Archive for Orson Welles

Limousine Love

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2022 by dcairns

The fact that it took Chaplin a year of filming to figure out a way to make the blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill) in CITY LIGHTS mistake the Tramp for a millionaire just gets more incredible when you realise that Chaplin had already solved the problem, back in THE IDLE CLASS. He did it with a car door, with the Tramp chortcutting through a limo. That was ten years before — did Charlie eventually remember how he did it, or did he never remember it, and come up with the idea again, as if from scratch?

(In THE IDLE CLASS, Charlie cuts through the back of a limo and, emerging at a costume ball, is naturally mistaken for a toff disguised as a tramp. So it’s not exactly the same gag — he had to get the idea of using the sound of the car door, not a natural notion for a silent filmmaker. And, though I continue to argue that CITY LIGHTS is a sound film but not a talkie, Chaplin tells us he thought of it as a silent. That category error may have got in his way. And, though I’ve said that very many situations in the film depend on sound, this scene is treated silent — the flower girl hears the car door, but we don’t.)

It’s all the more remarkable given that he had gag writers — here credited as assistant directors, Albert Austin and Henry Bergman. Maybe he’d been resisting the idea of repeating himself, but the use he makes of the misunderstanding here is so different, it hardly makes you think the less of him. I feel if he’d called the idea to mind earlier, he’d have used it without hesitation, since he was going through hell trying to solve the problem — and putting everyone else through hell — “I was a terror to be with” — and spending his own money.

The end result repays the agonies everyone endured. Having seen Georgia Hale’s screen test for the part, and admired it, I can’t say that she’s better than Cherrill, whose lack of experience gives her playing an innocence. It’s what Chaplin wanted — not an actor, a pure medium to transmit his own ideas into performance.

How the girl gets accidentally fooled is clever. How Charlie gets hooked is equally smart, and doesn’t get talked about. Having realised that she’s misunderstood who he is, and that she thinks he’s left without waiting for his change, he can’t bring himself to disappoint and disillusion her. Therefore he gives up his change, which he really needs — the fingers are coming off his gloves — and tiptoes away, like the amphibian removals men of TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE. So he’s committed to maintaining the illusion. It must feel good. He’s just been publically shamed at the monument unveiling, humiliated by news boys and intimidated by a typically gigantic antagonist. Now he’s met somebody who admires him.

Chaplin said it was always a challenge to find a way to get a romance going with the Tramp, since women don’t usually list indigence as a trait they look for in a partner. But having her simply ignorant of who he is was an inspiration that arrived quite indirectly.

In My Autobiography, Chaplin describes his initial idea, “a clown who, through an accident at the circus, has lost his sight. He has a little daughter, a sick, nervous child, and when he returns from the hospital the doctor warns him that he must hide his blindness from her until she is well and strong enough to understand, as the shock might be too much for her. His stumbling and bumping into things make the girl laugh joyously. But that was too ‘icky’.”

It certainly was. Though you can feel something of Chaplin’s enthusiasm for the idea lingering, decades later. Sometimes, we’re told, his assistants could talk him out of an overly sentimental idea by expressing open revulsion: I suspect that was the case here.

The idea may have been influenced by another source: Josef Von Sternberg had been taken under Chaplin’s wing after smuggling a print of his no-budget debut feature, THE SALVATION HUNTERS, into CC’s screening room. The film starred Georgia Hale and was, in its way, somewhat Chaplinesque. It was planned that Sternberg would make a film for Chaplin, and he eventually did, the ill-fated A WOMAN OF THE SEA, but another project was envisaged first, a star vehicle for Mary Pickford. “It was called Backwash,” Sternberg tells us in his memoir, “and it concerned a blind girl and a deaf-mute, the subject to be visualized through the eyes of a girl who has never been able to see. […] One of the episodes concerned a visit to a Chaplin comedy by my underprivileged characters, and Mr. Chaplin had agreed to perform some distorted antics.”

So this may have influenced Chaplin — it seems more than likely. You could say he practically swiped Sternberg’s idea the way he later did Welles’ with MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Of course, his treatment of other people’s ideas makes them distinctly his own: we don’t see the blind girl’s distorted imaginings of what Charlie is like, instead we get to see him struggle to maintain her illusion, without the financial means.

At the end of the scene, after the girl thinks Charlie has driven away, he sneaks back to watch her. Voyeurism — and a fantasy — when she stares into space and he’s occupying that space, it looks like she’s looking at him, tenderly. Her lack of sight supplies him with something he lacks — the illusion of love. All this complex stuff is neatly deflated when she throws a plant pot full of water in his face. Chaplin usually knows when things are at risk of getting too serious too soon.



Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2022 by dcairns
Some of these insert shots have an Argentoesque intensity

TV director William Sterling’s one feature film, ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (1972) assembles lots of great people and looks nice. It’s not my idea of wonderland, though.

As you can see, the copy I scraped up isn’t very good, so I may not be doing the film justice. It’s a lot better than most adaptations — fairly true to the text. It doesn’t become an incoherent mishmash of Wonderland and Looking Glass, as so many do. But being true to the story and characters isn’t the same as capturing the spirit. On the other hand, you can legitimately aim to capture a DIFFERENT spirit. I’m not sure if that’s what happens here.

I remember some piece that discussed the film, and spoke very critically of Michael Jayston’s visible panty line. He plays Charles Dodgson, and the film begins with a boat outing with the Liddell sisters, but does NOT have these characters reappear in Wonderland, disguised, as Lewis Carroll does: he, the stammering Do-do-dodgson, becomes the Dodo. But Jayston doesn’t stutter, he speaks beautifully. Seductively, in fact. He also neglects historical accuracy in his choice of Y-fronts, which show through his white trousers in a way sure to inspire disapproval in a Von Stroheim undie perfectionist.

Fiona Fullerton, a perky Alice, has been told to smile a lot, and does. Her perplexing adventures seem to amuse her greatly. This strikes me as wrong, but given what she’s been asked to do, she does it charmingly, though she’s too old. But if the film is about anything, which isn’t certain, it may be about coming of age — indeed, the soft-focus boat ride looks very much like what I imagine a David Hamilton adolescent smut film must be like (haven’t seen one).

Wonderland is all sets. Quite big ones, but things still get to seem a little airless. The transition occurs when the dream begins, rather than when Alice goes done the rabbit hole, which is a distortion, but an acceptable one. The budget allows for some very interesting visuals. A well decorated rabbithole, a Dali-meets-Geiger sky, an infinite corridor for the key business.

One blunder is carried over directly from the Paramount version: there’s a terrific cast, and most of them are rendered unrecognisable under Stuart Freeborn’s makeups. As usual, the humanoid characters come off best in such circumstances: this may be the only adaptation of the book where the most amusing character is the Duchess’s cook, played in a maelstrom of fury by Patsy Rowlands. Robert Helpmann is a perfect Mad Hatter (though I don’t understand why Kenneth Williams never did it). Peter Bull is a pretty unbeatable Duchess, Flora Robson slightly out of her element as the Queen of Hearts, Dennis Price very much IN his as the King (he does nothing but recite Lewis Carroll in the same year’s PULP). Tiny playing card parts are stuffed with familiar faces like Rodney Bewes, Dennis Waterman, Ray Brooks and Richard Warwick.

Smothered under prosthetics, Peter Sellers still does well as the March Hare, Dudley Moore copes as the Dormouse, Spike Milligan capers and goons as the Griffin, but it’s all schtick and no character. The only bit of Michael Hordern you can see in his Mock Turtle outfit is his lower face, but the rest of the makeup gives him some kind of jowl-lift, so even that part doesn’t look like it’s his. Michael Crawford’s stylish White Rabbit ears and whiskers allow him to do his thing relatively unimpeded (as with Sellers, it’s all in the eyes and voice) but Roy Kinnear has lost most of the Cheshire Cat’s lines AND business, and barely registers, an astonishing fate for such a great scene-stealer. Ralph Richardson has quite wisely refused to don a caterpillar’s head, and can be seen and enjoyed.

There are fewer laughs, I’d say, than in Jonathan Miller’s BBC version, which only had a few. Miller, however, had decided that this was a Victorian child’s dream, and his choices were mainly consistent with that. I’m just not sure what Sterling has decided on. A panto, perhaps. We have songs by John Barry with lyrics by Stanley Black, which edge out many of Carroll’s own superior words. Barry has gone fully into soupy strings mode, with a bit of the pizzicato guff he did in the early sixties. His main theme is almost identical to the one he foist onto ROBIN AND MARIAN.

Not as alienating as TALES OF BEATRIX POTTER, another children’s film from this period (it looks amazing but positively declines to deliver any tales, or any entertainment at all), it still feels like it would have baffled me as a kid. The Disney version made me feel stoned, as I recall, though I didn’t know what that was. I may have made some suggestions in the past for how the books should be treated, but if I did I’ve forgotten, so here goes —

Get good actors, and I don’t know that they have to be comedians. Give them some signifiers — the White Rabbit can have ears, for instance. Otherwise, dress them like the Tenniel illustrations and leave their faces on display and let them act. I hate hate hate the Tim Burton version but the idea of using CG to turn actors into live-action cartoons (giving Bonham-Carter a huge(r) head) was decent.

I would tend to favour locations over sets, even though Michael Stringer’s were very good here.

I think, controversially I know, that Alice should be a child. Get one who can act (which Miller inexplicably failed to do).

I think it should be a bit like Welles’ THE TRIAL, really, just slightly funnier, slightly less sinister. But A BIT sinister. (And the Welles is already pretty funny, funnier than this anyway).

When I read the book I was struck by how funny it was, which the films rarely seemed to be. I wonder if Richard Lester would have wanted to do this: it has eleven of his actors and numerous crew. And there’s the Goons connection. Carroll isn’t as rambunctious as The Goon Show, but he has his moments. It’s a funny thing: the book has almost never been filmed by a comedy specialist.

One scene, three times. (3) Coen.

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on February 19, 2022 by dcairns

As mentioned before, the new THE TRAGEDY OF MACBETH is very good, at least much of the time. There are lots of things about it I don’t think work, but lots that do and in unfamiliar ways. It has a nice blend of the cinematic and the practical. Its version of the Macduff news scene (Act IV, Scene II) isn’t the most interesting, but the bland shot-countershot approach is actually fairly good for clarity. I shows the three versions of this scene to my students and they found the cutting helped them read it as an argument, back-and-forth, question-and-answer. They found the Polanski version more emotional though.

Joel Coen seems to have copied Polanski & Tynan’s idea of making Ross a traitor, but takes it even further and makes him the third murderer who lays in wait for Banquo. Alex Hassall plays him as one sneaky bastard. Harry Melling is Malcolm and Corey Hawkins is Macduff.

In keeping with the film’s grey, misty, stylised look, Coen sets the scene along an avenue of curiously 2D trees. Any time you have an avenue of trees, you want to track, so that’s how he starts the scene. He’s also making a nice transition from the previous scene, the massacre at the Macduff home, so we start with smoke filling the screen, which becomes mist, which lifts to reveal first the trees and then Malcolm and Macduff.

It could be a little hard to figure out why these two guys are out for a stroll in this cultivated area, if we were encouraged to think about that, but we’re not. Shakespeare doesn’t really provide any clues, though it’s likely he imagined a road, but probably not one that’s had the services of a landscape gardener. We can dimly see other trees, so the idea seems to be that this path is cutting through a forest, but the evenness of the foreground trees make them seem deliberately planted, not wild.

Our chaps stop as they notice someone approaching. It’s Ross, power-walking in their direction, with long floppy sleeve-ribbons flapping by his sides. He’s apparently out for a stroll too — since it makes sense that we’re safe in England, he’s apparently power-walked from Dunsinane, a distance or a hundred or so miles, depending on how far south we are. But again, this needn’t matter.

The effect of Ross’s costume is oddly priestly, harkening back to the Welles version.

Coen has now set up a symmetrical shot/counter-shot scenario. He has a gentle track towards Ross, which suggests the POV of Malcolm and Macduff but isn’t, since they’ve stopped walking. Ross stops in medium shot and decides that M&M are a little ways screen right, so that’s where he looks. When we cut to them, the view is no longer so symmetrical and they look screen left. This ties these two shots together and means we don’t feel the immediate need for a master shot showing all three dudes.

As in the Polanski, Ross’s speech about how terrible it is in Scotland has to be played convincingly, but the audience knows it’s not really sincere, since Ross is playing both ends against the middle.

This creates a difficulty, potentially, when Macduff asks “How does my wife?” Ross looks very uncomfortable, as well he might, and says she’s fine. Well, he has to, because that’s what Shakespeare’s written, but asides from it being in the script, WHY? In both the Polanski and Coen, Ross has been rewritten as a traitor, so it’s a little hard to impute to him the delicacy of feeling that could cause him to fail to break the bad news at his first attempt.

I don’t hugely like Hassall’s perf, which mostly seems to telegraph sinister intent and insincerity. And, as in the Polanski, psychology gets flung out the window at this point, with Ross dithering about the facts for no good character or narrative reason. Hassall does at least get to be on camera for this moment, though, which was more than John Stride got in the Polanski, and he shows discomfort, uncertainty, which helps.

Unlike in the Welles and Polanski versions, there’s no attempt to provide visual evidence that Malcolm is raising an army in England. Welles inserts a chunky English knight and throws him some secondhand dialogue, Polanski comes up with an entire army in training, even if it’s quite small (maybe a hundred men?). Coen just has the principles stand and talk about it in the abstract.

So far the coverage is quite boring, I have to say. You can hardly imagine Coen being bothered storyboarding this. We now get a closeup on Macduff, balancing Ross’s shot for the first time. Melling also now gets a CU. So we have three talking heads in front of a photograph of trees. In fairness, there are much more interesting scenes in the Coen film. It’s like he resents having to leave Macbeth’s moral decay behind in order to carry on the plot here.

Forced to come to the point, it’s Hassall who turns his back on us, pirouetting away in angst and bounding back to deliver the fatal thrust.

Hawkins as Macduff now follows the familiar pattern or retreating into a longshot, rear view, but not before a long lingering reaction in closeup. Which I think he does quite well. You see the tremors as he tries to maintain control. It’s a subtle, intelligent rendering of an emotion that would, in reality, be much uglier, more unbearable to see, but it’s not certain that Macbeth would benefit from hysteria at this point. And does it make sense to do iambic pentameters while hysterical? The underplaying seems like a smart choice.

A reverse angle eventually shows us Hawkins’ face again, with everyone lined up geometrically. Malcolm consoles Macduff with a hand on the shoulder, just as Stephan Chase had done for Terence Bayler in the Polanski. Hawkins delivers “HE has no children,” with real rage, and better still, Melling shrinks back from this in mild alarm and shame. As well he might.

Hawkins does the rest of this with a smart study in grief and rage, building nicely to the determination to seek revenge. He turns away again so we can go back to the figures in receding sequence, then turns back and strides forth into a fresh composition, over Ross’s shoulder.

This is very stand-and-deliver standard delivery. It’s just basic coverage. Nothing is really emphasised by creative or expressive choices, though elsewhere in the movie there is more of this. It does foreground the performances though, even if the people seem sort of nailed to the ground, occasionally moved around like chess pieces, which is maybe a downside of storyboarding everything and just shooting the boards.

There are better scenes in the Coen film — some are inspired. Maybe I should compare the second witches visits in each film? At any rate, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little sequence of posts. Something I might do again with different film adaptations of a different source.