Archive for Saul Bass

Ottocracy in Action

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2015 by dcairns


More Otto Preminger Week Revisited.

Otto is one of those filmmakers you just CANNOT watch in the wrong aspect ratio. I’ve seen TAXI DRIVER in 4:3 and it was OK, although that’s obviously a travesty of the filmmaker’s intentions. To see a widescreen Preminger reduced to 16:9, though, renders it meaningless. The drama is often a little elusive at times, and without the spaciousness of the compositions, it dissipates mysteriously into nothingness. Plus you miss the detail packed into the edges of the frame on the crowded shots.

Fiona was astonished by ADVISE AND CONSENT — she found it talkie and dull for the first half hour, and she has flu, and she didn’t feel like looking at this all-star fishtank of largely cold, dry characters conniving and backstabbing. But once the movie has set its narrative in motion, and in particular once Don Murray’s awful predicament as a blackmailed senator with a homosexual affair in his past becomes apparent, the thing grips.


For once, Charles Laughton is upstaged — by time-traveling Hugo Weaving on the right. He Gets everywhere!

In The World and its Double, Chris Fujiwara notes that Preminger and screenwriter Wendell Mayes were adapting and subverting a right-wing novel, and the result is interesting — it has Henry Fonda lying under oath, for one thing. As in THE BEST MAN, Fonda plays an “egghead” — Henry Fonda is Hollywood’s idea of a dangerous intellectual? What’s interesting, though, is this major star playing a character reduced to a political football, kicked around by the real players, compromising his ideals, finally reduced to irrelevance in a plot that moves on elsewhere.

Charles Laughton, in his last role, is chief antagonist, right-wing spokesman for the blacklist set. Preminger, who helped break the blacklist, allows him some humanity. The secondary antagonist is uptight, neurotic peacemonger George Grizzard, a hopeless politician full of passion and, it turns out, evil. And even he is somewhat sympathetic.


This is an amazing shot: the camera arching around dramatically in response to quite small head turns by Grizzard (left).

People Preminger was mean to on this one: Franchot Tone, who hadn’t been in a movie for years. Paul Ford, of Bilko fame (“You’re not funny!”). He didn’t mess with Laughton, and Don Murray betrayed no weakness.

Preminger, trying to help out Gene Tierney, who had been institutionalized after a mental collapse, cast her as a society hostess and apparently treated her with the greatest gentleness. She was terrified of him anyway. You can’t be the purple-faced tyrant and switch to being lovable Uncle Otto when it suits you. Fiona’s eyes nearly popped out when Tierney’s character playfully calls herself a bitch — the word had not been used in American movies, at least since the Production Code came in (one thinks of THE WOMEN’s artfully circumlocutory “There’s a name for you ladies…” — but I think British movies had not been so gentle).



What really amazed Fiona was the gay bar scene. Preminger was sailing very close to the wind, relying on a change to the Code that had not been ratified as he neared production. SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER had broken the taboo on cannibalism — I guess homosexuality was regarded as a degree worse than that. Preminger was warned not to feature makeup or effeminate types — he heeded the warnings but violated their spirit with physiognomy and performance. Seen through the tortured Don Murray character’s eyes, the place exerts both repulsion and attraction — some customers seem normal, appealing, others are George Grosz grotesques. Preminger’s innate streak of vulgarity can’t resist a good leer, but the approach makes sense and the scene hasn’t really dated. The senator’s religion isn’t mentioned, but he’s from Utah, making it highly likely that he’s a Mormon (I believe Bruce Dern’s grandfather was the only non-Mormon governor of Utah), making his inner conflict even more intense.

Preminger and Mayes plant just enough clues to indicate that the character’s marriage is, if not a sham, at least a deliberate construct, a life he’s been trying to lead, telling himself it’s right for him. He loves his wife and kid, but he’s straitjacketed himself into somebody else’s existence. It’s a rather sophisticated, nuanced piece of work, and Murray is excellent in the role: something about the tightness of his smile always suggests a man clinging on (he’s very fine in the underrated A HATFUL OF RAIN also).

Otto Complete

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2015 by dcairns


Revisiting an old favourite — it’s Otto Preminger Week, Slight Reprise.

I think it was Guy Budziak who sent me a DVD of Otto Preminger’s THE CARDINAL some years back — thanks, Guy! — I immediately watched and drooled over the magnificent Saul Bass title sequence, then put it away, meaning to watch the rest later. Having finally done so, the main benefit received is probably that it got me to finally start reading Chris Fujiwara’s Preminger study, The World and His Double. The movie does embody a lot of the positive AND negative things about the Preminger style and personality.

Fujiwara cites plenty of testimony from concerned parties that Preminger mercilessly mistreated his leading man, Tom Tryon, eventually driving him to quit acting altogether. (Preminger felt Tryon should thank him for his subsequent successful career as a novelist.) Tryon’s own account is harrowing and heartbreaking — but I’m surprised that co-star John Huston’s version isn’t included. Huston claims he noticed Tryon was looking nervous and suggested that Otto might try soothing his star rather than berating him. Otto approached the trembling thespian from behind and bellowed “RELAAAAX!” in his ear.

It probably isn’t true, but poetically it is clearly COMPLETELY true.


The perfect match of pillars and font (typographic, not baptismal)

The film also got me looking up Catholic history to see if the movie was fair and accurate. It’s not too shabby. Preminger apparently added all the stuff about the Austrian Anschluss, which the source novel didn’t deal with. The film shows faithfully how the church in Austria initially welcomed Nazi annexation, only turning against it when the Nazis started repressive measures against Catholics. But the movie can’t find room to show how Pope Pius XII pursued policies of appeasement and neutrality, decrying war crimes in generic terms while refusing to be specific. However, we do get to see some prime chickenshit religiose humbug in a sequence dealing with segregation in Georgia. When Ossie Davis comes to Rome to report his church being burned by the clan, the Italian cardinal berates him for his inflammatory behaviour in protesting that a Catholic school wouldn’t teach black children.

The fact that Tryon’s character stays with the church after this almost makes him a difficult character to respect, although in fairness he travels to Georgia and tries to help out. His biggest problem as a lead character is that he allows his sister to die — she’s pregnant, the doctor needs to sacrifice the baby’s life to save her, and Tryon refuses. Even Preminger knew this was a character flaw: whatever the law of the church says, as fellow humans in the audience we demand that Tryon’s character save his sister. No movie star could really play that part — the kind of characters movie stars play would somehow resolve things — or God would help out with a miracle and the sister would live.


Tryon flanked by Lynley Mk II (right) and Dorothy Gish (left).

In a really creepy piece of filmmaking, Preminger casts the same actress, the lovely Carol Lynley, as both sister and grown-up niece (the movie’s story covers decades, and it seems like it too). It’s as if an act of cinematic metempsychosis has resulted in the mother literally living on in her daughter, so that the priest’s act of murder is erased. As Fujiwara observes, Preminger directs this sequence with so little conviction that the apparent intended meaning is substantially undercut.

Weirdness alternates with dullness. For the first twenty minutes, the script (Robert Dozier plus uncredited Gore Vidal and Ring Lardner — neither of whom knew the other was at work on the same project until a chance meeting exposed the farce) is content to offer no actual drama at all, just uncomfortable actors exchanging information, plus bits of ritual and music and nice location shooting. Then Cecil Kellaway brings in a little conflict, playing an avuncular rotter in a dog collar, whose sins are so petty, venial and squalid that it’s surprising Otto got the OK from the church, especially after his rows with the Catholic Legion Of Decency (CLOD, I call them) on previous movies.


And then we get John Huston, and things get MUCH better. Also Burgess Meredith, at whose deathbed Huston has a moment that actually really moved me — not an emotion I expected to get from a Huston performance, though I often enjoy him.

Cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who restrains his usual Deluxe Color glorious excesses, was apparently quite smitten with Romy Schneider… one can well believe it.


The movie was make-up supremo Dick Smith’s first credit, and he had to age Tryon throughout the movie. He was apparently a last-minute replacement for the great Maurice Seiderman (CITIZEN KANE), who quarrelled with Preminger and, as a parting gesture, ran his electric razor in a line right up the back of Tryon’s head. Poor Tryon, he got the worst of every encounter. Poor Smith, he had to spend months gluing little bits of hair to the back of Tryon’s scalp.

Fujiwara is probably right to regard this as major Preminger, but he does note the difficulties it presents — Tom Tryon is sort of right for it, but does not provide a strong centre.

Dwight MacDonald wrote of Preminger, “A great showman who has never bothered to learn anything about making a movie,” which is totally off-base. But he added, hilariously, “… no one is more skilled at giving the appearance of dealing with large, controversial themes in a bold way, without making the tactical error of doing so.” In a sense, he has Preminger cold, but a more sympathetic reading — that the former lawyer was always inclined to view a problem from both sides, if at all possible — is equally valid. When dramatic weakness or oppressive censorship impacts on this approach, the result can be dullness, as in several long sequences of THE CARDINAL. When Preminger is able to pilot a strong script through the cultural hazards, the results are striking.

The Sunday Intertitle: Interzone

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2015 by dcairns


I was almost despairing of finding an intertitle in a seventies sci-fi film — because that’s the kind of thing I spend my time worrying about (as opposed to, say nuclear war, overpopulation or the collapse of social order) but then I found Elio Petri’s TODO MODO, a vaguely science-fictional doomsday wallow from 1976. Petri’s THE TENTH VICTIM is a hip and zippy pop-art spree of a film, but this one, despite being set in a reinforced concrete bunker designed by the great Dante Ferreti, or perhaps partly because of that, is a bit turgid and airless. Even exciting actors (Mastroianni, Volonte, Melato) and Petri’s snaky camera moves can’t quite bring it to life. But it earns its place in a mini-entry about the various films I’ve looked at but am not devoting big pieces to.


Dante Ferretti and Mariangela Melato remind us of the Mike Hodges FLASH GORDON, of course, a film which, like THE BED SITTING ROOM, could be said to sum up everything about the preceding decade while also anticipating everything about the decade to come.

In TODO MODO, officials from church and state are gathered underground as an epidemic begins to spread across the country — we could situate this in our future history books between THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and TWELVE MONKEYS. Funny how these films can link up.


This setting in Tarkovsky’s STALKER suggests some connection with PHASE VI — Lynn Frederick must be lurking just under that powdery sand, wearing an enticingly thin top. The heroines in both STALKER and SOLARIS freak out on the floor while wearing similarly revealing garb.


Bra-less-ness, of course, was a big seventies phenomenon, and it’s understandable that science fiction filmmakers assumed that things would carry on in that general direction. John Boorman, in ZARDOZ, went as far as to imagine Future Man clad in only bandoliers, thigh boots and nappies, a natural extrapolation of seventies fashion.


Here’s Nigel Davenport, more sensibly dressed. Why is he concealing his hand? It must surely be crawling with ants, as in PHASE IV, but this is THE MIND OF MR SOAMES, made four years earlier. Terence Stamp plays a man whose been in a coma since birth but is brought to consciousness by Robert Vaughan and then educated by the unsympathetic Davenport. Quite an interesting piece, despite its basic impossibility. Stamp’s child-like performance is affecting, and it’s a very unusual piece to have come out of Amicus Productions. A predatory TV camera crew hang around filming the unfolding tragedy (and contributing to it) — reminiscent of Peter Watkins’ glum futuristic mockumentaries THE WAR GAME, PRIVILEGE, THE GLADIATORS and PUNISHMENT PARK, but TV director Alan Cooke doesn’t use them as a narrative device in that way.

One of the TV crew is played by Christopher Timothy, famed for seventies vet show All Creatures Great and Small. His co-star in that, Carol Drinkwater, plays a nurse in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, another film about Bad Education.


Note also the b&w production design, even in the nursery set — Mike Hodges must have liked this, as he appropriated the look for the haunting THE TERMINAL MAN, a ruthlessly colour-coordinated vision of Los Angeles. Even the operating room looks similar, with its hexagonal viewing gallery. I’d always assumed that, like Boorman, he was under the influence of inveterate park-painter Antonioni. While SOAMES is an intriguing curate’s egg, TERMINAL MAN is a despairing masterwork, and a far more interesting take on Michael Crichton than the JURASSIC PARK series we’re all assailed with today.

(Remember when JP first came out — weren’t we all struck by the fact that the author of WESTWORLD had done it all again only with dinosaurs? Had he lived longer, surely he’d have gotten around to writing a botanical garden where the monkey puzzle trees go on a rampage.)

We watched Red Shift, a TV play written by novelist Alan Garner and directed by Edinburgh man John MacKenzie. A very odd piece of work, shifting about over a thousand years of history in one small geographical spot in Cheshire, and hinting at psychic links across the centuries. And there’s James Hazeldine, star of BBC Scotland’s The Omega Factor, which dealt with psychic phenomena and freaked me out as a kid — saw it again years back, and it’s very disappointing — and there’s Hazeldine again in THE MEDUSA TOUCH, being defended in court by Richard Burton.

Red Shift’s best bit is the first shift, when an oddly-written but basically social-realist family drama is abruptly interrupted by a savage battle between Romans and Britons, the most startling transition I’ve ever seen in a TV play. We were also pleased to see Leslie Dunlop (that nice nurse in THE ELEPHANT MAN) and Stella Tanner, who also turned up in sci-fi kids’ series The Changes, and in Spike Milligan’s unique take on the Daleks ~

The Changes manages a more nuanced take on multicultural Britain, featuring an extended family of Sikhs as major characters. The concept freely adapted from novels by Peter Dickinson, is unique and wondrous — one day, the whole population of Britain starts smashing their machinery, driven by a sudden conviction that the stuff is evil. As if a Luddite meme had been downloaded into every brain. The series then follows the adventures of a teenage girl in an England that’s been sent back to medieval standards.

I watched this show religiously as a seven-year-old, though it strikes me that the rioting, madness and so on must have been a little disturbing. But somehow I missed the final episode. So I had to ask a friend at school what happened, and this is what he said: “There was a big stone that had been asleep for hundreds of years and then it woke up and there hadn’t been any machines when it went to sleep so it didn’t like them so it told everybody to smash them.”


I liked the Big Stone Explanation of Everything but was never sure it was true — I also kind of liked the idea that he had just made it up. But it turns out to be EXACTLY TRUE (the BFI have kindly re-released the series). And here I am, forty years later, having entirely forgotten the kid who told me the story, but remembering the story he told. Says something about my priorities.

If women burned their bras in the seventies (which they didn’t — but in the mostly magnificent SLEEPER Woody Allen makes the worst joke of his career on this subject: “As you can see, it’s a very small fire,” a kind of perfect own-goal of a joke, proving that anti-feminist attitudes make you smug, stupid and obnoxious) the men really let it all hang out. Rip Torn allows little Rip to be fondled and addressed in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (more on that tomorrow), Terence Stamp is seen full-frontal in his coma in MR. SOAMES, and in SHOCK TREATMENT, a sort of Twilight Zone narrative about a predatory health farm, unsustainably extended to feature length, Alain Delon enjoys a nude romp in the sea. A cheerful note to end on.



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