Archive for Stanley Kubrick

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.

Ruhr Wars

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 19, 2020 by dcairns

I hadn’t watched DAMBUSTERS all the way through for decades, and so I remembered precisely enjoying the exciting action climax and the quaint-but-cool VFX, sure, remembered that… Remembered really enjoying Michael Redgrave but nothing specific.

Well, Redgrave is worth digging into. “They’ve aged him up,” declared Fiona. True. And Redgrave has made some slight modifications to his delivery and movement to suit an older character, but it’s so subtle it just melts into him and you forget there’s any acting going on. Something like DEAD OF NIGHT — extreme nervousness — allows MR to get showy, but this kind of invisible acting is something he’s also really good at.

Best Redgravian choice is when his moment of triumph comes — a dam is bust — and he doesn’t know how to do a fist-pump (had they been invented?) or he’s too repressed, so he pumps both fists DOWNWARDS as if he’s trying to detach his sleeves. Close to his sides, very repressed jubilation. Marvelous.

It wasn’t until I saw him outside a big shed with a couple cans of film under his arm that I realised this whole thing works as a metaphor for the film biz. Someone has an idea. They work up a proposal and shoot some tests, but they have to get it approved by a damn committee. Through personal connections they manage to catch the ear of a big shot with an office, and then they’re into pre-production. A crew must be selected, or as they call it here, “a crew.” After months of inertia, they suddenly have to get the whole thing together to meet a narrow window of opportunity. Then, having set it in motion, the minds behind it just have to sit back and see how it’s received by its audience (the Germans).

I truly believe the reason Peter Jackson hasn’t done his threatened remake yet is that he can’t decide what to call the dog. And the only reason he wants to make it is to have more realistic splashing. (Just like Cameron clearly wanted to re-re-re-remake the TITANIC story so as to include the detail of the ship snapping in two.)

Fiona, a stranger to the film, was astonished at the abstract effect of the bomb-splashes. An animated outline with shots of the sea inside it. It’s really kind of delightful. I think maybe it’d have been 5% more convincing if the sea was out of focus, and it should have been white water rapids all going UPSCREEN. But it’s adorable.

I pondered whether, by delving more deeply into the less appealing qualities of Wing Commander Guy Gibson, Jackson might be able to get away with giving him a racist dog. Probably not. It’s going to be a distraction whatever you try, and simply renaming the pooch Digger or Tigger or Trigger or Barkie is the least distracting option. People will get over it. And is your three-hour movie going to be accurate in every other respect?

A racist dog.

DAMBUSTERS, as directed by Michael LOGAN’S RUN Anderson is very watchable. The making-a-movie structure is really sound: Barnes Wallace battling committees is surprisingly exciting (following a character who’s right about something and faces opposition, hmm, there might be something in that) and then of course it leads into the operation itself, which is helluva exciting. The only possible hiccup is that you have to hand over from one lead character to another, which is often tricky in films. Redgrave is so much more interesting than Richard Todd that if it weren’t for the ramping-up of jeopardy, and the convenient baton-passing scene, it might not come off.

“The unfortunately-named Burpy,” said Fiona.

“I think it’s ‘Berkeley,'” I told her.

“I’ve been hearing ‘Burpy’ all through this film.”

“Well, he wouldn’t be the only one with an unfortunate name.”

It also struck me that, since Gilbert Taylor shot the effects work, that might be why Kubrick got him to shoot DR. STRANGELOVE — but the best stuff in this is done with real Lancaster bombers — and even Kubrick couldn’t supply real B52s — and with a vast miniature landscape — which wouldn’t have helped Kubrick much — but I would love to stride across it like a bespectacled Gojira — those plane shots in DR. S. always seem slightly disappointing, especially given what would be achieved in SK’s very next film. Oh, and George Lucas must surely have grabbed Taylor as his STAR WARS D.O.P. because of how the Death Star assault is so massively influenced by this.

As director, Michael Anderson’s best thing — apart from close-up of dog-scratches on door, a real hearthrob but probably in the script — is the sudden shock cuts from noise of battle to dead silence in the operations room, and the beautifully composed, near-abstract images there:

THE DAM BUSTERS — which everyone seems to call DAMBUSTERS — stars Dunois, Bastard of Orleans; Col. Eisenstein; Frau von Kalteneck; Claudius – The King; Nathaniel Beenstock; Capt. Edward John Smith; Cavendish ‘The Surveyor’; Quint; Captain Alec Rattray; Lord Alfred Douglas; Tiberius; Tang How – Tong Leader’s Aide; Six-Eyes Wiener; Klove; and Number Six.

The Hitman and Her

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 10, 2019 by dcairns

I didn’t like PRIZZI’S HONOR that much at the time — but I just read Richard Condon’ s source novel, which is terrific, so I gave the movie another shot. Nope, still don’t like it much, but for different reasons.

I wondered at the time if John Huston were getting a free pass from critics because was obviously nearing the end of his run, and because everyone was relieved this wasn’t another ANNIE or ECAPE TO VICTORY. I’m pretty sure now that’s EXACTLY what was happening. But I’m kind of glad it did: we got THE DEAD, maybe as a result of this one doing quite well, and THE DEAD is maybe a great film, certainly a great note to end on. Its cinematic qualities are very slight, but everything is good enough to let the writing and performances carry it, and they do. Result: majesty.

PRIZZI’S HONOR is quite extraordinarily faithful to its source, which turn s out to be a good thing in this case: even the photographs mounted behind William Hickey at the ceremony he throw s to announce his son’s quasi-retirement are as Condon describes them: Toscanini, Pope Pius XII, Enrico Caruso and Richard M. Nixon.

The supporting actors resemble their characters as described in the book to a startling degree: Don Corrado has tiny, steely eyes so William Hickey, playing a man thirty years older than himself, causes his normal-sized eyeballs to shrink by will alone. He’s a 100% convincing octogenarian in his late fifties, and it has nothing to do with the vampire makeup they’ve given him. (A critic once complained that Hickey wasn’t realistic in some play he was doing: Hickey remarked, “People don’t go to the theatre to see REALITY, they go to see AAAAAAAAAAAAAAACTING!“)

Here’s Condon describing Maerose Prizzi through protagonist Charley Partanna’s eyes:

“Maerose was a great woman even if she had messed up. She was a very wop looker, all eyes and beautiful bones among the grabbing domes and dunes. She was almost as tall as Charley, with sad eyes and long fingers. She was a woman who had done everything right — except once.”

Easy to picture John Huston reading that and thinking, I know who’d be just right for it. Of course, Anjelica Huston isn’t Italianamerican but of all the WASP actors in the cast she gets it the most right. And she’s stylised but real, like Hickey. She overplays everything and makes you like it.

The film’s problem is Jack Nicholson. It isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw that he doesn’t resemble the Charley Partanna in the book, a physically imposing tough guy. “Jesus he was big. He was like a tall rectangle of meat and hair.” But his dumpy appearance gives Kathleen Turner severe motivational problems when she has to act falling in love with him.

Huston at the time remarked that most of the takes in the film were take one, thanks to Jack. Looking at it now, I think it needed a few more takes, all the way through. Maybe not Kubrickian numbers, that had a weird effect, but just a few more to let him calm down and let his co-stars get used to him.

Nicholson plays the thing with a prosthesis in his upper lip which does make him look like a mook, but does nothing for his supposed seductiveness and is a bit distracting: we know he’s NOT a mook, just Jack Nicholson with a thing in his lip. He also overplays Charley’s dumbness, adding to our puzzlement about why Turner should be attracted to him. In the book this is all made clear with prose from her point of view: she needs to seduce Charley to pull off the scam she’s running, then falls for him because nobody was ever so kind to her, and he’s fantastic in the sack. None of this is really present in the film.

Kathleen Turner struck Fiona as “just kind of plastic,” which I think is because what she’s acting against makes no sense to her and she has to try to shut it out and project a fantasy co-star to act opposite. She must have seen Nicholson was a problem — dumb, slobby and ugly — but her director was apparently enamoured of the guy. Maybe JH should have taken Turner’s role.

The editor is obviously smitten too: scenes which could cut sharply on a funny line are allowed to expire slowly over a lingering dissolve. Nicholson has one of these unconvincing phone calls where nobody says “‘Bye,” and instead of cutting, which could have solved that nicely, we have to look at him vamp while waiting for his director to say “Cut.” Sometimes those moments are golden. One shouldn’t say “Cut,” until every possible thing has happened. But then one should be brutal in the edit. Here, Nicholson shifts awkwardly on his feet, then LOOKS AT THE PHONE QUIZZICALLY. Something nobody ever did. Ever! And it gives us plenty of time to wonder if the phone call is over. Aren’t they going to say goodbye?

Find a woman who looks at you like Kathleen Turner is pretending to look at Jack Nicholson here.

Stanley Kubrick wanted to cast Nicholson as Napoleon, which we all know would have been hilarious because we’ve seen him in uniform in THE TERROR, but his reasoning was that Nicholson projected intelligence, “the one quality that can’t be faked.” Ridiculously untrue: write intelligent lines for an actor and he can learn not only the words but their meaning, say them like he just thought of them, and look intelligent. Huston knew this from FREUD, where Montgomery Clift was barely functioning. “On the screen, he looked like he was thinking. God knows he wasn’t.”

Nicholson’s trouble is that he can’t fake dumb: he’s an incurable wise-ass and he has to wink at us to let us know he’s not really this dumb jerk of a mob guy.

A shame, because with DeNiro or… or maybe we’ve even found a role Stallone could play? … and a decent editor and a decent font and some better medicine for the director this really could be the film reviewers said it was.

But I’ve been wrong before. As an 18-year-old in 1985 I was confused by Huston’s uncertain period setting — it’s, in fact, a modern film made to feel like a period one, just like WISE BLOOD; and I didn’t like that the lovers were fatally parted. I thought the movie’s job, having put this insuperable barrier of mob life between them, was to somehow solve the problem. I think the film fails as a comic tragedy, whereas the book succeeds because you really feel something for the characters, loathsome as they ought to be (we hear a bit about Charley’s career zotzing people and it’s blood-chilling). A lot of the book’s best writing occurs inside the characters’ heads, and naturally, that’s the stuff the (really quite accomplished) script can’t do.

But it did lead to THE DEAD and it did give us Anjelica Huston, who was, whatever the reviewers said, GREAT in her dad’s A WALK WITH LOVE AND DEATH and is great again here.

PRIZZI’S HONOR stars Jack Torrence; Dolores Benedict Hfuhruhurr; ——Morticia Addams; Dick Laurent; Arthur Hamilton; Rudolph Smuntz; Anton Bartok; Joe Cabot; Mo’at; The Horla; and Stanley Kubrick.