Waltz and All

‘When I mentioned to Hitchcock that I’d never seen WALTZES FROM VIENNA, he said, “That’s a good girl. Don’t.”‘

~ Charlotte Chandler, It’s Only a Movie, Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography.

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It’s tempting to regard WALTZES FROM VIENNA, directed by Hitchcock after his relationship with producer John Maxwell at British International Pictures had gone into a decline. According to John Russell Taylor’s authorised bio, Hitch, Maxwell had passed on a screenplay called Bulldog Drummond’s Baby, which Hitchcock had developed with BLACKMAIL’s original author Charles Bennett, with the words, “It’s a masterpiece of cinematics, dear boy, but I’d rather have the £10,000.” The screenplay would be revamped, losing the familiar character of Drummond, and become THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, the film which sparked Hitch’s renaissance.

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Meanwhile, the only offer on the table was a musical-comedy life of Strauss the younger, produced by an independent but umbrellaed by the sizable Gaumont-British. Hitch would always dismiss the film in later years, and was heard to vocally denounce it even while it was in production: “I hate this sort of stuff. Melodrama is the only thing I can do,” a remark overheard and recorded by the film’s star, Esmond Knight.

Yet as Charles Barr points out, melodrama is exactly what WFV is, in the literal sense of being a musical drama. It introduces the idea of a musical leitmotif woven into the story (in this case, the writing of The Blue Danube) which became a favourite Hitchcock device, deployed in both versions of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, as well as THE LADY VANISHES and REAR WINDOW, a film which can be viewed as the story of the composition of its own theme song.

In addition to the composition story, there’s romance, with Knight’s Strauss torn between romance with baker’s daughter Jessie Matthews, who wants him to get a straight job, and an affair with countess Fay Compton, who wishes to nurture his talent and also to cheat on her husband. A further layer of complication is added by Strauss’s fraught relationship with his father, Edmund Gwenn, who feels threatened by his son’s talent.

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Cries and Vosper.

Does any of the film work? Yes, any of it does. But certainly not all of it. The early parts of the film attempt Lubitschian comedy, and despite Hitch’s well-known puckish sense of humour, much of this falls flat. Frank Vosper as the cuckolded husband gets the only laughs, with some beautifully timed physical playing. There’s a heaviness to the story and characterisation that tends to crush the attempts at gaiety. Esmond Knight would be blinded in the war and make a heroic come-back as a character player (riding a donkey through a forest in BLACK NARCISSUS, he declined the use of a stunt double: “The donkey doesn’t want to run into a tree any more than I do!”) but he’s not quite a light comedian yet. Jessie Matthews certainly could be, but her contemporary musicals kept her informal, to counterbalance her highly coached vocal delivery. Here, the costumes and pomp seem to stiffen her, and she gets little comedy to play and surprisingly little to sing. Fay Compton, so moving and natural in Welles’s OTHELLO, years later, is somewhat floaty and somnambular as the Countess, who ought to be a bit flightier, one would have thought.

The pleasure of the film is in little flourishes concocted by Hitchcock, like the naive but fun scene where Strauss conceives his waltz by watching the work in a bakery, and a couple of bold jump-cuts:

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In this one, Hitch achieves an impossible rack-focus into a close-up on the fleeing Jessie Matthews, by the expedient of cutting sharply from blurred to focused.

In another scene change, Hitch tracks in on a rolled-up score clutched by one character, then cuts directly to an identically composed shot of a matching score held in the same way by someone else — then he tracks back, mirroring the earlier track in.

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Hitchcock was without his usual cinematographer, John Cox, on this movie, which may have added to his sense of alienation from the project. Cox wouldn’t return to the fold until THE LADY VANISHES, but Hitch would soon forge a productive collaboration with cameraman Bernard Knowles.

My favourite moment was the ending, which is not intended as a glib dig: I genuinely like the ending. After a rousing performance of his new composition (Hitch’s low-budget version is like a rough sketch for Duvivier’s delirious THE GREAT WALTZ, with both filmmakers cutting to the beat to create visual music), Strauss’s personal problems are wrapped up with a certain amount of effort and contrivance, but Hitchcock leaves the oedipal drama unresolved until the last moment.

Strauss the elder walks disconsolately through the beergarden, scene of his son’s triumph, as the lights are turned out one by one around him. A little girl asks for his autograph. He signs it, “Strauss”, then calls her back and amends it. “Strauss Snr.” He walks on, reconciled to his place, and his son’s place, in history. Not only is it a good piece of Hitchcockian (and Lubitschian) indirect storytelling, it unleashes the wealth of sweetness which Gwenn possesses as an actor, and which his director will not allow him to use fully until THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, twenty years later.

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10 Responses to “Waltz and All”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    Esmond Knight was an inspirational figure for Powell and Pressburger, and Von Trier uses the 77 year-old to great advantage in THE ELEMENT OF CRIME (84).

  2. He’s smashing at the start of Robin and Marian too, as “an old man with only half an eye.”

  3. Knight’s unforgettable in Black Narcissus, even though his part’s a relatively small one, as the Old General, who delivers the crate of sausages to the nuns. “They will eat sausages. Europeans eat sausages wherever they go.” His peacockian raiments are second only to Sabu in the film, he looks resplendent in his turban and beard. He has a much larger role in Jean Renoir’s The River, as business owner, husband and father to many daughters and one son, a role of an entirely different sort, but no less effective. He’s excellent in it.

  4. He’s the member of Powell’s stock company who remains loyal to the end, appearing in The Boy Who Turned Yellow. I enjoy him in Peeping Tom too, playing cantankerous film director “Arthur Baden”. Put Baden together with Powell and you get Baden-Powell, author of “Scouting for Boys”.

  5. Patrick Murtha Says:

    Jack Sullivan has an excellent chapter on this film in his recent book Hitchcock’s Music, which you’re probably aware of and may have referred to in the blog before. He argues strongly for a re-consideration.

  6. Oh, don’t have that one, sounds intriguing. Charles Barr makes a good case for it, not as an important film but as an important step in Hitch’s development. Just picked up some more books from various libraries, which I’ll be drawing from, but the Sullivan sounds like a must.

  7. Patrick Murtha Says:

    It’s a fine book, one of the best Hitchcock books in years and one that covers new ground. Waltzes from Vienna is given the second chapter, after the introduction, so it is a very central film to Sullivan’s overall analysis.

  8. And he’s a music specialist by the look of things, so he offers a fresh perspective. Book is expensive, but I’ll try to get ahold of it.

  9. Patrick Murtha Says:

    When all else fails, use inter-library loan. That’s what I do.

    I will admit that the inter-library loan services at my local library in Appleton, Wisconsin are superb (and free). Here in Northeast Wisconsin, there is also a community card that allows me to borrow books from all the University of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Tech College System libraries in the region. So I function in an optimal, enlightened library environment for sure! And I’m quite grateful for it.

  10. Sounds great! It ought to be possible here also, provided there’s a branch somewhere in the country with the book. And there might not be, as our library services are in sad decline, I think.

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