Archive for Olivier

Rear Projection

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2008 by dcairns

As actor-writer Mark Gatiss points out in the recently-aired BBC documentary on the British B-movie, Truly Madly Cheaply (written by Matthew Sweet), Jimmy Hanley (screen right) has a rather unusual physique:

What is going on with his arse? And is that acceptable for a leading man?

British cinema seems to always have had a strange tendency to cast physically strange or ill-suited people. Sometimes that’s commendable. I don’t know if a scar-faced man like Basil Radford would have been a comedy star in America, but he was very popular in the U.K., especially paired with Naunton Wayne (see THE LADY VANISHES, DEAD OF NIGHT). And he still got to do dramatic roles as well. His performance in WHISKEY GALORE! is perfectly balanced between the two.

At other times, one simply wonders what anybody was thinking. In what crazy world could John Gielgud be an action hero, as Hitchcock requires him to be in THE SECRET AGENT? Is Hugh McDermott really the kind of man we want to gaze upon in enlarged form, under any circumstances? Has Hugh Williams, capable actor though he is, got what it takes (Hollywood thought enough of him to try him out, so it wasn’t just us)? Character stars like Margaret Rutherford and Alistair Sim are quite understandable, and have their equivalents everywhere (not exact equivalents, of course — they are UNIQUE) but how to explain Roger Livesey as a leading man? I love him dearly, and I thank the Lord he played the lead in COLONEL BLIMP in place of Olivier, but still, he’s not classically handsome, you’ll admit.

Even in more recent years, British films have provoked shudders by parading the scandalous kissers of Om Puri (a sort of cauliflower carved into humanoid form), Brendan Gleason (an exploding cloud of meat) and Kathy Burke (sodden troll). They’re all brilliant actors and I rejoice in our apparent acceptance of their physiognomic truancy, but what does this say about us as a nation?

I guess we prefer our actors a little unconventional. I’d rather see Samantha Morton (a china plate that looks at you) than some kind of Kate Bosworth hologram anyday. Character is good. Michael Caine is just as welcome looking kind of like a turkey, as he does today, as he was when he looked like an earthbound angel. My plan to have Keira Knightley hollowed out and operated from within by a miniaturized Bronagh Gallagher with a joystick may not be scientifically feasible — yet — but at least we can still enjoy the bloated, mangled or misshapen countenances of some of the best actors in the world.

Uncle Silas

Posted in FILM, literature, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 20, 2008 by dcairns

Silas of the lambs

Adapted from the novel by J. Sheridan LeFanu (CARMILLA), this maybe misses real greatness but has some great stuff in it. Produced by Two Cities, who also made Olivier’s Shakespeare films, Carol Reed’s ODD MAN OUT, and David Lean’s first Noel Coward films (before Lean branched out with cinematographer/producer Ronald Neame to make BRIEF ENCOUNTER), this emerges from the immediate post-war period when british cinema was enjoying a boost in confidence and ambition. Overall, UNC SILAS has elements of Lean’s evocatively textured Dickens films, and a little of Michael Powell’s hallucinatory surrealism.

Genre-wise, it’s straightahead gothic melodrama. Jean Simmons, a rising young star at the time, plays an innocent young thing foisted upon her sinister relative who lives at Scary Hall (not its real name). He plots to Do Her Into get her inheritance. There’s a simple Locked-Room Mystery thrown in for good measure (which is probably the best thing to do with L-RMs, since if made the basis for an entire story they tend to reduce the narrative to puzzle-solving). As stories go, it’s all pretty generic and linear.

Director Charles Frank (a Belgian with a fragmentary and puzzling non-career) compensates for a rather basic story by throwing style at the film. He’s like a matador decorating a cake. Even the heroine’s French lessons get treated to an expressionist dream sequence — and a damn good one.

French with tears 

The credits suggest the involvement of a storyboard artist (“Script Illustrator”), and the mise en scene slots together with pre-planned precision and nicely designed angles. Cinematographer Robert Krasker (THE THIRD MAN) lights the doomy sets beautifully, and has a particularly nice approach to fireplaces, blasting light through them from behind to make flickering shapes on the floor.

John Laurie buttles

Based on his work here, it’s criminal that Frank didn’t make more films in Britain. I’ve never seen his scanty Belgian oevre, and it’s uncertain I’ll ever get to, but this movie has moments of incredible brio and gets so many things dead right that with slightly more complex material I can’t help but feel that Frank could have made a truly Great Film.

Jean Genie

The cast is marvellous, with Simmons breathing vivacity into the dull protag, Derrick DeMarney crepuscular and oleaginous as the eponymous Unc, and John Laurie as a hilariously odd, lopsided butler, materialising in rooms without warning, like Mrs Danvers, or Jeeves. My friend Lawrie Knight’s abiding memory of his quasi-namesake and fellow Scot was J. Laurie’s tendency to start every acquaintanceship with an account of his success in the lead role of Hamlet. If you watch RETURN TO THE EDGE OF THE WORLD, you can see John Laurie actually do this.

A fellow called Manning Whiley does good work as Silas’ awful, horny son, making great use of a powerful voice, and the great Esmond Knight brings his customary strength to the role of Simmons’ sympathetic family doctor. All the more impressive when we recall that Knight was blinded in the war. He continued playing sighted parts in films like THE RED SHOES and BLACK NARCISSUS, using sheer dramatic skill and self-confidence to make the audience believe he can see. In the latter film, he had to ride a donkey through a forest. “Don’t you want a stand-in?” “No, no, the animal doesn’t want to bump into a tree any more than I do.”

(Casting a blind man as a film director seems a fairly sick joke, but it shouldn’t surprise us that this is just what happens in PEEPING TOM. Knight’s character, Arthur Baden, a frenzied bully, is a parodic self-portrait by director Michael Powell [the character name derives by way of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the scout movement. Furthermore, studio boss Don Jarvis is a “spoonerism” of real Rank Studios president John Davis, who is viciously and accurately parodied throughout, and the name of Mark Lewis, the film’s titular voyeur, is a reversal of screenwriter Leo Marks’ name.])

The only film where I’ve ever seen Knight play a blind man (in Olivier’s T.V. King Lear he plays the old man who actually LEADS the blinded Gloucester) is Richard Lester’s witty and touching ROBIN AND MARIAN, where Knight actually popped his glass eye out in order to be even more convincingly disabled. But to return to UNCLE SILAS —

— Best of all, Katina Paxinou is the scary French mistress, Madame de la Rougierre. Alternately shrieking and muttering, she is terrifying in her malice, offensive familarity and sheer stupidity — you may not think of stupidity as naturally frightening, but it can be, just look at our world leaders. 

K.P. submits to being made truly grotesque by Frank and Krasker’s leering use of wide-angle lenses: she lurches into close-up and makes things happen with her corpse’s teeth, or else she stands swaying on the spot and lets the camera rocket drunkenly in on her. Either way, she was born to alarm.


the sort of window faces appear at

Katina turner

The film’s only trouble is its inability to accomplish anything beyond suspense and slick visuals. It has a compelling baddie in the hypocrite and schemer Silas, but his bad qualities never amount to a coherent whole. The leading lady is trusting, then figures things out, then gets rescued, which robs her of the opportunity to fend for herself and grow as a character. It’s one of those films that can quickly fade to black after the villains are vanquished, because there’s nothing else to sort out.

One possible half-solution to this poverty of theme is to throw in some spuriously ambiguous final moment, tenuously connected to any old motif established earlier, and leave the audience with a faux-poetic puzzle. This is known (by me) as the Coen Coda, but I guess nobody was buying that one back in the ’40s.

I don’t mean to be down on this film AT ALL, because it’s a great directorial box of tricks — students of cinema (which I hope includes all of us) could probably learn more technique from this than from an acknowledged masterpiece like Lean’s OLIVER TWIST. But O.T. is the better film for narrative and thematic reasons, which lend it greater impact and make it satisfying in a way that UNCLE S. cannot aspire to be, for all its visual and aural dexterity.

Strange Danes are Here

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2007 by dcairns

Geatish beefcake.

Beowulf. An Imagemovers Production. Directed by Robert Zemeckis.

I have seen the future, and it’s berks.

There’s something intriguing about taking an unimagineably old story and bringing it to the screen with handy-dandy fancy motion-capture CGI and 3D imagery. Intriguing and deeply wrong.

Well, I wouldn’t want to say the idea couldn’t be done well, I’m just going by this, this THING which has washed up on the cinema screens. There’s a colossal mismatch of technique and story that’s pretty fascinating to gaze at in wonderment, but you really need an old-fashioned set of 3D glasses to bring some unity to this, the red lens for the prehistoric narrative, and the green lens for the flashy computer images.

It’s a story full of primal emotions and elements, set in a cold and hostile landscape, here relocated to a world of snowy Christmas Card illustrations. The papier-mache rocks of Orson Welles’ MACBETH are far more tactile and real, even if what they are is real papier mache. It matters that they have some physical substance.

It took around half an hour of viewing before I saw anything that even felt like an image: a gilted Angelina reflected in water, distorted to the point of reptilian abstraction. Ironic that in this hyper-sharp piece of animated fan art the only frame-able shot is an impenetrable miasma of gold and black. Lovely, though.

The 3D is arresting (flat, or on the small screen, this movie just wouldn’t EXIST), but Zemeckis uses it in all the ways we’ve always been told 3D shouldn’t be used: he chucks things at the audience relentlessly, things we’d rather NOT have chucked at us, like when a hapless warrior is ripped asunder and we get a pair of meat-filled trousers slung in our faces. And when he’s not chucking, he’s pointing, rudely.

Then there’s the motion capture. A rather too-varied cast are smeared over with a glaze of CG, which deadens their eyes but fails to unify the various performing styles and accents. I understand why Beowulf and his gang of Geats sound different from Anthony Hopkins and his little tribe, but not why Beowulf is the only Cockney in Denmark, why John Malkovich is off in a world of his own, why Grendel and his mum communicate in what amount to different languages (and have no family resemblance to speak of). I also feel sorry for Ray Winstone, the only one whose CG version looks better than the real him, even though the muscle-bound Beo still runs like a fat guy. Robin Wright Penn looks as if her face has been pressed flat. Crispin Glover as Grendel is like a mummified Peat Bog Man. Anthony Hopkins has been rendered as the Dancing Baby. Angelina Jolie is just Jessica Rabbit 0.2. With high-heeled feet. Which is silly when you think about it.

Watching her big virtual nude scene, which is virtually sexy, the thought comes home that all of this would just be better in live action. Admittedly, Angelina was four months pregnant with little Shiloh when she played the part, but that would still be more interesting than the de-nippled avatar paddling around here.

There’s a whole other, more enjoyable, movie to be experienced — the original footage used for motion capture. Everybody in green jumpsuits, no sets, like an avant-garde mime version of DOGVILLE, with more fighting.

All this CG could be seen as just mismatched and garish window-dressing to a rip-roaring story, if the story ripped and roared with any real competence. But there are problems of tone: since none of these characters resemble human beings at all, they are incapable of humour (nearest thing to an exception is Brendan Gleason’s Wiglaf, who is mainly funny because he’s called Wiglaf) and Zemeckis overcompensates with odd gestures towards comedy: a Mel Brooksian chorus of belching Danes; Beowulf in the buff, his modesty protected by trained furniture, which interrupts our view of his genitals with a variety of horns and spikes and beams and other phallic alibis. It’s all rather Austin Powers. And bear in mind, this is during the first main action climax. A strange choice.

There are also problems of character: Malkovich is a motiveless creep throughout, but never pays off as an actual villain. It’s like the writers (Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary) felt the need to flesh him out so they made him a one-dimensional bad guy in a second-string hero’s-friend role. Pasting contradictory cliches together doesn’t automatically create depth.

And there’s the rather deadening effect of too much video-game style action, whereby characters can survive utterly fatal situations, but we still have to believe they’re in some kind of jeopardy. And of course we don’t. It’s a bit like Peter Jackson’s KING KONG in that way. Just because the filmmaker can show us this stuff and make it look sort of real, doesn’t mean we have to believe it.

Zemeckis used to be a maker of rather dislikeable comedies: USED CARS is a hateful farce, and he co-wrote Spielberg’s loud and obnoxious 1941 (loud and obnoxious almost become positive qualities in that film. Almost.) He moved from this barbaric phase into a period of relative civilisation (ROMANCING THE STONE, BACK TO THE FUTURE), and now looks to be truly embracing his decadent period, using each project to push the boundaries of technology rather than to communicate anything he believes in. When he wanted to twist Meryl Streep’s head back to front (be honest, we’ve all felt that way occasionally) in DEATH BECOMES HER, the writers asked “Can that be done?” Zemeckis is reported to have chuckled, “I don’t think so!” And so it belonged in the film for that very reason.

That seems the defining aesthetic of this film: things are done based on their difficulty. Zemeckis is undoubtedly generous to his audience, showering the bespectacled masses with expensive ones and zeros, but somehow the numbers don’t add up to anything human or true or memorable or original.


Apparently WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT was the last film the great Michael Powell went to see, and he was rather depressed by the experience. All that money and technical expertise and talent expended on flat, charmless characters and ropey, hackneyed plotting. I’ve always been forgiving of R RABBIT’s faults, but they’re back again in BEOWULF, without any of that film’s modest virtues to disguise them.


Footnote: as Grendel attacks the lodge, the camera moves rapidly through the hall in sudden violent pulses, in time with the hammering on the door. I was reminded of the strange pulsations in and out of focus, in time to an eerie heartbeat, as the Ghost appears in Olivier’s HAMLET. Since this is another ancient Danish yarn, it’s just possible Zemeckis checked it out as research. Or he may have been influenced more by Sam Raimi. 

But since I know a story about HAMLET, I’ll pass it on. My late friend Lawrie worked as an assistant on that shoot, and recalled Olivier sending an assistant sprinting around the sound stage in order to get his heartbeat racing. Sitting the panting runner down on a box, the sound department pressed a microphone to his bosom to record the resulting sounds.

“Nothing but indigestion!”

In the end, a  drum was used.

Footnote to footnote: but you can hear the real heartbeat of director Rouben Mamoulian in his DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MISTER HYDE during the amazing transformation sequence.