Archive for Sidney J Furie

The Sunday Intertitle: Galloping Tintypes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2014 by dcairns


Jeff Bridges goes ruggedly retro.

Getting into this thing — the New Hollywood observing the old. First, we stuck on GABLE AND LOMBARD, figuring it might make for an entertaining train wreck. In fact, it put us less in mind of a derailed locomotive and more of a shitcart struck by lightning. Sidney J. Furie doesn’t do anything too wrong in the director’s chair except put himself in it in the first place — a Canadian who was so inspired British realist drama he traveled to the UK and made cheapjack horror flicks and Cliff Richard musicals until he could get a gig directing Dudley Sutton and Rita Tushingam (Hey! I’ve worked with both of them, I just realised!) but then seemed to lose his way comprehensively, although THE IPCRESS FILE and THE ENTITY are damned good films. And THE APPALOOSA was big in Romania.


But Furie is saddled with a drama-free script — the tragic death of Carole Lombard is brought up front, which I guess makes sense because that’s all they’ve got — and he has truly unsuitable stars. James Brolin (!) tries hard as The King of Hollywood, who never had to try hard at all — he does better than you’d think. Jill Clayburgh is the most ludicrous miscasting since John Candy played Basil Rathbone and Leo G. Carroll played Norma Shearer, in films which, strikingly, NEVER EXISTED, and FOR GOOD REASON. WHY does this film exist?

Since there isn’t a story except that sadly she died — I know, it worked for LOVE STORY — a movie like this could only exist via convincing history (Gable’s overnight stardom seems to occur LITERALLY overnight and between scenes) or vigorous caricature (Allen Garfield as Louis B. Mayer seems to be under orders to underplay, and play it nice, and he seems to have just been handed his script seconds before “Action!” is yelled) and Kenneth Anger-style gossip, none of which this movie has. If you’re telling the story of Lombard in the seventies, she HAS to walk around naked and swear all the time. Clayburgh says “shit” but that doesn’t cut it, and she strips to her camiknickers and that’s quite far enough because she doesn’t radiate sex and loveliness — few do like Lombard. I think, making this in the seventies, you probably needed Jane Fonda. Or a Cybill Shepherd who could act. And Jessica Lange hadn’t quite been invented.

(Watching NICKELODEON, it was obvious that Burt Reynolds could have succeeded as Gable. Now imagine him and Shepherd — how much armour would the director have to wear?)

Really awful, and not in an edifying way.


So we quit (so this should not be seen as an educated assessment of Furie’s film — you can’t REALLY judge something without seeing it all) and tried HEARTS OF THE WEST, directed by Howard Zieff. This was a lot better, though it’s basically MERTON OF THE MOVIES. It has Jeff Bridges in naif mode, Blythe Danner, Andy Griffith, Alan Arkin. But also felt undercooked, as if everybody was groping their way through the first take and hoping to get better. There are some good longshot visual gags, slightly but not disastrously over-edited. Zieff can’t keep his hands off the zoom, even when staging 30s movie footage — now, regular Shadowplayers will know that they did HAVE the zoom in the early thirties, but it’s not really a sensible way to fake up vintage material.

The movie is fine, but we bailed on it after twenty minutes, because something about the flakey timing reminded us of GABLE AND LOMBARD. Fiona was ready to call it quits, but I proposed sneaking a look at the first five minutes of Peter Bogdanovich’s NICKELODEON — my theory was that it would immediately be obvious when a real director’s work came on. Bogdanovich has a great sense of the rhythm of action and dialogue — arguably he’s sometimes TOO rigorously rhythmic, but that sense of pace was something I was feeling starved of.


Two hours later, the film was finished — we hadn’t been able to tear ourselves away, and it was 1am. Now that’s a pretty good test of a picture.

So — this week ought to deliver a proper appreciation of Bogdanovich’s achievement. Could it qualify for The Forgotten? I haven’t decided yet…

Let the Shadows Play

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2008 by dcairns

Maurice Binder’s titles for Ken Russell’s THE BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (the second sequel to THE IPCRESS FILE with Michael Caine).

Saul Bass gets a very good press, and rightly so, but maybe we should also talk more about Maurice Binder? While Bass is more consistently elegant and tasteful, Binder could be guilty of breathtaking kitsch (those later Bond titles!), as well as more classical work.

ARABESQUE is a film made by Stanley Donen, who told his cinematographer, the great Christopher Challis (TALES OF HOFFMAN) that the script was so bad their only hope was to try every crazy photographic trick in the book. It works! The presence of Sophia Loren and Alan Badel also help compensate for the fey script and the usual Gregory Peck drag-factor.

A similar contempt for the story enlivens THE IPCRESS FILE, where director Sid Furie started the shoot by tearing up and stamping on his script in front of the whole crew. “THAT’S what I think of THAT!”

Michael Caine supposes he must have had to borrow somebody else’s copy for the rest of the film.

Anyhow, Binder certainly gets these films off to a groovy start. I once asked production designer Ken Adam about Binder. The two had worked on many of the same James Bond films. I made the mistake of pronouncing the name “Morris Bynd-er”. But Binder was a German like Adam himself:

“Maw-reece Bin-der,” he enunciated, “was a lovely man, who liked, very much, to photograph silhouetted naked ladies.”

Well, yes.

no mister bond, I expect you to die

Binder himself told the story of his struggle with a model’s pubic hair, which stuck out in a censorable mohawk formation, visible as she turned in silhouette. ‘She wouldn’t shave, so I thought I’d smooth it down with vaseline. I was just patting it down when [producer] Cubby Broccoli walked in. He just looked at me, then said, “Maurice, I think maybe I am paying you too much.”‘


Maybe sometime I’ll post the titles of Billy Wilder’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, a favourite film of mine. Elegant and witty credits by Binder, with Miklos Rosza’s finest and most melancholy score. ‘Why is it so SAD?’ asks Fiona. The violin theme started life as a concerto by Rosza, and Wilder listened to it while writing the script. The sadness seeped into the comedy, making for Wilder’s most deeply-felt work since maybe THE APARTMENT. It’s also Wilder’s SCOTTISH FILM and makes better use of Robert Stephens’ unique gifts than any other movie — although working with Wilder was so stressful for Stephens, he attempted suicide partway through the shoot.

Good Queen Billy

(While Mitchell Leisen would annoy Wilder by cutting his scripts to make things more comfortable for the actors, Wilder, it seems, never did ANYTHING for the comfort of his actors…)

My friend Roland suggests that you tend to find the best title sequences attached to the worst films, and there are certainly cases of that, but as long as there are films like TPLOSH around, I can’t subscribe to that as a guiding principle.

Cliff Richard IS Bongo Herbert

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2008 by dcairns

 bachelor boy

Yeah, I laughed too, but that is the premise of this film (EXPRESSO BONGO) and we must ACCEPT IT UNQUESTIONINGLY.

Anyway, the good news is that Sylvia Syms is still VERY MUCH ALIVE, and first became VMA on this very day, some 74 years ago, and is still working. Long may she reign.

I saw S.S. talk at the Edinburgh Film Festival many yonks ago, and I remember her forthright and robust humour. During a lull in questions she ran through her entire C.V. — “ASYLUM, in which I get dismembered: I still get fan mail about that one. THE QUARE FELLOW with the terrible Patrick McGoohan…” I like McGoohan… but then I’ve never worked with him. Reminds me of Alan Bennett on Christopher Plummer: “Christopher is his own worst enemy, but only just.”

Look but don't touch.

Syms plays a burlesque artiste in Val Guest and Wolf Mankiewicz’s pop-culture spoof EXPRESSO BONGO, and shares the stage with go-go girls in pasties, mini-kilts and G-strings during an eye-poppingly bizarre “history lesson” number. No G-string for our Sylvia, though: as a highly-paid Featured Player she gets to wear Proper Human Underpants as befits a star. As a Scot, I detest all forms of Tartan pageantry, so I quite liked seeing it dragged through the sewer like this. There’s another good and weird tartan musical number in Bunuel’s first Mexican film. Nobody does Tartan like the Mexicans.

Mary Queen of Scots

Syms played a lot of what Jean Simmons calls “poker-up-the-arse” parts, which is not an Edward II kind of thing, but a reference to the straight back required to play stiff middle-class WIVES (Syms does this very well in the commendable VICTIM), so it’s great to see her excel here as a nice working-class girl who happens to earn a living in porn.

Guest’s movie HITS THE GROUND RUNNING, with titles spelled out in neon signs, restaurant menus and sandwich boards (production designer Tony Masters is the real mega-talent on this film — he went on to 2001 while Guest went on to CONFESSIONS OF A WINDOW CLEANER), and within instants we spot a nubile Burt Kwouk (“No, Cato, now is not the time!”) buying a hot-dog from a Soho stand, where eleven years later he will be seen working, in Skolimowski’s DEEP END. And they say there’s no such thing as progress.

a sandwich in soho

absolute beginners

And then we meet Laurence Harvey as a very yiddisher agent on the make (such ethnic overtness in a lead character would have been impossible in a Hollywood film, even one about Jesus). He’s like Tony Curtis in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS or Richard Widmark in NIGHT AND THE CITY, except that the movie is more like THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, a brash, lurching satire about music and mammon.

Teen pop idol Cliff Richard (real name Harry Webb) plays teen pop idol Bongo Herbert (real name Bert Rudge) with his customary adequacy, but with a surprising Elvis sneer that was soon honed from his act as he went safe and mum-friendly. B.H. is Harvey’s discovery/creation, and we follows the ambitious fifty-per-center as he exploits the hapless naif through the London media world of 1960.

This is where the film works as a time machine: first, by transporting us back to a bygone age when Soho was the only spot where a cup of espresso could be obtained. We get real T.V. presenters and a checklist of then-current entertainers and location shots of an all-but vanished habitat. There are also topical film quirks, like a split-screen phone conversation between a semi-dressed Harvey and Syms, mirroring PILLOW TALK from the year before (Guest had a long-standing aim to get sex into British cinema, it seems).

But the film (Prophetic Cinema Alert!) also projects forward into the future, our present: in his desperation to leave no aspect of human life unexploited, Harvey yolks his prodigy to the cash-cow of RELIGION, having him sing a maudlin number about shrines and Madonnas: Mankiewicz and Guest obviously view this melding of pop and church as grotesque, vulgar and tittersome (and are laughing at how Jewish moguls churn out cynical Christian propaganda),  but it’s the exact path followed by Sir Cliff in subsequent years, and the results are just as awful, though more degrading to music than to faith.

(Cliff today is a still-virginal, botoxed crooner, who would surprise nobody if he came out of the closet, though I hasten to add that he’s not in the closet so far as I legally know and if he was he’d no doubt be sprinkling Holy Water in it and generally doing Good Works.)

Cliff went on to a film career of feelgood musical pablum (under the directorial aegis of Sidney J. Furie, among others) and thence to playing a plastic puppet in THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO, which is really typecasting when you think about it.

not gay

My favourite line in EXPRESSO BONGO: “And now, straight from New York, Hollywood and Las Vegas, we are very happy to be able to afford the fantabulous, the fantastico, DIXIE COLLINS!!!”


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