Archive for Richard Attenborough

The seeds of crime bear bitter fruit

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2021 by dcairns

THE DOCK BRIEF AKA TRIAL AND ERROR is a legal comedy adapted from a play by John Mortimer (the Rumpole man) and starring Peter Sellers and Richard Attenborough. We came for Sellers but stayed for Sir Dickie who, transfigured by ace makeup man Stuart Freeborn’s glue-on nose, plays a monkeylike Essex seed shop proprietor awaiting trial for the murder of his overly jocular wife (Beryl Reid, in flashback).

(I guessed, without having to check, that Freeborn must have assembled Sir Dickie Lord Attenborough’s nose for SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON, the flaw in the plan being that SOAWA isn’t a comedy, and anyway Dickie’s naked nose would have been an ideal nose for that part, so one spends the film questioning the putty, surely not the effect intended.)

Sellers is doing the posh, patronising old duffer routine, and it’s nothing particularly challenging for him — shades of Grytpype-Thynne. But he bounces extremely well off Attenborough’s man without qualities, a dull fellow who can’t really process the fact of being on trial for murder, but is submissively keen to help this dignified gent if he possibly can. The two wonder in and out of flashbacks and fantasies, observing their earlier lives.

Sellers’ character has been a lawyer for forty years without ever obtaining a case, though, so their prospects of success seem slim.

The name of director James Hill rang only the dimmest of gongs, but he’s quite imaginative here — we pass from the prisoner’s cell to the court as seen in imagination in a single swift pan, as if the two rooms adjoined (I’ve praised this kind of invention before). When we see in flashback Attenborough finally cracking under the strain of his appalling wife, the camera rushes at her, jump-cuts back to the starting block, and has another go. Repeat several times as the woman cackles insanely. Reaction shot of Attenborough, with the camera literally trembling as if situated by an erupting volcano.

I looked Hill up — extraordinary career the man had. Well, curious, anyway. BORN FREE, A STUDY IN TERROR, CAPTAIN NEMO AND THE UNDERWATER CITY are three I’d seen. He’d just got free of the Children’s Film Foundation. Later, he alternated between animal flicks building on the success of his lion thing — AN ELEPHANT NAMED SLOWLY, THE BELSTONE FOX, BLACK BEAUTY — and utterly disparate genre fodder including a sex comedy (THE MAN FROM O.R.G.Y. and a spy thriller (THE CORRUPT ONES). By 1975 he was back at the CFF. His last movie, a 1984 Channel 4 adaptation of Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters (sic) seems to have vanished without trace. I’d like to see that one. Alec McCowan and Tracy Ullman? A must.

As good as Attenborough is, the film’s funniest element is David Lodge, hulking comic actor who was generally brought on to Sellers films to keep the difficult star happy. In this movie, he plays a humorous lodger brought into the household to keep the laughing wife happy. It’s Attenborough’s secret hope that she’ll run off with the fellow. Reid makes her “good-natured” character suitably nightmarish, but Lodge, a chuckling man-mountain, is infectious the moment the front door opens to reveal him. Maybe a malignly amused woman isn’t as funny as an innocently but horribly fatuous man. At any rate, he’s hilarious.

Actually, of the 102 films Lodge was in, only about 12 of them had Sellers as well, so Sellers and I were not his only admirers.

The Sunday Intertitle: Choccy Moloch

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 10, 2021 by dcairns

I’M ALL RIGHT JACK holds up better than the other Boulting Bros’ satires, I think. It’s unusual in that it’s a right-wing satire that’s actually funny. There is a slight attempt at even-handedness: when a worker explains that by having two unions, they can continually pressure the bosses to raise salaries, he adds that without this crafty approach, they wouldn’t get any raises at all. That’s a pretty minuscule sop.

So if the film, firing in all directions, is FOR anything, it’s for “compassionate capitalism.” If the workers are treated fairly by the employers, we can do away with unions altogether and peace will reign. Kind of weird that they use that title, shorthand for “Sod you, Jack, I’m all right” — intended to convey individual selfishness. Here, the different classes are united in opposition to one another, but there’s real group unity within each. They stick together.

Still, with the bosses played by Terry-Thomas (idiot) and Richard Attenborough (cad) and in bed with sleazy politico Dennis Price (crook) and sleazy foreigner Marne Maitland (seen stealing the cutlery), it’s fair to say nobody comes out of it well. But if you unpick where the film is heading with its argument, you find near-fascism at the end of the ellipsis.

My late friend Lawrie Knight found himself trapped between doors with Roy Boulting: the “filming” light was on so they couldn’t go forward and there was no point going back outside. So they waited. RB noticed Lawrie’s public school tie, and immediately became friendlier than he had been previously. Lawrie was a mere third assistant director. And he was appalled at RB’s sudden change of manner. “I mean, I’m a terrible snob, but this was too much!”

Peter Sellers’ magisterial performance as Fred Kite, union man, makes the film, though it’s crammed to the rafters with superb players in meaty comic roles. Dennis Price raises his game: sure, he’s always good, but he’s always THE SAME. He could have played this role with his eyes closed, but he wakes up for it and knocks it out of the park.

There’s a modest attempt to portray the women as the sensible parties, but this involves showing Mrs. Kite (Irene Handl, fabulous as always) cozying up to our hero’s posh Aunt Dolly with a forelock-tugging obsequiousness that’s portrayed as somehow instinctive and proper. Uncomfortable. Though seeing those two share a scene is a joy.

But I mainly want to talk about the chocolate factory. Our hero (Ian Carmichael, mousy drip to perfection) is taken on a tour of this joint, and if Willie Wonka’s plant is a gaudy death-trap, and that of Lord Scrumptious an expressionistic panopticon, then the Num-Yum factory’s METROPOLIS-inspired imagery, with the rhythmic soundtrack of burping and farting machinery (no doubt inspired by the jazzy chemistry sounds of THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT, a subtler, more compassionate and genuinely curious film than this) takes the film into a nauseating nightmare realm, just for this one scene. It’s a film full of disgust, moral or aesthetic, but it only assumes visceral form here. The boultings may have had the wrong slant on politics and society, but they got one thing right about satire: it’s motivated by nausea.

I’M ALL RIGHT JACK stars Bertie Wooster; Sir Hiss – A Snake; Chance; Kris Kringle; Jeeves; Madame Arcati; Mrs Gimble; Glad Trimble; Canon Chasuble; The Malay; Sgt. Wilson; Mr. Hoylake; Anxious O’Toole; Lenny the Dip; Archbishop Gilday; Orlando O’Connor; Lily Swann; and Sgt. Potty Chambers.

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.