Archive for Lifeboat

All At Sea

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2009 by dcairns

After the blasting Hugo Friedhofer score, and titles which weirdly assert “By John Steinbeck” and “Screenplay by Jo Swerling,” we get a moody shot trawling the misty Atlantic waters of the 20th Century Fox studio tank, alighting upon curious and suggestive items of flotsam, or do I mean jetsam?

vlcsnap-471190

The hand of cards Hitch was seen playing in his last movie, SHADOW OF A DOUBT? If so, this would be a sort of phantasmal cameo appearance, the shadow of a previous walk-on.

vlcsnap-471159

This copy of The New Yorker makes me wonder if each piece of floating detritus stands for a different character in the film? This would be Tallulah Bankhead, photo-journalist and society lady. But I’m not sure I can be bothered stretching the metaphor all the way to include every last but of bobbing debris. Let’s just say the bobbing apples are a reminder of Hitch’s upbringing.

vlcsnap-476997

“What are those letters on your diaphragm?” Tallulah Bankhead drawls to John Hodiak, and indeed, he is a heavily initialed sailor man, with a prominent “B.M.” on his chest. Who might those letters belong to?

stran1

Barbara Morton — Pat Hitchcock’s character in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN?

secret2

The Bald Mexican — Peter Lorre in SECRET AGENT?

mrs5

Bob Montgomery? We never do find out.

LIFEBOAT, while very enjoyable, seems strangely divided between propagandistic, artistic and genre tendencies. While savagely anti-German, it also portrays the jolly Nazi captain Walter Slezak as the only competent and committed man on board, and as Hitchcock and Truffaut agreed, during the moments when the other passengers are plotting against him, they appear quite monstrous. Then again, Slezak’s character really is the embodiment of evil, picking off the weakest of his fellow survivors by way of psychological manipulation techniques bordering on hypnosis.

lifeb2

What Slezak brings to the role, apart from his authentic accent, is a rather chummy, guy-you-can-trust quality, which colludes with his cherubic (and slightly Hitch-like) appearance to create a nice complexity of effect. In many ways, this guy would make a great captain of the lifeboat, were it not for his tendency to dispose of the weak.

vlcsnap-477489

Do we believe, necessarily, that William Bendix is a jitterbug champion? I wonder if Hitch had a strong idea in his mind of what jitterbuggery actually consists of? I guess WB would be good and hoisting his partner through the air, but I can’t quite picture him cutting a rug. Trampling it into dust, perhaps. Still, Bendix makes a fine lumpenproletariat, even if he does tend to overdo his William Bendix impersonation at times. My favourite Bendix is DETECTIVE STORY, in which he pulls off the impossible feat of out-over-acting Kirk Douglas, going so far over the top he comes out the bottom into a new form or underplaying. It’s like William Bendix parodying William Bendix parodying William Bendix, and it’s a beautiful thing. You won’t believe me but, I’ll say it — moving.

Hitchcock’s cameo, in a newspaper ad for a miracle weight-loss product (or “obesity slayer”) is one of his wittiest, nicely solving the problem of how to do a walk-on in a tightly contained narrative (floating past as a corpse was briefly considered) as well as a chance to show off the results of his recent diet. Many viewers wrote in asking where they could be Reduco, we are told.

If Reduco is Hitchcock’s diet pill, then presumably Emerg-O is William Castle’s personal brand of Viagra.

lifeb7jpg

I don’t mind John Hodiak in this! He still looks a bit like a Tex Avery wolf, but his slight lack of leading man charisma seems to work neatly in what is basically a group jeopardy picture. A Cary Grant figure would overbalance the thing.

Just realised that not only does Henry Hull advocate the extermination of all Germans in this movie (an awkward moment — had Hitch started editing footage of concentration camps yet? At least the other characters don’t all rush to voice agreement), but he was also the character in OBJECTIVE, BURMA! who advocated extermination of the Japanese. Is there any race on Earth who haven’t been threatened with extermination by Henry Hull? I guess English werewolves get a free pass.

lifeb4

Hume Cronyn is lovely, however it should be observed that his cockney accent is among the worst on record. Dick Van Dyke is a regular Meryl Streep by comparison. Since Cronyn was so good in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, and since he could undoubtedly adapt to many unlikely characters (see his sadistic gay prison warden in BRUTE FORCE for an eye-popping example), he must have seemed like a safe bet, but there are limits to his versatility. I’m surprised he couldn’t just mimic Hitch’s Leytonestone vowels. It took us ten minutes to decide if he was actually doing an accent, or was just suffering concussion or a head cold.

I was trying to work out what I’d seen Mary Anderson in, then I realised it was TO EACH HIS OWN, which is one of the greatest of all near-unknown Hollywood films of the ’40s, but in that one Mary is up against Olivia deHavilland in full Oscar-worthy rampancy, so she doesn’t have much chance of making an impression. Most of her best scenes also feature a very cute and talented child actor. She’s screwed. Nevertheless, Shadowplay salutes her!

No doubt due to the John Steinbeck influence, there’s plenty of “premature anti-fascism” to enjoy here, with Hodiak as the leftie hero who gets Bankhead’s back up, until she decides she likes a bit of rough, and he wins enough money from Hull to becomes a capitalist in his own right, which is probably a Hitchcock-Swerling addition.

Tallulah Bankhead is Tallulah Bankhead, which is fine by me. “Some of my best friends are women,” indeed!

lifeb3

Canada Lee, an important figure in American film, gets little to do but cook, although the revelation that he’s an accomplished pickpocket is actually a relief, since it lifts him slightly from the status of token black or Uncle Tom. The most uncomfortable moment is right at the start, when Tallulah asks if Hodiak has seen anything “charcoal” floating in the water, meaning Lee. But that is, at least, in character for her.

Ironic that Hitch apparently never faced any difficulties from HUAC for making this seemingly rather leftwing film, but Lee was, essentially, blacklisted to death.

One thing that’s kind of good about the film, and complicates it out of straight war propaganda, is that all of the characters have good and bad points. Bankhead grumbles, but she sacrifices for the others whenever she has to. Everybody makes stupid mistakes, and not s0 stupid mistakes, in their reaction to the German. And Slezak’s German is given a genuine point of view, nauseating as it often is.

LIFEBOAT cost a lot to make, which disappointed 20th Century Fox: impressed by Hitch’s talk of “cutting in the camera,” Zanuck was expecting this single-set movie to be  quick job. But Hitch refused to shoot in the most seemingly efficient way (Shoot everything looking forward; then everything looking back; then left; then right), which drove Zanuck crazy. But looking at the movie, at the way the characters gradually become more bedraggled and filthy, it’s impossible to see how Hitch could have worked, save scene by scene, as is normal. Years later, Sidney Lumet would shoot 12 ANGRY MEN at high speed by basically filming each actor’s entire part in one go, but that could not be done on LIFEBOAT. As he had with Selznick, Hitch had held out a false promise of super-speed. His reputation for efficiency would only slowly be made in America.

The Strange Affair of Uncle Charlie

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2009 by dcairns

shad7

“Are they?”

Maybe Hitchcock’s first perfect film? Maybe his most perfect, too? Oh yeah, you can’t have degrees of perfection, can you? But maybe Hitchcock can. Absolutes become relative…

SHADOW OF A DOUBT begins with the Universal globe, since like SABOTEUR this is a project made on loan-out to the free and easy Jack Skirball from the rigorous Selznick, and its brilliance should be enough to gainsay the suggestion that Hitchcock needed Selznick’s supervision to make mature films. In its light-hearted way, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT is just as mature as REBECCA, and this one goes much, much deeper than either.

The Merry Widow Waltz — the return of the musical plot point — which was lightly touched upon in SABOTEUR, actually, but is much more fully developed here. The music and images of waltzing couples, slowly dissolving to skid row docklands in Newark, a striking incongruity that sets things in motion with a kind of lopsided unease.

shad2

Joseph Cotten, as Uncle Charlie, is introduced as one of those serial killers who lie in bed and brood — see also David Wayne in Losey’s M. It’s the ’40s equivalent of the  trophy gallery, where news cuttings and other, weirder images attest to the resident’s disturbed state — see THE HOWLING for what Fiona reckons is the earliest version of this, and ANTICHRIST for the latest. I like Constance Purdy as the sympathetic landlady: one of these bit-part players who eked out a living playing landladies, society ladies, fat ladies.

Dream logic: two detectives have appeared at Cotten’s building, asking for an interview, yet when he leaves, rather than simply approaching him, they let him walk right past, then start following him. Why? Genre conventions seem to excuse this quite adequately. Cutting to high-angle “God shots,” Hitch seems to show us the whole chase, from a privileged position, but then Charlie vanishes behind a building, the cops emerge, looking baffled, and we pan around and discover Charlie watching from on high, right here with us, enjoying a triumphant cigar.

Charlie sends a telegram to his family, and when he mentions the address (Santa Rosa, California, not so far from the Bodega Bay of THE BIRDS) the next dissolve obligingly takes us there. Now we meet the Newtons, starting with little Ann, Edna May Wonacott, a sort of Pat Hitchcock substitute, and one of Hitchcock’s many fine local discoveries (Another is the heroine’s best friend Cath, played by Estelle Jewell in a wonderful one-note characterisation of quasi-lustful grinning). I adore everything about the family characters in this film, often credited to screenwriter Thornton Wilder (whose participation is loudly trumpeted in the opening titles) but also partly the work of Hitch, Alma, and especially Sally Benson and an uncredited Patricia Collinge, who plays Mom.

shad5

Collinge’s Emma Newton is the most loving portrait of a mother in all Hitchcock’s work. He’s often accused of focussing exclusively on negative maternal figures, and while there are certainly plenty of these in his work, one could point to SHADOW as a refutation of all the charges of misogyny. Hitch’s own mother was called Emma. She was dying during the shoot. It’s a testimony to Collinge that she makes Emma more than a series of dopey/endearing characteristics — the character successfully stands for something far greater than that. And somehow we accept Emma’s vulnerability, so that when people start saying “This would kill your mother,” we totally accept it, even though there’s really nothing to hint at ill health in the script or performance. Collinge just has that quality of emotional fragility. It seems to be tied up with Emma’s desire for everything to be nice — if something shattered her cosy picture of the world, where would she be left? See also THE LITTLE FOXES for Teresa Wright and Patricia Collinge together again. Collinge is devastating.

Charles Bates, as little Roger, is the least heavily featured Newton, but he’s very good, and an interesting contrast with Ann. Both are rather intellectual kids, but Roger is more into statistics and hard facts: Ann has a romantic side in her literary choices, and insists that her books are “all true.” Hitch I think is slightly less interested in little boys, but he does craft a memorable little nutcase in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, the chronologically-challenged Arnie.

Henry Travers, as Mr Newton, is an endearing sort of stick, sufficiently mundane and simple to be baffled by his eldest daughter’s moods (which is important for keeping him in the dark later, when the plot thickens), but enlivened by his non-practicing enthusiasm for the murderous arts. And my God, Hume Cronyn is a joy as his best friend Herbie Hawkins, with whom he shares his half-baked plots. The shot of Herbie entering as the family have dinner always cracks me up:

shad8

Proof that Hitchcock, like Keaton, could enlist the space around an actor for comic effect.

This homicidal hobby serves several purposes: it adds a believable quirk to the staid banker father, it’s a connection with Hitch himself, whom one can imagine having similar conversations at the dinner table, and it’s another way of building pressure on daughter Charlie, once she learns that there’s a real-life murderer in their midst.

shad4b

Ah, Charlie. Had the great pleasure of seeing Teresa Wright talk about her work at the Edinburgh Film Festival one year. A fine lady. She was quite defensive of Hitch, whom she found charming and well-mannered. She assumed any later bad behaviour on his part must have been down to age and ill-health.

We first meet young Charlie lying in bed brooding — exactly like her Uncle. It’s one of numerous connections drawn between them, and it’s fascinating to consider the similarities and differences in their characters. Also the telepathic link they seem to share, which hovers just below the level of narrative reality, tantalisingly refusing to declare itself as either real or imaginary: just like most real-life instances of “mental telepathy.”

Like her uncle, Charlie is intelligent, strong-willed, and restless — dissatisfied with her immediate circumstances, and yearning for something greater. Unlike him, she has a strong moral compass, not just by being well brought up, but also by having an inherent inner goodness. When she’s torn between helping Charlie and turning him in to the police, it’s two sides of her good nature that are at war within her, the desire to protect society versus the desire to protect her mother and a natural repugnance at the idea of betraying a family member. Charlie is a rare example of a fascinating character who is almost wholly good.

Uncle Charlie, by contrast, is one of the screen’s most convincing psychopaths. Hitch’s research allows for a portrait of a serial killer which is extremely accurate, without delving into spurious psychological portraiture. All of Charlie’s mistakes — and for an intelligent man he makes almost nothing but mistakes — can be put down to his psychopathic condition. Putting $40,000 into Mr Newton’s bank is rather a foolish move, since if he comes under suspicion he won’t be able to get at it, but it’s typical grandiloquence. Giving Charlie a ring with a previous victim’s initials etched in it is a bad blunder, but consistent with the true serial killer’s habit of trophy-taking. (The fact that the victim was a retired music-hall artiste makes me think of LADIES IN RETIREMENT.) And an incident from Uncle Charlie’s history is rich in suggestion: his bicycle crash, which nearly killed him, and resulted in a change of personality. Possible brain damage is a characteristic of many psychopathic case histories, but one of the film’s strengths is that it doesn’t seek to explain Uncle Charlie. It’s possible that his near-death experience simply changed his philosophy of life, rather than damaging him neurologically. For Charles Oakley is certainly a philosopher.

shad10

The opening montage of Santa Rosa seems like the most obvious source for the opening of BLUE VELVET. And in this sleazy bar, we find an element of TWIN PEAKS, with an excellent Janet Shaw as waitress Louise Finch, the Ronette Pulawski of her day: “Yes sir, I’d just about die for a ring like that…”

Like his niece, Charlie has a good deal of family feeling, but unlike her, his only goes so deep: when the chips are down, he’s quite willing to sacrifice Charlie, the one person he cares about most in the world, in order to protect Number One. He kids himself when he suggests that only unimportant, useless people have anything to fear from him. His view of the world as a cesspit fully justifies his own ghastly behaviour in his eyes, but while Charlie is disgusted by the low dive he drags her to (Santa Rosa is part Bedford Falls, part Pottertown, and all Lumberton), there’s no indication that she’s going to be seduced by his view of the world.

Another bit of telepathy: Charlie discovers he’s no longer suspected by the police, and bounds up the stairs. But then he senses something that makes him stop. He turns and sees –

shad11

The one person who knows his guilt.

I’m neglecting a character, and it’s one I always neglect: MacDonald Carey as detective Jack Graham. As a deliberately undeveloped potential romantic interest, he doesn’t really have any chance to flower into anything interesting, and Carey isn’t the most interesting actor, although he’s perfectly competent. It might help if he were pretty. But what really works about this figure is that he’s effectively the antagonist — Hitchcock’s much-vaunted fear of policemen neatly coincides with the thrust of the plot. Uncle Charlie isn’t, under normal circumstances, a threat to his family, and while the town does boast a flirtatious “merry widow” whom he may have his eye on, nothing is done to push this subplot forward to the point where we have to imminently fear for her life. No, it’s the presence of the police that creates jeopardy, and what young Charlie most fears is that her uncle will be caught and exposed and her mother will be destroyed.

Bill Krohn, in Hitchcock at Work, devotes an extra-large section to consideration if this film, and apart from his invaluable historical and contextual analysis (including the fact that wartime restrictions on set construction influenced Hitchcock’s decision to shoot on location, giving the film an unusual air of outward realism), he provides a fascinating reading of the film as political allegory. Since, of all the wartime Hitchcocks, SHADOW OF A DOUBT features the least propagandistic elements, apart from SUSPICION (which at one time in its development was going to have a flag-waving ending), this may seem perverse, but Krohn argues his case persuasively, and by the time we reach the film’s last lines, about the world “You have to watch it. It seems to go crazy sometimes, like your Uncle Charlie,” it seems inescapably right. To avoid dating the film, Hitchcock avoided overt references to the war, but Santa Rosa is full of soldiers, the bank is full of ads for war bonds, and the movie shares so much with Welles’s later film THE STRANGER that some of Welles’s anti-fascism seems to seep back in time into the Hitchcock.

Krohn is very strong on the Welles influence on Hitchcock here, suggesting that, since Welles had absorbed the same Germanic principles as Hitchcock, he was the perfect influence to guide Hitch towards making his first truly American movies. He gives several examples of the connections, from those Ambersonian waltzers, to the film’s use of overlapping dialogue, to the sentences which fade out in mid-stream. One powerful example of the last, which Krohn doesn’t cite, is when Patricia Collinge is sitting in the back of a car puzzling over the two accidents her daughter has recently suffered. Before she can reach any conclusion, the car bears her away. In some odd way, this seems to me terribly reminiscent of Major Amberson’s musings about the nature of life and afterlife, which are similarly interrupted by the intervention of a fade-out.

Krohn is also very good on the film’s relationship with Dracula… which sounds surprising when you first hear it, but believe me, he sells the idea. The vampire, of course, cannot enter your home unless invited…

shadz

“You don’t look too well either.” Possibly the only Hitchcock cameo where another character addresses him with a spoken line? Hitch may not have a winning hand in this scene, but he’s holding aces with SHADOW OF A DOUBT.

Side-note: unhappy with his weight (“My ankles hung over my socks,” — possible water retention?), Hitch started dieting around this time, with results which can be seen in his next movie, LIFEBOAT.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 386 other followers