Archive for Sid James

Sound and Fury

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2008 by dcairns

vlcsnap-183224

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches’ mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravin’d salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digg’d i’ the dark,
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, filmed by Ken Hughes.

Yes! Ken Hughes films Philip Yordan’s Macbeth-as-an-Amurrican-gangster epic, in which lumpen Paul Douglas as the titular JOE MACBETH rises to the position of kingpin in a version of the New York mafia recreated on a small scale in England. The British version of America always seems like a cheap-ass solution, or at least it does when it’s obvious. Here we get reasonable but small sets, and a few obvious stock shots to broaden out the scope. What really gives it away is the cast.

Douglas and Ruth Roman (as Lily Macbeth) are the sort of affordable American stars who could be tempted over for a British film (Douglas had appeared in the minor classic THE MAGGIE a year earlier). The supporting cast is made up of a mixture of Americans abroad (Bonar Colleano, who’s very good here as a cheeky combo of Fleance and Macduff; beetle-browed Robert Arden of MR ARKADIN fame — both these guys appeared in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH) and those Brits who could muster a convincing yank accent. I’m inclined to think the following scene will be amusing to British movie fans:

After watching THE ATOMIC MAN, in which Charles Hawtrey intrudes like a music hall apparition, I’m beginning to suspect that Ken Hughes liked having Carry On film stars pop up and wreck his ambiance just for the hell of it.

vlcsnap-183745

Also prominent in this scene is Ruth Roman. She does make a terrific Lady Mac, I take back anything bad I may have said about her. I think this kind of role maybe suits her better than the more tame parts I’ve seen her in. Her biggest problem is creating any kind of heat with the doughy Douglas, who’s good at freaking out, sweating and shaking his jowls as if he’s trying to physically detach them from his face and make them fly off and stick to the walls, but his baggy, Lon Chaney Jnr. appearance is a little unhelpful in more tender moments.

R.R. plays it fierce in the early scenes, and the snappy, snippy relationship reminds me of Douglas’ marriage in LETTER TO THREE WIVES. This is an unusual version of the play in that the Macbeths actually grow closer together. As a femme fatale, seducing her husband into murder, Roman, “the nicotine-stained goddess of the denim pantsuit” (here clad in revealing gowns) is very effective — Mrs. Mac uses sex as a weapon.

As one reared on Jon Finch in the Polanski version, I had trouble imagining how Douglas and Roman could have reached the age they’re at without previously showing the ferocious ambition that overtakes them. A straight rendering of the play would offer us a supernatural catalyst, whereas here, Roman’s fortune-telling friend is an insufficient motivation. Stripping the play of the uncanny does do it quite a bit of damage. Without the prophecies about Birnam Wood and “no man of woman born”, the climax loses it’s plot twists, although Yordan arguably improves on Shakespeare by bringing Macbeth and wife to their doom together.

The femme fatale scenes make me think that a straight noir approach would work better than a gangster one. For one thing, the underworld vibe is utterly generic, with Hughes concentrating his attention on creating a viable N.Y.C. in Pinewood or wherever, so that he has no opportunity to create the specific details that make a film like SCARFACE or THE PUBLIC ENEMY so memorable. And killing a kingpin lacks the moral outrage of killing a king: murder is a commonplace in Joe Macbeth’s world, so there’s a loss of dramatic force there too.

The best bits:

1) A distant bell tolls each time a kingpin dies. When Douglas has offed his boss (Gregoire Aslan, a surprisingly gallic mafiosa), the bell is accompanied by shrieking birds, and the killer’s moral torment is reminiscent of Sydney Chaplin’s downfall in Hughes’ CONFESSION.

vlcsnap-241296

2) A completely unShakespearean character, Big Dutch, an oyster-munching vulgarian played by Harry Green, who has no reason to be in the film really, but frees everyone from the need to do a paint-by-numbers Shakespeare-goes-gangster movie. His grotesque, slobbering scenes are weirdly pointless but hypnotically repellent, focusing on the act of EATING to the exclusion of all else. “What an attractive man,” remarked Fiona, dryly. Accompanied by his food taster and two weird-looking blond girlfriends, Green’s ebullient schtick is almost Lynchian in its unashamed status as gratuitous cameo grotesque. Slurp!

vlcsnap-186241

3) Bonar Colleano’s reaction to the death of his family. This always seems a near-impossible scene to play. How do you act a thing like that? Hughes holds on the speaker’s face for ages, with Colleano’s suffering hidden except as mirrored in the guy’s reactions. Then he does cut to B.C. and holds on him for ages too. And Colleano pulls it off. This guy got plenty of work as a stock American in the U.K. but either got stuck with some Brit screenwriter’s idea of what a yank should be, or played nationality-neutral roles (as in the fine DANCE HALL) where his American accent raised unanswerable questions. A shame.

4) Angus (Walter Crisham). A problematic role in the play. If memory serves, Polanski and Tynan made him a traitor, just to give him something to do. Ken Campbell speculated that the seemingly pointless role was just an opportunity for Shakespeare to do a walk-on (“Cos he always liked to be in ‘is own stuff, like Hitchcock,”). Here he’s the butler at the mansion house which passes from one kingpin to another, and his willingness to serve whomever’s in charge, coupled with his revealing just how often the place changes hands, is a nice warning of how short Macbeth’s reign will be.

vlcsnap-183433

Mac.

Advertisements

Keep On Truckin’

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2008 by dcairns

The HOT TRUCK-BASED ACTION continues at Shadowplay.

HELL DRIVERS is a wonderfully unbalanced, testosterone-oozing compendium of macho posturing, undercranked vehicular montage and political subtext, nicely organised up until a rather flat ending.

In brief, Stanley Baker is an ex-con who gets taken on by euphonically-named haulage firm Hawlett, where drivers are encouraged to take insane risks and break the law in order to keep their jobs, delivering loads of gravel. This may in fact be the finest gravel-themed action film I’ve ever seen. While the racing around isn’t too convincing, the seething rivalry between Baker and the man Sylvia Sims always calls “the terrible Patrick McGoohan” is very enjoyable, and there’s an inescapable leftist slant to director and co-scenarist Cy Endfield’s film — the conflict between profit and human well-being is a central one to our existence, and it’s front and centre here.

The film actually has more steaming, heavily-accented manhood than it knows what to do with: in addition to Baker and McGoohan, there’s a strong Scottish infusion from Gordon Jackson and a nubile Sean Connery (a svelte young David McCallum also breezes by on crutches), Sid James and Alfie Bass provide cockney comedy (yes, I know Sid was South African but still…) and then there’s Wilfred Lawson, sporting a form of speech previously unknown to the world, combining RADA, Bradford and malt whiskey. In an age over-blessed with drunken actors, Lawson actually sounds inebriated at all times, no matter what role he’s playing. He’s the man who added an unscripted line to Shakespeare: “If you think I’m pissed, wait till you see the Duke of Buckingham.”

We also get Herbert Lom as a sentimental Italian and William Hartnell as the crooked boss, a man so mean he throws tea out of the window. He also shouts EVERY SINGLE LINE, like Steve Martin in THE JERK, which is wrong but amusing and actually somewhat effective. Hartnell is always a fascinating presence.

To balance the roiling manliness, we also get lusty Peggy Cummins, who’s almost as enjoyable here as in GUN CRAZY. It’s hard to freeze-frame her without making her look freakish, because her face is in constant, Botox-free motion. The effect is lovely and lively and natural, but hard to capture in stills. Also, her voice eludes the frame grab, that delightful warm throaty sound with its blend of accents. When she shares a scene with Baker, there’s flaming chemistry and unbridled Welshness of a kind rarely glimpsed in British cinema. When she dances with him the lust is palpable. But she’s his best friend’s gal, so Baker curdles and fumes, hooking his sexual frustration to his truck engine and blasting off with maximum overdrive.

Patrick McGoohan, in his dual position as Road Foreman and Resident Psychopath, essays a Belfast/Cro-Magnon accent and slouching posture that had Fiona christening him “the Hunchback of McGoohan”.

With accent, scar, nickname (“Red”) and slouch, he has enough to satisfy the most ambitious ham actor, but pads his role with belching, twitching, barking and everpresent ciggie hanging from lip. He’s atrocious, unbelievable, and compulsively watchable. Baker wins points just for resisting the urge to goggle at his co-star’s every gesture.

Stan the Man holds everything together with his customary INTENSE ANGER, focussed inwards, simmering on a low heat, always ready to explode. My old friend Lawrie used to profess himself baffled at Baker’s knighthood, but to me the reasons for celebrating S.B. are many and obvious. He brought a kind of unabashed machismo to British cinema, which had been accustomed to mostly rather mild, lightweight actors. Alongside that, Baker brought authentic proletarian qualities — he hadn’t lost his accent at some southern drama school. And that meant he was authentically and blatantly Celtic also. He prepared the way for Connery and Harris, as well as being the original angry young man. Though somewhat neglected today, his work set changes in motion that transformed the face of British screen drama.