Archive for The Godfather

Memory Monday: The Ass on the Bathroom Door

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2015 by dcairns

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So, I’m revisiting those filmmakers I devoted Official Weeks to in the past here on Shadowplay. Joseph Losey got his own week because I had a sense that I hadn’t seen nearly enough Losey and that I hadn’t appreciated him enough — a sense that, actually, I might have some kind of antipathy to his whole approach. As Richard Lester said to Soderbergh, Losey was the last person you would use the word “zany” about, and in fact I found there was a lack of humour which was almost heroic at times. MODESTY BLAISE is the one film Losey made that could be called a comedy, and indeed is absolutely dependent on whimsy since it refuses to be what the producers evidently intended, a campy James Bond sex-and-violence wallow. The only part of that equation Losey didn’t have a fierce antipathy to is the “campy” part, and yet even that was kind of alien to him, which is how he was able to make BOOM! a great piece of unconscious camp.

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I somehow didn’t have a copy of THE CRIMINAL to hand when I did Losey Week, though I knew I would like it when I saw it. When Losey played thrillers more or less straight, they were gripping. When the movie insists on providing a commentary on what it’s about, instead of just being about it, you could get problems, as with the stuff with the gangsters in Losey’s maudit remake of M: the movie insists on offering up a pinko analysis of organised crime as a manifestation of Capital. THE GODFATHER succeeds simply by allowing this idea to play out as drama, not even as an allegory, but as a simple statement of fact. Nobody needs to point it out.

Losey described THE PROWLER, another excellent noir I didn’t get around to writing about, as “a film about false values,” and such stories are powerful and compelling as long as the scenarist can resist inserting a mouthpiece to put it all into words. “The playwright should show conditions and leave it to the audience to draw conclusions,” as Brander Matthews put it.

And so to THE CRIMINAL (1960), which does just that. I think the avoidance of proselytising is something Losey ultimately found very sympatico in the British writers he worked with, which is what led him to bond so well with Pinter, who NEVER tells you what’s on his mind. Here, the writer is Alun Owen, later to pen A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Richard Lester remarked to me that Owen had a multiplicity of useful hats he could put on, as both a Scouser and  a Welshman, and he had a wealth of life experience which informed his work. Very unusually for a British crime film, THE CRIMINAL sets out simply to record a series of events, into which the viewer is invited to read meanings. What it avoids is any Marxist or Freudian analysis of what leads to a life of crime, though you can hunt for clues if that’s your bag.

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We begin in prison, though Owen has written a careful gag, a high-stakes poker game between Brit-flick stalwarts such as Murray Melvin and Patrick Wymark (shockingly young, a tufty-haired rolly-polly joker with a sinister edge, not quite the Toby Jug he would morph into just a few years later). We’re clearly meant to be taken by surprise when we discover the game is being played with matches by lags in a cell. But Losey takes his directorial wrecking-ball to the gag, framing Melvin against a painted brick wall pasted with suggestive imagery (I think that might be Abbey Lincoln and Frances Bacon!), and even before that there’s a short of a prison gate with the producers’ credit over it. This is either a crass insertion by Nat Cohen and Stuart Levy of Anglo-Amalgamated, who had just made PEEPING TOM and were considered the dregs of the industry, or else Losey himself couldn’t resist sticking their names over a shot of a prison gate (maybe he had more wit than I credit him with).

Losey had earlier made a short for Hammer, A MAN ON THE BEACH (1955), a dull Tales of the Very Expected thing entirely predicated upon the shock revelation that Donald Wolfit’s character is blind. Wolfit, whose tread could be as leaden as Losey’s at his worst, plays the whole thing with an unblinking middle-distance star and groping hands, telegraphing “I can’t see a bloody thing” from his first entrance, rendering the whole enterprise pointless. So Losey is one of those filmmakers with a constitutional aversion to the “pull-back-and-reveal” gag, it seems.

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Jimmy Sangster, who apparently originated the story of THE CRIMINAL as well as scripting that benighted short, based a lot of his career on that very narrative trope, churning out DIABOLIQUES rip-offs for Hammer, so Losey’s rejection of the approach is an early sign of an exciting battle of sensibilities. Unlike Sangster, Owen is drawn to narrative sidetracks, and invents a whole prison populace of distinctive characters who don’t really need to be there for story reasons, but are essential for world-building. Asides from Melvin and Wymark (and it’s typical the show opens with such minor figures), we’ll soon get Gregoire Aslan (chucklesome charm subdued into lizard-eyed menace), Tom Bell and Kenneth Cope, who fulfills a similar function here as in X: THE UNKNOWN, which Losey nearly directed and may well have cast him in: turn up, look scared, suffer An Appalling Fate.

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As always, Patrick Magee, of the curling lip and watery eye, who plays the corrupt prison warden Burrows, threatens to rip the whole thing apart with a performance evoking paranoid schizophrenia, satanic possession and narcissistic personality disorder all at once. The only way Richard MacDonald’s spectacular prisons set can contain him is for Owen and Losey to open up other avenues into disintegration, safely channeling the Magee Overflow. Most eye-popping occurs during a monologue by mentally-ill prisoner Brian Phelan, where Losey pushes in fast to a tight closeup and actually irises in to shoot the actor in a vignette, suggesting simultaneously his frightening isolation from reality and his inability to reach Baker on any meaningful emotional level.

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Baker himself is astonishing, the kind of actor without whom this kind of film would be unimaginable. Unapologetically macho — and also willing to associate closely with the film’s themes of sexual variance. His close-quarters combat with Bell and Neil McCarthy has sexual intimations, even down to the “nothing-happening-here” pretense when Caught At It by the warden. Tough guy Clobber (Kenneth J. Warren) has pugilists on his walls and a tender relationship with Phelan.

The film, unusually, contains two long prison sequences, as we meet Baker the day before his release, and when arrested again he arranges an escape. In the outside world, an agressive, overstated heterosexuality reigns. Baker’s swinging crim pad is awash with nudes, both artistic and actual. He playfully spanks the full-length odalisque on his bathroom door. She has a nice behind, but come on — who spanks a door? When former squeeze Jill Bennett is edged out by newbie nudie Margot Saad, she’s more naked that I would have thought was possible in 1960 Britain, unless you were Pamela Green. The value of eroticism was probably the one area where Losey’s interests coincided with Anglo-Amalgamated’s.

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The film has hilariously little interest in its heist, apparently forged in a masterplan by grinning idiot John Molloy inside — we never even see the full robbery, just its aftermath, and never learn the plan, just the betrayals afterwards. These involve sad-eyed copper Laurence Naismith, purring creep Sam Wanamaker, and swaggering Nigel Green, enormous in an overcoat with padded shoulders, inflating his physique to Honey Monster proportions.

It is tempting just to list the cast, isn’t it? But the film is shot by tetchy genius Robert Krasker (THE THIRD MAN) and edited by Reggie Mills who cut most of Powell & Pressburger’s movies. He’s wonderfully sloppy about continuity, and incredibly tight about narrative and psychology, and he has his own taut sense of rhythm. There’s a riot scene which energises all of these talents, and the ragged-edged cast, around MacDonald’s panopticon prison set and allows Losey to really break loose with the camera, which cocks its head like Ygor, crabs fast like Astaire, swoops in like Baron Harkonnen, combining the sardonic glint, the grace, and the leering aggression of all three of those figures. I should add that Johnny Dankworth’s score adds immeasurably to the atmosphere and drama, its romantic longing largely in counterpoint to the hard-edged action.

It’s a bleak film. “Miserable time of the year,” remarks Magee. “If we could only have some flowers. Down there. In summer it’s a blaze of colour.” Here’s the prison garden:

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Here’s a park.

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Here’s a field.

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England as a BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN no-man’s-land. Losey is starting to feel at home.

Geology, litigation, gender, cinema: my Saturday night.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 27, 2008 by dcairns

The Rat-Infested City of Glasgow

The glamour of film-making — the unit assembles for ROUNDING UP DONKEYS.

Just back from the rat-infested city of Glasgow, which I plunged into in order to attend some birthday celebrations. I was also on the look-out for info that might help me land another film or TV job, though it was unlikely that anybody at this party would be able to grant me one directly, and I was also looking out for any little items of interest for the blog.

The 40th birthdays belonged to Travis and Helen Reeves, whom I know from way back. They are that rare phenomenon, non-identical twins who look alike, though not so much now. I shall explain — while not genetically identical, they have a strong facial resemblance and similar build. But not so much now, since Travis, who used to be Helen’s sister, is now her brother, which makes a fair difference.

It’s all prefigured weirdly in my film CLARIMONDE, I think, where Travis, then outwardly female, provided the voice for a male character (a ghost). The same scene featured another male ghost who was actually a woman in drag, looking like a cross between Ringo Starr and a Mexican bandit.

Along with his gender reassignment, Mr. T has also changed careers — apart from his writing and directing, he used to be a production designer, arranging objects within the three-dimensional space of a set, and is now a sound designer, arranging noises within the three-dimensional space of a cinema (or TV viewer’s lounge). This comparison between the two jobs originates with Walter Murch, and it’s the reason he invented the job title “sound montage designer”.

Helen Reeves is a “diminutive antipodean singer-songwriter” who used to duet with Travis under the unofficial heading “The Twindigo Girls”, though Travis’ deepened voice has made their harmonizing trickier, and rendered the nickname inaccurate.

I did find out a few things that might prove useful in my film-hustling, and caught up with several old friends, such as Bert Eeles, editor of CRY FOR BOBO, and John Cobban, sound designer of same. I also picked up fascinating insights into forensic archaeology from Travis’ friend Friga (sp?), with whom I also co-invented a futuristic dwelling space (the kind of thing I tend to do after a few pints). Friga was bemoaning the fact that geological drill cores, which are basically cylinders of rock, are often very beautiful, what with the interesting laminations in sedimentary stone, but if you’re a geologist you get too many of them to keep. I suggested building a house out of them. Friga initially thought this impractical, since the cores are cylindrical, not brick-shaped, until we jointly realised they could be assembled into a STONE LOG CABIN.

So when you find yourself spending your retirement years in an edifice constructed from little cylinders of laminated sedimentary rock, you’ll know it’s my fault.

The night was spent in Morag McKinnon’s spare room. Morag is fresh from directing her first feature, ROUNDING UP DONKEYS, but I can’t tell you much of anything about that because it’s all at a sensitive stage, rough cut and all. I’m still very much psyched to see it, but there’s a no-DVD policy in force at the moment to stop unfinished edits falling into THE WRONG HANDS, i.e. probably mine.

I can tell you about the LAWSUIT though, because that’s been in the papers. As I mentioned before, ROUNDING UP DONKEYS is the second film in a trilogy, following on from Andrea Arnold’s RED ROAD. While the films are supposed to deal with the lives of a common group of characters, the fact that each movie is the work of a different writer and director means that this was never likely to have the uniformity of Kieslowski’s DECALOGUE. In fact, screenwriter / mad god Colin McLaren refitted the characters to suit his dramatic purposes, giving Kate Dickie a new daughter, and having her meet Martin Compston for the first time, even though she meets him in RED ROAD. So it’s an alternate universe sequel to RED ROAD. (There should be more of those!)

Following in the same spirit, Morag recast a minor character in RED ROAD — Dickie’s dad — since he’s the major character in ROUNDING UP DONKEYS. James Cosmo, a distinguished player who also embodies a dad in TRAINSPOTTING, takes the role. This has upset the actor from RED ROAD, Andrew Armour, who apparently feels that by taking the part in film 1, he was effectively contracted to play him in all subsequent films, should the character appear. I don’t think he has a legal leg to stand on, but there’s a terrible pathos to his position: he’s said that this is his only chance at a leading role, which is tantamount to admitting nobody would ever cast him in a star part except by accident.

I like Armour in RED ROAD — he seems like a real old guy who’s kind of wandered in front of the camera, rather than like an actor, which is surely a good thing. But the character written by Colin is a new person in all but name, and requires a different sort of player to bring him to life. It’s just one of those things.

If you want a really sad casting story, consider the case of the actor originally cast as Sonny in THE GODFATHER. In order to get Paramount to agree to cast Al Pacino (an unknown who had underperformed in screen tests), Coppola had to agree to take James Caan as Sonny and let the original guy go. Not only had the guy already celebrated getting the part with his family… I can’t remember his name. Because he’s not famous. He never got another break — that was his shot.

(Maybe I’m inclined to depressing tales because I’m hungover. More cheerful stuff tomorrow!)

Greenwood, Plainview, Skeffington and Copland

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 21, 2008 by dcairns

D-Day 

I thought I better write the comparative study of MR. SKEFFINGTON (1944) and THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), before anyone else does.

Seriously, the two have nothing in common so this is the usual exercise in absurdity but both films did make me think about MUSIC a lot.

Of course, Jonny Greenwood’s monumental work for T.W.B.B. is extremely praiseworthy and interesting and has rightly provoked much discussion. And the fact that this major work has been denied a place in the running for an Oscar is an outrage — it’s more obvious than ever that the Best Score award is a closed shop and non-Americans need not apply. Ennio Morricone, f.f.s, has never won, despite a nomination for THE MISSION, one of his great works — when Bette Midler read his name from the podium, the applause brought the house down — “Ennio has a fan,” observed Ms. Midler. Nino Rota for THE GODFATHER and Michael Nyman for THE PIANO were barred on the same grounds as Greenwood: their scores used previously existing themes (but, perversely, Rota was allowed a half-share in a golden swordsman for THE GODFATHER II, even though that movie features predominantly themes written for the first film,) In the absence of an award for “Best Adapted Score,” the system should be altered so that an Oscar need not be denied to the year’s best soundtrack. 

I generally try to ignore the asinine decisions arrived at annually by the academy, but when the best film score of the year or maybe DECADE is excluded even from the privilege of being overlooked by numb-skulls, something has got to be done. Or, at any rate, said. Or blogged.

End of Oscars digression. Start of MR. SKEFFINGTON digression. A product of Warner Bros’ esteemed Masochism Department, this wartime weepie takes Bette Davis and Claude Raines through one marriage and two world wars, and is one of the few Hollywood films to mention Jews and concentration camps. The propaganda element is very delicately stitched into the overall pattern, while the central theme, “A woman is only beautiful when she is loved,” is wielded like a length of drainpipe in the hands of an enraged Viking (how the Viking got his hands ON the drainpipe is outwith the purlieu of this piece, which is an exercise in film criticism rather than Scandinavian ethnography or plumbing).

Vincent Sherman, who made one of our favourite gangster / women’s picture crossovers, THE DAMNED DON’T CRY, is here a smooth and sensitive channel for what they call the Genius of the System, creating an elegant and emotional studio picture that isn’t anonymous but isn’t exactly personal either, but is extremely GOOD.

Jerome Cowan turns up as an aging suitor, bringing home to the heroine the reality of her advancing years — a function he repeated years later in Mitchell Leisen’s great Twilight Zone episode, “The 16mm Shrine”. I’m certain Leisen must have seen and remembered him here.

Abel bodied

Walter Abel does what Walter Abel does, marvellously. Imported from Broadway and unsuccessfully cast as D’Artagnan, Abel found his footing in second banana roles, bringing cut-throat timing and toothy wit to his comic work.

Claude Rains supreme

But Claude Rains is MISTER WIT. A film automatically gets wittier when he’s around. Here, as in CASABLANCA, he has the Epstein brothers supplying him with some great material, but he always makes more of it than anyone else. “When a man becomes repetitious, it is time to see the District Attorney,” is a lovely line in context, but C.R. makes it soar over our heads, flip round in a vertical 180°, and skewer us right in the occipital lobe.

Set whimsy to stun!

Bette Davis presides over the whole affair with an iron hand, in a velvet glove, clutching a length of drainpipe (a different one). She plays the lighter scenes with the whimsy turned up to 11 (a whimsical Bette in full flow may be too much for those of a delicate sensibility) and throws herself into the third-act suffering with the zeal of a flagellant. It’s a terrifying lesson in Star Power.

she's got Bette Davis EVERYTHING!

But the music… I love Franz Waxman. His score for THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is of Total Importance in the history of Hollywood music, and is a joy to the ears. When angels and demons have interspecies sex with each other, this is what they listen to. Waxman also brought the same wit to another, more obscure, James Whale movie the same year — in the opening party scene of REMEMBER LAST NIGHT? Waxman appears to provide a jazz tune as source music, but is actually underscoring a series of little dialogue vignettes in the most precise way: foreground music masquerading as background. And that’s just two films out of five scored in one year out of a thirty-five year career (which also includes that Twilight Zone episode…)

But for some reason, Waxman can’t quite get a handle on MR. SKEFFINGTON. Faced with a film that starts mostly light and journeys into dark and tortured terrain, Franz attacks the comedy like it’s a Carry On film, while overstressing the subtle hints of tragedy to come like Bernard Herrmann accompanying the sinking of the Lusitania. Once the film settles into weepie mode, the score finds its correct register and things progress smoothly, but it’s a rocky first hour.

This dovetails with what I wanted to say about Mr. Greenwood’s exciting score for THERE WILL BE BLOOD, because one of the striking things about that, apart from the sheer impact and originality of the sonorities, is the way the highly emotive and forceful music DOESN’T synchronise with the moods onscreen. While Waxman is slamming emphasis onto each flutter of an eyelid, Greenwood lays thick aural layers of terror over scenes that don’t have any apparent terror in them — he’s preparing you for the NEXT scene, which will have plenty. When Plainview (John Huston [Daniel Day-Lewis]) is promising wealth and health and education to the townsfolk, the music is plangent and heartbreaking, playing the mood of some upcoming scene, an hour away at least, where they find out they’ve been cheated, and playing it so effectively that the scene doesn’t even have to be included in the film.

Unusual!

fires on the plain

The score is actually so overwhelming that if it DID synchronise precisely with the tones onscreen it might seem hammy and bombastic — instead it manages to be poetic and allusive without pulling any punches whatsoever.

It did remind me a very tiny bit of Aaron Copland’s score for THE HEIRESS, but Copland only gets ahead by a few seconds. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable thing he does — by signalling an emotional change, a realisation or a plot development before it’s happened, he’s actually re-writing the movie. Copland and Greenwood both show how a score can be far more than an accompaniment or a mood-enhancer, it can be both part of film story-telling and an abstract force whose role can extend beyond the moment.

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