Archive for Richard Conte

The Death of the Arthur: Guinevere Off Course

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2023 by dcairns

SWORD OF LANCELOT — originally LANCELOT AND GUINEVERE — part 3.

The retitling, to emphasise stabbing over kissing, is like the mirror version of THE DEATH OF ROBIN HOOD getting retitled ROBIN AND MARIAN.

I can never quite believe Camelot’s stonework in this one. It seems like a grooved impasto of paint rather than carved stone. It’s close, but it doesn’t quite compel belief, like Cornel Wilde’s out-raj-us accent. It’s really a shame he doesn’t seem to taunt anyone in this film, it would make the MONTY PYTHON connection come shimmering to life.

Not for the first time, though, I’ve judged the film too hastily and harshly — the big battle with the Viking raiders has a slight plot purpose — when Lancelot returns, he has his slain pal carried on his tabard. Seeing this from a distance, Guinevere thinks he’s dead, and Arthur notices her excessive grief. The plot has thickened. Good acting by Wallace and Aherne, a couple of fine thesps.

Ron Goodwin’s romance music is nice — though it doesn’t touch his key works, 633 SQUADRON’s rambunctious theme, and the Miss Marple theme from the Margaret Rutherford films. He also scored the ’73 GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT, which is relevant to our purposes.

The very unchivalric adultery is the talk of the court — Lancelot is tempted to slip away back to Brittany, but Guinevere urges him to visit her bedchamber before he leaves…

Conversation about falconry: we learn that Modred’s adorable little feathered friend is called Griselda, which makes her seem like a witch’s familiar, which might well be the case. Some versions of the saga make Modred/Mordrid/Mordred the son of Morgan le Fey, who is usually a sorceress, so he’s not far removed from black magic. But this is a disappointingly magicless Camelot, in which Merlin’s expertise is limited to knowledge of soap.

Griselda is my favourite character, and she’s only been in one shot.

The sex scene — it’s 1963 so there’s implied nudity with both characters in bed and who knows if anyone’s got one foot on the floor? — confirms my suspicions about Cornel Wilde, as producer, having a hand in the infamous “cunnilingus scene” in THE BIG COMBO, where Richard Conte descends out of shot and Jean Wallace continues to react fervently to some unseen stimulus — because they do the same thing here! True, Wilde has some unmuffled dialogue from below frame, but what’s happening in the gaps between sentences? Wallace’s equally fervid performance provides a hint. The image is fuzzy, veiled by the bed’s translucent canopy, but the implication is pretty clear. Joseph H. Lewis’s claim to have slipped the suggestive scene past Wilde on his day off looks weaker — I love JHL but he wouldn’t be the first director to steal credit for an idea.

It’s not at all clear why Lancelot has chosen to visit his love wearing full-length chainmail. I can’t decide if this is more or less loopy than the full plate mail rogering scene in EXCALIBUR. At least Uther was on his way into battle, so there was a reason for having it on (but perhaps not while having it off).

Some spirited action as the lovers are apprehended post fragrante delicto — L escapes, G is caught.

A pyre is built to burn Guinevere, and this is all so like the turn the plot takes in CAMELOT that I’m wondering how much of this is TH White, but no, it seems to be part of fairly early myths, just stuff I wasn’t familiar with (and not covered by Boorman).

Camelot has a hunchbacked, cackling bellringer, just to make things feel sufficiently classical.

Arthur, it turns out, is responsible for a law which says adulteresses must be burned — he’d like to make an exception, but this would destroy his claim to be a just king. The trouble with this is one is disinclined to sympathise today with any king who would make such a law. One feels King Arthur is supposed to be an admirable figure but this movie undercuts him at every chance. His cuckoldry is muchly of his own making — he throws Lance and Gwen together, particularly by barring her from hunting, which leaves the poor girl with nothing to do except invite the oral attentions of a gleaming Frenchman.

Jean Wallace at the stake — her performance is uncomfortably reminiscent of her performance in the bedchamber, moaning and perspiring at something below the edge of frame. Toothless yokels in fright wigs watch the show, gloating: it’s not absolutely clear why Camelot is a good thing if it provides shelter to these abominations. Wilde’s camera lingers on a Wilfred Brambell type with sideshow enthusiasm.

Lancelot rides in and rescues his girlfriend — I think it’s a mistake of the script to have him kill a loyal knight in his previous escape, rather than here, where it will amp up the dramatic stakes, if you’ll pardon the expression, at the most effective moment. And the lack of swordfighting here makes the rescue seem rather easy.

Uncanny scene where Gawain rides up to a castle and taunts Lancelot. This is backwards — the Frenchman ought to do the taunting, we all know that.

Another good bit of direct cutting (influence of nouvelle vague, already felt in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) — Lancelot agrees to fight Gawain, but we cut directly to the END of the battle, with Gawain defeated and at knifepoint. I’m always happy to take my hat off to a bold elision. Lancelot says he’s going to give Gawain a message for Arthur — and in another bold cut, this one more CITIZEN KANE than LAWRENCE, Wilde cuts to Gawain delivering the message, the framing putting him at just the angle we saw Lancelot at (different distance from camera though), so that he appears as Lancelot’s mouthpiece or surrogate. Neat.

Lancelot’s offer is to surrender himself for punishment, while Guinevere leaves the country. Instead, Arthur lets them all leave, except Guinevere, who is to return to him and not get burned, which is slightly unaccountable except as sheer vacillation.

Four shots: Lancelot looks down from the battlements at a glass painting of Arthur’s camp added to a real (but rear-projected) coastal landscape. Merlin escorts Guinevere through an impressive crowd scene with a glass-painting castle at the top. Then, after all that trouble, the close shot of M & G is an unconvincing rear-screen process shot, no doubt for some practical reason which couldn’t be helped on the day, but which really lets the sequence down. Guinevere’s POV, dollying towards her destiny, Arthur’s darkened tent — it feels like the forward POV dolly towards the execution posts in PATHS OF GLORY, and I bet that’s what Wilde had in mind.

An ellipse too far? Arthur is slain by Modred offscreen, which ought to have been a juicy scene (the film is quite long, admittedly, but CAMELOT would be much longer). In fact, everybody’s dead or dying — Merlin, Adrienne Corri, even Gawain’s one-lunging it after a sticky battle.

Without that shocking regicide, the final confrontation loses a lot of emotional power, I feel. It’s a large scale affair, though. Shot with long shadows on the ground — they must have been scared of losing the light — one of the shadows looks to be the camera crew, but suitably disguised with shrubbery and whatnot — there are no Wilhelm screams but one ludicrous squawk gets repeated several times in this film. Some mildly complicated strategy is attempted but not explained, so I wasn’t too clear on it. A horse steps on a dead man’s leg — I hope he was a dummy. Another helmet gets cloven open.

Editor Thom Noble repeats a shot of a fallen horse thrice — first almost subliminal, then longer, then still longer. I guess he’s going for a MARIENBAD effect but it doesn’t quite come off.

In the midst of this, or rather out of the midst, Lancelot manages to get Modred alone and they have a speedy (slightly undercranked) duel, ending with another ambitious gore effect — L chops right into M’s shoulder. Cue Wilhelm squawk again. To get the effect, poor Michael Meacham has to wear an absurd third shoulder, like an American football player’s padding, for his co-star and director to sink a sword into. OK, I admit I laughed.

It’s not clear what the political ramifications of this shoulder-chop will be, but Guinevere becomes a nun. When Jean W says “When first I was at the convent at Glastonbury” Fiona misheard it as “concert at Glastonbury.” So, there’s a parting forever scene. It’s not not moving. Well, all right, it is not moving. It seems perfunctory, and Lancelot falls in with the idea of his lover marrying Christ a bit too readily — the filmmakers don’t want to do a blasphemy. Again, ROBIN AND MARIAN is a more powerful treatment of this kind of thing because it has a director downright hostile to religion. But I’m always amazed by how much that film moves me, since the love story was entirely secondary in importance to its director. Maybe the focus being elsewhere allowed it to come out more strongly, or maybe it was the actors, who were not available to Cornel Wilde.

SWORD OF LANCELOT has enough invention for a film one-quarter its length, and it’s not all good invention, but some of it is. So I now consider Wilde a worthwhile subject for further examination.

Mank Bank

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on July 9, 2020 by dcairns

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Strange — I tried watching HOUSE OF STRANGERS once before — it’s Joseph L Mankiewicz, after all — and bailed on it. Revisiting for this fortnight’s Forgotten By Fox, I found it excellent. The thing is, on first viewing I regarded Edward G. Robinson as the main attraction, and he’s a little disappointing here. Most of the fun to be had is with Richard Conte and Susan Hayward and Luther Adler, though I somehow failed to mention the last-named in my piece.

Here.

Forbidden Divas: The White Orchid Type

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2020 by dcairns
David Melville Wingrove is back, with the perfect Forbidden Diva for this historical moment --


FORBIDDEN DIVAS

THE WHITE ORCHID TYPE

“I can’t face an unknown future with an un-powdered nose.”

– Barbara Stanwyck, The Other Love

What do you write about at a time when life as we choose to call it has been forcibly put on hold? Most of us today are made to live in our own private cells of suspended animation – in a void, an absence, a dream space. We are forced to be and not to do, to feel and not to act. We are in a glass room that lacks the usual walls or ceiling or floor. A smooth and unvarying expanse of crystal on all sides, it is fully transparent yet wholly impossible to break. Through it we can see and hear and speak, but we cannot touch. Can any film approximate a life that none of us have ever lived before? How do you make a film about the act of waiting? How do you deny motion when all a motion picture camera ever wants to do is to move?

Barbara Stanwyck at the start of The Other Love (1947) is forced – against all her instincts and all her will – to call a halt to her life. Here she is not the tough-talking dame of her other movies, the “high-ridin’ woman with a whip” who terrorises the Wild West with Forty Guns (1957), the gal so butch she makes John Wayne look like Liberace or Paul Lynde. Here she is an avatar of suffering nobility, who might be incarnated – in your average film of the 40s – by Greer Garson or Loretta Young. She is a lady concert pianist, glamorous and successful yet at the same time incurably lonely. She has no choice but to put her career on pause when she falls fatally ill with TB. She checks into a plush sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, the sort that looks more like a luxury hotel with a few X-ray machines stashed away in one room.

It seems a mystical, almost otherworldly realm. Snow-capped mountains dream away in the distance, while long white muslin curtains waft gently back and forth in the alpine breeze. (One sure test of the skill of a director is the way he handles curtains; the Hungarian émigré Andre de Toth passes this test with a splendour few others have ever matched.) She is taken immediately with her handsome doctor (David Niven) who tells her that all activity will henceforth be forbidden. Her one goal must be to rest, relax and recuperate. “You must try and think of yourself as being in a deep sleep,” he tells her. “Before you know it, the darkness will be gone.” He even forbids her to play the piano. Her response to all this is remarkably docile. She places herself, with serene resignation, in his hands and in the hands of Fate. It is largely a question of which one chooses to grab her first.

On her first night at the clinic, she finds a spray of fresh white orchids has been delivered to her room. She assumes they must come from the doctor. She has had a glance around the dining room and concluded that none of her fellow patients is “the white orchid type.” Then she finds out these orchids are a standing order – from a man who ‘left’ the sanatorium six months ago to a woman who ‘left’ it only last night. She realises she is in receipt of flowers sent by a dead man to a dead woman. It is a concept so morbid it smacks of outright necrophilia. The music by Miklos Rozsa goes into a lyrical frenzy surpassing even his Oscar-winning score for Spellbound (1945). She throws herself ever deeper – metaphorically speaking – into the arms of her doctor. Ah, but all may not be quite as it appears…

On her arrival, the doctor forbids her to smoke and takes her cigarette lighter – monogrammed with her initials KD for Karen Duncan – away for safe keeping. (We may be glad it is not engraved with Barbara Stanwyck’s own initials, BS.) One day she breaks into his private sanctum, opens a drawer and finds a whole trove of cigarette lighters that were left behind by previous (and deceased) lady patients. She starts to suspect, as we do, that her doctor’s methods are a fairly serious violation of the Hippocratic Oath. Is he in the habit of fucking his patients until they get better? Or – and this sounds a lot more likely – of fucking his patients until they die? This story, which is allegedly by Erich Maria Remarque, is coming more and more to resemble The Magic Mountain as rewritten by Mills & Boon.

Hell, of course, hath no fury that is quite like Barbara Stanwyck scorned. No matter if she is at death’s door. She takes up with a dashing racing-car driver (Richard Conte) who just happens to be driving round that particular mountain. In defiance of the best medical advice, he whisks her off to Monte Carlo. She sits up late at the gaming tables, where a sexy croupier (Gilbert Roland) gives her smouldering glances over a big stack of chips. She even gets to attend a party on board a yacht thrown by Natalie Shafer, famous to viewers of a certain age as the fruity and snooty Mrs Howell on the 60s TV sitcom Gilligan’s Island. A life-threatening illness seems a small price to pay for such an honour. But this jet-set debauchery swiftly goes pear-shaped. Babs ends up in the most perilous situation a consumptive heroine can face – wandering about Monte Carlo in the rain, clad in white mink and chiffon and minus an umbrella!

Speaking of outfits, the wardrobe that Edith Head designed for The Other Love must surely have been le dernier cri in tubercular chic. Most memorable is a long white Grecian shift with a black diamante sunburst at the waist, which our heroine wears to dine at the sanatorium. (Yes, this is the sort of hospital where the patients dress for dinner.) Memorable too, and for all the wrong reasons, is a truly hideous spangled sweater with Christmas trees and reindeer crawling across it. Like any great star, Barbara Stanwyck is impervious to embarrassment – but this looks like something a butch lady detective in a Scandi crime drama might wear in a festive mood. The star would not play an overt lesbian role until A Walk on the Wild Side (1962) but there she had Capucine as motivation.

It becomes apparent all too soon how this ill-starred flirtation with ‘normal’ life can lead only to doom. The one hope is to go back to that mountain-top clinic, submit to the ministrations of the doctor and do her best to wait this illness out. To seal herself away from life until the world, by an unimagined miracle, comes right again. Barbara Stanwyck does what all of us are constrained to do at this time. (Please note sparkly sweaters are optional and, also, they will not necessarily help.) Will she find her true happiness up there on that mountain? The Other Love is a movie; hence it is several shades more optimistic than the TV news. All we know is that strangely serene white realm – those vast stretches of crystal air, where everything is visible and nothing can ever be touched – is where she needs to be at that moment.

David Melville