Sunday 31 January 2021

Streaming on SBS On Demand - SPIRAL (Series 8, 'concue' by Alexandra Clert, written by Marine Francou, France 2020) and THE INVESTIGATION (Tobias Lindholm, Denmark, 2020)

Caroline Proust

Spoiler Alert: These notes give away the endings in the final sequence of Series 8 of Engrenages/Spiral and the outcome of The Investigation


And so it comes to this. Clearly what is intended to be the final season of Spiral for surely there can be no place to go from here. 

This blog has long been a fan of Spiral.  Mark Pierce first wrote about it three years ago (click here to find it) and his key sentence remains as appropriate as it was when he reviewed series 2. “My favourite character, Laure from Spiral (played by Caroline Proust) is the Platonic form of fallibility. She wanders through Series 2 charged with serious crimes. She dissembles, uses illegal equipment, ignores orders, suborns an opponent, sleeps with a colleague, loses her gun, muffs pursuits of suspects and has her hide-out attacked by a mob. She cops all that in the stubborn, selfless pursuit of evil doers. The wicked in these series are not merely greedy plutocrats; they are genuinely evil.



"When someone asked the Abbé Sieyès what he did during the French Revolution, he replied: “as for me, I survived”. Laure might say the same, as might all her colleagues here in the French bureau or Israeli intelligence. Laure might also remark: “as for me, I suffer from – and benefit from – frailty”. Frailty might easily be forgiven when those with that trait are prepared to put their cases, careers and lives on the line.”


Laure doesn’t sleep with a colleague in Series 8. She is more pre-occupied with the baby that arrived as a result of one such liaison two series ago. As well, her great love, Gilou (Thierry Godard) spends the entire time in the last series either in prison or working with a gangster while acting as an informant in a bid to get his badge back.


More extended periods of calm, often a portent of forthcoming betrayal, and the always convoluted plot strands are here in full force. Once again you are reminded that Spiral  is a direct descendant of those very first films to chronicle extravagant crime on the Paris streets, the films of Louis Feuillade made more than a century ago but the same classic chronicles of the quotidian mixed with extravagant crime.


One of the things that struck more most forcibly about this series is the general sense of chaos. The key points in the police building – the rooms occupied by Laure and her squad, Beckriche’s offce and the office of the Magistrate Bourdieu - never seem to be architecturally connected. You get no impression of the entirety of the place. One key character development however, substituting for Laure's regularly misguided passion is the young and glamourous Bourdieu. She manages to get Beckriche to loosen up, his constant suit, collar, tie, close shave and slicked back hair always in high contrast with the jeans, T-shirts and days old beards of the squad. Boiurdieu caps off the loosening of Beckriche, and his slow move towards bending laws,  by inviting him to bed, a surprise both to him and us. Needless to say it ends on a dismal note.


It’s all a major contrast to the Danish series The Investigation, an 8-parter devoted to revealing the 'true' story behind the guy who had a privately built submarine, invited a journalist to take a ride around the nearby sea and then chopped up her body and threw the bits into the sea. 

We neither know the name or see anything of the perpetrator and only see the victim when a photo of her is included in the credits. The series is about what its title says, the investigation that finally put the murderer away for life. A team of four are assembled by the Chief of the Copenhagen Criminal Division and the series is solely about the painstaking detective work they undertake. Unlike say The Killing  where misleads and mistakes are the order of the day this is almost painstaking in recording the hard slog of the cops’ work.


For emphasis, if by chance the cop has to leave his office and walk down the corridor then, shades of Jacques Rivette, you see him do that from beginning to end frequently in one single shot. The moment/shot when the proof is revealed by the young female detective and, her colleagues having left, she turns and stares at a simple time line on a whiteboard lasts for some 45 seconds. You don’t mind at all.


You don’t feel much relief at the end of The Investigation but you are thrilled at the end of Series 8 ofSpiral. Laure and Gilou freed from the shackles of the police force, meet up on the street and dissolve into the Parisian crowd. Marvellous. Enough.


Alfred Hitchcock - I CONFESS considerations - Scholar Ken Mogg on Hitchcock's 'possibly most audacious' film (USA , 1953)

Montgomery Clift, I Confess

The universal 'compulsion to confess'.


                                    - Eric Bentley, The Life of the Drama



'A priest must not even hint at what he has heard in a confession, even under the threat of death.'


                                    - Father George Leonard, Catholic 

Information Office, London



Symbolism was not so much a distinct style as a state of mind, a feeling, a way of looking beyond appearances.


                                    - Symbolist Europe: Lost Paradise  (Visitor's Guide, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)



That the film text of I Confess is deliberately enigmatic, raising numerous questions of interpretation of facts and motivation while withholding evidence which would make a preferred reading salient, is nowhere more apparent than in the treatment of Villette.


                          - Deborah Thomas, "Hitchcock's I Confess as Enigmatic Text", CineAction#40



THE CHARACTER NAMED VILLETTE - the murdered man in Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess(1953) - is no more than a cipher. Inspector Larrue (Karl Malden) verbalises this when he says: 'No one seems to have known this Villette.  And yet, he was a lawyer, he had clients. Not one of his clients had any information to give about [him] …'  And, without words at all, Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter) merely exchanges puzzled looks with her new husband Pierre (Roger Dann) when Villette mysteriously joins the line of guests at their wedding.  We never do learn how he managed to crash it.  Almost certainly, Ruth isn't feigning not to know him. Only later, when she and her ex-lover Father Michael Logan (Montgomery Clift), just returned from the War, get caught in a storm on Villette's property and take shelter in his summerhouse overnight, and he assumes that she is having an illicit affair, does he enter her life as her blackmailer.  Very possibly, then, I Confess is Hitchcock's most audacious film - and, I would argue, none the less effective for that.  Audacity in a good cause, even if just the telling of a good story, was something Hitchcock excelled at.  In any case, whoever said that a Symbolist work of art must 'explain' itself?  The effect is everything.


Roger Dann, Anne Baxter, I Confess



I Confess is a Symbolist work because it has something important to say that is beyond words; it shows us something about our condition that is otherwise ineffable - except perhaps in the formulations of a thinker like Kant or Schopenhauer.  (Note: Hitchcock told biographer Charlotte Chandler that he had been 'very much influenced by the Symbolists'.)  Indeed, Schopenhauer's philosophy was adopted by many Symbolist painters and writers not just for its 'pessimism' but because Schopenhauer saw art as like a refuge, albeit transient, from the world's malign 'Will' - which is essentially ungraspable.  Similarly, I Confess is artfully constructed to lead our thinking - more accurately, Inspector Larrue's - in one direction that turns out to have been inadequate and mistaken.  The logic of Larrue's thinking leads him increasingly to suspect that Father Logan is Villette's killer; we watch the case mount against the priest and we want to tell Larrue that he is wrong, for we have heard the sexton at Michael's church, one Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse), confess to the killing - yet there is nothing that we can do.  (This is a familiar situation for Hitchcock's audiences to find themselves in!)  


O. E. Hasse, I Confess

Moreover, the two adversaries - Father Logan, Inspector Larrue - are well-matched: you could say that Larrue has a strength second only to Logan's with his Faith.  If the success of a fiction film often depends on the story having a strong central situation, or conflict, then I Confess is well-positioned to succeed with its audiences.  Hitchcock was reportedly disappointed when that didn't generally happen on the film's initial release - the prejudices of audiences are not always predictable, and in this case non-Catholics couldn't always, or fully, get their minds around the concept of the inviolability of the confessional.  Nowadays, I Confess, seen on its own terms, is plainly something of a masterpiece.



I Confess speaks to everyone.Eric Bentley once noted astutely: 'Though it lead to the gallows, we will not deny ourselves the pleasure of saying, before the curtain is down, "Very well, inspector, yes I amthe demon barber of Fleet Street."'1 Note the use of a theatrical metaphor. Bentley uses it to draw attention to 'the connection between theatricality and the universal "compulsion to confess"'.  Tellingly, the final scene of I Confess takes place in an auditorium at the foot of a stage.  In Rope (1948) the flamboyant Brandon, after being exposed, is told by his co-murderer, the submissive Phillip, 'It's what you wanted - somebody else to know.' (We may gather that it was precisely Brandon's flamboyance that drew Phillip to him.)  


I Confess contains not one but four (or more) unburdenings or 'confessions'. Father Logan's, for all his suffering, is of course made only after the dying Keller (shot by the police in the above-mentioned auditorium), has received the last rites and has told all.  But, in addition, Ruth Grandfort's flashback represents not so much her confession of her relation to Michael before she married as of how she had deceived him afterwards by not telling him that she had married Pierre.  Though this confession doesn't help Michael's alibi, as Ruth had supposed it would (it is palpably subjective, besides), it does help to reconcile her to Pierre who now can better understand her feelings.  And again, timid Mrs Keller comes to see in Michael's suffering an image of her own - but when she can no longer bear the knowledge of that suffering, nor of her husband's guilt, she speaks out - and dies for her trouble. Nothing is guaranteed.  Someone in Under Capricorn (1949) quotes a famous hymn of William Cowper: 'The Lord moves in mysterious ways,/ His wonders to perform.'  Seemingly, one of the things I Confess is about is a need to (be able to) pray.


Of the San Francisco seen in Vertigo (1958), I once wrote: 'With its missions, forts, shops and art galleries, the city represents perennial human concerns - a city seen sub specie aeternitatis.'  In a masterstroke, it was appropriated by Hitchcock as part of that film's Symbolism. Similarly, the fortress appearance of Quebec City in I Confessserves as symbolically both City of the World and, with its many churches, would-be City of God (to use the language of St Augustine).  Driven primarily by their territorial ambitions, and their differing religious affiliations, the French and the British clashed here repeatedly in the 17th century.  Behind the opening credits of I Confess, the city's skyline, dominated by the imposing Château Frontenac, draws closer across a stretch of water that seems to forbid nearer proximity.  However, a siren-like choir calls the camera on, and - suddenly, magically, by the power of film - we are able to 'occupy' the city for a time during which a representative tale of human emotions is unfolded.  However, the film ends with the camera now retreating from the city; the hoped-for vision of harmony and compatibility has receded again.  What I call Hitchcock's use of Vague Symbolism has done its work for now.


Having called I Confess a masterpiece - see above - I should say that I totally agree with Bill Krohn when he defends the film's ending (just before the camera recedes) as 'breathtakingly right'2- despite Hitchcock's misgivings when he wasn't allowed to follow his original intention of having Logan wrongfully hanged, whereupon Keller, too late, would have confessed all.  Recall that in the film as we have it, a dying Keller does confess, then Logan intones his absolution.  (A further subtle touch of Hitchcock's here is how we see a lingering shadow of doubt suddenly pass from the faces of both Father Logan's superior and of Ruth.  The latter turns abruptly to her husband and says, 'Take me home, Pierre' - and we realise that she had half believed, or hoped, that Logan had indeed killed Villette in order to protect her name, which might have shown that Michael still secretly loved her.3)  



The basis of I Confess was of course Paul Anthelme's/Paul Bourde's 1902 drama, Nos deux consciences(Our Two Consciences), which Hitchcock said had 'haunted' him since he saw a production in the 'thirties, though it's unclear where.  The play was always relatively obscure, possibly because in its time it was seen as just one of several stories or melodramas in which a cleric, or would-be cleric, is tempted by love (Hall Caine's 1905 novel The Christian was another).  Someone has listed typical recurrent themes of melodrama, including 'Modern Magdalens' (male and female)4, 'Parsons in Love', and 'The Truth About Virtue' - elements, or hints of them, all detectable in I Confess and in its ingeniously constructed source play whose potential Hitchcock had sensed.  


Furthermore, a 'suffer-in-silence' motif in melodrama and in film (including several by Hitchcock) is very effective dramatically, and goes way back.  It's the basis of Tennyson's narrative poem 'Enoch Arden' (1864) which inspired many novels and films, including another novel by Hall Caine, The Manxman (1894), and its two film versions (1916, 1928 - the latter directed by Hitchcock).5  The same motif underpins the theatrical warhorse Madame X (1909) and its several film versions.  Lastly, I think of the novel The Silence of Dean Maitland (1886), about a man-of-the-cloth with a guilty secret, which was filmed at least twice, both times (1914, 1934) in Australia.


In a suitable context the motif lends itself to a story that recognisably amounts to one about a modern Calvary, like Christ's. Hitchcock does not shun that implication.  At one point he goes out of his way - with a high downward-tilted long-shot - to show Logan in torment passing through a street on his way to pray; the shot incorporates a statue on a church rooftop of a bowed Christ carrying His Cross. Although Robin Wood wonders if the shot isn't 'pretentious', it doesn't seem that way to me.  Rohmer and Chabrol have written of how Hitchcock's films show 'the interchangeable guilt of all mankind' (italics in the original), and it's surely only a truism that, metaphorically, we all have our individual Crosses to bear, and that the historical Christ stands in for all of us. (You don't have to be a Believer to see that!)  


Equally, I discount Hitchcock's own (rare) self-doubt when he wondered aloud to Truffaut whether he hadn't been 'heavy-handed' in his handling of the I Confess story.  Arguably, that only says something about the very nature of Christian faith.  (Conceivably, a Buddhist might have treated the issue of faith rather differently, while still fully respecting the material, of course.)  Notwithstanding Hitchcock's claim that 'the whole treatment was lacking in humour and subtlety', it's hard to imagine a more appropriate approach - given the material, as I say.  (The script went through many drafts.)  I know that St Paul spoke of spiritual clowning or 'playing the fool in Christ', but that doesn't seem to me the way of Roman Catholicism, which is what's available to the character of Father Logan -  if he is to stay in character, that is.


So, besides the 'iconic' nature already mentioned of Quebec City in Hitchcock's film, are there further reasons for his choosing it?  Obviously, he wanted to keep the 'Catholic' atmosphere of the story's French original. In the end, he may have had little choice.  By his own account, Quebec City was the only city in North America where priests still wore the cassock in public (image below).  That sight would have been a considerable part of the story's visual appeal for Hitchcock, informing the key scene of Logan's torment just described. Montgomery Clift paid careful attention to how priests walked.  He noted: 'Priests walk in a special way because they wear robes or habits.  When they walk they push the material forward with their hands.'  It turned out that Clift was friends with a young French monk, Brother Thomas, who only recently had taken his final vows in a cloistered monastery outside Quebec.6  



Just before the filming of I Confess, Clift spent a week at Brother Thomas's monastery.  There he attended Mass each morning at four.  He later told Patricia Collinge (who had played the mother in Shadow of a Doubt) how moved he was by the solemn dignity of the services 'in that great chapel'.  He observed the monks at work and at prayer.  'Some of them, like Thomas, have a fundamental sense of reverence - of tenderness - seeming to believe like [the poet] Blake that "everything that [lives is] holy".'  Clift of course imbues Logan with great strength and dignity.  (Note: I've seen it suggested that some individuals enter the cloistered life because they see it as providing a retreat from a world that is too hard for them.  I suspect that Father Benoit in I Confess, with his 'collapsing' bicycle, is a gentle caricature of such a person - thus a foil to Logan.)  Much of the principal photography for the film took place in the narrow streets of the old quarter of French Quebec.  And, yes, the settings, like those of Vertigo, combine to be 'representative'.  Pierre Grandfort, a politician, is shown 'on the job', speaking before his peers in the Parliament Building, on 'Parliament Hill'.  Logan and Ruth arrange to meet aboard the well-known ferry that crosses the St Lawrence to Lévis (below).  Elsewhere in the film, we see the forbidding walls of the Citadel de Quebec and pass inside the Halls of Justice for Logan's trial. 



The final climax occurs in the city's dominating Château Frontenac, where Keller dies.  And Logan's church, Sainte Marie, is in fact the Eglise Saint-Zépherin de Stadacona: Stadacona was the name of the native village which stood on the site that is now Quebec City - rather like how in Vertigoa key scene takes place in the Mission Dolores, the site around which the city of San Francisco grew.  (Hitchcock's expressionist inclinations never left him.)


The scene on the ferry is particularly lovely. As the water slips past, as if we were leaving all onshore cares behind, Michael joins Madame Grandfort on the public deck.  Both she and Michael are aware that the police want to know who she is, and about why she spoke with him outside Villette's house on the morning of the murder. Dimitri Tiomkin's music plays sweetly - in contrast to the suitably dramatic chords the score employs elsewhere - thus evoking the vanished days of Ruth and Michael's earlier relationship which is given some lovely scenes of its own.  In fact, it is to that relationship that Ruth, although married, still clings.  (Pierre Grandfort will ask later, 'What does one do when one's wife is in love with a priest?')  


This assignation, it appears, was instigated by Ruth, and takes place on board the ferry named the 'Louis Jolliet' after an early explorer, born in Quebec.  It soon appears that Michael will need to convince Ruth that a man of conviction who has taken his Holy Vows cannot stray from them: 'I chose to be what I am'. But Ruth resists!  Thus the scene does carry its load of dramatic conflict, and is far from being what Hitchcock abhorred, a 'no-scene scene'.  As well, he loads it with one of his masterful ingenuities, bringing us further inside the action.  It works a bit like a three-card trick.  When Michael notes that the police at this very moment may be watching them, Ruth can't stop herself from glancing nervously around at the nearby passengers.  There are three - and two of them do seem to be looking at Michael and Ruth with some interest.  (A priest on a boat talking to an attractive woman would be of passing interest, no doubt.)  The third is leaning on the ferry's rail, seemingly preoccupied with rolling himself a cigarette. But then, who can tell?!  Or perhaps Michael and Ruth are just being paranoid?  


In fact, Hitchcock would have noted how American propaganda shorts of the time were warning audiences to watch out for Communists 'in our midst'.  In this case, Ruth's suspicions are quickly confirmed.  In the very next scene, the man with a cigarette is reporting to Inspector Larrue about how he had observed Michael and Ruth on the ferry, and Larrue congratulates him for his work.  Such smooth continuity is not separable from Hitchcock's tight rein on the audience.

Karl Malden (Larrue), Montgomery Clift,
I Confess

Another lovely scene, although brief, is the soft-focus flashback of Ruth coming down a spiral stairway to greet her lover, Logan, outside her home.  Here the stairway echoes the one in Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Kazan's film is set in another French-American city, New Orleans, and Hitchcock, with his eye for such visual details, astutely saw the possibilities.  Logan later descends a curving staircase of a different kind, in the Halls of Justice, to face an angry mob who believe him an adulterer, if not a murderer.  ('Take off that collar, Logan!', one of them mocks.)  Then, below, the emotional intensity doesn't diminish, as the police are barely able to hold back another jeering crowd in the street, and Logan stumbles, his elbow starring a car window.  Steps and stairs are in fact ubiquitous in I Confess, like another version of the Stations of the Cross.  Pointedly, we're shown Logan walk up a flight of stairs to enter a church where he prays for help and guidance.  



All of these things are only contributions to the film's rich texture.  According to American Cinematographer (December 1952), 'Hitchcock selected [Quebec City] because of its quaint Old World quality and its architecture of mediaeval flavour.'  (With parallel logic, but otherwise in total contrast, he elected to open North by Northwest in New York City -  though I, for one, am not convinced that its modern look makes the 1959 film superior.) Everything in I Confess is depicted in as authentic a manner as possible.  'No attempt was made to "dress up" the sets on … location interiors.  Doors and woodwork with shiny surfaces were allowed to remain that way and not dulled down as they would have been ordinarily …  Not only were the buildings authentic as named, so, too, were the people … For instance, the manager of the Château Frontenac was portrayed by the real manager of the Château Frontenac. Chefs and waiters in that world-famed hotel are the same men you would [have seen working there] …'


In the same vein, Hitchcock isolates the transient details of everyday: a policeman poised awkwardly on a flight of steps; a snatch of parliamentary rhetoric heard through a half-open door; a romantic moment on a dance-floor interrupted by an announcement of war; a juror blowing his nose in one corner of the screen while, close by, another juror combs his hair.  And as Father Logan's tribulation grows, the details become grimmer, or more earthy.  Logan's alibi is effectively quashed by an autopsy report involving the contents of the dead man's stomach; police stride grimly to their cars past a mounted black cannon; a girl on crutches passes Logan in the street; and a headless dummy taunts him from behind a harshly-lit store window.  When Logan enters Inspector Larrue's office to give himself up, the policeman is seated at his desk preparing to eat a hurried meal, a napkin tucked into his collar.



As I've said, Clift's performance bespeaks a marvellous dignity and strength.  A fine scene is that one in Larrue's office.  Both men show an obvious respect for each other, yet the priest knows that he is bound to avoid every temptation to speak in his own defence, or to justify himself, however slightly, to this policeman who becomes increasingly irritated and puzzled by the other's non-cooperation.  (Does Larrue suspect that there's a possible reason for it, other than the evident one that the priest is guilty?  Purely in dramatic terms, he appears out of his depth here.) In the courtroom, Logan's strength is likewise on show, again with both an appearance and a reality for Hitchcock's audience to appreciate.  Asked how he explains the blood-stained cassock found in his room, Logan answers roundly, 'I can't say!'  (Shortly afterwards, accused of violent murder, he answers no less ringingly, 'No!') His very vehemence might have condemned him, as if he were here confirming that he was capable of killing someone if suitably provoked.  As it is, the jury, while acquitting him, speak of having 'grave suspicion' that Logan is a killer.  Note: they aren't referring to his war-service, which is another ambiguity of this Symbolist film.  (A similar ambiguity had earlier figured in Hitchcock's post-War Rope.)  The phrase 'I can't say!' is the right one.  The devout Logan is led to it unerringly.      




1.  Though Bentley probably didn't know it, there was once a French multi-murderer, Joseph Vacher (1869-1898), known as the French Ripper, 'Jack l'éventreur français', who, after he was arrested, suddenly chose without explanation to confess all his crimes.


2.  Bill Krohn, "I Confess- Historical Note", 'CTEQ Annotations on Film' (Melbourne Cinémathèque), Issue 10, November 2000.


3.  The character of Ruth resembles Yvonne, the fiancée of the dedicated young Resistance fighter named Pierre, in Hitchcock's wartime short Aventure Malgache (nominally 1944, although possibly not released then).


4.  A magdalen (from Mary Magdalene) is a person who has committed a sexual imprudence, then repented.  A Modern Magdalen was the title of both a 5-reel 1915 film and of its source, a 1902 play by C. Haddon Chambers.  Note: in an early draft of I Confess, there is an illegitimate child.   


5.  In both Hitchcock's The Manxman and I Confess, we hear a woman tell her lover, 'We're free!' - which proves to be far from the case.


6.  Information about Montgomery Clift comes from the fine biography by Patricia Bosworth, first published in 1978. 


Editor’s Note: This is the fourth essay on Alfred Hitchcock by scholar Ken Mogg published on Film Alert 101. The previous essays are Thoughts on Hitchcock's VERTIGOHitchcock's VERTIGO: Its cinema sources  and Hitchcock Considerations - On his style They may be found if you click on the essay titles.

Friday 29 January 2021

On Blu-ray - David Hare welcomes the new edition of Vincente Minnelli's masterpiece THE PIRATE (MGM, USA, 1948)

Gene Kelly, The Pirate

Minnelli's The Pirate was released in May 1948 after two years of gestation, and a history book's worth of gossip, trouble, tantrums, changes, disagreements, censorship, Garland’s latest breakdown, her divorce from the director and a cost overrun that left the picture floundering with more than 2 million (then a fortune) of debt for MGM. It’s never made its money back to this day.


Despite this, the movie is I am sure the most elegantly conceived, formally extended, most sophisticated and whimsical musical ever to come out of the Freed Unit. It’s perhaps the very greatest work of the highest imaginable aestheticism and design, casting, dance, performance, color and self-reflection, all carried by a minor narrative whimsy in the "once upon a time" mode from a very slight 1942 S.N. Behrman stage work, to a complete re-write which inverts the character impersonation theme totally by Goodrich and Hackett and a fully commissioned new score by Cole Porter, with the battery of the Freed Unit's peerless team of artists and crew, not least, Roger Edens, Robert Alton, Kay Thompson and, for the first time at Metro, costume designer Tom Keogh. His wardrobe broke the bank and every expectation for a conventional “period look” but instead complements the films seductively narcotic color design. If ever a film was made for the three strip negative, dye transfer positive printing process in 40s Technicolor, it’s The Pirate.


The picture begins after the credits with a red leather bound title cover page, followed without a cut by a series of exquisite water colored faux naif "storybook” illustrations (above) of the movie’s materials concerning the pirate, Mack the Black Macoco, and his fabulous exploits of pillage, swashbuckling and expressively direct masculinity, all read by a breathless Garland over the turning pages. Then without a cut, Minnelli pulls the camera slightly back from these gorgeous pictures (by Metro studio artist Doris Lee) and the amber tanned hand of Judy’s arm, playing Manuela (below) comes into shot, and then we track further back to group shot with even more hallucinatory imagery in three strip dye transfer Technicolor of the tale teller with her cohorts, as the driver of this great erotic fantasy. 


The film never leaves this hallucinatory realm of color, design, movement , costume and music. Each sequence to run the narrative opens with a reveal of the next persona in close or medium and the camera which by now has established its identity as another character, one of us, the audience adopts a life of activity with the most brilliant tracks, cranes and dollies seen in the forties. 


Kelly uses the film to pioneer his own ideas about male dance extending the three minute routines to ballets of solo male with chorus. The first musical number in the film comes just fifteen minutes in and introduces Kelly, and his travelling group of players. The sequence is set in what looks like an immense open air portside scene, and it certainly appears to be the film’s only exterior shot, but it’s simply the Metro backlot with a crane that stays with Kelly  for the first two minutes of the sequence from ground level to way on high 
(above) to the town and then a cut which begins the first verse of Cole Porter’s dazzling “Nina”. 


Kelly stages the song, an emblem of Porter’s wit and sophistication if ever there was one, with winks to the audience about psychiatry and unresolved passion. “Nina” all up is brief and funny but Kelly then stages a ballet up down through and over every corner of the set ending the first part of this six minute marathon with a completely debauched open mouth kiss with one girl (below), with the cigarette with whom he plays a tongue trick taking the cigarette into his own mouth and then swinging her over to kiss her, opens his mouth with the cigarette intact. This outrageously carnal gesture announces the second three minutes of this gob smacking sequence in which Freed’s and Metro’s greatest individual music arranger, Conrad Salinger now takes over Cole’s song and the score and orchestrates the next three minutes without lyrics totally for Kelly’s ballet as a solo with chorus into a tour de force of Bolero rhythm, complete with a blistering trumpet solo, all of which take the number into the stratosphere. 


I think “Nina” is my favorite musical number in Freed musicals. The camera becomes in effect Kelly’s dancing partner, moving through and back, away and forward, to observe the dance, which climaxes, literally with woman after woman after woman throwing themselves at Kelly on the town square “stage”, to be “used” with a quick footed spiral step and then spun off the stage as discarded bounty. The number ends with Kelly racing from the town square which has just hosted this past six minutes of pure sex, and travels with him up and into a close-up against his own image painted onto a poster for their travelling circus’ show (below). 


It’s one of those devastating bravura Minnelli sequences that fully embeds all the strands of the film into the imagery – performance, desire, impersonation, lust, rejection and theatre as performance of someone else’s “reality”. It clearly sets the page for Kelly’ big dance expansions into the ballet mode which were embedded into his and Minnelli’s An American in Paris  five years later. But I now find Nina superior formally to the relatively literal Gershwin ballet and even its fine choreography and ace DP John Alton’s Oscar winning Noir-esque color filtered photography on that picture.Thus a basic Porter number meets Salinger and Kelly and the full resources of the Freed unit and extends into a titanic major sequence to end the first act.


The movie lost at least two of Cole’s original songs during production, including one cut by the appalling Louis B Mayer as too “depraved”, “Voodoo”, which would have followed the first rendition of Mack the Black by Garland under hypnosis and chorus in the show tent. Other items were changed or shortened – the “Light of my Life” number survived only one verse, but its presentation as it stands now is flawless, preserved in a single one minute take with Garland singing to Kelly.

Indeed even Garland’s now visible amphetamine addiction is put to use in two sequences which Minnelli apparently directed again with a minimum of takes. Interestingly enough, although Judy was absent for over 100 days of shooting time, thanks to Mayer’s criminal regime of prescription addiction that was finally bringing her again to breakdown, she has never given a better performance in my opinion either physically or vocally. She can throw a tantrum and a room full of furniture at Kelly in the exposé sequence, but her vocal range keeps her performance bedded in control. And like Judy, Kelly, too has never been better nor more beautiful, never sexier, never more self-aware or more exhilarating. Certainly his part in the second “Mack the Black” routine in which he does the ballet wearing leather hot pants and a tea towel, with the body of a prime athlete in devastating peak condition, ends as always with the image of his face bursting with the sheer excitement of completing his number. 


There’s not a trace in The Pirate  of the overbearing egotism that cruels so many of the final closeups in Kelly’s numbers from Singin’ in the Rain. The material for The Pirateis so sharp, so sophisticated, so far ahead of its time, even for Freed, one of the joys of watching the movie is simply seeing the satisfaction the leads are taking in their parts, including I must add Walter Slezak, to whom Minnelli gives some of the most affecting and moving close-ups in the picture as Garland renounces him. Never has desire looked so bleak, even in this glorious phantasmagoria.


It’s very difficult to pin this movie down, either as a Freed canon work, an avant-garde musical avant-la-lettre, a Minnelli masterpiece of the purest formal beauty and mise-en-sceneI think it’s simply all three. There’s no more dazzling musical formally in the Hollywood pantheon, even Minnelli’s earlier 1944 Yolanda and the Thief which has several similar tropes, and a bobby dazzler of a central six minute choreographed sequence with Astaire and yet another bevy of menacing women in prime Technicolor wardrobe, “Will you Marry Me.’ 


At this point Yolanda is likely a personal expression of Minnelli’s own terror and/or ambivalence as a basically gay man about to marry Garland. The sheer panic of that dance and the movie’s very thin plot is very readily wiped out at the end of Yolanda with the superbly composed “Coffee Time”, choreographed by Astaire and Eugene Loring which runs the dancers in five/four time against a score written in four/four time. The number effectively overwhelms Yolanda’s narrative thread, and resolves the matter with such a perfectly refined musical trick for the end.


For the Finale of The Pirate  Freed and Minnelli obviously needed something that was both still hip but able to bring down the temperature from the astonishing 95 minutes that preceded it. So Cole wrote “Be A Clown” and that great number, itself a dedication to the world of show business, brings the two leads, and the Freed team of artists to a close of a perfect movie.


Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray of The Pirate was taken from new 4K scans of the original Tech nitrate three strip negatives. The image and sound (12 bit uncompressed mono) are in perfect service to the movie they restore. It looks and sounds, if it’s possible, better than it did in 1948. 

Thursday 28 January 2021

"A summer stock company came into town"- Tom Ryan retrieves his legendary 1980 3RRR interview with Lee Marvin - (Part One)

Lee Marvin during war service

Lee Marvin: born February 19, 1924; died of a heart attack, August 29, 1987. Buried in Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., next to Joe Louis.


It was 1980. Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One had just been released. Lee Marvin was in Australia and was dropping by to promote the film, taking time off from his marlin fishing adventure up north. Alan Finney, then PR boss at Village-Roadshow, generously arranged for me to have an extended sit-down “chat” with the visiting star for broadcast on 3RRR. 


Frankly, I was in awe of the man. A WW2 veteran, who’d served in the United States 4th Marine Division during World War 2 and won a Purple Heart during the invasion of Saipan in the Pacific, he’d spent years doing bit parts before becoming one of Hollywood’s most memorable tough guys. A man’s man, I’d been told, someone who’d lock eyes with you and know immediately whether he’d rather talk to you or kill you. Better watch the eyes, I remember thinking, and be careful about the handshake.


If he offers me a drink, I certainly won’t be declining, or asking for a nice dry riesling. His poison of choice would be mine. Bring it on. I’d seen what he’d done to milksop James Stewart in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1963) and it wasn’t going to happen to me. Admittedly that was only in the movies, but it was still him and the stories about his alcohol-fuelled ways were legend. 


Asked about them in a Playboy interview years before, he’d made his feelings clear. “It depends on what I’m drinking, how much I’m drinking, why I’m drinking, and who I’m drinking with.” So, I thought, I’ll just thank him, take whatever it is straight, and try to remember the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. 

When he strolled into the film-company board-room where the interview was to take place, he was smiling, a tall, white-haired man with a firm handshake and twinkling eyes. He clearly had no intention of killing anybody that day, there was only water on the table – even if there was a suspiciously clear liquid in the glass he was carrying when he arrived – and he was eager to accommodate. Asked by my producer, Helen Molnar, if he’d mind moving a bit closer to the microphone, he’d responded agreeably – and not unflirtatiously – in his rich, resonant boom of a voice: “I can do anything you want.”


TR: Would you regard yourself as someone who was born to act?


LM: No. No. It just worked out that way.


You started off very young, though…


Well I was 23. That’s not very young. I mean, it’s very young now, in memory, but I’d gotten out of the service when I was 21, and fooled around as a plumber’s assistant, cleaning septic tanks and diggin’ ditches in a rural town in upstate New York, the leading man pulled out – they were just out of the Neighbourhood Playhouse, a bunch of young actors – and at some party I guess I was dancing with my western boots on and they said, ‘Can he act?’ to some old-time actor. And he said, ‘Well, give him a try.’ And I read for them and they liked it. They needed a tall, loud-mouthed Texan for this role and I was giving a lot of mouth and I guess the boots sold ’em. So they hired me for $7-a-week, room and board and I loved it. And I took it from there.


The production was Roadside, wasn’t it?


That’s right. Way up in Woodstock, New York, in the Maverick Theatre. It was the summer theatre: “straw hat” they’d call it.


So how did you get to Broadway? Billy Budd I think it was.


Yeah. It was my first and last Broadway show.


Playbill for Billy Budd on Broadway
(click to enlarge)

I went to school for about a year and a half at the American Theatre wing, which was a spin-off from World War 2. You know, those shows like Winged Victory and stuff that they produced. And so they had a refresher course for veterans under Public Law 16, that kind of veterans’ administration stuff. So I went to that school with a lot of chaps who’d been in the marines and the navy. We had a kind of camaraderie. I don’t think we learned much, but we worked with some wonderful people. 


And from there, next summer I went out and was doing one-weekers here and there and eventually the ELT, the Equity Library Theatre (in Chicago), which was the Guild’s own group, were trying on a new play calledUniform of Flesh, which was written by Chapman and Cox, two young professors at Yale, on a trilogy of three of Melville’s books called O’Hara, Master-at-ArmsThe Frigate United States and Billy Budd, Foretopman. It was at the ELT Theatre, which wasn’t off-Broadway then, and a year later they took it to Broadway under the title Billy Budd and I got a bit part in that.


At that time did you see your future as being solely in theatre, or did you have ambitions to move into live television, as you eventually did? Or into film?


Well, I was doing live television at the time. Billy Budd I was never happy with, ’cause I thought that all the directors had missed the point of the play. They were very aesthetic about it, but it was 1798 in the British navy which ain’t no cup o’ tea. These were rough men and they were all portrayed a little lightly for my liking, and I said, ‘Well, I’ll never do anything like this again.’ And I kinda lost my point because I was so disturbed by the play and it was a tremendous thing, but the box-office wasn’t there. 


And then one night I was just standing on the stage and looking out across the audience and all I could see were the green Exit signs. And I said, ‘I’m leavin’.’ And when the play closed after 110 performances, I was doing a TV show and one of the stars then had a car that he wanted driven out to California. So I said, ‘OK. Gimme your credit card and I’ll do it.’ So I drove to California and three days later I had a job.


And that was…


You’re in the Navy Now.


Right, that’s the first film, but I believe before that…

The first film that I had a speaking part in. I had done some extras work in New York with Preminger and people like that.


On what films?


Oh, things like Tattooed StrangerWhere the Sidewalk Ends… around ’48.


Well, where does the live television come in, because I believe you did a lot of work…?


I did about 250 live TV shows in New York in that three-year period.


That must have been extraordinary. I’m still amazed by the concept of live drama on TV…


It was. It was wild. And, of course, it was all in black and white in those days, so the sets were all purple and yellow. It was funny to walk into a room that was all purple and yellow, but I guess the contrast worked well for black and white. We even wore purple and yellow.


What was the rehearsal time?


On a half-hour thing like Escape, or any of those shows, you’d rehearse three days, one day on the floor with camera and then do it that night. It all took four or five days.


And then you would just simply shoot?


Just go, yeah.


There must have been some awful mistakes made at the time?


Tremendous, but that that was the charm of it. People would watch it – not that they had anything else to watch on the box at the time, except wrestling or boxing or something – but they used to like to see the actors go on their faces or have the set fall on them. I mean, it was a thrill to watch live TV, heh-heh.


Were there any recordings made of that work, or is it gone forever?


No. They used to make kinescopes, whatever that is. I think it was a 16mm print and they had some kind of device that they would put in the control room and then record it. I guess for libel, or something like that.


There are people like Sidney Lumet who used to work…


(Murmur of approval)


… and there were a lot of film directors who actually got their grounding in that work.


John Frankenheimer… they were all there. Oh gosh, yeah. A lot of the actors too.


And then we’ve got You’re in the Navy Now, the Henry Hathaway film: your first speaking part. Do you remember it?


Sure, very well. You wanna hear all my lines. Well there was ‘yessir’ and ‘nossir’, an awful lot of those. That was about the content of my part.




I’d be talking to myself on the ship, you know. I was playing the guy on the phone and answering the phone and the guys in the background… I’d play all four parts of the phone conversation.


That’s 1951…


No, it’s 1950.




What you have are the release dates. Figure on nine months to release…


Well, after that come films like the Don Siegel one with Audie Murphy…


Yeah. Doool at Silvah Creeeek (guffawing)! I played Sheep Dip in that. So I know I’m gonna get mine, right? If Audie Murphy’s the Silver Kid and I’m Sheep Dip, you know that, when the game of poker is over, who’s gonna get it.


And that’s the start of your career as a heavy? 


Marvin as Sheep Dip in Duel at Silver Creek

Yeah, mainly in westerns…


Were you happy with that as it was happening, or did you feel constricted by it?


Noo-oo. Every step was more than I’d had before, you know. The minimum then was $175 a week and that was pretty good money. Then. So I got to $200 and I said, ‘Unh-huh-unh-huh-hunh, I’ve got it!’


But did you have any ambitions to take the Audie Murphy role at that stage, or were you happy playing the parts which were sort of comic heavies, in a way? One can sense that you’re laughing at the same time as you’re doing them.


Yeah, you’d put a twist to them. No, I was very content. I really was. I figured if I could ever get to $12,000 a year, I’d have it. So my sights were not set higher than I thought my talent was.

Coming soon Part 2. Lee Marvin talks about working with Fritz Lang and Henry Hathaway