Archive for Jack MacGowran

Go a go-go

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2011 by dcairns

Felicitations to Guy Budziak for supplying me with a copy of THE YIN AND THE YANG OF MR GO which refused to play, breaking up into mosaic pixillations of Francis Bacon flesh-smear, sound stuttering in digital orgasm — a vastly improved experience from the actual film, which I subsequently watched.

I’m now ready to draw two conclusions from comparing this with Burgess Meredith’s previous outing as director, THE MAN ON THE EIFFEL TOWER — firstly, that a top-notch cinematographer like Stanley Cortez can work wonders for a no-talent director; secondly, that the classical Hollywood style covers a multitude of sins. Freed of its conventions, BM lets it all hang out with this would-be-sixties super-spy farrago, and the results are audio-visual atrocity. Shonky hand-held lurching, unmotivated angle-changes, jagged transitions and incoherent storytelling, and that’s before we get to the dialogue scenes rendered inaudible by “background” music.

If the film were at least professionally made, there would be more pleasure derived from its random casting and insulting stereotypes. The first scene features Meredith himself as oriental herbalist “Dolphin” practicing acupuncture on James Mason, cast against type as a Mexican-Chinese gangster. The dialogue has a certain fey wit, which barely registers through Mason’s grotesque false teeth and the sloppy shooting, but some degree of freakshow promise is conjured up. The fact that the screenplay, seemingly written in vanishing ink, such is the perplexity of its cast, is narrated by Buddha, who has the plummy English tones of Valentine Dyall, also endeared it to me.

Soon, however, it becomes clear that this movie has the power to nullify everything in its orbit: an athletically built young newcomer named Jeffrey Bridges is cast as a James Joyce wannabe living off his girlfriend in Hong Kong (where better to write the next Dubliners?). Bridges’ natural charm is utterly negated by the character’s total prickishness, as he betrays his country, patronizes his girlfriend and hits Jack MacGowran in the face with a kettle. He can just fuck off.

MacGowran’s physical body tries hard to inhabit the role of an FBI agent pretending to be a publisher, but his mind is clearly elsewhere, as evidenced by his dead-eyed stare, boring into our souls in a manner not entirely conducive to the traditional goals of wacky comedy. As his boss, Broderick Crawford is dropped into the film like a collapsing pudding, his scenes entirely shot in one fussily-wallpapered boardroom, as the rhinocerosian thesp numbly reprises his J. Edgar Hoover turn.

Even more uncomfortable is Peter Lind Hayes, cast against type as a closeted gay military scientist (Mr Zabladowski, what are you doing?), queer-bashed by Bridges and blackmailed by Mason before vanishing from the movie in a cloud of shame and bewilderment. The film’s unsympathetic approach to same-sex love is heightened by a performance by Mason’s real-life wife, as a butch villainess named Zelda, who tries to rape Bridges’ girlfriend, Irene Tsu.

But why stop there? The film has so much more to offend us with, beginning with the casting of pasty white thespians in yellowface — somehow much worse because it’s 1970, not 1940, and because it’s so badly done! Mason’s hair is brown. The actual orientals do well to play their scenes without resorting to mutinous violence: Tsu is joined by famed martial arts filmmaker King Hu, playing Japanese about as convincingly as Mason plays Chinese, as a banker named Suzuki (and the film is sufficiently dumb we can assume he’s named after the motorbike, not the filmmaker).

My suspicion is Meredith probably drew “inspiration” from THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, another seeming free-for-all of wackiness, but actually a tightly-controlled, slyly acted and beautifully shot and scored movie, to which MR GO cannot hold a scented candle. Theodore J Flicker’s pop-art meisterwerk is actually tightly controlled, drawing nearly all its zany tropes from the combination of psychoanalysis and spycraft — had Burgess M used Chinese mysticism and industrial espionage as his lynchpins and tethered the plot tightly to both, having fun with the collisions, he might have had something — but lazily, the moviemakers assume that just throwing a bunch of random shit at the screen will in some way hold our interest. It sort of does, because the choices are so erratic and obnoxious, but all respect is forfeited.

Fans of skin-crawling embarrassment should check this out.

What the movie does have is an arresting title — in fact, two, since it alternately goes by the name of THE THIRD EYE. That’s SUCH a good title — it draws in psychic and mystical elements, as well as suggesting private eyes and THE THIRD MAN, working as a multi-layered evocation of genre-mixing ingenuity… none of which is to be found in this dog’s breakfast.

Screenplay is co-credited to Meredith and a few other guys, including soft-porn/exploitation producer Dick Randall, described in his IMDb entry as “jolly and colorful” — I haven’t a doubt it’s true, but he sure kept it off the screen. His credits include the intriguingly titled EROTIC ADVENTURES OF ROBINSON CRUSOE, which I like to imagine consisting of ninety minutes of solo masturbation by a man in a progressively lengthening fake beard. Don’t disillusion me.

Puny Humans

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2008 by dcairns

Danger Island

It’s a real problem, the human characters in giant monster movies. They’re nearly always boring. KING KONG is the exception, as with so many things — in all three versions of KK, the humans are a bit more interesting than they absolutely need to be. The less-is-more economy and pace of the first film make it the winner, of course. Quasi-sequel MIGHTY JOE YOUNG also does OK — Robert Armstrong is even more ebullient and explosive than he is in KK. A shame he never played anything Shakespearian on screen. What do you think: Lear? Macbeth?

The ’70s KONG has Jeff Bridges as a sort of more passionate and committed version of the Dude from THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and Jessica Lange playing the character who’s most like herself (slightly dippy blonde actress). The Jackson version has lots of “characterisation”, but doesn’t really understand the basic principle of characterisation through action, which is a bit of a shame since it’s an action film. For example, Adrien Brody is a writer. Yet, once the drama starts (an hour in) he acts exactly like Indiana Jones. I accept that we might need him to be slightly more physical than, say, Truman Capote, but what’s the point of all that set-up if you’re just going to forget it once the running and jumping starts?

Similarly, Jamie Bell is established as a kid who’s never fired a gun in his life, yet soon he’s shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates with the skill of a veritable Lee Harvey Oswald (ah, if only L.H.O. had confined his marksmanship to shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates, how different the political scene might be today).

(I remember seeing the DJ-musician Moby introduce a GODZILLA movie on TV, with the words, “As kids, we were very keen on monster movies, because the alternative seemed to be movies without monsters, and who would want that?”)

I love Ray Harryhausen’s work (he’s coming to the Edinburgh Film Festival — we’ve bought our tickets), but few of his films manage to create endearing human characters to compare to the little rubber guys. The great Lionel Jeffries in THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is one (and that film is probably the best film qua filmof Harryhausen’s oevre) and Raquel Welch certainly makes her presence felt in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. but I’m not sure that’s anything to do with characterisation. I think she’s there to make the dinosaurs look more life-like by comparison. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is jam-packed with fascinating thesps, from Nigel Green to Niall McGinnis, and they’re always welcome, but they don’t make much impact as human beings, since their dialogue is a bit stiff and their scenes feel like between-monster padding. Harryhausen’s last opus, CLASH OF THE TITANS, populates Olympus with an improbable throng of thesps (Olivier & Andress! Maggie Smith and Pat Roach!) but they have little of the snazziness James Woods brings to the role of Hades in the Disney HERCULES — the high-water mark of Greek god impersonation in Hollywood cinema.

In a lot of monster attack films, like WAR OF THE WORLDS, the heroes, being unable to do meaningful battle with an enemy so much bigger than themselves, are reduced to running around helplessly and speculating about what might be going on. Spielberg’s version actually gets around this for most of its running time by putting the protagonist and his family in a lot of very dangerous situations, but he comes a cropper on the ending, in which the Earth is saved no thanks to Tom Cruise.

Actually, if we accept JAWS as a monster movie, which I suggest we have to, Spielberg and his writers deserve a bit of credit for serving up engaging, if 2D, characters who actually occupy far more screen time than the sea beast. Of course, his three leading men are very watchable anyway.

I’m going to throw in a mention of TREMORS as well, since that has enjoyable, affable lead characters also. Why is this so hard as soon as a monster rears its head? I suppose these films typically didn’t attract the best actors, as much of the budget went on special effects. And the directors were usually ex-designers, photographers and special effects men themselves, rather than “actors’ directors”. And the writers? Science fiction is full of authors whose ability to deal with wild ideas outstrips their ability to deal with human conversation, so that could be part of it. KRONOS has some decent ideas, but flat characterisation. Imagine a giant monster movie written by Harold Pinter. That would be GREAT. Giant lizard feet could trample Buckingham Palace during the pauses.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH THE SEA MONSTER, which we watched recently, suffers the same problems of boring scientists and passive protagonists. The film is the work of art director Eugene Lourie, who turned director and gave the world this thing and also GORGO, a man-in-a-suit monster movie much loved for its plot twist of the even larger mummy monster coming to rescue the baby. It’s the DUMBO of kaiju films. Oh, and he did Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, “suggested by” Ray Bradbury’s great pulp-poetry story The Fog Horn, which my mum told me about when I was little, sparking my imagination wonderfully (thanks mum!) and THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, which to my regret I haven’t seen.

The monster in BEHEMOTH is another of those radioactive dinosaurs, whose sinister emanations have the effect of turning bystanders into drawings of skeletons. Nasty stuff, that radiation.

The only human element in the film is Jack MacGowran, an actor incapable of being uninteresting for a second or of underplaying for a frame. Here he’s on good form, having not yet succumbed to the bottle altogether. By the time of Peter Brook’s glum and fusty KING LEAR, MacGowran, though still somehow able to remember his lines, was quite unable to remember what they meant. Some how he still compels attention in that film and in THE EXORCIST (that “cursed movie” which supposedly claimed his life), but he’s much better when he actually knows what he’s doing. It’s such a relief when he ambles into BEHEMOTH halfway through — an eccentric showstopper, a smirking onrush of tics and mannerisms — and such a shame when he and his helicopter are subsumed by a hungry saurian just minutes later. It’s arguable that MacGowran’s thespian rampage is far more damaging to the film than the monster is to London — he makes everything seem so dull by comparison.

The behemoth is played by a glove puppet for most of the film, turning into an animated Willis H. O’Brien creation in the last ten minutes. Too little too late, though all the rampaging provides the usual fun (only kids and monsters actually rampage. Native people go on the rampage, which seems to be subtly different). And we do get a few underwater shots, which for some reason is rare in these movies.

But apart from MacGowran and the above examples, human characters in monster films still seem like an endangered species.

I guess there’s always the Peanut Sisters from GODZILLA VERSUS MOTHRA. Their characterisation consisted of (a) the fact that they were very small, and (b) the fact that they were called the Peanut Sisters. Oh, and I think they sang a song.

That’s more than can be said for Tom Cruise.

Euphoria #31: “STRRRRIKE!”

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , on January 29, 2008 by dcairns

fangs by Ferdy 

Film student Stuart Condy hails from the same sleepy hamlet that birthed Great Scots Michael Caton-Jones and Nicol Williamson — say its name with a flinty pride: BROXBURN. For our ongoing series of happy-making moments, he has recommended this sequence from Roman Polanski’s 1967 curate’s egg THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS.

Last night I revisited THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS and was presented with the perfect nomination. It’s not the dance scene, although that also gives a glow, but the scene where Professor Abronsius and the ever faithful Alfred evade the crypt keeper, scale the rooftops and climb in the small window at the back, with the intention of taking out Count Von Krolock and his son. … The great moment is the way Abronsius says “STRRRRIKE” when Alfred has eventually got the lids of the coffins and the stake in his hand………. Love it to bits.

There’s Jack MacGowran and Little Roman’s cartoon-expressionist performances, and the humour of thin men in tight trousers tiptoeing over battlements (something it should be compulsory to include in ALL FILMS), and an overall sense of the picturesque and folkloric that has nothing to do with comedy but is rather stunning and mysterious.

I have a history with this one. When I saw it as a kid, in a curious way it made me more aware of the film director, because Polanski was IN it. I’d seen lots and lots of Chaplin at this point, but Polanski was more famous as a director than as an actor, plus the Radio Times made special mention of him (he’s the film’s only major sales point). So I may have come for the vampires but I stayed for Polanski, whom I knew I’d heard of SOMEHOW.

A bit of research afterwards gave me the whole shocking story. But in the meantime I’d really enjoyed the film. I’ve liked it less and less since that first screening (even though it was a pan-and-scan, with the alternative title, DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES, carelessly stitched into the beautiful opening credits). The plot seriously lacks any sense of progress (Professor Abronsius is ALWAYS getting stuck, or trapped, or frozen stiff) and Polanski the director is possessed of some kind of anti-comic-timing. It’s rather sweet that he’s continued to try and make comedies, out of sheer enthusiasm for the form… I bet that’s the first time the word “sweet” has been used to describe any atribute of Polanski in print. But he’s clearly a fan — check out the references to Chaplin’s THE GOLD RUSH in both REPULSION and PIRATES (where the “eating a shoe” moment is recreated with a dead rat — very Polanski).

But Roman did succeed one time, I think. BITTER MOON may not have been a critical or box-office hit, and it may look like an ugly failure as a sexual melodrama, but viewed as an evil comedy it suddenly takes on vigour and imagination. It’s extremely funny. Surely, it HAS to be deliberate. He just didn’t let anybody know what he was doing, which kind of solves the whole timing thing, since the movie just uses dramatic timing. Polanski utterly demolishes the erotic thriller before BASIC INSTINCT was even released.

Returning to 1967 — FEARLESS VAMP was photographed by the towering Douglas Slocombe, who remarked on Polanski’s very Eastern European love of folklore and fairy tales, seen strongly in this film and almost nowhere else in his oevre.

Tragically, the last I heard, Mr. Slocombe was blind, having suffered a detached retina when a jeep went over a bump shooting an INDIANA JONES movie, and a second some years later. But Robin Vidgeon, formerly Slocombe’s camera operator, said the old chap was still chipper in spite of everything.