Archive for Vendetta

Caught — Totally

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 25, 2017 by dcairns

Max Ophuls’ film CAUGHT is an interesting film in many ways and in many ways a good one — the Ophuls visual style is restrained but still elegant — until its ending. The movie can be seen as Ophuls’ revenge on Howard Hughes, who had fired him from VENDETTA (as he would later fire Preston Sturges and Stuart Heisler). Robert Ryan plays a Hughes surrogate, millionaire Smith Ohlrig*, who sends slimy agents out to recruit girls for him. Barbara Bel Geddes marries him, discovers he’s a monster, and flees. Then she falls in love with James Mason, but discovers she’s pregnant with Ryan’s baby, and goes back to him, like a good Code-obeying wife.

All this is very dramatic and interesting and of course beautifully filmed by Ophuls. Mason is a slum doctor which means he can be saintly and preferable to Ryan in every way, but also a bit stern and domineering in an attractive James Mason kind of way. But now that the film has established its most dramatic problem, it gets just as caught as Barbara, and can’t fight its way out of the plot tangle. Genre convention and Hollywood preference dictates a happy ending — sure, Barbara started out as a bit of a gold-digger, but she’s learned the error of her ways. But the movie can’t bring itself to spell D-I-V-O-R-C-E, despite Ryan’s obvious cruelty and abnormality. So he’s going to have to die. And he can’t be killed by any of the sympathetic characters. The only possibilities are to bring in a secondary character with a grudge, bump him off in an accident, or have him expire of natural causes. The movie plumps for the last option, but the trouble is these are all deus ex machina solutions, getting the heroes out of trouble without them having to lift a finger.

The going gets really weird when it comes to Ryan’s unborn child. There seems to be no specific Code ruling to prevent Barbara having her late husband’s child, marrying Mason and raising it. But everybody seems to have felt really uncomfortable about this cuckoo in the nest. So the blameless embryo must perish, a victim of Ryan’s mistreatment of his pregnant wife. This winds up being weirder by far than the extirpation of Joan Fontaine’s child in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, who after all was the product of sex out of wedlock. Despite the evidence of the world’s innumerable thriving bastards, illegitimate offspring under the Code have a tendency to die young.

The miscarriage is actually a more successful part of the plot than Ryan’s convenient collapse, since after all, he had been mistreating Barbara. But now the movie wants to cram its cake into its gaping maw while hugging it simultaneously to its bosom, and so makes an ill-judged attempt to fold the miscarriage into the happy ending. It’s all for the best! A James Mason baby will obviously be cuter than a Robert Ryan baby. And at least slightly smaller! The transports of joy into which Mason persuades his newly bereaved bride-to-be in the back of an ambulance make for an extremely strange and awkward conclusion. Sometimes, there’s just no room to squeeze between the Scilla of Joe Breen and the Charybdis of the Hollywood Ending.

*The name Smith Ohlrig is so preposterous I figured it had to be an anagram, and so it is: of Girlish Moth.

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Vendetta and Fugue

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2008 by dcairns

Got a packet of DVDs in the post, always an exciting thing! In some cases, the rarity value was balanced by a certain extreme visual decrepitude — Bresson’s FOUR NIGHTS OF A DREAMER looked like it had been projected on a chipped door and video’d with somebody’s phone. The white balance was OK for some shots, while others blew out into garish abstraction:

An admittedly extreme example.

Also, the subtitles flare up into luminous smears, illegible except during the four frames when they’re fading in or out. Practice your speed reading!

However, I was glad to have it — it’s nearly impossible to see (I have a copy now and I’m still struggling to see it) and there’s something interesting about weirdly unreadable images.

SON OF HITLER, a frankly upsetting 70s “comedy” starring Bud Cort and Peter Cushing (the dream team!), which was so bad it went entirely unreleased except on the festival circuit, is in better shape, although you can occasionally hear people moving around in the room where it’s being telecined, giving it a haunted, possessed feeling. Also, a patch of “hair” (actually celluloid shavings) gathers at the top of frame almost immediately, and hangs around for the whole movie, looking like a disembodied Hitler ‘tache. Creepy.

In a spirit of perversity, the first disc I decided to watch was VENDETTA, a Howard Hughes production which appeared to be transmitted to me through the ether from a long-dead civilisation:

“I have no interest in these part-works,” said Douglas Sirk, talking about the features he’d directed only a bit of, and he’s basically right: if the director’s job is to be considered important at all, it’s because s/he synchronises and synthesises the different aspects of cinema, the sound, the image, the performance, in a way that the writer, who after all originated the whole thing, cannot. So if the director is replaced or is otherwise prevented from exercising their own best judgement, the film, however interesting, no longer represents anybody’s unified cinematic vision.

VENDETTA is a pretty extreme example of the part-work, even by Howard Hughes’ standards. Preston Sturges wrote a script based on Prosper Merimee’s Columba, and was set to co-produce with Hughes. On his friend René Clair’s recommendation, Sturges selected Max Ophuls as director. According to most accounts, Ophuls had fallen massively behind schedule after two or three weeks shooting, and Sturges felt compelled to fire him (Ophuls seems to have alternated between extreme efficiency and major schedule and budget difficulties, through most of his career). Sturges took over the directorial reins, but a confused argument with Hughes over some bills from a stable-owner resulted in the dissolution of their partnership. (Sturges had been borrowing horses to go riding. He thought this was for free. But the stable-owner sent bills to Hughes,  who then thought Sturges was trying to scam him. Like many millionaires, Hughes was very upset at the thought of being taken advantage of.) Stuart Heisler was brought in to finish the film, but became ill, so was replaced for some scenes by Paul Weatherwax. Hughes then decided on a new ending, so actor Mel Ferrer somehow landed the job of directing pick-ups (another actor, Peter O’Crotty, winds up with screenplay credit). The resulting mess landed on Don Siegel’s editing table and he had the task of fitting it all together.

(Ophuls avenged himself on Hughes with CAUGHT, a later film where Robert Ryan plays a Hughes surrogate, a neurasthenic millionaire who sends “agents” out to pick up hot women for him.)

So the film is extremely handicapped in the business of forming a coherent artistic statement. To the extent that it HAS a presiding genius, that must be Hughes, who had more control than any of the relay team supposedly calling the shots. And indeed, the film exhibits most of the hallmarks of other Hughes productions: pedantic over-explanation, choppiness, moments of inexplicable prolonged stasis, flashes if surprising sadism, and inappropriate brandishing of female cleavage (here we get Faith Domergue tit-shots while she’s mourning her murdered father). Hughes’s other big favourite, the wanton violation of basic character psychology, erupts only in Ferrer’s tacked-on coda.

Adding to the film’s problems is a lack of star power. Faith Domergue, the starlet who tried to kill Hughes and Ava Gardner with her car, if you recall THE AVIATOR, plays Colomba, a fiery Corsican bent on avenging dad’s murder. She’s not actually terrible, and her lusciousness certainly explains Hughes’ interest in her, but she doesn’t set the screen alight. George Dolenz (father of Monkee Mickey) is a bit of a stiff, playing Orso, Colomba’s brother. He’s just in from Paris and doesn’t believe in this Corsican revenge malarkey — think Michael Corleone in the first GODFATHER. Joseph Calleia as a bad guy mayor and Nigel Bruce as Orso’s girl’s dad are reliably characterful, and that’s about it.

Some extra heat is generated by Colomba’s incestuous longing for her brother, so overt as to knock the prefix clean off of “subtext”. This is TEXT, baby. Hot, lusty brother-on-sister text. Of course, those who know their production code can guess roughly how this has to end.

We begin with murk and voice-over: a droning narrator tells us what the code of vendetta means. Then he tells us again. Then he explains just what he means. Then he sums up. A couple of scenes pass, setting up the particular vendetta this film is to cover, and introducing the distinctive cultural situation in Corsica, and then the narrator comes back to clear up any lingering confusion about vendetta. Having now established that he’s going to be a recurring presence throughout the film, the narrator collects his cheque and fucks off, never to be heard again.

BUT! In spite of all the mangling the film received at every stage of production, and the inconsistency that would seem its birthright, VENDETTA is quite Ophulsian. I had wondered whether it would be possible to tell an Ophuls long tracking shot from a Sturges one, given the confused production history of the film, but many of these shots feel utterly distinctive. The camera not only glides along ahead of a character, but then allows them to catch up, and tracks alongside, then lets them overtake and follows them. A great many of the scenes begin with shots that drift through densely forested sound stage, awash in dry ice, the many layers of branches passing before the lens absolutely typical of Ophuls’ fondness for having foreground details partially occlude our view of the action.

Murk!

What generally happens then is that the scene devolves into clunky medium shots, hacked together with somewhat random angle changes. The set-up is Ophuls, the development is everybody else. It’s possible that, having established the principle of beginning every scene with an exploratory track, Ophuls departed the project having set some kind of pattern that the other directors followed. But some of these shots are unmistakeably his.

And then comes the climax, where Orso hunts through the forest for his opponent, and Domergue rushes to warn him that a second opponent is waiting in ambush. So many sinister, gliding dolly shots, with so much foreground material passing between us and the characters. An effective sense of spatial confusion, rendered dramatically coherent by matching angles on every character, and then a gorgeous discovery shot where the camera glides around Orso to reveal the enemies he’s uncovered. Catching the bad guys, Orso wants to hand them in to the French authorities, but Domergue intervenes with tooth and claw, provoking a double-barrelled massacre. This graphically brutal sequence suggests the Hughes of THE OUTLAW (remember Billy the Kid getting his earlobe shot off?) and the extreme frontal angles, with characters looking, and shooting, straight into the lens, has a cartoony feel in keeping with Hughes’ tastes, but it’s without precedent in Ophuls’ work — see for instance the opening of LA SIGNORA DI TUTTI.

At any rate, it’s a sensational ending, defaced by the unnecessary, awkward and out-of-character scene that comes after (a Corsican bandit offers a speech in favour of modernisation and the rule of law!). One thing for sure: if we consider VENDETTA as, in some compromised way, an Ophuls film, it’s perhaps the only one to feature a duel at the end which we actually get to see.

Of course, in LIEBELEI, LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and MADAME DE… it’s more effective NOT to see the duel.