Archive for Richard Harris

The Death of the Arthur: The Coward Dies a Thousand Deaths

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2023 by dcairns

I suddenly remembered I had a copy of David Hemmings’ memoir, Blow-Up and Other Exaggerations. It’s a good book — as always with these celebrity affairs, I find it a little frustrating because I’m more interested in THE SQUEEZE than in GLADIATOR, more interested in JUGGERNAUT than either. And Hemmings is going where his strongest memories lead him, or where his literary agent directs him. But he devotes a lot of time to CAMELOT, which falls nicely into my own Arthurian quest.

In particular, Hemmings’ account of the very start of the shoot is STRIKING.

The scene is the giant set of the Great Hall. Hemmings says:

John [Truscott] had put together a set that was so large that technicians had to squeeze between the real walls and the constructed manifestations of the castle interior. Barely an electrical cable could thread its way through the narrow space between the truth and Truscott’s cinema reality. Naturally, when Jack Warner first saw it, sensitive to the colossal investment he had in it, he growled gently, “Listen, you people, I want to see every fucking inch of this on the screen!”

This is a made way to build a set. Allowing a spare foot along either side lets the crew work faster and safer, and loses nothing in terms of set’s perceivable size,

The scene, then, is set. Cut to the first day of principal photography. The cast and crew are foregathered.

As if on cue, our heads all turned together to watch, appearing from behind the Round Table — yes, the Round Table — the man himself, Joshua Logan. Nedda, his wife, was with him, though, perhaps in recognition of studio etiquette, a little behind him. His figure, like the table itself, was inescapably circular. He was balding, full of face, with a band of tufted hair above his upper lip and chubby cheek add-ons that bulged by his ears like a hamster’s fodder bags. It was popularly rumoured that in these the booze was stored.


They stood before us silently, also taking in the vast walls of Camelot. Josh seemed lost in a dream for a long moment, drinking in the fantasy, breathing in a sense of movie and the smells of fresh paint and endless stipple, applied as if Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen had been allowed to run amok for a month. Indeed, on closer examination, Camelot was not yet dry, and the fine work-lights picked out the damper spots, making them glitter and sparkle, as we all hoped the movie would, once the shooting was over.

Logan coughed and cleared his throat. He had smoked with true commitment for decades, washing down the nicotine with whisky. His voice was heavy gravel — rubble, even — being poured from a road mixer.

“Well,” he drawled, fiddling with his moustache, “As you can see, this is the Great Hall of Camelot.”

We knew that. He knew that. I wondered, momentarily, if this was his first visit.

“I thought…” He paused for a very long time. “I thought…” he repeated, though now a little hesitantly. “I thought… Richard, that you might come in from the door?”

I wondered which of the seventeen doors available he had in mind.

After a few moments silence, Josh laughed. Moisture seeped onto his brow.

The crew were still poised.

Logan looked around, and where he looked, we all looked. If he was after inspiration, so were we.

Except [Richard] Harris, who stood with an Irish grimace of insolence which only he could have produced.

Vanessa [Redgrave] stared at her feet.

Franco Zero [sic] sneezed as he tugged at a scarf around his neck. He had a cold, but then, he always had a cold. Over the many years since in which I’ve worked with Italians, I’ve come to acknowledge that they do hypochondria very well, and not just on the football field.

As Logan carried on staring nervously around the Great Hall, Harris looked at me with a half-clenched hand tilted to his lips, as if clutching a glass.

Did he mean that he thought Logan had already had a few drinks, or that we should go and fiond some for ourselves?

Logan interrupted my conjecture. “Or,” he said, with directorial emphasis, looking hard at Richard, “maybe we could find you sitting on the throne. After all, you are the King!” He glanced around uneasily for affirmation, waving his outstretched arms in a wide arc that embraced us all. “After all,” he repeated, “you are the King!”

He chuckled deeply, as if he had suddenly, and with great profundity, stumbled across the Holy Grail. But his body language did not confirm it.


Suddenly Josh turned on me and fixed me with a kind of stare that I only remembered from the playground bullies of my early youth. “And why don’t you…” he said. But before the end of the sentence emerged, his voice trailed off. He wiped his sweaty brow with a quivering hand as he sank into Sir Gawain’s chair at the Round Table with panic in full rout.

Nedda did not move a muscle.

“God!” he cried out suddenly. “God, won’t somebody help me!”

It was clear to me that this was not a wholly well person, whatever his past credits.

I find this fascinating. Nobody really DOES help Logan. Harris and Hemmings take off for the nearest bar. The stink of fear and failure have a repelling effect that apparently conquers all compassion. Having been bullied as a kid, Hemmings presumably knew that weakness does not invite rescue — nobody intervenes between the bully and their prey. In this case, the bully is the entirely impersonal reality of the need to make a film on a schedule, and the prey is the director.

I’ve stood on film sets, much smaller ones, and felt nervous, but this paralysis is mercifully something I never quite experienced. I’m inclined to think that nobody who does react by freezing should be in the job. But I do wish somebody had taken pity on Logan.

Hemmings, by the way, mentions that his character, Mordrid, had one song, but it was cut before shooting. Presumably, having cast non-singers throughout the cast, the production considered Hemmings’ voice and decided it was a step too far. The cut couldn’t have been made for length — the film is LOOOONG, and the song is only about a minute and a half. Here’s Roddy McDowell doing it, from the original Broadway cast recording ~

The Death of the Arthur #1: Le Bore D’Arthur

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Theatre, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2023 by dcairns

First in some kind of a series on Arthurian adaptations.


Is that how they’d advertise a re-release of the Joshua Logan CAMELOT, the first all-non-singing, all-non-dancing musical? I suppose it’d have to be.

Bunged this one into the Sony because it seemed like the right kind of holiday fare: dull, spectacular and vaguely diverting when you’re feeling dozy. And it certainly fit the bill, from overture to end credits, clocking in at around three hours which I don’t want back unless you promise I can spend them doing something else.

But it’s rather beautifully and inventively designed — it’s a big Vanessa Redgrave fashion show, a contest to see how much money the various departments can spend. Enormous, miscast and poorly staged, but splendidly mounted.

A friend once dismissed Richard Harris as an unpleasant, preening fellow, and I now suspect he must have been introduced to RH in this film (have confirmed this — he’d seen MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY but didn’t make the connection) — our regal star is curiously repellant in blue eye-shadow and the worst hairpiece of his career, simpering and mugging right at us, the fourth wall in smithereens around him. I have a suspicion he’s somehow seen Burton in the role (800-plus perfs on Broadway, plenty of opportunity) and is turning in an impersonation, but this shit plays differently if you’re a proper baritone, I guess. Burton couldn’t seem fey if he wanted to, which became its own problem in the jaw-dropping STAIRCASE.

Harris’ other role-model is surely Rex Harrison, which leads him to believe he can get by without being able to sing. He can sort-of sing, and act-sing, and all that, but can he really sell a song? Again, sort of. Vanessa Redgrave can just about sing, and Franco Nero is dubbed by a singer, so he’s OK except that he has an Italian accent only when he’s talking, which is peculiar.

The design is fab — costumes and production design by John Truscott, but with Edward Carrere as art director doing some kind of uncredited assist on the massive sets. Sometimes things are disconcertingly sixties, but this isn’t any kind of historical realism. There is no mud whatsoever. Everyone rides about in suits of armour even when they’re not going into battle.

Richard H. Kline photographs it — as he did THE BOSTON STRANGLER, THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, THE TERMINAL MAN. A good man to have on your team. It’s 1967 so he does rather pour on the soft-focus, but only in flashbacks, and the zoom lens is slightly too active. And his director is no help, I fear. But he’s got lots of great stuff to photograph, and it’s EVERYWHERE, so he can hardly go wrong. Dig those snowy forest sets!

Apart from the direction, the editing seems like the weak spot, and not just because of the interminable length (long film’s aren’t badly edited, they’re just LONG). Poor continuity on facial expressions between wides and close shots, which you can’t really get away with — what else are we supposed to be looking at? That fireplace? Well, possibly, it’s very nice. I don’t rate continuity as supremely important — pre-codes tend to be very dodgy in this dept, and I love those — but it’s an issue here, and lets down the splendiferous effect the other departments are striving to achieve. Harris crosses a room, monologuing insufferably, without moving his lips. There’s one nice bit, where Redgrave is intercut on a swing, a see-saw, and bouncing on a blanket, which is proper sixties cinema.

Cutter Folmar Blangsted did RIO BRAVO, and a lot of other films for a lot of other big directors — too many, in fact. One notices that none of them asked him back, and one has to wonder why not? Why do the titles play over a misty forest, then fade to black, then fade up again on the same scene?

Alan Jay Lerner’s misogyny problem is ongoing, so Guinevere is a horrible character who not only cuckolds Arthur (who can blame her?) but provokes a bunch of jousts to get Lancelot hurt, before she even knows him. Merlyn (sp) is Laurence Naismith, which is fine indeed, but is given the biggest delayed entrance in screen history — except they bugger this up by throwing him into the first scene, with his ball-bearing eyes and shoulder-owl. Madness.

David Hemmings turns up after the intermission to liven things up — so we get a preen-off between him and Harris, which is entertaining, and if you don’t find it so, you can pass the time counting the highlights in DH’s hair. Mordred is from Scotland in this version, but we’re not worrying about accents. If we started doing that, Lancelot would be screwed. But he gets some natty outfits, leather trousers and jerkin, and a sort of highland rogue cossie in which the taran is replaced by streaks of charcoal. If you get bored counting the little squeaks his trousers make, you can count the different highlights in his dark ages hair.

The stunts are good — I usually find jousting tedious until the participants are unhorsed and can get the maces out, and even then, they’re scarcely nimble. But here we have the Canutt brothers, Joe and Tap, devising a series of spectacular falls. Not well shot, but the best tournament outside of THE COURT JESTER and Bresson’s flashy off-camera business in LANCELOT DU LAC.

In common with a lot of Arthurian romps — EXCALIBUR, for one — no sooner has the round table been carpentered into existence than things start falling apart. The story of happiness is written in invisible ink, and probably the best way to treat the glory of Camelot is to skip it, either ending the story when it’s founded, or starting as it ends, but here we’re trying to do the whole legend, with flashbacks of a sort to Arthur’s boyhood as Wart. A principle rule is being broken: NEVER try to tell the whole story. T.H. White did, more or less, but he had the sense to spread it across three books. Incidentally, they don’t deign to credit him here.

There are some surprising moments approximating cinema — Harris rides a camera crane, like Gene Kelly or the kid in IVAN’S CHILDHOOD, either of whom seems a possible inspiration. Harris matching his costume and posture with little Arthur is arresting. So are Merlyn’s silver eyeballs, but they totally prevent any screen relationship forming between Laurence Naismith and his regal charge. Logan failing to ever put them in a set-up together is also a contributing factor.

It’s not even a good PLAY, at least for screen purposes — servants are continually introduced as a series of Basil Expositions, so we get alluring moments of Estelle Winwood and the like flashed across the screen, only for them to vanish forever leaving us with the mismatched leads.

Did Vanessa Redgrave invent ugly-crying? She does it all through one scene here, and it’s a blast of the New Realism but maybe that doesn’t belong in this MYTHOLOGICAL MUSICAL? And even if we welcome it in, it could stand some modulation. Looking at someone gurning wetly for minutes on end is rather a strain.

You have to respect the scale of a production that can even manage to get Richard Harris out of bed before dawn.

For all that — and more, much more — the film at least does have some idea of what the idea of Camelot means to it — peace and civilisation and that — which comes to clarity in the final scene, “for one brief shining moment,” the rather mad ending where Harris does the latest in a long line of reprises — none of Lerner & Loewe’s songs is that catchy but that one got earwormed into me like a corkscrew through sheer force of repetition — and Arthur gets his inspiration back and the film abruptly STOPS. One would usually expect a battle or something, but I suppose that wouldn’t work here, after a song about peace and civilisation.

“Too much beauty is disgusting,” said Bresson, brilliantly, a filmmaker who also tackled this story, or a chunk of it. I didn’t get that surfeit-of-pudding nausea, though, maybe because the gorgeous design was the only thing to hang onto.

CAMELOT stars Dumbledore; Isadora Duncan; Django; Dildano; Prof. Joseph Cavor; Argos; Hold Me Touch Me; and Miles Gloriosus (uncredited).


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2022 by dcairns

I forget who it was who suggested that STRONGROOM would make a good double bill with CASH ON DEMAND. Duly noted, and though we didn’t pair them up (this time), we did finally get around to Vernon Sewell’s claustrophobic thriller.

Sewell, a former associate of Michael Powell, seems to have had a natural inclination towards restrictive environments. True, it’s a natural way of controlling costs, but there are other ways to do that — filming on location to avoid the need to hire studios and build sets, for instance. Sewell made several films on his boat, and a decent haunted house film, but STRONGROOM may well be his best.

The concept is simple: three bank robbers are compelled to lock two staff members in the vault where their plan goes awry. Realising that the prisoners will suffocate over the long weekend, they resolve to alert the authorities, but circumstances conspire against them. Weirdly, the tension relating to whether the poor bank employees will asphyxiate is less than that concerning whether the bastards who caused it will face a murder rap.

The double-bill we went for was this and SPLIT SECOND, the Dick Powell-directed nuclear thriller, which has an interesting cast and a high concept — criminals take a bunch of hostages at a nuclear test site — but weirdly is far less tense, until the very impressive final blast. Nobody in SS seems to be taking the nuke seriously enough. Every single moment in S is about the threat of death, of finding yourself a murderer.

Sewell’s direction isn’t so much — logic says the shots ought to build in intensity, but they barely do — but the script knows what to concentrate on. It’s shameless but effective in its constant amping up of anxiety. Writer Max Marquis wrote mainly TV drivel (Crossroads!) but Richard Harris (not that one) concentrated on thrillers, including great stuff like I START COUNTING, THE LADY IN THE CAR WITH GLASSES AND A GUN (English dialogue), and a bunch of obscurities like THE MAIN CHANCE which I now feel eager to try. It’s a perfect low-budget movie, exploiting not only small, cheap sets, but slow pace. Watching oblivious minor characters padding about while death is on the line is extremely suspenseful.

While the imprisoned (Colin Gordon & Ann Lynn) are rather drab characterisations which the actors can only do so much with, the thieves include the great Derren Nesbitt, who has a strange plastic Auton quality that always makes him uncanny and watchable (he’s magnificent as the oily blackmailer in VICTIM). Sewell would cast him again in BURKE AND HARE (NOT a distinguished film — but one I kind of want to watch properly).

Nesbitt, tragicomically, blew his savings on his dream project, sex comedy THE AMOROUS MILKMAN, a contender for worst British film ever, and also appears in two more of the worst British sex farces you could ever hope to unsee, NOT NOW DARLING and OOH, YOU ARE AWFUL. He even cameos in RUN FOR YOUR WIFE, for old times’ sake. But he should never have been put in a comedy. His thick-lipped wax mask of a face stifles the laugh response. (Producer Art Linson, mulling over a casting idea with his wife: “Do you think Willem Dafoe could make you laugh?” Mrs. L: “I don’t know, but I saw him smile once and I had nightmares for a week.”)

When Nesbitt puts a stocking over his head for the robbery, it’s too much — he already looks like he has a stocking over his head, somehow.

The ending is a magnificently timed kick in the teeth for both characters and audience.

So, yes: a double bill of STRONGROOM and CASH ON DEMAND would be an excellent idea. Run them near Christmas, ideally, and have this one first: it isn’t remotely Christmassy.