Archive for William Wyler

Recalliery

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2021 by dcairns

Watching HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY I wondered if it appeared in time in 1941 to influence Orson Welles’ plans for THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS? (Welles being a big Ford fan after all. And there are thematic similarities in these accounts of a vanished past.) The idea to keep much of the narration from Richard Llewellyn’s source novel, and play it over dialogue-free scenes, and use montage to cover a story with a long span, apparently came from studio head Darryl Zanuck. It’s an approach which could easily be disastrous if applied clumsily, since you lose firmly dramatic scenes which grip, and gain, if you’re lucky/skilled, a more ethereal, intangible quality, poetic rather than dramatic.

Looking at Searching for John Ford by Joseph McBride, I learn about William Wyler’s crucial involvement, casting much of the picture and overseeing the design of the village, an incredible setting. Wyler chose Roddy McDowall for the lead — screenwriter Philip Dunne called Roddy the true auteur of the picture, and said “This solves our length problem, because they’ll never forgive us if we let that boy grow up.” The film was set to be four hours long and the kid was supposed to mature into Tyrone Power. Imagine. Technicolor was also considered at an early stage, Zanuck envisioning an epic to rival GONE WITH THE WIND. And, after all, it’s How GREEN Was My Valley, right?

Same year as KANE — and note the ceilings.

It’s all wondrous to think of, since although the book is the reason there’s a film, the principle things that make it a great film are Ford’s use of McDowall and the b&w cinematography of Arthur C. Miller, which is exquisite. Miller mostly wasted his gifts on indifferent Fox fodder. The Malibu Hills are not the Welsh Valleys, but the movie conjures its own version of Wales, complete with a cast of assorted accents — Donald Crisp, a cockney who affected Scottishness in real life, like Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s Goliath, makes the most consistent effort to sound right — Rhys Williams, playing blind boxer Dai Bando, is one of very few actual Welsh actors.

Another thing I wondered is if this movie invented the highlights reel — a closing set of flashback memories to certain golden moments in the preceding movie. When “Seems Like Old Times” plays for a second time in ANNIE HALL and we get glimpses of earlier scenes, that kind of thing. Reminding the audience how much they enjoyed the film, hopefully — with an indifferent film it’s infuriating — this movie is all flashbacks anyway, from a largely unseen present tense, so it’s a bold and interesting choice to repeat certain flashes. I can’t think of an earlier example. Of course it’s a clever Hollywood device to diffuse the downbeat effects of a tragic ending. Go into the magic past and end on something happier. Those memories will never fade. Things may be bad now, and uncertain to get better, but happiness is real — the past is still here. We just can’t quite step into it. Time may be an illusion, as Einstein said, but it’s a very persistent one. So this kind of Hollywood illusion is bittersweet — we’re presented with a joyful image but with a little thinking we can see past it.

King of the Movies

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2019 by dcairns

King of the Movies was the title of an interview show done about Henry King for the BBC when the old master was ninety. I enjoyed King’s work at Il Cinema Ritrovato — they could only show a small sampling of his 108 credits — and two of them, STATE FAIR and OVER THE HILL, would easily make my top ten of films I saw in Bologna.

But I’m not convinced of his greatness, as a whole. At Fox in the early thirties, he channeled the house style, which favoured long tracking shots and misty atmosphere — as well as any other director. But then, like Ford and Borzage, he seemed to lapse into a less showy, more conventional form of coverage.

“Style should be invisible,” was the prevailing idea. To me, if it’s invisible it’s not style. Style has to be perceptible to the senses to qualify. Which is not to discount subtlety. But if you’re alert and you know about film technique, good style can be detected however low-key, though in a very entertaining or engaging film you might forget to look for it. (When Ford and Borzage minimized their style, a distinct artistic identity remained visible. With King, not so much.)

The fact that King could make so much of the visuals while at Fox is significant — someone like Alfred Santell in THE SEA WOLF, gifted with an elaborate dockland set, just sat the camera on sticks and went to sleep. But once King stops gliding, his principle attributes become good dramaturgical taste and an ability to marshall the resources of a big production effectively.

TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, his WWII bomber movie, illustrates King’s abilities and limitations. It’s extremely well-crafted, and the acting, from a fairly un-starry cast (Gregory Peck is supported by Gary Merrill, Hugh Beaumont Marlowe, Millard Mitchell and Dean Jagger) is fine. There’s a moderately interesting flashback transition early on, and then the horrific discussion of the fliers’ injuries starts it off as an unusually frank war movie. The screenwriters were both involved in the air force and Wyler’s MEMPHIS BELLE so they knew their stuff.

Maybe my frustration with King is that he just isn’t as progressive as I’d like. (Yet some right-wing directors are extremely interesting!) Having set up a depiction of air war that’s surprisingly brutal, the movie largely backs away from this. Gregory Peck’s tough methods result in fewer planes being lost, but they also seem to end completely the kind of nasty injuries and fatalities suffered early on (“What do I do with an arm?”)

Some serious ambivalence does enter the movie when Peck suffers his — quite convincingly detailed — mental collapse. Peck plays this pretty well, considering he’s Gregory Peck. (But imagine Robert Ryan, or Jimmy Stewart!) But it proves to be a Tom & Jerry breakdown — he’s all squashed, but then he springs back into his original form in a single scene. Though the movie preserves some doubt — he’s better, but is he ALL better?

In 1949, with Huston’s LET THERE BE LIGHT still banned, no Hollywood picture was going to end with its protagonist catatonic, and the movie impresses with how far it’s willing to go. But whereas in a good Anthony Mann film we would end with some kind of discomfort — maybe even a sense that the film couldn’t quite work because it had ventured so far into darkness that its contradictions couldn’t be resolved within a Hollywood format (and if only Mann had lived through to the seventies, what troubles he’d have seen, and illuminated!), in a King film, the resolution rather discourages us from thinking about the more troubling aspects. (It’s also a Zanuck film, and Zanuck had something of a passion for war — maybe he had the most interesting sensibility of the studio bosses, but he was in some ways the most militaristic.)

Footnote: there’s a B-17 in this called Leper Colony, which is also the name of the B-52 flown by Slim Pickens in DOCTOR STRANGELOVE — the name indicates that the crew is composed entirely of no-hopers not fit to serve with skilled airmen — which illuminates the nature of Major “King” Kong and his crew in the Kubrick film.

The Wrong Films

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2019 by dcairns

A strange day of interventions by fate — we panted up the road to see THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH, a Henry King late silent with Kevin Brownlow intro and Vilma Banky, Ronald Colman and Gary Cooper in the leads — but I got the cinema wrong and when the lights dimmed, Renoir’s TONI appeared on the screen in a new restoration. My only regret was missing the RARER film. I hadn’t seen the Renoir before and of course it’s very fine, though none of the cast seemed able to reach the upper pitches of emotion the script demands. At one point Toni insists his wife stop screaming, when she’s been doing nothing of the kind.

But what an ending!

Then I thought we’d better get coffee so I didn’t pick the wrong cinema again, and when we got back from it, UNDER CAPRICORN was completely packed out. So we went up the road to the Lumiere and saw LA MASCHERA E IL VOLTO, a 1919 Augusto Genina film which turned out to be a splendid Italian comedy anticipating aspects of DIVORCE: ITALIAN STYLE in its jet-black approach to the comic possibilities of uxoricide. A husband who has expressed approval of Othello’s honorable way of resolving marital difficulties is undone when he discovers his wife has strayed. He can’t bring himself to actually strangle her, but he orders her to leave the country so he can tell everyone he DID kill her — so he can be a feared murderer rather than a pathetic cuckold. Things go awry when he hires for his defense lawyer his wife’s lover. A great line: “The ridiculous always seeks out those who are afraid of it.”

Then we split up — Fiona & Nicola going to see a noir double bill of THE DEVIL THUMBS A RIDE and THE THREAT, but succumbing to heat and sleep deprivation during the second — me going to see the brilliantly restored MEMPHIS BELLE, introduced by director William Wyler’s daughter Catherine, along with THE COLD BLUE, a new documentary made by Erik Nelson from Wyler’s rediscovered rushes, and then having a couple of Aperol Spritzes.

The immediacy gained by MEMPHIS BELLE’s colour photography now that you can actually see the B-17 pilot’s five O’clock shadow in a long shot — it’s that pin-sharp — really makes a difference in a you-are-there kind of way. Everything Peter Jackson promised and failed to deliver with his crappy colorization is authentically provided here.

We all met up for MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, which a mistake in the programme COULD have caused us to miss. As it was we had to bolt our dinner. But it was worth it. “I have never seen reds so red or blacks so black!” Fiona exclaimed. A very new 4K restoration which made this handsome, eccentric, alternately campy and poetic film glow.

“The Fall of the Blouse of Asher,” Nicola christened it. Which nails the campery aspect, but it has this compelling comic-book Bergman side to it too. Corman’s direction, Roeg’s photography, David Lee’s score, and the best ensemble cast Corman ever assembled outside of ST VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE. Very nice, very nice indeed.