Archive for Easy Virtue

Paradine Syndrome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2009 by dcairns

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A virtual clone of a short from REBECCA.

I must have tried to watch Hitchcock’s THE PARADINE CASE a half-dozen times. Now I can say that I’ve actually seen it, but I can’t say much more (proceeds to write several hundred words). The movie seems to slide off me.

Despite specialising more or less in crime thrillers, Hitch stayed out of the courtroom as much as he could (I can recall the divorce court in EASY VIRTUE, the inquest in REBECCA, but note how Hitch keeps the camera in the jury room in MURDER while the verdict is read out offscreen, and how he spies on the trial at the opening of NOTORIOUS, peeking through the door as if superstitious about entering. Hitch also, famously, avoided whodunnits, except here and in MURDER. I accept most of his arguments against them (the whodunnit us an intellectual game, like the crossword), and also observe one more uncomfortable fact — he’s not very good at them.

Gregory Peck is Anthony Keane, counsel for the defense, a notoriously passionate lawyer who falls in love with accused murderess Mrs Paradine ([Alida] Valli), jeopardizing his marriage and his career, while trying to pin the guilt on either her murdered husband (suicide), or the groom (Louis Jourdan0 with whom she may have been having an affair.

Hitchcock himself reckoned THE PARADINE CASE was miscast, with Louis Jourdan too suave to be a horny handyman (yet LJ is the most compelling figure in the film by a country mile) and certainly David O Selznick’s screenplay, written during the shoot, is a big problem, verbose and lumbering and devoid of sympathetic characters or dynamic momentum. Fascinating players like Charles Coburn and Charles Laughton are somewhat wasted, while less-than-fascinating players like Gregory Peck and Ann Todd are spread thin, and at their least appealing. And Selznick’s dialogue keeps on about how fascinating Valli is supposed to be, but the screenwriter doth protest too much. And when did Selznick decide he was a WRITER?

The dispiriting shoot consisted of Selznick’s new pages coming in sometime in the morning, so nothing could be shot until afternoon, and still Selznick would moan that the filming was going too slowly. Hitch had large, expensive sets built, and was marooned on them for ages, as the bloated production sweated money from every pore.

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Clone of shot from YOUNG AND INNOCENT.

On the plus side, there’s Lee Garmes’ lustrous and lambent lighting, moody and noirish and serving up numerous striking shots, especially of Valli and Jourdan. I quite liked the tetchy, affectionate relationship between Coburn and his daughter, Joan Tetzel, which has a bit of energy, but they mainly discuss what everybody else is up to, until the trial, when JT sits in the public gallery explaining the events to Ann Todd, and to us in the audience, like some kind of benshi film describer. Actually, a huge amount of the film consists of descriptions of thing it might be nice to see. Nobody investigates the murder. When the trial finally starts, all at once we get a lot of plot information, which kind of adds up to a realization that the prosecution doesn’t really have any case at all.

Where was I? Oh yes, the positive side. Well, if Coburn and Tetzel = Hitch and Pat, then Peck and Todd could be Hitch and Alma. Their introductory scene does actually do a fair job of portraying a happily married couple approaching the danger zone where they take things for granted, and making us care about the relationship. But once the case begins, Peck’s baffling amour fou for the glum and uninteresting Valli robs him of all sympathy, and since he’s pretty inactive as a character, we can’t replace sympathy with intrigue.

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I heard that a friend had postulated a gay subtext, in the form of a relationship between Peck and Jourdan, but I can’t see any narrative evidence for this — nothing makes sense unless we accept that Peck is smitten with Valli. But there is some hilarity in this theory, since every line exchanged between Peck and Jourdan becomes an obscene double entendre — “What was your object in entering by the back way?” “But you intended to come on me!”

Laughton is a (bitter) joy — Hitchcock complained that “Every picture with Laughton is a war,” but he must have realized that the actor enhanced any film he touched. But if you took out the scene where Laughton is rebuffed by Todd, then his character would be reduced to a standard high court judge, and he could still behave in mostly the same way in the courtroom: he’s showing bias, it’s true, but Peck is such a dick it’s hardly surprising. I’d favour Leo G Carroll too.

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Clone of a shot from EASY VIRTUE.

But since we have Laughton’s unnecessary character, we get Ethel Barrymore as his wife, and their miserable relationship is one of the film’s most effective elements. I guess it’s a film about couples. Oddly, I’d just seen Ethel in MOSS ROSE, her previous production. Must write a little piece about that one. It has Peggy Cummins.

Hitch tried to film in long takes but Selznick objected, insisting on close-ups to break things up. No wonder Hitch indulged himself with ten-minute-takes as soon as he was free from his contract. Falling behind schedule, Hitch managed to save time by shooting the court scenes with multiple cameras, which upset the actors, who couldn’t see each other for equipment.

I always find Ann Todd rather cold and brittle, which isn’t bad per se, but I also get the impression that she’s an inherently savage actress who’s being held back by her directors. David Lean certainly held her down. I’d like to see her allowed to let rip.

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Clone of a shot from NOTORIOUS, itself cloned from SUSPICION.

But nobody lets rip here. The movie is interesting for its resemblance to two of Hitch’s earliest, least successful talkies — MURDER, in which a woman accused of murder is defended by a high-class gent. In both films, the gent travels to the countryside and stays in a cottage overnight, although MURDER exploits this for humour. And Peck’s arrival at the country house made me think of THE SKIN GAME, in which a woman with a shady past is threatened with exposure. It’s not too promising that those are the films one is reminded of.

Hitch, diplomatically, was still negotiating for a possible renewal of his contract with Selznick, even as he attempted to set up his own production company with Sidney Bernstein. The desire for artistic control warred with a need for financial security, but the experience of THE PARADINE CASE must surely have decided him that his future lay elsewhere.

para6Clone of a shot from NO. 13.

The Devil and T.R. Devlin

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 5, 2009 by dcairns

Or: WEAPONS-GRADE POMMARD.

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Was slightly perplexed by the Art Nouveau font, but now suspect it’s the film’s first suggestion that the audience should not approach this as a straight thriller.

At last, I have watched NOTORIOUS. The first theory I have formed is the theory about why I never watched it all the way through before: I was watching it as a thriller. Viewed in this way, the early scenes may seem unnecessarily lengthy and detailed, in need of ellipsis to get us to the suspense scenes faster. But this is an idiotic demand to place upon Hitchcock and Hecht, I now realise. NOTORIOUS is a relationship drama first and a thriller second. It’s an early expression of the theme of MARNIE: “Everybody’s a pervert,” only here, “Everybody’s a neurotic.”

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The inverted POV shot, first used by Hitch in DOWNHILL.

The opening scenes, which contemporary audiences would have had no trouble enjoying as romance, (im)pure and simple, without any foolish demands for thrill-sequences, set up Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman, the hard-living wild child of a convicted Nazi, and Cary Grant as TR Devlin, the US agent in the employ of Ambassador Trantino, who recruits her to spy for the US. But apart from the mission, they set up the relationship and its in-built problems. Devlin’s moralistic disapproval of Alicia doesn’t go away when he falls in love with her, and it will colour his responses to all her actions, leading the pair into perilous straits, emotionally and in terms of real physical jeopardy. Later.

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NOT a good sign if Cary Grant brings you milk this early in a relationship. Fortunately, when the glass is moved, it no longer glows, and appears to be some kind of hangover cure concoction. No poisoning until later. Hitchcock sometimes seems to be playing with the idea that audiences might recognise some situations from SUSPICION.

The celebrated kissing scene should really be acclaimed in terms of its superb placing in the story, since it’s followed sharply by the come-down of Grant hearing about the mission and presenting it to Bergman as if he expects her to accept it — patriotically, he doesn’t feel he can talk her out of it, so he leaves the choice with her. She understandably resents him for this, while he in turn resents her for accepting the filthy task of wooing Claude Rains.

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All leading up to the beautiful deadened moment when Grant looks around for the Champagne bottle he’s left behind at his bosses office. Watching the film as a partial grown-up, I find this wine bottle more involving than the later ones filled with Uranium.

I was distracted during Claude Rains’ dinner scene by the fact that he seems to be either slightly drunk, or having trouble with his dentures. At any rate, there’s a mushy slur to his voice here which thankfully vanishes later. Now the movie becomes an adultery drama, like THE PASSIONATE FRIENDS only with spying — Ann Todd, that film’s star, would pop up in Hitchcock and Selznick’s next “collaboration.” Her scenes with Claude in David Lean’s movie feel almost like a non-thriller remake of the Hitchcock.

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And then there’s mom. Entering down a long flight of stairs, like Dracula, and marching into a big scary close-up, exactly like Christopher Lee’s DRACULA, Claude’s materfamilias, played by “Madame Konstantin,” is the second really nasty Hitchcock mother — for the first you have to go all the way back to EASY VIRTUE. This is not a constant figure in Hitchcock’s cinema, although critics like to harp on about it. But Madame K is so fierce, she does rather counterbalance the positive impression made by Patricia Collinge in SHADOW OF A DOUBT.

The real business now is adultery, not espionage. It’s slightly daft that the couple have so much trouble sneaking away together at the party, since all that’s needed is for Alicia to slip the wine cellar key to Devlin and point him at the door, then she could distract her husband and everything would be dandy. But this pair of love-birds really want to be together, the whole spying thing is practically an alibi for their elicit relationship. Indeed, if it weren’t for the atomic Nazi plot-line, the heroes’ behaviour would be completely unacceptable to the censor.

I seem to be racing through this one with undue haste — possibly because I don’t know it as well as others, but more likely because after my marathon session with THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER, I’m a spent force. But I know you’ll all chip in with your thoughts to shore up this underweight post.

Amazing crane shot of key! Of course I’d seen this extract in many documentaries. In context, it’s interesting because it doesn’t add new information, or nothing that a regular establishing shot couldn’t add, but is a kind of stylistic flourish serving as an overture to the big party suspense scene. As Hitch said, it tells us that within this grand setting, a miniscule object will play a crucial role.

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Amazing repeat shot of Claude Rains mounting the stairs, just like the one of Cary Grant in SUSPICION. Fiona suggested that at any moment he might turn back, having forgotten to fetch the luminous milk. Of course, in this movie it’s coffee that’s nearly fatal to the heroine, suggesting that Hitchcock was plotting to ruin the great American breakfast forever. If you eliminated all the dodgy foods and drinks in Hitchcock’s cinema, from cigarette-studded eggs to everything prepared in FRENZY, to cat (RICH AND STRANGE), you’d have the basis for a pretty good weight-loss regime. Maybe that’s the hidden secret behind REDUCO, The Obesity Slayer…

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The last third of NOTORIOUS ramps up the suspense as Grant and Bergman consistently mislead each other and make their problems worse, as each tries to force an admission of love from the other. It’s Grant who cracks first, rescuing Bergman and bringing about a brilliantly neat happy ending which solves the problem of those pesky Nazis and wraps up the love story all in one. No wonder this took ages to come up with (many many drafts with hopeless, lame, tragic endings) because it’s really quite intricate. Clifford Odets did uncredited work on the love scenes in this, where Hecht’s unromantic spirit refused to take flight. Generally, NOTORIOUS has far better dialogue than SPELLBOUND, its predecessor — I think Hecht was uncomfortable writing for psychoanalysts. Of course, another significant difference this time is that the project passed out of Selznick’s hands before filming: DOS supervised the scriptwriting process, but had no control over the movie’s final form. The quality of which is another argument against those who see Selznick as an essential guiding force for Hitchcock at this time. THE PARADINE CASE, next week’s Hitch, shows what happened when DOS picked up the reins again, and by all accounts it ain’t pretty.

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Mogo on the Gogo

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2009 by dcairns

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“You have mogo on the gogo!” diagnoses Gregory Peck, mysteriously. Ingrid Bergman just laughs fetchingly. I’d have smacked him in the face. And then asked him what the hell that means.

There’s quite a bit of odd dialogue in SPELLBOUND, scripted by Ben Hecht from an Angus MacPhail adaptation of a novel by the pseudonymous Francis Beeding (in reality two different blokes), The House of Dr Edwardes. MacPhail, a drunken Scotsman, is no doubt responsible for the plethora of Scots names infecting the movie’s population: Gregory Peck is Ballantine, Leo G Carroll is Murchison, and Rhonda Fleming is Carmichael, Regis Toomey is Gillespie.

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My VHS copy of BON VOYAGE has some tracking problems, giving the titles an odd PSYCHO-like flavour.

MacPhail also worked on BON VOYAGE and AVENTURE MALGACHE, Hitchcock’s two war propaganda shorts, made in French in England. Both feature prolonged takes (AVENTURE is nearly all filmed in master-shots) of the kind Hitchcock was increasingly interested in, and which Selznick would try his best to discourage, since they interfered with his ability to tamper. Safely away from Selznick, Hitchcock indulged his interest in the sequence-shot. His producer on these shorts, Sidney Bernstein, would later collaborate with him on the production of ROPE and UNDER CAPRICORN, which pushed the technique to its limits.

BON VOYAGE strikes me as the superior of the two, for its fluidity, twisty story, and charming dope of a hero, played by John Blythe, a handsome young fellow who went on to a long but defiantly minor career. Though he was born in London, his character is a Scot, complete with throwaway drinking jokes. He’s also very concerned with eating — for a French Resistance drama, the movie focuses to a surprising extent on the need for quality sustenance. Very Hitchcock.

Like BON VOYAGE, SPELLBOUND features a couple on the run, fleeing from hotels, traveling by train, aided by colleagues and sought by the police. But there are differences.

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Dr Edwardes, taking over a swank psych clinic, is not really Dr Edwardes at all, but an amnesiac who may have killed the man he’s replaced. Dr Petersen falls in love with him and seeks to prove his innocence…

“Beeding’s” novel was a potboiler disdained by Selznick, but offering Hitchcock some interesting narrative possibilities. Unfortunately, Selznick had started undergoing psychoanalysis himself, and brought his doctor on as advisor to the film. (“Selznick’s shrink? She must have done a great job!” exclaimed Fiona) This meant that Hitchcock once again faced considerable interference from his producer, compromising many of the film’s most promising sequences — especially the famous dream. In the end, though it utilizes Dali’s designs, the sequence was largely directed by design genius William Cameron Menzies (responsible for the look of GONE WITH THE WIND, although his work here calls to mind the magnificent THE LOVE OF ZERO), with Peck’s voice-over rather ruining the uncanny atmosphere with a prosaic description of everything we see.

I also have issues with the dialogue. Hecht is a very important screenwriter, but his psychiatrists are rather clunky creations — and nearly all the characters are psychiatrists. It’s a similar problem to the priests in I CONFESS, they don’t talk like people, and the more Hecht tries to give them a jovial approach to their profession, the less convincing they are. Everything they say has some kind of psychoanalytic slant: “And may you have babies, not phobias,” says Professor Littleoldman Dr Brulov.

And then there’s all the stuff about Ingrid Bergman being a woman, as if we needed to have it continually pointed out to us. And always in such insulting ways. “As a doctor, you’re a genius, but as a woman… I hate smug women… Women make the best psychiatrists, until they fall in love, then they make the best patients… Nothing is so stupid as a woman in love… stupid… woman… stupid woman… stupid woman!!! Alright, most of those lines aren’t actually in the film, but many others just like them are.

Am I alone in thinking there’s a strange resemblance between Green Manors Psychiatric Hospital for the Very Very Nervous and the Selznick Studios?

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Both institutions are bursting with neurotics, of course. Guilt-complex nut-job Norman Lloyd and mustache-biting weird-ball Rhonda Fleming (both happily still with us today) haunt the halls of Green Manors, while cop-phobic Hitchcock, speed-freak gambling addict Selznick and alurophobe Val Lewton, who couldn’t bring himself to shake hands, were all inmates of the studio. The film’s opening info-screed, explaining that psychiatry treats “the emotional problems of the sane” is rather baffling. Don’t insane people need treatment too? And what are Lloyd and Fleming? Their keels don’t seem entirely even to me. The additional information, that exposing the roots of the neurosis automatically cures it, is highly questionable: Hitchcock said he could never really believe in analysis, since he was quite aware of the source of his own fear of policemen, but knowing that did him no good whatsoever.

The other thing that beats me in Freud is the idea that the mind suppresses damaging, traumatic information, to protect itself. Of course, observation tells us this is not true: the traumatized are signally incapable of forgetting their traumas. But more than that, the idea seems inherently contradictory. The mind protects itself by suppressing the trauma, but un-suppressing it results in a cure? Surely exposing the root of the trauma would cause exactly the greater damage the mind was trying to protect itself from?

Hitchcock nevertheless realized that the “dream detective” was a fascinating narrative notion, one which he would invert in VERTIGO and return to in MARNIE. SPELLBOUND, his first go at the idea, is perhaps the clumsiest, since the script’s concern with clarity for an audience unused to psychiatric lingo tends to battle against credibility, subtlety and pace.

But there are many compensations. The wordless scene where Peck, “spellbound,” wanders Brulov’s home with a straight razor in his hand, is a classic suspense scene with superb blocking and framing –

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Peck is a good new leading man, although his discomfort with the film and Hitchcock shows a little in the early scenes, where he seems unsure how to play a man unconsciously pretending to be something he’s not. Bergman, of course, is a fine Hitchcock heroine, with a winning smile in which the corners of her mouth sometimes go up, sometimes down. Sometimes one goes up and the other goes down. I could watch it for hours. Hitch face Leo G Carroll is welcome again, and the man from Pittsburgh who bugs Bergman in the hotel lobby, and the hotel detective, are probably the best characters in the film. It’s a relief to find somebody who’s not either a psychiatrist or somebody who thinks they’re a psychiatrist.

There’s also the music, by Miklos Rosza, with its gorgeous love theme (overused, Hitch felt) and eerie/camp theremin. If only the Dali/Menzies dream dispensed with VO and relied on the power of music and image, it would be a bracingly vulgar fantasia. Mr. Theremin himself, the inventor of the electronic marvel, suffered a fate common enough in Stalin’s Russia, he was disappeared. Conventional wisdom has it that he perished, unrecorded, in Siberia, but I like to imagine him abducted by UFOs and delighted to find they’re playing his song.

And then there’s the climax, with the real murderer shooting himself in the face from an impossible angle. Two Hitchcockian tropes return here — the outsized prop, first seen in the form of EASY VIRTUE’s giant magnifying glass –

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– and the flash of red, an avant-garde device harking back to the deleted train wreck sequence in SECRET AGENT, in which Hitch had wanted to animate the effect of the film itself tearing in the projector and catching fire.

Incidentally, Leo G Carroll must have extraordinary, Mr Fantastic arms to be able to point a gun straight into his own face like this. I reckon if you turn your head sideways you can do it, but you’d definitely be able to see your arm as well as your hand. But this in no way harms the shot for me, in fact, it enhances it. Like all the daft stuff in the movie, it’s in keeping with the general delirious tone. I’d say that SPELLBOUND is quite a bit sillier than most of Hitch’s American thrillers — it’s not tongue-in-cheek, so it doesn’t have humour as an alibi — but it’s nevertheless a sophisticated entertainment.

Sidebar: as I think I mentioned before, sci-fi author David Gerrold (father of the Star Trek tribble) once suggested that a traditional story has three climaxes: emotional, physical and intellectual. SPELLBOUND conforms to this, and goes one better: it has two sets of three.

In the skiing sequence, Gregory Peck must figure out the guilt-causing episode from his past, emotionally overcome it, and avoid going into a crevasse with Ingrid. The Freudian investigation naturally combines the intellectual and emotional parts of a good climax, so that all Hitchcock and MacPhail needed to do was get the protags off the couch and onto the piste.

This is followed by a dramatic revelation that lands Peck in the slammer, so that Ingrid must take part in a second set of three challenges. Intellectual: figure out who the killer is. Emotional: force him into a confession but talk him out of killing again. Physical: get out without being shot.

I suspect the three parts of a climax usually come in this sequence, for inescapable narrative reasons. One, figure out the solution. Two, make the emotional leap needed to achieve it, sometimes involving sacrifice, generally involving the change required by the “character arc” of convention. Three, act upon this new understanding. But there are other ways to order it, especially if the climaxes occur in three separate scenes. Hitchcock felt that villains needed to combine three distinct traits: brains, brawns and wickedness. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST he divided these qualities between three characters, the mastermind, the thug and the sadist. He doesn’t dispose of each baddie in a separate climax, but he could have. Richard Lester and George MacDonald Fraser do at the end of THE FOUR MUSKETEERS.

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BANG! A few frames of red. Since the gun firing into the audience recalls Edwin S Porter’s THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, I’m also reminded that that movie features hand-tinted red flames during the safe-blowing sequence, and I wonder if Hitch was inspired, directly or indirectly, by this venerable movie?

Next: NOTORIOUS, probably the most famous Hitchcock film I’ve never actually seen all the way through. I know, you’re shocked. I’m shocked. Time to rectify the situation.

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