Archive for John Huston

Juarez: What is it good for?

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on January 12, 2019 by dcairns

I can’t believe we watched JUAREZ right after NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA. How many films about impotent yet oppressive emperors can a person’s system withstand? We were about to find out.

The film is turgid, uniting the occasional leaden tendencies of director William Dieterle (exemplary in his fleet-footedness when Jack Warner cracked the whip or when entrusted with taut thriller material, fully living up to his German nickname “The Iron Stove” when pursuing some dim idea of “quality”) with the dullness of the standard biopic, the worthy period drama, and the “prestige” super-production. Co-writer John Huston blamed Paul Muni, cast as Juarez himself, for insisting on more lines. Muni talks slowly and low, which would work if he said little, but he’s dragging out great long speeches. “It was always heavy weather with Muni.”

Muni also seems to be wearing a FALSE HEAD, something like a Klingon.

In terms of performance, up-and-comer John Garfield and flatliner Brian Aherne (as the hapless Emperor Max) do best. Brian has to act through a ludicrous whorly beard. I think they should have abandoned historical likenesses for this movie, though they needed someone who could more plausibly suggest Indian heritage than Muni. Of course, we were watching for Bette’s mad scenes, which are indeed OTT, but not as hysterical as we’d hoped. But her character’s slide into insanity does give the film it’s best, by far, cinematic moment. After arguing her husband’s case with Napoleon III (an oily Claude Rains, always welcome), building into greater and greater frenzy of emotion, she breaks down completely, her hold on reality snapping. Claude turns into a Halloween devil, lit from below, which is slightly absurd (he’s already got the melodramatic villain’s twirly waxed mustache) —

And Bette flees the room —

Into OUTER DARKNESS. A completely black void, extending in all directions forever. Into this abyss she runs, and Dieterle’s camera plunges madly after her, and we’re swallowed up.

Now THAT’S expressionism. I can say it made the film worthwhile, though if I’d seen the clip in isolation that would have served me just as well. But then that would have made me watch the whole film, which would have been an even more unrewarding experience if I’d already seen the good bit.

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Palette Lenser

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on December 31, 2018 by dcairns

Finally watched GATE OF HELL, which is gorgeous — a take-your-breath-away image every two minutes or so — but still not my favourite Kinugasa joint (which would be YOSO). I figure Japanese cinema was filtering through to the west so erratically that this and A PAGE OF MADNESS may have achieved their high reputation partly by chance, striking though they are. Kinugasa made a lot of films, most of them impossible to see with subtitles… who knows what else is out there?

John Huston bigged up his colour experiments in MOULIN ROUGE (which are pretty great — I’m looking forward to the restoration) by saying that previous movies hadn’t done anything artistic with their palettes at all, and were just gaudy — which is blatantly untrue. But he did find time to praise GATE OF HELL, which was nice of him. In fact, GOH is sometimes fairly gaudy, and certainly doesn’t play safe — there are some very bold combinations of intense hues here. (Huston’s approach in MOULIN ROUGE, MOBY DICK and REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE was to mess about with diffusion and with the colour process itself — Paul Schrader has rightly stated that the more artistic approach is to achieve a controlled palette with the design itself, with what you put in front of the lens. (But Huston’s photochemical interventions are frequently glorious.)

 

Huston was probably responding partly to the effects of a foreign film stock and processing, which gave Japanese colour a different look, or a series of different looks. And he wouldn’t have seen many Japanese films at that time, certainly not colour ones. And then there’s the whole Japanese aesthetic approach, which EXPECTS everything to be beautiful — the quest for cinematic beauty, says Kurosawa, is what keeps us at it. So GATE OF HELL is delicious to the eyes even when portraying horrors. Transmuting the horrible, or the banal, or the picturesque, into the transcendentally beautiful seems one possible worthwhile mission for artistic endeavor.

 

Also dig the way Kinugasa’s camera moves of its own volition, sometimes triggered by music more than any onscreen action — it just takes off by itself to close in on a detail, or to depart the scene altogether when it feels like we’ve had enough. It’s a restless observer.

Tried to make me go to Ahab

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2018 by dcairns

Bits of John Huston’s MOBY DICK had Fiona’s jaw hanging open. If you could only reach into the screen, peal Gregory Peck’s image off it and replace him with someone else — Walter Huston would be right if his son had made it earlier — John himself would have been excellent, and you can see Peck straining to give Hustonian line readings — and one can imagine other leading men of the period being terrific — Robert Ryan was born to it (see BILLY BUDD), Trevor Howard could have nailed it, Robert Mitchum would have done something really surprising. Sterling Hayden had already worked with Huston so I can’t understand why he wasn’t thought of. Peck is certainly trying, but it’s a matter of essence, not just skill or willingness. And Peck’s essence is stiffness. “They’ve given him a nose and a scar and a wooden leg and he still can’t do anything!” declared a friend. He works himself into a suitable pitch, he takes risks, and none of it is particularly convincing or effective.

Maybe some of it is physiognomic: they glued on a fresh nose, but they can’t conceal the sensuous lips, which tend to look petulant rather than fierce.

However, this lack at the film’s centre seems to energize Huston — his blocking becomes both ornate and muscular, the build-up given to Peck’s appearance as Ahab is tremendous, and Philip Sainton’s score really gives it the hard sell — tragic that he never scored another film (apparently he was scheduled to do A KING IN NEW YORK, but quit, perhaps not wishing to merely transcribe his director’s humming.

Ossie Morris’s b&w/colour hybrid cinematography is consistently striking, and the whole thing has a visceral, weighty quality that even survives the unavoidable model shots — editor Russell Lloyd became a regular Huston collaborator after skillfully intercutting real whales, life-sized replicas, men and boats at sea and in the studio tank, and model shots completed months after principal photography, flicking from one to the other with such energy that the reality shifts are almost seamless. FX wise, it’s a weird case of the whale being impressive without being convincing; this at least places it a notch higher than Bruce the shark in JAWS who is neither. I mean, you know it can’t have been easy, but your hat remains on your head.

Richard Basehart is good — not too interesting, which seems right for the cypher-like Ishmael. A younger actor might have been more “right,” but Basehart being the wrong type adds the right kind of interest. His speech also has a Huston-like quality, and in Joe Losey’s FINGER OF GUILT the same year, he delivers cinema’s first full-on Huston impersonation, anticipating Clint Eastwood in WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART and Daniel Day-Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Best in show: Harry Andrews, who implausibly just seems to BE his hearty whaler character, and Leo Genn’s pensive Starbuck who can make underplaying hit hard.

An 8/10ths masterpiece. The Hollywood Gold Series Blu Ray delivers solid picture values (much better than the DVD used for these images).

MOBY DICK stars Atticus Finch, Ivan Karamazov, Sir Clifford Chatterley, Sir Lancelot Spratt, the 13th Earl of Gurney, Joe Gargery, Bob Cratchit, Tom Fury, Charles Foster Kane and the voice of the Lawgiver.