Archive for Peter Finch

Gone Wilde

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2020 by dcairns

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Gregory Ratoff’s OSCAR WILDE starts strikingly, as a documentary almost, with footage of Wilde’s grave in Pere Lachaise, but then we realise that Wilde himself (impersonated by Robert Morley) is providing the voice-over, which takes us out of standard docu terrain.

But things get troublesome fast — in the very first scene after the credits, the audience at the premiere of Lady Windermere’s Fan laugh at straight lines from Wilde’s speech, and worse, greet actual zingers with stony silence or, equally cluelessly, with appreciative applause. One starts to feel that if the filmmakers can’t tell when Wilde is being funny, this could be a bumpy 94 mins.

This confusion by the sound editor and/or director continues apace, and I rapidly surmised that Ratoff simply wasn’t paying attention. Morley delivers the carefully assembled bot mots with typical lipsmacking relish (he’s all swollen up with apothegms), but discusses an offscreen character’s appearance without so much as glancing at her, adding clairvoyance to Wilde’s many talents.

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Morley and John Neville not only lack chemistry, but biology and basic physics, and seem to be acting in different films even when united in the same frame — my eye started scanning for any tell-tale signs of split-screen photography. There’s no honest human interaction until a hysterical and fantastically repulsive-looking actor called Stephen Dartnell enters and he and Morley really tear up the room. It’s a miracle — dramatic life is zapped into the movie as if by defibrillation. A posthumous Shadowplay Award (a solid gold statuette of Perc Helton wearing Mickey Mouse’s shorts and gloves) to Dartnell, a true thespian Lazarus.

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Morley is also good in the quieter moments, whenever he’s not quoting Oscar Wilde. The error here has been to go hire a marvelous type — as with Stephen Fry’s later (mis)casting, whereas Peter Finch playing the same part is just a good actor, which is what’s needed. Morley is a good actor when he remembers his job and stops trying to be the type.

The script is by Jo Eisinger — yes, that one), though he’s adapting various sources including the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. This is the love that dare not speak its name without inverted commas, and that VO comes oiling again to get us across the trickier scenes without making the mistake of letting anyone write or act them.

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Ken Hughes’ THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE opens at the same moment as the Ratoff film, the first night of Lady Windermere, but correctly shows Wilde as already acquainted with Lord Alfred Douglas (the Ratoff film can be forgiven for dramatic compression, especially as it’s telling the exact same story with half an hour less running-time).

Hughes has the huge advantage of a sexy Wilde and a sexy Bosie (John Fraser), and an authentically swivel-eyed raving lunatic Marquess of Queensberry in the form of his favourite actor, Lionel Jeffries. The tragedy of Wilde required not only Wilde’s hubristic exhibitionism, but the opposition of an unhinged homophobe to break through the protective inhibitions of society. If Oscar’s enemies had been merely normal Victorians, they would have been too repressed to make a scene.

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The effect of Jeffries’ glowering, seething domestic despot intruding into scenes of London nightlife is rather as if a 2001 ape-man had shambled into a drawing room comedy, chewing raw capybara meat. What’s also good is that you feel, somehow, what a deeply UNHAPPY man this Marquess is. He’s in a hell created from his own twisted sense of values.

The world of the film is strikingly conjured by designer Ken Adam and cinematographer Ted Moore (with Nic Roeg as operator), at times a little studio-bound and lacking detail, it’s true, but spectacular in setpieces like the Cafe Royal ~

The bigger budget, Technicolor (for Wilde’s green carnation) and Technirama (for Finch’s portly bay window) give this one unfair advantages over the Ratoff, but it’s the performances that make the real difference. In particular, when Finch finishes a witticism and waits for the laugh, his face says, not “Aren’t I witty?” as Morley’s does, but “Aren’t I adorable?”

In other words, he’s not on the nose, and he’s playing chords rather than a single note.

(Ken Hughes fell prey to the Morley effect in his OF HUMAN BONDAGE, where he cast Fat Bob as the insensitive doctor who gets the hero to expose his club foot in class. Rather than play the thing drily, inhumanly, as in the 1934 version, Morley can’t resist going for gloating sadism. A great screen presence, but one who perhaps needed the guidance of a superior intelligence.)

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Hughes also has the advantage having amassed a bit of a stock company over the preceding few years, several of whom, like Jeffries, turn up here — James Booth is very good value as the blackmailer. The bitter irony is that Ratoff had worked frequently with an actor who would have been a quite incredible choice for Wilde if he’d lived, and if he’d had the nerve to do it: imagine Tyrone Power in the part!

Confused punters who saw both these films when they opened in May 1960 perhaps wondered how it was that Wilde scares off a blackmailer by personating a Scotland Yard detective in one version, and pays off the chap and takes him to dinner in the other.

My late friend Lawrie insisted, obscurely, that Ken Hughes was “the filthiest man I ever met,” which might give him an edge with this material, but of course it’s 1960 and sexual intercourse, qua Larkin, has not yet begun. And the Great British Period movie, and the Hollywood form to which it’s beholden, are alike slaves to good taste. There is nothing so vulgar as good taste.

Both versions are quite happy to fold in apocrypha, though if you’re going to have Queensberry present his cabbage, you have no business correcting his spelling, as both movies do. The fact that he wrote “somdomite” is grimly funny and makes him an even more horrible clown. It also means that the fellow in the Ratoff who immediately reaches for his dictionary would have a lot of trouble finding what he’s looking for. (And he looks in the exact MIDDLE, where he’d be more like to find “marsupial” or “mudlark” — and the designer has seemingly pasted his definition right into the middle of the entry for “soft”. Most odd.)

In both films, the trials are salutary: “Everything gets better when the good actors come on,” as a friend puts it. Ratoff has Ralph Richardson, and Morley rises to meet him. Hughes brings in James Mason in the same role, and Mason plays it with a pretty good Irish accent, distinct from his one in the THE RECKLESS MOMENT — sheer bravura, since Finch isn’t bothering to sound Irish at all. Alexander Knox and Nigel Patrick take the less showy role of Wilde’s lawyer in the respective versions.

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Interesting to note that Richardson the stage actor plays it like a movie star would — he is utterly himself, bringing all his characteristics as an actor to bear on the part, whereas Mason, the movie star, gives a full-on character performance. Both are terrific value and seem very dangerous.

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In the trials, of course, there’s no reason to amplify the drama or shoehorn in epigrams because the actual situations and dialogue are so extraordinary.

The second trial doesn’t bother with guest stars but allows Finch to shine in his big moment, and Nigel Patrick gets a superb moment of acting when he rounds off his closing statement — and then looks in the jury’s eyes and he’s like oh fuck.

Ratoff just shoots coverage at the trial whereas Hughes has cinematic ideas. BUT when Wilde makes his fatal mistake (arguably ALL of his witticisms were mistakes — juries apparently don’t like clever witnesses) and says he didn’t kiss a young man because he was ugly, Ratoff’s actors and editor take off for the moon with an extraordinary bit of overlapping interrogation-and-fluster. Really remarkable. Puts me in mind of the blackmail scene in CROSS OF IRON. The trial transcript is presumably the source for this apparent improv, where it says The witness began several answers almost inarticulately, and none of them he finished. Carson’s repeated sharply: “Why? Why? Why did you add that?”

The emotional highlight might actually be this guy (below), Wilde’s butler (Ian Fleming, no, not that one), with the face of a boiled sheep, tearing up as Wilde is arrested. Everyone else is so stiffly upper-lipped, a burst of actual feeling is very effective. Give him an extra five quid. 

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Morley’s son Wilton (the one who’s not Sheridan) comes toddling in as one of Wilde’s sons (why not have both, since Morley had two? it can’t have been connected to acting talent). He’s an extraordinary-looking creature and his performance puts me in mind of the clockwork doll in DEEP RED. Hughes scores again with a scene of Finch reading The Happy Prince at bedtime — it’s very Hushabye Mountain.

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Again, on “the love that dare not speak its name,” the emotional high point of Wilde’s prosecution, Finch scores over Morley with a devastating performance. Morley feels like he’s been given a note by his director. Just when you need Ratoff to go back to sleep, he perks up and sticks his oar in.

Both versions omit any of the hard labour Wilde was sentenced to, which I think is leaving out something of significance, since it virtually killed the man. Hughes (and Ken Adam) does give us a hellish visiting room with the prisoners cruelly separated from their loved ones by barriers.

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There’s a good, simply-played sequence of Dennis Price (as Robbie) greeting Wilde at the prison gate, and another in Paris, which Ratoff and his script then stomp all over by having Wilde LAUGH INSANELY. But I dig the pull-back from Wilde followed by matching pull-back from his grave.

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John Fraser, inappropriately quiffed, benefits from a more complex Bosie to play — he’s sympathetic in his dealings with his awful dad, and beastly in his bratty bullying of Wilde. And, while Hughes overstresses things in a very Hughesian way (which Ken Russell might have gotten away with) in the aftermath of the trial — Wilde’s grandson has ridiculed the idea of Constance Wilde presenting Oscar with his green carnation at the prison gates  — Hughes has had the sharp idea of excerpting The Ballad of Reading Gaol and applying the “each man kills the thing he loves” to Bosie at the film’s end, which, helped along by Ron Goodwin’s emotive score, ends the thing with some power.

Hughes 4 / Ratoff 2.

OSCAR WILDE stars Mycroft Holmes; Sherlock Holmes; the Supreme Being; Ann Pornick (as a woman); Hector Snipe; Woodrow Wilson; Mr. Grimsdale; Flimnap; George Barbor – Dentist; and Poseidon.

THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE stars Howard Beale; the woman in a dressing gown; Captain Nemo; Professor Jerusalem Webster Stiles; Prof. Joseph Cavor; Prince Alfonso; Mrs. Baines; Julia Martineau; Pvt. Henry Hook; Ned Cotterill; Dr. Watson; Mr. Blunden; and David Livingston, I presume.

Queen Christina Rides Again

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2012 by dcairns

Kathleen Byron (Sister Ruth!), left.

Anthony Harvey is best known for his James Goldman adaptations, THE LION IN WINTER and THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS. Both are strong texts with excellent casts, but never felt very filmic to me. Harvey, a former editor, achieved some neat cutting effects but the feeling of “filmed play”, or even “televized play”, hung over the proceedings. I still like them, though.

DUTCHMAN, his first movie, is eminently theatrical but incredibly, electrifyingly powerful in what has to be called a “cinematic” way at the same time, despite being confined entirely to a single subway train carriage. More on that here.

THE ABDICATION, lavishly staged in Italy and shot by Geoffrey Unsworth (2001, CABARET, TESS) takes a play by Ruth Wolff that’s virtually a two-hander, and explodes it with grandiose settings, expressive, almost flashy editing, flashbacks, and a lush Nino Rota score. It could have been overpowering, but I think it achieves a kind of balance.

It’s the story of Queen Christina (“the great Svenska dyke,” as Peter O’Toole put it) after her abdication, as she attempts to convince a cardinal (Peter Finch) that her conversion to Catholicism is sincere. This turns into a sort of psychotherapy session during which she falls in love with her interrogator, tipping her hand with the gift of an inappropriate porn goblet ~

Liv actually seems to be having fun with the material, and the literate script delivers both snappy, rhythmic exchanges of the kind that can feel too artificial onscreen if you’re not careful, and more languid speeches that let things breathe. When Liv has a breakdown in flashback, pressing herself against a wall in terror, we’re close to Bergman terrain, but the style, all widescreen, fog filters, golden lens flare and surging montage, is the very opposite.

Here, Unsworth’s vaseline smears convert the sun’s rays to a weird gold slash, rather unlike anything found in nature — a striking effect, for sure. The movie is almost TOO beautiful, and anybody who has a resistance to David Lean type grandeur would probably find it hard to take. We rather loved it.

Film Club: First Men in the Moon

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2010 by dcairns

Nifty faux-Victorian pop art credits! And Laurie (The Avengers) Johnson’s superb theme tune. I think Johnson was on friendly terms with Bernard Herrmann (he later arranged BH’s IT’S ALIVE! score for the sequel) and was maybe recommended for this gig by the great American, who had scored several Harryhausen movies…

Arriving in 1964, midway between JFK’s announcement of his nation’s intention to “go to the moon and do the other things” — a strangely ill-written phrase, that — and the successful implementation of that scheme by Apollo 11 (what’s Neil Armstrong doing about his carbon footprint?) — FIRST MEN IN THE MOON was so perfectly timely that no remake could ever touch it. And so no remake has happened. (NB — I am wrong: there’s a 1997 cartoon with Shatner and Nimoy doing voices, and a forthcoming BBC version scripted by Mark Gatiss of the League of Gentlemen. But I am going to act as if I’m right.)

This is largely thanks to Nigel Kneale’s key contribution, the framing device which puts HG Wells’ historic story into a modern context, with the cheeky image of astronauts being confronted by a Union Flag jammed in the lunar dirt. Pipped at the post, by 65 years! This device seems to have been borrowed from Karel Zeman’s 1961 film BARON MUNCHAUSEN (AKA BARON PRASIL), in which the immortal baron is discovered resident upon the moonscape by flabbergasted space mariners of the modern age, but I think Kneale and his collaborators make even better use of it. Interestingly, this space mission is a multi-national venture, including American, British and Russian ‘nauts, so any hint of Brit triumphalism is defused somewhat.

I wondered if Edward Judd’s elderly protag was Ray Harryhausen’s age, but I guess he’s probably older. That’s the other reason this film was made at the perfect time: a Victorian space explorer could just conceivably be alive still in ’64. Judd’s old age performance is very nice, as is his crinkly makeup, and we also get nice cameos here from character thesps Miles Malleson (altogether now: “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight!”) and Gladys Henson. Cue the flashback —

A miniature house photographed upside-down, the debris falling up out of shot…

Martha Hyer’s role was apparently boosted at the insistence of the studio, in defiance of the source novel and the title, and the writers only had one draft to integrate her fully into the story. This means she’s slightly awkwardly situated between Judd’s Bedford and Lionel Jeffries’ Professor Cavor — her attitude to the latter is sometimes inconsistent and sometimes vague. But on the plus side, she’s not annoying or pathetic, as women in sci-fi adventures often were (think Weena in THE TIME MACHINE).

Jeffries is the real star of the show, a peerless comic player who leaves no furniture un-gnawed, but who has a surprising ability to underplay when required. He goes from a bellow to a whisper and back, never at random, but according to a secret formula of his own that always makes sense when you se it played out before you, but which can never be predicted.

Judd is interesting because he’s initially a rather dislikable crook, then an even more dislikable brute, and only really appealing as an old crock. A sort of Kenneth More bloke actor, he seems to relish the chance to do something more interesting than a straight leading man role. It looks like Kneale’s hand at work, turning the two-fisted action hero into a thug, and the nutty professor into a humanist hero. You can see this schism in the split between military and scientific characters in his QUATERMASS series, and in Hammer’s THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN. What with the pacifist Doctor of Dr Who also on the go in the ’60s, this was a good period for intellectual, non-violent heroes in British fantasy.

Peter Finch! Uncredited cameo, performed without the aid of disguise, just lots of face-pulling.

I actually like the way the film manages to sustain interest as Cavorite is introduced and explained and developed, and Judd is seduced into joining Cavor’s lunatic quest to the mountains of the moon. Most movies would aim to get the spacecraft launched by end of act one, but here the halfway point is reached before countdown commences. As a kid, I may have feared that we were in for another FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON, where launch-day seems to take forever to come, but here the characters are actually interesting and Nathan Juran’s use of the widescreen frame is elegant enough to keep things moving.

Cavor, like Zarkov in FLASH GORDON, keeps his spacecraft in the greenhouse, but Cavor actually has a reason, heat being a big part of the Cavorite synthesizing process. I really like the idea of a substance which cuts off gravity the way lead cuts off X-rays, although I suspect this would make the bathysphere-with-bumpers weightless rather than propelling it upwards at speed. This is my favourite space propulsion system outside of Scottish author David Lindsay’s novel A Voyage to Arcturus, which depends on the use of “back rays”, light beams with a homing instinct, compelled to return back to their star of origin, and which drag with them the space explorers in their crystal ship…

The moon! A brief but great POV shot swooping through the lunar alps, then the lovely slomo roll-and-crash landing. Harryhausen has confessed that he wasn’t so sure railway bumpers would save the astronauts lives in such a scenario, but the craft looks sturdy and beautiful in a Victorian way, a worthy and more solid companion to George Pal’s art nouveau TIME MACHINE. Diving suits for space exploration is the sort of thing that seems sort of credible, although I kind of wish Bedford and Cavor were wearing gloves… Expose any skin and I think you’d suffer both frostbite AND explosive decompression. You’d basically becomes red snow.

Apparently, when NASA were developing spacesuits, there was some confusion as to what such a suit needed to be. In fact, if it keeps you in an airtight space and stops you bursting, it’s doing a good job. One proposed design was basically a full body condom, skintight and far less bulky than the costumes they finally went with. But nobody could feel really confident in a spacesuit that was only skin thin. A case of psychology winning out over practicality, perhaps.

We’re disappointed, aren’t we, that the little selenites are played by actors rather than stop motion puppets, yes? I think I prefer the selenites in the Melies version (which grafts Verne onto Welles without paying copyright royalties to either — at that point in cinema history, it probably hadn’t been established in law that you NEEDED to pay for film rights — but the first big moon-man scene is great and moving, distressing even, for Lionel Jeffries’ reactions to Judd turning into a xenocidal maniac, hurling the little insectoids into the void with brutish abandon. What makes the tonal shift shocking is LJ’s capacity for sudden, heartbreaking emotion, and he’s not only bringing unexpected depth to the feeling, but to the film’s ideas — traditional sci-fi machismo is being questioned.

Martha Hyers’ big nude scene.

I saw Jeffries interviewed once at home. He was a pretty good painter, and he’d done a moody self-portrait. He described his tiny grandchild’s reaction to the painting: “That’s granddad. He’s a broken man.” Long pause. Then Jeffries says, “Children can be very astute, you know.”

Harryhausen talks about the technical difficulties of shooting in widescreen, which meant that several big animation scenes were dropped. I love the mooncalf design, but it’s not one of his most expressive monsters, and the selenites, when they do appear animated, aren’t the zestiest personalities either. But the lack of creatures is actually compensated for by the narrative’s strength, and it helps the movie that it’s not a series of creature set-pieces.

As to the selenites’ purpose, their evil plan, they don’t really have one. At one point, Kneale planned on having them force the humans to breed or something, but that doesn’t seem too scary. I guess the threat is mainly to our explorers and not to the people of Earth at all, and I guess that ought to be enough. I would love to know, both for this post and for my vague VOX Project, who does the whispery voice of the Grand Lunar. Maybe it’s the narrator of TWO OR THREE THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER?

As for the GL’s look — that big head thing is such a classic alien idea, from THIS ISLAND EARTH to INVADERS FROM MARS to the Mars Attacks! playing cards, to the Mekon in the Dan Dare comic strip in the UK… and the lead Goblin in The Hobbit is described as having a huge cranium too… I guess in the low gravity of the moon, such a design would be just about practical, too.

The Cavorite space capsule is the third animated character in the movie, and its blast-off is a fine climax, as far as I’m concerned — I love the bottomless shafts and skylights of the moon-folk, as well as their oxygen plant and solar-powered perpetual motion machine — they’re not only less warlike than mankind, but more eco-friendly (if the moon can be said to have an ecology, and I guess it does in this movie: two species = an ecosystem, right?).

Back to the present. One of the Space Administration people here is Hugh McDermott, Edinburgh-born star of DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS, who does a good American accent (like me, he seems  to have mislaid his Scots accent). And the cold virus climax is a neat swipe from Wells’ War of the Worlds. I think the idea actually works better here — not a deus ex machina (there are very few diseases humans can catch from dogs, which makes human-Martian or human-lunar cross-contamination a little unlikely) but an ironic wrinkle. Jeffries should probably have done more with the cold earlier though. But Judd throws away that last line with remarkable aplomb.

Forty-one years ago today, Neil Armstrong and those other fellows blasted off for our nearest celestial neighbour…