Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Ghost: paranoia thrillers revived

Roman Polanski's latest, THE GHOST [or THE GHOST WRITER as the American dvd is titled] splendidly revives the paranoia thriller of the '70s (like Pakula's trio KLUTE, THE PARALLAX VIEW and ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN) and also has that 'look': the metallic steel colours, creepy destinations and the feeling of not being able to trust anyone. Robert Harris's book was a terrific read and could hardly be more topical - a British ex-Prime Minister lying low while preparing his memoirs as moves are made to try him for war crimes regarding the war in Iraq.

The publishers have a problem as the first ghost-writer brought in to knock the dull manuscript into shape has been washed up dead off Martha's Vineyard where our PM and his entourage are holed up in the winter off-season. Hack writer Ewan McGregor (a tad too young perhaps?) is brought in and gets the gig and is soon on his way to the deserted USA East Coast. Kim Catterall is Amelia the brisk, rather under-written, aide who welcomes him to the bunker-like retreat as he settles down with the manuscript, which cannot leave the premises. The vistas of the gloomy retreat are nicely done, with the incessant rain and cold, and our hero is about the only guest at the empty Inn - apart from the odd man who asks if he knows Adam Lang (our PM in hiding - Pierce Brosnan is just right here with that mix of arrogance and bluff).

Slowly our un-named ghost begins to find out about what happened to his predecessor as his fears grow for his own safety. Where does the Prime Minister's wife Ruth fit into all this - Olivia Williams is also perfectly judged here ... showing the bitterness of the wife in exile, whose husband seems to be closer to his aide Amelia (Catterall). Out cycling in the rain the ghost comes across the old guy who insists the body could not have been washed up where it was found - this is a few minutes cameo by Eli Wallach, now in his 90s (in movies since the mid-50s, with memories of his Guido in THE MISFITS for one) its great to see him here, even if briefly. On using the car last used by his predecessor its satnav delivers him to that house deep in the woods with the unwelcoming professor Emmett (Tom Wilkinson, also splendid as ever). Minor quibbles here are surely that everything used by the previous ghost would have been removed by Lang's security, and can one really Google information about operatives of the CIA?

While Lang and his aides are away the ghost and the PM's wife tentatively get closer, but then the tension racks up with our ghost being tailed from the professor's house (just as his predecessor was) but Ewan is cleverer and manages to get off the ferry giving his followers the slip ... then Lang returns as events come to a head. Back in London the manuscript is now successfully published as Amelia invites the ghost to the opening and a chance remark of hers leads him to the secret contained in the manuscript. This is nicely handled in the book as the ghostwriter realises he must flee and go into hiding, but the ending seems rather rushed here - it seems improbable that a car would be waiting for him so quickly ... but the last image of the pages of the manuscript blowing away in the wind is perfectly apt, and its CHINATOWN all over again.

Polanski (I passed him in Sloane Square, Chelsea once back in the late '60s) now in his mid-70s is at the top of his form here, and no matter what else, he is one director actors will want to work with. [I still rewatch his delightful 1967 spoof DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES and of course REPULSION, CUL-SE-SAC and CHINATOWN are essential]. He assembles a terrific team here, it was filmed in Germany I believe fitting in nicely for the East Coast USA, but surely it looks under-populated - often there is nobody else around on those deserted roads and towns; but as a film it is leagues better than those tedious, boring, uninvolving so-called thrillers like MICHAEL CLAYTON which I had enough of after 40 minutes!

Robert Harris was one of prime minister Tony Blair's inner circle until leaving over the Iraq question, so he writes with knowledge of the workings of British politics, and its amusing to see the Langs as the Blairs. The book is a terrific read - literally unputdownable - and the film does it justice. The cast is just right, particularly Olivia Williams. Highly recommended then. Polanski was also involved in setting up a film of a previous highly readable Harris novel POMPEII, pity that did not just became a mini-series, it would have been fascinating seeing what Roman did with it. I have been keeping Harris' new highly praised novel LUSTRUM (more intrigue in Ancient Rome) as a holiday read but I don't think I can wait that long now...

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Bob Willoughby - The Hollywood Special

I only found out yesterday that Bob Willoughby, that stills photographer who snapped all the greats during the '50s and '60s died in 2009 aged 82, so I am taking a moment to celebrate a great career and life. His book "The Hollywood Special" published in 1992 is one of the better collections and recollections of that great era of photo-journalism, of magazines like LOOK and LIFE, when one had the likes of Magnum photographer Eve Arnold covering the shooting of THE MISFITS and the like, as the demand grew for candid photos of the stars on location. Willoughby seems to have been on the set of all the major movies of the '50s and into the '60s and forged friendships particularly with Audrey Hepburn (he has a separate book on her), Monroe, Taylor, Dean et al. (Eve Arnold too has published a book on her Monroe pictures, and a great book of her studio photographs and memories, FILM JOURNAL - more on that one later).

Willoughby's book has stunning pictures of James Dean, Ray, Wood on the set of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, Marilyn on various films including some iconic images of her, those very '50s photos of Taylor and Clift on location for RAINTREE COUNTY, some good images from BONJOUR TRISTESSE of Vivien Leigh visiting the set, Garland on A STAR IS BORN, Jane Fonda in that sequin dress in KLUTE, and so many others including some perfect Audrey Hepburn images. He captures show people at ease on the set or at that moment of creation. There's Kim Novak, Julie Christie, those pictures of Elvis and Sophia Loren, Bogart, Bacall, Taylor with Dietrich, and others including jazz musicians like Chet Baker. Tony Curtis writes an introduction here and Willoughby was well liked by all those movie people. Like writer Peter Viertel he was one of those mavericks on the Hollywood inside track. After his Hollywood years he moved with his family to a castle in County Cork, Ireland for 17 years, publishing a book on Irish poetry, and ended his days in the South of France. Cheers to a hero of mine then. Right, Bob with MM on NIAGARA.

A second Willoughby book has arrived: HOLLYWOOD, A JOURNEY THROUGH THE STARS being a photographic autobiography by Bob, published in 2001 exanding on his amazing career and travels and his love of Ireland, and detailing those lasting friendships he had with Audrey Hepburn, Jean Seberg, Taylor, Garland etc and covering cultural life since the '50s starting with jazz and studies of the likes of Miles Davis and Billie Holliday, and the young Barbra Streisand. Great pictures too, including the shoot of THE LION IN WINTER with some great Hepburn shots! Some people just have amazing lives: Bob also baby-sitted Dustin Hoffman when Dustin was a kid, as the Willoughbys lived nearby!

Monday, 27 September 2010

Showpeople (4): "first you're another sloe-eyed vamp" ...

Just a trio of those troupers who belted out Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" from "Follies":

Eartha does it her way - I saw Eartha Kitt in a 90's London revivial, she stopped the show every night !

Much as I love Dolores Gray (and I do, check my label on her) she is frankly too old and matronly here, from a Royal Variety Show...

Very surprised by Yvonne De Carlo - the original Carlotta - she is sensational here on a David Frost show - she plays it perfectly and gets the dynamics of the lyrics - wish I had seen her then !

The clips (and probably other versions) are on YouTube.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Showpeople (3): When legends meet ....

Marilyn and Marlene in New York 1955 - if only wise Marlene could have imparted the secret of longevity to MM ...

A decade later Marlene visits the set of WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, as photographed by Bob Willoughby.
Elizabeth and Marlene have so much in common: Michael Wilding, Mike Todd, Eddie Fisher, maybe even Burton ?

Sophia and Claudia know how to ramp up the megawatts at an Armani fashion show ....

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Girls just wanna have fun

BLONDE IN BLACK LEATHER(1975). A mysterious leather-clad figure on a motorcycle rides into a deserted rural village in Italy, to the tune of Riz Ortolani's harmonic-driven score. Its Monica Vitti playing a motor-mouthed liar constantly spinning tales and supposedly travelling to meet her gangster boyfriend. She brushes open the swing doors of a laundry service - cue spaghetti western music for comic effect - to find long-suffering Claudia (Cardinale) covered in sweat from the humid atmosphere with her white overall near transparent in the heat. Monica impresses Claudia with her talk about being a free spirit and before long Claudia too escapes from her dull environment and that boyfriend who gropes her wet body while still reading his porn mag, as the girls speed off on the motorbike.

What follows is a mix of road adventure and send-up/hommage to those popular at the time Terence Hill/Bud Spencer action comedies (how very '70s), with amusing situations for the girls. It all climaxes in pure slapstick (which actually has one reaching for the fast-forward button) in a casino as the girls win big at roulette and beat up the local mafia. It gets rather annoyingly simple-minded at this stage with fantasy sequences (featuring Ninetto Davioli from the Pasolini films), and makes one realise that there is usually a good reason when films made for the local market don't travel abroad. Also, with Vitti and Cardinale [as with most great stars] their distinctive husky voices are part of their allure - here they are dubbed into English with totally wrong different voices!

Carlo Di Palma was a talented cinematographer for Antonioni having photographed RED DESERT and BLOW-UP and for others like Woody Allen (HANNAH AND HER SISTERS etc) but as director here he is completely pedestrian and working from a lazy script. Or maybe I am just not into slapstick... But our heroines are having fun and are still iconic here a decade after ground-breaking '60s roles for mentors like Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni. Maybe after all those dramas they needed to work on their comedy side and both gals are still the business. There is a delicious moment for devotees of black leather where Monica gets her leather outfit cleaned and buffed, while she is still wearing it, to her evident satisfaction; and Claudia sizzles in that damp uniform... Produced by Franco Cristaldi.

Their joint billing is rather nicely solved:

and what is it with photographer/directors and blondes in leather? Jack Cardiff also had a go with Marianne Faithfull and Alain Delon in his more dramatic '68 GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE ...

Friday, 24 September 2010

Claudia !

Claudia - "the most beautiful girl in Tunis" - hit the movies in 1959 and by the early '60s was the latest sensation, hot on the heels of Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida, as Visconti and Fellini (both at the same time!) had her as the muse of their latest art house hits: THE LEOPARD and FELLINI 8 1/2, making her, like Romy Schneider and Anouk Aimee, a prestige actress and (as photo left) the zenith of glamour. Then she was Princess Dalah in THE PINK PANTHER in '63 after those cult movies like Zurlini's GIRL WITH A SUITCASE and SENILITA, and this 1964 unseen (until now) rarity:

TIME OF INDIFFERENCE an Italian drama (but with mostly American players) based on a Moravia novel features Cardinale at her most beautiful in the '20s setting with great hair and costumes, she gets to pout a lot and her husky voice is great. Its the tale of a wealthy family falling on hard times and being taken over by an unscrupulous businessman, Rod Steiger, who after making the mother (Paulette Goddard in probably her last appearance) his mistress now wants daugher Claudia for himself. Thomas Milian (that Cuban actor who did lots of Italian films) is the son getting involved with family friend Shelley Winters who wants him for her gigolo. The son and daughter are too indolent and indifferent to try to change things and just settle for going along with what Steiger and Shelley want of them; even an attempt to kill Steiger is half-hearted. Goddard is wonderful here and reminds one a lot of Swanson as Norma Desmond. The director Francesco Maselli is unknown to me, but the other credits are satisfyingly familiar: producer Franco Cristaldi [her husband at the time], writer Suso Cecchi D'Amico, photographer Gianni di Venanzo and composer Giovanni Fusco. I was surprised that I liked it a lot.

Then westerns like THE PROFESSIONALS and ONCE A UPON A TIME IN THE WEST beckoned Claudia kept working (often for Cristaldi), like in those Italian comedies like LE FATE and BLONDE IN BLACK LEATHER.

I also recently reviewed Visconti's 1965 hit SANDRA - [see Cardinale or Visconti label], with Claudia at her zenith, here's how it looks:

Another chance to run THE LEOPARD poster - there is a great interview with Claudia (maybe 8 years ago) on the BFI dvd where she talks about the film and looks and sounds - the voice is even huskier - as sensational as ever.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Monica Vitti - art-house comedienne (2) - Deserto Rosso

I have blogged about Monica and Claudia a few times before, but before I get on to reviewing Monica AND Claudia in a 1975 Italian domestic comedy BLONDE IN BLACK LEATHER, here are a few more comments on each of them, particularly Monica in the Antonioni 1964 DESERTO ROSSO - THE RED DESERT which is a unique film in Antonioni's career, as well as a high point of experimentation in modern cinema, coming as it does after that early '60s trilogy of L'AVVENTURA, LA NOTTE and L'ECLISSE and then followed by that trio for MGM. It was also Antonioni's first film in colour and it remains one of the most remarkable colour films ever made - grass, trees, a street and the fruit on a street-seller's barrow are all painted to change their natural appearance, just as in the following BLOW-UP, also shot by Carlo De Palma (who directs BLONDE IN BLACK LEATHER...)
RED DESERT is of course set in that industrial landscape of oil refineries and chemical plants around Ravenna which are affecting Giuliana's state of mind leading to her anxiety disorder. We have shots taken taken out of focus to create abstract blotches of colour, or through a telefoto lens to flatten figures onto coloured backgrounds, as Giuliana and Corrado (a very uncomfortable blank Richard Harris) conduct their affair, as Giuliana copes with her unfeeling husband and young child. Harris is the big flaw in the film, it seems he did not get on with Antonioni and left the picture before the end. Vitti looks striking with red hair and its a terrific performance. After finally seeing IL GRIDO recently (as per review) I am now looking forward to seeing LE AMICHE again, it must have been back in the '60s I saw it!

Its a fascinating film to see again now, since I saw it first at that old Academy Cinema in Oxford Street London in 1964 when I was 18. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1964. Antonioni would not film again in Italy until 1980 after his ventures in London (BLOW-UP), America (ZABRISKIE POINT) and all over Europe (THE PASSENGER) and in China too. A decade later photographer Carlo De Palma turned to directing with Vitti and Cardinale together having fun. That's coming up next ....

and, why not?, another excuse to show a still from L'ECLISSE:

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

People we Like: Vittoria De Sica

Vittorio De Sica [1901-1974] was of course, along with Roberto Rossellini, one of the greats of Italian cinema, from the neo-realism of the '40s through to the glory days of the '60s and '70s. He was a matinee idol in the '30s and then turned to directing, with THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US, showing an extraordinarily sensitive touch with non-actors, especially children. It was also the first film he made with the writer Cesare Zavattini with whom he would subsequently make SHOESHINE (1946) and BICYCLE THIEVES (1948), heartbreaking studies of poverty in postwar Italy which won special Oscars before the foreign film category was officially established. UMBERTO D in '52 is a very downbeat look at old age - proud stubborn Umberto facing poverty and homelessness and his little dog Flick will break your heart, like those closing scenes in BICYCLE THIEVES.

TWO WOMEN is by comparison lighter fare and was a huge international hit in 1960 just as interest in European cinema was taking off, and making Sophia Loren (here at 25 playing the mother of a 14 year old) an even bigger star than she was in her American films. Loren and De Sica could have written their own ticket after that - she got the Best Actress Oscar in 1961, a year of 5 great nominees - but they chose the little seen THE CONDEMNED OF ALTONA from the Sartre play. I finally caught up with that last year!

Then followed those '60s hits with Loren and Mastroianni: YESTERDAY TODAY AND TOMORROW, the Naples section with the endlessly pregnant Loren is the best segment here, and - my favourite - MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE from the great Italian play FILUMENA. BOCCACCIO 70 was an amusing quartet of stories in 62, again with Loren, the other episodes were by Fellini and Visconti, the Monicelli segment being cut out from the original release but is now on the dvd. SUNFLOWER made partly in Russia was a misfire, being wildly old fashioned in 1970, as was A PLACE FOR LOVERS with Dunaway and Mastroianni in '69. Vittorio had a last great success (and another Oscar) with THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI CONTINIS from the Bassani novel, in 1971. His last few though went unreleased here in the UK: A BRIEF VACATION with Florinda Bolkan as a working class woman who is sent to a sanitarium for a cure which changes her life, was only shown on BBC television, and we never saw THE VOYAGE a less than successful final film with Loren (and Burton) until its recent dvd release! It comes across now as an old man's farewell to life and the cinema...

Vittorio though was a larger than life character - he gambled incessantly and apparantly had two families. Like the rather similar larger than life John Huston he acted in other director's films (over 100 actually), maybe to finance his gambling - in classics like Ophuls' MADAME DE... in '53, and IL GENERAL DELLA ROVERE in '59, he is fun with Angela Lansbury as impoverished aristocrats in the merry romp THE AMOROUS ADVENTURES OF MOLL FLANDERS in '65, he pops up in Sophia's THE MILLIONAIRESS as the sweatshop factory owner, and he is her lawyer in the delightful IT STARTED IN NAPLES with Gable. He co-stars with Dietrich in the '57 romance THE MONTE CARLO STORY, and with Gloria Swanson and the young Bardot in the '56 NERO's LOST WEEKEND which is an interesting curio to see now, as well as popular movies of the time like SCANDAL IN SORRENTO and those BREAD LOVE AND ... with Lollobrigida and GOLD OF NAPLES . He is terrific with the young Loren and Mastroianni in 1954's TOO BAD SHE'S BAD as the father of the family of criminals - this was a major treat for me to discover last year! His final role was as the father of those daughters in the Warhol BLOOD FOR DRACULA in '74. There is an interesting documentary on him in the recent BICYCLE THIEVES dvd release showing him at his busiest in the early '60s. Its always a pleasure seeing Vittorio (often hamming it up) in any film and I really should catch up with his directing efforts I have missed.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The magical movies of Jacques Demy

French director Jacques Demy [1931-1990] who had some very popular successes during the 60s but, while remaining popular in France, somehow seemed to slip off the radar here in the UK (and maybe elsewhere) as several of his later films never surfaced here at all, while the likes of Truffaut, Malle, Chabrol etc continued to be lionised. (One could say the same for another French director Claude Lelouch). The early films include 2 New Wave classics in glittering monochrome, 2 candy-coloured musicals, 2 fairy tales and a counterculture late 60s classic with great roles for the likes of Aimee, Moreau, Deneuve, Dorleac, Seyrig etc. and of course those sailors in white ...

His first movie in 1961 is the beauty that is LOLA, Jacques Demy’s valentine to the movies with Anouk Aimee at her most vibrant and animated in perhaps the most likeable film of the French new wave. Demy’s magical story shows that one person's happy ending is often another's missed possibility of happiness. Raoul Coutard's lovingly shot black and white widescreen photography of the French atlantic port of Nantes is a plus, as Lola sings and dances and waits for her lover to return, in what was a key movie for both Demy and Aimee.

BAY OF ANGELS – this 1963 drama is a perfect companion piece to his LOLA - making two of the most enjoyable, accessible New Wave classics. Here the images of Jean Rabier, Michel Legrand's music, Jeanne Moreau at her most magnetic with silver blonde hair and a Cardin wardrobe (all in black and white), all wrapped up in 79 minutes in the story of compulsive gamblers in Nice and Monte Carlo whom it seems Demy observes for a time. The film ends with them continuing their gambling - will they stay together? we don't know.... Moreau is at her peak here as the woman for whom gambling is everything having lost her husband, child, jewellery etc. Claude Mann is the rather dull bank clerk who gets the gambling urge (Paul Guers as his gambling friend Caron would be more interesting and attractive in this role) and he and Moreau are soon a team as he brings her luck but he is falling in love... There is the astonishing scene where Moreau reveals what gambling means to her and how money means nothing, as they win, lose, win again ... Moreau didn't care for the "French Bette Davis" tag but it rather applies here. I love the look of this one and the previous LOLA: that widescreen black and white and the lovely theme by Legrand. A French classic indeed.

Then in 1964 his biggest commercial success and still often revived today, the candy-coloured musical THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, which is entirely sung by the cast, music by Michel Legrand, and it is just sheer perfection. The young Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo as the lovers separated by the war, and that marvellous bittersweet climax at the garage in the snow. The colour and backgrounds are now even better than ever on dvd.

There followed his second musical in 1967, THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT which was bliss to see again recently, to see it in colour and widescreen is magical. It is another all singing musical with great colour and sets – the whole town of Rochefort seems to be dancing at one stage. The sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac star, with hoofers an older Gene Kelly, George Chakiris and a blonde Jacques Perrin as a lovelorn sailor. It all works perfectly now and I urge anyone who has not seen it to seek it out on dvd, as it is not as well known as the more famous Cherbourg film, it is in fact a perfect 60s film, which I have written about here several times already.

I saw his 1969 film THE MODEL SHOP on release but it had vanished until now and was not appreciated at the time. This made in America film is a love letter to Los Angeles and the lost souls driving the freeways. Anouk Aimee is again Lola here adrift in Los Angeles working as a glamour model to be photographed in a rather seedy studio (it would of course be a sex shop now) and who gets involved with drifter Gary Lockwood waiting to be shipped off to Vietnam. Its a perfect late 60s L A film

The fascinating thing about this film is that Demy and his wife director Agnes Varda had wanted the young Harrison Ford for this role but he was not considered important enough, whereas the rather dull Lockwood had just come off shooting Kubrick’s 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY.

Next up are two fairy tales, unseen here maybe but big hits in Europe at the time. PEAU D’ANE (DONKEY SKIN) is a perfect 1970 visualisation of the Perrault fairy tale, with Deneuve as the princess who dresses in the donkey skin to escape her father who wants to marry her. Jean Marais is the King, Jacques Perrin the prince and Delphine Seyrig shines as a rather eccentric fairy godmother. It’s a great pleasure to see now.

1972’s THE PIED PIPER is finally on dvd and scenes from it are available in the film THE WORLD OF JACQUES DEMY, a film made by his wife, director Agnes Varda. Pop singer of the time Donovan is the piper and it has a good cast of English regulars including Donald Pleasance and Diana Dors, and it has a nice medieval feel set in Hamelin where rats and plague reign.

His following films do not appear to have been screened in the UK at all and include 1973’s THE SLIGHTLY PREGNANT MAN with Mastroianni and Deneuve (where it is he who is pregnant…), 1979’s LADY OSCAR, UN CHAMBRE EN VILLE (A Room In Town) in 1982 [Dominique Sanda naked under a fur coat!] or 3 PLACES FOR THE 26TH starring Yves Montand in one of his last roles as an older singer/entertainer returning to his home town for a concert.

Agnes Varda, Demy’s wife, is of course a well-regarded director in her own right with films like CLEO FROM 5 TO 7 (reviewed separately here) and LE BONHEUR. I am very pleased to have her 90 minute film THE WORLD OF JACQUES DEMY included in the 2 disk version of UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and what a delight it is, covering all these films which star the cream of French cinema who all appear here discussing their work with Demy and how much they appreciated him, as well as contributions from Varda and their son. It is now fascinating to see their footage of the very young Harrison Ford in the late 60s, he is also interviewed here as the star he later became.

Varda also made a film herself JACQUET DE NANTES about the childhood of Jacques in Nantes in France, including reference to and scenes from his films, which is also available in the box sets on her films. Her documentary on the making of LES DEMOISELLES and its 25th anniversary reunion is included in it's BFI dvd release.

In all, Jacques Demy would appear to be as well regarded and loved as Francois Truffaut or Louis Malle and for anyone with the least interest in international or European cinema his films are not only wonderfully entertaining in themselves but also key works of the last 40 years.