Archive for Jack Smight

Spadework

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2019 by dcairns

Paul Newman’s two Lew Harper films — based on two of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels — are kind of like the square old Hollywood movies celebrated, or at any rate documented — in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Both have extremely gifted mod cinematographers, though: Conrad Hall shot HARPER in 1966 and Gordon “the Prince of Darkness” Willis shot its belated sequel THE DROWNING POOL in 1975. I double-billed them but I’ll mainly talk about the first one here.

Jack Smight, a truly square director but not untalented, allows or encourages or inspires Hall to pull off a few spectacular shots in HARPER (see top), perhaps aware that it’s just a reasonably good Raymond Chandler knock-off. As Donald Westlake complained, Ross MacDonald recycled the one about the rich, dysfunctional family until everyone was screaming at him to quit it for chrissakes — basically The Big Sleep ad nauseam, and here we have Lauren Bacall to remind us of past glories. So making the most of the widescreen and colour is essential to stop this from seeming like warmed-over stuff from an earlier decade — what’s harder is to stop it seeming like TV stuff. The down-at-heel, long-suffering private eye would be incarnated par excellence by James Garner in The Rockford Files who had a natural word-weariness Newman can’t match.

The first movie is quite diverting, with a spectacular comic turn from Shelley Winters (I felt bad about all the fat gibes in William Goldman’s script though) and very good work from Arthur Hill, Pamela Tiffin and a host of others. Strother Martin’s hillside cult temple is one of my favourite places I’ve ever seen in a movie. There’s a fight there between Newman and a hundred silent Mexicans (a short fight) which has a nice surreal vibe, like the multiple Agent Smiths in THE MATRIX.

Maybe the problem is that these stories never effect any change in the hero, making them more suited to series TV… though they used to work fine in the ‘forties. This one has too many corpses and complications, and Goldman’s misogyny gets grating, and I think sometimes Newman tries too hard to be “entertaining.” Here he is, reacting to the sight of Pamela Tiffin in a bikini:

Goldman writes about the film’s opening sequence in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. He’d started his script, sensibly enough, with the private eye showing up to get briefed on his case. The studio called to say they needed some action to put under the credits. Well, what could he write that happens BEFORE the case?

In desperation, he scripted the early morning routine of his hero, and put in a gag about running out of coffee. Harper looks in his waste bin where there’s yesterday’s discarded coffee filter. Dare he recycle it?

He does. Closeup of Newman pulling disgusted face when he tastes the result. The audience laughs. It’s a nice gag — it humanizes the character, it’s gross but still relatable — it makes him a bit of an underdog. Down these mean streets a man must walk with a horrible taste of used coffee in his mouth.

What Goldman omits to mention is that, normally, opening a script with the hero getting up in the morning is a TERRIBLE idea, a huge cliche and a watse of the audience’s time. Don’t do it, he should be saying, especially as his book is a kind of screenwriting guide (written before there were a million of the things). It happens to work this one time.

The other bad thing is Newman thinking about whether to make terrible garbage coffee. It’s a classic Hitchcock set-up: show him looking, show what he’s looking at, and show him looking some more. We will do the thinking and project that onto the image. No acting required. You could remove the coffee grains and insert a shot of Pamela Tiffin or Robert Webber or the Serengeti plains and it would still work, if the angle was right.

But here’s what we get from Newman, the great method actor:

Boy, he’s thinking HARD, isn’t he? I bet if he thought that hard about the kidnapping case he has to solve the movie would only be twenty minutes long.

Newman is very affable generally and has that contradictory laid-back intensity that’s so useful in a star. It’s just that sometimes maybe somebody ought to sit on his head.

No Thanks for the Memories

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2015 by dcairns

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I remember — that word! — TV play Hauser’s Memory coming on TV when I was a kid. I was interested because I had been a fan of David McCallum in The Invisible Man TV show in which he would disappear and somehow the back of his polo-neck would disappear with him. Maybe it was backless. So, here was another science fiction thing with the Greatest Living Scotsman!

(David McCallum has, in a unique honour, been granted the title of Greatest Living Scotsman even after death, an event which we hope is a long way off, since he has basically not aged since 1955.)

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But there wasn’t much for a little kid in this dour drama about loss of personhood, death, castration and political exploitation and personal betrayal. The only thing I committed to memory were the opening credits, which I remembered as the closing credits, which is apt, because the credits sort of loop back from the last scene to create a perfect Moebius strip. If we’d had a video recorder in the seventies I might still be watching it.

Now look — you’ll hear a lot of loose talk around here about Curt Siodmak beng the idiot brother of the talent Robert S, but I have to give the affable old fellow credit here — allowing for the pseudoscience (an injection of RNA taken from the blenderized brain of a dying scientist allows McCallum to experienced the deceased man’s memories), this is an excellent piece of drama. I lost count of the number of simultaneous, interwoven plotlines that are really one big plot. Let me try to enumerate them —

The Americans (led by LESLIE NIELSEN as SLAUGHTER) and the Russians both want the formula the deceased physicist was working on at the time of his demise. The hope is that McCallum will remember it. But he begins to remember much more, and the mystery of his memory-donor’s life starts coming into focus.

But the late Hauser has needs of his own — he wants to make his peace with his loved ones (including widow Lilli Palmer) and avenge himself upon a Nazi persecutor.

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Seeking to achieve closure in his life, Hauser begins to take over McCallum’s brain, so it becomes a horrifying drama of loss of personality, the sense of no longer being who you are supposed to be. Weirdly enough, we can relate to this. It’s this aspect of the story that allows McCallum to turn in a moving performance that really should have won him awards. He has to play a Jewish biochemist and a German physicist and sometimes both at once or one pretending to be the other (the late Hauser proves to be a shrewd manipulator to further his own agenda).

Boris Sagal (THE OMEGA MAN, another candidate for 70s SF Week) directs, sometimes badly, but the psychedelic editing is quite good — it really would take a Resnais or Roeg to do justice to this idea, but the flash-cutting and fisheye POV shots are pretty effective. Susan Strasberg has a slightly thankless role as Mrs McCallum, Robert Webber gives it the crowning TV movie touch and says “baby” a lot.

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McCallum has memory trouble again in the Christopher Isherwood/Don Bachardy-scripted Frankenstein: The True Story. Fiona and I both saw this as kids. From Invisible Man to sub-Donovan’s Brain guy to a subsidiary monster-maker in this, David McCallum had quite a psychotronic decade (and there was still Sapphire & Steel to come). Slightly de-gayed by TVexecs, the two-parter is still provocative. The film still makes much of the attraction between creator and creature, understandable since Leonard Whiting is Frankenstein and Michael Sarrazin is his handiwork, and taking its cue from James Whale’s monster duology, the film contrasts the appeal of a respectable marriage with the frisson of playing in God’s domain with a male friend.

Like Branagh’s rather anemic movie version, this comes to lusty life in the scenes involving Frankenstein’s lost, then reincarnated love, here played by Jane Seymour. Appearing in Edinburgh recently for the Film Festival (with the movie BEREAVE, which Fiona discovered in her role as submissions editor), Seymour remembered James Mason reading The Times out loud while she was trying to learn her lines, getting to choose her nude body double from a line-up, and accidentally sitting in Ralph Richardson’s chair. “He didn’t say anything, he just circled me, like a dog.

Unlike the Branagh, this has sufficient run-time to explore the story in depth, and invents the new notion of a handsome creation who only gradually deteriorates into scabby monstrosity pockmarked with syphilitic gumma — his rejection by his father thus becomes a bit like an aging lover getting the heave-ho when his youthful bloom fades.

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Whale’s version transposed the first names of Victor Frankenstein  and the stolid Henri Clerval, who became slightly caddish Victor Moritz. This movie transposes the characters, so that Clerval (McCallum) is much more passionate about creating life than Frankenstein is, at first. Rude, sodden, sporting an anachronistic moptop and saying things like “yeah”, McCallum’s Clerval is a hell of a lot more fun than Whiting’s pallid Daniel Radcliffe act. When he dies, it’s a loss to the film, but his brain gets transplanted into the monster so that occasionally his voice echoes out of Sarrazin’s fleshy lips — he even gets the last line (and laugh).

Isherwood and Bacardy have cheekily plundered the Universal classics while claiming to honour Mary Shelley’s original, so we get the blind man, and James Mason as a fruity Dr. Polidori, very much inspired by Ernest Thesiger’s immortal Pretorius, but with crippled hands, a touch pilfered from Hammer’s Peter Cushing vehicles.

In terms of story logic, the script is free and easy, bending the rules whenever doing so will allow a cool scene or idea. When a severed arm Frankenstein has helped amputate grabs him by the wrist, McCallum cries in delight, “It knows you!” (My vote for most fervid line reading of 1973.) A new definition of muscle memory, perhaps. Yet, when McCallum’s brain is reborn in the monster, he suffers total amnesia. A touch inconsistent. Frankenstein teaches the monster to talk, but Mason, using hypnosis, contacts McCallum’s memory, still cradled somewhere within that jagged, scabby brow. A reminder that the myth of hypnosis as memory aid was very much in the air — see also The UFO Incident…

Cosmic Ray

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2012 by dcairns

Ray Bradbury is, of course, irreplaceable. Nobody in science fiction or in literature can occupy the place he held.

In the cinema, things are more problematic. I recall an essay by Harlan Ellison where he addressed R.B.’s patchy record of screen adaptations, arguing that Bradbury’s dialogue, like Hemingway’s, is designed to be read, not spoken, and sounds weird coming from the lips of an actor in a scene. He might have been talking of himself (or Clive Barker, for that matter). We could get into a debate about which of these authors writes great dialogue which is just too literary to perform, and which writes purple, gaudy stuff that is sometimes a little too rich even for the page, but never mind.

Rod Steiger liked to camouflage himself nude on people’s couches in hopes they’d sit on him. Creepy.

Being rather familiar with Truffaut’s FAHRENHEIT 451 (a little patchy, I think, but with a great Herrmann score and one of the  most beautiful endings of any film), SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES (flawed but seriously underrated, and I ought to treat it to a Forgotten round about Halloween), and MOBY DICK, scripted by Bradbury for John Huston, who did a great job except for the styrofoam cetacean and the balsa Ahab, being as I say rather familiar with those, we elected to watch THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, which I’d never previously been able to sit through, and The Martian Chronicles mini-series which I don’t think I’d watched since it first aired.

Both movies are based on novels which are really short story collections, things which grew organically without the usual diagrams. Of course, the slide rule and shoehorn and bacon slicer have all been deployed to hew them into some kind of cinematic shape. Jack Smight’s film of THE ILLUSTRATED MAN put me off as a youngster by being slow, ponderous and kind of depressive.

The movie stars Rod Steiger, who suffered from depression for real, but we can’t blame him for the film’s tone, he attacks his role with typical ferocity. (If you want to see Steiger acting while in the midst of depression — I can’t think why you would, but I’ll mention it anyway — see John Hough’s AMERICAN GOTHIC aka HIDE AND SHRIEK, where he can barely bring himself to mumble his lines. Very sad.) Jerry Goldsmith’s score is elegiac and lovely, but maybe a little lacking in forward thrust. But it’s the script and direction which really drag. In cutting Bradbury’s collection of tales down to three, screenwriter Howard Kreitsek forces each episode to hang about too long, turning them into turgid mood pieces when many of them are snappy potboilers on the page, pulp nasties with plenty of poetic ambition but one foot solidly in cheap thrills. The Veldt is basically a sci-fi twist on an EC horror story. But in the reverential treatment trowelled on by Smight and Kreitsek, everything is drawn-out, ponderous and aching with Significance. The other two stories become kind of pointless in the distorted form presented, although the planet where it always rains is beautifully designed, and shows that Douglas Adams was right to say that a towel is a useful thing to have in space.

Rod Steiger rocking the Ricky Gervaise look.

The exception is the framing structure, which peters out at the end with a crap zoom on a dusty road, but for much of the time is quirky, edgy, and a-quiver with a kind of homo-erotic menace I don’t recall in the book. Steiger is excellent here, with his dog in a bag (a Pomeranian named Peke), and Robert Drivas matches him in fervid intensity. The 30s atmosphere is rather besmirched by Claire Bloom’s very 1969 hair and makeup (did production designers not get driven to DESPAIR by the haircuts and cosmetics inflicted in those days? — I’m sure it’s just my imagination telling me Julie Christie wears white lipstick in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, but I swear it’s not far off) but otherwise this is lovely stuff. Somebody film some more Bradbury stories, replace the ones in here, and you’d be onto something.

The Martian Chronicles suffers more severe flaws, but is a lot more watchable, thanks to a comparatively nippy pace, a greater variety of schtick, and some enjoyable hams. Top marks to Stanley Myers for his epic mood stuff, deduct two points for the disco theme tune (VERY catchy though it is), and great credit to Assheton Gorton (BLOW-UP) for his production design. The rocketships are naff (Bradbury himself called them “flying phalluses”) and a few other elements are laughable, but the obelisks and pyramids constructed in Malta and Lanzarotte are striking and actually convincing, despite the fact that everything’s decorative, nothing’s functional.

Michael Anderson (DAMBUSTERS), a former AD to Asquith, production manager to Lean, is a prose artist rather than a poet, which is actually good from a story point of view. He can’t smother everything in damned reverence because he doesn’t know what it is. He doesn’t have the taste to avoid NASA stock footage and redundant miniatures docking in space which aspire to 2001 but land squarely in the key of Thunderbirds, but he dishes up the yarns in a no-nonsense way.

“They left out the magic. They left out the part that was Bradbury,” complained sci-fi scribe David Gerrold (and he should know: he created the Tribbles), but this is not wholly true. Each episode (three ninety-minute blockbusters with three stories loosely linked in each) hits at least one moment of the uncanny, maybe because each Bradbury story has at its heart a little something that IS purely cinematic. He was too much of a cinephile not to put that in, and screenwriter Richard Matheson is too shrewd a dramatist to miss those moments.

So in the adaptation of Mars is Heaven!, Anthony Pullen-Shaw is good and eerie when he suddenly admits to not being Commander Black’s brother, after all — and Anderson has remembered how effective Joseph Cotten’s turn to camera in close-up was in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, another tale of a murderous family intruder with telepathy in Thornton Wilder land.

This is not my beautiful house from David Cairns on Vimeo.

And in what was once And the Moon Be Still as Bright, there’s a great bit by Bernie Casey as the astronaut who goes native —

The Last Martian from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Casey has immense authority, a rich voice, and a great way of seeming to throw away lines while really turning them to catch the light, although much of the time here he doesn’t seem to have learned those lines too well, which he covers up by gesturing in a stylized manner. But with this speech he knows he’s got something a little immortal, and he nails it.