Archive for The Big Country

Great Directors Made Small #4

Posted in FILM, literature, Science with tags , , , , on March 24, 2010 by dcairns

Hal Ashby and his big brother.

Nick Dawson’s recent bio, Hal Ashby, Life of a Hollywood Rebel seems pretty good — it tells the story of the troubled editor-turned-director in what seems a fairly even-handed way, sympathetic to Ashby but also admitting his weaknesses and moments of cruelty.

However, I was slightly alarmed by a passage dealing with Ashby’s work as a junior editor for William Wyler on THE BIG COUNTRY (I know, it’s a strange meeting of talents, but Wyler was actually a big personal influence on Ashby)…

“When the film previewed in San Francisco, he was one of the few not brought along by Wyler, but he nevertheless paid his own way to attend the screening. Wyler was so impressed that Ashby was there that he had his expenses reimbursed. Everybody settled down to watch the film, and all was going well until, about an hour or so into the film, one of the reels went out of sync. It took a group of nervous editors almost ten minutes to rethread the negative and sort out the problem, by which time, as Ashby recalled, “a lot of people had come out to the popcorn stand to get candy and popcorn and so forth. And when they started the picture back up again, there was Willy running around in the lobby saying to people, ‘The picture’s started again, the picture’s started again,’ forcing them back into the theater! There was no question about it: he wasn’t polite, he was just grabbing them and throwing them back in! It was hysterical.”

It’s a nice anecdote, but what strikes me about Dawson’s telling of it is the blithe technical ignorance he displays. What would the negative be doing in the projection room? Does he have any idea what you would see if you projected a negative? You would see a negative! And you really wouldn’t want to risk your negative under such conditions, even if for some crazy idea you fancied previewing the film with all the colours reversed.

This kind of thing in film bios rather irks me, and puts me off because how, if you don’t understand the difference between a neg and a print, are you going to be able to talk about Ashby’s actual work as an editor, or even as a director? It certainly seems like a moderate amount of grounding in film language would help.

Incidentally, I used to wonder how a film could go out of sync when the sound was printed right on the print, in that optical film stripe ~

The answer lies in the loop. First, it’s important to understand that the sound is already out of sync — due to the impossibility of reading sound from a frame of film passing in front of the projector beam (I assume there’s just no room, plus the heat of the lamp might be deleterious to a sound head), the sound is printed several frames off, so that one frame is passing over the sound head to have the soundtrack read, while the corresponding frame of picture is passing through the gate and being blasted with light.

Meanwhile, there is the loop, literally a loose loop of film between the sound drum and the gate, a little quantity of excess that’s designed to stop the film tearing if it momentarily snags anywhere along the way. The trouble is, if the film does snag, the loop can shrink or disappear, which has the effect of moving the sound out of sync. The frame being projected would now be up to half a second closer to the frame whose soundtrack is being read. That’s enough to be very noticeable whenever a a character onscreen talks or slams a car door. (Dawson is quite correct in his use of the world “rethreaded” for the solution to this problem.)

This stuff might or might not strike you as interesting, but none of it is inherently hard to grasp, and anybody writing a book about an editor’s life might want to make a point of understanding some of it…


Charlton Heston, actor

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2008 by dcairns

Fiona came into the room early in the morning and told me that some famous Hollywood person had died.

Then she came into the room and told me that Charlton Heston had died and I realised the earlier incident was a dream. I’ve never had deja vu like that before. Weird.

Then, as Edinburgh was briefly swamped by snowflakes the size of nachos, I began to think I must commemorate the great Chuck’s passing.

My first, dark thought, was that Heston’s Altzheimer’s had in some way, tragic though it was, aided his reputation. At least with me — I no longer thought of him as a wingnut and a gun-nut, but as a victim of an illness. Reagan’s senility never affected me that way. In some way I always wanted to like Heston. I know his illness had nothing to do with his arch-Republican stance, which preceded it by decades, but in some unreasonable way the illness erased my image of Heston as spokesman for opinions I loathe. It helps that, despite his right-wing views he was a supporter of the civil rights movement and an eager collaborator with the liberal Orson Welles and the politically somewhat complex Peckinpah.

I thought of my favourite Heston performance, in Wyler’s THE BIG COUNTRY. Heston can really play arrogance and aggression. In the same director’s BEN-HUR he’s stuck with trying to play nobility, which can’t be acted at all, only embodied by the right actor in the right role. The impossible task turns Chuck in on himself and, always prone to self-consciousness, he becomes stiff and monumental (I still can’t picture anybody else in the role though).

Wyler pulled one of his nasty tricks in a scene where Heston struggles with Carroll Baker. Heston traps both her tiny wrists in one of his great bone-sculpture hands and she tries to pull away. WW privately instructed her to break free of Heston’s grasp, while taking Heston aside and telling him to on no account allow Baker to get away. After a couple of takes, her wrists were red-raw, and there’s a real tremor in Heston’s voice as he struggle with her — he’s not a happy actor, but it works for the character. It’s a rare moment of seeing a human being instead of an icon. It makes me like Heston that playing this scene upset him so much — but he also respected Wyler for getting the effect.

Oh, and I love his last scene in Lester’s THE FOUR MUSKETEERS, where he dismisses Michael York’s D’Artagnan with a little wave of his hand. One doesn’t normally think of Chuck as a WITTY actor, but he respected Richard Lester and maybe the gesture was scripted or suggested. Anyhow, he does it beautifully.

Go away, you small boys

A flick of the wrist.

I want to be alone.

“Charlton Heston” by Stump, from the album A Fierce Pancake.

The pyramids were in construction,
The pharoah glowed with satisfaction,
But then to his immense surprise,
His empire fell before his eyes.
A hundred thousand busy slaves,
Downed their tools and stood and stared.

The Red Sea walls stood like a canyon,
The pharoah pulled up in his wagon,
And saw within those walls of glass,
A herd of whales go racing past.
A hundred thousand fishy tales,
Crossed his mind about the day.

Then Charlton Heston put his vest on.

The broken tablets had been mended,
The golden calf had been up-ended,
And old folk sitting round the fire,
Would talk of voices from the sky;
Babies sailing down the Nile;
The recipe for locust pie;
A hundred thousand frogs per mile —
We’d always ask them to describe,

How Charlton Heston put his vest on.

Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal;
Shalt not commit adultery.
Boils the size of fifty pee,
Lights! Camel! Action!

Bushes that refuse to burn.
See these sandals hardly worn.
Raining blood, raining bread,
The night we painted Egypt red.
Thou shalt not covet; shalt not lie;
Thou shalt not bonk your neighbour’s wife.
The recipe for egg fried lice;
A hundred ways to kill a fly;
Love your daddy, love your mummy;
Put your bread in milk and honey.
Loved his fish, he did, he did,
Never beat the wife and kids.
Slouch though desert, slouch through sand,
Until we reach the promised land.
Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not steal;
Shalt not commit adultery.
Boils the size of fifty pee.
Lights! Camel! Action!

Fallen Angel Face

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 19, 2008 by dcairns

Face Front 

Dual authorship — leaving aside the screenwriters, Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard (Otto Preminger would — later on, he more or less originated the “A film by” credit for directors in Hollywood) the RKO production ANGEL FACE can be attributed partly to Howard Hughes, who owned the studio at the time.

An obsessive control freak, Hughes acted as auteur or co-auteur on virtually all the studio’s releases. When he took over he sent out a memo: “From now on our films will all be about two things: fucking and fighting.” Sensing the writing was on the wall, ace producer Joan Harrison immediately quit.

True to his word, Hughes proceeded to make films that pandered to his own obsessions: firey women with large bosoms, and ultra-masculine men engaged in ultra-masculine activities. Viewed as auteur, HH has all the distinguishing characteristics — recurring themes and subjects, types of character, and even a visual style of sorts, although with the exception of THE OUTLAW (co-helmed with the other Howard, Hawks) he relied on underlings to actually call the shots.

The Lusty Man

SON OF SINBAD, to me, is Hughes’ greatest triumph, a blithering farrago of action, crummy jokes and endless belly dances, all spangled up and silly as hell, but a stone cold masterpieceif you’re a ten-year-old boy. I remember identifying deeply with Vincent Price as Omar Khayam (later, VP would play Thomas DeQuincey too — quite the poet).

THE LUSTY MEN escaped the full HH treatment by virtue of not having a completed script when it began. Director Nicholas Ray and Robert Mitchum (a star doubling as writer) were able to shape it themselves, and although it has the staples of manly activity (the rodeo) and fierce women competing over hulking men, it’s a considerable film in its own right and very much a personal Nicholas Ray film. Hughes protected Ray from the blacklisters, earning Ray’s respect and admiration. Ray later pronounced “a curse on anybody else who tries to make a movie about Howard Hughes.” Uh oh.

JET PILOT and MACAO brought Josef Von Sternberg out of retirement and seclusion in his modern-art masterpiece house with the symbolic moat surrounding it. But the experience was not a happy one for anybody. Bob Mitchum smeared limburger cheese on the engine of Sternberg’s custom-built limo (so it would stink when it heated up) and, as Von S ruefully recalled, “instead of fingers in the pie, a whole army of clowns rushed to immerse various parts of their anatomy in it.” One of the clowns was Nick Ray again…

Robert Stephenson was a gentle Brit who’d left England when war broke out, and this conscientous objector found himself working first for Hughes, and later for Walt Disney, two of the most militaristic, right-wing producers Ho’wood had to offer. He even made I MARRIED A COMMUNIST for Hughes, which Nick Ray and just about everybody else turned down.

The wildest film made under Hughes stewardship was probably THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR, a weird anti-war parable directed by Joseph Losey. Hughes hated it, but somehow the production scraped through with it’s somewhat leaden message undiluted. Child star Dean “In Dreams” Stockwell was called in to see Hughes, and politely refused to deliver a new speech explaining how America could ensure universal peace so long as it had the biggest army, navy and air force in the world.

Slap Her, She's French

Otto Preminger tells us in his memoir, Preminger, that ANGEL FACE came about because Hughes wanted to punish Jean Simmons. She was contracted to him and had cut her hair short after a row with HH. The aviator hated short hair on women, and resolved to make Simmons complete one more feature in the eleven filming days left on her contract, and do it wearing a long black wig. Preminger was borrowed from 20th Century Fox as a director who could be trusted to get Simmons’ scenes in the can in the allotted time. Preminger doesn’t say so, but the implication is there that he was chosen for the job to make things as unpleasant as possible for Simmons. But he recalls enjoying working with her. (Whether the experience was mutual I’m not sure. Simmons won’t even discussWilliam Wyler, who directed her in THE BIG COUNTRY.)

David Ehrenstein reminds me:

“On The RKO Storythere’s a teriffic anecdote from Robert Mitchum about the shooting of the film. There was a scene where He was required to slap Jean Simmons. Otto kept asking for take after take, and Mitchum quickly surmised that Otto liked to watch Jean getting slapped. So he turned the tables and slapped Otto.

There were no further retakes.”

So, given this history, does ANGEL FACE read like an Otto or a Howard? I would argue that it has elements of both. As Blake Lucas argues in The Little Black Book: Movies, Preminger –

“- seems not so intent on highly elaborate camera movement, beautiful for it’s own sake, as in, say, FALLEN ANGEL (1945), but as the film draws near to its close, a remarkable four minute sequence occurs… Diane [Simmons] is now all alone in the house where she has lived. She wanders from room to room, then into the quarters where her ex-lover Frank (Robert Mitchum) has stayed. A repeated camera movement, following her from a hall into a room, or out of one, becomes a motif of the sequence, which is entirely without dialogue, sustained by the superb performance of Simmons, the haunting music of Dimitri Tiomkin, and brought to a plaintive final note as she awakes in the morning, huddled in a chair, wrapped in Frank’s coat … In finding the space for a character to become something more than what she has been defined as, Preminger affords a rare vision of what aesthetic and moral nuance can attain together.”

Ah Jean!

This passage hints at an odd schism in the film’s style. Watching it with this in mind, I noted that the murder scene halfway through is a stylistic marker, after which the style becomes more elaborate and obviously Premingerian. The first repeated camera moves appear in the trial scene, where the prosecution and defence attorneys’ speeches are shot in exactly the same way. The whole movie becomes more stylish and fluid from then on. The first half is more choppy, blocky, and inclined to simple static set-ups with many medium close-ups, much more like a typical Highes production.

Here are some typically Hughesian things I detected in the film:

Manliness: Robert Mitchum plays an ambulance driver, and he wants to run a garage, but we also learn that he drove a tank in the war, and was a drag racer before that. Simmons keeps talking about getting him to compete in a car race, but this plot strand goes nowhere: the race never happens, or if it does, Mitchum isn’t in it. The race serves no clear plot function, seems only to be there for the thrill of having men and women talk about racing cars, something HH would have gotten a kick out of.

Lust in the Dust

The vacillating male. Parallel with their macho activities, Hughes’ RKO heroes often seem unable to make up their minds, unwilling to act directly in their own interests, self-destructive rather than self-actualizing. Mitchum  here follows the same weak-kneed course as both male leads in THE LUSTY MEN, and even John Wayne in JET PILOT.

Tough women fighting over a weak man. Here Mona Freeman and Jean Simmons conspire to win the weak-willed Mitchum. “I got a strong back and a weak mind,” as he remarks in THE LUSTY MEN.

Red Line 7000

Fast cars. A Hughes obsession. Jean Simmons proves adept in a masculine world, expert in the workings of her sports car, making a mockery of the suggestion that her car could have been sabotaged by anyone, “even a woman”. ESPECIALLY a woman!

Crashing cars. The film features not one but two lovingly photographed, apocalyptic smash-ups. Producer Hughes was responsible for Howard Hawks augmenting SCARFACE with a bunch of superfluous but juddersomely impressive auto wrecks. No stranger to life-threatening vehicle crashes himself, Hughes evidently enjoyed seeing them on the screen even more than he enjoyed being half-crippled in them for real.

Aimless characters. This goes beyond the vacilating male figure. In JET PILOT, it’s imposssible to figure what anybody is up to from moment to moment. John Wayne and Janet Leigh alternately love and hate each other, protect and humiliate each other, behave in a generally weird and opaque fashion. By contrast, Simmons gets quite a lot of psychoanalyzing, but remains kind of an enigma. Mitchum’s behaviour makes very little sense generally, but he’s exactly the kind of actor who can make that compelling.

There’s not much fighting in the film — but it’s all about Hughes’ other F Word, though of course that’s kept offscreen. The movie would make a great Fever Dream Double Feature with Cronenberg’s CRASH, both films which conflate coition with death and high-speed automobile mayhem.

None of this is intended to belittle Otto P’s great work on the film, nor that of his collaborators. But either Hughes played a greater role in developing the project than Otto admitted, or else the film was deliberately designed to pander to its producer’s tastes.

Or both.

The End of the Affair