Friday, September 15, 2017

Deadly dubbing

‘I won’t keep you long,’ says the voice on the phone. ‘I know you’re watching Death Trap. But couldn’t you say something about the appalling way this film has been dubbed? I love Michael Caine but I can’t stand Francis Lax.’ 
Death Trap (1981) is the film adaptation of an Ira Levin play and, probably, an attempt to get as much success as Mankiewicz’s Sleuth, this time with Christopher Reeve (dubbed by Arditi) in the part of the younger man, and Michael Caine (dubbed by Lax) as the older one. Sidney Lumet has ably carried off the screen adaptation of the play, which relies on only two or three plot twists. There would be nothing much to say if it weren’t that the French version is weighing down the film so much that it creates a tiresome feeling. Our perception lags miserably behind a film where there is an essential piece of information in each sentence and plot twists every minute. So much so that by the time the film is really up and running, our eardrums are done for and we’ve called it a day. 
When the filmed theatre play doesn’t shine overly on its own what’s left to look at? The actors. The least you should be able to do is keep your eyes and ears glued to an actor you like and have always been very intrigued by. Born in London in 1933, Maurice Mickelwhite is one of those actors who are, as people say, ‘never indifferent’. Better known by the name Michael Caine, he regularly portrays ruthless and intensely neurotic types who are hard to categorise. His malleability is his strength. English and American, prole and intellectual, hetero and homo, spineless and gutsy, cynic and dreamer, Michael Caine is like the last remaining example of a studio actor, acting ‘in the old style’ those roles and sensibilities that the old-style cinema didn’t deal in. Perhaps the reason he’s so hard to dub is that he’s so fast. You get the clear impression that a whole range of nuances bound up with the English language don’t make it out alive in the transfer to Lax and French. 
All you can do is turn down the volume (after all, what’s so important about this story of mutual manipulation between two queer playwrights?) and sit back and watch how Michael Caine looks in all his glory. Well, here too we’re frustrated. Partly because Lumet, perpetually effective, sacrifices the acting to the snipping supremacy of editing. Partly because even when you feel there must be something out of the ordinary to see, this feeling remains as abstract as a clue. When, twice over, Caine cries (the first time over the death of his wife, when he assumes the role of the weeping husband calling the police, and the second, when his plan has worked and they are tears of nervous relief), it’s a surprise that we don’t feel more emotion. As if we had reconstructed something rather than seen it. 
It is to be feared that the answer will come from Dimitri Balachoff. Who is Balachoff? A Belgian who, having animated many film clubs and presented many films on TV, has written one of those articles (‘Cinematographic language and electronic images’) which clear things up. Balachoff reminds us that in optical projection the entire retina has a complete image pressed upon it every twenty-fourth of a second. Then he explains that in viewing the cathode ray tube ‘there is never any moment when the entire surface of the retina is impressed upon. The pathway of the flying spot is synchronised so as to stimulate only one tiny point on the retinal surface, every four hundred thousandth of a second. It is the retinal persistence which not only reconstitutes the movement of the images but also the static image itself, which in reality is never "seen" in its entirety.’ 
In other words, on TV we reconstitute what we should have seen. The cinema image gave us ‘the eye’ (once a second, retina and image corresponded), precisely in the way that certain great actors – Chaplin is the most famous example – verge on the subliminal by looking at the camera for an almost infinitesimal length of time. Every time we are faced with something fast-moving, like the performance of a true actor, like Michael Caine in the putrid Death Trap, we will now be called to order by Dimitri Balachoff. 
TV isn’t made for seeing, but for viewing. 

First published in Libération on 15 December 1988. Reprinted in Devant la recrudescence des vols de sacs à main, Aléas, 1991.

Part of the Ghosts of permanence series.

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