Archive for Lee Marvin

Final Curtain for Mr. Curtiz

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2018 by dcairns

This is a hilarious directorial credit: an unresurrected Christ lying just below the moniker of a man moments from death himself. Well, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you?

The idea of making a study of late Curtiz would normally only occur to somebody actually writing a book on the Hungarian-born filmmaker, because the view has long been that Curtiz had a strong sense of visual style but no particular set of obsessions to make a traditional auteur of him. So why look at his later, not-so good movies?

Curtiz made every kind of film, it seems. (Those who claim to have made every kind of film tend to be lacking in the horror, sci-fi and musical departments, but Curtiz made those too.) He brought a strong visual sensibility, but apparently cared nothing for themes and not much for actors or story. His boss, Jack Warner, wrote: “I had a general conversation with Mike Curtiz in the usual Curtiz manner in the dining room at noon, and all he talked about were the sets and that he wants to build a fort somewhere else, and all a lot of hooey. I didn’t hear him say a word about the story. In other words, he’s still the same old Curtiz—as he always will be!”

B. Kite is very good on this here. (Scroll down past my nonsense.)

B. also once opined to me that Curtiz maybe only works in black & white, though perhaps it’s truer and fairer to say that a certain quality of Curtiz comes through strongest that way. I think his two-strip terrors MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM and DOCTOR X. are terrific, so maybe Curtiz is still Curtiz with two strips of colour, but loses out with three. There are definitely good colour films made by Curtiz: THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, WE’RE NO ANGELS, etc. But they don’t quite have the distinct visual splendour of his WB monochrome movies. B. sees him, I think, as a very pure channel for the WB house style.

Still, the first thing to be said about Curtiz’s last three features is that they’re visually lovely, at least in places. All three are widescreen, and he seems able to adapt his tight compositions to the 1:2.35 frame ratio more comfortably than I would imagine 1:1.88 might suit him. A degree of difficulty helps him, and widescreen and academy ratio are both hard to compose for (snakes and funerals on the one hand, bungalows and bulldogs on the other).

   

THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1960) is frequently absolutely gorgeous, which matters a lot because it doesn’t quite find the right tone: you feel like some very good humour is being reported to you by somebody who doesn’t quite get it. Eddie Hodges (Huck) and Archie Moore (Jim) are decent, but don’t seem to gel with each other or anybody else. The rest of the cast go for big and broad: Tony Randall makes the most and then some of a series of phony accents, partnered up with Mickey Shaugnessy to create a team similar to the bad guys in Disney’s PINOCCHIO; Buster Keaton forms another of his unlikely double acts with Andy Devine, and doesn’t get to MOVE; Finlay Currie is fine as always. The best completely straight perf is Neville Brand, authentically scary and nasty as Pap Finn.

Now, as far back as THE EGYPTIAN in 1954, Peter Ustinov had formed the impression that Curtiz was not all there. He had always laboured under a considerable linguistic handicap (his mangling of the language was legendary, and wonderfully poetic at times — “Bring on the empty horses!” was evocative enough for David Niven to use it as title for one of his memoirs), and this combined with age and his disengagement from his actors maybe made him not the ideal man to do Twain. But he had succeeded at many other unlikely subjects in the past.

The Cinemascope stiffness, coupled with Curtiz’s own, the big, forced performances, and a lot of overplaying whenever Huck has to invent a “stretcher,” combine to stifle most of the comic possibilities here, so what we get instead is some moderate suspense and a pageant of grotesque characters and attractive settings. Ted D. McCord does a great job shooting it and Jerome Moross provides a typically ebullient score. It’s not poor, but it’s not quite alive.

Never mind, FRANCIS OF ASSISI (1961) is a religious epic, so you wouldn’t ever expect it to be alive, and it sure doesn’t disappoint. Saint-to-be Francis is played by a series of beautiful matte paintings of Bradford Dillman, Stuart Whitman is his frenemy/rival, and Dolores Hart the girl he throws over for God. She’s the only one in the film who breathes any humanity into her role, struggling against stiff dialogue and stilted situations. There’s a surprising lack of miracles and the animal-taming bit is given very  little play, surprisingly. Finlay Currie is fine as always, promoted from riverboat captain to pope, a big step up for an Edinburgh man.

   

Lots of spectacle, some of it impressive. The landscapes and the groupings of people fill the frame inventively, but Curtiz’s signature camera moves are becoming ever less frequent. He’ll push in occasionally; follow people about a little; but the grand sweep of his glory days when he’d hurry on to a set at an acute angle to the action, letting foreground furniture flash past, that’s all gone.

Bradford Dillman is someone I quite like, but he’s hopelessly adrift here. I’m not sure who could animate the script’s plaster saint. Occasional lines referring to Francis as “little” make you imagine someone intended him to be mild-mannered and tiny: by chance, Mervyn Johns is to hand, and I thought to myself, “Get me a young Mervyn Johns.” It can only work as a character part, as it’s so sexless. (Dillman could have slid some sly sensuality in there if there’d been the faintest opportunity: isn’t that what he’s for? Those lips!)

Piero Portalupi shot it and Mario Nascimbene provides the choral uplift.The film Curtiz bowed out on, however, was THE COMANCHEROS, released the same year (Curtiz died, aged 75, the following year). It’s pretty fair, I guess. If I liked John Wayne a bit more, or Stuart Whitman at all, I might call it an impressive finish for him. I think Whitman is miscast as a New Orleans gent on the run for killing a man in a duel. A lot of this movie is supposed to be enjoyable because of the spectacle of the plebeian Duke shoving his highfalutin prisoner around, but Whitman isn’t enough of a toff. You need Peter Lawford, probably. Wow, I never thought I’d type those words.

John Wayne had quite a track record of late films, didn’t he? After all there’s this, RIO LOBO, which was Howard Hawks’ last; BIG JAKE, George Sherman’s last; JET PILOT, a late Sternberg; BLOOD ALLEY, a late Wellman; TRUE GRIT, a late Hathaway; and THE CONQUEROR, which killed just about everyone in it. He also directed his own last film as director, BIG JAKE THE GREEN BERETS, and starred in his own last film as actor, THE SHOOTIST, a conscious self-elegy. I guess he just liked working with old guys when he was old, The most charming moment in THE COMANCHEROS is when Wayne signs into a hotel using the pseudonym “Ed McBain” and we notice that cinematographer William H. Clothier and the rest of the crew have checked in ahead of him. Curtiz hasn’t checked in, probably because he’s too busy checking out.

The best scene is a poker game where the single-source lighting is really beautiful and Wayne looks SO different and so much more interesting. Also playing is Lee Marvin, a bad guy with half a scalp (you could probably build a whole other Lee Marvin out of the bits Marvin had removed in his various characterisations). Elsewhere, the Arizona and Utah settings are epic and prehistoric. The finale is a bit pathetic: leading lady Ina Balin has to get over the death of her bad guy father in abound four seconds so she can look overjoyed at the happy ending. See also the studio-imposed finish of ONE-EYED JACKS.

Elmer Bernstein does the music on this one, and although it’s a bit more stately than THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, as befits Wayne’s age and lumbering gait, you get the idea. It seemed kind of weird to me how the music stays celebratory during life-and-death conflicts and chases. Shouldn’t we be taking this seriously?THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN: Starring Rockwell P. Hunter, Rhoda Penmark, Maj. Marvin Groper, Hunk Houghton, Daisy Hawkins, Link Appleyard, Rollo Treadway, Reinhardt Heidrich, Winnie the Pooh, Tom Fury, Johnny Farragut and Magwitch.

FRANCIS OF ASSISI: Starring Big Eddie, Lisa Held, Orvil Newton, Prof. Thurgood Elson, Dr. Stern, Mrs. Karswell, Bob Cratchit and Magwitch again.

THE COMANCHEROS: Starring Ethan Edwards, Orvil Newton again, Little Bonaparte, Liberty Valance, Lt. Greenhill, John Driscoll, Charlie Max and Garbitsch.

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Playbook

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 8, 2017 by dcairns

I read all Richard Stark’s Parker novels a couple of years back, all except The Hunter, AKA Point Blank AKA Payback, because I know the John Boorman film of it quite well and didn’t want deja vu. But I’m on a Donald Westlake kick at the moment and momentarily ran out of paperbacks, and so started on this one at long last — because Richard Stark was Donald Westlake’s other nom de plume, used for most of his more hardboiled stuff.

Comparing book to film is pretty interesting — a lot of the more Westlake-like “break into a fortress” plotting proves to be original to the movie, which suggests to me that one of other of screenwriters Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse and Rafe Newhouse had read some later Stark.

The book is fascinating because you can feel Stark and Parker becoming themselves as it goes on. To begin with, Parker is over-described with an eagerness to impress that is a little embarrassing compared to the laconic style so effective in the later works. (Although this is great: “His hands, swinging curve-fingered at his sides, looked like they were molded of brown clay by a sculptor who thought big and liked veins.”) And he’s not too professional: he gets drunk, and he goes on a mission of vengeance. It’s only in part 5 of 5 that he decides what he really wants is the return of the money he stole and that was stolen from him. This means the book lacks the singular drive that Brian DePalma admires so much in Boorman’s film: “This whole film is GIVE ME BACK MY MONEY!”

It’s fascinating how the movie develops intriguing suggestions from the novel. There are various lines about Parker’s having come back from the dead — Boorman, something of a mystic, seizes on this to take the story partway into Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge — Boorman told Michel Ciment that both his Lee Marvin movies might be happening in the lead character’s mind as he experiences his own death. And the impression that Parker/Walker (as he’s named in the film, a suggestive, supernaturally-resonant name) brings death to those around him by his mere presence — this springs from the first casualty of the novel, Parker’s wife, who he doesn’t kill but who dies because of him. Subsequently everyone thinks he killed her and he doesn’t bother to disabuse them of the notion. The movie seems to take all this into consideration and folds it together with old Michael Curtiz/Boris Karloff gangster/horror flick THE WALKING DEAD, in which Boris literally does rise from the dead and cause his enemies to perish without laying a finger on them.

“She’s dead. So is your fat pansy. You can be dead too, if you want.”

Stegman licked his lips. He turned his head and nodded at the small stone buildings out at the end of the pier. “There’s people there,” he said. “All I got to do is holler.”

“You’d never get it out. Take a deep breath and you’re dead. Open your mouth wide and you’re dead.”

Stegman looked back at him. “I don’t see no gun,” he said. “I don’t see no weapon.”

Parker held up his hands. “”You see two of them,” he said. “They’re all I need.”

“You’re out of your mind. It’s broad daylight. We’re in the front seat of a car. People see us scuffling -“

“There wouldn’t be any scuffle, Stegman. I’d touch you once, and you’d be dead. Look at me. You know this isn’t a bluff.”

The Boorman movie also enhances the whole Tarzan-Versus-IBM thing, with Parker as a primitive, out of step with modern, corporate crime. The stone age hero squaring off against decadent moderns also animated Boorman’s loony ZARDOZ. Lee Marvin’s man of violence is both a pitiable anachronism and, in Boorman’s eyes, infinitely purer (like the xenomorph in ALIEN) and more admirable than the blustering suits he braces.

Westlake/Stark’s indication that mob boss Carter looks like Ambassador Trentino, the walking fontanelle — “His resemblance to Louis Calhern was startling.” — is amusing, but was not picked up by the movie, which cast Lloyd Bochner.

Of course, the movie invents subsidiary characters as foils and expositional devices — Angie Dickinson is the Girl in the Picture, someone Walker can explain his plans to. Keenan “Bat Guano” Wynn as the Deep Throat figure who sets Walker in motion has a similar expository role, only he dispenses info rather than receiving it. These add-ons don’t do any harm, because none of them sentimentalize Walker or turn him into a chivalric outlaw with a code, as in the Jason Statham outing.

Oddly enough, once Westlake/Stark realized what he had in Parker, it wasn’t about violence at all — it was about a professional doing a job. Parker is a problem-solver, and what he does is not different than what his novelist did, only in Parker’s world the problems are solved physically, whereas for his author it was all a mental exercise. Good thing for us.

Stockyard Churning

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2015 by dcairns

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PRIME CUT, an atypical Michael Ritchie film, keeps throwing up WTF moments that keep you watching, alright. The opening slaughterhouse sequence makes you quite anxious that you’re going to see real cows get killed onscreen, but instead shows you something far more peculiar.

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The next cow in line for slaughter has a naked person draped over it. Said person is then rendered down into sausage-meat and mailed to Chicago. The film’s theme is this established in quite a visceral way: Is man no more than this?

Then Lee Marvin is brought in by the mobbed-up Chicago meat industry to take care of some dissident criminals in the Kansas meat industry, who turn out to be led by Gene Hackman. Marvin in this flick is a lot like Richard Stark/Donald Westlake’s Parker character, who he sort-of played already in POINT BLANK, only Parker was always an independent operator and Marvin here is strictly for-hire.

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Anyhow, with a group of associates, Marvin drives to Kansas and starts teasing the sleeping tiger that is Gene Hackman, until things eventually get bloody. And then bloodier.

The next moment when you have to collect your astonished eyeballs off the rug, run them under a tap and reinsert them, is when Marvin walks into a barn where Hackman and cronies are socialising around pens full of doped-up naked girls. Herein lies the problem with Robert Dillon’s script, at least as it reached the screen. The plotline involving an orphanage furnishing its barely legal inmates to the sex trade would seem to be trying to make a point about the exploitation of women, but the film is interested in naked females’ bodies at the expense of their characters. Sissy Spacek, as Lead Naked Girl, is portrayed as having basically no mind at all, kind of a cringeworthy male fantasy of the uneducated sexpot. Her friend Janit Baldwin gets horribly gang raped offscreen, is rescued, but then totally disappears, as if she could be of no further interest to us once soiled. Spacek never displays any curiosity about her fate.

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But Dillon does admittedly keep serving up odd and memorable bits, as in the Frankenheimer mob comedy 99 & 44/100% DEAD, which he also scripted. Ritchie is right there along with him, driving into a prairie storm and lingering lovingly on a prolonged sequence in which a combine harvester eats a car, presented as a kind of automotive cannibalism. The clincher is when a great bale of grassy machinery drops out of the back of the harvester, like a vehicular stool. Half-wheat, half car, it reminded Fiona of Brundlefly’s mashed-up remains at the end of THE FLY.

Truly great Lalo Schiffrin score, archetypally beautiful/ugly 1970s lensing by Gene Polito.

Ritchie’s documentarist eye is also active, singling out grotesque bits of business, strange faces and quirks of behaviour or scenery at every turn.

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The reason for all the disgustingness is apparently an investigation, by the film, into man’s claims to being a higher organism, despite being made of meat and prone to the same base appetites as the supposedly lower animals. When a wounded thug begs Marvin to finish him off, saying, “You’d do it for a beast,” Marvin points out, “You’re a man.”

“There’s no difference.”

“Yes there is.”

Marvin walks away, leaving him to bleed out in agony — so there’s a difference between men and beasts, but it isn’t necessarily in favour of the men.