Monday 21 December 2015

Harry in Your Pocket [1973]

HARRY IN YOUR POCKET is an American crime caper film that was directed by Bruce Geller and originally released by United Artists in September 1973.  It stars James Coburn, Michael Sarrazin, Trish Van Devere and Walter Pidgeon. It tells the story of two youngsters who are taught the art of the pickpocket by a pair of experienced criminals.

James Coburn was an intriguing man.  If you look him up on imdb you'll see he racked up 173 credits during his career.  Impressive.  But look a little closer and you'll also see that 62 of these, over a third, came before THE GREAT ESCAPE [1963] which was his big break in the film business.  He wasn't particularly good looking, he didn't have an impressive physique and he seemed to age prematurely.

James Coburn as Harry
What he did have was a suave manner, an anti-authoritarian attitude and a cheerful but 'don't mess with me' air exemplified by his shit-eating grin.  So he was perhaps lucky that his career coincided with a period in cinema when such heroes, like James Bond, were in vogue and on into the Vietnam / Watergate era when cocking a snook at the establishment was popular.  He could be described as a more debonair Steve McQueen.  He had a greater range than McQueen though.  McQueen was most at home in tough thrillers but Coburn could do the lot.

HARRY IN YOUR POCKET comes at what I reckon is the end of Coburn's peak period.  After the mid-1970s he increasingly seemed to make slick, superficial mainstream pictures.  He was approaching 50 at this point and too old to maintain the persona from his younger days. So it's perhaps a sign of things to come that he plays a father figure here, albeit one still young enough to have a father figure of his own.

Harry and father figure / mentor Casey
Harry is a pickpocket, specifically a cannon, which is to say he is the most important team member, the one who does the actual pickpocketing.  That's right: pickpocketing is apparently a team game.  Harry's mentor Casey (Walter Pidgeon) is the man who identifies the target and indicates where he / she is carrying the item.  Sandy (Trish Van Devere) is the distraction, which usually involves her bending over in a short skirt.  Ray (Michael Sarrazin) is the guy to whom Harry passes the item almost as soon as it has been pickpocket.

Sandy and Ray
It works this way because Harry's number one rule is 'Harry does not hold.  Ever.'  Which means he never holds on to the goods after he has pocketed them.  He always passes them on to Ray.  Obviously this is so that Harry can never be pinched by the cops while Ray who has played no part in the lift can wander off unmolested.  I love all this kind of stuff: the basic techniques of an activity which I would otherwise never know.  As such the natural home for it is the caper movie because it lends itself to scenes involving teaching or rehearsals.

Harry explains that they must always travel first class, stay in the best hotels and, excepting Sandy, wear a jacket and tie.  This way they cultivate the impression of being upper class and, therefore, above suspicion; which is a rather neat way of using class snobbery to your advantage.  Harry also tells them that, counter-intuitively, he dislikes working events where there will lots of rich targets; this is because such places usually have very tight security.  All of this knowledge and expertise comes together of course at the film's climax: a dressage competition (which is another signifier of class).

Caper films are more interesting than they initially appear.  They are generally the only crime films in which the audience hopes the criminals get away with it; imagine having that attitude for a serial killer picture.  Or indeed something like J. C. Chandor's MARGIN CALL [2011] about the economic collapse.  It's probably because there's usually a strong comedic element to the caper movie, as the name itself suggests.  That's not true is every case though: a film I wrote about long ago - Jean-Pierre Melville's LE CERCLE ROUGE [1970] is about as serious as they come but I was still rooting for Messrs Delon, Montand and Volonte.

Harry has his eye on Sandy from the word go (note Sandy beautifully framed in the mirror)
The other part of this film which works very well is the love triangle between Harry, Ray and Sandy.  Harry takes both of them on as students basically because he wants to get into Sandy's knickers.  But Sandy is a smart, loyal young woman who stands by her man, until he starts to get jealous of course.  If you have any experience of that emotion then you know how corrosive it can be; if you don't, this film will make it plain to you.  In my review of Vincent Sherman's ICE PALACE [1960] I wrote about how the film's most successful element is the torment felt by Carolyn Jones's character who is torn between the man she loves and the man she betrayed.  She ends up with neither and the heartache she suffers in consequence is palpable.  That would make a good themed double bill with HARRY IN  YOUR POCKET for this reason.  Two films which show the destructive power of love.

Trish Van Devere as Sandy
Trish Van Devere is terrific as the object of the men's desires.  Sadly she didn't make many films: according to imdb she hasn't had a screen role in over 20 years so the chances of seeing her again must be slim. Several of those she did make are with her husband George C. Scott.  The only other films of hers that I have seen are two of these, both ghost stories from 1980: Peter Medak's THE CHANGELING and George Bowers' THE HEARSE.  The former is miles better than the latter which is one of the most tedious and least frightening horror films I have ever seen.

Michael Sarrazin as Ray
Which brings me to Michael Sarrazin who stars in the least frightening horror film I have ever seen, namely J. Lee Thompson's THE REINCARNATION OF PETER PROUD [1975].  It's terrible so I won't bang on about here; suffice it to say that if you feel compelled to seek it out you can't say you weren't warned.  Apart from that Sarrazin had what I think is a disappointing career which started big in Sydney Pollack's THEY SHOOT HORSES DON'T THEY? [1969].  he rode the wave of that film's success for another 7 or 8 years, encompassing only 10 films, and that was pretty much that.  A couple of Delirious and may (or may not) feature here in the future: the sci-fi thriller THE GROUNDSTAR CONSPIRACY [1972] and FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY [1973] an expensive TV movie of which the grand curmudgeon Leslie Halliwell remarked "It was never a true story in the first place."  Sarrazin continued to work of course, mainly in TV, and died in 2011.

Walter Pidgeon as Casey
The old-timer Casey, Harry's own mentor, is played by veteran Walter Pidgeon, whose career dates back to the silent era.  He is most famous though for his work in the 1940s, notably as Mr Miniver in MRS MINIVER [1942] and the lead role in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY [1941], both of which won Oscars for Best Picture, the latter, notoriously, beating CITIZEN KANE.  Delirious fans will probably remember him more for playing Dr Mobius in FORBIDDEN PLANET [1956].  He's really good in this movie though, playing one of cinema's few septuagenarian coke-fiend pickpockets.

The behind-the-camera credits aren't remarkable.  Director Bruce Geller was a TV man for whom this film was his only cinema credit.  He did however create MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and thus made a mark which has lasted for nearly fifty years, if you include the Tom Cruise series of films.  Writers James D. Buchanan and Ronald Austin also penned the script for the shonky but fun TV movie THE HORROR AT 37,000 FEET [1973].  The score is by one of the all-time great film composers Lalo Schifrin and it is of course terrific.

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Ice Palace [1960]

ICE PALACE is an American drama that was directed by Vincent Sherman and originally released by Warner Brothers in January 1960.  It stars Richard Burton, Robert Ryan and Carolyn Jones, with supporting turns from Jim Backus, George Takei and Shirley Knight.  It's a tale of a kind of love quadrangle, of friendship turned to hate, set against the backdrop of the fight for Alaskan statehood.

Like GIANT [1956], this was adapted from a novel by Edna Ferber.  I'm not sure she is read much these days; if the films are anything to go by she seemed interested in larger-than-life characters feeling strong but simple emotions.  I'm not saying she was Mills & Boon level, nor particularly sensationalist but I suspect these were populist page-turners.  I mean, look at some of the names of her characters: in this movie the two leads are Zeb Kennedy and Thor Storm; in GIANT we have the likes of Jett Rink and Vashti Snythe; in SO BIG [1953] Pervis DeJong and Dallas O'Mara; in SHOW BOAT [1951] Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal.  These are Jackie Collins-type names and that means these tales are difficult to take seriously; not that there is much to take seriously anyway.  Once you accept that what you're watching is melodrama then there's a lot to enjoy.  Well, perhaps not "a lot" but something anyway.

Robert Ryan (L) and Richard Burton (R)

First of all, and probably the only reason I watched it at all, you get Burton and Ryan, two of my favourite actors.  ICE PALACE is one of the very few films in which Burton actually has some action scenes; it's odd to see him getting in to punch-ups or working on a trawler because, as I've said before, in his later films he became increasingly wooden, physically.  It clearly didn't come naturally to him and he's not great at it but it does at least provide a contrast with the immobile bulk he became.  And let's not forget he was a very handsome guy in his younger days (he was 34 when he made this) and that, combined with his incredible voice, was what established him as a proper movie star.

Richard Burton as Zeb Kennedy

I don't think I've had the pleasure of writing about a Robert Ryan picture before on these pages.  I'm surprised I haven't because he is probably my all-time favourite actor.  There are many reasons I like him but the main three are that he was a fine actor with a wide range; he consistently made excellent films; and he was a man of integrity with strong social and political convictions.

Robert Ryan as Thor Storm

It has been said before that his off screen persona was often at odds with some of the reprehensible characters he played and it's true that he had plenty of roles as despicable bigots, perhaps most famously in John Sturges' BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK [1955] but most significantly in Edward Dmytryk's CROSSFIRE [1947].  I say "significantly" because it was a landmark film for Ryan in several ways: in career terms it was a breakthrough for him; it identified him with the public as a 'bad guy', in this case a rabid anti-Semite; and it brought him to the attention of HUAC.

Ryan had enlisted in the US Marine Corps and served as a fitness instructor in San Diego.  Ryan's biographer, Franklin Jarlett (whose excellent book you can buy here), speculates that it was this experience - of seeing injured and broken men return to the US, of feeling that he had personally contributed to the "killing machine" - which led him to become a pacifist.  This stance, along with his contribution to the perceived liberal principles of CROSSFIRE, is what made him known to HUAC.

Ironically, since it was the source of his pacifism, it was Ryan's service career that saved him from further investigation.  Typically, the black-or-white generalisations of McCarthy and his cronies saw anyone who had served as beyond reproach.  However, other talents who worked on the film were not as fortunate: director Dmytryk was briefly jailed before he ratted out his former friends and colleagues; producer Adrian Scott was blacklisted and made only one other feature film in his lifetime.

I don't want to go on at length about Ryan's personal beliefs - this is after all a cinema blog, not a political one - but his philosophy, if one can call it such, seems to me to be an integral part of what informed his acting choices.  He was an active member of the ACLU; he established a co-operative school, Oakwood, which taught a liberal curriculum and was once vandalised for raising the United Nations flag; he campaigned alongside Adlai Stevenson during the 1952 US Presidential election and supported the anti-war Eugene McCarthy (no relation) for Democrat nomination in 1968.

Maybe it's because he held himself to such high personal standards that he was able to imbue these villainous characters with bitter self-loathing that makes them understandable, credible yet repellent.  For me, this all comes together in the character of turncoat Deke Thornton in Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH [1969].  Self-disgust is written all over the face of a man who has betrayed his own code and his own friends in order to survive.

As Deke Thornton in THE WILD BUNCH

I'm not sure where ICE PALACE fits in to this context.  Ryan plays against type to an extent as Thor Storm is basically the good guy: betrayed not betrayer; fighting for his fishermen colleagues and the rights of the Alaskan people more broadly.  However, the films begins with a dreadful sub-Ayn Rand prologue about how it is the manifest destiny of brawny men to inherit the earth and ends with a cringe-inducing epilogue inviting all Americans to rape as much of their land as they can before anyone else beats them to it.  If this is a 'liberal' message it is the (relatively) moderate rugged individualism of the Republican right; it has nothing to do with the true liberalism espoused by Robert Ryan.

Beautiful Alaska...

...and the not so beautiful.  But still, it's there so fill yer boots!
He's great to watch, as is Burton, but the film doesn't work as a whole. The script is too shallow for the dramas being played out: I lost count of the number of women who die in childbirth.  The production itself which with a canvas as broad as Alaska you'd expect to be stunning is instead mainly set-bound and artificial.  Beyond Burton, Ryan, Jones and Backus the supporting cast is made up of blandly good looking guys and gals most of whom make very little impression.

Carolyn Jones as Bridie Ballatyne

However, it does do one thing exceptionally well and that is the relationship between Zeb, Thor and Bridie (Carolyn Jones).  The torment felt by all three characters is palpable and a credit to the actors because that emotion certainly doesn't come from the dialogue.  In particular Carolyn Jones, who must have the most beautiful eyes in all cinema (well, maybe her and Maria Casares), is heart-breaking as the woman torn between love and lust and who misses all the chances she gets to establish happiness on her own terms.

Jim Backus as Dave Husack

There a few interesting credits that make the film worth seeking out for genre fans.  Jim Backus was of course the voice of Mr Magoo but he had a genuine acting career in his own right, memorably as James Dean's uncomprehending dad in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE [1955].

Ray Danton as Bay Husack

Ray Danton, who plays Backus's scheming son, had a solidly Delirious career which you can read about at slightly greater length here.  George Takei is and always will be Sulu.

George Takei as Wang

Monday 24 August 2015

Stacy Keach talks to Cinema Delirium

Long-time readers will know that US actor Stacy Keach is a big favourite here at Cinema Delirium so I was delighted to get the chance in August 2015 to talk to him about his long and illustrious film and theatre career.

Cinema Delirium: Do you see a difference between your film and stage work?  Are they two parallel careers or aspects of the same one?

Stacy Keach: I teach acting and I tell my young students that there really is no difference between film and theatre as far as acting is concerned: you still have to be real, moment to moment. But I guess on a larger scale the main difference is when you’re on stage you have to project to the audience and when you’re working on a film the camera comes to you.  But in both cases you have to be believable, obviously.  I think actors mistake being ‘big’, being larger than life, as being  the stage persona and being ‘smaller’ is for film.  I think that’s a distortion in a way because what begins to happens is that actors start to become self-conscious in front of a camera.  Stage actors in particular when they get in front of a camera are very nervous because it’s not something they’re used to.

I had an experience, when I was just starting out, with Gordon Willis who photographed END OF THE ROAD [1970].  I was very nervous because it was one of my first movies and he came up to me – he’d noticed that I was getting a little self-conscious - and he said, “Stacy, I want to introduce you to Mitch” and I said “Oh yeah I’d like to meet Mitch” and Willis said “Here he is!” and it was the camera.  People thought I was crazy but I started talking to the camera: every day I’d come in and say “Hi Mitch, how are you doing?” to overcome my self-consciousness – and it worked!  So Gordon Willis was the one who alleviated my anxiety of being in front of the camera.  A great man.   But no, actors shouldn't think of there being a difference:just play the character in the moment.

CD: Have you taken acting techniques from from your film work into your stage work, and vice versa?

SK: Yes, and vice versa, very much so.  In a lot of ways doing film helps your stage work  because you get into the detail, the nuance of a moment, with greater alacrity when you’ve done a lot of work in front of a camera because on film it’s all about what’s going on behind your eyes.  People think that doesn’t apply to the theatre but it does, it absolutely does - it’s not just the voice, even though that’s important – but what’s going on with your face and expressions is also very important.

CD: It used to be the case, certainly in the UK, that an actor would train in the theatre before trying a movie career but I’m not sure that’s still the case.  Is that how it works in the US?

SK: Yes and no.  I still think the theatre is the best training ground for actors learning their craft which applies also to film.  Working in the theatre with a live audience an actor learns from their response whether what you’re doing is working.  In Broadway, apart from all the wonderful British imports we get, a lot of TV stars find themselves headlining Broadway shows because they are a known quantity.  Currently I think TV has more application to theatre than film in a way; when an actor has been in TV for a length of time and wants something more challenging then we welcome him but.  But oftentimes… Shakespeare for example is something you can’t tackle without training – I don’t think anybody could go out and intuitively play Hamlet.  First of all you have to learn the language and how to deliver it; it requires skills.  I had the great fortune of going to LAMDA and learning over there.

CD: The mid-60s must have been a great time to live and work in London.

SK: It was a wonderful time, it was great.  Olivier was running the National Theatre and I got see him do many things:  I saw him do ‘Othello’, ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’, ‘The Master Builder’.  It was just great being in London at that time.  We could go to the Aldwych theatre and see the Berliner Ensemble, Helene Weigel; Jean-Louis Barrault came over from France.  It was amazing; I was so lucky to experience those things.

CD: Where did you live?

SK: Ealing Common!  Took the Piccadilly Line every day and in those days LAMDA was at Earls Court so it was about 20 minutes on the tube!

CD: Have you seen any productions at the RSC?

SK: Oh yes, many times.  One of the greatest performances I saw was Paul Scofield do ‘Timon of Athens’ at Stratford [in 1965] and I thought my God this is one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays by virtue of Scofield’s performance.  It’s not a great play – it’s a flawed play -  but there are good things in it and all those were accentuated by Scofield.  It was made great by Scofield’s performance. I also had the great pleasure of seeing him do ‘Amadeus’ because at that time [1980] I was working at the National doing ‘Hughie’ [a one-act play by Eugene O’Neill] at the Cottesloe, directed by Bill Bryden, and it was a wonderful time for me.

CD: You were in the American Film Theatre’s film of LUTHER; had you performed it on stage?

Playing the title role in Guy Green's LUTHER with Patrick Magee

SK: No, I’d done scenes from it in class but I hadn’t done the play.  I saw Albert Finney do it brilliantly and I was thrilled when they called and asked me to do it - and surprised actually.  That experience was a bit of a disappointment, I’ll be honest with you, because I was concerned whether we were doing a movie or were doing a movie of a play – and really it never got out of the proscenium arch.  It was very much a movie of a play rather than a ‘film’ film.  I remember talking with Guy Green the director at the beginning of the shoot because Luther had these interior voices and I thought this would be good to do as voice over - rather than see an actor soliloquising on film - but I lost that battle.

CD:  I believe the purpose of that AFT series was to preserve outstanding productions on film.

SK:  Yes and I think the most successful of those was THE ICEMAN COMETH [1973]: it was one of the best because it really was a movie.  It was a play obviously but Eugene O’Neill lends himself to the way characters interact and it was very ‘movie friendly’.

CD: That had an amazing cast: Robert Ryan, Jeff Bridges, Lee Marvin…

SK: Oh yes.  Fredric March.  Robert Ryan became a good friend of mine in his later years; we were in ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ together [in 1971].  I was getting ready to do FAT CITY [1972], the boxing movie, and he had been in THE SET UP [1949] and he gave me tips on how to move my shoulders and look like an authentic boxer.  He was great, he was just wonderful.  When I was in ‘Hamlet’ [in 1972], he was very ill - he had just finished shooting  THE ICEMAN COMETH - and he came to see me in rehearsal and that was the last time I saw him.

CD: I love THE SET UP.  It’s one of the great sports movies and also one of the great film noirs.

SK: Yes it’s an amazing film, just extraordinary; in real time too.

CD: Another theatre to film transfer was CONDUCT UNBECOMING [1975].  I watched it last night; was very difficult to get hold of.  How did that come about?

As Captain Harper in Michael Anderson's CONDUCT UNBECOMING with Michael York

SK: That one was very simply a call from my agent to say they've offered you this part.  But when I arrived on the set I was so thrilled: I got to work with Trevor Howard, Christopher Plummer.  Just thrilling to me to work with these great legends.

CD:  That and LUTHER was the cream of British character acting talent.

SK:  Oh yes: Hugh Griffith, Alan Badel, Leonard Rossiter.

CD: …and Patrick Magee

SK:  Yes, amazing, he played my Dad!  He was my hero.  I’ll never forget the first time I saw Patrick Magee, he was playing the Marquis de Sade in ‘The Persecution  and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat’ – Peter Brook’s production – he just knocked me out.  And then of course I saw him in lots of pictures too: THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, a great great actor.

CD:  He had such an eccentric screen persona… how was he off screen?

SK:  Delightful!  He had a great sense of humour, he told wonderful stories and I just loved being around him.

CD:  In a totally different form you made END OF THE ROAD, a good example of the more experimental, or at least unconventional, approach to film-making which really flourished in the US in the late 60s / early 70s.

SK:  Aram Avakian was the director and his background was editing – he edited a number of great films: MICKEY ONE [1965] with Warren Beatty was one [he also edited THE MIRACLE WORKER [1962], LILITH [1964] and THE COMEDIANS [1967] among others] .  I think really he took lots of chances in END OF THE ROAD – that abortion scene is something to this day is one of the most horrific scenes.  Dorothy Tristan, who was Aram’s wife at the time, was playing Rennie.  Life magazine did an 8-page spread on END OF THE ROAD and when the movie came out people were up in arms, I mean they were walking out of the theatre, throwing up – it was awful – and the poor journalist got fired.

CD:  It’s what I call the last golden age of US cinema because it’s hard to imagine films like END OF THE ROAD being made today.  Was there a sense then that absurdity was a way to convey the turbulence of US life at that time?

SK: Yes.  Absurdist drama was flourishing then in those days as well, I mean Arrabal and Ionesco and Genet; the theatre was using humour as a way to convey certain political and cultural sentiments.  I think one of the things that Aram was concerned about… he wanted very much in my scenes with James Earl Jones to have images that flash around the room [the slides feature fast, almost subliminal images of violence and conflict].  That was something revolutionary at the time – I remember Gordon Willis having to get the lighting exactly right for the slides.  Today that’s passée, it’s been used and overused.

You make a good point in terms of how films of that time used absurdity.  Terry Southern wrote the screenplay and he had a wonderful quirky sense of humour.

CD:  Yes he was behind a lot of the absurdist / counter-culture films of the 60s…

SK:  CANDY [1968]…

CD:  … THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN [1970] [Southern also wrote or co-wrote DR STRANGELOVE [1964] and EASY RIDER [1969]]

SK:  Yes, The Magic Christian, that was the one.  That off-handed sort of humour was refreshing.

CD:  Are films that are made in that form more difficult to act in that more conventional, plot-driven films?

SK:  No I don’t think so.  What I do find difficult, in today’s world, is acting in front of a green screen.  Like in SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR [2014] you’re literally on the sound stage surrounded by this green tarp and that’s it!  Just you and the other actor, there’s nothing.  That I find very difficult because you don’t get a sense of the environment; the environment is created in post-production and that’s hard for an actor.

As Wallenquist in Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez' SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR with Eva Green

CD:  You have a number of scenes with James Earl Jones whose character is very intimidating.  I imagine he is an actor you enjoyed working with.

SK:  Oh yes he is a great great actor.  I had the privilege of doing a number of… in fact my very first summer as a professional stage actor [in 1964], he was playing the lead and I was carrying a spear in ‘Othello’ in Philadelphia at the Playhouse in the Park.  And then of course we did END OF THE ROAD, and subsequently he played Claudius when I played Hamlet.

CD:  In that period you worked with several actors on more than one occasion: I’m thinking of Harris Yulin, Bud Cort, Scott Wilson, Susan Tyrell, M. Emmet Walsh.  There really was an amazing bunch of actors around at that time.

As Doc Holliday in Frank Perry's DOC with Harris Yulin (R)

SK: Yes I really was very fortunate.  Harris is still a very good friend of mine; we did a lot of theatre together as well.  Aside from END OF THE ROAD and DOC [1971] there’s an obscure film – I think they changed the title about 15 times – called WATCHED [1974] about a lawyer in San Francisco who gets involved with drugs himself and Harris played the narc officer, but that’s really obscure.

CD:  Even I haven’t been able to track that one down!

SK: Yep, that’s a tough one!

CD:  I did see THE TRAVELING EXECUTIONER [1971] and that one has been difficult to get hold of here too.

As Jonas Candide in Jack Smight's THE TRAVELING EXECUTIONER

SK:  That was a fun movie, I like that movie.  Yeah I enjoyed that but at the time it didn’t do very well at the box office because a black comedy about putting people in electric chairs was not – at that time – something that people considered very commercial.  But I loved working on that film and I think there are a lot of wonderful things in it.  And it was my first big role in a movie so it was very important film for me.

CD: I was thinking that I couldn’t name many actors equally comfortable playing heroes, villains, academics… con men – you’ve covered all the bases there.

SK:  Well thank you, it’s my job!  That’s why I was so keen on getting educated and going to LAMDA as a young actor because I felt that English actors had much more accessibility to a variety of roles.  It’s very true of the great English actors: they can do it all: Anthony Hopkins, Ian McKellen, both masters – they can do anything.

CD: It’s said that comedy is difficult to do well.  Did you find that challenging on THE TRAVELING EXECUTIONER?

SK:  No, not at all.  The difficult part was being in that environment.  We went to Kilby Prison in Montgomery, Alabama which had been closed a week before.  The deal was we could use the prison if MGM agreed to tear it down when we’d finished the film.  When I arrived I went through the prison and of course every cell had letters and artefacts – it was a blitz, they had moved out so quickly.  I went back after we’d finished the film – the prison hadn’t been torn down yet – to shoot a documentary called THE REPEATER [1971], which is a little 20-minute movie I made right after THE TRAVELING EXECUTIONER, a short film [about recidivism] which won some awards, and there were portions of the wall that were totally broken down and I was wondering whether MGM did that or the explosion at the end of the movie did that!

CD:  Have you ever shot a film in sequence?  I’ve always had the impression that it rarely happens.

SK:  Oh yes but it is rare.  What with locations and actors’ schedules and so on it’s very unusual to shoot films in sequence but I have done a couple of times.

CD:  Have you found that more conducive to good work?

SK:  I don’t know.  You know many times I’ve had to shoot the final scene first and if it’s a death scene you then have to think ‘How did I get here?’ and you have to sort of back your way into the rest of the film.  But sometimes I think that’s a virtue because you have to make some big, definite decisions about what you’re going to do with the character as you’re at the end of the journey before you start.  It’s challenging.

CD:  I wanted to ask you about John Huston, who directed you on FAT CITY and THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN [1972] and with whom you later worked alongside as an actor.  I watched THE BIGGEST BATTLE [1978, an Italian WW2 movie] last night…

SK:  Oh my God!  That is a piece of work!  Umberto Lenzi.  He always wore blue jumpsuits, he couldn’t speak a word of English – he had a translator for everything – but he was always very excited.  But that blue jumpsuit, I still have images in my mind.  That was a very dangerous film.

CD:  Yes I imagine they have a rather more cavalier approach to health and safety.

SK:  We were running out of light and I had a scene where I was in a foxhole, tanks were coming towards me and we didn’t have a chance to rehearse it – “We are-a losing da light!  Pronto, pronto!”.  The camera was right behind me and I was looking out of the foxhole at this approaching tank coming right towards me and it was supposed to turn off to the side but it rolled over the foxhole, I backed off, knocked over the camera – we came very close to losing it right there.

CD:  Wow.  It has always struck me that they’re kind of flying by the seat of their pants in Italian exploitation films.

SK:  Yeah, that’s very true.  I did another Italian film as well with Roger Moore called STREET PEOPLE [1976] and we literally got in the car – I was playing his driver and I was supposed to be test driving this car – and they had no permits to shoot in North Beach and I had to drive against the traffic weaving in and out of cars and they wanted me to be talking during all of this.  So I said, “Well what am I saying?” and they said “I don’t-a know, just-a talk!”.  So there I am driving against the traffic, weaving in and out, saying “One, two, three, four.”

CD:  I heard a story about, I think, Steve Reeves who was working on one of those Hercules films in Italy and he had these chains around his wrists and was flailing them around knocking over extras.  They weren’t metal obviously but still thick wood painted to look metal and apparently Reeves said, “You know I could really hurt that guy with these if we’re not careful.”  And the director said, “If he doesn’t get hurt he doesn’t get paid!”

SK:  Ha!  Yes exactly.  But even so it was good fun making those Italian films.

CD:  Yes they don’t seem to take it quite so seriously.  Everybody just seems to be having fun.

SK:  Fun, yes that’s the word.

CD:  So at the other end of the scale, when you’re working with legendary figures like John Huston or Orson Welles it there a temptation to do exactly what they tell you or do you think ‘I’ve got to hold my own here’?

As Jess Tyler in Matt Cimber's BUTTERFLY

SK:  No.  Whatever they say goes [laughs].  You know I worked with Orson as an actor [on BUTTERFLY [1982]] and the director Matt Cimber hadn’t had much experience as a director of mainstream pictures, and I was playing this incestuous father and I wanted some pointers.  So I went to Orson and I said “Excuse me sir, forgive me but I just wanted to get your impression on how I’m playing this scene – I’m not getting much from the director,” and he said [puts on very deep voice], “You’re doing just fine, you’re doing just fine.”  But if he’d said anything to me I would have said “Yes sir!”

He was an amazing guy.  He didn’t trust his memory so he had all of his lines written on cue cards – Barney was the guy holding them – and Orson would say “Barney, move closer to the camera!”  But when they rolled the camera he didn’t need the cue cards at all, he knew his lines perfectly.  He wore a fake nose that looked exactly like his nose!

CD:  Were people like that happy to share their tales of old Hollywood?

SK:  I had the great privilege of having dinner, just the two of us, Orson Welles and I, at the MGM Grand Hotel Restaurant and he didn’t want to talk about his films.  He was aware I’d directed a couple of things – INCIDENT AT VICHY [1973] and SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR [1976] – and he kept asking me questions. 

When he ordered – and at this time he was enormous, he must have been close to 300 lbs – he asked for two sides of roast beef and a baked potato… because he was on a diet.  A little old lady recognised him and came running over and she said “Mr Welles, Mr Welles, would you sign my napkin.”  He said “Not while I’m eating dear” but she waited around and when he’d finished he did go over and give her his autograph and was very gracious.  He was an amazing man.

Actually a good friend of mine Peter Jason, a character actor who I have worked with many times, he was very close with Orson, in fact drove him around in the latter years of his life, and was very involved in THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND [1974, Welles’s famously uncompleted project] which I believe they are now trying to put together.

Actually, when we were shooting THE BIGGEST BATTLE, which Orson narrated, what an experience that was.  The very first scene – we shot it in Bel Air at this mansion – there was Henry Fonda sitting at one end of the table across from me, there was Samantha Eggar sitting next to me, and John Huston.  I was concerned about my accent so I went up to John, we were playing backgammon between takes – which we had started doing on FAT CITY, and I said “John, I’m very concerned about my accent and I’m not getting any direction, am I doing it right?”  and he said [put on excellent John Huston voice] “No, no don’t ask me son, I’m just acting!  I’m not giving you any direction whatsoever!”

CD:  Who were your acting heroes when you were growing up?

SK:  Well certainly Brando… James Dean… Albert Finney… Richard Harris… Tom Courtenay

CD:  In the late 70s you obviously worked in Italy a little bit and also made a terrific British thriller called THE SQUEEZE [1977].

As Jim Naboth in Michael Apted's THE SQUEEZE with Freddie Starr

SK:  Oh I love that film.  Michael Apted.

CD:  It’s a film that still hits quite hard even now, nearly 40 years on.  Is there a difference between working on a British set with a British crew and working on an American set.

SK:  I love the tea breaks [laughs].  No, not really no.  When I shot LUTHER, Freddie Young the cameraman, my God I’ll never forget, he was in his late 70s and he came bounding into the studio one morning saying “I’m going to direct my first movie”, he was so excited.  He was something else, he never stopped working, he was a genius at lighting, David Lean certainly took advantage of that.

But no, British crews are great.  You know I like shooting where we’re not taking breaks every half an hour, which happens in America, I like to just keep moving… keep moving and keep going forward.  You know it’s good for the actors too because nothing frustrates an actor more than sitting around and getting ready to go and then being told it’s not time yet because something has to be fixed.  What you learn as the years go by is that you never get everything on the first take – something’s going to be off, you just know you’re not going to hit it, but that takes years of experience.

CD:  In THE SQUEEZE one of the particular strengths of that film I think is the vivid use of locations and that really gives it a grounding in reality;  I imagine those location shoots were quite lively.

SK:  Oh they were indeed yes.  Gosh yes – you’re bringing it all back in my head.  Stephen Boyd. He was so great.  It was so tragic though he died so young.  He was great to work with.  Same with David Hemmings.  And Carol White.

CD:  It was another film with a superb cast:  Edward Fox was also in it.  And Freddie Starr of course.

SK:  Freddie Starr was great.  One day he’d come out and spit on my windshield, I couldn’t believe it, he thought he was being funny.  He is good in the film though, he’s very good.  And he was fun to work with… most of the time!  As a stand-up comedian he was… always on.  He was very popular then.

CD:  I can’t not ask you about THE NINTH CONFIGURATION [1980] although I’m sure you’ve talked about it many many times.  I watched it again last night and it struck me that it’s a proper ensemble piece and largely confined by location so was it like working on a piece of theatre?

About to explode as Colonel Vincent Kane in William Peter Blatty's THE NINTH CONFIGURATION

SK:  In a way it was, yes.  Interestingly, last year I was reunited with Bill Blatty [William Peter Blatty, writer / director on THE NINTH CONFIGURATION] .  I was in Washington, he lives in Bethesda now, I was doing Falstaff and he came to see me and we reconnected.  I didn’t know it but he’s written a play of THE NINTH CONFIGURATION which has its original title of TWINKLE, TWINKLE KILLER KANE so yes the film is very much like a play.

You know Bill did something I’ve never experienced before, he’s the only director – and I’m surprised that others don’t – he had Barry De Vorzon write the music, the score and the theme prior to shooting.  And before certain scenes – in Kane’s office or wherever it was – he’d play the music, he’d play the theme and get us in the mood.  It was unbelievable and I suppose it’s time constraints which mean other directors don’t so it.

CD:  On that film – necessarily so because of the way the characters are – a lot of the acting is quite ‘big’, to use the word you used earlier, and yet you for the most part have quite a passive role as Colonel Kane.  Did you find it difficult to dial it down?

SK:  It was so hard.  I constantly wanted to emphasise  certain words and express myself but Bill said “No, absolutely monotone, no expression whatsoever” and it was so hard.  He [Colonel Kane] reminds me a little of Jacob Horner [his character from END OF THE ROAD], a kind of catatonic figure.

CD:  Yes he’s a person to whom things happen rather than driving events himself.

SK:  Exactly.

CD:  But in THE NINTH CONFIGURATION it really pays off at the end when Kane is in the bar-room brawl.

SK: Yeah, it’s a great scene.

CD: Blatty was making his directing début with this film and I think he only made one other.  As a novice did his approach to directing – particularly to directing actors – differ from more experienced men?

SK:  Well he was very good actually, especially with the actors.  You know he was an actor, he started as an actor and he was always sharing stories of Cyrano [de Bergerac] which he and I had both done.  But he wanted his actors to bring their own personality to the characters they were playing... except me!  But it was a great ensemble, although so many people are now gone.  Scott Wilson is still with us, Bill Lucking…

CD:  Yes I was thinking about exactly this point after I watched the film: Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Moses Gunn, Joe Spinell, Neville Brand.

SK:  Yes, Neville Brand would come down and say “Black coffee!  Black coffee!” because he was a recovering alcoholic but he was very good.  He was something; he really had a lot of stories to tell: nobody could tell war stories better than Neville.

CD:  After that you did a lot of work on TV in the 1980s and when you came back to film work in the late 80s / early 90s did you feel the film business had changed?

SK:  Definitely.  I think in some ways for the better and some ways not.  The days of dailies have gone.  I’m glad we don’t have to go to dailies any more!  One of the things about movies today is that you know what you’ve got right there.  You do it, you replay it, you see it.  I think it improves the work, or at least has the potential to improve the work.

I think that the advent of reality TV has caused a revolution in terms of behaviour for actors because we’re competing now with real people.  The degree of reality the bar is higher now, the challenge for actors now is to ‘be’ rather than to act.  Which I think is a good thing.

CD:  Would you say that while there have been great technological advances made, films today aren’t as challenging as they used to be?

SK:  You’re absolutely right.  What has also happened because of reality TV is that stories have become too prosaic , there’s no more of that Agatha Christie type thriller… I love stories that have twists but you don’t get much of that today.  You were right that in the golden age the stories were the priority, they were paramount.  Today I think basically the problem is the scripts have gotten worse.  Maybe I’m just old-fashioned.

CD:  I’m not sure it’s that.  I think there are fewer films that are really aimed at an adult audience these days.  I understand the demographic for most films is something like 16-22 and I’m not sure that’s conducive to challenging film-making.

SK:  You’re right.  And that’s one of the reason why I’m so thrilled when a director like Alexander Payne comes along.  NEBRASKA [2013] was not aimed at that age group –although they still went to see it - and was a great movie; he’s a wonderful film-maker.

Stacy Keach as Ed Pegram in Alexander Payne's NEBRASKA with David Forte

CD:  There are a few very good young directors out there with an individual style: Wes Anderson…

SK:  I love Wes Anderson.  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL [2014].  I think the mark of a good film, if you can look at it more than once and still enjoy it; I’ve seen CITIZEN KANE [1941] maybe 35-40 times in my life and I can just watch it again and again and again.  That’s the test of a great film.

CD:  Is there any chance of you coming back over to the UK to do some theatre, maybe some Shakespeare?

SK:  I hope so.  I’m working on a one-man Hemingway project [‘Pamplona’ by Jim McGrath].  I’ve got stage reading of it on September 14th at my old home the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  And perhaps a production down the road there, maybe a couple of years.  But I love performing in the West End, I loved doing Art there.

I’ve got three films coming out, the bizarre thing is that they’re not all just one-word titles they’re one-syllable titles!  There’s Steven King’s CELL – with John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabelle Fuhrman, and yours truly – which will be out in 2016.  We shot it two and a half years ago; it’s about cell phone radiation creating… zombies!  I play the headmaster of a school.  I believe the film has spent a lot of time in post-production with the special effects etc.

I also shot TRUTH with Cate Blanchett – she’s just the greatest – and Robert Redford that’s coming out in November.  It’s about the Dan Rather scandal – George W. Bush was running for President and his military affiliations were questioned, the New York Times did a whole piece on it and Dan Rather at CBS News did a whole expose and got in trouble and had to step down.  I play Colonel Bill Burkett, a whistle-blower, the guy who said Bush was never in the military.

And then I’m going off this weekend to shoot Matthew McConaughey’s current project GOLD about gold mining and I play his boss.

CD:  Those all sound like major films so it will be exciting to see them in cinemas over the next 18 months.  You’re obviously a busy man so thank you so much for sparing the time to talk to me, it has been a great pleasure.

SK:  Well thank you for your questions.

Wednesday 19 August 2015

The Big Gamble [1961]

THE BIG GAMBLE is an American adventure film that was directed by Richard Fleischer and originally released by 20th Century Fox in September 1961.  It stars Stephen Boyd, Juliette Greco and David Wayne.  It’s about an unlikely trio who have to drive a truck loaded with cases of beer across Africa.

It’s a wholly contrived situation of course and one that begs comparison with Henri-George Clouzot’s THE WAGES OF FEAR [1953] and William Friedkin's much-maligned but actually better remake SORCERER [1977].  The big difference of course is that Fleischer’s film is intended as a frivolous adventure, an almost family-oriented picture.  As such it doesn’t work as a thriller and what humour there is is pretty broad:  getting drunk, falling over and interacting with bemused Africans.  On top of all that it has an unreconstructed view of Africa, which is presented as a gigantic business opportunity for enterprising white people.

William Friedkin's SORCERER
Richard Fleischer's THE BIG GAMBLE
Considering all that I should have hated it.  That I didn’t is I think down to three things, or rather three people: Fleischer, Boyd and Greco.  Fleischer was a consummate pro who almost always delivered lean, efficient and highly watchable pictures.  Have a look at his CV: it’s not all great of course but for a forty year career there are remarkably few outright crappers. 

I don’t think it’s possible to claim Fleischer as an auteur but I’ve seen a lot of his now and I would suggests that he was particularly adept at what might be called ‘quest’ movies.  By that I mean a character or, more often, a group of characters coming together to accomplish a task.  These may be malevolent – ARMORED CAR ROBBERY [1950], COMPULSION [1959], THE BOSTON STRANGLER [1968] – or benevolent – FANTASTIC VOYAGE [1966], THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER [1977], CONAN THE DESTROYER [1984].  He differs from other ‘quest’ directors like Hawks, Huston and Brooks in that he’s not particularly interested in the camaraderie (like Hawks), the impossibility and frustration of the quest (Huston) or the group dynamic (Brooks).  What appears to interest Fleischer is the process of completing the quest, the nuts and bolts of it.

THE BIG GAMBLE is a case in point.  The film is really a handful of extended sequences bolted together, showing the characters laboriously doing things.  It’s difficult to think of any other director showing the entire sequence of a ship being unloaded: he shows the truck being lowered on to the shore-bound craft, then Boyd and Greco being lowered by crane, and then goes back to show David Wayne being transported in exactly the same way.

Crane shot 1:  the truck
Crane shot 2: Boyd and Greco
Crane shot 3: Wayne (note pith helmet and safari suit)
Later on our heroes come across a massive fallen tree blocking the road.  Happily coming the corner in the opposite direction are a merry African tribe who, in exchange for cases of beer, chop through the tree and shove it to one side.  Fleischer shows the whole operation from start to finish.  Other sequences show a precarious three-point turn on a mountain road and then the big finish of crossing a swollen river.  The attention to detail and commitment to the task is quite incredible.

Stephen Boyd drives into tree...
tries to axe it in half...
...decides to let the Africans do it...
...and let them roll it out of the way.  Simples.
I’m aware I may be making it sound rather tedious but somehow it isn’t.  In some ways it refreshing to see a film in which workaday solutions are discovered and executed.  I also like the fact that problems can be worked through via communication, negotiation and good old fashioned teamwork rather than through coercion or shooting.

"You're alright.."
"Whoah, you've got about an inch."
Boyd and Greco as Vic and Marie make a lovely couple: he strong and brave, she loving and intelligent.  It’s Greco who lifts this film out of the mundane really; she’s so beautiful and charismatic and – in the context of Dublin, where the filmstarts – so exotic.  Frankly, I’d drive across Africa in a Fiat Panda if Juliette Greco was sat next to me.  Most famous as a chanteuse, Greco didn’t make many films, and certainly not many is the US, probably because she’s one of those unique personalities whom Hollywood is stumped by.  She’s in one of my all-time favourite films, Jean Cocteau’s ORPHEE [1950].

Juliette Greco as Marie and Stephen Boyd as Vic
I’ve always liked Stephen Boyd; sadly he’s another major star about whom you hear very little these days.  That’s a surprise to me because although his most famous pictures were made 50-odd years ago some of them are regularly shown on TV, in the UK usually on bank holidays.  I’m talking of course about films such as BEN-HUR [1959], THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE [1964] and the aforementioned FANTASTIC VOYAGE.  I think Boyd’s problem, if that’s the correct word, was that his career went on for some time after his star had faded.  Looking at his CV he ended up making lots of low-budget movies, not always in the lead, which barely got released.  That’s not to say they’re poor films: THE SQUEEZE [1977] is a superb British crime movie (coincidentally playing a character also called Vic) which I would urge you to seek out.  My favourite Boyd film though is probably THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS [1956], a brilliant WW2 thriller which first propelled him to stardom.  Boyd died suddenly in 1978 aged just 45.

David Wayne (L) as Samuel
I’m not so sure I would drive across Africa, even in an AC Cobra, if David Wayne was sitting next to me.  I suppose the light relief he provides in THE BIG GAMBLE was necessary but it’s the weakest element.  He’s one of those performers, like Danny Kaye, who I just find extremely irritating.  Perhaps he was better in his stage work.  Having said all that he is in THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN [1971] which is a fine, and usual, sci-fi movie whose heroes are all scientists.

It would be unfair not to mention Elmo Williams who shot all the second unit sequences in Africa; second unit work is usually all the stuff for which the actors are not required, e.g. stunt scenes, pick ups, etc.  On a movie such as THE BIG GAMBLE this is important work.  Williams had worked with Fleischer several times before as an editor; Fleischer had allowed him to do some second unit work on a couple of his films and he did the same on this movie.  According to Fleischer, Williams’ footage usually looked terrible in the dailies but fabulous when cut together in post-production.  The actions sequences are a big part of what makes this film watchable so Williams deserves a lot of credit for that.