Archive for Fernando Rey

High Tec

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 7, 2015 by dcairns

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THE FRENCH CONNECTION II is a pretty good follow-up, really. Different enough from the original (we’re in France, the whole time, for one thing) it still has enough of the same grime (Marseille gives good grime), loud, incoherent sound, and surliness to feel like a continuation. Instead of a car chase, it has a foot chase at the end, and a loooong sequence where Gene Hackman’s ghastly Popeye Doyle gets forcibly shot up with skag by the baddies and then has to undergo a gruelling cold turkey in a French police cell. You almost feel sorry for him.

As Doyle’s opposite number, Bernard Fresson, that strange hybrid bull/bulldog/bullfrog is grumpy and leaden enough to make a good foil for the ugly American in his midst (if one man can be said to have a “midst” — and if any one man can, that man is surely Fresson).

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Ah, Popeye Doyle. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of his complete refusal to comprehend that French people speak French, a language containing several different words from English. And that slang expressions travel less well than simple, clear speech.

Gene Hackman probably had a better time on this one than on the original, since his star was rising and Frankenheimer generally looked after his stars (while yelling, crimson-faced at everyone else). William Friedkin had told him, “I wouldn’t even hire you to play Gene Hackman,” and he meant it to sting. Still, Hackman is put through his paces, here, what with the sweltering foot chase through the streets and docks, the cold turkey, and having to explain things to French bartenders. The movie could be usefully augmented by an insert of a cardiogram in the bottom left corner monitoring how close Popeye/Gene is getting to explosive infarction from one moment to the next.

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Cuddly

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2015 by dcairns

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In THE FRENCH CONNECTION II, Gene Hackman, pursuing Fernando Rey during a raid on his heroin lab, passes an inexplicable fluffy pooch, lolloping gaily in the opposite direction. A nod to Bunuel? Or does every heroin lab have a mascot?

While in THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, a painfully young Anthony Hopkins tucks his son into bed, ignoring a cuddly lion with Anthony Hopkins eyes.

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Tossing a coin, I think I’ll now proceed to deal with THE LOOKING GLASS WAR, a John Le Carre adaptation which sees John Box, David Lean’s designer, stepping up to produce, and Frank Pierson, prolific screenwriter, steps into the director’s chair. He does pretty well, I think — he shoots proper shots, with ideas behind them, not just coverage. Some of the cutting is fantastic, inventive and unusual in its rhythms and transitions. Some of it just doesn’t work. When we cut from one end of a room to another, it’s a shock to hear Ralph Richardson’s voice continue, because it looks like a scene change.

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Christopher Jones shares the spotlight with Hopkins. An up-and-coming prettyboy, he did a great James Dean impersonation in WILD IN THE STREETS — the muscles around his mouth pout and pucker and strain in exactly the configurations of Dean’s face, so it was biology as artistic destiny. Here, he’s dubbed because he couldn’t do a Polish accent, but David Lean didn’t realize that when he grabbed him for RYAN’S DAUGHTER. Unsuitably cast as a British officer, dubbed again, and straitjacketed by Lean’s meticulous direction, Jones seems to disappear from the screen even while he’s on it. An empty outline, a shadow floodlit out of existence, the sound of one hand failing to clap. Lean evidently hadn’t heard Nick Ray’s dictum: Don’t Fuck With A Natural. All Jones’s methody tricks added up to was a compulsion to muck about onscreen, to do what he felt like in the moment. Lean sat on his chest and wouldn’t let him have fun, so all his talent froze up and died.

Despite the dubbing, he’s alive in this one, playful and unpredictable. An exciting contrast with the Brits, who are all technique on the surface (but, of course, deeply eccentric in their essence — I very badly wanted to see Richardson to interact with Jones). Put together with Susan George, another untutored misbehaver, Jones turns sex panther (the two had a fling, brutally nullified when she brought over a toothbrush — “No way, baby,”). Her chubby face is out of control. It’s amazing seeing onset doc footage of her making STRAW DOGS, because the charismatic, cute girl you see is nowhere to be found in the sullen, dead-eyed performance Peckinpah captured. Here, she’s antic, a rough baby.

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Where the movie goes wrong is East Germany — once Jones is out on his own (in Cybulski shades) with no crisp Brits to bounce off, things go to pot. Le Carre MAY have been responsible for the wan guff of romance, gasped into the plot without a whiff of social reality — on an off-day, he can do twee — but Pierson should have stomped on it. The end creds say “Filmed at Shepperton Studios and on location in Europe” and those last bits feel as vague as that makes it sound, not helped by rendering dialogue in English which ought to be in German. Wally Stott parples away with his East German truck jazz as Jones and a leaden Pia Dagermark listlessly enjoy their idyll, overseen by a broken-toothed child who seems to squat on the movie’s chest, paralysing it like the imp in Fuselli’s Nightmare.

The wrap-up is satisfying, though it hits the button marked “message” rather too hard. The darkly ironic final twist helps take the curse off it.

Watching and Waiting: Desert of the Tartars

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2014 by dcairns

A regular contributor to the blogathon, Judy Dean, tackles a true late masterpiece for us this year.

***

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“I have made eight films, and these have a common theme, which is that life has no aim other than to watch itself go by. Force of illusion cannot sustain us, for there’s no idealism strong enough… But we’re not talking about a tragedy, merely a sadness… “ (Valerio Zurlini, 1926 – 1982)

Nothing illustrates this statement more effectively than Zurlini’s last film, Desert of the Tartars, made in 1976.  Adapted from the 1940 novel by Dino Buzzati (published in English under the title The Tartar Steppe), it is set in the late 19th century and tells the story of Giovanni Drogo, an idealistic young army officer setting out for his first posting to an isolated frontier fort.

He explains on arrival that he has been assigned to the fort by mistake and wishes to apply for a transfer but is persuaded, in the interests of his career, to stay for two months.  Caught up in a web of surreal Catch 22–like bureaucracy, and clinging to the vain hope that one day there will be an attack on the fort and his dreams of military action will be realised, Drogo’s two months turn into twenty years.

Buzzati, an Italian journalist, said that “the idea of the novel came out of the monotonous night shift I was working on at Corriere della Sera in those days.  It often occurred to me that that routine would never end and so would eat up my whole life quite pointlessly.  It’s a common enough feeling, I think, for most people.”

Indeed it is.  You may not be a soldier, you may not be young, or male, but if you have ever begun a job with high hopes only to find yourself sometime later trapped by inertia, by familiar routine, aware your life is slipping away but apparently powerless to prevent it, then you will find Drogo’s situation all too familiar.

The novel, described as a surrealist masterpiece and most often compared to Kafka and Orwell, became an international best seller and several major directors, including Visconti, Lean and Antonioni, expressed an interest in adapting it for the screen.  However, the film rights were held by Jacques Perrin, the young French actor who had appeared in two of Zurlini’s early features – Girl with a Suitcase (1961) and Family Portrait (1962) – and when, in the seventies, he got together the financial backing, Perrin turned to the man he regarded as his mentor.  Perrin took the lead role as well as co-producing while Zurlini directed and is also credited with the Italian dialogue.

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To play Drogo’s fellow officers an extraordinary international and multi-lingual cast was assembled. The characters portrayed by Max von Sydow, Fernando Rey, Philippe Noiret, Vittorio Gassman and Jean-Louis Trintignant depict different responses – ennui, stoicism, delusion, fanaticism – to the tedium of a military routine that is punctuated only by false alarms and dashed hopes.  How the casting was achieved is not entirely clear.  Was Zurlini’s reputation among actors riding high at the time?  Perrin’s character has much of the screen time and this illustrious group is given little to work with, but does so supremely well.  Trintignant, for example, playing the garrison doctor, has about four lines of dialogue and Fernando Rey, an ageing Colonel, none at all.  Did some end up on the cutting room floor?  Who knows?  If only we had a director’s cut.

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Two lesser known actors make striking contributions.  Laurent Terzieff, primarily a stage actor, plays Count von Amerling, a sickly Lieutenant, whose treatment at the hands of the sadistic Major Matti results in his death. Terzieff has as few lines as other cast members, but his face alone ought to ensure his place in the annals of cinema.

Major Matti is played by Giuliano Gemma, a former stunt man and better known at the time for sword and sandals epics, but whose performance here was to earn him a Donatello Award.

But it is not the performances, excellent though they are, for which this film is remembered, but its setting, one of the most dramatic – and ultimately tragic – in film history.

Drogo’s nationality is never made explicit, and the uniforms give nothing away.  Some commentators have assumed the fort to be located on the edges of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but that is surely too literal an interpretation.  The film starts conventionally enough with Drogo leaving his small-town home, having bid farewell to his mother and fiancée, and setting out on horseback across green meadows.  He says to his companion, a fellow cadet who has come to see him off, that he doesn’t know what the fort looks like, only that it is distant.  In the next shot he is traversing a featureless, rock-strewn desert of a kind unknown in Europe to the accompaniment of an eerie Morricone score.  Clearly, this will not be the standard military adventure the title sequence leads us to expect.

Zurlini, a passionate art collector and student of art history, is reported to have been inspired, in his search for the right location for the fort, by this painting of Giorgio Chirico entitled La Torre Rosso.

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But elsewhere, the choice is said to have been determined by incentives offered to filmmakers at the time by the pre-revolutionary government of Iran.  As one of Perrin’s co-producers is Bahman Farmanara, who went on the following year to produce Kiarostami’s first feature, this may well be the case.  Whatever lay behind it, the final choice was stunningly effective.  The film was shot in the magnificent citadel of Bam in South-East Iran, close to the Afghan border.  A Silk Road fortress, dating to the 5th century BC, Bam was the largest adobe complex in the world, covering an area of more that 180,000 square metres and surrounded by seven-metre high walls.

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It’s necessary to use the past tense because in 2003 the citadel was destroyed by an earthquake in which many thousands in the city lost their lives.  The film has therefore become a poignant reminder of its former glory.  Bam is classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and the current regime in Iran, with international aid, is undertaking restoration work but its long-term future is far from secured.

The film achieved some commercial and critical success in Europe, especially in Italy where in 1977 it won Donatello awards for Best Film and Best Director (as well as Giuliano Gemma’s aforementioned acting prize), but it was never released in the USA.

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Zurlini committed suicide in 1982 at the age of 56, possibly as a result of financial and alcohol problems.  Here’s what Claudia Cardinale who appeared in Girl with a Suitcase said of him in an NFT interview in 2003.  “He was a wonderful director and a man of great refinement.  His apartment in Rome was full of wonderful paintings.  We became close friends; he gave me one of his paintings after that film.  Then one day in 1981, he invited me to his apartment in Rome.  When I got there the place was bare.  Everything sold.  There were only packing cases.  He ordered in a gourmet meal and we ate it off packing cases.  Then he went to his home in Venice (sic) and killed himself.”  (Other sources give his place of death as Verona.)

Never as well known outside of Italy as he deserved, Zurlini’s reputation went into a decline following his death, but despite something of a revival in the past decade, thanks to DVD releases and retrospectives, there is still a dearth of information about him (at least in English) and you will search in vain for his name in the reference books.  A re-evaluation is long overdue.

My thanks go to Rolland Man of the University of Edinburgh on whose recommendation I first saw this superb film.