Archive for Dr. Strangelove

Epic Fail Safe

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2020 by dcairns

You know what they say: “When a fail-safe system fails, it fails by failing to fail-safe.”

It was a natural for Bologna to programme this one in the season Henry Fonda for President — that most presidential actor played the top man or else a potential top man in a whole programme’s worth of films, but the other beautiful connection is between this and DAISY KENYON for the appearance of the BIG TELEPHONE.

A nuclear threat — bombers accidentally sent towards Moscow, the War Room desperately tried to call them back. We’ve had the freak technical fault, but who will crack under the strain, junky Fritz Weaver, Larry Hagman who didn’t take good care of his nukes in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, hawkish wingnut Walter Matthau (EXCEPTIONALLY good) or Dan O’Herlihy who is plagued by a Recurring Matador Dream?

(The RMD is the only example I can think of where a filmmaker — Sidney Lumet — makes CREATIVE USE of matte line, a shimmering outline carving O’Herlihy out from the throng, and allowing him to be differently lit — from screen left rather than right — and exposed. See also the weird device where the B-52s B-58s are shown in negative. Peculiar, but the great Ralph Rosenblum’s cutting is so sharp you barely have time to register the strangeness.)

The scene-for-scene parallels with DR. STRANGELOVE are striking, as I knew they would be, but they’re MORE striking than I expected — I hadn’t known that the author of the novel Red Alert, which STRANGELOVE is based on, sued the author of the novel Fail Safe, for plagiarism — I heard about that at this excellent podcast. It is amazing to see a beat-for-beat repetition until the ending, which takes things in a radically new direction.

Lumet’s war room is perhaps a little too science-fictional, and too much like a bing hall at the same time, but the wide lens filming and dramatic cutting, each angle-shift callibrated for dramatic effect. It makes one conscious of how sloppy most mise-en-scene and montage are. As in WE MUST LIVE, there were simple cuts to familiar faces that achieved intentional, intelligent JOLTS.

You can’t talk about Lumet having a tragedy — he loved making films and he was able to make them for his whole life and his last two are highlights — but if he had a tragedy it would be that he thought of himself as a journeyman who could turn his hand to anything, when in fact he was always best with a socially-relevant thriller, often with a New York element (though THE HILL among others shows his ability to travel well).

FAIL SAFE stars Robinson Crusoe; Abraham Lincoln; Senator Long; Sheriff Heck Tate; Juror 6; Professor Biesenthal; Gov. Fred Picker; Dr. Robert MacPhail; Boss Hogg / Thaddeus B. Hogg / Abraham Lincoln Hogg; and Buddy Bizarre.

Run and Gun

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2019 by dcairns

Humm, thought I’d already published this…

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THIS GUN FOR HIRE is, on the one hand, the first version of Melville’s LE SAMOURAI. It’s an adaptation of Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale (retitled This Gun for Hire in America: the credits seek to reinforce this literary connection even as the screenplay departs from the book in key ways). And a star-making turn for Alan Ladd, who is very, very good in it, in a seriously unusual leading man/villain role. Unusual when Delon did it, pretty well unique when Laddie took it on.

Greene was always rather snooty about the film, criticising the decision to make Veronica Lake’s character a singing magician, as if that was too ridiculous for words. But he’s the one who had the girlfriend of the detective hunting a killer happen to get on a train with the killer and end up kidnapped by him. Screenwriters W.R. Burnett (The Asphalt Jungle, Little Caesar source novels) and Albert Maltz do try to iron that wrinkle out by making Lake also a secret agent, so that both she and Ladd are trailing the same man (lovely Laird Cregar).

But the first ten minutes of the film are worth concentrating on, I think. Director Frank Tuttle, assisted by ace noirmeister John F. Seitz as cameraman, creates a whole succession of iconic images —

Ladd is supposed to have a childhood injury, a badly-healed broken wrist, a good, ugly makeup effect by Wally Westmore. Ladd and Tuttle do everything they possibly can to make you notice the affected limb in this sequence — and none of it works.

It’s very strangely. I think it’s because it’s simply too soon for us to be interested in this man’s wrist. In a wide shot, we notice that Ladd carries his arm oddly, but we don’t perceive the jutting bone. In close-ups of hand action, we notice what his hands are DOING, not what they or their attendant arms are like. Later, a newspaper prints a picture of his arm and we go UGH! And next time we see him, we notice it.

I think the boxy low angles, emphasizing the ceiling, feed directly into Melville’s rather jerky trombone shot which opens LE SAMOURAI, in which Delon’s basement apartment seems to expand and contract. This happens because (a) Melville had decided that his protagonist, “Jeff Costello,” is schizophrenic, and (b) he hasn’t done any actual research about what that means.

Alan Ladd’s character is at least as schizophrenic as Delon’s. In the conventional, incorrect sense of having a divided personality. We’re about to see Delon carry out a hit, and here we see him going over the paperwork and preparing his handgun — and we know he’s a hood because cops don’t live in apartments like this in movies, and who else carries a gun?

Then he tenderly feeds a kitten.

The San Francisco newspaper is a nice scene-setting detail, but do we really notice it in the midst of our “Awwwlookadakitty!”* moment? Doesn’t matter, detail is both good and necessary. Anyway, whenever I use the Pauline Kael “we,” to talk about what does or doesn’t get noticed, remember that on the big screen, “we” would notice a lot more.

Anyway, having the tough, crooked anti-hero give milk/cream to a cat is a Sternberg moment — the Paramount thriller is still, in 1942, indebted to UNDERWORLD, whose screenwriter Ben Hecht was appalled by this sentimental detail. Sternberg claimed credit for the idea, saying he wanted to show his hero/villain had a good heart, and implying that such broad brushstrokes were essential if you wanted to get through to the mainstream audience. He was sort of contemptuous of the audience and the approach, but not of his own cleverness in manipulating both.

Enter the slattern! A memorable turn by Pamela Blake, later a wide-eyed B-western heroine. Would it be too much to ask for a whole movie about this vulgar bitch-goddess. She enters, is mean to the cat, and Ladd slaps her and tears her top (adding a sexual tinge to his violence which doesn’t mean seem to mean anything, it’s just for titillation).

So we learn that ordinary people are nasty, and that this killer is in a way more sensitive than regular civilians.

Ladd leaves, there’s a quick exterior of his rooming house, the movie resists the impulse to show us Those Damn Hills, and then Ladd has a disturbing encounter with a little disabled girl in the stair of his target.

She’s meant to remind us of him, because of his wrist, but the effect is subtler, pleasingly mysterious, because “we” haven’t noticed his damn wrist.

The target: initially suspicious, then quite friendly. He offers Ladd coffee and cookies. Ladd actually eats the cookie of the man he’s about to snuff! That’s a clear violation of the rules of hospitality. If you’re going to kill a man you have to refuse all cookies.

Unexpectedly, a woman is present: the target’s “secretary.” The headline will read CHEMIST AND WOMAN MURDERED. Ladd is discomfited by this complication, but is able to complete his appointed task when the squeal of the kettle summons the “secretary” away.

*Copyright Glenn Kenny.

It’s another great room. Production design is by an uncredited Lynd Ward according to IMDb, who provide no other credits for this mystery man. Art direction is credited to the usual Hans Dreier & Robert Usher. This is a more salubrious joint than Ladd’s flophouse, but John Seitz’s low-key lighting makes all the settings a bit grubby. Even Veronica Lake’s eventual appearance can’t illuminate every shadow.

Look, the wrist! But I’m telling you, we don’t clock it yet. The blackmailing chemist target asks to be paid, and Ladd reaches in his briefcase, where we saw him put his gun.

This moment is extended for suspense purposes, and we get a little smile from Ladd. He’s enjoying, in a slightly sexy way, the feeling of power and the dramatic irony of this cookie-dispensing chemist smiling in anticipation of getting paid when in reality he’s going to get a slug in the ticker. It’s a VERY unsympathetic bit of characterisation, but of course it positions Ladd right alongside us, the audience, in pleasurable anticipation of a less attractive character’s demise at the hands of a leading man.

The inevitable occurs.

The “secretary” appears in the kitchen doorway.

“They said he’d be alone,” says Ladd. His tone is quite harsh, but the impulse to make such a remark is a sort of apologetic one. An attempt to explain why your regrettable death must now be implemented. It’s like in GROSSE POINTE BLANK. “Why are you doing this?” is answered with “It’s not me.” Which does nothing. It does not reassure. It’s more upsetting than anything else. But the impulse is apologetic, and so the audience notes that in the character’s favour.

The “secretary” retreats to the kitchen, presumably blocks the door with her body, and Ladd shoots her through the door. The fact that we don’t get a shot from inside the kitchen denies us a view of her terror and denies us a little bit of empathy with the “wrong” character.

Ladd forces the door open to check her (unseen) body, with a series of grisly nudges later borrowed by Kubrick in DR. STRANGELOVE (Mandrake/Ripper sequence).

Ladd’s mission also includes picking up the documents involved in the blackmail scheme he’s just Gordian-unknotted. Hilariously, David Buttolph’s score goes into a kind of Morse Code at this point, because there are dots and dashes in the nonsense chemical formulae.

Ladd leaves, and has another Disturbing Encounter with the little girl. She asks him to retrieve a dropped ball. (What kind of monster gives a disabled child a ball to play with?) He pauses, reaches for his briefcase, then retrieves the ball (religiose music).

So we learn that he has a conscience, or a weakness. He’s wicked enough to CONSIDER killing a little disabled girl, because he knows she’s a witness. But good enough to reject the idea AND give her her ball back. (She’s only going to lose it again.)

Net result: hey, we LIKE this cold-blooded assassin!

That’s how it works, folks.

Isn’t it Awfully Nice…?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on February 17, 2018 by dcairns

I remember this TV show, hosted by Muriel Gray, in which she would go for walks with famous people. An itinerant talk show. It’s the kind of thing that passes for a good idea in television — fantastically stupid and basic in one sense, but in another sense, genuinely quite a good idea. You interview somebody while exploring their favorite stomping ground. My memory tells me this show was called Walkie Talkie but I may have invented that. Reality, and television, can’t be THAT inane.

Gray, who is from Aberdeen which means she can seem quite humourless (I know some quite funny Aberdonians, so this is a stereotype which isn’t really true, but can SEEM quite true if you get the right Aberdonian in the right circumstances) interviewed Monty Python member Eric Idle. I forget where they walked. Every episode dissolves into nondescript greenery in my memory.

Somehow the subject turned to women in comedy. I think Idle, whose work does seem to suggest an old-fashioned male chauvinism, ventured the opinion that maybe women just weren’t as funny as men, or not in the right way anyhow.

“So what’s missing?” asked Gray.

“A penis?” shrugged Idle.

“And why would that matter?” asked Gray, completely ignoring the fact that Idle had been attempting a joke, and thus appearing to prove his point, though not really.

Idle then gamely tried to justify his facetious remark by citing the jester’s stick and maybe other phallic appurtenances. Chaplin’s cane may have been cited, I don’t recall.

There may be something in the idea that the penis can inspire comedy. One very funny sequence in EVIL DEAD II, showing Ash (Bruce Campbell) getting beaten up by his own hand, seems to depend on the notion of a part of the anatomy with a will of its own. Perhaps only male creators would have written that. An even better sequence is Peter Sellers grappling with his prosthetic arm in DR STRANGELOVE, where the involuntary Heil Hitler it performs doubles as an unwelcome erection.

But the thing is, women know about the penis too, though I suppose they don’t usually know what it’s like to have one. I remember Yoko Ono saying she thought penises were hilarious: these dangling appendages that just behave exactly as they see fit, without consulting the higher intellect more than occasionally. I do think Idle is quite wrong. Women do comedy just as readily as men. Women’s comedy does, it seems to me, have subtle differences of flavour from men’s, but it’s all on a spectrum and I can’t really define the differences I suppose to be present. Any generalisation would inevitably be torpedoed by the innumerable exceptions.

Oh, and a lot of comedy about penises and also bottoms is probably indirect homosexual panic — we straights have to find these bits ridiculous to prove to ourselves and others that we don’t find them sexy. Maybe the penis will fade like a ghost from our comedies as we all get over the jitters. Whatever remains will be the true comic personality of the phallus — which might look a lot like Eric Idle.