Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Witchfinder on the Wireless

The Saturday Play on radio 4 this weekend was about the tensions between star and director on the set of Michael Reeves’ 1969 film Witchfinder General. The fact that it was considered a suitable subject for a drama in such a high profile mainstream slot is indicative of the extent to which the film has slowly risen in critical esteem and recognition. It has also accumulated a considerable mass of anecdotage, the often contradictory nature of which creates a Citizen Kane-like sense that the definitive truth lies forever buried. All the oft-told tales are incorporated into Matthew Broughton’s script; Michael Reeves’ refusal to go out to the airport to meet Vincent Price, and the latter’s command ‘take me to your goddamn young genius’; Reeves’ response to Price’s challenge ‘I’ve made 75 films, how many have you made?’ – ‘Two good ones’; Reeves’ constant needling of Price to stop overacting; and his vindictive instruction to Ian Ogilvy to really lay into Price with the prop axe in his death scene on the final day of shooting after the veteran star allegedly appeared on set a little worse for wear – with extra padding secretly provided to protect him from injury. The title of Matthew Broughton’s play, Vincent Price and the Terror of the English Blood Beast (a reference to Michael Reeves’ first directorial effort, The Blood Beast Terror) is indicative of the lightness of its tone. But just as Price’s surface drollery covered hidden depths, so Broughton’s light entertainment touches on matters of weight and universal import.

The shoot was covered in detail in Benjamin Halligan’s book on Michael Reeves in the Manchester University Press’ British Film Makers series, and I would guess that it was to this source that Broughton turned for much of his background information. The filming is generally depicted as a head on collision between the generations, a clash of styles and attitudes. Michael Reeves, the young punk director with a burning desire to create films of a directness and power which would be worthy of his cinematic idols (principally Don Siegel) squaring up against Vincent Price, the genre star who had relaxed into the mannered flourishes and theatrical gestures which his increasingly typecast roles demanded of him. It is a divide between old and new approaches, between conservative classicism and a new wave desire to break the rules and breach taboos. On the one hand, a view of the horror genre as a gothic dreamworld of shadows and castles, on the other a determination to portray violence and death with an unflinching realism which would depict its true physical and psychological impact. It’s doubtful whether Reeves thought he was making a horror film at all. As he remarks during the play, he comes to see Witchfinder as akin to an English western. Halligan tends to take Reeves’ side of the divide which his antagonism towards Price embodied, which is only natural given that he has deemed worthy of devoting himself to a book length study. Indeed, there is still a sense (as the play’s broadcast testifies) that people feel the need to take sides in an affair which seems to have left significant bruising in the wake of its clash of egos. Reeves’ untimely death obviously meant that he was unable to speak for himself, and Halligan suggests that Price subtly put him down in subsequent interviews when the subject of Witchfinder General arose. According to Halligan, Price’s portrayal of Reeves as a deeply troubled young man served to cast himself in the light of the consummate and kindly professional who tolerated his abusive behaviour with tolerant sufferance. Broughton is more balanced in his treatment of Price and Reeves, seeking to understand their motivations, and the vulnerabilities which lay beneath the repelling magnetic poles of surface behaviour and character.

Vinnie and Tony
The play is framed by trailers for the film, which are pitched at a bludgeoning exploitation movie shriek. The first of these provides the perfect introduction to Tony Tenser, the producer whose Soho film production company Tigon was set up after his successful involvement in producing Roman Polanski’s two British pictures of the 60s, Repulsion and Cul de Sac. He narrates in reminiscent mode, something made evident by the fact that we hear some of the contemporary reviews of the film, with typewriters tapping in the background (these reviews including Alan Bennett’s expressions of disgust, allowing for someone to do their Bennett impression). He is portrayed as an avuncular, down to earth Eastender, adept at allaying the fears and anxieties of his temperamental charges. He is the man in the middle, taking time to listen to the remote recriminations of Price and Reeves, soothing their sensitivities with a sympathetic ear and a brandy. He sees the film unit as being like and extended family, with everyone trying to get along and overcome personal differences. Tenser is a businessman first and foremost, and his interest in producing art is only as a secondary by-product of commerce. Broughton has him re-iterate his eminently quotable rule of thumb: ‘I’d rather be ashamed of a film that made money than proud of a film that didn’t’. On seeing the rushes of Witchfinder General, he is both impressed and troubled. ‘Problem was, it was art. Art doesn’t make money’. Tenser’s introduction of some of his ‘girls’ to make the tavern scene more buxom raises Reeves’ barely suppressed ire, but Tenser, in his amiably authoritative manner, is having none of his nonsense. He quietly makes it clear where the money is coming from and who is ultimately in charge. In some ways, Reeves’ unkind treatment of Price represents a displaced anger at the producers and money men for whom he is a totem.

The hostility of Reeves towards Price can be seen in a wider context as being representative of the tensions between the ideals of the small scale auteur and the commercial mechanisms of larger studios. Reeves’ rude rebuttal of Price’s on-set bonhomie is a rejection of the American studio’s (in this case AIP’s) attempts to interfere with what he sees as his personal creation. Tenser was well-acquainted with the London criminal fraternity of the time, as anyone working in the Soho twilight world in which the cinema and sex industries intersected would have to be. His phone calls with the American studio boss bears all the hallmarks of fearful deference which such a business relationship, in which the balance of power is so heavily weighted to one side, demands. These are the people who loom behind him with all the intimidating presence of gangster. Hilary Dwyer, the English actress whose unabashed admiration does much to restore Price’s ego, points out that Reeves gets on well with the rest of the crew. He is very sensitive to the needs of her and his friend and the star of all his films, Ian Ogilvy. His familiarity and trust in the latter is conveyed by his comment that he doesn’t need to direct him as he knows how to act. With producer Philip Waddilove at his side, he is confident that these are his people, and that they are all working towards a common purpose. Price has been imposed on this ‘family’ from the outside, with the accompanying assumption that they will be receiving the type of product associated with his name (his brand in modern parlance). ‘He comes with the money’, as Tenser points out with characteristic concision. It’s the age old story of the troubled balance between commerce and art, the struggle to maintain the artisanal aspect of an industrial scale production. It’s essentially the story of cinema from its early years to the present day.

Reeves refuses to allow price into his filmic family, ignoring all requests to address him with a familiar Vinnie. It’s only when Reeves is absent that Price can find solace in the camaraderie of fellow actors, and cultivate his customary ‘we’re all in it together’ sense of being in a colourful theatrical troupe. The actors and crew revel in his larger than life camp affectations and respond to his warm generosity and ability to make everyone feel included in his circle. There is much fun to be had with his queeny double entendres and nudge nudge comments, which in their Frankie Howerd and Kenneth Williams fashion fit in comfortably with the English sense of humour. His first meeting with Ian Ogilvy finds him greeting him as Alice and expressing envy at how beautifully ‘she’ rides his horse. He makes much of his injury to his coccyx and delights in receiving a Bishop’s Finger at the pub. It seems likely (as Halligan suggests) that such overtly gay tomfoolery served to alienate Reeves even more. From his point of view, it was a further indication that Price was refusing to take his film seriously, and that he was more a creature of the stage than the screen. Reeves’ moviecentric universe tended to favour the more macho directors in the Don Siegel mould who produced a very masculine form of cinema. Price simply didn’t fit in to this mould.

The Method - Price IS Hopkins
Price and Reeves face each other on the film set from the opposite ends of their respective careers. Reeves is still looking to establish himself and create something which is indelibly his and which expresses his barely suppressed rage. Price is settling into the twilight of his career, no longer seeking challenges, resigned to reproducing his well worn and increasingly affected repertoire of actorial tics and tricks (although it was only four years since his fine performances in the last of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle of films, The Tomb of Ligeia and The Masque of the Red Death). Reeves objects to Price’s presence as an actor because he wants to make a film in which realism is the dominant mood, as opposed to the gothic scenarios or throwaway fantasies with which his style has become synonymous. The play, following the received wisdom, shows how Reeves draws a performance of chilling restraint and intensity from Price almost against his will. There is a great scene in which Reeves’ typically blunt and abrasive criticisms drive the innately affable Price into muttering (perhaps in an internal monologue) a litany of curses and threats down upon his head. The take for the scene being shot is declared to be perfect, much to the star’s startlement (‘you liked that!’) Vincent has been tricked into method acting.

Both Price and Reeves are portrayed as possessing an underlying vulnerability between their respective surfaces of brusque bluntness and bluff good cheer. Blake Ritson plays Reeves with a nervy, high-pitched catch in his voice, lending his seemingly unshakeable self-belief a brittle quality. Nicholas Grace’s Vincent Price captures the actor’s expansive vocal mannerisms without succumbing to the temptation to fall into mere impressionism. Having seen the rushes which he has been so reluctant to view, Price becomes aware of the quality of the performance which Reeves has elicited from him. Grace nicely conveys the touching hesitancy with which Price approaches Reeves, putting aside the theatrical persona to lay himself open to the young director, revealing his insecurities about his talents. ‘All my life, Mike’, he says, ‘I’ve had but one real ability. My ability to make friends. I hope that we can be friends’. But Reeves shrugs off the overtures of the authentic Price as curtly as he had the ‘star’ version. Price wants only to be accepted and to revel in an easeful and pleasant sense of companionship. He immediately concurs with Hillary Dwyer’s assessment of him as being ‘a big softie’. He can’t bear being made to feel the violence and hatred which Reeves demands of him in creating a realistic portrayal of the witchfinder Matthew Hopkins. It is entirely alien to his nature. If there had always been a certain self-aware staginess to his performances, it was because he had no desire to become lost in the role. Nevertheless, he was prepared to concede what Reeves had achieved, what he’d drawn out of him. But for Reeves, the work is all. He is filled with the impulsiveness and violent intensity of youth and feels nothing but contempt for the more tempered wisdom of old age. For all of Vincent’s efforts at compromise, the two never will understand each other. There will be no recognition variant yet valid viewpoints.

As such, the plays conclusion, in which everyone learns just a little bit more about themselves, is a touch facile. Price looks back on the film as providing him with one of his finest performances and Reeves finally comes round to calling him Vinnie (albeit not to his face) as he recognises that he is indeed great in his film. Tony Tenser is left to draw the conclusions, and the reconciliatory tone is perhaps more of a reflection of his desire for everyone to simply get on together. He admits to shedding tears at Reeves’ death (he is really just as big a softie as Price) and mourns the loss of someone who could have become a great British film maker had he been given the time. And that is perhaps why Witchfinder General and all the legends which surround its making still has such resonance today (resonance enough to find an airing on radio 4). There is obviously a Keatsian appeal to the myth of the beautiful young artist who burns brightly but briefly and dies young. There is a retrospective sense that his death (as with many others) emblematically embodies the death of the sixties. And there is the tantalising sense of what might have been. The fragmentary nature of his output and of the details, gleaned through reminiscences (with all the imperfections inherent in memory) of his life, make it all the more fascinating.


psynno said...

Thank you for this review. I wish I had listened to the play while it was still available. Now it seems to have disappeared for good. I can't imagine the film without Price. Wasn't Donald Pleasance considered? It's very sad that Reeves was suffering from depression and a drink problem. Did the play cover this? We see his develpment over the three films he made and wonder what he would make next.

Anonymous said...

You can listen and download from...

Jez Winship said...

Excellent, thank ever so much for putting that up.