Archive for Murder on the Orient Express

A Train of Death

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2016 by dcairns

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The story is told, by Elmer Bernstein, that he once sent a tape of Sidney Lumet’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS to legendary composer Bernard Herrmann, figuring Richard Rodney Bennett’s score might appeal to the old guy. (Lumet says in his book Making Movies that this was the one film he made were he really wanted the audience to be aware of the score. Lush, romantic, exotic, period. The dubbing editor had laid an amazing bunch of tracks for the scene where the train starts its fatal journey with pistons and steam and even a TING as the light came on. Lumet threw them all out when he heard the score.

The score made the famously choleric Herrmann apoplectic with rage, “Did the composer not understand,” he asked, “that this was a Train Of Death?”

Bernstein’s point in relating this was that Herrmann, though a genius of film composition, was perhaps a little heavy at times and might take things over-literally. Lumet did not intend his all-star murder mystery to be doom-laden.

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I found myself using the expression “Did the composer not understand-?” while watching IT HAPPENED IN BROAD DAYLIGHT, a skillfully made Swiss thriller scripted by Friedrich Durrenmatt. FD later came to believe that the script he’d written was not plausible, and reshaped it as his novel The Pledge: An Elegy for the Detective Story.

In the movie, directed by Ladislao Vajda, a detective (Heinz Ruhmann, usually known for comedies) becomes convinced that the vagrant who hanged himself after confessing to a child murder (Michel Simon) was not actually guilty, and sets out to catch the killer using a forensic profile and live bait.

In the film, this succeeds, but the novel reverses this by throwing in the randomness of real life — the killer never makes it to the trap that’s been set, and the detective goes to his grave never knowing for sure if he was right. It’s an amazing book.

One thing that lets the movie down, despite a strong cast and good noirish visuals, is the score, which is fine to listen to and good and dramatic, but did cause me to utter the time-honoured words “Did the composer not realize-?”

In this case, what’s missing is dramatic irony. The composer — OK, let’s name the poor man, Bruno Canfora, he may still be alive — does good bombast for moments of straight-up shock, but let’s the side down when a more subtle effect is called for.

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Little girl playing in woods.

Looks up and sees Gert Frobe. Gert fucking Frobe. Being a puppeteer magician dude. This is how he grooms kids before killing them.

At sight of Frobe, Canfora lets out a shocking scream, via his orchestra. In principle, it’s effective. It’s playing along with what we know about this perilous situation. But how much creepier to play along with the little girl’s understanding? A strange, mysterious and magical man has suddenly appeared in the forest, and wants to play with her. Treat it like Disney, maestro Canfora, and we will be truly creeped out.

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A similar but opposite blunder — the danger is known and the kid has been safely locked indoors. But she escapes, to go playing. Canfora accompanies her exit with gentle, whimsical playing music. Maybe he would have got away with this if he’d kept to the child’s emotions earlier, but now we expect music of terror. We know this kid is potentially skipping to her demise. You MIGHT, as I say, be able to play this lightly if you’d established a capacity for lightness. But the music doesn’t even bring us into the little girl’s world. It’s sentimental, parental music, that looks at a playing child from a distance and says “Aww.” If we’re not going to be in HER world, we need to be in our own, in which case the music should now be screaming a warning…

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King of the Hill

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2015 by dcairns

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JUST TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT is a Sidney Lumet I’d never seen — from 1980 — Fiona got very excited when she learned it was written by Jan Presson Allen (MARNIE, CABARET) from her own novel. I could never understand why writers should be forbidden from writing their own movie adaptations, providing they understand screenwriting. Allen learned from Hitchcock.

Alan King plays a tycoon and Ali McGraw is his mistress and business protegé. This could almost have been a 30s romantic comedy, except it’s a little TOO sophisticated even for that decade — McGraw disrobes and King uses the “cunt” word in front of Myrna Loy. (Water off a duck’s back to our Myrna. Fiona was also very excited about Myrna being in it.) Ultimately, Fiona kind of drifted away from the movie, not really liking the characters and put off by the score, which is indeed kind of diabolical. I was cheered to see that composer Charles Strouse had a distinguished career, so that this can be dismissed as a blip.

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(In his terrific book, Making Movies, Lumet is a little defensive about his work with composers, saying that MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS was the only movie where he wanted us to notice the score, and we did, and it was Oscar-nominated. But he did get it wrong from time to time. GARBO TALKS is a charming comedy rendered unwatchable by its music — same problem as JYMWYW — playing the comedy; Quincy Jones contributed odd and inappropriate scores to THE DEADLY AFFAIR and THE ANDERSON TAPES, though elsewhere he’s been a versatile and sensitive accompanist. Q&A has a score by Ruben Blades that might work extremely well if it didn’t have bloody lyrics, which render the whole thing jumbled and distracting. And then there’s THE WIZ.)

The other thing that makes the movie modern is Alan King, who isn’t an old-fashioned movie star, and commits to playing a rather loathsome character in a way that no old-school star would. Cary Grant could have done the same stuff, but with a twinkle. King’s barefaced aggression and vindictiveness do make it awfully hard to care about the central relationship — I rooted for McGraw when she violently assaults King in Bergdorf Goodman, but not when she made up afterwards. Still, I wouldn’t want to lose any of the bad behaviour — the portrayal of this all-powerful businessman as a peevish child (with added lechery) has a frankness that’s appealing.

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Also with: a painfully young Peter Weller, a painfully old Keenan Wynn (lovely), and Tony Roberts being gay.

This is Loy’s last movie, and she’s great in it as a hyper-efficient P.A. who has no illusions about the kind of man she works for, and manages to like him without looking the other way — up to a point. This could theoretically have run in The Late Films Blogathon, but I decided just to use it as a reminder. Dec 1st-7th. All are welcome!

Leave it to Cadaver

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 14, 2009 by dcairns

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A rare factual error from Pat Hitchcock in the DVD extras of THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY — the Jack Trevor who appears in Hitchcock’s CHAMPAGNE is not the same fellow as Jack Trevor Story, author of the source novel of this, sometimes cited by Hitchcock as his favourite film. They have different dates and places of birth and death, and of course, different names.

Story is otherwise best known as author of the satirical Live Now, Pay Later. The only thing I’ve read by him was an intro to a Michael Moorcock novel, which was funny and vitriolic and gave free rein to the author’s humorous jealousy of his even more prolific friend. Looking through his CV, he clearly had a genius for titles: Mix Me a Person, Man Pinches Bottom, Dishonourable Member, Hitler Needs You.

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Transferring the very English comedy of manners to New England, Hitch and John Michael Hayes create a very warm, witty piece, a black comedy that’s really rather sweet at heart. “The British are funny about death. Mention death in Britain and immediately somebody laughs,” observed Spike Milligan. And while Hitch has puckish fun with the rather shocking callousness with which his assorted cast of eccentrics responds to the arrival of an unwelcome stiff named Harry Worp, he also invites us to love and root for the five off-centre persons at the heart of his plot.

Shirley MacLaine has to rate as Hitchcock’s greatest acting discovery (although it was his producer who spotted her), and she was lucky enough to be spared all the stress Tippi Hedren later went through, emerging onscreen rather un-made-over, very much her adorable self. John Forsythe is remarkably relaxed and alive here, in what probably is his best ever role. It obviously helps that he has a good script to back him up. In THE GLASS WEB, a decent but uninspired piece of writing, Forsythe seems sullen and devoid of charisma. But the man in HARRY is entirely different, a live wire, intense, attentive, sympathetic yet a little askew. And there’s something nice about the way Hitch casts the stalwart player as a quirky goof, probably drummed out of the beatnik movement for failure to conform. His delivery of the line “Little men with –” (dramatic flourish) — “hats!” is memorable. In fact, everybody gets a line they were born to say in this movie. For my money, Mildred Natwick’s apologetic handling of the sentence “He fell into a threshing machine,” is pantheonic. And I’m always quoting little Jerry Mathers’ rendition of the seemingly ordinary line “I don’t understand that.”

Edmund Gwenn, who Hitch had tinkered with since early talking pictures, without quite finding a decent use for the guy (WALTZES FROM VIENNA and THE SKIN GAME miscast Gwenn as a bully and a lout; FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT attempts to make of him a mild-mannered English assassin). Here, at last, he is successful — Gwenn’s Captain Albert Wiles is cherubically adorable, and his December-September romance with Natwick (where her advanced years seem to be the biggest issue) is charm itself.

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Everybody here is a kind of fantasist, or creates the world in a way pleasing to them, except Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano), who as a policeman and a hard-headed realist is doubly damned in Hitchcock’s world. Although even he becomes sympathetic when Forsythe humiliates him with a lot of fancy talk and destruction of his evidence. It’s a gentle movie without bad guys — even Harry was “too good,” rather than the kind of cad he’s taken for, with his two-colour socks and shiny shoes.

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Forsythe has decided that he’s a great artist, and in the best Howard Roark manner, he doesn’t require the outside world’s validation. Captain Wiles has constructed a romantic past for himself, as globe-trotting sailor, and Natwick’s Miss Ivy Gravely hardly speaks an honest word in the whole movie, carefully constructing an identity some years younger than her own. MacLaine is more straightforward, but her son Arnie (Jerry Mathers from TV’s Leave It to Beaver, which I’ve never really seen) makes up for that — as Richard Hughes writes in A High Wind in Jamaica — “Their minds are not just more ignorant and simpler than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact).” Arnie, with his curious and individual ideas about Time, almost meets his match in Forsythe. “Today’s tomorrow,” he announces. “It was,” agrees Forsythe, after some hesitation.

Robert Burks’ evocation of the hues of autumn is sheer visual poetry, and all the more impressive given that a storm devastated the New England locations after only a few background plates had been taken. Those who complain of the duff process work in Hitchcock’s films are perhaps unaware of how much really successful fakery is going on (note that in TO CATCH A THIEF, when Cary Grant looks out the back window of the bus, FX maestro John P Fulton has added a reflection of Grant’s face to the second unit shot of receding country road — beautifully done, and showing a fine attention to detail). Most of the interaction of characters and landscape in this movie never actually happened.

Joining Hitch’s team is Bernard Herrmann, soon to be a crucial member. His light, but not too whimsical and never sugary score adds a warm emotional blanket to the action. BH later used the main theme as a standalone concert work, dedicated to Hitch, and the documentary Dial H for Hitchcock makes good use of the piece as a motif — it’s even more suitable than the Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme, capturing more of Hitch’s antic wit and childishness. It’s an atypical score — Herrmann is often thought of as a heavy composer (his dismissal of Richard Rodney Bennett’s nostalgic theme for MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS — “Didn’t the composer realize that this was a TRAIN OF DEATH?” — was used by Elmer Bernstein to illustrate Herrmann’s lack of irony) — but it seems that under the right circumstances, Herrmann could do comedy with a lighter touch than his laughing jackass orchestrations in CITIZEN KANE suggest. Very soon, of course, he would find himself scoring some of the more solemn and shocking moments in Hitch’s oeuvre.

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One of the ironies and inconsistencies which are so much a part of life — Hitch was extremely fond of this film, and yet long stretches of it could be dismissed as exactly the kind of “photographs of people talking” that he affected to dislike. On the other hand, in some shots, of which the image above is only the most glaring example, Hitch actually gets us to laugh at camera placement itself, making for a rare kind of cinematic beauty and humour.