Archive for John Huston

Animal Magic

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2015 by dcairns

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I had the great pleasure of meeting Michael Fitzgerald in Telluride the other year. An impressive gentleman, he numbers among his achievements exec producing two late John Huston movies, WISE BLOOD and UNDER THE VOLCANO. I asked him about the Great Man, and he was VOCIFEROUS, and extremely convincing in his passion, as he stated UNCATEGORICALLY that Huston was indeed a great man and that anybody who had anything bad to say about him was doubtless an untalented ingrate. However, I have also asked novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp about Huston, having been promised that the results would be entertaining… but Sharp seemed already tired of the subject and merely said that Huston was a nasty man and a sadist. Both witnesses seemed credible and were in a position to know. Fortunately, I’m not called upon to come up with the definitive verdict on this legendary filmmaker and can content myself with the platitude that Huston was doubtless large, contained multitudes etc.

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His autobiography, An Open Book, I can give a thumbs up to, however. Dipping into it again as an accompaniment to a viewing of THE BIBLE… IN THE BEGINNING was extremely informative and fun. First, the movie —

Dino de Laurentiis’ demented inspiration to make The Film of the Book notwithstanding (they managed only a few opening bits of Genesis), I’d always found this a dull film, but it rewards a sympathetic re-viewing. It’s all flawed, and many of the flaws do result in a kind of tedium, but you can see why the decisions seemed reasonable at the time. Huston, essentially an atheist, was drawn in by the language of the King James Bible, and handed himself the job of narrating the movie, effectively becoming the Voice of God. Getting Christopher Fry to write all the dialogue in a comparable style results in lines that are hard to speak naturalistically. George C. Scott solves this by talking very slowly, giving his character, Abraham, time to come up with all this great material. Unfortunately, all the lesser actors in the previous chapters have spoken slowly too, wearing down our capacity to appreciate another ponderous prophet. The only actor in the whole film who talks rapidly is Huston himself, not as God but as Noah.

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Huston pours a full bucket of milk into a gaping hippo then pats it on the nose — insanely dangerous.

When Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Alec Guinness all passed on playing Noah, Huston realised that as he’d been practicing with the menagerie assembled for the ark scenes, he might as well take the part himself, and would have stolen the show if the raven, the elephant and the hippo weren’t on hand to steal it from him. Tossing off his lines with casual disregard, he invents a new kind of biblical acting that could have rescued the movie if only he’d passed the tip on to somebody else. As he once told Sean Connery about his character in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, “He can talk fast: he’s an honest man.” (Connery has said that his usual error is to talk TOO fast, resulting in Hitchcock requesting “a few more dog’s feet,” by which he meant “pawses.”)

The animal action here is extraordinary, and went largely unremarked, since, as Huston writes, everybody knows the animals went in two by two so they aren’t amazed to see it happen before their eyes.

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As entertaining as the stuff about THE BIBLE is in An Open Book, the whole chapter about Huston’s charmed relationship with the animal kingdom tops it. His pet monkey, the Monk, gets some very sweet anecdotes (riding about New York on the back of a Pekingese). The only animal Huston expresses doubts about is the parrot. Realising that his grandmother’s parrot loved women but hated men (parrots seem to bond with the opposite sex), the young Huston once attired himself in a wig, full drag and face powder, doused himself in perfume, and approached the sacred perch, addressing it in an assumed falsetto.

“The parrot’s feathers fluffed out. I put my hand in the cage and the parrot cooed. Suddenly it cocked its head, looked me right in the eye, and then proceeded to dismantle my finger.”

OK, Fitzgerald’s right on this one: he dragged up to seduce a parrot, he’s a great man.

Bring Me the Head of Fred C. Dobbs

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 1, 2014 by dcairns

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Spoiler alert — this is a key moment from THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE and I’ll be discussing it in detail so turn aside squeamishly if you haven’t seen this film in the 66 years since it was made ~

At 2.33 Gold Hat (Alfonso Bedoya) brings his machete down on Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart). At 2.34 he takes a step back and looks at his messy handiwork. At 2.35 he kills Fred all over again, in what looks to be the exact same shot or a different take of the same.

At 2.37 he gets momentarily distracted by something to his lower right.

At 2.39 there’s a high angle shot in which we can see a pool of water with a rippling surface and a trace of darkness.

According to regular Shadowplayer Randy Cook, this sequence was originally supposed to show Bogie’s decapitation and his head rolling into the pool. In Robert Rossen’s draft screenplay we find the sequence described thus ~

“THE REST WE SEE REFLECTED IN THE BRACKISH WATER OF THE POOL: The stroke of the machete, then the figures of the three bandits standing, eyes downward, looking at something on the ground. The water in the pool begins to darken. Gold Hat looks up from the ground to the machete in his hand. He touches his thumb and forefinger to the tip of his tongue, then he tests the cutting edge of the blade. The waters of the pool are growing darker and darker.”

Huston, being a director, would probably have ignored the stuff about reflections in a pool. Anytime a screenwriter describes a camera placement, you can be sure the director will do something different. Then again, Rossen’s script was an adaptation of Huston’s pre-war draft. Huston, I think, subsequently adapted it back.

Randy suggests listening to Max Steiner’s typically emphatic score, which accompanies the action closely, a style known as “mickey-mousing.” If you close your eyes at the moment of the first mighty chop, you can easily picture the score accompanying the bouncing of a prop head into a pool. Thump thump splosh.

“Huston had seen terrible things in the war and may have thought the time was right to show something like this,” suggests Randy. “Also, as we know from the ending of THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING that he found severed heads funny.”

Bogart reputedly complained, “What’s wrong with showing a guy getting his head cut off?”

So what was deleted? Also – there are plenty of shots of makeup tests of Bogie for this film — he wears various lengths of beard and wig, courtesy of Perc Westmore and his team. So why has no prosthetic head of Humphrey Bogart turned up?

I’m trying to mentally reconstruct the sequence as it originally stood.

As originally edited, the second chop would not have existed. The shot at 2:37 would have run longer, making it clear that Gold Hat is following the movement of something close to the ground.

The high angle showing the pool to Gold Hat’s right would have started a touch earlier, showing the splash, and lingered as the blood started to srain the pool. No severed head need be shown, since the splash could be produced by any heavy round object. Maybe a weighted canteen containing dark dye.

This explanation strikes me as credible — Huston may have expected to get away with such a sequence, introducing a grisly idea using suggestion and enlisting the audience’s imagination. Then Jack Warner would have choked on his cigar or Joe Breen would have had a conniption, and the sequence would have had to be re-edited. To make things cheap, they didn’t want to change the length of the scene because that would mean rescoring, so they rearranged some shots and added a second death-blow from Gold Hat, ironically making the scene MORE violent, although measuring such things is very subjective. Steve McQueen doesn’t think his 12 YEARS A SLAVE is particularly violent as it only contains, to his mind, six instances of violence — fewer than any PG-rated action film. But the effect on an audience has little to do with the number of violent moments or even how explicitly they are presented — most of the violence in FUNNY GAMES occurs just off-camera, but I think it’s laughable to claim that makes it more pure or decent.

This debate won’t be settled probably ever, but I’m glad to say I may have settled why Humphrey Bogart’s severed head hasn’t turned up on eBay.

BUT — nothing is settled. There are accounts that swear there was a severed head, and there is this ~

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Proof that Bogart’s face was cast for a life-mask at about the right time. He does wear a lot of different beard and hairpieces in the film, so it could have been for that. If Humphrey Bogart DID have a spare head, what’s become of it? Maybe it was water-soluble. Maybe Bogie got drunk and dropkicked it off a cliff. Maybe it was carried off by a gila monster. Maybe Warren Oates found it years later…?

The ’68 Comeback Special: Charlie Bubbles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2013 by dcairns

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Running a themed blogathon at the same time as two alternating columns (The Forgotten and this one, shared with Scout Tafoya who writes it every other week) presents the amusing challenge of coming up with a Thursday article which can fit both the theme of Thursday’s regular feature — the movies that were to have competed at the 1968 Cannes Film Festival — with the theme of the blogathon. In 1968, the hot directors were mostly young, so finding a last film from the line-up might seem a tricky task, but fortunately the Cannes selection committee have provided me with a choice of two — critic Michel Cournot’s LES GAULOISES BLEUE and Albert Finney’s CHARLIE BUBBLES. Both films are the first, last and only films directed by these luminaries, though both have substantial non-directing careers (and Finney co-directed a TV play in 1984).

I’ve plumped for Finney because it’s cheering to see another GOOD British film after GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE and the nightmarish memory of HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH hanging like a miasma over my psyche. And besides, Cournot’s Godard-imitation doesn’t seem like my cup of tea. Hopefully Scout can cover that one…

I’m often skeptical of film stars becoming directors, simply because they can — they often do it on a whim, carried by their box office clout and the studios’ understandable desire to curry favour. But though Finney’s film didn’t win many passionate defenders at the time, and he seems to have slumped back into acting (albeit with less enthusiasm and care than before), I think the movie stands up remarkably well. It’s one of the least fashion-conscious films of the bunch, in no hurry to yell about how with-it the filmmakers are, and of course this works against it dating like the Cardiff and Donner films (though their cringe-making qualities are probably timeless and were apparent even to contemporary observers), but it’s still very much en courant in its subject.

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Writer Charlie Bubbles is a northerner in London, a huge financial success with his novels and their various adaptations. We first meet him arriving at a swank restaurant for conference with various agents, publishers and accountants, all full of schemes to make and save him/them money. Charlie, who’s uncommunicative at the best of times, ditches these boring parasites in favour of a food-fight with fellow Northerner Colin Blakely (whose Yorkshire accent keeps veering into his native Ulster cadences, but whose crazily erratic timing with dialogue is as beautiful as ever).

Drunkenness ensues, then Charlie returns home for a cheese sandwich from his domineering housekeeper Mrs Noseworthy, a Danvers manqué (but he doesn’t eat it), then returns the soused Blakely to his forgiving wife and heads oop North in his Rolls to visit his ex-wife and son, taking with him American student and acting secretary Liza Minnelli, as “Eliza Heyho”, whose first movie this is (apart from guest spot as baby in her mom’s movie, a sort of carry-on role).

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John Simon wrote “The supreme deadweight in the picture is Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland’s daughter, whose screen debut proves easily the most inauspicious since Turhan Bey’s. Miss Minnelli is so untalented and homely, and so blithely unaware of it all, that her performance must rate high on the list of any collector of unconscious camp.” Marginally witty, offensively sexist and mean, and of course deeply stupid, since how would Liza’s performance be improved by a knowledge of her supposed homeliness and lack of talent. We can easily compare Minnelli’s reception with that accorded Angelica Huston for her work in her dad’s rather lovely film maudit A WALK WITH LOVE AND DEATH. Simon wrote of her, “the face of a gnu and a body of no discernible shape,” and critics united in hostility at what they saw as an amateurish, flat performance lacking in the panache expected from a leading lady. Of course Huston is now universally admired, and it’s probably assumed by many that decades away from the screen studying her craft caused her to improve, but her amazing, fresh, unstudied, unshowy and touchingly believable perf in dad’s movie (which she didn’t really want to make) already demonstrates her abundant talent. The critics just didn’t see it because, like Minnelli, she was performing in a register of idiosyncratic naturalism unrecognizable to them. Once you get used to an unusual actor, you can usually tell they’re good, but at first it can be tricky. There was even a review of THE GRADUATE denouncing Dustin Hoffman as having “no acting ability whatever.” The mainstream critics have rarely embraced anything qualitatively new.

Of course, few filmmakers work alone, and Finney has the help of Peter Suschitzky on camera, Fergus McDonnell (ODD MAN OUT) as editor, and a lovely score by Misha Donat, who did THE WHITE BUS the same year and little else. And speaking of that Lindsay Anderson film, we must acknowledge that both it and BUBBLES were the work of author Shelagh Delaney, whose film career promptly ground to almost a complete standstill in wake of this double box office disappointment. At least she had literature.

But Delaney’s voice is definitely one I miss in cinema. She had a blithe way of combining fantasy and reality, and the realistic and the surrealistic, which emerges here in subtle, disconcerting ways. THE WHITE BUS has one of my favourite moments ever, when we see Patricia Healey at work in an office, then cut to her legs dangling lifelessly from top of frame as if she’s hanged herself, while an unconcerned cleaner vacuums in the background, then we cut back to her typing. A momentary fantasy.

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Some of the cutting in CHARLIE BUBBLES makes me think of that moment, even when no fantasy is at play. By dropping in shots of unconcerned diners while Finney and Blakely are smearing fine foodstuffs all over each others’ kissers, McConnell’s cutting makes one wonder whether it’s really happening at all, but a breezy cut to the two soiled Mancunians parading down the street confirms the evidence of our eyes.

A film full of erratic elevators — the one in Charlie’s townhouse doesn’t work, and the one in the hi-rise hotel takes forever for the doors to close, as the operator fumbles diligently with the controls and the bellhop rolls his eyes heavenwards, before ascending. Is this an in-joke? Lindsay Anderson produced IF… using Finney’s offices, and lost several crewmembers on the way to a production meeting. “So this is how it ends… trapped in Albert Finney’s elevator… possibly forever.” I’m paraphrasing David Sherwin’s account but the world-weary comic despair is accurate.

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A bold move for Finney to play a character so low-energy and indifferent to everybody around him. His lack of reaction to the offer of sex from Minnelli is hilarious, if cruel. Her baby-fat peachiness is incredibly alluring to me in CABARET, but without the dynamic poses it’s easy for them to make her look puddingy, which they proceed to do. But the joke isn’t on her, it’s about Finney/Bubbles disaffection and ennui. Each stage of her undressing seems to depress him more, but he carries on stripping her, with defeated dutifulness. Why can’t everybody just leave me alone?

Gratuitous Yootha Joyce. Which we like.

Billie Whitelaw, the pinnacle of just about everything. We have to wait an hour for her — she’s like the Colonel Kurtz at the end of this journey into the heart of British low-affect despond. And then there’s what feels to my inexpert eye like some really acute observation of the dynamics of the ex-marrieds with kid. Coming into the household from outside, Finney sees problems, but is perceived as having no moral right to intervene or voice an opinion. He abrogated that when he left home. Also, she’s the only one in the film he looks at with interest, longing, pain.

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“Why don’t you go into the parlour and write a book,” she snaps. And her refrain, “There’s no need for that.”

This is what the film is interested in — allusiveness, the unspoken, strange moments. Not story and not even drama. The sharpness of the observation justifies everything. On first encountering his small son, Charlie happens to have been looking at Billie’s false eyelashes, so he immediately affixes them to the lad’s upper lip, fashioning a dapper moustache. Finney gets great stuff from little Timothy Garland — not so much performance as behaviour. Stuff of him laughing at a TV show that just isn’t acting, it’s real, but it’s blended into stuff where actors act.

The film’s theme, I guess, has something to do with the new classless hero of British culture, who comes from a proletarian background and achieves a dizzying success which completely cuts him off from the mainspring of his creativity. Did Delaney experience this herself (do novelists actually GET as successful as Bubbles?) or did she borrow it from Finney. I can well believe he experienced it. And it later affected his playing — had he carried on as a director he might have avoided such ennui. He might have at least avoided SCROOGE, LOOKER, ANNIE… But a movie star always has an escape hatch — a film director who can do something else probably will do it — he’s not going to starve if he doesn’t direct…

Charlie, incidentally, is offered food all through the movie, but only eats what Billie Whitelaw offers. And only a little of that. And then he catches a balloon and sails away. As Sydne Rome says in WHAT?, “It’s the only way we can end the movie!”

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