Archive for the ‘MASTER PHOTOGRAPHER: Lucien Ballard’ Category

Mikey and Nicky

21 Jun

Mikey And Nicky — directed by Elaine May. Gangster Drama. Two friends from childhood, one to kill the other, amble through the dark streets of a big city. 119 minutes Color 1976.


That neurotic brat Elaine May indulges herself and her actors in a denuding in which nobody really takes off his clothes. The work by the two principal actors is clearly improvisational, which means that the actors are called upon to actually “write” the script by improvising it. A questionable process, no? The question being, are the two actors good playwrights? Another question being, do the improvisations improve the truth of their performances? Another question being, does the spontaneity of improvisation actually bring depth and key to narrative? In the case of John Cassavetes, a cold actor, the answer is no. For the performance. while showy, never delves beneath the sexy conman with which Cassavetes smirks his way through it. For all his variations on the theme the result is monotony. He makes the character always self-involved and always lying. He is an actor without emotion, and he takes no risks. And what this results in is that there is no moment when what lies inside this liar conman defense and opposite to it has a chance to come to light and importantly tempt his survival. The character never becomes exposed. A sexy conman is the opposite of a sacrificial lamb, but Cassavetes either cannot imagine becoming that or cannot do it, did not have it in him as an actor, and as Elaine May, who is an amateur, is not a real writer either, she simply indulges herself in her entrancement by what is after all no more than the fun of an acting class exercise in Meisner technique. Indeed the brutal and great acting teacher himself is present in the film as the capo financing the hit, and is quite good, without bringing any particular quirk of imagination to the role. Meisner technique is available only in lower class drama, such as this. (Sanford Meisner hated Shakespeare.) But “lower class” does not guarantee drama, and  there is no real drama here, for the Cassavetes character never gets forced to know and so never gets to the point of revealing the truth to his protagonist, played beautifully by Peter Falk, so Falk is never faced with the temptation to spare him. This is the essential drama — will these old best friends spare one another? — and it is missing. The drama is not whether Falk will kill Cassavetes; yes, he will, as far as this film goes; but the drama should be whether he will spare him; this is never available. May supposes that acting exercises write plays. They don’t. Falk, however, is another matter. I acted with Falk in Saint Joan and The Changeling — he was in his early days, his early thirties, but everyone said he was on his way, and he was. He has much more available to him than Cassavetes does. A warm actor indeed, of great natural appeal and no shtick, he plays the co-dependent to Cassavetes dry-drunk. Alas, his exposition scene comes in the last scene of the play and with the wrong character, whereas it should take place with Cassavetes after all those beers. And the revelation scene when Cassavetes learns that Falk is out to kill him comes too early, and is discarded as a subtext. Cassavetes has a brilliant moment with it. And there are brilliant moments throughout the picture. Cassavetes is not a likable actor, just a Mediterranean mug. Falk, on the other hand, is very likeable, and if you’d like to see him in the biggest film role he ever had, take a look. Expect to be fascinated but not be satisfied.


A King And Four Queens

19 Apr

A King And Four Queens — directed by Raoul Walsh. Western. A handsome grifter works his charms on four lovelies and their mother-in-law for a boodle. 86 minutes Color 1956.


He drank a lot and screwed any lady who turned up in his dressing room. He could write his own ticket. He was Clark Gable, the sexiest man in Hollywood – and one of the things that made him sexy was his humor – the wry look, the brow furrowed with amusement at female goings-on, and the crackle in his voice that relished the game, its losses and its folly. All this is in full play with Gable in this well constructed and tightly written piece. He is given a first class actress to oppose his ambitions for her money. Jo Van Fleet is the mother of four wretched bank robbers three of whom have burned to death, while one escaped. She sits on their buried booty and she waits for a son to return – except she doesn’t know which son it is, for the bodies were unrecognizable – and their four wives wait with her, not knowing either. Van Fleet was a curious actress, powerful in dispute, but with the sensitivity of a barstool. And yet her scene with Gable shot in bed is really as brilliant a piece of subtext playing as you will ever see. She scorns Gable, wounded though he is, but she longs with unmentioned pain for news of one of her sons. She is, rare for her, touching. Gable admired her professionalism; he himself had his lines down pat first thing; he also asked her scenes to be edited down, because she was stealing the show; it couldn’t be done and still make sense. Somehow the two of them keep the story going, along with Eleanor Parker who entertains herself with common sense and a simple wardrobe. The first symptom of the demise of Hollywood studios in he ’50s was the failure of costuming, and this is a good example of it. Technicolored to death, the other three wives make plays for Gable, and it is a tribute to his gifts and his nature, weathered and real, that he can tell each of them off without shaming them or looking like a prig. Gable, a mountain of masculinity – but with a jocular eye. An actor who never fails us. An actor who loved acting. If you want to see what an actor who is perfectly confident in his craft looks like, look at Gable in this period of his work, in his 50s. It’s late Beethoven. It’s really something to behold. The direction by Raoul Walsh never falters, always tells the story hard and clear. The picture, aside from the spectacle of its opening ride through wild terrain, is an indoor Western. Alex North wrote a terrific score and the great Lucien Ballard filmed it.

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