Archive for The Ritz

Farce Among Equals

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on August 8, 2014 by dcairns

lester ritz from David Cairns on Vimeo.

The penultimate outtake from my second video essay on Richard Lester. Someone complained that THE RITZ always gets left out, which is true. It’s not that it isn’t good — Rita Moreno as Googie Gomez makes it a near-classic — but it doesn’t fit the overarching narrative of the second phase of Lester’s career — the period movies and explorations of heroism. I wonder if, having been part of the Beatles’ public image machine gave Lester his fondness for peeping behind the curtain and exposing the feet of clay or whatever mucky body parts are involved. Or possibly his work in advertising — if you spend a lot of time erecting a pristine edifice, there’s probably pleasure to be had in iconoclasm. Here’s a bit of a 1969 interview I found in a book called Directors in Action (bought in Toronto) —

“But I’m quite proud of some of those early commercials. The After-Eights Chocolates, for instance. I did all of them from the beginning and I was faced with a new project and an image which needed to be put over. This is what pleases me–when a problem is present and solved.

In the After-Eights the problem was: these things are going to cost four shillings a packet and are bloody expensive! How are we going to sell it? In terms of making a film image, we decided to go for the fake classy stuff–dinner jackets among the pseudo-luxury. It was half a dream world, and half what people had no money imagined luxury to be. It was a callous attempt–and it worked. They sold out after the first commercial!”

I have no idea if this is one of Lester’s After-Eights ads but it fits the pattern — and the feather boa matches the one’s worn by Julie Christie in PETULIA and Shirley Knight in JUGGERNAUT… (This sort of thing is why Ken Russell found he couldn’t work in ads. He did one for a new washing powder where the advantage was supposed to be that the suds drained faster from the old-fashioned washing machine. But they didn’t — they just clogged the bottom up completely. Ken suggested starting with a clean, empty machine and then pumping a lot of suds in, then running the film in reverse. Everyone was delighted with this solution, and Ken was guilt-stricken and stayed out of ads from then on. There’s an echo of this in  when Ann-Margret is bathed in the products of various commercials as they spew from her TV set.) Rita Moreno and Treat Williams in The Ritz, 1976.

Anyhow, THE RITZ — Lester here talks about the difficulties of filming farce, which I think are a more intense version of those involved in filming any play — you are faced with a bunch of limitations, usually, which are essential to the theatre and irrelevant to movies. Do you cling to them, or explode them, or what? Farce as a form can be highly successful in cinema, but it’s notable that Renoir’s THE RULES OF THE GAME, which has many aspects of farce, was an original work for the cinema and indeed could hardly be more cinematic, using a different set of limitations — the limits of what the camera can see of a bunch of complicated simultaneous events. Fun fact: Renoir was a big fan of Lester’s HELP! Buy: The Ritz Rules of the Game

“What bitch?”

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 26, 2010 by dcairns

Even though I am and will always be a huge Richard Lester fan, I would have to say that Rita Moreno is the principle reason for watching THE RITZ, directed by Lester in 1976 from Terrence McNally’s play. Not that it’s a bad film at all, it preserves the tight farce structure of the play, apart from a redundant opening-out at the very start, which does at least give us a George Coulouris cameo in which his character’s dying words set the plot in motion — at last George gets a CITIZEN KANE of his own, only his KANE plays in a gay New York bathhouse.

Jack Weston is a Cleveland businessmen (“I’m in garbage.”) on the run from his mobster brother in law (Ben Stiller’s dad Jerry) who hides out in what should be the last place anybody would look for him. The Ritz is a grand, multilevel set by Philip Harrison, projecting an aura of splendour even if the windows are boarded up and the partitions fall down at embarrassing moments. The movie’s action plays on the potentially off-colour idea — a comedy of mistaken identities in a gay sauna — while keeping all actual sexual activity offscreen/stage, with the only kiss being a hetero-on-hetero Italianamerican family bonding moment, given a spicy undercurrent and then swiftly undercut. So there’s a curious innocence about it all, which also comes from the movie’s pre-AIDS environment, where jokes about weekly blood tests and lines like “You’re lucky if that’s all you catch,” are meant to amuse rather than chill. The posters of young, departed movie stars, carry an air of melancholy which the strenuous knockabout does its best to dispel.

I had half an idea worked up about this being an interesting double feature to play with DIE HARD, but I was actually dreaming when I had the notion, so I’m no longer sure how it went. I guess the way Weston talks to himself as he flees from one level of the building to another is part of it. He has an excuse: he’s in a play and he almost knows it. I always choked slightly on Bruce Willis’s first monologue.

There’s also the progressively more disarrayed appearance of both characters, with Willis’s iconic darkening vest paralleled by Weston’s disintegrating disguise (Lester, bald since the age of 19, is always amused by toupees: Weston’s gets ripped in two early on) and steam-shrunken suit. Fiona declared several times that he looked like a cartoon, and he gets more and more cartoonish as the film strips him of his certainties.

I guess both protags are displaced blue-collar guys thrust into an effete multistorey world and imperiled by organized hoods. But there’s no equivalent of F Murray Abraham’s splendid camping, Treat Williams’ falsetto-voiced detective, or of course Rita Moreno’s delusional cabaret singer, Googie Gomez. On the other hand, Lester’s film has fewer explosions.

Gomez was a party piece worked up by Moreno who inspired the whole play/movie. Her total conviction of her own megatalent, and her multiple inadequacies as a performer combine to make her a very likable and funny grotesque. And she’s funny in specifically female ways which should do a lot to eradicate any arguments about “why women aren’t funny,” which still surface occasionally although nowadays generally spewed from the mouths of repulsive contrarian dipshits like Christopher Hitchens. Moreno is hysterical.

The old lady doing the accounts is Bessie Love, silent star (INTOLERANCE, THE MYSTERY OF THE LEAPING FISH.)

Lester, so far as we know a confirmed heterosexual, could have been on shaky ground here, like Donen directing STAIRCASE, but fortunately he lets McNally guide him, and anyhow the play is entirely devoid of self-loathing, self-flagellation and self-abuse. Casting British comedy faces like Peter Butterworth and Leon Greene is potentially dodgy, as they remind us that we’re on a sound stage at Twickenham Studios, but they’re welcome presences anyway. Is the movie is perhaps a little too afraid of letting any actual eroticism into the mix? Perhaps, but then it has a Felliniesque affection for the hopefuls and hopelesses of low-grade entertainment, and their inability to project the kind of sexual charge they aim for (Moreno is  mistaken for a drag queen; “those now you see it, now you don’t, go-go boys” are pale and hairless geeks) is observed with unstated pathos.

THE RITZ  is a nice way to pass an hour and a half, even if it never even tries to transcend its stagebound origins.

The Ritz

Circle of Safety

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 19, 2008 by dcairns

I was all excited — I’d discovered that there was a Jacques Tourneur film set in Scotland — CIRCLE OF DANGER. I’d also heard it was very minor, which proved to be the case. A thriller without any thrills or jeopardy, the film is enlivened solely by performances and Tourneur’s combination of bold imagination and impeccable taste in filming them.

I once got into an intractable cyber-squabble with a fellow who insisted that all he wanted from cinema was beautiful mise-en-scene. He didn’t care about story or performance, all he enjoyed was the way the director moved the camera and actors together in a kind of dance. I rather felt that a good deal of the purpose of that dance was to bring out story and character values and present the performances to the audience, so our minds did not, so to speak, meet.

Tourneur was a director much admired by both of us, and for similar but not identical reasons. The second-generation film director (his father, Maurice, was considered by some to be among the top three or four picture-makers in the world, in the late ’20s) was known for taking whatever job was offered him and filming the script as he found it. His work was always excellent — there are barely any weak performances in his films (Merle Oberon in BERLIN EXPRESS takes the prize for lameness) and his decoupagea thing of elegance and ingenuity. Only the last few films can really be faulted for his contribution. But, even though I’m a director myself, I can’t really find sufficient interest in a Tourneur film unless there’s a good script.

THE FEARMAKERS, an incredibly tedious confection with no drama whatsoever, is the test case. Without interesting situations to present, all Tourneur’s skill is essentially rudderless. Although it’s true to say that his approach is not obviously devoted to presenting each moment at its most impactful, but rather at weaving a mood of poetic intrigue, Tourneur is seriously hampered if the scenario doesn’t offer him a spark of tension.

Dana Andrews in happier days: NIGHT OF THE DEMON.

CIRCLE OF DANGER isn’t as moribund as FEARMAKERS, but it could certainly do with some added suspense. Ray Milland is trying to find out what happened to his brother, killed in action in WWII. His investigation brings him into contact with… some nice people. He gets angry at one of them, but it’s all a misunderstanding. Some thriller. It’s a tribute to Tourneur’s mastery and the charm of Ray Milland (oily variety) and Patricia Roc (a natural nice girl) that the thing is watchable at all. Fiona floated off into a magazine after ten minutes. What follows is a summary of most of the things I found to appreciate.

Peter Butterworth as an American salvage diver in Scene One. CARRY ON film stalwart Butterworth must have been proud of his Amurrican voice — he gets it out again in Richard Lester’s THE RITZ, in which his disguised accent is intended to transport us from Twickenham Film Studios outside London, to a gay sauna in Noo Yawk.

An office in the Ministry of Defence. Having just watched the tedious THE BODY STEALERS, a Tigon Production which completed my Neil Connery retrospective, I was impressed with the different quality Tourneur brought to his scenes, aided by designer Duncan Sutherland.

Wee Neil Connery surrounded by a pervasive ugliness.

While THE BODY STEALERS spends much time in brown and undistinguished offices, which are cramped and ugly without making a dramatic virtue of the fact, Tourneur shoots out onto a facing window, through which other office workers can be seen going about their miserable humdrum lives. It opens out the scene while actually emphasising the claustrophobic discomfort of the environment. It’s drab, but STIMULATINGLY drab.

Scotland. Only about a third of the action takes place in the Highlands, but there’s a little bit of nice scenery and it’s pleasant to think of Tourneur coming here. Otherwise, the film gets some good use out of its London locations, and also includes scenes set in Wales and Birmingham. No Brummie accents, but there’s an incomprehensible Welsh coal miner.

Everything involving Marius Goring. While most of the performers satisfy Tourneur’s usual requirement of dreamy restraint (Patricia Roc, a limited but endearing player, is particularly well suited to Tourneur’s approach), Goring, with his sinister pointy teeth, is allowed to be a firebrand from the word go. Since he’s the only not-too-nice person we meet, his appearance is doubly welcome. Better yet, he’s an ex-commando, known for his savagery in battle, who’s now directing a ballet, and he’s very obviously meant to be gay. The surprise factor of a heroic and fearsome soldier who’s camp as knickers is pleasing enough, so that the character’s unpleasantness can be forgiven, but it gets better.

(How do we know he’s gay? His job, plus the fact that when Milland hears that the male dancer is being difficult, he tells Goring, “I think you should spank him. Hard.” Later, Milland will refer to Goring as “it” and “that freak”.)

Goring seems to be associated with fellow balletomane Reginald Beckwith (who later returned to Tourneur’s fold, playing the medium Mr. Meekin NIGHT OF THE DEMON), who’s certainly “light on his feet”, as they say, but he also appears devoted to taciturn Scotsman Hugh Sinclair, his commander in the war. At one point, Goring seats himself at Sinclair’s feet and leans into the man’s crotch to light his cigarette with a lighter Sinclair’s holding at groin level. Furthermore, the film’s “surprise ending” does surprise in one sense — Goring turns out to be a wholly positive character, whose rude manner hides a heart of gold, and he averts a tragedy that the pigheaded Milland was on the point of causing.

Based on this, and despite its numerous weaknesses as drama, I would have to say that CIRCLE OF DANGER presents possibly the most positive male homosexual character not only of 1951, but of all mainstream cinema up to this point. A tip of the hat to Tourneur, Goring, writer Philip MacDonald and producer Joan Harrison.