Archive for Murder on the Orient Express

Captain X

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2019 by dcairns

It was DER REST IST SCHWEIGEN that gave me the idea of re-watching THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR. Kautner steals the image of the painting seen in a dark room which looks like a person — his swipe is a nicely done variation, though: the room is all dark, but the painting has its own illumination, which comes on a second before the rest of the lights.

But Mankiewicz did it first in this, perhaps his most visually beautiful and imaginative film.

JLM is sometimes criticised for prioritising words, and there are places in each film where this maybe becomes a slight issue. THE LATE GEORGE APLEY, an underrated film I think, makes a big thing of Peggy Cummins’ wedding dress — but then never lets you see it properly. And here, Natalie Wood is delighted as her name is carved in a marker at the beach, with the man telling her he’s made the lettering big so the ships can see it. But it’s facing the land! Yes, I’m a pendantic swine, but I always hold that kids are pedantic too.

It’s a very funny film too, but it always brings a tear to my eye. First time it happens is Gene Tierney saying “It’s hard to imagine you as an ordinary anything,” to Rex Harrison’s ghost and the LOOK he gives her — an indefinable mixture of pride, complacency, tenderness and adoration. And Bernard Herrmann’s score is part of it, and all the rest.

Tierney was supposed to be Katharine Hepburn, who would have brought more eccentricity — from the outside, it’s the story of a crazy lady — but Tierney makes it sexier, I think. She’s not the actress Hepburn was, but she really grows into it — her old-age acting is very understated and effective. Harrison is playing a character where he has to put on a voice for the whole film — and he can do it. He’s one of the two greatest light comedians the screen has known (Cary Grant’s the other) and so if you make things hard for him, he just gets better — or that’s the impression he gives here.

Also, BLITHE SPIRIT has given him invaluable experience of spiritism cross-talk.

“What we’ve missed… what we’ve both missed,” is the second teary moment. The climax of a Grand Speech (do we suppose Mank rewrote Philip Dunne’s script a fair bit?)

It’s also an interesting test case of Bernard Herrmann’s scoring — how he can do stuff that is, in theory and by any logic, too heavy and overpowering for the material, and make it absolutely right. So that I don’t know that I believe Elmer Bernstein’s thing about how Herrmann would have overwhelmed MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by treating it as “a Train of Death” rather than as a cosy and nostalgic romance of steam. Herrmann seems to demonstrate consistently that he can make stuff work in better and less expected ways by taking it much, much too seriously. It would be awful if he wasn’t so brilliant.

“With Captain Gregg? With the ghost of Captain Gregg?” That one caught me off-guard. The ghost has been an imaginary friend to Mrs. Muir’s daughter, who still remembers him now she’s grown up. (Wipes away manly tear.)

The film does something really lovely with fantasy — the idea that we may have fantastical characters in our lives, only we’re not allowed to remember them, or entirely believe in them.

And then the ending.

THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR stars Laura Hunt; Professor Henry Higgins; Addison DeWitt; Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe; and Daisy Clover.

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…

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!