Archive for Lew Wasserman

“I’m not going to fail in your bathroom.”

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by dcairns

As we hear, Hitchcock was already planning THE SHORT NIGHT in 1968 while making TOPAZ. That unmade film was preceded by two others, MARY ROSE, nixed by Universal, after which Hitch made TORN CURTAIN, and KALEIDOSCOPE, AKA FRENZY, which was likewise vetoed by Lew Wasserman, leading to the production of TOPAZ in its place. But while KALEIDOSCOPE would have been an experiment in modern film-making techniques, heavily inspired by Antonioni, whose work had impressed Hitchcock enormously, TOPAZ turned into a much more conventional thriller, somewhat influenced by mainstream European cinema, but by no means revolutionary.

Wasserman had objected to the graphic nudity and bloodshed Hitch seemed to be planning for his serial killer movie, and although Leon Uris also had some sex and violence in his doorstop of a political thriller, he seemed a safer bet for Universal, who didn’t want to jeopardize the successful Hitchcock “brand.” In the event, TOPAZ would be a costly flop, and it’s hard to imagine a sexy, gory psycho-thriller from Hitchcock failing in 1969. A case of the major studios lagging behind the times. A case also of Hitchcock not fighting for his artistic freedom, partly because his enemy in this case was a good friend.

I like the idea of Hitchcock as the leading man here, morosely doing his duty without passion or enthusiasm, but in fact the character who seems most like Hitch is Philippe Noiret’s spy — he has Hitch’s heavy lower lip and watery eyes, and his crutch hints at the arthritis which was starting to give the director trouble. His death, a defenestration artfully staged to look like suicide, recalls the time when Alma was ill after the production of VERTIGO, when Hitch talked openly of ending it all. His daughter Pat opened the hotel window and left the room — an odd thing to do, but she was quite clear that this was necessary to convince him to leave thoughts of suicide behind. It seems to have worked.

The cameo — Hitch is wheeled on, then springs to his feet. Unfortunately, as director, it feels more like he trots onto the set, then collapses into a coma.

TOPAZ is such a film maudit that it’s naturally tempting to find things to like about it, which I find easy to do, but I should say up-front that it is indeed an unsuccessful film, in terms of script, casting, and style. Carrying on the ambition of TORN CURTAIN to produce a “realistic Bond,” Hitch runs up against his own counter-realistic vision, struggles with the convoluted source novel, and was basically defeated by lack of time — lack of time to adapt the novel properly, to cast, and for his crew to design the film around his requirements. Designer Henry Bumstead got high blood pressure trying to keep up with the production’s demands, and Edith Head had to costume stars who often had only been cast a couple of days before they were to appear.

Ah, that cast! Hitch was often inspired by his leads in the writing process, and certainly found it useful to know who they would be, which proved impossible here. John Forsythe is absolutely welcome back, but instead of being surrounded by kooks as he was in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, he’s here surrounded with knitwear models. The TV episode I Saw the Whole Thing which Forsythe starred in shows how he’s not really suited to sustaining interest in a void (which is no slam: very few actors could have made TOPAZ more compelling).

Frederick Stafford, our real lead, is more of a problem. It’s not that he’s bad, he’s simply boring in a boring part. If Hitchcock had been able to get a young French Cary Grant, he would have been fine, but obviously such a thing wasn’t going to happen. They don’t make them. If he’d cast a really interesting French actor who didn’t fit his conception of the part, things might also have been fine — an actor with intriguing qualities would have brought something to the thinly-written role. But Hitchcock always liked to fill a pre-conceived outline with a matching actor, which is achievable if you have a large talent pool to draw from. If you don’t, it’s far better to abandon your plans and go with what works.

Stafford is the worst of all possible worlds, because he isn’t interesting and isn’t French. He’s a decent enough actor, but ability is secondary to intrigue. He doesn’t intrigue. And he’s German. His role isn’t a particularly hard one to play: all it needed, really, was a Frenchman. With the bland impression he tends to create, Stafford’s looks count against him.

Playing opposite Stafford is Dany Robin, who seems as dull as him, but isn’t — watch how she comes to life whenever she has someone else to act with. Poor Fred does inestimable damage to this film just by being in it, just by standing there and eating up screen space which could more profitably be granted to wallpaper or sky.

Everyone else is basically a cameo, given the story’s globe-trotting action (essentially the secret backstory of the Cuban missile crisis, and a French spy ring reporting to Moscow). Some of the cameos are interesting (John Vernon and Karin Dor), some are actually fascinating (Roscoe Lee Browne), but none are around long enough to hurt or help the film too much. Of course, everybody plays the wrong nationality: German Dor and Canadian Vernon play Cubans, Browne plays Martinican, the very Swedish Per-Axel Arosenius plays a defecting Russian (I feel I should say “defective”)…  And the weakest stuff is at the end, where everybody’s French. French actors acting with each other in English shouldn’t present a colossal problem, as long as they all speak good English. If they don’t, one starts to wonder: why don’t they just speak French? And then one thinks, ah, they are speaking French, it’s just being decoded by the cinematic BabelFish Translator. So why are some better at it than others? The whole artifice crumbles.

Here, Dany Robin is less fluent than her husband, and while the lovely Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret are always welcome, their scenes tend to sound a little uncertain. It gives everything a quality of awkwardness.

But, there are virtues throughout: after the disappointing stock footage titles, buoyed up by Maurice Jarre’s score (which sounds exactly as a Euro-thriller ought to sound), there’s a terrific crane shot at the Russian embassy. A slight nervous tremor makes this shot seem impossibly difficult, as I imagine it was. Cameraman Jack Hildyard, who’d worked for David Lean on his last British shoots, had been doing big international films for years now, and does a good job with TOPAZ — but Hitch never found another Robert Burks.

Arosenius, though ethnically miscast, does a fine job with the Russian ambassador, and Samuel Taylor, who scripted VERTIGO, manages a pleasing character touch for Forsythe when he has him order new stockings for the ambassador’s daughter after she tears them during the defection.

The plane touches down in Washington — seemingly shot at 16 fps — ground crew scurry about like Keystone Kops. Why was this shot used? The flaw is trivial, but easily corrected simply by deleting the unnecessary, rote airport establishing shot.

We’re already in trouble, and it thickens — such is the convoluted narrative that everything seems to take a long time, and things are set up which don’t seem to be necessary: they pay off two hours later, but by then you’re bored. It’s really a sophisticated and clever piece of plotting, disguised perfectly as a bloated and tedious one.

Another Hitchcock character who draws (see also: BLACKMAIL, REBECCA, VERTIGO — people either draw or they don’t, and since Hitchcock did, he was always keen to feature his half of humanity in his films, it seems), Stafford’s son-in-law, Michel Subor (the narrator of JULES ET JIM), leads us to Roscoe Lee Browne, who fascinates me. I wanted a film about this character. Alternatively, I couldn’t see why his action couldn’t have been given to Stafford, who hasn’t had anything interesting to do. But Stafford is so dull, I’m glad Browne gets the job.

Although much of TOPAZ looks flat and studio-airless, like a TV movie (seeing it in widescreen does help) the recreated hotel exterior is an impressive build (the real place where the Cuban UN delegates stayed and parties had been demolished) and Hitch’s filming of much of the action with a long lens makes this his most convincing faux-documentary moment. In the 70s, telephoto shots like this would almost become a cliché, but Hitch is somewhat ahead of the game for 1969. Perhaps the European influence.

Top-secret meeting in the loo with John Vernon’s male secretary. Later, Stafford will find hidden evidence in a book in an aeroplane lavatory. Toilets are very important to Hitchcock, almost as vital as food. Maybe some Freudian should write a thesis on this.

After a genuinely tense sequence where Browne photographs stolen Cuban documents (the filmmakers’ portrayal of the Cuban delegates as drunken near-savages, while rather crude, does enhance the sense of jeopardy), he leaps from a fire escape into an awning, a dodge last used by George Sanders in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT — another character who rather usurped the hero’s role.

Roscoe Lee Browne is utterly cool, but not in an obvious, “urban” or “secret agent” way. He is, after all, a florist. But the way he eludes pursuit by ducking into the back of his shop, donning a hat, and finishing the preparation of a funeral wreath — that’s suave. I guess the whole reason his character is necessary is because Stafford can’t run into John Vernon at this point, but does Vernon really need to be here? Still, given a choice between Browne and Stafford having screen time, we can count ourselves lucky the better man won.

Off to Cuba, where again Stafford won’t do anything exciting, leaving the work and risks to his agents. His single tense moment, departing through customs, happens offscreen. Defenders of the film may argue that it’s unusual and therefor interesting to have a hero who delegates all the exciting jobs, but I would respond by quoting ALIEN screenwriter Dan O’Bannon: “many things are interesting. Not many things are dramatic.” Clichés become clichés often because they’re useful dramatically — it’s no trick to avoid a cliché and provide a dull alternative, the skill lies in dodging both the obvious and the unsatisfying.

Cuba lacks any character as interesting as Browne (maybe he fascinates so because we learn so little about him) so it more or less drifts past me, enlivened by some bravura moments — the Pieta (above) and the death of Karin Dor (a former Bond girl playing a character loosely based on Castro’s daughter, but the fact that she dies shows just how far the filmmakers are willing to depart from the established facts, even if TOPAZ was really SAPPHIRE and most of the incidents have real-life counterparts). Asides from these highlights — and Dor’s purple dress spreading on the tiled floor like a pool of blood (pulled by five stagehands with monofilament wires) is truly a coup de theatre — we mainly get different ways of concealing cameras in food: two of Hitchcock’s favourite things, presented in surreal conjunction. It seems like Stafford should have discovered the secret film strips not in a book, but in a biscuit, just for the sake of symmetry.

If Cuba was a little dull and misshapen, France seems even more listless, although at last we start to feel loose characters like Stafford’s son-in-law, and even his wife, have some real reason for being in the film. (If, as some have suggested, Stafford represents Hitchcock, a European working for the Americans, pulling off a thankless mission that takes him around the world — a married man with one married daughter — a political realist with a naive belief in justice and honesty, caught up in a dirty business, then casting a quirky character actor would surely have been better than this plywood Cary Grant, and would have served as an alibi for the fact that he never does anything heroic. And even if Stafford is in some ways Hitch-like, it’s Forsythe who has an assistant named Peggy, a nice homage to Hitch’s faithful Peggy Robertson.) And now we come to the romantic triangle — Stafford’s lover being safely dead, we can focus on Michel Piccoli as the head of Topaz and his covert relationship with Dany Robin. Romantic triangles go way back in Hitchcock (THE LODGER, THE MANXMAN, BLACKMAIL), although we are unable to find any definite autobiographical reason why they seem to obsess him so.

The narrative is nicely woven to allow Robin to recognize her lover as the ringleader, but doesn’t seem to unfold in an interesting way. Uris and Taylor have been technically skillful, but nobody’s looking out for real sources of dramatic tension, it seems. And then come the three endings. It’s a shame the stadium duel isn’t attached to the most widely available and complete version of the film, but only included as an extra — I’d far rather watch the film through and at least get rewarded with a climax of sorts for my trouble, even if again Stafford is cheated of the chance to be an action hero. The airport ending satisfied Hitchcock’s sense that big spies never really get punished, but it feels very hollow and unconvincing when Stafford smiles back at Piccoli. Why would he? But I like the line “Anyhow, that’s the end of Topaz,” because it reminds me of “The Trouble with Harry is Over.” The only truly putrid ending is the one cobbled together from stray odds and ends. Samuel Taylor, who suggested it, had a decent idea, but it can’t be executed by hauling out off-cuts from elsewhere in the movie, by freeze-framing on a door, by slinging newspapers around. And earlier in the film Hitch has attempted to prepare for this sequence by inserting a few headlines, including one bizarre superimposed newspaper…

Maybe Stafford should have said, “That’s the end of Topaz, thank Christ!” since that’s how the viewer is apt to feel after two and a half hours. And yet, study of the film is far more interesting than casual viewing of it, making it a nice illustration of the auteurist principle that a bad film by Hitchcock is more rewarding of study than a good film by just about anybody else.

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The Spy Who Came Down with a Cold

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Science, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2009 by dcairns

Nearly done, old boy…

My inhalations and exhalations sound like the sand whirling around in a hula hoop, my chest is constricted as if there are elastic bands wrapped round my lungs, my head has the thickness of lagging and throbs like a Rick Baker bladder effect, while my nose… it’s simply better not to touch upon my nose.

I have a cold.

Which may not have been a bad way to finally watch TORN CURTAIN, one of those Hitchcock films that had always politely resisted my attempts to watch it. Fiona, too, would drift off within minutes of its starting. Having finally obtained a widescreen copy (Universal, worthless organization that they are, having issued all Hitch’s 1:1.88 movies in 1:1.33 ratio) we determined to give it a fair whack.

A nice Edward Hopper shot, and as close as I want to get to Julie in that repulsive outfit.

It’s not that bad: the right aspect ratio immediately sharpens up the filmmaking, which appeared lackadaisical when pan-and-scanned. Hitch’s mise-en-scene is as crisp and thoughtful as ever, and is sometimes inspired — whenever Julie Andrews isn’t around, he seems to perk up. But Andrews is a massive problem — you simply cannot watch this film without somebody saying, about three minutes in, “She really has no sex appeal at all, does she?” I remember trying to watch the film with my Dad, decades back, and him saying that, and now Fiona said it. “Or warmth,” she added, damningly.

“She’s perceived as being warm in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, isn’t she?” I ask. But then, Andrews’ big roles are both nannies, rather than mothers, which may be significant. She offers professional care. It’s her main quality as an actor. And I bet she can create warmth on stage. But in this movie, Paul Newman must be sexy enough for two: in fact, that’s easy for him, but Julie is like a damp rug thrown upon his smoldering embers.

Well HELLO, professor!

Welcome to the cinematic world of Lew Wasserman, Hitch’s former agent and now studio head at Universal, who basically cast this film, pressing Hitch to take two big box office stars. But of course, Andrews was only a hot property in a particular type of family film. The audience for gritty espionage thrillers surely would have been put off by her presence. How do you solve a problem like Julie Andrews?

Nifty opening montage of name-tags to introduce our protags in the sack, Hitch trying to sex up Julie’s image, which is like strapping a dildo to Mickey Mouse. Edith Head lets the side down with a horrible outfit for our heroine. “It’s not even green. What is that colour? Mustard?” asks Fiona. I liken it to baby shit.

Hitch and his Mini-Me.

Hitchcock’s cameo is nice, but Richard Addison’s rather quaint score offends me by quoting Gounod’s Funeral March for a Marionette, AKA the theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Here’s my problem with it: in an interview, Elmer Bernstein once noted that in 1930s Hollywood scoring, if you saw a French ship, the soundtrack would be Max Steiner’s version of La Marseillaise. “An intellectual idea.” The man who undercut all that corn, scoring only the emotion of the scene, was Bernard Herrmann.

Here I should correct one of the few serious errors in Patrick McGilligan’s Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. McGilligan imagines Herrmann playing Hitch a recording of his score for TORN CURTAIN, and Hitch stopping the recording partway through, followed by the argument which ended the two great artists’ collaboration forever.

The truth is more dreadful and dramatic — it was at the recording session that the bust-up took place, before a full orchestra. Hitch didn’t switch off a tape player, he cancelled the score midway, even though Herrmann argued that as the orchestra was already paid for, they might as well complete the recording and Hitch could think about it. Instead, Hitch fired his composer in the most public and humiliating manner.

The seeds were sewn by Universal, who seem to have pressured Hitch to record a more popular kind of score, perhaps with a song for Julie Andrews (which at any rate they never got). Hitch telegrammed Herrmann early on to warn that the modern audience was “young vigorous and demanding” and that successful European filmmakers had “sought to introduce a beat and a rhythm that is more in tune with the requirements of said audience”. This slightly vague concern was answered by Herrmann with assurances that he could produce something suitable. Perhaps unable to grasp what Hitch was driving at, the composer trusted in his talent to come through. And his score is excellent — you can see the scenes he recorded as extras on the DVD.

John Addison’s music at times seems appropriate for a 1930s-set caper, and insofar as it shows a coherent musical strategy, it would seem to be striving to lighten the picture’s tone. This was probably Hitch’s trouble with Herrmann’s music: he had made a glum, monochromatic film, and Herrmann had produced a dour, unmelodic score to go with it. All through preparing the project, Hitch had tried to inject some lightness, but his subject (cold war armaments and espionage), his settings (Helsinki, East Berlin, Leipzig), his writer (Brian Moore, author of the tragic The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) and his mismatched stars had deferred any lilt or zing to the last possible stage of post-production.

Moore himself hadn’t wanted to write a film, but was persuaded by his lawyer that he needed the money. Hitchcock pitched him an original story, Moore developed it into an outline, introducing the idea of the painful, drawn-out murder, which Hitch then acted out with relish (I would love to see film of this impromptu performance, but none was taken). All the while Moore was aghast at what he saw as Hitchcock’s lack of character insight. Moore only really invested himself in the character played, like a demented elf, by Lila Kedrova, a Polish émigré hoping to escape to America. Her character, and that of Gromek the security man killed by Newman, are the only really living people in the film.

It is worth mentioning Newman’s cab driver, though — Peter Lorre Jnr. No relation to the real Lorre, this was a semi-crazed fan who changed his name in honour of his hero, and was sued by the original. I wonder if Hitch knew he’d hired a fake?

The scene where Gromek stalks Newman through an art gallery is the first striking set-piece, although the development of Newman’s defection and Andrews’ following him to East Berlin are interesting enough. Since Hitch’s two stars between them cost more than half his budget and dictated his shooting schedule, the film was almost entirely shot in California, mainly on the Universal lot (it shows), and so the gallery is a series of Albert Whitlock matte paintings. Only the floors were built. They’re very beautiful, and since the whole scene is composed of these artificial settings, they don’t pop out as distractingly fake. It’s like a chase through a virtual reality. Later, some of Hein Heckroth’s phony Leipzig exteriors will look like cast-offs from OH… ROSALINDA!!!! and not in a good way.

The Whitlock Gallery recalls Hitch’s reconstruction of the British Museum way back in BLACKMAIL.

Ah, Gromek! How I long for an entire film detailing your brief period in New York (“corner of 88th Street”) which you recall so nostaligically. Gromek is played by Wolfgang Kieling, the German voice of Bert from Sesame Street. We must thank the IMDb for its little nougats. Gromek, with his black motorcycle and crappy East German cigarette lighter, is wildly endearing and formidably sinister, and although his murder is the highlight of the film, I do wish it came an hour later so we could enjoy him for longer.

“I didn’t order this!”

The skirmish starts when the farmer;s wife (Carolyn Conwell, another great character, actually) interrupts Herr Gromek’s phone call with a sloppily-aimed bowl of rice pudding. He tries to get his lighter to work. Newman tries to strangle him. Years later, Hitch’s summary of the scene’s premise, “It’s very difficult, very painful, and it takes a very long time… to kill a man,” became the slogan for the Coen brothers’ BLOOD SIMPLE. The farmer’s wife takes up a carving knife, which memorably breaks in Gromek’s chest — for some reason, that detail is nastier than all the successful stabbing in PSYCHO. The shovel to the knees is next — ouch — then the long haul to the gas oven, with Gromek gamely strangling our hero all the way. His head stuffed within, Gromek’s chubby little hands begin to flicker and dance, like fleshy butterflies, then lie still.

Note that, as Dan Auiler discovered, Hitchcock’s original notes requested music for this scene, which Herrman duly provided, and very powerful it is. The scene is still a stand-out with no score, but one wonders what else Herrman might have done for the plodding thriller. At any rate, the silence augments the risk of discovery that prevents our heroes using a gun to off Gromek.

Newman picks up the dead man’s lighter, which now sparks into flame on the first try. He leaves the farmer’s wife to bury the body and the motorcycle. We rather wish she’d entombed him astride it, like Nicky Henson in PSYCHOMANIA.

Despite working without his regular cinematographer, Robert Burks, Hitch achieves consistently striking shots.

By contrast with the effulgent Gromek, Professor Lindt is rather a stock figure, a bearded physicist with a brusque manner. Professor Littleoldman! And here the film reaches its fatal flaw, one Moore and Hitchcock apparently missed, and script polishers Ted Willis and Keith Waterhouse (BILLY LIAR) weren’t authorized to address. After the incredibly long and uninteresting diagrams on a blackboard scene, in which case the need for a simple MacGuffin becomes blindingly obvious, Newman and Andrews must flee back to the west. Their lovers’ misunderstanding resolved, and the secret information now secured, they have basically won. Of course, apprehension would still mean utter defeat, so we expect a further climax of suspense, but instead we get a long journey back to Berlin by bicycle and bus, then Kedrova and a long wait in a post office, which is not as exciting in this film as it would be in real life, and a trip to the ballet, where at last Hein Heckroth can do what he does so well.

This is why the film seems so overstuffed. It should be called BURST CUSHION. The third act is practically half the film, and the suspense sequences don’t quite come off (Herrmann would have helped immeasurably), so it’s not only structurally malformed but ineffective on a scene-by-scene basis, apart from the incidental pleasures.

The prima ballerina looked familiar until I realized I knew her from THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. The subliminal freeze-frames Hitch pulls on her pirouettes are amazing — he must be reprinting the last frame of each shot just two or three times. I’ve no idea why nobody seems to have copied this striking effect.

The ballet, Tchaikovsky’s treatment of a character featured in Dante’s Inferno, climaxes the story’s metaphorical arc, which Peter Conrad in The Hitchcock Murders rightly describes as Dantean: Newman embarks on a journey into the underworld, in this case, the Eastern Block. Even the refugee/spy organisation’s name, π, suggests the circle of Hell. Newman’s quest, to steal missile secrets, is Promethean, and the film’s opening titles, a montage of anguished faces amid blue and red clouds of smoke, seem like an analog of Hell.

Conrad notes that the film begins and ends with its characters huddled under blankets, but doesn’t quite make the obvious point that the film could thus be read as a shared nightmare. Hitchcock may have aimed to make “a realistic Bond,” but realism was never his preferred mode, and it seems more profitable to judge the film, with its grey-filtered, shadowless monochrome (shot using reflected light), for its successful expressionism rather than its doubtful authenticity.

Conrad is also excited to see Hitchcock following Paul Newman into the gents’ lav to decode his secret message onto a square of toilet paper. Sometimes a critic’s work is done for him.

Paul leads Julie up the garden path in what looks like Hein Heckroth’s take on INVADERS FROM MARS. One of the few bursts of colour is permitted for this happy moment of truth.

Hitch originally toyed with the idea of Newman discarding the formula he’d worked so hard to get, an idea only Alma liked. It wouldn’t have made sense, but it connects to Hitchcock’s consistent portrayal of espionage, in all his films, as a dirty business with a horrible cost. But the whole idea of Newman as amateur spy is unconvincing, as is the anti-missile missile plot — though it’s been suggested that it inspired Ronald Reagan’s expensive and unworkable Star Wars defense scheme.

TORN CURTAIN isn’t terrible, although it could at least be shorter (Hitch had just lost his usual editor), but we should recall that Hitch really wanted to make MARY ROSE, scripted by Jay Presson Allen and ready to go, a deeply personal film, a departure from his normal turf, and a fascinating story. It’s Universal who are to blame for this film, as they are to blame for TOPAZ, when Hitch wanted to make KALEIDOSCOPE / FRENZY. Their poor decisions, made with a view to protecting the Hitchcock brand, soured much of the last stages of his career, and his friendship with MCA-Universal boss Lew Wasserman prevented Hitchcock from fighting for his most promising subjects. In the meantime, years were wasted. As we shall see, Universal were very kind and considerate to Hitch during his last years, but in a way their concern was damaging to Hitchcock the risk-taking artist. At the end of TORN CURTAIN, the Universal logo appears ghost-like over an extreme close-up of a blanket, possibly wet.


The Hitchcock Murders
Hitchcock’s Secret Notebooks