Archive for Mervyn Leroy

Nero LeRoy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2021 by dcairns

“Is this, then, the end of Nero?” asks a dying Emperor Peter Ustinov at the climax of QUO VADIS?, more or less quoting Edward G. Robinson at the end of LITTLE CAESAR. Which was directed by the same guy, Mervyn Leroy, back when he was young and awake. Since there are varying accounts of Nero’s actual or supposed last words, and none of them include a quote from a Warners gangster picture, this must surely qualify as one of the most prominently placed in-jokes in Hollywood history.

Would that there were any other evidence that the film had a sense of humour about itself. It’s entertaining rubbish, though: the sets are big, and the acting varies from dreadful (Robert Taylor, not a screen god in this household) to the impressive — how Deborah Kerr, Leo Genn, Abraham Sofaer (the judge/surgeon from AMOLAD), Marina Berti and Rosalie Crutchley are able to make their dreadful lines sound like human speech is quite staggering.

Crutchley, darkly gorgeous, is the only character who’s apparently read the whole script, not just the scene she’s playing: she knows how it’s going to end.

I watched a bit of TORA! TORA! TORA! on TV the same day, and it was interesting to see how the American scenes in that managed to turn comparatively recent US history into the same kind of lifeless tableaux as the typical ancient world epic. I forget if it was in this film that Ustinov blew on his soup to cool it, and was told the gesture was too modern. “In what age, pray, did the wretched Romans stop eating their minestrone piping hot?” he inquired. Of the two films, QV has slightly more authentic human behaviour. By the end, I was dying for some actual life.

So Fiona wondered if Ustinov contributed his own famous last words, since the man did have a sense of humour absent elsewhere in this roaring stodgefest. The scenes at court are weapons-grade camp, with Patricia Laffan (DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS) a resplendent whore-empress Poppaea, and Ustinov clearly taking to heart departing helmer Anthony Mann’s character sketch of the depraved Caesar: “Strikes me as the kind of guy plays with himself nights.”

QUO VADIS stars Quentin Durward; Sister Clodagh; Starbuck; Hercule Poirot; Nyah; Magwitch; Benjamin Disraeli; Queen at Tarsus (uncredited); Vargas the Diablo Giant; Hecuba; Inspector Buchanan, Special Branch; Horatio, His Friend; the screenwriter of THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN; Mrs Dudley; Mrs Alexander; Bambino; and the voice of Morbius.

Forbidden Divas: An Orgy in an Angel’s Bed

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , on May 29, 2019 by dcairns

David Wingrove returns with more forbidden divadom, and a late film to boot! We love late films here at Shadowplay

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

An Orgy in an Angel’s Bed

“Remember, darling, don’t be like me. Have the game – but avoid the name!”

–          Honor Blackman to Jean Seberg, Moment to Moment

It is midnight and a hot and wild mistral is rising on the Côte d’Azur. The twisted shadows of palm trees blow frantically, back and forth, on the white marble facade of the Casino. In the garden of a luxurious seaside villa, dead leaves drift across the courtyard, loose tiles rattle on the roof and the wind blows a shutter open and then shut, open and then shut…as we see, through the window, into a kitchen. The lights are on. The body of a young and handsome man in naval uniform is lying sprawled on the floor, with a gunshot wound in his chest. The front door to the house opens and an elegantly dressed woman runs out into the night. Just a moment later, another woman – younger and dressed in a red bathrobe, the colour of fresh blood – appears in the doorway and calls after her. “Daphne!” she cries. “You must help me!” She is a respectable American wife and mother and she has the dead body of a stranger in her house. Or does she? It seems as if nothing in Moment to Moment (1966) is ever exactly what it looks like.

A quite absurdly enjoyable slice of high-flown melodramatic tosh, Moment to Moment was the last film ever made by the Hollywood veteran Mervyn LeRoy. A director whose work ranged from the gangster machismo of Little Caesar (1930) to the sword-and-sandal religiosity of Quo Vadis (1951) and from the high-toned soap opera of Waterloo Bridge (1940) to the gaudy theatrical camp of Gypsy (1962) he was a man without pretension to artistry or art. At no point in his very long career did he appear to know anything except how to make a good movie. It is doubtful that he ever made a masterpiece, yet equally doubtful that he ever made a bore. The auteur critics at Cahiers du Cinéma may have thrived on pitting directors (yay!) against producers (boo!) but Mervyn LeRoy made nonsense of their whole theory by working just as happily as one or as the other. The most famous film produced by LeRoy, The Wizard of Oz (1939) is as watchable, as nonsensical and as devoid of anything resembling a personal style as any of the films he directed. Moment to Moment is recognisably his work in that it might have been made by damn near anyone. But it just so happens Mervyn LeRoy did it better.

That beautiful but overwrought lady with the corpse on her hands is played by the Hollywood starlet turned French New Wave icon Jean Seberg. She looks unfailingly exquisite in her Yves Saint-Laurent wardrobe – which bears a more than passing resemblance to the clothes he would design for Catherine Deneuve a year later in Belle de Jour (1967). Alas, she is never exquisite enough to mask the fact that she is simply the wrong kind of actress for this kind of film. A movie as florid and overblown as Moment to Moment calls for the sort of bravura emoting that Lana Turner or Susan Hayward could do in her sleep. Yet any good performance by Jean Seberg was very much the opposite, stripping away all hint of theatrical artifice to expose the raw and naked soul underneath. In films like Bonjour Tristesse(1958) or Lilith (1964) or Birds Come to Die in Peru (1968) her acting has an uncanny and almost feral quality. But in a conventional (albeit superbly staged) melodrama like Moment to Moment, she just looks awkward and confused. This is as dire a piece of miscasting as it might be to put Liv Ullmann on Dynasty. It makes an audience feel reluctant even to award points for effort.

Her co-star – that other woman Jean runs out of the house and shouts after – makes a far better show of herself. Cast as the flamboyant dipso nympho next door, Honor Blackman has the knack that only a very few actors have of making all her lines sound elegant, sophisticated and witty – even when most of them are actually quite plain. “I shall never look old bricks in the face again,” she purrs when someone suggests a jaunt to an archaeological site. “They are starting to look like mirrors!” It is the sort of line that Noël Coward might have pencilled out in a dress rehearsal, but Blackman plays it as though it were vintage Oscar Wilde. Her character is a divorcee whose parties are the scandal of the Riviera. But the name of her villa – ah, the irony! – is Le Lit de l’Ange, which translates as “the angel’s bed.” Yet neither she nor Jean seems to have much luck at luring angels into her bed. The best that poor Jean can do, while her achingly dull husband is flying all over Europe being important, is start a hesitant romance with a handsome but disturbed American sailor.

Do you remember that dead body I was telling you about? Well, that’s him. Or rather, that is a young actor named Sean Garrison whose first and only starring role this was. We can easily guess at his value to the United States Navy. He is so wooden there is no doubt he would stay afloat for hours, even if the rest of the fleet were to sink with all hands. He meets Jean while he is painting by the docks – a picture, not a flagpole – and promptly makes his move. She is feeling lonely and neglected with her husband out of town. She takes him to an outdoor restaurant called La Colombe d’Or, where white doves fly up into the sky and turn a bilious yellow in the setting sun. He says the sight is “breathtaking” but that is not quite the word I would use. They dance to what must be the fortieth (or fiftieth) rendering so far of the Henry Mancini-Johnny Mercer theme tune. Then they go back to her villa, where The Inevitable inevitably happens. It seems, alas, to be Inevitable only that once. Later Jean tells Sean she is a respectably married woman and how could he possibly, etc. He turns violent, she grabs a gun. In a twist of which M C Escher might be proud, Moment to Moment spirals neatly back to the place where it all started.

The plot grows seriously convoluted after that. The actors seem to understand it even less than the audience, which is saying a lot. In the interest of not spoiling the suspense, I will reveal only that Sean Garrison is meant to be alive in some scenes and dead in others. But I do hope nobody ever sits me down and asks me to point out which is which.

David Melville

Auto Camp

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2017 by dcairns

So, I don’t know these things, not being American — is Big Ed’s Gas Farm in Twin Peaks a recognisable kind of thing? Do service stations get called stuff like “gas farms” in the US? In pre-code HEAT LIGHTNING, sisters Aline McMahon and Ann Dvorak run an “auto camp” out in the desert, and the characters who pass through (a multifarious bunch) accept the name as if it were an entirely familiar concept. To us, it’s like a service station with a tiny motel out back.

Brilliant film. Part of Warners’ unofficial program to document the full panoply of American life. They had to do an auto camp eventually. I’m a little sad they never got around to making a film based entirely in an automat. I love automats.

McMahon & Dvorak and Preston Foster & Lyle Talbot provide drama, while such interlopers as Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Glenda Farrell, Edgar Kennedy and Jane Darwell provide comedy. The balance is spot on. It has the structure of a play, but never seems theatrical, thanks to the WB house style and the atmospheric location shooting.

Something strange and interesting — since the cafe is a central part of the action, and it has big windows, the film features an unusual fluidity between indoors and outdoors. Some scenes are simultaneously both, like a conversation conducted by the sisters through a screen door (in which Mervyn Leroy is guilty of one of his semi-regular confusing line-crosses). Either Warners shot on location at a real auto camp or they built the whole place in situ.

Never do this.

And then a funny thing happens when night falls. Since location night shooting without obvious light sources would be a real headache, and since the story requires lightning bolts to illuminate the sky, the second part of the film switches to the studio. The whole set of buildings is reconstructed in an artificial landscape, with each rock, each joshua tree replaced by an identical replica.  We seem to have relocated, yet not to have moved. The black cyclorama representing the night sky is lit up by quick flashes, and it’s some of the most convincing movie lightning I’ve seen, far better in terms of realism than all those jagged animations, which always wiggle about too long, determined to be appreciated as spectacle.

The slightly uncanny doubling of the film’s sole setting reminded me of another service station, the sinister Convenience Store known as The Dutchman’s, recently seen in Twin Peaks. (We have convenience stores too, sort of, but usually without petrol pumps.) And that in turn reminded Fiona of the fatal service station in Sapphire and Steel, which TP co-creator has surely seen…

The Lynchian conceptual link is cemented by the fact that this seems to be the ur-text of a persistent noir meme, in which a character — McMahon in this case — leaves behind a shady or corrupt life in order to work at a service station — a meme continued by Burt Lancaster in THE KILLERS, Robert Mitchum in OUT OF THE PAST, Brian Donlevy in IMPACT, and finally (to date, so far as I’m aware) and most strangely, Balthazar Getty in LOST HIGHWAY…