Archive for Nigel Green

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.

The Drain in Brains Dazed Mainly Michael Caine

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2017 by dcairns

I nipped back to that nice book fair and was able to pick up two more Len Deightons. I’ve found I like Len when he writes the unnamed spy, but have yet to really groove to any of his books written in his own voice. It’s like this narrator figure was an act of ventriloquism that enabled Deighton to unlock something in himself that otherwise stays unexpressed. The other books I’ve read have no poetry and little humour. Maybe because the anonymous operative is constantly disgruntled, he can be interesting on any subject ~

It was the sort of January morning that has enough sunshine to point up the dirt without raising the temperature.

So now I’ve read The Ipcress File, which led me to review THE IPCRESS FILE, Sidney J. Furie’s film, scripted by W.H. Canaway (a novelist, o.a. of Sammy Going South, filmed by Alexander Mackendrick) & James Doran (and Edinburgh man with a mostly TV-based career). Furie, a Canadian who came to the UK because he loved our kitchen sink dramas, and promptly found himself making muck like DR. BLOOD’S COFFIN, and THE YOUNG ONES with Cliff Richard. But, while no film career ever ends well, there are such things as happy middles, and Furie got to make THE LEATHER BOYS, a seminal social-realism drama with Rita Tushingham and Dudley Sutton.

(And Furie is still making films, which is lovely.)

The Minister’s flat overlooked Trafalgar Square and was furnished like Oliver Messel did it for Oscar Wilde. He sat in the Sheraton, I sat in the Hepplewhite and we peeped at each other through the aspidistra plant.

Apparently, Furie hated Canaway & Doran’s script, starting the shoot by denouncing it to the whole cast and crew, throwing his copy on the floor and stamping on it. (Star Michael Caine presumes he must have borrowed someone else’s from then on.) The only way he could see to make the film tolerable was to shoot it in a highly contrived, eccentric manner — as if the camera and audience were themselves spying on the action.

This involves Deutsch tilts intended not just for the “something is wrong here” effect intended by Carol Reed in THE THIRD MAN (whose canted angles usually ARE literal POV shots) but also to artfully simulate the sense of a camera haphazardly placed by agents; occluding foreground objects that are allowed to dominate the frame (the notorious Sid Furie shot, even used for his signature credit); this gets extended to over-the-shoulder shots that are all shoulder.

(The Furie technique works like gangbusters here and in the similarly paranoid THE ENTITY, where invisible eyes really ARE watching. In THE APPALOOSA, when he films a distant Brando through the slit between a massive shoulder and a massive sombrero, the effect is inadvertently hilarious.)

There’s also a SYMPHONY OF LAMPS going on here, which David Bordwell makes good points about here. The lamp thing brings us into John Alton film noir territory — Furie and Alton are the only guys to regularly put their camera inside lampshades.

There’s also a red thing going on. Not just the fight filmed, counterintuitively, from inside a phone booth, and the London bus used as a shock plot twist, but regular danger-danger placements of red objects in this greyish urban world. At a climactic reveal, we get a RED LAMP blocking two-thirds of the frame as the film’s various motifs join hands.

It was interesting to read the novel and find how the movie invents whole characters (Gordon Jackson, who seems to have been lifted from the sequel, Horse Under Water) and invents most of the scenes and omits most of those in the book. There are a couple of key twists that are kept, because they’re so damn good, but the mode of exposition is way different — while the book is narrated by the unnamed spy, the movie has whole passages of spymasters Guy Doleman and Nigel Green batting exposition back and forth unblinkingly.

In some ways it’s certainly dumbed down, to make us know where we are (except in one key sequence) so that it doesn’t need to end, as the book does, with a long conversation that explains all the accumulated mysteries, which would have played like an Agatha Christie whodunnit, or the psychiatrist bit in PSYCHO. Sometimes this creates its own problems — when Caine deduces, with no real reason, that the bad guys are based in a disused factory (because one of them was arrested near it), it’s borderline confusing. The book spent a good bit of time explaining the reasoning that leads him to pinpoint bad-guy HQ in a suburban house.

Bent nail painted with finest Kensington gore by Hammer man Phil Leakey, assuming a proto-DON’T LOOK NOW glow

The unnamed spy now has a name, Harry Palmer. “Harry” is an alias briefly used in the book, and “Palmer” is marvelously apt — our man “palms” a bent nail to use as a tool, and injures his palm with it at the end — an oddly Christ-like image. Unlike the character in the novel (older and fatter), our hero is not only a cynic but a former crook — his antipathy towards his bosses is slightly greater if anything, since he’s only a spy under duress — the alternative will be a prison sentence. Caine’s insubordination to Doleman was judged so entertaining that Doleman’s character was maintained through the sequels — the spy has a different boss from the second book on.

The book’s Lebanese interval is relocated to an underground car park, which seems like a bit of a low-budget comedown on paper, but not the way Furie and DoP Otto Heller shoot it.

The brainwashing in the book might actually work — it’s basically psychological torture designed to produce a nervous breakdown, which is possible, if of dubious use. (Wild animals spend their entire lives avoiding death, but are apparently happy and healthy: it takes behaviorist scientists to reduce them to quivering wrecks. They can certainly do the same to us.) The film invents all this psychedelic lightshow stuff (ahead of the curve for 1965) and claims it produces amnesia. Needlessly silly, but it turns the movie into a treatise on free will — though Palmer’s choices are terribly circumscribed, since he’s an indentured civil servant of H.M. Gov. THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD might be the most depressive of the anti-Bond films, but under Caine’s mordant wit and dumb insolence, behind the letching after “birds,” and seeping through the plangent wail of the sax on John Barry’s KNACK-style score, there’s a melancholic sense of defeat that felt perfect for election week in the UK.

PS: I’m on The Billion Dollar Brain now, and looking forward to revisiting Ken Russell’s surprisingly faithful movie version…

 

 

 

Red or Dead

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 29, 2010 by dcairns

“It was night, and the rain fell: and, falling, it was rain, but, having fallen, it was blood.” ~ Edgar Allan Poe.

I like the way Poe films always try to shoehorn in a few direct quotations. I offer the neglected, but excellent, phrase above to anyone who can find a good home for it. Griffith’s THE AVENGING CONSCIENCE stuffs quite a few quotes into its intertitles, and Corman’s Poe films very often end with a printed quote. The idea is the same in both cases: shore up the impression of classical authority and fidelity by inserting bits of actual Poe in, like mortar between bricks which very likely owe nothing whatsoever to the source text.

Poe’s Masque of the Red Death is only about five pages long in my edition, so it’s surprising (but delightful) that the resultant movie is possibly Corman’s masterpiece. Twilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont deserves the lion’s share, not so much fleshing out a skeleton as assembling a whole new structure extrapolated from a few intriguing metatarsals. There’s no satanism in the Poe story, so Prince Prospero is essentially Beaumont’s man, and apart from the figure of Death, there’s no supporting cast either. Corman reports that he put the script aside while he shot THE SECRET INVASION, and when he came back to it he felt it was a little slight, and so with R. Wright Campbell he expanded it by folding in the plot of Hop-Frog, another Poe story which happens to feature a masque, and is likewise set in a vaguely medieval European court. Even though it’s buried within another picture, Hop-Frog probably qualifies as the Poe story most faithfully treated by Corman, the only major change being the substitution of eight fat men in ourang-outang costumes, for one Patrick Magee in a gorilla suit.

Few Corman productions can have offered such time for reflection, and it clearly helped here. Among other things, the movie can be considered simply as a series of very good scenes. No bad ones, few average ones, lots and lots of really good ones. Admittedly the “good” characters, apart from Hop Toad (the excellent, understated Skip Martin), are a little dull — even Nigel Green can’t make much out of his staunch dad role — but they’re decently cast and played. The Sadeian Prince Prospero makes a splendid role for Uncle Winnie, who dials the fruitiness down, having indulged in the more comical horrors of TALES OF TERROR and THE RAVEN. Prince Prospero has all the best arguments, and although his obeisance to Satan certainly isn’t endorsed by the film, all his arguments against the existence of a benign god are basically allowed to stand. It’s Death, a force of nature, who does him in in the end.

Poe strikes me as something of an atheist — even if his stories are rich in supernatural phenomena, he’s more inclined to use them for obvious allegorical purposes, and he’s the father of the Scooby Doo explanation for Impossible Crimes. His rationalist side is countered by his deep devotion to dark psychological depths, with his characters yanked about like puppets by emotions buried too deep to be recognised — it’s a guilty conscience that speaks through The Tell-Tale Heart and The Imp of the Perverse. And though characters may rise from the grave in Poe, he seems highly doubtful of any final resurrection — the whole message of The Raven is that the dead are permanently taken from us, to be met with nevermore.

All good heavy stuff, to be danced around as playfully as possible by Price, Magee, Hazel Court and the rest. Fiona and I are big fans of the monochrome rooms: Prince Pros tells us that his father imprisoned “a friend” in the Yellow Chamber for some years, after which the man was unable to look upon the sun, or even a daffodil. We wondered what the effects of the purple room and the white room would be? Perhaps an aversion, in the first case, to Ribena blackcurrant juice and the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, and in the second case, to snows and sea-birds of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and to the face of Bebe Neuwirth.

Colours are important in this film! See how many of them you can spot. At the end, the Cavalcade of Eastmancolor Deaths, the Red Death, White Death, Green Death, Yellow Death… so many potential sequels! Come on, Roger, Poe only gave you five pages to get you started on this one — how about a sequel that’s all your own? It can be five pages shorter than this one, if that helps?

“What is terror? Come. Silence. Listen. Is it to awaken and hear the passing of time? Or is it the failing beat of your own heart? Or the footsteps of someone who, just a moment before, was in your room? But let us not dwell on terror. The knowledge of terror is vouchsafed… only to the previous few.”