Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Hitchcock surrounding himself with beauty on the set of The Lady Vanishes, 1938

Hitchcock on the set with Dame May Whitty and Emile Boreo

Hitchcock on the set with Margaret Lockwood

Hitchcock with Margaret Lockwood

Hitchcock cameo

THE LADY VANISHES            A-                
Great Britain  (97 mi)  1938  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

I don’t see how a thing like cricket can make you forget seeing people.
—Charters (Basil Radford)

When one thinks of Hitchcock’s greatest films, they usually revolve around Shadow of a Doubt (1943), NOTORIOUS (1946), STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), REAR WINDOW (1954), Vertigo (1958), NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), and Psycho (1960), where his British films rarely enter into the discussion.  British film critic David Thomson, for instance, acknowledges that “Hitchcock in England is a career unto itself,” but does not include any of the British films on his list of the director's greatest works.  David Denby writing for The New Yorker wrote, “In recent decades, critical consensus has settled on the American movies from the fifties.”  That means Dial M for Murder (1954), The Trouble With Harry (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), The Birds (1960), and even Rebecca (1940) are often mentioned before his British classics The Lodger (1927), Blackmail (1929), THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), Young and Innocent (1937), and what is arguably his most definitively British film, THE LADY VANISHES (1938).  Ironically the film originated with an American director, Roy William Neill, for a film called The Lost Lady, produced by Edward Black, where a crew was sent to former Yugoslavia for initial background shots, but the police interfered, thinking Yugoslavs were not being well-portrayed in the film, so they were booted out of the country.  A year later, Black offered the film to Hitchcock, which features an exquisite screenplay enhanced by Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, who turned it into one of his best British films. Hitchcock actually received a cable in the middle of shooting this film from producer David O. Selznick in America asking him to come to Hollywood to direct a picture and the rest is history.  Unlike Fritz Lang’s master criminal in his thrillers who has the capability to cloud other men’s minds through hypnosis and disguise, creating hallucinogenic qualities, Hitchcock often uses a luring spirit from beyond the grave, such as the ghostly presence of Rebecca (1940), or Madeleine/Carlotta in Vertigo (1958), Mrs. Bates in Psycho (1960), not to mention the lingering presence of the cadavers in ROPE (1948), REAR WINDOW (1954), and The Trouble With Harry (1955).  Meeting Hitchcock in Hollywood a few years after THE LADY VANISHES, British-American actor and film producer John Houseman found him to be “a man of exaggeratedly delicate sensibilities, marked by…the scars from a social system against which he was in perpetual revolt and which had left him suspicious and vulnerable, alternately docile and defiant.”  Hitchcock was born and raised in London, where according to author and academic Charles Barr in his Criterion essay, The Lady Vanishes: Tea and Treachery: 

The son of a tradesman, Hitchcock was exposed to the subtle brutalities of the English class system from an early age, both in his own education and as a precocious London theatergoer fascinated by the work of such anatomists of English society as Shaw and John Galsworthy.  Like any British filmmaker of the period, he could hardly have avoided class issues when he began as a director in 1926, and his films show a consistent sharpness in handling them, in particular the tensions created by relationships across a class divide, as in the silent films The Lodger (1927) and The Manxman (1929) and the early sound films Murder! (1930) and The Skin Game (1931).

While Hitchcock was a Londoner at heart, he was also European and cosmopolitan, traveling frequently whenever possible, influenced both by key elements within his national culture as well as formative cinematic influences from elsewhere, such as German expressionism, Hollywood cinema, and Soviet montage.  So it should perhaps come as no surprise that this film is a beautiful composite of these various cultural influences, adapted from the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White, where the film is a romantic espionage thriller that was largely a metaphor for the peace that was about to vanish in Europe.  The film was made in the same year as Chamberlain’s infamous appeasement to Nazi Germany in the Munich Agreement, symbolizing the failure of the West to prevent the annexation and eventual occupation of Czechoslovakia which would be doomed to seven years of Nazi domination, but also Poland’s subsequent invasion in 1939, conditions that lead to the outbreak of World War II.  The film is set in the fictional mountains of an unnamed European country, where the trains have stopped running as an avalanche has stranded the mostly British characters in a picturesque mountain resort, introduced in near storybook fashion where the mountainous backdrop has obviously been artfully painted, while the initial shots zooming into the snowbound village, “one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners,” is clearly a miniature set, featuring toy trains, powdered snow, and frozen figurines, all adding a touch of playfulness.  While the early hotel scenes play out as a comedy of manners, a British comic farce with Hitchcock deriving pleasure at the misfortunes of the British travelers having to put up with the discomforts and confusions of life abroad, as the hotel is besieged by panicked customers who will need another night’s accommodations, the film is essentially a train journey of British passengers anxious to get home who form a microcosm of English society, all filmed in one train car (the rest were miniatures or artificially realized), where the audience becomes absorbed by the characters and the story.  Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), are an amusing gay couple who represent the idle rich, the same ruling classes that are working to appease Hitler, where they are more worried about a cricket match than the concerns of others.  Stalled at the desk waiting for a room, they are appalled at the attention given to several spoiled and attractive young girls whose idea of wealth is marrying into it, somehow detesting this idea, as represented by the young and beautiful heroine, Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood), an heiress returning home to marry some fabulously wealthy, father-approved Lord who comes with a title and his own coat-of-arms, celebrating her last night with champagne.   

Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty) is the elderly, but surprisingly spry governess enthralled by the local music, and if you blink you’ll miss that the musician she is listening to on the streets below is snuffed out in an instant, unseen by anyone, adding a gripping element of terror to the nonstop comedy, where in this film Hitchcock cleverly disguises and prolongs the sense of urgency from an existing, though largely unseen danger that could threaten all their lives, yet the rising tension is balanced by breezy, lighthearted British comedy throughout.  Musicologist Gilbert, Michael Redgrave in his first starring role, rudely refuses to stop making plenty of racket in his room above Iris, where the two begin as arch enemies, bickering incessantly, though in that delightfully cultivated British sense of humor. Both Gilbert and Miss Froy are coy about their class status, neither one mentioning their past, though both are cultured and well educated.  Finally there is Mr. Todhunter (Cecil Parker), perhaps a lawyer of some sort and his attractive female companion, aka Mrs. Todhunter (Linden Travers), where both are probably cheating on their respective spouses and more concerned about not being detected.  Just before they board the train, Iris has just been hit over the head by a second story window planter that appears to have been intentionally dropped, though likely targeting someone else.  Miss Froy takes her under her wing and looks after her on the train, offering her some tea, the British cure for everything.  Falling asleep afterwards, by the time she awakes, Miss Froy has vanished.  Iris searches the train, but all the other passengers deny ever having seen her, while documents have apparently been forged by the wait staff to suggest Iris earlier had tea alone.  All of this is a growing mystery, where the only person to come to her aid is Gilbert, who feels it’s the only right and honorable thing to do, to help a lady in distress.  They  run into a brick wall, however, where some people have their own private reasons not to get involved, while others are secret collaborators in a Nazi spy ring, but Iris grows more hysterical by the minute, eventually pulling the lever to stop the train.  This draws the ire of most passengers, who begin to think of her as that crazy lady, where Paul Lukas, winner of the Academy Award for Best Actor for WATCH ON THE RHINE (1943), beating out Humphrey Bogart from CASABLANCA (1942), plays a seemingly compassionate brain surgeon Dr. Hartz who attributes the problem to the bump on her head, claiming it’s a very common Freudian symptom for those suffering from concussion-related hallucinations and offers to treat her at his clinic later that same evening. 

The viewer has every reason to believe Iris is going out of her mind, even though evidence seen with our own eyes suggests otherwise, where something sinister hangs in the air.  To unravel the mystery, they search every car and every compartment, where they even discover another woman dressed exactly like Miss Froy, which only adds to the intrigue.  It has the macabre underground atmosphere of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet who specialize in the art of the double-cross, always meeting in secrecy while conducting shady business transactions, as there’s a cloud of suspicion hanging over everyone’s head.  By a process of elimination, they have only to confirm the identity of Dr. Hartz’s patient, whose face is wrapped in bandages, guarded by a Catholic nun (Catherine Lacy), reportedly deaf and dumb, though later we hear her speaking perfectly, actually changing sides and helping the British couple, a similar theme initiated earlier in Number Seventeen (1932).  A key clue gives the nun away, opening the door to new possibilities, actually saving their lives when the doctor, who turns out to be a cold-blooded Nazi agent, thinks the snooping team is getting too close, miraculously finding Miss Froy underneath all those bandages, while exchanging patients with the woman wearing her identical clothes, replacing the bandages over her face.  As the doctor gets off with his patient at his intended stop, however, he discovers something is amiss, where we see him speaking to various military officials.  While for a moment Miss Froy is free to breathe again, Gilbert makes an announcement to the British passengers in the train’s dining car just as they are having tea (of course) explaining the nefarious activities of the good doctor who attempted to kidnap Miss Froy, suggesting they all may be in trouble.  With this announcement, the dining car has been separated from the train and shifted to a side track, where it rolls to a stop in the middle of a forest.  Cars can be seen through the trees, along with Dr. Hartz and several military men, where the reaction of the group mimics the standard European reaction to the growing Nazi threat, suggesting things like this don’t happen, they seem like reasonable sorts, perhaps we could reason with them, where Todhunter proclaims with the same assurance as Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffies), the bird expert in The Birds (1960), “They can’t possibly do anything to us.  We’re British subjects.”  Leave it to the gayest character on the train, Caldicott, to retort, “Pacifist?  Won’t work.  Christians tried it and got thrown to the lions.”  But as the soldiers quickly advance with guns pointed, Gilbert fires at them before allowing armed men to take over the train.  Disregarding the warnings of others, Todhunter takes the appeasement route and declares, “This is madness, I’ll go out and speak to them,” but he’s shot on the spot, despite carrying a white handkerchief. 

There on that train, in the middle of some nameless forest, a firefight breaks out.  It’s only then that Miss Froy reminds them all, “You shouldn’t judge any country by its politics.  We English are quite honest by nature,” revealing she is carrying government secrets, which have been coded into a musical melody that she heard out her window that night, quickly teaching it to Gilbert before she escapes out the back way.  Leave it to the oldest among them to show her true colors, reminding the embattled group that it will take all of them to stand up to this fascist scourge.  Only by banding together, instead of meekly minding their own business, are they able to change the dark tide, but only through the self-sacrifice of the only working class Brit aboard, where no one in this group even recognizes a lower-class London accent, disguised earlier as the foreign nun, as she turns out to be a civilian Englishwoman that helps save the day.  This is a different kind of espionage film, unlike the gun-toting, misogynistic, martini-drinking James Bond films, as this represents a far more accurate portrayal of the enormous contribution made by female intelligence agents.  Bletchley Park where the Allies decrypted the Nazi codes during WW II was largely run by women, where Churchill referred to these invaluable women as being “the geese who laid the golden eggs, but did not cackle.”  American chef and television personality Julia Child worked for the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during the war, working directly for the head of OSS, General William J. Donovan.  In much the same way, Charters and Caldicott, the cricket obsessed gay Brits who are the most jovial couple in the film, rise to the occasion and prove to be patriotic Englishmen who do not hesitate to use force to defend themselves.  They clearly foreshadow the role of the great British mathematician Alan Turing, the subject of THE IMITATION GAME (2014), a brilliantly educated gay man who devised a number of groundbreaking techniques for breaking German codes.  Winston Churchill said Turing made the single biggest contribution to the Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany.  Nonetheless, showing the depths of how depraved and empty-headed government cabinet ministers can be (a view likely shared by Hitchcock), Turing was prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952.  In something out of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), as an alternative to prison, he accepted what amounts to chemical castration by taking female hormone injections, dying two years later from cyanide poisoning.  It took until 2009 for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to make an official government apology for “the appalling way he was treated.” The Queen also granted him a posthumous pardon in 2013.  Like Renoir’s RULES OF THE GAME (1939) made a year later, there’s a special significance for these films coming on the dawn of World War II, as they are, among other things, a prophetic commentary on the troubled times, anticipating the cataclysmic events to come, while also serving as a clarion call to arms against the forces of fascism. 

Note – The Hitchcock cameo comes at the 92-minute mark where Hitchcock, wearing a black coat and puffing on a cigarette, is seen walking on the platform of London’s Victoria Station as Iris and Gilbert are returning to the city.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The White Shadow (1924)

Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock

THE WHITE SHADOW           C                  
aka:  White Shadows
Great Britain  (43 mi)  1924  d:  Graham Cutts
Assistant Director, Screenwriter, Editor, and Set Designer:  Alfred Hitchcock 

It may be said that there are no such things as white shadows, but just as the sun casts a dark shadow, so does the soul cast its shadow of white, reflecting a purity that influences the lives of those upon whom the white shadows fall. 
—opening title card

This is something of a rarity in the film business, as its mere existence surprised the world when a long considered lost film was at least partially unearthed in 2011 in a Hastings, New Zealand garden shed.  While only three reels or half the film was discovered, this was still a revelation considering it is the earliest surviving work of a film with such a significant contribution from Alfred Hitchcock.  Left on the doorstep of the New Zealand Film Archive in 1989 by Tony Osborne, the grandson of film collector and projectionist Jack Murtagh, the highly volatile nitrate print had been safeguarded in the archives for over two decades.  Because the archive only has funding to restore its own country’s vintage films, experts didn’t spend much time with what they thought were American releases.  Nitrate expert Leslie Lewis initially started combing through the archives examining miscellaneous unidentified works and discovered the professional quality of the tinted images was striking on two reels that were erroneously labeled “Twin Sisters,” later identifying the same actors and sets on a third reel labeled “Unidentified American Film.”  Both the New Zealand Film Archive and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences worked on the film restoration, where there are initial signs of deterioration seen in the opening credits, but mostly, even though it’s an incomplete work, this is a unique window into early cinema, where Hitchcock actually broke into the British film business in 1920 as a title-card designer.  Within three years he was writing scripts, designing sets, while trying his hand at various other production roles as well.

According to David Sterritt, author of The Films of Alfred Hitchcock:

This is one of the most significant developments in memory for scholars, critics, and admirers of Hitchcock’s extraordinary body of work. At just twenty-four years old, Alfred Hitchcock wrote the film’s scenario, designed the sets, edited the footage, and served as assistant director to Graham Cutts, whose professional jealousy toward the gifted upstart made the job all the more challenging….These first three reels of The White Shadow—more than half the film—offer a priceless opportunity to study his visual and narrative ideas when they were first taking shape.

While this is one of five films that the young Hitchcock worked as an apprentice to director Graham Cutts, apparently serving as assistant director, art director, uncredited writer, and editor of the film, it would be another few years before Hitchcock completed his first feature film, The Pleasure Garden (1925).  In all likelihood after viewing the film, even Hitchcock scholars would be hard-pressed to identify this as a Hitchcock film, though it’s interesting, looking back at what we know about Hitchcock today, to extrapolate signs of what would become associated as familiar Hitchcock themes.  What’s intriguing here is the same actress (Betty Compson) playing the dual role of twin sisters, one good and one evil (“without a soul”), where a man falls in love with the bad twin while unwittingly romanced by the other, becoming an early variation on the double identity Vertigo (1958) theme.  According to the National Film Preservation Foundation: Lost Hitchcock Film ..., the film is “an atmospheric melodrama (of) mysterious disappearances, mistaken identity, steamy cabarets, romance, chance meetings, madness, and even the transmigration of souls.”  The wild and impetuous playgirl sister Nancy (blond) goes off to Paris spending time in the gambling dens while the more reserved sister Georgina (brunette) stays behind in their beautiful country estate in Devon, England to care for their elderly parents.  The home is filled with elaborate Gothic interior sets designed by Hitchcock.  On the return trip home, Nancy meets a young American, Robin (Clive Brook), promising to meet again.  Upon her return, however, her newly discovered rebellious streak continually clashes with her father, seeing her as the polar opposite of her more saintly twin sister.  When Robin unexpectedly arrives at their door, Georgina decides to play a trick on the young man by impersonating her sister, which only aggravates their father who refuses to allow Nancy to ever see this young man again, driving her out of the house as she flees to Paris.  Her mother literally dies when she hears the news, her body slouched over a chair with light streaming in from the window, which is such an exaggerated reaction that it has a comical effect. 

While the film is wildly melodramatic, it’s not without its comical moments, such as watching Nancy say goodbye to her horse before running away from home, or seeing the wealthy father turn into an alcoholic street bum roaming the streets for his missing daughter.  Initially Nancy was the favored daughter, considered Daddy’s little girl, where the display of overt affection was enough to make the other sister look away, but this may account for his emotional freefall when he loses his daughter.  Georgina moves to London where she happens upon a chance meeting with Robin and his friend Louis Chadwick (Henry Victor), where she reverts to impersonating her sister, as that’s who Robin thinks he sees, but they fall for each other and move in together, apparently living together happily for years.  All this changes when Louis insists he’s seen Georgina in Paris gambling, drinking, and (perish the thought) smoking in an underground bohemian establishment known as The Cat Who Laughs, which features a giant mask-like face of a cat, rushing back to London to warn his friend that the woman he intends to marry is not who she claims to be.  Separately, both Robin and Georgina travel to Paris in search of this mystery identity, each seeking something altogether different, where there’s a wonderful shot of Nancy at the top of the stairs of a Parisian nightclub, sort of a moment of a woman in all her glory, just moments before Robin denounces Nancy after seeing her, causing a fight to break out, where Nancy slips away in the ensuing mayhem.  Georgina follows her, however, happy to have found her after thinking she had disappeared, but becomes so distraught over the circumstances that she’s forced to enter a sanitarium in Switzerland for her deteriorating health.  Robin follows her there, still thinking she is Nancy, and begs forgiveness.  Knowing her end is near, Georgina sends for her sister, urging her to marry Robin in her place, where at the time of her death her “white shadow” passes to her twin sister, now finally possessing a soul.  This kind of Victorian mysticism is a bizarre story element that never resurfaces in Hitchcock’s work, where the supernatural restoration of one’s soul plays out more as a corrective for conduct unbecoming of a lady.  This altogether prudish view of women may be more reflective of the times than Hitchcock, but either way, the most distinguishing looking image from this film is that creepy looking cat that perhaps has the final laugh in The Cat Who Laughs.   

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Young and Innocent

Or could it be Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in Rebecca, 1940?

Hitchcock directing the party scene with Mary Clare and small child on the set of Young and Innocent, 1937

Hitchcock on the set of Young and Innocent, 1937

Alfred Hitchcock with the cast of Young and Innocent, 1937

YOUNG AND INNOCENT               A-              
aka:  The Girl Was Young
Great Britain  (80 mi)  1937  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

One of the more rollicking entertaining early British Hitchcock films from the 30’s, a delight from start to finish, supposedly Hitchcock’s favorite film from this period, and one can see why, as it relishes his dark sense of humor.  One might need to suggest that viewers don’t arrive late, as the opening scene is like nothing else in the Hitchcock repertoire, opening in the middle of a lover’s quarrel, where Guy (George Curzon) accuses his ex-wife, the famous actress Christine Clay (Pamela Carme), that she’s not only running around with the “boys,” but also a liar.  When she laughs in his face, belittling his character, he becomes all the more enraged, where the audience is smack dab in the middle of a vicious verbal spat taking place in the stunning locale of a cliff house overlooking the ocean, so wickedly over-the-top, featuring full-blown soap opera melodrama, like something out of Joan Crawford or Gloria Swanson, punctuated even further by flashes of lightning and thunder and a downpour of rain, where it’s hard to keep from laughing out loud, as it’s one of Hitchcock’s great comical openings.  In the very next scene, copied decades later in FRENZY (1972), a woman’s body (which turns out to be Ms. Clay) is washed ashore, with flocks of birds ominously circling overhead, anticipating the murderous dread of The Birds (1963), told with an equal amount of amusement and delight. 

Adapted from the 1936 novel A Shilling for Candles by Elizabeth Mackintosh, writing under the pseudonym Josephine Tey, Alfred Hitchcock and his team of writers (including his wife) only used about one-third of the novel, added some memorable scenes of his own, and changed the identity of the murderer.  Nonetheless they produced a taut screenplay where it’s clear by this stage in his career that the man knows his way around a movie camera, as this is one of the marvelous uses of fast-paced dialogue featuring 30’s screwball comedy, turning into theater of the absurd.  Part of the film’s appeal is the initial neglect it received by using such unfamiliar faces in the lead roles, quickly corrected in THE LADY VANISHES (1938), but the exuberance from the fresh performances filled with a kind of innocent spontaneity is what makes the film such a charming delight, as it is equal parts suspense thriller and romantic love comedy, with both parts enhancing the other.  Despite the overall symmetry, to Hitchcock’s dismay, the American version cut ten minutes from the already brief 80-minute run time, calling it unnecessary, excluding in its entirety a hilarious birthday scene that is a comedy of errors shot with breathtaking speed, where Hitchcock actually used a stopwatch to maintain the frantic pace.  This kind of cinematic bludgeoning alerted Hitchcock to what he was likely to expect from studio executives when he made the move to America, producing his own films in order to maintain complete artistic control, which became the key to his success, as it allowed him to make the films exactly as he wanted. 

This is one of the better “falsely accused man” movies, aided by the help of an appealing woman that initially suspects he’s guilty, as that is the prevailing wisdom, but eventually sympathizes and supports him, that became a staple of Hitchcock’s work.  The body is discovered by a passerby, Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney), who quickly runs off to get help, but not before two women, the typical busybodies of Hitchcock films, inform the police that he was running away from the murder, as it was determined she was strangled to death before being thrown in the water, and by a belt that happened to be discovered not far from the body.  Instantly he is suspected of murder and taken into custody, followed by a stream of scandalous newspaper headlines.  In an all-night marathon interrogation session with Scotland Yard, we learn the belt belongs to Robert, part of a raincoat he reports was stolen a week ago when he stayed at a nearby shelter.  The police don’t buy his story, treat him with a certain amount of contempt, finding motive when it is revealed the actress left him 1200 pounds in her will, causing Robert to faint.  He is revived by the local constable’s daughter, Erica (Nova Pilbeam, age 18), a brash young woman with a fierce independent streak, where it’s not at all unusual, apparently, for her to just wander into an interrogation in progress and then chide the officers for their primitive police techniques. 

Hitchcock was uncharacteristically polite with the young actress, one of England’s child stars who made an appearance as the young kidnapping victim in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), but as this was her first lead role, he sensed his usual domineering presence might affect the natural naïveté of her performance.  From the moment he sets his eyes on her, Robert senses something different about Erica, as does the audience, as she doesn’t fit the mold of socially well-bred girls that do as they’re told, where she seems to have early feminist inclinations, which is quite unique for films of this era.  Yet how many people have heard of this actress today?  Likely very few, but it’s the strength of her curiosity and sense of fair play that is the driving force of this picture, where the audience grows instantly fond of her.  Once Robert meets his bumbling and utterly incompetent court-appointed lawyer (J.H. Roberts), whose manner of defense is simply reminding the accused of every police suspicion, confirming he has little chance of establishing his innocence, so he swipes his lawyer’s glasses and uses the disguise to make a hasty escape from the crowded courtroom.  With the entire police force out looking for him, Erica’s curiosity is piqued as well, searching the countryside until she runs out of gas, forced to push the car, when who should show up to help her push but the accused, who offers his own take on their meeting, “If it’s any consolation to you, I want you to know that I’m innocent.” 

In scenes that predate MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), Erica’s meals in a motherless household where as the eldest she plays the role of mother to her five younger brothers, while her father (Percy Marmont) sits at the head of the table, have that easy-going, lived-in quality, where the pesky table antics resemble anyone else’s family, but Erica takes special notice of information she can glean from her father’s telephone calls, well aware that protecting the suspect reflects upon her father.  Certain that if he could locate his missing raincoat, Robert could find the belt and establish his innocence, but Erica’s not so sure, while she’s drawn to his manner of charm and sophistication, much like Cary Grant is used in Hitchcock’s American films, eventually winning her over to his side, where she eventually becomes his willing accomplice.  Their road experiences are laced with interactive humor and character, complimenting each other well like Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), or Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in BRINGING UP BABY (1938), where the secondary characters are equally riveting, including a truck driver’s café sequence that breaks out into a brawl, but none more thrilling than her uncle’s house (Basil Radford, who went on to give one of his best performances in Hitchcock’s next film) and her Aunt Margaret (Mary Clare), who invite them in for a birthday party of Erica’s niece, encouraging the couple to stay, while Margaret peppers the couple with questions, suspecting something is not quite right.  The more they express a desire to leave, the more they’re pulled into the children’s games, becoming a musical chairs of dreadful choices, making it one of the more unsettling scenes of the film, becoming a theatrical farce of undeniable suspense, where only a blindfolded Margaret taking a turn of blindman’s bluff allows to couple to make a getaway.  She immediately alerts the constable, however, setting into motion an unending police chase.  According to Hitchcock, “The party was designed as a deliberate symbol – in fact it was the clue to the whole film, but no one got it at the time, and in the American-release prints the sequence was omitted because they thought it slowed down the pace of the picture!”

While most of the film is shot on studio sets, but the contrasting use of outdoor scenery from the English countryside is quite stunning, adding a pastoral element of wide open spaces to what is otherwise a film cluttered with people, where Hitchcock offers a cross section of British class structure, from the upper bourgeoisie of her aunt and uncle to workers, tramps, and derelicts, including the choice of some interesting working class sites, like a railway yard, an old mill, and an abandoned mine shaft where the car shockingly drops into a deep crevasse, requiring a rescue sequence later made famous in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959).  By the time they make the discovery of an old tramp, Old Will (Edward Rigby), the man who has his raincoat, unfortunately it’s missing the belt, so he’s strung along by Erica (Robert gets separated in the mayhem) as he can identify the man who has it by the peculiar twitching of his eyes, which leads them to a positively befuddling set piece at the upscale Grand Hotel where they hope to locate him.  Spied upon by police at every door, they have a seat at a table in the ballroom where the dance band is playing American jazz while strangely performing in blackface, a completely disorienting aspect of the film that actually adds to the confusion.  Just as the tramp is about to give up, finding it impossible to see through the crowd, Hitchcock uses a crane shot that elevates overhead from the hotel lounge all the way up to the ceiling, continuing down the corridor through the lobby into the ballroom, moving past the dancers and the musicians until it comes to rest upon the drummer’s face until his eyes fill the screen, all done in one unbroken shot as we observe his eyes twitching, where ironically the song playing is “No One Can Like the Drummer Man.”  It’s a masterful shot used similarly in NOTORIOUS (1946), starting with a camera set high above a ceiling chandelier, observing a crowded reception hall below before making a sweeping movement of the camera until it finds a key in the hands of Ingrid Bergman, altering the focus of the drama in a single shot.  It’s an amusing finale, where the killer is exposed at last, where Erica finally allows herself to smile when she sees Robert and her father, no longer holding any secrets, ending with thoughts of domestic bliss. 

Note – At the 16-minute mark, Hitchcock may be seen posing as a photographer standing outside the courthouse holding a camera near his waist just as Robert has managed to escape from the police.    

Monday, September 15, 2014


Hitchcock on the set with Oscar Homolka

Hitchcock shooting on the set of Sabotage, 1936

SABOTAGE        B                 
aka:  The Woman Alone
Great Britain  (76 mi)  1936  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

One of the more provocatively compelling Hitchcock films from the 30’s, though it may be Hitchcock’s version of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), a film that led to lacerating criticism, including Kubrick death threats, so he pulled the film from theaters and refused to show it in England for the next 30 years, as the public associated the horrific violence in that film with a marked rise in street crime.  Hitchcock’s film, confusingly coming on the heels of a film he made entitled SECRET AGENT (1936), and a later film called SABOTEUR (1942), is loosely based upon Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent, one of the great modernist novels that insightfully predicts the historical influence of anarchist and revolutionary violence, also the creation of secret police units, long before many of the social uprisings of the twentieth century.  While the book explores the consequences of radical terrorism through detailed characterizations of the people involved, showing the negative effect it has not only on the individual, but also their families, Hitchcock is similarly interested in the scapegoat theme, where innocents are sacrificed while carrying out terrorist aims, which in the film remain nameless.  Nonetheless the centerpiece of the film features a scene showing how others are unsuspectingly exploited into the services of these shadowy groups, where Hitchcock builds tension through a carefully sustained editing scheme leading up to the violence, but is less convincing when it comes to the ramifications.  Certainly one of the things the film gets right is a pervading mood of paranoia creeping into British life in the preamble to World War II when Europe was on the brink of war, in this case fed by suspicious acts of sabotage meant to frighten citizens and divert their attention from abroad, where Hitchcock introduces the subject in a brilliant opening montage connecting a literal dictionary definition of the word “sabotage” as the deliberate destruction of buildings or machinery “with the object of alarming a group of persons or inspiring public uneasiness,” with electrical inspectors discovering foul play in shutting down their generators, causing the lights to go out in London, where we hear their panicked voices sound out in confusion, “Sand.  Sabotage.  Wrecking.  Deliberate. What’s at the back of it?  Who did it?”  Hitchcock leaves no doubt who did it, as we see a lone man creeping through the dark of the backstreets to get away, washing the sand off his hands once he gets home, an act as futile as Macbeth trying to wash the blood off his hands.  In this way, the audience is introduced to the terrorist, Karl Anton Verloc (Oscar Homolka), before anyone in the film becomes aware.  In fact, his wife Winnie (Sylvia Sidney) defends him throughout as the kind of man that wouldn’t harm anyone.  The power outage causes an angry mob scene outside where people are in a frenzy demanding their money back from the small Verloc owned movie theater, where just as they are about to get their money refunded the power mysteriously comes back on. 

Hitchcock paints an intimate family portrait, where a middle-aged Verloc speaks with a thick Eastern European accent, has a younger American wife, who married the older Verloc apparently not out of love, but because he provides a good home and is good to her much younger brother Stevie (Desmond Tester), who demonstrates a lovable clumsiness in the kitchen, while an interested admirer, Ted Spencer (John Loder), works next door at the fruit stand.  It’s a familiar love triangle, where the younger woman meets a handsome man her own age, while the older husband she respects and feels indebted to is hiding a terrible secret.  How long will it take her to find out the secret and switch her allegiance to the other man?  Little does anyone know both men are covers for their real interests, where Verloc is a paid terrorist belonging to some secret underground organization while Spencer is an undercover detective working for Scotland Yard trying to expose whoever’s behind the recent series of terrorist acts.  Stated bluntly, the powerful men behind these acts are too carefully protected and concealed to catch, so what Scotland Yard is after are the people they hire to carry out their dirty business.  Spencer has been watching Verloc, suspects he is responsible for the blackout, and has a man tail him afterwards when he meets another suspicious looking, well-dressed foreigner named Vladimir (Austin Trevor) at the Aquarium, receiving a money package in an envelope where he’s ordered to escalate his next mission to something more devastating.  Despite raising objections about the potential loss of life, he needs the cash, which places him in a bind, as he needs to support his family.  Later Verloc visits a pet store with plenty of canaries, immediately recalling the apocalyptic doom of The Birds (1963), where the proprietor, Professor Chatman (William Dewhurst), amusingly promises singing canaries, but when a customer brings them back when they refuse to sing, he claims the customer is at fault.  Led into the back room, the fidgety Professor, an explosives expert, lays out his plans to bomb the Victoria railway station in Picadilly Circus while the streets are overflowing with admiring citizens on the afternoon of The Lord Mayor's Show Street Parade, where in a clever shot Verloc imagines seeing collapsing buildings as he stares into a fish tank, with the Professor delivering the bomb to Verloc’s home hidden in a birdcage.  Meanwhile Spencer has been working on getting information out of Winnie and her brother, but quickly realize they’re hiding nothing, focusing all of their attention on Verloc, literally surrounding the house with agents making it impossible for him to leave, so he devises a plan to send the unsuspecting Stevie instead, supposedly delivering two canisters of film (Bartholomew the Strangler) along with a wrapped package carrying the bomb, with strict instructions to deliver the package no later than 1:30, as the bomb is expected to detonate fifteen minutes later.   

One might recall Hitchcock’s extended cameo sequence in Blackmail (1929), where he’s seen as a subway passenger who’s continually bothered by a persistent little boy that keeps pestering him by grabbing his hat, a scene the audience finds adorable.  Stevie’s bomb delivery sequence is a ghastly inversion of that scene, where instead of smiling at the cuteness of the child, the audience is shaken to the core at the thought of what might happen, where Hitchcock creates considerable suspense showing how a young boy doesn’t at all understand the seriousness of the situation, and instead of delivering the package promptly he is seen dawdling through the city streets along the way, getting sidetracked by all the activity, continually cross-cutting different events that delay him even further, mixed in with updated shots of a clock revealing the time.  Quentin Tarantino lifted a clip from this film in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) demonstrating the perils of carrying nitrate film, as they were highly flammable and were not allowed on British public transportation for safety reasons, which only delayed Stevie’s journey even more.  As the time clicks down, it’s clear he can’t make it unless he’s allowed onto a bus, where the conductor insists that he sit away from other passengers, but as time slips away, he’s still on the bus at the appointed time and instead he’s seen playing with a puppy before the blast occurs.  Audiences were horrified by the killing a child, where according to François Truffaut, “Making a child die in a picture is a rather ticklish matter; it comes close to an abuse of cinematic power,” as it took much of the tension right out of the air, where many felt it was overly cruel, though it’s undeniably a powerful scene, taken straight from the book.  Hitchcock later regretted harming a character the audience sympathized with, especially a child, calling it a violation of his own cardinal rules, but did not regret showing the explosion, where Hitchcock’s treatment leading up to it was years ahead of its time.  Viewed from today, after the world has experienced precisely these kinds of terrorist incidents, including the 7 July 2005 bombings in London, the audience’s identification with the character only makes it that much more uncomfortable and tragic, becoming one of Hitchcock’s most powerful scenes.  Hitchcock was likely influenced by German director Fritz Lang, as actress Sylvia Sydney worked the same year in Lang’s FURY (1936), but especially his interest in crime, as both directors shared an abiding obsession with themes of murder and guilt, where both used suspense and a subjective use of space to establish intensely personal points of view (like the ten-minute sequence following Stevie), leading us farther into the character’s psyche than audiences had ever been before, feeling the full emotional effects of the victims onscreen.  Before Hitchcock rose to prominence, it was Lang who was con­sidered by many to be cinema’s preeminent master of suspense, where his thrillers had a profound influence on Hitchcock’s precise means of visual and narrative storytelling, as it was Lang’s fusion of criminality and ordinary life in M (1931) that had such an impact on future directors, where both returned again and again to themes of murder, guilt, identity, sexuality, and the creation of suspense.  Lang may have pioneered the espionage and conspiracy film, but it was Hitchcock who added his own mischievous personality, mixing jeopardy with sex appeal and a delicious sense of humor.  While Lang eventually saw crime as part of an overall social system, Hitchcock focused more on the personal ramifications. where as time went on Hitchcock realized his true vocation was a crime thriller director, becoming more and more fascinated with murder, eventually called the Master of Suspense.  But in this film, Hitchcock was as yet to become the director that we know of today.

After the bombing, Hitchcock veers from Conrad’s book and creates his own memorable aesthetic, as it’s one of the few Hitchcock films without a mystery, as the audience knows Verloc is the saboteur from the beginning, so the film is largely told through pure visual storytelling, where it’s almost entirely a suspense film.  After hearing about the death of her brother, Mrs. Verloc is in a state of shock, wandering into the cinema where the audience is howling with laughter over a Disney cartoon, Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935), where she sits down and for a moment laughs along with them until an arrow pierces Cock Robin’s heart, and the narrator boldly asks, “Who Killed Cock Robin?”  This blending of the real and the unreal leads to one of the most inventive montage sequences in the film, when Mr. Verloc returns home and rationalizes his actions, showing more concern for his dinner than her brother’s death, becoming a drama of exchanged glances with her husband, glaring at him with suspicion while he tries to maintain a sense of balance and normalcy, but she continues glaring a hole right through him, capturing a look of rage and hatred in her eyes.  This is as perfectly executed a sequence as the lead-up to the bombing, where there is no dialogue, no music, just quick successive shots of faces and hands as Mrs. Verloc serves her husband dinner, a vegetable platter where her hand almost automatically becomes glued to the serving knife, where the camera continues to probe under the surface where the tension elevates when he becomes aware of the knife, yet the expression on their faces is unchanged, trying not to give anything away.  The way the scene is shot everything revolves around the knife, where their actions are utterly convincing, a choreography of two wounded souls as he walks over towards her, where she’s in a heightened state of alert, in a panicked fright, where a sudden noise creates a reflex action where the knife accidentally finds her husband, who drops to the floor.  The shock of losing her husband and brother leads to an unending sense of despair, rescued from turning herself in suddenly by an intruding Spencer, as he has romantic inclinations.  Spencer’s hopeful mood of optimism is totally out of synch with the rest of the picture, most especially the depths of anguish of the emotionally tormented Mrs. Verloc, and the finale feels empty, as it’s largely manipulated and orchestrated by a character whose motives are not fully trusted by the audience, bringing the film to a disappointing conclusion.  While there are spectacular sequences contained within the film, overall the film as a cohesive whole just doesn’t hold together.  The ending does recall Blackmail (1929), which also features a woman committing a murder in a dazed state.  Both films end similarly with the heroine prevented from confessing their crimes by a policeman boyfriend.  While it’s one of Hitchcock’s darkest works, it’s not nearly as bleak as the book which has Mrs. Verloc hurling herself over the railing of a ferry and drowning in the English Channel.  Sidney did not understand Hitchcock’s working methods, especially such a lengthy scene without dialogue, where she might expect extended camera time, but Hitchcock used short quick takes and worked it all out in the editing room.  It was only after they hastily put together a rough daily version of the completed scene that she understood how it all came together, taking her totally by surprise, as she developed a dislike bordering on contempt for Hitchcock up until that point.  The film received acclaim from esteemed American and British film critics Dave Kehr and Raymond Durgnat, calling it the summit of Hitchcock’s British period.  Perhaps the real trouble with SABOTAGE is the time of its release, much like the book which predates actual historical events, where the world was not yet familiar with  the work of terrorists or suicide bombers and found the gruesomeness of the act rather preposterous at the time, coming before Hitchcock became Hitchcock, where the deaths of the young boy and the husband in this film are as fully realized as the notorious shower scene in Psycho (1960), but placed in a more meaningful context.    

Beginning in 1934, coincidentally the year of Hitler’s rise to German Führer and his declaration of dictatorial power, Hitchcock created a series of politically themed British spy thrillers, beginning with THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) through THE LADY VANISHES (1938), continuing again in the early 40’s in America, all set in a backdrop of contemporary European politics, though Hitchcock had no interest in ideologies or delving into international relations, but used these real-life circumstances purely to enhance his own cinematic explorations, where ordinary English citizens caught up in extraordinary moments were expected to stop foreign spy rings.  Hitchcock went so far as to exclude national identities, or the cause of the political unrest, as his personal interest lay elsewhere.  This may surprise some, as Hitchcock lived in Europe during Hitler’s rise to power between 1933 and 1939, when German anti-Semitism spread throughout Europe, yet “the Jewish question” is not a part of Hitchcock’s films.  According to An interview with Patrick McGilligan - Dvdclassik, author of Alfred Hitchcock : a Life in Darkness and Light, “Hitchcock was definitely an anti-Nazi and (later) an anti-Communist, so his personal stance was anti-totalitarian.”  Hitchcock’s films often warn against spies or terrorists, but offer little commentary on the complicity of governments, where the political sophistication of his postwar masterwork NOTORIOUS (1946) may be an exception.  As an individual, Hitchcock had many leftist friends and collaborators, but never viewed himself as a political person and avoided making political statements both in interviews and in his films, which adds an element of timelessness to his films, as they retain the central drama of the story rather than comment upon some ideology that has fallen out of fashion.  The key to his success was his flair for narrative, using a kind of cinematic shorthand, working things out to the smallest detail ahead of time, often withholding crucial information from both his onscreen characters and the audience in order to heighten the suspense, while accentuating motive and the underlying psychology.  Hitchcock’s films were strongly believed to have been extensively storyboarded in meticulous fashion during pre-production, but much of this may have been a mythology pushed by the director himself, creating a picture of competency and total artistic control before the shooting even began.  Hitchcock rarely bothered looking through the viewfinder, as he already envisioned the film he wanted to make, yet he was also flexible enough to adapt to changes that occur during the filming process, actually changing the entire concept of NOTORIOUS midway through the production.  While his specialty may be crime storytelling, this was not a style he invented, but was an as yet unexplored artform when he started out, where like Shakespeare, he was not afraid to borrow or blend the best ideas of others into his own works, eventually reaching the pinnacle of success through the crime thriller due to his amazing consistency to intelligently entertain and amaze audiences over six decades of filmmaking, becoming a premiere artist who is in the running for the greatest director in the history of cinema, with Vertigo (1958) finally reaching the top of the list of the once-a-decade poll Sight & Sound 2012 Polls | BFI voted as the greatest film of all-time.   

Note – The Hitchcock cameo occurs at about the 9-minute mark, immediately after the lights are turned back on and just before the lady shuts the theater kiosk window, where Hitchcock can be seen wearing a coat and hat walking on the sidewalk from the center of the screen to the viewer’s left, leaning back and looking upwards. 

According to David Sterritt, author of The Films of Alfred Hitchcock, The Films of Alfred Hitchcock - Page 12 - Google Books Result:

Three observations can be made concerning this and other cameos. First, Hitchcock enters his movies not only to wink and wave at his audience, but to comment on the action in some small, sly way that accords with the manipulative, often sardonic attitude that characterises much of his work in general. Second, his presence indicates a wish to approach and ‘keep an eye on’ his characters.

Third, the cameos signal to his audience (which normally receives the message on a subliminal level) that he is the presiding spirit of his films. Each movie posits a particular relationship between its characters, on one hand, and fate – or destiny, luck, the way of the world – on the other. In every case, it is Hitchcock who has determined what kind of relationship this will be and how it will work itself out through narrative mechanisms. His on-screen presence is a mischievously overt signature that proclaims his control over the narrative and the world that it constructs.