Archive for It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

Crom Does Not Pay

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2018 by dcairns

Richard Fleischer’s long and often distinguished career came to — should we say “ignominious”? — yes, we have to say “ignominious” — an ignominious end in the eighties, a decade in which he made six films, none of them projects he would likely have accepted earlier in his career, and none of which he could transubstantiate into silk purses, though he brought a bit of style to them here and there. It’s the sad spectacle of a Hollywood pro who’s run out of time — as late as the seventies, though not exactly a fashionable talent, Fleischer had been able to make amazing films like 10 RILLINGTON PLACE and interesting ones like MANDINGO and SOYLENT GREEN, alongside some bona fide disasters like ASHANTI. If Fleischer’s eighties films largely suck, it’s because they relate to Fleischer’s seventies films roughly the way Hollywood eighties films relate to Hollywood seventies films. Both decades produced some genius work and a lot of trash… but I like seventies trash better.

I saw the start of RED SONJA on TV once, and was struck by the sight of Arnie riding up to Brigit Nielsen and intoning the line, “Your sister’s dying,” with the matter-of-fact tone he might have better applied to a line like “Those are nice shoes,” or “I’d like some toast.” I mentally bookmarked the movie as one that might be amusing to watch, because apparently Arnie hadn’t yet reached the minimum level of acting competence he’s displayed ever since.

Later, I caught the last hour of the movie on TV and found it unendurably dull. There’s a little bit of nice design but a lot of it is just idiots in fancy dress in a nondescript wood, or desert, or somewhere.

“PLEASE can I use my litter tray?”

But I’d never, until now, seen CONAN THE DESTROYER, depite having seen the original CONAN at the cinema when I was too young to gain legal admission. Without any particular expectations, I delved in, dragging Fiona with me. Our lack of expectations were spectacularly fulfilled. It’s a 99% nothing film — with enjoyably ridiculous costumes, good production design (in a wholly appropriate fantasy art calendar style) and lousy performances  — it stars a bodybuilder, a model-turned-singer and a basketball player. The basketball player gets more lines than Jeff Corey and Ferdy Mayne put together, and is taller than Jeff Corey and Ferdy Mayne put together.

 

But it’s photographed by Jack Cardiff. It’s a very late film for him too, but he does bring out the visual possibilities. There’s even a bit where our heroes ride through an aisle of giant statues and Olivia D’Abo looks up at one of them and we get a POV shot tracking past it, and one MIGHT be reminded of David Niven on the stairway to heaven in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH…

Carlo Rambaldi, fresh from ET, is on hand to concoct a rubbery demon for the climax. It’s a relatively late credit for him, too. It turns out putting bat wings on Andre the Giant is not a good design concept.

“PLEASE can I use my litter tray?”

Fiona was (a) repelled by Tracey Walter’s attempt to do a Peter Lorre type sidekick (everything that aims at humour fails dismally in this film) and (b) offended by the exploitation of Grace Jones as an exotic spectacle in spiky leather, bare-assed, with a ponytail on her costume, yet. It wasn’t attached to a butt-plug, at least, but may as well have been, almost. I pointed out that Arnie is treated somewhat as a fetish object too, but had to admit that he managed to cover his actual ass for most of the film, and doesn’t wear a tail.

Exoticism is racism’s sexy sister.

In the eighties, Jack Cardiff did Michael Winner’s THE WICKED LADY, and RAMBO (“And the photography in that film is the exception,” declared Nestor Almendros in my presence). So this isn’t the worst.

“Please can I use –” OK I’ll stop now.

Fleischer went on to make RED SONJA (don’t see it) and then MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY, which is sort of like IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD only without the A-list stars. I really, really dislike IAMMMMW, but that’s just me. I understand it has admirers, which is fine. Allah delights in marvelous variety. But it turns out, surprisingly enough, that removing the stars from it doesn’t lead to a greatly improved experience. Even making it half as long, which I would expect to make it twice as good, doesn’t really work here.

In IAMMMMW, a crook expires in front of a disparate group of Americans, informing them, with his dying breath, of the existence of a hidden treasure, and providing them a cruptic clue as to its location. The three credited writers of MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY have come up with a cunning variation on this plot device: in MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY, a crook expires in front of a disparate group of Americans, informing them, with his dying breath, of the existence of a hidden treasure, and providing them a cryptic clue as to its location. I don’t know how these screenwriters come up with these ideas. Unless perhaps they dig up the corpse of William Rose and beat its brains in until an idea falls out, mouldy and crumbling on the lawn, whereupon they fall upon it and devour it like ravening coprophages.

It’s not entirely true that the film doesn’t have stars. It doesn’t have Spencer Tracy, true. But it does have Eddie Deezen. Who actually belongs in knockabout farce a helluva lot more than Spencer ever did, especially at his time of life. It also has Tom Bosely (in surely the hardest half day’s work he ever did) and Rich Hall, who is quite well-known in the UK due to his many BBC appearances. It’s downright weird seeing him YOUNG. He doesn’t actually seem young, he just seems like they filled him with air, or gravy or something. And Kevin Pollak is in it, doing impressions, maybe to make up for the lack of celebrity cameos. I guess some of the other people are more famous in America or something (the opposite of the Rich Hall Effect) but nothing they get to do in this movie made me want to look into it. It’s slightly weird, disturbing almost, seeing a movie with a big stunt budget (Vic Armstrong, transferring from CONAN) but with unknowns in major roles. Like a Hollywood pic invaded by pod people.

I am proud and happy to say that I’m friends with Eddie Deezen on Facebook, so I asked him for his memories of this movie. It wasn’t one of his favourites, it’s fair to say, but he didn’t want to badmouth anybody. Fleischer hadn’t made a comedy since 1949, and his “lighter” work since then had included stuff like DOCTOR DOLITTLE, the famous soufflé that crashed through the floorboards of Twentieth Century Fox. There are more laughs in 10 RILLINGTON PLACE than in DOCTOR DOLITTLE.

But when I asked Mr. Deezen about Jack Cardiff, it was like turning on a warm tap of loveliness: “JACK CARDIFF, THE CAMERAMAN, WAS A LOVELY, KIND AND WONDERFUL GUY. I WELL RECALL HAVING LUNCH WITH JACK ONE DAY. I OPENED UP TO HIM, WE TALKED, AND I TOLD HIM ABOUT MY LIFE, MY CHILDHOOD. HE WAS KIND, WARM AND EMPATHETIC. JACK WAS POSSIBLY MY ALL TIME FAVORITE CINEMATOGRAPHER. LOVED HIM.”

(Eddie types the way he acts, all-caps all the time. Which I love, by the way.)

Deezen’s happy memories are wholly consistent with every impression of Cardiff I ever got elsewhere, including when Fiona and I saw him at Edinburgh Film Festival.

Cardiff gets to shoot a lot of spectacular Arizona scenery in this one, so the film is, like CONAN, a lot better to look at than to listen to. Though these actors, unlike the CONAN ensemble, can really put a funny line over, so there is some amusement. It just ignores Howard Hawks’ advise about not annoying the audience: the writers throw in lots of gags and unwisecracks, some dubbed in while the actors’ backs are turned, and there’s not much quality control: on my first short film, I had some terrible attempts at funny lines, because I thought quantity would make up for lack of quality, and who knows, maybe someone would laugh at this line ever though it didn’t make ME laugh. I soon learned better. Fleischer maybe never knew that or maybe he forgot.

I did kind of like the b&w detective’s office: a chance for Fleischer to nod to his early noir work, and for Cardiff to do some b&w, something he missed out on in the forties because he was trained in Technicolor early on and became the go-to guy, for obvious reasons.

And Fleischer WAS good at widescreen.

CONAN THE DESTROYER stars Jack Slater, May Day, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Ursa, Sheriff Ray Bledsoe, Count Von Krolock and Fezzik.

MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY stars Herbie Kazlminsky, Franjean, Howard Cunningham, Otis Lee Crenshaw, J. Paul Getty, Andy Warhol and Cupid.

One more Late Show link to post, but I’m saving that for tomorrow…

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Michael Burnside: Sexual Sniper

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2008 by dcairns

THE SNIPER (1952) deals with a psychotic misogynist who takes to shooting women. It comes to us from Stanley Kramer’s production company.

Here’s Paul Mayersberg on Stanley Kramer in Hollywood The Haunted House ~

“In Kramer you can see the real dilemma of the Hollywood director. He wants to be an artist and he wants to be popular. He doesn’t want to be the compleat middlebrow which is what he is, what he is forced to be. Kramer has not come to terms with popular culture in the United States. So where does he stand? Bang in the middle of Reader’s Digest country, but he is no philistine. To be cruel about it, Kramer is Hollywood’s answer to Arthur Miller.”

Far from being cruel, that’s probably the most sympathetic critique of Kramer I’ve read. Though middlebrow reviewers may like some of his films, those who see them as preachy and dull tend to be savage in their dismissal. Mayersberg gets at the root of the problem and shows simply and directly how Kramer’s good intentions make for bad cinema. (Yet when Kramer tried his hand at pure entertainment in IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD, the results were even worse. It’s Steven Spielberg’s favourite comedy, and thus we get Spielberg’s own bloated comedy corpse, 1941.)

THE SNIPER is a Kramer production, but it’s directed by Edward Dmytryk and it’s a thriller, so that gives it a slightly schizoid character. Kramer usually saw himself as above genre, which is part of where he goes wrong. As Mayersberg says ~

“Oddly enough, the subtleties of form occur in the genre movies rather than the theme movies, because in genres you are playing variations within certain conventions and you can be more experimental. We may be close to André Gide’s idea that ‘art is born of constraint and dies of freedom.'”

The schizoid nature of THE SNIPER comes from its script, direction and production. The script is at pains to lay everything out, to explain everything over and over, and to make us understand its central theme. A title crawl at the beginning tells us what this theme is. Then we see it nakedly expressed in the action of the plot. The characters discuss it and the psychiatrist character explains it so we can all understand. And the bit-part players keep up a running commentary on events also, so we get to hear what the man in the street thinks. The schism lies between this idiot’s approach to storytelling, and the intelligent and dynamic use of visual storytelling by director Edward Dmytryk.

Dmytryk had a weakness for the big theme too, but at least he liked to express it in visual terms. Maybe making socially conscious films like THE SNIPER was a way to reassure himself that he hadn’t sold out after he became a friendly witness and ratted on his former pals in the Communist Party.

Whatever his politics, Dmytryk didn’t automatically become a bad director when he turned stoolie (that came later). He directs THE SNIPER with flair, using striking deep-focus compositions (although he claimed to hate the use of wide-angle lenses for oncreasing depth of field, preferring to use them for psychological distortion). The great Burnett Guffey is D.O.P. here, making atmospheric use of San Francisco locations, transforming them at night with near-expressionistic lighting.

In an effort to stop his homicidal impulses, our sniper burns his hand on the oven ring, and Dmytryk and Guffey contrive a bizarre low-angle shot with the hot hob casting an implausible glow on the ceiling:

Each bullet from the sniper’s gun is effectively shocking and abrupt. Several of the murders aren’t even shown — Kramer and co are anxious not to make this an exploitation film. Hence all those screeds of verbiage. The insane killer is shown as a victim of his psychological disorder and of an uncaring society. It’s all very liberal and decent, and when Dmytryk is allowed to do his job and tell the story with sound and image it can be effective too.

Adolph Menjou is Detective Frank Kafka (yeah, I laughed too), which is a literary reference with no apparent point. Arthur Franz is attractive and charismatic as the killer. The terrific Marie Windsor appears only briefly, but is as warm and lovely here as she is harsh and brazen in THE NARROW MARGIN. And she has a mouth the size of Charles Durning, which is no bad thing:

Weirdly, the film classes the sniper as a sexual criminal, but the behaviour of the character doesn’t really suggest he gets a sexual charge out of his crimes, although he does kill attractive brunettes, often ones he’s failed to get off with. The police haul in assorted “peepers, rapists and defilers” and have them publicly humiliated in a lineup by a chubby interlocutor with the air of a stand-up comedian.

Then a psychiatrist explains that there’s no crossover in criminal insanity — none of these criminals could turn sniper. Incidentally he’s wrong — the absurdly-named Colin Pitchfork, the first murderer arrested on DNA evidence (read Joseph Wambaugh’s excellent The Blooding for the fascinating story) was a flasher who moved on to rape and murder as an extension of his initial perversion.

In its killer’s M.O. and San Francisco setting, THE SNIPER oddly looks forward to the Scorpio killer and his movie incarnations in DIRTY HARRY and SCORPIO. Where Don Siegel’s DIRTY HARRY portrayed its killer as a motiveless force of pure malevolence, and David Fincher’s SCORPIO uses him as a kind of defining absence at the story’s heart, the Dmytryk urges compassion and clinical care for the disturbed. It’s a very honourable film. But perhaps best watched with the sound off.