Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Lodger

THE LODGER                B+              
aka:  The Lodger:  A Story of the London Fog
aka:  The Case of Jonathan Drew
Great Britain  (92 mi)  1927  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

Who but Hitchcock could take what is essentially a Jack the Ripper serial killer movie and turn it into an unabashed love story?  Not likely the original ending planned, as the film is in part based upon a 1915 comic stage production that Hitchcock saw called Who Is He? by the playwright Horace Annesley Vachell, a dramatized version of an original 1913 novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes, based upon the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888 that ends ambiguously, with the reader never sure if the lodger is the murderer or not.  Hitchcock would have liked to create a similar ambiguity about the guilt or innocence of the lodger (Ivor Novello), where by the end it wouldn’t be so clear cut, but this was impossible, largely due to the star status of matinee idol Novello, where the public wouldn’t have accepted him as a killer, much like the use of Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941), the biggest star Hitchcock had ever worked with at that point, where RKO studios insisted Grant be a hero instead of the villain, culminating in a substitute ending.  So while it’s not entirely the film Hitchcock would have liked, it is his first true suspense film and the first to bear his distinct imprint.  Being the earliest makes it in many ways more interesting, as these ideas are not yet formulated or polished into the “Hitchcock” brand where he eventually became known as the Master of Suspense and are instead expressed in a more raw and untested format with ideas still inventively taking shape onscreen and in his head.  The restoration includes an energetically dramatic musical score by Nitin Sawhney and the London Symphony Orchestra Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger (1926) - trailer - YouTube, one that bears the influence of Bernard Hermann, as it pulsates with a string-heavy sense of tension and urgency throughout, with a few jarring moments, including the interesting use of a song, adding a quiet romantic poignancy to go along with the lush, darkly scored melodrama, where there is also the prevalent use of both a sepia-toned and blue color scheme.  This is the first Hitchcock film to dwell on the subject of murder, where the entire town of London is in a panic as headlines reveal a 7th murdered victim, always choosing Tuesday nights to target a young blonde woman, and always leaving a personally signed note attached, seen here as the Avenger.  From the outset, Hitchcock demonstrates a flair for building tension and creating a pervading sense doom that hovers over the city like a blanket of depressing fog that never seems to lift.  As people on the street wildly describe what they’ve seen, where onlookers literally swarm all over the dead body frantically searching for clues, not waiting for the police and not realizing, apparently, that they’re disturbing a crime scene by tampering with and destroying possible evidence.

Out of this foggy gloom comes a knock on the door, where a brilliantly colored sepia-toned light literally bathes the person at the door in a yellow glow, where our first glimpse offers an unworldly look of the lodger, whose behavior is odder still, a quiet and mysterious man in search of a room who does not wish to be disturbed, who insists that the photographs of women in the room be removed, making the landlady Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault) a bit nervous, but she admittedly needs the money, paid in advance.  The Buntings have an attractive daughter, Daisy (June Tripp), that we see do some modeling work, where she is quite relaxed while many of the other girls are crawling over one another to look at the latest news about the Avenger, wearing brunette wigs when going out to avoid being the next victims.  Adding fuel to the fire, Daisy’s boyfriend is Joe Chandler (Malcolm Keen), one of the detectives assigned to find the killer, where his tidbits of news keep the Buntings overly inquisitive to the point of obsession about the matter, where soon the landlady starts to think the peculiar behavior and secrecy of their lodger merits further investigation, warning Daisy never to be alone with him, where they literally eavesdrop and spy on everything he says or does, always thinking the worst, constantly fed by the paranoid driven views of the police force who are ready to string a rope around the killer’s neck before they’ve even caught him.  While little more than busybodies, this kind of mischievous meddling is found throughout Hitchcock films, where a classic example is Ethel Griffies as Mrs. Bundy, the ornithologist in The Birds (1963), who becomes the town crier reminding everyone that they will be perfectly safe from the birds, who are lovely and perfectly harmless creatures, before she’s seen cowering in a hallway after a particularly ferocious attack.  Actually, the blanket of fog seems to seal in the malicious gossip and the pervasive feeling of doom just as tightly as the apocalyptic and neverending presence of birds did in Hitchcock’s 60’s disaster flick, where similar to the threat of birds, Hitchcock amps up the tension by flooding the screen with a malevolent misdirection and misunderstanding, where the police are continually shown as incompetent, the landlady and her husband are atrociously biased amateur sleuths, while the public’s fear is always elevated to a lynch-mob atmosphere, where they are easily susceptible to all forms of gossip and rumor.  This misdirection of frenzied hysteria plays right into the wrong man themes of nearly a dozen Hitchcock films, among which include THE 39 STEPS (1935), Suspicion (1941), STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), and FRENZY (1972).              

One of the darkest and cruelest subtexts in the film is detective Chandler’s sexual jealousy, where he overreacts in crude fashion against the lodger, not because he suspects he’s guilty, but because the lodger is drawing the interest of his girlfriend Daisy, which seen in modern context may be the equivalent of her new love interest being a black man.  In the detective’s narrow mind, this is too outrageous for him to comprehend, so using the underlying, socially accepted view of providing her with protection, he relishes with a sadistic glee the idea of being able to put handcuffs on the guy and charge him with the murders.  While there are many subtexts to this film, one not often mentioned is the openly gay lifestyle of Novello, who along with Montgomery Clift in I CONFESS (1953) are the two most physically attractive gay men Hitchcock ever worked with.  In this film, the secrecy of the lodger, along with his aristocratic nature, arouses overt suspicion in others, especially the lower class, where they don’t trust him or like him and find him odd, where the landlady goes so far as to search through the belongings in his room when he’s not there, while the police conduct a similar search with a search warrant, both on a fishing expedition hoping to uncover hidden secrets.  The public scorn that the lodger faces is similar to that of openly gay men, particularly in the 1920’s, where nearly all were closeted due to the harshly negative ramifications.  While on the surface Novello has matinee idol good looks, and onscreen there is a physical attraction, but this is accompanied by an underlying need to expose him to public scorn and humiliation, to out him, as it were, leading to a lynch mob mentality of people wanting to tear him limb from limb.  Instead of gay, the storyline creates a kind of bogeyman serial killer, elevating the perceived immorality of homosexuality, viewed in that era as a crime, to a far more egregious offense, but gays and transgenders have a history of being targeted for particularly vicious and hideous crimes, perceived today as hate crimes, where for many in society, particularly religious conservatives, they retain that bogeyman status.  What’s significant in Hitchcock’s film is not any recognition of a gay mindset, but how he examines the very real consequences of mob mentality, exploring the swirling public passions that ignite into an irrational mob hysteria surrounding this issue of a perceived bogeyman, where too many innocent people have already been targeted and in fact lost their lives over this kind of misperception. 

Born in London at the end of the Victorian era, Hitchcock was destined to make unusually stylish suspense thrillers, where this was the first to showcase Hitchcock’s brand of sophisticated thriller, as well as his trademark dry, sometimes morbid humor, but the film is also notable for utilizing a litany of Hitchcock themes, including visual cues that he would reference for decades to come.  The everpresent staircase figures prominently throughout, initially in the claustrophobic confines of the Bunting household, but never more illustriously than in the finale, where it may as well be Scarlett O’Hara making her noticeable entrance down this grandiose staircase.  The striking look of the boldly decorated title cards are designed by the Cubist-influenced artist E. McKnight Kauffer, which recalls Godard’s similar use of giant headlines often screaming across the screen, while the influence of German Expressionism on the film is particularly evident, especially the dim glare of the streetlights consumed by fog, but also the clever use of a glass floor, where the audience sees the lodger pacing back and forth upstairs, causing the chandelier to sway on the ceiling, where of course they can’t really see through the ceiling, but it’s a way of literally altering reality through pure cinematic imagery, a way of seeing something that’s not really there, which may as well be the theme of the film.  There is an exquisite softness in the cinematography when the lodger and Daisy first kiss, shown in extreme close up with soft focus, looking magnificently expressionist and avant garde, using an experimental style that predates Bergman’s PERSONA (1966), where due to style alone it’s also one of the most extraordinarily romantic kisses ever captured onscreen.  Almost unnoticed in the film is the very clever use of a flashback sequence, where the audience has already been informed that the first of the Avenger’s murders is the lodger’s sister, insinuating that the lodger is not the murderer, that he is instead on a noble crusade to track him down, obeying his mother’s dying wishes, where the images of dancing with his virginal sister at her coming-out ball supposedly clears the lodger of malicious intent, yet what it actually shows is that he was in a perfect position to kill her, suggesting the possibility, at least, of a lying flashback.  While Hitchcock may have placed this clue as a red herring, commonly called MacGuffins (The Definitive List of Hitchcock MacGuffins), as he already knew from his producers that the lodger could not be the murderer, so this is strictly an early sign of that personal Hitchcock touch.  The film was improved upon and remade decades later as Shadow of a Doubt (1943), with Joseph Cotton playing the smoothly eccentric role of the evil Uncle Charlie, and it’s not at all inconceivable to see signs of Novello’s lodger in Norman Bates, the pale, hypersensitive stranger from the consummate Hitchcock thriller Psycho (1960), where Hitchcock loved to misdirect audiences and play games with them, again transferring the 1920’s sexual inference with gay actor Anthony Perkins, but Hitchcock always considered this morbid little film a delicious black comedy, where Norman at one point utters “We all go a little mad sometimes.”  Despite its slow and languid pace, certainly part of what’s so thrilling about experiencing this silent film’s staggering originality and wildly ambitious scope is that it anticipates Hitchcock’s forthcoming genius.   

Note – At around the 3-minute mark Hitchcock’s back can be seen by the audience working the telephones as a newspaper editor, and again just a few minutes before the end he plays a spectator in the crowd, seen with his left arm over an upper railing wearing a flat cap as an angry crowd tries to attack the lodger, while his wife Alma Reville, the assistant director, also makes a brief appearance, credited as a woman listening to a wireless.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Manxman

THE MANXMAN                   B                     
Great Britain  (90 mi)  1929  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

There’s a certain physicality about this film that is reminiscent of Robert Flaherty or Michael Powell’s THE EDGE OF THE WORLD (1937), where the rugged landscape is the essential character of the film, all but dwarfing the fragility and vulnerability of the human population.  While this is an old-fashioned Adam and Eve story about original sin, one that recalls Nathaniel Hawthorne’s infamous 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, which is updated here to the Isle of Man (residents are called Manxmen), the home of Sir Hall Caine, the writer of the 1894 novel upon which the film is based, though Hitchcock shot the film in the small fishing village of Polperro in Cornwall.  Like Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950), these remote locations on the edge of the world make it difficult to survive the natural elements, where it’s a hard life, often bare-bones and beset with poverty, with little education and a rigorous adherence to a tough, hard-nosed religion that is often strictly regimented.  Nothing comes easy in this part of the woods, as you often pay heavily for your mistakes, where you learn early on that you have to scrape for every dollar and every scrap of food you put on the table.  In this hard-scrabble life two boys become best friends, one a poor fisherman without a penny to his name, Pete Quilliam (Carl Brisson), the other an ambitious lawyer, Phil Christian (Malcolm Keen).  What they both have in common is the same girl, Kate Cregeen (Anny Ondra), who couldn’t be more rambunctious and carefree as a young girl, nearly skipping wherever she goes instead of walking, but she’s also the most beautiful woman on the island, known as the “Manx Fairy,” working as a barmaid under the stern and watchful eye of her father, Caesar Cregeen (Randle Ayrton), who has no interest in Pete getting anywhere near his daughter, as anyone penniless is without virtue in his eyes.  Nonetheless, these two keep their flirtations out of sight, where Pete promises to search the world for his fortune, returning as a rich and successful man, persuading Kate to promise she’ll wait for him.     

In Pete’s absence, Kate’s life is seen through little penciled scribbles in her tiny diary, where soon enough she meets up with Phil, quickly transferring her love interest to him, though he’s a much more pensive guy, studying to become a Deemster, which is the title of a local judge, one of the most respectful and prestigious positions on the island.  His mother warns Phil about carrying on with Kate, as it could have a disastrous effect upon his career, but he plunges ahead anyway, shown through some of the most beautifully photogenic scenic vistas found in any Hitchcock film, shot by Jack E. Cox, beautifully capturing the stunning magnificence and grandeur of the rocky coastlines overlooking the ocean.  If truth be told, however, despite her obvious sensual presence, with Kate at the center of a love triangle, stronger feelings are expressed between the two men, whose “friendship” has a homoerotic quality about it, as they’re always slapping each other around, smiling at one another, and both have a tendency to think of the other’s welfare often above their own, which is something neither one feels for Kate.  In this regard, the three-way relationship is way ahead of its time.  While the two men continually plod through their overly melodramatic performances, where Pete is much too animated and Phil is too subdued, the camera loves Anny Ondra, the real center of the story, who will go on to star in Hitchcock’s next picture, Blackmail (1929) and become the first of many notable Hitchcock blondes.  Here her mixed emotions comprise the dramatic heart of the film, as Pete and Phil’s loyal friendship is established early on and is never in question, becoming one of the fixtures of the picture.  But Kate has a fickle nature, perhaps most beautifully expressed on the night she agrees to wait for Pete, framed by a window, where the oscillating light from the nearby lighthouse continually flickers upon her, where we see her move in and out of the darkness, a reflection of her indecision, and a rather poetic visualization of her vacillating mind. 

One other aspect of the film is the slow and deliberate pace, where some may tire of the languorous nature, where it takes forever for the story to unravel, and other than the photographic elegance of the outdoor shots, there’s not much action anywhere in this picture, which is mostly an interior chamber drama reflecting the changing moods of the characters.  When they receive word that Pete has been killed, for instance, Phil and Kate grow even closer, feeling there is nothing separating them now, where they start to plan a future together, only to have Pete return with a bundle of money, where his returning ship is shown looming off in the distance as Kate is told the news, seen as an impending disaster, but even old man Caesar welcomes him with open arms and gives the lad permission to marry his daughter.  It happens with such a rush of anxiety that Kate hasn’t a chance to react, though the wedding is a picture of differing states of mind.  The groom couldn’t be more ecstatic, never even noticing the glum look on the bride, while no one is more shamefaced than the best man Phil.  Making it even more dour are the reflections of the grizzled old father, Caesar, who speaks with the severity of a fundamentalist preacher, warning them about the reverence of marriage, where if one strays from the path they’ll have to answer to God Almighty, actually turning on their grist mill for effect as he warns the entire congregation “The mills of God grind slowly,” where you can literally feel the guilty couple cringe as they continue to keep their affair a secret.  Pete has to remind people that this is a wedding and not a wake, as he remains the happiest guy in town but completely unaware of what happened in his absence, as Kate remains in love with Phil, but is continually forced to placate her new husband.  In scene after scene we see that she can’t share in his joy, even when announcing her pregnancy she withholds that she’s carrying Phil’s child.  Pete, however, couldn’t be a prouder father, where the baby’s arrival comes near the same time that Phil is about to become a Deemster.  Compounding that event, Kate can’t live with a lie any longer and finally leaves Pete, leaving him a note while she runs to Phil, who is consumed by the significance of the upcoming event, which should be the happiest day in his life.  The bleak and foreboding future, however, is expressed by having to choose between family and career, where events spiral out of control, as Kate has nowhere to turn, culminating with Phil’s ominous first day on the bench, where he’s in for a rude awakening as all the interweaving personal destinies finally coincide with an extraordinary late act confessional.  By the end, one feels this could easily have been the blueprint for David Lean’s overlong but lusciously photographed RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970).  

Note – there is no Hitchcock cameo

Friday, August 16, 2013


CHAMPAGNE           B                     
Great Britain  (86 mi)  1928  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock admittedly was not happy with this film, believing it was a trifling matter with no story to speak of, describing his feelings, “That was probably the lowest ebb in my output.”  And while this is not a great film, it is one of his funniest, even if somewhat uneven, proving how difficult it is to make successful comedies, as it is filled with highly inventive camera work by Jack E. Cox and lowbrow comedy bearing a resemblance to Buster Keaton and D.W. Griffith, where the movie is filled with sight gags and delightfully inventive little moments.  The star of the film is Betty Balfour, the so-called Queen of Happiness, considered the Mary Pickford of Britain, where no British female during the silent era achieved the international status of Betty Balfour, where Film Historian Rachael Low comments that Betty Balfour was “able to register on screen a charm and expression unequalled among the actresses in British film.”  There is no denying Balfour’s energetic talent and her flair for comedy, but she doesn’t fit the profile of a Hitchcock woman, a sophisticated blonde with hidden sexual interests, what Truffaut in his interviews with Hitchcock called “the paradox between the inner fire and the cool surface.”  In fact, Balfour is closer to the girl next door, displaying no sex drive whatsoever, remaining too young and naïve, closer to an innocent little girl than a real woman.  And while there isn’t much of a story, adapted from a cliché’d Walter C. Mycroft novel, a British novelist that went on to run a rival British movie studio, British International Pictures, Hitchcock turned it into a variation on D.W. Griffith’s WAY DOWN EAST (1920), the story of a young girl going to the big city and having to find her way.  But while Lillian Gish comes from a dirt poor country farm, Betty Balfour, in a role known only as “The Girl,” has her heart belong to Daddy, Gordon Harker, so hilarious in The Farmer's Wife (1928), and his millions of dollars in riches.  The film has an interesting way of anticipating the Great Depression, where the rich were forced to join the working poor.        
Opening and closing with a refracted shot seen through a champagne glass, where the living resemble life inside a miniature snow globe, the movie follows Betty Balfour as a spoiled rich socialite, emblematic of the superficial exploits of the filthy rich who live their lives like there’s no tomorrow, a buoyant reminder of the freewheeling Jazz Age during the Roaring 20’s when every night was an unending party of music, drinking, and dancing.  Betty draws the ire of her father when she steals his private plane and flies it into the Atlantic only to ditch it at sea after she successfully joins up with her boyfriend, known as The Boy (Jean Bradin), onboard a luxury ocean liner traveling from New York City to France.  This publicity stunt draws headlines, revealed as a millionaire heiress’s mysterious ocean liner romance, whereupon she arranges to get married by the ship’s captain, all of which is too much and too fast for the befuddled boyfriend, where they have a fight instead.  Hitchcock humorously expresses the suddenly disappearing emotional equilibrium with a sight gag, as a drunk onboard the ship is seen staggering down the ship’s corridor, swaying from side to side even though the ship is perfectly steady, but when the waves roll the ship into a naturally swaying rhythm, all the passengers have a hard time keeping their balance except the drunk, who suddenly walks in a straight line.  Left all alone, Betty is met by a mysterious man with a mustache, known only as The Man (Ferdinand von Alten), perhaps the most interesting character in the film, as we never know anything about him, given almost no dialogue to speak of, but he goes eyeball to eyeball with the Boy, both vying for the Girl, where the Man seems to take an interest in her welfare, but quickly disappears once they dock and Betty winds up in Paris living with a group of party revelers where champagne is as free flowing as a water fountain.  Honestly, there’s no difference whatsoever from the frivolity displayed on the ocean liner and in Paris, as it all runs together in a continuous blur.  But when her father arrives in Paris, we learn he has made his millions in the champagne business, but he reports they have lost their entire fortune, leaving them with nothing.  Forced to fend for themselves, living in a dilapidated hotel room, her Dad puts up with her horrible cooking, where she makes nothing but inedible food, while later he’s seen ordering a full-course meal in a luxurious restaurant, where we learn he’s only pretending to be poor in order to teach his daughter a lesson in frugality.  But Betty’s not in on the joke, where her father was against her getting married, claiming the Boy was nothing but a gold digger, and he split as soon as he learned she lost her inheritance. 

Actually Jean Bradin as the Boy is the weakest link, as while he plays Betty’s love interest, he’s little more than a matinee idol’s pretty face, as he has no warmth, charm, or personality, and constantly bickers with her, seemingly threatened by her overcontrolling manner, where she likes to do as she pleases, which contradicts his view towards women, apparently, as he’d prefer to be the dominant force.  This incompatibility issue is never resolved, but simply overlooked for the sake of the story.  When Betty tries to get a job to help out her father, she has few qualifications, but responds to an ad looking for “young girls with beautiful teeth,” but when she arrives, she’s told “We’re only looking for legs.” They do give her a written reference for a job at a swanky restaurant that also offers an extravagant floor show that looks like it might have inspired Fellini.  Though she runs into neverending trouble from the Maître D’ (Marcel Vibert), as she hasn’t a clue how to follow instructions, but she’s given the job of a flower girl selling flowers for men’s lapels, where it’s expected that she’d provide a certain flirtatiousness for the customers, but she simply wanders around as she pleases, until the Man and the Boy arrive unexpectedly, each wondering why a girl like Betty is working in a joint like this, where in their eyes a bustling joint with a packed dance floor (turned into a herd of sheep in a surrealist Buñuelian image before Buñuel thought to use it) is suddenly a dive.  The film does use an unusual device to show the sordid side of Betty’s carefree party lifestyle, where she imagines herself being sexually assaulted, a violent sequence that abruptly interrupts the comedic moments, throwing the audience for a surprise, as it’s not initially known to be a daydream.  It’s something of a confounding film, as none of the characters really click, where it’s a throwback to an earlier era of physical and slapstick comedy, and it’s altogether surprising that Hitchcock is at the helm of such a loosely fit together comedy that has a tendency to ramble on, often incoherently, not making much sense.  But it seems to fit the scatterbrained mindset of Betty, who never really comes of age, even after her father confesses he made the whole thing up, again expressed in a newspaper headline, “Father Tries to Teach Spoiled Daughter a Lesson,” complete with an accompanying article.  You never know what kind of reportage you’ll find in the 1920’s, where apparently no one heard of Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees, but the fake stock market fall is quite prescient.  While the entire film is something of a parody on the foibles of the filthy rich, a subject that always fascinated Hitchcock, it’s also a comment on celebrity worship, as the public becomes obsessed with this kind of high styled, champagne lifestyle, but this is an uneven effort known for having some clever touches, hilarious in one moment and melancholy in the next, where there is no one with such a likable screen persona as Betty Balfour in the entire Hitchcock repertoire, but it’s also a film that got away from Hitchcock and never really captured his full attention.            

Note – there is no Hitchcock cameo

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Easy Virtue

EASY VIRTUE           C+  
Great Britain  (80 mi)  1928  d:  Alfred Hitchcock 

“Virtue is its own reward” they say - - but “easy virtue” is society’s reward for a slandered reputation.      —opening title card 

What could be more British than a Noel Coward play?  By the time Coward was only 26, he had already written 15 published plays, including this one, a drama about a divorcée's clash with her rich and snobbish in-laws.  The restoration team had the hardest time with this film, one of the least seen in the entire Hitchcock repertoire, as they were apparently working from a 2nd negative, a working print, unable to find an original negative, where a substantial part of the film could be missing, so this film retains the grainy look of how we’re used to seeing these films, without clear focus or detail, where there’s little contrast between darks and whites, all blended together into a gray looking film.  While Hitchcock took certain liberties with the original Coward play, what distinguishes this literary film version of a talky stage play is the use of close-ups, shot by cinematographer Claude L. McDonnell, which largely tells the story with an economy of words, where Hitchcock expresses a preference for lingering on these facial shots and holding them, where the audience develops a familiarity with the characters simply by the director’s style.  The film stars Isabel Jean as Larita, who becomes the falsely accused woman, hounded to her grave for alleged societal infractions, though she’s committed no crime.  Nonetheless, the stigma of a crime hovers over her throughout, a genre Hitchcock found little use for, much preferring films about falsely accused men:  THE LODGER (1926), THE 39 STEPS (1935), YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937), Suspicion (1941), SABOTEUR (1942), SPELLBOUND (1945), STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), and FRENZY (1972).  Even while innocent, what Hitchcock loves to do is plant the thought or the idea of committing a crime, where they are then pursued by the police as if they had, where the distinction between imagination and reality is often ambiguous.  Not so here, as Larita Filton is married to a drunken brute of a man (Franklin Dyall) who walks in on her posing for an artist (Eric Bransby Williams) painting her portrait, discovering them kissing, where in his eyes the mere thought of seduction is sufficient grounds for divorce on adultery charges.

The opening courtroom sequence is notable for a shot through the judge’s monocle, reflecting the judge and the defense counsel, a similar technique in the opening and closing shot through a champagne glass in CHAMPAGNE (1928).  The court finds Larita guilty of “misconduct,” this after the artist committed suicide and left her with all his money.  To get away from it all, having been labeled a disgraced woman of “easy virtue,” she decides to head for the French Riviera, so eloquently utilized later in TO CATCH A THIEF, and there at a tennis match she meets a younger man, John Whittaker (Robin Irvine), who is not only filthy rich (this film could serve as a derivation of that phrase), but falls head over heels in love with her.  Without wanting to know anything about her past, he’s anxious to marry her right away.  Instead of giving him an answer, she tells him “I’ll call you from my house around midnight.”  In what is easily the shot of the film, the answer is never heard, but shown through a bored switchboard operator who sits at her station reading a book, where her watch indicates it’s midnight.  When a small light shows up on her board, as she plugs in the connections, she’s about to return to the book, but she leaves on the earphones as something catches her interest, putting the book down, obviously fascinated by this conversation, where Larita’s answer is expressed in pantomime through the operator’s changing facial expressions, ultimately resulting in a big smile.  Life at the Whittaker estate in England is really rough, where there are polo matches to attend and full-dress dinners under the watchful eyes of giant religious icons looming high above them on the walls as they sit and eat.  While the family is obviously curious about where Larita comes from, it’s a particular thorn in the side of his mother, Mrs. Whittaker (Violet Farebrother), a dour and stern-faced woman who doesn’t like her from the start, continually undermining her behind her back while maintaining a respectful social décor in her presence.  But the relationship only deteriorates.

The Whittaker family, one by one, led by Mrs. Whittaker’s example of matriarchal cruelty under the guise of civic morality, gang up against Larita, suspecting her of immorality, where their home becomes little more than a rumor mill of malicious gossip.  When it finally comes to light that she is a party in “the Filton divorce,” they all turn against her, even her husband, who she realizes is married more to the family than he is to her.  Mrs. Whittaker tells her bluntly, “In our world, we do not understand this code of easy virtue,” to which Larita responds, “In your world, you understand very little of anything,” which generated audience applause during the theatrical screening.  But Mrs. Whittaker has the final word, hoping she has the “decency” not to show up at a big party being held in the wedding couple’s honor, where people are curious to meet her.  Instead, despite Mrs. Whittaker’s claims of having one of her severe headaches, Larita makes a stunning entrance in a revealing, cut out dress and a highly decorative ostrich feather fan.  But despite her gallant efforts to brave her way through a public appearance, she realizes this is one obstacle she can not overcome, quickly agreeing to another divorce, and leaving her husband to the shark-infested waters of his own family.  The blatant cruelty expressed in this film is a bit one-dimensional, where none of the characters really stand out, becoming a theatrically melodramatic chamber drama where there’s little dramatic tension, as one character suffers alone from all the slings and arrows of malicious slander, but the overall tone is a character study of the social habits of the rich, another favorite Hitchcock subject.  The film goes to great lengths to show the corrosive effects of intolerance, puritanically imposing one’s morals and values onto others, becoming little more than a witch hunt of indecency, an exposé of holier-than-thou moral hypocrisy, where society’s superficial shortcomings are brought out into the open, becoming something of a scathing critique of social convention.   

Note – Hitchcock’s cameo is one of the hardest to detect, coming at about the 21-minute mark, where he can be seen walking past a tennis court, his back to the camera, carrying a walking stick.        

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Farmer's Wife

THE FARMER’S WIFE              B                 
Great Britain  (129 mi)  1928  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

While The Pleasure Garden (1926) dances around it, this film takes the subject of marriage head-on, opening in an idyllic pastoral landscape that immediately recalls The Trouble With Harry (1955), a somewhat morbid screwball comedy that is one of Hitchcock’s funniest films, and one of the director’s own personal favorites.  This early silent film is more obscure, but is one of the director’s earliest attempts at comedy, and is interestingly filmed within the first years of his own marriage, so perhaps one can gage Hitchcock’s initial ideas on marriage from viewing this film, which is essentially a comedy on rural country manners, adapted from Eden Phillpot’s novel, Widecombe Fair, which had already been a wildly popular, long-running hit play in London, which explores what life is like in the 1920’s among the wealthy rural class, where all the households are run by servants, and the male owners of the estate are called “masters.”  Based on the folksy eccentricities of country life, this is a character driven comedy that relies heavily upon dialogue to establish personality and much of the humor, so there is heavy use of intertitles continually interrupting and altering the rhythm of the film, an obstacle the movie never really overcomes and something that would never be a problem in a live theatrical performance.  One device Hitchcock uses is to allow the camera to linger on his subjects, adding context to their characters, where we do get a good degree of interior development, especially near the end, but all the jokes come from dialogue, much of it written in slang.  This film, along with CHAMPAGNE (1928), are among the few times Hitchcock actually engages in pure slapstick, where there are frenzied moments of anarchy when all mayhem breaks out.                 
This film is unique for *not* having the usual Hitchcock elements, existing outside the typical realm of his works, but the director had a macabre sense of humor and must have found something here he liked.  After his wife passes away, Samuel Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) is a middle-aged farmer (who we never see do a single second of work in the entire film, perhaps the ultimate irony) in Devon whose life gets lonelier after marrying off his daughter, who then moves away, leaving a void to fill.  Sweetland’s listless, perpetually grumpy handyman, Churdles Ash (Gordon Harker) provides the comic relief and literally steals the show with his inclination to get away with doing as little as possible, always moving in slow motion as if he has to be pushed to move at all, but he’s never hesitant to offer his views, “He'll be the next to wed now his daughter's marryin’.”  “Why not?  There's something magical in the married state…it have a beautiful side, Churdles Ash," answers Minta, short for Araminta, the loyal housekeeper played by Lilian Hall-Davis, the reliably upbeat, generous to a fault, and warmhearted woman who actually runs the place. Ash has an altogether differing view, and once Sweetland decides it’s time to start looking for a wife, he finds it disheartening, claiming “beer drinking don’t do ‘alf the ‘arm of love making,” describing marriage as “the proper steamroller for flattening the hope out of man and the joy out of a woman.”  Welcome to marital bliss—well at least no one gets murdered in this one.  Right then and there Sweetland and Minta decide to draw up a list of eligible women in the countryside, where they’re asked to consider the “possibles and the impossibles,” as Sweetland imagines the “possibles” sitting in his wife’s empty chair sitting across from his next to the fireplace.  Minta rightly questions some of the choices, as in her eyes they do not exactly seem like a match made in heaven, but this allows plenty of lowbrow comedy.  “Her backview looks like that of a thirty-year old,” Sweetland says about one potential candidate, “Yes, but you have to live with her frontview,” replies Minta candidly.

In something of a riff on Buster Keaton’s SEVEN CHANCES (1925), one of Keaton’s most hilarious films where he discovers he must find a bride before 7 pm that same day or lose $7 million dollars, Sweetland similarly takes his four chances with a certain arrogant expectation, comparing it to foxes hunting hens or lambs being led to slaughter, believing he’s quite a catch, thinking even if they’re not that interested in being the farmer’s lady, they’d at least be interested in being the lady of the farm.  To his surprise, when he goes courting them in order, there’s a reason these women are not married and he’s about to find out firsthand, checking off the local spinster’s names on the list one by one.  With each rejection, he loses his temper and all evidence of any self-respect, refusing to ever come up the widower Louisa Windeatt’s (Louise Pounds) hill anymore, while the slight, thin-as-a-pretzel Thirza Tapper (Maud Gill) is hosting a tasteful tea party, but when Sweetland corners her, she swoons from the mere thought of the idea, where they have to fan her with air as if she is suffering from heatstroke, while the smilingly obese Mary Hearn (Olga Slade) goes apoplectic after having to endure a series of insults in response to her outright rejection, winding up in a fit of uncontrollable hysterics that can’t be stopped.  The last on the list is a saloon bartender Mary Bassett (Ruth Maitland), who’d prefer being one of the boys in the bar to a wife, where the barroom conversation takes place during a full blown fox hunt.  Silent film plays best to visual sight gags and slapstick comedy, where here Sweetland and Minta play it straight while everyone else around them exaggerates into somewhat buffoonish caricatures, giving over-the-top performances often resulting in utter chaos.  It was only later in sound films that Hitchcock would drop this style in favor of the witty banter of his better known, stylishly sophisticated comedies, where no one was more suave and debonaire than Cary Grant in Suspicion (1941) or NOTORIOUS (1946).  After the proposal debacle, when Sweetland’s spirits are at their lowest ebb, it’s Minta who attempts to keep his spirits up, once more using the empty chair device, where in his head each of the list of brides appears in the chair, and finally he sees Minta, who is seen standing around the chair nervously fidgeting with the buttons on her dress, where only then, like a moment of enlightenment, does the farmer realize what’s been standing right in front of him all along, as she is the perfect choice to fill the empty spot.  A film without any tension or suspense, where the end comes as no surprise, where it’s a conventionally made movie, but the performances are superb, as are the memorable characters and comic wit displayed throughout, making this one of Hitchcock’s happier films.  

A note on Lilian Hall-Davis who provides such remarkable warmth and appeal as Minta, who for a time was considered Hitchcock’s “favorite actress,” having earlier worked with Hitchcock in THE RING (1927), her career stalled with the transition to sound and she never recovered, suffering from severe depression until tragically in 1933, at the age of 35, she committed suicide by turning on a gas oven and cutting her own throat. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Pleasure Garden

THE PLEASURE GARDEN          C+            
Great Britain  Germany  (75 mi)  1925  d:  Alfred Hitchcock 

Hitchcock’s first feature film at the age of 25 is notable for several reasons, not the least of which is the assistant director Alma Reville became his eventual wife and lifelong companion, often thought to be the only other trustworthy person in the room for Hitchcock, as she was a talented writer and editor in her own right with a sharp eye for finding mistakes and inconsistencies in the frame, where at least initially, he was working for her when they first met in the London film studios of the 1920’s and were married shortly after this film was released.  But the film is also significant as the first two Hitchcock efforts (the second, THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE has been lost) were filmed in German studios, mainly in Munich, where it’s likely Fritz Lang had already begun shooting METROPOLIS (1927) at UFA Studios in Berlin, which began in May 1925, generating an interest in German Expressionism, which was a central influence in THE LODGER (1926), but also later films like Suspicion (1941) and Marnie (1964).  As a production assistant, Hitchcock was sent to visit the huge UFA studio facilities in Germany and met F.W. Murnau, even watching Murnau directing THE LAST LAUGH (1924), a silent picture that dispensed with the use of title cards and told its story entirely through visuals only.  Finally it must be noted that one of the earliest images in a Hitchcock film is that of an older man developing an instant obsession with a blonde, one of the director’s own major obsessions, as that customer is one of many of the older, well-dressed men ogling at the legs of the showgirls on display, which happens to be the first images of the movie, where the girls literally introduce themselves to the audience by walking down a circular staircase before they get into their dance routines.  The restoration has done wonders for this film, adding twenty minutes that were presumably lost, while also adding a color scheme, including sepia tones, blue, and purple, literally transforming the look of the film.  Hitchcock got his start as a designer of what were called “art titles,” embellishing the silent era title cards that provided the dialogue, adding themed backgrounds and illustrations, while he also wrote scripts, provided the art direction, and worked as an assistant director.  These art titles have been added to the film, helping establish a more natural rhythm.  From the outset, where there’s a dancer performing over the opening credits, it’s an interesting prelude of what’s coming, as it’s basically a film about two London chorus girls working at a club called The Pleasure Garden whose lives move forward in differing directions.     

The opening of this film feels familiar, as it could easily have been swiped in the making of Howard Hawks’ Funny Girl (1968), where Fanny Brice has an initial rejection as a Ziegfeld Follies girl, but steals the show once they hear her sing.  Similarly, Carmelita Geraghty as Jill is a hopeful chorus girl whose dreams are initially dashed.  As she has no place to stay, she is quickly taken under the wing of another chorus dancer, Patsy (Virginia Valli), who should have known to suspect something when Jill hogged the pillow from the opening night, but they try again the next morning, where they decide to give Jill another chance, almost as a joke, as she admits to never appearing onstage before, but her exuberant dancing impresses them enough to give her a featured role.  As the film progresses, Jill is more knowledgeable than she seems, where manipulating others to get what she wants seems to be her primary specialty, while Patsy is exactly what she seems, kind hearted and more concerned about others than her own welfare.  When Jill’s boyfriend comes to pay a visit, Hugh (John Stuart) brings along a friend, Levett (Miles Mander), who takes an interest in Patsy, where Jill agrees to wait for Hugh, as he’s about to leave to go overseas to West Africa for two years as part of his job.  It’s all Patsy can do to keep guys from pawing all over Jill, especially the money grubbing Prince Ivan (Karl Falkenberg), who seems to give her whatever she wants, but she promises Hugh she’ll take care of Jill before he leaves.  Meanwhile, Levett and Hugh are working partners so Levett is also about to leave, but he inexplicably convinces Patsy to get married first, where we see them in blue tint honeymooning along the banks of Lake Como in Italy, which is something of a disaster, as there isn’t a hint of romance, expressed when he throws away the rose on his lapel that Patsy gave him, explaining “It had wilted.”  Of interest, Hitchcock and Alma Reville took their own honeymoon at the exact same spot 18 months after filming.

Unfortunately, the film drags after that, where Patsy continues to pine away for her husband even after he’s proven to be a lout, while Jill is safely in the hands of the Prince, long since forgotten all about Hugh.  When we see shots of West Africa, presumably Ghana, Levett is sleeping with a native girl (unknown actress inaccurately credited as Nita Naldi, who was in the United States at the time of the shoot) that leaps into his arms when he returns, where she waits on him hand and foot, like an obedient slave girl, while he does nothing but drink nonstop and order her around.  It’s impossible to see how the British are benefiting by his service, which may be Hitchcock’s offhanded comment on British Colonialism.  Patsy continues to write, but her letters are unanswered until finally Levett makes a pathetic excuse about how he’s been unable to write due to a high fever.  This sets Patsy in motion, as she believes he needs her, so when she makes a surprise visit, she’s the one who’s in for a surprise, discovering a half-crazed, perpetually drunken Levett with his native girl, while Hugh is the one laid up with a fever, so she leaves her husband and nurses Hugh back to health, finding more comfort in a man who is actually happy to see her in this godforsaken place.  But not before the emaciated Levett goes full-throttle crazy, drowning the native girl (who at the time is attempting suicide, not sure that’s *ever* been depicted before, a rare moment indeed!), demanding his wife return to him, not exactly a well-thought out plan, and then has delirious, ghostly visions of the girl returning as an apparition, haunting him and driving him even more crazy.  The whole African sequence is disappointing, like a cheap melodrama, where Levett’s behavior is simply despicable, where racist colonial attitudes are everpresent, and the whole chorus girl segment disappears entirely.  The energetic enthusiasm of the more interesting dancing opening simply dies out after Patsy’s dumbfoundingly mistaken marriage, where all that’s left are troubles and travails in the tropics.   

Monday, August 12, 2013

Blackmail (1929)

BLACKMAIL           B+                    
Great Britain  (86 mi)  1929  d:  Alfred Hitchcock

Depending on how you look at it, this is either the final silent Hitchcock film or the first full-length British talking picture, as Hitchcock shot both versions simultaneously, though the talking version featured a few casting adjustments, including the use of an offscreen voice for the leading lady, Anny Ondra, Hitchcock’s first icy blonde, an aloof beauty, sophisticated, smart, and dangerous, traits that Hitchcock felt made the best victims, claiming “They're like virgin snow that shows up the bloody footprints.”  Ondra, however, spoke with a thick Czech accent, supposedly resembling Hungarian actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, so they felt it was unsuitable for a talking picture (That never stopped Zsa Zsa).  Some of the original footage with spoken dialogue also implemented music and sound effects, but they also re-shot a few scenes and used the voice of actress Joan Barry speaking off camera, but the lip-synched words never found the natural rhythm of the silent version, which is now the preferred version, having been restored in 2012 by the British Film Institute along with 8 earlier silent era Hitchcock films, known as The Hitchcock 9, which are now making the rounds in theaters around the world in pristine 35 mm prints.  For some screenings, the film is accompanied by newly commissioned scores, original music written especially for the films by the Mont Alto Orchestra, a five piece chamber ensemble that has scored over 100 silent films using the repertoire and scoring techniques of the orchestras in movie theaters during the silent film era, while other screenings feature live pipe organ accompaniment.  Hitchcock had by now hit his stride in making silent films, which have a rhythm all their own, where in his view “silent pictures were the purest form of cinema,” where a director’s talent was largely based upon his ability to advance a story using the least amount of dialogue title cards.  While the talking version was the first version to hit the theaters, receiving overwhelmingly rave reviews, where sound in its inventive first use was certainly historical and far more influential, but most theaters were still not equipped for sound, so it was the silent version that proved most popular with the public. 

What marks this film among Hitchcock’s early silent features is the sophistication of theme, as it’s largely a character driven film where the focus continually moves back and forth between various characters, continually shifting throughout, offering the audience multiple points of view, written and adapted from screenwriter Charles Bennett’s own play, the first of several collaborations with Hitchcock, including THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934), THE 39 STEPS (1935), SABOTAGE (1936), and YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937), before leaving England to work with Hitchcock in America on FOREIGN CORRESPONDENCE (1940).  The film opens as a strict police procedural, with a view of London’s streets whizzing by from the racing police paddy wagons, where after arresting a suspected criminal holed up in his seedy room, with point of view shots moving from the police, to the criminal, and back to the police again, it’s viewed as just another day at the job by Scotland Yard detective Frank (John Longden).  But Frank receives an earful from his waiting girlfriend Alice (Anny Ondra), who impatiently complains that she doesn’t like to wait.  In the sound version, it opens exactly the same way in a mechanized rhythm of silence, with streets sounds the first sounds heard slowly added, until by the time it gets to Alice, it is full-blown sound from then on.  As they go out to dinner to the Lyon’s Cornerhouse at Piccadilly Circus, they amusingly have to wait for an open table, as the place is packed, and once seated, it’s so busy they have to wait once again for someone to wait on them, which only infuriorates Alice, causing the two to get into an argument where Frank storms out in disgust, but sees her leaving with another gentleman.  Alice allows herself to be taken upstairs to the studio of a young artist (Cyril Ritchard, of Captain Hook fame), supposedly to view his paintings (No, he didn’t ask if she’d like to come up to see his etchings), but he has other intentions, plying her with alcohol as he has her change into various model’s costumes before he sexually assaults her, where in defending herself, expressed with a shadowy hand hovering over a knife that she can be seen frantically reaching for on the table, she kills him with a butter knife, all taking place behind a curtain, his limp arm finally hanging out the window.  In a wordless scene she emerges from behind the curtain shocked and in something of a daze afterwards, still holding the knife and dressed in her undergarments, one of the first Hitchcock scenes to attain this degree of intensity, where she walks the streets all night until returning home in the morning, acting as if nothing has happened.    

Her family owns a corner tobacco market selling cigarettes and cigars, where their morning routine is unchanged except her father (Charles Paton) takes a heightened interest in a murder that’s taken place just around the corner.  The picture of guilt all morning, constantly reminded of what she’s done, Alice soon realizes Frank has been assigned to the case, finding one of her gloves on the scene, which he doesn’t disclose to the police.  So while all the gossip in the shop is about a murder, Frank and Alice conceal their guilty consciences, which is given a somewhat humorous treatment by Hitchcock, playfully toying with their pent-up fears and emotions, first by her ever inquisitive father, then by a gossip who won’t shut up, and finally by a passing stranger named Tracy (Donald Calthrop) who has found the other glove and with sadistic relish attempts to blackmail Frank.  Tracy has the upper hand initially, but the tables turn when it’s discovered he has a criminal record and there is proof he was outside the scene of the crime, but he escapes out the window just as the police arrive, turning into a rollicking chase scene through the streets of London, reaching a climax at the British Museum, where due to a lack of sufficient light, Hitchcock utilized the Schüfftan process, shooting into mirrors that create the illusion of a huge, realistic looking room.  This is the first of three Hitchcock films shot on location at an actual national monument, the others being the Statue of Liberty in SABOTEUR (1942) and Mount Rushmore in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959).  Inside the museum the blackmailer is seen continually eluding police, climbing down a hanging chain past the peering eyes of a colossal head of an Egyptian god that may be King Ramses, eventually climbing onto the domed roof of the British Museum Reading Room, much like Cody Jarrett’s legendary ascent up the steps of a fuel refinery storage tank in White Heat (1949), where at the top he slips and falls to his death, conveniently wrapping up the case for the police, except Alice is so tormented with guilt that she wishes to confess to the police.  This is the Hitchcock factor, the first of Hitchcock’s guilty women films, preceding the likes of Janet Leigh, Tippi Hedron, or Grace Kelly, vulnerable women wracked by an impending moral dilemma, placing them on the verge of a psychological breakdown.  Hitchcock has a recurring focus on staircases and hands, like Lady Macbeth trying to wash the blood away, which are used to express the emotional fragility of the character, but also there are constantly recurring knife motifs, where the most clever is Alice in her head seeing a neon sign suddenly change from a cocktail shaker to a stabbing knife.  Perhaps most interestingly is the condescending and comedic use of a large painting at the scene of the crime of a clown jester laughing, where the mocking face absurdly comments not only on what’s taking place during the murder scene, literally laughing *at* Alice, like how did you get yourself into this mess, but also the deceitful moral order surrounding the events, as the painting is seen again at the finale, suggesting an ironic offshoot of “The Wrong Man (1956)” theme, as the wrong man dies for a crime he didn’t commit, which in the end is being laughed off by the one who did, along with her boyfriend who helps cover it up.    

Note – Hitchcock had a different ending in mind, revealed in his infamous Truffaut interviews, where after the death of the blackmailer, Alice confesses to the crime, where Frank would be forced to process her arrest, exactly the same images as we saw in the opening scene, placing her in handcuffs, booking her arrest, taking fingerprints, where he and his partner would meet in the men’s room afterwards washing their hands, as they did in the opening, where the unknowing partner would ask, “Are you going out with your girl tonight?” and Frank would answer, “No, I’m going straight home.”  The producers claimed this ending was too depressing.  Hitchcock’s signature cameo appearance comes at about the 10-minute mark, and at 20-seconds is probably the lengthiest in his film career, as he’s reading a book while riding the London subway train alongside Frank and Alice, but he’s constantly irritated by a small boy who is a continual nuisance to the passengers, especially Hitchcock, seen grabbing at his hat.