Archive for October 28, 2009

Halloween Film Club: Sick Building Syndrome

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2009 by dcairns

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The revelation in watching THE HAUNTING for me this time was that while Robert Wise’s filmmaking still holds up, and there’s a lot to say about that, the things that popped out most in the screenplay were the tin-eared blunders. Nelson Gidding (THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM) has done a good job compressing the incidents and realigning the characters from Shirley Jackson’s uncanny classic The Haunting of Hill House (wherein, for instance, Eleanor is attracted not to the investigating doctor but to the spoiled heir), on a structural level, but he really doesn’t have anything like the prose style or ear for dialogue he needs. Here’s Jackson’s opening –

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Feel the goosebumps? Gidding has given the job of transferring Jackson’s intro and history lesson into the voice of Dr. Markway (Richard Johnson), which means jettisoning some of the flourishes and sometimes injecting an unwelcome note of jocularity which is one of Markway’s least appealing traits ~

An evil old house, the kind some people call haunted, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored. Hill House had stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more. Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there… walked alone.

That first sentence, I think, does little but deaden the overall effect, whereas Jackson’s abrupt change of direction between sentence 1 and 2 is deliciously jolting. After the credits (simple sans-serif font, with a big spooky production number for the main title — why?) Then the narration continues, with Wise providing spectacular visual accompaniment — absolutely gorgeous cinematography by Davis Boulton, whose career seems otherwise quaintly undistinguished: I like CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED, but IT! and SONG OF NORWAY?

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Bad stuff in the VO: there’s no equivalent in Jackson’s book for the awful phrase “big tree,” which sounds comically awkward even with Richard Johnson’s manly tones behind it, although Jackson is responsible for the equally uncomfortable “ah, lifeless, I believe is the phrase they use,” and she also gave us the name of the builder of Hill House — Hugh Crain. Sounds like Ukraine, not good. Gidding changed many of the character names, aimlessly (Vance becomes Lance, Montague becomes Markway) but saw fit to leave that one. And we learned he “died in a drowning accident,” a horrendously clunky phrase.

Great stuff in the visuals: the slow lap dissolve transformation from childhood to senescence:

vlcsnap-790610vlcsnap-790720vlcsnap-790787Think about this too much, and it’s the scariest thing in the film.

And all those ANGLES. Wise asked Panavision if they had a good wide-angle lens. They said they were working on one, but had rejected all their prototypes so far because they caused too much distortion. “Perfect!” said Wise, “That’s just what I want.” “No no no,” advised Panavision, “We really think these are a bit more distorted than you’d like.” “I assure you that’s impossible,” stressed Wise. Panavision were insistent. They were really embarrassed by these warped bottle-bottom things. In the end, Wise had to sign lots of documents promising he wouldn’t sue Panavision for sending him funhouse lenses.

vlcsnap-797819The convex mirror is one of Wise’s little jokes about his unconventional lens kit.

Emerging from this sensational, moody tape-slide presentation opening, we get Fay Compton (Emilia in Welles’ OTHELLO), one of my favourite old ladies, although she does say “Ho ho ho!” once too often in this scene. And here we meet Richard Johnson, a bluff, plummy actor who can do solemn without getting sepulchral. An actor friend of Fiona’s attests that Mr Johnson, who is still extant, greets old acquaintances with a loud cry of “Who’re you fucking?” It’s a lovely image.

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Johnson, as anthropologist Markway, is off on a ghost-hunting jaunt, and is forced to take Compton’s delinquent young nephew along — Russ Tamblyn, imported by Wise from WEST SIDE STORY. Tamblyn’s legendary physical prowess will come in handy on a couple of occasions: a very intelligent actor who thinks with his body.

Now comes the plunge into despair as we meet Eleanor (Julie Harris), the deeply unhappy protagonist who is the key element in this film that could not exist without Shirley Jackson’s imagination. In researching haunted houses, Jackson tells us that she discovered a book by some parapsychologists investigating an old house, and the accounts of spookiness they recorded were unmistakably, to her modern mind, the products of their own neuroses. Eleanor is Jackson’s tool for unleashing the horrors of Hill House — if we take this little behind-the-scenes tale at face value we have to accept that there are no ghosts, only the demons that haunt Eleanor, manifesting through her latent telekinesis.

Eleanor’s horrible home life is sketched in economically, but still feels unbelievably oppressive, which may be a result of all that damn internal monologuing she does. Not my favourite movie device, but it works well here, draping a curtain of gloom over the events and reminding us of the story’s interior nature.

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This movie always seems to get away with being shot in Britain, dragged up as America, rather lightly. The street scenes are less than fully convincing, and then the housekeepers, Valentine Dyall with his ludicrous attempt at a New England accent by way of Kentucky, and Rosalie Crutchley who’s just English. Hill House itself is English, and now a hotel, real name Ettrington Park (anybody stayed there?).

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Hill House — the exteriors are mainly shot on infra-red stock, so the sky is black and clouds are white, giving the whole image a strange feeling. As Jackson puts it ~

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. Almost any house, caught unexpectedly or at an odd angle, can turn a deeply humorous look on a watching person; even a mischievous little chimney, or a dormer like a dimple, can catch up a beholder with a sense of fellowship; but a house arrogant and hating, never off guard, can only be evil. This house, which seemed somehow to have formed itself, flying together into its own powerful pattern under the hands of its builders, fitting itself into its own construction of lines and angles, reared its great head back against the sky without concession to humanity.

Wise’s chief tool to create an equivalent in images to Jackson’s anthropomorphism is his editing, and to facilitate the work of invocation he has furnished himself with many many angles. Wise was an editor (CAT PEOPLE and CITIZEN KANE of course, but also THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, our first Film Club film) before he was a director, and the trait that lifts his best work out of the journeyman class, it seems to me, is his mastery of visual rhythm. The gunshot at the end of WEST SIDE STORY is a great example. Here, although Eleanor’s VO cues a lot of the eerie sensations, it’s the multiple shots of watching windows and statuary that confirms to us her impression that the house is alive and maleficent.

Fiona points out that as soon as Eleanor enters, we see her reflected in the floorboards (a beautiful shot) and in a decaying mirror, “as if she’s already being absorbed into the house.”

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Theo! The last of our adventurers. Claire Bloom adds to the insistent Englishness of the thing, but her character is so enticingly exotic that her country of origin counts for naught. A mindreader AND a lesbian, as she keeps frantically signalling to us, Theo is not so much a telepath as an empath, like Persis Khambatta in Wise’s later plunge into turgidity, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. And she uses her powers for evil: what IS it with Theo? She’s constantly noising up poor Eleanor, then running after her to make friends. Needy bitch. It’s as if Gidding has decided that lesbians are inherently alien and nothing they do makes sense, so he can just have her blow hot and cold at random and call it characterisation. Bloom doesn’t seem to have any particular interpretation in mind, she just plays it dead casual and chic in her Mary Quant (pre-mini-skirt) costumes. One can’t help but enjoy her.

(At the wonderfully obsessive eleanor-lance.com, the theory is put forward that Theo has a crush on Eleanor, and so her bitchy reactions would be triggered any time she sees Eleanor getting too cosy with Markway. I guess I always discounted this because the chic Theo doesn’t have much cause to be enticed by this dowdy spinster type, but I suspect it’s the correct interpretation.)

The remainder of the film, now that we’re in situ, can be divided into set-pieces and pontification, held together by Eleanor’s slow decline into madness. Julie Harris is Hollywood’s idea of a plain jane, and she’s quite affecting. She has that pale mole along from the corner of her mouth that always looks like a teardrop. And she gets that terrifying line about sleeping on her side to wear her heart out quicker. If Gidding invented that then I forgive him everything and prostrate myself at his feet.

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Something at the door! A symphony of sound effects, and the starting-point for Polanski’s great REPULSION. I have a hard job choosing a favourite between the Wise and the Polanski, both of which seem heavily flawed in ways that don’t matter, and deeply great in ways that do.

Again, Wise covers the scene with a zillion angles, trying his damnedest to always pop out of a different door and surprise us, hardly ever repeating a  shot. His crew must have thought him crazy. If he was shooting this for Lewton he’d have to do it in about eight set-ups. Compared with anything in CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE or THE BODY SNATCHER, THE HAUNTING has big-movie gigantism alright, but the guiding intelligence is so shrewd that the lumber of epic bloat is dispelled: it’s a graceful colossus.

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“Whose hand was I holding?” Another great set-piece, with astonishing sound and the world’s most sinister wallpaper. What are the great wallpaper movies? Anybody want to try a Top Ten?

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Then Miss Moneypenny turns up. Lois Maxwell was one of these Americans who came to live in England and scooped up tons of work whenever an accent was required. Like William Sylvester in a skirt. Inserting a new character at this point, one whose existence has been established but not revealed to Eleanor, adds new energy, dashes Eleanor’s romantic dreams, and accelerates us into the climax, with Mrs Markway vanishing and Eleanor starting to act very strangely indeed. The balancing act required here is prodigious: if Eleanor goes utterly irrational, no amount of VO will help us stay with her, and if she stays rational, there’s no movie. And if the other characters become too distant and unsympathetic, that will hurt the plausibility, but they must seem a bit distant if we’re to feel Eleanor’s alienation. I think the movie manages this well.

The drama of the swaying spiral staircase is pretty tense, and I wonder if Wise has been looking at THE RED SHOES — those fast tracks of Julie Harris’ feet running, and the spiralling journey up the stairs… plus the idea of a heroine pulled along by forces beyond her control.

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Fiona is very anxious I should talk about THE SOUND. Uncredited electronics wiz Desmond Briscoe seems to be a key name here. A founder of the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Briscoe is no doubt responsible for the very odd resonant poundings, and maybe some of those other, less identifiable noises. I seriously dig the weird mumbling prayers, with their mis-stressed phrases, that perfectly catch the sense of hearing something without being able to hear it — a psychological phenomenon that’s very hard to reproduce in a movie soundtrack, where something is either audible or not. Interestingly, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, an inferior but nonetheless enjoyable spook-house melodrama which is majorly indebted to this one, features a score by Delia Derbyshire, another Radiophonic alumnus (who wove the electronic tonalities of the classic Dr Who theme tune).

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In cinema, which exploits only two of our five (or is it more?) senses, anything which is not visible must be audible — unless it’s implied by what happens when you’re not looking. In Hill House, where doors close unaided, but only when unobserved, the unseen presence is constantly evoked by the restless camera and the shifting of camera angles, which prevents us getting orientated. Apart from big features like staircases, we never have any sense of the shape of a room, and even size seems unreliable. While Alexander Mackendrick built a house for THE LADYKILLERS (scored by yet another Radiophonics man, Tristram Carey) without a single right angle or true vertical, Wise and his designers creates more a sense of vast space, populated by a bewildering variety of animate mirrors, statues, and pictures. Accelerating the pace of cutting when we least expect it, he keeps us on our toes by forcing us to reorient ourselves with each fresh angle. One shot, an ECU on the eye of a cooked fish (a pun on those warped lenses?) always throws me completely.

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The End. The idea of Eleanor joining the spirits in the house seems like a big influence on THE SHINING, while the other idea, that the house was not actually haunted until now, is bleaker. Rephrasing the VO from the beginning and giving it to Eleanor (making this another entry in the series of films, beginning with SUNSET BOULEVARD and continuing through THE SEVENTH CROSS to AMERICAN BEAUTY, to be narrated by the dead) is a lovely idea, although once again the screenplay fumbles the correct sense of things — “and we who walk here, walk alone.” The pluralisation makes nonsense of the aloneness. As Joel McCrea protests in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, “How can I be alone if you’re with me?”

The System

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2009 by dcairns

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The official story is that Hitchcock, under contract to Paramount, somehow felt that he hadn’t given Warner Bros full satisfaction during his time there, and made THE WRONG MAN for them for free as a sort of parting gift. I have a hard time swallowing that. If Hitch worked for nothing, it must have been because he really wanted to make the film, and he made it at Warners because the story, a true crime narrative “torn from the headlines,” was their property. Fortunately, he was able to take his team with him, including Bernard Herrmann and Robert Burks, as well as Vera Miles, whom he had used on TV and was grooming for stardom.

Sidebar — the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents starring Miles, a grim little number called Revenge, also featuring the mighty Ralph Meeker, is a plainly-told little masterpiece of horror, serving as an illustration of the old adage, “He who seeks revenge should first dig two graves.” In both Revenge and THE WRONG MAN, Vera Miles suffers a breakdown, presented in a harrowing but realistic and un-showy fashion. But ultimately Revenge is a yarn, what Hitch called “an old-fashioned plot,” even if it ends in such a dark place that Hitch, appearing at the end to sum up, is forced to drop all his lugubrious jocularity and more or less apologise for subjecting us to this ordeal.

Hitch shot, but did not use, a cameo appearance for THE WRONG MAN, electing instead to introduce it personally, something he had just started doing on TV. But the High Expressionism of Robert Burks opening frame prepares us for a very different kind of Hitch — the shadow that elongates towards us is quite different from the chubby profile on NBC — and this has a more powerful effect than what Hitch is telling us: his lines about this being a very different kind of suspense thriller seem more like a showman’s come-on than adequate warning of the Bressonian blackjack we’re about to get slugged with.

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In THE WRONG MAN, Miles’s depression is triggered by her husband’s arrest for a series of neighbourhood stick-ups (he bears a chance resemblance to the real criminal). Fate conspires to rob him of a demonstrable alibi, and a chain of circumstantial evidence sends him clanking through the machinery of the justice system like an animal on its way to slaughter. The narrative proceeds with the deliberate, chilling pace of a conveyor belt. When Hitch films the police van conveying Fonda to court, it’s under a vast iron bridge, the world cut into mechanical pieces by the shadows of the girders. It suggests prison bars, but even more it calls to mind some vast unfeeling apparatus — and this is the film’s subject.

Fonda’s arrest is notably Kafkaesque: the cops drive him from one neighbourhood store to another, instructing him to enter, alone, walk the length of the store, and then exit. He does so, his perplexity and fear stamping him as suspicious from the moment he appears.

The cops are at once decent, unsensationalized professionals, and immensely cruel. Hitch does not criticize the authorities in anything anyone says, but we notice that Fonda doesn’t get his phone call, isn’t read his rights, and is deliberately thrown off-balance by the detectives, who obviously hope to make him crack. Fonda is such a good citizen that he goes meekly with them from his own doorstep, rather than insisting on telling his wife what’s happened (he hasn’t been formally arrested yet, so there’s nothing official to stop him doing as he pleases).

Hitch apparently found the real-life Manny Balestrero rather undramatic as a character — the man could not express to Hitch what his experiences felt like. I can see how in reality this would have made Balestrero’s plight worse: an inexpressive, emotionally inarticulate man would have had trouble both convincing the cops of his innocence, and reassuring his worried wife. It hardly matters in the movie — Hitch is recreating his own primal scene in its purest form — the terror of inexplicable arrest by the authorities. (Supermodel Jinks Falkenberg and her husband once pranked Hitch by sending a cop to ask for him — never mess with peoples’ phobias! This shit is serious.)

To solve the problem of dramatizing an undramatic man, Hitch worked with semi-regular collaborator Angus MacPhail (perhaps the originator of the term “MacGuffin”) and famed playwright Maxwell Anderson. The low-key but quietly passionate character devised for Fonda suits his performance style perfectly. And Hitch had always wanted to work with Fonda, I think he’s one of the few stars mentioned in Hitch’s 1930s essay, written upon his departure for Hollywood, that he actually got to direct. Gary Cooper and William Powell always eluded him.

bmailFirst arrest: 1929.

We’ve seen the arrest procedure before, in BLACKMAIL. But there, the hero was a cop and the suspect a thuggish career criminal, well-used to imprisonment. In Hitch’s original ending, we would have seen the process repeated with heroine Anny Ondra, which would have been powerful stuff. But being thrown into the strange rituals of confinement and judgement, seeing it through the eyes of our blameless hero (loving husband, brilliant father), with the most insistent use of extreme POV shots in all Hitchcock, that’s something else.

A witness places her hand on Fonda’s shoulder to identify him, and we see the shoulder as if from Fonda’s own eyes.

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As the cops drive Fonda around, we see his POV looking past each of them in turn, left, right, straight ahead, as the free world speeds past, unreachable, outside. Amusingly, this sequence was ripped off with perfect precision by Freddie Francis in THE SKULL: substitute Peter Cushing for Henry Fonda. Of course the effect is different: context is everything in the Hitchcock. The fear we feel (and this film is more genuinely uncomfortable and frightening than anything Hitch had made to date) is all to do with where we are in the story and how we feel about the characters.

In his little cell, Fonda looks around, and we get a succession of banal objects: a wash-basin; the corner of the ceiling — and the simplicity and solidity of everything is hellishly oppressive. Hitch then produces one of his few outright flourishes, a spinning camera that causes Fonda’s head to gyrate giddily about the frame: things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

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Some, like official biographer John Russell Taylor, have remarked on the incongruity of Hitch, who declared “Some make slices of life; I make slices of cake,” doing a substantially location-set (the real Stork Club), documentarist piece of social realism. But there’s nothing incongruous about the experience of watching the film, since it all works so well. The few obvious directorial flourishes are well-chosen and are complimented by a wealth of intelligent detail that doesn’t draw attention to itself. And the whole thing aims at a psychological effect rather than a social one. If Hitch uses a real place or a convincing replica, he does it not to show us what something looks like, but to inflict upon us the emotional impact of the real thing. And it’s all focussed through the central character, who acts as a kind of lens for Hitch’s personal terror, which is thus beamed into the viewer at concentrated strength.

Balestrero’s job as bull fiddle player motivates the jazz-inflected score, which uses sparse instrumentation to create memorable soundscapes of slow anxiety. As always with Hitch, there’s some kind of motif at work, something woven into the narrative, although here it’s a lot more elusive than the two compositions that play key plot roles in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. When we first see Vera Miles with her husband, she says, “Sometimes I’m so frightened waiting for you to come home at night,” — and this is the first hint we get that she is more than normally insecure. The moment is underscored by a series of soft chimes, played on a triangle, which come out of nowhere and initially suggest a carriage clock or a musical doorbell, something diegetic, but are then joined by the double bass and sax. The chimes return later, only once, when Miles loses her mind and strikes her husband with a hairbrush. She retreats to a distant chair and murmurs, “It’s true, Manny, there is something wrong with me. You’ll have to let them put me somewhere.”

Ting. Ting. Ting. Ting.

The effect is chilling because it happens so utterly on cue and thus suddenly seems mechanical — this happens, so you hear this sound — part of the overall impersonal forces pushing Manny towards imprisonment and destruction.

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Fiona: “Was this film a terrible flop?”

Me: “It sure was.”

Nevertheless it’s profoundly impressive.

As hairy script guru Phil Parker is always saying, injustice is such a powerful event in our lives from childhood on (“When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair!’ the child can be trusted.” ~ A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS) that it makes a powerful narrative hook. Hitch’s previous nightmare scenarios don’t exploit this as fully as TWM, because in the chase film the unjust suspicions of the authorities are mainly a spur for the character and plot, driving us along to the next situation and preventing the interference of reinforcements. In THE WRONG MAN we get Hitchcock with the mask of entertainer removed, and the story is this: even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayer at night may be crushed by the impersonal forces of the world he lives in.

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When Fonda prays, and the real culprit appears before us and is apprehended by heroic storekeepers (how we cheer these plucky citizens!), Hitch pulls off a remarkable coup, foregrounding his Catholicism via a magnificent lengthy dissolve that literally supplants Fonda’s face with that of the actual stick-up artist (this is Hitch’s most Bergmanesque movie!) It’s presented as a miracle, and the beauty of the transition reinforces that. but, unbearably, when Fonda goes to tell Miles that he’s finally a free man, she’s too sunk in depression for it to mean anything. “I was hoping for a miracle,” admits Fonda, ruefully. He’s already had one.

Mental illness, by the way, is something movies nearly always get wrong, if what you’re looking for is either clinical accuracy or emotional insight. There are valid approaches to any subject that are not realistic ones, but most movies have a hard time being even truthful here, and too often demonize the mentally ill in a way that would be considered unacceptable with any other minority. So I applaud THE WRONG MAN’s portrayal of a mostly quiet, desperate slide into confusion and misery, which feels absolutely authentic and beautifully observed. Hitchcock filmed in a real psychiatric hospital with real staff (a rather nice-looking one) and, although the doctor’s description of Miles’ complaint is overly poetic and general, it’s not the dollar-book Freud of PSYCHO.

THE WRONG MAN is a tough watch — maybe the only Hitchcock film to attain this status through strengths rather than weaknesses. It’s intended to be hard on the viewer. All that stuff about it being Hitchcock’s most Catholic film — possibly true, but not an observation that’s necessary to in some way justify the film’s existence, which it sometimes seems to be used for. All that stuff about the oddness of Hitch doing realism — this is psychological realism. This is pure Hitchcock. And it’s a stone-cold masterpiece.

wrong8Mr Right Meets Mr Wrong.

UK buyers: Hitchcock DVD Collection – Dial M For Murder / I Confess / Stage Fright / The Wrong Man / Strangers On A Train / North By Northwest

US buyers: TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Hitchcock Thrillers (Suspicion / Strangers on a Train / The Wrong Man / I Confess)

En Route

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

strange1wrongxRomance with a double bass: Hitch in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, Fonda in THE WRONG MAN.

My Hitchcock Year entry is on it’s way, don’t worry. THE WRONG MAN is number ten in the countdown to the end — think of that as you plan your Christmas shopping. And from here on, the gaps between Hitchcock films start to get longer. Speculations as to an overall reason for this are welcome, but the answer likely lies as much in the contingencies of Hollywood production in the crisis times of the sixties, as it does in Hitch’s advancing years.

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