Archive for Lawrence of Arabia

Frankie and Trevor

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2022 by dcairns

I had vague positive boyhood memories of VON RYAN’S EXPRESS — it turned out I had slightly conflated my memory of Frank Sinatra running for a train with a scene from THE 5-MAN ARMY, the Argento-scripted spaghetti western in which Tetsurô Tanba runs for a train FOR A LONG TIME. You couldn’t possibly get Frank Sinatra to run that long. This meant that the film’s surprising and effective ending was surprising and effective all over again. You wouldn’t get an ending like that now. Already, in 1965, US cinema is groping towards the downer endings of the 70s.

This may be Mark Robson’s best film after his Val Lewton phase. (Or maybe CHAMPION, PHFFT or PEYTON PLACE?) It’s THE GREAT ESCAPE on a train, basically. And I guess TGE made that ending conceivable. It even has John Leyton in it, and he doesn’t go everywhere, you know.

WWII prison camp films seem to capture the spirit of school — the secret activities, the getting away with stuff — it all becomes hi-jinks. Helped along here by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which apart from a few lamentable comedy noises is inventive, sprightly, distinctive — it has a theme you can whistle (important for a GREAT ESCAPE knock-off) but lots of other fun elements too, plus the snare drums Darryl Zanuck would have insisted upon.

The scourge of war films — and they are a bit of a scourge, however nostalgic we might feel about some of them — all comes from WWII. If you look at First World War films, they made propaganda movies while the war was on, then largely stopped talking about it, and then when they returned to the subject it was to talk about how dreadful war was. THE BIG PARADE, WINGS, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. You could lighten the mood with a romance or a bromance, but that was mostly to contrast with how dreadful the war was. Not too many exceptions.

“You said it, miste – oh, wait”

But with WWII the propaganda continued even after the end of hostilities, as if we had to carry on convincing ourselves that it was a noble venture. Britain became hopelessly locked into war nostalgia, as did 20th Century Fox, the studio that came to embody Zanuck’s mid-life/late life crisis of masculinity writ large.

Does VRE get away with turning the war into a school romp just by slapping on a moment of tragedy? Does THE GREAT ESCAPE? My point is not that we mustn’t enjoy them, but that we should remain aware that they’re slightly poisonous.

Anyway, Sinatra is an American airman, Ryan, who becomes the ranking officer in an Italian prison camp where he’s mostly surrounded by Brits including Trevor Howard. He aquires the “Von” nickname by standing up against murdering camp commandant Adolfo Celli. But then he masterminds a daring takeover of the prison train carrying the men towards Germany, rerouting it to Switzerland. It’s faintly preposterous but done with panache.

There he is, doing his running!

Robson, a former editor, gets most of his effects by intercutting straightforward shots. The first reveal of Sinatra is beautifully staged in a Maurice Tourneur-style blocking reveal, though. The direct cutting of the nouvelle vague had found its way into LAWRENCE OF ARABIA but Robson is having none of it. I like dissolves personally but an elephantine thing like this might benefit from more nimble and surprising transitions. Robson is surprisingly flatfooted about scene endings, even when the script supplies him with zingers. He also says things like “Clue me,” which didn’t strike me as period-accurate, but I could be wrong.

The Italian war was all about male nudity: see also CATCH 22.

VON RYAN’S EXPRESS stars Frankie Machine; Captain Bligh; Princess Salirah; Harry Luck; Teocrito; Willie ‘Tunnel King’; Capt. Daniel Gregg; Dr. Mabuse; Clark Gable; Bertram Garvay; Emilio Largo; Nazorine; Don Jarvis; FBI Director Denton Voyles: and King Minos.

Wests Sides Stories

Posted in Dance, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2022 by dcairns

We watched the Wise/Robbins WEST SIDE STORY and the Spielberg together in one day, to see which is better — neither of us, disgracefully, had actually watched the original properly.

Verdict up front: the original is the better film, but the remake doesn’t disgrace it, and you can argue that it has a good reason to exist. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for Rita Moreno to act surrounded by white folks in shoe polish the first time. And Rachel Zegler is so adorable in the new one, it makes you think, There was a 1961 version of her out there, somewhere, who should have played that role but never had a shot at it.

On the other (west) hand… the play and the first film had an impeccably simple idea — Romeo and Juliet updated to NOW. Spielberg’s film has a weird idea — Romeo and Juliet updated to 1957. So he has to recreate, physically or digitally, all that stuff that was just THERE for Wise & co. And instead of making the story newly relevant to a contemporary audience, he’s SORT OF doing that, and sort of doing nostalgia? This slight confusion probably has more to do with the film’s failure to find a large theatrical audience than any issue of quality — it’s an enjoyable watch, probably more so if you haven’t been exposed to the original.

We definitely set Spielberg a difficult job, because the opening ten minutes + of the ’61 WSS are absolutely stunning. Impossible to top. Quite Spielbergian, in a way: high impact visual storytelling. A whole series of dramatic reveals done with the camera.

The bird’s-eye views of New York must have been staggeringly new at the time, but they’re still stunning, thanks to the sound/picture combo — whistling echoes from the shaded concrete canyons, impossibly clear and impossibly isolated from other city noise, but creating a thrilling sense of scale and mystery.

The film’s ONE zoom shot crashes in from a high angle and we IMMEDIATELY cut to a tight profile on Russ Tamblyn (the film’s real star — well, Mercutio is the most fun, or should be) and a series of jagged cuts that yank us back and make room for his finger-clicking cohort. The spatial jumps are so short it’s impressive that they work at all, without feeling ugly. It’s important to realise that Wise was an editor (KANE) and this is an editor’s film. Its best effects are all dependent on cutting.

But also framing, movement, and colour. Jerome Robbins may not fully deserve his co-director credit, except that the choreography is so crucial a part of the film that, yeah, he kind of does.

The opening is so good — a series of totally pre-planned in-frame DISCOVERIES, each one dazzling and exciting — that the rest of the film has a hard time living up to it. It’s very good, but only intermittently as EXTRAORDINARY as its start.

Spielberg starts with an aerial view also — if Wise’s film is a cutting film, Spielberg’s is all about crane shots. We’re closer to the ground — the echoing whistle is SUBTERRANEAN — and we’re looking at the ruined skeletons of fire escapes, a nice idea. Slum clearance — the Lincoln Center will rise here. Opening and closing the film in this locale (how much, if any, of this scenery is real?) is a neat idea — especially the ending. It feels post-apocalyptic by night, and it’s a shame Tony Kushner’s script has less talk of war.

I guess Spielberg HAD to change everything here — simply reproducing all the 1961 film’s choices would hardly have been respectable. But it inevitably means everything is either not quite as good or not nearly as good. Still good, I’d say. Just not at the sublime level of Version 0.1.

Even Wise can’t follow himself, so that as the films progress, Spielberg does gain ground. And I don’t fully understand the widespread negative reaction to Ansel Elgort. He’s not as pretty as Richard Beymer, it’s true, and maybe that’s mainly what we want from the part. But I found him in every other respect just as good. If the negative reaction was due to his alleged sexual misconduct, that’s entirely understandable, I too would rather Tony not be played by an alleged sex offender, but that’s not what people were saying was their reason.

The new movie is guilty of a heck of a lot of OPENING OUT, which should probably be a criminal offence. Hitchcock’s “do the play” approach may not be universally correct, but there are so many unintended consequences set off when you faithfully do a scene that was written to take place somewhere else. When “Gee, Officer Krupke” is relocated to a police station, Kushner has to contrive a situation where the kids can be alone to perform it, then has to contrive a situation where they all get released, and both solutions feel… contrived.

I’m prepared to admit that giving “Cool” to Elgort’s Tony actually makes the song more useful to the narrative — though it’s the original, with its fast low angle trackback, that made Fiona gasp.

But moving “I’m so Pretty” to late in the movie, after the deaths of two major characters, is a blunder. The song just washed over us, signifying nothing — our minds were literally elsewhere, on the drama now surging towards a climax while Maria is blissfully unaware. On paper that could be poignant. But the song wasn’t written with that in mind, and I think Bernstein & Sondheim were artful enough that they’d have written a different song for a different context.

Fiona points out that Spielberg DOES steal from Wise, just not from WSS. This reflection is pulled from THE HAUNTING, another Spielberg favourite he’s previously remade (very badly indeed). In the Shirley Jackson adaptation, Fiona says, the shot has a very specific meaning — Eleanor is already being absorbed into Hill House. In the Spielberg, it’s just an attractive shot.

Time and again, the Spielberg movie weakens the show’s effects by overcomplicating things. Removing “America” from its rooftop is acceptable, I guess, though keeping it there and using the modern screen’s ability to show a digital cityscape ought to have been irresistible. But here come the extras — here’s a random woman driving past — there’s such an accumulation of unnecessary STUFF.

And you are?

Spielberg doesn’t steal from Wise much but he does steal from himself, particularly the dancehall rumpus from 1941. And here are the heavily backlit cloths for people to appear behind as pastel wraiths — this one goes back to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA I think but Spielberg has been mimicking it endlessly.

There are moments in the Wise where he approaches the splendour of his opening. In “Quintet” — often, in the movie, I found myself wishing for the camera to push in, only for it to remain obstinately static. Here, it pushes in, and the sequence is AMAZING. The cross-cutting becomes absolutely magical — it gives the dramatic connectedness of disparate scenes a significance that transcends narrative and really becomes magic, in the sense of numinous or supernatural. The Spielberg sequence is… good. Decent. It’s been… opened out. He never actually wrecks a song, and if you compare his work with overedited garbage like CHICAGO you can genuinely admire his skill and restraint.

(Actually, maybe “Quintet” should really be done splitscreen, it’d be the only way to get everyone who’s singing in their own scenes on screen at once along with their voices…)

The ending. This is Wise’s other best moment. I think you could copy the effect of the shock tragedy — he actually makes it a shock, even when it’s been heavily telegraphed and we know our Shakespeare — without copying any of his shots or his exact cutting pattern. Spielberg chooses to throw out the underlying IDEAS and his version strikes me as simply ineffective.

Natalie Wood was always your go-to girl if you wanted hysterics, photogenic yet credible, and in the final scene she does walk all over Rachel Zegler. Surely, Zegler has the right to be there, not only by dint of race but by voice. Maybe she needed a merciless number of takes, Robbins-style, to break her down, or maybe she needed Ernest Lehman’s screenplay adaptation of Arthur Laurents’ book, not Tony Kushner’s.

“They even flubbed the ending,” mourned Fiona. The sensation of being in the presence of greatness was very much with me when the Sharks stepped in to help lift the fallen Jet. You can mess with other stuff in that sequence — Lehman, Wise & Robbins evidently wanted to keep it exactly like the play, and it worked perfectly, but you could get away with tinkering. But not with that moment. That’s what the piece is ABOUT. And to add insult, Spielberg chooses to fade out on the cops coming to arrest Chino, who has more backstory here but is still a minor character. It’s like the Hays-mandated ending of THE LETTER. Justice must be served. Appalling.

I haven’t talked about Rita Moreno yet, and I must. She more than earned her Oscar first time out. And she’s excellent here, and she again has a right to be here. Her insertion as a new character does do some violence to the story, though. I liked the original’s Doc (Ned Glass), who I take to be Jewish, an emigre, a survivor of an actual war who can comment on the gang war with the advantage of experience. (IS experience an advantage, though? Experience HURTS.) Doc does get a cameo here, photoshopped in.

Still, I can see why they did it, and even giving Rita a song, purloined from the lovers, kind of works. It’s still a song for them even if she sings it (beautifully). It’s an issue, though. Friar Laurence in R&J is a neutral figure, ideally placed to help the star-cross’d lovers. It kind of doesn’t make sense for her to be Puerto Rican and for the Jets to like her. The Jets are racist — even more so in the remake. The script attempts to cover this, and it’s not wholly successful. It’s passable. But still a weak area. Maybe it’s worth it, to include Rita, and not just as a meaningless cameo.

The other character I’d like to talk about is Anybodys, the tomboy, coded queer, in the original, who is maybe kinda proto-trans in the remake. And apparently trans is a superpower because they can punch out a swarm of policemen. Unless I missed it, nobody calls them by name, and they’ve lost most of their dialogue, which is a shame. I know a character can make an impression without words, but I also know that Susan Oakes got to make more of an impression than Iris Menas in the new version. And Menas’ character being, essentially, unnamed is a shame. If you think about the nickname, implying promiscuity, you have to assume that Anybodys wanted so badly to be a Jet she went with more than one of them, and now they shame her for it. Heartbreaking. The Jets suck.

I guess in the end I’m not nice enough to agree that casting the right ethnicity, unquestionably a good thing to do per se, is enough of a reason to remake WEST SIDE STORY if you can’t make it otherwise better than the original. I’m not really in favour of remaking classics. Make a new film with Puerto Rican characters. Comparisons are odious, so don’t ask for them.

Mossop

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2021 by dcairns

John Mills’ excellent turn as Willie Mossop in HOBSON’S CHOICE is a terrific bit of physical acting and character design. He has two hairstyles, one of which is spectacularly disfiguring — both of which seem to be real, so they must have shot the later scenes first, before barbering him into grotesquerie.

Mills’ other uglified role is in RYAN’S DAUGHTER, where he’s just hideous. Strange to think he won an Oscar for it — if he’d repeated his Early Mossop performance in that context it would have been too much — instead, he goes even further, beyond Mr. Laughton’s Quasimodo. I guess it’s an interesting choice to make the “village idiot” uncharming and unphotogenic, where such characters are usually sentimentalized, but Mills’ choices plunge him into the unpleasant domain of caricaturing the afflicted, an error of judgement, to put it mildly, that lands him in the same camp as Alec Guinness’ whole look in OLIVER TWIST (a film made three years after the Holocaust, if you need reminding).

Mossop, on the other hand, is a wonderful creation. Any discomfort felt about laughing at this ill-educated and ill-dressed man is joyously dissipated as the film shows him blossoming in confidence and erudition, a Galatea sculpted by his partner Maggie (Brenda de Banzie, also wonderful).

Costume designer John Armstrong has collaborated with the actor to subtly deform and distort his trim chorus boy’s body. A little pot belly has been added — I assume it’s prosthetic. The trousers hang in a strange manner, suggesting scrawniness and waste beneath, as well as an ill fit.

Mills enhances the effect by doing a lot of QUALITY ass-work: he sticks out his backside to suggest poor posture rather than pugilistic sauciness, and this seems to do unwelcome things to the clothing. There’s a perfect storm in those trousers — pants and stance in total disharmony.

Kevin Brownlow’s magisterial book David Lean tells us that originally, Robert Donat was cast, and had to shoot a test to convince himself he could do it. He went down the trap door a prematurely aged asthmatic, then came up as Willie Mossop. But he failed the medical, the stress bringing on an attack of wheezing. (Movie medicals, made to satisfy the insurance people, were generally a bit lax. Roy Kinnear said of PIRATES, “A number of us were quite long in the tooth. We all had to do a physical examination. You went in a room and got on a couch, and you could manage that, you were in.”)

Losing his co-lead days before the shoot, Lean had to deal with a rebellious Laughton, who felt betrayed — Korda basically blackmailed him into doing it — “If you go to the scandal sheets, so will I.” Which is… wow. But it certainly helped Lean that his producer was prepared to play the bad guy. Lean and Laughton then enjoyed a good relationship. Lean recalled Mills, on a boat outing, feigning seasickness, and realised what a good physical comic he was. He had imagined Mossop as hulking, but the physical contrast between Mills and Laughton plays brilliantly: Lorre and Greenstreet in Lancashire.

Original author Harold Brighouse wasn’t heavily involved in the film version, but he did advise Lean that he could play the wedding night scene where Mossop tremulously prepares for bed “as long as you like” and it would bring the house down. As with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and Omar Sharif’s long approach, Lean lost his nerve, as he put it, and so Mossop’s preparations are truncated by an awkward dissolve. If only he’d test screened it… that kind of thing can give confidence as well as shatter it. He was able to go back and extend Sharif’s approach for the LAWRENCE restoration, but alas HOBSON’S never got that treatment and no doubt the footage was swiftly disposed of.

But still… HOBSON’S is a fascinating case of the duties of a main character being split among three superb players. Laughton brings the lion’s share of the entertainment, a bumptious and sodden Lear, but he never learns anything, he’s simply reduced in power until his mean spirits can’t hurt anyone. De Banzie’s Maggie is the hero who makes things happen — a bit of fancy footwork by Brighouse allows her to triumph due to a complete accident — Hobson falling down a hole — that she could never have anticipated. But she’s unchanging. Mossop is manipulated and coerced every step of the way, a character lacking any form of proactive self-determination, but he’s the one with the arc — more than his circumstances change, he grows in stature and becomes master of the house, albeit one put in that position and kept there by a strong woman who is the real power in the relationship. Mossop knows he’s a mere figurehead, but Maggie gives him confidence at every turn by praising his skill as shoemaker. I’ve seen productions of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW where they’ve tried to make Kate and Petrucchio partners in a role-playing game put on for the benefit of society, but I don’t think you can make that entirely convince as Shakespeare’s intent, but Brighouse was a suffragist and the feminist underpinnings of his play are strikingly modern (see also Stanley Houghton’s oft-filmed HINDLE WAKES) — Maggie and Willie agree to play the roles of strong man and supportive wife, while both know that the reality is more the other way around.

Anyway — we raise our glasses to John Mills and Willie Mossop. He may never have gotten another role like it, but it opened up the range of parts he could be considered for and gave him a new lease of screen life, which he certainly ran with.

Next must-see Millses are ICE-COLD IN ALEX and TUNES OF GLORY.