Archive for The Princess Bride

Cliff Hanger

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2011 by dcairns

I recall seeing bits of MASQUERADE (1965) — always the same bits, too — on TV over the years. Being a moderate admirer of Basil Dearden, I finally decided to see the whole thing. It’s — moderately good. Cliff Robertson is an American ex-serviceman at a loose end, recruited by former comrade Jack Hawkins to protect an Arabian prince from his evil uncle (regular pseudo-arab Roger Delgado, the Master in Dr. Who). Pitched at Hitchcock romp level, and from a novel by FAMILY PLOT’s Victor Canning, it suffers from a major plot twist heavily telegraphed by modern standards, and easily predictable to anyone who’s previously seen Hawkins as a disillusioned soldier turning to crime in Dearden’s THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN.

Bizarre nod to Bunuel?

Still, the cliffhanging is suspenseful, and co-scenarist William Goldman serves up his first reversal in a long career of rug-pulling, when Robertson, imprisoned in a  circus cage, tries to reach a set of keys dangling just out of reach. He espies some bamboo in a neighbouring cage, and hatches the plan of assembling a rod to fish for the keys — trouble is, the cage is occupied by a very nasty vulture. Much agonized pecking later, Cliff does manage to rig up a key-catching stick — only to discover than none of the keys fits his lock. Of course: why would the bad guys leave the keys to HIS cage in plain view?

The reversals come ever thicker and faster, until, like Goldman’s later screenplay for MAVERICK, it becomes rather hard to be surprised anymore. But more damaging is the misogyny, a tonal pain in any ostensibly lighthearted flick. Marisa Mell is a free-spirited circus girl, sporting bruises from hairy ape boyfriend Michel Piccoli. “I don’t mind,” she tells Robertson. “Say, you’re pretty kinky, baby!” he exclaims, thus putting the film’s portrayal of abusive relationships on a psychological par with the apache dance.

His later line, “I’d give you a smack in the face only I’m afraid you might like it,” doesn’t help matters. I still didn’t like the line when it was plagiarised for ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA years later. By all means, abuse masochists, that’s what they like, but don’t make fun of ’em! One also wants to say to the writers: “She’s your sexual fantasy, mate. Why are you having a go at her?”

Nobody seems too bothered by Goldman’s sexism, which strikes me as a constant in his work. It doesn’t quite spoil THE PRINCESS BRIDE, a truly charming film, but it forms a bit of a stain. Probably less harmful to my enjoyment than the tacky production values, but when you have Wallace Shawn and Mandy Patinkin and Peter Cook etc, and some very very funny jokes and characters and plotting, you can get away with murder. I get the impression that Goldman’s status as some kind of screenplay guru puts him either above criticism or beneath contempt, so nobody looks too closely at the actual strengths and weaknesses. (His analysis of some of his own flaws in Adventures in the Screen Trade is often very telling, though.)

Dearden’s nicest bit of direction comes when a dopey Robertson wanders dazed through a castle at night — sudden Carol Reed infusion of canted angles, vaseline-smeared filter making fairy-tale dream-effect — but it’s all so out of keeping with the rest of the movie, which has totally neglected Hitchcockian POV and expressionist tricks, that it sticks out like a sore, soft-focus thumb.

Still, the sight of Charles Gray dangling from a helicopter is worth anybody’s 102 minutes. Deus Ex machina!

Buy Goldman’s book —

UK: Adventures in the Screen Trade

US: Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting

Eclipse Series 25: Basil Dearden’s London Underground (Sapphire, The League of Gentlemen, Victim, All Night Long) (Criterion Collection)


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 23, 2010 by dcairns

Another funny movie logo is Edward Small Productions — the contrast of the monolithic proportions with the name “Small” always makes me chuckle, and wonder what sort of fellow E.S. was. Did he have a sense of irony? I’m thinking maybe not.

The logo was attached to many films, but the one I just watched was THE CORSICAN BROTHERS. I wish I’d seen it as a kid, it’s the kind of simple, unpretentious swashbuckler I’d have enjoyed more then. As an adult, I was noting the influence on THE PRINCESS BRIDE, enjoying Akim Tamiroff as the baddie, and one more thing ~

The late F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre once told me in an email that he couldn’t work out how the filmmakers had achieved the scene where Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. fights himself. I was keeping an eye on the twin special effects throughout the film, and in my view, the fight is not the most mysterious part.

Here’s the two Dougs, meeting for the first time. Throughout, the filmmakers use different techniques to double Doug, so that we don’t settle into thinking we know how it’s being done. In this kind of locked-off shot, we might expect split-screen to be the answer, but the actor smack in the centre of the frame disproves that idea. And then one Doug extends a hand and has it clasped by the other.

A slight awkwardness about the way the hand extends suggests the answer. It’s coming from somebody else. If my copy were higher definition I suspect the join might be rather distinct. I think the Doug on the right is standing in front of a rear-projection screen, on which the other characters and the background are projected. If we could see that original shot, it might be rather amusing — everyone reacting to a brother who isn’t there, while a crouching stand-in thrusts forth a costumed arm at the appropriate moment.

Here’s the mind-blower ~

A cinch to do if you’re David Cronenberg with a motion control camera and Jeremy Irons, and even easier today with computers and all that. But this tracking shot, where two Dougs amble along together, was technically NOT POSSIBLE in 1941. So my assumption is that a different technique altogether has been used: not split screen, not matting, not rear-projection. Just a really good stand-in.

This fits in with Michael Powell’s advice that the correct way to use a double is not to have him skulk around, partially obscured, like Ed Wood’s dentist in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, but to have him boldly stomp through shot in plain view. It will never occur to the viewer that the fellow on-screen is not the fellow who was playing the part a second ago. I must say, if I’m right, they’ve found an excellent looky-likey for Doug.

This explains the fight scene later, where the Dougs circle one another, something that would be impossible if any trick effects were involved. But the shot above is actually much more striking because it’s closer, and slower-moving. Kudos to Gregory Ratoff for having the nerve to attempt it.

The Fall Girl

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2009 by dcairns


We settled to watch THE FALL with mixed feelings. We quite liked Tarsem Singh’s THE CELL, as a piece of trash with eye-popping visuals. But it was a shame the film was so trashy — “We had fuckin’ J-Lo as a shrink,” as the director admitted — since the premise was intriguing and the swipes from Svankmajer, the Quay Brothers and Joel Peter Witkin were carried off with aplomb.

(Suggestions for future Tarsem films? THE BALL, THE PILL, THE TROLL, THE SMELL?)

We were also a little put off by Singh’s own name-change in the credits, to just plain “Tarsem,” leading Fiona to mourn the days when directors had proper names. “Like McG?” I suggested.


But THE FALL is well worth seeing. At base, it’s a version of THE PRINCESS BRIDE in which the dramatic emphasis has been shifted to the framing story, while the fantasy tale-within-the-tale has been blasted with Technicolor round-the-world locations and visual largesse (I mean, I love THE PRINCESS BRIDE but it’s notably cheap-ass and ill-shot in its swashbuckling sequences: thank God for the script and cast). Tarsem’s pictorial splendour is so excessive it nearly smothers the film, but heroic performances from Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru keep it afloat.


That “heroic” is an understatement. Regular readers will know that I shun hyperbole as sternly as America’s founding fathers shunned crystal meth, but I honestly can’t think of a better performance by an eight-year-old Romanian in any film of the last, oh, three years. She can do anything — at first you think she’s just preternaturally cute, and maybe “Tarsem” (I can’t get used to calling him that!) has just patiently filmed her growing up for a year and cut all the most amusing bits together, but then she holds conversations, and cries, and does all sorts of things that they couldn’t have possibly written a film around. Although rather brilliantly they make use of lots of genuine behaviour from her, like moments when her attention drifts from the scene and then back again.

(Shall I tell you something wonderfully moving? In adults, there is an ability to turn the brain up, to pay full attention, as we call it, so as to absorb information with more efficiency. In little kids, the brain is at this state of alertness all the time. Even when a kid is distracted, they are intensely distracted.)


Watching Catinca think is a pleasure in itself. She’s continually thrown by all the information life fires at her, and she has to sort of momentarily retreat within herself, with an almost audible echoing patter of footsteps, to consult with her brain about how to respond, while her face is left on autopilot, prey to random muscular spasms, gravity, Brownian motion and the prevailing winds, and then she comes running back to the driver’s seat, a dossier of data clutched in her chubby hands, feet skidding on the linoleum, and her face kind of clicks on with an “Occupied” sign again and begins to say stuff. I could watch it for hours.

If the film achieves any kind of balance, it’s because all Metatarsal’s work journeying to the far corners of the Earth is counter-weighted by the patient miracle he’s wrought with his child star. I take my hat off to him. As Guillermo del Toro seems to back ever further away from making the great film of which he once seemed capable (and THE HOBBIT ain’t gonna be it), the guy who once looked like just a flamboyant promo jockey edges ahead.