Archive for Boileau and Narcejac

The Taking of Pelham

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2009 by dcairns


Why had he always been haunted by those underground caverns, by the drip of water in dim light, by the musty air of tunnels, the tortuous entrails of the earth which led down to black pools full of sleeping precious stones?

~ D’entre les morts, by Boileau and Narcejac.

This post, which was left over from my week of VERTIGO posts, reminds me of another stray thought. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode Banquo’s Chair has an amazing cast, including Hitch fave John Williams, Kenneth “early clue to the new direction” Haigh, the Great Max Adrian, and Reginald Gardiner (as a character called Cock-Finch). It also has a supernatural gimmick, making it one of only two Hitchcock-directed works to meddle with the ineffable in a direct way — MARY ROSE, if he had been allowed to make it, would have been the greatest expression of this impulse. And I suppose THE BIRDS is pretty far along the road to the supernatural.

Anyhow, in Banquo’s Chair we have a retired detective undertaking a case, we have a character called Ferguson, we have one woman impersonating another, we have the murder for money of a family member, we have a faked return from the dead… all of which makes the piece sound like a close relative to VERTIGO. And if I were a less honest fellow, I might allow you to believe that the movie was a practice-run for the masterpiece that is V. Or, if I were slightly less crooked, I might admit that the TV show was made in 1959, after VERTIGO, and then allow you to think that it was a slight reprise of the themes which obviously haunted Hitch.

In fact, the similarities cited above count for absolutely nothing, except amusement. When you see the episode, it’s so utterly unlike VERTIGO in plot, theme, character, and perhaps above all, presentation, that such thoughts are unsustainable. File under “amusing coincidence.”

A closer similarity, in a way, occurs in The Case of Mr Pelham, adapted, like Banquo’s Chair, by Francis M Cockrill. This is the other supernatural Hitchcock. Tom Ewell, for no good reason, is persecuted and replaced by a doppelgänger. Ewell, whose comedy always inclines towards the hangdog (in Richard Corliss’s memorable phrase, he possesses “a certain vegetable magnetism” — when I praised this description and a friend challenged me to name the vegetable, I replied “turnip” without hesitation), does a superb job of conveying Mr Pelham’s slide into paranoia and ineffable horror. He doesn’t have to do much to suggest disintegration — he’s kind of pre-disintegrated, isn’t he?

The tone of inexplicable threat is closer to VERTIGO, and THE BIRDS, than anything in Banquo’s Chair.

We also get an amusing intro and outro, in which our host is hauled away by the authorities and replaced by an even more lugubrious lookalike. A wobblegänger, if you will.

“But I am the real Alfred Hitchcock, I am!”