DIRECTOR'S CUT / The flesh is weak: Jon Amiel on how the opening scene of Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels has influenced his work

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I'LL NEVER forget the impact made on me by the first scene between Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea in Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels (released in 1941). In the story a famous film director decides he's fed up with making all these supposedly worthy movies, goes on the run and ends up seeing much more of life than he ever bargained for. And he comes to understand the power of comedy. There are parts of it that now feel a little creaky and schematic, but it's an unquestionably grand film by an unquestionably great director-writer.

And what's so wonderful about that first scene between these two characters in the bar is that it's entirely about language and innuendo and inflection and looks and proximity and space. I swear it's one of the sexiest things I've ever seen on the screen, and what's so sexy about it is that nobody touches anybody at all; it's fully clothed. It's about the infinite allure of that tiny distance of two hands on a counter, of two people talking to each other and sizing each other up.

I mourn the loss of that kind of eroticism. For me the most erotic thing is the point where clothing ends and skin begins. It's always to me the sexiest moment in the film, where something is glimpsed and suggested. Acres of sweating flesh doesn't do it at all. One of the first ideas I had for Sommersby is the scene where Jodie Foster shaves Richard Gere. It's about power - he scares the hell out of her with his razor, but what he does that's so astute is that he gives her power over him by giving her that razor. And she shows him that she would use it as well. I find that an erotically charged scene.

I shot several sex scenes for The Singing Detective - in one, the character played by Patrick Malahide is walking through the woods with Alison Steadman, the boy's mother. They're laughing and flirting and she suddenly snags her dress on a bramble. He kneels down, disentangles the bramble and then very slowly lifts the hem until you just start to see the lace of her old-fashioned French pants. And the sound of the birds and the insects is suddenly very very loud. That was the sexiest scene in the whole thing for me and it goes back to the eroticism of the unstated, I think.

Jon Amiel directed 'The Singing Detective' on television. His films are 'Queen of Hearts', 'Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter' and 'Sommersby', which now plays around the country.

(Photograph omitted)