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Adieu Louis Jourdan

Louis Jourdan head shotHis name may not be as familiar as those of other Hollywood leading men of the 1940s and 1950s, but, in just a couple of films, the dark, dashing, and devastatingly debonair Louis Jourdan, who has died at the age of 93, managed to establish himself as the definitive charming European womaniser, most famously as Gaston in the lavish, multi Oscar-winning musical Gigi. Later in life, he graduated from playboy parts to suave villains, notably as the wealthy prince Kamal Khan in the 1983 Bond movie Octopussy, and an acclaimed BBC production of Count Dracula in the 1970s.

Born Louis Gendre in Marseilles in 1919, he was one of three sons of hotelier Henri Gendre, whose work took the family abroad: Jourdan (his mother’s maiden name) was educated in France, Turkey and Britain.

Jourdan decided on a career as an actor early on and studied at the prestigious Ecole Dramatique in Paris. With his chiselled features, sallow complexion, and natural grace, he was an obvious candidate for movie stardom and was quickly snatched up for film roles. He made his debut, at the age of 20, in Le Corsaire (which starred Charles Boyer, already established as Hollywood’s original French lover) and landed leading roles in a handful of romantic comedies and dramas during the war. However, not long into the Occupation, Henri Gendre was arrested by the Gestapo, and Jourdan and his two brothers joined the Resistance.

Following the war, Jourdan was invited to Hollywood by the independent producer David O Selznick. His Hollywood debut was in a lesser role in the rather wooden courtroom drama The Paradine Case (1948), which was produced and scripted by Selznick and directedLouis Jourdan - Letter by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock was opposed to the casting of “pretty-pretty boy” Jourdan as a creepy valet suspected of murdering his employer, and attributed some of the film’s failure to Selznick’s casting decision.

Jourdan’s talents were put to much better use in the sumptuous melodrama Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), a sort of period film noir. Directed by the German-born Max Ophuls, it starred Jourdan as a self-absorbed playboy, a famous Viennese concert pianist who is idolised by a young girl in his apartment building. One of the most perfect evocations of unrequited love, the film was not widely seen when it was first released – it was fairly risque for Hollywood at the time – but has developed a cult following over the years. Playing a man learning, over the course of the film which unfolds as he reads the eponymous letter, the cost to himself and others of his reckless, self-serving lifestyle, he brought a poignancy and vulnerability to a character who starts out a stereotypical cad.

Jourdan was not kept particularly busy during his early years in Hollywood and was generally limited to the continental-lover-type roles. Decameron Nights (1952), a British film in which he played four characters, reteamed him with his Letter co-star Joan Fontaine, but with less success, while Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) raised his profile with American audiences. He also made his Broadway stage debut in 1954, receiving positive reviews for his leading performance as a secretly gay man embarking on marriage in a stage adaptation of Andre Gide’s novel The Immortalist. Unfortunately, a young supporting actor Louis Jourdan & LC in Gigi
named James Dean was reckoned to have stolen the show.

In 1956 Jourdan and Grace Kelly made a beautiful couple in The Swan, but it was his performance as the suave Gaston, the bored bon vivant bachelor nephew of Maurice Chevalier, in Vincente Minnelli’s ravishing movie version of the Paris-set Broadway musical Gigi (1958) that sent female hearts a-fluttering across the world and established him as the ultimate French lover. Not only had he never looked more handsome than in glorious MGM Technicolor, but he exuded a peculiarly Gallic ennui and revealed that he could sing – in an endearingly imperfect way (and with a seductive French accent).

However, it wasn’t long after Gigi that Jourdan began to suffer from the sameness of his roles, and he slid back into supporting parts. Between 1960 and 1990 he worked in Hollywood and in Europe, appearing numerous top TV series (Columbo, Charlie’s Angels etc) and in high-profile British TV movies, including The Count of Monte Cristo (1975) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1977). He had served as narrator on two Paris-set Billy Wilder films – Love in the Afternoon (1957) and Irma La Douce (1963) – but in the 1970s, the Jourdan voice could be heard in, of all things, Scooby Doo and Scrappy Doo, the Louis Jourdan as the Swamp Thingspin-off of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon series.

Jourdan’s career received a welcome shot in the arm when he reinvented himself as a villain – of the camp variety – for Swamp Thing (1982) and the James Bond movie Octopussy (1983). He also made a debonair Dracula in a now-cultish 1978 BBC production. He was last seen in the 1992 caper adventure Year of the Comet, which was partly filmed in Scotland. Married to his French wife (who died last year) from 1944, he had one son, Louis Jourdan Jr, who died of a drugs overdose in 1981. In 2010, he was made an Officier de la Legion d’honneur, France’s highest award. With a last dash of romantic flair, the screen’s great Continental lover bowed out, appropriately enough, on Valentine’s Day.

Louis Jourdan, actor, born June 19, 1921; died February 14, 2015

* First published in The Herald, February 17

 

 

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Music to be Murdered By – review

Psycho Live/Music to be Murdered By, City Halls, Glasgow *****

Thank God for conductor John Wilson and the BBC SSO. Without them, fans of the great Bernard Herrmann would not have had the chance to be immersed for 24 hours in some of the most iconic, haunting and emotive music ever written for film – and to hear some of it played live for the first time in Glasgow.

The Herrmann weekend kicked off on Saturday evening with a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho with Herrmann’s classic score being played live by the orchestra. Despite a technical hitch near the beginning, this was a hugely enjoyable experience – on several levels. It was a treat to see the film on the big screen and in the company of others, rather than home alone on a TV, and it was a thrill to hear the music up close and being performed by the dynamic strings of the SSO. Indeed, at points it was difficult to stay focused on the screen, so animated were the musicians.

The murder scenes may not have the same impact now as they did on first viewing, but what the slightly disjointed effect of having the film music played live highlighted was how much of the work in the iconic shower scene was done by those shrieking strings. This was further underlined on Sunday afternoon when the orchestra played the Psycho music in a concert setting: all the contact between knife and skin is in the music (you never see it), and this music stands up all by itself.

Although the sell-out Psycho Live performance was obviously considered the hotter ticket, the Sunday afternoon concert turned out to be the more satisfying, since it allowed the audience to focus entirely on the music. No film composer evokes the windmills of troubled minds or gets under the skin like Herrmann, and this concert – again featuring sensational playing, this time by the whole orchestra – was exhilarating from start to finish, with the almost unbearably beautiful and electrifying Vertigo music the most breath-taking five minutes of the weekend.

Other highlights included the swoonsomely sumptuous Marnie opening titles, the rousing overture from North by Northwest and a handful of suites by other film composers, including David Raksin (whose Laura music should be played more often) and Constant Lambert, whose Anna Karenina score revealed similarities with Herrmann’s work.

Only complaint? A complementary season of films at the GFT wouldn’t have gone amiss – and might have helped satisfy the withdrawal symptoms inevitable after this glorious Bernard Herrmann binge.

You can watch some of the Music to be Murdered By concert online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00kld89

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Top 10 Bernard Herrmann-Scored Films

To accompany my last post, on John Wilson’s views on Bernard Herrmann and his film work, here’s my pick of the best movies to feature his music.

* Citizen Kane (1941). Orson Welles’s groundbreaking fictional biopic of a newspaper magnate featured an equally groundbreaking score which was more spare than what had gone before, and made great use of the brass and woodwind sections of the orchestra to create a sense of darkness and an oppressive atmosphere. 

* The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947). Beguiling period romantic fantasy about the love affair between a young widow (Gene Tierney) and the ghost of a gruff sea captain (Rex Harrison). Herrmann’s exquisite score conveyed all the longing and desire that couldn’t be  portrayed onscreen. This YouTube film is a lovely homage to this cult movie which, I reckon, would make a wonderful double bill with the equally romantic and beautifully scored (by John Barry) 1981 time travel film Somewhere in Time.

* On Dangerous Ground (1952). Herrmann named his romantic score for this cultish mood piece about the slow-burning relationship between tough city cop Robert Ryan and a blind girl as his favourite of his own work. 

* The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): Herrmann not only wrote the extraordinarily tense music for Hitchcock’s kidnapping drama (which stars James Stewart and Doris Day), but is also seen conducting the orchestra (playing Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds Cantata) at the Albert Hall in the climactic scene.  

* Vertigo (1958). Herrmann’s repetitive, pulsating, spiraling music not only reflects James Stewart’s obsession with Kim Novak but enables the audience to experience its  effects as well. 

And as for the love theme … well, listen and sigh..

* North By Northwest (1959). One of the sexiest and most tongue-in-cheek Hitchcock films, it stars Cary Grant in a case of mistaken identity and has a suitably quirky, though magnificent and dramatic, Herrmann score – a fandango, of all things. John Wilson says: “I’d love to do that film with the live orchestra….” 

* Psycho (1960): The ultimate Hitchcock thriller, and the ultimate Herrmann score – which John Wilson says “does stand upon its own, it’s wonderfully unique”. Janet Leigh stars as the young woman on the run who soon regrets checking into the Bates Motel.. Right from the start, the music lets us know that something bad is going to happen…  

* Cape Fear (1962). So effective was Herrmann’s thunderous, menacing score for J Lee Thompson’s terrifying thriller – in which Robert Mitchum played the psychotic Max Cady – that Martin Scorsese retained it for his 1991 remake. 

* Marnie (1964). The lush romantic music for this film outclasses the performances by Tippi Hedren as the eponymous kleptomaniac, and Sean Connery as the man who wants to save her. 

* Taxi Driver (1976): With this brooding, and intermittently romantic, urban-sounding score, Herrmann ended his career as he had started it – at the top, with one of the most important films of the decade, Martin Scorsese’s study of disturbed Robert De Niro’s descent into violence. 

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Bernard Herrmann Centenary: June 29, 2011

When it comes to great movie composers, they don’t come much hipper than Bernard Herrmann, whose centenary falls today. During his lifetime and in the 30 years before his death, Herrmann has regularly been rediscovered and championed by younger film and music aficionados.

How many long-dead composers have had their work recycled for a Quentin Tarantino? Bernard Herrmann did: his theme for the 1968 British film Twisted Nerve featured in Kill Bill Volume 1, in 2003.

While movies such as Psycho and Cape Fear have been remade for new audiences, their Herrmann-penned scores have been considered sacrosanct. Suites of timeless music for these films and other from the voluminous Herrmann back catalogue are regularly performed in concert halls.

But what is it about Herrmann’s music that has made it so enchanting and so enduring? It is catchy and memorable, but more importantly, it is an integral part of a movie. It is as much of a factor in the artistic success of a film as the image. A Herrmann score is never merely background music; it is always a partner to the action onscreen.

It’s impossible to recall Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) without hearing its throbbing, swirling, obsessive love theme, or to picture Cary Grant clambering atop Mount Rushmore without hearing the insistent, driving fandango which propelled the action throughout North By Northwest (1959), or to imagine that iconic shower scene in Psycho (1960), without hearing those shrieking, stabbing violins.

Herrmann and Hitchcock worked together on eight movies, the others being The Trouble With Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Wrong Man (1956) , Psycho, The Birds (1963; on which Herrmann worked as a sound designer) and Marnie (1964). Torn Curtain (1966), the first Hitchcock film in a decade to not have a Herrmann score – or indeed any music during its extended music scene – was a flop.

What made Herrmann the ideal partner for Hitchcock was his groundbreaking way of using music. When he started in Hollywood, most film composers were churning out post-Romantic style scores, and the conventional function of music was to communicate intellectual ideas to the viewer in a shorthand form. Music could suggest  period of a place; it could comment on the image onscreen, or hint at trouble immediately ahead.

Herrmann started his movie career at the very top, with Orson Welles’s iconoclastic Citizen Kane, and it was an apt debut because the young composer, like the young director, wrote his own rules.

He used music to communicate emotion, to reflect the psychological and emotional state of the characters. Period and place didn’t enter into it. (After all, what has the fandango, a Spanish dance form, got to do with the plot of North by Northwest? Absolutely nothing.) In some films, such as the beguiling supernatural romance The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947), the romance between a young widow and a dead sea captain is almost entirely created by the score which conveys longing and desire in a way that couldn’t work in the script.

Herrmann helped Hitchcock’s audience better understand the troubled minds of the characters they were watching onscreen. James Stewart’s obsession in both The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which he’s on a race against time to find his kidnapped son and prevent an assassination, and in Vertigo, in which his obsession with Kim Novak is fuelled by guilt and lust, is not only underlined by the repetitive, eerie score; it is partly evoked by it.

Herrmann  started his career at the top – and he ended it there too. His last film was Martin Scorsese’s psychological study Taxi Driver, one of the most important movies of the 1970s.

In the years running up to his unexpected death, aged 64 in 1975, Herrmann, that most modern of movie composers, was enjoying collaborations with many rising stars of modern cinema. Since then, and thanks to them, his music has rarely been out of fashion.

* I’ll be discussing Bernard Herrmann’s work on the Movie Cafe, BBC Radio Scotland on Thursday at 1.15pm, and The Filmhouse cinema in Edinburgh is showing a terrific season of Herrmann-scored films from today.

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