Archive for Peter O’Toole

Teddy Kiss Atom

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2021 by dcairns

Caught a little of CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG on the telly over Christmas, and then on Hogmanay we ran my new Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. Suddenly realized that one of the Six Tumbling Piccolos, the acrobatic midgets who turn up (minus two of their number, unfortunately gassed) in an Inverness graveyard in TPLOSH, is also seen in Gert Frobe’s Vulgarian court in CCBB.

And in fact those seem to be the guy’s only credits. And his name was Teddy Kiss Atom. His brother, Charlie Young Atom, is also a Piccolo. Or I assume they’re brothers. Pretty wild coincidence if two midgets called Atom wound up in the same film by sheer chance.

And I know “midgets” is not the preferred term, but it’s what they call them in the film. I think it used to be sort of useful to distinguish people who are small all over, like these Atom chaps, from people with short arms and legs, like the TIME BANDITS, who were called dwarfs.

Other observations, since this is proving so illuminating —

“That little wizard Mr. Trauner”, Billy Wilder’s favourite production designer, provides a Swan Lake fake swan with a built-in fake reflection, complete with sculpted ripples. But my DVD isn’t working and I can’t framegrab from the Blu-Ray (a technical issue that may be fixed in 2021) so you’ll have to check it out yourselves.

I always assumed the Diogenes Club was some suitably grand location hired for the day, but the maniacs built it, for ONE SHOT. Wilder really burned up his studio clout with this one. A producer friend has told me that his job entails assessing “the appetite” of a film — this one, from the production notes by Trevor Willsmer supplied in the disc booklet, was apparently insaciable.

I love this out-of-time film. But when Fiona asked why it flopped so badly, the answer seemed simple: “It was old-fashioned, it had no stars, and it promised to be naughty but wasn’t.” Some slightly smuttier stuff hit the cutting room floor (whole storylines), but the stars thing is strange. Apart from Christopher Lee, cast in a role that wouldn’t particularly appeal to his fanbase (Mycroft, not Moriarty) although he’s fab here, we have Robert Stephens, a Wildean Holmes, who has picked up a lot of his then-wife (but not for long) wife Maggie Smith’s cadences (well, she got them from Kenneth Williams) and Colin Blakeley (I guess A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS is what got him the part), neither of them a box-office draw, but magically correct. Wilder had offered it to Peter O’Toole and Peter Sellers… Sellers hadn’t forgiven him for the heart attack on KISS ME STUPID… The female lead being described as German made me wonder if Audrey Hepburn was ever considered. Instead, Genevieve Page was cast and is great. Like everyone else, she didn’t have the most terrific time (Stephens attempted suicide)… there was a plan for more nudity, a test was prepared, and Page being a redhead it was decided she was too pale and her nipples needed circling with lipstick, “which gave me the feeling that my nipples had failed, somehow.”

I rented this several times on VHS back in the day and showed it to two friends, BOTH of whom insisted on stopping and rewinding to watch the comedy constable react to the street sweeper… he’s so wonderfully crap. He’s doing all the appropriate silent comedy moves, but just somehow off. And it turns out that shooting went on so long (that appetite) that the appointed actor, Bob Todd, became unavailable, and Stephens’ chauffeur took the part. (Had Sellers been playing Watson, they’d have been covered, since his driver did visual comedy quite ably in THE RUNNING JUMPING STANDING STILL FILM.

Another thing TPLOSH perhaps has against is an unhappy ending… but then, it’s a tragedy from which Holmes & Watson will recover and we last see Watson… writing. Which can’t be an unhappy ending, from Wilder’s viewpoint.

Otto Destruction

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2020 by dcairns

Luke Aspell jumped in at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour to offer me a piece on Otto Preminger’s ROSEBUD and I naturally jumped at the opportunity, as reading his thoughts would be quicker than reading the making-of book, which I still hope to get around to one day.

Meanwhile, look —

The first line of dialogue in ROSEBUD is “Am I glad to see you!”, said by one Palestinian to another. The American colloquialism of this line has been mocked, but heard in the accent of Moroccan actor Amidou, its incongruity is perfect. In the opening sequence, we’ve followed Yosef Shiloach’s journey to meet him. Now, as both men carefully navigate their way through a casual, friendly chat in English, their vulnerability makes us warm to their characters before we know who they are. The alternatives would have been English dialogue that tries to sound translated, clichés of Arab speech, or subtitles, all of which would imply that we already know all we need to know about these people. Preminger begins by acknowledging his, and our, distance. Our sympathy increases when we meet their traumatised allies. Mme. Tardets is in shock after a car accident five months ago. Kirkbane talked about liking “action”, and Tardets mentioned not having seen Hacam “since Algeria”, but Kirkbane’s description of the collision and its aftermath is the film’s first mention of violence. The perpetrator was “some idiot”. This senselessness, irrelevant in plot terms, is the first indication of the horror with which Preminger regards the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The camaraderie of Hacam, Kirkbane and their comrades is distant from the solitary fanaticism of their leader, just as the friendship of the women they kidnap has nothing to do with the corruption and greed of their parents; the reunion of the Palestinians in the kitchen at Tardets’ farm is echoed in a scene of the women in the galley on the yacht. Such moments of interpersonal warmth are brief, but frequent; there’s a lot of jolliness, pleasure in each other’s company, in ROSEBUD. The tone is exemplified by the child-like grin of achievement Hamlekh (Cliff Gorman) gives his colleague when he finds the right lever to stop the yacht’s engine, or the reaction of Helene (Isabelle Huppert) when Martin (Peter O’Toole) and Shute (Mark Burns) are fooled by the disguise she adopts for the return to Corsica – a disguise which turns out to be completely unnecessary. Plainly, the educational aspect of airport thrillers was what most interested Preminger about them; the way their writers decant technical information into page-turning prose. Cutting away from unnecessary action to make time for explanations action directors would skip, this film is so expositional as to become abstract; free to show us something or have a character describe it, Preminger frequently opts for description, but the description is always also an explanation. An explanation of a yacht’s automatic pilot is a narrative event. The characters move through a world that itself moves around them, and every task they plan and accomplish, every mechanism they understand and explain, is an island of reason in a sea of chaos. This isn’t a metaphysical chaos, but a multiplication of human unknowability.

(On the subject of pleasure in each other’s company, Erik Lee Preminger was aided in writing the screenplay by Marjorie Kellogg and a British writer called Roy Clarke, whose career Preminger chroniclers have yet to bother to look into. My keen hope is that it will turn out to be the Roy Clarke who wrote Last of the Summer Wine and Open All Hours.)

In the 34 years since his death, the world has had time to catch up with the challenges of Otto Preminger’s late period. HURRY SUNDOWN remains difficult to process, but it has its admirers, and each of the other last films, from BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING onwards, is someone’s idea of a masterpiece. Except, of course, ROSEBUD. In his obituary of Preminger, Andrew Sarris wrote that “Since Laura, the only film he has made that seems utterly beyond revisionist redemption is Rosebud.” Chris Fujiwara has called it “without doubt the hardest of Preminger’s films to defend”. Why? Yes, it’s Munichsploitation, one of its most famous images appears to combine gratuitous female nudity with the racist implication of a threat to white womanhood, half of the cast are non-native English speakers who have to play scenes to each other in English, one of the French actors can’t handle it and is dubbed by That Bloke whose non-specific “foreigner” accent was a fixture of 60s thrillers, the climax is two fingers to anyone who thought they were watching an action movie, and the last scene is an expression of despair guaranteed to depress or offend viewers of all political persuasions, but apart from that?

Really, I shouldn’t joke. None of these faults registers as a fault while the film lasts, and many exhilarating moments have gone undiscussed for far too long. Within its own terms, ROSEBUD is perfect, and to call a bad movie is the least imaginative thing we can do with it. Even if it constitutes a failed attempt at commercial filmmaking — and I don’t think it does — surely everyone knows by now that one of the most revealing insights into a film-maker’s world-view is what they do when they think they’re being commercial and get it wrong? SKIDOO wasn’t the social unifier it was so clearly intended to be, but by now everyone admits it’s (intentionally) hilarious. ROSEBUD is full of things we can laugh at, but they’re more funny peculiar than funny ha ha, and to respond with nothing more than laughter would be to waste the kind of opportunities that viewers of late Preminger are accustomed to taking. In almost every scene, we find him complicating, opposing or ignoring the conventions of the thriller, and replacing them with something more interesting. This is an action thriller with the action (ie. violence) removed, whose climax is aggressively anti-climactic: the kidnappers and their victims are knocked out with a gas, and the jihadist mastermind Sloat (Richard Attenborough) is kidnapped while praying, his men, facing east, neither seeing nor hearing the commandos seizing him behind their backs. Only if Preminger was merely George P. Cosamatos or Andrew V. McLaglen would this be the failure that even Erik Lee Preminger has condemned it as; its ludicrousness, and our disappointment, is the point. As he did with the interminable padding of the prison break sequence in EXODUS, Preminger defies our expectations, but the concision and clarity of the ROSEBUD sequence makes the effect invigorating and provocative rather than tiresome.

In truth, ROSEBUD’s status as Preminger’s most despised work seems ascribable to a mixture of political history, cultural history and political fashion. EXODUS, regarded by many Premingerians as one of his greatest films, is far more gung ho in its Zionism, and far more self-deceiving about Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, but it was made before 1967, and therefore isn’t right-wing; ROSEBUD was made in 1974, and therefore is. EXODUS dramatises the debate within Zionism between those who sought to achieve Israel by peaceful means, and those who sought to achieve it by violent ones. Jewishness and Zionism are totally equated; while their means may differ, everyone’s end is the same. Each scene states and restates the desperation of the settlers, the justice of their cause, the magnitude of their suffering, and no honest dissent is conceivable. The scale and production values of EXODUS, despite its rough edges, make it an auteurist’s dream, a director’s film with the resources of a producer’s, but its long stretches of unalloyed propaganda are so obnoxious, and so contrary to Preminger’s best qualities, that to forgive or overlook them, while condemning ROSEBUD for far less, is a scapegoating more perverse than any of the later film’s eccentricities. As Preminger’s films demonstrate, identity is inseparable from circumstance, perspective and experience; a change of circumstances reveals, or may induce, new facets of an individual’s personality. Making a propaganda film with the support of a nation’s government may give one limitless opportunities for expansive mise en scene, but what happens to Preminger’s personality in EXODUS is a greater loss than any spectacle can make up for. Only in its last minutes does the film acknowledge what lies ahead; in ROSEBUD, Preminger regards the predicament of Israel and Palestine with a sense of unassuageable desolation. To expect Preminger to make an anti-Zionist film would be unreasonable, yet ROSEBUD is more humane and balanced than its reputation would suggest. ROSEBUD is most usefully compared not with Palestinian and pro-Palestinian films like THEY DO NOT EXIST (Mustafa Abu Ali, 1974) or Godard (and Gorin) and Mieville’s ICI ET AILLEURS (1976), but with mainstream American thrillers like THE DAY OF THE JACKAL (Fred Zinnemann, 1973) and THE BLACK WINDMILL (Don Siegel, 1974), both of which were reference points during production, or BLACK SUNDAY (John Frankenheimer, 1977), which amounts to a prescription for Palestinian extermination.

ROSEBUD has also suffered from the success of SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE!, Theodore Gershuny’s account of its troubled production. Gershuny, who had made some low-budget exploitation films himself, evidently expected an atmosphere of power and luxury, and instead encountered a working environment like a submarine or the kitchen of a fashionable restaurant. He seems to have blamed Preminger for his disappointment. The book contains some good anecdotes, but Gershuny’s voice is monotonously misogynistic, dividing all the women involved in the production into the fuckable and the unfuckable, and Preminger seems to have discerned Gershuny’s attitude early on, establishing a running joke of calling him an “Arab sex maniac”.

The only film of Preminger’s independent phase to which he didn’t retain the copyright, ROSEBUD was compromised by the demands of Preminger’s production partner. He had originally planned to make the villain a Jewish anti-Zionist, but United Artists made their participation conditional on his abandoning this idea. The solution he found was prescient, and preferable to his original conception: a British Islamist at a time when the rise of Islamism was so unthinkable that critics dismissed him as a figure out of melodrama. His arbitrary quality, highlighted by Richard Attenborough’s performance, which emphasises the smallness of fanaticism, is another bug that’s actually a feature. Edward Sloat (as with Senator Donnovan, you may wonder if this is a typo someone missed) is introduced to the plot halfway through the film, in a shot blocked and framed by Preminger to make the outward turn of Cliff Gorman’s right eye as distracting as possible, and then becomes the pretext for a long interlude in Germany that leads nowhere. The journey is the destination, as a long autobahn sequence excised during the editing would have made even more obvious.

Much of ROSEBUD takes place in transit. The characters travel between countries in the space of a single cut; there’s a sense of perpetual motion. Its villain and its hero — though the film isn’t stupid enough to regard him as a hero — are alike stateless. Larry Martin is a British mercenary who generally works for the CIA, Edward Sloat is a British Islamist who leads an unrecognised offshoot of the PLO. When they meet, we have no sense of them relating to each other as fellow Britons in a foreign conflict. Imperialisms of money and the imagination have deracinated them. Cynicism and idealism are equally apt to drive people from their original identities, and it’s in keeping with Preminger’s long history of reservations and caveats that Israel’s ally is a cynic, and its enemy is an idealist. O’Toole’s contrived pronunciation of “Israel” as “Issrile,” in a manner that suggests he’s trying to keep his tongue as far away from his teeth as possible, can be interpreted either as an excessive gesture of respect or an expression of distaste.

When I saw ROSEBUD for the first time, a few years ago, I had the advantage of having already seen THE HUMAN FACTOR several times. A number of ROSEBUD’s challenges anticipate those of Preminger’s last masterpiece, but the extremity of THE HUMAN FACTOR makes it easier for us to recognise its achievement; we can’t mistake it for an attempt to make a normal film of its ostensible genre, whereas we can mistake ROSEBUD for a botched commercial thriller. While I wouldn’t now say that ROSEBUD is on the level of Preminger’s other 70s films, I would rank it at the top of the second division of his works, roughly at the level of FALLEN ANGEL and WHIRLPOOL. In SKIDOO, TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON and SUCH GOOD FRIENDS, Preminger situated disruptive subjective perceptions — hallucinations, traumatic memories, fantasies — within “objective” worlds of debateable naturalism. In ROSEBUD, the subjectivity and the objectivity have mingled indivisibly. The narration perceives and accepts its inventions as inventions. Far from being an “empty” rejection of a world that has become “unreal”, ROSEBUD continues Preminger’s ongoing project of meeting and accepting the complexity of reality, to a degree too profound for realism, liberated and isolated, as he has been since TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON, by the death of the American cinema. (Or, if you prefer, the death of classicism.)

A last example of how richly Premingerian this despised film is: Peter Lawford plays Lord Carter, an apparently stuffy, hidebound character, with a feathered hairdo. Preminger seems to have cast him primarily for friendship’s sake and secondarily for his value as a celebrity. This kind of casting is nothing new in Preminger, and not even unprecedented in his use of Lawford; consider his pro-filmic, or metatextual — if we classify Lawford’s celebrity life as another media “text” — casting as Lafe Smith in ADVISE & CONSENT, the faux-insider in-joke who unexpectedly turns into a classic Preminger observation about human mystery — and, indirectly, his being a Kennedy stand-in, about leadership. (From the same film, another example of this approach is the characters’ expressions of respect for Seeb Cooley, which pile up past the point of dramatic utility, and begin to feel more like tributes to Charles Laughton, whose last film this was.) Carter is given what are, by implication, the most Zionism-agnostic lines of the film, advising against negotiation with reference to an experience he had during the Mau Mau Uprising. The thinkability of the comparison — if the Palestinians are the Kenyans, who are the British? — and of putting it in the mouth of the film’s most literally incredible, conspicuous performer (Lindsay being its most conspicuous non-performer), endorses Carter’s thinking, discredits it, and leaves us thinking. That Preminger gives this speech to the actor who represented English anti-Semitism in EXODUS makes it even more remarkable. As always, Preminger’s thinking remains joined-up; the sublime and the crass are indivisible. In BONJOUR TRISTESSE, Cécile’s flashbacks begin as she listens to Juliette Greco singing an original song, also called “Bonjour Tristesse”, which was obviously commissioned and written to serve as a promotional tie-in. In Preminger, every but is an and. Patrice (Georges Beller) errs in expecting Sabine (Brigitte Ariel) to place ideological purity above family affection. She and her friends are sympathetic and funny; Patrice is a prig, but/and Margaret (Lalla Ward) is a reactionary. Kirkbane says he doesn’t want to hurt people when he kills them, but/and expresses satisfaction when his perfect weapon works as planned. The way he told it, Preminger didn’t really begin making Preminger films until he was also producing them; the practical financial considerations that other narratives of film art screen off from aesthetic matters were, for him, part of the same thing; producer-director is one job, not two. His embrace of practicalities went beyond pragmatism to become an ideal in itself; in the opening credits of THE CARDINAL, “and John Huston as Glennon” is followed by “Bobby (Morse) and the Adora-Belles”, an in-joke crediting a fictional vaudeville act as though they were a real pop group. This is seen against the superb, possibly Saul Bass-storyboarded graphic beauty of shots which introduce our protagonist walking alone through Rome. Aesthetics, prestige and tackiness are joined together in economic and artistic reciprocity.


Rush Job

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2017 by dcairns

Filmed mainly around California’s famous Hotel del Coronado, its plot involves a fugitive protagonist in disguise hiding in plain sight with a showbiz job, but it’s not SOME LIKE IT HOT, it’s THE STUNT MAN, which I finally saw after having it at the back of my mind ever since seeing Peter O’Toole promoting it on a talk show in 1981. I distinctly recall the clip where Steve Railsback’s character (doubled, one presumes, by a real stuntman) crashes through a skylight and plummets towards a bed, from which a copulating couple separate and roll off instants before his impact. I can still hear O’Toole’s amused voice intoning, “actually the woman was a man, and her bosom was rubber.” My fourteen-year-old self had perked up at the fleeting glimpse of nudity afforded by the clip, and was now disappointed and a touch confused that the stimulating frames had actually depicted a bloke with prostheses.

Without being aware of the fact, my teenage self had also seen another film by the same director, Richard Rush, the notorious FREEBIE AND THE BEAN. When you’re a kid, provided you’re fairly unenlightened, that’s a great movie. Car crashes, violence, antisocial behaviour… When you’re an adult, it SHOULD be profoundly problematic: sexist, racist and toxically, deeply and violently homophobic.

This all came back to me only while watching Rush’s own making-of documentary — during THE STUNT MAN I had fondly imagined it to be the deranged product of a cultish one-hit wonder. And then I remembered THE COLOR OF NIGHT and the tacky video effects of the doc started to make sense — what we have here is a macho yet somewhat self-questioning, brazenly vulgar sensibility which uses style as a decorative element rather than a constructive one. I’m not sure such a sensibility could ever make a perfect film, but maybe it could manage a really good one. I’m still not sure if THE STUNT MAN is this film (FREEBIE and COLOR sure ain’t). But it’s interesting.

Steve LIFEFORCE Railsback, troubled Vietnam vet, is on the run from the law when he blunders onto the location of director Peter O’Toole’s WWI epic, accidentally killing a stuntman. O’Toole covers up the fatality by getting Railsback to replace the slain man, which apparently his cast and crew are all happy to go along with. Over the course of the next two hours, Railsback falls for movie star Barbara Hershey, takes part in a series of insanely elaborate stunt sequences, and comes to suspect that the Mephistophelean O’Toole is plotting to murder him and get his death on film.

We were watching this because Richard Lester had mentioned to me that Lawrence B. Marcus, who wrote the final draft of PETULIA had written it, and it was odd that it didn’t lead to more and bigger things. I looked up Marcus and was surprised to learn he’d been writing movies since 1950’s DARK CITY. His IMDb bio is fascinating — there’s a Lester story I didn’t know. I suggested that THE STUNT MAN may not have boosted Marcus’s career as much as you’d think, despite his Oscar nom, because it was such a troubled production. “But interesting!” said Lester, enthusiastically.

O’Toole is excellent — his post-CALIGULA career was kind of ice-cold at this time, but he followed this up with MY FAVORITE YEAR — both films somehow suit his premature elder statesman quality — he seemed like some kind of survivor of a bygone age when I saw him on TV as a teen. (He was just a little older than I am now, but had, you know, done a lot of living, something I’ve done my best to avoid.) His and Richard Harris’ interviewers always seemed amazed he was alive, though it would have been even more startling, surely, had they been dead and still appearing on Parkinson. Barbara Hershey is also very good, though Rush apparently likes big and loud and frenzied performances. Hershey’s ability to look unbelievably gorgeous while twisting her face up in the throes of whatever passion is required by the action at hand seems like a special effect in itself.

Allen Garfield is not quite as glamorous as all that. I hope I can say that without causing offense. But he’s really good as the film’s writer, and it’s nice to see him not playing a sleaze, unbeatable though he is at that.

Leading man Railsback is, arguably, more problematic. Though much better than he was in LIFEFORCE, for sure — I think he’s hampered by the lunacy of every line and situation in that film. But the facial muscles that stood him in such good stead to play Charles Manson in Helter Skelter on TV do make him seem a little edgy, even for this movie. It’s fine that we think his character may have a serious criminal past (quite believable whenever he smiles), and may have combat shock and be delusional (believable during all the other facial expressions, and there are many), but perhaps a problem for the film that one is fighting a recurring impulse to lash out in self-defense with the nearest blunt instrument (in my case our Tonkinese cat, Momo). In a sense, despite the crime and insanity, his character is supposed to be a sort of innocent, out of his depth amid the madness of a film shoot.

But that doesn’t stop the film being interesting, it just makes it work differently. Perhaps less well. But it’s still an intriguing show. The movie O’Toole’s character is making looks dreadful, which is often a problem in behind-the-scenes dramas — the film being made never seems to hang together. But if you had a fully functional movie idea, why wouldn’t you be making that, instead of making THE STUNTMAN?

As befits the title, the stunt sequences are spectacular, even if the realistic acrobatics, pyrotechnics and daredevilry are somewhat undercut by the preposterous duration of the sequences being staged — I always assumed they’d break these things down into simpler, less risky and more controllable segments, although I’ve seen some bits of behind-the-scenes stuff from John Woo shoots which were eye-opening.

Rush’s appearance in his own documentary seems to explain his films nicely. Big hair, porn star mustache, deep, deep tan, muscles, corny sense of humour, adam’s-apple the size of a Fabergé egg — he seems Hemingwayesque, in a seventies kind of way. The rambunctiousness, the vulgarity, the thrust towards deep and meaningful statements, the energy (cranes, helicopters, steadicams whenever possible), the gaudiness (starburst filter! animated blast of light to take us into the next scene!) all makes sense when you see him. And for all the negative qualities associated with macho intellection and showy zooms and rack-focuses, he and his film are oddly likeable.

Also the score, by Dominic Frontiere, which contributes to the off-balance tone by adopting a circus attitude, pushing a light-heartedness that the movie only occasionally reaches for otherwise. Rush says it took them ten years to get the script made because the tone was so intentionally erratic, the subject unfamiliar (HOOPER and other stunt pics got made first, which actually helped them look like a bankable proposition), and studios couldn’t think how to sell it.

O’Toole loved his crane, apparently.

“I don’t think this music is right for this film,” protested Fiona.

“Well, it’s not obviously right… it’s interesting.”