Archive for William Wyler

The Home Film Festival

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2018 by dcairns

It was rainy last Sunday so I suggested we have our own film festival at home. Try it!

An eclectic program, decided at random. First I watched THE ORE RAIDERS, and blogged about it, then I popped on THE BLACK WINDMILL (1974), which always looked like awful tommyrot when on TV, but it’s Don Siegel therefore worth a try.Reader, THE BLACK WINDMILL is indeed awful tommyrot, but with impressive credits. TV pan-and-scan showings, which I recall seeing bits of, ruined it utterly — the pleasure is all in Siegel’s framing and blocking. Ousama Rawi, the former Mr. Rita Tushingham, shot it, beautifully — there’s some particularly nice anamorphic city lights. Antony Gibbs, of PETULIA and PERFORMANCE, cut it, less successfully than one might have hoped, though the neatest bit is a long take from a locked-off position as bad guys frame the hero with a nudie photo staged in his own bedroom. Roy Budd, of GET CARTER, provides a GET CARTER type score, with added tabla drums. Veteran costume designer Anthony Mendleson makes his leading man look ridiculous. I think there’s a good argument for leading men dressing conservatively, as Cary Grant suggested. They don’t date, and anyway, why would a spy dress like THIS?I suppose, in a crisis, he could always turn sideways and hide behind his necktie.

A distinguished cast includes cast includes Harry Palmer, Dr. Crippen, Empress Alexandra, Elizabeth Bathory, Sheik Abu Tahir and Maya the shapeshifter from Space 1999.

   

Fiona only joined that one midway, then insisted on some Bette Davis so we ran JEZEBEL, which we hadn’t seen in ages. I’ve often felt that the Germans in Hollywood had more racial sensitivity than native-born filmmakers, but although the black characters here all get bits of characterisation, and Eddie Anderson underplays for once, the movie never misses a chance at a cheap joke. When Henry Fonda says he feels haunted, wrinkled retainer Lew Paton stammers, “H-haunted?” in terror of spooks.

Still, the soapy story compels, and Bette is playing a perverse, willful, stroppy filly much like herself. She adored Wyler’s disciplinarian approach, and dialled down her excesses. When she reacts to the news that Fonda has married, her face registers a dozen emotions and calculations at lightning speed, subtly enough that you can believe smiling Margaret Lindsay doesn’t notice them, and visibly enough that you can see Fonda does.

Also great work from Richard Cromwell and, shockingly, George Brent, whose sleepy approach to acting here becomes electrifying when he’s given something of real interest to play. His character is supposed to be a dynamic old-school swashbuckler, and by playing it with indifference he actually adds a convincing edge to it. This guy is so dangerous because he doesn’t advertise it.

The cunning use of POV shots I noted in THE ORE RAIDERS is present here, as Bette, embracing Fonda, makes particular note of the stick he’s left by the door. All her behaviour in the ensuing scene is an attempt to provoke him into using it on her, which he refrains from, much to her disappointment. Did I mention Bette’s character is a touch perverse?

Co-writer John Huston was drafted in to direct a duel scene, and in a film full of smart grace notes, delivers one of the neatest, as the duellists take ten paces, clear out of frame and two puffs of smoke issue in from the edges of the screen, rendering the battle an abstraction, its outcome a mystery.

We followed this with another, contrasting Bette movie, LO SCOPONE SCIENTIFICO (1972), which I’ve tackled at greater length elsewhere. Let’s just say that, cast as a kind of monster-goddess, Bette again is playing a character remarkably like herself: indefatigable.

Short subject: PIE, PIE, BLACKBIRD with Nina Mae McKinney and the Nicholas Brothers when they were small. She does an adorable rasping trumpet honk thing with her voice, an orchestra plays inside a giant pie, and the Bros. dance so hard, everybody turns into a skeleton. Will, if anybody was going to cause that to happen, it would be them.

It’s very funny to me that the props man couldn’t find a child skeleton — there was, it would seem, little call for such items — so he’s removed the shin-bones of an adult to make it dance shorter. Incredible to think that young Harold performed all those moves without knees.

Then MIRAGE, based on regular Shadowplayer Daniel’s recent recommendation. Sixties Edward Dmytryk, when he’s supposed to be washed up, but there’s some interesting stuff afoot, not all of it pulling in the same direction, but still. Stars Atticus Finch, Felix Unger Oscar Madison, Anne Frank’s sister Margot, Willie Loman’s son Biff, Gaetano Proclo and Joe Patroni. Which is to say, Walter Matthau and George Kennedy are reunited after CHARADE, which was also scripted by Peter Stone, and Matthau and Jack Weston are together, prefiguring A NEW LEAF.

Stone’s script is witty as usual, perhaps too witty — there’s a good sense of Kafkaesque nightmare going on in the crazy amnesia/conspiracy plot, but you have Gregory Peck being all Gregory Peckory, stiff and bashful, and then making quips, and the sense of waking nightmare rather deserts one.

BUT —

Dmytryk, a former editor, has discovered direct cutting — he’s seen MARIENBAD, in fact — or maybe the previous year’s THE PAWNBROKER. As Peck thinks back on baffling recent events, or retrieves fragments of memory from his earlier, lost-time spell, we cut in hard to snippets of dialogue from earlier or brief flashes of action. Best of all is a subway scene where the sound of the train continues unabated over glimpses of Walter Abel falling out of a skyscraper. Then he cuts to a watermelon hitting the ground and bursting, something that’s only been mentioned earlier. It’s a non-diegetic watermelon, perhaps the first of its race.

It’s dazzling and disturbing and would still look pretty nifty in a modern film. What makes it sellable to the great public of 1964 is that the odd technique is tied directly to the plot gimmick. Anyway, it’s very nice indeed, and makes you realise how conservative most cutting still is. Given Dmytryk’s late-career wallowing in turgid airport novel stuff, I wish he’d enlivened his work with this kind of monkey business a lot more. For a guy who’d sold out, who had to shore up his sense of self-worth with spurious justifications, accomplishing a nice piece of work like this must have been some kind of relief.

Advertisements

The Sunday Intertitle: Prairie Poirot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2018 by dcairns

Such sloppy speech: clearly the intertitle of a desperado!

THE ORE RAIDERS (1927) is another “Worthless Willie” Wyler short of no particular ambition, doubtless churned out in a week, with a star, Fred Gilman, who’s better at staying on a horse in tricky situations than he is at expressing emotion or holding the eye.

From this historical distance, though, it’s quaint and charming to see a western hero who’s clean-cut, innocent, and shares affectionate banter with his horse (THE LONE RANGER recently attempted the clean-cut, innocent part, but didn’t give Silver enough of an active listening role).

Wyler is developing his craft. In a conversation between Gilman and a rancher who’s reluctantly in league with the bad guys, we cut from a close-up of the rancher reacting to something offscreen, to an optical POV insert of the Texas Ranger badge in Gilman’s pocket and back to the worried rancher, a quasi-Hitchcockian moment that renders psychology visible. Nothing too remarkable about this, but B-westerns typically just consist of wide-ish shots of people doing stuff, and some landscapes.

But THE ORE RAIDERS is a kind of frontier detective story, depending on the following of clues, and Wyler knows to present these signifying objects from his characters’ viewpoints rather than simply as close-ups.

The cigarettes match! Jake Petersen has been here!

Other evidence it’s a Wyler: cutting straight down the line into a scene, ignoring the 45-degree rule that angles are supposed to change. Sometimes, as when Monty Clift silently decides to ditch his lover in THE HEIRESS, this forward jolt can express a character point, dramatizing a reaction. When it just feels like the director popped a lens on because he couldn’t be bothered moving the camera round, it’s less satisfying. (Wyler was tireless in his retakes, but covered the action fairly minimally.)

Again, WW invents fresh ways to dismount his hero — at the climax, Gilman rides up to a bad guy and throws himself from the saddle before the horse has even stopped, knocking the bad guy down then dragging him to his feet and punching him out before the dust has even settled. He’s used himself as a projectile, before that was either popular or fashionable.

Wellman also has a very long lens for filming Gilman riding down steep hills, which he does A LOT. He doesn’t use it as extensively as Leni Riefenstahl or Akira Kurosawa but he does resort to it, proving this was a stylistic choice available before OLYMPIA and THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

The bad guy is not only the target of Gilman’s investigations, but his rival for the girl, making this movie almost identical to last week’s Sunday short subject, THE TWO-FISTER. Perhaps the very lack of variety in these oaters drove Wyler to be more inventive and develop his skills, whereas other directors got stuck in a rut and would still be making the same stuff when TV came in. Not a bad life if you enjoy outdoorsmanship, but no way to be remembered. Wyler was already shooting features, and by 1929 would be breaking away from westerns with THE SHAKEDOWN and THE LOVE TRAP (a part-talkie). Finally he could photograph some rooms, and take his hat off.

The Sunday Intertitle: Slinky Spills It

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on July 22, 2018 by dcairns

William Wyler reported that, during his early days, shooting western two-reelers, he would lie awake at night thinking up new ways to shoot a man getting on and off a horse. So I was gratified to locate a copy, however ratty, of THE TWO-FISTER (1927), to get a sense of the master’s developing style during this period, and also to see if he really did expend that much imagination on mounting and dismounting.

He did! Leading man Edmund Cobb, playing a staunch Mounty, pulls that trick-riding gag of hanging to the side of his horse as it speeds along, then dropping his feet to the ground so that the force throws him into the air and thence into the saddle. So I guess that would count as an inventive bit of horseplay. He does it twice. He also dismounts and mounts in a more romantic scene by using a convenient fence. This is more impressive, in a way, as I’ve never seen it done.

We also see a bit of Wyler’s inventiveness in the punch-ups, partly filmed with a long lens so the camera must furiously pan as the antagonists dodge and weave. It makes the whole thing hectic, and anticipates the fast and furious boxing match Wyler would stage in THE SHAKEDOWN (1929).

The movie, written by movie serial specialist George Plympton (FLASH GORDON et al) is perfectly banal but perfectly satisfying. Wyler had fifteen shorts of this kind, plus five features, all released the same year. So he didn’t have a lot of time for grace notes. And the scripts were on the simplistic side, mostly. We do get a sympathetic Indian sidekick, a sort of proto-Tonto, if you will. And the ending is amusing.

Cobb has arrested the flight of the bad guy, stopping him at the border and administering the standard punitive drubbing. Then he commences the standard romantic clinch (not with the bad guy: there’s a girl along, Elsa Benham). The bad guy sees his chance and starts to sneak away, BUT! This is the image we fade out on ~

Don’t make any false moves while I’m making a move on Elsa.