Archive for The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

Slop

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2020 by dcairns

Feeling like a grumpy old man. So, I had to show students the 2016 British movie THEIR FINEST as part of someone else’s class. I did not like this movie.

It’s about women — but actually, one woman, played by Gemma Arterton — working in the Brit film industry in WWII. The premise is that the war opens up opportunities for women in cinema. I’m not sure that premise is true — who are these women whose careers were helped, and does a comparison of figures of female crew pre-war and during-war bear out this premise? My impression is that there were always women and they were always the exception in any job except actress…

Still, I think you could make a decent film about that even without a solid underpinning of documentary fact. Certainly the general point that a lot of previously restricted jobs were opened up to women during the war has a very solid basis, and transposing that into filmmaking, or wizardry, or taxidermy would be a legitimate fictional conceit.

But, from its truncated title on down, this isn’t the right film. It’s based on Their Finest Hour and a Half, a novel by former TV producer/director Lissa Evans, which has a title that actually works and means something. Evidently somebody thought it was too long, so we’re left hanging. Their finest WHAT? There’s a rule, or anyway almost a rule, that if you throw out a good title for a bad reason, you’re going to end up with a really terrible title. And since nobody in film development ever UNDOES a decision, you’ll never get the moment of clarity where someone holds up the two titles side by side and says, “Waitaminute…”

This FEELS like a script that’s been “in development” — the book came out in 2009. Screenwriter Gaby Chiappe hasn’t found, or been allowed to find, a strong throughline of the cinematic kind. Since the film is mainly about a screenwriter, there’s a horrible irony that we can’t answer the questions “What does the heroine want?” or “Why isn’t the film over?” I was forced to ask the second question about three times, as it kept trundling on.

It looks very nice, though its vision of a 1940s film crew — about six people and a tiny Technicolor camera — what happened to the “magic cottage”? — where’s the sound crew and equipment? — no continuity girl? — is pathetically unconvincing. And director Lone Scherfig never seems to move her own camera. Maybe she should have used the little blue Dinky toy from the film.

There’s a very good glass painting gag. I have to give them that. I was trying to explain glass paintings to an actor friend recently and this film did a far better job in five seconds of imagery than I could manage in a minute or so of babbling.

Jake Lacey is very funny as the token American, a pilot drafted in as actor, who can’t act, doesn’t even know what acting IS. When the movie and the actors know what joke they’re supposed to be telling, they can do it quite well. But confusion has set in on the macro level and it seeps down.

Gemma Arterton, who we KNOW is really good, is wasted as a smiley cipher. The scenes with Bill Nighy and Helen McCrory don’t really need to be there at all, but they bring the entertainment, with one character trait apiece. One-dimensional characters are fine, in their place.

“Slop” is the male filmmakers’ word for the kind of emotional stuff you need a woman to write. Weirdly, that’s the weakest component here. It’s a NICE — sloppy, sappy — film, without emotional fire. In telling the story of a Welsh woman screenwriter, they must have encountered, surely, the story of Diana Morgan, the actual Welsh woman screenwriter in WWII. I suppose her story was probably the inspiration. Morgan was known to the blokes at Ealing as “the Welsh bitch.” And that was at EALING — sweet, cosy Ealing. There’s no sense in this film of how obnoxious men could really be, pre-liberation. You get a slightly handsy Jeremy Irons for one scene (he’s good value) and a sarcastic Sam Claflin (I think I will call him Sarcastic Sam Claflin from now on). Nobody has the courage to actually be shocking. There are no actual bastards (in a film about moviemaking??!)

Somebody at the top doesn’t know what a story is, or what a scene is, and they haven’t done their research. And the edit seems concerned mainly with overdubbing lines so we’ll understand, rather than care or believe.

“Have you ever met Robert Donat?” Cut to back view. Overdub: “The famous actor?”

More offensive than that is the film’s patronising attitude to the films of the period. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP is so much more sophisticated as film art than THEIR FINEST, there’s just no comparison. But this movie looks smugly back at what it perceives to be naivety and cookie-cutter storytelling. It’s as if a daytime soap paused to congratulate itself on being better-written than King Lear. Hell, the real Diana Morgan contributed to WENT THE DAY WELL?, a genuinely horrifying film about the effects of war on ordinary British people.

Not anybody’s finest 117 minutes.

THEIR FINEST stars Tamara Drew; Finnick Odair; Withnail; Karl Marx; Jack Kerouac; Duchess of Sutherland; Minister Rufus Scrimgeour; Paul Wolfowitz; Narcissa Malfoy; Beverley & Elliot Mantle; Richard Semco; Brynden ‘Blackfish’ Tully; and Ethel Huggett (archive footage).

Home Service

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 24, 2017 by dcairns

Huge gratitude to Talking Pictures TV for screening ENCHANTMENT (1948), which I don’t think I’d ever heard of, directed by Irving Reis, who was merely a name to me. It’s been a while since I discovered a 40s Hollywood film that was a revelation to me.

It’s based on a Rumer Godden novel — one might think her an extraordinarily fortunate author in her adaptations, except I don’t think she liked any of them, certainly not BLACK NARCISSUS, which maybe affirms some part of the auteur theory by transmogrifying wholly into a Powell & Pressburger joint. Though it’s certainly possible to like both book and film. But Rumer didn’t, is my point.

It’s also a Goldwyn production, and stuffed full of his favourite talent — not Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo, you understand, but David Niven (DODSWORTH, WUTHERING HEIGHTS), Teresa Wright (THE LITTLE FOXES, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES) and Leo g. Carroll (WUTHERING HEIGHTS again), the whole being shot by Gregg Toland (most of the above). It’s basically a William Wyler movie without Wyler, which might be useful in assessing his contribution to the films he made for Goldwyn, except I’d rather just rave about this one.

Oh, and the cast also includes Evelyn Keyes, who is delightful, and Farley Granger, almost equally so only in a moustache. I’m not always anti-whiskers — David Niven doesn’t seem complete without his lip-caterpillar, for instance, but the more hair you put on Farley’s face, the less of Farley’s face you see, and that has to be counted as a loss.

For some reason the Blitz seems a time of romance, which is crazy — bombs falling from the sky onto human habitations are not romantic — but there it is. I’ve been reading Connie Willis, who suffers from the same inappropriate yearning for tumbling ordinance. This movie is framed by the war, but glides from thence into flashbacks going back to Victorian times.

Niven is barely recognizable (save for that lightbulb cranium) in the contemporary sections, wrapped in a rather convincing make-up and giving a thoroughly convincing performance of old age. His voice is completely unrecognizable, save for a few moments when his distinctive way with a line creeps through.

     

The leaping about in time is accomplished with a lot of adventuresome skill, some of which may be accredited to Toland, who after all had CITIZEN KANE to his credit. And so we get temporal shifts delivered with lighting changes (before Death of a Salesman) , and one extraordinary bit where the camera pans out of flashback into present tense in a single unbroken shot, the kind of thing very rarely seen in the forties — THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP is the best-known example. And a lovely moment where we a scene fades out except for a character’s hand, which lingers momentarily like the Cheshire Cat’s grin or the blind hermit’s cross in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, then dissolves to another image of a hand, and irises out in a new scene. That trick turns up in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, but practically nowhere else in screen history.

Evocative effects-work for the Blitz scenes.

Also, for fans of eccentric forties storytelling (David Bordwell), it’s narrated by a house. That would have been enough to make me love it, but there’s so much more.

What other Reis ought I to see? I’ll be all over THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBYSOXER, of course, but are there other gems?

Ransom Note

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 16, 2016 by dcairns

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Never interrupt Ralph Morgan’s embroidery.

Charles Vidor was a very interesting stylist — some of his films are pretty ordinary, but then he’d do slightly mad things. GILDA, his masterpiece, has several eccentric flourishes, including a forced perspective shot with outsize dice as its very first image, and continually makes interesting cutting and framing choices that get more eccentric the more you think about them. His silent short, THE BRIDGE, (which you can see here) is full of striking moments, such as a double exposure of drumsticks beating with the chest of a prisoner about to be executed, making us not only hear but see and feel his pounding heartbeat.

MUSS ‘EM UP is a 1936 thriller based on a pulp detective novel by James Edward Grant (don’t know his work) — it’s faithful enough to the tone and conventions of Black Mask fiction to play like a true film noir, quite a few years early (even more so than Vidor’s BLIND ALLEY). Preston Foster is the hardboiled hero, and the un-starry but capable supporting cast comprise a fine net full of red herrings.

A wealthy man’s dog has been shot and he’s been receiving threatening letters. Gumshoe Tip O’Neil (Foster) moves in to crack the case, and finds that the entire family and staff are sharpshooters, making it tricky to narrow the field of suspects. Then there’s a kidnapping, and this happens ~

Ransom note from David Cairns on Vimeo.

So, Vidor tracks through the wall and on to another room — an Ophulsian trick, almost before Ophuls was doing it. What the roving camera finds in that room is the same group of characters, differently attired, at a different time of day. Again, like Ophuls in his very last films of the fifties, Vidor has TRACKED THROUGH TIME.

The other earliest example of this I can think of is the ambitious but slightly clunky shot in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP — “Forty years ago… forty years ago…” which takes us into flashback in a steam bath. Vidor’s version is earlier and possibly more successful, if less epic/romantic.

He repays watching.