Archive for John Hurt

The Elephants Men

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2019 by dcairns

We marked the passing of the great Freddie Jones by rewatching THE ELEPHANT MAN. Exploring the DVD further we found the only real extra, a trailer.

It’s pretty bad! But it see-saws between hopeless and passable-but-embarrassing. Then we found another trailer. Let me talk you through the pair of them.

TRAILER ONE (1)

This starts like a horror movie, which is awkward. A shot from the film which, in context, portrays in a perfectly sensitive way, the anxiety of Nurse Nora upon being sent to bring Mr. Merrick a meal. Here, horror movie music has been added for suspense and Dr. Treves’ dialogue (“He won’t hurt you,… he won’t hurt you… he won’t hurt you…”) has been turned into a V.O. Implication: he definitely WILL HURT you. Maybe he’ll toss you on his tusks.

Nora’s scream segues quite skillfully into a sideshow tracking shot with a narrator: “You will feel the chill of horror… but this is not a horror story.” Well, I’m glad they cleared that up. “You will feel the warmth of love… but this is not a love story.” The narrator is creepy. But this is the most successful bit, telling us what the movie ISN’T. Since it’s sui generis, a kind of nightmare about innocence, a Dickensian disease-of-the-week movie, a corporeal divine comedy, none of which are recognised film genres, alas, it makes sense to close off bad readings of what the film is, rather than thrusting forward a good one. “You will see men in hats… but this is not a cowboy story.” No, he doesn’t actually say that.

“…the story of a very real monster… who was also a very real human being.” He was a bee-yoo-tiful poysson. But he wasn’t a monster, so this attempt at telling us what the film IS about in an interesting way is pretty indefensible.

Then we get Freddie’s carnival spiel, which tells us what territory we’re REALLY in — movie trailer as come-in, as sideshow barker’s invitation. A trailer for THE ELEPHANT MAN is inevitably going to end up saying, in effect, “Come and see the elephant man.”

“Paramount had no idea how to sell it,” recalled John Hurt. One exec told him, “Well, John, a monster movie is always going to be difficult to sell.” Hurt just stared, aghast. I don’t think a film this good ought to be a hard sell, but the question of ta s te doe s come into it, which is less of an issue if you’re selling GOING APE! with Tony Danza, another Paramount pic from the same era.

Essentially, THE ELEPHANT MAN’s audience is going to come to gaup and stay to emote, and in that way can reassure themselves they’re (a) physically normal, at lea s t compared to this guy, and (b) good, caring people. The trailer has to work on Motive B, to give the audience a good excuse to buy tickets, while making it clear that the more immediately obvious Motive A will indeed be satisfied.

Because Motive A dominates, THE ELEPHANT MAN MUST NOT APPEAR IN THE TRAILER. If he did, Motive A would lose all box office power.

As Paramount didn’t know how to sell this one, and as they were, apparently, cheapskates, we now get several shots, exchanges and line readings not in Lynch’s film. This is terrific — no way these things would have survived otherwise — but they’re only here because the studio didn’t want to spend money duping negative. And so we get to hear Freddie say the lost lines, “He’s a freak. That’s how they live. We’re partners, he and I.”

We see the camera push in on Anthony Hopkins getting his first look at Merrick, but we don’t see the teardrop fall — surely, the money shot. Cinematographer Freddie Francis nicknamed his director “Lucky Lynch” because the tear fell just as the perfect closeup was achieved. But I bet that only happened once.

Then THE ELEPHANT MAN in a disconcertingly Woody Allenish font comes flying out at us. “A shattering experience,” says the VO guy, which is a fairly clever way of putting Motives A and B together in three words, and then they ruin all their good indifferent work by having Michael Elphick delivering his carnival come-on down the boozer. I mean, of the three showmen portrayed, Freddie, Tony and Mike, surely Mike is the one your 1980 audience wants LEAST to do with?

That’s the trailer on the DVD I own. There’s also THIS, on the Youtubes:

Freddie J.’s great “Life! … is full of surprises,” monologue is recut into a patchwork, but it’s a strong start anyway, and I guess they would have to reduce it (but a great trailer could have been made using mainly this scene alone). You know what? It just struck me that “Life! … is full of surprises,” is a fantastic bit of bathos. It starts dramatic and then descends into a commonplace platitude. And Freddie’s genius is both to play that crapness to the hilt, and to make it still, somehow, work.

“At first, you will want to turn away,” says voice-over guy, telling us how we’re going to react. Psychologically, he’s trying to get us past our possible resistance to seeing a film whose title character does not outwardly resemble Farrah Fawcett. Then he reassures us that we’ll want to kick Merrick in the face, which is a reason for seeing a film we can all relate to.

“Stan’ up!” yells tiny Dexter Fletcher. I like to think this is the directorial approach he used to guide Taron Egerton through ROCKET MAN. Well, it would work for the “I’m Still Standing” number.

“But if you come to know him…” Hilariously, the film does not bring this idea to life by allowing us to hear Merrick speak, but continues to show him as a placid dummy with a bag on his head.

“And perhaps for the first time, you will understand the true meaning of courage, and human dignity.” Voice-over guy is making some pretty brassy assumptions about his listeners.

“You’re not the Elephant Man at all,” says Anne Bancroft.

Seconds later, voice-over guy tells us, “…and John Hurt as the Elephant Man.” So she’s wrong. He bloody is.

Thought you could put one over on us, eh, Mr. Merrick?

THE ELEPHANT MAN stars Hannibal Lecter; Winston Smith; Mrs. Robinson; Lord Raglan; Major Barbara Undershaft; Thufir Hawat; Ken Boon; Hyzenthlay; Lilliman; Gargoyle Reggie; Sister Ruth; Maggy – Little Dorrit’s Protegee; Fidgit; Sir Anthony Mount; Jemima Shore; Gordon Cole; and Sir Elephant.

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Nights at the Villa Deodati #4: Pull Every Remaining Lever

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2016 by dcairns

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Whenever I have a favourite line in a movie, it always turns out not to be in the movie at all. The intertitle “Heat! Sudden, intense heat!” which I swear I read when PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Lon Chaney version) showed at Edinburgh Film Fest, with accompaniment by Carl Davis, does not appear in any copy of the film I’ve seen since. This is disappointing. I’m afraid to see THE ASPHYX again in case Robert Stephens doesn’t actually utter the words “Was the smudge trying to warn Clive of danger?” which I have always regarded as the apogee of mankind’s poetic achievement. Mind you, it would be pretty good if it turned out I was responsible for it myself.

And so to Roger Corman’s FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, in which John Hurt does not actually say, as my brain told me he did, “Pull all remaining levers!” Instead, Raul Julia says “Pull every remaining lever!” which I feel is not quite as good.

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ROGER CORMAN’S F.U., as we must abbreviate it, is the mighty Roger Corman’s last directorial outing to date — it apparently came about when a studio did some audience testing and found that a lot of people would go and see something called ROGER CORMAN’S FRANKENSTEIN. So they approached the Great Man and asked him if he would care to make a film with that title. “As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t,” he replied, with his characteristic old-school graciousness. But then somehow Brian Aldiss’s novel came into his possession and he saw a way to make things interesting, and so the film got made because of a title that tested well, and ended up with a different title.

(I wonder what other titles they tested? ROGER CORMAN’S FRANKENSTEIN seems really specific. Did they also tally the scores for GEORGE ROMERO’S MADAME BOVARY, PETER WEIR’S MABINOGION, HANS JURGEN SYBERBERG’S JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH?)

Aldiss, who also wrote the story that became the Spielberg-Kubrick A.I., seems to have intended his novel as a philosophical essay wrapped inside a sci-fi yarn, following on from his influential study of the genre, The Billion-Year Spree, in which he put forward a compelling case for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first true science fiction novel (as well as “the best book ever written by a teenager”). So, he folds Shelley’s life into the world of her creations, which perhaps made more sense on the page than it does in the movie — without a continual narration, John Hurt’s time-travelling scientist can’t share with us whether or not he’s puzzled by the fact that Frankenstein and his creature appear to be simultaneously characters in a novel and a real person (Raul Julia! Nick Brimble?). This makes Hurt a hard character to relate to — he has nobody really to talk to, although in fact his computerized car, who doesn’t have a name but whom I will call Lady Knight Rider, might have made a handy outlet for exposition.

It’s also kind of hard to relate to him as he’s building a super-weapon, although he seems to be aiming for sympathy when he says he wanted to invent a weapon that wouldn’t destroy the world. I’m not sure that proviso qualifies you for the Nobel Peace Prize, John.

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Corman wrote the script with F.X. Feeney (should’ve hired a proper writer, not a critic — oh wait, that would rule me out) but seems curiously disengaged from the whole experience. His Damascene moment on VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN, nineteen years earlier, in which he realised with a shock that he would far rather go to the beach than go to the set and complete another day’s filming, doesn’t seem to have worn off. The actors seem left to their own devices (or maybe confused by unfocussed direction?) and the filming is perfectly competent but never shows any excitement. The score by Carl Davis — see how this piece is folding in on itself like a time vortex?) — flattens things out further. Davis is a great silent accompanist, but seems unable to capture the mood of a scene, or opts for the least dramatic possible mood. The score might sound quite powerful in isolation, but laid over the film it seems to nullify.

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Nick Brimble is a really dreadful monster (on the wrong sense of the word “dreadful”), in a fairly dreadful makeup (those big extra thumbs! Did Frankenstein put his hands on the wrong wrists? The discs in his head!). His first line is “GIVE ME WHAT I WANT!”, a great piece of what I would call muffled exposition, in which a line sounds like it’s inserted for the audience’s benefit rather than something a character would say, but still doesn’t tell us anything helpful. The talented Nick Dudman did the makeup, but I’d say he’s tried to incorporate too many ideas. And half of them are very terrible ideas.

As for the Byron/Shelley menage, the movie doesn’t bother with Dr Polidori or Claire Clairmont (though GOTHIC’s C.C., Myriam Cyr, appears as a futuristic scientist), but gives us Jason Patric as Byron, Michael Hutchence as Shelley, and Bridget Fonda as Mary. Patric might have gotten away with his arch manner, but Hutchence has evidently decided that High Camp is the way forward for romantic poets, and assumes an unhelpful effete manner. These fops have nothing to do anyway, and neither in any real sense does Fonda, but she at least has a bit more screen time. She sounds rather American, as do half the bit players (the good ones — the Brits shipped in to the Italian locations are dreadful), but like the yanks in HAUNTED SUMMER she does have that zesty, unselfconscious quality that one admires in American acting.

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VAGINA BOREALIS

At the one hour mark, a Bride is created, using technology borrowed from BACK TO THE FUTURE — Hurt hooks Lady Knight Rider, who has Delorean style slide-up doors, to a Special Apparatus and waits for lightning to strike a church tower. All it needs is a bit of Huey Lewis. Somehow Hurt blasts the whole building into the future using a laser (Lady Knight Rider turns out to have a built-in laser) and the characters start killing each other for no reason.

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I would welcome a movie in which Raul Julia’s Disco Frankenstein meets Frank Langella’s Disco Dracula.

When I first saw this, there was a bit where Hurt expresses uncertainty about when this latest time warp has brought him, and I got very excited. Of course, I thought, they’ve been zapped into primordial times and the monster and his mate will become Adam and Eve, breeding and perhaps mating with neanderthals and thus father the human race! Frankenstein created us all! And himself! John Hurt: temporal ourobouros! FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND.

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But no: it’s a wintry apocalyptic future. Hurt and the monster have a big fight in a bunker full of lasers, the monster rips his own arm off and hits Hurt with it, Hurt sticks a pipe in him, and then lasers him to death. Then he gets a Fu Manchu-style post-mortem monologue in which he mysteriously claims to be unbound. Hurt heads off for a frozen futuristic city, suggestive of LOGAN’S RUN or QUINTET or, come to think of it, A.I. No epic philosophical issues are implied at all. No learning. No hugging.

I would like Roger Corman to make something else, because I don’t really think his final F.U. is good enough. If he makes something else, I would like him to star in it himself, and just tell stories, in his wonderful purring voice, about his amazing career and the amazing people he’s known. It can be a very, very long film, if he likes.

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Spent Bullet

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on December 3, 2013 by dcairns

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Sam Peckinpah’s THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND doesn’t strike me as a  particularly good film, and credited screenwriter Alan Sharp didn’t think much of it either. It was one of these much-rewritten movies where nobody can really be sure afterwards who was responsible for what, and it’s based on a Ludlum novel anyway so what can we expect? And it’s a Peckinpah espionage movie which puts it in the same ballpark as THE KILLER ELITE, only more tired.

But as I recall, Sharp’s description of what went down on the movie was pretty illuminating — according to him, the film’s producers accorded Bloody Sam every respect and privilege, desperate to make him happy on what could clearly be his last film (he directed it on a drip) and to break the cycle of lousy relationships he’d had with the suits throughout his career. Sam treated them mercilessly.

And so, in post-production, the producers did what nearly every previous Peckinpah producer did — they shut him out of the cutting room and released a version which satisfied them, ignoring his bitter ranting. They did at least preview his unfinished cut — audiences were confused by the opening, which was seriously incomplete, so they decided to proceed with their own version. This is a shame, because a Peckinpah edit, no matter what the director’s raddled state, is automatically going to be superior to an edit by an army of eight execs. Because some kind of guiding cinematic sensibility is needed, rather than committee groupthink.

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Fortunately for us, if we obtain the special edition DVD, the bonus disc contains a director’s cut, mastered on low-res video tape and rescued from a bin. Despite the poor image quality and the rough video versions of optical effects (Sam did love his cheesy opticals, bless his infarcted, drug-addled, misogynistic heart), it makes for interesting viewing.

At the film’s opening, we see hidden camera footage of a sexy tryst between Dr Who (John Hurt) and a naked lady (women in this film are either naked or dead: this one is soon both). While Hurt is out of the room (I presume washing his balls) and the lady is toying languidly with her nipples as ladies always do when men aren’t around, assassins burst in and inject a lethal overdose up her nose. It’s possible that somebody explains why later. What struck the Monthly Film Bulletin critic at the time was that this whole scene is covered from multiple angles, suggesting that not only did CIA head Burt Lancaster have spy-cams planted all over the room, panning and zooming at will, but that he also had Roger Spottiswode or Monte Hellman or somebody in a darkened room vision-mixing this footage live so Burt could always be seeing the best angle on his private espionage snuff film, with faster cutting for dramatic effect in the more exciting moments. It doesn’t really contribute towards an air of verisimilitude.

“Nasty piece of film, Stennings,” says Lancaster, in the film’s most self-aware line, just as the title naming the nasty filmmaker responsible appears (as is usual with Peckinpah, his name appears looong after everybody else’s credit has gone, as if some kind of quarantine was required to keep the rest of the cast and crew from being infected by his beady-eyed mania.

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What we get in the director’s cut is layers of wooziness — shimmering ripple effects as if we’re sliding in and out of a movie dream sequence or flashback (I still can’t believe those eggy ripple-dissolves to flashback in THE WILD BUNCH, like the nouvelle vague never happened). I can’t see any possible reason for this effect. The DVD claims it was intended to show the John Hurt character’s warped point of view, but he spends most of the scene in the shower so it’s not his point of view anyway. But it does throw the question of verisimilitude out the window, leaking from blood capsules and squib damage as it plunges to earth.

The Peckinpah version then segue’s back into the edit we know — Lancaster has just watched the murder on tape, but it’s not implied that the events had been covered from multiple angles. So we can already see that whatever the problems with Peckinpah’s vision (and here I would cite the Lalo Schiffrin soft porn sax accompaniment high on the list), it at least made more sense than what eventually made it to cinemas.

In theory, the fuzzy video version could be used to restore Peckinpah’s intended approach — but that would depend on the original negative rushes having been preserved, which is unlikely. And it would depend on somebody with the money giving a rat’s ass, which is less likely still. I’d settle for a definitive cut of PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID, whose restoration suffered from a common malaise — a restoration team convinced they knew better than the original director. But at least that DVD also contains two alternative cuts showing what they had to work with.

THIS is Peckinpah’s actual last movie ~

And his last day on set, I think, was shooting second unit of a truck crash for his old mentor Don Siegel, on what proved to be Siegel’s own final film, the Bette Middler comedy JINXED! Desperate to re-establish his professional reputation, Peckinpah organized detailed storyboards and shot everything with lightning efficiency. The pyrotechnics department provided him with a blaze of glory in name only.

 The Osterman Weekend – Commemorative 2 disc edition [1983] [DVD]
The Osterman Weekend (Two-Disc)