Archive for Mike Mazurki

Overselling

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2022 by dcairns

We liked Guillermo Del Toro’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY. I think it’s his best film in a while, though I admit I didn’t care for THE SHAPE Of WATER or CRIMSON PEAK much at all, and PACIFIC RIM just wasn’t my kind of thing. Honestly, I still think THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is his best.

This review will now discuss the endings, immediately, because they’re a key difference between versions:

We now have two good films of William Lindsay Gresham’s book, neither of which quite nails it, but both of which succeed in places and are good in their own right. I’m inclined to prefer the Edmund Goulding version, but I have to admit that Del Toro and Bradley Cooper nailed the ending, which Goulding and Tyrone Power weren’t allowed to do. Or, rather, they did it, but were forced to GO PAST IT so that their movie ends on a softened note. Still, if Ty Power isn’t going to turn into The Geek, he’s definitely going to turn into Ian Keith’s broken-down ex-mentalist, so it’s not THAT happy.

It makes sense to compare the movies by their casts. They have very different visual styles, of course, but oddly that seems less important to me. Goulding wasn’t a noir stylist, but his slightly more prosaic approach gave the horrors of the story a matter-of-fact quality. Though he includes more gore and slightly more sex, Del Toro’s design and camera aesthetic tend to dilute the sense of realism. Both approaches seem commendable, and probably my preferred angle would be… what if they made this in the seventies? And had actors who were willing to get period-appropriate haircuts? And could talk fast?

So, actors.

Tyrone Power versus Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle

Both actors are by rights too old: Stanton Carlisle is 21 at the start of the novel. If he ISN’T going to be young, where has he been? Who runs away to join the circus in his late thirties (Power) or mid-forties (Cooper)? Del Toro and Kim Morgan’s screenplay give Stan more of a past, but it’s a past living at home with his dad. Jules Furthman’s script for the ’47 version starts with Stan already employed at the carnival, neatly dodging the question, or almost. Fiona, who has read the novel for me (I’ll get around to it!) doubts if any very young stars could manage the part, and in fact right now there seems to me a shortage of really big stars under thirty.

What we’d be looking for in a young star is energy, I think. Cooper plays it dour, which is an example of the Del Toro film’s tendency to oversell its surface effects, ignoring the value of counterpoint. Power seems genuinely thriller by the power being a carny spieler gives him. Cooper’s Stan is running away from trauma, but what is he running TO? Where is the joy in his life?

Joan Blondell versus Toni Collette as Zeena the Seer.

An unenviable task, following La Blondell. Joan just bursts with warmth and love. Maternal but sexy. Collette is a fine actor, as we know, but seems flat here, maybe because the script is too anxious to push Zeena onto Stan’s dick without setting up a sympathetic character interest first.

Ian Keith versus David Strathairn as Pete Krumbein.

I love them both. Keith’s astonishing rendition of the words “Every boy has a dog,” is one of my favourite line readings of all time. But I think Strathairn has the edge. He’s almost too good for the movie: so right and alive, everyone he shares the screen with seems a touch unreal, underdeveloped. He doesn’t get to say Keith’s line, and the lines he gets instead don’t work as well. But if you’re wondering whether to see the movie, he would be the first reason I’d mention.

Mike Mazurki versus Ron Perlman as Bruno.

Both terrific physiognomic spectacles. Perlman is the better actor by a country mile. Mazurki at forty exudes more physical menace than Perlman at seventy-two, and threat is what the character’s for. Del Toro also gives us Willem Dafoe (very welcome, as always) and Mark Povinelli, expanding the family circus, but not creating much sense of a wider community. Spreading the dialogue to a few bit players might have been helpful. (Povinelli’s The Major is a really mean character in the book, here he’s just truculent, which is the new cliché mode for small actors since Peter Dinklage burst forth in LIVING IN OBLIVION.)

Coleen Gray versus Rooney Mara (Molly Cahill)

Rooney Mara is hands-down the better actor. Gray is good enough for the role she’s given. The Del Toro omits the creepy incest backstory — child abuse is the origin story of both Gresham’s main characters. So, Mara has a character less interesting than she’s capable of playing, basically an ingenue role, but she’s able to tamp down her own interestingness without extinguishing it, and she’s really good.

George Beranger versus Paul Anderson & Jesse Buck (the Geek/s)

This comparison is basically a question of whether it’s better to keep the Geek offscreen, or present him for our edification. Goulding’s offscreen horror is super-effective. Gresham, by showing him, is able to humanize him more (I’m getting all this from Fiona). Gresham has him mouth the words “You son-of-a-bitch,” which humanizes him, and leads the reader away from the pit as he prepares to bite the head of a chicken, playing the scene on the marks’ reaction, which is a very intelligent and restrained way to do it. Del Toro’s explicitness here lets us think ourselves superior to the crowd who lap it up, while granting us the exact same experience, with added moral superiority.

In his glossary of carnival terms accompanying the story The Freak Show Murders, Fredric Brown describes the Geek in these words ~

A freak, usually a Negro, who eats glass, razor blades and almost anything else. Don’t ask me how they can do it, but there’s no gaff about it. A geek can chew up an old light bulb just as you’d eat an apple.

Del Toro’s movie answers Brown’s mystery: the geek is hooked on opium. Interesting that both the full-time geeks we see and the aspirant geek at the movie’s end are white. It’s a very white film. I spotted one Black carny and a Black hotel employee is the only character of colour with dialogue. All Gresham’s characters seem to be white. But the movie changes other things, it could have changed that. Maybe a black geek would be too uncomfortable. But maybe that discomfort would be salutary. Carnivals were places of casual racism. Brown tells us that the term for a dance act performed by Black carnival workers was “Jig show,” and that this was “an accepted term.”

There is a fashion or movement towards racially blind casting, putting actors of different races into roles they might, in real history, not have gotten to occupy. I think this is fine if your film isn’t about real history. If the reason for no non-whites in major roles is that this is a film concerned with actual social history, I would say Phooey, It Is Not. It is, however, a diverse film in having a small person, a hairy person, etc.

Where Ty Power targets essentially one rich old bereaved person with his spook act, the new film offers a few figures: we get Mary Steenburgen, who is the other person in this film besides Strathairn who totally transcends everything they’re asked to do — she should be in everything, and I’m sure she’s busy, but it is DECADES since I saw her in a movie. Welcome back. We get Peter MacNeil and Del Toro favourite Richard Jenkins. Jenkins is playing the character Taylor Holmes has in the ’47 film. He’s good, but his backstory seems underdeveloped or overdeveloped… there’s too much of it for its incompleteness to be a satisfying mystery. Something is just a bit off — maybe in shortening his long first cut (excellent interview at Trailers from Hell), Del Toro couldn’t arrive at quite the right balance. It’s not terrible, but it might be simpler and better if the film decided to make the character less nasty and less complex: his role in Stan’s story is basically that of victim, however unpleasant.

Also here we get his henchman, Holt McCallany from Mindhunter who is just fantastic. I don’t know if he reaches the sublime heights that Strathairn and Steenburgen hit, but he somehow seems to have just stepped into our time from the 1940s. As in his Fincher TV show he’s required to exhibit a lot of righteous anger and he does that so, so well. Another actor who should be in everything, and as he’s youngish and white and male I can’t work out why he isn’t.

Finally —

Helen Walker versus Cate Blanchett (Dr. Lilith Ritter)

Blanchett is very probably lots better than Walker, but not here. In the right roles with the right director, Walker was hard to beat — you really see it in CLUNY BROWN and NIGHTMARE ALLEY. What makes her an inspired choice is her little-girl moonface, which seems to offer innocence. She’s not on the nose, at least in terms of casting. I think Stan, at least this new movie’s Stan, would be suspicious of Blanchett. She’s sinister. Funny that she gets a line about “overselling” her pitch — she’s thrown at us so blatantly, she might as well have a blinking neon sign over her saying FEMME FATALE. It’s not that she’s bad or that this is a bad approach. It’s just more obvious, less elegant, less surprising, than it could be. A shame, in a film that’s frequently elegant and surprising, and with an actor who’s shown she can do almost anything.

Rated “Arr”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2021 by dcairns

Screenplay by Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg

LONG JOHN SILVER, AKA RETURN TO TREASURE ISLAND, directed by Byron Haskin, isn’t any good, but it does have Robert Newton in the title role, and Rod Taylor in a showy supporting part. E.A. Dupont’s RETURN TO TREASURE ISLAND, a different film, doesn’t have either of them and REALLY isn’t any good. It’s one of those late-career travesties like Tay Garnett’s CHALLENGE TO BE FREE which is so incompetent and uninspired on every level that it baffles and infuriates, is hard to shake off.

Nevertheless, I did not fail you, reader, I watched the whole damn thing.

The early scenes rewrite Stevenson by showing that Captain Flint secretly survived, and, you know, RETURNED TO TREASURE ISLAND, re-hiding his treasure and killing Long John Silver. Difficult, I suppose, to engage first-class talent for a short prologue sequence like this in a low-budget film, but Dupont, who may have been ill or just very very tired, or disgusted with the whole business, gets a guy from New Jersey called Dayton Lummis to do a Groundskeeper Willie Scottish accent for Flint, and a guy from Indiana called Robert Long to play Long John Silver. His name may be what clinched him the part. He seems… really ashamed to be in a film.

This part of the story is narrated by Tab Hunter, who is not one of nature’s born narrators. The cutting is fantastically terrible. Dupont at his best does have a kind of titanic, granite quality to his images, that seem to fall into their places onscreen with thumps, like stone blocks slotting into place. But now everything’s ill-fitting and higglety-pigglety.

I suppose the parrot acquits itself fairly well, but frankly I have seen better parrots.

Fastforward to the present day, and we are to believe that the Admiral Benbow Inn is a real place, where a burglar is trying to steal a map of Treasure Island. Another guy bursts into shot, they duke it out, leave frame, and a lampshade falls down. That lampshade is showing more initiative than the rest of the film’s cast. Both thugs leave, and the people who belong to the inn enter shot and have a boring discussion. Dupont is very much about flat two-shots in this movie, and here he props his actors against a mantel for even greater stasis and stiltedness.

Still, one of the thesps is Dawn Addams, in vibrant p.j.s. She and Tab will bring an inappropriate porny horniness to the proceedings, though this is not convincingly projected at each other, but outward at us. It’s this softcore flirtation with the lens that makes the movie seem so much like an animated smut mag, with less skin.

The old codger speculates that the burglar was after the map, and Dawn says, magnificently: “Willie! Superstition. Probably tramps.” One of the great lines. No cut-up or fold-in method could produce such eloquent word salad — only the combined typewriters of Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg, who scripted a couple of other late Dupont’s: THE NEANDERTHAL MAN and THE STEEL LADY.

Now the crumbly remains of Porter Hall come shimmering into view — a terrific character man, member of the Preston Sturges stock company, you’ve seen him in everything from THE THIN MAN to ACE IN THE HOLE. This is his last movie too, and it looks it. He classes the joint up, but he’s still required to stand in flat two-shots, sharing the non-space with non-actors. He announces that it’s night-time, which we would not, frankly, have known from the photography. He also tells us that Dawn’s character, Jamie Hawkins, is the direct descendant of Jim-Lad.

From the hat and coat he carries, I’m assuming he was one of the bad guys earlier, but clearly a stuntman was carrying out the action.

Turns out the clues to locating the treasure are encoded within Captain Flint’s personal Bible — proof that you can make the good book say anything you like. This plot turn is not too bad, but we’ll have to subsist on it for seventy-five minutes.

Soon, poor old Willie has been shot by one of the hoods. This is one of those movies where normal people stand around calmly conversing over corpses. “Poor Willie,” says Dawn Hawkins. “He was a best friend.” She doesn’t even stoop to examine him. (What’s maddening is that the film’s poor director was a very good writer and could have fixed all of this if he’d been allowed, or bothered.)

The shadowy baddie behind all this — although we don’t for a moment trust Porter Hall — is a blind guy called Newman, a sort of Blind Pugh Junior, which I think I’m going to call him.

Everybody’s off to Treasure Island! Dawn dons a sexy low-cut number and declares her love of adventure. “Well, it’s nice to be young,” says the grizzled Captain Cardigan, nonsensically.

She’s going for an evening swim when she overhears the crew talking mutiny — like her forebear in his apple barrel, only she’s on a rope ladder by a porthole in her swimsuit. I don’t mean the porthole is in her swimsuit. Though it would enhance the entertainment prospects if it were. Dawn Hawkins listens impassively as the men plan to cut cards for her favours. Again, stuff that doesn’t belong in a family film, but there it is. She tells Porter Hall about it and he says he has everything under control.

“For almost a year I had lived on Treasure Island alone,” narrates Tab Hunter as Tab Hunter in a fluffy beard rises into view amid the palm trees, “the involuntary master of my domain,” getting a snigger from the Seinfeld fans.

Tab is going to spend the film shirtless. As shirtless as the day is long. And this is June, so that’s very shirtless indeed. He will, however, I predict, get a shave and a haircut.

Dawn rises and puts on a cute sailor cap and a sexy halter top in case the mutineers cut cards for her favours. And sure enough, they’ve taken over the ship. Captain Cardigan is tied up in knots. Porter Hall turns out to be leader of the mutineers. Gentlemen, I am shocked.

The original Treasure Island is a virtually all male show, with Jim-Lad’s mum, Mrs. Jim-Lad, given nothing to do and dropped from the story as soon as decently possible. So Treasure Island, as conceived by RL Stevenson, is lacking in bondage scenes. Pollexfen & Wisburg have fixed that. A good director for this would have been Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Anyhow, Dawn Hawkins escapes but Captain Cardigan gets a hole in him. All this is narrated by Tab with a disinterested, dreamy quality more suitable, I would have thought, for Brideshead Revisited, not HORNY TREASURE ISLAND.

I’m not kidding about Tay Garnett’s last film, by the way. The sound of “loveable” wilderness person Mike Mazurki humourlessly intoning “HA. HA. HA,” will follow me to my mausoleum. Compared to that, this is a delightful romp. Still, every single movement the actors make is self-conscious, awkward and weird. I’ve heard of director’s shooting rehearsals for spontaneity, but this looks like Dupont was aiming more for uncertainty. And he’s achieved it, masterfully.

Dawn and Tab shack up in an abandoned fort and Dawn naturally has to take a bath, gawped at by the lecherous parrot, who is no doubt a direct linear descendant of Captain Flint’s parrot. He doesn’t quite caw “Pieces of ass!” but his squawks have a lubricious flavour. And yes, Tab has a shave. Evidently he could have done this at any time, but he didn’t have anyone to look his best for.

Porter Hall in Decent Line Shock: “Ever see a cat at a mouse hole? We’ll emulate that patient creature, gentlemen.”

Now Dawn swims out to the ship wearing short jeans and a knotted shirt. Bouncing on deck, she manages to avoid the anticipated display of clingy charms. The distractingly sexy films are always the ones that don’t deliver.

Incidentally, I’ve started wondering — this movie is set in the same fictional world as Stevenson’s novel. Which means Treasure Island, the novel, doesn’t exist in this movie. So it’s not clear how everybody seems to know the story.

It turns out Porter is responsible for Blind Pugh Junior’s signature disability, having blown him up with careless dynamite, but the scene in which we find this out is very ineffectively staged, a flat two with the actors facing forward. Hard for one guy to menace the other without being pointed at him. I presume they had no time to make this film. Otherwise it could’ve been a lovely fun picture to make, if the weather was good.

As the story goes on, sadism rears its ugly-beautiful head. Blind Pugh Junior whips Jim-Lass as she’s bound to a tree, while Tab, shirtless, bound and perspiring (which sounds like a law firm for perverts) writhes on the ground at everyone’s feet, getting kicked. My.

As if that isn’t enough, the Blind Pugh Junior, who lost his sight in a dynamite accident arranged by Porter Hall’s character, Maxie, gets blow up twice more. And survives, though we last see him pinned under rubble in a sealed-off cavern, taking potshots at Porter. He must be cinema’s most exploded man.

“We met Maxie. He was reduced to a harmless cipher with fear,” drones Tab.

Some of the cave scenes seem to be shot in a real cave, some against a cliff face in broad daylight, and some with some kind of day-for-cave gimmick that has turned the colours psychedelic. The entire film could have been improved by that treatment.

Our heroes get the treasure, since they’ve blown everyone else up. That’s how civilisation works.

I say, Tab!

RETURN TO TREASURE ISLAND stars Todd Tomorrow; Zeta One; Judge Alfalfa J. O’Toole; Lost Motorist (uncredited); and Bit Part (uncredited).

Red Har-Fest

Posted in FILM, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2017 by dcairns

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On Shadowplayer GSPegger’s recommendation we ran WHISTLING IN THE DARK, and that led us to watch the sequels, WHISTLING IN DIXIE and WHISTLING IN BROOKLYN.

We’re fans of the original WITD, which stars the superb Ernest Truex, a fleeting attempt to make a movie star out of the Kick the Can/HIS GIRL FRIDAY actor, so we weren’t sure how we’d take to Red doing the same material. Also, the casting of Conrad Veidt as villain gave us pause — would this be tragic and mortifying like John Barrymore playing stooge to Kay Kyser? In the end, no — the movie isn’t too heavily indebted to its source, swapping gangsters for a sinister cult, and Veidt gets to retain his dignity by playing it straight, while still suggesting that he might just possibly be having some fun. “We part in radiant harmony.”

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We overcame our animosity to Skelton — OK, he still mugs a lot and projects an over-eager “Like me! Like me!” vibe, but the writing MAKES him likable, and he is given a warm relationship with co-star Ann Rutherford.

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How to characterise these things? Well, they are a lot like Bob Hope’s comedy-thrillers. Films two and three are mainly written by Nat Perrin, of Bilko fame. In fact, many of the wisecracks are only so-so, with Skelton’s devotion sometimes putting over weak-ish material and sometimes trampling it. But the comic situations are good, and Rags Ragland is an effective, if gruesome foil.

All the films have spectacular brawls, which get more and more protracted as the series goes on. Rutherford gamely throws herself into these Donnybrooks — literally. A fight involving both Ragland and guest heavy Mike “the murderizer” Mazurki in BROOKLYN threatens to burst the screen with sheer plug-ugliness. Director S. Sylvan Simon isn’t too subtle with the slapstick, but gets laughter building by piling on energetic knockabout stuff until it reaches the ceiling. Similar to the excess of Preston Sturges or the furious chases at the end of some W.C. Fields flicks. 30s and 40s visual comedy just isn’t as elegant as the silent kind, but works by a kind of aggressive overegging.

Also, Simon is very good at the light-hearted spookshow stuff, aided by very good sets and lighting, so there’s plenty of the requisite old dark house atmosphere. He’s a director I’ll have to look into some more.

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If Veidt emerges with dignity intact in DARK, the same can’t be said for George Bancroft in DIXIE. It’s kind of pitiful — the big hambone, who’s been impossible to work with during his “glory” years, is actually trying to give a performance in this nonsense, complete with southern accent. For his pains, he gets stripped to his long johns in a flooded chamber and repeatedly punched unconscious. All of which is pretty funny, and it’s George Bancroft it’s happening to, so it’s, you know, acceptable.

What beats the wisecracking and even the punch-ups is the terrifying situations Red and Ann keep getting into — the flooding chamber is just one. An elevator threatens to crush them against an iron grid in BROOKLYN, and then they’re bound with chains and threatened with disposal down a dark chute into the sea. Quips are funnier when there’s an edge of hysterical panic to them.

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The bit that got Fiona in hysterics was Red having trouble with a set of joke shop false teeth while trying to pass incognito through a police station while wanted for murder. Best falsers gag since MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE. But there are several hilarious and kind of nerve-racking bits in each picture. Later in BROOKLYN, Red has his head compressed in a vice, and his dramatic rendition of the sensation — talking in a deep, slurred voice like a brain-damaged boxer — is funny yet horrific.

Also, an addendum to my observations on HULLABALOO, in which MGM spoofed Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast, Skelton here is playing a radio sleuth perhaps modeled loosely on Welles’ turn as The Shadow, and at the end of the first film he manages to broadcast to the nation while held prisoner by Veidt’s cult. But the local police don’t believe anything they hear on the radio, having made fools of themselves the previous year…

(Fake news is not new.)