Archive for Royal Dano

“You’ve Outlived Your Time”: Man of the West

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2013 by dcairns

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Guest Shadowplayer Imogen Smith (a regular contributor to The Chiseler) on a late Gary Cooper movie which is also Anthony Mann’s last western ~

Elegy was always at the heart of the western, a genre born to celebrate a world already vanishing. In the late 1950s and ‘60s, this nostalgic mood was heightened both by the aging of Hollywood’s great western stars and by the radical, out-with-the-old changes that were reshaping architecture, technology, and pop culture. Movies like El Dorado (1966) and Ride the High Country (1962) draw attention to their heroes’ age, their gray hair, failing eyesight and creaking joints, but show them effortlessly outclassing callow, cocky youngsters—a put-down aimed at America’s exploding youth culture.

A far darker view of age, the burden of the past, and the west’s unbreakable cycle of violence appears in Anthony Mann’s harsh masterpiece Man of the West (1958). This was the third western in which Mann mined his obsession with King Lear (he contemplated but never produced a fourth, to be called The King). While Mann never made an outright adaptation of the Shakespeare play, he drew on its central figure, an all-powerful ruler beset by physical weakness and emotional blindness, and on the theme of greed, jealousy and infighting swirling around the declining monarch. In The Furies (1950) and The Man from Laramie (1955), the Lear figures are cattle barons who have usurped huge territories over which their children fight for control. In Man of the West the decaying monument is instead the leader of a gang of bandits. While the plot elements of Mann’s last western owe less to Lear than those of the two earlier films, Man of the West captures best the overwhelming flavor of waste and ruin, of senseless destruction (Kurosawa rightly titled his Lear film Ran, “chaos”), and of irrevocable loss that suffuse the play. Mann’s vision holds true to some of the play’s most famous and most devastating lines: “I am bound upon a wheel of fire,” and, “The oldest hath borne most; we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

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This mood would be diminished if a younger actor played the lead role. At 57, Gary Cooper was probably at least twenty years older than his character, Link Jones, is meant to be—for that matter, he was ten years older than Lee J. Cobb, who plays his foster father. Cooper already knew he had the cancer that would kill him three years later, and his gaunt, pain-wracked dignity gives moving depth to his portrayal of a reformed outlaw forced to relive the past he sought to escape. Cooper’s lambent beauty was already strangely expressive of some ingrown hurt in the silent western The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), and here his drawn, haggard face expresses just the right mute suffering. The part might have gone to James Stewart if he hadn’t had a falling out with Mann, but Cooper’s much more reticent presence, with none of Stewart’s effusiveness, suits the film’s austerity.

The opening scene contains the movie’s only light moments, as Link Jones boards a train for the first time in his life, on a mission to hire a schoolteacher for the newborn town of Good Hope. The bashful, taciturn Link is comically disconcerted by the jolting of the rails and the problem of how to fold his long legs into the cramped seats. But this innocent opening is soon shattered when the train is held up by bandits, and Link loses the money that was entrusted to him for the schoolmarm and finds himself stranded in the high plains, far from any town, with a saloon singer named Billie (Julie London) and an amiable, nervous, crooked gambler named Beasley (Arthur O’Connell).

He leads them to the only shelter he can find: a little grey farmhouse set in a valley of lush green grass. Lonely and sinister, it is also a haunting vision of long-lost Home. It’s the hideout of the gang who robbed the train, and Link knows this because he used to be one of them, before his conversion into a peace-loving family man. Inside, it’s dark and grimy like a cave, and there is a kind of primal horror laced with desire as Link re-enters it. In order to protect his companions, he pretends that he has come back to rejoin the gang, and claims that Billie is “his woman.” His dilemma is stark: if he kills the outlaws, he will sink to their level and return to the former self he wants to shed, but the vicious gang-members understand nothing except violence and the authority of their leader, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb).

Dock is crafty, and perhaps crazy; a blustery, infirm but still dangerous force of pure criminal mania. He raised Link, taught him to rob and kill, and still regards him as his favorite son. The past the film evokes for Link is of unspecified and unspeakable depravity. Dock Tobin and his boys revel in animalistic cruelty, yet they share a deep familial intimacy too, the fierce loyalty of outcasts who have no one else. (The screenplay, with its focus on group dynamics, honor, and the effects of violence, was by Reginald Rose, author of Crime in the Streets and Twelve Angry Men.)

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Scenes of torture and bizarre methods of murder are a trademark of Anthony Mann’s movies, but nothing he filmed is more upsetting than the scene in which one of Dock’s gang, a bestial young punk named Coaley (Jack Lord), forces Billie to strip for the men, holding a knife to Link’s throat that draws a smear of blood on his Adam’s apple as he witnesses the violation he’s helpless to prevent. Billie undresses in a numb, out-of-body trance; Coaley and the mute, half-witted Trout (Royal Dano) watch lustfully; and Dock Tobin sits, feigning aloofness but really controlling the whole scene, demonstrating his power both by allowing Link to be humiliated, and by stopping the exhibition before it goes too far.

Dock has never gotten over Link’s abandonment, and desperately wants to believe that his son has returned, even as he instinctively distrusts him. Link’s cousin Claude knows the prodigal-son act is a sham, and hates him for cheating the old man to whom he himself has remained blindly devoted. Claude is the man Link might have been. Unlike the crude young gang-members he’s strong, disciplined and quietly deadly; he’s sincere in his love for Dock, but he has the mindless amorality of a good soldier. Link grew up and learned to think for himself, while the others have rotted on the vine, and he fears being pulled back into his former life by his anger and hatred. He gets into a savage brawl with Coaley and avenges Billie’s honor by tearing her tormentor’s clothes off, leaving him so humiliated that he sobs with childish rage in his shabby long-johns.

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The film’s denouement is set appropriately in a ghost town, a dusty little strip of derelict houses in the desert. The gang has come there to rob a bank, not realizing it long ago closed when the mining town went bust, an irony that drives home Link’s final condemnation of Dock: “You’ve outlived your time.” The expedition devolves into a spree of pointless, wasteful violence, which ends with Link wiping out the whole gang, though not before they’ve unleashed cruelty and death on defenseless women. Another film could have presented this as a happy ending, but here there is no sense of purgation or new beginnings. Link has finally erased his past, but reaffirmed his identity as a killer, and lost any peace he achieved in the town of Good Hope. Billie must lose him as he returns to his family, leaving her loneliness and yearning for love unappeased. Mann’s best films all end this way; his heroes seem hollowed-out by their experiences, having been pushed to an extremity from which they can never make their way back.

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Man of the West is a grand, classical western, yet it also feels like the last western: by the end the elements of the genre have been so thoroughly stripped, spoiled and exhausted that it’s hard to imagine how they could be revived. Even the straightforward title becomes a troubling question: who is the “man of the west”? Is he the man who must destroy his past and wipe out his origins in order to move into the future? Or is he the man who has outlived his time, a decrepit remnant of a vanished world? One thing is certain: “we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

Imogen Smith

UK DVD: Man Of The West [DVD]
US DVD: Man of the West
Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy
In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City

Bible Studies

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2013 by dcairns

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Spectacular split-focus diopter lens shot, one of many…

KING OF KINGS, the Nick Ray version, really is a good film, it just doesn’t have a very good Jesus. A shame, since everyone else in it, apart from a few dubbed Spaniards, brings something interesting to the feast. The array of bad guys are amazing fun, rather like in DUNE (in epic cinema, only the villains get to enjoy life) — Gregoire Aslan and Frank Thring make a smutty brace of Herods, Hurd Hatfield and Viveca Lindfors are a smooth Mr and Mrs Pilate, and Brigid Bazlen a red-hot jail-bait Salome. Also Rita Gam from SIGN OF THE PAGAN — and Orson Welles’ VO mentions “the sign of the pagan” being nailed to the temple walls, in straight-faced homage to the Sirk cheesefest.

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The clothes-line of evil.

Harry Guardino, though apparently determined to give us his best Burt Lancaster impersonation, is awfully good as Barabbas, and Rip Torn (unrecognizable in his svelte and vulpine youth) is an ace Judas. Flawed is interesting.

Of course, people like Robert Ryan as John the Baptist, or Royal Dano as Peter aren’t allowed to play flawed (except in Peter’s denunciation scene), but both manage some good scenes. RR is just such a powerhouse. I bet even when they cut his head off he was still the tallest man in Judea. Not sure about his caveman costume, but you can’t have everything.

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“I found his casting offensive at the time.” ~ Martin Scorsese.

As everybody already knows, Jeffrey Hunter as J.C. is the weak link in the Super-Technirama chain. It’s American Epic Acting at its most lifeless, without the muscularity of a Charlton Heston to give it basic dynamism. When Ray stages the Sermon on the Mount on the move, it’s terribly effective (one of the things Scorsese borrowed for his LAST TEMPTATION was the idea of Jesus in action, rather than posing for a stained glass window as in THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD), but doubly hampered by the facts that Hunter is a poor orator and walks awkwardly.

The best thing I can say about Hunter is that his smug smirk when he’s being all mysterious adds a bit of irritation to the character, which is something few actors have pursued (well, maybe Ted Neeley in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR). You’re not supposed to want to slap Jesus. The sensation is surprising, and therefore interesting, and so the movie starts to breathe.

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Thring enthroned.

Unfortunately, it sometimes seems to be drowning under the waves of Miklos Rosza music. I love M.R., but he does tend to do the expected thing, especially in epics. It’s schmaltzy, and that’s fine in BEN HUR but it’s not the effect Ray’s aiming for here, mostly. One the other hand, the Welles VO, scripted by Ray Bradbury from an original idea by God, rarely lets up but gives the film the grandeur and religious emotion Hunter lacks. Welles may not have been the greatest actor ever, but he had a terrific gift for evoking awe and terror in his voice — hammy, perhaps, but effective, like the film.

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The production design  and costumes by Georges Wakhevitch are incredibly imaginative, convincing and distinctive. Not quite as monumental as some other Bronston productions of the era, though certainly not skimping on grandeur, but the use of patterns, wall paintings, and even graffiti creates a unique world that recalls Fellini’s call for his SATYRICON to be “a science fiction film set in the past.”

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What nobody seems to talk about is the film’s intent. The assumption may be that a Bronston film has no intent, beyond spending the Hollywood money trapped in Franco’s Spain, creating something that could be exported and profitable. But a Ray movie does have a cause, or at least a personal angle.

The first things that struck me was the this was a truly post-Holocaust bible movie. The opening features Rabbis executed by firing squad, and bodies being slung into a pit and burned on mass pyres. Accordingly, the film plays like the antithesis of Mel Gibson’s antisemitic sermon of hate THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST — here, it’s stressed that Herod is not Jewish, and Pilate, rather than being portrayed as a struggling politician trying to make the best of a rotten assignment, as is often the case, is a hissy, sadistic oppressor, and an idiot who stirs up political foment against Rome by his insensitive response to local traditions. The scene where the mob is offered Jesus and chooses Barabbas happens off-screen — we hear about it along with Barabbas (“Your supporters yelled loudest”) and the dramatic point being made is that Barabbas is moved by the greatness of Christ, not that the durn Jews killed Jeebus.

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The other shift of emphasis is away from the miraculous. Ray shows healings, some of which are staged to look as if Jesus might be raising the dead, but we don’t get any unambiguous statement that he does so. The drooling maniac is healed in a way that doesn’t look supernatural so much as spiritual or even psychological — Jesus embraces him and brings him to his senses. The walking on water and feeding of the five thousand bit is only described to us in a report to Pilate — the strong impression is that these wacky tales may be merely mass hysteria and rumour-mongering.

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THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST similarly tried to soft-pedal the magic-working, showing Jesus using herbs and stuff in his healing (though Willem Dafoe does cure one guy using a Thelma Schoonmaker jump-cut to vanish his deformity). You can’t altogether strip the wizardry from the New Testimony without upsetting the very people who are likely to buy tickets, but Ray’s shift of emphasis confirms that he’s not particularly a religious artist, but definitely one involved in humanity — violence, sexuality, politics and psychology are his daily bread.

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This impressive closing shot, by the way, was merely a test Ray did to see if the idea had legs. The producers, who had abruptly tired or pouring money into the mega-production, refused to let him reshoot it, and stuck the temp version in. Another compromised Ray ending — if you have the DVD of REBEL, you can see the last shot the movie was supposed to have — one of the best widescreen closing shots ever executed. The day somebody decided not to use it (after Ray had walked off the picture in post), Warner Brothers must have been home to the largest concentrations of human stupidity anywhere in the world.

Carnival of Latex

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2012 by dcairns

The red balloon.

7 FACES OF DR. LAO, an uncategorizable western fantasy from George THE TIME MACHINE Pal, achieves some of the grand, poetic, mysterious beauty it aims for, despite inexplicably looking like an episode of Star Trek much of the time — low-horizon prairie cyclorama sets alternating with overfilmed scrubland locales.

(Fellini claimed he felt surprise at seeing the Trevi Fountain still standing after he’d filmed it: like all sets, it should have been torn down after serving its purpose. And the camera is known to steal souls. By that logic, Bronson Canyon ought to have been erased by now, swept away by the camera pans restlessly caressing its boulders.)

I’m inclined to blame the cinematographer, Robert J. Bronner, an experienced MGM pro who did fine work on musicals like IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER and SILK STOCKINGS, but he employs the same bright, colourful look here — everybody else involved seems well aware that this is not, despite advertising to the contrary, a kids’ film*. What it needs are shadows, both to enhance mystery and to hide the cheapness of the sets. Few films would have benefitted more from black & white.

Pan pipes.

Or from Orson Welles behind the camera. George Pal is no Welles, but I don’t want to be harsh about him, because he got this made, and he occasionally pulls out just the right shots — as in the mad spinning of the Pan sequence. Sweaty, gasping Barbara Eden emotes hotly as the camera burls round her, and her POV is an incessant pan, following Pan, whose goat-legged prance is wonderfully antic and teasing but wouldn’t amount to anything were it not for the brazen eroticism of her performance…

I dream of Eden.

Whew. That’s one of the centrepiece good scenes, the others being the incredible, brutal demolition of a fading widow by the fortune-teller Appollonius, and the Giant Serpent’s take-down of bad guy Arthur O’Connell is equally harsh and memorable.

This is the original of what became Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (and then Stephen King’s It) but Charles G. Finney’s book (titled The Circus of Dr Lao) is sharper and weirder, since Lao’s circus is neither straightforwardly benign nor malign, it inhabits a Willie Wonka Wonderland of rather cruel magic working in the service of … what? Humanity? Or Dr Lao’s private amusement? Charles Beaumont, that excellent scribe of Twilight Zones and Corman Poes, softens Lao considerably and gives him a more linear mission statement, but traces of the original remain. In the most intriguing adaptations, not all the nails are knocked flat.

Pal’s performers are rather excellent. Eden does the buttoned-down librarian act rather well, but really throws herself into the unbuttoning. The Pan scene is about eroticism in a way that seems distinctly unusual, not just for a kid’s film, but for any mainstream Hollywood product. Sex is generally part of something else, love interest or plot point, to give it plausible deniability: this is about lust and frustration and how good/bad frustration feels.

THAT’S why I think of  Star Trek — the snowman could be the Salt Vampire’s twin!

Of course, Tony Randall is “the whole show.” With a series of excellent William Tuttle makeups (WT won an Oscar for this before the make-up Oscar actually existed) he plays Lao first as a crudely stereotyped “old Chinaman,” then with a standard American accent, suggesting that Lao is actually taking the mickey out of his listeners’ expectations, then with a series of disparate and mostly quite terrible accents — his Scottish one starts out sort of identifiable, at least, before morphing into (I think) Irish and (I think) Welsh. Rotten accents aside, it’s a terrific perf, or series of perfs: his abominable snowman is just a man in a suit; his Medusa is a memorable drag act, but basically just a single facial expression, Joan Crawford green lips parted in wickedness; but the sombre Apollonius, insinuating serpent (voice-work for a combined glove puppet and stop-motion creation), dithering Merlin and Lao are all exceptional characterisations. And we get a glimpse of the real T.R. too –

Holy crap, just realized that the shallow widow is Lee Patrick, Effie from THE MALTESE FALCON. (Somebody should write a series of detective novels about Effie. Well, they shouldn’t, but I’m surprised they haven’t.) We also get John Qualen, Miser Stevens from THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, doing one of his Yumping Yiminy turns.

Leigh Harline’s Chinese-Western score is very nice, and he finds, at last, a good use for the bagpipe: it makes the perfect sound to simulate the Loch Ness Monster inflating from minnow to plesiosaur — a combination of mass air-pumping, alien drone and screeching horror. Harline also scored Disney’s SNOW WHITE.

Nessie, animated by legend Jim Danforth, is a splendid creature, even if the optical work enabling her to interact with Royal Dano (who’s also in SOMETHING WICKED, oddly) and Tony Randall is distinctly sub-par, resulting not only in shimmering matte lines, but wild fluctuations of colour. Seems like rear projection would have worked better, but I don’t know if this problem was always apparent, or was caused by the film aging. Perhaps somebody out there can tell me? The other animation, on the Great Serpent, is remarkable for how smoothly integrated it is — most of the time, the serpent is a glove puppet, but for particularly tricky bits, like catching a cigar in his mouth, sucking it in and reversing it, he’s stop-motion.

And then there’s THIS psychedelic weird-out –

Young minds were warped… but then, that’s what they’re there for.

***

*It totally enthralled me as a kid, but that was because of its adult feeling, the sense of being let in on secrets normally forbidden to kids. Jan Svankmajer is very much opposed to the whole idea of films for children, feeling that they stifle imagination and infantilise us. His dream of an all-adult cinema is impossible, commercially, of course: the poor parents need something they can safely dump kids in front of without the momentary expectation of screeching trauma at the stuffed rabbit with the real tongue. What I’d settle for is kid-friendly films with adult themes — NOT a few adult in-jokes thrown in to divert the moms and dads, but actual issues dealt with in exactly as subtle and intelligent a way as we’d expect in good mature films. “But the kids won’t understand!” Yet kids cope with reality, on a day to day basis, without understanding that, either.

Let Lao explain it –

“The whole world is a circus if you know how to look at it. The way the sun goes down when you’re tired, comes up when you want to be on the move. That’s real magic. The way a leaf grows. The song of the birds. The way the desert looks at night, with the moon embracing it. Oh, my boy, that’s… that’s circus enough for anyone. Every time you watch a rainbow and feel wonder in your heart. Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel, there in your hand. Every time you stop and think, “I’m alive, and being alive is fantastic!” Every time such a thing happens, you’re part of the Circus of Dr. Lao.”

Kid: “I don’t understand.”

Lao: Neither do I. “

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