Sunday 20 November 2016

Writers on film

Author sightings in film. Three examples come to mind:

Dylan Thomas can be glimpsed in a crowd scene shot on Pendine Sands, near Swansea for the 1951 film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman starring Ava Gardner and James Mason, directed by Alfred Lewin and with cinematography by the great Jack Cardiff. Thomas is little more than a blur in a brown suit, but it's him alright. The discovery caused a ripple of excitement as (rather surprisingly) no moving images of the poet were known to exist. You should be able to find the clip online.

T. S. Eliot appeared in front of the camera in a short 1936 documentary called Cover to Cover, a production sponsored by The National Book Council, directed by Alexander Shaw and with a commentary written by the superbly-named Igenlode Wordsmith. It depicts the production of an imaginary novel from the completion of the manuscript to its arrival in a bookshop. Eliot is the only poet - and only modernist - in a group of writers speaking straight to camera, and this is what he says, in full:

It’s no more use trying to be traditional than it is trying to be original. Nobody invents very much, but there is one thing to be said for contemporary poetry that can’t be said in favour of any other, and that is that it is written by our contemporaries.

This deadpan observation was made at a time when most contemporary poets were not writing modern poetry at all and were, if anything, fiercely opposed to the experimental. The other writers featured in Cover to Cover were Dame Rebecca West  ('It is quite true that great writers have more often been men than women. But then, you see, women have other work to do.'), Somerset Maugham (then the most famous living author in the English-speaking world) and the Punch humorist A. P. Herbert, all stolid embodiments of the anti-modernist tendency in English letters. 

And finally, and best of all for my money, there's the appearance, unnoticed until more than sixty years after the film's release, of Raymond Chandler in a scene from Double Indemnity (1944), the noir masterpiece for which he co-wrote the script with the director Billy Wilder. Walter Neff (played by Fred McMurray) leaves his boss's office in the insurance company for which he works and walks along a mezzanine past a bilious-looking bespectacled character reading a magazine. That's Chandler. And if you tell me that Chandler's not a poet I'll sock you in the kisser, pal. Watch it here.

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