Archive for Hitchcock

In Possession

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2013 by dcairns

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A PLACE OF ONE’S OWN — the genteel title suggests that this ghost story is going to be more DEAD OF NIGHT than THE FRIGHTENERS — in fact, it’s even more restrained than that. Made in 1945, the same year as Ealing’s scarifying ghost omnibus, it’s the product of the notoriously racy (for their day) Gainsborough Pictures, yet the supposedly sedate Ealing made by far the more overt, shamelessly terrifying film. But the lesser-known one does have its points of interest.

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The film gathers together several of the studio’s top stars — Margaret Lockwood, the Wicked Lady herself, a very young and skinny Dennis Price, and James Mason, who plays way older than his real age in a slightly comical wig and whiskers, for no reason other than it’s the best role and it allows him to use a version of his native Yorkshire accent for once (Mason could be very good with accents — Paul Duane tells me his Irish one in THE RECKLESS MOMENT is pitch-perfect). Retired businessman Mason and his wife Barbara Mullen, who lost both their children in infancy, move to the country and buy one of those suspiciously cheap houses one is always coming across in ghost stories. Then they engage Lockwood as a lady’s companion. And then the haunting begins, and Lockwood is possessed by the spirit of a dead, possibly murdered, former inhabitant…

The film, from a novel by Osbert Sitwell, is a little inert in its narrative — people are always saying “We must do something!” and the ghost, reportedly manifesting via the servant’s speaking tube, says “Fetch Doctor Marsham,” in act one but it’s act three before anybody thinks to attempt this — but director Bernard Knowles, a former director of photography for Hitchcock (THE 39 STEPS, SABOTAGE, etc) works hard to compensate for this with complex, fluid and dynamic camera movement, taking frequent advantage of the large mansion set, with its staircase and surrounding gallery. The tracking shots and crane shots, the whip pans and elaborate blocking of the performers, is quite dazzling. Sadly, I get the impression Knowles abandoned this approach pretty quickly — I recall nothing of interest in the other Gainsborough picture of his I’ve looked at, JASSY.

Knowles is doing a Scorsese before there was a Scorsese to do!

Marsham, when he shows up, is impersonated by Ernest Thesiger, which is very good news, but his appearance is practically subliminal — a minute of screen time with not a single closeup and most of his lines delivered with back to camera. And the pay-off is something that would probably work better in a compendium short story rather than a feature. One might also regret that Ms. Lockwood’s possession falls rather short of the gold standard set by Linda Blair with the active collusion of Mercedes McCambridge. MADONNA OF THE SEVEN MOONS, another Gainsborough flick that year, used split personality to allow demure Phyllis Calvert to unleash the kind of pent-up passions the studio delighted in unleashing, and offered the British public what was likely their first cinematic glimpse of what could be taken for a female orgasm. Whereas here, Lockwood falls deathly ill, and under the influence of the ghost, who is also deathly ill (or, rather, is reliving her own mortal illness), resulting in one layer of wanness being overlaid upon another — a shame, with such a vibrant performer to hand.

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Interestingly, both Knowles and MADONNA helmer Arthur Crabtree went rather psychotronic in their late careers, with Crabtree bringing us FIEND WITHOUT A FACE and HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, which neither Ealing nor Gainsborough ever dreamt of, and Knowles taking charge of FROZEN ALIVE (cryogenics) and SPACEFLIGHT IC-1 (see yesterday’s posting).

omg gramps u r totes mbrsng me : )

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2013 by dcairns

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Wilder on Wilder — filmmaker Matthew Wilder joins the fray with an impassioned, possibly insane defense of Billy Wilder’s despised last picture show, BUDDY BUDDY — a film maudit to end them all. He makes a good case…

As a kid who became aware of cinema in the late seventies, then moved into adolescence in the eighties, I had an experience of the Old Masters of Classical Cinema that I suspect is shared by many Gen-X people now shading –or careening—into middle age. We got the “late style” first; then the heyday second; then the juvenilia last of all. Which is to say, many an X kid’s first pungent taste of Alfred Hitchcock was FRENZY (coupled, of course, with its well-behaved cousin PSYCHO on the late show). Then came VERTIGO and THE WRONG MAN and NOTORIOUS; and much later—as one ticked off filmographies in a more academic fashion—came UNDER CAPRICORN and YOUNG AND INNOCENT.

For X cinephiles, sometimes catching these dementia-praecox classics first run, sometimes on an also-ran VHS tape (still a novelty in our puberty), we encountered the Grandmasters in Benjamin Button fashion. How exciting to see George Cukor mature from LOVE AMONG THE RUINS and THE BLUE BIRD into THE WOMEN and HOLIDAY! Imagine that that guy who made SEVEN WOMEN would go on to do THE SEARCHERS! And who would think that the hot mess who squirted out SKIDOO would go on to craft such elegant films noirs!

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I may have a different emotional take on this than other once-green youths who got the dregs before the red red wine. Perhaps because of a chemical combination of critical hosannas for these architects of the Golden Age + the late, fubsy works themselves, I have always had a special affection for these shambling late films—so much so that I feel that affection steers me out of the realm of any form of objectivity altogether. Could one really, with a straight face, and wanting to appear of sound mind and body, say that one passionately loves Rossellini’s MESSIAH more than OPEN CITY? But I do, I absolutely do. The reasons are, I think, so personal and anecdotal, I would have to reverse-engineer a whole boring memoir to explain them. But let’s sum it up like this: even in forgetful ruins, dusted in dandruff you had to brush off their shoulders, the Grandmasters brought the touch of another, better world into the era of Atari consoles and Flashdance sweatshirts. Profoundly out of step with a high-tech Reaganite America, their work felt—and feels—like artifacts of a long-lost alien civilization.

There is late work, in the seventies and eighties, of these old masters, that feels elegiac, exquisite—the last sigh of a show horse that once flaunted its glory at noontime. Bunuel’s THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, Huston’s THE DEAD, Visconti’s CONVERSATION PIECE and THE INNOCENT, Preminger’s THE HUMAN FACTOR. Then there are those works where the antiquated sensibility of the maker clangs against the surface of the modern world in ways that are partly noble and stirring, partly uncomfortable-making.

And then there is BUDDY BUDDY.

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To my knowledge, there has been no real defense mounted in a serious way—hell, in an unserious way!—of Wilder’s final 1981 feature. It is generally viewed as either giggle-worthy or grim, a signal that Grandpa needs to get with reality and hand over the car keys at last. The only kind word I have ever heard on BUDDY BUDDY came from longtime blue-chip auteurist and Wilder detractor Dave Kehr, who stood next to the police tape and wryly grinned, like a cop out of James Ellroy: “Well—it’s funnier than most of his recent movies.” BUDDY BUDDY was part of a pile-up of Christmas 1981 movies that signaled the end, no, really, the real end, of the seventies: oddities like the film adaptation of Dennis Potter’s PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, the seventy-one-minute Andy Kaufman sci-fi quirkfest HEARTBEEPS, the bizarrely morose Alan Pakula/Gordon Willis banking-apocalypse thriller ROLLOVER, a macabre film version of WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY? with Richard Dreyfuss and John Cassavetes, and above all, Warren Beatty’s bank-breaking salute to left-wing deludedness REDS, all hit the multiplex like pumpkins flung off a highway overpass. None received as little love as BUDDY BUDDY.

A final reckoning for the Lemmon/Matthau/Wilder trinity, BUDDY BUDDY collides suicidal schnook Lemmon with hardcase button man Matthau, who is screwing in his silencer about to clip his target when a despairing Lemmon literally lands on his head. (If your skull is pinging with memories of Jerry Lewis’ failed hanging attempt at the beginning of CRACKING UP a k a SMORGASBORD, you’ve come to the right place: these pictures are incestuous cousins.) Of course, beta Lemmon moves from literally falling atop Matthau to falling all over him with an effulgence of puppylike good spirits; Matthau wants nothing more than to finish his deadly job. And if you guessed that stammering schlemiel Lemmon has to help pokerface bulldog Matthau close the deal, you may have seen one or two American adaptations of French farces!

BUDDY BUDDY would make a brilliant double bill with another 1981 comedy that played to crickets, John Schlesinger’s HONKY TONK FREEWAY. Both films are built on the quicksand of borrowed glory: HONKY TONK is a kind of spritzing lapel flower based on Altman’s NASHVILLE (but broader), and BUDDY harks back to many happier days for the three craggy comedians. But in its way, BUDDY BUDDY is unique. Shot in widescreen in brilliant Bel Air sunshine, with an insinuating Lalo Schiffrin score proffering sinister mock elegance, BUDDY BUDDY comes on strong with the confidence of a movie made by a thirty-year-old. In that, it resembles a more financially successful ’81 comedy by a chap of a certain age—Mel Brooks’ HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART ONE. The difference is that Mel embraced humor addressing the body parts of the middle regions. Billy’s humor is more behavioral and, how you say…cultural? Only whose culture is it, anyway?

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It is hard to describe to a reader in our twitfeed era the sensation of seeing a picture in 1981 in which Lemmon and Matthau’s path is obstructed by a couple of dirty hippies in a hospital who birth a baby, and, after the kid is born, burst into song: “Happy birthday…Little Elvis!” (The looks across the theatre on “Little Elvis” spanned the generations.) For topical gags, there is a quackpot sex doctor whose typically Californian mumbo-jumbo seduces Lemmon’s wife, the statuesque, goosey Paula Prentiss. He tells a hotel conference of premature ejaculators to think about the names of the Seven Dwarfs, and he is played, with cocaine-hangover shades and a salon tan by a perfectly cast (and in-on-the-joke) Klaus Kinski. (A flyover attempt at doing some Youtube research on the subject yields the notion that Kinski, while a pain in Billy’s ass and vice versa, did not make any attempts on his life during shooting.)

Lemmon’s Victor Clooney—who is not victorious and does not resemble Clooney—is a TV censor who brags to Matthau’s Trebucco that he pinched a would-be clever writer who hatched a Spanish character named Senor Cojones. To launch Wilder’s kind of dated gibes at far-out sex therapy and wheat-germ-era California culture, you have to be quite a Senor Cojones yourself: the gags here inevitably play to “Springtime for Hitler” stares, as when faux milkman Trebucco blows away one of his victims, and Wilder cuts to the façade of Matthau’s milk truck: “Drink Milk. Live Longer.” BUDDY BUDDY brought a storied career to an ignominious close—so much so that Quentin Tarantino now cites it as the reason directors shouldn’t go on working into their old age. Billy got no more shots after that. Later, when Cameron Crowe met Wilder at an awards function, he asked with typical cheer, “So, what’s next for you, Billy?” “What’s next for me? Death!” was the candid, and accurate, response.

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It’s not hard to see why BUDDY BUDDY was greeted with grimaces, but the picture is not so bad it’s good, it’s so weird it’s beautiful. Wilder has the poise, conjures the assurance, knows the rhythm of a joke. It’s just that the material he’s serving on a silver platter only tastes like food on a distant planet. His similarly derided—and genuinely great—1964 comedy KISS ME STUPID also felt detached, the product of a bubble, but its premise was a visitor from the sex-forward, decadent big city bumbling into Dogpatch, with comic, then tragic results. The movie looks all the better now because it describes the changing sexual styles of its moment without being “of” its moment. BUDDY BUDDY, on the other hand, is purely otherworldly. Don Rickles used to make jokes about Japanese snipers still hiding in the palm trees in Pasadena. The Billy Wilder of BUDDY BUDDY may as well be one of those snipers—the difference being, Billy climbed up a palm tree at the Beverly Hills Hotel some time in the fifties.

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In an era when comedies are group-conceived spitball sessions where a bunch of comics throw out their best shots, and an anonymous committee cobbles together the zingers, you have to admire the brazenness, the naked risk, the cojones of this era of auteur comedies. For instance: every female person I have ever showed Blake Edwards’ 1981 S.O.B. to finds it grim and repellent beyond belief, but you have to hand it to him—it is a perfect rendering of Edwards’ acrid worldview, and it is as full an expression as any of his form of comedy. Spielberg’s 1941 is nothing if not the auteur theory writ large; and other mavericky efforts of the period, from Albert Brooks’ masterly MODERN ROMANCE to Hal Ashby’s dastardly HAMSTER OF HAPPINESS, have the personal signature we now associate with indie drama. None of them is quite so rich and strange as BUDDY BUDDY, though, where the grace of Wilder’s highly formal style—every set-up, every location is more beautiful than anything you’d see in a studio comedy now— and the perfection of the performers clash with gag-writing on the level of the smart-ass remarks at a Dean Martin roast of Doc Severinsen.

Is that such a bad thing, finally? Isn’t the pleasure of late style really “belatedness”—that aspect of the poet’s gift Harold Bloom describes as if it were some form of late-blossoming genetic defect that turns out, in fact, to be a treasure? And can’t we enjoy—or appreciate—aw, at the very least, love—the embarrassing grandpa, the Inappropriate Blurter, the alluder to that which no one remembers (or should), as much as the Serene Old Master, the unhurried one-take voice of wisdom, the repository of a long-dead classicism that shames us all? The mausoleum coldness of late style in movies can be bracing. But the spills, stains and overhang of BUDDY BUDDY prefigure 2013’s now highly commercial forms of “awkward comedy”—not to mention the truly awkward comedy that is the way we live now.

Matthew Wilder

Dial “H” for Hubbard

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2013 by dcairns

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To Filmhouse to catch the last 3D screening of DIAL “M” FOR MURDER. I’d seen the film before, and written it up for Hitchcock Year, and seen it again in 3D on video with Japanese subtitles and red-green glasses which mess up the colour cinematography, but this was my first ever big screen 3D screening. Most satisfactory.

John Williams as Chief Inspector Hubbard is the chief source of pleasure, with Anthony Dawson’s vulpine assassin a strong runner-up (curiously, both men have more famous name-sakes).

Hitch’s restrained use of the stereoscopic process to chart the dimensions of a room is beautiful, but I also found myself enjoying the worst aspects of the film — the grainy London location shots. Warners refused to pay for Hitchcock to shoot 3D in London, so the street scenes and dock scene were filmed flat. Hitchcock sticks a few foreground objects in to try to add a bit of depth, but the fantastically grainy rear-projection is distracting, and in at least one place surreal —

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Robert Cummings, the Butcher of Strasbourg, approaches his friends’ flat in a taxi — the view through the windscreen shows a flat street scene gradually enlarging — no sense of it getting closer, it just looks like it’s being blown up. We’re inside a 3D taxi driving up a flat street. It’s quite boggling. It’s like this London cab has it’s one zoom lens at the front. That’d be quite a good scam: you get in, pay for your journey, and instead of taking you there, they just zoom in. Then you pay up, get out, and find you’re still where you started from. Only then does the cab roar off, taking your money before you can protest. I’m surprised they haven;t attempted to rip the tourists off that way.

Since Hitch and the 3D camera and his stars never went to London, I got very interested in a scene late on where Grace Kelly is driven up to her flat, gets out the car, and approaches the door. How could this be achieved without Grace going to London?

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Close, skeptical viewing provides the answer. The woman getting out the car is NOT Grace, but a reasonably similar stand-in. Hitchcock follows the dictum laid down by Michael Powell, who had to shoot many of Roger Livesey’s scenes in I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING! with a double. Don’t have your lookalike skulk around behind a cape like that dentist pretending to be Bela Lugosi in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. Simply have the phony stride boldly up to the camera in full view. The audience is expecting to see an expensive movie star, and that’s just what they will see if you give them no reason to doubt it.

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Hitch then cuts quickly to Chief Inspector Hubbard watching from the window. When he cuts back, the stand-in is gone and Grace Kelly is there, standing in a Hollywood studio in front of the rear-projection screen showing a London street (and which formerly also showed her double). Deuced clever, these movie johnnies.

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