Tag: Leo Genn

Moby Dick (1956)

Gregory Peck on a voyage of obsession as Ahab hunting Moby Dick

Director: John Huston

Cast: Gregory Peck (Captain Ahab), Richard Basehart (Ishmael), Leo Genn (Starbuck), Orson Welles (Father Mapple), Friedrich von Ledebur (Queequeg), James Robertson Justice (Captain Boomer), Harry Andrews (Stubb), Bernard Miles (The Manxman), Noel Purcell (Carpennter), Edric Connor (Daggoo), Meryn Johns (Pelog), Joseph Tomelty (Peter Coffin), Francis de Wolff (Captain Gardiner)

There might be fewer books that lend themselves less to being turned into a film than Herman Melville’s monumental Moby Dick. Perhaps the greatest of all American novels, its’ the story of New England whaler the Pequod’s Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest to kill Moby Dick, the great white whale that took his leg. But it’s also an intense intellectual and spiritual journey into the nature of humanity, which has thrown the book open to multiple interpretations, even more tempting with a book that defies explanation. Try capturing that on film.

John Huston’s Moby Dick is a noble attempt, more criticised at the time than it probably deserves, with the visual language of film unable to ever capture the metaphorical weight of the original novel. What Huston needed to do is to try and capture some of the spirit of the novel, bring its central story to life and make a film that ideally makes you want to search the book out. I would say Moby Dick succeeds on that score.

Reducing the monumental novel (often described as one of the great “unread” books in people’s homes) to under two hours, brings out the narrative, stressing the surface story as an adventure on the high seas, a doomed quest under an obsessive captain. The detail of the reconstruction of the whaling ship, its operations on the sea (including some graphic slaughter of some, fortunately, fake whales) and the atmosphere of the time is brilliantly reconstructed. The film is staffed by an extraordinary collection of actors, whose faces speak of lives led in salt-spray. 

So, starting with the idea that no film could ever capture the depth and richness of the book, Moby Dick is a decent, smart enough attempt. The key themes are there in strength. It captures obsession and the idea of the ship being a sort of microcosm of society, led astray by a leader who has his own passions at heart, over and above the well-being of the crew, but has enough magnetism to pull the crew with him nevertheless. 

Huston laboured long and hard to bring the film to life, in a wrestle with Melville. Even adapter Ray Bradbury claimed he had “never been able to read the damn thing”, with Huston and Bradbury clashing constantly during the writing process. It works, and Bradbury’s adaptation is beautifully done, but in a way John Huston himself was a sort of Ahab with the book as his whale. 

In fact you could argue – as many have – that Huston himself was the natural casting for Ahab (take a look at Chinatown to see what I mean). A charismatic raconteur, ruthless and fixated on his goals, that’s an Ahab we could buy into. Perhaps in that world, Orson Welles – here giving a neat little cameo that avoids bombast as Father Mapple – would have been the perfect director, marrying mastery of cinema with a wonderful understanding of transforming literature into film.

Gregory Peck is the Ahab we do get. At the time the casting was strongly criticised – people just couldn’t buy the straight-as-an-arrow Peck as the destructively bullying Ahab. Peck himself remained strongly critical of his performance here all his life. Separated from the time, Peck’s performance is stronger than you anticipate, capturing a gruff fixation and magnetic charisma that you can believe pulls people in. Peck may strain a little too hard for the elemental anger, but Peck’s Ahab has a bass richness, a sort of inverted Lincolnish (he even looks a little like Lincoln) self-righteousness that makes you believe he could rouse a ship to choose its own destruction. Peck also brings a spiritually dead look to Ahab, a man turned from hope to destruction. Huston teasingly keeps Ahab in reserve for almost a quarter of the film until his first appearance, allowing the build in the audience’s expectations.

The casting of the crew uses a fine selection of British and Irish actors (the film was shot in Ireland), with Harry Andrews particularly strong as jolly but non boat-rocking first mate Stubb. Leo Genn gets the meatiest material as Starbuck, a decent, working man with a firm sense of principle but who lacks any sense of the charisma needed to swing people to his point of view. The film bumps up Starbuck’s role, centralising his growing unease at Ahab’s madness, opportunities which Genn (nearly underplaying to contrast with Peck’s theatricality) works a treat. Richard Basehart – a good voice for narration but much less of a presence – gets a bit lost as Ishmael. There is an intriguing bit of casting – something that would never happen today – that sees Austrian aristocrat turned actor Friedrich von Ledebur play the Maori-inspired Queequeg, a visual disconnect that is more than a little distracting for a while.

Moby Dick is beautifully filmed and assembled, even if Huston throws in the odd obvious shot – sun beating down on the ship, a close up of the whale’s eye. It has a unique look – on the remastered blu-ray – with the image reflecting the faded, bleached look of whale prints (an effect achieved by superimposing a black-and-white negative over a colour one, draining most of the colours our), which gives it a great deal of visual interest. It’s never going to replace the book – but honestly what could? As an exploration of the ideas at its heart it’s wonderful – and a great prompt to pick it up – but with a marvellous sense of life on sea, a stirring score and a wonderful sense of intelligent construction it more than works.

Henry V (1944)

Once more unto the breach with Laurence Olivier as Henry V

Director: Laurence Olivier

Cast: Laurence Olivier (Henry V), Renée Asherson (Princess Katherine), Robert Newton (Pistol), Leslie Banks (Chorus), Felix Aylmer (Archbishop of Canterbury), Robert Helpmann (Bishop of Ely), Nicholas Hannen (Exeter), Ernest Thesiger (Duke of Berri), Frederick Cooper (Nym), Roy Emerton (Bardolph), Freda Jackson (Mistress Quickly), George Cole (Boy), Harcourt Williams (King Charles VI), Russell Thorndike (Duke of Bourbon), Leo Genn (Constable of France), Francis Lister (Orleans), Max Adrian (The Dauphin), Esmond Knight (Fluellen), Michael Shepley (Gower), John Laurie (Jamy), Niall McGinnis (MacMorris), Valentine Dyall (Burgandy)

Olivier’s pre-eminence as the leader of the acting profession in Britain for a large chunk of the last century probably found its roots in his imperiously sublime production of Henry V, the first time he directed a film, but also the point where it seemed that Olivier and the country of Britain seemed to be almost one and the same. Filmed as a propaganda piece, heralding the indomitable spirit of the British in the face of foreign wars, Olivier’s film is a triumph that also set the tone for what the public expected from Shakespeare films for decades to come. 

Originally Oliver balked at the idea of directing the film, approaching William Wyler to take the job on. But Wyler, rightly, knew he could never bring the Shakespearean understanding to it that Olivier could, so the soon-to-be Sir Laurence took the job on himself – meaning he directed, co-produced, co-adapted and starred in the film. I’m not sure anyone else could have done it – or invested the entire project with such certainty, such confidence, such power of personality that the entire project flies together into a sweeping, brightly technicolour treat of pageantry and theatre.

Olivier’s concept for the film is ingenious – and influential. Taking as its cue the words of the chorus (delivered with a archly bombastic confidence by Leslie Banks), the call to “let your imaginary forces work”, the film is set initially in a genuine Elizabethan era staging of Henry V (including unfortunate rain downpour after the first scene).Slowly, it develops over the course of the film from set to cinematic sound stage (still designed with influence from medieval illustrations) and finally into a realistic location setting for the Battle of Agincourt, before turning heel and repeating the journey back until the film ends again in the Globe theatre, with the actors taking their bow (and the female characters now played by fresh-faced boys). It’s marvellously done, and a neat play on the limitations of both film and theatre, and a testament to the powers that imagination can have to expand the world of what we are presented with.

The style of the play develops as we watch it, becoming more natural and restrained as we get closer to Agincourt, then progressing gently back the other way. The opening scenes play Canterbury and Ely’s long-winded legal argument in favour of war for laughs (with neat comic timing by Felix Aylmer and Robert Helpmann), with an avalanche of papers across the stage, Canterbury frequently lost in his exposition and Ely (and even Henry) having to prompt him with precise points. This is a nice set-up for the comic characters of the play, Falstaff’s old retainers here are the very picture of high-spirited, rowdy common folk (though I must say Robert Newton’s high-energy, gurning Pistol is a bit of a trial, even if it perfectly captures the playing-to-the-cheap-seats mania the role seems to require). 

This comic exuberance (and the stuff with Canterbury is genuinely quite funny) gives a perfect counterpoint for Laurence Olivier to perform Henry at his imperious best. Olivier was an actor who invested his Shakespearean delivery with far more naturalism than he is often given credit for, and his Henry here has more than enough true feeling, emotion, determination, courage, bravery and nobility behind his almost sanctified greatness. And of course you get Olivier’s outstanding delivery, that wonderfully rich voice with just a hint of sharpness, delivering the lines not as just poetry, but as true moments of invention. Olivier also has the mastery of the small moments – and Henry doesn’t get much of those – with two particular favourites being the small cough in the wings to clear his throat before entering for his first scene, and that satisfied, exuberant smile at the curtain call at the play’s end. His Henry – the true warrior king of virtue – cemented perception of the character for decades to come.

True, Olivier never touches on Henry’s darker side. Olivier neatly cut anything that could introduce any shades of grey into the character: gone is the summary execution of the traitors at Southampton, cut are the references to naked newborn babes being spitted on pikes before Harfleur, nowhere do you hear the order to execute all prisoners at Agincourt. This is film-making with a purpose, to pushing the message of England, for good, against all. 

As a director, Olivier revelled in the possibilities of cinema, marrying it to theatre. For the large speeches, Olivier invariably starts small and close, and then pans sharply and widely out to turn the cinema into a theatre – also allowing the actors (often to be fair, himself) to not feel restrained by the intimacy of the camera, but to deliver the speeches as intended, larger than life and bursting with impact. Olivier’s confidence with the camera is striking, his film a celebration of sweeping shots, of carefully placed tracking shots, of well-delivered acting. The camera work in the Globe is beautifully done, a series of carefully selected angles and shots. The long panning shot over a model of London leading to the Globe that book-ends the film is beautifully done, and the confidence with which Olivier slowly transitions from artifice to reality is superbly well done.

The style of the piece is extraordinary, with its primary colours like a medieval book brought to life. There is some pleasing comic mileage from the French court, reduced almost to a man to being a bunch of camp moral weaklings. The courting of Princess Katherine (Renée Asherson, in a role intended for Vivien Leigh) has a playful charm to it (even if, as in the play, it’s probably a scene too far after the highpoint of Agincourt). But the heart of it is that long build to the campaign, for Agincourt to be brought to life (at huge expense at the time), a beautiful rendering and explosion of reality after the careful artificiality of the rest of the film, as if we really have got our imaginations working and brought it to life before us as the Chorus instructed.

The film established a regular Olivier company that would work with him on films to come. William Walton’s score seems to capture that mood of England at war and believing it was in the right. The cast – plucked from English theatre by Olivier – give striking performances, from Leo Genn’s stern Constable to Max Adrian’s bitter Dauphin, with Esmond Knight’s pernickety Fluellen leading the way for the English. Olivier is of course at the centre as the master conductor, a man who fitted so naturally into the role of leader that he basically seemed ready to take it on for the whole country, never mind just the film. Is there an actor around who was more suited and natural in positions of authority than Olivier? Who was so easily able to inspire and dalliance with genius? 

Turning Henry Vinto a patriotic celebration of England was what was needed, but turning Shakespeare into something that worked on film, that married the theatrical qualities with the cinematic sweep of the camera was exactly what the Bard needed to find a life on screen. Olivier’s daring was to strip down the play and work out what would work on screen and how to make that come to life. Doing so, he defined Shakespeare films for a generation.

The Snake Pit (1948)

Olivia de Havilland struggles with her sanity in the engaging The Snake Pit

Director: Anatole Litvak

Cast: Olivia de Havilland (Virginia Stuart Cunningham), Mark Stevens (Robert Cunningham), Leo Genn (Dr Mark van Kensdelaerik “Dr. Kik”), Celeste Holm (Grace), Glenn Langan (Dr Terry), Helen Craig (Nurse Davis), Leif Erickson (Gordon), Beulah Bondi (Mrs Greer), Lee Patrick (Asylum inmate), Betsy Blair (Hester), Howard Freeman (Dr Curtis)

Virginia Stuart Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) wakes up on a park bench with no idea where she is – and only the vaguest idea of who she is – and reckons she could be anywhere from a zoo to a prison. She’s actually in an asylum – or Juniper Hill State Hospital – and has been for some time, struggling with a schizophrenia and anxiety-related condition and with no idea of when – or if – she will ever leave. She is treated by the kindly, professorial “Dr Kik” (Leo Genn) and generally fails to recognise her husband Robert (Mark Stevens).

The Snake Pit is a very earnest but dramatically engaging and even quite moving story of one woman’s struggle to try and preserve her mental health, despite being stuck in a system that is a complete lottery with some patients lucky enough to be cared for and others dumped and forgotten. Litvak’s film is a passionate expose on the conditions that lack of funding and public interest had allowed to prosper in mental institutions in America, with parts of the facility little better than a Dickensian work-house, others like something out of Dante’s Inferno. It was a passion project for Anatole Litvak, who bought the rights to the book personally and pushed the studio to fund the creation of the film.

The story is centred around Virginia’s experiences of the asylum as she moves from ward to ward – low numbered wards being reserved for those considered likely to leave, with the ward number increasing as the prospect of the patient ever getting out of the asylum (or ever getting any focus from the doctors) decreasing. The staff are harassed, overworked, underpaid and frequently struggle with being heavily outnumbered by the patients, having only a few minutes a day for each one. They are also a mixed bag – there seems to be very little in the way of training – with some dedicated and caring, others seeing the patients as at best irritants and at worst little more than objects. Virginia’s real problems start when she gets on the wrong side of Ward 1 nurse Davis (Helen Craig), an officious, domineering bully who treats her patients like pupils in a finishing school and punishes ruthlessly any deviation from her rules.

Litvak’s film exposes the conditions here, but apart from the odd individual largely avoids attacks on the staff. Instead it seems to be the general air of indifference and disregard that society has for those who end up in these places that seems to be taking the brunt of the blame. Litvak’s direction is impeccable as he uses a combination of interesting angles, sympathetic close-ups and clever transitions and fades (which serve as a neat contrast for Virginia’s own struggles to understand where and when she is). In one particular tour-de-force moment, Litvak’s camera pulls up-and-away from Virginia in the middle of the hellish Ward 33 (the Snake Pit of the title), pulling away to make the ward indeed appear it is at the bottom of a pit with the patients a mass of figures within. 

Litvak’s film also benefits hugely from the simply superb performance by Olivia de Havilland. De Havilland brings the role such commitment and such emotional performance, that she is largely to thank for making the story (and not just the setting) as engrossing as it is. De Havilland is gentle, vulnerable, scared but mixes it with touches of determination and also carries with her a sensitivity that makes her as much a caring and gentle figure as it does a victim. She appears in almost every scene and dominates the film, handling the moments of quiet panic as well as she does the moments of immense distress. Her increasingly sorry state as she progresses down through the wards is heart-rendering, and her confusion and fear makes her someone we care for deeply, even while her concern and care for her fellow inmates – particularly a violent patient, played by Betsy Blair, who she takes under her wing and helps recover some of her equilibrium – makes her admirable and less of a victim.

Though lord knows she suffers enough, from claustrophobic locked-in baths (her screaming fit as she fears drowning being all-but-ignored by her dismissive nurses who have heard it all before) to being strapped into a straitjacket for god knows how long (after being provoked into an angry outburst by Nurse Davis). Around this she also undergoes bullying medical examinations from doctor’s unfamiliar with her case to watching her fellow inmates being mocked and laughed at my visitors. That’s not even to begin to mention the ECT treatment she undergoes at the start of the film (“to bring her back” from the edge of disappearing into a fantasy world), a series of detailed and observed procedures which are clinically sinister. 

Despite its many strengths, the film is dated in many ways. The original book avoided all reasons for Virginia’s illness. The film works overtime to give a “reason” for why she is, and of course this is rooted above all to issues related to Virginia’s failure to relax into the “proper” role for a woman in this man’s world. Her conditions are clumsily linked back to a troubled relationship with her mother and father, that led to a lack of development of maternal feelings. Guilt over a failed engagement has made her uncomfortable with marriage and nervous of men. Many of these revelations come out through a series of slightly clichéd therapy sessions that, for all the skill of Leo Genn’s performance as the doctor, carry the “and now we know all the answers” certainties of film psychiatry. 

Attitudes like this date The Snake Pit – so what if Virginia perhaps isn’t wild about marriage and isn’t sure if she wants children – and the film works overtime to suggest what will make her better above all is settling down into the sort of conventional life represented by her dull-as-ditch-water husband Robert, flatly played by Mark Stevens. While the film shows that healing like this takes time – and a lot of it – it also can’t imagine a world where a woman might find a life outside of the domestic norm healthier for them. But the film remains an emotional and moving one – moments like the one near the end where the patients listen enraptured, with enchanted faces, to a singer singing about home carry real emotional force – and it has a simply superb performance from de Havilland. Litvak’s film maybe slightly dated, but it’s still an impressive piece of work.

Quo Vadis (1951)

Peter Ustinov revels in the Status Quo (Vadis) of Imperial Rome

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Cast: Robert Taylor (Marcus Vinicius), Deborah Kerr (Lygia), Leo Genn (Petronius), Peter Ustinov (Nero), Patricia Laffan (Poppaea), Finlay Currie (St. Peter), Abraham Sofaer (St. Paul), Marina Berti (Eunice), Buddy Baer (Ursus), Felix Aylmer (Plautius), Ralph Truman (Tigellinus), Rosalie Crutchley (Acte), Nicholas Hannen (Seneca)

In the 1950s, epic films were the way for the movie studios to defeat the onslaught of television. What better way to best the creeping presence of the small screen in every home than offering more action, sets, crowds and colour than could ever be squeezed into that small box in the corner of the room? Quo Vadis was the first film that started a wave.

Returning to Rome after years on campaign, Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) falls in love with a Christian hostage, Lygia (Deborah Kerr). Gifted Lygia as a reward by the decadent Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov), Marcus slowly becomes fascinated by her religion – and more aware of the insanity of Nero. Petronius (Leo Genn), Marcus’ uncle and Nero’s cynical retainer who hides his barbs under double-edged flattery, unwittingly plants in the Emperor’s mind the plan for a Great Fire in Rome. After the mob reacts with fury, Nero kicks off a persecution of Christians that will end in slaughter in the arena…

There is a charming stiffness to some of this film which actually makes it rather endearing. Like many films that followed it, this balances a po-faced reverence for Christian history with a lascivious delight in sex, destruction and violence. This means the audience can be thrilled by Rome burning, entertained by Nero’s decadence, watch Christians mauled by Lions and burned alive – while also being comforted by the triumph of good-old fashioned Christian values and persuaded the film has some sort of higher purpose because it ties everything up with a nice faith-shaped bow.

Of course this all looks rather dated today, but back in 1951 this was the studio’s most successful film since Gone with the Wind and the biggest hit of the year: it started a nearly 15-year cycle of similarly themed religious epics. The money has clearly been chucked at the screen – the sets are huge, the casts sweeping, the staging of the Roman fires and Christian sacrifices very ambitiously put together. Perhaps the only surprise is that the lush, attractive cinematography isn’t in wide-screen – this was the last film of this kind to not be filmed in the widest lens available. 

Despite its nearly three-hour run time, this is quite an entertaining story, laced with enough real history to make it all convincing (even if it telescopes the last few years of Nero’s reign into what seems like a week or so). Despite this, the storytelling does feel dated at times as we get bogged down in back and forth about Christianity (told with an intense seriousness by the actors, mixed with long-distance-stares type performances), and the homespun simplicity of its message lacks the shades of grey we’d expect today (as well as being a little dull) but it just about holds together.

The main problem is the lead performers. Robert Taylor is an actor almost totally forgotten today – and it’s not difficult to see why here. Not only does he speak with the flattened mid-Atlantic vowels recognisible from American leads in historical films from this era (the jarring mixture of accents in the film is odd to hear) but he is an uncharismatic, wooden performer sorely lacking the power a Charlton Heston would have brought to this. Marry that up with his character being a dull chauvinist and you’ve got a bad lead to root for. The relationship between him and Deborah Kerr’s (equally dull) Christian hostage is based on a terminally dated, borderline abusive, set-up: he kidnaps her from her home and wants her to change her faith, she won’t but never mind she loves him anyway without condition and surely her love will make him a good man, right!

Despite the efforts of the leads and some decent supporting actors (Finlay Currie in particular makes a very worthy Peter) the Christian story never really picks up. There are some nice visual flourishes – the recreation of some Renaissance paintings is well-done, and the stark image of Peter crucified is striking – but the Christian story isn’t what anyone will remember from this film. It’s all about the corrupt Romans.

Not only do they have the best lines and all the best scenes, but in Leo Genn and Peter Ustinov they also have the only actors who perhaps seem to realise they are not in a work of art, but a campy popcorn epic. Both actors give wonderfully complementary performances. Genn’s dry wit as the cynical Petronius (whose every line has a cutting double meaning) underpins his wry social commentator to fantastic effect, delivering many of the films laugh-out loud moments. He elevates many of the best lines in a dry but educated script.

Genn’s low-key performance also brilliantly contrasts with Ustinov’s extravagance as Nero, making the emperor a sort-of sadistic Frankie Howerd. Ustinov has enormous fun in the role, cheerfully going up and over the top with Nero’s man-child depravity, bordering on vulnerability and a needy desire to be liked and respected by the people and his underlings. Depictions of his singing are hilarious, his petulant sulking extremely funny. Yes, it’s an absurd performance – more a comic sketch almost – but it somehow works because (a) everything else in the film is so serious and (b) Genn’s world-weary cynicism anchors the character for the first two-thirds of the film, giving Ustinov much freer reign to go over the top. 

So it’s all about the baddies – as was often the way with films of this era. You’ll remember the scenes of Nero holding court, and the archly written dialogue between Petronius and Nero. Ustinov and Genn are, in very different ways, terrifically entertaining (both received Oscar nominations). The Christian message of the film is on-the-nose (to say the least), and the lead actors are more like kindling for the Great Fire than actual characters. It’s a strange film, at times a bloated far-too-serious religious epic, at others a campy tragi-comedy with a dry wit. Yes it’s dated and far from perfect, but it’s also strangely entertaining and even a little compelling.