Archive for James Coburn

Armed Farces

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 5, 2019 by dcairns

And another thing —

Though a saucy bedroom farce might seem like a strange artistic response to the Allied invasion of Sicily in WWII, I do think Blake Edwards’ WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? can be explained, in a couple of ways.

Firstly, since the end of the actual war, movies on military themes had been getting lighter in tone. THE GREAT ESCAPE plays like a romp, with tragic elements for added spice. And the service comedy, dealing with the non-combat-related activities of enlisted men, was a long-standing thing. Combine the two and you have something like WDYDITWD, as it is known for short.

Also, the Mirisch Corporation. A comfortable home for Blake Edwards and Billy Wilder, it otherwise specialised in large-scale war movies of the 633 SQUADRON variety. So they knew where to get the big toys, the tanks and planes. The rather excessive scale of Edwards’ production, apparent from the opening montage, is explicable only in terms of Edwards’ moneymaking success at a company familiar with military subjects.

After that, we get into the realms of allegory. The characters of the film represent the different neational factions if the war. Dick Shawn, though playing an American commander, stands for Britain: prissy and rigid, but devoted and dependable. James Coburn is the US: fearless, flexible and resourceful, but endeavoring to stay out of the fray as long as possible. Sergio Fantoni, though Italian, stands for all the surrender-monkey nations of Europe (we’re dealing in offensive stereotypes, here, you understand). The Germans, shockingly, represent the Germans (also the Japanese, I suppose, but only loosely: Edwards had already made his definitive statement on that nation via Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S).

So now it all makes sense, right?

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Patman Forever

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2014 by dcairns

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An appealing oddity — a John Guillermin movie that’s a sensitive, quirky character piece rather than a shallow, bombastic genre exercise — MR. PATMAN aka CROSSOVER has a lot more in common with 1965’s intriguing RAPTURE (available in all its b&w widescreen glory from Masters of Cinema) than it does with the KONGS that bracket it. Although, having never had a DVD release, it’s represented by a fuzzy VHS pan-and-scan offering no suggestion of any visual splendour that may have been present at some stage, for all we know. The nitwit in charge of the transfer seems to have suffered from a compulsive elbow fetish, preferring to include the arm-joints of two characters at either side of a yawning chasm of negative space, rather than ever adjust the framing to let us see a face.

The movie, in this form, may not look like much, but it has a superb central performance by James Coburn, not an obvious fit for the protagonist of Thomas Hedley Jnr.’s sensitive scenario — a blue-collar psychiatric nurse, travels by bus, lives alone with a ginger tomcat, has lost his faith, gets too involved with his parents. As Mr. Patman slides towads mental breakdown himself, the film can be read as a much darker take on THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST — “If I were a psychiatrist — which I am — I’d say I was having a paranoid episode — WHICH I AM!”

Whereas the late Theodore J. Flicker, beginning his psychedelic satire, announced to his crew “I want to make the most realistic film ever!” (“He failed,” said Fiona. “Or…succeeded,” I replied, smiling mysteriously), Guillermin’s sludgy-looking movie, with it’s TV establishing shots and perpetually foul Canadian weather, looks much more dispiritingly like realism as it is usually represented, which is why some prefer drugs and I prefer movies. But the Franco-Irish hack may have hit upon the perfect use of this non-style, since reality itself starts to slip away from Patman. Presenting truth and delusion in equally dowdy terms could almost read as a shrewd policy.

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The portrayal of the psychiatric ward seems pretty accurate to my experience as a visitor. There’s a slight trace of that annoying lie — the mad as gifted with a special insight — but this is inflected by Patman’s own disturbed POV and so is forgivable. There’s some gratuitous nudity to try to hold our interest — there IS a bit of gratuitous nudity on the ward, since some people in the manic phase just can’t find the time to get dressed — but it generally isn’t glamorous and makes you want to look away. The doctor’s are depicted as callous, which is probably true but probably somewhat necessary — the sympathy they offer is professional rather than human. The real bastards, in my experience, are the nurses who have been at it too long. They’re more likely to get compassion fatigue and empathic burnout, becoming hard and uncaring — they spend far more time with the patients than doctors ever will — than to become too close and caring like Patman. Those who do care — usually the newcomers — have to somehow rub along with their brutal colleagues, which would have been an interesting dynamic to show.

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But instead, the film offers Coburn’s best and most surprising performance — OK, as per the rules (was this contractual) he does sleep with two women (Kate Nelligan and Fionnula Flanagan, both excellent) but otherwise he steps far outside his comfort zone and there’s a scene with his cat that will break your heart. He should have won his Oscar for this, not AFFLICTION (a fairly one-note performance that happened to be the right note, in a film now quite forgotten) but there was no way that would happen. Nor can one imagine a world in which this film would be a success of any kind. A shame.

Here, Coburn finds a novel way to perk up a day at the office.

Zapped! from David Cairns on Vimeo.

And here is the scene that breaks my heart, anyway. Cat-lovers, get out your handkerchiefs.

Paddy from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Clues/Things I Read Off the Screen in The Last of Sheila

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on November 4, 2014 by dcairns

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Whodunnits tend to be more like parlour games than dramas — the intellectual exercise MUST triumph over the demands of character insight, emotional investment, moral message or thematic exploration. The best mysteries often embrace this and make a virtue of it, as in Mankiewicz’s THE HONEY POT and THE LAST OF SHEILA, brilliantly scripted by Anthony Perkins & Stephen Sondheim (!) and very decently directed by Harold Ross (I mainly dislike his Neil Simon things but admired PENNIES FROM HEAVEN — would sooner watch the movie than the respected TV series original because, well, I’m shallow and I like glitz).

Lots of funny lines — a trenchant Hollywood satire is the nominal underlying purpose but the writers love bitchery too much to truly condemn the coldbloodedness they portray. The biggest laugh for Fiona was a shot of James Coburn, being winched from his yacht to his launch, grinning madly as he descends out of frame, like a radiant ivory sunset.

The cast is incredible, but if I was drawn in by the prospect of Mason and Coburn, paired in a more gentile setting than the later CROSS OF IRON, I stayed for Dyan Cannon, who gets most of the best lines but imbues even the nastiest of them with a knowing/innocent naughtiness that animates the character in a whole new way, impossible to imagine from the lines on the page (impossible for me: not for Dyan, apparently). So what if her backstory as a McCarthy-era snitch implies that she must have been working as a Hollywood secretary aged three? She gets a brilliant hysteria scene too — Cannon has a gift for that — she used to do it on chat shows too.

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There’s a central conceit that I guessed at once, because I do tend to take note of the things a whodunnit DOESN’T show — if there’s no corpse, the victim is still alive, for instance. Arguably Ross played a little too fair in his staging rather than covering things up perfectly. But I didn’t guess the killer OR half of the twists, so I was still satisfactorily bamboozled, which is what I pays my money for with this kind of thing. If I guess it — as I do when Peter Ackroyd or Michael Dibdin attempt big twists — I feel smug but basically disappointed.

A vicious yet deeply civilised entertainment. There: my first blurb!

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