Archive for The Ladykillers

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;

The Sunday Intertitle: Moriarty-craftsy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2019 by dcairns

I watched the John Barrymore SHERLOCK HOLMES because I’m going to be doing something about Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK, JR and I wanted to see if this film, released just a couple of years previously, had influenced it. Nothing very very specific, but a general sense that Keaton’s conception of his role and the world of Holmes had more to do with Albert Parker’s film than a close reading of Conan Doyle.

The film is pretty nice! I gave up on it one time before, mainly because it presents Holmes as a moony romantic lazing about country lanes, and knowing Watson when at uni. But it otherwise manages to fold Moriarty into Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia and has a very nice cast.

Roland Young in a silent film, hmm — apart from some good slouching, he kind of disappears when he can’t use his voice. But the film gives a lot of the sidekicking to a very young William Powell anyway. Fascinating to see both men with their own hair. (I’m obsessed with hair at the moment because my own hair is retreating like the Maginot Line.)

DW Griffith sweetie Carole Dempster is leading lady, and we get appearances by the likes of Louis Wollheim, instantly recognizable from the way his nose has been compressed into his head until it is visible as a small bump on the back of his neck, and David Torrence, whose brother Ernest would work with Keaton as Steamboat Bill, Sr, and play a memorable Moriarty in the enjoyable 1932 William K. Howard farrago.

Best of all is the Moriarty here, the magnificent, and magnificently named Gustav(e) Von Seyffertitz, the Greater Profile, whose drooping scarf and expressionistic gestures reminded me forcibly of Alec Guinness’s Professor M (for Marcus) in THE LADYKILLERS. Now, it’s known that Guinness modelled his teeth and cigarette-smoking on critic Kenneth Tynan (an actor’s revenge!) but I wouldn’t be surprised if he, or director Sandy Mackendrick, or the costume designer Anthony Mendleson, was influenced by Gustav(e)’s great look.

There’s a fairly purple intertitle gushing about the coldness of Moriarty’s blood —

It got me wondering if the scarf, and the claw-like, expressionistic hand gestures (another Guinness connection) were because Moriarty is literally cold all the time — he’s characterised as a kind of spider, and spiders always start turning up dead at this time of year. I like the idea of a villain whose cold-bloodedness causes him seasonal discomfort.

How the West was Not

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2018 by dcairns

So, I got Netflix for THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND, which of course meant we could watch THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS, so we did. I used to indiscriminately like all Coen Bros movies, with a slight preference for the early, funny ones. The tendency towards emptiness did start to nag at me a little as early as MILLER’S CROSSING and BARTON FINK. The nasty sense of humour didn’t — I have a fairly dark S.O.H. myself. But then came INTOLERABLE CRUELTY and THE LADYKILLERS which I disenjoyed so thoroughly it made me retroactively question even my favourites, and proactively question subsequent films.

I suspect the following will make David E. impatient, since he was onto the Coen’s combo of snark and misanthropy from the start.

Here’s my run-down of the episodes in this latest western compendium. Not too many specific spoilers, but plenty of comparisons with the Bros’ earlier offerings, good, bad and ugly.

1. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The ballad itself is practically a proper musical, except that, as with OH BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? the songs are all sorta diegetic. We have the welcome return to the fold of Tim Blake Nelson, and the unbelievably crisp cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel, who they got acquainted with on PARIS JE T’AIME and used again to even better effect on INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, a flm with a unique look in the Coen oeuvre. It’s fascinating to see iconic western imagery shot in an ultrasharp digital way. When people start by telling you they liked the photography it reliably indicates they hated the film, and I hated this episode. The “humorous” violence is mean and squicky: the severed thumb from THE LADYKILLERS is back. Remember how funny it is when Travis blows the guy’s hand off in TAXI DRIVER? That’s how funny the mutilation gag is here. The saving grace is Carter Burwell’s music: this whole movie is the best showcase he’s had for a while.

2. Near Algodones. Or, One Damn Thing After Another. A pretty good Leone imitation in places, this is nevertheless just as pointless and unpleasant as Part 1. James Franco as a bank-robber is given no appealing qualities, so his Really Bad Day is neither a nightmare we can empathise with nor even a justifiable punishment. These two episodes look to have been written in an afternoon. Both end, kind of, with The Last Sight You’ll See, harking way back to BLOOD SIMPLE’s grotesque yet kind of poetic plumbing close-up final shot.

3. Meal Ticket. Here’s where I start to wonder if the ordering of the stories is a problem. As soon as we meet the armless, legless “protagonist” of this one, we expect that something terrible will happen to him. Which means viewing the whole film in a queasy suspense, and not being surprised. The wintry, nocturnal look is really gorgeous and the reason for the story being told, as with the previous installments, is inscrutable. Shit happens, you say? No shit. Fiona was on the point of bailing at this point… but got drawn back in.

4. All Gold Valley. Things take a turn for the better here, maybe in part because we have a story by Jack London. It’s no TO BUILD A FIRE but it’s good. All the episodes are magnificently cast from both a dramaturgical and a physiognomic point of view, but here Tom Waits is actually given sympathetic traits, and though we suspect we may be being set up for a fall, this is not entirely true. This was the first yarn that didn’t make me feel horrible, and the nature photography ascends to new heights of loveliness,

5. The Gal Who Got Rattled. Another adaptation, this time from Stewart Edward White. whose stories have been used by the movies a fair few times, but not since 1941. A really grand evocation of a wagon train. Likeable characters. “I’m really worried about this girl,” said Fiona of Zoe Kazan’s nervous young frontierswoman. There’s a cute dog. This one’s a proper story, very strong, strikingly presented. It would play even better if it weren’t following a trio of sick joke blackout sketches: we need to believe the Coens are sincere here, for the yarn to play emotionally. It COULD be taken as another set-up/punch-line bit of cynical manipulation, and of course if we can give the Coens more credit than that and actually embrace the apparent warmth of feeling and sympathy, the film will play MUCH better. It’s a great little film: Kazan is terrific, and Bill Heck and Grainger Hines ought to be stars.

Also, by this point, the use of pages turning in a book of wild west yarns, with coloured illustrative plates, is really paying off. It’s something I don’t believe we’ve seen before in a film: the illustrations pluck a moment from the narrative, often from near the end, and then we wait for it to turn up and make sense in context. It can add a little extra touch of inevitability to a tragedy, an added twist of irony to a joke.

Also also, it’s nice to finally meet a girl. I know westerns have traditionally been male-dominated, but watching this one’s like going to prison (if you’re a man). Only with less sex.

6. Mortal Remains. OK, Tyne Daly is here so you’ll get no complaints from me. Well, maybe a few. This is DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS only on a stagecoach instead of a train. I mean that literally. I liked the misty cut-out buildings that nod both to NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and the whole history of the western movie set. A bunch of facades with nothing behind them seems an apt metaphor for something or other, but what? Oh yeah.

The garrulous English character is hard to process as anything other than a riff on THE HATEFUL EIGHT, and it does feel like the Coens have been treading familiar ground: Tarantino already gave us a western full of talk, with epic iconography but an oddly intimate, enclosed locale, and a lot of unpleasant characters doing horrible things we cant possibly care about. The mysterious, even mystic quality the Coens aim to evoke here certainly adds a new flavour, but as this one fades out I realize why anthology films usually have a framing structure. It’s hard for one episode to deliver an ending satisfying enough for all six.

Maybe the Coens need to stick to adaptations. Their two strongest films, the ones that feel most like they have a reason to exist, are NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and TRUE GRIT. The brothers are experts at pastiche, and their delight in language, both verbal and cinematic, is a kind of redeeming feature (they do care about SOMETHING), but what they get from an original author with world experience and an interest in people seems to be something they struggle to achieve by themselves.

Dissenting views are welcome.

THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS stars Delmar O’Donnell, Harry “Oz” Osborn, Ruby Sparks, Oskar Schindler, Dudley Dursley, R.M. Renfield, Mary Beth Lacey, Colonel Oates and Alastor ‘MadEye’ Moody.