Archive for Thorold Dickinson

You can keep your hat on

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on August 11, 2021 by dcairns

One more terrific bit from Lindsay Anderson’s Making a Film book about Thorold Dickinson’s SECRET PEOPLE. Amusing in itself, it also shows that British filmmakers were particularly keen to understand and work within the strictures of American censorship, since the USA was such a huge and important market. Perhaps surprisingly, the British took a more adult and forgiving view of sexual matters, but they had to tighten things up if they wanted American distribution. They’re filming a scene in which Valentina Cortese is in the London flat of Serge Reggiani. The purpose is to plot a bombing, but since Cortese’s character is in love with Reggiani’s, sex also raises its head in a simple shot at the window, filmed on location so as to take in a realistic view of a railway station below.

“From the start, we are menaced by censorship,” writes Anderson. “‘As it is written, the scene has the flavour of an illicit sex affair,’ the American censor has commented. ‘The scene should not end with the characters sitting on a couch or in any kind of an embrace that would suggest an approximate sex affair.’ ‘Is it too close to approximate sex if Louis [Reggiani] closes the window?’ Thorold queries. Phyll [script supervisor Phyllis Crocker] has the answer: ‘It’s all right if she keeps her hat on.'”

I think, in fact, the British were keep to suggest the flavour of sex, but without doing anything that could be picked on by the official bluenoses across the pond.

“But for Louis to close the window is more easily suggested than done. The frame is warped, and Serge must heave and strain before it will budge. Then there are the trains: if they are coming out of the station, they pass out of the sunlight, and so are not prominent enough in shot: and if they are speeding into the station, they are putting out none of that photogenic white smoke. Add to this the chance the chancy timing of entrances and dialogue, and you have all the ingredients of a hysterical hour and a half. Thorold cranes from the window, watching for an approaching express. ‘Positions!’ The train comes nearer. ‘Action!’ The artists walk into shot, speak, and the train passes uselessly by in the background-shadow. The second time, Serge finds the window immovable; in what the Breen Office would no doubt imagine to be an ecstasy of erotic impatience, he hoists from the ground in his efforts to move it. ‘Props!’ On the third take, the train mysteriously fails to appear: on the fifth, what we took to be an express turns out merely a single, comically tubby shunter. This is too much for Valentina, who collapses in the middle of the take, helpless with laughter. ‘Darling, I am so sorry … I apologise …’ (These are Valentina’s favourite syllables, spoken with such acuteness of self-reproach that they never fail to enchant.) ‘I know there’s an express arriving at 1.14,’ says Thorold, ‘because I used to travel up by it.’ But in the end we are here until 1.35, leaving off with a score of nine takes, two possibles.”

Serge Regginai’s lack of muscular vigour reminds me of someone or other describing him in the documentary HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT’S INFERNO, as resembling a parsnip, with his bit squarish/cylindrical head and his body tapering off into a mere spindle. Still, he emerges from Anderson’s book as immensely appealing, dedicated, intelligent, and nervous.

Our Secret

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on August 10, 2021 by dcairns

I promised to update you on Making a Film: The Story of Secret People by Lindsay Anderson. Reader, I finished it. It’s a really great behind-the-scenes book, and it doesn’t matter that the film it deals with is fairly obscure. Anderson is a genial host — which isn’t like him, I know — taking us through the development, pre-production and filming of Thorold Dickinson’s film, but isn’t able to cover all the postproduction. This means he misses Dickinson filming Audrey Hepburn’s audition for ROMAN HOLIDAY, the movie which turned her into a star. Dickinson, at RH director William Wyler’s suggestion, interviewed Audrey after she’d finished the acting part, and it was her natural charm when chatting to her former director that got her the big break.

But Anderson DOES cover her audition for SECRET PEOPLE, in which she has a much smaller role, playing Valentina Cortese’s sister, Nora…

February 23rd. Audrey Hepburn’s test. After the first run-through people start eyeing each other meaningfully: she has the quality all right. After another rehearsal it almost seems a waste of time to shoot the test.

February 26th. Audrey Hepburn is Nora.

Here’s the extant bit of the later ROMAN HOLIDAY test:

One thing I was hoping to find out was the story behind the film’s most striking moment, imho. It’s the main thing I wrote about here when I first watched the film. A key event in the film is skipped over in its chronology, and then covered in a flashback. Dickinson does something really extraordinary here: he starts behind Cortese, then pans with her as she crosses the small room she’s in, describing the incident we missed. But as she passes the camera, she steps INTO the events she’s describing. Her back is now to us again, and her voices continues as she moves into the flashback, now part of the scene, her dialogue now a voice-over.

This is so far outside the Overton window of what was stylistically acceptable in a fifties film, in conservative Britain of all places, that it’s amazing Dickinson could get away with such an avant-garde move at Ealing. Admittedly, there are earlier examples of filmmakers traveling into flashback without the aid of a cut or dissolve. In CARAVAN, Erik Charrell, a king of the long take, pans in and out of a short flashback scene. I imagine Max Ophuls may have noticed this, because much later he pulled similar stunts in THE EARRINGS OF MADAME D… and LA RONDE, which may be what gave Dickinson the idea. But then there IS a British example, though not as recent: Michael Powell cranes into the past, traveling forty years in a single, somewhat unsteady glide over a swimbath in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP.

Unfortunately, Anderson is silent on the development of Dickinson’s version of this idea — perhaps Dickinson protected his experiment by talking about it as little as possible. Once it turned up in the rushes, undoing it would be expensive.

However, there is a clue in Anderson’s book. Modestly budgeted, SECRET PEOPLE was forced to compromise several times on its use of locations. At the start of prep, shooting was planned for Paris and Dublin, and this got scaled back progressively for financial reasons until it no longer made sense to travel outside London at all. And the garden party that Cortese walks into was originally supposed to be a park location. This meant being weather-dependent and for various reasons pressure was brought to bear to shoot it in the studio. When Dickinson finally relented, he realised a short while later that a park was unlikely to look convincing and a garden party at some upscale residence would be much more containable, you could have walls on two sides, and you could save money AND get a result with more veracity.

I think Dickinson was probably, at first, disappointed at losing a location shoot, and then tried to find a way to make the studio set cinematically better and more exciting than the original plan, to get over his disappointment. Obviously, panning from a character’s flat into a geographically unconnected garden party in an unbroken take was the sort of trick that wouldn’t have been possible if filming in a park. What I’d love to know is what the joiners thought of the demand to create a composite set. I bet they were super into it, though.

The Haul

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2021 by dcairns

What I do is, I mostly go from charity shop to charity shop, these days. They’re all very stocked-up, can’t shift the stuff fast enough, and I’m finding lots of interest.

Mary Pat Kelly’s Martin Scorsese: A Journey is one of the finest books on this filmmaker. Part biography, part critical study, part oral history. Full of fascinating stuff. Readers of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls may be amused by how the drug stuff is elided. But just as a for instance, in the section on RAGING BULL, we learn that DeNiro thinks that Vickie LaMotta cheated on Jake with his brother Joey. Joe Pesci and Cathy Moriarty are dumbfounded by this. “Absolutely not.” And yet DeNiro had a hand in the script. They deduce that he sees the story entirely through Jake’s eyes.

The Genius of the System by Thomas Schatz doesn’t seem to argue its case but is full of research and stuff. I need to give it a chance, I guess. I don’t agree with the concept and a lot of the stories told in it tend, to my way of thinking, to confirm that the genius lay in certain individual practitioners of the system, though of course the system facilitated them and they all required brilliant collaborators…

Making a Film: The Story of Secret People by Lindsay Anderson, most of whose faded lettering has been washed out by my camera, was a real find, and I got it only five minutes from the Shadowplayhouse. Anderson follows the development, preproduction, shooting, and most of the post of Thorold Dickinson’s 1952 Ealing drama. It’s an odd little film — Ealing had just made THE LAVENDER HILL MOB and THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT so one could argue that poor Lindsay has picked the wrong movie to follow. But it doesn’t matter what film it is, since Dickinson is a smart director and Anderson has total access to his process, apart from the bits going on in the man’s mind. Audrey Hepburn, a bit player in LAVENDER HILL, is elevated to a major supporting role here, and Dickinson directed the screen test that got her the lead in ROMAN HOLIDAY, so the story of SECRET PEOPLE is hooked into history. I’m reading this now, properly, and loving it.

North Berwick is an idyllic seaside town with good ice cream, fish and chips, and charity shops. The weather’s been hot so we went, and I picked up Chaos as Usual: conversations about Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Juliane Lorenz. It isn’t as scandalous as I’d expected but it’s very enjoyable — feeling the need to dip into some more Fassbinder. I’ve seen very little of his massive output, really. Appetite whetted.

The Essential Wrapped in Plastic: Pathways to Twin Peaks by John Thorne. Lots of interviews in this one, which is what sold me. Only covers the first two series. It has many typos, like the Fassbinder book, but these ones are more amusing, as in the phrase, “ad-fib.” An improvised lie? Sounds like a useful term.

Shocking Representation: Historical Trauma, National Cinema, and the Modern Horror Film by Adam Lowenstein seems like an ambitious critical work. I’m not at all sure Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE is inspired by the Holocaust but I’m interested to see Lowenstein argue it.

That’s just a fraction of the reading matter I’ve been acquiring. More soon!