Archive for Louis Malle

Mad in Craft

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2022 by dcairns

Why? Why did I watch Kenneth Branagh’s HAMLET?

Apparently I was curious about it. But not so curious that I watched it in 1996. That would have made sense — I could have seen in in 70mm. I watched it this week.

I was curious about it being the full four hour unexpurgated play, but I came to believe that by not cutting, Branagh had given up a big part of the adaptor’s toolkit — directors typically choose what parts of the play to emphasise, they focus in, by cutting. And, while I can see doing it uncut on the stage makes sense, any uncut Shakespeare text on the screen is likely to suffer from redundancy as the characters take their time describing things we can SEE. Oh boy did that happen here.

I should give Branagh credit where possible: he makes the thing go at a fair lick. And when ones’ eyes and ears have not actually gone blurry, you can still tell what the people are saying. Sometimes, it is true, you wonder why everyone is in such a frenzy when there’s not so much happening, and often, it is true, you feel that a momentary dramatic pause would bring out a lot more meaning than the relentless jabber.

The film is cast in a racially-blind manner, before it was fashionable or popular, and this is good. Hamlet is totally a play you can do this with, and any call for realism can be dismissed outright since the characters are (a) speaking blank verse and (b) not speaking Danish. There are no important Black characters, but there are quite a few minor ones, and one of those is the excellent Don Warrington.

Branagh has a certain boldness. My friend Paul Duane calls him “the worst director who has ever lived,” and he is, essentially, correct, but Branagh does things which are wrong in surprising ways, not just in boring ways, so I can still find him preferable to, say, Richard Attenborough. Who turns up here, because, of course he does.

OK, I think I’m done being nice. It wasn’t a very impressive display of positives, I admit.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore Collection/REX (1596346a) Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh Film and Television

Branagh’s boldness is manifest in the uncut text, in the 70mm format, in a certain gusto with which he throws the camera around, and in the chaotic mix-and-match approach to casting. The guiding aesthetic principle here is the Dunning-Kruger effect. Branagh swirls the Steadicam around his cast, goes into slomo, cuts furiously, because he does, at least, know he CAN, but doesn’t know whether, from moment to moment, he should or should not. We’re on random.

Similarly, Branagh throws together the classically trained theatrical knight, the movie star, the sitcom actor, with gay abandon — it’s admirable in theory — you can see it being exciting — but everybody is playing the wrong part. Brian Blessed — fruity ham — is the ghost. Charlton Heston — grim-visaged axiom of cinema — is the player king. Swap them around and you’d have something.

Jack Lemmon — a potentially fine Polonius — is Marcellus, essentially a random spear-carrier. You wonder why he’s the only American spear-carrier. And whether he’s a bit old for active duty. Richard Briers, a good sitcom actor, is Polonius. And it’s true that Polonius is the most sitcomlike character, and also true that Briers suppresses his natural affability to play the man as a more creepy and august figure, it doesn’t always work.

All the play’s double-acts are mismatched: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two interchangeable doofuses, are Timothy Spall and Reece Dinsdale, a grotesque and a normie. The two gravediggers are Billy Crystal and Simon Russell Beale, Borscht belt and Stratford. Crystal is possibly my favourite performance in the thing: he isn’t funny, his stuff with Beale is a snooze, but there’s a provocative sense of challenge when he’s matched with Branagh. One is a movie star and the other only thinks he is because he has no sense upon which to base his judgement. The result is tension, and the only place where the cutting back and forth between characters adds any excitement.

How badly cast is this film? We are asked to believe that Derek Jacobi has stolen Julie Christie away from Brian Blessed.

Jacobi — always cast as men called Claudius, is miscast as Claudius here. He’s not an impressive opponent. He does OK.

Branagh has realised one thing, I think, but he’s realised it in the edit: the shot/countershot cuts only work when we see who’s talking. It must have been discovered that reaction shots make you lose the thread of the speeches. Or else it was assumed. The result is a Dragnet approach to cutting, where every cut is on the end of a speech, cueing up the reply. I love Dragnet but it has a deliberately inexpressive cutting pattern, suitable for procedurals.

What Shakespeare needs, I suspect, and could very well get in a 70mm film, is dynamic blocking and long-held wide shots where everyone can act together in real time. There’s very, very little of that here, though there are plenty of scenes where the camera just circles the actors for no good reason. This is Branagh’s third Shakespearean adaptation so you would think he’d have a working theory of montage and mise-en-scene.

Olivier went into HENRY V with a plan: he knew that Shakespeare’s more rousing speeches seem to necessitate a certain building to a climax by the actor. The traditional approach to long scenes in the movies is to move closer. Olivier sussed that this would result in us looking right up his nose just as he was really getting into it with the yelling and gesticulating, so he reversed the pattern, very consciously: as Henry builds to a climax, the camera pulls back.

Actual saliva bubble

Branagh never realised that when he made his own HENRY V, so the film is a spittle-flecked shoutfest in which the King spends a lot of time screaming right in our ear. It’s distracting when you see saliva blasting forth in great gobs: it’s only appropriate to do spit if that’s the only thing you want the audience to notice.

Here we are, after MUCH ADO, and Branagh is still drenching the scenery with his face. He gets started early, when he meets the ghost. This is very bad: we have about three and a half hours to go at this point. How’s he going to top this? Shit, what happens when he goes/plays mad?

Plenty. The Dane froths, simpers, screams, and his voice goes comically high to suggest strong emotion. One of my favourite out-of-control performances is Alan Arkin’s last scene in LITTLE MURDERS. It’s huge and manic and (bouncing) off-the-wall. But it’s one scene. He builds to it, and then he stops. Branagh does have quiet moments — the only scene I’d seen excerpted from this was, predictably, “To be or not to be,” which is perfectly OK, and calm. But he spends about an hour running about doing full loony.

Kate Winslet, at least, is only wildly over-the-top for one scene.

As the film trundled on, I found myself no longer able to notice how badly directed it was. I had lost the aesthetic sense. I was in Branaghworld. But the opening scenes really pop and zing with ineptitude, and cry out for close analysis. I think it’d be fun to look at scenes from the Branagh, Olivier and Richardson HAMLETs, as I previously did with three varied MACBETHs.

But not this scene. This scene I just include because it made me giggle. I’m not even sure why. Do you find it funny? I’ve written before about how certain actors should be put at the tip of an A composition because they can’t help but distract from the big foreground heads. Turns out Jack Lemmon is one. Everything he does is more interesting than what Hamlet and Horatio do, even when he’s just titling screen left so Horatio won’t block him from view (00.13).

But the funnier stuff is inside. Partly it’s weird because we see a normal door, and then Branagh cuts back and forth between two groups in the narrow doorway, and they both have the same background. Despite the fact that the camera angles must, presumably, be at least 90 degrees apart. This is called “cheating” and I generally approve of it — to hell with continuity, make the shots effective. Here it becomes subtly discombobulating and hilarious.

(Louis Malle said he was fond of shooting the closeups in a shot/countershot sequence against the exact same background, but I haven’t looked out examples to see how he gets away with it. He mentioned it in connection with ZAZIE so he may have been after the exact dizzy effect Branagh stumbles upon here.)

But there’s just something about the Dragnet cutting-on-dialogue that becomes hysterical to me when the actors build up a froth and the cutting gets faster. Thespian tennis. What do you think?

HAMLET stars Hercule Poirot; Martin Beck; Petulia Danner; Young Iris Murdoch; King Vultan; Sir Robert Peel; Smee; Airey Neave; Miracle Max; Lavrenti Beria; J.M.W. Turner; Sherlock Holmes; C.C. Baxter; Lenin; Cyrano de Bergerac; Dr. Satnam Tsurutani; Judah Ben-Hur; Aunt May; Johnny Rotten; Philip Smith; Popeye; Iris Murdoch; Lord Raglan; Sid Luft; Pinkie Brown; Captain R.F. Scott R.N.

Cine Dorado: J is for Juana Gallo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on April 16, 2012 by dcairns

Regular guest Shadowplayer David Melville returns with another entry in his alphabet of Mexican melodrama


The Golden Age of Mexican Melodrama 

J is for Juana Gallo

As an impressionable schoolboy of nine, my absolute favourite movie (apart from The Wizard of Oz) was Louis Malle’s 1965 film Viva Maria! – a triumphantly camp musical action comedy with Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau as two French showgirls who become leaders of the Mexican Revolution. So how much fun, almost forty years later, to see the film that may have inspired it! Directed by Miguel Zacarías in 1960, Juana Gallo stars Mexican über-diva María Félix as a sharp-shooting, tough-talking, high-riding soldadera gal who leads the peasants in revolt against the iniquitous federales.

Of course, Viva Maria! was a parody, while Juana Gallo is deadly serious stuff. It opens with a banner title thanking the current President of the Mexican Republic, Don Adolfo López Mateos, for his “generous and patriotic support” in the making of the film. It closes with a cod-Stalinist montage of factories and football stadiums, super-highways and schools, emblems of the glorious modern nation that Juana and her exploits helped to forge. Ironically, this po-faced patriotic agenda makes for an even funnier film than Viva Maria! What it lacks in satirical wit, Juana Gallo more than makes up in unintentional belly laughs.

We first see our heroine as a hard-working farm girl – immaculately coiffured and made up – driving her team of burros under a blazing sun, as she tills her family’s arid plot of land. Some villainous government troops ride into town, shoot her father and fiancé for sedition and hang their corpses from the nearest tree. Her exquisite dark eyes registering no more than mild annoyance, María digs a gun out of her family grave, waits in ambush…and guns the rotters down single-handed! Before you know it, the whole of Mexico is ablaze with revolutionary fervour and María (aka Angela Ramos aka Juana Gallo) has become its very own Joan of Arc.

As ludicrous as this whole set-up is, it actually does work in movie terms. The reason, perhaps, is that María Félix – in any and all of her screen roles – was never anything less than a one-woman revolution. Strutting imperiously across the Eastmancolor and Mexiscope screen, she elbows mere mortals out of her way – with a toss of her head and a flash of those lustrous black eyes! She storms into a nightclub after her unfaithful lover (Jorge Mistral) and ridicules the idea that no ladies are allowed. “I’m no lady, I’m Juana Gallo!” When she threatens to shoot Mistral, we gape in genuine fear for the actor’s life – and hope the props department at Churubusco Studios has not been rash enough to hand her a loaded gun.

Movie stardom, as we know, is about being and not acting. Perhaps no star in history could be as extravagantly on screen as María Félix. Only her inadequacy as an actress prevents her from overwhelming everything and everybody else in Juana Gallo even more flamboyantly than she already does.  When she and her compadres storm the big city, María gets herself dolled up in an exquisite rose chiffon gown that’s worthy of Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Unable to walk in high heels, she slips on a pair of cowboy boots underneath it. Sitting in a powwow and planning the next stage of the Revolution, it’s all she can do not to cross her legs and spit on the floor.

At this point in the film, she seeks out a visiting French danseuse (Christiane Martel) for tips on how to be a ‘real’ woman. And it’s here, too, that Viva Maria! starts to seem like less of an hommage and more of a downright rip-off (albeit one that’s infinitely better acted and better made). While the tone is serious, and some of the violence is downright gruesome, there are moments of visual comedy that seem to foreshadow Malle. When the rebels storm an aristocratic hacienda, one man strides out proudly carrying a wooden toilet seat. Two others steal an enormous gilt mirror; a woman, who has looted some clothes, stops them to check out how she looks.

Loudly as Juana Gallo pays lip service to revolutionary politics and patriotic fervour, it also plays up the clichés of the ‘woman’s picture’ – with its dreams of romance and upward mobility. Jorge Mistral, as María’s romantic interest, is an aristocratic army officer who abandons his class and joins the Revolution out of love for her. She moans orgasmically as he cuts a stray bullet out of her leg, and then looks mildly perturbed when he strips off his clothes to join her in her sickbed. (It’s the only way, apparently, to keep her warms and stop her dying of fever.) When they finally make love, an obligatory thunder-and-lightning storm flashes and bangs outside the window. It’s the classic fairy tale romance…only Cinderella is armed and deadly, more than ready to murder her Prince Charming if he doesn’t measure up.

In the city, once María has risen to power in the Revolution, her followers seize a millionaire’s palace to house her in the style she deserves. Turkeysperch on the banisters of the grand staircase; an impromptu rodeo goes on in the front hall. María draws the line, however, when her faithful sidekick (Ignacio López Tarso) removes her marble bathtub to use as a water trough for the horses. She is brusquely supportive, though, of his efforts to use a captured typewriter. “How can you use that writing machine if you can’t even read?” “If I knew how to read, señora, I wouldn’t need a machine!” One wonders – uncharitably, perhaps – if this man shares partial credit for the script.

Ultimately, Juana Gallo is tosh of the lowest and highest order. It reduces important historical events to the stuff of a Mills and Boon paperback romance…but you could say the same for Gone with the Wind or any number of otherHollywood classics. It has, in María Félix, a heroine who makes Scarlett O’Hara look like Melanie Hamilton’s dowdy kid sister. They no longer make stars like María Félix. In fact, they never did. Like all great movie icons, she was uniquely her own creation.

David Melville