Archive for Finlay Currie

Nothing’s Wasted

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 3, 2020 by dcairns

The good thing about running a blog is that nothing’s wasted. So I’ve inadvertently written over a thousand words for an essay that doesn’t need them, and I can find a home from them here —

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My impression of previous British cinematic treatment of the working class is that it was unconvincing and reeking of music hall exaggeration. There were stars like George Formby (a grotesque northern gump with a savant-like talent for the ukulele) and Gracie Fields (a braying fishwife with a singing voice that could shatter concrete) enjoyed periods of great popularity, especially in the same northern industrial areas which would later birth most of the new realism.

Films such as IN WHICH WE SERVE and THIS HAPPY BREED did make an effort to sympathetically and convincingly portray the 99% of people who did not live in Mayfair and drink cocktails, but there was always a strange distance from reality. Screenwriter Noel Coward and star John Mills had gone to such efforts to eradicate all trace of their modest, regional origins that their resumption of it had a gingerly quality which didn’t suppress all emotion by any means (both films are quite moving) but did keep naturalism at arm’s length. Added to that was the studio-bound nature of most British cinema at the time. Other centres of excellence like the Archers (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) and Ealing mostly kept working class characters as amusing or pathetic supporting characters, again with a somewhat theatrical playing style.

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But there were exceptions. The gifted journeyman Wolf Rilla directed THE END OF THE ROAD (1954), a little-known gem about a factory worker (Finlay Currie) struggling to cope with retirement after a long, productive life in industry. The depiction of his home life, sharing a tiny flat with his son, daughter-in-law and grandson, is convincing, compassionate and wholly lacking in condescension (script was by James Forsyth and Geoffrey Orme. It also spiced up its naturalism (lots of location filming by canals) with expressionistic touches such as Dutch tilts to convey its elderly protagonist’s disorientation.

What was lacking in early efforts like this was sex appeal. The arrival of Albert Finney, David Hemmings, Terence Stamp, Michael Caine, Sean Connery et al was part of a weakening of old class-based restrictions that had prevented anyone with a regional accent from being seen as glamorous or desirable. (There were sadly fewer female stars, and only the most conventionally well-spoken of them, Julie Christie, has enjoyed a really long stardom. Carol White died tragically young and the iconic Rita Tushingham is unique in every way.)

Final Curtain for Mr. Curtiz

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2018 by dcairns

This is a hilarious directorial credit: an unresurrected Christ lying just below the moniker of a man moments from death himself. Well, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you?

The idea of making a study of late Curtiz would normally only occur to somebody actually writing a book on the Hungarian-born filmmaker, because the view has long been that Curtiz had a strong sense of visual style but no particular set of obsessions to make a traditional auteur of him. So why look at his later, not-so good movies?

Curtiz made every kind of film, it seems. (Those who claim to have made every kind of film tend to be lacking in the horror, sci-fi and musical departments, but Curtiz made those too.) He brought a strong visual sensibility, but apparently cared nothing for themes and not much for actors or story. His boss, Jack Warner, wrote: “I had a general conversation with Mike Curtiz in the usual Curtiz manner in the dining room at noon, and all he talked about were the sets and that he wants to build a fort somewhere else, and all a lot of hooey. I didn’t hear him say a word about the story. In other words, he’s still the same old Curtiz—as he always will be!”

B. Kite is very good on this here. (Scroll down past my nonsense.)

B. also once opined to me that Curtiz maybe only works in black & white, though perhaps it’s truer and fairer to say that a certain quality of Curtiz comes through strongest that way. I think his two-strip terrors MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and DOCTOR X. are terrific, so maybe Curtiz is still Curtiz with two strips of colour, but loses out with three. There are definitely good colour films made by Curtiz: THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, WE’RE NO ANGELS, etc. But they don’t quite have the distinct visual splendour of his WB monochrome movies. B. sees him, I think, as a very pure channel for the WB house style.

Still, the first thing to be said about Curtiz’s last three features is that they’re visually lovely, at least in places. All three are widescreen, and he seems able to adapt his tight compositions to the 1:2.35 frame ratio more comfortably than I would imagine 1:1.88 might suit him. A degree of difficulty helps him, and widescreen and academy ratio are both hard to compose for (snakes and funerals on the one hand, bungalows and bulldogs on the other).

   

THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1960) is frequently absolutely gorgeous, which matters a lot because it doesn’t quite find the right tone: you feel like some very good humour is being reported to you by somebody who doesn’t quite get it. Eddie Hodges (Huck) and Archie Moore (Jim) are decent, but don’t seem to gel with each other or anybody else. The rest of the cast go for big and broad: Tony Randall makes the most and then some of a series of phony accents, partnered up with Mickey Shaugnessy to create a team similar to the bad guys in Disney’s PINOCCHIO; Buster Keaton forms another of his unlikely double acts with Andy Devine, and doesn’t get to MOVE; Finlay Currie is fine as always. The best completely straight perf is Neville Brand, authentically scary and nasty as Pap Finn.

Now, as far back as THE EGYPTIAN in 1954, Peter Ustinov had formed the impression that Curtiz was not all there. He had always laboured under a considerable linguistic handicap (his mangling of the language was legendary, and wonderfully poetic at times — “Bring on the empty horses!” was evocative enough for David Niven to use it as title for one of his memoirs), and this combined with age and his disengagement from his actors maybe made him not the ideal man to do Twain. But he had succeeded at many other unlikely subjects in the past.

The Cinemascope stiffness, coupled with Curtiz’s own, the big, forced performances, and a lot of overplaying whenever Huck has to invent a “stretcher,” combine to stifle most of the comic possibilities here, so what we get instead is some moderate suspense and a pageant of grotesque characters and attractive settings. Ted D. McCord does a great job shooting it and Jerome Moross provides a typically ebullient score. It’s not poor, but it’s not quite alive.

Never mind, FRANCIS OF ASSISI (1961) is a religious epic, so you wouldn’t ever expect it to be alive, and it sure doesn’t disappoint. Saint-to-be Francis is played by a series of beautiful matte paintings of Bradford Dillman, Stuart Whitman is his frenemy/rival, and Dolores Hart the girl he throws over for God. She’s the only one in the film who breathes any humanity into her role, struggling against stiff dialogue and stilted situations. There’s a surprising lack of miracles and the animal-taming bit is given very  little play, surprisingly. Finlay Currie is fine as always, promoted from riverboat captain to pope, a big step up for an Edinburgh man.

   

Lots of spectacle, some of it impressive. The landscapes and the groupings of people fill the frame inventively, but Curtiz’s signature camera moves are becoming ever less frequent. He’ll push in occasionally; follow people about a little; but the grand sweep of his glory days when he’d hurry on to a set at an acute angle to the action, letting foreground furniture flash past, that’s all gone.

Bradford Dillman is someone I quite like, but he’s hopelessly adrift here. I’m not sure who could animate the script’s plaster saint. Occasional lines referring to Francis as “little” make you imagine someone intended him to be mild-mannered and tiny: by chance, Mervyn Johns is to hand, and I thought to myself, “Get me a young Mervyn Johns.” It can only work as a character part, as it’s so sexless. (Dillman could have slid some sly sensuality in there if there’d been the faintest opportunity: isn’t that what he’s for? Those lips!)

Piero Portalupi shot it and Mario Nascimbene provides the choral uplift.The film Curtiz bowed out on, however, was THE COMANCHEROS, released the same year (Curtiz died, aged 75, the following year). It’s pretty fair, I guess. If I liked John Wayne a bit more, or Stuart Whitman at all, I might call it an impressive finish for him. I think Whitman is miscast as a New Orleans gent on the run for killing a man in a duel. A lot of this movie is supposed to be enjoyable because of the spectacle of the plebeian Duke shoving his highfalutin prisoner around, but Whitman isn’t enough of a toff. You need Peter Lawford, probably. Wow, I never thought I’d type those words.

John Wayne had quite a track record of late films, didn’t he? After all there’s this, RIO LOBO, which was Howard Hawks’ last; BIG JAKE, George Sherman’s last; JET PILOT, a late Sternberg; BLOOD ALLEY, a late Wellman; TRUE GRIT, a late Hathaway; and THE CONQUEROR, which killed just about everyone in it. He also directed his own last film as director, BIG JAKE THE GREEN BERETS, and starred in his own last film as actor, THE SHOOTIST, a conscious self-elegy. I guess he just liked working with old guys when he was old, The most charming moment in THE COMANCHEROS is when Wayne signs into a hotel using the pseudonym “Ed McBain” and we notice that cinematographer William H. Clothier and the rest of the crew have checked in ahead of him. Curtiz hasn’t checked in, probably because he’s too busy checking out.

The best scene is a poker game where the single-source lighting is really beautiful and Wayne looks SO different and so much more interesting. Also playing is Lee Marvin, a bad guy with half a scalp (you could probably build a whole other Lee Marvin out of the bits Marvin had removed in his various characterisations). Elsewhere, the Arizona and Utah settings are epic and prehistoric. The finale is a bit pathetic: leading lady Ina Balin has to get over the death of her bad guy father in abound four seconds so she can look overjoyed at the happy ending. See also the studio-imposed finish of ONE-EYED JACKS.

Elmer Bernstein does the music on this one, and although it’s a bit more stately than THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, as befits Wayne’s age and lumbering gait, you get the idea. It seemed kind of weird to me how the music stays celebratory during life-and-death conflicts and chases. Shouldn’t we be taking this seriously?THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN: Starring Rockwell P. Hunter, Rhoda Penmark, Maj. Marvin Groper, Hunk Houghton, Daisy Hawkins, Link Appleyard, Rollo Treadway, Reinhardt Heidrich, Winnie the Pooh, Tom Fury, Johnny Farragut and Magwitch.

FRANCIS OF ASSISI: Starring Big Eddie, Lisa Held, Orvil Newton, Prof. Thurgood Elson, Dr. Stern, Mrs. Karswell, Bob Cratchit and Magwitch again.

THE COMANCHEROS: Starring Ethan Edwards, Orvil Newton again, Little Bonaparte, Liberty Valance, Lt. Greenhill, John Driscoll, Charlie Max and Garbitsch.

Bind fast his corky arms

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2012 by dcairns

We’re always looking to share what spambots like to call “great information” here at Shadowplay. Recently, while watching THE BROTHERS (a 1947 British melodrama) with Fiona and Marvelous Mary, I took note of an exciting new way to SLAY YOUR ENEMIES, and I’m passing it on in hopes that it may prove efficacious.

If my instructions aren’t clear, by all means See The Film for a demonstration.

1) Subdue Your Enemy. Any method is allowable, but he ideally should remain conscious or be capable of regaining consciousness with the application of Cold Water (of which much more later).

2) Bind Your Enemy hand and foot, but with Great Quantities of Cork under each arm. Buoyancy is essential to this method of dispatch.

3) Secure via string or twine, a hat to the head of the prospective victim. Secure to the hat or bonnet a large fish. This will henceforth be known as the Fish Hat.

3) Set the unhappy fellow to bobbing in the nearest lake or ocean. You need to be sufficiently close to the sea to allow for Large Sea Birds. Some Large Sea Bird (a goose is fine), espying the glittering Fish Hat, is sure to dive down for a ready meal, and its Mighty Beak will pierce the unhappy fellow’s skull and effect his destruction.

This method has the Great Moral Advantage that you will not be in any way culpable for the demise of your enemy, who will owe his fractured skull solely to the action of the Large Sea Bird. Heaven is satisfied, Nature’s will is done.

THE BROTHERS does feature more of interest than the novel method of murder outlined above — as a rare foray North for the British film industry, it follows in the footsteps of Michael Powell’s THE EDGE OF THE WORLD. Fortunately, Marvelous Mary is pretty expert on the culture and history of the Scottish islands, so she was able to keep us straight on the film’s numerous inaccuracies.  Patricia Roc plays a young girl sent from the orphanage to work as servant in a croft where there is no woman, only two sons and an elderly father. Firstly, no crofter could  afford a servant (unless maybe she’s to be unpaid, an indentured slave, in which case you’d think the film would make this clear), and secondly, there are no Catholics on Skye, and for some reason the islanders are all characterised as Catholic. Maybe the filmmakers felt that was safer, since religion is a pretty ineffectual force in this film, where it’s not positively destructive, so putting the blame on a minority religion was less likely to offend anybody who mattered. In fact, sects like the Wee Frees (the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland) are as eccentric and intolerant as any branch of Catholicism, so might have served just as well. Certain customs, like taking a newly deceased man’s body on a long haul around the island while the women, forbidden attendance at the funeral, wait at home, are quite accurate to this sect, rather than to Catholicism. Lars Von Trier’s BREAKING THE WAVES gives as accurate a portrait of the austere and loveless feeling of this faith.

The menfolk in Roc’s new household consist of Duncan Macrae (WHISKY GALORE) and Maxwell Reed (the first Mr Joan Collins, whose Scottish accent is little better than his Danish one in DAYBREAK), with the estimable Finlay Currie as patriarch. Roc’s supposed sex appeal soon leads the family to infighting and injury by heart attack and conger eel. It’s hard to understand, although the filmmakers supply their demure actress with an unlikely low-cut wardrobe and a nude swim (in extreme long-shot, but still quite an eye-opener for 1947!). Roc declined a body double (or else wasn’t offered) and treated herself to a whisky afterwards.

The film also features Scots comic Will Fyffe, who recounts a tale of the selkie (merfolk who transform from seal to human). He’s a delightful presence, but sadly this was his last movie. After undergoing an operation, he was resting up in a hotel in St Andrews, was overcome by dizziness, and fell out the window.

In spite of its quirky moments and interesting milieu, the film doesn’t quite gel as a story, and Roc does her best but has little of the siren about her. Even a more wide-eyed and innocent effect could have worked. David MacDonald directs rather flatly, but does raise his game for a couple of sinister moments, notably this one, featuring John Laurie, the World’s Most Scottish Man ~

Director David MacDonald, an actual Scot from Helensburgh (Deborah Kerr’s birthplace), reached his apogee with this film, before the disastrous THE BAD LORD BYRON wrecked his career, leading to the Shadowplay favourite DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS

Thanks to Guy Budziak.

The Brothers [DVD] [1947]