Alec Guinness

The Scapegoat (1959, Robert Hamer)

Despite Bette Davis playing a French dowager countess, The Scapegoat always feels very British. It’s probably exaggerated a little because it takes place in France, features mostly British people (save American Irene Worth) playing French people. Nicole Maurey is the only actual French person in the film, certainly the only one with a French accent. It draws some attention to her and how little she fits with the rest of the film, but it somehow works pretty well, which the film acknowledges enough to take for granted.

Scapegoat is also a little strange because it’s a character study of lead Alec Guinness, who’s in the middle of a peculiar mystery. The film opens with Guinness arriving in France on holiday; he’s a bored bachelor school teacher who’s given up on doing anything but teaching French to rich little British snots. He goes to France every year for the holiday and this time he’s thinking of just staying. He gets his wish in the form of… Alec Guinness. See, turns out Guinness has a French double and his double is a French nobleman who’s got land, title, and a whole bunch of debt. French Guinness is also at least a sociopath and always up to some kind of no good, having—it turns out—just ducked out on wife Worth after she’s suffered a miscarriage, but he also skipped out on mistress Maurey. Neither woman ends up getting an explanation because when Guinness gets home to his estate, he’s not French Guinness, he’s British Guinness. The double got him pass out drunk, switched places, disappeared.

Going forward—British Guinness is always going to be Guinness and French Guinness is always going to be French Guinness. So Guinness doesn’t really get particularly interested in why French Guinness has changed places with him, as life on the estate is an unhappy mess. French Guinness had left under the pretense he’d had a schizophrenic mental breakdown and needed to go to Paris to party. As much as any Alec Guinness, French or otherwise, is going to party. All by himself. No families, mistresses, doctors. And nobody except daughter Annabel Bartlett really seemed to care. But Guinness Guinness is overwhelmed at all the double has around him. He’s got a great kid, a sympathetic wife, a mistress, an estate, a failing but beloved business, and a cranky but not actually dangerous bedridden mum, Davis. Guinness tries to fix French Guinness’s life, which is the character study. But there’s still the mystery. Even if Guinness doesn’t acknowledge it.

That mystery comes back in the last twenty minutes of the film. The first twenty minutes are kind of slow, the next fifty breeze, the last twenty are a little awkward. Guinness is never appropriately suspicious, there’s not enough with Bartlett in the finale, and the resolution is too abrupt. Those reasons, more than everyone speaking with a British accent save Maurey, are why the film feels so British. It’s almost like director Hamer is trying to direct a slightly different, more comedic mystery script while the script is actually trying not to be comedic or mysterious. Only Hamer wrote the script; based on a Gore Vidal adaptation of the novel. So I want to assume it’s Vidal who turned it into this character study but who knows. Because, based on a summary, the novel sounds a bit more melodramatic.

It works out pretty well in the end, all things considered, but just makes it.

Guinness is phenomenal. The script gives him these great quiet reflection scenes without any narration—his narration is always matter-of-fact and goes away after a while; his reflection scenes are always beyond subtle. He’s exceptionally patient. Then as French Guinness, he’s got this subtle character arc, which the script sort of hints at but Guinness takes it a different direction. It’s rather good.

The special effects putting Guinness on screen twice are all good. Hamer never goofs off too much with it. He’s got an enthusiastic workman quality to his direction here, with cinematographer Paul Beeson helping a bit, and the special effects scenes are just the same. It’s not a gimmick, it’s a scene.

Of the supporting performances, Davis’s is the most fun. She’s got maybe three scenes and manages to imply a character arc. Bartlett’s performance is the most important because she’s the reason Guinness gets so interested. See, French Guinness—despite driving her into town each week for a music lesson (but really so he could go see Maurey)—he always wanted a boy. Guinness has no such prejudice. He also doesn’t have any animosity with Worth, which French Guinness seemed to have cultivated. Worth’s fine. She rarely gets time enough to develop her character. Pamela Brown has a really good scene opposite “brother” Guinness (she’s otherwise background). So all the acting is good or better.

The Scapegoat just has tone problems the conclusion doesn’t resolve satisfactorily enough, which… seems very British to me.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Hamer; screenplay by Hamer, adaptation by Gore Vidal, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier; director of photography, Paul Beeson; edited by Jack Harris; music by Bronislau Kaper; production designer, Elliot Scott; produced by Michael Balcon; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Alec Guinness (John Barratt), Annabel Bartlett (Marie-Noel), Nicole Maurey (Bela), Irene Worth (Francoise), Geoffrey Keen (Gaston), Noel Howlett (Dr. Aloin), Peter Bull (Aristide), Pamela Brown (Blanche), and Bette Davis (The Countess).



Doctor Zhivago (1965, David Lean)

When Doctor Zhivago got to its intermission, I assumed director Lean would keep things moving as fast in the second half as he did in the first. These expectations were all high melodrama. Instead, the post-intermission section of Zhivago feels utterly detached from the first, even though there are a lot of returning faces. But there’s not much connection with the characters as they’ve grown in the film. I don’t know if it’s from the source novel or just Robert Bolt’s screenplay; Alec Guinness–in a glorified cameo doing the questionably useful narration–disappears too.

So the second half (or last third more appropriately) of Zhivago is the film’s problem. It has problems before, like Julie Christie being too old for her part (even though she’s far more interesting than anything else going on) or Geraldine Chaplin not having a character to play. Of course, Omar Sharif’s barely got a character and he’s Doctor Zhivago. Lean and Bolt keep everything as removed as possible.

There’s some great supporting work from Rod Steiger and Ralph Richardson, particularly Steiger.

Technically, the film’s grandiose but not particularly grand. Maybe it’s Norman Savage’s editing, but Zhivago never feels as sweeping as it should. It feels very slapped together. Lots of extraneous scenes. The post-intermission parts–featuring Sharif wandering around frozen Russia–miss all sorts of opportunities for good scenes.

Another big problem is Zhivago’s amazing poetry. Lean never lets the audience experience it at all.

It’s too big, too narratively unfocused.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by David Lean; screenplay by Robert Bolt, based on the novel by Boris Pasternak; director of photography, Freddie Young; edited by Norman Savage; music by Maurice Jarre; production designer, John Box; produced by Carlo Ponti; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Omar Sharif (Yuri), Julie Christie (Lara), Rod Steiger (Komarovsky), Alec Guinness (Yevgraf), Tom Courtenay (Pasha), Geraldine Chaplin (Tonya), Ralph Richardson (Alexander), Siobhan McKenna (Anna), Jeffrey Rockland (Sasha), Lucy Westmore (Katya), Klaus Kinski (Kostoyed) and Rita Tushingham (The Girl).


Lovesick (1983, Marshall Brickman)

Lovesick is an unassuming comedy. Director Brickman will occasionally bring in frantic, sitcom-like plotting to jazz things up momentarily, but otherwise the film’s exceedingly calm and measured. It only runs ninety-some minutes; it’s gradual, without much conflict at all–in fact, when there’s conflict introduced, Dudley Moore’s protagonist will actually relieve pressure on the situation. It’s strange.

Moore’s an analyst who becomes infatuated with a patient–Elizabeth McGovern–and finds his life in upheaval. Brickman carefully layers in how the upheaval causes Moore’s self-discovery. These are little asides, never the focus of a scene or conversation. It’s very confident stuff, especially since Brickman also goes the extreme route of having Alec Guinness (as Freud’s ghost) counseling Moore about his life.

Alec Guinness as Freud, John Huston as Moore’s mentor. The film’s got excellent performances all around–Selma Diamond runs rings around Alan King, who’s also good–but Guinness and Huston give Lovesick a lot of charm.

So does McGovern, who has to become a character in a few scenes after she’s revealed as the object of Moore’s affection.

Also good in smaller parts are Ron Silver, Larry Rivers, Wallace Shawn and Anne Kerry. At times, if it weren’t Gerry Fisher’s exquisite photography and some excellent composition from Brickman, Lovesick feels like a little thing Brickman got together and worked on with his friends in their spare time.

The film’s gentle, sweet, rewarding. It’s always genial and never without charm, but gets rather good in the second half.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Marshall Brickman; director of photography, Gerry Fisher; edited by Nina Feinberg; music by Philippe Sarde; production designer, Philip Rosenberg; produced by Charles Okun; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Dudley Moore (Saul Benjamin), Elizabeth McGovern (Chloe Allen), John Huston (Larry Geller, M.D.), Alan King (Lionel Gross, M.D.), Gene Saks (Frantic Patient), Wallace Shawn (Otto Jaffe), Ron Silver (Ted Caruso), Renée Taylor (Mrs. Mondragon), Anne De Salvo (Case Interviewer), Selma Diamond (Harriet Singer, M.D.), David Strathairn (Marvin Zuckerman) and Alec Guinness (Sigmund Freud).


Murder by Death (1976, Robert Moore)

Writer Neil Simon did not adapt Murder by Death from one of his plays, which I’ve always assumed he did. While the film does have a more theatrical structure–a great deal of Death is the cast in one room–the action does follow the characters around and some of their experiences would be impossible without cinematic storytelling.

Simon’s structure for the film, which takes its time not just introducing the characters, but the mystery and all the elements involved, is brilliant. Death‘s a spoof and practically a spoof of a spoof, something Simon plays with in the dialogue. He’s very playful in the dialogue–there’s a great exchange with David Niven, Alec Guinness and Maggie Smith where Smith’s character gets tired of listening to Simon’s banter. And Simon discreetly gets it in. Death isn’t about misdirection, it’s about being so constantly funny the viewer can no longer anticipate gags.

Besides the actors–everyone is outstanding, with Eileen Brennan and James Coco probably being the best. James Cromwell is also really good as Coco’s sidekick. And Peter Sellers as the Charlie Chan stand-in can only get funnier with Peter Falk’s Sam Spade analogue harassing him. It’s hard to list all the funny moments because there are ninety-some minutes of them.

Moore’s direction is ideal. He doesn’t get in the way of the cast or the script. Great Dave Grusin music.

Death is utterly fantastic. It doesn’t even matter the film’s narrative doesn’t work. Simon’s a very funny guy.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Moore; written by Neil Simon; director of photography, David M. Walsh; edited by John F. Burnett; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Stephen B. Grimes; produced by Ray Stark; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Eileen Brennan (Tess Skeffington), Truman Capote (Lionel Twain), James Coco (Milo Perrier), Peter Falk (Sam Diamond), Alec Guinness (Bensonmum), Elsa Lanchester (Jessica Marbles), David Niven (Dick Charleston), Peter Sellers (Sidney Wang), Maggie Smith (Dora Charleston), Nancy Walker (Yetta, the cook), Estelle Winwood (Nurse Withers), James Cromwell (Marcel) and Richard Narita (Willie Wang).


Our Man in Havana (1959, Carol Reed)

As Our Man in Havana opened, I couldn’t help thinking of Touch of Evil. Reed uses a cock-eyed angle a few times throughout the film and it looks like Evil. The music doesn’t hurt either. Except, I hadn’t realized it was Reed–the opening titles start a few minutes in to the film–and then all I could think about was The Third Man for the opening titles. The film picks up immediately following, so the preoccupation didn’t last.

Our Man in Havana is a quiet film. A quiet film with a loud music, but a quiet film. It’s hard to explain, or maybe not so much–it’s quiet in the scenes where Maureen O’Hara and Alec Guinness communicate silently and it’s quiet in the scenes where Guinness has to do things and can’t tell anyone, including the audience. It gets even quieter than those two examples, but I don’t really want to spoil anything.

The film is an odd mix of comedy and suspense. Reed handles the mood perfectly, even treating some of Guinness scenes–the early ones–like old Ealing comedies. It all changes when O’Hara arrives, then the film becomes strangely Hollywood–before, with just Burl Ives and Ernie Kovacs, Havana seems small and peculiar, but when O’Hara shows up (in one of those quiet scenes) she signals a change–not just to film’s atmosphere or to the second act accelerating, but to Guinness’s character as well. The small British comedy–albeit in Cinemascope–has all of a sudden gotten out of his hands.

There’s not a false step in the film, from the first few moments with Noel Coward’s small role as Guinness’s recruiter. It’s an Ealing comedy about British people abroad, mixed with a spy thriller, but the result is … obviously, quiet. It’s a quiet film about expatriates and the friendship among them. For some of it. Towards the end, it shaves off even the expatriates part and just becomes about friendship. (Quietly, of course).

Guinness is perfect and Ives and O’Hara are both great–their scenes together, Guinness and Ives and Guinness and O’Hara, are wonderful–but the most surprising performance is Kovacs. He brings this humanity and a sadness to his performance, in a role those traits would seem to be incompatible and creates a lot of beautiful moments in the third act.

Our Man in Havana is shamefully unavailable in region one (it’s out in the UK). It’s certainly a reason for one to investigate as a region-free DVD player.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Carol Reed; screenplay by Graham Greene, based on his novel; director of photography, Oswald Morris; edited by Bert Bates; music by Frank Deniz and Laurence Deniz; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Alec Guinness (Jim Wormold), Burl Ives (Dr. Hasselbacher), Maureen O’Hara (Beatrice Severn), Ernie Kovacs (Capt. Segura), Noel Coward (Hawthorne), Ralph Richardson (‘C’), Jo Morrow (Milly Wormold), Grégoire Aslan (Cifuentes) and Paul Rogers (Hubert Carter).


Kafka (1991, Steven Soderbergh)

I wonder how the producers sold Jeremy Irons on the film. It was his first major role after his Oscar and it immediately followed, so he probably hadn’t won when he started filming Kafka… however, imagine if they’d advertised the film as “Academy Award Winner Jeremy Irons running through the empty streets of Prague.”

Kafka’s Soderbergh’s first film after Sex, Lies, and Videotape and it’s an exceptional disappointment. All Soderbergh has to do in Kafka is set-up German impressionist shots to match the script’s built-in references–there’s a doctor named Murnau, a town called Orloc (from Murnau’s Nosferatu) and I think I saw a Metropolis poster. Soderbergh is a filmmaker concerned with the human condition and it’s entirely absent from Kafka. Kafka is a gimmick within a gimmick… There’s a certain cuteness–wink-wink–of Kafka in a Kafkaesque adventure, but the adventure is so incredibly lame–and derivative–watching the film is a chore. I suppose it did lead to Dark City–writer Lem Dobbs took whole ideas from Kafka and put them in that one–but it’s a lot like The Element of Crime.

Kafka did remind me–in its aloof and blatant humanity–a lot of Soderbergh’s Traffic. There’s a visible disconnect in some of Soderbergh’s films, when it’s obvious the material isn’t engaging him, so he just busies himself with the camera. Kafka has a lot of such busying. It does have some nice performances–Jeroen Krabbé is excellent, Joel Grey is mildly amusing, it’s one of Armin Mueller-Stahl’s good performances. Jeremy Irons is fine too (he doesn’t have to do an accent). Still, I knew there was major trouble from the beginning… Theresa Russell is the female lead and she’s terrible from her first scene.

I wonder if Kafka would have gotten a better critical response if it had come out before Barton Fink instead of after it. Lem Dobbs’s script–with its goofy characters and particular humor–is an obvious Coen mimic. It’s just a useless film… and, while I realize it’s not supposed to be a historically accurate portrayal of Kafka’s life, apparently, in the film’s world, the First World War never happened. That historical omission is much more interesting than anything else going on and it really shouldn’t be.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed and edited by Steven Soderbergh; written by Lem Dobbs; director of photography, Walt Lloyd; music by Cliff Martinez; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; produced by Harry Benn and Stuart Cornfeld; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Jeremy Irons (Kafka), Theresa Russell (Gabriela), Joel Grey (Burgel), Ian Holm (Doctor Murnau), Jeroen Krabbé (Bizzlebek), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Grubach), Alec Guinness (The Chief Clerk), Brian Glover (Castle Henchman), Keith Allen (Assistant Ludwig), Simon McBurney (Assistant Oscar) and Robert Flemyng (The Keeper of the Files).


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