Archive for Denholm Elliott

Ash to Ashes

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2016 by dcairns

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One of the best things about the BBC’s old Ghost Stories for Christmas is how they don’t all fit a pattern. MR James was the default choice, but The Signalman, from a Charles Dickens story, is one of the best. That one has a couple of beautiful eerie images but depends largely for effect upon Denholm Elliott’s magnificent performance of Dickens’ largely unedited dialogue. The finest James adaptation, on the other hand, Whistle and I’ll Come To You, by Jonathan Miller, almost dispenses with coherent dialogue entirely, in favour of vague mutterings by Michael Hordern which run under nearly every scene.

I was inspired to visit The Ash Tree when my friend Danny Carr commented on how unexpectedly Roegian it was. And this is true — in converting yet another James story to the screen, the series’ regular director, Lawrence Gordon Clark hewed closely to the text, necessitating some unconventional cinematic language — overlaid dialogue from unseen peasants, flashbacks, dreams, quite a bit of narrative fragmentation.

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Adding interest is the fact that the piece is set in a distant time period — two, in fact, and that it hinges upon witchcraft rather than ghosts. Plus the torture, nudity (only Leslie Megahey’s explicitly necrophile Schalken the Painter tops it) and the rather Cronenbergian monsters make it quite unlike anything else in the series. Plus it features Lalla Ward, which places it somewhere between VAMPIRE CIRCUS and Doctor Who, which seems about right — supernatural vengeance against sadistic puritans on the one hand, puppetshow monsters on the other. The elfin Lalla’s career was so unrelentingly psychotronic — no wonder she ran for comfort into the rational arms of Professor Richard Dawkins.

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I gazed a gazely stare

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2015 by dcairns

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The main reason to do Seventies Sci-Fi Week was probably as an excuse to re-watch THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. I see DON’T LOOK NOW semi-regularly as it’s a good one to show students. A friend once described it as the Nicolas Roeg film for people who don’t like Nicolas Roeg films, but that’s doing it a disservice.

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SORDID DETAILS FOLLOWING

Now, I’m sure I’d seen TMWFTE in its correct ratio, but it must have been a TV airing or something, because it was definitely cut. I was shocked — shocked! — this time, to find myself gazing upon Rip Torn’s penis, which I’m sure couldn’t have slipped my memory. Jeez — just using the words “Rip Torn” and “penis” in a sentence feels supremely uncomfortable, like I might have to walk in a shuffling crouch for the rest of the day. I don’t recall the camera gazing so earnestly or so long at Candy Clark’s pubic thatch, either. It occupies so much screen space it’s like gazing upon flock wallpaper.

Roeg really was very, very interested in sex, wasn’t he? I recall some producer saying he traded dates with Roeg when he was dating Clark — I have to wonder, though it’s none of my business and of no importance to anything, whether Roeg was a swinger. It would make a kind of sense of all those sex scenes with Theresa Russell, who was his wife of the time, and the story told by Roeg’s producer that he was dating Candy Clark when he met Roeg and they “swapped dates,”

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SMILING AND WAVING AND LOOKING SO FINE

But nothing can explain the mystery of what Roeg’s camera does to women, somehow preserving them without amber. Consider: Agutter looks lovely, Clark is impossibly well-preserved, Julie Christie is still a goddess, and Russell has basically not aged at all. Since Roeg’s films explore and mess with time, I’m wondering if he imparts some stasis field or biological slomo to his stars, retarding the ageing process almost indefinitely?

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WHEN IT’S BAD I GO TO PIECES

Thomas Jerome Newton is a perfect name. The first two set up a nice air of Englishness and a smokescreen for the third, which is a very pointed reference to the idea of things falling to Earth. It’s also a very euphonious name.

I read Walter Tevis’ source novel years ago, and really liked it. In some ways, better than the film, because I liked how logical it was. Paul Mayersberg’s script throws in conspirators and possible other aliens from other planets than Bowie/Newton’s. Where the humans in the book refuse to believe Newton is an alien — no matter how different his internal organs, it will always be easier for them to regard him as a freak of nature than as an extraterrestrial. The film’s hints of other aliens kind of muddies this idea. In the book, the humans insist on X-raying TJN’s eyes, despite his pleas that he can see X-rays and will be blinded. They blind him. In the film, the X-rays cause his human-alike contact lenses to become stuck to his eyes. It’s an interesting idea — he loses his identity, his specialness, the starman is reduced to being one of us. My problem with it is it makes no sense, is childish as a plot device.

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HOLLYWOOD HIGHS

Quibbles aside — Bowie is magnificently cast, as,  are Buck Henry and Rip Torn and Clark. The old-age makeup bothered me a bit — but it does make this a neat double bill with THE HUNGER, where Bowie ages until his head is a great big wad of Dick Smith rubber wrinkles. In TMWFTE, Bowie stays the same and everyone else ages, Clark eventually puffballing up into something like the Woman Behind the Radiator in ERASERHEAD. Booze will do that to you.

Slightly regret the over-familiar NASA stock shots, but then The Six Million Dollar Man hadn’t happened yet so maybe it seemed like a good idea. But then Bowie/Newton’s first glimpses of Earth — a billowing inflatable clown head, an incoherent, aggressive drunk, are amazing and really do let you see your world through alien eyes, or the eyes of a little child.

Some of Roeg’s music choices are a bit literal — excerpts from Holst’s The Planets Suite, Hello Mary Lou — but all that trippy xylophonic wooziness is amazing. Much better to be led by mood than by a rigid idea when it comes to the tunes, I think.

Bowie said it was hard work keeping his face impassive, and Clark, interviewed recently in the BBC’s marvelous Five Years doc on Bowie’s creative heyday, protested that he was always emoting and she got a lot out of his performance. I think he must have been talking about his scenes in alien makeup, when he’s utterly deadpan. The rest of the time, his features are an elastic dance of pout and pucker, micro-frowns and mini-gogglings playing over his visage like ripples on a choppy pond, so one can well see why holding this shimmer of emotion in check would have been difficult. It feels like he’s just responding naturally to everything, like the interplanetary visitor he is, without any interference from his director at all. “Don’t fuck with a natural,” was Nick Ray’s advice, and Roeg takes it.

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AND SHE’S HOOKED TO THE SILVER SCREEN

What are all the movies TJN watches on his multiple TVs? There seems to be a Stacy Keach psychodrama, and I’m guessing it may be the neglected END OF THE ROAD (Roeg would enjoy the editing in that one — director Aram Avakian was formerly Coppola’s cutter). At one point, I think he’s watching TWO Denholm Elliott movies at once (bliss!), THE SOUND BARRIER and Lewis Milestone’s THEY WHO DARE. As if summoned by occult invocation, Elliott would duly turn up in person for BAD TIMING.

Many movies have central metaphors for their main theme — TMWFTE has a metaphor for its director’s style. As Mick Jones of The Clash and Big Audio Dynamite put it, watching a Roeg film is like watching twenty televisions at once. It’s not the speed of the cutting, which is only sometimes rapid, it’s the boldness of the juxtapositions — visual and aural.

Martin Scorsese used to like putting on different movies in different rooms of his house and wandering from one to the other (we see Jerry Lewis doing the same in KING OF COMEDY). Channel hopping can throw out great bits of cinematic fold-in technique. I used to like putting on Bowie tracks and channel hopping with the sound down — chances are, the images would start hooking up with the lyrics and the rhythm. I recommend it. Turn the colour off and make everything look like an art movie — works very well for Animal Planet.

Gin is optional.

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Air Hordern

Posted in FILM, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 18, 2015 by dcairns

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Michael Hordern gave the wing commander a very hard stare indeed.

After enjoying Leslie Norman’s work on X: THE UNKNOWN, we popped THE NIGHT MY NUMBER CAME UP into the Panasonic and let her fly. I guess Norman is one of the missing links between Ealing and Hammer, but he never caught on at Hammer (he was fired from the staggering LOST CONTINENT), unlike Seth Holt whose taste for sensation made him arguably a better fit there than he had been as a producer at Ealing (where he had produced THE LADYKILLERS, an atypically subversive work).

But, excitingly, TNMNCU *does* have supernatural elements, though they are not of a suitably sensational quality to satisfy the House of Gore. The place: Hong Kong. Michael Hordern has a strange dream, which he tells to Denholm Elliott, who blabs it to a group of associates at a party. The dream involves a flight crashing on the Japanese coast. And the next day, all the circumstances of that dream begin to come true. Elliot, a heroic airman who cracked up after the Battle of Britain, is on the flight, as is his boss Alexander Knox, who has never flown before, and Michael Redgrave and Sheila Sim and various others. The exact makeup of the party changes at the last minute and comes to exactly resemble the dream. Then the radio breaks down, just like in the dream. The plane is lost in thick cloud… fuel is running low…

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The elaborate model shots are recognisable as just that, but they’re very impressive all the same.

The screenplay is by R.C. Sherriff, a James Whale associate who wrote JOURNEY’S END and worked on all the famous Whale horror films after FRANKENSTEIN. This manifests not so much in the uncanny element, as in the extreme Britishness and the unexpected dashes of humour — the ending, in particular, is a delight, a left-field gag like the abrupt laugh that finishes Hitchcock’s second MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Hordern delivers it with supreme aplomb.

Until then, it’s a slow simmer of suspense. It’s not as if that much is going wrong with the flight for most of the movie — it’s just the creeping dread as reality takes on more and more of the qualities of that damned (prophetic?) dream. An abstract kind of fear with a very concrete smash-up waiting at the end of it.

The film also deserves credit for its unusual structure: we begin after the crash, with search parties scouring Japan in search of wreckage, but then Hordern turns up and says they’re looking in the wrong place altogether. Refusing to say how he knows, he simply says that he knows. Being Michael Hordern, he’s very convincing, and the search may be diverted…

Then we go into flashback to the dinner party before the flight, and Hordern is prompted to tell his dream. Then we get a flashback within a flashback showing a dream sequence. Possibly a first for British cinema.

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And then we get to enjoy Knox’ tight, nervous grin, Redgrave’s slowly accentuated voice-quaver, Elliott’s glassy-eyed sense of subdued panic… The whole movie is a single sizzling slow fuse, ably illustrating Polanski’s dictum that “anxiety has no upper limit,” while the passengers delight their author by passing the time in feverish meditations upon free will and predestination. A philosophical disaster movie.