Archive for Montgomery Clift

The Hitman and Her

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2019 by dcairns

I didn’t like PRIZZI’S HONOR that much at the time — but I just read Richard Condon’ s source novel, which is terrific, so I gave the movie another shot. Nope, still don’t like it much, but for different reasons.

I wondered at the time if John Huston were getting a free pass from critics because was obviously nearing the end of his run, and because everyone was relieved this wasn’t another ANNIE or ECAPE TO VICTORY. I’m pretty sure now that’s EXACTLY what was happening. But I’m kind of glad it did: we got THE DEAD, maybe as a result of this one doing quite well, and THE DEAD is maybe a great film, certainly a great note to end on. Its cinematic qualities are very slight, but everything is good enough to let the writing and performances carry it, and they do. Result: majesty.

PRIZZI’S HONOR is quite extraordinarily faithful to its source, which turn s out to be a good thing in this case: even the photographs mounted behind William Hickey at the ceremony he throw s to announce his son’s quasi-retirement are as Condon describes them: Toscanini, Pope Pius XII, Enrico Caruso and Richard M. Nixon.

The supporting actors resemble their characters as described in the book to a startling degree: Don Corrado has tiny, steely eyes so William Hickey, playing a man thirty years older than himself, causes his normal-sized eyeballs to shrink by will alone. He’s a 100% convincing octogenarian in his late fifties, and it has nothing to do with the vampire makeup they’ve given him. (A critic once complained that Hickey wasn’t realistic in some play he was doing: Hickey remarked, “People don’t go to the theatre to see REALITY, they go to see AAAAAAAAAAAAAAACTING!“)

Here’s Condon describing Maerose Prizzi through protagonist Charley Partanna’s eyes:

“Maerose was a great woman even if she had messed up. She was a very wop looker, all eyes and beautiful bones among the grabbing domes and dunes. She was almost as tall as Charley, with sad eyes and long fingers. She was a woman who had done everything right — except once.”

Easy to picture John Huston reading that and thinking, I know who’d be just right for it. Of course, Anjelica Huston isn’t Italianamerican but of all the WASP actors in the cast she gets it the most right. And she’s stylised but real, like Hickey. She overplays everything and makes you like it.

The film’s problem is Jack Nicholson. It isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw that he doesn’t resemble the Charley Partanna in the book, a physically imposing tough guy. “Jesus he was big. He was like a tall rectangle of meat and hair.” But his dumpy appearance gives Kathleen Turner severe motivational problems when she has to act falling in love with him.

Huston at the time remarked that most of the takes in the film were take one, thanks to Jack. Looking at it now, I think it needed a few more takes, all the way through. Maybe not Kubrickian numbers, that had a weird effect, but just a few more to let him calm down and let his co-stars get used to him.

Nicholson plays the thing with a prosthesis in his upper lip which does make him look like a mook, but does nothing for his supposed seductiveness and is a bit distracting: we know he’s NOT a mook, just Jack Nicholson with a thing in his lip. He also overplays Charley’s dumbness, adding to our puzzlement about why Turner should be attracted to him. In the book this is all made clear with prose from her point of view: she needs to seduce Charley to pull off the scam she’s running, then falls for him because nobody was ever so kind to her, and he’s fantastic in the sack. None of this is really present in the film.

Kathleen Turner struck Fiona as “just kind of plastic,” which I think is because what she’s acting against makes no sense to her and she has to try to shut it out and project a fantasy co-star to act opposite. She must have seen Nicholson was a problem — dumb, slobby and ugly — but her director was apparently enamoured of the guy. Maybe JH should have taken Turner’s role.

The editor is obviously smitten too: scenes which could cut sharply on a funny line are allowed to expire slowly over a lingering dissolve. Nicholson has one of these unconvincing phone calls where nobody says “‘Bye,” and instead of cutting, which could have solved that nicely, we have to look at him vamp while waiting for his director to say “Cut.” Sometimes those moments are golden. One shouldn’t say “Cut,” until every possible thing has happened. But then one should be brutal in the edit. Here, Nicholson shifts awkwardly on his feet, then LOOKS AT THE PHONE QUIZZICALLY. Something nobody ever did. Ever! And it gives us plenty of time to wonder if the phone call is over. Aren’t they going to say goodbye?

Find a woman who looks at you like Kathleen Turner is pretending to look at Jack Nicholson here.

Stanley Kubrick wanted to cast Nicholson as Napoleon, which we all know would have been hilarious because we’ve seen him in uniform in THE TERROR, but his reasoning was that Nicholson projected intelligence, “the one quality that can’t be faked.” Ridiculously untrue: write intelligent lines for an actor and he can learn not only the words but their meaning, say them like he just thought of them, and look intelligent. Huston knew this from FREUD, where Montgomery Clift was barely functioning. “On the screen, he looked like he was thinking. God knows he wasn’t.”

Nicholson’s trouble is that he can’t fake dumb: he’s an incurable wise-ass and he has to wink at us to let us know he’s not really this dumb jerk of a mob guy.

A shame, because with DeNiro or… or maybe we’ve even found a role Stallone could play? … and a decent editor and a decent font and some better medicine for the director this really could be the film reviewers said it was.

But I’ve been wrong before. As an 18-year-old in 1985 I was confused by Huston’s uncertain period setting — it’s, in fact, a modern film made to feel like a period one, just like WISE BLOOD; and I didn’t like that the lovers were fatally parted. I thought the movie’s job, having put this insuperable barrier of mob life between them, was to somehow solve the problem. I think the film fails as a comic tragedy, whereas the book succeeds because you really feel something for the characters, loathsome as they ought to be (we hear a bit about Charley’s career zotzing people and it’s blood-chilling). A lot of the book’s best writing occurs inside the characters’ heads, and naturally, that’s the stuff the (really quite accomplished) script can’t do.

But it did lead to THE DEAD and it did give us Anjelica Huston, who was, whatever the reviewers said, GREAT in her dad’s A WALK WITH LOVE AND DEATH and is great again here.

PRIZZI’S HONOR stars Jack Torrence; Dolores Benedict Hfuhruhurr; ——Morticia Addams; Dick Laurent; Arthur Hamilton; Rudolph Smuntz; Anton Bartok; Joe Cabot; Mo’at; The Horla; and Stanley Kubrick.

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The View

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2017 by dcairns

When David Leland’s lovely WISH YOU WERE HERE came out, he did a Q&A in Edinburgh and said the main difference he’d found between theatre and film directing was that “In cinema, there’s only one seat in the house, and it always has to be the best one.”

This is cute, glib, somewhat true, but worth unpicking. A director in the theatre has to consider what can be seen and heard by audience members scattered around the auditorium. In cinema, though obviously there ARE lots of seats, the view controlled by the director is that of the camera. The camera, Leland is saying, always has to be in the best position. But what IS the best position?

Looking at creatively directed movies soon demonstrates that the best position is not necessarily the most explicit view. Sometimes the camera withdraws somewhat to aid the emotional effect of the scene. Billy Wilder suggested that a character having an idea, or receiving terrible news, is best filmed from behind, enlisting the audience’s imagination, showing a certain discretion, avoiding cliché (the lightbulb over the head), and maybe saving the filmmaker from the impossible task of showing the unshowable (what should MacDuff’s face do when he’s told his entire family have been killed?)…

In THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and again in THE LIMEY, a massacre occurs inside a building while the camera waits, timorously, outside. Refusing to serve up the usual action shots creates an awe-inspiring sense of something too horrible to be seen. In TAXI DRIVER, Scorsese slides his camera off Travis when he’s on the phone to Betsy, preferring to show us the empty corridor down which Travis will inevitably walk once rejected. Mike Hodges pulled back from George Segal’s breakdown in THE TERMINAL MAN, feeling “It’s too painful,” and wanting to give the character some privacy. The suits couldn’t comprehend this choice, and wanted him to close in, to “show the emotion,” an approach Hodges found pornographic.

Choosing to conceal rather than reveal can be terrifically effective, and always indicates a creative filmmaker at work (unless it indicates pure ineptitude). I can sort of respect the choice even when I don’t think it works. In Peter Brook’s KING LEAR, he includes fairly frequent shots of the backs of people’s heads. He explained that in Shakespeare, there are moments when the words are doing everything and images would detract. (In the continuous longshot of the stage, this is less of an issue, apparently.) Brook didn’t feel he could just cut to black, but he and his cinematographer DID feel they could get away with filling the screen with a centrally-framed, often blurry, rear view of Paul Scofield’s cranium. They were dead wrong, and Brook is no filmmaker if you ask me. But it was certainly an example of creative thought in action.

(Why I don’t think it works: the blank walls of hair and scalp serve as interruptions; they make the audience wonder, futilely, what is going on; they aren’t incorporated into a blocking and cutting pattern; they distract from the words far more than simply holding the shot would have done.)

There’s a particularly great example of directorial discretion in George Stevens’ film A PLACE IN THE SUN. Montgomery Clift arrives hours late at Shelley Winters’ place. He was supposed to spend his birthday with her (his official girlfriend) but instead has been with Elizabeth Taylor. Winters feels miserable about being stood up. Clift feels miserable and guilty for doing it (but would totally do it again).

And Stevens films the whole thing from outside the room.

As the scene develops, the angle comes to seem, in a conventional sense, less and less adequate. When the characters sit, we only have Shelley’s back, a Brooksian lump of hair. By the end of the scene, both characters are almost entirely unreadable, you would think, Shelley still just a blind slab of back, Monty crouching on the floor, hidden behind her with just his hand in shot. Our expensive stars are turned away from the lens AND blocked AND tiny in frame. “Shoot the money” this ain’t. But as the awkwardness and discomfort of the scene mounts continuously, and is obviously the correct emotion, nobody could reasonably say the action isn’t well-covered. Stevens’ bold choice delivers the required feeling. And paradoxically, by showing discretion and averting our eyes from the angst-ridden subjects, he doesn’t protect us from suffering, in a way he elevates the agony. Big close-ups of blubbering faces are often so repellant that you’re prevented from pity by sheer revulsion. Wide empty frames enlist the imagination — in this case, the empty bed forms an accusing plain.

What makes this even more impressive is what we’re told about Stevens’ filming style. “He shoots in a circle,” they said, meaning that Stevens would start aiming north and film a wide shot and singles of different sizes of every character, then arc around the action ninety degrees and shoot from the east, repeating all the shot sizes, and then do the same for the other points of the compass, acquiring a colossal amount of footage, most of it useless as soon as he made his choice in the cutting room about what view he liked best. Incredible to think he began as cinematographer to Laurel & Hardy, who didn’t even rehearse.

In this case, either Stevens made a single bold decision before turning over a frame of film, suggesting that the conventional view of his approach is exaggerated or incomplete, or he went ahead and filmed every possible angle on this scene and, in reviewing the material in the cutting room, noticed that this take worked, sustained interest all the way through, and was better than anything he could get by cutting back and forth between different angles (meaning, presumably, he’d have had to cut the scene together a few different ways to be sure of this). Either explanation is hugely impressive to me.

I once read an article by Arthur Koestler explaining that computers would never be able to play chess. This was written decades before computers learned to play chess. Koestler explained that, since computers were not intelligent (which is still true), they could only attempt to play chess by considering every possible move, even the ones that make no sense and are instant suicide. “This is a very stupid way to play chess,” he argued. Since the number of possible moves increases as you project more and more turns ahead, and quickly becomes astronomical, Koestler argued, reasonably enough, that there would never be enough computing power to pull it off. Well, now there is, and I assume computers still play chess the same way, considering all the choices, but can really consider ALL the choices, so a good chess computer is just about unbeatable.

Stevens seems to have been trying to direct films the way computers play chess. And it IS, usually, a stupid way to direct films. Dump-truck directing tends to look bland, and just filming a wide shot and many many medium and close shots does not even guarantee that you’ve covered the scene. John Frankenheimer found that an ECU of a raindrop hitting a stopwatch was just the shot required to solve a huge storytelling/pace/continuity/weather problem on GRAND PRIX. The kind of thing that can only be attained by imagination, which is a fuzzy and chaotic approach, not a methodical one.

What blows my mind with Stevens is how he frequently got imagination to thrive within what would seem to be a rather arid methodology. Hats off!

Napster

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 25, 2016 by dcairns

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Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON gives us five-and-a-half hours on France’s smartest, bravest, sexiest, tallest man.

I’m not sure if star Albert Dieudonné was actually tall — in one of two shots there are other actors who out-heighten him. But more often, Gance gives him screen prominence that makes him seem to tower over his surroundings, and his bony, sharp features and slender frame create an impression more of tallness than its opposite. Basically, nothing about him really evokes the historical figure he impersonates, but like Chaplin, Napoleon can be reduced to a hat and a stance, and so anybody can stand in for him.

Dieudonné’s great advantage is his intensity, which he seems to carry with him at all times and which makes itself felt even if he just sits there. You believe he must be a military genius because of his presence and how Gance frames him. Kubrick believed Jack Nicholson would make a good Napoleon because he felt intelligence was the one quality that can’t be acted. I’m not sure that’s true. If the actor is bright enough to understand something, they can play the person who invented it. While there are certainly cases like Denise Richardson playing a nuclear physicist which seem to insult OUR intelligence, for the most part, a moderately sentient thespian can play a brainbox by hard work. John Huston was ultimately impressed by the way Montgomery Clift convinced us in FREUD that he was having original thoughts, when in fact the poor man’s brain was basically burned out. What convinces us of genius is the one quality Nicholson and Dieudonné both share — that mysterious quality called presence.