Christopher Howse has written a hilariously cranky, quintessentially British indictment of “Poet’s Corner” in Westminster Abbey. There, the humble great lie forever next to the mediocre, many of whom had crass, fame-seeking survivors. Although in truth, they don’t even all lie there as some of the slabs are just memorials to people buried in whole or in part elsewhere.
And while I am on the subject, do you know who is not buried in Westminster Abbey? Lawrence of Arabia. David Lean’s magnificent movie about Lawrence opens at a majestic funeral service after which people debate whether Lawrence really deserved “a place in here”. This must account for why every year tourists come to the Westminster Abbey to see his grave.
Unfortunately for said tourists, the film is portraying St. Paul’s rather than Westminster Abbey, and even there one finds only a bust of the man. His body lies in Dorset.
This star vehicle for Peter O’Toole (playing a drunken, rakish movie star reminiscent of Peter O’Toole) delivers big laughs as well as some acute observations on the nature of fame. The movie also opens a window into the world of 1950s live television comedy and the people who made it happen.
The supporting cast is filled with wily veterans who know how to get the most laughs out of the material. Bill Macy is perfect as the beleaguered head writer, and Joseph Bologna is almost as good as a Sid Caesaresque television star. Another treat: In the sweet scene in which O’Toole dances with an older woman on her wedding anniversary, the role is played by 1930s film star Gloria Stuart (two of her best are Prisoner of Shark Island and The Old Dark House).
This was Richard Benjamin’s first time out as a director, and it shows a bit. The tone and style of the film are not as consistent as what he would achieve in his films as he became more experienced. The script, while funny most of the time, also includes some weak gags and slow spots. Can one extremely charming star leap over such weaknesses in a single bound and keep the audience laughing and cheering? In O’Toole’s case, the answer is clearly yes.
Actors are called upon to do a wide range of accents, which is more challenging than many people appreciate. Even a highly skilled actor such as Tom Hanks can drop an adopted accent amidst the demands of playing a complex scene (see, e.g., his intermittent Bostonian voicing in Catch Me if You Can). Other actors do an accent so poorly that you pray they will drop it so that you never have to hear it again (e.g., Kevin Costner’s English accent in Robin Hood).
One of the best accents I have heard in recent years was Matt Damon’s masterful take on a white South African’s voicing in Invictus. Ever behind on movies, I only saw True Grit last night, on the plane home from London. Damon pulled off a dead-on impression of a man with a serious tongue injury. I have worked with patients with such wounds, and to my ear he was simply spot-on. Bravo.
Over the past year I have been working as the executive producer of an independent art film, and in that capacity was looking yesterday at some of the great raw footage the director had shot. The boom microphone was visible at the top of many of the shots, which reminded me of an unpleasant college experience.
I organized the classic film series for my university, which competed fairly unsuccessfully for audience with the latest blockbusters. In an attempt to boost interest, we asked the university newspaper’s film critic to watch our next planned film in advance. We set everything up in a small office and ran the film for the critic on a regular 16mm projector using a pop-up screen such as exists in countless class rooms around the country. In his published review, the critic mocked at length the fact that he could see the boom mike in many of the shots, which he cited as proof that the movies we showed were poorly made. The review drove our normally sparse attendance down to even more dispiriting level: Me and the projectionist.
The university critic’s gripe was a common one. Similar snark is unleashed by made many film goers today, usually accompanied by some smug commentary about how those fools in Hollywood can spend $100 million on a movie and still apparently not know how to keep the microphone out of the shot.
But it’s all utter nonsense. When you make a movie you shoot a broader shot than you intend the audience to see. If you project raw film (i.e., the day’s rushes) onto a pop-up screen 10 feet away, you will see all the unneeded “edge material” but you know to ignore it (unless you are a dopey university newspaper film critic). When the film is shown in theaters, the print goes out to venues that have widely varying screen sizes, framings, throws and cameras. The job of the projectionist is to make the film look good keeping those variables in mind. When you seem the boom mike at the top of your local movie screen, it generally means the projectionist, not the film maker, has screwed up by showing the audience something that should be off-screen.
Mann cut his teeth on film noir and carried that sensibility over to the Western genre. He found the perfect crossover star for his efforts in Jimmy Stewart. Stewart was known for his decency, kindness and All-American wholesomeness in films such as Harvey and Destry Rides Again, but Mann was one of few directors (Hitchcock being the other) who appreciated how much rage, grief and darkness Stewart could call up on screen. Glimmers of this ability are evident as early in his career as It’s a Wonderful Life (A frequently bitter and dark film now mis-recalled as a light bit of Christmas fluff), but it came to full flower after his service in World War II when his career was on shaky ground and Mann came to the rescue.
In Winchester ’73, when Stewart’s grief-ridden character (Lin McAdam) mashes Dan Duryea’s face into the bar and painfully twists Duryea’s gun arm, the rage in Stewart’s eyes is frightening; Duryea looks scared that Stewart is really going to hurt him. The Naked Spur features another psychologically damaged Stewart character who cannot accept that what is lost is lost forever, no matter how much vengeance you take. With able assistance from Mann and two other noir icons (Ralph Meeker of Kiss Me Deadly and Robert Ryan of the Set-Up), Stewart delivers a cowboy movie with psychic weight. The mix of emotions with which you leave the theater is reminiscent of those evoked by Client Eastwood’s Academy Award-winning Unforgiven (A long-standing admirer of Stewart, as he describes here).
If you live in New York City, do yourself a favor and see this great film on the big screen when it plays at the film forum. Otherwise, remember that The Naked Spur is one of the reasons that God gave us Netflix.
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