Archive for Jack Cardiff

Byronic

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2020 by dcairns

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JY wrote to request I say something about the late Kathleen Byron, born on this day 99 years ago (what are we all going to do for the Sister Ruth centenary?).

It’s taken for granted that Michael Powell was right when he told Byron that she’d never get another role as good as Sister Ruth — and of course he was. But we should stop to note that in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, a very nearly perfectly cast film, she’s a very striking presence, and THE SMALL BACK ROOM, which I adore, would not be the same without her.

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Rank, of course, did not know what to do with her, and her later career becomes a game of spot-the-Byron, as she turns up for minute, often thankless and sometimes literally wordless roles in distinguished films like THE ELEPHANT MAN and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and altogether less celebrated works like CRAZE and NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. It can look as if she was embracing obsolescence, accepting Powell’s prophecy, but I think it’s more likely she was still hoping to prove him wrong and knew she’d better keep her hand in if there was to be any chance of landing the great role when it came by.

Maybe people were a little scared of her — not just because she’s so intimidating in BLACK NARCISSUS, but she seems to have been a formidable person in real life. Powell’s unexplained reference to her threatening him with a revolver while naked in Vol II of his autobiography appears to be a complete wish-fulfillment confabulation on his part, but they were intimate, and she wasn’t afraid to stand up to him.

My late friend Lawrie Knight, a third assistant on BN, confirmed Byron’s account of her refusing to take Powell’s direction when Sister Ruth visits Mr. Dean’s hut. She’d decided for herself that Sister Ruth was PERFECTLY SANE and she was damn well going to play it that way. Of course, most viewers still perceive Ruth as mad — her actions are a bit extreme, but unrequited love, frustration and jealousy aren’t mental illnesses, though they may have many of the same characteristics. Whatever was behind Byron’s choices, the effect on screen is incredibly powerful and convincing. Powell went off in a huff, Byron worked out the scene with David Farrar, then they showed it to their director.

“Well, it’s not what I wanted but I suppose it’s all right,” he harumphed.

To his credit, he let her do it, he cast her once more, and he gave her some of the greatest close-ups in British cinema.

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(What ARE the greatest close-up in British cinema? When Deborah Kerr looks up from the pencil in her hand and sees Ruth staring at her, that’s one. Christopher Lee coming downstairs and saying hello, that’s two. Yootha Joyce in the hairdressers in THE PUMPKIN EATER, that’s three. Hmm, they’re all quite scary. I’ll need to think of some romantic ones — I think COLONEL BLIMP offers several…)

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…

Hot Rod

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on January 15, 2015 by dcairns

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My friend Randy spoke in awe of the moment in the not-too-distinguished LONG JOHN SILVER where a young Rod Taylor gets a big scene in front of Robert Newton, playing the titular peg-leg, and blasts away at his dialogue with such fervor that you can kind of see Newton take a step back, eyes rolling more swiftly than usual, as if thinking, “Hang on, I may have a competitor here…”

Israel Hands from David Cairns on Vimeo.

It’s a performance big as all outdoors, and his director isn’t helping him focus or control it (Newton has been left to run riot also) but the sheer muscle is impressive. Control would come later.

Randy encouraged me to think of Mr. Taylor as not just a stalwart leading man in THE BIRDS and THE TIME MACHINE, but as an explosively inventive performer comparable in some ways to a Barrymore or a Brando — and Taylor is NEVER mentioned in such company. I try to give him a small measure of the appreciation he deserves in this fortnight’s edition of The Forgotten, which will be published shortly. Watch this space for the link.