Archive for William Rose

Crom Does Not Pay

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2018 by dcairns

Richard Fleischer’s long and often distinguished career came to — should we say “ignominious”? — yes, we have to say “ignominious” — an ignominious end in the eighties, a decade in which he made six films, none of them projects he would likely have accepted earlier in his career, and none of which he could transubstantiate into silk purses, though he brought a bit of style to them here and there. It’s the sad spectacle of a Hollywood pro who’s run out of time — as late as the seventies, though not exactly a fashionable talent, Fleischer had been able to make amazing films like 10 RILLINGTON PLACE and interesting ones like MANDINGO and SOYLENT GREEN, alongside some bona fide disasters like ASHANTI. If Fleischer’s eighties films largely suck, it’s because they relate to Fleischer’s seventies films roughly the way Hollywood eighties films relate to Hollywood seventies films. Both decades produced some genius work and a lot of trash… but I like seventies trash better.

I saw the start of RED SONJA on TV once, and was struck by the sight of Arnie riding up to Brigit Nielsen and intoning the line, “Your sister’s dying,” with the matter-of-fact tone he might have better applied to a line like “Those are nice shoes,” or “I’d like some toast.” I mentally bookmarked the movie as one that might be amusing to watch, because apparently Arnie hadn’t yet reached the minimum level of acting competence he’s displayed ever since.

Later, I caught the last hour of the movie on TV and found it unendurably dull. There’s a little bit of nice design but a lot of it is just idiots in fancy dress in a nondescript wood, or desert, or somewhere.

“PLEASE can I use my litter tray?”

But I’d never, until now, seen CONAN THE DESTROYER, depite having seen the original CONAN at the cinema when I was too young to gain legal admission. Without any particular expectations, I delved in, dragging Fiona with me. Our lack of expectations were spectacularly fulfilled. It’s a 99% nothing film — with enjoyably ridiculous costumes, good production design (in a wholly appropriate fantasy art calendar style) and lousy performances  — it stars a bodybuilder, a model-turned-singer and a basketball player. The basketball player gets more lines than Jeff Corey and Ferdy Mayne put together, and is taller than Jeff Corey and Ferdy Mayne put together.

 

But it’s photographed by Jack Cardiff. It’s a very late film for him too, but he does bring out the visual possibilities. There’s even a bit where our heroes ride through an aisle of giant statues and Olivia D’Abo looks up at one of them and we get a POV shot tracking past it, and one MIGHT be reminded of David Niven on the stairway to heaven in A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH…

Carlo Rambaldi, fresh from ET, is on hand to concoct a rubbery demon for the climax. It’s a relatively late credit for him, too. It turns out putting bat wings on Andre the Giant is not a good design concept.

“PLEASE can I use my litter tray?”

Fiona was (a) repelled by Tracey Walter’s attempt to do a Peter Lorre type sidekick (everything that aims at humour fails dismally in this film) and (b) offended by the exploitation of Grace Jones as an exotic spectacle in spiky leather, bare-assed, with a ponytail on her costume, yet. It wasn’t attached to a butt-plug, at least, but may as well have been, almost. I pointed out that Arnie is treated somewhat as a fetish object too, but had to admit that he managed to cover his actual ass for most of the film, and doesn’t wear a tail.

Exoticism is racism’s sexy sister.

In the eighties, Jack Cardiff did Michael Winner’s THE WICKED LADY, and RAMBO (“And the photography in that film is the exception,” declared Nestor Almendros in my presence). So this isn’t the worst.

“Please can I use –” OK I’ll stop now.

Fleischer went on to make RED SONJA (don’t see it) and then MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY, which is sort of like IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD only without the A-list stars. I really, really dislike IAMMMMW, but that’s just me. I understand it has admirers, which is fine. Allah delights in marvelous variety. But it turns out, surprisingly enough, that removing the stars from it doesn’t lead to a greatly improved experience. Even making it half as long, which I would expect to make it twice as good, doesn’t really work here.

In IAMMMMW, a crook expires in front of a disparate group of Americans, informing them, with his dying breath, of the existence of a hidden treasure, and providing them a cruptic clue as to its location. The three credited writers of MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY have come up with a cunning variation on this plot device: in MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY, a crook expires in front of a disparate group of Americans, informing them, with his dying breath, of the existence of a hidden treasure, and providing them a cryptic clue as to its location. I don’t know how these screenwriters come up with these ideas. Unless perhaps they dig up the corpse of William Rose and beat its brains in until an idea falls out, mouldy and crumbling on the lawn, whereupon they fall upon it and devour it like ravening coprophages.

It’s not entirely true that the film doesn’t have stars. It doesn’t have Spencer Tracy, true. But it does have Eddie Deezen. Who actually belongs in knockabout farce a helluva lot more than Spencer ever did, especially at his time of life. It also has Tom Bosely (in surely the hardest half day’s work he ever did) and Rich Hall, who is quite well-known in the UK due to his many BBC appearances. It’s downright weird seeing him YOUNG. He doesn’t actually seem young, he just seems like they filled him with air, or gravy or something. And Kevin Pollak is in it, doing impressions, maybe to make up for the lack of celebrity cameos. I guess some of the other people are more famous in America or something (the opposite of the Rich Hall Effect) but nothing they get to do in this movie made me want to look into it. It’s slightly weird, disturbing almost, seeing a movie with a big stunt budget (Vic Armstrong, transferring from CONAN) but with unknowns in major roles. Like a Hollywood pic invaded by pod people.

I am proud and happy to say that I’m friends with Eddie Deezen on Facebook, so I asked him for his memories of this movie. It wasn’t one of his favourites, it’s fair to say, but he didn’t want to badmouth anybody. Fleischer hadn’t made a comedy since 1949, and his “lighter” work since then had included stuff like DOCTOR DOLITTLE, the famous soufflé that crashed through the floorboards of Twentieth Century Fox. There are more laughs in 10 RILLINGTON PLACE than in DOCTOR DOLITTLE.

But when I asked Mr. Deezen about Jack Cardiff, it was like turning on a warm tap of loveliness: “JACK CARDIFF, THE CAMERAMAN, WAS A LOVELY, KIND AND WONDERFUL GUY. I WELL RECALL HAVING LUNCH WITH JACK ONE DAY. I OPENED UP TO HIM, WE TALKED, AND I TOLD HIM ABOUT MY LIFE, MY CHILDHOOD. HE WAS KIND, WARM AND EMPATHETIC. JACK WAS POSSIBLY MY ALL TIME FAVORITE CINEMATOGRAPHER. LOVED HIM.”

(Eddie types the way he acts, all-caps all the time. Which I love, by the way.)

Deezen’s happy memories are wholly consistent with every impression of Cardiff I ever got elsewhere, including when Fiona and I saw him at Edinburgh Film Festival.

Cardiff gets to shoot a lot of spectacular Arizona scenery in this one, so the film is, like CONAN, a lot better to look at than to listen to. Though these actors, unlike the CONAN ensemble, can really put a funny line over, so there is some amusement. It just ignores Howard Hawks’ advise about not annoying the audience: the writers throw in lots of gags and unwisecracks, some dubbed in while the actors’ backs are turned, and there’s not much quality control: on my first short film, I had some terrible attempts at funny lines, because I thought quantity would make up for lack of quality, and who knows, maybe someone would laugh at this line ever though it didn’t make ME laugh. I soon learned better. Fleischer maybe never knew that or maybe he forgot.

I did kind of like the b&w detective’s office: a chance for Fleischer to nod to his early noir work, and for Cardiff to do some b&w, something he missed out on in the forties because he was trained in Technicolor early on and became the go-to guy, for obvious reasons.

And Fleischer WAS good at widescreen.

CONAN THE DESTROYER stars Jack Slater, May Day, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Ursa, Sheriff Ray Bledsoe, Count Von Krolock and Fezzik.

MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY stars Herbie Kazlminsky, Franjean, Howard Cunningham, Otis Lee Crenshaw, J. Paul Getty, Andy Warhol and Cupid.

One more Late Show link to post, but I’m saving that for tomorrow…

Naval Gazing

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 4, 2015 by dcairns

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When I was a kid, the big military entertainments didn’t really mean that much to me — I don’t even remember for sure if I’ve seen WHERE EAGLES DARE. But the naval films were probably the worst, though not as noisy as air ones. So although Britain produced endless naval films both during and after the war — re-fighting the old battles all through the white heat of the technological revolution, I have seen David Lean’s IN WHICH WE SERVE and Michael Powell’s THE BATTLE OF THE RIVER PLATE and little else. And those are two of my less-favourite Lean and Powell films.

GIFT HORSE (1952) dates from a time when at least some of the US war pictures were starting to take a more considered, less triumphalist view of the conflict, now that the need for propaganda was over. Britain, feeling less secure, kept on flag-waving — but director Compton Bennett had a gift for melancholy and the five writers include the talented William Rose, whose THE LADYKILLERS conceals an iconoclastic sensibility. The film’s best moments have to do with the malfunctionings of the leaky tub gifted to embattled Britain by the US before America entered the war, and the malfunctionings of Trevor Howard’s rustbucket of a face. He’s a broken-down captain hauled out of mothballs for the war and given one last chance to salvage his holed reputation. Joining him for the voyage are numerous trusty supporting players, the kind of people these films always throng with —

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There’s no Jack Hawkins, whose involvement in RIVER PLATE was considered essential by the Admiralty — they simply couldn’t imagine taking seriously a sea picture without him, Here we benefit from less stalwart faces — a great slab of Bernard Lee, jug-eared and limpid-eyed, and the equally soulful Richard Attenborough, the babyish features that turned up with eye-glazing reliability. Here he’s amusingly cast as a former trade unionist turned “sea lawyer” — a sailor who knows his rights, knows the regulations, knows when he’s due overtime, and ends by lecturing his German captors on the Geneva Convention. His appearance is ever-predictable in these things but he always gives value for money.

The surprise bit by Hugh Williams had me rubbing my hands with glee — his oiliness always gives satisfaction, and results in an amiable surprise when he turns out to be a decent chap here. The weirdest casting is James Donald as a free-and-easy Canadian. It’s not just that he can’t do the accent, can barely suggest it in an embarrassed way, it’s that nobody was ever less free and easy than James Donald. If you want someone to stare wide-eyed at carnage and mutter “Madness. Madness!” James Donald is your man. But if you want someone with the gleam of gaiety in his eye and a devil-may-care sparkle in his smile, then please hire him and make him stand in front of James Donald. What James Donald projects is the cares of the world, boring out of his eyeholes with a soft whimper.

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Asides from the movie’s bracing melancholy — the ship fails to perform at every turn, and so do the crew, and their final victory is achieved by ramming a port, using the ship as a cudgel, then blowing her up — it also has a startling fight scene, a bar brawl in Sid James’ pub. Like the man himself, the character is an ex-pugilist, the walls of the house decorated with photographs of his past fights — the pub as metaphor for British cinema? But look what Bennett does with it ~

The Sid James Centre from David Cairns on Vimeo.

Something between COLONEL BLIMP’s jump-cut trophies and Richard Lester.

Then I turned to SINK THE BISMARCK, a 1960 Fox production in ‘Scope, but still British to the core. Doughty, doughy Kenneth More takes the Jack Hawkins part this time, playing an entirely fictitious commander parachuted into the true story because, presumably, the real sea lord didn’t want to be made into a Boy’s Own hero, or to be played by Kenneth More.

Sea battles aren’t close-quarters, which is probably why the young me didn’t care for them. They have the quality of board games, but with added death by immolation and drowning. Here, More never even gets his feet wet, directing operations from deep underneath Trafalgar Square with the beauteous Dana Wynter at his side, while the heroic death-blow at sea is struck by, of all people, Michael Hordern. In a long and varied career I doubt he had that privilege very often.

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Journeyman director Lewis Gilbert keeps the thing trundling along relatively briskly, and the only painful bits are the hackneyed scenes with Admiral Lutyens, played by Karel Stepanek, who can do nothing with the boilerplate Nazi they’ve written for him. In a misguided attempt at expressionism or something, Gilbert introduces the character (left of frame, above) with his back to us, head apparently ablaze. We sense that he’s smoking some evil brand of National Socialist tobacco, but the illusion that his scalp is on fire is inescapable and inappropriately amusing.

The other interesting bit of weak direction comes when More gets the news that his son is lost at sea (and the production, to their credit, did manage to find an actor with the same cuboid head as More). Hearing the tragic news on the phone, More closes his eyes in silent grief.

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Later, hearing on the phone that his son has been rescued, More closes his eyes in silent relief.

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Calling Comrade Kuleshov! Ken More makes the same face for grief and relief! Since the rest of More’s face is just a frowning thumb, I wondered what other choices were open to the filmmakers, and remembered Billy Wilder’s advice that you should always try to film actors getting bad news from the back. And then I remembered Werner Herzog listening to that guy getting eaten by bears in GRIZZLY MAN, and how he instead filmed someone else simply watching him listening to it, without being able to hear it, setting the snuff recording back by about three removes from the eventual audience. So I figured Gilbert should have cut to Dana Wynter, who has a far lovelier and more expressive face than More, and watched her watching her, capturing her reaction as she realizes what’s happened.

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SINK THE BISMARCK! is edited by Peter Hunt, a very talented cutter who helped set the pacey style for the Bond series, and directed one of the very best, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE. But I think his talent was more for the action stuff than for scenes or emotion.

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Both movies cope mostly with real ship manoeuvres filmed specially, closer views of crew taken in the studio against variable cycloramas, and stock shots from the war, but both have occasionally to resort to special effects, and these sometimes get a bit psychedelic (above), though not as surreal as those watery explosions in DAMBUSTERS. Bennett and Gilbert both favour a stationary camera, which does the action no favours — I’m not calling for Paul Greengrass but a bit of sway would help things — but at least Gilbert has good model shots to work with — even the sea, usually a dead giveaway in model shots, looks convincing.