Archive for Ira Levin

Wagner’s Wrong Cycle

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2019 by dcairns

“Stand there, Bob. No, elbow up a bit. Turn your head a fraction…”

Hollywood started going weirdly wrong in the fifties, I think. Competing with TV, which in those days had really great scripts and acting but looked essentially like Mr. Magoo’s Dream of Hell, Hollywood countered with some terrible scripts and elevated a lot of attractive non-actors to leading roles.

A KISS BEFORE DYING isn’t an appalling piece of writing, but the need to render the central literary trick of Ira Levin’s source novel in cinematic terms robs it of most of its bite, and the dentition is further eroded by the casting of bores and incompetents in the leads, with one more skilled player so miscast her abilities wrench the whole thing in the wrong direction. True, the casting of Robert Wagner as a killer of women is… suggestive. Titillating, even, in a deeply wrong way. And it’s true that Wagner’s blandness shows some sign of becoming a positive dramatic force — he IS the banality of evil — in this unfamiliar context. Mark Cousins recently introduced me to RW’s early appearance in WITH A SONG IN MY HEART, where he plays a traumatised veteran, and the contrast of his catalogue model beauty with the “troubled” label is as close to “electrifying” as one could ever speak of in relation to this player, who always seems smothered in insulation.

And that’s still the case in AKBD. If one reads about the life and death of Natalie Wood, RW emerges as someone with a definite dark side, even if you don’t think he’s guilty of or hiding anything beyond rowing with his wife and being a bit inept at calling in an emergency (I would say he might well be guilty of more than that, though the term “person of interest” never sat more uncomfortably on the shoulders of a movie star). But as the would-be serial unmarried young Bluebeard here, Wagner invests no malevolence, no cunning, no manipulation in the role, he just doubles down on his native blandness. (One exception: the character’s nastiness to his dear mother, played by a rare Technicolor Mary Astor, makes you want to stab him.)Uh-oh.

OK, so that could actually work, even if it’s a side-effect of somebody’s casting error rather than an inspired choice (and you just can’t tell with Wagner) but who do we have as the good guys? Uh oh.

Jeffrey Hunter is the studious young man who tries to thwart Wagner’s proto-uxoricide (is there a word for killing your betrothed? Anyone writing about this story needs such a word). Hunter, unlike Wagner, is a man who shows clear signs of wanting to act, so he dons glasses and clenches a pipe between his pearly whites I refer to his teeth, not his butt cheeks, as you might suppose)… and that’s it for performance. Can you wonder that, despite yielding to no man in my admiration for Nick Ray, I have never made it through THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES, or if I have, I can’t remember it? What stops me making another attempt on that Everest of tedium is that I might be wasting my time, having already accomplished the feat only to have it slip from my memory like an unusually dull bar of soap. That one also has both Wagner and Hunter as leads — the Dream Team! In that you actually fall asleep watching them.Then we have Virginia Leith, evidently also being groomed for stardom — thrust upon the blameless public. She’s really, um, “good” in THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE, in that she invests lines like “No, my deformed friend, like all quantities, horror has it’s ultimate, and I am that,” with exactly what they seem to demand, whatever that is. Here, she’s lost, just uninterestingly terrible, and the script loses focus whenever she’s around, since it wants us to be on her side as she investigates her sister’s death, and still on her side when she refuses, against all reason, to believe in Wager’s guilt. Very hard for an actor to put over, and completely impossible for poor Virginia, who is very attractive I must say.

Joanna Woodward is the miscast one, the only lead who can act: she’s studied her part and deduced that the character written as a doting nitwit must be played as such, an unavoidable conclusion for a method actor but the wrong choice for this hokum. (Look at Mia Farrow’s far more sympathetic, less distanced performance in ROSEMARY’S BABY, from another Levin book about a deceived and betrayed woman.) If they’d only swapped Leith and Woodward around, I think you’d have something: Leith’s lack of experience/skill would allow her to play dim naturally, without knowing she was doing it, and maintain our sympathy without trying, and Woodward could invest her shrewdness in playing the wilful, sharp (some of the time) and passionate heroine.

Astor is good but there isn’t enough of her. Dear old George Macready is acting for five, and it’s not like I don’t appreciate the effort but maybe not now, George?

Gerd Oswald directs, his camera leering-looming-lurching in for dramatic close-ups, unsubtle but certainly appropriate, and the whole production gleams dumbly. I love Technicolor, part 2.

There is a love song, “A Kiss Before Dying,” playing on every juke box in this movie, and nobody says “What a weird idea for a song!”

Oh, and the credits have kissy lipsticks all over them, which is particularly curious with Wagner and Hunter being top-billed.

A KISS BEFORE DYING stars Prince Valiant; Jan in the Pan; Teenage Jesus; Clara Varner; Miss Wonderly;  Count Yorga, vampire; and General Mireau.

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They Saved Hitler’s Sperm

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2019 by dcairns

Franklin J. Schaffner’s THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL is like MARATHON MAN’s brain-damaged clone or something. It’s hard to say which is the tackier take on Nazi war criminal conspiracies. I think at least MM has some kind of realistic point to make and exposes Operation Paperclip to daylight in a way that’s kind of commendable. I watched BOYS in dishonour of the late Bruno Ganz, who appears, and became periodically woken up by odd moments of Schaffnerian panache.

When Larry Olivier first sees a Baby Hitler, the kid is reflected in a double set of mirrors, CITIZEN KANE style, so there are like 95 of him. This is a fine idea — clever but stupid but clever — in a good movie it would be too obvious, i n this movie it is *PERFECT* and I wish Franklin J. Schaffner had come up with another dozen or so visual ideas like it.There’s a double sex murder scene staged to an Elaine Page song. As we wait for the body to be discovered, a Mr. Punch puppet pokes round a corner to irritate Prunella Scales. It’s unsettling, to say the least, but feels really peculiar. Normally, staging the normal scenes of domestic life in a normal way would make more sense than this baroque surrealist madness. It only occurred to me afterwards that Schaffner was keeping the little puppeteer offscreen for a good narrative purpose. At the time it registers as creepy eccentricity, like the whole film has gotten into the wrong hands and may at any moment be invaded by rampaging cowboys or gremlins.

There’s a brief iteration of Schaffner’s signature shot: the planimetric flat-on full stop, but it’s an undistinguished example. But Uta Hagen’s big scene has a nicely awkward moment where her hushed confab with her lawyer strains for attention against a blankly staring, static Olivier on the lower right of frame, creating an electric tension partly because you don’t know where to look.The very weird plot has Dr. Mengele producing 95 baby Hitlers, and then, since he’s undecided re nature v. nurture, planting them with foster families similar to the original Adolf’s. Since Hitler’s dad died aged 65 when the future Führer was still a lad, 95 future Führer foster fathers have to be assassinated, an almost biblical arrangement which serves to tip off aging Nazi hunter Larry Olivier, who starts to investigate. It’s one of those plots that starts bonkers and just gets crazier, has no choice in fact but to get crazier. Like one of those things that begins “Jack the Ripper steals HG Wells’ time machine… Do you believe me so far?”

Ira Levin’s narrative unfolds quasi-grippingly. Like his Rosemary’s  Baby, it somehow works despite everybody knowing the clever twist going in. We’re watching the gradual exposure of an absurd plot, and the pleasure seems to derive from how kinda-credibly it can be packaged, and the suspense of seeing a character we like stumbling closer to the awful truth.Gregory Peckory, of course, is the worst casting for Dr. Mengele you could get, outside of maybe Chuck Connors or Alfonso Bedoya, and he has the task of playing most of his scenes with James Mason and Laurence Olivier, either of whom you can imagine doing it brilliantly — and Olivier had just done so, of course, in all but name. I can see why they might not want Larry to repeat himself exactly, and his increasing frailty works better with him in the hero role. But why Peck? I guess THE OMEN had given him a slight boost, and this is the same kind of vulgar high-concept all-star malarkey, so I’m sure he was good B.O.

But Jesus.

Granted the dyed black hair is an interesting touch — makes him hard to look at, one thing you’d never normally say about the guy. He becomes a waxy mannequin — even more than normal.

Then there’s the claustrophobic effect produced by nearly everyone in it having to do a phony German accent: Lilli Palmer’s real one is a blessed relief. Bruno Ganz is Swiss but he was celebrated for his German-speaking, and rightly so as far as I can tell. His English here is rather lovely and he wisely kicks back and lets Olivier act for two.
The cat they’ve got to play Baby Hitler doesn’t look like Hitler, and is stretched (painfully: think Procrustes) by the demands of having to play him as German, Brit and American. A tall (new) order for any small boy. There must have been a big casting search, and they must’ve convinced themselves they had the answer — “THAT’S OUR HITLER!” — but Dick Shawn would not have been a markedly inferior choice. It’s not that the kid’s a bad actor, though I think he’s been encouraged to lay it on too thick. His dialogue as the English brat is so awkwardly written (“My mother is not receiving today. Don’t you understand English, you arse? We are not at home.” that he might as well have been dubbed, preferably by Paul Frees.Speaking of dialogue, to hear Olivier say, in a mounting falsetto, “He operated, mainly on tvins, VISS-out anaesthetic but VISS ze strains of Wagner providing an obbli-GAT-o to ze screams of the MU-tants he was cre-AT-ink!” is to hear a great deal, and to be unable to un-hear any of it.

John Rubinstein gets to share Olivier’s best scene (his final one in the film), but best perf is John Dehner, a former Disney animator, as the main American baby Hitler’s future Führer foster father — it’s like a real person walked into this bloodthirsty comic opera by mistake. You inhale deeply at the sudden infusion of oxygen.THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL stars Atticus Finch; Richard III; Erwin Rommel; Zarah Valeska; Carey Mahoney; Marcus Brody; Dr. Brodsky; Dr. Mabuse; Adolf Hitler; Henry Luce; General Gogol; Colonel Dankopf; Colonel Kurt von Strohm; Emeric Belasco; Sandor Szavost; Angel Blake; Sybill Fawlty; Mr. Slugworth; Prince of Tübingen; and the voice of VALIS. (It’s a Lew Grade production so it’s ridiculously stuffed with stars. I put it about even with the very enjoyable MEDUSA TOUCH and way ahead of RAISE THE TITANIC! which nevertheless I’m starting to feel I ought to see again even though I remember it being really boring. The plot in that one is that they’ve found out how to make an anti-nuke force field, but they need a rare mineral and the entire supply of it went down with the Titanic. Really! I’m not making this up.)

Cornier Transplant

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2011 by dcairns

“Like all deaf people, I don’t much like the blind.” ~ Luis Bunuel.

LOS OJOS DE JULIA / JULIA’S EYES is from Guillem Morales, who brought us and the producers of THE ORPHANAGE, with Guillermo del Toro as exec prod again. It’s not quite as good as THE ORPHANAGE, which wasn’t quite as good as a Del Toro, but it’s still a fun, old-fashioned shock-thriller. Morales folds together two old warhorses, the blind girl in jeopardy and the identical twins plot — the first scene change, which implies that the death of one twin is felt by the other, miles away, establishes the blend of pseudo-science and folk superstition he’s working with. The heroine’s surname is Levin, a nod to Ira Levin, whose novel A Kiss Before Dying, filmed twice, uses the sister act murder detection ploy as plot motor.

What stops this being as effective as THE ORPHANAGE is the soupy music, chipboard husband character, and a plot which doesn’t quite add up: the death of one major character is left pretty well unexplained. Morales heaps on plot twists to cover the fact that several of his key twists are easily forseeable, but the fact that, during the longish section of the film where the heroine’s eyes are bandaged, all the other characters are framed with their heads out of shot, has an eerie and oppressive tension to it quite beyond its mere functionality to keep a secret from us.

Stylistic flourishes are the film’s strong point — inevitably, some version of WAIT UNTIL DARK’s climactic blackout must be attempted, and Morales delivers, fusing that swipe with a bit of REAR WINDOW for good measure. Recombining borrowed elements is a form of originality, I suppose, and when its done with this level of skill and confidence it can be exhilarating.

In common with Bruce Robinson’s JENNIFER 8, there’s also a queasy assumption that sighted children raised among blind people are going to be somehow marked or twisted by the experience. This isn’t anything the films insist on, it merely comes as baggage with the plotting which seeks to “explain” the killer’s obsession with the blind.

Since Fiona’s written a screenplay with a degenerative eye condition as part of the plot, she was worried that Morales might have pipped her to the post with the medical details in his film, but no worries: this is strictly movie medicine, with no evidence of even basic research to bolster the conviction. A shame: even a rather minor suspenser like BLINK shows the value of digging up obscure info on your subject, and the film’s credibility is already slightly stretched by the way the plot keeps hurling the heroine into darkened corridors, cellars, power blackouts etc. Still, as an old-fashioned twister with giallo style but minus the misogyny, this is a diverting ride.