Archive for Detour

Papier Machebeth

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2022 by dcairns

Continuing our MACBETH investigations, we turn to the Welles, which Polanski, a great Welles fan, felt it was safe to disregard completely. A minor work. Well, yes, but even minor Welles shouldn’t be disregarded.

Incredible that this was shot in three weeks, first of all. Whether you think it works at all is one thing, but the achievement is something else. There are films that work brilliantly with a strictly-from-poverty aesthetic, like Ulmer’s DETOUR, where all the creative decisions are also economical ones, but they’re STRONG decisions. MACBETH isn’t like that: though the monotextured sets — everything seems to be made of still-damp papier mache, and the truly unwearable costumes, speak eloquently of a bottom line that’s bottomed out, the mise en scene and range and number of set-ups have nothing to do with low-budget cinema, and would compare favourably with many an A picture.

IMDb credits art director Fred A. Ritter and Welles himself with those costumes. Ritter never ran that department on any other film, according to the same source. So it was Welles’ own choice to spend much of the film with a tiny occasional table turned upside down and crammed onto his skull. It probably looked OK as a drawing. It’s a huge relief when he trades it for the BDSM Lady Liberty tiara. Fiona thought the baubles on his jerkin (right) made him look like a Dalek. The feeling is FLASH GORDON movie serial, a feeling augmented at times by sets and costumes and playing. Like they designed a few things, badly, and then grabbed everything in stock that was vaguely relatable to the subject — Genghis Khan flicks, caveman movies, Viking epics, and some anachronistic bits of plaid — Duncan wears a big picnic blanket, Macbeth has a tartan scarf draped over his head like a shawl.

The sets are cheaply constructed but are still impressive — how did they achieve THIS on a micro-budget? There’s an argument that you could get away with a lot less in the way of set design — black voids and smoke and boulders have been pressed into service before — but you can’t get away with ridiculous clothes, because they’re ON the actors, who are the thing we’re always meant to be looking at.

Welles’ decision to pre-record all the dialogue and lipsynch to it, as if in a musical, seems kind of crazy, but it apparently achieved its goal of allowing more set-ups to be shot: the extra effort that went into the actors learning not just their lines but their precise delivery was absorbed by the cast outside of working hours, allowing the shoot to move faster. It definitely wouldn’t be my choice, but what the hell.

The further decision to get William “Thompson” Alland to drill everyone in a fake Scottish accent doesn’t come off too badly. It smacks slightly of Groundkeeper Willie, that accent, but as Fiona said, “I’ve definitely heard worse.” And it makes sense for the characters to have Scottish accents, even if it doesn’t make sense for them to talk in blank verse. It comes back to the question of how much realism is the right amount for a film of Shakespeare’s Macbeth? I would argue that NO realism is the right amount, so the look of this film, all dry ice and backcloths, is fine. The only realism that should be admitted is the psychological kind, so that it doesn’t make sense for Jeanette Nolan’s Lady M to SCREAM at her husband while they’re trying to carry out a secret midnight assassination.

“She’s my least favourite Lady Macbeth,” said Fiona, following this with “Hurry up and die,” during the mad scene. Harsh. I think she was alright, but doubling down on Lady Mac’s harsher aspects is typical of Welles’ occasionally simplistic reading of Shakespeare’s characters. (It takes an effort to avoid seeing Iago as fundamentally A SNEAKY GUY: but surely he can’t be as furtive and implausible as Micheál MacLiammóir in Welles’ OTHELLO? Nobody would fall for his tricks, not with that moustache.)

Welles’ interps are better when they’re weird and idiosyncratic: his judgement that Macbeth is a mediocrity UNTIL, trapped by fate, he resolves to fight on to the last, gives him one really good speech, the moment when his performance comes to life: even playing outright villains, Welles seems to have needed to find something admirable or pitiable in the men he portrayed: Hank Quinlan is an injured lion, Harry Lime is charming, Kane just wants to be loved.

Of the other players, Alan Napier (playing a part invented for the movie, “a holy man,” given most of Ross’s lines plus some from other characters) has the best version of the accent, Roddy McDowall has the worst (though I liked his dreamy delivery, and making Malcolm a kid is a nice idea — Roddy was twenty but seems younger) and Welles’ daughter Michael has none at all. Dan O’Herlihy is a great Macduff — “terrifying,” as Fiona put it, maybe because HE’S SO INTO IT.

Welles’ reusing the set design from his voodoo Macbeth was a good idea, must have saved time on blocking; the ten-minute take that surrounds the regicide was a bold one; there are longish passages where the camera just looks at twigs or smoke while some soliloquy is going on: maybe this doesn’t quite come off, but it’s where the film seems most avant grade, ambitious and ballsy. Or bloody, bold and resolute if you prefer.

As he did in KANE, Welles recycles his meagre cast, making the same actors play front-and-centre figures and silhouettes (the witches are never clearly seen; are the best characters from a visual standpoint as a direct result). The dagger scene incorporates startling rack-focus effects, reminiscent of the start of the crazy house sequence in LADY FROM SHANGHAI. The banquet is really scary — Banquo’s spectre is simple but effective, suitably bloody, and occupying a frame from which all the supporting cast has vanished. The dead walk not in the spaces we walk in, but in the spaces between.

(In the Polanski, brilliantly, all the diners freeze into a tableau vivant with only the principals animate.)

And the climax, once we’re at Dunsinane, is terrific. The movie has a great opening and a great ending. Lady M’s death plunge has never looked more dramatic: she seems to be falling from the stratosphere. A floppy dummy, admittedly, but Welles racks focus to nowhere just before that becomes distracting. As the English army invade, the optical zooms Welles has slapped on everything create a propulsive energy. He’s actually invented a whole new technique here, zoom upon zoom, which could look impressive in a modern film.

Hard to escape the suspicion that Welles’ ambulatory forest, step-printed into eerie slomo, inspired Kurosawa’s depiction in THRONE OF BLOOD.

Where Welles’ Macbeth connects to Coen’s is chiefly in the idea of an interior film, shot entirely (a) in the studio and (b) in Macbeth’s head. Though both versions include scenes without Mac, and we’re not in the realms of Welles’ planned HEART OF DARKNESS, shooting everything subjective camera, there’s still a strong sense of this 1:1.33 grey box we call the world being compassed within the hero’s mind. Maybe that’s why Orson wears a square crown.

MACBETH stars Hank Quinlan; Bertha Duncan; Robinson Crusoe; Caesar; Dr. Karol Noymann; Alfred the butler; Roger Bronson; Morgan Ryker; Thompson; Goldie; and Rock Person.

Red Detour

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on April 14, 2020 by dcairns

A choice of viewing for my students and anyone else interested: DETOUR, directed by Edgar Ulmer and written by Martins Goldsmith and Mooney, available on YouTube, and LE CERCLE ROUGE, written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.

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I’ll probably discontinue these shortly — keeping the students engaged long-distance with anything other than the central coursework the need to pass — which they’re all doing fine with — is proving impossible, and I don’t feel I should be guilt-tripping them on top of everything else that’s going on. So it may be up to you, the Shadowplayers, to fill my comments section.

The Man Without Bogart’s Face

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2016 by dcairns

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Welcome to Shadowplay, the daily blog about DARK PASSAGE.

Looking at part two of DARK PASSAGE, where it all kind of goes to shit. And where Bogart actually HAS Bogart’s face, having acquired it via plastic surgery performed by seedy rhinoplasterer Housely Stevens. Would you buy a used face from this man?

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“Change it back, doc, change it back!”

Spoilers from the start.

The more the movie deals with who killed Bogie’s wife, the less compelling it becomes, and not just because his real wife, Lauren Bacall, is standing right in front of us, very much alive. It’s because this is all backstory, dealing with someone we never met, and it’s of interest to us only if it can solve the true plot problem, Bogie’s being wanted by the law for a crime which, it so happens, he didn’t commit. The movie seems to totally misunderstand our requirements of it: it thinks that as long as we find out whodunnit and the guilty party is somehow punished, we’ll be satisfied. But while that kind of closure + justice is important, what the movie has set up as its dramatic problem is Bogart being a wanted man. And at the end of the movie he HASN’T cleared his name, he never will, but he gets to retire to Peru with Betty Bacall. It feels somehow unsatisfying. Maybe also because the film’s version of San Francisco was maybe one-fifth actual location footage, and Peru is a special effects and studio fantasia. It’s like ending the film in a dream sequence.

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But this floundering second half is kind of fascinating in the abstract, even if it’s not dramatically engaging. One weird thing is the way Bogart keeps presiding over fatal accidents. He basically shoves Clifton Young off a cliff — very good, grim shot of Young lying crumpled at the bottom. It suits him. At this point it’s going to be impossible for him to clear his name, and he IS somewhat guilty and so the movie’s prospects are derailed. And then Agnes Moorehead somehow auto-defenestrates, without meaning to, though given her dialogue before the fact and the typically frenzied manner she brings to her confrontation with Bogie, it would have made more sense as a strategic suicide. Instead, it feels like Bogie WILLED her through the skyscraper window, even though he needs her alive. It reminds me a bit of the abrupt climax of AMERICAN GIGOLO, where at least Richard Gere gets to grab the plummeting man’s legs and TRY to stop his death-plunge (again, he needs the defenestratee to clear his name).

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But a bigger similarity is with THE WALKING DEAD, in which Boris Karloff plays a Bogie-like gangster raised from the beyond who goes seeking revenge on his killers. Strangely, Karloff never lays a finger on his enemies, he just slow-walks them to their doom, backing off the edge of railway platforms and under approaching trains, etc. It’s as if he’s come back from the dead but he’s brought death with him, as an ally or as a sort of miasma that surrounds him, focussing in on those whom he directs his malevolent glare towards.

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It’s like Oscar Wilde wrote: “Karloff does it with a look, Lee Marvin with a towel.”

It’s been pointed out that John Boorman’s POINT BLANK plays like a hip remake of TWD, with Lee Marvin as the gangster who may have died (John Boorman has spoken of a possible Owl Creek Bridge reading of both his Lee Marvin movies) and who wreaks revenge on his foes without actually inflicting bodily harm on them himself. Its slick visuals, rat-a-tat cutting and Donald Westlake plot ingenuity make this the most engaging of the films under discussion, and by burying Lee Marvin’s revenant status deep in subtext, it makes it more fun to unpeel. THE WALKING DEAD is a little too somnolent for me, though you can certainly argue that’s appropriate.

POINT BLANK, of course, also plays out in San Francisco and features a spectacular sidewalk dive, this one from old Dean Wormer himself, John Vernon.

“Someone has to put his foot down, and that foot is me.”

And I guess GHOST STORY has a place in here too.

Anyhow, Bogart’s affinity with sudden death in DARK PASSAGE suggests both the shifty narrator of DETOUR (people just keep dying around me, honest!) and the fatal pro/antagonists of WALKING DEAD and POINT BLANK. Maybe Boorman would suggest that Bogie dies when the San Quentin barrel crashes downhill in scene 1, and the rest of the plot is just his dying fantasy. It would certainly give a meaning to the otherwise obscure title (there’s no significant literal passageway in the plot). And it would kind of explain how Bogart becomes a helpless passenger in his own movie. The “first person shooter” opening robs him of identity, and then his every action seems to be dictated by chance meetings, with a cabbie, a detective in a diner, the guy who picks him up who turns blackmailer. And all the deaths in the film just happen, Bogart doesn’t plan them or really want them. He’s the passive recipient of a narrative.