Archive for Ken Russell

The Secret Diary of Harry Palmer

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2016 by dcairns


Len Deighton is a poet. Who knew?

I picked up Horse Under Water, the second of Deighton’s “unnamed spy” novels, and the first one not to be filmed with Michael Caine. I’m not sure why it was skipped in favour of Funeral in Berlin, since Michael Caine has said he chooses projects based on (1) quality (2) money (3) is the location somewhere nice? A lot of this one takes place by the seaside in Portugal, he’d have loved it.

The hideously convoluted plot does its job, the laconic dialogue is a lovely British take on hard-boiled repartee, but it’s the prose which kept me happy as I sweated through my sickbed ~

The airport bus dredged through the sludge of traffic as sodium-arc lamps jaundiced our way towards Slough.

That’s making me feel ill, said Fiona when I read it to her. A gross, bitter sentence that contains “dredged,” “sludge,” “jaundiced” and still manages to reach a climax of nausea with “Slough.” Someone else might just have said “I got the airport bus.” Deighton goes on ~

Cold passengers clasped their five-shilling tickets and one or two tried to read newspapers in the glimmer. Cars flicked lights, shook their woolly dollies at us and flashed by, followed by ghost cars of white spray.

At the airport everything was closed and half the lighting was switched off to save the cost of the electricity we had paid seven and six airport tax for.

First, Deighton really notices stuff, so he can write down things nobody else has got to write about, like the mirage afterimage of cars in rain. And he feels stuff — mostly grumpiness about Britain. All the really striking sentences are about the awfulness of Britain. The book flashes back and forth between London and Portugal with a couple of Moroccan jaunts and one Spanish one. Also Wales, which is like London but colder and emptier. Also Gibraltar, which is close to Portugal but British and therefore awful ~

Two sailors in white were vomiting their agonizing way to the Wharf and another was sitting on the pavement near Queen’s Hotel.

“Blood, vomit and alcohol,” I said to Joe, “It should be on the coat of arms.”

“It’s on just about everything else,” he said sourly.

“Sour” is a very good word for the overall tone, which is what makes Deighton such a good Bond antidote. LeCarre provides misery and melancholy, Deighton adds spleen.

If they had filmed this in 1966 — well, for one thing, the London scene had changed a lot in the three years since the book came out, had it not? But they would have had to do a lot of wrestling with plot to find clear cinematic was to exposit the complexities. And the effect of shuttling back and forth between somewhere glamorous and hot and somewhere bleak and cold would have been very interesting — a can’t think of many films that do the hot-and-cold showers thing.


Her smile was like a thin shaft of Christmas-afternoon sunshine.

Later, our unnamed hero is on a train eating British Rail chicken in gravy (Deighton is also a food critic) ~

The blonde girl with the painted face was putting pink acetate on her fingernails; the acrid smell assailed my taste-buds as I chewed the chicken – it was better than no taste at all.

I love the first three Harry Palmer films — it was felt that the unnamed spy had to have a name, but it should be a bland one, to emphasise his anonymity. The character’s innate laconic, slightly insolent, low-affect tone was a gift to Michael Caine, who basically morphed into Palmer and carries the spy with him, always. I also like how the movies are so different, unlike the Bond series — each has a totally different director, a different screenwriter and a different composer, and although Otto Heller was cinematographer on the first two, he only uses the “Sid Furie shot” in the one that Sid Furie shot. I think I’m going to watch FUNERAL IN BERLIN now, since it’s the one I don’t remember at all. Guy Hamilton did not have the personality of Furie or, heaven knows, Ken Russell (BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN is a masterpiece and should be studied), but he made the best Connery Bond and was nothing if not efficient.

Horse Under Water (the explanation of the title is a spoiler) has a bleak and bitter conclusion, then a sexy coda, then several appendices, which allow Deighton to end it with ~

I closed the file.


The Devils and Miss Jones

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2016 by dcairns


I totally missed an excellent opportunity to interview Gemma Jones this week. I could have called in THE DEVILS and Miss Jones. It didn’t even occur to me to ask, as I was all geared up to interview somebody else — and the fruits of THAT interview will appear here soon.

I would have asked her all about THE DEVILS, of course — I’m pretty well totally ignorant about the rest of her career. But she manages an important and difficult task in that, her debut film (wait, hang on, just looking it up — yes, it WAS her debut film). She’s the least extreme character in the movie — and yet, surrounded by lunatics and scheming villains, she holds our interest. Though the movie seems at times to endorse a Catholic Madonna/whore schism, GJ’s character is neither — she has a perfectly healthy sex drive and the film respects her for it. She is puzzled and vexed by the challenge of living a good life according to the precepts of the Church, whilst surrounded by corruption and things that don’t seem to fit with what the Book says — as anyone might be. Besides marrying Oliver Reed (in a “blasphemous midnight nuptial,” my favourite kind), her main plot role is to ask intelligent questions.


As madness takes over, Jones disappears from the movie, only to abruptly take over in the final shot, which is a stunner. I actually suggested this film to Sight & Sound when invited to write about a movie ending. This is surely the best of its year. I’m kind of glad I wasn’t tasked with writing a thousand words for publication on it, though, since I don’t know what I’d have said, other than raving on about its magnificence.

Well, maybe I’d have referred back to the two dream sequences — actually, masturbatory fantasies would be more accurate. Looks to me like these were shot in Russell’s beloved Lake District (Russell fans should totally go there — it’d be like TOMMY going back to the source at the end of his film), although the only non-Pinewood location listed is Bamburgh* — a stone’s throw from me! (But we know they also filmed in a prison somewhere, for Richelieu’s library, and some stately gardens for the King to shoot his Protestant crow in.) Russell always regretted not shooting both of these in black & white, for consistency’s sake. I say the hell with consistency — the vibrant red of Vanessa Redgrave’s hair is reason enough for colour.


Vanessa’s Sister Jeanne has hair in these sequences as she imagines herself as Mary Magdalen, drying Christ’s feet with her hair — probably the sexiest bit in the New Testament — if you need porn and all you have to hand is the Bible, I recommend turning to Book One. The red is great, but admittedly what cinematographer David Watkin does with the b&w is also wonderful — printed on colour stock, it emerges with quite a strong indigo tint, and it has the blown-out highlights he discovered on THE KNACK.


How does this reflect on the ending, in which Gemma Jones wanders from close-up into extreme longshot, through the broken walls of Loudun (up a hill of shattered masonry) and off along a narrow road lined with skeletons broken on the wheel. Well, that shot imperceptibly turns to b&w as it cranes up, helped by the lack of colour in the setting anyway, so that by the time we’ve risen over the wall to see the distant terrain, the world has performed a reverse Oz transformation, just in time for the end credits to appear in bold RED.

It’s beautiful and bleak, and it feels meaningful too, in a poetic way I can’t pin down. I want to suggest that the world has been subsumed into Sister Jeanne’s fantasies. Madness has won. Her perverted view of religion has triumphed even as the city walls came tumbling down. The connection is not really that literal, of course, since Russell does not use words to express it, only images, which speak more powerfully and more primitively to us.


*Bamburgh Castle doubles for Loudun in the long shot near the film’s start, where Dudley Sutton and a Protestant slave gang is transporting a vast, grey, slug-like tarpaulin-swathed cart of demolition equipment across your basic blasted heath. It’s probably the same landscape from the final shot — I never knew it was Scotland! The castle and adjoining beach also feature in Polanski’s MACBETH, BECKETT and THE TEMPEST, directed by DEVILS’ designer Derek Jarman.


Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2016 by dcairns


Enjoyed Raising Hell: Ken Russell and the Unmaking of The Devils.

Richard Crouse has done a fine job putting together research materials and interviews, some of them original, to tell the story of Ken Russell’s masterpiece. I have only three issues with it.

  1. There are some awful, contorted sentences. Not necessarily incomprehensible or grammatically wrong, but ugly: “Just as the beautiful design of that film is an abstraction of German society and urban condition, Jarman’s designs for The Devils would be both a reflection of French society and an abstraction.”
  2. There’s a chapter on “context,” which is basically capsule reviews of other films that opened in 1971.
  3. Very oddly, there seems to be no mention of the film’s brilliant cinematographer, David Watkin.


Production designer Derek Jarman had some issues with Watkin — but when Watkin learned how unhappy Jarman had been, decades later, he contacted him to apologise. And the creative clash is quite illuminating.

Jarman had offered to show Watkin the model of the set under construction, to give him a chance to plan his lighting. “I don’t need to see any model,” said Watkin, perhaps rather brusquely. Watkin always had strict limits as to what he would or wouldn’t do, and seemingly looking at models wasn’t in his repertoire. Saying that he could light the set no matter what it looked like, he declined the sneak preview and turned up on day one of shooting to find a city of white brick.

“I can’t light this. It’s white.”


White tends to photograph as an unpleasant, featureless glare. The whole set had to be repainted with a faint greyish tone so it would photograph AS white, but with visible detail.

Another bit of trivia: Watkin took the job after Douglas Slocombe, who shot THE MUSIC LOVERS for Ken, turned it down.

In the nineties, Slocombe shot a Kwik-Fit garage commercial in Scotland (I know, I know) and a friend worked on it and spoke to him. Slocombe described being offered a lot of money to do THE DEVILS. He sat down in his garden on a summer’s day to read the script. After just a few pages he threw it away in disgust. His wife picked it up, gently reminded him of the whacking fee involved, and got him to read on. A few pages later he threw the script away again, and this time didn’t resume reading.

(Slocombe had balked at shooting Glenda Jackson’s naked lower abdomen in THE MUSIC LOVERS, telling Russell, “You need to get someone to photograph this who can stand looking at it. Russell operated the camera himself for that shot.)


Returning to David Watkin, he and Russell evidently got on well enough for him to be asked back for THE BOY FRIEND. Jarman would return, separately, for SAVAGE MESSIAH. Watkin’s stunning work in THE DEVILS — in an interview appendix, Guillermo Del Toro notes that those fantastic sets couldn’t have been easy to shoot — includes probably the most camera movement of any Russell film, and those artful shots where out-of-focus background characters have their outlines eaten into by the glaring light, a technique used to strongest effect in Watkins’ work on MARAT/SADE in 1967.

Though in his book, Crouse suggests that Derek Jarman’s sets make him the film’s co-auteur, I would like to include Watkin, composer Peter Maxwell-Davies and costume designer Shirley Russell as equally significant contributors.


Crouse includes some good stuff on Oliver Reed, of course, but not too much — it must be hard to know when to stop. I recall a bit of behind-the-scenes footage that struck me as revealing. Reed, on trial for witchcraft, denounces the prosecution’s use of love letters to smear his character, calling them “things put aside for a day when he would need to be reminded that he was once loved.” In the film, Reed yells the first part of the line, reaching the whole court, but drops to a whisper for the last five words. Stunningly effective — and a typical Reed trick. Richard Lester used to kid Reed: “I know what you’re going to do: you’re going to whisper two lines and shout the third.”

But in this outtake, Reed yells the whole speech. I think because the camera is far away.

Reed has calculated: to hell with continuity. They’re either going to use the wide shot, in which shouting to be heard is the only thing that makes sense, or they’ll use a closer view, and I can whisper for that.

I mentioned this as an example of Reed varying his performance, and Lester said, “Yes, Ken could get him to do that. He had a special rapport with Ken, because… they were the same, in a way.”

Despite some disagreements with Crouse’s book, I’ll always be grateful to it for reproducing a passage from a Time magazine article ~

“One long-suffering colleague, when asked what kind of childhood Russell had, rolled his eyes to the ceiling and said, ‘He’s having it now.'”