Archive for George MacReady

Fortnight Elsewhere

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2013 by dcairns

I don’t know, I thought MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL was pretty good for what it was.

The film is TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN, in which Vincente Minnelli dives into la dolce vita with Kirk Douglas and Edward G Robinson shooting a euro-pudding super-film in Rome, 1959.

Here, they seem to have acquired the wallpaper from VERTIGO.

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Maybe it’s the fault of Irwin Shaw’s source novel, but the movie, often seen as a follow-up to the Minnelli-Douglas Hollywood melo THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, sometimes seems to lack logic — characters do whatever is required to bring on the next emotional frenzy. One second Robinson is scorning his desperate wife’s suicidal tendencies, the next she’s sympathising with him about his creative crisis. Their joint betrayal of another character at the end seems under-motivated or under-explained, but is nevertheless powerful — it’s a movie where power, exemplified by the jutting, dimpled Easter Island chin of Mr Douglas, is more important than sense. Just like the industry it deals with, in fact.

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George Hamilton is quite good, stropping about pouting, Rosanna Schiaffino is sweet, Daliah Lavi is a lot of fun as a luscious but fiery diva. We get a few minutes of gorgeous George MacReady, and Erich Von Stroheim Jnr plays an assistant while simultaneously BEING the real-life assistant director on the picture. Douglas does his usual muscular angst, amped up to eleven.

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In fact, everybody’s playing it big, broad, and on the nose, including composer David Raksin, who seems to be competing with Claire Trevor for the Volume and Hysteria Prize (given out every year at Cinecitta). I didn’t mind, though — there are acerbic comments on life and movies which sometimes feel accurate or at least heartfelt, and Minnelli trumps up an incredible climax as Kirk falls off the wagon and endures a long night of the soul in a series of Felliniesque night spots. As with SOME CAME RUNNING, Minnelli has saved so many of his big guns for this sequence that it almost feels like another movie, that other movie being TOBY DAMMIT. If Fellini influenced Minnelli, it obviously worked the other way too, as Terence Stamp’s nocturnal Ferrari phantom ride seems very much influenced by the screeching rear projection ordeal Kirk puts Cyd Charisse and his Lambourgine through.

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Christ Decrucified

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2011 by dcairns

THE SEVENTH CROSS was Zinnemann’s first major studio picture, after umpteen short subjects and two B pictures, and by his own account he lucked into it. He’d encountered the novel, and thought it would make a great film, and then was sent the script as a subject by pure coincidence. He liked Helen Deutsch’s treatment of the story, although he felt it added sentiment and commercial elements he’d have preferred to do without, but as this was his first major production, there was a lot of studio supervision and changing anything about the screenplay was not an option.

He was also extremely pleased to get Spencer Tracy as star, and writes enthusiastically in his autobiography about Tracy’s masterful subtlety. I sometimes find Tracy’s minimalism to be a kind of maximalist minimalism, everything reduced to simple form but writ large, but here he’s genuinely low-key, aided by a script that keeps him speechless for the first half hour, before allowing a few whispers and then more sustained speech as the character rediscovers his humanity after years of brutalization in a concentration camp. The same arc, kind of, gets a more realistic treatment later in Zinnemann’s haunting THE SEARCH.

THE SEVENTH CROSS neatly does two things. (1) it tells the story of seven escapees from a German camp. The commandant (Yay! George Zucco!) swears he’ll find them all and display them on crosses nailed to trees, and one by one, he does. But the last cross remains empty, as Tracy weaves his way across country and finds help to escape. (2) it tells the story of Tracy’s slow reawakening, his recovery of the humanity stolen from him, which is slowly developed by the small acts of kindness he receives from friends and strangers who help him.

The movie uses Christian imagery throughout, although at least the persecution of the Jews gets a couple of  mentions. I think Louis B Mayer and his colleagues felt that the war effort could best be served by stressing the universal nature of Nazi evil rather than focussing on anti-semitism, which maybe some American audiences might dismiss as someone else’s problem. So the issue is Christianized — there is the title cross, but also a lot of other imagery, such as the hero’s hands, injured while scaling a wall early on, so that he is marked out from his fellow men by stigmata. Requiring a pseudonym, he calls himself Krauss (Cross/Christ). This appeal to the common man is arguably a little dishonest, but it’s propaganda with justification.

An early encounter with an innocent child seems like a deliberate reference to James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN — Tracy is mute, large and animalistic, a possible threat to the innocent. But she’s also a threat to him. Maybe somebody recalled the Christ imagery Whale had applied to his monster?

Handshakes are also a motif in this film — see how many of them you can spot.

I would fight any man who tried to call the above a video essay, but I don’t think there’s much risk. It’s a highlights clip reel, emphasizing a couple of motifs. I’m hoping to re-hone my editing skills…

What a good movie — it has a big heart and combines modesty of scale with huge ambition for emotion and a little politics. “You need to know a lot to do the right thing these days,” muses former Nazi Hume Cronyn to his wife, Jessica Tandy (in her first movie — another great actor introduced to the screen by F.Z.). Also enjoy Steve Geray, Felix Bressart (above), Eily Malyon and George MacReady —

Ah, George! Hume Cronyn (the real heart of the film) visits George to get help for his friend Spencer. All we know about the man he’s seeing is he’s a successful architect who once swore he’d do something for the cause. Hume, a naive factory worker, stares at the decadent cubistic art on the wall and nearly goes crosseyed. This art marks George as a non-Nazi, but also, in Hollywood code, as genuinely decadent — MGM are no more forgiving of modern art than Hitler. Summoned into the architect’s bathroom, Hume finds him shaving, and we go “Oh fuck, it’s George MacReady, you’re screwed, Hume.” And sure enough, George is a vacillating aesthete with no moral backbone, which is good news in a way, because the only other role he’d be likely to get would be sadistic Nazi fiend.

Already thrown off-balance by the weird painting, Hume is utterly disoriented by George’s attitude, AND his bathroom, which breaks up space using mirrors in a way that echoes the multi-viewpoint art on his wall. Hume struggles to find his way out the door, nearly colliding with his own reflection. Left is right, up is down.

BUT the movie is even smarter than that, as George has a change of heart and attempts to man up and do the right thing — only he has no way of contacting Hume. Throughout the film, the struggle to create connections between different good guys, under the glare of their fascist overlords, is a major source of tension.

An underrated movie — shot by the great Karl Freund in true expressionist manner — which ought to be at least as celebrated as ACT OF VIOLENCE — not that that movie gets the credit it really deserves either.

This film also has the nerve to dissolve from George MacReady to a small child looking at a cake.

Shoot the Money

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on May 2, 2011 by dcairns

When students first start editing dialogue scenes in their films, often their first instinct is to simply show the person talking. While Jack Webb makes this work in DRAGNET, film and TV show, it isn’t usually an expressive or involving approach, since it deprives us of a lot of emotional connection which comes from watching the listener rather than the speaker. An editor needs to be like a mind-reader, predicting what the audience wants to see in order to follow the emotional flow of the conversation.

To prove that the person speaking need not be the person visible, I often show students Rita Hayworth’s first appearance in GILDA, which is an exemplary scene in all kinds of ways, not least of which is the way a scene involving a newly-wed husband and wife and a friend is arranged so as to practically exclude the husband altogether. While appearing to assemble his material in a conventional, commonsense manner, director Charles Vidor (and editor Charles Nelson) actually lead the audience to realise very strongly the undercurrent of attraction that hubby is unaware of.

One effect of using this clip as a teaching aid is that poor George MacReady’s exclusion from his own bedroom scene becomes increasingly hilarious once your attention is drawn to it. Before we even get to the boudoir, Vidor uses a camera move to push in on Glenn Ford, who matters here, and exclude MacReady, who apparently doesn’t. Of course, the real purpose for the track-in, or maybe the alibi, is to emphasise Glenn’s emotional reaction to the unexpected presence of a woman. Glenn and George have been very close, you see.

Rita’s first appearance, with the spectacular hair-flip, is striking for other reasons. She gets a big close-up, deliberately boosting her over the two menfolk, who have just been seen in a knee-length medium shot that makes them virtual pygmies in her presence. Her appearance has IMPACT, and it’s a purely cinematic creation: if you were in that room, you’d have seen her long before she enters frame from below like a surfacing shark, and you’d have seen her in the same kind of distant mid-shot as the boys get. The effect is WOW. No wonder Glenn has to grab the door frame for support. And note Rita’s eschewing of femme fatale smolder in favour of a googly-eyed ditziness that’s much more effective for being indirect.

Vidor then intercuts between some intense looks between his two leads which apparently George doesn’t notice at all, because when we get back to the wide shot he’s perfectly happy and unsuspicious. That’s the mood he leaves us with, because he’s not going to be glimpsed again until the end of the scene. Now he leads Glenn forward to be introduced (Glenn walking like a small boy in his way to some frightful corporal punishment), and we cut to —

A splendiferous wide of the boudoir in which we get a full-length Rita x2, an O/S of Glenn, and no sign of George. So irrelevant to this love scene that he doesn’t even cast a reflection in the vast dressing table mirror.

Rita now advances into an O/S midshot, and when we cut to the logical reverse of that, her great head of hair is completely obscuring our view of George. And we find that we don’t mind that at all. Now a long dialogue can play out, most of it between George and Rita, but what the visual scheme is telling us is something very different — this is a scene about Glenn and Rita. The scene is cut exactly as if Glenn were doing the talking — you can amuse yourselves by imagining George’s voice as being telepathic communications from inside Glenn Ford’s head.

Then a big close-up of Rita, simmering away, all sultry and smoking, while Glenn and George converse meaninglessly. You can imagine this bit as being about the voices in Rita’s head. It won’t get you anywhere, but you can totally do it.

Finally Glenn gets a close-up, very slightly smaller than Rita’s (I blame the hair) but basically a match. George is still AWOL, literally phoning his performance in for all we know. He should’ve got a special award for giving a radio performance in a feature film. Vidor continues in a shot-reverse-shot pattern that would seem entirely conventional except that one half of the conversation has been usurped by the silent, moody Mr. Ford. This is a classic example of the conventions of film-making being used in a defiantly unconventional way for expressive reasons.

Vidor cuts back to the MS of Ford and some strange guy we’ve never seen before — oh wait, it’s George MacReady — crashes the shot and swoops in to kiss Rita. But Vidor isn’t through humiliating the oblivious dope: perversely, he uses shot-reverse-shot cutting on Ford and Hayworth to make them interact during the kiss. MacReady may be owner of the lips descending on Hayworth’s expensive face, but it’s Ford she’s thinking about. Further sadomasochistic intrigue oozes in as she calls him “hired help” — Glenn’s reaction shot here — *GULP* — is priceless, as he swallows his pride like a bad oyster. In the words of Bart Simpson, if you use slomo, you can actually see the moment his heart breaks.

Glenn’s shoulder frames the next three-shot, where George again has his back to us. A fresh angle allows him at least a profile, salvaging some of the poor guy’s dignity, but he’s still way off to the side, with Ford obviously the subject of the shot and Rita’s cascade of hair taking up more screen space than either man.

Then Glenn slopes off, George bounding after him (unusual to see this actor so puppylike). Entertain yourselves one more time by abolishing perspective and picturing the back of Rita’s head as being actually bigger than all of George MacReady. Now you have an unforgettable and accurate image of their wedding night.

George leaves, and Rita caps the scene with a brooding, smoky close-up and another swish of her hair, a sort of bookend to the action.

Now, “Shoot the money” was a well-known Hollywood saying, meaning that the stars get the limelight and the character players have to fend for themselves, grabbing moments when they can (which may have helped produce the manic, intense and over-eager style so beloved in successful bit actors like Pangborn or Demarest). But obviously, I hope, there’s more than that going on here — the cutting is telling a story that’s very different from that carried in the words. Of course, many of those words are laden with subtext too, but in a classically Hollywood manner, Vidor reinforces the meaning of the scene through framing and cutting. And it makes great use of the slower cutting pace of the period. Nowadays, when editing is so fast, even in conversations, I can imagine someone saying, “Why not have a quick glimpse of George, just to remind us he’s there?” And of course, the answer is, “As far as these two are concerned, he’s not there.”

Dedicated to the memory of Bert Eeles, my editor on CRY FOR BOBO, who died last week.