Archive for Martin Balsam

A High Silk Hat and a Silver Caine

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2016 by dcairns


SILVER BEARS is one of a crowd of Michael Caine movies from the seventies which, it turns out, deserve to be better known. PULP is, in my view, great, and PEEPER comes close, but is let down by a weak last act. The fact that the climax, with supreme, toe-curling unfortunateness, involves Natalie Wood fighting in a lifeboat, may explain why the film isn’t more often revived.

SILVER BEARS is just very enjoyable. Caine plays a finance expert for the mob who conceives the idea of casino owner Martin Balsam buying his own Swiss bank to store his loot in (as if Swiss banks were notoriously picky about their customers — see also THE HOLCROFT COVENANT for Caine’s continuing PR campaign on behalf of Switzerland’s financial institutions). Caine buys the bank but finds he’s been conned, then gets offered a chance to come in on a silver mine in Iraq, which is right where the Bible says there should be a silver mine…

Ivan Passer directs with deadpan modesty. CUTTER AND BONE is the US film of his with the best reputation, but I prefer BORN TO LOSE, a defiantly uningratiating movie about junkies with George Segal. Like the best US seventies stuff it has a Twilight of the Gods melancholic downfall built in — somebody was bound to make something like JAWS and STAR WARS eventually, and as soon as they did films like this were bound to stop being made. It’s a movie that has no interest in explaining to us why we should care about its lead character. It knows we don’t even care about his real-life counterparts, so what will induce us to get interested in a fictional version? Doesn’t matter. He’s a human being. We SHOULD care. A brief early appearance by DeNiro, unusually cast as a cop, also enlivens.


SILVER BEARS is positively jolly by comparison, and it has an even more impressive cast — Caine and Balsam are supported by a host of co-stars, most of them on their last legs as box office phenomena — Cybill Shepherd, Louis Jourdan, David Warner, Stephan Audran, Tommy Smothers, plus Charles Gray, Joss Ackland and a fleeting Nigel Patrick. And Jay Leno, for God’s sake, who turns out to be a very funny actor. Maybe he just didn’t want to go on playing idiots and low-lifes.

Caine is very funny (“He’s not a fag, he’s just English,” explains Balsam), caught midway between the Adonis of the sixties and the puffy-eyed, blotchy Caine of pay cheque fame. Fiona felt Louis Jourdan stole the show, though. And David Warner looks like this ~


A big hand for Bernard Gribble’s editing, which enhances the comedy with slow-burn reaction shots. Jourdan steals the show, but it’s one of Shepherd’s good jobs too, and Caine is very funny. There’s a great bit of exposition delivered while marching at high speed through a stately home, led by Gray (one of the stately homos of England, as Quentin Crisp would have it). Good bit with Jourdan and Audran slapping each other — a dicey moment to get laughs with, but she sells it by looking more shocked when she slaps him than when he slaps her. Her surprised face looks like the outrage alien at the end of the Star Trek end credits.


Peter Stone, who scripted CHARADE, has some good short circuits stored up for getting out of predictable situations in unpredictable ways. When Cybill realizes Caine slept with her to get info on her husband’s bank, she only pretends to be furious for the sake of appearances, for as she immediately explains, she realizes that he did her three times in one night, which was far more than necessary to learn what he needed to know. It’s a lightweight movie but it has enough inventions like that to keep me charmed.


A Week Can Be a Long Time in Politics

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2015 by dcairns


7 DAYS IN MAY (1964) — one of Frankenheimer’s very best, I’d say. It’s taken me ages to get around to it. Maybe the opening scene put me off, since I think the handheld, jagged cutting and multiple inserted red frames (Frankenheimer admired Hitchcock enormously, so he’s riffing on SPELLBOUND — there’s a good story about his Hitch idolatry, if you remind me) was a little overdone. And then there’s a very long build-up in which most of the terrific cast have little to do but repeatedly explain to us who they are and what their jobs are and what got done before the movie started. A slow pressure starts to build though as Colonel Kirk Douglas, all clenched reptile features and micro eye-darting, suspects something is up. When he reports to President Fredric March that General Burt Lancaster is plotting a military coup, at last the film takes off and begins to generate serious tension.

Frankenheimer commissioned the script from his old TV colleague Rod Serling, who does lay on the exposition a bit thick at the start, and the speechifying even thicker at the end, but it evolves into a cross-cut pattern of escalating, nerve-biting, nail-raising, hair-shredding excitement. We got this the same year as STRANGELOVE? No wonder FAIL SAFE failed. You can only have so many of these things in a year, I expect. Otherwise the nervous strain would be too great.

Serling’s exposition isn’t exactly bad, it’s just more obvious than I like it, with characters showing off unnecessarily just to shoehorn a little more information into their speeches, calling each other by name multiple times, and so on. But the groundwork is laid effectively enough so that once the plot really gets moving, you’re never confused despite the complexity. The speech-making is rendered more excusable by the fact that Sterling gives his villain convincing motivation — noble cause corruption, where the ends justify the means — making him as much a patriot as March.


Edmund O’Brien, typecast as a drunk, is very enjoyable too. Every time I see him now I think of the story in WORKING WITH ORSON WELLES, Gary Graver’s shambolic but fun documentary — a couple of assistants on THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND had the job of helping O’Brien (“Eddie is a magnificent ruin,” quoth Welles) pack his luggage after the shoot. And he had all this weird shit in his hotel drawers — raw meat and light bulbs and stuff. “Are you sure you want all this packed?” “Yeah yeah.” So every time we See O’Brien we make a crack about his meat ‘n’ light bulbs.

Having gotten his ebullient, experimental side out of the way early, Frankenheimer goes almost classical, eschewing his Dutch tilts but exulting in Kubrickian symmetry, deep focus and the frequent use of the “A” composition ~


He has a lot of fun with TV monitors, a recurring device of his from MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE on. Easy to see why they figured in his imagery, given his years spent barking into a microphone in front of an array of glasse screens. He also has some shots here that are just expressively wonderful.



Being a political drama of its day, the story is very male-driven (Martin Balsam: “I have a feeling this time next week we’ll all be laughing.” Fiona: “On the other sides of our faces. Which will have been blown off”). But there’s room for a lusty turn from Ava Garner, and a very very shiny one from Colette MacDonald, who turns out to have been Preston Sturges’ daughter-in-law. We both thought it was Karen Black.


We correctly identified John Houseman, though, in his first screen appearance since TOO MUCH JOHNSON twenty-six years previously. In that one he was a Keystone Cop, in this one he is an admiral. Natural Authority.

The ’68 Comeback Special: Trilogy

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 11, 2013 by dcairns


Cannes in ’68 had, or would have had, only two American films (as opposed to three Hungarian). And one of those, PETULIA, was the work of mainly British filmmakers. The other was, essentially, a TV movie…

However, if PETULIA is partly a British picture in a way, Frank Perry’s TRILOGY is a TV movie by a cinema practitioner. At times it looks and sounds very much like small screen stuff, and then it’s in thrall to a literary source, three short stories by Truman Capote. It’s arguable that mainly what we get is short stories + acting. But it’s very good acting.

Episode one, MIRIAM, is possibly my favourite, because unexpectedly it’s a kind of horror movie. The great Mildred Natwick plays a retired nanny, living alone with a canary and her memories, avoided by her former charges whom she fondly imagines still somehow need her. Then she meets Miriam (the uncanny Susan Dunfee in her only film role), who shares a first name with her and insinuates herself into nanny’s life for some inexplicable but surely malign reason. Very early on we suspect that something is very wrong about Miriam, and we’re right, but we can’t figure quite what it is — rather like Anthony Harvey and Amiri Baraka’s DUTCHMAN, the terror comes from the not knowing. Meyer Kupferman’s insistent and unsettling story prods the unease into every corner.


Part two, AMONG THE PATHS OF EDEN, is the least of the three, a two-hander with Maureen Stapleton and Martin Balsam meeting in a graveyard, but the two leads are so good they elevate it. Stapleton is looking to meet an eligible man and is targeting widowers by frequenting the cemetery. Balsam is laying flowers on his wife’s grave but politely and gently adamant that he isn’t looking for any more attachments in his life.

In the movie, Balsam’s wife died from a heart condition. I was reminded of Balsam’s own death, decades later: he checked into a hotel in Rome, remarked to the clerk how happy he was to be in his favourite place in the world, went up to his room, lay down and died. Heart attack.

“I’d like to die alone in a hotel room, the way people used to,” said Orson Welles to Henry Jaglom.


Episode three, A CHRISTMAS MEMORY, is the longest and I guess most substantial. It has a wonderful performance from Geraldine Page and a story which is largely autobiographical — Capote narrates it in his distinctive manner. It’s extremely moving — the relationship between a boy and his older female cousin encapsulated by the baking of cakes and the preparations for Christmas. A weakness is perhaps that the strongest scenes are delivered largely by the voice-over — again, we wouldn’t miss much just by reading the original story. But when something is good, it’s good, and maybe worrying about whether it’s “cinematic” is a waste. It’s certainly ungrateful.

Perry made other, better films, with more cinematic life in them — PLAY IT AS IT LAYS and MAN ON THE SWING and THE SWIMMING POOL (can we have an Eclipse box set of these neglected works?), and Capote had a hand in some genuinely electrifying movies, from IN COLD BLOOD to THE INNOCENTS to BEAT THE DEVIL. Their collaboration here is perhaps hampered by Perry being too respectful of his source, but on its own terms it’s beautiful.


In other news ~

DALLAS VIDEOFEST 26 Juried Award Winning Films:

Documentary Feature Winners

Winner: NATAN by Paul Duane and David Cairn


“NATAN breaks new cinematic ground on many levels and is innovative both in subject matter and its eclectic stylistic approach. The film twists and turns its way through a complex story filled with powerful revelations.”  – Jurist, Ben Levin, professor of radio, television and film, UNT.