Archive for The Rockford Files

Spadework

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2019 by dcairns

Paul Newman’s two Lew Harper films — based on two of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels — are kind of like the square old Hollywood movies celebrated, or at any rate documented — in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Both have extremely gifted mod cinematographers, though: Conrad Hall shot HARPER in 1966 and Gordon “the Prince of Darkness” Willis shot its belated sequel THE DROWNING POOL in 1975. I double-billed them but I’ll mainly talk about the first one here.

Jack Smight, a truly square director but not untalented, allows or encourages or inspires Hall to pull off a few spectacular shots in HARPER (see top), perhaps aware that it’s just a reasonably good Raymond Chandler knock-off. As Donald Westlake complained, Ross MacDonald recycled the one about the rich, dysfunctional family until everyone was screaming at him to quit it for chrissakes — basically The Big Sleep ad nauseam, and here we have Lauren Bacall to remind us of past glories. So making the most of the widescreen and colour is essential to stop this from seeming like warmed-over stuff from an earlier decade — what’s harder is to stop it seeming like TV stuff. The down-at-heel, long-suffering private eye would be incarnated par excellence by James Garner in The Rockford Files who had a natural word-weariness Newman can’t match.

The first movie is quite diverting, with a spectacular comic turn from Shelley Winters (I felt bad about all the fat gibes in William Goldman’s script though) and very good work from Arthur Hill, Pamela Tiffin and a host of others. Strother Martin’s hillside cult temple is one of my favourite places I’ve ever seen in a movie. There’s a fight there between Newman and a hundred silent Mexicans (a short fight) which has a nice surreal vibe, like the multiple Agent Smiths in THE MATRIX.

Maybe the problem is that these stories never effect any change in the hero, making them more suited to series TV… though they used to work fine in the ‘forties. This one has too many corpses and complications, and Goldman’s misogyny gets grating, and I think sometimes Newman tries too hard to be “entertaining.” Here he is, reacting to the sight of Pamela Tiffin in a bikini:

Goldman writes about the film’s opening sequence in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. He’d started his script, sensibly enough, with the private eye showing up to get briefed on his case. The studio called to say they needed some action to put under the credits. Well, what could he write that happens BEFORE the case?

In desperation, he scripted the early morning routine of his hero, and put in a gag about running out of coffee. Harper looks in his waste bin where there’s yesterday’s discarded coffee filter. Dare he recycle it?

He does. Closeup of Newman pulling disgusted face when he tastes the result. The audience laughs. It’s a nice gag — it humanizes the character, it’s gross but still relatable — it makes him a bit of an underdog. Down these mean streets a man must walk with a horrible taste of used coffee in his mouth.

What Goldman omits to mention is that, normally, opening a script with the hero getting up in the morning is a TERRIBLE idea, a huge cliche and a watse of the audience’s time. Don’t do it, he should be saying, especially as his book is a kind of screenwriting guide (written before there were a million of the things). It happens to work this one time.

The other bad thing is Newman thinking about whether to make terrible garbage coffee. It’s a classic Hitchcock set-up: show him looking, show what he’s looking at, and show him looking some more. We will do the thinking and project that onto the image. No acting required. You could remove the coffee grains and insert a shot of Pamela Tiffin or Robert Webber or the Serengeti plains and it would still work, if the angle was right.

But here’s what we get from Newman, the great method actor:

Boy, he’s thinking HARD, isn’t he? I bet if he thought that hard about the kidnapping case he has to solve the movie would only be twenty minutes long.

Newman is very affable generally and has that contradictory laid-back intensity that’s so useful in a star. It’s just that sometimes maybe somebody ought to sit on his head.

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Magic Man.

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2016 by dcairns

I’m delighted to present The Late Show’s first guest blogger this year — my wife, Fiona Watson.

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Did someone say Jonathan Creek? No they didn’t. They said,  Miracles For Sale (1939, MGM), Tod Browning’s last feature, a zippy little number that bears more than a passing resemblance to the BBC TV series. A magician gets involved with crime. Who wants to watch something like that? Now don’t tell me. Even though my eyes are covered by a silk scarf,  the ether is buzzing with telepathic impressions. Give me a moment… EVERYONE is the answer! Thank you ladies and gentlemen. (They do watch, every year, for the past twenty years.) It’s got magic and crime. Two great tastes that taste great together.

And the similarity doesn’t end there, Morgan is a magician who designs tricks for other magicians, just like Creek. He also has a sidekick just like Creek, but in Morgan’s case it isn’t a series of ladies ending in a wife, it’s his endearingly, curmudgeonly dad (Frank Craven) who’s just dropped into the big city to visit his thaumaturgically dexterous son. A bit like The Rockford Files, if The Rockford Files had more seances, card tricks and mind reading. Dad Morgan doesn’t like New York at all,  (“New York is the only town I’ve ever been in that you could learn to hate in a day”) but is prepared to put up with it to have family time with the smoooooth Robert Young.

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Where Alan Davies brings an insouciant, quirky charm to Creek — sort of lumpy if we’re getting synesthetic –MGM leading man Robert Young is as glossy as a pane of glass wiped down with vinegar. It’s not that he’s featureless, he just plays it so fast and with such ease that he whizzes past without scratching the retinas. I almost thought that this film, and his character, could easily have been strung out into a Thin Man type series, and perhaps that was the original intent, but I’d have re-cast it with someone you could get a good hold of with your eyeballs.

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Just to make things even more Creek-like, this is a locked room mystery.  And just like Creek, we have oodles of enticing celebrity guests. Here’s Gloria (Daughter Of Dracula) Holden as medium Madame Rapport. Henry (Werewolf Of London) Hull as Dave Duvallo, an escapologist and customer of Morgan. (On seeing his name in the cast list, I mused, “Henry Hull. The sign of quality. Well… not really. It’s just the sign of Henry Hull.”) To make this even more alluring, Hull emerges, Jacqueline Bisset-like from a tank of water in a wet vest, creating an erotic frisson that no-one in the world, anywhere, has ever experienced. Except hardcore Henry Hull fans who like their men prematurely aged and dripping.  (He always seemed late-middle-aged even when he was young and again when he was old. Now that’s magic!)

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Joining the merry band is the ever-reliable William Demarest as a confused cop (Quinn) –  “Not even a half-grown microbe could’ve got out of this joint without using a crow bar and a grand jury.” Florence Rice is our imperiled (and bizarrely costumed by Dolly Tree) heroine (Judy Barclay). Florence would immediately  have an encounter after this with the Marx Brothers in At The Circus, making her career at this point very Browning-like, with his connections to travelling circuses and freak shows. And finally and wonderfully, an uncredited performance by E. Alyn Warren as Dr Hendricks, a comedy coroner. “Maybe you can examine a corpse in the dark but I’m no bat.” Also uncredited in the stock music department, Franz (Bride Of Frankenstein) Waxman.

The screenplay is by Harry Ruskin, James Edward Grant and Marion Parsonnet, writer of Gilda and Cover Girl and in a strange coincidence, screenwriter in 1937 of a remake of Browning’s first sound film, 1929’s The Thirteenth Chair, another heavily seance-related tale. Miracles For Sale is based on the “Great Merlini” novel Death From a Top Hat  by Clayton Rawson. There were four Merlini books in total. In a poll conducted by 17 mystery and crime writers, Death From a Top Hat was voted as the seventh best locked room mystery of all time.

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Brilliant prologue. We think we’re watching a very bad B War Movie, but things start to quickly fragment when we see the awful, oriental makeup on the soldiers and a woman gets machine-gunned in half in a box. “Stop the war!” barks someone off-screen at the end of the performance, and the distant shelling is switched off. We’re introduced to the world of Merlini, here renamed Michael Morgan. It’s the cut-throat world of the professional stage trickster.

Miracles For Sale is the name of the store run by Son Morgan, much to the chagrin of Dad Morgan. “Well, if you wanted to go into business, why didn’t you open a butcher shop? Now, selling meat’s a business, but, selling miracles – that’s monkey business.”

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But before you can say “Hey Presto!”  or even “Robert Houdin!” we have damsel in distress Judy Barclay charging through the front door, begging him to stop a fake medium taking part in an experiment for a cash prize if she’s authentic. And only a magician whose sideline is debunking fake mediums will do. In this regard he’s very Houdiniesque. In fact Morgan even mentions a case in which a father was being put in touch with the son he lost during World War 1. Arthur Conan Doyle, much? Judy seems disinclined to give up the whys and wherefores, but she’s so cute and her sleeves, like voluminous bellows on a concertina, are so impressive, that he just can’t help being sucked in (probably osmosis created by the shoulder bellows). Later, she’ll show up with sleeves like giant, bacofoil croissants and Morgan becomes even more besotted. Or possibly hungry.

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Before we know where we are, and in amidst a welter of card tricks, mind reading, attempts on Judy’s life because she may have inside knowledge, and spooky chicanery, there’s a dead man, master of legerdemain Tauro (Harold Minjir) then another dead man, occultist Dr. Cesare Sabbatt (Cesare was of course The Somnambulist played by Conrad Veidt who slept in a coffin in The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920) and in his early, pre-director years, Browning performed a live burial act in which he was billed as ‘The Living Hypnotic Corpse’). Dr Sabbatt is played by a man called Frederick Worlock, if you can believe that on top of everything else! Both corpses are laid out in esoteric circles lined by candles in locked rooms. Not only that but Sabbatt is a post-mortem ventriloquist. Apparently. Who the dickens is the murderer or murderers? How did they get in and out? And what is their motive? There are plenty of suspects to choose from, all of them involved in the murky world of Magic and Magick.

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At this point we welcome the input of the late, legendary F. Gwynplaine McIntyre on the IMDb, for once reviewing a movie that actually exists, and not a wondrous creation of his imagination – ‘This film violates the most basic rule of magic: never do the same trick twice for the same audience, unless you do it two different ways. In one scene, sitting at a breakfast table, Robert Young casually waves his hand and makes a sugar bowl vanish into thin air. We didn’t expect it, so we don’t see how he did it. He orders another sugar bowl from the waiter, played by the annoying bit-part actor Chester Clute. When it arrives, Young waves his hand again and makes the second sugar bowl vanish too, by the same method. This time we’re expecting it, so we see how he does it … and you’ll be as disappointed as I was.’

Yes, this is an effect shot. Or to be precise, a series of effects shots. But we can’t expect Robert Young to do real, close-up magic. He’s an actor, not a prestidigitator. I see where Froggy is coming from, but I wasn’t offended by this, and indeed, its sloppiness (although David found it charming) may be one of the few signs that Browning is thoroughly fed up with the whole venture. Anyhoo, back to the plot. As Dad Morgan says, “I was a little confused before but now I’m just bewildered.” You see Morgan, although he enthusiastically unveils fake mediums who make money from other people’s grief, hasn’t entirely given up belief in the supernatural. (Unlike Houdini, who one school of thought says was murdered by angry Spiritualists.) There’s still a tiny spark of belief in him, which is kind of fascinating and suggests he’s come up against forces he hasn’t been able to explain away with the pure logic he excels in.

Addendum – Morgan’s tiny spark of belief is more to do with the studio system than anything else. I’m reliably informed (by David) that it would have been quite impossible at the time to have an atheist hero.

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You would never tell from watching it that this would be the great Tod Browning’s last film. It’s made with assurance, energy and invention. What happened? Well, as many directors do, he found himself trapped as a ‘horror’ director, when in fact he wanted to step away and do something with more social significance. His greatest dream was to film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, something eventually realized by Sydney Pollack in 1969. But the studios would not relent. In the early forties he’s quoted as saying, “When I quit. I quit. I wouldn’t cross the street now to see a movie.”

I’d cross the street to see this one, not just because it’s the swan song by a unique Hollywood figure whose name still lives on with genre fans all over the world, but because it’s a slick, fun entertainment. There’s no sign of the real disillusionment Browning must have been feeling, and that’s something miraculous in itself.

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The ending presents us with a mystery. Someone rings the doorbell at Miracles For Sale, setting off a chain of silly, magical events in which Dad Morgan will get trapped in a trick, but we never get to see who the visitor is and they seem to have gone away by the time Morgan, his dad and Judy show up. Could the doorbell have been pressed by The Grim Reaper, (Time Person Of The Year 2016, NOT Donald Trump as has just been announced, although the difference may be academic) sounding the death knell for Browning’s career? We will never know.

The 2016 Jonathan Creek Christmas Special is on BBC1 at 9pm on Wednesday 28th December, but try to give yourselves a glimpse of the original. Unfortunately this little gem doesn’t seem to be available anywhere commercially. Maybe you could do that hoodoo that you do so well, and it will appear mysteriously in a locked room.

To play us out, here is the late, great David Bowie’s homage to Browning and Chaney in Diamond Dogs.

With your silicone hump and your ten-inch stump.
Dressed like a priest you was.
Tod Browning’s freak you was.

Movie of the Week

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 8, 2015 by dcairns

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My friend and collaborator Niall Greig Fulton — Edinburgh Film Festival Programmer and actor — has put together an enticing season of American TV movies for this year’s fest, including such classics as Salem’s Lot, Duel, The Jericho Mile and the rarely-seen Noon Wine. It’s all about finding the cinematic in the televisual, and with an array of directors like Hooper, Spielberg, Mann and Peckinpah, the exercise is clearly going to be worthwhile.

I’ve seen a few interesting pieces from this era of US TV — A Cold Night’s Death is about killer psychic chimps at the North Pole, which is pretty non-generic. You can watch that one here. I wrote about Gene Roddenberry’s bizarre Spectre here, a show which introduced me to the thrills of Robert Culp. Rod Serling’s The Man looked at the travails of America’s first black presodent. But I wanted to dig a little deeper to see what else I could find, because really, I remember American TV of the seventies as a HORRIBLE WASTELAND. Growing up in the UK we saw a lot of it, you see, and the good bits were very much overshadowed by the transcontinental miasma of blandness. It was apparent that things like The Rockford Files were a cut above. But on the whole, everything looked the same, was shot the same, used the same locations, the actors all seemed to look the same and dress the same and talk at the same speed, the credits were all in yellow blocky letters, and it kept fading to black in the middle of scenes, where the BBC had removed the ad breaks. I think you could make a pretty good case that any show that fades to black in the middle of a scene and then fades up again with everybody still standing in the same position (with meaningless musical sting as we fade out and in) just shouldn’t have been on the BBC at all.

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The first thing I looked at was Stranger on the Run, an early (1967) TV Movie of the Week, given the class treatment — it reunites star Henry Fonda with his 12 ANGRY MEN writer Reginald Rose, though Rose’s story has been fleshed out by screenwriter Dean Riesner (coincidentally the son of Chuck Riesner). The director is Don Siegel, and how these talents fit together within the context of a TV movie is sort of interesting.

The story transposes to the west and then inverts the premise of 12 ANGRY MEN (itself a TV play before the more famous movie) — Fonda is now the suspect, an alcoholic drifter hunted by a surly posse of railway company thugs for murdering a woman. The debate about his possible innocence (of course we know he’s innocent) occurs among the posse as they track him, which in theory should make it more exciting and filmic. In fact, Riesner’s dramatic values — he was a writer for Siegel, on COOGAN’S BLUFF, DIRTY HARRY and CHARLEY VARRICK, which I would characterise as a desire to play out a story’s themes in the form of action, without philosophising about it — rather clash with Rose’s, since he sets things up deliberately to provoke debates about personal and social values. In 12 ANGRY MEN these are filtered through some strong, sweaty characters, so it’s still solid drama. Here, the genre action doesn’t seem to reinforce the deeper themes, though there’s some good talk in there. When Fonda mourns that the day of testing whether he’s a man has passed, and he failed the challenge, Bernie Hamilton cheers him with a hearty “That just means you’re lucky — you’re going to get another chance!” An upbeat way of viewing the present situation, which is that a gang on armed men are coming to kill him.

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The movie is crammed with interesting actors — Anne Baxter is top-billed after Fonda. They’re good together, and he’s particularly effective as a broken-down hobo, not trying to make the character more initially appealing than he should be. Michael Parks, Dan Duryea, Sal Mineo, Tom Reese and Zalman King (!) make a characterful posse. Plus Lloyd Bochner and the reliably strange-looking Walter Burke.

In the early scenes, Siegel seems to have a lot of trouble covering scenes with all these mugs, no doubt due to the tight schedule. He does fine in the exteriors, but most interior scenes get treated with one wide shot that’s too wide for comfort — it serves to establish where everyone is, but then you can’t look at it any longer because everyone’s miles away — then he’ll cut to individual closeups that are too tight — we lose all context and quickly get a little disoriented. In general, critics don’t talk about the problems of shooting large groups, but it’s an absolute nightmare. You never have time to shoot a single on everyone, and if you do, it confuses the audience. I had some fun with the worst ever example of this, here. A far better approach is to make each shot work as hard as possible, tying in one character to another to keep the audience cognisant of who is where in relation to whom. A truly amazing example, from Otto Preminger, is discussed here. Siegel’s best strategy might have been to spend all his time picking a great master shot and then hold it, as he would on CHARLEY VARRICK, for instance, but TV, with its low-res image and demand for close-ups, wouldn’t have allowed that.

Ultimately, Stranger on the Run feels like a B-movie with ideas above its station, ideas which overstuff it and overbalance it, and the plethora of characters (who never quite develop into a caseload of suspects for us to wonder about, as they would in a well-plotted mystery) spread the drama too thin. The production values are OK — the desert cycloramas are a lot more convincing than in Siegel’s more celebrated THE KILLERS (originally made for TV but fobbed off on the big screen after concerns about the violence). But it isn’t clean and simple like, say, THE LINE-UP, and the look has a generic quality, that made-for-TV feel, which dulls down the possibilities of the form.

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Chris Schneider recommended The Outsider, a 1967 PI story directed by Michael Ritchie and crammed with aging Hollywood greats — the presence of Ann Sothern, Edmund O’Brien and Audrey Totter could almost put this in the league of something like THE OUTFIT. Then there’s Shirley Knight, Ossie Davis and Joseph Wiseman. In the lead, Darren McGavin is surly and deadpan and very, very enjoyable, with Roy Huggins’ script providing plenty of zingers (it’s no surprise to learn Huggins created Jim Rockford and thereby trained up David Chase).

Best of all, it’s directed by Michael Ritchie, just about to break into features on the big screen and eager to show what he can do, even on the kind of schedule where the grips start disassembling the tripod before you’ve said “Cut!”

McGavin’s down-at-heel gumshoe is, per genre requirements, perpetually sleep-deprived and roughed up, though the scenario comes up with novel ways of mistreating him — a near-garrotting and a drugging with chloral hydrate that leads to the stomach-pump. Even Jim Rockford didn’t have it this tough.

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My favourite bit started off looking like it would be an embarrassment. Having tracked his would-be strangler to a beach-side shack, McGavin finds the suspect’s mother, Ann Sothern, who tells him that the guy is inside, tripping with a friend and won’t be coherent for interrogation for several hours. They go in, and there’s sitar music playing and hysterical laughter from the next room, which is kind of ridiculous. And here’s Joseph Wiseman — Dr. No himself, as the acid guru, who starts lecturing McGavin about the joys of turning on and experiencing the cosmic laughter. And all this while, Sothern is plugged into headphones and smiling at a TV game show where various sub-lebrities are trying to guess the phrase “Little Lord Fauntleroy.” Big closeups and surprise angle changes start to suggest all this is getting to McGavin. The world has slipped out of joint. In other words, while the young hood is having a TV movie acid trip next door, with laughing and freak-outs and sitar music and a fisheye lens on a handheld camera — McGavin is having a REAL acid trip in the front room — an experience in which reality comes to seem unreal.

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That sensation is one which the TV movie genre could profitably have pursued more doggedly — it is well within the constraints of time and budget, it can work within all kinds of genres, and it is familiar enough to anybody paying attention to the real world that it ought to be highly commercial, a staple of entertainment like romance or tension.