Archive for Trevor Howard

Frankie and Trevor

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 5, 2022 by dcairns

I had vague positive boyhood memories of VON RYAN’S EXPRESS — it turned out I had slightly conflated my memory of Frank Sinatra running for a train with a scene from THE 5-MAN ARMY, the Argento-scripted spaghetti western in which Tetsurô Tanba runs for a train FOR A LONG TIME. You couldn’t possibly get Frank Sinatra to run that long. This meant that the film’s surprising and effective ending was surprising and effective all over again. You wouldn’t get an ending like that now. Already, in 1965, US cinema is groping towards the downer endings of the 70s.

This may be Mark Robson’s best film after his Val Lewton phase. (Or maybe CHAMPION, PHFFT or PEYTON PLACE?) It’s THE GREAT ESCAPE on a train, basically. And I guess TGE made that ending conceivable. It even has John Leyton in it, and he doesn’t go everywhere, you know.

WWII prison camp films seem to capture the spirit of school — the secret activities, the getting away with stuff — it all becomes hi-jinks. Helped along here by Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which apart from a few lamentable comedy noises is inventive, sprightly, distinctive — it has a theme you can whistle (important for a GREAT ESCAPE knock-off) but lots of other fun elements too, plus the snare drums Darryl Zanuck would have insisted upon.

The scourge of war films — and they are a bit of a scourge, however nostalgic we might feel about some of them — all comes from WWII. If you look at First World War films, they made propaganda movies while the war was on, then largely stopped talking about it, and then when they returned to the subject it was to talk about how dreadful war was. THE BIG PARADE, WINGS, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. You could lighten the mood with a romance or a bromance, but that was mostly to contrast with how dreadful the war was. Not too many exceptions.

“You said it, miste – oh, wait”

But with WWII the propaganda continued even after the end of hostilities, as if we had to carry on convincing ourselves that it was a noble venture. Britain became hopelessly locked into war nostalgia, as did 20th Century Fox, the studio that came to embody Zanuck’s mid-life/late life crisis of masculinity writ large.

Does VRE get away with turning the war into a school romp just by slapping on a moment of tragedy? Does THE GREAT ESCAPE? My point is not that we mustn’t enjoy them, but that we should remain aware that they’re slightly poisonous.

Anyway, Sinatra is an American airman, Ryan, who becomes the ranking officer in an Italian prison camp where he’s mostly surrounded by Brits including Trevor Howard. He aquires the “Von” nickname by standing up against murdering camp commandant Adolfo Celli. But then he masterminds a daring takeover of the prison train carrying the men towards Germany, rerouting it to Switzerland. It’s faintly preposterous but done with panache.

There he is, doing his running!

Robson, a former editor, gets most of his effects by intercutting straightforward shots. The first reveal of Sinatra is beautifully staged in a Maurice Tourneur-style blocking reveal, though. The direct cutting of the nouvelle vague had found its way into LAWRENCE OF ARABIA but Robson is having none of it. I like dissolves personally but an elephantine thing like this might benefit from more nimble and surprising transitions. Robson is surprisingly flatfooted about scene endings, even when the script supplies him with zingers. He also says things like “Clue me,” which didn’t strike me as period-accurate, but I could be wrong.

The Italian war was all about male nudity: see also CATCH 22.

VON RYAN’S EXPRESS stars Frankie Machine; Captain Bligh; Princess Salirah; Harry Luck; Teocrito; Willie ‘Tunnel King’; Capt. Daniel Gregg; Dr. Mabuse; Clark Gable; Bertram Garvay; Emilio Largo; Nazorine; Don Jarvis; FBI Director Denton Voyles: and King Minos.

Film is a Battlefield

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

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Enjoyed very much the TV play We’re Doomed! The Dad’s Army Story, in which the origins of the beloved sitcom Dad’s Army are explored. John Sessions absolutely CHANNELS the spirit of the late Arthur Lowe, with sterling lookalike and soundalike work from Ralph Riach as dour Scotsman John Laurie, a Shadowplay favourite, Shane Ritchie as Bill Pertwee, and Roy Hudd as Ray Flanagan, the thirties comedy star who sang the theme tune.

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NOT so successful, though fascinating as a piece of casting, is Julian Sands as John Le Mesurier. Le Mez was almost a special effect as much as an actor, a persona so unique and indefinable as to possibly defy impersonation. Sands’ best work in my view was THE KILLING FIELDS, where the man he was playing stuck around on set out of sheer vanity to see himself played by an actor, providing a handy reference point for the star into the bargain. Here, he doesn’t have the real man to refer to, and who among us can imagine Le Mez NOT acting? I’d like to think he was exactly the same in civilian life, but I have no idea.

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Another Dad’s Army star is Arnold Ridley, author of The Ghost Train, the theatrical comedy warhorse filmed multiple times, as silent, talkie, British, German, Hungarian, Romanian and Japanese. “I’d like to have your royalties,” someone says to him in We’re All Doomed! “So would I,” says Arnold, ruefully.

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This led me to look at THE WAY AHEAD, Carol Reed’s celebrated propaganda flick, written by Eric Ambler & Peter Ustinov (who also appears, along with most of British equity). The movie formed the basis for satirical treatments in HOW I WON THE WAR, CARRY ON SERGEANT and Dad’s Army itself, and in fact William Hartnell plays the sergeant-major in this and in the CARRY ON, with Laurie as a dour Scotsman in this and Dad’s Army. The Dad’s Army end credits, showing the aged cast trooping across a battlefield in a series of tracking shots, seems to deliberately reprise the climax of Reed’s film.

When Powell & Pressburger made propaganda, their essential eccentricity always led them madly off-message and resulted in art rather than message-mongering. Reed’s film is more disciplined, therefore less artistic, and even though Ustinov hated the idiocy he was surrounded with in the armed forces, his script does an excellent job of celebrating the way the bickering, petty civilian raw material is shaped into a disciplined fighting unit by loveable David Niven and gruff-but-also-loveable Hartnell.

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Sudden Trevor Howard!

There are only a few actual SHOTS in the first half, with a good deal of effective but perfunctory coverage, but at sea there’s a dramatic sequence, all staged full-scale, in which Reed finds that a sinking ship provides the ideal justification for his patented Deutsch tilts.

Raymond Durgnat, our most imaginative critic, proposed that the true meaning of the climax, in which the heroes advance through concealing swathes of smoke, was this: “It can be read as saying, They’re all dead. Reed’s brief was to warn us, This is going to be worse than we can imagine.” The final shot, showing the old guard smiling at news in the papers, seems to quash this gloomy notion and compel us to presume the attack was a success, but those moments in the billowing whiteness do have an eerie uncertainty to them which defies the triumphal music.

 

Naval Gazing

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2015 by dcairns

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When I was a kid, the big military entertainments didn’t really mean that much to me — I don’t even remember for sure if I’ve seen WHERE EAGLES DARE. But the naval films were probably the worst, though not as noisy as air ones. So although Britain produced endless naval films both during and after the war — re-fighting the old battles all through the white heat of the technological revolution, I have seen David Lean’s IN WHICH WE SERVE and Michael Powell’s THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE and little else. And those are two of my less-favourite Lean and Powell films.

GIFT HORSE (1952) dates from a time when at least some of the US war pictures were starting to take a more considered, less triumphalist view of the conflict, now that the need for propaganda was over. Britain, feeling less secure, kept on flag-waving — but director Compton Bennett had a gift for melancholy and the five writers include the talented William Rose, whose THE LADYKILLERS conceals an iconoclastic sensibility. The film’s best moments have to do with the malfunctionings of the leaky tub gifted to embattled Britain by the US before America entered the war, and the malfunctionings of Trevor Howard’s rustbucket of a face. He’s a broken-down captain hauled out of mothballs for the war and given one last chance to salvage his holed reputation. Joining him for the voyage are numerous trusty supporting players, the kind of people these films always throng with —

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There’s no Jack Hawkins, whose involvement in RIVER PLATE was considered essential by the Admiralty — they simply couldn’t imagine taking seriously a sea picture without him, Here we benefit from less stalwart faces — a great slab of Bernard Lee, jug-eared and limpid-eyed, and the equally soulful Richard Attenborough, the babyish features that turned up with eye-glazing reliability. Here he’s amusingly cast as a former trade unionist turned “sea lawyer” — a sailor who knows his rights, knows the regulations, knows when he’s due overtime, and ends by lecturing his German captors on the Geneva Convention. His appearance is ever-predictable in these things but he always gives value for money.

The surprise bit by Hugh Williams had me rubbing my hands with glee — his oiliness always gives satisfaction, and results in an amiable surprise when he turns out to be a decent chap here. The weirdest casting is James Donald as a free-and-easy Canadian. It’s not just that he can’t do the accent, can barely suggest it in an embarrassed way, it’s that nobody was ever less free and easy than James Donald. If you want someone to stare wide-eyed at carnage and mutter “Madness. Madness!” James Donald is your man. But if you want someone with the gleam of gaiety in his eye and a devil-may-care sparkle in his smile, then please hire him and make him stand in front of James Donald. What James Donald projects is the cares of the world, boring out of his eyeholes with a soft whimper.

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Asides from the movie’s bracing melancholy — the ship fails to perform at every turn, and so do the crew, and their final victory is achieved by ramming a port, using the ship as a cudgel, then blowing her up — it also has a startling fight scene, a bar brawl in Sid James’ pub. Like the man himself, the character is an ex-pugilist, the walls of the house decorated with photographs of his past fights — the pub as metaphor for British cinema? But look what Bennett does with it ~

The Sid James Centre from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Something between COLONEL BLIMP’s jump-cut trophies and Richard Lester.

Then I turned to SINK THE BISMARCK, a 1960 Fox production in ‘Scope, but still British to the core. Doughty, doughy Kenneth More takes the Jack Hawkins part this time, playing an entirely fictitious commander parachuted into the true story because, presumably, the real sea lord didn’t want to be made into a Boy’s Own hero, or to be played by Kenneth More.

Sea battles aren’t close-quarters, which is probably why the young me didn’t care for them. They have the quality of board games, but with added death by immolation and drowning. Here, More never even gets his feet wet, directing operations from deep underneath Trafalgar Square with the beauteous Dana Wynter at his side, while the heroic death-blow at sea is struck by, of all people, Michael Hordern. In a long and varied career I doubt he had that privilege very often.

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Journeyman director Lewis Gilbert keeps the thing trundling along relatively briskly, and the only painful bits are the hackneyed scenes with Admiral Lutyens, played by Karel Stepanek, who can do nothing with the boilerplate Nazi they’ve written for him. In a misguided attempt at expressionism or something, Gilbert introduces the character (left of frame, above) with his back to us, head apparently ablaze. We sense that he’s smoking some evil brand of National Socialist tobacco, but the illusion that his scalp is on fire is inescapable and inappropriately amusing.

The other interesting bit of weak direction comes when More gets the news that his son is lost at sea (and the production, to their credit, did manage to find an actor with the same cuboid head as More). Hearing the tragic news on the phone, More closes his eyes in silent grief.

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Later, hearing on the phone that his son has been rescued, More closes his eyes in silent relief.

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Calling Comrade Kuleshov! Ken More makes the same face for grief and relief! Since the rest of More’s face is just a frowning thumb, I wondered what other choices were open to the filmmakers, and remembered Billy Wilder’s advice that you should always try to film actors getting bad news from the back. And then I remembered Werner Herzog listening to that guy getting eaten by bears in GRIZZLY MAN, and how he instead filmed someone else simply watching him listening to it, without being able to hear it, setting the snuff recording back by about three removes from the eventual audience. So I figured Gilbert should have cut to Dana Wynter, who has a far lovelier and more expressive face than More, and watched her watching her, capturing her reaction as she realizes what’s happened.

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SINK THE BISMARCK! is edited by Peter Hunt, a very talented cutter who helped set the pacey style for the Bond series, and directed one of the very best, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. But I think his talent was more for the action stuff than for scenes or emotion.

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Both movies cope mostly with real ship manoeuvres filmed specially, closer views of crew taken in the studio against variable cycloramas, and stock shots from the war, but both have occasionally to resort to special effects, and these sometimes get a bit psychedelic (above), though not as surreal as those watery explosions in DAMBUSTERS. Bennett and Gilbert both favour a stationary camera, which does the action no favours — I’m not calling for Paul Greengrass but a bit of sway would help things — but at least Gilbert has good model shots to work with — even the sea, usually a dead giveaway in model shots, looks convincing.