Archive for December, 2010

Week 52: ‘Family Plot’ – 1976

December 28, 2010

And so we come to the last Alfred Hitchcock film, the fairly light hearted and worth a watch ‘Family Plot’. The opening titles show some signs of inventitude, the main ones being enwrapped on a crystal ball which then leads us into the opening seance scene.

Here Madame Blanche (Tyler, played by Barbara Harris) is conducting the procedure on an, obviously wealthy, old girl called Miss Julia Rainbird (Cathleen Nesbitt) –the upshot of which is that Miss Rainbird will cough up a load of conned cash to locate her dead sister’s long lost nephew. Madame Blanche has a little peek through her fingers as the old rain bird is turned away, and then enters into even more bizarre impersonations before the full story is related to us. For $10k it’s decided that the search for her true heir should begin and thus receive his just inheritance.

Blanche is partnered up in all ways with George Lumley (Bruce Dern) and together they embark on the search. They think they’ve found their guy in the figure of Arthur Adamson (the great William Devane), a jeweler who also happens to be a crook, heisting big chunky diamonds with his bewigged girlfriend Fran (the execrable Karen Black). The whole plot gets more and more dense with misunderstandings and rubbish crooks mixing with uber pro ones – it’s a good old yarn and pretty entertaining to boot.

After the lengthy exposition in the car between Blanche and George (the director struggling to get any camera interest into the shot/reverse shot style and questionable rear projection), George has to brake sharply to avoid hitting a black clad blonde woman crossing the street  – a rather too neat coincidence as this is Fran picking up a big rock in exchange for the safe but unconscious return of one Victor Constantine (Nicholas Colasanto). Fran and Adamson get back to their place with admirable professionalism – Hitchcock taking care to illustrate how thorough they are as a team, all hidden basement cell and careful cleaning and Fran stashing her rug in the icebox. A shot of their rather lavish chandelier is then revealed to be their out-in-the-open hiding place, the diamond simply Sellotaped up there.

There’s a pretty entertaining séance scene as Blanche cheeses her way through another performance, hamming it up splendidly – I like Barbara Harris a lot in this and throughout the picture. In the middle of it all George sneaks in and has to entice her out to borrow her car keys. George’s investigations drive him to the burial plot of the Shoebridge family and eventually to Arthur Adamson. On the way to locating Shoebridge/Adamson, George encounters Joe Maloney  (Ed Lauter) who is in cahoots with the big jewel thieves – a slightly weird blue screen thing going on as Maloney comes to see Adamson in his jewelry store to keep him up to speed on the sniffing around (this rear projected thing occurs with Fran later also – it’s a stage set and they seem to have inserted a street scene outside the window).

Maloney is blackmailing Adamson for his silence – he was the one who put the fake headstone on the family plot and also assisted Adamson in the murder of his parents. Adamson is as cool as Maloney isn’t, Devane giving his usual wonderful soft spoken delivery under pressure and keeping his head as the cops turn up investigating the diamond theft. Adamson coolly picks a tiny speck of something from one of the cop’s jackets, a good little touch from Devane to show his supreme confidence. He’s great, why isn’t he an enormous star or used more as a character actor?

Pipe smoking George’s sniffing about brings him through the cathedral doors of Bishop Wood (William Prince) who baptized Edward Shoebridge and may be able to help him see some kind of light. Just as he is about to make contact the slick duo of Adamson/Fran manage to inject the Bishop and drag him out of the full to the rafters church, a good little sequence showing the professionalism of their schtick. The bishop is promptly locked up in their underground hidden cell and spoonfed gruel (not really, he gets chicken and a fresh bottle of wine).

There’s a pretty good eating/dialogue scene where George and Blanche get the call to meet up with the scheming Maloney, the two of them making homemade burgers and negotiating through bap* stuffed mouths. I at once find Dern annoying but weirdly watchable in a kind of overacting, twitchy way – he falls into that James Woods school of unbelievability and ‘look Ma, I’m acting here!’

The very fact that I notice his acting means he’s no good at it**. He even drinks beer annoyingly in the next scene when they are waiting for Maloney (who is busy outside the diner knackering their brakes) – most times I see people embibing it makes me want to also, but not in this case, no way****.

The ensuing brake failing car out of control sequence is perfect to summarise the weird tone of parts of the film. It’s quite ludicrous, Blanche grabbing George as he struggles to retain control of the vehicle – then she starts clambering all over him, sticking her feet in his face, yanking his tie etc. The poor sod is trying to drive an out of control car whilst himself busily over acting like a mad loon against a patently obvious rear projected background and some over cranked shots of a mountain road – leave him be woman! It’s not very good at all and I can’t quite fathom why Hitchcock does it like this as it seems out of tone with the rest of the picture.

There’s a nice cat and mouse shot as George stalks Maloney’s wife in the graveyard, it feels like they’re in a maze from above and he finally traps her and gets some answers about the (non existent) Shoebridge (who went up in smoke some years before) and Arthur Adamson. He and Blanche then start tracking him down, George bizarrely having half a (rather contrived and soapy) conversation topless aside from his cabbie’s peaked cap. It seems a slightly dangerous strategy for Blanche to actually troll around all the A. Adamson’s in the phone book in person – a humorous montage as she encounters an old guy/a black guy/a woman/twins in her search before coming across the real deal. What does she expect to happen then? Strikes me as a rather shocking lack of foresight for a medium.

Blanche recklessly heads off to Adamson’s place and the music here has overtones of classic Bernard Herrmann, some strident strings to emphasise the drama. The composer was John Williams and clearly as a modern master himself he’s aware of the Hitchcock heritage as the score throughout is a good one in comparison to some of the lackluster ones of some of the recent director’s efforts.

The stand out scene for me – short though it is – is when Adamson and Fran open their garage door and Blanche is standing right there! She tells them about the huge possible inheritance but dopey Fran blows it by opening the car door to tuck the unconscious bishop’s bright red robes back in (a great from the ground shot here) and the clergyman promptly spills out head first.

Adamson isn’t messing about and has to inject Blanche into oblivion straightway, a little drop of bright crimson on her fresh white blouse. It’s a neat sequence and shows the director’s tonal intention in the picture, a mixture of lightish humour and dark intentions. Good stuff, finally.

It’s also gratifying that the rather more slapdash and amateurish couple get the better of the hardened pros, who end up encased in their own personal prison with Blanche actually doing something genuinely psychic and locating the sticky taped diamond. The final shots have Blanche winking at the camera and a big diamond close up. On the DVD doco Bruce Dern relates how he suggested that Hitchcock himself appeared and did this wink himself. I always take these kind of anecdotes with a pitch of snuff but he’s right, it would have been a cool ending – especially given this transpired to be the great master’s final work.

Given that it features in prominent roles two actors who I continually find pretty annoying (Bruce Dern and Karen Black) ‘Family Plot’ is enjoyable and a not-too-ashamed-of swan song to Alfred Hitchcock’s career. It’s quite TV movie-like and struggles to break out to be really like a cinema experience but has enough twists and turns to make up for this. To balance the two annoying actors (this is purely a personal dislike, they’re ok at acting I just don’t like them – actually Karen Black’s rubbish, but anyway…) William Devane and Barbara Harris are really good and a treat to watch. It’s a fairly good movie and ok second tier Hitchcock. Worth a look on a Sunday afternoon in a kind of innocuous, light and entertaining way.

Miscellaneous notes

Cool Hitchcock cameo @ 39’57” finger pointing at some guy behind a frosted door, the two of them silhouetted.

There’s a weird brief few frames of black @ 51’42” which looks like a mistake – both pictures and audio drop out, probably an authoring boo-boo.

Profile shots abound in some of the séance scenes of Blanche doing her thing, as well as in the conversation between Shoebridge and Fran in the jewelry store.

*or roll/cob/bun/barm/blaa/manchet/nudger/flour cake/oven bottom etc.

**and don’t get me started on: Michael Maloney or Nicholas Farrell or bloody Bill Nighy for Olivier’s sake. And Toby effing Stephens? How, how, how do these people get work? Awful show off actors with twitching unnatural foibles and facial tics quite out of the ordinary and into the void of stop it-ness. Nicolas Cage veers into these realms sometimes too, but you can forgive him a bit because he’s Nicolas Cage and was in ‘Wild at Heart’ and ‘Rumble Fish’ for a little bit. And Brian De Palma’s ‘Snake Eyes’, heaven help us. And ‘Bangkok Dangerous’ – did you see that stinker? Michael Sheen. Ethan Hawke, Ethan Hawke – I think he may actually be the worst of them all, I literally don’t believe him in pretty anything (although the ‘Before…’ Linklater films were ok). Robin bloody Williams***. Christian Bale in ‘The Fighter’ or ‘American Hustle’ or most things. Shia LaBeoarff also. Paul Dano – he can’t even act in photos. Idris Elba?? Awful awful. Good Lord, how do these people get jobs? Grrrrrr….

***I am a massive admirer of the great American writer Vern who writes of Robin Williams, in his exhaustive and astonishing book ‘Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal’:

‘And if that’s not enough for you there’s an interview with Robin Williams where instead of offering any sort of insight he does his complete cokehead spazz out thing where he spits out 700 wacky voices and references in 1 minute, and you don’t know what the fuck his problem is so that’s supposed to count as being a comic genius’.

Nailed it Vern – I love your work.

(Note – this quote used without permission from Vern, although I reckon with enough compliments thrown out as tributes to his absolute stone cold writing genius he may not sue me. Thanks Vern).

****On the subject of Bruce Dern drinking beer in movies, have a look at his technique in his Oscar nominated turn in ‘Nebraska’ – he seems to do some weird thing where he puts his tongue in the neck of the bottle every time he drinks, very odd. I’ve tried doing it myself and it either just spills down my chin or stops anything coming out at all. 36 years after ‘Family Plot’ and he’s still distracting me with his lager antics. I hope he wins the Oscar, though, as he was actually pretty good in this new one…  

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Week 51: ‘Frenzy’ – 1972

December 23, 2010

After the debacle of ‘Topaz’ Alfred Hitchcock returns to London and makes a darned good thriller – the seamy and violent ‘Frenzy’.

That opening title is in white with increasing red vertical stripes, maybe resembling a tie – over a long helicopter shot along the Thames towards Tower Bridge. We then dissolve to an exterior of County Hall for the opening river cleaning speech – I love seeing familiar parts of London (or anywhere) snap shotted back in time*. Just as the full of himself speechifier hits the words ‘foreign bodies’ so one is spotted washed up in the muddy effluent of the Thames.

The body is one in a string of ‘neck tie murders’ that have been occurring around London, a serial killer on the loose (it will transpire to be the on the surface jovial market trader Bob Rusk played by Barry Foster). The film then becomes a wrong guy on the run kind of deal with the suspicion  immediately directed at Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) who we see tying his own tie and then having a double brandy first thing in the morning (that’ll put hair on your earlobes). He’s a grumpy bastard from the outset and has a very real aura of danger about him. He gets sacked immediately by the landlord (Felix Forsythe, played by the fantastic Bernard Cribbins – I love Bernard Cribbins) and flounces out of his job and onto the streets of Covent Garden. This is great to see also, pictures of a bygone time of flower stalls and the busy market – and not the recreated unnaturalism of ‘My Fair Lady’. Blaney is swift to anger and any little thing trips him off – again to misdirect the audience.

There’s a refreshing (if, from a modern standpoint very un-PC) attitude to the murders, the two lawyers in the pub (everyone seems to drink a bucket load in 1972) stating that ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ after the barmaid asks whether the neck tie victims were raped before being murdered.

They also comment that the killings are ‘good for the tourist trade’ (!) as Blaney gets mildly shirty at the barman and asks for a triple brandy (my God – he’s already had two of them and at least one other short and then this triple and it must not even be midday. I’d be absolutely shedded).

Blaney is broadly drawn, a bit too much I think. He’s so out of sorts and bad tempered it’s a bit ridiculous – horses annoy him, grapes get trampled, his ex-wife (Barbara Leigh-Hunt playing Brenda Blaney) gets a right ear bashing (and she seems pretty meek and mild to me) and then he ends up crushing a brandy glass with his bare hands (then giving the kindly old waitress a lug hole full for trying to help). I actually quite like him but, my word, is he miserable.

The murder of Brenda by the absolutely hatstand Rusk is outstanding. Hitchcock’s takes advantage of more relaxed censorship laws and produces a really shocking rape and killing, it goes on for ages (see ‘Torn Curtain’s farmhouse mayhem) and is very explicit.

Bob is mad as a mad thing, his repeated mantra of ‘lovely’ spurring him along on his crazed sexual/guilt psycho trip. In this one sequence he propels himself firmly into the top five of Hitchcock nutters – all sweaty brow and dodgy ginger barnet, then coolly waltzing off with Brenda’s half eaten apple, her Edenesque dating agency idyll shattered. There is a brief freezeframe on his victim’s eyes just before she gives up the ghost and this goes hand in hand with a marvelously effective and strongly edited scene. Of course, unlucky old Blaney is spotted leaving the building shortly afterwards, so you can see where this is headed.

Brenda’s secretary Miss Barling (Jean Marsh) is really good, supplying a pin sharp accurate description of Blaney to the cops: ‘I’ve learnt to keep a sharp eye on men’ she says curtly, as the two detectives shift nervously. There’s an undercurrent of implied pervdom throughout the film, the suggestion that all of us (men in particular) are bubbling under with suppressed madness of some description – Rusk just lets his out of the Pandora’s box occasionally.

There’s a nice, almost Carry On, feel to the hotel scene as Blaney and Babs Milligan (Anna Massey) check in for some illicit after hours exercise. The porter (Jimmy Gardner) and the hotelier Gladys (Elsie Randolph) shocked that they may be housing a killer. ‘Sometimes just thinking about the lust of men makes you want to heave’ says the porter in a very Charles Hawtry style as he calls the police, who literally screech up within a minute. Blaney seeks refuge with an old RAF buddy (Johnny Porter, Clive Swift) and his wife (Hetty – played by the wonderful Billie Whitelaw) in a rather convenient chance meeting in a park – a bizarre camera zoom to their flat from below. Also handy is that Johnny is opening a British pub in Paris and offers the two of them jobs and they arrange to slip away the following day. Blaney’s gone from out of work and wanted by the rozzers to having a new career in a new country in just a few minutes, pretty good going Dick. Whitelaw is always good and here is no exception – she’s having no truck with harbouring a potential killer and stalks out after delivering a great speech. ‘I’m going shopping’ she says, good on yer, Billie. I love the way when she’s questioning Blaney she just sits fixedly on the sofa, her arms stretched to each side, unmoving and uncompromising.

There’s an entertaining little side story involving Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) whose wife is taking a gourmet cooking course and insists on experimenting on her poor husband (‘soupe de poissons’/ ‘quail with grapes’). Seeking culinary refuge at work, Oxford tucks  into a full English with great gusto, chomping vigorously whilst chatting and taking phone calls about the case. He’s good at eating and acting too – no mean feat (see ‘To Catch a Thief’s picnic scene). ‘Discretion is not traditionally the strong suit of the psychopath’ says Oxford as he and his wife chat amiably of murder over their inedible fodder.

Babs walks out of her pub job, dissing Forsythe to boot, and there’s a very unusual silent few seconds as she stands outside the pub as if she is realizing what she has just done. This is broken by the smooth talking Rusk (softly: ‘got a place to stay?’) who offers her a room for the night. Hitchcock pulls out a bravura camera track/dolly as the two chat through the market. Of course his intentions are way away from honorable and he takes advantage of the potato delivery he has heard about to finish her off and stuff her in the spuds. Hitchcock handles this second murder with admirable restraint. After the savagery of the bumping off of Brenda the camera just leaves Rusk to it (‘you’re my type of woman’ is his refrain) as it snakes down the staircase and out to the busy Covent Garden street filled with oblivious workers and passers by.

Hitchcock magic strikes in the dispatching of Babs. Rusk dumps her in the potato lorry and then realizes she’s had the presence of mind to snatch his distinctive ‘R’ tiepin. In a frenzy (hello!) he gets in the back and there’s a marvellous sequence which plays all but dialogue free of him having to search through potato sacks to find her and then put up with a dead foot pushing into his face before having to literally break her fingers to prise them open and retrieve the vital piece of evidence. It’s wince inducing and desperate and funny – and he gets away with it to kill another day.

The film becomes a classic wrong man thriller, Blaney yanked in by the cops and interrogated. It’s all good stuff, pacey and well put together and with an energy and dynamism that was sorely lacking in much of ‘Torn Curtain’ and virtually the whole of ‘Topaz’. The trial of Blaney is Hitchcock minimal, shot from outside the room we only hear the highlights when the courtroom door is opened – neat and effective and another instance of inventive sound use. A really dynamic shot from above is employed as Blaney is locked up, emphasizing the minute scale of his prison cell. But all is not lost. In a development that reminded me of Herbert Marshall’s lawyer Sir John not believing the verdict in ‘Murder!’, C.I. Oxford sits in the courtroom alone and hears echoes of Blaney ranting about Rusk – it’s enough to get him started on his own investigation…

It’s all very good, Oxford going to see Miss Barling again (who comes out with the great line ‘men like this leave no stone unturned in their search for their disgusting gratifications’) and then conferring with his wise old wife who states it’s obviously Rusk who’s guilty (this summised over serving up a grand silver service containing ‘pied du porc’ in some kind of dodgy sauce – Oxford then making a right meal of attempting to eat the porky feet).

Mrs. Oxford is great, snapping a breadstick when her husband relates how Rusk broke the victim’s fingers.

This scene is really lovely, going behind the curtain of the detective as he relates how Rusk went to a truck stop where Oxford wistfully tells her ‘they serve humble food like bacon and egg sandwiches, sausages and mashed potatoes and cups of tea and coffee’.

The pacey and exciting denouement sees Blaney slipping out from his hospital bed to go and nobble Rusk – unaware that he is actually going to be proven innocent the following day. Ron Goodwin’s music here is good – almost cantering along in a horselike manner as the sequence gains momentum. Blaney unwittingly beats a dead girl who is in Rusk’s bed, Oxford then coming in, followed by Rusk lugging a massive chest to dispose of her. ‘Mr Rusk. You’re not wearing your tie’ are the last words of the picture, delivered dead pan by Oxford.

‘Frenzy’ is the saving grace in the latter years of Alfred Hitchcock. Without it his career could be considered to have sadly declined as his age grew – but with it he delivers a fitting testament to his genius. Bearing in mind he was in his early seventies at the time, it is directed with vim and vigour and a restless energy that hadn’t been seen in his work since ‘Marnie’, nearly a decade before. It’s a cracking picture, very different in its setting (obviously) and very harsh in its violence. The characters are good, the acting convincing and the little side bits (in particular the scenes with Mrs. Oxford’s cooking innovations and the two gossipy hoteliers) are fun and diverting.

Miscellaneous notes

*Hitchcock unusually makes two cameos in ‘Frenzy’, both in these opening scenes. He’s black bowlered about 3 minutes in and within a minute he’s there again – trying to get a look at the floater. Mrs. Rusk (the murderer’s mum) who pops her head out of the window about 13’38” in looks like Hitchcock in drag – but is actually played by Rita Webb. Oh, well.

‘Frenzy’ reminded me a bit of certain other pictures made by US based directors who come to the UK: Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Straw Dogs’ and John Landis’ ‘An American Werewolf in London’ all have a kind of suspicion at the weirdness of British life and people. Hitchcock of course was British but it does share with these other films a feel of looking with curiosity at the quirky rituals of this country.

Week 50: ‘Topaz’ – 1969

December 18, 2010

A more traditional Universal logo kicks off ‘Topaz’ than a few of the previous Alfred Hitchcock films and we’re straight into some military style strident marching band music over shots of Russian  army muscle library footage. A caption sets up the story succinctly and feels to me like it was added on in post to clarify just what the devil is going on for the first chunk of the film. Another caption establishes that we are in nineteen sixty-two (the time of Cuban missile crisis) and Hitchcock pulls out a pretty sleek crane move sequence showing the Russian minister, Boris Kusenov (Per-Axel Arosenius – there’s a name for you), and his wife and daughter exiting a secure building whilst being observed by a hidden suspicious sort (the female members of the family are Mrs. K – Sonja Kotholff – and Tamara – Tina Hedstrom). Boris is going to defect and ostensibly become an informant to the Yanks but is actually very uncommunicative when he gets to the US – especially when quizzed about a leak in the French government named ‘Topaz’. The Cold War between America and Russia is bubbling along, and the Yanks are particularly interested in plucking Kusenov’s brains about events unfolding in Cuba…

For nearly ten minutes the film runs like a silent, the family being tailed around the Russian streets stalked by three agents. They think they’ve lost them and end up in a porcelain factory and eventually contact Michael Nordstrom (played by John Forsythe, becoming more the famed silver fox than his appearance in ‘The Trouble with Harry’). Michael is backed by a portrait of JFK, just to underline the chronology. This sequence feels very much like a Hitchcock movie, in mood and pacing – it’s really pretty good.

The defecting sequences are fairly exciting – loads of people from both sides expectantly waiting for the family to make their break. When they do, triggered by a fire alarm, you want them to get away with it as the daughter stumbles in a bike and grazes her knees – go! And they make it. Kusenov criticizes Nordstrom, saying the whole thing was ‘clumsy’ (thanks a lot) as they get on the plane that will fly them out. Curiously with the all the urgency the plane only has one propeller on the go, I don’t know much about planes but I would thought you could have had both of them running to be even more ready. There’s an unintentionally humorous front shot of the two pilots, wobbling slightly, and I was immediately reminded of ‘Airplane’, expecting dear departed Leslie Nielsen to pop his head through the curtains…

Kusenov is fantastically disinterested in America, his daughter avidly wanting to see the White House – her father looking more and more miserable. Partner this with his then unwillingness to actually proceed with the process of bean spilling and you wonder why he’s bothered defecting in the first place – play the game, fella. There’s a right load of driving and establishing of place and location getting Kusenov to his family’s new house, this slowing the film down a little (and it’s pretty static anyway to be honest – although, getting all arty about it, these exteriors and the shot of the daughter playing piano reminded me of Vermeer paintings a little, interesting lighting and compositions). Things come alive a bit more when he is asked about ‘Topaz’, the camera cutting to an above the head shot of Kusenov – a clear signal he knows more than he is letting on.

It’s nice later on in the picture when Kusenov has clearly resigned himself very comfortably to his new American life. He sits relaxedly with a large cigar (probably a Cuban) and sips coffee before going for a nice walk to watch the sunset. Neat how he has given way to the many temptations of the decadent West.

Andre Devereaux heads up the French part of the plot (played by Frederick Stafford). He’s pretty slick and I like him, probing around trying to suss out why the Russians had rung to tell the French that one of the guys had defected to the US. He and his wife have Michael over for dinner as Andre wants info. I like his wife a lot (her name is Nicole and she’s played by Dany Robin), she comes straight out with questions and gossip and basically takes the piss out of the two ‘spies’. After she leaves, Andre leans into Michael’s shot, proferring brandy and questions about Kusenov in a neat Hitchcockian composition.

Kusenov carries on being unhelpful and seems genuinely outraged. I didn’t really buy that anyone in his position could be so naïve about what was expected of him when he defected – he gets shirty as to why they keep asking him so many questions! I do like the three plaster of Paris busts the Americans have mocked up showing the Kusenovs their new disguises, which are swiftly swept onto the floor by happy daddy.

Tamara picks up her own head and cuddles it, she quite liking the idea of a music scholarship – mum quite liking the new fashions she is being fitted for.

Andre has a jaunty little Gallic theme that comes in when he goes into spy mode, it’s kind of TV-lite but fun (it feels a little like the theme from ‘The Saint’ or something – music here by Maurice Jarre). It is there when we first see him and again when Michael asks him to get hold of some secret Russian /Cuban documents. It’s very handy that Andre’s son in law is a sketch artist at…the United Nations! So he has drawings of all the guys they’re interested in – particularly the big Cuban boss Rico Parra (the great John Vernon – you’ll know him from ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ and the great Walter Matthau caper ‘Charley Varrick’)…

…and the more malleable and open-to-bribery Luis Uribe (Don Randolph). It’s also a bit of a stretch that Andre has to borrow the massive piece of paper that the sketches are on – what sort of spy is he who can’t remember a face? And he has to carry a massive folded piece of paper in his inner jacket pocket so if he’s gets busted by the enemy they can trace it back to his son in law. ‘Gee thanks Dad, the Cubans just went and bumped my hubbie off because of his sketchwork, good call’. OK, I know he has to show his photographer pal Philippe Dubois (the very smooth Roscoe Lee Browne) but still…

The whole sequence with Philippe getting to photograph the secret documents is pretty good – if a little drawn out. He establishes contact with Uribe and this is played out as a silent movie with Andre observing from across the Harlem street. When big bad Rico realizes what Uribe is up to he, and his curiously ginger haired and bearded sidekick (Hernandez played by Carlos Rivas looking very ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ to me), steam in and Philippe executes a deft window leap using a shop awning as a cushion. Rico just gives a look and you know it’s ‘come in Uribe, you’re time is up’. Philippe equally slickly slips the camera to Andre and then assumes his usual cool position in his florist shop – home free.

The Cuban section of the film has Andre jetting down there to ostensibly check out what’s occurring with Rico and the Russians (not a bad title, that) but Mrs. Andre knows he has a fancy woman on the go also – and worse still it’s Rico’s woman Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor – a dusky scarlet dressed brunette in contrast to Nicole’s blonde locks). Sure enough, as soon as Andre gets there he’s doing his best for international relations right under the nose of the armed-to-the-teeth Cuban revolutionary. He’s full of good ideas, is Andre.

The mercilessness of Rico is matched by the determination of the Cuban resistance. A nice scene occurs as two members of the resistance hide a camera in a baguette to photograph goings on, they then getting nabbed due to the woman being shot – but an old guy plodding out on a horse to retrieve their secreted camera with its precious film (a little kick on the picture to hide a tighten up edit – who moved that tripod?!) The camera is then hidden up the arse end of a chicken – wow, they really don’t want to fall fowl of these revolution guys. When Rico gets a-hold of them he doesn’t mess about – the couple beaten and tortured and arranged in a classic pieta, she eventually telling Rico it was Juanita who’s the bad penny.

Rico furiously confronts Juanita, who descends her staircase to be slow arm-grabbed by him. Vernon is almost operatic as he delivers his determined threatening speech to her before unhesitatingly delivering a bullet-in her. Hitchcock pulls out a lovely high shot as Juanita slumps to the chess board floor, her dress flowing outwards like deep purple blood – wow!

He’s also pretty scary when he confronts Andre in the presence of Juanita, although she then effectively tells him to sling his hook and chucks him out – good for her. Andre still manages to get the photos out of the country even in the face of high suspicion (it all gets a bit Bond like at this point, although Andre doesn’t hide the pics in any sort of poultry), but it feels like their love affair is over as they say goodbye with high emotion – the score sweeping in to underline everything, if we were in any doubt. I didn’t buy at all that he, as a veteran spy, would water soak the book cover that hides the photos whilst he is still on the plane home just to check they’re there (!)

Like the start of the picture, Hitchcock uses actual documentary footage of real events – Fidel Castro giving a speech intercut with the actors – it’s pretty well matched as well (unlike a lot of this kind of thing where it is screamingly obvious that the two different scenes/clips don’t match at all).

The last third, from the time Andre is banished back to Paris for all his country hopping spying/double sided shenanigans, is by far the dullest in the film. He tries to investigate the spy ring Topaz more and we have fairly long scenes of dialogue but no real suspense or excitement. Jaret (Philippe Noiret*) one of the Topaz guys, coolly chomps down his lunch as all this is discussed – only being engaged when Kusenov’s name is mentioned. He explains that Kusenov actually died a year before, much to Andre’s confusion.

Following the big summit meeting between the French and Americans  – from which Jacques Granville (Michel Piccoli) is frozen out from as he is exposed as the ringleader of Topaz (he’s also been having an affair with Nicole, the scoundrel**) – we go back to the airport and Andre and Nicole are boarding a plane back to the US. They see Granville boarding also and Nicole muses how he gets away with it, Andre flatly stating ‘anyway, that’s the end of Topaz’ which indeed it is, thank the Lord. A very handy headline tells us ‘Cuban Missile Crisis Over’ and we’re done. It really does feel that the director couldn’t either come up with an ending or just had given up by this point***.

‘Topaz’ is a film with tons of exposition and no pay off – it’s like going up a really long mountain chair lift and then not being allowed to ski down. After the supreme world conquering triumphs of previous years it’s a major let down – watch it about the time you view ‘Number Seventeen’ to experience the very worst of the director’s work.

Miscellaneous notes

Nice little Hitchcock cameo about 32 mins in, he being pushed along in a wheelchair at the airport – then effortlessly standing to greet another guy.

*you’ll know him from his all time classic turn as Alfredo in Giuseppe Tornatore’s ‘Cinema Paradiso’ (1988).

Some of the all time worst Hitchcock rear projection in the driving scenes about an hour and 42 in – howler.

Another example of a crap mocked up photo @ 2 hours 11 mins – couldn’t they just have taken an actual photo of the three actors together? It’s not like they don’t appear in scenes at one point or another. (See Week 38).

**a very wobbly camera move towards Granville in this meeting – much worse than similar longish crane shots from Hitchcock films from twenty years earlier, what gives?

***On the DVD in the UK Universal box set collection they helpfully feature the two alternative endings – the dual scene between Andre and Granville (the latter being shot in the back by the Russians) and the stranger ‘Granville leaving the meeting then going into his house and shooting himself’. The dual scene, for me, is the best ending and would give the film some feeling of climax and closure – but apparently was rejected by preview audiences. The Granville suicide is very odd as you only glimpse him going in to his house (it’s actually Philippe Noiret’s character Jaret but Hitchcock had to cut it just as you glimpse a figure going in – Jaret has a walking stick throughout) – the frame then freezes and a zoom is added in post as you hear the gunshot. I have to say that either of these endings are preferable to the limp one chosen for the version I saw – although none of them are really great.

Again, like the past three releases, the Universal UK box set edition features an open gate 4:3 ratio – see previous notes.

Week 49: ‘Torn Curtain’ – 1966

December 11, 2010

The opening titles of ‘Torn Curtain’ are kind of weird and feel rather like cheap TV titles, dissolving light images and shots from the film rather randomly constructed over a theme that lacks the class of the great Bernard Herrmann music of past Alfred Hitchcock films. The soundtrack here is by John Addison who seems to have more experience as a conductor and TV composer – and it shows throughout the film with, at times, seemingly random music popping up*. It also at one point (the questioning of the Julie Andrews character) seems to be mixed a bit too loud and fights with the dialogue – very odd.

Our hero and heroine’s introduction (Paul Newman and Julie Andrews playing the scientists Professor Michael Armstrong and Sarah Sherman – work colleagues and soon to be married) is neat – aboard a frosty ship in Norway they are notably absent from the dining room, happier to pile up their coats and blankets and enjoy a romantic interlude – their director subverting any censorship problems by having only their canoodling faces visible.

The two embark on an Iron Curtain themed thriller which involves Michael pretending to defect but in reality playing double agent in order to steal a MacGuffin style maths formula that everyone is getting very heated about. Sarah throws a Spaniard into the works by following her fiancé on his mission – potentially jeopardizing the whole thing and their lives to boot.

As Sarah’s suspicions are raised (Michael lying to her regarding his flight destination and then basically dumping her over lunch) she follows him on the plane, Hitchcock pulls out a nice long shot that takes us from him to her, he then coming back and delivering her marching orders very directly – the screen then misting to suggest her tears. Hitchcock throughout shoots Julie Andrews in a slight soft focus which is a bit out of kilter with the rest of the film, but I suppose is a ‘here’s a lovely lady’ film convention.

The lunch has the usually expected suspect rear projection I have come to know and love (and is present elsewhere in the picture).

When Michael is taken aside at the airport he is introduced to the heavyweight baddie Herman Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) and you know that sooner or later things are going to get nasty. He wears a leather coat and slyly chews gum – sure signifiers of inner nastitude. The director plants the plot point that Gromek’s lighter doesn’t work, a little bit of business that will come to the fore later. When they bring in Sarah we are treated to repeated static cuts – Michael to the left of frame, Sarah to the right, the authorities balanced across their shots: a nice neat editing sequence.

The greatest sequence in the film (ok, not that hard a thing to achieve) starts with Michael emerging from the hotel lift, the camera moving in a sleek crane shot to bring us to Gromek who then follows. Michael attempts to lose the leather clad strong arm and we have a neat match cut from a brochure to the real architecture of a tourist attraction/museum (reminding me of similar transitions in ‘Champagne’ and ‘The Skin Game’). Hitchcock nicely uses the sounds of the two mens’ footsteps to show that Gromek is keeping up with Michael. The scientist thinks he’s given him the shake but is caught up at a farmhouse where he is due to meet some other piece of the double agent jigsaw (the tractor driving ‘farmer’ played by Mort Mills). Gromek then appears and the build up to the fantastic fight scene has the bad guy jabbing Michael in quick cuts as he interrogates him about ‘pi’ – the symbol Michael has etched in the dirt with his foot – ‘a dirty little two bit organization for spying and escaping’. Gromek’s gum chewing is more prevalent and, being a hater of the sounds of other’s mastication, I wanted to see him stabbed/gassed/beaten to death.

The actual killing – Michael and the farmer’s wife (Carolyn Conwell) going at him for ages – is worth the price of admission alone and, in a pretty average film, is just superb. As Michael grapples Gromek and tries to keep hold of him, Mrs. Farmer hunts around the kitchen for possible deadly implements with growing desperation**.

She stabs him with a large knife, then beats his legs with a shovel and finally powers up the gas oven to finish the poor bugger off – his hands clutching for air in a climactic high shot.

It’s the only case to say it in the film but: wow! The scene goes on for an age and is (blissfully) music free – and alarmingly violent. As mentioned in Week 16 this is a great example of showing how darned difficult it actually is to kill someone (the earlier example – from 1934’s ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ involving the knocking out of a dentist). Plus, this farmer’s wife is a lot more gung ho than Araminta from Week 6 (she wouldn’t put up with the ludicrous gurning of Churdles Ash). There’s a great composition just following this scene, Gromek’s motorsickle off to the left of frame, the road stretching into the distance.

There are all too few moments in ‘Torn Curtain’ that bear the stamp of the great director’s greatness. There’s a neat little trip up of Michael and as he plunges downstairs I was reminded of Arbogast toppling to his death in ‘Psycho’. Elsewhere Michael and Sarah go up a little hillock (a very obvious studio based hillock mind you) and we don’t get to hear what he says (nice play with sound and watching the actors from a distance without being parlay to their dialogue) but the scene ends with a big old theatrical kiss – the German guys not being able to see the haps but Hitchcock’s camera coming in for a close up of the snog action for our benefit. Thanks Hitch, I like to watch Butch Cassidy smooching Mary Poppins.

Another highlight scene is the long equation theft scene where Michael fools old Professor Gustav Lindt (Ludwig Donath) into giving him the actual formula. It goes on a while but then dawned on me just before the old Prof. got it that this was the core of the film – the gaining of the magical MacGuffin formula. As Prof. Lindt realizes, he slams the blackboard closed and calls the fuzz – but with a slammed door Michael is gone. There follows a pretty neat chase scene within the crowded building, Michael and Sarah slipping away on bicycles (as you do).

There’s much rear projection fun to be had in the ensuing bus chase scene – the two flee-ers on a false bus populated with anti Jerryites, but the real bus getting ever closer behind. This is pretty exciting stuff as the leading bus keeps getting delayed by a rather exaggerated amount of roadblocks and rogue mercenaries – and a doddery old lady who has to be virtually carried on board – all good fun and the pacey music for once actually helps it along. Eventually it’s only the old dear who gets nabbed, the police opening up with machine gunfire on the others with an admirable lack of hesitancy.

Hitchcock loves an eccentric old girl (see Miss Froy in ‘The Lady Vanishes’ or Joyce Grenfell in ‘Stage Fright’) and one pops up here in the shape of Lila Kedrova as Countess Kuchinska – but she seems so out of whack with the rest of the film that it’s just weird. Newman and Andrews are on this frantic escape mission and just keep looking at her and each other in mystification (I felt the same) – Newman in particular staring at her with complete wtf-ness?! on his face. Their style of acting is also a lot straighter and by the book than this ‘colourful’ (for that, read ‘irritating’) character. The scene goes on and on also and like many others in the film, needs a trim to be more effective. The café scene is then followed by another interminable sequence in a Post Office, the old girl constantly ‘bitte-ring’ for attention and then trying to stave off the authorities single handedly. I was glad to see the back of her…

The ballet scene is pretty exciting – the pair of them in the audience with cops starting to fill the place and rendering escape impossible, until Michael is inspired by the theatrical flames and yells ‘fire!’ The whole place goes batcrap crazy and they manage to slip away. The final scenes of them escaping in laundry baskets is all good and a novel route to freedom – the authorities blasting the boxes they think contain the two of them with machine gunfire.

‘Torn Curtain’ is ok, but only ok – and after the absolute stone cold gems of the previous years it is a major disappointment and signals a distinct decline in Hitchcock’s work. It feels small, it feels like a made for TV film trying to be something bigger. Newman and Andrews don’t really feel like Hitchcock stars, they play it too straight whereas Cary Grant and James Stewart had a lightness and humour that lifted their roles to fresh heights. The whole thing feels fairly static and pedestrian, it’s too long and scenes within it outstay their welcome substantially. At times it is – dare I say it – a little bit dull. There is some inventitude in parts but what should have been an escalating in excitement breakneck thriller comes across more as a rather weary tale with mere flashes of enthusiasm.

Miscellaneous notes

Mr. Hitchcock is seated in the lobby of the Hotel D’Ingleterra, with a toddler perched on his knee – about 8 minutes in.

*As an example, the scene where Michael speaks to the Farmer suddenly has suspenseful music under it which seems completely random to me – it only making sense when we see that Gromek has caught up to him.

**A device that lovers of ‘Pulp Fiction’ will be familiar with as Bruce Willis hunts around for a weapon in Zed’s store.

In the same way as ‘The Birds’ and ‘Marnie’ this Universal version (from the box set) is presented 4:3 but the film was originally shown 1.85:1 on its theatrical release. See Misc notes from before.

Week 48: ‘Marnie’ – 1964

December 2, 2010

This is another astonishing Hitchcock movie, not as well known as some of the earlier 1950’s and early 60’s masterpieces but still an amazing piece of work.

The film opens with another odd Universal logo and we’re straight into a strident Bernard Herrmann theme over page turning credits. The opening shot of the movie is just great, a close up of a yellow bag tucked ‘neath the arm of the bedarkwigged Marnie Edgar (‘Tippi’ Hedren) on a train platform – fantastic composition as the station architecture arrows off into the deep perspective distance (this composition is echoed a few minutes later when Marnie walks down a hotel corridor*.

It also appears in the high/wide shots above the street where her mother lives and other stages in the film. It seems to express some kind of shrinking perspective Marnie has on life, her view becoming telescoped and disappearing into the distance as the world moves in on her). ‘Robbed’ is the first line of dialogue and sets us up for a remarkably strange story of the kleptomaniac Marnie with her enormous sexual hang-ups and essentially deranged personality. Sean Connery plays the wealthy Mark Rutland who takes it upon himself to thaw her out in the domestic department and keep her out of the slammer.

Much is made of Marnie’s bewitching-to-men capabilities and, in truth, she is pretty striking. Her first to camera shot comes just after she blondes her hair and lifts her head exultant and smiling – ready for the next scam.

Her clothing is organized in two big suitcases and she’s off and changed (costumes courtesy of Edith Head). Mark’s comment about her to her outraged ripped off former boss is ‘the brunette with the legs’, so clearly he’s twigged her also – so when she then appears (bit of a large coincidence there) in his office for a job he’s interested/watchful from the outset. Marnie plays on her looks, the coy pulling-her-skirt-over-her-knees is clocked by Mark as he sees her in his office for an interview.

The distinctive red transitions that send Marnie into a panic are both odd and effective – a really unusual technique that could be taken as contrived but is actually very good.

Her reactions to red (the flowers in her mum’s house/the spilling of the ink on her blouse/the jockey’s silks at the races etc.) are fairly over the top but still fascinating to behold.

She is also flipped out by lightning flashes and knocking sounds, both again associations from her extremely distraught childhood. It’s convenient that Mark has knowledge and interest in dealing with stress and trust and other areas of psychoanalysis, he sees her as a prime subject for study – and then love (or lust). Also a tad overboard is the storm scene in Marks’ office – a tree branch eventually crashing through the window and the camera tilting crazily as he hugs and comforts her.

When she starts working in Mark’s office it is quickly established that her immediate boss (Sam Ward played by S. John Launer) cannot remember the safe combination and has it noted on the inside of his secretary’s drawer. This point is pretty laboured, he opens and checks the drawer umpteen times and makes a right song and dance about it – the director repeatedly showing Marnie clocking all this. It feels too much to have her then quiz the secretary as to what the boss is doing, surely tipping her hand by having this info spoken to her. Maybe it’s just from a modern standpoint but I got the idea in the first five seconds and didn’t need it so forcibly illustrated.

Mark is a cold hearted sort. He has only kept some historical artifacts as a memory of his wife. When these get smashed in the storm he casually tosses one away – ‘we all have to go sometime’ he states flatly. His wooing of Marnie is pretty manipulative, taking her to the horse racing (she: ‘are you fond of horses?’ he: ‘no, not at all’) and inviting her to work Saturday to be alone with her. His jealous sister Lil Mainwaring (Diane Baker) is protective of her brother in a not uncomplex way – giving him a very unsisterly lingering lip kiss in front of Marnie to make her point just as the couple are married. It’s all a bit ‘old man’ and ‘old bean’ with him. I liked his dad (Alan Napier)  though, much less complex and troublesome – and remarkably tall, towering over Connery by a good few inches (after descending the grand Rutland staircase). Nice greenish/yellow leather waistcoat too, old fella. Lil is a jealous sort and her delving into Marks’ financial affairs starts to throw up suspicions of her new sister-in-law.

Marnie has a very fraught and trying relationship with her mother (another problematic mum thing going on in Hitchcock). Mother (Bernice Edgar, Louise Latham) is a difficult sort, injured leg and all. Her attitude to men is borne out of her prostitute past and her massive feelings of guilt that one of her punters appeared to make improper moves towards the child Marnie (the sailor played by Bruce Dern, who will later star in Hitchcock’s 1976 swan song ‘Family Plot’). Of course it will transpire that Marnie bashed the bloke to death with a poker in defence of her mother – hence her crazed aversion to red (blood everywhere) and weirdness when she hears knocking (the sound of the sailors knocking on mum’s door).

The robbery of the Rutland office safe is pure silent cinema excitement, Marnie sneaking into the office and filling her bag with spondolicks – having to then take off her shoes to sneak past the mopping woman. When one of her shoes clonks to the ground you are rooting for her to get away with it, and she does – the lady cleaner is hard of hearing and our heroine gets to sneak off. The ensuing scene, as Mark confronts her in no uncertain terms, is a masterpiece of Marnie deception – she coming out with more and more lies. She cannot help herself – this unstoppable klepto deceptor.

Mark is tough with her and urges her to try another tale and the ‘turn that Mount Everest of manure into facts’. Hitchcock shows her reaction – she’s unused to being ordered by a strong willed man and grows confused and addled.

The sexual aspect of the film is very overt and pretty astonishing. Marnie clearly says she has never been with a man – just as Mark forces his marriage proposal on her with the suggestion being that otherwise she’ll be in a cell. Their honeymoon is a tour de force of frigidity, Marnie taking her mother’s mantra that ‘men and a good name don’t go together’ literally and reacting with horror as Mark tries to touch her. The climax of all the idle chat and wooing and days spent on board their honeymoon boat is a shocking and striking scene where Mark essentially forces himself on her – pulling her nightdress off, she catatonically staring and enduring the inevitable.

Hitchcock cheekily moves his camera to a ship’s porthole with a visual metaphor akin to the end shot of ‘North by Northwest’. This is incendiary stuff and even now, forty six years later, is strong meat to view. The upshot of this is the unhappy couple back at the Rutland place, Mark talking to Marnie and her just calmly shutting the door in his face. His amateur psychoanalysis of her escalates into near hysteria on Marnie’s part with her eventually screaming ‘help me – Oh, God somebody help me!’ Powerful stuff and admirably edgy.

There’s a smooth large to small camera move reminiscent of the classic ‘crane shot to the key’ from ‘Notorious’ – this time passing the red dressed Lil (just to trip her sister-in-law out) until the front door is opened and in comes Mr. and Mrs. Strutt (Martin Gabel and Louise Lorimer), he the object of an earlier Marnie theft and present at the party on the invitation of the scheming Lil. The party scene is then followed by a fantastic sequence as Marnie goes on a hunt, the red tunics of the men flipping her out so she bolts, chased by Lil. The hysteria rises as her horse pounds its way towards a too large wall and…crunch, a broken horse leg resulting in Marnie having to plug her precious animal with a gun borrowed from a nearby house.

This is then directly followed by Marnie about to raid the Rutland home safe, only to find herself paralysed and unable to grasp the wads of cash within – Hitchcock’s camera crazily zooming in and out to express her mixed up confusion. This is all top notch stuff, highly strung and close to hysterical – and very entertaining in a mad way.

We then shift to the whole ‘having it out with mother’ scene – Mark determined to bring out all the facts in an attempt to cure his wife. This is masterfully done, Marnie regressing back to her childhood and recounting the shocking events of one night that will change all of their lives. Hedren is great in this whole sequence, really convincing in her portrayal of a girl/woman who has been so badly and shockingly treated.

‘Marnie’ is an hysterical masterpiece and like no other film the director made in its extremes of character and subject matter. It has so many instances of sheer ‘wow-dom’ that it’s pointless to start listing them (although the horse jumping scene is breathtaking/Marnie’s breakdown with Mark astonishing/the final flashback reveal of past events unsetlling etc etc). Of all the Hitchcock movies this is the one to seek out if you haven’t seen it. It’s daring and mad, fascinating and intriguing. Marnie is the strangest lead character of them all, and the film is absolutely compelling to watch. Many of Hitchcock’s other movies are easier to love, but ‘Marnie’ is the cool one to cite as a favourite. Watch it and wonder.

Miscellaneous notes

*Mr. Hitchcock popping out of one of the rooms about 4’30” in, looking slightly quizzical.

Hitchcock has a field day of false Mary-based name variations for his anti-heroine: Marion Holland/Mary Taylor/Margaret Edgar/Martha Heilbron.

Same as ‘The Birds’, the movie was presented in cinemas @ 1.85:1 although shot open gate so is meant to work 4:3 for televisions at the time. Again, checking with the ‘1000 Frames of Hitchcock’ project shows the 1.85:1 image and you can see less top and bottom of frame than you do on the 4:3 presented here. I believe the Universal Collector’s Editions of ‘Marnie’ and ‘The Birds’ go back to the theatrical 1.85 cropped version. Which is better? Hmmm – I tend to think maybe the 1.85 but it’s open to discussion…