Archive for Henry Fonda

Ottocracy in Action

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2015 by dcairns


More Otto Preminger Week Revisited.

Otto is one of those filmmakers you just CANNOT watch in the wrong aspect ratio. I’ve seen TAXI DRIVER in 4:3 and it was OK, although that’s obviously a travesty of the filmmaker’s intentions. To see a widescreen Preminger reduced to 16:9, though, renders it meaningless. The drama is often a little elusive at times, and without the spaciousness of the compositions, it dissipates mysteriously into nothingness. Plus you miss the detail packed into the edges of the frame on the crowded shots.

Fiona was astonished by ADVISE AND CONSENT — she found it talkie and dull for the first half hour, and she has flu, and she didn’t feel like looking at this all-star fishtank of largely cold, dry characters conniving and backstabbing. But once the movie has set its narrative in motion, and in particular once Don Murray’s awful predicament as a blackmailed senator with a homosexual affair in his past becomes apparent, the thing grips.


For once, Charles Laughton is upstaged — by time-traveling Hugo Weaving on the right. He Gets everywhere!

In The World and its Double, Chris Fujiwara notes that Preminger and screenwriter Wendell Mayes were adapting and subverting a right-wing novel, and the result is interesting — it has Henry Fonda lying under oath, for one thing. As in THE BEST MAN, Fonda plays an “egghead” — Henry Fonda is Hollywood’s idea of a dangerous intellectual? What’s interesting, though, is this major star playing a character reduced to a political football, kicked around by the real players, compromising his ideals, finally reduced to irrelevance in a plot that moves on elsewhere.

Charles Laughton, in his last role, is chief antagonist, right-wing spokesman for the blacklist set. Preminger, who helped break the blacklist, allows him some humanity. The secondary antagonist is uptight, neurotic peacemonger George Grizzard, a hopeless politician full of passion and, it turns out, evil. And even he is somewhat sympathetic.


This is an amazing shot: the camera arching around dramatically in response to quite small head turns by Grizzard (left).

People Preminger was mean to on this one: Franchot Tone, who hadn’t been in a movie for years. Paul Ford, of Bilko fame (“You’re not funny!”). He didn’t mess with Laughton, and Don Murray betrayed no weakness.

Preminger, trying to help out Gene Tierney, who had been institutionalized after a mental collapse, cast her as a society hostess and apparently treated her with the greatest gentleness. She was terrified of him anyway. You can’t be the purple-faced tyrant and switch to being lovable Uncle Otto when it suits you. Fiona’s eyes nearly popped out when Tierney’s character playfully calls herself a bitch — the word had not been used in American movies, at least since the Production Code came in (one thinks of THE WOMEN’s artfully circumlocutory “There’s a name for you ladies…” — but I think British movies had not been so gentle).



What really amazed Fiona was the gay bar scene. Preminger was sailing very close to the wind, relying on a change to the Code that had not been ratified as he neared production. SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER had broken the taboo on cannibalism — I guess homosexuality was regarded as a degree worse than that. Preminger was warned not to feature makeup or effeminate types — he heeded the warnings but violated their spirit with physiognomy and performance. Seen through the tortured Don Murray character’s eyes, the place exerts both repulsion and attraction — some customers seem normal, appealing, others are George Grosz grotesques. Preminger’s innate streak of vulgarity can’t resist a good leer, but the approach makes sense and the scene hasn’t really dated. The senator’s religion isn’t mentioned, but he’s from Utah, making it highly likely that he’s a Mormon (I believe Bruce Dern’s grandfather was the only non-Mormon governor of Utah), making his inner conflict even more intense.

Preminger and Mayes plant just enough clues to indicate that the character’s marriage is, if not a sham, at least a deliberate construct, a life he’s been trying to lead, telling himself it’s right for him. He loves his wife and kid, but he’s straitjacketed himself into somebody else’s existence. It’s a rather sophisticated, nuanced piece of work, and Murray is excellent in the role: something about the tightness of his smile always suggests a man clinging on (he’s very fine in the underrated A HATFUL OF RAIN also).

Movie of the Week

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2015 by dcairns


My friend and collaborator Niall Greig Fulton — Edinburgh Film Festival Programmer and actor — has put together an enticing season of American TV movies for this year’s fest, including such classics as Salem’s Lot, Duel, The Jericho Mile and the rarely-seen Noon Wine. It’s all about finding the cinematic in the televisual, and with an array of directors like Hooper, Spielberg, Mann and Peckinpah, the exercise is clearly going to be worthwhile.

I’ve seen a few interesting pieces from this era of US TV — A Cold Night’s Death is about killer psychic chimps at the North Pole, which is pretty non-generic. You can watch that one here. I wrote about Gene Roddenberry’s bizarre Spectre here, a show which introduced me to the thrills of Robert Culp. Rod Serling’s The Man looked at the travails of America’s first black presodent. But I wanted to dig a little deeper to see what else I could find, because really, I remember American TV of the seventies as a HORRIBLE WASTELAND. Growing up in the UK we saw a lot of it, you see, and the good bits were very much overshadowed by the transcontinental miasma of blandness. It was apparent that things like The Rockford Files were a cut above. But on the whole, everything looked the same, was shot the same, used the same locations, the actors all seemed to look the same and dress the same and talk at the same speed, the credits were all in yellow blocky letters, and it kept fading to black in the middle of scenes, where the BBC had removed the ad breaks. I think you could make a pretty good case that any show that fades to black in the middle of a scene and then fades up again with everybody still standing in the same position (with meaningless musical sting as we fade out and in) just shouldn’t have been on the BBC at all.


The first thing I looked at was Stranger on the Run, an early (1967) TV Movie of the Week, given the class treatment — it reunites star Henry Fonda with his 12 ANGRY MEN writer Reginald Rose, though Rose’s story has been fleshed out by screenwriter Dean Riesner (coincidentally the son of Chuck Riesner). The director is Don Siegel, and how these talents fit together within the context of a TV movie is sort of interesting.

The story transposes to the west and then inverts the premise of 12 ANGRY MEN (itself a TV play before the more famous movie) — Fonda is now the suspect, an alcoholic drifter hunted by a surly posse of railway company thugs for murdering a woman. The debate about his possible innocence (of course we know he’s innocent) occurs among the posse as they track him, which in theory should make it more exciting and filmic. In fact, Riesner’s dramatic values — he was a writer for Siegel, on COOGAN’S BLUFF, DIRTY HARRY and CHARLEY VARRICK, which I would characterise as a desire to play out a story’s themes in the form of action, without philosophising about it — rather clash with Rose’s, since he sets things up deliberately to provoke debates about personal and social values. In 12 ANGRY MEN these are filtered through some strong, sweaty characters, so it’s still solid drama. Here, the genre action doesn’t seem to reinforce the deeper themes, though there’s some good talk in there. When Fonda mourns that the day of testing whether he’s a man has passed, and he failed the challenge, Bernie Hamilton cheers him with a hearty “That just means you’re lucky — you’re going to get another chance!” An upbeat way of viewing the present situation, which is that a gang on armed men are coming to kill him.


The movie is crammed with interesting actors — Anne Baxter is top-billed after Fonda. They’re good together, and he’s particularly effective as a broken-down hobo, not trying to make the character more initially appealing than he should be. Michael Parks, Dan Duryea, Sal Mineo, Tom Reese and Zalman King (!) make a characterful posse. Plus Lloyd Bochner and the reliably strange-looking Walter Burke.

In the early scenes, Siegel seems to have a lot of trouble covering scenes with all these mugs, no doubt due to the tight schedule. He does fine in the exteriors, but most interior scenes get treated with one wide shot that’s too wide for comfort — it serves to establish where everyone is, but then you can’t look at it any longer because everyone’s miles away — then he’ll cut to individual closeups that are too tight — we lose all context and quickly get a little disoriented. In general, critics don’t talk about the problems of shooting large groups, but it’s an absolute nightmare. You never have time to shoot a single on everyone, and if you do, it confuses the audience. I had some fun with the worst ever example of this, here. A far better approach is to make each shot work as hard as possible, tying in one character to another to keep the audience cognisant of who is where in relation to whom. A truly amazing example, from Otto Preminger, is discussed here. Siegel’s best strategy might have been to spend all his time picking a great master shot and then hold it, as he would on CHARLEY VARRICK, for instance, but TV, with its low-res image and demand for close-ups, wouldn’t have allowed that.

Ultimately, Stranger on the Run feels like a B-movie with ideas above its station, ideas which overstuff it and overbalance it, and the plethora of characters (who never quite develop into a caseload of suspects for us to wonder about, as they would in a well-plotted mystery) spread the drama too thin. The production values are OK — the desert cycloramas are a lot more convincing than in Siegel’s more celebrated THE KILLERS (originally made for TV but fobbed off on the big screen after concerns about the violence). But it isn’t clean and simple like, say, THE LINE-UP, and the look has a generic quality, that made-for-TV feel, which dulls down the possibilities of the form.


Chris Schneider recommended The Outsider, a 1967 PI story directed by Michael Ritchie and crammed with aging Hollywood greats — the presence of Ann Sothern, Edmund O’Brien and Audrey Totter could almost put this in the league of something like THE OUTFIT. Then there’s Shirley Knight, Ossie Davis and Joseph Wiseman. In the lead, Darren McGavin is surly and deadpan and very, very enjoyable, with Roy Huggins’ script providing plenty of zingers (it’s no surprise to learn Huggins created Jim Rockford and thereby trained up David Chase).

Best of all, it’s directed by Michael Ritchie, just about to break into features on the big screen and eager to show what he can do, even on the kind of schedule where the grips start disassembling the tripod before you’ve said “Cut!”

McGavin’s down-at-heel gumshoe is, per genre requirements, perpetually sleep-deprived and roughed up, though the scenario comes up with novel ways of mistreating him — a near-garrotting and a drugging with chloral hydrate that leads to the stomach-pump. Even Jim Rockford didn’t have it this tough.


My favourite bit started off looking like it would be an embarrassment. Having tracked his would-be strangler to a beach-side shack, McGavin finds the suspect’s mother, Ann Sothern, who tells him that the guy is inside, tripping with a friend and won’t be coherent for interrogation for several hours. They go in, and there’s sitar music playing and hysterical laughter from the next room, which is kind of ridiculous. And here’s Joseph Wiseman — Dr. No himself, as the acid guru, who starts lecturing McGavin about the joys of turning on and experiencing the cosmic laughter. And all this while, Sothern is plugged into headphones and smiling at a TV game show where various sub-lebrities are trying to guess the phrase “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Big closeups and surprise angle changes start to suggest all this is getting to McGavin. The world has slipped out of joint. In other words, while the young hood is having a TV movie acid trip next door, with laughing and freak-outs and sitar music and a fisheye lens on a handheld camera — McGavin is having a REAL acid trip in the front room — an experience in which reality comes to seem unreal.


That sensation is one which the TV movie genre could profitably have pursued more doggedly — it is well within the constraints of time and budget, it can work within all kinds of genres, and it is familiar enough to anybody paying attention to the real world that it ought to be highly commercial, a staple of entertainment like romance or tension.

Necktie Party

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2014 by dcairns


Talking to Michel Ciment about the thinking behind CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Stanley Kubrick gave a summary of the anti-lynching movie which serves as a fairly devastating critique of William Wellman’s THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (and Fritz Lang’s FURY and the rest). Most anti-lynching movies show an innocent party being lynched or almost lynched, which would never deter a real lynch mob since they are generally convinced, however erroneously, that they have the right person. In CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Kubrick chose the guiltiest character imaginable, to show that even in such an extreme case, certain human rights should be considered inalienable.

(In turn, Richard Lester devastated PATHS OF GLORY as a supposed anti-war film by pointing out that the film basically shows some corrupt and incompetent generals: “If Kirk Douglas had been leading the troops we’d all have been able to go out and kill Germans more efficiently.” Neither of these arguments stops PATHS OF GLORY or THE OX-BOW INCIDENT from being great films, though…)

What’s sensational about OX-BOW is the emotional force it builds up, the psychological acuity of its analysis of lynch-mob mentality (I’ve never been part of one but it feels true), the boldly-sketched characterisations and the generous sense of plenty. It feels like nothing was enough for his scenarists —


Let’s not just show a lynch mob, but let’s crowd the film with characters and situations. Let’s give Hank Fonda a sweetheart who’s jilted him while he was out on the trail and has married a short-arse Napoleonic stuffed shirt; let’s have a religious black guy as the conscience of the film if we can’t actually have a black victim (lynching as a social phenomenon chiefly impacted black people in the south, always); let’s have Jane Darwell as a cackling sadist on horseback (we can hire a matte artist to paint out the rocking chair grafted to her backside); let’s make Fonda a mean drunk who picks fights and kicks a guy in the face; let’s make him totally ineffectual as hero; let’s make the victims widely disparate and not wholly noble (they are sympathetic because Dana Andrews is nice, Paul Hurst Francis Ford is pathetic, Anthony Quinn is unbelievably cool); let’s have a twisted ex-officer and his coward son he’s trying to make a man of; let’s have the coward show more backbone than Fonda.

It’s very RICH, thanks to Lamar Trotti’s writing, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s source novel (a novel is a good source precisely because it usually gives the scenarist TOO MUCH) and Wellman’s direction. At the film’s climax, a quiet scene contrasting with the violence of what would SEEM to be the climax, Fonda reads a letter. It’s a defense of the rule of law, but what makes the scene far more than an eloquent bit of preaching is Fonda’s steady performance — he’s basically re-doing his big speech from GRAPES OF WRATH, and it’s not just the cast that make the film seem very Fordian — and Wellman’s framing. This may be the best shot of his career, even factoring in Cagney’s two (two!) death scenes in THE PUBLIC ENEMY.



It could easily seem contrived. As Fonda reads, Wellman tracks in slightly — no problem with that, since a long speech almost demands some camera movement to keep it alive. Rather than cut to the various listeners, Wellman just retains Harry Morgan, Fonda’s lovable rodent sidekick, in shot, or part of him anyway.

Where we end up is with Morgan’s hat brim occluding our view of Fonda’s eyes, so that Morgan;s eyes, as they listen, have to supply the visual emotion to compliment Fonda’s reading. It’s a very simple reading — Fonda doesn’t pretend to stumble over the words, but he plays it fairly flat, like someone who’s not much of a reader. The delicacy and restraint are more powerful than reaction shots and bluster could ever make it.

The closest equivalent in terms of this identikit shot — one guy’s mouth and another guy’s eyes — is VERY different in tone and effect.

Lynch mobs exist now mainly online: some news story provokes outrage and disapproval, and the public joins in condemning somebody. Sometimes the subject is serious and worthy of discussion, sometimes it’s just a feeding frenzy. The filmmakers have usefully portrayed the behaviour of a lynch mob so that you can tell if you’re part of one. You are part of a lynch mob if you have joined a crusade and ~

1) You don’t really care.

2) The sense of outrage is secretly pleasurable.

3) It’s reassuring to be surrounded by people all het up about the same thing.

4) Appeals for calm seem threatening.

5) Anybody who suggests you’re all hysterical must be an enemy.

6) Your own guilty secrets fade from memory in the warm pleasure of denunciation.

More suggestions are welcome, I’d like to make this definitive and free of wriggle-room.


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