Archive for Esmond Knight

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s Scenes #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2022 by dcairns

It’s good to start with Olivier’s HAMLET because we have A SPY ON THE SET.

The other Laurence, Laurie Knight, late friend of Fiona and I, was an assistant on this — third AD. But not for the whole shoot, I don’t think. He reports that Olivier wanted to record a real human heartbeat for the ghost’s appearances. He may have heard about Rouben Mamoulian running up and down a flight of stairs so he could get a suitably pounding chest for the transformations in DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, but the athletic thesp uncharacteristically delegated another assistant — possibly a runner, which would be appropriate — to run around the soundstage once or twist before having the mic pressed to his bosom like a stethoscope.

“Nothing but indigestion!” Laurie reported with a wheeze of laughter. So they quite simply got a drum in.

I really love the way the camera pulses in and out of focus as the pounding comes in. Still an effect that’s rarely copied, but it’s wonderfully expressive.

Asides from Mamoulian, I assume Olivier’s under the influence of CITIZEN KANE a bit, and has grasped how the optical printer can be used to spice up footage and create semi-seamless joins between distinct shots. I even wonder if the focal pulse effect might be created in post. This is a kind of advance on his HENRY V, whose effects all happen for real in front of the camera. We gradually move from theatrical sets to more lifelike one, as if we were being swept up in the “reality” of the play.

The KANE influence is also felt in the deep focus, the chiaroscuro, and the cavernous Xanadu-like space of Elsinore. Instead of the big gimmick of Olivier’s HENRY V: a theatrical performance which slowly becomes “real”, the stylised sets eventually replaced by real locations, HAMLET attempts to create a space midway between theatre and cinema — cavernous, unfurnished, but richly textured.

Olivier said he was driven to that HENRY effect by his concern about matching real sets and unreal dialogue. “Why’s everyone talking so funny?” HAMLET takes a different but parallel route. An environment just odd enough to allow the iambic pentameters not to seem out of place.

From my Making-Of book, The Film HAMLET: Carmen Dillon, tasked with executing Roger Furse’s designs, says, “sets soar into the sky without any attempt at persuading the audience that they do, in fact, support a roof or that they have any geographical relationship one with another.

I’m all in favour of cutting Hamlet, which is outrageously long, and directors shape it and choose what they want to emphasise by their cuts. In Jonathan Pryce’s performance. this whole scene was cut, so that the ghost could be portrayed as a psychological effect, a voice issuing from H’s subconscious. It gave Pryce the excuse for a bravura Linda Blair/Mercedes McCambridge act, and you could argue that the voice’s echoing of H’s own suspicions and resentments is already implied in the text — he’s rather thrilled to discover he’s right to dislike Uncle Claudius.

But these cuts do tend, as Tom Stoppard pointed out, to make the beginning of the play rather stodgy. It’s a bunch of people at a party making speeches. Whereas WD begins his play with the words “Who goes there?” and it’s immediately gripping. Plus the bell tolling midnight, all very atmospheric. Olivier wouldn’t have consciously aimed to make his adaptation seem like a horror film, but the KANE influence ensures it does anyway (I believe Welles may have admitted to a slight James Whale influence on his MACBETH).

Olivier has cast his film very well indeed, without resorting to the Branagh approach of stuffing stars of stage and screen into every crevice. From the urgency of the first lines we drop into the casual, throwaway dialogue that makes this film occasionally quite naturalistic, when Sir Larry himself isn’t around. Francisco and Bernardo are John “We’re all doomed!” Laurie, who would apparently tell you about his own triumph as the Dane as soon as you met him, and Esmond Knight, recently blinded in the war and taking his life in his hands on those unbanistered stairs.

Starting on Laurie is a great idea: a gloomy Calvinist immediately makes the appearance of the supernatural more plausible.

They’re soon joined by Norman Wooland and Anthony Quayle, equally good. wooland maybe the realest and most moving actor in the film. I think Olivier has done great in finding actors who can do the classical bit but also seem believable onscreen. It was maybe easier to find such people then.

Olivier, of course, isn’t of their number. He’s something else.

Next bit: Hamlet meets the ghost.

Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson writes that Olivier wanted to “make the scenes without so much cutting from shot to shot.” There are bits in the ghost’s second appearance where we just stare at his inexpressive silhouette for quite a while, until the shot almost “goes dead.” It seems a good way to allow the audience to concentrate on the words without getting bored. The image is still striking and beautiful, even if it’s not doing anything new. It beats Peter Brook’s moronic idea in his KING LEAR of shooting the backs of the actors’ heads. “Sometimes, with Shakespeare, you don’t want the image to add anything, but you can’t just have a black screen.” I think a black screen would make as much sense as the back of Paul Scofield’s head.

Remember the wise words of Roger Corman: “The eye is the organ most used in movie making. If you don’t engage the eye you’ll never engage the mind.”

The ghost here is John Gielgud — one of the legendary stage Hamets (captured on film by Humphrey Jennings in A DIARY FOR TIMOTHY), later the director of Richard Burton’s version, and one of the most distinctive voices. But the slow whisper and echo effect make him not so recognisable, so that his uncredited performance isn’t a coy gimmick. The ghost would have seemed all the more mysterious by being unknown.

Gielgud at 17.24-19.22

Steven Berkoff had an interesting idea — I don’t know how good his production was, quite possibly ham(let)fisted (he has a way of leaning into things) — but it was an interesting idea. Since the ghost says he’s doomed “to walk the earth,” why not have him in constant motion? And thus Hamlet, having followed him away from his chums, has to keep tagging along. He might even get in front and then have to keep backing up since the ghost can’t stop.

At 3.18 the backlight produces a dark halo around the ghost in the fog. Beautiful.

I think the least effective part is the visualisation of the King’s death, though I can see why they did it. King Hamlet as a living person is NOT played by Gielgud, but by a Santa Clause-looking guy who overdoes the old dying act a bit, rolling out of his divan and clutching the air. Claudius as poisoner has kind of gone into silent movie acting mode also, Is this the way Hamlet would visualise it? Possibly.

Branagh will cheekily borrow a couple of Olivier’s moves — collapsing face-down when the ghost departs, and kissing his sword when he swears. Shakespeare’s text offers few stage directions beyond “enter” and “exit” and we’re not convinced Shakespeare even wrote those. He does add “writing” when Hamlet makes a note in his tables, but Olivier’s cut the words and the action to make room for his hilt-kissing.

Next: Tony Richardson and Nicol Williamson in 1969.

You Just Can’t Get the Distaff

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2021 by dcairns

GIRLS WILL BE BOYS (1934) is thematically much like FIRST A GIRL, but instead of Jessie Matthews disguised as a boy disguised as a girl, we have Dolly Haas dressed as a boy, then as a girl (causing certain parties to think she’s a boy dressed as a girl).

Dolly is delightful. As a boy she’s like a prancing monkey, and her German accent runs wild, drawing out single syllables into low whoops. A strong-willed tyke, she signed with Columbia after this but declined to change her name to Lilli Marlowe, and so that went nowhere. She was chums with Hitchcock — I guess from around this time — and he put her in I CONFESS, but that role doesn’t find a use for her simian high spirits.

The script — co-credited to Curt Siodmak (!) — keeps Dolly in sexy jeopardy, much of it caused by male lead Esmond Knight. It’s always a surprise to see him in a leading role if you know him as a character man in post-war Powell & Pressburger films, heroically covering up his lost eyesight (blinded at sea). But here it makes sense: by the standard of 30s Brit leading men, he’s fairly handsome (no Leslie Banks scarring) and even has a physique.

Speaking of physique — the script’s main method of unmasking Dolly’s disguises is to undress her. While FIRST A GIRL contrived a swimming accident, at least Jessie had a cossie. Dolly, entangled in weeds in the estate’s pond (it’s a country house escapade, vaguely Wodehousian in spirit) is bare buff, save for a chaste weed bikini top.

Director Marcel Varnel hasn’t much of a rep — his IMDb bio says “his films were for the most part undistinguished” — he did go on to make too many George Formby vehicles (picture a clown car with a massive front grill) — two moments deserve special mention. One is a scene change, where a character exits through a heavy door — with a jolt the whole wall is hoisted into the air and at once we’re in a theatre. Later, in boy drag, Dolly must listen to a smutty story after dinner with the old duffers — Varnel tactfully swoops out of the room in a thrill-cam glide, then, after the shortest possible pause, swoops back in on Dolly, having missed the one about the commercial traveller and the lady with the glass eye.

Though there are fewer hints of male-male attraction, and no obviously queer-coded character like Sonnie Hale in FIRST A GIRL, the film feels more transgressive because Dolly is a more convincing boy than Jessie could ever be. So gender certainties are throw into doubt, before being happily resolved — or are they? In fancy dress for a fete, the lovers clinch for some hey-hey in the hay loft, and Esmond’s frilly sleeves rhyme elegantly with Dolly’s bloomers.

Blind Tuesday: Justice is Blind

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2014 by dcairns

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A return of our intermittent series of posts on thrillers about the sightless. This one is kind of a departure though. Nobody in the movie is blind or pretends to be blind.

CRIME UNLIMITED is a 1935 Warner picture made at their UK studio in Teddington. Being post-code, it reconfigures some of the plot tropes of earlier films, adjusted to make them morally uplifting — for instance, James Cagney’s jewelry store scam from BLONDE CRAZY gets trotted out again, only here the perp is an undercover man seeking to ingratiate himself with a gang of heisters, so it’s all above-board, really.

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The leading lady is a heartbreakingly young and succulent Lilli Palmer, but of more interest to our jaded sensibilities is the fact that the hero is played by Esmond Knight. During WWII, Knight was blinded for real during a battle at sea with the Bismarck. He lost one eye and was almost totally blinded in the other — some sight returned to it in his extreme old age. He can be seen, minus glass eye, at the start of ROBIN AND MARIAN, but he played numerous sighted characters for Michael Powell, including a film director (parodying Powell’s own temperamental style) in PEEPING TOM and the Maharajah in BLACK NARCISSUS, which required him to ride a donkey through a forest. “I’ll be fine,” my friend Lawrie reported him as saying, “The donkey doesn’t want to hit a tree any more than I do.”

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Slightly eerily, the CRIME UNLIMITED features scenes where Knight is blindfolded and led to a baddie’s lair.

He also reports to his superiors by standing at a window and moving his lips. A deaf man in the building opposite reads his lips with binoculars and passes the info to Scotland Yard.

The movie is a reasonably enjoyable potboiler, well made (by Hollywood director Ralph Ince) and decently acted. Knight is an adequate leading man, but he was really waiting for a few years to pile on to turn him into a fine character actor. One does miss the more mature moral ambiguity of the pre-code era. One has to settle for fated social attitudes instead — Raymond Lovell plays a club owner in league with the crooks as a nasty Jewish stereotype. A good accents man, the portly Canadian would redeem himself during the war by specialising in Nazis.