Archive for William Goldman

Everybody Comes to Rick’s

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2020 by dcairns

So, seven and a bit years since I last watched CASABLANCA? Too long. We ran Karen Thomas’s fine documentary Cinema’s Exiles: From Hitler to Hollywood as a companion piece to the somewhat heavier Filmemigration aus Nazideutschland (since Hollywood apparently ran out of original titles decades ago, could not unwieldy compound words by the Next Big Thing?), and it uses CASABLANCA as a sort of fulcrum, tracing the stories of many of the film’s European participants. It made me want to see the Curtiz classic again, so we ran it.

Thoughts on character introductions, spun in the direction of the Classics for Comfort CMBA Spring Blogathon.

Bogie is introduced with a shot of his hand signing a cheque, next to a smoldering ashtray and a wineglass, then a delayed tilt up to his face once we’ve waited long enough to be curious. See also: Sean Connery’s very first appearance at the roulette wheel in DR. NO. But whereas Connery’s Bond is gambling because that’s the kind of somewhat louche character he is, Bogart’s Rick Blaine is working out a chess problem. So, while much action and dialogue is devoted to Rick’s persona as a cynical drunk who’s at heart a noble romantic, this first shot suggests that he has an analytical mind which can work out complex strategies in advance, anticipating his opponent’s moves and countering them. Exactly the skillset he deploys in the film’s dizzying third act, spinning yarns to manipulate Renault, Ilsa and Victor Laszlo (only the wily Renault successfully tricks him with his phone call to Major Strasser).

So, once again the late William Goldman’s criticisms of CASABLANCA’s opening ten minutes can be seen to be, at the very least, overstated: for all its ponderous narration and documentary montage (necessary, I think, to connect the 100% studio-bound romance with the real-world events playing out even as the movie was first screened), it’s a model of tight construction and artful foreshadowing.

The introduction of the other characters is equally cunning. It’s perfect that Strasser (Connie Veidt) arrives by plane, like Hitler at the start of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. I think it’s the only time we see real sky in the film, and the plane’s landing in a matte-shot airfield with a painted city around it completes the transition from wartime reality to big sound stage (which may previously have had a sign painted on the roof diverting prospective Japanese bombers to the nearby Lockheed plant). And the arrival by plane at the start mirrors the departure at the end (but Strasser won’t be catching that flight).

There’s a fast tilt down from a matte painting, linked to a crane shot of the studio set — freeze-frame this, and the line between painting and reality (actually just a different kind of artifice) is shockingly obvious (I’ve drawn a line through it to highlight the dark fuzzy bar) but it’s impossible to spot at normal speed. It’s a microcosm of Curtiz’s line to screenwriter Howard Koch, telling him not to worry about plot illogicalities: “I make it go so fast no one notices.”

Claude Rains’ introduction as Renault is less dramatic: you might be fooled into thinking him a subsidiary character, like Basil Exposition. But his relaxed manner is an early clue to what an enjoyable and cunning presence he’s going to be.

Sam is introduced as we enter Rick’s. Dooley Wilson is treated with considerable respect by Rick and by Ferrari (Sidney Greenstreet): he’s evidently the big draw at the Cafe Americain. A shame that Ilsa will refer to him as “the boy who’s playing the piano” later. You can justify it by saying it’s the forties, but I actually question whether a Swedish character who’s never been to America would have thought of the middle-aged musician as a “boy.”

Peter Lorre’s Ugarte slides in the door with a nod to Bogie while other business is being attended to. Very casual-like. If we didn’t know him, he might be just another of the numerous bit-players already seen doing business at Rick’s (buying, selling, pickpocketing). And in fact he is just that, only he’s Peter Lorre and he’s bringing a MacGuffin that already cost two lives (Nazi lives, though, we’re shedding no tears). By his third shot, he’s lavishing us with twitchy, sweaty anxiety and making it seem jolly entertaining.

I note that there is no reason at all for Rick to accept the letters of transit from Ugarte. He doesn’t want them, he doesn’t like Ugarte and he’s not, at this stage, supposed to be interested in the resistance (and the letters have no connection to the resistance yet). It’s pure plot mechanics, puppeteering the cast in plain sight. Never mind: we want to know what happens next.

Greenstreet enters with a tracking shot that cuts through the throng, touching breast, lips and brow in a smooth salute to a Muslim associate, and takes his seat while Sam is singing: we get a musical interlude but also a bit of suspense as we wait to hear why this obviously significant figure has arrived. He tries to buy the cafe. Rick rejects his offer without hearing the price. He tries to buy Sam. “I don’t buy or sell human beings,” says Rick. “Too bad, that’s Casablanca’s leading commodity,” replies Greenstreet, typing himself as a swine but doing it with not just a twinkle (everyone twinkles at Rick’s) but with an adorable-repulsive wrinkling of the nose, as if he were Baby Spice.

Ilsa and Victor enter together in another, different tracking shot: classic Curtiz, gliding through a space at a slight angle to the action, with a tone of interesting local colour slipped in between subject and camera. 3D without glasses. Looking at all these entrances in one sequence, one is reminded, abstractly, that this was once a play (unproduced). But it never feels like one, since the space is broken up into so many different playing areas, which feel like scenes in themselves. The busy bit players are reminiscent of a much earlier phase of Warners movies, the pre-codes which often documented a particular area of American life, commerce or politics or transportation, and would often open with a flurry of tiny sketches establishing the life of the place.

Ilsa and Victor glide right past Sam, who is playing the bittersweet Plaisir D’Amour, an absurdly apposite choice if you stop to think about it. But you’re not that likely to stop. The art of story is the art of making the audience wait for what they want to see, but making them enjoy your delaying tactics too. So Bergman doesn’t immediately meet Bogie, she meets John Qualen. And then Claude Rains. And then Conrad Veidt. And then Dooley Wilson… and then there’s a really remarkable ten-second shot of Bergman just listening and thinking…

Bogie and Bergman’s eyes meet thirty-two minutes and ten seconds into CASABLANCA.

CASABLANCA stars Samuel Spade; Dr. Constance Petersen; Jeremiah (Jerry) Durrance; Dr. Jack Griffin aka The Invisible Man; Gwynplaine / Lord Clancharlie; Kasper Gutman; Joel Cairo; Felix Bassenak; Madeleine – l’attrice francaise; Gabe Tucker; Marsinah; Miser Stephens; Sylvanian Agitator; Der sterbene Homer; Danton; Aramis; Baron St. Fontanel; Nectenabus; Count Alexis Rakonin; Crunch; Lo Tinto; and Reinhard Heydrich.

For the Classics For Comfort Spring Blogathon, my five classics recommended for cosy viewing at this Difficult Time:

CASABLANCA

REAR WINDOW

THE SEVEN SAMURAI

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

LONESOME

Chosen because I could watch them anytime and they’d give me a glow.

Spadework

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2019 by dcairns

Paul Newman’s two Lew Harper films — based on two of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels — are kind of like the square old Hollywood movies celebrated, or at any rate documented — in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Both have extremely gifted mod cinematographers, though: Conrad Hall shot HARPER in 1966 and Gordon “the Prince of Darkness” Willis shot its belated sequel THE DROWNING POOL in 1975. I double-billed them but I’ll mainly talk about the first one here.

Jack Smight, a truly square director but not untalented, allows or encourages or inspires Hall to pull off a few spectacular shots in HARPER (see top), perhaps aware that it’s just a reasonably good Raymond Chandler knock-off. As Donald Westlake complained, Ross MacDonald recycled the one about the rich, dysfunctional family until everyone was screaming at him to quit it for chrissakes — basically The Big Sleep ad nauseam, and here we have Lauren Bacall to remind us of past glories. So making the most of the widescreen and colour is essential to stop this from seeming like warmed-over stuff from an earlier decade — what’s harder is to stop it seeming like TV stuff. The down-at-heel, long-suffering private eye would be incarnated par excellence by James Garner in The Rockford Files who had a natural word-weariness Newman can’t match.

The first movie is quite diverting, with a spectacular comic turn from Shelley Winters (I felt bad about all the fat gibes in William Goldman’s script though) and very good work from Arthur Hill, Pamela Tiffin and a host of others. Strother Martin’s hillside cult temple is one of my favourite places I’ve ever seen in a movie. There’s a fight there between Newman and a hundred silent Mexicans (a short fight) which has a nice surreal vibe, like the multiple Agent Smiths in THE MATRIX.

Maybe the problem is that these stories never effect any change in the hero, making them more suited to series TV… though they used to work fine in the ‘forties. This one has too many corpses and complications, and Goldman’s misogyny gets grating, and I think sometimes Newman tries too hard to be “entertaining.” Here he is, reacting to the sight of Pamela Tiffin in a bikini:

Goldman writes about the film’s opening sequence in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade. He’d started his script, sensibly enough, with the private eye showing up to get briefed on his case. The studio called to say they needed some action to put under the credits. Well, what could he write that happens BEFORE the case?

In desperation, he scripted the early morning routine of his hero, and put in a gag about running out of coffee. Harper looks in his waste bin where there’s yesterday’s discarded coffee filter. Dare he recycle it?

He does. Closeup of Newman pulling disgusted face when he tastes the result. The audience laughs. It’s a nice gag — it humanizes the character, it’s gross but still relatable — it makes him a bit of an underdog. Down these mean streets a man must walk with a horrible taste of used coffee in his mouth.

What Goldman omits to mention is that, normally, opening a script with the hero getting up in the morning is a TERRIBLE idea, a huge cliche and a watse of the audience’s time. Don’t do it, he should be saying, especially as his book is a kind of screenwriting guide (written before there were a million of the things). It happens to work this one time.

The other bad thing is Newman thinking about whether to make terrible garbage coffee. It’s a classic Hitchcock set-up: show him looking, show what he’s looking at, and show him looking some more. We will do the thinking and project that onto the image. No acting required. You could remove the coffee grains and insert a shot of Pamela Tiffin or Robert Webber or the Serengeti plains and it would still work, if the angle was right.

But here’s what we get from Newman, the great method actor:

Boy, he’s thinking HARD, isn’t he? I bet if he thought that hard about the kidnapping case he has to solve the movie would only be twenty minutes long.

Newman is very affable generally and has that contradictory laid-back intensity that’s so useful in a star. It’s just that sometimes maybe somebody ought to sit on his head.

True to Type

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on November 20, 2018 by dcairns

We watched Steven Spielberg’s THE POST and then moved on to its sequel, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN which, unusually for a sequel, was made forty years earlier. And it turned out to be the week screenwriter William Goldman died. ATPM is one of his best pieces, though he complained that writing it was very tough. It got him an Oscar, though, so that seems reasonable.

Comparing the two films was interesting. THE POST is solid stuff, as conventional as you’d expect from the Spielberg-Hanks-Streep teaming: “entertaining” is a very good word here. It has a certain forward impetus and there are nice bits of visual storytelling amid the gab and Spielberg’s skill at moving actors around as he moves his camera around is apparent. Hanks is fine, but no Jason Robards. Streep is great value. Alison Brie and Sarah Paulson are wasted but Bob Odenkirk gets some good business.

Kaminski shoots it in shades of gun-metal blue (not an obvious seventies look — more like DIE HARD) with the usual Spielberg God-light blasting over everyone’s shoulders but with crunchier blacks to point up all that clandestine power and subterfuge.

As a political response to the current times, it’s perhaps too polite, and you notice that when previous filmmakers like Pakula and company wanted to address the current situation, they addressed the current (or very recent) situation. They didn’t look back forty years for an peudo-analagous moment.

The great thing about a lot of seventies cinema is, it doesn’t seem to care if you’re watching. A friend said that about THE EXORCIST. Even THE EXORCIST, which wants to scare you, doesn’t really care if you’re watching or not. Your choice, it shrugs.

WHAM!

In THE POST, you can see the wheels go round: literally, with the fetishistic hot press shots of newspapers rolling out into the world. In ATPM, the source of dramatic tension is harder to place: in this one, typewriter keys descend from nowhere in abrupt, slamming ECU. The mechanism is concealed, off over there somewheres. Unlike Spielberg, Alan Pakula doesn’t seem to be trying to create tension, but there is nevertheless some crackling energy force underneath it all, created invisibly by the actors, the frame, the lighting.

I’m curious to look at Pakula’s later work for the Late Show Blogathon: I’m worried that he’ll have felt compelled to amp up the dramatics in his later thrillers, and I’m certain the scripts won’t be as good.

The secret wonder ingredient here is cinematographer Gordon Willis, who bonded with Pakula even more than with Coppola on THE GODFATHER — he seems to have shot nearly everything Pakula made (plus a bunch of key Woody Allens). He was a kind of Prince of Darkness, happy to let expensive sets and actors drop off into Stygian gloom if it served his sense of the scene. When he filmed car interiors, he let other cars serve as the light source, which meant the characters could cease to be visible even as outlines for long stretches or movie and road.

He doesn’t go looking for beauty: the Washington Post interior is as flat as it ought to be. But then he seizes passing opportunities for visual grace, and creates surprise with unexpected splashes of light, colour.

The tamped-down performances and low-key lighting are enhanced by David Shire’s muted score, so that nobody seems to be trying to make this a thriller, but everybody seems to be succeeding.

Poor old Goldman had to try to please the original authors, who were also the main characters, a star who was also the producer, another star who was Dustin Hoffman, and Pakula, who couldn’t make up his mind. It must have been a huge relief to him to realise he could cut the story off half way through, before it got to the part everybody watched unravel in the news. His script unfolds in a rash of names, names leading to more names, with ellipses used so boldly we fear we may not keep up. Maybe THAT’S the source of tension: our fear that we’re not equal to grasping Watergate. Thankfully, we have Deep Throat to keep us straight: “Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

This felt like a good film to be watching right now.

THE POST stars Forrest Gump, Florence Foster Jenkins, Bunny Yeager, Jimmy McGill, Gerald Burlingame and Unikitty.

ATPM stars Jeremiah Johnson, Ratso Rizzo, Max Corkle, Det. Milton Arbogast, Henry Northrup, Cable Hogue, Georgia O’Keeffe and Tector Crites, or do I mean Hoover Shoates?