Archive for Sidney Lumet

Epic Fail Safe

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2020 by dcairns

You know what they say: “When a fail-safe system fails, it fails by failing to fail-safe.”

It was a natural for Bologna to programme this one in the season Henry Fonda for President — that most presidential actor played the top man or else a potential top man in a whole programme’s worth of films, but the other beautiful connection is between this and DAISY KENYON for the appearance of the BIG TELEPHONE.

A nuclear threat — bombers accidentally sent towards Moscow, the War Room desperately tried to call them back. We’ve had the freak technical fault, but who will crack under the strain, junky Fritz Weaver, Larry Hagman who didn’t take good care of his nukes in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, hawkish wingnut Walter Matthau (EXCEPTIONALLY good) or Dan O’Herlihy who is plagued by a Recurring Matador Dream?

(The RMD is the only example I can think of where a filmmaker — Sidney Lumet — makes CREATIVE USE of matte line, a shimmering outline carving O’Herlihy out from the throng, and allowing him to be differently lit — from screen left rather than right — and exposed. See also the weird device where the B-52s B-58s are shown in negative. Peculiar, but the great Ralph Rosenblum’s cutting is so sharp you barely have time to register the strangeness.)

The scene-for-scene parallels with DR. STRANGELOVE are striking, as I knew they would be, but they’re MORE striking than I expected — I hadn’t known that the author of the novel Red Alert, which STRANGELOVE is based on, sued the author of the novel Fail Safe, for plagiarism — I heard about that at this excellent podcast. It is amazing to see a beat-for-beat repetition until the ending, which takes things in a radically new direction.

Lumet’s war room is perhaps a little too science-fictional, and too much like a bing hall at the same time, but the wide lens filming and dramatic cutting, each angle-shift callibrated for dramatic effect. It makes one conscious of how sloppy most mise-en-scene and montage are. As in WE MUST LIVE, there were simple cuts to familiar faces that achieved intentional, intelligent JOLTS.

You can’t talk about Lumet having a tragedy — he loved making films and he was able to make them for his whole life and his last two are highlights — but if he had a tragedy it would be that he thought of himself as a journeyman who could turn his hand to anything, when in fact he was always best with a socially-relevant thriller, often with a New York element (though THE HILL among others shows his ability to travel well).

FAIL SAFE stars Robinson Crusoe; Abraham Lincoln; Senator Long; Sheriff Heck Tate; Juror 6; Professor Biesenthal; Gov. Fred Picker; Dr. Robert MacPhail; Boss Hogg / Thaddeus B. Hogg / Abraham Lincoln Hogg; and Buddy Bizarre.

filming and films

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2019 by dcairns

I admit it, Mark Cousins’ collection of films & filming is better than mine.

August, 1970, Charles Walters on shooting SUMMER STOCK with Judy Garland: “I remember, at one point, I was on the boom and we were moving in for a giant close-up. Judy looked up with those great liquid eyes of hers and it was the most fantastic shot in the world. ‘Cut,’ I yelled, “Will somebody please hand me a towel, I’ve just come.’ Now that might be thought indelicate, but Judy loved that sort of foolishness. It really turned her on.”

May, 1969, Francis Ford Coppola on co-writing IS PARIS BURNING? (before Gore Vidal’s involvement): “Ray Stark said I could go to Paris and have a vacation with my wife because the writer then working on it was a man who was very ill, dying in fact. And these are the honest-to-God words used, my job was to assist that man and ‘if the pencil fell out of his hand, I was to pick it up.'”

July 1959, Shelley Winters on George Stevens: “George photographs what goes on in the air between people.”

October 1964, Sidney Lumet: “But in the early television days we were doing cuts as fast as a finger could move. John Frankenheimer, who was my AD, can bear me out: there was one sequence on a live show where John had 64 cues to give in a one-minute period. It was 23 cuts in a one-minute period, which is just about as fast as a switcher’s fingers can move, and John had three cues for each camera cut.”

June, 1970: Costa-Gavras on Z, which has a score by Mikis Theodorakis: “Theodorakis was already in prison, but I had some records of his which we adapted for the film soundtrack. […] We have just one short piece of original music for the picture. It is the scene with Jacques Perrin and the guy at the restaurant, where he is giving him the passport and the addresses, you can hear Theodorakis singing in the background. This piece was recorded on a miniature tape-recorder and smuggled out with his instructions on using it in the film.”

April, 1979, Philip Kaufman on the Dolby sound mix of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS: “And when we were doing the mix at Zoetrope, I just kept saying, ‘Pods eat birds. Just keep the birds down.’ I didn’t want the feeling that nature goes on while man is having his problems, because there is some suggestion in the film that everything is being transformed, that nothing is real anymore, that we are gradually going to lose. And that’s the sense of claustrophobia that I wanted to create. I mean the soundtrack is stylised and overdone and there are sounds that are bleeding in from the very beginning, that when you see it again you’ll recognize as either chimes or alien noises. […] Dolby was very excited by what we did with sound. Not just rolling stuff in its surroundings, but selectively beginning to creep sounds into the scenes. You know, we spent a lot of time determining what channel to place sounds. It’s a very expensive soundtrack, and Ben Burtt, who worked on STAR WARS did a lot of the sound effects and special sound effects.”

Nicholas Meyer: “They’re always looking for what is commercial, which I think proves how idiotic most people in the movie business are. Obviously there’s no such thing as commercial until something has made 50 million dollars. And since it is impossible to tell beforehand, it seems to me a waste of energy and you should concentrate on something which they never ask themselves, which is, ‘Do I like it?'”

And: “I came home one day and saw Martin Luther King standing on the balcony of the hotel and getting shot. I sat on my bed and was truly appalled by what I was seeing. And they took him to the hospital, and people were screaming, and there was blood, and suddenly all of this was interrupted by someone who says, ‘Miami for 25 dollars less.’ It’s preposterous, it’s George Orwell time. It scares the shit out of me. Television scares the shit out of me. […] It’s in your house. It’s this unblinking eye with its inexhaustible font of passivity, and it should be banned. No one should be allowed to have one. We should all go to the movies the way God intended.”

They Go Boom #2

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 1, 2018 by dcairns

The second film in our accidental Vilmos Zsigmond/Nancy Allen double feature, theone actually shot by Vilmos, was, of course, Brian De Palma’s BLOW OUT, which is one of his NON-Hitchcockian thrillers. It meshes BLOW UP and THE CONVERSATION, Chappaquiddick and the JFK assassination, a few good ideas and some great execution with a lot of stupid ideas and a little stupid execution… as a political thriller it’s missed the bus to Pakulaville, but it does sport a charming and unaffected performance from John Travolta. I like some of his affected perfs too (American Crime Story!) but it’s interesting to see him looking and sounding human. He does have one terrible bit though…

We open with a film-within-a-film —  a slasher movie which we’re meant to find cheesy, yet De Palma can’t resist serving up long, bravura steadicam shots which kind of confuse the issue — parody cheese or real cheese? Also, this is the only bit where Pino Donaggio’s score works at all — it’s a kind of imitation Morricone/Goblin sound, again making the exploitation nonsense seem more distinguished than we’re meant to find it. From here on, EVERY TIME Donaggio crashes the soundtrack, it’s ruinous. I love love love his DON’T LOOK NOW music, but everything he did for BDP is noxious, especially the PSYCHO strings in CARRIE. Come to think of it, CASUALTIES OF WAR is a defensible film until the final scene where Morricone destroys it with syrup. De Palma has great taste in composers but lousy taste in music, it seems.The bit where Travolta is recording wind sounds at night is just gorgeous — ridiculous splitscreen/diopter shots, macros closeups of recording kit, rich sound design and a stunning location. The fatal “accident” outcome of this scene — a car’s tyre explodes and it crashes into the river, drowning a political hopeful and nearly killing his girl-of-the-moment — is the least interesting thing about it, but that’s OK.

From here on in, the film is in big trouble. BDP has written a nitwit role for his wife and, credit where it’s due, Nancy Allen totally commits to playing it to the hilt. She has concussion/shock when we first meet her, but when she recovers she just gets worse. Travolta’s solicitude for her character is endearing, but inexplicable, and this is going to kill the film’s ending.De Palma hasn’t got half enough story to make a feature film, so he pads it out two ways — he inserts an irrelevant flashback of Travolta working as a sound man for the cops, and he shows his baddie, John Lithgow (yay!), killing a couple of women, once as a case of mistaken identity when stalking Allen, once to suggest the action of a serial killer so that when he eventually does kill Allen, the investigators will be confused. Obviously, killing three women is riskier than killing one or two, as Lithgow eventually learns, but we can’t ask for De Palma thrillers to make sense.

The surveillance flashback is a way for De Palma to exorcise the memory of PRINCE OF THE CITY, which he was all set to direct before for some reason getting kicked off it and replaced by Sidney Lumet. But then Lumet got kicked off SCARFACE and DePalma took over that one, so they’re even. (See also: William Goldman was pissed about Bryan Forbes redrafting his work on THE STEPFORD WIVES, but got to doctor Forbes’ script for CHAPLIN in revenge.) The only effect of this backstory is it makes the police reluctant to help, a device BDP had already used for Jennifer Salt’s journalist in SISTERS. At this point, he’s not so much recycling Hitchcock as himself.

The movie further stretches credulity by having Travolta rephotograph frame enlargements of a Zapruder-type film printed in a news magazine, which shows the “accident,” and rephotograph the pics on an animation rostrum, creating a new film which magically syncs with his sound recording (using the crashing car’s impact with the water as sync plop). None of this is technically very plausible, but it’s accomplished largely without words, and is fun to watch.In Mark Cousins’ Scene by Scene interview with Kirk Douglas, the crumbling legend is shown a scene from BDP’s THE FURY, and briefly covers his eyes. Asked about it afterwards, he says “I don’t like my face” — not, I think, an expression of modesty or self-loathing, just an honest response to his director making him look silly in slomo. Similarly, Travolta’s excellent work is marred horribly by 100fps shots of him HUFFING — puffing out his cheeks and expelling air from his lips, making them ripple like thick wet carpets being shaken. A hideous and preposterous sight at what is meant to be the movie’s emotional climax.

But, you know, there are great bits, as there usually are with De Palma.