Archive for Things to Come

Waiting for the Big One

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on April 19, 2017 by dcairns

I picked up a copy of British Film Editors by Roy Perkins & Martin Stollery. Very good! Specially-conducted interviews with lots of big names — Jim Clark, Antony Gibbs, Tony Lawson, Mick Audsley — but also a great gathering of archive material to assemble a history of the craft of editing in the UK. This doesn’t tell us everything we might want to know, but the smattering provided is probably more thorough than any existing source. Here’s a good bit from future director Charles Crichton on his early days working with Korda ~

“When I became one of the editors on Things to Come [William Cameron Menzies, 1936], I showed him a rough cut of a sequence showing London under attack from the air (this was before the war). The sequence was full of violence, gunfire, bombs, people running for their lives…Alex said, ‘Charlie, you have made a bloody mess of this. It should be that everyone is standing there worried, waiting because they know something is going to happen, and you haven’t put that in the cut at all.’ And I said, ‘But the director didn’t shoot such a scene. So he said, ‘You are a bloody fool, Charlie! You take the bits before he has said ‘Action!’ and you take the bits after he has said ‘Cut!’ and you put them together and you make a marvellous sequence. What’s wrong with you?’ … I was beginning to learn that the script is not the Bible, it is not a blueprint that must be followed, word for word, to the very last detail.”

Check out the film — though there are some atmospheric close-ups which I think must have been taken after Korda got the idea to generate suspense with waiting, there are several wide shots of people standing about in the big London set which look like they have indeed been pinched from the beginning or end of the take. I’ve occasionally used these little bits of non-acting myself, when stuck for footage, so I know it goes on.

Here’s another example of ingenuity and make-do, involving material that was recorded without the intention of it actually being used in the finished film. In the pre-war days, the film’s editor was often responsible for the soundtrack also. Esteemed cutter Reginald Beck faced a problem editing Carol Reed’s THE STARS LOOK DOWN in 1939 ~

“We practically ran out of money, and I hadn’t finished editing. There was a scene of a mining disaster and the sound crew had not shot me any effects. In the film there is seen some rushing water, flooding the mine, with tunnels collapsing, and pit props smashing, everything. And I had to devise sound effects for all that lot. For the pit-props smashing I went through all the takes and used the clapper-board modulation at the start of every take, manipulating several together to create the sound of rending wood.”

We must all look at this film ASAP! I bet it works — you can cut sounds together (literally splicing and gluing them, in those days) to create new sounds, and a movie’s worth of clapperboards would give you a whole range of sharp, wooden SNAP sounds, the volume and pitch depending on distance from the mic and acoustics of the set or location. SNAPsnapSNAPsnapsnapSNAP! I can imagine it. I can also imagine it being a little funny now we know how it was done.

Of Men and Monkeys

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , on January 9, 2008 by dcairns

The Great Communicator and Ronald 

Been reading a fascinating account by the late Sir Ralph Richardson of his early life (if you get the spiffing new UK DVD of THINGS TO COME there’s a vintage Russell Harty interview with the Great Man, and it’s a rare chance to wallow in authentic old-school eccentricity — the man’s mind is simply and gloriously ELSEWHERE) and was struck by this reminiscence of RR at around age 4:


“I remember being given a stuffed monkey which frightened me out of my wits. My father was very understanding, and said he would keep it for me in the cupboard in his studio until I felt equal to possessing it, and I can see him very sharply, I don’t know how long after, reaching up to the cupboard at my request, to give it back.”

Those two sentences move me in ways I can’t define, although I can at least say that the contrast between “I can see him very sharply,” and the immediate “I don’t know how long after, ” captures the strangeness of memory in a very precise way.

Anyhow, Fritz Lang had a toy monkey also, and he called it Peter, perhaps after Peter Lorre, whom he had transformed into a star. Lang was devoted to Peter the Primate in his later years, and posed for many photographs accompanied by his tiny companion. Friends have speculated that Lang, childless and alone in life, may have seen his monkey effigy as a sort of substitute son.

Fritz and Peter

It’s rather sweet and sad, and maybe the only cute thing in Lang’s entire life (I bet his baby photographs show him scowling through a monocle and wielding a whip).

There’s a rather peculiar moment in THE THOUSAND EYES OF DR. MABUSE, Lang’s last film, where a restaurant customer motions to a waiter, and that functionary obligingly brings him a toy monkey: not, I think, Peter himself, but some kind of stand-in or body-double. It’s some kind of homage to Lang’s most loyal friend, I suppose, but the bizarre nature of the scene recalls the work of Luis Bunuel.

Bunuel was a Lang fan but I have no idea if the feeling was mutual, although the two eventually met and got on well enough. Lang even signed an autograph for Don Luis.

An earlier, abortive meeting failed to happen because Lang, at a party, did not see Bunuel due to his advancing blindness, and Bunuel did not hear Lotte Eisner’s cry of “Look! It’s Fritz Lang!” due to his deafness.

I passed my blind neighbour in the stair yesterday, startling him, and since I was listening to El Presidente rather loud on my MP3 player, I have no idea if my apology was audible, or indeed if it was inappropriately boisterous. I expect that’s what made me think of this.

wet, she was a star

At the Marrakesh Film festival I fell in with a nice animation producer who had initially rather alarmed me by sporting light-bulb-sized extrusions upon his skull, reminiscent of the Space Aliens in Lynch’s Lumiere film (PREMONITION OF AN EVIL DEED — according to my friend Comrade K, a re-imagining of the “Black Dahlia” case). When faced with the kind of physical abnormalities that sit up and say “hello!” I find I have to fight my inner idiot, who wants to say things like, “You’re sitting there like everything’s normal, but do you realise you’ve got…?” His bulbs glinted in the North African sun. “Don’t Look At His Bulbs!” a voice cried within me.

But he was such a nice chap I soon got over my fascist idiocy and was able to appreciate the conversation. My new friend had helped run the Oxford University Film Society as a student, and had looked after Fritz Lang when he visited. “I had the job of tucking him in at night — he kept his eye-patch on. There was an awkward moment when I thought he was going to make a play for me, but he fell asleep.”

This, I suggested, was a bombshell. “I’ve never heard ANYONE suggest Fritz Lang was gay.”

“I think he was… not particular.”

Me and my monkey in Marrakech