Archive for Montgomery Clift

Cox’s Orange Pippins: The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Except with Bullets

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2022 by dcairns

I knew I’d be looking at a tortilla western or Zapata western in this series — maybe more than one. The Italians visited the Mexican Revolution a fair bit, either because their Spanish locations and swarthy extras made it a natural fit, or because, unlike Hollywood filmmakers, many of the writers and directors could get behind a leftwing revolution con mucho gusto.

Having enjoyed some Damiano Damiani in the past — THE WITCH/LA STREGA IN AMORE (1966) is fascinating, GIROLOMANI, IL MONSTRO DI ROMA (1971) is fascinating but maybe doesn’t quite come off, I was excited to see what he could do with the genre. Spaghetti westerns are frequently unbeautiful, even the best ones frequently partaking of that orange pancake makeup approach that gives this series its title; but the Damiani movies I’ve seen are lustrous.

A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL aka QUIEN SABE? hits the ground running — Lou Castel as the smart, dangerous Americano is cool and ambiguous. We meet him buying a train ticket. “Do you like Mexico?” asks a cute little boy. “No,” he smirks, “Not very much.” With his long, angular head, like a child’s coffin, he’s a unique presence.

The train is soon held up by bandit-revolutionaries — the line here is less blurred than eradicated. They are led by Gian Maria Volonte, backed up by Klaus Kinski as his half-brother (?), a fanatical, grenade-throwing priest, and pistol-packin’ Martine Beswick. The latter two sporting faces you don’t expect to find under a sombrero. Alex Cox, an enthusiast for the genre, does bemoan the fact that there’s only one instance on record of a Mexican being cast as a Mexican (Gilbert Roland — and with him you get a less stereotypical performance, I bet).

Written by Franco Solinas and Salvatore Laurani, the film rapidly arrives at a compelling situation: the train, carrying troops and weapons, is stopped by an officer tied to the tracks. Anyone who gets out of the train to rescue him is picked off by snipers on the hills bordering the track. The soldiers in the train are picked off too. The alternative is to advance and run over the officer, something the officer in charge of the train isn’t willing to do.

During all this, Volonte’s excitable, childish Anthony Quinn act is really hateful. His boyish enthusiasm is meant to be likeable, possibly. Yet we’re involved in the soldiers’ horrible dilemma, so this jovial madman, who sees it all as a big joke, is unbearable. But it’s something the movie overcomes. By pairing him with Castel’s cool dude, who dresses like an American gangster, we get something theoretically comparable to Eastwood and Wallach in THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY. What transforms it is politics — Volonte is at least somewhat motivated by sincere revolutionary fervour, while Castel has an entirely hidden agenda of his own — and sex. This becomes uncomfortably obvious to both men when Volonte’s El Chuncho kills a friend who has attacked Castel’s Bill “El Nino” Tate. He can’t explain why he’s done it. He’s not very bright or very articulate. But he seems to sense it. And so does Tate.

Fortunately, there are lots of violent missions to carry out — both their overt ones, and Tate’s private one, which brings things to a head. It’s all really interesting. Cox identifies it as the first western with a gay subtext that’s inescapable. I think RED RIVER might beat it out there, but the Volonte-Castel love story is more central here. (The Monty Clift-John Ireland love story might have been more prominent in RED RIVER if Howard Hawks, who was responsible for it, hadn’t drastically cut down Ireland’s role, peeved that Ireland had taken up with a female co-star he’d had his eye on).

Music is by Luis Bacalov, a good choice if you can’t get Morricone or Ortolani. Alex Cox is particularly keen on the film’s art direction — I think you never really believe an Italian western is happening where it says it is — even the undeniable presence of Monument Valley in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST feels like a trick — which it kind of is, since we’re in Spain the rest of the time — but this is a pretty convincing Mexican revolution.

Cox gets very irate about the opening VO, which didn’t bother me at all. Unnecessary, perhaps, but these things can have an atmospheric value, giving a spurious documentary sheen to fictionalized settings and action.

The film’s two titles are both good — A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL is quite literally what Castel is carrying. It’s a golden bullet, as in DJANGO KILL. A favoured image (see also RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL) which literally combines the two obsessions of the genre, money and violence. Alex Cox has pointed out that the spaghetti western hero from Leone on is not too interested in sex or love or justice, and money is secondary, but killing is ALL-IMPORTANT. QUIEN SABE? (WHO KNOWS?) is a key line of dialogue that really resonates in the film, and seems to stand in for everything poor dumb El Chuncho can’t verbalize.

Volonte’s appearance in the film made this one of the few Klaus Kinski pictures where Kinski wasn’t the director’s biggest problem (Kinski was TWICE in movies where people plotted to assassinate him, he was such a pain). Volonte, objecting to his costume, showed up on set naked. Damiani got angry with him and shoved him off his horse. I’m not sure if this was all the same incident or two different occasions.

But Volonte is really good, and Castel, more subdued, is a great acting partner for him. The movie has some of the best acting I’ve seen in a spaghetti. (The leads in the Leone films are always iconic, and James Coburn reacting to the firing squad in the rain at night in the uneven DUCK YOU SUCKER gives the greatest reaction shots of his career.)

Kinski is very fine also, though with him it can feel as much a triumph of physiognomy as acting. But at a certain point, the two are inseparable. Beswick has less to do, and her best scene is hampered by her worst facial expressions, but it IS an interesting scene. Some of the bandits want to rape a rich woman they’ve captured. Beswick’s “Adelita” is all for this. She was raped at 15, so why should this woman be spared. It’s a depressing but believable sentiment. Compare it to DUCK, YOU SUCKER! where Leone seems to consider rape as an amusing form of class revenge. Here, the unacceptable views are at least coming from a character, not (seemingly) from the filmmaker.

Big spoilers now — Volonte’s El Chuncho has a serious case of star worship about his General. Ushered into the man’s presence, he is promptly sentenced to death for abandoning a village he’d earlier liberated. Heartbreaking interrogation where Chuncho, an honest man, is talked into proposing his own execution. Here, Volonte starts to be absolutely incredible. Your heart breaks for the murderous bastard.

Kinski volunteers for the job of his brother’s executioner (he would), but is killed by Tate/Castel, who is fulfilling his true mission, to get close to the General and assassinate him.

El Chuncho now follows Tate back to his spymasters, planning to murder him, but then learns that he’s rich — Tate has set aside half his huge fee for him. He takes the bandit to get a makeover and to get laid. El Chuncho goes along like a man in a dream. He had intended to avenge the general, but suddenly he has everything he could ever want, including Tate’s friendship.

It flashed on me suddenly what this reminded me of: the section in Tess of the D’Urbervilles where she becomes the lover of her rapist, because she can’t process what he did to her. Volonte plays everything with exactly the right sense of concussed daze. In his new city clothes, he’s like a strange shaggy child.

And then he wakes up. Tate can’t understand why El Chuncho suddenly wants to kill him. Neither can El Chuncho. Who knows? But, the deed done, El Chuncho recovers his revolutionary fervour, so it’s a happy ending. But you have questions, which is good.

A proper movie! It transcends its genre while still providing the pleasures associated with its genre. And while DD’s closeups don’t have the iconic/comicbook impact of Leone’s and his epic sweep isn’t as epic or sweeping, his less explosive style allows for more depth.

A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL stars Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano; Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald; Sister Hyde; Cesare Borgia; Man Friday; and Dr. Choma Kruvajan.

Enough Rope

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2021 by dcairns

Um. This is the first time I can remember feeling the pressure that I suspect broadsheet reviewers suffer from. The way they seem to go in lock-step so much of the time, even remarking on the same points in the films under discussion. Occasionally you’ll get a “look at me” review where someone will defend a movie that’s been trashed by everyone else. Rarer to get a lone negative review. One feels like one is missing out on something perceived readily by others.

So it feels vaguely sacrilegious of me to be writing that I found Jane Campion’s film THE POWER OF THE DOG a little… dull. Incredibly lovely-looking. Good performances. But neither Fiona or I felt the dread that others have talked about. We felt a notable lack of tension, actually. It may be because Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t a natural tough guy. I’m not sure tough is something you can act. Though certainly a lot of movie tough guys were probably not so tough in reality, they looked it on the screen, and Benedict doesn’t. There’s nothing wrong with his acting. He’s clearly committed to the physicality. His character is nasty — Fiona wanted someone to hit him, immediately. It wasn’t clear why nobody did, because he didn’t seem like the kind of fellow they’d be scared of.

Kubrick reckoned that intelligence was the only quality that couldn’t be acted, which sounds good, but doesn’t seem true to me. If the actors learn the lines and how to pronounce the big words, they can make it seem like they’re thinking them up — that’s what actors do. OK, maybe Denise Richards playing a nuclear physicist is pushing it, but usually the illusion is achievable. As John Huston cruelly observed, in FREUD, Montgomery Clift makes us believe he’s thinking.

So I think a certain kind of danger, toughness, hardness, is the unactable quality, it’s a matter of physiognomy and essence. If R. Lee Ermey can’t make Matthew Modine look like a killer, what chance does Jane Campion have with the lovely Mr. Cumberbatch? In fact, BC may have the opposite problem: he can’t hide his intelligence. So he can’t say “It’s time she faces up to a few — whatchacallum? — facts!” and make us believe he’s that inarticulate. The solution would be for him to get so furious he starts to lose his language, but does he have that kind of anger in him?

Without the fear seeming real, the movie becomes a succession of attractive scenes of people who don’t communicate. Which is of only mild interest, until things get strange with Kodi-Smit McPhee.

THE POWER OF THE DOG: KODI SMIT-McPHEE as PETER in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

We did get really excited about the bit with the dog though. There’s a shape in the hills — a barking dog — and only two of the characters can see it. It’s a shadow. The hills themselves vaguely resemble crouching animals, but when they talk about the dog, it took me ages to see it. And then I helped Fiona see it. It’s good and subtle. Imagine what a scene we’d have made in a cinema. (We watched on Netflix.)

Can you see the dog?

I guess I’m doing something human and stupid — assuming that because I wasn’t bowled over by the film, others who say they were are being insincere. I guess also if I felt my opinion had any chance of affecting Campion’s employment prospects — it’s been too long since her last film, and the climate is not favourable to anyone making dramas without people getting punched through buildings — I would bite my tongue. And if I were interviewing Campion and she started talking about getting Benedict Cumberbatch and Jessie Plemons to waltz together so they would learn each others smell and feel like brothers, I might not suggest getting them to wrestle instead. But I would think it.

Creative Differences

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2021 by dcairns

I can’t write anything better about BITTER VICTORY than Jonathan Rosenbaum’s piece, which is one of his really good ones. He gets at the ambiguity of the two main characters — Curt Jurgens as Brand, essentially the villain, ought to attract our sympathies more than he does, and Richard Burton’s hero, Leith, oughtn’t to be as appealing as he is. Of course, a lot of this has to do with casting, and Ray’s relationships with his stars. Jurgens was forced on him. Burton, a fellow alcoholic, was sympatico, and Ray tried to get him for KING OF KINGS later, and Burton seriously thought about it.

Brand is a coward and a hypocrite, pathologically jealous, and somewhat brutal. But he’s TRYING to be brave, sometimes he is, and his anxiety about his wife’s fidelity is not wholly without foundation. I think she’s ready to take off with Burton if the circumstances allow it. Still, he’s an unattractive character, unattractively played. Jurgens kept protesting that he wasn’t sympathetic enough, but if Ray tried to fix that, his feelings about having Jurgens forced on him maybe got in the way. Ray was rewriting with Gavin Lambert, the psycho producer was rewriting with Paul Gallico, on another continent, and meanwhile the original author had script approval.

It’s interesting that Ray, by all accounts a supersensitive and uncannily perceptive guy, chose to make his European debut with a producer who turned out, according to Lambert, to be someone who enjoyed destroying directors. Given Ray’s noted self-destructiveness, it’s possible he chose Graetz, at some subconscious level, as just the kind of guy he ought to have nothing to do with.

The making of a film often seems to echo the story of the film, so it’s also easy to see Leith and Brand as portraits of Ray and Graetz. Leith, the romantic T.E. Lawrence figure — like Lawrence, an archaeologist, and someone who upsets his commanders because of his strange manner — Brand, the bully and desk-jockey who instinctively resents Leith, and who is constantly trying to prove himself against him. The reason Leith, and the audiences, give Brand no credit for drinking water that may be poisoned, is that it requires no physical courage, just a lack of imagination.

The one area where Brand’s imagination is on overdrive is his sexual jealousy of his wife and Leith. In fact, the two last met before Brand came on the scene, and they’re much too noble to do anything about their lingering emotions. But Brand evidently has a whole other movie playing in his head…

Ray had wanted Montgomery Clift as Leith, and Burton in the other role, as Brand. Had that been the case, Leith would certainly still have been more appealing than Brand (Burton could do nasty very well, Monty did soulful and vulnerable) but the balance would have been closer. Whether Clift could have made himself sound like a British officer is questionable. But part of the film’s interest is the way Leith’s perversity, self-destructiveness, crazy romanticism and sadistic goading of Brand play out as heroic and noble. The more you pick it apart afterwards the more interesting it gets.

I also love the look of the desert scenes, among the most barren ever filmed. LAWRENCE’s dunes are like feminine fleshscapes by comparison. In daylight, the contrast is so low the action is almost happening against an infinity curve, and at night there’s faux-lunar floodlighting against a jet-black sky, so we get warring voids.

Asides from the central trio (Ruth Roman is pretty good, but Ray wanted Moira Shearer), the only other substantial characters are a sympathetic Arab guide (Raymond Pellegrin, excellent) and the viciously mad Private Wilkins, played by the great Nigel Green.

Green can conjure a glint of madness like few other actors. It can just be THERE, not doing anything, suggesting a weird blinkered disassociation, like in THE IPCRESS FILE. But Wilkins is out where the buses don’t run. He’s evidently been doing this kind of thing too long. Everything’s a joke to him. We’re all going to die? That’s a good joke. We’re just going to suffer horribly? Still funny. Someone else is going to die instead? Equally good. Despite having just about the same attitude to everything that can or might happen, Green is electrifying in the role and Wilkins is terrifyingly unpredictable.

The other familiar face is Christopher Lee, playing another working class private. Lee rarely played plebeian, but is reasonable convincing, and of course he’s the most convincing commando. He MOVES awfully well. In Arab dress, at night, he totally evokes the kind of horror movie he was about become famous for. They should have let him show Burton how to ambush a man and stab him in the back, silently. Lee had actual military experience doing that. Burton’s approach gives the enemy plenty of time to yell and would not work. Still, at this very instant comes the extraordinary moment when Burton lets out a gasp — he’s doing the killing, but it’s like HE’S the one being killed. This close juxtaposition of the clumsy and the brilliant is what Truffaut perhaps meant when he remarked that Ray’s films were often not as “well-made” as other Hollywood filmmakers’, but he got moments of truth that nobody else would go near.

And, often, these moments involve violence.

The unfolding of the desert mission — retrieving enemy documents of completely opaque significance — kept reminding me of HOW I WON THE WAR. Running out of water, men cracking under the strain. Both films reference Lawrence without naming him. But it didn’t seem likely to have been a direct influence on Richard Lester. But it might conceivably have inspired novelist Patrick Ryan, who wrote the source book. The crazy, near-abstract mission is oddly close to satire, but markedly without laughs.