Archive for William Wyler

Cold Readings

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 13, 2014 by dcairns

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Another thing about THE HEIRESS — Montgomery Clift’s first lines, spoken before we see him, are delivered in a shockingly blue-collar fifties New York tone. Very mookish. particularly the words, “How ya do, Miss Sloper?” I wondered why. It could be that director William Wyler, being of Alsatian origins (in the sense of being from Alsace, not a son-of-a-bitch) wasn’t sensitive enough to nuances of accent and let the line slip by. But it may be that he thought, Clift is obviously going to stick out next to Olivia and Ralph and Miriam, better let the audience get over their discomfort as soon as possible — shock them into accepting it. Let’s make sure they notice it on Line 1, so they’re not wondering all through the scene, Is there something funny about his delivery? And his hair?

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(Incidentally, this is the first time I saw the film and read Monty’s character as a fortune-hunter from the off, which he clearly is. On previous viewings, partly because I like Monty and partly because I’m dumb as Olivia, I always found him quite sincere — that uncertain smile! [Which really signals: Do you believe me so far?] Of course, I knew after the first time that he was after her loot, but I never could read it that way. This time at last I came to my senses, the scales fell from my eyes — he feeds her a line about always feeling he could say the right thing when he’s alone in his room, but in public the words desert him — which they clearly DON’T. It’s a classic fake psychic’s cold reading, a line that everyone can relate to and say is true of them, and it’s not even that cold because he’s had a chance to observe her and see how tongue-tied she is. Also, though, I do think Monty likes her a little, or at any rate doesn’t find her as unbearable as the guy who’s forced to dance with her earlier, whose eyes roll clean up into his head as if pumped full of helium after a few minutes of her conversation.)

The other great ludicrous first speech is Mark Hammill’s famous “But I was going into Tosche station to pick up some power converters,” in STAR WARS. Knowing the importance of setting up your “Hero With a Thousand Faces” right away, George Lucas worked hard to establish Luke Skywalker as a hysterical, adenoidal homosexual caricature with his very first line. The dialogue itself was not sufficiently evocative of these qualities, but dialogue was never Lucas’s strong suit. Finally, the correct effect was achieved by getting Hammill to loop the line while jumping blindfolded off a high diving board, his arms making little circular flailing movements as he plummeted helplessly towards the unheated water below. After the third take, it was perfect.

The Heiress [DVD]
The Heiress (Universal Cinema Classics)

England Expects

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , on October 11, 2014 by dcairns

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“But father, I thought you wanted to see England?” says Olivia de Havilland in THE HEIRESS.

“I’ve seen England,” replies Ralph Richardson, with finality (and accuracy).

Theory: nobody ever sees England in William Wyler’s films. In DODSWORTH, Mr and Mrs D are all set to see England on their transatlantic cruise, and looking forward to it mightily, when Mrs D. (Ruth Chatterton) has a dangerous liaison with David Niven on the boat and is simply too embarrassed to see England afterwards. All those English people, acting superior and telling one another of her shame, and sniggering behind their hands! So they just give England the heave-ho.

This motif of not seeing England had becomes such a central part of Wyler’s style that when forced to film in England during the war, Wyler insisted that his cast become fliers and thus spend as much of their time off England as possible. The result was MEMPHIS BELLE, and it was a documentary so that was alright. MRS. MINIVER and THE COLLECTOR presented a bigger problem, since they were not documentaries and there was no way to rewrite them so that Greer Garson spent most of her time hovering or Terence Stamp abducted Samantha Eggar and imprisoned her in the cellar of his Boeing B17F Flying Fortress. Wyler did consider that, but author John Fowles protested, and bombers don’t have cellars anyway. The solution came from filming at the Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood, California, which already looked a bit like England due to all the dirt deposited over the years from Basil Rathbone’s boots.

Wyler’s aversion to filming on British soil (unless it was on the floor of a sound stage in Hollywood) had resulted in numerous script changes over the years. The original draft of THE LETTER took place on a rubber plantation in Wiltshire, while ROMAN HOLIDAY was at first called COCKNEY KNEES-UP and BEN-HUR had a deleted scene where Judah traveled North to Manchester with Joseph of Arimathea and started a record label. Sam Goldwyn only got Wyler to make WUTHERING HEIGHTS by pretending that Yorkshire was in South America, although it has also been suggested that Goldwyn really believed this.

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We watched THE LETTER and THE HEIRESS on my birthday but I don’t have anything serious to say just now.

Things I Read Off the Screen in In the Heat of the Night

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 11, 2014 by dcairns

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NO LOAFING IN THIS ROOM … LADIES

For work reasons, been looking at Hal Ashby stuff, and this led me to pick up Mark Harris’s terrific book Pictures at a Revolution, which examines the stories behind the five Best Picture nominees from the 1967 Academy Awards. Ashby edited and helped produce one of them, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT.

Norman Jewison is a solid middle-of-the-road journeyman, and his film sometimes gets kicked around for its well-intentioned liberal attitudes, but it should be admitted that it’s a satisfying detective story and that the treatment of race, which might seem very safe today, was a risky proposition at the time the film was made. Fiona remarked that it was shrewd of the filmmakers to wrap their story up in a cop show and make it acceptable to everybody, but I would assume there were plenty of drive-ins where the film wouldn’t have been welcome. Playing safe probably brought in an extra 10% of the audience who would have been scared off by something more radical, but it would hardly satisfy the hardcore racists in the South or the North. I guess Rod Steiger’s Police Chief Gillespie represents that 10% — possessed of some basic human decency at core, but reared in unquestioning racist attitudes. The hope is that the right stimulus, be it Sidney Poitier or a Sidney Poitier film, might awaken such a person. So maybe the film is naive?

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COTTON GROWERS’ COOPERATIVE Reference Calendar 1966 SEPTEMBER 1966

I think the other flaw is the suggestion of some kind of parity between the bigotry of the small town whites and Poitier’s desire to see the rich plantation owner arrested for murder. Being prejudiced towards those with more money and power, and who show prejudice towards YOU, may be a disadvantage to a detective and I guess it is an unworthy trait, but I don’t think it’s on any kind of par with white supremacy. And yet Steiger is allowed to say “You’re just like the rest of us,” and Poitier has to acknowledge the justice of the remark. Screenwriter Stirling Silliphant did have a weakness for simplistic messages, I think. On the other hand, this was probably an effort to prevent Saint Sidney from emerging as too perfect to be human.

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UP

Ashby cut together some snappy material, aided by Haskell Wexler’s photography and Quincy Jones’ score. I think some of the handheld work sticks out too much, but the filming is admirably loose for the period. Macro examination of a corpse displays pretty good makeup approximations of rigor mortis

Ashby’s direct cutting resists the softness of fades and keeps things taut. The flyblown diner where the film begins assembles itself out of grizzly details. The editing of the performances, an art rarely discussed, is especially impressive, with some reaction shots sprung on us by surprise (Steiger abruptly stops chewing his gum — uh-oh!) and some withheld until we’re aching for them (when Poitier first reveals he’s a cop, the delay on seeing Steiger’s reaction is delicious agony).

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Let us ALL be Alert We don’t want ANYONE Hurt … DANGER 200 VOLTS

From working under George Stevens and William Wyler, we can assume Ashby learned to gather lots of material. While Stevens typically shot the shit out of everything from every conceivable angle, he was perfectly content to let a whole scene play out in a single longshot with all the actors partially blocked from view, if that’s what felt best dramatically. Wyler shot few angles, often just changing lens for tighter shots, but he was equally relentless with his multiple takes, driving actors until they collapsed on the floor like unstrung puppets. Ashby may not have enjoyed his time as an assistant, but he was learning.

His first solo job was Tony Richardson’s THE LOVED ONE (also with Steiger), a film I like a lot. Reportedly Richardson, mad at UA for not upping his salary after the mega-success of his TOM JONES, punished the studio by gleefully wasting cash on this movie. Ashby’s adversarial relationship with his paymasters may have been picked up around this time, though no doubt it was part of his nature already.

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EAT … ICE COLD WATERMELON … SOUTHERN HOME COOKING … OPEN … DRINK

Harris reports in his book that Ashby was aware of the Mirisch Corporation’s similarly parsimonious attitude to Jewison, and it infuriated him. We note that Jewison produced THE LANDLORD, Ashby’s first feature as director, and the two fell out over the ending. Ashby had to place the producer in the role of bad guy. But also: he was right about the ending, his film is beautiful. And I don’t think Jewison has the sensibility to make a film quite that interesting. Harris’s book recounts the result of ITHOTN’s sneak preview, where Jewison was disturbed by the audience laughter at moments where Steiger got egg on his face. Ashby had to persuade him that the laughter was GOOD — that the audience really got the film. I almost suspect they understood it better than Jewison.

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