Archive for Stephen Frears

Grift to the Scaffold

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2019 by dcairns

Yes — THE GRIFTERS stands up well. I was maybe a little underwhelmed in 1990, though I saw Stephen Frears do a Q&A on it and that was fun. In fact, it’s excellent. Stylistically, Frears was probably at his most assured — the opening split screen should go further, I feel, and the magnificent blocking in the hospital waiting room confrontation isn’t quite as dazzling as the way the characters prowl around each other in DANGEROUS LIAISONS, but it’s still hugely effective, and the three stars are tops.

I was very slightly sceptical of David E.’s assertion that the film presciently captures the state of America now — but I immediately noticed that, while the film opens with a quotation designed to acquaint its audience with the outdated term in the title, that term is now being slung around by both US political parties. Though I think the word GRIFT may soon be replaced by the word GRAFT, which seems really useful in today’s emulumental world.

Frears, as I recall, affected a complete disinterest in John Cusack’s previous career — “I gather he was in some sort of teenage things” — THE SURE THING, for one, is excellent, as I recall — Cusack has got IT, in the best Elinor Glyn sense of the word. Frears talked about auditioning various people for the role of Lilly, and sensing how the film would be good, but entirely different, depending on who he chose. With Sissy Spacek it would have been about class, and white trash aspiration, but with Anjelica Huston it was going to be Greek tragedy. Complete with descent into the Underworld.

He acknowledged that the last but one scene — AH descends in a Fatal Elevator — was a hommage to her recently-departed father and THE MALTESE FALCON. I can’t understand, watching it now, why the film doesn’t end on this sensational pair of shots, instead of frittering out into a routine car on road fade-out.

He talked about the horrifying oranges scene, with Pat Hingle, and how watching Huston’s devastatingly convincing pain was “one of those days when you wonder why you do this job,” because it was so distressing to watch.

Annette Bening is interesting — I think she can seem kind of phony-saccharine, but here she’s phony-sexy and it’s perfect. Fiona did question why she had to be naked so much and was the only one doing it, but I guess she’s the one who uses sex as a weapon so there’s SOME justification.

I can’t, damnit, remember any discussion of screenwriter Donald Westlake.

Cute in-joke in the signage, which references two of Westlake’s many nommes des plumes. He does quite a bit of this winking in his pseudonymous novels.

There was some chat about OA Jim Thompson and how, though he wrote about low-lifes, he was very happy to see big movie stars cast in his stuff.

Delirious from his stomach injury, Cusack hallucinates a see-through mentor — like Obi-Wan? Or maybe the reference is to the tormentingly translucent Julie London in THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, whose co-star Henry Jones appears in this movie.

I think maybe I expected more twists, but I was glad it didn’t try to fool us too much. I always thought HOUSE OF GAMES was an awful piece of junk, depending for its success on the audience, and the lead character, never suspecting that the con artist characters might be orchestrating a con. So really THE GRIFTERS is about character, not convoluted tricks of narrative or “big store” schemes.

I also really like the way it’s set in a contemporary 1990 world with chunky computers and everything, but manages to feel much older, 1940s maybe, without this coming across as affectation or anachronism. Very hard to do. Neo-noir is nearly impossible to do, I think, without coming off all arch. Elmer Bernstein’s score is a big part of it, as are the costumes, the dialogue, the performances…

THE GRIFTERS stars Morticia Addams; Martin Q. Blank; Supreme Intelligence; Mousie; Commissioner Gordon; Baxter Wolfe; John Ehrlichman AND Bob Woodward; Mr. Pink (uncredited); and the voice of Vincent Van Gogh.

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Three Three Mens

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2017 by dcairns

To say nothing of the dog.

So, the first of my book fair purchases to be consumed was Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which proved extremely rewarding. I love the film of JKJ’s THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, and this has some of the same peculiarity. As with a lot of literary works one hasn’t read, perhaps especially comic novels, one forms a false impression of what to expect. Here, the slapstick, bickering, stupidity, falling-in-the-water stuff and the good-old-days Victorian atmosphere do make up aspects of the book, but there’s a lot of surprising material alongside it, and anyway the expected content isn’t quite how you expect it: the novel was a contemporary work, so the period detail, in a sense, isn’t; and the slapstick, being delivered by words, gains subtlety. None of the boating mishaps seem like they’d be particularly amusing to actually watch, it’s all in the telling.

And the film adaptations bear this out, dreadfully. I haven’t been able to see 1915’s HANGING A PICTURE, produced by and starring one Eric Williams, which adapts one episode of the book, nor the 1920 full adaptation, which seem interesting chiefly because they’re so close in period to the novel. As with Wodehouse, making a lot of effort to create a period look seems antithetical to the easy charm of the source. (I’m not certain if either of these films survive.)

So the 1933 film, directed by Graham Cutts, Hitchcock’s old bête noir, has a certain advantage. As the opening images unspooled — a phantom ride floating down a sun-dappled Thames — I thought, “Well, this is the right mood.” That lasted as long as the credits. In the spirit of the misbegotten JEEVES films starring Arthur Treacher, which turned Wodehouse’s super-brain into a bumbling duffer, Cutts’ film proceeds to get everything perfectly wrong.

The actors are sort of capable, but the decision has been made to make one of them the straight man hero type, always having the horse-laugh on his pals. Which isn’t like the book, but also isn’t an appealing dynamic. Jerome, democratically includes himself in most of the acts of silliness in the novel, and though he regards himself as less fatheaded than his pals, a lot of his humour is about reading between the lines, so that he can show that he’s capable of being just as foolish as his travelling companions, and also that they each have the same false sense of superiority. This is so much more wittily ironic than the movie’s approach.

The novel has no plot save its journey. The film tries so hard to have a plot, it forgets to have a journey. The hapless holidaymakers basically park their boat, get out, and have misadventures with a pretty girl, her bad-tempered uncle, the local constabulary, and the truculent locals. This all makes a liar out of the title. In fact, there isn’t much to recognise from the novel — a man sits in butter and has to have it scraped from the seat of his trousers, and there’s the bit where three fishermen claim credit for a big trout hung on a pub wall. And there’s a dog, but it’s the wrong breed, belongs to the wrong man, and is used for cuteness. The disreputable Montmorency of the book, a memorable literary dog, is nowhere to be found.

The language is interesting: George (Edmund Breon — never heard of him) says “You arse” and “stop arsing about.” When he and Harris (William Austin — nope) get on their faces, the charming leading lady (Iris March — I know, there shouldn’t BE a leading lady) says they look “like nigger minstrels.” The N word does appear in the book once, also, in one of those moments that makes you pause a bit.

Purely because it’s 1933, which nobody involved really deserves credit for, this terrible film feels a bit more “right” that Romulus Films’ 1956 version, directed by Ken Annikin. The choice of composer, John Addison, is the smartest thing about it. Let’s state the obvious: to film Three Men in a Boat, first choose your three men. With care.

So here we have Jimmy Edwards as Harris, which is the wrong man — George is the fattish one. But that doesn’t really matter, except — WHY CHANGE IT? But Edwards had his own handlebar moustache, and a sort of music-hall tang, and looks good in a blazer and straw boater. He’ll do.

David Tomlinson is cast as Jay, which again is the wrong person for him to play. He can play the silly ass just as well as Edwards, and might have made a good Harris. But he can’t suggest Jay’s soulfulness, he can’t suggest that this man might write this book. The film “solves” this by removing the book’s strangeness (the bits that mark it out as by the same author as The Passing of the Third Floor Back), its historical asides, its poetry. Everything that leavens the dicking around in boats, in fact.

And then, because it’s a Romulus production, and producer James Woolf was hopelessly in love with him, we have Laurence Harvey. Maybe the worst piece of casting in history. I can actually imagine Harvey as Jay, underplaying the soulful bit. But here he’s George, no longer fat, now an unreformable babe-hound (and the film supplies a roster of babes — Jill Ireland, Lisa Gastoni, Shirley Eaton and Adrienne Corri), and he overplays horribly, as he was wont to do when the material was unsuitable.

Chasing girls is very much not a theme of the book. Both these movies regard that as a problem to be solved. And so here’s Shirley Eaton stepping from a bath, offering a peekaboo glimpse of her sodden fleshings. You couldn’t go anywhere in Britain in the late 50s/early 60s without tripping over Shirley’s damp body stockings or her gilt breast-cones from GOLDFINGER. All of which gives hammy Laurence even more to get excited about.

So there’s a lot of shouting with these three (the book has a restful feel of “perspiring bluster recollected in tranquillity”), and a repeated tic of having them DESCRIBE whatever supposedly funny thing has just happened (“You’ve DROPPED it in the WATER!”) that certainly doesn’t help anything. And although this one reproduces several of the events of the novel, it misses the tone completely, and although unlike the 1933 film it DOES centre on a journey into the Heart of Lightness, Annikin pretty well forgets to drift downstream — that opening shot of the b&w movie is never evoked by his stodgy, static, Cinemascope shots.

(In fairness — the 1933 MEN survives only in a very jumpy, spliced print, while the 1956 one can be seen on Youtube but in a wretched pan-and-scan, which certainly can’t help.)

The best English-language adaptation (there’s a 1961 German transposition which sounds pretty bad) is certainly the 1975 BBC version, scripted by Tom Stoppard, directed by Stephen Frears, and starring Tim Curry (Jay), Michael Palin (Harris) and Stephen Moore (George). They should have chased up Vyvyan Stanshell, I feel, but this is a fine trio. Best of all, they’re all deadpan — Curry plays it like Brideshead Revisited, Palin plays it like Ripping Yarns — and he’s a marvellous actor for using the frame in comic ways, as scene in the Hampton Court Maze scene, staged properly as a flashback here. He’s also the best at falling over, and he makes sure to do this a lot.

One of the few laughs in the Annikin film is the pineapple tin bit, reproduced from the novel, but this limply rendered, based solely on the idea of three idiots without a tin opener trying to get at the sugary fruit with blunt instruments. JKJ gets FAR more comic value out of it than that ~

We beat it out flat; we beat it back square; we battered it into every form known to geometry — but we could not make a hole in it. Then George went at it, and knocked it into a shape, so strange, so weird, so unearthly in its wild hideousness, that he got frightened and threw away the mast.

There’s this odd pre-Lovecraftian sense of the uncanny in English comic writing — think of Bertie Wooster’s reaction to the cow-creamer.

And Stoppard goes still further, setting up the slapstick with a set of wonderfully precise tributes to the desirable qualities of tinned fruit ~

“Nothing quite like tinned pineapple.”

“Puts fresh pineapple in the shade.”

“It’s the juice.”

“It’s more of a syrup, really. It’s not exactly sweet. It’s not exactly bitter.”

“It’s the way it’s not exactly crunchy, and yet it’s firm, and clean-tasting.”

“Where’s the opener?”

Poignant!

The TV version isn’t perfect. It truncates a few things that would only have really worked if done whole, includes a few things it could have done without, and of course has to leave out lots. But it’s sensibly short, at just an hour — plotless things being trick to sustain for longer. And Stoppard is the only one of the various writers to have tackled the book who can not only adapt ready-made bits, but make up new material that feels JKJ-ish (while also being pure Stoppard, as when the careless heroes collide with an anachronistic Percy Bysshe Shelley). And of course he includes some of the strange bits of poetry and tonal shifts.

It’s pretty well worth watching, but not so much as the book is worth reading.

It was a glorious night. The moon had sunk and left the quiet earth alone with the stars. It seemed as if, in the silence and the hush, while we her children slept, they were talking with her, their sister — conversing of mighty mysteries too vast and deep for childish human ears to catch the sound.

They awe us, these strange stars, so cold, so clear. We are as children whose small feet have strayed into some dim-lit temple of the god the have been taught to worship but know not; and, standing where the echoing dome spans the long vista of the shadowy light, glance up, half hoping, half afraid to see some awful vision hovering there.

And yet it seems so full of comfort and of strength, the night. In its great presence, our small sorrows creep away, ashamed. The day has been so full of fret and care, and our hearts have been so full of evil and of bitter thoughts, and the world has seemed so hard and wrong to us. Then Night, like some great loving mother, gently lays her hand upon our fevered head, and turns our little tear-stained faces up to hers, and smiles; and, though she does not speak, we know what she would say, and lay our hot flushed cheek against her bosom, and the pain is gone.

 

Cockleshell Hero

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2015 by dcairns

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I like to think that some Americans, and other friendly foreigners, seeing LOCAL HERO and loving it as most everyone seems to, wonder “Who is THIS guy?” when they see Fulton McKay as the aged beachcomber, the stumbling block in the plans of Burt Lancaster’s oil consortium (represented by Peter Riegert) to buy up the coastline of a quaint Scottish island.

Knowing a bit about writer-director Bill Forsyth’s methods, I see McKay’s old Ben as a particularly successful bit of writing. Forsyth loves character and dialogue and rather despises plot. Ben, by bringing the plot to an impasse which necessitates negotiation, forces talk to happen. And because Ben isn’t interested in negotiating, he keeps changing the subject. His digressions have dramatic value since they’re stopping the protagonist achieving his task, but through them Forsyth can enjoy what he’s really interested in, which is the talk itself.

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To British audiences, McKay was a familiar figure for one key role, though his career, in television particularly, was extensive. But it’s as McKay (pronounced Mick-EYE) in the TV show Porridge that he made his big impression. McKay was a tough, sardonic prison warden, the bete noir of the show’s convict heroes (Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale — father of Kate). McKay the actor played McKay the character sympathetically, even though he’s a bit of a hard case and the show’s nominal antagonist (though other, more vicious criminals could also make things tough for the heroes). He did a lot of lopsided smiling and quite a bit of one eye goggling, one eye squinting, like James Finlayson but subtler. Everyone, after all, is subtler than James Finlayson.

It’s in these roles of the seventies and eighties that FM made his mark on my memories, so I was intrigued to see him in THE BRAVE DON’T CRY, the last film produced by documentarist John Grierson, a Scottish-set film from 1951, directed by Philip Leacock (brother of documentarian Richard). A young McKay seemed inconceivable, since he’d seemed old when I was a kid. Would he even be recognizable, or would time have only kitted him out with all those attributes I knew so well further down the line?

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Fulton McKay is COMPLETELY recognizable, and what’s more the same qualities that served him so well in later life work quite nicely for the younger thesp. The way he crosses a room in wide shot, he’s immediately himself — something to do with the way his head bobbles ever so slightly, a cocky bobble — his head flares out like a cork and his neck is slender, so i guess a certain amount of jiggle is inevitable. His lips are very thin and his smile is oddly angular — uniquely, his mouth has more than the conventional two corners. And it only goes up on one side.

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Terrific actor. In the movie, he’s trapped down a mine with a group of other miners, his father killed in the subsidence. Lots of emoting to do. Then he breaks a leg. He’s not having a good day. The claustrophobic tension is strong, even on rather wobbly sets. I wish he’d done more movies — he’s very funny in Stephen Frears’ first feature, GUMSHOE, with Albert Finney — but at least he was always busy. It may be his best work is buried amid all that ephemeral TV. Likely it happened on stage in some rep theatre on a rainy day, seen by twenty people. But what we do have is pretty wonderful.