Archive for John Huston

Otto Complete

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2015 by dcairns

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Revisiting an old favourite — it’s Otto Preminger Week, Slight Reprise.

I think it was Guy Budziak who sent me a DVD of Otto Preminger’s THE CARDINAL some years back — thanks, Guy! — I immediately watched and drooled over the magnificent Saul Bass title sequence, then put it away, meaning to watch the rest later. Having finally done so, the main benefit received is probably that it got me to finally start reading Chris Fujiwara’s Preminger study, The World and His Double. The movie does embody a lot of the positive AND negative things about the Preminger style and personality.

Fujiwara cites plenty of testimony from concerned parties that Preminger mercilessly mistreated his leading man, Tom Tryon, eventually driving him to quit acting altogether. (Preminger felt Tryon should thank him for his subsequent successful career as a novelist.) Tryon’s own account is harrowing and heartbreaking — but I’m surprised that co-star John Huston’s version isn’t included. Huston claims he noticed Tryon was looking nervous and suggested that Otto might try soothing his star rather than berating him. Otto approached the trembling thespian from behind and bellowed “RELAAAAX!” in his ear.

It probably isn’t true, but poetically it is clearly COMPLETELY true.

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The perfect match of pillars and font (typographic, not baptismal)

The film also got me looking up Catholic history to see if the movie was fair and accurate. It’s not too shabby. Preminger apparently added all the stuff about the Austrian Anschluss, which the source novel didn’t deal with. The film shows faithfully how the church in Austria initially welcomed Nazi annexation, only turning against it when the Nazis started repressive measures against Catholics. But the movie can’t find room to show how Pope Pius XII pursued policies of appeasement and neutrality, decrying war crimes in generic terms while refusing to be specific. However, we do get to see some prime chickenshit religiose humbug in a sequence dealing with segregation in Georgia. When Ossie Davis comes to Rome to report his church being burned by the clan, the Italian cardinal berates him for his inflammatory behaviour in protesting that a Catholic school wouldn’t teach black children.

The fact that Tryon’s character stays with the church after this almost makes him a difficult character to respect, although in fairness he travels to Georgia and tries to help out. His biggest problem as a lead character is that he allows his sister to die — she’s pregnant, the doctor needs to sacrifice the baby’s life to save her, and Tryon refuses. Even Preminger knew this was a character flaw: whatever the law of the church says, as fellow humans in the audience we demand that Tryon’s character save his sister. No movie star could really play that part — the kind of characters movie stars play would somehow resolve things — or God would help out with a miracle and the sister would live.

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Tryon flanked by Lynley Mk II (right) and Dorothy Gish (left).

In a really creepy piece of filmmaking, Preminger casts the same actress, the lovely Carol Lynley, as both sister and grown-up niece (the movie’s story covers decades, and it seems like it too). It’s as if an act of cinematic metempsychosis has resulted in the mother literally living on in her daughter, so that the priest’s act of murder is erased. As Fujiwara observes, Preminger directs this sequence with so little conviction that the apparent intended meaning is substantially undercut.

Weirdness alternates with dullness. For the first twenty minutes, the script (Robert Dozier plus uncredited Gore Vidal and Ring Lardner — neither of whom knew the other was at work on the same project until a chance meeting exposed the farce) is content to offer no actual drama at all, just uncomfortable actors exchanging information, plus bits of ritual and music and nice location shooting. Then Cecil Kellaway brings in a little conflict, playing an avuncular rotter in a dog collar, whose sins are so petty, venial and squalid that it’s surprising Otto got the OK from the church, especially after his rows with the Catholic Legion Of Decency (CLOD, I call them) on previous movies.

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And then we get John Huston, and things get MUCH better. Also Burgess Meredith, at whose deathbed Huston has a moment that actually really moved me — not an emotion I expected to get from a Huston performance, though I often enjoy him.

Cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who restrains his usual Deluxe Color glorious excesses, was apparently quite smitten with Romy Schneider… one can well believe it.

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The movie was make-up supremo Dick Smith’s first credit, and he had to age Tryon throughout the movie. He was apparently a last-minute replacement for the great Maurice Seiderman (CITIZEN KANE), who quarrelled with Preminger and, as a parting gesture, ran his electric razor in a line right up the back of Tryon’s head. Poor Tryon, he got the worst of every encounter. Poor Smith, he had to spend months gluing little bits of hair to the back of Tryon’s scalp.

Fujiwara is probably right to regard this as major Preminger, but he does note the difficulties it presents — Tom Tryon is sort of right for it, but does not provide a strong centre.

Dwight MacDonald wrote of Preminger, “A great showman who has never bothered to learn anything about making a movie,” which is totally off-base. But he added, hilariously, “… no one is more skilled at giving the appearance of dealing with large, controversial themes in a bold way, without making the tactical error of doing so.” In a sense, he has Preminger cold, but a more sympathetic reading — that the former lawyer was always inclined to view a problem from both sides, if at all possible — is equally valid. When dramatic weakness or oppressive censorship impacts on this approach, the result can be dullness, as in several long sequences of THE CARDINAL. When Preminger is able to pilot a strong script through the cultural hazards, the results are striking.

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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…?