Archive for Rosemary’s Baby

The Plot Coagulates

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2017 by dcairns

So, this time watching THE BIG SLEEP, I decided to keep notes and try to track the plot. And think about to what extent it makes sense and why the audience seems to not care.

Hawks liked to brag about how the story didn’t make sense and even Raymond Chandler didn’t know who did it, and said that afterwards he never worried about plot. What does that mean, and is it true? Like a lot of Hollywood filmmakers, Hawks was a big fat liar, happy as long as he was telling a good tale. It’s highly likely the fabled phone call to Chandler never happened, isn’t it? Unless someone can point to Chandler acknowledging it…

It’s perfectly true that what THE BIG SLEEP is nominally about — a bunch of offscreen events and characters — isn’t of much importance to the audience. We do need to understand what Bogart is supposed to be doing, so we can be invested in his success. So that, at the end of the film, if some bad guys are punished and Bogart survives and gets the girl, we’ll be happy even if we’re still scratching some small residual part of our collective head.

Truffaut observed to Hitchcock that a lot of movies have scenes where two characters discuss an absent third, and the audience can’t recall what they’re on about, because we don’t remember names as easily as faces, especially at the movies. David Mamet put it more bluntly, and in all-caps: “ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.” I quoted him on Twitter recently to express some frustration with episode 12 of Twin Peaks. (I know think something interesting and conscious was going on with that episode’s cluster of unseen characters, though I still don’t know what.)

Well, THE BIG SLEEP seems to be entirely composed of crocks of shit, by Mamet’s measure. Yet, rather than being undramatic and expositional, it fulfills Hawks’ credo — it gets some fun out of every scene. We enjoy it so much we don’t mind that we have no idea what’s going on. And since every scene is enjoyable, the wrap-up doesn’t have to give us a super-detailed summary of exactly what happened, since that would be a little dry and boring.

It’s worth distinguishing the scene from the backstory — nearly every scene is about trying to figure out what various offscreen characters did in the past. But the movement of the scene itself involves present tense, onscreen characters, and what they get up to provides the entertainment.

Everything’s clear enough at first: we pay attention when Marlowe is given his briefing by the General, because audiences like to know what the story is about. We’re just as happy to have M brief Bond, or have the RAF officer point at a map with a pointer. Only a small amount of decoration is needed to make such stuff mildly amusing — the General’s extremely characterful dialogue provides that. And we’ve already had amusing encounters with his twisted daughter and his butler. The exposition functions the same way as “Once Upon a Time” in a fairy tale: we don’t care about Snow White’s mother, we barely meet her, but we happily submit to being told about her because it’s the way into the story. Once we’re in, we hope to be intrigued and emotionally involved, but we’ll listen for a while to some raw narrative information as long as the indicators are promising.

The sparring with Bacall takes things up to the next level (my favourite favourite thing, the way Bogart SNORTS in reply to Betty’s “My, you’re a mess, aren’t you?”), and then the bookshop stuff is fantastic — a prime example of Hawks getting some fun out of it, assisted by Bogart’s camping it up. I wish Humph did an entire film as that character. This all adds up to just about the best first half hour of any forties movie, and then a helpful corpse turns up just when one is needed.

This Buddha head camera must be what Robert Montgomery used to photograph THE LADY IN THE LAKE.

I think we start to lose hope of following the story around the time one body disappears and another turns up. If it had been the same body, we’d feel we were getting somewhere. That and the multitude of blackmailers and chauffeurs, each of whom is mentioned before he appears, causing us to wonder if we’re supposed to know the name. One blackmailer and both chauffeurs never really appear at all, except as corpses. We come to feel that keeping track of who did what to whom before the movie began is about as worthwhile as counting the revolvers Bogie collects during the course of the action.

Good use of Regis Toomey, paralleling the good use of Richard Barthelmess in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS: both former leading men whose stardom had faded since the early thirties.

I started scribbling questions as the film went on, and soon had enough to convince me that an audience couldn’t be expected to remember them all and still take in new information, which would be the point at which they’d give up and just trust the movie to sort itself out. Sit back and enjoy it. But I kept with my notes, and was able to tick the questions off as they were eventually answered. Though none of that gave me any particular satisfaction. What’s satisfying is when Bogart gets Canino and Eddie Mars killed, the two men responsible for the only onscreen murder of a character we’ve actually met and can therefore care about — inevitable victim Elisha Cook, Jr.

Oh, I guess we met Brody the blackmailer and saw him get killed, too. But we don’t like him. Funny how the guy who kills him kind of looks like Truffaut, without really looking like Truffaut at all.

A really good pair of heavies, Pete and Sidney. “Is he any good?” asks Bogie, re Sidney. “Sidney? Sidney’s company for Pete,” comes the reply. So Pete’s good, but only when he has Sidney for company. Marvelous.

Marlowe seems to quite enjoy Eddie Mars when he first meets him: I guess the two have a Hawksian respect for one another’s professionalism, but Marlowe becomes sterner once he places the guilt for little Elisha’s killing where it belongs. Still, Mars would probably have won if he didn’t have to rely on idiots to do his bidding, and if there weren’t a bunch of other, random idiots gumming up the works.

John Ridgely is Mars and Bob Steele is Canino — not really star players, but very good here. Impressive how Hawks can raise them to the level required. Ridgely’s timing with Bogart is particularly fine. Manny Farber argued that only the first half of the film is really good, and he has a point, sort of — the immortal stuff is all in that first half hour. But there are really good scenes all through it.

It’s a first-person detective story the way THE MALTESE FALCON mainly is (presenting Archer’s murder from outside Spade’s viewpoint just for dramatic impact), but it’s interesting what use this is to Hawks. He uses it to restrict our knowledge to just what Marlowe knows, making this in theory a “fair-play” detective story. we ought to have the same chance of solving the mystery as Marlowe. But since Hawks doesn’t care if we’re keeping up, does that matter? There’s no Agatha Christie surprise to the outcome, in which bad guy Mars turns out to be the bad guy. Or there is, I guess — Carmen Sternwood started the whole thing by bumping off a chauffeur. Or is that two chauffeurs? I’m looking at my notes but I can’t seem to understand them…

One problem of the “closed narrative” can be the plodding effect of following one character around — it’s certainly part of why I find EYES WIDE SHUT kind of pedestrian, even as I also find it fascinatingly peculiar. Ditto THE NINTH GATE. And yet, every time a scene begins with Bogart coming in a door, my heart soars. Those tend to be the really good scenes in this film.

Hawks observed that you need a really good, interesting star to pull off this kind of tale — which is where Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp in boring mode are a problem, I guess. Polanski pulls off the closed narrative approach brilliantly in ROSEMARY’S BABY, where the claustrophobic concentration on Rosemary’s viewpoint also allows a build-up of doubt about her sanity and her the accuracy of her perceptions. None of that here: despite being sleep-deprived throughout, as detectives always seem to be, Bogart always seems to be fresh as a daisy and at the top of his game, even if that face would seem tailor-made for insomnia.

(In THE MALTESE FALCON its Spade’s secretary, Effie, who gets the sleepless night. A brilliant character, Effie, who deserves her own book.)

Of course there’s the earlier edit of this movie, with more exposition and less glamour. Hawks told Bogdanovich he made the film very cheaply because he had a contract that would get him a big share of the profits. Since every Hawks anecdote is about his mastery and victory, he neglects to mention that he was forced to shoot new Betty Bacall scenes, which presumably pushed the costs up substantially…

I’m fascinated by Eddie Mars’ casino, which is full of men in evening dress and men and women dressed as cowboys. Almost Lynchian. Or, better, with its cowboys and drapes, like a Glen Baxter cartoon. Is this an accurate portrayal of a forties casino?

And then the ending, which is perfectly satisfying (as opposed to TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT’s which is a sublime grace note — I find it impossible to say why it’s so beautiful — or as opposed to Huston’s KEY LARGO, where the action climax is a disappointing shrug after the intensity of the build-up). But personally, I don’t think the doctors are going to be able to help Carmen Sternwood, who strikes me as probably a psychopath. And I can’t see how the Bogie-Bacall thing really has a future: she’s been lying to him all through the picture. Also, she was doing it to protect her sister, but now that that’s failed, she’s suddenly remarkably happy.

It’s a movie ending, in other words, fine for a movie that embraces its movieness as much as this one. If I had to guess, I’d credit it to Jules Furthman, the most movie-ish of the three credited screenwriters. It has nothing to do with Chandler, nothing much to do with the rest of the movie, but respects the audience’s wish that the two delightfully sparring stars should share a final clinch that promises Happy Ever After. We don’t HAVE to believe it any more than we’re required to believe anything here. We’re all sleeping the big sleep, dreaming the big dream of cinema.

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These bloody women they will not stop bothering you

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 24, 2016 by dcairns

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Irene prepares to get things Dunne.

Don’t worry, I haven’t gone all misogynist on you. Just quoting Pete & Dud, while also gearing up to take a look at some of John Cromwell’s monster women.

Bette Davis (see yesterday) is probably the most awful, but she has some stiff competition. Hope Emerson in CAGED is practically a literal she-monster, and Cromwell’s noir outings featured the occasional femme fatale. But the trio of Laura Hope Crews (mother), Constance Cummings (lover) and Kay Francis (wife) have an unexpected amount in common.

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THE SILVER CORD (1933) seems to be the first Hollywood film to aim at that great American holy cow, motherhood, with Laura Hope Crews shrill and fluttering as the controlling, near-incestuous mother of Joel McCrea and Eric Linden. McCrea’s role is almost unplayable, since he has to appear blind to what kind of a family set-up he’s from, while retaining some measure of the audience’s respect — he gives it the old college try, though, and comes out better than he does in BANJO ON MY KNEE. Eric Linden was probably pre-code cinema’s pre-eminent pisspants, and is made to measure as the (even) more spineless son, easily manipulated into giving up the adorable and beauteous Frances Dee because she doesn’t live up to mama’s standards.

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A pensive, festive Linden.

It takes Irene Dunne (in one of several lead roles for Cromwell) to unmask mother, taking her down with surgical precision (Dunne is a biologist — she’s told in Scene One that she’s one of those women who CAN have a career and family, and this news is delivered by Gustav von Seyffertitz, so it is AUTHORITATIVE). McCrea STILL can’t see what’s staring him in the face until Mummy Pittypat flat-out confesses that she’s put all her romantic yearnings into motherhood, and she’s PROUD of it, goddamn it.

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Upon that same rear projection screen, KONG would roar!

The thing is a giant creaking play (by Sidney Howard), but Cromwell, working as was often the case from a script by Jane Murfin, applies long, fluid traveling shots (gliding crabwise  through those weird doorways that seem to have only half a door frame, to admit the camera crew) and takes advantage of RKO’s early facility with rear-projection for a dramatic accident on the ice. It’s not actually a Christmas film, but it’s one of several Cromwell’s suited to this time of year, with its snowy backdrops (see also MADE FOR EACH OTHER, IN NAME ONLY, and especially SINCE YOU WENT AWAY).

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THIS MAN IS MINE stars Dunne again (who doesn’t get enough credit as a great pre-code dame along with Stanwyck, Bette & Joan &c), battling the deliciously wicked Constance Cummings (above) who wants to steal away her husband, Ralph Bellamy (but WHY, for pity’s sake? Because he’s there, I suppose). Dunne has her delicate, piano-playing, landscape-painting hands full with all these Constance Cummings and goings.

Amusingly, this also has Sidney Blackmer, making it a kind of ROSEMARY’S BABY pre-party for Dr. Sapirstein and Roman Castavet.

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ALL OF THEM WITCHES! Dunne & Bellamy/Sapirstein, Blackmer/Castavet and Cummings.

The low-key melodrama is leavened with considerable humour, most of it from the beastly Constance’s more sensible sister, Kay Johnson (Mrs. Cromwell at the time). Describing CC as “a sort of cross between a tidal wave and a smallpox epidemic,” she keeps the whole, dignified thing from getting too self-serious. Slightly surprising third-act violence when Bellamy slugs Constance unconscious with a sock in the eye, and Dunne brains him in turn with a picture frame. Well, civilisation must be preserved.

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As in THE SILVER CORD, the villainess condemns herself out of her own mouth, destroying the illusion she’s built up, and the exact same thing happens a third time in the later IN NAME ONLY (1939). Kay Francis, at the tail-end of her career as leading lady, is hanging on to Cary Grant in a loveless marriage, because she wants not only his money but his dad’s (Charles Coburn, by some genetic prodigy of mutation). Grant meets and falls for widow Carole Lombard, lighting a nice fire under the whole scenario.

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This is the most satisfying of the three, though they’re all worth seeing. It’s like Grant and Lombard are trying to be their own dazzling movie star selves, and every bastard around them is trying to drag them down to ordinary unhappiness with the rest of humanity. Oddly, Grant shines brightest when sparring with catty Helen Vinson (another survivor of the pre-code era, with her sharp little teeth) as a subsidiary bitch. Memorable action involves the worst hotel in the history of cinema, and Francis condemning herself out of her own mouth exactly like her predecessors. A door shuts on her with awesome finality.

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Also: Peggy Ann Garner, Grady Sutton. (“Do you drink? How do you stand it?”)

 

It always happens

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2016 by dcairns

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On a whim — I’m a whimsical fellow — I made a gif of a dummy Kim Novak falling past the mission tower window in VERTIGO.

Stare at it long enough and you will begin to get past the initial amusement. You will see that what is happening is not funny, but terrible.

The shot in the movie itself is bathetic rather than tragic, escaping a Bad Laugh only because it’s part of a powerful montage with good acting and music. What’s wrong with the shot?

I think Hitchcock is up against the fact that figures falling past windows are somehow comic. There’s a whole Monty Python sketch about this, and one also thinks of Charles Durning’s cartoony plunge in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. Rigid dummies are also funny, though not as much as floppy ones. Did nobody think of manufacturing a realistically articulated dummy with a degree of stiffness in the joints? The expense of the exercise may have been a factor, but I bet I could knock up a better dummy in a day, if supplied with some mannikin parts and a wig and costume.

Are you actually reading this or have you become hypnotized by the perpetual motion falling Novak?

As often with Hitchcock’s less effective moments, the artificiality is an issue. He’s built a full-sized window and a big bit of background art, more of a cyclorama than a matte painting (we know this because it’s recycled in ONE-EYED JACKS). So there’s no reason I can see why the dummy has to be superimposed, but it appears to have been matted in afterwards. You could actually have placed a trampoline off the bottom of frame and dropped a real Kim Novak into it — it would have been hilarious when she bounced back into view, but George Tomasini would have cut by then. You could rely on George to get things like that right.

(Unlike Frank J. Urioste, who allows us to see a stuntman’s legs waving as he hits a crash mat just out of frame in ROBOCOP, even though he’s supposed to have been flung from a high window. Strange carelessness, in what’s otherwise a superbly cut film.)

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Then there’s the pose. Of all the possible angles of descent, head first seems to me the most potentially comical. Because it shows the ersatz Novak full-figure, in her most recognisable aspect (although we’re not used to seeing her upside down), Hitch may have thought it would be helpful for clarity, since we would only have an instant to recognize the plummeting figure. But I think the context he’s set up would allow him to get away with being less clear, and a less perfect angle would enhance the sense of glimpsed reality. Basically any angle that’s not upskirt would be better.

(See Polanski’s POV shot in ROSEMARY’S BABY of Ruth Gordon on the phone in the bedroom. The cinematographer was astonished that Polanski chose to obscure most of the actor with the door jamb, but that awkward framing is what convinces us we’re seeing something through the eyes of a real-life onlooker who cannot be expected to have a perfect view.)

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Anything else? Well, the dummy (and even in under a second we are in no doubt that it IS a dummy) seems to be falling at a very slight angle. I guess that’s possible if she stood on the edge and pitched forward, or did an Olympic-style dive, but it makes us wonder about things that aren’t relevant to the emotion of the scene.

Still, it’s been voted the best film ever made, so I guess Hitch was doing something right.