Archive for Theodore J Flicker

Litvak Lit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 19, 2020 by dcairns

“I may not be talented, but I am very, very intelligent!” yelled Anatole Litvak in an argument with his screenwriter, Peter Viertel (according to Viertel).

James Cagney called Litvak “a natural-born asshole,” and the seeds of his early retirement were sown in the making of Litvak’s CITY FOR CONQUEST. They just took a while to sprout.

Elia Kazan, directed by Litvak twice in his brief stint as a WB character mook, pondered, as Richard Schickel put it, “if this character could be a director, why not him?”

Trying to research Litvak a little, I find there’s one book, but rather expensive (but can anyone recommend it?) and most of the references I find in the university library system are about things like income tax, poker games, horse racing…

There’s an anecdote somewhere about Hall Wallis being furious because Litvak shot twelve takes of a close-up of Bette Davis and printed the worst. He was sure by take 12 Bette had forgotten what the scene was and why she was in it.

Bette herself, who was Litvak’s lover when they made THE SISTERS and ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO, called him “a slave to his preconceptions.”

Arthur Laurents rewrote “every line” of THE SNAKE PIT, he claimed, and seemed a bit annoyed that Litvak was “too busy” (shooting the film, in fairness) to come to the arbitration hearing, with the result that Laurents received no credit.

Litvak does not rate a mention in Sarris’s The American Film. Well, he had to find room for Theodore J. Flicker, get in on the ground floor of THAT major filmography-to-be. (THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST is one of my very favourite films, but still…)

So, Litvak or shit-sack?

Bertrand Tavernier claims a degree of shame for his neglect of the Russian/Ukrainian filmmaker: “we let somebody like Anatole Litvak die without ever meeting him – and he lived in Paris! Litvak is somebody whose films I’ve since discovered from the Thirties and Forties, as well as his documentaries for Capra: Litvak made the best of the Why We
Fight
series. But in the Sixties, Truffaut, in order to boost Bonjour Tristesse
(Otto Preminger, ’58), which he loved, knocked other directors who had
adapted Françoise Sagan. One of them was Litvak [Goodbye Again]. And stupidly, we followed Truffaut. Because Litvak s last films were bad, we refused to investigate his career. And his career had started in Russia; then he went to Germany and France, where masterpieces in the Thirties like Coeur de Lilas (’32) which contains scenes and a use of sound as imaginative as Renoir- as well as interesting films like L’Equipage…”

The late films aren’t even bad, I think. As with a lot of late work, familiarity with the earlier films and a bit of sympathy go a long way.

The Russian work Tavernier refers to is unlisted on the IMDb and because nobody thought to ask Litvak about it when he was alive, I’m uncertain we can know much about it. (Here’s where I wish I owned that expensive book.) The Encyclopaedia Britannica confirms that Litvak, after fighting in the Russian side in WWI, “began acting in his teens at an experimental theatre in St. Peterseburg,” then directed several short subjects for Nordkino studios, before he left for a career shuttling between Paris and Berlin in 1920. The earliest credits we have are as assistant director for fellow emigres Tourjansky and Volkoff, and on Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON, as well as editor on Pabst’s JOYLESS STREET, but there must be other credits we don’t have — he couldn’t, surely, have become an editor without first being an assistant. Still, those remarkable stylists must surely have exerted powerful influences on the budding director, adding to anything he’d soaked up from whatever Russian filmmakers he worked with.

“Tola” is often attributed with expressionistic tendencies, which is true enough. It’s assumed these were absorbed in Germany, but they might also come from Russia and France — one reason NAPOLEON is such a stonking piece of cinema is because Gance had seemingly absorbed every stylistic tendency the medium had thrown up.

Since none of Litvak’s Russian work is available or even identified to me, his first German film, DOLLY MACHTE KARRIER (1930) is unavailable, and frustratingly, though I’ve been able to see a sampling of the early French and German movies, I haven’t located two British versions of German and/or French originals, TELL ME TONIGHT and SLEEPING CAR, which feature interesting people like Magda Schneider, the awful Sonny Hale, Edmund Gwenn, Ivor Novello and Madeleine Carroll.

There are also odd bits of TV work and a short documentary about refugees that remain stubbornly buried. But all the films from Litvak’s US period on are accessible, which puts him ahead of the Cromwells and Milestones of this world. I won’t be writing about, or probably even seeing, ALL of them. But I aim to provide a bit of an overview of the man’s skills and incredible dynamism.

Sleepless nights

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on February 25, 2011 by dcairns

“You’d think that he’d spend his time worrying about China… or Russia… [Shakes head] Hasn’t slept in eight nights, worrying about Libya.”

That line from THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST has always stuck out for me — a slightly smug joke about a no-account country which would become irretrievably dated within two years of the film’s release when Gadaffi seized power.

What’s happening in the middle east is pretty interesting, no? It’s like Europe in 1848. The history of democracy being achieved via revolution is not an encouraging one, but the whole political situ in the countries in question is so wretched that it does feel like any change is potentially positive.

Of course, I love THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST — writer-director Theodore J Flicker (he of the great name) announced his intention as “I want to make the most realistic film ever.”

“He failed!” observes Fiona, regarding his swinging sixties spy comedy.

“And yet… succeeded,” I say, wisely.

I’m a big James Coburn fan, which helps. I’m honestly unsure how good an actor he was, but he was certainly an insuperable James Coburn. A charismatic, versatile James Coburn. The actor came up during my first face-to-face meeting with the Self-Styled Siren. I forget the film under discussion, but she said, “That film made very good use of his James Coburn-ness.”

“– which was his principle quality as an actor,” I added, wisely.

Godardian flat colour-slabs from Mr. Pogostin.

Regular Shadowplayer Chris Schneider recommended HARD TARGET last year, and it’s taken me months to get around to seeing it. This movie, from writer-director S. Lee Pogostin (he of the great name) pairs Coburn with Lee Remick, and throws in Lilli Palmer, Patrick Magee, Sterling Hayden and Burgess Meredith.

The plot: Coburn is a suave hitman who is also the world’s greatest lover, but he doesn’t know it because he only sleeps with prostitutes (cue naked Karen Black), but then he sleeps with millionairess Remick by mistake, after she pretends to be a pro for a lark, and he cures her of her lifelong frigidity — as a result, she becomes obsessed with him and arranges to have him followed, exposing his murderous profession, with potentially fatal consequences —

Yes, that actually is what it’s about. No kidding.

Are all hitmen commitment-phobic? They seem to be in movies. An existential thing, I guess. Pogostin serves up some good discussions, often taking the place of actual dramatic scenes, but his talk is enjoyable. A discussion in front of Goya’s The Executions of May 3, 1808 gives Meredith, as Coburn’s — what? agent, I guess — with his face like a witch’s elbow, the opportunity to cackle and glint seedily. When Palmer asks the moral relativist if he’s saying that murder isn’t immoral, he demurs. “Of course it’s immoral. I mean, to murder for profit like that, it’s immoral. It’s just that, in these times, it’s not that immoral.”

“Are you trying to say that it’s NOT WRONG?”

“Hoho, definitely not! That would be insane at worst; it would be philosophically adolescent at best. Not, it is wrong, I’m simply saying… that in our time… It’s not that wrong,” he says, wisely.

Pogostin, and Coburn’s character, have to find a solution to their dilemma — seeking redemption and the ability to walk away from murder in a genre which demands violent resolution. They fail… and yet succeed.

Quote of the Day

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 19, 2008 by dcairns

Dr. Sidney Schaefer: You mean to say you can actually legally kill someone?

Don Masters, CEA Agent: Yeah, and it bothers me sometimes that I don’t feel guilty about it. Don’t you think that’s psychotic behavior?

Dr. Sidney Schaefer: No I don’t! It explains your utter lack of hostility. You can vent your aggressive feelings by actually killing people! It’s a sensational solution to the hostility problem.

Head shrinker

THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST, written and directed by Theodore J. Flicker. Yes, Flicker.

Supposedly, T.J.F. presaged the shoot by telling his crew, “I want to make the most realistic film ever.”

“Well, he failed,” observes Fiona.

“Or… succeeded,” I argue.

Spy Kids

Things that strike me as realistic in this film:

The various American secret services hate each other and are happy to see each other killed by foreign powers.

The American and Russian masterspies each have a cordial, indeed affectionate, relationship with their opposite numbers.

Rampant capitalism is a more enduring threat to freedom than communism.

The president is worried about Libya (in 1967, this idea was humorous — it has since COME TRUE).

A psychiatrist uses his techniques to turn a Russian agent.

Politics cause neuroses, which cause politics.

Flicker’s previous film was a zero-budget comedy co-written with Buck Henry, THE TROUBLEMAKER. Presumably Paramount and James Coburn thought he might have an angle on what the kids were after, so they handed him a big budget spy caper. T.J.F. brought with him some of the actors he’d used in his debut, like comedian/thesp Godfrey Cambridge, and Second City improv star Severn Darden.

Some GOOD GAGS in this film! I like the meaningless joke of all the F.B.R. agents being really short. There’s no obvious reason for it but it’s quietly, increasingly hilarious. And when they’re around, the cutting goes all Dragnet, with that back-and-forth q&a shot-countershot rhythm based entirely on the dialogue, with no reaction shots allowed.

“Oh, it’s the ‘Pudlians,” remarks a hippychick called Snow White with no real enthusuasm, and a rock band with bonnets and mockney accents appear, who turn out to be ruthless operatives from the Canadian secret service. Before we can really anticipate how much comic materiel can be mined from this idea, they’re dead, slain by F.B.R. short-arses.

And then there’s the inexplicably festive ending, in which Lalo Schiffrin trots out the best version of “Joy to the World” ever.