Archive for John Alton

The People Against The Thing From Another World

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 3, 2019 by dcairns
Called to the bar.

Casting Spencer Tracy as an alcoholic is a bit nervy… a scene showing him engaging in a sketchy interaction with Eduardo Ciannelli in the men’s room may be dicier still. THE PEOPLE AGAINST O’HARA (1951) has moments of subversion and dissonance unusual in an MGM picture.

Tracy plays a retired criminal lawyer and reformed boozer driven back to the bottle by his struggle to win the case of a young man (James Arness, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD himself) accused of murder. John Sturges directs — his early thrillers aren’t as noirish as Anthony Mann’s, but he does have cinematographer John “single-source” Alton on his side so the movie is beautiful.

I must have looked away during the credits because I missed Alton’s name, but the suspicion gradually donned on me as the film went on that I was seeing his work. One of the few DoP’s with such a distinctive style.

This is the shot that made me first glimmer and glom.

“Spencer Tracy’s always good as a lawyer. He’s so solid,” said Fiona. “He’s an immovable force.”

“I think you can have an immovable object or an unstoppable force…” I suggest, but then come to think she’s right. Spence is an immovable force. Or possibly an unstoppable object.

The film is very well cast — Diana Lynn has one terrific scene, John Hodiak is fine in his natural environment as third lead, Pat O’Brien fades into the furniture, Ciannelli and William Campbell are great nasties, and if you enjoy the look, sound and feel of Emile Meyer as much as I do, you will enjoy seeing, hearing and touching him here.

This is sort of a noir — there is some surprising stuff, including the ending. But the ultimate message of just about any MGM film is that the system works, so you don’t get a real sense of subversion and malaise, but then, maybe you already have enough of that in your life.

THE PEOPLE AGAINST O’HARA stars Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; Hildy Johnson; Emmy Kockenlocker; John Kovac; Dr. Satan; the Thing from Another World; Cimmaron Rose; Walking Coyote; Concho; Chief Quinn; Reverend Cyril Playfair; Mrs. Carol Stark; Lt. Harry Kello; Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls; Paul Kersey; Molly Molloy; Mr. Rafferty; and the voice of Colossus.

Good start

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 26, 2016 by dcairns

casque

On Friday, saw Jacques Becker’s CASQUE D’OR in the Piazza Maggiore. Looked up and could see the rays of the projector beam spreading across the stars. If I were the hardcore cinephile you all expect me to be I would have seen Bertrand Tavernier’s 3hr+ documentary on French cinema also, but the trip had been somewhat strenuous.

Today the screenings started at the civilized hour of half past two in the afternoon (or 14:30 as these crazy continentals call it) and I saw four shorts by Slovenian filmmaker Karpo Godina, all recently restored, then a recently rediscovered Argentinian slice of poetic realism from the thirties, then a silent French film by Marie Epstein and Jean Benoit-Levy, then MODERN TIMES in the Piazza, crammed full of people as never before, as Timothy Brock’s reconstruction of Chaplin’s score was played live by a 65-piece orchestra.

  1. Cinema Ritrovato’s lavish program book quotes Lindsay Anderson on Jacques Becker, which made me smile as I first saw CASQUE D’OR via the critic/filmmaker’s personal VHS recording. It’s a lot better on the big screen!
  2. Godina’s films were ALL suppressed by the Yugoslav government, and he was nearly jailed for one of them. He is a cinematic hero! Using static shots as a formal restraint and sometimes as a formal joke, he gets unexpected laughs and sews indefinable disquiet. One film was banned purely for this sense of not being quite sure what he’s up to. More on him soon.
  3. A season of Argentinian oddities opened with ESCALA EN LA CIUDAD, whose most famous crewmember was ace cinematographer John Alton (here “Juan”) — Alton spent 8 formative years shooting in South America, but little of this work survives. This one had profoundly amateurish acting and dialogue, weirdly messy sound (mixing was apparently nonexistent in Argentina), but a touching story showing the influence of Carné, and fine work from Alton, though the master had not yet fully learned to limit his light sources to create his trademark source-lit chiaroscuro. Some lovely camera moves and a gorgeous score by various artists.
  4. PEAU DE PECHE gets rediscovered partly because co-auteur Marie Epstein is a valuable addition to the pantheon of female cineastes, but her work with Benoit-Levy is so moving, eloquent and innovative it would be deserving of celebration even if she had been a mere man. If her gender forms a convenient peg to hang the film from, so much the better. I already admired LA MATERNELLE by the same pair, and I will try to see more in this season. Also of note: charismatic child star Le Petit Jimmy, who does a hilarious Chevalier impression. (This film, accompanied by John Sweeney on the piano, brought a fat tear to my right eye.)
  5. MODERN TIMES? What is there to say? With live score, it’s different but the same — the most notable departure was the singing waiters’, who are now mute, making Chaplin’s the first voice we hear which is not a mechanical reproduction (all the other speakers are on closed-circuit TV, gramophone or radio). Arguably an improvement, but a slight distortion. The music sounded pretty great, though, as did the five thousand or so people laughing and applauding.

Chaplin_-_Modern_Times

Last time I was in Bologna, I never seemed able to fit in five shows in a day, because I had a half hour trip in to town every day and a half hour trip back at night, so my energy didn’t sustain. This year, I’m in a hotel five minutes from the Piazza and fifteen from the Cinemateque, though in this 38° heat every Google Maps estimate is somewhat optimistic. At any rate, four shows in a day that only started in mid-afternoon strikes me as a promising start. Tomorrow I’m aiming to start at 9 a.m. and finish around midnight.

Magnetic Corps

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-05-15-09h24m24s45

I thought Curt Siodmak’s THE MAGNETIC MONSTER was going to be good corny fun, the way BRIDE OF THE GORILLA certainly is — the title promises much. But it’s false advertising, as the film contains no monster, magnetic or otherwise, unless, like THE INVISIBLE MENACE it’s one that doesn’t register on film and stays well away from the main action.

Still, Robert Siodmak’s idiot brother deserves credit for attempting something with a bit more natural dignity than his previous Raymond Burr were-gorilla romp. This one concerns the activities of America’s A-Men, the Atom Men who police crimes of a scientific nature. The premise has potential and the name “A-Men” is amusing in a good way. The stylistic approach is borrowed from all those pseudo-documentaries like G-MEN, which I tend to find stodgy and unappealing, even with the added lift of Anthony Mann directing and/or John Alton lighting. This movie has neither: it has Curt Siodmak directing and steady workhorse Charles Van Enger lighting.

vlcsnap-2015-05-15-09h21m56s109

The ending, filmed in an impressive location — IMDb mentions the McCulloch Plant at Los Angeles International Airport — manages to look properly epic and science-fictional, even with stock-footage explosions spliced in,  but what impressed me most was an appearance by Kathleen Freeman as the A-Men’s switchboard operator. Completely uncredited, the great comedienne has plenty of scenes and lots of dialogue, even if she’s basically only there to make a fat joke about herself. I realized, watching her, that a major problem of 50s sci-fi is the lack of people like Kathleen Freeman in them. I quite LIKE Richard Carlson, but he stepped out of a cookie-cutter at Central Casting, and so did most of the other players. Freeman is both more realistic and more extraordinary — one of those people who makes you smile with every appearance.vlcsnap-2015-05-15-09h24m59s133

REDS UNDER THE BEDROCK

BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH suffers similarly from a lumpen, authoritarian and plodding sensibility — but it’s actually a British film from the untalented Irish hack Montgomery Tully — some of its interest comes from a deft use of stock footage and bit players to pull off an American setting fairly convincingly. But it’s best trait is the very opening, where a deranged scientist is discovered with his ear to the sidewalk in Las Vegas, raving about some unidentified other moving about beneath the ground “just like ants.” In a phildickian twist, the scientist is both crazy and correct, but Dick would never have settled for a storyline about a rogue Chinese general deploying digging machines to plant nukes under the USA.

vlcsnap-2015-05-15-09h13m50s121

The portrayal of the Chinese baddies isn’t as bad as you might expect — it’s worse, and far crazier. The lead villains are played by Caucasians in yellowface, not because the production wanted to cast movie stars — they’re unknowns — but presumably on the assumption that the Chinese can’t act. Tell that to Chow Yun-Fat, but then retreat rapidly before he punches your face in. Here, Martin Benson tries to suggest foreignness with a clipped delivery that makes him sound like Noel Coward. There are lots of lines about “the gods,” suggesting that screenwriter Chares F. Vetter didn’t know as much about Maoism as he should have.

vlcsnap-2015-05-15-09h14m38s239

The production design is hilarious — papier maché cave walls decorated with Chinese restaurant trimmings, set dressing from a Fu Manchu pic, orientalist nonsense. I like the tacky little calendar fixed to the wall, though — surely the art director was having a laugh. But if you’re a Chinese troglodyte on the wrong side of the world, you probably do want to keep track of the passing of time.

This has been a science fiction double feature for The Film preservation Blogathon, hosted by This Island Rod.

GortButton01A