THEMES FOR SECRET AGENTS ( The Phase 4 Stereo Effect Part 1: James Bond, Roland Shaw, et al. )

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Note: Where indicated, audio only tracks are transfers from original vinyl in my collection, yielding the best sound quality. Otherwise, audio tracks are from 2009 CD reissue of selections from Roland Shaw’s spy soundtrack albums (where masters are unknown).

James Bond Theme (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

 

Roland Shaw More James Bond Thrillers

Anyone who collects records has the story of a Eureka moment.  A moment when they happened upon a new record of unfamiliar music that, for whatever reason, was a revelation, and subsequently became a firm favorite, a cornerstone of their collection.  I’ve had a number of these, but one of the first happened when I was around 12.  Leafing through the record bins I happened upon a collection titled The Phase 4 World of Thrillers.  The cover was the first thing to catch my attention.  It featured all the accoutrements of the gentleman spy and world adventurer, guaranteed to pique the interest of a kid who was already devouring James Bond’s adventures on the page and screen at every possible opportunity.

phase4 world of thrillers

But the title intrigued too.  What was this “Phase 4” thing all about?  Quite a few “Phase 4” records littered the bins, both in the Classical and Easy Listening sections.  Scanning the track listing of The Phase 4 World of Thrillers revealed an eclectic range of music drawn from movies and TV shows.  It was on the Decca label, and the price was right – 99 pence – (ie. almost one pound sterling) – so I plonked down my lawn-mowing pocket-money and hurried home to listen.  This is what I heard:

The Man with the Golden Arm (Stanley Black and the London Festival Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Elmer Bernstein, composer of The Man with the Golden Arm

Elmer Bernstein, composer of The Man with the Golden Arm

Immediately I knew this was a different kind of record.  The sound was Technicolor rich and vivid, with the stereo image panned sharply to the left and right channels, in the manner of the early Beatles stereo records.  The arrangements were likewise larger-than-life and eclectic in the manner of Easy Listening records of that vintage.  The tracks featured an array of Decca’s top so-called “light music” performers and session players, along with some one-offs, like the French children’s choir version of Michel Legrand’s Oscar-winning theme from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), “Les Moulins de Mon Coeur” (“The Windmills of your Mind”).

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in publicity shot for The Thomas Crown Affair

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in publicity shot for The Thomas Crown Affair

The Windmills of Your Mind (LP transfer):

 

Michel Legrand

Michel Legrand

Divvying up the main duties were two label stalwarts: Stanley Black and Roland Shaw, supplemented by Frank Chacksfield and his Orchestra and what I can best describe as the “stereo novelty act” of Ronnie Aldrich and his Two Pianos.

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Charade (Ronnie Aldrich and his Two Pianos) (LP transfer)

 

Charade BRITISHQUAD poster

All the music was compelling, from Leonard Bernstein’s jazz-inflected On the Waterfront to Miklos Rozsa’s lurid Hollywood fantasmagoria, Spellbound, but the tracks that most caught my schoolboy imagination were those by Roland Shaw, of themes from spy movies.

The music flew out of the grooves, sexy and sassy, with gigantic drums and bass guitar, tight brass licks, and kinetic strings.  The track that really blew my ears back was I Spy.

I Spy (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Just listen to the way those opening mega drums propel us forward. (The drumming on Phase 4 records was always fantastic – was it the same player, and if so, who was he?). The brass kicks it up a notch, and then that propulsive, MASSIVE bass guitar anchors the groove while the strings punch out the theme like they are on a combination of speed and caviar. A blistering sax solo unfurls against rhythm guitar, then it’s back to those strings and fat horns punching out that 60s spy glam.  On a good stereo, the vinyl practically catches fire, filling the room with three-dimensional sound.

I spy record

I did not know it then, but Phase 4 Stereo was something more than a marketing gimmick.  Decca had long enjoyed the highest reputation amongst audiophiles for the quality of its classical recordings, achieved by the famous “Decca tree” of microphones.  This was a simple arrangement of three microphones suspended above the conductor’s head, whose aim was to “hear” the orchestra like a listener would, in natural proportions, from this optimal position. (A few supplemental microphones were carefully placed at strategic points within the orchestra to add detail to the primary sound image).  It was a minimalist approach to recording which echoed that of the similarly esteemed American audiophile labels, Mercury and RCA Living Stereo.

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Herbert von Karajan recording with the Vienna Philharmonic in the Sofiensaal. You can see the “tree” above his head.

In many ways the apogee of this approach to recording had been the historic issue of Wagner’s monumental Ring cycle of operas under Georg Solti, produced by the legendary John Culshaw between 1958 and 1965, complete with sound effects and singers wandering around the space of an imaginary stage, just like in a radio drama.

recording Gotterdammerung

Recording Wagner’s Ring cycle in the Sofiensaal, Vienna. The singers moved between marked-out squares on the stage to create a realistic “theatrical” space for the action.

With the advent of multitrack recording in the 60s, more microphones crept into recording sessions, and the increasing tendency was for the producer and engineer to fine-tune the balance of the orchestra long after the session, rather than have the conductor do so as the recording took place.  The result, over succeeding decades, was a sound which, while more refined, with each instrument carefully placed and balanced against every other instrument, lost some of its energy and sense of “aliveness”.

What was different about the “Phase 4” recordings was that, even though they were multi-miked and artificially balanced, deliberately incorporating the idea of “stereo cool” into their marketing, they retained that sense of “aliveness”. There was a palpable excitement in the grooves, as you can hear in this arrangement of the Mission Impossible Theme of Lalo Schifrin by Roland Shaw.

Mission Impossible (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Lalo Schifrin

Lalo Schifrin

An ad for Phase 4 Stereo

An ad for Phase 4 Stereo

The instrumental colors were rich and vibrant, at times almost over-ripe.  The recordings retained many of the qualities that had made earlier Decca records audiophile favorites, while adding the extra spice of the Easy Listening palette of unusual instrumental combinations.  The arrangements reveled in artificial stereo effects, exotic orchestrations and sound effects, and the result was records which were spectacular showcases for the musicians, the music – and the listener’s stereo system.

Cover art featured eye-popping visual design

Cover art featured eye-popping visual design

Record collectors are obsessive types, and can talk for hours about the relative merits of different pressings of the same record from different eras and countries.  Early Decca records were mastered using an all-tube chain of electronics which added an organic warmth to the sound, a physical palpability to the instruments and voices.  When the company switched to solid-state electronics in the mid to late 60s, the gain in precision was offset by a loss of the natural quality which tubed electronics brought to the recording chain.  Compare identical records in different pressings made before and after the switch and you can clearly hear that difference.

Phase 4 middle of the road

Collectors will tell you that the American versions of Phase 4 records, released on the London Records imprint, are brighter sounding than the Decca originals.  Interestingly, unlike many of London’s classical releases, Phase 4 records were all mastered in England.  I hear the brightness on some titles, but not others.  Clearly some records destined for the American market were simply EQ’d differently.  I guess the assumption was that Americans needed everything a little brighter and brasher than the Brits to maintain their interest.  I’d love to know whether that assumption was based on any kind of quantifiable research.

Phase 4 Foreign Film Festival cover

In a later article I will talk about some of the other Phase 4 records which occupy pride of place in my collection, including seminal recordings of his film music by Bernard Herrmann which, along with the RCA Classic Film Score Series, played an important role in establishing the legitimacy of film music recordings as standalone LPs.  But for now, this article focuses on Phase 4 recordings of music for the various secret agents who spread across movie and TV screens in the wake of the massive popularity of James Bond.

Cover for first American edition of Ian Fleming's novel

Cover for first American edition of Ian Fleming’s novel

Here is a typical example of how the Phase 4 label spiced up the originals, with Roland Shaw doing the honors for Burt Bacharach’s theme for the “alternative” Bond romp, Casino Royale. Note the addition of screaming teenage girls to Burt Bacharach’s catchy original.

Burt Bacharach

Burt Bacharach

Roland Shaw

Roland Shaw

Phase 4’s compilations of spy themes were entirely the province of arranger/orchestrator Roland Shaw. He was one of Decca’s principal house arrangers, working for Vera Lynn, Mantovani, Ted Heath, and the label’s principal conductor of film music, Stanley Black. He also worked on several films himself as composer, including The Great Waltz, Summer Holiday, and Song of Norway. He had a passion for motor cars, of which he owned several exotic examples over the years. These ranged from a Rolls-Royce to a Bentley and a beautiful classic red Ferrari. He competed in club meetings at Silverstone, Goodwood and Brands Hatch, where he often acted as a race marshal. In fact, it was while parking his Rolls near his home in Barnes (purchased with a royalty check from Tutti Camerata) that he got his break with Decca Records. He was approached by an admirer of the vehicle, who turned out to be Frank Lee, head of A&R at the label.

Roland Shaw - the James Bond thrillers

Monty Norman

Monty Norman

Shaw’s first spy genre album, Themes from the James Bond Thrillers, was released in 1964 to coincide with Goldfinger. It was a massive hit, spawning a series of further records of “Spy” themes.

Monty Norman had composed the music for the first film in the Bond series, Dr. No, and Shaw’s arrangements filled out the minimally orchestrated originals to great effect. In this track, Underneath the Mango Tree, the addition of rippling flute and harp, plus swirling strings, creates a sense of travelogue exotica.

Underneath the Mango Tree (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

 

John Barry

John Barry

However, it was John Barry’s iconic arrangement of the James Bond Theme, and his scores for Goldfinger and beyond, which defined the “Spy Sound” of the Swinging Sixties soundtrack. Barry seamlessly blended his jazz and bop background with lush romantic strings and heavy Wagnerian brass chords (interspersed with fabulous, soaring breaks that wailed over the propulsive drums and bass) to create a sound that defined the cool of Bond every bit as much as the beautiful girls, designer clothes, exotic locations and futuristic gadgets.

Every bit the epitome of Swinging London: John Barry and his wife, Jane Birkin.

John Barry epitomized Swinging London just as much as the spy whose musical identity he forged on the big screen. Barry is seen here with his then wife, actress and singer Jane Birkin

You can hear all these elements at work in this music from the pre-credits sequence in Thunderball, which culminated in Bond making his escape with a jet-pack.

Chateau Fight (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

 

Thunderball jet_pack_2

Record labels were jumping over themselves to create knock-off compilations of Bond and other spy music, using various Easy Listening arrangers and scratch bands. The results were frequently lacklustre, but every so often these cover versions struck gold. Such was the case with Roland Shaw’s series of albums for Decca Phase 4.

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Roland Shaw rear sleeve

In his arrangement of music from Diamonds of Forever you can hear how Shaw, while remaining true to the essence of John Barry’s original, has embellished the orchestration to highlight the Hi-Fi aspect of the recording and give it more zest.

Diamonds-are-forever-James-Bond-Poster

He has added soaring and swooning contrapuntal string lines to the original, no doubt a legacy of his arranging for Mantovani’s orchestra. Then fat, funky bass lines combine with propulsive guitar licks (even throwing in a bit of wah-wah for good measure), latin drums and stabbing brass to give the whole thing an extra tinge of pop and of the exotic. (Many Phase 4 albums highlighted unusual percussion and other sounds from world music to lend a sense of travelogue to their albums).

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Staying with Bond, here is Shaw’s arrangement of one of Barry’s most lyrical inventions for the Bond series, You Only Live Twice.

Bond girl Akiko Wakabasyashi behind the wheel of her one-off Toyota 2000 GT convertible

Bond girl Akiko Wakabasyashi behind the wheel of her one-off Toyota 2000 GT convertible in You Only Live Twice

Interestingly, one of the theme songs that Shaw leaves more or less unchanged, is On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  Maybe this was because the track was already one of Barry’s most exciting inventions — and why mess with perfection? It was the first title sequence in a Bond film not to feature a vocal.  Instead, to accompany visuals that recapped the previous Connery adventures in preparation for George Lazenby’s assumption of the role, Barry built a driving chase fanfare over a Moog synthesizer playing in unison with a bass guitar.

Robert Moog pictured with his invention

Robert Moog pictured with his invention

The Moog was a completely new kind of instrument, purely electronic with no acoustic elements, and sounds radically different even on Barry’s own various recordings of this theme.

ohmss title

In the wake of Bondmania, film and television companies fast-tracked numerous secret agent projects, all demanding their own John Barry-tinged music. One of the most successful of Bond imitators was the series starring James Coburn as an urbane American agent, which kicked off with Our Man Flint.

Japanese poster for Our Man Flint

Japanese poster for Our Man Flint

 

Jerry Goldsmith

Jerry Goldsmith

 

Jerry Goldsmith, one of the most distinctive film composers to emerge at that time (his credits include Planet of the Apes, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Alien) provided a theme which channeled the Barry sound in its guitar licks and brass stabs. But he also added his own elements (percussion and jazzy improvisations) to convey a sense of the send-up that the film encapsulated.

Our Man Flint (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Back in the U.K., a quirky TV series that combined Bondian elements with fantasy and sci-fi became a cult classic and ran for many years.

the-avengers-series

The Avengers launched the careers of several subsequent Bond girls — Honor Blackman in Goldfinger and Diana Rigg in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The hero, John Steed, always immaculately dressed in the finest Savile Row suits, with accompanying umbrella and bowler hat, was played by Patrick MacNee, who later featured as Roger Moore’s accomplice in A View to a Kill.

Diana Rigg and Patrick MacNee

Diana Rigg and Patrick MacNee

The Avengers had a killer theme written by Laurie Johnson.

Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

The Avengers (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

One of the most successful TV riffs on Bond was The Saint, which also proved to be a training ground for a future 007, Roger Moore. Based on Leslie Charteris’s series of novels about a Robin Hood-like character, the show’s catchy theme song was the work of Edwin Astley, a prolific TV composer who became a regular contributor to ITC Entertainment which produced the show. He also scored the themes for Patrick McGoohan’s iconic Danger ManRandall and Hopkirk (Deceased), and, in a different vein entirely, Kenneth Clarke’s epic documentary series, Civilisation. The theme for The Saint opened with a characterful motif for flutes, echoed woman’s voice, vibraphone and muted trumpets which would play as a halo appeared above Roger Moore’s head. It perfectly mirrors the cheeky quality of the character and show.

The Saint - Roger Moore

This kind of unusual instrumentation was typical of the genre, and is why so much of this music is such a good fit for the exotic orchestral palette of Easy Listening records. (Shaw’s arrangement dispenses with the woman’s vocal but goes to town in the blaring brass section; there’s that terrific drumming again too.)

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The Saint (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

A precursor to Bond was the American TV show Peter Gunn, the creation of maverick film-maker Blake Edwards, one of the most underrated talents among post-War American writer/directors, who found enormous commercial success with the Pink Panther movies.

Peter_Gunn poster

The iconic theme song, by his long-time collaborator Henry Mancini, undoubtedly influenced later composers working in the genre (including Barry).

Henry Mancini receiving the Grammy for his album of music from Peter Gunn

Henry Mancini receiving the Grammy from Peggy Lee for his album of music from Peter Gunn

Peter Gunn has been much covered, most notably by cult 80s group The Art of Noise, with Duane Eddy taking on the guitar “twanging” duties. In his version, Roland Shaw doubles that guitar line with an early synthesizer, adds some percussion pops for Hi-Fi glitter, and plays up the drums and jazzy improvised elements.

Not all spy movies of the 60s were upbeat. John Le Carre’s The Spy who Came in from the Cold offered Richard Burton one of his most celebrated roles in a gritty cat-and-mouse game set in a divided Berlin. The muted, evocative score was by Sol Kaplan.

The Spy who came in from the cold

The Spy who Came in from the Cold (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Another highly successful series that, tonally, fell somewhere between Fleming and Le Carre, was launched with The Ipcress File, starring Michael Caine as the world-weary British agent Harry Palmer. The series shared much of Bond’s DNA, not surprisingly because the producer was Harry Saltzman (half of Eon Productions), bringing with him Bond’s editor, Peter Hunt, and production designer, Ken Adam. The music was also by John Barry, who used his taste for exotic instrumentation (in this case the cimbalom) to evoke eastern menace on the streets of London.

ipcress-file- Music by John Barry

The Ipcress File (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

John Barry also contributed a memorable score to The Quiller Memorandum (1966). George Segal and Alec Guinness starred in this straight ahead cold war thriller, with a script by Harold Pinter.

Quiller_memorandum_EP6305

Wednesday’s Child from The Quiller Memorandum (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

In finest Easy Listening fashion, even Shaw was not afraid to go with a somewhat cheesy vocal arrangement when called for. Here is his take on one of Burt Bacharach’s numbers from Casino Royale. (In the film it was only used as an instrumental; this is the version with Hal David’s lyrics).

Casino Royale record cover

Note, as always, the fabulous drumming and that tight rhythm guitar. I wonder how many bachelor pads have echoed to this track at the cocktail hour…..

Martini anyone?

James-Bond-Martini

“Let the Love Come Through” from Casino Royale (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra) (LP transfer):

 

Avengers - cocktails

Twisting with James (Roland Shaw and his Orchestra):

 

Bond Connery aston martin Goldfinger

 

THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING MUSIC CUE ( or How “An American Werewolf in London” Lost Its Bite )

Americanwerewolf Main Title large

‘Tis the season of mysteries. And in the movie world one of many recurring mysteries is why so many film directors insist on shooting themselves in the foot, music-wise.

As in: wrong music, too much music, not enough music, music in the wrong places, and, in the most peculiar scenario of all, going to the trouble of hiring a great composer and not letting him (or her) do the job.

This comes to mind since I was recently sitting in on a film music class at UCLA, and under discussion was the issue of a director’s and composer’s intent. We looked at scenes with cues that had been shuffled to see how readily an audience picks up on music that was not originally intended for the images it played with. The answer is that film sends pretty strong signals as to what kind of music will work in any given scene, and an audience intuitively gets all of them. So mess with the natural order at your peril.

I once witnessed the phenomenon of a director shutting down his composer, and thereby unintentionally hobbling his film, during the sessions for An American Werewolf in London.

I was at university, incurring the wrath (or at least the healthy skepticism) of my professors by writing a thesis on the film music of Bernard Herrmann. This was not quite the done thing within a traditional academic syllabus, especially since I was attempting to examine the interrelationship between music and image in detail, in a truly cross-disciplinary way. I was certainly no expert in film theory; but I felt I knew enough to make the attempt. The thesis included a cue-by-cue analysis of Citizen Kane and Psycho, but I could not lay my hands on the scores for these filmsHerrmann had passed away some years earlier (the night of completing the final mix for Taxi Driver), so I contacted his last producer, Christopher Palmer, in the hopes that he could help me find the material I needed.

Christopher PalmerAt that time Christopher Palmer was the guy in film music, the only one who was writing about it seriously in the mainstream media, and helping to put together recording projects like the RCA Hollywood Classic Film Score Series and the Herrmann Phase 4 records, touchstones for how to present film music properly on LP. He was also working as an orchestrator and composer in his own right.

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Phase 4 Fantasy Film World of BH

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Back then, few people took film music seriously. Certainly not the music establishment, classical or pop. I was one of a growing number of avid film music fans whose obsession was beginning to ripple through popular culture owing to the chart topping success of John Williams’s scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters. Suddenly one was starting to see dedicated film music concerts taking place, and the RCA series of records had paved the way for new LP compilations. While Williams was the rock star of film music, Herrmann was considered the Old Master — albeit an entirely modernist one.

One memorable day, Christopher handed over bound photocopies of the autographed scores to Citizen Kane and Psycho.

“So, Mark”, Chris said, as my mouth fell open at the sight of Herrmann’s own handwriting on the scores, “Have you ever been to a film scoring session?”

“No,” I replied.

“Well, if you are going to write about film music you’d better come and see how it’s done. I’m producing a session for Elmer Bernstein in a couple of weeks. Come and sit in.”

Bernstein and Palmer in 1995

Bernstein and Palmer in 1995

It turned out the session was around the corner from where we lived, in the London village of Barnes, on the shores of the Thames. The annual Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race used to pass by the high street.

olympic

As I walked through the doors of Olympic Studios I had little idea of the roll call of legendary musicians in whose footsteps I was following. I quickly found out, since the equally legendary engineer for the sessions, Keith Grant, had also done the honors for the likes of the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and King Crimson. And during breaks he liked to tell stories. Boy do I wish I had written them down.

B.B King recording at Olympic in 1971, with Ringo Starr (far left) plus bassist Klaus Voormann, Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green on guitar and Steve Marriott on harmonica (all centre left).

B.B King (center right) recording in Studio One at Olympic in 1971, with Ringo Starr (far left) plus bassist Klaus Voormann, Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green on guitar and Steve Marriott on harmonica (all centre left).

Anyway, as Christopher Palmer settled in for the session I noticed a bearded gentleman sitting in the corner of the control room. He wasn’t saying much, at least not yet, but I quickly gleaned he was the director. On hearing his name I got pretty excited, because John Landis had made one of my favorite guilty movie pleasures at university: National Lampoon’s Animal House. Back then, this would screen regularly on a Friday night at 11 to a packed house of pale English students, eager to soak up the anarchies of American campus life, complete with John Belushi gross-outs and topless co-eds, as we munched on greasy chips out of newspaper, smothered in salt and vinegar.

As the session got under way Landis lived up to all my expectations of what a young, hot-shot American director would be like. He was heavily bearded and wore a baseball cap like Steven Spielberg, and was constantly, brashly conversational, full of banter, movie gossip and opinions.

Bernstein (l) and Landis

Bernstein (l) and Landis

Out on the floor of Studio One, Elmer Bernstein, the distinguished composer of such classics as The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Escape, who had also written the music for Animal House, was revving up his scratch orchestra, a selection of the top studio and orchestral musicians in London. Recording film music is a profoundly technical process, because everything has to time out perfectly. As I watched Bernstein, baton at the ready, scrutinize the screen with its specially prepared clips from the film (cued with dots and moving lines scatched into the film, known as punches and streamers) and repeatedly cue in his musicians perfectly, I marveled at the marriage of musicianship and mathematical precision by which he had composed his cues in meters that ran in tandem with set numbers of film frames. You were never aware of the technological underpinnings: the music flowed with the images as if it had been conjured with no need to perfectly match markers in the film’s action. It was just magically “right”. Never doubt the extraordinary craft and artistry it takes to sync your musical composition to a film, let alone come up with the melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, orchestration that work with the film’s action, its emotion, its sub-text – and do not distract.

Anyway, as the film unspooled it rapidly became clear that it was something quite unusual for a horror film. Two American students were backpacking around England. The tone was light and breezy. And then something odd happened.

an-american-werewolf-in-london moors

Getting lost, they got caught out on the moors at night. There was a full moon. Suddenly they were attacked by a wild animal, and one of them was brutally, bloodily killed.

The hero, David (David Naughton) languished in hospital having his wounds tended to by Nurse Alex. Alex was played by the actress who had been the object of a generation of English schoolboys’ fantasies, Jenny Agutter. Naturally she was wearing a nurse’s uniform, at the sight of which swathes of english manhood were felled on the spot.

an_american_werewolf_in_london Agutter and David

David started to have odd dreams, and in the cartoonish nightmare imagery of those dreams it was clear this was a film which was taking the usually predictable horror form and upending it with something fresh, fun, and still very scary.

AWIL dream transformation

Nurse Alex starts to take more of a personal interest in her charge, and when he is discharged she invites him home to stay with her. Pretty soon she is tending to more than his wounds.

AWIL Agutter in shower

Now we arrived at the scene which Landis had been proclaiming to the assembled control room was going to “blow the movie out of the water”: the first transformation scene, in which the hero gets fully in touch with his inner lupus. But an odd thing happened. As Bernstein lifted his arms to record the cue, Landis leaned into the mixing console microphone and pressed the talkback button.

“Er, Elmer, that’s fine, but we’re not gonna use it.”

Bernstein shot back: “You haven’t heard it yet.”

“Yeah, I know, but we talked about this. We’re gonna use Blue Moon.”

 “Have you got the rights?”

At this point Landis’s equally bearded producer, George Folsey, Jr., chimed in: “We’re waiting to hear back.”

“What if they say no?” persisted Bernstein.

“They won’t”, said Landis, though it was clear from the look he exchanged with his producer that they might.

“Yeah, they might,” said Bernstein, who was as canny an old-hand in the music biz as you’ll ever meet. “Then what’ll you do? You need music here. You might like what I’ve got better”.

“Ok, Elmer,” Landis said, clearly not thinking this was possible.

Bernstein was determined. He raised his arms. Up went the bows. Silence. The film cued up.

The scene began, and so did the music. And both were something else.

The full moon rose. The hero, alone in the nurse’s flat, screamed, fell to the ground. And something started to happen, unlike anything I, or anyone else at the session, had seen on film before.

AnAmericanWerewolfInLondon transformation 3

His clothes ripped, his muscles rippled, his skeleton and skin stretched. But it was all happening on-screen in real time. There were no dissolves as in the classic werewolf movies I had grown up with. A man was violently turning into a very large, rapacious werewolf indeed. It was brilliant.

an-american-werewolf-in-london-transformation 2

The work of now legendary make-up designer Rick Baker, then relatively unknown, was extraordinary. This was the first time we saw animated prosthetics on camera, and they were combined with carefully animated visual effects to create a vivid illusion of metamorphosis. Bones expanded, fur grew, nails turned into claws, ears elongated, and eyes darkened as the beast within was unleashed.

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In the final coup de théâtre the hero’s elongated wolvine jaw pushed forward, stretching the human face into a fanged canine muzzle. The newly birthed American Werewolf howled to the moon.

an american werewolf in london transformation 1

And with every extravagant metamorphosis on screen the music more than kept pace: it drove the transformation. It gave voice to our horror, and the character’s terror, at what was happening, at the same time as capturing all the grand beauty of the spectacle. As the sequence ended and the music smashed to its conclusion, the orchestra and control room erupted into applause. This is a rare thing. London session musicians have seen and heard it all. But it was clear that what we had just witnessed, music and image together, was a showstopper. The combination of groundbreaking visuals and barnstorming music was one for the ages. It would, in the words the director had spoken earlier in the session, “blow the movie out of the water”.

Except…..

Rick Baker (l), David Naughton (c), John Landis (r)

Rick Baker (l), David Naughton (c), John Landis (r)

The orchestra and conductor/composer waited for the pronouncement from the control-room.

“It’s great, Elmer.” John Landis’s voice was authoritative.  “But if I get Blue Moon I’m using it. Let’s move on.”

No one made a comment, but we all knew what we were thinking.

What are you thinking?

american_werewolf_in_london_poster_03

A year later, venturing into a cinema to see the completed film, I secretly prayed that the rights to Blue Moon had been denied, and that the world would see what I had seen and heard that memorable afternoon in Olympic Studios. As the film neared the transformation scene I braced myself. The hero pottered around Jenny Agutter’s flat, the moon rose and –

Blue moon…..

The unmistakeable tones of Sam Cooke rang through the theatre. As the hero submitted to his bodily eruptions I kept hoping John Landis had come to his senses and would segue into Bernstein’s apocalyptic cue. But no. I was left to intellectually appreciate the director’s ironical juxtaposition of music and image, rather than submit to the terror and awe-inspiring horror of a man becoming a beast, red in tooth and claw. The transformation, while still striking, was robbed of its ultimate animal ferocity. It became oddly prosaic, fully serving neither the story nor the audience. Since this was a film that, for all its jokiness, had at its core the tragedy of a man destroyed by his true nature, then playing down the moment when that nature emerged for all the world to see seemed an odd choice. Knowing as I did what the scene could have been with Bernstein’s cue, it was something worse than a missed opportunity. It was a regrettable example of a director remaining wedded to his original concept, rather than listening to what the work itself and his highly experienced collaborator were telling him.

In the end, the scene did not “blow the movie out of the water” — but it certainly blew.

FILM MUSIC AFICIONADOS AND COMPLETISTS, PLEASE SEE MY EXPANDED THOUGHTS ON THIS IN THE COMMENTS BOXES BELOW.

NAPOLEON REDUX ( The Emperor of Films Returns )

Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne) looks at the Polyvision rig for the film's 3-screen climax

Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne) stands next to the Polyvision camera rig for the film’s 3-screen climax

I wouldn’t say it is the greatest movie ever made, but it is certainly one of the greatest moviegoing experiences you will ever have.

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Audiences worldwide may have thrilled to the silent-movie charms of 2011’s Oscar-winner, The Artist, but Londoners are soon to have the chance to take the ultimate cinematic ride – and the ultimate trip into cinema’s haloed past.  On November 30th the Royal Festival Hall plays host to a rare screening of 1927’s Napoleon, vu par Abel Gance in the most recent restoration by Oscar-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow.  When this made its American début last year at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Los Angeles Times could merely exclaim, breathlessly: “Napoleon came. Napoleon was seen. Napoleon conquered.”

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This was no mere hyperbole. I was there. Twice. And, even though I had been present at this restoration’s fabled first screening in London over thirty years ago, the screenings in Oakland’s Paramount Theater, a beautifully restored art-deco extravaganza, were in a class of their own. Just entering the lobby transported you into another world.

Paramount_Theatre_interior_7,_Oakland

Then, as the film itself began, the 21st century receded, and for the next 5-1/2 hours one was was completely immersed in the world of the French Revolution, brought to life with a veracity, vigor and, conversely, modernity, that has yet to be matched. By the time the final triptych had unspooled my 15-year old daughter was rendered speechless with awe.

NapoleonTriptych6_720x500

She made up for her uncharacteristic muteness by telling everyone during the following weeks she had seen the greatest film ever made. E-V-E-R.

And who amongst those who were there could argue with her? Napoleon is a complete one-off, a film sui generis. The apogee of the silent movie art. To see it under these optimal conditions is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Napoleon_Triptych_LG w:orchestra b&w

How could a modern, plugged-in teenager be so completely wowed by a nearly 90-year old silent picture?

Paramount audience

The audience at the Paramount watches, rapt

For starters, the film operates on a level of visual innovation and spectacle that today’s movies are still catching up with. (Gance even did tests for shooting some of it in 3D). Then there are those obsessively detailed sets and costumes which give the film an incredibly authentic feel and texture. Scenes in Corsica were shot in Napoleon’s actual family home on the island.

Napoleon in corsica

The performances range from grand to intimate, with a sense of commitment that is riveting.

Young Napoleon

Vladimir Roudenko as the young Napoleon

Robespierre

Edmond van Daele as Robespierre

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Albert Dieudonne (Napoleon) embraces Josephine (Gina Manes) and the world

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Abel Gance as the charismatic St. Juste

Death of Marat

Death of Marat (Antonin Artaud)

The ghosts of the Revolution

The ghosts of the Revolution

Then there’s Carl Davis’s score, performed by a live orchestra, which forms a visceral conduit into both the period and the emotions of the drama. (Comparing it to the insipid score by Carmine Coppola, the only music Americans had heard during previous road shows of the restoration in this country, provides an object lesson in good and bad film scoring.)

Davis rehearsing Napoleon

Carl Davis rehearsing the Oakland East Bay Symphony in the Paramount Theater

The audience in London, like that in Oakland, will be seeing the most complete version of the film in existence, a restoration that has occupied Brownlow for a lifetime, funded by the British Film Institute and Photoplay Productions.  It will be projected at the correct speed (making movement more naturalistic), and is hand tinted. Accompanying it will be that same original score composed and conducted by Carl Davis.

Camera mounted on a horse to film the Corsican chase sequence

Camera mounted on a horse to film the Corsican chase sequence

Over a period of more than four decades, Davis and Brownlow, together with producing partners Patrick Stanbury and David Gill (who died in 1997), have done more than anyone to bring silent films back from the grave of decaying film libraries, where 73% of films made before the coming of sound have crumbled into dust. Through a plethora of documentaries and live presentations in grand theatres with symphony orchestras, classics like Greed and Ben-Hur, as well as lesser-known gems like The Wind and The Chess Player, have all left viewers agog at the forgotten accomplishments of filmmakers of the silent era.

poster italian napoleon gance

Napoleon, though, is the one to beat: a film whose ambition to redefine the art-form is evident in every frame. Originally intended to be six films covering Bonaparte’s entire life, in the end Gance blew his entire budget on Part One.

Napoleon the french epic film poster

By the time of its première at the Paris Opéra in 1927 the film had already being cut down by its nervous producers.

Napoleon newspaper review

In the succeeding decades the film was scattered across archives, private collections, and flea markets around the world.

Napoleon book cover

Gance himself never regained his full creative powers: a later, sound version of the film that incorporates some of the original footage has none of the original’s flair. By 1953, when the 15-year-old Kevin Brownlow, already an avid collector of silent films, screened fragments of a home-movie version in his makeshift home cinema, Gance and his film barely made the footnotes in movie histories. The story of Brownlow’s quest to restore the film, and Gance’s reputation, is one of those tales from the back rooms of film history that is as riveting as the film itself.

Brownlow and Gance triptych

The film covers Napoleon’s childhood days at military school, the Revolution and his rise to power, his romance with Josephine, and climaxes with his leading the French army to liberate Italy.  I was lucky enough to be present at the restoration’s first, now legendary screening, at the Empire Theater in Leicester Square, back in 1980.

Napoleon at Empire

It was the only venue with a screen wide enough to accommodate the 3-screen/3-projector finale, and an auditorium big enough for a 60-strong symphony orchestra.  From the start you could tell you were watching something unique.  The effect on the audience was no different from what Brownlow remembers when he first ran fragments of the film on his 9.5mm home projector as a teenager.  “The camera did things that I didn’t think it could do, and it represented the cinema as I thought it ought to be, but had never seen an example of.  It was beautifully, brilliantly staged.  It looked like an 18th century newsreel.  You couldn’t believe this had been shot in the 20s.”

Napoleon on ship

The aftermath of battle

The aftermath of battle

When the first of many bravura editing sequences unspooled, the audience knew it was in for a rollercoaster.  A snowball fight between two “armies” of young cadets, in which the young Napoleon demonstrates his aptitude for future military leadership by successfully charging and occupying the opposing camp, turned into a pyrotechnical workout for the camera as it was hurled, literally, into the action.

Young Napoleon

It was many years into his quest for lost footage before Brownlow first clapped eyes on this sequence.  He was sitting in the archives of the French Cinémathèque, an organization which had already demonstrated its disdain for what it considered the hubristic efforts of an Englishman daring to restore a French classic. Left alone for a few moments with an unlabelled can of film, Brownlow examined the reel within against the light: “I couldn’t believe it! This snowball fight was like “Rosebud” [in Citizen Kane].  It was constantly talked about as a masterpiece of rapid cutting, but was never seen. And I happened to be very interested in rapid cutting. I thought it had been invented by Eisenstein. When [the archivist] Marie Epstein came back in she was quite upset that I had started looking in her absence, but she had a good heart and coaxed the film through the flatbed viewer, and I always regard that experience as one of the greatest moments of my life.

Napoleon snowball fight

“It was the most astonishing piece of editing I had ever seen, and it was a perfect example of the avant-garde in the mainstream of French cinema.  Gance tried to make the audience into active participants.  You get punched on the nose, you fall over, and you run away.” (The editing throughout Napoleon is all the more extraordinary for the fact that it was done by hand, without the benefit of a flatbed or movieola; Gance would hold the film up to the light to figure out where to make his cuts).

Napoleon snowball fight storming barricades

BouleDeNeiges

Crew filming the snowball fight. Note the camera mounted on a sled. Gance is circled.

Crew filming the snowball fight, with cameraman sitting on a sled.

Later on, during a dormitory pillow fight, Gance not only accelerates the tempo of his editing with cuts that last as little as a few frames, but also divides the screen into multiple segments, all with their own independent fast-cutting images.

Napoleon pillowfight multiscreen

This he considered the first use of what he called Polyvision, which in the final section of the film became three screens – pre-dating Cinerama by twenty-five years.

Polyvision_rig

Polyvision rig for triptych

Abel Gance saw film as an immersive medium of poetry and passion, and his editing was as much about conjuring ideas as it was emotions.  Brownlow: “In a scene in which Napoleon was escaping from Corsica in a dinghy, he gets caught in a storm and it intercuts with a riot in the Revolutionary Convention.  Gance wanted to express Victor Hugo’s thought that to be a member of the Convention was like being a wave on the ocean, and the technical director built a pendulum hanging from the ceiling of the studio, to swing the camera over the extras.  I remember Gance saying that the crowd reacted in their cringing very effectively, and you do get the feeling that you’re in the storm at sea, as well as in the storm of the Convention, and you can see a man drowning among his fellow members of the Convention.”

Napoleon in storm

This sequence had a powerful effect on the English director Sir Alan Parker, who was then shooting the big-screen adaptation of Pink Floyd The Wall:  “After seeing Napoleon I built a giant pendulum rig over a swimming pool at Pinewood Studios for a scene where Bob Geldof, with flailing arms, seems to be drowning in his own blood.”

The Wall Geldof in pool

Parker continues: “We also threw the camera around at any opportunity, influenced by Gance. A lot of the film was hand-held cameras.  Gance taught us that all the usual rules could be broken to create cinematic energy, and a surreal, anarchic, in-your-face film like The Wall was a perfect vehicle.”

Here, from 1980, is a short film in which Kevin Brownlow talks about Gance and his many innovations, with extensive clips from Napoleon:

Abel Gance with Francois Truffaut

Abel Gance with Francois Truffaut

The great American film director King Vidor once said that music was responsible for half of a film’s emotion and effectiveness.  Brownlow is quick to acknowledge that a huge part of the success of his restoration is owed to composer/conductor Carl Davis.

Carl Davis w: score

Davis, who was born in New York, is a true polymath, having grown up listening to and performing every kind of music, from jazz to ballet. His move to London in the early 1960s was prompted by the excitement of the arts scene there, and a desire to write music for drama. “There was a lot of classic theater, there was film and the standards of television were very, very high. What went on English TV was very ambitious, and still is.”

Davis met up with Brownlow and his then producing partner David Gill for a TV documentary series about the silent era, Hollywood (1980) which had grown out of Brownlow’s defining book on the subject, The Parade’s Gone By.

Brownlow:Davis:Gill

Brownlow (l), Davis (c) & David Gill

Over the course of thirteen one-hour programs Davis had supplied a huge range of music in a multiplicity of styles and orchestrations.  In preparation he had spoken to numerous musicians of the silent era, and had integrated their techniques of matching borrowed music with original themes.  When it was announced that Napoleon would be their first “live” presentation of a silent, he had just over three months to come up with five hours of music. There simply wasn’t the time for him to compose a completely original score.

Brownlow: “Carl came up with this fantastic idea, an idea of genius, which was to use composers that were alive when Napoleon was alive, which gave the film the most extraordinary authentic feeling, which it has anyway, but it enhances it tremendously.”

Portrait of Beethoven by Kloeber (1818)

Portrait of Beethoven by Kloeber (1818)

At the core of this group of composers was Beethoven, who had famously dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon, only to scratch out the dedication upon hearing of Napoleon declaring himself Emperor.

eroica title page

Davis: “Beethoven did four versions of the Eroica theme – the symphony, a set of piano variations, a ballet (The Creatures of Prometheus), and a contredanse.  It was an idée fixe for him.  I also used Egmont, music for plays, marches, minuets.  The idea from an artistic view was not to make it seem random.  If the whole film is a biography, a portrait of Napoleon, it could also be a study in the music of Napoleon’s time.  Mozart, Haydn, Cherubini, Gluck….“

In typically impish fashion, Gance decided to throw down his own musical challenge. A long, central sequence features Parisians hearing the anthem of the Revolution, the Marseillaise, for the first time, and learning to sing it.  This in a silent film! Davis rises to the occasion with a virtuoso set of variations, and elsewhere throws in other popular songs of the period for good measure.

Learning the Marseillaise

Learning the Marseillaise

However, one important visual and thematic strand of the film did not yet have a musical identity.  Davis: “There was an almost sci-fi view of Napoleon as omniscient, linked to some great force of nature, unstoppable, implacable – an expression of an ideal that had to do with the 1920s as opposed to the 1790s.

Napoleon Dieudonne profile

“There I had to write something myself that was more like a Hollywood kind of theme – grand, noble, immediately accessible, memorable.”

Young Napoleon, taunted by his classmates and disciplined by his teachers, is left alone in a freezing garret.  There he is visited by his pet eagle, and in a vivid inspiration, Gance turns the eagle into the visual metaphor for Napoleon’s destiny, to re-appear at key turning points in the film. It is a moment rife with danger, so on-the-nose that it could easily elicit titters rather than awe from the audience.  But Davis steps forward with his majestic theme to nail the emotion and the idea behind it.  Patrick Stanbury, now Brownlow’s co-producer, but in 1980 just a member of the audience at the first screening, recalls that moment:  “Suddenly it was magic.”

Young Napoleon and the Eagle of Destiny

Young Napoleon and the Eagle of Destiny

Behind the scenes at that first performance in 1980, Davis was heroically keeping the orchestra in sync to the film by his wits alone (disdaining technological assists like click tracks), while the performers were wrestling with some unexpected problems.  Davis: “The actual quantity of music that was sitting on the music stands grew and grew, and finally when we got to the third part, which was very long and very stuck together with tape, suddenly all the music fell on the floor.  It was in the middle of the Bal des Victimes – very lively using Beethoven’s 7th Symphony.  I suddenly lost three quarters of the orchestra, and there is actually a recording of me shouting “Play! Play! Please play!” And we were down on the ground trying to put the music back on the stands again.”

Napoleon w: orchestra @Paramount

In the following videos, Carl Davis talks at greater length about his score.

Assembling the special screen needed for Napoleon at the Paramount

Assembling the special screen needed for Napoleon at the Paramount

On that faraway day in 1980 at the Empire, Leicester Square, I — like my daughter over thirty years later — would never forget the overwhelming impact of the last act of Napoleon. Suddenly, the curtains at the side of the screen drew back, and the image expanded to fill my field of vision. The audience gasped as one — an effect repeated even more emphatically at the Paramount, thirty two years later. Before us unfurled the spectacle of Napoleon’s army on three conjoined screens, in crystalline black and white.  Sometimes the screens join to create continuous panoramas; sometimes they fragment into three sets of evolving images.  It’s a spectacle made all the more vivid for its capture by relatively primitive technology. But that does not account for the artist’s eye, of Gance and of his brilliant cinematographers and camera operators. In this triptych sequence the film expands literally and thematically in every direction, juggling static and moving panoramas and montages that gather together all the imagery of the proceeding five hours, hurling it at you with ever increasing density. Those screens are so bright with the projectors’ reflected light it’s as if the theater’s roof has been lifted off and daylight is streaming in on the audience — a cinematic sunrise.

triptych double stacked

Napoleon - tryptich 7

Napoleon - tryptich 8

Napoleon tryptich 5

Napoleon tryptich 6

Napoleon tryptich 11

napoleon_triptich horse on ridge

Accompanying this spectacle are the rousing cadences of the music’s climax, a mash-up of Beethoven in full cry with Davis’s own transcendent “Eagle of Destiny” theme.

Back in 1980, when Napoleon finally came to an end (and at a certain point it feels like it will never end — the film just keeps topping itself), the theatre erupted into bravos as the film detonated into the red, white and blue tricolor of its final frames spread across three screens.

Final tryptich (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

Final tryptich (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

For Brownlow, after a lifetime struggling to bring this forgotten masterpiece back into the light, the full force of the experience hit home. In his book he recalls that moment: “I looked at the picture as though I’d never seen it before.  I recalled Lillian Gish talking about the premiere of The Birth of a Nation: ‘I sat at the end of a row with men, and during some parts the whole row shook with their sobs, it was so moving.’  Well, I shook my row, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  I was overcome with relief and suffused with joy that the film was at last being seen as it was supposed to be seen.”

napoleon on mountain ridge

For those heading to the Royal Festival Hall at the end of November, that moment can be relived again in all its cinematic glory. Wish I could be there…..

Gance's inscription

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Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow

Gance with dog

The following “review” of Napoleon includes more excerpts from the film, including the snowball fight (though without Carl Davis’s score, alas).

You can read my full interview with director Sir Alan Parker talking about Kevin Brownlow here. And you can view clips from another classic silent, Flesh and the Devil starring Greta Garbo, with original music by Carl Davis here.

FILMMAKERS on FILMMAKERS ( ALAN PARKER on KEVIN BROWNLOW )

filming Napoleon

As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences welcomes Kevin Brownlow to introduce two of his classic silent movie restorations, “The Crowd” and “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg”, here is my tribute to this maverick filmmaker and inspirational film historian. I begin with an overview of his career, followed by an interview about Brownlow with his colleague and admirer, Sir Alan Parker.

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Director Alan Parker

There are many who would argue that film lost a certain magic in the transition from “silents” to “talkies”.  The literalness of adding speech, the specificity of anchoring images to sound, created a new filmic “reality”.  In the process we lost an elusive element of poetry that suffused the combination of image and music that was the silent film.  (The “silents” were never silent — there was always live music, both in the theaters, and on set when filming).

Silent movie musicians

Some would say the “talkies” have never fully recaptured that original magic, that poetry.

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Kevin Brownlow

One of the people who would be first to agree is Kevin Brownlow, the man who can rightly claim to have alerted more people to the wonders of the silent era than any other. And not just from writing about it, although he has done that better than anyone. Through restorations, theatrical presentations and documentaries, Brownlow has always used his own considerable filmmaking skills to turn faded curiosities into vibrant, vital film experiences for packed houses and millions of television viewers.

Reconstructed by Kevin Brownlow

As a boy he fell in love with the forgotten silents he watched in his makeshift home cinema, the classics and rare treasures he would bring home from flea markets and buy in catalogues.  He became a filmmaker himself, co-directing with his friend Andrew Mollo the startling It Happened Here (1964), a nightmarish fugue that imagined life in England if the Nazis had won the War.  It was the original low-budget indie before such a thing existed.  He also worked as an editor in the British film industry – on films like Tony Richardson’s iconoclastic Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) (which he described to me as “professionally the most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had.”)

Polish Poster

Polish poster for Charge of the Light Brigade

But his greatest passion remained that long forgotten era in Hollywood, when the most recognizable people on the planet – Valentino and Garbo, Chaplin and Keaton, Pickford and Fairbanks – created a new art-form among the orange groves of Hollywood.

HollywoodHS-1906

Hollywood c.1906 (the High School is the white building in center)

Chaplin's Film Studios in the 20s

Chaplin’s Film Studios in the 20s

I first became aware of Brownlow’s work at school, thanks to the same enterprising schoolmaster who had introduced me to the notion that film could be more than just entertainment via movies like Stagecoach and Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game and Un Chien Andalou. He screened a documentary Kevin had made about the French director Abel Gance, and his “lost” silent epic Napoleon, that Kevin had been painstakingly reconstructing over the years.  That documentary, The Charm of Dynamite, was revelatory. I had never seen film used like this. Every element of the medium was pushed to the limit to immerse the viewer as deeply as possible into the drama, the emotion, the poetry of what was unfolding on the screen.

napoleon-9-screen

I immediately read Kevin’s seminal history of the silent era, The Parade’s Gone By, and was transported into another world. Through the detailed reminiscences of everyone from stars to cameramen to stunt-men and directors, the silent era was transformed into a kind of cinematic Camelot.  It was a gilded age of kings and queens, princes and princesses; with court intrigues and pretenders to the throne; errant knights, court jesters and the occasional damsel in distress — all working to create a new art-form and entertainment industry first in New York, then in the wild, wild west of California.  The Parade’s Gone By was to form the basis for the subsequent groundbreaking, 13-hour television series, Hollywood.

Hollywood2

In an irony not lost on its creators, Hollywood was funded and produced by a television company, Thames, part of Britain’s commercial network.  The dreaded box in the living-room, which had brought the film industry to its knees in the 50s and 60s, turned out to be the vehicle that preserved and celebrated Hollywood’s neglected history at a time when the studios were still mindlessly chucking out their archives, to end up as landfill for freeway construction. And it was a British television company to boot.

The success of Hollywood brought unforeseen gifts.  One Saturday morning I found myself with my best friend riding a train from Oxford to London to attend an occasion neither I, nor, I suspect Kevin, ever imagined would take place.  It was a full theatrical screening of the now completed Napoleon, accompanied by a symphony orchestra performing a specially composed score, in one of London’s grand movie palaces, the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square.

Napoleon at Empire

It all started in the morning.  No film started in the morning!  Well this one did, because it lasted all day!  Up to the podium strode composer/conductor Carl Davis, a striking figure with a flowing mane of curly hair, Liszt-like, every inch the showman and maestro.

Carl Davis conducting

He had to be.  He was going to be spending the next five-and-a-half hours leading his musicians without anything to keep him in sync with the film beyond his own instincts and sheer nerve. In musical terms, it was a high wire act, without a safety rope, over the Grand Canyon.  With forecasts of windy gusts and rain.

Napoleon in rain

The theatre was full of London’s cultural elite and movie buffs, with assorted movers, shakers and politicos thrown in for good measure.  What were we expecting?  Something great, something special, but absolutely not the utterly overwhelming experience that was actually delivered.  As the drama reached its climax with Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, the film exploded the bounds of the frame by expanding onto three screens in the final triptych sequence.  With Beethoven’s Eroica theme and Carl’s own transcendent “Destiny” theme thundering (with added organ now) from the orchestra, the theatre trembled, whole rows of grown men and women shaking with emotion.

Napoleon tryptich 11

napoleon-widescreen

Napoleon tryptich 5

The triumph of Napoleon ushered in a golden age for Kevin, his producing partner David Gill (at right), and composer Carl Davis (center).

Brownlow:Davis:Gill

They embarked on a series of documentaries and theatrical rebirths of silent classics, all presented in exquisitely restored prints with brand new orchestral scores.

Ben-Hur poster

Ben-Hur, The Big Parade, Thief of Baghdad, Flesh and the Devil, The Wind  — I saw them all and more, and began writing articles about what was fast becoming an exciting phenomenon in festivals and movie houses across the world: “live” cinema.

The Wind - sold out

I got to know the team, and during the season at Radio City Music Hall, found myself chatting with Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Lauren Bacall, John Gilbert’s daughter, and other luminaries of old Hollywood.  When I moved to Los Angeles, Kevin delighted in telling me that one of the greatest of all Hollywood directors, Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel, Morocco), had lived a couple of blocks away from my apartment; his son still resided in the same house.

During one of my visits to Kevin and David’s offices, I noticed their walls were decorated with a series of acerbic, and very funny, cartoons about the biz by the British director Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Mississippi Burning, The Commitments).

INT-ROOM-NIGHT-800x686 Parker

It turned out that Kevin, like every film maker struggling to make a career within the insular, perennially on-the-edge-of-the-abyss British Film Industry, recognized a fellow rebel when he saw one. He mentioned something about Alan being a regular at their screenings, and having “borrowed” Abel Gance’s idea of using a camera suspended from a pendulum for his film of Pink Floyd The Wall.  I was always a fan of Alan Parker, especially of The Wall and Shoot the Moon, the latter a searingly honest examination of a disintegrating marriage that contains career-topping performances by Diane Keaton and Albert Finney.  Parker was an unabashedly commercial director who brought real fire and passion to his work, and wasn’t afraid to cock a snook at the doggedly inward-looking (some would say constipated) ethic of mainstream British film.  For me, his act of hommage to Abel Gance confirmed his class: he stole only from the best.

So when, last year, I was writing a piece about the triumphant screenings of Napoleon at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I thought it would be interesting to contact now Sir Alan Parker for his thoughts on another maverick, now Oscar-winner Kevin Brownlow.

kevinbrownlow_oscar

This is what he had to say….

Parker shooting The Wall

Alan Parker (l.) shooting Pink Floyd The Wall

When and how did you first meet Kevin Brownlow? What were your impressions of him?

I first met him in David Puttnam’s office in the early seventies but didn’t really get to know him until about 1982/3 when he and David Gill asked me to do one of the segments for their Thames series “British Cinema: A personal view.” I wrote and directed one of these films: it was called “A Turnip Head’s Guide to British Cinema.” Kevin was a fan of my rather irreverent and subversive cartoons commenting on the film industry, which we developed into the film.

Parker - British Film Industry

Lindsay Anderson and Richard Attenborough also did segments of their own. David Lean was also meant to do one, but pulled out.

My first impressions of Kevin were of a shy, owlish, bookish individual: he looked like a history teacher from Tom Brown’s Schooldays or a bureaucrat from MI-6 .

brownlow1

I was fascinated by the miniature notebooks he carried; the pages of which he covered with the tiniest handwriting. It could be a quote, an obscure film fact, or a rude put-down – into the book it all went. 

Did you read his book “The Parade’s Gone By”, and if so what kind of impact did it have on you?

Parade's gone by

I loved The Parade’s Gone By.  It’s one of the best books on the history of film and probably the best on the silent movie era. Although scholarly and erudite it was totally engaging, put together by someone who not only knew his stuff but also loved every person and every frame in it. He was the first to realize that an entire generation responsible for early cinema might not be around much longer, and his interviews with the significant, surviving players became an evocative and definitive history of the period.

Can you talk about your experience of seeing “Napoleon” for the first time: your impressions of the film, the effect of the music, and any influence the experience had on your own work?

I was certainly influenced by it.  After seeing the film I built a giant pendulum rig over a swimming pool at Pinewood Studios for a scene in Pink Floyd The Wall where Bob Geldof, with flailing arms, seems to be drowning in his own blood.

The Wall Geldof in pool

Bob Geldof as Pink

We also threw the camera around at any opportunity, influenced by Gance. A lot of the film was hand-held cameras. Gance taught us that all the usual rules could be broken to create cinematic energy, and a surreal, anarchic, in-your-face film like The Wall was a perfect vehicle.

The Wall - Geldof on floor 

Earlier, before the film, Pink Floyd and Gerald Scarfe in the mammoth stage version of The Wall (early 1980) had used three projectors in sync, creating a triptych image on the giant ‘wall’ screen.

The Wall "live" in 1980

The Wall “live” in 1980

Scarfe’s animation looked extraordinarily powerful in this form. Whether they borrowed this from Gance I don’t know, as it was before my time.

For anyone who has never seen “Napoleon”, what would you tell them to prepare themselves for?

Everything that was ever invented in cinema is here. It’s a masterpiece of course and overwhelming. A lot of people find the acting rather over-the-top and earnest but the film is so big, seemingly no screen is big enough to contain it. And how can you resist the smouldering, sharp nosed features of the actor who plays Napoleon with the dramatic god-given name of Albert Dieudonné!

Brownlow introducing Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne)

Brownlow introducing Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne)

How did Kevin’s and David Gill’s series of live presentations of silent movies with live orchestra, and their various documentary series, change your perception and opinion of the silent film era in movies?

I think, as a young filmmaker, it was impossible not to be affected by the invention and sheer craft of the work. And unlike us lot, following in their large footsteps, they were the first to do it. They were making up the rules, the grammar as they went along. The power, simplicity and beauty of images and music together is an extraordinary way to communicate to an audience.

John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil (1926)

John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Lillian Gish the wind 2

Lillian Gish in The Wind

The Phantom arrives at the Ball, Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The Phantom (Lon Chaney) arrives at the Ball, Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Sets for Thief of Baghdad (1924)

Sets for Thief of Baghdad (1924)

I had been captivated by the original Unknown Chaplin series in particular – being a Chaplin nut – and so the Chaplin films would have been particularly important to me.

Chaplin on sofa

You have always used music very creatively in your own films — why do you think Carl Davis’s scores for these silent films are so effective?

First and foremost they are an adjunct to the storytelling and not too self important or distracting. They meld with the pictures, creeping up on you rather than set you humming. They are not flashy, but serve the images.

Carl Davis and friend

Carl Davis and friend

Why do you think Kevin has been such an effective force in the promotion of the silent era in film-making?

His endless fascination with the minutiae of film is extraordinary. It seems he lives and breathes and loves it.

Brownlow at homeKevin is a great film historian who made us all realize the wealth of our cinematic heritage at a time when people had all but forgotten it. And he realized it fifty years before The Artist.

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Brownlow and Gill talking to Gloria Swanson

What were the most striking qualities of Kevin Brownlow’s own films “It Happened Here” and “Winstanley”?  Why you think it was so challenging for Kevin to make these kinds of films at that time in Britain?

it happened here poster

Both It happened Here and Winstanley were films that just wouldn’t have been made in the run of normal British film fodder.

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Winstanley

There was no such thing as “Indie film” at the time and It Happened Here took so long to make the trials and tribulations of making it were like Werner Herzog films: probably more interesting than the films themselves. I have the powerful image in my head – that has stayed since seeing the original film – of a platoon of German soldiers, in immaculate Andrew Mollo [brother of Star Wars costume designer John Mollo] uniforms, marching past Big Ben.

 It Happened Here (1964)

British film at the time was a curious sixties potpourri from brilliant to dire – and all financed by the mainstream film companies. It was a mixed bag from dopey Carry on… films, to the brilliance of Kubrick and Lean, to the sixties visions of Dick Lester and the Beatles. Brownlow must have appeared as a maverick loony.

Brownlow shooting 2

Do you have any particularly good stories about Kevin?

I remember a dry sense of humour. I was bemoaning the unpleasantness of the film critic, Alexander Walker, and Kevin said: “The problem with Alex is that his ad libs sound like they’re on their eighth draft.”

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Frankly-Seth-800x718 Parker

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THE GREATEST FILM EVER MADE? ( “NAPOLEON” on BASTILLE DAY )

Napoleon close-up

Gance's inscription

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Gance as Saint-Juste in Napoleon

What is the ultimate movie-going experience?  The ultimate big screen blow-out?

2001: A Space Odyssey?

Lawrence of Arabia?

Star Wars?

Think again.  Think a silent film, released in 1927.  A film that was almost lost to history, if it were not for the obsessive efforts of a young British film-maker and historian, Kevin Brownlow.  Today, on Bastille Day, we celebrate that masterpiece of French and world cinema: Napoleon, vu par Abel Gance.

Napoleon poster old 1

I’ve got long history with this film.  I was present at the now-legendary first screenings of Brownlow’s restoration at London’s Empire Theater in Leicester Square.  That experience led to a friendship with Kevin, his producer David Gill, and composer Carl Davis, and a series of articles about their ground-breaking restorations of silent movies.

Then, in March 2012, Kevin’s definitive version of the film arrived for the first time in America, complete with Carl Davis’s superlative score.  I dragged friends, my daughter and her mother (an ancestor of hers, a mistress of Napoleon, appears as a character in the film) to the screenings.  They could not believe their eyes or ears.

Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland, 2012 (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

Napoleon at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland, 2012 (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

The following is the review I wrote of the occasion for the Financial Times, supplemented by extra pictures.  For those of you who are interested, a screening is taking place in London this Fall.  Do not hesitate to do whatever it takes to be there.

Napoleon - Dieudonne on mountain

Albert Dieudonne as Napoleon

It has taken 85 years, but America is finally seeing one of the cinematic wonders of the world in all its glory, as the enterprising San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents screenings of Abel Gance’s five-and-a-half-hour 1927 silent epic Napoleon.

Napoleon 2012poster

French director Gance originally intended to make six films covering Napoleon’s entire life, but blew his budget on Part One, which takes us from Napoleon’s boyhood to his campaign to liberate Italy. Its first audience didn’t even see all of that: when Napoleon premiered at the Paris Opera, the film had already been severely shortened by nervous producers.

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The birth of the Marseillaise is vividly brought to life in the film, and is here rendered into a 1927 poster by Georges Scott

In the succeeding decades, the film was scattered across archives, private collections and flea markets around the world. By 1954, when 15-year-old Kevin Brownlow discovered a 9.5mm home-movie version of excerpts, Gance and his film barely made the footnotes in movie history.

Director Abel Gance and the young Kevin Brownlow

Abel Gance and the young Kevin Brownlow

For Brownlow, a future editor and director himself, viewing the film was a moment of revelation. “The camera did things that I didn’t think it could do, and it represented the cinema as I thought it ought to be, but had never seen an example of,” he recalls. “It was beautifully, brilliantly staged. You couldn’t believe it had been shot in the ’20s.”

The aftermath of battle

The aftermath of battle

Young Napoleon and the Eagle of Destiny

Young Napoleon and the Eagle of Destiny

Napoleon on boat with flag

Escaping from Corsica

Gance saw film as an immersive medium of poetry and passion. To achieve his aims, cameras were thrown on to galloping horses, mounted on cables and sleds, and swung from pendulums.

Mounting cameras on horses for Napoleon's escape from Corsica

Mounting the camera on a horse to film Napoleon’s escape from Corsica

He used split screens, multi-layered dissolves and revolutionary editing techniques to challenge every convention of cinematic storytelling.

The ghosts of the Revolution

The ghosts of the Revolution

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Young Napoleon in a precursor to his later battles: the pillow fight

In the finale, when the frame is no longer big enough to accommodate Gance’s vision, the film explodes on to three screens.

Napoleon tryptich 11

Napoleon tryptich 4

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He even shot test footage in colour and 3D. Rarely has the avant garde been given such heady rein in a mainstream narrative.

Napoleon embracing Josephine -- and the world

Napoleon embracing Josephine — and the world

Brownlow’s efforts to reconstitute the film turned into a full-blown restoration with the support of the British Film Institute in London. In 1980, British TV company Thames Television funded a theatrical presentation, commissioning an orchestral score from composer Carl Davis.

Carl Davis

Carl Davis

Davis turned to the classical music of the period – “If the whole film is a biography, a portrait of Napoleon, it could also be a study in the music of Napoleon’s time – Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Cherubini, Gluck,” he said – as well as popular songs. The result was a score that perfectly matched the film’s tone and energy; such was the combined impact that those early screenings passed into film-buff legend.

Young Napoleon (Vladimir Rudenko)

Young Napoleon (Vladimir Rudenko)

It was always hoped that this version of Napoleon would be shown in the US, but the rights there were controlled by director Francis Coppola, who favoured his own, shorter version, with a score by his father Carmine. It enjoyed great success, but was a pale shadow of the British production.

The execution of Danton

The execution of Danton

Over the years, Brownlow uncovered more footage and better versions of the material he already had. In 2000, the BFI and Photoplay Productions unveiled a dye-bath toned and tinted print, incorporating all the new material.

Fast-forward to 2010. In a twist right out of the movies, Brownlow found himself in Los Angeles receiving an honorary Oscar for his work as a film historian. Next to him sat another honoree – Francis Coppola. Whatever transpired in that meeting, the result was that all parties came together to enable the current Oakland screenings.

Coppola and Brownlow on Oscar night

Coppola and Brownlow on Oscar night

All concerned have done Napoleon more than proud, not least in their choice of venue: the Paramount Theatre’s art deco splendour is a worthy setting for the film’s epic scale.

Paramount theater lobby

Paramount Theatre, Oakland, CA.  By Euan Rannachan & Ron Essex. www.paramounttheatre.com

As for the film itself, the many visual refinements of the current restoration bring an extra cohesion to its narrative flow. The exquisitely nuanced photography registers more clearly, along with the meticulous crafting of period detail, while the tinting, especially in inter-cut scenes of different coloration, adds another level of emotional density. One sinks more deeply into the film.

Death of Marat

Death of Marat

But maybe the greatest gift of this Napoleon is the opportunity for American audiences at last to hear music that is fully the equal of the powerful images it accompanies. Carl Davis conducts the Oakland East Bay Symphony in a spirited account of his stamina-challenging score, which, like Brownlow’s restoration, has grown over the years.

With the unveiling of the film’s final triptych, the Paramount’s 85-foot proscenium span ensured that even those who had seen the effect before gasped in astonishment.

Final tryptich (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

Final tryptich (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

It may have taken 85 years to get the film restored and back on the screen, but what’s a few decades when it comes to cinematic immortality?

Josephine, Saint-Juste, and Napoleon

Josephine (Gina Manes), Saint-Juste (Gance), and Napoleon (Dieudonne)

You can read more about Kevin Brownlow’s unique career as a filmmaker and historian in my interview with renowned director, Sir Alan Parker, here.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN ( ANIMATING THE IMAGINATION )

Harryhausen animating

Strolling down Hollywood Boulevard a month ago, I found myself swerving to avoid a Spiderman who had temporarily lost control of his web.

Now a native Angeleno will immediately know whereof I speak.  I was on the block of Los Angeles that every tourist flocks to, as well as assorted street performers acting out their superhero and celebrity complexes.  This is where you’ll find Grauman’s Chinese Theater, home to the concrete signatures, handprints, footprints and even pawprints of Tinsel Town’s legends.

Grauman's Chinese Theatre (note Spiderman in foreground)

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (note Spiderman in foreground)

Also along this street you will find the Hollywood Walk of Fame: these are the stars set into the sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard that bear the names of those who have defined the movies, both in front of and behind the camera.  In swerving to avoid Spiderman (who was probably trying to catch the eye of Jimmy Kimmel’s talent spotter), I found myself careening towards a bouquet of flowers set upon an easel above one of these sidewalk memorials.  This is what they do here to mark the recent passage of a star from the Hollywood constellation to the Great Walk of Fame in the Sky.

Fortunately, my collision was narrowly averted by a friendly steadying hand from Spongebob (who looked in need of a good rinse).  Then I noticed the name of the legend whose floral epitaph I had almost demolished.

Ray Harryhausen.

Harryhausen unveiling star

How appropriate, I thought, as I imagined the headline from the flowers’ point of view: “LARGE CREATURE OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN WREAKS DEVASTATION FROM THE SKY!”.   This was exactly the kind of thing you might see in a Ray Harryhausen movie.

20 million miles Italian poster

Now if you don’t know who Ray Harryhausen is, then you are about to learn about one of the greatest sorcerers of the silver screen.  If you are already familiar with his work, and live in Los Angeles, then I suspect you will already be planning to make the pilgrimage to this weekend’s retrospective of his work at the American Cinematheque.

Fighting Khali

Fighting the Kali from “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad”

Ray Harryhausen was the master of a process practically as old as film itself: stop motion animation. The ironic thing about those early filmmakers was that after laboring so long and hard to create a technology that could accurately record and then re-project reality, they then almost immediately set their minds to creating fantasies using all manner of camera trickery.  Thomas Edison, one of the pioneers of movies, made some of the earliest examples of stop motion animation.

From the beginning, film led a double life.  By day, it was a mild-mannered reporter of the factual and everyday; by night, a Jungian fantasist with superhero powers of endless invention.

Stop motion, just one weapon in the technical arsenal of the film wizard, is the process by which an animator films a model one frame at a time, slightly moving the model with each new frame exposure.  Then, projected at 24 frames per second, the inanimate model miraculously comes to life.  The most famous early examples of this technique used in features were The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933).  Willis O’Brien, who created the animation for both films, was later Harryhausen’s mentor.

willis-obrien

Harryhausen took this technique and expanded upon it, eventually creating his own process to combine models and live action, which he named “Dynamation”.

Dynamation process drawing

My mind is prone to find odd equivalencies, so I consider Harryhausen to be the Chuck Jones of stop motion model animation.  This is not because his films are funny (they aren’t – they are mostly about Armageddon monsters and mythological beasties – but they can give rise to unintentional giggles in rare moments of misjudged invention), but because he brought a level of genius to something that was completely artificial, often visibly so, and imbued it with incredible humanity, rendering it credible and, to the audience, utterly real.

The Ymir in "20 Million Miles to Earth"

With Jones it was line drawings which, in his greatest cartoons — like the Road Runner meditations on the futility of pursuit, literal or otherwise — were given broad stroke design and crude animation (at least compared to Disney’s fantasias), yet still seemed to capture the deep absurdities and pathos of the human condition.   With Harryhausen, when the black-and-white T.Rex from outer space (official name Ymir) in 20 Million Miles to Earth is gunned down by soldiers in the Colisseum, and becomes a ruin in the ruins, guess who we feel sorry for, and guess who seems more human than the humans?

20 Million Miles to Earth dead Ymir

We may be aware of the sometimes jerky movements of Harryhausen’s animated creatures (his preferred term for his creations), the subtle but clear differentiations between the models and the real actors and locations.  But at the same time we marvel at the apparent interaction between the models and the separately filmed elements.  We buy the fantasy, because we imbue the models with character and emotion.  How is that possible?  They are just models.

Why do our hearts break at the end of King Kong?  How is it that we, like Fay Wray, learn to weep for a rubber monkey?

King Kong wounded

Kong, after touching his bullet wounds, struggles to comprehend the blood on his fingers.

Firty years from now, which version of the Perseus legend are you going to take your kids to see?  The recent CGI, 3-D run-amok Clash of the Titans, or Ray Harryhausen’s whimsical 1981 version starring L.A.Law’s hunky Harry Hamlin and his dimple, with Larry Olivier hamming it up as Zeus on Mt. Olympus? (And keep an eye open, or maybe two, for James Bond’s Blonde Venus who arose from the waves: Ursula Andress as — yes, you guessed it — Venus/Aphrodite, minus the conch).

Ursula Andress clash 2

No contest.

Miniatures from "Clash of the Titans"

Shooting the flood on miniature sets for “Clash of the Titans”

So what kind of cinematic alchemy is at work here, decades before CGI is able to render reality with more reality than reality?

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Getting an eyeful of the Medusa in “Clash of the Titans”

Well, maybe that’s the point.  Sometimes reality on film is less real, aesthetically and emotionally, than the real thing.  Emotional truth is more important than strict pictorial accuracy.  Art has always been about the missing piece, the leap of imagination, the interpretative act that is required of the viewer or listener to fully engage with the construct (the art work).  In film, as Hitchcock so tellingly observed, it’s what you do not see that tickles the imagination, which in turn teases you into the spaces between the frames, between the visible.  This is where the soul of film resides, and where we make the connection with our dream life.

Sinbad Rogue of Mars sketch

In the pre-digital era the action of creating film was first a physical process, then a chemical one.  First the object or actor moves or is manipulated.  With Harryhausen his fingers shape and move the model frame by frame, touching it, pouring his energy through his fingers into the rubber or clay.  Light bounces off the reality being photographed, passing through lenses onto the recording medium itself, then is manipulated and developed through chemicals in a laboratory, and finally imprinted.  It is literally an alchemical process: disembodied light acting on one set of materials to turn them into another.  Moving clay or rubber models in front of lights is a physical, organic process: a performance, like that of an actor, except this one is recorded one frame at a time.

Ray Harryhausen In Action

On the other hand CGI, the digital equivalent of Harryhausen’s stop motion, takes place in an alternative reality generated within a computer.  It is a mathematical process, a sampling of reality dressed up to look like a recording of reality.  On some deep, intuitive level, that artificiality is communicated, and our brains, our souls do not completely buy it.  We’re used to imperfection in everything we look at and experience in the physical world.  Models exist in that world, and carry that DNA with them.

harryhausenanimatingdragonmodel

CGI can be further compromised by the desire of the modern filmmaker, paying no heed to Hitchcock, to fill in the blanks: now that he can show everything, he does show everything.  There’s no space into which the viewer’s consciousness can quietly slip and settle, then absorb, grow, and make connections.

Sinbad and Eye of Tiger landscape

Harryhausen himself put his finger on it: “There’s a strange quality in stop-motion photography, like in King Kong, that adds to the fantasy.  If you make things too real, sometimes you bring it down to the mundane.”

Polish poster for "The Golden Voyage of Sinbad"

Polish poster for “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad”

Understanding that music is another magical alchemy that enhances the emotional connection we make to moving images, Harryhausen also made the brilliant decision to hire one of the best composers around, Bernard Herrmann, for four of his films, including his two best: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts.  It was Herrmann who added soul to Citizen Kane and Hitchcock’s masterpieces Vertigo and Psycho with his bold, imaginative scores.  Herrmann was a supreme colorist and a master of inventive orchestration.  Harryhausen’s mythic creatures inspired him to create dazzling combinations of unusual instruments to lend each animation its own personality, like the sword-wielding skeleton in 7th Voyage of Sinbad who attacks with xylophone, percussion and brass staccatos.

7th-Voyage-of-Sinbad-Ray-Harryhausen-Skeleton-Fight

In the 1970s, Decca’s hi-fi specatacular label, Phase 4 Stereo, embarked on a series of recordings of suites from these scores with Herrmann himself conducting.  Their success helped nurture the growing interest in film music as a serious art form in its own right, and are now considered audio classics, with used LPs fetching high prices.

Mysterious Film World cover

Some years ago I took my then 8-year-old daughter to a screening of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  She was utterly transported by this Technicolor fantasy voyage come true.

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But as far as I was concerned this was just the warm-up to the main event.  We walked across the street to meet the man himself, who was signing copies of his latest book.

rayharryhausenbook

This was a lavishly assembled collection of stills, drawings and storyboards from his movies, and framed copies of certain drawings hung on the walls of the bookstore.  They would not have been out of place in a LACMA exhibit.

Skeleton and sinbad

Hollywood art.  Yes, there is such a thing.

My daughter was excited beyond measure to meet the man whose movie had just brought to life the myths she had only read about in books, or been told by me.  Uncharacteristically tongue-tied, she came to the head of the line, clasping the book to be signed.

I told him we had just been to see The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  My daughter was visibly trembling, completely in awe.  Harryhausen immediately put her at ease.

“So what did you like the best?” he asked gently.

A pause.

Then: “The skeleton.  He – “ note the use of the word ‘he’ rather than ‘it’.  Now she hesitated, wanting to be sure to use exactly the right words.  “He — was so real.”

“Well”, came Harryhausen’s reply.  “He was real.”

Precisely my point.

That book continues to stand in pride of place on my daughter’s bookshelves, next to the Harry Potter novels and other fantasy epics that have so thoroughly colonized the landscapes of her imagination.  Mythology and creatures from the beyond will always be with us, as will — thanks to film — the fantastical worlds of Ray Harryhausen.

And I’m willing to bet J.K. Rowling’s a fan too

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The Kraken and Andromeda in “Clash of the Titans”

Piero di Cosimo's version of the same scene, with Perseus rescuing Andromeda

Piero di Cosimo’s version of the same scene, with Perseus rescuing Andromeda (1513)

Ray Harryhausen autograph