Archive for Treasure Island

Think of India

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2021 by dcairns
It’s actually quite hard to find shots favouring Dean Stockwell’s face in this film where he has the title role…

It’s definitely a mistake to watch MGM’s KIM (1950) right after reading Kipling’s novel, but it would also be a mistake to watch it before reading the novel. So probably the best thing is not to watch it at all.

The three screenwriters have actually done a passable job of compressing and adapting a book that has several aspects that render it tricky. Kim ages from aged ten to at least fourteen, and the change in him is remarked upon by others. Still, Dean Stockwell was around fourteen and manages to suggest a fairly ambiguous age. Also in the book, Kim both speaks and thinks in more than one language. The writers manage to quasi-suggest this without ever showing it.

The most overt distortions have come in the service of Errol Flynn, preposterous casting as a Sunni Muslim Pathan, but given the lack of Indians in speaking roles, not really that preposterous compared with everything else. But now they have to give his character more leading man action stuff to do — they kill off Hurree Chunder (Cecil Kellaway, the only one who dares attempt any kind of Indian accent — his role was clearly intended by Kipling for Sydney Greenstreet, or would have been if the actor had been a bit older than 21 when the novel appeared, and if Kipling had been thinking of casting white folks as Indians in a movie version back in 1900) to give Flynn’s Mahbub Ali more to do. He obliges by chucking somebody off a cliff and then starting a rockslide.

All that I can kind of overlook, and I think you could just about make a passable Hollywood KIM even with all those changes. The numerous location shots are a help, even when they’re just used as rear projection fodder…

What I can’t forgive is the terrible flatness. Andre Previn seems to be asleep (maybe it’s the heat) — he provides a bit of martial splendor (absent in the book) but remains unstirred by scenes of nominal suspense. Director Victor Saville is one of very few Brit directors to go to Hollywood and totally give up any attempt at achieving cinema. His standard mode is the flat two-shot, and I do mean FLAT.

Dean Stockwell shows signs of being quite capable of playing his role, but I don’t think he’s been guided, and the camera doesn’t encourage us to consider Kim’s emotions as particularly important. You need Hitchcockian POV/reaction shot stuff to bring the character alive. It’s a bit like Bobby Driscoll in Disney’s TREASURE ISLAND — he’s a little powerhouse, not subtle but capable, but he’s under orders to emasculate every scene by playing it as a cheerful romp (Stevenson’s novel is a horror story).

Who the hell is this meant to be? He narrates the film, but the even credits don’t explain.

The biggest casualty of Saville’s disinterest is the Lama, played by a miscast Paul Lukas in his dullest manner. We get a voiceover — provided by some unexplained Indian — TELLING us that Kim grows to love the Lama, but the scant, desultory interactions depicted in flat and distant style give us nothing of this. I suppose it’s a typical Hollywood mistake to privilege the violent action stuff at the expense of character and spirituality, but there are plenty of movies of the time that do get this right. If Frank Borzage had been in charge, both the relationship and the religion would have come through strongly: Borzage believed, as does Kipling (speaking as Mahbub Ali), that all spirituality is a way to truth (Borzage would have insisted on kindness as a necessary tool). And he was at MGM!

Although Kim isn’t an easy book to film, it does have a number of very strong cinematic scenes. These are all either absent or ruined by Saville’s clumsy handling, except for the hypnosis bit, played by one of my favourite underused actors, Arnold Moss — the book is 100 times more powerful, and provides visuals that any competent director ought to have seized upon, but the material is so strong and Moss plays it so well that Saville actually wakes up very slightly and it becomes fascinating.

One weird thing: I’d seen bits of the movie as a kid, and now I understand why I was bored. No child focus. But I do recall the cliffhanging bit, and when I got to this passage in the book, describing the plunge — “No need to listen for the fall — this is the world’s end,” it rang a strong bell and I assumed the line appeared in the film. It SHOULD, but it doesn’t. I have this FALSE MEMORY of hearing the line as a kind and thinking “Is that TRUE?” Maybe I heard a similar line elsewhere. The child’s brain is strange — as Kipling knew.

Pg. 17, #14

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , on August 10, 2020 by dcairns

Cruising on Commonwealth Avenue, Special Officer James Mellon and Sergeant John Driscoll of Homicide heard the dispatcher’s message over their radio. Mellon swung the car round. ‘They’ll want us over there anyway, may as well go now.’ A moment later the order came sending them to 77 Gainsborough Street, too. A few minutes after eight o’clock Officer Mellon walked into Apartment 3F. As he came through the door he found himself in a tiny foyer; directly before him the living-room desk with a lamp, a telephone and the tiny Latvian flag. Mellon’s first impression was of neatness. The very floor gleamed. A policeman was seated near the desk making out his report. Mellon glanced automatically to the left, towards the rear, bedroom section of the apartment. ‘Where’s the body?’ he asked.

*

He was so small that they towered over him and as they crossed the second threshold and came into his home it was they, the two senior policemen, who caught the full impact of that first unforgettable scene.

*

Once partly used as a showroom for new Chrysler cars, the lobby underwent a comprehensive restoration in the late 1970s. the work brought many features back to their original glory, notably the red-veined African marble walls and the elevators’ plush laminated wood interiors. Although an observation level once existed at the base of the spire, there are now no public areas on the upper floors, and visitors must content themselves with admiring Edward Trumbel’s lobby mural depicting diverse images on themes of transportation.

*

An officer searches an abandoned building for clues: in a stairwell he finds the skeleton of a forty-year-old man. A tracking dog returns to its master — with the skull of an adult female in its jaws. The weekly citizen area-sweeps routinely turn up caches of guns and stolen goods. Peaceable burglars panic at road-blocks.

*

Remembering the girl he fell asleep, and when he woke up he went to the telephone, without thinking, and asked the hotel operator to get him Corbett at Ryan’s Gymnasium, and call him back. A moment later the telephone rang. He answered it, and Corbett said, “Hello, is that you, Joe?”

*

Joe chirped. I read Jean’s card. ‘”Jean-Paul Pascal, artist painter”. And good friend to princes,’ I said. Joe nodded.

*

‘But what is the black spot, captain?’ I asked.

*

You know the drill… seven passages from seven page seventeens from seven books. Splitscreen image from THE BOSTON STRANGLER.

The Boston Strangler, by Gerald Frank; The China Governess, by Margery Allingham; The AA Essential Guide to New York; by Mick Sinclair; The Killings in Atlanta, by Martin Amis, from the collection The Moronic Inferno; Dear Baby, by William Saroyan; An Expensive Place to Die, by Len Deighton; Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson;

A Gossip on Romance

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , on August 25, 2010 by dcairns

“In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images,incapable of sleep or of continuous thought. The words, if the book be eloquent, should run thenceforward in our ears like the noise of breakers, and the story, if it be a story, repeat itself in a thousand coloured pictures to the eye. It was this last pleasure that we read so closely, and loved our books so dearly, in the bright, troubled period of boyhood.”

From A Gossip on Romance, by Robert Louis Stevenson (collected in The Lantern-Bearers).

During a period when I was loosely involved in a project to adapt several of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tales of the supernatural for television (which came to naught because BBC Scotland didn’t see any need to celebrate Stevenson’s centenary in such a fashion), I stumbled upon the above passage and felt that Stevenson had invented cinema.

I imagined using this passage at the start of the show, as a voice-over as we look down at Stevenson’s writing-desk from above. We descend as his quill moves across the page, inscribing the words we hear spoken, and then we HIT THE PAGE in a blinding flash of light and pass THROUGH it —

One the other side, all is darkness, except for the page, which appears as a transparent panel allowing us to see up into our world, where Stevenson leans forward, inking the words which now appear as mirror-script. We continue our movement, now backing away so that the glowing window of the page diminishes, but we can see a beam of light admitted by it, glowing in the void. As we move further, other pages can be seen, each shining a beam of strong illumination into the void, motes of silver dust glowing in the rays. Each beam flickers as the hand writing on the page moves. And then we spin around and we see a screen on which the beams project a fiery kaleidoscopic image, from which forms the title of the show.

A bit much, perhaps? But perhaps my youthful response was triggered by the compact, fervid power of phrases like “the bright, troubled period of boyhood”. Although yes, it’s odd that Stevenson imagines all his readers are male, but then all the characters in Jekyll and Hyde are male, and Stevenson’s wife, Fanny, apparently looked like a man, so draw your own inferences.

Image from Raul Ruiz’s TREASURE ISLAND.