Archive for August, 2010

Week 34: ‘Under Capricorn’ – 1949

August 28, 2010

One of the main points of interest in this often rambling tale is Hitchcock’s technical exploration of the long takes approach he used to such an extent in the previous year’s (more successful) ‘Rope’. The problem with ‘Under Capricorn’ is that the story doesn’t quite grab you enough to keep you interested and the film therefore falls into that column of movies that is fine if you want to wonder at all things technical but a noble failure if you want to do something as old fashioned as actually be entertained. Saying that, however, there are certain scenes and sequences within the film that transcend its own limitations and are worth the price of admission alone – one of them in particular being absolutely astonishing. The title of the film (by the way) refers to the story’s Australian setting, much of the continent being below the Tropic of Capricorn, one of the five major circles of latitude on world maps.

The Hon. Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) arrives in Australia and is the second cousin of the much respected Governor, played by the venerable Cecil Parker. Charles quickly gets acquainted with the ex-stableboy then ex-convict-made-good figure of Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotton) and his wife Lady Henrietta (‘Hattie’ played by Ingrid Bergman). Hattie had some years before been responsible for a murder that Sam took the fall for, she standing by him and waiting for his release – only to find herself trapped in a loveless marriage and with a raging alcohol problem – this encouraged by the jealous housekeeper Milly who secretly holds a torch for Sam. Charles had known Hattie when they grew up in Ireland and romance is in the air from their side also. The whole soapy story gets itself all into a lather over the near two hour running time but does have enough points of interest to keep it all chugging along.

Hitchcock’s fluid camera showboats through many sequences. As Charles comes to see the distractedly naked bathing Governor, the camera flashily follows his progress through two doorways in a rapid track/dolly, all very well but it doesn’t seem to have any narrative reason (see the famed steadicam shot from ‘Goodfellas’ – at the Copacabana as Henry and Karen sweep through the kitchens – the shot expressing her feelings of being swept up in this tempting and overwhelming world).

There are many other instances also – the uniformly unaccompanied men who turn up for dinner swept up in a take that lasts for some minutes, later when there is a dinner at the Flusky’s the camera sweeps along the diners in one continuous movement (they apparently falling backwards onto mattresses to get out of the way of the large camera rig).

These shots (and so many more it’s endless) are technically adept and undoubtedly impressive but ultimately detract from caring about the story and characters. It’s a prime example of getting carried away with the ‘can we?’ rather than focusing on the ‘should we?’

Ingrid Bergman’s first appearance is well handled – she appearing unexpectedly at the men only dinner, barefoot and looking distinctly the worse for wear.

Bergman had played booze-hound in ‘Notorious’ but here she takes it up a notch. It’s a curious choice of role for the actress and apparently a real coup for Hitchcock to get her (she was the biggest female star in the Hollywood firmament in 1949) and, by the director’s own admission, he was dazzled by this achievement and proceeded to make a film that didn’t do her or himself any justice (although, as described below, there are scenes that are very great indeed). She is meant to hail from Ireland but her accent seems to go by the by in the picture (see Sean Connery’s Russian brogue in ‘The Hunt for Red October’ or Richard Attenborough’s drifting Scotsman in ‘Jurassic Park’).

It’s strange that the familiarity between Charles and Hattie is so readily accepted by Sam – he knowingly lets Charles into his wife’s bedroom even though he knows they are ‘very old friends’, it’s all a bit questionable (not withstanding that Hattie is three quarters off her face for much of the time).  I suppose it’s the feeling that Charles might actually prove to be a force for good for her and he may succeed in pulling her out of the alcoholic funk she has sunk into – something that Sam cannot seem to do. Charles and Hattie have extended dialogue scenes together – and not extended in any particularly riveting way. Sam doesn’t seem to mind that, when Charles can’t get an answer to his doorknocking at Hattie’s bedroom, he then scales the outside of the house to casually climb in through her window (!) – this scene then resulting in a passionate kiss between Charles and Hattie.

Sam has a massive inferiority thing going on as he is a former stable boy who has crossed the line and married way above his station, but he can never let himself forget it.

Milly the maidservant (Margaret Leighton) is an interesting character, in the tradition of the much less evil Araminta from ‘The Farmer’s Wife’- the servant pining privately for the master of the house (Mrs. Danvers, obviously, is also in this mold – aching from the loss of ‘Rebecca’). Milly is a far nastier piece of work than the goodhearted Araminta, though, and her humiliation of the mistress of the house and subsequent slow poisoning gradually ramps up the evil ante.

At Hattie’s first tentative step to take back control of her own home (by attempting to order the kitchen staff around) Milly gets one of the servants to dump all of Hattie’s empty wine bottles on the kitchen table, resulting in a chorus of coarse cackling from the servant women, Hattie scuttling back up the staircase to the sanctuary of her room. Milly eventually quits in a huff and departs the estate.

There’s a really good scene as Hattie is invited to the Governor’s ball, post Milly being banished. Sam offers to buy her a new ballroom gown but Charles steps in and says he’ll do it. Sam has such a low opinion of his own taste and breeding he gives into the more dandyish fashion conscious Charles. Then, as a breathtaking Hattie descends from her room, Sam clutches a ruby necklace behind his back, about to surprise her – but is nixed when Hattie and Charles say rubies wouldn’t go with what she’s wearing. Sam never reveals the rubies he has, and puts them away without the others seeing.

It’s a poignant moment and perfectly expresses Sam’s low self esteem: for all his pulling himself up to a position of wealth, he can never learn the ways of ‘proper’ society – he even lets Charles take his wife to the ball rather than take her himself for fear of appearing boorish. The snake-like Milly happens oh-so-conveniently to appear just as they leave, and plants the thought of adultery with Sam. These are great scenes and finally bring real drama and life into the film – very welcome.

Of course, the starting point of all of this – the party invitation – is a fake, Charles having engineered the whole thing. This, combined with the seeds of insane jealousy sowed by Milly, throws Sam into a rage as he sweeps into the party – ruining Hattie’s first wobbling steps of confidence as she has been accepted by the Governor. Sam makes a scene and his wife must leave, thrown back down just as she starts to be reborn. This is all great stuff and has the kind of pace to it that other areas of the film lack. Bergman and Cotton are great, as is the clumsy Charles – he trying to do good but making a right meal of it, Milly fueling the fires of mistrust for her own purposes.

Post the ball disaster comes a very long one shot scene that is breathtaking and in one fell swoop illustrates why Ingrid Bergman was such a massive star. About an hour and seventeen minutes in, she delivers a very long soliloquy in which she describes how she and Sam got together and fell in love:

‘Sam is part of me and I’m part of Sam, for ever and ever’

The dialogue is laden with sexual suggestions (‘we rode all night’ etc.) and intimates that she did what she needed to do in the seven years Sam was in jail (‘how did you live, all those years?’ asks Charles, she giving a look that tells us what we need to know). The scene is undeniably play-like and stagey (as is much of the rest of the film) but Bergman gets through a nearly ten minute take (8’47” in total) with such a range of heartfelt emotion it’s fantastic. For me, the entire film rests on this scene and its power – and therefore in Bergman’s performance. ‘Under Capricorn’ is worth watching for this one long take of a true star acting her bonnet off and a director keeping his nerve and letting her fly. Just at the point where Hattie is brought low, the film has finally taken flight – and, my, does it soar!

The film never reaches these heights again, but there are interesting and dramatic scenes towards the film’s close. With a little encouragement from the scheming Milly, Hattie gets back on the sauce – post Sam accidently shooting Charles. Milly asks if she can sit to talk to Sam and the pair of them discuss Hattie by the fireside, Milly must be overjoyed to be in the mistress’s armchair (this also reminded me of ‘The Farmer’s Wife’, but a dark side of the same notion). Later, Milly is rumbled trying to overdose Hattie with sleeping juice in her booze and is exposed as the shrunken head placer on Hattie’s bed (the shrunken head seed had been laid way earlier when a dodgy dealer sidled up to Sam to try to flog him such an illegal item).

The film gets pretty hysterical by this point (in an over the top way, not comedic) and is pretty gripping – the evil housekeeper once more trying to wrestle control of the household.

The film has a painterly feel to it, courtesy of the very great Jack Cardiff and his Technicolor photography*. It does looks a little odd at times though, almost as if it’s been colourised (it hasn’t obviously), the hues looking pastel and sometimes rather flat. This may well be the transfers of the picture that are available – the film was not a success and is now merely a curiosity in the grand Hitchcock canon, so the expense of restoring it to its full Technicolor glory would be way down on anyone’s financial shopping list. Cardiff and his director make extensive use of matte paintings, in particular on establishing shots to give a sense of the great scale of the country – these are very effective and well done throughout, although I have to say that they draw attention to themselves somewhat as the camera has to stay static to make this technique work which is in stark contrast to the scenes that are then contained within, where the camera is almost constantly on the go.

On the negative side, the versions I have seen are pretty dark and muddy picture wise, and probably do not do any kind of justice to the original look of the feature.

When I first watched ‘Under Capricorn’ I expected to give it a good kicking, but having been through it again I have to say it’s pretty intriguing. It’s not great and has deep flaws throughout (and is technically fascinating/weird as mentioned) but I found myself actually caring about these characters and wanting things to work out for the class hopping couple of Sam and Hattie. The film is worth watching for Bergman’s extended acting masterclass alone and, although the film ultimately doesn’t really succeed, there is much to recommend it. It’s the only one so far that I’ve changed my opinion of the second time around.

Miscellaneous notes

*Cardiff was one of the most respected cameraman in film history – particularly for his work with Powell and Pressburger. For all the info you’ll need, check out Craig McCall’s excellent doco ‘Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff’ (2010).

Medium to large sweeping staircase is a central feature in the Flusky’s place – many excuses to camera crane up and down.

Hitchcock pops up in full 19th Century costume on the steps outside the Governor’s place just before Charles visits his bathing cousin.

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Week 33: ‘Rope’ – 1948

August 19, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock’s first colour feature. His first collaboration with James Stewart. Massiveley innovate and influential – being created from only 10 shots. There is much to recommend in ‘Rope’ and very much to admire.

Phillip Morgan (the all too twitchy Farley Granger) and Brandon Shaw (the keeping a lid on it John Dall) have strangled their ‘inferior’ ex-classmate, David Kently (briefly played by Dick Hogan) and shoved him in a large wooden chest in their apartment. To push the danger level to its limit, they invite a bunch of guests around for a polite cocktail party. Their effrontery is scuppered by the arrival of James Stewart’s Rupert Cadell, their former tutor, who smells a corpse…*

The strangling of David is very brief, Brandon shivering in a post orgasmic manner, sparking up a cigarette to calm his tattered feelings. He has just the right amount of intellectual snobbery in his performance, he appears as someone who actually believes he’s a part of some kind of Nietzchean super-race and coldly justifying the pair’s actions. Phillip, on the other hand, is an absolute liability in a murder team – shaky, sweating and all over the place emotionally, Granger’s performance is overcooked and if you were asked whether there was a guilty party in the house all eyes would be on the wobbling jelly that is Phillip. I don’t really buy that Phillip is quite so terrified of what they have done – literally straight after the killing he is all over the place – how did he ever agree to what they have done?

When David’s mother mistakes Kenneth Lawrence (Douglas Dick) for her now dead son, Phillip actually breaks a champagne glass in his own hand with visible blood – he’s cracking up in the same fragile manner.

The film is a strange experience, it has to be said. Obviously going into it knowing it has been shot in loooong takes** you can’t help bearing this in mind – but I would think a casual viewer would not pick up on this and the film would then appear very much like a shot stage play, however much the director moves the camera and flies walls out of the way to let it pass. There are, it is worth pointing out, actually a few intentional and there-for-effect cuts in the film that break from the ‘feeling of one take’.

James Stewart is top drawer in a role that he later stated was the only one for Hitchcock that he didn’t feel suited to play. He has that marvellous Stewart hesitancy, the pausing in the middle of dialogue as if he is thinking about how to phrase something or what to say – when all the time you know damn well he is in control of not only himself but the whole situation. Rupert is in control of the situation from his first appearance, clocking the champagne (‘what’s the occasion?’) and gently and continuously sniffing out clues that come tumbling at him pretty easily. The denouement shocks him to the core, he stunned and horrified that anyone would take any of his teachings seriously. Once Rupert converses with Phillip all bets are off as the trembling jelly mountain fairly glows with guilt. The story relating his ringing the necks of farm chickens gets Phillip’s goat badly and he blurts out ‘that’s a lie!’ – Hitchcock backing up the shock factor by introducing one of the movies’ only actual visual cuts, in this case to the attentive Rupert who stares interestedly.

Joan Chandler plays Janet Walker and is pretty lovely with just the right amount of charm and interest in what is going on. She’s pretty tough as well – ‘I could really strangle you, Brandon’ she scolds for inviting her ex-boyfriend Kenneth to the shindig, Brandon already having commented to Kenneth that his chances of getting back with her may be better than he thinks. When Brandon intimates she is after David’s money Janet gets serious as hell: ‘that’s a new low even for you chum’ through gritted teeth.

There’s a good old load of drinking that goes on throughout the film but (unlike Ingrid Bergman in ‘Notorious’) no-one seems to get any further the worse for wear. Phillip himself seems to chuck down endless brandies – I would actually be paralytic half way through the party and blurting out all the gory details, but he manages to play some rather charming tinkly piano music to keep the guests entertained (this by the way is the only music in the film barring the opening and closing – following Hitchcock’s oft rejected use of any extra diegetic music in his more experimental forays).

Phillip tinkling piano theme cycles along as Rupert speaks to him and there’s that wonderful ‘hitting a few wrong notes’ schtik (a la Les Dawson, or Tom Waits on ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking’) that always works a treat when suggesting building nerves, Rupert leaning over the piano to further interrogate the nervous musician. It’s a wonderful moment in a film that’s full of this kind of playful inventiveness.

Rupert ramps up the pressure by setting up a metronome to further stress Phillip out, slowly increasing the pace of its tick tocking. Brandon then appearing carrying the old books (the starting point for the party in the first place, David’s father Henry – played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke – had expressed interest in these volumes) bound in the very rope they bumped off David with! Phillip by this point is absolutely beside himself, Rupert fascinated by what on earth is going on.

Hitchcock can’t resist a little self reference and as the ladies chat to a bemused Rupert over the death chest they reference Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in ‘Notorious’ as they conversationally flit around about their favourite films stars.

Suspense is built beautifully as the main characters speak offscreen, enquiring as to David’s whereabouts, the camera staying on the trunk as Mrs. Wilson (their housekeeper played by Edith Evanson) slowly clears it and even nearly opens it…just in time stopped by Brandon but noticed by Rupert. On leaving, Rupert is handed David’s hat by mistake and the tension is peaking. Phillip is barely containing himself, Brandon relishing the whole thing. When Rupert returns, you know it’s all going to go completely off the rails, Phillip losing it and Brandon’s steely side coming to the fore. Armed with a pocketed revolver, Brandon is ready to attack.

Rupert explains what he thinks may have happened to David and Hitchcock pulls out a Rebecca-like sequence with the camera panning around the room showing where the action could have taken place (Olivier did this speech to Joan Fontaine in the 1940 film). This tips Phillip over the edge and he smashes a glass in anger : ‘cat and mouse, but which is the cat and which is the mouse?!’

Rupert’s final dialogue is electrifying and delivered beautifully by Stewart:

‘…you’ve given my words a meaning I never dreamed of. And you’ve tried to twist them into a cold, logical excuse for your ugly murder! …tonight you’ve made me ashamed of every concept I ever had of superior of inferior beings. Did you think you were God, Brandon?  Is that what you thought when you choked the life out of him?’

Hume Cronyn (acting in ‘Lifeboat’ and ‘Shadow of a Doubt’) adapted the play ‘Rope’s End’ by Patrick Hamilton for the movie and he does a great job here, climaxing in this impassioned speech that shames the two killers and exposes their cowardice. (He’ll go on to adapt Hitchcock’s next film ‘Under Capricorn’ but with somewhat less success).

The film has a wonderful Technicolor look to it under the aegis of D.P. Joseph Valentine and William V. Skall***. It’s the start of a new phase in Hitchcock’s career that will take in the jaw dropping classics of ‘Vertigo’, ‘Rear Window’ and ‘North by Northwest’. The colours feel lush and sumptuous – they must have been astonishingly vivid in their original Technicolor form. The credits list a whole bunch of camera operators and it shows, it moving at times beautifully around the flat, through doorways and into other rooms – graceful and sleek. Easy to do in these post-Steadicam  times but in the 1940’s this is some achievement, wielding the ungainly camera kit in such a seemingly effortless way.

It’s completely admirable that Hitchcock has the power, ingenuity and sheer gumption to come up with this very technical exercise. As noted before (going way back to the glass ceiling effect in ‘The Lodger’) it’s an absolute inspiration that someone who by this point had the power to do pretty much anything he wanted should push things in such an experimental way. ‘Rope’ is superb entertainment and, although undeniably an odd viewing experience, is fantastic. It entertains, philosophises and thrills and does it all with great characters and an innovatory technique never seen before to the same extent. What more does a movie need?

Miscellaneous notes

*The premise is based on the real life murder of Bobby Franks in 1924 by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. ‘Rope’ was banned in certain U.S. cities as it was seen as a homosexual subject – Leopold and Loeb were lovers and the film has obvious homoerotic overtones throughout.

**check on Wikipedia for a pretty accurate list of the length of shots and where transitions/cuts occur: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rope_%28film%29

***Technicolor was pretty new at the time and Natalie Kalmus from the company is credited on a lot of films from this era.

Hitchcock himself pops up walking along the street in the opening credits in a long/high shot and also in a repeat of the reference to ‘Reduco’ weight loss, briefly seen in a neon advert outside the flat window, again in the distance.

There’s a really interesting trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VCFP6vDkSUE&feature=related which shows a whole exterior dialogue scene between David and Janet in a park which is not in the film, and then goes into that classic old style trailer ‘the lead actor talks to camera’ thing they never seem to do nowadays.

Week 32: ‘The Paradine Case’ – 1947

August 14, 2010

Oh, dear. After two classics Hitchcock directs this really rather stodgy piece of courtroom (lack of) drama which is all rather heavy going and ultimately feels a bit flabby and pointless.

Gregory Peck (so good in ‘Spellbound’) plays the barrister (An)t(h)ony Keane (with a slightly zone-hopping British accent) brought in to defend the attractive Mrs. Paradine (Alida Valli – here credited just as ‘Valli’) after she is accused of poisoning her wealthy blind husband. As the case continues, the married Tony starts to fall for the bewitching Mrs. P., his wife Gay (Ann Todd) realizing she is potentially losing her husband. Gay is blonde and straight English, Mrs. Paradine raven haired and foreign accented, Tony falling for the attraction of the exotic.

The essential problem in regards to the film, it would seem, is that uber producer and general steamrollering megalomaniac David O. Selznick (whose relationship with Hitchcock over the past few features had always been somewhat prickly) heavily re-wrote the screenplay himself (and is the only credited writer on the final film). Always a dangerous game as the producer’s role of steering a film towards its most artistic and commercial success will always be marred when the self-same person is responsible for a key creative element in that process. Selznick’s previous screenwriting experience (aside from story suggestions and the like) was 1946’s frankly overwrought and close-to-being-mental Gregory Peck and Mrs. Selznick (Jennifer Jones) starrer ‘Duel in the Sun’, which has similarly limited success (although I have to say is pretty compelling in an off-the-rails kind of way).

On the plus side, Lee Garmes’ photography is beautiful to behold, as sleek and lovely as ‘Spellbound’ and ‘Notorious’ – as a visual experience the film succeeds very well (Garmes also worked on both ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘Duel in the Sun’ so obviously was a Selznick staple). Similarly, at times the camera moves fluidly and seductively and Hitchcock attempts to inject some creativity into this area, although he’s hampered a little by the subject matter (it being courtroom based for a good deal of the running time). There’s a lovely track to Mrs. Paradine in profile as the detectives at the start confront her – and later when we first meet Tony, the camera sweeps upstairs and continues to roam elegantly around the couple’s home.

In this Case, the older actors in the film seem to shine brighter than their younger counterparts: the venerable Charles Coburn plays Sir Simon Flaquer and he’s top drawer – he has a great authority to his performance and is believable as the older experienced lawyer. I liked him a lot in this and also in Douglas Sirk’s ‘Has Anybody seen My Gal’ in which he also corners the market on fusty old fellas. (No relation to James by the way).

Charles Laughton (Judge Lord Thomas Horfield) seems to see the movie as another excuse for some very entertaining scenery chewing, revelling in the chance to indulge his dirty old manliness. As the gentlemen join the ladies after dinner, Laughton spots Gay’s naked shoulder and Hitchcock throws in a brief zoom to this bare fleshed detail to express the old letch’s interest. The Judge then clutches Gay’s hand and places it on his thigh and clings to it – it’s all a bit cringy but does give them film a bit of a saucy lift, which is much needed.

He is a big slab of ham though, even moreso than in ‘Jamaica Inn’. His relationship with his wife (Lady Sophie, played by Hollywood royalty Ethel Barrymore) is spiky to say the least – he telling her to shut up as she dares to try to alter his decision regarding the doomed Mrs. Paradine.

Plus we get the great Leo G. Carroll popping up as the prosecutor Sir Joseph in the final court scenes – always good to see this fantastic character actor after he blew his head off so elegantly at the end of ‘Spellbound’.

I didn’t really buy Peck and Todd as a couple and they seem to have not a lot/jot of chemistry between them – you feel sympathy for Tony as he drifts to attraction for the witchy Mrs. Paradine when compared to his cold fish of a wife. It’s like he wants a bit of drama in his life – and certainly gets it. In all the Hitchcock movies, I do think that Ann Todd is one of the least attractive of all his blonde leading ladies – and Valli (for all her being set up as the object of various male lustings) is not all that either. Hitchcock seems to sense the lack of chemistry between his central couple and therefore consistently has them kissing and cuddling to make up for this – there’s much more of this playful married-ness than in any previous film and it’s a bit uncomfortable to watch in a ‘oh, just get a room/oh, you’re married – do we have to watch?’ kind of way.

Todd is very good in the scene where she says to Tony she wants Mrs. P. to live – she wants the fight to be an even one and if she dies it will be Rebecca-like: Mrs. P. will become ‘your great lost love’. She urges Tony to win the case and get her free and to do the most brilliant job he can. You have to love the ladies for their insight, I have to say.

Hitchcock plays around with jail cell bars at times – most notably when Gay is gazing at her husband and is literally framed behind bars, then her p.o.v. showing Tony trapped.

It seems to express their marriage as a kind of prison, and the temptress Mrs. Paradine as offering freedom to the husband – the more he sees her the more entranced he becomes and Gay (and Sir Simon) know it. Mrs. Paradine herself also is heavily placed within barred framings at various times, not least when Andre Latour (Louis Jourdan) leaves the courtroom and looks back at her. Latour is the deceased’s valet and Mrs. Paradine’s fancy man. It’s also interesting how, when Mrs. Paradine is first brought to her jail cell, the music stops dead as the cell door slams shut, that’ll learn her. Interesting that even in jail Mrs. P. gets to have a bottle of wine over lunch – I could understand if it was her last lunch but the trial is still going on…maybe it’s the rest of the poisoned burgundy that finished off her husband.

One of the most interesting characters in the film is Sir Simon’s daughter, Judy Flaquer (Joan Tetzel). She operates outside the main thrust of the story and acts like a commentator on proceedings when in conversation with fusty old dad and in the courtroom gallery with Gay. She pities Gay when Sir Simon tells her that Mrs. Paradine is ‘fascinating’ and even though he’s ‘an old ruin’ she still brings his pulse ‘up a beat or two’. Judy has a nicely cynical and wanton feel to her – she clearly fancies Tony herself and would have him ‘jumping through hoops’ if she was married to him ‘for an hour’. She’s fascinated by the case, much to her father’s chagrin. ‘Men who’ve been good too long get a longing for the mud and want to wallow in it’ – what a great line from Selznick. Then he hits us with: ‘the best men always end up with the worst women’ – Judy gets all the best dialogue in the film. The filmmakers could have made her a much more gossipy and unlikable figure, but resist this admirably – she comes across as intrigued but supportive and all the better for this.

The growing marital tension is an interesting part of the film, he torn between doing his job and the potential destruction of his marriage and his attraction to the spellbinding Mrs. Paradine. Gay knows that what she offers is ‘cosy, comfortable’ and as she draws back the bedcovers alone we dissolve to Tony’s Cumberland country adventure* as he tracks down the mysterious figure of Latour. Tony gains access to Mrs. Paradine’s bedroom and sees her bed – featuring a large painting of her on the bedstead (who does this by the way? It would throw you right off your stride).

Tony’s fascination feels very lascivious here – he prowling around her bed chamber taking in her underclothes and different aspects of her life, the music sweeping in romantically: it feels like a love scene with one party absent**.

Latour himself is screamingly guilty and immediately comes across as a suspicious sort. When we first ‘see’ Latour he is in shadow and this also underlines his mystery and otherness. ‘Never seem quite the same do they sir?’ says his driver in regards to the foreigner Latour in a matter of fact racist way.

Jourdan’s acting veers into the melodramatic and in truth he’s not actually that good – all dead eyes and subtle accents, and later in the courtroom lots of forehead sweat. The interrogation in Tony’s rooms features some very fluid and sweeping camerawork – again a bold attempt to give the scene some life and interest and inject some excitement into what is some very stilted dialogue. ‘She’s bad – bad to the bone –if ever there was an evil woman, she is one’ – wow! Selznick (or the previous writers) do spin out some great lines but it’s the structure of the film that is at fault and the sometime dawdling nature of some of the scenes – including this one.

The courtroom segments are a tad staid, covering a lot of detail and unavoidably getting a bit bogged down. However, the director injects as much style as he can, swooping the camera around whenever it makes sense to do so. Gay and Judy sit in the public gallery commenting on the action and helpfully guiding us through what is going on. Tony constantly addresses Latour just by his surname – is this allowed in court? It seems to be pointing the finger of guilt just by sounding disrespectful and aggressive. Tony’s questioning of Latour is pretty lengthy and you can feel the director trying to come up with different angles and viewpoints – culminating in big intense close ups of the witness and his inquisitor. At these points it suddenly feels like a Hitchcock movie amidst all the repeated shot/reverse/shotness. I think the most impressive sequence is in the courtroom scenes when Latour enters and the camera glides around Mrs. P. as he moves behind her. Hitchcock pretty much reverses this in the shot as Latour leaves following his testimony, again rather elegantly.

The ending of the film is by far one of the feeblest in all Hitchcock. We don’t have the drama of a final verdict after all the courtroom chicanery and endless dialogue – Mrs. Paradine’s fate only confirmed by the Judge spitting it out at his beleaguered wife. Instead we finish on a united husband and wife scene with Gay pledging her undying to Tony and telling him he needs a shave (?!) It really feels a disappointing and aimless closing to the sheer amount of blustering information that has come at us from the previous two hours or so.

Courtroom dramas are tough to do well (see Laughton’s memorable turn in Billy Wilder’s ‘Witness for the Prosecution’ or the great Cruise/Nicholson standoff in ‘A Few Good Men’) and Hitchcock fumbles the whole thing here, unable to inject his expected magic into scenes that at times drag on in a turgid and rather pointless way. ‘The Paradine Case’ takes its usually shining stars and dulls them into submission – it’s a pretty tough watch and a real setback after the triumphs of the previous few movies.

Miscellaneous notes

Nice sweeping staircase at the Keane’s pad – a gentle curvy one to parade up and down and crane that camera. Very similar composition of Peck coming upstairs to Grant in ‘Suspicion’ also:

* The exterior scenes in Cumberland, by the way, use a double for Peck – carefully keeping the imposter’s face turned away from camera in some cases. It’s always interesting to understand the financial logistics of shooting and the saving of cash by not having to transport the lead actor to a location. This would most probably be shot by a second unit also, rather than the director himself.

There’s a slightly odd zoom to the shot in the Paradine’s home at 40 mins in – clearly added in post production, the quality of the image suffering the larger the image becomes.

** It has the feeling of ‘Rebecca’ here – a fascination with a departed object of affection.

Hitchcock appears lugging a double bass and – like his emergence from the lift in ‘Spellbound’ smoking a cigarette in a slightly effete manner.

I watched the final 109 minute version on the UK Fremantle label – as per ‘Rebecca’ and ‘Spellbound’ lovely quality all round. According to IMDb the original release was 132 minutes but Ethel Barrymore’s scenes amongst others were edited out by producer David O. Selznick.

Week 31: ‘Notorious’ – 1946

August 7, 2010

‘Notorious’ is another masterpiece. It opens, as do various Hitchcock movies, with a very specific place and time establishing caption:

Miami. Florida, Three-Twenty P.M.,
April the Twenty-Fourth,
Nineteen Hundred and Forty-Six….

As her father is being sent down for some untold terrorist activity, we first see the elegant Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) emerging through the throng of courthouse reporters, dressed in bright angelic white. The reporters want a statement, but we dissolve to her throwing a party instead. The exterior of her place has a man walking frame right to left and you’d expect Hitchcock to use this opportunity for one of his personal appearances, but he resists*. At the cocktail party – winding down as there are only seven people there including her – she wears black and white stripes with an exposed midriff (racey) and is already well on her way to sozzlement. A figure sits with his back to camera, unengaged in the revelry. Huberman calls him handsome and another woman says he’s not a party crasher as he is poured a big old drink.

It’s a great way to tease you and introduce Cary Grant (playing what will transpire to be an FBI guy called Devlin). We know who is he is before the reveal, but it’s nice to be kept even vaguely guessing. The other partygoers have crashed out and it’s interesting to see how obviously inebriated Alicia is – movies always seem to be full of people who drink tons or get through stack loads of drugs but don’t seem to be at all affected by their ingestions so it’s good that there’s a vaguely accurate sense that someone is actually off their heads (it’s bold also that Alicia is basically an alcoholic throughout the whole film, always up for a double when it’s offered). Devlin in contrast seems sober as a judge even with the amount of booze he seems to have consumed. They go for a picnic/drive and she ratchets the car up to eighty, some good old swervy back projection and a trick shot of a bike cop in the rear view. To shut her up Devlin gives her a thwack and their romance is firmly established in the old fashioned way.

Their love story reaches full throttle when they fly down to Rio – a great scene at her hotel where, even delivering line after line of dialogue, they manage to keep kissing each other pretty much the whole time.

Alicia is clinging to him as a new father figure/lover but then Devlin finds out what his bosses (led by the great Louis Calhern as Paul Prescott) have planned – to get her inveigled into terrorist baddie Alexander Sebastian’s home (played by the neat, erudite and superb Claude Rains)  – they overjoyed that Alex then wants to make her his new wife (they consider her a loose enough woman to do this – basically viewing her as a whore. She is, after all, notorious). Tough for Devlin to stomach, but he’s a pro. Hitchcock repeats the Devlin-with-his-back-to-the-camera idea in the scene with his superiors – eventually he turns to camera and pricklingly defends Alicia’s honour, comparing her sarcastically to one of the boss’s wives ‘sitting in Washington playing bridge’.

This briefing scene is sandwiched between two starkly contrasting hotel room scenes – the first loving, the second cold and bitter as he imparts her mission that will doom their love. Cary Grant executes a great expression of mixed contentedness and regret when he successfully sets up a meeting between Alicia and Alex, his professional pride at a job well done mirrored by his personal agony as he offers up his lover to another.

Alicia, on her first date with Alex, is dressed all in black – conscious of her doom at  being offered up as a Mata Hari. Bergman’s expression of regret at her success with Alex (being invited to his home and to meet mum) matches Grant’s in its poignancy. When Alicia informs Devlin that he can add Alex’s name to her list of ‘playmates’ Hitchcock cuts to a rapid profile shot of his male star with the succinct rebuffal of ‘skip it’ spat out, the whole mission sticking in his craw.

Her introduction to Alex’s sinister crew is immediately creepy – each of the foreign accented fellows looming in to kiss her hand. Alex, so typical in Hitchcock, has a domineering Mother (Madame [Leopoldine] Konstantin playing Madame Anna Sebastian) who will grow in viciousness as the story unfolds. Mum Sebastian is frosty from the start with barely hidden contempt for this upstart female who has her precious son in the clutch of her palm.

The faux pas of the sweaty Emil Hupka (played by the impressively monikered Eberhard Krumschmidt, spotting the wrong wine present at dinner and making a show of pointing it out) will get him killed by the much more villainous looking ‘Dr. Anderson’ played by Reinhold Schunzel.

Mum’s dominance occurs throughout – in particular when Alex decides to marry Alicia – Mater openly suspicious of the younger woman’s motivations, a lovely track round Mother as Alex confronts her with uncharacteristic defiance, mummy’s boy that he is.

The photography and lighting throughout the film is wonderful: stark blacks and whites – almost noir-like light and shade, and very beautifully done by Ted Tatzlaff (an interesting CV, ‘Notorious’ seems to be his last film as a cinematographer, he then switching to direction until 1959. He then seems to not work on any further films until his death thirty six years later).

Hitchcock pulls out a variety of inventive and distinctly, well, Hitchcockian shots and sequences throughout the film. As Alicia comes to after her drunken and punched unconscious night near the start, a luminous white liquid sits on her night table (evoking Grant as Johnnie’s famed glass of milk/poison from ‘Suspicion’) and her p.o.v. has Devlin rotating into the frame in a really bizarre but evocative series of shots to perfectly express her disheveled state.

The main and most celebrated shot in the film is the famous ‘from large to small’ shot starting high up in Claude Rains’ ballroom, panning right and then craning down to the vital ‘Unica’ key clutched in Alicia’s hand – the key to the suspicious cellar the two of them need to investigate in order to locate the MacGuffin/wine bottles full of mysterious black powder/uranium. It’s beautifully executed with only a very slight loss of focus and, of course, a wonderful idea and the very best of these types of shots in all the Hitchcock movies.

The buildup to the two of them searching the wine cellar (repeated shots of champagne stocks running down) is very well handled and a really interesting way of building the suspense without masses of dialogue. It’s a bit of a stretch that out of all the bottles in the cellar Devlin just happens to knock over and break one of the suspicious ones, but you have to go with this.

These are all showcase shots and sequences and it’s important not to get dazzled by just these obvious moments in a movie this great. The atmosphere of darkness and scheming, the intrigue of cross and double cross are what keeps the narrative cracking along. These sequences scream overt style – but it’s the whole process of telling the story that keeps you gripped. There’s an argument that these ‘flashy’ shots (not wishing to cheapen them at all, they’re marvellous) could actually be seen to derail the narrative by being so odd. Certainly not even the most casual viewer could fail to notice the more radical Hitchcockian moments but – in most cases – his style is subserviant to story and therefore works**.

As the film darkens, so the shadows get deeper. Alex fully realizes his wife is in cahoots with Devlin (anagram of ‘devil’?) and climbs the long staircase to go and see Mother (again evocative of Johnnie’s milk run from ‘Suspicion’). When Alex tells mother Alicia is a wrong ‘un, Mum gives a triumphant smile: ‘I have expected it’ she gloats and can’t wait to exact revenge. This Mother figure is a real nasty one and reminds me of the vicious spitting Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) from ‘From Russia With Love’, poisoned with hatred and jealously (although lacking the spiky shoes). Alex can’t believe it, and is all too aware that his cohorts will kill him – they did the same to poor old fat Emil, and all he did was point at some wine bottles.

Profiles of Alex abound, but Mum lights a fag, keeps her head and plots how to save him. ‘You are protected by the enormity of your stupidity’, she says, and she’s right. The drip drip slow poisoning of Alicia via her daily coffee is really well done – Hitchcock loves these everyday items turning violent (milk/showers/birds/flash bulbs/bread knives etc). Mother and son are sticky sweet and carry on as normal as they slowly bring about her demise. The apotheosis of the coffee shtick comes when the cup she is offered is brought to her by Mother and placed in the foreground – huge – whilst she is being quizzed as the source of her illness.

As a family friend reaches for the cup and is stopped by Alex and Mum, Alicia twigs what is happening – two fantastic fast tracks to her murderous family members. It’s really powerful to watch and you feel her helplessness as she slowly loses herself in sickness and cannot claw her way out from this quicksand of poison.

Her saviour Devlin eventually susses what is going on and gets himself into the house, approaching her sick bed in a manner that echoes the earlier scene when she was badly hungover – this time he appears as a silhouetted figure and slowly comes into her focus. The grand staircase becomes the main area of eventual drama – can they make it down without the bad guys figuring out that Alex is at fault. All of them – Devlin, Alicia, Alex and Mother – are in mortal danger and it’s a neat twist that suddenly all of them have to escape from the hardcore evil doers. Devlin bundles her into a car and Alex is locked out, asking what he should do. ‘That’s your headache’ says Devlin. The final ‘Alex, will you come in please I wish to talk to you’ sees the little man turning and ascending his own stairway to hell. He is a dead man walking, and he knows it. Alex can be seen as a total coward here – if Devlin had let him into the car, what would have happened to poor old Mother (not that we have any particular sympathy for this devil)?

‘Notorious’ is sublime film-making and a high water mark in an oeuvre of movies that has many extremely high points. It finds a balance between suspense and drama perfectly and features sophisticated performances – and very daring in the case of Bergman. With ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ it certainly is the best of the Hitchcock 1940’s American movies and right up there with ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ and ‘The Lady Vanishes’ in his career to date.

Miscellaneous notes

Edith Head supplied Ingrid Bergman’s costumes on the picture – and wonderful they are too. Head is a fascinating character and won eight Academy Awards in her career, and was nominated for a total of thirty four (!). Her books (‘The Dress Doctor’, ‘How to Dress for Success’ and ‘Edith Head’s Hollywood’) are well worth checking out. She would go onto to work on another ten Hitchcock movies.

*saving himself for the later party scene as he sups a glass of shampoo before exiting shot frame left @ 1 hour and 2 mins approx.

I like the way that when Devlin plays her a recording of her he has it on a twelve inch record – how time and technology have progressed…

**Not to De Palma bash yet again, but it’s the kind of thing that he does and it torpedoes the storyline – he seemingly so enamoured of the glamour of flying the camera around that he neglects to give you a story you actually care about.

It’s probably just me, but the main front door of Alex’s house looks very similar to the logo for Joel Silver’s Silver Pictures: