Archive for Robert Loggia

Posthumous Pink Panthers #1: The Talking Cure?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 9, 2015 by dcairns

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It’s not exactly Richard Williams, is it?

The beginning of a mini-series looking at the PINK PANTHER movies made by Blake Edwards after the death of star Peter Sellers, one of the more remarkable and misbegotten cycles in cinema history. It’s almost as if Jean-Pierre Leaud had fallen under a bus and Truffaut had resolved to carry on the Antoine Doinel series with a glove puppet; or as if Akira Kurosawa had decided to make a third YOJIMBO film after his catastrophic bust-up with Mifune, and deployed a photographic enlargement on a stick as leading man. Edwards’ various solutions are inventive, in a tortuous sort of way, but what’s really interesting is the psychopathological underpinnings of these ventures — if one discounts the perennial lure of shekels, how, exactly, can we account for such ventures?

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First shot of Clouseau: a horribly unconvincing stand-in. The macabre tone is set.

The necrology begins with TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER, which crept into empty theatres two years after Sellers’ death. I saw it with my big brother Sean at the Odeon, Clerk Street, I believe. We were almost the only ones there. The original series of films was the most profitable comedy series ever, but the public can, upon occasion, smell desperation the way dogs are said to smell fear. How do you make a PINK PANTHER film when Sellers is dead? Dismissing the idea of hiring Alan Arkin, who had played the role of Clouseau in 1968, Edwards announced that he had a stash of unseen Sellers outtakes which he was going launch upon us, cunningly edited into a wraparound story and with some highlights from earlier entries.

The vehicle that’s supposed to tie all this together is Joanna Lumley as a news reporter investigating Clouseau’s disappearance. But her “narrative” can only get underway once the movie has somehow packaged together all its leftover footage, which it does by way of a few phone calls from Herbert Lom to STRIKES AGAIN cast survivor Colin Blakely (who would shortly follow Sellers into eternity). This also drags in footage of the great Leonard Rossiter, who was wasted in STRIKES AGAIN and was about to perish prematurely in real life. It’s a death-haunted movie.

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It’s generally obvious why most of the deleted scenes were deleted in the first place — the main thought they inspire is “Oh, so REVENGE OF THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES BACK could have been even longer?” They’re not exactly terrible, but not exactly very funny. And of course they don’t connect to any real story, being bits painlessly excised from two or three different stories, so they create the vivid impression of a movie in a holding pattern. When the trunk items are exhausted, Edwards moves on to a series of interviews, where Lumley gathers the thoughts of various Clouseau associates. This is a transparent device to justify copious flashbacks: Clouseau fights Cato; Clouseau exchanges exposition with David Niven and Capucine. And of course, the barely-alive David Niven we meet is dubbed by Rich Little, since the actor had lost his voice to the cancer that would shortly carry him off. The dubbing is quite well done — better than the strange, helium voice that’s been dubbed over a Sellers stand-in in long shots. And the sight of Niven grinning and tugging his ear, as he always seemed to do, is poignant.

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But what’s actually interesting is what’s said in the interviews. “When you’ve been doing something for twenty years, sometimes you miss it, even if it’s painful,” muses Burt Kwouk’s Cato, a ventrilogist act for Edwards himself. And Herbert Lom as the long-suffering Chief Inspector Dreyfus is REALLY interesting, collapsing in hysterics while trying to give a tribute to his old colleague. It’s an Edwards self-portrait! Watch Edwards talking about Sellers, and you may see his eyelid tremble as he says stuff like, “Peter was a very complicated man. He believed he was in communication with his dead mother. Very complicated.” ANd you can see he’s trying to telepathically communicate to US: “By ‘complicated’ I mean ‘batshit crazy’, okay? But I’m not allowed to say so because of Hollywood’s Standard Operational Bullshit, which governs my every move, and because Sellers is dead and I’m alive, damnit.”

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Having churned through supporting players Lom, Kwouk, Robert Loggia and Graham Stark, Edwards then invents one more, Richard Mulligan as Clouseau’s father. In this way he can argue that the film contains original material with (a) Clouseau, I guess. And some of the material is… passable. At least it’s not totally filler, like the Loggia scenes — Edwards has a purpose in mind here, other than padding his running time — he actually wants to get some laughs. And, by more or less plagiarising the business with the old servant in “10”, he comes close. Though Mulligan is no Sellers, he does some decent physical stuff, using his lanky, limber frame to suggest extreme old age.

This interview frames flashbacks to original material showing Clouseau’s youth, so for once Edwards can cut loose and do some slapstick sequences without his dead actor being a problem. But replacing Sellers with a variety of kids and juveniles and stuntmen in no way makes up for the film’s missing centre, and the gags here are really pitiful. It’s looking like Sellers’ contribution to the series was bigger than just performing — when he was on form, he made this stuff funny.

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And then, eventually, it ends, with a shit joke about bird shit. A Sellers stand-in, indicating that Clouseau has survived the actor who played him, transforms into an animated Panther in Clouseau drag. Actor/Clouseau and creator/Panther have become one. And Edwards runs a montage of highlights from the series through the end titles, getting more laughs than any of the new footage seen thus far. I miss the way REVENGE ended with shots of Sellers and company corpsing at their own material, though. In the absence of any actual jokes, I think it would have been a bold move for Edwards to have played footage of his actors simply WAITING for their cues, looking puzzled, impatient, dyspeptic or sleepy. Or he could have filmed a script conference and included that, showing himself and fellow culprits Geoffrey Edwards (Executive Son) and Frank & Tom Waldman (Associate Brothers) frowning at sheets of paper.

The Big Guy

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 30, 2013 by dcairns

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If George Stevens’ THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is ever going to gain a reputation as other than a bloated yawn, I think it’ll have to be seen on the big screen. On a medium-sized TV, which is the way I saw it, bits of its aesthetic don’t altogether come off, but I could imagine they might if one were viewing with a proper home cinema type set-up, or in the wonder of Super Panavision 70. In particular, the idea of larding the screen with guest stars, then letting them linger in the background as mere specks, seems counter-intuitive, but enlarge the image and hey presto, or hallelujah if you prefer.

Quick digression — a movie marketing speaker once used Mel Gibson’s sadomasochistic gay snuff film THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST to make a kind of “nobody knows anything” point about selling movies. Who could have predicted that a gruellingly violent, long, subtitled, movie set in ancient times with no real stars would be a monster hit. I felt that the producers must have suspected the thing could make money — they might have simply been indulging Mel in the hopes of milking another LETHAL MAX or MAD WEAPON film out of him, but his project was so eccentric that had it lost money it might have really done an ON DEADLY GROUND level of damage to what we must, I suppose, call his credibility.

The reason the film could be viewed as some kind of commercial possibility was that Gibson’s choices added up to the illusion — and it was merely an illusion, since the dead languages used were incorrect and the levels of violence inflicted on Jim Caviezel would have crippled him long before he could have reached Golgotha — of being present at the crucifixion. And there are many among the faithful who would love to do that. You’d think the sermon on the mount or one of the miracles would be better, more spiritually uplifting than the mere nailing in and tortuous death, but a little thought and you realize that a sermon delivered in ancient Aramaic or whatever, without the aid of subtitles or a Babel fish, would be deathly dull, and miracles are just so hard to believe in. So the slow, bloody execution would have to do.

Seen from this angle, the absence of stars is a positive bonus, since what we’re looking for is a simulacrum of time travel, which would be spoiled if, say, Jack Black popped up as Caiaphas, or Jessica Alba sashayed past as Martha of Bethany. The brutality, apart from exercising a suppressed part of Gibson’s warped libido, can be used to represent the concept of “realism,” and the fact that everybody’s talking foreign, obsolete languages adds to the you-are-there quality — as well as explaining why Gibson would have preferred to have the film shown without even subtitles, to complete the effect of being stranded in another time and place.

(Incidentally, I find the film interesting, not as drama because it’s dull and one-note on that level, nor as a religious text because it eliminates any nuance of philosophy, ethics or theology in favour of, well, antisemitic caricature, but as a piece of psychosexual pathology it’s repulsive but fascinating.)

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THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD strives for its own kind of realism, using the cinematic codes of its day, which depended less on violence and more on production values. I’ll let Cecil explain it ~

“This isn’t a fantasy, this is history!” Attention to detail and the lavishing of funds on elaborate sets, costumes, and swarms of extras was the path to creating a believable story world, and George Stevens takes that philosophy to an extreme. And much of what he achieves is remarkable — a montage depicting Jerusalem as a wretched hive of scum and villainy has real grit and misery to it, reminding us of Stevens’ experience as wartime documentarist, present at the liberation of death camps.

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“More awe, John!”

The guest stars undercut this quite badly at times — Pat Boone doesn’t really hold any significance for me otherwise his appearance as an angel would be disastrous, but John Wayne’s cameo as a centurion does deserve its place as one of cinema’s greatest ever aesthetic blunders, and even Shelley Winters — lovely, mega-talented Shelley Winters — is problematic, since she pops up for about five seconds, dominates a close shot, and then fleeteth as a shadow. It’s distracting.

Mostly, I have to say, Stevens has cast well, and strong players like Martin Landau (Caiaphus), Jose Ferrer (Herod Antipas), Claude Rains (the other one) and Sal Mineo (Uriah, I think) bring either humanity or at least theatrical tricks to bear on the entertainment. This punctuates the visual splendour, which is at times almost oppressively unrelenting.

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Max Von Sideboard and Donald “Satan” Pleasence, under your basic bilious moon.

Max Von Sydow’s Jesus isn’t everybody’s cup of sacramental wine. His slow, unemotional delivery suits the rhythm of the film, but doesn’t help get the thing dancing. One critic said that “when he says at the end, ‘I am with you always, even until the end of time,’ it’s a THREAT.” I wouldn’t go that far — a quick comparison with Teenage Jesus Jeffrey Hunter shows what Max adds — even when he’s boring, he’s sort of interesting. At least interesting to look at. Hunter might be prettier, but pretty can be pretty dull unless enlivened by an inner spark of some kind.

It seems to me that both Max and Jeffrey Hunter are playing JC as some kind of space alien (limbering up for FLASH GORDON and Star Trek, respectively), but maybe it’s just that Michael Rennie gives the same perf as Klaatu in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL: stoic, patrician, faraway look, private smiles. The same approach adapts easily to playing Abe Lincoln. Doesn’t seem to make any sense, that, but there it is.

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Stupendous crane shot which CLEARLY inspired the last frames of THE DEVILS.

The Big Myth about Stevens is that his war experience ruined him as a filmmaker, made him shun the comedy he was so good at, and concentrate on solemn and ponderous message movies that didn’t play to his strengths. I think A PLACE IN THE SUN, for one, indicates that farce’s loss was drama’s gain. I also think that his aesthetic choices got richer after the war — more on that further down.

TGSET is undoubtedly short on humour. A filmmaker approaching the Bible with reverence is obviously going to struggle for laughs. Reverence disintegrates in the face of comedy, and so you can be reasonably sure that any comic relief that makes it into a biblical epic won’t be funny. But Stevens does manage a little wit — Ferrer’s Herod is amusingly tetchy and sarcastic with nearly everybody, and Christ has a conversation with a prospective disciple which makes even him smile —

“What’s your name?”

“Jesus.”

“Jesus. That’s a good name.”

“Thank you.”

Later, when the gang are in hiding and practicing their security measures, there’s a knock at the door —

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me.”

“I wish you wouldn’t say ‘It’s me.'”

“But it was me.”

But that’s about it. Stevens made the best PG Wodehouse adaptation in screen history (A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS) and helmed classic comedy THE MORE THE MERRIER and extremely funny adventure GUNGA DIN, and those are the only moments of humour he includes in a 225 minute epic. Even Charlton Heston and Telly Savalas, as John the Baptist and Pilate respectively, don’t raise many laughs, intentional or otherwise, which is an achievement of sorts. The lack of giggles is disappointing in a man who once photographed Laurel & Hardy shorts. Oliver Hardy was always stepping on nails too, but there the resemblance ends.

Looong pause before credits, tiny font moving glacially up screen — all this is to convince us of the solemnity and import of this movie, and as such it should be redundant if the film is genuinely important. Still, at least it’s an unusual approach to establishing importance. The film has its own odd, distinctive way of moving — very slowly, it is true, but it’s an over-simplification to say they’re just drawing everything out. The rhythms of the action, and the choices of what to show and what to elide, are distinctive and interesting. The movie is slightly more interested in Christ’s moral philosophy than his theology or his politics (Ray’s KING OF KINGS is more interested in opposing him to Barrabas in a pacifist/activist dichotomy). Which is good, because questions about Christ’s divinity, as explored by Scorsese, interest me only in the abstract, since I regard Jesus as a man who maybe had some historical existence, at best. (I’d like to see a movie where Christ is a man impersonating the Messiah in order to do good — but it seems unlikely anybody’s going to make that.)

Ethics and morality (never sure of the difference) is where Christ scores, for me. Gore Vidal points out that the whole “Do unto others” thing was said by Confucius first, but even so, Jesus did well to come up with the same admirable idea, unless God was looking over Kongzi’s shoulder, copying down what he said. The stuff about God (pronounced “Gaadd” if you’re in a biblical epic) doesn’t impress me because I consider God a good bit more fictional than Jesus, but Christ’s pronouncements on how we should behave still strike me as largely sound, leaving out the invisible superbeing stuff. Or keep Him in, if you must — theism or atheism seems to be determined by the set-up of your brain, although the choice of belief is clearly programmed by upbringing (it’s hilarious, all those Christians, Muslims, Jews, thanking the Lord they were lucky enough to be born into the One True Faith: absurd at a glance).

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At first, I thought the Utah locations were going to make the movie play like a John Ford western, or Stevens’ own GUNGA DIN. But thanks to Chuckles here, PLANET OF THE APES is prefigured WAY more often.

As delivery mechanisms for Christ’s teachings, Ray’s KOK and Stevens’ TGSET both do OK, surprisingly — there are moments where dramatic performance and visuals actually help the meaning of long-familiar prayers and parables to emerge. Both movies have enough turgidity, however, to make using them in Church perhaps inadvisable — they might work as aversion therapy on a questioning child. But I’m in favour of questions.

KOK reminded me of DUNE, you may recall, but TGSET does so to such a degree that I’m sure Lynch was influenced by it. Those little snatches of internal monologue, the cutaways to weird observers,  the reverse clouds of billowing smoke imploding around Christ at the end, the opening starscape, and many more touches, suggest that Lynch saw this and was on some level impressed (he would have been a teenager when it opened). I’ve written before about how odd things seems to catch Lynch’s magpie eye and get reconfigured in his movies.

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TGSET is so thronging with guest stars than proving overlap with Lynch’s work becomes too easy, and arguably meaningless, but I’d just like to mention that apart from the obvious Jose Ferrer and Max Von Sydow (in similar roles), we also have Roberts Loggia and Blake from LOST HIGHWAY. Although I know, because Lynch told me, that he cast Blake on the strength of his Johnny Carson appearances, and Loggia tried out for the part of Frank Booth in BLUE VELVET, Lynch inadvertently kept him waiting, and Loggia “became so angry it – just – wasn’t – funny,” which Lynch recalled when casting around for a belligerent gangster on the later film.

As with Lynch’s ponderous yet attractively peculiar religio-sci-fi flopperoo, the Stevens saga plunges us into an unfamiliar world and confuses us with explanations — all the expository dialogue just makes us more disoriented, but the settings are so striking and the weirder characters so much fun…

Right after those pompous credits, ignoring the faintly ludicrous icon on Max Von Christ, the mix from star-scape to lamp flame and the moving light softly picking out the animals in the stable.This strikes me as gorgeous, atmospheric, goose-pimply stuff. WHO IS THAT doing the voice-over? He’s awfully good at it.

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Running out of time so I’ll need to talk about Stevens’ idiosyncratic use of the tableau approach another time. It’s the key to the film’s best and worst aspects…