Archive for Gilda

Occurrence

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2011 by dcairns

Untitled from David Cairns on Vimeo.

To be honest, I’m not so much surprised that Ambrose Bierce’s work has inspired so many filmmakers, as I am surprised that it hasn’t inspired more. I guess the fact that he eschewed long form storytelling (as a matter of principle, to hear him tell it) is a factor, but so for the most part did Poe and Lovecraft, who are much more frequently filmed. I can’t account for that.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge was most famously adapted by Robert Enrico, and the resulting short became, somehow or other, an episode of The Twilight Zone, exposing it to a much wider audience that Enrico’s other two Bierce films, CHICKAMAUGA and THE MOCKINGBIRD. But for my money, Charles Vidor’s version, entitled THE BRIDGE, is much much better.

It’s available on the extraordinary box set UNSEEN CINEMA, which you should all immediately buy.

The bit that really grabs me, in a film full of fascinating visual ideas, is the superimposition of the drumsticks beating the skin over the hero’s chest. Two images united to create more than one idea and emotion — by showing the drum and the man at the same time, anticipation is heightened, but the beating of the drum comes to stand for the racing of the man’s heartbeat, evoking something a silent film can’t make you hear, or feel. That’s CLEVER.

Some imaginative trope of that kind was surely required when Tony Scott filmed ONE OF THE MISSING, another of Bierce’s Civil War horror stories, but although he pulls off some good angles and generates a fair bit of suspense (you can see this short on the CINEMA 16 collection) he never gets near evoking the striking passage in Bierce’s tale where the soldier, trapped by rubble with his fallen rifle pointing straight at his head, primed and ready to fire, imagines the sensation of the bullet passing slowly through his brain…

Vidor really displays moments of similar zest in GILDA (the giant dice in the opening shot) and I guess in COVER GIRL, also LADIES IN RETIREMENT and BLIND ALLEY. When the project roused his enthusiasm, he was quite an expressionist.

Further reading: The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce

Of course, Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionaryis wickedly funny, but less known than either his supernatural tales and his war stories are his grotesque, jet-black tall tales, which are quite incredibly sick and extremely amusing.

Further further reading: more from me at Limerwrecks here, here and here. What rhymes with TINGLER?

Further viewing: Unseen Cinema – Early American Avant Garde Film 1894-1941 An amazing treasure trove of obscure fragments of wonderment.

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.

A State of Violence

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2010 by dcairns

To say that REIGN OF TERROR, (Anthony Mann, 1949), AKA THE BLACK BOOK, is like a comic strip version of history is not to insult it, I feel, but to compliment and define its particular wild brio. To put it another way, as Fiona did after watching the first few minutes, “This film is nuts!”

Screening the film at home after seeing it for the first time in New York at the Film Forum (bought the T-shirt), I was struck anew by the Jack Kirby forcefulness of everything — this is a three-auteur movie (discounting the writers, as everyone always does), and all three of them are perfectly in synch and turned up to eleven: William Cameron Menzies designs and John Alton’s cinematography alike stress the bold, graphic and simple, with Anthony Mann adding a particularly extreme form of his choreographed aggression and thrust.

Why liken it to a comic book? One obvious clue is the film’s relentless Americanism — the celebration of Frenchness and democracy, and the incessant hammering at tyranny make it feel like a leftover WWII project, although the show-trials and talk of citizenry and revolution no doubt made it resonate among anti-communists at the time. The dialogue, by the prolific and sometimes brilliant Philip Yordan and the less-familiar Aeneas McKenzie (a Scottish islander who wrote for Borzage, Dieterle, Wellman, Dmytryk, Curtiz and DeMille, specializing in historical and military subjects) is fearlessly pulpy and Americanized, and the delivery backs it up. There’s not a single English accent to add spurious “class” and “verisimilitude” — it’s ridiculous to suggest that Arnold Moss’s crisp Brooklynese (“Whyncha eat yer bun?”) is any less authentic than the plummy tones of Michael York in THE THREE MUSKETEERS. Tout le monde aurait parlé français.

(When I met Glenn Kenny for dinner and mentioned what I’d been seeing, he greeted this title with an immediate cry of “Don’t call me Max!” echoing Robespierre’s funniest line. Robespierre, not normally a funny guy.)

Apart from the visuals, which really blur the distinctive styles of the three main contributors — chiaroscuro single-source expressionism from Alton, bulging closeups, aggressive symmetry and violent displacement upwards and downwards courtesy of Menzies, and punching and swiveling movements from Mann — there’s the narrative style, which seems to transfer the crazed twistiness of Hitchcock’s espionage stories to a historical setting — true cloak and dagger. The strategies and counterplots barely make sense and could never have been implemented in the film’s breathless hurtle through 24hrs of intrigue and assassination, but as long as there’s a reversal, suspense sequence, chase or new disguise adopted every five minutes or less (and there is, at least for the first and last half hours) the impossibility is judged irrelevant.

The cast is so amazing here that it can afford to squander Norman Lloyd (a veteran Hitchcock plotter) as a sympathetic agent, and Charles McGraw as a thug with barely a line (McGraw’s beard softens his chiseled weapon of a face, and the lack of lines robs us of his unique voice, which he must have got from having to introduce himself so often: “McGraw,” sounding both gravelly and raw, is exactly like his throaty utterances. You can’t SAY his name unless you drink some flaming whisky first).

In first place, we have Robert Cummings, or the Terror of Strasburg”, as I’m now going to start calling him. Cummings is probably nobody’s favourite Holywood leading man these days, if he ever was, but he’s pretty good here, especially in his spiteful sparring with Arlene Dahl. His character has had some kind of ill-defined CASABLANCA-style falling-out with the former cheesecake model prior to our story’s start, expressed in some spicy GILDA sexy-hatred dialogue and hot snogging.

With those two (especially her) filling the conventional roles, the rogues’ gallery occupies most of the rest of the cast, and here things get seriously interesting. Richard Basehart is an interesting fellow (in Joseph Losey’s sluggish FINGER OF GUILT, Basehart essays what may be cinema’s first John Huston impersonation — see also Sterling Hayden in THE FINAL PROGRAMME, Clint Eastwood in WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART and D-Day-Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD) and here he plays Robespierre as a dry, sexless-yet-somehow-perverted plutocrat and psychopath, a fanatic who uses his verbal skills and air of authority to conceal from everybody, including perhaps himself, his designs on power.

Jess Barker as the dangerous Saint Just is almost colourless by comparison, but scores with the way he disintegrates when things suddenly turn against him. But the real heart of the film, modern, campy and exuberant, is Arnold Moss as Fouché. Looking like the depraved elder brother of Adrien Brody, all hooded eyes, pointy, hooked chin and nose, a Mr Punch with a permanent erection, he sidles his way into our affections with his louche, droll demeanour and self-confessed treachery. When Cummings, playing up his cover story as a torturing swine, remarks that the guillotine is too mercifully swift, he suddenly finds himself in a flirtatious conversation about torture in which Fouché looks about to jump on his bones.

“Why aren’t there Arnold Moss Clubs all over the world, celebrating his greatness?” asks Fiona.

Sinister homosexual villains are a staple of Mann’s films, so much so that it’s tempting to assume some inner psychological component is on display, and not necessary simple (if it ever is simple) homophobia. Villains were the only male characters really allowed to step outside the ordained standards of masculinity, after the Production Code nixed out the comedy sissies of the early thirties, so having fiendish sexual inverts as bad guys would be one way to explore the subject (directors like Leisen and Cukor found other ways, but they weren’t making two-fisted men’s adventure stories).

Saw the movie in New York with Jaime Christley, who suggested that Mann’s enthusiasm for violence is what breaks through the beautiful mix of sensibilities. I mean, you can trace every aesthetic component of the film to Mann’s sensibility — all the visual tricks and tics displayed here recur in his work — but they’re also very much Alton and Menzies’ style. So the savagery (characters shot in the face at close range, the effect achieved by spraying them with stage blood) and sexual ambiguity is how Mann asserts himself. There’s a line from Robespierre about France existing in ” a perpetual state of violence,” and Mann takes that as his cue for the whole film. Even fluttering doves fly into shot as if fired from a sling.

The middle of the film, where Cummings and Dahl’s relationship has become boringly civil, and we escape the turmoil of Paris for a rural pursuit, is frankly less enticing than the hurlyburly machinations of Act 1, but a change of pace was probably necessary lest the narrative frenzy shake the cinemas apart like Lawrence Woolsey’s Rumble-Rama in MATINEE. The ending, a bloodbath followed by an ironic historical joke, is splendid, and it’s nice to see Arnold Moss survive: the Production Code would probably have insisted he die for his wickedness, but the historical record dictated otherwise.