Archive for Death of a Salesman

Up, skirt

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2018 by dcairns

Strange that THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH should be this famous thing, despite being one of the weaker Billy Wilder films of its era. (Arguably, all six Wilder films made between ACE IN THE HOLE and SOME LIKE IT HOT are minor work, but minor Wilder ain’t nothing, and some of them are favourites of mine, whatever their flaws.) He never co-wrote with George Axelrod again, and would later say the one-off collaborations were the ones that didn’t work. Axelrod said that the play was about a man who commits adultery and feels guilty about it, but censorship forbade the sex from actually occurring so the movie is about a man who DOESN’T commit adultery and feels guilty about it — a somewhat trivial complaint.Also, Wilder had wanted to cast Walter Matthau. Imagine THAT film. Tom Ewell is skilled, but he has a truly sinister smile and is never what you’d call pleasant to look at. Calling him “Tommy” in the Saul Bass titles doesn’t make him any more boyish. There’s a reason why Skelton Knaggs never played lead in a romantic comedy. (Matthau’s shall-we-say unconventional looks never seem to be a problem — except when he takes his shirt off — and he eventually acquired leading man status and became a fixture in Wilder’s films.)

The film’s balancing act begins at the beginning, with a history of Manhattan in which the voiceover man has to sound like a classic fifties narrator-dude but also break character with casual jokes. The uncredited voice artist isn’t quite up to the second task.The island of Manhattan, as viewed from a nearby hill.

Having packed wife Evelyn Keyes and space cadet son* off to cooler climes for the summer, Ewell starts fantasising, which is most of the film.

This is Wilder’s first ‘Scope production, in some ways a counterintuitive format for a movie consisting largely of a guy alone in his apartment. In New York, yet. A city that seems to invite the filmmaker to rotate the anamorphic lens 90º and make the vertical horizontal, like with a camera phone. (I think I’d seen this movie in every ratio except the right one, until now.) But it’s a Fox pic, so the frame shape was compulsory. And Wilder finds an interesting use for the width when mixing into flashback. The long slow dissolves, in which the foreground stays solid for ages as a new background bleeds through, must be influenced by CITIZEN KANE, but the 1949 stage debut of Death of a Salesman, with its lighting-change time-shifts, may have influenced Axelrod in the first place. (Hmm, I seem to recall another Arthur Miller connection here, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.) Preston Sturges said he wanted the fantasies in UNFAITHFULLY YOURS to look as if they were written and directed by the protagonist, who is neither a writer nor a director, Wilder’s treatment of Ewell’s nocturnal thoughts really takes this idea further. Ewell’s job, publishing sensational literature (a milieu already explored by Danny Kaye in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY), further inflects his lurid imaginings. Wilder frames stagily and Ewell aims his performance at the camera rather than his co-stars (who include the great Carolyn Jones as a passion-crazed nurse) and the effect is as much soap opera as it is pulp magazine. The spoof of FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (whose director, Fred Zinnemann, was a friend, fellow Austro-Hungarian, and former collaborator of Wilder’s) got the biggest laugh from Fiona, due to Ewell’s disabled sprint along the shore. It’s not the most sophisticated bit of comedy, but this isn’t exactly Wilder’s most sophisticated film.**

Just before meeting Marilyn’s “The Girl,” Ewell slips on his son’s roller-skate and spills raspberry soda all over his pants. (The second skate will slide, sharklike, silent and seemingly under its own will, to trip him again much later. No explanation offered for its cartoon self-propulsion: either the family home is poltergeistically punishing him for thoughts of infidelity, or it’s acting as psychic familiar for his son, junior member of the Anti-Sex League. Note how the lad used his space helmet to escape a fatherly kiss. No affection is allowed. The child’s role in marriage is to cockblock the parent, right?) Seconds later, speaking to Marilyn, Ewell is dry of trouser. I guess the detail of the soda spatter was impossible to reproduce, though the appeal of Ewell grinning after the leading lady with a sodden crotch strikes me as a detail worth pursuing.Monroe is so artificial a performer when she’s doing her thing (the carefully arranged grin, lips pulled tight to hide gums), that it’s hard to assess her performance, especially when playing such an obvious fantasy figure. It IS nice to see her playing Chopsticks, though, with a different kind of smile, one we aren’t used to seeing on her, one that seems real. Or at least unfamiliar. It’s the shape her face makes when she smiles, sings “pop-pop-pop” along with Chopsticks, and keeps her gums hidden. It’s a good face. I guess the scene’s other purpose is to make her tits jiggle. Trevilla’s costume designs emphasise the natural squishiness of body fat and avoid bullet-bra rigidity.

“What IS this relationship?” asked Fiona as the film ends. What has the film shown us, in fact? Ewell enjoys (and is tormented by) a flirtatious friendship, and this is somehow going to reinvigorate his marriage, though it’s not quite clear how. His wife is unaware of everything that happens, and isn’t aware of any marital problem either. The problem The Girl diagnoses is that his wife trusts him: not the worst problem to have.There’s also a half-hearted attempt to make something out of The Sonny Tufts Subplot, with Ewell becoming jealous about his wife (obviously a feat of projected guilt) and the aforementioned Tufts, whom he will eventually slug. Since Tufts is blameless in reality, this bit of gratuitous violence seems to stem solely from Wilder’s assessment that Tufts is the kind of guy we would like to see punched, an assessment I cannot honestly fault. There’s a fine German word, Backpfeifengesicht, for Sonny Tufts’ face.There’s also a very weird, broad, Neanderthal performance from one Robert Strauss, who inexplicably doesn’t get punched. I guess we could say he has the Cliff Osmond role. And a VERY funny perf by Oscar Homolka as Dr, Brubaker, psychologist, who proves himself a fine conduit for the Wilder style. As we’re told Wilder dictated every pause and gesture, I assume he also gave indications of timing/delivery, or maybe it’s just his writing that offers to the sensitive actor a suggestion of what to stress and what to throw away. At any rate, Homolka proves himself the funniest headshrink in Wilder’s long parade of nerve specialists (certainly more amusing than Martin Gabel or Klaus Kinski).The removal of the act, or even the suggestion of the act, of consummation, does more than turn the movie into merely an exploration of male fantasy (something it would need to employ Dr. Brubaker fulltime in order to get to the bottom of). It sadly turns it into a disconnected bag of bits, blackout sketches without a real final punchline. Some very funny bits, some stylish filmmaking, and a strong sense of the specific weirdness of its time and place. All accidentally elevated to classic status by a scene where a skirt blows up, and the girl enjoys the sensation.**** See also Fred MacMurray’s moon-mission aspirant offspring in THE APARTMENT. Admirable efficiency of American society: as soon as they got a space program, they started giving birth to would-be astronauts.

** Wilder has the fantasy female in this segment declare “from here to ETERNITY!” to make sure we get it, but also to make a joke out of the making sure. Later he has Ewell mention the famous actress Marilyn Monroe — evidently she was already too iconic to be wholly enveloped in the story as a fictional presence. The most amusing in-joke, however, is the reference to one “Charlie Lederer” — the name of a fellow screenwriter irl — going crazy last summer and getting tattooed.

***Was the scene perceived as a triumph of eroticism because it shows us legs, and shame-free exposure, or because it makes us FEEL the sensation of cool air on bare skin?

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Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2014 by dcairns

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Thanks to David Wingrove for recommending PAYMENT ON DEMAND (1951) — I think we were discussing theatrical tropes in film and he mentioned this Curtis Bernhardt flick — co-written by Bernhardt himself, unusually enough. Bette Davis plays a tyrannical homemaker whose husband leaves her, prompting a reassessment of their lives via flashback — the really interesting part of the film. There’s a good bit afterwards where Davis ruins hubby in the divorce settlement, and then a rather unconvincing bit where she has to redeem herself, which is a depressing thing for Bette to have to do. With the new look dresses comes a new conformity. In the old days she would have fallen under a train or something, but at least her vivacious malevolence would be undimmed until the final fade-out.

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Bernhardt’s framing and cutting are sharply expressive. In the best scenes, every shot brims with tension, and clashes boldly with its predecessor and postdecessor (well that ought to be a word).

But those flashbacks are remarkable. Here’s how Bernhardt gets us into the first, which shows the young Bette (“Not too close!”) plotting elopement with future hubby (Barry Sullivan).

Present tense: Bette was all dressed up to go to a party, but since it turns out her husband is leaving her, she begs off. Sitting at the dressing table, she removes her jewelry and grows wistful. A soft focus effect fades in, blurring her surroundings in luminous mist. I think how you do this is an in-camera effect — there’s gauze — possibly a bit of silk stocking with a hole in — over the lens, but it doesn’t show up until the light hits it. So it’s a Death of a Salesman type lighting change effect, and not the last.

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Then, rather than do a straight dissolve, Bernhardt mixes through ever so slowly, keeping Bette’s head and shoulders solid as her environment melts away and is replaced by the past. This is either a complex optical involving a circular wipe to remove Bette’s background, or it’s simply a lap dissolve over a shot in which Bette’s surroundings have been faded down on a dimmer, a spotlight keeping her face illuminated so that it cuts through the dissolve and remains dominant (the CITIZEN KANE approach). I suspect it’s optical, and a bit of an afterthought, since ideally you’d have Bette’s bedroom, around her head, disappear much earlier, and this would be perfectly easy to do with faders on the set.

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But wait! This is where it gets really interesting, and beyond anything anyone else was doing at the time. As Bette’s pensive visage disappears, we find ourselves looking at a peculiar inside-outside environment. A barn interior with a silhouetted buggy. Behind it, a farmhouse seen from outside. As Bernhardt slowly dollies in towards “teenage” Bette (“Not too close!”) and “teenage” Sullivan proposes that, since it must be the 30s, they should run a way on a freight train and she should disguise herself as a boy (he’s very keen on this part) like in WILD BOYS OF THE ROAD (Plan B: she can say she’s his sister, like DAYS OF HEAVEN), something very strange happens.

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An openly theatrical lighting change causes Bette and Barry to emerge from the shadows (“Not too clearly!”) while a wall fades in to obscure the farmhouse. We’re now in an enclosed set. The farmhouse was only visible due to the kind of X-ray vision that Bette Davis has in her memories, apparently. This means that during the Old Hollywood scenes in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, Bette’s character can see everyone naked. Bear that in mind next time you watch it.

Since the camera is in motion, we know this isn’t a dissolve (since motion control hadn’t been invented yet, though Howard Hawks rigged up something similar for the fake 360° pan in RED RIVER — a motorized pan — and on careful examination we can see faint traces of the planks of the barn wall visible over the farm exterior. So that whole wall is painted on translucent gauze, and becomes opaque in as the lighting changes. A technique unseen until Coppola revived it for ONE FROM THE HEART, unless I’m forgetting something.

At the end of the scene, Bette’s mother starts calling from the house, an echoing offscreen spoil-sport like the mothers in PSYCHO and KING OF COMEDY, and Bernhardt renders the barn see-through again to visualise her — a great black building with staring bright windows. Bette is a tiny outline in the foreground. Then we dissolve back to New Look Bette in 1951.

And this is just No. 1 in a cluster of flashbacks, all of which contain some similar trick — lighting changes that melt walls away, impossible inside-and-outside perspectives, theatrical as hell but inhabiting that strange space where the theatrical becomes the cinematic. OUR TOWN (1940) is the only earlier example that comes to mind, though RED GARTERS is a weird parallel from three years later. I do suspect Death of a Salesman, staged in ’49, is the key influence. I also suspect that Bernhardt got a little carried away with the opportunities for this technique and rushed ahead before he’d worked out his story properly. I’m not even convinced the flashbacks happen in the right place. But they’re magnificent.

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These two totally different frames are actually from the same angle, with only a slight pull-back. Bette’s beau and her partner are revealed digging roads since their law practice hasn’t taken off yet. They enter what seemed to be a shadowy diner and it lights up and becomes a kind of site office, the back wall materializing at the same time to close it off for a more naturalistic scene which plays out in a single shot, returning to the astral-ghost perspective at the end.

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Panels of miniature hillside — the little one on the right is a mirror. Crossfade lighting so that night falls outside and the bedroom appears, Bette hoisting her offspring.

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The baby is crying, I think, because she’s the only one who’s noticed they live in a square tent made of translucent gauze where the lights keep dimming up and down.