Archive for March 18, 2009

Front Page Human

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , on March 18, 2009 by dcairns

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The new issue of The Believer also features, asides from my own windy mumblings, a piece by my chum B. Kite (a sort of astral colossus made visible by special lenses) about Michael Curtiz. This is another good reason for everybody to rush to their local vending robot and buy a copy, since Curtiz doesn’t always get the credit or consideration he deserves, and B. Kite can consider like nobody’s business. In particular, he’s respectful of the Great Hungarian’s formal qualities, and since it was B. Kite who first taught me the value of swinging a wrecking ball through that imaginary and egregious divide between form and content, he is the very man to raise our awareness of Curtiz, a fellow who is concerned less with thematic ideas than with visceral and visual ones — and is none the worse for it.

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A Knight at the Circus

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Theatre on March 18, 2009 by dcairns

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There are a couple more Ozu-like frontal compositions in MURDER! But Hitchcock would not have seen any Ozu at this point, and his characters don’t look QUITE into the lens.

After JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK, which was well-received but “had nothing to do with the cinema,” as Hitch saw it, he embarked on a more typical project — in a way. Although MURDER! is a crime story (based on a book and play, Enter Sir John, by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, who also wrote the source novel for UNDER CAPRICORN, and provided dialogue for SABOTAGE) whose new and criminous title may have been chosen to remind audiences of BLACKMAIL, the piece is a departure for Hitchcock in that it’s a whodunnit.

Hitch would later declare that whodunnits make poor screen stories because they trade in puzzle-solving rather than emotion. It strikes me that, perhaps for this reason, the most successful movie mysteries have often been comedies, with Rene Clair’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE perhaps the best of the bunch, and one of his best films. The emotional distance required to laugh can combine well with that of the murder mystery, a form which deals with death as an intellectual problem, is uncomfortable with bereavement, and reduces the concept of justice to a formal element.

But perhaps the problem of MURDER! (which has considerable comedy relief) is that it’s not a very good whodunnit. The solution to the mystery isn’t very surprising or interesting, unlike in the best locked-room mysteries (and this is very loosely one of those), and although the amateur detective character, a knighted actor-playwright, is an interesting idea for a central character, he doesn’t play out onscreen as being that unique or eccentric or stimulating.

Maybe the problem is in the screenwriting (by Hitch, Alma and Walter Mycroft, whose other Hitchcock credits, ELSTREE CALLING and CHAMPAGNE, are not very distinguished entries) or maybe the original book was weak — I haven’t read it. But although in 1930 many of the classics of the detective genre had not yet been written, there must have been stronger stories than this.

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The film begins strikingly well, with the camera gliding by an expressionistic tenement, as faces appear at windows in response to a scream. And seconds later we are introduced to another of the film’s visual motifs, which I shall call the Guy Grand moments.

The best bit in Terry Southern’s novel The Magic Christian (apart from, perhaps, the bit where a pygmie is installed as head of a Madison Avenue ad egency) is the sequence detailing eccentric millionaire Grand’s adventures in cinema. The compulsive practical joker (a quality Hitch shared) opens a cinema where he shows classic films, slightly modified. Additional shots, carefully matched to the surrounding footage, add dissonant elements to the familiar stories. In particular, a cutaway shot added into William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, showing amputee Homer’s hooks clawing at Cathy o’Donnell’s underwear, appearing very briefly and then never referred back to, would hover in the audience’s mind — they couldn’t be sure they saw it, and yet, there it was, however briefly…

MURDER! has several insert shots worthy of Guy Grand, and yet they’re all the work of Hitchcock. Sometime’s the Master’s effects don’t quite come off, or sometimes they do, but are still so strange they feel like they’ve been inserted into the action by some rogue prankster. Of course, Hitchcock had quite a streak of sadistic humour in him.

The first Guy Grand Moments come in quick succession, as a voice mumbles mushily offscreen. Then a hand takes a set of false teeth from a glass, and the voice becomes clear at once. Since the teeth belong to a major character who’s still relatively young, the gag is a surprising one to modern eyes. Hitch then focuses for an unusually long time on a character attempting to get dressed under her nightgown, pulling her garments on without appearing nude before her husband. A closeup of her accidentally putting both feet into the same leg-hole of her bloomers is derived from an incident involving Hitch’s mother, which he witnessed in his youth. The effect again is slightly discombobulating — you don’t expect a film from 1930 to pay such close  attention to knicker-donning.

Jumping ahead to the finest example of the GGM — our toothless tritagonist enters the plush offices of Sir John (Herbert Marshall in his first talking role) and struggles somewhat with the incredibly deep shag carpet —

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This beautifully wrong shot is twice as good in context, because the character’s speed and general gait in the wide shot in no way match his laborious yet strangely weightless plod in the insert. Hitch apparently placed a mattress under the rug to get an exaggerated effect — but it’s too exaggerated by far. I’m reminded slightly of the painted docklands of MARNIE, an attempt to capture the surreal quality of ships seen rising from behind buildings. It always struck me that the best way to capture that unreality would be to photograph it for real. It seems that just occasionally Hitchcock overplays an idea until it pops out of the film like a throbbing celluloid thumb.

Meanwhile, the movie is experiencing structural problems. By starting with the murder itself, Hitch creates drama and scores some impressive visuals, tracking restlessly from one room to another while some minor characters prepare tea and gossip about the crime, in which one actress has apparently bludgeoned another to death (an all-too probable event). Donald Spoto justifiably observes that this prolonged shot, sliding through walls as if observing a doll’s house, prefigures UNDER CAPRICORN. From here we go to the theatre, where the police attempt to interrogate the cast of a play in mid-performance. These are good, lively scenes, but they don’t involve our hero, Sir John.

By the time Sir John turns up, as a juror in the murder case, act one should be almost over, but it hasn’t started. Sir John attempts to sway his jurors, in a miniature version of TWELVE ANGRY MEN, but makes a weak case, and is shouted down in a musically arranged bit of dialogue that fringes on operetta — a sound experiment that didn’t quite catch on. But Hitch’s decision to stay in the jury room as the jurors file out and give their verdict offscreen, as a janitor cleans up and filches a cigarette butt, is inspired.

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Herbert Marshall, top. Alfred Abel in Hitchcock’s German version, MARY, bottom.

Shaving in front of his bathroom mirror, while listening to Wagner on the radio, Marshall indulges in talking cinema’s first internal monologue — all recorded in one, with a full orchestra off-camera to play the music, and a record of Marshall’s speech playing on a gramophone for him to react to. No sound mixing was possible in 1930, so everything had to be recorded at once. The music actually drowns Marshall out for much of the scene, a fault that was corrected in the German version of the movie.

The plot here shows promise: motivated by a colossal case of esprit d’escalier — regret for what he should have said — Sir John decides to investigate for himself and prove the convicted girl’s innocence. This pleasing idea is marred somewhat by the fact that Sir John knows the girl, which should have disbarred him from serving on her jury. The contrivance was presumably necessary to shoehorn a little romance in later, but I think they could have done without it.

The investigative part of the film involves plenty of comic relief, and not much interesting detection. More intriguing are the many ways in which theatre and life are intermingled in the story. The crime was committed by a performer using disguise and acrobatics. One scene is staged to look like reality before being revealed to be a play, and another is staged to look like a play before being revealed as reality. Actress Norah Baring, from A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR, plays actress Diana Baring. And in a retread of Hamlet, Sir John attempts to trap the true culprit by having him act in a play modelled on his own crime.

Incidentally, the killer (everybody reviewing the film gives away his identity, but I’m not going to) is unmasked at the end of act II, if it makes sense to speak of acts in this slightly lumpy narrative, so that the whodunnit aspect of the film is minimized as much as possible. The whole last section is devoted to several attempts to get evidence against the culprit, whose identity is already known. This leads to the circus climax, another example of life and showbusiness merging together. John’s scheme plays on the guilty party’s mind so much than, in a less-than-typically successful Hitchcock subjective effect, a photograph of Norah Baring hovers before the killer’s eyes —

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The last of the Guy Grand Moments.

Since not much detection has to be done to arrive at the not very ingenious solution to the case (hinging on some interesting but unexplored social attitudes of the day), Hitchcock fills the time with comic relief, the first example of him taking this approach in a thriller. In particular, a long scene where Herbert Marshall, having lodged in a working-class domicile as part of his investigation, is crawled over by small children and kittens, as a positively nubile Una O’Connor screeches in the background. And it’s here I made the most fascinating discovery, one I haven’t heard referred to before, possibly because O’Connor’s voice is almost above the range of hearing. Warning one of her brood to behave, she threatens, “..or I’ll take you down the police station.” Is this the earliest reference to the origins of Hitchcock’s legendary fear of policemen?

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