Archive for March, 2010

Week 13: ‘Rich and Strange’ – 1931

March 31, 2010

This is another rather small film – but it does travel the world extensively. Fred Hill (Henry Kendall) finds himself frustrated by the repetitiveness of his humdrum commuter life and yearns for adventure. His wife Emily (Joan Barry, the voice talent who dubbed Anny Ondra in ‘Blackmail’) is more content but dutifully goes along with her husband. They secure an advance on an inheritance and embark on a series of misadventures around the globe before near disaster strikes with both of them close to being drowned, ultimately returning home to their normal lives all the happier and relieved to fall back into their previous routine. It’s a travelogue movie and pretty enjoyable on the way through, as a journey should be.

The depiction of Fred’s tedious life at the opening of the film is very slickly handled – fast paced music matched nicely to a single shot going from an accounts ledger, pulling back to reveal an office – 6 o’clock and everyone’s out the door in a flash. Umbrellas, a crowded tube train, people jostling for position, Fred having an incident with his newspaper and reading a small ad: ‘are you satisfied with your present circumstances?’ Fred is right royally hacked off with the whole thing, and his umbrella is broken, goddammit. The whole opening plays like a silent movie, and is really well executed.

The film title is established clearly as a quote from ‘The Tempest’ when they receive the inheritance letter:

(“Full fathom five thy father lies, / Of his bones are coral made, / Those are pearls that were his eyes: / Nothing of him that doth fade, / But…)

…Doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.” (only this latter part is featured onscreen, which simplifies the quote but doesn’t make it necessarily easier to understand – I’m not sure you ‘get’ the quote without its full context).

There are lots of examples of Hitchcock playing with visuals thoughout the film, and many of them are very good. Fred tries to take a holiday snap of Emily when they first set sail, but is thwarted by the rollicking sea – we see his p.o.v. through the camera as the ship sways uncontrollably.

Later, the inebriated Fred attempts to set his watch to the rotating hands of a lift’s floor guide, getting himself very discombobulated in the process.

Elsewhere, as Fred lies stricken with sea-sickness, he looks at the on-board menu and the fare drifts out at him in a rather surreal, but effective, way – ‘pea soup’, ‘boiled leg of pork’ ‘lobster mayonnaise’ float by in a potential puke-inducing manner.

Fred and Emily’s first experience of foreign life is in Paris and Hitchcock does a lovely montage sequence where we see their faces jump cutting left to right of frame and intercut with all the exciting sights they are seeing. It’s a really fun and clever way to communicate their bedazzlement with the whole experience. Later, at her lowest ebb after Fred has gone on his dalliance with the Princess (Betty Amann), Emily looks out of the hotel window and two vertical black bars are shown prison-like across the idyllic scene.

She then receives a letter from Commander Gordon (her prospective beau, played by Percy Marmont who will later appear in both ‘Young and Innocent’ and ‘Secret Agent’) who respects her decision to stick by Fred – Emily’s eyes misting over and the image blurring as she is overcome by emotion.

I didn’t quite buy the fact that both of them would quite so easily be tempted away from each other with potential extra-curricular relationships, it all seems to happen very quickly and they’re both equally guilty of salacious eye-wandering. It’s obviously all part of their experience of potential new lives, and giving in to the temptation of possibility, but even on their first trip ashore the (fake) Princess is walking arm in arm with Fred with only a slight look of regret from Emily who is quickly distracted by her Commander.  Said Commander is very slick and charming and the Princess very exotic and duskily alluring (her brunette locks contrasting with the blonde Emily). Fred and Emily are so naïve they very nearly fall prey to these two temptors– Fred especially being led by mini-Fred and at one point togged up at the ship’s carnival like Elvis in ‘Harem Holiday’ and gratefully succumbing to the Princess’s comely curves.

There’s a slightly clumsy, but pretty good, scene when the two new couples are in rickshaws and get locked together in heavy traffic, neither able to advance or retreat and trapped together, bumping around suggestively.

It’s interesting that, even though this is a fully-fledged talkie, the film often uses caption cards to move the action on and add to the narrative coherence:

‘To get to Paris you have to cross the Channel

‘To get to the Folies Bergere you have to cross Paris’

‘And to get to your room you have to cross the hotel lounge’

Later, these cards become destination place holders: Marseilles/Suez canal/Columbo. The cards are a neat way of charting their journey although it’s a little surprising Hitchcock doesn’t come up with a more inventive way of doing this (eg. the rather clichéd stickers-on-a-suitcase idea), rather than just white on black captions. The most bizarre of these cards is when the husband finally emerges from his sickness-stupor and emerges on deck with the caption ‘Fred’ (as if we didn’t know), followed shortly after by his first meeting with the Princess which is clarified rather clumsily by the caption ‘Fred had met a Princess!’ It’s almost like the plot wasn’t making total sense and Hitchcock wants to really spell it out for everyone, clunky though it is. He then does this again with further ‘Fred’ and ‘The Princess’ cards as they meet once again (I was starting to feel a bit spoonfed by this point, I have to say).

The closing section of the film is well done, their returning-to-home steamer scuttled and the pair of them seemingly bound for death. As the sea rises outside their porthole their exit is blocked, the lights dim and water appears under the door as they are thrown together and forgive each other – resigned as they are to an almost certain demise. The running gag of the cat (Fred disdaining it at the start of the film in their flat) comes to the fore here as they are saved by a passing Chinese junk, who then proceed to cook them some badly needed sustenance only for them to see the ship’s cat’s skin stretched out to dry in the sun – much to their distaste and horror as they heave towards the side of the boat.

When they finally arrive safely home, Fred is a bit more gentle to their own cat, lifting it from the table rather than shooing it away in annoyance as he did earlier. The Chinese junk sequence features a strange part wherein one of the oriental sailors gets entangled in a rope and drowns, while his shipmates fixedly stare with no attempt to save him – very bizarre, and I don’t really understand what precisely is going on here*.

‘Rich and Strange’ is the most out and out ‘comedy’ Hitchcock had made up to this point and does illustrate his skill at visual gags – the story rife with opportunity for this kind of business (the later ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ delves into straight comedy also, as does the bizarre ‘The Trouble with Harry’). I really enjoyed it as a light piece of fluff entertainment and for its interesting take on the inevitable repetition of married life and the urge to escape, only to be taught how valuable and fragile the whole thing is. The intercutting of obvious stock footage is ok (although some shots are more glaringly obvious than others, particularly the more grainy stuff) and the pace is kept up throughout. It also has a central moral that, although a little clichéd (there’s no place like home), is refreshingly handled and good fun. It helps enormously that his two stars are adept at both the comedic and the poignant.

Miscellaneous notes

Hitchcock loves a slightly batty, bespectacled middle/old age female and a good one pops up at about 17 minutes in. In this case, she’s an eccentric spinster (played by Elsie Randolph) who schmoozes around the Commander and Fred and any other male cluelessly. She’s a recurring motif for the lonely and, although overcooked at times, is fairly amusing.

The version I watched was the US release running at 83 minutes. In the UK this ran 10 minutes longer – personally I don’t think it needs to as it seemed lean and pacey as it was.

*I had this insightful comment sent in from Steve Sullivan which throws some light on what is occurring in this scene:

I don’t know if you’ll ever see this, but re your puzzlement at the ‘strange part’ in the Chinese junk sequence where its crew watches one of its own drown while entangled in a rope: “very bizarre, and I don’t really understand what precisely is going on here.”

Hitchcock is referencing the widespread belief at the time that the Chinese do not value human life the way Westerners do; that they are capable to allowing people to die in utter indifference. You will find this indifference depicted in popular literature, such as Tai-Pan by James Clavell and even novels by Chinese writers, such as Moment in Peking by Lin Yutang…

Thanks Steve – we live and learn…

Week 12: ‘The Skin Game’ – 1931

March 27, 2010

‘The Skin Game’ feels a little bit of a backwards step after the exploratory and innovative ‘Murder!’ from the previous year. It’s a rather slight story and partly returns to the ill-advised theatricality of ‘Juno and the Paycock’ (God help us). As such, there are scenes that feel rather stagey and see Hitchcock struggling to inject some style and technique into the whole enterprise.

It concerns two warring neighbour families, the well-to-do land owning traditionalist Hillchrists and the upstart, nouveau-riche factory- and land-grabbing Hornblowers. Each family is led by a strong male, Mr. Hillchrist played by C.V. France, Mr. Hornblower played by the venerable (and very good) Edmund Gwenn (who would go on to appear in another three Hitchcocks and win an Academy Award for his portrayal of Kris Kringle in the 1947 version of ‘Miracle on 34th Street’). The main beef is over property – Hornblower wanting to buy a tract of land neighbouring the Hillchrists in readiness to build a new factory. Things get messy when Hornblower triumphs at a land auction and Mrs. Hillchrist (Helen Haye) decides to blackmail him, using Chloe Hornblower, (the daughter-in-law with the secret prostitute past, played by Phyliss Konstam), as a weapon to attempt to get the land back. Evil mum is a nasty, snooty piece of work and blackmails Hornblower by threatening to ruinously reveal the secret if he doesn’t sell the land back to the Hillchrists at a much reduced price.

The hints at the daughter-in-law’s dubious past start at the auction, as Hitchcock brings up a series of zooming male faces half mixed into the auction footage, somewhat incongruous with the rest of the film as it feels like he’s doing it to get some magic into the whole thing – it doesn’t seem to fit in this otherwise rather conventionally told tale.

Edmund Gwenn is great throughout – he has a bulldog’s determination not to be put off or spoken down to, and an upstart’s aggression to achieve what he wants. His first featured meeting with Hillchrist starts with him being affable, friendly and with a casualness that is in contrast to the bristling anger of Hillchrist. Hornblower plays with coins throughout the scene, money being his key into this new world. Gwenn has great body language as his new found wealth gives him confidence in the presence of old school money, plonking himself down in a plush chair in contrast to Hillchrist’s stiff backed upright wooden seat.

At the end of this scene Hillchrist snubs Hornblower by refusing to shake his hand and the skin game is on – ‘I mean business’ says Hornblower, stomping out of the old house which is rapidly being surrounded by his growing empire.

The auction scene is by for the most exciting in the film. The tract of land they’re all after is introduced by a foreman guy who literally cannot be heard – an odd device but interesting experimentation with the audio here (although it could be construed as a mistake). We are told the price should hit around £6,000 but it escalates more and rapidly to eventually hit £9,500. Hitchcock has a fieldday of whipping and panning, rapidly cutting between the bidders largely from the auctioneers p.o.v..

It’s tremendous, and tremendously exciting. Hornblower wins out to the anger of the Hillchrists who shortly after find out the shocking truth of the Hornblower daughter-in-law and start their dirty tricks campaign.

The camera movement throughout the feature is much more polished than we have seen in previous movies, fluid camera dollies and tracks occuring regularly. Speaking with passion to his daughter, Hillchrist looks out on the land where he, his father and his grandfather were born, and we see a view of the land he will not give up ‘without a fight’. The pastoral country view is then revealed to be a printed poster, in a camera move that is way ahead of the good-idea-but-clunky similar one from ‘Champagne’ (preceding the job interview sequence in that movie). Hornblower stands by the poster laughing with two of his mates.

This is beautifully done and thought out and a really effective way of contrasting the old school Hillchrist and the lively, irreverent Hornblower. This camera move then continues and turns into a lovely long track down the busy town road (I do believe you can actually see the tracks buried in the ground) – graceful and interesting with a motorbike and sidecar appearing and lots of people milling about. All really nicely orchestrated and slick.

The contrast between the country and the city is nicely handled throughout with wipes from pastoral scenes to smoking factories and an early scene with Rolf Hornblower (Frank Lawton) driving his big shiny car chatting to the horse-riding Jill Hillchrist  (played by Jill Esmond. See misc notes below). There is a suggestion of romance between them also, much to the consternation of Mrs. Hillchrist who will not tolerate such potential in-breeding.

The Hornblower’s fragile daughter, Chloe, ultimately becomes the victim of the fathers’ disagreements – the blackmail resulting in her suicide by drowning. She is pregnant and thus, in Hornblower’s words: ‘you’ve killed my grandchild’. Throughout the film she is portrayed as a weak link and it is therefore fitting that Mrs. Hillchrist, the devious cow, should go for her as a soft spot in the aggressive Hornblower’s armour. This evil matriarch (precursor of so many Hitch mums), for all her family’s proper behaviour and old school tradition, doesn’t hesitate to blackmail Hornblower to secure the tract of land be signed over to them, the swine that she is.

By the by, when Hornblower gently asks Chloe regarding her past, the two of them and brother Rolf (Frank Lawton)  are grouped around a vase that has some suspicious looking flowers pointing in all directions – very much suggesting they are hiding microphones for the three actors.

This scene also is reminiscent of the improvisatory feel of some of the scenes in ‘Murder!’, the actors’ dialogue bumping into each other occasionally, Chloe coughing to Rolf’s cigarette and him apologizing and moving it away.

Following  the suicide and near destruction of both families, the closing dialogue intoned by Hillchrist himself, sitting shocked in his grand old house, sums it up in a poignant manner: ‘What is it that gets loose when you start a fight, and makes you what you think you’re not? Begin as you may, it ends in this skin game! Skin game! When we began this fight, we’d clean hands. Are they clean now? What’s gentility worth if it can’t stand fire?’ The closing image, the felling of a large old tree, signifies the inevitable passing of a pastoral innocence and the slow, relentless march of industrial progress.

‘The Skin Game’ is a little movie, but a good theme well acted and well told. It does seem stagey at times, and a little clumsy, but the performances give it a weight beyond the script’s limitations and there are some fine moments of creative direction that are to be admired.

Miscellaneous notes

There is a bizarre occurrence at just over 3 minutes in – Rolf Hornblower, one of the sons, drives away left to right after his conversation with Jill but, as a dissolve transition begins to the following scene, the frame jump cuts from right to left and then dissolves. It must have been a lab printing mistake when they produced the dissolve – very bizarre for it to have made it into the final film.

It’s always interesting to watch the technical way that picture dissolves were done historically (a dissolve being a controlled double exposure from one image to another). The shots to be dissolved from/to have been sent to the lab and processed from the exact start of the dissolve to the end – what you therefore get is a kick in the image as it starts the dissolve and then another when it ends, and a generation or two lost (so the quality suffers slightly). Viewing later dissolves, in movies of the  late 1950’s and onwards, the technicians had worked out that if the whole shot from the previous cut to the following cut was processed you avoid this kicking effect – but you do notice in these movies a slight loss of quality as it would also have to go down one or two generations in the processing procedure. Today, this is all history with the advent of digital technology.

Week 11: ‘Murder!’-1930

March 20, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock movies very often have great titles, and this is a really good one: simple, direct and enticing – and with an exclamation mark!*. ‘Murder!’ is a really good little thriller with the director once again flexing his considerable imagination after the misfire of ‘Juno and the Paycock’. The film gives him the freedom to really go to town with a whole variety of innovations – some of them successful, some of them weird: but all of them to be absolutely admired.

The narrative concerns an actress, Diana Baring (played by Norah Baring), wrongly accused and convicted of murder. One of the jurors – the theatrical impresario/famed actor Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) – then has second thoughts and follows up with his own investigation. Will he uncover the truth before she goes to the gallows?

The movie is brim full of interesting moments, they almost eclipse the story and certainly at times distract you from the action. The opening blood-curdling scream, signifying the titular murder, sets a fast pace. A neighbour cannot be understood until he puts his false teeth in, suddenly becoming intelligible as he and his wife get dressed to investigate (the arch-voyeur director lingering on the wife as she struggles into her clothes) – and elsewhere Hitchcock experiments with other playful sound games. When the police are interviewing actors backstage the scene has intricate timing: rapid overlapping of the cop’s questions, the actors coming and going from the stage delivering their lines, a guy grabbing coconuts to create horse sound effects…it’s like the director is demystifying the whole process and showing the mechanics of creating any performance. It’s brilliant.

As the jurors repair to their room for deliberation after the (very short) trial scene, it comes down to Sir John as the last defender of the accused Diana Baring. He is gradually ganged up on by the other jury members until they gather close around him and deliver their dialogue rapidly in an almost songlike manner:

Juror #1: ‘Says they were alone’
Juror #2: ‘Says they quarelled’
Juror #3: ‘Admits it’
Juror #4: ‘That’s right’
All of them in chorus: ‘Any answer to that Sir John?’

This happens a few times (each ending with the ‘any answer to that , Sir John?’ line) until the beleagured Sir John caves in, the camera slow zooming towards him as he defeatedly changes his verdict to guilty. The verdict is then heard offscreen as a cleaner tidies and dusts the room…

To further his investigation, Sir John arranges a meeting with a couple of Miss Baring’s fellow actors, Ted and Doucie Markham (played by Edward Chapman and Phyliss Konstam). When Ted enters the study Hitchcock uses a very odd device. To suggest Ted’s nervousness at meeting such a famous actor and personal hero, Hitchcock makes Sir John’s plush carpet ridiculously squishy – it looks like they’re walking on a carpet over a load of pillows (which may be how he achieved this effect).

It’s a very bold idea and undeniably a bit clunky but you have to admire his thinking and ingenuity**. Sir John also appears way away in the distance, suggesting Ted’s impression of the size of Sir John’s quarters (we had previously seen the Markhams’ humble abode – crammed into one little room with their daughter banging away on the piano as they talk).

Yes, it’s crude and weird but again you have to admire his ambition, his thought, his nerve, his creativity and plain old cojones to try all this stuff.

Herbert Marshall is a good actor and has just the right amount of gravitas in his role as Sir John (he’s great also in ‘Foreign Correspondent’ from 1940). He does a lovely bit of business when he sits with the Markhams for lunch and they pick up the incorrect spoon with which to drink their soup. So as not to upset him and put them to any shame, Sir John uses the same small spoon himself. It’s a lovely moment and one that expresses Sir John’s equanimity and lack of snobbery.

Boldly, Hitchcock plays around with improvisation in certain scenes, notably the conversation between Sir John and his butler where they jumble their lines and interrupt each other, then apologise and continue. It doesn’t always work but you have to admire him for giving it a go. He also plays with live sound in various places – when Sir John is shaving @ 33’00” Hitchcock has a radio announcer speaking live offscreen and then the butler comes in with a drink and they chat  – the mix is slightly off and the dialogue slightly lost but again, what a bold thing to try out. We also hear Sir John’s inner thoughts about the trial and Baring’s innocence – fantastically inventive and clever ideas to tell a story, Marshall superb at conveying Sir John’s caring and sincerity.

The scene with Sir John visiting Baring in jail is heavily stylized – the film match cutting between them as they sit at opposite ends of a long wooden table, panning fast to Sir John as she lets slip that the potential guilty party is in fact a half caste: ‘black blood?’ says Sir John, shocked. When he leaves, the shadow of the gallows rises up Baring’s cell wall.

The true villain, Handel Fane (Esme Percy) is entrapped by Sir John by reading a newly written script – until they hit a blank page. Sir John asks him to carry on the story. Hitchcock cutting to a dramatic high shot – Fane has to leave the room as he knows he has been rumbled, and so he leaves, oh so slowly, like a death march…

The climax of the film has Fane, the cross-dressing precursor of ‘Psycho’s Norman Bates, swinging high on the trapeze before fashioning a noose and jumping to his death in front of the circus crowd.

It’s exciting, daring, shocking and fabulous. Fane has left Sir John with the now completed script which explains (very neatly, thank you) how he committed the murder and disguised his actions.

‘Murder!’ is a tremendous little film – it’s full of attempts at pushing style and technique and exploring new ways to present scenes to the audience. It’s a film that plays with identity and disguise and prefigures many of the director’s later obsessions. Hitchcock uses sound and perception to lead the characters in the wrong direction and a hero to step in and see that true justice is done. It doesn’t always succeed but as the saying goes ‘it’s better to miss Naples than hit Margate’.

Miscellaneous notes

*used in the days when exclamation marks weren’t de rigeur in every sentence of every email or text message (don’t get me started!)

**in the otherwise very enjoyable Paul Merton documentary ‘Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock’, he describes this scene as ‘disastrous’. Not being funny, but it seemed pretty obvious to me what the director was trying to convey – it’s such an odd device that it has to have been thought through. Mr. Merton also points to the exit of Fane as taking ages, which it does, but again I would say this is perfectly intentional to suggest Fane attempting to keep his head in front of his inquisitors. Rather than dashing from the room in panic, he overdoes the coolness and takes his time in a very theatrical manner (as you would expect of an actor’s exit).

I watched the U.S. version, clocking in at 92 minutes. The U.K. one runs at 104 minutes and features a ‘howling baby’ scene which again experiments with sound, see various online chats in regards to this (IMDb as an example).

Week 10: ‘Juno and the Paycock’ – 1930

March 14, 2010

I found this one a struggle to be honest, and at times felt I was just listening to various ‘oirish’ types yabbing on about stuff I didn’t really understand. It’s based on a Sean O’Casey play and therefore can be forgiven its stagey feel, but it’s still overlong and in need of some increase in pace and shortening of scenes. I noted whilst watching it that ‘this is the toughest one so far’, beating the previous toughest ‘The Farmer’s Wife’…

The opening scene of the film is an attempt to open it up from the bulk of the narrative, which is largely one-room centric. We see a rabble-rousing orator (the great Barry Fitzgerald, who will go on to be a John Ford stalwart) soap-boxing to the masses, a lovely crane move upwards revealing a ‘Parnell Street, Dublin’ arrowed sign that points directly at him (*see misc. notes below).

The orator is cut down by machine gun fire, the crowd hastily dispersing into the nearest pub – the landlord immediately stacking up the glasses in readiness for a brisk trade. This is a rare time in the film where it actually features any exteriors or action. There follows a lengthy, one take dialogue scene between ‘Captain’ Jack Boyle (Edward Chapman) and his drinking ‘butty’ ‘Joxer’ Daly (Sidney Morgan) as they discuss the troubles.

This is very typical of the film: long takes of theatre style dialogue with minimal camera moves – it feels like Hitchcock has had his wings clipped throughout, which has to have been frustrating just as he was getting more mobile with the camera. Also worth bearing in mind that with the limitations of live sound recording – the camera had to be encased in a large sound-proofed box to prevent its  noise appearing on the soundtrack – he would have also been severely limited in its mobility. With ‘Blackmail’ being largely post-synched this wouldn’t have been so much of an issue.

The narrative centres on The Boyle family who are told they are to inherit a goodly sum of money and promptly proceed to start popping the corks while the grapes are still on the vine. They buy new furniture and borrow from their neighbours, then start to get all a bit hoity-toity and ditching their working class friends before finally realizing there’s actually no cash coming to them. The whole thing ultimately unravels in despair, debt and death. It’s a comedy.

A large saving grace to the film is the very great John Laurie. He plays a rather shadowy figure called Johnny who has fought in the War of Independence, betrayed one of his compatriots and has had an arm blown off for his trouble. He lurks hiding in the spare bedroom at his parents’ place. When he appears, and for me it’s not often enough, the film lifts – his performance is poignant, sad, moving and powerful. There is a moment in ‘Juno and the Paycock’ where Johnny listens to the new gramophone and looks up at a statue of a Madonna and child and suddenly, from a scene that started being endless and irritating, his acting makes it really quite moving.

He emits a feeling of haunted fear that is quite at odds with some of the more broad acting from the others – and the film is all the more tolerable for his appearances. What is strange is that none of the other characters seem to notice how at odds his mood and expressions are, they’re busy drinking and mourning and singing and crapping on about God knows what and he’s in the middle of it all looking deadly serious and full of impending doom (captain)  – ‘why does no-one notice? He’s like a needle in a bowl of noodles’ my notes note. There is a lovely camera track to him as his family get the good money news and he gazes towards the window, hearing gunshots signifying his destiny of doom.

‘Remember your oath’
‘Haven’t I done enough for Ireland?’
‘No man can ever do enough for Ireland’

There is a strong undercurrent of Irish politics running through the film, Johnny in hiding from his misdemeanours and (offscreen) troubles are heard on the soundtrack and referred to.  The film is also steeped in the kind of fervent religiosity you would expect from such an Irish subject – much hailing of Mary, general gnashing of teeth and rather clichéd Irish over-drinking – as soon as da(d) hears about the (mythical) inheritance he starts glugging his way through it. There are times when I had trouble deciphering what they were talking about, due in part to the quality of the sound recording, but also the broadness of the brogue.

‘Juno and the Paycock’ seemed more than any of the Hitchcock’s I have viewed to suffer from being very much of its time and I felt it had to be watched with a great deal of patience. There are scenes that, from a modern perspective, way outstay their welcome. There is a whole bit of business regarding dad not wanting to eat his breakfast that just goes on and on until you want to step in and forcefeed the old fella, he also later having some ‘comedy business’ involving his trousers that irritated the patience out of me too. It’s the kind of thing that onstage would work with a live audience laughing along, but onscreen it all falls a bit flat. There is a scene about 50 minutes in where the visiting local chatterbox, Maisie Madigan (Maire O’Neill) is banging on about Lord-knows-what and the camera shows everyone else in the room just looking bored as it pans across them all, this  is actually quite funny as the characters share our opinion of her endless chatter.

Juno then starts singing some dolefully mordant and endless dirge and is then joined by all the others who take turns with a tune…at this point in my notes I just write ‘God help us, what is this film??’ It’s meant to be moving, soulful and elegiac but I’m afraid just comes across as dull and interminable. Later they all start singing along to the gramophone and this goes on for a while until Johnny (God bless him) tells them to stop – finally someone sensible. To be fair, the depiction of a more innocent time with simple entertainments is quite charming, but it all feels very laboured and in need of a bit more pace.

The film finally comes to a vaguely interesting conclusion: Johnny is dragged off by his former comrades and shot to death, the Boyle daughter pregnant by the lawyer Charles Bentham (John Longden) who then flees away back to England. She is then rejected by her original fella who can stomach anything and forgive her – barring her impending motherhood. The hoped-for inheritance never materializes but in the meantime dad has pished away tons of punts on booze, the furniture mercilessly hauled away in payment for all his debts – and poor old Irish mother Juno (Sara Allgood) on her knees praying to Mary.

I’m sorry, but of all the Hitchcock’s I’ve watched, I really rather hated ‘Juno and the Paycock’ and felt it was – a cliché I know – two hours of my life I will never get back. Even the occasionally mind-numbing ‘The Farmer’s Wife’ had its heart in the right place. ‘Juno’ on the other hand doesn’t know it’s arras from its elbow. Watch it for John Laurie only, otherwise either iron those socks or gaze at your shoe for 96 minutes.

Miscellaneous notes

*This camera move reminded me of the opening of Martin Scorsese’s ‘New York, New York’ as Robert De Niro is lost in the celebrating VE Day crowd as the camera cranes upwards – only to be pointed out by a close-to-camera neon arrow picking him out amongst the partying throng.

John Laurie is obviously best known for his role as Private Frazer from ‘Dad’s Army’ but his career going back to the ‘30’s is rich and astonishing. He appears in Hitchcock’s ‘The 39 Steps’ and then the Michael Powell classics ‘The Edge of the World’, ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ and ‘”I Know Where I’m Going!”’, as well as appearing in movies by Laurence Olivier and David Lean. In all his work, he has that dread-full gaze of seriousness married to a gravitas that avoids being hammy. He’s fantastic.

The version I watched was, joyously, the UK one clocking in at 96 minutes. There is a US edit running at 85.

Week 9: ‘Blackmail’ – 1929

March 6, 2010

‘Blackmail’ signals the start of classic Hitchcock, following the dry run of the earlier – mostly successful – ‘The Lodger’. The action starts fast, and there is an immediate and urgent pace to the film throughout. A full frame spinning police car wheel is the first image we see and we’re straight into the action as Detective Frank Webber (John Longden, who will go on to appear in a further four Hitchcock’s) and his partner go to arrest a typically slime-ballish villainous type, guv.

The pace is continued as Frank takes his blonde girlfriend Alice White (Anny Ondra, from ‘The Manxman’) out for the evening – she eventually leaving with another man after a minor tiff with Frank. The other man is simply called ‘The Artist’ (Cyril Ritchard) – although eventual blackmailer Tracy (Donald Calthorp) calls him what sounds like ‘Mr. Crew’ in the early scenes, as does his landlady when filing her police report. Attempted rape and bloody murder occur (both offscreen, discretely behind a curtain) and the plot thickens as the fled Alice leaves a glove behind, Frank finding it as he starts the police investigation. Recognizing the glove as Alice’s (she had mislaid it in the earlier restaurant scene, he had retrieved it) Frank proceeds to pocket it in order to cover up for her – leading to the titular blackmail at the hands of the scurrilous Tracy, who has found the other glove and is out for a quick buck. There is some relationship between Tracy and The Artist, clearly the latter is not all squeaky clean even though he states of Tracy: ‘that chap’s nothing but a sponger – always pestering people up and down the street’. Remove thy plank, Artist. By the way, Cyril Ritchard must have had some painting training as he produces a pretty impressive line art rendition of a naked girl live on camera when flirting with Alice prior to the murder. He also seems to genuinely be playing the piano shortly afterwards – what a talented chap.

There is a great use of fluid camera movements and some neat visual trickery – the early scene as Frank and his co-cop enter the guy’s bedroom features a neat dolly move to a mirror so the guy can spot them before he lowers his newspaper. Good dramatic lighting here also as the two policemen gaze at him as he is thinking whether to go for his gun.

As crook-man is fingerprinted (a dissolve from his face to a full frame thumbprint suggesting this is what he has been reduced to), there is another lovely dolly move back to reveal the process.

The best camera move, however, is the dolly forward as the attempted rape is occurring – the camera closing in on the knife as Alice’s hand clutches at it from behind the curtain.

Anny Ondra does some great acting after the murder – she’s almost robotic in her movements as she tries to figure out what to do next. Very believable in her representation of shock as she walks the streets at night, surrounded by bustling strangers and seeing The Artist’s dead arm everywhere she looks – and knives appearing on neon lit cocktail signs.

When she gets home in the morning, sneaking into bed just before mum brings her a cuppa, she is also great – Ondra giving a very real sense of how a young girl would feel after such a traumatic event. She is about to make a phone call to Frank but can’t face it,  Hitchcock establishing that the phone booth in the shop is sound-proofed by blocking out the chatter of a local gossip (this will come to the fore later when Frank quizzes her in the same booth for privacy – great use of sound, silence and secrecy). Talking of phones, the post-murder telephone conversation as The Artist’s landlady calls the police is interesting also – the landlady to frame top left but mostly out of shot barring the telephone, the policeman bottom right, just the back of his head visible. No cross cutting here – the director just combines them both into the same frame in an elegant and simple device.

He also does a nice ‘zoom through the mouthpiece’ trick shot at Scotland Yard to get through to the mugshot books in their search for Tracy.

Alice’s abandoned phone call is followed by one of the greatest moments in the film, and in the entire Hitchcock canon. Most directors would be happy to be able to use sound in any capacity, just happy to make the new technology work. What does he do? The gossipy woman is rambling on about the choice of murder weapon and Hitchcock fades all her chat bar the word ‘knife’ – pan to c/u of Alice as she goes to cut the bread, the tension rising, the ‘knife’ word piercing until she jumps and it falls to the floor. Really, really great.

Tracy is a good baddie, Calthorp playing him as a swaggeringly confident wannabee-sophisticate as he takes his time choosing the most expensive cigar in the shop, then slowly revealing his dastardly plans to Frank and Alice. He coolly helps himself to a nice cooked breakfast, whistling his way through eggs and bacon and tea whilst wheedling cash out of them. Of course, when it all turns bad he’s as cowardly as a cold bowl of custard and very rapidly loses it – but Calthorp is just as good as portraying this side of Tracy: sweaty, unshaven and weasely.

There are some great ‘staircase movements’ throughout the film. A nice shot as Alice enters the Artist’s place – her p.o.v. up the stairs anticipating what may occur in his studio. This is wildly surpassed by the superb vertical crane move upwards as the pair of them go up to his place. This wonderful move is innovative, imaginative and fantastic. And then Hitchcock tops himself by doing one of his great ‘camera above the staircase’ shots as Alice leaves the murder scene (it’s exactly like ‘Vertigo’ without the stretch effect). Absolutely wonderful stuff.

Soundwise, it’s very interesting. The film was apparently shot mute and, with the advances in audio technology at the time, post-synched. Some door clunks and sound effects are added to begin with and then dialogue starts as Frank and his partner walk through the police station – very impressive. Anny Ondra was dubbed by the English actress Joan Barry (who will later star in ‘Rich and Strange’) as she was German and too strongly accented – it’s all pretty crude but impressive, Barry’s voice being perhaps a little posh for the daughter of a London small shopkeeper.

The film’s denouement, the celebrated ‘British Museum chase’, is still, 80 years later, an impressive set piece. Tracy darts in as he is cornered by the chasing cops, pausing rather curiously to have a drink of water, and the chase commences against a backdrop of impassive statues and ancient relics, intercutting with increasing rapidity to Alice awaiting news.

Tracy’s eventual falling through the glass domed roof is a great end to a nasty piece of work, and you feel no sympathy.

Lest we feel any umbrage against Alice, she has already drafted a letter saying she is going to give herself up. When she rises from her writing desk the shadow of her window falls across her neck and she stands stock still and steady, awaiting the inevitable gallows.

At New Scotland Yard, Frank takes over her statement from his boss and she tells him it was in self-defence, they walk away together…but their hands slip apart. The final laughing between Frank and his jolly colleague is not shared by Alice, who gazes at the laughing jester painting from Crew’s studio as it is taken away – can she ever live with what has happened and hold all the guilt inside…

The finale British Museum setpiece stands amongst the very best of Hitchcock, the use of classic famous locations against which the transitory problems of man seem small and petty. I cannot recommend ‘Blackmail’ highly enough.

Miscellaneous notes

Anyone familiar with Hitchcock’s later work will have seen his tendency to use back and rear projection systems – the vast majority of it, even on the later movies, very creaky and glaringly obvious. The opening shots of the flying squad dashing to capture the crook, are the first time I have noticed rear projection in his films – the police wagon being jiggled around fairly convincingly. Ultimately though, these sequences (and they will become a big bug bear to me) are sometimes laughingly bad and actually become quite distracting. More on this in later weeks and months.

Hitchcock’s personal appearance pops up at about 10’30” in – aboard an Underground train being hassled by a small boy yanking at his hat.

Various profile shots of Anny Ondra, particularly in the later scenes when she goes to confess.