Archive for Otto Preminger

One-Way River

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2020 by dcairns

SHOW THEM NO MERCY! was originally going to be directed by Otto Preminger and star Wallace Beery, until Beery announced that he refused to be directed by anyone whose name he couldn’t pronounce.

RIVER OF NO RETURN was Preminger’s first Cinemascope film and a biggish hole in my Preminger viewing. Watching it on the Toshiba, I wished I’d been to see it restored in Bologna — the widescreen scenic images have a fantastic grandeur even on DVD, and on a big screen must be overwhelming.

Anyway, it’s a good film: Preminger’s long take sensibility is immediately a good match for ‘Scope, and he does a lot of impressive work with tricky elements like rafts, horses, etc. How many suitcases did they have to send downriver for this famous shot?

There’s a horrible scene, though, where Robert Mitchum’s character tries to straight-up rape Marilyn Monroe’s. He’s interrupted by a cougar attack, and then by two guys who show up and think about killing him, and what with one thing and another the incident is never referred to again. There are more moments when they seem on the verge of discussing it, but it turns out this was merely projection on our part.

As always with Otto-related questions, the answer is to be found in Chris Fujiwara’s critical study The World and Its Double. When Preminger finished shooting, Fox boss Darryl Zanuck was dissatisfied with the film, which he felt was unnecessarily cryptic about its characters’ goals, relationships, motives. He insisted on adding three scenes.

(His ally in the dumbing-down is the soundtrack, which helpfully embarks on Calhoun’s theme tune whenever anyone discusses him. Elsewhere it’s stirring and atmospheric, and Cyric Mockridge and an uncredited Leigh Harline are apparently responsible.)One was a conversation between Monroe and Rory Calhoun near the start, which explains why they’re together. Unfortunately, this information had already been covered extensively by later dialogue from Monroe to Mitchum, so screenwriter Frank Fenton (OUT OF THE PAST) ends up shoving paraphrases into the actors’ mouths, rendering the later scenes dangerously repetitive. (He gets away with it only because Monroe justifying her relationship in the words Calhoun has previously used is new material as far as her dealings with Mitchum is concerned.)

Another was a scene where Mitchum massages Monroe after a particularly exhausting stint on the rapids (the process photography on the raft is the film’s weakest point other than the following scene: the POV shots going downstream are terribly grainy and I’m guessing the background plates were shot “flat” in 1:1.33, because they’re grainy, everything seems too big, like our heroes have sailed into Land of the Giants, and there’s a lot of Anamorphic-mumpsy rubberwalling, as the scenery bends, as if trying to wrap itself around the leads (and who could blame it?).The third scene is Mitchum’s sudden, out-of-character attack on Monroe. These three bits were directed by Jean Negulescu. So, you see, Monroe and Mitchum couldn’t discuss the matter afterwards because the footage wasn’t shot.

Going by Zanuck’s comments, the massage and the attempted rape were both inserted to make the characters’ relationship clearer. But they don’t really do that, at least for a non-rapey modern audience. I suppose the massage scene could be there to suggest sexual attraction, but although it works as a sexy treat for the audience, it’s presented in the story as a practical answer to Monroe being freezing cold and exhausted.

And Mitchum pouncing on Monroe… this seems to be Zanuck’s idea of showing that he’s attracted to her. I suppose the character point is that he doesn’t respect her, regards her as a good-time girl who will submit to a rough embrace, and when she doesn’t, he just carries on because he can’t figure that out. But it’s rubbish. Mitchum isn’t dumb or brutish anywhere else in the movie. And they never mention it again.I don’t know of any evidence that the scene ignited any controversy at the time. For me, it hurts the movie’s ending quite a bit: Mitchum takes Monroe away from her saloon-singing life, slinging her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. This is already a bit too caveman for us modern folks. But Monroe ditching her sparkly shoes shows that she is a fully consenting partner in this change of lifestyle. The filmmakers were balancing out the audience appeal of Mitchum’s he-man stuff with the requirement that the leading lady have a mind of her own.

Zanuck’s raunchy intrusion upsets that quite badly. Monroe is now being carried off by a man who previously tried to force her into sex (while his young son, and, as it turns out, a cougar, were mere yards away). We’ll probably make some allowance since after all it’s Mitchum (and he’s not in Max Cady mode… rivers seem to bring out the worst in him, though), but damage is certainly done.

(I would quite like to see a director’s cut of this offered, perhaps as a bonus on a Blu-ray. (I think you always need to keep the original around to illustrate the historical record: THIS is what audiences saw upon release…)

 

Lubitsch’s Final Touch

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2017 by dcairns

Ernst Lubitsch had a sensational end run, with TO BE OR NOT TO BE, HEAVEN CAN WAIT and the less celebrated but easily equal CLUNY BROWN. Before those three is the less stellar THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING, but then you have THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and NINOTCHKA. The only blots on this celluloid landscape are the Preminger intrusions, A ROYAL SCANDAL, produced and heavily supervised by Lubitsch, and THAT LADY IN ERMINE which Lubitsch began but died before finishing, with Otto Preminger stepping in to complete, uncredited.

A ROYAL SCANDAL isn’t all that bad, and it does have a wonderful moment where William Eythe (of Who the hell is William Eythe? fame) steps out of a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, paces the room, distracted, and is then surprised to have himself wind up back in a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, who has nipped round the back of the camera, unseen, and positioned herself in his path. A witty, self-conscious and wonderfully silly use of screen space.

THAT LADY IN ERMINE doesn’t have the benefit of a live Lubitsch to watch over its late production and post-production, and so it’s a lot more uneven. Still, it’s not exactly terrible. Preminger’s broad, ham-fisted approach to comedy (see SKIDOO and Vincent Price’s delicious line, “Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine,”) pushes through the smooth understatement of Samson Rafaelson’s script, to create a giddy sense of goofiness that doesn’t feel under anybody’s control.

Hard to know if that script would have played markedly better under Lubitsch’s baton, because there’s a prevailing sense of derangement. The movie is a kind of operetta, with a few songs (by Frederick Hollander, so not bad, but not his best) and a Ruritanian setting. So it’s harkening back to Ernst’s early 30s Chevalier productions at Paramount. But, as they say, something new has been added, or several somethings.

First, Technicolor™! While it’s true that the colour in HEAVEN CAN WAIT is a little ugly and adds an unwanted heaviness to the proceedings (20th Century Fox tended to pump up the chroma to almost Goldwynesque levels of vulgar intensity), it really can’t harm such a surefooted and charming work, any more than the sexism and the contortions to get around the censor can. Here, with less ideal circumstances, the colour does hurt, even though it’s cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s trademark golden honey light and cobalt blue shadows, which I usually like. ladled over fairytale kingdoms and dream sequences and Hungarians, it gets a tad gooey.

Then there’s the cast. Lubistch had a genius for getting adept light comedy perfs out of unlikely thesps. Preminger didn’t. Lubitsch knew he could coast along on the sheer surprise of Gary Cooper being funny, and Jack Benny being dramatic (and funny). Here we have Betty Grable, who’s sometimes funny, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who can play anything, but can’t BE a husky Hungarian warlord. Preminger has good fun with his fatuousness, which Lubitsch might have tamped down. Further down the list, Reginald Gardner returns from CLUNY BROWN as milquetoast cuckold #1, and Cesar Romero plays milquetoast cuckold #2 a little uncertainly, as if he’s not quite sure why his character’s meant to be funny. His presence along with Grable’s recalls Preston Sturges’ THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND, another late film, the following year, where “Butch” is even more miscast. Fox films had this problem a lot, it seems to me — the contract players got shoehorned into movies they weren’t suited to. Walter Abel is a skilled farceur, and some of the weird innuendo is pleasing — there’s a sense of a sado-masochistic thing going on between Abel and Fairbanks, his superior officer, which is amusing. Plus, gratuitous Harry Davenport.

Betty sings, several times, a song with the lyric “What I’ll do to that wild Hungarian,” and Lubitsch seems very pleased indeed with his double entendre and with his use of the word “Hungarian” as a kind of all-purpose punchline. Or maybe it’s Preminger’s cackles we seem to hear.

A few gruesome cartoony sound effects showcase Otto’s leering comedy style, but mostly the problem is a subtler one of feeling, a sense that nothing is quite right. The story involves not only the fantasy of musical numbers and mythical realms, but paintings coming to life at midnight and a long flashback and a couple of long dream sequences. Double voodoo, and triple voodoo. And the feeling, as with yet another, but far better Sturges late film, UNFAITHFULY YOURS, that if so much of the movie is dream sequences, what’s left for us to take away rom it? (I never felt this really answered the question of what’s wrong with the often-brilliant UNFAITHFULLY, but it was Sturges’ own pet theory.)

Still, as a vaguely Christmassy (at the end) romance about marriage and dreams and fidelity, maybe you could double-bill it with EYES WIDE SHUT (also completed after it’s auteur’s demise, though at least shooting was finished) for a nice festive Fever-Dream Double Feature?

Unfriendlied

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2016 by dcairns

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TRUMBO breaks new ground, as a dramatic film about the blacklist, by featuring an actual communist as its hero. When Irwin Winkler was preparing GUILTY BY SUSPICION, he worked with Abraham Polonsky as screenwriter for a spell, but the partnership broke up over AP’s insistence that the protagonist had to be a communist and Winkler’s insistence that he couldn’t be. Prior to TRUMBO, only the BBC TV film Fellow Traveller had the guts to take an actual leftie as lead.

Put it this way — do you prove that the blacklist was an injustice by demonstrating that some people who were not communists got blacklisted? Would you be proving that the law against murder is wrong by making a film about an innocent man wrongly accused of murder?

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So director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara are to be congratulated for not making the million-dollar mistake, especially in a time when right-wing pundits in America have been attempting to restore McCarthy and HUAC to favour. They do offer excuses for those who were tempted by the Party — perhaps a stronger, simpler defense would be the one used in THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT — we don’t like what these people do, but in a free society they have a right to do it.

The film has been greeted by quite a lot of grumbling, not for its politics, but for its quality. I would group it along with movies like KINSEY and THE NOTORIOUS BETTY PAGE (though it doesn’t rely on musical montages to popular, on-the-nose hits, thankfully) — a biopic which struggles to craft a solid dramatic story out of its subject, or to find a satisfying cinematic style.

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A film on this subject cries out to be a film of ideas, since a writer’s life usually entails little action, certainly when he’s at work. To McNamara’s credit, he includes useful discussions illustrating the slippery moral slope one embarks on when trying to cooperate with HUAC, to the extent that Edward G. Robinson, chosen as main example of the friendly witness/traitor, can still seem somewhat sympathetic — he made the wrong choice, is all.

What’s rather lacking is strong emotional, dramatic scenes. Trumbo’s HUAC testimony is rather rushed through, which is unfortunate since it’s one of the rare occasions where he comes up against his enemies. Instead we have many, many short scenes in which he argues with friends, notably Louis CK, excellent in the role of a combination of various members of the Hollywood 10. Balking at crowding the screen with nameless pinkos, the screenplay is probably wise to conflate a few of them, but by name-dropping Dmytryk and other offscreen personae to no particular effect, and making the point repeatedly that there are ten of these guys whom we never get to see, the film is guilty of failing to have its cake and failing to eat it. There’s a feeling the real drama is happening elsewhere.

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As director, Roach is… OK. He was on surer ground with the AUSTIN POWERS films. He makes a terrible misstep in beginning Trumbo’s HUAC testimony as a newsreel, hauling us a way from what should be the most dramatic moment yet and putting the thing into the past tense before it’s happened, and the genuinely moving moment when Trumbo sees his name on the credits of SPARTACUS after years of enforced anonymity gets a flashy reflection shot it really doesn’t need.

That should be a simple moment for letting the actors act, which Roach is otherwise quite happy to do — whatever the consequences. Bryan Cranston’s mannered perf may reflect Trumbo’s real personality, but it still feels forced, especially, as Fiona pointed out, when Louis CK and Diane Lane are being completely natural opposite him. I wonder if what was needed was a more naturally flamboyant personality, or at least a character actor with certain built-in quirks, so that the eccentricity would seem innate rather than assumed. I love Bryan Cranston, and I worry that he’s painted into a bit of a corner — any TV show he does is bound to be compared unfavourable with Breaking Bad, which means he’s pushed into movies at just the time when the smart talent i heading the other way. And movies haven’t found the best use for his talents.

(Actually, if he took part in an ensemble piece like the magnificent American Crime Story, I don’t think there would be any negative comparisons with BB.)

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This movie also features some odd lookalikes and sortalookalikes and lookunalikes. The Edward G Robinson surrogate, Michael Stuhlbarg, bears zero resemblance to the man he’s playing, except when turning up with a beard in old age, when it’s rather too late. Perhaps wisely, he doesn’t try to sound like Robinson either. Dean O’Gorman seems to be putting all his efforts into sounding slightly like Kirk Douglas, which doesn’t help him sound like a human being or give a performance, and he still fails to call the star to mind with the force of a Frank Gorshin TV impersonation. Berliner Christian Berkel makes a good fist of the Viennese Otto Preminger, though my Facebook friend Matthew Wilder thinks the role should have been his. What that says about Matthew I leave to your own judgement.