Archive for Humphrey Jennings

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s Scenes #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2022 by dcairns

It’s good to start with Olivier’s HAMLET because we have A SPY ON THE SET.

The other Laurence, Laurie Knight, late friend of Fiona and I, was an assistant on this — third AD. But not for the whole shoot, I don’t think. He reports that Olivier wanted to record a real human heartbeat for the ghost’s appearances. He may have heard about Rouben Mamoulian running up and down a flight of stairs so he could get a suitably pounding chest for the transformations in DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, but the athletic thesp uncharacteristically delegated another assistant — possibly a runner, which would be appropriate — to run around the soundstage once or twist before having the mic pressed to his bosom like a stethoscope.

“Nothing but indigestion!” Laurie reported with a wheeze of laughter. So they quite simply got a drum in.

I really love the way the camera pulses in and out of focus as the pounding comes in. Still an effect that’s rarely copied, but it’s wonderfully expressive.

Asides from Mamoulian, I assume Olivier’s under the influence of CITIZEN KANE a bit, and has grasped how the optical printer can be used to spice up footage and create semi-seamless joins between distinct shots. I even wonder if the focal pulse effect might be created in post. This is a kind of advance on his HENRY V, whose effects all happen for real in front of the camera. We gradually move from theatrical sets to more lifelike one, as if we were being swept up in the “reality” of the play.

The KANE influence is also felt in the deep focus, the chiaroscuro, and the cavernous Xanadu-like space of Elsinore. Instead of the big gimmick of Olivier’s HENRY V: a theatrical performance which slowly becomes “real”, the stylised sets eventually replaced by real locations, HAMLET attempts to create a space midway between theatre and cinema — cavernous, unfurnished, but richly textured.

Olivier said he was driven to that HENRY effect by his concern about matching real sets and unreal dialogue. “Why’s everyone talking so funny?” HAMLET takes a different but parallel route. An environment just odd enough to allow the iambic pentameters not to seem out of place.

From my Making-Of book, The Film HAMLET: Carmen Dillon, tasked with executing Roger Furse’s designs, says, “sets soar into the sky without any attempt at persuading the audience that they do, in fact, support a roof or that they have any geographical relationship one with another.

I’m all in favour of cutting Hamlet, which is outrageously long, and directors shape it and choose what they want to emphasise by their cuts. In Jonathan Pryce’s performance. this whole scene was cut, so that the ghost could be portrayed as a psychological effect, a voice issuing from H’s subconscious. It gave Pryce the excuse for a bravura Linda Blair/Mercedes McCambridge act, and you could argue that the voice’s echoing of H’s own suspicions and resentments is already implied in the text — he’s rather thrilled to discover he’s right to dislike Uncle Claudius.

But these cuts do tend, as Tom Stoppard pointed out, to make the beginning of the play rather stodgy. It’s a bunch of people at a party making speeches. Whereas WD begins his play with the words “Who goes there?” and it’s immediately gripping. Plus the bell tolling midnight, all very atmospheric. Olivier wouldn’t have consciously aimed to make his adaptation seem like a horror film, but the KANE influence ensures it does anyway (I believe Welles may have admitted to a slight James Whale influence on his MACBETH).

Olivier has cast his film very well indeed, without resorting to the Branagh approach of stuffing stars of stage and screen into every crevice. From the urgency of the first lines we drop into the casual, throwaway dialogue that makes this film occasionally quite naturalistic, when Sir Larry himself isn’t around. Francisco and Bernardo are John “We’re all doomed!” Laurie, who would apparently tell you about his own triumph as the Dane as soon as you met him, and Esmond Knight, recently blinded in the war and taking his life in his hands on those unbanistered stairs.

Starting on Laurie is a great idea: a gloomy Calvinist immediately makes the appearance of the supernatural more plausible.

They’re soon joined by Norman Wooland and Anthony Quayle, equally good. wooland maybe the realest and most moving actor in the film. I think Olivier has done great in finding actors who can do the classical bit but also seem believable onscreen. It was maybe easier to find such people then.

Olivier, of course, isn’t of their number. He’s something else.

Next bit: Hamlet meets the ghost.

Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson writes that Olivier wanted to “make the scenes without so much cutting from shot to shot.” There are bits in the ghost’s second appearance where we just stare at his inexpressive silhouette for quite a while, until the shot almost “goes dead.” It seems a good way to allow the audience to concentrate on the words without getting bored. The image is still striking and beautiful, even if it’s not doing anything new. It beats Peter Brook’s moronic idea in his KING LEAR of shooting the backs of the actors’ heads. “Sometimes, with Shakespeare, you don’t want the image to add anything, but you can’t just have a black screen.” I think a black screen would make as much sense as the back of Paul Scofield’s head.

Remember the wise words of Roger Corman: “The eye is the organ most used in movie making. If you don’t engage the eye you’ll never engage the mind.”

The ghost here is John Gielgud — one of the legendary stage Hamets (captured on film by Humphrey Jennings in A DIARY FOR TIMOTHY), later the director of Richard Burton’s version, and one of the most distinctive voices. But the slow whisper and echo effect make him not so recognisable, so that his uncredited performance isn’t a coy gimmick. The ghost would have seemed all the more mysterious by being unknown.

Gielgud at 17.24-19.22

Steven Berkoff had an interesting idea — I don’t know how good his production was, quite possibly ham(let)fisted (he has a way of leaning into things) — but it was an interesting idea. Since the ghost says he’s doomed “to walk the earth,” why not have him in constant motion? And thus Hamlet, having followed him away from his chums, has to keep tagging along. He might even get in front and then have to keep backing up since the ghost can’t stop.

At 3.18 the backlight produces a dark halo around the ghost in the fog. Beautiful.

I think the least effective part is the visualisation of the King’s death, though I can see why they did it. King Hamlet as a living person is NOT played by Gielgud, but by a Santa Clause-looking guy who overdoes the old dying act a bit, rolling out of his divan and clutching the air. Claudius as poisoner has kind of gone into silent movie acting mode also, Is this the way Hamlet would visualise it? Possibly.

Branagh will cheekily borrow a couple of Olivier’s moves — collapsing face-down when the ghost departs, and kissing his sword when he swears. Shakespeare’s text offers few stage directions beyond “enter” and “exit” and we’re not convinced Shakespeare even wrote those. He does add “writing” when Hamlet makes a note in his tables, but Olivier’s cut the words and the action to make room for his hilt-kissing.

Next: Tony Richardson and Nicol Williamson in 1969.

Ealing Hands

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2018 by dcairns

When I think of it, there are a surprisingly large number of Ealing films I haven’t seen. Now that I’m interested in Pat Jackson (Miss Jackson if you’re nasty), my attention focussed on THE GENTLE TOUCH (aka THE FEMININE TOUCH), a typical Ealing group dynamic movie about student nurses. Of course, an Ealing take on this subject is quite a bit from, say, a Roger Corman one, but it’s not exactly devoid of “shocking” material, from suicide to questioning the cruelty of God to some frank talk about virginity and colostomy bags.

And all in luminous Technicolor! It’s a surprising choice of subject to show off the process, but Paul Beeson’s work is radiant, excelling in a sunset scene where the golden light and blue shadows recall Leon Shamroy’s Hollywood work.

Best-known ministering angel is probably flame-haired Adrienne Corri, a Scot cast as an Irishwoman on account of all that red hair. She plays it with her strongest Scottish accent and a couple of notes of stage Irish. But she’s fun! Belinda Lee is the soft-spoken lead, good actor but written insipid; Diana Wynyard is the Matron and she’s AWESOME — good in the original GASLIGHT, but better here, and Mandy Miller from MANDY is a child patient with a dicky heart. Delphi Lawrence marries a doctor (“I thought he was a confirmed bachelor!”) and is automatically fired because nurses aren’t allowed to marry in 1956, apparently (!).

Very glad I saw it. Some of the compositions in group shots are stunning, and there are some snappy montages, but otherwise we don’t see Jackson’s more bold and imaginative choices, which I suspect he only resorted to when working on nonsense he thought was beneath him. Too bad, that.

But hey, Technicolor! 

Jackson did another medical drama, WHITE CORRIDORS, which I’m curious about, and I also want to see his early documentary/quasi-documentary stuff (some with Humphrey Jennings).

Heydrich Heydrich heydrich Heydrich

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by dcairns

“Stop the film!”

HHhH is an excellent novel by Laurent Binet, telling the story of the rise and assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by two Czechoslovak patriots parachuted back into their homeland by the Brits. What makes the novel distinctive, and almost not a novel at all, is (a) the author’s fidelity to all the known facts, and his commentary on this fidelity — his refusal to imagine ANYTHING, or at any rate his disgusted self-denunciation whenever he does, part of (b) his constant commentary on his own process, and his reluctance even to accept dialogue quoted by sources when it sounds implausible. In such cases, he can offer a fictional version that strikes him as more likely, but he still has to denounce himself for making stuff up. In a way, it allows the author to be attractively modest — in the face of the heroic acts of the Czech and the Slovak, who knowingly sacrificed their lives out of certainty that their cause was just, Binet offers his own uncertainty, self-doubt, vacillation.

So we started watching the recent movie ANTHROPOID, which takes a piece of this story — just the mission, starting from the moment the heroes drop from the skies — and serves it up as a grim-faced and desaturated spectacle. It’s certainly because I’d just read Binet’s book, but I was intolerant of the movie’s mucking about with historical fact. Right after landing, our humourless, characterless heroes (a far cry from the rather jaunty, romantic figures Binet gleans from the historical record) run into a traitor and have to kill him to escape betrayal. In fact, the agents were discovered by a gamekeeper, who helped them. So the movie has gained an action sequence, albeit a very familiar one, presented in a shaky, muddy way by director Sean Ellis, but has lost a moving scene of an ordinary man risking his life for a noble cause, which is the kind of scene war movies used to live on.

I felt, personally, that the filmmakers had departed from the facts in order to offer something LESS INTERESTING.

Likewise, the presentation of Kubis and Gabcik, played by Christian Grey and the Scarecrow, as emotionless killing machines seemed like a less effective choice than Binet’s. The movie has a far shorter emotional distance to cover if the characters are already miserable, implacable, devoid of light and shade. They’re going to be spending quite a lot of the film staring death in the face. Will we notice any difference in their mood?

Incidentally, when they jumped from the British plane, the real Kubis & Gabcik landed, Binet tells us, in a graveyard. Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin eschew this. perhaps for fear of seeming to indulge in symbolism. But it really happened! It would be an interesting challenge to include this WITHOUT making it look symbolic. But, to be fair, I have no idea how this could be achieved.

When the film forgets to do wobbly sepiatone, it occasionally delivers beautiful shots, and the action scenes are pretty effective, but it has no humour and no gradation of tone. The task of creating characters defeats the screenwriters. A “poetic” touch at the end is brave, but seemed unearned, hokey and basically disastrous to Fiona & I.

Binet’s researches uncovered previous novels and films about these incidents. He’s impressed by John Carradine’s perf as Heydrich in Sirk’s HITLER’S MADMAN, which I wrote about here. A good B-picture ruined by the infusion of MGM class, was my harsh verdict, but I agree about JC. Beginning with the assassination, the film concentrates on the extermination of Lidice in retaliation. The movie’s biggest distortion of history is to stage the assassination at Lidice and not in Prague — surely the location of the incident was one of the few things known for certain at the time? But the filmmakers, it seems, couldn’t follow the Nazis’ logic — why was this random village chosen? So they had to invent a reason, when in reality there was none.

The most artistic responses to the incident in film are Humphrey Jennings amazing THE SILENT VILLAGE, which imagines the fate of Lidice befalling a Welsh mining village — aiming to de-exoticise the tragedy, to literally bring it home to British viewers; and Fritz Lang’s HANGMEN ALSO DIE!, a wholly fictitious account of the assassination and its aftermath. Binot is very forgiving of Sirk and Lang (and their writers, including “Bert” Brecht), allowing that the true facts weren’t known at the time and filmmakers had to just make stuff up — the good filmmakers did this thrillingly.

HANGMEN deserves a wholly entry on its fantastic rogue’s gallery of gloating Nazi pigs.  It’s a masterpiece. Binot rightly credits some of this to Brecht’s excellent, made-up story. It particular, it has a fruity and vile Heydrich played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (CALIGARI, CASABLANCA) in a joke shop nose. I don’t think anyone’s ever seriously alleged that Heydrich was gay (it was getting engaged to two different women at once that got him drummed out of the navy, leading to him joining the Nazi party), but that seems to be how Twardowski is playing him. Heydrich DID have a very high voice, according to Binot, but nobody’s ever played him that way. It might seem silly. Probably the only way to pull it off would be to hire an actor already known for having a high voice, so it didn’t seem so much like an artistic choice — because there’s no way to make it clear to the audience that you’re being factual here.

Another Heydrich perf Binot admires is Kenneth Branagh’s in the 2001 TV play Conspiracy. Branagh plays to his strengths — his Heydrich is warm and matey, a little overbearing with it, but he comes on like everyone’s chum, making opposition difficult by his air of affable reasonableness. As Binot says, there aren’t really any accounts of Heydrich that stress chumminess as one of his qualities, but the effect is very disturbing. The whole show is terrific — Loring Mandel’s script mostly sticks to things the actual Nazi high command said on the record at Wannsee, plotting the Final Solution, and in the unrecorded conversations between bouts at the conference table he draws heavily on other conversations they are known to have had. And there’s none of the wretched “As you know…” style of exposition we’ve grown sadly used to in British drama.

(STARTED watching MY WEEK WITH MARILYN with friends. The cackhanded exposition was so pervasive and dumb (Fiona says the film gets better later) that I coined the phrase “As you know, I’m your father,” and after a few real examples of this kind of writing we almost convinced ourselves that it was an actual piece of dialogue. I’m not sure I want to blame Adrian Hodges, the credited writer, because this is exactly the sort of thing execs the Weinstein Bros would insist on being included. They honestly believe the purpose of having characters is to explain things to the audience.)

Binot seems to have missed OPERATION: DAYBREAK (why the colon?), directed by Lewis Gilbert and adapted by Ronald Harwood (THE PIANIST) from the novel by Alan Burgess, which he does know about. The film is pretty factual, it seems to me, though aesthetically quite dull, apart from the odd choice of David Hentschel’s synth score. It has a fine Heydrich, Anton Differing (he of the combustible behind) — at last, an actor with a big enough nose! I remember the film itself being a little boring, which is odd given the authentic life-or-death stakes involved.

And now there’s a film of HHhH (you wait ages for a Heydrich and then two come along at once), which I guess, following my practice of capitalising film titles, I will have to call HHHH. An awkward title either way. (Binot writes that if the book we’re holding isn’t called Operation Anthropoid, we’ll know his publisher won the argument.) The acronym stands for the German version of the phrase Heydrich Is Himmler’s Brain (which is the small H?), and not for Heydrich Heydrich heydrich Heydrich, as I may have inadvertently given you the impression. This was a popular “meme” in the Czech Protectorate, before they knew what memes were. I guess it’s precisely the fact of Heydrich being Himmler’s brain that made it such a damn good idea to kill him.

The film will have to live up to the book’s high standards of accuracy, though frankly it CAN’T — it will have to invent conversations and present them without apology or comment (I’ll be impressed as hell if it attempts anything as pomo or self-critical as the book — it just won’t). It seems to have a pretty good Heydrich in Aussie Jason Clarke, although oddly he’s doing it with an English accent and all the others are putting on German accents. Playing characters who in reality would be speaking a different language, and doing them with a mild accent, always struck me as silly. Although here we have Stephen Graham looking like a VERY good match for Himmler, and I guess if he’d played it with his native Liverpool accent, that would have been unacceptable. Though not to me, because I delight in marvellous variety.

(Graham is a smashing actor and a master of accents. He plays cockney in the recent series Taboo. Tom Hardy is playing the lead role as a very good impersonation of Oliver Reed — only Keith Allen has done it better. So Stephen Graham comes on as the late Bob Hoskins, not to be put down. The more Hardy bats his eyelashes and whispers in a threatening growl, the more expansive and waannafow Graham becomes. You may not recollect that Hoskins pronounced “wonderful” as “waannafow,” but take it from me, he did. It was part of what made him so waannafow.)

Have I missed any good Heydrichs? What are your favourite performances of members of the Nazi command, if you have any? Oh, I know… Goebbels is always good value. But let’s look BEYOND GOEBBELS…