Archive for January, 2010

Week 4: ‘Easy Virtue’ – 1927

January 30, 2010

The background image to the credits of this, not great, movie is a large camera in silhouette. This aspect of the film (the press and their obsession with a gossipy scandal, in this case a ‘fallen’ woman guilty of ‘misconduct’) is the most interesting aspect of it and resonates with our modern times. ‘“Virtue is its own reward” they say – – but “easy virtue” is society’s reward for a slandered reputation’, very politely put.

‘Easy Virtue’ has a lovely opening. We see a close-up of a newspaper establishing we are about to hear about a divorce suit, then we cut to the top of a bewigged judge’s head as he slowly looks up. We see the courtroom from his p.o.v. – he raises his monocle and the barrister appears in a trick shot within the monocle.

The judge yawns, looks to his right and see an out of focus woman, more monocle-action and she comes into focus as Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans in her second Hitchcock collaboration). Very nice start.

She is getting grilled by the prosecutor as to her suspected adultery, we cut to the gallery as the crowd get titillated by such suggestions (nothing changes) – framed in triple arches a la ‘Downhill’. The lawyer produces a decanter, cut to close-up and Hitchcock uses this to take us to a flashback of Larita’s dissolute husband knocking back the booze as she has her portrait painted. Sympathetic glances between her and the artist gives us the set up fast and efficiently. We learn that the husband has bruised her wrists after a bout of boozing – Claude the artist (Eric Bransby Williams) gets angry and swears hubbie will never get another drink in his studio. After a few lively moments of action – including a gunshot – the cops arrive and bang, we’re in court.

There is a load of cross cutting between the flashback sequences and the courtroom in this first section, and it’s all quite elegantly done. Close-ups of the decanter and the evidence note explaining she has been left £2,000/year from Claude after his premature death, lead to repeated smooth tracks back to the scene in hand. The camera seems more fluid and smoother generally in ‘Easy Virtue’ than Hitchcock’s previous movies.

He brings in his favoured profile shots in the courtroom scene: Larita first, then the prosecuting lawyer – giving the suggestion of passing time, combining these with a swinging pendulum and monocle.

Larita is found guilty of ‘misconduct’ with Claude – she flees to the Mediterranean but is soon the subject of unwanted attention (irresistible, and blonde, as she is). During a tennis match (beginning with a nice shot through a tennis racket), she is bashed in the eye by the ball and soon is having cocktails with her accidental assailant (he with much vigorous cocktail shaking).

She receives bouquets from different admirers but is mainly interested in John Whittaker (Robin Irvine) – he is young and naïve, bothered by the other guys who are after her. His interest ‘…was like a cool breeze sweeping away the ugly memories of the past’. They venture out in a horse and cart and he declares his love and his intention to marry – some nice scenery shots here.

Eventually she caves in and agrees to marry him – Hitchcock doing a lovely thing here and having the whole acceptance earwigged by the hotel telephone operator, we see her reactions to the conversation – ending in big smiles. As always, the director is thinking of new and original ways to play a scene even, in this case, by not seeing the protagonists at all.

Following their marriage, they return to England to his parents place, a well-to-do country pad, clearly they are people of some substance. Hitchcock shows a French poodle atop their suitcases and then a British bulldog (again, really cool way of showing their journey – economical storytelling, simple idea, and really cheap to shoot!)

John’s father welcomes Larita with the choice line: ‘It’s funny, I thought you’d be dark and foreign looking!’ Try getting away with that one today.

However warm dad may  be, the ladies of the family – two sisters and an almost comicly negative mother – receive Larita with icy cool and his ex is invited over to shake things up a bit (good notion, mum). The situation goes from bad to worse, Larita feeling more and more marginalized from John’s family – she drinks, she smokes, she is blonde and attractive – clearly a wrong ‘un. And then, evil domineering mother (see ‘Psycho’) finds out about her past! ‘The Filton divorce!’ she says ‘who is this woman you have pitchforked into the family?’ she asks of John.

Our sympathies lie with Larita and, from a modern standpoint, it all seems a bit extreme but interesting to see the attitude towards a ‘fallen’ woman. The mother looks genuinely evil in certain scenes and is out to poison John’s love for his new wife at every turn. Larita wants them to return to the south of France (‘we were happy there’) but John ploughs on regardless…

All in all, ‘Easy Virtue’ is ok – but only ok. You feel Hitchcock is kind of off his home turf with this one  – no murders or particular action/set pieces and the intrigue is more of the domestic kind. The central (blonde, ok) character is wronged and spurned by society but, in this movie, she doesn’t seem to come up with any redemption at the end – it’s all rather bleak. The John marriage ends in divorce and Hitchcock emphasizes the intrusive invasiveness of the press cameras as they invade Larita’s life once again. ‘Shoot, there’s nothing left to kill’ she says to them in a line Hitchcock ridiculed as his worst (although as Patrick McGilligan points out in his book ‘A Life in Darkness and Light’, the fact that he drew attention to it could also suggest a certain pride at writing such a cheesy slice of dialogue). It’s an interesting movie as it deals with the aforementioned press gossip-mongering and their obsession with scandal and gossip.

Some of the relationship stuff is a little confusing in the later stages – the sisters and John’s ex look sort of similar and I found myself pausing it to figure out who was who, never a good sign. I liked the way Larita brazenly calves off pieces of her dress at one point to make it more revealing…

..and then makes a dramatic entrance down the staircase (there it is again) to the throng of guests below. She dances with John and then goes off for a chat with her ex-husband (that’s a great idea, Larita). All very defiant and kind of admirable.

The whole thing is only ok, so approach with caution.

Miscellaneous notes

Hitchcock pops up about 21’20” into the film – leaving the tennis court in the south of France. He resists the idea of actually playing tennis himself.

Print quality pretty poor – on the Mill Creek Entertainment label, very cheap edition.

Interesting to note female jury members in the court scenes, from what I can gather this only happened from 1920 onwards in England (although the two who did appear in these cases were excused at a certain point to attend to ‘home duties’).

Week 3: ‘Downhill’ – 1927

January 23, 2010

Ivor Novello returns in Hitchcock’s 4th movie, a tale of mistaken guilt (who would have thought it?) and one man’s descent into despair, depravity and delirium. The starting point of the wrongful accusation is Roddy Berwick (Novello) taking the fall for his schoolfriend’s misdemeanor. There seems to be some confusion in different sources over what the offence is, although it seemed pretty clear to me that Mabel had fallen pregnant to one of the guys, (she is the girl from Ye Olde Bunne Shoppe who appears to have acquired one in her own oven…sorry). Many sites mention that it is a theft but this is wrong. Regardless, he is expelled from school and thus embarks on a downhill odyssey into an ever bleakening underworld.

Hitchcock at times overplays the symbolism: as Roddy leaves the family home he goes to the Underground and takes an escalator way, way downwards.

Later he descends in a lift after his sponging girlfriend, then wife, Julia Fotheringay (played by Isabel Jeans, blonde) proceeds to chew through the £30,000 he has inherited by his Godmother by blowing it on jewellery and still carrying on with her previous fella (Archie, played by Ian Hunter). By the by, Hitchcock does a neat little thing with the title card that comes up for £30,000 – when it first appears the numbers are big onscreen, and as the fortune dwindles it appears much smaller, a simple little idea but nice.

Hitchcock’s naughty side, as always, pops up with a line of dialogue Archie delivers as he hands Roddy a clump of bills from Julia’s extravagant purchases: ‘they’re yours, my boy – regard them as an entrance fee’ (!)

Roddy is extraordinarily naïve with various scrapes he gets into and it’s worth remembering that at the opening of the movie he is supposed to be a schoolboy of about 17 or 18. Novello was born in 1893 and would have been 34 at the time – youthful looking though he is, it is a bit distracting having him play someone half his age. I guess it was a big factor in raising the finance to have a bankable and proven star as the lead.

There is some really beautifully photography in the film: in fact the whole thing looks pretty great. Highlight scenes/shots include the ‘soda siphon sequence’ about 39 mins in – the syphon in focus HUGE in the foreground, the characters blurred behind. Archie blasts the soda as if to cool the ardor of Roddy and Julia .

There are also three lovely shots @ 48’52” as Roddy and Julia kiss – beautifully lit and composed with a glowing halo of light surrounding the pair of them, anticipating Josef Von Sternberg classics to come. The cinematographer on ‘Downhill’ is Claude L. MacDonnell, who had photographed various movies prior to ‘Downhill’ that involved Hitchcock’s pre-directing work as a writer and title designer. He does a great job and the movie is a treat to watch.

Hitchcock pulls a kind of triple visual trick at the start of Roddy’s descent into the underworld – we see him in black tie and feel good for him, the camera pulls back to reveal he’s actually become a waiter….then pulls back further to reveal he is waiting on tables in a stage show, an even lower occupation than just being a waiter. Following the audacious glass ceiling/floor shot in ‘The Lodger’, Hitch pulls out another one here. As Isabel Jeans leans back on her chair to see Roddy coming into her dressing room we cut to her p.o.v. – and he shoots it upside down! Hitchcock also anticipates the classic Spike Lee ‘camera attached to the actor’s chest’ by 60 years or so as Roddy returns to London in one of the later scenes. You get the feeling he’s looking at every scene/shot and thinking how to inject interest and innovation at every stage. Even in this, not great, movie he’s still pushing it forward.

As with ‘The Pleasure Garden’, and Miles Mander’s portrayal of Levet in that picture, the atmosphere of sinking depravity in “Downhill’ is very well handled. There is obvious religious iconography at times – the triple arched windows in their school study room echoed by the churchlike wardrobes Julia hides her lover in. Roddy progresses in a downward spiral from being a taxi dancer surrounded by a Sodom and Gomorrah-like spectacle as the all-night-closed curtains are finally opened at daybreak (‘searching, relentless sunlight’ as the title tells us), to a full blown alcoholic on the docks at Marseilles (‘thrown to the rats’).  Each time he escapes from one bad situation he tumbles further down into a more bleak circumstance.

He eventually travels back to England in a delirious hallucinatory state – Hitchcock going to town by using blurred images and dissolves to suggest his crazed brain-state. Roddy imagines all the people he has met on his downward slide laughing at him, before being dumped at the docks in England and getting home to receive the redemption he has been searching for from the time of his fall from grace. Hitchcock even uses the actor who plays Roddy’s father (Norman McKinnel, as Sir Thomas Berwick) to appear in other roles (on the ship/as a policeman at the docks) to suggest Roddy’s obsession with being accepted back at home. With a circular structure (and much use of circular motifs – records spinning/portholes/pistons moving etc), Roddy finds himself back on the rugby field at school, scoring a try to great acclaim in the Old Boy’s match.

Miscellaneous notes

The copy of the movie I acquired was easily the most budget looking of all the Hitchcock’s I have – it literally looks like someone burnt it in their bedroom and is on the ‘Video Cellar’ label, whoever they may be. However, even on this – relatively scratch and dirt free transfer – the quality of the visuals still shines through. It’s an enjoyable watch, if a minor movie in Hitchcock’s grand oeuvre.

There’s that big old staircase again – the scenes in his parents’ home this time.

Week 2: ‘The Lodger’ – 1927

January 14, 2010

Wow. Suddenly, we leap from a pretty good movie with some promising style to An Alfred Hitchcock Film. Right from the opening frame, a shadowy stylized graphic figure silhouetted in a doorway, to the following smash cut image of a girl’s screaming face with an angled camera, ‘The Lodger’ instantly feels like classic Hitchcock. Pretty remarkable to achieve this leap of style within what must have been a year or so between movies.

The atmosphere of the movie is one of dread, terror, the expectation of murder and the suspicion of strangers. The picture is heavy with Hitchcockian signatures – the blonde female makes a rousing first appearance (even though there was a blonde girl in the early scenes of ‘The Pleasure Garden’, this doesn’t become a plot point like it does here). The mystery killer – melodramatically referred to as ‘The Avenger’ (‘tall he was – and his face all wrapped up’ an onlooker remarks) – kills on a Tuesday and targets blonde girls. ‘No more peroxide for yours truly’ comments one of the dancers at the Golden Curls revue to her colleague.

Daisy Jackson (June – she has no surname) is our heroine, and her policeman beau Joe Betts (Malcolm Keen) grows suspicious of the new lodger at her parents’ home – played with keen theatricality by the great Ivor Novello. Daisy, however, views this stylish stranger less with suspicion than attraction – their chess game rife with mutual craving. Violence is also playfully suggested (‘I’ll get you yet’, says Novello as they play. Later in the game, he reaches for the fire poker and aims it at her head…)

The recurring Hitchcock plot of the-wrong-man-accused pops up here full force – everything pointing at the lodger as the guilty murdering Avenger.  He has a map of the killings, he half covers his face in a scarf, turns all the pictures of blondes to the wall in his room and then requests they be removed, goes out in the fog at night, and is generally mysterious. And he dares to schmooze in on Daisy right under Joe’s nose, the cad, let’s string him up (which very nearly happens in the closing minutes of the picture). The way so much of the picture points the finger of guilt to Novello is close to overplayed: he goes out on a Tuesday night in his scarf getup/is seen by the landlady/murder occurs etc. He’s so obviously the killer, he cannot possibly be.

Novello is really good, as you’d expect (he was a big star at the time) – his movements exaggeratedly slow, elegant and purposeful, if slightly effete. He’s assisted by a plot that keeps driving along really well, the whole idea of the Tuesday killings giving the cops a deadline (as it were) to catch him. Joe works the case: ‘when I put a rope round the Avenger’s neck – I’ll put a ring round Daisy’s finger’. Hitchcock encases the main story in detail that gives a really good atmosphere: there is an almost documentary-like sequence near the start where we see the printing of the Avenger story in the newspaper (printing presses/distribution – the famed ‘back of van that looks like a pair of eyes’ shot*). As a title states: MURDER – WET FROM THE PRESS. Later we have MURDER – HOT OVER THE AERIAL as we see a radio announcer with a microphone. Hitchcock uses various methods to show how the news is transmitted (a ticker tape appears also), thus getting away from further title cards or ‘the news spreads’ exposition scenes.

Hitchcock starts introducing the kind of flourishes that later will become a trademark. The most audacious of these is the scene where the lodger is pacing in his room, Daisy, her parents and Joe below looking up at the sound of his footsteps. What does Hitch do? He makes the ceiling out of glass so their imaginations can actually see him walking.

Again, wow! Who else would come up with that kind of daring effect? It’s weird, strange, original, clever, unexpected, abstract and quite brilliant. How did he ever persuade his backers that it was a cool idea and worth funding? Already, even at this early stage of his directing career, he must have had the confidence and authority to pull this off.  I mentioned Michael Powell in the notes on ‘The Pleasure Garden’ and you could imagine him doing something like this also. Wonderful stuff.

The look of the film is also pretty great – it’s like Hitchcock suddenly went out and watched a load of German expressionist movies and just went for it. Deep shadows, angled shots, harsh blacks and whites: ‘A Story of the London Fog’, as the subtitle states.

I would highly recommend ‘The Lodger’ to even the casual viewer. It’s really very good and keeps the suspense up to the end, as Novello is chased by an angry pub mob who are convinced he is the killer – even as Joe rushes to let them know the police have caught the real Avenger. These scenes with the angry mob give a genuine sense that the lodger is going to be killed – the mob so big it seems impossible he can escape. Novello’s acting may be a bit OTT by today’s standards, but it doesn’t matter against the backdrop of fear and dread Hitchcock develops.

Miscellaneous notes

*When Novello and Daisy have been out on their first date and they’re back in his room, two pictures on the wall behind them appear to watch their goings on.

Check out that overhead shot of Daisy’s mother going downstairs about 36 minutes in – it’s ‘Psycho’ 34 years early!

There is the first appearance of the favoured profile shot in the lodger/Daisy chess match: Novello framed in a side view, a shot that will become a recurring one for Hitchcock.

First Hitchcock personal appearance! He pops up in the closing scenes as the crowd try to off Novello over the railings, the director amongst those leaning over to rubberneck.

There is a distinct Pieta-like composition as Daisy cradles the lodger as he is taken down from the near fatal railings. I remember seeing ‘Topaz’ a while back and there is a very similar sequence in this late Hitchcock (following the torture of two of the characters). Will seek out others…

Finally, staircases: in the postscript following the closing ‘EVERY STORY HAS AN END’ title, Novello is back at his place and descends a rather palatial one – the first of many Hitchcock grand staircases.

There are various durations of the movie out there. The version I saw ran 89 mins and, I’m pretty sure, is the US version. In the UK it runs 75 mins, in Spain apparently 67 (quite what they hacked out of it there I don’t know), plus various durations in other territories. I picked up a REALLY cheap 4 disc box set that features quite a few of the early Hitchcock’s (money saving exercise, this) so I would say it’s difficult to assess what the best quality version out there is. The transfer I watched was, quite frankly, appalling: scratchy/picture fluttering/strange cropping of the image/missing frames leading to jump cuts etc. Following the opening credits, bizarrely, the BBFC certification board pops up for a few frames (!) ‘The Lodger’ is one of the early Hitchcock’s the BFI are hoping to restore in the next year or so. Pretty soon you’ll hopefully be able to see it in pristine condition.

Week 1: ‘The Pleasure Garden’ – 1926

January 4, 2010

Here we go, Hitchcock’s directorial debut. Very interested to know how it all began. Would it contain any of the Hitchcock signature moments or motifs that would become so prevalent in later movies? Would it, ultimately, be any good?

The answer I found was a pleasant surprise: ‘The Pleasure Garden’ (named after the nightclub the two leading ladies perform in) is a pretty pleasurable 60 minutes or so. The plot cracks along at a fair old pace and the ‘action’ (referred to as ‘melodramatic’ by Hitchcock) keeps coming, and serves to deliver a picture that is a very impressive debut.

There were, and this was a surprise to me, certain signature pieces that could be linked to Hitchcock’s later work: the use of a major star in a central role (Virginia Valli as Patsy Brand – Valli was a big name at the time, and it was a particular coup for producer Michael Balcon to bring her to England to star in the film) and various  instances of male voyeurism  (for example, there is a brief p.o.v. shot of one of the audience members raising his opera glasses to get a better view of the dancers’ legs).

Plus it was refreshingly ‘naughty’:

1.    within the first couple of minutes, we see some happy looking guys enjoying the views of the female dancers – one fairly long tracking shot from left to right in the frame. Interestingly, when it gets to the end of the men, we briefly see a woman who seems to have fallen asleep at the proceedings.

An out of focus monocle is replaced by the aforementioned opera glasses moving up to camera – a really good effect, and very cinematic.
2.    more leering men pop up by six minutes, in the theatre entrance as Patsy realises her cash has been stolen.
3.    by 8 minutes, the girls are undressing – their clothes theatrically tossed on chairs (it’s a stripshow!)
4.    by 10 minutes, Cuddles the dog’s bone that lies on the bed is sat upon by one of the girls – and then, while she is praying, the dog starts licking her feet (!)
5.    then the girls jump into bed together and go to sleep. Right.

There are some beautiful compositions in the film – Patsy praying at the monument at Lake Como and, later, her nursing Hugh Fielding (John Stuart) in particular stand out and show that even at this early stage (Hitchcock was only 25 at the time) the director is keenly aware of the framing of his shots.

I also like the role of the dog, Cuddles: jealous as Levet (Miles Mander) makes a move on Patsy, barking as they kiss, happy at the end when Hugh and Patsy return home as a couple – it’s a neat little plot summary device and adds good running humour through the movie. ‘How do you like that, Cuddles knew all the time’ as the final line states.

The closing scenes are still (after 85 years or so) pretty full on: Levet murders his native lover by drowning and attempts to stab Patsy to death using a sword, after succumbing to full blown alcoholic mania and seeing hallucinations of the dead girl – eventually being shot and killed (painfully skinny Levet is too).

All this is fairly strong stuff and enjoyable to watch – I was surprised how far the film took the subject matter and how explicit it was (with the naïve notion that everyone in the 1920’s lived some kind of idealistic innocent existence). As examples, Jill becomes a kept woman at one point, the sugar daddy character Prince Ivan lavishing clothes on her and setting her up in a plush apartment – she, tempted by fame and money. Later, Jill spurns the Prince’s advances by burning him with her cigarette (!) and openly laughing at him as he leaves.

Meanwhile, on their honeymoon at Lake Como, Levet is already bored with Patsy: ‘You threw away the rose I gave you’, ‘Had to – it had wilted’.

He’s eyeing up a woman even while Patsy waves him goodbye on the ship, and her waving hand dissolves to that of the native girl welcoming Levet to the colonies. He’s a bit cartoon-ey in his unpleasantness but Miles Mander is pretty good so makes up for this with a strong performance, especially in the later tropical scenes in his alcoholic phase. I have to say, it felt a lot more modern than I expected.

Having watched many silent movies over the years, it’s good to see one that has a good pace of storytelling and uses captions in a fairly minimal manner, as well as a modern and fairly scandalous plot. The edict of using pictures to tell the story is well used in ‘The Pleasure Garden’.

Miscellaneous notes:

The version I watched (on the UK Network label, released by Granada Ventures) was in the standard Academy ratio of 1.33:1. It featured some hand tinted scenes (sepia and blue) and it looked like the title cards had been replaced recently – they were too clean in comparison to the grain of the print used. There’s a mistake on the spelling of John Stuart’s name also – it’s correct on the sleeve artwork but spelt Stewart on the card (small quibble). Print is pretty grainy as you would expect – interesting to see how this fares in the restored version that is being prepared at the moment by the BFI. There is a short video intro from respected Hitchcock biographer Charles Barr – interesting but too short,  and feels a little rushly recorded. Good that something like this would be included though, bespoke made for this release.

The colony where Hugh and Levet are based seems to be called Lakar, N. Westapicco (noted on Levet’s eventual letter to Patsy). Lakar seems to be a village in India, I can’t find any reference to N. Westapicco (any thoughts on this welcome).

The 1926 release date may vary by territory.

Just incidentally, the opening shot (tinted sepia) of the chorus girls running down the spiral staircase reminds me of Vicky Page’s rush to her death in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948).

Powell would most probably  have seen ‘The Pleasure Garden’ and, indeed, worked with Hitchcock as a stills photographer on ‘Blackmail’ three years later.