Archive for John Houseman

A Week Can Be a Long Time in Politics

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2015 by dcairns


7 DAYS IN MAY (1964) — one of Frankenheimer’s very best, I’d say. It’s taken me ages to get around to it. Maybe the opening scene put me off, since I think the handheld, jagged cutting and multiple inserted red frames (Frankenheimer admired Hitchcock enormously, so he’s riffing on SPELLBOUND — there’s a good story about his Hitch idolatry, if you remind me) was a little overdone. And then there’s a very long build-up in which most of the terrific cast have little to do but repeatedly explain to us who they are and what their jobs are and what got done before the movie started. A slow pressure starts to build though as Colonel Kirk Douglas, all clenched reptile features and micro eye-darting, suspects something is up. When he reports to President Fredric March that General Burt Lancaster is plotting a military coup, at last the film takes off and begins to generate serious tension.

Frankenheimer commissioned the script from his old TV colleague Rod Serling, who does lay on the exposition a bit thick at the start, and the speechifying even thicker at the end, but it evolves into a cross-cut pattern of escalating, nerve-biting, nail-raising, hair-shredding excitement. We got this the same year as STRANGELOVE? No wonder FAIL SAFE failed. You can only have so many of these things in a year, I expect. Otherwise the nervous strain would be too great.

Serling’s exposition isn’t exactly bad, it’s just more obvious than I like it, with characters showing off unnecessarily just to shoehorn a little more information into their speeches, calling each other by name multiple times, and so on. But the groundwork is laid effectively enough so that once the plot really gets moving, you’re never confused despite the complexity. The speech-making is rendered more excusable by the fact that Sterling gives his villain convincing motivation — noble cause corruption, where the ends justify the means — making him as much a patriot as March.


Edmund O’Brien, typecast as a drunk, is very enjoyable too. Every time I see him now I think of the story in WORKING WITH ORSON WELLES, Gary Graver’s shambolic but fun documentary — a couple of assistants on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND had the job of helping O’Brien (“Eddie is a magnificent ruin,” quoth Welles) pack his luggage after the shoot. And he had all this weird shit in his hotel drawers — raw meat and light bulbs and stuff. “Are you sure you want all this packed?” “Yeah yeah.” So every time we See O’Brien we make a crack about his meat ‘n’ light bulbs.

Having gotten his ebullient, experimental side out of the way early, Frankenheimer goes almost classical, eschewing his Dutch tilts but exulting in Kubrickian symmetry, deep focus and the frequent use of the “A” composition ~


He has a lot of fun with TV monitors, a recurring device of his from MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE on. Easy to see why they figured in his imagery, given his years spent barking into a microphone in front of an array of glasse screens. He also has some shots here that are just expressively wonderful.



Being a political drama of its day, the story is very male-driven (Martin Balsam: “I have a feeling this time next week we’ll all be laughing.” Fiona: “On the other sides of our faces. Which will have been blown off”). But there’s room for a lusty turn from Ava Garner, and a very very shiny one from Colette MacDonald, who turns out to have been Preston Sturges’ daughter-in-law. We both thought it was Karen Black.


We correctly identified John Houseman, though, in his first screen appearance since TOO MUCH JOHNSON twenty-six years previously. In that one he was a Keystone Cop, in this one he is an admiral. Natural Authority.

Citizen Eyre

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2014 by dcairns


Not quite fair to follow the exquisite Cary Fukanaga JANE EYRE with Robert Stevenson’s 1943 Gothic potboiler, though normally I’d be likely to prefer the older film (produced by Orson Welles!)

In this Hollywood England, everyone is plummy, with occasional hints of Scots accent for the harsher characters (Henry Danielle in particular) — the only Yorkshire accent is possessed by Ethel Griffies (the ornithologist from THE BIRDS) as Grace Poole, the madwoman in the attic’s nurse. She appears so late in the story that her authentic speech comes as an illusion-shattering shock.


In the leads, of course, we have Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, each in their own way slightly disastrous, together a cataclysmic calamity which nearly tears the film from its sprockets. But it’s not a total disaster — with atmospheric studio artifice — Thornfield as Castle Frankenstein — and Bernard Herrmann at his most chromatically characteristic, the movie is beautiful to see and hear, and there are fragments of good scenes and good ideas throughout. Stevenson, assisted and harassed by Welles, and with a mainly intelligent script her co-authored with Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, manoeuvres his way through the long, convoluted narrative quite deftly, distorting quite a bit and being too obvious much of the time, but hitting the key points…


You’ll grow to love Joan’s “concerned simpleton” expression or, if you don’t, it won’t be from lack of opportunity because it NEVER LEAVES HER FACE.

But we never believe the love story, do we? Orson is able to look offscreen with affecting tenderness — helped, I suspect, by his custom of playing his closeups against thin air. But when he’s intercut with Fontaine’s simpering features, we wonder what is inspiring such compassion, since Fontaine is cycling through her limited repertoire much faster than usual and too more wearying effect. (It’s a bit like DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, this intercutting of closeups that seem to technically correspond but betray the manipulation usually concealed — we KNOW, Kuleshov be damned, that these shots don’t belong together.)

Listen — I like Fontaine, who is great in REBECCA and LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and numerous other things. But look — in the screen tests for REBECCA, happily preserved, we can see a small army of Hollywood lovelies trying and failing to grab the role of the meek and mild “I”. The character actually has a line about being shy, but Loretta Young plays it lush and saintly, while Vivian Leigh looks like she wants to tear Maxim DeWinter’s trousers off. Fontaine’s looks like the most intelligent reading by far, but maybe it’s just that her mannerisms suited it better? She can play shy. As Jane Eyre, she’s supposed to be spirited — and she gives us the most submissive, eyes-downcast, passive performance we ever saw. A case of an actor needing to be broken from her habitual performance and shoved out into terra incognito, not an easy thing when the actor is a star. Also a case of playing the lines, which are technically submissive as it’s 19th century employee-to-employer dialogue, rather than playing the subtext. (I just watched The Secret Life of Books on the BBC, in which awful journalist Bidisha struggles with the politics of the book — she loved it at sixteen when she read it for pleasure, but now she’s thinking deeply about it, it all seems so incorrect — partly because her attempts to shoehorn it into a modern PC paradigm interfere with her ability to actually read and understand.)


Welles plays his happy scenes as Charles Rochester Kane, wears his pants absurdly high and affects a piratical puffy shirt and a false nose, but is very good in places. I like listening to his voice and we can believe him as temperamental, domineering, haunted — during those moments when we can believe him as a human being at all.


As you can see — great visuals, particularly in long shot.

The script hews closely to the cornier aspects of the book’s ending, though Jane never becomes rich — but we do get Rochester’s miracle recovery from blindness and the birth of a son to the house of Rochester, though this is all in the form of Fontaine’s tremulous narration, so Sonny Bupp is deprived of a plum role. As far as I recall, other adaptations are content to end with Jane and Edward reunited and “Reader, I married him,” as the inevitable future outcome, skipping any suggestion of a cure and letting the audience imagine the oncoming domestic bliss, such as it may be.

Mondo Kane #8: Xanadu #2

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 16, 2013 by dcairns


Let’s talk about the script. There’s been an EC Comics horror-retribution thing going on with perception of it. First, we are told, Welles tried to bribe Herman Mankiewicz into giving up credit. Despite H.M. very properly retaining his name on the film, critical discourse tended to favour the genius and ignore the man perceived as a hack, or at best, someone with the status of a Buster Keaton co-director, performing a technical function to support the true creative work,

Then Kael wrote her essay, Raising Kane, and quoted Mankiewicz’s secretary who said Welles didn’t write a word. The idea of shining a light on Toland, Mankiewicz and other collaborators was a perfectly noble one, but this didn’t have to be at Welles’ expense — at any rate, had Kael spoken to Welles, or Welles’ secretary, or even Houseman (a Welles enemy by this time, but one who was always willing to concede Welles’ script role), or studied the various drafts, she could have discovered for herself Welles’ sizable contribution.

Welles, in his later years, would also say that John Houseman also deserved co-writer status.


Now, things have swung around a bit — Welles is the one people are mostly interested in, and the lingering effect of all this intrigue is the stain on his character concerning his attempt to “rob” Mankiewicz of credit (really an attempt to BUY the credit, but still a bit disreputable). It’s something that rankled — when Welles asked a commercials director to annoy him, so he could have the correct emotion for a scene, the guy teased him about his weight to no effect, but the question “Why did you try to steal Herman J. Mankiewicz’s writing credit?” apparently provoked a colossal strop — he had GONE TOO FAR.

Simon Callow, in The Road to Xanadu, observes that Mankiewicz’s contract explicitly stated that for legal purposes the author of any screenplay would be Mercury Productions, with Mank as a mere employee. I expect that was fairly standard practice, because the industry has never been comfortable granting screenwriters the kind of moral rights artists normally have — if they did, an objection from some ink-stained wretch could hold up the whole titanic machinery of production.

He also observes that Welles was in the midst of a savage game of telegram tennis with a man who wanted to publish the script of the War of the Worlds broadcast, and credit Howard Koch as writer. Koch, in his own memoir, describes the writing process for the radio shows as something like (a) He would work all day and all night to adapt the chosen literary source for that week’s broadcast (b) Houseman would edit (c) an assistant would begin rehearsals (d) Welles would come in, take over, and breathe his magic into it.

But he also admits that Welles would be involved at the start of the process, too — War of the Worlds came with an instruction to dramatize it in the form of news bulletins.

Koch, receiving just seventy-five dollars a week, was happy to cede credit — for the first time in his life, he could call himself a professional writer. Mankiewicz, understandably, at his time in life, preferred a substantial credit to a substantial cheque. But considering his previous working practices, and his reputation, and his own contract which stated he was to write, produce, direct and star in a film for RKO, Welles’ rather shady action becomes at least understandable. Like many directors (John Ford: “A screenplay is dialogue, and I hate dialogue,”) Welles possibly undervalued the work of the screenwriter. Yet those who want to give Mankiewicz all of the credit for KANE have to willfully overlook or trash the other films Welles undoubtedly DID co-write or write entirely.

And check out the credit Welles finally DID give Mank (top).


And so to another shifty character, Paul Stewart as the shifty butler is introduced via an abrupt dissolve to the big K sign (Herrmann accompanies it with what sounds like an anvil strike) and then an equally quick dissolve to Stewart just as a match light his face and his cigarette. Then we’re plunged into shadow again, as if Stewart was trying to out-silhouette our intrepid boy reporter Mr Thompson.


These speedy cross-fades have been leading up a real quick mix to the screeching parrot — as if Robert Wise wanted to invent direct cutting twenty years before the nouvelle vague pretended they did, but couldn’t quite bring himself to go there. So what should be a shock cut as jarring as the one to the lighting-bolt-lit Susie Kane poster, is instead a dissolve of just a few frames, with the sudden whiteness of the parakeet, the jolt of its squawk, and the peculiar quirk of superimposition that’s robbed it of an eye, all compensating for the unwanted gentleness which the lack of a hard cut tends to produce. It also helps, in a perverse way, that the parrot appears frames ahead of its background, as if it were teleporting in from Long John Silver’s shoulder.

I guess because a bird’s eye is very dark, effectively black in a monochrome film, it came out transparent while the rest of the parakeet, being white, bleaches out the background. They should have jammed that damn snowglobe into the empty socket.


The squawker was never scripted, and no record that I know of exists explaining how it came to flutter into the film — seemingly an edit room afterthought like the statue of Thatcher. What it obscure is an atypically planimetric composition with an unconvincing rear-pro beachfront. The weird Xanadu mix of architectural styles is nice here, but I can imagine Welles rejecting the stable, flat, full stop of a shot and grasping around for some way to jazz it up. A shrieking jungle bird fit the bill nicely.


The following shot, though equally rigid, is a stunner, with the kind of smashing perspective Welles liked. Can a lateral view be vertiginous?

Welles trashes Susie’s room, the only scene obviously filmed with two cameras, to minimize re-takes. It may even have been a one-take wonder, since re-setting and repairing the bedroom would have been quite an operation. John Houseman suggests that Kane’s tantrum was based on Welles’ own furious reaction to Houseman’s dissolution of their partnership, in which case the scene may be part of Houseman’s amorphous but widely-acknowledged contribution to the script (although his script work on the radio shows was more editorial than creative). Welles for his part reported feeling genuine emotion as he smashed up the set, a rare occurrence for him. And yet, the real emotion doesn’t actually photograph, and Kane appears more the lumbering automaton than ever. This works fine, don’t get me wrong — it just may not be what was intended.


“Rosebud.” Not the snowglobe’s first appearance — it can be seen, prominently positioned, in Susie’s love nest during the Leland flashbacks. So it’s Susie’s trashy taste, but it has an emotional effect on Kane greater than all of his art collection — it reminds him, during this moment of loss, of the original loss, his mother who sent him away to be educated.

Suzie’s ceiling beams have their own menagerie — the The Birds of the Air! The fish of the sea! But no sign of an unconvincing octopus or flamingo-pterodactyl.

Kane pockets the snowglobe, absently, as he wanders off, and presumably installs it by his bedside from now until his death as a constant and painful reminder that he can’t have what he really wants. As he walks past his startled staff, he disappears from frame and is replaced by his own reflection. A walking shadow. And then he’s fragmented into an infinity of reflections, as if lost in a maze of illusions or in the shards of the snowglobe that shatters at the instant of his death.

“Sentimental fellow, aren’t you?”
“Mmm, yes and no.”


This is the only flashback sequence that opens out into a whole other scene, the dismantling of Xanadu (like a movie set being taken down after the production is over). And that will form the subject of our final installment…

“You can keep on asking questions if you want to.”

Citizen Kane – Screenplay formatted for Kindle
Citizen Kane – Screenplay formatted for Kindle


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