jean-Paul Belmondo.

We had just watched Michael Crichton’s best film, THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, which I’d been surprised to find on DVD in a charity shop (movies from 1978 or earlier are rare, except the very obvious ones), and then Belmondo’s passing prompted me to dig out THE BRAIN/LE CERVEAU (1969), a big-budget splashy caper comedy by Gerard Oury (who had just scored a massive hit in his homeland with LE GRAND VADROUILLE). And since the Brain, international master-criminal extraordinaire, is played by David Niven, it tied in with our weekend viewing of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH.

So, Crichton first. his Victorian heist movie was called simply THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY in America, heedless of Edwin S. Porter, but had a FIRST interpolated in the UK to avoid confusion with the 1963 robbery of the Glasgow to London Royal Mail train, which was still a legendary job here. And, funnily enough, that real-life robbery is credited to the Brain in Oury’s film, even though several of the actual thieves had been nabbed by ’69.

Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Leslie-Anne Down are Crichton’s conspirators, briefly aided by Wayne Sleep, master of parkour (in reality a dancer who enjoyed a burst of fame just after this movie). The target is gold bullion used to pay the British troops in the Crimea. the The gimmick is that nobody at this this time had robbed a moving train.

With Geoffrey Unsworth shooting it, the film looks dandy, with Irish locations (Dublin mainly) augmented by skillful matte paintings and the whole thing is elevated hugely by Jerry Goldsmith’s jaunty score — the man understood the romance of steam trains and put that romance into musical form very purely. And the climactic sequence, with Connery doing a lot of his own stunts on top of a locomotive, is everything it needs to be.

It’s interesting to reflect that Crichton’s odd career — medical doctor, novelist, film director, then back to novels (which regularly became films by other people) — culminated in an even odder spree as climate change denier, in which Crichton tried to parlay his medical experience into some kind of expertise in a field he knew nothing about. (The only thing that could have made Crichton’s life odder is if Nic Roeg had followed up his first impulse to cast the very tall 6″ 9 non-actor as Thomas Jerome Newton in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. Crichton also created the TV show E.R., an early example of prestige television which it seems nobody now talks about.) This is vaguely relevant here solely because T(F)GTR is a very mercenary film, and I recall Crichton being asked by an interviewer about the consequences for our children if he was wrong, and global termperatures WERE being forced up. He replied, strangely, by asking in turn what if he were right, and we lost a lot of money by trying to tackle climate change? Which struck my as a really strange thing to put in the balance, as if greater wealth were as important as survival.

“All you care about is money,” says Leslie-Anne Down.

“All anyone cares about is money,” says Connery.

There’s a thesis to be written about the popularity of the heist movie in the swinging sixties — the genre slowly gathered steam from THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, THE KILLING and RIFIFI, but became almost ubiquitous in the flower power era, even though the unrestrained capitalist impulse would seem incompatible at first glance with free love and all that. Evidently it was VERY compatible. I guess you have the demise of the Hays Code, so “crime must not pay” goes out the window; you have a generation questioning authority; and law and order thrown into disrepute by a second prohibition, that of recreational drugs. And the hippies were not indifferent to money, just hostile to the rat race. And so now we have Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and the muppets.

Anyway, Oury’s THE BRAIN posits two rival gangs after the same target, the secret wealth of NATO. France had temporarily dropped out of NATO, it seems, so Belmondo, energetic and optimistic as ever, sees nothing wrong in pilfering from the remaining nations, and his dour compatriot Bourvil is persuaded to join him.

(If you want a triple-bill, the third entry should be Melville’s THE RED CIRCLE, with Bourvil as a cat-loving detective and yet another train heist, this time staged with Thunderbirds-style miniatures.)

Meanwhile Niven’s Brain is secretly the officer in charge of security and is planning to filch the sacks of cash himself. This being the sixties, he lives in an opulent mod apartment and keeps a pet leopard. He briefs his team with an animatic showing how the robbery will work. Fiona: “I love that he’s gone to the trouble of making an animated film!” Me: “It’s rotoscoped, so he’s gone to the trouble of shooting it all in live action and then animating on top of it!”

Complications, as they say, ensue: Sicilian money-launderer Eli Wallach wants a bigger cut, and his virginal young sister Silvia Monti wants Niven. This film is silly. There’s a lot of very broad slapstick. The train robbery is mostly covered via process shots, so Belmondo doesn’t perform many of the incredible Keatonesque/Jackie Chan stunts you can see in THE MAN FROM RIO, LES TRIBULATIONS D’UN CHINOIS EN CHINE, FEAR OVER THE CITY, LE CASSE, but it’s all very lavish and undemanding. The opening title sequence drops every sixties special effect on the cutting room floor and tramples them into a fine paste.

THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY stars James Bond; Klute; Dr. Eileen Flax; Master Shallow; Lord Hibbott – Wedding Two; Night Porter; Miss Moneypenny; Esther Waters; Drogue; Lady Felicity: The Palace; Professor Bernard Quatermass; and Mr. Sugden.

THE BRAIN stars Louis-Dominique Bourguignon alias Cartouche; Sir James Bond; Un drogué; Tuco Juan Maria Ramirez, known as The Rat; Miss Milbanke; Lord Henry Wotton; and Le Sergent Mac Fish.