Tag: Eli Wallach

The Ghost Writer (2010)

The Ghost Writer (2010)

Conspiracies, lies and dirty politics surround a politician who definitely isn’t Blair in Polanski’s superb thriller

Director: Roman Polanski

Cast: Ewan McGregor (The Ghost), Pierce Brosnan (Adam Lang), Kim Cattrall (Amelia Bly), Olivia Williams (Ruth Lang), Tom Wilkinson (Professor Paul Emmett), Timothy Hutton (Sidney Kroll), Jon Bernthal (Rick Ricardelli), Tim Preece (Roy), Robert Pugh (Richard Rycart), David Rintoul (Stranger), Eli Wallach (Old Man), James Belushi (John Maddox)

An American publishing company is in dire straits. They’ve paid a fortune for the autobiography of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), once seen as a visionary liberal idol but now blamed for a deeply controversial war in Iraq (sound familiar?). Problem is his trusted aide Mike McCara – who is actually writing the book – has been found drowned on Martha’s Vineyard where Lang, his wife Ruth (Olivia Williams) and staff are staying. The book needs to be finished in a month – but it’s in an unpublishable mess. Who ya gonna call? A Ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) of celebrity memoirs to finish the job of course. But will the Ghost resist trying to investigate whatever McCara uncovered in Lang’s life that may have led to his suspicious death?

Adapted from a novel by Robert Harris – who turned from a strong supporter of Blair, to terminally disenchanted – The Ghost Writer comes to the screen as a superbly controlled, perfectly placed piece of tight-wound tension from Roman Polanski, that mixes wonderful elements of Hitchcockian menace and Seventies conspiracy thriller, not to mention lashings of his own Chinatownbut here switched to the doom-laden drizzle of New York, rather than the sunkissed glory of California.

Set on a grim, grey and foreboding Martha’s Vineyard (although, for obvious legal reasons, actually filmed in Potsdam), Polanski lets every scene grow in unsettling tension. Very little explicit is every said, but danger from unknown, unseen forces is a constant presence. Accompanied by a Herrmann-esque score from Alexandre Desplat (also with a hint of a twist on Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Chinatown), this is film made with such calm, patient authority that its exudes engrossing tension. Polanski employs some beautiful touches, worthy of Hitchcock: from the Ghost, uncertain if he is being followed when boarding a car ferry, making a desperate run for freedom; to a wonderful tracking shot at a book launch that follows a note containing a vital reveal, passed from hand to hand through a crowd to the guilty speaker.

The Ghost Writer also has neat moments of dark comedy which also feels reminiscent of Hitchcock’s ability to mix dark chuckles with oppressive tension. The Ghost’s recruitment as a writer – and his hilariously frank suggestion that political memoirs are boring beyond belief – is a lovely lightly comic entrée that completely fails to prepare us for the conspiracy thriller that follows in all the right ways. Stuck in Lang’s house on Martha’s Vineyard, the Ghost tries to secretly download a copy of the memoir he is only allowed to read under supervision: his attempt coincides, to his terror, with what turns out to be a test of the alarm system. In the background of a shot during a monologue from Lang, a worker struggles with wearied patience to clean the wind-filled grounds of leaves, constantly, dutifully, collecting them back up as they blow away.

These moments of lightness make the dark even blacker. We are constantly left guessing as to who knows what. Was McCara murdered? What mysteries lie in Lang’s university past that McCara considered so important? Lang and his wife oscillate from welcoming to coldly distant. Particularly so with Ruth Lang, a superb performance from Olivia Williams. Ruth has, quite possibly, been the power behind the Lang throne, but now seems less sure of where she stands. She’s tense, without making clear why and at times painfully blunt. Suffering no fools, brittle, sharply intelligent, coldly determined, her surprisingly vulnerability draws the Ghost in, despite him knowing its “a bad idea”.

But then The Ghost makes more than a few bad ones. Perhaps because he gets fed up with people thinking he’s stupid and is too keen to prove them wrong. Ewan McGregor is wonderful as a man who spends most of his time wearily ignoring digs at the fact he’s best known for ghosting the autobiography of a celebrity chef. The Ghost – as in Harris’ book he remains un-named, suitable for a man whose job is to pretend to be his client – seems to be a disconnected observer, but emerges as a dogged detective – even if he is painfully out of his depth and acting way beyond his expertise. He becomes increasingly panicked at the terrifying world of international politics and espionage, like a beginner swimmer dropped in the deep end, while unable to stop himself digging further, like picking at a scab.

The film picks at its own scab with the legacy of Blair. Brosnan’s confident, charismatic performance captures an impression of Blair while never trying to be an impersonation. He perfectly conveys the easy charm and casual but shallow warmth of the professional politician, but the slightest scratch of the surface reveals a man who feels hard-done-by and undervalued and sick of being judged for making the tough calls. Polanski allows him moments of sympathy: it’s hard not to see his point when he makes the case for what many would call intrusive security and the self-righteousness of his persecutor, former foreign secretary Ryecart (Robert Pugh, channelling Robin Cook) hardly warms the viewer (or the Ghost) to him.

The Ghost Writer manages to make its political parallels – especially about Iraq – pointed but not too heavy handed. (There is a lovely performance from David Rintoul as a calmly spoken former-army type who turns out to be a rabid anti-war protester). It imaginatively fictionalises a version of history, humanising characters who could otherwise be crude caricatures. The cast are wonderful and this is an intelligent, gripping, classic conspiracy thriller. Mastered by Polanski, who assembles the film with such control that it takes a cold grasp of your heart without ever seeming to overwork itself. As the credits roll, Polanski having left us with a poetically tragic image of pages blowing emptily in the wind on a London street, you’ll realise how the quiet doom so expertly built could only have led to one thing. The Ghost shoulda forgot about it: its Chinatown.

How the West Was Won (1963)

James Stewart helps us see How the West Was Won

Director: Henry Hathaway, John Ford, George Marshall

Cast: Spencer Tracy (Narrator), Carroll Baker (Eve Prescott Rawlings), Walter Brennan (Colonel Jeb Hawkins), Lee J Cobb (Marshal Lou Ramsey), Henry Fonda (Jethro Stuart), Carolyn Jones (Julie Rawlings), Karl Malden (Zebulon Prescott), Raymond Massey (Abraham Lincoln), Agnes Moorehead (Rebecca Prescott), Harry Morgan (Ulysses S Grant), Gregory Peck (Cleve van Valen), George Peppard (Zeb Rawlings), Robert Preston (Roger Morgan), Debbie Reynolds (Lilith Prescott van Valen), Thelma Ritter (Agatha Clegg), James Stewart (Linus Rawlings), Rus Tamblyn (Confederate deserter), Eli Wallach (Charlie Grant), John Wayne (William Sherman), Richard Widmark (Mike King)

How the West Was Won was the Avengers: Endgame of its day: every star of the biggest box-office genre in America coming together for one epic adventure that would stretch over generations. Stewart! Fonda! Peck! Wayne! Together for the first time (only of course they are not, none of them appearing the in same scene). Even more than that, How the West Was Won would be filmed in Cinerama, a three-screen shooting method producing a panoramic image. All this would make How the West Was Won the biggest, grandest, largest film ever made. It was a massive box-office success, nominated for eight Oscars (including Best Picture) and wowed audiences.

Plot wise though, it’s basically a series of short films cobbled together into a single film. The stories are basically self-contained, although some actors cross over (especially George Peppard and Debbie Reynolds). The first episode The Rivers covers the migration west, down the river, of the Prescott family, taking on river pirates and allying with James Stewart (looking at least twenty years too old as a young drifter). The Plains sees Debbie Reynolds, daughter of the Prescott family, migrate further West and eventually marry gambler Gregory Peck. The Civil War sees Stewart’s son George Peppard caught up in the war. In The Railroad, Peppard reluctantly runs security for ruthless railway builder Richard Widmark. Finally, in The Outlaws an older Peppard attempts to retire, but not before one final shoot out with old enemy Eli Wallach during an attempted train heist.

All these short stories – each about 30-45 minutes in length – are entertaining. So entertaining that you won’t mind at the end that you have no idea how the west was actually won (I assume it’s something to do with progress and the law) or that the characters are basically actors riffing off their own personas rather than fully realised individuals. Despite the attempt to build the story around one  family (the Prescott-Rawlings), the stories are so disconnected and the characters so lightly sketched, with such huge time jumps, each story might as well be about completely new characters.

Not that there is anything particularly wrong with that. But it boils down to the key issue with How the West Was Won, a very flabbily constructed film that lacks any real sense of guiding narrative or vision behind it. It’s a series of set pieces, which are all about scale – the river rapids, the battles of the Civil War, the final train-set shoot out – in which some loosely defined characters live their lives. There are some decent performances – Debbie Reynolds does a very good job anchoring a couple of stories (plus we get to see her do some song-and-dance routines), while Peck (a smooth operator) and Fonda (a gruff woodsman) have the best parts among the stars. Others, like Wayne, pop up for but a few seconds.

They needed all these stars to fill the frame. How the West Was Won’s main problem is also its principle reason to exist. It was designed to showcase the wideness of Cinerama, one of only two films to use the technique. Designed to be projected into curved screens, the technique essentially used one massive camera to produce an image so large it needed three synchronised projectors to screen it. This led to an impossible wide frame to fill, with two clear joins in the middle. The challenge of shooting this was not an enjoyable one for the directors.

To cover the visible joins, nearly every scene in the film sees an object placed one-third and two-thirds of the way through the image (usually a tree or a post). The actors stand carefully on their marks in their assigned third of the image. Close ups involved flying the massive camera almost into the faces of the actors (and even then it only produced an image from the waist up). Awkward compositions abound – either with actors standing rock still in front of huge scenery, or actors standing in carefully assigned rows, standing on marks they never move from.

The sweeping shots of the American west look impressive, but in a National Geographic way – it’s simply fitting as much of the imagery of the countryside in as possible. It was a hugely difficult job for the directors. It was not helped by two of them being competent journeymen and all three of them having done their best work in 4:3. Quite frankly I don’t think any of them have a clue about how to fill a frame this mighty. Instead, the film for all its grandeur is frequently visually conservative and unimaginative to look at. It’s got huge landscapes, but no real inspiration.

How the West Was Won is an enjoyable curiosity. It is very rarely, if ever, seen as it was intended on a Cinerama screen (the version I watched on a large television, still showed the slight fish-eye effect at points of a curved image flattened). Telling five short stories, each of them entertaining enough, it keeps the interest. It has a lusciously beautiful (famous) score by Alfred Newman that captures the spirit of the West. But, for all its grandness, it’s a strangely small experience.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Clint Eastwood is the Man with no Name in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Director: Sergio Leone

Cast: Clint Eastwood (“Blondie”/The Man With No Name), Lee Van Cleef (“Angel Eyes”), Eli Wallach (Tuco), Aldo Giuffrè (Union Captain Clinton), Mario Brega (Corporal Wallace), Luigi Pistilli (Father Pablo Ramírez), Al Mulock (Elam, one-Armed Bounty Hunter), Antonio Casas (Stevens), Antonio Casale (Jackson/Bill Carson), Antonio Molino Rojo (Captain Harper)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly closed out Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” Western trilogy, the role that turned Clint Eastwood into a star. Unlike the other two films in the Dollars series, TGTBTU was shot on a larger and more expansive budget, and showed Leone stretching himself into something more than a peddler of Americana pulp. This was a film that was as much an artistic statement as it was an entertainment – perhaps more so. 

The plot of the film is very simple – considering its extended runtime. Three bandits and hired guns are on a quest for buried gold, while all around them the American Civil War rages. The bandits are: “The Good” (Clint Eastwood) – the taciturn “man with no name” who has more of heart than he lets on; “The Bad” (Lee Van Cleef) – known only as “Angel Eyes”, a stone-cold killer with no soul at all; and “The Ugly”, Tuco (Eli Wallach), a larger than life Mexican bandit, scruffy, scuzzy but with plenty of joie de vivre. The money is hidden somewhere out in a graveyard in the West – but who is going to get there first?

TGTBTU is Leone at a midway point of his career. Tonally the film falls between the more straightforward thrills of the first two Dollarsfilms, and leans closer towards the artistic epic canvasses that Leone would paint in his Once Upon a Time… films. Perhaps this is why TGTBTU is possibly the most popular of all Leone’s films, it’s more entertaining than either of the latter two but has more thematic depth than the earlier two. But that doesn’t change the fact that, watching it, I feel this is reaching for a moral and thematic richness and complexity that is just beyond Leone’s grasp. He’s straining for this film to be something more than his earlier films – and I’m not sure that’s something he manages to do. 

But let’s focus on what the film does right, which is a hell of a lot. This is the film where Leone really found his voice and ran with it. It’s a hyper real world he creates of the Old West, with a tone of artificiality about it. Part of that comes from the odd disconnect you get from the European actors and the dubbed voices that overlay them (not always completely accurately), but it’s there in every inch of the style of the film.

It’s an explosion of style, with artificiality frequently alongside reality, all thrown together into a sort of crazy Western world where everything seems to be happening at once (from bandit towns to the Civil War), and you could turn a corner and end up in either a desert, a battle field or a town under siege. His style is heightened, and makes for some wonderful shots, not least the way first Blondie and later Tuco’s banditos seem to drop into a wider frame, expanding the world suddenly as we watch it. 

Leone’s a director who practically invented the term “operatic” for cinema. His gun battles are 99% build up and 1% action, and it’s the simmering tension of those build-ups that really make his films stick in the mind. If you think of it, you’ll imagine that iconic Ennio Morricone score (recorded before the film was shot, so Leone could shoot the film to match it – composers dream of having such licence today!), followed by slow series of escalating cuts. Leone will cut to hands approaching triggers, then close ups of faces, then long shots for context, then all of these again and again, each time the hands getting closer, the close-ups getting tighter, the long shots being more prolonged, all of it about building the tension and then BANG the shooting is done in seconds.

The film was criticised for being violent at the time, but it’s more like extremely tense. You can see why Tarantino sites Leone as his master. Watch that introduction sequence for Angel Eyes, a long, quiet scene where he eats a peasant’s food while questioning him and then ends by a sharp series of shootings that leave the family devastated. It’s the style Tarantino was going for in Inglourious Basterds and a tone establisher for Leone. You always know the violence is coming, and you know it will be quick and merciless when it does, but the film makes you sit tensely waiting for it for minutes at a time. The violence when it comes is often cold and those who carry it out are cynics and thieves rather than heroes and villains.

It makes for a sprawling, epic, even rather unfocused film at times – and it means the runtime is hopelessly overextended at over three hours uncut – but it’s also what interests Leone. He sees a world where killers are cool, calm, calculating and don’t go in guns blazing. Where intimidation is an art and micro-calculations occur before any trigger is squeezed. 

And these ruthless killers are in a world of violence all around them. Around the edges of the film’s narrative, the world of the Civil War rages, claiming lives left, right and centre. It’s here that Leone targets a thematic richness that I don’t feel is completely successful. There are elements that work – and the Union prison camp that Blondie and Tuco end up in (staffed by sadistic guards under the guidance of Angel Eyes) is the best of them. Clearly paralleling Nazi extermination camps in the herding of prisoners, the trains that carry them to certain death, the brutal beatings and the Yankee soldiers who are forced to play music (literally for their lives) to cover the noise of those beatings, you can feel Leone’s anger at the horror mankind unleashes on itself. 

But it’s heavy handed at places and makes its points too bluntly, dropping them into the film rather than weaving them neatly into the overall narrative. Towns and villages are bombed out and dead men lie on the edge of roads, but it doesn’t really get tied into an effective contrast with the central treasure hunt narrative. This is Leone straining for greatness, but not having the chops to get there yet. Blondie may bemoan the pointless slaughter of civil war – and even comfort a dying soldier – but these beats could be removed from the film without affecting its overall impact. Leone’s real love is Americana pulp, and his focus on this sometimes gets in the way of achieving his wider aims.

Perhaps that’s also because the impact gets lost slightly in the film’s great, sprawling length – and Leone’s lack of discipline, his insistence in taking everything at his own pace (often a slow dawdle through details), while it works really well for some sequences it also gives us others (such as Tuco running through a graveyard) that seem to last forever for very little impact.

Leone also increasingly became more a director with epic visuals in which characters are only details, with this film. Eastwood – reluctant to return in any case – especially feels like a much blanker presence in this film, coasting through his role almost on autopilot. Although you could say he generously cedes much of the limelight to Eli Wallach, who roars through the film as Tuco. Wallach’s eccentric but heartfelt performance – full of odd mannerisms but underscored with a genuine emotional vulnerability at points matched with a childlike enthusiasm – becomes central to the enjoyment of the film (he’s really the lead character). Van Cleef meanwhile drips demonic, cold menace behind unflinching (Angel) eyes.

Leone’s epic work is a sprawling, over extended, self-indulgent epic that mixes moments of pure cinematic entertainment with heavy handed digressions into man’s inhumanity that are a little too on-the-nose and unthreaded into the central plot to carry as much impact as they should. But it remains one of the most popular films of all time partly because what it does well, it does better than almost anyone – those long, tense build-ups, that electric energy that Wallach represents, the otherworldly artificiality mixed with cold reality. The Good the Bad and the Ugly is Leone’s crowning achievement, and for all its flaws, it still packs a punch.