Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Skinny's Best Films of the 2017 London Film Festival

I contributed capsules for Princess Cyd and 24 Frames in The Skinny's round up of the best films at this year's London Film Festival.

http://www.theskinny.co.uk/festivals/uk-festivals/film/the-12-best-films-at-bfi-london-film-festival-2017

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

LFF 2017 - Breathe, Stronger, Song of Granite & Redoubtable

In the almost three years since I saw The Theory of Everything, I've thought about it precisely twice. The first occasion was when Eddie Redmayne won the Best Actor Oscar (Yes, that really did happen!), and the second time was last week, when I sat through a screening of Breathe. In fact, the cunning critic could easily dust off an old review, change a few names and details, and present it as a fair examination of this thoroughly predictable and anodyne effort from first-time director Andy Serkis. Breathe tells the story of Robin Cavendish, who contracted polio at the age of 28 and was subsequently paralysed from the neck down. Expected to live for no more than three months, Cavendish eventually died at the age of 64, having revolutionised widely held beliefs of how the severely disabled could live. An inspiring story, sure, but as a movie this thing is dramatically dead. William Nicholson's screenplay possesses no depth or complexity; it simply plods through the events of Cavendish's life as they happened, with any setbacks and complications being swiftly overcome with a stiff upper lip and a smile. Serkis initially seems comfortable with the swoony romantic style of the film's opening section, as Robin (Andrew Garfield) meets Diana (Claire Foy) and sweeps her off her feet, but he can't do anything with the inert drama that follows, or with characters who have no inner life. Foy is given a single note to play as the caring, unfussy wife – her own pain is never explored – while Garfield just keeps waggling his eyebrows and pulling faces to try and convey some kind of emotion. It's the first truly bad performance I've seen from this actor. What is the purpose of a film like this? There is no imagination in Breathe, no attempt to illuminate something greater or wrestle with the material's complications. It is just easy, safe, saccharine bullshit, and it deserves to be swiftly forgotten.
The one thing Breathe did achieve was to make me think rather more fondly of Stronger, which I had seen a few days earlier. This is another film about a man learning to live with his disability, another film built around a love story, another film dedicated to emotional uplift, but this one has a sense of authenticity and two lead actors capable of adding shades to the characters and their relationship. The protagonist here is Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who had both of his legs amputated below the knee after being caught up in the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013. He was waiting at the finish line to greet Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), his on-off girlfriend, who was nearing the end of the race when the explosion occurred. Rather than devoted lovers resolved to fight adversity together, these are two characters with a difficult past who find themselves thrown together by circumstances, and both Gyllenhaal and the particularly excellent Maslany give us a sense of their frustration, exhaustion and fear rather than resting on the characters' noble perseverance. Stronger is at its best when it focuses on this relationship and blocks out the surrounding noise, which largely consists of a lot of shouting, with the Bauman clan coming across as crude Boston stereotypes, permanently drinking, joking, yelling and fighting; Miranda Richardson's performance as Jeff's permanently soused mother is particularly embarrassing. As a piece of filmmaking, Stronger is fine. It was directed by the wayward David Gordon Green, who finds some striking angles on the drama and is aided by Sean Bobbitt's textured, atmospheric cinematography, but the film can't escape the confines of its prescribed narrative. While it admirably avoids sentimentality for many of its key scenes, Stronger gradually gives in to the inevitable, and its disappointing that the ending of the film also coming packaged with an uncomfortable streak of nationalism – the importance placed on flag-waving at sporting events sitting awkwardly after recent images in the US.
So how do you explore a man's life through cinema? Perhaps the trick is to simply use that man as a conduit to dig into something deeper and more expansive. Pat Collins' Song of Granite is ostensibly a film about Joe Heaney, the legendary Irish sean-nós singer who achieved fame in New York in the 1950s, and was said to have a repertoire of over 500 songs stored in his head. But what do we learn about Heaney from this film? We get a sense of the overall arc of his life through the three-act structure that depicts him at three ages of his life, but at the end of the film Heaney remains something of an enigma. Instead, Collins explores the society he grew up in, the changing times he lived through, and the nature of Irish song itself. This angle shouldn't be a surprise, as Collins' previous work has always been deeply concerned with questions of landscape, culture and history, and his previous feature – the excellent Silence – took a similarly unconventional, semi-fictional approach to its subject. What really took me aback with Song of Granite was the level of Collins' craft, which feels like a huge step forward from his previous work. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Richard Kendrick, the first third of the film consists of handsomely composed shots and unfolds at a steady rhythm, allowing us to adjust to the pace of life in 1930s Connemara. The middle section follows Heaney as he leaves Ireland to seek work in the UK and then achieves success in the US, with the handheld camerawork and more fragmented editing reflects his more rootless existence. The final segment of the film takes on a more haunted, contemplative quality, as the elderly Healey, settled into his life as an anonymous doorman in New York, reflects on the path he has travelled and the life he has lived. Song of Granite is not an easy film for audiences to connect with, as it offers little context or assistance for anyone unfamiliar with Healey or this milieu, but patient viewers willing to engage with the images and sound will find it richly rewarding. This is particularly true of the songs. Mostly performed in Gaelic, they are included in the film with no subtitles, forcing us to listen to their innate musicality, their life, their emotion. Song of Granite certainly isn't a standard film biopic. It gives us so much more than that.
Why make a film about Jean-Luc Godard? He has put so much of himself – his ideas, his passions, his politics, his lovers – into the films he has made over the past six decades, so I found it hard to see the point of a film like Redoubtable when I first heard about the project last year. Having now seen the film, I still have no idea why it exists. Michel Hazanavicius has adapted it from Un an après, the roman à clef written by Anne Wiazemsky about her relationship with Godard in the late 1960s, but he has cast Stacey Martin in the lead female role and he styles her to look more like Anna Karina or Chantal Goya than Wiazemsky throughout. Godard is played by Louis Garrel, who overdoes the lisp and plays the director as a bumbling, needy dope who can't go five minutes without having his glasses stepped on – this is genuinely a running gag. The film is set in 1967 and '68, as Godard made La Chinoise, became increasingly drawn towards political struggle, and gave up on conventional cinema techniques to begin a new phase of his career working with the Dziga Vertov group. (There is no mention of his fin de cinéma Weekend.) Hazanavicius has nothing of interest to say about Godard's art (people keep asking him why he doesn't make the early, funny ones anymore), but as a director most comfortable in pastiche mode he makes lazy references throughout. Domestic scenes are shot like Le mépris, a sex scene is filmed in the style of Une femme mariée, we see Wiazemsky crying in front of The Passion of Joan of Arc, but everything is shallow and trite. Redoubtable is a one-joke sketch stretched to feature length, with its most intriguing scene taking place right at the end, on the set of Le Vent d'est, but that scene just made me wish the whole film had been about the Dziga Vertov Group instead of wasting two hours on Godard being an asshole and Wiazemsky being a doormat. Godard himself reportedly dismissed this film as a “stupid, stupid idea.” He's not wrong.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

LFF 2017 - Good Time, Racer and the Jailbird, Spoor & 1%

Although it opens with a smooth helicopter shot zooming in towards New York skyscrapers, Good Time is another film by the Safdie brothers that takes us on a tour of the city at street level, moving with the same anxious energy as its protagonist. Robert Pattinson already showed a willingness to disappear into a role in James Gray's The Lost City of Z earlier this year, and he does something similar here, giving a performance that's rich in observed details – the look, the voice, the movements all feel right – but one that's also built on a leading man magnetism that's crucial for getting us to empathise with this selfish anti-hero. Pattinson's Connie is the kind of character who lives by his wits; brilliant at thinking on his feet, but with no concept of how each decision will impact on himself and others. His actions have already landed his brother (co-director Benny Safdie, superb) in jail and now he needs to raise $10,000 in one night to bail him out, which is the jumping-off point for an anxiety-inducing nocturnal odyssey that keeps escalating and twisting in absurd ways. The Safdies' control of tone is sensational. Their film has an electric energy but they can shift moods fluidly; consider, for example, the slow-burning tension of the interlude in which Connie forms a bond with a 16 year-old girl (Taliah Webster), a scene that suddenly explodes into frantic comedy with a case of mistaken identity. They can also take us down unexpected sidetracks without losing the film's propulsive drive – the yarn told by Buddy Duress, as he recounts his first day out of jail, is a mini-masterpiece nested neatly inside the drama. Good Time's intoxicating effect is accentuated by the urgent score and by Sean Price Williams' gorgeously textured, neon-soaked 35mm cinematography. It's one of the most invigorating and surprising films you'll see this year, but at its core it retains a crucial emotional weight, as Connie leaves a number of altered and destroyed lives in his wake; a toll that he appears to be finally reckoning with in the film's haunting final scenes.
Sudden changes of tone are tricky things to pull off. Done well, they can have an exhilarating impact, but handled poorly they can leave viewer dumbfounded, thrown out of the movie and wondering what the hell just happened. Racer and the Jailbird will undoubtedly lose large chunks of its audience with its increasingly ludicrous plot twists, which occur with head-spinning velocity towards the film's end, but I think it had built up enough goodwill by that point to keep me on board even as the narrative spun out of control. The biggest thing Racer and the Jailbird has in its favour is sheer star power, with Matthias Schoenaerts (in his third feature with director Michaël R. Roskam) and Adèle Exarchopoulos sharing an instant, tangible chemistry that powers the film through its rougher patches. She's the racer, he's the jailbird, although she's under the impression that he's a successful car exporter when he first woos her at the racetrack. In fact, he and his gang are highly proficient bank robbers, with a couple of their heists being brilliantly choreographed by Roskam, including a superb sequence in which they take down an armoured car. The whole film is directed with a sleek confidence but the storytelling keeps getting in its own way. It's a thriller, a love story, a weepy melodrama, a parable about fate, and prison break movie; and while it might have been possible to navigate a less bumpy path through this variety of registers, Roskam and his co-screenwriters (Noé Debré and frequent Jacques Audiard collaborator Thomas Bidegain) can't find the right rhythm, and too much plot feels stockpiled into the climactic third. Your reaction to the film as the credits roll will depend on how much slack you're willing to give it, and I'd contend that there is a lot to appreciate here. Schoenaerts remains one of the most charismatic leading men in the business, able to project toughness and tenderness so beautifully, while the radiantly beautiful Exarchopoulos shines in her best role since Blue is the Warmest Colour; and I admire the way the film goes for broke, risking ridicule as it throws everything at the screen to see what sticks. You'll either respond to that kind of filmmaking or you won't, but I wasn't bored for a minute.
Spoor is kind of a serial killer thriller, I suppose, although it certainly doesn't follow the standard template of one. Dead bodies start turning up in the forest around the remote cabin where schoolteacher Janina Duszejko (Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka) resides, and as all of the deceased were hunters, she suggests that the animals are taking their revenge. (There are even cutaways to suspicious-looking deer.) The truth is, unfortunately, rather more prosaic, but it takes us an awful long time to get there as Agnieszka Holland stuffs her film with sub-plots and secondary characters, making the main narrative bewilderingly hard to make sense of. At heart, Spoor seems to be making a statement on the absurdity and cruelty of hunting, and occasionally it is effective. The film's chapters are divided by pages from a hunting calendar, showing which animals are in season – “So you can kill it on February 28th but on March 1st you can't?” Duszejko complains as she marches into the police station to report a murder (of an animal). There are just too many absurd and disconnected elements to swallow here – such as Duszejko's inexplicable ability to see past traumas from certain characters' lives, or the hilariously inept payoff to one character's involvement in modernising the town's lighting system – and at over two hours, the film's lack of narrative thrust makes it feel unbelievably sluggish. Jolanta Dylewska and Rafal Paradowski's spectacular cinematography and Antoni Lazarkiewicz's impressive score is wasted on this film, as is a fine leading performance from Mandat-Grabka. She's an appealing presence and she gives it her all, but she's playing a character who just doesn't add up.
What do you expect from a movie about motorcycle gangs? Some racing? Maybe a chase sequence? Well, you won't get any of that in 1%. As far as I could tell, these bikers just use their vehicles to get from A to B, which doesn't make for particularly exciting viewing. Other things notably absent here include any details on how exactly the Copperheads Motorcycle Club makes the large amounts of cash that they need laundered – it's possibly drug-dealing, but maybe not – and there's no sign of the police aside from some tape strapped across the door of a house after a suburban shoot-out. Instead, 1% largely consists of various hairy men drinking, fighting and shouting at each other. Most of the shouting is done by the fearsome club president Knuck (Matt Nable) and Paddo (Ryan Corr), our sympathetic protagonist, who was the stand-in leader while Knuck was behind bars and now feels he can take the gang further than the old-fashioned and brutish kingpin, but Nable, who also wrote the screenplay, just doesn't give these characters enough shading to make them interesting, and his supporting characters are little more than thin plot devices, with Paddo's mentally challenged brother Skink (Josh McConville) constantly stumbling into trouble, and his Lady Macbeth-ish girlfriend Katrina (Abbey Lee) having little to do aside from glowering from the sidelines and telling her man that he should be top dog. To be fair, Abbey Lee does deliver a good glower, and her face is often the most compelling thing in the movie. As we've seen in Mad Max: Fury Road and The Neon Demon, this young woman has an innate movie star presence, which makes her stand out like a beacon amid Stephen McCallum's flat, televisual style of direction here.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

LFF 2017 - Take Every Wave, Bobbi Jene, A Skin so Soft & Tonsler Park

I see too many documentaries that follow the standard format of talking heads telling a straightforward story, interspersed with montages of photos and archive footage, so I'll admit that my heart sank in the opening moments of Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton. When Hamilton began talking about his childhood, I wondered if I could really take a 118-minute portrait of a surfer told in such a mundane way, but against all odds, Rory Kennedy's film won me over. First of all, it was Hamilton himself who chipped away at my defences. He's undeniably a fascinating individual; a man with a huge ego and an insatiable need to be the best in his field. He has always lived slightly apart from the surfing mainstream, refusing to enter into competitions because he rejects the judgement of others and instead deciding to find his own path and seek out his own challenges. Other surfers interviewed here talk with predictable reverence about him, but Take Every Wave is no mere hagiography. The same obsessive drive to dominate that makes him a champion also makes him the kind of man who goes against the grain, alienating friends who were once part of his tight-knit team by dropping them for a more lucrative solo sponsorship deal, and causing friction among surfing purists with his constant innovations. Hamilton's approach to surfing has evolved through tow-surfing, in which a rider is led into a wave by a jet ski, to foilboard surfing, which involves a hydrofoil under the board that allows the surfer to glide above the water. This strand of the film, exploring Hamilton's considerable impact on the sport of surfing, is what elevates it into something more compelling than a standard biographical portrait. Of course, Take Every Wave has all of the spectacular footage that one would expect to find in a surfing documentary – and Hamilton's legendary conquering of the monster wave at Teahupoo in 2000 is indeed jaw-dropping – but Kennedy isn't willing to settle for spectacle. Her film is an illuminating study of recent surfing history, and a compelling look at what it means to be completely consumed by an ambition to be the greatest, and to dedicate your whole life to that goal. Now in his 50s, Laird Hamilton's body has been ravaged by injuries and arthritic joints, giving him a lopsided shuffling gait, but he is still going out every day in search of the biggest waves. If he can walk, he can surf.
An remarkable physical performance is at the heart of Bobbi Jene too. We are first introduced to the dancer Bobbi Jene Smith as she practices naked in a studio, and nakedness – both physical and emotional – becomes a central theme in this strikingly intimate film. Her first question to a colleague after demonstrating a new dance she has choreographed is whether she should perform it naked or not when the time comes to present it to an audience, and it seems that revealing herself completely through her dancing is the key to her art. When she talks about dancing she talks about feeling the need to come or to vomit, as if dancing allows her to purge something from within herself, a full-bodied approach that she developed under the tutelage of Ohad Naharin during her ten years at the Batsheva dance company in Israel. Bobbi Jene captures her at a pivotal moment in her life, having just turned 30 and feeling that it's time to return to the US and to strike out on her own as an independent choreographer. This pursuit is complicated by the fact that she has just fallen in love, with 20 year-old Israeli dancer Or Schraiber, and so Elvira Lind's film tells two stories, with the director attempting to shape them both into a single compelling narrative. Unfortunately, I was much more interested in one of these stories than the other; in fact, I could have used a lot more footage of Bobbi developing her performance, although we do get some intriguing insights, such as the way she presses herself against walls to develop a level of resistance in her performance, or the complete lack of self-consciousness or embarrassment in her work as she masturbates with a sandbag. (This frankness is interestingly contrasted with her mother's awkwardness at watching her perform.) The back-and-forth with Or, as he prevaricates over moving to America with her, just doesn't hold the same intrigue, and the attempt to include both stories often leaves Lind's film feeling shallow and shapeless. Still, Bobbi Jene herself is a engaging, down-to-earth character who is a pleasure to spend time with, and there's something inspiring and moving in watching the physical lengths she'll go to just to try and communicate something through her art. I'd love to see her performing live.
Denis Côté's A Skin so Soft allows us to spend time in the company of half-a-dozen Canadian bodybuilders. Sometimes we watch them doing the things that you'd expect bodybuilders to do – working out, posing in front of a mirror – but often we just watch them do the same everyday things as anyone else. We see them playing with their kids, eating their cereal, watching TV. Côté maintains a certain objective distance as he observes these strangely sculpted creatures in their domestic lives, and it's hard to know what exactly we're supposed to take from these nicely composed but largely uninteresting scenes. A few moments stand out, notably a shot of one muscleman wolfing down his breakfast while he watches something on his laptop, when he suddenly, inexplicably, starts to cry; and there are amusing moments too, like one subject's fumbling attempts to record an aggressive pre-competition message for a team of rival bodybuilders. But we never really get to know much about these men and I found my interest waning a little as the film moved into its final third, although Côté does shift gears late on when all six of these hitherto unconnected men come together for some kind of weekend camping retreat. This part of the film, like a couple of others, left me wondering how much of what we're seeing in the film is pure documentary, and how much has been carefully crafted by the director. That's just one of the nagging questions that this curious project left me with.
In Tonsler Park, the medium dictates the form. On November 8th 2016, Kevin Jerome Everson took his 16mm camera to a number of polling stations around Charlottesville, Virginia and he captured a reel's worth of footage, with the finished film consisting of these single takes. The camera is mostly a static observer, pointed at one of the volunteers or election officials as they sign in voters, hand out ballots, answer questions. Often the image becomes obscured as somebody steps between us and the subject of the camera's gaze, but Everson never shifts for a better angle. He simply invites us to sit patiently and watch the workings of democracy for eighty minutes; to realise that while Clinton and Trump ate up every second of media time, it's these ordinary people doing their civic duty who really matter in an election. It's a simple film, but our own knowledge of what happened in that election and what happened over the subsequent year adds an inescapable poignancy and gravity to its images. Almost all of the volunteers and voters that we see in the film are black, and few could have expected that they would be waking up the following morning to news of a Trump victory; fewer still would have imagined that torch-bearing Nazis would be marching on their own streets within the space of a year, and would receive tacit Presidential endorsement as they did so. In a year when all norms and values in American politics seem to have collapsed, a film like Tonsler Park feels particularly valuable.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Commentary Tracks - The Manchurian Candidate

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) with director John Frankenheimer

On the opening scene
This scene that we're looking at here was shot day for night in Franklin Canyon, Los Angeles, and this was supposed to be Korea. The reason we shot it day for night was that we wanted to do the titles over this. Now in one of the previews we actually tried to do the titles over this scene and the subsequent scene, which is about to come up, and the audience was terribly confused, they just didn't have the faintest idea what happened. So the next night we brought the workprint up to San Francisco, which is where we were, and we previewed it with no titles over all this, and it suddenly became very clear to the audience what was happening. With titles over all this scene here, you didn't really know that the patrol was being captured, and if you didn't know that the patrol was being captured and was subsequently being taken to Manchuria, you had no idea what this movie was about.

On casting Frank Sinatra
George [Axelrod] had heard that Frank Sinatra wanted to do this picture. The next day George called Sinatra and he did have a tremendous interest in it. We went down to see Sinatra in Florida where he was singing at the Fontainebleau Hotel, and on the way down George had said to me, “Look, the one thing he must not do is get into any kind of prolonged discussion, anything that would make him think that he didn't want to do this movie.” I said, “Don't worry about it.” So we arrived and knocked on Sinatra's door. He opened it and there was this great smile on his face, and he said, “God, I just can't wait to do your movie.” So we knew that anything we said from then on would hurt us, and we said nothing practically, except how thrilled we were to be there, and we went back the next day and said, “We've got Frank.” And that got the whole project together.

On the nightmare/brainwashing sequence
Now this dream sequence, that's coming up here, presented many, many problems, because it's through this dream and the James Edwards character's dream that you learn what happened to these men. What I had to do here was really show the brainwashing. The idea for this came right out of Richard Condon's book, which stated that the men thought they were at a garden club party in a hotel in New Jersey. The idea was to go 360 degrees around here, and the way we did that, to get this feeling that they're in the Manchurian amphitheatre, was that this part of the stage was on a railroad track with the front of the hotel lobby, which was on the same railroad track. As the camera panned off the hotel lobby and was going around the room, the stagehands just pushed the other set right into place and the actors ran around from one set and jumped into the other. Then this was a completely different set here, the Manchurian amphitheatre. We filmed this scene with about six different combinations. We filmed it with the soldiers on the New Jersey stage with the woman and with the Chinese psychiatrist; we filmed it in the Manchurian amphitheatre with the Chinese psychiatrist and with the woman; with the woman with the dignitaries, and the woman with the women; with the Chinese psychiatrist with the dignitaries and the Chinese psychiatrist with the women. So the combinations were endless and we put it all together in the editing room, although we had no idea how we were going to edit it when we shot it. That we being I, really.

On the karate fight
Now this next scene, this karate fight, was a scene that Frank Sinatra looked forward to doing from the moment that he read the script. He practised for it, he got himself an artificial hand, and we staged it and shot it really fairly quickly. It was the first big karate fight ever done on film, to the best of my knowledge. The problem is that Henry Silva, the actor whom we had playing Chunjin, was actually left-handed and we couldn't stage the fight with him being left-handed, so we had to make him do everything from the opposite side, which was a bit of a problem. It's one of the first times, as I say, that this had been done, and it got criticised at the time for being very brutal. Looking at it today, it's hardly anything compared to what you'd see even in a family movie.

On watching the film abroad
About three years after I made this movie I was in Europe, filming The Train, and I had some time off from that picture and I was asked to go and do publicity for another movie I'd made called Seven Days in May. One of the stops was Athens, and I had never been to Greece before. Anyway, I got to the hotel and the United Artists representative said to me, “You must come and see your movie The Manchurian Candidate. It's playing at this huge amphitheatre right in the middle of Athens, way up on a hill. You get up there and you see all of Athens below you, there are five thousand people that come to every showing of the movie, and you will just be overwhelmed by it. So indeed I went to the movie, I went into this amphitheatre, and it was huge, it was all the things that the guy said it was. I was sitting way down at the bottom and I could see the whole screen, and up at the top – way, way up – was the projection booth, separated from where I was by about 200 steps. I was also a very heavy smoker at the time, which has something to do with this story. As the film was playing there came a time when the reels changed, and this movie was on what we call 'double reels'. It came time for this section of the movie to come up, and this I believe it reel four. Suddenly, instead of this whole section of the movie, on comes reel five! In other words, this section that you're looking at now – he skipped! Well, I was hysterical. I ran out of my seat, I grabbed the Greek interpreter with me, and we ran up 200 steps to the projection booth, wildly out of breath but so obsessed and driven by this. I said, “Tell him that he skipped reel four!” The man is saying this in Greek and the projectionists starts to laugh. He says something back, and I said, “What's he laughing about? What did he say?” He said, “He always skips reel four. He feels that the picture plays much better without reel four, that reel four doesn't really make any sense, and this way he gets another showing.” Well, I don't know what to tell you. I was just so shocked! And that's what they did every night!

On Raymond walking into the lake
Now in the scene you're about to see, where he goes outside and walks into Central Park, it was probably the coldest day that New York had had in thirty years. We had to film this shot of Laurence Harvey going into the lake and the ice on the lake was about a foot thick. Starting at five o'clock in the morning we had bulldozers and shovels trying to cut holes in that ice, and he went in on take one. It was absolutely amazing, he just kept going. It was so cold we had one of these cameras freeze up, but he kept going, he went into the water. He was staying at the Plaza Hotel, so he went back, soaking wet, covered with towels and so forth, and people were looking at him going into his room; “Oh my God, that poor man has had an accident.” Twenty minutes later he came out of his room dressed as a priest for another scene in this movie, it was unbelievable, people couldn't understand what this man was doing in this hotel. But this was unbelievably cold, as you're about to see, but he went in there. This was the shot, we had three cameras on this thing, and there it is. You have no idea how cold that it, just look how thick that ice is.

On the murder of Senator Jordan and his daughter
This scene presented a tremendous challenge to me. In other words, I've got so many bodies in this movie, it became a tremendous challenge to figure out how to get rid of them all, how to kill them. I didn't want to see blood all over the place, so I thought, this is the perfect guy, this is the good man, the pure man, and I thought I'd go over-the-top and shoot him through the milk and see how that all worked, see if I could get away with it. Again, it's a low angle on Raymond, showing the American eagle, the whole thing. If you take it shot by shot it's a little bit over the top. And this [killing Jocelyn] had to be quick. This next thing had to be quick and, not disgusting, but terribly final. Again, that's an 18mm lens with those bodies big in the foreground.

On Sinatra's first take
It's important to know that Frank Sinatra was a man who really was better on the first take. It wasn't a question of the fact that he would only do one take, as rumour has it sometimes, he was just better on the first take. This scene coming up is his most dramatic scene in the picture, and he had great anxiety about doing it. On his close-up, which you'll see, he did it magnificently on take one. When we looked at the daily rushes the next day, Frank Sinatra was out of focus and his Major Leaves were in focus. I was devastated, it's the longest walk I have ever taken, from the projection room to Frank Sinatra's dressing room, to tell him this. He was in tears because he knew how good he'd been in the scene. He said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “Well, we're going to have to re-shoot.” The first time we went to re-shoot it Frank got laryngitis, he was so nervous about having to re-do it. We couldn't shoot. We scheduled a re-shoot again, we did it, it wasn't good. We shot it again, we did like ten takes, it was never good. This is the shot right here. And I didn't know what to do. I was alone in the cutting room putting this movie together, I tried all of the other stuff and finally I said, to hell with it, put the out-of-focus shot in. A lot of people including the editor argued vociferously not to do it, but I said, “His performance is much better in this shot. Put it in.” Well, I can't tell you the great reviews I got as being a genius to use the brainwashed man's point of view of this out-of-focus man. Everybody thought it was Larry Harvey's point of view, everybody thought that this was on purpose, and in reality it was the assistant cameraman's fault.
Bits and Pieces

I think the important thing to remember about this movie is that it was turned down by every studio in Hollywood.

David Amram, who does the music for this movie, had done some television for me, and had done another movie for me called The Young Savages. The only other movie to the best of my knowledge that he did was Kazan's movie Splendour in the Grass. He's basically a classical composer.

As you watch this movie just be aware of the fact that a lot of the scenes were shot with wide-angle lenses in real locations. It's a style that I had developed in live television and had used to a greater or lesser degree in The Young Savages, The Birdman of Alcatraz and All Fall Down, the movies I had done before this. But really, in this film I did it almost continually. 

Incidentally, this whole business of hydrangeas, I said to George Axelrod, “Look George, we have to have a whole speech here that's going to enable me to get this camera to go 360 degrees around this room, and I need a lot of words.” He asked what I wanted the speech to be about and I said, “Well, she's talking about hydrangeas so obviously the speech has to be about hydrangeas.” He said, “Dear boy, I know nothing about hydrangeas. However, you shall have your speech!” So what he did was he got a seed catalogue and he copied the seed catalogue word-for-word, and that's what we have here. 

Here's an interesting fact about this actor here, Joe Adams. This was one of the first instances where a black actor or an African-American actor was cast in a part that specifically didn't say that the character was black. We weren't trying to win any great causes, it's just that we decided we wanted to do that.

You know, a lot of things have been said about this movie, but the thing that I really care about is that it was the first movie to take on Senator McCarthy. Don't forget this movie was made very soon after McCarthy, and the whole blacklist was still a factor in making movies and still a factor in everybody's life in showbusiness.

Now this is the black guy's version of the same dream, his dream of the same event. Now the idea was to have the whole audience be black women, because that's the way he would dream it, we thought. If you look carefully in the background there's a white bellboy – see it? Nobody ever picked that up, incidentally. It was my own private joke, I guess you'd say. Throwing the blood on Stalin was just an idea I had while we were shooting the scene.

Angela Lansbury, in my previous picture All Fall Down, had played Warren Beatty and Brandon deWilde's mother, and I wanted her very badly for this movie. Frank Sinatra had wanted Lucille Ball and we had a discussion about it, and I must say Sinatra was very gracious. He didn't have to, but he put a lot of faith in me and let me cast whoever I wanted, and when I showed him All Fall Down it was just a cinch that Angela should play the mother. The funny thing about it is, when she did this she was only two years older than Laurence Harvey.

Now the trick here was, how does Sinatra find Laurence Harvey? We couldn't come up with it. Finally one day I said to George Axelrod, “Foreign Correspondent,” and we both knew exactly what was meant by that. In Foreign Correspondent, Joel McCrea finds where the Nazis are in this mass of windmills because all the windmills are going in one direction, except for the one where the spy's radio is, which is going in the other direction because it's electrically powered. Today they call such a thing an homage, but in those days I'd call it a rip-off. I have to admit to the fact that I ripped off Hitchcock here because all the lights dim, except for one, Raymond Shaw's light does not dim and that's how Sinatra finds out where he is.

Final Thoughts
Like most scenes in this picture, Frank shot that one in one take. We shot the whole picture in 41 days, and it was probably one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.