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Robert Zemeckis’s “A Christmas Carol”


The New York Times has its Holiday Preview issue this week, which means no DVD column — the world will somehow have to do without my thoughts on Sony’s new Sam Fuller set until next week. But in the meantime, I can offer the latest installment in my quixotic campaign to convince the world that Bob Zemeckis is up to something extremely interesting with his performance capture technique. His latest, “A Christmas Carol,” features a stunning 12-minute take — the entire “Ghost of Christmas Past” segment — as well as some of the most elaborate and eye-filling camera movements in a Hollywood picture since the passing of Otto Preminger. Zemeckis’s pursuit of pure mise-en-scene has led him in some promising directions as well as down a few blind alleys, but he’s still in there pitching — and he’s got my gratitude for that. My interview is here.

262 comments to Robert Zemeckis’s “A Christmas Carol”

  • Brian, thanks for your information regarding Mankewicz’s rewriting of Michael Wilson’s script. Wilson of course was blacklisted immediately after “5 Fingers” was released (his next film was “Salt of the Earth”). Was Mankiewicz doing a favor for a friend or perhaps dialing down some of the sharper aspects of what is a remarkably political screenplay for its time? “Five Fingers” is perhaps “immaculately consistent” in terms of its verbal dexterity but its structure is quite different from the episodic, multiple-character storylines of “Letter” and “Eve,” with a concentrated dramatic center and a more psychologically complex central character, who isn’t just spouting off one-liners — I’m guessing that these are elements of Wilson’s script that were retained. In any case the film seems to have brought out the best in both men.

    Here is what the generally reliable AFI Catalog has to say about the genesis of the project:

    Modern sources report that Henry Hathaway was originally scheduled to direct the picture before Joseph L. Mankiewicz became interested in Michael Wilson’s adaptation of the book. According to the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Libary, Mankiewicz worked extensively on the screenplay, but modern sources report that he agreed to forego onscreen credit for his contribution to the screenplay in exchange for being allowed to direct the project.

  • Junko Yasutani

    I would like to ask Brian, why did Mankiewicz change Graham Green novel THE QUIET AMERICAN?

  • Brian Dauth

    Dave: I do not know if Mankiewicz was helping Wilson or dialing anything down. I will see if I can find out. You are right about the concentrated dramatic center — that is Wilson’s. That feature is also why I consider 5 FINGERS to be part of the next phase of Mankiewicz’s career where he starts applying his concept of the “talking picture” to new genres. 5 FINGERS is his espionage thriller; THE QUIET AMERICAN his take on a John Huston movie. I also feel as if he were challenging himself by taking on Shakespeare, Frank Loesser, Graham Greene, and Tennessee Williams (he also needed to make a living). Then, of course, there is CLEOPATRA, Mankiewicz’s epic which plays almost exclusively in interiors and boasts the lamest, most perfunctory battle scenes in the history of Hollywood epics. But it also has the wonderful moment of Marc Antony with his back to the camera watching the battle being lost and Cleopatra sailing away, and suddenly the film becomes a farewell to Classical Hollywood and its way of making movies, a farewell made complete by the final image of Cleopatra/Elizabeth Taylor on her bier.

    THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (his only original screenplay) is a movie where he pushes the narrative style of EVE beyond its ability to cohere, and, to pick up on what Kent said about Kazan, the movie’s flaws are the honorable flaws of an artist tilting against convention and technique in hope of seeing what lies beyond. It is the talkiest movie ever made, but I enjoy it. Was there ever a funeral that was so rainy or cleared up so quickly? Will Oscar Muldoon ever get off that phone and stop sweating? Or what about Ava Gardner’s face framed/imprisoned in the window of the castle’s door? Or, most famously, the same scene shown twice from two different vantage points? TBC succeeds as TWO RODE TOGETHER or THE NAKED KISS succeed: by taking movies to a place they had never visited before (and would rarely inhabit again) where we can see the skull (Classical Hollywood technique) beneath the skin of formal invention/experimentation and get the thrill of the vibrant dialectic between the two. TBC has a particular greatness in its failure that is as significant as EVE’s greatness in its success.

    Mankiewicz was never one for story or plot (a weakness he admitted to): he was always an adapter. He needed a narrative structure that he molded to his purposes. EVE is his most radical studio film in that he constructs the narrative as a series of scenes in which a vital choice is made that allows the subsequent scenes to occur (in my piece for Senses of Cinema, I refer to these moments as pivots, taking off from what Deleuze called Mankiewicz’s garden of forking paths). It is as if the characters themselves had a certain narrative autonomy within the world of the film. The episodic feel that you get from EVE is a direct consequence of this strategy: narrative evolves instead of being imposed. Other Hollywood narratives of the time were not constructed this way and do not give me the same feeling (vague I know, but I am being honest — the way JLM tells stories feels different to me in an original and powerful way). He had been working on this type of storytelling for years, and EVE was the finest expression of it. PEOPLE WILL TALK is like a Greek satyr play that comes on after the main tragedies — Mankiewicz’s response to the success of EVE, the blacklist, and DeMille’s attempted coup against JLM as President of the Screen Director’s Guild. Jeanne Crain even manages to act a little (I love you too Blake).

    Mankiewicz designed his mise en scene to support his way of telling stories (Eric Sherman’s piece in Jean-Pierre’s “American Directors” is quite good on this. He writes of Mankiewicz creating a level ground/platform for all of his characters to perform upon. I think his piece is one of the finest non-Jean-Pierre pieces in the volume [love yours on George Roy Hill too Barry – I think THE STING is a great movie], but part of me wishes Jean-Pierre had tipped his hand as to how he feels about JLM, though, if he, like Bette Davis upon hearing of Joan Crawford’s death, decides he has nothing nice to say about the dead, he may choose, like Miss Davis, to remain silent). Mankiewicz created filmic space that draws a viewer’s attention to the performative/choice-making aspects of life: decisions get made in grand reception halls and on the decks of ships (CLEOPATRA); in Monte Carlo casinos and the living rooms of Hollywood mansions (CONTESSA); and sitting on a sofa in front of a fire or impulsively in an alley beside a theatre (EVE). Each of these spaces is carefully, precisely framed and lit by Mankiewicz so that a spectator senses that what is decided here will influence everything that comes after. The clarity/sharpness of his images invites us to examine how people act, live, and choose, creating their own fate within the confines of power structures that pre-exist them and exert their own influence.

    P.S. Junko: I will get to your question next. It posted while I was composing the above.

  • Alex Hicks


    I quess we were talking past each other on style, where I was talking about style as a notable source of artistic distintion, not just merely distinctiveness. However, my use of chameleon did suggest some downplaying of Altman’s stylistic cointinuities and thus merited your emphasis on stylistic continuities. Actually, I do recall many of my favorite Altman’s as quite distinct in ways I associate with their materials and differeneces in an aspect of “style” that’s key to my recollections of Altman films –their acting styles: CALIFORNIA SPLIT as shaped by the rythms of a few strong, dynamic performances, almost like a Casavettes, THIEVES constructed to the shapes of scenes founded on complex, poised ensemble exchanges, the look and pace of MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER as hazy and langorous as its reclined dope smokers.

    I suppose I overstated the strong sources bit, but I think it’s there worth some stress.

    I actually like, to use your adept phrasing, the “un-Hemingwayesque obsession with similes” and thwe “itemized descriptions of rooms,” which I tend to find amusing and enthralling, respectively and think, colored by their smartalecky hardboiled turns, major influences on tough guy detective fiction naqrration in print. (In film their residue in voice-over narration may have a sufficent source in terse wit and purple rants of Spade’s speech.)

  • Blake Lucas

    Brian, re yours of 3:36, I really have to say “Bravo.”

    I always feel you take the high ground talking about Mankiewicz and say penetrating, insightful and challenging things about him that are a pleasure to read. When I read you on him, it makes me want to revisit and remarkable and individual filmmaker.

    My last two reviewings, coincidentally of Dave’s favorites FIVE FINGERS and PEOPLE WILL TALK, were surely enhanced by things you had written about him. I’ll just add that in my list of favorites, JLM wrote some of the scripts but not others, though I know he contributed to all of them–but the key is his direction (and I don’t believe THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR would have been remotely the way it is if anyone else had done it). I think FIVE FINGERS is one of the best too. PEOPLE WILL TALK was especially rewarding to see again, a very unusual film and as far from by-the-numbers as one could get.

  • Brian Dauth

    Junko: First let me draw your attention to some posts from A Film By. The first is Chris Fujiwara’s abridgement of a great article he wrote maintaining that THE QUIET AMERICAN is more ambiguous than it may seem at first:

    The next is Tony Williams’ response:

    And then Chris’ response back to Tony:

    I agree with Chris Fujiwara’s argument (sorry Tony) and feel that the film is not quite as unfair to Greene as is often maintained. Chris brings up the issue of the evening out of the playing field which I just posted about. This leveling is very Mankiewiczean – nobody is exactly innocent in his eyes, and what Mankiewicz loves above all else is a fair fight.

    In interviews, Mankiewicz said a) that he wanted to make a movie about how personal concerns often end up playing a significant role in the making of political decisions; b) that he wanted to give a response to what he regarded as a distorted view of Americans by Greene; and c) that it was a bad movie made at a bad time in his life (his wife had just committed suicide). Clearly, JLM changed his story over the years. Also, when collecting the interviews for the book, I noticed how little he talked about this film.

    To supplement Chris’ argument, a few things stand out for me:

    1) The American riding to the rescue when the explosion happens in the square. From the way Mankiewicz frames and stages this scene, I always have the feeling that the American knows it is going to happen and is waiting just offstage for his cue (the explosion) to enter – just like Bill Sampson entering Margo’s dressing room in EVE. I think Bill arrives earlier than we know and listens for a while at the door before making his entrance (Addison will do the same thing later in the movie at that same door). The staginess of the American’s entrance and how he has brought with him exactly what is needed seems too pat.

    2) Mankiewicz believes we are always acting for each other, so having the Communists put on a show for Fowler in order to get his help is exactly what they would do in JLM’s universe: when you need something from somebody, you bring them into your performance.

    3) Phuong’s rejection of Fowler. Women in Mankiewicz refuse to fall under the sway of men. Phuong made her choice and it was for the American. When Fowler makes that union impossible, Phuong will not go back to him even though he can marry her now. Phuong going back to Fowler in the novel feels like wish fulfillment on Greene’s part: this is how women should act. Mankiewicz women make up their own mind.

    4) Vigot’s confrontation with Fowler, echoing Addison vs. Eve. But is Vigot telling the truth is the question that always pops into my head. We know that Addison has the goods on Eve, but I am not convinced that Vigot is not just taking advantage of what happened to get back at Fowler and reassert some paltry sense of control over the situation (mirroring the French having lost control of events in Vietnam and now watching from the sidelines).

    I think that many of the changes Mankiewicz made were motivated not by wanting to send a particular political message, but because he tells stories and sees the world in a certain way and his movies are always consistent with these habits. THE QUIET AMERICAN is a fine Mankiewicz movie with the damnedest politics imaginable.

  • Barry Putterman

    Brian, it was rather shocking to me to be reading your post about Mankiewicz and suddenly see my ancient George Roy Hill entry referenced. However, I do see how my take on Hill fits in with yours on Mankiewicz and I’m glad you liked it.

    Like Blake, your writing does motivate me to revisit his films, many of which I haven’t seen in quite a while. There is however a moment in THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA that I refer to constantly and which I will rely on you to correct any of the details on since I haven’t seen the film in many a year. At a party, an irate Warren Stevens comes up to Bogart and relates some outrageous attitude that had been offered to him by another character. How, Stevens asks, can such an attitude be possible in this day and age. And Bogart replies; “What makes you think we’re living in THIS day and age?”

    By the way, have you read William Styron’s “Set This House on Fire?” The film company that is in the novel is clearly THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA.

  • Brian Dauth

    Blake & Barry: Thank you for your kind words. I just had a Mankiewicz revival weekend (my husband asked me: “You really need to watch those movies again?”) and am happy to report that the films held up.

    Barry: I believe Harry Dawes says that line to Maria when she complains that the servants would not like it if she danced at their celebration of her wedding. Of course, Harry Dawes is Addison DeWitt is Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Dawes is also one of my favorite Bogart performances. And I did not know that TBC was the film company in “Set This House on Fire.”

    Blake: you are right that JLM is a remarkable and individual filmmaker. He is also somewhat of a dead end. Though he influenced Godard, Rohmer, Fassbinder, and others, his genre of the “talking picture” has died out. As I wrote: JLM liked a fair fight, and he gave the visual and the aural equal billing in his films. But the pendulum has swung to the visual and seems permanently ensconced there. And truthfully, how many Mankiewiczs and Fullers will there ever be who can wield words and images with equal precision, deftness, and expressiveness? I am sure there are some working now who are making movies in languages I do not speak, but on the whole directors today are more focused on ensuring that words do not interfere or distract from images, rather than attempting to create a dynamic relationship between the two.

  • Should there be any misunderstandings out there, I just want to make clear that ALL ABOUT EVE is probably my favourite film by JLM. I just meant that just because so many of the other films are as good, it’s a pity they’re generally forgotten. it’s a close call between ALL ABOUT EVE and A LETTER TO THREE WIVES and some of the others (not a fan of SLEUTH though).

    I’ve really enjoyed this clarifying discussion, and now I’m even more eager to read the book Brian. It’s not in the University library, but I see to it that they order a copy tomorrow!

    (My three favourite Nicholas Ray movies are probably BITTER VICTORY, IN A LONELY PLACE, THE LUSTY MEN and THEY LIVE BY NIGHT. Yeah, I know, I wasn’t able to restrict myself to only three.)

  • Alex Hicks

    Nice linking of Styron’s “Set This House on Fire” to the film company in the THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA, Barry.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘THE QUIET AMERICAN is a fine Mankiewicz movie with the damnedest politics imaginable.’

    I agree about that Brian. It was better than recent version, even though that version was more like the novel.

    Thank you for deatiled answer. I appreciate.

  • “… other obscurities from this 1042-1945 period?”

    Tony, that period is so wide and so obscure it can include the Dark Ages !!

    Sorry, couldn’t resist that one !