Archive for The Bridge on the River Kwai

Teahouse of the Rising Sun

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2021 by dcairns

The great Max Ophuls’ career was not only itinerant — Germany, France, Italy, the US, and back to France — it was very variable in quality. LIEBELEI is a masterpiece, but most of his first European films are either flawed or minor. Then he makes mostly masterpieces in Hollywood and returns to Europe to make four more.

I saw the first twenty minutes of YOSHIWARA, a French pic from 1937, at Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2000, but I had to leave early. Shane Danielsen, curator of the retrospective, warned us beforehand that we’d probably never get a chance to see this film again. Times have changed — Gaumont have released the film on Blu-ray.

The film, based on a French novel, creates a fantasy of Japan in the lead-up to the Russo-Japanese war — intended by the Tsar as “a short, victorious war” to boost his popularity and trumped up for no good reason, it turned into a fiasco which hastened his downfall. This movie presents a fanciful theory of how faulty intelligence led to that outcome. There’s a romantic triangle — rickshaw driver and artist Sessue Hayakawa is hopelessly in love with geisha girl, formerly daughter of a noble house, Michiko Tanaka, and she’s in love with Russian naval officer Pierre Richard-Willm, who’s basically a spy. The Japanese secret service forces Hayakawa to spy on his rival, thus endangering his sweetheart.

A kind of whiplash is introduced by the fact that Hayakawa and Tanaka are real Japanese people and the other locals are played by very gallic impostors. The Russians are all French, and I’m pretty sure Hayakawa is dubbed, unless his French was fantastically better than his English as heard later in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI.

The set and costume design is fabulous, the social observation less so: geishas are synonymous with prostitutes in this vision of the east, as a for-instance. Yoshiwara exists behind an unscalable wall with a huge gate, almost like Skull Island (and Kurosawa would import that design, which apparently never existed in real feudal Japan, for the forts in his films such as THRONE OF BLOOD.

Michiko Tanaka was never really a movie star outside of this one film, but she’s startlingly beautiful. Sessue Hayakawa is pretty impressive too, and Willm is striking — I should see LE ROMAN DE WERTHER, his other Ophuls, a sort of farrago of Goethe which Ophuls rather regretted — he died with a copy of The Sorrows of Young Werther by his bedside.

The melodrama is slushy — an imaginary trip to the opera looks forward to the phantom ride of LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, but is embarrassingly gushy and frenetic — but the visual direction is gorgeous. Watching it alongside THE RECKLESS MOMENT brought out all sorts of similarities, including the way the director will follow actors up flights of stairs and along catwalks in unbroken shots. A dynamic chase is staged in a hectic flurry of incredibly precise movements, filmed through swathes of occluding foliage. It’s almost frustrating — Ophuls regularly brought genius to the staging of stories carpentered together with little talent. But I guess it does mean that by the time he got good scripts, he was more than ready.

Cheating

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2021 by dcairns

BITTER VICTORY, directed by Nicholas Ray, is really outstanding — it must have seemed even more striking in 1957, since it shows one British officer contriving in the death of another. It’s the same year as BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, which attempts to reduce warfare to “Madness!” but it goes much further, in that the real conflict is between two “brother officers” over a woman. In the event, the lush, colourful jungle movie made millions and won Oscars, and the dry, barren desert movie in b&w was mutilated differently for every territory and virtually vanished without trace.

But I want to talk about one cut. Godard, one of the few critics to praise Ray’s film, singled out the brio of the cutting in the early scene where the three principles meet. It’s a fine example of psychological editing, three medium close-ups interwoven in such a way that we think we’re following the words but it’s really thoughts and glances that motivate the changes.

But the sequence (really a couple of sequences) has one strikingly awry cut, when Richard Burton stands to leave. If you note the distance between Ruth Roman and Curd Jurgens, it goes from a cranny to a chasm all at once. It’s also an eyeline cross, since Jurgens and Burton, looking at one another, seem to be somehow looking in the same direction. Maybe that’s what stops Ray from getting away with it.

Because it’s not really a mistake, it’s what we in the business (or with a bare toehold in it, like me) call a cheat. Ray has rearranged the seating to make pleasing compositions. In theory, if the shots are pleasing and our eyes are drawn to the right parts of the frame, the disjuncture is erased and we simply see the drama. Unfortunately, the shots are arranged so that the Roman-Burton eyeline matches, but the cut happens when Burton is looking at Jurgens. So we’re being subliminally nudged to feel that something’s not quite right, and then there’s a strong chance we notice NOTHING IS RIGHT.

It’s a moment of uncertainty/discomfort, is all.

Here’s a whopping cheat from THE LADYKILLERS —

Astonishingly, this one works. Clearly, the gang of men are in two groups of two with a yawning abyss between them, and Guinness is separated in depth, and then suddenly they’re in a single line of four. The only consistent factors are Guinness’ distance from the others and his relationship to the door, and the ordering of the other goons, from left to right in shot one, and right to left in the reverse.

But Guinness in the foreground of shot two completely absorbs the viewer’s attention, and then Katy Johnson walks into what was virtually her POV, and that also distracts us. The two compositions are extremely pleasing and dramatic, the big point being made is that Katy’s position in the centre of frame/the lions’ den makes her seem vulnerable.

Director Alexander Mackendrick hasn’t finished screwing with us. After Guinness crosses frame in the second shot, he gives us a shot-reverse on Johnson and Guinness, decorating the background of each with two gang members apiece. This creates the visual impression that the guys are still standing in a line, but in fact each group must have shuffled several paces in order to appear in each frame, and the gap between them must now be an ocean. But onscreen it seems logical and continuous.

It’s worth remembering that Mackendrick was under the influence of the German expressionists, who would sometimes (according to Edgar Ulmer) build multiple sets for a single scene, each designed to look their best in one camera angle. Mackendrick is doing the same with human bodies, restructuring the whole set-up from shot to shot for optimum effect. Most filmmakers do this to a limited extent, except the multiple camera guys.

I just had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Ray, and we talked about the imperfections in her late husband’s films, and how Truffaut defended them by saying Ray got moments of emotional truth out of seeming chaos that other, more “professional” filmmakers never touched. “Do you know about wabi-sabi?” she asked.

BITTER VICTORY stars Mark Antony; Wernher von Braun; Anne Morton; Fantômas (voice, uncredited); Sir Andrew Ffoulkes; Professor Dippet; Col. Rice, Moon Landing Crew (uncredited); Scaramanga; Hercules; Lucky Dave’s Clumsy Barman. (uncredited); Windy; and Volumnius.

THE LADYKILLERS stars Obi-Wan Kenobi; Mr. Todhunter; Chief Insp. Charles Dreyfus; Inspector Jacques Clouseau; Morgan Femm; PC George Dixon; Miss Pyman; Bildad; Francis Bigger; Hengist Pod; Six-Eyes Wiener; Herod; Miss Evesham; Wally Briggs;

Laughton eats cake

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on April 6, 2021 by dcairns

… while hungover. In HOBSON’S CHOICE.

Even funnier than him smoking his first cigarette in THIS LAND IS MINE. You can see why David Lean liked him — even though the grumpy director — “Actors can be rather a bore” — and the tricky actor would seem like a match made in hell, on paper. Lean even wanted to cast Laughton in the Guinness part in KWAI, imagining that with a bit of a diet Laughton could play a starving POW. Eventually he realised that if Laughton could will himself to look thin for a part, he would have already done so for real life.

Laughton’s drunk scene — chasing reflections of the moon in the puddles of a cobbled street — is rightly celebrated, and hits some moments of weirdness comparable to THE SMALL BACK ROOM’s giant whisky bottle. Especially when Laughton falls down a hatch in the street, an effect achieved with rear projection, I think, and Laughton moving in extreme slomo, with the length of the drop expressionistically exaggerated.

And then there’s the “liver attack” — a would-be comic version of the DTs that Fiona declared to be the most terrifying scene Lean ever filmed. Number one in a crowded field, if you think about it.

I actually put the film on to convince Fiona of John Mills’ brilliance as an actor, a mission which was successful, but here I am talking about Laughton of course because it’s easier to do. Follow-up post?