Archive for Frank Thring

Flashback Friday: The Reign in Spain

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2015 by dcairns

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Continuing my trawl through past glories — I did an “Anthony Mann Week” some years back — Fiona complained bitterly that it was all too Mannly, but she did like WINCHESTER 73 a lot. In general, she’s had bad luck for these themed weeks, dropping in on films she couldn’t get along with (eg Losey’s BOOM!) and missing a few she would probably have loved (Mann’s A DANDY IN ASPIC, MAN OF THE WEST). She does like THE TALL TARGET, TWO O’CLOCK COURAGE (screwball noir!) and REIGN OF TERROR, but I haven’t ever gotten around to writing about the first two.

I never got around to EL CID, i think because I didn’t have a widescreen copy. It’s a film I’d glimpsed over the years in pan-and-scan abomination form, and like most widesecreen epics, it seemed dull on TV. That’s because the composition of the shots is the whole show — it’s very dynamic in its framing, and the storytelling obeys a visual logic of shape and movement and cutting that’s quite unreal, rather comic book, and wholly glorious. And it’s almost totally dead on a human level, despite having Sophia Loren, a magnificent actress when cast in something human. here she’s used more as a shape, like Chuckles Heston himself, an impressive piece of sculpture.

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Terry Jones said that in preparing LIFE OF BRIAN he looked at epics and they all seemed to have something that might be called “epic acting,” which he then impersonated by putting on a declamatory, Sam the American Eagle voice — pure Heston. And if that’s what the film is, Heston is your man. Co-star Douglas Wilmer told him he was “a great journeyman actor” and Heston got all offended and Wilmer smoother his eagle feathers by saying that “journeyman” wasn’t an insult and that Olivier was also a great journeyman. Heston was happy to be named in that company.

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He was called an “axiom of the cinema” too, but maybe he’s more of an axis — a sturdy compositional element around whom a shot can pivot. He’s like a pillar, but poseable. The strongest emotion he can project is STRAIN, strenuous seriousness or a dynamic tension of the emotions in which he’s simultaneously holding back and putting it all out there. Wyler got a great effect from him in THE BIG COUNTRY, by telling Carroll Baker to pull her wrists free from his great ham-hand which held her, and telling Cheston not to let go. Her wrists got red raw, and the agony of hurting a lady brought him to life — you saw the strain turn inwards and sort of ripple out across the veins in his head and the sinews in his arms.

For this kind of thing, if you’re going to make it and I’m not saying you should — he’s somehow perfect. An advance on the he-men of German epic cinema, the “bounding idiots” of DIE NIBELUNGEN and METROPOLIS. Chiseled beefcake with more visible bone than the bodybuilders of Italy, and a far more convincing ability to move about.

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Spain! Where the diopters are as plentiful as paella. For some reason, the Samuel Bronston sword-and-sandal sagas reach for the split-focus lens more than any other films. Though Nick Ray’s pair of bloaters deploy the effect self-consciously, daring you to notice that while the foreground and background are sharp, the midground is a blur, an effect impossible to achieve with the naked eye. Mann disguises the joins so well you often aren’t quite sure there’s hanky-panky afoot.

Mann’s epic phase saw him work with both stars of BEN-HUR, and feels quite reactive to that blockbuster. SPARTACUS, which he shot the opening scenes for before Kirk Douglas fired him, was also a response to BH, an attempt to show you could make that kind of thing on US soil without taking advantage of cheap labour and tax breaks on the continent. The Samuel Bronston films (this and FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE) arose from the bizarre historical accident that the Hollywood studios were making a lot of money at the Spanish box office but were unable to take that money out of the country, so they had to invent films to shoot in Spain as an excuse to spend money. EMPIRE and 55 DAYS AT PEKING are surreal at times (especially the latter) because they have no sane reason to be Spanish films, and because they’re throwing money at scenes that don’t matter, with colossal overblown sets which dwarf the actors — in fact, “dwarf” is too weak a word. They ANT the actors.

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Here, at least the Spanish castles are real, so it’s only the dementedly huge crowd scenes that beggar belief, fancy dress extras staked out in the sun to bake, contributing nothing save slight distraction, swelling scenes already overstuffed with Herbert Lom or Frank Thring. Despite the authentic setting and the constant twirlings of Miklos Rosza’s score, the world of the film never feels remotely Spanish, because look at who’s in it. The Spanish are Americans and Italians and English and Scots. The Moors are Czech and English and Australian.

A good thing about EL CID is that although it’s all broadswords and bluster, it has bits that are western and bits that are noir, the two genres at which Mann excelled (I’ve never see his two musicals. Anyone?) When a patrol of Spaniards is ambushed by dusky (painted) archers, we’re a stone’s throw from THE LAST FRONTIER. The early part of the story where Sophia is betrothed to Charlton and wants him dead is good doom-laden romance. The wedding night is a symphony of expressionist angst — alone at the dinner table, Heston paces like Garbo memorizing her room in QUEEN CHRISTINA, only clutching frustratedly at every phallic object in reach except himself.

Mann said that the ending of the film was his sole reason for doing it, that with an ending like that you could get away with almost anything. He’s sort of right — but even he, using the highly stylised approach he’s established, and a leading man whose natural destiny might seem to be as a carry-on prop, can’t entirely stifle the giggles as Heston is mounted on his horse, dead, a wooden framework holding him in position like a fake house in a western street. It’s too hideously apt as a piece of satire.

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“Please tell me this was a colossal flop,” groaned Fiona, wearied by the length and annoyed by Sophia’s headgear. Afraid not: the world has bad taste. But I dug it on a shot-by-shot basis.

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Bible Studies

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2013 by dcairns

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Spectacular split-focus diopter lens shot, one of many…

KING OF KINGS, the Nick Ray version, really is a good film, it just doesn’t have a very good Jesus. A shame, since everyone else in it, apart from a few dubbed Spaniards, brings something interesting to the feast. The array of bad guys are amazing fun, rather like in DUNE (in epic cinema, only the villains get to enjoy life) — Gregoire Aslan and Frank Thring make a smutty brace of Herods, Hurd Hatfield and Viveca Lindfors are a smooth Mr and Mrs Pilate, and Brigid Bazlen a red-hot jail-bait Salome. Also Rita Gam from SIGN OF THE PAGAN — and Orson Welles’ VO mentions “the sign of the pagan” being nailed to the temple walls, in straight-faced homage to the Sirk cheesefest.

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The clothes-line of evil.

Harry Guardino, though apparently determined to give us his best Burt Lancaster impersonation, is awfully good as Barabbas, and Rip Torn (unrecognizable in his svelte and vulpine youth) is an ace Judas. Flawed is interesting.

Of course, people like Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, or Royal Dano as Peter aren’t allowed to play flawed (except in Peter’s denunciation scene), but both manage some good scenes. RR is just such a powerhouse. I bet even when they cut his head off he was still the tallest man in Judea. Not sure about his caveman costume, but you can’t have everything.

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“I found his casting offensive at the time.” ~ Martin Scorsese.

As everybody already knows, Jeffrey Hunter as J.C. is the weak link in the Super-Technirama chain. It’s American Epic Acting at its most lifeless, without the muscularity of a Charlton Heston to give it basic dynamism. When Ray stages the Sermon on the Mount on the move, it’s terribly effective (one of the things Scorsese borrowed for his LAST TEMPTATION was the idea of Jesus in action, rather than posing for a stained glass window as in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD), but doubly hampered by the facts that Hunter is a poor orator and walks awkwardly.

The best thing I can say about Hunter is that his smug smirk when he’s being all mysterious adds a bit of irritation to the character, which is something few actors have pursued (well, maybe Ted Neeley in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR). You’re not supposed to want to slap Jesus. The sensation is surprising, and therefore interesting, and so the movie starts to breathe.

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Thring enthroned.

Unfortunately, it sometimes seems to be drowning under the waves of Miklos Rosza music. I love M.R., but he does tend to do the expected thing, especially in epics. It’s schmaltzy, and that’s fine in BEN HUR but it’s not the effect Ray’s aiming for here, mostly. One the other hand, the Welles VO, scripted by Ray Bradbury from an original idea by God, rarely lets up but gives the film the grandeur and religious emotion Hunter lacks. Welles may not have been the greatest actor ever, but he had a terrific gift for evoking awe and terror in his voice — hammy, perhaps, but effective, like the film.

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The production design  and costumes by Georges Wakhevitch are incredibly imaginative, convincing and distinctive. Not quite as monumental as some other Bronston productions of the era, though certainly not skimping on grandeur, but the use of patterns, wall paintings, and even graffiti creates a unique world that recalls Fellini’s call for his SATYRICON to be “a science fiction film set in the past.”

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What nobody seems to talk about is the film’s intent. The assumption may be that a Bronston film has no intent, beyond spending the Hollywood money trapped in Franco’s Spain, creating something that could be exported and profitable. But a Ray movie does have a cause, or at least a personal angle.

The first things that struck me was the this was a truly post-Holocaust bible movie. The opening features Rabbis executed by firing squad, and bodies being slung into a pit and burned on mass pyres. Accordingly, the film plays like the antithesis of Mel Gibson’s antisemitic sermon of hate THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST — here, it’s stressed that Herod is not Jewish, and Pilate, rather than being portrayed as a struggling politician trying to make the best of a rotten assignment, as is often the case, is a hissy, sadistic oppressor, and an idiot who stirs up political foment against Rome by his insensitive response to local traditions. The scene where the mob is offered Jesus and chooses Barabbas happens off-screen — we hear about it along with Barabbas (“Your supporters yelled loudest”) and the dramatic point being made is that Barabbas is moved by the greatness of Christ, not that the durn Jews killed Jeebus.

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The other shift of emphasis is away from the miraculous. Ray shows healings, some of which are staged to look as if Jesus might be raising the dead, but we don’t get any unambiguous statement that he does so. The drooling maniac is healed in a way that doesn’t look supernatural so much as spiritual or even psychological — Jesus embraces him and brings him to his senses. The walking on water and feeding of the five thousand bit is only described to us in a report to Pilate — the strong impression is that these wacky tales may be merely mass hysteria and rumour-mongering.

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THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST similarly tried to soft-pedal the magic-working, showing Jesus using herbs and stuff in his healing (though Willem Dafoe does cure one guy using a Thelma Schoonmaker jump-cut to vanish his deformity). You can’t altogether strip the wizardry from the New Testimony without upsetting the very people who are likely to buy tickets, but Ray’s shift of emphasis confirms that he’s not particularly a religious artist, but definitely one involved in humanity — violence, sexuality, politics and psychology are his daily bread.

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This impressive closing shot, by the way, was merely a test Ray did to see if the idea had legs. The producers, who had abruptly tired or pouring money into the mega-production, refused to let him reshoot it, and stuck the temp version in. Another compromised Ray ending — if you have the DVD of REBEL, you can see the last shot the movie was supposed to have — one of the best widescreen closing shots ever executed. The day somebody decided not to use it (after Ray had walked off the picture in post), Warner Brothers must have been home to the largest concentrations of human stupidity anywhere in the world.