Archive for Richard Attenborough

The 4th of July Intertitle

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on July 4, 2010 by dcairns

Happy Americaday!

I thought I’d look at DW Griffith’s AMERICA, as it seemed like both a good source of intertitles and a good patriotic American movie. After watching five minutes of it, however, I revised my plans and thought I’d look at it while drunk. One large vodka and tonic later (I’m a total lightweight), I thought I’d stop looking at it and write this.

I’ve long had a theory that Americans don’t like movies about the American Revolution. Actually, that’s not a theory, it’s a fact — from AMERICA to High Hudson’s wretched REVOLUTION to Mel “Mr Sensitive” Gibson’s THE PATRIOT, films dealing with this conflict have proved, slightly weirdly, even less popular than those detailing the current middle eastern embroilments. OK, so my actual theory is that Americans don’t respond to those films because they’re bored of hearing about the subject in school. At least the Civil War has a tang of controversy about it, especially if Griffith is the one revising the history. And if the filmmaker isn’t a bona fide racist nut, then you have the entertainment value of watching them tiptoe on eggshells for fear of offending the red states.

But my theory collapses slightly in the face of the fact that AMERICA, like Hudson’s snore-o-rama epic and Gibson’s British-as-Nazis exercise in bellowing understatement, is quite a weak film. Of course, my copy comes from the Killiam collection and hence has a weird voice-over declaiming woodenly all over it, which enhances the flavour of the history class which imbues the  proceedings. So that doesn’t help. But the movie is dramatically leaden and devoid of the passion which animates BIRTH OF A NATION, which at least had on it’s side the fact that Griffith was anxious to convince his audience of something. Here, universal agreement is guaranteed from the outset. Though ironically, this version is a restoration of a film available for years only in a “British” version, produced by Griffith for UK distribution, which omitted the more severe attacks on George IV III and the Brits. Typical of Griffith, a man who made anti-war films in peacetime and propaganda films in wartime. “These are my principles! If you don’t like them… I have others.”

So no theory of scholastic overkill is needed to explain AMERICA’s failure at the box office. Still, on a kitsch level I enjoyed the way George Washington was introduced as a periwig rising majestically over the back of an armchair. Such reticence reminds me of the treatment of Christ in BEN HUR, or the way some Indian audiences were reluctant to see Gandhi played by a flesh-and-blood actor. One concerned citizen wrote to Sir Richard Attenborough suggesting that the great-souled one might be portrayed by a moving light. Sir Dickie did not follow this thoughtful advice: “I’m afraid I wrote back saying I’m making GANDHI, not bloody Tinkerbell.”

Later in the movie, David Wark Griffith overcomes the scattershot schoolroom approach of the opening mass of expoz, and gets a bit of drama going by falling back on old tricks. Not content with an entire nation of dandified fops to traduce, Dave forges a satanic bond between the Brits and the American Indians. You can sense his confidence growing once he has a proper crew of dusky-hued rapists as bad guys. The climax shamelessly reruns the eleventh-hour rescue from BIRTH, with redskins insread of blackskins. Wicked Captain Walter Butler (a nubile Lionel Barrymore) is shown cavorting with half-dressed Indian gals who kiss his boots in fawning ecstasy. It’s fascinating how reactionary rage can be stoked by scenes of taboo sexuality, forming a seething cocktail of anger and erotic response…

All of which seems an entirely appropriate way to celebrate today. Doesn’t it?

The Disclaimer

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 5, 2009 by dcairns

From the Boulting Brothers’ PRIVATE’S PROGRESS, a politely lacerating satire on the armed forces. I guess the fact that they waited until 1956 to make this vulgar comedy about wartime corruption does take away somewhat from any sense of “courage,” and by firing the satire scattershot at everything in sight, writers John Boulting and Frank Harvey, adapting a novel by Alan Hackney, protect themselves against offending anybody too deeply.

Still, a portrayal of services life in WWII where everybody is out for what they can get is a surprising thing from the somewhat conservative British cinema of the 50s. By this time, Powell & Pressburger had lost the spark that enabled them to combine artistic excellence and commercial success, David Lean had gone international, and everybody else with any ambition was being stifled by bureaucracy at Rank and gentility elsewhere. With their brashness and no-prisoners commerciality, the Boultings look forward to the cinema of Hammer and Carry On — indeed, the shouty drill sergeant in this movie is played by William Hartnell, who would basically reprise the role a couple years later in CARRY ON SERGEANT, giving rise to that whole series of bawdy romps — and a sinister Nazi officer is played by Christopher Lee, shortly before his rise to lasting fame.

Ian Carmichael, who did not go on to play DRACULA.

My good friend Mary just passed me a copy of The Financial Times, an organ I don’t usually take, which contains a charming Scorsese profile by historian Simon Schama (he doesn’t know anything about films but he likes Scorsese, apparently). It tickled me to find Scorsese singing the praises of British comedies — we know he likes KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, and its flip, chill voice-over was an unlikely influence on GOODFELLAS — but Schama is rightly surprised to hear Scorsese “summoning the shade of Ian Carmichael.” It IS a surprising juxtaposition, but I guess nobody would be more surprised than Carmichael, who is very much alive.

Carmichael is an unacknowledged giant of British cinema! Apart from being perhaps the best Bertie Wooster ever (although he was too old for the part by the time he played it on TV), he makes the perfect Candide for the Boultings, his gentle quality of intelligent idiocy commending him to our sympathies. Also on great form in PRIVATE’S PROGRESS are Dennis Price as caddish Bertie Tracepurcel, Richard Attenborough as cheeky chappie Archie Cox (is there anything Attenborough can’t do? Apart from direct films, that is) and Terry-Thomas, who is quite remarkably restrained. He’s doing his usual silly-ass thing, but it’s far more controlled, quiet, less manic, and even more effective. T-T recorded in his very entertaining and genuinely eccentric memoirs that one close-up gave him an interesting task: as “Major Hitchcock” he finds himself in a cinema with his men. He’s bunked off work to see the film, and so have they.  Can he, in all decency, reprimand them?

Boulting gave T-T the big build-up, explaining note by note all the emotions he wanted to see flickering across the Thomas visage. But the Great Man decided to ignore all that and instead let his mind go perfectly blank, a technique that had served him well on previous occasions. And he was pleased to see that particular close-up cited in a year’s-end round-up of memorable movie moments. Here it is:

The intensity of an image from Dreyer!

While Terry-Thomas must get the credit for his own performance, I do think Boulting had a gift for getting genuine performances from comics like Sellers and T-T who were often content to rely on their usual tricks. His slapstick is pretty clumsy, and it’s a shame there’s so much of it, since the films seem to work best in a different register.

Towers of London

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2009 by dcairns

face_of_fu_manchu_poster_01

A disrespectful obit.

Regular Shadowplayer Paul Duane alerts me to the demise of noted B-movie god and sleazemeister Harry Alan Towers, whose low-budget Penny Dreadful-type Fu Manchu films excited my childish imagination when I was about, oh, thirty-eight. Also when I was eight.

I’m sure somebody will correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe HAT was such an enterprising, globe-trotting producer, that he made literally dozens of films while officially wanted in the US for violating the Mann act (transporting women across a state line for “immoral purposes”). This had something to do with sex slaves for UN delegates, if I’m correct. (Sorry to bring this up in an obit, but seriously, how could I not?) And wasn’t the matter quietly dropped when Harry argued that among his clients was JFK? Some immoral purposes are more respectable than others.

My late friend Lawrie Knight had a HAT story, and once again, it’s not really the kind of thing one should recount in an obituary, so I’m going to recount it. HAT took Lawrie out to dinner, with Richard Attenborough. Towers was no doubt trying to impress Dickie, perhaps in the run-up to starring him in some sixties low-grade spectacular, but the waiter arrived at the end of the meal and told HAT that his mother had called, and said not to accept any more of his cheques, because she wouldn’t be paying his restaurant bills anymore. Embarrassing.

Still, the positive side of HAT was that he wouldn’t let that kind of thing stop him. Jesus Franco said that the man could raise some money in Paris or somewhere, fly to Brazil or South Africa to make a movie with it, and type the screenplay on the flight over. He also said HAT was great because he never interfered, you never saw him during the shoot. The trouble was, you never saw the money either.

HAT said of Franco, “I seem to attract these weird characters. I saw one of Franco’s films a few years back and he was STILL doing that thing of pointlessly zooming in and out.”

In fact, there’s something to be said for Franco as a filmmaker, but I’m not going to say it here. I will say that HAT’s production of CALL OF THE WILD is worth seeing for Chuck Heston, Mario Nascimbene’s haunting score, and the ending, which follows Jack London more closely than is usual. I suspect Towers, who specialized in public-domain classic novel adaptations, saw no reason to tamper with his sources, since tampering takes time, and time is money. His COUNT DRACULA is far closer to Stoker than the Hammer movie, which I imagine is how he snared Sir Christopher Lee’s services. (The movie is also much worse than the Hammer version, but it did give us Pere Portabella’s mesmerizing CUADECUC-VAMPIR.)

In whatever branch of the celluloid inferno Mr. Towers now finds himself, I hope they’re making him comfortable. I imagine he’s already written an exploitation adaptation of Dante’s DIVINE COMEDY on his way down there. As long as he doesn’t get into trouble transporting women from the eighth to the ninth circle for immoral purposes, I’m sure he’ll be quite at home.

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