Archive for Tom Hulce

Composing and Arranging

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on March 6, 2017 by dcairns

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I showed my students a scene from AMADEUS the other week. Happily, they seemed to enjoy it, but I think I screwed up — I don’t think I pointed out the best thing about it, as a piece of screenwriting.

The scene is the first meeting between Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) and Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Mozart and the Emperor (Jeffrey Jones) plus his various musical flunkies. What I want to say is that the scene beautifully supplies each character with a distinct attitude.

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The Emperor is an idiot, but a happy one because he doesn’t know it, and he has a whole palace of underlings dedicated to seeing that he never finds out. His good-natured imbecility is a joy to behold. Director Milos Forman originally planned to use Brits in the roles of those in the court, and Americans for the Salzburg interlopers like Hulce/Mozart, but he abandoned this promising scheme in favour of simply casting the best actors he could get, and never regretted it. Jones is superb, and his loss to cinema, owing to his unpleasant offscreen activities, is a huge shame.

The Emperor must be kept happy, which gives the scene a good chunk of its dynamic — a clear goal for all the surrounding characters is to make him happy, or to make sure anyway that THEY’RE not the cause of him being unhappy. The vicious rivalry among them means that they wouldn’t mind him being discomfited a bit as long as THEY couldn’t be blamed.

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Salieri, the court composer is the film’s most fascinating character. The real Salieri was essentially forgotten when Anthony Peter Shaffer’s play came out, followed by the film. And then you got a lot of commentary about how Salieri wasn’t mediocre at all, but a very talented guy. but that’s the point, isn’t it? Compared to genius, talent looks and feels mediocre. Salieri has the truly dynamic role in this scene, his sincere admiration for Mozart’s talent rapidly curdling, his intentions turning to the malign — how can I do this guy some harm? His whole stance in the movie is to be outraged that God has given a sublime musical skill to a gibbering ape while HE, Salieri the virtuous, can only pen forgettable trifles. Of course, it’s obvious that Salieri is not an inherently good man at all, but he’s nevertheless largely correct — genius is not dispensed in a fair fashion (otherwise everyone would have a share).

But the other underlings all have their own distinct attitudes. The rotund Kappelmeister Bonno (Patrick Hines, to the right of Salieri) seems a jolly old duffer, but he’s possessed of a jocular malignity — nothing pleases him more than seeing his rivals squirm, so this whole scene is hugely amusing to him; Count Orsini-Rosenberg (Charles Kay) is a chilly authoritarian, viewing Mozart as if her eyeglasses were a microscope affording a too-detailed view of a particularly unpleasant paramecium — when has asks if Mozart has shown him his libretto and Mozart cheerfully says No, but he’ll be sure to, the Count’s reply, “I think you’d better,” comes with a steely glint and a tiny smile more menacing than any frown — it doesn’t even need a closeup to strike home ~

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There are a couple of other characters here who get lines — Baron Von Swieten (Jonathan Moore) seems uniquely fair and decent throughout, and in objecting to the racy content of  The Abduction from the Seraglio he may well be trying to protect Herr Mozart, while another functionary, a guy with clown hair who spends most of the scene eclipsed by Jones, and who doesn’t rate an introduction to Mozart, seems perpetually peeved, maybe because he didn’t rate an introduction to Mozart or maybe because he’s eclipsed by Jones. Sorry, fella, without the introduction I can’t find out who’s playing you.

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Into this muso-political vespiary is thrust Mozart, who unsettles everyone with his oafish lack of correct court decorum — only Swieten seems willing to overlook this on the basis that the young man evidently means no offense. The Emperor exercises noblesse oblige like it was going out of style, and the other snakes move in for the kill, sensing easy prey.

The fact that the character who leaves the scene wounded is Salieri is not due to any guile on Mozart’s part — it’s his insensitivity to others and his casual acceptance of his own megatalent that allows him to crush Salieri so thoroughly.

Oh, I remember why I forgot to point out the dynamic range of attitudes in this scene — I was concentrating on subtext, because all the backstabbing and angling for promotion occurs via a discussion of opera. a subject that only really concerns one character — Mozart.

It’s no surprise that this film won the Oscar, of course, because like SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, it’s as much about Hollywood as it is about its ostensible historic locale. There are geniuses, there are talents, there are mediocrities, there are snakes, and there are those with power, who lack the perspicacity to tell one species of underling from another. Everyone is at the mercy of powerful fools.

Milos Forman notes that the Count’s later line, “Too many notes,” has haunted him, being unfailingly uttered by screenwriters at the end of exhaustive story conferences. Of course it would be!

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The Grand Delusion

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 4, 2008 by dcairns

Remarkable how many filmmakers of world class have been attracted to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And of course, how many dodgy ones too. Among the cinematic Jekylls we can count Rouben Mamoulian, Jerry Lewis and Jean Renoir, while Hydes might include Jesus Franco, Walerian Borowczyk and Terence Fisher. And then some solid middlebrows like Stephen Frears and Victor Fleming, equivalent to Stevenson’s sedate protagonist, Mr. Utterson, have had a bash too.

By a peculiar quirk of fate, the most respected filmmaker to have come near the book is Renoir, yet the film he made for French TV, THE TESTAMENT OF DR. CORDELIER, has traditionally been one of the most neglected and/or despised in his entire egg (or oeuvre, to give it its French name).

Also ironically, Renoir’s film updates and translocates the story to its own bizarre version of 1959 France, changing all the character names in doing so (but with more justification than I, MONSTER, where Jekyll becomes Charles Marlow and Hyde becomes Blake Edwards, sorry, Edward Blake, FOR NO REASON), and yet it’s by far the most faithful adaptation to Stevenson’s original narrative structure. This is kind of a perversity, since Stevenson’s story is in essence a mystery with a novel solution, which procedes on the understanding that the reader doesn’t know the central plot gimmick (that split-personality thing). By the time of Renoir’s version, of course audiences are going to be well ahead of the story, yet Uncle Jean procedes as if we were all complerely innocent. This sets the tone for the film’s overall peculiarity.

The film begins at the very apex of oddness with Renoir arriving at a TV studio to make some kind of broadcast to the nation. This he does, and we dissolve to the story he’s telling, which he seems to imply has been PLUCKED FROM THE HEADLINES, though this is not entirely clear. A prepared film begins to play, with Renoir’s V.O. running over it, and then we are into the story, with Dr. Cordelier’s unusual testament being presented to his lawyer Mr. Joly. As played by Teddy Bilis, he’s as staunch and dull as Stevenson’s Utterson, yet also brave, loyal and rather admirable — mostly. Cordelier/Jekyll is Jean-Louis Barrault, the mime from LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS, a brilliant casting coup. As Cordelier he’s as erect and crisp as Peter Cushing, with the severity and intensity of Georges Franju. Joly is baffled that Cordelier, formerly a successful psychiatrist, is leaving his entire fortune to somebody named M. Opale, a stranger to Joly. This altered will is the first titular testament, but not the last.

Faithfulness and tampering are kept in a constant dynamic by Renoir’s treatment of the story: when we first meet Hyde in the book, he’s carelessly trampling a little girl. But to show that onscreen, from the point of view of a distant onlooker, would be impossible without risking injury to a child: if you cut into close shots of feet and stuff in order to make it merely SEEM violent, you break the P.O.V. Today we could trample a C.G.I. child with abandon, but Renoir resorts to a different solution: Hyde wantonly attacks the little girl, swinging her around like a rag doll and attempting to choke her with his cane. This necessary change somewhat alters Hyde’s character, and Renoir runs with this idea, showing the villain as impulsively driven to wanton acts of cruelty throughout the story.

Barrault’s performance is remarkable: for some reason, Renoir apparently claimed that the actor worked without makeup, a blatant lie. What I expect he meant is that Barrault worked with a MASSIVE amount of makeup, all over his face and body. His nose and cheeks appear to be stuffed with cotton wool a la Brando’s Don Corleone, he has a dark wig and bushy eyebrows, ludicrously hairy hands, false teeth, and what are either weird sideburns curling under his eyes, or just very dark shading.

To be honest, it’s not the subtlest makeup. Stevenson says that Hyde has an air of deformity about him, without you being able to quite put your finger on it. Various attempts have been made at capturing this elusive idea, none entirely successful. Supposedly Lon Chaney Sr. used to remove the odd scar of deformity from each makeup, before he considered it complete (as a woman perparing for a night out should consider losing one element of her look — a necklace, a belt, or perhaps those underpants? — before leaving the house). Barrault might have benefitted from this advice. The hairy hands definitely seem like a mistake: pure sketch show comedy.

Of course, filmmakers who go for minimalism are usually screwed too: you get Clark Kent Syndrome, as in, “How come nobody notices it’s the same guy?” This is somewhat true with Spencer Tracy (but his film’s too boring to even talk about) and massively so with John Malkovich in MARY REILLY.

But Barrault has his physical skills, and here he excels as the best Hyde since Fredric March (who also had a slightly O.T.T. neanderthal/Fred West makeup). Dressed in a David Byrne type oversized suit, he’s the only Hyde to really work with the idea of a Hyde who’s smaller than his Jekyll. He’s also slouchy, loose-limbed yet somehow alive with nervous tension, his slender frame tortured by tics, some of which he disguises as jaunty little movements. When he first appears, swinging his cane, he seems like a circus clown.

Renoir omits one of Stevenson’s nicest twists: in the story, not only do the nice people fail to realise that Jekyll is Hyde, they don’t initially realise that Jekyll’s house is Hyde’s house. The respectable front of the good doctor’s residence is connected to a disreputable back, from which the schizoid malefactor finds egress. And the back of the house is described as “a great blind forehead” of wall, making explicit the link between house and head. In the nicest image of MARY REILLY, Jekyll’s lab is separated from his home by an inexplicable cavernous emptiness, bridged by a rickety catwalk, like the corpus callosum separating the two hemispheres of the human brain…

Joly calms the angry mob by handing money to the careless mother of the trampled child, a slightly cynical gesture motivated by his desire to protect Cordelier from scandal caused by Opale’s actions. The plot can now develop along lines following Stephenson more closely than usual, though with constant departures into humour or the bizarre.

Renoir adds a more dynamic opponent for Jekyll, a fellow scientist who savagely repudiates his views. Michel Vitold as Dr. Severin manages to be at least as entertaining as Barrault, with a frenzied performance of outraged reason. Smoking furiously (he does everything furiously), dissolving into bitter laughter at virtually everything anybody says, he’s a wonderful maelstrom with a great carpet in his office. “You’ve blasphemed against matter!” he bellows. You can’t help but like him. (The rational sceptic scientist is ALWAYS a bore in these things, so Renoir and Vitold’s feat in turning him into a pleasure is equivalent to Tom Hulce’s work in MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN, where the “moral voice” character actually emerges as someone it might be nice to have dinner with.)

Joly’s departures and arrivals at Vitold’s office must have all been filmed in one session (the film was made very economically and very fast), and Renoir seems to have been in a funny mood that day. Upon first arrival, Joly is scraping his shoe along the ground as if he’s stepped in something, then he trips on the step. Later, Hyde wanders past and randomly assaults a man on critches, and we are forcibly reminded of the identical scene in L’AGE D’OR — especially since Gaston Modot, the violent hero of that film, turns up later as Cordelier’s gardener.

Other departures from the book — 

1) The detectives investigating M. Opale pay a visit to a brothel where we meet M. O’s hapless whore, and see the whip he habitually uses on her. The lead flic also examines two haves of a bra — perhaps symbolising Cordelier’s sundered psyche.

2) Renoir does something quite strange in the second half, stopping the narrative progression entirely to show Cordelier throwing a lavish party for the Canadian ambassador. It’s a very Ferrero Rocher kind of shindig, and asides from showing that Cordelier appears to be feeling better, it achieves absolutely nothing in plot terms. But that very fact adds to the weirdness that is the film’s most pleasurable stock-in-trade.

3) And at the end, Cordelier’s second testament, a tape recording in which he explains his experiments and describes a sinful past unlike anything in Stephenson: as a hypnotherapist, Cordelier has raped unconscious patients. He’s really no better than Hyde, only he feels guilt and the desire to maintain a socially respectable front. Hyde is his excuse to be free of all that.

This probably is the most faithful cinematic adaptation, in that it follows Stephenson’s basic shape: a series of clues are laid out and we follow them to the “revelation”. The effect is different though, because while a reader is aware that the story was intended for a public that didn’t know what the story was about, Renoir is pretending that we don’t know where this is heading (although, as you see above, he has a few surprises up his sleeve). I would imagine that the film’s poor reception at the time owes a lot to public and critical bafflement at this bizarre but fascinating strategy.

In contrast to almost everybody from Mamoulian to Roy Ward Baker to Jerry Lewis, Renoir makes nothing at all of the transformation, when we finally see it, but allows Barrault to create some impressive spasms and paroxysms as one identity is ripped away and another emerges through it. A religious moral is ascribed to the events by Joly, and Renoir comes back in with a V.O. to wrap things up, leaving us a little uncertain whether what we’ve just seen is meant to be a re-enactment of a fake news story, or what?

And it’s not often one finishes a film so unsure of what one just saw.

Frankenstein Must Be Deployed

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2008 by dcairns

…THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

Yes! This week we watch all the Terence Fisher Hammer Productions about Baron Frankenstein and his varied creations.

This means omitting EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, which isn’t a Fisher and doesn’t fit the continuity of the other films (indeed, it seems to go all-out to destroy all coherence) and HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN which stars Ralph Bates instead of Cushing and likewise isn’t a Fisher.

Most of the Fishers are written by Jimmy Sangster, Hammer’s prime creator of thick-eared dialogue and inventive plotting, a very important figure in the development of the Hammer style. While the cast may have despaired of Sangster’s speeches (Christopher Lee grumbled about having no lines and Cushing told him to be grateful), he was instrumental in stripping away the niceties of Universal’s gothic tales, substituting brutality, villainy and nihilism.

Of course, part of the Hammer approach is catchpenny hucksterism, beginning with the title of this one — there’s no curse mentioned in the movie. (Similarly, the later VIKING QUEEN has no Vikings, but a line of dialogue has been helpfully added to appease pedantic Scots like me: “She is our Viking Queen!”) Hammer obviously wanted a title distinctly different from Universal’s, because they were nervous of lawsuits. I don’t see any evidence that Sangster ever read Mary Shelley’s original novel (try it, it’s perfectly readable and entertaining), but he probably glanced at it, borrowing the notion of referring to Lee’s mangled creation as “the creature” rather than “the monster”, which again was useful in differentiating the new film from its predecessor.

Despite the fear of being seen as an unlicensed remake, Sangster cooked up a few references to the first two James Whale movies — at one point, a small boy and a blind man are introduced. The boy immediately heads to the shore of a lake, where he sits and picks something off the ground, immediately recalling Boris Karloff’s encounter with the flower-picking little girl. Meanwhile, the blind man, a direct swipe from BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, meets and is immediately attacked by the creature. Hammer films are setting out their store: there is to be no pathos and no sentimentality here, just nasty surprises all the way.

The other classic horror film that seems to inform this movie is Murnau’s NOSFERATU, both in the cut of Lee’s coat, and in his pose when spying on Hazel Court through a skylight. Images like this show Fisher’s flair for this kind of storytelling. Robbed of the dreamlike somnambulism of Murnau, CURSE picks up the pace and delivers muscular thrills and punchy delivery. Fisher is helped enormously in this by his cast.

First, Cushing. Influenced by his admiration for Laurence Olivier, Cushing delivers an energetic and highly physical performance, throwing himself into the action sequences with abandon (see how he mimes getting a stitch in his side after running upstairs to fight the monster— sorry, “creature”). Baron Frankenstein may be a man of science, but he’s also a MAN. Sangster has also added an illicit affair with the French maid, so that from the very first film, Cushing’s Baron is morally tainted by more than his zeal for medicine. MOST of his crimes are motivated by a desire to achieve greatness in science, but he’s also perfectly capable of beastly behaviour for purely selfish ends.

Cushing is so perfect for this film, and this genre, and somebody was smart enough to realise it. He goes with the generally vigorous style of the movie (vigorous in a slightly stiff way, like Lee’s energetic yet ungainly creature) but adds cultivation and a believable intelligence. He’s also adroit at getting away with Sangster’s more boggling lines of dialogue, such as “We hold in the palms of our hands such secrets that have never been dreamed of.” And when handed a nice gag, like “Let him rest in peace — while he can,” he underplays magnificently.

Playing the juvenile version of Cushing is Melvyn Hayes, whose presence can be distracting to some: he’s famous in Britain for playing a transvestite bombardier in a campy sitcom about a military “concert party” (troupe of entertainers) in WWII Burma, called It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. Imagine OBJECTIVE, BURMA! only with more songs and dragging up. But Hayes is a very good actor and, unlikely as it seems, a resonably plausible physical embodiment of a juvenile Cushing. (Irrelevant sidenote: Cushing was dressed as a girl by his mother, a reaction perhaps to so many boys being lost in WWI.)

Second lead: Robert Urquhart, as the Sensible Friend. “I bet nobody talks about him because they’re all too busy looking at Cushing,” says Fiona. “But he’s GOOD.” It’s true. Playing straight man to Frankenstein can be a thankless role, but Urquhart (good, unpronounceable Scottish name) espouses the morality without becoming priggish or boring. Whenever he’s given the chance to loosen up a little, he takes it, breathing life into the character as surely as he restores respiration to a dead puppy. Plus he gets that great end scene, betraying his old friend in the hour of his greatest need — Hammer’s moral characters often tend to be even nastier than the villains, and Urquhart’s cold-bloodedness here prepares the way for horrible heroes like Van Helsing (what an appalling man!).

(Side-note — the best perf in Kenneth Branagh’s Francis Ford Coppola’s MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN is Tom Hulce, in the tedious role of Sensible Friend. He should be a bore, but he winds up the only character you’d care to have a pint with. Hulce, the miracle-worker.)

Talk about thankless parts: Hazel Court has little to do save remain in ignorance throughout. Seeing her in something like MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH or THE RAVEN shows what a capable, sexy and witty performer she could be: Roger Corman always gave her enjoyable parts. She’s in lots of Hammer films but rarely got any interesting business: she doesn’t even get vampirized. Not once.

Then there’s Christopher Lee, of course. I think it’s fair to say, with no unkindness intended, that the man was cast for his height, here. The part nearly went to Bernard Bresslaw, another tall man, who had to content himself with fleshing out the role of Rubba-Teetee the mummy in CARRY ON SCREAMING instead. Lee’s one-off perf as the creature — he couldn’t return in sequels because Sangster had, perhaps shortsightedly had him dumped in an acid bath at the end of this film (having already been shot and set alight) — did, however, lead him to the role of Dracula, which he made his own and got a whole series out of. Indeed, a whole career (262 screen roles listed on the IMDb, and still going strong).

Lee’s creature is devoid of any of the nobler qualities of the Karloff monster, but the performance is not without detail. “Looking like a road accident” in Phil Leakey’s gruesome slap (crude but effective would be a polite way to describe it), Lee plays the character as brain-damaged and confused. The encounter with the blind man is particularly interesting for Lee’s odd movements and posing. This creature isn’t evil, as such, just bewildered, and he lashes out in violence at everything he doesn’t understand — which is EVERYTHING. It took some effort, but I was able to find him sympathetic at some level, although the character/behaviour is a bit too close to that of some school bullies I recall. At least the Lee-creature has an excuse: the jar with his brain in was smashed against a wall. His brain’s probably full of broken beaker (his revival is prefigured by a sound of smashing glassware: Fiona wonders if this is the sound the creature makes when he thinks). Why didn’t Frankenstein just get a new brain?” asks Fiona, agitated. “Even a bog-standard brain would be better than a genius brain that’s full of broken glass!”

Lee gets the film’s coolest shot (quoted by Kubrick in LOLITA! I should write a whole piece about Kubrick and Hammer films’ odd synergistic relationship) is Lee’s unmasking. Lurching about in muslin wrapping, he’s discovered by Cushing just as he raises his hand to the bandages swathing his lumpy kisser. The hand clutches the cloth, and just as it pulls away the covering, Fisher’s camera switches from 24fps to something more like 6, and we track in impossibly fast, Lee swooping forward at us in all his milky-eyed awfulness, his small movements suddenly insectoid in their inhuman speed.

“Hold your horses, I’m thinking with GLASS, here!”

It’s fascinating to me how Sangster and Fisher get away with delaying the monster’s appearance until about halfway through, with only a bit of medical grue and gallows-robbing to sustain the tension until the big reveal. Of course there’s something else at work: anticipation. Mary Shelley gets her monster onstage faster, but she was telling the story for the first time. Hammer realised they could rely on the audience already knowing the basic premise: they await the monster with eager dread. The tactic was to deliver a monster more unpleasant than expected.

The whole thing goes like a train, with the monster escaping, running amok, getting shot in the head, brought back to life, killing the French maid (as arranged by the Baron, since she’s outlived her usefulness and grown inconvenient) and finally escaping AGAIN and attacking Hazel Court. Time for the first of Hammer’s patented overkills (never JUST shove a stake through Dracula — try throwing holy water in his face, causing him to fall from a belfry into a pit with a stake in it, then poke him with a shovel just for good measure: DRACULA A.D. 1972), as Cushing shows more of his physical dexterity:

“I’ve created a monst — I mean, creature!”

Not only a great actor, also a great SHOT — right into the lens! The slung lantern sets Lee alight, and he falls into the convenient acid bath. Every home should have one. Except — not so convenient. Now there’s no evidence the monst creature ever existed, so Cushing’s going to be executed for the creature’s crimes. Which is fair enough, really.

A missed opportunity! As Cushing is led off to be executed (it suddenly occurs to us to wonder how he was convicted of the French maid’s murder, since presumably he dissolved her remains), we cut to the guillotine, its blade cranked up to the highest position. The credits roll…

And then — nothing! Fade to black. When it’s obvious to any gorehound that the blade should descend with a sickening SHOONK after the last credit has crawled off the top of the screen. THAT would be showbiz. Perhaps Hammer were already thinking about sequels, already regretting melting their creature like an Alka Seltzer. Using Cushing’s Baron as the constant feature of the films that followed, rather than his first creation, makes the Hammer FRANKENSTEINS delightfully different from their Universal forebears.

As we shall see.