Archive for September, 2010

Week 39: ‘Rear Window’ – 1954

September 29, 2010

In the mid 1980’s I was studying at Leicester Polytechnic and would fairly frequently go to the fabled Phoenix Arts Centre. Much brouhaha was created by a triple bill showing of three of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘lost’ masterpieces that had not been screened for some decades due to various rights ownership shenanigans. Suddenly they’re showing ‘Vertigo’, ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ (1955) and ‘Rear Window’. I went along to see ‘Rear Window’, obviously loved it and so stayed for ‘Vertigo’ – wow, a total knocked-for-six double bill! I had to leave for whatever spurious student based reason (probably alcohol related) and in retrospect am glad that I went out on an amazing high, as ‘TMWKTM’ is clearly the inferior of the three (but what good company it keeps…)

‘Rear Window’ remains my favourite Hitchcock movie. I can try to fight it and at times will maybe suggest it’s ‘Vertigo’ or ‘Notorious’ but really it’s always ‘Rear Window’. The film is so simple, so subtle and so enjoyable that it really does repay multiple viewings and is always entertaining. The cast are flawless and the film presents them as very real and interesting characters. Hitchcock’s direction is clever, witty, intelligent and dynamic throughout.

The director loves a simple setup, whilst it being simultaneously a challenge. A cameraman (L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jeffries here portrayed by the indomitable James Stewart) has broken his leg and sits in his apartment in high summer keeping a watchful eye (ok, peeping) on his neighbours who he can view comfortably (or not so) from said window.

Noting some suspicious activity involving an apparently disappearing wife by one neighbour – Lars Thorwold, played by Raymond Burr – he spies further and gets his very beautiful model girlfriend (Lisa Fremont – Grace Kelly) and his chattering home helper Stella McCaffery (Thelma Ritter) involved in his theories also. They are at first cynical and dismissive of his delusional theories but then become enraptured by the idea – ultimately involved in trying to capture the ‘murderer’ with potentially lethal consequences.

The opening shot is classic Hitchcock – it gives you all the information you need within one very succinct shot. The camera slows drifts across a broken camera, a shot of a racing car crashing, a negative then positive image of Lisa (the latter in the cover of Life magazine) and then a big closeup of the leg cast. Straightaway we know where we are and what’s been occurring. He summarises the neighbours in just the same way – the just married who rarely open the blinds, the bountiful young woman exercising, the lonely spinster, the composer/piano player, the elderly married couple bedding down on the fire escape due to the heat. Jeff gives these neighbours shorthand names to identify them: ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’/ ‘Miss Torso’ / ‘The Newlyweds’ etc.

I liked the helicopter buzzing overhead, a bit of a creaky effect but funny that the leering pilots are attempting to snap photos of the topless babes sunbathing on their roof. It’s a perfect little example of harmless Hitchcock cheekiness that is so often present in his films.

The first appearance of Lisa is often feted, and justifiably so. She appears at night, Jeff asleep in his chair, and moves face on to camera to plant a wonderful slow motion kiss on her man.

It’s the kind of slo-mo effect seen in the ‘dog licking hand’ shot in ‘Strangers on a Train’ – unusual and unexpected but in this case really sexy and effective. It perfectly introduces her and what a nice way to wake up from a kip. Her candy floss sunniness, her meringue shaped dress, contrast with the grouchiness, and pyjamas, of Jeff but still you feel their chemistry. I like them both a lot, and they come across as a believable couple.

Stewart is great throughout the film, really a signature role by him as he sits in his wheelchair but still manages to build a great performance. He portrays the frustration and discomfort of the heavy plaster cast in the heat very well – at one point frustratedly trying to scratch an impossible itch with a back scratcher. His expression of slight guilt at his endless gazing is also very well presented, at times feeling the shame of his prying eyes into others lives. When he first starts getting interested in Thorwold’s nocturnal excursions, there’s a lovely moment when he realizes his binoculars are not powerful enough, getting out the biggest zoom lens he has in order to see closer – it positioned tellingly on his crotch area before being raised up for action – all subtle and interesting business.

As Tom comes in once again and spies Lisa’s petite overnight bag, Jeff gives him a wry look and a gentle ‘careful Tom’ line which is superb – two men respecting each other with an unwritten and unspoken code, it’s a lovely moment – unnecessary to the plot but full of character.

Grace Kelly, as evinced in her performance in ‘Dial M for Murder’, really delivers here also – she is undeniably stunning to look at but has a steely side to her character that not only allows her to deal with the cynical and sarcastic nature of her loved one but also gives her the cojones to enter the wolf’s den of Thorwold’s apartment to boldly go where Jeff cannot. Jeff treats Lisa with a kind of resentment that, with all her perfection, he doesn’t see himself settling down with her in that classic bloke thing of assuming that life is over once a long term commitment is made. Far from being just an airheaded model, Lisa is in fact intelligent, long suffering and in love with Jeff, and in the later scenes, especially when Thorwold returns and catches her, brings out Jeff’s love for her as he is impotent to stop him or save her.

I loved the moment that Lisa. previously skeptical herself, is suddenly suspicious as she sees Thorwold sweating with a large rope bound trunk, and the camera slow dollies to her: ‘Let’s start from the beginning again, Jeff – tell me everything you saw’.

Jeff’s only defence when the villain finally appears in silhouette in his doorway is to flash bulb him into stunnation until he can yell for the cops – all he has is photography to save his life.

The theme of impotence (his nether regions clearly completely hindered by being encased in debilitating plaster) runs through the picture and is another source of his extreme frustration. He’s a man of  (in)action paralysed by his broken leg and only able to get through the interminable boredom and heat by entertaining himself (as it were) with people-watching.

Thorwold himself is a wonderful villain, he has the bulk of a man who could have chopped up his missus and shoved her in a trunk and even with next to no dialogue comes across as dangerous and threatening. His wife, harping on endlessly at him, is the kind of woman who would tip a guy over the edge and cause him to take drastic action. When we first see them, they are just part of the neighbourhood view, but as Thorwold rudely dismisses his deaf old neighbour lady early on, we see hints at a darker character.

The film is extremely cinematic, playing with sound and vision and in many cases runs as a virtually silent movie. Jeff observes Miss Lonelyhearts having a quiet dinner with an imaginary partner and we cross cut between her raising her glass and Jeff doing the same – perfectly and silently expresses her frustration as her shoulders finally sink in resignation. Robert Burk’s photography has a wonderful 1950’s look to it, the colours rich and attractive. He was now Hitchcock’s DoP of choice and you can see why. Franz Waxman’s score is sparing and used where needed in a very disciplined manner – the opening theme jaunty and jazzy to entice you in as Jeff’s blinds rise under the opening credits.

It’s interesting that at one point Jeff is bemoaning that Lisa wants to marry him and that the pair of them are not suited – he a ‘camera bum’ who nomads his way around the world, she a sophisticated Park Avenue girl most comfortable at cocktail parties. He’s kind of snobby about her lifestyle and the people who are obsessed with ‘the latest scandal’ – whilst all the time becoming obsessed himself with the gossip and potential scandal going on in his own backyard. The excitement they both feel at the ensnaring and capture of Thorwold brings them closer than ever – there’s a lovely shot of Jeff as Lisa comes back from illicitly delivering a note to the nasty neighbour – she flushed with excitement and breathless, he looking at her with unabashed love for the first time.

The only vaguely unsatisfactory part of the film is when Jeff finally leaves his apartment – via being dropped out the window by Thorwold – it has that classic 1950’s shot-against-bluescreen effect to it which looks a bit cheap and artificial – but this is a small detail in the exciting finale to the picture.

Edith Head supplied the costumes and has a fine old time with Grace Kelly who looks magnificent throughout (handy she’s playing a model). Good that at the end she is dressed down in a man’s style workshirt and reading a book about the Himalayas – then noting that Jeff has nodded off and swapping this for a copy of Bazaar magazine.

The neighbours’ stories in most part have neat happy endings. Miss Torso, after welcoming a myriad of men into her place, welcomes her soldier beau with a big kiss – he’s a little fellow with some kind of special appeal, we assume. Miss Lonelyhearts finds herself drawn to the piano composer whose gentle theme (developed through the course of the film until it becomes an actual record by the end) and compliments him in his studio – he happy that he has found someone who appreciates his music and isn’t just up for a big old part-ee. The newlyweds settle into their first argument, seemingly the reality of marriage. These are all neat little vignettes and add fantastic texture and interest to the main plot – unusual in a film to have so many little stories going on with sketched but believable characters – none of whom really has any dialogue. They are amply assisted by a genius set on the Universal backlot, all the apartments backing onto a central area, a street occasionally glimpsed through an alleyway, vehicles driving by. What absolute fun must Hitchcock have had to dream up all this stuff and then have the budget to create what he had in mind, marvellous.

The film has a universal appeal, everyone at one time or another quietly watching/listening to others and imagining what is going on between them or behind closed doors or windows. It is one of the great ‘voyeur/cinema’ movies – those films that regardless of storyline are in essence about cinema itself: Antonioni’s ‘Blow Up’, De Palma’s ‘Blow Out’ (which I like a lot, unusual for the great Brian), Michael Powell’s ‘Peeping Tom’, Coppola’s ‘The Conversation’, Soderbergh’s ‘sex, lies and videotape’ and many others. Of all these, it’s one of the absolute best and hence its enduring appeal and entertainment value. The direction is endlessly interesting and clever (whilst not being intrusive and too ‘flashy’), the performances are all wonderful (including all the supporting players in the apartments Jeff watches) and the whole thing adds up to a marvellously clever and well crafted triumph. If you only see one Hitchcock movie in your life (you saddo) then book a seat at the ‘Rear Window’. For me, this is the peak of The Project, but it’s not all downhill from here…

Miscellaneous notes

Hitchcock pops up as a guest in the piano playing composers apartment, off to Jeff’s right, about 25 minutes in.

The film was remade loosely in 1998, starring Christopher Reeve. I haven’t seen this version but kind of consider remaking stone cold classics a bit of a shambling idea – see Tim Burton’s risible ‘Planet of the Apes’. Why remake something that’s brilliant? Find something that didn’t quite work the first time around, but was essentially a good idea, and do it well second time around.

Raymond Burr later found great fame, ironically, as the wheelchair bound cop ‘Ironside’.

Hello out there somewhere to Mike O’Shaughnessy – my film tutor at Leicester.


Week 38: ‘Dial M For Murder’ – 1954

September 23, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock’s second foray into colour and the first use of a widescreen ratio – 1.85:1, and in 3D! ’Dial M for Murder’ has a huge reputation and is the kind of movie everyone knows from countless Sunday afternoon TV showings and its reputation is mainly well deserved. In truth, it’s very good but does at times need a kick up the arras and can feel a tad too pedestrian.

It’s based on a stageplay by Frederick Knott (also writer of the excellent Audrey Hepburn/Alan Arkin starrer ‘Wait Until Dark’) and undeniably feels like a one location picture, the director at times opening the action up but essentially letting the plot run its course in the apartment of Tony and Margot Wendice (Ray Milland and Grace Kelly). Tony is hacked off that Margot has had an affair whilst he has been on a tennis tour (he’s a retired tennis pro) and, when her ex–lover comes a- visiting (Robert Cummings playing Mark Halliday, having previously starred in Hitchcock’s 1942 ‘Saboteur’) he sends them out for the evening and hatches a plan to bump her off. He blackmails an old college chum called ‘Captain’ Lesgate (a.k.a. Charles Alexander Swann, played by Anthony Dawson) to do the deed with various key related shenanigans – but all does not go to the perfect plan.

The film has a great politeness to it, everyone tip toeing around the elephant in the room of Margot’s infidelity. I love the way people talk in these kinds of movies – it’s all so pretty please and proper, with adultery and murder bubbling under the surface. There are neat little touches that are clearly directed and cute: in the opening shot, Tony sits at the breakfast table and knocks the salt over, casually then tossing a little over his shoulder in a (as it turns out) vain attempt to thwart any bad luck.

Hitchcock is sparing in his use of unusual camera angles (aside from the 3D work). When Tony is running through the murder plan with Swann the director logically cuts to a high shot as Tony moves around the apartment and to the vital staircase in the hallway.

It allows him to cover the scene in one shot, the camera simply panning from side to side as Tony delivers his slick – and sick – sales pitch. Milland is great here, running through his masterplan smoothly and efficiently, Hitchcock running the longish scene with no music until Swann takes the £100 (‘on account’) and Dimitri Tiomkin comes in with a music stab, cut to Tony looking triumphant that he has persuaded the already shifty Swann to new heights of criminality.

Tony’s scheme is barely kept on track as he has to persuade Margot to stay in on the fateful Saturday night, she about to go out – he then has to hustle away her latchkey to secrete under the staircarpet: it’s all a bit out of control but he just about manages it, Milland also performing this delicate juggling act well.

Hitchcock’s use of colour is admirably applied throughout – particularly in regards to Margot’s clothing. At the opening of the picture Margot is kissing Tony, she dressed in virginal white – shortly after the snogger is replaced by Mark and she wears scarlet (the harlot). Her wardrobe becomes more and more drab as the film progresses and goes through a more muted red, then grey, then dull brown as the authorities close in on her.

When Margot is later accused of murder, Hitchcock has a field day as he unfolds a really abstract and bold sequence of Margot in medium close up being tried – legal voices offscreen as she reacts – finally enveloping her in hellish red as the ‘guilty’ verdict is delivered: the judge delivering the final decision of ‘execution’ straight to camera. This is bravura filmmaking from a director who has the guts to push himself and his art into even more daring areas of visual representation. It’s really very good indeed and a great way of avoiding all the clichés of a courtroom scene.

The tension leading up to the scene of the crime is expert – Swann is in position behind his curtain, but Tony’s watch has stopped! Will he miss the 11 o’clock ‘dead’line? He gets into the phone booth and we see a trick shot of a massive model finger ringing the eponymous ‘M’ just in time. A nice shot of the mechanics of the telephone system here to further ratchet it up.

The murder/attack scene is especially good and exciting – clearly the highpoint of the picture. The desperate reaching of Margot as she is strangled by the eager Swann is great.

Again – like the rendering unconscious dentist scene in 1934’s ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ and later in ‘Torn Curtain’ – Hitchcock handles the practicality of killing superbly and you really feel how hard it is to finish someone off. The fatal stabbing of her assailant sends a real shiver up your spine (as I’m sure it does him). You can’t help squirming as Swann falls to the ground and the domestic weapon sinks home. Yee-ouch! Fantastic.

What’s interesting in the structure of the film is that the big action scene happens before half way through and the rest of the film concerns itself with the investigation of the crime and Tony’s ever more desperate attempts to distance himself from any suspicion. Milland is really good at facially expressing his inner churning of story changing and plotting – on the phone to the cops he is asked who did it and he looks at Margot, swiftly realizing a plan ‘b’ for ‘bump her off’.

His subtle positioning of the second stocking under the desk blotter – then revealing it just enough to be found by nudging it with the tea tray – gives Milland a chance to do a cool satisfied look as he leaves the room. Chief Inspector Hubbard (played by the very British bow tie sporting John Williams) starts to unravel Tony’s tangled web, and the finger of initial suspicion is firmly planted on Margot – the detective speaking direct to camera in his inquisition of her.

It’s very wordy and theatrical but moves along at a fair old pace, although you can’t help thinking it could be trimmed down a little to get the same effect and narrative. Hubbard has that slight air of confusion about him that Karl Malden’s Larrue had in ‘I Confess’, obviously a good cop technique for getting nervy peeps to spill the beans. By contrast, once his blood is up in the later scenes, he’s unstoppable as he zones in on Tony – ‘start the ball rolling’ he declares to his men as the complex game of latchkeys and raincoats begins.

Tony remains suave and unflappable to the very end, even when finally busted he coolly pours himself a large one and offers drinks around. Inspector Hubbard looks content and combs his moustache with satisfaction at a tricky job well done. A cool criminal caught by a cooler cop.

I haven’t seen the film in 3D but even on standard DVD it’s noticeable how the director was employing objects to showcase this technology – a row of bottles or a railing in the foreground of the frame. Sometimes this can be clunky though, the first meeting between Tony and Swann having a big old lamp right in the centre of picture in a very distracting way, some of the opening shots featuring guys fairly randomly standing about at the lower part of the frame. It’s most effective in the strangulation scene as Margot desperately reaches for the killer scissors before plunging them into Swann’s back, her hand straight at camera. It was Hitchcock’s only foray into 3D and feels like it was a bit foisted on him – although the temptation to try out a new filmmaking process must have been irresistible to the arch technician in him. If you didn’t know the film was designed for 3D you’d be very confused with some of the apparently rather bonkers compositions throughout.

The performances throughout are fine and perfectly suited. Milland (so superb in his Academy Award grabbing role in Billy Wilder’s sublime ‘The Lost Weekend’) is solid and suspicious, twisting and maneuvering his wife into his trap – I like him a lot (although he seems pretty old to be a tennis pro to me, retired though he is). Grace Kelly – here in the first of three Hitchcock collaborations – is lovely and perfect as the ostensibly prim and devoted Margot, but with a dark and secret centre to her character. The supporting players all do a grand job and, all in all, ‘Dial M For Murder’ deserves its reputation – it’s tense, exciting, entertaining, intriguing and violent, if at times a little too stagey and plodding.

Miscellaneous notes

Mr. Hitchcock gets himself into the picture in the old school photo dinner, seated at the table with Tony and Swann. I have a bug bear about mocked up photos in movies in that they very rarely look convincing (people’s heads plastered onto other’s bodies). How hard is it to do this stuff well?

A little strangely the version I watched (courtesy of Warner Bros.) had an intermission about halfway through, which is odd as the film only runs 105 mins. It does leave you on a complete cliff hanger as it is just at the point the police are there and starting to assess what happened – audience tongues would wag like crazy over their mid movie G&T’s.

Week 37: ‘I Confess’ – 1953

September 18, 2010

Set in Quebec, Canada, ‘I Confess’ is a neat little thriller which boasts a fine performance by the great Montgomery Clift. He plays Father Michael William Logan who takes confession from one of his parishioners – Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) – and is promptly told that the confessor has just committed a murder. Sworn to silence by the sacred sanctity of the confessional box, Logan is then fingered for the crime himself because a priest was seen scuttling from the scene. This is all then compounded by a love interest from his pre-priest life (Ruth Grandfort, played by Anne Baxter) and Logan’s life starts to seriously unravel…

The opening sweeps you in with a celestial theme (courtesy of Dimitri Tiomkin) and a drifting watery shot towards a towering church structure in Quebec, straightaway then giving way to a more menacing toned theme with slight music stabs.

The shots take us through the streets and various ‘Direction’ signs before we see the murdered man (Villette, played – uncredited – by Ovila Legare), the figure of a priest striding away with lovely expressionist ‘Third Man’-ish lighting:

The lighting in the vital confession scene and the church shots is harsh and vivid, deep blacks and bright whites – very attractive in this tale of good and evil, darkness and light. In fact, the picture throughout is quite beautifully photographed (by Robert Burks, who will be Hitchcock’s preferred DoP right up to the cameraman’s death in 1968).

Keller’s wife Alma* (Dolly Haas) is not good at hiding her knowledge that Logan knows about her husband – veering around behind him as the priests eat their breakfast, a nice camera track behind Logan’s head. Logan can’t handle it and promptly walks out, much to his fellow priests’ confusion.

The chief investigator, Inspector Larrue, is played by the always dependable Karl Malden. He’s always good value for money and here he is clipped, direct, suspicious and to the point. He has that friendly smiley Karl Malden thing going but underscores this with a steel heart and manner, feigning confusion at times to draw more factoids out of anyone he comes in contact with. Malden is often shot from below, emphasizing his height and looming down on Logan or Keller. There’s a lovely shot where Keller is halteringly talking to Larrue and the latter moves his head half past the man to spy Logan outside, who is at that point telling the (blonde) Ruth about the murder.

Larrue is gentle and fatherly with the two young girl witnesses also, another good side of his character. They are the first to mention the ‘priest’ leaving – and Malden’s tone changes to formal quickly, the coincidence of Logan visiting the murder scene that same morning starting to sink in.

Ruth is now married (to Pierre, played by Roger Dann) but clearly her heart still belongs to Father. Her relationship with her husband is interesting as Pierre is clearly aware she is still in love with the vicar and says as much later in the picture. The scene where the married couple really get down to it in the honesty stakes is well handled, Hitchcock shooting this scene with out of focus objects planted in the foreground to give a slight imbalance to the composition and therefore the feel of the scene.

It’s good as Pierre just comes out with his accusation without loads of flim flam or embarrassment. Sure enough, as soon as Pierre leaves the room, Ruth immediately rings Logan and they meet the following morning on a ferry. There are interesting shots here as Tiomkin’s music beats cue cuts to people who may be watching them, her paranoia rising as she tells him she still loves him. Sure enough, one of the guys then appears in Larrue’s office and the odds start to stack against Logan.

There are slight flashes of humour in the film and they’re welcome. The continued painting and decoration of the priests’ house and the priest with the bicycle seem to offer some respite to the rather overwrought feel of parts of the film. Keller confronts Logan as the priest is painting up a ladder, and it feels like another confession. The scene is then enriched as Alma comes in and you have three people all of whom know what is going on but no-one will talk about it.

Hitchcock makes good use of the architecture of the city of Quebec – it’s large and stone and imposing and inspiring as towers soar diagonally across the frame, often used to link scenes together. At times it feels almost like a big travel commercial for the city and presents it as very attractive and dramatic. The church steeple montage is good as the cops go round questioning the priests regarding the night of the murder.

This Ruth remembering/flashback scenes (another kind of confessional) showing her and Logan as ‘young’ lovers (although they don’t look significantly different to me) start with a tremendously schmaltzy slightly slo-mo shot of Ruth descending a staircase, literally glowing in white – as is Logan as they kiss. The evocation of her romantic memories justifies this rather overboard and saccharine sequence.

Other scenes show Logan leaving and the pair of them caught in a rainstorm (her married by this stage, post WWII).  It’s also fairly lengthy – taking up a good few minutes right at the heart of the film that stalls the progress of the main plot somewhat.  The scenes, although based in sadness, do give the film a bit of a lift as far as being country based and romantic. The introduction of Villette and the reasons for his blackmail are all handled in this section, which then segueways neatly into the murder section. Tiomkin’s music seeps us through her whole reminiscence –which helps as it runs over ten minutes, the music fairly dreamy and again the rather celestial feel is present. Of course, Larrue then blows the whole alibi out of the water by stating that Villette was murdered out of the timeframe Ruth was with Logan – nice of him to let her pour her guts out and potentially wreck her marriage and ruin Logan’s career before letting this nugget of information come out.

The courtroom scenes are fairly swift and interestingly shot – Keller shot from below dramatically, then some cutaways (rather curious) of the jury, one of them combing his hair, another sneezing. It’s almost as if the director wants to inject a bit or personality into the jury members (most movies just have them sitting there). Logan, at the vital point of questioning, is shot from below – a large crucified Christ in shot with him to emphasise the weight on his shoulders.

It seems slightly strange that Logan doesn’t mention that Keller wanted to go to confession – could he have said this but then refused to say what was said in the confession box? It would immediately cast suspicion on Keller and away from him. As it is, Logan is found not guilty and has to endure the walk of shame through the amassed throng outside the court – trial by the mob. Mrs. Keller can’t handle it and her husband has to shoot her to shut her up, a bizarre decision as it squarely puts him in the frame – stalemate though it is by this point. The pace picks up and the closing of the film happens extremely fast – much chasing around and gunshots as they track to track down the lunatic Keller – finally he being gunned down in front of a theatre stage and Logan giving him the last rites.

I’m a big fan of Montgomery Clift and he’s good in the film, believable as the angst-ridden Logan. He has just the right balance of devotion to his vocation and confusion as to what he can possibly do with the information he has been lumbered with. The picture is good but not great, an interesting premise but not without its plot holes. ‘I Confess’ is solid fare, entertaining if somewhat dry, but well worth a look for how the premise plays out and the fine performances of the ever wracked Clift and the appealing Malden.

Miscellaneous notes

*Alma also being Hitchcock’s wife’s Christian name.

Hitchcock gets his little appearance out of the way fast, so as not to interrupt proceedings. He walks right to left at the top of a steep staircase, fairly distant.

I liked Larrue’s little bathroom behind a curtain in the corner of his office – it’s like he’s successful but not so much that he would get his own en suite in his office, a neat little touch to assess his pay grade.

Week 36: ‘Strangers on a Train’ – 1951

September 11, 2010

Bruno Anthony: ‘I certainly admire people who do things’

It’s a tough call to cram a thrilling story, great characters (including one of the best villains ever), superb action sequences and classic direction into a lean and very mean 96 minutes – but with ‘Strangers on a Train’ Alfred Hitchcock does just that.

The plot is simple, two strangers meet on a train (ok, ok) and one of them – Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) – over a convivial lunch in his compartment, politely suggests that he swap murders with his new tennis star chum, Guy Haines (‘Rope’s Farley Granger) in order that both of them take out inconvenient individuals in their respective lives. Guy kind of laughs it off, but Bruno is deadly serious (and seriously deadly) – proceeding in no short order to bump off Guy’s estranged wife Miriam Joyce Haines (Kasey Rogers) and then coming back to Guy with the expectation that the tennis player then does the deed on Bruno’s hated father. Guy, suitably shocked (although with his wife out of the way he is free to marry a senator’s daughter – Anne Morton, played by Ruth Roman) tries to weedle out of the whole thing, but Bruno is a very determined fellow…

The pair (and they are consistently linked in various visual motifs) are introduced beautifully, Bruno’s two tone brogues stepping out of a cab at the train station (he has one foot slightly raised – a hint at his sexuality, reinforced by his playful lobster tie and ‘Bruno’ tie pin – all very flamboyant. I very much liked his silk dressing gown in a later scene, seemingly decorated with ringed planets, very snazzy).

In contrast, Guy’s feet appear in some trusty black shoes, tennis rackets visible. Straightaway we’re off. This kind of lean storytelling – introducing characters with no dialogue but giving the audience the information they need – runs through the film, taut, impatient and speedy. As they meet first by accident, bumping feet on the train, the ceiling of the carriage is designed to have the look of lit train lines – parallel and stretching into the distance.

Bruno’s initial approach to Guy on said train (‘I don’t talk much – you go ahead and read’) is followed by him nattering on interminably. He’s charm itself and Guy, a meek sort of fellow, goes along amiably. The key plot device of Guy’s cigarette lighter (monogrammed ‘A to G’, with kiss-crossed tennis rackets) is introduced early on and in the ensuing lunch in Bruno’s compartment it is featured large in the foreground – Guy eventually leaving it behind by mistake and Bruno keeping it for a rainy day with alacrity.

The crossed tennis rackets are one of many examples of ‘criss-cross’ (Bruno’s words) in the film, whether it be train lines, tennis action or people’s lives.

Hitchcock plays around with sound as Guy first meets with Miriam in her music shop, having them go into a listening booth to discuss their business, the store workers and customers being able to see him becoming physically rough with her*. Suddenly refusing him a divorce, Guy flies into a rage with her and phones Anne to say he could strangle Miriam: dissolve: to Bruno’s flexing hands as his own mother gives him a manicure. This is wonderful, sleek direction and rich in plot, character and pace. Bruno has rung Guy and eventually the long distance call comes in and there’s a shot that reminded me of the process one of Marlene Dietrich in ‘Stage Fright’ – a big closeup of Bruno in the foreground and in the deep background his parents still in focus, arguing, although in this case it’s much more smoothly done.

The set piece scene of Miriam’s murder is wonderful. Bruno the epitome of malice aforethought as he stalks her through the fairground – a child bang-banging him with a cap gun, Bruno popping the brat’s balloon without hesitation and with his cigarette. Miriam is painted as a flighty type – off at the fair with two young guys and licking an ice cream suggestively as she glances back at Bruno, he suddenly appearing right beside her. She gazes admiringly as he strikes the bell on one of those bang a hammer things (I believe called a ‘strongman striker’), he proving his manliness over her two young companions who failed. It’s all very sexual, Bruno then riding a carousel horse behind her, the two of them going up and down in turn. In the Tunnel of Love, he follows them in a solitary boat, a playful scream and she emerges unscathed – but then he finishes her off in a fantastic reflected-in-her-glasses murder before coolly slipping away.

This is magnificent – inventive and callous, cold and calculated. Bruno then tells a shocked Guy, the two of them speaking through a barred gate prefiguring the potential jail outcome of Bruno’s actions.

Leo G. Carroll appears with great authority as Senator Morton, Patricia Hitchcock superbly playing his other daughter Barbara (‘…it would be wonderful to have a man love you so much he’d kill for you’), the plain sister of Anne with a fascination with the murder, clearly relishing a part that her real life father has bestowed upon her.

Following Bruno’s deadpan insistence that Guy follow through with his side of the ‘bargain’, there then follows a great montage of scenes with Bruno popping up and stalking Guy – his stance outside the large imposing stone building in Washington D.C. reminiscent of the dream sequence from ‘Spellbound’ (a distant figure against huge architecture).

Bruno ramps up the pressure as Guy starts to lose it more and more and Granger plays it well – not as overboard as his turn in ‘Rope’ and believable throughout. It’s a great series of scenes, Bruno appears tennis courtside and is the only non moving head in the crowd, his tiepin then giving him away to Anne. When Bruno sees Barbara, Hitchcock pulls out a wonderful superimposition of Guy’s lighter in her Miriam-like glasses (the fairground music fading in), cutting to a telling profile shot of the murderer, his expression noted by Anne. This is top drawer stuff, absolutely gripping and inventive – beautifully performed and shot and executed.

The extended cocktail party scene is a treat, Bruno rocking up uninvited and immediately creeping Senator Morton out with various off the wall ideas including some weird invention:

‘Can you imagine being able to smell a flower on the planet Mars?’

He then goes on to discuss murder with a couple of venerable old dears, proceeding to clasp his hands round a certain Mrs Cunningham’s neck to illustrate his suggested murder technique.

Unfortunately for Mrs. C., Barbara comes into Bruno’s line of sight and he has to be forcibly dragged from the old lady. He then collapses and is taken off to a quiet room (the Senator, worried the incident may cause a scandal: ‘first thing you know they’ll be talking about orgies’). Guy confronts him and loses it, smashing his fist straight at camera in a very effective expression of anger at loono Bruno.

Finally, Anne’s feminine intuition drags the truth from Guy as he tells her the whole story. It’s another spectacular sequence and further ramps up the pressure on the beleagured Guy, although now he has a confidant.

There’s an unusual little moment as Guy sneaks into Bruno’s parents’ house at night to ostensibly bump off the dad. Aside from some skewed and effective camera angles to express his feelings of imbalance and nervousness, he mounts the grand staircase to be met by a large growling dog. Keeping his head, he fearlessly approaches the animal and reaches out to it – Hitchcock then lapsing briefly into a slo-mo shot of the dog licking his hand, which then returns to normal speed. It’s quite an odd technique to suddenly pull out and may have been added in post – perhaps the licking wasn’t long enough and they needed to extend it slightly.

Mrs. Anthony (Marion Lorne), Bruno’s mother, is as batty as her son. As Anne tells her about her insane offspring she dappily denies all such allegations and dismisses her claims. Bruno then oils his way into the room, as camp as Christmas in his silk dressing gown.

The film is a series of set piece scenes, one after another – each expertly giving logical birth to the next in an all too rare and elegant way. Bruno’s threat to plant Guy’s lighter at the scene of the crime gives way to Guy’s big tennis match, in which he has to finish as fast a possible in order to get to the fairground and stop big bad Bruno. The intercutting between Guy’s vital tennis match and Bruno’s travel to the scene of the crime is expert and just the right balance. To ramp it up even more, Bruno drops the vital lighter down a drain! Mad amounts of tension occur as Bruno starts to lose it badly with some helpful locals – his hand desperately reaching for the lighter – dropping it further down!

The cutting pace increases, the music rises, the tennis match is almost won, Bruno reaches further and further, the lighter in huge close-up – it’s breathlessly exciting.

And then Hitchcock comes to the grand denoument of his picture, Guy rushing to get to the murder scene town of Metcalf to intercept Bruno, he seeing another couple of guys knock feet on the train with less disastrous follow on effects. Hitchcock dissolves from Bruno to Guy, further linking them, as they both look at the rapidly setting sun – one wishing it remains, the other wanting it to die. The all action carousel scene is superb, the sound design impressive – ever more hysterical music, the carousel sounds spinning, punching as Bruno and Guy go at it, a mother wailing for ‘my little boy’ (a cut to her kid, having a whale of a time – the kid then joining in the fight). The potential violence of the pounding horse hooves and the massive close-ups of leering horse jowls are surreally compelling, and as Bruno crushes Guy’s hands with his feet you can’t believe that the little fairground fellow who is snaking his way under the ride will get there in time. The editing cross cuts with great verve and confidence until the whole darn carousel crashes down, effectively killing Bruno – who still holds out that it’s Guy the guilty. The final reveal of the vital lighter is quiet and poignant – the end of Bruno Anthony…

‘Strangers on a Train’ is in the very top league of Hitchcock’s canon – it’s mad, bad and fantastic to experience. Bruno Anthony is a great villain, camp and vicious, ruthless and amoral – he’s the kind of guy you really never want to get into any sort of conversation with (aside from maybe the one about smelling flowers on Mars, which does sound kind of intriguing). From a simple set up and immediate premise, the director fashions a spiralling tale of murder and desperation that repays multiple viewings. Absolutely, totally superb.

Miscellaneous notes

*an echo of 1928’s ‘Blackmail’ as the couple go into the in shop phone booth for privacy and lack of earwigging.

Mr. Hitchcock pops up heaving a double bass (probably a reference to Bruno/Guy being ‘doubles’ of each other) in its case onto the train as Guy disembarks, just after 10 minutes in.

Robert Walker’s career hit an all time high with ‘Strangers on a Train’ but he died tragically the same year – aged only 32. He had been suffering from mental problems (and a booze habit) following the breakup of his marriage to Jennifer Jones (who had left him for David O Selznick). In an effort to calm him from an emotional outburst his psychiatrist administered a drug that effectively killed him. Watching the film knowing this feels a tragic testimony to his remarkable performance and adds a great poignancy to the film.

I tried to get some cheesy pun on ‘locomotive’ into this – ‘loco’ as in mad, motive as in…or loco-motion? I failed. Probably a good thing…

Week 35: ‘Stage Fright’ – 1950

September 5, 2010

And so the curtain rises on the 1950’s and, for Alfred Hitchcock, the real golden age of his cinema (not to denigrate in any way previous astonishments). This is the decade that he will give the world ‘Rear Window’, ‘Strangers on a Train’, ‘To Catch a Thief’, ‘Dial M for Murder’, ‘North by Northwest’ and (and!) ‘Vertigo’. To cap these ten years with ‘Psycho’ in 1960 is nothing short of wondering amazement.

The decade kicks off with the sometimes maligned but actually pretty good ‘Stage Fright’, a tricksy little story of deception and a falsely accused murderer (or is he?). Jane Wyman plays Eve Gill, aspiring actress and friend (though she wants more) to Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) who comes to her asking for help as he as been accused of murdering his mistress’s husband. The mistress is the famed actress Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) who appears to be stitching up her young lover as the murderer. Eve starts to investigate and along the way meets the handsome detective Wilfred Smith (‘Under Capricorn’s Michael Wilding) and the two start to fall in love – conflicted by their parallel investigations.

The film is bookended appropriately with a theatre safety curtain and this item will eventually cause the demise of the murderer. London locations are established from the outset with typical St Paul’s Cathedral background shots, followed by Eve and Jonathan steaming along in his convertible, paranoid about being chased by the cops.

We then enter into a flashback sequence that has caused some consternation amongst certain of the film’s critics – in that it present a flashback that will later be revealed to be untrue. I personally liked this and felt it was a bold play with the audience’s expectations (and Hitchcock has always been adept and exploratory in his leading the audience hither and thither).

The director plays around with some longish takes also and the kinds of camera moves he had used to varying success in his previous two movies: as Jonathan enters Charlotte’s house to reorganise the murder scene (to make it look like a bungled burglary), the camera follows him through the doorway and cranes up the staircase (hello!) in a nice fluid motion. The director seems to hold himself in check and it’s all the better for it.  He cuts as Jonathan enters the murder room on the sound of the door opening which works perfectly – whereas in, say, ‘Under Capricorn’ he’d most probably have walls flying off and the camera clanking around everywhere in one continuous movement*.

A rather bizarre process shot occurs about eight minutes in with Dietrich shot large frame right and Todd in the extreme background, she clearly against a green or blue screen and looking slightly strange and ‘cut-out’.

It’s an odd effect and slightly jarring as it’s pretty much the only example of this kind of shot in the picture (maybe this was added later when both actors were not available at one time). There’s also a cute superimposition in the later fairground scene as Eve’s father (Commodore Gill, played by the wondrous Alastair Sim) imagines the bloody murder stain on the dress of a lady at the fair – a bit abstract but a typical Hitchcock idea.

I liked the mental image as Jonathan imagines what Charlotte’s housemaid would be doing (she spotted him fleeing the house) – a series of dissolves as he envisages the police talking to her about him, his nightmare then born out as the cops arrive on his doorstep.

He flees his own place with great vavavoom also – a pacey speeding off in his car, the police trying to break the windows with a humorous cut to him pointing out that he has safety glass.

Alastair Sim. So well known as Headmistress Millicent Fritton (and her brother Clarence) from the marvellous 1950’s St. Trinian’s films, he’s great here as the accordion playing rather shady Commodore, who gives the couple on the run brief solace (curiously his name is mis-spelt as Alistair in the credits, I bet he was hacked off).

He also is the first to spot the potential holes in the tale Charlotte is spinning. His resigned befuddlement at dealing with his estranged wife (when he tells her the truth about Jonny she dismisses his answer out of hand) is all good – and Sim does it very well. In the later fairground scenes he exhibits a strong steely side that is also very admirable, coming up with the cunning plan to bamboozle the great actress Charlotte by getting a young cub scout to present her with a blood stained doll so as to gain a reaction that Smith can witness and follow up on**. A lovely Hitchcock moment of tension, drama and the exposure of deception.

Using Eve’s actress credentials allows Hitchcock to have her adopting various guises – the main one being an impersonation of a maidservant, which allows her to gain access to Charlotte and the crime scene. He also plays around with p.o.v. shots as Eve wears thick glasses purloined from her landlady’s house – some nice play on the blurred vision she has to endure. There’s also a genuine tension as she is in the murder house and Detective Smith is there also – will she be discovered and rumbled?

Marlene Dietrich. How could Hitchcock resist working with one of the cinemas greatest iconic blondes. She is wonderful – sophisticated, actress-y, scheming and vulnerable.

She’s great in the scene where she is dressing and chatting to her manager– she using her voice to feign pretence of what a trauma it will be for her to appear onstage but not wanting to let her public down. Eve is present and realises what a good liar Charlotte is. It’s another Hitchcock play on sound and perception as she then asks Eve to listen to the police interview from the other room. Dietrich is superb, hamming it up beautifully as she regales the police with b.s. and faked coughing. Wyman is also good, in a contrasting mousy way, herself acting as the maid with a mockney accent. It’s a neat skit on the level of stardom of Dietrich and Wyman also.

Dietrich gets some of the best lines as well:

On detectives: ‘They’re only police men with smaller feet’

And on her audience’s interest piqued by the scandal:

‘We were playing to capacity – Now they’re hanging onto the chandeliers’

Eve’s parents are beautifully played by the aforementioned Sim and Sybil Thorndike, the latter coldly dismissive of her estranged husband, he in turn smooth and mickey-taking of her unwelcoming attitude to him. Smith the detective runs down his list of crimes, including smuggling – ‘brandy’ he says, as Mrs. Gill hides the obvious stolen bottle she has been given by the Commodore. There’s a lot of gentle humour in the film, much of it in this scene  – and elsewhere the picture is peppered with neat little one liners (Mrs. Gill to Smith upon not remembering his name: ‘Smith? That name seems familiar somehow’)

Dietrich gets to sing also, it must be written into her contract. I‘ve always felt she doesn’t have a great voice – technically – but so laden with character and magic (this is Marlene Dietrich after all) that it’s eminently listenable and enjoyable. She’s fantastic. The Commodore evidently agrees and as Eve urges him to get going to save Jonny he can’t resist repeated views of Charlotte on stage. Charlotte’s main song (the Cole Porter penned ‘The Laziest Gal in Town’) is shot luminously and Hitchcock is well served by his d.o.p Wilkie Cooper (who shot the Brit wartime classic ‘Went the Day Well?’ in 1942) – his star shot mainly in full length showing her whole splendidly exotic diaphanous costume. Yes, it slows down the narrative a little but then the director twists it and has Charlotte spy Jonny in the audience and the tension ramps in once again.

Eve’s change of heart regarding her love interest is well done also – as her previous crush Jonny embraces her and says how much he needs her, her eyes wander to the piano that Smith had played, a little neat tinkly theme coming in as she emotes her new romantic interest. The eventual kiss between Eve and Smith in the back of a taxi is nicely built up, she becoming more discombobulated and rambling about the case and what goes on in a woman’s mind until he finally moves in on her. It’s very tender and believable and nicely handled.

The very rainy (typically English) fair is a great set piece episode. The real house maid Nellie Good (played by Kay Walsh) popping up to prise more money from the hapless Eve, who is looking more and more panicky as things get further into the quagmire of deception she is swamped in, the cops then popping up so she has to swap herself back to her Doris role to see Charlotte. Wyman is very good at flitting between all the different roles adeptly. It prefigures the marvellous set piece in ‘Strangers on A Train’ – more on this next week. When Dad pops up he is smooth and, with his villain’s history as a smuggler, he handles Nellie well. Some cool dialogue also:

Commodore Gill: ‘The next thing, I suppose, is to await the arrival of Mr. Ordinary Smith with his posse to arrest the whole boiling lot of us’

Smith: ‘What sort of father d’you think you are?’
Gill: ‘Unique, quite unique’

I felt that Richard Todd was only ok in the picture – he is a bit star(r)y eyed but feels a bit out of league here – but when he lies that he still has her dress he does exhibit the kind of steel required. When the final reveal of him being a total nutjob from childhood occurs, he ramps in a lot of wild eyed KrazyEyedKiller activity – a bit overboard.

In the book of Truffaut interviews the director and his interviewer hit on the formula that the greater the villain the greater the picture – and Todd as Jonny is distinctly second tier.

As for his male co-star, Michael Wilding, I find him a tad too effete for the role of the handsome detective – he’s smooth and well spoken but seems a bit too delicate in what is a fairly macho character. Widing worked well as the plummy  useless Charles in ‘Under Capricorn’, in awfully awfully period dress, but I don’t buy him as a London detective.

The photography of Dietrich is lovely throughout, she well known for having strong opinions on how she should be photographed. The noirish lighting in the final scenes – all bright lit stare-y eyes – is also effective, Jonny confessing it’s all a lie and he’s been a nutter since childhood and that he lied to Eve. At this point, I quite liked Jonny and he became a much more interesting character being guilty rather than the usual innocent guy thing – as he turns his murderous intent towards Eve to establish ‘a clear case of insanity’.

‘Stage Fright’ is a neat enough twisty turny thriller, a bit pedestrian in places and certainly second tier Hitchcock man-on-the-run stuff, but it has enough good qualities, imagination and performances to make it all worthwhile and pretty intriguing. It has a good way of dealing with pretence and disguise in a very humorous way. Sim is great – and a good cameo featuring the great Joyce Grenfell at the fair (running the shoot gallery).

The finale – the trapping of Charlotte via recording her trying to buy the bloody dress back – is a playful Hitchcockian sound experiment that also works a treat, their voices echoing around the theatre as the cops take shorthand notes. The final denouement – Jonny effectively guillotined by the safety curtain, is nicely bloody (if offscreen) with a typically brief follow on to the end of the picture as Eve and Wilding walk away together.

As I say, I didn’t object to the ‘false flashback’ and felt this was a neat diversionary tactic to throw the audience off the scent. Dietrich is always very watchable and classy, Sim slyly amusing and cunning as a fox, Wilding and Todd kind of ok – Wyman good in her own mousy way. It’s a good old yarn set against a fresh backdrop of the London stage and allows the director freedom to play around with some of his favourite preoccupations – disguise, the thrill of the chase and the duplicity of love.

Miscellaneous notes

*the camera experimentation of ‘Rope’ and ‘Under Capricorn’ is to be admired and shouldn’t be dismissed as trivial – it feels like Hitchcock has a genuine love for the new technology of the day and can’t wait to experiment with it, although it does tend to get a bit extreme at times as mentioned.

Miles Malleson appears in the Shepherd pub and tries to schmooze Eve – he played the rather elderly perv who comes into the newsagent in Michael Powell’s 1960 ‘Peeping Tom’ to purchase some ‘views’. He’s also had uncredited roles in both ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘Secret Agent’.

** There are also (as elsewhere in Hitchcock) many examples of the preoccupation with blood (and the colour red) – in particular female blood and its menstrual overtones. The blood stained dress of Charlotte, and later when the Commodore cuts his finger and smears it on the playground doll, all evoke a kind of  preoccupation with these matters. I thought it interesting also that the rather prim Eve has a skirt with three big crosses stitched right across her nether regions in the first scene with her father.