Archive for Joe Mankiewicz

The Monkeybitch Enigma

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 20, 2008 by dcairns

As the early Joe Mankiewicz noir SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT unfolded, I started praying it would keep up its high standards to the end, but I wasn’t all that optimistic because (a) part of the film’s charm was a sense that it didn’t know where it was going and (b) it doesn’t have much of a reputation, often a sign that a film has fallen at the final hurdle — the climax of a movie often determines disproportionately how people will feel about the film as a whole.

In fact, much of the film’s third act comes together nicely, and there’s ample evidence that the sense of random aimlessness that enlivens the early-middle sections is actually a cunning ploy disguising a tightly-plotted plan. But the climax is over too soon, handed to a supporting character, robbing the hero of the chance to distinguish himself. Since he’s played by the odd-looking John Hodiak, distinctly second-rank, he needs all the opportunities the screenplay can give him. He has the face of a monkeybitch.

Actually, Hodiak’s lack of charisma helps the film in some ways — he’s effective as a lost and confused nobody, struggling to make sense of the world. (This is an AMNESIA MOVIE. Yay!) A big-shot movie-star might well have seemed more likely to come out on top. The greater error is casting Richard Conte as the leading lady’s friend. She keeps talking about what a nice guy he is. We think, “Uh huh, rrrright…” and as it turns out our skepticism is justified.

But knowing all that, one can derive a lot of pleasure from this film. Hodiak plays a G.I. with a misplaced memory, thrust into what you might call your basic shadowy realm of subterfuge as he tries to uncover the secrets of his past. This galloping cliché of a plot gets a shot in the arm from some strong visuals early on — Mankiewicz plays with subjective camera and seems in a more experimental mood than usual — and from the writer’s intelligence, constantly seeking to bolster characterisation and liven up dialogue. One of his notions is to suggest that the characters know what kind of movie they’re in, and feel themselves slightly above it. There is musing on why movie detectives always keep their hats on. The action stops for a Chinese meal. The bad guys are charming and urbane, or cheap but sassy.

And then there’s THIS lovely fellow/shot:

Fritz Kortner’s master-criminal character actually suggests sitting in this spot because the lighting will be suitably mysterious. And he has the face of a monkeybitch.

For much of its running time this is a throughly superior caper — one major plot twist is thoroughly pleasing, and surely original (I guess it’s been copied a few times since), and the sense that everybody’s just making it up as they go along is probably more to do with the unusual fluctuations of tone than the lack of an overall scheme (although one major bad guy remains uncaptured at the end — “We’ll pick him up,” suggests the detective, but will they? WILL THEY?). Amid the banter and suspense scenes, there’s one heart-breaking scene where the wandering hero finally finds somebody who recognises him — only to learn she’s a lonely neurotic, fantasising a connection with him in order to stave off the emptiness of her existence. Nicely done.

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Louis B. Mayer’s nickname for Joseph Mankiewicz was Joe Monkeybitch.

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Mankiewicz always said that if he was remembered at all it would be as “the swine who rewrote F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dialogue” in THREE COMRADES. Fortunately, he was wrong. But he’s remembered as “the dialogue guy” who did ALL ABOUT EVE, and there’s a bit more to him than that.

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“Isn’t it a bit old-hat?”

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2008 by dcairns

Kenneth Branagh usually comes up with some interesting directorial strategies. The trouble is, they usually don’t work, and neither do the films. He’s inventive, ambitious, and courageous, but I somehow never feel he’s a natural film-maker.

Nevertheless, some critics were perhaps too nasty about SLEUTH. The film unites an interesting bunch of people, looks very handsome, and is easy enough to watch. There are good bits. Harold Pinter’s reworking of Anthony Shaffer’s play is often amusing.

JL: “Maggie never told me you were… such a manipulator. She told me you were no good in bed, but she never told me you were such a manipulator.”
MC: “She told you I was no good in bed?”
JL: “Oh, yes.”
MC: “She was joking. I’m wonderful in bed.”
JL: “I must tell her.”

As in the original, a successful thriller writer confronts the much younger man who has made off with his wife, and a variety of vicious mind-games are played. Pinter dispenses with Shaffer’s critique of the English mystery novel tradition, leaving the piece as simply another Pinter power-play of pauses. Even the title becomes irrelevant.

One can’t escape the fact that the gimmick casting — Michael Caine returns from the original Joe Mankiewicz version, but playing the other part, Jude Law, who’s already played a Caine role in the ALFIE remake, plays Caine’s part from the original —  is a titillating concept, but not necessarily the best way to fill the parts. Olivier, in the original film, stood boldly for the English establishment, and Caine was the working-class upstart — it was almost too perfect. With cockney Caine as the rich author and the vaguely classless Law as his romantic rival, the distinction is lost. But more important is what Branagh can get out of these actors in the way of acting.

Caine starts off like he’s trying for poshness, perhaps imitating Alan Bates (a fine interpreter of Pinter), which is a bit queasy. The it starts to feel like he doesn’t know his lines well enough — little hesitations and bodging of the difficult bits are either methody additions or genuine screw-ups, and either way they’re harmful to Pinter’s rhythms. But gradually Caine’s undiminished charm and inexplicable authority work their spell, and he becomes enjoyable.

Law is fine when he underplays, and rather embarassing when he tries too hard. He’s a star when he just holds the camera’s gaze. Some insecurity forces him to spoil it by doing stuff, and the effort shows. He’s probably most useful when he’s being tormented by Caine, since some evil part of this viewer derives some pleasure from seeing Law having a hard time. Later, he will do foolish things with a loaded pistol, much like the detective in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

Nobody would call this prime Pinter. Although the Great Man has written screen thrillers successfully in the past (THE QUILLER MEMORANDUM, under-valued) here there are odd, damaging implausibilities. Why does Caine have an automated rope ladder in his stately home? Why does Law take his gun from his holster for no reason, lay it on the bed for no reason, thus allowing Caine to grab it at the climax? That’s quite bad playwriting, or direction.

What makes the film watchable? The set, designed by Branagh’s regular collaborator Tim Harvey, is very nice, all shiny surfaces and disco lighting, and the photography of Haris Zambarloukos serves up innumerable great widescreen close-ups. But the James Bond lair doesn’t make much sense, and is part of the overall watering-down of Shaffer’s original concept, the conflict between tradition and progress. The Bond vibe is both apt and ironic, since original Bond designer Ken Adam created the look of the original SLEUTH,

The stylised environment is doubtless meant to provide a comfortable setting for the stylised talk, but Pinter’s verbal gymnastics are defiantly archaic, and sound more so amid these glossy surfaces and pointless hi-tech appurtenances. I’m reminded of the grand staircase in FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA’S KENNETH BRANAGH’S MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (I think that’s the full title), which has no bannister and makes you nervous to look at it. It’s quite an interesting effect, but you can’t help wonder WHY would anybody have a stair like that in their house?

This next is a bit spoilerific — if you’ve read the above and still plan on seeing SLEUTH, skip this last stuff.

Full disclosure — Stephen Murphy, prosthetic makeup artist for Jude Law, did the make-up on my clown film and is a good friend. He’s been working on HARRY POTTERS and stuff, turning ex-porn dwarfs into goblins, working his way up, and this is is his biggest job yet. Oddly, the transformation reminds me of another make-up creation, even though Stephen didn’t design the Law job.

It’s the Ringo Starr/Mexican bandit look Stephen created for Alice Bicknell in my film CLARIMONDE using mainly liquid latex and wet tissue paper. I’m also reminded of another makeup creation, Reece Shearsmith as Geoff Tipps in THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN:

I am a man

Even the voice is the same! The transformation works OK until Law starts overdoing it again, which makes him more recognisable. Stephen reports that Law was a very nice chap to work with, which is about what I’d expect, actually. Hitting the odd paparazzo doesn’t make him a bad guy, in fact I give him points for it, even though I’m anti-violence.

In the original SLEUTH, make-up artist Tom Smith, required to transform Michael Caine completely, executed a self-portrait, changing Caine into a Smith clone. I asked Stephen if he’d been tempted to do the same, but alas, he hadn’t known. What might have been REALLY interesting would have been if the remake’s make-up DESIGNER, Eileen Kastner-Delago, had given Law a sex change and made him over in her own image.

Made Up

Sexual ambiguity does enter the picture in the last act, with both Caine and Law suggesting bisexual sides, a motif borrowed from Sidney Lumet and Ira levin’s DEATHTRAP, the low-rent version of SLEUTH — Caine, having kissed Christopher “Superman” Reeve, now kisses “Sky Captain”. But this additional twist leads to no new dramatic suspense, and certainly doesn’t carry the mild shock value it did in 1982 (“But it’s so juicy,” Lumet pleaded, when Reeve objected to the kiss). As with the despised DIABOLIQUE, the re-makers try to preserve the twist surprise by adding a further wrinkle to the already-creased story, but it does nothing but drag the film long past its emotional climax… which is about half an hour in.

For all that, the film is diverting, short, and at least it has a different set of flaws from the ones we’re used to seeing all the time. Any bets on what the next Michael Caine remake will be?