Archive for John Mills

Mills and Boom

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2021 by dcairns
Anthony Quayle are you trying to seduce me?

So, HOBSON’S CHOICE launched us into a mini John Mills Film Festival. This included TUNES OF GLORY and ICE COLD IN ALEX, which might be crudely termed “trembling upper lip” films, where the certainties of the wartime propaganda films (which are actually far more complex and intelligent than you might expect) are replaced with PTSD, alcoholism and moral doubt.

ICE COLD IN ALEX balances all this with its other role, which is to be a rip-roaring suspenser, a kind of British answer to THE WAGES OF FEAR, without that movie’s bracing misanthropy but with a relentless series of tense situations. Our heroes, separated from the retreating British army, have to drive an ambulance through the North African desert, trying to reach a friendly city while Rommel’s army continually overtakes them. The balance isn’t perfect, but this may still be director J. Lee Thompson’s best film, with very strong performances — Mills is very fine, Sylvia Sims and Harry Andrews are reliable support, and Anthony Quayle is unusually interesting — and nail-gnawing sequences of slow-mounting peril.

The movie’s celebrated for its closing sequence, which is impossible to discuss without spoilers. Here goes.

Mills’ character, a traumatised soldier fuelled by alcohol, keeps himself going with the promise of a drink in Alexandria. At the end, the foursome make it (very surprisingly, the film largely does without a body count, with only two speaking parts slain) and Thompson slows the pace right down. Everybody is doing terrific work. Since Mills has to down a pint in one, Thompson seems to have set up two cameras for tightly-framed groupings. The sound mixer is doing great work too — distant traffic comes to the fore, emphasising the stillness of the scene. The one thing the film doesn’t have is a great score (it’s okay… with a nod to Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War) but fortunately it’s not needed here. The camaraderie and respect of the characters is palpable.

Hardly surprising that decades later, the scene became an ad for Carlsberg, the lager so prominently featured (and before product placement, unless it was done on the QT).

And the movie isn’t even finished with us yet — it delivers another unexpected moment of teeth-grinding tension immediately after this.

Mossop

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2021 by dcairns

John Mills’ excellent turn as Willie Mossop in HOBSON’S CHOICE is a terrific bit of physical acting and character design. He has two hairstyles, one of which is spectacularly disfiguring — both of which seem to be real, so they must have shot the later scenes first, before barbering him into grotesquerie.

Mills’ other uglified role is in RYAN’S DAUGHTER, where he’s just hideous. Strange to think he won an Oscar for it — if he’d repeated his Early Mossop performance in that context it would have been too much — instead, he goes even further, beyond Mr. Laughton’s Quasimodo. I guess it’s an interesting choice to make the “village idiot” uncharming and unphotogenic, where such characters are usually sentimentalized, but Mills’ choices plunge him into the unpleasant domain of caricaturing the afflicted, an error of judgement, to put it mildly, that lands him in the same camp as Alec Guinness’ whole look in OLIVER TWIST (a film made three years after the Holocaust, if you need reminding).

Mossop, on the other hand, is a wonderful creation. Any discomfort felt about laughing at this ill-educated and ill-dressed man is joyously dissipated as the film shows him blossoming in confidence and erudition, a Galatea sculpted by his partner Maggie (Brenda de Banzie, also wonderful).

Costume designer John Armstrong has collaborated with the actor to subtly deform and distort his trim chorus boy’s body. A little pot belly has been added — I assume it’s prosthetic. The trousers hang in a strange manner, suggesting scrawniness and waste beneath, as well as an ill fit.

Mills enhances the effect by doing a lot of QUALITY ass-work: he sticks out his backside to suggest poor posture rather than pugilistic sauciness, and this seems to do unwelcome things to the clothing. There’s a perfect storm in those trousers — pants and stance in total disharmony.

Kevin Brownlow’s magisterial book David Lean tells us that originally, Robert Donat was cast, and had to shoot a test to convince himself he could do it. He went down the trap door a prematurely aged asthmatic, then came up as Willie Mossop. But he failed the medical, the stress bringing on an attack of wheezing. (Movie medicals, made to satisfy the insurance people, were generally a bit lax. Roy Kinnear said of PIRATES, “A number of us were quite long in the tooth. We all had to do a physical examination. You went in a room and got on a couch, and you could manage that, you were in.”)

Losing his co-lead days before the shoot, Lean had to deal with a rebellious Laughton, who felt betrayed — Korda basically blackmailed him into doing it — “If you go to the scandal sheets, so will I.” Which is… wow. But it certainly helped Lean that his producer was prepared to play the bad guy. Lean and Laughton then enjoyed a good relationship. Lean recalled Mills, on a boat outing, feigning seasickness, and realised what a good physical comic he was. He had imagined Mossop as hulking, but the physical contrast between Mills and Laughton plays brilliantly: Lorre and Greenstreet in Lancashire.

Original author Harold Brighouse wasn’t heavily involved in the film version, but he did advise Lean that he could play the wedding night scene where Mossop tremulously prepares for bed “as long as you like” and it would bring the house down. As with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and Omar Sharif’s long approach, Lean lost his nerve, as he put it, and so Mossop’s preparations are truncated by an awkward dissolve. If only he’d test screened it… that kind of thing can give confidence as well as shatter it. He was able to go back and extend Sharif’s approach for the LAWRENCE restoration, but alas HOBSON’S never got that treatment and no doubt the footage was swiftly disposed of.

But still… HOBSON’S is a fascinating case of the duties of a main character being split among three superb players. Laughton brings the lion’s share of the entertainment, a bumptious and sodden Lear, but he never learns anything, he’s simply reduced in power until his mean spirits can’t hurt anyone. De Banzie’s Maggie is the hero who makes things happen — a bit of fancy footwork by Brighouse allows her to triumph due to a complete accident — Hobson falling down a hole — that she could never have anticipated. But she’s unchanging. Mossop is manipulated and coerced every step of the way, a character lacking any form of proactive self-determination, but he’s the one with the arc — more than his circumstances change, he grows in stature and becomes master of the house, albeit one put in that position and kept there by a strong woman who is the real power in the relationship. Mossop knows he’s a mere figurehead, but Maggie gives him confidence at every turn by praising his skill as shoemaker. I’ve seen productions of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW where they’ve tried to make Kate and Petrucchio partners in a role-playing game put on for the benefit of society, but I don’t think you can make that entirely convince as Shakespeare’s intent, but Brighouse was a suffragist and the feminist underpinnings of his play are strikingly modern (see also Stanley Houghton’s oft-filmed HINDLE WAKES) — Maggie and Willie agree to play the roles of strong man and supportive wife, while both know that the reality is more the other way around.

Anyway — we raise our glasses to John Mills and Willie Mossop. He may never have gotten another role like it, but it opened up the range of parts he could be considered for and gave him a new lease of screen life, which he certainly ran with.

Next must-see Millses are ICE-COLD IN ALEX and TUNES OF GLORY.

Laughton eats cake

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on April 6, 2021 by dcairns

… while hungover. In HOBSON’S CHOICE.

Even funnier than him smoking his first cigarette in THIS LAND IS MINE. You can see why David Lean liked him — even though the grumpy director — “Actors can be rather a bore” — and the tricky actor would seem like a match made in hell, on paper. Lean even wanted to cast Laughton in the Guinness part in KWAI, imagining that with a bit of a diet Laughton could play a starving POW. Eventually he realised that if Laughton could will himself to look thin for a part, he would have already done so for real life.

Laughton’s drunk scene — chasing reflections of the moon in the puddles of a cobbled street — is rightly celebrated, and hits some moments of weirdness comparable to THE SMALL BACK ROOM’s giant whisky bottle. Especially when Laughton falls down a hatch in the street, an effect achieved with rear projection, I think, and Laughton moving in extreme slomo, with the length of the drop expressionistically exaggerated.

And then there’s the “liver attack” — a would-be comic version of the DTs that Fiona declared to be the most terrifying scene Lean ever filmed. Number one in a crowded field, if you think about it.

I actually put the film on to convince Fiona of John Mills’ brilliance as an actor, a mission which was successful, but here I am talking about Laughton of course because it’s easier to do. Follow-up post?