Archive for The Boy with Green Hair

Critical Condition

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 28, 2009 by dcairns

gerry_lookingup

The last of my Edinburgh International Film Festival interviews from this year. I met Gerald Peary, critic and director of the documentary FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES: THE STORY OF AMERICAN FILM CRITICISM, which is a combined history lesson and elegy for the days in which critics could really stir up some popular debate about movies. The tracing of film criticism’s development in the States was very interesting to me, since I knew virtually nothing about the early days, and as Gerald hoped, it was also interesting to see and hear from the people behind the bylines — the movie features a large cast of contemporary writers, from Jonathan Rosenbaum to Elvis Mitchell, Molly Haskell to Kenneth Turan.

The week of the screening, Andrew Sarris, as close as the film has to a hero, had just lost his job at the New York Observer, lending credence and urgency to the film’s argument that serious movie discussion is under threat.

My main issue with the film is that it located the internet as a primary source of that threat, rather than perhaps offering a place of refuge for serious cinephilia. Harry Knowles makes an easy target (hard to miss), and is cast as more-or-less as the film’s villain (with Pauline Kael representing a different sort of malignity). I saw my mission as being to talk Gerald round to the joys of cyberspatial film discourse, at least a little.

DAVID CAIRNS: I wanted to ask how you became a film critic.

GERALD PEARY: Well, I did not intend to be a film critic. I guess the preconditions are (1) that I was a total movie lover all my life from the time I was like three and four years old. I remember my mother and I would walk down the street and I would run into a theater and my mother would be , “Where’s my boy?” and I would be sitting there, having somehow sneaked past everybody, watching images. So I always watched movies avidly. And then, really pretty early, aged about fifteen, I started reading film critics. And I learned incredible amounts from critics long before I was one. Critics sent me to movies I wouldn’t have gone to, and they also increased my consciousness about cinema and did all kinds of good things.

But I was an English major, I think I was going to be an English professor, and then I was a drama person and I directed plays and acted in plays. [...] And at some point I got tired of drama, I got tired of actors — I hated actors, hated working with them — and I was in graduate school and I started writing film reviews for the school newspaper and found it really interesting. And I guess I’ve continued to do that forever and ever since. And here I am.

DC: So it makes sense that you’d make a movie one day, since you’ve been involved in the practice of drama…

GP: This is the first movie I’ve ever made and certain parts of it seemed easier, maybe because years ago I worked with actors, I know how to put actors at ease. [...] I guess it was easier for me to talk to people, I think the critics in the movie are pretty comfortable on camera. That’s what most people say, they really enjoy the critics, they say what they want, they’re not inhibited.

DC: So, why did you decide to make this film? And why make it as a film?

GP: There is no film history, to this point, of American film criticism. There is no book. Whether this is the right way to make it or not, I don’t know. I’d be too lazy, and overwhelmed, and have too many things in my life to write the history, because even now, people say, “Well, you’ve done the movie, why don’t you do the book?” Nooo! That just sounds SO overwhelming to do. So this was, it wasn’t easier, because this took eight years to make, but it wasn’t sitting at a table all day long reading and writing, it was a different phenomenon, and there’s something a bit social about making movies. Which is kind of fun, being with editors and doing interviews and things.

DC: Yeah. I’ve made some short films, and that’s what I would be doing if people were queuing up to give me money to make films…

GP: Well they’re not queuing up to give me money either, believe me…

DC: How did you manage it?

GP: Well it was practically impossible. People never realise, because obviously America’s so rich in so many ways, that there’s no government money at all, for anything. We have this idiotically self-reliant idea that the arts should not be paid for at all by government. “That’s your job.” So I think in other countries this movie could have been financed, because it’s a cultural history of my country. This was completely private money. And there’s no reason for anybody to invest in this movie. Actually, we don’t have any investors. My wife was the producer of this movie, I’m the director, and it was just trying to beg money thousands of ways, over many, many, many years. We actually did — which really worked quite well — we did a campaign, sending out letters to friends and acquaintances, asking for $100 per person, and we collected $18,000 that way, which at a certain moment was unbelievably important in keeping the movie barely going. I’m amazed it’s finally finished.

You do have a phenomenon, I’m sure it’s all over, of all kinds of fake producers, bullshit producers, who keep coming in and claiming, “Oh, we’re gonna make your movie,” and after all their baloney, the one thing they don’t do is put any money into the movie. They want to change it, they want to influence it, they have big ideas… Over the years we had lots of fake producers who came in and out, and in the end the movie kept coming back to me and to Amy Geller, the producer, my wife. And so, in the end, we actually made exactly the movie we wanted to make. Which is really good. So I’m glad all those people went away, because at certain points I would have been tempted — anything, just to finish the movie.

But eight years really is a long time.

DC: I guess one of the things that happened during that period was the so-called decline of print journalism, these firings and redundancies of senior film critics –

GP: One of the many ways that the film changed form over the years is that eight years ago, film criticism still seemed a viable profession. Even then, obviously I want more people to read criticism and take it seriously, so that’s always been an objective, but I had no idea then that everybody in America was going to lose their job; by now, there are over fifty critics who are “made redundant” as you say over here — we say “fired” in the States. So the movie has an urgency that it didn’t have when it was conceived. I guess dramatically that helps the film. Or melodramatically. But it’s not a happy melodrama, because I’d rather critics were employed and doing well.

harryThe world’s biggest blogger, Harry Knowles.

DC: And parallel with that is the rise of the blog, and people getting their criticism on the IMDb, or from blogs or from Harry Knowles — who’s almost the villain of your film, but not quite, because he’s so affable.

GP: Much more than trying to vilify anybody in the film, I sort of lay it out, and I do want people to decide for themselves; Harry Knowles or not Harry Knowles; the internet or print journalism; or Pauline Kael versus Andrew Sarris. So people read Harry Knowles in different ways. In general, I can say, the older the person is, the more they want to strangle him –

[But how would they get their hands around that redwood of a throat? -- DC]

GP: — and the younger they are the more they identify with him. Certain kinds of web critics resent Harry Knowles because he comes their representative, and that’s not the way they write or the way they think.

DC: He is sort of the representative in your film. If I was going to pitch in with a defense of the blogosphere, I guess I would say that I wouldn’t want him — I don’t hate the man — but I wouldn’t want him necessarily to stand for all of what’s going on on the internet.

GP: Right. We have Karina Longworth also in the film, who is [...]definitely an up-and-coming critic in America. Critics in print who read her work tend to respect her work. She knows her stuff.

DC: And she’s a writer, not a typer. So… it still feels to me sometimes that I’m doing what I do for free, and while I feel fine about doing that, on the other hand I could be taking food from your children’s mouths by providing free film criticism… All this free material is definitely a contributing factor to the crisis in print. I don’t imagine that newspapers are going to disappear [as Jonathan Romney put it, So people are going to carry their laptops everywhere?] and I think those that remain will still carry some criticism. But what’s your take on that?

GP: I think it probably depends on the country. I think you’re right, I mean, most of the papers in America that have lost their critics still have reviews but they tend to be consolidated, they tend to be wire service and they don’t pay particularly. So Roger Ebert is in more places than ever, whether that’s good or bad… Maybe it’s different here, maybe America was very good this way, that it has a long tradition of local critics who are in each city and can write about things from the perspective of somebody in that city. When a filmmaker from that region shows a movie, good or bad, that filmmaker will get some space in the paper, and I think that’s nice, and certainly that’s going away with the homogenization. [...] The Village Voice is an egregious case of a great newspaper just being dismantled. That’s what I grew up on, forty years ago, was reading the Village Voice, which had the best critics in the world, and that’s where my consciousness came from, and so the idea that it’s just part of a conglomerate today, just one cog, is really very disheartening.

for-the-love-of-moviesAndrew Sarris in FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES.

DC: It seems your film is a bit of a lament for the days “when film criticism mattered,” as it says in the film. What I wondered is, do you feel that film critics should have power — in the way that Pauline Kael had power and people said she could make or break a film — ? Do you think that is a wholly positive thing?

GP: No. Well, I’m not sure Pauline Kael could make or break a film. Of the two, I suppose “making a film” is much more positive than sending it scurrying away. I guess several Pauline Kael reviews, like her NASHVILLE review and her BONNIE AND CLYDE review were two, her LAST TANGO IN PARIS review, seemed to have a great effect on the films. It’s in-between. I like the idea that critics can help a good film. I wouldn’t be doing this otherwise. There’s nothing more pleasurable than sending people to a movie that you like and find worthy, and people see it and thank you because they saw it, and they now have joined the crowd and also like that film. That power is completely diminished, and perhaps completely gone, and that’s far from the idea of power-brokers. The New York Times used to be the paper for the foreign language film, if the New York Times critic didn’t like a foreign language film it was absolutely gone. If he liked it, it might do OK. And that really is far too much power for any one person to have.

[It occurs to me that powerful critics, even if they're not a universal good, might still be a useful balance against the publicity power of the studios, which is almost all we have left. Well, that and the capricious will of the audience, which does still seem to reject a few of the blockbusters shoveled in its direction, although it's not clear to me on what basis LAND OF THE LOST is rejected while JURASSIC PARK is accepted, or why TRANSFORMERS is somehow less hideous than PEARL HARBOR. -- DC]

DC: In that case, is there something to be said for the “cacophony of voices” on the internet, because people will find their favourite writers — one hopes people will seek out writers whose tastes correspond roughly to their own. There might still be powerful critics but each one is powerful to a much smaller constituency.

GP: I think you just said it. That constituency is so small that in terms of theatrical releases it doesn’t matter, practically, at all. Do you know of a case where an internet reviewer has influenced — “box office” sounds too vulgar — but brought lots of people to see a movie?

DC: Probably not. I know cases where I’ve gone to see a film because of something I’ve read on the internet that intrigued me…

[Here is where Harry Knowles is a significant figure, because he has probably had a positive effect on some smaller films, provided they're the kind of entertainments he likes. Because he has, it seems, literally gazillions of readers. -- DC]

GP: Well that’s good, the fact that you do that is good. I come from print, obviously, but you should seek good critics, somebody who has your sensibility, wherever you find them. Perhaps in the future there might be some sort of falling off, and people on the web who are just more dilettantes will go away, the more serious critics will stay, and that there will be less of them. Because less probably will be more influential than more. And there might be a time when certain web critics are good and valuable and might send readers to good movies. That would be nice.

DC: [...] I’m just happy if a couple of people read a piece and that might lead them to a film. There’s that warm feeling you get…

GP: You got it: the warm feeling. I like that phrase: “the warm feeling.” Because why are you doing this unless you’re sending people to movies.

DC: And sometimes you might want to warn them off something that was a horrible experience, or at least report that you had a horrible experience and say “You decide for yourselves.” [A strange "cold feeling" actually comes when somebody tells me they won't be seeing a film as a result of reading one of my pieces, however much I hated the film. I'd still rather people saw and decided for themselves...]

GP: Well that’s it, “You decide.” Pauline Kael, there wasn’t any “you decide” for her. She used the term “You the reader,” she used this rhetorical device where she told you what YOU thought about the movie, and it was very bullying and intimidating. I don’t tell what someone will think, I never could tell. That’s part of her critical arrogance.

DC: I guess it comes down to also what you consider the purpose of criticism to be. Whether it’s a consumer guide to help people find the films they might like, or whether it can be more than that and illuminate a film — even a film that somebody doesn’t like, they might find something in it…

GP: You’ve said it very well. People make that critic/reviewer distinction. I guess I believe in all the good things about criticism, but I guess that little part of me, the consumer part — because it’s such a bad moment right now, because everybody’s just going to all the bad movies — I do wish critics had a little more influence putting pants in seats. But obviously the most important part — opinion is the least interesting part of the reviews, contextualizing is what’s really good…

DC: One thing that’s probably hurt the business of reviewing is studios producing films that are so pre-packaged — you don’t need to read a review of TRANSFORMERS II to have an idea of what it’s going to be. Who needs an analysis of that?

GP: The thing is, people do need analysis of that, but they don’t care about it. It would be really nice if people read some good — instead of fanboy garbage — analysis of a Hollywood product is interesting stuff if it’s written well. But nobody wants to know that kind of stuff who goes to see TRANSFORMERS.

DC:  Yes. But the consumer guide aspect of reviewing goes away when the audience can just look at the poster and have a very clear idea of what the experience will be.

GP: I don’t know if they always have a clear idea. With certain STAR WARS movies, everybody heard they were terrible but they still went anyway. It just doesn’t matter.

DC: That’s a scary phenomenon. The movie that’s so powerful: society’s saying you have to see this. The logline for THE DA VINCI CODE was “Be a part of the phenomenon.”

GP: Oh that’s great, yeah. I read one page of the book, which I laughed at, so horrible, and then I never saw the movie.

boywithgreenhair-1

DC: One of the things that’s really sweet in your film is your asking people for their primal movie experience, and since you don’t include your own, I thought I really ought to ask you what -

GP: My primal one. Well I think I remember the most ones that scared the shit out of me, so the movie — it took me years to figure out… one I don’t know: one was a film about typhoid fever, in which Typhoid Mary — and if anyone can identify this — Typhoid Mary at one point went to a water fountain and drank water from it, and then she walked away and then a little kid came along and got typhoid… And then, in the movie there’s this movie THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR, which I saw as a child and didn’t sleep for a month, because I was worried that my hair would turn green.

But then there are more things like John Ford’s THE SEARCHERS, which I can say is my favourite movie, and I saw it when I was eleven years old. It was in a movie theatre and I saw it four days in a row. And then I wandered away and did other stuff in life, I saw foreign movies and Bergman movies, and then I came back to THE SEARCHERS and THE SEARCHERS is my favourite movie again.

DC: The Typhoid Mary thing rings a bell… [I was thinking of STARS IN MY CROWN, which has an infected well/outbreak subplot, I think. Suggestions welcome. - DC]

GP: And then there was another one about the Chicago fire which absolutely killed me.

DC: Could it be IN OLD CHICAGO?

GP: It might be, yes. I think I saw it years later and it was very benign, it wasn’t anything. My biggest disappointment as a child was, I lived in this town way up in the mountains in the States, and it was a snowy city, and at the university where my father taught I thought they were showing THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. I remember going through the snow two miles to get to this theatre walking in to see THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO but no, it was THE COUNTESS OF MONTE CRISTO, which was a Sonja Henie ice skating film. Complete disillusion, life was bad. I think that was the moment I discovered that…

DC: …that the movies can lie.

GP: But I have lots of childhood memories. I think Martin Scorsese is about the same age as me, and when I hear about his childhood movies they’re often the same as mine. LAND OF THE PHARAOHS is another –

DC: Oh, my partner was deeply alarmed by Joan Collins and the sand pouring in –

GP: Oh yes, the sealing up, that was alarming and fantastic too, because she was a real bitch and deserved it. Joan Collins, I remember. But that was another big childhood favourite. The movies that I liked as a little child almost always turned out to be by auteur directors. Somehow I had this eye, without knowing it. I was a child genius for picking great director movies.

DC: I haven’t calculated whether I had any particular knack for that. I know a lot of them did turn out to be interesting movies, but certainly a lot of them didn’t.

GP: Well there were some, I watched cowboy movies with Gene Autry, and Roy Rogers movies, and those are pretty terrible; FLASH GORDON, which seemed very real and is just hilarious now. But when I was seven years old I went to this movie about these kids who were lost — there was a plane crash, they were lost in the snows of Alaska, and their parents were divorced and their parents come looking for the children and got together, so it had everything. And it turned out to be by Joseph H Lewis.

DC: Wow, I’ve never seen that one!

Or heard of it. It turns out to be DESPERATE SEARCH. If anybody has a copy, I’d love to see it. I then recommend THE INVISIBLE GHOST, which GP hasn’t seen. By now, we’re getting one rather well, and Gerald tells me “You really know your stuff,” which is very pleasing. I agree to email him when this goes up, which I’m doing, and he asks me to recommend a few of my favourite blogs, which I’m doing. But I’m not sure I should tell you which.

Several of you will probably be outraged that Mr. Peary doubts the value of the blog — but let’s keep things polite: I want to win the guy over! GP’s own website, linked to at the top of this post, is an invaluable web resource bursting with reviews and fascinating interviews (great Sam Fuller profile!) and it’d be lovely if the man could be encouraged to update it and join the blogosphere.

Sleepy Hollow

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2008 by dcairns

Bizarre worm’s eye view of riot.

I watched a fuzzy off-air recording of THE LAWLESS the other day, which is possibly the weakest of Losey’s American features. But they’re an interesting batch. U.S. Losey is hard to see and often underestimated, but there’s plenty to admire:

First off, Losey made a number of short films, several of them corporate promos. Despite his communist sympathies, he was apparently happy to whore himself out to big business. Well, the man had to eat. And drink. Especially drink. I haven’t seen any of these shorts and Christ knows if I’ll ever get to. PETE-ROLEUM AND HIS COUSINS sure sounds enticing. Would make a good support film for ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS, I bet. Programmers, take note!

The Boy Who Didn't Turn Yellow

THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR, commissioned by liberal producer Dore Schary, is a middlebrow liberal anti-war tract made cherishable by the fact that it’s completely insane from beginning to end. Howard Hughes, who bought R.K.O. midway through the film’s production, did his best to strangle the pacifist message, but Losey, Schary, screenwriters Alfred Lewis Levitt and Ben Barzman (soon to join Losey on the blacklist), and child star Dean Stockwell all resisted Hughes’ interference in their own ways, and what made it to the screen is fairly uncompromising, and completely bananas. A boy’s hair turns green overnight after he learns that he’s a war orphan. The ghosts of the slain instruct him to keep his verdant locks as a warning against the horrors of armed conflict. Wow.

Heavy irony.

THE LAWLESS. Another liberal message film, this one about lynch mob violence, it’s but devoid of GREEN HAIR’s agreeable barminess. The best idea is naming the Mexican ghetto Sleepy Hollow, and restaging the Headless Horseman bridge chase with an ice cream van and a pursuing police car. Otherwise, comparison with Fritz Lang’s FURY is instructive. The studio prevented Lang from having a black protagonist, but at least Lang’s story places the victim front-and-centre in the narrative, and challenges our easy perceptions by turning him from persecuted into the persecutor partway through.

Losey is allowed to use actual minorities, Mexicans, in his story, but the hero is a white newspaperman with less at stake in the story. It’s like a version of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD with the child’s-eye view removed, and with no real tragic injustice to get angry about.

Stranger on the Prowl

THE PROWLER is knockout. A lucid and lurid skewering of “wrong values” in capitalist society, in the form of a tight noir potboiler. Losey was pleased with his integration of production design and camera movement / composition: his collaboration with designer Richard MacDonald would be a defining feature of his films in exile. Manny Farber, who sometimes reacted against Losey’s editiorialising, admired this one. “Socially sharp on stray and hitherto untouched items like motels, athletic nostalgia, the impact of nouveau riche furnishings on an ambitious ne’er-do-well, the potentially explosive boredom of the childless, uneducated, well-to-do housewife with too much time on her hands.”

M. Butterfly

M. Losey’s remake of the Lang classic has terrific scenes, and uses some of its borrowings well — others get in the way. Some of the script is fairly dumb, but Losey’s use of L.A. locations, including the iconic Bradbury Building, makes it fly. I blogged it HERE.

THE BIG NIGHT is possibly best of all. I blogged about it HERE, and in the weeks since then it’s stayed in my mind and grown clearer and sharper. It’s the least strident of Losey’s early message films, and it disguises any tendency to preach with a grotesque and surreal surface. Peak noir.

Losey was clearly on a roll. Despite M being shot in only 20 days, and THE PROWLER in 17, both are vigorous, dynamic and intelligently shot genre pieces. Losey could find interesting things to say within the constraints of the thriller, and put his points over in an economical and entertaining manner.

Forced to work abroad by the blacklist, Losey would find himself working within entirely different genres and constraints. The British film scene is a very odd world…

These are the damp

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

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