Thursday, 16 July 2015
What would happen if Philip Marlowe went to sleep for twenty years and awoke in the early 70s? This was the position that acclaimed director Robert Altman took in making his version of Raymond Chandler's THE LONG GOODBYE. He called the character Rip Van Marlowe: 'Trying to invoke the morals of a previous time' without specifically suggesting any fanciful sci-fi time-travel idea. Elliot Gould's rumpled charm is perfectly cast as the classic film-noir private detective on the trail of his friend Terry Lennox. The actor was very much a key 1970s icon playing the leisurely anti-authoritarian appeal to a tee. (A genial catchphrase of his in the film is 'It's okay with me').
Gould's attachment to the project was what turned Altman's initial lack of interest around. They had already made a great partnership in M*A*S*H three years before. As it turned out, his enthusiasm not only enabled the picture to be made, but earned Gould's gratitude for almost saving his career. The actor had recently gone from being a hot superstar to a lukewarm liability following an ill-judged walk away from a prospective film that he thought would be a failure.
The other stipulation the director made was to preserve writer Leigh Bracket's downbeat ending, wherein Marlowe shocks us by shooting dead the betraying friend who set him on the case. Altman insisted this be written into his contract and he got his way. He was right to do so as this is a compelling shock twist true to the message of integrity in the movie. Like many early '70s crime films, THE LONG GOODBYE doesn't cop out with a sanitised moral conclusion.
We are left in no doubt that this is the Los Angeles of the modern era that Marlowe wakes up in. There are free-wheeling girl neighbours into pot and their new age yoga and health-food lifestyle. An atmospheric drawling theme tune by John Williams and Johnny Mercer is a letimotif that haunts Marlowe on his journey as a doorbell tune and a Mexican band amongst others.There is a laid-back cool vibe in the air, yet an undercurrent of menace. Drug -dealing criminals are doing violent business in the city. One of them, Marty Augustine, wants to know where a large sum of money went that Lennox was meant to deliver for him. There is an uncredited early cameo here from a vacant looking Arnold Schwarzenegger as one of Augustine's heavies. He is given little to do except flex his muscles and stand about in his underpants looking decidedly unthreatening. (Understandably Altman said he never speaks of the role these days).
Nina Van Pallendt (singer of Nina and Frederik fame) acquits herself well as the long-suffering wife of Sterling Hayden, who here essays another in his gallery of vividly intimidating figures as an explosively erratic alcoholic. As the plot unfurls, we realise that the unpleasant Augustine, the married couple and the mysteriously-vanished Lennox are all connected - until Marlowe tracks down his lying pal and justice is served without regret.
THE LONG GOODBYE benefitted from a belatedly shrewd marketing campaign. Initially it was released with a faithfully 1940's looking poster, but Altman pulled this as he spotted it was misrepresenting the film's off-beat appeal. He instead had the brainwave of going to Jack Davis of Mad magazine. The artist drew an eye-catching poster in his comic style filled with all the characters complete with irreverent speech bubbles satirising themselves and the plot. When the film opened in New York it soon became a smash-hit, but was too late to make up for the previous campaign opening in all the other major US cities. However. as time has past it's deservedly found new life as a cult classic of the 1970s and a firm favourite of both Altman and Gould.
For a writer/director to have one great comedy to his name is an achievement. In the case of Mel Brooks, he had three - and all were made in the period that this blog spans, proving my point once again how many talents did arguably their finest work in these years. His Oscar-winning THE PRODUCERS (1968), followed by BLAZING SADDLES and then YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN both released in the same year (1974). (There was also the less notable but lovingly-made THE TWELVE CHAIRS in between).
Like YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Brooks co-wrote BLAZING SADDLES largely with Richard Pryor as an affectionate homage to a favourite genre - the Wild West movie. Also, both movies shares the same huge energy and gleeful vulgarity, but this is like being insulted by Don Rickles - rather than be offended, you treasure it. The other shared quality is knowing when to play it straight. It features a convincingly sincere romantic song of cowboy life co-written by Brooks and sung by western movie theme stalwart Frankie Laine, but with no spoofery. For every rifle-burst of laughs in the film, there are moments of good-natured warmth and honest sentiment.
How much do I love this film? Let me count the ways:
The cast is crammed full of memorable comedy gem characterisations. Gene Wilder's sozzled Waco Kid is every has-been drunk yearning for redemption that you've ever seen yet with a winning gentility and humanity as warm as the desert sun. Harvey Korman excels as Hedley ('That's Hedley') Lamarr, a suave sophisticate villain hampered by the sublime Slim Pickens and Burton Gilliam as his redneck henchmen. Madeleine Kahn is unforgettably funny as the Dietrich-esque German chanteuse Lily Von Schtupp with outrageous speech impediment to boot. Alex Karras channels a charming village idiot as Mongo. David Huddleston is marvellous as the blunt, crass Olson Johnson. In amongst the other townsfolk are an anachronistic, lisping medieval executioner, Jack Starret is the hilariously incoherent backwoodsman Gabby Johnson spouting 'Authentic frontier gibberish'. An old lady racist is comedically beaten up and John Hillerman plays another incongruously educated local, Howard Johnson, to match his urbane hotel manager in WHAT'S UP DOC? 'Nietsche said out of chaos comes order', he loftily expounds during a town meeting before being heckled down by philistines. Liam Dunn also provides a wonderfully irascible preacher, similar to the terrifically rude judge he played in WHAT'S UP DOC as well.
One of the most striking hired guns in the film though is Cleavon Little as the 'dazzling urbanite' Sheriff Bart . Little was a broadway theatre talent who here tackles the type of role that could have seriously misfired in the wrong hands. He exudes effortless confidence and charisma on screen that blows away any suggestion of tokenism. Bart is nobody's fool and ensures the real victims of racism are its exponents, 'Baby, you're so talented..and they're so DUMB' he remarks to us in wonderment.
This brings me to another area of BLAZING SADDLES that I adore, which is the joy it takes in carefully constructing its period setting and then continually subverting it. For example, a number of characters like Bart 'break the fourth wall' by speaking directly to the audience. The afore-mentioned old lady, whilst being deliberately delicately duffed-up in the street, appeals to our sympathies: 'Have you ever seen such cruelty?'. Hedley works through the soliloquy that results in the black sheriff being foisted on Rock Ridge. As his scheming stalls, he suddenly notices we are watching him: 'And why am I asking you?'
The other madcap way that the film breaks its own reality, and this has never been done with such thrilling mayhem on screen since, is by literally breaking out into the 'real world' of the Warner Brothers studio lot in the climax. Some critics complained that Brooks showed he couldn't think of a real ending, but this is unfair. The inventive gag-rate keeps on firing live rounds of laughs as the cowboys burst in on a Busby Berkeley-style dance number choreographed by the acidly camp Dom Deluise. The commissary has a World War Two film cast eating in it, featuring a Hitler lookalike telling a friend 'Dey lose me after da bunker scene') and a pie-fight ensues. Naturally!
The sheer wealth of jokes and bizarre non-sequiturs follow each other so fast in this comedy that you happily accept the wonderful weird illogical details. Was there really a tribe of native American Yiddish Indians? How does Count Basie and his band appear in the desert? And why do none of Hedley's henchmen think to circumvent the small toll booth that suddenly appears before them out there? (Instead, Pickens' Taggart accepts defeat, moaning: 'Somebody's gonna hafta go back and get a shitload o' dimes')
I've seen BLAZING SADDLES more than almost any other film and I discover more in it every time I see it. Fellow fans, did you know by the way which character Richard Pryor exclusively wrote all the dialogue for? No, not Bart - too obvious. He scripted everything said by Mongo. Pryor found this lovable dimwit so endearing that he gifted him a childlike soul and quotable corkers like the rueful: 'Mongo pawn in game of life'.
The 'feel-good' generosity in the writing and playing coupled with the hundreds of in-jokes, surreal moments and pratfalls, expertly judged in tone by Brooks makes this film a constant pleasure decades after its release. It's a hilarious parody both for the smart people and '...You know, morons'.
Wednesday, 15 July 2015
A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974)
I have to admit that until I saw this later stage of his career, I was having difficulties in appreciating John Cassavetes’ style as a writer/director. His earlier films FACES and SHADOWS unfolded in what felt a very rambling, unfocused fashion. The lengthy improvisations often irritated me despite allowing for superbly compelling performances and an element of danger; some of the obviously inexperienced supporting actors marring the truth that was being worked for so hard.
Listening to Peter Falk being interviewed about this 1974 masterpiece, it turns out I wasn’t alone. Falk first worked with Cassavetes on HUSBANDS (which I haven’t seen) and after a very stormy collaboration he vowed he would never work with the director again. He was used to more certainty in the shape of a piece and couldn’t understand where Cassavetes was going or what he wanted. Thank goodness he reconsidered for A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is made by his and Gena Rowlands’ brilliantly real performances in a shattering masterpiece.
They play a married couple, Mabel and Nick, who over the course of months are brought to breaking point by her increasing mental instability. Eventually Nick has no choice but to temporarily institutionalise her, and then comes the difficulty of her adjustment on returning to the family. It’s a simple plot, but the staging of the crucial scenes of this period is what give the film its power. Cassavetes lights the blue touch paper and gets out of the way, giving the actors space to play out excruciating truths between people in the greatest crises of their relationships.
Nick is a construction worker, a well-meaning and big-hearted family man who takes pride in his love and protection towards his wife, children, domineering mother and co-workers. His only real flaw is his unwitting insensitivity at delicate moments, though always with good intentions. This is played on beautifully later. Falk gives the kind of richly layered playing that easily erases his famously vivid Columbo persona. Just before a take on the first day of shooting, he recounted fondly that Cassavetes came up to him and plonked on his head the floppy denim hat that Falk spends most of the film wearing. It’s a delightful and instinctive touch that Falk recognised as a green umbrella (the name actors give to a prop clue to the character). It humanises Nick, softening his sandpaper edges.
His wife Mabel is equally warm and loving yet her own high-pitched protectiveness at the beginning is a clue that there is something wrong with her. She over-worries about her children’s planned sleep-over with her mother, arranged so that she and Nick can look forward to a long-overdue ‘date night’. When he is forced to work a night shift, Mabel’s caged-animal of anxiety drives her to relieve her frustration by picking up a stranger at a singles’ bar. Thus we begin to see her slide out of control.
Nick invites his workmates in the next morning for a big group breakfast, wanting to be the generous host. Mabel papers over her internal cracks by over-compensating with ebullient hosting that becomes cringe-worthy in her flirtatiousness towards his men. Cassavetes allows the tension to build very realistically, pacing it so that each of the men is systematically embarrassed by Mabel’s inappropriate behaviour in long takes. Rowlands’ bravery of increasingly exposed choices is exhilarating and Falk matches her note for note till his shame causes him to roar at her to stop. He makes his excuses and the meal is over.
Gradually we see how love and protectiveness toward one’s partner clash with embarrassment, shame, confusion and ultimately exhaustion. The scene where Rowlands parades in her lounge in full unself-conscious throes of madness and Falk finally clasps her to him, willing her to calm down and ‘Come back to me’ is heart-breakingly raw in both actors’ portrayals. She cannot understand reality any more and he can no longer pretend to the world that he can cope.
The other set-piece that magnificently conveys the couples’ characters and the difficulties in domestic mental health issues is Mabel’s return home. Fittingly for Nick, he sees this is a big family celebration, not realising how overwhelming this will be for his wife. The stage is set for a supreme example of taste and time given by the director to permit the gathering to work its claustrophobic pressure on Mabel. Once more her brittle shell of control earned during rehabilitation breaks and it takes Nick’s over-bearing mother to make him see that the couple must acclimatise in private not in the full glare of the family circle.
After such a brutal journey, there is a glimmer of hope though. Once in private, Mabel’s sudden inner storm passes somewhat. In companionable silence, they put away the party remains while the telephone rings. Nick and Mabel may begin to cope with each other - and without his mother.
Watch A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE without distraction and appreciate the searingly honest work by Cassavetes, Rowlands and Falk. It’s a masterclass in committed and compassionate art.
Tuesday, 14 July 2015
THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972)
This was one of the last BBS films released and was as quietly innovative as EASY RIDER was loudly provocative. Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson combined as they had before in the ground-breaking partnership that produced FIVE EASY PIECES the year before, and many later projects, in a piece reflecting casting revelations and unique directorial style.
We open on a bespectacled, sombre Nicholson unfolding a tale in a semi-darkened room. We have no idea of location and yet for the next five minutes in a single take, we are held hypnotised by his peculiar monologue about his relationship to fish and his grandfather. It feels like a confessional and yet we don’t know why he tells it or to whom. Some way in, a red light blinks, distracting him to his irritation. We then discover in a wider shot that he’s actually a radio show host, albeit one with a perplexing niche - what is his show’s purpose? Rafelson wrote this monologue in real-life for an English course, and its disturbing fictional allegation of childhood complicity in family murder caused his teacher to recommend him for a remedial class due to suspected mental instability.
Nicholson’s performance as David Stabler is a revelation. Awkward, introverted and downbeat, his role is more like that typically taken by Bruce Dern, who Rafelson deliberately switched with him so that Dern would equally challenge himself as his brother Jason, a wolfish, shady wheeler-dealer with grandiose schemes. The two contrast well in a way that seldom would be tested in future. Rafelson also experiments with style a great deal in the filming, asking Lazslo Kovacs to shoot all the external scenes in static camera shots that disorientate the viewer slightly and place each actor in a specific image. On a beach scene in Atlantic Scene, Dern for example would be filmed against a promenade backdrop while Nicholson would be against the waves but at a different spot altogether - framing the former as a visionary and the latter all-at-sea perhaps.
THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS is also another chance to see the great Ellen Burstyn at work, delicately earning sympathy as a woman recognising that the clock is ticking on the viability of her looks and that her wagon is hitched to the unreliable Jason with tragic consequences. She sees herself supplanted by her step-daughter Jessica (Julia Ann Robinson), ‘You’re the meal ticket now’. As the group act out a fanciful Miss America pageant, the younger model is literally put centre-stage under a rented spotlight. (This is also notably the only point where Nicholson allows a lightening characteristic flambouyance into his role, which audiences would come to rely on all-too-much later in his career) Burstyn is tender and extremely poignant as she takes the law and a gun mistaken for a water pistol into her own hands and her mind unravels at the result.
The film ends cyclically with these awful events reduced to another of David Stabler’s monologues on his show. Nicholson allows vulnerability to crack his introverted case as he channels his life into his medium on-mic. Maybe his one consolation and indeed his program’s purpose is that his listeners are unseen and so some form of private catharsis can be gained in public.
BBS’s body of work was an integral part of the early 70s shift in tone to explore unsafe, challenging creativity - and without succumbing to pat, rosy fakery in its conclusions, this approach was often echoed elsewhere in film culture as my blog will illustrate repeatedly.