Skip Navigation

Frame by Frame

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Wise’

Luis Buñuel Gets An Academy Award

Thursday, January 24th, 2013

Wearing a blond wig and some serious shades, Luis Buñuel poses with the Academy Award for his film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

As Wikipedia notes, “After having announced that Tristana would be his last film due to feeling like he was repeating himself, Buñuel met with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and discussed the topic of repetition. Shortly afterwards he met with film producer Serge Silberman, who told him an anecdote about having forgotten about a dinner party and being surprised to find six hungry friends show up at his front door. Buñuel was suddenly inspired and Silberman agreed to give him a $2,000 advance to write a new script with Carrière, combining Silberman’s anecdote with the idea of repetition. Buñuel and Carrière wrote the first draft in three weeks and finished the fifth draft by the Summer of 1971, with the title originally being Bourgeois Enchantment. Silberman was finally able to raise the money for the film in April 1972 and Buñuel began pre-production.

Buñuel cast many actors whom he had worked with in the past, such as Fernando Rey and Michel Piccoli, and catered their roles to their personalities. He had more difficulty casting the female leads and allowed actresses Delphine Seyrig and Stéphane Audran to choose which parts they would like to play, before changing the script to better suit them. Jean-Pierre Cassel auditioned for his role and was surprised when Buñuel cast him after simply glancing at him once.

Filming began on May 15, 1972 and lasted for two months with an $800,000 budget. In his usual shooting style, Buñuel shot few takes and often edited the film in camera and during production. On the advice of Silberman, Buñuel used video playback monitors on the set for the first time in his career, resulting in a vastly different style than any of his previous films, including zooms and tracking shots instead of his usual close-ups and static camera framing.

This also resulted in Buñuel being more comfortable on set, and in limiting his already minimal direction to technical and physical instructions. This frustrated Cassel, who had never worked with Buñuel before, until Rey explained that this was Buñuel’s usual style and that since they were playing aristrocrats their movements and physical appreance was more important than their inner motivation.

Buñuel once joked that whenever he needed an extra scene he simply filmed one of his own dreams. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie includes three of Buñuel’s recurring dreams: a dream of being on stage and forgetting his lines, a dream of meeting his dead cousin in the street and following him into a house full of cobwebs, and a dream of waking up to see his dead parents staring at him.

The film was both a box office hit in Europe and the US, and critically praised, yet Buñuel later said that he was disappointed with the analysis that most film critics made of the film. He also disliked the film’s promotional poster, depicting a pair of lips with legs and a derby hat. Buñuel and Silberman traveled to the US in late 1972 to promote the film. However, Buñuel did not attend his own press screening in Los Angeles and told a reporter at Newsweek that his favorite characters in the film were the cockroaches.

George Cukor Hosts a lunch for Luis Buñuel. Back Row from left: Robert Mulligan, William Wyler, George Cukor, Robert Wise, Jean-Claude Carriere, and Serge Silberman. Front Row from left: Billy Wilder, George Stevens, Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock, and Rouben Mamoulian.

While visiting Los Angeles, Buñuel, Carrière and Silberman were invited to a lunch party by Buñuel’s old friend George Cukor, and other guests included Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, George Stevens, Rouben Mamoulian, John Ford, William Wyler, Robert Mulligan and Robert Wise (resulting in a famous photograph of the directors together, other than an ailing Ford). Fritz Lang was unable to attend, but Buñuel visited him the following day and received an autographed photo from Lang, one of his favorite directors.

Sensing that he had a special film, Silberman decided not to wait until May to premiere the film at the Cannes Film Festival and instead released it in the fall of 1972 specifically to make it eligible for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Buñuel was famously indifferent to awards and jokingly told a reporter that he had already paid $25,000 in order to win the Oscar. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and Silberman accepted on Buñuel’s behalf at the ceremony. At the Academy’s request, Buñuel later posed for a photograph while holding the Oscar, wearing a blond wig and oversized sunglasses.”

The one, the only Luis Buñuel. Click here for a remembrance of Buñuel’s last days by his long time friend and scenarist, Jean-Claude Carrière.

Born to Kill (1947)

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Albert Arnett: “It’s quite all right, Mrs. Brent. I am a man of integrity, but I’m always willing to listen to an interesting offer.”
Helen Brent: “Well, I’m prepared to pay handsomely.”
Albert Arnett: “Good. Obstructing the wheels of justice is a costly affair.”
Helen Brent: “Five thousand dollars should do it.”
Albert Arnett: “Fifteen thousand dollars should do it.”

Robert Wise’s Born to Kill (1947), starring Lawrence Tierney, Elisha Cook Jr. and Claire Trevor is one of the most perverse of all 1940s noirs; Tierney stars as Sam Wild, a sociopath who thinks nothing of killing anyone who causes him even the slightest annoyance. Fleeing town after another senseless killing, he picks up Helen Brent (Trevor) on a train to San Francisco, and despite their differences in social class (an important point in the film), the two form an unholy alliance to claw their way to fame and fortune, using and discarding people at whim. Sam quickly realizes that Helen is “slumming,” and immediately calls her on it:

Sam Wild: “Oh, I see. You cross the tracks on May Day with a basket of goodies for the poor slum kid, but back you scoot – and fast – to your own neck o’ the woods. Don’t you?”
Helen Brent: “I wouldn’t say that.”
Sam Wild: “No, you wouldn’t ’say’ it… but that’s the way it is.”

On their trail is Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak), who, upon confronting Helen about Sam’s homicidal activities, dryly observes that “I remind you that Nevada courts have rather puritanical views. Why, some of our more impassioned juries even insist that a man who commits murder pay with his life.” And yet Arnett is just as crooked as Sam and Helen; his silence can be obtained, for a price.

Tierney’s sidekick, Mart (Cook Jr.), has a rather peculiar arrangement with Sam, functioning not only as an enabler in Sam’s schemes, but also as an oddly “spousal” figure, lending cash, arranging cover-ups and alibis, and scaring off witnesses to Sam’s numerous transgressions. As directed by Wise with ferocious intensity (it’s really hard to square this film with The Sound of Music [1965], much later in Wise’s career), Born to Kill is one of the most brutal and unyielding films ever made, of which the title says all; Sam Wild is “born to kill.” Or, as Sam bluntly puts it, “I’ve got a dame on my mind – and she’s dead. That’s plenty for me.”

Here’s an excellent essay on Born to Kill by Gwendolyn Audrey Foster.

Val Lewton

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

If you don’t know the work of producer Val Lewton, you should.

Lewton came up working for David O. Selznick, and then accepted an offer from RKO in the early 1940s to head up their horror film unit, using pre-sold titles, miniscule budgets, and existing sets to create a series of Gothic films to rival those of Universal, then the reigning kings of 1940s horror.

Instead, Lewton created a series of poetic, atmospheric masterpieces, working with directors Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson (Wise and Robson both apprenticed under Lewton; Wise, an editor who had cut, among other films, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane [1941], was anxious to direct, and Lewton gave him the chance to do so).

It all happened very quickly, and Lewton’s reign was brief but incandescent; in slightly less than four years, he produced, designed, and brought to life eleven films, of which nine comprise the body of work on which his reputation rests.

Lewton’s key films are:

Cat People (1942)
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
The Leopard Man (1943)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
The Ghost Ship (1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Bedlam (1946)

Click on any of the titles above for more information on these films.

Just for the record, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie (Jane Eyre transported to the West Indies, with remarkable results), The Seventh Victim (devil worship in Greenwich Village), The Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead are my personal favorites.

Much has been written on Lewton’s tragically short career; perhaps one of the best overviews of his films in the first major book on his work, Joel E. Siegel’s Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror; there are also no less than two box sets of DVDs of Lewton’s work, and several documentaries.

Lewton’s films aren’t really horror films at all, as everyone now realizes; they are the deeply personal testament of a literate man, steeped in the classics, who saw a chance to bring his vision of the world to the screen, and seized it with both hands. When Lewton departed from RKO, his career was essentially finished; he died at the age of 46 on March 14, 1951, after a series of heart attacks.

Lewton’s films can be seen again and again, revealing with each viewing multiple levels of depth and detail that makes his work as resolutely modern as Universal’s 40s horror films are now dated; Lewton’s world is the world we all live in, with its joys, difficulties and problems, and his films, very much a product of wartime America, resonate in our consciousness today as much as they ever did.

Below: Val Lewton in the projection room at RKO, mid 1940s.

Click here, or on the image above, for a detailed list of Lewton’s films.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

  • War Movies
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon at one of the earliestand most enduring film genres, the war movie. […]
  • Frame By Frame - Hollywood Composers
    UNL Film Studies professor Wheeler Winston Dixon highlights the most prolific Hollywood film composers. […]

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/