Archive for Gavin Lambert

Creative Differences

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2021 by dcairns

I can’t write anything better about BITTER VICTORY than Jonathan Rosenbaum’s piece, which is one of his really good ones. He gets at the ambiguity of the two main characters — Curt Jurgens as Brand, essentially the villain, ought to attract our sympathies more than he does, and Richard Burton’s hero, Leith, oughtn’t to be as appealing as he is. Of course, a lot of this has to do with casting, and Ray’s relationships with his stars. Jurgens was forced on him. Burton, a fellow alcoholic, was sympatico, and Ray tried to get him for KING OF KINGS later, and Burton seriously thought about it.

Brand is a coward and a hypocrite, pathologically jealous, and somewhat brutal. But he’s TRYING to be brave, sometimes he is, and his anxiety about his wife’s fidelity is not wholly without foundation. I think she’s ready to take off with Burton if the circumstances allow it. Still, he’s an unattractive character, unattractively played. Jurgens kept protesting that he wasn’t sympathetic enough, but if Ray tried to fix that, his feelings about having Jurgens forced on him maybe got in the way. Ray was rewriting with Gavin Lambert, the psycho producer was rewriting with Paul Gallico, on another continent, and meanwhile the original author had script approval.

It’s interesting that Ray, by all accounts a supersensitive and uncannily perceptive guy, chose to make his European debut with a producer who turned out, according to Lambert, to be someone who enjoyed destroying directors. Given Ray’s noted self-destructiveness, it’s possible he chose Graetz, at some subconscious level, as just the kind of guy he ought to have nothing to do with.

The making of a film often seems to echo the story of the film, so it’s also easy to see Leith and Brand as portraits of Ray and Graetz. Leith, the romantic T.E. Lawrence figure — like Lawrence, an archaeologist, and someone who upsets his commanders because of his strange manner — Brand, the bully and desk-jockey who instinctively resents Leith, and who is constantly trying to prove himself against him. The reason Leith, and the audiences, give Brand no credit for drinking water that may be poisoned, is that it requires no physical courage, just a lack of imagination.

The one area where Brand’s imagination is on overdrive is his sexual jealousy of his wife and Leith. In fact, the two last met before Brand came on the scene, and they’re much too noble to do anything about their lingering emotions. But Brand evidently has a whole other movie playing in his head…

Ray had wanted Montgomery Clift as Leith, and Burton in the other role, as Brand. Had that been the case, Leith would certainly still have been more appealing than Brand (Burton could do nasty very well, Monty did soulful and vulnerable) but the balance would have been closer. Whether Clift could have made himself sound like a British officer is questionable. But part of the film’s interest is the way Leith’s perversity, self-destructiveness, crazy romanticism and sadistic goading of Brand play out as heroic and noble. The more you pick it apart afterwards the more interesting it gets.

I also love the look of the desert scenes, among the most barren ever filmed. LAWRENCE’s dunes are like feminine fleshscapes by comparison. In daylight, the contrast is so low the action is almost happening against an infinity curve, and at night there’s faux-lunar floodlighting against a jet-black sky, so we get warring voids.

Asides from the central trio (Ruth Roman is pretty good, but Ray wanted Moira Shearer), the only other substantial characters are a sympathetic Arab guide (Raymond Pellegrin, excellent) and the viciously mad Private Wilkins, played by the great Nigel Green.

Green can conjure a glint of madness like few other actors. It can just be THERE, not doing anything, suggesting a weird blinkered disassociation, like in THE IPCRESS FILE. But Wilkins is out where the buses don’t run. He’s evidently been doing this kind of thing too long. Everything’s a joke to him. We’re all going to die? That’s a good joke. We’re just going to suffer horribly? Still funny. Someone else is going to die instead? Equally good. Despite having just about the same attitude to everything that can or might happen, Green is electrifying in the role and Wilkins is terrifyingly unpredictable.

The other familiar face is Christopher Lee, playing another working class private. Lee rarely played plebeian, but is reasonable convincing, and of course he’s the most convincing commando. He MOVES awfully well. In Arab dress, at night, he totally evokes the kind of horror movie he was about become famous for. They should have let him show Burton how to ambush a man and stab him in the back, silently. Lee had actual military experience doing that. Burton’s approach gives the enemy plenty of time to yell and would not work. Still, at this very instant comes the extraordinary moment when Burton lets out a gasp — he’s doing the killing, but it’s like HE’S the one being killed. This close juxtaposition of the clumsy and the brilliant is what Truffaut perhaps meant when he remarked that Ray’s films were often not as “well-made” as other Hollywood filmmakers’, but he got moments of truth that nobody else would go near.

And, often, these moments involve violence.

The unfolding of the desert mission — retrieving enemy documents of completely opaque significance — kept reminding me of HOW I WON THE WAR. Running out of water, men cracking under the strain. Both films reference Lawrence without naming him. But it didn’t seem likely to have been a direct influence on Richard Lester. But it might conceivably have inspired novelist Patrick Ryan, who wrote the source book. The crazy, near-abstract mission is oddly close to satire, but markedly without laughs.

Mail Anxiety

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2018 by dcairns

There’s this really interesting dream sequence in THE MARRYING KIND. Your basic anxiety dream, easy to interpret. Disgruntled postal worker Aldo Ray swept some loose ball bearings out of sight at work rather than clearing them up properly, and he’s worried they’ll cause an accident. Under the influence of too many cocktails, he feels his bed turn into a post office conveyor belt bearing him from his bedroom to the post office, which turns out to be an adjoining space —

   

That’s the best bit. The many ball-bearings that come scooting out to meet him are cute, but Cukor’s use of a single shot to travel from reality into dream, and the evocation of that weird spacial dislocation unique to the dream state (see also, Welles’ THE TRIAL, where the back entrance of the artist’s garret opens onto the law court offices; “That seems to surprise you,” lisps the artist, staring glassily).

It’s almost as good as the bed that becomes a car in Pierre Etaix’s LE GRAND AMOUR. Though our dreams typically see us leaving our bedrooms far behind with no hint of how way found ourselves elsewhere, movie dreams seem to benefit from keeping the idea of the bedroom in play — hence all those movies where the hero is in his pajamas to create surrealistic contrast with whatever scenario he finds himself wrestling with, and hence also Polanski’s use of bedroom sounds — breathing, the alarm clock’s tinny tick — to accompany his own uncanny dream sequences.

“If I ever had to do hell in a film,” Cukor told Gavin Lambert, “– no, not quite hell, let’s say purgatory — the New York post office would be the perfect setting.”

Cukor didn’t get to do many dreams, alas. He wasn’t likely to get many films noir, being a prestigious as he was, and the other genre associated with dreams, the musical, just didn’t lead him that way, unless you count his brief involvement with THE WIZARD OF OZ. A DOUBLE LIFE is his other hallucinatory one.

I really like that THE MARRYING KIND is a realistic comedy with a dream sequence. People in realist movies so seldom dream, and yet in ACTUAL reality, we all dream a lot. That’s why I like LOS OLVIDADOS better than anything by Ken Loach, even though it’s more depressing. Bunuel’s poor people still dream, though their dreams, as shown, are even more upsetting that Aldo Ray’s ball bearings.

Oh, maybe worth making a comparison to another Columbia picture —

   

A Star is Burned

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2018 by dcairns

Inside Daisy Clover from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I’m extremely glad I never watched the pan-and-scan copy of INSIDE DAISY CLOVER I used to own, so I could appreciate the proper super-wide-screen version I have now acquired. That said, there’s only really one scene in it that really comes alive, but BOY does it come alive.

Producer Alan Pakula and director Robert Mulligan (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) tackle Gavin Lambert’s novel (with the author himself adapting the screenplay), effectively a Judy Garland roman a clef, with a perfectly cast Natalie Wood as the waif-starlet abused by the system. There’s good, creepy work from Christopher Plummer as her studio boss (though no thirties studio boss was remotely as handsome — you were lucky if you got Darryl Zanuck, “he of the air-conditioned teeth,” as Orson Welles unkindly but accurately remarked) and Katharine Bard as his sinister sister wife. Ruth Gordon plays the crazy mama, a more benign figure than the monstrous stage mother in Natalie’s own life, and Roddy McDowell is rather wasted as a studio factotum.

Robert Redford is intriguingly cast as a dashing drunk, a Flynn/Barrymore composite who also turns out to be gay, something one can’t imagine Redford playing later. Since reading Peter Biskind’s gossip-fest book Down and Dirty Pictures, which characterises RR as, essentially, a passive-aggressive jerk, I can’t help see his characters as passive-aggressive, and it’s definitely a suitable filter for this one. Weird how an actor who’s been criticised for being bland and always playing sympathetic golden boys can be realigned as the movies’ biggest and best portrayer of arrogant jerks.

But the movie fails to catch fire. Wood is energetic and effecting as she always was, but the story’s progress is full of mysterious lacunae. Is it a problem that, in charting this aspirant screen goddess’s rise to fame and heartbreak, we never see her first day on set, meet her co-stars or directors, or see her actually notice her fame or meet her public? It might not have to be, if the lacunae were bridged by consistent narrative development. But Daisy is introduced as a girl who wants to sing, and then her singing drops out of the picture altogether. Sure, there are a couple of musical numbers staged by Herbert Ross, who, as his later PENNIES FROM HEAVEN shows, could certainly pastiche 30s style, but here seems to have been ordered to keep it vague as to period. Edith Head and team’s costumes likewise eschew anything smacking too strongly of the depression, and try to touch lightly on sixties styles. The movie’s planting its feet three decades apart makes for an uncomfortable pose.

It’ a strangely underpopulated film — giant studio barns, inside and out, a deserted boardwalk, a motel in a literal desert, a yacht at sea (always uncomfortable to see Natalie in such a setting, but Redford is there and he’s Mr. Boat) — scene after scene is stripped of extras and period detail, perhaps making a point about the loneliness of stardom, but not as vividly as showing the uncaring mob would.

Then comes the scene quoted above. Outstandingly edited by Aaron Stell, with a really creepy drone from André Previn on the soundtrack, and striking choices with sound editing that make the whole thing modernistically unsettling. There just weren’t Hollywood films evoking this kind of European unease at the time, or damn few: how many American directors really gave the impression they’d seen Godard, Fellini and Antonioni? Mulligan sure has.

I guess this is the pay-off to the character’s initial love of singing, the thing that makes her feel the world isn’t as crappy as it seems. Even that’s been taken from her. But there’s no real middle to that journey. Still, it gets a powerful ending.

The movie ends happily — either a cop-out or an act of mercy. Give Daisy the triumphant escape so few of her real-life counterparts achieved, why not? We also get perhaps cinema’s first instance of what is now a tiresome cliché, the Walking Away From An Explosion moment. Astonishing. Without Natalie Wood, no Wolverine.