Archive for February, 2010

Week 8: ‘The Manxman’ – 1929

February 27, 2010

‘What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’
(Mark chapter 8, verse 36/ Matthew chapter 16, verse 26)

So starts ‘The Manxman’, Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent movie.

I liked this film a lot. When watching it, my wife Clare and her mum came in about 10 minutes into the action and proceeded to watch the entire rest of the movie. It’s that good…

It begins as a standard love triangle themed movie, set on the Isle of Man. Carl Brisson (from ‘The Ring’) appearing here as Pete, a poor fisherman who is rejected as marriage material by Kate’s (Anny Ondra) father (‘you penniless lout’) – the preference being for the already-wealthy-with-prospects lawyer Philip (Malcolm Keen, from the lost ‘The Mountain Eagle’ and ‘The Lodger’). Of course, Pete and Phil have grown up together and are best pals, and Phil has a secret hankering after Kate himself – all adding up to a powerful potion of unrequited passion. Pete goes off determined to make his fortune (‘It’s a Queen I’ll make of you’) and is reported as having died. Philip and Kate start their life together…but then Pete returns, all too alive…

Hitchcock, as we have come to expect, is exploring interesting ways of relating his narrative: for example, when Pete has left we see Kate leafing through the pages of her diary, Pete featuring less and less as the days and weeks pass, Phil more prominently, this scene followed by some lush scenery sequences as the two of them embark on the beginnings of their affair.

Throughout the movie he uses many straight-to-camera full-face shots, bringing the viewer more into the story, as if you are being spoken to directly.

There is a nice technique also following the ‘bedroom window’ scene (see misc notes below) where the breathless and excited Kate reflects on Pete’s leaving – is she thinking ‘now’s my chance with Phil’? The lighthouse revolves and the background light changes from peak white to black, expressing the two choices she has, the good little woman waiting for her man…or the dark temptation of infidelity. When the (inaccurate) news of Pete’s death comes through she is positively beaming with relief, the cow.

The wedding of Kate and Pete is really nicely handled – just a few detail shots, hands/rings/her arm hesitatingly linking to his before the wedding breakfast begins at the mill – the very site of Phil and Kate’s romantic, and fruitful, liaison.

There is a lovely dissolve sequence here, Pete laughing overjoyed (almost hysterical) and Kate trying to raise a smile: their wedding cake splits the two of them down the centre of the frame, Phil then superimposed over the cake, glaring at his missed Mrs.

The wedding breakfast turns even darker as Kate’s father goes all apocalyptic, declaring the sanctity of the marriage vows and using the mill’s stones to declare ‘the mill of God grinds slowly’ – he knows the truth of Phil and Kate’s relationship and goes all Old Testament on them. He’s really good at it too – this is Randle Ayrton, and he’s very believable in this scene and in his later courtroom revelations.

The plot, starting as it does in a fairly thin way, escalates as Phil becomes the local deemster (Isle of Man parlance for a judge) and has to pass sentence on Kate, who has attempted suicide after leaving Pete and her new born baby (who is Phil’s, obviously). Kate, her blonde hair covered by a black shawl, looks like a black Madonna in the dock – her father unable to hold his tongue any longer and exposing Phil The Judge as not only the other man in the love tryst but also the father of the baby.

It’s like a 1920’s Jerry Springer episode and the unhappy couple have to run the gauntlet of disapproving, staring, cursing old biddies as they embark on their walk of shame away from the village. Cracking stuff and really well acted (although there are moments when Malcolm Keen as Phil overdoes it a bit – particularly when he realizes it is Kate in front of him on his very first day as judge. Then again, what are the chances of that?)

‘A trusting, joyous husband – an adored, unhappy wife whose secret misery brought death into her soul.’

Kate is really a cold hearted, cowardly specimen. She breaks her promise to wait for Pete (alright, she thinks he’s dead) but then goes ahead and marries him whilst pregnant with Phil’s baby, then proceeds to leave both him AND the baby with a brief handwritten note on the dinner table: ‘Pete, I can’t deceive you any longer. I’m going away. Before I married you I loved another man and I love him still. Good bye, K’. It’s the 1920’s equivalent of being dumped by text message, with a baby thrown in for good measure. I didn’t really buy that any mother would desert her child like this, bearing in mind it is her daughter with the man she truly loves – nor that she would then rush off and jump in the sea, attempting suicide, although this does occur after Pete has refused her wishes to take the child and turned his back on her. It’s all very dramatic and enjoyable so you find yourself going with it – the fact that it goes further off the rails than expected is a good thing.

It’s a minor Hitchcock, an enjoyable watch with good characters and performances (although both Brisson and Keen overdo it a bit at times – the former occasionally metamorphosing into a gurning buffoon, the latter all doom and gloom and brooding eyebrows). You still feel, like some of the other silents, that the director is itching to get back to what he is good at. Within months of finishing ‘The Manxman’ Hitchcock would make his first bona fide classic and find himself simultaneously at the vanguard of the first great revolution of cinema: talking pictures…

Miscellaneous notes

Pete’s dialogue scene to Kate (him telling her he is off to foreign climes to make his fortune) is reminiscent of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ – she high up in her bedroom window, him down below professing his intentions and love, humourously and perilously perched on Phil’s shoulders.

There is a nice profile shot of Anny Ondra about half way through.

A modest wooden staircase in Pete’s house. Must try harder, although I guess tricky in a poor fishing village.

IMDb notes that the 24 year old Michael Powell is again, as he had been on ‘Champagne’, uncredited as a stills photographer.

Week 7: ‘Champagne’ – 1928

February 20, 2010

This is a funny little film, not bad, just a bit odd. Spoilt little rich girl Betty (Betty Balfour) lives it up around the world as her father Mark (Gordon Harker) disapproves from afar, he then feigning bankruptcy to bring her down to earth and back to him. The rather mysterious figure of ‘The Man’ (the grandly named Ferdinand von Alten) weaves his way throughout the plot also and it transpires he works for Daddy and is trailing around after Betty as protection in case any misfortunes should befall her.

The girl is introduced having flown in a private plane to meet her fella (‘The Boy’ played by Jean Bradin) who is having a holiday on a cruise ship. When we first meet Betty there is a nice visual joke – she attempting to clean her face of plane-soot before raising her goggles to reveal still present panda eyes but smiling regardless – a good and bold way to introduce a glamorous leading lady.

I like the way the characters are described so simply, a title card at the film’s opening naming them as ‘The Girl’, ‘The Boy’, ‘The Man’, The Father’.

The film has a rather seamy side to it. I’m always caught by surprise by how suggestive certain scenes are in these silent movies. When Betty goes to audition for a tooth commercial, it is clear that they’re only after her legs – one of the guys suggestively lifting her skirt with his foot.

Later, when she secures a job at a nightclub selling flowers and cigarettes, it is clearly some kind of brothel/escort venue – kissing rooms and a sweaty, hand-rubbing, pervy proprietor abound. Betty, upon spotting The Man in this nightclub (in a great dolly/crane shot), imagines his seedy intentions as he takes her into one of the kissing alcoves – before coming back to present reality. She has a great naivete about her and can’t resist living it up, even when she is supposed to be working. As The Boy sits staring at her she dances in her chair like a crazy person – observed from a distance by The Man. It did seem slightly dubious that The Boy was even in this questionable emporium of sin in the first place, he doesn’t know Betty is working there so why is he frequenting such a place himself?

Hitchcock keeps the champagne imagery pretty minimal, The Man observing Betty through his glass at the outset of the plot (he looking vaguely sinister) and then repeating this p.o.v. shot at the end (although it still feels pretty sinister even when his motivation is understood). It’s a good effect and obvious, but executed well. The Man has many, many close ups where he just eyes Betty up in a vaguely suggestive way, an eyebrow cheekily raised at all times, a wry smile on the edge of his mouth. Von Alten seems to have this one stock expression and goes for it every time – but it’s a good one so at least he’s ploughing a successful facial-furrow.

Hitchcock does a neat thing when Mark turns up unexpectedly at his daughter’s party – the camera adopting his p.o.v. as she approaches to kiss the camera in huge close-up, then cutting to Father doing the same to-camera kiss, tracking back to reveal it is him.

The humbled scenes (where The Father and Betty move in together in relative poverty) are really sweet – she meeting the challenge of looking after dad as he (falsely) hits hard times. She is baking up a storm with some inedible cookies, Father making his excuses and adjourning for a slap up meal attended by various groveling waiters.

I have to say that after his comedy turns in ‘The Ring’ and ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ (neither of which tickled me one iota) Gordon Harker is really good here, playing Betty’s father with just the right amount of love and disapproval. The repeated calling of all his staff by pressing all the call buttons on his desk is funny, them trooping in eager to help their irate boss. Once I realized he was the same guy who appeared in the earlier movies, I started to like him even more for his adaptability here – he has a really good face to play the severe father figure. His exercise routine as the family hit the skids, he in his pyjamas doing some pretty basic warm ups, is nicely done and a good comedy moment – not overplayed or hammy in this case.

Betty Balfour is good also – she’s not that attractive in the traditional leading lady sense, but has a real little-girl’s-dimpled-joy at moments throughout and is perfect as both the flighty party girl and the more serious devoted daughter when needs must.

There’s a really nice edit in the down-at-heel sequence when Betty is changing the bedsheets,  They flap towards the camera and Hitchcock does a match frame edit to a table cloth also filling the frame, then being laid on the breakfast table – neat, quick, simple and works really well. There’s also a neat moment when Betty is kneading bread – the flour clears to show a cruise liner advertisement and, above it, the tooth commercial. Betty looks wistful and realizes a way to get back to her indulgent lifestyle. We cut to footage of cruise ship dancing which then freezes, the camera dollying back to reveal the freeze as a photograph in a shop window, with Betty en route to her interview. It’s a good idea a bit clunkily executed, I suppose with the limitations of the technology at the time. The lilting of the cruise ship is also nicely done, resulting in The Boy’s seasick sojourn in bed. Hitchcock seems to mix moving, swaying sets with camera sways here – the actors all really good at conveying the motion of the ocean. The director also does a really good multi image of Betty from The Boy’s bed-ridden p.o.v. – again, simple but pretty cool.

‘Champagne’ has some nice moments and performances but it does feel – forgive the cliché – a bit bubbly and inconsequential.

Miscellaneous notes

The version I watched (on the el cheapo Mill Creek label) had some astonishingly random music – literally making no sense and being distracting to the plot. One of my notes says ‘whoever put this music on is either braindead or just didn’t care’ as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ blasts out inappropriately (the party scene at approx 21’00”).

Staircases galore here – very grand on the cruise liner, a smaller deco style one in the nightclub where Betty works.

Week 6: ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ – 1928

February 13, 2010

OK, this is the toughest one so far. The Hitchcock/Truffaut book listed the duration of ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ at 67 minutes. The DVD sleeve had it as 98 minutes. It actually lasted a mind-numbing 129 minutes (see misc. notes below) and I can honestly say that I felt each one of them crawling by in a seemingly never ending story that can be summarised as follows: widower farmer courts various local (totally inappropriate) spinsters, before realising (shock) that his housekeeper is perfect all the time. Marries her. Done. 21 words. My God, does this one drag on…

It’s not all bad and I’ll run through the plus points as there are good moments and scenes and performances. But I also have to relate some of the more dire scenes/dialogue/moments in this sometime aberration of a movie.

It’s so blindingly obvious that  Araminta Dench (Lilian Hall-Davis from ‘The Ring’, she seems to have grown a hyphen since 1927) is the perfect woman for Farmer Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) you feel like reaching into the screen and shaking the stupid clod for not realizing. He puts himself, and his audience, through such rampantly pointless scenes of no-potential love that you end up watching the background detail just to get through the whole thing. Araminta, for her part, unrequitedly loves/serves Sweetland and she is the character I felt the most empathy for throughout the film.

As we have come to expect, there is some beautiful photography in the film, country scenery and locations that make you yearn for a pastoral, timeless lifestyle.

This country idyll is slightly undermined by some of the titles which are phrased in what I would called the ‘oo-ar’ vernacular: ‘beer drinking don’t do ‘alf the ‘arm of lovemaking’ etc.

I have to comment on the titles, moreso than any of the previous movies there are some fairly astonishing ones that crop up:

‘Her back view is not a day over 30’ – ‘But you have to live with her front view’
‘I don’t mind they pillowy women…so long as they be pillowy in the right places’
‘A woman that’s a pillow at thirty be often a feather bed at forty!’
‘You’ll only feel the velvet glove and never know I was breaking you in’ (?! I assume this is a horse metaphor…)

And:

‘You are the first man who has accepted my sex challenge’

It does all give a sense of humour that helps drive it all along, even though the reappearance of the unfunny Gordon Harker (from ‘The Ring’) puts a damper on proceedings for me, hamming it up as Sweetland’s handyman Churdles Ash (his name is the funniest thing about him).

Apologies, Harker fans. On the plus side, he reminded me of Tom Waits in his professional drunk phase – which can only be a good thing. Churdles does deliver some great lines such as: ‘Holy Matrimony be a proper steam-roller for flattening the hope out of a man and the joy out of a woman’ but he’s overcooked ultimately.

It’s an episodic movie, Sweetland considering each of the three potential wives and going through the courting process with each, weighing them up like livestock before rejecting each in turn.  Jameson Thomas is very believable in this, as is Hall-Davis and I guess it’s maybe a social etiquette barrier as she is his servant that prevents him from instantly seeing how perfect she is. There’s a lovely moment after the guests leave his daughter’s wedding where he brushes confetti from his shoulder and remembers his own wedding, a great cut (@31’00”) as he turns to look at his own wedding photo, the camera then moving to an empty chair by the fireside…

Hitchcock is experimenting more with long takes and fluid camera work. The marriage of Sweetland’s daughter in the early stages sees the camera moving gracefully through the party in long-ish shots (which he will return to full force, and with mixed success, in the style experiments of ‘Rope’ and ‘Under Capricorn’). There is a nice sequence as Sweetland gets Araminta to list his possible wives (rub it in, why don’t you?) Hitchcock showing the chair by the fire with a dissolve to each of the prospective ladies appearing in it, a neat and succinct way of illustrating his intentions.

There’s a good, and funny, scene as Sweetland schmoozes his third choice (Mary Hearn, played by Olga Slade) at an afternoon tea party. The cottage gets ludicrously filled with people, including an infirm lady in a large wheelchair and four ‘glee’ singers who proceed to perform in the garden. Sweetland makes his intentions clear and there follows an escalating argument between the pair of them that results in an all out slanging match. ‘Is this a nightmare?’ she says, ‘your hat is’ he retorts. It reminded me a little of the crammed cabin scene in Sam Wood’s Marx Brothers’ classic ‘A Night at the Opera’.

On the pudding front, there’s a lovely visual thing with a jelly when Sweetland proposes to his second choice (‘Hang it, Thirza Tapper, I’m asking you to marry me!’) – the dessert wobbling nervously as she trembles before him.

Ms. Tapper needs to get herself a new maid as her current employee leaves everyone’s ice cream next to the fire: ‘How was I to know the ices would melt if I left them near the fire!’. Well…

All in all, even though it dragged, ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ is actually a very sweet film – just too long. Thomas and Hall-Davis are both very good and balance each other well, he with irrational male reckless energy, she patient and caring. I will have to get hold of the 100 minute version as people have noted this licks along at a much better pace. Maybe they lopped out Churdles Ash…

Miscellaneous notes

The 129 minute version I watched is the US release, the UK apparently runs 100 minutes. The sleeve of the DVD I have lists it as a 98 minute version, which is clearly wrong – they may well have sourced the UK version and the 2 minute difference may be a frame rate/conversion thing (from 30fps NTSC to 25fps PAL). There are sequences that look vaguely slo-mo’d throughout the transfer I watched which may also affect the running time. The Truffaut book’s listing of a 67 minute duration must just be a mistake.

There is a nice profile shot of Lilian Hall-Davis right near the end as she beam with happiness and Hitchcock even shoehorns a staircase into the farmhouse, well done!

Week 5: ‘The Ring’ – 1928

February 6, 2010

‘The Ring’ is a love triangle (or circle?) tale set against the backdrop of the boxing ring. As with ‘Easy Virtue’ it’s a bit off the track of what we nowadays associate Hitchcock with, but the 1920’s seemed to be a time when he explored different types of stories prior to settling on his personal favourite. ‘The Ring’ is a fairly interesting tale that is directed with a verve and inventiveness that outweighs the slightly slim story. It is pregnant with symbolism, but who could resist that with such a title?

The opening scene setting shots of the circus have a genuine verve about them – the camera on the lap of a woman swinging, then cutting to her p.o.v.; big c/u of announcer’s shouting mouth dissolving to a fairground game with match-framed big mouth; gunshots to camera as coconuts tumble. Fantastic.

The circular and ‘ring’ motifs abound aplenty, but it never feels too much (see the overcooked visual metaphors of ‘Downhill’). The opening image of a beating drum, the spinning merry-go-rounds, the ticket reel that Mabel (Lilian Hall Davis) sells from, the snake bracelet Bob Corby (Ian Hunter) gives her as he woos away from ‘One Round’ Jack (Carl Brisson) – all contribute to the visual imagery of life’s fickle wheel of fortune. (The snake bracelet an obvious Eden metaphor).

I liked the way that when Jack and Corby first box (Corby keeping secret that he is the champ of Australia) we experience some of the fight from outside of the circus tent – the score cards appearing to chart their progress (see miscellaneous notes below). The Round 1 card is tattered and overused, but Round 2 is pristine and new, clearly the nickname ‘One Round’ has been well earned.

After Corby steals Mabel, Jack starts his relentless quest to win her back by beating him in the ring. I couldn’t help feeling that all this effort on Jack’s part was slightly misguided. His girl seems to leave him with some alacrity in the early stages and you feel like saying to him ‘she’s not worth it, mate’ – but I guess that doesn’t make for great drama. He also seems to wander off without much of a fight and leave her with Corby in the first place –far too trusting. It makes the film feel a little hollow, as the main narrative thrust seems, to me, slightly unworthy.  Mabel also leaves Jack for Corby virtually at the wedding breakfast, further emphasising her flightiness.

At the same time, you have to feel an admiration for Jack. In the climactic fight with Corby (in the circular Royal Albert Hall), he gets repeatedly pummelled and knocked down and gets up over and over again, to the point that the girl rushes to his side and says she is in his corner now, this statement giving him the inspiration to finally beat his nemesis. I still wouldn’t trust her though.

Jack is clearly the character you feel the most sympathy with and his belligerent and grimly determined rise to challenge the champ is something to be admired. Hitchcock’s use of the boxing posters to illustrate his slow rise up the rankings is inspired, simple, direct and silent.

In fact, ‘The Ring’ is very sparing in its use of title cards and is all the better for it. Jack doesn’t seem at first to be the boxing sort, but Brisson plays the role well and by the end you’re convinced he has the moves and the muscularity to be a champion pugilist (in fact, Brisson actually worked as a prizefighter between 1912 and 1915).

The overall tone of the fairground where Jack and Mabel work illustrates the camaraderie that exists amongst the outsiders and circus freaks whose home it is, as well as a feeling that is vaguely sinister and suspicious of outsiders. It’s a good setting and allows for interesting symbolic scenes: the fortune teller with her circle of cards represents Jack as the Jack of Diamonds, Corby as the King of Hearts; all the circus freaks turning up at the wedding – good scenes and interesting to watch.

I found the comedy mugging of Gordon Harker as Jack’s trainer too much and really not in the least bit funny, but again this is probably just from a modern standpoint. The high standard of photography continues – the scene by the river with Jack and Mabel is absolutely beautiful, their faces reflecting in the water and then interrupted by the snake bracelet slipping off her arm and sploshing in.

Overall, ‘The Ring’ is a pretty fresh look at a pretty plain story, enlivened by enthusiastic performances and imaginative direction.

Miscellaneous notes

The title card that appears as Jack rises up the rankings is pretty amazing from today’s perspective: ‘if you win this next with the nigger, you’ll be in the running for the championship’. Wow. Bear in mind also that this is the sole Hitchcock movie where he writes completely on his own, but I guess it’s just a different era.

It has been said that ‘The Ring’ has influenced Martin Scorsese in the making of ‘Raging Bull’, particularly in the way Hitchcock cuts away to other visuals as the actual fights take place (particularly in the first Jack/Corby match, Corby eyeing Mabel as he lays into his opponent). This may be so, and Scorsese will doubtless have seen the film, but in most of the writing on ‘Raging Bull’ and  many interviews with Scorsese, he cites Powell and Pressburger’s ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ (1943) as a prime influence in this area – particularly the famous crane shot out of the skylight as Clive Candy and Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff begin to duel. Regardless, it is interesting to note these three filmmakers all choosing similar ways of presenting their tales.

One last thing on ‘Raging Bull’: as Corby steps into the ring to face Jack for the first time (@11’15”) he is surrounded by a swirling ring of smoke – it reminded me of the pause prior to Sugar Ray Robinson’s massive punch to an already demolished (and self destructive) Jake La Motta in their final fight from the 1981 classic. The scenes from both films preface a moment of great significance in each protagonists’s lives.

As with some of the other early Hitchcock’s, there are varying release dates by territory. In all cases, I am using the Hitchcock/Truffaut book as a guide to the chronology.