Archive for Frank Finlay

A DD-Notice Situation

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2017 by dcairns

We watched LIFEFORCE recently, to get me in the mood for my trip to London. With Fiona protesting that she’d rather watch THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE or any of the, you know, GOOD Tobe Hooper films. Because the man had just died, and was this really the way he’d want to be remembered? But then, I bet he’d want to be remembered as more than JUST the director of TTCM.

I also read some good defences of the (arguably indefensible) film and that, coupled with the fact that, you know, the man had just died, made me sort of afraid to write about it, because I couldn’t really bring myself to say that the film is “good” — but at the same time, we had a hell of a good time watching it, so there’s that.

How do we parse this distinction between “good” and “a good time”? Are movies like women in ‘forties films? At any rate, much of what is hilarious and delightful in LIFEFORCE *could* be deliberate, which should lift the movie clean out of the “so bad it’s good” category. What makes my head go all Linda Blair is a feeling that even IF the ridiculous choices ARE purely intentional, they still seem crazy and impossible to defend on any normal grounds.What do I mean? Well, the story, adapted from Colin Wilson’s novel The Space Vampires by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby (INVADERS FROM MARS) deals with a naked space lady (Mathilda May) sucking the energy out of London’s masculine population. I think the idea of a monster movie where the monster is a naked girlie is kind of hilarious — as if they asked the question, What are teenage boys REALLY scared of? I think they could even have gotten away with the nude, but not a really busty nude. The film looks glorious — Alan Hume’s lovely lurid colours in anamorphic widescreen — but the shot of the menacing shadow of tits on the wall should arguably have been vetoed. Except no, because it’s perfectly in tune with the film’s demented tone. Hell, it exemplifies it.

(Colin Wilson was England’s top existentialist angry young man for a fortnight in the fifties — I don’t know what led him to write a Quatermass knock-off. I first encountered him during research for a Jack the Ripper project — he was a prominent ripperologist — but, as I discovered in my reading — he really didn’t know very much about the case, and much of what he claimed to know was wrong.)

Hard to explain the odd effect of the dialogue: apart from Steve Railsback, it’s a lovely cast of Brits, speaking in a pastiche of Britishness that seems at least ten years out of date. V FOR VENDETTA has a similarly timewarped quality, highly gigglesome. I don’t imagine it sounds so comical to Americans, because it’s not THAT off. It’s a good pastiche of Hammer horror dialogue, or maybe a tough crime drama with Stanley Baker.That cast — Frank Finlay is playing it quiet, well aware how close to looking ridiculous he is. He only loses it when he has to shout over a radio link, and his Shakespearean enunciation makes the whole thing rather Toast of London. Peter Firth is superb — full-on restrained camp. That thing when restraint becomes in itself a form of ham. And then there’s good old Michael Gothard, yielding sweatily to the temptations of the flesh just as he did in THE FOUR MUSKETEERS and THE DEVILS and…And Patrick Stewart! As if the second question they asked was What else will freak out teenage boys? and their answer was Homosexual Panic. Possessed by the naked space babe, Patrick turns on his sexual magnetism, and Railsback just can’t resist leaning in for a kiss. Hilarious to watch Firth and Aubrey “PR Deltoid” Morris dashing in to manfully prevent this same-sex violation of the norm, and then the room going poltergeistically haywire as the thwarted sex drive runs amok. (“CAN YOU IMAGINE how much fun Patrick Stewart would be having with a scene like that?” asked my host in London when I described it.)There’s more, so much more. The film is much less interested in its male vampires, but one of them does get to say to Firth, “It’ll be much less terrifying if you just come to me.” Whoops and cheers.

There’s lots of impressive animatronic zombie-work, all cut SLIGHTLY too loose, spoiling the illusion, and lots of fun QUATERMASS AND THE PIT panic on the streets, and as I say, the film looks great. In fact, my host in London was taught at the NFTS by Alan Hume. “He called everyone darling, regardless of sex.” He was clearly the man for LIFEFORCE.And Frank Finlay’s finale is terrific — the film’s one genuinely great scene for which you don’t have to make apologies or suspend disbelief or try to wedge yourself into a previously unimagined tone encompassing camp and B-movie thickear, the knowing and the unknowing. A scene that would hold its own in a real Nigel Kneale script. And FFinlay, having held back so long, makes a perfectly judged decision to have fun with it, as he expires in a welter of bladder effects. Stirring stuff.

(This is arguably as inappropriate an homage to the late Mr. Finlay as it is to Hooper, but I watched him in Dennis Potter’s Casanova too so I’m covered on that score.)

So why can’t I give the film total respect? It does seem to know what it’s doing. I feel like a humourless critic at a Ken Russell film, recognising that he’s displaying a comedic attitude but unable to grant him permission because the precise timbre of his wit seems unacceptable. I love Ken Russell, I *can* accept his bizarre tonal combinations and jokes that seem designed not to get laughs but just to buffet the sensibilities. Maybe LIFEFORCE isn’t serious enough to get away with it? Maybe I should just bloody well RELAX? “It’ll be much less terrifying if you just come to me.”

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Scroogeathon

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2013 by dcairns

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We were round at our friends Nicola and Donald’s place, along with Marvelous Mary, eating, drinking and watching Scrooges. The weather outside was frightful — rain and sleet gusting in multiple directions as umbrellas turned inside out like kinetic sculptures. Inside, all was warm and festive, though there was a brief crisis when Nicola’s beloved DVD of THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL could not be located. But I found it, to great relief.

Nicola: “When you blog about this — and you will — be kind!”

We also watched smatterings of other Scrooges, and all of the Albert Finney musical xmastravaganza, a post-OLIVER! flop which is actually really good, except for the songs. So the purpose of this post is to consider the varied approaches of directors, screenwriters and actors when tackling Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.


Fiona and I agree that the gold standard is Alistair Sim, both in SCROOGE, the 1951 feature directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, and twenty years later in Richard Williams’ animated TV special, which captures the feeling of Victorian pen-and-ink illustrations and evokes a nightmarish quality that marked the young Fiona for life.  We like our Christmas Carols scary, and we deduct points from any version which leaves out the starving children under Christmas Present’s robe.

Extra points are awarded whenever it looks like Scrooge might have a point, actually — Finney does well here — and notes are taken when the performance post-reformation suggests that the old miser’s mind has snapped under the strain. Sim seems genuinely unhinged, and Bill Murray in SCROOGED is probably going to go on a killing spree right after the credits roll, laughing maniacally the while.

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Williams film has to move over — we have a new champion for visual splendour and creepiness — Ronald Neame’s musical may not have the tunes, apart from “Thank You Very Much” (and it gets a few points just for having a number called “I Hate People” which should be a Christmas standard), and it’s hampered by Finney’s inability to really put over a song, but the production design by Terence Marsh (art director on OLIVER!), costumes by Margaret Furse (Lean’s OLIVER TWIST) and photography by Oswald Morris (OLIVER! again) are all stunning — Scrooge’s home is a wreck, with every crevice lovingly blow-torched so the cracked-paintwork forms a texture you could reach out and stroke — and Leslie Bricusse departs from the source text outrageously by sending Scrooge to Hell, a gorgeous scarlet inferno with Kryptonite trimmings. The night sky full of wraiths is MUCH too frightening for kids, and generally speaking the film misses few opportunities to freak us out with the scary stuff. No Hunger and Want though.

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Finney’s Ebenezer doesn’t seem that old, which is an interesting departure, but the film gains from having an actor who can convincingly play the young Scrooge and the middle-aged one. He treats the character stuff as an opportunity to trot out his Wilfred Lawson impersonation, which also forms part of his acclaimed perf in THE DRESSER. It’s a very good impersonation, but may cause bafflement to those who don’t know the original. Finney also scores well on the emotional side, helped by Neame’s willingness to give him lingering, painful close-ups at key moments — and the make-up, more middle-aged decay than old-age, bears up remarkably well in these giant face-shots.

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We also looked at a couple of thirties Scrooges. Reginald Owen at MGM waggles his head too much and has to work hard to dispel his inherent gentleness, but his paunchy frame and high britches give him a suitably unpleasant arachnid quality. The makeup isn’t up to Finney standard though — it looks like cracking plaster on his face. Over in the UK, Seymour Hicks took the role in 1935, having already done it in a short silent. Hicks was famous for the role on stage, and may be the fastest Scrooge on record — he bangs out his dialogue like a Vickers Machine Gun, creating a whole different rhythm for the scenes. It works! As does his appearance, which is Yoda meets Grinch. I’d read Hicks described as incandescent with anger, but he’s more nasty than angry, stabbing each sentence into his interlocuters’ underbellies. Unfortunately, Hicks is only good at being nasty, and his reformation results in a slowing of tempo to that deadly pace associated with the worst of the stiff, British, theatrical tradition.

The George C. Scott tele-movie takes a wholly different approach. It’s stately, as a “literary classic” (really just a potboiler by Dickens’ standards) is supposed to be, but takes its pace from Scott’s performance, which is frosty, glacial, monumental on the surface but animated by those eye movements, all fire within. Clive Donner’s best approach might have been to devote the entire movie to closeups of his star…

Fiona regretted that Michael Caine couldn’t have done a straight version of the story, since his Scrooge is quite good enough — positively Satanic at the start, before crumbling most effectively. The singing once more lets him down, though Paul Williams’ numbers for A MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL are much better than Leslie Bricusse’s efforts for the Neame-Finney. Director Brian Henson has good comic timing and can compose genuinely funny shots (though he should lay off the focus-pulls), but is this a good way to tell the story?

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Dickens’ original provides some model cinematic scenes and scene-changes, with Scrooge whisked through time by the three ghosts in a manner which seems to anticipate movie editing. With Scrooge as audience-surrogate to moments from the past, present and future, it’s redundant to add in the Great Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat as narrator and foil — they become an audience of an audience of the action, with little room left for the audience watching the scene — some effectively spooky stuff is spoiled by their badinage.

As much as one admires the decision to give Jacob Marley a brother called Robert (a joint reference to the reggae singer and to Robert Morley, star of THE GHOSTS OF BERKELEY SQUARE?) and cast Waldorf and Statler, Alec Guinness is a definitive Marley, owing largely to his decision to play the role as if underwater. Dickens provides the fascinating detail that Marley’s coat tails and pig-tail and the tassels on his boots bristle — Guinness deduces that this is because the Ghost, a spirit, is suspended in our material world as if in water. The effect is uncanny and wonderful, and might even have influenced the drowned child in THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE.

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Though he sports the bandaged head, Guinness never unwraps himself to let his jaw drop down to his chest (although given the film’s sumptuous production values, such a special effect seems achievable) — that’s left to the animated wraith voiced by Michael Hordern in the Williams toon, and to Frank Finlay in Clive Donner’s TV movie with George C. Scott as the miser. Finlay does it entirely with acting. (Hordern may be the only actor to have played Marley AND Scrooge, essaying the latter in a 1977 TV version. That version, which today looks retro-stylish with its early video effects, has a Marlowe played by comic actor John LeMesurier, who drops his jaw and gargles to no horrific effect at all — rendering Hordern’s cowering surreally inexplicable.)

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Despite all that scary lighting can do, Hordern proves, as Fiona predicted, too avuncular and sweet an actor to be taken seriously as a meanie.

Other ghosts — Williams’ multifaceted Christmas Past is definitive, but Fiona was impressed by Anne Rutherford as a SEXY Christmas Past in the Reginald Owen attempt. Given that the role has also been taken by Joel Grey, Robbie Coltraine, Gary Coleman, Paul Frees,  Roscoe Lee Browne, Patricia Quinn and Steve Lawrence, I think we can agree this is the most heterogenous ghost of the lot.

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Christmas Present is always the same, and Kenneth More fits the bill fairly perfectly — off-puttingly matey and hearty. With your open dressing gown, chest hair and splayed legs, I fear thee most of all. It did come as a shock to see that Brian Blessed has never played the role. I mean, he’s ALWAYS playing it. To actually cast him in the role would be an economy, really. Can we make that happen?

In the same way, Nigel Havers is always Nephew Fred, isn’t he?

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Christmas Yet to Come is also comfortably consistent, and I must admit I admire the muppet design, with his eerie poor proportions — long arms and apparently no legs, making him the only honest muppet, since the others always pretend to be ambulatory but we all know there are men down there.

It’s regrettable that so many of the adaptations seem determined to prove their classiness by bloating the whole affair up and emphasizing respectability over drama — the MGM film plays its credits over a reclining studio lion, while the Brit flick opts for the inevitable turning pages of a leather-bound volume. Surely we don’t need to be TOLD Dickens’ moral tale is good for us? At least the Muppets are devoted to fun.

seasonally yours,

Haig P. McScroogian.

Versions not watched:

THE PASSIONS OF CAROL (’70s porno-Scrooge)

That Robert Zemeckis abomination.

Any good ones I missed?

STOP PRESS: We got limericks! Link.

All for nothing?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2011 by dcairns

Richard Lester is some kind of favourite director of mine, and his THREE MUSKETEERS and FOUR MUSKETEERS have a special place in my affections. So his last dramatic feature, RETURN OF THE MUSKETEERS, is something of a problem. Haunted by tragedy, hampered by budget shortages, flawed by script problems, it can never be “a worthy successor” and most reviewers have been content to dismiss it. I love a lot of the picture, but can’t in earnest embrace it as a whole.

Lester’s final film, GET BACK, a Paul McCartney concert flick, truly does deserve rapid dismissal — to linger on its faults would seem merely cruel. McCartney was not the performer he had been, the footage is inadequate (especially the oft-repeated shot of an attractive audience member — was she the only ticket buyer under forty?) and the whole thing feels redundant and nostalgic — there’s some kind of tentative desire to do more, but the tools aren’t there for a thoughtful reappraisal of the sixties.

RETURN has much more going for it than GET BACK, although the nostalgic impulse is there also. The movie reunited all the characters who survived the first films and the intervening years, to deliver a fairly faithful adaptation of Dumas’ Twenty Years After — fortunately, Lester only waited fifteen years, so his cast were still comparatively spry, or are made to appear so. Unfortunately, their star profiles had dimmed considerably in the time since 1974, so that the presence of Michael York, Richard Chamberlain, Oliver Reed, Geraldine Chaplin and Christopher Lee (who apparently died, quite conclusively, in the previous movie, but is a specialist in resurrection) signalled “B movie” in 1989. Frank Finlay and Roy Kinnear were always character players rather than stars. So a lot depended on the new blood, and C. Thomas Howell and Kim Cattrall didn’t enhance the film’s standing — he had fallen from his brat pack heights, while she was in between the two successful periods of her career.

(But it’s a good, hearty, thigh-slapping performance from Kim, and Howell, the son of a stuntman, is a convincing swordsman.)

It’s easy to ignore all that now, but harder to deal with the effects of Roy Kinnear’s tragic death during the shoot, when his horse slipped, he fractured his pelvis and succumbed to heart failure. I remember the news reports and it’s easy to spot the scene in the film where the accident occurred, although no footage of the fall was used or exists. It’s also easy to spot the stand-in who replaced Kinnear in long shots, and the overdubs replacing lines Kinnear wasn’t around to re-voice himself. It seems abandoning the film wasn’t a legal option, or maybe it was emotionally easier for Lester to simply charge forward with production. It clearly cast a pall over the film, a non-diegetic aura of sadness and confusion that in no way helps the film’s ambition to be a rollicking romp.

Had the movie been more ambitious, like its predecessors, it might have coped better, but the focus is very much on the lighter aspects of the story. While FOUR MUSKETEERS ended with heroes and heroines tragically slain, this one has the arch-villain escape at the end, borrowing a note from ROYAL FLASH (also written by George MacDonald Fraser) which hadn’t worked too well the first time.

So why talk about the film at all? Only because the good bits are often very good — it was great seeing Oliver Reed back on the screen in something at least vaguely worthy of his talents, throwing himself into the fight scenes with sweaty intensity and authentically murderous/suicidal gusto. Frank Finlay’s ebullient delivery and silly comedy voice are as welcome as ever, and Kinnear is wonderful when he’s around — his role as Planchet, D’Artagnan’s long-suffering servant has been built up, in keeping with the film’s more consistently frivolous tone. An opening tavern brawl is an excellent showcase for Lester’s slapstick skills, as Kinnear poaches food from the rafters using a fork on a stick, eventually provoking a series of misunderstandings down below which escalate into a comic riot.

The fights are as inventive as ever, mixing balletic grace with authentic moments of clumsiness and bad luck (all of which can feel unfortunate given the film’s troubled history) and the overall idea of the first films is continued — the political backstory and the scheming royals and clerics are eyed sceptically, the romance is ironically undercut, the swashbuckling is blended with slapstick to make what must be called either swashstick or slapbuckle, but somehow all of this is kept under control so that there’s still room for excitement and character empathy. It’s a very tough balancing act. What keeps the films in line is their critique of history — like Keaton’s THE GENERAL, everything is “so real it hurts”, and the best jokes come from an evocation of poverty, violence, squalor, venality or stupidity, founded in bitter fact. This is something THE PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films don’t get. Michael Powell said that Lester’s first two MUSKETEERS films showed him the tone he’d failed to get with THE ELUSIVE PIMPERNELL, but the difference is that that film takes its romance and heroics seriously but its world is mere scenery. In Lester’s films the settings are three-dimensional and the characters two-dimensional, quite intentionally.

Kinnear, fleeing pursuers, jumps on planks projecting from the back of a cart, but when the cart trundles off, the planks stay put, being part of an entirely different structure — a compositional joke straight from Keaton.

Howell and Cattrall embrace passionately — Lester cuts to a ball being thrown through a hoop, with a little grunt of exertion, a bathetic parody of the sexual act.

Expressive lines that are funny not because of jokes but because of how they encapsulate character. Frank Finlay, being dragged behind a carriage as a nobleman stabs a rapier at his chest: “D’Artagnan! I am at a loss!”

Insane but convincing period detail — Finlay does some target practice by firing his musket at wooden doves on sticks held aloft by hapless servants crouched in a pond, as he rotates on a tiny carousel hand-pushed by more liveried schmoes.

Comedy overdubs — a nobleman escapes prison in extreme longshot, forced to clamber over his own men. “Use my head, sir — ouch — sorry about my head, sir.”

Cattrall traps the musketeers in a diabolical booby-trapped house, all trap doors, sliding panels and snapping manacles in chair arms — the workings are eventually exposed, a control room manned by dwarfs, all black-clad like stagehands or highwaymen.

Scot-mockery! King Charles II of Britain appears, playing golf, and he’s Bill Paterson, with Billy Connolly as his caddie.

Brit-mockery! When D’Artagnan insists that the British public will never stand for the execution of their king, Oliver Reed tells him, “The British public will put up with anything except an increase in the price of ale or the mistreatment of pack animals.” Screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser was, after all, a journalist.