Archive for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes

Cop Show

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2008 by dcairns

OK, here’s the answer to CLUES… probably a disappointing one since few have even heard of it and it’s not that special…

Sixties policier GIRL IN THE HEADLINES has a rather exotic feel since everybody’s so posh. Even the heroic chief inspector is comfortably middle-class: Jane Asher plays his daughter, for heaven’s sake. It’s all the more bizarre because the story deals with murder and drug-running, yet our cast includes fashion models, a retired opera singer, a knighted captain of industry, a painter, and a TV actor. All plausible drug USERS, but hidden among them are diabolical smugglers and hot-blooded assassins.

Our lead cop is Ian Hendry — “eyes like piss-holes in the snow,” Michael Caine says of him in GET CARTER, but here he’s younger, fresher, has suffered fewer disappointments and put away less booze. Hendry was the original lead of the series that mutated into The Avengers, and had an apparently bright future ahead. By the time of GET CARTER he’d done REPULSION and THE HILL, but things weren’t working out. Mike Hodges says that in Hendry’s main scene with Caine there was a real tension, a resentment from Hendry towards the more successful actor, that seethes in the background.

Hendry is assisted by Ronald Fraser (and it’s weird seeing HIM get second billing), a somewhat grotesque character player with a head like a turnip and the world’s smallest mouth — basically a glorified pore. He provides comic asides and non-sequiteurs like a Dragnet sidekick.

Filling out the rogue’s gallery we have Jeremy Brett and James Villiers, both of whom there’s lots to say about. Brett, like his best friend Robert Stephens, had mixed fortunes with the role of Sherlock Holmes. Stephens hated working for Billy Wilder so much on THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES that he attempted suicide to get out of it, yet now it’s the role he’s most remembered for. Brett, much later in life, scored a great success as Holmes in TV adaptations of the entire Conan Doyle Holmes canon, but suffered terribly from manic-depression and a feeling that he could never escape the role. Treated with lithium, which caused him terrible physical problems, he reached a low point where he prostrated himself on the pavement of Baker Street begging the shade of Sherlock to release him.

Here he’s young, strikingly handsome, strong AND sensitive, and obvious star material. But I suppose the British cinema was moving into a phase where it wasn’t looking for a dashing leading man. Brett might have tried Hollywood, where his mental illness would scarcely have been noticed.

James Villiers plays a homosexual TV star (has small yapping dog, frequents all-male jazz cellar). Descended from the Earls of Clarendon, Villiers brings his customary aristocratic elan and a rather likable feyness to bear on a character we are clearly meant to despise. “I think he’d like to marry me,” suggests Hendry, though Villiers has shown no sign of any such infatuation.

Rosalie Crutchley, haunted and beautiful, plays housekeeper to the retired opera singer mixed up in this somehow. Known for her housekeeping — fans of THE HAUNTING can quote her “No one will come. In the night. In the dark,” — Crutchley brings solemnity and compulsion to her scene.

Michael Truman, the director of this modest, pleasant, unmemorable whodunnit, was a successful TV man who dabbled in film. The producer was John Davis, whose name lives in infamy as destroyer of the British film industry. Michael Powell savaged him in PEEPING TOM, creating a studio boss called Don Jarvis who says things like “From now on, if you can see it and hear it, it goes in!” — purportedly a true-life quote. As head of production at Rank, Davis presided over the collapse of the British film industry and the demise of Powell’s career.

(Powell’s cinematographer, Christopher Challis, reports that he had a job sitting on a committee at Rank to discuss the ailing industry. He hated the work, and resolved to get himself fired from it. His chance came when a report was read out, saying that Rank had quizzed punters leaving its Odeon cinemas, asking if there was anything the organisation could be doing to bolster film-going. The public had given them the thumbs up: nothing need be done. Challis stood up and said that since statistics showed that the majority of Brits never went near an Odeon, maybe the pollsters should be talking to THEM instead.

He was not asked back.)

It struck me as I was watching GIRL IN THE HEADLINES that Britain doesn’t really DO police procedurals anymore. Asides from HOT FUZZ, there hasn’t been a Brit cop film I can think of since the seventies. Of course it’s easy to blame TV for flooding the market, but other nations with healthy TV industries manage to present cinematic cop thrillers too. The French and Americans certainly have no problem making great televisual police drama and great cinematic police drama, and they know the difference, too. In GIRL IN THE HEADLINES the main characters don’t experience any profound change during the story — they just do their jobs. Which would be essential in a TV show where the characters have to resume duties next week, but it’s almost fatal to a one-off drama. I think the reason Britain doesn’t make cop films is a lack of confidence in being able to deliver the required cinematic qualities that would separate film from TV. These qualities are:

1) A character arc which results in a transformed lead character.

2) A story with a unique selling point, or high concept, to get people out from TV-land and into the cinema.

3) Visual style to lift the film from the run of TV police procedurals.

I’m speaking purely of the most basic commercial cinema and traditional dramatic form — there might well be other approaches that could be successful, but the above three points would be enough to make a cop movie populist and accessible. I think the fact that our cinema lacks confidence in its ability to pull off those three qualities in a cop film indicates a lack of confidence in cinematic storytelling altogether. It’s notable that Edgar Wright of HOT FUZZ is clearly bursting with confidence and overloads his film with the three factors cited — even though point 1 need not necessarily apply to comedy.

Swan's Way

And THAT should be the theme for a blog post in itself — comedy and character arcs.

All That Gab

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2008 by dcairns

A Fever Dream Double Feature, doubled:

Position 69, Production Code style

As part of Otto Preminger week some while back (remember, when the world went Otto MAD?) I attempted to watch THE MOON IS BLUE, figuring it had to be of some interest. And it kind of is, purely from the point of view of Otto’s elegant mise-en-scene. Some of today’s directors could learn a lot from Otto’s laid-back but economical but simultaneously kinda florid filming style. Some of today’s directors are beyond help, but many of those with a bit of talent could raise their game by studying what Otto does with the camera and the actors together — the DANCE.

But despite the panache shown in the camera blocking department, I couldn’t get through the thing (Cue standard mumblings about how the film’s daring-at-the-time defiance of the Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency by permitting the utterance by characters of forbidden words like “pregnant” and “virgin” are no longer shocking. Cue perplexity that Catholics would object to these words when their entire religion hinges on a story about a pregnant virgin). It wasn’t that the sexual attitudes had dated and no longer titillated — there are plenty of romcoms and even sexcoms from this period and before and later where that just isn’t a factor in the massive amounts of entertainment dished up (although the sexcoms tend to date more than the romcoms, they eventually come around to being very enjoyable with a dash of irony). It was that the whole thing was unfunny, ponderous, smug, glib and extremely irritating.

Magic

Despite the IMDb’s listing, I suspect that F. Hugh Herbert, author of the play and screenplay, is also the writer of THE GREAT GABBO, a bad movie I can heartily recommend for it’s stupendous negative entertainment value and inspired lack of good judgement — Erich Von Stroheim doing cross-talk comedy, unpleasantly fast musical numbers, dancing insect people — the film with everything you never wanted.

I suddenly flashed on the perfect companion film for TMIB — TWO FOR THE ROAD. My God that’s annoying. The comparisons don’t end there. Both films feature attractive, personable leads, seemingly enjoying themselves, their co-stars and their material. Everything is in place for audience pleasure, except that the material (script by Frederic Raphael, in the case of TWO-FER) — and by material I basically mean dialogue, since that’s what you get — is nauseatingly whimsical and pleased with itself. While Stanley Donen doesn’t shoot with quite Preminger’s flair for blocking, he did, with cinematographer Christopher Challis (see also: the later Powell & Pressburger films; and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES) break new ground in filming car scenes without process photography, and the film serves up the usual delightful Audrey Hepburn fashion show.

Pylon

But despite these virtues, I say this: if you ever find yourself faced with the necessity of performing an atrocity of some kind (a high school massacre, perhaps, or a spot of ethnic cleansing) and you feel a little too kind-hearted, too fond of humanity to really put your full enthusiasm into the task, watching these films back to back would probably turn you into a modern Genghis. But I don’t actually recommend this — incredible as it seems, the world is already violent enough.

The London Nobody Knows

Instead I recommend Patrick Keiller’s LONDON and ROBINSON IN SPACE, which will induce a dreamy, floaty, focussed-yet-sleepy form of happiness, relieving stress and gentle massaging the muscles of your soul.

Look sharp, constable!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 31, 2008 by dcairns

This little moment, from Billy Wilder’s late-period movie, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES, has entered into legend amongst a few friends of mine.

When I showed the film to screenwriter Colin McLaren (ROUNDING UP DONKEYS) some years ago, he was transfixed by this moment and insisted I wind the tape back, so he could enjoy it again, his face illuminated with infantile glee.

A year or so after, I ran the movie again in the company of special effects makeup artist Stephen Murphy (SLEUTH), the EXACT SAME THING HAPPENED, and at the same moment.

The mesmerising and unique feature of this scene is the strange, mannered performance of the “actor” playing the policeman. The gag is nothing much, and acts as a slightly unwelcome hiccup in the narrative progression, but the copper’s stylised movements lift it into a new stratosphere of crumminess. It’s a “comedic” performance rather than a funny one — every step the man takes seems to be in quotation marks.

It turns out there’s a story behind this scene, and I found it in Knight Errant, the autobiography of Wilder’s Holmes, Sir Robert Stephens. Comedy actor Bob Todd was supposed to play the part. As part of Benny Hill’s troupe of clowns, and Richard Lester’s informal stock company of bit-part comedians, Todd was a logical choice. Not a terribly strong actor, he was nevertheless inherently amusing.

The Queen

But due to Wilder’s exacting methods, filming overran on the previous scene of the day, so that by the time cinematographer Christopher Challis was ready to turn his camera on the Scotland Yard bobby, Bob had to leave to appear in a play he was performing in the West End. Robert Stephens volunteered his chauffeur for the part, and drilled him in the appropriate comedy movements. That accounts for the cop’s exaggerated mannerisms, which, however, lack the precision of the true clown.

Visual comedy is a very delicate thing! My own brief adventures in the field have only served to show me how much I still need to learn. Wilder himself, an extremely clever visual storyteller in the Hitchcock mode when he felt like it, only dabbled in slapstick, but admired those, like Chaplin and Keaton, who excelled at it. In the ’80s, he would say that the only contemporary film-makers who could do visual gags were Richard Lester and Blake Edwards.

Colin adds:

“It’s on the ninth second. If you watch his truncheon hand, there’s many an inforced WAGGLE to that wrist, as if cranking himself up to fully register the horror of the (some way off) comic soaking. It looks like he’s working the crowd, drawing out applause. It really is terrible. The wrongness is everywhere. The lack of extras and precision of shot make if feel indoors and airless, a bit like MARNIE. And the sombre music hardly aides us in our froth. If you want funny Victorian policemen (and who doesn’t) plump for The Phantom Raspberry Blower. If you want crap, it’s all in the wrist.”

Incident at Loch Ness

More on my outsized love for this film soon.