Archive for Michael Bryant

Catch a Falling Tsar

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2019 by dcairns

NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA is one possible answer to the question “What would a David Lean movie be like without David Lean?” A question nobody but Sam Spiegel would think to ask, I suspect. N&A may not be the best answer, but it’s the only one we have*. I assume Spiegel was jealous of his former star director’s box office triumph DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and thought he’d do one better.

Franklin J. Schaffner, who we like at least partly because his name is Franklin J. Schaffner — a name that positively chomps its own cigar — did some lively work on potentially lumbering epics like PLANET OF THE APES. He’d go handheld at unexpected moments. In PATTON we also see his flair for highly formal compositions to contrast with the explosive set-pieces. Well, the formal shots still turn up in N&A, but it could do with a shot of handheld chaos to get it on its feet.To speak of this film is to speak of tedium — the sheer amount of tedium makes it the film’s most interesting trait. One wouldn’t have thought it possible to cram so much boredom into a movie also containing a cast of thousands, a mad monk, one Russo-Japanese war, one world war, two revolutions, and both the cream of the British acting establishment and a lot of young and soon-to-be-nude hopefuls (Robin Askwith turns up just to rip the skin of a rabbit). And yet it’s quite remarkable how dull things are for long stretches.

Schaffner seems in awe of his material, so he’s on his best behaviour. Nobody’s at their best when they’re on their best behaviour. Designer John Box creates a very convincing Russia out of various Spanish and Yugoslav locations, but the great Freddie Young’s photography is surprisingly overlit much of the time. How did the wretched White Russians get their palaces to look like daytime soaps with only candles at their disposal. I don’t require the full BARRY LYNDON every time, but a bit of atmosphere would be welcome. (I’m only using the more gorgeous shots for this post — there are, admittedly, lots. But the movie only really impresses visually when it ventures outside, or when night falls, or when it’s dealing with the plotting Bolshies. (Michael Bryant makes a very good Lenin — his story would be worth telling.)And of course there’s Tom Baker’s Rasputin. If ever an actor and role were more suited on paper — Baker was an actual monk, ffs — I can’t think of the occasion. And while Baker is impressive and brings the stately proceedings to relative life (the only kind of life on offer), he’s actually disappointing compared to the version of “Tom Baker as Rasputin” that plays through my head when I think of that glorious phrase. I think it’s because all Old Greg’s atrocities, as portrayed here, are so mild and tasteful. His murder is pretty lurid — though utterly outdone by the Battle of the Barrymores in RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS. This one has lots of homoeroticism thrown in, though, including Tom making eyes (and WHAT eyes!) at a dragged-up flautist. It perks things up. Also some good snivelling hysteria from Michael Jayston’s ex-Tsar when he sees his missus for the first time after abdicating. Shame cuts the puppet emperor’s strings and he collapses lopsidedly. “I didn’t mean to do it!” is all kinds of pathetic. And he becomes human in our eyes for the first time.James Goldman (assisted or hampered by rewrites from Edward Bond) really can’t make us care about Tsar Nicky, an absolutely appalling leader combining weakness with arrogance, able to vacillate stubbornly and be obdurately spineless, neither of which should even be possible. The problem of “our son, the little bleeder” (if only they’d cast Burton & Taylor they might have gotten some healthy vulgarity into their show — but they’d probably still be shooting it) is supposed to make the royals sympathetic, but mainly it gives them a problem they can’t do anything about.

Goldman’s best idea is to show the Tsar becoming a better man after he abdicates, which is based on no particular historical evidence but at least gives him an arc. It doesn’t make much difference though, since the entire royal family is reduced to total helplessness at this point, passengers through their own story on their way to a historically foreordained execution.

For which Schaffner finally pulls out all the stops. His formal compositions are almost as striking here as in the celebrated opening of PATTON, and he milks the suspense — which ought to be nonexistent — a bunch of people with little personality who have done nothing effective or good for the previous three hours of screen time are about to die, and we know it’s going to happen — to breaking point. If it makes sense to milk something to breaking point. Can you break a cow? See NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, the film that breaks a cow. NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA stars Lewis Carroll; Cleopatra; Emanuelle ‘Bunny’ O’Neill; Pola Ivanova; Ralph Gurney – 13th Earl of Gurney; Goneril; Koura; General Allenby; Mr. Tow-Wouse; ‘Maxim’ De Winter; Harry Dominion; Doctor B. N. Wallis, C.B.E., F.R.S.; Professor Harrington; Wick Blagdon; Peter Brock; Mrs. Chasen; Robert McKee; Lord Ludd; Bilbo Baggins; Leopold Mozart; Encolpio; Bumbo; Woodrow Wilson; Wernher Von Braun; Master Robert Shallow; Colonel Breen; Timothy Lea; Sherlock Holmes; and the voice of Colossus.

Or, to put it another way, since none of the up-and-coming young thesps strutting and fretting here went on to more big movies (not right away, anyway), we have the future stars of THE MUTATIONS: THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW; VAMPIRE CIRCUS; Hammer House of Horror; SCHIZO; CRAZE… eventually, of course, many of them hit their stride again, but it really doesn’t look like this movie helped anyone.

*I tell a lie: Akira Kurosawa thought he was going to be co-directing TORA, TORA, TORA with David Lean, but got Richard Fleischer instead. Then he quit, and they hired Kinji Fukasaku, making T,T,T both a Lean film without Lean and a Kurosawa film without Kurosawa. Enjoy!

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Mum’s the word

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on March 19, 2011 by dcairns

Fiona and I are in this picture… somewhere.

The Edinburgh Secret Society is… wait, no, I can’t tell you about that.

However, at their most recent monthly gathering, the ESS showed Nigel Kneale’s TV play/ghost story THE STONE TAPE, directed by Peter Sasdy, and Fiona and I attended. The Society meets at different, specially selected venues each time, and for this filmshow Edinburgh Filmhouse was chosen — a cinema which happens to be haunted (just ask Diane Ladd!).

At terrible personal risk, I can exclusively reveal that this was no ordinary screening, but a highly scientific investigation into the nature of fear itself. This deeply psychological and technically unexplainable inquiry was — but I’ve said too much.

What I can talk about is the film itself. I’d seen it before (for all host Professor Richard Wiseman’s protestations as to the film’s obscurity and rarity — it was judged so terrifying in 1972 that it was never shown again — it was released on DVD and is on YouTube), and had found it a little slow and not very scary. What always impressed was the idea — Kneale postulated an explanation for hauntings that has been taken up by the parapsychologists and used as a genuine theory. Briefly, Kneale suggested that buildings can, in certain undefined circumstances, act as recording devices, preserving a record of moments of high emotional trauma. Something like this theory informs Scatman Crothers’ explanation of the Overlook Hotel’s phantom populace in THE SHINING… an explanation which proves, at the very least, incomplete.

The other impressive thing in the show is Michael Bryant, as a pig-headed, macho businessman who latches on to a haunting in his new lab as the possible key to a new recording medium — “Tape is dead!” — “Something to beat Nippon!” The dated racism and casual sexism of the character provoked a certain amount of embarrassed laughter from the sophisticates in the audience, but it struck me as an astute and probably accurate skewering of the awfulness of the unreformed 1970s British male. The true theme of the story emerges through heroine Jane Asher, who’s more “sensitive” to ghosts than those around her, and so sensitive to the obnoxiousness of Bryant and the other swinging dicks of big business as to eventually find life almost unsupportable.

Jane Asher appeared in the first QUATERMASS film as little girl, so it’s especially nice to find her here.

The Stone Tape [DVD] [1972]

Cats in the Brain

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2010 by dcairns

“The latter was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree.”

Both Lucio Fulci’s THE BLACK CAT and Sergio Martino’s more memorably titled YOUR VICE IS A LOCKED ROOM AND ONLY I HAVE THE KEY rework Poe’s “immortal classic” in lurid and rambling fashion, only really returning at the end to play the climax “straight”. Which kind of seems a mistake, since the visualisation of a recognised story flattens the delirium they’re otherwise aiming to evoke.

Bonuses include the charm of Fulci enacting his usual vicious brutality, with familiarly over-exposed, fumbling special effects, in a leafy English village — Fulci seems to have liked England, he set several movies there. There’s also the acting — Patrick Magee hams it up for Fulci (theory: by pushing his actors into extreme and contorted styles of playing, Kubrick may have actually ruined them — Nicholson was never quite the same after THE SHINING, and as for Magee…) in an amusingly out-of-control manner, palsied and weirdly enunciated.

The acting in Martino’s film is more traditionally “good”, with Anita Strindberg and Luigi Pistilli genuinely, uncomfortably unappealing in the leads, and some welcome sex appeal shipping in by the reliably underdressed Edwige Fenech. What disappointed me was the lack of swooning beauty and striking images, which are what I go to Italian horror for. I counted two lovely moments, though ~

When a preposterously over-the-top prostitute shows up in town, her near-instantaneous murder is a depressing inevitability. This disturbing little scene is one of the last things she sees. Love the doll.

Gratuitous lesbian love scene — with rather striking dissolve from two silhouettes.

Fulci being the mad doctor he is, his movie has a more consistent visual quality, with low-flying cat POV shots, and the cat himself is full of personality. Plot revolves — or spins, rather — around Magee’s tendency to astrally project his spirit into the cat and use it to do his murderous bidding, a sort of feline MONKEY SHINES avant la lettre.

By chance, in revisiting Freddie Francis and Robert Bloch’s horror compendium TORTURE GARDEN, for the sake of the third episode, in which Peter Cushing keeps a reanimated Poe in his cellar, churning out new tales of Mystery and the Imagination*, I realised that the film’s first episode was very much Poe-derived. Michael Bryant (a sort of Martin Amis type, crisply fervid with ciggie) murders a supposedly wealthy uncle (enabling Francis to repeat some of the persecuted-person-in-a-wheelchair he tried out first for Karel Reisz when he shot NIGHT MUST FALL) — so far, so Tell-Tale Heart. Then he unearths a coffin with a headless skeleton and a very much alive cat. This one isn’t pure black, so it photographs with more personality. As it psychically brainwashes Bryant, he speaks aloud the transmitted thoughts: as he says “you’re hungry,” Francis cuts to the little fellow licking his chops. Francis’s horrors always have a cheeky sense of humour.

* Cushing and Jack Palance are both huge fun (Cushing gets a drunks scene) and Francis blocks their conversations very nicely, and I don’t mind that the set wall visibly wobbles during their fight and I’m more bemused than annoyed that Palance plays a Brit and Cushing a yank, but really, the ending falls apart disastrously. It’s amusing that the great Poe collector has actually collected Poe himself, but the pay-off ought to involve something of the author’s personality, not just some diabolical double-cross. Still, the rest of the film has magnificent stuff from Burgess Meredith (as Dr Diablo) and Michael Ripper (as the personification of ubiquity).

For Anne Billson.