Archive for Joseph Conrad

Bickel Victory

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2016 by dcairns

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Captures the mood chez mois round about now.

As these things do at Shadowplay, John Cromwell Week is running on into a fortnight or so…

I’m indebted to Nicky Smith for the information that it was John Cromwell who advised a young actor named Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel that he might do better under the name Fredric March. The name, and the actor, were subsequently so successful that they appeared together in two Cromwell films, VICTORY and SO ENDS OUR NIGHT. I admired both.

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VICTORY adapts Joseph Conrad’s novel, previously filmed by Maurice Tourneur and later a dream project for Richard Lester (scripted by Pinter).

In The Hollywood Professionals Volume 5, Cromwell is quoted by author Kingsley Canham as expressing dissatisfaction with VICTORY, since he couldn’t get the performance he wanted out of chief villain Sir Cedric Hardwicke and he couldn’t find a cockney actor to play his “secretary,” thus was forced to resort to Jerome Cowan, a good all-rounder but no Londoner. In fact, to my eyes, Hardwicke appears excellent — a modern, minimalist take on malignancy. His sinister sunglasses, a touch borrowed from Ben Deeley in the silent version (Conrad makes no mention of them) make his face (even) more skull-like than usual.

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If Cromwell was dissatisfied with his baddies, he surely must have been pleased with March and particularly Betty Field, who produces a remarkably credible English accent which really wasn’t called for, but which sounds very sweet. You may know her from OF MICE AND MEN, but this is an unrecognizably different characterisation. It’s essential that we care about this couple despite their age difference and the brevity of their acquaintance. March is so gentle and Field so vulnerable… Cromwell assists with the same direct-address camera angles he used in OF HUMAN BONDAGE, letting the audience inhabit each character in turn.

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Also: Sig Rumann as the oily Schomberg, perfect if unimaginative type-casting as a sneaky blowhard. He doesn’t have a beard to point in this one, but his chin threatens to go off all on its own.

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SO ENDS OUR NIGHT is a tale of stateless refugees in pre-war Europe, from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. It suffers from a structural feature easier to make work in a book: a divided protagonist. A very young Glenn Ford gets most of the screen time, pursuing Margaret Sullavan (practically compulsory casting in Remarque adaptations, it seems), but March keeps popping up and taking the narrative away with him. He’s a more compelling actor and he gets Erich Von Stroheim and Frances Dee to interact with, but it has the effect of deforming the narrative.

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Although my copies of both movies are pretty rotten, it’s just possible to appreciate the contribution of William Cameron Menzies to the latter film — as production designer, he did far more than plan sets, he sketched every composition, somewhat usurping Cromwell’s role with the director’s grateful cooperation. The film was a low-budget one — too depressing a story to excite Hollywood enthusiasm, even at the start of the war — and Menzies’ careful planning allowed miracles to be achieved.

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Another Menzies-designed Cromwell flick, MADE FOR EACH OTHER (1939), is available in pristine form. Despite starring James Stewart and Carole Lombard, it’s pretty bad — two-thirds painfully predictable sitcom schtick (admittedly, they hadn’t had decades of domestic television comedy to wear out this kind of thing yet) followed by a mind-bogglingly inappropriate action climax. As a slight recompense, it does offer Louise Beavers (Mae West’s grape-peeler-in-chief, Beulah) playing an intelligent and capable woman, which she rarely got to do. Beavers would turn up very briefly in Cromwell’s late production, THE GODDESS, demonstrating his long memory.

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After an hour devoted to Stewart’s struggle to raise a family and get on in his law firm (as boss, Charles Coburn plays an intransigent patriarch just as he did in the superior IN NAME ONLY), the movie abruptly swerves into lunatic melodrama, as the Stewart-Lombard baby gets sick and an experimental vaccine must be flown at once, overnight in a torrential storm, from Salt Lake City. Selznick, the presiding lunatic in this whole affair, throws resources at this totally left-field ending, and Menzies provides dazzling visual accompaniment. It’s like I Love Lucy suddenly decided to climax with the third act of DIE HARD. Madness.

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Roll Credits

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2014 by dcairns

lester credits from David Cairns on Vimeo.

The last of the deleted scenes from PICTUREWISE 3, my Richard Lester piece. Ending with an unmade film seemed too similar to the first installment (available on the Blu-ray of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT).

Images are from Bob Willoughby’s The Platinum Years, which Lester recommended highly as about the best set of movie stills he’d seen. I picked the book up in Toronto and scanned the relevant pages on PETULIA.

I somehow got the impression from Lester’s impassioned description of Joseph Conrad’s VICTORY — which lays emphasis on aspects that are lightly brushed over in the screenplay he commissioned from Pinter — that the book has a real personal significance for him. Without speculating on what that is (the dollarbook Freud approach), I thought illustrating it with images of Lester would be a suitably oblique approach, having rejected the idea of using lots of stills of book jackets, illustrations etc…

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UK: A Hard Day’s Night: 50th Anniversary Restoration [Blu-ray]

US: A Hard Day’s Night (Criterion Collection) (Blu-ray + DVD)

PICTUREWISE III

Things I read off the screen in “Sabotage”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 13, 2009 by dcairns

Hitch announced that his 1936 thriller SABOTAGE would contain “more of the real London” than any previous movie. To modern viewers, this may seem an odd claim to make for a film that reproduces nearly everything, including the Lord Mayor’s Parade, in the studio —

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I love how the giant photo is positioned flat, with the crowd lined up diagonally, creating a false perspective. It’s quite convincing in the film, mainly because it would occur to any of us that they’d go to all this trouble rather than shoot on location.

But studio filming was standard practice then, and Hitchcock’s preferred method (although he was quite capable of departing from tradition if the film seemed likely to benefit, and had worked extensively on location in his first two films). Anyhow, one result of the desire to capture the feeling of a bustling metropolis is that SABOTAGE is more full of writing than any previous Hitchcock film, since every modern city has become a gigantic concrete novel, its text writ large on street signs, marquees, billboards and buses. Here are a few of the messages inscribed upon the surface of Hitchcock’s London:

UNDERGROUND STATION

BIJOU

CINEMA

PRICES OF ADMISSION

TOM MCGURTH IN “TWO-GUN (incomplete)

I wish the cowboy hero of the movie playing at Verloc’s Bijou Cinema had been called Tom McGuffin, but McGurth is still hilarious. Oddly, despite the ad, the only films we see playing there are an unpromising British comedy, a Disney cartoon, and possibly BARTHOLOMEW THE STRANGLER (we hear a scream from the auditorium at one point).

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LEDGERS

DUNLOP

BUSES AND COACHES STOP HERE / TO THE ZOO

BOVRIL / SCHWEPPES

SCOTLAND YARD

Signs reading “Scotland Yard” appear in nearly all of the classic thriller sextet Hitch made towards the end of his British period, and signs reading “Bovril” are very common too, given how often he used Piccadilly Circus as an establishing shot for London. In this movie it has a plot function too, replacing the Greenwich Observatory of Joseph Conrad’s novel as the target for the terrorist outrage.

LIVERPOOL ROAD

A.F. CHATMAN

TOMATO CATSUP

(“Mix a little tomato sauce with a little strawberry jam, and…”)

BOOTS LEFT DONE RIGHT

BARTHOLOMEW THE STRANGLER

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RADIO

DENTIST

This sign pops up as a reminder of the slain boy, recently seen participating in a street market demonstration of Salvodont toothpaste.

YOUR HEALTH (incomplete)

In addition, Hitch uses intertitles to count down to the day of the big atrocity, a device he seems to have borrowed from THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, another movie on which his wife Alma had worked as scenarist.

THURSDAY

FRIDAY

LORD MAYOR’S SHOW DAY

And on top of that, since this is a tale of covert action, pitting an undercover cop against a secretive terrorist organisation, much of the story is carried forward in written communications, as it had been in SECRET AGENT, with all those telegrams from “R”.

LONDON LAUGHS AT BLACKOUT

DON’T FORGET THE BIRDS WILL SING AT 1.45

And, most spookily —

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More on this one later, probably Saturday. I’m still catching up!