Archive for Jack Cardiff

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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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.

The ’68 Comeback Special: Girl on a Motorcycle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2013 by dcairns

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I’m old enough to remember a day when the British newspapers annually bemoaned the lack of UK product selected for Cannes. Nowadays, the post-CHARIOTS OF FIRE jingoism is dead and there’s less broadsheet interest in Cannes, cinema, and art in general. In 1968, however, something different was going on. British cinema had exploded brilliantly, artistically and commercially. Accordingly, the Cannes jury, had the festival gone ahead, would have been asked to consider no fewer than five British entries, as well as PETULIA, an American production from a substantially British creative team.

Unfortunately for my inner jingoist, the selection was, shall we say, patchy. I admired Peter Collinson and Charles Wood’s THE LONG DAY’S DYING a good deal, I’m moderately looking forward to seeing CHARLIE BUBBLES, the one film directed by actor Albert Finney. But I can’t rouse much enthusiasm for actor Mike Sarne’s JOANNA, and both Scout Tafoya and I consider HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH so abhorrent we may be forced to fight a duel to see who has the task of writing about it.

THE GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE isn’t directed by an actor and doesn’t star Barry Evans, so there ought to be something to be said for it. Indeed, the director is Jack Cardiff, adored by all right-thinking people — as a cinematographer. And in fact no less a person than Martin Scorsese has praise for some of Cardiff’s directorial work, particularly DARK OF THE SUN. But I think this movie is… not so great. It’s guilty of something probably all the British entries could be accused of — it’s fashionable.

The word sounds like a condemnation, and of course it needn’t be. Richard Lester was often accused of trendiness (cf the excellently titled Manny Farber essay Day of the Lesteroid) and in PETULIA he certainly situated himself at the heart of the particular moment, in San Francisco in the late summer of 1967. But Lester fans like me always see past the glittering surfaces and consider what the filmmaker is actually saying as well as how he’s saying it, and generally find a clever as well as striking match-up between the two.

THE GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE — also known, salaciously and foolishly, as NAKED UNDER LEATHER — is fashionable in less defensible ways. The solarised images, where Cardiff runs amok with colour like an action painter high on horse tranquilisers, don’t seem suited to their purpose, whatever it might be, and the film’s basic attitude to what it’s showing us strikes me as confused. The film certainly has merits however, and though they may be incidental they are eye-catching.

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The cast — particularly Marianne Faithfull and Alain Delon — are photogenic and charismatic.

The leather cat-suit is — under the right circumstances (applied to Marianne Faithfull rather than Eugene Pallette) — a good look. The film helped establish it as suitable motorcycling gear. It beats the bomber jacket.

Cardiff should have received the Irving Thalberg Humanitarian Award or the Gandhi Peace Prize or something for the nude scenes. Nobody looks that good forever and if there isn’t a camera around it will all be lost.

Photographed as well as directed (and “adapted” too, since Cardiff apparently felt he needed a screenplay credit to be appreciated properly) by Cardiff, the movie looks lovely, even if you find the visual hi-jinks disruptive. The misty locations and rich colours are romantic and charming.

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Buuuuuuuut… in the course of the first five minutes, Cardiff gives us dutch tilts, dream sequence, wacky solarisation, soft focus, multiple exposures, tinting, repeated crash zooms (on what look like illustrations from a book of circus posters), superimposed birds, starburst filter, drunken hand-held, internal monologue — it’s a stylistic mash-up or smash-up that’s not so much bold as reckless, as if Cardiff was determined to outdo Michael Powell AND show how up-to-the-moment and pop-savvy he was. It’s mostly in aid of a dream sequence, and you never saw anything less like a dream.

And once Faithfull’s voice-over begins, I remember the reason I could never get on with this film — the character is such a dire, annoying bitch. I pretty much want her to crash and explode eight minutes in. Maybe Faithfull’s plummy tones interact with the character’s more entitled, youth-centric attitudes to make her more abrasive than she should be. Maybe Faithfull’s comparative inexperience as an actor causes her to hit the meaning of each line full-on in a way that emphasises unduly the character’s brattiness. Maybe… maybe…

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Ahh! The world’s most relaxing bedroom!

And maybe the whole Joycean stream-of-consciousness thing, always a doubtful device in movies, is fatally compromised by virtue of the character being a Swiss teacher’s wife played by an English pop star and written by a middle-aged male French novelist adapted by a middle-aged male South African screenwriter and a middle-aged male English cinematographer? At any rate, her rambling pontification does not endear her, or make her seem real.

God, I hate looking at an actor’s face as they strenuously shunt various thoughts across it and a VO tells us what the thoughts are. It’s probably the worst combination of sound and image ever invented. You might protest that a series of glistening product shots of a bountiful banquet, when coupled with the sound effects of unhealthy people going to the toilet, would be worse, but I say NO IT WOULD BE THE SAME THING.

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MADAME BOVARY ON A MOTORCYCLE? Or maybe ANNA KARENINA. It is, surely. Except that I always felt we were supposed to find Emma B and Anna K a bit sympathetic. Ditching her weak schoolteacher husband (the unfortunately-named Roger Mutton) at the start, Faithfull’s voice-over evinces such dominatrixian contempt for him, she kind of chills the blood. I guess the point could be that in the swinging sixties, such a character would no longer be tormented by guilt over her infidelity — in which case, there’s no suicide and no point.

Stories that end with a random car accident to illustrate life’s fickle unpredictability rarely work for me. The point seems trite, and the introduction of a random element like an oncoming truck too arbitrary to be compatible with good art. Life may be like that, but so what?

And so what is how I feel about TGOAM, despite what could be sympathetically viewed as artistic daring and defiance of convention. Is the spectacular death of the heroine a punishment for her modern, free-living ways? It certainly makes a vivid argument against indulging in orgasmic flashback montages on the autobahn. The horrible deaths of the other people in the accident — at least one person must be burned alive in that mini — make the implied condemnation all the more savage. But what makes this more than a road safety film with better-looking people?

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Cardiff stood by the film and, in his autobiography Magic Hour, still bristles with indignation at the British press reaction. Even though I don’t care for the film, I can see why he was proud of it — it’s bold, wild and different. Even the snotty central character becomes a bit more appealing once we start exploring her life via flashback, and one thing the film does illuminate is the difficulty of being an attractive woman in 1968 — there’s some pretty creepy behaviour from the bit players, though Cardiff’s camera does a fair bit of leering too. In a sense, the movie embodies Cardiff’s strengths as cameraman and his weaknesses as director — however stylishly he presents something, he doesn’t seem clear about why he’s showing it.

Magic Hour: A Life in Movies