A Show Called Fred
If Spike Milligan ran the BBC, there would be Ying Tong Tonight, the very thought of which is expressed in The Count of Monte Carlo.
Porter or Gershwin, washing dishes in the self-service cafeteria.
The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film
A bit of dirty cheek in a top hat is wiped away at the telescope that espies a woman scrubbing the grass for a tentsman whose picture gets taken by a photographer who develops his film in a pond eyed diligently by a hunter in diving mask and flippers, with a snorkel.
The dirty cheek in a cap bicycles along the hilltop to turn a page of music over, and bicycles back to his telescope.
A launching party attempts to fly a manned box-kite adorned with the Union Jack, it fails, they pull on.
Philippe Halsman’s L’Acte créatrice is enacted by an athlete and a painter and his model, the numbers on her face correspond to the numbers on his palette. The hunter (without his swimming gear) passes through to a man standing at a fence who pulls a phonograph record from his greatcoat and places it on a tree-stump to play it with a needle-hose-bell combination he runs around the stump to convey. The hunter dances up the road (an old tune).
The athlete dismisses his collaborators for a hammer throw. The model in her black veil serves as a camera, the photographer poses her partner at length, then plunges under the veil for a kiss.
The kite party passes through the tentsman’s realm (earning a fist and a cow’s look).
The hunter shoots and hits the hammer, he and the athlete fight a duel with shotgun and kris (the latter weapon is also from the greatcoat) conducted by the man with the record, who’s shot dead.
A hand with a finger motions the kite passenger down from the hilltop, he’s knocked out with a boxing glove. The wearer in his top hat opens his own front door and goes to bed.
Such a symposium on British art is far enough ahead of its time to merit the critics’ epithet, “silly”, for the nonce.
The Mouse on the Moon
The wine of the duchy begins exploding, “does not travel”, and imperils the economy.
Tourist trade might be boosted with plumbing, hot water and a public convenience or two.
A loan from the Americans for the Grand Duchy of Fenwick’s space program should do it.
The wine is an element of a very powerful nuclear fuel, Russia has loaned a Vostok dog-rocket minus its engines.
Therefore two Fenwickians, just anticipating Juran’s First Men in the Moon, become exactly that.
A characteristic style of comedy is already apparent.
A Hard Day’s Night
Lester and his screenwriter and The Beatles take all the mickey out of the little scousers with great technique and the best jokes going.
Bosley Crowther received it very gratefully (New York Times), J. Hoberman is somewhat more reserved, “hardly a great film... prehistoric antics” (Village Voice).
The Miramax “restoration” is an obtrusive stereo remix, if one may say so.
The Knack... and how to get it
The rendezvous with A. Hall is a Hitchcockian moment in a definite pivot toward Monty Python by way of The Ladies’ Man and the Peacock Room and Pinter’s most informed style.
Jules et Jim for the final approach of the Edwardian trampoline. Those lions (and bears) return for If...., the beach party movies are concurrent.
“Misogynistic and dated” is the contemporary remark of British reviewers, curiously. Crowther in a rare moment of lucidity perfectly understood it.
This is just such a lark as the East Side Kids get into, with a priest of Kaili and an underfunded British scientist each after Ringo for his life and ring, when suddenly there is that piano in the Alps, and an overhead shot of Army tanks circled like wagons prepares a view of Stonehenge nearby, and it’s a question of hands, and this dialogue takes place in a lift,
RINGO: What was it that first attracted you to me?
JOHN: Well, you’re very polite, aren’t you?
—so that a very amusing film, constantly funny and strictly for laughs, has the most delightful way of pronouncing upon a literary enigma “in just the right way”, as Stravinsky said of Mrs. Eliot at the Savoy.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Hero dispenses with Pseudolus, having Philia who mistakes Senex for Miles Gloriosus, her buyer from Marcus Lycus, in the course of the action, which includes the henpecking wife of Senex, Domina, and the future wife of Pseudolus, silent Gymnasia, yet Philia and Gloriosus are brother and sister long ago kidnapped by pirates and now rejoined with their father Erronius.
Plautus as a musical gives the Dead End Kids a Broadway vaudeville (Leo Gorcey as Pseudolus, Huntz Hall as Hysterium, befooled servant of Senex). The problem is stated by Lester in the first ten minutes, then he starts off cinematically at a venture, all the time reserving his announcement of a resolution for the latter reels, founded on Keaton.
How I Won the War
Dealing with the Hun, from Dunkirk to Arnhem and the highly valuable “only bridge still intact across the Rhine.”
“I was a great mate of Mosley’s, used to hold his voice for him while he lost his meetings.”
So little comprehended has the film been, there is now extant a version without the tintings, an inexplicable error that nonetheless reveals the authenticity of David Watkin’s underlying cinematography.
“Well, dig the officer out!”
After all, it exhausts a certain view with jokes on Fellini (La dolce vita) and Bergman (Persona).
The marriage one tires of leaves eddies in its wake, the unfortunate shlub who acquires her (a beautiful girl), etc. The refraction lingers for the longest time, and then.
Two girls, who are the one left behind.
“Adding up to nothing” (Halliwell’s Film Guide).
“A soulless, arbitrary, attitudinizing piece of claptrap” (John Simon).
The bed sitting room
A hiccough in the standard history of time, World War III, ends happily when Bules Martin, late of the Army, finds at length his beloved Nigel.
The disaster begins with a Prime Minister succeeding his own father at 10 Downing Street, “hard bargaining” with Mao Tse-tung devises a rent amount and poof! the whole thing’s gone in a flash.
This could not make sense to any reviewers at the time, and the great public were evidently having none of it.
The Three Musketeers
(The Queen’s Diamonds)
How D’Artagnan won his musket serving the Queen in a nation dominated by Cardinal Richelieu.
A superexcellent fine film in which Laurel and Hardy’s wardrobe figures amongst the gags, Michel Legrand rises to a diapason of Milhaud, David Watkin supplies the cinematography and so forth, with ample contributions as it were from Blake Edwards and Ken Russell among others, who include Laurence Olivier for his wartime Henry V.
The Four Musketeers
(The Revenge of Milady)
It encompasses the murders of Buckingham and the Queen’s dressmaker.
A somber contrast in its finale, then, to the high spirits of the first.
A succession of images derived from the Old Masters and achieved by the same means, which in this case entails location filming, careful attention paid to costumes and fittings, a wide range of light and the latitude to record it justly.
This amazing masterpiece starts from Tony Richardson’s scenic idea of Tom Jones, and goes directly toward a cinematic conception that was Buster Keaton’s unique and sole domain, though you find it in Harold Lloyd (Safety Last) and Charles Chaplin (The Circus) also, namely, the beautiful picture or the vast cinematic resource as a comic foil to the gag, or the sublime as geometric comedy component.
In The Four Musketeers, this means that an ideal mise en scène with an ideal cast is photographed beautifully with a variable lens that moves by rapid cutting into every scene as often as by new setups. The zoom is expressly stated several times, and one shot in particular utilizes the zoom-out to delicately articulate an otherwise customary dolly shot.
The technical and artistic aplomb of the filming is monumental. This is required as a quarry for the editing, which is rhythmic and exact. One aspect of the method can be illustrated in a single shot, a member of the Guard is killed by a bullet and falls one story to the ground. This involves a stunt man tumbling forward in midair once to land on his back on an unseen cushion, a familiar shot. It’s filmed with the camera tilting on the stunt man all the way down, and cut to display the gag per se as a sort of swan dive from start to finish.
There is a Vermeer effect in the background (a maid) of Milady’s chamber during a visit by D’Artagnan. This is matched by the hypermodernity and Velazquez effect among the mirrors and maids of the Queen’s boudoir.
In spite of precedents on the order of Kubrick, this film seems to have been thought of as superficial, possibly as a result of dividing it into two features. Even now, when the age of marvels in the cinema is all but past, it is still difficult to assess a work as thorough and brilliant as The Four Musketeers. That’s the trouble with media conglomerates, they can’t bear criticism.
The cinematographer is David Watkin, who also photographed The Devils for Ken Russell.
Such things as Graham’s The Doomsday Flight and Seaton’s Airport are the makings of this on the short end, Britannic sounds like Titanic (and there are jokes about airliners and icebergs), there’s a prime feint subtly prepared on “hairy youth” taking over.
Juggernaut has had the course and come to this, a relatively modest ransom demand, as remarked by his opponent and protégé.
Side action on the paralyzed upper lip and suchlike other things remains where it is, the ship sails on until Fellini sees it go, exquisitely studied from the Blitz and Lester’s catch-all brand of comprehensive comedy.
The entire structure serves to isolate Captain Flashman, Canby has the right idea of him, “not quite a scoundrel. He is, rather, a hero who is thoroughly, irretrievably flawed. He lies and cheats. He’s chicken-hearted. He’s vain. When the going gets tough and the tough get going, Harry flees or, if all exits are closed to him, he hides. When caught, he cries. Once, during a battle in the Crimean War, when his side was losing, Harry almost broke his neck trying to surrender. The thing about Harry is that whatever he does, he does hard.
“As played with fine, manic intensity by Malcolm McDowell in Richard Lester’s new comedy, ‘Royal Flash,’ Harry can’t even smile straight. The corners of his mouth go up in the expected fashion but in the middle of it there’s a misplaced leer. Ever optimistic, Harry keeps his leer at the ready, even though he’s the sort who loses when playing strip poker with a girl.”
No other critic seems to have attained this level of insight. The main structure is not merely The Prisoner of Zenda but Blake Edwards’ rendition of it in The Great Race, with a general trend toward John Huston’s Sinful Davey, or something like it.
These jokes are prepared with a Patton parody and a Robin and the 7 Hoods bordello, among other things (including a rag from The Sting).
All these monumental labors, so unregarded in reviews, lead to Cuba.
Robin and Marian
“Sir, if you were my husband, I’d give you poison.”
“Madam, if you were my wife, I’d take it.”
He has gone to the bloody awful Crusades for two decades, and nearly been hanged by the late King. He returns to Nottinghamshire, where she is an abbess proscribed by the Sheriff. A battle of champions is meant to decide the matter. The Sheriff dies, Robin is wounded.
Marian and Little John take him to her now abandoned abbey, where she pours out anodyne from a large blue flask into an alabaster goblet. She drinks, and gives it to Robin. They die together.
And thus the story ends.
The medieval world is evoked particularly well, sparse towns, wretched people. Lester is well on his way to the highly comic background tessitura of Cuba, and a million mad touches highlight the tale. Pictures by David Watkin, score by John Barry. Script by James Goldman, with Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn, Nicol Williamson, Robert Shaw, Richard Harris, Ian Holm, Denholm Elliott, filmed in Spain.
The basis of the anecdote is Casablanca, the baths are Rick’s Café Américain with a twist, the owner turns out to be Renard, or Stossel.
The technique on the other hand is cast-iron deadpan, absolutely impermeable.
Butch and Sundance
The Early Days
The finest representation of the Old West in the cinema bar none, achieved by shaving down the Lester style on the prismatic comic side for the photographic, voilà.
Variety, “standard sagebrush material.”
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times thought of Bruce Brown’s The Endless Summer.
Film4, “a shame really.”
The Catholic News Service Media Review Office, “lifeless... comedically-failed... sparse vulgar language and violence is less objectionable than the film’s romanticization of the lawless, irresponsible lifestyle.”
Time Out, “a commercial no-hoper... Lester merely pumps up the quirk quotient.”
TV Guide, “they should have left well enough alone.”
Halliwell’s Film Guide contains more than a glimmer, “‘prequel’ to a more celebrated but not a fresher or more lyrical western.”
The end of the Batista regime. Our man in Havana is a British operative seconded to the government (his views on the enemy are “harry and kill him”). The wife of a rum-and-cigar heir is a former lover. They meet and part again. They’re captured by the revolutionaries, and he must commandeer a tank to defend her from an Army counterattack. He wants to take her away, but she won’t leave Cuba. He takes a last plane out, and she watches him go (or just misses him).
The technique is an adaptation of the Musketeers to the demands of the situation. The focal plane shifts dramatically, that is to say the sense of ironic detachment gives a feel of vérité to long and medium long shots, which as desired are brought by modulated cutting into close shots. An officer is killed next to Connery, standing together in medium close-up. The drama of the scene ends with a rare zoom-out on Connery, placing him anonymously in the distance—another extra, among Spanish locations found or made to be redolent of the time and place—and as well, a typically refined, concise expression of Antonioni’s Blowup, if you will.
The foundation of this vertical structure is more or less discernible, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, To Have and Have Not, Casablanca, The Great Gatsby, etc.
The shots are in nearly every instance gags, which constitute the only discourse. No shot is lengthy, and the sheer concentration of powers necessary to prepare each scene as a composite of discrete shots and sustain a given tempo effortlessly is no doubt what makes the reader run.
There is a marked relationship to films such as 1900, Zulu Dawn, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Long Good Friday, Pirates, etc.
The rather unexpected formulation walks a dizzying tightrope between cartoon elements in adversarial positions (the revolutionaries can’t operate a mimeograph machine, in his suite Batista watches what looks like a 16mm black-and-white print of Terence Fisher’s 1958 Dracula), and balances the comic opera as such. This is expressed visually in the long walk taken by Connery and Brooke Adams together, culminating in a pictorialism devoid of irony.
The casual refinement of this approach is perhaps lost without a feeling for abstract art. Patrick Williams’ score, which might be related to Mancini’s Charade, especially finds the deliciousness in it.
The re-composition of the series of shots is derived from a consideration of television practice at the broadcast level. This is annotated, as it were, with snippets of film or cartoons seen on local monitors introduced here or there. The effect is like watching a drama interrupted with commercials and other materials, changing channels, etc. The verisimilitudes might pass for news footage at times, there’s a variety show, a love story, comedy—this has to be an ideal way to cope with the insufficiencies, extrapolate the mickey, get a perspective.
The immemorial way in which gags are shaped can be demonstrated in two successive scenes. A newspaper headline reads FIDEL HA VENIDO. The front page is floating on the surface of a swimming pool. An employee collects it with a skimmer, deposits it, then goes on to something else behind the camera. Next, a fellow is seen smashing parking meters in the shot at the beginning of Cool Hand Luke.
You can’t underestimate the effect of a long lens placing the camera away from the action to deprive the actors of its comforts and its torments, speaking professionally and per diem, respectively.
The new dictator arrives via actuality footage.
Superman’s marriage to Lois Lane is expressed in his Clark Kent character. An H-bomb at the Eiffel Tower endangers her, he hurls it into space, freeing the three condemned Kryptonians, they maraud a U.S.-U.S.S.R. lunar excursion.
And so forth. The two reporters investigate a Niagara Falls honeymoon racket and fall in.
The enchanting scale proceeds from Winsor McCay to Siegel & Shuster. Browning’s “Parting at Morning” gives the answer.
The conic problem narrows to Clark Kent humiliated in a roadside diner with Lois. In the wide opening she leaps into the rapids above Niagara Falls to prove he is Superman, and knows for sure when his hands aren’t burned in her fire.
Three Kryptonian lifers land on Earth and subdue the President. Superman learns this as Clark Kent bloodied at the diner, he has given up his powers for love of Lois.
From this point, a grain of light in the Fortress of Solitude endues him with superpowers, he battles the criminals in New York and at the Fortress pretends to submit, the device is reversed, their powers are destroyed.
His avowal to Lois is effaced with a kiss, the tough in the diner is rebuked.
The strong outer theme is from The Monitors (and Logan’s Run), put to work as openly malevolent around the inner theme of “warring not against flesh and blood...”
A classic Superman adventure.
Artificial kryptonite lays him low for a time, while a computer programmer up from nothing turns “a family-owned cartel” into a monopoly on coffee and oil, and Clark Kent attends his high school reunion in Smallville, Class of 1965.
The Watergate break-in and its consequences, game canceled on account of demolition, the whole kit ‘n caboodle dead and practically buried under the American flag.
Surrealistically presented in flowing comic terms derived at great removes from the silent film comedians (Bogdanovich is your man for this sort of thing, the bit on skates is a wink and a nudge in his direction).
“A genially oddball comedy”, according to Vincent Canby of the New York Times, “full of irreverent gags and mini-minded characters who would be quite at home in Preston Sturges’ Morgan Creek... not heavy with good taste... a lot of charm best described as loose-jointed... not especially graceful... grows increasingly funny... uneven... wastes too much footage...”
Variety was not genial, “pell-mell... maddening... cast is wasted... pieces that artlessly lurch and hurtle around.”
Such were the impressions among professionals.
Time Out Film Guide goes for “ghastliness... a doomed exercise.” The Catholic News Service Media Review Office has “attempt at screwball comedy... failed... tastelessness... offensively unfunny”.
Halliwell couldn’t follow it any better than anyone else, “yawnworthy”, says his film guide.
“We’re talkin’ hist’ry here!”
“... I’m in the middle of a nervous breakdown. Hadn’t you noticed?”
Hitchcock’s Family Plot contributes a certain something, Furie carries the ball in The Circle (Fraternity).
“Ohhh, fuck off, faggot... who’s writing this dialogue—Kafka?”
Hiller’s Silver Streak also figures, and the screwball pitching of Andrew L. Stone.
“Have a flower for your bereavement, okay, don’t.”
Cocteau’s guardian angel flies in, so to speak, from Bolivia.
“A word of advice, children. Never try to cross eleven junta colonels.”
“Far fucking out.”
Oakland, Reno, Ogden, Denver, aboard the City of San Diego...
“The oldest railroad conductor in the world” has a direct line to President Nickerson by virtue of a presidential promise.
Fleischer’s The Narrow Margin or Hyams’ Narrow Margin, Hunt’s Assassination.
“And a pat on the head for Checkers.”
High River, Nebraska, “on the Amrail coast-to-coaster!”
“Coast-to-coaster doesn’t come anywhere near here.”
“It does today, by special order of the President of the United States!”
A military funeral. “How come I gotta go to Venezuela?”
New York is the scheduled terminus, from there (thanks to Henry Kissinger) the entire country gets the news. “Why don’t you take one of your anti-crazy pills and leave your father alone, huh?”
The Mayberry jail. “Never marry a Lithuanian woman.”
Buster Keaton has practically the last word, “the Book of Heaven and the Book of Bell.”
Richard Donner picks up the wide load (Lethal Weapon 4), Albert Brooks the journey resumed (Lost in America).
The Return of the Musketeers
Vingt ans après, Mazarin is making himself rich, the Roundheads rule England, the King of France is eleven years old, Milady de Winter’s daughter wants vengeance for her death.
The screenplay is again by the author of Royal Flash, whose skill in veiling the mysteries of plot from the uninterested observer sent Time Out Film Guide and especially Variety away howling.
The excellent score is by Jean-Claude Petit, who composed another for Ken Russell’s Lady Chatterley.
“Sans intro or background, pic kicks off on stage and stays there for 90 minutes... Lester mostly lets the powerful songs (half Beatles classics) speak for themselves.” (Variety)
Footage from the earlier films and actuality footage culminates and ends during “Live and Let Die” two-thirds of the way.
Janet Maslin (New York Times) panned the work, saying the director “hereby forfeits any claim he once had to being the fifth Beatle.”
Time Out Film Guide mentions a “level of coy futility”.