Archive for Roddy McDowall

One scene, three times. (1) Welles.

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2022 by dcairns

Let’s do a CLOSE ANALYSIS!

I was struck by one particular scene that appears in the Welles, Polanski and Coen MACBETHs — Ross delivers the bad news to Macduff.

Billy Wilder said that there are two occasions in dialogue scenes where the director ought to arrange it so that the character has his back to the camera: when he is getting a brilliant idea (“I have just invented the light bulb!”) and when he is receiving terrible news.

Macduff strikes me as quite an easy part: like Banquo, he’s just a solid sort of bloke. But this scene is tricky, because all of a sudden the actor has to play something that’s very nearly unplayable. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it done really successfully, even though Shakespeare certainly gives the poor strutting and fretting player some help.

Before we go in, we should note that Welles, Polanski & Kenneth Tynan, and Joel Coen have not only interpreted but rewritten the text in markedly different ways, so we could argue it’s not even the same scene. Welles’ changes are, in a sense, the most extreme — he’s eliminated Ross entirely and invented a holy man, who has Ross’s lines and some other characters’ lines. This goes towards a theme about the old and new religions that Welles wanted to get in there, but that Shakespeare hadn’t thought of providing. I think it creates some problems here…

Still, it gives this scene a nice image, the Celtic cross standing in the middle of nowhere — a Star Trek landscape with low horizon and big cyclorama.

The most noteworthy thing about Welles’ version of Act IV, Scene III is that it’s a sequence shot — the whole scene covered in a single unbroken take. All the more remarkable since Welles apparently recorded the dialogue first, then had the cast lipsync to it, a bizarre technique more associated with musicals, apparently intended to save time on the set by eliminating the need to record sound.

FADE IN. Roddy McDowall strides up as Malcolm, saying some lines stolen from Macduff, and beginning three syllables from the end of a line, iambic pentameter be damned. Still, the lines work well with Roddy’s mournful, poetic delivery: “Each new morn new widows howl.”

Along with Malcolm and Macduff is a third bloke, no idea why. Probably there should be a whole gang of them, but Shakespeare only gave lines to two, plus Ross who has yet to appear. This guy is, I guess, an attendant lord, to swell the scene, and I note Welles has cast a fairly fat bloke to that purpose.

Malcolm strides forward into medium shot, but Macduff has the sense to keep going, meaning he gets a closeup. Macduff is Dan O’Herlihy, and he knows what’s what. But the CU only lasts a second, as with typical restlessness he heads back into the distance, pulling the camera rightwards. “I am not treacherous,” he remarks, apropos of nothing — Welles has stolen the line from later on. Then the mysterious extra dude chips in a line, “But Macbeth is,” which has been stolen from Malcolm, to give this interloper something to say I suppose.

The blocking goes a bit wobbly now, as McDowall stands in front of Third Bloke for the next bit, turning what should be a lopsided A composition into a dirty two-shot. Realising he’s being completely hidden, Third Bloke edges round a bit so we can see him, which only draws attention to the error. Bastard.

(But remember, Welles shot this in 23 days. If a long take like this was mostly acceptable, they couldn’t keep at it in search of elusive perfection. Getting six and a half minutes shot in a oner would certainly have helped them stick to the schedule, though.)

Malcolm now refers to England’s offer of thousands of troops, so we surmise that Third Bloke is a representative of England. I guess that makes sense: you want to visualise what they’re talking about somehow, and showing a lot of troops would be costly. Now the Holy Man comes striding through the background and approaches. This is Alan Napier, Batman’s butler, giving one of the film’s best performances and best Scottish accents. As noted, he’s delivering Shakespeare’s lines but he’s not playing a character Shakespeare actually wrote.

Everyone bows to the Holy Man, then they head off into a new composition — this is all one shot, mind. Another new composition, and then another.

Inevitably, when Scotsmen meet abroad, the one who’s just come from there is asked how things are going, and inevitably he answers: fucking awful. Macduff now asks how his wife is — he moves closer, but behind the HM, which allows us to see the anxiety in the HM’s eyes when he lies and says Mrs. M. is fine.

This I find a little hard to accept. If this was Shakespeare’s Ross, a simple thane*, it would be easy to interpret: he’s not used to delivering this kind of tragic news, and he postpones the inevitable and makes things worse (but only slightly: things are already about as bad as they can get) by deflecting his duty with a pathetic lie. The Holy Man, it seems to me, would not be this bad at what is, after all, a major part of his job, or so I presume. I mean, I don’t think Welles is intending some critique of the church here, it’s just that he’s saddled with the scene as Shakespeare wrote it (though, given everything else he’s changed, he COULD presumably have just chopped this bit and had the HM get straight to the nub).

Now the HM realises he’s failed at one of his main tasks, a task he’s presumably been thinking about all the way from Scotland — he’s actually walked the hundred miles or so precisely to give this bit of news. So he turns to face Macduff, man to man… and changes the subject.

Everyone gets into a discussion about the upcoming invasion while Macduff cannily heads for the foreground, his expression telling us that he’s not satisfied he’s gotten the whole story.

Now that the death of the Macduff household has been left safely in the dust, the HM steps off into a solo shot to raise the subject again, something which now seems to lack any psychological impetus. He hints that there’s some terrible news, and O’Herlihy comes smashing into frame as an over-the-shoulder jump scare out of a late Wes Craven movie. Napier pivots, and we have a flat two again, but closer than before. Properly intimate, the other characters nicely offscreen.

Still, the HM is really bad at this. Having created the sinking sensation in all our stomachs by telling Macduff that he has really awful news and it mainly pertains to Macduff, he then pleads that Macduff won’t hold this against him. An acceptable line for a thick thane*, but really poor work from a priest.

In another clever bit of staging, O’Herlihy doesn’t stay to hear the news, but walks off, stopping with his back to Napier, Malcolm and English Third Bloke standing staring helplessly in the b/g. And yes, this is STILL all one shot.

Macduff is gazing into the backcloth, alone, in a private space, as he gets the news, but unfortunately, I think, Welles has the HM jump-scare into shot and SNARL the news at Macduff, who whirls to face him with wild surmise. Little Roddy has got himself into the background to make it an A composition in which he sort of upstages the principals, but not in a bad way. I guess the purpose of the central figure in an A composition (picture the scene from above, with the edges of frame as the feet of the A, the two profile characters and their eyeline as the A’s horizontal strut, and the third character as the tip or zenith) is so that the middle guy can show the emotions on his face suggested by the two profile characters.

Macduff advances to face us, giving us all a chance to see that O’Herlihy can’t really act this devastating emotion, as who could? Malcolm/McDowall comes up behind him to, rather insensitively I would have thought, urge him to pull himself together.

Rather than smack his silly face for him, which seems warranted, Macduff claps him affectionately on the arm and heads off into empty air again, which works better because we can now IMAGINE his emotions, projected onto his back. When Napier comes back into shot the angle sensibly favours him, again allowing us to project the appropriate emotions onto O’Helihy’s three-quarters-rear-view.

It’s not ALL projection, though that is a powerful and underrated component of acting, where the audience can actually help the performer. But in a rear view, depending on wardrobe, an actor can really deliver a lot of emotion. Olivier, often derided as a bit of a ham, which he could be, was really really good at this. The costumes in Welles’ MACBETH are mostly pretty unfortunate, and Macduff’s sticky-oot shoulders probably cut down on his potential expressivity in rear views.

If the audience is helping here, Shakespeare is also giving the actor a leg up, because the way Macduff keeps asking about his wife and kids is really heart-rending, a fantastically authentic bit of writing, even allowing for the stylisation of blank verse in which Macduff begins an iambic pentameter with “At one fell swoop?” and Malcolm finishes it with “Dispute it like a man.” Imagine if you were replying to someone but you had to fit it into six syllables because they’ve already used up four. It’d make everything tricky.

Welles continues with the complex staging, all crosses and turns, justified by Macduff’s state of uncomprehending grief. O’Herlihy isn’t a back actor (backtor?) of Olivier’s quality, though, so when he wanders off into long-shot he just seems like a guy walking over to a tree. Welles, incidentally, while agreeing with whoever said “tragedy is close-up, comedy is long-shot,” added that an extreme long-shot becomes tragedy again. The character alone, surrounded by space. Maybe here the problem is that we’re not wide enough. Maybe the cyclorama’s too close, or, with this single-take approach there isn’t time to let Macduff get far enough away.

Having walked dramatically into long shot, O’Herlihy now has little choice but to walk back dramatically into closeup, which he does, and it works better because he’s more of a front actor. There’s a nice moment when all the supporting cast are clustered over his shoulders, but then two of them sort of shuffle awkwardly out of view, having apparently been told by Welles that he didn’t want them there. Third bloke stays put, equally awkwardly, and soon becomes the point of another A composition.

Malcolm, clod that he is, keeps urging Macduff to get over his grief, and is satisfied by the end of the scene that the grief is turning to anger, which he can use. Shakespeare, writing to please the current King of Scotland, now ruler of the newly formed United Kingdom, is probably NOT consciously smuggling in some critique of cynical monarchs and their politicking, but somehow he suggests it anyway, because he’s too good a writer not to sometimes risk getting himself in trouble.

Macduff, finally coming to terms with the awful truth, heads out of shot almost at a run, seemingly on his way somewhere important, so that it’s rather a surprise when the others, having exchanged some expository remarks, walk a few paces screen left and find him standing there. They all walk off together, intent on their single purpose, the liberation of Scotland, for their varied personal or political reasons. The church bell which had sounded at the start of the scene rings again, and we fade out.

The scene is reasonably clear, brilliantly complicated and yet somehow simple. I don’t think it’s very emotional, though. The moment when Welles seems most interested in Macduff is when he becomes a righteous avenging angel at the end of the film, which is, not coincidentally, the point at which Welles thought Macbeth actually shows some greatness by defying his fate, even though all seems lost. Welles mainly seems interested in this sequence as a bravura staging opportunity. But then, the question of emotion in Welles is always complex — he tends to like creating sympathy for villains, gets bored by heroes, likes to create tensions between conflicting, disturbing emotions (all the icky sexual stuff in TOUCH OF EVIL) in a way that’s anti-Hitchcockian, anti-Spielbergian, closer to Kubrick or even Lynch.

Tomorrow (and tomorrow, and tomorrow) we’ll look at another take on this scene, with its own strengths and weaknesses.

*Don’t know what it means.

Papier Machebeth

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2022 by dcairns

Continuing our MACBETH investigations, we turn to the Welles, which Polanski, a great Welles fan, felt it was safe to disregard completely. A minor work. Well, yes, but even minor Welles shouldn’t be disregarded.

Incredible that this was shot in three weeks, first of all. Whether you think it works at all is one thing, but the achievement is something else. There are films that work brilliantly with a strictly-from-poverty aesthetic, like Ulmer’s DETOUR, where all the creative decisions are also economical ones, but they’re STRONG decisions. MACBETH isn’t like that: though the monotextured sets — everything seems to be made of still-damp papier mache, and the truly unwearable costumes, speak eloquently of a bottom line that’s bottomed out, the mise en scene and range and number of set-ups have nothing to do with low-budget cinema, and would compare favourably with many an A picture.

IMDb credits art director Fred A. Ritter and Welles himself with those costumes. Ritter never ran that department on any other film, according to the same source. So it was Welles’ own choice to spend much of the film with a tiny occasional table turned upside down and crammed onto his skull. It probably looked OK as a drawing. It’s a huge relief when he trades it for the BDSM Lady Liberty tiara. Fiona thought the baubles on his jerkin (right) made him look like a Dalek. The feeling is FLASH GORDON movie serial, a feeling augmented at times by sets and costumes and playing. Like they designed a few things, badly, and then grabbed everything in stock that was vaguely relatable to the subject — Genghis Khan flicks, caveman movies, Viking epics, and some anachronistic bits of plaid — Duncan wears a big picnic blanket, Macbeth has a tartan scarf draped over his head like a shawl.

The sets are cheaply constructed but are still impressive — how did they achieve THIS on a micro-budget? There’s an argument that you could get away with a lot less in the way of set design — black voids and smoke and boulders have been pressed into service before — but you can’t get away with ridiculous clothes, because they’re ON the actors, who are the thing we’re always meant to be looking at.

Welles’ decision to pre-record all the dialogue and lipsynch to it, as if in a musical, seems kind of crazy, but it apparently achieved its goal of allowing more set-ups to be shot: the extra effort that went into the actors learning not just their lines but their precise delivery was absorbed by the cast outside of working hours, allowing the shoot to move faster. It definitely wouldn’t be my choice, but what the hell.

The further decision to get William “Thompson” Alland to drill everyone in a fake Scottish accent doesn’t come off too badly. It smacks slightly of Groundkeeper Willie, that accent, but as Fiona said, “I’ve definitely heard worse.” And it makes sense for the characters to have Scottish accents, even if it doesn’t make sense for them to talk in blank verse. It comes back to the question of how much realism is the right amount for a film of Shakespeare’s Macbeth? I would argue that NO realism is the right amount, so the look of this film, all dry ice and backcloths, is fine. The only realism that should be admitted is the psychological kind, so that it doesn’t make sense for Jeanette Nolan’s Lady M to SCREAM at her husband while they’re trying to carry out a secret midnight assassination.

“She’s my least favourite Lady Macbeth,” said Fiona, following this with “Hurry up and die,” during the mad scene. Harsh. I think she was alright, but doubling down on Lady Mac’s harsher aspects is typical of Welles’ occasionally simplistic reading of Shakespeare’s characters. (It takes an effort to avoid seeing Iago as fundamentally A SNEAKY GUY: but surely he can’t be as furtive and implausible as Micheál MacLiammóir in Welles’ OTHELLO? Nobody would fall for his tricks, not with that moustache.)

Welles’ interps are better when they’re weird and idiosyncratic: his judgement that Macbeth is a mediocrity UNTIL, trapped by fate, he resolves to fight on to the last, gives him one really good speech, the moment when his performance comes to life: even playing outright villains, Welles seems to have needed to find something admirable or pitiable in the men he portrayed: Hank Quinlan is an injured lion, Harry Lime is charming, Kane just wants to be loved.

Of the other players, Alan Napier (playing a part invented for the movie, “a holy man,” given most of Ross’s lines plus some from other characters) has the best version of the accent, Roddy McDowall has the worst (though I liked his dreamy delivery, and making Malcolm a kid is a nice idea — Roddy was twenty but seems younger) and Welles’ daughter Michael has none at all. Dan O’Herlihy is a great Macduff — “terrifying,” as Fiona put it, maybe because HE’S SO INTO IT.

Welles’ reusing the set design from his voodoo Macbeth was a good idea, must have saved time on blocking; the ten-minute take that surrounds the regicide was a bold one; there are longish passages where the camera just looks at twigs or smoke while some soliloquy is going on: maybe this doesn’t quite come off, but it’s where the film seems most avant grade, ambitious and ballsy. Or bloody, bold and resolute if you prefer.

As he did in KANE, Welles recycles his meagre cast, making the same actors play front-and-centre figures and silhouettes (the witches are never clearly seen; are the best characters from a visual standpoint as a direct result). The dagger scene incorporates startling rack-focus effects, reminiscent of the start of the crazy house sequence in LADY FROM SHANGHAI. The banquet is really scary — Banquo’s spectre is simple but effective, suitably bloody, and occupying a frame from which all the supporting cast has vanished. The dead walk not in the spaces we walk in, but in the spaces between.

(In the Polanski, brilliantly, all the diners freeze into a tableau vivant with only the principals animate.)

And the climax, once we’re at Dunsinane, is terrific. The movie has a great opening and a great ending. Lady M’s death plunge has never looked more dramatic: she seems to be falling from the stratosphere. A floppy dummy, admittedly, but Welles racks focus to nowhere just before that becomes distracting. As the English army invade, the optical zooms Welles has slapped on everything create a propulsive energy. He’s actually invented a whole new technique here, zoom upon zoom, which could look impressive in a modern film.

Hard to escape the suspicion that Welles’ ambulatory forest, step-printed into eerie slomo, inspired Kurosawa’s depiction in THRONE OF BLOOD.

Where Welles’ Macbeth connects to Coen’s is chiefly in the idea of an interior film, shot entirely (a) in the studio and (b) in Macbeth’s head. Though both versions include scenes without Mac, and we’re not in the realms of Welles’ planned HEART OF DARKNESS, shooting everything subjective camera, there’s still a strong sense of this 1:1.33 grey box we call the world being compassed within the hero’s mind. Maybe that’s why Orson wears a square crown.

MACBETH stars Hank Quinlan; Bertha Duncan; Robinson Crusoe; Caesar; Dr. Karol Noymann; Alfred the butler; Roger Bronson; Morgan Ryker; Thompson; Goldie; and Rock Person.

Recalliery

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2021 by dcairns

Watching HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY I wondered if it appeared in time in 1941 to influence Orson Welles’ plans for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS? (Welles being a big Ford fan after all. And there are thematic similarities in these accounts of a vanished past.) The idea to keep much of the narration from Richard Llewellyn’s source novel, and play it over dialogue-free scenes, and use montage to cover a story with a long span, apparently came from studio head Darryl Zanuck. It’s an approach which could easily be disastrous if applied clumsily, since you lose firmly dramatic scenes which grip, and gain, if you’re lucky/skilled, a more ethereal, intangible quality, poetic rather than dramatic.

Looking at Searching for John Ford by Joseph McBride, I learn about William Wyler’s crucial involvement, casting much of the picture and overseeing the design of the village, an incredible setting. Wyler chose Roddy McDowall for the lead — screenwriter Philip Dunne called Roddy the true auteur of the picture, and said “This solves our length problem, because they’ll never forgive us if we let that boy grow up.” The film was set to be four hours long and the kid was supposed to mature into Tyrone Power. Imagine. Technicolor was also considered at an early stage, Zanuck envisioning an epic to rival GONE WITH THE WIND. And, after all, it’s How GREEN Was My Valley, right?

Same year as KANE — and note the ceilings.

It’s all wondrous to think of, since although the book is the reason there’s a film, the principle things that make it a great film are Ford’s use of McDowall and the b&w cinematography of Arthur C. Miller, which is exquisite. Miller mostly wasted his gifts on indifferent Fox fodder. The Malibu Hills are not the Welsh Valleys, but the movie conjures its own version of Wales, complete with a cast of assorted accents — Donald Crisp, a cockney who affected Scottishness in real life, like Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s Goliath, makes the most consistent effort to sound right — Rhys Williams, playing blind boxer Dai Bando, is one of very few actual Welsh actors.

Another thing I wondered is if this movie invented the highlights reel — a closing set of flashback memories to certain golden moments in the preceding movie. When “Seems Like Old Times” plays for a second time in ANNIE HALL and we get glimpses of earlier scenes, that kind of thing. Reminding the audience how much they enjoyed the film, hopefully — with an indifferent film it’s infuriating — this movie is all flashbacks anyway, from a largely unseen present tense, so it’s a bold and interesting choice to repeat certain flashes. I can’t think of an earlier example. Of course it’s a clever Hollywood device to diffuse the downbeat effects of a tragic ending. Go into the magic past and end on something happier. Those memories will never fade. Things may be bad now, and uncertain to get better, but happiness is real — the past is still here. We just can’t quite step into it. Time may be an illusion, as Einstein said, but it’s a very persistent one. So this kind of Hollywood illusion is bittersweet — we’re presented with a joyful image but with a little thinking we can see past it.