Blogs on Film

Understanding Clockwork Orange

On the 40th anniversary of Kubrick’s famous adaptation of the Burgess novel, Tim Robey analyzed the movie’s impact. I am surprised to see a British writer missing the critically important point that Kubrick’s version is not based on what Burgess actually wrote and what most Britons actually read.

The UK version of the book has 21 chapters. In the final chapter, Alex realizes the emptiness of his life, renounces violence and gets married (sounds Dickensian, does it not?). But the American publisher refused to publish the book in that form, making the book end after Chapter 20 with Alex still violent and sociopathic.

Kubrick read the US version and made the film based on that. He apparently saw the UK version much later and said he didn’t like it, but we will never know what would have been the cinematic result if the American publisher hadn’t imposed such a change in the book over the author’s objections.

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My Second Favorite Fist Fight in the Movies

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My preferred airline now has a channel of “classic films” which included the Bond outing From Russia with Love on my recent trip back home. And why not? It’s a very well made film and unlike the more silly and comic book-like Bond films that came along in the 1970s and 1980s, it’s fairly realistic and hence more engaging.

It also includes my second favorite fist fight in the movies, in which psychopath Donald Grant (played with convincing viciousness by Robert Shaw) and superagent James Bond (played by the inimitable Sean Connery) have it out on a train. The verbal build up is almost as good as the fisticuffs: It’s filled with class resentment, desperation and downright nastiness (“The first bullet won’t kill you, nor the second, not even the third…not until you crawl over here and you KISS MY FOOT”).

It helps a lot that Connery and Shaw were physically powerful men, and IIRC they didn’t like each other (I seem to remember that they almost got into a punch-up off camera). They attack each other with vigor, in an amazingly long scene shot in an eerie blueish light. And it’s not one of those pretty Marquess of Queensberry fights that Hollywood often serves up; there’s grappling and kicking and scrapping and brutal life or death struggle.

p.s. In case you are wondering why I describe it as my second favorite fistfight in film, it’s because cineastes have long recognized that unquestionably, the fight scene with the most energy, style, humanity and realism takes place in the wretched Mogumbo Bar on the Barbary Coast….

Blogs on Film

Physics and Bullets in the Movies

Trainstopping - TV Tropes

I watched Harry Brown a few years back, which the magnificent Sir Michael Caine personally lifts from forgettable to above-average. It does though feature a common movie trope, namely that a bullet can thrown a grown adult across a room (Presuming a powerful enough gun).

Mass and Speed are roughly interchangeble forces in comic books and in many films. If a superhero who weighs 200 pounds wants to stop a hurtling train or bus that weighs many tons, it’s entirely a matter of having his feet planted correctly and a good set of biceps.

In college I read in Soldier of Fortune magazine that if a bullet — which not only has small mass but penetrates upon impact — can throw a human being backwards 3 or 4 feet, then a regular feature of baseball games would be batters landing in the upper deck after being beaned by a pitcher.

My personal favorite guy-flying-improbably-backwards comes at the conclusion (about 3:08 of this clip) of the gripping suspense film “Day of the Jackal” [SPOILER ALERT: this is the climax of the movie).

Blogs on Film

Tragedy and Triumphs of Rock Hudson

Anne Helen Petersen has written an intriguing, sad article about Rock Hudson and the gay agent who packaged him and other gay men as movie stars. She argues that Hudson’s sexuality actually made him more attractive to a certain segment of heterosexual women in the 1950s and 1960s precisely because he was handsome, charming, kind, and at the same time (from a straight woman’s viewpoint) asexual and therefore unthreatening. Petersen closes the piece with well-deserved praise for Hudson’s handling of his HIV infection and subsequent wasting away, which galvanized public sympathy for AIDS victims.

Hudson wasn’t a top-notch actor, but he was a genuine movie star. He will probably be most remembered for his massively popular films with the late Doris Day (who at the age of 87, put a new album out! Check out her chat with her pal and fan Paul McCartney). But what is Rock Hudson’s best film?

Some movie fans would argue for Giant, which remains highly watchable today despite it’s staggeringly long running time. But the scenes in that film which stay with you are mainly those with James Dean and/or Elizabeth Taylor rather than Hudson, whose character is much flatter than theirs.

So I am going to go instead with Seconds, which very few people even remember today. It features an atypical role for Hudson and he does well with it, maybe because he could identify with the main character, who had to pretend to be someone he was not in order to “pass”. My all-time favorite cinematographer, James Wong Howe, goes over the top with strange lenses and moving shots, starting with the Vertigo-esque opening titles, which amplifies tonally the weird story that that the film tells.

Blogs on Film

The Workaday Heroism of Dedicated Parents

If you wanted to make the case that Akira Kurosawa was the greatest filmmaker of the 20th century, one leg of your stool would be the number of talented directors who copied him, including George Lucas and John Sturges. I watched Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven on the plane back to the states some years ago, and while it’s not as good as Seven Samurai (is anything?) it holds up very well with moments of thrilling action and surprising humanity. Of the latter, my favorite involves Charles Bronson, who plays a deadly, moody gunslinger who has been hired by a Mexican village to help defend it from bandits.

The boys in the village idolize Bronson, and tell him that they prefer being around him because their fathers will not take up arms and are therefore cowards. Bronson’s response brings a lump to the throat of many of a dad and many a mom too:

Don’t you ever say that again about your fathers, because they are not cowards. You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee anything will ever come of it. This is bravery.

The tens of millions of moms and dads who toil at low wage jobs for decades and give up countless selfish pleasures for the betterment of their children remain for me the greatest source of inspiration in American life. It is commonly remarked how sad it is that children don’t admire their parents more, idolizing instead rock stars and sports heroes, but this is a myth. In surveys that ask young people to name a specific individual whom they consider a hero, LeBron James is of course going to wipe out Jack Smith or Lin Wang or Clausell Taylor or Maria Gomez, but whenever researchers group all the individual answers that mean “mom and dad”, parents emerge as the greatest heroes of American kids. If you are being twisted by that big rock, know that you are hero in the eyes of the ones you love.


Blogs on Film

Lt. Columbo, Class Warrior

When we lost the irreplaceable Peter Falk in 2011, most of his obituaries focused on his role as Lieutenant Columbo, one of the best known characters in the world. I remember seeing Falk in a documentary filmed in the Andes, during which he walked through a market in a small village that probably didn’t have electricity, much less television. The natives clustered around him, pointing and saying “Columbo! Columbo!”.

What the commentaries about Columbo I have read miss, and what explains a large measure of its international appeal, is that Columbo is the ultimate show about working class resentment of and triumph over the rich and powerful. Ever notice how this Los Angeles homicide detective never had a case in which a gas station attendant beat his wife to death or two drug dealers had a fatal shootout? The villains are uniformly movie producers, physicians, best-selling writers, famous actors, monied gentry, vineyard owners, and globe-trotting business people. They are also usually good looking and well dressed, and look down on the rumpled, uncouth, Columbo, so clearly out of place in “their” world.

Peter Falk is 'Columbo' - free on Peacock - Stream On Demand

And of course we the audience know they are underestimating our hero, who despite outward appearances is morally and intellectually superior to them. They send him on wild goose chases and he doggedly checks each out (“Yes, sir, we did look into your theory of mobsters, we questioned 100 of them and none of them were involved”), because he is a dedicated working class guy who unlike the upper crust suspects, isn’t sloppy or arrogant enough to forget that one critical detail that undoes the whole endeavor. There are many conversations in the series that are suffused with class resentment. Columbo asks one villain “How much does a home like this cost?” and when he finds out says “Oh, sir, I could never afford that on a policeman’s salary”. And we love these exchanges, because we know that this working class hero is still conning his prey, and he’s going to bring that smug, rich S.O.B. down in the end.

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Watching the Silent Version of “Roman Holiday”

The other night I arrived at a restaurant about 45 minutes before my dinner companions, which led to an unusually gratifying wait. Above the bar was perched a mega-size high-definition television, but the sound was off and only gentle jazz issued from the speakers in the ceiling. As my shiraz arrived, William Wyler’s 1953 classic Roman Holiday began on the screen.

Perhaps film schools make students watch great sound-era films without sound. If not, they should, it’s a fascinating exercise. The lack of sound highlights the myriad ways that mega-watt stars can convey emotion, tone and character, while drawing the viewer in.

Gregory Peck, the tall dark man of action and romance, turns out to have a tremendous gift for comedy. In the silent version, his jaunty walk, the way he talks rapidly out of the side of his mouth, his gimlet-eyed stares and dancing eyebrows create an explosion of mirth. The fellow a few seats down at the bar, as entranced by the silent spectacle as I, kept bursting into laughter while watching Peck’s silent magic, and I couldn’t stop joining in (not that I tried).

SS2247674) Movie picture of Audrey Hepburn buy celebrity photos ...

And then of course the viewer meets Audrey Hepburn. It is hard to imagine now given her international fame, but no one knew who she was when Roman Holiday was released. Yet within a minute, millions of Americans were rooting for her to find that shoe. She doesn’t need words to convey vulnerability and to elicit from the viewer adoration and a desire to protect. As former Stanford University President Gerhard Casper once said “Falling in love with Audrey Hepburn is an essential, civilizing experience for all human beings”

Action/Adventure British Drama

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

If I were BBC Director-General, and had been granted only 24 broadcast hours to make the case to the nation and its elected officials that my organisation was capable of greatness, I would immediately fill the first 315 minutes of my schedule with 1979’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

This is what a television mini-series can do that is virtually impossible in the movie theater: Tell a long, complex, intimate story over a series of episodes that hang together, and in which the audience being forced to wait for the resolution adds to the exquisite tension of the tale. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is also the apotheosis of what BBC can do better than any other organisation when it sets its mind to it: Trawl through the British theater for stage-trained, perfectly cast actors to play parts large and small, give them a quintessentially British script, and spend a TV-level budget in just the right way to get the sets and production that are “tailor made” (sorry, couldn’t pass that up) for the story. The result is BBC television magic.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy | From I, Claudius to This Country: the ...

The plot: The aging head of the British Secret Service, dogged by a series of espionage failures and declining health, sends out a trusted agent on a mission to Czechoslovakia that will help smoke out a high-level mole who is working for the Soviets. The mission goes horribly wrong, almost as if the enemy knew of it in advance. A different group of agents ascends to control of the service, and casts out along the way faithful, long-serving head of personnel George Smiley. But the politician who oversee the service believes the mole is still active, and recruits Smiley out of retirement to covertly investigate his former colleagues. With glum professionalism, and the aid of an embittered assassin who has been demoted, he slowly draws on the loose strings that he hopes will lead him to the mole’s identity.

I am no expert on Le Carré, but his passionate fans embraced this production as assiduously faithful to the book. Indeed, the man himself said that after viewing the mini-series, he could no longer think about Smiley without visualizing Alec Guinness.

Many people say Sir Alec was “born to play” spymaster George Smiley. But people said that about many of the parts he played in his career, a tribute to his genius as an actor. I love all the small things he does in this movie: Wiping his glasses on his tie, locking his flat door behind him without looking, wincing almost imperceptibly at the mention of his wayward wife. And he never commits the dramatic error of trying to make Smiley normal or likable. As his former wife says to him in the crucial final scene, he doesn’t understand life very well at all, he is strangely emotionally detached and not someone you’d want to have over to dinner. Unlike many of the people around him, he still seems to hold his country in some regard, but even that explanation doesn’t seem to fully explain why he takes on the difficult mission which he is assigned.

I frankly think this movie is no less enjoyable if you know in advance (from the book or from prior viewings) the mole’s identity. The story is about institutional rot, collective lassitude and endemic careerism. Yes, one man is particularly guilty but in various ways, every one of the key suspects has much of which to be ashamed.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979) - Ian Richardson - He Was Shot ...

Director John Irvin was at the peak of his skills in the late 1970s, helming this series and The Dogs of War immediately afterwards. His career seemed to stall after those two triumphs, but he certainly delivers the goods here. Irvin had a champagne cast with which to work, not just Guinness. The actors are so uniformly fine that it seems an injustice to single out particular performers, but I will nonetheless take the risk to applaud Ian Richardson as Deputy Director Bill Haydon, who defeats Smiley in bureaucratic battles and does something even more horrid to him on the home front. How in the name of The Queen, St. Michael and St. George was this magnificent actor never knighted? Perhaps it was the suddenness of his death when he seemed in rude health…if so that’s a case for honoring people when they deserve it rather than waiting until they are “old enough”.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a million miles from the heroic James Bond-sort of secret agent picture. There are no car chases, fist fights or explosions. There instead is the gritty, slimy work of espionage, the grind of a meticulous investigation and the guessing and re-guessing of who can be trusted and who is a villain. Yet even with a running time of more than 5 hours, it never loses the viewer’s interest. Indeed, I would not be surprised if some people who own it on DVD devour it in one or two sittings.

p.s. I am given to understand that the US rebroadcast version of this mini-series is shorter than the UK original and also makes some narrative changes. Not having viewed it, I do not know how it compares to the version I review here.

Blogs on Film

Making Good Movies on the Cheap

The cost of making movies seems to climb every year, with $100 million productions being common nowadays. Yet few people would argue that Hollywood’s product is better than it was when budgets were smaller. It takes money to promote a movie and to get big stars in a movie, but fundamentally you can make a good movie pretty cheaply. And I admire the people who are inventive and unpretentious enough to go for it on a low budget, like the subjects of the documentary American Movie (which I recommended here) or Robert Rodriguez, who penned the Rosetta Stone of such filmmakers: Rebel Without a Crew.

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (Trailer) - YouTube

For example, I recently watched X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes, one of Roger Corman’s many low budget horror/sci-fi films. He used a common strategy for such films, which is to cast someone who used to be an A-list star but whose career is waning enough that he will take a smaller check. In this case it was Ray Milland, who clearly didn’t think the film was beneath him and turned in a good performance. The sets are spare, the actors are few and other than Milland, unknown. But it’s completely watchable and engaging. It doesn’t try to be a blockbuster extravaganza life-changing piece of cinema. Rather, it tries to entertain for 79 minutes and it does, on what is clearly a modest budget.

A film that is an even bigger triumph of low budget movie making is Rocky. Yes, Rocky, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, spawned a billion-dollar film franchise and was a world-wide hit, was a low budget film. Burgess Meredith was in the Ray Milland position; something of a name in the past but now affordable. All those shots of Rocky running around Philadelphia were an economy, using the new Steadicam technology to generate emotional momentum without having to build sets or hire extras (Mostly it’s ordinary Philadelphians volunteering to do cameos). The romantic ice rink scene with Rocky and Adrian was supposed to happen with many skaters and a crowd, but they couldn’t afford that so they set the scene instead at a time when the rink is closed.

And the climactic sequence is a work of genius in inexpensive film production. Before the final fight, Stallone’s shorts didn’t match the banner image of Rocky and his robe was the wrong size, but they couldn’t afford to switch props so they simply rewrote the script to have Rocky comment on the errors and make him that much more pathetic. During the fight itself (embedded below), the arena is dark because it was mostly empty — they had run out of budget for extras. Stallone’s dad is the guy ringing the bell for rounds and other friends and family pitched in as extras to stretch the dollars. They could not afford many re-shoots so if you watch carefully you will see that the people watching the fight were moving around to give the impression of a full arena (you can also see the Steadicam in some of the overhead shots and that some the key punches actually miss — a “rib shot” to the hip for example).

With such a sparsely populated set, it was impossible to portray a big crowd reaction. So what did director John Avildsen do? When Rocky first decks Apollo Creed, Avildsen cannily cuts to the neighborhood bar, so that a small number of actors can give the audience a scene of excited, cheering people packed in close and rooting for Rocky.

Inspired, resourceful work by everyone involved, on what was then a slender budget of about a million dollars. And note to Hollywood, it returned an over 200 to 1 profit so it isn’t true that you can’t make money in Hollywood without a gazillion dollar production behind you.

Comedy Romance

The Court Jester

Sometimes comedy in the movies gets a bit ahead of current cultural tastes. But the joy of TV re-runs, DVDs, streaming, and the like is that as audience sensibilities catch up, a film whose wit eluded people at the time of its release can be recognized as a comedy classic.

This has been the fate of several big name comedy films made in the 1950s, including the Truman Capote-scripted Beat the Devil, a dud at the time now regarded as a cult classic. An even better example, and one that should be in every discussion of the best comedy scripts in Hollywood history, is 1956’s The Court Jester. A big budget bomb at the time, this film is now deservedly recognized as a complete delight, for laughs, for music, and for a tour-de-force performance by the amazing Danny Kaye.

The chortle-filled script of Co-Producer/Directors Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, like those of Monty Python and The Simpsons much later, piles jokes on top of each other without seeming to mind if many viewers miss some of them. In the typical 1950s comedy film, the dialogue about how “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle” would be THE joke of that scene. And, at one level, that would have been fine, because the wordplay by itself is gutbusting. But why not have Danny Kaye’s armor struck by lightning, causing it to magnetize, to throw some physical comedy on top of the verbal jokes? And again, Python-style, why have boring credits when you could put a bunch of sight gags and a ridiculous song in there as well?

The film is set in Olde England, where crafty royals, dastardly nobles, and noble craftys all involve themselves in the succession of the king. Thrown into the mix is Hubert Hawkins (Kaye) a song-and-dance man who gets intertwined with the plotting and repeatedly gets mistaken for someone else in situations of romance and peril. There is swordplay, there are castles and jousts, there are $4 million in production values (which was a lot of money in the 1950s).

But plot schmott, this is film as fun. And who could be of greater service in that endeavour than Danny Kaye, in one of his finest moments as an entertainer? He handles the physical and verbal humor equally well, seems at home both in the dueling scenes and in romantic moments, and sings and dances as well. Because he doesn’t seem to be taking anything too seriously, it’s very easy to laugh along with him.

Basil Rathbone, as the villainous Lord Ravenhurst, gamely mocks his role in another of my recommendations, The Adventures of Robin Hood. He is an absolute hoot and the final fate of his character is priceless. Mildred Natwick is so funny that I literally cried from watching her expressions and listening to her delivery of great comic lines. And Angela Lansbury, as a besotted adolescent of a princess, shows great comic touch.

We sometimes say “They don’t make ’em like that any more”. But this film deserves a higher compliment, which is that they didn’t make ’em like that then, but they learned how by watching groundbreaking films like this.

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