Archive for Thom Noble

The Death of the Arthur: Guinevere Off Course

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2023 by dcairns

SWORD OF LANCELOT — originally LANCELOT AND GUINEVERE — part 3.

The retitling, to emphasise stabbing over kissing, is like the mirror version of THE DEATH OF ROBIN HOOD getting retitled ROBIN AND MARIAN.

I can never quite believe Camelot’s stonework in this one. It seems like a grooved impasto of paint rather than carved stone. It’s close, but it doesn’t quite compel belief, like Cornel Wilde’s out-raj-us accent. It’s really a shame he doesn’t seem to taunt anyone in this film, it would make the MONTY PYTHON connection come shimmering to life.

Not for the first time, though, I’ve judged the film too hastily and harshly — the big battle with the Viking raiders has a slight plot purpose — when Lancelot returns, he has his slain pal carried on his tabard. Seeing this from a distance, Guinevere thinks he’s dead, and Arthur notices her excessive grief. The plot has thickened. Good acting by Wallace and Aherne, a couple of fine thesps.

Ron Goodwin’s romance music is nice — though it doesn’t touch his key works, 633 SQUADRON’s rambunctious theme, and the Miss Marple theme from the Margaret Rutherford films. He also scored the ’73 GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT, which is relevant to our purposes.

The very unchivalric adultery is the talk of the court — Lancelot is tempted to slip away back to Brittany, but Guinevere urges him to visit her bedchamber before he leaves…

Conversation about falconry: we learn that Modred’s adorable little feathered friend is called Griselda, which makes her seem like a witch’s familiar, which might well be the case. Some versions of the saga make Modred/Mordrid/Mordred the son of Morgan le Fey, who is usually a sorceress, so he’s not far removed from black magic. But this is a disappointingly magicless Camelot, in which Merlin’s expertise is limited to knowledge of soap.

Griselda is my favourite character, and she’s only been in one shot.

The sex scene — it’s 1963 so there’s implied nudity with both characters in bed and who knows if anyone’s got one foot on the floor? — confirms my suspicions about Cornel Wilde, as producer, having a hand in the infamous “cunnilingus scene” in THE BIG COMBO, where Richard Conte descends out of shot and Jean Wallace continues to react fervently to some unseen stimulus — because they do the same thing here! True, Wilde has some unmuffled dialogue from below frame, but what’s happening in the gaps between sentences? Wallace’s equally fervid performance provides a hint. The image is fuzzy, veiled by the bed’s translucent canopy, but the implication is pretty clear. Joseph H. Lewis’s claim to have slipped the suggestive scene past Wilde on his day off looks weaker — I love JHL but he wouldn’t be the first director to steal credit for an idea.

It’s not at all clear why Lancelot has chosen to visit his love wearing full-length chainmail. I can’t decide if this is more or less loopy than the full plate mail rogering scene in EXCALIBUR. At least Uther was on his way into battle, so there was a reason for having it on (but perhaps not while having it off).

Some spirited action as the lovers are apprehended post fragrante delicto — L escapes, G is caught.

A pyre is built to burn Guinevere, and this is all so like the turn the plot takes in CAMELOT that I’m wondering how much of this is TH White, but no, it seems to be part of fairly early myths, just stuff I wasn’t familiar with (and not covered by Boorman).

Camelot has a hunchbacked, cackling bellringer, just to make things feel sufficiently classical.

Arthur, it turns out, is responsible for a law which says adulteresses must be burned — he’d like to make an exception, but this would destroy his claim to be a just king. The trouble with this is one is disinclined to sympathise today with any king who would make such a law. One feels King Arthur is supposed to be an admirable figure but this movie undercuts him at every chance. His cuckoldry is muchly of his own making — he throws Lance and Gwen together, particularly by barring her from hunting, which leaves the poor girl with nothing to do except invite the oral attentions of a gleaming Frenchman.

Jean Wallace at the stake — her performance is uncomfortably reminiscent of her performance in the bedchamber, moaning and perspiring at something below the edge of frame. Toothless yokels in fright wigs watch the show, gloating: it’s not absolutely clear why Camelot is a good thing if it provides shelter to these abominations. Wilde’s camera lingers on a Wilfred Brambell type with sideshow enthusiasm.

Lancelot rides in and rescues his girlfriend — I think it’s a mistake of the script to have him kill a loyal knight in his previous escape, rather than here, where it will amp up the dramatic stakes, if you’ll pardon the expression, at the most effective moment. And the lack of swordfighting here makes the rescue seem rather easy.

Uncanny scene where Gawain rides up to a castle and taunts Lancelot. This is backwards — the Frenchman ought to do the taunting, we all know that.

Another good bit of direct cutting (influence of nouvelle vague, already felt in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) — Lancelot agrees to fight Gawain, but we cut directly to the END of the battle, with Gawain defeated and at knifepoint. I’m always happy to take my hat off to a bold elision. Lancelot says he’s going to give Gawain a message for Arthur — and in another bold cut, this one more CITIZEN KANE than LAWRENCE, Wilde cuts to Gawain delivering the message, the framing putting him at just the angle we saw Lancelot at (different distance from camera though), so that he appears as Lancelot’s mouthpiece or surrogate. Neat.

Lancelot’s offer is to surrender himself for punishment, while Guinevere leaves the country. Instead, Arthur lets them all leave, except Guinevere, who is to return to him and not get burned, which is slightly unaccountable except as sheer vacillation.

Four shots: Lancelot looks down from the battlements at a glass painting of Arthur’s camp added to a real (but rear-projected) coastal landscape. Merlin escorts Guinevere through an impressive crowd scene with a glass-painting castle at the top. Then, after all that trouble, the close shot of M & G is an unconvincing rear-screen process shot, no doubt for some practical reason which couldn’t be helped on the day, but which really lets the sequence down. Guinevere’s POV, dollying towards her destiny, Arthur’s darkened tent — it feels like the forward POV dolly towards the execution posts in PATHS OF GLORY, and I bet that’s what Wilde had in mind.

An ellipse too far? Arthur is slain by Modred offscreen, which ought to have been a juicy scene (the film is quite long, admittedly, but CAMELOT would be much longer). In fact, everybody’s dead or dying — Merlin, Adrienne Corri, even Gawain’s one-lunging it after a sticky battle.

Without that shocking regicide, the final confrontation loses a lot of emotional power, I feel. It’s a large scale affair, though. Shot with long shadows on the ground — they must have been scared of losing the light — one of the shadows looks to be the camera crew, but suitably disguised with shrubbery and whatnot — there are no Wilhelm screams but one ludicrous squawk gets repeated several times in this film. Some mildly complicated strategy is attempted but not explained, so I wasn’t too clear on it. A horse steps on a dead man’s leg — I hope he was a dummy. Another helmet gets cloven open.

Editor Thom Noble repeats a shot of a fallen horse thrice — first almost subliminal, then longer, then still longer. I guess he’s going for a MARIENBAD effect but it doesn’t quite come off.

In the midst of this, or rather out of the midst, Lancelot manages to get Modred alone and they have a speedy (slightly undercranked) duel, ending with another ambitious gore effect — L chops right into M’s shoulder. Cue Wilhelm squawk again. To get the effect, poor Michael Meacham has to wear an absurd third shoulder, like an American football player’s padding, for his co-star and director to sink a sword into. OK, I admit I laughed.

It’s not clear what the political ramifications of this shoulder-chop will be, but Guinevere becomes a nun. When Jean W says “When first I was at the convent at Glastonbury” Fiona misheard it as “concert at Glastonbury.” So, there’s a parting forever scene. It’s not not moving. Well, all right, it is not moving. It seems perfunctory, and Lancelot falls in with the idea of his lover marrying Christ a bit too readily — the filmmakers don’t want to do a blasphemy. Again, ROBIN AND MARIAN is a more powerful treatment of this kind of thing because it has a director downright hostile to religion. But I’m always amazed by how much that film moves me, since the love story was entirely secondary in importance to its director. Maybe the focus being elsewhere allowed it to come out more strongly, or maybe it was the actors, who were not available to Cornel Wilde.

SWORD OF LANCELOT has enough invention for a film one-quarter its length, and it’s not all good invention, but some of it is. So I now consider Wilde a worthwhile subject for further examination.

The Death of the Arthur: Wilde and Crazy Guy

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2023 by dcairns

Blame the original Arthurian legends — a bunch of unrelated and mainly Welsh bits of history and legend that got gradually balled up together — for the aberrant spellings. But maybe blame TH White for repopularizing the aberrations just when things were settling down. By the 50s, everyone “knew” how to spell Merlin, so White made it Merlyn and somehow added a veneer of historical authenticity to his books, which otherwise rejoice in whimsical anachronism. The authenticity — White is very learned about everything from castle construction to falconry — makes the whimsy possible.

Anyway, here’s “Modred” in Cornel Wilde’s SWORD OF LANCELOT, monologuing to his tiny shoulder-pal. Is it technically a monologue if he’s talking TO someone, even if that someone is an intense-faced feathered shrimp perched on his anatomy? It definitely is.

“Modred” is imagined along the lines of Edmund in King Lear, an illegitimate son conspiring against a legit competitor, though here his rival is as yet only a gleam in Arthur’s eye. Having him here to plot helps push the guilt away from Lancelot and Guinivere, though how successful this will be as narrative poly remains to be seen.

“Modred” is played by Michael Meacham, who gets the kiss-of-death credit “And Introducing,” despite the fact that he’d been appearing on TV since 1952. He’s as close to the end of his screen career as to the beginning. Meacham voiced the role of Demetrius in the English dub of Jiri Trnka’s puppet version of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, long with prestigious types like Richard Burton, so I assume he had Shakespearian experience. Modred is conceived in villainous terms, but he doesn’t have Edmund’s depth or dialogue.

Anyway, Modred has hired an entire army of brigands — decidedly un-merrie men — to kill Guinevere, and Wilde delivers a nice atmospheric tracking shot across their latex-scarred faces lurking in the greenwood. So, just like in THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GALAHAD, we’re kind of grafting Robin Hood imagery into Arthuriana, but because the Arthur myth is authoritarian or arthuritarian, the outlaw-bandits have to be bad guys. It’s fine — you can do this, just as you can give Arthur a jester — it all fits in with the movie idea of medieval times, even if the legends go back to the Dark Ages.

After knocking the bandits for six — Guinivere lends a hand at the head-cleaving — the party arrives at the big village set. Camelot itself is a matte painting or photo pasted into the top right corner, a good distance off. As TH White explains early on in The Sword in the Stone, a village/town/city was always just outside the protective castle, and if a serious attack took place everyone just moved into the castle walls. Citadel as mini-city. Putting them this far apart serves no purpose. I get to see this principle inaction every time I take the bus into Edinburgh city centre: the High Street, the city’s first thoroughfare, descends the slope from the Castle Rock, the only avenue from which the Castle can be approached. Easy to beat a retreat inside and slam the gates, and you only have one side to defend. Unfortunately, not everyone has a bit of extinct volcano to build on.

Lancelot reassures the nervous king that G is eager to be his queen. Which he knows isn’t true as L&G have already fallen for each other. There’s that very striking line of Merlin’s in EXCALIBUR: “When a man lies he kills a part of the world.” A good line, it always made me feel that chivalric honour was an alien concept from another age — Is that true? I thought. It doesn’t FEEL true. But it’s striking.

Mark Dignam’s Merlin gets to present G to A. His is a thankless task in this film — if he can’t have any magic, what’s he good for? He knows about soap, this is the extent of his power. TH White’s Merlin seems to have almost unlimited power, but he has scruples that tell him when it’s appropriate to wizard things up. Boorman’s Merlin, as played by Nicol Williamson, breaks his own rules, which seem to establish the seeds of Camelot’s fall before it’s even begun. I think the best use of magic in fiction makes it clear that this shit is dangerous, to your health or your soul. But it’s better to HAVE magic in a mythic tale than NOT have it, surely? Do we want to have fun or don’t we? I was upset about TROY leaving out the gods, which are central to Homer, even if they’re very hard to render onscreen without cheesiness obtruding.

Per IMDb, filming on this was divided between Pinewood and Divčibare, Yugoslavia. There are some good castles in Serbia, for sure, but nothing I’ve seen so far looks like you’d have to leave the UK to find it. There’s a huge church interior for the wedding that somehow looks like a sound stage (overlit) but surely can’t be. Our cameraman is Harry Waxman, famed for THE THIRD MAN, although he probably only shot two-thirds of it, He hasn’t done anything atmospheric with light so far.

The script makes much of Guinevere’s youth, which is a little hard on Jean Wallace, who’s been in movies for more than twenty years. Medieval brides were often what we’d consider children, but you can have a forty-year-old Guinevere if you don’t keep insisting she’s a youngster. Of if you start the story later. I respect Wilde for sticking with his Mrs. though.

Hmm, the church is also the throne room and banquet hall and I guess they slide the two bits of round table, with its refectory chairs, in and out as needed, so it makes more sense that they might build it at Pinewood. Art director Maurice Carter also did BECKETT, and bits of those sets got recycled in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, probably to better effect. And THESE sets supposedly got turned into Grand Fenwick in THE MOUSE ON THE MOON, Richard Lester’s unmemorable second film. I must do a comparison… (Lester’s challenge was to make the big sets look pokey and cheap, as befits the world’s smallest duchy. Later, he would turn down the chance to use Anthony Mann’s ROMAN EMPIRE sets for A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.)

Good news — Adrienne Corri is Lady Vivian, Modred’s romantic interest. Her characteristic red hair (Corri was Scots-Italian) dyed black, she brings a touch of lustiness.

Then Lancelot has to go off and battle an army of Viking invaders. Again, I see no reason why you can’t have Vikings, since it’s never been really clear when Arthur’s story is meant to be set. And of course your movie Vikings should and must have horns on their helmets, even though horns is the one thing Vikings never wore. The battle is large, impressively mounted I guess, but somehow not ACTUALLY impressive. Editor Thom Noble would go on to cut FAHRENHEIT 451 and WITNESS. It just doesn’t get near the visceral feel of Kurosawa. But at least we don’t have extras catching spears with their hands and stomachs like in ZULU. The arrow hits are achieved by straight cutting: archer goes twang! — victim has an arrow in him and falls over. THRONE OF BLOOD has not been studied. CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT has not yet been made, to teach the lesson: get off the tripod, allow a little shake. It’s all expensively adequate.

But the shock cut from the full din of battle to a corpse lying in red muddy water is VERY strong. I tip my visor to Wilde once more. The water eats away at the man’s outline, making him look dismembered, and the contrast from LOUD to QUIET is even more striking than doing it the other way around might be. It forces the audience to catch its breath — each one of us becomes afraid of drawing ridicule with a sudden embarrassing noise.

It’s not certain that this sequence has any effect on any other part of the film’s story, however.

I should be able to finish the film in one more blog post. Sorry this is taking so long.

Backdraft

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on May 7, 2011 by dcairns

The opening scenes of Francois Truffaut’s FAHRENHEIT 451, from Ray Bradbury’s novel.

Our subject once more is editing — what’s strange about this sequence? There are many possible answers to such a diffuse question, I know, but does something strike you between four minutes and five minutes into the clip?

I show this to my students and they often don’t notice it. Some of you will be wondering how they could miss it. Others will have missed it themselves.

Here it is: when Montag (Oskar Werner) puts on his flame-retardant hat and gloves, he’s moving in reverse. It’s actually a shot of him having the hat and gloves removed.

Did you spot it? Let me know.

I always found that strange, but liked it — it has a Cocteauesque quality that’s complimented beautifully by Bernard Herrmann’s oneiric score. The use of the technique wasn’t quite transparent — I could read exactly what Truffaut had in mind in using it. My best guess would be that the act of book-burning is so WRONG — we know that Truffaut, a book-lover, found these scenes traumatic — that he wanted to signal that with an unsettling effect that showed time out of joint, nature unbalanced, moral order subverted.

Then I read an interview with Oscar-winning editor Thom Noble (WITNESS), and he said that he reversed the shot because Truffaut had neglected to get a shot of Oscar Werner putting his fireproof kit on. Certainly makes Truffaut’s imitation of Hitchcock here seem slightly less skilled than the Master.

The thing is, my interpretation of the reverse-motion as an artistic device is still valid: a piece of technique deployed to cover a blunder is still making some kind of statement, even if it wasn’t intended. Watching films is an active process, and we’re always interrogating what we see.

Also on F451 — cinematographer Nicolas Roeg reports shooting an insert of what were meant to be Oscar Werner’s hands. Truffaut had fought with Werner throughout filming (something to do with whether Montag’s book-burning made him a fascist) and wanted to make him look bad, so he deliberately found the ugliest pair of hands he could get: all nicotine stains and chewed fingernails. Roeg was fascinated by this — the power of editing. It helped inform his interest in montage when he became a director himself.