Archive for Jason Robards

Hatchet Job

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2015 by dcairns

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Sam Peckinpah’s TV play, Noon Wine, based on the short novel by Katherine Anne Porter, occupies a legendary position in his oeuvre, because it turned his career around when he was at a low ebb, making everything afterwards possible (although it’s THE WILD BUNCH which created his unstoppable momentum in the next decade), and also because it’s been almost impossible to see.

After being shut out of the editing room on the troubled MAJOR DUNDEE (Charlton Heston wondered why Orson Welles and Sam Peckinpah, so charming to their actors when they wanted to be, could not turn that charm on the moneymen; Peckinpah wrote to his producer, “You are a well-poisoner, Jerry, and I damn you for it”), and after being fired from THE CINCINATTI KID after allegations that he tried to shoot hardcore pornography on the MGM lot (screenwriter Terry Southern claimed, plausibly, that it was his idea of adding an interracial love scene that freaked out the suits; but see also Susan George’s allegations about Peckinpah’s initial plans for the rape scene in STRAW DOGS, which tends to support suspicions about the director’s enthusiasm for what might be termed “sexual realism”) — anyhow, after all that, nobody was willing to touch Peckinpah.

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This low-budget TV play demonstrated that Peckinpah could be trusted to turn up, shoot to schedule, and get great reviews. What’s weird is how shonky Noon Wine is. Admittedly, the source material screened at Edinburgh International Film Festival, supplied by UCLA, may not have shown the film at it’s best — though this may be the best surviving material. It looks to have been shot on tape, filmed off a TV screen, and then dumped back onto digital, but it’s hard to be sure. The colour is streaky, the image sometimes displaying a tubular edge distortion, and the resolution is low, and there’s also the unpleasantly smooth, HOBBIT-like video movement, though one soon gets used to that.

The piece is obviously cheap as chips, with laughable production design in the courtroom scene — blank stage flats painted in streaks to try to add a spurious sense of detail. But much low-budget TV still impresses, due to story and acting and framing. Noon Wine is erratic in all of these aspects.

Technically, the piece is below the standard of most TV of the period, with music unconvincingly papering over gaps in the soundtrack where Peckinpah seems to have shot mute. The only visual sequences which don’t look flatly televisual are the frequent montages, layerings of lap dissolves to show time passing. Generally, whenever Peckinpah mucks about with lap dissolves, wipes, freeze frames, ripple dissolves or accelerated motion, I cringe. These examples aren’t outright offensive, but they get a little embarrassing sometimes.

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Olivia DeHavilland is good, naturally. Jason Robards SHOUTS all the time, just like Steve Martin in THE JERK. Per Oscarsson is outstanding. Whenever I see him, I always think, Who is this strange man, where did he come from and what’s he doing here? I even saw him in a Swedish film, DR GLAS, and thought the same thing. So he’s perfect to play what the script calls “a stranger in a strange land.” Theodore Bikel essays a range of characterful tics including a Magoo chortle, and seems to have strayed in from another, more amusing but far worse film.

The story seems predicated upon an ambiguous event (an unseen axe murder) like the Marabar Caves in A Passage to India, but Peckinpah struggles to make the unclear clear. His use of monologues, internal monologues, expository dialogue and more montages is frequently awkward. I realized that Peckinpah’s movies are almost never solo writing jobs, though his work on The Rifleman and The Westerner on TV showed he could get the job done OK when he had to. But he never had to solve all the narrative problems of a feature script without help.

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It feels almost ungrateful to get a rare chance to see something like this projected, and not like it better. But that leaves the enduring mystery of how Peckinpah’s career got rebooted by a tiny TV play that isn’t very good. The most interesting thing about it, to me, was that the film, so little seen but so significant in its repercussions for Peckinpah, is like the offscreen murder itself — it is responsible for everything that happens afterwards, but in itself it is unknowable, unseeable and impossible to understand.

I was just thinking, “Now all we need is Nick Ray’s The High Green Wall” — and then I thought to check YouTube and here it is! Hope it’s good.

The Sunday Intertitle: Dogs of War

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on August 1, 2010 by dcairns

TRACKED BY THE POLICE, directed by enthusiastic 30s Warners hack Ray Enright in his early days, stars Jason Robards Snr (looking just like Jnr) and, much more importantly, Rin Tin Tin, the world’s best dog, in the role of Satan. (Don’t worry, that’s just his name.) The drama revolves around the building of a massive damn, the sort of engineering project for which you might normally think German shepherds aren’t particularly well equipped, but how wrong you would be.

Jason and Rinty. Trust me, Snr really does look just like his son. So does Rinty!

We also get a flashback to Rinty’s days as a Red Cross Dog in the trenches of WWI (waitaminute — Red Cross Dog?), which seems like a deliberate echo of the showbiz hound’s true-life story (read Sunnyside for an imaginative retelling by Glen David Gold) —  Robards gets shot, and then Rin Tin Tin cralws on his belly through No Dog’s Land, finds the wounded soldier, and applies pressure. Throughout the movie, we have to accept that RTT is a dog of human intelligence and supercanine ability. His love interest, Nanette, being just a regular dog, must be pretty hard for him to put up with.

My copy stems from an old Grapevine Video release, which means it looks like it was telecined off somebody’s kitchen door during a thunderstorm, but even through eighty years of accumulated print damage and technological incompetence, Rinty’s star charisma shines through.

The pooch and the pendulum.

At the film’s climax, our heroic mutt, already wounded in the paw, must choose between love and duty — to rescue Nanette, who has been wrapped in chains and thrown in the river by BAD MEN, or to rescue the leading lady Virginia Brown Faire, whose been blinded with pepper and is dangling from a rope. After already subjecting my strained emotions to TOY STORY 3, I was far from sure of being able to bear the tension.

I told Fiona about it afterwards. “And did he choose duty?” she asked. “Yes.” “And did he get love anyway?” “Yes.” And she nodded, like she knew all along.

Rin Tin Tin — friend of children…

Protector of women…

MORTAL ENEMY of the disabled!

Sunnyside (Vintage)

Press for Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2008 by dcairns

ancient wisdom

PRESS FOR TIME is the name of a Norman Wisdom comedy from 1966 in which he’s a journalist. “Press”, you see. I always remember that because the title has to be the lamest non-pun in the history of English-speaking cinema. The only comparably lousy title is the ’90s thriller OUT OF DEPTH, which vanished without a trace. While the Wisdom flick attempts to be a sort of innocent double entendre but doesn’t actually achieve a singly functioning entendre, the crime movie is only trying to mean one thing, and fails. Did nobody point out, “You know, that isn’t actually a phrase…“?

I mention all this irrelevance because I’m apparently getting a press pass to the Edinburgh Film Festival in its new June incarnation, so I will be live-blogging the fest like a man possessed, during the run-up, when they start the press shows, then all through the event proper, until I drop to the ground, exhausted, spasming and barking with pain. It’ll be great.

I did offer to be their Official Blogger, saying only nice things (integrity is my middle name — I never use it), but they’re quite happy to have me as a rogue element saying whatever the hell I feel like. Which is even better.

Tilda

Back to Sir Norman. He was HUGE in the UK through the ’50s and ’60s. A sort of sub-Jerry Lewis gump-clown. His stuff hasn’t worn that well, I find, but he still has loyal fans. Animator Nick Park (WALLACE AND GROMMIT) loves those tatty movies. Norm made a stab at a Hollywood career, appearing in THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S for William Friedkin (makes a great trivia question: what film has Jason Robards, Britt Ekland, Norman Wisdom and Bert Lahr?) and when that didn’t work out, came back to the UK and appeared in WHAT’S GOOD FOR THE GOOSE? a sex comedy that shows Norman romping naked with a rather young Sally Geeson (19). Directed by Z-list hack Menahem Golem, who became a serious movie mogul before falling from “grace” and winding up a Z-list hack again, produced by Tony Tenser’s Tigon pictures, a low point for everybody — even Golan, and that’s LOW. Actor Stevie McNicoll watched the film and was appalled. I asked if it was worse than NOT NOW DARLING, for me the low-water-mark in awful British sex farce. “It makes NOT NOW DARLING look like the fucking Mahabharata,” he replied.

19 kinds of wrongness

But Norman had a strange renaissance in the ’90s, when it emerged that old prints of his films were doing the rounds in Albania, and he was a major star there. I guess the Wisdom-Albania thing is equivalent to the Jerry Lewis-France paradigm, only this one is true, and it’s rather lovely. And anyway, those French critics who admire Lewis are RIGHT.

Our Norm is now 93 and afflicted with Altzheimer’s, which has had the rather strange effect of turning him into his own movie persona. He seems fantastically lively and fit, but with a childlike intellect and sense of mischief. In a recent TV profile, he turned to the documentary camera and attempted a greeting which seems to encapsulate the essence of all actors:

“Thanks… awfully… for looking at me.”

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