Archive for The Red Pony

As if on cue

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 25, 2014 by dcairns

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I confess to mixed feelings about Lewis Milestone’s film of Clifford Odets’ script of THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN. The orientalism and exoticism (exoticism, remember, is racism’s sexy sister) and yellowface makeups are both seductive and repulsive, and the narrative at times decidedly silly. Rather than playing Odets’ flamboyant dialogue “hard and fast,” as the author preferred, the actors (Gary Cooper and Madeleine Carrol and Akim Tamiroff among others) have a tendency to linger on it, as if they can’t believe they’ve been handed such classy material. Delivered at speed, as in THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, an Odets line *can* sound as if the actor’s just thought of it, the impossible cracked street-poetry tumbling out in a mixture of verbal genius and a kind of fervid desperation to find le mot juste before another millisecond goes by. Hanging about tends to expose just how preciously contrived it is.

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Still, there’s a whole hell of a lot to admire. The Paramount high gloss look, with Travis Banton costumes, gorgeous three-point lighting, elaborate sets and a pulse-pounding score by Werner Janssen combine with Milestone’s atmospheric angles and moves to create a work that’s never less than compelling. It’s a bit like Sternberg with the swooning eroticism blended with a more two-fisted romanticism. The ending is pretty ridiculous, and I find myself agreeing for the first time with Graham Greene, a great film critic but one whose opinions I habitually clash with. He though the ending was silly too — but it’s beautifully staged.

A really interesting moment was point out in the comments section earlier by David Boxwell — a match dissolve between a round doorknob and a gleaming cueball on a pool table. It seems a moment of self-conscious bravura motivated by nothing other than the smooth whiteness of the two objects. But it’s actually a fascinating, odd piece of prefiguring.

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The doorknob is attached to a door through which Gary Cooper has just exited, and the dissolve takes us to a pool hall where Madeleine Carroll is part of a group laying plans antithetical to Coop’s. So arguably the crossfade suggests an imminent connection between the two.

But it’s paid off in grand style later. Carroll seduces and betrays Cooper, rather against her judgement, and doesn’t expect to see him again. When he turns up wounded in the magnificently grotty hotel, he swears he’ll kill Carroll “in half” if he ever sees her again — whereupon Dudley Digges with wax eyelids opens the door to the parlour and reveals the guilty blonde herself, playing pool. She drops the cueball, which rolls up to Coop’s feet. So the connection of door — cueball — Coop & Carroll — is a sort of engram, or compound symbol, carefully planted to prefigure this meeting.

The rare use of match dissolves made me wonder if Milestone had seen and admired my own favourite movie, Victor Sjostrom’s  HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, an early twenties Lon Chaney clown tragedy containing numerous such effects. The match dissolve from a ring of chickens to a circus ring in THE RED PONY made me suspect this even more strongly. When I saw THE NIGHT OF NIGHTS, a fairly undistinguished 1939 Broadway weepie (Milestone’s creative energies were clearly more occupied with OF MICE AND MEN that year), I became fairly convinced I was right —

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Clown-slapping. The slappee is Pat O’Brien, the slapper is Roland Culver.

No wonder I’m so keen on Milestone! We have the same favourite movie.

The play with objects and space relates to another Milestone trick, where he cuts to an object which seems to be part of the scene we’ve just watched, only to reveal that we’ve actually moved somewhere else. A kind of deliberate surprise/confusion generally excluded from the classical Hollywood rulebook at this time, where establishing shots were the order of the day, and obvious scene transitions were insisted upon. In THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS, the young Martha speaks of fetching candles, we cut to them being lit, only to realise that the candelabra is in the hands of Dame Judith Anderson, downstairs. In OF MICE AND MEN, a tasty-looking dinner is consumed by the ranch-hands, but when we cut to a pie being sliced a sudden feminine hand reveals that we’re now in the home of the rancher himself. And in HALLS OF MONTEZUMA this occasional device becomes a recurring trope, dazzlingly deployed to transition into flashback. Each major character has a sequence showing his life before the war. Milestone will have a character drop something. A closeup shows it land on the floor. But when the character picks it up, we discover, within that same closeup, that we’re now elsewhere and elsewhen.

And this never fails to startle us! Clever fellow, that Milestone.

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Gang Aft Aglae

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 23, 2014 by dcairns

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Polanski saw Milestone’s OF MICE AND MEN as a kid and was impressed by it — he hated that it ended so tragically, but as he thought about it, he realized it couldn’t end any other way — and so we have the ending of virtually every film Polanski’s made since.

Confession: I haven’t read the book. I was expecting to be moved though — I knew I was going to be a wreck by the end as soon as it started. Fiona thought she had seen it and wasn’t expecting such a powerful effect. Halfway through she realized she’d only seen bits and didn’t know where it was headed. The ending just wrecked her. I’ll shed a manly tear myself, but she was virtually incoherent for ten minutes after it was over. I had a lump in my throat the size and texture of Akim Tamiroff. This film needs a health warning.

On a related note, Steinbeck and Milestone joined forces again for THE RED PONY, which I consider over at The Notebook in this fortnight’s edition of The Forgotten. Which means that it’s also time for The ’68 Comeback Special over at Apocalypse Now, where Scout Tafoya considers BLACK JESUS, previously explored in The Forgotten, which is kind of neat to think about as we near the end of our odyssey through Cannes ’68.

Akimbo

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on January 19, 2014 by dcairns

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Fiona and I debated the merits of this shot in Milestone’s THE RED PONY. She at first admitted it was striking. The she said it was silly.

I argued that it’s practical. It’s not just a decorative Sid Furie flourish. The framing, while tricksy, gives us two performances for the price of one. In the Colonel Custer beard is Louis Calhern (Ambassador Trentino AKA the Walking Fontanelle), and the shot obviously shows his attitude by displaying his facial expression, or that part of it that manages to fight its way past his whiskers. With her back to camera is Myrna Loy, as beautiful as ever if you could see her. “You can’t see her performance,” says Fiona. No, but you get her attitude.

When I went looking for Milestone images online I immediately found this, from MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY ~

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Not the same shot, but again, an image that gets more value that an over-the-shoulder would. A shoulder rarely gives you much character. This angle gives sex.

The OS shot, seemingly invented circa 1919, possibly by Maurice Tourneur in VICTORY, is so fantastically useful it should only be used as a last resort. In my first short film, I didn’t have any because four of my six main characters were hunchbacks (the film was called, logically enough, THE THREE HUNCHBACKS) and the actors had pillows stuffed up their shirts to raise bumps that completely hid their heads from a rear view. So rather than a head and shoulder creating a convenient corner to frame another actor in, the camera would simply have seen obscuring mounds.

(I was coming home from the last day of shooting carrying the pillows, which came from my parents’ house. I didn’t have a bag for them, but pillows sort of ARE bags, so I just carried them by their corners. A drunk stopped me. “Can I ask why you’re carrying those pillows?”

“Well, I’ve just made a film about hunchbacks.”

“Fair enough.”