Tag Archives: 1960s

Marat/Sade (1967)

10 Nov

The recent RSC production of the Peter Weiss play ‘The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis De Sade’ – to give it its full, unwieldy title – has caused considerable controversy and reignited the endless debate about the limits of art. Antony Neilson’s revival of the infamous ‘play within a play’ met with an average of thirty walkouts per night, with one disgruntled patron describing it as ‘utter filth and depravity’; critics haven’t been much kinder.

Peter Brook’s adaptation of the original 1963 production is amongst the better known celluloid evocations of Sade’s work: the others being ‘Quills’ (2000), a bawdy romp with literary pretensions that portrays Sade as a lovable libertine in the order of a louche seventies rock star; and the altogether nastier ‘Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom’ (1975), which in its total lack of compassion can be said to embody Sade’s worldview with the greatest insight.

The director of the Charenton asylum, Coulmier (Clifford Rose), decides to stage a play written by its most famous occupant, the Marquis De Sade (Patrick Magee), with the other patients playing the roles for the enjoyment of Coulmier’s bourgeois friends and family. The play tells the story of Jean-Paul Marat (Ian Richardson), a polemicist during the French Revolution who met his end at the hands of Charlotte Corday (Glenda Jackson). Marat was a contemporary of Sade’s, a firebrand with whom he had impassioned debates about the validity of his revolutionary actions.

As the play progresses, Coulmier, accompanied by his wife and daughter (Brenda Kempner and Ruth Baker), intervenes in proceedings when contentious lines that were intended to be excised from the script are uttered by its wayward players. The play details Sade and Marat’s conflicting opinions on the tumultuous events gripping the country: Sade averring that Man is by nature a destroyer, overwhelmed in the face of nature’s indifference, while Marat counters that the collective will can sooth our inner conflict, seeing hope in fraternity, equality and liberty.

No doubt keen to distinguish itself from its theatrical progenitor, ‘Marat/Sade’ is a thoroughly cinematic experience, standing in stark contrast to so many other stage-to-screen transfers. Picking up where he left off with his previous film adaptation, ‘Lord of the Flies’ (1963), Brook packs the screen with detail; playing with focus and composition to great effect, utilizing the far reaches of the frame, characters occupying the fore, mid and background and addressing the camera. It all combines to create a sense of dynamism and spontaneity within a sparse single location, though clearly every move was planned to the smallest detail and executed with the utmost precision.

The production design and art direction are expertly handled by Sally Jacobs and Ted Marshall, fashioning a drab palette of black, grey and off-white, consciously contrasted by the Culmiers’ pristine robes and Charlotte’s virginal attire; while David Watkin’s cinematography uses the queasy sunlight streaming in through the windows to create some startling interplay of light and shade. The sound design is equally effective, bringing unsettling noises to the fore and isolating voices from the often cacophonous songs, backed by a heady blend of stentorian band music, religious dirges and atonal blasts of noise.

Every member of the ensemble cast manages to distinguish themselves: Michael Williams as the sardonic Herald, John Steiner as the foppish Monsieur Dupere, the Greek chorus of the disenfranchised comprising of Freddie Jones, Hugh Sullivan, Jonathan Burn and Jeanette Landis, and Robert Lloyd as the deranged preacher turned rabble-rouser Jacques Roux. Magee and Richardson do battle, reflecting the duality of human impulse, with Rose as the glib political operator moderating their debate. Magee – best known for his role in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (1971) – has a careworn physiognomy that perfectly elucidates the toll of Sade’s journey into the abyss of human cruelty; while Richardson – forever the Machiavellian Francis Urqhart in the public imagination – plays the tortured idealist with zeal.

In her first major role, Jackson is spellbinding as the young victim of ‘sleeping sickness and melancholia’ who is reluctantly thrust into the role of assassin; conveying Charlotte’s fragility and confusion, trapped in a constant state of dazed semi-consciousness, her breathing tremulous, her diction faltering, her body language cowed; it is the work of an artist at the height of their capabilities.

‘Marat/Sade’ unfolds like a grand metaphor: the inmates are forced into their roles for the pleasure of the elite audience, the bars protecting their shadowy forms from the rabble; the suffering of the many reduced to a theatrical trifle for the few. ‘Marat/Sade’ is imbued with the spirit of rebellion that exploded in 1789, bubbled to the surface once more in 1968 and is beginning to make itself heard again today, lambasting endless war for the personal gain of an already wealthy minority, ‘happy mutual robbery’ and the spoils being ‘grabbed by businessmen, financiers and manipulators’. Conversely, for all his turpitude, Sade is an icon of the Freidman Monetarists, Libertarians and sundry other self-regulators in his assertion that ‘I believe only in myself’, whether they care to acknowledge his legacy or not.

Mainstream theatre has been hijacked by hackneyed recreations of reliable properties and saccharine musical spectacles; its vitality drained by its quest for ever-greater profit; seeking not to challenge and edify, but comfort and pacify. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the current version of ‘Marat/Sade’ met with such opprobrium from a generation of theatregoers inured to such middlebrow fare.

Marat/Sade '11 at the RSC.


The Chase (1966)

7 Nov

‘The Chase’s’ journey to the screen was a turbulent one. This infamous misfire was supposed to be an integral part of producer Sam Spiegel’s legacy, a prestige picture to rank alongside his previous landmarks ‘The African Queen’, ‘On the Waterfront’, ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. But it ended up being a protracted battle of wits between Spiegel, its meticulous writer, highly strung director and capricious leading man; fatally compromised by the egos it strove to appease. ‘The Chase’ was a failure from which Speigel would fail to recover, his reputation for efficiently steering high-profile pictures to completion forever ruined. Hoping to rekindle Marlon Brando’s waning enthusiasm for acting, Spiegel tried to shoehorn as much material into the ever-changing screenplay that would appeal to his star’s social conscience, much to the chagrin of its screenwriter, the redoubtable Lillian Hellman.

In ‘The Chase’, a small Southern town is thrown into turmoil when one of its former inhabitants, Bubber Reeves (Robert Redford), escapes from prison. In the course of fleeing, Reeves accidentally kills a man whose car he is trying to hijack. Meanwhile, the town’s embattled Sheriff, Calder (Brando), tries to prevent tensions from boiling over between sections of the town’s denizens, all of whom agree that he is nothing more than a puppet for local oil magnate, Val Rogers (E.G. Marshall). Bubber becomes a mythical figure amongst the town’s youth, and his return threatens to blow the lid off an affair between Roger’s son, Jake (Edward Fox), and Reeves’ wife, Anna (Jane Fonda).

It’s difficult not to compare ‘The Chase’ to a film directed by Penn a year later. By going back to the ‘30s, Penn was able to make a much more radical statement about ‘60s ferment with ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ than he ever would have been permitted to under the aegis of the tyrannical Spiegel. There are signs of this bravura in some of the set-pieces, but ‘The Chase’ feels staid by comparison. One of the few areas in which the film does excel is its cinematography; Joseph LaShelle captures a sultry Southern summer with aplomb. Away from the chaos of the shoot, the second unit was given a degree of latitude and captured some striking scenes of Reeves’ escape, injecting some excitement into the largely laborious opening act. In hindsight, many of the film’s other problems could have been ameliorated before the project was set in motion, had all the forces guiding the film been pulling in the same direction.

Redford is wholly unconvincing as the rugged con on the lam. Although his legendary screen persona had yet to be formed, he is just too inherently clean cut and suave a figure to be plausible and elicit sympathy for Bubber; there is no suffering on his face or privation in his voice. Equally, English actor Edward Fox was a strange choice to play the disillusioned scion of an oil empire, a casting blunder that was never reconciled. His on-screen relationship with Fonda is fatally stilted; the pairing come across as two actors with incompatible approaches struggling to make sense of the muddled material given to them. Fonda – whose acting here is as embarrassingly earnest as that of Bree Daniels in ‘Klute’ – gamely strives to invest her character with an inner life, but she wasn’t a gifted enough actor at this stage to overcome the script’s limitations. Brando looks tired and pudgy, his accent alternating wildly – a portent of his unintentionally hilarious, scene-sabotaging turn ten years later in ‘The Missouri Breaks’. His trademark mumble slowly winds down into a barely audible groan, as if resigned to the fact that he was participating in yet another dud. Angie Dickinson is required to do little more than look pretty and not fall over the scenery as Calder’s wife and Robert Duvall is as reliable as ever as Rogers’ henpecked VP, a man trapped between the strict conservatism and growing permissiveness of opposing generations.

‘The Chase’ is symptomatic of many films that emerged in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, articulating a deeply ingrained mistrust of the South and its culture – the South of ‘The Chase’ and countless other films through the ‘60s is a feral, retrograde place in danger of being overwhelmed by its own reactionary, inflammatory machinations. Reeves is a patsy who is playing for the town’s sins, with only Calder, a man of solid liberal principles, to protect him from the baying mob. ‘The Chase’ was a vehicle for Brando to promulgate his political beliefs – his decision to commit to the film was made on this understanding – but in setting out to encompass as many of Brando’s favoured causes as possible, the film ends up fudging its approach to each.

‘The Chase’ says nothing about race relations that wasn’t said with greater clarity in ‘The Defiant Ones’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and would be dealt with to great acclaim a year later in ‘In The Heat of the Night’. What began as the crux of the narrative is only alluded to, used as a plot device to propel the love triangle that ends up taking precedence over the film’s noble intentions. Who knows, maybe the film would have been a more effective plea for racial tolerance if Bubber Reeves had been played by a black man?

Great poster, shame about the film.

Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

23 Oct

This adaptation of J.P. Miller’s teleplay is an intriguing anomaly in the career of Blake Edwards, a director renowned for helming lightweight fare like ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, ‘The Pink Panther’ and ‘10’. Likewise, this marked something of a departure for its star, Jack Lemmon, who had carved out a niche playing lovable, befuddled everyman in the likes of ‘The Apartment’ and ‘Some Like It Hot’. ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ is an interesting film historically, marking something of a bridge between the production-line output of the old studio system and the daring, taboo-breaking new spirit that would emerge towards the end of the decade and reach its apotheosis with ‘Easy Rider’.

The film charts the courtship and marriage of Joe Clay (Lemmon) and Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick). Joe is a high-flying Public Relations man, which in reality involves little more than kowtowing to the egos of his upscale clients, whether it be procuring women or finagling flattering press coverage. Kirsten is the assistant to one of Joe’s top clients; a bookish young woman who prefers chocolate to Joe’s chosen vice. Joe eventually introduces Kirsten to the anaesthetizing joys of alcohol. Now with a child to care for, Kirsten and Joe descend into the hell of full-scale alcoholism, their hard-living lifestyles coming into conflict with their cosy domesticity.

‘Days of Wine and Roses’ is shot in downcast monochrome, Phil Lathrop’s photography noticeably darkens with the characters’ worsening circumstances, the expressionistic lighting patterns and slabs of shadow increasing as addiction’s grip tightens. Henry Mancini’s Oscar-winning score does much to articulate this slide into the depths of despair, with its doleful, jazzy tones. Edwards sticks to delicate pans and noncommittal medium shots for the most part, a decision that lends genuine significance to the few close-ups he uses – as when Kirsten’s father offers Joe a drink; his dilemma is etched all over Lemmon’s famously expressive face.

Lemmon is captivating as a world-weary cog in the machine; his impeccable comic and dramatic timing are equally in evidence here. He imbues an essentially unlovable character with much needed empathy and humanity, underscoring Joe’s misgivings about the ethical vacuum in which he operates. Kirsten’s decline is particularly heartrending, and Remick rises to the task of conveying this. She undergoes a startling physical transformation, beginning the film as a statuesque, insouciant beauty and ending it a haggard, crestfallen husk of a person. It comes as little surprise that both leads were nominated for Oscars. Though Lemmon and Remick provide the film’s core, ample support is provided by Charles Bickford as Kirsten’s redoubtable father, a man struggling to keep his daughter from following Joe down the path to self-destruction.

‘Days of Wine and Roses’ takes place at a time when America’s moral consensus was beginning to erode; when people began to question the values they’d been taught to believe in, when job security and the promise of advancement up the career ladder was no longer enough to pacify nagging doubts and frustrations. The film underlines this dysphoria. Kirsten is plagued by alarming reveries, using drink to blot out the grime she sees all around her – the world is dirty when she is sober. Jack despises the dark art of perception management, a world where integrity is an impediment to success, consumed by guilt for dragging Kirsten down with him. They are trapped in a mutually destructive union, bound by their need to seek solace in the bottle. The film’s final third occasionally falls prey to preachy moralizing in the form of Jack Klugman’s Alcoholics Anonymous leader, but any lapse into melodrama is offset by the strength of the performances.

‘Days of Wine and Roses’ is not a comic account of affable drunks or a mawkish cautionary tale – the most common approaches to the depiction of alcoholism – but an important progression in screen realism, comparing favourably to the yardstick, Billy Wilder’s ‘The Lost Weekend’. Jack Clay is up there with Harry Stoner in ‘Save the Tiger’ and Shelley Levine in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ as a seminal role in Lemmon’s legendary career.

Why aren't movie posters this good anymore?

The Caretaker (1963)

19 Sep

Donald Pleasence’s varied and daring career is now best remembered for its latter stages, which he spent much of engaged in all manner of folderol; from plotting world domination in the campest possible manner in ‘You Only Live Twice’ to being chased by a maniac in a rubber William Shatner mask in the increasingly preposterous ‘Halloween’ franchise. Ditto Robert Shaw, who shall forever be a grizzled Hemingwayesque mariner in the public’s eyes.

But if you’re keen to seek out examples of these most unique of British theatrical exports before they were snagged by Hollywood and its lucrative yet reductive charms, then ‘The Caretaker’ comes heartily recommended. Thanks to the patronage of numerous luminaries from the worlds of theatre and film – including Noel Coward, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Sellers – Pinter was able to bring his much-lauded play to the screen under the aegis of the newly formed Caretaker Productions, filming on a shoestring in the cramped confines of a house in Hackney.

Aston (Shaw) is a taciturn young man who befriends Mac (Pleasence), a garrulous derelict who has just been sacked from the latest in a long line of temporary menial jobs. Aston offers Mac a job as the caretaker of his dilapidated, cluttered house, which he shares with his glib brother, Mick (Alan Bates). Just relieved to have a roof over his head, Mac unwittingly steps into the middle of an unfolding battle of wits between the brothers, whose mercurial natures and terse exchanges only serve to befuddle and exasperate him. Mac becomes little more than a pawn in their twisted games, never fathoming their true intentions.

Granted, the role of Mac Davis is a classic Pleasence grotesque; a raving, wild-eyed, uncouth reprobate, lurching from combative to sycophantic with alarming regularity. The difference between Mac and the succession of over-the-top lunatics that lamentably became Pleasence’s métier is the power and pathos of the material and the finesse with which it is delivered. Shaw’s performance is mesmerizing in its economy, his strained body language and clipped delivery lending a deep foreboding to Aston’s aloof munificence, every gesture laden with insight. Bates exults in the subtle psychological cruelty he inflicts on the hapless Mac, bringing a creditable unpleasantness to the role without resorting to the overwrought trappings of the archetypal ‘bad guy’. Indeed, the willingness on the part of all three leads to take on such inherently unsympathetic roles exemplifies their standing as actors of serious intent.

The performance-driven dynamic of ‘The Caretaker’ obviously betrays its theatrical origins, but the complaint frequently leveled at stage-to-screen adaptations – that they are little more than filmed plays – is not applicable here. This is a deeply cinematic experience with a diverse filmic palette; thanks in large part to the decision to widen the scope of the play and the cinematography of auteur-in-waiting Nicolas Roeg.

Roeg provides evocative, noiresque photography, harnessing ominous blocks of shadow to create a rich chiaroscuro. Director Richard Donner puts the claustrophobia of the location to good use, fashioning arresting compositions and utilizing extreme angles to create a literal and figurative confinement that adds another layer of potency to the simmering tension at the heart of the interplay. The musical score is equally effective in ramping up the sense of incipient psychosis; consisting of a series of eerie bleeps and sustained chords that punctuates the sparseness of the diegetic soundtrack.

Thematically, ‘The Caretaker’ explores many of the concerns of the early ‘60s British Zeitgeist; the widely held concern over mass migration – Mac’s preoccupation with ‘the blacks’ as the root of all his problems – the burgeoning consumer culture and upward mobility of the age – Mick’s ambitious designs for the house, reeling off a list of furnishings in reverential tones, as though they are a panacea for everything that currently plagues the household – and Britain’s loss of standing in the post-colonial age – it could be argued that Mac himself represents the reduced circumstances of the erstwhile global superpower.

Of course, this being Pinter, none of this is ever explicitly addressed. Various theories have been promulgated; that the three characters represent the Holy Trinity or the workings of the subconscious mind, but the beauty of this and all of Pinter’s work is its ambiguity. The film is rife with symbolism – the crack in the ceiling dripping water into the overflowing bucket, Aston’s cherished Buddha statue, the unconstructed shed, the frozen pond. It is possible to interpret these in numerous ways, but to me they are potent signifiers of the film’s conceptual and narrative arc: the accumulation of grievances, frustrations destined to overflow in a torrent of recrimination, defiance in the face of manipulation and tenuous equilibrium stretched to its limits. In the world of Pinter, the most innocuous gesture, banal act or commonplace item can take on the deepest significance; there is a compelling synecdoche at play throughout.

‘The Caretaker’ is a bold, multi-layered meditation on the nature of power that still crackles with tension to this day; featuring sterling direction, bravura cinematography and Pinter’s renowned ear for dialogue. It’s gratifying to see Pleasence and Shaw practicing their craft in a milieu where they weren’t hamstrung by Hollywood’s inimical demands.

So THIS is what I'll be remembered for!?