Posted by Jeff Stafford on April 19, 2008
The film world has been hard hit these past few months with the passing of so many great and influential members of that creative community. Although some of those who left us received front page headlines and a generous amount of tribute coverage such as Charlton Heston, Richard Widmark, Arthur C. Clarke and Anthony Minghella, it still felt too brief and rushed to take in the full measure of these individuals. And even more regretful were the brief mentions or barely publicized reports of others who died during the same time period such as composer Leonard Rosenman, actor/director/producer Ivan Dixon and screenwriter Rafael Azcona to mention a few. Lest we too quickly forget some of those who inspired, entertained and fascinated us through the medium of film, I wanted to pay my own small tribute to some of these talented filmmakers by focusing on either a favorite film or ones that are often overlooked and worth seeking out.
LEONARD ROSENMAN (died 3/4/2008)
He was a friend of James Dean and a young unknown composer when Dean introduced him to director Elia Kazan. The result of that meeting led to Rosenman scoring Kazan’s EAST OF EDEN (1955) and then Nicholas Ray’s REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955), two scores which announced the arrival of a brilliant new talent in Hollywood music circles. Unlike many of his contemporaries in the industry, his insistence on experimenting and trying new approaches to film soundtracks made him something of a maverick in the industry and working with him could be a challenge to any director or producer with set ideas about a film score. Yet, he managed to rank up four Oscar nominations for Best Music Score during his career, winning for both BARRY LYNDON (1975) and BOUND FOR GLORY (1976). My favorite Rosenman scores, however, are probably the intensely dramatic music he composed for THE SAVAGE EYE in 1960 and the startlingly modern, futuristic sounds of FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966). The latter film, about a team of doctors who are reduced to microscopic size and sent inside the body of a top secret scientist to operate on his injured brain, reminds me of a famous Rosenman anecdote about it: “A producer asked me to write a jazz score, and I asked him why. He said he wanted the picture to be the first hip science fiction movie. I said that’s a great idea for an advertising agency, but it doesn’t fit the film.” THE SAVAGE EYE, on the other hand, creates a musical landscape of urban alienation and clashing cultures struggling for dominance in an experimental narrative (a collaboration between Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick) that charts a divorced woman’s journey through a Los Angeles that verges on the freakish. In some ways Rosenman’s score for this anticipates Philip Glass’s soundtrack for KOYAANISQATSI (1982), another film about life out of balance on this planet. To read more about Rosenman, check out this blog by fellow morlock Medusa – http://www.moviemorlocks.com/blog?action=detail&entry_id=8a25caac1887b199011887f5f4c00002
MALVIN WALD (died 3/6/2008)
The brother of producer Jerry Wald, Malvin was a busy screenwriter who is best known for authoring the story for THE NAKED CITY (1948) and co-writing the script with Albert Maltz (soon to be blacklisted as one of the “Hollywood Ten”), which was nominated for an Academy Award. Most of Malvin’s later work was in television but I like that brief period from 1948-1950 when he worked on some very offbeat and intriguing B-movies including two projects for director Ida Lupino, the story of NOT WANTED (1949), featuring Sally Forrest as a desperate unwed mother, and the original screenplay for OUTRAGE (1950), in collaboration with Lupino and her husband Collier Young. The latter film, starring Mala Powers as a rape victim whose life is shattered by the incident, was a daring, non-commercial topic for a Hollywood film and suffered for that very reason, receiving scant distribution. Less controversial and more accessible is Wald’s story and screenplay (Eugene Ling also worked on it) for Budd Boetticher’s BEHIND LOCKED DOORS (1948), an entertaining suspense thriller that anticipates Sam Fuller’s SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963) in its storyline: a reporter (Richard Carlson) pretends to be insane in order to be committed to a mental institution where he believes a fugitive from justice is hiding. And of course Tor Johnson of PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE fame is one of the inmates which confirms this film’s status as an under-the-radar theatrical release.
IVAN DIXON (died 3/16)
Any television junkie of the sixties knows Dixon as ‘Kinch’ from the “Hogan’s Heroes” TV series and countless other appearances in shows such as “Have Gun – Will Travel,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Dr. Kildare,” etc. His directorial credits are almost as lengthy as his acting credits and few people seem to know that he helmed and produced one of the least seen but most potentially explosive of the Black-oriented audience films of the early ‘70s – THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973) in which an ex-veteran (Lawrence Cook) uses his CIA training to plot the overthrow of the White power elite. I still look forward to seeing that but am here to tell you that his performance in NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964) is my favorite memory of Dixon as an actor. As a man who’s been disillusioned but not defeated by his lack of opportunities and second class status in the pre-Civil Rights era South, Dixon creates an unforgettable portrait of a stubbornly determined and proud individual. When he falls in love with a schoolteacher (Abbey Lincoln, equally eloquent) in a small Alabama town and they eventually marry, he is forced to take stock of his life and finally deal with some unresolved issues such as his strained relationship with his father and his illegitimate 4-year-old son. This is an incredibly moving and subtle drama that still holds up extremely well because the focus is on the human condition and not just the issue of race relations which is only part of Dixon’s troubles. Some critics have compared the movie (directed by Michael Roemer) to the Italian neorealism films and the comparison is apt. But it’s Dixon’s Duff Anderson who will live on in your memory of the film long after “The End” fades on the screen.
PAUL SCOFIELD (died 3/19)
He was one of the great stage actors of the British theatre and preferred that venue to acting in movies but he made his mark in cinema nevertheless with a small body of work that reflected his discriminating good taste in selecting roles that played to his strengths. Most people remember him as Sir Thomas More, refusing to bend to the will of the heretical King Henry VII (Robert Shaw) in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (1966), a role that won him the Best Actor Oscar in only his fourth film appearance. He also garnered praise for several Shakespearian film adaptations (KING LEAR in 1970, HENRY V in 1989, HAMLET in 1990) and a supporting role in Robert Redford’s QUIZ SHOW (another Oscar nomination for him) but it’s his performance in BARTLEBY (1970) that I feel has been overlooked. That’s probably because it was a small, independent production that was based on a Herman Melville short story (“Bartleby, the Scrivener, A Story of Wall-street”) and couldn’t be a more uncinematic subject for a movie. While the true meaning of Melville’s story continues to be debated, many critics have interpreted it as an allegory about the futility of modern life and the soul-crushing drudgery of the workplace. The title character, Bartleby, is no more than a cipher, a quiet, rather forlorn young man (John McEnery) who is hired by an accounting firm and performs well at first. Then he begins to refuse specific tasks saying “I would prefer not to” until it becomes his mantra and he is eventually doing nothing except sitting mute and inactive at his desk. Scofield, simply named The Accountant, narrates the entire absurdist tale but also gives it life and a fascination that other film versions haven’t been able to pull off (the 2001 version with Crispin Glover in the title role was an interminable one-joke sitcom). As Scofield goes from exasperation to anger to disgust and finally pity for this baffling employee who continues to come to work even after being fired, he makes the situation real. So real, in fact, that you become emotionally invested in trying to uncover the mystery of Bartleby’s behavior. Is he mentally ill? Is he playing a game? In the end, as Bartleby wastes away – he prefers not to eat – Scofield’s accountant becomes almost desperate in his need to save this lost soul and in the process discovers his own humanity. A performance for the time capsule.
RAFAEL AZCONA (died 3/23/2008)
A critically lauded and award-winning screenwriter in Europe, this Spanish scenarist is practically unknown in this country yet has worked on some of the seminal Italian and Spanish films of the sixties and seventies and is comparable to Luis Bunuel in his appreciation of the surreal and the darkly comic. He had a hand in writing Alberto Lattuada’s recently revived black farce MAFIOSO (1962) and penning screenplays for such renowned directors as Carlos Saura (COUSIN ANGELICA, 1974), Luis Garcia Berlanga (LIFE SIZE, 1974 – Michel Piccoli plays a dentist in love with a life-size doll, more than 30 years before LARS AND THE REAL GIRL), and Fernando Trueba (BELLE EPOQUE, the Oscar-winning Best Foreign Language Film of 1994). More than any other director, however, he has worked with Marco Ferreri, collaborating with him on one of the most outrageous and scandalous films of the ‘70s – LA GRAND BOUFFE (1973) in which four men hole up in a remote villa, vowing to gorge themselves to death – on food, alcohol and sex. Azcona’s other joint projects with Ferreri are equally memorable if not always successful such as THE LAST WOMAN (1976) where Gerard Depardieu slices off his penis with an electric carving knife
in the film’s climax because he can’t deal with his girlfriend becoming independent, the result of the feminist movement. For me, the entry point was LA DONNA SCIMMA (1964, aka THE APE WOMAN). I saw a still from the movie in an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland (posted below) when I was a kid and became obsessed with it, eventually tracking it down on VHS in a dubbed print from Something Weird video almost 20 years ago. It’s an oddly compelling film about a sideshow barker who discovers, marries and exploits for profit a freak of nature, a woman completely covered in body hair. It’s like an even more extreme version of the master-slave relationship in Fellini’s LA STRADA except that the carnival hustler (played by the great Ugo Tognazzi) is harder to read than Anthony Quinn’s Zampano. He can be kind and compassionate but more likely exploitative and greedy and there is a motive behind his every gesture. The film was distributed with two endings – one which had a more poignant, humane finale (the Something Weird version features this one) and one which remained true to Ferreri and Azcona’s more cynical but honest view of Tognazzi’s true nature. The film was supposedly inspired by real life freak Julia Pastrana, the famous “Gorilla Woman” whose husband exhibited her mummified body after she died (Ferreri & Azcona utilized this gruesome bit of trivia for their alternate ending). Not a masterpiece but a genuine original.
RICHARD WIDMARK (died 3/24/2008)
Who doesn’t have a favorite Richard Widmark performance? The problem is it’s very difficult to choose the most iconic one. KISS OF DEATH, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, NIGHT AND THE CITY and PANIC IN THE STREETS are probably the top ranked titles but I also have to add to the list his crazy-as-a-fox performance as Jefty in the film noir ROAD HOUSE (1948) – it was only his third film role – and a late career highlight, WHEN THE LEGENDS DIE (1972). The latter film, a contemporary western, features Widmark as a conniving, manipulative ex-rodeo star who becomes the guardian of a young Native American (Frederic Forrest in his first major role) who is an expert horseman and trains him to be a rodeo champion. Essentially a two-character study in which the landscape of two-bit rural towns and sleazy bars becomes a prison for these two travelers bound by financial need, the film was not a commercial success but it contains one of Widmark’s finest performances. His character, whose alcoholism brings out his demonic side, is not one who will go gentle into that good night (and get a load of that wicked drunken laugh – shades of Tommy Udo!). But he’s not all bad and over the course of the two characters’ backroads ramble, a genuine but weary friendship develops between the unlikely pair that results in a satisfying and unpredictable fadeout. We’ll miss you Richard! For another favorite Widmark performance, check out this entry by Medusa -
Come back for Part 2 next Saturday.
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