Archive for George Stevens

How Old Cary Grant?

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2018 by dcairns

The journalist accidentally sent the above query by telegram, not to Cary’s publicist, but to the star himself.

Cary famously replied, OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?

Here’s the first entry in our blogathon on late movies, final films: Judy Dean tackles the swan song of Bristol’s finest movie star, Archibald Leach himself. As films about the Tokyo Olympics go (we are nothing if not topical) this may not have the cinematic values of Kon Ichikawa’s TOKYO OLYMPIAD, but it has Cary Grant, damnit.

“Heavy romance on the screen should be played by young people, not middle-aged actors”  (Cary Grant, 1952)

In WALK, DON’T RUN (1966, dir. Charles Walters) a successful English businessman, happily married with grown up children, finds himself in Tokyo at the time of the 1964 Olympics. Arriving ahead of schedule he’s told his hotel room won’t be available for 48 hours and ends up renting a room in the flat of a young single woman. He meets a member of the US Olympic team who’s also looking for accommodation, invites him to share his room and then sets about engineering a romance between his two flatmates.  

It’s a remake of 1943’s THE MORE THE MERRIER (dir. George Stevens) which was set in an overcrowded wartime Washington. WALK DON’T RUN follows its plot very closely, even reproducing some of the sight gags (a drop-down ironing board, trousers propelled out of the window by their braces).

In the original, however, the businessman is played by Charles Coburn and in the remake by Cary Grant, two actors seldom mistaken for each other.

THE MORE THE MERRIER is a sweet, engaging screwball comedy with Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea making a charming and sexy, if somewhat mature, couple and for whom Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton, in the same roles, are no match.

What pleasure there is in WALK, DON’T RUN, and there isn’t much, lies in the way Cary Grant subverts the central premise of the film, which is that he is now too old to get the girl and can only act as matchmaker.  The script hammers this home this with a distressing lack of subtlety. In the closing scene, satisfied that the young couple, now married, are about to consummate their relationship, he smiles cheerily and is driven off to fly home to his wife and their silver wedding celebrations. He is passing the baton of love, sex and romance to the next generation. Or not.

Nobody watches THE MORE THE MERRIER wondering if Jean Arthur might fall for Charles Coburn rather than Joel McCrea but in WALK, DON’T RUN, there’s no denying that it’s just possible Samantha Eggar will opt for a man of 60, especially if that man is Cary Grant.  

What the script tries to persuade us to believe is at odds with the evidence of our own eyes. Whether scaling the outside of the apartment building (echoes of TO CATCH A THIEF), showing off his naked body, whistling the theme tunes from CHARADE and AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER (more reminders of past glories), Grant is on fine form, as dazzlingly handsome, vain and athletic as ever and more than capable of injecting a little life into the leaden dialogue.

But, despite his best efforts, it’s a silly film and with two weak and baffling subplots, some horribly stereotypical jokes about the Japanese and unnecessary coyness about racewalking as an Olympic sport, it must be asked why he decided to do it.

The key seems to lie in his ongoing pursuit of the Oscar that had eluded him for so many years. After being nominated twice for Best Actor, first in 1942 for PENNY SERENADE and then again in 1945 for NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART, and after losing on both occasions, he boycotted the ceremony for many years until persuaded by Ingrid Bergman in 1957 to collect the award for her role in ANASTASIA on her behalf.  Grant believed, and the argument carries some weight, that the members of the Academy had never forgiven him for his break with the studio contract system. Nevertheless, he’d been hopeful of success with his penultimate film, FATHER GOOSE, in which he’d played a dishevelled, misanthropic drunk and was bitterly disappointed when he wasn’t even nominated. It seems doubtful that, had he won, WALK DON’T RUN would have been made, but he was aware that Charles Coburn had walked away with Best Supporting Actor for the original and no doubt thought the remake might offer a chance to do the same.

As it was, he had to wait until 1970 when, under the presidency of Gregory Peck, an old friend who had set about liberalising the Academy and had campaigned vigorously on Grant’s behalf, he was finally awarded an Honorary Oscar “for his unique mastery of the art of screen acting with the respect and affection of his colleagues”.

One last point.  WALK, DON’T RUN could be read as a gay film and the audience just as easily forgiven for predicting that the two male leads will ride off into the sunset together, given that they not only happily share a very small bedroom but engage in dialogue like this:

“Tokyo’s filled with baths.  They’re all quite nice. Ever try one?  Probably one around here somewhere. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll join you.”

The ensuing scene only gives weight to the theory ~

as does this shot, in which Cary Grant recognises his roommate through binoculars with a shout of “Oh, that’s him!”

JUDY DEAN

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The View

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2017 by dcairns

When David Leland’s lovely WISH YOU WERE HERE came out, he did a Q&A in Edinburgh and said the main difference he’d found between theatre and film directing was that “In cinema, there’s only one seat in the house, and it always has to be the best one.”

This is cute, glib, somewhat true, but worth unpicking. A director in the theatre has to consider what can be seen and heard by audience members scattered around the auditorium. In cinema, though obviously there ARE lots of seats, the view controlled by the director is that of the camera. The camera, Leland is saying, always has to be in the best position. But what IS the best position?

Looking at creatively directed movies soon demonstrates that the best position is not necessarily the most explicit view. Sometimes the camera withdraws somewhat to aid the emotional effect of the scene. Billy Wilder suggested that a character having an idea, or receiving terrible news, is best filmed from behind, enlisting the audience’s imagination, showing a certain discretion, avoiding cliché (the lightbulb over the head), and maybe saving the filmmaker from the impossible task of showing the unshowable (what should MacDuff’s face do when he’s told his entire family have been killed?)…

In THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and again in THE LIMEY, a massacre occurs inside a building while the camera waits, timorously, outside. Refusing to serve up the usual action shots creates an awe-inspiring sense of something too horrible to be seen. In TAXI DRIVER, Scorsese slides his camera off Travis when he’s on the phone to Betsy, preferring to show us the empty corridor down which Travis will inevitably walk once rejected. Mike Hodges pulled back from George Segal’s breakdown in THE TERMINAL MAN, feeling “It’s too painful,” and wanting to give the character some privacy. The suits couldn’t comprehend this choice, and wanted him to close in, to “show the emotion,” an approach Hodges found pornographic.

Choosing to conceal rather than reveal can be terrifically effective, and always indicates a creative filmmaker at work (unless it indicates pure ineptitude). I can sort of respect the choice even when I don’t think it works. In Peter Brook’s KING LEAR, he includes fairly frequent shots of the backs of people’s heads. He explained that in Shakespeare, there are moments when the words are doing everything and images would detract. (In the continuous longshot of the stage, this is less of an issue, apparently.) Brook didn’t feel he could just cut to black, but he and his cinematographer DID feel they could get away with filling the screen with a centrally-framed, often blurry, rear view of Paul Scofield’s cranium. They were dead wrong, and Brook is no filmmaker if you ask me. But it was certainly an example of creative thought in action.

(Why I don’t think it works: the blank walls of hair and scalp serve as interruptions; they make the audience wonder, futilely, what is going on; they aren’t incorporated into a blocking and cutting pattern; they distract from the words far more than simply holding the shot would have done.)

There’s a particularly great example of directorial discretion in George Stevens’ film A PLACE IN THE SUN. Montgomery Clift arrives hours late at Shelley Winters’ place. He was supposed to spend his birthday with her (his official girlfriend) but instead has been with Elizabeth Taylor. Winters feels miserable about being stood up. Clift feels miserable and guilty for doing it (but would totally do it again).

And Stevens films the whole thing from outside the room.

As the scene develops, the angle comes to seem, in a conventional sense, less and less adequate. When the characters sit, we only have Shelley’s back, a Brooksian lump of hair. By the end of the scene, both characters are almost entirely unreadable, you would think, Shelley still just a blind slab of back, Monty crouching on the floor, hidden behind her with just his hand in shot. Our expensive stars are turned away from the lens AND blocked AND tiny in frame. “Shoot the money” this ain’t. But as the awkwardness and discomfort of the scene mounts continuously, and is obviously the correct emotion, nobody could reasonably say the action isn’t well-covered. Stevens’ bold choice delivers the required feeling. And paradoxically, by showing discretion and averting our eyes from the angst-ridden subjects, he doesn’t protect us from suffering, in a way he elevates the agony. Big close-ups of blubbering faces are often so repellant that you’re prevented from pity by sheer revulsion. Wide empty frames enlist the imagination — in this case, the empty bed forms an accusing plain.

What makes this even more impressive is what we’re told about Stevens’ filming style. “He shoots in a circle,” they said, meaning that Stevens would start aiming north and film a wide shot and singles of different sizes of every character, then arc around the action ninety degrees and shoot from the east, repeating all the shot sizes, and then do the same for the other points of the compass, acquiring a colossal amount of footage, most of it useless as soon as he made his choice in the cutting room about what view he liked best. Incredible to think he began as cinematographer to Laurel & Hardy, who didn’t even rehearse.

In this case, either Stevens made a single bold decision before turning over a frame of film, suggesting that the conventional view of his approach is exaggerated or incomplete, or he went ahead and filmed every possible angle on this scene and, in reviewing the material in the cutting room, noticed that this take worked, sustained interest all the way through, and was better than anything he could get by cutting back and forth between different angles (meaning, presumably, he’d have had to cut the scene together a few different ways to be sure of this). Either explanation is hugely impressive to me.

I once read an article by Arthur Koestler explaining that computers would never be able to play chess. This was written decades before computers learned to play chess. Koestler explained that, since computers were not intelligent (which is still true), they could only attempt to play chess by considering every possible move, even the ones that make no sense and are instant suicide. “This is a very stupid way to play chess,” he argued. Since the number of possible moves increases as you project more and more turns ahead, and quickly becomes astronomical, Koestler argued, reasonably enough, that there would never be enough computing power to pull it off. Well, now there is, and I assume computers still play chess the same way, considering all the choices, but can really consider ALL the choices, so a good chess computer is just about unbeatable.

Stevens seems to have been trying to direct films the way computers play chess. And it IS, usually, a stupid way to direct films. Dump-truck directing tends to look bland, and just filming a wide shot and many many medium and close shots does not even guarantee that you’ve covered the scene. John Frankenheimer found that an ECU of a raindrop hitting a stopwatch was just the shot required to solve a huge storytelling/pace/continuity/weather problem on GRAND PRIX. The kind of thing that can only be attained by imagination, which is a fuzzy and chaotic approach, not a methodical one.

What blows my mind with Stevens is how he frequently got imagination to thrive within what would seem to be a rather arid methodology. Hats off!

Things I Read Off the Screen in In the Heat of the Night

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2014 by dcairns

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NO LOAFING IN THIS ROOM … LADIES

For work reasons, been looking at Hal Ashby stuff, and this led me to pick up Mark Harris’s terrific book Pictures at a Revolution, which examines the stories behind the five Best Picture nominees from the 1967 Academy Awards. Ashby edited and helped produce one of them, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.

Norman Jewison is a solid middle-of-the-road journeyman, and his film sometimes gets kicked around for its well-intentioned liberal attitudes, but it should be admitted that it’s a satisfying detective story and that the treatment of race, which might seem very safe today, was a risky proposition at the time the film was made. Fiona remarked that it was shrewd of the filmmakers to wrap their story up in a cop show and make it acceptable to everybody, but I would assume there were plenty of drive-ins where the film wouldn’t have been welcome. Playing safe probably brought in an extra 10% of the audience who would have been scared off by something more radical, but it would hardly satisfy the hardcore racists in the South or the North. I guess Rod Steiger’s Police Chief Gillespie represents that 10% — possessed of some basic human decency at core, but reared in unquestioning racist attitudes. The hope is that the right stimulus, be it Sidney Poitier or a Sidney Poitier film, might awaken such a person. So maybe the film is naive?

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COTTON GROWERS’ COOPERATIVE Reference Calendar 1966 SEPTEMBER 1966

I think the other flaw is the suggestion of some kind of parity between the bigotry of the small town whites and Poitier’s desire to see the rich plantation owner arrested for murder. Being prejudiced towards those with more money and power, and who show prejudice towards YOU, may be a disadvantage to a detective and I guess it is an unworthy trait, but I don’t think it’s on any kind of par with white supremacy. And yet Steiger is allowed to say “You’re just like the rest of us,” and Poitier has to acknowledge the justice of the remark. Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant did have a weakness for simplistic messages, I think. On the other hand, this was probably an effort to prevent Saint Sidney from emerging as too perfect to be human.

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UP

Ashby cut together some snappy material, aided by Haskell Wexler’s photography and Quincy Jones’ score. I think some of the handheld work sticks out too much, but the filming is admirably loose for the period. Macro examination of a corpse displays pretty good makeup approximations of rigor mortis

Ashby’s direct cutting resists the softness of fades and keeps things taut. The flyblown diner where the film begins assembles itself out of grizzly details. The editing of the performances, an art rarely discussed, is especially impressive, with some reaction shots sprung on us by surprise (Steiger abruptly stops chewing his gum — uh-oh!) and some withheld until we’re aching for them (when Poitier first reveals he’s a cop, the delay on seeing Steiger’s reaction is delicious agony).

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Let us ALL be Alert We don’t want ANYONE Hurt … DANGER 200 VOLTS

From working under George Stevens and William Wyler, we can assume Ashby learned to gather lots of material. While Stevens typically shot the shit out of everything from every conceivable angle, he was perfectly content to let a whole scene play out in a single longshot with all the actors partially blocked from view, if that’s what felt best dramatically. Wyler shot few angles, often just changing lens for tighter shots, but he was equally relentless with his multiple takes, driving actors until they collapsed on the floor like unstrung puppets. Ashby may not have enjoyed his time as an assistant, but he was learning.

His first solo job was Tony Richardson’s THE LOVED ONE (also with Steiger), a film I like a lot. Reportedly Richardson, mad at UA for not upping his salary after the mega-success of his TOM JONES, punished the studio by gleefully wasting cash on this movie. Ashby’s adversarial relationship with his paymasters may have been picked up around this time, though no doubt it was part of his nature already.

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EAT … ICE COLD WATERMELON … SOUTHERN HOME COOKING … OPEN … DRINK

Harris reports in his book that Ashby was aware of the Mirisch Corporation’s similarly parsimonious attitude to Jewison, and it infuriated him. We note that Jewison produced THE LANDLORD, Ashby’s first feature as director, and the two fell out over the ending. Ashby had to place the producer in the role of bad guy. But also: he was right about the ending, his film is beautiful. And I don’t think Jewison has the sensibility to make a film quite that interesting. Harris’s book recounts the result of ITHOTN’s sneak preview, where Jewison was disturbed by the audience laughter at moments where Steiger got egg on his face. Ashby had to persuade him that the laughter was GOOD — that the audience really got the film. I almost suspect they understood it better than Jewison.