Archive for Fear and Desire

The Round-Up

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2010 by dcairns

PAIN

James Stewart in THE MAN FROM LARAMIE.

James Mason in THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE.

One could of course go on… Stewart suffers considerably in Mann’s westerns, being shot through the hand in both LARAMIE and THE FAR COUNTRY (like Robert Ryan in MEN IN WAR), while Mason’s hand-burning ordeal in TFOTRE seems like a direct reprise of LARAMIE. Both are co-written by Philip Yordan, and in fact both feature a recognisable trio of characters — an ailing patriarch (Donald Crisp in LARAMIE, Alec Guinness in TFOTRE), his stupid and vicious son (Alex Nicol and Christopher Plummer) and the devoted friend and almost-adopted son who should inherit by right of being the competent one (Arthur Kennedy and Stephen Boyd). See also Yordan’s MEN IN WAR script for another ailing surrogate father.

Mann’s films pair up in interesting ways, often via casting — he was fond of reusing actors he liked, often in wildly contrasting roles: there’s very little of the stability one finds in Hawks or Ford’s use of their stock company. Of course, Jimmy Stewart is always the leading man when he’s around, but his roles vary considerably in amicability — as has often been noted, Mann’s pushing of the Stewart persona into neurotic and obsessive territory prefigures and prepares for Hitchcock’s use of the star in VERTIGO.

THE FAR COUNTRY and BEND OF THE RIVER, which I watched back-to-back, very nearly blur together due to the similar gold rush background and the repeat casting of and Harry Morgan and Royal Dano and Jay C Flippen (Manny Farber is amusingly horrified by this guy: “Probably the worst actor that ever moved into a movie.” My friend Comrade K semi-concurs: “He has a face like a tick”).

STENTORIA

“Only a trained investigator would have attached any significance to those two words: steam baths.”

After making twelve movies, including DESPERATE and RAILROADED which feel pretty mature and Mann-like — Mann entered the realms of the strident voice-over: known as STENTORIA.

In Stentoria, all the stories are factual, and only the names have been changed, to protect the innocent. Stentoria encompasses T-MEN (above and below images) and HE WALKED BY NIGHT and SIDE STREET and BORDER INCIDENT, but the voice-over diminishes in prominence and increases in subtlety as Mann develops. The VO guy in T-MEN sounds like he has a bad cold (as does Robert “terror of Salzburg”  Cummings in REIGN OF TERROR), and he talks for HALF THE FILM. I protested against this, until my friend Comrade K pointed out how scary the film gets when the VO suddenly and unaccountably GOES AWAY (“From here on you’re on your own!”) and leaves us in the meaty hands of Charles McGraw. By the time Knox Manning opens and closes BORDER INCIDENT with a few reassuring words, we have a guy who seems to be impersonating Mark Hellinger’s famous VO in THE NAKED CITY: much more laid-back and mellifluous. And as previously noted, VO guy Robert Rietty in FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE sounds like Mann himself.

T-MEN: John Alton, photographer:

A DANDY IN ASPIC, photographed by Christopher Challis.

Thinking about Charles McGraw — as I do — I realize that not only must Mann be responsible for McGraw being in SPARTACUS, but that the Mann scenes in that movie are not only the best scenes, but also the most Kubrickian! All the gladiator training stuff which so neatly prefigures FULL METAL JACKET… and MEN IN WAR is clearly the movie that Kubrick’s tyro effort FEAR AND DESIRE wants to be…

“Freedom isn’t a thing you should be able to give me, Miss Ginny. Freedom is something I should’ve been born with.” An impressive line delivered by Ruby Dee in the equally impressive THE TALL TARGET.

DELICIOUS HOT

A fellow film blogger in New York admitted to limited experience of Mann and wondered if he wasn’t perhaps a cold filmmaker — I wouldn’t agree, although in their different ways T-MEN, TFOTRE and A DANDY IN ASPIC either avoid or miss the warmer emotions. Certainly the gentler passions are less likely to figure prominently in Mann’s work, but nobody can make cold movies with Jimmy Stewart. I’d point to Aline McMahon’s abiding love for Donald Crisp in LARAMIE as a good example of the powerful feeling Mann can evoke without seeming to try too hard, and the affection of Stewart for Walter Brennan in THE FAR COUNTRY is a similar example.

Here’s my shortlist of Mann favourites, all of which have tender moments as well as angry ones –

RAW DEAL — a great “women’s noir” with a groovy theremin theme. I like Marsha Hunt a lot, but Claire Trevor steals the show.

WINCHESTER ’73 — just about my fave of the Stewart westerns. Borden Chase (I heard he took his name from Lizzie Borden and Chase Manhattan Bank, figuring the combo would be memorable) had a real flair for rambling structures which somehow achieve a feeling of tightness — maybe just because they’re so action-packed, maybe also because they’re tied to strong characterisations for Stewart each time.

THE TALL TARGET — beautiful train thriller to compare with Fleischer’s THE NARROW MARGIN, and it uses its little scrap of history (heavily embroidered, no doubt) to tackle some actual politics.

THE NAKED SPUR — Stewart’s most driven performance for Mann, with fine support from Ryan and Meeker.

THE LAST FRONTIER — well, *I* like it anyway. Apart from the tacked-on ending, this is another study in the exercise of power by the inadequate (a big Mann theme — well, he did work under the studio system!) and the taking of power by the better suited.

MEN IN WAR — maybe the best Korean War movie? Hearing Robert Ryan deny the existence of the USA carries a blasphemous thrill.

MAN OF THE WEST — the best, because the darkest, of all Mann’s westerns. The abuse of Julie London’s sympathetic Billie borders on the gloating, and the fact that her character is virtually abandoned at the “happy ending”, while disturbing, is what makes this so powerful. For once, too much has happened for a Hollywood ending to mean what it should.

The only “cold” film on the list of real greats might be REIGN OF TERROR, but I’m not sure “cold” really applies to such a blazing, apocalyptic yarn.

NOIR AWAY SO CLOSE

I’ve been alert, hopefully, to the transition of Mann’s noir sensibility to westerns and epics, and find it really invigorates some traditional-looking oaters: THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is a proper detective story, with Stewart being constantly warned to stay off the case, being framed for murder, etc. (It also has a weird, mythic/biblical side, with prophetic dreams that influence a major character’s actions.) The romantic triangle of RAW DEAL is reconfigured in later epics like TFOTRE and, I seem to recall, maybe EL CID too. Certainly HEROES OF TELEMARK has it, and Mann says in the DVD extra interview that this was part of what attracted him.

Think of it: Mann made noirs in the ’40s, westerns in the ’50s and epics in the ’60s. At the end, he made an espionage movie, and that might well have been the next phase of his career had he lived longer (REIGN OF TERROR is basically a Hitchcockoan spy thriller set in the past). Mann was Mr. Fashionable.

T-MEN and A DANDY IN ASPIC.

COUNTRY LIFE

“Help me, Ty Ty!”

“Where are you, Pluto?”

“Ah fell in a hole!”

“Well, which hole you in?”

“This very, very deep one!”

The “comedy” of GOD’S LITTLE ACRE is only occasionally funny, despite the presence of Buddy Hackett, whose face is funny even in repose (and it’s never really in repose). Buddy Hackett is known in the UK as “that fat guy in the back of Herbie.” All in all, the movie is like the unsuccessful comedy cousin of THE FURIES, and while Robert Ryan might have been able to play Huston’s role, he’s not ideally suited to his own — much as I love him, he doesn’t have funny bones.

THE FURIES is striking for many reasons, one being the flaunting of the Production Code — apart from the scissors flung in Judith Anderson’s face, there’s the fact that morality has little to do with which characters are sympathetic in this movie, and it fails to determine which are alive at the end.

YOU NEED HANDS

In the edition of the BBC’s The Movies featured as an extra on Criterion’s lovely disc of THE FURIES, Mann cites Murnau as an influence (he seems about to name a couple more directors, but the piece seems to have been edited to exclude them — Welles would seem like a plausible name to drop though, wouldn’t he? Incidentally, the BBC seems to have hung onto outtakes from several Movies interviews, so it’s not impossible a diligent researcher might find what else Mann said…). He talks with enthusiasm about the way figures grow from small and distant to large and close in Murnau, and the dramatic force this imparts, and reminisces about the climax of TABU –

Mann certainly shows skill in his use of size… the way his compositions bristle with repressed, barely contained energy, and the way each edit snaps the tension into a new configuration is one of his key qualities. This single shot from REIGN OF TERROR maybe shows the influence of Murnau –

The Terror of Strasburg checks his teeth in the mirror –

Then adjusts his wig, at which point Robert Cummings POUNCES LIKE A TIGER –

In the struggle, the mirror is tilted downwards so it now reflects the T of S’s hand as it clutches the dresser, and then Cummings comes in with a dagger — Cummings is apparently NUDE, it seems — all ready to steal the T of S’s clothing and identity.

The clutching hand spasms and falls from view after the dagger descends.

In a purely whimsical touch (grim whimsy), the naked hand reaches up and post-coitally snuffs the T of S’s candle.

BEHIND THE DOOR

Just watched THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY. Robert Taylor as an Indian is one of the silliest bits of casting I can imagine, and he always bored me as a star, but if you can get past the shoe polish he actually gives a good perf. The pro-Indian stance is commendable, and John Alton’s inky photography, Mann’s dynamism, and Guy Trosper’s script, which gives all the poetic lines to repellant-yet-suave villain Louis “Ambassador Trentino” Calhern, stop it being anything like a PC snooze.

Mann’s westerns nearly always centre around a powerful injustice — count the minutes until Jimmy Stewart gets robbed in each one — and DEVIL’S D politicizes this. It’s an incredibly strong hook, the theme of injustice, which communicates to everybody: “When a child says, ‘It’s not fair!’ the child can be believed,” says Tom Stoppard’s script for SQUARING THE CIRCLE. Even those who are regularly unjust themselves usually got that way because they suffered injustice and decided life wasn’t fair. Yet this universally powerful theme is largely avoided in modern movies — I have a theory audience testing may be reponsible — when they ask the mob, “What was your least favourite scene?” the mob are going to say, “I didn’t like it when they burned Jimmy Stewart’s wagons / shot him in the hand.” Of course, you’re not meant to like them! So those scenes don’t get made nowadays, and the films stop being about anything. The heroes in modern action movies seem to spend the whole films WINNING.

THE DEVIL’S DOORWAY has the bleakest ending of any Mann, I think. He was apparently very pleased with it.

FINAL FRONTIER

In THE LAST FRONTIER, Victor Mature plays Cooper, a scout who laughs at danger! Ah-ha-ha-ha! Despite using rather urban types in its cast — Anne Bancroft and Stuart Whitman offer strong support — the movie still evokes a convincing atmosphere of Civil War era Indian fighting, perhaps because it avoids cliched behaviour so thoroughly. In scene 1, Big Victor and his trapper pals are surrounded by hostile Indians. They sit down and eat lunch. You don’t see that every day.

If filmmakers avoid cliche (big if) and if they believe in the anti-cliched behaviour they present (as someone like Hawks clearly did), it seems they have a good chance at presenting interesting situations.

For all that it presents maybe the first thoroughly bad cavalry officers in western movie history (a very good Robert Preston, snagging moments of sympathy when the script exposes his underlying insecurity), the heart of the film is primitive Victor’s relationship with Bancroft, the officer’s wife, which is painfully convincing. The adulterous triangle leads us into strong noir territory, as do the covert liaisons in EL CID and ROMAN EMPIRE, which were also co-scripted by Philip Yordan, whose keen interest in military life is also displayed in a Mann masterpiece, MEN IN WAR.

And with its widescreen photography, the movie is perhaps Mann’s most handsome colour western.

FILMS I HAVEN’T WATCHED

Couldn’t get EL CID or DOCTOR BROADWAY in time, but hope to see them soon.

Wasn’t sure if THE BAMBOO BLONDE was worth it.

Didn’t bother with THE GLENN MILLER STORY yet, despite Fiona’s vivid memory of being frightened by the iron lung.

THUNDER BAY was in a sense topical, with it’s oil men versus fishermen plot, but the solution, suggesting that the oil biz would be good for fishing, sounded like it might come off as embarrassingly dated. Still, I bet the movie’s at least interesting.

The former Anthony Bundsmann is a somewhat mysterious figure, little being known about his past. I’m frustrated by not knowing any films he wanted to make but was unable to — these unmade films are often most revealing. I’ll offer one up — with his obsession with determined men whose refusal to compromise has fatal consequences, he’d have been the perfect man to film Von Kleist’s Michael Kohlhaas. Instead, Milos Forman made it as part of RAGTIME and John Badham made it as THE JACK BULL.

The End… almost.

Buy: Man of the West

Perfectionist, my ass!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2008 by dcairns

Perfection is in the eye of the beholder.

the colours are all wrong!

‘I’m getting a little weary of the “crazed perfectionist” tag.’ ~ Stanley Kubrick.

This is about KUBRICK’S MISTAKES. I like mistakes. As Lars Von Trier’s T-shirt said during the making of BREAKING THE WAVES, “Mistakes are good.” Only sensible thing he ever said.

“A director is someone who presides over accidents,” as Welles said.

And all the talk about Kubrick’s meticulousness, while it certainly describes a real phenomenon, can get rather predictable, can become a barrier to seeing the films. So this piece is about the OTHER Kubrick, the goofy bungler whose films are a collection of cock-ups and fumbles.

Crazed old-timer

Yeah, right.

But let’s see what we can find. Evidence of errors in Kubrick’s work would point to a filmmaker willing to allow a bit of slippage as long as it’s in the service of creating an interesting scene.

EYES WIDE SHUT. Start at the end — because early stuff might look like youthful inexperience. This movie has a real beaut: during the bathroom scene early on, where Cruise treats a girl who has overdosed, Kubrick and the camera crew are reflected in a bathroom mirror on the far right of the frame. No mistaking it.

When David Wingrove saw the film with his partner Roland Man, Roland was incandescent at this aggravated howler: “They — had — over a year – to — shoot — it!” he hissed.

Wardrobe malfunction.

But by the time the film came to video and DVD, the offending edge action was gone, either masked out by the transfer to 4:3 framing, or removed by some digital jiggery-pokery by the Kubrick heirs. Yet they had been adamant that the film was “finished” at the time of SK’s death — if so, what business did they have tinkering subsequently? Either Kubrick somehow missed the offending material not only during filming, but all through post, or he decided it didn’t matter to him, or he had some plan to eliminate it but neglected to tell anyone: any way you cut it, this was an amusing Ed Woodian slip-up, and that just makes me like Stan more.

Kubrickians either love or are embarrassed by EWS, but what of FULL METAL JACKET? One correspondent to a film magazine pointed out that Kube’s careful reconstruction of Viet Nam in London’s docklands failed because the cloud patterns were all wrong, and they have a point — if what we’re after is complete realism. South East Asian skies, as seen for real in South East Asian films, look hazy and diffuse compared to those of Southern England.

The IMDb lists 59 mistakes in the film, mostly continuity but several factual and a few anachronisms. This kind of stuff can get pretty boring to enumerate, but I like the fact that Private Pyle shoots himself on different toilets according to different camera angles, and that there’s a crewmember in blue jeans lying in the rubble during a long steadicam shot going into battle.

Some continuity problems may stem from the delay in shooting during the training scenes: R. Lee Ermey caved in his rib cage crashing his motorcycle in Epping Forest and shooting was suspended until he’d recovered. So the fact that extras swap places while standing to attention, for instance, is not altogether surprising.

The numerous errors listed with firearms, such as full cartridges than should be empty, and guns firing without being cocked, mainly suggest that Kubrick was not so very concerned with technical accuracy in minor details, unless it helped his dramatic purpose — he would play fast and loose with authenticity when it made life easier, and during the “battlefield” of shooting there would be numerous minor screw-ups which were not worth re-shooting.

(PLATOON has only 29 mistakes listed, surprising when you consider how low the budget and short the schedule were, compared to FMJ, and also when you consider how many drugs Oliver Stone supposedly takes.)

Only idiots really care passionately about continuity mistakes (and blog about them). Kubrick was no idiot.

Overacting!

THE SHINING. I swear to God, when the camera crash-zooms in on the slain Scatman Crothers, he blinks.

Typo: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull bot.” There are LOTS of typos, and of course I’m being silly, they’re meant to be there.

When the phone rings in the kitchen (Jack’s got the job), Shelley Duvall moves smoothly to answer it as if she knew it was going to happen. It’s not quite a gaffe, but it suggests the downside to all those retakes: things can get a little too rehearsed-looking.

The really nice, suggestive one, is how the previous caretaker is named as Charles Grady when he’s first discussed, then Jack Nicholson calls him Delbert Grady when they meet, and Grady is fine with this. What’s going on? How does a filmmaker get a major character’s name wrong? It just adds to the weirdness, so I’d argue that it WORKS, but I don’t think it’s intentional.

Shadowplay: There are lots of camera shadows visible in Kubrick’s films, because he moves the camera a lot. I never used to notice camera shadows until I started making films, then I realised what a nightmare they are. In one shot on a student film, I edited, the crew put an actress’s wig on the camera, transforming a camera shadow into a character shadow.

Weak dancing.

BARRY LYNDON. A few minor anachronisms: the term “strychnine” is used, a Yellow Labrador appears (not bred until 1899). The intriguing one is the car driving through shot in the duel with Leonard Rossiter — I’ve never managed to see it, but more than one source insists it’s there. My T.V. is not that small, plus I’ve seen the film projected several times. But I’d love the rumours to be true.

you can see the crew!

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Patrick Magee’s entire performance is one glorious misjudgement.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. During the Russian Leonard Rossiter blather on the space station, Kubrick is guilty of one of the most egregiously ugly shot changes ever. It’s just a slight jump in shot distance, but it’s really LOUSY film-making. It’s about the only thing of note. Oh, when Heywood Floyd is on the vidphone to his/Kubrick’s daughter, the phone-camera TILTS to keep her in frame as she wriggles about. Pretty clever phone!

lights reflected in shot!

DR. STRANGELOVE. My favourite here is Peter Bull, as the Russian ambassador, struggling to keep a straight face behind Sellers’ Strangelove monologue. People laughing is never funny, but people trying NOT to laugh is delicious torture.

Gorgeous George

I like how George C. Scott falls over in mid-spiel. It feels like it HAS to be either an accident (nobody would script that, it just wouldn’t be funny on the page) or, possibly, Scott goofing around to keep himself entertained during the countless retakes. It’s said that his rather extreme performance came about through boredom, and he was a trifle dismayed when Kubrick cut together the film using only the most exaggerated and grotesque takes. A lot of those re-takes appear to have been motivated by a DESIRE for something to go wrong, for something fascinating and unrepeatable to happen. Thus, Kubrick’s most famous directions: “Do something remarkable,” or, as he liked to quote Cocteau, “Astonish me.”

LOLITA. I like this one — the IMDb suggests that Kubes can be seen walking through frame right at the start, as Humbert enters Quilty’s house. It’s certainly a mistake, but it’s not SK onscreen: why would he be in front of the camera at the start of a take? It’s the clapper boy, running for cover. SOMEBODY made a mistake when editing the dissolve from the previous scene. When you edit rushes for a 48-frame dissolve, you simply cut in the centre of where the dissolve will be, then mark the timing of the dissolve with a chinagraph pencil (I learned old fashioned film cutting just before it died out), 24 frames on either side. Whoever cut this part made the cut right after the clapper boy left, instead of waiting another 24 frames. So even though he wouldn’t have been visible in the cutting copy, when the dissolve came back from the lab, there he is in all his inappropriate glory, disappearing from view exactly halfway through the mix. So either there was no money to recut, or Kubes didn’t notice, or BETTER, didn’t mind. (It’s very brief.)

the phantom clapper

(You can see the Clapper’s arm at bottom right here.)

SPARTACUS. A truck definitely DOES drive through this one! Plus Tony Curtis wearing a Rolex, and the full panoply of Hollywood anachronism and discontinuity.

PATHS OF GLORY. The IMDb lists four goofs, including another blinking corpse. One character says he’s unmarried at the start and talks about his wife at the end. This makes me pbscurely happy. A whirlwind engagement!

John Gavin is cast in the film, despite not being a very good actor.

THE KILLING. A few continuity and firearms goofs. Supposedly most of what the V.O. says is inaccurate because Kubes didn’t want a V.O. in the first place.

KILLER’S KISS. The warehouse fight. SK “crosses the line” repeatedly during the fight in the dummy warehouse. He does this deliberately in other films, jumping exactly 180º in odd ways in FULL METAL JACKET and THE SHINING, but here the effect is disruptive and confusing, all but ruining the film’s most promising sequence. A beginner’s mistake.

FEAR AND DESIRE. Too many screw-ups to list. I think Stan should have cast his hot wife, Toba, in it. That would have helped.

Mrs K

We could take the Malcolm McDowell view: “The human element will trip you up every time. If it wasn’t for that, he could make the perfect film,” which presupposes that the “perfection” aimed at is chimeric and the quest for it quixotic. But Kubrick was well aware of the problems. Steadicam operator Garrett Morris has said, “We would have long conversations about the elusive nature of perfection. After ten takes the thing falls off the wall because the tape holding it there peeled, entropy takes over, we’re all getting older…”

I prefer to think that the obsessive repetition was just what Kubrick always said it was: a desire to keep filming until something happened that was worth putting in a film. It’s not a futile quest for an unattainable ideal, just the desire to keep going until something wonderful occurs in front of the lens. Kubrick’s opinion of what’s wonderful may differ from yours, sometimes, but it’s perfectly commendable to strive for it, and to not care too much how many mistakes are made along the way.

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