Archive for Josef Von Sternberg

Dress to camera

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 11, 2020 by dcairns

I have this neat little book by filmmaker Tony Bills called Movie Speak — it’s a guide to the language used on film sets, stuff I often don’t know because I hardly ever get to be on a film set. “Dress to camera” means to arrange a prop or person to see it best, usually by moving it into frame. The word “cheat” is also used a lot for this, that’s the one I know. You have a perfect composition of a guy leaning on a desk but you want to see the telephone, but it’s not visible, so you get the props guy to slide it into view, a deliberate continuity error which you’re confident you can get away with because the angle is so different from the wide shot, or because you haven’t established the position of the phone yet.

Walter Murch says some good stuff somewhere about hieroglyphs, or anywat about ancient Egyptian figure drawing. People look kind of odd in these things, and he says it’s because they arranged the body parts into their most recognizable aspect. The body and limbs are frontal so you can see the shape and the number of limbs, but the feet sideways so you can see how the feet stick out. The hands are turned in a way that’s not impossible but not exactly natural, so you can distinguish the fingers. The heads are sideways so you can see what a nose is.

Murch says that the way editing fragments space and people is arguable a means of achieving the same goal: showing everything in its most recognisable, or maybe most dramatic aspect.

The most extreme example of this might be Edgar Ulmer’s description of the German expressionists building a whole different set for every camera angle — something I doubt they ever did, at least not consistently. But, given unlimited resources, for that kind of look it might make sense.

Josef Von Sternberg writes in his memoir that when he was an assistant, his director told him to never arrange a chair onscreen in such a way that one leg was behind another, because it would look like it had three legs and some idiot in the audience would get distracted waiting for it to fall over. He seems to take this notion pretty seriously. I think it should be taken seriously but not literally — it’s not primarily a lesson about chair photography, it can apply to everything. Dress to camera.

And this leads me to Murnau’s important advice to Hitchcock: “Remember, it doesn’t matter what’s on set, only what the camera sees.” And my cinematographer friend Scott Ward’s dictum, “Nothing in film is any good unless you can photograph it.” That’s not wholly true, it ignores sound, and the things which can be suggested or inferred. But he said it in the context of a TV show where someone had proposed having four characters wear shiny helmets which would have reflected the entire crew and everything behind the camera, so I think he was definitely onto something.

Run and Gun

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2019 by dcairns

Humm, thought I’d already published this…

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is vlcsnap-2019-06-12-11h03m52s097.png

THIS GUN FOR HIRE is, on the one hand, the first version of Melville’s LE SAMOURAI. It’s an adaptation of Graham Greene’s A Gun for Sale (retitled This Gun for Hire in America: the credits seek to reinforce this literary connection even as the screenplay departs from the book in key ways). And a star-making turn for Alan Ladd, who is very, very good in it, in a seriously unusual leading man/villain role. Unusual when Delon did it, pretty well unique when Laddie took it on.

Greene was always rather snooty about the film, criticising the decision to make Veronica Lake’s character a singing magician, as if that was too ridiculous for words. But he’s the one who had the girlfriend of the detective hunting a killer happen to get on a train with the killer and end up kidnapped by him. Screenwriters W.R. Burnett (The Asphalt Jungle, Little Caesar source novels) and Albert Maltz do try to iron that wrinkle out by making Lake also a secret agent, so that both she and Ladd are trailing the same man (lovely Laird Cregar).

But the first ten minutes of the film are worth concentrating on, I think. Director Frank Tuttle, assisted by ace noirmeister John F. Seitz as cameraman, creates a whole succession of iconic images —

Ladd is supposed to have a childhood injury, a badly-healed broken wrist, a good, ugly makeup effect by Wally Westmore. Ladd and Tuttle do everything they possibly can to make you notice the affected limb in this sequence — and none of it works.

It’s very strangely. I think it’s because it’s simply too soon for us to be interested in this man’s wrist. In a wide shot, we notice that Ladd carries his arm oddly, but we don’t perceive the jutting bone. In close-ups of hand action, we notice what his hands are DOING, not what they or their attendant arms are like. Later, a newspaper prints a picture of his arm and we go UGH! And next time we see him, we notice it.

I think the boxy low angles, emphasizing the ceiling, feed directly into Melville’s rather jerky trombone shot which opens LE SAMOURAI, in which Delon’s basement apartment seems to expand and contract. This happens because (a) Melville had decided that his protagonist, “Jeff Costello,” is schizophrenic, and (b) he hasn’t done any actual research about what that means.

Alan Ladd’s character is at least as schizophrenic as Delon’s. In the conventional, incorrect sense of having a divided personality. We’re about to see Delon carry out a hit, and here we see him going over the paperwork and preparing his handgun — and we know he’s a hood because cops don’t live in apartments like this in movies, and who else carries a gun?

Then he tenderly feeds a kitten.

The San Francisco newspaper is a nice scene-setting detail, but do we really notice it in the midst of our “Awwwlookadakitty!”* moment? Doesn’t matter, detail is both good and necessary. Anyway, whenever I use the Pauline Kael “we,” to talk about what does or doesn’t get noticed, remember that on the big screen, “we” would notice a lot more.

Anyway, having the tough, crooked anti-hero give milk/cream to a cat is a Sternberg moment — the Paramount thriller is still, in 1942, indebted to UNDERWORLD, whose screenwriter Ben Hecht was appalled by this sentimental detail. Sternberg claimed credit for the idea, saying he wanted to show his hero/villain had a good heart, and implying that such broad brushstrokes were essential if you wanted to get through to the mainstream audience. He was sort of contemptuous of the audience and the approach, but not of his own cleverness in manipulating both.

Enter the slattern! A memorable turn by Pamela Blake, later a wide-eyed B-western heroine. Would it be too much to ask for a whole movie about this vulgar bitch-goddess. She enters, is mean to the cat, and Ladd slaps her and tears her top (adding a sexual tinge to his violence which doesn’t mean seem to mean anything, it’s just for titillation).

So we learn that ordinary people are nasty, and that this killer is in a way more sensitive than regular civilians.

Ladd leaves, there’s a quick exterior of his rooming house, the movie resists the impulse to show us Those Damn Hills, and then Ladd has a disturbing encounter with a little disabled girl in the stair of his target.

She’s meant to remind us of him, because of his wrist, but the effect is subtler, pleasingly mysterious, because “we” haven’t noticed his damn wrist.

The target: initially suspicious, then quite friendly. He offers Ladd coffee and cookies. Ladd actually eats the cookie of the man he’s about to snuff! That’s a clear violation of the rules of hospitality. If you’re going to kill a man you have to refuse all cookies.

Unexpectedly, a woman is present: the target’s “secretary.” The headline will read CHEMIST AND WOMAN MURDERED. Ladd is discomfited by this complication, but is able to complete his appointed task when the squeal of the kettle summons the “secretary” away.

*Copyright Glenn Kenny.

It’s another great room. Production design is by an uncredited Lynd Ward according to IMDb, who provide no other credits for this mystery man. Art direction is credited to the usual Hans Dreier & Robert Usher. This is a more salubrious joint than Ladd’s flophouse, but John Seitz’s low-key lighting makes all the settings a bit grubby. Even Veronica Lake’s eventual appearance can’t illuminate every shadow.

Look, the wrist! But I’m telling you, we don’t clock it yet. The blackmailing chemist target asks to be paid, and Ladd reaches in his briefcase, where we saw him put his gun.

This moment is extended for suspense purposes, and we get a little smile from Ladd. He’s enjoying, in a slightly sexy way, the feeling of power and the dramatic irony of this cookie-dispensing chemist smiling in anticipation of getting paid when in reality he’s going to get a slug in the ticker. It’s a VERY unsympathetic bit of characterisation, but of course it positions Ladd right alongside us, the audience, in pleasurable anticipation of a less attractive character’s demise at the hands of a leading man.

The inevitable occurs.

The “secretary” appears in the kitchen doorway.

“They said he’d be alone,” says Ladd. His tone is quite harsh, but the impulse to make such a remark is a sort of apologetic one. An attempt to explain why your regrettable death must now be implemented. It’s like in GROSSE POINTE BLANK. “Why are you doing this?” is answered with “It’s not me.” Which does nothing. It does not reassure. It’s more upsetting than anything else. But the impulse is apologetic, and so the audience notes that in the character’s favour.

The “secretary” retreats to the kitchen, presumably blocks the door with her body, and Ladd shoots her through the door. The fact that we don’t get a shot from inside the kitchen denies us a view of her terror and denies us a little bit of empathy with the “wrong” character.

Ladd forces the door open to check her (unseen) body, with a series of grisly nudges later borrowed by Kubrick in DR. STRANGELOVE (Mandrake/Ripper sequence).

Ladd’s mission also includes picking up the documents involved in the blackmail scheme he’s just Gordian-unknotted. Hilariously, David Buttolph’s score goes into a kind of Morse Code at this point, because there are dots and dashes in the nonsense chemical formulae.

Ladd leaves, and has another Disturbing Encounter with the little girl. She asks him to retrieve a dropped ball. (What kind of monster gives a disabled child a ball to play with?) He pauses, reaches for his briefcase, then retrieves the ball (religiose music).

So we learn that he has a conscience, or a weakness. He’s wicked enough to CONSIDER killing a little disabled girl, because he knows she’s a witness. But good enough to reject the idea AND give her her ball back. (She’s only going to lose it again.)

Net result: hey, we LIKE this cold-blooded assassin!

That’s how it works, folks.

The Sunday Intertitle: George K. American

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2019 by dcairns

THE BOOB (1926) is a slice of Americana — a product only available in slices, it seems. You never see a whole, unsliced one, even in the work of Norman Rockwell.

We open on a swing, where a city slicker seduces a simple she-bumpkin. Director William Wellman fixes his camera to the swing, so he can frame the couple rock-steady while the bucolic scene behind them lurches seasickeningly up and down. Grand!

George K. Arthur had the damnedest career. I can’t make him out. He first appeared on my radar as star and putative backer of Josef Von Sternberg’s debut film, THE SALVATION HUNTERS. He offered JVS a budget of $$60,000 to make a film that would give him a starring role. Then, according to the director (and I’ve been unable to ascertain how honest the memoir Fun In a Chinese Laundry is, but I’ve pinpointed no definite lies), filming was begun using available locations and cheap talent, and GKA tearfully confessed that the 60K didn’t exist. Jo ploughed on regardless with his own savings, and the film made a name for him. (JVS had an indomitable, triumph-over-adversity side as well as a knack for making everyone hate him: part Horatio Alger, part Alger Hiss.)

It no doubt boosted George’s profile too, though he’d already played some big parts, going by the IMDb (he OUGHT to have had $60,000).

In THE BOOB, Englishman George (the son of a traveling salesman and a department store product demonstrator, so he may have had the right nature and nurture to pull the con on JVS) plays an American yokel, with much pasty-faced gurning. I’m reminded unpleasantly of El Brendel, though here the grimace supplants the smirk.

For the next ten years or so, GKA alternated between biggish supporting roles and uncredited bit parts. He departs Hollywood, or at least his credits die out, in 1935.

But GKA will resurface, in his native England, as producer for Wendy Toye’s excellent short films THE STRANGER LEFT NO CARD (1952) and ON THE TWELFTH DAY (1955), and also, uncredited, in the same capacity on Jack Clayton’s THE BESPOKE OVERCOAT (1955), thus kickstarting two more major cinematic careers, whatever his role in Von Sternberg’s origin story.

So I salute you, George K. Arthur! And your little dog, too.