Elliott Kastner: Film producer best known for his adaptations of novels by MacLean and Chandler
Saturday 17 July 2010
Elliott Kastner was a successful American producer based mainly in the UK who was noted for his skill in bringing together writers, directors and stars for generally commercial (though sometimes surprisingly cerebral) films.
He excelled in literary adaptations, from popular works such as those of Raymond Chandler and Alistair MacLean to the more esoteric output of such writers as Iris Murdoch, Vladimir Nabokov and Edna O'Brien.
He also favoured tales with strong, single-minded heroes and produced films featuring such actors as Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Robert Mitchum, Burt Reynolds and Richard Burton. His biggest hit was Where Eagles Dare, a non-stop roller-coaster ride of plot twists and exciting situations beautifully fashioned by its director Brian G Hutton and played to the hilt by a cast topped by the powerhouse combination of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood.
Born in New York City in 1930 and educated at the University of Miami and Columbia University, he worked in the mail room of the William Morris Agency in New York as a teenager, eventually becoming a literary agent. He moved to Los Angeles as a talent agent for the powerful MCA (Music Corporation of America), becoming vice president in charge of production at Universal Studios in 1962, before packaging and producing his first film in 1965. Based on a story by William Inge, Bus Riley's Back in Town bore some resemblance to Inge's successful play and film Picnic in its tale of a drifter who returns to his home town and arouses latent passions. It starred Ann-Margret and newcomer Michael Parks, hopefully promoted by the producers as a new Brando, but neither Parks nor the movie came off well (though the film later acquired a cult reputation), with the film listing as its writer Walter Gage, a pseudonym for the several writers, including Inge, who worked on it.
The following year Kastner teamed up with Jerry Gershwin to form Winkast Film Productions, based at Pinewood Studios, and had his first major hit with Harper (UK title: The Moving Target), a thriller starring Paul Newman as Ross Macdonald's creation Lew Harper, a down-on-his-luck private eye who is hired to find the missing husband of a wealthy invalid (Lauren Bacall). The complex, Chandleresque tale was not as good as the Forties yarns it emulated, but the genre had been neglected and a combination of timing and a sterling cast (Janet Leigh, Julie Harris and Shelley Winters were among those lending support) made it successful.
Sweet November (1968) also evoked memories of earlier films, those about stoic, dying heroines, with Sandy Dennis taking a new lover every month because she is fatally ill and wants to avoid long-term commitments. Anthony Newley played the young man who upsets her plan when he proposes to her. Though touching, it was criticised for being mawkish and did not attract audiences, though Kastner liked the property enough to remake it in 2001 with Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves.
Kastner's biggest hit of all was the first of three films he made from Alistair MacLean stories, Where Eagles Dare (1968), a Second World War adventure with Burton and Eastwood leading a group of commandos on a mission to rescue an American general being held captive by Nazis in a castle in the Bavarian Alps. The film had its genesis in a request from Burton that Kastner find him a popular subject in which he could play a "real hero" to please his children, who were tired of seeing him in heavy drama. Kastner then approached MacLean, who wrote the original script in six weeks, later turning it into a novel. Brian G Hutton directed, but famed action man Yakima Canutt directed the team of stuntmen in the action sequences, causing Eastwood to suggest the film be re-titled Where Doubles Dare. Kastner's later films by MacLean, When Eight Bells Toll (1971) and Breakheart Pass (1975), did not have equal success, though the latter, starring Charles Bronson, was a gripping and inventive Western, set mainly on a train.
Kastner worked with Marlon Brando for the first time on the kidnap tale The Night of the Following Day (1968), followed by The Nightcomers (1971), a tasteless "prequel" to Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, and he later achieved a casting coup when he teamed Brando with Jack Nicholson in Arthur Penn's The Missouri Breaks (1976). A quirky Western in which Brando, as a bounty hunter, dons a disguise of bonnet and dress in one sequence, it did well despite a poor press, and its reputation has strengthened over the years.
Adaptations of Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark (1969), Iris Murdoch's A Severed Head (1970) and Edna O'Brien's Zee and Co (1972), the last-named starring Burton with Elizabeth Taylor at her most shrewish, were more offbeat Kastner productions, and he made three films based on the Philip Marlowe thrillers of Raymond Chandler: The Long Goodbye (1973), with Elliot Gould as a shabbier Marlowe than usual, Farewell, My Lovely (1975) and The Big Sleep (1978), the last two with Robert Mitchum as the dogged hero. Other Kastner productions included Villain (1971) with Burton, Equus (1977), with Burton and Peter Firth, Garbo Talks (1984), an underrated comedy about a woman's dying wish to meet Greta Garbo, Angel Heart (1987) with Mickey Rourke, Heat (1987) with Burt Reynolds and A Chorus of Disapproval (1988), based on Alan Ayckbourn's stage comedy.
In 1977, he produced a film version of the Sondheim musical A Little Night Music, with Elizabeth Taylor as the ageing actress Desiree, who rekindles an old passion when her touring production plays her former lover's home town. Though its hit song, "Send in the Clowns", had been performed to great effect on stage by such non-singers as Glynis Johns, Jean Simmons and Judi Dench, Taylor could not match their vocal potency, and the unevenly paced movie had a limited release.
Kastner's last film was Opa! (2005), a comedy set in Greece. Many of his films from the late Sixties on were co-produced with Alan Ladd Jr and Jay Kanter, and Kanter said after Kastner's death, "If Elliott believed in some material, he'd never hesitate to put his own money into buying it and hiring writers to develop a screenplay. He was passionate about what he did, and he was a terrific salesman as well." Married to the interior decorator Tessa Kennedy, with whom he had two children, he was stepfather to his wife's three sons from a previous marriage, including the actor Cary Elwes.
Elliott Kastner, film producer: born New York City 20 January 1930; married Tessa Kennedy (one son, one daughter); died London 30 June 2010.
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