Welsh Rabbit and a Mixed Bag

Newcomers join old masters with some hearty fare, especially Under Milkwood and Cries and Whispers, and some not so hearty.

March 1973By Comments

THE WINNING FILM OF THE moment is Under Milk Wood, Andrew Sinclair’s beautiful screen adaptation of the Dylan Thomas play, a triumph of visualization of the verbal visions and vignettes the poet created. The film, incidentally, was made almost two years ago and opened the 1971 Venice Film Festival. The film co-stars Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole and Elizabeth Taylor and features a host of Britain’s finer actors (Vivien Merchant, Sian Phillips, Victor Spinetti, Glynis Johns and Wales’ Ryan Davies). What these performers and Sinclair have created is pure poetry, a translation of a classic concerned with the living and the dying and the continuum, with laughter and heartbreak and compassion for the human community. And that, as Variety would note, requires a “special sell.”

Who needs to be sold Dylan Thomas’s only play, written over ten years and completed a month before his death at 39 in 1953? It has been performed in nearly every country in the world, off and on Broadway in this country (most memorably in our experience by the National Theater of the Deaf, whose ballet of sign language added further dimension to the lyrical prose) where it is now a campus standard for performance and for reading. Yet over the years none had had the courage to attempt a film thereof: “Seventy little stories to tell in ninety minutes in the life of a small fishing-port. The connecting link Two Voices, their character and connection with the town unexplained…It was daunting,” Sinclair admits. And the story of his accomplisment is, in a way, as fascinating as the result. (The details are in Sinclair’s foreword to the soft-cover edition of the screenplay, published by Simon & Shuster last fall, for $2.95) For it was only in the completion of the film that he understood Burton’s telling him that the play “was all about religion, sex and death,” and in the making in the Welsh sea town of Fishguard “we were all the servants of the dead Dylan Thomas…”

Thomas had written Milk Wood with himself and Burton in mind for the First and Second Voices; Sinclair found their embodiment in several Thomas short stories, with Burton and Ryan Davies as two Army-coated strangers who wander into the town before dawn, roam the streets and cliffs and share a girl of wartime memory and seemingly drift into the sea with the next night’s tide. Through their comment, the town and the people come to interwoven life, the rhythm of their days and the pulses of their ways throbbing through the melodies. Seldom has a world been so encompassed—of the daydreams and nightmares and memories, the sunlit fantasies echoed in children’s chants, the ghosts as fantastical as the seals that swell with the sea, the lush lovely girls as fleeting as the skeletons, the graveyard only footsteps away.

No question but that Burton was born to recite Thomas’s luxuriant and flowing poetic realities and lusciously lilting prose; his voice washes over the screen, penetrates to the very heart of each matter explored, with a voice-over duet provided by him and Davies as the two—one stolid, craggy-faced, the other fey and puckish—wander the town in silence. It is a dream—that will enrapture you. The creatures of the dream are brilliantly fleshed and blooded in their actualities and their fancies—O’Toole, remarkably made up as the aged blind Captain Cat, conjuring up his crew from the dead and reliving the ecstacies of his truelove, Rosie Probert; Miss Johns and Spinetti as the sweetshop-keeper and the draper mad with love; Miss Merchant the demanding wife and Talfryn Thomas the milquetoast mate who plans her various deaths-by-torture; Siss Phillips the twice-widowed housemaid/housewife who summons her husbands to their chores with the warning that “before you let the sun in, mind that it wipes its shoes”; Aubrey Richards the foolish parson with poetry for God; Ann Beach the effulgent Polly Garter who sings of her Tom, Dick and Harry. They all spring to life—Organ Morgan, Willy Nilly, Mr. Waldo, No-good Boyo, Lord Cut Glass. The only outsider seems to be Miss Taylor, all movie-star with the blue eye-shadow and surplus hair—but in the arms of the young Captain Cat and perhaps in his dreams she becomes possible.

Under Milk Wood is all our dreams, engulfing and refreshing. I don’t know what “special sell” a great and lovely work, translated with inspiration to the screen, needs. I have seen the film three times: I shall see it at least as many times more, for with each viewing there has been a new detail of sight and sound, a fresh nuance and an underplayed word-play to bring a further enrichment to a work whose richness can be reveled in again and again.

TO LEAP DOWN TO THE LOSERS, prime among them is Little Mother (advertised as Mother, apparently more of a come-on), produced and directed by Radley Metzger, whose four previous films, for reasons I cannot even speculate on, have earned him a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, let alone an appearance on the Merv Griffin show. The four were Therese and Isabelle; Carmen, Baby; Camille 2000; and The Lickerish Quartet—films which I would classify as early mini-porn at best, all very neatly photographed, very badly acted and very sluggishly directed. Now, with a script provided by a BBC writer named Brian Phelan, Metzger has ventured into the life of a sort of Evita Peron, yclept Marina Pinares, tracing, in a series of incoherent flashbacks from the moment she learns she is dying of cancer—just as the workers are about to offer her the vice-presidency of the country (sunny Yugoslavia passing as sunny South America)—her rise from bastardy to Army plaything to television weathergirl to president-maker (that’s a pun).

Either Metzger has been in Yugoslavia too long or he’s determined on an R rating; his sole claim to erotica is Christiane Kruger (Hardy Kruger’s little girl, aged 25) in the buff sprawled beside or around or atop any number of equally bad and discreetly nude male actors; an orgy wherein young soldiers hug naked girls, and a couple of political-torture scenes. Marina is not a nice lady but wants to be a saint after death and devotes her last days to getting rid of people who could louse up her canonization. It’s all too silly to detail but Metzger fans can rest assured that the quality of his work hasn’t changed. As to Miss Hardy, a nice-lookin blonde of good shape and black pubic hair, the fact that “Metzger looked over 400 actresses to play this plum role” before choosing her, according to production notes, tells you something about those 399 others! They were lucky.

CRIES AND WHISPERS APPEARED FIRST as a long short story by Bergman in the Oct. 21, 1972, issue of The New Yorker, wherein Bergman, addressing his readers as “My dear friends,” declared, “We’re now going to make a film together.” It would be different from his earlier works; it was not clearly defined in his own mind, “what it most resembles is a dark flowing stream…A dream, a longing, or perhaps an expectation…” And then he described the scene, a stately home; the turn-of-the-century period rich in decor but never “obvious”; four characters, the ailing Agnes dying of cancer with Christian submission; her elder sister; Karin, her “anguish and desperation” hidden beneath a cool facade; her younger sister, Maria, selfish and self-sufficient and offering the world a smile, and Anna, the all-knowing “ever-present” servant silent and perhaps even unthinking. The sisters have come to the deathwatch for Agnes and the days that follow provide the probe for the ultimate meanings of our relationships, our disillusions, our hatreds of self and futile reachings to each other, our resolutions as ill-kept as our illusions are hard-relinquished.

The story is fascinating in its verbals, in the images it thrusts into the mind, in the spareness of Bergman’s adjectives and adverbs, the descriptions of settings rather than people. For Bergman, one realizes, is a filmmaker and perhaps he already had the vision of his cast. And one realizes that he could not describe what Harriet Andersson would bring to Agnes, the ravaged sweetness of her quiet moments, the clammy madness of her moments of pain, her plaintive faith in her sisters’ affection, her humanity in returing to face their actuality and clinging forever to the illusion of silent affection. Nor could he write of the fiery agony that Ingrid Thulin provides for Karin, closest perhaps to her torments in The Silence, a woman ravaged by an obsessive realization that her life is “a tissue of lies,” whose cruelty is unbounded (Bergman could not even script that moment, one that so obviously flowed from performance on camera, when Karin has mutilated herself and, languorously lying back on the bed her husband is preparing to share, smears her own blood around her mouth) and whose longing for release is as racking as her refusal thereof. Nor can the story acknowledge the dual performance of Liv Ullmann as the mother Agnes understood belatedly and as the totally self-centered Maria, who emerges from her egocentricity only to tease and torment in the most well-meaning ways, who cannot lapse from amenities or resist a peculiar self-awareness of guilt for rejecting those who yield to her. Nor without the earth-mother flesh of Kari Sylwan, new to the Bergman repertory company of brilliant actresses, can Bergman in writing go beyond saying of the servant that “everything about Anna is weight. Her body, her face, her mouth, the expression of her eyes.” He cannot describe her embodiment of the physicality of communicated caring, the stunning Pieta he creates as she holds Agnes in death, the ultimate rejection in her refusal to pardon Karin’s viciousness, the final forgiveness and her understanding of Agnes’s illusion of “perfection”.

Bergman’s story-screenplay stands on its own, true; but his genius is in the scarlets of his sets, the vibrant life of his creation of sounds that pierce the vision, of visions that penetrate to the very soul of the observer. “Nothing fixed, nothing really tangible other than for the moment, and then only an illusory moment,” he wrote. But the cumulative moments, the reality of each fantasy and the phantasmagoria of existence combine for a work of genius—certainly the most complex, the most perceptive and the most humane of Bergman’s works to date.

IN COMPLETE CONTRAST—LOUD, brassy and hip—comes Bone, a first film produced, written and directed by Larry Cohen, a veteran television writer (The Defenders, Medal for a Turncoat) and playwright (Nature of the Crime off Broadway, Motive scheduled for Broadway). Rife with the faults of a first one-man film (infatuation with one’s own scenes, too much rib-poking where there could well be rib-cracking comedy), it nevertheless does strike to the bone of hypocrisy and pretension—courtesy of a nicely off-beat plot, some fine lines and good sequences and four very good performers who take the virtues and run with them.

Andrew Duggan, whom you’ve admired in dozens of secondary roles, comes into his own as a middle-aged super-selling Los Angeles second-hand car dealer living in bill-ridden credit-card affluence in a Beverly Hills super-mansion with his fleshy, flashy dragged-out wife, played to the puffy hilt by Joyce Van Patten. The two are at their bickering usual when a black—Yaphet Kotto at his best—enters the scene. He is there for money and for rape, he announces, and has selected them on the basis of outward appearances. Furious at his discovery of their inward life style, he dispatches the husband to the bank to get him cash (a secret $5,000 savings account has been discovered), with the warning that the wife will be raped and killed if he’s not back in an hour. This is Cohen’s set-up for starters—and off to a fine start we are, what with the wife and rapist getting to know each other and the husband, taking time out to ponder the letter’s suggestion that he take a bank loan in lieu of the withdrawal, encountering a girl who has a penchant for middle-aged men who remind her of a movie-house molester of her childhood. The girl is played by Jeannie Berlin, and if you haven’t lost your heart to her in The Heartbreak Kid, you certainly will this time around for her portrayal of a natural-born unmade bed of neuroses.

Cohen has over-loaded his plotting with a jerkily edited-in sub-theme involving the couple’s son; too many of his scenes last several minutes too long. But his concept is a biting and clever one, his insights fresh and bold (Kotto’s monologue about his regret at the passing of the “nigger mystique” is a glittering gem), his characters refreshing. Bone is on target more often than not—and the heavy hand will undoubtedly lighten by Cohen’s next film—to which we very much look foward.

THE DIALOGUE IS RAUNCHY IN Innocent Bystanders, with screenplay by James Mitchell from his own novel written under his thriller-name of James Munro, and directed by Peter Collinson, whom we shall nevertheless continue to honor for his A Long Day’s Dying, one of the finest films made about war. But you have to hear Geraldine Chaplin say to Stanley Baker, who is hijacking her to Istanbul, “Sometimes you’re so nice and other times…” “I’m a “bastard,” says Baker. “I was made that way—by experts. Don’t expect too much from me.” To further curtail her expectations, as they lie abed in Ankara, he says, “My interest in women ended a year ago. They have a machine that does that. The doctors and psychiatrists put me together again. They tell me I’m all right now—but I don’t believe them.” And guess who makes him a believer.

Baker plays an over-age British super-Bond given his last-chance mission of delivering a refugee Russian agronomist who is also being sought by America’s Group 3 (Dana Andrews being vulgar-sadistic), Britain’s Department K (Donald Pleasance being prissy-sadistic) and the NKVD (Slavic types in leather jackets who don’t deserve cast credit). Baker, a Department K man, is bugged by Pleasance and his two young super-sadistic agents, as well as by the Americans and Russians and there is more bone-crushing and head-cracking and body-hurtling and general mayhem than we thought was still chic. The whole thing is as incredible as it is unappetizing.

THE TRANSITION OF SLEUTH FROM STAGE to screen is more than a matter of “opening” the scene (and what an opening that garden maze provides for the film!). Nor is it simply that Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine act up a whirlwind, for Anthony Quayle and Keith Baxter set a high mark of perfection in their opening performances of the Broadway production. What has happened, and credit the shift in emphasis to either Anthony Shaffer’s turning his play into screenplay or the performers’ personae or Mankiewicz’s directorial art, is that the social elements are further pin-pointed and emphasized, and that extra dimension that makes a work something more than “mere” thriller is provided in its allegorical conflict between the established and the arrivistes, its stringent view of the battle between the old and the new and of the eternal class struggle. It is a multi-leveling that emerges and makes Sleuth even more interesting on re-viewing: if you know the “gimmick,” as all who’ve seen the play must, you are, in fact, one-up on the rest of the crowd because you can concentrate on the literacy and non-puzzle aspects of the work that give it such distinction.

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