Week 34: ‘Under Capricorn’ – 1949

August 28, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous notes

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

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

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

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Week 33: ‘Rope’ – 1948

August 19, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous notes

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

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

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

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

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

Week 32: ‘The Paradine Case’ – 1947

August 14, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 31: ‘Notorious’ – 1946

August 7, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miscellaneous notes

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

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

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

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

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

Week 30: ‘Spellbound’ – 1945

July 29, 2010

Even typing the name of this film gives me a tremor of pleasure – it’s marvellous, inventive and ambitious and succeeds on just about every level. Personally, I think James Stewart is the ultimate Hitchcock star, followed of course by Cary Grant – but Gregory Peck in ‘Spellbound’ gives them both a good innocent-man-on-the-run for their money.

The film opens with two sets of captions, the first from ‘Julius Caesar’:

‘The fault – is not in the stars but in ourselves’ – Shakespeare, seeming to express that people’s mental disabilities are their own responsibility and can therefore be solved by themselves. The second (scrolling) caption moves up the screen (the first instance of this I believe in a Hitchcock movie) and explains various psychoanalytical terms and the intention of the story.

Peck plays ‘Dr. Anthony Edwardes’, who ostensibly is the next boss at Green Manors asylum run by Leo G. Carroll (playing Dr. Murchison – I love Leo G. Carroll). Ingrid Bergman plays Dr. Constance Petersen, whose cold-fishedness is thawed by the incoming head doc. But (who would have thought it) not all is as it seems – ‘Dr. Edwardes’ is actually an amnesiac patient himself and is then suspected of murdering the real Dr. Edwardes by shoving him off a snowbound cliff (shades of ‘Secret Agent’ here). ‘Edwardes’ – now known as ‘John Brown’ and later by his real name John Ballantine, goes on the run, aided by the loved up Dr. Petersen. Together they unravel that the real villain is Murchison himself who finally twists the (big, false-handed and a little unconvincing/mechanical) gun on himself.

The photography in the film is luminously beautiful, strong blacks and bright whites giving the whole production a feel of sophistication and great style – it’s a complete pleasure to watch just as a visual experience.* Graceful camera moves abound – a lovely one where the nympho patient (played by Rhonda Fleming) of Petersen lies on the couch and the camera glides around them or later when Ballantine realises he has third degree burns on his wrist. Hitchcock uses many seemingly effortless camera moves to tell his tale – even later pulling off a camera move that prefigures the transitions in ‘Rope’, Ballantine moving past the camera in the guest room scene, but in this case without a transition cut, very elegant**. There are also a fair amount of longish takes in ‘Spellbound’ that also feel like the director is pushing these boundaries.

Petersen’s first sighting of Edwardes/Ballantine is backed by a sweeping theme, the first real music since the credits, and Hitchcock uses Miklos Rosza’s music as a key storytelling technique: the romantic theme ruptured by the more discordant as Ballantine sees the pattern on Petersen’s dressing gown/later, when he realizes later that he is not who he thinks he is, there is an even more clashing refrain.

Bergman is great at evoking the slow awakening of a woman whose sexuality has remained buried in books for so long. Hitchcock opens the film up by having them go off to the country for an excursion – showing the fusty docs back at the Hospital seated at their usual table – but the two chairs that the new couple had occupied so closely remain tellingly empty. When they kiss, Hitchcock illustrates her awakening in a way that only he would and could do: a shot of a series of four doors opening into the distance – absolutely brilliant. By the time Petersen realizes the new man in her life is an imposter it’s too late, she already loves him.

The repeated Ballantine-losing-it scenes are well handled and intriguing – he seeing something in the lines of the tines of a fork on a tablecloth and the pattern of a bedcover which remain a mystery until the dream-scene payoff/reveal.

This is all great, confounding the audience as well as the characters in a really puzzling and fascinating manner. And, ultimately, it all adds up and makes sense – although I am slightly confused about why Ballantine turns up at the asylum in the guise of Edwardes in the first place. The scene where he is about to have a shave but is then tripped off by the sheer amount of whiteness in the bathroom is pure Hitchcock – Ballantine descending the staircase clutching a straight razor, the good Dr. Alex Brulof (Michael Chekhov) offering him milk as the razor looms large – the milk consumed as a p.o.v. shot through the glass.

This stuff beggers belief, the matching of narrative to style to ingenious ideas is staggering. The director is at his peak, the apotheosis of the director/storyteller. Plus, the milk’s full of bromide to knock out the razor-clutching mentalist Ballantine.

The skiing scenes are quite clearly false and offer up some very creaky back projection, and combined with Rosza’s racey music it comes across as quite funny from a modern perspective – but I have to say it’s forgivable in the grand scheme of the film. The pace of the narrative by this point is pretty relentless and so these pass by at some speed – it’s all so revealing and exciting that it doesn’t seem to really matter (the whole reveal of him accidently killing his little brother is thrown into this section superbly also).  As they scream towards the snowy precipice it seems impossible for them to stop – but stop they do. Petersen looks genuinely scared of what Ballantine may do, he more manically staring across at her as they ski towards their destiny.

Bergman’s wardrobe throughout the film becomes more and more relaxed – from the opening scenes of starchy buttoned up primness, through to the casual pullover in the snow lodge scenes, it’s a lovely subtle way of thawing her out with her newfound love. The fairly abstract (but not that extreme in comparison to other sections of the film) dissolving montage as she pleads his case is good – the previous opening doors becoming prison bars shadowing her ever more desperate face.

As the slow dawning realization that Murchison is the bad guy occurs to her, Hitchcock pulls out classic profile shots of Bergman for emphasis.

Of course, one unparalleled set piece in the picture is the central Salvador Dali-created dream sequence that is absolutely wonderful. Ballantine relates his dream and the camera slickly, and repeatedly, zooms to his temple and we enter into this fantastic image-laden sequence of distorted perspective, bent wheels, scissors, eyes, extreme slopes and running figures. It’s something to behold and is very Dalinian  – and also evokes Georgio de Chirico in its playful perspectives. Hitchcock deliberately shoots in a sharp, focused manner, eschewing the usual fuzzy soft focus dream sequences so commonly presented. (The little aside mentioning another of Petersen’s patients who dreamt of her as ‘an eggbeater’ is cheeky – it’s just dropped in casually and the most likely explanation is as some kind of testicle pounding man-hater. Nice).

Aside from the Dali dream sequence, Hitchcock executes another marvelous teeny tiny detail. As Murchison pulls the trigger on himself (that big false model hand – which actually is pretty great as it tracks across the room following Petersen) there is a two frame flash frame explosion – in red!!

This has to be the shortest colour sequence ever in a black and white movie and would have been most probably been hand tinted in the original prints. This is exactly the kind of precise detail that makes you wonder and marvel at the director’s skill and ingenuity. I am running out of superlatives…

The film does have elements of being just another variation on the innocent man on the run aided and abetted by a beautiful woman, but what a great variation – it’s dressed up in such stylish ways and has a great main theme of amnesia and murder and psychoanalysis that it works extremely well on so many different levels. It’s a smashing success, beautifully crafted and executed with universally strong performances and admirable imagination.

Miscellaneous notes

*The version I watched was on the UK Fremantle label and is very clean and sparkle/scratch free – they also released the very fine version of ‘Rebecca’. There is also a version available on the always dependable and impressive Criterion Collection. Anyone who includes colour bars on their releases gets my vote.

Some good staircase action in the sanitorium – Bergman going upstairs at nighttime reminiscent of Cary Grant as Johnnie in ‘Suspicion’, but without the murderous milk.

Mr. Hitchcock appears at the Empire State Hotel, emerging from a lift carrying a violin case and smoking a cigarette in a curiously effete manner – 38 minutes in.

**It looks like there are a couple of frames missing @ 1 hour 2 mins and 38 secs – the picture kicks slightly as they chat, curious…

Week 29: ‘Lifeboat’ – 1944

July 25, 2010

This is a wonderful film – a high concept drama taking place entirely in a lifeboat and it succeeds on many levels. Within the lifeboat we experience intrigue, suicide, racism, scheming, insanity, deception and murder – and a clever Hitchcock personal appearance to boot. You don’t get the drama of a baby being born, but there is an already dead baby thrown in (to the water) for good measure.

The director holds his nerve from the start and resists showing the ‘ship going down’ scene – instead an ever growing close-up of the ship’s funnel sinks slowly, the camera moving across the wreakage and debris left from the vessel and establishing a U Boat sailor floating dead in the water.

We first see Constance ‘Connie’ Porter (the great Tallulah Bankhead) floating nonchalantly in the lifeboat, ciggie in hand, a bored expression of resignation on her face. At this stage she’s alone, but not for long. A sailor (Kovak, played by John Hodiak) swims towards her and she immediately picks up her film camera (looks like a 16mm) and we see the camera’s p.o.v. – an interesting technique and unusual, but the kind of thing the director throws in all over the place throughout the film to lift it out of what could be a restricted set.

Kovak pretty instantly manages to knock the camera into the ocean, much to Connie’s extreme consternation, given the amount of great footage she says she has captured.

As more and more survivors climb on the lifeboat relationships are established fast and characters introduced – the sailors, the passengers…and finally the enemy. ‘Hey look – another customer’ as Willie the German (Walter Slezak) clambers aboard., his ‘danker shern’ preceding a fade to black to emphasise the significance of this ‘rattlesnake’ (their words) coming aboard. I don’t quite buy that the whole lot of them wouldn’t search the German from the outset – especially once they realise he is the skipper of the U-Boat.

The film throws up a load of social and class and race issues – it feels at times like Sidney Lumet’s ‘Twelve Angry Men’ (1957), different arguments coming at you from each of them, starting with the conjecture about bunging the jerry overboard*. The black guy, Joe (Canada Lee), is surprised when he gets a vote in the matter, the others expressing surprise that he thinks he would not. It’s all wonderful, provocative stuff partly courtesy of the mighty John Steinbeck, who co-wrote the picture with Jo Swerling (and an uncredited Ben Hecht).

The at-sea burial of the baby is very moving, Joe reciting the full Bible quote of ‘yea though I walk through the valley of death’, the photography adding to the drama as he comes into frame with strong dramatic lighting.

The deranged, spaced-out berieved mother Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel) is clearly not long for this small world either, accusing Willie of killing her baby before being actually tied down to protect herself. To add insult to death, the German callously yawns before lying down for a kip. She won’t last the night and slips overboard, leaving only an empty chair as evidence.

The film is photographed beautifully by Glen MacWilliams (and the uncredited Arthur C. Miller), the rear projection some of the finest in Hitchcock to date – a gentle breeze blowing for added effectiveness, buckets of water tossed in when it all kicks off. It’s very convincing and believable and has wonderful looking black and whiteness.

Alice MacKenzie (played by Mary Anderson) is in charge of the sick bay on board. She has to face up to an at sea leg amputation as the battle-wounded Gus (William Bendix, who’s great in the picture) faces creeping gangrene. Gus is a marathon dancer and knows those days are over. It’s a great scene, a real human drama as they all gang together for the inevitable. Gus does seem to get hammered very fast, as he chugs down the brandy as a makeshift anaesthetic. He’s literally slurring and defocused and flirty and singing within a couple of minutes (he’d be cheap on a night out). He asks Connie for a kiss and she moves in on him without hesitation, the tough world-wise dame that she is. They all help with the heating of the fateful knife as Gus readies himself by punching Kovak in the chops, as you do. The poignant shot of Gus’s spare empty boot on the deck is all that is needed to summarise the trauma he has undergone.

Romance starts to bloom between Alice and Sparks (the great Hume Cronyn, so different here from the nerdy Herbie in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’), he a caring shoulder to cry to about her unrequited love for a married doctor. Sparks is visibly pained as she relates her story of love-woe and there’s a couple of great profile shots here as they talk and look past each other towards the endless ocean.

It slowly dawns on Sparks that Willie has been fibbing in regards to their direction, and as the picture dissolves to later that night, he subtly pushes the tiller to redirect them to Bermuda.

The lifeboaters also realise that Willie may have a compass and they enlist Joe to pickpocket him, the latter saying he made a solemn vow that all that was behind him – until they practically order him to do so. Joe is slick and falls on the half asleep German, pocketing his compass as he does so.

It’s all really good, and well acted – and gives a very real sense that this is how these people would behave, operating under the dwindling restraints of civilisation and trying to be fair whilst growing steadily more desperate. The lifeboat becomes a microcosm of society with all the normal desires and wants and emotions and temptations. As the rising squall reaches a climax, Gus falls overboard and the German grasps control of the tiller – effectively saving him! The water crashes in and there’s NO MUSIC, a bold move on Hitchcock’s part which serves to ground the film even more in reality. It’s very convincing, again, that they are at sea and potentially could at any moment drown or die in some heat stroke lack of water related way. Wonderful stuff.  The only respite to the no music rule (apart from the opening and closing of the picture) is Willie’s singing to the millionaire industrialist Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) on the penny whistle.

Willie takes control as the storm really kicks off and pretty much all their possessions get swept away – a brief shot of Connie despondently looking at her comb and lipstick as everything else has been stripped away from her (save her bracelet which will come to the fore in a later scene). In the height of the storm, Connie and Kovac launch on each other in abandonment and later, as the sun shines, they lie together like a post coital couple, and shortly after they’re playing a gentle game of footsie with each other.

Willie has taken control and rows like a Viking as the others loll around knackered, he beaming with pride at being a member of the ‘master race’.

When Kovac reads the paper, Connie playfully pushes her finger through it and there is a brief but effective shot as she passes through the frame left to right before quizzing him on his tattoos – adding her own initials onto his swarthy chest. It’s interesting to note that Kovac is the only topless male on board in the film – set up as a 1940’s paradigm of the masculine torso – nowadays you’d have the buffed and 6 packed warrior look of ‘300’ to contend with. Kovac shuns Connie and wards her off ‘slumming’ it with him – she riles and stares at him in barely suppressed fury.

I love the way it all boils down to water, evoking Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’:

‘Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink’.

An incendiary fight between Kovak and Rittenhouse is averted when they realize it is raining, but the downpour is all too brief. Poor amputee Gus’s lot gets worse when he starts glugging down the seawater and begins to descend into mania. The whole thing feels like all of ‘society’ is just a couple of day’s starvation and thirst away from turning into animals, the impassive ever rowing Willie holding it together. Hitchcock’s compositions on Willie err on the side of balanced – he, centre frame, coolly just keeping going and awaiting whatever chance he may get to take ultimate control and steer them towards his own safe haven. As he sings with great vim and vigour, his huge hands move to close up right in our faces.

Willie is a great character – he’s got all he needs (water, food tablets, the compass) and sees them as weak (all right, he’s a rather clichéd German villain type, but this was 1944). He has a gleam in his eye as the camera shoots him closeup, visible sweat on his forehead as they notice and realize that to sweat he must have water.

They turn on him and attack him as he talks to them like they’re kids, and you can’t blame them but simultaneously you have to admire him for his reserves and preparedness. Eventually they pitch him overboard and he’s finished off by savage blows from Rittenhouse. They have been brought as low as they can go – it’s murder on this ocean.

‘To my dying day, I’ll never understand Willie and what he did’ so says millionaire Rittenhouse, amazingly, straight after pummeling the enemy to death. He slowly realizes that, even with all his wealth, ultimately he has joined ‘the mob’.

Talllulah Bankhead (for all the titillating stories of her on set underwear-free shenanigans) is very good and strong, if a little sub-Marlene Dietrich. She has a great gutteral voice – right up there with Dietrich and Joan Greenwood, the husky voiced British character actress. Connie has a great balance of determination, cynicism with hooded eyes and a steely reporter’s determination. In fact, the whole cast shine through what was apparently a tough shoot of bobbing around in water tanks for months on end. Connie’s manic laugh as her final possession, the Cartier bracelet, is washed away after on the verge of a fish-baiting triumph, is great as they all ditch any such survivalist thoughts in favour of the eventually approaching supply ship. There’s a great track/dolly to Joe as he spots the supply ship, no mean feat through the group of people the camera has to pass through (probably executed with the camera on a dolly from above to avoid any contact with the wavey ground).

The climactic battle with the German supply ship attacked by the Allies vessel is gripping, cross cutting between them desperately rowing to get out of the way and the oncoming hull of destruction. Their eventual salvation seems well earned, murderers in a time of war that they are. The final debate on the fate of a young German seaman who has come aboard keeps going past the end of the picture, a really nice way of leaving the ending open and the audience to consider what they would do at such a time.

‘Lifeboat’ gives you an in depth study of the drama that plays out between all different sections of society – suddenly all in the same boat and facing an uncertain life or death. It is exciting and taut and slow moving at times – yes – but for the same reason as James Stewart tailing Kim Novak in ‘Vertigo’ – to put the audience through the same feelings of boredom that the protagonists are experiencing. It’s top notch stuff and one of the most successful experimental movies Hitchcock made (I prefer it, I have to say, to 1948’s ‘Rope’, but more on that in August). The photography is great and, even given the one set bound feel of the whole thing, never feels hampered or constrained. It’s really well acted and thought out and all in all a fantastically exciting, endlessly inventive and thought-provoking entertainment.

Miscellaneous notes

*in the Lumet film, to increase tension, the director made the jury room smaller as the film progressed. I don’t think Hitchcock does the same here, but it may have been an interesting notion.

@ 24’00 Hitchcock works in his personal appearance skillfully as the ‘before’ picture in a newspaper weight-loss advertisement.

I watched this on the 20th Century Fox ‘Cinema Reserve’ label – a very stylish edition in a metal case with two discs – including a 20 minute ‘making of’ documentary and various other special features. Well worth checking out.

Week 28: ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ – 1943

July 17, 2010

This is a really dark movie, and at the heart of it is the menacingly charming figure of Joseph Cotton as Uncle Charlie – a creepy, sinister character with a mysterious past of murder and darkness. Uncle Charlie is on the run as a suspect in a series of ‘merry widow’ murders and he seeks refuge in his sister and her family’s small town – but the cops turn up here too…

The movie opens fantastically and keeps the pace up admirably throughout. Establishing shots show Uncle Charlie lying on a bed in a low rent neighbourhood, the camera angled on his boarding house and his window to suggest something slightly off balance.

This kind of opening, the camera creeping closer and closer to the subject, is just the kind of thing Hitchcock uses at the opening of ‘Psycho’, and works a treat there also. On the surface he’s a laid back character but has moments of great anger, smashing a glass in his room as his landlady leaves. The house is number 13, as you may expect, and he is already under scrutiny from the cops. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is stabby, dramatic and great – over the top with Charlie and hitting the footsteps of the two flatfeet who tail him, reaching a climax as he gives them the slip and coolly puffs a cigar.

‘A kiss to Charlie from her Uncle Charlie’
is the telegram he sends to his niece, played by Teresa Wright (who interestingly gets top billing in the movie), and his repeated ‘Santa Rosa’ dialogue transports us to this far more civilised zipcode. Tiomkin’s theme is pastoral and refined, another matching series of dissolves establish niece Charlie lying in the same relaxed repose as her uncle, but without the jagged angles and dramatic dread – this is really fantastic stuff and well thought out from the get-go. Young Charlie is bemoaning the repetitiveness of her day to day suburban existence, desiring excitement – and my, is she going to get it…

When Uncle comes close to Santa Rosa he chugs in on a jet black warhorse of a train, steaming like the devil into this innocent sugarplum town, where if you cross the road out of step you get berated by the local fuzz.

On the train, he’s holed up out of view and prying eyes, claiming some mythical severe illness. Some card players enquire about him and there’s an odd shot showing one of the card player’s dealt hand – all the spades in order from the two to the ace, the ace at the front, it being traditionally called the ‘death card’, an omen of evil and foreboding (when I say ‘one of the card player’s’, it’s actually Hitchcock himself – he’s the director and he’s holding all the cards, of course). Uncle’s feigned illness is slickly shrugged off as soon as he sees his relatives and he’s straight away sleek charm personified.

There’s a clear lasciviousness when Uncle eyes up Niece as she strides along in all her youthful innocence, a really bold suggestion of lust for the 1940’s. He is symbolically given his niece’s room and he will sleep in her bed. His gift to her, a ring which he slips on her finger when they’re alone – the ring, of course, taken from one of the widow’s he has steadily been bumping off…

Uncle Charlie sweeps into their lives like a breath of foul air – full of verve and excitement and spilling gifts to one and all. Mother (Patricia Collinge) gets a fur (Young Charlie: ‘it’s what you should have’), demeaning poor old reliable dad (Henry Travers) for not supplying what his woman needs. Little sis (Edna May Wonacott) is the cynical member of the family, giving a disappointed and dismissive glance at her teddy present, obviously feeling it is beneath her years. Of course, in a classic ‘all that glitters is not gold’ kind of way, the mood starts to turn dark.

Benign old dad says he ‘doesn’t believe in inviting trouble’ and tells Uncle Charlie to take his hat off Young Charlie’s bed (another bad luck omen), but as soon as he’s left alone Uncle spots a couple of ripe old dears out the window and casually tosses same hat defiantly onto the bedspread. Uncle Charlie’s whole demeanour screams trouble – he’s the evil snake in this Edenesque picket fenced paradise.

The recurring visual motif of the lavishly dressed ballroom dancers opens behind the titles and pops up throughout the picture. They dance to the tune of the merry widow, a tune Charlie can’t help humming to himself in a self gratified manner, his niece then picking up on this and he having to cover his tracks with a knocked over glass at the dinner table.

This is classic stuff, sound-symbolic hummed tunes, abstract images that confuse then enlighten you, Uncle Charlie seated at the head of the family table, in control.

Dad has a great side relationship with his mate Herbie Hawkins, the two of them pouring over detective stories and murder mysteries in much the same way as Cary Grant’s Johnnie did in ‘Suspicion’. Herb is played by the great Hume Cronyn (you know, from ‘Cocoon’) and he’s an awkward square fellow who comes in at dinner time (much to the consternation of mother) and has a side chat with dad about murderous mushrooms. It’s little touches like these that lift the film from ordinary (which it’s never really in danger of becoming) into something superb.

Uncle’s charm offensive starts to turn just plain offensive when Young Charlie realizes he has nicked a part of dad’s newspaper (that will transpire to contain reports on the hunting of the widow murderer). Uncle stalks towards her and grasps her arm painfully.  This scene is preceded by Young Charlie climbing the stairs, the camera slightly tilted and the shadows angling crazily. Touches like this centre the film very much in a gothic style and harken back to Hitchcock’s earlier movies, all expressionistically overwrought and amped up hidden lunacy:

Uncle Charlie: ‘What’s the use of looking backward?  What’s the use of looking forward?  Today’s the thing. Today.’ ‘It’s a joke to me – the whole world’s a joke to me’

Uncle Charlie is so out of whack with the small town he gets stared at wherever he goes. You have to wonder if he’s trying to lay low why he would come somewhere where he is so well known and then acts really brassily – his clothes, his volume level of speech, his outlandish phrases all bring attention upon him. It’s like he’s hiding so far out in the open he hopes people won’t notice him, or is resigned to his ultimate demise and is taunting destiny to come get him.

By the by, his meeting of the two middle/late aged ladies in the bank is great – he visibly eyeing them up as potential victims, virtually licking his lips in anticipation.

The two flatfoot cops come sniffing around in the guise of representing magazine reporters interviewing the ideal American family, and it takes all of Charlie’s ingenuity to avoid them. There’s a lovely backlit shot at 46’53” as he stares downstairs and ducks away.

The detectives inveigle their way into the Charlies’ room and the photographer gets to stay in there, so trusting is she and smooth are they. They get a snap of Uncle Charlie who demands the film but is the victim of a photo swap and they get what they wanted – as well as the younger cop arranging a time to pick up Young Charlie to show him around the town that evening…fast work if you can get it.

Their evening turns sour very suddenly, in about the only false note in the film. She is out with Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey) and suddenly, from a pleasant evening of dinner and chat, the scene and mood changes where she realizes he’s a detective. This is a bit odd and comes from nowhere and sets the second half of the film in motion as Young Charlie starts to investigate her Uncle, whilst simultaneously getting more romantic with the very guy who could put him away (who to me seems about ten years older than her, her parents not at all phased by this).

Tiomkin’s music is fantastically over the top at times. As niece Charlie rushes to the library to check the destroyed newspaper evidence the orchestra goes increasingly nutzoid – finally stabbing violently as she discovers the headline WHERE IS THE MERRY WIDOW MURDERER? in massive full screen close-up. When she then realizes that the initials in her ring/gift are a match for the most recent victim Hitchcock pulls out one of his signature small-to-large shots and cranes up from the ring to a high shot of her dazedly leaving the library, then a dissolve to the whirling dervish dancers in their hypnotic waltz. This is simply marvelous, well thought out and planned direction.

Hitch then goes on to totally top himself with Uncle Charlie’s dinner table speech, over a slow zoom to Cotton:

Uncle Charlie: ‘You see them in the hotels, the best hotels, every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money, proud of their jewelry but of nothing else, horrible, faded, fat, greedy women…’

Niece Charlie (or is it mother offscreen?): ‘But they’re alive – they’re human beings!’

And then he turns slowly to camera, full face frame and asks us coldly:

‘Are they?’

This is genuinely chilling and beautifully acted and reveals Charlie for the cold-hearted, hatred-filled, sadistic sexist strangling murderous…oooh, he make yer blood boil.

His dialogue to her in the late night drinking emporium is also savagely great:

‘Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.’

Uncle intimates to niece that he was about to top himself prior to coming to Santa Rosa, and she agrees begrudgingly to give him a few days before he gets out of their lives. It’s the first sign of real weakness in him and the desperation at the cops closing in starts to show as he cracks under the pressure (like the necks of the widows he strangled, oh yes). When dad and Herb pass by saying the Merry Widow murderer has been caught, Uncle fairly skips up the stairs…but stops and looks back and sees Young Charlie looking at him, he knowing that even if the game isn’t up then his family is history. The following steep angled shot of Uncle Charlie in his room is dramatic and we see the ceiling of the bedroom – maybe Hitchcock had been watching Orson Welles’ ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941) with its fabled use of low angles and real ceilings and, of course, Joseph Cotton. The close-up of his hands, cigar dropping, then clenching as he looks out the window at his niece is great – he thinking of an easy solution to his pressing problem.

Hitch plants his plot points adeptly, mother proclaiming early on with a pant ‘those back stairs are steep’, a line that will come back with a vengeance as Uncle Charlie saws through one step in his first attempt to bump off his niece. Later, a romantic interlude in the family garage will haunt the two lovers as murder closes in on Young Charlie, the director making clear that the garage door is wont to slam shut randomly. The attempted murder of Young Charlie is superbly handled and violent, shutting her in the garage with the car engine revving.

Uncle Charlie’s eventual demise, squished to death on the rail tracks is also exciting and hair-raising, Uncle and Niece fighting for life and limb until one of them gives up their ghost.

Hitchcock actually has some kind of coda to the picture – quite unusually given his penchant for getting to The End so rapidly in many cases. Outside the church where the respectful service is being intoned, Young Charlie and her police beau discuss the truth about Uncle Charlie – he never liked people or life, was bitter, cold and murderous. Only they know the truth and this short scene overlays the audio from inside the church as the real valediction to this charming man.

This is a film with a black heart, lifting the lid on small town naivete and an innocent’s reaction to a devil thrown amongst them. It’s a variation on the plot of 1927’s ‘The Lodger’ and, as a multi-layered depiction of maggot-ridden American life, I do think it’s my favourite Hitchcock to date.

Miscellaneous notes

As Young Charlie picks up telegram from Uncle at 14 30” there is a weird echo on the dialogue between her and Mrs. Henderson (the lovely named Minerva Urecal playing the telegram/post office lady). It seems out of place with the setting, as if they’re in a massive room – it’s strange and maybe suggestive of the scene being post synched, which would be odd. The limited view of the room they’re in doesn’t suggest it should be echoing quite so much, hmmm. Small point but noticeable.

Week 27: ‘Saboteur’ -1942

July 11, 2010

This is not a bad little film – it flits between drama and intrigue with good, solid performances but occasionally doesn’t help itself by lurching into the territory of evoking the propaganda pictures that were prevalent in the Second World War. It has some fantastic set pieces and inventive sequences and has a dark noirish look at times which is really appealing.

The plot involves a wrongly accused guy on the run – in this case Barry Kane (Robert Cummings), who is accused of sabotaging a wartime factory and then goes on the run to prove his innocence. He knows that the real suspect is a guy called Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd) who has disappeared without a trace, aside from some letters addressed to Fry that Barry has seen. His odyssey takes him across America and various encounters: the romantic, the profound and the plain oddball.

The opening titles are interesting – over a corrugated sheet metal massive door, a shadow silhouette figure slowly advances.

Hitchcock grew to love a title sequence (his feted work with Saul Bass later in the director’s career is amongst the best of all movie title sequences) and it’s interesting to see him starting to think of these parts of the movie as another place to apply his inventiveness. Traditionally, the title sequence would be a fairly throwaway item to communicate a few nuggets of star and technician information, but things would change going forwards into the 1950’s and beyond*.

The act of sabotage at the start is really nicely understated. Black smoke curls into shot from the edges of frame – prefiguring Kubrick’s blood bath around the lift doors of the Overlook Hotel in ‘The Shining’.

Being fearless types, the factory workers all steam in there to try to save their workplace (today everyone would just leg it out the door screaming ‘health and safety’).  The director holds his nerve and has our hero’s work mate (Ken Mason played by the uncredited Virgil Summers) burnt alive. The sabotage sequence is pretty short, but it’s strong and effectively shocking.

Barry is a fairly innocuous hero – Cummings is kind of John Garfield-lite and has the swarthy unshaven look of someone who’s trying a bit too hard to look like some kind of desperate tough guy (whereas Garfield had a very genuine menace to him).

His cross country escape odyssey puts him immediately into a neat conflict with the smooth talking old villain Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger) in his lavish country farm/estate – the old geezer surprisingly trusting as he wanders off and leaves Barry in charge of Suzy the toddler near a swimming pool (Suzy promptly exposes the old guy as a liar by handing Cummings the Fry letters the old guy denied all knowledge of). There’s good acting from the toddler here, a tough scene to not seem contrived and awkward and Cummings handles it well. Tobin is genuinely nasty, smoothly coming back to say he has already rung the cops. Barry must get back on the road again, and employs a piggy back to Suzy (can’t seem to find a credit for the young actress who plays her – what is it with kids’ credits?) to make a western style horseback ride for it before being lassooed and handcuffed. The final image of the creepy Addams style villainous family is pretty spooky, and not a little kooky.

The movie is an episodic tale that allows the director to string together a series of disparate set pieces and gives him license to do pretty much whatever he, and his screenwriters, want. Our hero can turn up wherever the filmmaking whim takes him – the western style scene mentioned, a dramatic bridge jump and river escape (with an interesting p.o.v. shot as Barry hides underwater), heavy rainy scenes and the help of a benign blind old fella (Phillip Martin, played by Vaughan Glazer) who honks out a piano tune (fairly randomly), the help and eventual love of a good woman and the introduction to a melange of circus freaks. It must have been very freeing to create a film where anything in particular can happen – and it’s all the more entertaining for it.

There’s always room for a benevolent blind guy in a road movie like this and Philip Martin twigs Barry’s handcuffs before his niece does (this is Priscilla Lane playing Patricia – Pat – Martin) and he is likeable and anti-establishment. This kind of character is a staple in many movies (see Michael Caine in ‘Children of Men’/ John Cleese in the Keanu Reeves 2008 cheesefest ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ to name but two bad examples) and is put in place as some kind of soothsaying talisman in the hero’s journey to redemption, offering wise words and good council – and, in this case, an apple. ‘Go ahead, Barry, and do the things I wish I could do’ – bit sickmaking by that point…

As they drive off, Pat is ready to shop him to the law but again he manages to get out of it – using her car’s engine to grind through his handcuffs as they speed off in front of an elderly couple, Pat yelling for the cops. ‘My – they must be terribly in love’ says the old girl to her husband – it’s a lovely little scene, full of tension and ingenuity, and foreseen wisdom from ye olde wife.

Barry and Pat then rather randomly hitch up with a vehicle load of circus freaks, a skinny guy called Bones and a sex obsessed bearded lady:

Bones: ‘Esmerelda everywhere you search for sex –  get your eyes out of the mud and look up at the stars’.**

There’s also a midget and a pair of Siamese twins for good measure. The dialogue here is freed up from the usual thriller constraints and the writers (including Dorothy Parker, slumming it from her day job) take full advantage. The two bickering Siamese twins are fun and an easy entertainment win as one complains to the other that she has been tossing and turning all night.

This is all fine and pretty funny but you can’t help feeling empathy with Barry and Pat – rather bewildered that they have suddenly found themselves amongst all these strange characters. The bearded lady’s long speech about the good people in the world, the camera slow dollying to Pat as she realises she must stick with and help Barry, is impassioned but does again feel a little manipulative in the plot (ie. ‘let’s have someone tell us what the lead lady is feeling just to hammer it home’).

When Barry blags his way into the villain’s car at his next port of call, Soda City, we see their journey – the genuinely creepy, and vaguely pervy, glasses wearing Alan Baxter as Freeman (talking about his kids and how he lets his two year old son’s hair grow long as he always actually wanted a girl…hmmm), and the two weirdfellas in the front who sing a mournful tune as they drive. He is slowly unravelling the terrorist plot to blow up a dam that supplies much of the power for various defence factories in the Los Angle-ease area (the city repeatedly pronounced with a hard ‘g’, a little oddly but pretty cool). By the way, Barry suddenly is all smart and clean shaven, a little unclear how he is so suddenly spruced up (it’s mentioned that he needs a change of clothes but quite how he comes by a barber and a tailor in the middle of bud-fudge nowhere is anyone’s guess).

The imposing tough theme music as they approach the city is striking and over the top , but good. Freeman is protective of their missions and general doings, clearly an undercurrent of weird sadism with this fellow. The scenes where they enter the large mansion by the kitchens is smoothly handled – it has that undercurrent of the rich meddling in terrorist matters, the wealthy Mrs. Sutton (Alma Kruger) fussing about – half guest-obsessed, half plotting against civilisation. She is simultaneously throwing a party in her posh, moneyed way whilst trying to destroy the very civilisation she represents.

I like all the conspiracy and the evil gang mentality as Pat appears, much to Barry’s surprise. There’s a bit of business with Barry pointing at a book spine called ESCAPE, smooth old Tobin popping up and pointing at a book called DEATH OF A NOBODY. It’s a typical Hitchcock moment, odd but effective. This whole sequence in the large mansion house reminded me a little of Kubrick’s  ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (Pat: ‘it’s like a bad dream’), all the posh guests in it together and he trying to justify himself and seeking understanding. He’s not dressed appropriately and he gets nowhere but rejected when he tries to seek help.

Every time he gets near to people they trap him – how to escape from this civilised trap? There’s a really long take of Barry and Pat dancing here, the only safe place for them as they kiss and discuss the impossibility of escape.

Barry’s big speech to the vast room is a masterstroke, he eventually using Mrs. Sutton as a shield to get them out of there (there’s a big old staircase here in this grand and corrupted mansion).

Henchman Robert (Ian Wolfe) then clonks Barry unconscious and the latter’s escape from the mansion is clearly clumsy – yes, he comes up with the ‘lighter under the sprinkler’ idea which gets everyone running about but then he is inexplicably out on the street in a wtf? kind of way. This is clearly random and feels like a cheat to get him out of an impossible situation – and overall a bit lazy.

There’s a classic Hitchshot @ 1 hour 25 minutes where Pat – herself locked up – looks out of her high window and we see her POV. It anticipates the Cary-Grant-as-Roger-Thornhill running from the United Nations in ‘North by Northwest’. Another lovely little bit of Hitchcockery is the note she writes in lippie and bungs out of her locked up room window, it floating down to rest upon a window ledge and then further down onto a taxi roof before the cabbies spot it, she flashing the lightswitch as a signal – really good.

Of course, the whole film is famed for its closing set piece: the Statue of Liberty scene. Barry and Fry battling it out and Barry eventually clinging onto Fry’s jacket sleeve as the stitching comes loose. Fry is genuinely creepy and has a strong flavour of violence to him. The scene is beautifully done and justifiably famed – the back projection and process shots are great and suffer only from a little generation loss, but it’s perfect all round. Lady Liberty stands impassive as Fry plunges to his death, unmoved by the puny human drama enfolding upon her.  This scene is obviously a set piece style the director will return to again and again (see the British Museum sequence from ‘Blackmail’ or Mount Rushmore from ‘NxNW’), but is still great entertainment.

The closing of the film, as so often in Hitchcock, is astonishingly quick. From Fry’s death fall to The End (curiously French-ified as ‘FINIS’) is literally forty seconds.

There is much to recommend in ‘Saboteur’ – good set pieces, fun encounters, creepy villains and pretty good performances (Cummings is not a classic Hitchhero but is perfectly fine in the movie). It feels very much like an American remake of the director’s own ‘The Thirty Nine Steps’ though not quite as good or classic, but this does in no way mean that it should be overlooked.

Miscellaneous notes

*I love a title sequence that really goes for it and does things in a new and interesting way, sometimes giving clues to the story and the characters.

**This is a paraphrase of the Oscar Wilde epigram ‘we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’.

I can’t seem to find any relation between Otto Kruger and Alma Kruger, the two big baddies in the movie. Neither can I see any family links between them and Hardy or Diane. Bit annoying. What’s the matter with these Krugers?

Appearing at a few points in the film is the newspaper/reel company American Newsreel. My theory is that if you put pretty much any word following the word ‘American’ you come up with a pretty good title for something (Beauty, History X, Pie, Psycho, Slang, Gangster, Graffiti, Idol, Gigolo etc.)

Week 26: ‘Suspicion’ – 1941

July 3, 2010

Keeping up the pace of his Hollywood output, Hitchcock directs his fourth film within two years (imagine that happening today, unless you’re Michael Winterbottom). ‘Suspicion’ starts off as a domestic flick of a dashing gent and his new shy and naïve wife and then twists itself into pretty much a humdinger of a thriller. It’s also really the first time he has worked with a really big name star and used this star’s professional perception to work against the plot. Yes, we’ve seen Charles Laughton, Carole Lombard, Peter Lorre, Ivor Novello and Laurence Olivier but…Cary Grant

Grant plays Johnnie Aysgarth , the impoverished social climber playing on his classic good looks and inate charm to win himself an innocent young wife – Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine, seeming to corner the market on meek and mild wives in Hitchcock movies*).

Post nuptials, Johnnie starts to show his true self – working his way steadily through gambling debts and reams of bills (reminiscent of Ivor Novello’s girlfriend in ‘Downhill’, portrayed by Isabel Jeans – she pops up here also in a small role as Mrs. Newsham), and then starts to send out sinister signals of being a potential murderer. His best chum Beaky Thwaite (Nigel Bruce – you can’t murder cuddly old Nigel Bruce!) dies under suspicious circumstances and the police come a calling…

Grant is suave and elegant from the start, his usual dapper and smooth self – it’s easy to see how Lina would fall for his winning (or losing) ways. Right from the off he’s sponging off her, cadging a few pennies to boost his rail fare up to First Class. The camerawork in the movie is some of the best of Hitchcock to date – as fluid, sleek and seamless as Johnnie’s hair (I love Cary Grant’s hair by the by, very jealous of a man who seems to wander around being perfectly styled all day and night. I guess this is because he would have been perfectly styled all day and night).

Johnnie’s questioning ‘What did you think I was trying to do – kill you?’ as they grapple on the hill after skipping church is a foreboding moment. The score becomes discordant for the first time in the film (music courtesy of regular Hitch composer Franz Waxman). It’s an odd moment that throws you a little bit as it’s so out of whack with the film to this point, but it certainly drops the thought that all might not be as it seems. There’s some lovely innuendo in this scene, all horse references and snapped shut handbags as she cuts his passion off at the pass.

Her overhearing her parents saying she is not ‘the marrying kind’ throws her into Johnnie’s arms and the chase is on – she eagerly awaiting his call, he blowing her out in a fear-of-loss kind of way, guaranteed to raise her feminine shackles and get her to chase him back. This is sophisticated stuff and they both perform it well, Fontaine in particular trying to assert herself in the face of dubious parents and a flaky lover-to-be. Finally, after a well shot and performed montage of feminine listlessness and desperation, he sends a telegram and, of course, she leaps at the chance to see him – starved as she has been of his presence.

DON’T FORGET TO BRING YOUR UCIPITAL MAPILARY – JOHNNY – says his telegram to her regarding the upcoming ball**. Waxman’s music sweeps in and she swoons around her room in utter joy and excitement, selecting her most dynamic black and white party frock. It’s very over the top but an immediate relief to the dowdy scenes we have just experienced.

Johnnie sweeps into the ball uninvited, much to the consternation of Lina’s father,  General McLaidlaw (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). He is immediately flocked to by a host of girls, the proverbial flies round a dung heap. In a series of dizzying dance steps he swoops Lina out of there so they can be alone – bizarre, he literally seems to have been at the ball for about 5 minutes before they leave (seems a lot of trouble as he looks toned immaculate in his white tie). You have to admire Johnnie when he’s asked about his previous conquests – he’s very open and says one night when having difficulty sleeping he tried to count them and ‘passed out on number 73’. He’s the Bill Wyman of his day, the cad/Lothario. His charm is that he is so blatant about it and doesn’t attempt to hide both the truth or his reputation, which makes him attractive to the female audience and someone to admire/be jealous of for the guys. Johnnie also looks just like Cary Grant, which always helps.

This driving back to her place scene is that classic ‘we’re-sitting-in-a-studio-car-being-bumped-around-by-prop-men’ shot, a token bit of back projected road slipped in all too unconvincingly (there’s another screaming back projection bit later, in the daytime so even more glaring, after her father’s will is read).

Johnnie’s sweep-you-off-your-feet seduction continues. He mixes the charm with little levels of aggression and moodiness, all irresistible. There’s a lovely tracking move around them as he gives her another long old kiss (not in the same league as the epic Grant and Eva Marie Saint kiss from ‘North by Northwest’ but getting there). Hitchcock loves a bit of kissing and especially likes to showcase these moments of intimacy with pay attention camera moves. Lina seems too doe eyed and innocent to me – ‘are you courting me?’ she asks, after the big old swooping kiss. Does she really have to ask? He’s all over her like a fake fur.

Ill advised, Lina lets herself be eloped off and they’re married. Immediately the alarm bells should be ringing, he totting up bills galore. They honeymoon all over the place (a rather hackneyed travel poster montage here – a bit of an obvious way of showing this cheaply, with a few screaming stock shots thrown in for bad measure), and then come back to a house he has bought – because that happens, the husband buying a house without so much as consulting his wife. She just seems to accept it all and, again, it seems a bit too broad in her roll over and take it-ness. She is shocked when he openly tells her he has ‘been broke all his life’ and plans on paying off everything once her inheritance comes through. You have to admire his front…

There are elements of light comedy in these early marital scenes, Lina telling him he has to go to work and he looking at her with a humorous punctuation sound effect. When the crusty antiquated chairs from her parents’ place are delivered, Johnnie hides his dislike of them by positioning himself in a forced relaxed posture, clearly extracting the Michael out of these rather monstrous out of place seats. He promptly flogs these heirlooms and still has the front to defend his actions. Flanked by Johnnie and Beaky, they depart the room, her face worried at what she has let herself in for.

Lina desperately wants to believe, and believe in, her husband but my word does he test her. Gambling, lavish present buying, vague excuses and BS abound – she clinging to wanting him and her love, it being eroded by his more and more outlandish behaviour. Grant of course is the perfect actor for all this – anyone less suave and cool and you’d just end up hating him for being a total richard and abusing his marriage and his optimistic Mrs.

The film hits a tone that is kind of cringy. Johnnie’s outrageous shenanigans spur Lina into more and more desperate ways of trying to control him, she addled by love and shock at what he gets up to. By halfway through the film Johnnie is coming over as a real dark force – the near asphyxiation of the brandy swilling Beaky  emits nothing but an unsympathetic dismissiveness from Johnnie as his friend lays in his choking chair. Hitchcock piles on the finger pointing as we struggle to maintain respect or admiration for this despicable cretin, this wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Lina slowly unravels the extent of Johnnie’s fibbery – the pretence of going to work (hello there Leo G. Carroll as his boss, Captain Melbeck…well, not really his boss as he doesn’t actually work there), the further horse racing visits, the pilfering of two grand from his ex-work (Melbeck is also his cousin and says he won’t prosecute as long as the cash comes back)…it all beggers belief.

The camera is pretty mobile throughout, the director cannot resist the occasional long take and roving camera flourish (see 58’50”, a good long take with crane shot and the inevitable grandish staircase). There’s an astonishing bit of Hitchcockery as they play a game of anagrams – she spelling out DOUBT, then MURDER as we see her imagining Beaky being shoved off a cliff.

This scene screams Hitchcockian style. It’s a tad out of whack with the rest of the picture but expresses her increasing irrationality and conflicted feelings perfectly as she falls to the floor in a faint. Lina’s dark mood as she approaches their house, thinking Beaky has been bumped, is depicted by dim lighting and a foreboding camera track. When she sees Beaky all too well, the lighting lifts, the music swells and all is – albeit temporarily – right with the world again. However, when Beaky eventually dies she reads the paper the cops give her – her father’s portrait gazing over her shoulder in an ‘I told you so’ way. At this point, if she hadn’t before, she truly does have cause for suspicion***.

There’s a whole subplot that is quite fun also – Lina is friendly with a local crime novelist (Isobel Sedbusk, played by Auriol Lee), and Johnnie has been chatting to her about poisoning and general murderous details. It’s a little abstract but does add another layer of suspiciousnes at his door. The death of Beaky through brandy excess is mirrored in the plot of a book Johnnie had borrowed – all seems a bit convenient to me, but I suppose quite intriguing and fun.

The two leads are great, giving lovely subtle nuanced performances. Fontaine in particular – although playing a kind of similar role to the one she had in ‘Rebecca’ (although in this case she actually gets a name) has a really good way of being meek and then steely and determined. Grant is always top notch and his allowing himself a tiny smile after she confesses ‘I couldn’t stop loving you if I tried’ is a typically ambiguous expression. I like them both enormously and they really do make the – sometimes pretty ridiculous – film work.

The famed ‘walking up the staircase (there it is again) with the glowing glass of possibly poisoned milk’ (a light inside the glass for maximum neon style action) is very good and a clear highpoint of the movie. The groundwork regarding untraceable poisons has been laid by this point and the tension is great. In one shadowy and superb shot Johnnie appears and carefully carries the glowing beverage up the staircase to her room. Magnificent. It’s lovely that all the suspicion and all the intrigue and question marks leads up to something as innocent as a glass of milk.

I can’t help thinking by the end that if this what the rest of her life with Johnnie is going to be like, the poor woman will be a wreck within the first year. She’s already a bundle of suspicious nerves and, even with the rather far-fetched redemption of Johnnie, it all seems very questionable.

The whole enterprise is potentially great – and enjoys a good reputation – but it does seem a bit fumbled. The finger of suspicion points so definitely at Johnnie and the evidence stacks up so convincingly that it’s like the director has set himself one of his challenges to try and then magic himself out of it all. It’s entertaining all the way through and both the stars are top notch but the rather rushed ending in particular feels all a bit ta-dah! It’s been discussed that this was not Hitchcock’s choice and the ending was forced upon him (see notes below) and the film suffers for it. It’s a good watch and has much to recommend it, though.

Miscellaneous notes

*doing it in style here and picking up the Best Actress Academy Award at 1942’s Oscar ceremony.

**The term ‘unipital mapillary’ (the tiny indentation between the clavicles) is a non existant biological term that one of the screenwriters Samson Raphaelson invented:

Johnnie: ‘Don’t do that’.
Lina: ‘Why not?’
Johnnie: ‘Because your ucipital mapillary is quite beautiful’.

Hitchcock pops up at about 45 mins in, wearing a sporty little hat and posting a letter –  apparently the film was meant to end with Lina dying from the poisoned milk but then Johnnie posts a letter she had written to her mother containing all the details of his evil nature. Perhaps Hitchcock wanted to get the letter posting in there somehow.

*** a good old profile shot of Lina at this point also.

The version I watched was on the Universal label – interestingly they include a complete colourised version of the movie , which is well worth a look. Colourisation was a bit faddy back in the 80’s and 90’s and is undoubtedly a ludicrous and just-so-wrong idea. But I have to say that even though it literally shouts disrespect it’s such a curious thing to do that it’s kind of gripping. The images resemble old photos that have been hand tinted but in motion, it’s really pretty amazing to watch and technically fascinating how they managed to do this before the more recent leaps in CGI. It’s silly and pointless and totally wrong from a purest point of view but is also a fascinating curiosity in the history of cinema. I suppose in some ways it resembles the latest penchant for 3D-ising 2D movies, a stupid idea if done badly and a short term financial gratification of a process that when done properly (ie. ‘Avatar’) is pretty astonishing. Hey – why not 3D-ise the colourised version of ‘Suspicion’ and remix it in 7.1 for Blu-ray?! And while we’re at it, swap Cary Grant for Brad Pitt, that’ll put some bums on seats…

Week 25: ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’ – 1941

June 26, 2010

‘All I did was to photograph the scenes as written’ – Alfred Hitchcock to Francois Truffaut, 1966

This is a bit of an aberration, not totally bad just a bit of a waste of time – and not in a good way. As Hitchcock had skirted with fairly lightly comedic moments in ‘Foreign Correspondent’ or ‘Secret Agent’, here he leaps with both clomping feet into a fully fledged (attempted) comedy which, for me, proves both clunky and decidedly unfunny.

The essential plot sees the eponymous couple (played by Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery) who realise their marriage is actually null and void (for various legal reasons) and see it as an opportunity to get shot of each other. Various machinations ensue involving each of them behaving pretty shabbily to the other before the inevitable and predictable reconciliation as they realise their undying love for each other. Yawn. It’s not done well and, although the stars are trying (sometimes very) the whole thing falls on its face somewhat.

What’s to like? The early scenes of  their domestic love-in (they’ve locked themselves in for three days, but have reached a total of eight consecutive days previously) are nicely arranged and put together and establishes the love/hate relationship they enjoy/despise.

They are nicely eccentric – it feels like they’re in a hotel, their maid bringing sustenance at regular intervals to the dishevelled, unshaven, chain smoking Mr.. This is their way of working through a big marital bust-up and it’s quietly amusing. The tone of the film, however, seems a little off – especially when they both independently find out about their non-marriage and start plotting against the other party. They fluctuate between flirtiness (she playing footsie under the breakfast table until he says that if he had the chance again he wouldn’t marry her, her legs dropping swiftly to the floor – good move, Mr. Smith…), and crockery wielding chaos.

I like both of the stars. Montgomery is likeable with a nice naiveté, Lombard sexy and blonde and scheming (especially in her tousled bedroom bound scenes) – all attractive.

The plot is interesting and obviously is a lot more problematic in the 1940’s than it would be today (the idea that they have been living together as husband and wife all that time), she saying that he was going to throw her aside ‘like a squeezed lemon’ after having his (now unmarried) way with her. Their first date as newly unmarried people sees them returning to a restaurant they used to love, only to find it transformed into a male run bar with added on bad food – they gawped at out on their street-bound table by passing by kids, her skirt pinned up due to the passing of time and the inevitable filling out of the waistline due to married relaxation. Bold that Carole Lombard (Mrs. Clark Gable) would let herself be portrayed as a bit overweight (she’s clearly not) in these scenes.

The movie does feel a bit stagebound – you could see how this would work in the theatre and Hitchcock is struggling to break it out in any cinematic ways (as previously seen in such titles as ‘Juno and the Paycock’).  I don’t want to see Hitchcock directing what should be snappy dialogue scenes in a conventional way, struggling to get any kind of experimental camera work/moves in there (there are none), the scenes playing out in a very stolid and uninventive manner.

Even when he manages to move the camera around it feels surprisingly clunky. For example the big crane move at 41 minutes in is pretty wobbly given the access the director would have had to equipment and technicians. The camera gets to fly a bit when Mrs. Smith goes to a fairground with a new suitor who happens to be Mr. Smith’s business partner Jeff Custer (Gene Raymond) and they get stuck up a ferris wheel – Hitchcock using a loose, almost handheld, camera to express the distance from the ground. But the quality of the stock shots used here lets it down, it feels a little like an attempt to get some motion into the whole thing and fairly random that they should go to a fair/go on the big wheel/get stuck up there for ages until it starts to rain etc.

The performances are likeable enough – stars of this calibre are never bad but they’re weighed down by dialogue that hampers them from truly flying. Montgomery gives a pretty funny turn as the beleaguered hubbie trying to outsmart the twisty turny female, and he has a funny face filled with blank disbelieving expressions of frustration. I like his drinking buddy/confidante (Chuck – played by Jack Carson) who seems to live at the gentlemen’s club Mr. Smith seeks refuge in – the guy offering the sort of useless male advice that is guaranteed to land Mr. Smith deeper in the hole of unhappiness. Chuck’s advice seems to revolve around the consumption of gin and the taking of many saunas as cure alls when marital strife gets too much. The fact that he appears to be residing permanently in the club suggest he’s none too successful with the ladies, but at least he’s good company.

I didn’t buy the whole new relationship Mrs. Smith embarks on with Jeff. It’s clearly a mismatch and you never believe for a second that this is a viable alternative to her (non) husband. I do like Mr. Smith’s line in reference to Jeff:

‘I know you’re in love with me – you couldn’t have anything to do with that pile of southern fried chicken’.

Ultimately this kind of movie would work if you think that the original couple may actually not get back together and they drift so far apart you can’t think how it will possibly be resolved. But here it just feels like marking time until an inevitable reconciliation and therefore it just seems to be a succession of vaguely amusing scenes and incidents. Trying to open it up a but more, the new couple go off to a ski resort and Mr. Smith appears frozen and collapsing. There follows a pretty interminable scene where they try to get him indoors, which is too long and not nearly funny enough – I was losing patience with the whole venture by this point.

It goes on and it’s all ok, but it feels like that in another director’s hands it could have been snappier or pacier or funnier or…just better: or maybe it’s just simply not great material to start with. In the hands of a Howard Hawks (see ‘His Girl Friday’ or ‘Bringing Up Baby’), or the peerless Billy Wilder (‘Some Like it Hot’/ ‘The Apartment’) the movie may have sparkled and shone, where with the suspense obsessed cinematic innovator Hitchcock it’s just a bit dull. The final image of the crossed skis as they are reunited offscreen is sweet, evoking a letter sign off kiss, but it’s a small idea in a film that struggles to offer many more of these touches.

It’s an interesting and funny premise turned into a not fantastic script and then directed by rote and as such is nothing more than a mild curiosity in the Hitchcock canon (with some of the usual creaky old rear projection, especially in the ski resort scenes). Plus, it has nowhere near as many guns as the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie movie of the same name 64 years later (which is also a bit of a shambles). Lesson to be learnt? Stop making movies called ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith’.

Miscellaneous notes

*Carole Lombard’s life ended tragically in a plane crash the following year – she was dead at 33.