Archive for William Goldman

A Bridge Too Soon?

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2015 by dcairns

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1946 — 250 British soldiers are brought back to Arnhem to reenact the battle they fought just two years earlier, under the direction of filmmaker Brian Desmond Hurst. The result, THEIRS IS THE GLORY, is in some ways the most realistic war film I’ve ever seen, and at the same time a weirdly unreal or surreal experience.

By virtue of being filmed in the real locations, with the wreckage intact, and with real soldiers, tanks and planes, Hurst’s material can be integrated absolutely seamlessly with archive material from the real campaign. I’m assuming that the burning and crashing planes are genuine war footage, but other than that I simply couldn’t differentiate. I know the vast majority of the action is faked up after the fact, but I can’t really tell where that ends and the real war begins.

During the war, documentarists like Humphrey Jennings were making feature films which used non-actors in speaking roles. In keeping with norms for the period, staged reconstructions played a major role in the action presented. Hurst incorporates real veterans and requires some of them to stage their comrades’ deaths.

Fiona: “Wouldn’t this be incredibly traumatic for them?”

Me; “For anyone with PTSD, I imagine so. For the rest, it’s just doing what you’re used to only without the fear of imminent death. Be like a holiday.”

Fiona: “How could they get them all together to take part?”

Me: “I imagine they hadn’t been demobbed yet, so they were ordered to take part.”

Fiona: “That’s terrible!”

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The real soldiers bring a variety of accents previously unheard in British cinema. Actors spoke in two kinds of voice, stage posh and mockney. It’s rare indeed to get somebody like Eric Portman in WE DIVE AT DAWN speaking with his own Yorkshire accent.

Hurst was working class, Northern Irish, and a veteran of Gallipoli, all of which feeds into his approach. (‘I would fight for England against anybody except Ireland.’ Why for England? ‘Because an Englishman is worth twenty foreigners.’ Why not against Ireland? ‘Because an Irishman is worth fifty Englishmen.’) Hurst brings the grittiness — little blood, but a lot of dirt — the authentic accents, some of which are particularly thick and obscure dialects — the sense of confidence that this is what these things are like. Not only do you get Ayeshire and Belfast, you get levels of poshness among the officers that simply wouldn’t be allowed into a film. We may think Trevor Howard and Basil Rathbone talk very far back in the throat, but they have nothing on these chinless saviours of democracy, tough toffs who calmly struggled through conditions that would have had me bawling within minutes.

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What makes the film a bit surreal is the very fact that none of these people are actors. While the officers seem to have some basic grasp of amateur dramatics, the other ranks have seemingly never been asked to speak lines in their lives. It’s not that they sound like bad actors, they sound unlike actors and more like Bresson’s “models” — they say the words without inflection, a little like policemen reading from their notebooks in court, and the dialogue has the slightly stilted quality of reported speech — for some reason, when people recount something they said from memory, they always make it a little bit more formal and awkward.

Hurst’s other personality trait I’m aware of his homosexuality — known in later years as “the Empress of Ireland,” and “a terrible old queen.” It’s possible this is somewhat in play when we see a dozen or so British soldiers stripping naked to swim to safety as the attack fails. I’m certain this is historically accurate and fully justified, but the sight of all those bare buttocks would I’m sure have been just as startling to 1946 audiences as the sound of an Ayreshire accent. I suspect Hurst enjoyed himself that day.

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Before he’s even out the water, someone hands him a cigarette. That’s nice.

The Arnhem footage seemed very familiar to me, not because of Richard Attenborough’s super-epic A BRIDGE TOO FAR, but because of Richard Lester’s small-scale recreation in HOW I WON THE WAR, which has the same surreal quality of combat enacted on streets and living rooms in leafy suburbs that look like they could easily be in England. And when I saw the man from the BBC sitting in a slit trench recording broadcasts on a gramophone, I became certain Lester had looked at this amid his considerable archive researches.

The Attenborough film is quite impressive as a logistical achievement — William Goldman writes impressively about it in his Adventures in the Screen Trade. It does fudge a bit of the history and the end line where Dirk Bogarde says the title comes out of left field. Goldman resolved afterwards never to adapt a true story again, because nobody believes the true bits, and the people involved are never happy. After more than half the British advance force have been wiped out (“The troops’ morale is very high,” says an officer in THEIRS IS THE GLORY, astonishingly), the Germans come to negotiate a surrender. “You wish to surrender to us? Very well, I accept,” says a stalwart Brit played by Tony Hopkins. And Goldman had to deal with a real aging British war hero who was in absolute torment about having this line put in his mouth which was said by someone else. Goldman eventually gave the line to Cary Elwes in THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

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What neither version made clear to me is whether Field Marshall Montgomery’s plan was actually a good plan. Most of the Allied command apparently favoured a broad front, slowly sweeping across Europe, but Arnhem was based on the idea of creating a narrow corridor through Holland and across the Rhine, dropping paratroopers in at various points and getting them to hold bridges until reinforced. The flaw seems to me that if one point of the plan fails, then the corridor ceases to be a corridor and becomes a scattering of soldiers cut off in clusters from their own lines. With luck, the advancing army might steamroller through such obstacles and unite them all again, but what happened was that they made very poor headway and the poor paratroopers were left without support. Richard Lester called it the plan a blunder, and I yield to his superior tactical knowledge.

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Given that both the major screen versions of Arnhem are in questionable taste — one an all-star super-entertainment, the other a reenactment shot while the graves were still fresh — I nevertheless think THEIRS IS THE GLORY is the more interesting and rewarding, for reasons of its weird combination of visual authenticity and school play acting.

Nobody Knows

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on February 28, 2015 by dcairns

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“In America, ‘crunchy’ is a compliment,” said Quentin Crisp, lamenting the quality of supermarket bread in the United States (he approvingly likened the consistency of British sliced bread to that of a flannel), the only thing he didn’t like about his chosen homeland.

American paperbacks are crunchier than British ones. I bought a second-hand copy of Richard Hughes’ The Fox in the Attic, and took it to Paris where I was reading it but then I accidentally left it behind. And then I found a copy in the bargain rack at Mercer Street Books, so naturally I picked it up. Distracted by other goodies, such as Mark Harris’ majestic Hollywood history Five Came Back, I laid it aside when home, and Fiona started in on it ahead of me. And the thing began to crumble in her hands, flaking to bits as she feverishly consumed it. “I feel like Rod Taylor in THE TIME MACHINE,” she complained. My copy of Hughes’ sequel, The Wooden Shepherdess, is a British imprint, and it’s appropriately loose and flannelish like a slice of bread from Tesco.

Same thing with another Mercer Street bargain, Gore Vidal’s Hollywood, which I’d been meaning to read for ages, even though the only other volume I’ve read in his history series is Lincoln (which I liked a lot. Richard Lester told me, “Gore Vidal kept trying to sell me the books of his I didn’t want to film, like Myra Breckinridge. I wanted to do Lincoln.”). And on the way home the cover of the book SNAPPED into jigsaw pieces, something I have never encountered before.

Fifteen pages in and it’s GREAT — Vidal has William Randolph Hearst sit in a chair which collapses under him, and then has him anticipate William Goldman’s famous dictum by seventy-odd years —

“But I don’t know anything about the movies.”

“Nobody does. That’s what’s so wonderful.”

I did at first fault Vidal’s prose when he wrote “Like a trumpet, she blew her nose into a large handkerchief,” since the comparison of nose-blowing and trumpetry is a banal one, and he seems to be saying that trumpets regularly, literally blow their noses into large handkerchiefs. But, on reflection, I came to admire the phrase, since it put into my mind the image of a trumpet blowing its nose, and one can’t help but be grateful for such an image.

But my favourite bit so far is the Washington psychic lady ~

“Why did you come to Washington?”

“Fate.” said Madame Marcia, as though speaking of an old and trusted friend. “I was associated with Gipsy Oliver at Coney Island. Mostly for amusement’s sake. But”–Madame’s voice became low and thrilling–“she had gifts as well–worldliness. Dark gifts. Amongst them, the gift of prophecy. I was, I thought, happily married. With two beautiful children. My husband, Dr. Champrey, had an excellent practice, specialising in the lower lumbar region and, of course, the entire renal system. But the spirits spoke to Gipsy Oliver. She spoke to me. Beware of the turkey, she said one day. I thought she was joking. I laughed–more fool I! What turkey? I asked. I know turkeys, and don’t much care to eat them–so dry, always, unless you have the knack of basting, which fate has denied me. Well, lo! and behold the next month, November it was, I was preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for my loved ones, when Dr. Champrey said, ‘I’ll go buy us a turkey.’ I remember now a shiver came over me. A chill, like a ghost’s hand upon me.”

Jess shivered in the stuffy room. This was the real thing, all right. No doubt of that.

“I said, ‘Horace, I’m not partial to turkey, as you know. Just a boiled chicken will do.'” She exhaled. Jess inhaled and smelled boiled chicken, old sandalwood. “‘Why not splurge?’ he said. Then he was gone. He never,” Madame Marcia’s bloodshot eyes glared at Jess, “came back.”

“Killed?” […]

“Who knows? The son-of-a-bitch,” she added, suddenly soulful.

No question

Posted in FILM, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2012 by dcairns

Today I turned 45. Older than Bogart when he embodied world-weariness in CASABLANCA. MUCH older than the impossibly louche Peter Lorre, the suave Paul Henreid or the perennially middle-aged John Qualen.

Re-watching CASABLANCA… reluctant to say anything about it, not so much because so much has already been written, but because I find so little of it compelling or adequate. I remember Umberto Eco making an exciting case that the film’s success lies in its resemblance to other movies, its packaging together of favourite moments and stock characters into a sort of ultimate Pizza Combo (although I don’t think he used those exact words). Which might work as a description of STAR WARS and some other films, like maybe RIO BRAVO, but doesn’t seem adequate to the defiantly non-generic CASABLANCA. Of course, it’s the film which has come to embody classic Hollywood, and it features a lot of iconic actors doing what they do. But the film works for modern kids who have barely seen any 40s cinema and who don’t know most of these actors at all, I think. Just as Joseph Campbell’s comparative mythology downplays the individual details that make each story different and interesting, so Eco’s semiotics underrates the originality of the Epstein-Epstein-Koch-Burnett-Alison scenario.

And consider — CASABLANCA, a wartime-romance-thriller (with singing) was followed by quite a number of films, many with Bogie, which self-consciously tried to duplicate it’s pleasures, none of which was as good or as successful.

William Goldman proves that Nobody Knows Anything by first arguing that the first ten pages are of crucial significance in any screenplay, then alleging that CASABLANCA’s opening is hideously trite and flabby — yet we meet Peter Lorre and Bogart before those minutes are up.

Then you get Robert McKee laboriously explicating the subtext of every line, which is fine as an illustration of how good dialogue uses subtext, but only gets you so far, just as dissecting a frog does not actually enable you to make a frog of your own.

And you get all the “they were still writing it as they were shooting it” stuff, which CAN’T, surely, be true — and it’s used to try and prove that scripts don’t matter or that everything is down to luck. Of course, you can’t get by without luck, but you can’t get by without skill either, when it comes to making something as cunning as this film.

Reading Howard Koch’s memoir, As Time Goes By, gives an insight into the process. Koch joined with project after the Epsteins and kept on it after they were seconded to another job in Washington — they later came back and continued to work more or less separately. The process was somewhat chaotic, but Koch was used to collating and connecting material at speed — he had worked with Orson Welles on the radio, turning over Mercury Theater of the Air productions in a week.

There was a play, and the first half of the script existed several weeks before filming. On the one hand we’re told that nobody had decided who was getting on the plane at the end, but we also hear that George Raft turned down the lead because Rick doesn’t get the girl (Warners memos reveal that they turned him down). The ending Koch and the Epsteins settled on was, in most of its basics, already in the play.

Some of CASABLANCA’s best scenes are positively symphonic in their complexity — the long sequence in which the refugee girl Annina is saved from Captain Renault’s clutches provides not only a subplot mirroring Ingrid Bergman’s own upcoming dilemma with Bogart, it ramps up the Nazis’ pressure on her husband, it has the Franco-German singing match which first shows Bogie taking sides, it completes the character arc of Bogie’s jilted girlfriend Yvonne who rediscovers her patriotism in a tearful closeup, and provides excellent comic bits for “Cuddles” Sakall, Marcel Dalio, Dooley Wilson and many others. It’s a film full of inveterate scene-stealers adept at creating opportunities for beautiful moments, and who them play fast and sly in case the director spots them and objects.

“If someone loved you…”

Koch’s book is also a useful counter-narrative to the idea that Michael Curtiz only cared about the look of his films — in fact, Koch argued for the political elements while Curtiz favoured the romance, resulting in a fortuitous balance that Koch credits with the film’s unique success.

Random thoughts ~

There are a lot of slightly camp men in this film*. Lorre of course portrays Ugarte as masochistically in awe of Bogie’s machismo. He says “You despise me, don’t you?” with a hopeful tone, which makes it hilarious: Bogart obligingly plays the top, and responds with the perfect “If I gave you any thought I probably would.” Bogart flirts shamelessly with all the camp men, but with the casual aloofness of a sadistic tease.

The first character killed on-screen dies right in front of a big poster of Marshall Petain. Maybe one of the good things about 40s filmmaking was that, flag-waving aside, it was a period when Hollywood films could actually take a political stance and not try to bodge it by simultaneously taking the opposite stance. Here, they kill a man right in a real, living politician’s big face.

Bogie, an American in Paris, and Bergman, a chic European, embark on a “No questions” love affair where they don’t share any biographical details — was this the inspiration for LAST TANGO IN PARIS?

Curtiz to Koch: “Don’t worry what’s logical. I make it go so fast no one notices.” If you start unpicking the ending, a lot of it falls apart, but the pace and the actors’ conviction sells it.

Speed comes in handy when they pull off a great screenwriting trick — drama oscillates between the two poles of “All is lost!” and “Saved!” As a drama builds, you want the wiggly graph line that soars to hope and plunges to despair to get very jagged indeed, and at the climax you try to make a complete switcheroo from disaster to triumph (or vice versa) in as little time as possible. In this one, Bogart goes from completely screwed to hero of the day on the single line “Round up the usual suspects.”

Bogart and Bergman kiss and we cut to a searchlight. “They’ve done it,” Fiona declares. Afterwards she observes that the film is strikingly modern — in fact, could you make the film today and have the leading lady cheat on her husband, then leave with her husband, who knows about it and accepts it?

Koch quotes a young audience member in the 70s who tried to describe why the film moved him: “CASABLANCA shows you things you really long for. There are all these graspable values floating around in the film. It’s full of a lost heritage that we can’t live. Life is no longer like that.” Moral certainties, I guess — but even in the film, which Koch admits shows a kind of life that never really existed quite as we see it on screen, the characters do have to struggle to locate those graspable values and hold on to them.

*In Suspects, David Thomson humorously postulates a romance blossoming between Rick and Renault after film’s end. It would make sense of Renault’s change of heart, and Claude Rains is certainly very ooh-la-la in the role. Meanwhile, Greenstreet pouts and puckers constantly (far more than in MALTESE FALCON where he’s coded gay), Lorre and Dalio are both craven puppies fawning on Bogie, and Conrad Veidt’s Major Strasser really really wants to get his hands on Victor Laszlo.

How long since YOU watched CASABLANCA?

Written with a nod to the Self-Styled Siren, who writes about classic movies from the heart.

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