Archive for Jack Palance

The Big Wheezy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2015 by dcairns


Pneumonic plague in New Orleans — that’s the set-up for Elia Kazan’s tense drama PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), which he claimed marked a turning point in his work. Having previously worked with the actors and filmed everything in medium shots — what Hitchcock would call “photographs of people talking” — here he decided to shoot it like a silent movie, to trust long shots and to try to make a story that could be understood without the words. I didn’t try watching it with the sound down, but the visuals are certainly a million times more dynamic than the staid GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT. (His first, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, is an exception because DoP Leon Shamroy handled the visuals, which made for some powerful, expressive compositions.) And he decided to follow the influence of John Ford, and “trust the longshot,” instead of shooting everything in medium shot, what he called a “theatrical style,” what we would call a televisual one. Kazan was also building on the use of all-real locations, a fashionable approach at Fox, which he had first exploited in BOOMERANG! (1947). The result: Kazan has abruptly become a filmmaker.

If the filmmaking is exciting — the dance of cast and camera is thrillingly choreographed — the world-view is quite conservative. New Orleans has been ethnically cleansed for the occasion, with only a few black sailors to represent the city’s ethnic mix. Sure there are some immigrants, a Greek restaurateur and an Irish dwarf (the ultimate minority?), but the story contrasts a respectable suburban naval doctor (Richard Widmark) and a tough cop (Paul Douglas, partnered more comfortably with Widmark than he was with Leslie Phillips in THE GAMMA PEOPLE) with the various disease-harbouring low-lifes who must be tracked down, arrested and decontaminated. So I’d argue the comfortable middle-class viewpoint stops it being noir. On the other hand, the family scenes (with Barbara Bel Geddes) are nicely drawn, and cute. And the lowlifes — what lowlifes they are! (But shouldn’t that be “lowlives”?)


“Walter” Jack Palance (he would soon drop the first name) and Zero Mostel make a remarkable team. Palance, especially sinewy here, basically lost a layer of fat when burned in WWII. Mostel seems to have inherited that layer. The two men, one lean, impossibly dynamic and snarling, the other baggy, perspiring and whimpering, almost manage drag the movie down into the sewer where a good noir should live. You can practically see the germs swarming around them. Palance shoves and rolls Mostel before him, then drags him. The highly physical chase sequence at the end looks about to kill both men, though it isn’t as hair-raising as the opening, where Kazan has Patient Zero (Lewis Charles) wander in front of an oncoming train, for real, escaping messy death by seconds.


Perhaps aptly, Kazan cast himself as a mortuary assistant.

This criminous double-act reminds me oddly of the cat and fox in  PINOCCHIO — ridiculous in themselves, they are nevertheless capable of bringing great harm.

Mostel has a dual role, as goofy cat to Palance’s wily fox, and as conscience to Kazan. I suspect every pre-testimony Kazan film features at least one incipient blacklistee, haunting the scene. Mostel is paunchy wraith from the future.


Afghan Rogue

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2015 by dcairns


Saddened to hear of the death of Omar Sharif, and then bloody annoyed by the BBC obituary, which accompanied the line “as the years went on, the films grew worse,” with a cut to a clip from JUGGERNAUT. JUGGERNAUT is an excellent film, and its director was likely to be watching. You don’t want to hear of the death of a collaborator (the fourth in as many months, counting costume designer Julie Harris, and actors Christopher Lee and Ron Moody) and get insulted at one at the same time.

While the obit stressed Omar’s being more interested in playing bridge than making movies, which he admitted himself, Lester told me he had been convinced, shooting JUGGERNAUT, that Omar would direct something himself, so keen was his fascination with every aspect of the production — not doubt stimulated by the fact that Lester’s process was so different from the conventional approach.


We marked Omar’s passing by viewing John Frankenheimer’s THE HORSEMEN (1971), also starring Jack Palance, Leigh Taylor-Young and David de Keyser, inexplicably uncredited in a major role originally earmarked for Frank Langella, who got an earful from the volatile Frankenheimer when he opted to do THE WRATH OF GOD instead and sleep with Rita Hayworth.


More temperament — the great cinematographer James Wong Howe walked off the shoot after disagreeing with Frankenheimer about a lens. The great Claude Renoir took over. Nice to be able to choose and discard great cinematographers as easily as lenses. The film is wonderful looking, with plenty of helicopter shots showing off the unique locations, and inventive diopter tricks to allow Frankenheimer to indulge his passion for deep focus. (The massively wide lenses used for shooting TV plays in the fifties gave him this taste for depth.)

The movie is set — and shot — in Afghanstan and is thus an unusual project for Hollywood — all the characters are Afghans. Probably nobody would have contemplated making it if Sharif hadn’t come along. What we need is more Sharifs. Instead we have one fewer. The main one.


Sharif’s character is relentlessly unsympathetic and the values all the characters live by quite alien to a western, Judeo-Christian, “civilized” audience. None of the main actors is an Afghan — Peter Jeffrey has been cast because of his big nose, but his plummy accent is a  bit of a shock in this company — everyone else is trying to sound a bit non-specifically foreign. The dialogue is written in that uncomfortably blank, formal idiom used for historical epics. I suspect Taylor-Young has been dubbed, but she’s quite effective otherwise. Screenplay is by Dalton Trumbo, from novel by Joseph Kessel (BELLE DE JOUR, ARMY OF SHADOWS).

I do believe animals may have been harmed during the making of this film — not so much the horse falls, though those occur — they’re not of the spectacular and wince-making order of THE LONG RIDERS. But we see all these animal fights — camel wrestling, in which the beastly bactrians snake their long necks round each other and gnaw one another’s humps to hamburger with foaming maws; bird wrestling, where the adorable little chicks have their beaks meticulously sharpened the better to shank each other; and ram-fighting, whereby two sheep-things batter each other into submission. Points are awarded according to the Glasgow coma scale.


“Say, buddy, are you OK? How many horns am I holding up?”

An odd film, but an absorbing one, and a moving snapshot of an exotic land before the Russians, before the Taliban, before us. Probably still irretrievably messed up, but not as badly as now.

Cats in the Brain

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2010 by dcairns

“The latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree.”

Both Lucio Fulci’s THE BLACK CAT and Sergio Martino’s more memorably titled YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY rework Poe’s “immortal classic” in lurid and rambling fashion, only really returning at the end to play the climax “straight”. Which kind of seems a mistake, since the visualisation of a recognised story flattens the delirium they’re otherwise aiming to evoke.

Bonuses include the charm of Fulci enacting his usual vicious brutality, with familiarly over-exposed, fumbling special effects, in a leafy English village — Fulci seems to have liked England, he set several movies there. There’s also the acting — Patrick Magee hams it up for Fulci (theory: by pushing his actors into extreme and contorted styles of playing, Kubrick may have actually ruined them — Nicholson was never quite the same after THE SHINING, and as for Magee…) in an amusingly out-of-control manner, palsied and weirdly enunciated.

The acting in Martino’s film is more traditionally “good”, with Anita Strindberg and Luigi Pistilli genuinely, uncomfortably unappealing in the leads, and some welcome sex appeal shipping in by the reliably underdressed Edwige Fenech. What disappointed me was the lack of swooning beauty and striking images, which are what I go to Italian horror for. I counted two lovely moments, though ~

When a preposterously over-the-top prostitute shows up in town, her near-instantaneous murder is a depressing inevitability. This disturbing little scene is one of the last things she sees. Love the doll.

Gratuitous lesbian love scene — with rather striking dissolve from two silhouettes.

Fulci being the mad doctor he is, his movie has a more consistent visual quality, with low-flying cat POV shots, and the cat himself is full of personality. Plot revolves — or spins, rather — around Magee’s tendency to astrally project his spirit into the cat and use it to do his murderous bidding, a sort of feline MONKEY SHINES avant la lettre.

By chance, in revisiting Freddie Francis and Robert Bloch’s horror compendium TORTURE GARDEN, for the sake of the third episode, in which Peter Cushing keeps a reanimated Poe in his cellar, churning out new tales of Mystery and the Imagination*, I realised that the film’s first episode was very much Poe-derived. Michael Bryant (a sort of Martin Amis type, crisply fervid with ciggie) murders a supposedly wealthy uncle (enabling Francis to repeat some of the persecuted-person-in-a-wheelchair he tried out first for Karel Reisz when he shot NIGHT MUST FALL) — so far, so Tell-Tale Heart. Then he unearths a coffin with a headless skeleton and a very much alive cat. This one isn’t pure black, so it photographs with more personality. As it psychically brainwashes Bryant, he speaks aloud the transmitted thoughts: as he says “you’re hungry,” Francis cuts to the little fellow licking his chops. Francis’s horrors always have a cheeky sense of humour.

* Cushing and Jack Palance are both huge fun (Cushing gets a drunks scene) and Francis blocks their conversations very nicely, and I don’t mind that the set wall visibly wobbles during their fight and I’m more bemused than annoyed that Palance plays a Brit and Cushing a yank, but really, the ending falls apart disastrously. It’s amusing that the great Poe collector has actually collected Poe himself, but the pay-off ought to involve something of the author’s personality, not just some diabolical double-cross. Still, the rest of the film has magnificent stuff from Burgess Meredith (as Dr Diablo) and Michael Ripper (as the personification of ubiquity).

For Anne Billson.


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