Archive for Douglas Slocombe

By George

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2011 by dcairns

“Disappointed romantic; one who dines alone in restaurants where music is played.”

Though I couldn’t quite get into RICH AND FAMOUS, I was able to respond favourably to George Cukor’s LOVE AMONG THE RUINS, a 1975 TV production starring Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier. So nice that Kate and George were able to collaborate after she was elbowed out of TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, which she helped script but wasn’t allowed to play in. And nice that Olivier and Hepburn, great friends, finally got to collaborate — it turns out they’re an excellent match.

Hepburn plays a rich widow being sued for breach of promise by her former young lover (Leigh Lawson) — she engages Olivier as barrister, apparently having forgotten their youthful fling 40 years earlier in Ottawa — sorry, Toronto.

What was this shot on? Douglas Slocombe was director of photography, and it’s aiming for a nice soft-focus look, but everything’s TOO soft, it’s positively mushy. But maybe that’s my copy. The trouble is, this film is something that doesn’t otherwise exist, the classically cinematic TV film of the 70s. That’s not a medium, or even a genre, it’s an aberration. If this TV, everybody’s too far away — the image is too diffuse for long shots, where actors’ faces turn to fuzz. If it’s film, the ten minute scenes are rather long and the action too stately. Something kind of rankles.

Cukor tries a few “cinematic flourishes” — apart from the ugly zooms, these consist of a nostalgic orange glow around Kate H that unfortunately suggests the landing of a CLOSE ENCOUNTERS UFO, and a soft white iris in on Larry when he starts to lose track of his surroundings as memories sweep over him. These bits are kind of eggy. But it’s hard to judge the correct style for this kind of thing — if it even is a kind of thing.

And yet, this is a terrific film. Olivier is excellent, and he’s really in tune with Hepburn: their timing together is wondrous. He’s funny, he’s moving, and he gets away with being big without seeming weird, apart from one scene. His summing-up at the end of the trial devolves into a crazy aerobatic display of random “dramatic” flourishes, and it becomes impossible to follow what he’s on about — Sir Larry is off in a world of his own, hearing only the adulation of some imaginary audience, calling out requests for new dramaturgical stunts — “Do the falling leaf!”

But it’s a solitary lapse. Elsewhere, he gets over his desire to be “the only one up there” (O. Welles) and riffs off Kate beautifully. They’re really good for each other. It’s not that they restrain one another — heaven forbid! — or push each other further — how could they? — but they focus each other wonderfully.

The supporting cast is a dream — Richard Pearson, as Olivier’s friend and Hepburn’s solicitor, is an enjoyable light comedian. Sadly, he died this year, a day after his 93 birthday. His only trouble is convincingly acting surprised by Olivier’s emotional revelations, since Larry projects said emotions with such seismic force even when he’s not discussing them. Then there’s Lawson as the infra dig golddigger, a nice study in venal hypocrisy — and Joan Sims as his mum! Her presence in the cast credits initially meant far more to me than the stars’, such is my love of her Carry On roles. She doesn’t need to adapt her comedic talents at all to fit in, though she’s playing a less ladylike figure than most of her Carry On caricatures (like Kenneth Williams, she specialized in a surface gentility which would drop like knickers in moments of high emotion. Given Joan’s rather hard life, I’m touched and pleased that she got to play a big scene with Olivier — surely that must have meant a lot to her. And then there’s Colin Blakely (Billy Wilder’s Dr Watson), affecting what I take to be a very subtle Edinburgh accent — Miss Jean Brodie dialled right down to subliminal level. The performance is huge and oily, but the accent is subtle as heck, a mere insinuation (unless it’s Blakely’s own Northern Irish, but I don’t think so — his character name, Devine, seems to have set off the notion of Scottishness, and a particular kind of prudish Calvinism at that.

Maybe this needs to be an annual tradition — I’ll watch a different late Cukor for each blogathon: I still need to see THE CORN IS GREEN and THE BLUE BIRD and TRAVELS WITH MY AUNT, which are all bona fide late curios, at the very least. In the meantime, I can’t sign off here without giving due credit to screenwriter James Costigan. Funny how he could write this solo and it’s excellent, but he apparently needed two collaborators to adapt Whitley Streiber’s book into THE HUNGER. Truly, the ways of cinema are mysterious…

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Always On Sunday

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2009 by dcairns

IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY — the title was almost literally true in those days, since the factory smoke seeded the clouds during the week, and on the one day when the factories didn’t belch their fumes skywards, the clouds would take the opportunity to drop their watery payload.

Rain predominates in Robert Hamer’s post-war British noir, a genuinely oppressive and glum film, typifying the Ealing fondness for “network narratives” (David Bordwell’s useful phrase) branching out from families or neighbourhoods or institutions. Here, a group of honest and dishonest citizens in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London, go about their business, breaking hearts and by-laws, while housewife Googie Withers shelters her ex-lover, John McCallum who’s just escaped from Dartmoor Prison.

When we learn that McCallum’s been given “the cat” — his back is a lattice of scares from the prison whipping — I believed it, having learned that this appalling punishment was still being practiced in postwar Britain after raising doubts about Burt Lancaster’s flogging in KISS THE BLOOD OF MY HANDS. But I think I would have believed it anyway — Hamer’s movie reeks with authenticity, unlike Norman Foster’s slick comic-book thriller. Despite a reliance on studio work, the movie convincingly evokes East End life, with a surprising emphasis on Jewishness and a reasonable authenticity of dialect all round. Of course, the cockney’s have all had V-chips installed so they can’t swear, but I always get a kick out of characters saying “Sweet Fanny Adams” in Ealing movies. The expression may need some explaining for non-Brits. The etymology of the phrase is pretty convoluted, but my favourite reading of it sees it as word substitution code for “sweet fuck-all.” So its frequent use represents a triumph over the British Board of Film Censors.

Here’s Hamer’s fellow Ealing director Alexander Mackendrick, quoted from On Film-Making ~

“Though common in television, group stories seem to have died as a form of cinema these days.” (Well, they’re back now.) “They used to be much more common, and if I have a prejudice against them, it is probably because the English studio at which I got some early training was addicted to the kind of stories that had multiple protagonists (the Ealing comedies PASSPORT TO PIMLICO and WHISKY GALORE! for example).

“I have never been sure why writers and directors of that era were so happy with this formula. I think they believed it provided the opportunity for not only more variety of characters but also a lively pacing that could be achieved by intercutting the progression of the subplots. After one film of this kind I began to dislike the structure because I felt it weakened the drive of the narrative rather than strengthened it. All of the characters essentially became cameo roles that couldn’t be developed in any depth, and the multiplicity of minor tensions was apt to reduce the tension of the main theme.”

Now, it seems to me, we have enough successful, artistically interesting examples of the network narrative to see Mackendrick’s objection as signposting a potential pitfall rather than a necessary weakness of the form. And IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY stands as perhaps Ealing’s finest achievement with this manner of storytelling, centered upon the Withers storyline but spreading out to take in the adventures of her different family members, various east End characters, and the detective trailing McCallum (Jack Warner, Ealing’s favourite copper).

Flashback to a blonde Googie, echoing her early screen appearances (see THE LADY VANISHES).

When I looked at the movie years ago, I found its persistent gloom oppressive, stifling and itchy, which it is, but that’s the brilliance of the filmmaking. Hamer manages to make his widespread narratives all as claustrophobic as the adventure of the escaped convict in the tiny two-up-two-down house. I was also struck by the mysterious resemblance the film bears to Clive Barker’s HELLRAISER: in both films, the mother secretes her fugitive lover within the marital home, betraying her husband and clashing with her (step)daughter. The main difference is the substitution of Doug Bradley’s Pinhead for Jack Warner’s detective, and the fact that the lover in HELLRAISER has no skin. I wonder if Hamer’s film was an influence on Barker. It’s a powerful storyline, which seems capable of shifting through yet more genres: it has one foot in bedroom farce (“Quick, in here!”) already.

Hamer, who two years later would triumph with that greatest of black comedies, KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, largely shuns humour here, defying Ealing’s usual chirpy manner and sinking us in meanness and corruption. There is a persistent strain of pessimism in British film of this period, perhaps stemming from our disappointment with the “land fit for heroes” we’d been promised in the war. This acerbic strain was gradually extirpated by the bureaucrats running the film business in the fifties, but would make a savage return with greater realism in the sixties.

The movie’s climax, a chase at the railway yard, magnificently lit by Douglas Slocombe, is marred by a couple of rather inexplicable model shots, but is nevertheless tense and expressionistic and dynamic — the crime story really does seem like the best way to make realism palatable to a wide audience as entertainment.

IAROS is based on a novel by Arthur LaBern, whose Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square was filmed much later, by Alfred Hitchcock, as FRENZY. In that movie, realism is no longer the keynote…

Ealing Studios DVD Collection – Champagne Charlie/The Maggie/It Always Rains On Sunday/Whisky Galore

Xanadu

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2008 by dcairns

Enter the Dragon

Joseph Losey Week spills out of itself and out of Shadowplay, over into BritMovie, where I drunkenly sing the praises of BOOM (A.K.A. BOOM!), thusly. I’d like to add that, since writing the piece, my enthusiasm for the film has grown, perhaps as my memory of it dims or perhaps as aspects of its high camp art-movie miasma have taken on fresh resonance through bouncing around inside my reverberant skull. Whatever the truth behind that, I feel I can supplement the article by adding a clip from the film itself. This should confirm, for all enthusiasts of Edgar Ulmer’s THE BLACK CAT, the influence of the 1934 horror movie upon the 1968 art-trash mash-up. Specifically the floating camera as Burton rumbles through the opening stanzas of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, or a Vision in a Dream (Like an IDIOT, I refer to the poem as “Coleridge’s Xanadu” in the piece, ample proof that I’m overly obsessed with Gene Kelly and Olivia Newton John’s musical disasterpiece).


ALTHOUGH — there is another possibility, now that I think of it. Although Losey expressed tremulous reservations about Resnais and Robbe-Grillet’s LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, worrying if it would communicate anything to the general public, he was clearly much affected by it. The flashbacks and sound-image disconnections of ACCIDENT show an obvious desire to emulate Resnais’ fragmented mirror-maze montage, and Losey even abducts Delphine Seyrig from the cast of MARIENBAD and casts her, rather nonsensically, as Alexander Knox’s daughter.

But in that case, it’s clear that MARIENBAD is in thrall to THE BLACK CAT, which now that I think of it is obvious and has probably been remarked upon before.

See Douglas Slocombe’s camera, operated by the great Chic Waterson, drift like a phantom through Richard MacDonald’s insanely opulent sets, in the spectral footsteps of Ulmer and Resnais. And now here’s John Waters to put everything in perspective: