Talking Movies

November 22, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXVII

As the title suggests, so forth.

The late Spielberg and the late Hitchcock

Having recently, finally, watched The Post, just because it was on prime-time Film4 twice inside a week, I regard my scepticism towards it as having been fully justified. A movie about the wrong newspaper and the wrong heroic actors who were all not breaking a huge story, and featuring an intolerably annoying lead performance even for Meryl Streep, it’s only value was it that it set me to thinking about the late Hitchcock and the late Spielberg. It is no secret that Spielberg found it so hard to get financing for his ponderous Lincoln that it looked like it might end up like Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra – a cable TV movie in America, given a small art-house release in Europe. Such an outcome would have been a shocking fall from grace from a man who made his name being a crowd-pleaser par excellence.  But the truth is that Spielberg has entered a phase of decline in that regard. Since nuking the fridge in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull Spielberg has struggled to find an audience. His 2010s output (The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, War Horse, LincolnBridge of Spies, The BFG, The Post, Ready Player One) has been prolific, but desperately uneven when it comes to connecting with an intended blockbuster audience, and the more niche trilogy of Constitutional Amendment films plagued by dull writing. The technical mastery is still there, but, like the late Hitchcock (Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz, Frenzy, Family Plot), it is in service of poor to middling scripts – so that outre camera moves stand out more and more than they would have in previous decades where the entire films were good, not just certain sequences or conceits standing out like oases in a desert. The fact that Spielberg’s next film is an unnecessary remake of West Side Story worked over by his Munich and Lincoln writer Tony Kusher does not inspire confidence that Spielberg can pull out of this slump, and that’s before you realise the star is … Ansel Elgort.

Yippee Ki Yay Memoriser!

A Die Hard Christmas jumper having just arrived in the mail I found myself wondering the other day whatever happened to its director John McTiernan. Lawsuits. Indictments. Jail. His Wyoming ranch being liquidated. And not a film made since 2003’s Basic. In fact, it’s kind of remarkable that McTiernan only made 11 films in his 18 active years, (allegedly he is making sci-fi blockbuster Tau Ceti Four with Uma Thurman, but I will believe that when I see it), but those films include both impeccable classics and unwatchable disasters. How can someone capable of Predator, Die Hard, The Hunt for Red October and Die Hard with a Vengeance have ended up battling studio incompetence and his own poor choices to have come away carrying the bag for Last Action Hero, The 13th Warrior, Rollerball and Basic? McTiernan has given some extensive and revealing interviews explaining how things went sideways so often, and he seems to have had a lot of bad luck. But one thing he said leapt out: while studying at the AFI a crazed teacher insisted on him memorising movies – shot for shot. On the grounds that a concert pianist would commit piano concertos to memory, and when asked to improvise a cadenza would have those to draw on, so a film director should have a set of classics in his cerebellum to creatively rework when needed. And so McTiernan said he had memorised every shot in A Clockwork Orange, among others. Which leads to one to think about his films in terms of such classicism. I can easily believe that it is possible to memorise every shot in Die Hard, with especial relish for the many delightful focus-pulls, but Rollerball?… Can the decline of McTiernan’s artistic clout in the editing room be directly seen in the betrayal of the principle of memorable shots rather than hyper-cut gibberish?

October 31, 2020

RIP Sean Connery

Sean Connery is dead at  age 90, and the world is without its first Bond, James Bond.

Sick Boy lacks moral fibre—Renton
Aye, but he knows a lot about Sean Connery—Mother Superior

Trainspotting (1996)

1962. Connery takes the lead in an underfinanced spy film where the director seems more interested in the wardrobe his star will wear than the performance he will give. Connery brought two sides to James Bond. He was a vicious bastard, true to Fleming’s character, but a faithful adaptation would have resulted in a flop notable only for the unpleasantness of its lead. Connery also brought a roguish charm to the role that was all his own invention. This is what made him a star and allowed Bond to get away with callous cruelty. Terence Young tried to emphasise the spy elements and the realism in the sequel From Russia, With Love. Connery was superbly paired against Robert Shaw and their extremely realistic fight was one of the most vicious then seen and still one of the longest sustained punch-ups in cinema. Guy (The Colditz Story) Hamilton directed Goldfinger as a stylish thriller not a Bond Film. A sensation for its characters, lines and casually brilliant plot twists it trapped Connery. He made the hit romance Woman of Straw, the psychodrama Marnie for Hitchcock and gruelling war drama The Hill for Sidney Lumet to showcase his serious acting abilities and desperately squeezed in A Fine Madness between Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. But the shadow of James Bond was enduring…

“Some age, others mature”.

At 50 he received the Time Bandits script from Terry Gilliam which described Agamemnon as resembling “Sean Connery or someone of equal stature but less expensive”. Connery accepted his age and played the supporting role. He did Bond once last time while he could still pass the action bar (although taking lessons from Steven Seagal he annoyed him so much that Seagal broke Connery’s wrist), reuniting with Irish Thunderball producer Kevin McClory for a remake, probably just to annoy Broccolli who had lost the rights to use SPECTRE or Blofeld to Fleming’s co-creator McClory. Exit Bond, enter everybody’s favourite grouchy uncle. Highlander, The Untouchables and The Name of the Rose saw him showcase this character and pick up a Best Supporting Oscar for crusty Chicago cop Jimmy Malone. 1989’s Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade showed just how good Connery could be in this sort of endearing role. The Hunt for Red October also showed he could still carry a film. He received $250,000 for a thirty second cameo in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as Richard the Lionheart and played King Arthur in First Knight adding wise but warm authority to his no nonsense persona. The Rock was even more jawdropping. Connery doesn’t really play a pensioner James Bond, he plays something more valuable: The 60 something Action Hero, a role he invented and only he could get away with. Compare how ridiculously old for proceedings Roger Moore seemed in 1985’s A View to a Kill against what Connery could do in 1996. Even in misfires like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Entrapment that persona is triumphant. He delivered in ensemble drama Playing By Heart and played a villain in The Avengers where his speech given while wearing a teddy bear outfit was the only minute of the dreadful film worth salvaging. Sadly we don’t know what he thought of the voluble opinions expressed on his career and importance in Trainspotting. While his close friend Michael Caine has continued working into his late 80s, memorably appearing in multiple blockbusters thanks to his friendship with Christopher Nolan, Connery quietly retired after the troubled production of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, passing up the role of Gandalf as well as a reprise of Henry Jones Sr in favour of working on his autobiography in his Bahamas home. Ironically for the bankroller of Scottish Nationalism (and a man who had ‘Scotland Forever’ tattooed on his arm when he was 16) he was awarded a Knighthood.

September 21, 2019

Top 5 Hitchcock Blondes

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5) Tippi Hedren

4) Kim Novak


3) Eva Marie Saint

2) Madeleine Carroll

1) Grace Kelly

September 10, 2018

The Lighthouse Presents Alfred Hitchcock

The Lighthouse is putting the Master of Suspense back on the big screen in September and October with a major retrospective comprising ten films from nearly two decades of work. A new restoration of Strangers on a Train is a highlight of a season showcasing icy blondes, blackly comic moments, pure cinema suspense sequences, and the greatest of director cameos.

STRANGERS ON A TRAIN

From 13th September

People who’ve never seen the film know what is meant by uttering the title.  Robert Walker’s psychotic socialite Bruno propounds to Farley Granger’s pro tennis star Guy, who he’s just met on a train, a very plausible theory on how two complete strangers could both get away with murder. By swapping murders the complete absence of motive would stump detection. And Bruno means to prove it… Patricia Highsmith’s first novel epitomised her creeping unease and smiling sociopaths, and Hitchcock embellished it with visual flourishes (reflections of murder in a glass, one sports spectator remaining aloof) and nail-biting suspense.

ROPE

From 14th September

Farley Granger and John Dall are the two young men, clearly modelled on the infamous real-life killers Leopold and Loeb, who strangle a classmate they have decided is inferior in their Nietzschean scheme of things. Displaying a sadistic sense of humour they hide his body in their apartment, invite his friends and family to a dinner party, and serve the food over his dead body. Can their mentor Jimmy Stewart rumble the perfect crime? This was shot by Hitchcock in ostentatiously long 10 minute takes that cut together by means of ‘jacket-wipes’ to give the impression of one unbroken real-time visualisation.

MARNIE

From 19th September

Tippi Hedren’s second film for Hitchcock cast her as the titular compulsive thief, troubled by the colour red, and the touch of any man, even Sean Connery at the height of Bond fame. Bernard Herrmann’s final Hitchcock score (though his rejected Torn Curtain music appeared in Scorsese’s Cape Fear) buoys some dime store pop psychology as Hitchcock displays a less than sure touch in navigating the line between twisted romance and twisted obsession. There is an infamous scene between Connery and Hedren that is arguably the beginning of the decline towards ever more showy cinematic conceits housed in increasingly mediocre films.

VERTIGO

From 20th September

Hitchcock’s 1958 magnum opus recently toppled Citizen Kane from its perch as the ‘greatest film ever made.’ Hitchcock burned money perfecting the dolly-in zoom-out effect so crucial for depicting Jimmy Stewart’s titular condition; and Spielberg cheekily appropriated it for one show-off shot in Jaws. The twisted plot from the French novelists behind Les Diaboliques is played brilliantly by the increasingly unhinged Stewart, Kim Novak as the anguished blonde he becomes obsessed with, and a young Barbara Bel Geddes as the friend who tries to keep him grounded. Visually gorgeous, lushly scored, and dripping pure cinema sequences without any dialogue – see this.

SPELLBOUND

From 22nd September

Ingrid Bergman’s psychiatrist protects her new boss (Gregory Peck) who turns out to be an amnesia victim accused of murder. On the run she attempts to recover his memory, while her old boss Leo G Carroll insists that Peck is a dangerous killer. Salvador Dali famously designed the dream sequence to explain Peck’s trauma, but producer David O Selznick cut it to ribbons. He had insisted Hitchcock make this picture anyway to fulfil his contract because Selznick had had a wonderful time in therapy. Hitchcock had a less wonderful time, even Miklos Rozsa’s score introducing the brand new theremin irked him.

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY

From 23rd September

The trouble with Harry is a bit of a curate’s egg. Foreign Correspondent’s hit-man Edmund Gwenn returns to the Hitchcock fold, and Shirley MacLaine makes her very winning film debut, but this is a black comedy that ends up more of a droll half-romantic drama. Four people in a Vermont village, led by his estranged wife, spend a Fall day running around with Harry’s dead body; one step ahead of the authorities, and each convinced twas they that did him in. After from MacLaine’s debut one must point out that from this unremarkable beginning grew the Hitchcock/Herrmann partnership.

NORTH BY NORTHWEST

From 26th September

Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman abandoned a fruitless novel adaptation for a scenario dazzlingly showcasing scenes Hitchcock had always longed to film; a murder at the United Nations, a man attacked by a crop-duster in an empty landscape. Cary Grant’s MadMan (cough) Roger O Thornhill; a man as hollow as  his affected middle initial; blunders into spymaster Leo G Carroll’s elaborate ruse and is ruthlessly and lethally pursued across America by the sinister James Mason and his clinging henchman Martin Landau, all the while dallying with their dangerous associate Eva  Marie Saint. Hitchcock’s preoccupations were never explored more enjoyably…

THE BIRDS

From 30th September

Hitchcock spun out Daphne Du Maurier’s short story which had been inspired by her simple thought when watching a flock wheel towards her over a field, “What if they  attacked?,” into  an unsettling and bloody film. Socialite Tippi Hedren’s pursuit of the judgemental lawyer Rod Taylor to his idyllic small town on the bay seems to cause the local birds to turn homicidal, but don’t look for explanations – just enjoy the slow-burn to the bravura attacks. Watch out for Alien’s Veronica Cartwright as Taylor’s young sister, and a bar stool philosophiser allegedly modelled on Hitchcock’s bruising encounters with Sean O’Casey…

DIAL M FOR MURDER 3-D

From 3rd October

Warner Bros. insisted that Hitchcock join the 3-D craze, so he perversely adapted a play without changing it much, something that had bedevilled cinema during the transition to sound. Hitchcock has immense fun layering the furniture of Grace Kelly’s flat, but after the interval (sic) largely loses interest in 3-D and focuses on Frederick Knott’s, ahem, knotty plot in which tennis pro Ray Milland blackmails Anthony Dawson into bumping off rich wife Grace Kelly. John Williams, who also appears in To Catch a Thief, is in fine form as the detective trying to puzzle out the crime.

PSYCHO

From 10th October

Hitchcock’s low budget 1960 classic boasted one of the drollest trailers imaginable  and his direction is equally parodic in the first act, with its sinister traffic-cop pursuit and endless misdirection, because Hitchcock relished investing the audience  in a shaggy-dog story which sets up a number of prolonged blackly comic sequences as well as some  chilling suspense. Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates emerges as a terrific resonant villain, especially in the chilling final scene scored by Bernard Herrmann with full-on Schoenbergian atonal serialism. The shower scene with Janet Leigh being slashed to Herrmann’s bravura stabbing strings orchestration remains an iconic ‘pure cinema’ scare.

Tickets can be booked at the Lighthouse’s website  (www.lighthousecinema.ie).

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