Archive for Pirates

Mossop

Posted in Fashion, FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2021 by dcairns

John Mills’ excellent turn as Willie Mossop in HOBSON’S CHOICE is a terrific bit of physical acting and character design. He has two hairstyles, one of which is spectacularly disfiguring — both of which seem to be real, so they must have shot the later scenes first, before barbering him into grotesquerie.

Mills’ other uglified role is in RYAN’S DAUGHTER, where he’s just hideous. Strange to think he won an Oscar for it — if he’d repeated his Early Mossop performance in that context it would have been too much — instead, he goes even further, beyond Mr. Laughton’s Quasimodo. I guess it’s an interesting choice to make the “village idiot” uncharming and unphotogenic, where such characters are usually sentimentalized, but Mills’ choices plunge him into the unpleasant domain of caricaturing the afflicted, an error of judgement, to put it mildly, that lands him in the same camp as Alec Guinness’ whole look in OLIVER TWIST (a film made three years after the Holocaust, if you need reminding).

Mossop, on the other hand, is a wonderful creation. Any discomfort felt about laughing at this ill-educated and ill-dressed man is joyously dissipated as the film shows him blossoming in confidence and erudition, a Galatea sculpted by his partner Maggie (Brenda de Banzie, also wonderful).

Costume designer John Armstrong has collaborated with the actor to subtly deform and distort his trim chorus boy’s body. A little pot belly has been added — I assume it’s prosthetic. The trousers hang in a strange manner, suggesting scrawniness and waste beneath, as well as an ill fit.

Mills enhances the effect by doing a lot of QUALITY ass-work: he sticks out his backside to suggest poor posture rather than pugilistic sauciness, and this seems to do unwelcome things to the clothing. There’s a perfect storm in those trousers — pants and stance in total disharmony.

Kevin Brownlow’s magisterial book David Lean tells us that originally, Robert Donat was cast, and had to shoot a test to convince himself he could do it. He went down the trap door a prematurely aged asthmatic, then came up as Willie Mossop. But he failed the medical, the stress bringing on an attack of wheezing. (Movie medicals, made to satisfy the insurance people, were generally a bit lax. Roy Kinnear said of PIRATES, “A number of us were quite long in the tooth. We all had to do a physical examination. You went in a room and got on a couch, and you could manage that, you were in.”)

Losing his co-lead days before the shoot, Lean had to deal with a rebellious Laughton, who felt betrayed — Korda basically blackmailed him into doing it — “If you go to the scandal sheets, so will I.” Which is… wow. But it certainly helped Lean that his producer was prepared to play the bad guy. Lean and Laughton then enjoyed a good relationship. Lean recalled Mills, on a boat outing, feigning seasickness, and realised what a good physical comic he was. He had imagined Mossop as hulking, but the physical contrast between Mills and Laughton plays brilliantly: Lorre and Greenstreet in Lancashire.

Original author Harold Brighouse wasn’t heavily involved in the film version, but he did advise Lean that he could play the wedding night scene where Mossop tremulously prepares for bed “as long as you like” and it would bring the house down. As with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and Omar Sharif’s long approach, Lean lost his nerve, as he put it, and so Mossop’s preparations are truncated by an awkward dissolve. If only he’d test screened it… that kind of thing can give confidence as well as shatter it. He was able to go back and extend Sharif’s approach for the LAWRENCE restoration, but alas HOBSON’S never got that treatment and no doubt the footage was swiftly disposed of.

But still… HOBSON’S is a fascinating case of the duties of a main character being split among three superb players. Laughton brings the lion’s share of the entertainment, a bumptious and sodden Lear, but he never learns anything, he’s simply reduced in power until his mean spirits can’t hurt anyone. De Banzie’s Maggie is the hero who makes things happen — a bit of fancy footwork by Brighouse allows her to triumph due to a complete accident — Hobson falling down a hole — that she could never have anticipated. But she’s unchanging. Mossop is manipulated and coerced every step of the way, a character lacking any form of proactive self-determination, but he’s the one with the arc — more than his circumstances change, he grows in stature and becomes master of the house, albeit one put in that position and kept there by a strong woman who is the real power in the relationship. Mossop knows he’s a mere figurehead, but Maggie gives him confidence at every turn by praising his skill as shoemaker. I’ve seen productions of THE TAMING OF THE SHREW where they’ve tried to make Kate and Petrucchio partners in a role-playing game put on for the benefit of society, but I don’t think you can make that entirely convince as Shakespeare’s intent, but Brighouse was a suffragist and the feminist underpinnings of his play are strikingly modern (see also Stanley Houghton’s oft-filmed HINDLE WAKES) — Maggie and Willie agree to play the roles of strong man and supportive wife, while both know that the reality is more the other way around.

Anyway — we raise our glasses to John Mills and Willie Mossop. He may never have gotten another role like it, but it opened up the range of parts he could be considered for and gave him a new lease of screen life, which he certainly ran with.

Next must-see Millses are ICE-COLD IN ALEX and TUNES OF GLORY.

La Ronde

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 7, 2010 by dcairns

Shadowplayer Alex Livingstone’s remark about the repetition of a moment in CHINATOWN — Faye Dunaway’s forehead hitting her car horn, played first as farce, then as tragedy — got me thinking about repetitions and circularity in Polanski’s work, something I’ve long been super-conscious of.

THE GHOST WRITER begins and ends with the off-screen assassination of a bothersome biographer, but this addiction to the ouroboros narrative that swallows itself is far from a new thing. Let’s attempt a list, and see if that’s boring.

The shorts — some of these are maybe two short for a circular structure to apply (2007’s CINEMA EROTIQUE unfolds entirely in a single cinema auditorium), but three of the major ones establish the pattern — TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE begins with the titular removal men emerging from the sea, and ends with them removing themselves back to it, sad aquatic angels who have visited our Earth and found it uncongenial. MAMMALS and THE FAT AND THE LEAN play like political parables, with the oppressed and the oppressor changing places through revolution, and the whole thing starting again. Since Polanski escaped Nazism only to find himself swallowed by communism, such a philosophy seems understandable, and it lurks behind many of the subsequent story-loops.

KNIFE IN THE WATER — been too long since I’ve seen this one, but doesn’t it begin and end on a road to/from the sea? What I mainly recall is the masterful filming in close quarters (a yacht so cramped, any kind of filming would seem impossible), the parallax effect illustrated by jump cuts, and the incongruity of Polanski’s voice issuing from another actor’s mouth. (He really wanted to play that role, even stripping naked in the production office when Jerzy Skolimowski told him he wasn’t handsome enough.)

REPULSION — easy. Begins and ends with closeup of Catherine Deneuve’s eye.

CUL DE SAC — almost a one-location film, but certain elements offering a looping effect, such as the “regular plane” that flies overhead at intervals. It does so during the mammoth long take on the beach, and Lionel Stander mistakes it for a rescue mission. It returns in the closing shot, mocking the possibility of rescue for anybody.

(Strong memories of a childhood holiday at Lindisfarne, Polanski’s location — driving back as the tides came over the causeway, a feeling of elation not shared by my parents who were convinced we were all going to die…)

THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS — begins and ends with the vampire killers on a snowy path, in a sleigh. Stentorious voiceover man, painted sky, moonlight.

ROSEMARY’S BABY — super-faithful version of the book, doesn’t do a loop back on itself, except for the lullaby music theme by Komeda, which has acquired new meaning by the film’s conclusion.

MACBETH — loops back, not to the opening scene, but to earlier in the plot, amounting to the same thing. In a scene not present in Shakespear, and indeed I’m sure quite far from Shakespeare’s mind, we see one of the lesser combatants of the film’s climax on the road to the witches’ lair — another Scotsman due to be corrupted. Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to end with the order of the universe restored, after a period when everything’s out of balance. Polanski’s universe exists in perpetual turmoil and darkness, and so his conclusion is to show more of the same massing on the horizon…

WHAT? — the least-seen of the early films, and most despised, this slightly macabre sex comedy begins and ends on the road, with Sydne Rome’s arrival at and departure from the villa of peculiar persons, but there’s much more to it than that. Polanski himself has described the film as a rondo, and repetition plays an important part, as when the same petal falls from the same flower on the same note of the same piano piece, two mornings in a row… deja vu, or some kind of time-loop? Has Polanski been reading The Invention of Morel? Or is this just the structure of the rondo in action?

CHINATOWN has much of foreshadowing and clues and premonitions, as Alex and I discussed. It isn’t circular, but it does end up in the titular region, a place which has been discussed off and on throughout the movie. Screenwriter Robert Towne (“As much as he certainly is an annoying little prick, Polanski is also undoubtedly the best collaborator I’ve ever had.”) intended “Chinatown” just as a kind of state of being, the place where you try to keep someone from being hurt, and you end up making sure they are hurt. The world, in other words. Polanski felt, in fairness to the audience’s perhaps simpler expectations, you couldn’t have a film called CHINATOWN without a scene set IN Chinatown. So the ending literalises the metaphor.

THE TENANT — another easy one. Time and identity perform a neat swivel, causing Polansky’s character (“He’s just oversensitive,” says the director) to wind up back in time, in a woman’s body, witnessing himself making the fatal decision that will (somehow) land him in this hospital deathbed, a multiply fractured Soldier in White.

Dialogue from DEREK AND CLIVE GET THE HORN ~

Dudley Moore: “When we go up to heaven, they’re going to play this film to us. On a loop. As we burn.”

Peter Cook: “You don’t burn in heaven.”

Dud: “We will.”

TESS — can’t recall… the character is set towards her fate in the very first scene, I remember that much. A conspiracy of fate brings about the downfall of a character who has “intelligence, beauty, and a spirited approach to life,” — the film is dedicated to Sharon Tate not just because it was her favourite book (how many starlets read Hardy?) and she gave it to her husband to read, but because it shows the same malign universal forces working that led to that night when the wrong people died, when nobody should have died at all.

PIRATES — behaves like one of the shorts, the two main characters winding up exactly where they started, adrift on a raft in shark-infested waters. That slightly over-determined ending, with its hint that a sequel might be forthcoming (not a chance, after the movie sank at the box office), is perhaps what scuppers the movie’s ending, which seems to deliberately avoid settling any of the plot points. The hero is pulled away from battle, the virgin winds up in the arms of the most evil man alive, the villain triumphs — if we have to wait for the sequel to sort it out, it’s a lousy ending. Considered as a remake of CHINATOWN, it kind of works, especially as a shocking, offensive way to treat an audience who’ve come to see a comic swashbuckler.

FRANTIC — think it begins and ends with Harrison Ford in a taxi, from airport to Paris and back again. It’s the story of a rather unconventional second honeymoon, or as Polanski said, an attempt to demonstrate that “Anxiety has no upper limit.”

BITTER MOON — whole movie framed on a boat, so it naturally returns to its starting point… another botched and bitter second honeymoon.

DEATH AND THE MAIDEN — doesn’t this begin and end with a string quartet playing the title piece (also heard in WHAT?)? This seemed like one of RP’s weaker films (I blame the play), but I might revisit it to see what happens.

THE NINTH GATE — begins as another of those New York Satanism films, winds up with Johnny Depp becoming an illustration in the book he’s been chasing, so there’s a kind of circularity there, albeit a strange one.

THE PIANIST — need to see this one again, for sure. What I mainly recall is another weird time thing — in all his films, when there’s a tenement building or stairwell, Polanski uses a distant piano playing or practicing. In this movie, the piano overheard from next door becomes a major plot point.

OLIVER TWIST — when Polanski does Victorian literature, he’s less able to make the plot turn into a loop. That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

What does all this prove? Well, although Polanski denies being a pessimist, he is one — not because of the dark and dreadful things in his films, but because his films don’t, usually, hold out the possibility of change. Or not positive change, anyhow. Polanski once said that if he had the chance to live his life again, he wouldn’t. Which is, on the surface, quite a pessimistic remark, but even more so when one considers that, for most of us, the offer to live our life again would include the option of making changes, of doing things differently. Polanski doesn’t see that as part of the deal. Around and around we go…

UK links —

Roman Polanski Collection [DVD] [1968]

The Ghost [DVD] [2010]

Chinatown (Special Collector’s Edition) [1974] [DVD]

US links —

The Ghost Writer

Repulsion- (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

Oliver Twist (2005)

Murder in Three Dimensions

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2009 by dcairns

dialm1Imagine the superimposed title popping out at us, but the “M” sunken into the background…

Hitchcock’s only 3D film… had the “gimmick” not died out, we could have had REAR WINDOW in three dimensions, which could REALLY have worked… VERTIGO in three dimensions, with that exponential zoom literally opening up before our eyes… PSYCHO in three dimensions: a dagger in your chest! A Janet Leigh in your lap!

But alas, DIAL M FOR MURDER is all we have, but nevertheless it may be the best 3D film of the era (IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE actually serves up a remarkable number of nice visual ideas using depth and height and space — Richard Carlson is increasingly isolated — but Hitch’s use is both restrained and typically quirky. Unfortunately, these stills and this clip are all I’ve actually seen in depth.

Yeah, I dunno why this is the two-screen version you have to go cross-eyed to watch (the third version that appears between the two when you cross your eyes will be 3D) but if you double click on it you’ll get a red and green anaglyph version.

Note how the odd low angles set up peculiar perspectives — this seems to be part of Hitch’s strategy to gradually explore this room from every angle. Plus the constant use of foreground objects to add an extra layer of depth and really embed those characters in Hitch’s dollhouse.

In the second part, we get a high angle on Grace Kelly, and then the magnificent glide around her, cutting her adrift in space and suggesting a predatory POV. As the assassin raises the scarf to strangle her, the depth effect helps us appreciate why he can’t strike when her arm is raised with the telephone receiver.

When Grace reaches for the scissors we can identify them more easily in 3D, and not only do we get the great extreme perspective of her hand reaching out at us, but the sensation that, as Shadowplayer Paul Duane pointed out, we could almost reach into the screen, pick them up and hand them to her.

(Incidentally, there are two sets of scissors. One has already been attached to the assassin’s back, to make it look as if he’s been stabbed. These are only revealed when he falls forward, but they’re already there. The other pair is real, picked up by Grace, who then mimes stabbing the guy, before quickly lowering her hand with the scissors still clutched in it. You can just catch a glimpse of them.)

The beginning. Running for cover after the disappointing reception of I CONFESS, Hitch rounded out his Warner Brothers contract by accepting an assignment to adapt a hit play (originally presented on TV). Following his most recent theory on the subject of theatrical adaptation, he starts with a flurry of opening-out (with horrible grainy process shots of London streets) and then dives into the drawing room and shoots the play, with only minimal changes. The art goes into casting and design and presentation. Why buy a sound dramatic structure and then mess with it?

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Happy couple Ray Milland and his wife Grace Kelly are introduced, followed swiftly by happy couple Grace Kelly and her lover Robert Cummings. I’m not sure I follow Grace’s taste in men, but I guess a successful mystery writer, even if he is Bob Cummings, might be more interesting than a retired tennis champ, even if he is Ray Milland.

Tennis makes its first appearance in EASY VIRTUE, and had recently turned up as a subplot of STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, making it the most Hitchcockian sport next to maybe ski-ing. Hitchcock biographer John Russell Taylor offers the amusing idea of Guy in STRANGERS marrying Ruth Roman and enjoying her wealth and status, then starting to feel insecure… slowly he morphs into Ray Milland…

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1950s photoshop!

Some swift and efficient exposition — in a highly artificial  theatrical structure like this, nearly everything is exposition, disguised or otherwise — and then Ray packs Grace and Bob off to a show so he can blackmail Anthony Dawson into offing his erring spouse. Edinburgh-born Dawson, a gaunt and haunted figure, is excellent as the vile Swann, even managing to generate little wisps of sympathy for the haggard blaggard.

Dawson’s low-key performance points to one reason the movie is often undervalued: apart from Grace Kelly, it doesn’t boast a lot of obvious star power. Ray Milland takes the role Cary Grant wanted, because Warners weren’t willing to cough up for his salary, and Milland is terrific but he doesn’t have the same star wattage. Dawson was never a well-known name, although his face crops up everywhere from DR NO to Polanski’s PIRATES. And Hitch favourite John Williams is again somebody who never hogged the limelight or rose to enormous prominence. And Bob Cummings is Bob Cummings — his wide-eyed heartiness is fine here, and helps us forget that his character is an adulterous swine as the story goes on, but he’s no Jimmy Stewart. Imagine Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart with Grace, and maybe James Mason in Dawson’s role and Charles Laughton in Williams, and you can redesign DIAL M as a big starry thing — but I don’t think you necessarily improve it much. These lesser lights all suits their roles perfectly, and shine in them.

With Kelly and Cummings playing love rats, we could actually sympathise with Milland a bit more than is comfortable, but the fact that he’s mainly plotting murder to ensure his financial security robs him of pathos, and his nasty scheme to blackmail another wretch into actually committing the ghastly deed is pretty low. Still, his glee in explaining how cunning he’s been turns a very long, expository scene into a pleasurable experience. Writers are always afraid of exposition, whereas Hitchcock knew fine well that all storytelling is exposition, whether it’s done in dialogue or via action. The trick is to make it GOOD exposition.

There’s one odd shot I love in this scene, when Milland talks about spotting Dawson by chance in a bar. We suddenly get a shot of Dawson’s elbow, and then the camera kind of wobbles up to his face. What it’s just done is re-enact Milland’s discovery of Dawson in that distant bar (rather as the camera re-enacts the first Mrs DeWinter’s death in REBECCA). A lovely, strange moment.

The appeal of a perfect murder scheme is always watching it go tits-up, of course. Grace announces her intention of going out to the movies, forcing Ray to act quite suspiciously to force her to stay in. He manages the hideously complicated business with the key with skill (surely he could just get another key cut for the killer? But that would ruin the third act) and then his watch stops, and he has trouble getting to the phone… (Ray’s scenes are the biggest addition to the play, with Hitch enjoying making us root for the baddie, amping up the suspense, and then having the plan misfire in a totally different way.)

I’m fascinated by the snatches of conversation we get from the club bore who’s droning on at the stag party (world’s worst stag party, I think we can agree).

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Hitch had a very precise colour scheme worked out which involved dressing Grace in a red robe for this scene (her white costuming was only to begin after she survives the murder attempt and goes from adulteress to innocent victim. But Grace wanted to wear the diaphanous nightie (the saucy trout!) and Hitch relented, making this the first really sexualized attack in Hitchcock, prefiguring all that nastiness in FRENZY. Dawson isn’t sexually motivated, but the slow build-up to the scene, the light shining through the gown, and the shot of the bare legs kicking, stress a queasy erotic undercurrent.

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Dawson’s death is pretty unpleasant — the scissors going in is bad enough, but then when he falls on them — ouch. I guess this gruesome detail also serves to make Grace not wholly responsible for his death. She just wounded him, the rest was bad luck. Of course, we don’t blame her for scissoring his spine anyway. I hope we’d all have the presence of mind to do that. And if we all did, he wouldn’t stand a chance. The place would be like a butcher’s window.

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Scheming Ray must now switch from a carefully thought-out scheme, months in preparation, to frantic improvisation, which he does with incredible skill, framing the victim for blackmail and his wife for murder. Hitch beautifully fast-forwards through the trial with what would normally be called a montage, except here it’s only a couple of shots. The shifting coloured backdrop makes for a stylized scene quite different from everything else in the movie, but somehow he gets away with it.

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If a thing is lovely, maybe it stands a good chance of being accepted for that reason alone.

Then we get the grand unmasking. Cummings suggesting that Milland fake a confession is a really nice idea — using his crime-writing prowess he’s come up with a fictional explanation for Grace’s innocence, not realising he’s hit on the truth. The rest of the climax, with detective John Williams (“Highly unorthodox — but my blood was up!”) getting Grace off death row so he can take her home and establish her innocence, is highly implausible, but you just go with it, I think, for the sake of Platonic unity.

Get all the main players back on the stage, and incriminate Ray with a variation on the “Why Mr Rusk, you’re not wearing your tie…” ending. And then Ray, a good sport, offers everyone a drink. Here it might have been nice to end the movie the way Dusan Makavajev ends MONTENEGRO: subtitles appear, word by word:

THE

DRINK

WAS

POISONED

But no, I think John Williams combing his moustache is equally good.

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