Tuesday 16 August 2016

On Blu-ray - David Hare reports on Richard Brooks' (& Tennessee Williams') CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF

Liz Taylor with her violet eyes and Paul Newman with his baby blues, one of the very good reasons Richard Brooks was asked to film the 1958 MGM adaptation of Tennessee's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in color. Veteran DP Bill Daniels, the king of female close ups for MGM since the 30s, including Garbo and Crawford, went with the spherical/ non anamorphic open matte widesecreen option rather than Scope which is formatted here on a lovely new WB Archive Blu-ray in a good, tight and ideal 1.75:1. Daniels did close ups better than anyone in the business, and the intrusion of even minimal late Scope Mumps (pinching) and parallax error edges, along with wide composition requirements would have chewed away at the CUs and even the three shots. 
The new Blu-ray from Warner Archive is a thing of beauty, complete with classic Metrocolor grain and, wide shots so sharp you can see at the beginning the join lines on the background open air sets  with the studio floor. Color saturation is classic Metrocolor warm with startling blue. Indeed MGM may well have gone for their own proprietary Eastman printing in preference to Technicolor IB for the former's reputation for handling intense blues and indeed violet. 
Brooks films the show with apparently leisurely mise-en-scene but he's very carefully handling the timing and determining the shot length and placement of the actors, no mean task in itself. Williams' dialogue so often turns to the epistolatory and the declamatory, so the danger in directing him is to often stall the actors in fixed blocking. Brooks and Daniels have followed the time tested stage method (also followed by Kazan in his movies of Williams) of pitching the staging and choreography very much to medium and close two shots to reduce pointless movements beyond reaction playing within takes. Only more recent productions and films of Williams seem to have taken the chance to tackle him in more abstract and exploratory ways with more adventurous blocking and staging with sometimes unpredictable results. 
The text however is something of a major hurdle here. Considering homosexuality as a mere idea let alone the sub or primary text until Preminger took on the Code single handedly with Advise and Consent in 1960, we are now stuck with this compromised picture two years before, and another classically "botched" Williams adaptation, Mankiewicz's Suddenly Last Summer from 1959 with Liz again and a a befuddled screenplay to which even Gore Vidal added more confusion than sense. Although the conceit of vicious nelly fag Sebastian Venables being eaten by the very Sicilian adolescent boys who were his sexual prey is not without its charms. I just wish Mank's version had been even more hysterical than only Liz is encouraged to play it, as though they were all sparing poor Kate Hepburn the shock of acknowledging her own lesbianism. But enough of that.T
The 1958 Cat screenplay has been bowdlerized to within an inch of its life with only Liz now and her very great beauty serving as cues to Paul Newman's/Bricks' guilt and gay self hate over his closeted "fooling around", as they used to call cornholing back then, with football hero Skipper. In place of the sexual "perversion" so frowned upon by the Code, Skipper is instead given a limp and a pair of crutches to objectively correlate the still unmentionable. 
Another major change to text and one that is in fact very interesting, is the virtual rewrite of the Act 3 Big Daddy/Brick showdown and truth game for a happy ending (so to speak) which ends with Brick smashing to pieces Big Daddy's vast tat collection of "priceless European "antiques", yet another objective correlative for both "the Other" (fagdom) and his own expensive rich bad taste, all of which looks like it comprises the accumulated kitsch of several decades of Metro costume pictures. A nice metacinematic touch I thought. All through this farrago of catharsis, Brooks keeps Big Daddy immobile in the foreground while Brick propels himself with impressive agility on a now single crutch all around the frame for long angry takes. The dialogue also shades into an unmistakable flavor (to me) of daddy/son gay porn, and it's here I started wishing Tennessee and screenwriters Brooks and James Poe, who was brought in to do the hatchet job on Brick's and Skippers cornholing, could have re-positioned Big Daddy as Big Stepdaddy to facilitate a possible sexual relationship between the two men. It's finally time to call out Burl Ives as one of the original icons of Bruno Bara manga Daddy figures and the possibilities in this are effortlessly queered into his performance as poacher in Wind Across the Everglades (USA, 1958) by the great Nick Ray in which Burl appears to keep a harem of boys. .
With regards the dreaded H word Brooks was both a pioneer in writing gay material but a bit of a nelly in presenting it. He wrote the groundbreaking novel for the movie of Dmytryk's extremely fine Crossfire (USA, 1947) for which Brooks originally pitched the murder as a gay hate crime. It had to be re-written on Code orders as an anti-semitic killing. Dmytryk, perhaps a more sophisticated man than Brooks, effortlessly re-establishes the gay signals of the material in the movie through his direction of Sam Levene's "Jew", along with the "confused" young solider going AWOL, and Levene's very obvious female beard in the very obviously gay bar in which they pick up the young solider and his homo killer buddy Robert Ryan. 
Brooks tackles another gay subtext between the two leads in the superb In Cold Blood (USA, 1967), his best film. Certainly gay theming pre-1960 Code breakthrough was something easily engaged with and was regularly subverted by directors as diverse as Don Siegel in The Lineup  (USA, 1958) with the steam room and pickup killing sequence, and Richard Fleischer in Compulsion (USA, 1959) and Bradford Dillman's Teddy Boy Loeb-esque murderer. And of course the master, Hitchcock himself in a handdful of pre 1960 titles including Murder! (UK, 1930), Rope (USA, 1948) and Strangers on a Train (USA, 1951). 
Anyway the subject is open for discussion. And the new BD is an enjoyable entry for a forthcoming cycle of gay/pre-code revision reading Hollywood in honor of the (very) late Vito Russo. Screening soon at the author's new home,from September 30 in the Masterton tablelands, Cornhole Cottage.

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