Archive for Ernest Borgnine

North

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2013 by dcairns

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For some reason, every film I watch lately seems to have an Overture, an Intermission, an Entre-Acte and Exit Music — it started with the Easter weekend of biblical pictures, but then Fiona wanted to follow up our THIN MAN marathon with Powell & Loy in THE GREAT ZIEGFELD. The downside of these roadshow events is one gets half as many films watched. And then there was ICE STATION ZEBRA, which fitted in with my recent researches into the career of John Sturges.

This is a real roadshow picture, as whitely elephantine as one could wish — I remembered it from TV screenings, all those endless submerging and surfacing sequences, a voyage to the North Pole that seems to take forever (the first half of the three hour picture) and a lot of static scenes in cramped submarine interiors. Was DAS BOOT the first time a filmmaker realized you could move the camera in a sub? Wolfgang Petersen, for all his many and unforgivable subsequent sins, not only proved it could be done, he proved it OUGHT to be done. Mobilis in Mobili, is what I say.

Tempted to look at Robert Wise’s RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP, just to see if he manages a track here or there.

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Anyhow, following on from THE SATAN BUG which is handsomely shot but also bloated rigid, Sturges is in the process of becoming the screen’s leading adapter of Alistair MacLean novels. MacLean really has fallen out of favour, hasn’t he? You don’t even see his books in Charity shops anymore, and the last adaptation was back in 1996. But in the late sixties and early seventies, you couldn’t move without slapping into a screen showing one or other of his thick-eared thrillers.

My English teacher at secondary school, Mrs Chapman, either knew MacLean or knew some someone who knew him, since he was a Scottish schoolteacher himself. She remarked with horror that his novels were all plotted on charts, with action and exposition mapped out at intervals, a cold, mechanical approach that horrified her.  I personally don’t see why author’s shouldn’t plan their stories on graphs — I just think ideally the finished book shouldn’t read like it.

McLean does not, so far as I can see, write good characters. Had Sturges applied the approach which served him so well with THE GREAT ESCAPE and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and stuffed the films with charismatic stars, some of this problem might have been diluted to a non-toxic level, but THE SATAN BUG stars low-wattage George Maharis (quite good, but definitely low-wattage) and ISZ has Rock Hudson in a severely underwritten, no make that unwritten role, which doesn’t capitalise on the actor’s light touch and sensitivity, nor on his impressive physique. Ernest Borgnine is quite good fun as a hearty Russian, and Jim Brown has a bad-ass military role which may be a stereotype but is a refreshingly un-racial one, but it’s left to Patrick McGoohan to carry the whole movie, nuclear submarine, polar cap and all.

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Fortunately, our Pat is up to this challenge. Talking in a preternaturally clipped manner, through immobile, wooden lips, with irony dripping from his every utterance like seaweed, smiling tightly on one side like a very repressed stroke victim, glowering like a betrayed monitor lizard, and occasionally pounding tables violently and yelling at the top of his lungs without fair warning, he’s a live wire alright, and not the sort of thing that should be waggled about near water. But waggled about he is.

One extra-textual pleasure of the movie, which manages just about to scrape up enough intrigue to keep a patient viewer partially engaged, is that I’m told it was Howard Hughes’ favourite movie during his declining years. He’d run a scratchy old 16mm print of it again and again, as he watched in the nude (possibly with Kleenex boxes on his feet: one likes to think so, anyway). What a cheapskate millionaire, that he didn’t even have an Ultra-Panavision 65 print.

Easy to see why he liked it, though: the hardware, the engineering, the jets, the sub, the gadgets, the militarism, the manly men being masculine at each other, and the icy cleanliness of the environments. There’s no dirt at the arctic — not even any land. The lack of character psychology wouldn’t have mattered to him — in fact, he would have embraced it, just as he did in his own production JET GIRL, in which the only motivation that stays consistent is the kind provided by Janet Leigh’s twin thrusters.

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The Small Back Rooms

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 22, 2011 by dcairns

Zinnemann may be a realist, but he is also, like nearly all American filmmakers, an expressionist — that is, he uses music and composition and movement to inspire emotion, rather than simply recording emotions produced by his actors.

Here are three striking, felicitous rooms in F.Z.’s work — there are many more.

In A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, production designer John Box lived up to his name by placing Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey in a tiny office, where his bulk easily dominates the space. Apart from Welles’ desk and chair, there’s no furniture, so visitors have to stand. As a final masterpiece, the room is painted the same shade of red as Wolsey’s robes and burst capillaries, so that he seems to extend from behind his desk, across the walls and ceiling, embracing the nervous guest. It’s like being invited to an audience inside Orson Welles.

In OKLAHOMA!, all that Todd-AO space outside falls off into impenetrable lung shadow within Jud Fry’s smokehouse, where Rod Steiger lurks with his pornography and his killer ViewMaster®. This is probably the most palpably malodorous environment in any major American film, certainly in a musical. While the design and photography play a part, I think most of it’s down to Rod. His lumpen, perspiring form, exuding a sickening over-eager bonhomie, larded over with sullen pride and nursing an inner core of curdled semen, makes this a horrifically uncomfortable space. Zinnemann felt, on reflection, that he’d over-indulged Steiger, allowing him to create a dimensional, tortured figure out of what should have been a cartoon bad guy, thus badly overbalancing the movie, “and when he died the jubilation of the community was not echoed by relief in the audience.” Such is the brooding, stinky power of Steiger’s Jud, that even before he appears, the community’s vocal dislike of him strikes a bum note.

Finally, another large man in a small room. For an hour of screen time, we hear about the horrors of Ernest Borgnine’s stockade in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. It’s a place you don’t want to get sent. And yet we’ve never seen it, merely heard whispered descriptions — apart from these, all we have to base our anxiety on is Borgnine’s deplorable piano playing.

Well, we finally get there, in the company of Sinatra, whose much-mocked physical weediness is for the first time a huge asset. The room is very small and narrow, opposite in shape to Borgnine, who looks like he might burst the walls by inhaling too deeply. Sinatra is pitifully vulnerable, and as Borgnine raises his billy club, a small, uncomfortable movement of the prisoner’s eyes powerfully conveys the sheer vulnerability of human bone and muscle.

This is not the end of Fred Zinnemann Week! It’s just the end of the week. The case needs to be made for F.Z.’s later works, and I hope to make it, but we seem to have run out of time here. Expect the odd F.Z. post this coming week, live from Hollywood, and thereafter for the rest of the year, maybe one a week. I do want to write about THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING and A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS which are favourites, and I’ve already started pieces on BEHOLD A PALE HORSE and DAY OF THE JACKAL. As today’s post indicates, we may drop the chronological approach somewhat, but I do hope to touch on all the films…

The author prepares to mete out corrective discipline to Zinnemann doubters.