Thursday, March 22, 2007

MASTER OF SILVER, DEMENTED EVERYMAN DELIVERED UNTO THAT GOOD NIGHT: FREDDIE FRANCIS 1917-2007 CALVERT DeFOREST 1921-2007

I didn’t want to let any more time go without acknowledging the passing of the great cinematographer
Freddie Francis
, master of wide-screen cinematography, and in particular a master of silvery, evocative black and white wide-screen cinematography—Jack Cardiff’s adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, the haunted Victorian back-alleys of David Lynch’s The Elephant Man, and for me the most understated and brilliant of all, Jack Clayton’s rendering of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw, the altogether unnerving The Innocents. Francis took an extended sabbatical from cinematography after shooting 1964’s Night Must Fall, then made an auspicious return with The Elephant Man, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Executioner’s Song, Dune and Glory. His last film, Lynch’s The Straight Story, was some of his most sensitive, perceptive and unadorned work, and a beautiful way to end a career visualizing the films of others.

But during that post-Night Must Fall sabbatical, Francis began making his own movies, working mostly as a journeyman for Hammer Films and their chief rival, Amicus Films. It was through his credits during this period that many film fans of my generation and particular taste first became familiar with the name of Freddie Francis. He went uncredited on his first directorial assignment, The Day for the Triffids, but soon made a name for himself in the horror genre with such titles as Paranoiac, The Evil of Frankenstein, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, Torture Garden, The Deadly Bees, Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (an above-average Christopher Lee-Dracula entry), Trog (Joan Crawford’s swan song), The Creeping Flesh, Tales That Witness Madness and my personal favorite, his E.C. Comics anthology film Tales from the Crypt. Francis’s final feature was The Doctor and the Devils (1985) starring Jonathan Pryce and Timothy Dalton, from a script by Dylan Thomas. It isn’t officially one, but it is in every significant way— tone, rich, lurid visual scheme, and ripeness of the performances—a soul mate of the Hammer films Francis was so central to in the 1960s and 1970s.

David Hudson has gathered up a wonderful list of tributes to Francis here at GreenCine Daily, my favorite of which, from writer Robert Cashill, also looks at Francis’s horror films from a personal perspective.

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And for some reason I’m finding it particularly difficult to think about the passing of Calvert DeForest, known to fans of Late Night with David Letterman as Larry “Bud” Melman. I was lucky enough to see Letterman, and DeForest (as Melman), at a live taping of Late Night’s eighth anniversary, which was taped here in Los Angeles at the Universal Amphitheater in 1990. I was never any closer to him than that, but I felt like I was, and hearing that he’s no longer around hurts in an almost absurd way. I can’t really articulate it, yet I have to acknowledge it. In my stead, I refer you to an exceptional piece on DeForest and the passing not only of a beloved Late Night stock player, but the passing of the final hours in the existence of TV land, "a mythical place where people exhibit behavior that has no equivalent in life -- a world of agreed-on fiction, a place that only exists in flashes of light." Here's an excerpt:

“By the time the little man known as Larry ‘Bud’ Melman (a.k.a. actor Calvert DeForest) wobbled and fumbled his way onto the American cultural stage via NBC's Late Night with David Letterman, the invented eccentric had long been a tired recurring device, used and over-used on situation comedies and variety shows since TV land's earliest days…. Americans wanted something familiar but different; Letterman filled that order and then some, introducing a garden gnome in horn-rimmed glasses known as Larry ‘Bud’ Melman -- a TV land simpleton with a male/female voice that -- either way -- sounded as if it was under the influence of hormone shots. The pairing was as perfect as it was bizarre. Even as Letterman delighted in his creation in those early days, we were baffled. Here was a man so untalented, so utterly devoid of performing skills, you just had to stare at him in wonder.”

The article, entitled “The Last Amateur,” is written by Ken Cancelosi and comes courtesy of The House Next Door.

R.I.P., Freddie and Calvert, and Larry “Bud” too.

4 comments:

Thom McGregor said...

Yes, I'm a cinematic ignoramus and I know Freddie Francis did great work, but my heart goes out to Larry Bud, whose earliest appearances with Letterman made me feel like the world was a much funnier, more-in-tune-with-me, absurdist delightful place than I feared it was. He made me feel less lonely! RIP, Larry Bud!

blaaag said...

I've just been watching THE INNOCENTS again, and I noticed Freddie Francis's name after having read this piece; I'm thinking back on all the times I've read his name in the credits of a movie and thought, "Oh, good!" It's hard to pick a favorite among his films for which one I like the look of best.

As for Calvert DeForest, I'm with Thom: his Larry "Bud" Melman was a comfortingly vulnerable presence for many late nights.

blaaagh said...

Urgh...I misspelled my own name! That last one was supposed to be from blaaagh.

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