Archive for Dudley Nichols

The Father’s Day Intertitle: The Leith Police Dismisseth Us

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2013 by dcairns

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OK, it’s not exactly an intertitle, but I had to honour the fact that John Ford pasted my address across the screen in MARY OF SCOTLAND.

It’s a legendarily quite bad film, though more of an honorable failure than, say, THE HURRICANE (a commercial hit but a veritable TOWERING INFERNO artistically), part of a string of more-or-less misfires which led up to the burst or energy that is STAGECOACH. In fact, the movie is quite interesting, or anyway “interesting” — it rarely achieves anything resembling compelling drama, and censorship forces it to take the dullest path whenever there’s a knotty historical issue to be resolved. Dialogue is of a heavily expository nature, with everybody always telling each other things they must already know — you’d never guess that either Dudley Nichols, or Maxwell Anderson whose play he’s adapting, was a good or even competent writer.

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However, it’s possibly Ford’s most gay film, with Lord Darnley in particular striking a bold blow for the lipstick, earring and ruff look. Queen Elizabeth surrounds herself with rather camp confidants too, despite the fact that she’s basically a sullen mound of beads.

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(This was the movie where Ginger Rogers campaigned hard for the role of Elizabeth, and shot a screen test in heavy makeup which the suits loved until they realized who it was. The thought of Ginger as the Virgin Queen was apparently too much of a stretch. So Florence Eldridge lands by far  the best role and does well with it.)

Katherine Hepburn as Mary is surrounded by several of the same stock Scots and pseudo-Scots from RKO’s  THE LITTLE MINISTER (Alec Craig, Mary Gordon, Donald Crisp). Fredric March does do more than hint at a burr, but Fiona felt he captured a quintessentially Scottish attitude. It seems to involve bellowing heartily. He also presents a baby with the present of a broadsword, which does seem quite authentic behaviour.

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Perhaps sensing the inertia of the material, Ford attempts a few stylistic flourishes. In one key scene, Mary/Hepburn must decide whether to sign, at sword’s point, a pardon for the murderers of David Rizzio (John Carradine [!]). In her closeup, she’s separated by the characters over her shoulder by a layer of scrim — and interesting psychological effect, thrown away by too-hasty editing. I suspect the film was so stodgy they took the shears to it, and out went the more promising material. (Tag Gallagher certainly suggests that the studio botched the edit, and it appears that Ford’s system of protecting himself by shooting no coverage was not yet in place.)

Ford also plays with theatrical lighting changes, dimming the key light on Darnley when he acquiesces to an assassination plot. Did Orson Welles check this movie out when he was running STAGECOACH all those times? It’s made by the same studio, so it would have been to hand. CITIZEN KANE advanced on the idea by staging the fades during dissolves, so that one part of the shot would linger longer as the rest faded out, but the initial idea had to come from somewhere

For years (decades?) Alexander Mackendrick dreamed of filming MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, his office papered in storyboards. Since historical movies usually ossify alive onscreen, he was determined to make his version live and breathe — the western was his role model, a genre in which history is depicted IN ACTION. Ironically, the man you would have thought ideally suited to make such a film had already tried, and fallen victim to period movie syndrome.

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Unknown Soldier

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2008 by dcairns

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THIS LAND IS MINE is too magnificent for me to actually blog about. Emotive as propaganda, it achieves the level of high art by virtue of its beauty of spirit and aesthetics, and its sheer intelligence — Renoir and his script collaborator, Dudley Nichols, pose difficult questions about resistance to evil, and it’s to their credit that they avoid easy answers. Renoir gets the best out of his cast, with a career-best piece of work from Kent Smith, otherwise known as the most boring man in movies — not a bad actor at all, just one who never makes an impression (in NORA PRENTISS he gets seduced, corrupted, mutilated and executed, all without arousing a spark of interest). In the lead, Charles Laughton has a fantastic role, and avoids going OTT with it, while still allowing himself to make the kind of bold, striking choices only he could pull off. George Sanders, always welcome and always very fine, actually gets to stretch himself.

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But I’m not going to write about it, because this is all pitifully inadequate, failing to capture just what’s so exciting and moving about this perfectly judged movie. I just wanted to mention the opening sequence, where Renoir cuts around a town square in a series of striking leaps, using the WWI memorial as a focal point, spinning round it like a pole dancer, so to speak, in a manner quite comparable to Ozu’s jumps through interior space, using a red kettle as a sort of visual anchor, in EQUINOX FLOWER. To be clear, I’m talking about an impression of snappy movement created with a series of totally locked-off shots, so that the filmmaker seems to whisk us from one spot to another with the crack of a whip — truly dynamic cutting that smacks each composition down before us like a series of playing cards in what is unquestionably a winning hand.

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Psychologically, of course, these angle changes animate the soldier, almost like the waking lion in BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, and make him seem increasingly beleaguered and surrounded as the German troops flood the little town square. It’s a visual metaphor, probably the broadest in the film.

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As the sequence continues, our man is rapidly diminished to a tiny background figure, outnumbered and outgunned. While the narrative function is to simply show the occupation in progress, and the local Nazi commander arriving at the town hall to greet the mayor, a seemingly reluctant collaborationist who is really all to keen to succumb to greater force, a little allegory has been played out with our living statue friend, whose heart still beats like those of the lovers at the end of Carné’s LES VISITEURS DU SOIR.

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His last appearance is somehow the most diminished — the ranks of standing men, and the formality and symmetry of the frame, convert him into a piece of architecture again. In the final wide shot of the square, he’s totally absent, eclipsed by a German troop truck. Overwhelmed, engulfed, then finally buried.

Probably the highlight of my past year’s film viewing has been getting deeper into Borzage, and just starting to get into Renoir properly for really the first time.

This Land Is Mine [DVD]