Archive for Walter Huston

Sizzling Quislings

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2014 by dcairns

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Lewis Milestone directed EDGE OF DARKNESS (a much-reused title) in 1943, the same year he made THE NORTH STAR, which is virtually the same film on the face of it. While EOD is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Norwegians starring Walter Huston, TNS is a wartime propaganda effort about the courageous Russians starring Walter Huston. THE NORTH STAR became something of a career embarrassment to all concerned for its celebration of commies, but EOD, co-written by Robert Rossen, also sneaks in some slightly left-of-centre politics (the wealthy industrialist played by Charles Dingle is the most enthusiastic Nazi collaborator, to no one’s surprise).

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Couldn’t resist this shot.

The movie really stars Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan, two WB beauties, with Huston playing Sheridan’s father and Ruth Gordon (!) her mother. The older players overact a little in this one, but the youngsters are spot on. The movie works like a microwave oven full of tin cans: it heats up and sparks and crackles until the tension is unbearable, then it explodes all over the place. At this point, Milestone brings out his full kit bag of propulsive camera moves, rushing sideways as armies rush forwards, with the addition of a zoom lens — I know! Completely ahistoric — NOBODY was using the zoom between 1935 and at least the late 50s, and yet here it unmistakably is, used for several key shots, and quite distinct from any dolly move or optical enlargement. The influence may have come from combat photography. What’s weird is that though Milestone was active during the late twenties and early thirties, the first heyday of the zoom, he never used it then.

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It IS slightly disconcerting to see Milestone deploy the same kinds of propulsive tracking shots he made his name with in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT for a very different purpose — to SELL war rather than to condemn it. Sure, the film makes it clear that nobody likes war except evil Nazis, but then even the pastor who condemned the resistance fighters is seen blazing away with a tommy gun from the church spire. It’s all very dynamic and very persuasive. If you oppress the audience with a bullying, sweaty Helmut Dantine for 90 minutes, and Milestone certainly does, then they’re prepared to welcome any amount of carnage as relief from the tension.

I’m reminded of how Sam Peckinpah started by saying he used slomo to capture the agony and adrenalin of deadly force, but as early as THE GETAWAY he’d started using it for shots of smashing headlamps. The device celebrates movement, and that’s all it does, unless the context provides it with further meaning. A tracking shot may be a moral choice, but the same movement can have totally different meanings applied in different movies or situations.

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Gratuitous Judith Anderson in leather!

It’s such a collective movie that Errol gets sidelined for considerable stretches of the action, and even when the plotting resorts to the cheapest manipulation to push him into action — his sweetheart is raped by Germans (you can tell by the torn shoulder of her shirt, a strange, oblique movie convention that’s nevertheless impossible to misread) — he’s persuaded that taking personal revenge would be wrong when the whole town is biding its time for the propitious moment to attack the occupying forces.

Two hours of sterling WB melodrama, spectacular model shots to simulate a Norwegian port without sailing into Nazi-held territory, and Milestone’s vigorous visuals made this a pretty damn good watch. I certainly found it more compelling from the start than THE NORTH STAR, which starts as a mind-boggling piece of socialist realism celebrating Soviet collectivism through the medium of song (music by Aaron Copland, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) — a musical that morphs into a war movie.

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It’s strange how the smart left-wingers of Hollywood would become dumb when faced with the subjects of psychoanalysis and the Soviet system. These filmmakers were much better at exposing faults than at celebrating things they thought were great — and indeed, the former is much better fuel for drama than the latter anyway. The whole first half hour of this thing is just jolly, hearty Russians (Dana Andrews! Farley Granger!) talking in an odd, stilted way and carrying on with their picturesque lives in a William Cameron Menzies Russian village. I was soon praying for Nazis to invade and save the day. Nobody can be that cheerful with Martin Kosleck AND Erich von Stroheim giving them the fish-eye.

The dialogue is really weird. In the best of Hollywood’s foreign-set WWII pics, the foreigners (Germans in THE MORTAL STORM, French in THIS LAND IS MINE!) talk mainly American, with a careless smattering of other accents thrown in. Here, they’re all Americans alright, and they all have American accents, but they speak a weird denuded English from which every trace of life and idiom and slang and sass has been siphoned off. Lillian Hellman becomes a terrible writer as soon as she’s trying to be positive. Once some actual drama appears, Milestone, Hellman, Copland and Menzies (reunited with the director from the Oscar-winning TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS) can actually play to their strengths ~

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With the apocalypse underway, things brighten considerably, and the gigantic first act lull almost feels like necessary preparation for the onslaught, in which Milestone seems determined to exterminate every cast member whose name isn’t Walter. Milestone in horrors-of-war mode with his rocketing lateral tracks accompanied by Menzies’ violently skewed compositions is quite something (Milestone always worked with a storyboard, and Menzies liked to draw out all the shots even for films he didn’t direct, so the team is a natural — they also produce great scenic effects in ARCH OF TRIUMPH, dramatically inert though that is).

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Lillian Hellman could have used the above crib-sheet.

We weren’t quite Milestoned out so we ran ANYTHING GOES, a mangled version of a Wodehouse/Cole Porter musical, with Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman. It’s a mess, with bowdlerized lyrics and a shambling narrative (mess with Wodehouse’s immaculate construction at your peril, Mssrs. Lindsay & Crouse!) but it does have some freewheeling visuals from the director, rushing all over the art deco ocean liner sets and luxuriating in the Travis Banton costumes. Lots of queer humour too –

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Fiona had woken up feeling tired, taken a nap, and slept for the entire day. She watched this film in a state of hypnagogic disbelief, convinced she was hallucinating. There’s a long sequence about shaving a Pomeranian in order to procure a false beard for Bing. There are even lyrics on the subject. The Spanish subtitles on our copy of the film certainly didn’t make it any less peculiar.

Sexy Sadie

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, weather with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2014 by dcairns

Joan Crawford joins a long list of Hollywood divas who underestimated their iconic roles. Joan thought Lewis Milestone’s direction was insipid and so she gave the performance she thought right and later regretted it.

But what I want to talk about is technique. At 01.24, Milestone begins the movie proper with billowing clouds and a rainstorm beginning with single drops in closeup detail. Kind of reminds me of Antonioni’s scene without people in L’ECLISSE. Sequences like this recur in the movie, the music warning us to expect a real typhoon, either meteorological or  emotional.

At 8.32 there’s a long tracking shot — one of many — which leads us to meet Joan Crawford, the last major character to be introduced. But the point of the shot is not the long, fluid movement — a strain to achieve in early sound days — but the way it contrasts with her entrance, which is another series of details.

First, her appearance is heralded by a hurled bottle and a reject male being violently ejected from a doorway. Both have presumably been drained by Joan so she has no further use for them.

Then we get a series of delighted male faces feasting their boggling eyes on the awesome spectacle of Joan in all her glory — still unseen by us. This builds anticipation and creates a new, staccato visual rhythm. The bulbous mugs of Guy Kibbee, William Gargan &c also prepare us for something more aesthetically pleasing.

Then, rather extraordinarily, Milestone shows us a hand gripping the doorframe, another hand gripping the other side, a white heel perching on the threshold, another be-ribboned shoe positioning itself on the other side, then joined by its partner, and then –

Joan’s face slides into shot, practically Leone-close, cigarette semi-erect, lips irresistably recalling Tony Curtis in SOME LIKE IT HOT, who copied them, eyes baleful and hooded like a cobra as she leans against the doorjamb as louche as you like.

I think this is a really amazing bit of visual drama, as bold and startling in its way as Boris Karloff’s backwards shamble into view in FRANKENSTEIN the previous year. Did women scream and strong men faint at the sight of Joan’s erotic glower? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Afterwards, Milestone reluctantly allows the ecstatic fragments he’s assembled to join up and create a more cohesive space, where we can actually see where everyone is rather than just inferring it — the camera’s slight pull back relaxes the tension as Joan starts bantering with the boys.

Like the rain montage, this sequence of shots will be repeated later too, to stunning impact.

16:07 — someone puts a record on, and Milestone starts dancing the camera around the actors and the phonograph as if tied to the rotating disc by invisible wires. Long tracking shots are one thing, but this kind of move, rare right up until the invention and adoption of the steadicam, was unheard of. Probably there’s some earlier example, but I haven’t encountered it. I’m not even 100% sure HOW Milestone and cameraman Oliver T. Marsh (who already lensed this story once before for Walsh) are moving their great clunky sound camera — on tracks or on a crane or ceiling tracks maybe? The latter, which you don’t ever hear of anymore, might be it. You’ve then got the problem of concealing the crew, particularly the microphone, since the roving lens is going to take in 360º of the room.

Not that filmmakers should be applauded just for doing something difficult. What I like is that the effort is worthwhile, as it gives us initially a sense of free, gliding exuberance, literally lifting us off our feet with the music — and then when the camera stops as Mrs Mellow-Harsher starts sniping away about it being Sunday, after all, our mood turns earthbound again. Tip-top filmmaking.

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By the way, the whole thing is about sex,as embodied and conjured up by Joan’s drag-queen sensuality. You should watch it, if you haven’t already. A year of film school in under 1hr 34.

Made furious by The Furies

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2012 by dcairns

Guest Shadowplayer Judy Dean weighs in on a film last heard from in Anthony Mann Week — and she makes points about an aspect of the movie I think completely neglected to mention. Because of the nature of the questions discussed, the piece is unavoidably spoiler-heavy –

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The Furies is one of three westerns made by Anthony Mann for different studios that were released in 1950. Together with Winchester 73 (his first collaboration with James Stewart) and The Devil’s Doorway, this period marks his transition from maker of B pictures to big budget features. It’s an adaptation of a novel by Niven Busch, author of Duel in the Sun, who also wrote the screenplay for Pursued, another noirish western with Freudian undertones.

Walter Huston made his last screen appearance in The Furies. He died in April 1950 at the age of 67 and did not live to see its release. It was my intention to write about Huston’s performance (and, believe me, there’s plenty of meat on that bone), but the film contains a scene that I found so shocking, it’s been bothering me ever since and left me with lots of questions.

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Here’s how the scene comes about.

Vance (Barbara Stanwyck) is the daughter of TC Jeffords (Walter Huston), a New Mexico cattle baron, owner of The Furies ranch. On the land that he has acquired is a long-established Mexican community. Juan, eldest son of the Herrera family (Gilbert Roland), has been friends with Vance since childhood and is in love with her. Their scenes together are relaxed and affectionate and therefore in sharp contrast to the grand guignol on display elsewhere.

There are heavy hints of incest in the relationship between Vance and TC and when two outsiders, Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), a gambler with a grudge against TC whom Vance falls for, and Flo (Judith Anderson), the wealthy widow TC plans to marry, appear on the scene, the furies are truly unleashed.

Vance suffers a double defeat. Her advances to Rip end in rejection and humiliation and when she learns of TC’s impending marriage, which will jeopardise her inheritance, she attacks Flo with scissors, permanently disfiguring her. In revenge, TC carries out his plan to evict the Mexicans then, despite having promised the Herreras immunity, orders the hanging of Juan for horse stealing, the slimmest of pretexts.

Vance refuses to demean herself by begging for his life, and Juan calmly submits to his fate. This casual killing of the only honourable and sympathetic character is quite horrible, and the matter of fact way in which it’s presented only makes it worse. I watched with mounting disbelief as Juan’s mother and two brothers pray with him and then accompany him to the scaffold without a murmur of protest. He removes his hat, lowers his head, and the noose is placed around his neck.

Maybe it’s just a testament to Mann’s skill as a filmmaker, and the power of the writing, that this has so effectively got under my skin, but here’s what I want to know.

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Why do I find this so much more disturbing than scenes of execution in other westerns? I had confidently predicted an outcome whereby Vance would choose the loving, principled Juan over the devious Rip, (well, who wouldn’t go for Gilbert Roland rather than Wendell Corey?) and they would gallop away from The Furies together, but it’s not just that my romantic expectations are overturned by Juan’s death.

I am appalled by Vance’s inaction. Why won’t she plead for Juan’s life? And equally appalled by his passivity. Why doesn’t he fight back? Admittedly, he is avenged in the closing scene by his mother, who shoots TC in the back, but this is small recompense for the brutal nature of his death.

Is it an indication of racial sensibilities of the time? Did social attitudes dictate that Vance must marry Rip, as she does in the end, however morally compromised he may be? Was it not possible for a young, attractive, white woman to be seen forming a romantic attachment to a Mexican? Surely Gilbert must have played non-white characters in other films who got the girl?

Or is it, as my partner says, social realism in that when people sense resistance is futile, as occurred many times in WW2, they go to their deaths like lambs?

I have no answers myself, but all this left me wondering how did – or, indeed, do – actors feel when playing parts where their ethnicity determines the outcome. Did they feel humiliated? Or did they just shrug and bank the money?

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Coming soon to The Chiseler: a letter by actor Clarence Muse that addresses, in a way, that very question…

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