Archive for Karl Malden

Do you get all your equipment from Kellogs?

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2017 by dcairns

Ken Russell’s film of BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, deliriously wacky though it is, is actually closer to Len Deighton’s source novel than the previous movies in the Harry Palmer series, apart from the ending. (Deighton’s climax is even grimmer than a LeCarre: as ever with this series, the filmmakers have sought something punchier, but even here, the big Finnish finish is suggested by a speech in the novel.)

But the opening scene is all new — series regular Guy Doleman as Colonel Ross (mentioned only once in the book) breaks into the HP Detective Agency — above a surgical appliance shop, reached via a dismal neon-lit stair yowling with cats — and performs a search. Herky-jerky handheld shot follows a flashlight beam and reminds me of the search in BLADE RUNNER that turns up a snake scale in the bath, filmed in a similar way because Harrison Ford wasn’t available for a reshoot. Excellent gag, reminiscent of REAR WINDOW and CHINATOWN both — a filing cabinet marked DIVORCE yields two photos, one of a couple surprised in bed, the other of the chap swinging his fist at the lens. The next drawer down contains a smashed camera.HP himself (Michael Caine) arrives, armed, and Doleman spills Corn Flakes over the floor when he raises his hands. Jump cut to Caine shoveling it up, at Doleman’s feet (again). MI5 want Palmer back. He refuses. A package arrives — a key and money. The phone rings. Computer voice gives Palmer instructions —JUMP CUT! Palmer’s trademark spectacles LEAP off his face into the foreground as computer font lettering flickers and Caine, in the background, squints at his suddenly displaced specs. Richard Rodney Bennett is freaking out on piano like a drunken Rachmaninoff and lots of little Caines are voguing about in strange loops — it’s a particularly brilliant Maurice Binder title sequence, sans naked silhouettes but giving the distinct impression that this installment will be splashier, more sexy and exotic, more Bondian, than its predecessors. But the pre-creds sequence also assures us that our hero remains an underdog.

Palmer picks up a package. A thermos. He takes it to a shoeshop and subjects it to the Pedoscope — I am old enough to remember, dimly, X-ray machines in shoeshops. A brilliant idea — lets you see if your toes are cramped, in case you can’t feel it. Also gives you foot cancer, I suspect. Palmer’s thermos is full of eggs. In the book, he’s just given eggs. This is better — adds another layer of mystery, and the  just leaves things more mysterious. I’d like to make the first film shot entirely in Pedoscope.

Our clever screenwriter is Scots playwright John McGrath, who also co-wrote PLAY DIRTY for Andre DeToth, here a producer — De Toth’s bio is full of good Ken Russell stories. The whole business of Palmer no longer being at MI5 is McGrath’s invention too — and it actually makes him being recruited by another organisation more plausible.

Palmer’s instructions pack him off to Helsinki, where Francoise Dorleac gets a brilliant introduction. A tiny “big wheel” spins against the low sun. It’s second rotation flips the camera off into a fast pan that finds Caine, waiting for his contact. Sudden, dazzling Francoise close-up, speaking right into the lens. No context for where she is. Back to longshot, Caine turns, she’s behind him. Very MOD. Uses confusion as a means to attain clarity in a more exciting way. A bit like the eggs in the thermos, only in terms of mise-en-scene. Deighton’s Signe in the book is now the more pronounceable Anya, but she’s the same crazy bitch. Dorleac being marginally older than the character means she has less excuse for her extreme flakiness and so she’s correspondingly less sympathetic.

Shakicam ski-bike ride to an isolated sauna and Karl Malden — this is the movie that gives you Francoise Dorleac, swathed in furs outside a sauna, and Karl Malden naked inside it. In the book, he’s Harvey Newbegin (great name, if obvious) but since our nameless spy is now a Harry, in the movie he has to be Leo Newbegin, which will take some getting used to.

Dorleac is reprising her role from CUL DE SAC, as the fickle tramp who’s lured a wealthy middle-aged man away from his stable marriage. Malden’s slightly crazed gusto perfectly suits the role, as he seems desperate for Palmer to approve his new love match. Palmer has just snogged Dorleac and so is a bit skeptical.A most original conception, your majesty — the birth of Venus.

Russell & McGrath get through exposition joyously — Caine is discomfited by nudity in the first section, then lounges in a bubble chair looking fatuous with a cigar while Dorleac drones tunelessly on a cello and Billy Williams’ camera soaks up Syd Cain’s design. Williams would follow Russell onto WOMEN IN LOVE, which was the reason he was making this in the first place. Amazing design as Palmer discovers a corpse — in the book, the scene is a laboratory in an apartment. Here, it’s a mansion walled in classy porn and jungled up with potted plants — hilarious, beautiful and surreal. The body (a fat one) is slumped facing an open window so his face is frosted. Then Palmer is chloroformed.

He wakes up in the back half of a car in front of a process screen. Rear projection never works in colour/widescreen movies of this time, but Russell gets some added value out of it by pulling out from the grainy street footage and panning onto Caine, so it’s like he’s woken up in a movie. Ross threatens to frame Palmer for the previous scene’s murder, and he’s forcibly recruited back into Her Maj’s Secret Service, to spy on Malden’s organisation from within.A spacious loft set — one of numerous vaulted chambers of this design in Russell’s oeuvre. The titular brain is mentioned, but all we see is a desktop terminal. Spurious drama — Malden is ordered to shoot Dorleac. He doesn’t.REPORT TO TEXAS FOR INDOCTRINATION

Shock cut from hockey mask to multiplying bacilli suggest Russell was impressed by PETULIA the previous year. I think Mad Ken and Richard Lester were checking out each other’s work, influenced but also rejecting a lot of influence. I think they both felt the need to keep track of what the other was up to.Palmer is flown to Latvia with Vladek Sheybal, a Russell favourite. On a train — a teenage Susan George, Caine’s future co-star (THE JIGSAW MAN). And we meet Oscar Homolka in a scene containing broad farcical elements which is nevertheless straight from the book. Homolka was a memorable presence in FUNERAL IN BERLIN so it’s lovely to have him back, cackling insanely, an avuncular dumpling you nevertheless believe capable of terrible things. Russell was particularly amused by the book’s casting of Americans as villains and Russians as the good guys — he exaggerates it somewhat, as was his wont, but it IS true to the novel.

Here in Latvia the film seems to have lost a Beatles song from its soundtrack — the Latvian “freedom fighters” employed by Malden — his cousins — also traffick in bootleg western goods. I REMEMBER this song from a TV screening.A double-cross — Malden wants Caine dead. And we get the film’s most beautiful image, cossack-like riders emerging from the winter sun. Like the private eye he briefly was, Palmer is knocked unconscious again. An occupational hazard for anyone in the Marlowe racket.

And awakens in a bath-tub full of corpses (the book). Grim comedy hi-jinks — a guard comes in as he’s contemplating escape. Awkward eye contact. The man begins to undress. Uh-oh. Sigh of relief — he’s just come to use the loo. (This is the third scene to wring comedy from men undressing together.) Two more guards enter, rush Caine, seizing and subduing him… soak a towel from the sink… and give his face a nice wash.

Shostakovich — Russell is just wild about all things Russian — limbering up for THE MUSIC LOVERS — a crimson bar, where Sheybal is apprehended and Caine compromised — Dorleac, who travels fast, is snapping the compromat of him being chummy with Homolka using a very obvious but chic spycam.Back to Helsinki — Palmer partners up with Newbegin (who just tried to have him killed) in his scam — claiming massive expenses from crazed American patriot General Midwinter to foment revolution in Latvia — and we’re off to Texas at last!

Except Texas is one place the movie didn’t go — looks like they filmed in Finland and England only — so Middlesex is doubling for Texas. By setting the whole thing at night and making it rather surreal anyway, Russell gets away with this — a sort of Nazi rally/square dance/barbecue — in the book, Midwinter’s organisation is called Facts For Freedom (“The fact free people,” the unnamed spy’s boss calls them) and the three Fs form a sort of grid logo. Russell has the M and W of Midwinter’s name pressed together to form a sort of involuted swastika. Not subtle, this stuff, but satire rarely is. A Trump rally, basically.

Midwinter is a bit subtler in the book too — he’s of Latvian descent and wants to free his former homeland. In the movie, he’s just a nutty American super-patriot. They got rid of his artificial arm, also — too much? What exactly would constitute “too much” in this context? “My arm is long and my vengeance is total!” bellows Ed Begley, eyes aglint with blazing insanity. Very good use of his Humpty Dumpty shape, apart from his egg (torso + head) he seems to be all legs.The brain itself — the facilities of Honeywell (do they still have a building on the road between Edinburgh and Glasgow?). Russell’s love of Lang’s METROPOLIS shines through. The other giveaway that we haven’t crossed the Atlantic is Donald Sutherland, oddly enough, fussing over terminals, at the tail-end of his European sojourn (Perth Rep, various cheapo horrors). His computer “expertise” perhaps earned him his role in SEBASTIAN the following year. Big Bondian set, all greatly amped-up from the book. Here, we begin to conclusively depart from the source, in interests of a big ending —Karl Malden escapes and Caine, about to be shot due to Dorleac’s compromat, strikes a deal with Midwinter to capture him. Two henchmen in stetsons accompany him back to Finland for this purpose. Attractive sequence in greenhouse! Stetson men shot at train station, Dorleac flees, having double-crossed Malden for those eggs (remember those eggs? Imbued with deadly germs stolen from Porton Down, Britain’s biological and chemical weapons facility — just saw a BBC documentary about it). Malden falls weakly into line now with Caine’s plans — must warn Midwinter not to invade Latvia as he’ll start WWIII. (Earlier, Malden has his own crazy moment — WWIII means nothing to him as long as he’s making a profit. Nicely underplayed (yet MASSIVE) moment from Malden, and it strikes me as psychologically acute — there are evidently people who simply refuse to imagine nuclear destruction or climate change.

Happily the movie omits Deighton’s description of Newbegin pressing his nose against a train window. One imagines a vast, ever-spreading pink pancake blotting out the sun if Malden were to attempt this.

The big Finnish finish — Midwinter’s cracker army advances across the ice, so Homolka bombs the ice and sinks them all — all lifted from Eisenstein’s ALEXANDER NEVSKY, but staged with trucks and a really impressive, weirdly fake day for night — I think they just erected black backdrops — it sort of does look like how the scene might be if it were floodlit. Disturbing mass drowning — also kind of funny, in an unpleasant sort of way. General Midwinter dies as he lived — a bellowing dwarf.

Caine awakens draped on the ice floe like Lillian Gish. Somehow the only survivor. Homolka magnanimously returns the eggs and says a dismissive eulogy for the “stupid” Begley. Caine returns to London —The eggs hatch. Amusing coda, not in the book, but Deighton might possibly have considered it if he’d thought of it.

In the novel, our hero assassinates Newbegin to stop him defecting to the Russians. Kind of violates Deighton’s own rule about not letting his hero solve problems with violence — but has he really solved anything? In a way, being forced to kill IS the problem.

 

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A Kubrick Shot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2016 by dcairns

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Quite late in ONE-EYED JACKS, directed by star Marlon Brando after Stanley Kubrick departed the project, there is an unmistakable Kubrick shot.

We follow Brando, a prisoner, and Karl Malden and Slim Pickens, his captors, into the jailhouse. The party advances towards us then turns to head screen right —

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— tracking screen right, the camera passes THROUGH a wall —

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— through various cells, following Brando and Malden and Pickens —

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— emerging at the the stairs to a tower —

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— and as the characters start to climb, the camera begins an ascent also…

Then the shot stops abruptly, cut off by a rather jagged angle change which abandons the phantasmal fluidity — having declared that prison walls can’t hold it back, the camera abruptly gives up the ghost-walk and jerks to a higher angle. Understandable, in a way — Brando is about to kick Pickens downstairs, and this is not the kind of action I, personally, would care to stage repeatedly (or at all!) at the end of a long, complicated camera move. Better make it a single, locked-ff shot and then the only thing that can go wrong is the stunt itself. With luck, you can just do it once and hope “Slim” doesn’t crash through the set wall.

What’s incredibly striking is how Kubrickian the shot is — under the influence of Ophuls, Kubrick was tracking through walls A LOT in THE KILLING, and would do so even more in LOLITA, the project he jumped ship onto immediately after his collaboration with Marlon ceased to seem tenable. (After LOLITA, Kubrick’s camera loses its power to become intangible and pass through solids — I don’t recall any instances of permeation in STRANGELOVE.)

The second striking thing — or maybe this struck me first — is that the shot is totally un-Brando-like. His filming so far ha been decent enough, elegant even, but he hasn’t shown any interest in long, fluid camera movements. Arguably he doesn’t show much interest here either, hacking into the shot as soon as he is decently able — sooner, even.

One would be tempted to assume that Kubrick filmed this sequence before his untimely departure, and maybe Brando chopped it up, contemptuously — but all accounts suggest SK left the film before photography began. What gives?

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My best guess is that maybe the set was prepared to Kubrick’s specifications — and it must have looked surreal, all those jail cells with a missing back wall — with a specific shot in mind. In filming there, Brando was certainly tied into one good angle — a long, graceful track-and-crane shot would be the only alternative to a series of choppy entrances and exits. Based on his usual approach, Brando might have preferred to put the camera at one end of the cells and have the characters approach from the far end, and perhaps the incomplete cells made this impractical.

If the whole thing is coincidence, I think it’s an interesting one, a novice filmmaker falling into the style of another director he’s just fired.

Incidentally, many versions of Kubrick’s departure have been told, most of them involving a script meeting and a bell or gong. What story did YOU hear?

Also, incidentally — Kubrick stole Slim Pickens for DR. STRANGELOVE after Peter Sellers wriggled out of playing Colonel Kong. And Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado were stolen by Sam Peckinpah, who had been fired from this project by Kubrick and Brando, when Peckinpah remade the story as PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.

In the frame

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2015 by dcairns

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Gradually overcoming my foolish Elia Kazan aversion — based on his politics/ethics, not his movies, so I’ve just been robbing myself, really — and ran BOOMERANG! (1947), a wackily titled courtroom/political drama from Fox, recklessly elaborated from a true story. Ambitious D.A. Dana Andrews (but the D.A. stands for District Attorney, you see) builds up a perfect case against a drifter (Arthur Kennedy, young but already rodent-like) accused of murdering a priest — ballistics, eye-witnesses, a destroyed alibi and a confession, but then, since he’s a painfully honest man, he risks his whole career by trying to dismantle the evidence, which proves shakier than first assumed.

These corruption dramas are always double-edged things. The old Hollywood model has to show the system working, both to confirm our faith in society and to deliver the required happy ending. But one can be left with doubts. If not for the impeccable Jimmy Stewart in MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, the forces of corruption would surely win, and the movie makes it very clear that Stewart/Smith is an unusual individual, therefore can we not assume that corruption wins most of the time? So with Andrews here. Kazan can be assumed to have meant more criticism of the status quo than Capra ever would. Here, the newly elected reform politicians are shown to be as capable of shady dealings as the villain they ousted — some are prone to “noble cause corruption,” believing that basically any course they take is justified if it gets them re-elected so they can carry out more reform. One, played by the turtle Ed Begley, blatantly has his fingers in the till.

(I think SERPICO marks a significant point — corruption is seen as so entrenched that a single honest man CANNOT reform the system.)

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The usual suspects: Arthur Kennedy, number 5, but in a surprise cameo, Arthur Miller is rumoured to appear in one of the film’s lineups.

Another guest star: Gadge’s dad uncle, as an incompetent witness. Runs in the family?

There’s some corny stuff in here, corny but fun. Sam Levene plays a hardboiled newspaperman with as dopey sidekick. Andrews indulges in ludicrous courtroom theatrics that make you applaud, like having a loaded gun aimed at his own head, the trigger pulled (yeah, probably more lawyers should do this); when a stooge tells the baddie “It’s been a pleasure meeting you,” the baddie replies, “I know.” A jilted dame testifies against the hapless patsy out of sluttish pique. Lots of cornball stuff, and filming on location doesn’t diffuse that, though the occasional reverberant sound in the background testifies to the existence of a world outside the frame.

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More valuable is the strong cast, with Kazan regulars Lee J. Cobb and Karl Malden in evidence. Cobb as the police chief, more muted than usual, is rather wonderful. He uses sleep deprivation to torture a confession out of his man, but refuses to use violence. He has a conscience, up to a point. There’s no evidence that he lets politics influence his performance of his duties. But like a lot of flawed cops, once he sells himself on a man’s guilt, he can justify almost any action to get a conviction. At that point, an innocent man’s denials become lack of contrition, and the further he goes the more committed he is to proving a supposition rather than investigating a case.

So the social critique is quite smart — only the script’s need to roll everything into a neat ball, and to amp up the dramatics, compromises its credibility, so that you pretty much KNOW watching it, “Well this wasn’t part of the original true story… nor this…” Still, it’s a strong piece of Hollywood product — like is Kazan and Zanuck got into a telepod together and what came out was… Kazanuck!