Dyall “V” for Valentine

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…

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7 Responses to “Dyall “V” for Valentine”

  1. Hi David,

    it’s good to see you doing such a good job on Hitchcock — hope you will keep the posts coming! Unfortunately, even though Hitchcock is my favorite director of all time, I’m not that familiar with his early ouevre. I mean, I saw all his movies but one (I *still* didn’t see “Under Capricorn” and hestitate to, because I have a strange premonition the world will end for me when I do it). All the early ones I saw only once or twice, and I have especially vague recolllection of “Easy Virtue”. So I’m still waiting for the thirties to start on your blog, because I will have more to say then.

    However, I was captivated by what you named “big hands” motif in Hitch. SPELLBOUND, DIAL M FOR MURDER and EASY VIRTUE are obvious exapmles of him using specially designed props, but I think the attention Hitch pays to character’s hands in genereal is uncanny. Think Robert Walker reaching for the zippo stuck in the gutter in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, or Farley Granger in ROPE, when he loses it and breaks a glass in his hands, and there’s this sudden close-up of them (he inspects them at one point, too, when the old lady says to him that “these hands will bring you great fame”). Uncle Charlie presents Little Charlie wit a ring, of all things, and when he first uses violence on her, he’s twisting her wrist. Stella says in REAR WINDOW, that she would “chop of her finger” first if someone told her to part with her wedding ring.

    I don’t want to make too big a claim, but it seems hand matter a lot to him, so I found your observation interesting.

    Looking forward to more posts!–
    –Michał

  2. That image of the judge’s wig from behind was nagging it me: what did it remind me of. Then I remembered–it’s one of those electron microscope images of when the sperm attaches to the egg! Freudian subtext! Or something!

  3. With the previous post, I seem to have a “rears his ugly head” them going on. Inadvertently.

    Thanks, Michal!

    I think an emphasis on hands may be inevitable in a thriller, espcially if you have a montage-based style, using many closeups, like Hitch. But as a fat man, Hitch may well have been more familiar with his hands than with most of the rest of his body, which would have been largely eclipsed. However, this did not stop him focussing on feet fairly often, notably the opening of Strangers on a Train.

    Did they have electron microscopes back then? Even if so, I doubt Hitch would have seen the moment of fertilisation through one. But now I know why the wig reminded me of the planetoid in Eraserhead.

  4. I was happy to discover today that The Lodger is to be released as a single (as opposed to buying the recent boxed set) sometime during the month upcoming. I saw a clip of it on the British Silent Film documentary that accompanies the Kino Cottage On Dartmoor DVD released early last year, and it looked tantalizing, I’m dying to see it. Yes, that wig has a weirdly organic, woolly look, and strangely penile as well. My first glimpse had me thinking, What the hell is that?

  5. This Hitchcock series is turning out to be very interesting indeed. (Looking forward to later in the year when you come to some that I’ve actually seen…)

  6. The wig shot made me tnink about Joe Dante’s “Gremlins”: remember how the woolly embryos grew and grew there? It’s to be found here, wait for 1:07

    http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=5wmwjqnkS0A

    Some kind of Freudian thing, possibly (warm, muffy, expanding surface).

  7. They’re ALL rather rewarding to watch, I’m finding. As early as The Pleasure Garden he was clearly very organised and coherent in his storytelling, and you could see how sex, violence and voyeurism excited him more than the rest of the narrative.

    With The Lodger, having been allowed to choose his own subject, he’s totally engaged in the story all the time. The ending still feels compromised, but interestingly so.

    These last two are studio assignments, but they show Hitch expanding and developing his technique. The wig shot is lovely — I always like characters entering frame in unusual ways, as viewers of my own films can see.

    From next week, owners of the Early Hitchcock box set will be able to watch-along. And in about a month, it’ll be time for Blackmail, with The Man Who Knew Too Much about a month later, and then The Thirty Nine Steps in mid-May. Not long!

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