Archive for Robert Aldrich

The Art of Gilling

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2015 by dcairns

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My respect for John Gilling is rising as I begin to see him more as the idiosyncratic weirdball he was, rather than as a jobbing journeyman, my earlier impression. Certainly, realizing he had written for Tod Slaughter and made OLD MOTHER RILEY MEETS THE VAMPIRE long before his Hammer days made me appreciate that his association with horror movies came from love, not mere convenience. But 1956’s THE GAMMA PEOPLE (recommended — by which I mean “casually mentioned” — by Joe Dante) is something else.

Faced with an artifact like THE GAMMA PEOPLE, a luminous and misshapen lump of aggregated and mysterious material, like a kryptonite meteor fallen from who knows where, one is forced to concoct theories to account for its existence — the human brain, a question-and-answer organ, is simply unable to accept the object as found and describe it. We must fall prey to the deadly Intentional Fallacy and try to fathom what was going on in the minds of those who created this conundrum. Is it an alien probe, buried for decades, the product of natural but unknown processes, or a chunk of frozen piss that fell off the side of an aeroplane?

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My theory may not account for all THE GAMMA PEOPLE’s peculiarities, but it works for me. I think Gilling and his co-writer John W. Gossage were aiming to make a Charters and Caldicott film, and inspired by both the success of Abbot & Costello’s horror spoofs, and Gilling’s own experience with Arthur Lucan/Old Mother Riley, they decided to write a Charters & Caldicott versus Mad Science scenario.

The business of the characters being in a train carriage that gets disconnected and abandoned in a Ruritanian dictatorship is straight out of THE LADY VANISHES, so that’s exhibit A. The pair’s polite, befuddled reactions clinch this theory for me.

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However, two things occurred to make this attempt at forging a new double-act turn out quite wrong. One is the decision to make the film a dumb sci-fi movie, about which more later. The other is a two-parter: first, you can’t just invent a double act. The best of them seem to happen by accident, when two people come together and have comic chemistry, and somebody else, besides the audience, notices. William Powell and Myrna Loy were teamed as leading man and leading lady, but BECAME a double-act because the teaming worked so well. Martin & Lewis were thrown together with basically no materials and there was an explosion of comedy energy which still reverberates.

The second part of the double-act problem is that at some point it was decided that the film needed an American, and so Paul Douglas, fresh from JOE MACBETH (New York gangster version of Shakespeare filmed in England) was wheeled in to team up with Leslie Phillips. Impersonated by such mismatched talents, the Naunton & Wayne effect is seriously distorted and blurred, only just discernible. Phillips, a great comic force, gets the tone alright, but is vaguely dashing and randy, always, so his version of the Englishman abroad is apt to be racier than the Hitchcock original. Douglas is a lumpen golem, a two-fisted Frankenstein Mobster who’s very nearly cuboid in shape. He looks incongruous in any of the film’s throng of genres.

So the set-up is so misguided it’s kind of delightful in spite of itself. Then we add the plot, which is about a fugitive scientist trying to create child geniuses with gamma radiation (hey, it worked for the Incredible Hulk). He’s also creating learning-disabled “goons”, though it’s never clear whether these are accidents or deliberate. For no reason explained, all the goons are adults and all the geniuses are kids. This would make sense if his intent were to fashion a sort of zombie army.

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The IMDb tells us that the original story was by Robert Aldrich (uncredited) — I guess it could have formed a nuclear trilogy along with KISS ME DEADLY and the lesser WORLD FOR RANSOM. Aldrich being chums with Joseph Losey forms a strange connection with Losey’s atomic kid drama THESE ARE THE DAMNED. Plus there’s the Hammer connection. But THE GAMMA PEOPLE was produced by, of all people, Cubby Broccoli, with money from Columbia which seems to have facilitated considerable European location filming — probably in Germany.

Best joke: a scream is explained away by a suspicious character: “One of our poor burghers met with an accident,” and Sir Leslie P says, with the most magnificent straight face, “Oh? What happened to the poor burgher?” Possibly the kind of joke you have to play so deadpan it looks like you don’t realize it’s there, so the censor won’t leap from his chair and wave at the screen like Norma Desmond, or press a secret button on his arm rest that causes four men to charge into the screening room carrying a giant blue pencil.

Walter Rilla, whose son directed VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, is clearly the ideal choice to mass-produce spooky Aryan super-kids.

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But the leading lady is Eva Bartok, best remembered for Bava’s BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. I’m always haunted by her real-life end: she wound up indigent in London, was hospitalized, and tried to tell the doctors and nurses that she had been a movie star. No one believed her. That’s the strange thing about life and films. Her fame evaporated, then she evaporated, but her films are still here.

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The Oater Limits

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , on September 13, 2013 by dcairns

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OK, so now I know I mustn’t call ULZANA’S RAID an oater. It’s an Indian wars western that’s seen as a Viet Nam allegory, written by Alan Sharp and directed by Robert Aldrich and starring Burt Lancaster and a nubile Bruce Davison.

I always felt Sharp’s writing was a good deal more pleasing and to-the-point than Aldrich’s filmmaking on this one — I first saw it on 35mm at Edinburgh Film Festival as part of a Sharp retrospective, many moons ago. I think what was screened was the European cut, supervised by Burt, whereas the version I just saw was the US release, the director’s cut — there’s about ten minutes of differing material, it seems. I recall a bit where two men, trained not to make a sound even at the point of death, fall from a cliff in stoic silence. Unfortunately, this is represented by the usual rubber-limbed dummies tossed into the void, and without screams dubbed on, a farcical special effect becomes even more laughable. I support Aldrich’s decision to delete this material, if his decision it was. I can see Lancaster including it because it’s conceptually quite strong, and only let down by the filmmaking.

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But Aldrich does let the side down fairly often. His composer, Frank DeVol, assembles a tuneless concatenation of cliches — cut to watchful Indians, cue sinister flute. The film seems to have none of the grace notes of seventies filmmaking — it isn’t visually lyrical or particularly dynamic, though its choppy abruption gives it a vaguely robust quality. There IS a good night scene, notable mainly for avoiding all the half-hearted approaches to desert night — no blue moonlight, no impenetrable darkness, just a good dim greyness. But otherwise it lacks the elegance of golden age cinema without gaining anything from modernity except flashes of violence (I do quite like the way Aldrich makes little of the bloodshed — a good thing too, since the makeup “by Cinematique” consists of crimson paint liberally daubed over cavalry jackets). The direct cutting is often a bit confusing, cutting to one of those watchful Indians and then to his POV, bringing us up short as we realize it’s a new scene and he’s not looking at the preceding action after all. The dissolve-as-scene-change can be useful after all.

But the script is very strong — Sharp was unapologetic about showing Apache atrocities — but he also shows the unenviable plight of those Indians who try to get along with the white settlers and are robbed and mistreated for their troubles. Asked if it would be more powerful to leave the horrors offscreen as in THE SEARCHERS, he said that such an approach could be powerful, but he had rather wanted to show a dead man with his dog’s tail in his mouth. He had a strange wistful expression as he said it. As Lancaster says in the film, “Indian’s got a sense of humour. Just not one you’d recognize.”

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Fiona’s reaction to this horror: “WHAT am I looking at?”

It’s not just the pithy dialogue — Sharp also writes strong situations, crucibles for striking behaviour. The key one is the early scene where a cavalryman rides back for a woman about to be captured by Apaches — and shoots her in the head. Unsaddled by his enemies, he then blows his own brains out. The Apaches are about to chop the dead woman’s fingers off to get her wedding ring, when her young son, whom they disregard (since killing a boy will not impart “power”) rushes up, sucks her finger to lubricate it, and slips the ring off and hands it to the brave, thus sparing her post-mortem mutilation. It’s powerful, upsetting stuff — and imaginative, in a horrible way.

War makes barbarians of everybody, which can certainly be a comment on Viet Nam if you like, but I’m not sure how far the analogy stretches. The mass colonisation of America probably made the Indian Wars inevitable, whereas the “police action” in Viet Nam was a misguided exercise in realpolitik which was wholly avoidable. The indigenous people got it in the neck both times, but Aldrich and Sharp presumably didn’t know that the outcome for the USA was going to be different this time round.

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Riding to the Rescue

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2013 by dcairns

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Before you ask, yes, I have been as amused and entertained by Quentin Tarantino’s interview meltdown, and his branding of John Ford as a racist, as you have. Maybe even more so.

I don’t necessarily expect logic or coherence from Tarantino, though it strikes me that he has done a better job of explaining his work in the past — it’s kind of disappointing to see him sink to this level of petulance rather than actually engage in a discussion of interesting issues. The question of screen violence, I guess, maybe does get old if you’ve been asked about it over and over again for a couple of decades, and you can see how someone like Kathryn Bigelow will impatiently jump forward three questions when it’s raised, doing that politician’s trick of answering the question you wish had been asked, and politely shutting down the debate,  but the topic still seems to me kind of evergreen and inexhaustible.

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When I wrote my essay for Criterion’s edition of STAGECOACH, I seized on the idea of the film’s climax borrowing from BIRTH OF A NATION, mainly because not many commentators had remarked on the resemblance: specifically we have tension created by John Carradine being about to kill Louise Platt to save her from falling into the rapacious hands of the marauding Indians, which directly echoes a similar moment at the climax of BOAN. My ace editor, Liz Helfgott, reminded me to mention the fact that Ford’s use of this gimmick is somewhat different from, and more nuanced, than Griffith’s.

Which is true: specifically because Carradine’s character is not an out-and-out sympathetic guy like Dr. Cameron (Spottiswood Aitken) in BOAN, whose proposed murder of his own daughter is thus depicted in salutary terms. Carradine is ambiguous and flawed, and also a Southerner in a film containing more viewpoints than his own, so we aren’t invited to approve wholeheartedly of his action. And in fact Platt is saved by two things (spoiler alert), an Indian arrow which takes Carradine off before he can save her from a Fate Worse than Death, and then the cavalry, who drive off the Indians. Had it just been the cavalry who saved her, as the klan do in BOAN, Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols would have probably been guilty of endorsing Carradine’s thinking.

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(By the time of the 70s, writer Alan Sharp could have a cavalry soldier actually shooting a white woman in the punchy Robert Aldrich oater ULZANA’S RAID, to save her from abduction and rape and maybe worse, and the meaning is different again, because it IS the 1970s and there’s a shared understanding that a shocking act can be show because it’s arguably truthful, without implying a judgement from the filmmakers about whether the act is justifiable or unjustifiable.)

The fact that Ford clearly saw nothing wrong in borrowing from BOAN, that he saw it as a cinematic mainspring that wasn’t so irrevocably tainted that you mustn’t go anywhere near it, speaks to the same impulse that made him if not proud at least quite happy to talk about having appeared in it as a klansman. In other words, he didn’t share our modern sensibility and didn’t judge the film as rigorously as we do, as a virulently racist piece of hate speech. I would find it hard to call Ford “a racist son-of-a-bitch” on that basis. I would call him racist only in the sense that everybody’s racist because nobody’e perfect, and everybody is  influenced by the discourse about race which surrounds us, despite the fact that, scientifically speaking, race is an illusion. But, as Einstein observed of time, it may be an illusion but it’s an extremely persistent one.

The subconscious effects of this illusion can perhaps be seen in the way QT segues from “I’m not your slave” to “I’m not your monkey” in that notorious interview.

Griffith, of course, is something else. I’m prepared to accept Lillian Gish at her word that he didn’t hate black people per se — I guess he quite liked them, in their place. As we all know from everyday life, our response to anything can be very different depending on where we find it: to take an example we’ve all probably encountered recently, a delicious juicy steak will provoke a different reaction on a dinner plate than it will draped over the pillow we lay our head on in bed. Griffith’s reaction to see black people anywhere outside of the zones to which he had been raised to think of them belonging, was one of violent instinctive revulsion, and he wasn’t in the least bit inclined to question this knee-jerk response. He was, as a result, a particularly violent and dangerous racist, and he allowed himself to put his feelings on film in THE BIRTH OF A NATION. The result is hateful, neurotic, and fortunately unique in all of cinema in its virulence, wrongheadedness and savagery. I do regard it as a valuable insight into the psychological processes of race hatred and of pathological hatred generally, whereby criminal acts everybody knows to have been perpetrated by white against blacks — rape, lynching, intimidation — are attributed to blacks in order to justify repression.

It certainly seems absurd to compare it to anything in Ford in terms of its attitude. Is there a bit of that going on with Ford’s depiction of the American Indian? Maybe, a bit, but not consistently, wholeheartedly, or viciously — and Ford is part of a whole problematic tradition here which predates cinema itself. It need hardly be argued that Ford’s portrayal of Indians is more nuanced and sympathetic than Griffith’s portrayal of black people — if one finds oneself arguing that, one might as well stop and say instead, “Just look at the films.”

Inspired somewhat by Glenn Kenny’s post on this subject, and David Ehrenstein’s.

The Birth of a Nation – Special Edition [Blu-ray]

Stagecoach (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]