Archive for J Lee Thompson

Lipstick on your Killer

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2022 by dcairns

IL ROSSETTO (THE LIPSTICK, 1960) is Damiano Damiani’s first film as director. While Elio Petri’s debut, L’ASSASSINO, seems like a near-remake of Joseph Losey’s BLIND DATE, DD seems to have chosen as his model another British picture, J. Lee Thompson’s TIGER BAY. But he’s changed things more.

His lead is teenager Laura Vivaldi, who has a precocious crush on handsome Pierre Brice. He’s much older and only shows an interest in her when it turns out she can put him at the scene of a recent murder. Now he starts doting on her, while working out what he has to do to keep her quiet…

Vivaldi is great — maybe not the thespian genius Hayley Mills was as a kid, but very affecting and credible. Her mom is played by Bella Darvi, so we know there’s going to be trouble there. Brice’s REAL girlfriend is Georgia Moll, miscast by Mankiewicz as a Vietnamese character in THE QUIET AMERICAN (why didn’t somebody point JLM to Dany Carrel?). And the police inspector who starts honing in on Brice, using young Vivaldi as a wedge to crack him, is Pietro Germi, who did quite a bit of acting alongside his celebrated directing career.

Germi is one of the film’s most interesting creations — structurally, he’s Columbo-like (enter late, slowly take over), but less sympathetic. Damiani is not, I think, enamoured of the cops. Germi has a picture of his own daughter on his desk. He’s very kindly toward Vivaldi and he believes her story. It turns out she’s just the age his own daughter would have been.

When a more cynical cop undermines Germi’s faith in his star witness — and the thing that does it is the fact that she’s known to have experimented with lipstick — the hussy! — he turns against her. Things get very dark indeed, and social critique almost takes over from detective drama. It’s a perfect balance, actually.

Two possible criticisms — the movie could make a great advertisment for suicide attempting as a means to resolve adolescent troubles, which could seem irresponsible — and the resolution of the mother-daughter plot is not too satisfying since Darvi plays the mom’s bad qualities much more convincingly than the good ones — she’s been wrapped up in her own soap opera affairs as a married man’s mistress, and doesn’t seem to earn her happy ending. But really these issues don’t seem as troublesome as they ought to be.

Damiani’s direction is assured and simple, sustaining his beautifully crafted melodrama.

I also took a look at GODDESS OF LOVE (1958), in the wonder of Ferraniacolor and Totalscope — an unusual peplum-thing scripted by Damiani. He did a bunch of these for veteran director Victor Tourjansky, but this one departs from the usual playbook. There are no bulging biceps, and despite some marching armies in the second act, the film is mostly intimate, and genuinely interested in its love story, structured around the sculpting of the Aphrodite of Knidos.

You learn absolutely nothing important or accurate about this significant work of art except that it was chiselled by a bloke called Praxiteles (Massimo Girotti), but Damiani’s feminist side is apparent — Belinda Lee, a voluptuous lass from Devon, is tyrannized from all sides because of her beauty — it’s like THE RED SHOES, only clunky on every level. Praxiteles wants her as model (but secretly is smitten), a wounded Macedonian he shelters (Lithuanian sideboard Jacques Sernas, Il Divo in LA DOLCE VITA) is in simply manly love with her, and the entire Greek army lusts after her for the way she knocks the shape out of a tunic.

Damiani is guilty of some bad radio writing — “Let’s run away from here through this door!” but his story is actually compelling. Tourjansky, once a wild stylist in France in the 20s, has settled into his “mature” period — asleep at the wheel. You don’t need to watch it. But it’s interesting to see DD already mastering story and making something a little more interesting than it needs to be.

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.