Archive for Otto Preminger

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.

 

Bare-ass in the Park

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2015 by dcairns

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I’m slowly polishing off the Otto Preminger filmography. Chris Fujiwara’s career study names SUCH GOOD FRIENDS, scripted by a pseudonymous Elaine May, as the best of the late-period Premingers, and I have to agree. As he says, following a rocky opening, the film “starts to work,” though its tone is so weird it can be hard to be sure at times. If DAISY KENYON is a miraculous film for its era, avoiding telegraphing its views of its characters to a staggering degree — Preminger is often praised for his impartiality — SUCH GOOD FRIENDS takes things to an extreme only possible in the seventies. Tonal markers are absent, so that vicious humour can alternate with sincere emotion, but you’re not even sure the humour is humour, the emotion emotion.

Things sure do start rocky, though. Glenn Kenny pinpointed the most jarring and repulsive moments, which climax with sixty-four-year-old Burgess Meredith’s nude scene. Unlike Glenn, I won’t reproduce a frame-grab of that moment. But this is Fiona’s reaction  ~

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Fiona points out that Meredith was hanging out with John C. Lilly and was kind of a counter-culture guy, so letting it all hang out, or most of it, was probably a political statement for him. But Nobody Wants To See That, Burgess. Not even if you were TWENTY-four.

More damaging, for me, was a throwaway line by Dyan Cannon’s lead character, dealing with an inefficient (black) maid: “Jesus, why did they abolish slavery?” Making the audience despise your main character in the first five minutes of your movie seems unwise, unless there’s a definite strategy at work. Not all of us are as impartial as you, Otto.

Another uncomfortable moment: Cannon narrowly avoids being slammed by a speeding yellow cab, a fate which actually befell the director a few years later, resulting in brain damage similar in effect to Alzheimers. Eerie.

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As ever with Otto, shooting was NOT FUN. Cannon got a bollocking from Otto for laughing during a sad scene — but with an insensitivity not foreign to his nature, he was missing the fact that the laugh was IN CHARACTER. Cannon does hysterical laughter in THE LAST OF SHEILA after narrowly escaping death. As Fiona says, the quirky and unexpected moment is Cannon’s stock-in-trade. It’s what you hire her for. Maybe it’s Otto’s method at work, but her best moments in this one are portrayals of dazed shock and depression.

Lots of funny lines — a foot specialist at Elizabeth Arden’s (Fiona was thrilled to see the inside of the real place) droning on, “The trouble with most women is they don’t realize the foot is part of the body.” A few funny situations and a lot of impressively ghastly ones. “Please don’t let anything sexual happen with James Coco,” prayed Fiona, and right on cue it does, and Preminger, in prolonged takes, milks agonizing suspense from the humiliated fatty’s desperate attempts to conceal his corset from his surprise paramour as she undresses him.

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Is the movie mean? A lot of people seem to think so. I kind of felt it was compassionate on some deep level. All these people are running around being petty and sharp-witted and jagged and unfaithful. The death arrives and blows a hole in this vanity fair and shows what’s important. And then the film ends, because there isn’t really room in these crowded frames for what’s really important. But we get the point.

Ottocracy in Action

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2015 by dcairns

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More Otto Preminger Week Revisited.

Otto is one of those filmmakers you just CANNOT watch in the wrong aspect ratio. I’ve seen TAXI DRIVER in 4:3 and it was OK, although that’s obviously a travesty of the filmmaker’s intentions. To see a widescreen Preminger reduced to 16:9, though, renders it meaningless. The drama is often a little elusive at times, and without the spaciousness of the compositions, it dissipates mysteriously into nothingness. Plus you miss the detail packed into the edges of the frame on the crowded shots.

Fiona was astonished by ADVISE AND CONSENT — she found it talkie and dull for the first half hour, and she has flu, and she didn’t feel like looking at this all-star fishtank of largely cold, dry characters conniving and backstabbing. But once the movie has set its narrative in motion, and in particular once Don Murray’s awful predicament as a blackmailed senator with a homosexual affair in his past becomes apparent, the thing grips.

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For once, Charles Laughton is upstaged — by time-traveling Hugo Weaving on the right. He Gets everywhere!

In The World and its Double, Chris Fujiwara notes that Preminger and screenwriter Wendell Mayes were adapting and subverting a right-wing novel, and the result is interesting — it has Henry Fonda lying under oath, for one thing. As in THE BEST MAN, Fonda plays an “egghead” — Henry Fonda is Hollywood’s idea of a dangerous intellectual? What’s interesting, though, is this major star playing a character reduced to a political football, kicked around by the real players, compromising his ideals, finally reduced to irrelevance in a plot that moves on elsewhere.

Charles Laughton, in his last role, is chief antagonist, right-wing spokesman for the blacklist set. Preminger, who helped break the blacklist, allows him some humanity. The secondary antagonist is uptight, neurotic peacemonger George Grizzard, a hopeless politician full of passion and, it turns out, evil. And even he is somewhat sympathetic.

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This is an amazing shot: the camera arching around dramatically in response to quite small head turns by Grizzard (left).

People Preminger was mean to on this one: Franchot Tone, who hadn’t been in a movie for years. Paul Ford, of Bilko fame (“You’re not funny!”). He didn’t mess with Laughton, and Don Murray betrayed no weakness.

Preminger, trying to help out Gene Tierney, who had been institutionalized after a mental collapse, cast her as a society hostess and apparently treated her with the greatest gentleness. She was terrified of him anyway. You can’t be the purple-faced tyrant and switch to being lovable Uncle Otto when it suits you. Fiona’s eyes nearly popped out when Tierney’s character playfully calls herself a bitch — the word had not been used in American movies, at least since the Production Code came in (one thinks of THE WOMEN’s artfully circumlocutory “There’s a name for you ladies…” — but I think British movies had not been so gentle).

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What really amazed Fiona was the gay bar scene. Preminger was sailing very close to the wind, relying on a change to the Code that had not been ratified as he neared production. SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER had broken the taboo on cannibalism — I guess homosexuality was regarded as a degree worse than that. Preminger was warned not to feature makeup or effeminate types — he heeded the warnings but violated their spirit with physiognomy and performance. Seen through the tortured Don Murray character’s eyes, the place exerts both repulsion and attraction — some customers seem normal, appealing, others are George Grosz grotesques. Preminger’s innate streak of vulgarity can’t resist a good leer, but the approach makes sense and the scene hasn’t really dated. The senator’s religion isn’t mentioned, but he’s from Utah, making it highly likely that he’s a Mormon (I believe Bruce Dern’s grandfather was the only non-Mormon governor of Utah), making his inner conflict even more intense.

Preminger and Mayes plant just enough clues to indicate that the character’s marriage is, if not a sham, at least a deliberate construct, a life he’s been trying to lead, telling himself it’s right for him. He loves his wife and kid, but he’s straitjacketed himself into somebody else’s existence. It’s a rather sophisticated, nuanced piece of work, and Murray is excellent in the role: something about the tightness of his smile always suggests a man clinging on (he’s very fine in the underrated A HATFUL OF RAIN also).

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