The Sunday Intertitle: Rats

My main purpose here is to alert anyone who still needs alerting to the great event of the film blogging calendar, For The Love of Film, the film preservation blogathon, hosyed by Ferdy on Film, This Island Rod and the Self-Styled Siren.

You’ll find a wealth of reading material via these sites, but don’t forget the purpose of the thing — donate! (By clicking on this thing below.)

We raise money, we get a free streaming version of THE WHITE SHADOW, scripted by Alfred Hitchcock, directed by Graham Cutts, and we get an original score to go with it.

Graham Cutts was one of the annoying lesser minds Hitchcock banged up against during his early years, a company which also included several producers and studio heads. And that’s how he is chiefly remembered. Hitch and Alma attempted to direct THE WHITE SHADOW by remote control, pointing out shots to the director, helping him along but also incurring his resentment.

Still, Cutts did enjoy some success apart from Hitch, most of it via the series of films he directed with Ivor Novello — THE RAT, TRIUMPH OF THE RAT and RETURN OF THE RAT. Novello, apart from his charming songs, is best remembered today for THE LODGER, Hitch’s first real thriller, hit, minor masterpiece. He was a heart-throb and matinee idol, and although Hitch was prevented from casting him as a serial killer, he tended to write bad-boy roles for himself, albeit with a last-reel redemption — in this sense, the ultimate revelation of his innocence in THE LODGER is quite in keeping with the kind of role he was associated with.

In THE RAT, Novello plays a Montmartre cat burglar entrusted with his devoted young ward daughter Odile (Mae Marsh), who falls in love with sophisticated rich lady Zelie de Chaumet (Isabel Jeans). The Rat finds himself in over his head, especially as his young ward faces a murder rap. Finding in himself a strange form of gallantry, he confesses to the crime — now only Zelie can save him.

Cutts serves this up with a cinematic flair which puts the lie to Hitch and Alma’s claim that he was visually illiterate — unless he had someone else in Hitch’s place, helping him along, this time.

THE RAT is a corking melodrama, and it not only merited two sequels but a remake in 1937. By then, Novello was out of movies for good, his strong Welsh valleys accent apparently considered unsuitable — in his few talkies, he tends to be cast as Eastern European or otherwise foreign, in hopes that his unfamiliar yet musical delivery could be disguised as exotic (not that I’m saying Wales is NOT exotic, you understand. Heaven forbid). So the role went to (drum roll)… Anton Walbrook, a true exotic.

Doesn’t this image make you very happy and excited? It does me.

Adding to the excitement, Odile is played waif specialist Rene Ray from THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK (who also wrote THE STRANGE WORLD OF PLANET X, intriguingly) and Zelie is embodied by Ruth Chatterton, visiting Britain as part of her downward career spiral. All three actors are ideally cast and excellent, and if director Jack Raymond doesn’t have quite the expressionist chops to paint a really memorable Montmartre demi-monde, he doesn’t do badly.

THE RAT is a fun character, though perhaps not suited to sequels (how many times CAN you be redeemed?) — really, there should have been a Hammer remake in the fifties, and maybe a Woodfall one in the ‘sixties in the wake of TOM JONES. Instead, British cinema dropped the ball and this character has fallen into disuse, slipping out of the public memory until there’s no longer any commercial value in bringing him back. Alas for The Rat!

The silent RAT has one thing the talkie inexplicably omits — a bar called The White Coffin, where all the doorways are coffin-shaped and all the floozies carry a torch for Novello. 

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16 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Rats”

  1. David Boxwell Says:

    One enters the White Coffin alongside a remarkably mobile and fluid camera, a la GOODFELLAS (91).

  2. Yes, lovely, isn’t it? A time-honoured technique to create a subjective effect of arriving and being overwhelmed by the exciting stimuli of the joint.

  3. “The White Coffin” is a lot livelier than “The Blue Parrot”

  4. The set in the Walbrook one is plenty atmospheric, but it lacks the funeral theme. But the floorshow is a Walbrook knife-fight, which has its compensations.

  5. [...] bit of Hitch, a little bit of Cutts, and one of silent-era heartthrobs, Ivor Novella. Go see his Sunday Intertitle feature and enjoy! Share [...]

  6. Damn, Anton had that withering supercilious gaze right from the get-go.

  7. Oh, he’s consistent. And he’s already doing that sibilant S and letting his sentences slur out at the ends as if his mechanism were running down. Marvelous.

  8. Hm…I realize you were joking, but I wonder if it IS possible that Cutts had help on the other film? Or was Hitchcock just being waspish, which he was certainly known to do?

    This is wonderful as always and I love that “dance” which is more like an “apache writhe.” Thanks David!

  9. Thank YOU!

    It’s always possible that the director may not be responsible for the best moments in a film: as Welles said, “A good film can be made by the actors, the writer, the cinematographer or the editor. GREAT films are made by the director.” So cinematographer Hal Young, who also worked on The Lodger, may deserve credit here, for instance.

  10. Walbrook’s secret is that he “holds back” the better to push himself forward.

  11. Yes, he’s a wonderful example of underplaying made gigantic.

  12. The ‘White Coffin’ sequence (coffin-shaped doors–what a gimmick!) with the moving camera, particularly the way it moves around the dancing guests, looks quite similar to a dancing sequence in Hitchcock’s ’34 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much – same set-up of a cafe where couples are dancing and the camera moves in and around them (only it’s a much ritzier joint in the ’34 film). It does bring up the question who influenced whom, and/or copied.

  13. I remember reading Truffaut’s Hitchcock book and thinking “Ivor Novello? Pretentious name.” Then I saw The Lodger and later other movies. He was charming. I resented it when someone called him a second-class Noel Coward.

  14. Novello has given his name to a major British music industry award. He wrote insanely popular songs (more pop than Coward) and staged lavish musical spectaculars. Pace Gosford Park, he never sang in them, as his voice went off in adolescence.

    He also had bizarre and interesting sexual habits, picking up gangs of tough street workers. He would lie naked in a glass coffin while they “mourned” him.

    He did make several talkies, including a stilted remake of The Lodger. He makes the Rat very boyish and appealing most of the time, without Walbrook’s louche brutality (“Attractive brute!”)

    It would seem reasonable that Hitch might have absorbed some ideas working with Cutts, providing Cutts had some ideas, as he had a great hunger for cinematic knowledge and he had to get it wherever he could.

  15. This was fun–and I always like to see the word “corking.” Don’t you with all of the blogathonners could meet up at the end of the week at the White Coffin?

  16. It’s a date! I’ll bring the absinthe, you provide the apache dance!

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