Archive for Michael Hordern

Reversible Mayonnaise

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2021 by dcairns

PETE ‘N’ TILLIE, directed by Martin Ritt, scripted by Julius Epstein, from the novel Witch’s Milk by Peter de Vries, has some of the feeling of one of those Neil Simon films Walter Matthau made so many of but which Carol Burnett, his co-star here, somehow avoided. Even though it’s shot by John A. Alonso of CHINATOWN fame so the Frisco locations look nice. The material just doesn’t seem to permit any striking stylistic choices, unless we count the late Rene Auberjonois’ impersonation of Tillie’s gay best friend. Based on this and the casting of Michael Hordern as a “queer” in THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, I don’t think Ritt had highly developed gadar.

The main stylistic departure from reality lies in Matthau’s jokes about his job in “motivational research.” He describes this as a business of finding out what the public “is looking for in the way of an automatic contaminator or an aftershave mint.”

Burnett barely smiles. “Anything else?”

Deadpan: “Well, we’ve just completed a survey for a dietetic shampoo and are now helping to launch a reversible mayonnaise.”

Burnett remains equally deadpan.

“Maybe you could help us out,” continues WM, “There’s a new men’s cologne that’s coming out, they’re looking for a name. I suggested ‘Armpit.'”

Not a titter. And I think these are GOOD JOKES. Does Tillie lack a sense of humour, does she just not relate to these particular jokes, is she really good at holding it in and doesn’t want to give Pete satisfaction of laughing at his quips (she has him pegged, not incorrectly, as a bit of a chauvinist lout)? If the couple-to-be don’t share a sense of humour, I wouldn’t have expected the relationship to last out the running time of this movie, which, spoiler alert, it at least comes close to doing.

Oh stylewise: to prove this is a proper movie, Alonso makes the car interiors seriously dark. Although the lighting suggests a fairly brilliant dashboard light. Gordon Willis would have just sat them in total darkness except when another car passes going the other way.

PETE ‘N’ TILLIE is pretty good — tragic bits, comic bits. Pete and his son play a prank on neighbour Henry Jones by secretly siphoning fuel into his gas tank to give him impossibly good mileage, which reminds me of the fantastic gag with the incredible expanding tortoise I may have told you about previously…

Juggernaut Jones

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on July 17, 2019 by dcairns

Our Freddie Jones tribute screening consisted of THE ELEPHANT MAN and JUGGERNAUT. I can’t discuss his role in the latter without heavy spoilers, but I would argue that the film, though beautifully plotted, is spoiler-proof because its real pleasures go well beyond the what-happens-ness of the narrative.

But the spoilers start right now.

I was able to get Fiona to rewatch JUGGERNAUT because she’d forgotten most of the what-happens, and because I sold it as Freddie’s only title role. We see cops Anthony Hopkins and Kenneth Colley (a Ken Russell favourite) interview various suspects or potential informants as they try to catch the pseudonymous title terrorist. (One scene shows them backstage at Swan Lake, presumably interviewing the dry ice specialist about his protechnics expertise, but alas we don’t meet him.) Freddie Jones, Cyril Cusack and Michael Hordern play the characters we do meet, so there’s a small whodunnity aspect to the story. But as with a Maigret mystery, whydunnit is much more important and interesting.

Hopkins interviews Cusack in prison, giving the scene a little SILENCE OF THE LAMBS pre-echo, but with Hopkins in the opposite part. Cusack plays a charming IRA bomb man, evidently a bit of a psychopath, but mostly just old: “I don’t really care who gets blown up.” No longer full of passionate intensity, he apparently now lacks all conviction and his only reason for not teasing Hopkins with false leads is that he can’t be bothered.

Director Richard Lester told me they started the scene at the usual time, and when they finished it he looked at his watch and it was 9.20 a.m. or something. A wonderful feeling for a man who liked to move fast!

Michael Hordern is working at a dog track (because robot rabbits and bombs are part of the same skillset) and is annoyed that his name’s on the terror suspect list. He only does criminal stuff abroad, and his last job was for HM Gov and they promised to take him off the list. “You can’t trust anybody these days,” says Colley, before promising to take him off the list if he helps. Hordern does a shifty look. He’s only really here because Lester loved his work and because we need another suspect. The rule of three.

Freddie’s character, Sidney Buckland, is a retired bomb disposal man, living in a little suburban home with his nice wife, watching telly and seemingly quite relaxed and helpful to the police. If this were a whodunnit, which it is, we’d immediately finger him for the perp, which we do. But Jones plays his scene with so little intensity — not always a naturalistic actor, but he can do it when required — that he gets away with it. And his lovely wife, Kristine Howarth, is so warm and sweet, she’s the best character witness you could ask for.

The thing that makes the pay-off satisfying is that Buckland is the former colleague and guv’nor of Fallon, the hero (Richard Harris), the man who has the job of defusing the bombs. When Fallon recognises the style of the bomb as belonging to a wartime German job he defused with Buckland, the cops realise Buckland is their man (the original bomb’s designer being dead). So this is satisfying in narrative terms but also makes the situation worse, especially for the hero: the man he has to outsmart is his friend and defusion guru.

(The movie doesn’t worry about why 47-year-old Jones is retired — the real one worked until the age of 90 — but I guess acting is different from bomb disposal — or is it? — or how he and 44-year-old Harris could have been defusing doodlebugs thirty years earlier — evidently both characters are older than they look.)

Fallon has narrowed his options down to two wires, red and blue. He can’t tell which one deactivates the bomb and which one will set it off. Oh, and there are several bombs, all below the waterline on an ocean liner in heavy seas. No way to evacuate, and any mistake will kill everyone. Fallon has already lost his best friend Charlie Braddock, on this job, and he’s a tired, angry fellow who despises the establishment he works for.

Catching Juggernaut means they can ask Buckland which wire to cut. It’s on a timer and it’s going to go off in minutes. If Harris cuts the right wire he can convey to his team, each stationed at their own device, which one he cut and they can duplicate his action (if all the bombs are the same).

Freddie/Buckland walks to the mic, I think maybe the only tracking shot in the film. (To make the film feel like it was unfolding “live,” Lester shot casually, mo st scene s covered from one position with two or three cameras, one on a master, the others punching in to catch closeups and details.)

So, by radio, Fallon asks Buckland which wire he ought to cut. He appeals to their friendship, he acknowledges Buckland’s mastery, and he reminds his mentor what the fear and tension of the job are like. It’s an impassioned performance and a sensible approach that WOULD work, if you were dealing with a fellow human being with a spark of empathy left.

Lester cross-cuts between the two wires in macro-close-up, each forming a diagonal for maximum graphic punch.

Buckland tells Fallon to cut the blue wire.

Fallon thinks about it. Then cuts the red wire. The bomb doesn’t go off. “It’s red, lads!” he shouts. Job done. The audience can wipe its sweaty hands.

This ending is really impressive and nailbiting cinematically bravura. Still, something about it kind of bothered me as a kid, and I thought about it, worried away at it, and it got even better.

First, there’s the fact that Buckland steers Fallon wrong, even though he’s already been caught. Killing his friend and all those passengers and crew will achieve nothing, now. He’s never going to get his half million ransom, and his probable sentence for mass murder will be, if possible, even harsher than his sentence for extortion by terror would have been. It’s a completely nihilistic and self-destructive act. Therefore a good gesture for the antagonist to make at the end of a story, I guess.

But what about Fallon? We have to assume that something about Buckland’s delivery of the simple lines, “It’s blue,” and “Cut the blue wire,” tells Fallon that his old friend is not to be trusted. He detects the trap and avoids it.

Now this clip IS a spoiler.

What I realised was bothering me is that Fallon, on impulse, cuts the red wire, without telling anyone. His team, listening in, think he’s cutting the blue. If he’d guessed wrong, they have all cut the red wire, thinking he’d been killed by the blue, and they have all been blown up also.

(Of course, if he’d guessed wrong, they’d probably all drown anyway.)

It seemed like, to create suspense, the film had Fallon do something pretty stupid. He should at least have announced what he was doing. But that would have been messy, would have spoiled the neatness of the tension-relief scheme.

But maybe Fallon didn’t care. Maybe he just made a perverse choice, not worrying about the consequences. Perversity and rebellion are big parts of his character. And maybe Buckland is a model for the man Fallon might turn into. So maybe Fallon’s action, which saves the ship and everyone on it, was also a completely nihilistic and self-destructive act.

Fallon doesn’t look relieved or happy that the ship doesn’t explode.

He goes on deck and looks out, not at where the ship has been, but back at its wake.

He has the air of a gambler who has lost everything. But is disappointed to find he’s still there.

BUCKLAND: I can’t explain what they did to me, not in official police jargon. […] They teach you how to dismantle bombs, save lives. But they didn’t pay you enough so you learn how to design bombs, taking lives. Pays much better. And then one day you’re old and they give you a miserable pension. I’m still good at my job.”

JUGGERNAUT features Professor Albus Dumbledore; Doctor Yuri Zhivago; Dildano; Dr. Hannibal Lecter; Polo Bollen; Bilbo Baggins; Sheriff J.W. Pepper; the Cheshire Cat; the Mock Turtle; Eva Braun; Thufir Hawat; Major Breen; Chief Insp. Gregg; Pandit Nehru; Admiral Piett; Lord Tarquin of Staines; Cuthbert Clare; Hopkirk (deceased); Control; Roj Blake; and Manimal.

The Old Sex Thing

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2019 by dcairns

I’ve just been to York to rummage and guddle through the treasures in the Charles Wood Archive. An essay/book chapter will result.

Multiple drafts of Richard Lester films THE KNACK, HELP!, HOW I WON THE WAR, PETULIA, THE BED-SITTING ROOM — I had to restrict my searchings somewhat as I just had a day, so I concentrated mainly on the sixties, taking in THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE and THE LONG DAY’S DYING too. And then I could resist peaking at the dialogue rewrites for THE THREE MUSKETEERS, partly just so I could hold George MacDonald Fraser’s jumbo script in my hands. Interleaved throughout are bits of suggested dialogue on tissue-thin pages, where Fraser’s brisk yet literary exchanges are substituted for Wood’s strange, informal yet archaic word patterns, full of hesitations, repetitions, non-sequiturs and talking at cross-purposes. In the finished film, often the scenes combine both texts, always favouring the tightest construction.

In THE THREE MUSKETEERS, Raquel Welch hitches a ride on a sedan chair, hanging off the side so she’s concealed from pursuers, but part of her is revealed to the chair’s occupant (Frank Thornton, Captain Peacock from Are You Being Served?). Fraser, I think, tried some dialogue for this guy, but Wood was asked to give it another go, and came up with ~

Pretties, a maiden’s bobbing pretties, bobbing … bub, bub, they go … oh!

Which didn’t make it into the film, possibly for reasons of taste, maybe because Welch’s “pretties” don’t bob, they jut like an escarpment.

It’s a cleverly devised visual gag, but maybe a bit creepy and that dialogue would have pushed it over, I think. But pushing things into an area of discomfort or conflicted response is rather a Wood speciality, it’s what he normally got paid for.

There’s a suggestion that Thornton’s aristocrat, off-camera (after blowing on his fingers to warm them) has a fondle of the pretties, at which Raquel jumps down from the sedan chair, and then oddly waves to it before running off, a peculiar, sweet touch — as if she thinks she now has a friendship with the occupant — which maybe softens the creepiness.

Wood’s textual descriptions are as great as his dialogue, and the only way to enjoy them is to get ahold of the scripts. There’s this bit from THE BED SITTING ROOM, in which Michael Hordern invades a woman who has mutated into a cupboard (while Rita Tushingham enjoys her reunion with the cupboard-woman, who is her mother) ~

 

“He enters the cupboard sexily.”

Michael Hordern’s radiant leer and the caressing hand on the door — eeewwww!

Lots and lots of fascinating stuff on THE KNACK which I’ll devote a whole post to.

Here’s a nicely described moment from HOW I WON THE WAR which made it in more or less intact ~

A WOMAN LOOKS THROUGH THE CURTAINS AND WATCHES ANOTHER WOMAN IN TURBAN AND STRAP SHOES BEING KISSED BY A FLAPPY TROUSERED MAN IN A RESERVED OCCUPATION WHICH HE HAS WRITTEN ON A PLACARD AROUND HIS NECK. HE HAS HIS HAND UP HER UTILITY SKIRT. THEY ARE BOTH SLIGHTLY DRUNK. WITH GAS MASKS.

The movie adds some dialogue, also no doubt by Wood — they would keep him around during filming to invent bits and bobs — “Here, you’ve brought your child’s gas mask,” says the woman, “Oh no, not in front of your child’s gas mask.”

The man is Frank Thornton, of course, whose presence always fires the erotic imagination.

Wood did a lot of uncredited work on PETULIA — enough to deserve a credit, really. He moved it definitively away from the source novel and the Barbara Turner draft (both of them are credited) before Lawrence B. Marcus came on and produced the final version. I *think* Marcus came up with the line “Was it the sex thing, Archie? Was it the old sex thing?” because I read two versions by Wood of the topless restaurant scene it is uttered in. But it sounds Wood-y, showing that his influence on the film remained — the fractured timeline/s were certainly introduced by Wood, no doubt with Lester’s encouragement.

A good bit ~

ARCHIE TOUCHES HER AND IT LOOKS LIKE ONE OF THOSE MOMENTS WE ALL KNOW AND LOATHE THAT ARE HOLLYWOOD SHORTHAND FOR YOU ARE A WONDERFUL HUMAN BEING AND I DEARLY TRULY LOVE YOU ABOUT TO BE SEALED WITH SPITTLE.

JUST BEFORE WE PUKE SHE SCREAMS AND FAINTS.