Browse Category

by Peter Richards

The Donner Impasse

The announcement of Clive Donner’s death in September, 2010, reminded film buffs of a certain age of some good film-making and some good times, but chiefly it made one reflect anew on just how fleeting glory can be in the movie business. Clive Donner’s directing career lasted from the late 1950s into the 1990s, but it was essentially confined to just seven years in the 1960s; once the Swinging London decade was over, it was downhill all the way for him. The fates conspired, and fortune did not smile. It’s a sad story.

Clive Donner

Born in 1926, Donner got into the film business as a teenager, partially through the good offices of Michael Powell. He assisted in the cutting-rooms on some of the bigger British movies of the half-decade following the war, including a couple made by David Lean; he was a clever young fellow, and he became an editor in his own right very quickly. His credits as cutter include a few widely-remarked films (Genevieve, I Am A Camera) and he achieved his ambition to direct at age 30 with a small thriller called The Secret Place, following it quickly in 1957 with a 76-minute movie about mistreated children, Heart Of A Child. At the start of the 60s, he did two one-hour B-pictures derived from Edgar Wallace (Marriage Of Convenience and The Sinister Man), some TV segments, commercials and training films, and in 1962 had a breakthrough of sorts with a movie called Some People. This film was openly intended as propaganda for the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme to help young people and let them find a sense of self-worth. It couldn’t have seemed too promising, but Donner and his screenwriter, John Eldridge, made something of it, critics remarked on its freshness and originality, and he was on his way.

Keep Reading

The Earth Is Made Of Glass: Orson Welles’s ‘The Stranger’

The standard wisdom about Orson Welles’s 1946 thriller The Stranger—broadly, that it’s Welles’s weakest film, the runt in his otherwise superlative litter—needs challenging, even if Welles himself seemed mostly disinclined to do so. Only in 1982, three years before his death, did he appear to suggest, to BBC interviewers, that it wasn’t so terrible after all. (It had been cut, by about 20 minutes, by producer Sam Spiegel, who had also imposed Edward G. Robinson on the proceedings in the role of an implacable war crimes investigator—Welles had wanted Agnes Moorehead!) By 1982, Welles seemed altogether less pleased with Mr. Arkadin (aka Confidential Report), perhaps because it was a more personal project. To the present writer, Arkadin is clearly the better film, but The Stranger is nonetheless, at the very least, a fascinating curio, and if it’s a minor film (if…), then it’s the sort of minor film that only a really major talent could make, and an excellent example of what the Cahiers du Cinéma critics meant about the failures of the great being better films than the best work of lesser talents.

The credited editor of The Stranger is Ernest Nims, a veteran whose main function in Hollywood seems to have been recutting films to maximise their perceived box-office highlights. It was he who later recut Touch of Evil against Welles’s desires and took a butcher’s cleaver to Franklin Schaffner’s The War Lord, greatly to the well-publicised anguish of both films’ star, Charlton Heston. That someone has been nibbling away at Welles’s footage is immediately clear as The Stranger‘s credits conclude. The escape from custody of war criminal Konrad Meineke (a fine, but now rather brief, performance by Konstantin Shayne) is managed with ridiculous-seeming ease and speed, and he manages to get from Europe to New England (via South America) in no time. Once arrived in a rural college town, Meineke reveals his presence to Franz Kindler, formerly the master brain of the Thousand Year Reich but now, thanks to his life-long avoidance of personal publicity and his mastery of an American accent, a respected local lecturer under the pseudonym of Charles Rankin. Meineke also reveals that he’s got religion in jail, and so has to be murdered by his onetime bludbruder.

Keep Reading

Blake Edwards And The Hobgoblin Of Inconsistency

The death of Blake Edwards at the end of 2010, more than fifteen years after his last film work, was a reminder of a gaudy and maddening career which had been in a state of collapse for over a decade before it finished; and also of an undoubted auteur who needed to be rescued from his admirers. Edwards was never a great director; there is far too much mediocrity in his filmography (and from its earliest days) for him to be regarded as the major figure of his devotees’ wild claims. But he was occasionally such a good one that one can’t but wonder quite why he floundered so often, especially as his failures are mostly quite as clearly signed as his successes.

Blake Edwards

This consistency of authorship, coupled with such baffling inconsistency of quality, led to a most curious situation, whereby Edwards’s defenders showed a marked tendency to praise him for his defects as much as his virtues, even saying they were the same thing, and not merely to praise quite minor films in extravagant terms, but even to suggest that the reasons why so many of his films were trivial were the very reasons why we should admire them the more. At the same time, his best films were often undervalued. It was a preposterous situation. Perhaps now it can be challenged.

Why should we admire Edwards? Well, according to Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema, it’s because of the inherent nastiness of his flamboyance (Edwards “has got some of his biggest laughs out of jokes that are too gruesome for most horror films”) and because “the world he celebrates is cold, heartless and inhuman, but the people in it manage to preserve a marginal integrity and individuality.” Hmm… But why should any artist celebrate cold, heartless inhumanity? Sarris is quoted by perhaps the most vociferous of Edwards’s champions, William Luhr and Peter Lehman, not only in a lengthy article in The Velvet Light Trap in 1974, but later in a full-length book. They also define Edwards’s worldview, as they see it: “Concepts of justice simply have no relevance. Those with charm and skill succeed; those without do not, and frequently suffer grossly. ”

Keep Reading