Archive for Peter Ustinov

Holy Crap

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2021 by dcairns

Having watched QUO VADIS, like a bunch of 1AD flagellants we had to watch THE ROBE, just in time for Easter.

In the Nero Vs Caligula death match, I think Peter Ustinov’s Nero is a more human, interesting and vividly vile characterisation, but Jay Robinson’s Caligula is a more extreme, ballsy and uniquely preposterous screen performance.

Moving on from that, this should be the movie where Richard Burton solidifies his grasp of screen acting, but for whatever reason (film shot out of sequence, latter parts being more conducive to hamminess) he gets worse as it goes on. Once he gets religion he’s unbearable — as is often the way irl.

Jean Simmons is able to do less with her pagan Roman that Debs Kerr managed with her Christian. The bit-players (including Jay Novello, Percy Helton and Leon Askin) are encouraged to chew the scenery, which is fairly nutritious material — the quality may not always be great but the portions are enormous.

Burton claimed to have learned proper screen acting from Liz Taylor on CLEOPATRA. He should have learned it from Victor Mature here. The Big Victor is an underrated guy — he does lots of good, understated, simple work, and then when he’s called on to blow the roof off, boy, does he!

The Big Victor showing off all the junk in his neck that shouldn’t even be there in my opinion

Of course, he comes a cropper when he has to signify divine rapture, in a really weird scene where Vic and Dick appear to be trying to outdreadful one another.

As W.C. Fields was said to have read the Bible for loopholes, so do authors like Lloyd C. Douglas (who wrote the book QV comes from), and Lew “Ben-Hur” Wallace. They find ways to weave their fictitious characters through the New Testament without breaking it. It can be amusing to study. Demetrius (Big Victor) runs through the streets of Jerusalem trying to warn Jesus of his imminent arrest, but can’t find him. Early Christian Dean Jagger is felled with an arrow, which is fine, because the Good Book only mentions a guy named Justus in passing and doesn’t say he WASN’T shot with an arrow.

The Robe is a perfect biblical MacGuffin — the thing everybody wants but the audience doesn’t care. In fact, I didn’t care about anything much. Those who dismiss Wyler’s BEN-HUR as trash need to take a look at this. BEN-HUR is skilled trash.

I liked the music, which is full-on Alfred Newman, though the crashing stab accompanied by thunderclap which follows Judas (Michael Ansara) introducing himself was an eggy moment.

I think the indigo thunderclaps are a modern interpolation

I was reading somewheres — I think it was a Medium article — about how the Seventh Day Adventists evolved from a doomsday cult that had to rewrite its own mythos when the apocalypse failed to happen on the appointed day. And if you think about it, it’s fairly obvious that Christianity itself kind of did the same thing.

The appearance of a Messiah had been (fairly) long-prophesied. Jesus turned up, presenting himself as said figure, come to liberate the Jews from oppression. His followers were enthused.

Then: disaster! Jesus is crucified. Far from freeing the Jews from Roman rule, he is horribly executed by the Romans. The Christian sect looks sure to die out, it’s central premise having fallen apart in spectacular fashion.

But, asks somebody, What if he didn’t die? Also: What if dying was the whole point? It might work!

If the Bible was a modern screenplay, somebody would definitely have foreshadowed the crucifixion, put something in earlier to make it clear this was always the endgame. That’s what they do in THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. As it is, the Bible has that first-draft quality. Jesus sacrificing himself to redeem humanity is kind of a deus ex machina.

Director Henry Koster demonstrates that the Holy Ghost is a less compelling off-screen presence than Harvey the invisible rabbit. Burton’s Damascene conversion isn’t as moving as Josephine Hull’s was in that other movie.

Image 1: the purplish Leon Shamroy wraith is Jesus, in horizontal and profile cruciform view. Image 2: an arm nailed to cross-beam, with lots of duplicate hands floating around just because

Pretty crazy dream sequence. Points awarded. “I didn’t know it had anything like this in it!” Fiona exclaimed, momentarily aroused from a pleasant bad-movie torpor.

THE ROBE stars MacPhisto; Young Estella; Tumak; Klaatu; Insane Actor; Rodion Pavlov; Sokurah the Magician; Robert Kraft; Exeter; Dr. Pretorius; Zeta One; Peripetchikoff; Angry Horse; ‘Scamper’ Joad; The Dear One; Massimo Morlacchi; Xandros the Greek Slave; Toothpick Charlie; and the voice of Ned Flanders (an early Christian).

Nero LeRoy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2021 by dcairns

“Is this, then, the end of Nero?” asks a dying Emperor Peter Ustinov at the climax of QUO VADIS?, more or less quoting Edward G. Robinson at the end of LITTLE CAESAR. Which was directed by the same guy, Mervyn Leroy, back when he was young and awake. Since there are varying accounts of Nero’s actual or supposed last words, and none of them include a quote from a Warners gangster picture, this must surely qualify as one of the most prominently placed in-jokes in Hollywood history.

Would that there were any other evidence that the film had a sense of humour about itself. It’s entertaining rubbish, though: the sets are big, and the acting varies from dreadful (Robert Taylor, not a screen god in this household) to the impressive — how Deborah Kerr, Leo Genn, Abraham Sofaer (the judge/surgeon from AMOLAD), Marina Berti and Rosalie Crutchley are able to make their dreadful lines sound like human speech is quite staggering.

Crutchley, darkly gorgeous, is the only character who’s apparently read the whole script, not just the scene she’s playing: she knows how it’s going to end.

I watched a bit of TORA! TORA! TORA! on TV the same day, and it was interesting to see how the American scenes in that managed to turn comparatively recent US history into the same kind of lifeless tableaux as the typical ancient world epic. I forget if it was in this film that Ustinov blew on his soup to cool it, and was told the gesture was too modern. “In what age, pray, did the wretched Romans stop eating their minestrone piping hot?” he inquired. Of the two films, QV has slightly more authentic human behaviour. By the end, I was dying for some actual life.

So Fiona wondered if Ustinov contributed his own famous last words, since the man did have a sense of humour absent elsewhere in this roaring stodgefest. The scenes at court are weapons-grade camp, with Patricia Laffan (DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS) a resplendent whore-empress Poppaea, and Ustinov clearly taking to heart departing helmer Anthony Mann’s character sketch of the depraved Caesar: “Strikes me as the kind of guy plays with himself nights.”

QUO VADIS stars Quentin Durward; Sister Clodagh; Starbuck; Hercule Poirot; Nyah; Magwitch; Benjamin Disraeli; Queen at Tarsus (uncredited); Vargas the Diablo Giant; Hecuba; Inspector Buchanan, Special Branch; Horatio, His Friend; the screenwriter of THEY SAVED HITLER’S BRAIN; Mrs Dudley; Mrs Alexander; Bambino; and the voice of Morbius.

Beyond the Paleontology

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2019 by dcairns

Officially, the blogathon is supposed to be over — but I have three guest posts on their way, and I’ve kept watching late films too…

So, I guess I saw ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING when it came out in 1975, a long time ago — when dinosaurs ruled the earth, or my world, anyway. Aged eight, I was a little disappointed that there were no live, stampeding dinosaurs in it. As moderately amusing as the conceit is, if Disney had made a proper version of THE LOST WORLD and followed Willis H. O’brien and had a rampant brontosaurus in Victorian London… IMAGINE how entertaining that would have been!

But even if they were determined to carry on filming David Forrest’s long-forgotten novel The Great Dinosaur Robbery, being an animation studio they could surely have had an animated prologue or something showing how the dinosaur came to be a skeleton in the British Museum?

Still, the film begins with a really jaunty Ron Goodwin score, then it has Derek Nimmo in old age makeup telling us the story from a leather armchair in his club, presumably in modern times… this is all fine.

Then it gets racist FAST and HARD — young Nimmo is escaping a matte painting of China in yellowface — his glued-on Fu Manchu moustache is brown to match his hair — then he’s gliding over a model of the Himalayas — then he’s rescued by a yeti — the eight-year-old me must have been thrilled by that, but it left no trace in the memory banks.

Then we’re in London and it’s even more racist. Peter Ustinov is somewhat embarrassing as a Chinese master spy, although once you get over the offense, it’s a very inventive bit of ham. An actor full of tricks… well, he’s ALL tricks. But he does get all the laughs. Clive Revill, in a sort of yellowface death mask as his henchman, is horrifying to look upon. He actually gets a couple chuckles in extreme longshot because he’s an able physical comedian but every time the camera ventures closer you feel sick.

Helen Hayes is a nanny, everyone’s after a formula of some kind… it may be racist as shit but it passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. A good big role for Joan Sims.

They spent money on this thing! Clearly armies of inept gag writers have laboured to stuff it full of crap slapstick, and nobody’s in charge of quality control. All of these gags are big and expensive, and they involve bringing in extraneous shit just in order to be able to stage the gag, whereas gags which use the elements already in play in your story will result in a more cohesive show. Plus, gags with a strong cause-and-effect construction, and gags that build up and form chains of connection are the best for a story. Nobody at Disney in the seventies seemed aware of that.

The plus side is that the film keeps wheeling on beloved British comedy actors, because it has all these extra gags to cycle through, so although the material is giving no pleasure whatsoever, the pageant of Carry On actors, sitcom stars, Richard Lester background people and elaborate sets and costumes has a mild nostalgic appeal.

Two of the stars of ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING actually appear in this, but that’s probably a coincidence caused by the sheet preponderance of Brit talent roped in. We also get a second or two of Kathleen Byron. Michael Powell, we should remember, was unemployed, forgotten and living in genteel poverty at this time.

Curious that it was Ustinov’s turn in CHARLIE CHAN AND THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON QUEEN that prompted protests. Petrol-bombing Disneyland would have been a measured response to OOUDIM. Historians with only these two films to work from would deduce that a lot of social progress was made between 1975 and 1981.

Racism and caricature are uncomfortable bedfellows — most of us feel we can tell the difference, but blurred lines happen. Caricaturing the qualities of a specific person is acceptable if the intent is clear. Caricaturing on purely racial lines is clearly offensive. This movie is making fun of an ignorant idea of the Chinese, but it doesn’t appear knowing. In other words, it seems to accept the idea, and then mocks Chinese people for supposedly conforming to it. Ha ha, they make nonsense noises! It all comes from lazy ignorance, which is never an interesting way to approach anything.

The model work is pretty incredible, I will say that. It was only while framegrabbing afterward that I realized how much of this movie is miniature. And there are… images:

It’s the penultimate film of Robert Stevenson (his best colonialist romp is the much earlier KING SOLOMON’S MINES, which somehow manages to be less obnoxious), and it’s slightly more convincing as a film than ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD which I was dragged to see as a seven-year-old (the back-projected lava was exciting — I do still like the matte paintings and the miniature airship effects). Stevenson would make THE SHAGGY D.A. and then bow out aged eighty-one.

They put his credit over a drawing of a traffic cop.

ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING stars (deep breath) Hercule Poirot; Madelon Claudet; Lady Ruff-Diamond; Emperor Palpatine; Bungdit Din; P.C. Corky Turnbull; John Glynn Haggard; Hazel the McWitch; King Bruno the Questionable; De Nomolos; Planchet; Sgt. Grogan; Miss Marple; Pte. James Frazer; Ives ‘The Mole’; Dr. Fettle; Sister Ruth; Marie Curie; the Minister of the Inferior; Reverend Timothy Farthing; and Cleo(patra).

Speaking of Michael Powell, here are two more limericks.