Archive for David Niven

Dordogne Among the Dead Men

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2021 by dcairns

More J. Lee Thompson — EYE OF THE DEVIL was originally to be called DAY OF THE ARROW and then THIRTEEN, which would seem to have jinxed it. They started shooting on September 13th, also.

Sid Furie was originally slated to direct, and a few distinctive “Sid Furie shots” appear, but these seem to have been shot by Thompson and the resemblance is a matter of fashion. Not many directors shoot down through lampshades, it must be said. Within a year or two directors got all self-conscious about this kind of self-consciousness. The minute they found themselves crouching behind a potted fern, viewfinder nosing through the leaves, they would say to themselves, Oh God no, not a Sid Furie shot!

After Furie, Michael Anderson was attached, but got ill early in the shoot. Or did he? There are a number of questions hanging over this one. Did he fall or was he pushed?

So it became a Thompson film, starring Kim Novak, and then two weeks before the end of filming, Novak was out. The official story was that she’d injured her back in a fall, but everyone stressed the fact that she’d be fine, but she couldn’t work for a few months and so the film would have to be restarted with a replacement.

But David Hemmings, who makes an early appearance, indiscreetly reveals in his very readable memoir that Novak departed after rowing with producer Martin Ransohoff at a press conference. Hemmings reports that he can no longer recall what Ransohoff said to offend Novak, nor if she was justified in her outrage, but he had an indelible memory of Novak stubbing her cigarette into his one good eye…

Nothing that horrifying happens in the film, which is nominally a scary movie…

Anyway, that’s Novak out, but co-star David Niven comes to the rescue, roping in Deborah Kerr, making the film a kind of Powell & Pressburger affair since Flora Robson also appears.

It’s a kind of WICKER MAN/ROSEMARY’S BABY plot, but much less gripping and more guessable than either, and the horror at its heart is strangely uninteresting. But the film itself is sort of fascinating.

Thompson is treating it as an exercise du style, pulling in a lot of nouvelle vague influence — the opening blur of flashforwards, which has no real reason to exist, is certainly modernist and flashy — then MARIENBAD seems to be the order of the day. Thompson tracks incessantly and cuts before his movements finish, which pre-Resnais was considered filmically ungrammatical, though obviously this was always false (exceptions existed for cutting from a shot tracking with a character, to their POV, for instance, as seen so often in Hitchcock).

The direct cutting approach, unfortunately, lops all the tension out of the film. No sooner has the thought of a character going somewhere scary been planted, than we cut to them arriving, or already there. And yet MARIENBAD itself is quite a spooky film. Maybe because it combines sudden jumps in time (which promote nervousness) with funereal creep. This movie’s had all the creep excised.

It has Donald Pleasence doing his whispery bit, but the eeriest presences in it are Hemmings and Sharon Tate, as a twisted brother and sister. One’s first response to Tate is that she’s surely dubbed. Publicity at the time suggested she took lots of voice lessons to acquire a posh English accent and a deeper voice — but, as we know, the publicity people on this film were not always completely truthful.

In a way, it doesn’t much matter if Tate’s using her own voice — certainly there’s a lot of (pretty good) post-synching going on — the combination of the plummy purr and her striking beauty and stillness is quite uncanny. A slight feeling that her voice isn’t coming from her body but from somewhere beyond adds to the character’s sinister presence/absence.

Critics complained about her immobile face, evidence that the weekly film reviewer’s job is to notice anything fresh or interesting an actor does, and then condemn it. They trashed Anjelica Huston on first sight also.

This vertiginous sequence, part of the evil games Tate’s character indulges in, is genuinely alarming, partly because real child endangerment seems to be occurring. Sure, the shots are framed so that someone can always be hanging onto the kid, and ropes and harnesses may be involved, but it still seems dodgy.

Elsewhere, Niven gets some terrific stuff acting hypnotized — a mode of Niv we’ve never seen before. And there’s a relatively early example of a downbeat ending — not only does evil triumph, but it’s going to carry on perpetuating itself and triumphing down the generations. If the film had come out when it was new it would have perhaps had more impact, but it seems to have crept out incrementally over the course of about three years.

I’d love to see the outtakes — Michael Anderson’s stuff, Kim Novak’s. And I wonder if the MARIENBAD approach was established by Furie at the planning stage (it seems like something he might come up with) or Anderson (if Thompson were taking over early in the shoot it seems he’d want to match what had been filmed) or Thompson, who certainly went to town with it. “He’s given this film everything,” attested Niven.

EYE OF THE DEVIL stars Sister Clodagh; Sir Charles Lytton; Ernst Stavro Blofeld; Devon Miles; Queen Elizabeth I; Caligula; Sarah Shagal; Dildano; Sgt. Wilson; Lady of Lyonesse; Tsarevitch Alexei; Bunny Lake; and Vivian Darkbloom.

Forbidden Divas: The White Orchid Type

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2020 by dcairns
David Melville Wingrove is back, with the perfect Forbidden Diva for this historical moment --


FORBIDDEN DIVAS

THE WHITE ORCHID TYPE

“I can’t face an unknown future with an un-powdered nose.”

– Barbara Stanwyck, The Other Love

What do you write about at a time when life as we choose to call it has been forcibly put on hold? Most of us today are made to live in our own private cells of suspended animation – in a void, an absence, a dream space. We are forced to be and not to do, to feel and not to act. We are in a glass room that lacks the usual walls or ceiling or floor. A smooth and unvarying expanse of crystal on all sides, it is fully transparent yet wholly impossible to break. Through it we can see and hear and speak, but we cannot touch. Can any film approximate a life that none of us have ever lived before? How do you make a film about the act of waiting? How do you deny motion when all a motion picture camera ever wants to do is to move?

Barbara Stanwyck at the start of The Other Love (1947) is forced – against all her instincts and all her will – to call a halt to her life. Here she is not the tough-talking dame of her other movies, the “high-ridin’ woman with a whip” who terrorises the Wild West with Forty Guns (1957), the gal so butch she makes John Wayne look like Liberace or Paul Lynde. Here she is an avatar of suffering nobility, who might be incarnated – in your average film of the 40s – by Greer Garson or Loretta Young. She is a lady concert pianist, glamorous and successful yet at the same time incurably lonely. She has no choice but to put her career on pause when she falls fatally ill with TB. She checks into a plush sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, the sort that looks more like a luxury hotel with a few X-ray machines stashed away in one room.

It seems a mystical, almost otherworldly realm. Snow-capped mountains dream away in the distance, while long white muslin curtains waft gently back and forth in the alpine breeze. (One sure test of the skill of a director is the way he handles curtains; the Hungarian émigré Andre de Toth passes this test with a splendour few others have ever matched.) She is taken immediately with her handsome doctor (David Niven) who tells her that all activity will henceforth be forbidden. Her one goal must be to rest, relax and recuperate. “You must try and think of yourself as being in a deep sleep,” he tells her. “Before you know it, the darkness will be gone.” He even forbids her to play the piano. Her response to all this is remarkably docile. She places herself, with serene resignation, in his hands and in the hands of Fate. It is largely a question of which one chooses to grab her first.

On her first night at the clinic, she finds a spray of fresh white orchids has been delivered to her room. She assumes they must come from the doctor. She has had a glance around the dining room and concluded that none of her fellow patients is “the white orchid type.” Then she finds out these orchids are a standing order – from a man who ‘left’ the sanatorium six months ago to a woman who ‘left’ it only last night. She realises she is in receipt of flowers sent by a dead man to a dead woman. It is a concept so morbid it smacks of outright necrophilia. The music by Miklos Rozsa goes into a lyrical frenzy surpassing even his Oscar-winning score for Spellbound (1945). She throws herself ever deeper – metaphorically speaking – into the arms of her doctor. Ah, but all may not be quite as it appears…

On her arrival, the doctor forbids her to smoke and takes her cigarette lighter – monogrammed with her initials KD for Karen Duncan – away for safe keeping. (We may be glad it is not engraved with Barbara Stanwyck’s own initials, BS.) One day she breaks into his private sanctum, opens a drawer and finds a whole trove of cigarette lighters that were left behind by previous (and deceased) lady patients. She starts to suspect, as we do, that her doctor’s methods are a fairly serious violation of the Hippocratic Oath. Is he in the habit of fucking his patients until they get better? Or – and this sounds a lot more likely – of fucking his patients until they die? This story, which is allegedly by Erich Maria Remarque, is coming more and more to resemble The Magic Mountain as rewritten by Mills & Boon.

Hell, of course, hath no fury that is quite like Barbara Stanwyck scorned. No matter if she is at death’s door. She takes up with a dashing racing-car driver (Richard Conte) who just happens to be driving round that particular mountain. In defiance of the best medical advice, he whisks her off to Monte Carlo. She sits up late at the gaming tables, where a sexy croupier (Gilbert Roland) gives her smouldering glances over a big stack of chips. She even gets to attend a party on board a yacht thrown by Natalie Shafer, famous to viewers of a certain age as the fruity and snooty Mrs Howell on the 60s TV sitcom Gilligan’s Island. A life-threatening illness seems a small price to pay for such an honour. But this jet-set debauchery swiftly goes pear-shaped. Babs ends up in the most perilous situation a consumptive heroine can face – wandering about Monte Carlo in the rain, clad in white mink and chiffon and minus an umbrella!

Speaking of outfits, the wardrobe that Edith Head designed for The Other Love must surely have been le dernier cri in tubercular chic. Most memorable is a long white Grecian shift with a black diamante sunburst at the waist, which our heroine wears to dine at the sanatorium. (Yes, this is the sort of hospital where the patients dress for dinner.) Memorable too, and for all the wrong reasons, is a truly hideous spangled sweater with Christmas trees and reindeer crawling across it. Like any great star, Barbara Stanwyck is impervious to embarrassment – but this looks like something a butch lady detective in a Scandi crime drama might wear in a festive mood. The star would not play an overt lesbian role until A Walk on the Wild Side (1962) but there she had Capucine as motivation.

It becomes apparent all too soon how this ill-starred flirtation with ‘normal’ life can lead only to doom. The one hope is to go back to that mountain-top clinic, submit to the ministrations of the doctor and do her best to wait this illness out. To seal herself away from life until the world, by an unimagined miracle, comes right again. Barbara Stanwyck does what all of us are constrained to do at this time. (Please note sparkly sweaters are optional and, also, they will not necessarily help.) Will she find her true happiness up there on that mountain? The Other Love is a movie; hence it is several shades more optimistic than the TV news. All we know is that strangely serene white realm – those vast stretches of crystal air, where everything is visible and nothing can ever be touched – is where she needs to be at that moment.

David Melville

Home Service

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2017 by dcairns

Huge gratitude to Talking Pictures TV for screening ENCHANTMENT (1948), which I don’t think I’d ever heard of, directed by Irving Reis, who was merely a name to me. It’s been a while since I discovered a 40s Hollywood film that was a revelation to me.

It’s based on a Rumer Godden novel — one might think her an extraordinarily fortunate author in her adaptations, except I don’t think she liked any of them, certainly not BLACK NARCISSUS, which maybe affirms some part of the auteur theory by transmogrifying wholly into a Powell & Pressburger joint. Though it’s certainly possible to like both book and film. But Rumer didn’t, is my point.

It’s also a Goldwyn production, and stuffed full of his favourite talent — not Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo, you understand, but David Niven (DODSWORTH, WUTHERING HEIGHTS), Teresa Wright (THE LITTLE FOXES, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES) and Leo g. Carroll (WUTHERING HEIGHTS again), the whole being shot by Gregg Toland (most of the above). It’s basically a William Wyler movie without Wyler, which might be useful in assessing his contribution to the films he made for Goldwyn, except I’d rather just rave about this one.

Oh, and the cast also includes Evelyn Keyes, who is delightful, and Farley Granger, almost equally so only in a moustache. I’m not always anti-whiskers — David Niven doesn’t seem complete without his lip-caterpillar, for instance, but the more hair you put on Farley’s face, the less of Farley’s face you see, and that has to be counted as a loss.

For some reason the Blitz seems a time of romance, which is crazy — bombs falling from the sky onto human habitations are not romantic — but there it is. I’ve been reading Connie Willis, who suffers from the same inappropriate yearning for tumbling ordinance. This movie is framed by the war, but glides from thence into flashbacks going back to Victorian times.

Niven is barely recognizable (save for that lightbulb cranium) in the contemporary sections, wrapped in a rather convincing make-up and giving a thoroughly convincing performance of old age. His voice is completely unrecognizable, save for a few moments when his distinctive way with a line creeps through.

     

The leaping about in time is accomplished with a lot of adventuresome skill, some of which may be accredited to Toland, who after all had CITIZEN KANE to his credit. And so we get temporal shifts delivered with lighting changes (before Death of a Salesman) , and one extraordinary bit where the camera pans out of flashback into present tense in a single unbroken shot, the kind of thing very rarely seen in the forties — THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP is the best-known example. And a lovely moment where we a scene fades out except for a character’s hand, which lingers momentarily like the Cheshire Cat’s grin or the blind hermit’s cross in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, then dissolves to another image of a hand, and irises out in a new scene. That trick turns up in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, but practically nowhere else in screen history.

Evocative effects-work for the Blitz scenes.

Also, for fans of eccentric forties storytelling (David Bordwell), it’s narrated by a house. That would have been enough to make me love it, but there’s so much more.

What other Reis ought I to see? I’ll be all over THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBYSOXER, of course, but are there other gems?