Archive for Paul Scofield

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s Scenes #3 & #4

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2022 by dcairns

The Kozontzev HAMLET is grand and the ghost is particularly fine. If you want a spectacular, epic vision of the ghost, you couldn’t really do better. Something about the particular tone of this movie isn’t quite up my alley but I have no end of admiration for the showmanship here. Why don’t any of the other versions make use of the possibiities of BILLOWING CLOAKS?

(Does Branagh, perhaps? I’ve forgotten already, but I’ll remind myself soon when I rewatch and write about his ghost encounters. Flowing robes seems a very Branaghlike trope.)

I’m here today to break down the Franco Zeffirelli HAMLET though — the one with Mad Mel. Just two arch-Catholics hanging out together in a Scottish castle.

FZ — I keep thinking that must stand for Frank Zappa, but never mind — foolishly omits the ghost’s first appearance, which gets his film off to a far weaker start. But he has a great cast, except for his Hamlet. Mad Mel has foolishly seized on the chance to do some Great Acting, whereas the thing he could and does contribute most effectively is Movie Star Presence. This is diluted by his attempts to get flowery.

Along with Mel, we have the excellent Stephen Dillane as Horatio, and some other guys I don’t know as Marcellus etc. It’s fine not having well-known faces in every role, in fact it’s preferable to the insanely overstuffed Branagh.

Hamlet is bemoaning his uncle’s wassails, if you’ll pardon the expression, viewing him through an unconvincing grill (I don’t know if you’d want a giant hole in your banquet room ceiling, not in Denmark, although I guess before chimneys were invented you might need something like that so you don’t asphyxiate). In addition to supporting players like Alan Bates, Glenn Close (only 11 years older than her screen son), Ian Holm and Helena Bonham-Carter, FZ has David Watkin on camera and Ennio Morricone on score. Neither of these great talents was doing their most exciting work by this time, but the film looks and sounds good. Watkin and designer Maurizio Millenotti can’t quite convince me the tower set is a real place, and although I suppose with a medieval tower at midnight some form of artifice is always going to be involved. MM was also costume designer, had worked for Fellini, and Gibson would import him for his acclaimed how-to guide to crucifixion, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.

I should mention that unfortunately the only copy I could get is 4:3, and it’s not open-matte, meaning I can’t crop it to the right ratio: we’re missing a third of the image. So any aesthetic judgements come with major provisos — we’re not really seeing the film FZ made, even allowing for the reduction in size and definition. Plus my copy is glitchy.

What’s good about the ghost’s first appearance here is that he’s just a colourless figure in the distance. What’s uncanny about him is that everyone recognizes him as a dead man. He’s far enough away that there could be some doubt, which makes things even more worrying, in a way. At a certain distance, you can be sure you know the person you’re looking at, but you could still try to sell yourself on the idea that you’ve made a mistake.

I think all this would be better if we’d had the ghost’s first appearance, though.

FZ’s editor has some unlikely credits. Richard Marden had cut the Olivier OTHELLO (yikes) before being adopted by Stanley Donen for BEDAZZLED and TWO FOR THE ROAD, and then cut the dazzling SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY for John Schlesinger. But he also cut SLEUTH, which I don’t think is a well-edited movie (but Olivier was having trouble with his lines, which may have caused problems), and also also garbage like CARRY ON ENGLAND and WHAT’S UP NURSE! and returned to Donen’s side for the regrettable SATURN 3.

This would all work great except the first shot of the HFG (Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost) shows Paul Scofield, for it is he, in a medium shot, defying all sense of optical POV. And then he gets another closer shot later. This takes me out of the reality of the scene, and in trying to startle us — and it’s not particularly startling — by having PS enter in MS — the film breaks the reality of the scene. If you were Horatio or his chum, you’d first see a wide shot, and then you might filter out the surrounding scenery and mentally create a kind of medium shot. But you couldn’t start with that.

In other words, all the wide shots of the ghost are great, Mel advancing from the distance to his own MS is good, but jumping in for impossible detail views harms the scene. It’s a bit like the horrific moment in THE PIANIST when Nazis throw a disabled man from a window, and Polanski’s camera watches from the window opposite, never taking you unnaturally close. The drama comes from the sense of REALITY, and attempting to amp it up with close-ups would actually detract from that, by putting us where we couldn’t be.

Good bit of following, and the Mel gets up on the tower and finds himself alone. A nice bit of the uncanny. There’s nowhere else the ghost could have gone. And then he’s there — an equally impossible thing.

Gibson’s attempts to get action movie stuff into HAMLET are NOT actually embarrassing: it’s what he’s best at, after all. So he swirls around with his sword, sees the ghost — and immediately drops it.

Great shot of Scofield, just sitting there, making a strange, ineffectual movement, lowering one hand from the battlement, attempting to look as mild and unthreatening as possible, and looking VERY SAD — sad that his only son is afraid of him, I think. A great choice. As impressive as Olivier and Kosintsev’s ghosts are, they can’t do this kind of human stuff.

And then the scene is McKellan’s, and we’re in very good hands. Scofield is quite old to be Gibson’s dad, just as Glenn Close is quite young. The positive side of this is we can imagine her preferring Alan Bates. But that voice! No better casting was possible.

The cutting of the dialogue here is quite good — whenever we see Gibson, it is possible to imagine everything the ghost says being in his mind (the ghost tells Hamlet exactly what, in a sense, he wants to believe, hence “Oh my prophetic soul!”) If Gibson were stronger I’d say hold on him more, but as it is the balance is good and Gibson gets through the scene respectably, mainly just listening and reacting. His bigger moments seem forced.

Slow track in on Scofield, and an even weirder hand movement at 4:08. Somehow Lynchian, in that one senses some crazy backstory there we’re not getting. “But that I am forbid to tell…” The movement seems to ward off whatever harrowing power forbids the ghost.

PG Wodehouse has forever ruined “like quills upon the fretful porpentine” as a dramatic line, if it ever did work, so I don’t miss that bit.

At 4.47 Scofield is suddenly being viewed from a new angle, even though Hamlet, whose POV we assume it to be, hasn’t moved recently. It seems likely that, having no doubt already pruned the text, FZ and his cutter have decided to snip out a chunk of footage. Indeed, all through this scene the dialogue has been savagely slashed, but it kind of has to be for a movie. Even for a play.

Scofield has the best male voice maybe ever. I mean, Richard Burton, yes, and I am partial to a bit of James Coburn, but Scofield is somehow less obvious, he achieves his gravitas without the need for Sensurround rumble. He’s much of what makes Patrick Keillor’s LONDON and ROBINSON IN SPACE two favourite things — I can’t watch Keillor without Scofield, the vacuum left is unfillable.

I started to wonder whether, at some point in this sequence, Hamlet might not want to go to his father. Sure, the man’s a ghost and therefore scary, but as the scene goes on and Hamlet gets over his initial doubt and feels pity for his poor old dad, might it not be a good idea to dramatise that by having him actually approach. And FZ takes my hint — the ghost comes forwards, saying “Adieu” — a bizarro choice but Scofield, but one he sells — if you’re a ghost, you can vanish while walking towards someone — and as the ghost reaches out, Hamlet in turn reaches up — whether to fend off the spook, embrace him, or to stop his own head from exploding, we cannot know — and the reverse angle reveals the HFG has indeed vanished.

The ghost’s “Remember me” is absolutely heartbreaking and haunting.

Now the floor is Mel’s, so things get quite a bit worse quite fast. It’s not a bad choice to have H return to where he has a view of his uncle’s revelling, so he can be looking right at the damned villain while he curses him. But FZ and his cutter include closeups of Bates, midrevel, and have neglected to shoot it from a high angle, so I find its inclusion jarring and clumsy. H then has the line about his “tables” but he hasn’t got any school jotter on him, so the schoolkids in the audience are destined to remain puzzled — he borrows a leaf from Nicol Williamson’s sweaty book and tries to carve his vow on the castle’s stonework with his sword. Sparks fly! Not convinced he could wield a sharp sword that way without losing some fingers.

I think directors should probably listen to the author when he has Hamlet call for his tables, and actually give him some tables. I expect this was done a lot on the stage until it came to seem cliche. but you can enliven tired business, you don’t have to chuck it out completely.

The last bit feels like H should still be writing, but Mel does it as H swearing on his sword, then hyperventilates a bit — this is all quite forced — then suddenly drops out of view. The rest is silence — until Kenneth bloody Branagh rocks up, a mere six years later. Tune in next time to hear Prince Hamlet say… absolutely everything.

Flub

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on October 22, 2014 by dcairns

King Lear cock-up from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I was always rather disappointed by the live TV King Lear directed by Peter Brook which Orson Welles starred in. I pretty much loathe Brooks’ film of KING LEAR with Paul Scofield too, but that’s based on my love of the play, my reading of it, and my feelings about what I’d want from an adaptation. Brooks’ film certainly has the courage of its convictions, and is almost a compelling and well-made film, if it weren’t for his ridiculous habit of cutting to the backs of people’s heads. (There are times, explained the Great Director, when you don’t want to see anything, you just want to listen to the text; but as it’s unacceptable to have the screen go black, he opted to show the backs of the heads. This, needless to say, perplexes and distracts the viewer far more than the faces of excellent actors ever would.)

The TV Lear, heavily cut to fit into a one-hour time slot, isn’t as radical a reinterpretation of the play as Brook’s later film, which strips it of emotion and nobility and tragedy and settles for a kind of lumpen, petrified grimness. What wrecks the TV play is Orson’s makeup, probably the worst he ever wore. To see his Lear, who looks like Krankor from PRINCE OF SPACE, with his cardboard beak, is to suddenly think far more highly or Gregory Arkadin’s tonsorial choices. Wearing a false beard on top of your head, matching the one on your chin, at least suggests a kind of symmetry, like a playing card. As with his regrettable IMMORTAL STORY makeup, Welles is attempting suggest old age by painting shadows on his face like a set from CALIGARI. But he’s gotten carried away, and ended up darker than his Othello, and blotchy with it. Welles as Lear is somewhat embarrassing to look at, and I love Welles too much to take any pleasure in being embarrassed about him.

The worst moment in the telecast is the best moment in the play. The reconciliation scene is the bit that moves audiences to tears. I saw a Kenneth Branagh production with Richard Briers as Lear, and THAT moved me to tears. I don’t recall feeling anything except disgruntlement at the Scofield version, mirroring the Scofield performance, but in general the scene seems almost impossible to screw up.

Welles, alas, blows his lines. Lear says to his loving daughter, Cordelia, whom he has wronged ~

Be your tears wet? yes, ‘faith. I pray, weep not:
If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me; for your sisters
Have, as I do remember, done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

This refers to Lear’s casting out of Cordelia, for which she should hate him, and to his other daughters’ casting out of him, after he gave them his kingdom.

But what Welles says, unfortunately, in the last line, is ~

They have some cause ~

Here, he pauses. He has just made Lear say that his wicked daughters, who kicked him out in a storm, had good reason to do so. This makes no sense. Worse, Welles realises that if he finishes the line, he will be making things much, much worse. But the alternative is to go back and correct himself, making the mistake completely obvious to the television public. I think we can see him thinking, calculating, for an anguished second. He decides to plough on ~

you have not.

So now he’s saying that his banishment of Cordelia was justified and she’s not entitled to hold it against him. Worse, this means that Cordelia’s next line, “No cause, no cause,” is not a daughter forgiving her old father’s terrible flaws and saying that she loves him and nothing has stood in the way of that. Now it means that she’s just agreeing with him that he was right to give her the boot.

Fortunately the scene gets back on track after this and they do the lines as written. But Welles is still wearing a ludicrous great hooter.

The Shooting Party

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2013 by dcairns

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Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean writes about James Mason’s final screen appearance in THE SHOOTING PARTY.

What is it about the English country house weekend? From PG Wodehouse to Agatha Christie, from Gosford Park to Upstairs, Downstairs, we are by now so acquainted with its rituals that, even before Downton Abbey came along, most of us could give a detailed, if perhaps clichéd, account of one. We may never have dressed for dinner or circulated the port or – as would have been more likely for most of us – polished the boots of the gentry, but we are very familiar with the class distinctions, and the habits and attitudes of both servers and served.

I feared The Shooting Party, the 1985 film in which James Mason makes his last appearance, might have nothing new to say on the subject, but it goes some way towards subverting the stereotypes and confounding our expectations. Adapted from Isabel Colegate’s prize-winning novel, it’s directed by Alan Bridges, who was known mainly for his TV work, but who had won the Palme d’Or in 1973 for The Hireling, based on LP Hartley’s period novel about an inter-class love affair.

The Shooting Party is set in the autumn of 1913 and from the very start presages the coming conflict. It opens with a shot, in black and white, of a procession of people walking across an open field, a stretcher party in their midst. It’s clearly England in peacetime, and there are women in the group, but it powerfully evokes WW1 footage.

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The film then switches to colour and introduces us a group of guests assembling at a country house for a weekend of pheasant shooting, horse riding and fine dining and, for some, flirtation and adultery. The film boasts a particularly fine cast. Here are Edward Fox as Lord Gilbert Hartlip, a crack shot unhappily married to a spendthrift and faithless wife (Cheryl Campbell), Robert Hardy as Lord Bob Lilburn, the genial, buffoonish husband of a beautiful young Judi Bowker, and Rupert Frazer as a rising lawyer with literary leanings who is in love with her. Their hosts are Sir Randolph and Lady Minnie Nettleby (James Mason and Dorothy Tutin). Later John Gielgud, Gordon Jackson and Frank Windsor are added to the mix.

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Mason’s part would have been played by Paul Scofield had it not been for an accident on the first day of filming that nearly cut a swathe through British acting talent. Five of the men in the cast were being filmed arriving at the shoot in a horse-drawn brake. The driver’s footplate gave way and he fell to the ground between the horses and the brake, with concussion from a blow to the head. The driverless horses panicked and headed at speed for a low hanging beech tree and then turned sharply to avoid a fence line. The brake overturned and those who had not already jumped clear were thrown out. Scofield’s leg was badly broken and he was hospitalized for several weeks while Fox sustained broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder.

There was a hiatus while a replacement for Scofield was found. Eventually, the BBC (one of the film’s backers) released Mason from a TV role he was working on – a piece of exceptional good fortune for the production team as it’s doubtful if even Scofield could have given a finer performance.

Mason’s Sir Randolph is a thoughtful and benevolent employer who commands respect, even from the local poacher, and the Lloyd George supporters who gather in the pub. But where he differs from most of his class is in his doubts about the justice of privilege and his awareness of changes on the horizon. In a voice-over that accompanies the opening shot we hear him say “Life was extraordinarily pleasant for those of us fortunate enough to have been born in the right place. Ought it to be so pleasant? And for so few of us? …….. Might war cleanse us of our materialism? Our cynicism, our lax and lazy hypocrisies?”

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Similar concerns about the existing social structure are aired throughout the film, and objections voiced to the culture of killing for sport and male competitiveness. It’s disconcerting therefore to hear the producer, Geoff Reeve say in a 2006 interview that he optioned the book because it “seemed to embrace the values and beliefs I held at that time. Apart from believing in God, we believed in the British Empire and, if you like, the lord of the manor …….. Very old fashioned ideas. And The Shooting Party endorsed those beliefs.” I’m sure the book’s author would have been surprised to hear this, and it’s clear that Julian Bond, the screenwriter didn’t share Reeve’s view.

The script is, however, not the film’s strongest point, even though it received a BAFTA nomination. Bond, who had worked exclusively in television up to that point, generously admits it lacks the book’s complexity and that whatever depth and meaning it has is mainly thanks to the actors.

Mason is especially effective in two scenes, one humorous, the other poignant. In the first John Gielgud, playing an animal rights activist bent on sabotaging the shoot, walks in front of the guns with a placard bearing the message Thou Shalt Not Kill. He is brought before Mason and the conversation that follows, in which they discover a common interest in pamphleteering, is sheer joy.

The film’s climax is the accidental shooting of the poacher (Gordon Jackson). While he lies dying, Mason offers comfort and reassurance and together they recite the Lord’s Prayer. The scene could have been mawkish in the hands of lesser actors, but here it’s done with great delicacy and genuine emotion. Both Frank Windsor and Rupert Frazer who appear as bystanders recall the profound effect on them of witnessing the performances at close range.

It’s worth noting that Gordon Jackson, playing an Englishman, reveals his Presbyterian roots by reciting the Scottish version of the Lord’s Prayer with its reference to debts rather than the Anglican trespasses and I suspect that Bridges chose to leave this in rather than go for another, possibly inferior, take.

The rest of the cast is no less impressive. While negotiations for Scofield’s replacement were taking place, Bridges shot a delightful small scene between Robert Hardy and Judi Bowker. Told to take their time over it, for there was nothing else that could be filmed, they turn a seemingly trivial discussion about cufflinks into a subtle and revealing portrait of a marriage.

The delays caused by the accident meant it became impossible to film the script in its totality. Apart from financial problems, the weather was becoming too wintry and the shooting season was drawing to a close. It had been planned to follow the fortunes of the male characters as they entered the war, but instead it was decided to close the film with a reprise of the opening shot of the party walking across the field with what we now know to be the poacher’s body. This time it’s in colour, with captions telling us where and when the men were killed in action.

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Mason was shown the finished film but died of a heart attack aged 75 in July 1984 only six months after shooting was completed and before its cinema release. He was posthumously named Actor of the Year by the London Critics Circle, an award he richly deserved.

Judy Dean

UK DVD: The Shooting Party (Collectors Edition) [DVD]
US DVD: The Shooting Party