Archive for John DeCuir

Don’t tell Chuck (again)

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2021 by dcairns

(Or, Creative Differences Two)

Having enjoyed LUST FOR LIFE no end, I popped THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY on, because that’s the other film based on one of Irving Stone’s popular art biographies. MGM had optioned LFL and sat on it for ten years, concluding “There’s no story there.” Then Minnelli came along and disagreed, and we got the film. TAATE definitely has a clearer kind of story, it’s based around a single goal (the Cistine Chapel ceiling) and it has a central conflict (Michelangelo vs. Pope Julius II). But it differs from most mainstream movies in that the conflict results in creation, not destruction.

This movie has not much of a reputation. Carol Reed was considered past his best in 1965, and so was the historical epic. It’s a white elephant picture par excellence. But I rather liked it. Shot by Leon M. Shamroy, designed by John DeCuir, two men with spectacular lists of credits, it’s a visual feast, and mostly the splendor avoids vulgarity.

Oh, except when Michelangelo gets his inspiration from a matte painting, that’s awful.

Chuck Heston in his memoir talks about the difficulty of playing Michelangelo is that the man didn’t seem to be interested in anything but his work. Really, Chuck? Diane Cilento has been pasted into this picture as a beard to heterosexualise the hero. Since Heston is always stiff in the wrong way around women, not much passion is suggested, but Chuckles is devoid of any trace of ambiguity so the effort could probably have been spared. Still, screenwriter Philip Dunne has included an archly amusing scene where the Pope has soldiers hunting for his painter, who’s gone on the lam. They;re seen searching a brothel, where a half-naked woman in bed is in hysterics: “You’re looking for Michelangelo in THIS HOUSE?”

So we have the amusing situation of Heston playing, for the second time (after BEN-HUR) a character whose sexuality he’s not allowed to know about. He isn’t terrible in the part — it’s not like his demented Moses — but had Rex Harrison a nimbler, more vulnerable and expressive co-star, it could have been pretty great. The agony doesn’t really come across. Michelangelo gets sick, but I missed much sense of backbreaking toil, and of course we never see anything really get painted, just the odd stroke.

The Reed film this most resembles is probably TRAPEZE, if you think about it.

But — Reed found to his surprise that the Vatican was willing to let them film in the real Cistine. But he turned them down. And he was right. DeCuir’s team built an identical replica at Cinecitta, ceilinged it with photographs of the real thing, with the colours brightened to make it look like new. And when Pope Julius leads his reluctant artist into the chapel for the first time, Reed can tilt up to reveal — a BLANK Cistine Chapel ceiling. Having a duplicate to shoot in obviously also freed the filmmakers from all kinds of restraints. But that’s an expensive solution!

Like everyone else who crossed Sey Rexy’s path, Heston found him tricky, though he has the appealing habit of trying to like everyone. He notes that Harrison objected strongly to carrying a papal pointer in a scene which was supposed to end with him breaking the pointer over Michelangelo’s back, an incident which really happened, was the climax of the scene, and was even referred to in dialogue later.

The script is by Philip Dunne, writer of Fox movies for thirty-plus years, some of which (THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY) are great. This one’s literate, and doesn’t suffer too much from Epic Dialogue Syndrome.

Rex Harrison’s memoir is hilarious on this one. Harrison’s huge ego demands that he be the star in a film about Michelangelo even though he’s not Michelangelo. “I don’t think Carol was himself. I think Charlton Heston was absolutely himself, and by the end I didn’t know who I was. Pope I knew I was, though the real star was Michelangelo, and Heston very politely and very nicely made me feel that it was extremely kind of me to be supporting him. Carol did little to disabuse him of this notion, so I did everything I could to make myself believe that the picture was about Pope Julius rather than about Michelangelo. In this I was not too successful.”

They wanted Olivier, Rexy.

THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY stars Moses; Professor Henry Higgins; Molly Seagrim; 13th Earl of Gurney; Prof. Alberto Levin; Prof. Henry Wassermann; Largo; Pat Garrett; Julia Martineau; Manuel ‘Cuchillo’ Sanchez; and Chief Inspector Tim Oxford.

Past Life Digression

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 18, 2018 by dcairns

The Late Show: light reprise.

Holy cats, ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER is quite a thing, isn’t it?

Nutty as it is (blame/credit Alan Lerner), I’d argue that, commercial failure notwithstanding, we could see this as a triumphant conclusion to Vincente Minnelli’s career, were it not for the fact that he made one more movie, A MATTER OF TIME, which was a disaster (recut and partially reshot by AIP, who apparently didn’t notice it was a period movie and spliced in lots of docu-style shots of seventies Rome).

There’s this ordinary girl, see, (only she’s played by Barbra Streisand, so not that ordinary) and she turns out to be really hypnotizable, and shrink Yves Montand discovers he can regress her to a past life and he falls in love with her past life, who was far from ordinary, and meanwhile her present life is romantically complicated by her unsuitable schnook boyfriend and her ex-stepbrother (Jack Nicholson!) and what is Yves Montand to do since he’s in love with a dead girl who he can only contact through her mundane contemporary incarnation who bores him rigid?

Welcome to VERTIGO, the musical. Only it’s barely a musical, since the songs are relatively scarce and usually get played as internal monologue or positioned as fantasies — a translucent apparition of Babs sings to the more solid version of herself, and of course they have great chemistry together). But even if it’s oddly fainthearted as operetta-film, and only a couple of the songs (notable the title number) are memorable, there’s A LOT to enjoy.

Cecil Beaton did the costumes for the period storyline, which feels way underdeveloped in narrative terms but looks astounding. Some friend of Streisand did her modern clothes which are mainly horrid but maybe they’re meant to be? John DeCuir did the production design — check out HIS amazing list of credits. Of course, he had a help from Brighton Pavilion, an amazing location. But he makes the modern-day New York sequences exotic and wild and cinematic too — Minnelli is a director who feeds off his production design (and feeds into it, of course).

The flashbacks are crowded with terrific Brit players — John Le Mesurier turns up just to drop a monocle — Irene Handl and Roy Kinnear and Pamela Brown. And, remarkably, Babs does a spot-on posh English accent and then shares a scene in cockney with her old mum, Handl, where her vocal work is… not embarrassing. No Dick Van Dyke, she. Well, she hasn’t got the legs for it. But you know what I mean.

What she can’t really do — and in fairness nobody seems to be trying to help her — is suggest ordinariness, or suggest why Montand thinks she’s boring and stupid. She plays it full-on kook, which she can certainly do, but she seems more appealing, as a personality, than her previous earthly form. But still, the film, which doesn’t have much of a narrative engine, is able to continually refresh itself by plunging in and out of the past, using a variety of trippy visual devices including stroboscopic flash-cutting, proving that Minnelli had at least noticed what was going on in the visual culture around him.

It’s on Netflix, by the way.

Starring Fanny Brice, Cesar ‘le Papet’ Soubeyran, Maj. Major Major, Schrank, Jake Gittes, Tumak, Queen Eleanor [of Aquitaine], Mrs. Gimble, Private Clapper, Sgt. Wilson, Mr. Alonzo Smith and Eegah.

Gamine Streets

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2014 by dcairns

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Picked up DADDY LONG LEGS for a pound in a charity shop — didn’t expect too much from it, for whatever reason — but it’s lovely. Of the later Fred Astaire things I’ve seen, it struck me as better than SILK STOCKINGS, for instance — that one is haunted by the spectre of the superior NINOTCHKA. I prefer it to FUNNY FACE too, though that one arguably has better songs (but DLL has a nice bunch by Johnny Mercer).

Whereas this one should be troubled by the icky plotline — gajillionaire Fred Astaire sees Leslie Caron in an orphanage, likes what he sees, and decides to adopt her. Well, not quite: he pays for her American college education anonymously. But then she falls in love with the idea of her unseen guardian, and then he meets her, not revealing the connection, and falls in love with her.

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(The CALIGARI tradition of painted sets and painted shadows lived on, not in horror movies but in musicals. Work that one out, Kracauer!)

The clever part is that the screenplay by Phoebe and Henry Ephron has gruff, irascible supporting characters state all the objections to this May-December romance up front, voicing the audience’s own concerns in a killjoy way, forcing us to side with Fred. It helps that Caron is so irresistible.

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Director — Jean Negulesco, so we get swellegant widescreen composition

Cinematographer — Leon Shamroy, the King of Deluxe Color, so we get beautiful complimentary tinted tones. Shamroy had a slight tendency to overuse his honey and blue lighting (the orange and teal of his day) but he comes up with some lovely variations here in the night scenes.

Production designers — Lyle R. Wheeler, “the Dean of Art Directors,” and especially John DeCuir so we get stylised sets with a bold palette which never get garish in an MGM/Goldwyn manner. While THE RED SHOES was clearly an influence on the fantasy sequences, they’re full of fresh visual ideas, stuff you haven’t seen before.

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The movie is two hours long but doesn’t feel over-padded, much. And in one fantasy, Fred plays an imaginary Texas squillionaire and is VERY funny — fatuous smile, hundred-gallon hat, slow, comical movements. Of course, however ridiculous he makes himself, he’s graceful too.

Hmm, do I like any other Fox musicals? There’s THE GANG’S ALL HERE. I’ve written something about that one, too, but you won’t get to see it for a while…