Archive for Paul Lukas

Think of India

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2021 by dcairns
It’s actually quite hard to find shots favouring Dean Stockwell’s face in this film where he has the title role…

It’s definitely a mistake to watch MGM’s KIM (1950) right after reading Kipling’s novel, but it would also be a mistake to watch it before reading the novel. So probably the best thing is not to watch it at all.

The three screenwriters have actually done a passable job of compressing and adapting a book that has several aspects that render it tricky. Kim ages from aged ten to at least fourteen, and the change in him is remarked upon by others. Still, Dean Stockwell was around fourteen and manages to suggest a fairly ambiguous age. Also in the book, Kim both speaks and thinks in more than one language. The writers manage to quasi-suggest this without ever showing it.

The most overt distortions have come in the service of Errol Flynn, preposterous casting as a Sunni Muslim Pathan, but given the lack of Indians in speaking roles, not really that preposterous compared with everything else. But now they have to give his character more leading man action stuff to do — they kill off Hurree Chunder (Cecil Kellaway, the only one who dares attempt any kind of Indian accent — his role was clearly intended by Kipling for Sydney Greenstreet, or would have been if the actor had been a bit older than 21 when the novel appeared, and if Kipling had been thinking of casting white folks as Indians in a movie version back in 1900) to give Flynn’s Mahbub Ali more to do. He obliges by chucking somebody off a cliff and then starting a rockslide.

All that I can kind of overlook, and I think you could just about make a passable Hollywood KIM even with all those changes. The numerous location shots are a help, even when they’re just used as rear projection fodder…

What I can’t forgive is the terrible flatness. Andre Previn seems to be asleep (maybe it’s the heat) — he provides a bit of martial splendor (absent in the book) but remains unstirred by scenes of nominal suspense. Director Victor Saville is one of very few Brit directors to go to Hollywood and totally give up any attempt at achieving cinema. His standard mode is the flat two-shot, and I do mean FLAT.

Dean Stockwell shows signs of being quite capable of playing his role, but I don’t think he’s been guided, and the camera doesn’t encourage us to consider Kim’s emotions as particularly important. You need Hitchcockian POV/reaction shot stuff to bring the character alive. It’s a bit like Bobby Driscoll in Disney’s TREASURE ISLAND — he’s a little powerhouse, not subtle but capable, but he’s under orders to emasculate every scene by playing it as a cheerful romp (Stevenson’s novel is a horror story).

Who the hell is this meant to be? He narrates the film, but the even credits don’t explain.

The biggest casualty of Saville’s disinterest is the Lama, played by a miscast Paul Lukas in his dullest manner. We get a voiceover — provided by some unexplained Indian — TELLING us that Kim grows to love the Lama, but the scant, desultory interactions depicted in flat and distant style give us nothing of this. I suppose it’s a typical Hollywood mistake to privilege the violent action stuff at the expense of character and spirituality, but there are plenty of movies of the time that do get this right. If Frank Borzage had been in charge, both the relationship and the religion would have come through strongly: Borzage believed, as does Kipling (speaking as Mahbub Ali), that all spirituality is a way to truth (Borzage would have insisted on kindness as a necessary tool). And he was at MGM!

Although Kim isn’t an easy book to film, it does have a number of very strong cinematic scenes. These are all either absent or ruined by Saville’s clumsy handling, except for the hypnosis bit, played by one of my favourite underused actors, Arnold Moss — the book is 100 times more powerful, and provides visuals that any competent director ought to have seized upon, but the material is so strong and Moss plays it so well that Saville actually wakes up very slightly and it becomes fascinating.

One weird thing: I’d seen bits of the movie as a kid, and now I understand why I was bored. No child focus. But I do recall the cliffhanging bit, and when I got to this passage in the book, describing the plunge — “No need to listen for the fall — this is the world’s end,” it rang a strong bell and I assumed the line appeared in the film. It SHOULD, but it doesn’t. I have this FALSE MEMORY of hearing the line as a kind and thinking “Is that TRUE?” Maybe I heard a similar line elsewhere. The child’s brain is strange — as Kipling knew.

20,000 Leagues of Their Own

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 24, 2021 by dcairns

Inspired by the Karel Zeman documentary we didn’t watch a Zeman film but instead looked at Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. First time I’ve made it through the thing, more or less, without drifting off. And yet, it’s not THAT boring.

It’s an impressive technical feat — everything they need to do, they pull off, and Bob Mattey’ giant squid is a wow. No wonder they brought him out of retirement to do Bruce the shark in JAWS. Quick! What was Richard Fleischer’s lawyer’s name? If we knew that, we would know what the squid should be called.

Melvin? Ken? Diablo?

Jules Verne’s episodic, meandering novel has given the adaptors some trouble — scenarist Earl Felton had written a couple of LONE WOLF movies (yay!) and a few small-scale works for Richard Fleischer, including the fantastic THE NARROW MARGIN, and suddenly he’s charged with penning this undersea epic which never had much of a plot. Once the protagonists are taken prisoner by Captain Nemo (James Mason) there’s nothing to do except wander around the magnificent Victorian sub, and go for the occasional jaunt. It all looks great but there’s no dramatic ticking clock to say anything in particular needs doing.

It’s interesting that Nemo is an ambiguous character and the fellow most sympathetic to him, Professor Arronax (Paul Lukas) is also most sympathetic to us. No strong decision seems to have been taken as to who Peter Lorre is playing, so the film’s best actor is somewhat rudderless, although as Fiona pointed out it’s kind of nice to see him playing somebody basically nice. And then there’s Ned Land, whaler and troilist, an appalling lout-hero, ably personated by Kirk Douglas, giving it both knees as usual. This seems to connect somehow to the Harryhausen/Juran FIRST MEN IN THE MOON — both feature delightful Victorian scifi vehicles (see also Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE) and thuggish heroes contrasted with appealing but powerless intellectuals. The Harryhausen movie actually made this WORK, though. (And this almost brings us back to Zeman, since his BARON PRASIL begins with a modern cosmonaut meeting Munchausen on the moon, much like FIRST MEN’s NASA opening, drafted by Nigel Kneale.)

THE BLACK HOLE, it’s been pointed out, is Disney’s unofficial remake of LEAGUES — Maximilian Schell even borrows James Mason’s beard (well, he had no further use for it) — to the extent of stealing the maelstrom from Verne, which doesn’t appear in the movie, and putting it front and centre and calling it a black hole. Where LEAGUES is meandering, though, HOLE is violently incoherent, though it does have an insane psychedelic/religiose ending which elevates it to the category of something or other that happened.

This must surely have been storyboarded to within an inch of its life but, curiously enough, Fleischer’s compositional genius isn’t much in evidence. I guess it’s his first Scope film.

Asides from the actors named above, the movie has one other favourite figure, Percy Helton, who turns up at the start as a salty sea-dog, looking less grotesque than usual in a beard of his own. He should’ve kept it, or vice versa. It’s one of those no-moustache Irish jobs, which usually make people look worse (Lincoln pulled it off, sorta), but dear Perc has the kind of face you can’t disimprove upon, so he ends up looking quite cute — from goblin to garden gnome.

Litvak in Anger

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2020 by dcairns

“[…] very few studios at that time would dare to make a picture of that kind. Jack and Harry· Warner let me do it. I had trouble in inducing them to do it. They got scared many times — they got scared even practically before we started the picture — but they finally let me do it, which is the most important thing.” Anatole Litvak, oral history.

Screenwriter John Wexley told Patrick McGilligan: “[…] we had big problems with the German embassy and consulate and with the German-American Bund. Then Martin Dies, who started the House Unamerican Activities Committee […] came to Warner Brothers to try to change Nazi Spy so that it would include anti-Communists as well as anti-Nazis. But the Communists had not done any espionage, so we couldn’t include them — besides which, we were dealing with an actual case. […] I saw Dies going out of Warner’s office as I went in through an anteroom. I told Warner, ‘I saw Dies coming out of here. Are you knuckling under to that pipsqueak congressman from Texas?’ He said, ‘Oh, I told him off. But if you could work in something about the pinkos.'”

Ben Urwand, in The Collaboration, writes about chief censor Joseph Breen’s concerns: “[…] he understood that a controversial picture by Warner Brothers might endanger the business of other studios still selling movies in Germany. Nevertheless, after going through the script, he was forced to admit that the picture was technically within the provisions of the Production Code: it represented Germany “honestly” and “fairly” because it told a story of espionage that had not only been verified in a court of law but was also common knowledge throughout the United States.”

CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY (1939), which I first wrote about here, is fairly famous now as the film which sparked an international incident that could, in theory, have brought the US into WWII two years early in a timely fashion. Yet this raised profile doesn’t seem to have done that much for the reputation of its director.

By happy chance I stumbled on a copy of Ben Urwand’s controversial The Collaboration in my favourite charity shop (St, Columba’s Bookshop) — he devotes a good few pages to this movie, seeing it as the exception that proves his thesis that the Hollywood studios bent over backwards to appease Nazi Germany.

To denigrate the courage of Warner Bros in making an anti-Nazi film, Urwand says, “Despite all the drama and secrecy, however, Confessions of a Nazi Spy was by no means a great film. Warner Brothers claimed to have spent over $1.5 million on it, but the actual figure was closer to $650,000.” Firstly, I don’t see that the budget has any direct bearing on the film’s greatness or lack thereof, and I feel amusement and affection regarding the typical crooked and cheap way the studio operated here. Urwand is plain wrong to call it an obvious B-picture — even though star Edward G. Robinson doesn’t appear until comparatively late in the show, his presence is enough to lift it to A-picture status, even without the bonus value of Francis Lederer, George Sanders and Paul Lukas.

I’m grateful to Urwand for reporting that Joseph Goebbels was apparently delighted to see himself portrayed in a Hollywood film by Martin Kosleck, as well he might be — Kosleck is adpet at creepiness but is much better looking that Goebbels. “I myself play a main role and not even a particularly unpleasant one,” JG gloated in his diary.

But Hollywood has never made propaganda films to have an effect on the enemy, but on the American public first and allies second. Goebbels wrote,”I do not consider the film dangerous […] It arouses fear in our enemies rather than anger and hate.” Far be it from me to belittle Joe’s expertise in this field, but very possibly Americans needed to be alarmed first, before they could be aroused to aggression. I mean, that’s why Pearl Harbour was such a smashing success, surely?

The movie isn’t my favourite Litvak but I love that he and Warners made it. It has an unusual structure, simply following the development and then rolling-up of the Nazi spy operation, which

This movie comes from the period when Don Siegel was running the Warners montage department, and, under the deranged influence of Slavko Vorkapich over at MGM, was pushing the studio’s montages in a more radical, symbolic and visual ambitious direction. He has several good stories about his work on Litvak films. How true they are is known only to the principle characters, who are dead.

On CONFESSIONS, Siegel wanted to show Nazi propaganda leaflets dropped onto a city street. He figured out that the best way to show the content of the leaflets and their distribution almost at once would be to start on a tight view of a single flier, then have it drop away from the lens, revealing many more identical fliers all falling down upon the outraged citizenry from an appropriately great height.

So: a sturdy plank was projected from the roof of a tall building with a camera on the end of it, pointing straight down. An operator was to hold a leaflet in front of the lens, then let it go at the appropriate moment while assistants tossed hundreds more leaflets off the building, then he had to rack focus quickly from VERY CLOSE to INFINITY. This was being done without any permissions and so the hope was they’d be able to see genuine passers-by picking up the falling papers and reacting to them for real.

Siegel is asked if he wants to check the shot. Not wanting to “yeller out” in front of the boys, he agrees. So he squats on the plank and edges very carefully out over the void, the plank bouncing cheerfully with each movement of his (clenching, perspiring) buttocks.

Trembling, he looks through the viewfinder. Can’t see a damn thing, Maybe it’s not racked properly.

“Looks great!” he declares, and inches tremulously back to terra firma, or its nearest Los Angeles equivalent. He never knew if the operator was onto him. But the shot turned out fine, he says.

It’s not in the film, though — only the latter part of it:

CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY stars Dr. Clitterhouse; Count Dracula – posing as Bellac Gordal; Addison DeWitt; Dr. Dohmler – Psychiatrist; Col. Dodge; May Emmerich; Angela Merrova; Woody Woodpecker; Howard Joyce; Spectator at Stoning (uncredited); Mike O’Reilly; “Concentration Camp” Ehrhardt; Captain Schultz; Reinhard Heydrich; Mrs. Barryman; Father Peter Lonergan; Norman Bissonette; Will, the Groundsman; Dwight Severn; Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls; and Adolf Hitler as himself.

Thanks to Karen Green and Columbia University for finding and supplying the Anatole Litvak oral history quoted above.