Archive for Kenneth More

Veevers muffs it

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on September 1, 2021 by dcairns

THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON (1957) shows director Lewis Gilbert coming into his own, has possibly Kenneth More’s most subtle and effective performance, and an entrancing star turn from Diane Cilento. Also, it’s a good adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s play, and Cecil Parker as Lord Loam brings the entertainment.

But I want to trash-talk Wally Veevers’ special effects.

The film was shot on Bermuda but there are some faked-up shots done back in the studio, for unknown reasons. Either weather/schedule difficulties prevented everything from getting filmed, some shots didn’t come out right, or Gilbert missed something he should have captured.

But first, here’s a rather good effect — a model ship founders on real sea and rocks.

It’s not immediately obvious how Veevers has achieved this. I had to cogitate a bit, which I’m not as good at as I once was. I worked out that the model was filmed against the real sea and rocks, mounted on a device that allows Veevers to move it forward and tilt it. The rocks it hits are actually far behind it, but the camera can’t see that because it photographs flat. Also, the bottom part of the frame would be masked off, removing the underside of the boat, the simple machinery moving it (a track and a hinge, and Veevers’ hands), and all the background below that line.

Then WV would re-expose the film with the top half masked off. This time he’s just photographing the sea, which will now appear to cut off the bottom of the miniature boat, creating an optical-effects version of a waterline. Voila!

Really clever. But this next one’s really stupid. I’m not sure why this shot of the ship, run aground, is slanted in a “Deutsch tilt” — I get why the boat SHOULD be tilted, having hit the rocks. But there seems no reason why the waterline should also be at a jaunty angle. There are no other Deutsch/Dutch angles in the movie. It’s nutty. I think, having positioned the ship at a suitably slanting angle, Veevers discovered that a horizontal ocean (matching the horizontal clouds) would either cut off too much of the ship on the left, or reveal too much on the right, so he had to angle it nonsensically.

The other horrifically bad job is a set of reaction shots of our extended Swiss English Family Robinson Loam looking out to sea. This is one of those shots which for some reason was not filmed on location, so it’s been recreated in the studio using blue-screen. Whenever an effects shot like this was called for in Britain, it seems the rear projection man and the blue-screen man would get into a fight about which technique was best. I tend to side with the rear projection man because I like those old process shots, and matte lines always strike me as ugly. Admittedly, rear-screen projection is a lot more glaring in colour, though.

The trouble is, only one background plate has been used for three angles.

The wide shot doesn’t create an immediate problem because there are cutaways in between it and the closer angles which follow.

But the closer angles share the exact same background, so that when Gilbert cuts between them, it doesn’t look like two angles — it looks like one character has effected a Melies-like teleportation and another has apported in to replace them. It’s strikingly goofy.

Even if there were only one background plate available, Veevers COULD have enlarged and reframed it to make a slightly different bg for each shot. I suspect the compartmentalisation of filmmaking practice, and some poor communication, was involved. Say Veevers is supplied with the blue-screen shots and simply told that they all require a rocky island shore background. He perhaps isn’t told that the shots are going to be directly cut together. Meanwhile the editor (future James Bond style-setter Peter Hunt) has assembled an edit using what he has at present, the shots of characters against blue screen. He doesn’t get to see the finished effects shots until the film is basically complete. then, ouch.

Gilbert is forced to use this lone plate again and again, but at least he never cuts directly between different characters stuck onto it again. Still, that rock assumes a Beckettian inescapability.

I’d love to be able to blame the foul-up on Sony Pictures who have released a pretty shoddy DVD of the film. But I just can’t see them recompositing the effects shots — the ugly matte lines are pure 1957. So I think we have to chalk this one up to the anti-genius of the system, and budgetary limitations which prevented fixing a bizarre-looking screw-up.E

Even weirder — we do briefly glimpse a SECOND PLATE showing a different bit of scenery. But it’s not used anywhere that makes sense or helps anything.

This makes me wonder if maybe the lab screwed up. It’s always the lab, isn’t it?

Still, I’m sure everything will be all right, children, if we all shout just as loud as we can, “I DO believe in Wally Veevers! I DO! I DO!”

Reach for the Moon

Posted in Comics, FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 5, 2018 by dcairns

I haven’t been impressed by Basil Dearden’s comedies, though I like some of his dramas a lot. THE GREEN MAN seemed very disappointing for a black comedy with Alistair Sim, but admittedly Dearden was fired from that one so maybe it wasn’t his fault. His Benny Hill vehicle, WHO DONE IT? is really lame, but then Benny Hill didn’t have a star personality, was more a man of a thousand chubby faces, so he never made sense as a comic leading man.

And I’d heard that MAN IN THE MOON was REALLY bad, but of course that just made me curious. It’s co-written with Bryan Forbes, and another Dearden-Forbes collab, THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, is terrific, and very nearly a pure comedy itself. The star is Kenneth More, who can be effective in the right part — he certainly doesn’t ruin GENEVIEVE — so it seemed worth a go.

And yes, it’s curious… a strong supporting cast includes Shirley Anne Field, who keeps taking her clothes off, and does a great comedy voice; Michael Hordern; Norman Bird, John Glyn-Jones. Charles Gray plays an astronaut, and gets all the most eye-popping scenes.

I do tend to find More fairly charmless, and in this respect he’s quite well cast here, playing a saloon-bar bore who makes an easy living as a guinea pig in studies of the common cold: he seems to be immune, and puts his astonishing health down to a carefree attitude. This unusual profession allows us to meet him dozing in a bed in the middle of a field (part of an experiment) and the scene gets more dreamlike when Field crosses the field in full evening dress. Throughout this somewhat unsatisfactory film, we do get arresting images like this.

The story goes thus: bluff, hearty chump More is recruited by the British space program, NARSTI, to serve as a disposable space guinea pig, fired secretly at the moon to establish whether the going is safe for the specially trained, celebrated super-astronauts, led by Charles Gray (quite funny casting, this). The weirdest moment is when ground control use an isolation tank to brainwash Gray, who has become very hostile to More, resenting the fact that the untrained lout is going to be first on Luna. The brainwashing is a roaring success and Blofeld Gray emerges from the tank aglow with adoration for the baffled More. Well, first he seems sinister and inhuman, a clockwork orange, then he’s hyperanimated and childish with his schoolboy crush.

Dearden and Forbes seem to accept that the men from NARSTI — it’s not clear if they’re a state operation of a commercial one — are horrible, ruthless and would brainwash without a second thought, but they don’t seem to want to make a big satirical point of it — which marks them out as cynical but conservative, a bit like the Boultings.

At first, the casting of Gray as a hearty, athletic astronaut seems to make little sense, but in fact they know what they’re doing…

Unusually for a comedy, the tech and science approximate the real thing. Depressing that British cinema could only conceive of this subject in either farcical or monster-movie terms. This one would double-feature nicely with THE FIRST MAN INTO SPACE. But at least that cheesy B-movie seems to be sincere about something or other — the existential horror of man’s aloneness in the universe, I think. Death and decay. MAN IN THE MOON needs to find something to be serious about, to be an effective comedy.

Also, there are shots in it so nice, in a dramatic, pulp sci-fi way, that it makes you wish they’d made a wholly unironic film of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.

   

“Doctor? I’ve been searching for you… Everything seems strange and dark… I couldn’t find you! … Under this stuff, I feel like I’m suffering from some terrible disease… like I got no blood in my veins… I have no memory… Only an instinct to stay alive…until I found you… I’ve been groping my way through a maze of fear and doubt…”

The title, alas, is a cheat — More is blasted to Australia, not the moon, a fact he only realises when he encounters a tin of Heinz beans and a kangaroo.

 

Naval Gazing

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2015 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2015-04-02-20h43m34s189

When I was a kid, the big military entertainments didn’t really mean that much to me — I don’t even remember for sure if I’ve seen WHERE EAGLES DARE. But the naval films were probably the worst, though not as noisy as air ones. So although Britain produced endless naval films both during and after the war — re-fighting the old battles all through the white heat of the technological revolution, I have seen David Lean’s IN WHICH WE SERVE and Michael Powell’s THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE and little else. And those are two of my less-favourite Lean and Powell films.

GIFT HORSE (1952) dates from a time when at least some of the US war pictures were starting to take a more considered, less triumphalist view of the conflict, now that the need for propaganda was over. Britain, feeling less secure, kept on flag-waving — but director Compton Bennett had a gift for melancholy and the five writers include the talented William Rose, whose THE LADYKILLERS conceals an iconoclastic sensibility. The film’s best moments have to do with the malfunctionings of the leaky tub gifted to embattled Britain by the US before America entered the war, and the malfunctionings of Trevor Howard’s rustbucket of a face. He’s a broken-down captain hauled out of mothballs for the war and given one last chance to salvage his holed reputation. Joining him for the voyage are numerous trusty supporting players, the kind of people these films always throng with —

vlcsnap-2015-04-02-20h38m47s114

There’s no Jack Hawkins, whose involvement in RIVER PLATE was considered essential by the Admiralty — they simply couldn’t imagine taking seriously a sea picture without him, Here we benefit from less stalwart faces — a great slab of Bernard Lee, jug-eared and limpid-eyed, and the equally soulful Richard Attenborough, the babyish features that turned up with eye-glazing reliability. Here he’s amusingly cast as a former trade unionist turned “sea lawyer” — a sailor who knows his rights, knows the regulations, knows when he’s due overtime, and ends by lecturing his German captors on the Geneva Convention. His appearance is ever-predictable in these things but he always gives value for money.

The surprise bit by Hugh Williams had me rubbing my hands with glee — his oiliness always gives satisfaction, and results in an amiable surprise when he turns out to be a decent chap here. The weirdest casting is James Donald as a free-and-easy Canadian. It’s not just that he can’t do the accent, can barely suggest it in an embarrassed way, it’s that nobody was ever less free and easy than James Donald. If you want someone to stare wide-eyed at carnage and mutter “Madness. Madness!” James Donald is your man. But if you want someone with the gleam of gaiety in his eye and a devil-may-care sparkle in his smile, then please hire him and make him stand in front of James Donald. What James Donald projects is the cares of the world, boring out of his eyeholes with a soft whimper.

vlcsnap-2015-04-02-20h44m29s230

Asides from the movie’s bracing melancholy — the ship fails to perform at every turn, and so do the crew, and their final victory is achieved by ramming a port, using the ship as a cudgel, then blowing her up — it also has a startling fight scene, a bar brawl in Sid James’ pub. Like the man himself, the character is an ex-pugilist, the walls of the house decorated with photographs of his past fights — the pub as metaphor for British cinema? But look what Bennett does with it ~

The Sid James Centre from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Something between COLONEL BLIMP’s jump-cut trophies and Richard Lester.

Then I turned to SINK THE BISMARCK, a 1960 Fox production in ‘Scope, but still British to the core. Doughty, doughy Kenneth More takes the Jack Hawkins part this time, playing an entirely fictitious commander parachuted into the true story because, presumably, the real sea lord didn’t want to be made into a Boy’s Own hero, or to be played by Kenneth More.

Sea battles aren’t close-quarters, which is probably why the young me didn’t care for them. They have the quality of board games, but with added death by immolation and drowning. Here, More never even gets his feet wet, directing operations from deep underneath Trafalgar Square with the beauteous Dana Wynter at his side, while the heroic death-blow at sea is struck by, of all people, Michael Hordern. In a long and varied career I doubt he had that privilege very often.

vlcsnap-2015-04-02-20h32m57s183

Journeyman director Lewis Gilbert keeps the thing trundling along relatively briskly, and the only painful bits are the hackneyed scenes with Admiral Lutyens, played by Karel Stepanek, who can do nothing with the boilerplate Nazi they’ve written for him. In a misguided attempt at expressionism or something, Gilbert introduces the character (left of frame, above) with his back to us, head apparently ablaze. We sense that he’s smoking some evil brand of National Socialist tobacco, but the illusion that his scalp is on fire is inescapable and inappropriately amusing.

The other interesting bit of weak direction comes when More gets the news that his son is lost at sea (and the production, to their credit, did manage to find an actor with the same cuboid head as More). Hearing the tragic news on the phone, More closes his eyes in silent grief.

vlcsnap-2015-04-02-20h34m05s120

Later, hearing on the phone that his son has been rescued, More closes his eyes in silent relief.

vlcsnap-2015-04-02-20h36m16s148

Calling Comrade Kuleshov! Ken More makes the same face for grief and relief! Since the rest of More’s face is just a frowning thumb, I wondered what other choices were open to the filmmakers, and remembered Billy Wilder’s advice that you should always try to film actors getting bad news from the back. And then I remembered Werner Herzog listening to that guy getting eaten by bears in GRIZZLY MAN, and how he instead filmed someone else simply watching him listening to it, without being able to hear it, setting the snuff recording back by about three removes from the eventual audience. So I figured Gilbert should have cut to Dana Wynter, who has a far lovelier and more expressive face than More, and watched her watching her, capturing her reaction as she realizes what’s happened.

vlcsnap-2015-04-02-20h35m05s208

SINK THE BISMARCK! is edited by Peter Hunt, a very talented cutter who helped set the pacey style for the Bond series, and directed one of the very best, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. But I think his talent was more for the action stuff than for scenes or emotion.

vlcsnap-2015-04-02-20h40m23s57

Both movies cope mostly with real ship manoeuvres filmed specially, closer views of crew taken in the studio against variable cycloramas, and stock shots from the war, but both have occasionally to resort to special effects, and these sometimes get a bit psychedelic (above), though not as surreal as those watery explosions in DAMBUSTERS. Bennett and Gilbert both favour a stationary camera, which does the action no favours — I’m not calling for Paul Greengrass but a bit of sway would help things — but at least Gilbert has good model shots to work with — even the sea, usually a dead giveaway in model shots, looks convincing.