Archive for Fred Zinnemann

Hide in Plain Sight

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , on September 23, 2016 by dcairns

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The Glass Pearls, a novel by Emeric Pressburger (right), has been republished for the first time since 1966, under the Faber Finds imprint.

The great screenwriter had continued to work in pictures sporadically since the break-up of the Archers — he worked pseudonymously on the screenplays of OPERATION CROSSBOW in 1965 — the kind of efficient, gung-ho war drama which had sadly ended his collaboration with Michael Powell — and THEY’RE A WEIRD MOB for Powell, unofficially, in 1966.  His novel The Miracle of St Anthony’s Lane was filmed as MIRACLE IN SOHO and Killing a Mouse on Sunday, a more ambitious work, was adapted by Fred Zinnemann as BEHOLD A PALE HORSE (which is worth seeing).

This third book — the excellent introduction by Caitlin McDonald mysteriously refers to it as his second — is striking particularly because it is so uncinematic. The tale of a Nazi doctor who performed brain surgery of death camp inmates and is now hiding out in (moderately) swinging London, compels more for the protagonist’s thoughts than for his actions. If presented on the screen, what we would see is a worried-looking piano tuner going about his business and hesitantly wooing a younger woman.

It’s the internal angst of the character which compels one’s interest. The reviews I had seen focussed on Pressburger’s remarkable feat of making his Nazi doctor an at-times-sympathetic hero. I appreciated his craftsmanship and his moral imagination in doing so, but the trick is fairly simple: if you create a credible character with a clear problem, and show him taking understandable steps to deal with the problem, the audience is compelled to take interest in proportion to the difficulty of the problem rather than the worth of the problem-solver. What’s most impressive is that Pressburger could bring himself to go there. All through the war his “propaganda” films were attacked for not being propagandistic enough, for giving too much credit to the enemy, and here her is, years after the war, willing himself to engage with the struggles of a war criminal to evade justice. That must have been tough.

But despite the morally complex effects of engaging with “Karl Braun’s” difficulties, he is not a sympathetic character per se — justifying his medical crimes by arguing that they were for the good of humanity, he has nevertheless destroyed his notes in order to make good his escape — or so he believes. He’s totally unrepentant, and his religious beliefs consist of imagining a God as cold-blooded and “rational” as himself, who will be sure to judge him kindly.

For movie fans, the most appealing elements are the little anecdotes spun by the protagonist, “proof” of his fictional past as an anti-Nazi photographer who escaped Germany for Paris in the ’30s. These tales may even be drawn from Pressburger’s own experience, since he briefly dallied in the City of Light before England, Korda, Powell and Fate beckoned. But of course the author of THE RED SHOES could equally well have invented them from whole cloth. Each story is a perfect pearl of experience, whether true or false. They FEEL true.

The other cinematic connection is the relationship of this book, despised or ignored by the British press when first published, with Powell and Leo Marks’ PEEPING TOM. Both deal with German immigrants in London (Powell’s film is a little strange here since the character was never written as German, and we see film of him growing up in England). One is a photographer, one claims to be one. Both pursue a chaste relationship with a girl who doesn’t suspect their dark secrets. False name Karl Braun and real name Carl Boehm.

In a way, the book is about memory, the subject of the Nazi doctor’s research. Pressburger had looked into brain surgery when writing A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, so it surprised me that he didn’t include the remarkable fact that the brain can be operated on while the patient is conscious. The brain, which processes sensation, feels none of its own, and so with a local anesthetic you can have the too of your head taken off and doctors can give your neurons little electric shocks to see what happens.

Pressburger’s doctor has been laboriously opening his patient’s heads, removing pieces of grey matter, and then repairing the patient and interrogating them to establish the effect on their memories. Horrible, but reality provides an even worse and more dramatic possible approach.

Strong as it is, the novel’s horror is almost upstaged by the preface by Pressburger’s grandson, producer Kevin MacDonald. He relates that when Alzheimer’s claimed Pressburger’s own memories, he became terrified of imaginary Nazis coming for him, and even fought the ambulance crew who came for him, believing he was being taken to the camps. It’s a cliché that memory plays tricks on us. Memory does not mean us well. Memory, perhaps, is a Nazi doctor.

Day Two

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2014 by dcairns

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My second day at Il Cinema Ritrovato and I was for sure going to make it into town in time to see THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE — a serial represented by one tantalising still in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. Sadly, the two episodes screened, fun though they were, did not include the Jekyll-and-Hyde sequence Gifford depicted, so I can’t altogether chalk that one off my list.

Still, the bits shown, two full episodes with some sequences spliced in from elsewhere (those wacky Belgians!) were jolly good fun.

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Like a lightweight, I gave myself 45 minutes of daylight before plunging into TEODORA, IMPERATRICE DI BISANZIO (THEODORA, SLAVE EMPRESS), part of the too-brief Riccardo Freda season. This was campy, sword-and-sandal fun, showing signs of the amoral and unsympathetic eye Freda would later turn on his characters. One character, a prison guard is seduced by the vamp-heroine so she can escape her bonds. He’s blinded with a red-hot poker for his troubles (the sadism of the giallo and the spaghetti western is fully present in the peplum). Later, he turns up as a kind of monster, stalking towards Teo in his fur-trimmed barbarian/s&m costume, only to get speared by the hero. Shouldn’t he merit a little sympathy? Apparently not.

The movie also features the best beast attack I’ve ever seen — scores of wild cats of all breeds leaping upon and devouring Roman soldiers. Freda uses the standard formula — shot of real big cat jumping, shot of extra being walloped with stuffed lion — but he cuts so frenetically and does it so many times that the sequence attains a kind of ludicrous, drunken conviction. Hilarious and breath-taking.

The feature screened with a short, I MOSAICI A REVENNA, in which Freda artfully films the religious art of the early Byzantine Empire — and he interpolates a few shots from the doc into his feature to bolster the production values.

On to the big screen at the Arlecchino, for OKLAHOMA! which I could only justify on the grounds that a Todd-AO restoration is an unusual event, and I wanted to see what it looked and sounded like. Well, pristine, for starters. I kind of resented the way the intro was all about the difficulty of the restoration — the challenge seems to have been the main motivation — with no mention of Fred Zinnemann and his achievement, mixed though it may be. On the big screen, with the six-track magnetic stereo sound remastered and the image taken from the decaying negative ten years ago and digitally restored at 50fps 30fps, the film is overwhelming. Rarely have I seen so much of the great outdoors indoors. The micro detail allows you to spot tiny flies and butterflies (and water-snakes) wafting through frame, sometimes to dramatically fortuitous effect. Note also Zinnemann’s innovative direct cutting, achieved without the guiding influence of the nouvelle vague. When Gordon MacRae sings of his putative surrey with a fringe on top, we just cut to the damn thing, on the beat, rollicking along against a massive sky, just as if it had existed all along.

If I started to list the things I missed while watching this jolly 148 minute roadshow pic, complete with intermission, I might start to cry. That’s the curse of the film festival. Oh, very well — Cagney’s debut in OTHER MEN’S WOMEN — a 1935 Mizoguchi and a Takashima of similar vintage — something called IN THE LAND OF THE HEAD HUNTERS — NIGHT NURSE with Stanwyck and Blondell in their scanties — a conference on film restoration — a film by Henny Porten’s sister — Chaplin’s THE VAGABOND and EASY STREET — Giuseppe Tornatore talking about Francesco Rosi’s SALVATORE GIULIANO — Guru Dutt’s PYAASA… and the same impossible choices are offered up from 9am to 9.45pm every day!

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By simply remaining in my seat I could catch MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, so I did. Later, Dave Kehr told me about the earlier cut, the authentic Ford cut, which alas does not seem to have been restored. But Linda Darnell on the big screen, even playing a character called Chihuahua ffs, was possibly the most impressive sight of the fest.

In the massive Piazza Maggiore, the public gets in free along with the guests — to watch SALVATORE GIULIANO, in this case, with Tornatore introducing. The restoration makes it look new. It’s a very impressive film, but after 12 hours of screenings I am not taking it in as well as I might — though the film’s unconventional structure (a bit like a CITIZEN KANE in which we see Thompson but don’t see KANE) certainly comes across — when you’re dog-tired and have no idea how far from the end of the movie you might be, you certainly notice.

The Domestic Trap

Posted in FILM with tags , , on December 30, 2011 by dcairns

Maybe these two shots explain why Fred Zinnemann kept traveling the world, making big films that occupied months and months of his time… to Europe (DAY OF THE JACKAL), Africa (THE NUN’ S STORY), Australia (THE SUNDOWNERS)…

In THE SUNDOWNERS, Robert Mitchum’s fear of being tied down to one place is embodied in this shoebox of a shot.

But, interestingly, the guardedly optimistic ending of TERESA features a similar composition. I guess in part that sense of enclosure is what makes it only guardedly optimistic…