Archive for Richard Lester

Creative Differences

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2021 by dcairns

I can’t write anything better about BITTER VICTORY than Jonathan Rosenbaum’s piece, which is one of his really good ones. He gets at the ambiguity of the two main characters — Curt Jurgens as Brand, essentially the villain, ought to attract our sympathies more than he does, and Richard Burton’s hero, Leith, oughtn’t to be as appealing as he is. Of course, a lot of this has to do with casting, and Ray’s relationships with his stars. Jurgens was forced on him. Burton, a fellow alcoholic, was sympatico, and Ray tried to get him for KING OF KINGS later, and Burton seriously thought about it.

Brand is a coward and a hypocrite, pathologically jealous, and somewhat brutal. But he’s TRYING to be brave, sometimes he is, and his anxiety about his wife’s fidelity is not wholly without foundation. I think she’s ready to take off with Burton if the circumstances allow it. Still, he’s an unattractive character, unattractively played. Jurgens kept protesting that he wasn’t sympathetic enough, but if Ray tried to fix that, his feelings about having Jurgens forced on him maybe got in the way. Ray was rewriting with Gavin Lambert, the psycho producer was rewriting with Paul Gallico, on another continent, and meanwhile the original author had script approval.

It’s interesting that Ray, by all accounts a supersensitive and uncannily perceptive guy, chose to make his European debut with a producer who turned out, according to Lambert, to be someone who enjoyed destroying directors. Given Ray’s noted self-destructiveness, it’s possible he chose Graetz, at some subconscious level, as just the kind of guy he ought to have nothing to do with.

The making of a film often seems to echo the story of the film, so it’s also easy to see Leith and Brand as portraits of Ray and Graetz. Leith, the romantic T.E. Lawrence figure — like Lawrence, an archaeologist, and someone who upsets his commanders because of his strange manner — Brand, the bully and desk-jockey who instinctively resents Leith, and who is constantly trying to prove himself against him. The reason Leith, and the audiences, give Brand no credit for drinking water that may be poisoned, is that it requires no physical courage, just a lack of imagination.

The one area where Brand’s imagination is on overdrive is his sexual jealousy of his wife and Leith. In fact, the two last met before Brand came on the scene, and they’re much too noble to do anything about their lingering emotions. But Brand evidently has a whole other movie playing in his head…

Ray had wanted Montgomery Clift as Leith, and Burton in the other role, as Brand. Had that been the case, Leith would certainly still have been more appealing than Brand (Burton could do nasty very well, Monty did soulful and vulnerable) but the balance would have been closer. Whether Clift could have made himself sound like a British officer is questionable. But part of the film’s interest is the way Leith’s perversity, self-destructiveness, crazy romanticism and sadistic goading of Brand play out as heroic and noble. The more you pick it apart afterwards the more interesting it gets.

I also love the look of the desert scenes, among the most barren ever filmed. LAWRENCE’s dunes are like feminine fleshscapes by comparison. In daylight, the contrast is so low the action is almost happening against an infinity curve, and at night there’s faux-lunar floodlighting against a jet-black sky, so we get warring voids.

Asides from the central trio (Ruth Roman is pretty good, but Ray wanted Moira Shearer), the only other substantial characters are a sympathetic Arab guide (Raymond Pellegrin, excellent) and the viciously mad Private Wilkins, played by the great Nigel Green.

Green can conjure a glint of madness like few other actors. It can just be THERE, not doing anything, suggesting a weird blinkered disassociation, like in THE IPCRESS FILE. But Wilkins is out where the buses don’t run. He’s evidently been doing this kind of thing too long. Everything’s a joke to him. We’re all going to die? That’s a good joke. We’re just going to suffer horribly? Still funny. Someone else is going to die instead? Equally good. Despite having just about the same attitude to everything that can or might happen, Green is electrifying in the role and Wilkins is terrifyingly unpredictable.

The other familiar face is Christopher Lee, playing another working class private. Lee rarely played plebeian, but is reasonable convincing, and of course he’s the most convincing commando. He MOVES awfully well. In Arab dress, at night, he totally evokes the kind of horror movie he was about become famous for. They should have let him show Burton how to ambush a man and stab him in the back, silently. Lee had actual military experience doing that. Burton’s approach gives the enemy plenty of time to yell and would not work. Still, at this very instant comes the extraordinary moment when Burton lets out a gasp — he’s doing the killing, but it’s like HE’S the one being killed. This close juxtaposition of the clumsy and the brilliant is what Truffaut perhaps meant when he remarked that Ray’s films were often not as “well-made” as other Hollywood filmmakers’, but he got moments of truth that nobody else would go near.

And, often, these moments involve violence.

The unfolding of the desert mission — retrieving enemy documents of completely opaque significance — kept reminding me of HOW I WON THE WAR. Running out of water, men cracking under the strain. Both films reference Lawrence without naming him. But it didn’t seem likely to have been a direct influence on Richard Lester. But it might conceivably have inspired novelist Patrick Ryan, who wrote the source book. The crazy, near-abstract mission is oddly close to satire, but markedly without laughs.

Objet D’Art

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2020 by dcairns

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Webp.net-resizeimage4These two frames from THESE ARE THE DAMNED and THE SERVANT made me chuckle.

You see it a little in Losey’s filming of the Bradbury building in his M, and the use of song in THE BIG NIGHT, but it’s in his British work that he starts to craft films, usually with designer Richard MacDonald, that work as beautiful objets d’art, or as audio-visual compilations of sculpture, interior design and music.

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The house in THE SERVANT is both character and battleground — Wendy Craig tries to stuff it full of flowers and spice racks, and Dirk Bogarde quietly moves, removes or bins them. Losey said the house is a spiral, circling round and round — each room has an entrance and exit so you can ascend through every room until you come to a dead stop in the maid’s room. He also said he recycled the cyclic style of EVE’s camera movements, knowing that nobody would spot it since so few people had seen or liked that film.

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A couple of times they choose to turn Bogarde into a stained-glass saint.

MacDonald does a terrific job of building an interior you really believe could be a real house. I knew it COULDN’T be real, but he made me accept it. Partly it’s because everything is gorgeous but nothing is ideal — the living room is this weird corridor. Everything is either very narrow or very tall.  It must have been hell to film in, especially with all those mirrors, mirrors reflecting mirrors, and that convex one that virtually shows the whole space. Yet the crew and the lights have to be somewhere. Losey said he was satisfied with EVE and it was hell to shoot, so that gave him the confidence to ask for the impossible from DoP Douglas Slocombe.

MacDonald’s designs even include the views out front and back, where James Fox’s Tony has installed a lump of abstract sculpture, and where a snow fall can be viewed at night.

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EVE had about twenty Billie Holliday songs in Losey’s cut, but the producers didn’t want to pay for them, so they were reduced to just a few. Here, there’s ONE song, music by Johnny Dankworth, lyrics by Harold Pinter, such by Cleo Laine (Dankworth’s partner — it’s a very close-knit film). One song, but treated in multiple ways, so it gets more distorted and atonal and creepy.

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Dankworth did great work for Losey, here and in MODESTY BLAISE. He also scored BOOM!, but when that film looked like being a disaster, it was decided to replace the score — blame the composer, it’s the cheapest option even if it’s wrong. So John Barry, who had ex-wives to support and carved out a niche for himself rescoring movies deemed to be in trouble, wrote quite a good score for it. I wish we could see the Dankworth version, though, I bet it’s even more of a hothouse/madhouse.

And, since Losey was starting another film, he asked his friend Richard Lester to supervise the dub. I guess he’d finished THE BED SITTING ROOM at this point and was at a loose end, but he took the gig expecting it to be a quick one. Thanks to Dick & Liz’s unpunctuality, it took MONTHS. He still sounds cross about it. He respected Burton’s talent but had no time for Liz, but was forced to have quite a lot of time for her.

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It’s impossible to imagine THE SERVANT or MODESTY BLAISE without Dankworth’s music, and so the fact that we have to watch a BOOM! that is robbed of that component is a drag.

Losey Week Revisited

Posted in FILM, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2020 by dcairns

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I did a week’s deep dive on Joseph Losey, years ago. This is another, larger deleted sequence from the essay I’m working on. Poor Evan Jones got cut, because it was just too sprawling and diffuse.

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Joseph Losey had been forced to leave to avoid testifying before the House Unamerican Activities Committee. He would gradually, by talent and sheer force of will, reinvent himself: in America he had specialised in thrillers; in Britain he slowly transformed into a maker of art films, a form which had almost no history in the UK.

But his first collaboration with writer Evan Jones was made for Hammer films. The Damned (1961), AKA These Are the Damned, is often falsely grouped with the sci-fi thriller Village of the Damned (1960) whose success the studio probably wanted to cash in on. In it, a teenage gang’s conflict with a visiting American (the dependably dull MacDonald Carey) brings them into contact with a group of children are kept underground and rendered immune to radiation, primed to take over the world “when the time comes,” as the head of the project says, bears more relation to Losey’s debut The Boy with Green Hair (1947) and his juvenile delinquent picture The Sleeping Tiger (1954).

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Look behind him! It’s The X-Files!

Jones was tasked with adapting H.L. Lawrence’s source novel, The Children of Light after blacklistee Ben Barzman’s legal troubles stalled his progress on the script. Talking to Michel Ciment, Losey sketched out a brief bio of his chosen replacement: “Actually he hadn’t, so far as I can remember, ever worked on a film before. His parents were landowners in Jamaica. He’s milky-coloured, and he makes no secret that his father was black. He was educated at Oxford, I think. His play was pretty strong and dealt with the relationships of a landowner and his peasants in Jamaica. We had a certain political kinship and we got along very well in other respects, too.”

The job had to be done fast: at Losey’s urging, he largely threw out the original story, keeping only the premise. He was still writing until the day before shooting started. It’s a bizarre movie with many dysfunctional elements: disparate plot threads are introduced in haphazard fashion, and the attempts to wrestle with youth culture are terribly square and unconvincing. The sci-fi aspects made Losey very uncomfortable too: he couldn’t believe in them. But somehow a certain stark force is realized: the subterranean children, who are cold to the touch, are a metaphor for both Britain’s public school system (in Britain, for some topsy-turvy reason, private schools are referred to as public schools) and for the populace as a whole: literally kept in the dark. One very effective touch is that rather than building up a single villain in charge of the scheme, Jones emphasizes the team, which includes favorite Losey actors Alexander Knox and James Villiers.

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Though nobody involved can breathe convincing life into the gang of delinquents led by a young Oliver Reed, who has not yet learned to whisper huskily, there are commendable efforts to avoid the tabloid news clichés: Reed’s character is obsessed with protecting his sister’s purity, “…because you’ve never had a girl yourself,” she charges. Losey’s command of visuals was increasing as he found more and more talented collaborators. Here, production designer Richard MacDonald creates frightening and dreamlike caves and classrooms for the little troglodytes, enhanced by  Elizabeth Frink’s sculptures of wingless, decayed birds. “Life has the power to change,” intones Knox, “After the first great explosion, strange, wonderful flowers, unknown before, bloomed in the desert.” The film continually aspires towards poetry, is dragged down by plodding convention, then soars again.

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Arthur Grant’s black-and-white widescreen images are edited by Reginald Mills, who cut Michael Powell’s classics and would go on to cut The Servant (1963, written by Pinter) and King and Country (1964) for Losey. The sound design, dominated by crashing surf, anticipates the roaring breakers that give Losey’s later Boom! (1967) its title (“the shock of each moment of being alive.”)

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Losey was able to make Eve the same year, a true European art film based on a novel by thriller writer James Hadley Chase, a prolific British plagiarist who established a career penning American pulp fiction despite never having been to the States, armed only with a dictionary of slang and a map. The star, Stanley Baker, was Welsh, the son of a coal miner: his stardom anticipated that of later working-class heroes like Connery and Caine. Here he plays a novelist whose book has elevated him into high society, apparently cutting him off from the wellspring of his talent: but in fact he’s an utter fraud, who stole the manuscript from his dead brother. His destructive relationship with the title character, played by Jeanne Moreau, and with the vulnerable Virna Lisi, leads to tragedy.

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Losey hated the book and got Jones to change the setting from Hollywood to Italy, incorporating footage captured at the Venice Film Festival. There’s no sense that this is meant to be a thriller, and the producers were aghast at its running time (168 minutes in Losey’s original cut). But the remaining hard-boiled elements help balance Losey’s tendency to self-serious artiness, resulting in one of his most fully-achieved films, and there’s a much stronger sense that Jones knows the kind of people he’s writing about here (his best character in The Damned is the sculptor played by Viveca Lindfors: Jones feels the strain when called upon to script the inarticulate). He also had a gift for acid camp, here personified by James Villiers as an aloof screenwriter, who protests at a wedding, “Why should an intelligent man like myself be subjected to this kind of tribal ritual?”

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Losey likes stuffing his films with art: the setting of Venice gives him a valid reason to do so. In fact, art is inescapable there. And Baker’s tortured intellectual, self-destructive and lashing out, suits him admirably. The pairing with Jones (blacklistee Hugo Butler also worked on the script) was proving fruitful.

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Next, Jones adapted King and Country (1964) from a radio play written by one of the participants in the true life story it told: during WWI, a private is tried for desertion. It’s a clear case of shell shock, what we now call PTSD, but the court of officers cannot accept that because they daren’t allow any excuse for a soldier not “doing his duty.”

The tiny budget and cramped sets are overcome by Losey putting the focus strongly on his central performances. Dirk Bogarde, his other favorite actor of this period, plays the officer charged with defending Hamp, played by Tom Courtenay. Courtenay, the star of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Billy Liar (1963) is another of the new breed of regional, working-class actors (in his case, Yorkshire) who retained their original accents and introduced a new, understated naturalism. There’s an electrifying contrast with Bogarde, a Rank Organisation matinee idol who successfully rebelled against his image and, like Losey, made the transition to the arthouse, eventually working with Fassbinder, Visconti and Resnais.

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The play had been essentially a transcription from memory of the trial. At Losey’s behest, Jones opened it up to include a mock trial conducted by enlisted men in which a rat, captured from a horse carcass, is prosecuted. Jones wrote this with a good deal of slang which, when combined with regional accents and somewhat difficult studio conditions (the film was originally intended for television and shot in a mere three weeks) result in some difficulties in audibility and comprehension, but this actually enhances the realism.

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Unlike many reflections on the Great War (e.g. the recent 1917), Losey and Jones’ film eschews sentimentality and heroism. It is bitter and angry. The uneducated and traumatized Hamp, who has simply turned away from the guns and tried to walk home, is as guiltless as the rat and equally doomed. What cannot be admitted is that the war is unendurable.

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The final Jones collaboration was regarded at the time as an unmitigated disaster, and is still a film maudit. In fact, in his later career, Losey practically came to specialize in the film maudit, or what John Waters enthusiastically embraces as “the failed art film.” But Modesty Blaise (1966), based on a popular newspaper strip and intended as a parody of the James Bond franchise. It was, on the face of it, an incredible case of directorial miscasting. As Losey’s friend Richard Lester later said, “The last person that would come to mind to produce a movie that fits the adjective ‘zany’ would be Joe Losey.” “Antonioni,” claimed Losey, “said […] that it was ridiculous to try and parody the thing that one was oneself doing.”

Apart from the question of humor, Losey also strongly disapproved of the Bond films’ flippant  “violence for violence’s sake,” an attitude that may seem quaintly prudish today, but it was important to him.

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The resulting film, a pop art/op art pastiche based around nothing of any importance, is very attractive and, on paper, very funny. Jones was particularly successful at writing a camp villain for Dirk Bogarde to play with bleached blond hair, getting ironically overwrought about innocent lives wasted. “A father of two children, probably with a split-levek house in Woking, and a rubber plant in the lounge. Why can’t they be bachelors?!” At its best it hits a tone not elsewhere attempted and hard to pin down. When leads Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp abruptly burst into song (the film is not otherwise a musical and neither of them can really sing) the movie is not fracturing its own approach, it’s fulfilling it.

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But part of the oddness is Losey’s approach and pacing, with his circling tracking shots which had now become a trademark: it moves like an arthouse drama, leaving way too much air around the witty dialogue. If you see it with an audience you can sense them trying to enjoy it, trying to hurry it along to be the thing it needs and deserves to be. Something like Barbarella (1968), carelessly shot and with about five good lines, works perfectly well, with a lot of burbling electronica to fill in the dead spots, whereas despite classic stuff like Bogarde pegged out on the desert sands calling out for “Champagne!”, Losey’s film seems to not know where the jokes are. Plus it’s 119 minutes long and it has no motor, because the central characters aren’t taking the situations seriously.

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The film’s failure broke up the Losey-Jones partnership: Losey went on to direct Pinter screenplays Accident (1967) and The Go-Between (1971) while Jones worked on a scattershot collection of films without much apparent momentum or focus, but including one classic, Wake in Fright (1971).