Archive for Powell & Pressburger

Butter Armageddon

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 26, 2020 by dcairns

I was moved to write a complaint to Film4 the other day. yes, I’m becoming one of those people. My previous complaint was to the BBC, and was at least about something serious, a piece by their science editor that began by questioning the seriousness of the Coronavirus threat (this was before 50,000 Brits had died, so I feel history has borne me out here) and ended by suggesting we’d soon have to make some tough decisions balancing the health of the populace with the health of the economy — calculating, as Harry Lime would put it, how many of those little dots we could afford to spare.

Well, the BBC has been guilty of crimes against humanity, perhaps, but The Telegraph has our mass graves already dug.

So maybe it’s a relief to get on to something trivial. My complaint to Film4 mainly spoke about the way the film was screened in the wrong aspect ratio, so that everyone was very long and thin — OK, Conrad Veidt and Valerie Hobson are long and thin normally, but that doesn’t explain why the moon was an oblong. Everybody knows movie moons are always full, unless they’re crescent.

This might well have been my cable provider’s fault, but have you ever tried explaining an aspect ratio problem to somebody in a call centre? If you’re very lucky they’ll understand you well enough to suggest adjusting the settings on your TV.

But the transmission in question had another problem, one that was certainly not Virgin Media’s fault. Somebody had stuck English subtitles on the first exchanges, in German, between Veidt and Hobson.

This might seem like a natural thing to do. There are several lines, and it starts to get a bit frustrating that we (the presumed non-German-speaking viewers) can’t understand the dialogue. But this is absolutely deliberate, part of the Powell-Pressburger plan. As the scene progresses, our incomprehension increases the tension, which is finally broken by a joke, and even Hobson looks relieved.

Crass as the subtitler’s unwelcome intervention was, it made me realise something about the scene. At the end of the exchange, Veidt suddenly gets a rapt look in his eye and advances upon Hobson in a Stroheimesque manner… then picks up the true object of his desire, a dish of butter, which he smells deeply, before declaring, “Butter!”

“You had me worried there for a moment,” smiles Hobson.

True, Powell hasn’t quite worked out a way of tricking the eyelines so we BELIEVE that Connie’s gaze is fixed on Val, but you can’t have everything.

The gag is part of a quaint idea that the Germans would be suffering more from food shortages than the island-bound Brits in 1917, which I’m not sure is accurate. But maybe. It’s quite late in the war.

Anyway, what I realised was that P&P were pulling the same stunt performed more showily by John McTiernan and screenwriters Larry Ferguson, Donald E. Stewart and David Shaber in THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER: making a transition from a foreign language, then one which the characters would in reality be speaking (Hobson in fact spoke German fluently), to English, for the benefit of the audience, the switch being performed by use of a single word which is the same in each language. “Butter” is “butter” in German and English, and “Armageddon” is “Armageddon” in Russian and English.

McTiernan’s version works with subtitles. The Archers’ version is clearly better without.

Also, Veidt’s German is better than Sean Connery’s Russian.

THE SPY IN BLACK stars Cesare the Somnambulist; Edith D’Ascoyne; Anakin Skywalker; Conductor 71; Julia Trimble-Pomfret; Uncle Pumblechook; Halima; Sokurah the Magician; Finn – the Mute; Dr. Petrie; Joe Gargery; and Professor Auguste Balls.

THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER stars James Bond; Donald Trump; Alan Shephard; Damien Thorn; Darth Vader; De Nomolos; Duncan Idaho; Joseph Andrews; Dr. Frank-N-Furter – A Scientist; Ron Carver; Moominpapa; Ed Rooney; and Dr. Beverly Crusher.

 

 

Donkey con

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , on August 14, 2013 by dcairns

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A Michael Powell story.

“A donkey was duly called by the property department and reported to Pinewood Studios on the appointed day at 6 a.m. complete with its owner, a diminutive cockney from Covent Garden Market. Immediately on arrival he was taken to wardrobe and fitted out with a ballet costume, tights, shoes, etc. Then followed make-up and hairdressing  where he was given the full classical look. This he endured without comment of complaint, being a man of few words who had prepared himself for the peculiarities which he might have to face in a film studio. His donkey, equally phlegmatic, grazed on a patch of grass outside the window. He was then taken to the crowd dressing room where h sat, silent, in the farthest corner, surrounded by other male dancers with whom he was totally identified in looks, if not in spirit. He waited patiently for something to happen, all the while keeping his own counsel, apparently unmoved by all that went on around him. At last, his patience rewarded, the dancers were called on to the set with him leading his donkey, which by now must have become his only link with the outside world. The market square sequence had been fully rehearsed the evening before, so all that was required was a quick run-through before shooting.

‘Quiet, everybody, for a final rehearsal,” shouted the assistant director. ‘Playback, please,’ and with the magic word ‘action’ and to the sound of the recorded music, the crowd leaped and twisted their way across the stage with pirouettes and entrechats, all perfect apart from the ‘dancer’ with the donkey, who stood immovable and expressionless. ‘Cut, cut!’ shouted Michael above the sound of the playback, never endowed with great patience on these occasions. ‘What’s wrong with everyone? It was rehearsed last night. Pull yourselves together and let’s go again.’

And so we did with exactly he same result. With the third attempt ‘cut’, Michael strode angrily through the crowd to confront the dancer with the donkey. ‘What’s the matter with you? Everyone else knows what to do. It was all rehearsed last night. You can hear the music like the others, you’re a dancer, aren’t you?’

‘Of course I f…..g ain’t! I just brought the f…..g donkey!’

From cinematographer Christopher Challis’s memoir Are They Really So Awful? Challis was camera operator on THE RED SHOES. However, the story above may not be 100% reliable since I have yet to spot any form of donkey, mule or ass in the corps de ballet.

But this story struck a bell with me because my pal Lawrie Knight, who was third AD on TRS and also on A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, reported a precisely similar story — a friend was visiting him at the studio, but didn’t appear to meet him as planned. Suddenly Lawrie recognized one of the jurors in the heavenly tribunal — his friend, in fancy dress. “What are you doing in that costume?” he asked. “I… don’t know!” replied his befuddled visitor.

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I love the idea of Pinewood as a place where anybody stepping through the gates would be bundled into costume and makeup and forced in front of the cameras. It’d make breaking into the movies a lot easier.

Stark reality

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2011 by dcairns

THE SPY IN BLACK (above), is notable not just for being the first screen collaboration of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, nor for being a nifty wartime thriller with Conrad Veidt as a surprisingly sympathetic Nazi spy — it’s also the first known screen credit of one Graham Stark, seen at screen right — the larger bellboy.

Yes, that familiar soft, chewing-gum face, surmounted by a huge, angular cranium, like a baby snail peeping from under a cardboard box, is familiar to us from numerous Blake Edwards and Richard Lester films, the common link being Stark’s friend Peter Sellers.

Stark plays Inspector Clouseau’s sidekick, Hercule LaJoy in A SHOT IN THE DARK, for my money the funniest of the PINK PANTHER sequels, and he’s Auguste Balls, supplier of theatrical costumery and disguises in several later PP movies. He nearly bookmark’s Lester’s career, showing up in the early TV work and THE RUNNING JUMPING & STANDING STILL FILM, and again in the silent comedy credits sequence of SUPERMAN III, as a blind man with a runaway guide dog.

In TRJ&SSF, he’s recipient of the world’s greatest and most profound visual gag (starting 9 mins and 10 secs in) ~

He’s also directed a couple of nice silent comedy inspired shorts, and one feature film, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN DEADLY SINS, which is mainly, uh, not great, but has a nice Spike Milligan scripted chapter on the theme of sloth, a sepia-tinted silent which shows his true strengths — a shame Eric Sykes and Graham Stark didn’t get to make wordless feature films, their shorts were rather popular.

Graham Stark is still with us at 89 — a few years back, a student of mine tried to recruit him for a short film — he was up for it, but his wife wouldn’t let him come out and play. Still, he remains a grand old man of British comedy, part of a noble troupe who enlivened backgrounds or embodied inane stereotypes at the drop of a bowler hat, performing an essential service all through the fifties and sixties.

Addendum: RIP, Graham Stark.