Archive for Rod Steiger

Things I Read Off the Screen in In the Heat of the Night

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2014 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2014-04-10-22h24m00s86

NO LOAFING IN THIS ROOM … LADIES

For work reasons, been looking at Hal Ashby stuff, and this led me to pick up Mark Harris’s terrific book Pictures at a Revolution, which examines the stories behind the five Best Picture nominees from the 1967 Academy Awards. Ashby edited and helped produce one of them, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.

Norman Jewison is a solid middle-of-the-road journeyman, and his film sometimes gets kicked around for its well-intentioned liberal attitudes, but it should be admitted that it’s a satisfying detective story and that the treatment of race, which might seem very safe today, was a risky proposition at the time the film was made. Fiona remarked that it was shrewd of the filmmakers to wrap their story up in a cop show and make it acceptable to everybody, but I would assume there were plenty of drive-ins where the film wouldn’t have been welcome. Playing safe probably brought in an extra 10% of the audience who would have been scared off by something more radical, but it would hardly satisfy the hardcore racists in the South or the North. I guess Rod Steiger’s Police Chief Gillespie represents that 10% — possessed of some basic human decency at core, but reared in unquestioning racist attitudes. The hope is that the right stimulus, be it Sidney Poitier or a Sidney Poitier film, might awaken such a person. So maybe the film is naive?

vlcsnap-2014-04-10-22h25m23s160

COTTON GROWERS’ COOPERATIVE Reference Calendar 1966 SEPTEMBER 1966

I think the other flaw is the suggestion of some kind of parity between the bigotry of the small town whites and Poitier’s desire to see the rich plantation owner arrested for murder. Being prejudiced towards those with more money and power, and who show prejudice towards YOU, may be a disadvantage to a detective and I guess it is an unworthy trait, but I don’t think it’s on any kind of par with white supremacy. And yet Steiger is allowed to say “You’re just like the rest of us,” and Poitier has to acknowledge the justice of the remark. Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant did have a weakness for simplistic messages, I think. On the other hand, this was probably an effort to prevent Saint Sidney from emerging as too perfect to be human.

vlcsnap-2014-04-10-22h31m17s115

UP

Ashby cut together some snappy material, aided by Haskell Wexler’s photography and Quincy Jones’ score. I think some of the handheld work sticks out too much, but the filming is admirably loose for the period. Macro examination of a corpse displays pretty good makeup approximations of rigor mortis

Ashby’s direct cutting resists the softness of fades and keeps things taut. The flyblown diner where the film begins assembles itself out of grizzly details. The editing of the performances, an art rarely discussed, is especially impressive, with some reaction shots sprung on us by surprise (Steiger abruptly stops chewing his gum — uh-oh!) and some withheld until we’re aching for them (when Poitier first reveals he’s a cop, the delay on seeing Steiger’s reaction is delicious agony).

vlcsnap-2014-04-10-22h32m18s165

Let us ALL be Alert We don’t want ANYONE Hurt … DANGER 200 VOLTS

From working under George Stevens and William Wyler, we can assume Ashby learned to gather lots of material. While Stevens typically shot the shit out of everything from every conceivable angle, he was perfectly content to let a whole scene play out in a single longshot with all the actors partially blocked from view, if that’s what felt best dramatically. Wyler shot few angles, often just changing lens for tighter shots, but he was equally relentless with his multiple takes, driving actors until they collapsed on the floor like unstrung puppets. Ashby may not have enjoyed his time as an assistant, but he was learning.

His first solo job was Tony Richardson’s THE LOVED ONE (also with Steiger), a film I like a lot. Reportedly Richardson, mad at UA for not upping his salary after the mega-success of his TOM JONES, punished the studio by gleefully wasting cash on this movie. Ashby’s adversarial relationship with his paymasters may have been picked up around this time, though no doubt it was part of his nature already.

vlcsnap-2014-04-10-22h35m16s201

EAT … ICE COLD WATERMELON … SOUTHERN HOME COOKING … OPEN … DRINK

Harris reports in his book that Ashby was aware of the Mirisch Corporation’s similarly parsimonious attitude to Jewison, and it infuriated him. We note that Jewison produced THE LANDLORD, Ashby’s first feature as director, and the two fell out over the ending. Ashby had to place the producer in the role of bad guy. But also: he was right about the ending, his film is beautiful. And I don’t think Jewison has the sensibility to make a film quite that interesting. Harris’s book recounts the result of ITHOTN’s sneak preview, where Jewison was disturbed by the audience laughter at moments where Steiger got egg on his face. Ashby had to persuade him that the laughter was GOOD — that the audience really got the film. I almost suspect they understood it better than Jewison.

Imagination

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on June 14, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-06-11-16h05m35s207

“I don’t know why I named you Napoleon when you have no imagination!” Rod Steiger tells his idiot son in A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE aka GIU LA TESTA aka DUCK YOU SUCKER aka ONCE UPON A TIME THE REVOLUTION (although that last title never seems to have been used).

Rod himself, as Juan, DOES have imagination, as we see above — James Coburn demonstrates the power of nitroglycerin, and Steiger immediately sees a possible application for such a chemical. The cartoon-like effect (might as well have shown dollar signs in Steiger’s eyes) isn’t quite like anything else in Leone’s oeuvre, but looking at John Ford’s THE INFORMER, I suddenly got a sense of what might have inspired it.

vlcsnap-2013-06-11-16h16m12s170

Victor McLaglan stares at Wallace “It’s me, Phroso!” Ford, and suddenly sees a price tag appended.

Leone, we know, was a great admirer of Ford (alas, I have never heard that the feeling was mutual), and would have been looking at or thinking about Ford’s Irish films since FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE features a fugitive IRA man as one of the two main characters. Leone had filmed wanted posters before — FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE is full of them — but despite some crazy cutting patterns, he’d never been tempted to superimpose them. So I’m quietly confident that I’ve accurately traced the pattern of his thinking.

Film history repeats itself, first as John Ford tragedy, then as Sergio Leone farce.

Nonce Upon a Time in the Midlands

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on June 2, 2012 by dcairns

THE MARK seems to be pretty well a forgotten film — which is a shame because it has strong performances and a daring theme. Stuart Whitman, who got an Oscar nomination which marked the peak of his career — if anything, the film may have hurt him professionally — plays a man convicted of child abduction and released after a prison sentence and group therapy conducted by Rod Steiger. He’s theoretically “cured” of his pedophile impulses, and embarks on a relationship with secretary Maria Schell.

Manchester in this movie is a pretty cosmopolitan city — Whitman is American playing Canadian, Steiger is playing Irish, Schell is unmistakably German. Interiors were actually filmed in Ireland (where presumably the Church welcomed a film on this subject?), and among Whitman’s fellow convicts are Eddie Byrne and Al Mulock (the knuckle-cracker from the opening of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST — who committed suicide on the set of that film).

The film is compassionate, sometimes ploddingly earnest, but Guy Green’s direction does include some elegant lap dissolves drifting into flashback — the idea here isn’t anything bold (the really hep film-makers were into direct cutting at this point) but long dissolves that creep across a b&w ‘scope frame are always beautiful to look at: think THE INNOCENTS.

Where the film has dated is probably its assumption that pedophiles can be cured, which at present looks doubtful. With the simple faith in Freud common at the time, the movie posits that a domineering, puritanical mother and weak father have rendered Whitman unable to face adult female sexuality, leading to his libidinous impulses taking a predatory interest in children. He abducts a little girl but can’t go through with assaulting her, which allows the audience to retain some kind of sympathy with him. Steiger’s aggressive therapy sessions force Whitman to confront his demons and he leaves prison ready to begin a mature relationship. But is society ready to have him back?

The demonizing of the press, with their panic-stirring moral campaigns, does still feel relevant — is there any subject more muddled in hysteria in the UK than child sexual abuse? And this problem is all the more serious because there are matters of genuinely tragic import within it. The fact that the media recognize no distinction between a pedophile — someone sexually attracted to children, which seems to be as innate a condition as any sexual preference, and therefore a biological rather than a moral failing — and child molesters, who are people who CHOOSE to act on those impulses and are therefore both morally and criminally guilty (and likely more motivated by a desire to control and cause suffering than by biological imperative) – means that it’s quite hard to sanely discuss the issues. The fact that the law here seems to regard a pornographic drawing as just as sinister as an actual photograph suggests that the natural revulsion to child abuse is possibly clouding the clear-eyed judgement essential for protecting children from harm. It seems like every time there’s a hot-button topic involving real dangers and real evils, a lot of people think the correct way to react is by being really stupid, as long as they evince the correct form of emotion. And I’m prepared to bet that many of the people calling for convicted child abusers to be killed, tortured or castrated are themselves deriving illicit sexual pleasure from their socially-conscious snuff fantasies.

That said, THE MARK is in many respects a fascinating period piece rather than a powerful drama, since it’s based on a naive understanding of how seemingly fixed sexual preference is. It would be great if a real “cure” existed — except that I’m sure a lot of reactionary fools would start applying it to other, perfectly innocent sexual quirks or leanings. But it might be amusing to have a world where everybody could switch preferences at any time.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 357 other followers