Archive for George MacReady

Wagner’s Wrong Cycle

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2019 by dcairns

“Stand there, Bob. No, elbow up a bit. Turn your head a fraction…”

Hollywood started going weirdly wrong in the fifties, I think. Competing with TV, which in those days had really great scripts and acting but looked essentially like Mr. Magoo’s Dream of Hell, Hollywood countered with some terrible scripts and elevated a lot of attractive non-actors to leading roles.

A KISS BEFORE DYING isn’t an appalling piece of writing, but the need to render the central literary trick of Ira Levin’s source novel in cinematic terms robs it of most of its bite, and the dentition is further eroded by the casting of bores and incompetents in the leads, with one more skilled player so miscast her abilities wrench the whole thing in the wrong direction. True, the casting of Robert Wagner as a killer of women is… suggestive. Titillating, even, in a deeply wrong way. And it’s true that Wagner’s blandness shows some sign of becoming a positive dramatic force — he IS the banality of evil — in this unfamiliar context. Mark Cousins recently introduced me to RW’s early appearance in WITH A SONG IN MY HEART, where he plays a traumatised veteran, and the contrast of his catalogue model beauty with the “troubled” label is as close to “electrifying” as one could ever speak of in relation to this player, who always seems smothered in insulation.

And that’s still the case in AKBD. If one reads about the life and death of Natalie Wood, RW emerges as someone with a definite dark side, even if you don’t think he’s guilty of or hiding anything beyond rowing with his wife and being a bit inept at calling in an emergency (I would say he might well be guilty of more than that, though the term “person of interest” never sat more uncomfortably on the shoulders of a movie star). But as the would-be serial unmarried young Bluebeard here, Wagner invests no malevolence, no cunning, no manipulation in the role, he just doubles down on his native blandness. (One exception: the character’s nastiness to his dear mother, played by a rare Technicolor Mary Astor, makes you want to stab him.)Uh-oh.

OK, so that could actually work, even if it’s a side-effect of somebody’s casting error rather than an inspired choice (and you just can’t tell with Wagner) but who do we have as the good guys? Uh oh.

Jeffrey Hunter is the studious young man who tries to thwart Wagner’s proto-uxoricide (is there a word for killing your betrothed? Anyone writing about this story needs such a word). Hunter, unlike Wagner, is a man who shows clear signs of wanting to act, so he dons glasses and clenches a pipe between his pearly whites I refer to his teeth, not his butt cheeks, as you might suppose)… and that’s it for performance. Can you wonder that, despite yielding to no man in my admiration for Nick Ray, I have never made it through THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES, or if I have, I can’t remember it? What stops me making another attempt on that Everest of tedium is that I might be wasting my time, having already accomplished the feat only to have it slip from my memory like an unusually dull bar of soap. That one also has both Wagner and Hunter as leads — the Dream Team! In that you actually fall asleep watching them.Then we have Virginia Leith, evidently also being groomed for stardom — thrust upon the blameless public. She’s really, um, “good” in THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE, in that she invests lines like “No, my deformed friend, like all quantities, horror has it’s ultimate, and I am that,” with exactly what they seem to demand, whatever that is. Here, she’s lost, just uninterestingly terrible, and the script loses focus whenever she’s around, since it wants us to be on her side as she investigates her sister’s death, and still on her side when she refuses, against all reason, to believe in Wager’s guilt. Very hard for an actor to put over, and completely impossible for poor Virginia, who is very attractive I must say.

Joanna Woodward is the miscast one, the only lead who can act: she’s studied her part and deduced that the character written as a doting nitwit must be played as such, an unavoidable conclusion for a method actor but the wrong choice for this hokum. (Look at Mia Farrow’s far more sympathetic, less distanced performance in ROSEMARY’S BABY, from another Levin book about a deceived and betrayed woman.) If they’d only swapped Leith and Woodward around, I think you’d have something: Leith’s lack of experience/skill would allow her to play dim naturally, without knowing she was doing it, and maintain our sympathy without trying, and Woodward could invest her shrewdness in playing the wilful, sharp (some of the time) and passionate heroine.

Astor is good but there isn’t enough of her. Dear old George Macready is acting for five, and it’s not like I don’t appreciate the effort but maybe not now, George?

Gerd Oswald directs, his camera leering-looming-lurching in for dramatic close-ups, unsubtle but certainly appropriate, and the whole production gleams dumbly. I love Technicolor, part 2.

There is a love song, “A Kiss Before Dying,” playing on every juke box in this movie, and nobody says “What a weird idea for a song!”

Oh, and the credits have kissy lipsticks all over them, which is particularly curious with Wagner and Hunter being top-billed.

A KISS BEFORE DYING stars Prince Valiant; Jan in the Pan; Teenage Jesus; Clara Varner; Miss Wonderly;  Count Yorga, vampire; and General Mireau.

Mind/Body Dualism

Posted in FILM with tags , , on December 31, 2014 by dcairns

Rather brilliant trailer for movie serial THE MONSTER AND THE APE. There’s no monster, only a robot, remote-controlled and without a will of his own. Calling him a monster for that seems a bit harsh. Oh, there’s also George MacReady as a mad scientist, so it might be a reference to him. Hell, it might even be a reference to George’s unsightly mustache. It’s a work rich in ambiguity.

Everything the gorilla does in the trailer is hilarious, and this did seem to be true of the serial itself — I’ve watched three episodes. There’s a bit where the gorilla is taken along on a burglary by the criminal gang (it’s never explained how they came to have a pet gorilla — in the world of dumb-ass serials, that kind of thing is a given). After helpfully smashing in the front door, the gorilla is basically just a nuisance, yanking his chain and trying to wander off in the wrong direction, then gleefully bashing the object of their mission, a piece of delicate scientific apparatus, against a work surface in a bit of gratuitous simian joie de vivre.

Screenwriting manuals speak of “the obligatory scene”, in which, for instance, Sheriff Brody faces down the Great White Shark, or Rocky fights his opponent, or Shelley Winters perishes face-down in a large body of water. Obviously, to any child, the obligatory scene in THE MONSTER AND THE APE would be a spectacular square-off between the gorilla, who I’m going to call Alistair, because it’s a nice name, and the robot, who I think we should call Peter. The makers of this serial appear not to have realized this, so that the ape actually dies in a hail of bullets in the penultimate episode (shot by the Wizard of Oz’s brother!) whereas the robot spends most of his time in a crate being stolen.

My favourite thing, apart from the gorilla continually turning up in unlikely places, is the demonstration of the robot, in which to prove that it is a boon to mankind, the workman of the future, and unsuited for any purposes of dastardliness, they have it rip the door of a bank vault type structure. No possible evil applications there!

“…lead to the grave.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2014 by dcairns

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Years ago, when I discovered Fiona hadn’t seen PATHS OF GLORY and we watched it together, she put into words something I had felt about the film but not articulated — “It’s not just a war film, it’s about really big things — LIFE and DEATH!” Indeed, for us the film really kicked into its strongest phase after the three soldiers have been sentenced to death (off-camera, in a bold elision) and have to face their mortality (calling to mind Woody Allen’s speech from LOVE AND DEATH: “Isn’t all mankind ultimately executed for a crime it never committed? The difference is that all men go eventually, but I go six o’clock tomorrow morning. I was supposed to go at five o’clock, but I have a smart lawyer.”)

Like Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey and Joe Turkel, we have three choices about facing death — we can weep and pray, we can put on a brave face, or we can be unconscious when it happens. And ultimately it could be said to make little difference. “Pull yourself together — is this how you want to be remembered?” asks Bert Freed. “I don’t want to die,” replies Meeker, reasonably.

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I just ran the movie for students ahead of a visiting lecture by Jan Harlan, Kubrick’s producer — one remarked that it was sweet to see Turkel being so nice, since in his most famous roles, THE SHINING and BLADE RUNNER, he’s kind of sepulchral and sinister. True, he does punch a priest in the face, but that’s not too unsympathetic by this film’s lights, and to be fair the priest was a bit annoying. By casting Emile Meyer, usually a heavy, with his pugilistic, clapped-in face, Kubrick somehow mitigates the anti-clerical brutality — you couldn’t slug the padre from MASH without losing audience respect, but somehow Meyer is fair game. When Meyer protests that he wants “to help you, with all my power!” Turkel responds, “You HAVE no power!” which is true, as far as the immediate problem goes. It’s the best bit of defrocking dialogue outside of  THE GREEN ROOM, where Truffaut yells that what the bereaved want from the church is the immediate resurrection of their loved ones, and anything less is an unforgivable tease. Unreasonable, you might say, but not when you take into account the authority these dudes claim to represent.

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Despite starring Chin Cleft himself (introduced shirtless, as was his wont), and being produced by his company, the film is really an ensemble piece (a fact emphasised even further by the tacked-on conclusion, in which Kirk is merely a passive witness), and everybody is really good. James Mason, impressed enought to take on LOLITA, nevertheless felt that the American accents let it down, which is objectively silly, but I guess the custom for using Brit to represent the entire non-American world was strongly established. Having gone for Yanks, Kubrick pushes it pretty far, with Meyer’s Bowery bum whine (wait, he was from Louisiana?) and Jerry Hausner’s bold reading of “What is life widout a liddle divoijshen?” and, of course, Timothy Carey.

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Listening to the film’s producer, James B. Harris, in Lyon, my NATAN co-director Paul Duane picked up lots of great stuff about Carey faking his own kidnapping on location and other typical crazy shit. John Baxter cites the story of someone questioning Kubes why he kept hiring Carey. “He can’t act!” Kubrick replied that he wanted either the best actor in the world, or a brilliant type. (Exemplified by DR STRANGELOVE — when Peter Sellers dropped out of the role of Major Kong, the director went straight for Dan Blocker and then Slim Pickens, genuine examples of what Sellers was to have imitated.) And it’s true — Carey carries his own reality with him, a beat-up beatnik doziness that anchors him in every scene. If he can’t quite do everything the script calls for, and has a slight tendency to strike poses (hilarious vanity in one with his lizard-lidded zombie face), his essential Timothy-Carey-ness keeps him credible, like the way a small child, or a very old person, or a dog is always believable on-screen even if they can’t act.

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Who else? Wayne Morris, a real-life WWII hero, is great as the drunken coward Roget (the script, partly written by alcoholic Jim Thompson, tends to equate boozing with vice, until the third act when everybody swears by it). My late friend Lawrie said used to drink with him– I can’t work out when this occurred, since Morris doesn’t seem to have had a British career. And the bad guys — Adolphe Menjou, whose rapid-fire delivery makes him the worst casualty of the boxy sound recording in vast halls — George MacReady, whose psychotic villainy keeps rising to new levels of outrageous hypocrisy, and that’s his arc — Richard Anderson, who probably oversells his sliminess early on and his doubt later — and Peter Capell, who plays the presiding judge at the court martial, and scores by buttering the most prejudiced and insanely unjust comments with a veneer of gentle, paternal reasonableness.

The full quote is “The paths of glory lead to the grave,” hence all those tracking and trucking shots — at the execution, SK dollies over gravel towards the posts the men are to be bound to, and the POV shots heading forwards seem to represent the rush towards Death — three wooden poles marking the end of everything.

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For the first time I really thought about what the film would have been like without the musical number from the future Mrs Kubrick at the end. Ending on Kirk’s rugged face as he says, “Because you don’t know the answer to that, I pity you,” would be very strong indeed — the only note of grace being supplied by the lighting, which makes of him a lambent gargoyle-saint. What follows is a brilliantly judged attempt to soften the conclusion without softening the film, beginning with a sequence which actually makes us dislike the French troops we’ve been rooting for all along, developing into the musical montage of faces, magnificently lit again — I wonder how Kubrick got on with his German cinematographer, Georg Krause, who had been active all through the Nazi era? They do great work together. Most of the previous imagery has been figures in landscapes or interiors, Kirk’s big CU at the end of the “real film” starts this cascade of portraits. The best thing about it is it does almost nothing — it doesn’t alleviate the sense of injustice, it almost universalizes it. The final shot of Kirk leaving is pretty bleak and ugly — but isn’t even the last shot, since the end creds are a bunch more portraits.

Obviously PATHS OF GLORY is an emotional film, but it defies WWI movie convention by stirring up our sense of moral outrage rather than trying to break our hearts with the pity of it. It gives the lie to the cliché of Kubrick the emotionless. My friend B. Mite strongly argued that Kubrick was interested in “the emotions that don’t have names” — 2001 stirs up a kind of awe and terror that’s closer to the romantic poets’ response to nature than to anything in Spielberg. It’s cold in a tactile sense — all that black space and ll those white surfaces — but nobody, surely, could watch it without emotion. Even Pauline Kael felt claustrophobic.

The movie has been used by scientists testing the physiological effects of film — it has been shown to make people physically angry. Script guru Phil Parker once pointed out that injustice is a great plot engine, because it seizes and inflames everyone. As the line in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS goes, “When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair,’ the child can be believed.”