Archive for Lewis Gilbert

T.P.

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2017 by dcairns

Yes, enjoying Talking Pictures thanks very much. First heard about this new free cable channel when at the conference in London the other week. It’s up past Film4 so I might never have clicked onto it if I hadn’t had reason to suspect its presence. It arrived with no publicity, like a B-picture in the night.

But it’s not a B-picture channel — the real attraction is the quota quickies. The schedule is simply stuffed with British obscurities. We watched MRS. PYM OF SCOTLAND YARD (1940) which stars Mary Clare from ON THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE though sadly she doesn’t play her smart female detective the way she did her crazy street person in that film (“Ah-ahh-aaahhh-I’m gonna SCREAM!!!”). The plot involves a phony medium and murder by vacuum cleaner. It also features a nubile Irene Handle. 29 years old. You ain’t never had no Irene like that. And Nigel Patrick, doing his fast-talking thing that he did.

On first discovering the channel I set my box to record highlights of the next week’s airings, and a couple of days later we started watching. I think we watched five films. “They’re going to find us covered in cobwebs,” said Fiona.

Fiona got sucked into A TOUCH OF LOVE, a thick slice of Margaret Drabble from 1969 with Sandy Dennis doing an excellent English accent. She was waiting to see a nubile Ian McKellen, and by the time he turned up as a randy TV presenter, she had to know what happened next, a problem few seem to have had back in the day. Waris Hussein, an interesting guy with an interesting career, sadly does not look to be actually an interesting director on the basis of this one. Eleanor Bron cemented the sense of middle-class ennui, if one can cement a sense, and if anyone can it’s Eleanor.

There was a short consisting of Algernon Blackwood clubbishly narrating his worst ever story to, persistently, the wrong camera — I was in heaven. There was BITTER HARVEST, which I’d actually heard of and wanted to see — a 1963 adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s 20,000 Streets Under the Sky. God it was dreadful. In fairness, Peter Graham Scott directed with expressive gusto (usually misplace) and you could see they were trying to make a Bardot out of the perky Janet Munro, which could have worked if they hadn’t converted Hamilton’s low-key melancholy into a prurient-yet-moralising Road to Ruin farrago. Alan Badel was supposed to turn up as a smutty toff, so I had to watch, but we got a framed picture of him in scene one and then he didn’t appear in person until about ten minutes from the end. As with the Drabble, the terrible title should have been a warning.

Best of this batch was probably COSH BOY (known in America as THE SLASHER) , a 1953 juvie crime epic directed by Lewis Gilbert. The violence is nearly all off-camera. James Kenney is impressively loathsome, except a bit of charm or enjoyable menace might have made the thing more watchable. It’s like having Andy Robinson’s Scorpio killer as your lead character, although the movie keeps backing away from having anyone badly hurt. It promises mayhem and then in the next scene it’ll turn out that, oh, that night watchman was only slightly injured by the bullet to the chest. It’s like the padre scene of IF…. going on forever. Kenney does do some Oscar-worthy snivelling when his comeuppance is to hand, and we get a fair amount of screen time devoted to a teenage Joan Collins, talking in her natural cock-er-knee accent.

COSH BOY backwards is pronounced YOB SHOCK.

Be sure to watch this channel if you have it. I don’t know if their business model — showing mostly forgotten rubbish — is really workable, but I sure hope so. You also get Chaplins, Wylers, Laurel & Hardys and Ken Russells thrown into the mix, so it’s not like it’s all just impressive for its obscurity. But the stuff that’s got me gripped is that dredged from the murky sumps of British cinema. I guess I’m just born bad — with a talent for trouble! Seeking sensations at any cost!

Heydrich Heydrich heydrich Heydrich

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by dcairns

“Stop the film!”

HHhH is an excellent novel by Laurent Binet, telling the story of the rise and assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by two Czechoslovak patriots parachuted back into their homeland by the Brits. What makes the novel distinctive, and almost not a novel at all, is (a) the author’s fidelity to all the known facts, and his commentary on this fidelity — his refusal to imagine ANYTHING, or at any rate his disgusted self-denunciation whenever he does, part of (b) his constant commentary on his own process, and his reluctance even to accept dialogue quoted by sources when it sounds implausible. In such cases, he can offer a fictional version that strikes him as more likely, but he still has to denounce himself for making stuff up. In a way, it allows the author to be attractively modest — in the face of the heroic acts of the Czech and the Slovak, who knowingly sacrificed their lives out of certainty that their cause was just, Binet offers his own uncertainty, self-doubt, vacillation.

So we started watching the recent movie ANTHROPOID, which takes a piece of this story — just the mission, starting from the moment the heroes drop from the skies — and serves it up as a grim-faced and desaturated spectacle. It’s certainly because I’d just read Binet’s book, but I was intolerant of the movie’s mucking about with historical fact. Right after landing, our humourless, characterless heroes (a far cry from the rather jaunty, romantic figures Binet gleans from the historical record) run into a traitor and have to kill him to escape betrayal. In fact, the agents were discovered by a gamekeeper, who helped them. So the movie has gained an action sequence, albeit a very familiar one, presented in a shaky, muddy way by director Sean Ellis, but has lost a moving scene of an ordinary man risking his life for a noble cause, which is the kind of scene war movies used to live on.

I felt, personally, that the filmmakers had departed from the facts in order to offer something LESS INTERESTING.

Likewise, the presentation of Kubis and Gabcik, played by Christian Grey and the Scarecrow, as emotionless killing machines seemed like a less effective choice than Binet’s. The movie has a far shorter emotional distance to cover if the characters are already miserable, implacable, devoid of light and shade. They’re going to be spending quite a lot of the film staring death in the face. Will we notice any difference in their mood?

Incidentally, when they jumped from the British plane, the real Kubis & Gabcik landed, Binet tells us, in a graveyard. Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin eschew this. perhaps for fear of seeming to indulge in symbolism. But it really happened! It would be an interesting challenge to include this WITHOUT making it look symbolic. But, to be fair, I have no idea how this could be achieved.

When the film forgets to do wobbly sepiatone, it occasionally delivers beautiful shots, and the action scenes are pretty effective, but it has no humour and no gradation of tone. The task of creating characters defeats the screenwriters. A “poetic” touch at the end is brave, but seemed unearned, hokey and basically disastrous to Fiona & I.

Binet’s researches uncovered previous novels and films about these incidents. He’s impressed by John Carradine’s perf as Heydrich in Sirk’s HITLER’S MADMAN, which I wrote about here. A good B-picture ruined by the infusion of MGM class, was my harsh verdict, but I agree about JC. Beginning with the assassination, the film concentrates on the extermination of Lidice in retaliation. The movie’s biggest distortion of history is to stage the assassination at Lidice and not in Prague — surely the location of the incident was one of the few things known for certain at the time? But the filmmakers, it seems, couldn’t follow the Nazis’ logic — why was this random village chosen? So they had to invent a reason, when in reality there was none.

The most artistic responses to the incident in film are Humphrey Jennings amazing THE SILENT VILLAGE, which imagines the fate of Lidice befalling a Welsh mining village — aiming to de-exoticise the tragedy, to literally bring it home to British viewers; and Fritz Lang’s HANGMEN ALSO DIE!, a wholly fictitious account of the assassination and its aftermath. Binot is very forgiving of Sirk and Lang (and their writers, including “Bert” Brecht), allowing that the true facts weren’t known at the time and filmmakers had to just make stuff up — the good filmmakers did this thrillingly.

HANGMEN deserves a wholly entry on its fantastic rogue’s gallery of gloating Nazi pigs.  It’s a masterpiece. Binot rightly credits some of this to Brecht’s excellent, made-up story. It particular, it has a fruity and vile Heydrich played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (CALIGARI, CASABLANCA) in a joke shop nose. I don’t think anyone’s ever seriously alleged that Heydrich was gay (it was getting engaged to two different women at once that got him drummed out of the navy, leading to him joining the Nazi party), but that seems to be how Twardowski is playing him. Heydrich DID have a very high voice, according to Binot, but nobody’s ever played him that way. It might seem silly. Probably the only way to pull it off would be to hire an actor already known for having a high voice, so it didn’t seem so much like an artistic choice — because there’s no way to make it clear to the audience that you’re being factual here.

Another Heydrich perf Binot admires is Kenneth Branagh’s in the 2001 TV play Conspiracy. Branagh plays to his strengths — his Heydrich is warm and matey, a little overbearing with it, but he comes on like everyone’s chum, making opposition difficult by his air of affable reasonableness. As Binot says, there aren’t really any accounts of Heydrich that stress chumminess as one of his qualities, but the effect is very disturbing. The whole show is terrific — Loring Mandel’s script mostly sticks to things the actual Nazi high command said on the record at Wannsee, plotting the Final Solution, and in the unrecorded conversations between bouts at the conference table he draws heavily on other conversations they are known to have had. And there’s none of the wretched “As you know…” style of exposition we’ve grown sadly used to in British drama.

(STARTED watching MY WEEK WITH MARILYN with friends. The cackhanded exposition was so pervasive and dumb (Fiona says the film gets better later) that I coined the phrase “As you know, I’m your father,” and after a few real examples of this kind of writing we almost convinced ourselves that it was an actual piece of dialogue. I’m not sure I want to blame Adrian Hodges, the credited writer, because this is exactly the sort of thing execs the Weinstein Bros would insist on being included. They honestly believe the purpose of having characters is to explain things to the audience.)

Binot seems to have missed OPERATION: DAYBREAK (why the colon?), directed by Lewis Gilbert and adapted by Ronald Harwood (THE PIANIST) from the novel by Alan Burgess, which he does know about. The film is pretty factual, it seems to me, though aesthetically quite dull, apart from the odd choice of David Hentschel’s synth score. It has a fine Heydrich, Anton Differing (he of the combustible behind) — at last, an actor with a big enough nose! I remember the film itself being a little boring, which is odd given the authentic life-or-death stakes involved.

And now there’s a film of HHhH (you wait ages for a Heydrich and then two come along at once), which I guess, following my practice of capitalising film titles, I will have to call HHHH. An awkward title either way. (Binot writes that if the book we’re holding isn’t called Operation Anthropoid, we’ll know his publisher won the argument.) The acronym stands for the German version of the phrase Heydrich Is Himmler’s Brain (which is the small H?), and not for Heydrich Heydrich heydrich Heydrich, as I may have inadvertently given you the impression. This was a popular “meme” in the Czech Protectorate, before they knew what memes were. I guess it’s precisely the fact of Heydrich being Himmler’s brain that made it such a damn good idea to kill him.

The film will have to live up to the book’s high standards of accuracy, though frankly it CAN’T — it will have to invent conversations and present them without apology or comment (I’ll be impressed as hell if it attempts anything as pomo or self-critical as the book — it just won’t). It seems to have a pretty good Heydrich in Aussie Jason Clarke, although oddly he’s doing it with an English accent and all the others are putting on German accents. Playing characters who in reality would be speaking a different language, and doing them with a mild accent, always struck me as silly. Although here we have Stephen Graham looking like a VERY good match for Himmler, and I guess if he’d played it with his native Liverpool accent, that would have been unacceptable. Though not to me, because I delight in marvellous variety.

(Graham is a smashing actor and a master of accents. He plays cockney in the recent series Taboo. Tom Hardy is playing the lead role as a very good impersonation of Oliver Reed — only Keith Allen has done it better. So Stephen Graham comes on as the late Bob Hoskins, not to be put down. The more Hardy bats his eyelashes and whispers in a threatening growl, the more expansive and waannafow Graham becomes. You may not recollect that Hoskins pronounced “wonderful” as “waannafow,” but take it from me, he did. It was part of what made him so waannafow.)

Have I missed any good Heydrichs? What are your favourite performances of members of the Nazi command, if you have any? Oh, I know… Goebbels is always good value. But let’s look BEYOND GOEBBELS…

 

Playing Dead

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on October 5, 2015 by dcairns

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Image from SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE. Words from All My Flashbacks, the memoir of Brit director, and former child actor, Lewis Gilbert.

I had read only the chapters dealing with certain key films, but Fiona went through the whole thing, though not in order, lending the life of EDUCATING RITA’s director an unwonted MARIENBAD quality. She pointed out this anecdote.

At this point in the story, Gilbert is aged six.

…there was one thing I could not understand. Why would an actor – and I knew that actors appeared in films because I had already been in a couple myself – why would an actor playing a cowboy or an Indian allow himself to be killed? Why would he let someone fire a gun at him or shoot an arrow through him? I couldn’t understand that at all but I didn’t want to ask. One day the answer hit me. I went to the green room, the place in a theatre where performers go to relax, and found three or four of them sitting around, talking and smoking. “You know those people who get killed in a film,” I said, “I know how they get killed and why they get killed.” They all stopped and looked at me.

“What do you mean? They’re actors.”

“I know they’re actors,” I said, “but what actor would want himself to be killed?”

“They aren’t. They’re acting.”

“No, no. I’ve seen them dying. I’ve seen them fall off horses, dead.”

“So, what do you think happens?” they asked.

“What you do,” I said, “is, you go to the prison and you find somebody who’s going to be hanged and you say, ‘Look, if you come into our film and get killed, we will pay you some money and we will look after your family. You might as well do it our way and get paid because you’re going to get hanged anyway.'”

Well of course they roared with laughter and thought that was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. “No, son,” they insisted, still laughing, “it is acting. Honestly, it really is.” But I thought, ‘I don’t believe that,’ and I turned around and stalked out. There it was again, the inability of the child thrown into a world of fantasy to adjust to what was fantasy and what was fact.

Which brings us right back to SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, doesn’t it?