Archive for Sam Spiegel

Catch a Falling Tsar

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2019 by dcairns

NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA is one possible answer to the question “What would a David Lean movie be like without David Lean?” A question nobody but Sam Spiegel would think to ask, I suspect. N&A may not be the best answer, but it’s the only one we have*. I assume Spiegel was jealous of his former star director’s box office triumph DOCTOR ZHIVAGO and thought he’d do one better.

Franklin J. Schaffner, who we like at least partly because his name is Franklin J. Schaffner — a name that positively chomps its own cigar — did some lively work on potentially lumbering epics like PLANET OF THE APES. He’d go handheld at unexpected moments. In PATTON we also see his flair for highly formal compositions to contrast with the explosive set-pieces. Well, the formal shots still turn up in N&A, but it could do with a shot of handheld chaos to get it on its feet.To speak of this film is to speak of tedium — the sheer amount of tedium makes it the film’s most interesting trait. One wouldn’t have thought it possible to cram so much boredom into a movie also containing a cast of thousands, a mad monk, one Russo-Japanese war, one world war, two revolutions, and both the cream of the British acting establishment and a lot of young and soon-to-be-nude hopefuls (Robin Askwith turns up just to rip the skin of a rabbit). And yet it’s quite remarkable how dull things are for long stretches.

Schaffner seems in awe of his material, so he’s on his best behaviour. Nobody’s at their best when they’re on their best behaviour. Designer John Box creates a very convincing Russia out of various Spanish and Yugoslav locations, but the great Freddie Young’s photography is surprisingly overlit much of the time. How did the wretched White Russians get their palaces to look like daytime soaps with only candles at their disposal. I don’t require the full BARRY LYNDON every time, but a bit of atmosphere would be welcome. (I’m only using the more gorgeous shots for this post — there are, admittedly, lots. But the movie only really impresses visually when it ventures outside, or when night falls, or when it’s dealing with the plotting Bolshies. (Michael Bryant makes a very good Lenin — his story would be worth telling.)And of course there’s Tom Baker’s Rasputin. If ever an actor and role were more suited on paper — Baker was an actual monk, ffs — I can’t think of the occasion. And while Baker is impressive and brings the stately proceedings to relative life (the only kind of life on offer), he’s actually disappointing compared to the version of “Tom Baker as Rasputin” that plays through my head when I think of that glorious phrase. I think it’s because all Old Greg’s atrocities, as portrayed here, are so mild and tasteful. His murder is pretty lurid — though utterly outdone by the Battle of the Barrymores in RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS. This one has lots of homoeroticism thrown in, though, including Tom making eyes (and WHAT eyes!) at a dragged-up flautist. It perks things up. Also some good snivelling hysteria from Michael Jayston’s ex-Tsar when he sees his missus for the first time after abdicating. Shame cuts the puppet emperor’s strings and he collapses lopsidedly. “I didn’t mean to do it!” is all kinds of pathetic. And he becomes human in our eyes for the first time.James Goldman (assisted or hampered by rewrites from Edward Bond) really can’t make us care about Tsar Nicky, an absolutely appalling leader combining weakness with arrogance, able to vacillate stubbornly and be obdurately spineless, neither of which should even be possible. The problem of “our son, the little bleeder” (if only they’d cast Burton & Taylor they might have gotten some healthy vulgarity into their show — but they’d probably still be shooting it) is supposed to make the royals sympathetic, but mainly it gives them a problem they can’t do anything about.

Goldman’s best idea is to show the Tsar becoming a better man after he abdicates, which is based on no particular historical evidence but at least gives him an arc. It doesn’t make much difference though, since the entire royal family is reduced to total helplessness at this point, passengers through their own story on their way to a historically foreordained execution.

For which Schaffner finally pulls out all the stops. His formal compositions are almost as striking here as in the celebrated opening of PATTON, and he milks the suspense — which ought to be nonexistent — a bunch of people with little personality who have done nothing effective or good for the previous three hours of screen time are about to die, and we know it’s going to happen — to breaking point. If it makes sense to milk something to breaking point. Can you break a cow? See NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, the film that breaks a cow. NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA stars Lewis Carroll; Cleopatra; Emanuelle ‘Bunny’ O’Neill; Pola Ivanova; Ralph Gurney – 13th Earl of Gurney; Goneril; Koura; General Allenby; Mr. Tow-Wouse; ‘Maxim’ De Winter; Harry Dominion; Doctor B. N. Wallis, C.B.E., F.R.S.; Professor Harrington; Wick Blagdon; Peter Brock; Mrs. Chasen; Robert McKee; Lord Ludd; Bilbo Baggins; Leopold Mozart; Encolpio; Bumbo; Woodrow Wilson; Wernher Von Braun; Master Robert Shallow; Colonel Breen; Timothy Lea; Sherlock Holmes; and the voice of Colossus.

Or, to put it another way, since none of the up-and-coming young thesps strutting and fretting here went on to more big movies (not right away, anyway), we have the future stars of THE MUTATIONS: THE FLESH AND BLOOD SHOW; VAMPIRE CIRCUS; Hammer House of Horror; SCHIZO; CRAZE… eventually, of course, many of them hit their stride again, but it really doesn’t look like this movie helped anyone.

*I tell a lie: Akira Kurosawa thought he was going to be co-directing TORA, TORA, TORA with David Lean, but got Richard Fleischer instead. Then he quit, and they hired Kinji Fukasaku, making T,T,T both a Lean film without Lean and a Kurosawa film without Kurosawa. Enjoy!

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Town without pity

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 13, 2016 by dcairns

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Why had I been resistant to seeing THE CHASE? The Arthur Penn movie, I mean. Maybe that ultra-generic title had something to do with it. I seem to recall seeing a doc on Penn — must’ve been a LOOONG time ago — which positioned this movie as an unsatisfactory struggle with the studio system, coming before the breakthrough of BONNIE AND CLYDE. They found a clip showing Jane Fonda shot in soft focus, intercut with a pin-sharp Robert Redford, to illustrate what a conventional affair it was. A Shirley Temple movie with guns.

That may have been how Penn himself recalled it, though he was such a big fan of Brando’s work, he must have found something more to enjoy in the film. he spoke of how Brando suggested filming his fight scene with closeups filmed at 12fps so that fists could be brought in slowly and actually connect with his face, smuching up his features. When projected at normal speed, the image ought to look genuinely violent. (Polanski attempted something like this in TWO MEN AND A WARDROBE. The tiny fists are his own.)

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None of Brando’s suggested Keystone pugilism makes it into the final cut as far as I can see, but the film’s violence is still incredibly intense and convincing, partly due to the sadomasochistic relish with which Marlon throws himself into it. Screenwriter Lillian Hellman, adapting Horton Foote’s novel and play, loaded the script with bile, so there’s considerable raw anger behind each punch. (A punch hurts, but the aggression motivating it is just as upsetting — if you’re a sensitive blossom like me, anyway.)

I think THE CHASE may be a masterpiece, just not wholly Penn’s. It’s a Sam Spiegel film, which I guess makes it White Elephant Art writ large, but I quite like White Elephant Art. The Cistine Chapel is not termite art.

Another reason for my resistance to the film is that I HAD seen bits of it on TV and found it drear. But you need to see it, obviosuly, in the proper widescreen ratio, and you need to be prepared to accept its grimness. It’s unrelenting, but not wholly unlevened. As a big Hollywood movie, part of what provides relief from its hellscape of corruption, bigotry and raging cruelty is the all-star cast, all of whom get grandstanding moments. It’s a very well acted film physically, and apart from stunts like Brando, pummelled to mush, rolling off a desktop and dropping to the floor as dead weight, and gestures like Miriam Hopkins’ hyperactive hands, it’s full of great POSES —

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Henry Hull making great use of his skeletal frame. Clothes hang so nicely on him!

And nobody ever looked deader onscreen than the dead body in the movie’s third-last scene.

“You gotta feel bad for Brando’s character in this,” I remarked midway. “Surrounded by assholes.” And that was before the beating.

I think Robert Redford, though quite good, is miscast. Hard to imagine him having been this out-of-control wild kid. Hard to imagine everyone scared he’s coming back home. I tell you what would have improved everything and launched the film into a higher level of seriousness: make the character black. But Hellman compensates by including a couple of black characters whose perilous lives do suggest something of the racial tension (read: vicious intimidation) in the South.

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Ridiculously all-star cast. Hard to conceive of a Jane Fonda film from this period in which she is not the sexiest woman, but — “Janice Rule is my new girl-crush,” declared Fiona. Mine, too, I think. Janice is playing a really appalling character with really great breasts, and a lot of soap opera gusto. She out-bitches Dynasty. Her milquetoast husband is a very young Robert Duvall — so young he has vestigial traces of hair — equally loathsome but WEAK. Then there’s enthusiastic drunk acting from Martha Hyer, the always-welcome-if-it’s-not-a-Bond-film Clifton James, and an early prototype Paul Williams ~

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The very ending reminds me of THE DEVILS. THE CHASE is only slightly less grim and only a few shades less hysterical than that despairing masterwork.

“It’s hard to say who had the worst night of it,” I said to Fiona, eyes wide. About an hour later, she managed to reply, “Well, probably ****, because he DIED.” “Yes, but **** lost BOTH the men in her life,” I pointed out. Then there are the bereaved parents, the jerk who’s going to jail for murder, the poor guy who got beaten up in prison (and not even by a cop) and then had his scrapyard blown up. It’s not a comedy.

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However, also militating against any sense of actual depression is the fact that Spiegel was evidently impressed by the Bond films and has hired Maurice Binder to do the credits (no naked silhouettes though) and John Barry to score the thing. It’s not that Barry didn’t watch the movie, I think, it’s just that his sensibility at the time was so irrepressibly vibrant that he can’t help elevate the mood. No doubt Spiegel wanted something epic and heroic: Barry claimed he composed the score to BORN FREE as a parody of Hollywood’s uplifting themes, but much of THE CHASE could almost be amping things up into a state of overkill. It never feels like he’s spoofing it, but he’s willing it to be more thrilling and epic than it wants to be. So you have Penn and Hellman fighting for  downbeat drama and Spiegel and Barry dragging it towards tragic grandeur and glorious passions.

I tend to favour the auteurist viewpoint, not because movies aren’t team efforts, but because unless you have one sensibility in charge filtering what goes into the mix, and unless that sensibility is an interesting and intelligent one, things tend to get chaotic and discordant. But in rare cases, the struggle between warring visions can produce something quite satisfying, where the creative tension blurs into dramatic tension. It can be very exciting, though probably none of the participants would come away feeling satisfied. That’s THE CHASE, I think.

Falling Stahr

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 1, 2015 by dcairns

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Reading Elia Kazan’s memoirs, which include his diary of making THE LAST TYCOON, his last film, it’s easy to see why the film came out oddly. Kazan’s mother was dying, and he experienced an unsettling outpouring of hate and bitterness from her as she went — he could not entirely convince himself that this was merely the result of her illness. So he was more than a little distracted. I rather hate Kazan for political reasons, but I couldn’t help but pity him here — and he wasn’t asking me to.

He complained that screenwriter Harold Pinter had shortchanged him on the love story, and that Pinter had failed to provide a usable ending. Indeed, though Pinter’s usual approach is to leave big gaps for us to read between the lines, this script is so spacious it feels less complete than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished source novel. (This is one of the great late films — it’s director’s final movie, based on a posthumous and incomplete book, featuring a host of aging Hollywood talent including Tony Curtis, Ray Milland, Robert Mitchum and Dana Andrews. The hero even has an unfinished house.) Pinter, not much of a romantic, ALWAYS seems to scrimp on the love stories, and DeNiro can be a limp, ungenerous lead in love scenes. As for the finale, no doubt Fitzgerald’s brace of assassination schemes was judged too melodramatic, but what Pinter substitutes is curiously UNdramatic. Kazan shot his star/Stahr Robert DeNiro (the movie is an “interesting” blend of new talent and old) repeating a speech from earlier, shuffled into a suggestive montage, and lets his leading man wander into a darkened sound stage for his fadeout. It has the SENSE of an ending without being an ending.

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If the movie doesn’t end, it doesn’t seem to begin or middle either — it just drifts. Actors turn up — Jack Nicholson makes an amazingly late appearance, and livens things up a bit — or disappear. It’s very enjoyable to hear Mitchum and Curtis speak Pinter — you still get a sense of the playwright’s weird rhythms. Vincent Canby, praising the film, remarked that Ingrid Boulting, DeNiro’s love interest, alternates between an eerie certainty and a clueless inability to say a line. That’s about right — I’m assuming poor Kazan wasn’t much help to her, given his state of mind. A Spiegel discovery — neither Kazan nor Pinter wanted her — she could have carried it off with more guidance — her good moments are evidence enough of this. She was rather good in THE WITCHES ten years earlier — here, she’s being “introduced,” which is usually the kiss of death to a career.

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Fitzgerald had written a striking entrance for his love interest, floating on a disembodied prop statue head through a flooded studio. By the time Kazan got around to filming it, it must have seemed like second-hand Fellini. I actually wonder if the scene in the book could have inspired FELLINI CASANOVA the same year. But I doubt FF ever read the book. It is kind of nice that the head is carrying Angelica Huston, daughter of John, and Ingrid Boulting, step-daughter of Roy. The film, if it is a film, is a decided clash between old generation and new.

Pinter’s sense of period Hollywood is shaky — early on, John Carradine, sepulchral studio tour guide, brags that he’s worked for the studio since “way back in the silent days.” Way back when you were a young man of sixty-five, John? Jeanne Moreau makes an implausible thirties star, and places impossible stresses on the wrong words: “What’s wrong with my frigging hair?” (My normal hair is fine, but the hair I have specifically for frigging with, that’s all out of whack.) Having invented fictitious movie stars, the film starts referring to real ones halfway through, which is suddenly distracting. Maurice Jarre’s music is weak. Kazan’s blocking and cutting is sometimes choppy and chaotic. As with Jack Clayton’s THE GREAT GATSBY, the adaptation leaves you rather wondering what the book was about. And yet… it’s all rather watchable, flowing by in a distracted manner. Nice clothes, nice-looking people (Theresa Russell squints and grins attractively), nice locations. And Tony Curtis as an aging matinee idol speaking in Pinteresque non-sequiturs — that tickles me.

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“I love her. She’s my wife.”

“I know.”

THE LATE SHOW — The Late Films Blogathon will be running all week.