Archive for Evan Jones

Losey Week Revisited

Posted in FILM, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2020 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2020-03-25-15h34m23s586

I did a week’s deep dive on Joseph Losey, years ago. This is another, larger deleted sequence from the essay I’m working on. Poor Evan Jones got cut, because it was just too sprawling and diffuse.

vlcsnap-2020-03-25-14h55m23s895

Joseph Losey had been forced to leave to avoid testifying before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. He would gradually, by talent and sheer force of will, reinvent himself: in America he had specialised in thrillers; in Britain he slowly transformed into a maker of art films, a form which had almost no history in the UK.

But his first collaboration with writer Evan Jones was made for Hammer films. The Damned (1961), AKA These Are the Damned, is often falsely grouped with the sci-fi thriller Village of the Damned (1960) whose success the studio probably wanted to cash in on. In it, a teenage gang’s conflict with a visiting American (the dependably dull MacDonald Carey) brings them into contact with a group of children are kept underground and rendered immune to radiation, primed to take over the world “when the time comes,” as the head of the project says, bears more relation to Losey’s debut The Boy with Green Hair (1947) and his juvenile delinquent picture The Sleeping Tiger (1954).

vlcsnap-2020-03-25-15h01m57s061

Look behind him! It’s The X-Files!

Jones was tasked with adapting H.L. Lawrence’s source novel, The Children of Light after blacklistee Ben Barzman’s legal troubles stalled his progress on the script. Talking to Michel Ciment, Losey sketched out a brief bio of his chosen replacement: “Actually he hadn’t, so far as I can remember, ever worked on a film before. His parents were landowners in Jamaica. He’s milky-coloured, and he makes no secret that his father was black. He was educated at Oxford, I think. His play was pretty strong and dealt with the relationships of a landowner and his peasants in Jamaica. We had a certain political kinship and we got along very well in other respects, too.”

The job had to be done fast: at Losey’s urging, he largely threw out the original story, keeping only the premise. He was still writing until the day before shooting started. It’s a bizarre movie with many dysfunctional elements: disparate plot threads are introduced in haphazard fashion, and the attempts to wrestle with youth culture are terribly square and unconvincing. The sci-fi aspects made Losey very uncomfortable too: he couldn’t believe in them. But somehow a certain stark force is realized: the subterranean children, who are cold to the touch, are a metaphor for both Britain’s public school system (in Britain, for some topsy-turvy reason, private schools are referred to as public schools) and for the populace as a whole: literally kept in the dark. One very effective touch is that rather than building up a single villain in charge of the scheme, Jones emphasizes the team, which includes favorite Losey actors Alexander Knox and James Villiers.

vlcsnap-2020-04-04-14h31m40s071

Though nobody involved can breathe convincing life into the gang of delinquents led by a young Oliver Reed, who has not yet learned to whisper huskily, there are commendable efforts to avoid the tabloid news clichés: Reed’s character is obsessed with protecting his sister’s purity, “…because you’ve never had a girl yourself,” she charges. Losey’s command of visuals was increasing as he found more and more talented collaborators. Here, production designer Richard MacDonald creates frightening and dreamlike caves and classrooms for the little troglodytes, enhanced by  Elizabeth Frink’s sculptures of wingless, decayed birds. “Life has the power to change,” intones Knox, “After the first great explosion, strange, wonderful flowers, unknown before, bloomed in the desert.” The film continually aspires towards poetry, is dragged down by plodding convention, then soars again.

vlcsnap-2020-04-04-14h33m29s648

Arthur Grant’s black-and-white widescreen images are edited by Reginald Mills, who cut Michael Powell’s classics and would go on to cut The Servant (1963, written by Pinter) and King and Country (1964) for Losey. The sound design, dominated by crashing surf, anticipates the roaring breakers that give Losey’s later Boom! (1967) its title (“the shock of each moment of being alive.”)

vlcsnap-2020-04-04-14h40m42s338

Losey was able to make Eve the same year, a true European art film based on a novel by thriller writer James Hadley Chase, a prolific British plagiarist who established a career penning American pulp fiction despite never having been to the States, armed only with a dictionary of slang and a map. The star, Stanley Baker, was Welsh, the son of a coal miner: his stardom anticipated that of later working-class heroes like Connery and Caine. Here he plays a novelist whose book has elevated him into high society, apparently cutting him off from the wellspring of his talent: but in fact he’s an utter fraud, who stole the manuscript from his dead brother. His destructive relationship with the title character, played by Jeanne Moreau, and with the vulnerable Virna Lisi, leads to tragedy.

vlcsnap-2020-04-04-14h42m12s132

Losey hated the book and got Jones to change the setting from Hollywood to Italy, incorporating footage captured at the Venice Film Festival. There’s no sense that this is meant to be a thriller, and the producers were aghast at its running time (168 minutes in Losey’s original cut). But the remaining hard-boiled elements help balance Losey’s tendency to self-serious artiness, resulting in one of his most fully-achieved films, and there’s a much stronger sense that Jones knows the kind of people he’s writing about here (his best character in The Damned is the sculptor played by Viveca Lindfors: Jones feels the strain when called upon to script the inarticulate). He also had a gift for acid camp, here personified by James Villiers as an aloof screenwriter, who protests at a wedding, “Why should an intelligent man like myself be subjected to this kind of tribal ritual?”

vlcsnap-2020-04-04-14h43m48s877

Losey likes stuffing his films with art: the setting of Venice gives him a valid reason to do so. In fact, art is inescapable there. And Baker’s tortured intellectual, self-destructive and lashing out, suits him admirably. The pairing with Jones (blacklistee Hugo Butler also worked on the script) was proving fruitful.

vlcsnap-2020-04-04-14h48m24s212

Next, Jones adapted King and Country (1964) from a radio play written by one of the participants in the true life story it told: during WWI, a private is tried for desertion. It’s a clear case of shell shock, what we now call PTSD, but the court of officers cannot accept that because they daren’t allow any excuse for a soldier not “doing his duty.”

The tiny budget and cramped sets are overcome by Losey putting the focus strongly on his central performances. Dirk Bogarde, his other favorite actor of this period, plays the officer charged with defending Hamp, played by Tom Courtenay. Courtenay, the star of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Billy Liar (1963) is another of the new breed of regional, working-class actors (in his case, Yorkshire) who retained their original accents and introduced a new, understated naturalism. There’s an electrifying contrast with Bogarde, a Rank Organisation matinee idol who successfully rebelled against his image and, like Losey, made the transition to the arthouse, eventually working with Fassbinder, Visconti and Resnais.

vlcsnap-2020-04-04-14h48m12s374

The play had been essentially a transcription from memory of the trial. At Losey’s behest, Jones opened it up to include a mock trial conducted by enlisted men in which a rat, captured from a horse carcass, is prosecuted. Jones wrote this with a good deal of slang which, when combined with regional accents and somewhat difficult studio conditions (the film was originally intended for television and shot in a mere three weeks) result in some difficulties in audibility and comprehension, but this actually enhances the realism.

vlcsnap-2020-04-04-14h45m45s022

Unlike many reflections on the Great War (e.g. the recent 1917), Losey and Jones’ film eschews sentimentality and heroism. It is bitter and angry. The uneducated and traumatized Hamp, who has simply turned away from the guns and tried to walk home, is as guiltless as the rat and equally doomed. What cannot be admitted is that the war is unendurable.

modes

The final Jones collaboration was regarded at the time as an unmitigated disaster, and is still a film maudit. In fact, in his later career, Losey practically came to specialize in the film maudit, or what John Waters enthusiastically embraces as “the failed art film.” But Modesty Blaise (1966), based on a popular newspaper strip and intended as a parody of the James Bond franchise. It was, on the face of it, an incredible case of directorial miscasting. As Losey’s friend Richard Lester later said, “The last person that would come to mind to produce a movie that fits the adjective ‘zany’ would be Joe Losey.” “Antonioni,” claimed Losey, “said […] that it was ridiculous to try and parody the thing that one was oneself doing.”

Apart from the question of humor, Losey also strongly disapproved of the Bond films’ flippant  “violence for violence’s sake,” an attitude that may seem quaintly prudish today, but it was important to him.

mode

The resulting film, a pop art/op art pastiche based around nothing of any importance, is very attractive and, on paper, very funny. Jones was particularly successful at writing a camp villain for Dirk Bogarde to play with bleached blond hair, getting ironically overwrought about innocent lives wasted. “A father of two children, probably with a split-levek house in Woking, and a rubber plant in the lounge. Why can’t they be bachelors?!” At its best it hits a tone not elsewhere attempted and hard to pin down. When leads Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp abruptly burst into song (the film is not otherwise a musical and neither of them can really sing) the movie is not fracturing its own approach, it’s fulfilling it.

modesty_600

But part of the oddness is Losey’s approach and pacing, with his circling tracking shots which had now become a trademark: it moves like an arthouse drama, leaving way too much air around the witty dialogue. If you see it with an audience you can sense them trying to enjoy it, trying to hurry it along to be the thing it needs and deserves to be. Something like Barbarella (1968), carelessly shot and with about five good lines, works perfectly well, with a lot of burbling electronica to fill in the dead spots, whereas despite classic stuff like Bogarde pegged out on the desert sands calling out for “Champagne!”, Losey’s film seems to not know where the jokes are. Plus it’s 119 minutes long and it has no motor, because the central characters aren’t taking the situations seriously.

modesty

The film’s failure broke up the Losey-Jones partnership: Losey went on to direct Pinter screenplays Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971) while Jones worked on a scattershot collection of films without much apparent momentum or focus, but including one classic, Wake in Fright (1971).

Build the wall

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-10-07-13h09m05s172

If Trump becomes president, that wall’s going to be really useful to stop Americans fleeing to Mexico, isn’t it?

Another wall features in the film of Len Deighton’s FUNERAL IN BERLIN, scripted by Evan Jones (MODESTY BLAISE) and directed by Guy Hamilton (GOLDFINGER), which sets out to be as opposite to Modesty and Bond as it can be, and as close as possible to its illustrious predecessor, THE IPCRESS FILE. I was wrong earlier when I said Hamilton doesn’t attempt the Sid Furie style — although Otto Heller’s Teutonic camera only gets up close and personal with a lampshade on one occasion, and there’s a shortage of true hiding-behind-the-potted-palm angles, he does do plenty of crazy things to convince us we’re surveilling the action with hidden spycams.

vlcsnap-2016-10-07-13h11m14s175

  1. Lots and lots of low angle shots, which make Michael Caine look heroic but also equalise everyone’s height, so they stop Michael from towering over his co-stars.
  2. Composition in extreme depth and extreme length (widescreen).

vlcsnap-2016-10-07-13h10m22s156

3. Some over-the-shoulder shots that are all shoulder, the poor “subject” of the shot a distant dot, like Pluto.

vlcsnap-2016-10-07-13h17m40s188

4. Occasional Dutch (or Deutsch) tilts.

Hamilton is fully entitled to go Dutch, since he was assistant director on THE THIRD MAN. Whenever Harry Lime passes through shot and we don’t see his face, it’s Guy doubling for him. Guy “satchel-foot” Hamilton, we should call him.

I haven’t read this Deighton (yet) but Jones clearly departs from the novel in delivering scenes without Harry Palmer in them. He’s the narrator of the book so he’s kind of obliged to turn up for each scene in it. He may also have added a touch more action — Deighton made it a rule never to allow violence to solve the hero’s problems, a fine principle which will make anybody’s writing better — try writing an action movie in which violence never achieves its purpose for the hero, and you’ll have something interesting.

vlcsnap-2016-10-07-13h12m23s113

Hamilton, true to his Bondian experience, doesn’t distance and deglamorise the few bits of chop-socky or fisticuffs the way Furie did (shooting a punch-up from inside a phone booth while John Barry’s score noodles strange arpeggios of hallucinatory, Escher-like falling-yet-rising…). And John Barry does not return — instead we get, I must say, a very good and witty score from Konrad Elfers, suitably Germanic, but not as distinctive or cool as IPCRESS. Still, I kind of like the way this series kept changing its style.

Ken Adam is designer, another Bond connection. Few sets and no giant megalomaniac control rooms, but Adam follows the advice he got from Mike Todd and always thinks big — hence, the Berlin police station which Palmer cheekily uses as a recruiting office for crooks (“Tell me, is [such-and-such] the burglar still alive? And out of prison?”) seems to be a fucking cathedral. Why not? The East German equivalent is prison-like, windowless, dark, and apparently of limitless expanse.

vlcsnap-2016-10-07-13h17m09s144

Oscar Homolka plays the jocular, avuncular, ursine Colonel Stok, who would return in Ken Russell’s follow-up, and there’s fine work from Guy Doleman (the series’ only other regular) and Gunter Miesner (Yay! Mr. Slugworth from WILLIE WONKA). Eva Renzi is the weak spot, not projecting the toughness her character, an Israeli agent undercover as a fashion model hunting a fugitive Nazi, should have. Reading that description back, it all sounds too exotic for a Harry Palmer film anyway. She also doesn’t sell the romance, but Caine and the script don’t work very hard on that score either.

The twisty plot is based around one fairly obvious trick buried within and confused by lots of other, more peculiar and hard-to-guess ones, all in the shadow of a big, nasty wall.

The only things walls should be for is to keep the wind off us.

Drear Window

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 29, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-12-29-10h27m49s140

NIGHT WATCH (1973) with Liz Taylor — there’s no way to discuss the more interesting aspects of this one — and it has a couple — without spoilers, so I’m just going to wade in and give everything away.

The piece, adapted from a play, inverts the premise of LES DIABOLIQUES, so that our assumption of a conspiracy to gaslight Liz Taylor into madness, pointed to with heavy clues, turns out to be erroneous — Liz is actually setting up her own insanity defence, prior to murdering her unfaithful spouse (Laurence Harvey) and his mistress (Billie Whitelaw). By continually reporting corpses staring at her from the deserted house next door, Liz ensures that her final call will never be investigated — and now there ARE a couple of corpses sitting in the front room. The play with plot elements from Clouzot’s ground-breaking twist ending shocker continues with a coda in which Liz is caught bang to rights by a nosy neighbour — but instead of shopping her to the authorities, he lets her go in exchange for a generous consideration.

vlcsnap-2015-12-29-10h24m10s19

This is clever enough as far as it goes, but it means one watches most of the film with impatience, convinced one has it all figured out. And indeed, as far as the extra-marital affair is concerned, one has. What keeps the attention, if anything, is the wacky dream sequence flashbacks, which feature the always-welcome Linda Hayden (Hayden and her hubbie Robin Askwith were the Burtons of bare-ass British exploitation cinema in the seventies, so it’s fitting she should be here). Oh, and the awful dialogue and bizarre performances, where a simple inquiry like “Why can’t you sleep?” is spoken by Harvey with completely inexplicable aggression. Just imagine what he can do with a line like “I can handle a dead body, but your dead husband Carl is too much!” (MODESTY BLAISE scribe Evan Jones is credited with additional dialogue, but God knows…)

vlcsnap-2015-12-29-10h30m00s154

The visualisation of the scary empty house is extremely atmospheric (photography by Ken Russell collaborator Billy Williams), and at the climax, all of the film’s strong suits come together — the house, the nightmare imagery, and Linda Hayden, and the plot jumps the rails from Clouzot’s Boileau-Narcejac model, and it basically becomes a Brit giallo. Liz Taylor makes a fiendish stabber, as you’d expect. Short but vicious.