Archive for Downhill

The Latest Hitch

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2009 by dcairns

Okay, so the idea was, now that for the first time in my life I can say I’ve watched all the silent Hitchcocks still known to exist, why not throw the pieces in the air and assemble a new one? Hitchcock is ideally suited to mix-and-match montage (see any documentary about him) because his shots are so strong, and so surreal at times when viewed out of context (CUT: from Joseph Cotten turning straight to the camera, to Norman Lloyd plummeting from the Statue of Liberty, to Jimmy Stewart sitting bolt upright in bed). I was going to whip something up with my el-cheapo editing programme, but the thought of inputting all the material was rather daunting, so I just did THIS ~

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I’d like to see more blogs make their own foto-romans and fumetti. Frame-grabbing images from movies feels SLIGHTLY creative, and this feels like the logical next step. Maybe we should attempt a blogathon on this theme?

Dyall “V” for Valentine

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 28, 2009 by dcairns

Or, Hitchcock Year, Week Four.

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Having filmed a play (DOWNHILL) by Ivor Novello (writing as David LeStrange), Hitchcock started work on EASY VIRTUE, from a play by Britain’s other leading gay playwright / songwriter, Noel Coward, as his previous film was still being cut. Another studio assignment, this shows the prevailing thought, or lack of thought, at Gainsborough: “Keep control of him, don’t let him do his own thing, or we might end up with another success like THE LODGER.”

Hitch nevertheless through himself into making a film of Coward’s problem play, dramatizing the backstory so fully that the plot of the play doesn’t begin until halfway through the film’s running time.

(There’s just been a new version of EASY VIRTUE. Would have been a smart idea for me to see it, right? But I didn’t. Just looked at the trailer, which I can’t bear to embed because it made me physically unwell. It’s from Ealing, who seem to be pursuing an identity as, I don’t know, some kind of modern Ealing, but old Ealingdidn’t specialise in remakes and period pieces and adaptations of old plays, they were tackling modern Britain with original screenplays… and the idea of turning Noel Coward into a sort of Ben Stiller THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY / MEET THE PARENTS comedy only with shapely smiling vacuum Jessica Biel in the Stiller role…)

Anyhow, Hitch’s film avoids all Coward-like wit and is basically a somewhat humourless melodrama, unintentionally amusing at times, but it does feature some nice touches, and is graced with a highly developed sense of SYMMETRY.

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For instance, this arresting shot of a judge’s wig, rising like the morning sun from bottom of frame, is repeated in a second trial scene, two divorces which bookend the movie.

It’s followed by a marvellous shot looking through the judge’s spyglass, a shot which was optically impossible to achieve in a realistic way ~

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Here’s the trick: a stand-in occupies the centre of the crowd, playing the barrister’s part. A GIANT CLAY HAND holding a giant spy-glass, is hefted into frame. It needs to be giant so the camera can keep it and the background acceptably focused. Instead of a lens, the glass is fitted with a mirror, which reflects the REAL barrister-actor, who is standing behind the camera with co-star Franklin Dyall (right) and other extras.

Beautiful. And the first appearance in Hitchcock of a BIG FAKE HAND — see also the foot-long finger steered uncertainly into a telephone dial at the start of DIAL “M” FOR MURDER, and the B.F.H. that points the revolver right between our eyes at the end of SPELLBOUND. Have I missed any others?

Not only is the spyglass shot pleasing in itself, but it’s balanced by other compositions which mirror it, notably this one:

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An oval dressing table mirror sets up further echoes.

Hitch uses the first courtroom sequence to flash daringly back in time and show the breakdown of the heroine’s marriage. When her husband, Franklin Dyall, catches her in the arms of a portrait painter (the first of Hitch’s randy artists — see also BLACKMAIL), these two shots from the stand-off represent another kind of symmetry, or mirroring.

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Peekaboo.

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Franklin Dyall, above, whose face is an extraordinary bit of apparatus, was the father of Valentine Dyall, familiar to Shadowplayers for this voice-over. Anyhow, shots are fired, a scandal is caused, and a divorce is granted.

On the Riviera, recovering from her ordeal at the hands of the proto-paparazzi, Isabel Jeans, our not-so-gay divorcee meets and marries Robin Irvine (Novello’sbest pal in DOWNHILL). Their journey by carriage along a winding coastal road recalls Grace Kelly driving Cary Grant in TO CATCH A THIEF, but the pace is slower — even the driver of the carriage falls asleep.

Hitch gives us his-and-hers luggage shots as the couple travel back to England:

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Arriving at the stately pile, our heroine gets a Baltic reception from what could be the first proper Hitchcock mother, played by a steely actress rejoicing in the name of Violet Farebrother. She exerts a near-total dominance over her son, who quickly loses all audience sympathy as he passively allows mum to turn him against his perfectly reasonable new bride. But as an early version of the neurotic/psychotic maternal relationships running through Hitchcock’s films, this does seem a good solid start.

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Finally, our heroine asserts herself by attending a party she’s been banned from, dressed to the nines in flapper fashions, calculated to create the biggest scandal possible. In a romcom, this is where the hero would rush to her side, impressed by her pluck, and finally stand up to his overweening mater, but our man quietly caves in and everything ends in divorce, which isn’t terribly satisfying somehow, but at least allows Hitch to preserve his symmetry.

An even less rewarding job than DOWNHILL, EASY VIRTUE shows Hitch struggling manfully to turn around stagy, talky material ill-suited to the requirements of silent cinema. Fortunately, a new company had just been formed, taking advantage of the British government’s new quota system, that dictated that a certain number of films playing in British cinemas must be British. British International Pictures intended to provide those movies, and they hired Hitch to help them…

Raking over the Ashes

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2009 by dcairns

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Art, which we can barely see, by Felix Topolski, creating a modern version of 18th century cartoons.

THE RAKE’S PROGRESS, directed by Sidney Gilliat, is the film Francois Truffaut says he likes when Hitch asks him if he ever saw any Launder & Gilliat movies. In FT’s opinion, GREEN FOR DANGER “didn’t quite work,” a frustratingly brief critique, but not as frustrating as the fact that, having raised the subject, Hitchcock doesn’t offer an opinion himself.

Well, time has been good to GREEN FOR DANGER, which has received the deluxe Criterion treatment and been discovered by American cinephiles who would mostly have been unaware of its existence. Here in Britain it’s an acknowledged classic, which means that the general public is even more unaware of its existence. A sort of combination of whodunnit, character comedy and giallo, GFD is a delightful, quirky and intelligent entertainment from the pinnacle of British cinema’s golden age. THE RAKE’S PROGRESS, meanwhile, is almost impossible to see — unscreened on television for years, never revived, unavailable on tape and disc.

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I finally tracked down a curiously flickering copy of the film, which proved mildly disappointing, but not by any means bad. Detailing the misadventures of a reckless, increasingly caddish scamp, played by Rex Harrison, the movie seemed most useful as an illustration of the late Leslie Halliwell’s ability to colossally miss the point.

Halliwell, a ubiquitous film writer who penned the first film dictionary I owned (and just about the only one available here in the 80s, save Ephraim Kurtz’s less all-encompassing but far more intelligent rival volume), once wrote that the climax of THE RED SHOES suggested that Powell and Pressburger had run out of ideas and couldn’t think of how to end their film, which kind of demonstrates the scale of ass the man could be. With THE RAKE’S PROGRESS he surpasses even that: “with silly endpapers in which, quite out of character, the rake becomes a war hero.” The reason that’s dumb is that the entire point of the film illustrates a notion of Gilliat’s, which I suspect is true, that a certain kind of man — arrogant, reckless, fearless, motivated by thrill-seeking and attention-seeking — who is a total liability in time of peace, can be a very useful asset in time of war. The film’s greatest achievement may be the fact that it makes this point forcefully (it’s hard to see how anyone could miss it) without insulting Britain’s WWII heroes.

Sexy Rexy begins the film being heroic in a tank, and then we flash back to his youth, getting sent down from Oxford for climbing monuments (and putting chamberpots on top of them — the inter-war equivalent of TP-ing, I guess), a relatively harmless jape, it’s true. Meanwhile he’s carrying on with a friend’s girl, a less innocent form of fun.

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His M.P. father finds him a job in a South American coffee business, an opportunity he blows when he realises how inefficient and inhumane the corporation is (nothing about exploiting the natives, however: Sexy Rexy gets himself fired after a researcher is made redundant). Returning to England, Rex seduces his friend’s girl again, but she’s now the guy’s wife, so that ends badly. A short career as a racing driver offers some success, but when the major European races are cancelled due to impending war, Rex is on his uppers again.

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Now comes the strongest part — Lili Palmer (real-life Mrs. Harrison) enters the film (1hr 10mins in) as a Jewish refugee looking for a husband who can get her British citizenship. She has a bit of money to pay Rex’s debts, and motivated by some genuine unselfish feeling (hearing a Hitler speech booming out in the night) he agrees to help. But he’s not that nice — he invents a £3,000 debt in England which she has to pay too (this cleans her out), so that he can pocket the money. This is pretty nasty behaviour for a hero in a film of this period. Of course, the joke’s on him when his equally caddish best mate embezzles the money from him and loses it in a stock market gamble.

I was delighted to realise this must have been a film my late friend Lawrie assisted on. He worked on GREEN FOR DANGER the previous year, as replacement 3rd Assistant Director, and told me he had made a film with Harrison and Palmer, but didn’t seem to remember what it was. Mainly he remembered them constantly swearing at each other, “the filthiest language I’d ever heard” — and he had been in the Royal Air Force.

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After destroying his marriage AND his father, Rex drifts into the seedy night-life of the taxi-dancer, at which point I realised the film was following the same path as Hitchcock’s DOWNHILL, which I had just seen. What makes THE RAKE more fun than the sombre (but still enjoyable) Hitch silent, is the way Rex manages to have a fair bit of fun on his road to ruin, and is generally completely guilty of everything he’s accused of. He’s a refreshingly irredeemable swine for a film of this era, and it’s a courageous way to depict an officer and a gentleman in 1945 (we also get glimpses of police corruption, class prejudice in action, quietly tolerated adultery, and a few other surprises). My guess is that Launder & Gilliat were still in their left-leaning, angry young men phase (they turned conservative soon after, as men if not as filmmakers: some of their later works do still show sparks of wild invention).

The ending is sweet. Rex’s pal and a senior officer look at his body in a bombed-out cellar, and hear of his dying words, “…a good year.” The officer remarks that it’s men like Rex who have made it one. The witness to the death says that he thinks Rex was referring to the champagne bottle he’d been glugging from. “He died as he lived: drinking champagne he hadn’t paid for.”

The officer says he considers the remark in very poor taste, and strops off.

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“You’d have appreciated it,” says the cad to the dead rake.