Archive for May, 2010

Week 22: ‘Jamaica Inn’ – 1939

May 29, 2010



This is a pretty odd one – it’s slick, professional and well performed but feels ultimately a bit clunky and fumbled. The root of the problem, to me, seems to be Charles Laughton – who appears to be acting in another movie throughout and is sort of at odds with the story and the rest of the cast. Laughton, and his company Mayflower Films, was one of the producers – which is often a recipe for disaster (or at least alarm bells) when cocktailed with a strong director (see Anthony Mann’s sacking from ‘Spartacus’ by Kirk Douglas as an example).

It’s 1820’s Cornwall (very radioactive Cornwall is, by the way) and the locals are scuttling ships on their coastline and sacking them for loot whilst bumping off any crew members who may survive the scuttling. Laughton plays Sir Humphrey Pengallen (even the name overcooks it a bit) who is  not only the local magistrate but also the criminal mastermind and main fence of all the booty. He’s a big pompous posh oaf who klutzes his way around the place being stuck up whilst simultaneously being an accomplice to murder and piracy and general shenanigans.

Maureen O’Hara (playing the recently orphaned Mary Yellen) finds herself staying at the titular inn and uncovers the whole plot, eventually fighting to save the next ship and its planned-for doom. In the process romance blooms between her and Jem Trehearne (Robert Newton) and they throw in together to do the right thing, unwittingly seeking the help of the swine Sir Humphrey.

The film hits the ground running, a nice series of dissolves to get a horse and rider to the coastline to watch a ship crashing – some model shots of the boat, but pretty convincing. Fast crosscutting crashes the ship and the pirates besiege the crew and murder them in a variety of gruesome bludgeoning manners. It’s really well done – it’s fast and aggressive, the pirates ruthless and relentless as they scale the now empty vessel for their plundering purposes. The last sailor clings to a rock and Emlyn Williams as the semi top hat wearing Harry the Pedlar goes offscreen to knife him to death – an offscreen scream followed by him wiping his blade on his sleeve. Great stuff, and sets up a film that means business and whose business is mean.

I liked the way that every time Jamaica Inn is mentioned early on every looks at each other in a ‘you’ve just walked into the Slaughtered Lamb’ kind of way. Mary the innocent travels there trustingly, unaware of the danger she is about to enter. O’Hara is good in the picture – all wide eyed innocence but inner steel. There’s a lovely (very modern) head turn from her at about twelve minutes that perfectly introduces her beauty to Sir Humph.

He’s a cheeky old sort, telling his manservant to get the warming pan in the bed whilst he’s out escorting Mary to the inn.

Laughton’s mansion is palatial – it reminds me of the Selznick Company logo that will become a fixture of some later Hitchcock movies – plus it looks like the exterior of the big house from ‘Under Capricorn’. The ever dependable Basil Radford from ‘The Lady Vanishes’ pops up in a small role as a chum of Sir Humph’s, and is always worthwhile.

The pirate gang is quickly established – the doom and gloom ‘fires of hell’ one (good to resist John Laurie in this role, he would have been perfect in his ‘we’re all doomed’ mode), the randy one who wants to ‘get to know’ Mary, the tattooed sailor with the misogynisistic streak and Joss the boss (Mary’s uncle, bullying and threatening his meek and mild wife – aptly named Patience and played by Marie Ney). The reception to Mary appearing at the Inn is amusingly cold and aggressive – Joss literally throwing her trunk upstairs, the poor girl not even being offered a cuppa after her journey (although later she is given a tray of food to have in her bedroom – bread and water, I’ll be bound, the water probably from the sea).

Shortly thereafter Trehearne is all ready to be lynched and the pirates string him up – only for Mary (her room is directly above) to cut him down with her dinner knife – she then helps him leg it whilst the others are busy having another ruck over the soon-to-be-dead Trehearne’s earthly belongings. It’s a clever and well shot scene, and immediately establishes not only a bond between Mary and Trehearne but also the first glimmerings of mutual attraction (Trehearne is clearly somewhat of a higher class than the rest of the oo-arring shipmates and stands out very clearly as an imposter – there’s no way they would think he’s some kind of sea-hardened sailor).

Mary is forced to flee also, hooking up with Trehearne to escape the marauding pirates. This is all pacey and great and exciting to watch and really kicks the pictures up a couple of gears.

Transpires, of course, that Trehearne is the law and has infiltrated the gang – Sir Humphrey’s look when he finds this out is pretty priceless as he realizes the implications. ‘Wrecking’ is the crime Trehearne is trying to get to the bottom of, and Sir Humphrey fronts it out with admirable cool. Trehearne explains that the unknown big boss has to visit Jamaica Inn that very night and they can apprehend him. Sir Humphrey is up for the chase, thinking on his feet how he can wriggle out of busting himself. As they ready themselves to set off, Mary hides behind a pillar and earwigs their plans – there’s a great fast pan left to right to focus on her. Laughton is all vim and vigour, making it all up as he goes along. Mary rushes to haul Patience out of there but Joss appears – livid at his niece’s betrayal. It’s all a bit overwrought, but exciting with it.

Laughton is very theatrical as Sir Humphrey – all false nose, bushy eyebrows and pan stick makeup. He’s fine but just seems a bit out of whack and larger than life than the rest of the performances, which are much more grounded.

Apparently Hitchcock had trouble with his leading man in regards to the performance and it does show in the final movie (the director later stating he hadn’t directed the picture so much as ‘referree-d’ it). It’s interesting that Laughton was an established star in his own right – bigger than any other the director had worked with up until that point – and the forthcoming Hollywood experiences would provide access to the Western world’s finest*.

Laughton is great in the scene where he and Trehearne have been trussed up – Sir Humph casually setting himself free and instantly identifying himself as the leader of the wreckers.

After he has left, Hitchcock has a great scene where Trehearne tries to persuade Patience to welch on her husband, the camera whip-panning from one to the other. A brief cut to her holding a knife and his chair lying down covered in cut ropes succinctly shows the outcome of her decision.

The exterior scenes throughout the film are really well handled, clearly some studio shot but convincing amounts of sprayed seawater and an enthusiastic use of wind machines. The climactic action sequence with the about-to-be-wrecked ship (unless Mary can signal to it) is thrilling even today. The ship is a screaming model but the pacing and cutting are rapid enough to forgive it.

When Sir Humphrey appears at Jamaica Inn, shooting Patience then Joss slumping down dead, he trusses up Mary in a fairly lascivious manner – clearly enjoying the experience: ‘…we’re going away together’, he states, no secret that he has had bedroom eyes for her right from the start. A closeup of his outstretched hand reminded me of the shadowy attacker in ‘The Lady Vanishes’, or the terrifying claw from ‘Nosferatu’. He scarpers and the wreckers are busted by the army, a lovely pan across them all ending with Harry gobbing in a soldier’s face in contempt.

The closing sequences in the movie are equally well done – cross cutting between Sir H. and Mary in his quarters below decks (he is fleeing the country) and the army galloping to intercept them. Trehearne and Sir Humphrey have a brief gun to gun standoff before the latter starts scaling the rigging (never a good idea to try to escape this way – there’s nowhere to run to, you old fool –  but a nice high shot above him all the same).  Mary is defending Sir Humphrey as being some kind of diminished responsibility case, but too late as he drops his gun which explodes and then plunges to his doom (‘What are you all waiting for? A spectacle? You shall have it and tell your children how the great age ended. Make way for Pengallen!’ he roars). It’s all very well done and, if a little hammy on the part of Laughton, still exciting.

The final shot, with Sir Humphrey’s manservant slowly shaking his head, suggests the end of an era, as his boss has suggested. In quite typical Hitchcock style the ending is very rapid – no time for post match analysis – from the time of the death leap to The End is just 44 seconds. ‘Jamaica Inn’ has a good reputation and it’s largely deserved. It’s a good old yarn and enjoyable. Laughton is eminently watchable in an overwrought kind of way and O’Hara pretty and luminous throughout.

Miscellaneous notes

*’Jamaica Inn’ was Hitchcock’s last British film before being tempted to America by David O. Selznick.

There is a great deal of beautiful photography in the film, courtesy of Bernard Knowles and Harry Stradling – the former a veteran of four previous Hitchcock’s, the latter going on to photograph ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’, ‘Suspicion’, Elia Kazan’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and George Cukor’s ‘My Fair Lady’ (that’s a CV for you!)

The editor  is the venerable Robert Hamer, who will go on to direct the standout Googie Withers starrer ‘It Always Rains on Sunday and ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’.

I watched the US version running at 98 minutes – there is apparently a UK version, duration 108 minutes, ten more minutes of overacting from Laughton probably.

Hitchcock will go to adapt two more Daphne Du Maurier yarns – ‘Rebecca’ (Week 23 to you) and ‘The Birds’.

Check it out at: (although there are nicer quality versions out there for not a lot of cash).


Week 21: ‘The Lady Vanishes’ – 1938

May 28, 2010

There’s a danger with certain of these films to just bang on in a litany of superlatives, especially when the movie in question is as gripping, funny, exciting, composed, beautifully structured and performed and just plain all-hands-down classic as ‘The Lady Vanishes’. With certain Alfred Hitchcock films it’s actually quite difficult to watch them with objectivity and a fresh eye – they’re so well known and oft-viewed that you need to watch them whilst perched on a step ladder just to get a fresh perspective. This be one of the biggies, and my word does it stand up well.

He’s straight in there with one of his model shots – the camera, pretty smoothly, craning down to then dissolve into a snowbound inn interior. Pretty slick, even the dinky little car that sidles by. The inn is crowded with soon-to-be-irate travelers, all delayed by an avalanche. Some neat comedy dialogue here as the beleagured receptionist attempts to house all the jostling guests – including the venerable Charters (Basil Radford) and his sidekick Caldecott (Naunton Wayne): ‘there no ‘eating on the train’ ‘no eating on the train?!’ ‘no heating – brrrghhh’ ‘oh, that’s awkward’. It’s pretty rapid and kicks the film into top gear from the outset with pretty broad comedic moments (the occasional head crack on a low beam, the maid about to disrobe in front of the two guys etc). Fantastic also, from a modern perspective, that the two guys get completely togged up in black tie in order to go down to dinner in a snow bound lodge in the middle of nowhere – I quite like that idea.

Charters sneakily grabs the telephone intercepting a call from England – not bothered by the weather, he wants to know the cricket score in Manchester. We later see the two guys in bed together – Caldecott with no shirt on, Charters with just a long pyjama top. I suppose it must have been normal, in a ‘how-come-Morecambe-and-Wise-share-a-bed?’ kind of way.

As the two gents manage to grab a shared table in the (as it transpires, food-free) restaurant, we meet the eponymous Lady – Miss Froy played by (Dame) May Whitty. She’s plummy and of a comfortable shape and in her 60’s it would seem. She proceeds to bore them rather with a mountain metaphor – a neat cut to the pair of them gazing glazed with heads slanted on hands.

‘Queer sort of bird’ Charters notes as she scuttles off. Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is one of three flighty young girls who are also sharing a room – she clocks the old girl as she passes her in the corridor upstairs.

There follows shortly after our introduction to the lead male, Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), playing the clarinet as three individuals hammer away on the wooden floor in a dodgy dance. This dancing racket irks Iris and soon Gilbert appears boldly in her room to confront her – he has bribed the manager to let him move in with her, much to her annoyance. Turns out he’s just winding her up – ‘you’re the most contemptible person I’ve ever met in my entire life’ she says ‘I think you’re a bit of stinker too’ he retorts in a whisper: You know there’ll be together by the end.

It’s all played for laughs until twenty four minutes in when a singing guitarist is strangled by a mystery pair of shadowy hands and suddenly we see the dark side of the film.

Miss Froy hears this tune and the melody will transpire to be the McGuffin* at the heart of the plot. They then all pile on a train out of there and the main intrigue is introduced. Iris meets the old girl on the platform and then gets herself clonked on the head by a falling plant pot  – planting the thought that all that is to come is her imagination. As the train pulls out, leaving her two friends behind, Iris sinks into a faint (all multiple images/blurry p.o.v shots and the like) and she comes to being looked after by the older woman.

The following scenes are key: as they go to the restaurant car for tea it’s interesting to see how many people see Miss Froy and how later they will deny all knowledge of it. When the elderly lady attempts to say her name a loud train whistle makes it inaudible – she writes it on the dust of the window. This is all done so beautifully and elegantly – you’re wrapped up in their chatter and banter, but at the back of your mind you’re thinking ‘how is one of these ladies going to vanish?’ There are some particularly sinister looking individuals sharing their carriage and sure enough these will transpire to be the dodgy captors.

When Iris awakes her p.o.v pans across to the newly vanished Miss Froy and the main crux of the film gets going. Even though this is over a third of the film in, it’s been pacey and entertaining enough to not matter. The director has established all his main characters and laid a solid groundwork to then build his intriguing missing person’s tale.

Iris starts to get frantic as she goes around the train being contradicted by people stating they never saw the old lady. She unwillingly enlists Gilbert in her search (he: ‘can I help?’ her: ‘only by going away’) and they proceed to quiz everyone they meet. A handy quack (Paul Lukas) explains it could all be a delusion caused by the bump to her head, and there’s a clever composite shot as he leans out of the train window – a neat way of opening the film up from its studio bound feel. They stop briefly at a station to allow a heavily bandaged patient on board – the face totally wrapped in bandages (very convenient). Then Iris is further foxed when a replacement Miss Froy appears in the same getup – but with that old suspicious Johnny foreigner accent that screams of the sinister. Her insistences seem to be growing more and more wobbly as time goes on.

Grumpily slumping back in the carriage full of lying villains, Iris sees Miss Froy’s kindly face superimposed over each of them. Gilbert and her adjourn to the buffet car – my, he’s a charmer and slick with it. There’s a real chemistry between them as they discuss the missing lady and other matters (he taken aback when she mentions her fiance). They happen to sit at the exact table where Miss Froy wrote her name on the window – and eventually Iris remembers this. ‘Look!’ she says as the train whistle blows and just at that precise moment they go into a tunnel and the name is erased by steam and smoke! But she has seen it and knows she’s not a nutjob. She then proceeds to pretty much lose it in front of everyone – berating them for not remembering the old duck. She is wrestled under control by Gilbert and Herr Doktor. ‘Leave me alone! Leave me alone!’ she cries, pulling the emergency stop lever before falling face first to camera, taking us to black. Strangely, even though it sounds like the train is braking, the next scene has our two gentlemen friends relaxedly chatting while the countryside zips by behind them – a bit odd and feels like a mistake to me.

Gilbert notices a herbal tea label thrown out of the window (Miss Froy’s chosen brand) and suddenly he is totally on Iris’s side. They hunt around in the cargo car and locate a goat in a big basket followed by a magician’s poster advertising a vanishing lady trick (said magician is riding on the train with the bad guys). There’s a whole lot of entertaining business involving rabbits and birds appearing and both of them disappearing – all very well handled and entertaining.

Gilbert spins out a few impersonations (Sherlock Holmes/Will Hay etc) until they find Froy’s specs – a sinister hand clutching into shot – the magician himself. A great comedy fight sequence breaks out between the three of them – no music here (see the classic ‘Torn Curtain’ fight which is a whole lot messier and more violent).

They eventually shove the fat magic man in a box only for it to be one with a false bottom and he’s vanished yet again – with the spectacle evidence.

It all kicks off as they realize the doc is in on the whole thing and they pretend to have taken a sedative each. Gilbert springs into action and grapples along on the outside of the train (very well done as another one screams by on the parallel tracks) to locate and save the bandaged up Miss Froy.

There follows a great scene where all the passengers we have got to know are to be taken off the train by the authorities for their own safety, Gilbert telling them it’s trap. Charters doesn’t believe Gilbert and goes to the train door, stands still and gets shot in the hand. He literally doesn’t react and just looks blank, coming back into the carriage and saying to Gilbert ‘you were right’. Completely stoic and deadpan, and really wonderful. The shooting that follows is also completely underplayed, Gilbert casually raising a pistol and popping one of the footsoldiers (handy to have a few of them around, like those chaps in red shirts who beam down to the planet in ‘Star Trek’ just to get phaser-ed).

In the midst of the gun battle stand off, Froy starts imparting her secret coded message tune to Gilbert and Iris – it’s all very eccentric and a bit silly but really entertaining. They get the engine going and you know you’re in for some great train/car chase/model/rear projection action – and sure enough Hitchcock delivers. It’s great that multiple people actually get shot, not your usual bullets spraying everywhere and no-one actually buying the farm. It’s pacey and exciting, Gilbert whistling and humming the prized melody to ensure he can deliver it safely to the government. Finally, they cross the border and are home free. Charters and Caldecott (they sound like estate agents) are shocked to read the news that the cricket has been adandoned due to flooding – outrageous! It’s a nice little gag that runs through the movie and I like these two chaps a lot.

The film is undeniably studio bound (shot in Islington, no less) – but the backdrops of snowy mountains and matte paintings are all pretty effective. Model shots, matte paintings and backdrops are all pressed into service and are all pretty slick and effective. The film is fast moving, filled with great characters and a central plot that does have you guessing all the way through. When Gilbert eventually launches on Iris at the end (she hiding from her fella) it’s perfectly believable they would get together (although they need to remember that line at the end of ‘Speed’ – about relationships that start under extreme circumstances not lasting. Sure enough Keanu Reeves has become Jason Patric by ‘Speed 2: Cruise Control’). ‘The Lady Vanishes’ is top drawer entertainment and has a charm that is timeless.

Miscellaneous notes

Hitchcock to Truffaut: “(a McGuffin is) the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories, it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” The thing that characterizes a MacGuffin is that the content of the tune or papers is not important and, most times, never even revealed.

Hitch pops up walking right to left across the frame with a cigar stuck in his chops – near the close of the film in London’s Victoria Station:

Week 20: ‘Young and Innocent’ – 1937

May 23, 2010

This 1937 movie is another second tier Hitchcock. It’s an innocent-guy-on-the-run-helped-by-gal-who-ends-up-with-him-by-the-end movie. In contrast to ‘The 39 Steps’ the female lead here isn’t quite as tough a nut to crack as her predecessor – she has a crush on our hero fairly early on and fights for him against the odds, including her dominant Colonel/Police Chief of a father.

An estranged husband (the Christian named-only Guy, played by George Curzon) comes to see his wife (Christine Clay portrayed by Pamela Carme) after eight years and finds that she has had various dalliances in the meantime. They fight, slapping takes place and the husband’s twitchy eyes go all twitchy. She ends up washed up on a beach, dead, and is found by one of her beaus, Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney) – who, when going to get help, is spotted and gets busted for the murder.

He manages to escape and is then assisted by Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam, the kidnappee from ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’) who is the Colonel/Chief Cop’s daughter (he played by Percy Marmont – who was the unfortunate recipient of Peter Lorre’s shove into a crevasse in ‘Secret Agent’).

Interesting that when the two passers-by approach the dead body of Christine on the beach, Hitchcock cuts to a brief shot of some squalling seagulls rather a shot of the corpse – a hint of the sinister that presages ‘The Birds’ by 26 years.

I very much like the well spoken clipped delivery of Tisdall’s lawyer (I think his name is Mr. Briggs, although he’s credited just as ‘Solicitor’ – played by J.H. Roberts)  as he goes through the, rather damning, evidence. He’s pedantic, precise and makes a point of fussing with his spectacles throughout – the very spectacles Tisdall will alleviate him of as a method of disguise in his escape. The solicitor also manages to get a two pound payment on account – good thinking seeing as his ward proceeds to leg it shortly afterwards. Tisdall’s escape is deftly handled – he manages to sneak into the courtroom of his own trial, slip on the pilfered glasses and halteringly get himself out of there, unable to see at all clearly. It’s nicely handled and, although a bit unbelievable, doesn’t seem too awkward. Hitchcock manages to resist having a blurry p.o.v. shot as Tisdall makes his getaway.

Two constables and Erica zoom off in her car which proceeds to break down and the two guys have to hitch a ride with a passing pig farmer: ‘Now then, where do we sit?’, the policemen ask –  ‘with pigs’ comes the reply. Given the director’s documented problems with authority how could he resist a little porky scratch at the boys in blue? The coppers leave and it’s a leap to then think that Tisdall pops up to assist in the push start of her car – she temporarily confused why she can seemingly move it with one finger. It gets the two of them together but how on earth has he located her in all that rolling countryside?

We set off on an odyssey of cat and mouse through the English countryside. What sets this apart, and a little inferior, to the similarly plotted ’39 Steps’ is in the performances. Whereas Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll had a very genuine chemistry, you don’t really feel that between De Marney and Pilbeam. It also doesn’t help that you get the impression she wants him pretty much from the start – it’s more interesting to watch the female party resisting the inevitable rather than being into the chap from the start, but I suppose that’s life. I have to say though that I quite liked the level of flirtatiousness Tisdall gets up to with the innocent Erica – he’s very sure of himself and cocky from the outset.

There’s some beautiful photography in the picture, courtesy of cinematographer Bernard Knowles (this is the fourth out of five times he will work with the director) – for instance the scene where Erica visits the hidden Tisdall in the mill about a half hour in.

There’s a lush quality to the image, almost soft focus as a contrast to other scenes that appear more harshly lit – a rare moment of relaxation for him in his hay bail hideout*. Jack Beaver’s (uncredited) music here is quite sweet also – a delicate little music accent as she stumbles on the ladder going up to the hayloft.

There are other little moments of humour throughout – she trying to swab his head after a fight in a café and being thwarted by a misbehaving water fountain, later as they drive off she dropping a broken mug onto the road and causing an instant flat tyre to an incoming car. Small moments, but useful in keeping the pace and humour going. At one point, they get wrangled into a kid’s birthday party also – to further ratch up the tension. Basil Radford makes a small but impressive appearance here (he plays Erica’s uncle called, to my ear, Major Cunningham/Basil and will go on to appear in both ‘The Lady Vanishes’ and ‘Jamaica Inn’. The way his wife barks at him –  ‘Basil!’ – reminded me of his great onscreen namesake). There’s some great looks here between Erica’s uncle and aunt – little glances of suspicions-of-romance rather than on-the-run-ness. With lightning thinking, Tisdale magics up the disguise name ‘Beechtree Manningcroft’ – a great handle to go by.

At this stage Erica is in two minds about Tisdale: ‘you’ll never see me again’ he says, ‘won’t I?’ she asks with regret – simultaneously attracted to him and scared of the consequences as an accessory and the fallout from dear ol’ dad. They are hunting for Tisdale’s raincoat that had been stolen from him – the belt used as the murder weapon (if they’d used this method in 1948, Hitchcock’s movie-done-in-long-take-fest with James Stewart would have been called ‘Belt’. Not nearly as good a title). Their hunt leads them to the character of Old Will (Edward Rigby) who may be able to shed some light on the whereabouts of said belt.

It’s interesting that when Tisdall looks at Old Will’s bed in the doss house he sees the elderly chap’s indentation on the sheets – this notion will be revisited with a much more sinister feel in ‘Psycho’ with Mother’s (as it transpires, dead) body shape spotted by Marion Crane’s sister Lila (played by Vera Miles) as she snoops around in the Bates’ house. There follows a good old car chase with trains flying around also as they make their escape with Old Will (marred by some creaky back projection and the occasional model shot thrown in).

Hitchcock then follows this with a spectacular action scene as they hide out in a disused mine – the ground giving way and her car being swallowed as she scrabbles to be pulled free – it’s really very good and seems to be done for real (must have been a very expensive set). A real highlight in the movie.

But by far the standout sequence in the feature is the final very well handled discovery of Guy as the real guilty party. They trace him via a matchbook (who would have thought it?) to the nearby Grand Hotel and search for him. The jazz band plays, and the drummer becomes more and more erratic. Given it’s 1937, no-one seems to blink an eye (aside from the drummer of course) at the whole orchestra being done up in blackface – a handy disguise for the killer. Hitchcock pulls out one of his great camera crane moves across the ballroom (he’ll revisit this even more classically in ‘Notorious’) and slowly moves in to a biiiiig close-up on the drummer’s eyes – and their telltale twitch.

It’s a marvellous moment and head and shoulders above the rest of the film. Yes, it’s one of those Hitchcockian gimmicky things, but it’s just this kind of inventitude that I think makes them both great and memorable. Why is he twitching? Is he simply nervous that he is to be rumbled or is he on drugs of some description (he downs some relaxant pills in these closing sequences)? I think of it just as nerves and the fact that he knows he’s about to be rumbled. His increasingly more shambolic drumming is excellent, eventually just thrashing around the cymbals and collapsing on his bass drum – drawing so much attention to himself a crowd gathers and his eye problem is spotted…

Overall, ‘Young and Innocent’ would shine more as a film if Hitchcock didn’t come up with quite so many superior versions of the same basic premise (innocent fellow on the run). On its own, it’s perfectly satisfactory but put up against full pelt chase classics such as ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘North By Northwest’ it doesn’t get a look in. Enjoyable and diverting, it’s definitely worth a look though.

Miscellaneous notes

On the version I watched the famed ‘gong’ man is featured at the opening – in this case the representative of General Film Distributors Ltd. rather than the more common Rank Film Distributors that he became synonymous with.

Hitchcock pops up as a photographer outside the courthouse just prior to Tisdall’s escape, about 15’45” in:

Alfred Junge is the art director here as he was on ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ and ‘Waltzes From Vienna’.

There’s also a creaky old model shot as they have escaped the cops and take refuge in a train yard – even to the point that we actually see small model figures of the two of them before it cuts to live action. As in previous movies, it’s ok and admirable but very clearly unreal.

Week 19: ‘Sabotage’ – 1936

May 14, 2010

‘Secret Agent’, Alfred Hitchcock’s previous movie, was not based on Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’. Strangely, his follow up movie ‘Sabotage’ is. What are the chances of that?

This is a great little movie and returns to the taught and succinct storytelling of ‘Blackmail’ and ‘The Lodger’. The unlikely cinema owner Verloc (Oscar Homolka) is part of a network of spies based in London who are hatching some kind of terrorist plot. Verloc is low down on the terrorist hierarchy and soon realizes he’s in over his head. He vainly tries to backpedal out of the whole situation – too late.

I do like a dictionary definition, and this is the way the director chooses to begin the movie. There is a credit for Walt Disney for the ‘cartoon sequences’ amongst the standard stars’/filmmakers’ names and then we’re off. The opening image is one of a lightbulb burning bright, and this image will reoccur throughout the running time (the cinema setting in many scenes obviously lending itself to this motif). London is suddenly blacked out and there is a great short scene with some investigators investigating what has occurred at the power station:

‘Sand’…‘Sabotage’…‘Wrecking’…‘Deliberate’…‘What’s at the back of it?’…‘Who did it?’

Cut to Verloc stalking past camera in closeup against a dramatic theme.

We see the Underground ground to a halt, the passengers buying matches and having a right laugh – just like it would be today, but without the matches or any humour. Mrs.* Verloc (Sylvia Sidney) is under siege to cough up refunds to the cinema patrons, with the next door grocer (John Loder playing the undercover Detective Sergeant Ted Spencer – on the trail of Verloc) chipping in caustic playful remarks. Verloc sneaks in under cover of dark and washes his hands, leaving a residue of sand inadvertently in the sink.

These scenes are (obviously) dark and have a noirish quality to them – reminiscent of the sharp angular blacks and whites of ‘The Lodger’, but even moreso (and less crudely executed). There are London sequences throughout the film that stand with other great black and white depictions of the city – such as Jules Dassin’s marvellous ‘Night and the City’ (1950).

Mrs. V. finds her husband upstairs and shines a torch right into his face (and ours) – it feels like an interrogation right from the start, but he keeps his cool.

Within minutes the lights are back on and all is normal once again. Ted comes by to present a selection of lettuces and to slyly quiz Verloc on his movements, the foreign accented Verloc denying he has been out at all. Homolka is fine as Verloc but you can’t help feeling he’s a bit of a cliché baddie – his accent immediately gives him an outsider/sinister air and he’s all bushy eyebrows and feigned innocence. He may as well carry a big neon arrow above his pate with the word ‘villain’ blazing on it.

It’s great to see London in the 1930’s – Verloc visiting London Zoo at one point and elsewhere various shots around the city as they travel on buses and taxis. As Verloc gets briefed on a more explosive activity (the spies know that people laughed at their blackout stunt and want to up the ante) Hitchcock cuts to the aquarium and dissolves to an image of Piccadilly Circus in the frame and…he melts the film to suggest the imminent destruction! A great idea and really well executed.

Verloc visits a pet shop to meet with the owner who will supply the necessary explosive materials – they discuss the date and time of the attack right in front of the guy’s daughter and her child, a bit casual I think. We progress on to the fatal day with big captions THURSDAY…FRIDAY…LORD MAYOR’S SHOW DAY (the D-Day), captions that give a good build up of suspense. Stevie (the younger brother of Mrs. Verloc, played by Desmond Tester) points out to his sister that gangsters shouldn’t look like gangsters or else the police would catch them – and we see a looming high shot above Verloc’s starkly lit head as he slowly raises his eyes…

Ted sniffs around even more in the bowels of the cinema, eventually peeking through a high window at Verloc and his very dodgy chums – they spotting his hand and yanking him through the window to interrogate him. Stevie is ready with an excuse that gets Ted out of there – but one of the crooks recognizes him as a cop and the cat’s free of the bag. The crooks leg it, saying the plot is off, but Verloc gets a birdcage/bomb with a note stating ‘don’t forget the birds will sing at 1:45’. He spies cops lurking to spot him leaving so he gives the bomb (disguised inside a film can) to the innocent young Stevie – this ruthless wretch of a Verloc. Hitch builds the tension by having Stevie drag his heels to get going, Verloc finally shouting at him to get a move on.

The ensuing sequence stands with the very best of Hitchcock. Stevie sets off and, with a young lad’s curiosity, gets distracted by street activities just to push the time limit even further (at one point he gets his teeth cleaned by a salesman). Hitchcock uses dissolves to suggest the passing of time, a metronomic theme running under his slow progress, shots of clocks thrown in for good measure.  He boards a bus clutching the film can for delivery and the tension is fantastic.

You really don’t want to see the little fellow buy it but Hitchcock doesn’t flinch. Stevie is confronted by the bus conductor who tells him off for carrying film on public transport (see note re. nitrate stock below) but the guy lets him stay on. Stevie plays with a small dog. Tracking shot across large clock face. Close up on the film can. A red light. A traffic jam. The music growing more frenetic until…the bus explodes!

OK, it’s a model  – but wow! This is fantastic stuff and pretty darned exciting now  – people must have been swallowing their pipe cleaners in the 1930’s (see misc. notes and the first looming appearance of Brian De Palma in The Hitchcock Project, Lord help us).

Ted finds the destroyed film can in the bus wreckage and he looks up with vengeance on his face. He’s about to get all bad on Verloc’s ass. Mrs. V. reads about the film can in the paper, faints and wakes up with a view of kids staring down at her – Stevie’s face jump cutting into the centre of the group and then disappearing – an abstract idea but, again, really clever.

The film becomes more about her and her plight, thankful rather than loving to Verloc (he had brought them to England from America and gave them a home and a living), amused by the audience’s laughter at the movie running (this is the Disney credit from the start) – then looking at the carving knife with intent (slightly reminiscent of Anny Ondra’s knife fixation in ‘Blackmail’). She eventually stabs Verloc – it looks almost an accident – and slowly walks away from his dead feet in the foreground, slumping on a chair in the distance, her whole life changed within a matter of minutes.

Ted comes to get her and plots how to get her out of trouble – they walk through the streets and Stevie appears again, this time turning out to be just another kid running along. Mrs. V. is dazed and confused, but Ted is strong, plotting that they can flee the country. But – and it’s a bit of a big but – the pet shop owner goes to the Bijou to retrieve the evidence of the birdcage, the police move in suspecting another bomb and boom! the whole place goes up – pet shop man, the dead Verloc and the whole shebang erased. She is free to be with Ted and live on happily – ahhh!

She is about to spill the beans to Ted’s boss just before the explosion but is saved by the bang. Shortly after, the slightly dazed Superintendent Talbot (played by Matthew Boulton) says ‘is that girl psychic – she said it before – or was it after?’

I really like ‘Sabotage’. It’s not high on the general pantheon of Hitchcock classics but is well worth a watch. It balances many of his favourite elements in a lean and mean story that doesn’t flinch when the time comes to blow up a child – if the lad had got away the whole thing would be appreciably weaker. It’s a tough story and stuffed full of sufficient directorial flourishes to move the plot along really well – and these do not get in the way or distract you, but only add to the narrative.

Miscellaneous notes

*why is it that there is way to write ‘Mister’ in full but no proper way to write ‘Mrs.’?

Brian De Palma. Brian. De. Palma. I am not a fan, and know that amongst many this may not be a popular opinion. One of the opening scenes of ‘The Untouchables’ (1987 – and one of his best pictures) uses the ‘blow up the little kid’ idea as the girl goes up with the corner diner. Elsewhere in the same film, De Palma uses the ‘camera move out of a plane window’ nicked from ‘Foreign Correspondent’ and in ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ he recreates the high shot umbrella sequence also from Hitchcock’s 1940 movie. ‘Body Double’ is so indebted to ‘Rear Window’ it’s impossible to know where to start. What is he doing, what is the reason for all this aping of shots/sequences (see the famed Eisenstein ‘Battleship Potemkin’ Odessa Steps sequence in ‘The Untouchables’ also and others too numerous to mention)? It’s so unsubtle and the shots he chooses to steal are so well known that it’s very distracting and embarrassing to watch. And in many cases the shots don’t really fit with the scene in the film he is making. When, for example. Steven Spielberg uses the ‘zooming-in-camera-whilst-tracking-back’ (or vice versa) shot from ‘Vertigo’ on the famous ‘Roy-Scheider-as-Brody-on-the-beach’ scene in ‘Jaws’ (1976) it makes perfect sense at that moment in the movie to do something as odd as this. De Palma would have Brody up atop Mount Rushmore clinging on to his (dyed blonde) wife and spotting the shark through a randomly placed pair of super-binoculars, the animal reflected in both lenses. I think he’s somewhat of a chump and makes mostly bad movies. Although I do like ‘Carrie’ and ‘Blow Out’ quite a bit. But ‘Dressed to Kill’? ‘Raising Cain’? ‘Femme Fatale’? ‘Snake Eyes’ (wow, a really long intricate opening shot, who gives one)?? I don’t even rate ‘Scarface’ that much, it’s just silly…I suppose ‘Carlito’s Way’ is pretty good though. OK, maybe’s he’s half good but just needs to make his own film without this shameless mugging and quite so much homage-hysteria.

Nitrate film stock is highly flammable – see wiki link here for the full story:

Week 18: ‘Secret Agent’ – 1936

May 8, 2010

Following his triumph of the previous year, Hitchcock then tackled a slightly more traditional subject involving a faked dead ex-Brit author who is signed up as a spy and embarks on a rather strange mission involving chocolate, a mysterious button, an OTT Peter Lorre performance, the as-ever luminous Madeleine Carroll and a mistaken murder.

The young John Gielgud plays Edgar Brodie who, in 1916 at the height of  World War I, returns to England to find he has been killed in action – a ruse to then set him up as Richard Ashendon, the eponymous agent. Sent to Switzerland, he is ‘married’ to Elsa Carrington and they meet the ruthless General (Lorre) who explains their mission: to locate an enemy of Britain and bump him off. There’s a whole load of business trying to locate the enemy, and then they eventually kill the wrong man – an innocent elderly Brit skier who gets booted into a crevasse. The Ashendons are shocked at this, The General taking it in his stride and laughing it off as an unavoidable by-product of the spying/killing business.

The opening wake scene lulls you into a false sense of mourning, the reverential attendees departing upset as a cheesy classical theme plays on the soundtrack (a card establishing the date is May 10th 1916, the location 84 Curzon St. W). As soon as they go, the vaguely sinister one armed butler sparks up a ciggie and tries to haul the coffin off its high resting place, the lid falling off and him eventually just dropping the thing on the floor – it’s fantastically irreverent and he has this great ‘who gives a flying fig?’ expression on his face as he drags on the cigarette planted in the side of his mouth.

There are many times that the movie plays like a comedy. The spy chief introduces himself to Brodie/Ashendon: ‘you can call me R’ ‘R exclamation? ‘no, R for rhododendron’, and Gielgud saying that his return journey home was good: ‘only to find when I land in England that I was dead’. R. then refers to Lorre: ‘we call him the hairless Mexican’ – ‘Oh why?’ – ‘Chiefly because he has a lot of curly hair and isn’t a Mexican’. Bizarre, but funny in a film that for the most part seems to be playing it fairly straight.

Lorre makes his entrance after a servant girl gives a flirty screech, he trying to molest her in some offscreen way. Fantastic hair he has too and a mad moustache – he not having time to chat as he dashes after the maid like a randy lamb.

It’s interesting that to establish they have arrived at Switzerland’s Hotel Excelsior Hitchcock pans across the name right to left – so you read it backwards – a slightly odd decision.  Ashendon trips over a dog’s lead after signing into the hotel, and we see the soon-to-be innocent victim (Caypor – played by Percy Marmont who popped up in ‘Rich and Strange’ and will later appear in ‘Young and Innocent’) – a very neat little setup moment. The dog will figure in later scenes as a kind of talisman for Caypor’s death.

Ashendon enters his hotel room to overhear a conversation between his surprise wife and a laconic Yank noshing grapes – this is Mr. Marvin played by the dashingly sleek Robert Young. Carroll’s first appearance is titillating – she comes into the room wearing only a bath towel – in front of two guys she barely knows, the flirty bird.

There’s an implied jealously between the two cocks from the start – mispronouncing each others’ names – ‘Larkin’ and ‘Ashencan’. Quietly, politely insulting. Carroll is great – she’s cool, experienced and unphased by the pretence they are pulling – playing a game with Ashendon of ‘I’ll show you mine and you show me yours’ with their passports. This upfront veneer of coolness is shattered when events turn messy a little later.

The General comes into the bathroom – Lorre giving a bizarre performance, seemingly played for laughs and feeling vaguely improvised. I like him a lot in this, some have criticized him as overacting but the comedy is great as he turns out to be a right vicious little thug.

It’s all the more effective when he turns bad – it’s like Joe Pesci in ‘Goodfellas’, having a laugh then turning vicious. He throws a complete spazzy fit through not being ‘issued’ with a ‘wife’ shortly afterwards and the director just shows Ashendon laughing at him.

There is a good sexual frisson between Ashendon and Carrington – ‘bit fond of yourself aren’t you?’ he says – she slapping him and he slapping her right back. ‘Married life has begun’ she says. The battle lines are drawn and you know they’ll end up together eventually.

Ashendon and The General follow the trail to a village church and inside they hear the organ emitting a long endless tone. They discover the organist slumped over the keys, dead – a rogue button clutched in his hand. It’s a high point in the movie and leads them further on their quest for their target. Wonderful from the ceiling shot here also:

‘Strangled! Nice work – neat, very neat’ says the bloodthirsty General. Hitchcock plays with sound further as the two go up to the bell tower and have a conversation we cannot hear at all, eventually cutting to a big closeup of The General yelling in Ashendon’s ear.

Later, Ashendon inadvertently gambles the button in a roulette scene and Caypor – the man with the dog – is identified as the buttonless individual. They befriend their new suspect and as he discusses the high mountains Ashendon and The General trade glances with murder in mind.

The killing scene itself is marvellous – Hitchcock intercutting between the  murder of Caypor on the mountain and his beloved dog scraping at Mrs. Caypor’s door in a more and more frenetic way. It’s similar to the David Lean/‘Oliver Twist’ murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes and is very effective –Lean may well have seen ‘Secret Agent’ and taken inspiration from this device.

As inane chat goes on between Mrs. Caypor and Marvin, Carrington looks more and more apprehensive. Ashendon can’t go through with the murder and views it all through a telescope: ‘look out Caypor, for God’s sake!’ he yells as, offscreen, The General pushes the old guy off the cliff, the warning lost in the mountains.

To further illustrate the difference between the hardened General  and the lily-livered rookies, there follows a scene where they realise they have bumped off the wrong guy – a slow dolly to Carrington as she stares vacantly into the distance. She wanted excitement, but this is the harsh and dangerous reality. As local singers sing, they spin coins in bowls and Carrington imagines it as the button in the roulette wheel that led to the mistaken murder. Hitchcock shows a superimposed button to (over?) emphasise the point as The General guffaws loudly and Carrington looks physically sick. The lighting here is lovely – Carroll luminous in her blonde beauty and distress. At times during the film she resembles Marlene Dietrich – all soft lighting and arched eyebrows.

There is a whole lot of business involving a chocolate factory that I didn’t find totally clear –in the sense that it seems to be a long winded, round-the-houses way of communicating hidden messages (hiding them in the choc bar wrappers): NOVELIST BRODIE REPORTED DEAD ARRIVED TODAY HOTEL EXCELSIOR ON ESPIONAGE WORK. TAKE STEPS. When Ashendon and The General go to the factory it’s an interesting experimental scene which for some sections plays silent as they are given a tour and subtly investigate. A suspicious factory worker pushes a message into a chocolate bar and we follow its progress on the production line – as does The General, climbing a large spiral staircase to keep up with it. ‘Two English spies here, phone police anonymously’ – reads the message (translated from the German in a neat dissolve). The General feints a faint to distract the workers as an alarm sounds and a stampede of workers ensues, neatly covering their escape.  It’s a good exciting chase scene and they finally get away. It still seems slightly confusing as to what they are after, but it’s almost enough just to know something kooky is going on.

I couldn’t help thinking that this was one of those movies where the very first time people embark on a mission/journey the whole thing goes disastrously wrong (see also the first time the visitors take a trip round ‘Jurassic Park’ – didn’t they test that place at all?) The romance between Ashendon and Carrington grows as they play at their mock marriage, Marvin being sidelined regardless of his attempts to woo the lady. The two novice spies try to jump ship from the mission, but The General insists they follow the mission through (this feels a little clichéd to me – in a ‘just one last mission’ kind of way, although I suppose you can forgive it as it’s made in 1936). Eventually they figure out that Marvin is the real target and there follows some pretty decent exciting scenes where they dash around on a train trying to finish him off. Fairly inexplicably, the train is then attacked by war planes – it eventually derails and crashes quite spectacularly. It’s a screamingly obvious model saved by good use of loud sound.

Hitchcock seems impatient to finish the picture and resorts to presenting a fast news- based montage with rousing patriotic music to get us to some kind of closing. VICTORY! scream the headlines and the Ashendons go off together as a couple, sending a postcard to R stating ‘never again – Mr. and Mrs. Ashendon’ over a cheesy shot of the pair of them.

This is a thin film. It plays for laughs and has a rather inconsistent tone, veering from fun to drama, mystery to murder, intrigue to romance. It’s ok to watch and I like all the cast but it seems slightly random at times. Gielgud is prim and humorous, Carroll luminous and lovely, Young sleek and smooth and Lorre hamming it up like a good ‘un and stealing the show. It’s not a major Hitchcock by any means, but a pleasant enough diversion.

Miscellaneous notes

The young Michael Redgrave makes an uncredited appearance as an Army captain. He will go on to star in ‘The Lady Vanishes’ two years later.

The film has no ‘The’ in the title and bears no relation to the Joseph Conrad namesake novel but rather is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s spy stories starring the ‘Ashendon’ character.