Archive for Michael Ritchie

Leth, Fletch, Flynn

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2017 by dcairns

We had that Jørgen Leth fellow up at the Art College, talking about his work. Wonderfully immodest fellow. If his interlocutor, fellow documentarist Emma Davie, complimented him on the effectiveness of a moment in 66 SCENES FROM AMERICA, he would respond, “Yes, I think it’s excellent.” Refreshing, in a way.

Mr. Leth, who was charm itself, stated that he was a big fan of American crime fiction, naming Hammett and Chandler as influences. So after the talk, I introduced myself and said I’d been reading Gregory McDonald. “Ye-es?” he asked, looking uncertain, so I switched back to Hammett and told him his shots were like Hammett sentences, terse but poetic. He agreed.

But I HAVE been reading Gregory McDonald, damnit. So I’ll tell you about it. There’s a movie connection, of course.

Third ID down — apparently, non-ironic blackface was still cool in 1984.

I picked up Confess, Fletch and Carioca Fletch in the Thrift bookshop, thinking, “My, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Fletch book in the flesh,” and also thinking they were probably quite good if there were lots of them, a dubious logic, I know.

It turns out that McDonald had a kind of genius for plotting, exercised to its full in his first Fletch books. But he did kind of paint himself into a corner early on. Fletch is an investigative reporter, which allows him entry into storylines of crime and intrigue, but at the end of the first novel the slightly amoral (or unconventionally moral) hero absconds with a huge amount of cash, so he never has to work again. But McDonald has to work that much harder, concocting situations which can ensnare his gentleman of leisure and force him to do some investigating. Thus Confess, Fletch has our hero framed for murder, and Fletch’s Fortune (I was hooked, I bought more) has him blackmailed into gathering evidence for the intelligence service (a murder is swiftly committed). These first three books are excellent, though I have some issues with the Fletch character, and maybe with McDonald’s character. Hey, it was the seventies/eighties…

At a certain point, McDonald evidently threw up his hands and decided to write prequels, since Fletch the overworked and underappreciated investigative journalist was far easier to insert into unfolding narratives than Fletch the rich bum. But oddly, going by Carioca Fletch and Fletch and the Widow Bradley, McDonald’s plotting skill diminished at some point, so these books are far less satisfying. I haven’t finished them all yet though, and I’m curious to see whether Fletch’s Moxie, which I think is the last of the original run, is good.

No, I’m not re-watching FLETCH, Michael Ritchie’s reasonably faithful film of the first book. I enjoyed it when it came out, when I believe I was rather young. I’ve glanced at it. There’s a problem with Chevy Chase being served up to us in tennis shorts with an implied assumption that this is something we want to see. McDonald has a bit of a narcissistic thing going on with his creation, the more witty and handsome version of himself (OK, the wit is all his, since he writes it, but he also gets to write the feed lines) and it’s disconcerting to see this embodied in Chase. Apart from his odd, unhandsome face, Chase has the problem that we’ve now seen him age, and all the signs are there in his youthful prototype. To watch him is to see his hairline creeping up and his waistline expand, if only in one’s imagination. It’s too much like looking in the mirror for me.

Otherwise, though, he has the smugness right, I must say.

It’s weird looking at the film and seeing a lot of the same stuff from the book, but rendered in a high-gloss, plastinated style that’s a lot less real than the pulp paper and print version. The best thing about it, apart from a perpetually surprised-looking Gina Davis (she just looks amazed to find herself in a movie — it’s adorable) is the smart casting of Tim Matheson as villain. Admittedly, Matheson should have Chase’s role so it’s not THAT smart to dangle him before our eyes, but he DID get Chase’s role in ANIMAL HOUSE, when Chase demanded too much money or something, so casting him as a man who (heavy spoiler alert, skip to next para if concerned) wants to swap places with Chase as part of a DIABOLICAL SCHEME, is a really nice touch.

I don’t really detect much of Michael Ritchie’s undoubted directorial talent in this, just as I don’t in THE GOLDEN CHILD (spits).

Haven’t looked at FLETCH LIVES. It’s not based on a McDonald book. Which makes the filmmakers stupid — I think Fletch’s Fortune would have provided Chase all the necessary opportunities to do his thing.

McDonald also wrote The Brave, source of an ill-fated movie directed by Johnny Depp. Has anyone seen it?

An early McDonald book was filmed by David Hemmings. The film is now ALMOST lost, but it did give us this, the worst movie poster ever drawn. 

The best thing about Fletch, though, is it introduced me to Flynn. Flynn is a much more lovable character than Fletch. He’s the Irish-born detective who plays cat and mouse with our hero in Confess, Fletch, and either McDonald liked him so much he ran with him into his own set of four books, or he designed him from the start as a character he could introduce to his readers via the Fletch series and then branch off with. McDonald’s banter is always great, and Flynn’s use of it to bamboozle and annoy suspects, subordinates and his bosses (only Fletch and Flynn’s spymaster Zero and Flynn’s expansive family really “get” him) is a joy.

McDonald writes a kind of stage Irish pretty well — it’s consistent, anyway. I don’t know if my Irish friends will find him embarrassing.

Flynn is the one who should have been in the movies, not Fletch. Ach, isn’t that always the way?

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Only Two Cannes Play

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 9, 2017 by dcairns

AN ALMOST PERFECT AFFAIR is very minor Michael Ritchie, but charming enough. Best joke is in the titles ~

Second best joke is a linguistic mix-up between lovers Keith Carradine and Monica Vitti, as she’s trying to warn him of what the future might hold — “You could be eaten be a sherk! Your teets could fall out!”

“My tits could fall out?” queries Keith, more amused than alarmed.

“Yes! Your teets!” insists Monica, and taps his impressive teeth. Aaaaaah. Got you.

Being set during the Cannes Film Festival, the film offers a few celebrity cameos, but not many. I saw more famous people the times I was in Cannes. Nice to see Sergio Leone here, though, looking like the offspring of an owl and a grizzly bear. Arnon Milchan reports that when he first got involved in the film biz, he went to Cannes, bumped into Leone, and couldn’t believe his luck when Leone pitched him ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA. It was only after committing to make the damn thing that he realized that Leone had been sat on a balcony at Cannes pitching it for fifteen years, year in and year out.

Alexander Walker was on the Cannes jury the same year as Monica Vitti, but her schedule prevented her from seeing the films at the same time as everyone else. In the interests of transparency, she was required to sign a ledger testifying that she had indeed viewed the works in competition. So when the other jurors would sign their own names, they would find her testimony — “Veni, Vidi, Vitti.”

Movie of the Week

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2015 by dcairns

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My friend and collaborator Niall Greig Fulton — Edinburgh Film Festival Programmer and actor — has put together an enticing season of American TV movies for this year’s fest, including such classics as Salem’s Lot, Duel, The Jericho Mile and the rarely-seen Noon Wine. It’s all about finding the cinematic in the televisual, and with an array of directors like Hooper, Spielberg, Mann and Peckinpah, the exercise is clearly going to be worthwhile.

I’ve seen a few interesting pieces from this era of US TV — A Cold Night’s Death is about killer psychic chimps at the North Pole, which is pretty non-generic. You can watch that one here. I wrote about Gene Roddenberry’s bizarre Spectre here, a show which introduced me to the thrills of Robert Culp. Rod Serling’s The Man looked at the travails of America’s first black presodent. But I wanted to dig a little deeper to see what else I could find, because really, I remember American TV of the seventies as a HORRIBLE WASTELAND. Growing up in the UK we saw a lot of it, you see, and the good bits were very much overshadowed by the transcontinental miasma of blandness. It was apparent that things like The Rockford Files were a cut above. But on the whole, everything looked the same, was shot the same, used the same locations, the actors all seemed to look the same and dress the same and talk at the same speed, the credits were all in yellow blocky letters, and it kept fading to black in the middle of scenes, where the BBC had removed the ad breaks. I think you could make a pretty good case that any show that fades to black in the middle of a scene and then fades up again with everybody still standing in the same position (with meaningless musical sting as we fade out and in) just shouldn’t have been on the BBC at all.

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The first thing I looked at was Stranger on the Run, an early (1967) TV Movie of the Week, given the class treatment — it reunites star Henry Fonda with his 12 ANGRY MEN writer Reginald Rose, though Rose’s story has been fleshed out by screenwriter Dean Riesner (coincidentally the son of Chuck Riesner). The director is Don Siegel, and how these talents fit together within the context of a TV movie is sort of interesting.

The story transposes to the west and then inverts the premise of 12 ANGRY MEN (itself a TV play before the more famous movie) — Fonda is now the suspect, an alcoholic drifter hunted by a surly posse of railway company thugs for murdering a woman. The debate about his possible innocence (of course we know he’s innocent) occurs among the posse as they track him, which in theory should make it more exciting and filmic. In fact, Riesner’s dramatic values — he was a writer for Siegel, on COOGAN’S BLUFF, DIRTY HARRY and CHARLEY VARRICK, which I would characterise as a desire to play out a story’s themes in the form of action, without philosophising about it — rather clash with Rose’s, since he sets things up deliberately to provoke debates about personal and social values. In 12 ANGRY MEN these are filtered through some strong, sweaty characters, so it’s still solid drama. Here, the genre action doesn’t seem to reinforce the deeper themes, though there’s some good talk in there. When Fonda mourns that the day of testing whether he’s a man has passed, and he failed the challenge, Bernie Hamilton cheers him with a hearty “That just means you’re lucky — you’re going to get another chance!” An upbeat way of viewing the present situation, which is that a gang on armed men are coming to kill him.

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The movie is crammed with interesting actors — Anne Baxter is top-billed after Fonda. They’re good together, and he’s particularly effective as a broken-down hobo, not trying to make the character more initially appealing than he should be. Michael Parks, Dan Duryea, Sal Mineo, Tom Reese and Zalman King (!) make a characterful posse. Plus Lloyd Bochner and the reliably strange-looking Walter Burke.

In the early scenes, Siegel seems to have a lot of trouble covering scenes with all these mugs, no doubt due to the tight schedule. He does fine in the exteriors, but most interior scenes get treated with one wide shot that’s too wide for comfort — it serves to establish where everyone is, but then you can’t look at it any longer because everyone’s miles away — then he’ll cut to individual closeups that are too tight — we lose all context and quickly get a little disoriented. In general, critics don’t talk about the problems of shooting large groups, but it’s an absolute nightmare. You never have time to shoot a single on everyone, and if you do, it confuses the audience. I had some fun with the worst ever example of this, here. A far better approach is to make each shot work as hard as possible, tying in one character to another to keep the audience cognisant of who is where in relation to whom. A truly amazing example, from Otto Preminger, is discussed here. Siegel’s best strategy might have been to spend all his time picking a great master shot and then hold it, as he would on CHARLEY VARRICK, for instance, but TV, with its low-res image and demand for close-ups, wouldn’t have allowed that.

Ultimately, Stranger on the Run feels like a B-movie with ideas above its station, ideas which overstuff it and overbalance it, and the plethora of characters (who never quite develop into a caseload of suspects for us to wonder about, as they would in a well-plotted mystery) spread the drama too thin. The production values are OK — the desert cycloramas are a lot more convincing than in Siegel’s more celebrated THE KILLERS (originally made for TV but fobbed off on the big screen after concerns about the violence). But it isn’t clean and simple like, say, THE LINE-UP, and the look has a generic quality, that made-for-TV feel, which dulls down the possibilities of the form.

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Chris Schneider recommended The Outsider, a 1967 PI story directed by Michael Ritchie and crammed with aging Hollywood greats — the presence of Ann Sothern, Edmund O’Brien and Audrey Totter could almost put this in the league of something like THE OUTFIT. Then there’s Shirley Knight, Ossie Davis and Joseph Wiseman. In the lead, Darren McGavin is surly and deadpan and very, very enjoyable, with Roy Huggins’ script providing plenty of zingers (it’s no surprise to learn Huggins created Jim Rockford and thereby trained up David Chase).

Best of all, it’s directed by Michael Ritchie, just about to break into features on the big screen and eager to show what he can do, even on the kind of schedule where the grips start disassembling the tripod before you’ve said “Cut!”

McGavin’s down-at-heel gumshoe is, per genre requirements, perpetually sleep-deprived and roughed up, though the scenario comes up with novel ways of mistreating him — a near-garrotting and a drugging with chloral hydrate that leads to the stomach-pump. Even Jim Rockford didn’t have it this tough.

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My favourite bit started off looking like it would be an embarrassment. Having tracked his would-be strangler to a beach-side shack, McGavin finds the suspect’s mother, Ann Sothern, who tells him that the guy is inside, tripping with a friend and won’t be coherent for interrogation for several hours. They go in, and there’s sitar music playing and hysterical laughter from the next room, which is kind of ridiculous. And here’s Joseph Wiseman — Dr. No himself, as the acid guru, who starts lecturing McGavin about the joys of turning on and experiencing the cosmic laughter. And all this while, Sothern is plugged into headphones and smiling at a TV game show where various sub-lebrities are trying to guess the phrase “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Big closeups and surprise angle changes start to suggest all this is getting to McGavin. The world has slipped out of joint. In other words, while the young hood is having a TV movie acid trip next door, with laughing and freak-outs and sitar music and a fisheye lens on a handheld camera — McGavin is having a REAL acid trip in the front room — an experience in which reality comes to seem unreal.

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That sensation is one which the TV movie genre could profitably have pursued more doggedly — it is well within the constraints of time and budget, it can work within all kinds of genres, and it is familiar enough to anybody paying attention to the real world that it ought to be highly commercial, a staple of entertainment like romance or tension.