Archive for Nigel Balchin

The Unchosen One

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2021 by dcairns

I picked up BARABBAS on DVD from a charity shop along with KING OF KINGS, £1 each, and was amazed at how good it was. I mean, this is Richard Fleischer’s widescreen period and I was pretty disappointed by 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. But Fleischer was good at widescreen and 3D and stuff, at least sometimes. I don’t quite know how to account for his patchiness.

But BARABBAS is based on an acclaimed novel by Pär Lagerkvist and adapted by Christopher Fry (The Lady’s Not for Burning) with an uncredited assist by Nigel Balchin (The Small Back Room). It has De Laurentiis’ millions behind it — but used with a winning combination of intelligence and taste and sheer vulgarity. When we first see the Coliseum, for instance, it’s a massive great set, with real extras in every row, not foosball figures rising and falling in rows, and the area is packed with brawling gladiators, some of them little people, with elephants, a tiger pit, flaming waters — absolutely crazy excess. And that’s basically just an establishing shot, though it’s about twenty shots.

This is one of those BEN-HUR jobs, biblical maginalia — take a character who’s around at the time of Christ and follow his wacky misadventures. Here it’s the thief who was spared crucifixion, played by Anthony Quinn in a boldly sullen, bovine manner — remarkable to have such an epic built around such an uningratiating figure. He’s surrounded by a good, eclectic cast that includes Katy Jurado, Silvana Mangano, Ernest Borgnine, Arthur Kennedy. Strongest impressions are made by Jack Palance as a sadistic gladiator — terrifying! — Harry Andrews, once described by Richard Burton as the world’s greatest wearer of costumes — and Michael Gwynn, building on his REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN experience by playing an eerie Lazarus.

(I bought the Burton diaries, btw. He also OUTS Harry A., thus rocking my world. NEVER would have guessed that.)

They shot a genuine solar eclipse for the crucifixion, but the jaw-dropping set pieces and beautiful compositions and lighting by Aldo Tonti (NIGHTS OF CABIRIA) make that a mere sideshow. Look at this shot (below) — the figures seem like hanging garlands dropping from the central hub, and the different skin tones of the various faces give it a floral look too.

Here we see the guy making the crown of thorns — unsung artisan of torture — and he pricks his finger making it. I said it was vulgar. They want to make you feel the sharpness of the thorns because we’re so used to the image we’re numb to it, but it’s pretty cheap. Still, I prefer it to the Mel Gibson solution which would just be to show graphic penetrative skin-ripping detail in close-up. And where would a biblical epic be without at least a bit of trivialising vulgarity?

It’s all amplified hugely by Mario Nascimbene’s score — his favourite trick is to sit down on the low notes of his piano in some reverberant cavern, creating an awesome slam. Sometimes we don’t even get the slam, just the dead echo of its passing. Spooky.

Barabbas has an encounter with the early Christians in Rome’s catacombs — it has a phantasmal quality that reminds me of Philip K Dick’s hallucinatory musings — “The Empire Never Ended” — anything taking place that far back in time should give us temporal vertigo, but so few movies pull it off — SATYRICON does, and so do bits of this.

Just when I thought I couldn’t like the film any more, for what it is, along comes the ANSWER TO A MYSTERY — beautiful depth-composed tracking shots of mass crucifixion — as used as stock footage with a lava overlay by Ken Russell in ALTERED STATES. I told you I really really wanted to know where that stuff came from. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I can die happy — I just had my second Covid jab and I want to get the benefit — but I’m absurdly pleased to have sorted that out.

The Big Dead One

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2015 by dcairns

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I’d seen bits of THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS (1956) on Film4 and it looked like a snooze, but the Anne Billson said she liked it so I investigated.

Ronald Neame was never what you’d call an exciting director, but he was always an affable one. Having made his Significant Contribution to cinema in his collaborations with David Lean, he settled into Lightly Likable for most of his career, apart from a few bloated floaters at the end.

And talk of floaters brings us to this movie, in which British intelligence plants a corpse at sea carrying faked documents to fool the Nazis into expecting an attack from the wrong direction. It’s unlikely stuff, and largely true — I’m now reading Ben MacIntyre’s enjoyable Operation Mincemeat, which details exploits of the various eccentrics who put this plan together, a plan for which the word “cockamamie” might have been invented, assuming that word ever was invented.

Here’s MacIntyre’s character study of coroner and co-conspirator Bentley Purchase ~

“He found death not only fascinating but extremely funny. No form of violent mortality surprised or upset him. ‘A depressing job?’ he once said. ‘Far from it. I can’t imagine it getting me down.’ He would offer slightly damp chocolates to guests in his private chambers, and joke: ‘They were found in Auntie’s bag when she was fished out of the Round Pond at Hampstead last night.’ A farmer by birth, Purchase was ‘rugged in appearance and character’ with ‘an impish sense of humour’ and a finely calibrated sense of the ridiculous: he loved Gilbert and Sullivan operas, toy trains, boiled eggs, and the model piggery he ran near Ipswich.”

Tragically, Purchase doesn’t appear in Neame’s film (scripted by ace novelist Nigel Balchin of THE SMALL BACK ROOM fame), but my old friend Sir Bernard Spilsbury does, embodied by the ever-impressive Andre Morell. Who better than a former BBC Quatermass to play this august pathologist?

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The first half of the film IS a little dull — it’s a procedural in which none of the details are surprising once we get over the macabre plot, with only some nifty comic timing from Laurence Naismith to liven it up. The scenario allows the inclusion of a couple of American actors — a very shiny Gloria Grahame is allowed since, after all, there must have been some Americans in London in 1943, and Clifton Webb can play an English officer because, after all, he’s snooty and gay which is almost as good as being English. The man he’s playing, Ewen Montagu, was brother of Hitchcock producer and Soviet spy Ivor Montagu.

Churchill goes unseen, like Celeste Holm in A LETTER TO THREE WIVES or Jesus in BEN-HUR, but Peter Sellers does the voice, with perhaps a little too much comic glee.

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Then Stephen Boyd enters as an Irish Nazi spy, sent to ascertain if the fictitious character invented for the corpse was ever real. Now some actual jeopardy is injected, since Boyd might upset the whole plan and also, HE’S in danger of being caught and hanged. And even if he is a Nazi spy, he’s a Personable Movie Star and we’re spending time with him so naturally we become implicated in his mission. Boyd is really good here, avoiding any show of overt villainy and just playing a rather exciting fellow doing a job. His charisma is at its peak. Fiona was impressed by the amount of detail in his bumpy forehead. “There’s a lot going on there. He’s like a Klingon!”

The only trouble is, he’s entirely fictitious. We had broken the Nazi codes by this point and had captured, executed or turned every single spy they had in Britain. I must say, though, he’s an admirable invention — he keeps the whole thing afloat, if you’ll pardon the expression. Boyd, and cameos like Naismith and Miles Malleson (“He won’t be doing the crossword tonight”) make the sedate Cinemascope entertainment just watchable enough. And then there’s the haunting bit of poetry at the graveside and it all goes very eerie and moving — out of left field, emotion enters the film, like a phantom, and sweeps through it, swinging the door shut as it goes.

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“Last night I dreamed a deadly dream, beyond the Isle of Sky, I saw a dead man win a fight, and I think that man was I.”

The Couch Trip

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 17, 2012 by dcairns

I read Nigel Balchin’s The Small Back Room some years back, being a fan of the Powell-Pressburger film. It’s very good, and the film is very faithful, apart from softening the ending — Balchin had a weakness for bleak, all-is-lost finales.

I haven’t seen SEPARATE LIES, filmed by Julian GOSFORD PARK Fellowes, from Balchin’s A Way Through the Woods. Is it any good? But I do like 23 PACES TO BAKER STREET, which Balchin scripted. He did quite a bit of screenwriting, in fact.

This year I tracked down Darkness Falls from the Air, Balchin’s novel of the London Blitz, which is devastating (I guess they said the same about the Blitz). It’s not surprising that one was never filmed — for a book written in wartime, it’s quite spectacularly un-jingoistic. Again, Balchin’s pessimism prevents him from offering any pathway to victory: there’s an argument for the stripping away of bureaucracy to allow the can-do chaps to get things done, but no real hope that such a thing will ever happen. The nation will strangle in red tape as the bombs ceaselessly drop. All of this is tied up in a truly agonizing, wretched love story: the hopeless agony of the lovers in The Small Back Room seems actually desirable compared to the quandary of the stoic desk-jockey and his tender-hearted, unfaithful wife.

Pair it with Patrick Hamilton’s wonderful The Slaves of Solitude.

So, then I read A Sort of Traitors (terrible title, good book) and then Mine Own Executioner, which I discovered was a movie, scripted by Balchin himself and directed by Anthony Kimmins. I was intrigued: the book really doesn’t feel like it has a film in it. Having now seen the film, I kind of feel vindicated: there wasn’t a film in it, or anyway not a filmic structure: the action climax comes twenty minutes ahead of the supposed emotional climax.

But it’s very interesting stuff. The protagonist, Felix Milne, is a lay psychiatrist with a wife (Dulcie Gray) he’s ambivalent about, who has a sexy sister he’s somewhat less ambivalent about. He takes on a war-damaged patient (Kieron Moore) who has recently attempted to strangle his wife while in a fugue state. Most synopses of the story suggest that it’s a “physician heal thyself” yarn about a man who can solve others’ problems but is powerless to tackle his own. But in fact, Milne does eventually sort out his domestic sphere, whereas his efforts with Moore…

Milne is played by Burgess Meredith, because this was an era of frantically shoehorning Americans into British films wherever we could (how little has changed). Meredith is a good choice in that he seems intellectual enough, but a problematic one in that he seems a bit creepy. It’s not a quality BM can turn on and off, it’s just inherent. So that when the lovely Barbara White, as Moore’s wife, first describes the strangling incident, and Milne perks up, thinking “This case is more interesting than I expected,” Meredith’s rendition of this reaction inescapably suggests a man becoming sexually aroused by an account of attempted asphyxiation. Not what’s needed here.

Then, since he’s a psychiatrist, Milne must perforce smoke a pipe, and whenever we see Burgess with the stem clamped between his teeth, we’re reminded of his seminal turn as the Penguin in TV’s Batman, with his long cigarette holder (why the association of penguins with cigarette holders anyway?), and that’s kind of unfortunate too. Burgess doesn’t actually resemble a penguin, of course, he resembles a small, rat-like dog, eyes glinting with cunning and lust. His chemistry with John Wayne in IN HARM’S WAY is so good precisely because at any instant we expect him to start fervently humping the Duke’s leg.

Still, Meredith has that magnificent wet-gravel voice, so effective in the truth serum scene quoted below…

(And he directed the stage production of DUTCHMAN, developing the performances which were transferred direct to the movie.)

Everybody else is cast very well. I couldn’t work out what Moore was doing with his accent: it at first sounded like Welsh valleys, but maybe it’s Moore’s own Irish, a brand I perhaps haven’t encountered before. But it seems to change from scene to scene.

“The trauma lies in your childhood… your childhood… your childhood…”

Balchin is very faithful to his own novel, except that he’s forced to condense one subplot down to a series of montages (always a sign that something really ought to be discarded) and muffs one emotionally climactic death scene by rushing it badly. But Moore’s more extreme episodes of insanity and dissociation are chillingly powerful: the way he slides from first person to second person when describing his own actions, his inconsistent mood, and his mental blurring of the different people in his life is all very effective and convincing. The psychobabble is less so: “He’s a bad schizo,” says Meredith, concerned. But it’s slightly better than most Hollywood attempts at this kind of stuff.

Balchin himself worked as an “industrial psychologist”, a job his hero casually rejects in this book and film: he helped develop Black Magic chocolates, based on the absence of the colour black in the sweetshop window (economics plays a part too: the black box was cheap to make, allowing Rowntree to spend all the money on the choccies themselves).

Here’s the cinematic highlight.

Mine Own Executioner from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Anthony Kimmins had an odd career, swerving from George Formby comedies to this bleak and noirish melodrama. And then onto the reputedly dreadful BONNIE PRINCE CHARLIE. This may be his high point. The framing and lighting in the psychiatrist’s office is great, but the subjective camera flashback (the first of several) is a stunner. Mucho credit to W. Percy Day for the process work, Ned Mann for the models, and special effects supervisor Cliff Richardson. If Kimmins conceived the idea for this, a major tip of the hat is in order.

Meredith’s therapeutic methods may be unconventional, but he GETS RESULTS, damnit!