Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Surprisingly good acting: Oscar Wilde, The Nun's Story, Man Hunt, Ride the High Country, The Moon and Sixpence

I watched The Nun's Story (1959) last night. I was expecting it to be mawkish and sentimental, awash with heavenly choirs and phony piety, and I doubted I'd get through 150 minutes of it without a lot of fast-forwarding. But I watched every damned minute of it - and loved every damn minute of it. I was expecting Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans, Peter Finch and Dean Jagger to be good - which they all were - but I doubted whether Audrey Hepburn could carry that much weight on her delicate shoulders. She smashed it for six. The fact that her ethereal, almost asexual, angelic beauty was actually enhanced by her nun's cowl helped - but in the end it was her ability to convey Sister Luke's continual struggle with the vow of obedience that made the film work (that, and Fred Zinnemann's masterly, unflashy, tasteful direction). Here's the official trailer:

I'd always viewed Audrey Hepburn as a beautiful, elfin creature who the camera loved - but, given the right part and the right director, she could really act. Similarly, I've always treated Robert Morley as a bit of a fruity joke, but having recently seen him as Charles James Fox in Young Mr. Pitt, and, last week, as Oscar Wilde in the 1960 film of that name, I have to admit that the fat man could do the business.

Oscar Wilde was overshadowed at the time of its release by the same year's far more lavishly appointed The Trials of Oscar Wilde, starring Peter Finch, with Lionel Jeffries offering his entertaining, over-the-top portrayal of Bosie's dad, the demented Marquess of Queensbury, as some sort of aristocratic gangster.  I've always enjoyed The Trials, but Oscar Wilde is the better film, mainly because Morley is a far more convincing Wilde (Finch was too slim and handsome), Wilde's relationship with the appalling Lord Alfred Douglas is more believable, Edward Chapman (Mr. Grimsdale of Norman Wisdom fame) is less of a pantomime villain Queensbury - and Ralph Richardson does an absolutely superb turn as Sir Edward Carson, the barrister who utterly destroys Wilde in court. The whole film is available on YouTube:

Commenter SDG recently recommended Ride the High Country (1962) on this blog. I followed his advice and watched it last week on TCM. It's a Sam Peckinpah western, set in the early years of the 20th Century, when old cowboys like Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott are finding it hard to earn a living. Scott has been reduced to passing himself off as a legendary gunslinger, and McCrea takes a job transporting a shipment of gold from a mine high in the mountains back to town through bandit country. McCrea hires his old chum Randy and Randy's young sidekick to help him - little realising that Scott intends stealing the gold, with or without his help. 
It's not a comedy, but there's humour in it, mainly derived from its underlying strain of affectionate parody. It's elegiac, but it doesn't lapse into rank sentimentality. There's violence, but not too much - this was well before Peckinpah had developed his addiction to slow-motion gorefests (and, in any case, he'd never have got away with that stuff in 1962). The widescreen, colour cinematography and the mountain landscapes are simply stunning. Joel McCrea is splendid as the honest, upstanding cowboy upholding the defunct Code of the West -  but, then, he was a greatly under-rated screen actor. It's Randolph Scott - old Stone-Face himself - who's the real surprise, evidently having a whale of a time in his last film (he was a canny businessman, and retired to enjoy his wealth) playing a once-decent man made bitter by a modern world that has little use for him. Very highly recommended. Here's the trailer:

I put off watching Fritz Lang's Man Hunt, a 1941 film version of Geoffrey Household's book, Rogue Male, about a British big-game hunter who stumbles upon Hitler's mountain retreat, and is tempted to  assassinate the swine, only to be disturbed and arrested as he lines up the shot. I'd assumed Walter Pigeon would be too middle-aged and dozy to turn in a convincing performance as the virile, impulsive hunter - but, while the film would undoubtedly have benefitted from a younger star with a less cardigan-wearing, pipe-smoking image, Pigeon is actually pretty convincing. Here's the whole film:

The German officer who interrogates and subsequently pursues Walter Pigeon is played by George Sanders, who forsook his lounge-lizard persona - although not an iota of his habitual heartlessness - to play Charles Strickland in the the 1942 version of Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence, a novel very loosely based on the life of Paul Gaugin. 

Strickland is a dull London stockbroker who suddenly ups and deserts his wife and children to become a cruel, starving, sociopathic painter in, first, Paris, then Tahiti, where *SPOILER ALERT* he creates a savage masterpiece on the walls of his rickety dwelling, which - carrying out his instructions - his beautiful native wife (whom he genuinely loves) puts to the torch after he succumbs to leprosy. It's not a great film, but it's certainly watchable. The ever-dependable Herbert Marshall is the Somerset Maugham figure who, despising Strickland's character but appreciating his genius, flits in and out of the artist's sordid, chaotic life at intervals. But it's Sanders who surprises: his success at conveying Strickland's wildness, viciousness and obsessiveness makes the character believable (which is more than Maugham managed to do). I was already a George Sanders fan - but I'm an even greater one now. The full  film's available on YouTube (albeit with Spanish - or something along those lines - subtitles):


  1. Your film posts - part of a larger agenda perhaps - have given a refreshing rethink on those (mostly British) films one used to forlornly watch on TV after Sunday lunch in the late sixties.
    Given the extraordinary amount of British talent available what happened to the British Film Industry?
    Money of course and a tiny bit of naivety regarding the dare one say it, bottom line.
    The Hill for example, despite critical acclaim and Connery still numero uno at the US Box Office 'failed' due to a poor sound track! And... possibly a bit of incomprehensible, at least to the American ear, military slang.

    1. I suspect The Hill was too arty and intense to ever be a big mainstream hit, and I'm not sure it was intended to be. Sidney Lumet, the director, and Sean Connery teamed up again in 1972 to make "The Offence", with Connery as a British police detective driven mad by the horrors he'd seen, and Ian Bannen as a suspected child rapist, whom Connery ends up killing. It was so bleak and depressing, it made The Hill look like Carry On Sergeant! It failed at the box office as well, but, again, I'm not sure anyone involved imagined it wouldn't.

      Your question about the British film industry's a good one - and I don't know what the answer is, apart from television siphoning off audiences and talent, changes in government policy regarding tax incentives for movie companies, and just too many crappy films swamping the occasional gems.

  2. "Alongside "The Hill" you can place Jack Gold's "The Bofors Gun" [1968]. A wonderful British film with a very talented cast [Nicol Williamson, John Thaw, Ian Holm, Peter Vaughan etc],but which has disappeared. The same goes for another Gold film "The Reckoning" [1970]. Again featuring Williamson it was a precursor to "Get Carter" which was made two years later and which had an almost identical plot.

    I would venture that it was superior to "Get Carter", but I don't want to be shouted at. Again, it disappeared almost immediately as did John Osborne's "Inadmissable Evidence" [1968] with Nicol Williamson chewing up the scenery.

    It is said in some quarters that the British film industry started coming apart after "Get Carter", the death of Sir Carol Reed after "Oliver" and the Great Sulk by David Lean for 15-years after the critics mauled "Ryan's Daughter". Whatever the reason, the British made stunning films at one stage. I think Simon Heffer wrote a book on the subject which I have not read."

    1. I know Heffer writes very well about British films in one of Telegraph supplements - but I'm not sure he's produced a book on the subject: I'll certainly read it, if he had!

      Underrated, Nicol Williamson - very interesting actor, and I agree about the three films you mention (although I still prefer Get Carter).

  3. No, you are right. Heffer has not produced a book on British films although he has written articles and made radio and TV programmes on the subject over the years.

    The best article he wrote was a review of the book on which "Kind Hearts and Coronets [1949] was based - "Israel Rank" by Roy Horniman [1907]. See The Spectator 12 Dec 2008.'

    From 2010 to 2017 he made a series of essays for Radio 3 under themes like the "The Golden Age" and "Kitchen Sink" and in January 2013 a 60-minute documentary for BBC4 called "Fifties British War Films: Days of Glory."

    As anyone who produces a documentary series for the BBC seems automatically to get a book deal I assumed Heffer had a book out. So Solly, Mistah Gorightly [Oh God, what have I done...!].

    1. I suspect Police Scotland are on their way to caution you regarding that allusion to Breakfast at Tiffany's. I expect you'll be sentenced to a month at a maximum security political re-education camp on some particularly bleak island - a sort of cultural Marxist "short, sharp shock". It's the least you deserve.

  4. Connery was a bit of a one off and full credit to him for getting out of Bondage and showing the world he could play other parts. He could have been as rich as Croesus if he had stayed put and negotiated a better percentage of 007.
    However aside from Connery I would say that actors and directors of all people would be over the moon if box office receipts went through the roof despite what they say about their 'art.'
    Maybe this is the problem with British Films.

    1. I suspect the real problem is that most British film-makers end up making movies to impress their like-minded chums in the industry rather than the general public (Alan Parker and David Putnam, who both tried to make popular movies, are good on this point). The same thing can be seen at work in Hollywood, where box receipts have been plummeting for years: films espousing traditional conservative values almost invariably do well, but the film industry is reluctant to produce them because they're not acceptable in a town wholly run by leftists. Same when it comes the material being produced for Netflix and Amazon - I subscribe to both, and the vast mass of new drama series are saturated with left-liberal propaganda. Over here, where the film industry no longer matters, broadcasters spread socialist poison - in the US, it's the broadcasters, the internet giants AND the film industry. The one heartening aspect to all this is that, as Britain has a Conservative government and Donald Trump is the US president, the relentless entertainment industry propaganda doesn't appear to be all that effective.

    2. "Over here, where the film industry no longer matters, broadcasters spread socialist poison."

      I decided to have a look at the BBC/Hopkins version of "King Lear" on the iPlayer. My heart sank when it was immediately apparent that it was "modern-setting". Then Gloucester [Jim Broadbent] appeared with his son Edmund who is a black actor who speaks like footballer Ian Wright. Then Cordelia's suitors, The Duke of Burgundy and the King of France, appear and they are also played by black actors [one dressed in the national costume of some African nation, the other as a modern British Field Marshal].Then Hopkins started shouting a lot and parading his rag-bag of acting tics and then...I switched off before the end of Act 1. I thought about the Paul Schofield film version which was superb.

      Then I noticed a production of "Julius Caesar" scheduled on BBC4 for Sunday 17th June featuring an all-female cast. Brutus is played by the ubiquitous Harriet Walter and Antony by a black actress called Jade Anouka. It is set in a modern prison for women and the assassins all wear blood-red Marigold rubber gloves apparently. Promises to be real treat.

      I wonder if Ibsen, Strindberg and Chekov are treated with the same cavalier disdain in their own lands. Go on Sir Lenworth, show them the way. How about an all-black take on "Masterbuilder" or a gay version of "Brand" -without the jokes, obviously?

    3. I'm surprised no one has yet thought of casting Lenny Henry as Lady Macbeth and Imelda Staunton as Macbeth.

      The infuriating thing about all this is the way directors piously justify their nonsense by claiming it makes the classics more "accessible", when the truth is that they're merely seeking the approbation of fellow entertainment industry insiders (and hoping to pick up a few awards into the bargain). Is there any evidence that shifting "As You Like It" from the Forest of Arden to, say, a Parisian banlieue, and casting Sophie Okonedo as Orlando would have the residents of London's sink estates fighting for tickets? I somehow doubt it. I'm not against all forms of experimentation when it comes to the settings of classic plays or operas (I enjoyed Jonathan Miller's "Mafia" Rigoletto and darling Kenny Branagh's late 19th Century Winter's Tale - the settings seemed apposite, effective and undistracting) and I've no objection to talented black actors playing traditionally white roles: it's when the setting or the casting are done purely to signal how spectacularly unprejudiced the director is - and to identify anyone objecting to their "daring" choices as a racist, fuddy-duddy bourgeois - that I start to hyperventilate. It's all about the play, love - not YOU!

    4. This may be an appropriate time to take your readers back to 1955 to sit in the stalls of the Granada Tooting and marvel at the classic Joe Macbeth, in which the setting is gangland US and the characters names have been updated. Who can forget Sid James as Banky? Not me. I've been trying for years.

    5. You're in luck, Ex-KCS - Joe Macbeth is available on YouTube:

      I'm going to have to watch it just to see Sid James's ghost scene - especially as his performance evidently had a profound and long-lasting effect on you.

      I was also delighted to find the 1947 film, "A Double Life", on YouTube. The great Ronald Colman plays an actor whose roles affect his offstage behaviour - so when he's asked to play Othello, one suspects it won't necessarily end all that well:

    6. I watched 20-minutes of "Julius Beaver", but I was overcome by embarrassment even though I was on my own. This sorry bunch of female twits also promise to give us their take on "Henry IV" [ Diana Abbott as Falstaff perhaps?] and "The Tempest" on BBC4 soon.

      In 1846 Berlioz went to see "Hamlet" on a visit to London. He said the play was performed as written, practically complete," a rare thing in this country, where there are so many people superior to Shakespeare that most of his plays are corrected or augmented by the Cibbers and the Drydens and other rogues who should have their bottoms spanked publicly".

      Well said, Hector.

      I started on Joe Macbeth, but could not get past the opening theme music. It was worse than Johnny Dankworth.

    7. If you want to hear film music at its weirdest, I suggest you check out the opening sequence of "Thunder Road", which stars Robert Mitchum:

  5. Great post and great comments as ever. SDG has dragged The Reckoning back into my memory and I remember what a compelling film that was.
    Also The Offence was a movie possibly ahead of its time. Sidney Lumet went on to make Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Prince of the City of course and these are three of the best (to me) 70's/80's films made.
    Have to agree that Get Carter is difficult to beat.

    I am glad to see the Ride the High Country garners some praise from Scott. It's a great tale of the dying west of Hollywood myth. Particularly after his trashing of Cross of Iron. That said I tried to watch Cross of Iron again a few weeks - but gave up. It hasn't aged well.


    1. Thanks, JonT. I really am going to have to sit down and watch Dog Day Afternoon all the way through some day. Whereas many Golden Age Hollywood movies seem timeless - or at least charmingly quaint - I've found that several of my favourites from the '60s and '70s (in particular) now seen as dated as the ridiculous clothes and hairstyles I was sporting when I first saw them. For some odd reason, '80s favourites tend to hold up better. Answers on a postcard, please - because I don't know why this should be the case.