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Criss Cross: an experiment in sound mixing and slow mo

 

 

CRISS CROSSIn Criss Cross Steve Thompson (Burt Lancaster)  returns home to LA after 8 months of wondering around working odd jobs and trying to forget his ex — Ana (Yvonne de Carlo) — after their divorce. And yet, in spite of his conscious efforts, he can’t help looking out for her. She’s got the hots for him too. But she wants material things he can’t get her. They of course meet, not so accidentally. When he sees her new husband — Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea) — is wacking her around, he decides to engineer a bank robbery so that he can get her out of her husband’s clutches, enable him to get her all the things she wants, and allow them to start a new life together….but is that what she wants? It will not end well.

When Criss Cross was released in the UK, The Monthly Film Bulletin of Jan 1, 1949 described it as a melodrama saying ‘this extremely sordid story is not helped by silly dialogue and trite situations, although the actors make every effort to rise above the poor material provided’.

In the years since, its reputation has risen. Alain Silver in Film Noir: The Encycopledia (London: Overlook Duckworth 2010, p.78) ranks the film one of the ‘most tragic and compelling of film noir’. Silver considers the  scene above as key to the film and is worth quoting at length:

Anna is suddently there, oneirically before him as if sprung from the depths of that initial reverie. In fact, Thompson might at first suspect that he is hallucinating since there is no reason, other than his overwhelming desire, for her to be in the nightclub. Because this articulation of their relationship is purely visual, it cannot be misconstrued. The audience is not given a perspective that is literally what Thomson sees, the long lens and slow motion belie that. Rather the shot is remarkably subjective: it is what Thompson sees as distorted by the powerful emotion that he feels.

The video below is an expansion of the above, playing with the sound mixing and the slow mo to illustrate Silver’s insight that what the film shows is what ‘Thompson sees as distorted by the powerful emotion that he feels’. I have taken every shot in the sequence of Steve looking at Ana, slowed it down, and overlayed it with mix of voice-over narration and dialogue where Steve tells us what he thinks of her, of them, of his actions. I could have added the beautiful last shot of them together….but it’s not as if we didn’t know what was coming.

 

José Arroyo

 

A thought on Burt Lancaster ageing

 

Reflecting this morning that one of the interesting things about watching Burt Lancaster film in chronological order is that you see him age before your eyes, in an accelerated fashion, day by day. And one mourns and admires in equal measure. One mourns the loss of beauty –that little aquiline tilt of the nose that in some angles transformed him from handsome to beautiful, snipped by the surgeon sometime in the early sixties. Seeing his face day after day one notices the oncoming liver spots, the increasing scars, the hair thinning, dyed, then left white, the heroic attempts to stay fit even as the body expands before finally sagging like everyone else’s. One also notices, the increase in skill, the risks, the intelligence of the choices, the struggle to stay relevant, to comment on current conditions, sometimes with worse directors in central roles, with better ones in key small roles, in material that is risky and pertinent, and being in such works becomes more important than the role offered. He dies young and heroically early on and then in the later films the death scenes take on another meaning, hit closer to home, offer moments of a different type of reflection. His audience, for he did have one, huge early on, smaller later, must have reflected on his ageing in relation to their own. It’s one of the functions of stardom. Like with great beauties, or action stars, stars for whom the physique was central to their value as commodities and in relation to meaning, the gradual loss of what others valued, what constituted their value, and the attempt to alchemise it into another type of value, to offer something else, seems moving and heroic.

José Arroyo

Hustle (Robert Aldrich, USA, 1975)

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A sad and melancholic noir, imbued with sadness, about all the grey areas of feeling, and set in the dark netherworld of LA crime, prostitution, go-go bars, stag flicks. A girl washes up on shore, the verdict is suicide, the father (Ben Johnson) doesn’t accept it and starts investigating on his own. Lt. Philip Gaynes (Burt Reynolds), the police investigator assigned to the case,  is living with Nicole (Catherine Deneuve), who’s a hooker. Their relationship starts as playful and satisfying but Burt begins to have visions of her with other men and can’t stand it. But will he commit, does he love her? We only find out when it’s too late.

Hustle is  fascinating film, a real Watergate film with the US seen as Guatemala with colour television, where somebodies get off scott-free with the worst crimes and nobodies can’t get their day in court. There are aspects of this film that resurface in better known 70s neo-noirs by younger directors like Hardcore (Paul Schrader, 1979) and Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976). An unjustly neglected film, by the director of some key films in the genre such as Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and The Big Knife (1955), with Burt Reynolds as his most charming and playful; Catherine Deneuve beautiful and with a languid common sense to the ugly realities of life; and Eileen Brennan, who in the movies always seemed bruised by life. Reynolds and Paul Winfield look smashing and have excellent chemistry, though in their shots together one does notice the technology blotting out Winfield’s presence with the light positively bouncing off Reynolds’ skin.

The film is a real noir in the classic vein: the shadows, the bars, the underworld, the complex feelings. Aldrich beautifully conveys all of this in a film where every colour and every angle seems purposeful; and yet the film lacks a central drive, a desire, unless one counts that for the past. It’s imbued with a nostalgia: for Italy, for film stars, for movies and music of the past, for the thirties, for the type of love that exists only in movies like  Lelouche’s A Man and a Woman; for a sense of fair play that the film claims no longer exists, it’s like a cloud of feeling where happiness was once possible but no longer is. The film’s Spanish title, Destino Fatal/ Fatal Destiny better describes the film than Hustle. Everyone in the film is hustling, but against the odds and with a deck stacked against them.

Pauline Kael in her New Yorker review found it too pulpy and in its own way amoral, a liberal equivalent of Dirty Harry, with the added sin of wallowing in Weltschmerz, a feeling of deep sadness and world-wearyness that arises out of being too aware of evil, suffering and injustice and that one accepts as one’s portion in life. Kael damns the whole film as an excuse for ‘philosophy sweetened by sex’. She’s not wrong. But those elements are in fact what I most loved about the film.

The faults and virtues in each of those positions can be teased out of this scene:

which a propos of nothing reminded me of this ferocious version of the song by Lena Horne:

 

José Arroyo

 

 

The Island of Doctor Moreau, Director’s Cut, (John Frankenheimer, USA, 1996)

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A legendarily troubled production, which would make a good case study of the excesses of 1990s cinema. Bruce Willis was supposed to play Edward Pendrick, the UN negotiator who survived a plane crash, is rescued by Dr. Montgomery (originally meant for James Woods) and lands in a land of animal experiments where Doctor Moreau (Marlon Brando) plays God with his new creations. But he had to bow out because Demi Moore was divorcing him. He was replaced by Val Kilmer, who was then served with divorce papers by Joanne Walley, which rendered him unavailable to shoot all the scenes necessary for Pendrick and thus he switched roles to Doctor Montgomery. Brando only shot 40 percent of the scenes he was meant to and refused to learn his lines, which had to be fed to him via an earpiece, which also caught the police radio call outs and which according to David Thelwis often resulted in Brando saying lines like ‘Shootout at Woolworths! ‘All this and more after the original director Richard Stanley was replaced by John Frankenheimer. In other words, it’s a mess.

That said, its themes, individual will and responsibility, the existence of God, nature versus nurture, the value of life, and all the other themes H.G. Wells initially dramatised are still evident in the film, in however messy a manner, and mostly intriguingly filmed. David Thewlis, who ended up playing Pendrick is excellent, as is Fairuza Balk as Aissa, the cat-hybrid who is in the process of regressing to her original nature (and who deserved a better end from the filmmakers: it’s almost like her character, and what she represents, is thrown away near the end).

Marlon Brando only makes his entrance 30 minutes into the film, in a type of Pope-mobile, looking not unlike Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, encased in a series of increasingly loud kaftans that cannot hide his mountainous baulk, and camping it up outrageously. Later in the film Kilmer will do a pale imitation that will not erase one iota of the joy of the original. A very messy film, structurally skewed, and thematically inconsistent that none the less looks and moves engagingly. I liked it very much and it’s worth seeing for Brando alone.

 

José Arroyo

Burt Lancaster & Ava Gardner by Mandy Rennie

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Another scammy publication. I´ve now learned how to tell: the cover is numbered as p. 1. I now also see that it´s by the prolific Mandy Rennie. I can´t quite call it a vanity production, firstly because the book itself is so badly produced, and secondly because you have to go to Amazon to find the name of the author: it´s nowhere in the book itself. What´s of interest to me is that there is a whole book on Ava and Burt, who appeared in three films together — The Killers (Siodmak, 1946), Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer, 1964) and The Cassandra Crossing (George P. Cosmatos, 1976) but, if memory serves, only share scenes in The Killers. So an interesting example of the impact of casting in one film on the popular imagination (if one can use such a loose term) across decades. And that there’s a book demonstrates that there must be a public interest in the pairing beyond myself.

 

Most of the photos in the book are from one photoshoot to publicise the film and are easily available online. Adrian Garvey has pointed out to me  that there is considerable information on them:

…though the book does include a more complete group photo:

 

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Neither the book,nor the link to the UMKC Special Digital Collections provides information on the photographer, so if anyone knows the name do please let me know

 

José Arroyo

Rip-off Burt Lancaster by Mandy Rennie

burt lancaster

One of the risks of shopping for books on amazon is that you often end up with the likes of this one, seemingly privately published, the name of the ‘author’ — Mandy Rennie, who should be ashamed — credited on amazon but not on the book itself. It´s a book one would never have bought had one been able to leaf through it: 110 pages, of which 80 are photographs, all easily available online, and of which ten are a filmography, seemingly off an excel sheet. The rest of the text is not worth reading. It was £10.79.

José Arroyo

Lighting Burt Lancaster into Stardom

Burt Lancaster became a star in The Killers (1946), his very first film. There is probably a combination of many different reasons as to why: the time the film was released in, the story, the production, the role, the performance. Surely, Burt Lancaster’s looks had a lot to do with it. And on top of that, how Robert Siodmak directed cinematographer Woody Bredell to light him was surely the perfect mise-en-scène not only for his looks but for his stardom.

 

You can see him below as a man in the throes of suffering, physically and emotionally. In the movie, he’s looking, mainly at Ava Gardner, and to-be-looked at, by us; the desiring  subject in pain pictured as that which is most desirable:

 

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Ron Moule has pointed out to me the similarity of the image above to Bernini´s The Ecstasy of St. Teresa below:

bernini st. teresa

You can see other images, only from the first forty minutes of the film, below:

 

 

Sheldon Hall informs me that The Killers was  first shown on British TV under the intriguing and suggestive  title, A MAN AFRAID, presumably so as not to confuse it with the 1964 Don Siegel version:

a man afraid

José Arroyo

Eavesdropping at the Movies: 229 – Fedora

Listen on the players above, on Apple Podcasts, or on Spotify.

Stardom, beauty, the machinery of Hollywood, madness, age – 1978’s Fedora sees Billy Wilder occupying much of the same thematic territory of his 1950 classic, Sunset Boulevard. William Holden’s has-been film producer attends the funeral of Fedora, a reclusive former film star, and thinks back on the recent trip he took to Corfu, attempting to track her down and coax her out of retirement. What unravels is a mystery, a conspiracy, a twisted mother-daughter relationship, and another in Mubi’s strand of “perfect failures”.

Wilder’s struggle to finance Fedora is apparent, José suggesting that in every part one can imagine a superior actor. Though that’s perhaps scant defence of the tedious visual design – Dutch angles don’t cost money, and the film is crying out for more visual expression than it offers. Mike explains his problem with the plot structure and particularly his dislike of “two weeks earlier” hooks, and we consider the way in which we’re asked to believe in Fedora’s incredible stardom while not really having it explained to us satisfactorily. And José takes particular issue with the casting of Michael York as himself, finding him a blank, while Mike is more content with it, but perhaps that’s largely because whenever someone says “Michael York” it makes him laugh.

Despite the film’s many problems, it remains an intriguing exploration of stardom, identity, the lengths to which people will go to support their own delusions. Mike suggests that Fedora and Sunset Boulevard share a low opinion of women, that their themes of self-obsession, fame and beauty are particularly aligned with their stars’ gender. José describes Fedora‘s relationship to reality, in particular the ways in which it echoes Marlene Dietrich’s extraordinary fame and subsequent withdrawal from the public eye, and how Wilder’s experience and understanding of this and other inside stories informs the film.

And finally, Mike takes a moment to bring up two things he doesn’t like about Sunset Boulevard, because he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t take one look at a great masterpiece of cinema and explain what’s rubbish about it.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.

Ava Gardner’s Jewels in The Cassandra Crossing

The Cassandra Crossing (George Pan Cosmatos) is an all-star disaster film. Burt Lancaster, Sofia Loren, Ingrid Thulin, Richard Harris, Martin Sheen, O.J. Simpson and Lee Strasberg headline along with Ava Gardner, who steals the show. She comes in swathed in furs and jewels with Martin Sheen as her young gigolo, walking two steps behind her carrying her dog and her luggage. She looks her age AND divinely beautiful, and she gives a wittily ironic performance that renders all of Martin Sheen’s method intensity practically invisible when together in the frame: MGM charm school plus experience wins out over Stanislavski.

Ava plays the wife of a rich arms manufacturer travelling through Europe with her gigolo who she thinks she has under her thumb but who is using her to pass class a drugs from country to country in her vanity case. To underline the wealth of her character, as part of her self-guided mise-en-scène of her own beauty, and as an added attraction to the film, the jewels she wears are real, mainly Van Cleef and Arpels and all from her famous collection:

 

You can have fun admiring her extraordinary beauty and matching the jewels in the images below from the film to those from the book above, with images from the auction of her jewels at Sotheby’s New York in 1989:

 

José Arroyo

Facelifts and Lawman

Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan in Lawman. Ryan was four years older than Lancaster. One’s had a facelift, the other hasn’t. And Burt in this film is the same age as Tom Cruise, so the technology has improved.

 

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Adrian Garvey has reminded me that male facelifts are much less commented on than female. Gary Cooper is the only star of the classic period whose facelift was noticed and much commented on, as you can see below, courtesy of Adrian:

gary cooper

The facelifts made him lose that bit of alquiline tilt at the tip of the nose that added to his gorgeousness as a young man.It’s a tiny thing, and seen only on side angles, but it has an effect.

José Arroyo

The Midnight Man (Roland Kibbee/ Burt Lancaster, USA, 1974)

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With the exception of my much loved and much missed colleague, the late V. F. Perkins, academics  tend to shy away from the issue of badness, even when actively dealing with questions of evaluation:

Despite renewed interest in aesthetic questions, there remains a nervousness in our field about aesthetic evaluation, based on a fear that it must always and only set out to authorise sets of tastes and preferences which work to sustain privilege. In this view, reflected in a concern with the canonical, evaluation has a primary purpose to establish or defend orders of rank between the esteemed and the despised, to validate a scale that has such as La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928) at its top, and such as Madonna of the Seven Moons (Arthur Crabtree, 1944) at its base. Against this concentration on preference and hierarchy (Shakespeare over Titanic? Oasis over Schubert?) I stress another aspect – evaluation as the articulation of value, the grateful effort to spell out the nature of a significant achievement.

I suggest also that issues of evaluation may be approached freshly and usefully from the opposite angle, through a consideration of badness. Is it our experience that movies may have the attributes of bad communications, being for instance bigoted, deceitful, vindictive, hypocritical or self-serving? If so, then surely it is necessary to find terms in which we may discuss the badness of films which are bad as works of art rather than in their presumed or demonstrated social effects. A scene from Dead Poets Society (Peter Weir, 1989) provides an emblematic instance of cinematic badness which is distinct both from ideological offensiveness and (since it is made with great proficiency) from ineptitude (p.34).

The Midnight Man is not the ideal vehicle through which to discuss the nuances of the concept such as Perkins does in his analysis of Dead Poets Society. It is, if I may, too bad for that. Vincent Canby, who wasn´t an academic and thus didn´t suffer from its knotty compunctions, wrote in  The New York Times that it was  ‘the second worst film of 1974’ (Buford, loc. 3296). What was the first? Buford, doesn´t tell us and I´d love to know,

 

Thematically The Midnight Man is a noir. Burt Lancaster is Jim Slade, a cop fresh from jail after serving time for killing his wife´s lover. He goes to stay with Quartz (Cameron Mitchell) an old friend from the force, in a university town where his parole officer Linda Thorpe (Susan Clark) has gotten him a job as a security person. Whilst he´s there a young coed (Catherine Bach) gets murdered. The reason is a videotape that incriminates her father, a powerful senator, and other people in the university. The tape is being used for blackmail and Slade can´t resist trying to find out.

 

The film is a sordid, convoluted story, which would have made a punchy film had it been done properly. It was very much a joint venture with Roland Kibbee and Lancaster, co-writing, co-producing and co-directing. According to Robyn Karney, ´The film was a convoluted thriller….With a poor screenplay and impenetrable plot. The film, which Variety,  predicted had a fair outlook in the popcorn trade´, was a dismal failure. Kibbee gallantly shouldered the blame, saying that ‘It was a concession to me because I wanted to make some money. It certainly wasn´t the kind of project Burt would have picked out for himself…he has no taste for pulp fiction, and his reading is on a high level (Robyn Karney, p. 171

I began with the excerpt from Victor Perkins´essay on badness because this film is almost an ur-example of it, particularly in the clip I´ve chosen below, which appears almost at the very end of the film. Narratively, the film hasn´t dramatised or shown so for an interminable four minutes, Burt as Jim Slade has to tie up all the various plot point for us verbally. It´s really atrocious.

 

Howerd Kissel in Women´s Wear Daily, upon the film´s initial release, wrote, ´Íf the studios were still operating as they used to, there would have been whole departments to tell Burt´that the story had too many holes, his costume too many sags, the movie too many reels´. This might explain the difference in the quality of the direction evident in The Kentuckian, Lancaster´s previous work as a director, and here. The film does nothing visually nor rhythmically, and he´s not particularly good with the actors, who´ve all been better elsewhere. There are misjudgments of tone too. Do we have to see Cameron Mitchell´s ageing ass. What does it do to the actor. What does it add to the scene. If we´re supposed to find it cheeky and funny it fails.

 

Burford writes that Kissel then isolated what kept Lancaster, ethos or politics aside, from becoming some kind of older Eastwood variant (in the 1970s)’– his image was ´too heroic´for the ´cool, low-keyed style of today.´A hero in what he once called ´the hero business´, he was now an anachronism (loc. 5349). But that is at least arguable. Time for example, noted ‘Burt Lancaster (is) turning into an attractive, hard-working actor as superstardom fades.´ Time.

For Bruce Crowther, in his book on the actor, ´Lancaster does well enough but his role is an uneasy one, carrying as it does the burdensome problem of trying to be  incorruptibly pure and honest while swimming through a cesspool of sexual and moral depravity. Some of the muck should have stuck. it was a problem which did not exist in the novel because the Jim Slade character there is a private eye with no illusions about his own or anyone else´s morality (Crowthe, pp. 123-124)

 

What´s interesting to me is that even discussion of ´the second worst film of 1974), through up insights on cinema, on the times, on aesthetics, that are interesting.

According to Perkins:

Evaluation need not be a process of ranking the cinema’s achievements in a hierarchy, nor of praising one group of movies at the expense of another. Instead it is part of the effort to understand, to exchange and to share the understanding of the value that works of art have for us. Good criticism is motivated by gratitude for the achievement of the filmmakers. It tries to present an accurate and sincere account of the meaning that films have for us. Critical understanding is most importantly an understanding of excellence. Criticism is an effort that we join in together to explain why films matter to us. I believe it is also our communal attempt to reward the courage, wisdom and generosity of the artists. The goal is to understand and to give words to the precision and subtlety that film can achieve, and finally to reward the artist’s attention to detail with an equal attentiveness in the viewing.

 

I agree with all of that. Yet, we live in a world where we have much more available to see than we have time for. And sometimes evaluation can serve the perfectly simple job of saying, unless you are a Burt Lancaster fan or have some other concrete reason for watching this film,  like thinking through the various ways a film can be ´bad´,´feel free to give this one a miss.

 

José Arroyo