The Sunday Intertitle: Things I Read Off the Screen in Blackmail

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2015 by dcairns

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Glasgow! With silent film accompanist Jane Gardner, to see BLACKMAIL with live score by Neil Brand, under the baton of Timothy Brock. This was preceded by a special concert of Hitchcock scores — Webb, Rosza, Tiomkin, Waxman and of course Herrmann. It’s quite something to have VERTIGO blasted at you live. As for PSYCHO, a young couple to my left obviously regarded the shower scene as their song: as the violins shrieked, he mimed stabbing her in the back with an invisible knife, to her apparent delight.

Getting there, mind you, was a journey of Hitchcockian suspense — taking the bus to meet Jane we got caught in football traffic (ugh! the worst kind of traffic — even worse than badminton traffic) and arrived late, then scooted off in her Fiat 500, struggling to find a parking spot near the venue and then struggling to find the venue, eventually arrived seconds before the lights dimmed.

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra did us proud, and there was a surprise treat in the form of a theremin for SPELLBOUND — I wasn’t at all sure such a thing would be provided — there are, after all, entire recordings of the SPELLBOUND score without a theremin — some wretched fiddler taking the part, I guess, I haven’t troubled to listen to such abominations. This was a delight.

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Then BLACKMAIL, which I hadn’t seen since Hitchcock Year, Maestro Brand’s score was thrilling, of course — with many playful references to the musical spirit of Hitchcock to come. The most overt was the extract from Gounod’s Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme (I know, I know, he didn’t write it for TV) played when Hitch makes his first true guest appearance. I wondered whether such references would distract me,  but in fact, the playfulness was discrete — it must have taken restraint not to turn the scene where artsy rake Cyril Ritchard waits while Anny Ondra changes into something more comfortable into a straight reprise of the similar scene in VERTIGO.

The score, in fact, worked wonderfully, the proof being that despite the visible presence of the orchestra between us and the screen — Brock’s hands would occasionally rise into the bottom of the frame as he signalled a particularly vigorous moment — for much of the show we forgot the music except as part of the enjoyable experience of watching a story unfold on a screen. A smooth artistic synthesis was achieved!

Hitch’s cameo got me noticing how incredibly well handled all the extras are. The small boy who torments Hitch on the underground ends the scene, having been told off, standing on his seat and simply glowering malevolently at Hitch, like a raven from THE BIRDS. He doesn’t realize that Hitch has a short way of disposing of children on public transport. From then on, I was aware that each individual walk-on character, however crowded the scene, had a bit of personal business to distinguish them, and each performed his role perfectly.

I also started noticing writing. Some of what follows was noted during the show, some found afterwords, perusing the DVD.

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Receiving a radio message — “Flying Squad Van 68 — Proceed at once to Cambri” — the rest is unfinished — the van makes a 180 turn into Looking-Glass Land, where all the shop signs run backwards into a kind of cod-Russian cypher. Evidently nobody had shot a background plate traveling in the right direction, so they simply flipped the film. The store Dollond & Aitchison glimpsed here, is also advertised on the London Underground scene later.

Perhaps due to this confusion, when the Sweeney arrive at their destination, it isn’t Cambridge Street or Place or Circus of Terrace, it’s Albert Street. Perhaps close to Eastenders‘ Albert Square? Certainly in the mysterious East. Less salubrious than Hitch’s native Leytonstone.

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A slew of text inside. The criminal is reading The Daily Herald. An ad for Wrigleys in the bottom corner. Another newspaper lies on his desk, bearing his watch and revolver. We can read a headline about MURDER TRIAL and, at the bottom, the words I’VE FOUND IT! — probably another advertisement. Most amusingly, above the bed is a religious motto, GOD HELPS THOSE WHO HELP THEMSELVES. Ironic, since it seems our friend in the nightshirt has been helping himself a little too freely.

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The note Anny has received proposing a secret assignation ~

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Torn from a cocktail menu, it suggests a whole furtive nocturnal backstory. I like the abbreviated slogan “NIPPY” COCK — a partial directorial signature?

Anny’s despondent walk after she’s killed Ritchard is full of printed cues and clues. For one thing, she passes a poster advertising the climactic fight from THE RING, Hitchcock’s previous film, starring Carl Brisson, Anny’s lover from THE MANXMAN. The fight is staged at the Albert Hall, looking forward to THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH.

A neon sign in Piccadilly Circus, advertising Gordon’s Gin “The Heart of a Good Cocktail” dissolves so that a cocktail shaker outline becomes a hand stabbing with a kitchen knife — a ludicrous idea, but bold, and the call-back to the “nippy” cocktails is appreciated.

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IS PRAYER ANSWERED? A significant question in Hitchcock, directly addressed at the film’s climax, when Ondra apparently prays, and her decision to confess her crime is answered with the death of the blackmailer. See also THE WRONG MAN.

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Ondra’s family newsagent yields a plethora of signage! My eyeballs dart like frightened mice, from one corner of the screen to another to try and catch all the little textual nudges. Alice’s first sight of home is viewed through the reverse side of a shop sign, so we get mirrored lettering AGAIN — Alice is through the looking glass! The earlier accident begins to look deliberate. Confirmed when Alice stares at herself in her dresing table mirror just moments later.

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PICTURE SHOW — lower right. Ah, if only Anny had gone to the pictures with John Longden, we wouldn’t be where we are now. The reference may also remind us of the pieces of art in Ritchard’s sex garret, each of which has an accusatory role in the narrative. One is a laughing, pointing jester, the other is a sketch on canvas signed by Ondra.

When we see the phone booth again, from Longden’s POV, that sign has vanished, in the best ROOM 237 manner. On the left of frame is a possible explanation — a MYSTIC ERASER. Just what Anny needs to obliterate the past 24 hours as neatly as the obliterated her incriminating signature from Ritchard’s canvas.

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The booklets and other props around the phone booth will continue to change randomly throughout the scene, an uncanny peekaboo of discontinuity.

Ondra’s dad, Mr. White, is explicitly framed with a halo reading the word WARLOCK. Not sure why. But the shopkeeper dad is obviously a stand-in for Hitch’s own father, with whom he associated his fear of arrest. So although Mr. White is kindly, Hitch makes him a source of anxiety with this supernatural halo of occult lettering.

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Ondra has mentioned Edgar Wallace earlier — now a poster at floor level refers to Sexton Blake, stalwart hero of schlock thrillers, whose exploits had been printed in the Union Jack since 1894. The threat from ‘D’ (no idea who he is), “If Sexton Blake comes to Yorkshire, I’ll get him!”, gives the blackmailer’s first appearance a further underscore of menace.

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And finally ~

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SHAG (middle left). Obviously a reference to another fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, whose favourite pipe tobacco this was.

Cockleshell Hero

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 25, 2015 by dcairns

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I like to think that some Americans, and other friendly foreigners, seeing LOCAL HERO and loving it as most everyone seems to, wonder “Who is THIS guy?” when they see Fulton McKay as the aged beachcomber, the stumbling block in the plans of Burt Lancaster’s oil consortium (represented by Peter Riegert) to buy up the coastline of a quaint Scottish island.

Knowing a bit about writer-director Bill Forsyth’s methods, I see McKay’s old Ben as a particularly successful bit of writing. Forsyth loves character and dialogue and rather despises plot. Ben, by bringing the plot to an impasse which necessitates negotiation, forces talk to happen. And because Ben isn’t interested in negotiating, he keeps changing the subject. His digressions have dramatic value since they’re stopping the protagonist achieving his task, but through them Forsyth can enjoy what he’s really interested in, which is the talk itself.

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To British audiences, McKay was a familiar figure for one key role, though his career, in television particularly, was extensive. But it’s as McKay (pronounced Mick-EYE) in the TV show Porridge that he made his big impression. McKay was a tough, sardonic prison warden, the bete noir of the show’s convict heroes (Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale — father of Kate). McKay the actor played McKay the character sympathetically, even though he’s a bit of a hard case and the show’s nominal antagonist (though other, more vicious criminals could also make things tough for the heroes). He did a lot of lopsided smiling and quite a bit of one eye goggling, one eye squinting, like James Finlayson but subtler. Everyone, after all, is subtler than James Finlayson.

It’s in these roles of the seventies and eighties that FM made his mark on my memories, so I was intrigued to see him in THE BRAVE DON’T CRY, the last film produced by documentarist John Grierson, a Scottish-set film from 1951, directed by Philip Leacock (brother of documentarian Richard). A young McKay seemed inconceivable, since he’d seemed old when I was a kid. Would he even be recognizable, or would time have only kitted him out with all those attributes I knew so well further down the line?

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Fulton McKay is COMPLETELY recognizable, and what’s more the same qualities that served him so well in later life work quite nicely for the younger thesp. The way he crosses a room in wide shot, he’s immediately himself — something to do with the way his head bobbles ever so slightly, a cocky bobble — his head flares out like a cork and his neck is slender, so i guess a certain amount of jiggle is inevitable. His lips are very thin and his smile is oddly angular — uniquely, his mouth has more than the conventional two corners. And it only goes up on one side.

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Terrific actor. In the movie, he’s trapped down a mine with a group of other miners, his father killed in the subsidence. Lots of emoting to do. Then he breaks a leg. He’s not having a good day. The claustrophobic tension is strong, even on rather wobbly sets. I wish he’d done more movies — he’s very funny in Stephen Frears’ first feature, GUMSHOE, with Albert Finney — but at least he was always busy. It may be his best work is buried amid all that ephemeral TV. Likely it happened on stage in some rep theatre on a rainy day, seen by twenty people. But what we do have is pretty wonderful.

Never Put Durning in the Corner

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2015 by dcairns

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A warning to all — never put Charles Durning at the point of an “A” composition. This may be a little academic now that Durning is no longer with us, but it’s still a valid point.

I shall elucidate. An “A” composition is a flat two-shot with a third party in the background. You can see how this forms an A lying on its back — the edges of the frame are the feet of the A, the distant figure is the point, and the eyeline between the two profile characters makes the horizontal strut of the A.

The third party can look from one principal player to another, and adds interest to the shot — you get extra depth, possibly A LOT of depth if the third character is far away, and you get someone who is full-face, which gives you more emotion than the two profiles. And by being attentive, this third character can subtly tell the audience that they should pay attention too. By looking from one profile to another, the third character can even signal to the audience which character to focus most attention on at a given time.

John Frankenheimer is a huge fan of the “A” — his live television days accustomed him to working with extreme deep focus, and he used every trick in the book to replicate the KANE-like effect in his movies, hence all those diopter shots that split the focus into two parts, or even three.

I WALK THE LINE (1970) is a pretty good southern drama with Gregory Peck straying from his usual straight-and-narrow, stalwart roles, as a sheriff who falls hard for moonshiner’s daughter Tuseday Weld. The smart, honest man is out of his depth once he falls to intrigue, and is easy prey for stupider characters, like Deputy Durning and moonshiner paterfamilias Ralph Meeker, since they’re used to living their lives in the shadows, manipulating and spying on others.

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This is a scene where Peck is under pressure from Federal man Lonny Chapman to do something about the moonshine trade. Durning suspects already that for some reason Peck is reluctant to do so. I’m not saying what he does here is wrong, precisely, but it certainly puts the entire attention on him, leaving Peck and Chapman as blurry silhouettes, featureless despite all Frankenheimer and DoP David M. Walsh’s deep focus.

Durning actually leans in, seemingly to get a better listen but blatantly just to be more clearly seen himself, and to attract our attention. And he makes a stupid, hilarious face, as if frozen in the act of eating a sandwich while grinning.

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The movie is quite good — Weld is enticing and natural as ever. Peck can do conflicted. He can’t quite do lust, and looks a bit uncomfortable as he tries hard not to seem fatherly. Estelle Parsons is touching as Peck’s wife, who does not inspire him with Tuesday Weld type passion. Never has. The marriage is very much like the bleak, lifeless one at the start of SECONDS, only Parsons quotes from Reader’s Digest to try to fill the yawning silences.

There is also a major example of the Frankenheimer Dog.

Frankenheimer, as I will argue in a forthcoming piece for Masters of Cinema (watch this space), has a particular affinity for emptiness, and he finds his ideal image in a deserted house, former home to pack’s deceased mother and sisters, which he tries to use as a love nest. The ruined residence affords Frankenheimer just all kinds of compositional pleasure.

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Music is by Johnny Cash, including the title song. All the music is in the form of songs, which, as is the way of such brilliant ideas, creates a tricky problem during one scene of trauma that just wouldn’t be helped by lyrics, no matter how gravelly. Frankenheimer dubs in a LOW DRONE — not, I think, a Johnny Cash composition. A sound like feedback from an incorrectly inserted audio jack. The sound of disconnection, of emptiness.

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