Archive for Death in Venice

Forbidden Divas: “…And the Film is Pretty Long Too”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2018 by dcairns

A new piece by David Melville Wingrove is always a cause for celebration at the Shadowplayhouse. I perhaps am more to be credited/blamed for this one than usual, because it was I suggested Charles Vidor’s final filmmaking attempt as a suitable subject, having an inkling that the Dirk Bogarde/Capucine friendship would be of interest… But which one’s the diva?

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

…And the Film Is Pretty Long Too

“God will not fail you, madam. I shall.”

          ~ Dirk Bogarde, Song without End

 A lavish 1960 biopic of Franz Liszt, Song without End throws up a number of fascinating questions in its 2-hour-and-10-minute length. From how many different angles is it possible to photograph one man playing a piano? In the mob of expensively costumed extras at a concert, which one has the whitest and most immaculately pressed kid gloves? And whose job was it to ensure that the innumerable candles in those ever-blazing candelabra were all of precisely the same length? Critics may complain that Lisztomania – the 1975 Ken Russell film with Roger Daltrey playing Liszt as a rock star and a line of chorines high-kicking on the composer’s enormous plaster cock – was one long and unpardonable lapse of taste. But that film at least was never dull. Song without End, alas, is seldom anything else.

Surely it need not have been this way? Song without End was the last film directed by Charles Vidor, a well-upholstered Hollywood hack who made his name with A Song to Remember (1945) – a luxuriantly cheesy biopic of Frédéric Chopin with Cornel Wilde looking soulful while Merle Oberon (as his mistress George Sand) looked dashing in a man’s suit. Vidor went on to make Gilda (1946) – one of the definitive films noirs – and The Loves of Carmen (1948) – a vividly vulgar adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s tale of gypsy passion. (Both those films starred Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, as sure an antidote to dullness as Columbia Pictures could find.) Ironically, Chopin and George Sand appear briefly at the start of Song without End. But even they are boring in this movie. Vidor died some time before shooting was complete and the more prestigious George Cukor was drafted in to finish the job. Sadly, the lavish but lifeless staging suggests that rigor mortis set in while Vidor was still at work behind the camera.

Not that the film lacks other claims to distinction. Song without End marked not only the beginning, but also the end, of Dirk Bogarde’s career as a Hollywood leading man. He portrays Liszt as a lusty piano virtuoso who longs to be taken seriously as a composer in his own right. He also has inexplicable leanings towards the Roman Catholic Church. He toys with the idea of taking holy orders and declares himself to be “part gypsy, part priest.” In most respects, Bogarde’s performance is a tour de force of tortured genius and charismatic egomania. Embarking on a concert tour of Russia, Liszt is warned by his manager that even Napoleon Bonaparte failed to conquer that vast country. Liszt answers, with a self-confident smirk: “Napoleon couldn’t play the piano.” In addition, Bogarde is one of the few leading actors whose physique looks well in tightly-tailored breeches and wasp-waisted frock coats. In that frightfully genteel sub-genre known as ‘Dirk Bogarde Porn,’ Song without End must rank very highly indeed.

The drawback is that Dirk Bogarde never seems gayer than on those (understandably) rare occasions when he is cast as a voracious heterosexual. At the start of the film, the script comes right out and asks us to believe that Franz Liszt has fathered a brace of children in an adulterous affair with a married French noblewoman, the Countess Marie d’Agoult (Geneviève Page). The action is set in the 1840s and we do know that artificial insemination was not widely practiced until at least a century later. Hence we are left wondering if these children are, in fact, a delusion. Could that be why they never appear on camera? The career of Franz Liszt appears to have been a lifelong orgy of sex and celebrity, in which he seduced ever so many women. But the only other one we see here is a glamorous but unhappily married Russian princess, Carolyne Wittgenstein, with whom he forms an obsessive and well-nigh mystical liaison. She is played by another Hollywood debutante, the statuesque French model Capucine. A lady of distinctly androgynous beauty, she was rumoured at various points in her career to be a bisexual, a lesbian and a man.

Of her performance in Song without End, the kindest thing to be said is that she wears an array of Jean Louis gowns more than adequately. Nor does she embarrass herself or anybody else by overacting. Driven by an insurmountable passion, Princess Carolyne signs away half of Ukraine to her ghastly husband (Ivan Desny) all in an effort to secure a divorce and become Liszt’s lawfully wedded wife. She is very devout and hence plagued by doubts of a largely – although, perhaps, not entirely – religious nature. When she and the countess come face to face, Carolyne feels compelled to quiz her rival on the minutiae of her conjugal relations with the Great Man. “Did he drive you there?” she asks her rival. “To paradise?” The dialogue is atrocious but the subtext, even so, is clear enough. The countess gives a wry smile and says: “He doesn’t know the road.” Song without End must be the one Hollywood film in which two love-crazed women pass the time by impugning the hero’s sexual prowess. All this might matter a lot less if we did not suspect they were right.

Ironically, Bogarde and Capucine became close friends while filming Song without End. This suggests, at the very least, that they enjoyed working together far more than audiences enjoyed watching the result. Unlike many of the people around him, Capucine encouraged Bogarde to accept his pioneering role as an embattled gay lawyer in Victim (1961). He did his best to return the favour, trying to persuade Luchino Visconti to cast Capucine as the aristocratic mother in Death in Venice (1971). Prompted perhaps by his Italian backers, Visconti refused and cast Silvana Mangano instead. (Dirk and Cap, who thought her vulgar and plebeian, referred to her privately as ‘Madame Mango.’) Later on in the 70s, Bogarde retired to the South of France to write novels, while Capucine sank into chronic depression and full-scale career meltdown. In 1982, she made the soft-porn film Aphrodite in which she was the only actor not to remove her clothes. She committed suicide in Switzerland in 1990 and Bogarde wrote a touching tribute on her death.

On the plus side, Song without End is quite magnificently photographed by James Wong Howe. In one scene, a dark-robed Capucine kneels in prayer on the far right of the Cinemascope screen. She is racked by guilt at her adulterous affair and tormented by her love for Franz Liszt. In the background on the far left, Bogarde hovers just out of focus like some beautiful ghostly mirage. The shot is a triumph of colour, lighting, composition and sheer visual finesse. But beautiful photos of nothing are still…well, not very much at all. Even the music – which includes Chopin, Beethoven, Handel, Verdi and Wagner, as well as Liszt – winds up sounding bland and identical, as if it had all been written under pseudonyms by Max Steiner. The saddest thing is that Song without End is not even convincingly bad, apart from one scene where Liszt rashly makes a return to his native Hungarian village. A mob of torch-wielding peasants show up and dance a riotous czardas on the doorstep. They even drag his piano out of doors, so he can play along merrily with their roistering.

Moments like this are like some nightmare vision from the worst 1920s operetta ever written. They are, alas, too rare to make Song without End into the egregious camp classic it has the potential to become. Instead, they serve to remind us of just how boring the rest of it actually is.

David Melville

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Worst best or best worst?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on July 24, 2009 by dcairns

Death+in+Venice

An article in todays’ Guardian by Tim Lott seeks to question the quality of some of cinema’s sacred cows, dissing DEATH IN VENICE, JULES ET JIM, THE SEARCHERS, LA DOLCE VITA and SCHINDLER’S LIST, with secondary side-swipes at Kieslowski’s THREE COLOURS trilogy, SOLARIS, GREED (Lott appears to have seen a ten-hour cut of this, the lucky fellow), LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS, LA REGLE DE JEU, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and ON THE WATERFRONT.

Making the highly original point that one man’s meat is another man’s poison, Lott basically fails in a potentially interesting task, maybe because he hasn’t enough space to consider even one of these films in the space it deserves, but partly because he squanders the space with profligate cheap shots and non-points. Saying “DEATH IN VENICE’s beautiful cinematography doesn’t make it a great film” does not really address the many ways in which it could still be a great film, and nobody to my knowledge ever claimed it was a great film just because it was well photographed anyway. Straw man argument, how are you?

It all gets to be pretty much like Leslie Halliwell’s reviews — a guide to the personal prejudices of Tim Lott that’s perhaps quite useful to the friends and family of Tim Lott, but perhaps less so to Guardian readers. So films are dismissed as “campy” (the Visconti) or “melodramatic” (the Laughton) or “French” (Carne), as if that were enough to stop them being great. If we can’t have camp, melodrama or Frenchness, one suspects we’re on the way to a rather dreary list of alternative great films. And so we are.

Lott champions THE PAWNBROKER, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, KOYAANISQATSI (“one of the most original movies of the last thirty years”), SOUTH PACIFIC and THE RAPTURE. I’m with him on some of his other choices, but these aren’t films I’m in a hurry to see again. They’re not terrible, you understand, but I’m not sure there’s even much you can say about them.

It’s an amusing and well enough written piece, but not only does it not demonstrate that any of these films might not deserve their reputation, which would be pretty hard to do, it doesn’t really address why they do have their reputations. Part of the problem is I can agree with many of Lott’s criticisms, without feeling that they particularly matter in the case of the films he’s on about. In the comments section you can read everyone else getting in on the act, and very unedifying it is too — opinion really is the least interesting aspect of criticism, and sadly it’s come to dominate. Pieces like this foster the entirely false belief that simply saying “THE GODFATHER? Overrated,” counts as a statement worthy of anybody’s attention.

Mädchen in Uniform.

Posted in Comics, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2007 by dcairns

gemma-arterton

With the new ST TRINIANS movie due in British cinemas on the 21st, and an article on British writer-producer-directors Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat due from me immanently, I decided to watch three of the original films last night. Having seen the original BELLES OF ST TRINIANS a few years back, I decided to jump straight into the sequels, omitting only the last, WILDCATS OF ST TRINIANS, because it is a dreadful thing and anyway I don’t have a copy.

British comedy series are an odd lot, often functioning on inertia and raw acting talent rather than anything resembling good material, and yet they inspire tremendous warmth and attachment in the public here. Take the CARRY ON films — arguably three of them are consistently entertaining, out of a total of twenty-nine. Twenty-nine.

Twenty-nine films on the theme of sexual frustration, filled with closeted gay men, hefty spinsters, and sex-obsessed nitwits apparently suffering from what Schrader and Scorsese (who, presumably, know all about it) call D.S.B. (Deadly Sperm Back-up, where the unused sperm backs up to the brain and induces idiocy).

Then there are the lesser-known DOCTOR films, which made a star of Dirk Bogarde and thus prepared the way for DEATH IN VENICE and THE NIGHT PORTER, and managed to carry on for several entries even after their star had graduated to working with Basil Dearden and Joseph Losey. That’s a common trait of these series, they outlive their stars, their creators, their reasons for existing in the first place…

Such as the CONFESSIONS movies, inaugurated by British film legend Val Guest, who had been working since the thirties and earlier brought us the excellent Hammer cop thriller HELL IS A CITY. Here he took the saucy comedy format into the seventies, where suddenly you could actually SHOW full nudity and intercourse, so he did. He complained later that if these films had been subtitled they’d have been acclaimed as arthouse smashes… but aside from Verhoeven’s TURKISH DELIGHT I can’t think of any “art film” they resemble. Actually, CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER is like the Verhoeven movie with all the serious bits removed, and yet it still manages to be more ugly and depressing.

The fact that that film’s star, Robin Askwith, was cast in BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (and he’s very good in it) probably accounts for a decent percentage of the rotten reviews BH garnered on release: sheer guilt-by-association.

Uncontrollable hellions -- excuse my French.

Anyhow, back to our rampaging schoolgirls. The first St Trins film is based on the cartoons of Ronald Searle, which are in turn derived from stories Searle heard about the real St Trinnean’s, a “progressive” boarding school right here in Edinburgh where the girls were allowed to run wild as nature intended. (Hey, listen, another Edinburgh girls’ school inspired the source material of William Wyler’s THESE THREE and THE CHILDREN’S HOUR!)

Edinburgh connection 2: that superb eccentric actor Alastair Sim stars in the first film and cameos in the second, dragging up to play Miss Fitton, the dithering, corruptible headmistress, as well as her ne’er-do-well brother. Here we see the British love of drag combined with that fondness for multiple role-playing later developed in DR. STRANGELOVE and O LUCKY MAN!

 (Sim’s very  best work for Launder and Gilliat is in the marvellous GREEN FOR DANGER, available now from Criterion).

Sim declined to be confined to a film series, and so the later films import a succession of star comedians in a vain attempt to replace him. First into the breach is Terry-Thomas, who obviously I’m a fan of, and if BLUE MURDER AT ST TRINIANS used him more thoroughly, things might have gone better. But all the sequels seem to divide their energies and plotlines to damaging effect, and the rot sets in right here. Although hearing T-T say things like “That’s a bit adjacent, isn’t it?” is never less that a pleasure, there isn’t enough rigour in integrating him into a storyline that needs  him.

Stars from the first film are back, notably Joyce Grenfell, whose entrance in the first film had established her as a brilliant film comedian and a sympathetic presence. Curiously, Launder and Gilliat seem to have fixed on the idea of mistreating her character, goody-two-shoes Police Constable Ruby Gates, as their main approach to her character. In the first film the abuse all comes from the rampaging schoolkids, which makes sense, but her two sequels tend to separate her off into unproductive sidetracks.

Better use is made of George Cole, a younger actor mentored by Sim, who appears in four of the films as Flash Harry, an archetypal fifties “spiv” character (basically, a Cockney black marketeer, a sort of Teddy Boy version of Harry Lime) who for some reason became the series’ only essential figure (he’s back in the new version, portrayed by comedian and sex god Russell Brand). Cole is very zestful, firing off malapropisms at speed (‘I don’t want to appear inhospital,’ and ‘Greek Archie-pelly-logo’) but the best thing about the character is his theme tune, a pub piano leitmotif  which strikes up with mechanical regularity whenever Harry takes more than a couple of steps, like a proletarian James Bond theme. This, and the jaunty St Trinians theme itself, are the work of Sir Malcolm Arnold, best-known for arranging the Colonel Bogey March for BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

BLUE MURDER takes the girls to Rome, where the sixth form all aim to marry an Italian prince, and the filmmakers blagged permission to shoot in the Forum and Colisseum on the grounds that they were making a “cultural documentary”.

PURE HELL AT ST TRINIANS does not take place at the school at all, it having been arsoned to oblivion, and again transports the riotous kids abroad, with the sixth form abducted into a Sheikh’s harem. One of the very strange things about the series, and about British culture generally, is the mainstream media’s use of school uniforms as fetishwear, while our moral guardians shriek about pedophiles hiding in the shrubbery. The St Trinians films mine this imagery while serving up slapstick comedy for little kids — it’s quite disturbing, or almost.

This movie includes Cecil Parker as guest star, but for some reason he’s insufficiently larger-than-life to really hold it all together. He’s perfectly good, but to see him really shine it’s  better to check out his work in Gilliat’s THE CONSTANT HUSBAND, where he’s a sports-obsessed psychiatrist treating an amnesiac bigamist… The other strongest element in PURE HELL is Irene Handl, an adored character actor who can be seen to great effect in MORGAN and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Here she’s a teacher with a background in lunatic asylums. “Soon I may be the only one around here with a certificate proving my sanity!”

With THE GREAT ST TRINIANS TRAIN ROBBERY in 1966 the series shunted into Technicolor and adopted comic Frankie Howerd as a hairdresser-turned-trainrobber. It’s a very very colourful film indeed, which proves to be a Bad Thing, and Howerd is again underused. Really Howerd isn’t a team player: he mugs and scene-steals atrociously, but the best response to this is to encourage it, since he’s so good, yet Launder seems determined to integrate Howerd into an unpromising ensemble.

Howerd’s best film scenes are usually his big public speeches: he got a great one at the start of CARRY ON DOCTOR, but there’s nothing like that here, so he mainly entertains just by presenting his impossibly large, pendulous face to the camera and squinting evilly.

TRAIN ROBBERY features a few half-hearted nods to sixties fashions, music, crime, and film-making: the speeded-up chase sequence maybe owes something to Richard Lester, but as it’s conducted back and forth over the same hundred feet of track about fifty times, it doesn’t really generate any pace and the gags are unimaginative. There’s no Joyce Grenfell in this one and the series still neglects to develop any of the schoolgirls themselves as proper characters, which is odd, really.

But there was worse to come. Described by my screenwriting friend Colin McLaren as the “you-can-see-it-going-in, hard porn version”, WILDCATS OF ST TRINIANS ups the raunch factor enough to make it a queasy experience, although Colin does exaggerate the penetrative aspect considerably. But there’s a line in the sand, or should be, between the mild seaside postcard comedy of the first films and the naked schoolgirls served up in this travesty, which actually came out in 1980, after British smut had basically rolled over and died at the box office anyway. It’s the equivalent of CARRY ON EMMANUELLE, a depressing extension of a fundamentally innocent series into more explicit territory.

I need to wash that memory away with some good old-fashioned British toilet humour:

The great Dudley Sutton (who was in my first short film).

Original Ronald Searle St Trins girls.