Archive for The Trial

Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost’s scenes #2

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2022 by dcairns

Twenty-one years post-Olivier, Tony Richardson brings HAMLET to the screen in a bold and cheap undertaking, filmed entirely at the Roundhouse Theatre, using every inch of backstage space, a trick comparable to Welles’ use of the Gare D’orsee in THE TRIAL. The comparison is in the repurposing but also in the fact that the environments don’t really pretend to be the places the script would have you believe they are. We can TELL Welles is using a railway station and that adds to the film’s surrealism. We can tell that the redbrick warren — in fact, a former railway engine shed — of Richardson’s HAMLET isn’t a realistic Elsinore of the late middle ages. This doesn’t exactly impart surrealism — in a sense it imparts a spurious taste of realism, the kind Richardson made his name with. It’s an industrial space. It has grit. And it also emphasises the theatrical nature of the venture, since it resists pressing into service as a royal abode, works only as backdrop.

To prevent this setting becoming too glaringly false, Richardson makes his movie almost entirely in closeups. This movie may be tighter than Dreyer’s PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. To the immense credit of Richardson and cinematographer Gerry Fisher (who may have operated the camera himself, union rules permitting, or there may be an uncredited wizard at work), the shots are incredibly mobile and inventive, constantly reconfiguring the compositions to switch from one character to another, regroup characters, reposition and reframe individual characters, in some really quite long takes.

Here I was going to quote David Thomson’s amusing Richardson takedown from his Biographical Dictionary of Film, but I’ve just discovered it’s not on my shelves. I definitely didn’t throw it away because Richardson’s wrong about Richardson. But apparently I found some reason to make shelf space for something else. Thomson claims that Richardson was a demonstrably lousy filmmaker. I think a short burst of HAMLET gives the lie to that supposition — you can insist that Richardson never made a film that worked, if you like — that’s subjective, and I would disagree but it’s a claim you can stand behind. But whether Richardson’s HAMLET works as a whole, what we see here is quite a lot of skill. I mean, tons.

The curse of Scottishness, embodied by John Laurie’s Francisco in the Olivier, is now passed to Gordon Jackson as Horatio, and from him, presumably, to Nicol Williamson’s Dane. Other interested parties: Robin Chadwick as Francisco and John Trenaman as Bernardo, or Barnardo if you believe the IMDb. A number of the spear-carrier types in this production went on to considerable careers — Michael Elphick, Anjelica Huston, Roger Lloyd Pack, but these two stayed just as useful background.

Richardson starts off on red brick — start as you mean to go on — then glides DOWN to a brazier, viewed from the inside, Francisco poking at it. We don’t see anyone’s breath but we feel the cold, I think — just from the acting. We cut to see who’s coming, and then it’s all one take!

Only blunder — Jackson should have waited a second before delivering his last line, so he could get his glasses off and stop masking his face with his hand. But that’s the kind of error you get in long takes, the price you sometimes have to pay. With video assist and a very long schedule you can maybe solve every case of it (or with CGI retouching, I guess).

Shakespeare makes a mistake, or at least plays fast and loose too — in the full text, we’re told it’s just gone midnight, but then at the end of the scene it’s dawn. But I guess we’re up north, land of the midnight sun. Poor ghost, condemned to fast in fire in between walking the earth, but it’s 90% fire to 10% walking.

Count the number of different compositions we get in this oner.

The ghost does not appear save as a light on the characters’ faces and a Delia Derbyshire electronic music effect.

The same holds true in the second ghost scene (apologies for the glitch in the middle of this one: my fault). A great solution, if you’re uncomfortable with showing a ghost. Richardson, being a realist, approaches the Jonathan Pryce angle — Williamson voices the ghost’s dialogue along with his own, which makes sense — Shakespeare seems well aware that the ghost is telling Hamlet what he wants to hear, what he already feels to be true (“Oh my prophetic soul!”) So anything that brings that out is psychologically valid. But Richardson doesn’t need to cut the first scene, as Richard Eyre did for the Pryce version.

(Frankly, squeamishness about having a ghost appear strikes me as silly, audiences are capable of imagination and accepting things in drama which they don’t ordinarily believe in. But deciding not to show the ghost is interesting to me as an ambitious creative choice.)

Good long takes again. If we were showing the ghost, it would be harder to avoid a shot/countershot strategy, but from what we’ve seen, Richardson and his team could have managed it. There MAY be a hidden cut when the ghost departs and Williamson turns.

Both our versions so far have ommitted H’s talk of his “tables” — maybe because they’re wary about their Hamlets looking too old to convincingly play students. But Williamson does “set it down,” but by scratching on the wall with his dagger, and then visualising the wall as Claudius and knifing it. (Claudius, by the way, is Anthony Hopkins, a year younger than the actor playing his nephew, which is FINE.) What he actually scratches is something like IILITII — passable gibberish. But his method of writing is only good for runic symbols, it’s hard to say one thing while carving another, and anyway, he’s overwrought.

As with Macbeth, Romeo, Juliet, and others, the role of Hamlet is nearly always played by actors older than the character seems to be. (Is Hamlet two ages? How long is he away in England? I get the impression it’s not long at all, but he’s thirty when he comes back.) The assumption is always that a really young actor won’t be able to pull it off, but I imagine there would be gains as well as losses in having someone who looks like they could be a student. Hamlet’s agonies are somewhat adolescent.

Williamson, pasty-pink Scotsman, is nobody’s idea of a student. But he makes a very credible madman. And he covers a wide span between the conversational, making the words seem like he’s just thinking of them as we watch, and the truly freakily overdone. I would like him to keep more cool, but Hamlet is a fairly histrionic fellow I guess (the adolescent side).

Although this is fairly different from Olivier’s approach — and I think Hamlet benefits from a less controlled performance — both approaches are valid, though — both films go for a vaguely Elizabethan wardrobe (hard to work out who Richardson’s designer is — Jocelyne Herbert is credited as production designer, and she did do costumes on occasion — Philippe Pickford is wardrobe master, per IMDb — but I presume he just looked after the stuff and got it onto the various bodies. I like spoken word credits, but they always have to leave out so much.

There’s maybe a dash of medieval in there too. I think, in a film, there has to be some sense that this is a different historical period, so you can have swordfights and stuff. I forget how the Michael Almereyda version handled the swordplay — mainly I remember Ethan Hawke doing “To be or not to be…” in a video store, and when he gets to “…and lose the name of action,” you realise he’s in the Action Movies section. But you can also see WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? on the shelf. Which is the kind of blunder you’d get in a real Blockbuster, but is rather distracting during the big soliloquy.

I’m not going to do the Almereyda. Should I do the Zeffirelli? The old bastard did rather impress me with his episode of 12 REGISTI, so I think I should…


Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 26, 2022 by dcairns
Some of these insert shots have an Argentoesque intensity

TV director William Sterling’s one feature film, ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (1972) assembles lots of great people and looks nice. It’s not my idea of wonderland, though.

As you can see, the copy I scraped up isn’t very good, so I may not be doing the film justice. It’s a lot better than most adaptations — fairly true to the text. It doesn’t become an incoherent mishmash of Wonderland and Looking Glass, as so many do. But being true to the story and characters isn’t the same as capturing the spirit. On the other hand, you can legitimately aim to capture a DIFFERENT spirit. I’m not sure if that’s what happens here.

I remember some piece that discussed the film, and spoke very critically of Michael Jayston’s visible panty line. He plays Charles Dodgson, and the film begins with a boat outing with the Liddell sisters, but does NOT have these characters reappear in Wonderland, disguised, as Lewis Carroll does: he, the stammering Do-do-dodgson, becomes the Dodo. But Jayston doesn’t stutter, he speaks beautifully. Seductively, in fact. He also neglects historical accuracy in his choice of Y-fronts, which show through his white trousers in a way sure to inspire disapproval in a Von Stroheim undie perfectionist.

Fiona Fullerton, a perky Alice, has been told to smile a lot, and does. Her perplexing adventures seem to amuse her greatly. This strikes me as wrong, but given what she’s been asked to do, she does it charmingly, though she’s too old. But if the film is about anything, which isn’t certain, it may be about coming of age — indeed, the soft-focus boat ride looks very much like what I imagine a David Hamilton adolescent smut film must be like (haven’t seen one).

Wonderland is all sets. Quite big ones, but things still get to seem a little airless. The transition occurs when the dream begins, rather than when Alice goes done the rabbit hole, which is a distortion, but an acceptable one. The budget allows for some very interesting visuals. A well decorated rabbithole, a Dali-meets-Geiger sky, an infinite corridor for the key business.

One blunder is carried over directly from the Paramount version: there’s a terrific cast, and most of them are rendered unrecognisable under Stuart Freeborn’s makeups. As usual, the humanoid characters come off best in such circumstances: this may be the only adaptation of the book where the most amusing character is the Duchess’s cook, played in a maelstrom of fury by Patsy Rowlands. Robert Helpmann is a perfect Mad Hatter (though I don’t understand why Kenneth Williams never did it). Peter Bull is a pretty unbeatable Duchess, Flora Robson slightly out of her element as the Queen of Hearts, Dennis Price very much IN his as the King (he does nothing but recite Lewis Carroll in the same year’s PULP). Tiny playing card parts are stuffed with familiar faces like Rodney Bewes, Dennis Waterman, Ray Brooks and Richard Warwick.

Smothered under prosthetics, Peter Sellers still does well as the March Hare, Dudley Moore copes as the Dormouse, Spike Milligan capers and goons as the Griffin, but it’s all schtick and no character. The only bit of Michael Hordern you can see in his Mock Turtle outfit is his lower face, but the rest of the makeup gives him some kind of jowl-lift, so even that part doesn’t look like it’s his. Michael Crawford’s stylish White Rabbit ears and whiskers allow him to do his thing relatively unimpeded (as with Sellers, it’s all in the eyes and voice) but Roy Kinnear has lost most of the Cheshire Cat’s lines AND business, and barely registers, an astonishing fate for such a great scene-stealer. Ralph Richardson has quite wisely refused to don a caterpillar’s head, and can be seen and enjoyed.

There are fewer laughs, I’d say, than in Jonathan Miller’s BBC version, which only had a few. Miller, however, had decided that this was a Victorian child’s dream, and his choices were mainly consistent with that. I’m just not sure what Sterling has decided on. A panto, perhaps. We have songs by John Barry with lyrics by Stanley Black, which edge out many of Carroll’s own superior words. Barry has gone fully into soupy strings mode, with a bit of the pizzicato guff he did in the early sixties. His main theme is almost identical to the one he foist onto ROBIN AND MARIAN.

Not as alienating as TALES OF BEATRIX POTTER, another children’s film from this period (it looks amazing but positively declines to deliver any tales, or any entertainment at all), it still feels like it would have baffled me as a kid. The Disney version made me feel stoned, as I recall, though I didn’t know what that was. I may have made some suggestions in the past for how the books should be treated, but if I did I’ve forgotten, so here goes —

Get good actors, and I don’t know that they have to be comedians. Give them some signifiers — the White Rabbit can have ears, for instance. Otherwise, dress them like the Tenniel illustrations and leave their faces on display and let them act. I hate hate hate the Tim Burton version but the idea of using CG to turn actors into live-action cartoons (giving Bonham-Carter a huge(r) head) was decent.

I would tend to favour locations over sets, even though Michael Stringer’s were very good here.

I think, controversially I know, that Alice should be a child. Get one who can act (which Miller inexplicably failed to do).

I think it should be a bit like Welles’ THE TRIAL, really, just slightly funnier, slightly less sinister. But A BIT sinister. (And the Welles is already pretty funny, funnier than this anyway).

When I read the book I was struck by how funny it was, which the films rarely seemed to be. I wonder if Richard Lester would have wanted to do this: it has eleven of his actors and numerous crew. And there’s the Goons connection. Carroll isn’t as rambunctious as The Goon Show, but he has his moments. It’s a funny thing: the book has almost never been filmed by a comedy specialist.


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2021 by dcairns

I showed my students a bit of the dream sequence from STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) as part of a class on expressionism — my ultimate aim being to break down the barriers between classic German expressionism — painted shadows — film noir — real shadows — and modern dramatic cinematic storytelling which seeks to MAKE THE SCENE LOOK AND SOUND AND FEEL a certain way, often the way the characters feel.

What popped out in viewing the sequence in isolation, along with Nicholas Musuraca’s jagged lighting, was the hammy expostulating of all the supporting characters. I mused/bullshitted that maybe, just maybe, this was all a deliberate choice by director Boris Ingster, who after all went on to produce The Man from UNCLE and so couldn’t, presumably, have been a complete fool. Dreams, I mused, are unconvincingly acted. But just as our bodies are paralysed during sleep, so are our rational-critical faculties, so we are forced to accept whatever nonsense we’re served, like kids in front of Saturday morning TV. It’s only on waking that we say, “That was bizarre.”

Orson Welles, who did much to popularize the striking graphic look that STRANGER throws out, was expert at this dream affect, both in the general atmosphere of THE TRIAL, and in moments of LADY FROM SHANGHAI — the way both Glenn Anders (on the cliff in Rio) and Rita Hayworth (in the mirror maze) stare, seemingly blindly, at Welles, catches something about the autistic performance style of the people we meet in dreams, whether strangers or alien simulacra of loved ones.

And when I re-viewed STRANGER in full as part of our weekend watch party, I was pleased to see that the acting in the surrounding scenes was more traditionally “good.” Peter Lorre was fantastically idiosyncratic and uncanny, but not cartoonish, and the leads, the more traditionally photogenic John McGuire and Margaret Tellichet, though a little bland and earnest, were every bit as convincing as the story needed them to be. The supporting players were reliable types like Elisha Cook, Charles Halton and Ethel Griffies (the ornithologist in THE BIRDS) and they manage to find a mid-ground in their acting style so that without seeming to change character completely in the dream, they can slot into its oneiric stiltedness and get with the program.