Archive for Gary Cooper

Pull up a chair

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 21, 2011 by dcairns

The bit in HIGH NOON that always impresses me the most is outlaw Frank Miller’s empty chair.

Of course, the real-time approach to story is fascinating and very novel, and leads directly to the omnipresent clock shots, each more ominous than the last. Dimitri Tiomkin’s ballad started a (somewhat regrettable) trend, but still sounds fresh, with its unusual frog-burp rhythm. The cinematography, pasting bleached-out skies behind flat-lit action, influenced by Mathew Brady’s period photos, violated the traditional Hollywood aesthetic and opened up new possibilities. Cooper’s age works to the film’s advantage, Lon Chaney Jnr gets one of his rare decent roles, Grace Kelly is radiant in her second role (a disciple of Flaherty, Zinnemann realized he could use her inexperience to illuminate the character).

But I’m obsessed with that chair.

First time out, the chair is mentioned — “That’s the chair Frank Miller sat in when he was sentenced!” Second time, during the final ticking-clock montage which revisits every character we’ve met as they await the stroke of noon, Zinnemann tracks in on the empty chair. This isn’t exploring space, roving POV, following movement or storytelling, so it must be the fifth kind of camera movement motivation: psychological. This is where we track in on a character as they think deep thoughts or feel a surge of emotion, and the movement makes us sense the thought/emotion building within them. The difference here is, the man who sat in the chair and felt the emotion did it months before the movie began. He’s not there anymore. But, like the spectres in THE SHINING, he’s left a trace of himself, and that’s what Zinnemann is filming. He’s tracking backwards in time, like Ophuls or Tarkovsky or Sokhurov, the only difference being that the temporal movement doesn’t reveal itself visually, only by mental impression.

Zinnemann’s fellow Viennese, Von Sternberg, wrote of his desire to photograph an idea — Zinnemann, it seems to me, has done this. Although I think the shot was probably a huge influence on Spielberg, who likes tracking in on objects to imbue them with significance and make us consider their narrative import, I think F.Z.’s shot goes markedly deeper, creating a sense of brooding lust for vengeance out of nothing more than empty air and a piece of furniture designed to receive the buttocks.

I haven’t tried this myself, but I suspect that if you watch this scene wearing the polarising glasses used to make the phantoms visible in William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS, you would get surprising results.

Film criticism, which used to see Peckinpah and Leone as the Men who Killed the Western (with realism, parodic exaggeration, and the destruction of moral certainties), now seems to have turned the clock back to put the blame on HIGH NOON and the psychological western. Suddenly there was liberal angst in the West, neurosis and concern about whether people are truly good, and that is seen as the first nail in the coffin of a genre built on certain shared assumptions. Maybe that’s why Hawks reacted so badly — he sensed the writing was on the wall. In many ways, HIGH NOON does seem to prefigure the decline of the genre — we have Gary Cooper looking old, the small community is no longer a source of final virtue and courage, and something strange and disturbing has happened to the style…

Leone quoted shots from HIGH NOON throughout his career, as Sir Christopher Professor Frayling would tell you, as well as borrowing Lee Van Cleef, one of the villain’s henchmen (as Peckinpah borrowed Katy Jurado). The musical fob watch in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is just an excuse to re-stage the above musical build-up three times in one movie. And of course ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST opens with a ten-minute compression of Zinnemann’s whole show. If Leone had fulfilled his dream of casting Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef as the three killers waiting for the train, Van Cleef’s appearance would have been a double joke.

To Leone, HIGH NOON seems to have been just a good western to swipe from, like YELLOW SKY (watch the ending of that one and HIGH NOON with the opening of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY!), not some departure from the norm. But Zinnemann is using the visual language of film noir — sweaty, intense close-ups, looming into a wide lens, porous, scowling, faces crowded together — in a western. If the climax of ACT OF VIOLENCE (face-off, with long walk, at a railway station) resembles a western duel in negative — which it does, because I just said so — then HIGH NOON is a film noir in negative, the sky a bleached-out Moby Dick white. And as we know from THE SHINING, some things are scarier in the bright light.

So what this ultimately means is that HIGH NOON is the source for a good 75% of Leone’s overall visual approach… so maybe Zinnemann DID kill the western, or at least supply the weapon that fired the shot.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Moral Turpin-tude

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2011 by dcairns

The wind was a torrent of darkness upon the gusty trees, 
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas, 
The road was a ribbon of moonlight looping the purple moor, 
And the highwayman came riding– 
Riding–riding– 
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door. 

Tom Mix as Dick Turpin? Some instinctive urge for variety must have goaded William Fox (the lifesblood of El Brendel not yet coursing through his arteries) — Mix was a great cowboy star, but could he not play other roles? As long as there was a supporting role for  Tony the Wonder Horse.

With its cartoon character names — Lord Churlston and Squire Crabtree are churlish and crabby as you might expect — this movie really shows how childish Hollywood was prepared to be. Perhaps only nostalgia makes it appealing, because I’d have no time for a modern movie as stupid as this. Turpin is rewritten as a Robin Hood figure (he even has Alan Hale, longterm Little John to various Robins, as sidekick), which outdoes the romanticism of his popular fiction appearances to date: the real guy was a murderer and thief with no redemptive charitable impulses: they hanged him in York.

As is so often the case with Fox productions, the sets are impressive (and the film impossible to see in a good condition print), and the crowd scenes reputedly feature Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard boosting the numbers, but good luck spotting either of them. At least Bull Montana is clearly visible as a prize fighter.

“That sounds like something out of Blackadder!” observed Fiona.

Director John G. Blystone finished his days directing Laurel & Hardy — probably regarded as a step down from this in industry terms, but I can think of worse fates. At least his immortality is assured. Outside of the highwayman genre, comedy was very much his bag, and he was Buster Keaton’s collaborator on OUR HOSPITALITY. The film of his I most want to see is THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1924), no relation to the Vincent Price version of I Am Legend — this is that rare bird, an apocalyptic hillbilly comedy.

Purple October

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on October 11, 2010 by dcairns

“In THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP (1932), Paramount Pictures place Charles Laughton in charge of a submarine. It sinks.”

I tweeted this, and the Self-Styled Siren said she was a bad Laughton fan for laughing. Not at all! To admire Laughton’s craft and peerless imagination is not the same as to believe that the kind of character he plays would excel in a position of command. Look at Captain Bligh. In the role of “the Commander” in this movie, he’s been set up to fail, for the first half establishes him as a lunatic in the throes of psychotic jealousy, trashing Cary Grant’s career on the mere suspicion that he’s overly fond of Mrs Commander (Talullah Bankhead). So Mr Grant is out of the picture, and Gary Cooper comes into it, which is even worse news for marital harmony, as you might expect.

All of this plays out in Paramount North Africa, before we decamp to the sub, making the movie a sort of MOROCCO/HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER mash-up. In Part One we get a beautiful lunar oasis tryst, whirling dervishes and tenacious salesmen. In Part Two we get a collision, bursting bulkheads, flooding compartments, and Laughton’s descent into final madness even as his sub descends to the ocean floor, as fatally compromised as his marriage.

Bankhead plays the virtuous wife driven into adultery by hubbie’s paranoia with dignity and just enough melodrama. Grant is still in awkward, stiff-necked mode. Coop pouts and purses his lips a lot. His performances come in two varieties: those with a mute running commentary from the writhing lips, and those without. Both are good, but I tend to prefer the more stationary lip approach. Anyway, Laughton is the whole show.

Faced with a cardboard lunatic to play, the Great Man breaths seething life into him through bold decisions — this jealous nut actually wants to be proved right, to catch his wife in flagrante, and when he does so he goes from tense to relaxed. Laughton wheels out his cherubic smirk. The terrible doubt is over (because if Mrs Commander is innocent, then that “brain specialist” was RIGHT) and now he can proceed to DESTROY THE WORLD. Actually, he can’t, because he doesn’t have a Doomsday Device to hand, but he can certainly crash his sub into an oncoming ship and send her to the bottom of the sea with all hands and feet.

It’s been suggested that suicides often cheer up once they’ve actually made the decision to do it — once that choice is made, there’s nothing more to worry about. Laughton either knew this or, quite probably, intuited it, so that his character becomes positively triumphant as he steers his men towards doom, and only sinks into a despond when any reasonable argument threatens the logic of his annihilation. In one such scene, the distressed Commander pulls on his face, gradually squishing his cheeks up and drawing them downwards until the whole fleshy construction resembles a wad of dough suspended from his eyelids. Don’t tell me Charles didn’t practice this in front of the mirror. For hours.

Marion Gering directs with zest, although his attempts at dramatic flourishes are mostly rendered redundant by Laughton’s stylistic exuberance — you really don’t need a giant ECU of the twitching eyes, not when you have a player as expressive as CL.