Saturday 27 November 2010

Do a lot of people know this? Caine on Palmer....

(c) Hodder & Stoughton 2010
I've recently purchased a copy of Michael Caine's new biography, The Elephant to Hollywood (the Elephant in question being a tough suburb of south London called Elephant & Castle). It's a celebrity memoir, so I wasn't expecting anything on a par with say The Moon's a Balloon by David Niven - the yardstick for great actor biographies. But Caine is a good storyteller and his natural south London charm comes across well.

Also, of course, he's the man who brought Len Deighton's spy-with-no-name character - later dubbed Harry Palmer - to life in the 'sixties and - like Sean Connery - changed the depiction of the modern spy on celluloid forever. There are a number of stories in his biography about this pivotal role; some, sure, we've read before, but others which offer new insight into the production and Caine's approach to this role.

Below are some choice cuts from the book.

On The Ipcress File and the naming of the Palmer character:
"The whole point about Len Deighton's anti-hero was that he was deeply ordinary - so ordinary he could always be underestimated. Deighton had never given him a name and that was our first challenge. 'We need something dull,' said Harry [Salzman - the producer of the film]. There was a long silence while we all pondered. 'Harry's a dull name,' I ventured brightly. The silence became very chilly indeed. Harry Salzman gave me a level glance. The room held its collective breath. Harry started to laugh. We all laughed with him. 'You're right,' he said. 'My real name,' he said, turning to me, 'is Herschel. Now for the surname .... Nothing seemed to be right. Harry, as always, had the last word. 'I met a dull man once called Palmer,' he said. And Harry Palmer I became."
Though I'm sure thoroughly burnished over the years by re-telling, it goes to demonstrate that while Harry Palmer so obviously 'works' for the character, the name itself seems to have been a fluke!

On the famous 'cooking scene' in Ipcress File, which was almost nixed by the studio in the US
"After the first rushes, we got a cable from Hollywood. 'Dump Caine's spectacles and make the girl cook the meal - he is coming across as a homosexual.' This is not the exact message - I've cleaned it up a bit - but the implication is clear enough. We had deliberately gone anti-Bond and as well as the glasses, we'd decided that Harry Palmer should be a cook, which was admittedly risky stuff in Britain in 1964, but we made it work. So when Harry goes to a supermarket and pushes his shopping trolley around, it turns into a fight with the trollies as weapons. And when Harry seduces the girl, he doesn't wine and dine her in a fancy restaurant, he takes her home and cooks her dinner - making an omelette by breaking two eggs at once in one hand. (I could see how seductive this could be, but I never mastered it and so in the movie it is writer - and fantastic cook - Len Deighton's hand you see doing the trick."
On filming at the epicentre of Cold War tensions in Funeral in Berlin
"The last time I had occupied the city was in my National Service days in 1951 and it had been a very different place. Now, the wall dividing East and West was an ever present reminder of the Cold War. The East German soldiers watched us through binoculars the whole time we were filming there. At one point they were obviously not happy with the way things were going and shone a mirror at our camera lenses until we had to give up and find another spot."
On being a pioneer as the star of Billion Dollar Brain
"I was very pleased to be playing Harry Palmer again, and I thought - and still think - that Billion Dollar Brain is a really atmospheric movie. It was way ahead of its time, too. I recently discovered that in Billion Dollar Brain I was the first person to use the Internet on screen. At the time I just assumed it was one more piece of technological spy wizardry and back then I certainly couldn't get the hang of it, so I did what all actors do, which is to ask the experts for some emergency coaching, to make me look as if I knew what I was doing."
On the disastrous filming of Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg
"What I was about to do almost finished me off. The thing is, it sounded really attractive. I was going to work with an old friend. It turned out to be my worst experience ever ..... The filming itself was a joke. The final blow came when we were filming in the LenFilm studio itself. I wanted to go for a pee and they directed me to the toilet. I could smell it fifty yards away and when I got there I found the filthiest toilet I had ever seen in my life. I went outside and pee'd up against the soundstage. So this is where my career had ended, I thought to myself: in the toilet. I'm done."
Having watched both those movies, the image of a rank toilet does seem very appropriate!

The Elephant to Hollywood is published by Hodder and Stoughton and is priced at £20 in the UK.

No comments:

Post a Comment