Archive for J Lee Thompson

Dordogne Among the Dead Men

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2021 by dcairns

More J. Lee Thompson — EYE OF THE DEVIL was originally to be called DAY OF THE ARROW and then THIRTEEN, which would seem to have jinxed it. They started shooting on September 13th, also.

Sid Furie was originally slated to direct, and a few distinctive “Sid Furie shots” appear, but these seem to have been shot by Thompson and the resemblance is a matter of fashion. Not many directors shoot down through lampshades, it must be said. Within a year or two directors got all self-conscious about this kind of self-consciousness. The minute they found themselves crouching behind a potted fern, viewfinder nosing through the leaves, they would say to themselves, Oh God no, not a Sid Furie shot!

After Furie, Michael Anderson was attached, but got ill early in the shoot. Or did he? There are a number of questions hanging over this one. Did he fall or was he pushed?

So it became a Thompson film, starring Kim Novak, and then two weeks before the end of filming, Novak was out. The official story was that she’d injured her back in a fall, but everyone stressed the fact that she’d be fine, but she couldn’t work for a few months and so the film would have to be restarted with a replacement.

But David Hemmings, who makes an early appearance, indiscreetly reveals in his very readable memoir that Novak departed after rowing with producer Martin Ransohoff at a press conference. Hemmings reports that he can no longer recall what Ransohoff said to offend Novak, nor if she was justified in her outrage, but he had an indelible memory of Novak stubbing her cigarette into his one good eye…

Nothing that horrifying happens in the film, which is nominally a scary movie…

Anyway, that’s Novak out, but co-star David Niven comes to the rescue, roping in Deborah Kerr, making the film a kind of Powell & Pressburger affair since Flora Robson also appears.

It’s a kind of WICKER MAN/ROSEMARY’S BABY plot, but much less gripping and more guessable than either, and the horror at its heart is strangely uninteresting. But the film itself is sort of fascinating.

Thompson is treating it as an exercise du style, pulling in a lot of nouvelle vague influence — the opening blur of flashforwards, which has no real reason to exist, is certainly modernist and flashy — then MARIENBAD seems to be the order of the day. Thompson tracks incessantly and cuts before his movements finish, which pre-Resnais was considered filmically ungrammatical, though obviously this was always false (exceptions existed for cutting from a shot tracking with a character, to their POV, for instance, as seen so often in Hitchcock).

The direct cutting approach, unfortunately, lops all the tension out of the film. No sooner has the thought of a character going somewhere scary been planted, than we cut to them arriving, or already there. And yet MARIENBAD itself is quite a spooky film. Maybe because it combines sudden jumps in time (which promote nervousness) with funereal creep. This movie’s had all the creep excised.

It has Donald Pleasence doing his whispery bit, but the eeriest presences in it are Hemmings and Sharon Tate, as a twisted brother and sister. One’s first response to Tate is that she’s surely dubbed. Publicity at the time suggested she took lots of voice lessons to acquire a posh English accent and a deeper voice — but, as we know, the publicity people on this film were not always completely truthful.

In a way, it doesn’t much matter if Tate’s using her own voice — certainly there’s a lot of (pretty good) post-synching going on — the combination of the plummy purr and her striking beauty and stillness is quite uncanny. A slight feeling that her voice isn’t coming from her body but from somewhere beyond adds to the character’s sinister presence/absence.

Critics complained about her immobile face, evidence that the weekly film reviewer’s job is to notice anything fresh or interesting an actor does, and then condemn it. They trashed Anjelica Huston on first sight also.

This vertiginous sequence, part of the evil games Tate’s character indulges in, is genuinely alarming, partly because real child endangerment seems to be occurring. Sure, the shots are framed so that someone can always be hanging onto the kid, and ropes and harnesses may be involved, but it still seems dodgy.

Elsewhere, Niven gets some terrific stuff acting hypnotized — a mode of Niv we’ve never seen before. And there’s a relatively early example of a downbeat ending — not only does evil triumph, but it’s going to carry on perpetuating itself and triumphing down the generations. If the film had come out when it was new it would have perhaps had more impact, but it seems to have crept out incrementally over the course of about three years.

I’d love to see the outtakes — Michael Anderson’s stuff, Kim Novak’s. And I wonder if the MARIENBAD approach was established by Furie at the planning stage (it seems like something he might come up with) or Anderson (if Thompson were taking over early in the shoot it seems he’d want to match what had been filmed) or Thompson, who certainly went to town with it. “He’s given this film everything,” attested Niven.

EYE OF THE DEVIL stars Sister Clodagh; Sir Charles Lytton; Ernst Stavro Blofeld; Devon Miles; Queen Elizabeth I; Caligula; Sarah Shagal; Dildano; Sgt. Wilson; Lady of Lyonesse; Tsarevitch Alexei; Bunny Lake; and Vivian Darkbloom.

Mills and Boom

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2021 by dcairns
Anthony Quayle are you trying to seduce me?

So, HOBSON’S CHOICE launched us into a mini John Mills Film Festival. This included TUNES OF GLORY and ICE COLD IN ALEX, which might be crudely termed “trembling upper lip” films, where the certainties of the wartime propaganda films (which are actually far more complex and intelligent than you might expect) are replaced with PTSD, alcoholism and moral doubt.

ICE COLD IN ALEX balances all this with its other role, which is to be a rip-roaring suspenser, a kind of British answer to THE WAGES OF FEAR, without that movie’s bracing misanthropy but with a relentless series of tense situations. Our heroes, separated from the retreating British army, have to drive an ambulance through the North African desert, trying to reach a friendly city while Rommel’s army continually overtakes them. The balance isn’t perfect, but this may still be director J. Lee Thompson’s best film, with very strong performances — Mills is very fine, Sylvia Sims and Harry Andrews are reliable support, and Anthony Quayle is unusually interesting — and nail-gnawing sequences of slow-mounting peril.

The movie’s celebrated for its closing sequence, which is impossible to discuss without spoilers. Here goes.

Mills’ character, a traumatised soldier fuelled by alcohol, keeps himself going with the promise of a drink in Alexandria. At the end, the foursome make it (very surprisingly, the film largely does without a body count, with only two speaking parts slain) and Thompson slows the pace right down. Everybody is doing terrific work. Since Mills has to down a pint in one, Thompson seems to have set up two cameras for tightly-framed groupings. The sound mixer is doing great work too — distant traffic comes to the fore, emphasising the stillness of the scene. The one thing the film doesn’t have is a great score (it’s okay… with a nod to Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War) but fortunately it’s not needed here. The camaraderie and respect of the characters is palpable.

Hardly surprising that decades later, the scene became an ad for Carlsberg, the lager so prominently featured (and before product placement, unless it was done on the QT).

And the movie isn’t even finished with us yet — it delivers another unexpected moment of teeth-grinding tension immediately after this.

Hair

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2014 by dcairns

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The Mayans, we are told, had an incredibly advanced civilisation, despite never developing the wheel or metalwork. So they had to construct their dialogue and performances out of wood. And thus, alas, their dialogue and performances were no match for the leaden dialogue and performances of invading armies.

I really ought to watch TIGER BAY or YIELD TO THE NIGHT or the original CAPE FEAR as a palate cleanser, but my trawl through obscure J. Lee Thompson films instead led me to KINGS OF THE SUN in which Mayan king George Chakiris discovers Louisiana only to discover Indian chief Yul Brynner is already living there.

Of course nobody in this film can talk convincingly, the thick-ear epic dialogue seeming to choke on the miasma of brown face-paint (Shirley-Anne Field is excused fake tan, inexplicably). But if you can’t have good talk, you can at least have good hair.

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Chakiris leads the way with his giant quiff and pony tail look, similar to Tony Curtis’s magnificent quiff-and-pageboy cut in THE BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH. George could stand on the spot and rotate slowly and you’d get a complete history of human hair from the early hunter-gatherers to the latest in singing Puerto Rican street gangs.

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This dude opts for an innovative Mr. Whippy look.

Yul Brynner is excused hair, and gets a very funny introductory shot.

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Yul is the whole show. He can’t fare much better than anyone else with the dialogue, although he puts it over better. It’s his movement, his snake-hipped prowl, his snapping jaws in the fight scenes. We have to wait half an hour for him, and waiting for Yul is like waiting for Groucho in a movie as wooden as this, but when he does turn up he walks like really good sexual intercourse would walk. EVERYTHING gets better when Yul is around — the lighting goes from TV movie-of-the-week flat to vivid and modeled (Brando was impressed, on MORITURI, by how Brynner roped the lighting in to aid his performance) — the camera moves go from big swooping crane shots, spectacular at first but quickly tedious since the actors stand around like a forest, spouting duff verbiage that sounds like it’s been auto-translated from the original Mayannaise, to striking mobile POVs and dynamic following shots showcasing the best of Thompson’s style. His cameraman is Joseph Walker, who shot Capra’s stuff. Capra usually worked multi-camera (perhaps as a holdover from the early sound days?) which seems to have helped him get all that life and bustle going. For all its cast of thousands, this movie has zero bustle, and seems incapable of imagining convincing activity for more than one character at a time. Brynner makes damn sure that when he’s on screen, he is that character.

My favourite Yul story is from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. To Steve McQueen: “If you don’t stop playing with your hat, I’ll take off my hat, and then we’ll see who they look at.”