Friday, July 30, 2004
Let’s see now. There’s the public-school gang, which used to be the only important one, and probably still is in the City of London; its influence in publishing should not be underestimated either. Then there’s the ex-military brigade: moustaches and cavalry-twill trousers, though in London they wear a town suit, naturally; they walk briskly and swing a mean umbrella. Next there’s the Welsh mafia, or Taffia: let’s put it this way, if you’re a schoolteacher and you were born and bred in Surrey, you can forget all about being appointed as a headmaster in Wales. And we haven’t even touched on the more formal groupings, such as the Freemasons, Rotarians, and Mensa.
How you get to be a fully paid-up member of any of these groupings is a mystery to me. I have never been any good at this kind of networking. It is apparently not enough to be, say, a former sergeant in the Royal Corps of Signals; you have to be somehow known in those circles. Known for opening beer bottles with your teeth, perhaps; or screwing the Colonel’s wife and getting away with it.
Anyway, as I say, it never hurts if a writer has one or more of these groupings on his side, and the British novelist Jake Arnott has evidently managed to become a made man in at least two of them: the literary lot and the gay gang.
At some time in the not too distant past, Jake Arnott wrote a novel, called The Long Firm. Somehow or other he brought it to the attention of Jonny Geller, who is one of the UK’s leading literary agents; and if you told me that this introduction was effected by the gay mafia I would not be at all surprised. Just don’t try telling me, please, that Mr Arnott’s novel was of such outstanding quality that it leapt, unaided, out of Geller’s 1200-a-year slush pile. Because I would find that very difficult to believe.
Geller, of course, is sufficiently famous to be mentioned and occasionally interviewed in the press all on his own. And it is his habit to sell books to publishers for large sums of money. Which is what he did for Jake Arnott. The Long Firm was sold to Hodder/Sceptre for the customary ‘six-figure sum’, i.e. £100,000. Allegedly. The small-print details of these contracts are never made public.
Well, if a publisher is investing that sort of money, several things follow. There were the usual moody photographs of the author, featuring the lovely Jake in a sharp suit; it was bought from a charity shop, apparently, but it was sharp nevertheless. And there were press interviews and bits on TV. And advertising. And reviews, of course, nearly all of which were favourable. Well, let’s face it, if Geller is behind the book and Hodder has bought it for £100,000 it’s got to be good, right?
And then, in due course, Geller sold the TV rights to the BBC, which filmed The Long Firm in four parts, the last of which was shown on Wednesday of this week. And, once again, many of the reviews were favourable. Everybody said how wonderful the acting was. Which is true; but then the acting in British television dramas normally is brilliant; it’s the writing which so often leaves much to be desired.
There is, however, just one small fly in this otherwise gloriously greasy ointment. Like many another highly hyped book, The Long Firm isn’t as good as it’s cracked up to be. I myself gave it 40 pages and then abandoned it. And I am not alone; it is not just grumpy old me. Visit, for instance, the Literary Saloon’s Complete Review, and you will find there the judgement that the British reviews of the book are ‘dumbfoundingly enthusiastic…. Our only explanation is that… these Brit-crits still live with so much 60s and Kray nostalgia that they read through glasses so rose-coloured that they remain oblivious to the actual quality of the work (or lack thereof).’ Complete Review’s conclusion on The Long Firm is: ‘C+. Overlong and simply not gripping enough.’
The Complete Review and I are not the only people whose enthusiasm is limited. Where, I ask politely, are the Arnott groupies? True, there are some five-star reviews on the Amazon.co.uk site, but there are also some which speak of The Long Firm as being ‘fair to middling’, ‘interesting but ultimately frustrating’, and ‘totally pedestrian’. And where are the Arnott fans’ websites, a la Neal Stephenson? Google don’t reveal them.
Meanwhile, however, Mr Arnott’s various mafias continue to work on his behalf. The magazine Aittitude declared him to be one of Britain’s 50 most influential gay men. Influential? Arnott? Who, precisely, has he influenced, and in what respect? Hardly in the Peter Mandelson class, is he?
And in the Guardian, a recent article tells us that, ‘in literary terms [The Long Firm] was a tour de force: a startling break with the dehumanising irony that runs through English fiction.’ Uh-huh. ‘Crime literature was shown up as the over-literary affair it had become - a sick, cliquish genre.’ Well you could have fooled me. Far from being sick, crime fiction strikes me as being in a robust state of health. And as for being cliquish -- well, the crime fiction writers and readers would have to work hard to be more cliquish than the literary lot, that's for sure.
Let none of the above, please, be interpreted as a statement, either explicit or implicit, that I begrudge Mr Arnott his fame and his fortune. I never begrudge a writer any sort of success, because it is, all too often, both transitory and illusory. In this particular case, Mr Arnott's fame is localised at best. My milkman hasn’t heard of him (I checked this morning); on the other hand, my milkman does know who Katie Price is. And as for the money – well, in publishing and television there’s never quite as much there as the publicity suggests.
Should you wish to read about an English crime-fiction writer who also sets his work in the 1960s, but to much better effect than Arnott, please come back on Monday. All being well, I will provide details then.
Thursday, July 29, 2004
Cryer is nearly 70 years old, and he started to mix with the great comedians of the post-war era at a very early age. Over the years he has written gags and scripts for virtually all of them: Max Miller, Tony Hancock, Peter Cooke, Frankie Howerd, Kenny Everett, Spike Milligan, Benny Hill, and so forth. And even if he hasn’t worked with them at some point, he knows a story about them.
Pigs Can Fly is simply an anthology of anecdotes about these people. And since, in addition to being famous, most of them were richly eccentric, it’s a thoroughly entertaining read. This is an ideal book for the smallest room in the house – or whatever you happen to call the toilet/lavatory/bog/loo/crapper/bathroom.
Incidentally, and not that it’s remotely relevant to Barry Cryer, but in a house in Pont Street, London, I once saw a genuine lavatory cistern made by one Thomas Crapper. And, lo and behold, the firm still exists. The website tells us that ‘it is popularly thought that Mr. Crapper invented the W.C., and that the vulgar word for faeces is a derivative of his name, but neither belief is true. However, etymologists attest that the American word, ‘crapper’, for the W.C. is directly from his name.’ So now you know.
Wednesday, July 28, 2004
This little encounter reminded me that it is not at all easy to help writers to advance their careers. Sometimes the advice one offers can be misinterpreted, leading to even greater confusion and frustration than was present in the first place. For instance…
A few years ago I attended a conference for playwrights and screenwriters. As usual, a number of professionals gave seminars and advised us all on how to get our work produced.
One of the speakers was a man who worked as a script editor at a television company which specialised in situation comedies. This man’s job was to sift through the 10 or 15 scripts that were received each week and try to see if he could find something which was worth developing.
The editor told us that he had once been sent a script which was set at the time of the miners’ strike of 1984. Younger readers will not remember, but that particular industrial dispute was both protracted and bitter; it involved running battles between scores of miners on the one hand and scores of police on the other.
The sitcom script featured two main characters who were a gay couple. Bill was a miner, and Fred was a policeman. The opening scene of the script was set in a hospital ward. Bill was lying in bed and Fred had come to visit him. The opening dialogue went like this:
FRED: Now then, lad, how are you?
BILL: I was all right until you hit me on the head with your truncheon!
Actually, since the action of the sitcom was set in Yorkshire, and the script was written in broad Yorkshire dialect, it looked more like this:
FRED: Now then, lad, ’ow are thee?
BILL: Ah were orl reet till thee ’it me ont napper with thi truncheon!
The editor who read this script quite liked it. It was certainly better than the average submission, so he decided to spend a little time on it. He wrote an encouraging letter to the author, saying that, with work, the idea might be worth further consideration. He did have to point out, however, that a sitcom is supposed to be, first and foremost, a comedy, rather than a drama. ‘The main problem at present,’ he wrote, ‘is that the script hasn’t got enough jokes in it.’
Six weeks later the editor received a revised script. This time the opening dialogue went as follows:
FRED: Now then, lad, ’ow are thee?
BILL: Ah were orl reet till thee ’it me ont napper with thi truncheon! By the way, have you heard the one about…
Tuesday, July 27, 2004
If you want to know about Shaw’s life, there are lots of biographical summaries to choose from on the net; here’s one which will do. For the moment, however, I intend to write about the play rather than the playwright.
Man and Superman was Shaw’s twelfth play. It was written in 1901 and first performed in 1904. In essence it is a first-class comedy of manners, rather similar (in my view) to The Importance of Being Earnest. The plot is mainly about a very determined young woman -- a powerful feminist, in modern parlance -- who finally gets her man despite equally determined opposition from the young man himself. There are lots of good laughs in it, it is exceptionally well written, and Shaw was so far ahead of his time that it doesn’t feel dated.
So far so good. That would have been quite enough for most people. But Shaw, of course, wanted to make more of it. He saw the play in mythic terms (whatever that means, but that’s what the critics say). Shaw himself declared that he had ‘taken the legend of Don Juan in Mozartian form and made it a dramatic parable.’
Well that’s clear enough, isn’t it? What it meant, in practical terms, was that Shaw introduced a third act which was a long dream sequence. In this ‘dream’, the male and female leads find themselves in hell (which turns out to be preferable to heaven), chatting amicably to the Devil himself. And the problem with this long chat is that it isn’t dramatic at all. It’s overlong, excessively wordy, and barely sustains the audience’s interest.
In the original 1904 production, this third act was left out entirely, and what is now the fourth act was played as the third -- a move which was, in my judgement, a very definite favour to everyone. Played as a three-acter, Man and Superman fills a normal sort of an evening and provides excellent entertainment. Played as Shaw intended it, with four acts and including the dream sequence, it runs to three and a half hours and tests the patience. Oh, and Nietzsche is mentioned quite a lot. So don’t say you weren’t warned.
Why, then, was this tedium inflicted upon the audience of the Theatre Royal, Bath, on Friday last? (Resulting, I may say, in a thinner audience than usual.) Because, my friends, this particular production was part of the Peter Hall Company’s summer season, and Sir Peter is, after all, a man devoted to serious theatre. I suppose he wanted to be true to the playwright’s intentions, which is terribly noble but, for once, quite unnecessary. The first producer got it right when he left out act three.
Monday, July 26, 2004
However, that book is not my subject today. What prompts me to mention Poynter and Snow is that they issue a monthly newsletter, full of various bits and pieces in addition to plugs for their book and other services; and in the latest version of this newsletter they quoted a no doubt deeply felt exchange between two American winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
First, William Faulkner, speaking of Ernest Hemingway: ‘He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.’
And Hemingway’s response: ‘Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?’
On this matter I am firmly with Hemingway. The whole point of the novel, as I frequently make plain in these columns, is to arouse emotion. And the emotion which one seeks to arouse is seldom puzzlement. It follows, therefore, that regular, run-of-the-mill words will serve best.
In my youth, I read books by both these writers. Hemingway, it seemed to me, could be read by any reasonably intelligent teenager. Faulkner, on the other hand, was unhelpfully obscure. In those days I was young and naïve enough to take the Times Literary Supplement seriously, and I remember reading an article about Faulkner which described him as sometimes writing sentences which were a whole page long. And I believe that was true. But whereas the TLS spoke of this practice with a kind of awe, I personally could not bring myself to conclude that deliberate obscurity was a virtue. Neither do I think so today. So I side with Hemingway.
Incidentally, I once met a man who was mentioned in one of Hemingway’s novels. His name was Red Smith.
Back in 1958 I was working as a copy boy on the New York Herald Tribune (it’s a long story). The paper had a number of eminent columnists, and Red Smith was the chief sports writer. He had begun writing for the paper in 1945, and was soon recognised as one of the most literate, witty and wise commentators in the business. By 1950 he was famous enough for Hemingway to use his name in Across the River and Into the Trees; the hero, as I recall, sits in a café, ‘reading Red Smith.’ And, from the general context, it was clear that Hemingway was a fan.
In the spring of 1958 Red Smith was featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine, which was a very big deal indeed. In those days, Newsweek was second only to Time in prestige (and possibly circulation); the cover normally featured presidents, giants of industry, and big-time movie stars, so for a sports writer to make it was a massive achievement.
My favourite Red Smith column was about the short-sighted baseball player who was a star hitter. We’ll call him Jim. ‘Go out and hit one over the whisky ad, Jim,’ his team-mates called out to him. ‘What whisky ad?’ said Jim, which was how they found out he was short-sighted. So the team manager took him off to the optician and had him fitted with glasses. After which, naturally, Jim couldn’t hit the ball at all. For years he’d been seeing this big fuzzy grapefruit coming at him and he’d been whacking it all over the park. But now that he’d got glasses the thing looked so small, and he just couldn’t find out where it was any more. There was more in the same vein.
Even before the Newsweek cover, Smith seldom needed to come into the Herald Tribune office; he would just go to the game, or the fight, and then phone in his copy. But once in a while he did appear, and he was treated, quite rightly, like some sort of god descending from Mount Olympus.
On one such occasion he actually sat in the newsroom and typed out his stuff there and then. And when he had finished it he called out, as was the custom, ‘Copy!’ And I, having hovered long enough and near enough, was the one who took it from him and carried it over to the sub-editors. Which is how I came to meet a man who is mentioned in one of Hemingway’s novels.
OK, so it’s not much of an achievement. But what’s your story?
Friday, July 23, 2004
Why so? Well, because one normally ‘becomes aware of’ a writer as a result of publishers’ hype. And hype, all too frequently, is based on a lack of substance. It is the result of a kind of barter system which operates between publishers on the one hand and newspaper columnists on the other: free lunches, advertising, and other benefits are exchanged for column inches. Reality and true quality, not to mention entertainment value, are factors which seldom enter the equation.
However, I recently succumbed to temptation, as I so frequently do, and bought a secondhand paperback copy of Mr Porter’s Empire State.
Given my views about hype, as described above, I was not too impressed to find Jeremy Paxman quoted on the front cover as saying that ‘Empire State had me turning the pages through the night.’ Well yes, Jeremy, I felt like responding. You may very well have turned these pages through the night – but did you actually read any of them?
These initial doubts were not assuaged when I opened the book and found that, on the acknowledgements page, Mr Paxman is warmly thanked for helping to dream up the plot of the book ‘during the course of a very idle afternoon by the river.’ We can all get helpful quotes from our mates.
It was a pleasant surprise, after all this, to find that the book is a very professional piece of work. It’s an espionage-based thriller, I suppose, featuring mainly British intelligence staff seeking to prevent a 9/11 type terrorist coup. The early chapters are a little confusing perhaps, and the ending is a tad predictable. Furthermore, the bad guys give in a trifle too conveniently at the end. But this is a commercial novel we’re talking about, and overall the book is a very passable read. I am inclined to look out some of his earlier stuff and give it a go.
A few caveats are, however, in order. The preliminary pages of the paperback edition give copious quotes from favourable reviews of the book in the major newspapers. In relation to these, you should remember (a) what I said in paragraph two of this post, and (b) that Henry Porter is a very well connected journalist. At one time he edited the Atticus column in the Sunday Times, and he is the British editor of the American magazine Vanity Fair. He also writes for the Guardian, the Observer, and others. It’s not too difficult to get your book widely reviewed with an address book like that. (And if you want to know more about him you can read an interview here.)
I also have to report that some reviewers were not as enthusiastic as those quoted by the publisher. Mike Jecks, in Shots magazine, declared that the book ‘didn’t feel quite as believable as, say, Frederick Forsyth in his heyday’, and that ‘there was a sense of emptiness in the middle.’ And even in the Guardian Joan Smith declared that ‘the author’s grasp of Middle Eastern history is superficial.’
On the whole, however, I commend Henry Porter to your attention.
Thursday, July 22, 2004
True, the scriptwriter, Graham Greene, got his own way about more or less everything; he was not dissatisfied with the end product. But he had to suffer endless suggestions for 'improvement' from the likes of David O. Selznick; and few writers, I suspect, would have the emotional resilience and the strength of character to fight as Greene fought. Another factor, of course, is that few of us have the international reputation, both as novelist and screenwriter, that Greene had. The average writer on a film project is treated as is he were one of the cleaners, and his dialogue is rewritten by anyone who thinks he can do better; which is everyone, including the studio cat.
A final thought, if you're interested in Graham Greene: Maud Newton had a piece about Greene on 8 July, and it contains a number of links.
Another point which Drazin demonstrates clearly is that the movie business is, above all, a team game. The director is in charge, but even he will have to contend with the producer, the distributor, the man who does the music, the film editor, and a host of others. Not to mention the actors, who may have their own ideas as to what the film is all about, and how to play their parts. All of these factors have to meld into some sort of whole, and if a success emerges it is more by the grace of God than anything else. Though all participants will subsequently claim that their contribution, naturally, was the key to the whole thing.
The Third Man created, or enhanced, the reputations of almost all the talent involved. Orson Welles was the one who benefited most, though his performance was not all that startling. Joseph Cotten admired Welles as a director, but was not greatly impressed with him as an actor. And Welles himself had his doubts. He begged Reed to let him do repeated takes of one scene -- 37 attempts in all -- and Carol Reed let him. But Reed already knew that he was going to use take 3, which he did. And as Welles went on and on, trying to get it right, the result got worse and worse.
Overall, the film won the Grand Prix at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival, which was a just reward. In the following spring, there were three nominations for individual Oscars: Robert Krasker was listed for best black-and-white photography; Carol Reed for direction; and Oswald Hafenrichter, editing. Of these three, only Krasker won.
Just to emphasise the point that movie-making is a team game, it is worth pointing out that Krasker did not, in fact, shoot some of the key scenes in the film! There were three units at work in Vienna: Krasker was in charge of the night unit, Stan Pavey the sewer unit, and Hans Schneeberger the day unit. There was also a 'second unit', headed by John Wilcox, which had the task of filming 'less important' shots while the main unit was setting up something considered vital.
The result of this policy was that the second unit actually filmed what turned out to be the most famous shot in the whole film: the one where Harry Lime's face is suddenly lit up as he stands in a shadowed doorway. Similarly, the final scene on the cemetery road was shot by Hans Schneeberger. Yet Krasker got the Oscar. Such are the quirks of fate and circumstance.
I hope that by now I have persuaded you to see The Third Man, if you have not done so already. But -- whatever you do -- don't watch it on Sky. Because sure as eggs, when you get to that final scene, some superannuated cretin with a loud voice will burst in upon you and demand that you stay tuned and watch Dumb and Dumber Part 64, which follows next.
Wednesday, July 21, 2004
What happens in this shot has, I think, already been mentioned. Anna Schmidt (played by Alida Valli) has just seen her lover Harry Lime buried -- for good this time. She leaves the cemetery and makes her way down a long dreary road. Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) passes her in a jeep driven by Major Calloway. Martins persuades Calloway to drop him off, and then he walks back to meet Anna. When she reaches him he tries to find the right word to say, but she ignores him and walks straight past.
Charles Drazin tells us how this scene came to be shot the way it was. The camera was set up and Alida Valli was taken some way down the road. But Carol Reed wanted her further away, so Guy Hamilton, the assistant director, picked her up in the jeep and drove her to the very end of the road. Then he drove back to the camera and director. When the director was ready, Hamilton waved to the actress, who was now a dot in the far distance, and she began to move.
As she walked -- and walked, and walked -- Hamilton and Reed discussed how the film should end, and whether they should show the final credits over this shot, and so forth. So the actress was filmed walking pretty much for ever.
The director and his assistant joked about the fact that, in those days, it was usual to play the national anthem at the end of a film, and most people bolted for the door as soon as it appeared that a film was over. Would people stay and watch this scene, the two men wondered.
Gradually, it seems to have dawned on Reed that, if he used this enormously long walk, more or less in full, with Kara's amazing zither music to accompany it, it would make a powerful and moving end to the film.
Which, of course, it did.
At any rate, it made a powerful and moving ending as far as anyone with any intelligence is concerned. At the age of sixteen I had a fierce argument with a contemporary (not a bright lad) who argued that the ending was 'stupid' and ruined the film. I told him that it was the best part of the whole thing. I was right, of course.
However, it has to be admitted that the ending was a bit subtle and highbrow for the average punter. It required, perhaps, an intelligent European to appreciate it properly, and I don't suppose Selznick liked it much. But the zither music, if nothing else, held the audience's attention worldwide.
In about 1960 I saw a showing of this film in the Arts Cinema in Cambridge. As Anna Schmidt began her final walk up that long avenue, the projectionist decided that the film was over. He began (a) to draw the curtains across the screen, and (b) to put the house lights on. There was very nearly a riot. In my view the audience would have been fully justified in dragging him outside and hanging him from the nearest lamp post.
It remains only for us to draw together a few final thoughts about this remarkable film.
Tuesday, July 20, 2004
In that year I was ten years old, so I remember aspects of that time quite clearly. One thing I do remember -- and it is something which may not be readily understood by younger readers -- is that, in those days, most people did not have a gramophone. Not even one of those wind-up versions, with a big horn on the end. The only way in which most people could hear recorded music was over the radio. And 'over the radio' meant, for all practical purposes, the BBC.
The BBC at that time had three radio stations. One was called the Home Service, and it concentrated mostly on news, talk programmes, and some light entertainment. The Light Programme was the only station which broadcast popular music, most of which was live but in the evenings there were occasional programmes which featured what would now be called 'pop records'. There was a third BBC radio station, which was not unnaturally called the Third Programme, but this broadcast only in the evenings and was strictly highbrow -- classical music, serious talks, serious drama.
The effect of this situation was that, if a record of a pop song became popular, everybody -- and I mean everybody -- in the entire nation knew about it. Today, I have absolutely no idea what the number one pop record of the day is, and neither, I suspect, have you. The 'hit parade', or whatever they call it these days, is of interest only to teenagers. You and I have our own tastes in music, and we tune in to whatever radio station suits us. But in 1949 the choice was the Light Programme or nothing. Hence everybody knew and heard what was popular.
The reason for this long preamble is that the situation which prevailed in 1949 goes a long way to explaining why the film The Third Man became such a massive hit. It succeeded very largely because of the background music, the main theme of which was issued as a 78 rpm record and became a truly massive hit, known to every single man, woman and child in the UK. And later, when the film was released in the USA, much the same occurred there. It will therefore be illuminating, I believe, to take note of just what that music was, and how the director of the film, Carol Reed, came to choose it.
What happened was this. Soon after the arrival of Carol Reed and his crew in Vienna, they were given a welcome party. Sitting in a corner of the room was a man called Anton Karas, and he was playing a zither. His job was to provide background music while people talked, drank, and ate.
A zither is apparently unknown outside Austria. It is a stringed instrument, usually placed flat on the knee, and plucked somewhat like a guitar; it has been described as sounding something like a cross between a guitar and a barrel organ. Karas himself was a completely unknown musician (in fact he couldn't even read music). He was essentially supplied to the party just as if he was part of the catering team -- he was there to add a little local colour.
To cut a long story short, Carol Reed liked what he heard, and he decided that he would use Karas -- and Karas only -- to provide the background music for his film. The zither was, after all, absolutely redolent of the city. Reed's decision did not go down well with the money men back in London, and he had to fight hard to get his way, but he won.
When the film came out, Anton Karas's recording of 'The Third Man Theme' was released at the same time. Within a month it had sold 500,000 copies, a huge number for that era. Over the years since then, sales have totalled 40 million!
Anton Karas -- the modest and unknown man who couldn't even read music -- became, for a while, an international star. Technically, he was not entitled to a penny from the sheet-music and record sales, but fortunately for him the producers of the film generously gave him a half share. After the fuss was all over, he returned home to his wife and family in Vienna and bought a small bar. It was called, to no one's surprise, 'Der Dritte Mann'. He was welcomed back in Vienna as a hero, because he had restored a sense of pride to that much-battered city.
Shortly before the The Third Man's release, Carol Reed's masterpiece was viewed by Sir Arthur Jarratt, the Chairman of the distributing company, British Lion. Jarratt sent a telegram to the director, congratulating him on what looked likely to be a successful film. There was, he said, only one problem: 'Please take off the banjo.' Such are the amazing insights which are afforded to us by the bean-counters of this world.
Carol Reed showed the letter to his assistant director, Guy Hamilton. 'They don't know a fucking thing,' he said, and threw the letter away in disgust. Hamilton retrieved it, and, eighteen months later, used it to blackmail Jarratt into giving him his first directing job. Moral: when your boss reveals himself to be a compete fool, always hang on to the evidence. It may come in useful later.
Monday, July 19, 2004
The three male leads in the film are Harry Lime, eventually played by Orson Welles, his friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), and Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). Among the actors who were suggested for these parts were Cary Grant, James Stewart, Robert Taylor, Robert Mitchum, Rex Harrison, Ralph Richardson, and even (apparently) Noel Coward. In the end, the casting was a compromise. The director (Carol Reed) didn't want Cotten, and the producer (David O. Selznick) did not want Welles.
Orson Welles is certainly the most famous name of any of them today, but in 1948, when casting took place, Welles was regarded as box-office poison. He himself was not particularly interested in the part, seeing it merely as a payday which would enable him to go off and pursue other projects. He signed the contract readily enough (he would sign anything) but then disappeared. When eventually found, in Rome, he took some persuading to go to Vienna.
Even when he arrived, he was not particularly co-operative. His part was essentially a small one, and quite a lot of the scenes in which he appeared were set in Vienna's sewers. Welles took one look at these, and inhaled one breath of the atmosphere, and declared that he wasn't going anywhere near them. So any sewer scenes which included Welles had to be shot back at Shepperton Studios, in England.
Today, of course, we know that Welles dominates the picture. No one remembers much about The Third Man except that Orson Welles starred in it. But that was not the way it appeared to the participants at the time.
About twenty-five years ago, I wrote a couple of scripts for the American producer and director Sheldon Reynolds. Sheldon told me that, originally, Trevor Howard was offered the part of Harry Lime. Howard, however, read the script, and found that Harry Lime appeared on only eleven pages of it. Major Calloway, on the other hand, had a great deal of screen time. So Howard said thanks very much, he would pass on the Harry Lime part but he would gladly play the English Major.
Drazin doesn't tell us this story, so he either doesn't know about it or doesn't believe it. And indeed it does sound a bit questionable to me. Given the general chaos which surrounded casting, it may be true. But it sounds to me like one those amusing and self-deprecating stories which may have gradually developed in the mind of Trevor Howard to entertain his drinking buddies. And Howard, of course, was a strong contender for the much-contested title of the world's most frequently pissed actor. Cotten was also a heavy drinker, and Welles only agreed to turn up for shooting after one of the director's minions got him thoroughly drunk.
Finally, lest anyone accuses us of sexism, we must record that Selznick at least saw the film as a vehicle for Alida Valli. Now a forgotten name, she was at that time something of a hot property. And indeed she played her part so well that one almost takes her for granted.
Friday, July 16, 2004
By 1948, Graham Greene was already a novelist with an established international reputation. He had also worked successfully with Carol Reed on a previous film, The Fallen Idol. So Alexander Korda commissioned Greene to write a story set against the Four-Power occupation of post-war Vienna.
Greene duly took off and spent two weeks in Vienna, soaking up the atmosphere; this period of research was followed by eight weeks in Italy, which was probably a great deal more comfortable.
Drazin devotes many pages to analysing the origins of The Third Man storyline, and anyone who is interested in the creative process could usefully read the book for the details. Suffice it to say here that Greene was a complex character. During the second world war he had worked for British intelligence, where he was a close colleague of Kim Philby. And Philby, many years later, proved to have been a Russian spy, working at the very heart of the British counter-espionage service! Drazin speculates that Harry Lime was at least partly based on Philby. Both men, the real one and the fictional one, seem to have been amiable and personable, and yet totally untrustworthy.
Once a draft script was available (and even before), the American producer, David O. Selznick, began to meddle with the story.
Selznick is chiefly famous, I suppose, for having produced Gone with the Wind. Over forty years ago I was told a scandalous story about him, and even now I cannot find it on the internet so I will not repeat it here. I will only say that the story portrayed him as utterly ruthless and quite brutal, ready to take any steps to get his own way. And, not surprisingly, since he had invested money in the project, Selznick had plenty to say about the story of The Third Man.
The European talent seem to have regarded Selznick as an unmitigated nuisance. Greene and Reed were required to fly to America for story conferences, of course, and they were obliged to sit through endless 'suggestions'. Even when they were back in Europe, the flow of memos continued. Their technique for dealing with Selznick seems to have been to nod sagely at everything he said, and then to ignore him entirely.
Strangely enough, however, I find myself sympathising with Selznick. One thing is obvious: Selznick understood perfectly the nature of the relationship between materials and effects. And he also knew his audience. Selznick is often portrayed as a vulgar showman, catering to the lowest taste of the great American public. But Drazin's account of his interventions in the scripting of The Third Man reveal that he was always thinking of how the film would look to the average Joe.
To give but one illustration. Harry Lime's first entrance, when his face is unexpectedly lit up in a doorway, is one of the great moments in movie history. But Selznick wanted to know what Harry Lime was doing in the goddamned doorway in the first place. This is not at all an unreasonable question.
Over and over again, Selznick's memos reveal an underlying concern with one important question: what is going to be the emotional effect of this scene on the average member of the public? And that, as I may conceivably have mentioned before, is what the whole business of making movies is all about.
Selznick worried about the character of Harry Lime. Why does Harry have to be such a shit? And if he had to be such a shit, did he have to be American? Joseph Cotten's character, another American, wasn't a shit, but he was a fool. Meanwhile the Brits, Trevor Howard and his sidekick, were out and out good guys. This didn't seem right to Selznick, and he tinkered endlessly with this and that. In the end, everything stayed pretty much as Greene and Reed wanted it.
It is worth recording, perhaps, that Greene was interested in the glamour and attraction of evil. With Hitler and his cronies still warm in their graves, this was a theme of some significance. And what, Greene asks us, is our proper moral response to evil but attractive people, who may, after all, be our friends? The answer Greene gives is that, however regrettable the necessity, it is our duty to hunt them down and kill them.
No one fathers a failure, but (not suprisingly) a great many people later claimed to have made vital contributions to what was the enormous international success of The Third Man. Chief of these was Orson Welles.
Welles, it seems, made one modest suggestion about the script. He proposed that Harry Lime should say something along the lines of the following:
This suggestion was incorporated into the script, and the lines later became famous. And in interviews, many years afterwards, Welles was happy to allow this one-off suggestion of his to drift into a generalised statement that he had 'written his own part'. Which demonstrably was not true. Every other line spoken by Welles (and there weren't many) was pure Greene.
'In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed -- but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
The Swiss, incidentally, are still pretty damn sensitive about Harry Lime's sneer. Only recently a spokesman for the Swiss Embassy in London said very firmly that cuckoo clocks do not come from Switzerland. They originate in the Black Forest region of Germany. So there.
David O. Selznick was another one who seems to have been inordinately proud of his many 'suggestions' for the improvement of the film. And Graham Greene seems to have made it clear, in his own interviews after the film's release, that in his opinion Selznick had next to nothing to do with the quality of the script. Word of Greene's attitude inevitably got back to Selznick, and he ordered one of his assistants to write to Greene and say that he, Selznick, had been hearing that Greene was making 'derogatory remarks' about him.
Greene wrote back to Selznick's minion as follows:
My word, they were a touchy lot. It's amazing that the film ever got made at all.
I suggest that you tell Mr Selznick that he should pay as little attention to these stories as I pay to the American stories that Mr Selznick was responsible for writing the script of The Third Man.
Thursday, July 15, 2004
The Third Man was a film made chiefly in Vienna in 1948/49. On its release it was one of the biggest hits of all time, both in Europe and the USA. It also won the Grand Prix at the Cannes film festival in 1949, so it was both a commercial and a critical success. The film was 'presented', i.e. financed, by Alexander Korda, who was British (though highly cosmopolitan), and David O. Selznick, who was American. The director was an Englishman, Carol Reed, and the original screenplay was by the English novelist Graham Greene.
The casting was also a mixture of US and UK talent. The 'stars', whose names mean comparatively little today, were Joseph Cotten and Alida Valli. Smaller parts went to Orson Welles, who played the central character, Harry Lime, and Trevor Howard, who played an English officer.
The film is set in post-war Vienna, a city which had been 'bombed about a bit', to put it mildly, and many of the scenes were shot on location. Other scenes were filmed in Shepperton studios in England. The studio scenes, oddly enough, include virtually all the famous sequences which appear to be shot in Vienna's sewers, and also the shot where Harry Lime's 'body' is dug up in the main Vienna cemetery.
The plot of the film revolves around post-war conditions in Vienna. At the time when the film was made, the inhabitants of that city were still suffering from the after-effects of the war. Not only was their city still largely in ruins, but the Viennese were living on an average of 1200 calories a day -- which is a form of slow starvation.
The film makes it clear that this miserable combination of time and place provides endless opportunities for racketeers. One such is an American, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Harry, it turns out, is making big money by selling antibiotics on the black market. But he is not satisfied with just selling them: to boost his profits he dilutes them, which means that, even when patients are treated with Harry's high-priced drugs, they still die.
Harry's old friend (played by Joseph Cotten) arrives in Vienna and finds that Harry is, allegedly, dead. Only he ain't. Harry has become aware that the authorities (in the shape of Trevor Howard) are closing in on him, and he has found it politic to pretend to die. Even his long-suffering girlfriend (Alida Valli) thinks he's dead.
Eventually, everyone finds out that Harry is still alive. And when he makes a final attempt to escape justice, by fleeing through the sewers of Vienna, his old friend (Cotten) shoots him dead.
The Third Man is a classic of film history. If you haven't yet seen it, you should make the effort; it's easy enough to find on DVD. Be aware, however, that because of 'artistic differences' between the American Selznick on the one hand, and the Europeans (Korda and Reed and Greene) on the other, there were two different versions of the film released. The UK version is 104 minutes long, while Selznick put out a version at 93 minutes. This difference seems to be reflected in the various DVD versions. One DVD extra is the two versions of Joseph Cotten's opening voice-over statement, one to suit Selznick and one for the European market.
The film is famous for a variety of reasons, of which the chief are:
1. Orson Welles's performance. Most critics and film buffs agree that Welles dominates the movie, yet he is only on screen for about 11 or 12 minutes. The Harry Lime character is, however, talked about a good deal.
2. The music. Soon after his arrival in Vienna, Carol Reed heard a local musician, Anton Karas, playing an odd sort of Austrian guitar, called a zither. Reed decided to use this zither player as the sole source of background music in the film. Karas's recording of the theme from The Third Man was a massive hit on radio stations everywhere in 1949/50 and was a key factor in attracting the public into the cinema.
3. The ending. In the last scene of the film, Alida Valli leaves the wintry cemetery where Harry has at last been buried (for real, this time), and walks towards the camera along a straight, tree-lined avenue. She starts in the far distance. She walks steadily towards us, accompanied only by Karas's music, and walks straight past Joseph Cotten, with whom, in the average Hollywood movie, she might have been expected to walk off arm in arm.
So much for the necessary background. Some of the points worth making about all this will follow tomorrow.
Wednesday, July 14, 2004
All of which reminded me to share with you a letter which I recently wrote to the Customer Marketing Director of Sky television, in response to a letter of his which was sent to all Sky subscribers.
Dear Sir,I haven't yet had a reply. But then you wouldn't really expect one, would you?
In your letter dated July 2004, about subscription changes, you say that there are no adverts during the film to interrupt your viewing.
What you do not say is that, before a film has properly finished, there will almost certainly be a voice-over advertising the next film on Sky, usually in tones which entirely ruin the mood which has just been created, at the expense of many millions of dollars, not least on the part of Sky.
I can only suppose that there is no one in a position of authority at Sky who has the faintest idea what the movie business is all about. And what it is all about is the creation of emotion. This is a highly skilled business, and films which can create emotion successfully tend to make a great deal of money. It is quite absurd, not to mention infuriating, to have some moron from Sky burbling on about the next attraction when one has not had time to absorb the emotion from the film one has just seen. Neither you nor anyone else at Sky would leap up from the table, at the end of an expensive meal, and rush off on a three-mile run. You would let the meal settle. That is precisely what is required at the end of a film. Not only should there be no voice-over before the thing has even ended, but a moment or two of silence after every frame of the final credits has run would also be welcomed.
Perhaps you might, just conceivably, be able to explain this to the brain-dead bean-counters who appear to run your organisation. But I would not bet money on your chances of success.
Tuesday, July 13, 2004
Both in his memoirs and in the Times interview, Gelbart relates the story of an incident which occurred during the Broadway run of Forum -- a show which, in case you've never heard of it, is a comedy.
What happened was this. One night, well into the performance, Gelbart was standing at the back of the stalls. The audience, as usual, was laughing a lot. One man, in an aisle seat near the stage, was having a particularly good time. In fact, he was laughing so much that he could eventually laugh no more. So, in a moment of complete surrender, he took his rolled-up raincoat off his knee and hurled it high in the air.
This story neatly illustrates a number of truths about the writer's task, and about the nature of the entertainment industry. Here are a few such truths for you to ponder:
1. Hotels sell sleep; theatres sell emotion; as do novelists.
2. In the theatre, the nature of the audience's emotional response to the material is immediately obvious; and the response will vary, of course, from audience to audience.
3. In the case of the novel, the reader's response is not so obvious, because most people read in private, but it is there all right.
4. If you are thinking about writing a novel (or a play), you would be well advised to ask yourself the following question: What is there in my novel which will cause my intended reader to hurl his raincoat into the air? If you can't think of anything, then you had damn well better invent something. Quick. Because that is the writer's job.
At this point you may be saying to yourself something along the following lines. Er, let me see now, if the writer's task is to create emotion in the reader, then it might be a good idea to learn something about emotion. Perhaps it would be a good idea to see what the scientists can tell us about the nature of emotion.
To which my response is, Yes, it bloody well would be a good idea to find out what science can tell us about emotion. Congratulations on heading in the right direction. (So many writers, bless their little cotton socks, are so determined to head off into the woods, in entirely the wrong direction. And they just won't be told.)
So now you go looking for learned tomes on emotion. Well, let me save you the trouble. There ain't any. Well, very few. Fact is, you see, the study of emotion is deeply unrewarding for scientists, and since scientists are certainly capable of adding two and two together and making four, they pretty soon recognise the futility of studying emotion and go off and study something else. Something which offers a better chance of career advancement.
The problem with emotion, you see, is that's it's slippery as hell. You just can't get it to stay still under the microscope. Keeps on flopping out and falling on the floor and mixing with last week's biscuit crumbs. And then your results just don't make any sense. And if there's one thing a scientist wants it's a nice clean set of results, which make a well defined line on the graph, and demonstrate beyond all reasonable doubt, to within two standard deviations, or whatever, that black is a murky shade of grey.
So you will search in vain for lengthy tomes on emotion. The best book that I have found, in forty years of looking, is Emotion -- The Science of Sentiment, by Dylan Evans (Oxford UP, 2001). It's a small book, only 200 pages long, and it tells you everything that science has so far managed to learn about human emotion. Which, as I said earlier, isn't much.
A harder read, but also worth looking at if you take the business of writing fiction (or drama) seriously, is The Molecules of Emotion by Candace Pert.
If you read these two books you will take on board such information as science can give us about the nature of emotion and how it is created. But unfortunately this will not give you the key to the cupboard of fame and fortune. Would that it did. Science does not provide us with a template for the perfect novel or play. As Walt Disney once remarked, 'Making movies is a bit less scientific than Russian Roulette.'
Nevertheless, if you have just understood that the whole point of your novel, or other writing endeavour, is to make that raincoat go up in the air, then you will at least be several streets ahead of the competition. Because so many people -- who otherwise show evidence of being reasonably compos mentis -- just do not get it at all.
A final point. There are two major problems in creating a work which generates positive emotion in an audience. The first problem is creating the work itself; and the second problem is persuading the powers that be that it is a work which will succeed when it is published or produced.
Larry Gelbart, whose story about the man with the raincoat kicked off this train of thought, was involved in creating the television version of MASH, which was perhaps the biggest smash-hit comedy series of them all. And before there was a TV series of MASH, there was a film called MASH. And before there was a film, there was a novel.
The author of the original novel, Richard Hooker, did not have fame and fortune thrust upon him, by publishers who immediately recognised the long-term emotional impact of his work. To be precise, his book was rejected by twenty-one publishers over a period of seven years before eventually finding a home.
Mind you, you should not fall into the trap of saying Aha! My book has been rejected by twenty-one publishers, so when it finally appears it will be as big as a success as MASH. Sorry, but it just doesn't work that way. That's the fallacy of the undistributed middle, or some such. Ask a logician.
Monday, July 12, 2004
Carter-Ruck was born in 1914, and began to specialise in libel soon after the second world war ended. In his memoirs, he points out that libel has a long history: in ancient Rome the offence was publishable by death, and in 1585 the Chief Justice of England complained about the steady growth in the number of actions for defamation.
Despite the long history of the 'offence', English law provides what is, to my mind, a curiously loose definition of it. Libel and slander both involve defamation, and the best-known working definition of defamation is the following:
A statement concerning any person which exposes him to hatred, ridicule or contempt or which causes him to be shunned or avoided or which has a tendency to injure him in his office profession or trade.This gives more than ample scope for anyone who is offended by almost anything to take action under the law. And they do, in their hundreds, it seems, every year.
A mere misplaced comma can cause endless trouble. In one case a newspaper wrote: 'Miss Y went to the caravan, where she was living with Mr X.' The reporter should have written: 'Miss Y went to the caravan, where she was living, with Mr X.' Or, better still, the reporter should have rephrased the sentence entirely, along the lines of 'Miss Y was living in a caravan at the time. She took Mr X to that caravan.' In any event, Miss Y was offended by the suggestion that she was cohabiting with Mr X, and the newspaper had to pay up.
In other words, from a writer's point of view, the law relating to libel provides a dangerous minefield, into which you venture at your own risk. Carter-Ruck's advice to writers is simple. To be certain that you will never be liable to pay damages for libel, you should 'refrain from writing, printing or publishing or distributing any written matter of whatsoever nature.'
So that solves that problem. Never let it be said that this blog is not useful.
Another interesting remark from this author is his comment that it is always important to have first novels read for libel. They are, he says, 'so often autobiographical and so often introduce fiction to enhance the story, the author overlooking the identifying details.' In other words, it is not much of a defence to cry 'But this is fiction!' if it is perfectly obvious to all your friends who you're writing about. And it is especially not much of a defence if the easily recognisable parties are depicted doing some naughty things over and above what they actually got up to in real life.
Yet another tip -- and, like the one above, it is something which you would have thought was fairly obvious but which is often overlooked. If you must write a novel, and you feature a doctor or a lawyer or an army officer, for God's sake check the official lists of these people and choose a name which isn't there. If you write a whodunit in which the murderer is a Dr Smith of Clapham, you really can't complain when an actual Dr Smith of that parish takes a dim view. But, as Carter-Ruck points out, even the BBC neglected this elementary precaution on one occasion, with expensive results.
The bulk of Carter-Ruck's memoirs are given over to accounts of famous libel cases in which he was involved, either acting on behalf of the allegedly libelled party, or on behalf of a newspaper or magazine.
Some of these cases make for entertaining reading, recalling as they do some of the great eccentrics of the recent past. Through these pages wander such luminaries as Randolph Churchill (son of Winston, and a fairly regular visitor to the libel courts), Professor Harold Laski (a mouth-frothing Socialist of the old school, disowned even by the 1945 Labour Party), and James Wentworth Day (a unreconstructed patrician, but absolutely no sort of fool). Amusing though these accounts of past cases are, one always has to remember, of course, that it was not quite so entertaining to be involved in such a case oneself.
Carter-Ruck was not solely involved in libel. He also handled obscenity cases, and he was the lawyer who advised George Weidenfeld that it was safe to proceed with the UK publication of Nabokov's Lolita in 1959. This was, let's face it, a pretty bold piece of advice, because the obscenity laws in the UK were in a pretty chaotic state at the time, and no UK printer would touch the book.
Another of Carter-Ruck's legal specialisms was copyright, and he was involved in the extraordinarily complicated saga of the film rights relating to some of the James Bond books -- an enterprise so complicated indeed that I will not attempt to summarise it here.
Carter-Ruck does not seem to have been an easy man to work with. For the first few decades of his professional life, he traded, so to speak, as the senior partner in Oswald Hickson Collier and Co. But by the late 1970s there were severe strains within the partnership. In 1981 Carter-Ruck finally walked out, taking several other employees and 1,500 client files with him. Never a particularly sensitive man, he set up shop as Peter Carter-Ruck & Partners, in the very same building as the firm he had just left. Within a few years, however, all those who had founded the new firm with him had left -- including his daughter.
Perhaps it is necessary to add that Carter-Ruck's most lasting fame derived from his almost perpetual battles with the magazine Private Eye, which invariably referred to him as Carter-Fuck. When he once asked them not to use that name, they substituted Farter-Ruck instead.
Carter-Ruck -- or whoever -- died on 19 December 2003. The obituaries were unusually frank. The Telegraph's version was fairly straightforward, but the Guardian's (registration required) was brutal. It was written by David Hooper, a former partner.
Hooper described Carter-Ruck as 'a chancer, out for the maximum fee', and a man 'who did for freedom of speech what the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmen.' Hooper related that, when he challenged the head of the firm about an apparent piece of double-dealing, Carter-Ruck 'proved unable to give a truthful explanation.' In another instance, a client who lost a case which Carter-Ruck had encouraged him to pursue was told 'a pack of lies.' These are unusually strong verdicts on a man not yet buried.
The comment which I like best, however, was the one offered by the solicitor Oscar Beuselinck. Carter-Ruck, said Beuselinck, had 'that English look, where they smile at you and cut your balls off.'
Thursday, July 01, 2004
Two reasons. One, a new computer is being delivered tomorrow. And two, next week there is the annual gathering of NAFAS, the national association of flowering arrangement societies, in Harrogate. Mrs GOB is a keen enthusiast for same, and indeed is chairman of the local branch, so we shall be attending. (And, since you're wondering, there are books on the subject, most of them exceptionally well printed.)