Archive for Michael Elphick

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s scenes #2

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2022 by dcairns

Twenty-one years post-Olivier, Tony Richardson brings HAMLET to the screen in a bold and cheap undertaking, filmed entirely at the Roundhouse Theatre, using every inch of backstage space, a trick comparable to Welles’ use of the Gare D’orsee in THE TRIAL. The comparison is in the repurposing but also in the fact that the environments don’t really pretend to be the places the script would have you believe they are. We can TELL Welles is using a railway station and that adds to the film’s surrealism. We can tell that the redbrick warren — in fact, a former railway engine shed — of Richardson’s HAMLET isn’t a realistic Elsinore of the late middle ages. This doesn’t exactly impart surrealism — in a sense it imparts a spurious taste of realism, the kind Richardson made his name with. It’s an industrial space. It has grit. And it also emphasises the theatrical nature of the venture, since it resists pressing into service as a royal abode, works only as backdrop.

To prevent this setting becoming too glaringly false, Richardson makes his movie almost entirely in closeups. This movie may be tighter than Dreyer’s PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. To the immense credit of Richardson and cinematographer Gerry Fisher (who may have operated the camera himself, union rules permitting, or there may be an uncredited wizard at work), the shots are incredibly mobile and inventive, constantly reconfiguring the compositions to switch from one character to another, regroup characters, reposition and reframe individual characters, in some really quite long takes.

Here I was going to quote David Thomson’s amusing Richardson takedown from his Biographical Dictionary of Film, but I’ve just discovered it’s not on my shelves. I definitely didn’t throw it away because Richardson’s wrong about Richardson. But apparently I found some reason to make shelf space for something else. Thomson claims that Richardson was a demonstrably lousy filmmaker. I think a short burst of HAMLET gives the lie to that supposition — you can insist that Richardson never made a film that worked, if you like — that’s subjective, and I would disagree but it’s a claim you can stand behind. But whether Richardson’s HAMLET works as a whole, what we see here is quite a lot of skill. I mean, tons.

The curse of Scottishness, embodied by John Laurie’s Francisco in the Olivier, is now passed to Gordon Jackson as Horatio, and from him, presumably, to Nicol Williamson’s Dane. Other interested parties: Robin Chadwick as Francisco and John Trenaman as Bernardo, or Barnardo if you believe the IMDb. A number of the spear-carrier types in this production went on to considerable careers — Michael Elphick, Anjelica Huston, Roger Lloyd Pack, but these two stayed just as useful background.

Richardson starts off on red brick — start as you mean to go on — then glides DOWN to a brazier, viewed from the inside, Francisco poking at it. We don’t see anyone’s breath but we feel the cold, I think — just from the acting. We cut to see who’s coming, and then it’s all one take!

Only blunder — Jackson should have waited a second before delivering his last line, so he could get his glasses off and stop masking his face with his hand. But that’s the kind of error you get in long takes, the price you sometimes have to pay. With video assist and a very long schedule you can maybe solve every case of it (or with CGI retouching, I guess).

Shakespeare makes a mistake, or at least plays fast and loose too — in the full text, we’re told it’s just gone midnight, but then at the end of the scene it’s dawn. But I guess we’re up north, land of the midnight sun. Poor ghost, condemned to fast in fire in between walking the earth, but it’s 90% fire to 10% walking.

Count the number of different compositions we get in this oner.

The ghost does not appear save as a light on the characters’ faces and a Delia Derbyshire electronic music effect.

The same holds true in the second ghost scene (apologies for the glitch in the middle of this one: my fault). A great solution, if you’re uncomfortable with showing a ghost. Richardson, being a realist, approaches the Jonathan Pryce angle — Williamson voices the ghost’s dialogue along with his own, which makes sense — Shakespeare seems well aware that the ghost is telling Hamlet what he wants to hear, what he already feels to be true (“Oh my prophetic soul!”) So anything that brings that out is psychologically valid. But Richardson doesn’t need to cut the first scene, as Richard Eyre did for the Pryce version.

(Frankly, squeamishness about having a ghost appear strikes me as silly, audiences are capable of imagination and accepting things in drama which they don’t ordinarily believe in. But deciding not to show the ghost is interesting to me as an ambitious creative choice.)

Good long takes again. If we were showing the ghost, it would be harder to avoid a shot/countershot strategy, but from what we’ve seen, Richardson and his team could have managed it. There MAY be a hidden cut when the ghost departs and Williamson turns.

Both our versions so far have ommitted H’s talk of his “tables” — maybe because they’re wary about their Hamlets looking too old to convincingly play students. But Williamson does “set it down,” but by scratching on the wall with his dagger, and then visualising the wall as Claudius and knifing it. (Claudius, by the way, is Anthony Hopkins, a year younger than the actor playing his nephew, which is FINE.) What he actually scratches is something like IILITII — passable gibberish. But his method of writing is only good for runic symbols, it’s hard to say one thing while carving another, and anyway, he’s overwrought.

As with Macbeth, Romeo, Juliet, and others, the role of Hamlet is nearly always played by actors older than the character seems to be. (Is Hamlet two ages? How long is he away in England? I get the impression it’s not long at all, but he’s thirty when he comes back.) The assumption is always that a really young actor won’t be able to pull it off, but I imagine there would be gains as well as losses in having someone who looks like they could be a student. Hamlet’s agonies are somewhat adolescent.

Williamson, pasty-pink Scotsman, is nobody’s idea of a student. But he makes a very credible madman. And he covers a wide span between the conversational, making the words seem like he’s just thinking of them as we watch, and the truly freakily overdone. I would like him to keep more cool, but Hamlet is a fairly histrionic fellow I guess (the adolescent side).

Although this is fairly different from Olivier’s approach — and I think Hamlet benefits from a less controlled performance — both approaches are valid, though — both films go for a vaguely Elizabethan wardrobe (hard to work out who Richardson’s designer is — Jocelyne Herbert is credited as production designer, and she did do costumes on occasion — Philippe Pickford is wardrobe master, per IMDb — but I presume he just looked after the stuff and got it onto the various bodies. I like spoken word credits, but they always have to leave out so much.

There’s maybe a dash of medieval in there too. I think, in a film, there has to be some sense that this is a different historical period, so you can have swordfights and stuff. I forget how the Michael Almereyda version handled the swordplay — mainly I remember Ethan Hawke doing “To be or not to be…” in a video store, and when he gets to “…and lose the name of action,” you realise he’s in the Action Movies section. But you can also see WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? on the shelf. Which is the kind of blunder you’d get in a real Blockbuster, but is rather distracting during the big soliloquy.

I’m not going to do the Almereyda. Should I do the Zeffirelli? The old bastard did rather impress me with his episode of 12 REGISTI, so I think I should…

The Elephants Men

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2019 by dcairns

We marked the passing of the great Freddie Jones by rewatching THE ELEPHANT MAN. Exploring the DVD further we found the only real extra, a trailer.

It’s pretty bad! But it see-saws between hopeless and passable-but-embarrassing. Then we found another trailer. Let me talk you through the pair of them.

TRAILER ONE (1)

This starts like a horror movie, which is awkward. A shot from the film which, in context, portrays in a perfectly sensitive way, the anxiety of Nurse Nora upon being sent to bring Mr. Merrick a meal. Here, horror movie music has been added for suspense and Dr. Treves’ dialogue (“He won’t hurt you,… he won’t hurt you… he won’t hurt you…”) has been turned into a V.O. Implication: he definitely WILL HURT you. Maybe he’ll toss you on his tusks.

Nora’s scream segues quite skillfully into a sideshow tracking shot with a narrator: “You will feel the chill of horror… but this is not a horror story.” Well, I’m glad they cleared that up. “You will feel the warmth of love… but this is not a love story.” The narrator is creepy. But this is the most successful bit, telling us what the movie ISN’T. Since it’s sui generis, a kind of nightmare about innocence, a Dickensian disease-of-the-week movie, a corporeal divine comedy, none of which are recognised film genres, alas, it makes sense to close off bad readings of what the film is, rather than thrusting forward a good one. “You will see men in hats… but this is not a cowboy story.” No, he doesn’t actually say that.

“…the story of a very real monster… who was also a very real human being.” He was a bee-yoo-tiful poysson. But he wasn’t a monster, so this attempt at telling us what the film IS about in an interesting way is pretty indefensible.

Then we get Freddie’s carnival spiel, which tells us what territory we’re REALLY in — movie trailer as come-in, as sideshow barker’s invitation. A trailer for THE ELEPHANT MAN is inevitably going to end up saying, in effect, “Come and see the elephant man.”

“Paramount had no idea how to sell it,” recalled John Hurt. One exec told him, “Well, John, a monster movie is always going to be difficult to sell.” Hurt just stared, aghast. I don’t think a film this good ought to be a hard sell, but the question of ta s te doe s come into it, which is less of an issue if you’re selling GOING APE! with Tony Danza, another Paramount pic from the same era.

Essentially, THE ELEPHANT MAN’s audience is going to come to gaup and stay to emote, and in that way can reassure themselves they’re (a) physically normal, at lea s t compared to this guy, and (b) good, caring people. The trailer has to work on Motive B, to give the audience a good excuse to buy tickets, while making it clear that the more immediately obvious Motive A will indeed be satisfied.

Because Motive A dominates, THE ELEPHANT MAN MUST NOT APPEAR IN THE TRAILER. If he did, Motive A would lose all box office power.

As Paramount didn’t know how to sell this one, and as they were, apparently, cheapskates, we now get several shots, exchanges and line readings not in Lynch’s film. This is terrific — no way these things would have survived otherwise — but they’re only here because the studio didn’t want to spend money duping negative. And so we get to hear Freddie say the lost lines, “He’s a freak. That’s how they live. We’re partners, he and I.”

We see the camera push in on Anthony Hopkins getting his first look at Merrick, but we don’t see the teardrop fall — surely, the money shot. Cinematographer Freddie Francis nicknamed his director “Lucky Lynch” because the tear fell just as the perfect closeup was achieved. But I bet that only happened once.

Then THE ELEPHANT MAN in a disconcertingly Woody Allenish font comes flying out at us. “A shattering experience,” says the VO guy, which is a fairly clever way of putting Motives A and B together in three words, and then they ruin all their good indifferent work by having Michael Elphick delivering his carnival come-on down the boozer. I mean, of the three showmen portrayed, Freddie, Tony and Mike, surely Mike is the one your 1980 audience wants LEAST to do with?

That’s the trailer on the DVD I own. There’s also THIS, on the Youtubes:

Freddie J.’s great “Life! … is full of surprises,” monologue is recut into a patchwork, but it’s a strong start anyway, and I guess they would have to reduce it (but a great trailer could have been made using mainly this scene alone). You know what? It just struck me that “Life! … is full of surprises,” is a fantastic bit of bathos. It starts dramatic and then descends into a commonplace platitude. And Freddie’s genius is both to play that crapness to the hilt, and to make it still, somehow, work.

“At first, you will want to turn away,” says voice-over guy, telling us how we’re going to react. Psychologically, he’s trying to get us past our possible resistance to seeing a film whose title character does not outwardly resemble Farrah Fawcett. Then he reassures us that we’ll want to kick Merrick in the face, which is a reason for seeing a film we can all relate to.

“Stan’ up!” yells tiny Dexter Fletcher. I like to think this is the directorial approach he used to guide Taron Egerton through ROCKET MAN. Well, it would work for the “I’m Still Standing” number.

“But if you come to know him…” Hilariously, the film does not bring this idea to life by allowing us to hear Merrick speak, but continues to show him as a placid dummy with a bag on his head.

“And perhaps for the first time, you will understand the true meaning of courage, and human dignity.” Voice-over guy is making some pretty brassy assumptions about his listeners.

“You’re not the Elephant Man at all,” says Anne Bancroft.

Seconds later, voice-over guy tells us, “…and John Hurt as the Elephant Man.” So she’s wrong. He bloody is.

Thought you could put one over on us, eh, Mr. Merrick?

THE ELEPHANT MAN stars Hannibal Lecter; Winston Smith; Mrs. Robinson; Lord Raglan; Major Barbara Undershaft; Thufir Hawat; Ken Boon; Hyzenthlay; Lilliman; Gargoyle Reggie; Sister Ruth; Maggy – Little Dorrit’s Protegee; Fidgit; Sir Anthony Mount; Jemima Shore; Gordon Cole; and Sir Elephant.

Blind Tuesday #1: The Eyes Don’t Have It

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 12, 2011 by dcairns

BLIND TERROR or, to give it its “classier” title, SEE NO EVIL, is a seriously basic blind-girl-in-jeopardy thriller written with slack minimalism by Brian The Avengers Clemens but directed rather sensationally by Richard Fleischer, whose seventies work is all over the map but sometimes comes violently to life in response to either a good script or a technical challenge. Here we get traditional slasher dynamics — extreme low-angle glides after sinister footwear, that kind of thing — given an extra push into stylistic brio by cinematographer Gerry Fisher.

Also, the suspense is genuinely intense as Mia wanders about a big house unaware that the other occupants have been bloodily murdered. Even more cringe-making is a coffee-making scene in which she doesn’t know about the broken glass littering the kitchen floor, her stockinged feet padding about between the glittering shards, miraculously escaping bloody mutilation with every step.

Unfortunately, the script’s slenderness prevents it working on any deeper level, and an unbelievably flat and anticlimactic conclusion stops it holding up as a straightahead shocker. Those in the know about young British actors of the period will have no trouble guessing the killer, since it’s got to be somebody with the necessary psycho edge, although the botched climax never actually allows him to display his chops.

Burgess Meredith gate-crashes the movie via TV.

Faced with this streamlined, largely unmotivated string of cruel set-pieces, Fleischer attempts what seems like his own stab at subtext. The killer has no background or psychology to motivate him, so RF attempts to stencil in a vague mental framework in the opening titles by showing the sensationalist media crowding the guy, a cultural call to violence. This is immediately ridiculous (and it’s in bad faith for a violent thriller to blame its killer’s actions on violent thrillers) — we open on an audience filing out of a grindhouse double feature, rather implausibly situated in rural Berkshire. Then we get newsstands with lurid headlines, and Burgess Meredith grimacing in TORTURE GARDEN as viewed on a TV set in a shop window… was the clip chosen based on the film’s splendid title, leading to a struggle to find any suitably gory imagery in a typically mild Amicus horror flick? In the end, the sequence overreaches itself conceptually and makes for a shaky start, redeemed only when the suspense starts properly and the film can perform on a purely visceral level.

Top marks for blindness: Mia’s raw, screaming hysteria is not only convincing but worrying. The movie makes more sense than WAIT UNTIL DARK, but that’s easy since it doesn’t attempt anything remotely complex. The attempts at red herring generation are at a DW Griffith level of complexity (untrustworthy gypsies, including Michael Elphick of THE ELEPHANT MAN and the landlady of The Slaughtered Lamb in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON).

Fiona tells me that when THE ELEPHANT MAN came out, poor Elphick would get abuse from random strangers in the street, so convincing was his callous hospital porter in that movie. “You bastard!” A phenomenon unglimpsed since Stroheim.

***

This has been No 1 in a short series on blind person thrillers.