Archive for Ronald Harwood

One scene, three times (2) Polanski

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2022 by dcairns

Polanski’s approach to Macbeth, Act IV, Scene III in his 1971 adaptation is, we have to think, informed by the fact that, unlike almost anybody else attempting the scene, he had lived it. A man receives the news that his wife and child/ren have been murdered while he was out of the country. What’s that like, Roman?

Polanski is, quite understandably, extremely annoyed by critics who try to impose a simplistic autobiographical reading onto this film, and his work in general — my friend Mark Cousins walked boldly into this issue when he interviewed RP for the BBC. It was a pretty lively, rebarbative chat — some of the most feisty stuff got cut out, but Mark wrote about it for Sight & Sound: Polanski doing a big snore noise when he didn’t like a question, that kind of thing.

RP has said that he chose Macbeth to adapt precisely because critics couldn’t claim he was making a film about the Manson murders, since all the violence is already in the text. A naive supposition, admittedly. The only way to have escaped the armchair shrinks would have been to make a film with no violence whatsoever. Instead, Polanski and co-scenarist Kenneth Tynan created a world where bloodshed is the norm, so that it arguably loses much of its moral dimension, becomes all-pervasive.

While Welles repurposed Ross as the Holy Man, Polanski & Tynan work some character redesign of their own. Rather than being a sort of Basil Exposition figure who turns up and delivers information, their Ross is a two-faced traitor, making nice with Macbeth while meeting his enemies on the sly. In this film’s world, honour is an illusion (it ends with another betrayal, another thane* off to meet the witches). Shakespeare typically ends his tragedies with (a) a bloodbath but (b) the restoration of order, which is to be viewed as stable, balanced, good. Not so in Polanski’s films, where the natural order IS chaos.

Unlike Welles, Polanski has a bit of a budget, though it’s still quite tight. But he can afford locations — Wales being closer to the UK production centre than Scotland, he shoots there. So the meeting of Malcolm and Macduff with Ross can happen on an actual road, in an actual valley. This is a film full of production values and realistic detail (Polanski spat a mouthful of breadcrumbs onto a dining table to illustrate the level of authenticity — and grunge — he required) so we open on the sight of what appear to be refugees fleeing their terrible lives north of the border. Pan onto Malcolm and Macduff.

They can afford horses, too, so Ross comes trotting over the horizon line, suitably mounted for the trip. (We’ve just seen him in Dunsinane with Macbeth, so he’s had to travel at least a hundred miles to get here.) Welles’ rebels would have been lucky to get coconut shells.

Instead of saying “My countryman; but yet I know him not,” Malcolm says “Our countryman who seems a stranger to us,” a line NOT IN SHAKESPEARE. Pure Tynan, intended to suggest that Malcolm and Macduff don’t quite trust Ross, feel he’s been a bit too pally with the usurper. This seems somehow like cheating to me. You can impose a personal interp on the play, even if it means distorting some scenes. But just making shit up seems sort of… not legit. Still, Macduff arrives in a wide and dismounts into medium shot all smiles. He is John Stride, and he is a sly one. (Stride is a fine, underused thesp, excellent as the unctuous man from the ministry in JUGGERNAUT.)

Ross bows to the pretender to the throne (we have to call Malcolm that: for now, he’s just pretending) and greets Macduff with a manly hug. As his horse gets led off to presumably have some hay put in it or something, Stride/Ross makes his report on the state of the nation. Said state being absolutely dreadful.

The three walk off into an encampment. Ah-hah! This isn’t a random meeting by a roadside, but a visit by Ross to the enemy’s base. As we get a long shot, a huge swathe of text is conveniently cut, allowing Macduff to cut to the chase and ask after his wife and kids. Still in the wide shot, Ross says they’re fine.

This is a weird choice. Ross knows full well that the whole Macduff household has been put to the sword or worse. As a tiny rear view, Stride can’t inflect the lie with any kind of psychology, so we’re left at a loss as to why he does it. And I do think, even if we’d seen his face, seen a sneaky or uncomfortable look cross it, we’d be a bit puzzled by this behaviour. On his trip from Scotland he’s had plenty of time to think about what to say to Macduff.

I suspect Polanski covered this dialogue with the next shot, but then lopped a big speech out and overlapped some lines to pick up the pace, with the unfortunate result that part of the scene’s meaning becomes a bit blurry. But speed is usually your friend, and he can get over the problem by just rocketing forward to the next good bit.

With the bigger budget for extras, Polanski can show what they’re talking about, vis-a-vis the plans for invasion, so Malcolm stops to have a look at two warriors having a practice bout. The younger one is the film’s brilliant fight arranger, Bill Hobbs. Polanski covers most of the dialogue here with a handheld shot following the men through the mud. Polanski had developed this neat approach to handheld, using the trudging figures to, in effect, stabilise the shot. The actors and camera wobble as one. John Alonso talked about quarrelling with the director on CHINATOWN about whether handheld was appropriate, and found Polanski winning him over with this effect.

Continuing on through the camp, towards where the archers are doing target practice, Ross now decides to tell the truth about Macduff’s family tragedy. We don’t know why he lied before, and so we can’t really understand why he changes tack now. Never mind, onwards! as Boris Johnson is always saying. Leave your calamities in the rear view mirror then blame your critics for fixating on the past, while you line up a fresh disaster.

Polanski’s theory about casting, as expressed to his PIANIST screenwriter Ronald Harwood (in David Wilkinson’s excellent interview book), is that you basically choose actors for what they look like. This is bananas, and dumb, but also true. You can’t get away with useless actors, you need far more essential qualities than appearance, but still, an actor who is the correctly carved block of wood will get you a lot of what you need. It’s essential that they photograph right, that their look suggests the character. I guess Polanski gets the rest of the way by screaming at them, by doing lots of takes, by showing off his karate chops (he was taught by Bruce Lee).

Stephan Chase, then, as Malcolm, has presumably been cast for his long, noble, sensitive, rather sorrowful face, because Malcolm is always at the scene of bad news. John Stride is playing a sneak, but he has to appear trustworthy because on the whole people trust him. He has a bland, mild, round-edged face.

Terence Bayler is Macduff. He’s very dark and baleful of countenance, rather like Welles’ choice of Dan O’Herlihy, in fact. His eyes peer out of a black scowl. Very effective, and little to do with acting. He has a mobile mouth, which is common to classically trained British thesps with good diction. The American mumblers make better tough guys. Ken Campbell worked out that to be threatening on stage or screen, you have to be as good a ventriloquist as possible. You scare the enemy by saying things without seeming to. Bayler is fiery and baleful but doesn’t seem convincingly tough here, because of his flapping, twirling lips. He more than makes up for it in the final duel through sheer physical exertion.

Billy Wilder, asked if he was going to go see ROSEMARY’S BABY, replied “I wouldn’t touch it with a five foot Pole.” But Polanski apparently bore no grudge because he follows Wilder’s dictum about not showing a character’s face when they get bad news. Or almost. He has Bayler turn quickly away as Malcolm mutters “Merciful heavens,” all so quick it’s possible to get confused about who spoke. It’s quite a weak effect, I think. The bold and effective way would be to have his back to us because they’re walking, and then have him stop. Or he turns away to brace himself and we just see him stiffen. Anything direct, anything requiring an expression, an action, or a line, is kind of doomed to be inadequate to this awesome moment. Giving him an expression an action compounds the inadequacy.

But when Bayler trudges off into the middle distance to deal with the shock alone, that works very well, I think. From here on, by sticking to the script more or less, Polanski & co are on firm ground. Macduff keeps asking if his wife is dead too? And his kids? And his wife? It’s absurd and nightmarish and true.

When Polanski throws us a reverse angle, going from three back views to three frontal ones, it’s very effective, and Malcolm’s “Ne’er pull your hat upon your brows,” is occasioned by a very effective stance from Baylor. In the Welles film, Macduff doesn’t have a hat so he can’t pull it upon his brows. Polanski’s adaptations always take blind fidelity as their starting point: assume that everything is there for a reason, and assume you’ll find it out by sticking to it. He apparently filmed ROSEMARY’S BABY exactly as written in the novel, then had to reshape the film to get it to be a releasable length. His OLIVER TWIST includes characters and bits everyone leaves out of their adaptations. The bit about the hat, a strange line which is hard to picture, becomes THE BEST BIT. A psychologically true displacement activity.

(The other filmmaker who had this sort of experience for real was the late Peter Bogdanovich. His response to the news of his partner’s death was to fall to the floor and attempt to claw his way through it. Now there’s a displacement activity. The right actor might be able to do that in a scene, but probably the majority wouldn’t be able to pull it off. I was also very impressed by Abbie Cornish’s performance in BRIGHT STAR: sudden, shattering grief. It’s a difficult thing to show, and your audience may shrink or even giggle. Which is why artifice could be your friend. When the truth works, it’s better. When it doesn’t work, it’s much, much worse.)

When Malcolm proposes revenge as the cure for this tragedy, Baylor’s flat rendition of “He has no children,” is magnificently despairing. You can’t repay Macbeth for this. Revenge doesn’t actually work. But sometimes it may be essential anyway.

Macduff staggers about. He gets into a solo shot, viewed from the side, and when he wonders if heaven looked down at his family’s slaughter, he looks up at the bleak, bleary Welsh clouds.

The rest of the scene plays out in a continuation of this shot, as Macduff sinks to his knees and then, offered a sword by Malcolm, rises to his feet again. Despair is followed by the urge for justice which propels us forward into the next part of the story.

Surprisingly, Malcolm’s cynicism in using Macduff’s bereavement for his own ends isn’t greatly stressed here. He seems genuinely sympathetic.

The offering of the sword, however, seems to echo Macbeth’s earlier encounter with the phantom dagger. This is emphasised by the fact that Polanski frames him as headless, making the sword seem less attached to a person. Fate, or witches, or kings, are always handing us weapons and telling us to get busy. Macduff/Baylor’s fighting stance at the end seems less aggressive, more defensive and wary — he’s not exactly enthusiastic about the coming battle. But he seems to be trying to hallucinate it into being.

(The next scene, fittingly, shows Macbeth riding in long shot from right to left, as if towards Macduff and his vengeful sword.)

One thing Polanski and Tynan do that Welles oddly doesn’t: they end on a line and a moment and a command to go forward, rather than on an EXEUNT, which Shakespeare absolutely had to do in order to bring on the next scene, and which Welles chose to retain. Cutting Shakespeare is absolutely essential for the screen (and quite often necessary or advisable on stage), both to eliminate description of things that we can’t avoid SEEING, and therefore don’t need described, and to propel us forward with a cut.

Endnote: Kurosawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD isn’t a favourite of mine. It has stunning scenes, but Kurosawa seems to have no particular sympathy for Macbeth, which maybe you need. No sympathy translates into little interest. Anyway, Kurosawa is excused wrestling with the verse because he’s doing it in Japanese, and rather brilliantly he manages to tell the story entirely without Macduff, so this scene doesn’t appear at all.

*Don’t know what it means.

Heydrich Heydrich heydrich Heydrich

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 13, 2017 by dcairns

“Stop the film!”

HHhH is an excellent novel by Laurent Binet, telling the story of the rise and assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by two Czechoslovak patriots parachuted back into their homeland by the Brits. What makes the novel distinctive, and almost not a novel at all, is (a) the author’s fidelity to all the known facts, and his commentary on this fidelity — his refusal to imagine ANYTHING, or at any rate his disgusted self-denunciation whenever he does, part of (b) his constant commentary on his own process, and his reluctance even to accept dialogue quoted by sources when it sounds implausible. In such cases, he can offer a fictional version that strikes him as more likely, but he still has to denounce himself for making stuff up. In a way, it allows the author to be attractively modest — in the face of the heroic acts of the Czech and the Slovak, who knowingly sacrificed their lives out of certainty that their cause was just, Binet offers his own uncertainty, self-doubt, vacillation.

So we started watching the recent movie ANTHROPOID, which takes a piece of this story — just the mission, starting from the moment the heroes drop from the skies — and serves it up as a grim-faced and desaturated spectacle. It’s certainly because I’d just read Binet’s book, but I was intolerant of the movie’s mucking about with historical fact. Right after landing, our humourless, characterless heroes (a far cry from the rather jaunty, romantic figures Binet gleans from the historical record) run into a traitor and have to kill him to escape betrayal. In fact, the agents were discovered by a gamekeeper, who helped them. So the movie has gained an action sequence, albeit a very familiar one, presented in a shaky, muddy way by director Sean Ellis, but has lost a moving scene of an ordinary man risking his life for a noble cause, which is the kind of scene war movies used to live on.

I felt, personally, that the filmmakers had departed from the facts in order to offer something LESS INTERESTING.

Likewise, the presentation of Kubis and Gabcik, played by Christian Grey and the Scarecrow, as emotionless killing machines seemed like a less effective choice than Binet’s. The movie has a far shorter emotional distance to cover if the characters are already miserable, implacable, devoid of light and shade. They’re going to be spending quite a lot of the film staring death in the face. Will we notice any difference in their mood?

Incidentally, when they jumped from the British plane, the real Kubis & Gabcik landed, Binet tells us, in a graveyard. Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin eschew this. perhaps for fear of seeming to indulge in symbolism. But it really happened! It would be an interesting challenge to include this WITHOUT making it look symbolic. But, to be fair, I have no idea how this could be achieved.

When the film forgets to do wobbly sepiatone, it occasionally delivers beautiful shots, and the action scenes are pretty effective, but it has no humour and no gradation of tone. The task of creating characters defeats the screenwriters. A “poetic” touch at the end is brave, but seemed unearned, hokey and basically disastrous to Fiona & I.

Binet’s researches uncovered previous novels and films about these incidents. He’s impressed by John Carradine’s perf as Heydrich in Sirk’s HITLER’S MADMAN, which I wrote about here. A good B-picture ruined by the infusion of MGM class, was my harsh verdict, but I agree about JC. Beginning with the assassination, the film concentrates on the extermination of Lidice in retaliation. The movie’s biggest distortion of history is to stage the assassination at Lidice and not in Prague — surely the location of the incident was one of the few things known for certain at the time? But the filmmakers, it seems, couldn’t follow the Nazis’ logic — why was this random village chosen? So they had to invent a reason, when in reality there was none.

The most artistic responses to the incident in film are Humphrey Jennings amazing THE SILENT VILLAGE, which imagines the fate of Lidice befalling a Welsh mining village — aiming to de-exoticise the tragedy, to literally bring it home to British viewers; and Fritz Lang’s HANGMEN ALSO DIE!, a wholly fictitious account of the assassination and its aftermath. Binot is very forgiving of Sirk and Lang (and their writers, including “Bert” Brecht), allowing that the true facts weren’t known at the time and filmmakers had to just make stuff up — the good filmmakers did this thrillingly.

HANGMEN deserves a wholly entry on its fantastic rogue’s gallery of gloating Nazi pigs.  It’s a masterpiece. Binot rightly credits some of this to Brecht’s excellent, made-up story. It particular, it has a fruity and vile Heydrich played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski (CALIGARI, CASABLANCA) in a joke shop nose. I don’t think anyone’s ever seriously alleged that Heydrich was gay (it was getting engaged to two different women at once that got him drummed out of the navy, leading to him joining the Nazi party), but that seems to be how Twardowski is playing him. Heydrich DID have a very high voice, according to Binot, but nobody’s ever played him that way. It might seem silly. Probably the only way to pull it off would be to hire an actor already known for having a high voice, so it didn’t seem so much like an artistic choice — because there’s no way to make it clear to the audience that you’re being factual here.

Another Heydrich perf Binot admires is Kenneth Branagh’s in the 2001 TV play Conspiracy. Branagh plays to his strengths — his Heydrich is warm and matey, a little overbearing with it, but he comes on like everyone’s chum, making opposition difficult by his air of affable reasonableness. As Binot says, there aren’t really any accounts of Heydrich that stress chumminess as one of his qualities, but the effect is very disturbing. The whole show is terrific — Loring Mandel’s script mostly sticks to things the actual Nazi high command said on the record at Wannsee, plotting the Final Solution, and in the unrecorded conversations between bouts at the conference table he draws heavily on other conversations they are known to have had. And there’s none of the wretched “As you know…” style of exposition we’ve grown sadly used to in British drama.

(STARTED watching MY WEEK WITH MARILYN with friends. The cackhanded exposition was so pervasive and dumb (Fiona says the film gets better later) that I coined the phrase “As you know, I’m your father,” and after a few real examples of this kind of writing we almost convinced ourselves that it was an actual piece of dialogue. I’m not sure I want to blame Adrian Hodges, the credited writer, because this is exactly the sort of thing execs the Weinstein Bros would insist on being included. They honestly believe the purpose of having characters is to explain things to the audience.)

Binot seems to have missed OPERATION: DAYBREAK (why the colon?), directed by Lewis Gilbert and adapted by Ronald Harwood (THE PIANIST) from the novel by Alan Burgess, which he does know about. The film is pretty factual, it seems to me, though aesthetically quite dull, apart from the odd choice of David Hentschel’s synth score. It has a fine Heydrich, Anton Differing (he of the combustible behind) — at last, an actor with a big enough nose! I remember the film itself being a little boring, which is odd given the authentic life-or-death stakes involved.

And now there’s a film of HHhH (you wait ages for a Heydrich and then two come along at once), which I guess, following my practice of capitalising film titles, I will have to call HHHH. An awkward title either way. (Binot writes that if the book we’re holding isn’t called Operation Anthropoid, we’ll know his publisher won the argument.) The acronym stands for the German version of the phrase Heydrich Is Himmler’s Brain (which is the small H?), and not for Heydrich Heydrich heydrich Heydrich, as I may have inadvertently given you the impression. This was a popular “meme” in the Czech Protectorate, before they knew what memes were. I guess it’s precisely the fact of Heydrich being Himmler’s brain that made it such a damn good idea to kill him.

The film will have to live up to the book’s high standards of accuracy, though frankly it CAN’T — it will have to invent conversations and present them without apology or comment (I’ll be impressed as hell if it attempts anything as pomo or self-critical as the book — it just won’t). It seems to have a pretty good Heydrich in Aussie Jason Clarke, although oddly he’s doing it with an English accent and all the others are putting on German accents. Playing characters who in reality would be speaking a different language, and doing them with a mild accent, always struck me as silly. Although here we have Stephen Graham looking like a VERY good match for Himmler, and I guess if he’d played it with his native Liverpool accent, that would have been unacceptable. Though not to me, because I delight in marvellous variety.

(Graham is a smashing actor and a master of accents. He plays cockney in the recent series Taboo. Tom Hardy is playing the lead role as a very good impersonation of Oliver Reed — only Keith Allen has done it better. So Stephen Graham comes on as the late Bob Hoskins, not to be put down. The more Hardy bats his eyelashes and whispers in a threatening growl, the more expansive and waannafow Graham becomes. You may not recollect that Hoskins pronounced “wonderful” as “waannafow,” but take it from me, he did. It was part of what made him so waannafow.)

Have I missed any good Heydrichs? What are your favourite performances of members of the Nazi command, if you have any? Oh, I know… Goebbels is always good value. But let’s look BEYOND GOEBBELS…


In the ruins of Berlin

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , on July 11, 2016 by dcairns


TAKING SIDES (2001) seemed like it would be an interesting thing — scripted by Ronald Harwood (THE DRESSER, THE PIANIST) from his play, directed by Istvan Szabo, and starring Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgård, based on a fascinating historical situation: the “denazification” by American investigators of acclaimed German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler.


And indeed, the film is pretty compelling, even if it never quite finds a style. Aided by the great production designer Ken Adam, Szabo stages some truly impressive large-scale exteriors, opening out the play with repurposed spaces (a market under a bridge, a library in a former synagogue). But this leaves the bulk of the drama — everything from the original text, in fact — to be staged in a single interior, and it has to be as cinematically interesting and finally more climactic.


Adam does something quite odd with this set. It’s very grand, but the view out the window is a b&w photograph.

In the useful making-of doc, we get to see this view in more detail, and it’s actually a very impressive cyclorama. But still, b&w. There’s one brief scene where the window view is overexposed, and it looks convincing. And at night, with snowfall, it looks convincing. But for most of the movie it just sits there, a stylised element in theatrical adaptation that’s trying to be realistic. Adam was a genius, so I’m sure he had a plan here. Something didn’t quite come together, maybe?


Keitel is a bit too shouty for my taste — but in the excellent interview book Ronald Harwood’s Adaptations, the author is able to justify this choice: “…the American occupation forces were deeply, deeply aggressive towards the Germans. They were shown the Nazi archive films, they had seen the evidence of the concentration camps, and they were angry.” Still, he feels rather broadly written and played, whereas the more contained Skarsgård is really excellent, embodying the mysterious star power Furtwangler was said to possess.

There are two things in the interview I wish Harwood had managed to work into his screenplay, actually.

  1. There are many stories, he tells us, of Furtwangler walking into rehearsals where someone else is conducting, and the orchestra would just start to play better, due to his very presence.
  2. Though Furtwangler played for Hitler’s birthday and just before the Nuremberg rallies, he also protected Jewish musicians. But what Harwood says in the book that isn’t in the film is that he only protected the best musicians. Like he saw the Holocaust as an opportunity to winnow down the field. I mean, Oskar Schindler didn’t just rescue the most skilled machinists, did he?


The book could do with more rigorous proofing (there’s stuff like “Carol Reid”) but it’s a small-press product and what counts is the illuminating content — it’s an encounter with a master craftsman and it makes me want to check out THE DRESSER (both versions) and THE PIANIST and OLIVER TWIST again.

You can check out Furtwangler’s talents  right here ~