Archive for Richard MacDonald

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.

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Hey Moondog

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2008 by dcairns

Secret Passage

SECRET CEREMONY is a film maudit if ever there was one. Even many hardcore Loseyites find it hard to defend.

“Anyway, to go back to SECRET CEREMONY, here is how it was finally set up. I was sitting in Rome; I had just been doing the dubbing of BOOM!, Burton was going off to do WHERE EAGLES DARE, or whatever they do — shit — WHERE EAGLES SHIT — and we were all in the Grand Hotel. Elizabeth said ‘Why don’t we do something again?’ I remembered this script and thought she would be ideal for it. I got her the script a few days later from London, and she said ‘I’ll do it’, and we did it, at once. Now, of course, I brought [writer George] Tabori back in and we did a great deal of re-working, mostly out of that particular house.”

~ from Conversations With Losey by Michel Ciment.

(I like Ciment, he has a particular enthusiasm for the mad and visionary strains of British cinema that are at least as big a part of our culture — the valuable part of it — as social observation and all that muck.)

Justify My Love

So, having finished Tennessee Williams’ BOOM! (which is John Waters’ favourite movie for reasons that are evident if you can manage to see it ), while Burton is off where the eagles shit, Liz Taylor is parading around in various Christian Dior outfits in this deeply weird art movie in this weird house in Addison Road, London. The house had been a rest home for the mentally ill, run by some kind of religious organisation who had fallen on hard times — Losey’s regular collaborator Richard MacDonald ran amok in it and created one of the very best London houses in cinema — it stands alongside Asshetton Gorton’s work in THE KNACK and BLOW-UP, and John Clark’s in PERFORMANCE. The great London house films of the period.

Sausage, M'lady?

Munch chomp gnosh

Early on Liz, grieving her lost child, is adopted as mother by orphaned loony Mia Farrow, who cooks her a splendid sausage breakfast. And the film slams on the brakes and simply observes, with Farrow, as Liz wolfs down the lot. A whole breakfast consumed, in silence… It seems like a dreadful mistake at screenplay stage: The script must have said, “She eats the sausages,” and nobody thought anything of it, but it’s one of those sentences, like “The Indians capture the fort,” that really entails much more than it seems to. Yet somehow the film knows we want this. We want to see Liz eat those sausages. All of them. It’s pornographic, but we can’t look away. The fact that Liz is carrying, shall we say, a few extra pounds and Farrow, who does not eat, still has the emaciated spidery limbs she sports in ROSEMARY’S BABY, adds to the pervasive and enticing wrongness of it all. This is a terrible thing we are witnessing.

Later, Liz will pat her jowls reflectively and complain, “Christ, I’m so f=a=t,” her voice rising to a hoarse beep on the final word.

My Last Breath

What’s going on? All the characters are insane, as Losey admitted. This makes things pretty alienating for any audience member with a grasp of reality. And while Losey announced that Farrow’s character was “in every detail thought out as a hysterical schizophrenic,” I get the impression that his sense of those words may be rather loose. Jean-Pierre Melville also described Delon’s character in LE SAMOURAI as schizophrenic, and I have no idea what he meant by that. Autistic might be closer in that case. I think Farrow’s schizophrenia, like protagonist George Harvey Bone’s in Hangover Square, may be a plot device as much as a condition.

Mia

(Damnit, I now have private information regarding Farrow’s mental state at the time, but I don’t think I can repeat it. Never mind, Losey loved her, and she’s very good in his film.)

I think that by making Liz’s character so nutty, the film kind of disables itself, since if she functioned as a vaguely reliable guide to the labyrinth, she could get away with being distraught, maybe a bit irrational, but not this totally random screwball she is.

Moon Age Day Dream

Screenwriter George Tabori, who is no Pinter, obviously has no shortage of ideas, but his organisation is lacking. David Caute’s Losey book criticises the dialogue for muddling American and British idioms, but I got the impression that’s Liz’s character — a yank who fakes a Brit accent when she’s pretending to be the mother. It’s just about the one thing I was clear on. But it’s a throw-away film full of throw-away notions, like Farrow’s fear of “Moondog”, the God figure in a William Blake illustration on the bedroom mantel. It probably relates to her incestuous stepfather, and maybe when Robert Mitchum turns up (“C’mon, you know I’m harmless before lunch!” with an Irish beard and a bunch of flowers, we’re meant to be reminded of the sinister figure. But why “Moondog”?

Calypso is... like so

ALTHOUGH — the environments of the film are beautiful and the various performers do fascinating things. Mia Farrow essays her note-perfect English accent, also displayed in Anthony Mann’s swan-song, A DANDY IN ASPIC, and her physical acting is likewise remarkable, all flailing arms and manic grin so wide it threatens to crack the outline of her face and break out on its own. Liz is just Liz, she stomps about, giving her all, seizing on anything she can emote at. Robert Mitchum turns up and shows his bravery again, playing loathsomeness without apology. Decorative eccentricity is provided by Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown, who are always welcome round my place, but Losey’s use of the phrase “sort of comedy relief” in describing them is a clue to the fact that they’re not actually funny, just more neurotic whimsy.

Give it the grin

Richard Rodney Bennett did some fantastic music for Losey, and his stuff here is absolutely right for the film, a messed-up music box tinkle that helps make us feel as crazy as the characters. When Liz and Mia go to the seaside, a stunning resort filmed in Holland, the design and score lift us into a wonderful dream state. Then Mia Farrow shoves a stuffed frog up her dress and pretends she’s pregnant. Put this on a double bill with William Cameron Menzies’ THE MAZE, a 3D mystery in which the lord of a Scottish castle is secretly a giant frog, having never evolved out of the amphibian stage we all supposedly go through in the womb.

What makes you think I want a stain-proof dress?

Better yet, you know what this would make a great Fever Dream Double Featurewith? BOOM! is obviously a good choice, which might prove fatal if you didn’t have strong drink to hand, but try it with Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s THE DRIVER’S SEAT, also known as IDENTIKIT, which has lots of equally barking mad Lizwork in it, and an even louder frock. Liz gets very irate at the suggestion that she might want a stain-proof dress, at one point: a fine Liz moment. It’s from a book by Muriel Spark, apparently reasonably faithful in its adaptation. Ian Bannen is around to supply, what? Himself, I suppose.

Sleepy Hollow

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2008 by dcairns

Bizarre worm’s eye view of riot.

I watched a fuzzy off-air recording of THE LAWLESS the other day, which is possibly the weakest of Losey’s American features. But they’re an interesting batch. U.S. Losey is hard to see and often underestimated, but there’s plenty to admire:

First off, Losey made a number of short films, several of them corporate promos. Despite his communist sympathies, he was apparently happy to whore himself out to big business. Well, the man had to eat. And drink. Especially drink. I haven’t seen any of these shorts and Christ knows if I’ll ever get to. PETE-ROLEUM AND HIS COUSINS sure sounds enticing. Would make a good support film for ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS, I bet. Programmers, take note!

The Boy Who Didn't Turn Yellow

THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR, commissioned by liberal producer Dore Schary, is a middlebrow liberal anti-war tract made cherishable by the fact that it’s completely insane from beginning to end. Howard Hughes, who bought R.K.O. midway through the film’s production, did his best to strangle the pacifist message, but Losey, Schary, screenwriters Alfred Lewis Levitt and Ben Barzman (soon to join Losey on the blacklist), and child star Dean Stockwell all resisted Hughes’ interference in their own ways, and what made it to the screen is fairly uncompromising, and completely bananas. A boy’s hair turns green overnight after he learns that he’s a war orphan. The ghosts of the slain instruct him to keep his verdant locks as a warning against the horrors of armed conflict. Wow.

Heavy irony.

THE LAWLESS. Another liberal message film, this one about lynch mob violence, it’s but devoid of GREEN HAIR’s agreeable barminess. The best idea is naming the Mexican ghetto Sleepy Hollow, and restaging the Headless Horseman bridge chase with an ice cream van and a pursuing police car. Otherwise, comparison with Fritz Lang’s FURY is instructive. The studio prevented Lang from having a black protagonist, but at least Lang’s story places the victim front-and-centre in the narrative, and challenges our easy perceptions by turning him from persecuted into the persecutor partway through.

Losey is allowed to use actual minorities, Mexicans, in his story, but the hero is a white newspaperman with less at stake in the story. It’s like a version of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD with the child’s-eye view removed, and with no real tragic injustice to get angry about.

Stranger on the Prowl

THE PROWLER is knockout. A lucid and lurid skewering of “wrong values” in capitalist society, in the form of a tight noir potboiler. Losey was pleased with his integration of production design and camera movement / composition: his collaboration with designer Richard MacDonald would be a defining feature of his films in exile. Manny Farber, who sometimes reacted against Losey’s editiorialising, admired this one. “Socially sharp on stray and hitherto untouched items like motels, athletic nostalgia, the impact of nouveau riche furnishings on an ambitious ne’er-do-well, the potentially explosive boredom of the childless, uneducated, well-to-do housewife with too much time on her hands.”

M. Butterfly

M. Losey’s remake of the Lang classic has terrific scenes, and uses some of its borrowings well — others get in the way. Some of the script is fairly dumb, but Losey’s use of L.A. locations, including the iconic Bradbury Building, makes it fly. I blogged it HERE.

THE BIG NIGHT is possibly best of all. I blogged about it HERE, and in the weeks since then it’s stayed in my mind and grown clearer and sharper. It’s the least strident of Losey’s early message films, and it disguises any tendency to preach with a grotesque and surreal surface. Peak noir.

Losey was clearly on a roll. Despite M being shot in only 20 days, and THE PROWLER in 17, both are vigorous, dynamic and intelligently shot genre pieces. Losey could find interesting things to say within the constraints of the thriller, and put his points over in an economical and entertaining manner.

Forced to work abroad by the blacklist, Losey would find himself working within entirely different genres and constraints. The British film scene is a very odd world…

These are the damp