Archive for The Men

From the Id

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2018 by dcairns

It’s our old friend, the Monster from the Id! You can tell it’s him because (1) he’s invisible and (2) he’s behind a door. Just like always.

SHADOW IN THE SKY is directed by Fred M. Wilcox  (FORBIDDEN PLANET) and written by Ben Maddow right before he was blacklisted. It deals with a veteran with PTSD (Ralph Meeker) who comes to stay with his reluctant family, sister Nancy Davis/Reagan and brother-in-law and former comrade-in-arms James Whitmore, and their kids. It’s a sort of attempt to remake THE MEN with mental illness instead of paraplegia, but they mix things up enough, and everybody underplays heroically. This may be Nancy’s best film, in fact (though TALK ABOUT A STRANGER, shot by John Alton, is very good).

Ralph Meeker seems to be styled somewhat as Brando (and Maddow would go on to write THE WILD ONE). Some may find his tiny, tight buttocks enticing. Of course, he has that sneer. Best of all are his moments of automatism, where he’ll do some ordinary thing seemingly with nothing special on his mind, going through the motions of dancing or playing ping-pong, his thoughts simply elsewhere, perhaps directing the actions of a vast alien living intelligence system.

I found myself even able to sympathise with Nancy, who’s worried about her kids. There’s no reason to think Ralph is actually a danger to them. But certainly they might be distressed if he has one of his spells and flips out, hiding under a table and yelling, even though that’s the kind of thing kids themselves do all the time. Kids are funny that way — they either laugh at or are freaked out by adults behaving like them. Small-minded. On the other hand, Nancy’s fears are also irrational — the sense of madness as communicable taint, something to be shut away and not even spoken of, is ever-present.

Also — Jean Hagen as Ralph’s nurse girlfriend, an appealingly direct performance. These are all sort-of B-list players, but one wishes people of this quality could have enlivened FORBIDDEN PLANET (but I still love Anne Francis). I mean, come on, Ralph Meeker is good in anything.

Maddow’s sensitive script stops this being social-conscience pablum — the respectable suburbanites are driven by irrational fears as much as the traumatised vet — humour is allowed at unlikely moments — “Clayton’s afraid of people,” says Meeker of a friend, “Which is bad, because the world’s full of people.” And on his first morning in his new home, Meeker asks for an old hat. “There’s a bird in my room.” It sounds like something a crazy person in a dumb comedy would say, but there IS a bird in his room. He catches it in the hat, puts the hat on to contain the bird, climbs out the window, again seeming like a crazy person only we know otherwise… meets the kids for the first time. Raises his hat to them — and the bird flies out. Instantly the kids are very impressed with their new uncle.

OK, so it’s a very written idea, but effective and charming, I think.

 

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Two Tales

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 22, 2011 by dcairns

My two favourite stories from Fred Zinnemann, An Autobiography.

To prepare for THE MEN, Brando spent a lot of time hanging out with the paraplegic vets, drinking at the Pump Room where the door had been widened for wheelchair access. Nobody there new he was an actor, he had his own wheelchair and he was learning to be one of the guys.

“Sympathetic people often turned up at the Pump Room, even religious cranks — California is full of them — and one day a lady came in, already three sheets to the wind. She spotted the veterans in their wheelchairs, climbed on a bar stool and began to tell them that they could surely get up and walk if they only had faith in God. The fellows wearily pointed to Brando, who thereupon gave one of the great performances of his career…”

You guessed it. Brando started small, with “a tiny spark of doubt” in his eyes, which was duly spotted by the lady and fanned into a hot cinder of hope. She harangued him, exhorting him to rise, and he seemed to get more and more impressed. The room fell silent. Waiters paused with full trays. Finally, he dared an attempt — with herculean effort, he stood, and took a faltering step. A gasp and a hush.

Then Brando laughed, danced a little jig, and ran from the bar. Moments later he returned with an armful of newspapers, shouting joyously, “Hurray, now I can make a living!”

“He did have a cruel sense of humor.”

What’s strange is to see this scene recreated in BEDTIME STORY, starring Brando himself.

Anecdote 2:

HIGH NOON — Zinnemann used striking symmetrical shots at various times in his career: the pageantry of A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS and THE NUN’S STORY exploit the formal, unnatural tension of human beings arranged into ordered rows like dominos. In HIGH NOON there’s the splendid low angle looking right along the railroad track at the vanishing point, the point from which crazed killer Frank Miller is coming, inevitably.

Floyd Crosby, ace cinematographer, and Zinnemann, were on the railway tracks at the train station location in Sonora (most of the film was shot on the back lot, with smog helpfully masking out modern LA in the longshots). The train appeared on the horizon line. Black smoke spouted from it — an excellent effect, thought Zinnemann. A train of death!

What he didn’t know was that this was the driver’s signal that the brakes had failed. The camera rolled, the two men crouched on the tracks, and eventually it dawned on them that the train wasn’t stopping. Slow motion. Scrambling off the tracks. Heavy 35mm camera. Tripod leg catches in track. Get off the line!

The train roared past, a train of death indeed, smashing the camera to scrap. The magazine survived and the shot’s in the film!

Nobody was hurt.

It occurs to me that there’s not much point having a black smoke signal for brake failure if you don’t tell the people crouching on the tracks beforehand that such a signal exists. I guess the engineer thought “Well, everybody knows that!”

Tales of the Riverbank

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2011 by dcairns

Fred Zinnemann Week was never planned as a chronological rundown, but it’s rather oddly turning out that way. It also feels like it could overspill its banks into next week, when Shadowplay will be coming live from Hollywood but I’ll be too busy to write about my experiences until I get back…

This week’s The Forgotten, over at the Daily Notebook, deals with TERESA, one of several Zinnemann films to deal with post-war malaise. ACT OF VIOLENCE frames the issue in exciting, feverish noir terms, while THE SEARCH, THE MEN and TERESA form an informal trilogy of realism emotional dramas using unfamiliar actors and non-professionals on location to create a pseudo-documentary feeling. Despite my love of the fantastic and exaggerated, I find these films powerful and highly filmic.

Here’s a moment from THE SEARCH, which deals with displaced children, and in particular one, Ivan Jandl.

Rivers (and fishing) are important in Zinnemann (so are mountains), and here the moving water, earlier associated with death, comes to feel like a representation of the continuity of human life. I’m touched by Clift’s quiet, sensitive performance, but also by what he actually says, and normally attempts to comfort in the face of death fall flat for me. Truffaut’s character has that line to the priest in THE GREEN ROOM, that if he can’t provide immediate resurrection of the departed one, he’s no use whatsoever. It’s kind of true. And with religious stuff, I always just think, “Nope. That can’t be right.” What Clift says here does offer some limited comfort — because it’s clearly TRUE, and it also acknowledges the bleakness of irreparable loss.

Zinnemann’s choice to shoot from the back makes the river a character and also saves him having to ask a small child to act something few adults could pull off. As Joseph H Lewis said of a comparable moment in SO LONG THE NIGHT, “How the hell do you film that?” The best choice is to withdraw and let the audience imagine it.

THE SEARCH led indirectly to THE MEN, F.Z.’s first collaboration with producer Stanley Kramer. It’s also Brando’s first film — his persona must have been a shock to audiences at the time, he’s aggressively proletarian and sullen. What stops this one being as good as THE SEARCH is, to a small degree, Teresa Wright, whose acting style is somewhat too sugary to pair with Brando’s, and to a much greater extent, Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. Zinnemann was shooting TERESA in Italy when the film was post-produced, and by the time he heard the hectoring, banal, shouty music it was too late to change anything. Tiomkin’s decision to score the death of a Latino soldier with Spanish guitar seems particularly offensive.

On the plus side, Everett Sloane gives a restrained perf — he manages to stop his eyebrows squirming all over his head for the most part, and his natural gifts for acerbic wit and uningratiating bluntness shine. Of all the actors, Jack Webb does the best job of blending in with the real disabled veterans who populate the smaller roles — Webb’s version of not-acting comes closer to actual not acting than Brando’s by a country mile.

And so to TERESA, which Zinnemann felt had some structural defects and some issues with the balance of the performances — these problems, if they even are problems, seem to add to the film’s convincing evocation of real-life emotional mess.