Archive for Henry Fonda

Let the stick decide

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2016 by dcairns

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Early in John Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, Henry Fonda drops a stick to decide which path to take in life.

Scene one of Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO, Toshiro Mifune throws a stick in the air to decide which route to take at a fork in the road.

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Now, we know Kurosawa idolized Ford, so do we think this superficial similarity is a conscious homage/steal? I’m inclined to think so. YOJIMBO is Kurosawa’s most American film, since it adapts Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, and also steals a scene (the one with the giant sadistic thug) from the Alan Ladd film of The Glass Key (or from the book: I don’t remember the scene, but I expect it’s there).

Kurosawa kept a signed picture Ford had given him, and I think also wore a Fordian hat.

Ford to Kurosawa: “You really like rain, don’t you?”

Ottocracy in Action

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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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