This Month in Rankings

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog – 5, 1927
Champagne – 16, 1928
Diary of a Lost Girl – 2, 1929
Hallelujah! – 5, 1929
The Manxman – 8, 1929
Number Seventeen – 23, 1932
Liliom – 11, 1934
This Land is Mine – 14, 1943
The Lodger – 20, 1944

Stage Fright – 12, 1950
Great Day in the Morning – 20, 1956


The Cabin in the Woods – 2, 2011
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia – 3, 2011
Carnage – 11, 2011

For the Love of Film: On Champagne

Truffaut:  The next one was Champagne.

Hitchcock:  That was probably the lowest ebb in my output.

“That’s not fair,” said Truffaut, who proceeded to outline the plot of the film: a flighty rich girl is suspected by her father of having a golddigging boyfriend, so the father tells her they’ve lost all their money.  The boyfriend dumps her and she gets a job at a nightclub, of which the (ex-)boyfriend disapproves.  Eventually, she runs off with a mysterious man who is probably evil (he looks like a mustachioed badger) but turns out to be a friend of her father, tasked with protecting her.  Girl and boy reunite with father’s approval.

Hitchcock:  That’s just the trouble.  There is no story!

Hitch was right, the movie, despite more than a few clever camera moments, is pretty disastrous.  The lead characters are bland at best, the girl being unbelievably stupid for most of the film and the rest of them just plain boring.  The boyfriend’s motives are never clear.  We assume he isn’t actually a golddigger, since he’s apparently the film’s hero, but he breaks up with the girl after she loses her money anyway for some reason I didn’t quite catch. The father’s ruse is unexceptional for a screwball comedy, and he gets a nice capper to the long scenes of he and his daughter slumming it in a tiny apartment with her terrible cooking by going out alone for a fancy meal.  But when he reveals his secret, he does so by brandishing a newspaper headline.  Apparently “Father Tries to Teach Spoiled Daughter a Lesson” is headline news for the New York Advertiser, which is just plain weird (I like to think the father is so wealthy he publishes a newspaper whose sole purpose is  the chronicling of his domestic adventures).

But as always with Hitchcock, there are moments that make the film worthwhile, even in a film as otherwise forgettable as this one.  Most of them involve experiments with the subjective camera, perhaps the technique most associated with Hitchcock throughout his career.  The film begins and ends with shots of the mustache man drinking champagne, which we see in extreme close up from the point of view of the mustache.  As the glass empties, we see through it to the boy and the girl, a cute analogue for the film’s would-be fizziness.  Early scenes on an ocean liner experiencing turbulence provide an opportunity for some fine visual gags: the boy, feeling seasick stares at the food prepared by the kitchen staff, which looks as unappetizing as the meals in Frenzy; later on, he sees the girl in a funky triple vision.  Back on shore, at a party, we see the girl open the door and rush toward the camera as if to kiss it (and us), but at the last moment, Hitchcock cuts to the reverse angle: an old man’s puckered lips (it’s her father).

The weirdest thing about watching this film, for me, however, was the music.  Champagne, like most (all?) of Hitchcock’s British films fell into the public domain some time ago, and there are myriad cheap, low quality versions of them out there.  The one I watched came from one of those $5 four disc/20 movie sets you see everywhere that sells DVDs (it was a Christmas gift).  The video quality is abysmal, but the accompanying music is even worse.  It sounds like someone just pressed play on the “Greatest Classical Hits” CD and recorded it as the soundtrack to the film.  It never matches the action on screen: the comical opening sequence is scored with a Wagneresque romantic lament, the party scene that follows has some kind of march.  Another party scene is scored with Pomp and Circumstance.  The music for the girl’s job search is freakin’ Bolero!  It’s very possible I would have liked the film a lot more with a real soundtrack.

Not coincidentally, one of the aims of this For the Love of Film Blogathon is to raise money to record the original score for The White Shadow written by Michael Mortilla. Your donation also goes toward the National Film Preservation Foundation making the film, the first on which Hitchcock played a major role (assistant director, editor, art director, writer), available as a free stream.  Today is the last day of the blogathon, and the word is we’re still well short of our goal.  Make your tax-deductible donation by hitting the button below.

For the Love of Film: On Number Seventeen

Truffaut:  You made Number Seventeen in 1932.  I saw the film at the Cinémathèque.  It was quite funny, but the story was rather confusing.

Hitchcock: A disaster!

That’s about all Hitchcock had to say about the film in his series of interviews with François Truffaut, other than an amusing anecdote about trying to herd cats, literally.  That and that he didn’t choose the film, it was assigned to him by the studio and that he felt it was a low point in his career, a matter of his own dissatisfaction with what he was creating, “Number Seventeen reflected a careless approach to my work.  There was no careful analysis of what I was doing.  Since those days, I’ve learned to be very self-critical, to step back and take a second look.  And never to embark on a project unless there’s an inner feeling of comfort about it.”  He clearly saw his films of the early 30s as mistakes, but ones which taught him the discipline he would need to become perhaps the most rigorous and careful filmmaker of the next 30 years or so.  It’s hard to imagine the Hitchcock who legendarily would plan and storyboard the entire film before setting foot on set, who called the actual filming of a movie the most boring part, making a film as thoroughly confusing (Truffaut was right) as Number Seventeen.  But still, there’s is greatness in it, particularly at the beginning and the end.

The plot, near as I can make out, involves a group of people who all end up at an abandoned house.  Some of them are innocent bystanders trying to get out of the rain, some of them are criminals involved in a jewel robbery, and at least one of them is a cop.  But no one knows who anyone else is.  The trouble with the film is that the long middle is as confusing and hard to understand for the audience as it is for the characters, the chaos of shifting alliances and relationships is all too chaotic.  It doesn’t help that the sound, at least in the public domain version I saw on Instant Netflix, is muffled and blurred beyond comprehension, and that’s without accounting for the occasionally thick English accents that are hard enough for me to decipher on crystal clear soundtracks (apparently, like with The Manxman, there’s a restored version by Canal+, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what Netflix is playing).

As for the good parts: Truffaut points out the wonderful chase sequence that takes up the last third of the film.  Hitchcock blends real train sets with miniatures as a bus (commandeered by the hero at gunpoint) chases down a runaway train filled with crooks who are in turn chasing each other over the tops of the train cars back and forth, unsure which of them has stolen the loot they’re all after.  The action, perhaps due to the lack of dialogue, has a clarity and sense of direction the rest of the film is missing, and the result is one of the most viscerally exciting action sequences of the 1930s.  Hitchcock creates a real sense of speed and danger both with editing and what appears to be judicious undercranking of the camera.

Most impressive though are the film’s opening shots, apparently filmed silently to enable extensive camera movement.  It begins with the wind rustling though a tree, then a pan down to leaves blowing on the sidewalk.  Suddenly, a man’s hat blows across the screen right to left, in the direction of the pan until it hits the open gate of a house, Number 17, whereupon the man chasing it (“there’s nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat”) runs on screen, picks it up and brushes it off.  The pan has stopped with the hat, and now the camera pushes in on the man, who looks at the ground floor window of the house where there is a light moving.  The camera moves past his shoulder and tilts up, following the light as it rises to the next floor’s windows.  At the side of the frame we see a For Sale sign (the house should be empty), and the film’s first cut is to an insert look at the sign, then a cut back to the previous shot, the tilt reversed such that we are back behind the man with the hat and moving forward as we follow him suspiciously inching toward the front door, which swings open wildly as he touches it (the wind?).  The shot continues forward (a little jittery, is it handheld?  A bump as the dolly clears the front steps?) into the house where we see a large stairway, with a black cat racing down the steps.  As the man peers around, the camera again rushes over his shoulder and tilts up as he looks up the stairs where we again see a moving light.  Another cut again brings us back behind the man (like the story to follow, our forward progress is constantly halted and reversed), still looking up as he lights a match.  A cut to the top of the stairs from his POV and we again see the moving light, this time resolving from shadows on the wall to a shadowy figure holding a candle and peering at us over the stair rail.  We then alternate shots of the man downstairs going up and the man upstairs going down, both casting ominous shadows on the walls.  A quick cut to the front door slamming shut (the wind?) and reaction shots first of the downstairs man (his match blown out), and the upstairs, who looks at the wall behind him and sees what appears to be the shadow of a giant hand.  We tilt down from the shadow to the floor, where we see the hand of a corpse sticking out between the railings (we see it, the men do not).  They continue to creep toward each other until they meet on the middle landing, whereupon the both drop their lights.  As they approach each other, the sound of a passing train rises on the soundtrack, whistle blowing.  In the light of the train, they look down, see the corpse, cut to an outside shot of the train rushing past followed by quick cuts to each of their faces, distorted in screams of terror (inaudible over the train whistle).  One last shot of the corpse, then a cut to the upstairs man, now running downstairs, slipping and falling.  He will be the comic relief and now the action of the film, the comedy of confused identity, begins.

This is Expressionism with a twist.  The play of shadow and light, the flowing camera of Murnau moving freely between objectivity and subjectivity, the quick, rhythmic cuts of Lang, the spooky house that wouldn’t look out of place in a Universal horror film by James Whale.  What Hitchcock brings to the style though is a sly sense of humor (the hat, the cat, the hand, the train).  Say what you will about Lang and Murnau, and they’re two of the very greatest directors who ever lived, they certainly weren’t funny.  But even at his laziest, Hitchcock could creep you out with style and make you laugh about it at the same time.

Only two days left of the For the Love of Film blogathon.  Apparently donations are picking up the pace but they’re still behind previous years earnings.  Surely you can spare the cost of a movie ticket for such a worthy cause?  Click the button below:

For the Love of Film: On The Manxman

The first thing about The Manxman is the title, which is a word with which I was previously unfamiliar.  It simply refers to a person from the Isle of Man, the need for such should be obvious (one could hardly be called a “Manman”, or even worse for a female from the Isle, a “Manwoman”, after all).  Which man from Man is the Manxman of the title, though, is a bit unclear.  And that leads to the second thing about the film: it’s pretty much a straight melodrama, more straight than any other Hitchcock film I’ve seen.  Hitch himself dismissed it in his interview with François Truffaut, saying, “It was a very banal picture. . . .It was not a Hitchcock movie” and that the only interesting thing about it was that it was his last silent film.  Far be it from me to disagree with the man himself, but I think it’s a bit better than that.  (Truffaut, for his part, thought the film was interesting in its prefiguring of Under Capricorn, with which it does have a lot in common).

The plot is a mostly conventional love triangle story: two Manxmen, friends since childhood but from opposite ends of the socio-economic scale love the same woman, the daughter of a pub owner (a “publican” another great word), but neither are aware of the other’s interest in her.  The poor friend, Pete, is a fisherman and makes the first move, trying to win over the girl’s father.  He rejects him as too poor for her, so Pete sets sail to make his fortune leaving the girl (Kate) in the arms of his trusted friend Philip, a lawyer in training to be a “deemster”, a judge.  Pete is reported dead and Kate and Philip quickly fall in love themselves.  Pete, of course, is not dead and returns having made some money (how much money we don’t know, presumably not a ton, as he continues to fish.  Details like this Hitchcock thankfully leaves out: how much money did Pete make?  Why was he dead and then not dead?  How does a fisherman make a fortune in South Africa?  These questions are irrelevant so Hitchcock doesn’t bother to answer them.  I’m reminded of a difference in the two versions of The Lodger: in Hitch’s version, the old couple are just renting out a room with no explanation, but in Brahm’s Hollywood remake, the lady of the house gives a boring speech about how they need to raise money because her husband lost money on an investment or something.  Who cares?).

Rather than simply tell Pete that they’re in love, Phil and Kate keep silent.  Presumably they fear upsetting their friend and choose to suffer through being apart.  Pete and Kate’s engagement, wedding and reception is told economically through a series of lovely dissolves, centered on Kate’s intensely sad face.  For the most part though, this is a much less visually stylized film than The Lodger was.  Whereas that film showed the influence of German Expressionism in its deep shadows and haunting distorted and abstract imagery, The Manxman is much more in the vein of Scandinavian directors like Victor Sjöström or Carl Theodor Dreyer, composed interior shots of repressed people looking away from each other.  (I also found myself thinking of Hiroshi Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor, though that may simply be a reflection of the sweetly melancholic piano score by an unnamed composer that’s reflective of Donald Sosin’s score for the Eclipse release of that great film).

After having a baby, Kate finally leaves Pete and hides out in Philip’s house, though Phil’s unsure if he can have her around, having just been given the prestigious deemster position: a scandal would ruin him.  Kate finally tells Pete what’s been going on, and that the baby is not really his but Pete refuses to believe her and takes the baby and hides in his room.  Kate wanders to the sea and throws herself in.  She’s rescued though and put on trial for attempted suicide (apparently against the law), so with everyone finally in place and the whole village watching, Philip must choose his career and his friendship or dishonor and the woman he loves and their baby.  He chooses dishonor and the film ends with he and Kate shunned away from the island by a horde of angry women while Pete watches over the fishing fleet with tears in his eyes.  It’s a wonderfully unhappy ending.

So who, then, is the Manxman of the title?  Throughout the film, I kept thinking of Pete the fisherman as the hero of the story, the honest, gregarious guy accidentally betrayed by his best friend and the woman he loves.  But at the end, Phil’s sacrifice of his reputation and career seems almost heroic, though it’s really a matter of his simply accepting the consequences of his actions.  There isn’t really a villain in the film: everyone acts with the best intentions, though the film is based on one of those silly melodramatic situations that would be resolved if everyone would have just sat down and talked for five minutes or so.  Ultimately, I’d imagine one’s enjoyment of the film would rest on the ability to overlook that kind of narrative contrivance.

Finally, the version of The Manxman I watched is the one streaming on Instant Netflix.  The film had been in the public domain, like the rest of Hitchcock’s silents, for decades until Canal+ bought the rights and restored the film for DVD release a few years ago.  The image, even streaming, is stunning, certainly compared to the terrible condition of The Lodger in the public domain versions I’ve seen.  This only points to the value of film preservation and the wonders of streaming video.  Not coincidentally, this post is part of the For the Love of Film blogathon to raise money for the National Film Preservation Foundation and their efforts to make what remains of The White Shadow, the earliest extant film on which Hitchcock played a major role, available free on the internet with a newly recorded score.  Click the button below to donate.

For the Love of Film: On The Lodger

For this Hitchcock-and-silent movies blogathon (to benefit the National Film Preservation Foundation, donate below!), I wanted to finally watch some of Hitchcock’s silent films, which I have no excuse for not watching before now other than that there’s a whole lotta other movies I haven’t seen yet either.  I’m starting with the most famous and generally well regarded, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, from 1927.  This was Hitchcock’s third film credit as a director, and his first suspense thriller, and has come to be seen as the first “true” Hitchcock film.  And his directorial sensibility, though showing heavily the influence of German Expressionism and a kind of rapid editing Hitch would largely abandon later in his career, ultimately shines quite clearly, especially when the film is viewed in relation to a later Hollywood version of the story, by director John Brahm.

The 1927 film opens with a scream, followed by a furious rhythmic montage of the London streets in the wake of the latest murder by The Avenger, a Jack the Ripper-style killer of women.  The screamer in question is the victim, a blonde showgirl, and the next shot is what appears to be a flashing neon sign, “To – Night Golden Curls”.  The sign becomes a kind of mantra, Hitchcock returns to it again and again in these opening shots that establish the world of the killer, the hysteria of the public and the important detail that the killer wears his scarf around the lower half of his face.  A sequence like this built around rapid, impressionistic editing, with the musical repetitions of the neon sign, is pretty unusual for Hitchcock, though probably the most famous scene of his career, the shower scene from Psycho, is of course a masterpiece of quick cuts (so to speak).  The opening section of the film concludes with one of the more terrifying images I’ve seen in any film, that of the prospective lodger standing fog-enshrouded in a doorway, the lower half of his face covered in scarf as he meets his new landlady.

The rest of the film chronicles the suspicions of the landlady and her family that their lodger is in fact The Avenger.  We see lots of circumstantial evidence: the scarf thing, his distaste for paintings of blonde women, he goes out at all hours of the night (in a wonderful shadowy Expressionistic scene, we watch as the landlady watches the lodger sneak out of the house; there’s a great shot looking down a staircase in this sequence, prefiguring Vertigo), and he has a penchant for staring creepily into the distance.  Daisy, the daughter of the house, finds him charming though, and the two begin to fall in love, much to the chagrin of the local cop (just assigned to the Avenger case, naturally) who happens to be in love with her.  Thus, mass fear, paranoia and sexual jealousy lead the parents and the cop to conclude that the lodger is the killer.  Hitchcock keeps this is-he-or-isn’t-he tension up for most of the film, and the possibility that he is the killer lends a potent charge to his loves scenes with Daisy.  In particular the sequence of their first kiss is stunning:  after a fetishistic sniff and caress of her golden hair, the lodger leans into her and the camera, so close and so over-exposed (at least in the cheap public domain version I saw) that his face dissolves into abstraction: blurred white skin and infinite swirls of black for eyes and mouth, like one of those horrifying Japanese masks, she ducks to the side and he caresses her hair, then Hitch cuts to a side shot and we see a long, slow kiss in profile, then a cut to an over the shoulder shot of her face, lower half blocked by his head as her eyes roll back to the sky then close slowly.  It might be the greatest kiss in Hitchcock, up there with Grant and Bergman’s dissolution into a single mass of face and hands in Notorious.

In the last 15 minutes or so we learn that the lodger is, in fact, the first of Hitch’s Wrong Men, that his sister was The Avenger’s first victim and he’s been hunting him down ever since.  Before he can prove his innocence, however, an angry mob nearly beats him to death.  It’s only by the simultaneous capture of the real killer that the lodger’s life is saved.  This is only the most obvious difference from Brahm’s remake.  In that film, the lodger, played by Laird Cregar, actually turns out to be Jack the Ripper all along.  This is fine as far as it goes, and Cregar gets to give some wonderful speeches about how Merle Oberon should thank him for cutting the evil out of her so he can worship her beauty, even though she’d be, you know, dead.  It makes for a fine thriller (the always great George Sanders is particularly charming as the cop), but everything is on the surface, everything is exactly what it says it is and no more.  It’s lacking in something that Hitchcock brought to pretty much every film of his that I’ve seen: depth.

What makes Hitchcock different is that while his films are about what they’re about, the plot and general suspense dynamics that are thrilling in themselves, while they are scary, exciting, creepy, funny and so on, everything you look for in a sensory experience from a top flight thriller, there’s always another, lower level of meaning, an unease, a fluidity that grabs you at a more fundamental level and invites you to explore what you’ve seen.  I quoted Dave Kehr yesterday on how a series of Hitchcock films can be taken as commentaries on and metaphors for various arts: Rope, literature; The Trouble with Harry, painting; Vertigo, cinema; etc.  You can say that about Hitchcock and not sound foolish because those depths are always there.  I don’t know that they’re intentional (I certainly don’t think it matters), but there’s something about the way he made films that everything is always evocative of something else.  Hitchcock taps deep into our psyches, into the roots of myriad other ideas and concepts, our most archetypal fears; his films always function as metaphors in addition to working on their own terms.  I think this is the source of his appeal: there’s something in Hitchcock for everyone, and because of these unresolved depths, there’s something new there every time you watch.

For the Love of Film: On Stage Fright

In a Film Comment essay from 1984 (reprinted in his recent collection When Movies Mattered) on five Hitchcock films that had just been rereleased, Dave Kehr proposes a series of art metaphors for each film: Rope as literature, Rear Window photography, The Trouble with Harry painting, The Man Who Knew Too Much music and Vertigo cinema itself.  The film missing from that series (I assume because it was not among the rereleases) is Stage Fright, whose connection to theatre and acting is perhaps the most obvious of all.  The film begins with a curtain being raised, slowly, on a scene of London traffic, prefiguring the opening credits of Rear Window, and ends with a curtain dropping, literally, on the villain.  The lead is Jane Wyman, a young acting student who is told an elaborate flashback at the beginning of the film by the man she’s in love with (Richard Todd) about how he aided and abetted the covering up of a murder by the woman he’s in love with (a star actress, played by Marlene Dietrich, her husband was the victim) and was spotted, thus becoming the target of the police’s investigation.  This is a classic Hitchcockian wrong man set-up, and the two women are textbook Hitchcockian women: the brunette Wyman that Todd sees only as a friend and the alluring, icy blonde Dietrich, who uses her sex appeal to manipulate Todd to his own destruction.

But the film quickly veers off the expected path.  Rather than following Todd’s struggles to clear his name, a la The Thirty-Nine Steps or North by Northwest, he quickly disappears from the action as Wyman takes on the investigative role, donning a series of disguises and performing her way into both Dietrich’s household (as a maid) and the arms of the dashing police detective (Under Capricorn‘s Michael Wilding) with the help of her father, a kooky old man who likes to pretend he’s a smuggler when really he’s just a nice guy with an awesome voice, played by Alastair Sim.  The film meanders about in the middle (Robin Wood found the film interesting in the context of Hitchcock’s career, but pretty boring to sit through) as Wyman tries to gather evidence of Todd’s innocence and Dietrich’s guilt, but I found the playfulness with the idea of performance pretty charming.  Wyman slowly getting into character as the mousy maid with a ridiculous accent, or getting confused as to which man she’s really in love with and which she’s just pretending is pretty cute and even Dietrich gets a chance to demonstrate that her character isn’t nearly as callous as she appears, that her icy exterior is too a performance.  Also, coming off the extreme experimentation of Rope and Under Capricorn, we see Hitchcock blending the audaciously long takes of those films into a more conventional, less exciting style.  Especially notable is an early track through a doorway that somehow becomes a long crane shot inside a house up a grand staircase and along a hallway.

The long circular middle leads to a predictable, but nonetheless satisfying twist: that we’ve been lied to from the start: Todd is a performer as well and his flashback sequence which began the film was a lie: he actually was the murderer, he was the right man.  The details here are fudged a bit, at least I didn’t quite catch how the whole bloody dress thing came about (this was Todd’s evidence of Dietrich’s involvement in the murder, but he’d faked it to make it look more bloody than it really was, or something), but by this point it doesn’t really need to make sense, nor can it.  When film is shown to be built on a lie, an act, a performance, can anything be trusted to be the “truth” and does it matter?

In Kehr’s scheme, he sees the first two films (Rope and Rear Window) as viewing art (literature, photography) as monstrous while the second two (The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much) see art (painting, music) as life-affirming.  Vertigo, as cinema, “moves beyond pro and con, to confront the issue of full complexity.”  Stage Fright is the flip side of that: it’s isn’t particularly complex, but it’s a comedy where Vertigo is a tragedy.  Both films are built around lies and life as performance, but in Vertigo the lies control us, we are in thrall to the past, fictional or not it doesn’t matter.  In Stage Fright, lies are a means to an end: they liberate and elucidate more than they bind and cover up.  In Stage Fright, there is a final final curtain and (we can assume?) the performance ends; in Vertigo, the madness spirals out of control, into infinity.

This is my second entry in the third annual For the Love of FIlm Blogathon, raising money for the National Film Preservation Foundation to make The White Shadow available for free streaming and to record the score for the film.  Check out the rest of the blogathon at Ferdy on Films, The Self-Styled Siren and This Island Rod, and if you can, click the donate button below:

For the Love of Film: One Week With Hitchcock

Last year, in honor of our playing Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo as part of our Nine Circles of Hell Metro Classics series, I decided spend a week watching a bunch of the master’s films that I hadn’t seen yet and wrote some short reviews of them over on our website.  Well, Metro Classics no longer exists and for that matter neither does the Metro Cinemas, but thanks to the internet my blog post lives on.  And so, to kick off my small contribution to the annual For the Love of Film Blogathon, I’m rerunning that post.  This year the Blogathon is raising money for the National Film Preservation Foundation, with the hope of making available over the internet (and record a score for) what remains of The White Shadow, Hitch’s earliest surviving film, on which he served as assistant director, art director, editor and writer.  The Blogathon runs today through the 18th of May and links to all the other participants can be found on the home blogs, Ferdy on Films, The Self-Styled Siren and This Island Rod.  It’s a great cause, so if you can spare a few bucks, click the donate button below.

Stay tuned over the next week, I hope to have something new up every day for the Blogathon on Hitchcock and/or silent movies.  Stage Fright is in the works, with hopefully at least The Lodger to follow.

Sabotage – This is an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, renamed because the other film Hitchcock directed in 1936 was also called The Secret Agent.  The local movie theatre owner (Oskar Homolka) is under surveillance by Scotland Yard as a suspect in a series of bombings around London.  Sylvia Sidney, star of Fritz Lang’s Fury and You Only Live Once, and 60 years later the alien-destroying Grandma in Mars Attacks!,  plays Homolka’s wife.  Homolka’s very good as a sap who gets manipulated into committing far greater crimes than he ever intended, but the signature sequence in the film, in which a young boy unknowingly carries a bomb through London (we see a clip of this in Inglourious Basterds) goes a little too far.  With it, Hitchcock tested the limits of the audience’s taste for suspense and learned that we’d react badly if he toyed with our emotions too mercilessly.  It’s really very unpleasant.

Saboteur – Similarly named but wildly different is this 1942 film starring Robert Cummings as a factory worker who’s wrongfully accused of blowing up an aircraft factory in wartime.  The movie basically feels like a rough draft of North By Northwest, with less charismatic actors and less of a sense of humor.  The first hour of the film moves fairly slowly, as Cummings luckily finds a blind man who trusts him and slowly earns the trust of Priscilla Lane’s pretty blonde model.  The second half rushes across the country, dropping plot holes left and right in a rush to get the leads to the top of the Statue of Liberty, in a sequence apparently designed to give me an attack of vertigo.

Under Capricorn – My favorite of this whole batch of movies, and one of the bigger flops of Hitchcock’s career.  It’s not a thriller, but rather a gothic melodrama set in 1830s Australia starring Joseph Cotton and Ingrid Bergman (whose scandalous relationship with Roberto Rossellini may have had as much to do with the film’s failure as its lack of suspense).  Like the previous year’s Rope, it’s as much an experiment in the use of the long take as it is a conventional film, and as such it feels at times like Hitchcock doing a Max Ophuls impression, with the long, stunning tracking shots weaving a dreamy sense of the snakelike interrelations between the characters and their pasts.  Cotton plays an ex-con who’s become rich but is tortured by his past.  Bergman plays his alcoholic wife, similarly tortured by her past.  When young Irishman Michael Wilding comes to town, he resolves to nurse Bergman back to health and uncovers the secrets both Bergman and Cotton (and the evil maid, Margaret Leighton (from John Ford’s 7 Women) are hiding.  It’s a movie about two people who can’t help destroying their own lives for each other’s sake, which is about as Hitchcockian a theme as there is.

Torn Curtain –  After Hitchcock’s otherworldly run of films in the late-50s and early-60s (Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, The Birds), any one of which could be considered his greatest, came Marnie, possibly his most psychologically disturbing and emotionally traumatic film.  By the mid-60s, Hitchcock must have been exhausted, and so the fact that his next two films are relatively impersonal espionage thrillers should be no surprise.  This beautifully composed 1966 film, starring Paul Newman and Julie Andrews is as solid a suspense film as you’re likely to find.  Newman plays a nuclear scientist who poses as a defector in order to worm a secret out of an East German scientist.  Andrews plays his girlfriend who tags along, not knowing his scheme until halfway through the film (we know Paul Newman’s beautiful, beautiful eyes could never betray his country, but she doesn’t).  The last two thirds of the film or so are constructed almost entirely out of textbook suspense sequences, as the two leads are either interrogated (often with a deadline) or chased across Berlin by communists, scientists and one mean ballerina.

Topaz – A worthy entry in the 1960s multinational epic thriller genre (think Guns of Navarone or Exodus) is this 1969 adaptation of Leon Uris’s novel about spies on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  John Forsythe (who looks like a weird mix of Humphrey Bogart and Richard Nixon, or maybe Jack Webb) plays the CIA agent who’s Soviet defector has info on Cuba, and also of a spy ring in the upper echelons of the French government.  He enlists French spy Frederick Stafford to go to Cuba and find out what’s going on, and then expose the evil French guys.  With John Vernon (The Outlaw Josey Wales, Animal House) as the bad Cuban, Karin Dor (You Only Live Twice) as the beautiful Cuban, Michel Subor (Le petit soldat) as Stafford’s journalist son-in-law, Claude Jade (Stolen Kisses) as Subor’s wife, Roscoe Lee Brown (The Cosby Show) as a French agent and Michel Piccoli (Contempt) and Philippe Noiret (Cinema Paradiso) as suspicious Frenchmen.  Hitchcock keeps things moving briskly through its two and a half hour running time, making it one of the rare entries in its genre that isn’t bloated and self-important.

Frenzy – Both a return to the dark psychology of his greatest films, and another experiment in what a filmmaker can get away with is this 1972 film, Hitchcock’s first to earn an R rating.  Finally free from censorship, he gives us another wrong man story, this time the hero being accused of serial-killing women with a necktie.  We learn the identity of the real killer fairly early on, in a horrifying sequence in which the murderer rapes and strangles his victim.  Hitchcock ruthlessly puts us in the midst of the scene, in what, like Sabotage, must have been the director trying to find out exactly how far the audience was willing to go (the sequence would not look out of place in the one of those horror films about torture that I don’t go see).  Just as disturbing, for me at least, are the scenes later in the film, when the Scotland Yard detective is served dinners by his wife, an aspiring gourmet.  She gives him a fish soup that might be the most disgusting thing I’ve seen on film.  It’s a nasty film, and not nearly as tightly constructed as it should be, even by Hitchcock’s MacGuffin-driven standards.

Family Plot – Hitchcock’s final film seems like it comes from another world entirely.  It’s a screwball thriller more along the lines of The Trouble With Harry than any film he’d made over the previous 20 years.  Barbara Harris (Nashville) plays a faux-psychic who is hired by an wealthy elderly woman to find her long lost nephew so that he can inherit the family fortune.  Enlisting the help of her actor/cab driver boyfriend (Bruce Dern), the two uncover a lifetime of criminal activity committed by the nephew (William Devane), who now runs a kidnapping-based jewel collection racket with his girlfriend, Karen Black (also in Nashville).  Dern makes a great detective, sarcastic and whiny and always chewing on a pipe while Devane, for some reason, talks like Jack Nicholson through the whole film.  I don’t know if that was an affectation, or just how he talked 35 years ago, but I have to say, it works.  Together with Frenzy, it forms a fitting summary of the tensions running throughout Hitchcock’s career: the combination of whimsically dark humor and disturbingly dark psychology that made him a truly great artist.

Finally, here is a ranked list of the 33 Hitchcock features I’ve seen so far, keeping in mind that I like all of these movies and every single one of them is worth seeing:

1. Vertigo
2. Rear Window
3. Psycho
4. North by Northwest
5. The Birds
6. The Lady Vanishes
7. Notorious
8. Rebecca
9. Suspicion
10. Under Capricorn
11. The 39 Steps
12. Shadow of a Doubt
13. Dial M for Murder
14. The Man Who Knew Too Much (’55)
15. Strangers on a Train
16. The Trouble with Harry
17. Torn Curtain
18. Lifeboat
19. Blackmail
20. Marnie
21. To Catch a Thief
22. The Wrong Man
23. I Confess
24. Family Plot
25. Rope
26. Topaz
27. Foreign Correspondent
28. The Man Who Knew Too Much (’34)
29. Frenzy
30. Saboteur
31. Spellbound
32. Sabotage
33. Jamaica Inn

On The Lower Depths

I’m going to start by saying that this isn’t the least bit “filmed theatre”, at least not as I understand the term.  To me, it means a more or less direct translation of a play to film, with little of the technique we generally use to differentiate the experience of watching a film from that of watching a play.  “Filmed theatre” is static, with little in the way of camera movement; it films a flat space perpendicular to the camera to create the effect of a proscenium arch; the actors are frontally focussed, addressing an imaginary audience; there’s not much in the way of analytic editing to divide and/or explore the theatrical space, either for dramatic emphasis (closeups at big moment) or just to create a rhythm of varied looks.  When I think of “filmed theatre” I think of the very earliest, pre-Griffith et al days of cinema, when filmmakers really would just plop a camera down and act in front of it with the goal of making the viewer feel like they were nestled into an orchestra seat at a broadway show.  Of course, very few films that would rightly be called “filmed theatre” made since 1912 or so really fit with so strict a definition, but usually when I see that term, I expect to see a lot of those elements, at least significantly more than in a film shot and cut in a standard way.

Well, The Lower Depths is about as far from that idea of “filmed theatre” as one can get.  Director Akira Kurosawa, adapting a play by Maxim Gorky, takes a very talky play limited to essentially one location and creates a tour de force of directorial style.  He basically throws every trick in his playbook at the screen in an attempt to cinematize the play, and the result, visually at least, is pretty breath-taking.  Kurosawa was always a master of composition, especially the relative arrangement of characters within the frame (a skill he learned no doubt in training to be a painter), and this is perhaps his most visually dense film.  He pulls off a trick I’ve only ever seen done as successfully in films by Hou Hsiao-hsien, where a shot of a few figures talking will be held for quite awhile before you realize exactly how many characters there are on-screen: the shock of recognition after looking at a shot for three minutes and realizing there’s actually a character sitting in the bottom left corner is fun, having that previously unseen character suddenly leap to life and begin berating the other characters is genius.  There’s one shot early in the film that appears to feature three characters in conversation, then you discover a fourth, a fifth, a sixth and finally you realize just how densely packed the slum these wretched people are living in really is.

How many characters do you see?

Kurosawa also avoids theatricality by filming the main set, a common room in a shack where a number of drunk, sick and for all intents and purposes homeless people crowd together, roughly parallel to the axis of the camera, keeping the whole depth of field in focus.  Instead of a proscenium view with the actors arrayed before us as on a stage, we get a three dimensional space with the characters piled on top of each other yet separated, all on their own planes.  In final third of the film, though, Kurosawa returns to the same common room and films it perpendicular to the camera, but closer up.  The effect is to bring the characters together (they’re united in their common shock at the preceding events) in a way they weren’t at the beginning of the film.

There’s a lot more: the camera moves more than usual with Kurosawa (certainly more than it would move in his later films), he films at unusual angles (there’s a cool shot early in the film with the Laughing Samurai from Seven Samurai: Kurosawa gives him a low angle shot with a smooth movement in and simultaneous tilt up, a heroic framing against the sky, ironic considering his doubtful status as a penniless ronin).  Kurosawa’s compositions are always interesting, posing characters at odd, dramatic diagonals, in diamond-shaped groups of four where no one looks at anyone else, on different levels not just in depth but in height as well.

The acting is uniformly pretty great, featuring a ton of Toho contract players, many of which are recognizable from other Kurosawa films, especially Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress, Throne of Blood and Yojimbo.  Toshiro Mifune is, as always, the ostensible star, but the film belongs to Hidari Bokuzen (unforgettable as Yohei in Seven Samurai), who plays a passing old man who who seems wise in dispensing grandfatherly advice but is probably concealing some horrible secret.

Unfortunately, while the film transcends what I would call “filmed theatre”, it does suffer from what a lot of play-based films do, that of being too written.  See, it’s not the visual style failing to “open up” the film that is the problem, rather it’s a matter of everything in the film being put into words.  Theatre is a verbal medium, just as film is a visual one, and in a play you expect the characters to say what they’re thinking in interesting and dramatically compelling ways.  To a certain extent, that kind of thing is expected in a (talking) motion picture as well, but the problem I’ve been having lately with a lot of very writerly films is that the fundamental wordiness of the scripts not only gums up the visual artistry of the filmmaker (not in Kurosawa’s case of course, but in others) but it subverts the kind of reality that’s most appealing on film.  (Why I should react this way to the “writtenness” of this film, or Marty or The Big Knife and not the very stylized and writerly films of, say, Whit Stillman, Quentin Tarantino, Ben Hecht, Woody Allen, etc is a question I don’t yet have a satisfactory answer to).

In the end, like a lot of these over-written films, The Lower Depths just feels phony.  And worse, it’s the kind of phony with a lame message: that it sucks to be poor and live in a slum that’s easily mistaken for a garbage dump because the people that live at the bottom of society are just mean and awful and there’s no hope so just get drunk because you’re going to die of tuberculosis anyway so you might as well enjoy it.  Maybe that’s the difference:  The Lower Depths, like the Paddy Chayefsky and Clifford Odets films I haven’t been enjoying, is trying to convey a social realist message, but the unreality of the writerly dramatic style is creating a disconnect, whereas the writerly films I do like are generally not the least bit concerned with reality or trying to convey a socially conscious message.  The verbal form is conflicting with the thematic content, creating an overall feeling of phoniness.