Archive for Touch of Evil

One scene, three times. (1) Welles.

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2022 by dcairns

Let’s do a CLOSE ANALYSIS!

I was struck by one particular scene that appears in the Welles, Polanski and Coen MACBETHs — Ross delivers the bad news to Macduff.

Billy Wilder said that there are two occasions in dialogue scenes where the director ought to arrange it so that the character has his back to the camera: when he is getting a brilliant idea (“I have just invented the light bulb!”) and when he is receiving terrible news.

Macduff strikes me as quite an easy part: like Banquo, he’s just a solid sort of bloke. But this scene is tricky, because all of a sudden the actor has to play something that’s very nearly unplayable. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it done really successfully, even though Shakespeare certainly gives the poor strutting and fretting player some help.

Before we go in, we should note that Welles, Polanski & Kenneth Tynan, and Joel Coen have not only interpreted but rewritten the text in markedly different ways, so we could argue it’s not even the same scene. Welles’ changes are, in a sense, the most extreme — he’s eliminated Ross entirely and invented a holy man, who has Ross’s lines and some other characters’ lines. This goes towards a theme about the old and new religions that Welles wanted to get in there, but that Shakespeare hadn’t thought of providing. I think it creates some problems here…

Still, it gives this scene a nice image, the Celtic cross standing in the middle of nowhere — a Star Trek landscape with low horizon and big cyclorama.

The most noteworthy thing about Welles’ version of Act IV, Scene III is that it’s a sequence shot — the whole scene covered in a single unbroken take. All the more remarkable since Welles apparently recorded the dialogue first, then had the cast lipsync to it, a bizarre technique more associated with musicals, apparently intended to save time on the set by eliminating the need to record sound.

FADE IN. Roddy McDowall strides up as Malcolm, saying some lines stolen from Macduff, and beginning three syllables from the end of a line, iambic pentameter be damned. Still, the lines work well with Roddy’s mournful, poetic delivery: “Each new morn new widows howl.”

Along with Malcolm and Macduff is a third bloke, no idea why. Probably there should be a whole gang of them, but Shakespeare only gave lines to two, plus Ross who has yet to appear. This guy is, I guess, an attendant lord, to swell the scene, and I note Welles has cast a fairly fat bloke to that purpose.

Malcolm strides forward into medium shot, but Macduff has the sense to keep going, meaning he gets a closeup. Macduff is Dan O’Herlihy, and he knows what’s what. But the CU only lasts a second, as with typical restlessness he heads back into the distance, pulling the camera rightwards. “I am not treacherous,” he remarks, apropos of nothing — Welles has stolen the line from later on. Then the mysterious extra dude chips in a line, “But Macbeth is,” which has been stolen from Malcolm, to give this interloper something to say I suppose.

The blocking goes a bit wobbly now, as McDowall stands in front of Third Bloke for the next bit, turning what should be a lopsided A composition into a dirty two-shot. Realising he’s being completely hidden, Third Bloke edges round a bit so we can see him, which only draws attention to the error. Bastard.

(But remember, Welles shot this in 23 days. If a long take like this was mostly acceptable, they couldn’t keep at it in search of elusive perfection. Getting six and a half minutes shot in a oner would certainly have helped them stick to the schedule, though.)

Malcolm now refers to England’s offer of thousands of troops, so we surmise that Third Bloke is a representative of England. I guess that makes sense: you want to visualise what they’re talking about somehow, and showing a lot of troops would be costly. Now the Holy Man comes striding through the background and approaches. This is Alan Napier, Batman’s butler, giving one of the film’s best performances and best Scottish accents. As noted, he’s delivering Shakespeare’s lines but he’s not playing a character Shakespeare actually wrote.

Everyone bows to the Holy Man, then they head off into a new composition — this is all one shot, mind. Another new composition, and then another.

Inevitably, when Scotsmen meet abroad, the one who’s just come from there is asked how things are going, and inevitably he answers: fucking awful. Macduff now asks how his wife is — he moves closer, but behind the HM, which allows us to see the anxiety in the HM’s eyes when he lies and says Mrs. M. is fine.

This I find a little hard to accept. If this was Shakespeare’s Ross, a simple thane*, it would be easy to interpret: he’s not used to delivering this kind of tragic news, and he postpones the inevitable and makes things worse (but only slightly: things are already about as bad as they can get) by deflecting his duty with a pathetic lie. The Holy Man, it seems to me, would not be this bad at what is, after all, a major part of his job, or so I presume. I mean, I don’t think Welles is intending some critique of the church here, it’s just that he’s saddled with the scene as Shakespeare wrote it (though, given everything else he’s changed, he COULD presumably have just chopped this bit and had the HM get straight to the nub).

Now the HM realises he’s failed at one of his main tasks, a task he’s presumably been thinking about all the way from Scotland — he’s actually walked the hundred miles or so precisely to give this bit of news. So he turns to face Macduff, man to man… and changes the subject.

Everyone gets into a discussion about the upcoming invasion while Macduff cannily heads for the foreground, his expression telling us that he’s not satisfied he’s gotten the whole story.

Now that the death of the Macduff household has been left safely in the dust, the HM steps off into a solo shot to raise the subject again, something which now seems to lack any psychological impetus. He hints that there’s some terrible news, and O’Herlihy comes smashing into frame as an over-the-shoulder jump scare out of a late Wes Craven movie. Napier pivots, and we have a flat two again, but closer than before. Properly intimate, the other characters nicely offscreen.

Still, the HM is really bad at this. Having created the sinking sensation in all our stomachs by telling Macduff that he has really awful news and it mainly pertains to Macduff, he then pleads that Macduff won’t hold this against him. An acceptable line for a thick thane*, but really poor work from a priest.

In another clever bit of staging, O’Herlihy doesn’t stay to hear the news, but walks off, stopping with his back to Napier, Malcolm and English Third Bloke standing staring helplessly in the b/g. And yes, this is STILL all one shot.

Macduff is gazing into the backcloth, alone, in a private space, as he gets the news, but unfortunately, I think, Welles has the HM jump-scare into shot and SNARL the news at Macduff, who whirls to face him with wild surmise. Little Roddy has got himself into the background to make it an A composition in which he sort of upstages the principals, but not in a bad way. I guess the purpose of the central figure in an A composition (picture the scene from above, with the edges of frame as the feet of the A, the two profile characters and their eyeline as the A’s horizontal strut, and the third character as the tip or zenith) is so that the middle guy can show the emotions on his face suggested by the two profile characters.

Macduff advances to face us, giving us all a chance to see that O’Herlihy can’t really act this devastating emotion, as who could? Malcolm/McDowall comes up behind him to, rather insensitively I would have thought, urge him to pull himself together.

Rather than smack his silly face for him, which seems warranted, Macduff claps him affectionately on the arm and heads off into empty air again, which works better because we can now IMAGINE his emotions, projected onto his back. When Napier comes back into shot the angle sensibly favours him, again allowing us to project the appropriate emotions onto O’Helihy’s three-quarters-rear-view.

It’s not ALL projection, though that is a powerful and underrated component of acting, where the audience can actually help the performer. But in a rear view, depending on wardrobe, an actor can really deliver a lot of emotion. Olivier, often derided as a bit of a ham, which he could be, was really really good at this. The costumes in Welles’ MACBETH are mostly pretty unfortunate, and Macduff’s sticky-oot shoulders probably cut down on his potential expressivity in rear views.

If the audience is helping here, Shakespeare is also giving the actor a leg up, because the way Macduff keeps asking about his wife and kids is really heart-rending, a fantastically authentic bit of writing, even allowing for the stylisation of blank verse in which Macduff begins an iambic pentameter with “At one fell swoop?” and Malcolm finishes it with “Dispute it like a man.” Imagine if you were replying to someone but you had to fit it into six syllables because they’ve already used up four. It’d make everything tricky.

Welles continues with the complex staging, all crosses and turns, justified by Macduff’s state of uncomprehending grief. O’Herlihy isn’t a back actor (backtor?) of Olivier’s quality, though, so when he wanders off into long-shot he just seems like a guy walking over to a tree. Welles, incidentally, while agreeing with whoever said “tragedy is close-up, comedy is long-shot,” added that an extreme long-shot becomes tragedy again. The character alone, surrounded by space. Maybe here the problem is that we’re not wide enough. Maybe the cyclorama’s too close, or, with this single-take approach there isn’t time to let Macduff get far enough away.

Having walked dramatically into long shot, O’Herlihy now has little choice but to walk back dramatically into closeup, which he does, and it works better because he’s more of a front actor. There’s a nice moment when all the supporting cast are clustered over his shoulders, but then two of them sort of shuffle awkwardly out of view, having apparently been told by Welles that he didn’t want them there. Third bloke stays put, equally awkwardly, and soon becomes the point of another A composition.

Malcolm, clod that he is, keeps urging Macduff to get over his grief, and is satisfied by the end of the scene that the grief is turning to anger, which he can use. Shakespeare, writing to please the current King of Scotland, now ruler of the newly formed United Kingdom, is probably NOT consciously smuggling in some critique of cynical monarchs and their politicking, but somehow he suggests it anyway, because he’s too good a writer not to sometimes risk getting himself in trouble.

Macduff, finally coming to terms with the awful truth, heads out of shot almost at a run, seemingly on his way somewhere important, so that it’s rather a surprise when the others, having exchanged some expository remarks, walk a few paces screen left and find him standing there. They all walk off together, intent on their single purpose, the liberation of Scotland, for their varied personal or political reasons. The church bell which had sounded at the start of the scene rings again, and we fade out.

The scene is reasonably clear, brilliantly complicated and yet somehow simple. I don’t think it’s very emotional, though. The moment when Welles seems most interested in Macduff is when he becomes a righteous avenging angel at the end of the film, which is, not coincidentally, the point at which Welles thought Macbeth actually shows some greatness by defying his fate, even though all seems lost. Welles mainly seems interested in this sequence as a bravura staging opportunity. But then, the question of emotion in Welles is always complex — he tends to like creating sympathy for villains, gets bored by heroes, likes to create tensions between conflicting, disturbing emotions (all the icky sexual stuff in TOUCH OF EVIL) in a way that’s anti-Hitchcockian, anti-Spielbergian, closer to Kubrick or even Lynch.

Tomorrow (and tomorrow, and tomorrow) we’ll look at another take on this scene, with its own strengths and weaknesses.

*Don’t know what it means.

ALL-CAPS COLUMBO

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , on February 15, 2022 by dcairns

So, after veteran Richard Irving had directed Peter Falk as Columbo, in standalone teleplay Prescription Murder and again in the official pilot Ransom for a Dead Man, the first episode of the first series was handed to a newcomer Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg, aided by TOUCH OF EVIL lenser Russell Metty, starts his show with a bravura sequence, in which the camera zooms and dollies back from a moving car, revealing that we’re observing from inside an office, and then introduces crime writer Martin Milner, at work on his latest “Mrs. Melville” mystery. The shot is lovely and unexpected, but it’s enhanced by the sound of typing, which is all we hear. As the sequence proceeds, the typing continues, even though we’re now outside the office and looking at things — the moving car, a revolver being loaded, the car door opening and closing — which we’re normally expect to make their own sound effects.

This stylised wrongness creates a valuable tension. Later, Billy Goldenberg’s interesting score will incorporate the typing. Most Universal cop shows just have BA-BA-BAAAAM! type music.

Less fortunately, Spielberg cuts to an ECU of the page Milner is typing. Apparently, Milner’s novel is being written in all-caps. (Also, he can’t spell “J’accuse.”)

Theory: in 1971, Steven Spielberg had never seen a novel, didn’t know what they looked like.

I was going to theorise that he based his idea of the novel format on the TV script format, but US TV scripts aren’t in all caps (unlike UK ones, which have a miserable and ugly all-caps approach to scene descriptions). So maybe he called a friend. Someone who would be sure to have seen a novel at least once. Maybe John Milius?

SS: John. Steve. You’ve seen a novel, haven’t you?

JM: Several.

SS: Well, I’m directing this TV episode and I need to show a, whatyoucallit, manuscript. What should it look like?

JM: Well, you’ve seen a comic book?

SS: Of course I have, John. I love Mad Magazine. Or is that a magazine?

JM: It’ll do. A novel is like Mad Magazine, but without the pictures or panels or speech bubbles. Just the words.

SS: Really? Are you sure? That sounds weird to me.

JM: I wouldn’t lie to you, Steve.

There are other possibilities. Maybe Martin Milner didn’t know how to turn the caps off, and nobody else did either. Spielberg presumably figured out how to deactivate the caps before writing CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, though come to think of it there’s a fair bit of shouting in that movie.

The View

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2021 by dcairns

This shot in ALL THE KING’S MEN (1949) is so extreme in its wide-angle distortion (enhancing the fact that John Ireland really was enormous and Mercedes McCambridge really was tiny) that I wished the whole film was like that. Serious TOUCH OF EVIL vibes, and of course MM would go on to appear in TOE.

In fact, the rest of the film isn’t that much less distorted: so much of the action is big sweaty men crammed into small hotel rooms. Director Robert Rossen and DP Burnett Guffey crowd the frame with different-sized figures. Welles has to have been the inspiration. Rossen looks at CITIZEN KANE and then Welles comes along and borrows McCambridge ten years later.

I liked the movie — Ireland and McCambridge together before THE SCARF — Broderick Crawford in the role he was born for — but I didn’t love it. Maybe because the assassination of Huey Long, a dramatic twist in real life, feels like a cop-out in a fictionized version. I don’t know of any real-life political stories with satisfying climaxes. Stories of revolution are quite satisfying, but then you have to leave out what comes after (generally, disillusion). How the hell does Costa-Gavras do it?

Actually, this week I’ve been mainly listening to political history podcasts. Leon Neyfakh created the first two series of Slow Burn over at Slate, which dealt with Watergate and the Clinton Impeachment, and now he does Fiasco, which so far has covered Bush V Gore, the Iran-Contra scandal, school desegregation (“busing” as it got termed, a very successful piece of objuscation), and the Benghazi tragedy and its fall-out. Really terrific stuff. You could compare them to Adam Curtis documentaries for the ears, but if you don’t like Curtis I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of loving these.