Archive for Lillian Hellman

Town without pity

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2016 by dcairns


Why had I been resistant to seeing THE CHASE? The Arthur Penn movie, I mean. Maybe that ultra-generic title had something to do with it. I seem to recall seeing a doc on Penn — must’ve been a LOOONG time ago — which positioned this movie as an unsatisfactory struggle with the studio system, coming before the breakthrough of BONNIE AND CLYDE. They found a clip showing Jane Fonda shot in soft focus, intercut with a pin-sharp Robert Redford, to illustrate what a conventional affair it was. A Shirley Temple movie with guns.

That may have been how Penn himself recalled it, though he was such a big fan of Brando’s work, he must have found something more to enjoy in the film. he spoke of how Brando suggested filming his fight scene with closeups filmed at 12fps so that fists could be brought in slowly and actually connect with his face, smuching up his features. When projected at normal speed, the image ought to look genuinely violent. (Polanski attempted something like this in TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE. The tiny fists are his own.)


None of Brando’s suggested Keystone pugilism makes it into the final cut as far as I can see, but the film’s violence is still incredibly intense and convincing, partly due to the sadomasochistic relish with which Marlon throws himself into it. Screenwriter Lillian Hellman, adapting Horton Foote’s novel and play, loaded the script with bile, so there’s considerable raw anger behind each punch. (A punch hurts, but the aggression motivating it is just as upsetting — if you’re a sensitive blossom like me, anyway.)

I think THE CHASE may be a masterpiece, just not wholly Penn’s. It’s a Sam Spiegel film, which I guess makes it White Elephant Art writ large, but I quite like White Elephant Art. The Cistine Chapel is not termite art.

Another reason for my resistance to the film is that I HAD seen bits of it on TV and found it drear. But you need to see it, obviosuly, in the proper widescreen ratio, and you need to be prepared to accept its grimness. It’s unrelenting, but not wholly unlevened. As a big Hollywood movie, part of what provides relief from its hellscape of corruption, bigotry and raging cruelty is the all-star cast, all of whom get grandstanding moments. It’s a very well acted film physically, and apart from stunts like Brando, pummelled to mush, rolling off a desktop and dropping to the floor as dead weight, and gestures like Miriam Hopkins’ hyperactive hands, it’s full of great POSES —


Henry Hull making great use of his skeletal frame. Clothes hang so nicely on him!

And nobody ever looked deader onscreen than the dead body in the movie’s third-last scene.

“You gotta feel bad for Brando’s character in this,” I remarked midway. “Surrounded by assholes.” And that was before the beating.

I think Robert Redford, though quite good, is miscast. Hard to imagine him having been this out-of-control wild kid. Hard to imagine everyone scared he’s coming back home. I tell you what would have improved everything and launched the film into a higher level of seriousness: make the character black. But Hellman compensates by including a couple of black characters whose perilous lives do suggest something of the racial tension (read: vicious intimidation) in the South.



Ridiculously all-star cast. Hard to conceive of a Jane Fonda film from this period in which she is not the sexiest woman, but — “Janice Rule is my new girl-crush,” declared Fiona. Mine, too, I think. Janice is playing a really appalling character with really great breasts, and a lot of soap opera gusto. She out-bitches Dynasty. Her milquetoast husband is a very young Robert Duvall — so young he has vestigial traces of hair — equally loathsome but WEAK. Then there’s enthusiastic drunk acting from Martha Hyer, the always-welcome-if-it’s-not-a-Bond-film Clifton James, and an early prototype Paul Williams ~


The very ending reminds me of THE DEVILS. THE CHASE is only slightly less grim and only a few shades less hysterical than that despairing masterwork.

“It’s hard to say who had the worst night of it,” I said to Fiona, eyes wide. About an hour later, she managed to reply, “Well, probably ****, because he DIED.” “Yes, but **** lost BOTH the men in her life,” I pointed out. Then there are the bereaved parents, the jerk who’s going to jail for murder, the poor guy who got beaten up in prison (and not even by a cop) and then had his scrapyard blown up. It’s not a comedy.


However, also militating against any sense of actual depression is the fact that Spiegel was evidently impressed by the Bond films and has hired Maurice Binder to do the credits (no naked silhouettes though) and John Barry to score the thing. It’s not that Barry didn’t watch the movie, I think, it’s just that his sensibility at the time was so irrepressibly vibrant that he can’t help elevate the mood. No doubt Spiegel wanted something epic and heroic: Barry claimed he composed the score to BORN FREE as a parody of Hollywood’s uplifting themes, but much of THE CHASE could almost be amping things up into a state of overkill. It never feels like he’s spoofing it, but he’s willing it to be more thrilling and epic than it wants to be. So you have Penn and Hellman fighting for  downbeat drama and Spiegel and Barry dragging it towards tragic grandeur and glorious passions.

I tend to favour the auteurist viewpoint, not because movies aren’t team efforts, but because unless you have one sensibility in charge filtering what goes into the mix, and unless that sensibility is an interesting and intelligent one, things tend to get chaotic and discordant. But in rare cases, the struggle between warring visions can produce something quite satisfying, where the creative tension blurs into dramatic tension. It can be very exciting, though probably none of the participants would come away feeling satisfied. That’s THE CHASE, I think.

A Prophecy

Posted in FILM with tags , , on July 20, 2016 by dcairns


“The world’s open for people like you and me. There’s thousands of us all over the world. We’ll own this country some day: they won’t try to stop us.”


The Sunday Intertitle: Fred Zinnemann Week

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on October 16, 2011 by dcairns

Welcome to the Week!

There are no intertitles in Zinnemann films, none that I’ve been able to find. Conceivably there might be something like one in one of his MGM short subjects, but the only one I’ve seen of those, THE OLD SOUTH, is heavily narrated but unintertitled.

Even  at the start of his films, where narrative tradition often used to suggest some kind of superimposed text to set the scene, Fred prefers voice-over to writing: sometimes the narration will set the film off, as with THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING or DAY OF THE JACKAL, and then disappear for the rest of the film.

But here’s an opening explanatory title from his last film, FIVE DAYS ONE SUMMER. Seems a perverse enough place to begin. The Year 1932 — I like that helpful “The Year,” in case we thought the four digits were a PIN number or part of an address.

By contrast, but still on the subject of late films, here’s the opening VO from JULIA, spoken by Jane Fonda (and drawn fairly directly from Lillian Hellman’s source story, I think) —

“Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent. When that happens, it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines: a tree will show through a woman’s dress; a child makes way for a dog; a boat is no longer on an open sea. That is called “pentimento,” because the painter repented, changed his mind.”

And by the end of the first sentence, I can tell you, I was thinking, “He’s gonna do a dissolve!” It’s so perfect, because Hellman is describing something with a clear analog in film technique. At the same time, or a beat later, “I think maybe it’s too perfect. I hope he doesn’t dissolve right away.” He waits a delicious moment after the speech ends, then dissolves, not once, but twice —

Incidentally, what’s with the recurrence of fishing in Fred’s films? Apart from the above image, we have REDES, a proto-neo-realist drama about fishermen, which was Zinnemann’s first feature as (co-)director, the opening image of THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, and it’s even given as Peter Finch’s preferred mode of relaxation in THE NUN’S STORY… and he tried to film Heningway’s THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA but quit when his original dream to shoot a real fish in the real ocean with a starved Spencer Tracy was replaced by the actuality of filming a fake fish in a studio sea with a well-fed Spencer Tracy.

Later today — Why Fred Zinnemann Week?