With a ton of alternate titles and a couple different versions (U.S. and U.K.), this film based on the short story “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James is both genuinely creepy and a fitting part of Turner Classic Movies’ tribute to Peggy Cummins, who passed away on December 29, 2017 at the age of 92. If you haven’t seen it, or even if you have, you ought to, plus it’s the TCM Party tonight at 9:45 p.m. Eastern with guest host Jim Phoel aka @DraconicVerses.
It’s got some really gorgeous black-and-white cinematography by Edward Scaife (who also shot The Third Man) under the direction of dollar-from-a-dime maestro Jacques Tourneur (Out of the Past, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie). I made some apparently oversized gifs from it (too big for tumblr) and I’m parking ’em here. More gifs after the jump…
This week we salute the less renowned, but nonetheless essential, disciplines of movie-making…THE CRAFTS. Those who practice them are below the title in billing yet are decidedly indispensable to the overall effect of a film. Check out the fabulous Week 3 posts after the jump!
This past weekend, our theater Cinema Detroit was a venue for the fourth annual Cinetopia International Film Festival, which brings “the best films from the world’s best festivals” to Detroit and Ann Arbor every June. It was our second year as a Cinetopia venue and while all the films on our slate were worthwhile, I’m highlighting five of my favorites. Keep an eye out for these if you haven’t seen them already.
To paraphrase a common saying, writing about cinematography can be like dancing to architecture. But I’m going to give a shot, because it’s a travesty that Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, CBE has been nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar a whopping TWELVE times, and has yet to win.
With his nomination this year for his work on Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, Deakins is on a three-year streak, having also gotten the nod for Skyfall in 2013 and Prisoners in 2014. He’s been nominated for Academy Awards in two consecutive years THREE times (1997/1998, 2001/2002, 2008/2009), was once nominated twice in the same year (2008), and he’s won numerous other awards, including BAFTAs and ASC and BSC awards.
Deakins is known for his simple, naturalistic set-ups and his devotion to story over all other considerations. He likes silhouettes, fire at night, and high angles, but his shots almost never draw attention to themselves, which may be part of the reason it’s never been his year with the Academy.
He is most often associated with the Coen brothers, with whom he has worked on eleven pictures (not all Oscar-nominated). Their work has benefited greatly from his fluency with different lighting styles.
I was overwhelmed by the thought of analyzing the circumstances that have kept Deakins from the podium in the past, so I’ve chosen to spotlight briefly just a few of his amazing Oscar-nominated works. You know them, even if you’ve never heard his name. For instance…
If anyone out there has attended a TCM Party hosted by me, you know I always natter on about great Old Hollywood cinematographers, the crisp blacks and whites and beautiful contrast they produced, etc. etc. There are a few names that come up repeatedly, more often than most. Gregg Toland — Citizen Kane, Ball of Fire, The Little Foxes, The Best Years of Our Lives — is an obvious possibility, as is Jack Cardiff — A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes. But with this post I’m beginning a series about five less well-known DPs who are equally deserving of some attention.
I find these two parallel scenes particularly striking examples of how Wilder and Seitz worked together so well…in both Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) walks into the room and sits down in front of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), but the angle is slightly different, and the lighting serves as a barometer for their relationship.
Indemnity and Sunset are just two of Seitz’ 163 films, made over more than 4 decades. Born in 1892, Seitz began as a lab tech in Chicago in 1909 and was working in movies as a director of photography by 1913, continuing through his last film, Guns of the Timberland (1960). He held 18 patents for photographic devices and processes — including dissolve techniques and the matte shot, which he fine-tuned while working on Rex Ingram’s Trifling Women (1922). The collaboration with Ingram was key to Seitz’ career:
Ingram was a great pictorialist; everything in his pictures was subordinate to the image. Collaborating with a cameraman of genius, John Seitz, he created some of the most beautiful films of the entire silent era.
— Kevin Brownlow and John Kobal, Hollywood: The Pioneers
Seitz’ other works include some of my favorite movies: Sullivan’s Travels and This Gun For Hire, both with Veronica Lake; Five Graves To Cairo and The Lost Weekend, also directed by Wilder; and The Big Clock, which like Weekend, starred Ray Milland. These are just a fraction of his output. How does one person create all those stunning images? Perhaps it was his willingness to experiment:
Where [others] might be inclined to play it safe by using tried and true techniques, Seitz doesn’t hesitate to stick his neck out to try for the unusual and original effect — and he invariably comes up with an exciting result. Far from being a trickster out to create an effect for its own sake, [he] remains an alert experimentalist, constantly searching for new approaches and original camera techniques to make the motion picture a more dramatic medium. There are no clichés in his style – as modern as tomorrow, rugged, forceful and, above all, alive. He insists that cinematography must exist to tell the screen story, rather than stand out as a separate artistic entity.
— Herb Lightman, “Old Master, New Tricks,” American Cinematographer, September 1950
I can’t pretend that this post is in any way a definitive or comprehensive analysis of Seitz’ work, but I hope that it will compel a few to see some of it for themselves. TCM is offering two opportunities on Monday, April 15. One of the silent films he worked on, Mare Nostrum, directed by Ingram, is on at midnight Eastern time. According to TCM’s site, “British director Michael Powell, who worked on Mare Nostrum as a grip, would cite Ingram as one of the influences on his own visionary epics, including Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948).” Also, one of the pre-codes Seitz shot, Ladies They Talk About (1933), also starring Stanwyck, is scheduled for 6:00 a.m. Eastern.
And now, a very belated THANK YOU: Sincere and heartfelt gratitude to whoever was so kind as to nominate me for not one but two 2013 LAMMY Awards, Best Classic Film Blog, and Best Blogathon/Meme for 31 Days of Oscar, credit for which I share with Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled and Aurora of Once Upon A Screen. There isn’t much chance of my getting through to the next round, but this is one case where I can honestly say the nomination is the award. Tune in to the LAMBcast on Monday at 9:00 a.m., featuring Aurora, to hear the final nominees.
I talk about how much I love The Train all the time, I watch or DVR it every time it’s on, and I really want more people to see it, but I feel like I haven’t really said why. Its premise is deceptively simple: In the waning days of World War II, French railway inspector/Resistance member Labiche (Burt Lancaster) is ordered by Nazi-in-charge von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) to get a train through to Germany no matter what. Which wouldn’t be a big deal, except that nearly every important piece of art left in France is on the train. Von Waldheim has ruthless soldiers at his disposal, but Labiche’s Resistance friends, some of whom actually run the trains, are used to making sabotage seem normal. It’s an unpredictable, suspenseful chess match with French lives staked against the country’s soul.
Maybe it’s so good because it’s so real. How real? Lancaster did all his own stunts. He even did stunts for another actor. He was injured only once during filming but it had nothing to do with the movie: He sprained his knee while golfing. Director John Frankenheimer covered it by having Labiche get shot in the leg.
Lancaster was actually responsible for Frankenheimer’s presence on set. After the first day of filming, Lancaster didn’t think original director Arthur Penn was emphasizing action and suspense as much as necessary. The actor, who was also producing, had Penn fired and called on his Young Savages/Birdman of Alcatraz/Seven Days in May director, who was happy to help — provided his conditions were met: the film’s official title would be “John Frankenheimer’s The Train;” he would have final cut; and he would receive a Ferrari. The producers agreed to all of it. (Don’t feel too badly for Penn…he went on to make Bonnie and Clyde.)
In addition, when you see trains crashing or derailing, they’re very real, life-sized, often WWII-era, trains — Frankenheimer didn’t use miniatures. In one scene, the production was able to take advantage of the French government’s decision to scrap a railyard by “planting dynamite charges beneath the tracks….According to Newsweek, this brief sequence incorporated 140 separate explosions, 3,000 pounds of TNT and 2,000 gallons of gasoline” [source].
I could write another whole blog post about the filming of these scenes:
and I haven’t even mentioned Jeanne Moreau’s cameo as an innkeeper who may or may not be collaborating with the Nazis, the crazy weather delays and their effect on the film, or the real-life true story that inspired the script — Rose Valland’s autobiographical Le front de l’art: défense des collections françaises, 1939-1945.*
Furthermore, the film can be enjoyed as both a straight-up action picture and as a philosophical exploration of art and war. It asks the questions, “How much does art matter, and is it worth dying for?” and suggests that one’s answer will vary based on class. The Train’s preoccupation with social status is understated, but it reminds me of another film with an ambivalent outlook on war, La Grande Illusion. For starters, both have working-class Frenchmen, Labiche and Jean Gabin’s Lieutenant Maréchal, and aristocratic Germans, von Waldheim and Erich von Stroheim’s Captain (later Major) von Rauffenstein, though their differences are far more prominent in Illusion.
So The Train won a ton of Oscars, right? Not at all. It received one Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen — which it lost, to Darling. Neither film is really all that well-known today, but I confess I have more affection for the somber World War II movie that could.
* Per IMDB, paintings from the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris “were indeed loaded into a train for shipment to Germany during World War II, but fortunately, the elaborate deception seen in the movie was not really required. The train was merely routed onto a ring railway and circled around and around Paris until the Allies arrived.”
UPDATE: This post wouldn’t really be complete without Frankenheimer’s TCM tribute to Lancaster. The director talks about The Train, including the one-take scene Jack Deth referenced in his comment, here.
We won’t lie, we’d never seen Lars von Trier’s Melancholia on a big screen before. While the director is understandably controversial, there’s no disputing that he made a beautiful film. We really want more people to see this movie, hopefully the screen caps below will help convince you to stop by Ponyride tomorrow (Sunday, February 16)) at 3 p.m.