Archive for The Elephant Man

…and on the second day…

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2020 by dcairns

Started to feel I wasn’t getting the most out of the online Il Cinema Ritrovato. This may in part have been because I wasn’t watching any films. But you see, I have a DVD of THE GRAPES OF WRATH so watching it streaming didn’t make sense to me, even though it’s well overdue a watch. So I’ve been looking at shorts, documentaries, interviews, masterclasses…

By some odd quirk the festival is streaming an interview with Dario Argento and a session on the restoration of FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, but not the film itself. For that you have to be in Bologna. The Argento interview was unsatisfactory from almost every point of view — a camera in Bologna filmed an auditorium with a screen on which you could see the Maestro and his interviewer, fuzzily projected, neither one of them being present, while a simultaneous translation talked over both of them. So we couldn’t really see Dario or hear him, and we got the gist of his words but he didn’t seem to have anything exciting to say.

His film, however, is very exciting, even in the unrestored version I have access to. I can’t think why I always assumed it was inferior to THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS and BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, it’s a worthy companion. The plot is completely barmy, full of unexplained lunatic touches, as when a blackmailing housemaid, waiting in a park for her victim, flees into an ever-narrowing cobwebbing passage. I admit I’m not personally familiar with Turin’s parks and recreation areas, but I have a hunch the shaggy DA is stretching verisimilitude here, as on a medieval rack.

We liked the idea of the gay private detective (Jean-Pierre Marielle), but of course he’s played in a wildly stereotypical, swishy way — yet this was still progressive at the time, by the admittedly demented standards of the Italian genre cinema. He’s allowed to make a brief plea for tolerance, to solve the case, and to win pathos. And the killer has a traumatic backstory which imparts a little sympathy, perhaps more than the “hero” gets — the sullen-faced Michael Brandon is quite good, though, managing to maintain a core of credibility in the midst of some of Argento’s more head-scratching dialogue and characterisation.

The main thing, though, is that Argento has an extravagant visual idea to explore in nearly every scene, and they’re mostly cunning rather than just sucky. There’s something wonderfully eerie about the hero’s darkened apartment with the trees outside brightly floodlit and sussurating in a phantasmal fashion. This lad has promise.

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An interview of the Taviani Bros under a tree did not elevate me, especially when long swathes of it were just the Bros staring blankly into camera as Gideon Bachman attempted to formulate a protrated thought.

My chum Craig McCall delivered a detailed exposition on dye-transfer Technicolor written by Robert Hoffman, which worked better than Dario’s appearance because Craig was actually in the room.

A session on the restoration of A BOUT DE SOUFFLE and THE ELEPHANT MAN offered little for non-pixel-pushers, but it was good to hear that David Lynch insisted on his HDR restoration being performed with a cinema screen as reference.

And then at last there was a PROPER film doc, Cyril Leuthy’s MELVILLE, LE DERNIER SAMOURAI, which weirdly discounts BOB LE FLAMBEUR and LES ENFANTS TERRIBLE entirely and claims LE DOULOS as Melville’s first thriller, but is otherwise rivetting. It gets by with only sparse clips from the films, but just enough, and with a terrific wealth of archive footage of the man himself, and good new interviews with family members, Volker Schloendorff and Taylor Hackford. The stars are curiously absent, but the whole thing has a nice jazzy, nocturnal feel very suited to JPM’s cinema, and among the memories are striking moments — JPM screaming at Lino Ventura, captured on 1/4inch audio tape, and Delon, interviewed shortly after (a) falling out with Melville and (b) Melville’s death, talking about how they need to have a break before working together again. With extraordinary facial expressions, cognitive dissonance pulling the muscles this way and that — he KNOWS the man is dead, but he’s still considering working with him again after a suitable interval…

“You can’t love cinema without being a child,” says one of the assorted Grumbachs. Dario would agree, I think.

FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET stars Dempsey; Margareta Nikolajevna; renowned curator Jacques Saunier; La regina di Napoli; Mme Quentin; Fanny Hill; and Bambino, the left hand of the Devil!

Byronic

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2020 by dcairns

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JY wrote to request I say something about the late Kathleen Byron, born on this day 99 years ago (what are we all going to do for the Sister Ruth centenary?).

It’s taken for granted that Michael Powell was right when he told Byron that she’d never get another role as good as Sister Ruth — and of course he was. But we should stop to note that in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH, a very nearly perfectly cast film, she’s a very striking presence, and THE SMALL BACK ROOM, which I adore, would not be the same without her.

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Rank, of course, did not know what to do with her, and her later career becomes a game of spot-the-Byron, as she turns up for minute, often thankless and sometimes literally wordless roles in distinguished films like THE ELEPHANT MAN and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and altogether less celebrated works like CRAZE and NOTHING BUT THE NIGHT. It can look as if she was embracing obsolescence, accepting Powell’s prophecy, but I think it’s more likely she was still hoping to prove him wrong and knew she’d better keep her hand in if there was to be any chance of landing the great role when it came by.

Maybe people were a little scared of her — not just because she’s so intimidating in BLACK NARCISSUS, but she seems to have been a formidable person in real life. Powell’s unexplained reference to her threatening him with a revolver while naked in Vol II of his autobiography appears to be a complete wish-fulfillment confabulation on his part, but they were intimate, and she wasn’t afraid to stand up to him.

My late friend Lawrie Knight, a third assistant on BN, confirmed Byron’s account of her refusing to take Powell’s direction when Sister Ruth visits Mr. Dean’s hut. She’d decided for herself that Sister Ruth was PERFECTLY SANE and she was damn well going to play it that way. Of course, most viewers still perceive Ruth as mad — her actions are a bit extreme, but unrequited love, frustration and jealousy aren’t mental illnesses, though they may have many of the same characteristics. Whatever was behind Byron’s choices, the effect on screen is incredibly powerful and convincing. Powell went off in a huff, Byron worked out the scene with David Farrar, then they showed it to their director.

“Well, it’s not what I wanted but I suppose it’s all right,” he harumphed.

To his credit, he let her do it, he cast her once more, and he gave her some of the greatest close-ups in British cinema.

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(What ARE the greatest close-up in British cinema? When Deborah Kerr looks up from the pencil in her hand and sees Ruth staring at her, that’s one. Christopher Lee coming downstairs and saying hello, that’s two. Yootha Joyce in the hairdressers in THE PUMPKIN EATER, that’s three. Hmm, they’re all quite scary. I’ll need to think of some romantic ones — I think COLONEL BLIMP offers several…)

The Elephants Men

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 16, 2019 by dcairns

We marked the passing of the great Freddie Jones by rewatching THE ELEPHANT MAN. Exploring the DVD further we found the only real extra, a trailer.

It’s pretty bad! But it see-saws between hopeless and passable-but-embarrassing. Then we found another trailer. Let me talk you through the pair of them.

TRAILER ONE (1)

This starts like a horror movie, which is awkward. A shot from the film which, in context, portrays in a perfectly sensitive way, the anxiety of Nurse Nora upon being sent to bring Mr. Merrick a meal. Here, horror movie music has been added for suspense and Dr. Treves’ dialogue (“He won’t hurt you,… he won’t hurt you… he won’t hurt you…”) has been turned into a V.O. Implication: he definitely WILL HURT you. Maybe he’ll toss you on his tusks.

Nora’s scream segues quite skillfully into a sideshow tracking shot with a narrator: “You will feel the chill of horror… but this is not a horror story.” Well, I’m glad they cleared that up. “You will feel the warmth of love… but this is not a love story.” The narrator is creepy. But this is the most successful bit, telling us what the movie ISN’T. Since it’s sui generis, a kind of nightmare about innocence, a Dickensian disease-of-the-week movie, a corporeal divine comedy, none of which are recognised film genres, alas, it makes sense to close off bad readings of what the film is, rather than thrusting forward a good one. “You will see men in hats… but this is not a cowboy story.” No, he doesn’t actually say that.

“…the story of a very real monster… who was also a very real human being.” He was a bee-yoo-tiful poysson. But he wasn’t a monster, so this attempt at telling us what the film IS about in an interesting way is pretty indefensible.

Then we get Freddie’s carnival spiel, which tells us what territory we’re REALLY in — movie trailer as come-in, as sideshow barker’s invitation. A trailer for THE ELEPHANT MAN is inevitably going to end up saying, in effect, “Come and see the elephant man.”

“Paramount had no idea how to sell it,” recalled John Hurt. One exec told him, “Well, John, a monster movie is always going to be difficult to sell.” Hurt just stared, aghast. I don’t think a film this good ought to be a hard sell, but the question of ta s te doe s come into it, which is less of an issue if you’re selling GOING APE! with Tony Danza, another Paramount pic from the same era.

Essentially, THE ELEPHANT MAN’s audience is going to come to gaup and stay to emote, and in that way can reassure themselves they’re (a) physically normal, at lea s t compared to this guy, and (b) good, caring people. The trailer has to work on Motive B, to give the audience a good excuse to buy tickets, while making it clear that the more immediately obvious Motive A will indeed be satisfied.

Because Motive A dominates, THE ELEPHANT MAN MUST NOT APPEAR IN THE TRAILER. If he did, Motive A would lose all box office power.

As Paramount didn’t know how to sell this one, and as they were, apparently, cheapskates, we now get several shots, exchanges and line readings not in Lynch’s film. This is terrific — no way these things would have survived otherwise — but they’re only here because the studio didn’t want to spend money duping negative. And so we get to hear Freddie say the lost lines, “He’s a freak. That’s how they live. We’re partners, he and I.”

We see the camera push in on Anthony Hopkins getting his first look at Merrick, but we don’t see the teardrop fall — surely, the money shot. Cinematographer Freddie Francis nicknamed his director “Lucky Lynch” because the tear fell just as the perfect closeup was achieved. But I bet that only happened once.

Then THE ELEPHANT MAN in a disconcertingly Woody Allenish font comes flying out at us. “A shattering experience,” says the VO guy, which is a fairly clever way of putting Motives A and B together in three words, and then they ruin all their good indifferent work by having Michael Elphick delivering his carnival come-on down the boozer. I mean, of the three showmen portrayed, Freddie, Tony and Mike, surely Mike is the one your 1980 audience wants LEAST to do with?

That’s the trailer on the DVD I own. There’s also THIS, on the Youtubes:

Freddie J.’s great “Life! … is full of surprises,” monologue is recut into a patchwork, but it’s a strong start anyway, and I guess they would have to reduce it (but a great trailer could have been made using mainly this scene alone). You know what? It just struck me that “Life! … is full of surprises,” is a fantastic bit of bathos. It starts dramatic and then descends into a commonplace platitude. And Freddie’s genius is both to play that crapness to the hilt, and to make it still, somehow, work.

“At first, you will want to turn away,” says voice-over guy, telling us how we’re going to react. Psychologically, he’s trying to get us past our possible resistance to seeing a film whose title character does not outwardly resemble Farrah Fawcett. Then he reassures us that we’ll want to kick Merrick in the face, which is a reason for seeing a film we can all relate to.

“Stan’ up!” yells tiny Dexter Fletcher. I like to think this is the directorial approach he used to guide Taron Egerton through ROCKET MAN. Well, it would work for the “I’m Still Standing” number.

“But if you come to know him…” Hilariously, the film does not bring this idea to life by allowing us to hear Merrick speak, but continues to show him as a placid dummy with a bag on his head.

“And perhaps for the first time, you will understand the true meaning of courage, and human dignity.” Voice-over guy is making some pretty brassy assumptions about his listeners.

“You’re not the Elephant Man at all,” says Anne Bancroft.

Seconds later, voice-over guy tells us, “…and John Hurt as the Elephant Man.” So she’s wrong. He bloody is.

Thought you could put one over on us, eh, Mr. Merrick?

THE ELEPHANT MAN stars Hannibal Lecter; Winston Smith; Mrs. Robinson; Lord Raglan; Major Barbara Undershaft; Thufir Hawat; Ken Boon; Hyzenthlay; Lilliman; Gargoyle Reggie; Sister Ruth; Maggy – Little Dorrit’s Protegee; Fidgit; Sir Anthony Mount; Jemima Shore; Gordon Cole; and Sir Elephant.