Archive for Richard Lester

Memory Monday: The Ass on the Bathroom Door

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2015 by dcairns

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So, I’m revisiting those filmmakers I devoted Official Weeks to in the past here on Shadowplay. Joseph Losey got his own week because I had a sense that I hadn’t seen nearly enough Losey and that I hadn’t appreciated him enough — a sense that, actually, I might have some kind of antipathy to his whole approach. As Richard Lester said to Soderbergh, Losey was the last person you would use the word “zany” about, and in fact I found there was a lack of humour which was almost heroic at times. MODESTY BLAISE is the one film Losey made that could be called a comedy, and indeed is absolutely dependent on whimsy since it refuses to be what the producers evidently intended, a campy James Bond sex-and-violence wallow. The only part of that equation Losey didn’t have a fierce antipathy to is the “campy” part, and yet even that was kind of alien to him, which is how he was able to make BOOM! a great piece of unconscious camp.

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I somehow didn’t have a copy of THE CRIMINAL to hand when I did Losey Week, though I knew I would like it when I saw it. When Losey played thrillers more or less straight, they were gripping. When the movie insists on providing a commentary on what it’s about, instead of just being about it, you could get problems, as with the stuff with the gangsters in Losey’s maudit remake of M: the movie insists on offering up a pinko analysis of organised crime as a manifestation of Capital. THE GODFATHER succeeds simply by allowing this idea to play out as drama, not even as an allegory, but as a simple statement of fact. Nobody needs to point it out.

Losey described THE PROWLER, another excellent noir I didn’t get around to writing about, as “a film about false values,” and such stories are powerful and compelling as long as the scenarist can resist inserting a mouthpiece to put it all into words. “The playwright should show conditions and leave it to the audience to draw conclusions,” as Brander Matthews put it.

And so to THE CRIMINAL (1960), which does just that. I think the avoidance of proselytising is something Losey ultimately found very sympatico in the British writers he worked with, which is what led him to bond so well with Pinter, who NEVER tells you what’s on his mind. Here, the writer is Alun Owen, later to pen A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Richard Lester remarked to me that Owen had a multiplicity of useful hats he could put on, as both a Scouser and  a Welshman, and he had a wealth of life experience which informed his work. Very unusually for a British crime film, THE CRIMINAL sets out simply to record a series of events, into which the viewer is invited to read meanings. What it avoids is any Marxist or Freudian analysis of what leads to a life of crime, though you can hunt for clues if that’s your bag.

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We begin in prison, though Owen has written a careful gag, a high-stakes poker game between Brit-flick stalwarts such as Murray Melvin and Patrick Wymark (shockingly young, a tufty-haired rolly-polly joker with a sinister edge, not quite the Toby Jug he would morph into just a few years later). We’re clearly meant to be taken by surprise when we discover the game is being played with matches by lags in a cell. But Losey takes his directorial wrecking-ball to the gag, framing Melvin against a painted brick wall pasted with suggestive imagery (I think that might be Abbey Lincoln and Frances Bacon!), and even before that there’s a short of a prison gate with the producers’ credit over it. This is either a crass insertion by Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy of Anglo-Amalgamated, who had just made PEEPING TOM and were considered the dregs of the industry, or else Losey himself couldn’t resist sticking their names over a shot of a prison gate (maybe he had more wit than I credit him with).

Losey had earlier made a short for Hammer, A MAN ON THE BEACH (1955), a dull Tales of the Very Expected thing entirely predicated upon the shock revelation that Donald Wolfit’s character is blind. Wolfit, whose tread could be as leaden as Losey’s at his worst, plays the whole thing with an unblinking middle-distance star and groping hands, telegraphing “I can’t see a bloody thing” from his first entrance, rendering the whole enterprise pointless. So Losey is one of those filmmakers with a constitutional aversion to the “pull-back-and-reveal” gag, it seems.

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Jimmy Sangster, who apparently originated the story of THE CRIMINAL as well as scripting that benighted short, based a lot of his career on that very narrative trope, churning out DIABOLIQUES rip-offs for Hammer, so Losey’s rejection of the approach is an early sign of an exciting battle of sensibilities. Unlike Sangster, Owen is drawn to narrative sidetracks, and invents a whole prison populace of distinctive characters who don’t really need to be there for story reasons, but are essential for world-building. Asides from Melvin and Wymark (and it’s typical the show opens with such minor figures), we’ll soon get Gregoire Aslan (chucklesome charm subdued into lizard-eyed menace), Tom Bell and Kenneth Cope, who fulfills a similar function here as in X: THE UNKNOWN, which Losey nearly directed and may well have cast him in: turn up, look scared, suffer An Appalling Fate.

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As always, Patrick Magee, of the curling lip and watery eye, who plays the corrupt prison warden Burrows, threatens to rip the whole thing apart with a performance evoking paranoid schizophrenia, satanic possession and narcissistic personality disorder all at once. The only way Richard MacDonald’s spectacular prisons set can contain him is for Owen and Losey to open up other avenues into disintegration, safely channeling the Magee Overflow. Most eye-popping occurs during a monologue by mentally-ill prisoner Brian Phelan, where Losey pushes in fast to a tight closeup and actually irises in to shoot the actor in a vignette, suggesting simultaneously his frightening isolation from reality and his inability to reach Baker on any meaningful emotional level.

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Baker himself is astonishing, the kind of actor without whom this kind of film would be unimaginable. Unapologetically macho — and also willing to associate closely with the film’s themes of sexual variance. His close-quarters combat with Bell and Neil McCarthy has sexual intimations, even down to the “nothing-happening-here” pretense when Caught At It by the warden. Tough guy Clobber (Kenneth J. Warren) has pugilists on his walls and a tender relationship with Phelan.

The film, unusually, contains two long prison sequences, as we meet Baker the day before his release, and when arrested again he arranges an escape. In the outside world, an agressive, overstated heterosexuality reigns. Baker’s swinging crim pad is awash with nudes, both artistic and actual. He playfully spanks the full-length odalisque on his bathroom door. She has a nice behind, but come on — who spanks a door? When former squeeze Jill Bennett is edged out by newbie nudie Margot Saad, she’s more naked that I would have thought was possible in 1960 Britain, unless you were Pamela Green. The value of eroticism was probably the one area where Losey’s interests coincided with Anglo-Amalgamated’s.

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The film has hilariously little interest in its heist, apparently forged in a masterplan by grinning idiot John Molloy inside — we never even see the full robbery, just its aftermath, and never learn the plan, just the betrayals afterwards. These involve sad-eyed copper Laurence Naismith, purring creep Sam Wanamaker, and swaggering Nigel Green, enormous in an overcoat with padded shoulders, inflating his physique to Honey Monster proportions.

It is tempting just to list the cast, isn’t it? But the film is shot by tetchy genius Robert Krasker (THE THIRD MAN) and edited by Reggie Mills who cut most of Powell & Pressburger’s movies. He’s wonderfully sloppy about continuity, and incredibly tight about narrative and psychology, and he has his own taut sense of rhythm. There’s a riot scene which energises all of these talents, and the ragged-edged cast, around MacDonald’s panopticon prison set and allows Losey to really break loose with the camera, which cocks its head like Ygor, crabs fast like Astaire, swoops in like Baron Harkonnen, combining the sardonic glint, the grace, and the leering aggression of all three of those figures. I should add that Johnny Dankworth’s score adds immeasurably to the atmosphere and drama, its romantic longing largely in counterpoint to the hard-edged action.

It’s a bleak film. “Miserable time of the year,” remarks Magee. “If we could only have some flowers. Down there. In summer it’s a blaze of colour.” Here’s the prison garden:

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Here’s a park.

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Here’s a field.

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England as a BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN no-man’s-land. Losey is starting to feel at home.

Hi Ho

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics, Radio, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2015 by dcairns

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When I first visited Richard Lester to try to talk him into giving an interview, we exchanged a few words about the generally regrettable state of Hollywood cinema and recent flops. “But THE LONE RANGER is coming!” he added, with gleeful irony.

It came, it flopped, and now as with JOHN CARTER people are starting to say, Hey, that wasn’t so bad. A little different.

(I strongly recommend Scout Tafoya’s video essay on LONE RANGER, comparing it to HEAVEN’S GATE. Really! It makes sense.)

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JOHN CARTER had some unwearable costumes and bland characters, but was also fun, spectacular and had a really good ending. LONE RANGER is beautifully designed and shot, and the characters certainly aren’t bland, but tonally it must be admitted there’s something haywire. I think someone felt that some humour was needed to make it commercial, but the goofy humour and broad slapstick selected are a little too far from the darker stuff, the genocide and cannibalism. It’s hard to conceive of a film that could contain that breadth of material and attitude without rupturing itself. I guess the rabid rabbits are an attempt at finding something that’s as goofy as slapstick and as creepy as cannibalism, but they don’t work.

How else to describe the film’s problem? Well, on the one hand it borrows from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST almost as extravagantly as the same director’s RANGO swiped from CHINATOWN, and also from LITTLE BIG MAN, THE GENERAL, THE WILD BUNCH and THE PRINCESS BRIDE. But it also seems to reference NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (see above), PLANET TERROR (one-legged woman with a gun for a prosthesis) and there’s a bit of DEAD MAN thrown in. That indicates either a very ambitious film, one whose scope might not fit within the requirements of a summer blockbuster, or else someone has been drinking loco water.

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I think tonal uncertainty is a key thing that makes audiences reject something. I mean, when we don’t know how to react to moments in David Lynch’s work, it’s clear enough that he’s put in a lot of work to make us feel that our conflicted response is OK. To give one example in LONE RANGER, the hero is mercilessly dumped on by the writers, and his Dudley Doright stuffiness allows quite a bit of fun to be poked. But when they try to make us laugh at his concern for his dead brother’s kidnapped wife, it’s rather awkward — because the last time we saw her, it looked as if she’d been shot in the head. Too soon?

Then there’s the film’s approach to race, which I think is well-intentioned but still troublesome. The casual shooting of innocent black and Chinese characters seems intended to make a point about the evils of the times, and a valid one, but in a feel-good action film shouldn’t there be something positive for the non-white audience to take away? Otherwise it feels like an unintended point is being made about the evils of modern Hollywood blockbusters, where the minorities can be laid waste but it’s still a happy ending because the important white folks were saved. (Remember Kurt Vonnegut’s point, expressed in Breakfast of Champions, that stories where there are important versus unimportant characters are a part of our major social problem.) And it’s true that the film’s ending is quite a bit less heartening than is usual in these things — his arc is one of gradual disillusionment with all of western civilisation, and he doesn’t even get the girl. But they’re still trying to make us laugh…

But it’s quite possible to enjoy most of the film on one level or another, if you treat it as a series of scenes rather than as a coherent whole — it’s only the tone that fragments it. The plot, on the other hand (by PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN scribes Elliott & Rossio, plus Justin Haythe whose big credit is, weirdly, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD), is perfectly serviceable, with enough reverses and surprises and logic and motivation to scrape by.. In particular, Tonto’s back story is cleverly prepared for, and quite moving when delivered. And fans of beautiful imagery certainly wouldn’t be able to watch this and then claim that they hadn’t seen a great deal of beautiful imagery. Some of it original. Verbinski can do shots which are epic, shots which are poetic, and shots that are funny, actual comic compositions which do support the film’s ambition to bow down to Buster Keaton.

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A Bridge Too Soon?

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2015 by dcairns

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1946 — 250 British soldiers are brought back to Arnhem to reenact the battle they fought just two years earlier, under the direction of filmmaker Brian Desmond Hurst. The result, THEIRS IS THE GLORY, is in some ways the most realistic war film I’ve ever seen, and at the same time a weirdly unreal or surreal experience.

By virtue of being filmed in the real locations, with the wreckage intact, and with real soldiers, tanks and planes, Hurst’s material can be integrated absolutely seamlessly with archive material from the real campaign. I’m assuming that the burning and crashing planes are genuine war footage, but other than that I simply couldn’t differentiate. I know the vast majority of the action is faked up after the fact, but I can’t really tell where that ends and the real war begins.

During the war, documentarists like Humphrey Jennings were making feature films which used non-actors in speaking roles. In keeping with norms for the period, staged reconstructions played a major role in the action presented. Hurst incorporates real veterans and requires some of them to stage their comrades’ deaths.

Fiona: “Wouldn’t this be incredibly traumatic for them?”

Me; “For anyone with PTSD, I imagine so. For the rest, it’s just doing what you’re used to only without the fear of imminent death. Be like a holiday.”

Fiona: “How could they get them all together to take part?”

Me: “I imagine they hadn’t been demobbed yet, so they were ordered to take part.”

Fiona: “That’s terrible!”

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The real soldiers bring a variety of accents previously unheard in British cinema. Actors spoke in two kinds of voice, stage posh and mockney. It’s rare indeed to get somebody like Eric Portman in WE DIVE AT DAWN speaking with his own Yorkshire accent.

Hurst was working class, Northern Irish, and a veteran of Gallipoli, all of which feeds into his approach. (‘I would fight for England against anybody except Ireland.’ Why for England? ‘Because an Englishman is worth twenty foreigners.’ Why not against Ireland? ‘Because an Irishman is worth fifty Englishmen.’) Hurst brings the grittiness — little blood, but a lot of dirt — the authentic accents, some of which are particularly thick and obscure dialects — the sense of confidence that this is what these things are like. Not only do you get Ayeshire and Belfast, you get levels of poshness among the officers that simply wouldn’t be allowed into a film. We may think Trevor Howard and Basil Rathbone talk very far back in the throat, but they have nothing on these chinless saviours of democracy, tough toffs who calmly struggled through conditions that would have had me bawling within minutes.

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What makes the film a bit surreal is the very fact that none of these people are actors. While the officers seem to have some basic grasp of amateur dramatics, the other ranks have seemingly never been asked to speak lines in their lives. It’s not that they sound like bad actors, they sound unlike actors and more like Bresson’s “models” — they say the words without inflection, a little like policemen reading from their notebooks in court, and the dialogue has the slightly stilted quality of reported speech — for some reason, when people recount something they said from memory, they always make it a little bit more formal and awkward.

Hurst’s other personality trait I’m aware of his homosexuality — known in later years as “the Empress of Ireland,” and “a terrible old queen.” It’s possible this is somewhat in play when we see a dozen or so British soldiers stripping naked to swim to safety as the attack fails. I’m certain this is historically accurate and fully justified, but the sight of all those bare buttocks would I’m sure have been just as startling to 1946 audiences as the sound of an Ayreshire accent. I suspect Hurst enjoyed himself that day.

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Before he’s even out the water, someone hands him a cigarette. That’s nice.

The Arnhem footage seemed very familiar to me, not because of Richard Attenborough’s super-epic A BRIDGE TOO FAR, but because of Richard Lester’s small-scale recreation in HOW I WON THE WAR, which has the same surreal quality of combat enacted on streets and living rooms in leafy suburbs that look like they could easily be in England. And when I saw the man from the BBC sitting in a slit trench recording broadcasts on a gramophone, I became certain Lester had looked at this amid his considerable archive researches.

The Attenborough film is quite impressive as a logistical achievement — William Goldman writes impressively about it in his Adventures in the Screen Trade. It does fudge a bit of the history and the end line where Dirk Bogarde says the title comes out of left field. Goldman resolved afterwards never to adapt a true story again, because nobody believes the true bits, and the people involved are never happy. After more than half the British advance force have been wiped out (“The troops’ morale is very high,” says an officer in THEIRS IS THE GLORY, astonishingly), the Germans come to negotiate a surrender. “You wish to surrender to us? Very well, I accept,” says a stalwart Brit played by Tony Hopkins. And Goldman had to deal with a real aging British war hero who was in absolute torment about having this line put in his mouth which was said by someone else. Goldman eventually gave the line to Cary Elwes in THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

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What neither version made clear to me is whether Field Marshall Montgomery’s plan was actually a good plan. Most of the Allied command apparently favoured a broad front, slowly sweeping across Europe, but Arnhem was based on the idea of creating a narrow corridor through Holland and across the Rhine, dropping paratroopers in at various points and getting them to hold bridges until reinforced. The flaw seems to me that if one point of the plan fails, then the corridor ceases to be a corridor and becomes a scattering of soldiers cut off in clusters from their own lines. With luck, the advancing army might steamroller through such obstacles and unite them all again, but what happened was that they made very poor headway and the poor paratroopers were left without support. Richard Lester called it the plan a blunder, and I yield to his superior tactical knowledge.

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Given that both the major screen versions of Arnhem are in questionable taste — one an all-star super-entertainment, the other a reenactment shot while the graves were still fresh — I nevertheless think THEIRS IS THE GLORY is the more interesting and rewarding, for reasons of its weird combination of visual authenticity and school play acting.

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