Category: Hollywood

Ad Astra (US-China 2019)

Working on a ‘space tower’

This US-China co-production is a long, effects-heavy space adventure film with participation by Brad Pitt’s company Plan B and both a starring role and a production role for Pitt. There are 17 producers, co-producers and executive producers listed on the credits, including the director James Gray. That tells you quite a lot. In fact, questions about production and distribution are probably more interesting than the film itself unless you are a Brad Pitt fan (and even then I think your attention levels might drop). The film is distributed by Twentieth Century Fox in the UK and was originally a Fox Searchlight presentation. I couldn’t see anything announcing this was a Disney film and it must be one of the films already listed for a release when Disney bought Fox. Fox Searchlight was Fox’s niche brand focusing on slightly left-field or ‘smaller’ films and Ad Astra turns out to be a strange hybrid. The Chinese Bona Film Group were presumably looking for a science fiction blockbuster for Chinese distribution on IMAX screens whereas some of the US production partners seem to be from an American ‘Indie’ background and director James Gray is placed somewhere between ‘studio’ and ‘independent’ US cinema. I haven’t seen any of Gray’s previous films but I note that his debut feature Little Odessa (1994) won both a Silver Lion and the acting prize for Vanessa Redgrave at Venice.

The plot outline suggests a familiar American story about a father and son. Brad Pitt is Roy McBride, a USAF space pilot in the not too distant future who is sent on a mission to Neptune to investigate the possible source of ‘power surges’ which seem to be aimed at Earth and which threaten Earth’s security. The suggestion is that they may be connected to the disappearance several years ago of the Lima Project spacecraft and crew led by McBride’s father (Tommy Lee Jones). Roy had assumed that his father was dead and is committed to fulfilling his mission.

There are many, many close-ups of Brad Pitt . . .

The narrative itself seems to be divided into sections which draw on familiar genre scenarios from various science fiction/space adventures. So Roy’s initial journey to the Moon and then Mars is reminiscent of 2001 with the addition of an action sequence and the introduction of elements of the paranoia thriller (has Roy been told ‘everything’ by the military top brass?). There are action sequences involving ‘space walks’ like those in Gravity and a short horror/thriller sequence. All these are presented with a Max Richter musical score complementing Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography. The film looks great and sounds great and all those VFX guys from around the world can be proud. Unfortunately the script by James Gray and his long-term collaborator Ethan Gross seemed to me to be very weak. I note that the IMDb plot summary includes this line: “His [Roy’s] journey will uncover secrets that challenge the nature of human existence and our place in the cosmos”. I must have missed when that happened.

The casting decisions on the film seem at first to square with calls for diversity and the most joyous moment in the film is a clip of the Nicholas Brothers dancing in Stormy Weather (1943). But the significant characters are really only Pitt and Jones and the supporting characters are mainly ‘American’. Ruth Negga and Liv Tyler are completely wasted by the script. I’ve seen at least one ad promoting ‘Brad Pitt and Liv Tyler’ as the stars and that is nonsense. The characters are also primarily American as if space exploration in the future will be still on a national basis. This gender/nationalism question makes me think of other science fiction films, including Danny Boyle’s Sunshine (UK-US 2007) – similarly a Fox Searchlight film but with much more imaginative casting. I found Sunshine to be much more entertaining, spoiled only by its overly religious ending. Religion seems to be everywhere in Ad Astra as well and that seems very American.

I also thought about Arrival, a film which I think has been under-rated and is the best sf film I’ve seen for some time. It seems to have something interesting to say and a real emotional heart. And it focuses on a woman. But like many of the most successful SF films, Arrival was based on a successful original short story. I couldn’t find any ideas as gripping in Ad Astra and I got the impression that the film’s funders thought that the spectacular elements of the film were more important than the ideas in the narrative.

I’m not a scientist and I don’t know much about astro-physics, but the science of Ad Astra seemed tosh. However, I have to admit that audiences seem to like this film, especially in the UK where after two weeks and a very small drop in takings it leads the international film market. I think this is a bad sign for the future of cinema.

The Last Wagon (US 1956)

Delmer Daves was active in Hollywood from the 1920s to the 1960s. He studied law at Stanford and was initially a writer, part-time actor and ‘adviser’, working at MGM and Paramount and then contracted at Warner Bros. He didn’t become a director until 1943 when he was nearing 40. He is perhaps best known for the Westerns he made in the 1950s, the most well-known being Broken Arrow (1950) and 3.10 to Yuma (1957). The Last Wagon was a CinemaScope Western Daves directed for 20th Century Fox as another entry in the cycle of Westerns from the late 1940s/early 1950s which begin to engage with the representation of Native Americans and the racism of most Hollywood narratives, Broken Arrow being one of the first. The Last Wagon has some elements in common with Ford’s The Searchers which was also released in 1956. It is not as profound or as challenging as Ford’s masterpiece but I’m surprised that it hasn’t received more attention. In his Encyclopaedia of Western Movies, Phil Hardy suggests it might be Daves’ best Western, but doesn’t really say much about the film. Julian Petley in The BFI Western Companion (ed. Ed Buscombe) suggests that Daves didn’t get the recognition he deserved in the US, though he was rated by several French critics. In the UK it wasn’t until Michael Walker explored Daves’ Westerns in depth for The Movie Book of the Western (eds Cameron & Pye, Studio Vista 1996) that the film received proper attention. Walker refers to an interview by Christopher Wicking (Screen, July/October 1969) in which Daves says that the wagon train experience was part of his own family history and that after he graduated in 1926 he lived for three months with both Hopi and Navajo communities in Arizona. He also seems to have been a ‘liberal Democrat’ (Wikipedia).

The opening sequence of the film (pre-credits)

I would classify the film as a ‘liberal Western’, although it is uneven as a narrative, undermining any simplistic notion of a ‘message film’. The opening few minutes are spectacular and tremendously exciting. One man on foot is being hunted by four others on horseback across ravishing landscapes in Northern Arizona around Sedona in 1873. Much of this is in long shot compositions with tiny figures against the landscape by Wilfrid Cline, a Western film specialist, facilitated by the editing of the equally experienced Hugh Fowler and with a score by Lionel Newman. The lone man is ‘Comanche’ Todd, played with customary vigour by Richard Widmark. He manages to kill three of his pursuers but is eventually captured by the fourth who turns out to be Sheriff ‘Bull’ Parker (George Mathews). At this point the script seems to be flawed. Harper wounds Todd in the shoulder and then treats him brutally before a wagon train arrives on the trail led by ex-Colonel Normand, comprising his family and others. They accept Parker and his prisoner, but as a Christian group they are troubled to see Todd chained, almost like a crucifixion on a wagon wheel. The script problems are two-fold. First, Todd’s wound seems to disappear and secondly Harper will go on to state that there is a $1,000 reward for the arrest of Todd, yet his crime involves the killing of Harper’s three brothers which we have just seen happen. We won’t learn the truth about his crimes until the end of the film.

Richard Widmark as ‘Comanche’ Todd

The second section of the narrative sees Harper pitted against the wagon train community because of his ‘inhuman’ treatment of Todd. We learn from Harper that Todd was captured by Comanches as a young boy and grew up as an ‘Indian’. Harper’s stance is clearly racist – to justify his inhuman treatment. During an altercation between Harper and the wagoneers an axe is dropped and Todd picks it up, throws it and kills Harper. As Walker points out, this sequence seems almost like a collective ‘Freudian slip’. It’s as if dropping the axe and pushing Harper close enough for Todd to throw it was unconsciously willed by the group. Later that night a group of young people from the wagon train leave the camp to go skinny-dipping. When they return they find the camp has been attacked by Apache warriors (they are on a notorious trail through Apache territory) and everyone has been killed – except Comanche Todd who, still manacled to a wagon wheel, has miraculously survived when the wagon was pushed over a cliff.

Toff shows the group the route they must take

The third section sees the rescue of Todd and the agreement that he will guide them through Apache territory to safety. The small group includes the Colonel’s two daughters, one of whom is white and one bi-racial after his second marriage to a Native American. There is also a younger boy who has become attached to Todd and his older sister Jenny (Felicia Farr). It was this couple who first supported Todd. Finally there are two other older teenagers, one of whom has been against Todd from the beginning. I won’t spoil the narrative from this point but it should be clear that it has taken a different turn. Todd has to convince the group to do things his way – the Comanche way – if they are to survive. This involves some philosophical debates and some explorations of Native American cultures. The aggressive boy displays the most open racism but the white step-sister Valinda is perhaps the most danger to Todd. She resents her own sister as well as contact with Todd. Her step-sister Jolie is played by Susan Kohner who in 1959 would be Oscar-nominated for her role as a young bi-racial woman who ‘passes’ for white in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. Kohner’s mother, Lupita Tovar was a Mexican actor who worked for various Hollywood studios on Spanish language versions of English language films. Kohner’s role in The Last Wagon has more/different meanings in retrospect after her success in 1959. This is especially true in relation to a statement Jolie makes in the final sequence of the the film on her changed ideas about her own identity as a bi-racial woman. There were more Mexicans than Native Americans who became stars or leading players in the studio Hollywood era, but they were still discriminated against and subject to forms of racial type-casting.

Todd and Jenny (Felicia Farr)

This third section of the film is the most interesting for me and it is dominated by the idea that Comanche Todd is in effect teaching the youth about Comanche (and Apache) culture and why they need to know about it in order to survive. Widmark is central to the success of the film and his authority as a star actor is just as important as the good sense he speaks in the dialogue. The sequence is quite ‘talky’ for a Western but broken up by the long shot cinematography and bursts of action, each of which is in some way metaphorical in relation to the predicament facing the group.

General Howard (Carl Benton Reid)

In the final section, the script (by Daves, James Edward Grant and Gwen Bagni Gielgud) manages to bring the group to safety, once again through an action engineered by Todd. This then leads to a closing section in which Todd is ‘tried’ by General Howard, the historical figure (known as the ‘Christian General’) who also appears in Daves’ film Broken Arrow. Each of the group give their own testimony and even those who have shown racist views are prepared to support Todd. I did find this ‘closure’ to be too sentimental and it is interesting to note that it is the opposite of the closure of The Searchers in which Ethan Edwards is himself unable to rejoin the community, possibly because his own racial hatred is still too strong. I don’t intend to pursue a comparison of the two films here, but I do want to point to the way that both films deal with the ‘war’ waged by white settlers and Union cavalry against Native American peoples by means of a proxy – the bi-racial or bi-cultural characters that come between the two main protagonists. The production context in 1955-6 also suggests films which consciously or not refer to incidents in the Civil Rights struggle such as the furore following the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling of 1954.  What’s interesting also is that The Last Wagon creates a narrative in which a group of ‘juveniles’ is ‘instructed’ by a character who has spent his adolescence learning to be a Comanche. Michael Walker usefully points out that in this period of ‘juvenile delinquency films’, it is often a ‘liberal’ figure who gains the respect of the youth who learn to trust him, e.g. the Glenn Ford character in Blackboard Jungle (1955) or  Edward Platt’s juvenile officer in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The same actor, Nick Adams plays one of the gang in Rebel and the most racist character in in The Last Wagon. Todd is not ‘liberal’ but he ‘knows’ both white and Native American culture. The film may well be radical in the ways in which it attempts to ‘recuperate’ Todd’s behaviour and make him eligible to return to white society, while still critiquing it. Michael Walker has much more to say about the ideological underpinnings of the film and his piece is a must-read for anyone interested in Westerns.

The Last Wagon is a ‘journey Western’ which enables a form of ‘conversion’ for its group of travellers and it also includes a romance but most of all it engages with the history of the West even if it doesn’t present us with a Native American actor playing a significant character – the Apache warriors are seen mainly in long shot. Here’s a trailer for the film which is available as a ‘complete movie’ on a well-known streaming site:

The Deadly Affair (UK-US 1967)

Dobbs (James Mason) with his wife Ann (Harriet Andersson) and wartime agent Dieter (Maximilian Schell)

Talking Pictures TV triumphed again with a screening of this neglected title. Here’s a film packed with talent that received good reviews at the time but failed to make money and seems to have been forgotten, at least until 2017 when the DVD/Blu-ray label Indicator brought out a new dual format package stuffed with extras. There is indeed a great deal to say about a film which raises several questions about British cinema and ‘British Hollywood’ during the final days of cinema as mass entertainment in the UK.

The place to start is perhaps with ‘Swinging London’ – that strange concept, largely created by journalists and especially TIME magazine. There were a handful of films that seemed to catch a particular moment around 1966 but since then many more have been ‘claimed’ as examples of something that didn’t really extend much beyond a limited area of West London. The Deadly Affair ignores the ‘scene’ altogether and in fact ignores youth completely. Instead it becomes one of several films made in London by North American directors for Hollywood studios which invested heavily in British productions for several different reasons. It was the second British picture for director Sidney Lumet following The Hill (1965) and he would go on to make four more, The Sea Gull (1968), The Offence (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Equus (1977). Lumet was joined in British production by Otto Preminger directing Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), Canadian Sidney J. Furie who made The Ipcress File (1965), Stanley Donen with Arabesque (1966) and Martin Ritt directing The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965). Furie and Donen had both been in the UK making films since 1960 but left for the US when the American investment in the UK declined at the end of the 1960s. The titles listed above from these North Americans were all crime or espionage thrillers.

Mason as Dobbs with Harry Andrews as Inspector Mendel

The Deadly Affair was adapted from John le Carré’s first novel Call For the Dead (1961). It was preceded by Martin Ritt’s film of the third le Carré novel for Paramount in 1965. Paramount bought the rights to both the novel and the character name ‘George Smiley’ and so Lumet’s lead character became ‘Charles Dobbs’ as played by James Mason in this adaptation for Columbia Pictures. ‘Dobbs’ is an interesting name. It reminds us of Humphrey Bogart’s character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and the sound of the name suggests a solid, downbeat character. As played by Mason, Dobbs does seem on the edge of losing his status as an intelligence officer with a long service career. He is quite different from the ‘George Smiley’ portrayed by Alec Guinness in the BBC TV series. Mason’s performance alone makes the film worth watching, but the overall cast and crew of the film is remarkable.

The complex plot sees Dobbs charged with checking out a senior civil servant in the Foreign Office who is suspected of leaking documents to East German agents. When this character commits suicide, Dobbs is suspicious, especially after meeting the man’s widow played by the magnificent Simone Signoret. When Dobbs is removed from the case he decides to pursue his own investigation with the help of a retired police inspector (Harry Andrews) and one of his intelligence colleagues (Kenneth Haigh). Carré’s interest in Smiley seems to have been in the moral questions he faces. Here ‘Dobbs’ has a young wife (Harriet Andersson) typed as promiscuous who he discovers is entertaining one of his wartime agents (Maximilian Schell) who has recently popped up in London. The starry cast also includes Roy Kinnear and Max Adrian. Lumet was always interested in the theatre and he includes in this narrative two sequences, one a rehearsal for a production of Macbeth and the other a performance of Marlowe’s Edward II by the Royal Shakespeare Company directed by Peter Hall. These feature a host of leading stage actors of the period including Michael Bryant, David Warner and Timothy West as well as Lynn Redgrave as a bumbling stage manager (a comic performance, immediately recalling her role opposite James Mason in Georgy Girl (1966)). Corin Redgrave also has a small role. I suspect that there might be some ‘intertextuality’ in the choice of these plays but I don’t know Edward II well enough to work through them. In the main the sequences serve as a kind of Hitchcockian machine to enable plot development and suspense.

One of Freddie Young’s nighttime compositions in South London

The other creative inputs match the stellar cast. The script is by Paul Dehn who began by winning an Oscar for his work on the Boulting Brothers’ Seven Days to Noon (1950). Another spy/agent film in 1958 was followed by Goldfinger (1964) and then a run of prestige /’quality’ pictures up to his final credit in 1974 for Murder on the Orient Express, again for Lumet. The run included The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Quincy Jones produced the score for the film with a ‘themes song’ by Astrud Gilberto. The extraordinary ‘look’ of the film was the product of the experienced John Howell as Art Director, the similarly experienced Thelma Connell as editor and the superlative work of Freddie Young as cinematographer. Lumet had wanted to make the picture in black and white but Columbia refused. Young ‘pre-flashed’ the filmstock on some set-ups and managed to drain out much of the colour. The film also features many interior scenes and night-time scenes on London streets. For me the use of locations was a highlight of the film. In some ways the film is a reminder of location shooting in 1950s London films such as Sapphire (ph. Harry Waxman, 1959), but with the more subdued colour. Lumet, thankfully, ignores all the tourist scenes and takes us into the ‘non-swinging’ parts of Chelsea, to Battersea in South London and down the Thames, reminding us of all the British films noirs which used London so well (e.g. the ending of Night and the City (1950)). Unfortunately there are only a few locations shots from The Deadly Affair online.

The magnificent Simone Signoret as Elsa Fennan

I moved to London in 1967 so this might explain my fascination with this representation of the city. This representation is much more the ‘real’ London I remember than the tourist London that featured in later Hollywood films. But I enjoyed the performances just as much. I must return to my recording of the film to study the interchanges between Mason and Signoret. Sidney Lumet has often been praised for his work with actors and I realise there are many of his films I haven’t seen as well as others I should re-visit. I’m not really a fan of Le Carré’s novels (I admire them, but I’m less keen on the style) but this film adaptation won me over. I think the performances help make this more of a melodrama about trust and honour. The narrative has a dark resolution. It’s a film to be savoured by adults and an antidote to James Bond escapades.

I urge you to look out for the DVD/Blu-Ray from Indicator. There is some confusion about both the initial release date of the film and the timings of the film. The BBFC archive suggests that the film was submitted for certification in October 1966. Wikipedia gives this as the release date but it seems more likely that IMDb’s February 1967 date is accurate. On the other hand, IMDb and Wikipedia give a UK runtime of 115 minutes but the BBFC quotes 106 minutes and ‘No cuts’. The Blu-ray appears to confirm this.

Here are the credits and a short scene:

Rear Window (US 1954)

‘The Importance of Set Design …….’

One’s favourite film from a major artist such as Alfred Hitchcock tends to fluctuate over time; but for the last few years I have felt that this title is the most enjoyable and the finest of the productions directed by Hitchcock in Hollywood. It is a completely studio film, shot on the Paramount lot, though Hitchcock retained the copyright, so that now the film  is part of the Universal collection.

The protagonist L. B.”Jeff” Jefferies is played by James Stewart, an actor who starred in several Hitchcock films and who, in the 1950s, brought a darker tone to his characterisations. The romantic interest in the film is Lisa Carol Fremont, played by Grace Kelly who seems to have been Hitchcock’s favourite blonde. The triple names of the two characters points to their social differences: “Jeff” is a professional photographer who believes his life should have the least amount of encumbrances and who revels in being politely uncouth whilst Lisa is a socialite and model, seen in a series of extravagant and stylish gowns and costumes.

The film opens with Jeff tied to a wheelchair after suffering a broken leg whilst on a photographic assignment for the magazine for which he works. He spends much of his time surveying the apartments that surround the courtyard in which his own is set: this is in the New York Greenwich Village. Jeff watches the people in the other apartments, even using binoculars and a powerful telephoto lens on his camera. He pays particular attention to the man in the apartment nearly opposite: Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr). He comes to suspect that a crime has been committed and this investigation drives the plot forward.

The film is adapted from a short story by Cornell Woolrich for ‘Dime Detective’ (1942), a noted contributor to the genre of ‘pulp fiction’. Whilst the title is not a film noir it does contain some of the aspects of that genre. There are the triangular relationships, the seeker hero, the siren call (not a femme fatale) and the world of chaos that envelops the hero. And there is chiaroscuro in certain key scenes.

Hitchcock’s typical direction is well served by a team of talented craft people; a virtue that was enabled by Hitchcock’s preceding success. The setting of the courtyard was produced by set designers Hal Pereira and Joseph MacMillan Johnson. This careful construction is excellent in its dramatic scope and detail. The cinematography of Robert Burks exploits this setting and the interior of Jeff’s apartment with consummate skill; (think of North by Northwest). The colour palette is excellent, shot on Eastmancolor but printed on Technicolor stock in the original release. George Tomasini edits this material with real skill, following the conventional continuity of Hollywood but with excellent use of dramatic cuts and changes; (as later in Psycho). The music, by Franz Waxman, is sparse though the opening sets the tone really well. Most of the film’s soundtrack is sound from within the story world produced by the team of John Cope, sound recordist: Harry Lindgren sound recordist: Howard Beals sound editor and Loren L. Ryder sound recorder mixer. Finally the Hollywood veteran Edith Head designed the costumes.

James Stewart plays Jeff with aplomb, and his 1950s persona makes the obsession with the mystery convincing. Jeff is a voyeur, as are often the protagonist in Hitchcock films. But the voyeurism in Hitchcock films is overlaid with a sardonic humour and a reflexive stand point. Meanwhile Grace Kelly’s Lisa is a self-determining young woman with an assured response that is not true of all the heroines in Hitchcock’s Hollywood output. The other residents, with the exception of Thorwald, are mainly seen as objects of Jeff’s gaze., though circumstances revise his judgements on them. Burr’s Thorwald is an almost sad figure but dangerous. We also have to fine character performances with Thelma Ritter as Jeff’s nurse/Masseur and Jeff Corey as a friend in the NYPD. And there is a Hitchcock dog; less happy than in other films.

The tendency to critical presentation is, in  part, due to the adaptation of the Woolrich story by John Mitchell Hayes. Watch carefully what we learn of Jeff’s observations; what he sees and what he does not see.

Like all outstanding films this has a richly constructed narrative, dramatic but also believable performances, beautifully crafted vision and sound and enough questions to retain interest until the final moments. Here, Hitchcock, with a touch of irony not frequently found in the Hollywood oeuvre, leaves the audience with one last ambiguous shot.

A screening as part of the Leeds Festival of Architecture paid tribute to the importance of design in the film. It was screened from a pretty good 35mm print, the original format, at the Hyde Park Picture House. It was accompanied by a short from the Canadian artist Guy Maddin, Accidence (2018). This is a nine minute film, apparently all in one long take. But it was shot in digital so likely there are some edits. The camera is trained on the frontage of a large block of flats; it opens in a mid-shot and slowly zooms out to a long shot. Then later it zooms slowly in to more or less the original mid-shot. Different actions take place in different apartments and characters move between them. One event, resulting in at least one likely death, seems the main action but I think it would take a second viewing to be sure of all that takes place. The main characters appear to be variations on those found in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, down to the small dog; [who happily survives in this version]. This film is clearly a riff and play on the famous 1954 feature. I think Hitchcock would have enjoyed it; I certainly did.