A friend recently sent me a link to Turner Classic Movies’ annual tribute to people from the film industry who died this past year. It’s an elegantly assembled montage (far superior to the similar annual Oscar tributes):
I was surprised to come across a number of prominent names which somehow I hadn’t noticed at the time of their deaths. Both Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, for example, each enormously prolific over their respective 50-odd year careers, though of course very different in style and subject matter. Rohmer spent much of his career documenting with great delicacy and humour the nuances of romantic and sexual behaviour among extremely verbal Parisians, while Chabrol observed with endless fascination both the humorous and tragic dimensions of bourgeois men and women driven to crime (particularly murder), by the pressures imposed by jealousy, or simply the perceived need to maintain one’s proper place and image in middle class society. Criterion offers a great monument to Rohmer in their excellent box set of the Six Moral Tales, though for some reason they have never turned their attention to Chabrol (many of his films are available on other, often less prestigious labels).
Three minor, but nonetheless interesting British directors also died this past year: Roy Ward Baker, Clive Donner, and Ronald Neame. Baker had a very solid career from the mid-’40s to the early ’60s, including the atypical Marilyn Monroe feature Don’t Bother To Knock (1952), a fine 3-D thriller called Inferno (1953) and The One That Got Away (1957), an excellent World War Two story about the only German pilot who escaped from British imprisonment and made it back to Germany, notable for its sympathetic portrait of the airman played by Hardy Kruger. Baker’s career peaked in 1958 with the definitive film about the sinking of the Titanic, A Night to Remember (the script of which James Cameron ransacked shamelessly when concocting his overblown teen romance version of the story). For some reason, after this achievement, Baker faltered, eventually settling into a a secondary career directing British television shows like The Saint, The Avengers, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), The Persuaders and so on, with a parallel stream of horror movies for Hammer and Amicus. The best of these latter is Hammer’s third adaptation of Nigel Kneale’s BBC Quatermass serials, Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years To Earth, 1967).
Clive Donner had a less notable career, again finishing up by doing a lot of television work from the mid-’70s to the mid-’90s, when he stopped directing. He is probably best known for the Woody Allen-scripted What’s New Pussycat? (1965), and the BFI recently brought his sub-Richard Lester sex romp, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968) out of the vault for a polished DVD/Blu-Ray release. Although he went on to do things like Vampira (1974) with David Niven and the Get Smart movie, The Nude Bomb (1980), for me he remains notable for his brilliantly funny and chilling Pinter adaptation, The Caretaker (1963), in which he used a spare, claustrophobic style to create a vessel in which the performances of Robert Shaw, Donald Pleasance and Alan Bates could slowly be brought to an impressive boil.
Ronald Neame was essentially an efficient studio craftsman, starting out as a cinematographer in the early ’30s, working his way up to shooting for Powell & Pressburger and David Lean in the ’40s before turning to directing himself. He did some solid work in the ’50s, his finest films being Alec Guinness’s Joyce Cary adaptation The Horse’s Mouth (1958), and Tunes of Glory (1960), also in collaboration with Guinness. From a commercial standpoint he achieved his biggest successes with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972), but after that signature disaster movie, his work became singularly characterless with such films as The Odessa File, Meteor and Hopscotch.
I should also mention the distinctive character actor, Lionel Jeffries, who occasionally tried his hand at directing, eventually turning out five children’s films. It was the first of these, an adaptation of E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children (1970), which was the most successful. Rich in its elegiac tone for a lost time (Edwardian England), it features fine performances, rich photography, and a leisurely pace which evokes childhood as a time of mixed stresses and adventures.
There are dozens of other notable names in TCM’s tribute, but it was released too early to include Blake Edwards, who died last week. I find that much of Edwards’ work doesn’t stand up to re-viewing these days (despite Peter Sellers’ brilliance as Clouseau, the Pink Panther movies themselves seem rather clumsy and forced now). But Edwards’ best film, Victor Victoria (1982), is a masterpiece, not simply a finely constructed farce, but also an emotionally rich experience which rewards repeated viewings.