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June 23, 2010


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Glenn half answers a question in this post that has been gnawing at me for decades and I'm going to take advantage of the opening to ask it in full. I can't escape the feeling that some of the most beautiful and celebrated pictures of the sixties and seventies are leeching themselves of something vital by using casts of multinational superstars who don't speak the same language. It has to be the case that dubbing is built into the artistic plan for these movies from the start. That's my question, I guess. Is that right?

The mise en scene, the cinematography, the production design and the overall cinematic execution of movies like The Damned, The Leopard and The Conformist (and I'm sure you have others in mind) are peerless, but what are the actors doing with each other in these films if they can't really talk to each other? Are Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon saying their lines to each other in different languages and, if so, what the hell are they batting the breeze about? The interactions among the actors matters. Klaus Maria Brandauer gives what is obviously a towering performance in Mephisto, but he's dubbed. I think, I'm almost certain. The film is great but how much greater would it be if it were Klaus Maria Brandauer's own line readings we were hearing? It disturbs me that a director would call on an actor for greatness, receive it and then destroy half the performance by dubbing it and that this would be the plan from the start. Which actor from which Italian telenovela is dubbing Jean-Louis Triginant in The Conformist and where does he get the gall? What am I really watching in these films? I apologize, am I being at all coherent?

To make this comment at least a bit relevant to Glenn's question at the end of his post (there has to be an adjective for "related to the last line of a text or document" that would reduce my six clunky words just before the parenthesis to a single elegant one, but I don't know it), I'll say that unexpectedness can enhance a great performance. I'd seen Harris almost randomly in a couple of cheesy movies before seeing This Sporting Life and I think he's fantastic in that movie.

Glenn Kenny

Nick: You are totally coherent, and you ask relevant questions.

Yes, the tradition of shooting silently and adding post-synchronized dialogue runs deep in Italian cinema in particularly. Although the insider term for silent shooting, "MOS," is, interestingly enough, adapted from the German "Mittout sprechen" ("without speaking"). Weird.

This applies to almost all Italian films, not just those with multi-lingual casts. i recall a possibly apocryphal story about a famed Italian auteur who, stuck for dialogue, merely had his actors count off numerals to get the movement of their mouths and then wrote the to-be-dubbed-in dialogue some time after the shooting,,,


This has bugged me for years, too. I've found it to most glaringly troublesome in BLACK SABBATH and THE GREAT SILENCE. In those films you have Boris Karloff and Klaus Kinski, respectively, to of the most distinctive actors in film history, with two of the most amazing voices, and you can't even hear them. I almost wonder why even bother? Obviously there are other benefits, but it's really frustrating all the same.

So, everything Nick said, but not as well, and with Boris Karloff and Klaus Kinski.


It's why I wish, for example, on the Criterion edition of THE LEOPARD, they offered the English language track on the international cut, so whenever Lancaster spoke, you could switch to his voice, and then switch back. Take a hell of a lot of fooling around with your remote, but it'd be worth it.


Oy. And people wonder why I love the story of the Pentecost so much; why I will cut a bitch to read the lesson for that day.

The idea of language barriers being not only flattened, but vaporized, is incredibly appealing.

The Chairman of BP woulda been really grateful for that kind of gift of the Holy Spirit, which would've stopped him from using the phrase, "small people."


My first exposure to Kyle MacLachlan was Dune, so it didn't ruin me for Blue Velvet, let alone Showgirls; ditto with Alan Rachins, who first appeared on my radar with L.A. Law.

But the first movie I saw Richard Harris in was, alas, Orca.

Do I show my age?

Tony Dayoub

Glenn, on the topic of "[n]on-Italian actors and English-speaking actors in particular starring in Italian films" I'm wondering if you have any other favorites that fit the description.

I love Lancaster in THE LEOPARD and of course, the actors who appeared in Leone's films. I haven't gotten around yet to Stamp in Pasolini's TEOREMA, but I've always been particularly intrigued by that appearance. Any others one should look for?

Michael Adams

Another factor in Harris' acting without his voice that didn't bother audiences in 1965 but might have later was his briefly becoming an unlikely pop star in the late 60s. Someone left the cake out in the rain, indeed.

Glenn Kenny

@ Tony: Stamp is FANTASTIC in "Teorema." His quintessential performance in Italian film is, of course, in "Toby Dammit," the Fellini episode of "Spirits of the Dead," a segment that has a few different soundtracks but that only really works in the version featuring Stamp speaking in his own voice, which hasn't been available for years. An upcoming stand-alone DVD of the film coming out in Britain in the fall will, I hope, correct this state of affairs.

@ Michael: You remind me of the one time I met Harris, at the Toronto FIlm Festival in 2001. Premiere had its usual big party, and it was our most successful ever (it was the Saturday before 9/11). Harris was at the fest for "My Kingdom." He came to our bash and installed himself on a sofa, holding an ever self-replenishing (or so it seemed) wine glass at a near 45-degree angle without ever spilling a drop, and smoking like a chimney as various luminaries (Sissy Spacek was one) sat down next to him one after the other to pay homage. I introduced myself and mentioned what I thought was a vaguely amusing coincidence: that I had run into Jimmy Webb (the author of the aforementioned cake-out-in-the-rain song, and its attendant entire LP, "A Tramp Shining") at the LaGuardia Airport food court on the way to my flight to Toronto. "Jimmy Webb," he roared, chortling. "Jimmy Webb!" And then he turned his attention to Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Leah McLaren, then as now a startlingly beautiful blonde, who I had been squiring around the room. And that was it for me. (As far as Harris was concerned, that is; Leah and I are still friendly, although we don't interact all that often these days.)

Tony Dayoub

Yes, I long for a release of "Toby Dammit" in which we can hear Stamp's own voice.

It was recently restored by Giuseppe Rotunno in conjunction with the Cineteca Nazionale de Italia for the Ornella Muti Network. Apparently, Muti is one of the leading contributors to film restoration in Italy. I caught a sneak preview of it at Tribeca in 2008 since it was actually to be the opening film of the 2008 Taormina Film Fest in Sicily.

I was so mesmerized by the imagery on such a big screen, I'm not sure now if this cut had Stamp's voice. I want to say it did. A cursory glance around the net confirms it.

Thanks for reminding me of this one, Glenn.

Dan Coyle

Ah, "MacArthur Park". I have fond memories of Weird Al's parody "Jurassic Park"

Jurassic Park is frightening in the dark
all the dinosaurs are RUNNING WIIIIIIIILLLD
I'm afraid those things will harm me
'cause they sure don't act like barney
And they think that I'm their dinner
Not their friend


The story for how people started using the word "MOS" is actually semi-relevant. Supposedly, when Ernst Lubitsch was in Hollywood, he'd tell the assistant director "okay, theez next shot vill be mit out sound".

Certainly sort of makes sense, though it could just be one of the cute things film crews tell each other.


Doesn't Stamp in "Teorema" say very little? Thought he was more of a silent presence. Speaking of Pasolini - there's also Franco Citti in "Accattone" who despite being Italian was dubbed by another actor. One of my fave performance of that era is Lou Castel in "Fists in the Pocket" (which IMDB is now all of a sudden calling "Fist in His Pocket"), but he (a Swede I think) was also dubbed by another actor which leads me to the same "how good is the performance really?" questions.

MacLachlan - Dune; Harris - Orca - Me too!


Dan - the only way I can get Harris' atrocity out of my head is to think of Weird Al's parody of it. Ditto his parody of Billy Ray Cyrus' one hit.


In Lindsay Anderson's published diaries he writes of Richard Harris coming back from Ravenna and crowing about "Antonioni's ..tricks and connivances... and (Harris)proudly refusing to shoot scenes of hysterics and tears."
I've always accepted Harris in this Antonioni masterwork, but to your point, I too have my own baggage while watching him--for example hearing his song "Beth" in my head and flashing on him plugging "99&94/100% Dead" with Ann Turkel on the old Mike Douglas Show.
So your experiment with raising a Harris-free child is intriguing Glenn. But will it stop there? -Or will it mutate into your own cultural equivalent of "The Boys From Brazil"?

Benjamin Vega

Well, I came across this post and I'm about 19 years old and I guess I'll be the one who admits that Showgirls was the first time I came across Kyle MacLachlan, not Blue Velvet nor Dune or any of his other films.
Did that spoil Blue Velvet for me? Not at all. But, come to think about it, I'd be lying if I said it didn't add to the weirdness.


"I'd better apply for some kind of grant first."

That made me laugh, by the way.

James Keepnews

I'm reasonably sure the first Richard Harris film I saw -- after being dragged as a kid by my sisters to see the re-release in theaters of Camelot and having the urge to flee emerge for each of its 180 long minutes -- was the, um, Dereks' Tarzan, the Ape Man. See where I'm goin' with this? Dave Thomas' peerless, agonized Harris impersonation, with its swift shifting between quiet-loud dynamics, was an hysterically accurate skewering of Harris at his most overwrought.

Neither experience spoiled the genuine delight I experienced discovering Harris' extraordinary talent elsewhere, watching him underplay in great work ranging from This Sporting Life to Major Dundee to -- much later, admittedly -- The Field. He does seem out of sorts in Red Desert and I suspect Signor Antonioni was happy to work with so deliberate an alienation effect therein.

(Incidentally, his son Jared, unquestionably one of my favorite living actors, definitely got the solid underplaying gene from Harris pere, alright alright.)

Of course, the 70's was also rife with the sort of mutlinationally-financed-and-cast Eurotrash cinema discussed above, much conspicuously worse/more exploitative than even the de Laurentis-ian late-60's variety lovingly given the skewer by Roman Coppola in CQ. Jon Finch told a great story in his Shock Cinema interview about being on the set of one of these eventually-to-be-dubbed opuses surrounded by his fellow actors, each of whom spoke a completely different language from everyone else, and no one understanding a single thing anyone was saying. How ever did they ever pull it off? ("Acting!")

Fuzzy Bastard

Speaking of Italian cinema and apocryphal stories...

The story goes that when Tarkovsky was shooting NOSTALGHIA in Italy, he was unaware that the ubiquitous dubbing meant that Italian crews don't stop working just because you call "Action". So there he was, ready to shoot the first of many intense, long, Tarkovskian shots, he calls "Action!"... and the rest of the crew continues banging away on the next set. He. Was. Appalled.

The Confidence Man

Glenn, I certainly hope that John Lithgow will play you and your demented split-personality son in Raising Kenny, the story of how mild-mannered Clint Bush slowly cedes control to his murderous evil twin ...

(And to square the circle, guess who played Cain in Huston's The Bible: In the Beginning...)


BLUE fuckin' VELVET is fuckin' unspoilable, fuck!

(Though too-hip assholes who feel the need to chuckle too loudly throughout like they're watching a John Waters flick have come close.)


More on-topic: has anyone ever seen unedited footage of two actors doing a scene in two different languages? Maybe as DVD supplement on a spaghetti western? I always thought that would be fascinatingly weird to watch.


Don't do it, Glenn! A childhood where you don't get to experience JAWS and then stumble over ORCA some time later is no childhood worth having. JAWS is that awesome kid who lives next door. ORCA is that kid's cousin who comes to visit one summer and ends up torturing the cat and burning down the house. The opening scene alone is so over the top it's hilarious. The entire film reminds me of a phrase I recently saw employed to describe much of the Stallone oeuvre: "hypnotically watchable crap".

Glenn Kenny

@ James Keepnews: I have a perfect but no doubt (I hope) inaccurate memory of walking out of "Tarzan The Ape Man" (and this was not a period in my life when I walked out of films likely to feature copious female nudity lightly) as Harris was beginning his dying soliloquy, going for a walk, or something, and coming back...and Harris was still going on. Oh, my.

Jim Sheridan told me some great stories about working with Harris on "The Field." We were both almost snockered at the time so I can't remember if they were on the record or not. When I'm able to figure it out I'll post about it. I think I am on safe ethical ground, though, in revealing that Harris' underplaying in the film was not achieved without a certain amount of directorial, um, strain.

Dan Coyle

James Keepnews: It's kind of eerie how much Jared has morphed into his father in recent years, in how his voice sounds and his looks. Still a terrific actor, though. Tons of fun on Fringe and Mad Men.

Tom Russell

Frank-- check out GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO on DVD and watch the original Japanese version. English-speaking actors, like Nick Adams, speak English, while their Japanese cohorts speak Japanese, in the same scene. It's a little freaky.

James Keepnews

Glenn -- I don't doubt the strain (MUCH LESS your backfile of off-the-record tales told, snockered and out of school) under which RH was placed, though I also recall that at that dim moment in his career, he fought hard to get the role and damned if between the wills of Messers. Sheridan and Harris he didn't find a way back to his A-game.

Dan, perhaps vocally the family resemblance has become more pronounced but -- and I'm really not trying to me mean, but accurate, sorta -- I always felt Jared looks like the fair-haired lovechild of Sir Richard and Baby Huey. Whatevs -- not looking to date him. And this isn't the time (likely the place, though) to go into why I think Mad Men is mad overrated, but I can't think of a single film featuring JH where his charisma and chops don't utterly dominate: Nadja, Sunday, Happiness, Almereyda's pretty damned memorable (for what is in everything but name an Alan Smithee film) The Eternal, &c., &c. Like I say, I think he's one of the very best acting today.

Tony Dayoub

"...I can't think of a single film featuring JH where his charisma and chops don't utterly dominate..."


I jest (couldn't resist the opening).

James Keepnews

Tony -- Never saw it, and thus couldn't think of it. No doubt, Jared's skills were overwhelmed by Le LeBlanc...

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