Showing posts with label Richard Lester. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Richard Lester. Show all posts

13 June 2018

Guilty Secrets

David Edgerley Gates


I was invited by my Santa Fe pal Johnny D. Boggs, a terrific Western writer, to post a list of ten favorite movies on Facebook, one a day, in ascending order from #10 to #1, with the title and an original theatrical poster, if possible, but without explaining the choices. Every day, nominate somebody else to follow your lead. Sort of like a movie fan chain letter.

Now, this is a serious responsibility - no irony intended. For example, Johnny's choice for his Number 7 was The Grapes of Wrath, and he attached my name to it. (When we got to his Number 1, it was The Searchers.) My point being that you couldn't risk being frivolous. I had to really think about it. My first instinct was to follow Johnny's lead, and do Classics, my personal Ten Best list. The Wild Bunch, Seven Samurai, Letter From an Unknown Woman. But then I thought, No, wait. Why not Guilty Secrets? What if the criteria were, you're sitting down to dinner, you're gonna watch a movie, and saying you had the DVD on your shelf, or you could stream it live, which pictures would be your defaults? Any night, or every night?

So here's the list, which is utterly arbitrary. The only unifying conceit is that I've watched these movies over and over, and would again, tonight or any other night.

[NOTE: I put these upon Facebook without explanation, per the rules. I've added my own little cheats.]


Red Dawn (1984)
Ridiculous, knuckle-dragging claptrap, of the highest order. Then again, if you stop for a minute and consider that Milius meant it as a metaphor for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Wolverines as mujahideen, it actually makes sense. Ravishingly shot, in New Mexico locations, by Ric Waite. Powers Boothe steals the movie.


Juggernaut (1974)
It's been suggested that we're fascinated by the nuts and bolts of how to do things. Heist pictures, Rififi, or here, an ocean liner in the mid-Atlantic wired with high explosive, the bomb disposal team parachuting in, the clock winding down. Dick Lester directed. Enough star power to sink the Poseidon. Clifton James and Roy Kinnear blow them all out of the water.


The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The opening shot, as the credits fade. The camera dollies down, past the snowbound railway platform, and then a car drifts by, at ground level. You can almost see the string pulling it along. The fact that the entire scene is a model only ingratiates it to me. It's an innocent artifice, an invitation. When you catch sight of Charters and Caldicott in the waiting room, you can't help but smile in anticipation. You fall into the familiar rhythms.


In Harm's Way (1965)
Enormous, clunky, overwrought. All of the above. It gets a terrific, muscular punch from Wayne, who delivers a thoughtful, considered character that the other people in the movie seem to think is easy to read. The dramatic mechanics of the picture are pure Preminger, the formal checks and balances, but Wayne demonstrates a gravity of purpose that subverts it. You're all too aware of the labor involved, the engines and devices, the undertaking itself. Wayne doesn't struggle to be convincing. he gives his guy weight, without ever being ponderous.


The Train (1964)
Frankenheimer. What else do I need to say? The disorienting montage of Manchurian Candidate, the pulled focus of Seven Days in May. An integrated technique in this picture. The inertial, iron force of the locomotives. The fact that there's no CGI (oh, and Burt Lancaster does his own stunts). The truly amazing dolly shots, Labiche crossing the freight yards to the boat moored by the canal towpath; the colonel at Wehrmacht headquarters in Paris, the camera finding him in the chaos; the scene with Labiche casting the damaged engine part. I bow to genius.


Charade (1963)
Please. I can't imagine I have to say anything at all.


Two Rode Together (1961)
You knew there was going to be a Ford, right? This is here. of course, because of the scene by the river. "I thought she had something stuck in her teeth." For all its comedy - and 'comedy' isn't really the right word, it's burlesque - Two Rode Together is terrifically dark, much more so than The Searchers, which for all its darkness ends on a note of hope. Two Rode Together is despairing.


The War Lord (1965)
Meditative, although on paper it must have been pitched as a swashbuckler. A guy whose devotion to duty is inflexible throws it all away for love, both carnal and idealized. A very old-fashioned conceit. Terrific art direction. I love the fact that the keep is nothing like the castles in Ivanhoe, say, but a brute stone tower, damp, smoky, the horses stabled below. Guy Stockwell gets all the good lines. Richard Boone's forlorn devotion to Heston commands genuine heartbreak. Haunting score.


The Night of the Generals (1967)
Not much of a mystery, not when the biggest headliner in the cast is twitching like he's got St. Vitus' Dance. but the way they tell the story, the fractured narrative and the unreliable narrators. And the main device, a murder in wartime, where killing is every man's trade. In a movie top-heavy with brand names, the lively presence of Charles Gray in support is like a whiff of ammonia, piercing and astringent, a master class in the pursed lip and the cocked eyebrow. You want supercilious? This is ur-supercilious.


The Duellists (1977)
Ridley Scott's first feature. You're joking, right? Nope. He'd done commercials and TV, but The Duellists is his first movie. People talk about Ridley's eye. The cinematographer on The Duellists is Frank Tidy (and it was his first feature film), but Ridley is his own camera operator - he's the guy looking through the lens. Think about it. The next picture is Alien. Where did this astonishing, feverish, specific gaze come from? It seems to have simply sprung into being, already fully found. The Duellists is hallucinatory, but transparent as glass.

*

Ten runners up.
  The Professionals
  On the Beach
  Night Train to Munich
  Ronin
  Extreme Prejudice
  The Dogs of War
  Rio Bravo
  Midnight Cop
  Hour of the Gun
  Casablanca

28 September 2016

JUGGERNAUT - the Physical Effect

David Edgerley Gates


I think it was the screenwriter William Goldman who said people love seeing how things are done. He meant in particular, how to pull off some dangerous and possibly illegal maneuver. The classic example is RIFIFI, the heist sequence - 30 minutes without dialogue.

JUGGERNAUT is about defusing a set of booby-trapped bombs aboard a cruise ship at sea, and it manages to ratchet the tension up nicely, thank you. Released in 1974, and directed by Richard Lester, the picture headlined Richard Harris and Omar Sharif. It was shot on board an actual ship, in the North Sea, and in bad weather. They used FX for explosions and stuff, but this is before CGI, so the pyrotechnics are happening during the shoot, not after the fact. The first big set piece is the bomb disposal crew, Brit Special Services, parachuting out of an orbiting C-130 Hercules into the open ocean and scrambling up the side of the ship on rope ladders. They lose a guy in the drink. Then our sodden heroes go belowdecks, to try and figure out how not to blow themselves out of the water.

One of the main reasons I like this movie so much is that I tried to do something similar in a story called "Cover of Darkness," which was likewise about saddling up for a dangerous job, but more to the point, the story was about the nuts and bolts. It was carried by physical action, not dialogue, and it was very hard to pull off. A lot of it took place underwater, in scuba gear, so there wasn't any talking. This is the kind of thing movies can do really well, but it's nowhere near as easy to do in narrative prose. You're using the equivalent of movie vocabulary, without anything to break up those long descriptive paragraphs. Somebody hits their thumb with a hammer, you don't even get to hear them curse about it. Trust me, this is work. Rolling the stone away from the door.



Those physical details in JUGGERNAUT, though, are seamless. Close watertight doors. Check. The gears engage, the tumblers lock. Go to infrared. Check. The visible light spectrum shuts down. Isolate the power source. Check. Richard Harris threads an alligator clip carefully past a trembling switch and shorts out the electrical contacts. His team listens in on headsets, and follows the route he maps out, step by step. There are half a dozen devices to disarm, and Harris is breaking trail for the others. If he puts a foot wrong, it's his last mistake.

Now, you had me at cut the red wire. I'm a sucker for all the generic tropes of demolition stories, going back to THE WAGES OF FEAR. But for reasons I don't understand, this picture was a dud at the box office. Maybe it was too cerebral, the suspense generated by things not going off, when any minute they could. And it seems so economical, no wasted motion, no down time, all meat and potatoes.

Then, besides, Richard Harris and Omar Sharif, you've got Anthony Hopkins and David Hemmings, Shirley Knight, Ian Holm, cameos by Freddie Jones and Roshan Seth and Jack Watson, Cyril Cusack and Michael Hordern. And to top it off, two enormously affecting performances by Roy Kinnear and Clifton James, who all too often play caricature. It baffles me, I kid you not. Richard Lester didn't always bring home the bacon, though. HARD DAY'S NIGHT, and HELP, A FUNNY THING and THE THREE MUSKETEERS, and then a truly astonishing, transcendent picture like ROBIN AND MARIAN goes straight in the toilet. You can't account for it, the intangibles.

Dick Lester shooting JUGGERNAUT

This doesn't change the essential thing, which was my starting point. JUGGERNAUT is about the accumulation of small incident, the trembling switch, the red wire, the single detail. Skip one little piece of the puzzle, and you're a smear of atomized remains on the bulkhead. That's existential, all right. No room for conversation.

I admire how coherent JUGGERNAUT is. It takes a technical problem, and lays out its component parts. Whether it's in fact
Clifton James
presenting an accurate picture is beside the point. You buy into it completely, at least for the duration. I understand that there are always going to be hardware guys, like me, who look for solution to target. And then there are people who look through or beyond the schematic, to the emotional context. As it happens, I think JUGGERNAUT has that, too. Clifton James, confessing his infidelity to his wife. Shirley Knight, after Omar Sharif throws her under the bus. And again, Roy Kinnear, who shows such grace, and a touching largeness of heart.


But let's be honest. Even though the characters are terrific, the picture isn't character-driven. It's compelling because it takes you through a process, and it's all of a piece. The clock just keeps ticking.