Archive for Shelley Winters

Spadework

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2019 by dcairns

Paul Newman’s two Lew Harper films — based on two of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels — are kind of like the square old Hollywood movies celebrated, or at any rate documented — in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Both have extremely gifted mod cinematographers, though: Conrad Hall shot HARPER in 1966 and Gordon “the Prince of Darkness” Willis shot its belated sequel THE DROWNING POOL in 1975. I double-billed them but I’ll mainly talk about the first one here.

Jack Smight, a truly square director but not untalented, allows or encourages or inspires Hall to pull off a few spectacular shots in HARPER (see top), perhaps aware that it’s just a reasonably good Raymond Chandler knock-off. As Donald Westlake complained, Ross MacDonald recycled the one about the rich, dysfunctional family until everyone was screaming at him to quit it for chrissakes — basically The Big Sleep ad nauseam, and here we have Lauren Bacall to remind us of past glories. So making the most of the widescreen and colour is essential to stop this from seeming like warmed-over stuff from an earlier decade — what’s harder is to stop it seeming like TV stuff. The down-at-heel, long-suffering private eye would be incarnated par excellence by James Garner in The Rockford Files who had a natural word-weariness Newman can’t match.

The first movie is quite diverting, with a spectacular comic turn from Shelley Winters (I felt bad about all the fat gibes in William Goldman’s script though) and very good work from Arthur Hill, Pamela Tiffin and a host of others. Strother Martin’s hillside cult temple is one of my favourite places I’ve ever seen in a movie. There’s a fight there between Newman and a hundred silent Mexicans (a short fight) which has a nice surreal vibe, like the multiple Agent Smiths in THE MATRIX.

Maybe the problem is that these stories never effect any change in the hero, making them more suited to series TV… though they used to work fine in the ‘forties. This one has too many corpses and complications, and Goldman’s misogyny gets grating, and I think sometimes Newman tries too hard to be “entertaining.” Here he is, reacting to the sight of Pamela Tiffin in a bikini:

Goldman writes about the film’s opening sequence in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. He’d started his script, sensibly enough, with the private eye showing up to get briefed on his case. The studio called to say they needed some action to put under the credits. Well, what could he write that happens BEFORE the case?

In desperation, he scripted the early morning routine of his hero, and put in a gag about running out of coffee. Harper looks in his waste bin where there’s yesterday’s discarded coffee filter. Dare he recycle it?

He does. Closeup of Newman pulling disgusted face when he tastes the result. The audience laughs. It’s a nice gag — it humanizes the character, it’s gross but still relatable — it makes him a bit of an underdog. Down these mean streets a man must walk with a horrible taste of used coffee in his mouth.

What Goldman omits to mention is that, normally, opening a script with the hero getting up in the morning is a TERRIBLE idea, a huge cliche and a watse of the audience’s time. Don’t do it, he should be saying, especially as his book is a kind of screenwriting guide (written before there were a million of the things). It happens to work this one time.

The other bad thing is Newman thinking about whether to make terrible garbage coffee. It’s a classic Hitchcock set-up: show him looking, show what he’s looking at, and show him looking some more. We will do the thinking and project that onto the image. No acting required. You could remove the coffee grains and insert a shot of Pamela Tiffin or Robert Webber or the Serengeti plains and it would still work, if the angle was right.

But here’s what we get from Newman, the great method actor:

Boy, he’s thinking HARD, isn’t he? I bet if he thought that hard about the kidnapping case he has to solve the movie would only be twenty minutes long.

Newman is very affable generally and has that contradictory laid-back intensity that’s so useful in a star. It’s just that sometimes maybe somebody ought to sit on his head.

Dog Doesn’t Return Other Dog’s Calls

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2018 by dcairns

Perpendicular Palance, they call him.

I ran Robert Aldrich’s THE BIG KNIFE because I’ve been thinking seriously about Hollywood noir/Hollywood Gothic stuff. This predates his later hagsploitation pics, and the related but different THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLAIR (and I guess THE KILLING OF SISTER GEORGE, with its Brit TV background, is a distant relative too), but has a few things in common, apart from the dry, pale presence of Wesley Addy. More on him later.

Jack Palance plays the lead, a movie star with a guilty secret (audaciously borrowed by author Clifford Odets from a persistent rumour about Clark Gable being a drunken, hit-and-run killer — which doesn’t seem to be true). Palance is no Crawford or Davis, but his characterisation is just as neurotic and tormented — he spends the movie posing, languishing, anguishing, seething (I love it when Palance breathes heavy).

Fiona had many questions about Palance. Where did Jack Palance come from? Is Jack Palance a good actor? Can Jack Palance act? What is with Jack Palance? All fair questions. I said YES to all of them.

Jack’s manly suffering — similar vein of masochistic machismo to Kirk Douglas — is the main show, but his swank home (it’s a one-set play) is regularly invaded by supporting hambones (he never locks the door) like Miss Shelley Winters (her actual screen credit here) and Rod Steiger, who come bearing entertainment. Steiger is cast as a baroque hallucination of Louis B. Mayer, afflicted with some of Odets’ most overwrought verbiage, a peroxide crew-cut, shades and a hearing aid. Also some startling homoerotic overtures towards the muscular Jack — at times he goes Full Joyboy. In a film so full of memorable entrances and exits it plays like thespian Whack-a-Mole, he gets one of the best, monologuing his way out the door, his ranting voice diminishing slowly into the distance until a new conversation breaks out on top of it… but Steiger keeps going until he’s vanished over some unseen horizon…

Fiona also liked his hushing an opponent with a gentle “Shshshshshshshshshshshsh” that abruptly explodes into a fulsome “shshSHUT UP!” And his defending a man’s character by citing his relationship with “such people as the late Al Jolson.” Threatened with violence, he hides behind his pudgy fists, fat head suddenly babylike, Trumpish in his pusillanimity.

The man he’s defending is Wendell Corey, readily decoded as studio fixer Eddie Mannix, and sensibly playing it subtle but reptilian, not trying to compete with the uberactors flanking him. He’s a man prepared to kill for the studio, and while the story doesn’t quite allow him to do so — something of a cop-out, but they had to show caution SOMEWHERE — Corey is genuinely chilling.

Also good work from Everett Sloane though he’s not as moving as the put-upon agent in IN A LONELY PLACE, the most moving Hollywood agent in cinema (the only one?). Who was that guy? Oh yeah, Art Smith. Get me Art Smith!

Miss Shelley.

Palance is also tormented by three women — his wife, Ida Lupino, who wants him to be virtuous, his friend’s slutty wife, Jean Hagen, who wants him to be wicked, and Winters, who knows his guilty secret and can’t be trusted to keep her mouth shut. He invites her over for a swim, which is a worrying portent — you know about Shelley’s bad luck with water, right? But instead of a NIGHT OF THE HUNTER/PLACE IN THE SUN/POSEIDON ADVENTURE watery grave, she’s felled by a convenient accident straight out of the LOLITA playbook.

That awkward moment when Wendell Corey won’t get out of your lampshade.

Jack checks if Wendell is still in there.

Oh, and there’s Wesley Addy, cast as a writer and serving as mouthpiece for Odets’ views, explaining the story’s themes and Palance’s character and generally dumbing the whole thing down. Good actor, but I wanted to kill him. He walks in on and damages a really powerful ending, and his dollarbook Freud actually muddies the motivation of the hero’s last act. If I could digitally lift him from the movie we’d really have something. I’d feel sorry for him, though, and would make it up to him by dropping him off in GONE WITH THE WIND, where he would get lots of surprised attention in his modern dress, and would spoil anything since it’s a wretched movie anyway.

Of course, putting himself into the movie in disguise is a way for Odets to protect himself from the certain knowledge that Palance’s character, the sell-out, the half-idealist, is him too. So the character, inelegantly conceived as he is, may be necessary for the piece to exist at all.

Oh, the music is also very bad — random eruptions by Frank DeVol. (Did Aldrich make a single movie where the music is enjoyable?)

Good movie. Better than the Bettes. Very sweaty.

Kirby Dies Again

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2016 by dcairns

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Filmhouse is showing George Cukor’s film of Garon Kanin & Ruth Gordon’s A DOUBLE LIFE, and I jumped the gun by watching my ancient off-air recording. Hadn’t seen this movie since I was a kid. (spoilers)

Not anybody’s strongest work, but it brings out an expressionist side in Cukor that he’s not supposed to have and which he basically denied having (“I’m interested in the actor’s faces.”) Some of that stuff is really interesting.

Ronald Colman plays a Broadway star who gets too wrapped up in his roles. When he stars in Othello he goes full deadly Moor and smothers a waitress. This is Shelley Winters, who is more used to watery death (NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, A PLACE IN THE SUN, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, even LOLITA in a way), but it turns out any form of suffocation is OK with Shelley.

MGM films are nearly always based on offensive assumptions, and in this case Shelley’s demise is merely a sideshow in the tragic fall of Colman’s English ham. Signe Hasso plays his Swedish wife, and I wondered if the role was intended for Ingrid Bergman. This made me glom onto the idea of the film as a remake of the same studio’s DR JEKYLL & MR HYDE (itself a remake of Paramount’s superior version). Both movies feature a hero with a double life and a woman in each. The poor working girl is a disposable unit who can be sacrificed allowing the posh bird to be spared.

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Colman does do a fine death, letting the life fade from his face like Kevin Spacey in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL — subtractive acting at its best. Before he shuffles off, he monologues about an old ham who used to overdo his death scenes to the point where the audience would call for encores, and he’d rise from the dead and give them an action replay. Colman attributes this to a fictional old stager called Kirby, but the idea is pinched from Scotland’s own William McGonagall, poet and tragedian, whose repeat expiration was recreated in Joe McGrath and Spike Milligan’s film, THE GREAT MCGONAGALL ~