Archive for John Vernon

The Home Film Festival

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2018 by dcairns

It was rainy last Sunday so I suggested we have our own film festival at home. Try it!

An eclectic program, decided at random. First I watched THE ORE RAIDERS, and blogged about it, then I popped on THE BLACK WINDMILL (1974), which always looked like awful tommyrot when on TV, but it’s Don Siegel therefore worth a try.Reader, THE BLACK WINDMILL is indeed awful tommyrot, but with impressive credits. TV pan-and-scan showings, which I recall seeing bits of, ruined it utterly — the pleasure is all in Siegel’s framing and blocking. Ousama Rawi, the former Mr. Rita Tushingham, shot it, beautifully — there’s some particularly nice anamorphic city lights. Antony Gibbs, of PETULIA and PERFORMANCE, cut it, less successfully than one might have hoped, though the neatest bit is a long take from a locked-off position as bad guys frame the hero with a nudie photo staged in his own bedroom. Roy Budd, of GET CARTER, provides a GET CARTER type score, with added tabla drums. Veteran costume designer Anthony Mendleson makes his leading man look ridiculous. I think there’s a good argument for leading men dressing conservatively, as Cary Grant suggested. They don’t date, and anyway, why would a spy dress like THIS?I suppose, in a crisis, he could always turn sideways and hide behind his necktie.

A distinguished cast includes cast includes Harry Palmer, Dr. Crippen, Empress Alexandra, Elizabeth Bathory, Sheik Abu Tahir and Maya the shapeshifter from Space 1999.

   

Fiona only joined that one midway, then insisted on some Bette Davis so we ran JEZEBEL, which we hadn’t seen in ages. I’ve often felt that the Germans in Hollywood had more racial sensitivity than native-born filmmakers, but although the black characters here all get bits of characterisation, and Eddie Anderson underplays for once, the movie never misses a chance at a cheap joke. When Henry Fonda says he feels haunted, wrinkled retainer Lew Paton stammers, “H-haunted?” in terror of spooks.

Still, the soapy story compels, and Bette is playing a perverse, willful, stroppy filly much like herself. She adored Wyler’s disciplinarian approach, and dialled down her excesses. When she reacts to the news that Fonda has married, her face registers a dozen emotions and calculations at lightning speed, subtly enough that you can believe smiling Margaret Lindsay doesn’t notice them, and visibly enough that you can see Fonda does.

Also great work from Richard Cromwell and, shockingly, George Brent, whose sleepy approach to acting here becomes electrifying when he’s given something of real interest to play. His character is supposed to be a dynamic old-school swashbuckler, and by playing it with indifference he actually adds a convincing edge to it. This guy is so dangerous because he doesn’t advertise it.

The cunning use of POV shots I noted in THE ORE RAIDERS is present here, as Bette, embracing Fonda, makes particular note of the stick he’s left by the door. All her behaviour in the ensuing scene is an attempt to provoke him into using it on her, which he refrains from, much to her disappointment. Did I mention Bette’s character is a touch perverse?

Co-writer John Huston was drafted in to direct a duel scene, and in a film full of smart grace notes, delivers one of the neatest, as the duellists take ten paces, clear out of frame and two puffs of smoke issue in from the edges of the screen, rendering the battle an abstraction, its outcome a mystery.

We followed this with another, contrasting Bette movie, LO SCOPONE SCIENTIFICO (1972), which I’ve tackled at greater length elsewhere. Let’s just say that, cast as a kind of monster-goddess, Bette again is playing a character remarkably like herself: indefatigable.

Short subject: PIE, PIE, BLACKBIRD with Nina Mae McKinney and the Nicholas Brothers when they were small. She does an adorable rasping trumpet honk thing with her voice, an orchestra plays inside a giant pie, and the Bros. dance so hard, everybody turns into a skeleton. Will, if anybody was going to cause that to happen, it would be them.

It’s very funny to me that the props man couldn’t find a child skeleton — there was, it would seem, little call for such items — so he’s removed the shin-bones of an adult to make it dance shorter. Incredible to think that young Harold performed all those moves without knees.

Then MIRAGE, based on regular Shadowplayer Daniel’s recent recommendation. Sixties Edward Dmytryk, when he’s supposed to be washed up, but there’s some interesting stuff afoot, not all of it pulling in the same direction, but still. Stars Atticus Finch, Felix Unger Oscar Madison, Anne Frank’s sister Margot, Willie Loman’s son Biff, Gaetano Proclo and Joe Patroni. Which is to say, Walter Matthau and George Kennedy are reunited after CHARADE, which was also scripted by Peter Stone, and Matthau and Jack Weston are together, prefiguring A NEW LEAF.

Stone’s script is witty as usual, perhaps too witty — there’s a good sense of Kafkaesque nightmare going on in the crazy amnesia/conspiracy plot, but you have Gregory Peck being all Gregory Peckory, stiff and bashful, and then making quips, and the sense of waking nightmare rather deserts one.

BUT —

Dmytryk, a former editor, has discovered direct cutting — he’s seen MARIENBAD, in fact — or maybe the previous year’s THE PAWNBROKER. As Peck thinks back on baffling recent events, or retrieves fragments of memory from his earlier, lost-time spell, we cut in hard to snippets of dialogue from earlier or brief flashes of action. Best of all is a subway scene where the sound of the train continues unabated over glimpses of Walter Abel falling out of a skyscraper. Then he cuts to a watermelon hitting the ground and bursting, something that’s only been mentioned earlier. It’s a non-diegetic watermelon, perhaps the first of its race.

It’s dazzling and disturbing and would still look pretty nifty in a modern film. What makes it sellable to the great public of 1964 is that the odd technique is tied directly to the plot gimmick. Anyway, it’s very nice indeed, and makes you realise how conservative most cutting still is. Given Dmytryk’s late-career wallowing in turgid airport novel stuff, I wish he’d enlivened his work with this kind of monkey business a lot more. For a guy who’d sold out, who had to shore up his sense of self-worth with spurious justifications, accomplishing a nice piece of work like this must have been some kind of relief.

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The Man Without Bogart’s Face

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2016 by dcairns

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Welcome to Shadowplay, the daily blog about DARK PASSAGE.

Looking at part two of DARK PASSAGE, where it all kind of goes to shit. And where Bogart actually HAS Bogart’s face, having acquired it via plastic surgery performed by seedy rhinoplasterer Housely Stevens. Would you buy a used face from this man?

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“Change it back, doc, change it back!”

Spoilers from the start.

The more the movie deals with who killed Bogie’s wife, the less compelling it becomes, and not just because his real wife, Lauren Bacall, is standing right in front of us, very much alive. It’s because this is all backstory, dealing with someone we never met, and it’s of interest to us only if it can solve the true plot problem, Bogie’s being wanted by the law for a crime which, it so happens, he didn’t commit. The movie seems to totally misunderstand our requirements of it: it thinks that as long as we find out whodunnit and the guilty party is somehow punished, we’ll be satisfied. But while that kind of closure + justice is important, what the movie has set up as its dramatic problem is Bogart being a wanted man. And at the end of the movie he HASN’T cleared his name, he never will, but he gets to retire to Peru with Betty Bacall. It feels somehow unsatisfying. Maybe also because the film’s version of San Francisco was maybe one-fifth actual location footage, and Peru is a special effects and studio fantasia. It’s like ending the film in a dream sequence.

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But this floundering second half is kind of fascinating in the abstract, even if it’s not dramatically engaging. One weird thing is the way Bogart keeps presiding over fatal accidents. He basically shoves Clifton Young off a cliff — very good, grim shot of Young lying crumpled at the bottom. It suits him. At this point it’s going to be impossible for him to clear his name, and he IS somewhat guilty and so the movie’s prospects are derailed. And then Agnes Moorehead somehow auto-defenestrates, without meaning to, though given her dialogue before the fact and the typically frenzied manner she brings to her confrontation with Bogie, it would have made more sense as a strategic suicide. Instead, it feels like Bogie WILLED her through the skyscraper window, even though he needs her alive. It reminds me a bit of the abrupt climax of AMERICAN GIGOLO, where at least Richard Gere gets to grab the plummeting man’s legs and TRY to stop his death-plunge (again, he needs the defenestratee to clear his name).

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But a bigger similarity is with THE WALKING DEAD, in which Boris Karloff plays a Bogie-like gangster raised from the beyond who goes seeking revenge on his killers. Strangely, Karloff never lays a finger on his enemies, he just slow-walks them to their doom, backing off the edge of railway platforms and under approaching trains, etc. It’s as if he’s come back from the dead but he’s brought death with him, as an ally or as a sort of miasma that surrounds him, focussing in on those whom he directs his malevolent glare towards.

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It’s like Oscar Wilde wrote: “Karloff does it with a look, Lee Marvin with a towel.”

It’s been pointed out that John Boorman’s POINT BLANK plays like a hip remake of TWD, with Lee Marvin as the gangster who may have died (John Boorman has spoken of a possible Owl Creek Bridge reading of both his Lee Marvin movies) and who wreaks revenge on his foes without actually inflicting bodily harm on them himself. Its slick visuals, rat-a-tat cutting and Donald Westlake plot ingenuity make this the most engaging of the films under discussion, and by burying Lee Marvin’s revenant status deep in subtext, it makes it more fun to unpeel. THE WALKING DEAD is a little too somnolent for me, though you can certainly argue that’s appropriate.

POINT BLANK, of course, also plays out in San Francisco and features a spectacular sidewalk dive, this one from old Dean Wormer himself, John Vernon.

“Someone has to put his foot down, and that foot is me.”

And I guess GHOST STORY has a place in here too.

Anyhow, Bogart’s affinity with sudden death in DARK PASSAGE suggests both the shifty narrator of DETOUR (people just keep dying around me, honest!) and the fatal pro/antagonists of WALKING DEAD and POINT BLANK. Maybe Boorman would suggest that Bogie dies when the San Quentin barrel crashes downhill in scene 1, and the rest of the plot is just his dying fantasy. It would certainly give a meaning to the otherwise obscure title (there’s no significant literal passageway in the plot). And it would kind of explain how Bogart becomes a helpless passenger in his own movie. The “first person shooter” opening robs him of identity, and then his every action seems to be dictated by chance meetings, with a cabbie, a detective in a diner, the guy who picks him up who turns blackmailer. And all the deaths in the film just happen, Bogart doesn’t plan them or really want them. He’s the passive recipient of a narrative.

“I’m not going to fail in your bathroom.”

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by dcairns

As we hear, Hitchcock was already planning THE SHORT NIGHT in 1968 while making TOPAZ. That unmade film was preceded by two others, MARY ROSE, nixed by Universal, after which Hitch made TORN CURTAIN, and KALEIDOSCOPE, AKA FRENZY, which was likewise vetoed by Lew Wasserman, leading to the production of TOPAZ in its place. But while KALEIDOSCOPE would have been an experiment in modern film-making techniques, heavily inspired by Antonioni, whose work had impressed Hitchcock enormously, TOPAZ turned into a much more conventional thriller, somewhat influenced by mainstream European cinema, but by no means revolutionary.

Wasserman had objected to the graphic nudity and bloodshed Hitch seemed to be planning for his serial killer movie, and although Leon Uris also had some sex and violence in his doorstop of a political thriller, he seemed a safer bet for Universal, who didn’t want to jeopardize the successful Hitchcock “brand.” In the event, TOPAZ would be a costly flop, and it’s hard to imagine a sexy, gory psycho-thriller from Hitchcock failing in 1969. A case of the major studios lagging behind the times. A case also of Hitchcock not fighting for his artistic freedom, partly because his enemy in this case was a good friend.

I like the idea of Hitchcock as the leading man here, morosely doing his duty without passion or enthusiasm, but in fact the character who seems most like Hitch is Philippe Noiret’s spy — he has Hitch’s heavy lower lip and watery eyes, and his crutch hints at the arthritis which was starting to give the director trouble. His death, a defenestration artfully staged to look like suicide, recalls the time when Alma was ill after the production of VERTIGO, when Hitch talked openly of ending it all. His daughter Pat opened the hotel window and left the room — an odd thing to do, but she was quite clear that this was necessary to convince him to leave thoughts of suicide behind. It seems to have worked.

The cameo — Hitch is wheeled on, then springs to his feet. Unfortunately, as director, it feels more like he trots onto the set, then collapses into a coma.

TOPAZ is such a film maudit that it’s naturally tempting to find things to like about it, which I find easy to do, but I should say up-front that it is indeed an unsuccessful film, in terms of script, casting, and style. Carrying on the ambition of TORN CURTAIN to produce a “realistic Bond,” Hitch runs up against his own counter-realistic vision, struggles with the convoluted source novel, and was basically defeated by lack of time — lack of time to adapt the novel properly, to cast, and for his crew to design the film around his requirements. Designer Henry Bumstead got high blood pressure trying to keep up with the production’s demands, and Edith Head had to costume stars who often had only been cast a couple of days before they were to appear.

Ah, that cast! Hitch was often inspired by his leads in the writing process, and certainly found it useful to know who they would be, which proved impossible here. John Forsythe is absolutely welcome back, but instead of being surrounded by kooks as he was in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, he’s here surrounded with knitwear models. The TV episode I Saw the Whole Thing which Forsythe starred in shows how he’s not really suited to sustaining interest in a void (which is no slam: very few actors could have made TOPAZ more compelling).

Frederick Stafford, our real lead, is more of a problem. It’s not that he’s bad, he’s simply boring in a boring part. If Hitchcock had been able to get a young French Cary Grant, he would have been fine, but obviously such a thing wasn’t going to happen. They don’t make them. If he’d cast a really interesting French actor who didn’t fit his conception of the part, things might also have been fine — an actor with intriguing qualities would have brought something to the thinly-written role. But Hitchcock always liked to fill a pre-conceived outline with a matching actor, which is achievable if you have a large talent pool to draw from. If you don’t, it’s far better to abandon your plans and go with what works.

Stafford is the worst of all possible worlds, because he isn’t interesting and isn’t French. He’s a decent enough actor, but ability is secondary to intrigue. He doesn’t intrigue. And he’s German. His role isn’t a particularly hard one to play: all it needed, really, was a Frenchman. With the bland impression he tends to create, Stafford’s looks count against him.

Playing opposite Stafford is Dany Robin, who seems as dull as him, but isn’t — watch how she comes to life whenever she has someone else to act with. Poor Fred does inestimable damage to this film just by being in it, just by standing there and eating up screen space which could more profitably be granted to wallpaper or sky.

Everyone else is basically a cameo, given the story’s globe-trotting action (essentially the secret backstory of the Cuban missile crisis, and a French spy ring reporting to Moscow). Some of the cameos are interesting (John Vernon and Karin Dor), some are actually fascinating (Roscoe Lee Browne), but none are around long enough to hurt or help the film too much. Of course, everybody plays the wrong nationality: German Dor and Canadian Vernon play Cubans, Browne plays Martinican, the very Swedish Per-Axel Arosenius plays a defecting Russian (I feel I should say “defective”)…  And the weakest stuff is at the end, where everybody’s French. French actors acting with each other in English shouldn’t present a colossal problem, as long as they all speak good English. If they don’t, one starts to wonder: why don’t they just speak French? And then one thinks, ah, they are speaking French, it’s just being decoded by the cinematic BabelFish Translator. So why are some better at it than others? The whole artifice crumbles.

Here, Dany Robin is less fluent than her husband, and while the lovely Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret are always welcome, their scenes tend to sound a little uncertain. It gives everything a quality of awkwardness.

But, there are virtues throughout: after the disappointing stock footage titles, buoyed up by Maurice Jarre’s score (which sounds exactly as a Euro-thriller ought to sound), there’s a terrific crane shot at the Russian embassy. A slight nervous tremor makes this shot seem impossibly difficult, as I imagine it was. Cameraman Jack Hildyard, who’d worked for David Lean on his last British shoots, had been doing big international films for years now, and does a good job with TOPAZ — but Hitch never found another Robert Burks.

Arosenius, though ethnically miscast, does a fine job with the Russian ambassador, and Samuel Taylor, who scripted VERTIGO, manages a pleasing character touch for Forsythe when he has him order new stockings for the ambassador’s daughter after she tears them during the defection.

The plane touches down in Washington — seemingly shot at 16 fps — ground crew scurry about like Keystone Kops. Why was this shot used? The flaw is trivial, but easily corrected simply by deleting the unnecessary, rote airport establishing shot.

We’re already in trouble, and it thickens — such is the convoluted narrative that everything seems to take a long time, and things are set up which don’t seem to be necessary: they pay off two hours later, but by then you’re bored. It’s really a sophisticated and clever piece of plotting, disguised perfectly as a bloated and tedious one.

Another Hitchcock character who draws (see also: BLACKMAIL, REBECCA, VERTIGO — people either draw or they don’t, and since Hitchcock did, he was always keen to feature his half of humanity in his films, it seems), Stafford’s son-in-law, Michel Subor (the narrator of JULES ET JIM), leads us to Roscoe Lee Browne, who fascinates me. I wanted a film about this character. Alternatively, I couldn’t see why his action couldn’t have been given to Stafford, who hasn’t had anything interesting to do. But Stafford is so dull, I’m glad Browne gets the job.

Although much of TOPAZ looks flat and studio-airless, like a TV movie (seeing it in widescreen does help) the recreated hotel exterior is an impressive build (the real place where the Cuban UN delegates stayed and parties had been demolished) and Hitch’s filming of much of the action with a long lens makes this his most convincing faux-documentary moment. In the 70s, telephoto shots like this would almost become a cliché, but Hitch is somewhat ahead of the game for 1969. Perhaps the European influence.

Top-secret meeting in the loo with John Vernon’s male secretary. Later, Stafford will find hidden evidence in a book in an aeroplane lavatory. Toilets are very important to Hitchcock, almost as vital as food. Maybe some Freudian should write a thesis on this.

After a genuinely tense sequence where Browne photographs stolen Cuban documents (the filmmakers’ portrayal of the Cuban delegates as drunken near-savages, while rather crude, does enhance the sense of jeopardy), he leaps from a fire escape into an awning, a dodge last used by George Sanders in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT — another character who rather usurped the hero’s role.

Roscoe Lee Browne is utterly cool, but not in an obvious, “urban” or “secret agent” way. He is, after all, a florist. But the way he eludes pursuit by ducking into the back of his shop, donning a hat, and finishing the preparation of a funeral wreath — that’s suave. I guess the whole reason his character is necessary is because Stafford can’t run into John Vernon at this point, but does Vernon really need to be here? Still, given a choice between Browne and Stafford having screen time, we can count ourselves lucky the better man won.

Off to Cuba, where again Stafford won’t do anything exciting, leaving the work and risks to his agents. His single tense moment, departing through customs, happens offscreen. Defenders of the film may argue that it’s unusual and therefor interesting to have a hero who delegates all the exciting jobs, but I would respond by quoting ALIEN screenwriter Dan O’Bannon: “many things are interesting. Not many things are dramatic.” Clichés become clichés often because they’re useful dramatically — it’s no trick to avoid a cliché and provide a dull alternative, the skill lies in dodging both the obvious and the unsatisfying.

Cuba lacks any character as interesting as Browne (maybe he fascinates so because we learn so little about him) so it more or less drifts past me, enlivened by some bravura moments — the Pieta (above) and the death of Karin Dor (a former Bond girl playing a character loosely based on Castro’s daughter, but the fact that she dies shows just how far the filmmakers are willing to depart from the established facts, even if TOPAZ was really SAPPHIRE and most of the incidents have real-life counterparts). Asides from these highlights — and Dor’s purple dress spreading on the tiled floor like a pool of blood (pulled by five stagehands with monofilament wires) is truly a coup de theatre — we mainly get different ways of concealing cameras in food: two of Hitchcock’s favourite things, presented in surreal conjunction. It seems like Stafford should have discovered the secret film strips not in a book, but in a biscuit, just for the sake of symmetry.

If Cuba was a little dull and misshapen, France seems even more listless, although at last we start to feel loose characters like Stafford’s son-in-law, and even his wife, have some real reason for being in the film. (If, as some have suggested, Stafford represents Hitchcock, a European working for the Americans, pulling off a thankless mission that takes him around the world — a married man with one married daughter — a political realist with a naive belief in justice and honesty, caught up in a dirty business, then casting a quirky character actor would surely have been better than this plywood Cary Grant, and would have served as an alibi for the fact that he never does anything heroic. And even if Stafford is in some ways Hitch-like, it’s Forsythe who has an assistant named Peggy, a nice homage to Hitch’s faithful Peggy Robertson.) And now we come to the romantic triangle — Stafford’s lover being safely dead, we can focus on Michel Piccoli as the head of Topaz and his covert relationship with Dany Robin. Romantic triangles go way back in Hitchcock (THE LODGER, THE MANXMAN, BLACKMAIL), although we are unable to find any definite autobiographical reason why they seem to obsess him so.

The narrative is nicely woven to allow Robin to recognize her lover as the ringleader, but doesn’t seem to unfold in an interesting way. Uris and Taylor have been technically skillful, but nobody’s looking out for real sources of dramatic tension, it seems. And then come the three endings. It’s a shame the stadium duel isn’t attached to the most widely available and complete version of the film, but only included as an extra — I’d far rather watch the film through and at least get rewarded with a climax of sorts for my trouble, even if again Stafford is cheated of the chance to be an action hero. The airport ending satisfied Hitchcock’s sense that big spies never really get punished, but it feels very hollow and unconvincing when Stafford smiles back at Piccoli. Why would he? But I like the line “Anyhow, that’s the end of Topaz,” because it reminds me of “The Trouble with Harry is Over.” The only truly putrid ending is the one cobbled together from stray odds and ends. Samuel Taylor, who suggested it, had a decent idea, but it can’t be executed by hauling out off-cuts from elsewhere in the movie, by freeze-framing on a door, by slinging newspapers around. And earlier in the film Hitch has attempted to prepare for this sequence by inserting a few headlines, including one bizarre superimposed newspaper…

Maybe Stafford should have said, “That’s the end of Topaz, thank Christ!” since that’s how the viewer is apt to feel after two and a half hours. And yet, study of the film is far more interesting than casual viewing of it, making it a nice illustration of the auteurist principle that a bad film by Hitchcock is more rewarding of study than a good film by just about anybody else.