From early in my film-going career I was a fan of Charles Laughton. So I was very pleased to be offered a review of this new volume. David Redfern’s earlier book was ‘A Letter of Introduction: The Life and Films of James Stephenson’ (BearManor Media, 2013), the British born performer who worked in Hollywood and even won an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in The Letter (1940). Now Redfern turns to the even more famous British actor who worked here and in Hollywood. Laughton, in life and on screen, was a larger than life character. He was a fine actor on stage and screen though in the latter case he could (as is noted in this book) perform over the top. The study provides a brief résumé of his life and career but it mainly details and discusses the fifty four films in which he was involved.
This has required long and extensive research. Even as a fan I have not seen all his screen appearances. Some of his earliest ones are believed lost: some are only available in film archives: a number that do survive are rarely seen in the cinema: whilst the most popular do tend to be available on 35 mm and in digital facsimiles. The author has viewed all the possible titles and researched those that are lost.
The films are set out chronologically. Each title has full production details including the craft and actors uncredited. He also includes information on the available versions of the film. There is a full synopsis and then a production commentary. The latter includes contemporary comments and extracts from reviews. With the sound films he has included ‘taglines’ taken from studio publicity and contemporary reviews There is also selected dialogue from many of the films; sadly Laughton’s films were not always served with the most literate dialogue. He includes details of the career of Elsa Lanchester, Laughton’s long time partner and fellow actor who appeared on stage and on screen with him in numerous occasions.
I have seen the three titles in which Laughton appeared in supporting roles to Elsa Lanchester, directed by Ivor Montage: Blue Bottles (1928): Day Dreams (1928): The Tonic (1928). We only get glimpses of Laughton but these short films, really part of an avant-garde cinema, are worth seeing, though such opportunities are rare. Ivor Montagu remains a fascinating figure from the silent era; his relationship with other progressive filmmakers, like Sergei Eisenstein, is an important but marginalized space in British cinema. Some lost or rare British commercial titles bought Laughton to the attention of Hollywood and Paramount Pictures. The Devil and the Deep (1932) has an early appearance for Cary Grant: a powerful but really too forceful performance by Laughton: and an incredibly complicated and implausible plot.
The 1933 The Private of Henry VIII was a key title in developing Laughton’s film career winning him an Academy Award. There are details of the director’s, Alexander Korda, thoughts on working with Laughton.
“Although he later complained, “Charles needs a midwife, not a director”, he and Laughton hit it off, at least initially.”
As with many colleagues Laughton was seen as a talented but demanding associate.
The other outstanding characterizations of the 1930s must include Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1936), with a tagline “The flaming pages of history record the grandest adventure of all time”: Javert in Les Misérables (1935), for which “Laughton trudged through slime and mud fo9r shots representing the Parisian sewers”: as Rembrandt (1936), who receives the line “Vanity of vanities. All in Vanity”: and a personal favourite as the title character in The Hunchback of the Notre Dame (1939), tagline “Magnificent Beyond Compare”. There is a quote of the famous line,
“Quasimodo :”Why was I not made of stone like thee?””
addressed to the cathedral gargoyles in the outstanding closing shot.
There is also director, William Dieterle with his comments on Laughton;
“Charles |Laughton is the most eccentric person I have ever met.”
There were British films in this period, including St. Martin’s Lane (1938), a portrait of London Buskers: and the less satisfactory Hitchcock production Jamaica Inn (1939). Also less outstanding would be as Captain Kidd (1945) or the repeat Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952). But then there is Hobson’s Choice (1954) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957); both films which lit up my film going in the 1950s. Both enjoyed direction by major artists, David Lean and Billy Wilder.
I only caught The Night of the Hunter (1955) in the 1960s: a masterwork which sadly was Laughton’s only foray as director; though as the author notes, along with fellow co-stars, he had directorial inputs on The Man in the Eiffel Tower (1949). But the 1955 masterwork is of a different order;
“steeped in images that are memorable and striking. And yet at the same time, the hypnotic nature of these images is often complex and difficult to fathom.”
He notes the importance of the artifacts, including out-takes, bequeathed by Elsa Lanchester to the American Film Institute.
With all of these the author offers an extended commentary drawing out the virtues of Laughton’s performance and interesting detail on the course of the productions. He ends, as did Laughton’s career, with the very fine Advise and Consent (1962). The author notes the studio poster publicity which asked;
“Are the men and women of Washington really like this?”
A question that would be unnecessary today.
The study reminds one just how varied was Laughton’s career as well as the way that it went up and down, both in the quality of the performances and in the success or otherwise of the releases. The individual assessments are clear though. I did not agree with all of them; I remember liking They Knew What They Wanted (1940) and liking Laughton’s performance. But the comments made me want to revisit the film and reappraise it.
The appendices are thorough and useful We find the ‘short’, ‘unreleased’ and ‘re-edited’ films with ‘unfulfilled projects’. There are lists of both amateur and professional stage appearances. And a selection of Laughton’s work on radio, television and recordings. Then we have three Appendix on films listed by studio, performance and cinematographers; the last is very interesting. Finally we have the Chapter Notes: a Bibliography: and a General Index. There are a number of illustrative stills and photographs, usually about a column wide [two columns a page] and the definition of these is good.
I was happy to read a comprehensive and detailed study of Laughton’s film work. Some of the titles I have seen in recent years, notably The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Witness for the Prosecution; they stand up really well. And the book is encouraging me to seek out more of his other titles. He remains a key and iconic character from the days of studio production.
Charles Laughton A Filmography, 1928 – 1962
David A. Redfern. McFarland & Company, Inc. 2021
2013 pages with illustrations.
Available in print and as an ebook.
This online event took place on Friday 11th and Saturday 12th June. It was organised by Adrian Garvey of Birkbeck, London University and Vicky Lowe of the University of Manchester. The event comprised four main sessions plus ‘Speakers’ Roundtables’, a discussion about music and performance featuring Neil Brand and Stephen Horne and a video essay presentation from Catherine Grant. Online events like this offer anyone interested in the subject the opportunity to join part or all of the sessions as a spectator. The sessions were accessible through Zoom but the only chance of interaction was via the ‘chat’ function which allowed questions to be put to panellists. (Questions were only visible to the panellists.) Being able to access what was in this case quite a ‘starry’ selection of film scholars was very welcome. I was able to follow only parts of three of the main sessions on what was otherwise a busy weekend so my apologies to contributors to the other presentations I wasn’t able to see.
I’m sure that we have all experienced a wide variety of online events over the past 15 months and as someone who has been on both ends of Zoom technology in events I’m all too aware of what can go wrong and how difficult it is to construct a presentation and deliver it by sharing your screen. I congratulate Adrian and Vicky for getting the show together and co-ordinating contributions from various sources so effectively. This was an impressively ‘collegiate’ event and when the inevitable glitches occurred, everybody was patient as they waited for problems to be dealt with. There is nothing like physically being at a conference/symposium, but online events do have a future I think.
The conference blurb opened with this passage:
Hitchcock’s professed disdain for actors is belied by the extraordinary range and depth of performances featured in his films. It might even be argued that many stars gave their richest and most complex performances in his work. Hitchcock’s films are also imbued with the theme of performance, as when his fugitive men and errant women assume fragile new identities and move between roles. Actors and other performers also often feature as characters.
Hitchcock scholarship has been extensive and the multi-layered concepts of stardom, acting and the exploration of ‘performances’ in Hitchcock’s films suggested a potentially fascinating mix of ideas. The second session on Friday afternoon saw Charles Barr open his paper with a surprising comparison of Julia Robert’s face and the face of her dog, which one of the Monty Python team had suggested could be read in much the same way. Hitchcock was very fond of dogs and many appear in his films. But he knew that you could usually easily tell a dog’s feelings from its face but that actors could present expressionless faces that could provoke very different readings depending on how they were shown in relation to other images as demonstrated by the Pudovkin/Kuleshov Effect. Charles explored Hitchcock’s ideas and how he used the effect before discussing the two Hitchcock shorts that he made in 1944 in London on behalf of the French Résistance. I’d never seen these before or thought about Hitchcock’s use of long takes after the war, partly linked to wanting to avoid the artifice of cinema when he worked on a concentration camp documentary. This was a fascinating presentation with a great deal crammed into 30 minutes. It was followed by Adrian Garvey on Claude Rains as a character actor in a leading role in Notorious, focusing on his ‘underplaying’ and his voice qualities. Alex Glancy followed this by looking at the working relationships between Hitchcock and Cary Grant, both men holding firm convictions about their work as director and star respectively. Alex’s discussion of Grant’s approach made an interesting comparison with the presentation on Claude Rains.
The programme was organised chronologically in terms of Hitchcock’s films so I had missed the silent period and ‘English Hitchcock’ on early Friday afternoon. The third session began on Saturday with Melanie Williams explaining how ‘Richard Todd suffers Stage Fright: neurotic postwar British masculinity’. I was particularly interested in Stage Fright (1950) which I managed to watch again before the Symposium. Melanie’s approach as a British Cinema scholar seemed germane to me since I feel strongly that this is a ‘British’ film, partly because of the range of British character actors featured. Richard Todd is a strange British actor for me. His sudden rise to stardom with The Hasty Heart (UK-US 1949) and his slow decline after The Dambusters (UK 1955) structured a career covering the period of ‘postwar British masculinity’ that has been worked on for a while but still offers new findings I think. Todd has never appealed to me but I learned plenty from the presentation to get me interested in looking at more of his work.
Strangers on a Train (1951) followed Stage Fright and we were offered some ideas about casting and performance by Alex Clayton. I was pleased to see this being tackled as I think casting is one of the least researched aspects of film studies. The background to this second Hitchcock film for Warner Bros. is fairly well known with the difficulty of developing a script from Hitchcock’s ideas about adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel being matched by similar difficulties in getting all the actors Hitchcock wanted. He did get Robert Walker from MGM, a casting often referred to as a ‘casting against type’, an idea which Alex explored in his presentation. But Hitchcock failed to get William Holden as the Guy Haines character and instead went back to Farley Granger who he had used in Rope. Finally, Ruth Roman was forced on him by Jack Warner to play the Senator’s daughter. It’s not difficult to see why Alex chose this film for his research. He questioned ideas about ‘miscasting’ and as in some of the other presentations, briefly discussed the idea of the commutation test first suggested by John O. Thompson. It’s difficult now to imagine William Holden playing Guy. Hitchcock perhaps got some of his casting ideas ‘wrong’ first time round but he was certainly successful in casting Walker – or should we instead state simply that it would have been a different film with Holden? Alex explained that his research has been restricted by the pandemic in the last year since he has not been able to access Hollywood archives or to shadow a casting agent which would, he hopes, give him another perspective. I look forward to what might eventually emerge from the project.
The third paper in the session took us in a slightly different direction when Tamar Jeffers McDonald explored the singing performances of Doris Day as Jo Conway in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Tamar offered both a detailed look at some of the nuances of Day’s singing and her emotional renderings of songs associated with the abduction of her son. She also explored Day’s dual persona of a singer who acts and an actor who can (really) sing. This was a very interesting paper and I wish I had seen the film more recently to have better appreciated some of Tamar’s analysis. I managed two papers in the fourth session. The first by David Greven offered ‘When the Villain Winces: Ray Milland and Villainous Empathy in Dial M for Murder (1954)’. In a way this seemed slightly out of place because the film preceded the Doris Day film. But then again it could also have followed the two papers dealing with Claude Rains and Cary Grant. I think this shows how interconnected these papers were. David did offer us some thoughts about how the comparison with Grant and the different performances of villainy from Rains, or in Grant’s case in Notorious at least ‘unsympathetic’ men, could be productive. I’m afraid I lost some of this presentation because I became distracted from my screen but I can see that there is something here. It would be interesting to include Stage Fright in which the usual suave Englishman type preferred by Hitchcock is played by Michael Wilding and the ‘villain’ is Richard Todd, a rather different type altogether.
Finally, I caught Lucy Bolton’s paper ‘Polished to perfection: the role of neatness and grooming in the performances of Tippi Hedren’. I had been looking forward to this as Marnie is possibly my favourite Hitchcock film and I’ve always thought Tippi Hedren has been misrepresented as a performer. I wasn’t disappointed and I enjoyed learning things about Hedren that I didn’t know before or perhaps had forgotten. Lucy spoke about Hedren’s long career as a model and her professionalism on photo shoots and, as the title of her paper suggests, the way in which she could not only wear the clothes so effortlessly but also know how to use clothes and accessories to create meanings. I think I know almost every line of dialogue and every image of Marnie but now I’m determined to look at Hedren’s performance in The Birds again.
I enjoyed all the parts of the symposium that I was able to watch and I would like to thank Adrian Garvey and Vicky Lowe for putting it all together and all the panellists for their contributions which should prove useful and productive for all of us in the online audience.
One of the promising highlights for 2020 was the Locarno Film Festival’s intention to screen a retrospective of the work of Japanese actor and director Tanaka Kinuyo. I have long been a fan of this talented and pioneering film-maker so I was working on plans to be able to attend. The arrival of the pandemic torpedoed this prospect. However, the Locarno Festival postponed the retrospective to 2021. Now, whilst only a possibility, there was a prospect of being able to enjoy this programme of films in the summer; 35 titles including a large number in 35mm prints.
Locarno to fete Japan’s Kinuyo Tanaka in first retrospective devoted to female filmmaker.
The Locarno Film Festival will celebrate the work of Japanese director and actress Kinuyo Tanaka at its upcoming 73rd edition (August 5-15), in its first ever retrospective dedicated to a female artist.
Tanaka (1909 –1977) was a pioneering figure in Japanese cinema throughout her 50-year career, appearing in the films of legendary directors Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi before striking off to direct her own films.
“This is the first time that the festival will be dedicating its retrospective to a female director, after 73 years,” said Locarno Film Festival artistic director Lili Hinstin, who is embarking on her second edition at the helm.
At the same time, she added, it also raised the question of how an artist like Tanaka – with such “an original and exciting filmography” had been overlooked for so long.
Tanaka first rose to fame in the 1920s, initially working under contract for the Shochiku Film Company, the film department of which is celebrating its centenary this year. There, she collaborated with Japan’s best-known “modernist” directors such as Heinosuke Gosho, Ozu and Hiroshi Shimizu.
In the years immediately after World War Two and the 1950s, her striking screen presence became a hallmark of some of the best work by directors of the golden age of Japanese cinema, including Keisuke Kinoshita, Mikio Naruse and Kaneto Shindo.
She also renewed her collaboration with Ozu but her most important artistic partnership was with Mizoguchi, with whom she made 14 films, including the 1952 drama The Life Of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna), which premièred at the Venice Film Festival, winning best international film.
Around this time, Tanaka also started going behind the camera to direct a number of films of her own with various studios. At the time, she was only the second women in the history of Japanese cinema to direct after Tazuko Sakane.
Locarno described her six features films as “innovative portraits of women’s roles and conditions in the changing social environment of modern Japan”. The retrospective will screen Tanaka’s complete filmography as a director as well as a selection of 250-odd films in which she appeared.. (Melanie Goodfellow, 23rd January 2020).
Then a friend informed me of the bad news; set out in a report in Screen Daily:
The Locarno Film Festival will turn the spotlight on the work of late Italian director Alberto Lattuada for the retrospective of its 74th edition, scheduled to run from August 4- 14 this year.
The programme is the first element of Locarno’s 74th edition to be unveiled by the festival’s newly appointed artistic director Giona A. Nazzaro.
Plans have been dropped for a retrospective celebrating the work of Japanese director and actress Kinuyo Tanaka, which was announced by Nazzaro’s predecessor Lili Hinstin for last year’s cancelled edition as the festival’s first-ever retrospective dedicated to a female artist.
Regarding the decision to cancel the Kinuyo Tanaka retrospective, a spokesperson for the festival said: “The programme was a personal choice of [former artistic director] Lili Hinstin. Therefore, in respect to her work and despite it is a great programme, we have decided to propose another author to our audience for the next edition of the festival.”
My thoughts are best summed up by a borrowing from Oscar Wilde:
“To lose one female artist, dear festival, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness.”
I also realised how fortunate I was that in 2012 we had a small but very fine retrospective of the work of Tanaka Kinuyo both as an actor and as a film director at the Leeds International Film Festival.
” Retrospectives has an especially strong selection this year. The ‘special focus’ is a profile of the Japanese actress and filmmaker Kinuyo Tanaka. She worked through several different periods of Japanese film and with three of its greatest masters, Kenji Mizoguchi, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu. Her scene at the end of Sansho Dayu (1954) is one of the most sublime endings in World Cinema. She was also a pioneer woman direction in the Industry. There are six of her films, all in either 35 or 16mm. And there is a workshop on November 3rd at the Centre for World Cinemas at the University of Leeds.
While Kinuyo Tanaka (1909-77) is widely recognised as one of the greatest actresses in the history of her nation’s cinema, a lesser known fact is that she was also the first Japanese woman to build a body of work as a filmmaker in her own right. This year’s LIFF Special Focus aims to remedy this by presenting two of Kinuyo Tanaka’s rarely-screened directorial works alongside a selection of her finest performances in films by three of the masters of Japanese cinema, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu and Mikio Naruse. Presented in collaboration with the Centre for World Cinemas, University of Leeds and curated by Michael Smith.”
The posts on the retrospective, with plot information and the quotations from the English sub-titles, include:
A Hen in the Wind (Kaze no naka no mendori, Japan 1948)
Mother (Okasan), Japan 1952
Sansho the Bailiff (Sansho Dayu, Japan 1954)
The Eternal Breasts (Chibusa yo eien nare, Japan 1955)
Girls of dark (Onna bakari no yoru, Japan 1961)
Festival Workshop on Tanaka Kinuyo
So another of the big screen giants has passed on. One whose films I mainly enjoyed and whose gravitas, with the Scottish accent, was frequently a memorable experience. Whilst he was a very different character, both in culture and values, his career reminded me of his friend Michael Caine. There were the early years of minor movies and minor roles. Then the breakthrough and a screen image that was sexy and charismatic. This was followed by a long career as a major star with an increasing screen presence, partly due to the longevity and the impressiveness of his roles. Whilst their politics were rather different both generally represented conservative values but also made films which intentionally or not subverted those values. However Connery certainly essayed a wider range of roles and worked more extensively beyond the mainstream. He also often exuded a greater sense of irony whilst Caine often seemed to send himself up.
I saw several of Connery’s early films though I did not mark him out at the time, this included the gripping Hell Drivers (1957). The first time I remember being taken by him was in The Frightened City (1961) which had my favourite black and white cinematography format.
Then came the James Bond titles. I was never that impressed with the cycle. However, he was the most convincing Bond and only Daniel Craig has come close since then. I remember standing outside the ABC cinema in Bournemouth with friends and being entertained as the young men with female companions came out of the cinema clearly trying to emulate the Bond persona.
There was Marnie (1964) from Alfred Hitchcock. I never really liked the film and I have been irritated by the attempts by some Hitchcock fans to explain away the rape sequence. But Connery was ideal as the misogynistic protagonist. The Hill (1965) was a far more interesting film directed by Sydney Lumet. This brought out some of the interesting facets of the on-screen characteristics, including the rebellious streak and the stubborn determination. The Molly Maguires (1970), set in the Pennsylvania coal mines in the 19th century was excellent, well scripted by Walter Bernstein and directed by Martin Ritt. This was a powerful trade union story and one that the mainstream US industry has tended to avoid and downplay.
The Offence (1972) was again directed by Sidney Lumet and adapted from his own play by John Hopkins. Connery’s regular characteristics were here employed in a vicious and violent interrogation of Ian Bannen’s suspected rapist. Both actors were impressive and the film deserves wider recognition.
Zardoz (1974 was written, produced and directed by John Boorman. Connery played a ‘brutal’, a group dominated by ‘the Eternals’ in a future society. In a complex and sometime complicated plot Zed breaks into the world of the Eternals and disrupts it in numerous ways. Audiences at the time found the film confusing and it was panned by the critics. I was fascinated by the quirky SF story from Boorman and the film looked great with cinematography by Godfrey Unsworth. There was the added bonus of Charlotte Rampling.
In 1975 he appeared in two interesting films. The Wind and the Lion set in early 20th century Morocco as the USA flexes its imperial muscle. But the focus was the contrasting characters of Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni (Connery) and Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Keith). The director John Milius was not really equipped to handle such a colonial episode but Connery, in no way Arabic, is engaging. I however prefer The Man Who Would be King. Taken from a Kipling story; the writer is an imperialist but also has an understanding and sympathy for the great sub-continent. Connery, as Daniel Draviot, is part of a duo with Michael Caine as Peachy Camehan. This is the sort of adventure story in which both actors excel. The director John Huston, with co-writer Gladys Hill, gives the story drama, emotion but also humour. And the landscape looks fine in Oswald Morris’ fine cinematography. The indigenous peoples are merely props for these adventurers but Saeed Jaffrey as Billy Fish is also memorable.
1976 saw Richard Lester’s film Robin and Marion. This was an ensemble of talents. James Goldman wrote the screenplay, David Watkins provided the cinematography and John Barry the music. Connery was ably supported by an excellent cast including Audrey Hepburn, Robert Shaw and Nicol Williamson. This is the best version on film of the Robin Hood Legend. The plot develops with real interest and both drama and humour. And the elegiac tone is impressive.
There was a gap of six years before a film that seems equivalent, Five Days One Summer (1982). Fred Zinnemann ably directed this mountaineering film set in the 1930s Alps. Despite poor reviews this was a film for the climbing buff. The accuracy of the representation of mountaineering was no doubt due to the presence of Hamish MacInnes as an advisor and able stand-in on the mountains. The film also has the longest parting between lovers that I can remember.
The Name of the Rose was a credible adaptation of Umberto Eco’s novel and a feast of semiotics. Connery’s William of Somerville provided a rational centre in a monastery full of hysterical fundamentalist and misguided believers. The young Christian Slater as Adso provided a youthful foil to Connery.
Then there is the Oscar-winning performance in The Untouchables (1987). This is classic Brian de Palma film with the happy addition of an Ennio Morricone score. Connery’s Irish-American cop is not that Irish but he does have one of the great death scenes in Hollywood films.
The Russia House (1990) is from a John Le Carré novel and it is hard to go wrong with that, especially when Tom Stoppard does the adaptation . It [as usual] lacks the complexity of the original but the unwinding of the jigsaw is fascinating. Michelle Pfeiffer is good as the romantic interest and James Fox is really fine as the British spy master.
Sean Connery’s last film outing that I really rate is Finding Forrester, a fascinating study directed by Gus Van Sant. Connery is the titular writer and recluse. Rob Brown is a young aspiring Afro-American writer. Both are convincing in their very different characters. The treatment of a black artist in a white-dominated culture needs greater depth but the film holds the attention and has a satisfactory finale.
Connery had a few films that bombed at the box office but in most cases they were successful. Much of his career was spent in Hollywood productions like The Hunt for Red October (1990). Whilst this and others were very well produced the narratives tended to the conventional. I think his most interesting work was in independent and European films. And the best of these resurface regularly and I am sure that they will continue to do so. There is no doubt about either his star quality or his position in the top film/actor lists.
Note, Film 4 are screening Robin and Marion and The Man Who Would be King this Sunday starting at 4 p.m.
I was profoundly moved by this film (currently streaming on MUBI) for many reasons. It’s a film about a mother, a wife and a lover as much as it is about a strong independent woman determined to pursue her art. The two can’t be separated. There is one line in the film spoken by Isabella Rossellini with genuine feeling, when she gives ‘charm’ as the one word to sum up her mother and that struck me quite forcibly. It’s perhaps a strange word to choose about your mother and in other contexts we are often suspicious about celebrities described as ‘having charm’, as if we know this masks other possible less acceptable sides to their personalities. But each of Ingrid Bergman’s four children agree that their mother was always fun to be with and they remember that fondly even though she was absent from their childhood homes for much of the time. When she was there she made it up to them. Her ‘absences’ were mainly to do with work but she was clearly so determined to pursue what she wanted that needing to be close to her children was not something that would stop her.
Bergman’s was a remarkable career, arguably not matched by any other actor. She began, as many Swedish actors of her generation, in drama school and then moved quickly into films with her first credited role in 1935 aged 20. She also got married for the first time in 1936. Her Swedish film career lasted until 1940 by which time she had already repeated one of her roles in Hollywood and from 1941 she quickly became a Hollywood star contracted to David O. Selznick. In a few short years Bergman became a beloved figure in the US before she ‘scandalised’ America in 1949 by moving to Italy to work for and fall in love with Roberto Rossellini, leaving behind her husband and her daughter. Her Rossellini years ended in the mid 1950s by which time she had moved to Paris, making a film for Jean Renoir and eventually re-connecting with Hollywood, mainly on European productions. The last part of her career was spent working out of London.
Ingrid Bergman was a different kind of ‘global film star’. All the stars (and the filmmakers) of classical Hollywood were ‘global’ in the sense that their films were seen everywhere. Several stars had travelled from Europe to America and possibly back – but usually to the same country they had left several years before. But few had made films (and sometimes appeared on stage) in productions in five different languages (Swedish, German, English, Italian and French). It was an extraordinary career. I offer all this as context since this documentary focuses more on Bergman herself and less on the films she appeared in. IMDb lists 55 credits for film and television (around full 40 feature films). I feel slightly distanced from the discussion of Bergman as an actor and star simply because I don’t approach her as a Hollywood star primarily. She herself in the documentary says that the films she made with Rossellini did not appeal to audiences and there is an implication that she herself didn’t like them or value them that much. This is disappointing since it was watching Stromboli (1949) in a BFI preview theatre which first caused me to become interested in Bergman and I’ve come to like the other films with Rossellini as well. This doesn’t mean I don’t necessarily like the American films – I think her playing in Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) remains one of the great viewing pleasures. I’ve also enjoyed Renoir’s Elena et les hommes (1956) and the Swedish June Night (1940).
In formal terms, this ‘bio doc’ might be grouped with the trilogy of similar films by Asif Kapadia which present the stories of Ayrton Senna (2010), Amy Winehouse (2015) and Diego Maradona (2019). As in those stories, the director, Stig Björkman (a celebrated veteran film writer, critic and journalist), has been able to ‘present’ the story of his subject entirely through either Bergman’s own words (recorded in diaries and letters) and images (captured on 16mm) plus archive film and television and the stories of her immediate family and friends. Alicia Vikander, in many ways a contemporary star with a similar career path, reads Bergman’s words from her diaries. The major difference between Björkman’s film and those of Kapadia is that Bergman’s is a much longer story and although it includes ‘media moments’ when she scandalised America, this is only part of the story and not a defining element of the whole. There are other lesser differences as well but overall this quartet represent a popular form of biopic, able to draw upon archive material with seeming authenticity – though of course each film is still written and edited and the choices made still determine how the narrative is likely to be read by the audience.
What emerges from Bergman’s story is a narrative that exposes her difficult childhood and teenage years when she lost her mother at a very early age and then her beloved father. This is then contrasted with her happiness in bearing four beautiful children in the difficult circumstances outlined above (i.e. the divorces and the absences). The film is full of insights and we learn that Ingrid’s remarkable poise and calmness for the camera comes from her early experience of being photographed by her father and this in turn led to her own adoption of a film camera (16mm and colour) to record her own children (she came from a middle-class family and was used to a life with the privileges of travel and nice homes). I’ve seen comments by viewers who claim to be easily bored by ‘home movies’ but I think that Bergman’s camera captures something lively and emotionally powerful. There are more ‘talking head’ ‘witness statements’ in this film than in those of Kapadia, I think (i.e. more statements recorded later). This wasn’t a problem for me and as an aside it seemed to me that more women spoke about working with her. It was interesting to hear Liv Ullman and Sigourney Weaver. I hadn’t realised that there was so much discussion about Bergman’s height (references vary but 5′ 8” to 5′ 9” seems most common) in Hollywood, but Sigourney Weaver explains that it was a relief to meet a female actor who had never been bothered by her height – which in the 1940s was tall for women. Out of all the Hollywood footage the most compelling is the first screen test Bergman had in Hollywood for Selznick, for which the clapperboard says “No Make-Up, No lip gloss”. Ingrid looks young, fresh, vital and very lovely with an immediate warm response to the camera. (See the last shot of the trailer below and the still above.) No wonder they wanted her.
I watched Ava Gardner on screen a few days ago and she was breathtakingly beautiful. Ingrid Bergman was also beautiful but she had something else as well. I’m still not quite sure what it was and it’s interesting that I have appreciated it more as I’ve got older. I’m going to look at her films again. As far as this documentary is concerned I should also report that Michael Nyman’s music is used throughout. Personally I like Nyman’s music but I know he is ‘Marmite’ – with great fans and also those who can’t stand the music. My only gripe about the film is that sometimes Alicia Vikander’s modern American-tinged accent grates. I like Ms Vikander as an actor ver much and I place the blame on the director. I’m sure she could have read the diaries and letters in a style closer to Bergman’s in the 1930s/40s. I’ve emphasised that the documentary doesn’t cover all the films, but even so I was disappointed that there is very little reference to her time in London in the final part of her career and the three pictures she made in the UK.
[Once last point for Keith. This film is listed as 1.78:1 aspect ratio, so the pre-1953 film footage should be Academy and it is, being placed inside the 16:9 frame. But having watched it on both my computer and on the TV screen and then on a recording I made when it was shown on the BBC Imagine . . . series in 2017-18, I noted that sometimes captions which had slid outside the Academy frame were clipped off by masking within the 16:9 frame. I’m not sure how that happened.]
Kirk Douglas died in February this year. Recently terrestrial television screened the video of his Hollywood break-through film Champion (1949). Douglas played the title role of Midge, a boxing champ driven by ambition. Throughout the film Midge is ruthless in the way that he uses people to climb to the top. But it is not just ambition, Midge is riven with class envy. In the dramatic finale Douglas plays a boxing bout with the intensity that marked his whole career. The film’s script came from Ring Lardner and Carl Foreman and was directed by Mark Robson. There is excellent cinematography from Franz Planer and fine supporting acting from [among others] Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart and Ruth Roman. Douglas received a nomination at the Academy in the Best Actor category.
Intensity was what marked out a whole series of Douglas performances over the years. In his debut film in 1946, The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers, he is one of a pair with a guilty secret; fortunate to play opposite Barbara Stanwyck at this stage of his career. As Whit in Out of the Past (1947) he is the jealous crime boss in what is the seminal entry into classic film noir. In 1950 he played Jim in one of my favourite Tennessee Williams plays The Glass Menagerie. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) saw Douglas as Chuck, the most ruthless and ambition reporter ever in a Hollywood film and one that subverted the genre to real effect.
“George Stevens, who presented Douglas with the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1991, said of him: “No other leading actor was ever more ready to tap the dark, desperate side of the soul and thus to reveal the complexity of human nature.” [quoted on Wikipedia]
Then there was the fine Vincente Minnelli film, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) where his Jonathan was a producer as ruthless and ambitious in a film studio as Midge was in the boxing ring. And with Minnelli again in Lust for Life (1956) his Vincent Van Gogh was less accurate than in European biopics but where he made the agonies of this famous painter all too real. He received nomination as Best Actor at the Academy for the last two roles.
His intense physicality meant that Douglas regularly played in westerns. His first film in the genre was Along the Great Divide (1951), which featured a lynching. The Big Trees (1952) saw Douglas as Jim Fallon, exploiting the California forests and the Quaker homesteaders’. In Man Without a Star (1955) , working with King Vidor, Douglas plays drifter Dempsey. A past experience has given the drifter a hatred of barbed wire, which he treats with a savagery equal to his treatment of people. The Indian Fighter (1955) sees Douglas’s Johnny leading a wagon train and romancing a daughter of the Native-American Chief.
In 1955, like a number of major stars as the studio system declined, Douglas moved into film producing with Bryna Productions. Accounts by fellow artists suggests that he was as intense in his production role as when acting. This led to two classic titles directed by Stanley Kubrick. In Paths of Glory (1957) he played Colonel Drax, the liberal officer confronted by the ambitious and ruthless higher command. The trench warfare scenes are excellent. The court martial and execution of ordinary soldiers is brutal; the film was banned in France for several years. Liberal values also informed Spartacus (1960) with a script about a slave revolt against the Roman Empire by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. The film has one of the most famous lines in Hollywood productions;
“I am Spartacus” repeated a number of times.
The film helped Trumbo emerge for his work under pseudonyms and the arguments with Douglas led Kubrick to become obsessively auteurist. The same year saw Douglas producer and star, working with Richard Fleischer, as a rather different protagonist; the one-eyed ferocious Viking leader Einar.
Douglas remained active in the following decades. One outstanding title was an elegiac western, Lonely are the Brave (1962), produced by Douglas also with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo as “Jack” Burns (Douglas) is man, and his horse, out of time in a west with fencing, helicopters and large fast-moving trucks.
Unfortunately Douglas, clearly with Zionist sympathies, produced, two films misrepresenting the occupation of Palestine. In Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) he is a US officer working with the Hagannah to drive Arabs from their lands, though the film does not play it this way. And in 1976 there was a TV version, among many, of Victory at Entebbe. He had already appeared in 1953’s The Juggler. A film producer by Stanley Kramer and directed by Edward Dmytryk [with a rather different shadow on his career] actually made in the occupied territories.
From the 1960s Douglas worked extensively on television productions and in international co-productions. The Heroes of Telemark (1962) was a world war II action drama directed by Anthony Mann. Catch Me a Spy (1971) was made in Britain and France an involved, predictably for the period, Russian espionage. Whilst The Fury (1978) was directed by Brian de Palma and involved Douglas an ex-CIA agent dabbling in psychics and telekinesis.
In the 1970s Kirk Douglas’s son Michael started a career in film acting and producing. It was Kirk who acquired the rights to ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. The film won five major Academy Awards, a rare feat. Douglas himself won many awards including several nominations at the Academy; but he did not win an Acting Oscar, only a Honorary Award in 1996. He is in good company there; it often seems that more of the Hollywood greats’ failed to win Academy Awards than did actually walk off with one. His son Michael has won two, but that probably says more about the modern Academy than Kirk’s acting output.
He worked with many of the modern really fine writing and directing talents: apart from those mentioned this included Anthony Mann, Alexander Mackendrick and Robert Aldrich. Surprisingly, given his western output, he never worked with John Ford; [currently being re-examined by Roy]. He did work quite few times with Burt Lancaster, including Doc Holiday opposite his Wyatt Earp (Gunfight at OK Corral, 1957) and scapegrace Richard opposite Lancaster’s Reverend Anderson in The Devil’s Disciple (1959). He never played opposite Olivia de Havilland though both were of the Studio generation, of similar ages and both passing on this year, 2020.
I have seen more of Douglas’ work in the 1950s and 1960s. He was always memorable and, like Lancaster, he appeared to have been a good judge of scripts; not that many bloomers in his career. Whether he was snarling at the excited and baying audience (The Champion): smoothly charming the unwary (The Bad and the Beautiful): or agonizing over life and work (Lust for Life): Douglas always bared the soul of his character to the moviegoer.