Archive for January 28, 2009

Why the long face?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on January 28, 2009 by dcairns

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Franklin Dyall emotes in Hitchcock’s EASY VIRTUE.

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Dyall “V” for Valentine

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2009 by dcairns

Or, Hitchcock Year, Week Four.

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Having filmed a play (DOWNHILL) by Ivor Novello (writing as David LeStrange), Hitchcock started work on EASY VIRTUE, from a play by Britain’s other leading gay playwright / songwriter, Noel Coward, as his previous film was still being cut. Another studio assignment, this shows the prevailing thought, or lack of thought, at Gainsborough: “Keep control of him, don’t let him do his own thing, or we might end up with another success like THE LODGER.”

Hitch nevertheless through himself into making a film of Coward’s problem play, dramatizing the backstory so fully that the plot of the play doesn’t begin until halfway through the film’s running time.

(There’s just been a new version of EASY VIRTUE. Would have been a smart idea for me to see it, right? But I didn’t. Just looked at the trailer, which I can’t bear to embed because it made me physically unwell. It’s from Ealing, who seem to be pursuing an identity as, I don’t know, some kind of modern Ealing, but old Ealingdidn’t specialise in remakes and period pieces and adaptations of old plays, they were tackling modern Britain with original screenplays… and the idea of turning Noel Coward into a sort of Ben Stiller THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY / MEET THE PARENTS comedy only with shapely smiling vacuum Jessica Biel in the Stiller role…)

Anyhow, Hitch’s film avoids all Coward-like wit and is basically a somewhat humourless melodrama, unintentionally amusing at times, but it does feature some nice touches, and is graced with a highly developed sense of SYMMETRY.

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For instance, this arresting shot of a judge’s wig, rising like the morning sun from bottom of frame, is repeated in a second trial scene, two divorces which bookend the movie.

It’s followed by a marvellous shot looking through the judge’s spyglass, a shot which was optically impossible to achieve in a realistic way ~

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Here’s the trick: a stand-in occupies the centre of the crowd, playing the barrister’s part. A GIANT CLAY HAND holding a giant spy-glass, is hefted into frame. It needs to be giant so the camera can keep it and the background acceptably focused. Instead of a lens, the glass is fitted with a mirror, which reflects the REAL barrister-actor, who is standing behind the camera with co-star Franklin Dyall (right) and other extras.

Beautiful. And the first appearance in Hitchcock of a BIG FAKE HAND — see also the foot-long finger steered uncertainly into a telephone dial at the start of DIAL “M” FOR MURDER, and the B.F.H. that points the revolver right between our eyes at the end of SPELLBOUND. Have I missed any others?

Not only is the spyglass shot pleasing in itself, but it’s balanced by other compositions which mirror it, notably this one:

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An oval dressing table mirror sets up further echoes.

Hitch uses the first courtroom sequence to flash daringly back in time and show the breakdown of the heroine’s marriage. When her husband, Franklin Dyall, catches her in the arms of a portrait painter (the first of Hitch’s randy artists — see also BLACKMAIL), these two shots from the stand-off represent another kind of symmetry, or mirroring.

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Peekaboo.

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Franklin Dyall, above, whose face is an extraordinary bit of apparatus, was the father of Valentine Dyall, familiar to Shadowplayers for this voice-over. Anyhow, shots are fired, a scandal is caused, and a divorce is granted.

On the Riviera, recovering from her ordeal at the hands of the proto-paparazzi, Isabel Jeans, our not-so-gay divorcee meets and marries Robin Irvine (Novello’sbest pal in DOWNHILL). Their journey by carriage along a winding coastal road recalls Grace Kelly driving Cary Grant in TO CATCH A THIEF, but the pace is slower — even the driver of the carriage falls asleep.

Hitch gives us his-and-hers luggage shots as the couple travel back to England:

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Arriving at the stately pile, our heroine gets a Baltic reception from what could be the first proper Hitchcock mother, played by a steely actress rejoicing in the name of Violet Farebrother. She exerts a near-total dominance over her son, who quickly loses all audience sympathy as he passively allows mum to turn him against his perfectly reasonable new bride. But as an early version of the neurotic/psychotic maternal relationships running through Hitchcock’s films, this does seem a good solid start.

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Finally, our heroine asserts herself by attending a party she’s been banned from, dressed to the nines in flapper fashions, calculated to create the biggest scandal possible. In a romcom, this is where the hero would rush to her side, impressed by her pluck, and finally stand up to his overweening mater, but our man quietly caves in and everything ends in divorce, which isn’t terribly satisfying somehow, but at least allows Hitch to preserve his symmetry.

An even less rewarding job than DOWNHILL, EASY VIRTUE shows Hitch struggling manfully to turn around stagy, talky material ill-suited to the requirements of silent cinema. Fortunately, a new company had just been formed, taking advantage of the British government’s new quota system, that dictated that a certain number of films playing in British cinemas must be British. British International Pictures intended to provide those movies, and they hired Hitch to help them…