Archive for Mike Mazurki

Let us never speak of this again

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2014 by dcairns

A few films have never made it into The Late Show: The Late Movies Blogathon because they were too desultory and depressing. Our main purpose is to celebrate overlooked films from late in the careers of great artists, which are often overlooked or disparaged because they’re out of step with the times. One likes to pass over in silence, where possible, those films which really stink like burning faeces. Who was it who said of Cukor’s JUSTINE, “to criticise it would be like tripping a dwarf”? (I often think Cukor should have filmed the Sade book instead of the Durrell. In 1932. With Joan Crawford. And tripped a dwarf in it.)

But on the other hand, there is fun to be had in the stinker, tinged though it may be by regret and embarrassment for a great cinematic mind now o’erthrown. With these emotions battling within me, I glance, mercifully briefly, at a few films I couldn’t bring myself to devote entire pieces to.

letusnever1

THE DELTA FACTOR — written and directed by Tay Garnett from a novel by Mickey Spillane, produced by Spillane and featuring his latest wife in a supporting role. Garnett’s autobiography, Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, is a hell of a lot of fun. At the end of a long and often distinguished career, Garnett wasn’t about to trash his more recent films, because he was still hoping for one or two more adventures in the screen trade — they never came.

This movie has all the obnoxiousness of Spillane’s writing and world view but with none of the awareness that Aldrich and Bezzerides brought to KISS ME DEADLY. Spillane hated that film, and with him holding the purse-strings one can’t expect Garnett to smuggle in a critique of masculine violence or anything like that, even if he felt inclined to do so. But did it have to be so obnoxious?

letusnever3

There’s no Mike Hammer, but Christopher George plays tough guy bank robber and escape artist with a distinct air of Mitt Romney, which is unappealing to say the least. A “hero” who gloatingly threatens to rape the heroine (it’s okay, he’s only “joking”), he never inspires in the appalled spectator any of the admiration Spillane and possibly Garnett seem to feel for him. Yvette Mimieux tags along, the action scenes are low-budget uninspired, and there’s not even any of the astonishing nastiness that makes Spillane striking in print (“I shot her in the stomach and walked away. It was easy.” — “I took out my gun and blew the smile off his face.”) There is, however, a genuinely hair-raising car chase which breathes a little life into the thing. Unfortunately, it did so at the cost of nearly killing the director, and the hand-held shots taken from inside his car when it plunged off the mountainside road and through the trees is IN THE FILM. Had the adventures of Morgan ended there and the rest of the film detailed Spillane’s painful recovery from a broken cheekbone, broken ribs all down one side, a broken AND dislocated shoulder, and the loss of several teeth, it would have been more entertaining.

letusnever6

Garnett bounced back — five years later he was in Alaska filming Mike Mazurki as a trapper in CHALLENGE TO BE FREE. This one sounds pretty dramatic in his book, but the result is slow icy death on-screen, thanks to a script that has no shape or sense of drama. Some of the wildlife footage is pretty extraordinary, but Mazurki, a reliable thug in decades of thrillers, is directed into an appalling performance, and so is everyone else — lots of characters nodding to themselves to telegraph to the audience that they understand what just happened. Did you ever nod to yourself? I suspect not, but if you see this one you’ll definitely be left shaking your head.

letusnever7

I had long dreaded the inevitable moment when I would look at Ronald Neame’s FOREIGN BODY, whose title already suggests something very bad. Victor Bannerjee, fresh from A PASSAGE TO INDIA, cheerfully kills any vague career momentum he may have acquired by playing a penniless Indian emigrant who becomes a bogus Harley Street doctor so he can undress white women. The role was written for Peter Sellers and the screenplay was a trunk item that had lain wisely unmolested by production for at least a decade and a half. Warren Mitchell plays Bannerjee’s uncle with “My goodness gracious me” mannerisms and shoe-polished features, and Amanda Donohoe supplies the gratuitous nudity. (Oddly, she also starred in PAPER MASK, the only other British film about a fake doctor I can think of.) The whole thing is so staggeringly time-warped (and bad, to boot) that it uses a landlord’s “No coloureds” as a hilarious punchline to a scene. Break and dislocate your shoulder before you see this film.

letusnever10

I can’t review Ken Russell’s THE FALL OF THE LOUSE OF USHER, his last feature-length offering (Poe seems attractive to late-period filmmakers, see also Curtis Harrington) because I could only watch five minutes of it, in the videotheque of Edinburgh Film Festival back when it was new. The festival declined to screen it but put it on in their ‘theque along with all the other British productions of 2002. It was the cheap synth music that put me off — this from a filmmaker who had filmed the lives of most of the great composers of the 19th and 20th centuries, and worked with the Who, Thomas Dolby, Peter Maxwell Davies, Rick Wakeman. It’s too sad.

I’d rather remember this —

My schoolfriend Robert told me that he was taken to see BAMBI as a kid. In front of the film they played trailers for SHIVERS and TOMMY. Of the two, TOMMY was the more disturbing. He didn’t go to the cinema again until he was about sixteen.

To the Neon God they prayed

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2011 by dcairns

“He’s still talking about editing.”

“Make him stop.”

“I can’t.”

More about editing. Here’s the opening of MURDER, MY SWEET, directed by Edward Dmytryk. In his book On Film Editing, later collected in his bigger book, On Film Making, Dmytryk talks about the scene in Philip Marlowe’s office. Watch the scene. Does anything strike you as odd, or wrong? Continuity, perhaps?

Chance are you haven’t spotted it. If you have, tell me. I’ll know if you’re lying.

Here’s the story: Dmytryk covered the action with all the camera angles he felt he needed, but when he came to cut it together, he saw a problem. The action is partly lit by a blinking neon sign, which gives it classic noir atmos, and also allows for Mike Mazurki‘s appearance as Moose Molloy, reflected in the window, to have an eerie, spectral, now you see it now you don’t effect. But although the light simulating the sign had been faded up and down at regular intervals — three seconds off, three seconds on — it wasn’t precisely synchronized with the performances. This meant that when you cut from a wide shot to a close-up, the sign might blink off prematurely, or it might stay lit too long. Cutting the conversation according to the performances left the blinking neon all out of whack.

So Dmytryk and editor Joseph Noriego tried cutting for continuity. Trouble was, with the neon sign flowing smoothly again, three seconds off, three seconds on, there were now awkward pauses and unmotivated accelerations in the dialogue. The lighting was consistent, but the scene fell on its face.

So Dmytryk made the bold decision to cut for dramatic values and say to Hell with continuity. Now watch the scene and count along with the neon sign. Three seconds off, two seconds on, four seconds off, six seconds on… it’s completely crazy. And at one point it blinks on in an angle on Dick Powell, and then on again in an angle on Mike Mazurki, without ever having gone off. But Dmytryk found that when the scene was cut this way, nobody noticed the strangeness of the light’s behaviour. Cutting solidly for dramatic values put the audience’s attention squarely where it was supposed to be, and they only took particular notice of the light during Mazurki’s first appearance, when they were supposed to notice it.

By this argument, the unusually large number of continuity errors in Martin Scorsese’s films (caused in part, no doubt, by the use of improvisation, which causes each take to differ) can be seen as evidence of the high quality of editor Thelma Schoonmaker’s work — the most obtrusive mismatches are permissable, as long as the dramatic flow is maintained. Check the bloodstains on DeNiro’s face during scene three of RAGING BULL, when Pesci hits him with a a fist wrapped in table-cloth. Hard to believe anyone would have the nerve to leave a howler like that in the cut. And that’s a good thing.

On Film Editing

Murder, My Sweet

Noirathon

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2010 by dcairns

A new Spurious Project for me – because you can never really have too many, can you? I pass my shelves every day, and from those shelves the plaintive cases of DVDs I have bought look out at me, pleading to be watched. I also have stacks and stacks of unwatched discs in folders and drums and drawers, but I didn’t pay for those, so I feel less guilty/stupid. The fact that I shelled out good money for nice pre-recorded DVDs in nice packaging, and then allow them to sit unwatched, for years in many instances, is clearly unsustainably crap. So my new project is to watch all the unwatched movies on the big shelving unit by the kitchen.

MURDER MY SWEET (known in the UK, with our mania for source fidelity, as FAREWELL MY LOVELY) is one that I felt I’d sort of seen, just not all at once or in the right order. It was to correct this that I picked up the Region 1 DVD secondhand when I stumbled upon it. Not having properly watched one of Edward Dmytryk’s top films and one of the key films noir of screen history was too shameful even to admit until now, when I’ve done it at last. Here are my impressions –

I remember a piece about Raymond Chandler where essayist Clive James said part of Chandler’s self-selected authorial problem was to stop Philip Marlowe coming across like too good a writer. The guy’s meant to be a private eye, not Henry James, after all. If Chandler were the terse kind of writer like Hammett, he could no doubt have pulled this off more easily – Hammett is actually the better writer, I’d say, but his terse, no-nonsense prose appears to sound more like a regular Joe yapping. By contrast, Chandler is nearly all nonsense, the wacky similes and figures of speech flying forth in a decidedly non-naturalistic way. So it’s a slight mistake for screenwriter John Paxton to frame their story as a flashback with Marlowe (Dick Powell) throwing out one-liners to an unsympathetic copper — “My bank account was trying to crawl under a duck,” that kind of thing. As Jack Lemmon argues in SOME LIKE IT HOT, “Nobody talks like that.” What just about scrapes by as the character’s thoughts or reflections suddenly seems rather florid when recycled as dialogue.

But once you get over the initial awkwardness, and the wit of the lines certainly helps, the story carries you along, with Powell surprisingly effective. When he was being tough or suave I sometimes felt I’d like to see someone else have a crack at it (Chandler’s own preference, Cary Grant, would be interesting – I can’t quite see it, which makes me want to), but where he scores is in the moments of horror and violence. He makes you feel the pain, especially since his tough-guy exterior is allowed to get much more shredded and distressed than would be the case with Bogart, say.

That spooky opening with Marlowe’s eyes bandaged, and the glowing-white tabletop, feels like a seance, calling the rest of the story out of the night. And then comes the great neon-lit scene in Marlowe’s office, with Moose Malloy appearing like a spectre, reflected in the window.

Is this Mike Mazurki’s best ever role? I like to think he got the part of Moose Malloy at least partly for alliterative reasons, and not just because he’s a hulking bruiser, looking something like an Easter Island statue who’s managed to dig himself free after being buried in the sand up to the neck. Moose was the main thing I recalled from the novel, which I read years back, and I have a feeling I almost liked him better in the film. Chandler paints Moose as an innocent giant, and while that’s part of the Mazurki characterisation, he’s also more than a touch psycho, and less appealing but more real because of it. Despite this glaze of psychology, he’s also a lumbering, two-fisted plot function, turning up wherever he’s need to provide some aggro, and oddly able to appear in a room without being noticed by anybody, like Mrs Danvers.  A sort of Moose Ex Machina, if you will.

His first appearance of this kind, revealed in a reflection in Marlowe’s office by a blinking neon sign, is one of his best. Dmytryk apparently found a problem when cutting this scene, though: when he cut back and forth between his two leads, the need to preserve the rhythm of the blinking sign was killing the drama. He was forced to linger on the speaker in order to make the sign stay off or on at a consistent rate, when he really wanted to be cutting to the listener’s reaction. Finally, on a chance, he cut the scene purely for dramatic values, ignoring the continuity issues created. He found the scene played so well that nobody noticed that the sign was now on for two seconds, off for four, on for three, off for two… Now you understand why Scorsese seems to care so little for continuity gaffes.

Dmytryk’s Sixth Rule of film editing:  “Cut for proper values rather than proper ‘matches’.”

Nice scene driving at night, with spooky reflections! And then a weirdly lit scene in the woods with massive light sources beaming through the fog in all directions? A sky-full of moons, or an arboreal disco? Dmytryk’s method at this time was forego niceties and shoot what looked nice and could be achieved quickly. He sought to concentrate his time on rehearsing the actors, not waiting for the lighting to be ready. So this system is a mixture of “simple to achieve” — turn on a few big lights on the rig — and “looks pretty”. The low-key chiaroscuro style came from a similar need for speed.

Along for the ride are the equally euphonious Miles Mander, England’s thinnest thespian, a quavery-voiced monofilament in a suit*, and the smarmy chin that is Otto Kruger, on particularly fine despicable form. Anne Shirley is one of those somewhat interchangeable, sweet young actresses of the era whom I’m always a little sweet on (ah, Joan Leslie!), and the iconic Claire Trevor is hands-down the most fascinating person on view. Sleazy, brazen, mysterious, wicked, aloof, needy, lusty and reeking of nicotine (like everyone else in the show), CT dominates, effortlessly. It helps that she can look cheap as well as beautiful.

What a fine film this is — as is often the case when one watches a classic which had somehow eluded viewing for years, the prevailing feeling is one of silliness: how could I not have seen this before? The secondary feeling is an appreciation of the film’s Gothic attributes, that unspoken air of eeriness, predominant in the nightmare hallucination sequence, but really present throughout.

The goofy nightmare, which kind of sets the tone for 90% of Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, looks to be under the influence of WAXWORKS (Jack the Ripper segment) and somehow finds its way into the dayglo eighties pulp of I, MADMAN! (stalker with syringe) and CRIMEWAVE (line of free-standing doors). The more location-set noir movies would become, the less possibility there would be for this kind of hopped-up carnival atmosphere.

I liked the ending! Up to the moment when the blinded Marlow finishes his story and Ann Shirley mouths a warning to the cops not to reveal her presence, things are looking pretty grim. And indeed, I would have loved that ending, with the bereaved leading lady slipping quietly off and abandoning our poor trodden-on flatfoot. But then a happy romcom ending is gleefully pasted on, and it somehow works. Shirley looks way too happy for someone who’s just lost most of her family, but it’s played with enough wit that, like all the other dicey moments, it winds up an unlikely triumph.

*So thin was Mander that he had a problem registering on celluloid. You’ve heard no doubt, of persons so thin they disappear when they turn sideways. Mander disappeared from all angles and never reappeared, making it necessary for two burly stagehands to grip him by the head and feet while the director strummed the actor’s midriff, causing him to oscillate violently and thereby temporarily occupy enough space to allow him to be captured by photochemical means. The effect was short-lasting, and after three minutes or so, Mander would revert to passing between the raindrops in his usual manner. This affliction resulted in Mander losing a role to Sir Cedric Hardwicke in Hitchcock’s ROPE, after Hitch realised that the actor would simply fade from view one-third of the way through each of the long takes he was planning to use. “Mander was too slender even for the title role,” Hitch quipped.

Buy MURDER MY SWEET from US Amazon —

Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 1 (The Asphalt Jungle / Gun Crazy / Murder My Sweet / Out of the Past / The Set-Up)