Every now and again, you know, I persist in watching a film that I’m not enjoying simply because I am so amazed at how staggeringly unsuccessful is its attempt to create a viably tense and communicative experience. I stress that it’s only very occasionally that I am prepared to do this: life is too short and my free time too limited for things to be otherwise. On top of which, I’m not ‘a critic’, even psychologically: diagnosing ‘failure’ in a work of creativity doesn’t give me any kind of thrill. Quite the opposite, in fact.
As for the drab example I’m going to discuss here — purely in an attempt to learn whatever can be learned from its artistic inadequacies — the details are easily told. Yesterday I noticed that a certain ‘classic spy thriller’ from the mid-1960s was available on YouTube, and decided to give it a whirl: for one thing, I couldn’t remember ever having seen it before; for another, it had quite a few impressive names attached. Plus, I had a couple of hours free before I needed to be somewhere.
And after sitting all the way through it I decided I probably had seen it before … and simply hadn’t remembered anything about it. I expect to forget it all again very soon.
Okay, here’s a bit of information before we see some of it. It’s called The Quiller Memorandum; it’s from 1966; it’s mostly set in West Berlin; and it’s very obviously an attempt to site a ‘secret agent’ narrative in a mundane, gritty reality free from the Bondage of whizzy gadgets, secret super-villain hideaways, and pitifully basic plots centring upon ludicrously outlandish plots. Chronologically, it arrived four years after the first of the Bond films — that was Dr. No (1962) — and between the fourth and fifth — these being Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967). More significantly, perhaps, it also followed hard on the heels of The Ipcress File and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (both 1965), and more or less coincided with Funeral in Berlin (1966): plainly, ‘mundane, gritty reality’ was ‘in’…
All right, let’s have a look at what happens and why it doesn’t work.
First, meet the dialogue. Remarkably, the British playwright Harold Pinter (1930-2008; the anniversary of his birth was last Tuesday, on 10 October) is the sole writer of the screenplay (the original book is by someone else) — and it seems to me that this creates something of a problem. Pinter is, of course, an unassailably important figure in post-war UK theatre, and he did a fair bit of work on cinema adaptations too, some of it very highly thought of — see, for example, The Servant (1963). But when I listen to the present film’s spasmodic lurches into obtrusively theatrical banality within the very un-theatrical ‘hyper-realism’ of a movie scene, what I hear could easily be someone’s none-too-affectionate parody of Pinter…
No, I’m not any kind of connoisseur where theatre or literature are concerned — indeed, I would never describe my grasp of either as anything other than sub-normal — but to my inadequate sensibility that exchange seems terribly ineffective. I’m aware that what we’re supposed to be deriving from all those emotionally anaemic exchanges and ‘He’s dead; how’s your food?’ juxtapositions is a sense of the callousness and frigid indifference of the pampered, ruling-class insiders who run ‘the intelligence services’ and much else besides; but as a piece of screen-writing it is, to me, remarkably crummy.
And, just in case you think I’m choosing my example too carefully, here’s the very next scene, again in its ridiculously empty entirety. When I watched this yesterday, I was actually laughing out loud by the end of it — for one thing because I couldn’t seem to stop my mind ‘auto-completing’ the dialogue:
Pol: But they’re very careful. And quite clever. And they look like everybody else. Intriguing, don’t you think?
Quiller: They look like everybody else.
Pol: That’s what I’m saying. They look like everybody else.
Quiller: What does everybody else look like?
Pol: A pheasant is also shot with a gun from a distance. Usually as sport for a callous elite. Did you notice that juxtaposition earlier?
But I digress. Here’s our next scene…
Is it just me, or is this absolutely terrible…? The ludicrous overdubbed echo of ‘Sieg Heil!‘; the clumsy ‘character-defining’ business with ignorantly mispronounced sandwich fillings; the would-be meaningful unfeeling re-reference to ‘9.3mm, in the spine’… And Alec Guinness himself turning in the most outrageous performance of his career — it’s surely two-thirds of the way to a Peter Cook impression! — while George Segal behaves like he’s in a different conversation entirely… What on earth is going on here…?!?
Well, I’m not going to keep on about this — because there’s ineffective music to consider.
Here’s something in the film’s scoring that you may or may not think works adequately…
All right, let’s go through this carefully.
To start with, the music’s point of entry is, of course, entirely sensible: it’s that little technique — whose history I would love to see traced! — where ‘unambiguously extrinsic music makes a striking entrance on a medium close-up of a central character, showing that he or she has realised or noticed something.’ (You’ll also note that this stretch of extrinsic music is book-ended by ‘real-world’ sounds that are strongly pitched, I assume with the intention of ‘smoothing off its unrealistic edges’, as it were.) And I’m every bit as convinced by the way the cue ‘evaporates’ at its end. What I can’t stand is the amount of repetition in between, which not only seems to me to be overuse of an otherwise allowable approach to this kind of sequence, but also condemns me to seven hearings of that moment at the start of the idea’s second sub-phrase whose harmony and scoring I find simultaneously weak and distracting.
And it turns out that ‘repetition as the primary mode of extension’ doesn’t go away, even in a sequence such as the following:
Whether or not readers dislike this as much as I do, I daresay everyone will agree that the score is very obviously by John Barry (1933–2011) — and, as such, it conforms to all the ‘spy movie’ musical stereotypes that he himself did so much to establish during this decade in his work for numerous ‘Bond’ films and The Ipcress File. One of these stereotypes, of course, is that which obliges a ‘spy movie’ score to foreground instruments that are pingy and twangy — and I would very much like to know how and why that came about.
Obviously, there are a few straightforward possibilities. In the case of Berlin-centred stories there can be a ‘historical-geographical’ connection with Weimar-era cabaret bands that included banjos — and, where the Soviets are involved, the sound world of the balalaika is not only implied, but also leads frictionlessly to instruments like the mandolin. And the guitar — acoustic or electric — was very much the (strongly democratising; frequently counter-cultural!) ‘instrument of the moment’ throughout the 1960s.
As for the the harpsichord, I can think of several possible factors. First, while in the 1960s the piano was an instrument of some ubiquity, still familiar even in domestic settings, the harpsichord, seldom heard and almost never seen, was much more ‘historical’ and ‘aristocratic’: its associations were therefore with places and institutions unfamiliar or impossible to visit, and with a class of person rendered remote by some factor relating to birth or lifestyle. Harpsichord timbre, too, is appropriately remote from the ‘mainstream’ Hollywood tradition of ‘lush’, ‘romantic’ sonority — and, like all the other instruments so far named, has a sound whose die-away is ‘mysteriously’ gradual, as well as a strong initial attack that very easily connects with the unprecedented levels of glamorized sadism that help to define this movie genre. Then there’s the Eastern European cimbalom — where the strings are even struck with hand-held hammers — and the zither, simultaneously plucked and picked, whose sound has echoed around the cinematic ‘iron curtain’ since the days of The Third Man (1949), where it was very audibly a ‘national’ instrument that a single person might carry and play in a stricken city…
All of which perhaps illuminates certain instrumental choices made in this film’s title music … but does not in the slightest explain or excuse what you will hear before the cue is over — and which I suspect might be the result of the most unmusical decision John Barry ever made.
Hang on to your ears…
In case you don’t know, that horrible, distonating noise (you heard it in the ‘car chase’ sequence too) is a ‘flexatone’ — a creation of the early twentieth century that vies with a pig’s bladder full of blancmange as the world’s most useless musical instrument (and, yes, I’m aware that Schoenberg wanted one — or thought he did — in both his Variations for Orchestra, Op. 31  and Moses und Aron [1932; unfinished].)
But worse is to come — and, yes, the flexatone is included, if you listen carefully. Which you shouldn’t…
The shamelessness of this is surely equalled only by its artistic pointlessness: while there are countless expressive purposes that can be served by recalling a previously heard song or melody at a moment of some dramatic significance or none, I don’t see that we get anything at this point except product placement. What we have previously heard and repeatedly re-heard only as an ‘instrumental’ here recurs with words added to it, words that we feel we have to follow — because we’ve not heard them before — but which then turn out to have literally nothing to do with anything in the film, though they have plenty to do with someone’s attempt to make more money out of the film.
In addition to which, there’s the spoken part of the song’s un-dramatic in-film advert: Matt Monro has one of the most immediately recognisable voices in 1960s anglophone pop music, and in any case the title of the song could hardly be more easily inferable — but still the film makers took the trouble to name both the singer and the song within the action as well as in the opening credits. And note, furthermore, that in order to be able to do that here, by way of a ‘back announcement’ in English, they not only cut the song off at its sclerotic knees — depriving us of its entire last, repetitive minute — but also had to present the hotel’s night porter as listening to an ‘American Forces Network’ broadcast in a language he didn’t appear to be able to speak…
And, before you ask: yes, I have noticed that this final ‘revelation’ of our tune as a commercial pop song comes exactly at the mid-point of the film.
For the rest, the song was indeed a commercial release — and the fact that this pedestrian tune pasted into an infantile structure doesn’t appear in the online list of ‘Matt Monro hits’ that I’ve just looked up allows me the very welcome thought that there might just be enough sanity in the world to save us…
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