Archive for Jean-Pierre Melville

The Late Show 2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2011 by dcairns

It continues — here’s where I’ll post links to blog posts in The Late Show: The Late Films Blogathon. This post will stay at the top, if I can figure out how to do that, with my own entries appearing — slowly — down beneath it.

Late Losey — M KLEIN, today.

Diarmid Mogg, author of my favourite movie speciality blog, The Unsung Joe, weighs in on one of Hollywood’s forgotten men, John Ince (brother of the more famous Thomas and Ralph), here. It’s an eye-opener!

For Shadowplay, David Melville continues his alphabetical survey of Mexican melodrama with LA GENERALA, the last film of Maria Felix.

Ben Alpers on MOONRISE, my favourite late Borzage — maybe my favourite Borzage.

Gareth comes up trumps with another Melville piece – UN FLIC stars Delon and is cool as ice.

Late Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle? Are you sure? Wanna make something of it?

HUGO receives tender loving care from Farran Smith Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren, who suggested the idea of this blogathon over dinner in Brooklyn. And HUGO is not only the latest film from a senior film artist, but a film about the Autumn years of a great filmmaker. Go here, at once.

At the ever-excellent Gareth’s Movie Diary, LE CERCLE ROUGE is the topic of the day — late Melville, late Bourvil, and a terrific piece.

I try to tackle one of the trickiest entries in Richard Lester’s career, his last fiction feature, whose modest virtues are forever overshadowed by an on-set tragedy — THE RETURN OF THE MUSKETEERS.

Over at the excellent Robert Donat site, Gill Fraser Lee assesses THE INN OF THE SIXTH HAPPINESS, mid-period Mark Robson, but Donat’s last film, made when he was extremely ill. This is a thoughtful and deeply moving piece and I’m proud I nudged Gill towards writing it (but also a little guilty). Boy! This kind of piece makes this whole blogathon thing worthwhile.

It suddenly occurred to me, after watching and loving HUGO, to wonder about Georges Melies last film — the story of his career’s end was well known to me, but I hadn’t looked at anything from the very end of his career. So I did.

My own first entry approaches LOVE AMONG THE RUINS, a late-ish George Cukor I really enjoyed, with fine late-ish performances by Katherine Hepburn and Laurence Olivier. Here.

Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean looks at The Great Mastroianni’s last bow, in Manoel de Oliveira’s VOYAGE TO THE BEGINNING OF THE WORLD (below).

David Ehrenstein proves that great minds think alike with THE BOY WHO TURNED YELLOW (above and here).

The ball got rolling with two late Ken Russells from the late Ken Russell, over at Brandon’s Movie Memory here and here.

FC5: Left-Handed Guns

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2009 by dcairns

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vlcsnap-11572401) THE ASPHALT JUNGLE 2) THE KILLING.

“THE ASPHALT JUNGLE became the model for a number of films of this genre,” wrote John Huston, modestly enough. As well as inspiring probably 60% of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, the movie served as a source of inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s first really good picture, so it seems worthwhile to look at the two together, to see what aspects of Kubrick come from Huston and where he breaks out on his own. Film Club meets the Fever Dream Double Feature.

vlcsnap-154983Calhern and Lawrence.

“Crime is a left-handed form of human endeavour,” opines the paymaster of Huston’s gang, Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania (Louis Calhern), and Huston says this line encapsulates “the tone of the film.” Not it’s message, you understand. Huston, who arguably didn’t believe in very many things, doesn’t tend to have messages in his movies, he merely adopts different tones. He’s sincere in his belief that these tones are honest representations of the way the world feels to some of his characters. He doesn’t necessarily give them credit himself. When he was preparing to work on the script of SERGEANT YORK, co-writer Howard Koch reminded him that their previous collaboration, a stage play entitled In Time to Come, was about peace through collective security, and that this, by contrast, was a pro-war picture. “Well, we’re in a war,” said Huston, sketching away unperturbed.

Huston disdains to preach at us, which makes him seem quite modern in some respects — THE ASPHALT JUNGLE picks up on those aspects of ’30s Warner gangster movies which made it past the censor without neat morals branded on their hides, and looks forward to the movies of Scorsese. It coolly portrays a certain lifestyle with the eye of an anthropologist, not an apologist. Huston has some sympathy for his characters, especially the most hopeless. His later masterpiece FAT CITY would likewise find most compassion for those most without a chance. It’s odd that Huston, who some people found cruel and sadistic, should show these traces of tenderness in a tough movie. And it’s odd that MGM made this one — I guess somebody was dazzled by the “Crime Does Not Pay” conclusion. But it’s really “Crime Often Does Not Pay — Sadly.”

vlcsnap-154719Whitmore and Hayden.

The biggest loser in this bunch is the hooligan, Johnny Guitar/Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden), a failed farmer, gambler and strong-arm man. His backstory (“that black colt”) gives him a poetic sadness, which in Hayden’s gristly hands becomes a kind of monomania. It’s also noteworthy that his self-pity prevents him from feeling anything for his sometime girlfriend, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), a rather pitiable creature and possibly the model for all the women in Kubrick’s more misanthropic THE KILLING.

Huston’s adaptation of W.R. Burnett’s novel, co-scripted with Ben Maddow (INTRUDER IN THE DUST, which I hope to see soon) reputedly sticks close to the book and only made adjustments for the sake of the censor, working around their strictures with care and guile. When the Production Code enforcers stipulated that Louis Calhern couldn’t kill himself if he was in his right mind, Huston had him tear up his suicide note before blowing his brains out. The fact that this professional lawyer can’t finish a simple note proves that his mind is in total disarray, argued Huston. They bought it.

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The other main sop to the censor was the police commissioner’s speech near the end, designed to excuse the presence of a corrupt cop in the story. This is very nicely written but rather drags the film down in its last third, and in plot verisimilitude terms the cop shouldn’t really have  been caught at all.

Albert Band, later a producer of drive-in trash and straight-to-video nonsense, was Huston’s production assistant, according to Lawrence Grobel’s excellent book The Hustons. Huston announced that he was going to cast unknowns, and started with Marc Lawrence as Cobby, the bookie who finally puts up the money for the heist when Calhern can’t. “Marc was probably the most famous criminal face in the movies at that time,” laughed Band. Huston had already used him in KEY LARGO. (And THIS is why I’m referring to the actors by character names from other films.) Huston also screen-tested writer and artist Ludwig Bemelmans for the part of the gang’s mastermind, but when producer Arthur Hornblower showed him a reel of Sam Jaffe, Huston happily cast his actor friend. “The film was very well cast,” is just about the only thing Huston says about it in his autobio.

vlcsnap-155770Only Huston wanted to cast Monroe. “Look at the ass on that little girl,” he mused.

With the High Llama’s plan, the job goes ahead, amid extreme chiaroscuro lighting effects, beautiful unfamiliar cityscapes (especially scene 1), and an atmosphere of foreboding, since Ambassador Trentino plans to sell them all out, ditch his invalid wife and run off with Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe), his mind-bogglingly luscious girlfriend. Joining the gang are Anthony Caruso (whose honest wife is the only woman with any backbone in the film) and hunchbacked James Whitmore. The scheme itself seems surprisingly simple, at least since we’ve become accustomed to the Rube Goldberg-meets-Machiavelli scheming of THE KILLING, RIFIFI, et al. There are two reasons it goes wrong (discounting the requirements of the censor)…

The first is luck, or fate, and it’s explicitly pointed out by Jaffe. A prowl car responding to another crime unexpectedly shows up. A gun goes off by itself. The kind of things you can’t plan for, or if you did, you wouldn’t risk doing anything.

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But Jaffe himself comes to realize there’s a second reason. The plan fails because of who the people are. Calhern is untrustworthy. Lawrence is weak. Jaffe himself is undone by his fondness for pretty girls. So Jaffe and  Whitmore are caught (Whitmore will still be serving his sentence in 1994, as the Birdman of Shawshank). Caruso and Hayden are killed, Hayden’s death a strange variant on that of the donkey protag in AU HASARD, BALTASAR.

It’s a stunning film, and I’v very glad I watched it again. I’ve been working my way through the lesser-known Huston films in recent years, which are often far better than their reputations suggest, so it was interesting to come back to one of the celebrated films and find it holds up. The cast are extremely good — I especially like the weaklings, when they break down (I empathise so readily with a good sniveling weakling): Lawrence and Calhern. The burst of violence when Hayden erases Calhern’s private eye sidekick is sensational in its staging, anticipating the startling abruption of THE KILLING’s massacre. Harold Rosson lights the seedy locations with harsh yet moody effects, and Miklos Rosza not only contributes a marvelously doom-laden score, he does something he rarely ever did: stays out of the way for most of the film. I love Rosza, but he has a tendency to overdo things. Not here.

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Gerald Fried’s music for THE KILLING, a bunch of snare-drum and aggro, is a lot less pleasing to the ear. I wonder if Kubrick didn’t switch to largely sourced music because so many of the composers he worked with weren’t very interesting? But he always had a weakness for this kind of martial theme, just as he frequently turned to war as a subject or metaphor in his work.

And, ugh! that voice-over. I guess they needed something to make sense of the timeline, especially for audiences at the time, but it does make me wince a little, especially compared to the beautiful VO in BARRY LYNDON. Although I guess it wouldn’t have made sense for them to hire Sir Michael Hordern to narrate this one. Might make an amusing mash-up though. The KILLING guy, Art Gilmore, sounds kind of dumb. The writing is part of it: since this is a spoken element of the film, it should really have  been scripted by Jim Thompson, but I fear it wasn’t.

A little bird tells me there’s actually a mistake in the film’s complicated timeline, but doesn’t tell me where. Seems too dull to go looking for it, even though I’ve long championed the notion of Kubrick not as a perfectionist machine-mind, but as a kind of shambling, dopey muddler — but I’ll reward anybody who locates it for me. But I *did* notice that one of the horses in the first race we overhear appears to be called Stanley K. The first example of SK’s in-jokey side (given free rein in EYES WIDE SHUT)?

Sterling Hayden is back, as a very different kind of character, less sympathetic but the perfect man to mouth Jim Thompson’s hard-boiled, hard-assed dialogue. Boiled-ass? Having a half-decent budget for the first time, Kubrick is able to build upon his experience from his first two cheapies and make a far more tight, visually logical film, and he’s able to fill the frame with great character players. Jay C. Flippen is robbed of all his usual aw-shucks mannerisms and plays it hard but human. Elisha Cook Jnr. is maybe the first guy to go Over The Top And Beyond Infinity in a Kubrick film. And Marie Windsor, as his scheming wife, now strikes me as the heart and soul of the film. “You’ve got a great big dollar sign where most women have a heart,” as Hayden tells her.

vlcsnap-1157156A handsome couple.

Kubrick, like his hoods, was always on the lookout for the main chance, picking his next film with care to raise his profile, consolidate the critical respect he had so far, and move higher up. In 1956 his chief task was to get a really good B-movie under his belt, something that would qualify him for A-picture jobs. PATHS OF GLORY (one of my very favourites) was the A-picture, where according to Kirk Douglas (whom I don’t exactly trust) Kubes’ greatest concern was to have a commercial hit, to which end he attempted to add a happy ending. Never quite been able to bring myself to believe that, wholly. SPARTACUS was the epic, but without any artistic control, Kubrick was unhappy and shrank down for LOLITA, using the book’s reputation (as masterpiece; as scandalous and unfilmable) to garner a rep for iconoclasm. And so on. The difficulty in choosing a project increased as SK’s acclaim increased, and the more things he was celebrated for, the fewer things were left for him to try…

So one of the terrific and liberating things about THE KILLING is that it’s made at a time when Kubes has everything to prove, and he goes all out to do so, but on a small scale. The artistic ambition of the film itself is modest, Stan’s ambitions in general are vast. Borrowing Huston’s set-up, leading man and lighting style, he grafts on Ophuls’ unchained camera, gliding through walls like an Overlook Hotel spectre, shamelessly foregrounding the cheap sets and cheaper dialogue, making one of the first art-house noirs (maybe DETOUR is the first?) if we can allow such a thing. That non-linear timeline — who else was doing that in ’56?

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Against the obvious strengths, weaknesses are pretty insignificant. Hayden’s plan is over-elaborate (the great Timothy Carey’s role is redundant and if he got caught and told who hired him, the gig would be up) and could easily miscarry in a thousand ways. As in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, Hayden has apparently the ability to knock out a healthy cop with a single punch. I never quite believe this in movies. I’m not sure about the biology of it, but if Mike Tyson takes several blows to fell an opponent, I don’t get how a man like Hayden can do it in one. OK, he’s not wearing gloves, but that’s surely more likely to result in busted teeth/nose/jaw/knuckles, and doesn’t increase the chances of unconsciousness greatly. It’s the back of the head you have to hit to bring on that kind of brain damage (Joe Turkel’s injury in PATHS OF GLORY is much more convincing, horribly so: and spot Joe at 4.57 into this one), preferably with a blackjack. Sorry, I didn’t intend this as a how-to guide, I’m just saying movies win extra points from me if they avoid implausible cliches.

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The photography by Lucien Ballard (Mr. Merle Oberon) does a superb job synthesizing the stark, source-lit noir aesthetic with the fluid camera style, even if Stanley K. had to threaten to fire the guy on day one (a case of establishing the juvenile auteur’s authority over the pushy veteran cameraman: Kubrick was just 28). The Elisha Cook massacre, perhaps inspired by THE ASPHALT JUNGLE’s shockingly sudden whip-pan shooting, is jolting and quite credible, even if the aftermath is hard to make sense of. By reducing the action to a couple of quick shots, Kubes gives us the impression that we’ve seen a coherent exercise in gunplay, even if we haven’t.

The movie’s  influence is all over Tarantino’s work, from the questions-first, answers-later structure of RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION to the way the guy comes out of the kitchen shooting in the latter film (although the outcome there is different: it’s kind of a joke about THE KILLING’s total slaughter that the guy blasting away at Travolta and Jackson misses every shot). More than spaghetti westerns and kung-fu flicks, THE KILLING is the film that’s necessary to QT’s existence. But personally I think Kubrick’s morally blank, cool stare is more compelling and meaningful than QT’s hip, flip referencing.

vlcsnap-84081A teenage audience member in Belfast once asked me about this scene. I was amazed: “You’re a teenager in Belfast and you don’t know what a cavity search is?”

I’ll own up to the latter myself though: in my film CRY FOR BOBO I shamelessly swiped Kubrick’s faulty suitcase for my own CRY FOR BOBO (non-UK residents, see HERE), along with the strip-search from CLOCKWORK ORANGE, also drawing on Kubrick’s symmetrical, wide-angle lensed compositional style. It’s the post-modern age, I’m afraid.

The burst suitcase is another instance of the Fickle Finger (or poodle) of Fate meddling in human affairs, as in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, but it can also be argued that Hayden’s impatience is to blame. If only he’d bought a couple of smaller, better cases! It’s been argued that Kubrick’s films are all about what HAL 9000 would call human error, the inherent faultiness of human nature leading to complex systems collapsing in disarray. That certainly holds good for DR STRANGELOVE, and can be read into 2001… is the system in question in EYES WIDE SHUT the institution of marriage? Is THE SHINING really just about how not to look after a hotel? A sort of gothic Fawlty Towers? But it’s fair to say SK’s work is united by a somewhat skeptical view of humanity’s virtues, with the Spielberg footnote A.I. looking forward to a day when we will all be replaced by more efficient, humane machinery, lording it over an ice-palace New York. So there’s that to look forward to.

Love the vacant taxi which blatantly drives right past Hayden and his girlfriend without slowing. “I don’t stop for losers!”

vlcsnap-1163840-1Photoshopping Hayden doesn’t seem to make that much difference.

“What’s the difference?” mumbles Hayden at THE KILLING’s end, a more than usually pointed and depressing summation of the noir ethos.

Ink-stained Wenches

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2009 by dcairns

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Coincidentally I downloaded and watched THE HARD WAY (not that one) with Patrick McGoohan and Lee Van Cleef, and UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (not that one) with George Lazenby. What makes this coincidental is not so much that both films need to have the words “(not that one)” appended after them, since a gang of notorious Title Thieves has made off with both films’ names and appended them to further pieces of “product”, but the fact that both films feature female authors in acting roles. How odd.

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THE HARD WAY is an Irish thriller which lured Patrick McGoohan back to the land of his forefathers, to play an aging top hitman who, breaking with type, refuses to take on one last job. His big bad bald boss Lee Van Cleef dispatches various heavies to try and “persuade” the Irish assassin that now is not the time for retirement.

Fellow filmmaker Paul Duane recommended this one, and it has a lot going for it. The stars are on form, with McGoohan restrained (he hardly ever smiles on one side of his face in this one, and never twitches once), and LVC is authoritative and gravelly as you’d expect. His voice actually comes up through the floor via speaking tube, its origins somewhere in the bowels of the earth, perhaps the lost kingdom of Pelucidar. If Lee VC occasionally falls silent, it’s because the subterranean man who does his voice is fending off attacks from the winged, telepathic Mahars who rule that stygian region.

The intent is obviously to make an Irish version of a Jean-Pierre Melville movie, full of cold-blooded professionals who are good at their jobs and follow their own code of honour, regardless of what side of the law they stand on. To this end, the makers procured the services of Melville’s regular cinematographer, Henri Decae. Adding to the ambient gloom, the score alternates traditional Irish drones with a rather John Carpenter-like electronic suspense theme culled from Brian Eno’s Music for Films album. Taking the man at his word, I see.

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The production was beset by difficulties, with MacGoohan in his usual truculent condition, resulting in the firing of the original director and his replacement by, I believe, the producer. I don’t know what exec John Boorman’s role was in all this, but this movie did not have the success of his other most famous production, ANGEL, which launched the career of Neil Jordan. There’s also “additional cinematography”, which I assume to be the awful stuff that doesn’t match. My copy was a pan-and-scanned VHS rip, so it’s hard to judge the visual quality, but it seems to have achieved some of the slick, monochromatic chill that characterises so much late-period Melville.

The climax, where Van Cleef and McGoohan face off in a deserted country house, with LVC triggering the lights by messing with the fusebox, giving the place a haunted quality and leading Pat from one trap to another, is pretty exciting, although a bloody-minded censor seems to have removed vital plot developments.

But the real excitement here is the presence of author Edna O’Brien as mcGoohan’s estranged wife. I sort of knew her name, since her paperbacks populated the second-hand shops of my youth (always featuring grim girls in dark surroundings on the jackets). But I had very little idea what the books actually contained, although Paul Duane hinted that they were “controversial”. I turned to Wikipedia:

Edna O’Brien (born 15 December 1930) is an Irish novelist and short story writer whose works often revolve around the inner feelings of women, and their problems in relating to men and to society as a whole.

Blimey, that does sound awful. No wonder they burned the things in churchyards.

(NO. I’m being cheeky. I strongly approve of anybody who can write anything incendiary enough to bring the book-burners out of hiding.)

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O’Brien’s role here avoids giving her any actual acting to do, as such. Instead, she gets a bit of walking about, and also a series of scenes in which, against a dark, abstract background like a woman from one of her books, she intones what comes to sound increasingly like an elegy, which in fact it is. These scenes at first resemble an open-mic poetry reading, and O’Brien’s beautiful voice delivers everything with a kind of serene solemnity that’s slightly confusing at first, since we might assume this is a conversation rather than a bit of public speaking. All in all, her presence adds a welcome strangeness to a film that’s not quite stylish enough to attain Melville’s mastery, and is in danger of wandering into a claustrophobic cul-de-sac.

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Far, far worse, is UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, the last film of Cy Endfield (must get around to blogging about his under-seen Lloyd Bridges diptych), a George Lazenby vehicle (for some reason this phrase causes me to picture a clown car festooned with excrement) which shows the blacklisted maestro foundering and floundering in a sea of fashionable mud. We begin with the Glamour and Excitement of Heathrow Airport, where soldier-of-fortune George Lazenby arrives, his muscular orange buttock of a face groaning under the weight of every sideburn in London.

Yes, the line between failed Bond George Lazenby and alcoholic ’70s football star George Best, tenuous to begin with, has been altogether erased in this film. What follows is a shapeless, meandering non-narrative in which mumbling mercenary George drops out of a proposed African coup he’s supposed to be delivering (when a sponsor warns that he doesn’t want a lot of raping and looting, George grins back “When you hire men to kill, you can’t complain about how they spend their spare time,” the nearest thing to a James Bond quip in the film) and starts to listen to hippies and intellectuals.

Lazenby himself, bedecked with hair-shapes and built like the proverbial ceramic latrine, has perfected his Sean Connery impersonation, just stopping short of the accent, although there’s no trace of his native Australia (Greer herself sounds less Antipodean in this than she does today). I always felt bad for him getting ejected from Bondhood and never really finding a George-shaped niche afterwards. ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE is probably the best Bond (Rigg! Savalas!) and if George struggled to fill the shoes of his predecessor (“This never happened to the other fellow!”), his orange face surmounted by a cap of burnished wooden hair, his voice dubbed in several scenes, he still did a decent job of the tragic ending.

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Endfield, centre.

Chief among the counter-culture characters (who also include Rolling Stones muse Chrissie Shrimpton) are Endfield himself, doing better as actor than director, and Germaine Greer. Yes, that one. The prospect of the author of The Female Eunuch reinventing herself as a sort of Bond Girl is an enticing one, and however bleak the career prospects of that particular branch of showbiz (Lois Chiles, where are you?), anything would be preferable to the post of professional contrarian which Greer now holds. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d say that turning up on television or in the newspaper columns and simply saying the opposite of what somebody else has said, no matter what that is, makes you a kind of dreadful mind-whore. And casts retrospective doubt on whether Greer ever in fact believed a word she was saying.

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Germaine enjoys a cuppa.

Alas, Greer and Endfield, the liveliest people in the film, whose accompanying baggage only makes them more interesting, get very little to do, which leaves us with George being followed about by a restless camera. The aimless script is credited to six different people, including Endfield and, terrifyingly, Lazenby himself. Since much of the talk seems loose and improvisatory (read: shapeless and incoherent), it’s possible GL picked up a writing cred simply for refusing to speak the words written down for him. I prefer that thought to the image of him and five other blokes randomly jabbing at the keys of a single blameless Remington.

Lesson: if you put six chimps in a room with a typewriter, they will eventually write UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. And probably sooner than you’d like.

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