Archive for James Wong Howe

Forbidden Divas: “…And the Film is Pretty Long Too”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2018 by dcairns

A new piece by David Melville Wingrove is always a cause for celebration at the Shadowplayhouse. I perhaps am more to be credited/blamed for this one than usual, because it was I suggested Charles Vidor’s final filmmaking attempt as a suitable subject, having an inkling that the Dirk Bogarde/Capucine friendship would be of interest… But which one’s the diva?

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

…And the Film Is Pretty Long Too

“God will not fail you, madam. I shall.”

          ~ Dirk Bogarde, Song without End

 A lavish 1960 biopic of Franz Liszt, Song without End throws up a number of fascinating questions in its 2-hour-and-10-minute length. From how many different angles is it possible to photograph one man playing a piano? In the mob of expensively costumed extras at a concert, which one has the whitest and most immaculately pressed kid gloves? And whose job was it to ensure that the innumerable candles in those ever-blazing candelabra were all of precisely the same length? Critics may complain that Lisztomania – the 1975 Ken Russell film with Roger Daltrey playing Liszt as a rock star and a line of chorines high-kicking on the composer’s enormous plaster cock – was one long and unpardonable lapse of taste. But that film at least was never dull. Song without End, alas, is seldom anything else.

Surely it need not have been this way? Song without End was the last film directed by Charles Vidor, a well-upholstered Hollywood hack who made his name with A Song to Remember (1945) – a luxuriantly cheesy biopic of Frédéric Chopin with Cornel Wilde looking soulful while Merle Oberon (as his mistress George Sand) looked dashing in a man’s suit. Vidor went on to make Gilda (1946) – one of the definitive films noirs – and The Loves of Carmen (1948) – a vividly vulgar adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s tale of gypsy passion. (Both those films starred Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford, as sure an antidote to dullness as Columbia Pictures could find.) Ironically, Chopin and George Sand appear briefly at the start of Song without End. But even they are boring in this movie. Vidor died some time before shooting was complete and the more prestigious George Cukor was drafted in to finish the job. Sadly, the lavish but lifeless staging suggests that rigor mortis set in while Vidor was still at work behind the camera.

Not that the film lacks other claims to distinction. Song without End marked not only the beginning, but also the end, of Dirk Bogarde’s career as a Hollywood leading man. He portrays Liszt as a lusty piano virtuoso who longs to be taken seriously as a composer in his own right. He also has inexplicable leanings towards the Roman Catholic Church. He toys with the idea of taking holy orders and declares himself to be “part gypsy, part priest.” In most respects, Bogarde’s performance is a tour de force of tortured genius and charismatic egomania. Embarking on a concert tour of Russia, Liszt is warned by his manager that even Napoleon Bonaparte failed to conquer that vast country. Liszt answers, with a self-confident smirk: “Napoleon couldn’t play the piano.” In addition, Bogarde is one of the few leading actors whose physique looks well in tightly-tailored breeches and wasp-waisted frock coats. In that frightfully genteel sub-genre known as ‘Dirk Bogarde Porn,’ Song without End must rank very highly indeed.

The drawback is that Dirk Bogarde never seems gayer than on those (understandably) rare occasions when he is cast as a voracious heterosexual. At the start of the film, the script comes right out and asks us to believe that Franz Liszt has fathered a brace of children in an adulterous affair with a married French noblewoman, the Countess Marie d’Agoult (Geneviève Page). The action is set in the 1840s and we do know that artificial insemination was not widely practiced until at least a century later. Hence we are left wondering if these children are, in fact, a delusion. Could that be why they never appear on camera? The career of Franz Liszt appears to have been a lifelong orgy of sex and celebrity, in which he seduced ever so many women. But the only other one we see here is a glamorous but unhappily married Russian princess, Carolyne Wittgenstein, with whom he forms an obsessive and well-nigh mystical liaison. She is played by another Hollywood debutante, the statuesque French model Capucine. A lady of distinctly androgynous beauty, she was rumoured at various points in her career to be a bisexual, a lesbian and a man.

Of her performance in Song without End, the kindest thing to be said is that she wears an array of Jean Louis gowns more than adequately. Nor does she embarrass herself or anybody else by overacting. Driven by an insurmountable passion, Princess Carolyne signs away half of Ukraine to her ghastly husband (Ivan Desny) all in an effort to secure a divorce and become Liszt’s lawfully wedded wife. She is very devout and hence plagued by doubts of a largely – although, perhaps, not entirely – religious nature. When she and the countess come face to face, Carolyne feels compelled to quiz her rival on the minutiae of her conjugal relations with the Great Man. “Did he drive you there?” she asks her rival. “To paradise?” The dialogue is atrocious but the subtext, even so, is clear enough. The countess gives a wry smile and says: “He doesn’t know the road.” Song without End must be the one Hollywood film in which two love-crazed women pass the time by impugning the hero’s sexual prowess. All this might matter a lot less if we did not suspect they were right.

Ironically, Bogarde and Capucine became close friends while filming Song without End. This suggests, at the very least, that they enjoyed working together far more than audiences enjoyed watching the result. Unlike many of the people around him, Capucine encouraged Bogarde to accept his pioneering role as an embattled gay lawyer in Victim (1961). He did his best to return the favour, trying to persuade Luchino Visconti to cast Capucine as the aristocratic mother in Death in Venice (1971). Prompted perhaps by his Italian backers, Visconti refused and cast Silvana Mangano instead. (Dirk and Cap, who thought her vulgar and plebeian, referred to her privately as ‘Madame Mango.’) Later on in the 70s, Bogarde retired to the South of France to write novels, while Capucine sank into chronic depression and full-scale career meltdown. In 1982, she made the soft-porn film Aphrodite in which she was the only actor not to remove her clothes. She committed suicide in Switzerland in 1990 and Bogarde wrote a touching tribute on her death.

On the plus side, Song without End is quite magnificently photographed by James Wong Howe. In one scene, a dark-robed Capucine kneels in prayer on the far right of the Cinemascope screen. She is racked by guilt at her adulterous affair and tormented by her love for Franz Liszt. In the background on the far left, Bogarde hovers just out of focus like some beautiful ghostly mirage. The shot is a triumph of colour, lighting, composition and sheer visual finesse. But beautiful photos of nothing are still…well, not very much at all. Even the music – which includes Chopin, Beethoven, Handel, Verdi and Wagner, as well as Liszt – winds up sounding bland and identical, as if it had all been written under pseudonyms by Max Steiner. The saddest thing is that Song without End is not even convincingly bad, apart from one scene where Liszt rashly makes a return to his native Hungarian village. A mob of torch-wielding peasants show up and dance a riotous czardas on the doorstep. They even drag his piano out of doors, so he can play along merrily with their roistering.

Moments like this are like some nightmare vision from the worst 1920s operetta ever written. They are, alas, too rare to make Song without End into the egregious camp classic it has the potential to become. Instead, they serve to remind us of just how boring the rest of it actually is.

David Melville

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Afghan Rogue

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

Seconds Out

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on November 12, 2013 by dcairns

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Casual observations inspired by screening SECONDS to students —

Screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (THE FOX, THE MECHANIC) apparently didn’t care for John Frankenheimer’s handling of SECONDS — Frankenheimer cut a scene on a beach with a kid which nevertheless gets referenced in the film’s final shot. “It still works,” argued Frankenheimer, and he’s right — in a non-literal, allusive way, the scene has something to do with unfulfilled dreams or poignant memories, and it provides a heartbreaking note of regret amidst the sheer horror of that killer final sequence.

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Carlino also objected to all the damn STYLE — James Wong Howe’s bravura handheld swooping, the cameras mounted on actors to turn them into gliding automata in a wobbly world, the jump cuts (in Hollywood! in 1966!), the expressionist set in the drug-trip staged sexual assault. Carlino carefully scripted the action to take place in mundane settings, anchoring the allegory (the ending, with the line “You were my finest work,” somehow reminds me of Kafka’s Parable of The Law in The Trial). As with ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, the fantastic company is plonked down in reality — reached via a steam laundry on Lafayette and a meat-packing company a short taxi ride away.

But I love all the disorienting tricks. The only false step I think is shooting Jeff Corey low-angle, where his nostrils, black and wondrously elongated like tadpoles, get a little distracting.

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The best (and most literal) cut in a film full of daring excisions — John Randolph lowers pen to paper to sign his Faustian pact, and we immediately see a scalpel touch skin as the painful (and in literal terms unbelievable) process of transforming the puddingy Randolph into chiselled Rock Hudson begins. We think of signing in blood, and the surgeon’s blade as a pen rewriting lives. Very evocative, and also OUCH!

That missing scene is a good thing, probably — the beginning and end of the film are very strong, and the middle kind of weak (that interminable nudie hippy wine ceremony!), and so speed is a good weapon to get Rock back to the company and bring things to their predestined appalling conclusion. They nearly overdo it — one is reminded of what Fitzgerald said about second acts in American lives — but the balance is just about there. I suspect David Ely’s novel got too internal in the middle and Carlino couldn’t quite crack it without access to the character’s inner world, or else he did crack it and Frankenheimer and Hudson strayed from the path (it’s never fair to blame the writer unless one has read the script, and I haven’t, though I’d like to).

Still, this is strong stuff, and I found myself thinking about the many, worrying ways the story blends with Hudson’s own life (we’ll give you a new face, new voice, new name, and everything will be perfect). Theory: the strongest horror movies were probably made by people who didn’t think they were making a horror movie as such. Or, rather than scaring the audience with a Wes Craven 1-2-3-BOO! every ten minutes, they simply follow the implications of a disturbing story to its terrible conclusion.

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