Archive for Laurence Olivier

They Saved Hitler’s Sperm

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2019 by dcairns

Franklin J. Schaffner’s THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL is like MARATHON MAN’s brain-damaged clone or something. It’s hard to say which is the tackier take on Nazi war criminal conspiracies. I think at least MM has some kind of realistic point to make and exposes Operation Paperclip to daylight in a way that’s kind of commendable. I watched BOYS in dishonour of the late Bruno Ganz, who appears, and became periodically woken up by odd moments of Schaffnerian panache.

When Larry Olivier first sees a Baby Hitler, the kid is reflected in a double set of mirrors, CITIZEN KANE style, so there are like 95 of him. This is a fine idea — clever but stupid but clever — in a good movie it would be too obvious, i n this movie it is *PERFECT* and I wish Franklin J. Schaffner had come up with another dozen or so visual ideas like it.There’s a double sex murder scene staged to an Elaine Page song. As we wait for the body to be discovered, a Mr. Punch puppet pokes round a corner to irritate Prunella Scales. It’s unsettling, to say the least, but feels really peculiar. Normally, staging the normal scenes of domestic life in a normal way would make more sense than this baroque surrealist madness. It only occurred to me afterwards that Schaffner was keeping the little puppeteer offscreen for a good narrative purpose. At the time it registers as creepy eccentricity, like the whole film has gotten into the wrong hands and may at any moment be invaded by rampaging cowboys or gremlins.

There’s a brief iteration of Schaffner’s signature shot: the planimetric flat-on full stop, but it’s an undistinguished example. But Uta Hagen’s big scene has a nicely awkward moment where her hushed confab with her lawyer strains for attention against a blankly staring, static Olivier on the lower right of frame, creating an electric tension partly because you don’t know where to look.The very weird plot has Dr. Mengele producing 95 baby Hitlers, and then, since he’s undecided re nature v. nurture, planting them with foster families similar to the original Adolf’s. Since Hitler’s dad died aged 65 when the future Führer was still a lad, 95 future Führer foster fathers have to be assassinated, an almost biblical arrangement which serves to tip off aging Nazi hunter Larry Olivier, who starts to investigate. It’s one of those plots that starts bonkers and just gets crazier, has no choice in fact but to get crazier. Like one of those things that begins “Jack the Ripper steals HG Wells’ time machine… Do you believe me so far?”

Ira Levin’s narrative unfolds quasi-grippingly. Like his Rosemary’s  Baby, it somehow works despite everybody knowing the clever twist going in. We’re watching the gradual exposure of an absurd plot, and the pleasure seems to derive from how kinda-credibly it can be packaged, and the suspense of seeing a character we like stumbling closer to the awful truth.Gregory Peckory, of course, is the worst casting for Dr. Mengele you could get, outside of maybe Chuck Connors or Alfonso Bedoya, and he has the task of playing most of his scenes with James Mason and Laurence Olivier, either of whom you can imagine doing it brilliantly — and Olivier had just done so, of course, in all but name. I can see why they might not want Larry to repeat himself exactly, and his increasing frailty works better with him in the hero role. But why Peck? I guess THE OMEN had given him a slight boost, and this is the same kind of vulgar high-concept all-star malarkey, so I’m sure he was good B.O.

But Jesus.

Granted the dyed black hair is an interesting touch — makes him hard to look at, one thing you’d never normally say about the guy. He becomes a waxy mannequin — even more than normal.

Then there’s the claustrophobic effect produced by nearly everyone in it having to do a phony German accent: Lilli Palmer’s real one is a blessed relief. Bruno Ganz is Swiss but he was celebrated for his German-speaking, and rightly so as far as I can tell. His English here is rather lovely and he wisely kicks back and lets Olivier act for two.
The cat they’ve got to play Baby Hitler doesn’t look like Hitler, and is stretched (painfully: think Procrustes) by the demands of having to play him as German, Brit and American. A tall (new) order for any small boy. There must have been a big casting search, and they must’ve convinced themselves they had the answer — “THAT’S OUR HITLER!” — but Dick Shawn would not have been a markedly inferior choice. It’s not that the kid’s a bad actor, though I think he’s been encouraged to lay it on too thick. His dialogue as the English brat is so awkwardly written (“My mother is not receiving today. Don’t you understand English, you arse? We are not at home.” that he might as well have been dubbed, preferably by Paul Frees.Speaking of dialogue, to hear Olivier say, in a mounting falsetto, “He operated, mainly on tvins, VISS-out anaesthetic but VISS ze strains of Wagner providing an obbli-GAT-o to ze screams of the MU-tants he was cre-AT-ink!” is to hear a great deal, and to be unable to un-hear any of it.

John Rubinstein gets to share Olivier’s best scene (his final one in the film), but best perf is John Dehner, a former Disney animator, as the main American baby Hitler’s future Führer foster father — it’s like a real person walked into this bloodthirsty comic opera by mistake. You inhale deeply at the sudden infusion of oxygen.THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL stars Atticus Finch; Richard III; Erwin Rommel; Zarah Valeska; Carey Mahoney; Marcus Brody; Dr. Brodsky; Dr. Mabuse; Adolf Hitler; Henry Luce; General Gogol; Colonel Dankopf; Colonel Kurt von Strohm; Emeric Belasco; Sandor Szavost; Angel Blake; Sybill Fawlty; Mr. Slugworth; Prince of Tübingen; and the voice of VALIS. (It’s a Lew Grade production so it’s ridiculously stuffed with stars. I put it about even with the very enjoyable MEDUSA TOUCH and way ahead of RAISE THE TITANIC! which nevertheless I’m starting to feel I ought to see again even though I remember it being really boring. The plot in that one is that they’ve found out how to make an anti-nuke force field, but they need a rare mineral and the entire supply of it went down with the Titanic. Really! I’m not making this up.)

Advertisements

This one is a doozy

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , on September 28, 2018 by dcairns

Spent all day yestersday watching the Brett Kavanaugh sideshow, so my head isn’t exactly buzzing with film thoughts just now. Alexander Mackendrick taught a whole class based on the live editing of the Watergate hearings, but I don’t have anything like that.

On Twitter, Laura Ingraham managed to wrench her arm down from a Nazi salute long enough to type that this was “a performance, not a legal seminar.” “Performance,” is an interesting word in this context. My feeling, or one of them (along with nausea, horror, pity, anger) was that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was natural, real, not performing, interacting in a polite and pleasant manner with her questioners (none of whom were actual Republican committee members). Judge Brett Kavanaugh WAS giving a performance, one that certainly contained real emotional responses, but ones that weren’t necessarily what they appeared to be.

Students of acting might study the two Q&As, but I would think Kavanaugh’s weird, shouty, face-pulling performance would be most useful in a “what not to do” context. I kept asking myself if I were an innocent falsely accused, how would I appear? Not like this, I like to think, but who can really say? (I think he’s guilty, obviously, but the thought experiment seemed worthwhile.) Accused of anything, we all tend to feel a little guilty, we all try to ACT like an innocent person, which of course can make our denials less convincing. We might reach for spurious arguments, and I suppose we might even misstate the case against us, or lie about details, in a misguided attempt to cast off suspicion. Kavanaugh definitely did all of the above. It COULD be the response of an innocent but badly flustered man. But then I look at Ford, and I believe her.

The man was clearly on the verge of a complete meltdown, but other than that it was hard to make out what his emotions SIGNIFIED. I think the fury that he led off with was, to some extent, excuse the expression, trumped up. Performative. He’d been told he needed to show defiance and righteous anger so he attempted to produce them by yelling and by stressing every single word in a demented forty-five minute tirade. I think he WAS angry but was straining to SHOW it, to channel the emotion the way an actor might use stage fright or first night nerves and transmute it into the emotion required for the scene. I think, personally, the anger came from an outraged sense of entitlement: how DARE anyone question his right to be SCOTUS (what a horrible acronym. Uglier than POTUS, even.)Marlon Brando said something to the effect that an actor might summon up a genuine emotion but it might still not be suitable if it were expressed in an ugly way. Well, we know what he means now. Kavanaugh’s sniffing, tongue-lolling performance was extremely grotesque. People under strain often are. But what was the tongue literally in the cheek about? Or lolling around his underlip? Dry mouth? The bottled water was right there. Even Olivier at his most salacious would have shied away from Kavanaugh’s attempts to lick the entire underside of his face. It was often accompanied by his voice cracking and him tearing up a little, or sounding like it (no actual tears), and this always happened when he talked about his family. But was this sorrow for his family, self-pity about being humiliated in front of his family, or shame about being caught and exposed? Or all three? The extreme WEIRDNESS of the particular manifestation made me guess at some conflicted feelings or cognitive dissonance — perhaps from guilt.

There was at times a resemblance to the hunchbacked executioner in BLAZING SADDLES (can’t uncover who the actor is*), who seems to be imitating Charles Laughton a bit. Same sense that his tongue is a possessed, writhing intruder worming around trying to escape. Like some tiny voice at the far back of his head were trying to seize control of the vocal equipment, vainly striving to resuscitate a vestigial, long-atrophied relationship between tongue and truth, and blubber a desperate confession.

*Apparently it’s Robert Ridgely, as “Boris.” Thanks to Jez Connolly for the tip-off.

The Sunday Intertitle: Drinks on Pete

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2018 by dcairns

In THE GREAT LIE (1941) — it’s not that great — Bette Davis and George Brent demonstrate their domestic happiness by making a home movie starring their kid. This featurette is a big-budget Hollywood affair, featuring its own intertitles, illustrated in a Norman Z. McLeod manner (i.e. crappy stick-figures), presumably by one parent or the other. It also manages to act as a metanarrative on race in Hollywood, caricaturing Hattie McDaniel in broader terms than the surrounding film itself.

 

The filmmakers attempt to simulate a projector malfunction by having the film weave off its sprockets, and then mysteriously come back with the image reversed. It would take a pretty fancy projector to achieve that, but I suppose it’s possible that George spliced the baby close-up in upside down (the big dope) and it was his rotten splice that caused the sprocket problem.

Rather than superimposing the movie afterwards using splitscreen double exposure, director Edmund Goulding and his team have done things for real, or almost: I think the movie is being rear-projected on a translucent screen embedded in the set wall, while the projector operated by Brent is merely a prop, giving a much dimmer light. But having a real image allows Goulding to move the camera, have actors block off part of the screen, etc, so it’s much more convincingly part of the scene than the usual approach.

By coincidence, we also watched PERFECT UNDERSTANDING (1933), which has its own home movie sequence, a record of the honeymoon of Gloria Swanson and Laurence Olivier. — a surprise teaming which actually works well. Rather than Gloria doing her grande dame bit (which in fact emerges only occasionally in her silent career, in fleeting gestures like the arm flung over the face in distressed longshot), and Larry trying to keep up with arch tongue movements or putty noses, the two try to outdo each other in naturalism, and it’s a joy seeing them bounce off one another in a loose, casual manner.

Thorold Dickinson edited this, and the director was Cyril Gardiner, a former editor who had cut Gloria’s first talkie, 1929’s THE TRESPASSER (1929) — which, come to think of it, was directed by Edmund Goulding. The honeymoon sequence is full of undercranking, dutch tilts, handheld wobble, and other devices intended to suggest amateurism, a far cry from the lavish production values of George & Bette’s polished effort.

Upside-down again! But this is used as Olivier’s POV after the home movie shows him drinking a large glass of beer. Larry and Gloria, far more sophisticated characters than George and Bette, are creatively mucking about with the technical possibilities of their cine-camera and film language. Not content with a nostalgic recreation of silent movie-making, they eschew intertitles but go full Georges Melies.

The footage is incorporated into the action in a much less ambitious way — we simply see it embedded in a screen within the screen, or rather the mere OUTLINE of such a screen. But I like how the reverse angle is shooting straight into the projector beam, a perfect Ozu-like 180º cut.