Archive for Mercedes McCambridge

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s Scenes #1

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2022 by dcairns

It’s good to start with Olivier’s HAMLET because we have A SPY ON THE SET.

The other Laurence, Laurie Knight, late friend of Fiona and I, was an assistant on this — third AD. But not for the whole shoot, I don’t think. He reports that Olivier wanted to record a real human heartbeat for the ghost’s appearances. He may have heard about Rouben Mamoulian running up and down a flight of stairs so he could get a suitably pounding chest for the transformations in DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE, but the athletic thesp uncharacteristically delegated another assistant — possibly a runner, which would be appropriate — to run around the soundstage once or twist before having the mic pressed to his bosom like a stethoscope.

“Nothing but indigestion!” Laurie reported with a wheeze of laughter. So they quite simply got a drum in.

I really love the way the camera pulses in and out of focus as the pounding comes in. Still an effect that’s rarely copied, but it’s wonderfully expressive.

Asides from Mamoulian, I assume Olivier’s under the influence of CITIZEN KANE a bit, and has grasped how the optical printer can be used to spice up footage and create semi-seamless joins between distinct shots. I even wonder if the focal pulse effect might be created in post. This is a kind of advance on his HENRY V, whose effects all happen for real in front of the camera. We gradually move from theatrical sets to more lifelike one, as if we were being swept up in the “reality” of the play.

The KANE influence is also felt in the deep focus, the chiaroscuro, and the cavernous Xanadu-like space of Elsinore. Instead of the big gimmick of Olivier’s HENRY V: a theatrical performance which slowly becomes “real”, the stylised sets eventually replaced by real locations, HAMLET attempts to create a space midway between theatre and cinema — cavernous, unfurnished, but richly textured.

Olivier said he was driven to that HENRY effect by his concern about matching real sets and unreal dialogue. “Why’s everyone talking so funny?” HAMLET takes a different but parallel route. An environment just odd enough to allow the iambic pentameters not to seem out of place.

From my Making-Of book, The Film HAMLET: Carmen Dillon, tasked with executing Roger Furse’s designs, says, “sets soar into the sky without any attempt at persuading the audience that they do, in fact, support a roof or that they have any geographical relationship one with another.

I’m all in favour of cutting Hamlet, which is outrageously long, and directors shape it and choose what they want to emphasise by their cuts. In Jonathan Pryce’s performance. this whole scene was cut, so that the ghost could be portrayed as a psychological effect, a voice issuing from H’s subconscious. It gave Pryce the excuse for a bravura Linda Blair/Mercedes McCambridge act, and you could argue that the voice’s echoing of H’s own suspicions and resentments is already implied in the text — he’s rather thrilled to discover he’s right to dislike Uncle Claudius.

But these cuts do tend, as Tom Stoppard pointed out, to make the beginning of the play rather stodgy. It’s a bunch of people at a party making speeches. Whereas WD begins his play with the words “Who goes there?” and it’s immediately gripping. Plus the bell tolling midnight, all very atmospheric. Olivier wouldn’t have consciously aimed to make his adaptation seem like a horror film, but the KANE influence ensures it does anyway (I believe Welles may have admitted to a slight James Whale influence on his MACBETH).

Olivier has cast his film very well indeed, without resorting to the Branagh approach of stuffing stars of stage and screen into every crevice. From the urgency of the first lines we drop into the casual, throwaway dialogue that makes this film occasionally quite naturalistic, when Sir Larry himself isn’t around. Francisco and Bernardo are John “We’re all doomed!” Laurie, who would apparently tell you about his own triumph as the Dane as soon as you met him, and Esmond Knight, recently blinded in the war and taking his life in his hands on those unbanistered stairs.

Starting on Laurie is a great idea: a gloomy Calvinist immediately makes the appearance of the supernatural more plausible.

They’re soon joined by Norman Wooland and Anthony Quayle, equally good. wooland maybe the realest and most moving actor in the film. I think Olivier has done great in finding actors who can do the classical bit but also seem believable onscreen. It was maybe easier to find such people then.

Olivier, of course, isn’t of their number. He’s something else.

Next bit: Hamlet meets the ghost.

Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson writes that Olivier wanted to “make the scenes without so much cutting from shot to shot.” There are bits in the ghost’s second appearance where we just stare at his inexpressive silhouette for quite a while, until the shot almost “goes dead.” It seems a good way to allow the audience to concentrate on the words without getting bored. The image is still striking and beautiful, even if it’s not doing anything new. It beats Peter Brook’s moronic idea in his KING LEAR of shooting the backs of the actors’ heads. “Sometimes, with Shakespeare, you don’t want the image to add anything, but you can’t just have a black screen.” I think a black screen would make as much sense as the back of Paul Scofield’s head.

Remember the wise words of Roger Corman: “The eye is the organ most used in movie making. If you don’t engage the eye you’ll never engage the mind.”

The ghost here is John Gielgud — one of the legendary stage Hamets (captured on film by Humphrey Jennings in A DIARY FOR TIMOTHY), later the director of Richard Burton’s version, and one of the most distinctive voices. But the slow whisper and echo effect make him not so recognisable, so that his uncredited performance isn’t a coy gimmick. The ghost would have seemed all the more mysterious by being unknown.

Gielgud at 17.24-19.22

Steven Berkoff had an interesting idea — I don’t know how good his production was, quite possibly ham(let)fisted (he has a way of leaning into things) — but it was an interesting idea. Since the ghost says he’s doomed “to walk the earth,” why not have him in constant motion? And thus Hamlet, having followed him away from his chums, has to keep tagging along. He might even get in front and then have to keep backing up since the ghost can’t stop.

At 3.18 the backlight produces a dark halo around the ghost in the fog. Beautiful.

I think the least effective part is the visualisation of the King’s death, though I can see why they did it. King Hamlet as a living person is NOT played by Gielgud, but by a Santa Clause-looking guy who overdoes the old dying act a bit, rolling out of his divan and clutching the air. Claudius as poisoner has kind of gone into silent movie acting mode also, Is this the way Hamlet would visualise it? Possibly.

Branagh will cheekily borrow a couple of Olivier’s moves — collapsing face-down when the ghost departs, and kissing his sword when he swears. Shakespeare’s text offers few stage directions beyond “enter” and “exit” and we’re not convinced Shakespeare even wrote those. He does add “writing” when Hamlet makes a note in his tables, but Olivier’s cut the words and the action to make room for his hilt-kissing.

Next: Tony Richardson and Nicol Williamson in 1969.

The View

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2021 by dcairns

This shot in ALL THE KING’S MEN (1949) is so extreme in its wide-angle distortion (enhancing the fact that John Ireland really was enormous and Mercedes McCambridge really was tiny) that I wished the whole film was like that. Serious TOUCH OF EVIL vibes, and of course MM would go on to appear in TOE.

In fact, the rest of the film isn’t that much less distorted: so much of the action is big sweaty men crammed into small hotel rooms. Director Robert Rossen and DP Burnett Guffey crowd the frame with different-sized figures. Welles has to have been the inspiration. Rossen looks at CITIZEN KANE and then Welles comes along and borrows McCambridge ten years later.

I liked the movie — Ireland and McCambridge together before THE SCARF — Broderick Crawford in the role he was born for — but I didn’t love it. Maybe because the assassination of Huey Long, a dramatic twist in real life, feels like a cop-out in a fictionized version. I don’t know of any real-life political stories with satisfying climaxes. Stories of revolution are quite satisfying, but then you have to leave out what comes after (generally, disillusion). How the hell does Costa-Gavras do it?

Actually, this week I’ve been mainly listening to political history podcasts. Leon Neyfakh created the first two series of Slow Burn over at Slate, which dealt with Watergate and the Clinton Impeachment, and now he does Fiasco, which so far has covered Bush V Gore, the Iran-Contra scandal, school desegregation (“busing” as it got termed, a very successful piece of objuscation), and the Benghazi tragedy and its fall-out. Really terrific stuff. You could compare them to Adam Curtis documentaries for the ears, but if you don’t like Curtis I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of loving these.

I have seen The Other Side of the Wind

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2018 by dcairns

I took Netflix up on their “first month free” offer to do it. It’s really at least my second month, because I did this before in order to see Community. I kept the service for a few months that time, and may do so again — they deserve something for finishing THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND.

It stars Noah Cross, Sammy Michaels, Sally Groves, Marty ‘Fats’ Murdock, Emma Small, Max Morlan, Carl Evello, George Washington Cohen, Frank Booth, the Masterblaster. Yes, some of those are quite obscure, but they are almost as obscure, some of them, when called by their right names. It’s a very odd cast, made up of people Welles had met and liked, or worked with in the distant past, anyone he could lure into his web. In this film structured around an unending party in which every hand seems to come clutching its own whisky glass and cigar, the real-life alcoholics abound: if you’re acting with Welles, your career/life must be in trouble.

I think it’s fantastic. While I was watching it, I was already fantasising about watching it AGAIN. Instead I watched one of the making-of documentaries, the erratic but fascinating THEY’LL LOVE ME WHEN I’M DEAD. But I still have a fantasy about rewatching it every day of my free Netflix month. That seems quite appealing.

All those actors. Welles gets variable results from them, but it’s a variable film in every way. And he was never a great unity guy — what school of performance unites Joseph Cotten, Welles, Everett Sloane and the hyperventilating Erskine Sandford of CITIZEN KANE, and yet there they were in one scene. Here we have striking, delicate work from Dan Tobin and Tonio Selwart, who both look like scarecrow cadavers but do beautiful things, jostling against Edmund O’Brien, who is just a big drunk (“Eddie is a magnificent ruin,” said Welles, perhaps missing an irony?) but certainly REAL. We get into stranger territory with Norman Foster, a lousy, charmless second-string leading man in the early thirties, who became a fairly good, peppy director in the forties, helming JOURNEY INTO FEAR for Welles at RKO, then returning to acting for a few things in the 70s, including this. I find it hard to assess his performance, which seems to draw upon the pathos of his oddly young/old face and his uncertainty (about how to say a line; about what the hell’s going on) to create a synthesis of good acting, bad acting and non-acting. His abused flunky character is basically Joseph Calleia from TOUCH OF EVIL, but with Hank Quinlan’s sweeties addiction (“It’s either the candy or the hooch,”) and I found myself enjoying him but not knowing whether to feel more sorry for the actor or the character, and unsure if it was a good thing or a bad thing that he never lived to see the movie.

Cameron Mitchell is awfully good — another drinker, one who seems to have been in more posthumous films than anybody (I guess a hard-working agent got him cameos in whatever cheapo production was rolling, including this. And I guess he’s playing some version of Welles’ pet make-up genius, Maurice Seiderman.

A lot of these excellent people are redundant in story terms, scene-swellers as well as scotch-swiggers. The magnificent Mercedes McCambridge doesn’t really have any dramatic material to work with, just exposition delivered with a world-weary or universe-weary gloom. But they had to create a convincingly populated party. The fleeting glimpses of Dennis Hopper, Curtis Harrington, Paul Mazursky, Henry Jaglom et al really help sell this.

The leads, of course, hold it together: Huston (with son Danny voicing some lines: you’d never know) and Bogdanovich are terrific. All kinds of real-life tensions perhaps in play, with Welles perhaps resenting his leads’ success as Hollywood directors — and even if it wasn’t like that, the casting invites us to imagine it.

This is a party filmed at multiple locations over years, with actors coming and going (Rich Little, ejected from his leading role, still turns up in the background) and using a deliberate patchwork of film stocks (it looks BEAUTIFUL) — cohesion would seem like a drunkard’s dream, and yet it hangs together. The mockumentary angle should disintegrate at once, since you can’t imagine some of these scenes being enacted in sight of a camera, but the movie lets us forget the device whenever it needs to, reminds us of it when appropriate. We have to praise Bob Murawski to the skies and beyond for cutting the movie in a way that seamlessly matches the few scenes Welles had already put together: a jagged, frazzled, jazzy frenzy (Fiona got tired out and went to bed midway, but wants to come back and see it all).

It IS enervating and exhausting — it has an authentic long-party feeling, trundling on past the point anyone wants, fuelled by inebriated inertia. We’re all going to regret this.

MORE SOON!