Archive for Willem Dafoe

Lockdown

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2022 by dcairns

I forget who it was who suggested that STRONGROOM would make a good double bill with CASH ON DEMAND. Duly noted, and though we didn’t pair them up (this time), we did finally get around to Vernon Sewell’s claustrophobic thriller.

Sewell, a former associate of Michael Powell, seems to have had a natural inclination towards restrictive environments. True, it’s a natural way of controlling costs, but there are other ways to do that — filming on location to avoid the need to hire studios and build sets, for instance. Sewell made several films on his boat, and a decent haunted house film, but STRONGROOM may well be his best.

The concept is simple: three bank robbers are compelled to lock two staff members in the vault where their plan goes awry. Realising that the prisoners will suffocate over the long weekend, they resolve to alert the authorities, but circumstances conspire against them. Weirdly, the tension relating to whether the poor bank employees will asphyxiate is less than that concerning whether the bastards who caused it will face a murder rap.

The double-bill we went for was this and SPLIT SECOND, the Dick Powell-directed nuclear thriller, which has an interesting cast and a high concept — criminals take a bunch of hostages at a nuclear test site — but weirdly is far less tense, until the very impressive final blast. Nobody in SS seems to be taking the nuke seriously enough. Every single moment in S is about the threat of death, of finding yourself a murderer.

Sewell’s direction isn’t so much — logic says the shots ought to build in intensity, but they barely do — but the script knows what to concentrate on. It’s shameless but effective in its constant amping up of anxiety. Writer Max Marquis wrote mainly TV drivel (Crossroads!) but Richard Harris (not that one) concentrated on thrillers, including great stuff like I START COUNTING, THE LADY IN THE CAR WITH GLASSES AND A GUN (English dialogue), and a bunch of obscurities like THE MAIN CHANCE which I now feel eager to try. It’s a perfect low-budget movie, exploiting not only small, cheap sets, but slow pace. Watching oblivious minor characters padding about while death is on the line is extremely suspenseful.

While the imprisoned (Colin Gordon & Ann Lynn) are rather drab characterisations which the actors can only do so much with, the thieves include the great Derren Nesbitt, who has a strange plastic Auton quality that always makes him uncanny and watchable (he’s magnificent as the oily blackmailer in VICTIM). Sewell would cast him again in BURKE AND HARE (NOT a distinguished film — but one I kind of want to watch properly).

Nesbitt, tragicomically, blew his savings on his dream project, sex comedy THE AMOROUS MILKMAN, a contender for worst British film ever, and also appears in two more of the worst British sex farces you could ever hope to unsee, NOT NOW DARLING and OOH, YOU ARE AWFUL. He even cameos in RUN FOR YOUR WIFE, for old times’ sake. But he should never have been put in a comedy. His thick-lipped wax mask of a face stifles the laugh response. (Producer Art Linson, mulling over a casting idea with his wife: “Do you think Willem Dafoe could make you laugh?” Mrs. L: “I don’t know, but I saw him smile once and I had nightmares for a week.”)

When Nesbitt puts a stocking over his head for the robbery, it’s too much — he already looks like he has a stocking over his head, somehow.

The ending is a magnificently timed kick in the teeth for both characters and audience.

So, yes: a double bill of STRONGROOM and CASH ON DEMAND would be an excellent idea. Run them near Christmas, ideally, and have this one first: it isn’t remotely Christmassy.

Overselling

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2022 by dcairns

We liked Guillermo Del Toro’s NIGHTMARE ALLEY. I think it’s his best film in a while, though I admit I didn’t care for THE SHAPE Of WATER or CRIMSON PEAK much at all, and PACIFIC RIM just wasn’t my kind of thing. Honestly, I still think THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE is his best.

This review will now discuss the endings, immediately, because they’re a key difference between versions:

We now have two good films of William Lindsay Gresham’s book, neither of which quite nails it, but both of which succeed in places and are good in their own right. I’m inclined to prefer the Edmund Goulding version, but I have to admit that Del Toro and Bradley Cooper nailed the ending, which Goulding and Tyrone Power weren’t allowed to do. Or, rather, they did it, but were forced to GO PAST IT so that their movie ends on a softened note. Still, if Ty Power isn’t going to turn into The Geek, he’s definitely going to turn into Ian Keith’s broken-down ex-mentalist, so it’s not THAT happy.

It makes sense to compare the movies by their casts. They have very different visual styles, of course, but oddly that seems less important to me. Goulding wasn’t a noir stylist, but his slightly more prosaic approach gave the horrors of the story a matter-of-fact quality. Though he includes more gore and slightly more sex, Del Toro’s design and camera aesthetic tend to dilute the sense of realism. Both approaches seem commendable, and probably my preferred angle would be… what if they made this in the seventies? And had actors who were willing to get period-appropriate haircuts? And could talk fast?

So, actors.

Tyrone Power versus Bradley Cooper as Stanton Carlisle

Both actors are by rights too old: Stanton Carlisle is 21 at the start of the novel. If he ISN’T going to be young, where has he been? Who runs away to join the circus in his late thirties (Power) or mid-forties (Cooper)? Del Toro and Kim Morgan’s screenplay give Stan more of a past, but it’s a past living at home with his dad. Jules Furthman’s script for the ’47 version starts with Stan already employed at the carnival, neatly dodging the question, or almost. Fiona, who has read the novel for me (I’ll get around to it!) doubts if any very young stars could manage the part, and in fact right now there seems to me a shortage of really big stars under thirty.

What we’d be looking for in a young star is energy, I think. Cooper plays it dour, which is an example of the Del Toro film’s tendency to oversell its surface effects, ignoring the value of counterpoint. Power seems genuinely thriller by the power being a carny spieler gives him. Cooper’s Stan is running away from trauma, but what is he running TO? Where is the joy in his life?

Joan Blondell versus Toni Collette as Zeena the Seer.

An unenviable task, following La Blondell. Joan just bursts with warmth and love. Maternal but sexy. Collette is a fine actor, as we know, but seems flat here, maybe because the script is too anxious to push Zeena onto Stan’s dick without setting up a sympathetic character interest first.

Ian Keith versus David Strathairn as Pete Krumbein.

I love them both. Keith’s astonishing rendition of the words “Every boy has a dog,” is one of my favourite line readings of all time. But I think Strathairn has the edge. He’s almost too good for the movie: so right and alive, everyone he shares the screen with seems a touch unreal, underdeveloped. He doesn’t get to say Keith’s line, and the lines he gets instead don’t work as well. But if you’re wondering whether to see the movie, he would be the first reason I’d mention.

Mike Mazurki versus Ron Perlman as Bruno.

Both terrific physiognomic spectacles. Perlman is the better actor by a country mile. Mazurki at forty exudes more physical menace than Perlman at seventy-two, and threat is what the character’s for. Del Toro also gives us Willem Dafoe (very welcome, as always) and Mark Povinelli, expanding the family circus, but not creating much sense of a wider community. Spreading the dialogue to a few bit players might have been helpful. (Povinelli’s The Major is a really mean character in the book, here he’s just truculent, which is the new cliché mode for small actors since Peter Dinklage burst forth in LIVING IN OBLIVION.)

Coleen Gray versus Rooney Mara (Molly Cahill)

Rooney Mara is hands-down the better actor. Gray is good enough for the role she’s given. The Del Toro omits the creepy incest backstory — child abuse is the origin story of both Gresham’s main characters. So, Mara has a character less interesting than she’s capable of playing, basically an ingenue role, but she’s able to tamp down her own interestingness without extinguishing it, and she’s really good.

George Beranger versus Paul Anderson & Jesse Buck (the Geek/s)

This comparison is basically a question of whether it’s better to keep the Geek offscreen, or present him for our edification. Goulding’s offscreen horror is super-effective. Gresham, by showing him, is able to humanize him more (I’m getting all this from Fiona). Gresham has him mouth the words “You son-of-a-bitch,” which humanizes him, and leads the reader away from the pit as he prepares to bite the head of a chicken, playing the scene on the marks’ reaction, which is a very intelligent and restrained way to do it. Del Toro’s explicitness here lets us think ourselves superior to the crowd who lap it up, while granting us the exact same experience, with added moral superiority.

In his glossary of carnival terms accompanying the story The Freak Show Murders, Fredric Brown describes the Geek in these words ~

A freak, usually a Negro, who eats glass, razor blades and almost anything else. Don’t ask me how they can do it, but there’s no gaff about it. A geek can chew up an old light bulb just as you’d eat an apple.

Del Toro’s movie answers Brown’s mystery: the geek is hooked on opium. Interesting that both the full-time geeks we see and the aspirant geek at the movie’s end are white. It’s a very white film. I spotted one Black carny and a Black hotel employee is the only character of colour with dialogue. All Gresham’s characters seem to be white. But the movie changes other things, it could have changed that. Maybe a black geek would be too uncomfortable. But maybe that discomfort would be salutary. Carnivals were places of casual racism. Brown tells us that the term for a dance act performed by Black carnival workers was “Jig show,” and that this was “an accepted term.”

There is a fashion or movement towards racially blind casting, putting actors of different races into roles they might, in real history, not have gotten to occupy. I think this is fine if your film isn’t about real history. If the reason for no non-whites in major roles is that this is a film concerned with actual social history, I would say Phooey, It Is Not. It is, however, a diverse film in having a small person, a hairy person, etc.

Where Ty Power targets essentially one rich old bereaved person with his spook act, the new film offers a few figures: we get Mary Steenburgen, who is the other person in this film besides Strathairn who totally transcends everything they’re asked to do — she should be in everything, and I’m sure she’s busy, but it is DECADES since I saw her in a movie. Welcome back. We get Peter MacNeil and Del Toro favourite Richard Jenkins. Jenkins is playing the character Taylor Holmes has in the ’47 film. He’s good, but his backstory seems underdeveloped or overdeveloped… there’s too much of it for its incompleteness to be a satisfying mystery. Something is just a bit off — maybe in shortening his long first cut (excellent interview at Trailers from Hell), Del Toro couldn’t arrive at quite the right balance. It’s not terrible, but it might be simpler and better if the film decided to make the character less nasty and less complex: his role in Stan’s story is basically that of victim, however unpleasant.

Also here we get his henchman, Holt McCallany from Mindhunter who is just fantastic. I don’t know if he reaches the sublime heights that Strathairn and Steenburgen hit, but he somehow seems to have just stepped into our time from the 1940s. As in his Fincher TV show he’s required to exhibit a lot of righteous anger and he does that so, so well. Another actor who should be in everything, and as he’s youngish and white and male I can’t work out why he isn’t.

Finally —

Helen Walker versus Cate Blanchett (Dr. Lilith Ritter)

Blanchett is very probably lots better than Walker, but not here. In the right roles with the right director, Walker was hard to beat — you really see it in CLUNY BROWN and NIGHTMARE ALLEY. What makes her an inspired choice is her little-girl moonface, which seems to offer innocence. She’s not on the nose, at least in terms of casting. I think Stan, at least this new movie’s Stan, would be suspicious of Blanchett. She’s sinister. Funny that she gets a line about “overselling” her pitch — she’s thrown at us so blatantly, she might as well have a blinking neon sign over her saying FEMME FATALE. It’s not that she’s bad or that this is a bad approach. It’s just more obvious, less elegant, less surprising, than it could be. A shame, in a film that’s frequently elegant and surprising, and with an actor who’s shown she can do almost anything.

Legion

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , on April 3, 2017 by dcairns

I remember being struck by the fact that in Scorsese & Schrader’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, Jesus (who has drawn a magic circle, like Murnau’s FAUST) is visited in the desert by Satan, who takes not just three forms ~

A snake (which explodes); a lion (which fades away in a dissolve); a column of fire (which dissipates in a gust of wind) ~

Satan also appears via a series of cinematic devices ~

Tracking shot (snake). Scorsese doesn’t shoot this as snake POV — we’re at Jesus’ eye level, not the snake’s, gliding in. But when the snake rears up to address the Messiah, the camera rises also, as if representing the POV of a much bigger, unseen snake.

Cut (lion). Before we see the (rather gentle, wise-looking big cat, voiced by PEEPING TOM scribe Leo Marks), there are two cuts taking us closer to Willem Dafoe’s Jesus, moving straight down the line at him, no angle change, kind of like the Frankenstein monster’s first appearance, or the eyeless farmer’s discovery in THE BIRDS. There’s a (rather appropriate) horror movie theme developing here…

Crane (fire). The camera swoops down majestically just before the Lynchian flame-column appears.

I have no coherent theory to offer here. Other than that Scorsese’s restless imagination and bulging repertory of cinematic tricks compels him to emphasise not the similarity of the three visits (one character, visited by another, three times) but their difference (since similarity is taken care of by the Aristotelian unities at play: time, place and action are consistent, as are theme and character).