Archive for Ken Adam

Gone Wilde

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2020 by dcairns

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Gregory Ratoff’s OSCAR WILDE starts strikingly, as a documentary almost, with footage of Wilde’s grave in Pere Lachaise, but then we realise that Wilde himself (impersonated by Robert Morley) is providing the voice-over, which takes us out of standard docu terrain.

But things get troublesome fast — in the very first scene after the credits, the audience at the premiere of Lady Windermere’s Fan laugh at straight lines from Wilde’s speech, and worse, greet actual zingers with stony silence or, equally cluelessly, with appreciative applause. One starts to feel that if the filmmakers can’t tell when Wilde is being funny, this could be a bumpy 94 mins.

This confusion by the sound editor and/or director continues apace, and I rapidly surmised that Ratoff simply wasn’t paying attention. Morley delivers the carefully assembled bot mots with typical lipsmacking relish (he’s all swollen up with apothegms), but discusses an offscreen character’s appearance without so much as glancing at her, adding clairvoyance to Wilde’s many talents.

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Morley and John Neville not only lack chemistry, but biology and basic physics, and seem to be acting in different films even when united in the same frame — my eye started scanning for any tell-tale signs of split-screen photography. There’s no honest human interaction until a hysterical and fantastically repulsive-looking actor called Stephen Dartnell enters and he and Morley really tear up the room. It’s a miracle — dramatic life is zapped into the movie as if by defibrillation. A posthumous Shadowplay Award (a solid gold statuette of Perc Helton wearing Mickey Mouse’s shorts and gloves) to Dartnell, a true thespian Lazarus.

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Morley is also good in the quieter moments, whenever he’s not quoting Oscar Wilde. The error here has been to go hire a marvelous type — as with Stephen Fry’s later (mis)casting, whereas Peter Finch playing the same part is just a good actor, which is what’s needed. Morley is a good actor when he remembers his job and stops trying to be the type.

The script is by Jo Eisinger — yes, that one), though he’s adapting various sources including the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. This is the love that dare not speak its name without inverted commas, and that VO comes oiling again to get us across the trickier scenes without making the mistake of letting anyone write or act them.

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Ken Hughes’ THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE opens at the same moment as the Ratoff film, the first night of Lady Windermere, but correctly shows Wilde as already acquainted with Lord Alfred Douglas (the Ratoff film can be forgiven for dramatic compression, especially as it’s telling the exact same story with half an hour less running-time).

Hughes has the huge advantage of a sexy Wilde and a sexy Bosie (John Fraser), and an authentically swivel-eyed raving lunatic Marquess of Queensberry in the form of his favourite actor, Lionel Jeffries. The tragedy of Wilde required not only Wilde’s hubristic exhibitionism, but the opposition of an unhinged homophobe to break through the protective inhibitions of society. If Oscar’s enemies had been merely normal Victorians, they would have been too repressed to make a scene.

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The effect of Jeffries’ glowering, seething domestic despot intruding into scenes of London nightlife is rather as if a 2001 ape-man had shambled into a drawing room comedy, chewing raw capybara meat. What’s also good is that you feel, somehow, what a deeply UNHAPPY man this Marquess is. He’s in a hell created from his own twisted sense of values.

The world of the film is strikingly conjured by designer Ken Adam and cinematographer Ted Moore (with Nic Roeg as operator), at times a little studio-bound and lacking detail, it’s true, but spectacular in setpieces like the Cafe Royal ~

The bigger budget, Technicolor (for Wilde’s green carnation) and Technirama (for Finch’s portly bay window) give this one unfair advantages over the Ratoff, but it’s the performances that make the real difference. In particular, when Finch finishes a witticism and waits for the laugh, his face says, not “Aren’t I witty?” as Morley’s does, but “Aren’t I adorable?”

In other words, he’s not on the nose, and he’s playing chords rather than a single note.

(Ken Hughes fell prey to the Morley effect in his OF HUMAN BONDAGE, where he cast Fat Bob as the insensitive doctor who gets the hero to expose his club foot in class. Rather than play the thing drily, inhumanly, as in the 1934 version, Morley can’t resist going for gloating sadism. A great screen presence, but one who perhaps needed the guidance of a superior intelligence.)

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Hughes also has the advantage having amassed a bit of a stock company over the preceding few years, several of whom, like Jeffries, turn up here — James Booth is very good value as the blackmailer. The bitter irony is that Ratoff had worked frequently with an actor who would have been a quite incredible choice for Wilde if he’d lived, and if he’d had the nerve to do it: imagine Tyrone Power in the part!

Confused punters who saw both these films when they opened in May 1960 perhaps wondered how it was that Wilde scares off a blackmailer by personating a Scotland Yard detective in one version, and pays off the chap and takes him to dinner in the other.

My late friend Lawrie insisted, obscurely, that Ken Hughes was “the filthiest man I ever met,” which might give him an edge with this material, but of course it’s 1960 and sexual intercourse, qua Larkin, has not yet begun. And the Great British Period movie, and the Hollywood form to which it’s beholden, are alike slaves to good taste. There is nothing so vulgar as good taste.

Both versions are quite happy to fold in apocrypha, though if you’re going to have Queensberry present his cabbage, you have no business correcting his spelling, as both movies do. The fact that he wrote “somdomite” is grimly funny and makes him an even more horrible clown. It also means that the fellow in the Ratoff who immediately reaches for his dictionary would have a lot of trouble finding what he’s looking for. (And he looks in the exact MIDDLE, where he’d be more like to find “marsupial” or “mudlark” — and the designer has seemingly pasted his definition right into the middle of the entry for “soft”. Most odd.)

In both films, the trials are salutary: “Everything gets better when the good actors come on,” as a friend puts it. Ratoff has Ralph Richardson, and Morley rises to meet him. Hughes brings in James Mason in the same role, and Mason plays it with a pretty good Irish accent, distinct from his one in the THE RECKLESS MOMENT — sheer bravura, since Finch isn’t bothering to sound Irish at all. Alexander Knox and Nigel Patrick take the less showy role of Wilde’s lawyer in the respective versions.

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Interesting to note that Richardson the stage actor plays it like a movie star would — he is utterly himself, bringing all his characteristics as an actor to bear on the part, whereas Mason, the movie star, gives a full-on character performance. Both are terrific value and seem very dangerous.

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In the trials, of course, there’s no reason to amplify the drama or shoehorn in epigrams because the actual situations and dialogue are so extraordinary.

The second trial doesn’t bother with guest stars but allows Finch to shine in his big moment, and Nigel Patrick gets a superb moment of acting when he rounds off his closing statement — and then looks in the jury’s eyes and he’s like oh fuck.

Ratoff just shoots coverage at the trial whereas Hughes has cinematic ideas. BUT when Wilde makes his fatal mistake (arguably ALL of his witticisms were mistakes — juries apparently don’t like clever witnesses) and says he didn’t kiss a young man because he was ugly, Ratoff’s actors and editor take off for the moon with an extraordinary bit of overlapping interrogation-and-fluster. Really remarkable. Puts me in mind of the blackmail scene in CROSS OF IRON. The trial transcript is presumably the source for this apparent improv, where it says The witness began several answers almost inarticulately, and none of them he finished. Carson’s repeated sharply: “Why? Why? Why did you add that?”

The emotional highlight might actually be this guy (below), Wilde’s butler (Ian Fleming, no, not that one), with the face of a boiled sheep, tearing up as Wilde is arrested. Everyone else is so stiffly upper-lipped, a burst of actual feeling is very effective. Give him an extra five quid. 

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Morley’s son Wilton (the one who’s not Sheridan) comes toddling in as one of Wilde’s sons (why not have both, since Morley had two? it can’t have been connected to acting talent). He’s an extraordinary-looking creature and his performance puts me in mind of the clockwork doll in DEEP RED. Hughes scores again with a scene of Finch reading The Happy Prince at bedtime — it’s very Hushabye Mountain.

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Again, on “the love that dare not speak its name,” the emotional high point of Wilde’s prosecution, Finch scores over Morley with a devastating performance. Morley feels like he’s been given a note by his director. Just when you need Ratoff to go back to sleep, he perks up and sticks his oar in.

Both versions omit any of the hard labour Wilde was sentenced to, which I think is leaving out something of significance, since it virtually killed the man. Hughes (and Ken Adam) does give us a hellish visiting room with the prisoners cruelly separated from their loved ones by barriers.

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There’s a good, simply-played sequence of Dennis Price (as Robbie) greeting Wilde at the prison gate, and another in Paris, which Ratoff and his script then stomp all over by having Wilde LAUGH INSANELY. But I dig the pull-back from Wilde followed by matching pull-back from his grave.

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John Fraser, inappropriately quiffed, benefits from a more complex Bosie to play — he’s sympathetic in his dealings with his awful dad, and beastly in his bratty bullying of Wilde. And, while Hughes overstresses things in a very Hughesian way (which Ken Russell might have gotten away with) in the aftermath of the trial — Wilde’s grandson has ridiculed the idea of Constance Wilde presenting Oscar with his green carnation at the prison gates  — Hughes has had the sharp idea of excerpting The Ballad of Reading Gaol and applying the “each man kills the thing he loves” to Bosie at the film’s end, which, helped along by Ron Goodwin’s emotive score, ends the thing with some power.

Hughes 4 / Ratoff 2.

OSCAR WILDE stars Mycroft Holmes; Sherlock Holmes; the Supreme Being; Ann Pornick (as a woman); Hector Snipe; Woodrow Wilson; Mr. Grimsdale; Flimnap; George Barbor – Dentist; and Poseidon.

THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE stars Howard Beale; the woman in a dressing gown; Captain Nemo; Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles; Prof. Joseph Cavor; Prince Alfonso; Mrs. Baines; Julia Martineau; Pvt. Henry Hook; Ned Cotterill; Dr. Watson; Mr. Blunden; and David Livingston, I presume.

Giovedi 27

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 28, 2019 by dcairns

So, yesterday, as I mentioned yesterday, I got up late and saw INDISCREET — it was a close-run thing, though. One gets used to being able to squeeze into any screening, even nabbing the last seats in the house (we haven’t been forced to stand this year, and in the current heatwave it’s doubtful we could pull it off). But there was a big crowd gathered outside the Arlecchino and it seemed all to possible that the audience for MOULIN ROUGE, the previous screening, might all stay in their seats rather than brave the solar barrage. But it was OK.

The movie was slow going at first — what seemed like an hour of expository set-up of the “After all, you’re a famous actress!” variety, a rather stodgy play opened out, rendering it stodgier. But then the plot kicks in and the laughs start coming thick and fast, and anyway, we have Cary and Ingrid to look at. Cary’s entrance is a good bit of “female gaze” filmmaking, with the camera simply feasting its eyes on him while the music soars. And we get Maurice Binder titles, too, though without the customary nude silhouettes cavorting.

We once asked the great Bond film production designer about Binder. “Maurice Binder was a very nice man, who liked, very much, to photograph naked women in silhouette,” he said.

On to THE BRAVADOS, in an incredibly pristine Cinemascope print — it started and I thought it was a DCP, and then the projectionist had to adjust the framing. A vivid blue Technicolor day-for-night sky with a silhouetted Gregory Peckory riding against it and slashed red titles superimposed.

Fantastic Mexican locations and you can see where Leone nicked some of his ideas for FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (also playing in Bologna) — Lee Van Cleef even plays a major-ish role. Peck is good early on, his natural stoicism turned into a more interesting noirish intransigence. At the end, having taken a revenge which didn’t satisfy and left him morally compromised, he visits the spiritual laundromat — a nice big Mexican church, and emerges SMILING, an appalling choice by Peck which confirms his tendency — demonstrated also in PORK CHOP HILL — to screw up endings with banal, platitudinous decisions. A well-poisoner.

We stayed in our seats — the sweltering heat was such we’d have had trouble leaving them — and saw COLLEGE, beautifully accompanied by Neil Brand on the piano, the only thing in the room capable of being upright. Fiona thought she’d never seen it before, and relished all the footage of Buster in shorts.

Then we ate and dragged our sodden carcasses to the Piazza Maggiore to see THE CIRCUS, which I don’t believe I’d ever seen from beginning to end, and certainly not in such a magnificent restoration — watch for a Blu-ray soon — in such a setting, under the stars. Timothy Brock conducted Chaplin’s score, and afterwards we all discussed our favourite bits over ice-cream. It wasn’t elevated film criticism, it was just “The monkeys!” and “The piglets!” and “The lion — and the little dog!”

A better film than I’d expected, even as a Chaplin fan — I’d been too influenced by Walter Kerr, who objected to the premise of the accidental clown. I think perhaps the true significance of the tramp’s success in the ring is that he’s only funny when his clowning HAS NARRATIVE CONTEXT.

Build the wall

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2016 by dcairns

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If Trump becomes president, that wall’s going to be really useful to stop Americans fleeing to Mexico, isn’t it?

Another wall features in the film of Len Deighton’s FUNERAL IN BERLIN, scripted by Evan Jones (MODESTY BLAISE) and directed by Guy Hamilton (GOLDFINGER), which sets out to be as opposite to Modesty and Bond as it can be, and as close as possible to its illustrious predecessor, THE IPCRESS FILE. I was wrong earlier when I said Hamilton doesn’t attempt the Sid Furie style — although Otto Heller’s Teutonic camera only gets up close and personal with a lampshade on one occasion, and there’s a shortage of true hiding-behind-the-potted-palm angles, he does do plenty of crazy things to convince us we’re surveilling the action with hidden spycams.

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  1. Lots and lots of low angle shots, which make Michael Caine look heroic but also equalise everyone’s height, so they stop Michael from towering over his co-stars.
  2. Composition in extreme depth and extreme length (widescreen).

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3. Some over-the-shoulder shots that are all shoulder, the poor “subject” of the shot a distant dot, like Pluto.

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4. Occasional Dutch (or Deutsch) tilts.

Hamilton is fully entitled to go Dutch, since he was assistant director on THE THIRD MAN. Whenever Harry Lime passes through shot and we don’t see his face, it’s Guy doubling for him. Guy “satchel-foot” Hamilton, we should call him.

I haven’t read this Deighton (yet) but Jones clearly departs from the novel in delivering scenes without Harry Palmer in them. He’s the narrator of the book so he’s kind of obliged to turn up for each scene in it. He may also have added a touch more action — Deighton made it a rule never to allow violence to solve the hero’s problems, a fine principle which will make anybody’s writing better — try writing an action movie in which violence never achieves its purpose for the hero, and you’ll have something interesting.

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Hamilton, true to his Bondian experience, doesn’t distance and deglamorise the few bits of chop-socky or fisticuffs the way Furie did (shooting a punch-up from inside a phone booth while John Barry’s score noodles strange arpeggios of hallucinatory, Escher-like falling-yet-rising…). And John Barry does not return — instead we get, I must say, a very good and witty score from Konrad Elfers, suitably Germanic, but not as distinctive or cool as IPCRESS. Still, I kind of like the way this series kept changing its style.

Ken Adam is designer, another Bond connection. Few sets and no giant megalomaniac control rooms, but Adam follows the advice he got from Mike Todd and always thinks big — hence, the Berlin police station which Palmer cheekily uses as a recruiting office for crooks (“Tell me, is [such-and-such] the burglar still alive? And out of prison?”) seems to be a fucking cathedral. Why not? The East German equivalent is prison-like, windowless, dark, and apparently of limitless expanse.

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Oscar Homolka plays the jocular, avuncular, ursine Colonel Stok, who would return in Ken Russell’s follow-up, and there’s fine work from Guy Doleman (the series’ only other regular) and Gunter Miesner (Yay! Mr. Slugworth from WILLIE WONKA). Eva Renzi is the weak spot, not projecting the toughness her character, an Israeli agent undercover as a fashion model hunting a fugitive Nazi, should have. Reading that description back, it all sounds too exotic for a Harry Palmer film anyway. She also doesn’t sell the romance, but Caine and the script don’t work very hard on that score either.

The twisty plot is based around one fairly obvious trick buried within and confused by lots of other, more peculiar and hard-to-guess ones, all in the shadow of a big, nasty wall.

The only things walls should be for is to keep the wind off us.