Archive for Yojimbo

The Laddie and the Lake

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2019 by dcairns

I feel like wallowing in Paramount’s Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake pictures for a while (there are three, really, but I suppose I might get around to STAR-SPANGLED RHYTHM in which they cameo separately).

I used to think that the tiny Veronica Lake was invented specially so that the tiny Alan Ladd would have somebody to star opposite that he could look down on, but no, her stardom predates his. You might more convincingly argue that she made him possible. So it’s unfair that her stardom sputtered out before his, principally because she was forced to change her peekaboo hairstyle, but no doubt also because she didn’t have the right allies at the studio to keep her career going in the face of such an obstacle (her wartime, factory-safe new ‘do didn’t suit her as well as the old one, but something could have been worked out).

Her smile at the end of her sequence here is heartbreaking, because it’s The End and she doesn’t know it.

There was a lot more to this girl than a spectacular and distinctive (if inconvenient/dangerous) hairstyle. Lake is pretty much always the coolest, most modern player in any film she’s in, even giving noted underplayer Joel McCrea a a run for his money.

Now. Someone explain to me how THE GLASS KEY got made, and got past the censor? The whole “Crime Must Not Pay” dictum is gleefully thrown out the window here, like it annoyed Brian Donlevy or something. Everybody’s a gangster, fixer or moll, the respectable people are crooked too, and the cops are just a nuisance likely to pick up the wrong guy. Nobody reforms, and the happy ending allows vice and corruption to continue untrammelled. And we feel pretty good about it all. Well, leading man and leading lady are united, so at least the matrimonial norms are to be respected. Some liberties are no doubt taken with Dashiell Hammett”s original, but it’s still a wow on all fronts.

I must watch the George Raft version, curiously enough directed by Frank Tuttle who helped make a star out of Ladd in the previous Ladd-Lake vehicle, THIS GUN FOR HIRE. It should have been a precode but isn’t. Then there’s the other adaptation, MILLER’S CROSSING, for which the Coens could plausibly have been sued for plagiarism, and there’s YOJIMBO, which is theoretically an unlicensed version of Red Harvest — serves Kurosawa right that Leone ripped off his rip-off with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS — but which steals the giant sadist character (played by William Bendix here and by a pituitary case in YOJIMBO) from The Glass Key, quite unapologetically. Kurosawa’s claim that The Servant of Two Masters was his real source strikes me as untrue and lawyered-up.

I once read a Michael Caine quote where he claimed, with what accuracy I don’t know, that in Japan, being a lawyer is not a very respected profession because, “In Japan, if someone cheats you and gets caught, they kill themselves. Whereas over here, they try to kill you.”

Anyway, THE GLASS KEY. Very stylishly directed by Stuart Heisler, who had great talent but only occassionally seems to hit the ball out the park. Here, he smashes a floodlight with it, to explosive and scintillating effect. The luminous Paramount style adapts well to noir if you take it by the throat and talk softly to it. Fiona points out the weirdness of Ladd getting a spectacular introductory shot in his SECOND scene, which does seem like a blunder, but it’s still a nice shot (see top).

And we have an ideal cast, with Donlevy just the right kind of honest-hearted crook (Spencer Tracy would have worked too but maybe he’d have wanted to get the girl. Or the guy?). With his elevator shoes he can just barely see over Ladd & Lake. Bendix is extraordinary, unlike any other role he had, as Fiona remarked. A guy with a very distinctive look suddenly seems like someone you’ve never seen before — a malign garden gnome, shaved and soaked with oily sweat and somehow pumped up to giant size with an injection of testosterone right in his nose. His demonic glee in beating up Ladd is clearly sexual, even more so than in the book.

Ladd is beyond perfect. For me, he only works in anti-hero roles. Allow him a measure of rectitude and he’s a colossal small bore. Even playing a gunfighter in SHANE he’s a little too nice. Here, he gets his cold smile out a lot, and is a real Hammett hero, cards close to his chest, which beats with an icy heart. We’ll allow that he has a code, but it has nothing to do with legality or conventional morality, just maybe his own idiosyncratic understanding of the latter.

Anyway, by the end he’s found love and can express warmth but that’s OK because the movie’s over and we don’t need to see him again.

THE GLASS KEY stars Shane; The Girl; Quatermass McGinty; Nancy Drew; Hunk Jordan; Det. Maurice Obregon; ‘Babe’ Ruth; Nyoka Meredith; Big Mac; and the voice of the Senior Angel.

 

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Debonair

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Sport, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2018 by dcairns

Slow news day. And I’m now heading into Hell, as my viewing of feature film submissions for Edinburgh Film Festival crashes into my viewing of short films as applications for Edinburgh College of Art Film & Television Department. There will be hundreds of features and hundreds of shorts. So, probably no time for watching ANYTHING apart from snatches of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA and I can’t write about any of the films I see for eminently reasonable privacy reasons.

BUT — my friend Travis, an ace sound editor, got in touch the other day and mentioned a clip he was going to use in a class of sound designers. It’s his favourite bit from RAGING BULL, with the mysterious close-ups of coffee cups and a coffee cup HANDLE. Scorsese is still doing these giant detail shots in SILENCE and WOLF OF WALL STREET, where Jonah Hill spots Leo’s car and it fragments into what Werner might call ECSTATIC SNAPSHOTS. The whole sequence is such a compendium of unusual choices, maybe I can just talk about THAT today.

It’s 11 am. on Wednesday the 31st of January. Watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off.We’re an hour into Scorsese’s 1980 monsterpiece. Joe Pesci as Joey La Motta slams Frank Vincent as Salvy’s head in a taxi cab door in a fit of pique. It’s a scene of high noise and chaos, the violent blows underplayed if anything in favour of the vocal panic of onlookers. Then, Scorsese and his mixing team do something very curious.

All the din fades down, while the onscreen action remains furious (though we do withdraw to a more placid, distant high angle, almost a Hitchcock God shot) and Mascagni’s Barcarolle bleeds in, wafting a discordant gentleness over the brutish proceedings. (Scorsese has talked about how the violence he saw in the streets as a kid was often accompanied by wildly contrapuntal love songs on neighbourhood radios, so that the more literal accompaniment he heard in the movies always seemed terribly mediocre.) Emotion recollected in tranquility.Then we cut to the Debonair Social Club, which should be hilarious in contrast to the preceding skull-cracking, but the music and the wideness of the shot kind of quashes the humour, deliberately. Scorsese cuts to the sign AFTER, to avoid making the joke quite coalesce. I don’t know what Travis was going to talk about in class, except that he was struck by how this rainy street scene, with a man running by to get out of the downpour, has no rain FX and no footsteps foley. Just the music, so this transitional mood overlay, which is not emotionally appropriate in any obvious way for the fight scene or the resulting negotiation we’re about to see, dominates the soundtrack and, in one very practical sense, smoothes over the gear change from one to the other.

More detail shots: the club license, framed respectably on the wall (these mob places are impossible to get into if you’re not, ahem, in the club: but I *think* maybe they filmed in a real joint. And it was slightly awkward, iirc.)  Then, as we get details of coffee-making and cups, we hear the gentle voice of “Coach” from Cheers, Nicholas Colasanto, smoothing the ruffled feathers and making nice with Pesci and the heavily bandaged Vincent, which is where the scene DOES allow some humour to break loose.

The voice is so low and reasonable and soothing, it’s the first thing that really makes sense with the music, though the circumstances still seem some considerable ironic distance from the plot of Silvano, Mascagni’s “sea-faring drama.”

That coffee-cup handle… so mysterious. How does one think of something like that. And what does it do? it makes us see an object, really SEE it, in a new way. It gives a great impression of DAINTINESS. You can sort of picture an invisible pinky sticking out as this cup is raised. Again, this could be funny, but isn’t, exactly.Cut to card-players’ hands, with a used coffee cup — is Ozu an influence here? I had been thinking Kurosawa — the bit where Mifune chooses the name Sanjuro by looking at a cornfield in YOJIMBO comes to mind — but using the idea of a coffee cup to dance from the kitchen or bar to the front of the establishment seems very like the way Ozu’s detail shots can transport us through space-time on a thread of mental connections between objects. “You don’t raise your hands,” Colasanto is saying, which is the most specific sound-picture connection we’ve had so far.

And STILL we don’t see the man talking, we just get a wider shot of the calm, stolid card-players.So, if this is what you’ve been doing, you need to keep it up, right? So now we finally go to the group this scene is about, and Colasanto’s voice has finally faded up to full volume (still soft and throaty), but instead of showing the speaker, we’re on the listeners, the patched-up Salvy and the glowering Joey, sort of trying to look like an altar boy, an amusing thing to see as Colasanto waves a hand and says, his back to us, “Now, we’ve heard everyone’s point of view…”

We only see the room in a wide shot when this part of the interview is over, which allows a sort of mental reset for the next piece of business —Finally, by now, the music has finished fading down, so slowly you don’t notice it leaving. It’s replaced by an almost totally inaudible piece of diegetic music playing somewhere, slight atmospheric creaks and clicks and fidgeting noises, the sounds of general movement in the club, but almost no except those of the principles, despite the fact that people seem like they’re probably talking in the background if you think about it realistically, and maybe the distant clank and rumble of an elevated train.

OK, it’s 11.39, time for me to get on with my day…

Let the stick decide

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2016 by dcairns

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Early in John Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, Henry Fonda drops a stick to decide which path to take in life.

Scene one of Akira Kurosawa’s YOJIMBO, Toshiro Mifune throws a stick in the air to decide which route to take at a fork in the road.

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Now, we know Kurosawa idolized Ford, so do we think this superficial similarity is a conscious homage/steal? I’m inclined to think so. YOJIMBO is Kurosawa’s most American film, since it adapts Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, and also steals a scene (the one with the giant sadistic thug) from the Alan Ladd film of The Glass Key (or from the book: I don’t remember the scene, but I expect it’s there).

Kurosawa kept a signed picture Ford had given him, and I think also wore a Fordian hat.

Ford to Kurosawa: “You really like rain, don’t you?”