Archive for Michael Hordern

Curioser

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2022 by dcairns
Some of these insert shots have an Argentoesque intensity

TV director William Sterling’s one feature film, ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (1972) assembles lots of great people and looks nice. It’s not my idea of wonderland, though.

As you can see, the copy I scraped up isn’t very good, so I may not be doing the film justice. It’s a lot better than most adaptations — fairly true to the text. It doesn’t become an incoherent mishmash of Wonderland and Looking Glass, as so many do. But being true to the story and characters isn’t the same as capturing the spirit. On the other hand, you can legitimately aim to capture a DIFFERENT spirit. I’m not sure if that’s what happens here.

I remember some piece that discussed the film, and spoke very critically of Michael Jayston’s visible panty line. He plays Charles Dodgson, and the film begins with a boat outing with the Liddell sisters, but does NOT have these characters reappear in Wonderland, disguised, as Lewis Carroll does: he, the stammering Do-do-dodgson, becomes the Dodo. But Jayston doesn’t stutter, he speaks beautifully. Seductively, in fact. He also neglects historical accuracy in his choice of Y-fronts, which show through his white trousers in a way sure to inspire disapproval in a Von Stroheim undie perfectionist.

Fiona Fullerton, a perky Alice, has been told to smile a lot, and does. Her perplexing adventures seem to amuse her greatly. This strikes me as wrong, but given what she’s been asked to do, she does it charmingly, though she’s too old. But if the film is about anything, which isn’t certain, it may be about coming of age — indeed, the soft-focus boat ride looks very much like what I imagine a David Hamilton adolescent smut film must be like (haven’t seen one).

Wonderland is all sets. Quite big ones, but things still get to seem a little airless. The transition occurs when the dream begins, rather than when Alice goes done the rabbit hole, which is a distortion, but an acceptable one. The budget allows for some very interesting visuals. A well decorated rabbithole, a Dali-meets-Geiger sky, an infinite corridor for the key business.

One blunder is carried over directly from the Paramount version: there’s a terrific cast, and most of them are rendered unrecognisable under Stuart Freeborn’s makeups. As usual, the humanoid characters come off best in such circumstances: this may be the only adaptation of the book where the most amusing character is the Duchess’s cook, played in a maelstrom of fury by Patsy Rowlands. Robert Helpmann is a perfect Mad Hatter (though I don’t understand why Kenneth Williams never did it). Peter Bull is a pretty unbeatable Duchess, Flora Robson slightly out of her element as the Queen of Hearts, Dennis Price very much IN his as the King (he does nothing but recite Lewis Carroll in the same year’s PULP). Tiny playing card parts are stuffed with familiar faces like Rodney Bewes, Dennis Waterman, Ray Brooks and Richard Warwick.

Smothered under prosthetics, Peter Sellers still does well as the March Hare, Dudley Moore copes as the Dormouse, Spike Milligan capers and goons as the Griffin, but it’s all schtick and no character. The only bit of Michael Hordern you can see in his Mock Turtle outfit is his lower face, but the rest of the makeup gives him some kind of jowl-lift, so even that part doesn’t look like it’s his. Michael Crawford’s stylish White Rabbit ears and whiskers allow him to do his thing relatively unimpeded (as with Sellers, it’s all in the eyes and voice) but Roy Kinnear has lost most of the Cheshire Cat’s lines AND business, and barely registers, an astonishing fate for such a great scene-stealer. Ralph Richardson has quite wisely refused to don a caterpillar’s head, and can be seen and enjoyed.

There are fewer laughs, I’d say, than in Jonathan Miller’s BBC version, which only had a few. Miller, however, had decided that this was a Victorian child’s dream, and his choices were mainly consistent with that. I’m just not sure what Sterling has decided on. A panto, perhaps. We have songs by John Barry with lyrics by Stanley Black, which edge out many of Carroll’s own superior words. Barry has gone fully into soupy strings mode, with a bit of the pizzicato guff he did in the early sixties. His main theme is almost identical to the one he foist onto ROBIN AND MARIAN.

Not as alienating as TALES OF BEATRIX POTTER, another children’s film from this period (it looks amazing but positively declines to deliver any tales, or any entertainment at all), it still feels like it would have baffled me as a kid. The Disney version made me feel stoned, as I recall, though I didn’t know what that was. I may have made some suggestions in the past for how the books should be treated, but if I did I’ve forgotten, so here goes —

Get good actors, and I don’t know that they have to be comedians. Give them some signifiers — the White Rabbit can have ears, for instance. Otherwise, dress them like the Tenniel illustrations and leave their faces on display and let them act. I hate hate hate the Tim Burton version but the idea of using CG to turn actors into live-action cartoons (giving Bonham-Carter a huge(r) head) was decent.

I would tend to favour locations over sets, even though Michael Stringer’s were very good here.

I think, controversially I know, that Alice should be a child. Get one who can act (which Miller inexplicably failed to do).

I think it should be a bit like Welles’ THE TRIAL, really, just slightly funnier, slightly less sinister. But A BIT sinister. (And the Welles is already pretty funny, funnier than this anyway).

When I read the book I was struck by how funny it was, which the films rarely seemed to be. I wonder if Richard Lester would have wanted to do this: it has eleven of his actors and numerous crew. And there’s the Goons connection. Carroll isn’t as rambunctious as The Goon Show, but he has his moments. It’s a funny thing: the book has almost never been filmed by a comedy specialist.

Kiss Kiss Bang Whimper

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2022 by dcairns

My friend Kiyo asked me to track down a copy of KISS THE GIRLS AND MAKE THEM DIE, a De Laurentiis espionage caper he remembered from childhood. I found it, and then, having rather enjoyed MATCHLESS, another De Laurentiis espionage caper I remembered from my own childhood, I decided to look at his one. It has some of the same personnel — Jack Pulman on dialogue (with the usual football team of Italian scribes), Nicoletta Macchiavelli on glamour, Andy Ho on Yellow Peril. Direction is credited to veteran Henry Levin, who was implicated in the odious Matt Helm series around this time, but IMDb adds mention of Dino Maiuri, who was also mixed up in the script and producing. It’s shot by Aldo Tonti who has a truly staggering CV but this is not a staggering-looking film, at least in the fuzzy pan-and-scan edition available to me. I tried cropping it to 1:1.85 on the guess it might have been shot open-matte (the compositions seemed roomy) and that helped the framing but did nothing for the fuzz.

Like SUNSET BLVD it’s narrated by a dead body and like BARRY LYNDON it’s narrated by Michael Hordern, but MH does not appear as the dead body, merely dubbing his perf in later. The presence of Richard Lester’s regular producing partner Denis O’Dell in the credits may account for Hordern’s posthumous postproduction contribution. The corpse-in-waiting is personified by Terry-Thomas in crappy makeup, who also plays another, unrelated character later, and for no reason.

As hero, Mike Connors is an empty linen suit, hair of finest Corinthian leather burnished to a gleam, his face a pasteboard Identikit of other forgettable male leads (Bob Cummings with the last vestige of flavour boiled away, Rod Cameron hollowed-out and inflated with odourless gas). Talks into his wristwatch, you know the type.

But he’s surrounded by quirky types. Dorothy Provine does a skilled comic cut-glass English accent; Raf Vallone, grey-eyed Satan, is an Armenian criminal mastermind; Terry-Thomas is Terry-Thomas, which is after all what he’s paid for, but if they’d wanted a really funny spy spoof, letting either Vallone or TT play the hero would have been a good call. TT as criminal mastermind might also have been chortlesome. Casting him as a comic relief character shows a lack of genuine humorous outlook. Comedy relief is the first recourse of the unfunny mind.

After the Hordern mumblings in the rainforest there’s really rather a good shoot-out inside the big Jesus they have in Rio, unquestionably the best-staged shoot-out in a messiah I have ever seen. It goes one better than Hitchcock’s Statue of Liberty chase by virtue of being, so far as I can see, almost entirely genuine and shot-on-location. Genuine in the sense of being the actual statue, not the actual Jesus. Permission to shoot inside the actual living Christ would have taken a skilled location manager indeed.

The Bondian hi-jinks are hyped up to heights of abstraction — why is the eyebrowless killer after Our Man In Rio? Why does he need to save the breathy blonde from the scorpions planted in her bouquet? Why does the anonymous voice on the phone warn O.M.I.R. to get out of town just as a submachine gun is about to extirpate him anyway? Who is anybody and why? It doesn’t seem to matter. Cause and effect are suspended, like a 007 eyebrow. One wonders if the dialogue writer actually read the script or just riffed off the edit, Woody Allen style?

Mario Nascimbene, filling in where Ennio Morricone would be more expected, has no trouble making the music ridiculous enough to satisfy. When Marilu Tolo walks into Vallone’s lair, we get what is known as a lush rephrasing of The Girl from Ipanema, just like that, without compunction.

Unexpectedly fell in love with these boffin/minions, Jean Cocteau and the Vulcan Francois Truffaut, desultorily flicking switches in a model submarine. They only have about a dozen switches before them, and their whole attitude suggests a weary acceptance of the truth that when they’ve thrown every switch, they will only have to unthrow them and start over and the switches aren’t connected to anything anyway.

I guess Terry-Thomas didn’t want to be a leading man — he writes in his memoir about really enjoying getting paid ridiculous sums for a couple of days work. But he has quite a lot to do here as the story proceeds, and his “James,” the chauffeur to Provine’s Lady Penelope type, even partakes in some vigorous karate. Which just makes me want a Terry-Thomas Bond parody all the more keenly. THE MAN FROM T.W.I.T.

The plot or “plot” as it transpires involves a scheme to sap and impurify the precious bodily fluids of the American male, turning our friends into a sexually apathetic nation of Lil Abners. Unlike the wretched Kommissar X series, this one has proper production values, control rooms and stuff. Although the action is all confined to one setting, at least Brazil offers cityscapes, monuments, ocean and jungle. It beats Calgary. Sorry, Calgary.

Finally, it turns out that the plan is based on Nazi concentration camp experiments in sterility, an idea in the foulest bad taste since it’s based in fact. Vallone is freezing sexy girls for the time when he’s the last fertile man on earth. They go into his machine nude, and emerge in jars wearing shiny skintight cossies. When Raf gets kicked into his own device, he goes in full clad and emerges in a jar… fully clad. Even the doomsday devices are sexist. But Provine is allowed to save the day, with Mannix-Bond standing by with his metaphorical dick in his hand, so that’s nice.

List of ingredients: amphibious vehicle, absurd gown, gratuitous cheesecake shots, inane quips, eccentric millionaire baddie, figures badly matted into CCTV comms system, fancy cars, gloating, sinister Chinese element, sliding panels, exotic locales, villain’s lair, stagey punch-ups, colourful laboratory, rescue by aircraft, bondage, feats of escapology, black-tie reception, ring with hidden needle, fancy Rolls-Royce.

KISS THE GIRLS AND MAKE THEM DIE stars Joe Mannix; Bonnie Parker; Giuseppe Garibaldi; Capt. Romney Carlton-Ricketts; Sayonara; Tipsy; Lovey Kravezit; Olympia; Jacky Vein; Klytus Observer No. 1; and Poseidon.

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…