Archive for Duke Ellington

FC4: arty of the irst art

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2009 by dcairns

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In THE SEVEN FACES OF DR LAO, a rather beautiful movie and the best thing George Pal ever did, Arthur O’Connell has a conversation with an animated snake which is one of the most moving and remarkable conversations with animated snakes I’ve ever seen, and yes I do include Sterling Holloway in THE JUNGLE BOOK. So I’m always glad to see Arthur O’Connell in a movie, although I’m quite glad I don’t have to smell him in ANATOMY OF A MURDER, where I’d have whisky, cigarettes, and in one scene beer and hard boiled eggs to contend with. But fortunately, Otto Preminger, despite his modernist fondness for jazz soundtracks, Saul Bass credits, filming on location, defying censorship restrictions and using every inch of his wide screen, never made a movie in Odorama. Although if anybody had offered him Ottorama it’s unlikely his ego, as vast and shiny as his big bald head, would have allowed him to resist.

Maybe we should stop calling this Film Club and just call it John Qualen Club, since that lovely character actor, Miser Stevens in our first Film Club, is here again as the jailor. Or “yailor,” since he plays it with a Yumping Yiminy kind of accent.

Yes, I’m starting with the “little people” and working my way up. Will I even talk about the plot? Not sure yet.

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Eve Arden, as Jimmy Stewart’s legal secretary, very cool and appealing, one of the great secretaries, I’d say — she gets to do a little unpaid detective work on the side. Maybe because secretaries don’t have much to do in most films where they feature, I often wonder if they should be used more or if I like them because they’re effective in small doses? Like Sam Spade’s secretary, the marvellous Effie (Lee Patrick, in Huston’s film of THE MALTESE FALCON) is so capable — has nobody considered giving her a book of her own? Of course, a sequel to Dashiell Hammett would be blasphemous. But I do like Effie. Wait, Lee Patrick’s in DR LAO too? That’s just weird.

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Joseph N Welch, of “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” fame — an attorney playing a judge, and such a fair and mild and pleasant judge. In many ways ANATOMY OF A MURDER paints a rather unappealing portrait of the justice system — how do we read that last shot of a brimming garbage can? — but Welch does rather make me feel warmly towards the idea of human justice. Is it odd that an attorney would play a judge as such a charming and human fellow? At any rate, I’d want a judge like that if I ever put five bullets in anybody.

Good oily work from Murray Hamilton. Kathryn Grant, the future Mrs Bing Crosby, is stunningly beautiful and very good — and I’m delighted to see she’s got a substantial role in a new Henry Jaglom film. Anybody know anything about this?

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The first name in the list of minor players is George C. Scott, who really has a major featured role but wasn’t a big name yet. Nobody seems to get famous playing prosecutors, maybe because prosecutors in trial movies always seem dislikable — even though they’re just doing their jobs. Maybe that’s why Scott spent the next few years in TV, despite being sensational here.

“My God, George is sexy… even though he’s… practically deformed,”  gasped Fiona when she first saw this, some years back. And it’s true. His nose, sculpted by boxing gloves, forms a sort of pincer with his chin. His hooded eyes have a lizardly coldness. He makes little, tight smiles that admit no pleasure. And yet, sexy and dangerous. Given the character name, Clause Dancer, and his status as fancy city lawyer, you expect some kind of effeminacy, but George doesn’t deliver (might not be within his range, actually) except for the elegance of his movement, his immaculate appearance, and a slight fussiness (Brooks West, in real life the producer of Eve Arden’s TV show, does bring a little Franklin Pangborn to the role of DA).

Moving on up…

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Ben Gazzara carries a lot of the film’s ambiguity — one unstated theme is the uncertainty of anything we don’t personally see or hear, and how the courts try to stamp a mark of certainty upon past events but this has only a social meaning. So we don’t know quite what’s going on with Gazzara, though it’s fair to say we don’t like him. An unsympathetic client is pretty unusual in a courtroom drama. The fact that Gazzara seems guilty doesn’t mean he might not be innocent, but I think it’s pretty clear that the insanity defense is an act cooked up with some hints from Jimmy Stewart, who’s very scrupulous about not telling Gazzara what to say, but certainly points him in the right direction.

There’s one particular gesture where it looks like Lt. Frederick Manion is giving a performance for Stewart’s benefit… His description of his “irresistable impulse” is a lot like Ginger Rogers talking to Adolph Menjou in ROXY HART ~

“…and then everything went purple!”

“Purple?”

“Black?”

“Mmm, purple’s good… it’s new.”

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Lee Remick (replacing Lana Turner after an argument about costuming) — “That’s a very odd way to portray a rape victim,” said Fiona, and I once more agree. Again, part of the film’s deliberate neutrality on the question of guilt/innocence. Was Laura Manion raped? She doesn’t act like it. The only time she acts particularly upset is when Dancer challenges her story. Her flighty, flirtiness seems out of keeping, and I suspect Preminger has Remick her overstress it just to sew doubt in our minds. It certainly appears, from all outward evidence, that the rape took place.

Given her airhead detachment, Laura shouldn’t be that appealing but somehow Remick makes her winning. Star charisma I guess. And the way she’s surprising, inappropriate, off — something that we tend to welcome more in films than in life because it makes things interesting. Although I did worry about her leaving her terrier, Muffy, balanced on a narrow wall. That’s no place for a dog!

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James Stewart as Paul Biegler. Fond of fishing and jazz (and that preference serves as the perfect alibi to allow a superb score  credited to Duke Ellington but in reality a collaboration with Billy Strayhorn, the first major movie score by African-American artists). A bachelor. Drifting along, skirting bankruptcy, dispirited, Biegler gets a new lease of life from the case and manages to turn around his friend Parnell (O’Connell) too. Like William Wyler’s COUNSELLOR-AT-LAW, this movie is a hymn to the restorative power of work.  This positive side compensates for the film’s rather skeptical view of the legal system, and the sordid nature of the case itself.

And of course, Stewart’s presence lightens things, making the most of Wendell Mayes’ witty lines, and also creating quite a bit of humour just from facial reactions. It’s a very funny film, in fact — the sparring is consistently witty and Stewart makes it seem even wittier. He’s so good that I wish he didn’t blow up quite so often, because it makes his character look unprofessional. Lawyers seem to agree this is one of the most realistic courtroom dramas, but they couldn’t resist spicing up the emotions a bit — at least the judge rightly tells Stewart to get a grip on himself whenever he’s out of line.

With that long, slow opening, Preminger prepares you for a movie about process, not a thriller at all (although the trial is exciting — like a good chess game). And that’s perfectly suited to the style he’s been developing. This is far less showy than FALLEN ANGEL, a movie I love, a firecracker of dynamic long takes and unpredictably choreographed shots. Here, the fluidity of the Preminger frame conceals its own artifice, so it doesn’t announce itself as either snappy and bold or economical and sleek, although all of those qualities appear. It’s a very nice approximation of a documentary feel, without using any documentary techniques except real locations and naturalistic lighting.

“Music can’t help a realistic story, it just makes it less realistic,” my friend Lawrie used to say, and while that’s no hard-and-fast rile, it’s a useful principle. The music works here beautifully, perhaps because it’s frequently woven into the story. I think Duke Ellington’s guest appearance maybe works against the overall tone, but it’s not a crazy gesture like the moment in BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING where the film stops for a whole Zombies song to play out on a pub TV. The music allows Preminger to protract scenes to an extraordinary degree (especially that opening), so it calmly makes itself necessary, and I can’t question it after that. Also, the Mr. Magoo crime-scene credits by Saul Bass, combined with that score, and leading into the shot of Stewart really driving a real car (nicely mirrored at the end) must have been like ice-water in the audience’s face, but prepares for the shocking modernity of all that talk about panties and intercourse without completion.

Hit it!

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Hitchcock Year, Week 3, Things I Read off the Screen in Downhill

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2009 by dcairns

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Hitchcock’s follow-up to THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG, again starring composer and matinee idol Ivor Novello, doesn’t have much of a reputation. Peter Conrad’s The Hitchcock Murders, for instance, doesn’t even mention it — maybe because it doesn’t feature any murders.

(Incidentally, if you follow the IMDb, we should be discussing THE RING this week, but overviews of Hitch’s career confirm that DOWNHILL was in fact his fourth production.)

The tale of a public schoolboy who faces disgrace and expulsion for buying sexual favours with money filched from the tuck shop, whose name takes on an amusingly double entendre ~

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This seems to me a very useful Hitch film, since the world of the English public school was one he knew well. His parents, aspiring to better him, had packed him off to St. Ignatius, a Catholic boarding school, where the young A.H. began to learn all about suspense from the masters, who would cane you on Friday for something you did on Monday. And indeed, Hitch does manage to create some dramatic tension from a visit to the headmaster’s office in DOWNHILL, tracking slowly towards the scowling head from Novello’s POV.

Following this, we get a track-in on Novello and his chum, from the POV of the accusing flapper, and a dishonest flashback of the kind Hitch later disavowed in STAGE FRIGHT, as she accuses Ivor of knocking her up. (She apparently intends his family to pay child support, but we never find out if this happens — she walks out of the film and is never so much as mentioned again.)

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Years later, Hitch would recall with horror the bathos of this scene — ” Does this mean I won’t be able to play in the Old Boy’s match, sir?” asks the heartbroken Ivor. Actually, if this part of the film is less effective than some others, it’s more to do with the impossibility of Ivor Novello, aged 34, playing a schoolboy.

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Sliding into depravity by way of a symbolic subway escalator, our hero first takes to the music hall (it’s a slippery slope!). Hitchcock was more familiar with London’s theatre world than many film people, but the main value he derives from this sequence is the elaborate set of false impressions he engineers at the start of the sequence. At first Novello stands, looking rather dashing and well kitted-out in dinner jacket and bow tie. Then Hitch pulls back to reveal that his star is waiting tables at a swank restaurant. Crime rears it’s ugly head as the lad pockets a stray cigarette-case, but then Hitch pans right and reveals a theatre audience watching the scene, which is constructed for their benefit upon the stage.

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Inheriting wealth, Novello is able to marry the star of the show, but her expensive tastes soon bankrupt him, a development amusingly presented with the aid of two intertitles. The first reading “£30, 000” in Large Impressive Letters, the second repeating the same sum in much smaller ones.

Next comes the seedy life of the gigolo/taxi-dancer, evoked with lip-smacking relish by Hitchcock, aided by some ladies made up to look rather ghastly when a shaft of pure sunlight illuminates the ballroom and exposes the decadence therein. (Several of the dramatic high points of the film have to do with setting Ivor at the mercy of predatory women: he manages to look properly intimidated.) How Ivor gets from here to a Marseille dive, strung out on drink or drugs or something, is not quite as clear as I’d like — this film would fail as a How-To guide to achieving full social depravity.

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But, while commentators applaud the inverted POV shot of Novello, which anticipates a similar one of Cary Grant in NOTORIOUS (and from there is picked up by Nick Ray for REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and HOT BLOOD) and the shadowplay with bamboo curtains in the Bunne Shoppe, I was most impressed by the oneiric climax, where the addled and raddled Novello is packed on a ship to England and hallucinates a mad jumble of events from his life, by virtue both of double-exposures and surreal staging — a sailor on the ship literally becomes Novello’s stern father. Maybe this part of the film seemed to be kicking in because I had just changed the music (my highly fizzy-facky VHS of the film had none) from Mendelssohn to Ellington (I highly recommend Ellington for this movie, it has more of a jazz spirit than you’d think). But this sequence is very experimental and strange, and makes DOWNHILL probably the first Hitchcock film whose happy ending could be read as a dream, or the vision of a dying man.

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(It’s been argued, not so much convincingly but very intriguingly, that Hitch films such as SUSPICION and VERTIGO actually become dreams partway through — the second half of VERTIGO, from shortly after Kim Novak’s first death plunge, is all playing in Jimmy Stewart’s grief-deranged head as he vegetates in the asylum, undergoing music therapy, while SUSPICION really ends with the poisoned milk, as Hitch intended, and the big make-up scene with the involved explanation is Joan Fontaine’s fantasy. I don’t believe either of these interpretations, but I love them. Chris Marker posits the VERTIGO hypothesis, Bill Krohn offers the SUSPICION one.)

The happy family reunion and Old Boy’s match which end DOWNHILL come hard on the heels of the dissipated Novello’s hallucinatory sea voyage, which in itself might not be happening (it has some of the same zonked feverishness as Dorothy’s trip to Oz by tornado), so it’s not a huge stretch to see them as imaginary. This probably wasn’t Hitch’s intention, and certainly not the primary interpretation he wanted us to leap to, but it connects DOWNHILL to some very interesting later Hitchcockian conundrums… when a director’s work strays this close to dream, and regularly incorporates dreams, hallucinations, flashbacks and other subjective effects into its narration, it’s easy to imagine it sliding all the way into mirage.

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