Archive for English Hitchcock

Hope you like Jam’ Inn too…

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2009 by dcairns

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‘It is a wretched affair.’

Such was Daphne du Maurier’s verdict on JAMAICA INN, which must have left her anxious about what Hitchcock would do to her Rebecca. But at the time Hitch embarked upon this project for producer Erich Pommer (whose projects at UFA had done much to inspire the Hitchcock style), his first American movie looked like it was going to be TITANIC — an ill-omened project for a director who was going to have to sail across the Atlantic to make it. A more promising augury was the name of Pommer’s company: Mayflower.

Hitch blamed JAMAICA INN’s problems on Pommer and Charles Laughton, “two very difficult men,” and upon compromises forced upon the film by censorship. Du Maurier’s novel had to be ammended because the BBFC wouldn’t allow a clergyman to be a villain, which if you think about it points to the kind of insidious class prejudice that has always lurked behind film censorship: it was perfectly OK to have a villainous priest in the novel, which provoked no outrage, but in films, which are seen by those who don’t read books, such a concept was suddenly deemed dangerous.

My viewing experience got off to a shaky start when I belatedly found I didn’t possess a copy of the film — one of the perils that could jeopardise Hitchcock Year at any moment (reminder: we are watching all of Hitchcock’s films, one a week, for a year). Then I found my old VHS, which turns out to be a Rohauer Collection copy which means old Raymond R has been up to his old tricks and spliced a couple of hideous new title cards on front of the print. But apart from that, it seemed to be intact, apart from a disturbing moment when Laughton is bearing down on ingenue Maureen O’Hara and some seriously weird continuity suggests he’s attempted something unspeakable which the censor has frown upon. But they can’t censor the glint in his eye, as he once boasted.

I was kind of dreading this film. Even Charles Barr can’t find much to be enthusiastic about in English Hitchcock, my bible for this part of Hitchcock Year (every Hitch buff needs to acquire a copy). I first saw it with my late friend Lawrie, and we actually thought it was underrated. Then I watched it with Fiona, priming her for something better than its reputation suggests, and we both found it worse than even its reputation suggests. And that was only a year or two ago, so seeing it again seemed like a potential ordeal. On the other had, seeing it again after running every previous extant Hitchcock movie (I’m still annoyed that LORD CAMBER’S LADIES, his sole credit as producer for another filmmaker, is not available, and of course it’s tragic that THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE is lost) seemed like it might offer fresh insights or pleasures.

The movie can be enjoyed on at least one level: as a valediction to British cinema. At the time of THE LADY VANISHES, Hitch knew he wanted to move to America, but had not clinched a deal. By the time of JAMAICA INN, the emigration was virtually certain, and Hitch stuffs the film with actors from his previous work. Barr counts eleven, but with the aid of the IMDb I’m able to make it twelve. Given the patchy credits available for Hitch’s early films (who are the kids playing Nova Pilbeam’s brothers in YOUNG AND INNOCENT? We don’t know) it’s almost certain there are more.

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Frederick Piper had been the smutty milkman in THE 39 STEPS, the kindly, smithereened bus conductor in SABOTAGE, and a bit part (unspecified on the IMDb) in YOUNG AND INNOCENT — I’d guess a customer at the greasy spoon cafe.

A. Bromley Davenport was in LORD CAMBER’S LADIES, and George Curzon popped up in YOUNG AND INNOCENT and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. William Fazan was a juror in MURDER! and also played a bit in YOUNG AND INNOCENT. Aubrey Mather was the greengrover in SABOTAGE, who suggests that Oscar Homolka has been showing films that are “a little too ‘ot!”

Basil Radford had an avuncular pert in YOUNG AND INNOCENT before achieving immortality as one half of Charters & Caldicott in THE LADY VANISHES. Leslie Banks, a slightly unsuitable hero in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, makes a suitable villain here.

The impression that Hitch is strolling down Memory Lane with his casting here is strengthened by the reappearance of Mr. Memory himself, Wylie Watson from THE 39 STEPS.

Emlyn Williams, intriguing and underused in this film, had contributed as a writer to THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, a role that hadn’t even gotten him introduced to Hitchcock. Edwin Greenwood was likewise better known as a writer (and director), and had contributed to the scripts for THE MAN WHO and LORD CAMBER’S LADIES.

Marie Ault, uncredited here as a coach passenger, had played major roles in THE LODGER (as the landlady) and THE RAT, an early Ivor Novello film upon which Hitch and Alma worked together.

John Longden had been of service to Hitchcock since BLACKMAIL, in which he’s the leading man. He provided a cameo in ELSTREE CALLING, was one of only two non-Irish players in JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK, and was a supporting cast member in THE SKIN GAME and YOUNG AND INNOCENT. Here he’s uncredited as the coachman, but he’d continue to play small roles for Michael Powell — it’s his voice you hear at the beginning of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH — the greatest thing Longden ever did as an actor. “This is the universe…”

Clare Greet was the fortune teller in THE RING, the mother in THE MANXMAN, a juror in MURDER!, a conspirator-in-bloomers in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, and Sylvia Sidney’s cook in SABOTAGE, all colourful roles that enhanced the world of Hitchcock’s films. She’s also in LORD CAMBER’S LADIES, but she goes all the way back to NUMBER THIRTEEN, Hitchcock’s first, lost, and probably never-completed short. JAMAICA INN was her last film.

So this really is a sort of compendium of Hitchcockian bit-part players. If he’d managed to cast Gordon Harker it wouldn’ve been perfect: CHAMPAGNE and THE FARMER’S WIFE are two of the few Hitch films not represented above. RICH AND STRANGE, DOWNHILL, EASY VIRTUE, NUMBER 17, WALTZES FROM VIENNA, SECRET AGENT and the two German productions are the others. Mostly films Hitchcock had problems with, either because he didn’t like them, or they flopped. Throw in Percy Marmont and Hitch himself and nearly every Hitch film could’ve been represented here.

And the valedictory aspect of the film is strengthened by the fact that I don’t think anoy of these actors, to whom Hitch had been quite loyal, ever worked with him again. Of all the people in this movie, ironically it was only Laughton who returned, in THE PARADINE CASE.

The preceeding passages are dedicated to Diarmid Mogg of The Unsung Joe, the interweb’s finest resource for bit-part player stories.

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A young girl from Ireland (Maureen O’Hara) comes to stay with relatives in Cornwall and uncovers a gang of wreckers, led by the local squire (Charles Laughton).

A digression on the art of wrecking: Interestingly, I once heard that there’s no evidence that wrecking — the deliberate luring of ships onto rocky straits for piratical purposes — ever took place. Since I can’t imagine any crime being conceived without there being somebody loathsome enough to carry it out, I have to assume that wrecking simply isn’t practical. Of course, you could crash a ship that way — my old friend Lawrie was on a boat in WWII and they accidentally lined up, not on the harbour lights as they thought, but on the lights of a moving car. Ended up in the middle of a coastal road. But maybe the problem is getting to the cargo after the ship has foundered. If the ship is sinking, you’re not going to manage it. If the ship isn’t sinking, the crew will likely stay aboard and cause you problems…

Running the movie for the third time, I was really  impressed by it. Perhaps you have to notice and be annoyed by all the things that are wrong with it in order to get past that and appreciate its considerable virtues. The things that are wrong with it include ~

An unsuitable leading man. This kind of thing had plagued Hitchcock throughout his British period. The UK talent pool was just not that full of suitably dashing male leads, and actors were often chosen who had succeeded in the theatre, where the requirements are a bit different. Here we get Robert Newton, who would have been fiercely compelling as a vicious wrecker, but is somewhat muted as a dashing secret agent. He’s just too repellent, physically, even though his nose is not yet fully radioactive with booze. In any case, the hero plays third banana to the heroine and the villain in this one, so I guess top stars would not have been attracted to the part.

Implausibilities. These seem more bothersome in a period romp than they would be in a nightmarish contemporary thriller. When conjuring a historical world onscreen, it seems to help if the filmmakers pay attention to niceties, and Hitch certainly damages the credibility of the characters by having Newton foolishly allow his rowing boat to drift away, or by letting O’Hara escape a crowd of bandits just by sneaking off when their backs are turned.

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The gratuitous. In a fairly tight film (even if marred by too many escapes and recaptures) it’s a surprise when the film pauses to allow a captured young wrecker throw a fit of hysterics. “I’m too young to hang!” He’s a character we haven’t even noticed before. What’s he doing here? One can only assume he was somebody’s boyfriend.

Declining tension. In a complex plot of cross and double-cross, the most satisfying ending is the one which, like the famous climax of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, wraps things up neatly. But JAMAICA INN spends an unconscionable amount of time in the third act having the heroes repeatedly win — first the menacing Leslie Banks (I admired his ability to hurl trunks upstairs) is converted to the cause of good, and then killed. Then the wreckers are rounded up. Now all that’s left is to catch Charles Laughton, who has conveniently gone mad. He’s abducted Maureen, and intends to whisk her to the continent, but that won’t do, you see  — a climax depends upon imminent peril, not longterm possible jeopardy. Consider: supposing Laughton succeeds and takes Maureen away with him. What then? At some point in the future, she may escape. Our palms remain dry.

Trapped aboard ship by the military, Laughton aims his flintlock at O’Hara. This is more like it. But he soon abandons this plan and climbs the rigging. Now O’Hara calls for the men not to shoot, because Laughton is insane and not responsible. Are we supposed to be rooting for Laughton at this point? The big chap leaps to his death and —

–t he other great observation Charles Barr makes is about the ending of this film, comparing Barbara Harris’s wink at the end of FAMILY PLOT, the final Hitchcock movie, with the last gesture of JAMAICA INN — Horace Hodges, as Laughton’s butler, stares at his fallen master and shakes his head sadly. Both gestures are intended more for the audience’s benefit than for anyone else in the movie, and so if we take Hodges’ shake as Hitchcock’s comment on his British period, or at least this movie, it becomes an amusing and cynical put-down by the departing master.

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But, weighed against the above weaknesses are many notable strengths, from the Germanic design (the Inn seems to be melting in the rain) to O’Hara’s perf, for which the word “feisty” would be all too inadequate (she barely flinches when Emlyn Williams tears open her top [Emlyn Williams? Are you sure?]) and of course Laughton himself. 

Although ~ the great man’s makeup never really stopped annoying me. Both he and Banks sport thick dirty eyebrows which aren’t where they ought to be, and Laughton’s strange plastic forehead meets his owl’s beak nose in a big wrinkle which creases up in moments of high emotion and then stays like that when he relaxes. It’s a film of queer makeups. Emlyn Williams’s five O’clock shadow just looks like somebody’s turned the brightness down on his chin.

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But the actual acting from Charles defies his ludicrous appearance, and dialogue wiz Sidney Gilliat (in sadly his only job for Hitch apart from the sublime LADY VANISHES) provides “Sir Humphrey Pengallon” with some fine fruity speeches. When Banks tells him of the sailors who were butchered to facilitate the theft of some plush fabric, he retorts, “Well what have they to live for, poor scum, you were right to put them out of their misery. Look at this exquisite stuff, worth the miserable lives of a thousand rum-rotten sailors, perfection of its own kind. That’s all that matters, Merlyn, whatever is perfect of its kind. I’d transport all the riff-raff in Bristol to Botany Bay to save one beautiful woman a single headache. Something you don’t understand, never will. Because you’re neither a philosopher nor a gentleman.” Laughton’s phrasing is magnificent, running sentences together, as I’ve tried to suggest in my transcription. Also, he makes the speech while sauntering around the room, caressing the fabric and then holding his arms aloft as if to either flex his biceps like a bodybuilder or dance the tarantella. It’s arresting.

Along with the things that are right and the things that are wrong with the film (and the bad things are mainly in the last third, which explains why people tend to remember the film with such slight affection), there are the things which are not wrong with it. Hitchcock was concerned that revealing Laughton to be the villain would surprise nobody, and he’s right. But he solves the problem nicely — Sir Humph is practically introduced as villain, a debauched nobleman calling for his “figurine” (not sure I can explain that one — you just have to see it). Hitch then plays the dramatic irony for all its worth, as O’Hara and Newton put their faith in Sir H and he stabs them in the back at his leisure.

The rich supporting cast also offers many pleasures. Marie Ney gets the most emotional scenes, as Banks’s put-upon wife. Intriguingly, the absuive relationship is neatly mirrored by Laughton’s interactions with his long-suffering butler. The wreckers are a fabulous assortment of swine and psychopaths, with Salvation Watkins (Wylie Watson), the religious zealot and career criminal, getting many of the best lines, and Mervyn Johns and Morland Graham also effectively grotesque. Emlyn Williams is really striking, even with the strange dark-glowing designer stubble and an accent that fluctuates from the Welsh valleys to Cornwall by way of Bow Street.

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JAMAICA INN, I’ve come to realise, is no disgrace. Through Maureen O’Hara (by far the toughest Hitchcock heroine), we could write about Hitchcock getting in touch with his Irish roots again, and through Laughton we could examine issues of class in Hitchcock. Laughton is also the first major character in a Hitchcock film who looks somewhat like Hitch, and possibly something could be made of that. But I’m content to remark that the film has a lot more on its side than I had previously thought.

“It rhymes with joy”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2009 by dcairns

Froy! Froy! Froy!

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Dame May Whitty, reminding me somewhat of my late maternal grandmother.

Charles Barr, the master of English Hitchcock and the author of English Hitchcock, makes much play of the fact that the vanishing lady in THE LADY VANISHES, Miss Froy, sounds like an uncompleted “Freud”. A Freudian slip of a girl. Likewise he structures this analysis around those moments when Margaret Lockwood, as plucky heroine Iris Henderson, loses consciousness: falling asleep in a hotel bed, then knocked silly by a falling window-box; fainting from accumulated stress, and then pretending to pass out after being drugged. Each of these moments is a further step into Dream Country — the last one may be an embracing of the logic of nightmare. 

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I like this idea, but I got interested in another one. Fiona, who hadn’t seen the film in years, was of course totally charmed by it, and while noticing how weird it was, which certainly ties in with the Barr vision of the film as a surreal odyssey into the realm of nightmares, she was also struck by how unsympathetic everybody in it was. Everybody but Miss Froy, who rhymes with joy.

So there’s a potential reading of the film which takes its theme as the human, humane element of our nature being lost, and recovered through a struggle. As the struggle goes on, characters who are capable of nobility start to manifest it, and by the end, with Miss Froy restored to them, they (more or less) all pull together and win through against the forces of oppression. This ties in with the film’s reputation as a key pre-war movie which, while taking place in a fictitious European locale, Bandrieka, and avoiding making strict sense in plot or political terms (“You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a rational explanation for all this,” remarks one character, a touch optimistically), does capture a feeling of international jitters (“England on the brink” does not just refer to the test match) and projects a strong desire for cooperation across class barriers. Authors Launder & Gilliat were fairly left-leaning at this time in their lives.

Hitch had just visited America on a fact-finding mission, hoping to score a contract. Feelers were being sent out by both David Selznick and MGM-British, following Hitchcock’s escape from the patronage of Michael Balcon, who had thoughtfully “protected” him from American offers. Laying aside a Nova Pilbeam project in which she would have played a Catholic schoolgirl whose father gets mixed up in a murder (will she protect him and be damned?), an intriguing-sounding idea, Hitch took over a project begun by Roy William Neill (a brief spoof of Sherlock Holmes anticipates Neill’s celebrated work with Basil Rathbone as the sleuth) which had run aground amid location problems in Yugoslavia. 

The plot is a helter-skelter affair, with constant, breakneck narrative development after the opening act of character introductions and comedy (the film has the strongest and most integrated humour of any of the British thrillers). So I want to concentrate on the people, using them as guides through the maelstrom of plot. It’s often pointed out how bizarre the MacGuffin is in this one, another of Hitch’s musical motifs, “the key clause in a secret treaty between two European nations” — the Hitler-Stalin pact? — coded as a melody, but nobody talks about how strange the whole story is. Bad guys abduct a British spy, Miss Froy, on a train, and hope to smuggle her off swathed in bandages as an accident victim. Fair enough. When Margaret Lockwood asks after the missing woman, they pretend she never existed, and all the other passengers, for private reasons of their own, fall into step with this deception. In the case of the Italian magician (a Hitchcock invention: sleight-of-hand is very important here), the answer is simply that he’s been bribed. The Bandriekan Baroness (Mary Clare from YOUNG AND INNOCENT) is apparently the ringleader, since she turns up at the very end where she has no other reason to be. But how could the bad guys count on the British characters to back them up in their absurd confabulations? It’s a terrific example of Hitchcock damning the plausibilists and going full steam into dreamland.

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Margaret Lockwood is a superb heroine, and it’s regrettable she never worked with Hitchcock again, although she certainly made more films of this kind. Apart from her work as a wicked lady in THE WICKED LADY and similar Gainsborough melodramas, she showed plenty of pluck in thrillers for Carol Reed (NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH) and Roy Ward Baker (HIGHLY DANGEROUS — Baker was an assistant on THE LADY VANISHES). Here she’s sexy, snappy, and funny without seeming to try.

Mind you, she partakes of the film’s deliberate lack of sympathy early on: she and her two friends (a young unknown, plus Googie Withers, a great survivor of this era) are pretty shameless in their exploitation of the hotel manager, and despite being new money, they’ve picked up some class prejudices: seeing that the hotel is crowded, one remarks, “Don’t tell me Cook’s have started running cheap tours here?” Although that’s pretty mild compared to Charters and Caldicott. When Miss Froy asks for help finding a bag at the station, they basically blank her. But Mags redeems herself by picking up the old dear’s fallen spectacles, a good deed that promptly gets her beaned by a would-be assassin.

There’s also the moment where she bribes the hotel manager to have noisy guest Michael Redgrave evicted. We’re clearly meant to see this as not cricket, and it’s used to justify Redgrave’s subsequent caddish behaviour. (Selznick would later object to Hitchcock’s tendency to have heroes behave like boors.) Now, I like my sleep, and we live in a neighbourhood where it’s often disturbed by late-night revellers, so I’m on la Lockwood’s side here. In pursuit of a good night’s kip, anything up to small-arms fire is acceptable. We even cheered when the serenading folk-singer gets throttled a minute later.

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Anyway, what keeps us on Margaret’s side despite the more abrasive moments is probably her mock-melodramatic speech where she explains that she’s getting married out of ennui. It’s so neatly written and perfectly delivered that we just can’t wait to see what mad adventure is going to knock this world-weary lass out of her tired expectations.

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Michael Redgrave. The man to whom Hitchcock is supposed to have said “Actors are cattle.” Redgrave said he realised later that Hitchcock was trying to shock him out of a superior attitude. He had been shocked by the speed with which Hitchcock demanded a take. “in the theatre we’d rehearse this for three weeks.” “In this medium we have three minutes,” said Hitch. It was Paul Lukas, whom Redgrave respected, who talked him into taking the work seriously. But there’s no trace of this diffidence onscreen: Redgrave is an amusing and eccentric hero, maybe even better than Donat (the previous benchmark). 

The character, an eccentric researching a book on European folk dances, is about as whimsical as one might safely try to get away with in a thriller, and maybe it’s the quality of the execution that makes it work so well, rather than any brilliance in the concept of the character. But L&G have shrewdly calculated that, in a film crowded with stereotypes and repressed Brits, both types that must conform to certain expectations, a free-wheeling Bohemian makes a refreshing blast of anarchy for the audience. And since Redgrave’s hero doesn’t play by the rules (there’s some very funny dirty fighting in the battle with the magician), he’s free to surprise us and break from genre expectations.

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Paul Lukas as the suave doctor, suggesting plausible psychological reasons why Miss Froy must be a hallucination, ought to be obvious as the villain, but he’s not. Hitch cleverly sees the point where the audience is likely to catch on, and tips us the wink with a shifty reaction shot from P.L. Then he can build suspense as the medico tries to press doped drinks on our unsuspecting protags, a weighty low-angle shot making the glasses loom like henchmen. Lukas is still standing at the film’s conclusion: “As they say in England, jolly good luck to them,” he smiles. Does he represent the still-lurking threat of fascism in Europe?

A character composed largely from cliches, the bad guy is brought to life by Lukas with a fine display of simpering when he unveils his true nature. And there’s really little change in how we feel about him when he goes from sympathetic brain specialist (no pesky distinction is made between psychiatry and neurosurgery here) to villainous spymaster: the guy offering the rational explanation is always the enemy in a film like this.

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Basil Radford (seen in YOUNG AND INNOCENT) and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott got whole new careers out of this film, having played assorted roles beforehand. They can be seen as a double-act in the Charles Crichton comedy episode of DEAD OF NIGHT (generally derided as the film’s weakest part, but I still like it), and Thorold Dickinson’s THE NEXT OF KIN, and actually reprised their roles as C&C in a whole series of films. The aforementioned NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH is a gloves-off version of LADY, with proper Nazi bad guys, and Rex Harrison squiring Margaret Lockwood through the alpine thrills. When Harrison drags up as an SS officer, it’s almost too much stimulation to bear. Charters and Caldicott are again along for the ride. 

In CROOK’S TOUR the duo got a film to themselves. All I remember of it is one of them opening a door marked bathroom and nearly plunging down a sheer crevasse into the raging Bosphorus below. “That’s not the bathroom, that’s the Bosphorus,” he remarks. “The sign’s wrong, then,” says his chum, “It shouldn’t say bathroom, it should say Bosphorus.”

Thereafter, Lauder & Gilliat brought them along for luck when they because producer-directors, showing them in wartime in MILLIONS LIKE US, but when they tried to deploy them in I SEE A DARK STRANGER (Trevor Howard and Deborah Kerr, maybe L&G’s best film) the actors proved awkward, so they replaced them with two identical stooges named Spanswick and Goodhusband. S&G are almost as good as C&C, but not quite.

“They’re horrible!” Fiona protested, and it’s true that, in embodying the Englishman abroad, C&C are twin concatenations of snobbery, bigotry, prudery, arrogance, thoughtlessness and selfishness. However, they do redeem themselves by being good in a scrape. A pretty sharp portrait of Britain at the time. Radford’s underplaying when he’s shot is priceless: he looks slightly let down. When he manages to cut off some innocent fellow’s important phone call, he becomes a portrait of sheepishness, as if he might confess to the whole thing, but Wayne shushes him with a slight casting-down of the eyes. “Leave it,” say the eyes.

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Even more unpleasant is Cecil Parker, as an aspiring legal somebody, off on a fling with a married woman, Linden Travers (Yay! Miss Blandish!). He’s the one who lies for the basest of reasons, to avoid a scandal. He also gets one of the film’s best jokes, when Travers complains about his fussiness in booking separate rooms. “You weren’t so particular in Paris.” “That was entirely different,” he blusters, “The exhibition was at it’s height.” “I realise that now,” deadpans Travers, “No need to rub it in.”

(Launder & Gilliat topload the script with dirty jokes, most of them genuinely witty, aided by uncredited contributions from Val Guest and whoever else happened by the writing room. Redgrave gets some good ones about illegitimacy and toilets, and the hotel manager squeezes some good malapropist double entendres in: “You can have the maid’s room. But first she must come to your room and -” here, he gestures at his own attire – “remove her wardrobe.” Emile Boreo, by the way, is great as the hotelier, a distant cousin of Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis in Preston Sturges and Mitchell Leisen’s EASY LIVING, perhaps.)

Parker is not only a weasel, morally and sexually, he’s an appeaser, which means his death at the end, waving a white flag, is a salutary thing, or intended to be. By refusing to believe in the foreign menace, he condemns himself to death, the one moment in the film where it’s nakedly political in a way none of the British thrillers quite are otherwise.

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Leaving aside the various funny foreigners — the film both has and eats its cake by mocking the Brits for mocking them, and then mocking them itself — that leaves us with the nun in high heels. Sinister sisters tip-tap through Hitchcock’s oeuvre like ravens. Catherine Lacey had a long career that more or less started with this film, taking in I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING and Michael Reeves’ THE SORCERERS, where she’s paired with Karloff and manages to make him look innocuous, and then near the end she’s the old lady in the wheelchair with the canaries in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES. She must have had some stories.

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Which leads us back to Dame May Whitty (few other actors made both British and American films with Hitch, but Dame May would return in SUSPICION) as Miss Froy, seen here being lifted off the loo, one of many indignities she’s subjected to. Writers naming PSYCHO as the first American film with a toilet onscreen may be correct, but Hitchcock was no stranger to lavatorial matters, and the pan can be glimpsed during a pan of another kind here. Miss Froy, who is not only a whimsical governess (she never breaks character); a master spy; the subject of a magician’s trick which sees her reappear at film’s end at least as mysteriously as she originally disappeared, and with no hint of explanation — Miss Froy, whose true name must be spelled M-A-C-G-U-F-F-I-N.

The Blackface Strangler

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2009 by dcairns

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And so to the delightful bonbon that is Hitchcock’s YOUNG AND INNOCENT, penultimate film in the classic thriller sextet that closed out Hitchcock’s British period (with the afterthought that is JAMAICA INN following on behind) and maybe the most underrated and underscreened movie in that sequence. With the exception of one scene, the justly famed crane shot through the Grand Hotel ballroom, leading into an extreme close-up of a killer’s twitching eyes, which is often quoted in Hitch documentaries, this movie is relatively little-discussed, and the discussions rarely acknowledge how charming it is. Maybe because charm is hard to analyse.

In Rohmer and Chabrol’s Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films, the authors observe that Hitchcock is not excited by his leading lady, Nova Pilbeam, but I certainly am. Having been moved by her intense performances as a child in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and especially Berthold Viertel’s LITTLE FRIEND, it was pleasing for me to find her here in near-adult form. She’s grown into her extraordinary face, which always made her look like some kind of mildly sinister elf, without losing any of her naturalness and appeal. She has the best, most convincing smile of any actress in early Hitchcock, and he wisely ends the film on it. It should be noted that not only was Hitch giving Nova her first grown-up role, but he developed a follow-up project for her, so my impression is that he was quite pleased with her as a leading lady. (Don’t know why the follow-up fell through, but remind me to tell you about it.)

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As the hero, Derrick DeMarney is perhaps slightly less satisfactory, seeing as he looks a bit drippy and sounds as if he’s fighting a heavy head cold, but he’s nevertheless likeable and understated. (I have to dismiss memories of him being pervy and sinister in UNCLE SILAS though.) It could be argued that this is a rare Hitchcock with normal people instead of stars in the lead roles. Of course, numerous among Hitch’s Brit flicks didn’t have true stars, but usually that was a problem. Here it feels like a refreshing novelty, and makes the title work all the better.

A struggling screenwriter is implicated in the murder of a Hollywood star, and sets out to prove his innocence with the aid of the chief constable’s teenage daughter. Tracked by the police, he seeks the raincoat whose belt was used to strangle the victim — a raincoat last seen in the possession of an elderly tramp.

From the opening strains of “Nobody Can But the Drummer Man” over the credits, this film comes on with gusto, an effect maintained by the first scene, in which the soon-to-be killer and his soon-to-be victim argue savagely, filmed by Hitchcock in an elaborate single take, with the characters twisting around each other like fighting cats, hissing insults at each other. It’s a complex piece of blocking and focus-pulling, with the choice of focus often rather interesting —

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After the woman turns up dead on the beach, young Derrick finds himself caught in a (rather flimsy) web of circumstantial evidence. One might think that, given the body’s location, the issue of footprints in the sand might be a key one, but nobody shows any interest in that sort of nicety. I suspect that Josephine Tey’s source novel, from which the writing team led by Charles Bennett borrowed only the initial set-up, may have made play with this kind of investigative stuff, but Hitchcock is interested more in the chase and the set-piece obstacles along the way. In other words, he intends to copy THE 39 STEPS, and not for the last time.

Boy meets girl at the police station, where Derrick faints and Nova, happening by, offers first aid. This leads to two delicious moments, the first being a bit of period slang, as Nova vigorously rubs the unconscious man’s ears: “Brings them round like fun!”

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The second is the moment where young Derrick awakens with his head resting on the 17-year-old Nova’s modest bosom, and Hitch smirkingly cuts to a close-up of him for the exact moment he becomes aware of this, then back to medium shot to show nova becoming all to conscious of it too. A saucy moment worth any number of Megan Foxes.

Then we have a very funny scene with Derrick’s court-appointed lawyer (“We mustn’t despair. Not actually despair.”). JH Roberts is terrific here. Well, he ought to be: looking at his credits, it seems he played nothing but doctors and lawyers his whole career. The  useless solicitor strikes such a glum note that Derrick instantly resolves to flee justice and prove his own innocence in the best comedy-thriller tradition. Meeting up with Nova en route, Derrick slowly entangles the lass in his schemes, as she reluctantly offers succour, first out of guilt, then a sense of adventure, then love.

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“I’m absolutely terrified of policemen.”

The first part of Nova’s seduction into crime is particularly nice. Accepting some change from Derrick to pay for petrol, she dumps him at an old mill-house and drives home in her decomposing jalopy, resolved to have no more to do with the  business. But when dining with her family (dad is the reliably sweet Percy Marmont, recovered from his Alpine tumble in SECRET AGENT) she learns from the array of little brothers that Derrick had given her his last few pennies, and now may be starved into surrender — or death! The child actors are all excellent (none are credited, although the youngest has the Pilbeam brow, and may be a genuine sibling), and it’s another suspenseful meal, of the kind Hitchcock had already exploited in BLACKMAIL (altogether now: “Knife!”) and THE 39 STEPS and would perfect in SHADOW OF A DOUBT. I’ll say it again: food is important in Hitchcock.

Dogs, too: while Nova’s pooch, Towser, is the only real featured player among the assorted hounds in British Hitchcock, every damn one of them features a dog of one kind or another, making the canine walk-on a more constant signature than Hitchcock’s own cameos. Again, this insight comes to you courtesy of Charles Barr’s English Hitchcock.

And this is a very English Hitchcock, reprising the dynamics of THE 39 STEPS, but with the rolling hills of England instead of the more rugged Highland landscape of the earlier film. As a result, the adventure is a bit more gentle — there’s only one killing in the film, off-screen, and the jeopardy is what the censors would call “mild”. It feels like Hitch wanted a light-hearted, even light-weight story after the heavy tragedy of SABOTAGE.

The escape from the mill-house is perhaps a little tame, in fact, and it’s not helped by the implausibility of Nova escaping unrecognised, despite the cops spotting her very distinctive doggie and car. The trail then leads to a transport cafe (is that a young Anthony Asquith washing dishes in the background, hoping to meet some rough truckers?) where a brawl breaks out, but Nova obtains the information Derrick needs, and thence to Nova’s aunt’s place, so Nova can alibi her absence from home with a quick visit. This leads to another favourite Hitchcock device, the tense scene played out during a family gathering. In THE 39 STEPS and SABOTEUR, the master-criminal is surrounded by his wife and kid/s, creating a surreal disconnection between the sinister plotting and the outward innocence. Here, it’s the protagonists who are the furtive ones, trying to allay the suspicions of the nosey aunt (Mary Clare, THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, THE LADY VANISHES) and make their exit as swiftly as possible. They are aided in this by the timely arrival of Basil Radford, not yet associated with the role of his life, playing Charters opposite Naunton Wayne’s Caldicott: Hitchcock’s next film, THE LADY VANISHES, would cement that relationship.

Finally identified by a policeman, and thus incriminated, Nova takes shelter with Derrick at a railway yard, where the lovers part for the night (Nova: “I’m tebbly, tebbly tired.”), she to sleep in the car, he to seek shelter at the flophouse, where he also hopes to find the tramp who nicked his raincoat.

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The railway yard is a classic Hitchcock miniature, impressive in scale and detail, and almost entirely convincing until the camera captures two miniature protagonists, a little replica Derrick and Nova, with car. It’s like Trumpton! I sure wish I had a pose-able Derrick DeMarney action figure when I was growing up. I wish I had a Nova Pilbeam right now.

Derrick in the flophouse recalls Jon Finch, decades later, bedding down at the Sally Army Hostel in FRENZY. Finding his prey, Old Will (Edward Rigby), Derrick practically abducts the old boy and there’s a daring escape (miniature and life-size trains and cars), leading on to the action sequence in the abandoned mine, where they drive to shelter from the law. The car promptly crashes through the mine floor, in a smashing bit of FX engineering, and Nova gets some cliffhanging in ~

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Caught going back for her dog, Nova is sent home to daddy, who feels forced to resign his post because of the disgrace his eldest has brought upon the family. Suddenly I’m reminded of the TV show Veronica Mars, a favourite in this household, where detective daughter was always getting into scrapes and compromising her detective/sheriff dad. There’s something quite powerful and moving about the idea of the independent and highly capable teen who, through youthful exuberance, oversteps the mark and brings disgrace upon the normally proud parent. 

A clew! The recovered raincoat, which was missing its belt and therefore more incriminating than exculpating, turns out to have contained a matchbook from the Grand Hotel (ah! the old matchbook clue! always a favourite), a place Derrick’s never been. The person who stole the coat and gave it to the tramp can be assumed to have strangled the woman with the belt, and may be a habitué of the hotel. The trio of fugitive, cop’s daughter and tramp unite to trap the killer in his (possible) lair.  

(Why did the killer give the incriminating raincoat away? That’s the kind of question it’s maybe not too profitable to ask, except to explore the dream-logic and daring of Hitch’s storytelling.)

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This leads to the spectacular crane shot, moving across the dance floor to pick out the twitching eyes of the murderer, as he sits blacked-up, playing the drums. And at the last moment, a musical motif enters the movie, by way of the song “Nobody Can Like the Drummer Man,” directing our attention towards the culprit even as Hitch’s camera alights upon him like the eye of God. It’s even better because the guy’s eyes twitch in time to the music.

The killer’s freaking out and confessing is somewhat pat, but I’ll forgive that for the lovely shot of Nova, looking from dad to Derrick and smiling her smile — the thriller has served as new romance once more, creating a little family unit.

Hitch was aided on this outing by a regular team of collaborators with whom he had built up secure working relationships: cinematographer Bernard Knowles and editor Charles Frend, both of whom would go onto directing careers of their own; production designer Alfred Junge, who would go on to design A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH; and writer Charles Bennett, as usual complimented by a team of associates.

But the movie marked a break for Hitchcock from his partnership with Michael Balcon and Ivor Montagu, with whom he had quarrelled on SABOTAGE. And since Balcon had been acting as Hitchcock’s unofficial (and unasked-for) agent, rejecting all offers from America, Hitch now started to receive approaches from across the Atlantic. It was not inevitable that the risk-averse homebody would seek adventure in the west, but the allure of big budgets and high technical standards was powerful… but first, a project intended for the American director Roy William Neill would fall into Hitch’s chubby lap, and prove highly suitable.

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The author is anxious to contact anyone who can furnish him with a Nova Pilbeam action figure. No questions asked. The Tippi Hedren one just isn’t doing it.