Archive for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Naval Gazing

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2015 by dcairns

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When I was a kid, the big military entertainments didn’t really mean that much to me — I don’t even remember for sure if I’ve seen WHERE EAGLES DARE. But the naval films were probably the worst, though not as noisy as air ones. So although Britain produced endless naval films both during and after the war — re-fighting the old battles all through the white heat of the technological revolution, I have seen David Lean’s IN WHICH WE SERVE and Michael Powell’s THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE and little else. And those are two of my less-favourite Lean and Powell films.

GIFT HORSE (1952) dates from a time when at least some of the US war pictures were starting to take a more considered, less triumphalist view of the conflict, now that the need for propaganda was over. Britain, feeling less secure, kept on flag-waving — but director Compton Bennett had a gift for melancholy and the five writers include the talented William Rose, whose THE LADYKILLERS conceals an iconoclastic sensibility. The film’s best moments have to do with the malfunctionings of the leaky tub gifted to embattled Britain by the US before America entered the war, and the malfunctionings of Trevor Howard’s rustbucket of a face. He’s a broken-down captain hauled out of mothballs for the war and given one last chance to salvage his holed reputation. Joining him for the voyage are numerous trusty supporting players, the kind of people these films always throng with —

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There’s no Jack Hawkins, whose involvement in RIVER PLATE was considered essential by the Admiralty — they simply couldn’t imagine taking seriously a sea picture without him, Here we benefit from less stalwart faces — a great slab of Bernard Lee, jug-eared and limpid-eyed, and the equally soulful Richard Attenborough, the babyish features that turned up with eye-glazing reliability. Here he’s amusingly cast as a former trade unionist turned “sea lawyer” — a sailor who knows his rights, knows the regulations, knows when he’s due overtime, and ends by lecturing his German captors on the Geneva Convention. His appearance is ever-predictable in these things but he always gives value for money.

The surprise bit by Hugh Williams had me rubbing my hands with glee — his oiliness always gives satisfaction, and results in an amiable surprise when he turns out to be a decent chap here. The weirdest casting is James Donald as a free-and-easy Canadian. It’s not just that he can’t do the accent, can barely suggest it in an embarrassed way, it’s that nobody was ever less free and easy than James Donald. If you want someone to stare wide-eyed at carnage and mutter “Madness. Madness!” James Donald is your man. But if you want someone with the gleam of gaiety in his eye and a devil-may-care sparkle in his smile, then please hire him and make him stand in front of James Donald. What James Donald projects is the cares of the world, boring out of his eyeholes with a soft whimper.

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Asides from the movie’s bracing melancholy — the ship fails to perform at every turn, and so do the crew, and their final victory is achieved by ramming a port, using the ship as a cudgel, then blowing her up — it also has a startling fight scene, a bar brawl in Sid James’ pub. Like the man himself, the character is an ex-pugilist, the walls of the house decorated with photographs of his past fights — the pub as metaphor for British cinema? But look what Bennett does with it ~

The Sid James Centre from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Something between COLONEL BLIMP’s jump-cut trophies and Richard Lester.

Then I turned to SINK THE BISMARCK, a 1960 Fox production in ‘Scope, but still British to the core. Doughty, doughy Kenneth More takes the Jack Hawkins part this time, playing an entirely fictitious commander parachuted into the true story because, presumably, the real sea lord didn’t want to be made into a Boy’s Own hero, or to be played by Kenneth More.

Sea battles aren’t close-quarters, which is probably why the young me didn’t care for them. They have the quality of board games, but with added death by immolation and drowning. Here, More never even gets his feet wet, directing operations from deep underneath Trafalgar Square with the beauteous Dana Wynter at his side, while the heroic death-blow at sea is struck by, of all people, Michael Hordern. In a long and varied career I doubt he had that privilege very often.

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Journeyman director Lewis Gilbert keeps the thing trundling along relatively briskly, and the only painful bits are the hackneyed scenes with Admiral Lutyens, played by Karel Stepanek, who can do nothing with the boilerplate Nazi they’ve written for him. In a misguided attempt at expressionism or something, Gilbert introduces the character (left of frame, above) with his back to us, head apparently ablaze. We sense that he’s smoking some evil brand of National Socialist tobacco, but the illusion that his scalp is on fire is inescapable and inappropriately amusing.

The other interesting bit of weak direction comes when More gets the news that his son is lost at sea (and the production, to their credit, did manage to find an actor with the same cuboid head as More). Hearing the tragic news on the phone, More closes his eyes in silent grief.

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Later, hearing on the phone that his son has been rescued, More closes his eyes in silent relief.

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Calling Comrade Kuleshov! Ken More makes the same face for grief and relief! Since the rest of More’s face is just a frowning thumb, I wondered what other choices were open to the filmmakers, and remembered Billy Wilder’s advice that you should always try to film actors getting bad news from the back. And then I remembered Werner Herzog listening to that guy getting eaten by bears in GRIZZLY MAN, and how he instead filmed someone else simply watching him listening to it, without being able to hear it, setting the snuff recording back by about three removes from the eventual audience. So I figured Gilbert should have cut to Dana Wynter, who has a far lovelier and more expressive face than More, and watched her watching her, capturing her reaction as she realizes what’s happened.

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SINK THE BISMARCK! is edited by Peter Hunt, a very talented cutter who helped set the pacey style for the Bond series, and directed one of the very best, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. But I think his talent was more for the action stuff than for scenes or emotion.

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Both movies cope mostly with real ship manoeuvres filmed specially, closer views of crew taken in the studio against variable cycloramas, and stock shots from the war, but both have occasionally to resort to special effects, and these sometimes get a bit psychedelic (above), though not as surreal as those watery explosions in DAMBUSTERS. Bennett and Gilbert both favour a stationary camera, which does the action no favours — I’m not calling for Paul Greengrass but a bit of sway would help things — but at least Gilbert has good model shots to work with — even the sea, usually a dead giveaway in model shots, looks convincing.

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John Barry, RIP

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on January 31, 2011 by dcairns

Ink-stained Wenches

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2009 by dcairns

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Coincidentally I downloaded and watched THE HARD WAY (not that one) with Patrick McGoohan and Lee Van Cleef, and UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (not that one) with George Lazenby. What makes this coincidental is not so much that both films need to have the words “(not that one)” appended after them, since a gang of notorious Title Thieves has made off with both films’ names and appended them to further pieces of “product”, but the fact that both films feature female authors in acting roles. How odd.

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THE HARD WAY is an Irish thriller which lured Patrick McGoohan back to the land of his forefathers, to play an aging top hitman who, breaking with type, refuses to take on one last job. His big bad bald boss Lee Van Cleef dispatches various heavies to try and “persuade” the Irish assassin that now is not the time for retirement.

Fellow filmmaker Paul Duane recommended this one, and it has a lot going for it. The stars are on form, with McGoohan restrained (he hardly ever smiles on one side of his face in this one, and never twitches once), and LVC is authoritative and gravelly as you’d expect. His voice actually comes up through the floor via speaking tube, its origins somewhere in the bowels of the earth, perhaps the lost kingdom of Pelucidar. If Lee VC occasionally falls silent, it’s because the subterranean man who does his voice is fending off attacks from the winged, telepathic Mahars who rule that stygian region.

The intent is obviously to make an Irish version of a Jean-Pierre Melville movie, full of cold-blooded professionals who are good at their jobs and follow their own code of honour, regardless of what side of the law they stand on. To this end, the makers procured the services of Melville’s regular cinematographer, Henri Decae. Adding to the ambient gloom, the score alternates traditional Irish drones with a rather John Carpenter-like electronic suspense theme culled from Brian Eno’s Music for Films album. Taking the man at his word, I see.

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The production was beset by difficulties, with MacGoohan in his usual truculent condition, resulting in the firing of the original director and his replacement by, I believe, the producer. I don’t know what exec John Boorman’s role was in all this, but this movie did not have the success of his other most famous production, ANGEL, which launched the career of Neil Jordan. There’s also “additional cinematography”, which I assume to be the awful stuff that doesn’t match. My copy was a pan-and-scanned VHS rip, so it’s hard to judge the visual quality, but it seems to have achieved some of the slick, monochromatic chill that characterises so much late-period Melville.

The climax, where Van Cleef and McGoohan face off in a deserted country house, with LVC triggering the lights by messing with the fusebox, giving the place a haunted quality and leading Pat from one trap to another, is pretty exciting, although a bloody-minded censor seems to have removed vital plot developments.

But the real excitement here is the presence of author Edna O’Brien as mcGoohan’s estranged wife. I sort of knew her name, since her paperbacks populated the second-hand shops of my youth (always featuring grim girls in dark surroundings on the jackets). But I had very little idea what the books actually contained, although Paul Duane hinted that they were “controversial”. I turned to Wikipedia:

Edna O’Brien (born 15 December 1930) is an Irish novelist and short story writer whose works often revolve around the inner feelings of women, and their problems in relating to men and to society as a whole.

Blimey, that does sound awful. No wonder they burned the things in churchyards.

(NO. I’m being cheeky. I strongly approve of anybody who can write anything incendiary enough to bring the book-burners out of hiding.)

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O’Brien’s role here avoids giving her any actual acting to do, as such. Instead, she gets a bit of walking about, and also a series of scenes in which, against a dark, abstract background like a woman from one of her books, she intones what comes to sound increasingly like an elegy, which in fact it is. These scenes at first resemble an open-mic poetry reading, and O’Brien’s beautiful voice delivers everything with a kind of serene solemnity that’s slightly confusing at first, since we might assume this is a conversation rather than a bit of public speaking. All in all, her presence adds a welcome strangeness to a film that’s not quite stylish enough to attain Melville’s mastery, and is in danger of wandering into a claustrophobic cul-de-sac.

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Far, far worse, is UNIVERSAL SOLDIER, the last film of Cy Endfield (must get around to blogging about his under-seen Lloyd Bridges diptych), a George Lazenby vehicle (for some reason this phrase causes me to picture a clown car festooned with excrement) which shows the blacklisted maestro foundering and floundering in a sea of fashionable mud. We begin with the Glamour and Excitement of Heathrow Airport, where soldier-of-fortune George Lazenby arrives, his muscular orange buttock of a face groaning under the weight of every sideburn in London.

Yes, the line between failed Bond George Lazenby and alcoholic ’70s football star George Best, tenuous to begin with, has been altogether erased in this film. What follows is a shapeless, meandering non-narrative in which mumbling mercenary George drops out of a proposed African coup he’s supposed to be delivering (when a sponsor warns that he doesn’t want a lot of raping and looting, George grins back “When you hire men to kill, you can’t complain about how they spend their spare time,” the nearest thing to a James Bond quip in the film) and starts to listen to hippies and intellectuals.

Lazenby himself, bedecked with hair-shapes and built like the proverbial ceramic latrine, has perfected his Sean Connery impersonation, just stopping short of the accent, although there’s no trace of his native Australia (Greer herself sounds less Antipodean in this than she does today). I always felt bad for him getting ejected from Bondhood and never really finding a George-shaped niche afterwards. ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE is probably the best Bond (Rigg! Savalas!) and if George struggled to fill the shoes of his predecessor (“This never happened to the other fellow!”), his orange face surmounted by a cap of burnished wooden hair, his voice dubbed in several scenes, he still did a decent job of the tragic ending.

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Endfield, centre.

Chief among the counter-culture characters (who also include Rolling Stones muse Chrissie Shrimpton) are Endfield himself, doing better as actor than director, and Germaine Greer. Yes, that one. The prospect of the author of The Female Eunuch reinventing herself as a sort of Bond Girl is an enticing one, and however bleak the career prospects of that particular branch of showbiz (Lois Chiles, where are you?), anything would be preferable to the post of professional contrarian which Greer now holds. Call me old-fashioned, but I’d say that turning up on television or in the newspaper columns and simply saying the opposite of what somebody else has said, no matter what that is, makes you a kind of dreadful mind-whore. And casts retrospective doubt on whether Greer ever in fact believed a word she was saying.

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Germaine enjoys a cuppa.

Alas, Greer and Endfield, the liveliest people in the film, whose accompanying baggage only makes them more interesting, get very little to do, which leaves us with George being followed about by a restless camera. The aimless script is credited to six different people, including Endfield and, terrifyingly, Lazenby himself. Since much of the talk seems loose and improvisatory (read: shapeless and incoherent), it’s possible GL picked up a writing cred simply for refusing to speak the words written down for him. I prefer that thought to the image of him and five other blokes randomly jabbing at the keys of a single blameless Remington.

Lesson: if you put six chimps in a room with a typewriter, they will eventually write UNIVERSAL SOLDIER. And probably sooner than you’d like.