Archive for Touch of Evil

Incoherence

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 10, 2018 by dcairns

So, Fiona has now finished her viewing of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (or THE ORSON SIDE OF THE WELLES) and pronounced it fascinating, though she’s unsure if it’s major. That uncertainty relates, surely, to the perceptible vagueness of the film’s “plot” — almost all based in character interactions, though the unfinished film at its centre motivates many of these. And the film doesn’t spell these out: why does Hannaford reject Otterlake at the end? (An inversion of Falstaff and Hal, but an exact anticipation of Welles’s spurning of Bogdanovich.) Why does Hannaford kill himself? (The film doesn’t even insist that he does, but we’re invited to think so, and surely a random DUI accident would be an even flatter ending than the suicide of a character Welles called “a miserable prick.”) The fact that Hannaford’s absconded star tricked his way into the movie is set up as a big deal, but what are the psychological implications of this for Hannaford? The film doesn’t come out and tell us.

I’m not ready to call this vagueness a flaw — it’s quite possible that Welles, while rejecting aspects of the new arthouse cinema of Fellini, Antonioni et al — what Pauline Kael called “sick-soul-of-Europe parties” — he might be embracing Pinterish ambiguity. Or he might be struggling to achieve coherence with multiple drafts of a script filmed over years in different countries with some major actors never meeting each other (he’d done that before: OTHELLO, of course, but every time a character turns their back on the camera in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, it’s a stand-in). Or Bob Murawski and the team assembling Welles’s footage may have erred, missed chances at establishing clarity, We can’t assign all the blame or credit to Welles because he only edited five or so sequences, and even those have been rejigged for the finished film.

But against any theory that Welles had lost focus, that the film is shapeless or unresolved, we have to balance things like the matching references to “the magic box” at the beginning and end, and the way the making-of doc shows that when Welles reshot Rich Little’s scenes with Bogdanovich and Bogdanovich’s with Joseph McBride, he duplicated many lines and camera set-ups exactly… There WAS a plan. It may have been incomplete, or lost some of its cohesion along the way, but a lot of this film of accidents was conceived in advance.

Remember, CITIZEN KANE has been described/dismissed as “a labyrinth without a centre” and the famous “Rosebud” punchline may or may not explain anything. Welles LIKED a certain avoidance of clarity, and did everything he could to “take the mickey out of” that film’s solution. Some have complained that the plotting in TOUCH OF EVIL and LADY FROM SHANGHAI is unclear — the former sidelines its murder mystery so thoroughly that the solution can be tossed away in a line by a supporting character, and then we get “What does it matter what you say about people?” The latter was savagely re-edited precisely to impose clarity and add windy explanations so nothing would be in doubt, but the exposition is so overwhelmed by Welles’s visuals that we simply don’t listen. And it ends with a double “Maybe” from the voice-over. AMBERSONS was mutilated, it would seem, because Welles staged a would-be uplifting ending in an un-uplifting (downputting?) manner, and audiences didn’t know how to react. Welles quite often explores areas of conflicted response, notably in the way he’ll turn the villain, especially if played by himself, into the most compelling character.

I can’t help it, it just feels so good to be discussing this film alongside the rest of the oeuvre, at last!

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Wise Boxes Clever

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2018 by dcairns

Our viewing of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL of course demands a follow-up screening of something or other… I felt in a way less need to investigate this time, as I’ve already seen plenty of Robert Wise films, and even a few movies involving screenwriter Edmund H. North (IN A LONELY PLACE, SINK THE BISMARCK!, DAMN THE DEFIANT! and, ahem, METEOR). I’ve even covered STRANGER FROM VENUS. But THE SET-UP, directed by Wise in 1949, was overdue for a watch…

This one’s scripted by Art Cohn, from a poem (!) by Joseph Moncure March.

It’s alright… Percy’s here…

Really terrific filmmaking — I’m on record saying that Wise’s best cinematic effects usually hinge on editing, his métier, but this one has a lot of gorgeous push-in shots, moving deeper into the urban landscape of the film. The sweaty, shadowy feel of the movie is its best feature, aided by great noir faces — Robert Ryan, Alan Baxter, Percy Helton. Even Darryl Hickman, his fresh-faced appeal like a flower in hell, by which the surrounding inferno appears all the grimmer.

The big gimmick, that the story unfolds in real time, was a cause of frustration for the filmmakers since the audience turned out to be serenely oblivious to this. All those big clocks were for naught. But the excellent sound mix — there’s no score — does have great value, with the cross-cutting between Ryan and Audrey Totter tied together by devices like a streetcar blasting past, close-up for her, distant when we cut to him. The Aristotelian Unities may be quietly helping the film along, even if most of us don’t notice. After all, Hollywood style prided itself on invisibility. Why shouldn’t we consider this, and Wellman’s TRACK OF THE CAT, with its black-and-white-in-colour aesthetic, be regarded as roaring successes precisely because nobody at the time noticed?

Totter’s walk through town seems to very clearly prefigure what Welles wanted for his opening shot of TOUCH OF EVIL, in terms of sound design.

I was genuinely puzzled about how the movie would end, though I had a feeling it couldn’t be good. For a while, it looks to be as bleak as you can get. Bleaker. Audrey Totter has a near-impossible task, spinning the tragic denouement as a triumph, and she pulls all the stops out and then breaks them off and throws them in the air. A little too much, Audrey.

But it’s impressive how RKO got away with a crime story in which the guilty go completely unpunished, and indeed the law is entirely absent.

Gummint

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2016 by dcairns

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Uh-oh! Symbolism alert!

As Donald Drumpf oozes his way towards Republican candidacy, it seemed appropriate to watch George Wallace, the John Frankenheimer-directed teleplay about another figure who sought to give the American people what they wanted… whatever it might be. “These are my principles! If you don’t like them… I have others,” he doesn’t quite say.

Gary Sinise won an Emmy for this role the day Wallace himself died, the kind of thing you couldn’t make up, and asides from the obvious political amusement value of a Reaganite wingnut in the role, he’s very well suited to it. Obviously any actor is going to be better looking than any politician, but the snakily sexy Sinise does have some kind of a working resemblance to his subject. He also deserved his Emmy for giving much of his performance from behind some pretty awful old age makeup.

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Prosthetically enhanced nasolabial madness

Sinise later reprised this role, uncredited, in Path to War, Frankenheimer’s last major work, about LBJ’s Vietnam entanglement — sadly, this piece doesn’t have nearly as good a script — too much exposition, backstory, showing off the research, characters as mouthpieces, some good stuff but some truly awful stuff. Joe Don Baker is wasted in a role that demands he deliver exactly the same dollar-book Freud analysis of Wallace, twice, in scenes set seventeen years apart. Mare Winningham is great as Mrs. W, but her role seems sculpted after Joan Allen’s Pat Nixon in the Oliver Stone movie, whose baleful influence hangs heavily over this one (unhelpful flashback structure; meaningless fluctuations into b&w). Both women are made into that most irksome of feminine characters, the person who pleads with the an/protagonist not to do what he’s got to do. Yeah, spend more time with your family, George. That’ll make riveting television. Worse, in order to make these women “sympathetic,” both pieces avoid giving them any politics of their own — they are mutely compliant ciphers (which is the role politician’s wives play in public, but I imagine often behind the scenes they understand and agree with a good bit of what hubby is up to). So Lurleen Wallace’s only role is as Pinocchio’s conscience, but without the insights. “And if you do become president, will that finally quell the raging beast that dwells within you?” she doesn’t quite say.

(The script does manage one nice use of backstory — the Wallaces roleplaying the first time they met, which gives them a moment of sweetness while filling in some history [as always with backstory, we don’t actually need it, but in this case it pays for itself in present-tense character stuff].)

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Also along is a young Angelina Jolie, fairly melting the celluloid. The script can’t quite decide what to make of her. She’s as driven to win as George — perhaps that makes her bad? She’s sexy — perhaps that makes her bad? Whatever, it’s a fierce, animalistic performance from somebody who’s clearly going places.

Who else? Clarence Williams III is moving as a prison trustee working in the governor’s mansion, who turns out to be fictitious, a fact revealed in a final title, which kind of collapses his part of the piece like a house of cards. Where the film works, it tends to be in (a) showing Wallace’s monstrousness — his famous line about having been “outniggered” — “As God is my witness, I’ll never be outniggered again,” he doesn’t quite say. And (b) showing Wallace suffer — Sinise is chairbound again, in constant pain, and yes, we can feel some sympathy for a soul in hell even though damned if he deserves it. Where it resorts to special pleading or faking up sympathy it flounders. Williams isn’t doing a DRIVING MISS DAISY, quite (that would be too horrific), and there’s some merit in showing that Wallace THINKS he likes black people, personally, and thinks his ability to have them around the house proves he’s not bigoted, but this piece of fiction damages the film nevertheless, because it hurts its credibility.

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The Klan brings out Frankenheimer’s compositional brio

I have somewhere in the house a 70s book on Frankenheimer, probably buried in the folds of my floordrobe, with a substantial interview in which he talks about his liberal politics. Maybe nowadays anybody talking about “negros” will just seem dates and clueless, but Frankenheimer seems to have problems that go beyond just terminology — I believe he uses the expression “the Negro problem,” which is falling into a major linguistic trap. You’re saying, I believe, that there is a problem because there are some people called Negros. Back up. Try again. Try better.

But Frankenheimer’s political engagement (American liberals tend to be pretty right-wing by the standards of the rest of the world) does allow him to portray his real-life friend Bobby Kennedy squaring off against Wallace (Mark Valley is pretty good in the role, though again a shade too handsome). And the historical events and the actions of the main figure  (one heistates to use the word “character”) had us watching with our jaws hanging open. Some of the facts we knew, but it’s mostly before our time, and it’s another country, so a lot of it was new to us.

The movie takes Wallace’s reformation seriously — he asks forgiveness of African-Americans. As an audience, having watched this human bellwether flip-flop for three hours, we’re not quite willing to go with him. It would be entirely in character for Wallace to renounce his former racism just to stay fashionable. It’s good that he did it, whatever the reason, just as Drumpf’s racism is equally toxic whether he believes it or not. Political hot air has real consequences.

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JF’s signature shot, first wheeled out in MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. A nostalgia for the mechnics of TV runs all through his later work.

The music in this show is not good. Orchestral synths piping presidential themes at us — John Williams could play NIXON epic because he had the musical grandeur to pull it off, and the script made enough clumsy gestures Nixon being a tragic figure — King Liar. “He doesn’t deserve this music,” said Fiona, as the pseudo-strings swelled soupily around Sinise. “He deserves, maybe, a toy piano.” Or a kazoo and a rattle. Gary Chang did some good scores for Frankenheimer, especially on the thrillers, but this isn’t good.

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And again

The problematic script is by Wallace biographer Marshall Frady and Paul Monash, whose career swings from the crappy add-on scenes in TOUCH OF EVIL, to fifties TV shows including one with Frankenhemer (I haven’t seen The Death of Manolete) to the magnificent THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE.