Archive for Rod Steiger

The Russian Revelation

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2015 by dcairns


DOCTOR ZHIVAGO always seemed boring on TV when I was a kid, and once it had started it never seemed to stop. But that’s because (a) it was pan-and-scanned into visual incoherence, losing the very qualities which redeem it and (b) it really is nearly three hours long. And never dull, actually, if you see it in the right shape. But not too involving, either, though my friend Morag is always terribly moved by the hero’s death scene. Watched it with Marvelous Mary, Nicola, Donald and Stuart, and we were all dry-eyed yet impressed.

Stuart and I won a prize for a short film we made in 1990, and ZHIVAGO’s esteemed cinematographer, Freddie Young presented it. Stuart even had a brief conversation with the great man in the BAFTA men’s room, but alas can no longer recall the gist of it. He thinks it may have been a general reflection on the quality of the BAFTA men’s room.


Whatever his merits as a conversationalist, Young was an outstanding cameraman and, after Nic Roeg was fired by a nervous David Lean (he had previously kicked Robert Krasker off GREAT EXPECTATIONS), he excelled himself here, aided by John Box’s meticulous and lavish reconstruction of Russia in Spain. Still, I think this is the beginning of Lean’s true decline — I find no fault with LAWRENCE, but I think Lean should probably have stopped working with Robert Bolt and Maurice Jarre immediately afterwards. Still, Jarre contributes that main theme, and Bolt does a decent job of shrinking down an unwieldy novel. What he can’t do is find a consistent and believable idiom for his characters to speak in (“The war’s over, daddy!” is the line that always forces an embarrassed guffaw from my lungs). He’s not helped by Lean’s wild casting, which asks us to accept Alec Guinness and Omar Sharif as half-brothers, and Rita Tushingham as the offspring of Sharif and Julie Christie. The styles of performance are also madly varied, with the Actors’ Studio jostling with the Rank Charm School, Royal Shakespeare Company with kitchen sink realists. Theoretically, this could all still gel, but it definitely doesn’t.

Everything Lean does well in this film, he also does badly. Spielberg rhapsodizes over the musical edits, such as when a doctor tosses aside a slide, and the “ting!” it makes chimes with the bell of a tram in the next scene, but Lean also cuts from Rod Steiger pawing Julie Christie in a landau, to a dragoon captain shouting “Mount!” as a backside settles into a saddle. He jump-cuts with the aid of a zip-pan in the restaurant, as if he were directing The Man from UNCLE. Increasingly nervous about the thrilling experiments with film form going on in Europe, Lean would sway back and forth between unfelt, unwise attempts at experimentation, and ever-grander, more solemn and self-serious epic filmmaking. The latter style suits him better and he’s genuinely, uniquely good at it. It’s not to everyone’s taste, I know, but Lean had a feel for it.


Kind of a flat composition, which is not an obvious choice if you’re aiming for epic scope. But the cross in the foreground gives it a huge and dramatic sense of depth. The funeral of Zhivago’s mother freaked me out as a kid — Lean fades up the sound of weeping women as the coffin lid is nailed shut, giving the scene the aspect of a premature burial. The shot of Mrs. Z. lying in her coffin, buried, seemingly the imaginative vision of her young son, is gorgeous and very scary.


I think Steiger’s quite good in this. He excels at being loathsome. It helps that his character’s right about nearly everything.


I’m pretty sure Lean is making a point about the objectification of women here. At any rate, Julie Christie’s dress is one of Fiona’s two favourite movie costumes, the other being Fenella Fielding’s velvet vamp outfit in CARRY ON SCREAMING.


I do think it’s a problem when Klaus Kinski shows up, his brow a throbbing tracery (SCANNERS could have saved a fortune in effects by hiring him) — firstly, we have another accent to add to the already strange mix (though the IMDb claims the inescapable Robert Rietty revoiced the mellifluous Klaus), but also he’s so damned INTERESTING. I wanted the film to abandon poor Omar and Geraldine and just follow Klaus on his wacky adventures. Maybe he could get a dog and solve mysteries, or maybe he could set up business as a fake medium and fleece silly widows. Anything, really.

Other people who are good in this ~

Omar, even though he’s playing an almost entirely passive character, mainly defined by things he doesn’t do — doesn’t become a GP, doesn’t become a teacher, doesn’t leave his wife, doesn’t get on a landau with Julie and Rod…

Julie, though she’s been better in other things. Sometimes Lean seems to be stifling her spontaneity.

Rita Tushingham. Her tears at her childhood memory of abandonment were the one bit that moved me, though I wasn’t sure the character should cry. Robert DeNiro, in an early interview, pointed out that people recounting traumatic memories most usually do it with no emotion at all, with a denial of the emotion.


Tarek Sharif. The one good bit of family casting — Omar’s real son plays the young Omar. He seems to have been dubbed by a young Englishwoman, giving him a VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED quality, but I can live with it if he can.

Tom Courtenay. Typically a callow, likable actor, he plays shrill extremists here and in KING RAT. He’s quite good at it.

People who are wasted ~

Ralph Richardson. Always nice to have him around, of course, but he has simply nothing to play.

Geraldine Chaplin. Potentially a more interesting actor than Julie Christie — look at her career — here, she’s purely boring in her nice pink hat, because her character is terribly, terribly dull. By avoiding being jealous she does defy the cliché, but she defies it in a way that lets the drama escape like leaking helium. Just wait for NASHVILLE, the rematch, though.

Jack MacGowran. It’s not a proper MacGowran performance if you can understand more than one word in ten. Lean seems to have insisted on enunciation, an alien custom to the Great Garbler.

Watching this with friends at home rather than on the big screen (I did have the pleasure once), you can’t escape the ridiculous plotting that has this rather small cast of characters forever bumping into one another by chance across the length and breadth of Russia. It seems like the book has even more of this. Nothing to be done. Looks like Bolt and Lean invented the scene which moved my friend Morag so much — one last chance encounter, and one last tram reference, isn’t going to do any harm, is it? Trams and trains haunt the narrative, perhaps because the human characters all seem to be gliding about on fixed rails too.

Couldn’t escape if I wanted to

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


Hey, it was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo on Thursday, so the Edinburgh International Film Festival decided to show Sergei Bondarchuk’s remarkable epic WATERLOO in 35mm anamorphic, with a certain amount of side-trumpery from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guard (well, some of them) and an introduction from an affable, well-informed and frightfully posh retired brigadier.


My only real prior knowledge of this movie was an anecdote recounted in the 1978 Scorsese profile documentary MOVIES ARE MY LIFE. Although Ennio Morricone is quoted as saying “Brian DePalma never smiles,” and that ties in with Fiona’s experience of the Great Man, the DePalma who appears onscreen to talk about his friend is a giggling, rolly-polly figure, just coming out of his improv comedy phase, I guess. DePalma the wacky funster. And he launches into a “hilarious” anecdotes about seeing WATERLOO with Scorsese on a double date, where Marty’s girl became distressed at the tripwired horses onscreen tumbling head over hooves in the dust. The tripping of horses is now outlawed as its very dangerous. As you see in old westerns, most tripped horses get up, but some can’t. They don’t show you that.

“So Marty’s telling her to shut up and she won’t and so he starts hitting her and because of that we miss the whole reason Napoleon lost the battle,” concludes the chortling Brian. Which tells you a lot about his sense of humour. One likes to think the story is at least heavily exaggerated. I discussed it with a friend.

“Well, hopefully Scorsese couldn’t really hurt anyone, he’s small and frail.”

“But energetic,” my friend replied grimly.

Disturbing that in 1978 that story could go into a documentary and nobody apparently worried about it. The past is a nightmare.


WATERLOO shows some of that aspect of history.

The battle scenes, deploying 16,000 soldiers from the Russian army (plus some actual dragoons) are astonishing, of course. “Impressive” is too weak a word. But director Sergei Bondarchuk excels before then with his staging of TALK — he’s obviously in love with Rod Steiger’s performance as Napoleon, jumping in on the beady eyes or the obscenely wriggling sausagey little fingers. I’m not sure he’s RIGHT to be in love with the performance, which is very tricksy and big and elaborate, but having accepted the Steiger challenge, Total Commitment is the only option that makes sense. So sit back and enjoy the ham.


And so generously sliced! The movie also sports Orson Welles (puffing his cheeks for two scenes), Jack Hawkins, a veritable shooting gallery of Toby Jugs. Christopher Plummer is a splendid Wellington — the lady next to me remarked afterwards, “I felt Wellington suffered from his dialogue consisting of every famous thing Wellington ever said. A man who speaks entirely in aphorisms.” And it’s true, he does come across as a sort of battlefield Oscar Wilde. But this is a kind of gigantic historical pageant, so it’s kind of appropriate.


Shot in the Ukraine, apparently. Well, it was probably good practice.

REALLY impressed by the editing by Richard C. Meyer, who had just moved to the bigtime with BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID after years on smaller films like the superb MEN IN WAR. But let’s give Bondarchuk credit too — he stages dialogue and action alike in long takes abruptly broken by short, aggressive cuts, faces, eyes, flickering flags. We get the grand sweep but we’re also kept on our toes. This is one epic that doesn’t lumber. Admittedly, the blasting and roaring and bellowing can exhaust the ability to appreciate — and I saw the damn thing with a hangover, for God’s sake — but if one overlooks the rather shoehorned antiwar moment (maybe a soldier really did freak out on the battlefield and run about shouting “Why must we kill each other?”, his blond locks waving in the breeze poetically, in which case I’m an idiot and forget I said it), this is true cinema. It just happens to be writ very, very large.


Of all the movies I’ve seen at the Fest so far, this is the only one where I was struck by the size of people’s heads. Rod Steiger’s head was twice my height. I expect it was in life, too. But in the movie I saw right before, in the same auditorium, the people’s heads, though frequently framed in extreme closeup. seemed no larger than a chihuahua’s. Charisma, people!

Gene Giannini Lives on his Back

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , on January 29, 2015 by dcairns


Spoiler alert! Rod Steiger as Gene Giannini lives (and dies) on his back in the late Francesco Rosi’s LUCKY LUCIANO.

Over at The Forgotten.


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