Archive for The Greatest Story Ever Told

Clodbusters

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2013 by dcairns

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It’s pretty rare for me to find a movie I haven’t seen since I was a kid — when I do, it sometimes comes with a rush of nostalgic emotion. SHANE was like that — as part of my all-too-slow trek through the films of George Stevens, I ran it with Fiona, who had read the book at school but couldn’t recall if she had watched the movie. When I last saw it, I was probably the age of Brandon de Wilde in the film.

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In some George Stevens films, the long-standing belief that “he shoots in a circle” — covering the whole action from every possible angle and distance — is hard to reconcile with the evidence of the finished film. The tableau staging of THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is one example, with the director content to let scenes play out in long shot. A PLACE IN THE SUN is almost as striking when it does the same thing — there’s a truly bold scene when Monty Clift turns up late for Shelley Winters’ birthday, where Stevens keeps his camera outside the window looking in throughout the three minute forty second sequence shot, with both his stars quite small in frame, and for a key part of the scene their faces turned so we can’t actually see either of them (he back is to camera and he’s hidden behind her). The effect of awkwardness and tension is palpable. If he did shoot that scene from nine different angles, I’m even more impressed by his courage in going with that one.

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SHANE shows the extreme coverage style more clearly — it’s cut FAST, and nearly every cut reveals a new angle, rather than intercutting two repeated compositions. Veteran editor William Hornbeck collaborated new hand Tom McAdoo, and their cutting does a few quite modern things. Firstly, it compresses time — we’re frequently changing angle to jump out pauses and longeurs, violating continuity just enough to energize the movie, not enough to be glaring or disturb the audience. Secondly, the cutting is deliberately disruptive during fight scenes, surprising the viewer with unexpected angles and juxtapositions of compositions, making the eye work hard to increase the sense of dynamism (the bar-fight uses exaggerated sounds of breaking glass and crashing furniture to increase the violence; a punch-up at the farm is accompanied by all kinds of bucking and thrashing animals). In other words, the cutting is deliberately obfuscating the action, creating a sense of confusion and a feeling that we have to stay alert or we might miss the key punch. This chaos effect isn’t pursued to Christopher Nolan BATMAN BEGINS levels (thank Christ) but it shows a more intelligent and sensitive application of a similar idea.

By contrast, there are also scenes reminiscent of that PLACE IN THE SUN scene where Stevens holds a shot for longer than you can believe he’d dare. When the death of a supporting character is reported, Stevens films from a great distance, through foreground horses, with foreground horse noise drowning out most of the dialogue. I’m not even sure why — maybe the same impulse that had Brueghel portray the fall of Icarus as a single detail in a broad landscape.

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Finally, the film contains not only dialogue that almost recurs in TAXI DRIVER — “You speakin’ to me?” “Well I don’t see nobody else standing there” — but also a visual trick. What I call a jump dissolve removes the middle of a shot of Jack Palance crossing a room, so that he melts through space in a strange, dreamlike and menacing manner. Compare to Travis Bickle’s walk up the street after his job interview…

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Stevens plays with film grammar in the fifties — those languorous lap dissolves that make the kissing faces of Clift and Taylor melt into one another in A PLACE IN THE SUN — in a way that practically no other Hollywood filmmaker was doing, save Hitchcock. Nicholas Ray had a more iconoclastic tone, but his style was actually more formal. Discuss.

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Sisters

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2013 by dcairns

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Pretty experimental for 1940, no?

The conventional wisdom (read: baloney) on George Stevens is that WWII changed him from a fleet-footed comedy director to a leaden dramatist — one shakes one’s head sadly, understandingly — he did, after all, witness the liberation of the camps, after which  the prospect of romantic comedy surely seemed unappealing — and perhaps one thinks of the hero of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and the dangers of the message movie.

In fact, VIGIL IN THE NIGHT, released in 1940, shows how Stevens was already itching to get to grips with more sombre subjects: after all, the movie, a medical drama, kills a cute kid in the very first sequence. He perhaps didn’t have the chops for it yet, but that would come. Like Leo McCarey, Stevens went from frivolous nothings to incredibly elegant and accomplished comedies, but unlike McCarey his move into more serious films opened up fresh stylistic possibilities. Whatever you think of the lap dissolves of A PLACE IN THE SUN or the tableau style of THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, these devices stretch the conventional language of Hollywood storytelling.

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There’s some of that on display in VIGIL, where the desire to simulate the dark environment of Northern England (the story is from a novel by A.J. Cronin, author of The Crucible The Citadel) involves Stevens in some weird stylisation with his lavish but grimy sets. This is obvious from the start, when he pans from a SFX lighthouse across a miniature landscape, onto a full-scale set of the hospital Isolation Ward, where nurse Carole Lombard is ministering to a sick child. Stevens then cuts inside, and a short while later has Lombard look out the window. Instead of seeing the sea, which is what we’ve just been shown lies beyond the glass, she sees a busy street. Maybe she’s gone to a different window, but check this: panning along the far building, in a continuation of Lombard’s POV shot, we then discover that it’s the Isolation Ward — the very building Lombard is in! Time and space seem to have formed a Moebius strip to allow Lombard to look at herself.

The plotting carries out similarly weird contortions. At one point, Lombard is riding a bus with other hospital staff, and one nosy parker is on the point of revealing the dark secret from her past — suddenly, CRASH! The bus, magically reduced to miniature size, hurtles off the road and smashes itself to pieces in a cataclysm of quick cuts. Lombard receives a few cuts to the face, which we are presumably meant to see as the source of her sexy little scars, but that other nurse sure shut her mouth. It seems like Lombard has the fabled Medusa Touch. When, later, she tells Dr Brian Aherne that he’s going to get the modern hospital he’s been fighting for, because she saw it in a dream, we believe her. If, in fact, Carole Lombard can make things happen with the power of her mind, and is controlling the whole plot of the film, things make a certain sense. Of course, her shallow sister (Anne Shirley), for whom she took the rap for that child’s death, and who repaid her by stealing her fiance (Peter Cushing, sporting one of the few Northern accents), has to die. The only surprise is that Carole doesn’t have her explode like John Cassavetes at the end of THE FURY.

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Another example of the film’s odd relationship with realism. The matron (Ethel Griffies, brilliant as the bird lady in THE BIRDS) bans cosmetics on her nurses, but of course all the women look immaculate all the time. But in her sick-bed, Shirley has a convincingly natural look, with the kind of skin tones only previously seen on children. Death, the great leveler and the great skin cleanser.

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Was Cushing destined for Hollywood stardom? He apparently couldn’t wait to get home, though anemia prevented him joining up for WWII. His movie roles in America were all small, though VIGIL sees him, briefly, playing Lombard’s romantic interest, and he does very well in a scene of drunken despair, filmed by Stevens mainly in bleak wide shots. It’s a very good performance all round, but perhaps evidence more of what Cushing lacked as a lead — though quite the lover-boy offscreen, he doesn’t really create any kind of spark with his leading lady, and if Lombard doesn’t make you hot under the collar there may be no hope. Back in Britain, this quality of a sexuality which doesn’t show up on film proved no barrier at Hammer, where the sex was all sublimated into vampirism anyway, and Cushing would embody the man who showed up to punish it with a wooden stake to the cleavage. It’s doubtful if such opportunities would have come along in the US.

sherlock

The Easter Sunday Intertitle: Moving in a Mysterious Way

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2013 by dcairns

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Cecil B DeMille’s THE KING OF KINGS is a barking mad, surreally vulgar wondershow — the cavalier rewriting of gospel alone is hilarious and delightful, especially in a film so bent on being sincere and respectful and religious. The more DeMille falls over himself to be respectful, the more he smears his idol in kitsch und klatsch. He just can’t help himself.

Since the Bible doesn’t paint in too many memorable, specific or convincing characters, at least as modern dramaturgy would see it, DeMille and his scenarist Jeanie Macpherson depict the disciples with broad strokes, like Disney dwarfs. Young Mark is a wee boy (cured of lameness, he slings away his crutch and biffs an adjacent pharisee), and Peter is portrayed as a giant and strongman, the Porthos of the Apostles.

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He’s played by Ernest Torrence, the Edinburgh-born actor with the big face — Steamboat Bill Snr in STEAMBOAT BILL JNR. It’s nice to see a Scotsman in biblical times. In THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD, David McCallum plays Judas. I might have known Judas would be Glaswegian. (Joseph Schildkraut, Judas here, turns up as Nicodemus in the later super-film.)

(Incidentally, I can’t work out why the fiddled with Judas’s death in the Stevens film — there’s no scriptural evidence for his self-immolating like that. Different accounts say variously that J.I. hanged himself or that he bought a field, fell over, and his bowels gushed out. Nobody seems eager to stage that last version, but I guess it does show there’s room for uncertainty.)

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DeMille’s portrayal of the Magdelene (Jacqueline Logan) as a sultry, high-class courtesan is exactly what one would expect from him — she even has an exotic make-up kit and tray of perfumes, just like Gloria Swanson would if it were one of his modern comedies of manners. She has quite a menagerie too — zebras, swans, a tiger and a monkey. Every bible movie ought to have a character whose social status the audience can aspire to, and she’s it.

If you need a trivia question, I propose, “What movie features both Ayn Rand and Sally Rand?” Hint: it’s this one.

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DeMille’s frequent collaborator Lenore Coffee (see here for smutty making-of anecdote on this movie) though HB Warner wrong for the role — Jesus was thirty at the start of the script, and Harry W was fifty. Also Jesus was a carpenter, a craftsman but also a physical labourer. “If Harry Warner picked up a hammer he’d drop it on his toe!” She suggested he-man actor William Boyd (star of DeMille’s THE VOLGA BOATMAN), but she later decided he was a good choice, because he fit the stereotype. There had been so few movie Christs that the public needed someone who obviously fit the bill — maybe later a more challenging portrayal would be possible.

Stock up on the Messiah —

The King of Kings (The Criterion Collection)

King of Kings [Blu-ray]

The Greatest Story Ever Told [Blu-ray]