Archive for Harold Pinter

Falling Stahr

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2015 by dcairns

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Reading Elia Kazan’s memoirs, which include his diary of making THE LAST TYCOON, his last film, it’s easy to see why the film came out oddly. Kazan’s mother was dying, and he experienced an unsettling outpouring of hate and bitterness from her as she went — he could not entirely convince himself that this was merely the result of her illness. So he was more than a little distracted. I rather hate Kazan for political reasons, but I couldn’t help but pity him here — and he wasn’t asking me to.

He complained that screenwriter Harold Pinter had shortchanged him on the love story, and that Pinter had failed to provide a usable ending. Indeed, though Pinter’s usual approach is to leave big gaps for us to read between the lines, this script is so spacious it feels less complete than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished source novel. (This is one of the great late films — it’s director’s final movie, based on a posthumous and incomplete book, featuring a host of aging Hollywood talent including Tony Curtis, Ray Milland, Robert Mitchum and Dana Andrews. The hero even has an unfinished house.) Pinter, not much of a romantic, ALWAYS seems to scrimp on the love stories, and DeNiro can be a limp, ungenerous lead in love scenes. As for the finale, no doubt Fitzgerald’s brace of assassination schemes was judged too melodramatic, but what Pinter substitutes is curiously UNdramatic. Kazan shot his star/Stahr Robert DeNiro (the movie is an “interesting” blend of new talent and old) repeating a speech from earlier, shuffled into a suggestive montage, and lets his leading man wander into a darkened sound stage for his fadeout. It has the SENSE of an ending without being an ending.

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If the movie doesn’t end, it doesn’t seem to begin or middle either — it just drifts. Actors turn up — Jack Nicholson makes an amazingly late appearance, and livens things up a bit — or disappear. It’s very enjoyable to hear Mitchum and Curtis speak Pinter — you still get a sense of the playwright’s weird rhythms. Vincent Canby, praising the film, remarked that Ingrid Boulting, DeNiro’s love interest, alternates between an eerie certainty and a clueless inability to say a line. That’s about right — I’m assuming poor Kazan wasn’t much help to her, given his state of mind. A Spiegel discovery — neither Kazan nor Pinter wanted her — she could have carried it off with more guidance — her good moments are evidence enough of this. She was rather good in THE WITCHES ten years earlier — here, she’s being “introduced,” which is usually the kiss of death to a career.

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Fitzgerald had written a striking entrance for his love interest, floating on a disembodied prop statue head through a flooded studio. By the time Kazan got around to filming it, it must have seemed like second-hand Fellini. I actually wonder if the scene in the book could have inspired FELLINI CASANOVA the same year. But I doubt FF ever read the book. It is kind of nice that the head is carrying Angelica Huston, daughter of John, and Ingrid Boulting, step-daughter of Roy. The film, if it is a film, is a decided clash between old generation and new.

Pinter’s sense of period Hollywood is shaky — early on, John Carradine, sepulchral studio tour guide, brags that he’s worked for the studio since “way back in the silent days.” Way back when you were a young man of sixty-five, John? Jeanne Moreau makes an implausible thirties star, and places impossible stresses on the wrong words: “What’s wrong with my frigging hair?” (My normal hair is fine, but the hair I have specifically for frigging with, that’s all out of whack.) Having invented fictitious movie stars, the film starts referring to real ones halfway through, which is suddenly distracting. Maurice Jarre’s music is weak. Kazan’s blocking and cutting is sometimes choppy and chaotic. As with Jack Clayton’s THE GREAT GATSBY, the adaptation leaves you rather wondering what the book was about. And yet… it’s all rather watchable, flowing by in a distracted manner. Nice clothes, nice-looking people (Theresa Russell squints and grins attractively), nice locations. And Tony Curtis as an aging matinee idol speaking in Pinteresque non-sequiturs — that tickles me.

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“I love her. She’s my wife.”

“I know.”

THE LATE SHOW — The Late Films Blogathon will be running all week.

 

Memory Monday: The Ass on the Bathroom Door

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2015 by dcairns

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So, I’m revisiting those filmmakers I devoted Official Weeks to in the past here on Shadowplay. Joseph Losey got his own week because I had a sense that I hadn’t seen nearly enough Losey and that I hadn’t appreciated him enough — a sense that, actually, I might have some kind of antipathy to his whole approach. As Richard Lester said to Soderbergh, Losey was the last person you would use the word “zany” about, and in fact I found there was a lack of humour which was almost heroic at times. MODESTY BLAISE is the one film Losey made that could be called a comedy, and indeed is absolutely dependent on whimsy since it refuses to be what the producers evidently intended, a campy James Bond sex-and-violence wallow. The only part of that equation Losey didn’t have a fierce antipathy to is the “campy” part, and yet even that was kind of alien to him, which is how he was able to make BOOM! a great piece of unconscious camp.

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I somehow didn’t have a copy of THE CRIMINAL to hand when I did Losey Week, though I knew I would like it when I saw it. When Losey played thrillers more or less straight, they were gripping. When the movie insists on providing a commentary on what it’s about, instead of just being about it, you could get problems, as with the stuff with the gangsters in Losey’s maudit remake of M: the movie insists on offering up a pinko analysis of organised crime as a manifestation of Capital. THE GODFATHER succeeds simply by allowing this idea to play out as drama, not even as an allegory, but as a simple statement of fact. Nobody needs to point it out.

Losey described THE PROWLER, another excellent noir I didn’t get around to writing about, as “a film about false values,” and such stories are powerful and compelling as long as the scenarist can resist inserting a mouthpiece to put it all into words. “The playwright should show conditions and leave it to the audience to draw conclusions,” as Brander Matthews put it.

And so to THE CRIMINAL (1960), which does just that. I think the avoidance of proselytising is something Losey ultimately found very sympatico in the British writers he worked with, which is what led him to bond so well with Pinter, who NEVER tells you what’s on his mind. Here, the writer is Alun Owen, later to pen A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Richard Lester remarked to me that Owen had a multiplicity of useful hats he could put on, as both a Scouser and  a Welshman, and he had a wealth of life experience which informed his work. Very unusually for a British crime film, THE CRIMINAL sets out simply to record a series of events, into which the viewer is invited to read meanings. What it avoids is any Marxist or Freudian analysis of what leads to a life of crime, though you can hunt for clues if that’s your bag.

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We begin in prison, though Owen has written a careful gag, a high-stakes poker game between Brit-flick stalwarts such as Murray Melvin and Patrick Wymark (shockingly young, a tufty-haired rolly-polly joker with a sinister edge, not quite the Toby Jug he would morph into just a few years later). We’re clearly meant to be taken by surprise when we discover the game is being played with matches by lags in a cell. But Losey takes his directorial wrecking-ball to the gag, framing Melvin against a painted brick wall pasted with suggestive imagery (I think that might be Abbey Lincoln and Frances Bacon!), and even before that there’s a short of a prison gate with the producers’ credit over it. This is either a crass insertion by Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy of Anglo-Amalgamated, who had just made PEEPING TOM and were considered the dregs of the industry, or else Losey himself couldn’t resist sticking their names over a shot of a prison gate (maybe he had more wit than I credit him with).

Losey had earlier made a short for Hammer, A MAN ON THE BEACH (1955), a dull Tales of the Very Expected thing entirely predicated upon the shock revelation that Donald Wolfit’s character is blind. Wolfit, whose tread could be as leaden as Losey’s at his worst, plays the whole thing with an unblinking middle-distance star and groping hands, telegraphing “I can’t see a bloody thing” from his first entrance, rendering the whole enterprise pointless. So Losey is one of those filmmakers with a constitutional aversion to the “pull-back-and-reveal” gag, it seems.

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Jimmy Sangster, who apparently originated the story of THE CRIMINAL as well as scripting that benighted short, based a lot of his career on that very narrative trope, churning out DIABOLIQUES rip-offs for Hammer, so Losey’s rejection of the approach is an early sign of an exciting battle of sensibilities. Unlike Sangster, Owen is drawn to narrative sidetracks, and invents a whole prison populace of distinctive characters who don’t really need to be there for story reasons, but are essential for world-building. Asides from Melvin and Wymark (and it’s typical the show opens with such minor figures), we’ll soon get Gregoire Aslan (chucklesome charm subdued into lizard-eyed menace), Tom Bell and Kenneth Cope, who fulfills a similar function here as in X: THE UNKNOWN, which Losey nearly directed and may well have cast him in: turn up, look scared, suffer An Appalling Fate.

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As always, Patrick Magee, of the curling lip and watery eye, who plays the corrupt prison warden Burrows, threatens to rip the whole thing apart with a performance evoking paranoid schizophrenia, satanic possession and narcissistic personality disorder all at once. The only way Richard MacDonald’s spectacular prisons set can contain him is for Owen and Losey to open up other avenues into disintegration, safely channeling the Magee Overflow. Most eye-popping occurs during a monologue by mentally-ill prisoner Brian Phelan, where Losey pushes in fast to a tight closeup and actually irises in to shoot the actor in a vignette, suggesting simultaneously his frightening isolation from reality and his inability to reach Baker on any meaningful emotional level.

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Baker himself is astonishing, the kind of actor without whom this kind of film would be unimaginable. Unapologetically macho — and also willing to associate closely with the film’s themes of sexual variance. His close-quarters combat with Bell and Neil McCarthy has sexual intimations, even down to the “nothing-happening-here” pretense when Caught At It by the warden. Tough guy Clobber (Kenneth J. Warren) has pugilists on his walls and a tender relationship with Phelan.

The film, unusually, contains two long prison sequences, as we meet Baker the day before his release, and when arrested again he arranges an escape. In the outside world, an agressive, overstated heterosexuality reigns. Baker’s swinging crim pad is awash with nudes, both artistic and actual. He playfully spanks the full-length odalisque on his bathroom door. She has a nice behind, but come on — who spanks a door? When former squeeze Jill Bennett is edged out by newbie nudie Margot Saad, she’s more naked that I would have thought was possible in 1960 Britain, unless you were Pamela Green. The value of eroticism was probably the one area where Losey’s interests coincided with Anglo-Amalgamated’s.

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The film has hilariously little interest in its heist, apparently forged in a masterplan by grinning idiot John Molloy inside — we never even see the full robbery, just its aftermath, and never learn the plan, just the betrayals afterwards. These involve sad-eyed copper Laurence Naismith, purring creep Sam Wanamaker, and swaggering Nigel Green, enormous in an overcoat with padded shoulders, inflating his physique to Honey Monster proportions.

It is tempting just to list the cast, isn’t it? But the film is shot by tetchy genius Robert Krasker (THE THIRD MAN) and edited by Reggie Mills who cut most of Powell & Pressburger’s movies. He’s wonderfully sloppy about continuity, and incredibly tight about narrative and psychology, and he has his own taut sense of rhythm. There’s a riot scene which energises all of these talents, and the ragged-edged cast, around MacDonald’s panopticon prison set and allows Losey to really break loose with the camera, which cocks its head like Ygor, crabs fast like Astaire, swoops in like Baron Harkonnen, combining the sardonic glint, the grace, and the leering aggression of all three of those figures. I should add that Johnny Dankworth’s score adds immeasurably to the atmosphere and drama, its romantic longing largely in counterpoint to the hard-edged action.

It’s a bleak film. “Miserable time of the year,” remarks Magee. “If we could only have some flowers. Down there. In summer it’s a blaze of colour.” Here’s the prison garden:

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Here’s a park.

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Here’s a field.

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England as a BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN no-man’s-land. Losey is starting to feel at home.

Roll Credits

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2014 by dcairns

lester credits from David Cairns on Vimeo.

The last of the deleted scenes from PICTUREWISE 3, my Richard Lester piece. Ending with an unmade film seemed too similar to the first installment (available on the Blu-ray of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT).

Images are from Bob Willoughby’s The Platinum Years, which Lester recommended highly as about the best set of movie stills he’d seen. I picked the book up in Toronto and scanned the relevant pages on PETULIA.

I somehow got the impression from Lester’s impassioned description of Joseph Conrad’s VICTORY — which lays emphasis on aspects that are lightly brushed over in the screenplay he commissioned from Pinter — that the book has a real personal significance for him. Without speculating on what that is (the dollarbook Freud approach), I thought illustrating it with images of Lester would be a suitably oblique approach, having rejected the idea of using lots of stills of book jackets, illustrations etc…

Richard-Lester-behind-camera

UK: A Hard Day’s Night: 50th Anniversary Restoration [Blu-ray]

US: A Hard Day’s Night (Criterion Collection) (Blu-ray + DVD)

PICTUREWISE III

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