Archive for Kirk Douglas

Ulysses’ grunt

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2020 by dcairns

I was intrigued about the 1954 Italian ULYSSES by Mario Camerini and boy it’s handsome — Harold Rosson (THE GARDEN OF ALLAH) as cinematographer, Mario Bava operating, production design by Flavio Mogherini (who didn’t do that many period movies, oddly, but had done the Loren AIDA, the movie with the biggest shoe polish budget ever). It has a lovely misty look.

The script is by Homer but with quite a lot of help — six scenarists, in the Italian/DeLaurentiis tradition, including Ben Hecht and Irwin Shaw, ffs. And the main thing that the result doesn’t have is an effective structure, something Homer had managed quite well all on his own. The hero is introduced, voiceless, in silent flashbacks to the Iliad, then loses his memory and regains it in a series of different, subjective flashbacks, and they keep cutting to Penelope because she’s the producer’s wife, even though Penelope’s situation isn’t really developing much. She’s just waiting for Ulysses. They try to fake a sense of progression but you can only do so much.

We watched the Italian dub because the audio on the English version was pathetic, sounding like it was recorded in a tin shack on the Adriatic, missing whole music cues. But losing Douglas’ voice was a considerable detriment. Like a dark tinted window descended between audience and actor. Whoever was doing the voice sounded quite nice and the orotundity of the language was helpful, but it didn’t seem to connect to the face onscreen. I’ve seen dubbed performances which, though flawed, kinda worked, and this one didn’t. I played back the sirens scene in English: MUCH better. (Silvana Mangano doubles as the voice of the sirens, and later trebles as Circe with the aid of a green fill light.)

Lots of bad scenes where people just stand and talk at each other in groups for ages.

But a decent cyclops (unlike Harryhausen’s, this one talks, though his cave is not worthy of Plato: Plato would have kept looking for something in his price range), a lovely ship and the ending is surprisingly drawn-out for a commercial film (because they want more Mangano) so we get a lot of the stuff that might normally get left out. A badly edited fight with the suitors but it still manages to be quite hardcore and intense. Kirk “gives it both knees,” as you’d expect.

We rarely get the impression that we’re watching people, behaving, though when we do it’s because Kirk has done something good. But we frequently get the impression we’re hearing a legend that has been told for hundreds of years, and that is preferable to the other feeling that threatens to prevail, that of watching a daft fantasy epic.

ULYSSES stars Vincent Van Gogh; Tadzio’s Mother; Paul Gauguin; and Helen of Troy.

Big Ben

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2020 by dcairns

Michele Lupo’s films are woven together with quips and names and odd little details — much as you might expect with a more important artist. Seven was obviously his lucky number — he made SEVEN SLAVES AGAINST ROME, SEVEN REBEL GLADIATORS and SEVEN TIMES SEVEN. Big Ben is the name of a character in the last-named, and it’s the name of a computerized security system in his next caper movie, THE MASTER TOUCH. The title of that film echoes the earlier MASTER STROKE. As in SEVEN TIMES SEVEN it features a character using prison as an alibi, and a heist conducted during a football match.

Lupo is extremely ill-served by home video, and THE MASTER TOUCH has only been released on DVD in Australia, where the job was done poorly — so we only have a soft, muddy and colourless version to look at, a particular shame for a film shot by the great Tonino Delli Colli. Still, it’s set in Hamburg and all the exterior locations look drizzly, overcast and horrid. I might as well go outside.

Indoors, there are sleek, futuristic security systems, which Lupo seems to love — a long sequence of Kirk Douglas pulling off a hi-tech heist amid a 2001-esque insurance company seems to particularly excite the director, going by the huge rack focuses (focii?) and Dutch tilts.

Kirk’s partner in crime is Giuliano Gemma, seemingly Lupo’s favourite actor (though he also worked a lot with Bud Spencer and Lionel Stander, pretty much opposites to the handsome GG). There’s something perverse about the way Douglas’s character welcomes this “thieving gypsy” stereotype into the marital home, and there’s a proud, fatherly look in Kirk’s eye whenever he beholds GG and his wife, Florinda Balkan in one another’s company. We can either read her as a beard for the unstated homosexual relationship, or as some kind of hotwife Kirk is urging to cuckold him. (Or kirkold?). Most strange.

The crafty plot involves simultaneous robberies, one of which is designed to go wrong and provide an alibi. It all goes very badly tits-up, but whose tits will be up when the chips are down?

Even though the plotting is loose and somewhat silly, with improbable solutions to burglary problems and a tendency to throw in irrelevant (but well-staged)punch-ups and car chases to pad out the story, things build nicely and then there’s a spectacular gut-punch of a plot twist that sends the story spiraling towards tragedy. It’d be unfair to spoil, spoiler or spoilerize this, but I can tell you in private.

An aspect of Lipo’s cinema I haven’t yet celebrated is his delight in peculiar physiognomy, more Fellini than Leone, and the primary mush here is that of centenarian Kirk Douglas, his extraordinary Belarussian rock-face, craggy, lipless and scowling, tipping into middle age without losing any of its intimidating majesty. Nice to see that he’s kept the classical record collection from A LETTER TO THREE WIVES all this time.

Really quite grim, with a great, unexpectedly bluesy score from Morricone, built around a kind of funereal wail from a solo fluegelhorn, that never develops, merely mourns. Still, despite the tone being totally different from the previous two Lupos I’ve enjoyed, the sense of hubristic failure, the tricksy visuals (think Leone plus Lester plus Sid Furie) and the total commitment to the ludic possibilities of straight genre filmmaking make it fit in quite neatly.

Michele Lupo is a major minor filmmaker!

THE MASTER TOUCH stars Spartacus; Lola Montes; and Dr. Mabuse. With Scott Mary and Baron Konstantin Von Essenbeck.

Young Men with Horns

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2019 by dcairns

I picked up THE BENNY GOODMAN STORY from a charity shop on a whim, not knowing anything about it. The DVD didn’t say who the director was, though I kind of doubted it was going to turn out to be Luchino Visconti.

In fact, it was a person called Valentine Davies, who never directed anything else. He did originate the story of MIRACLE ON 34TH ST, though, as well as working on scripts for SYNCOPATION, THE GLENN MILLER STORY and others. Well, what the hell, I got lucky with BOY SLAVES, also from a one-off feature helmer (PJ Wolfe). Thus, while the Blu-ray of ROME, OPEN CITY languishes unviewed in a drawer, I popped this second-rate biopic into the Panasonic so I could enjoy Steve Allen pretending to play clarinet.

It turned out that Valentine Davies was labouring under twin disadvantages. Firstly, nothing interesting ever happened to Benny Goodman, or at least nothing Davies could put in a film. He didn’t even fly off in a thick fog: worse, he was still around as the film was made, the last thing you want for a biopic. (Note: this is pronounced “bio-pic.” Don’t say it to rhyme with “topic” — it’s evil.)

From Wikipedia: According to Jazz by Ken Burns, when someone asked him why he “played with that nigger” (referring to Teddy Wilson), Goodman replied, “I’ll knock you out if you use that word around me again”.

I’d really like to have seen Steve Allen say that line. He does actually have reasonably good tough-guy delivery in the few moments he’s called upon to be firm. But obviously Universal didn’t want to go there, so we have some nice examples of Goodman interacting with black musicians in a positive way, but no instance of him making an actual stand.

Valentine Davies’ second handicap was, he had no talent. Not as director, anyway. Right at the start of the film he gives us a bonafide camera angle, but that must have made him nervous because he never tries it again. Nor does he move the camera. Anyone who can leave the thing sitting rigid on sticks while Sing, Sing, Sing plays at Carnegie Hall has no cinematic feeling whatever.

Whatever filmic virtues the piece might conceivably have are hampered by the DVD being in the wrong aspect ratio. All the compositions looked, cramped, choppy and ugly, and I eventually realised it had been framed for 1:1.85 but my disc was 1:1.33. Universal generally masked off their 35mm frame to create a cheap widescreen effect, but protected themselves for TV by making sure their shots still worked with the extra space at top and bottom. I tried resetting my TV to 1:1.66, thinking this might give me a better sense of the Valentine Davies cinematic experience.

It didn’t really help much.

For all I know, I was watching a 1:1.66 chopped-down framing of a 1.1.33 chopped down framing of a 1:1.85 chopped down framing of the original 1:1.33 negative, but if so the original must have been like watching Goodman from the back row at Carnegie Hall.

Incidentally, I reckon Goodman’s celebrated 1937 concert at that venue must have inspired the fictitious protagonist’s climactic gig in ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND, released the following year. Clearly, if only Donna Reed had had John Carradine to drive her, she wouldn’t have been late for the gig.

Best thing I can say for this one is that Allen makes a very good Goodman lookalike, and Barry Truex, son of Ernest, playing Goodman as a boy, makes a very very good Goodman lookalike lookalike.

I turned to YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, no doubt unconsciously looking for a more cinema-savvy version of the same kind of thing. Of course, Michael Curtiz provided what I sought. Though the film, based on a novel based in turn on the life of Bix Beiderbecke (with whom Goodman played), doesn’t quite have a real story as such, and the happy ending feels very artificial — you can practically see the tacks holding it on — it’s bursting with meaty scenes and star perfs, the framing is beautiful, and Curtiz glides his camera to the music to evoke jazz rapture.

Damn good role for Juano Hernandez, too.