Archive for George Tabori

Father Benoit’s Bicycle

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2009 by dcairns


USA link:
I Confess
UK link:
Hitchcock DVD Collection – Dial M For Murder / I Confess / Stage Fright / The Wrong Man / Strangers On A Train / North By Northwest

Hitchock’s confession: “The whole treatment was lacking in humour and subtlety.” He’s right: I CONFESS is entirely devoid of comic relief or comic commentary, apart from Father Benoit’s bicycle, which does raise a smile, and a party game where Brian Aherne balances a glass of water on his head. In fact, Benoit is beneficial on a second level, because the thick Quebecois accent of Charles Andre makes the name sound exactly like “Father Bunuel”, and there IS something quite UN CHIEN ANDALOU about the cleric at the handlebars. The idea of Bunuel as a priest is delicious — although Benoit looks a bit more like Pasolini.

Some of the French critics regarded I CONFESS very highly, and while I agree it’s a decent film, I fear the seriousness of theme and aspect may have given it a respect it does not altogether earn as art. But the overt Catholicism makes it a very illuminating film in Hitchcock’s career. A lot of people have commented on the central idea, that Montgomery Clift, as Father Logan, cannot reveal the murderer’s identity, even to save himself from suspicion, because he learned it under the seal of the confessional. As Hitchcock admitted to Truffaut, “We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, ‘Ridiculous!'”

Perhaps the problem could have been alleviated in the dialogue — in Jimmy McGovern’s TV show Cracker, I recall a very clear exposition of the idea that the secret of the confessional is paramount — all other considerations are secondary to it. It doesn’t help that, by the very nature of the story, Monty can’t discuss his problem with anyone else. William Archibald and George Tabori’s screenplay certainly hits most of the story points with a leaden thud, but somehow glosses over this centrally important point. (Tabori is best known, perhaps, for the barmy SECRET CEREMONY, while Archibald’s only other significant screenplay credit is THE INNOCENTS, although he didn’t actually contribute much to that great film.)

Fortunately, Monty can discuss his problem with the audience, using his intensely expressive eyes. Hitchcock at one point planned to have Clift effectively identify the murderer with a glance, a very Hitchcockian idea, but Catholic chief censor Joseph Breen objected that this still counted as a violation of Catholic doctrine. I think Hitchcock privately agreed, which is why he wanted to kill Clift’s character at the end.


DIRECTION. We all love the DIRECTION signs dotted around Quebec. They seem to add a fateful, doomy quality. The Hitchcock cameo is deliberately early: Hitch worried that audiences would be distracted looking for him, and in a serious film like I CONFESS that would be especially harmful. The stairs in Georgetown down which Jack MacGowran and Jason Miller tumble in THE EXORCIST are known as “the Hitchcock steps,” presumably because of this shot.


Great noir photography by Robert Burks, cementing his position as Hitchcock’s cameraman of choice and exploiting the cobbled streets and dark, heavy skies. The Tiomkin score (recycling familiar themes like the medieval death mass) and Burks’ lighting emphasise the darkness and gloom of the story, and may be my favourite things about it, along with Clift’s performance.


As Truffaut pointed out, it’s a remarkable coincidence that the priest O.E. Hasse confesses to has a covert relationship to the murdered man, which makes him a suspect. I guess, as in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, the murder benefits the hero, in this case by ridding him of Anne Baxter’s blackmailer, which adds a metaphysical guilt to his shoulders. We never find out what Clift was planning to do to make the blackmailer stop blackmailing…

Tabori’s and Archibald’s dialogue really doesn’t satisfy me. Charles Andre spends his first scene talking about PAINT, which is a very minor plot point indeed. And he does it in that acc-ent, so it’s “Do you know of enny pain’ zat does not smirl?”


That flashback! I thought the Dutch tilt of Baxter coming downstairs in slomo was preposterous when I first saw it. I guess the O.T.T. romantic schmaltz allies the flashback to Baxter’s POV, though, and Truffaut apparently felt this made it a “lying flashback” like the one in STAGE FRIGHT. It’s certainly a heavily slanted one, and it’s notably silent on the subject of whether Clift had sex with Baxter that night in the gazebo.


Monty gets into a fight with Monsieur Hulot.

This all means that what I thought was the worst thing in the film, the vulgar and overblown flashback, is maybe the most interesting. It may not be successful, but it opens up intriguing possibilities.


What else? Hasse has wild eyes, which he manages to keep under control, and there’s one great scene of him hassling Clift as Clift walks swiftly down a corridor and through a couple of rooms, Hitch cutting fast and rhythmic, piling on the pressure. That’s something the whole film tries to do, crush Clift under the weight of evidence and suspicion and shame. Karl Malden’s detective isn’t a bad guy (the cops in THE WRONG MAN are much meaner) but he’s ruthless as hell, and Hitch indulges his fear of law enforcers while remaining fair to the character. The nightmare is that Malden’s actions are all quite reasonable.

Clift is great, of course. Everybody talks about his eyes, in which we can read everything, but I also like the little smile he gives whenever one of his interrogators says something that’s true. “You’re getting warm,” he’s telling them. It’s a beautiful little smile too. Of course, they all miss the signs.

If the film seems minor to me it’s partly the lack of humour and distinguishing touches in the dialogue, and perhaps even more so the lack of logic at the end. Of course, Hitch is famously illogical, as we’ve seen, but this movie sets up certain expectations in its sombre style, and in the way each event is inexorably forced on by the last. So when Hasse basically goes nuts at the end, it’s unsatisfying. He’s gone through an interesting and credible arc, starting as an incompetent criminal who kills by mistake and experiences persecution mania and guilt, but slowly being corrupted by his desire to escape punishment, so that he deliberately frames Clift. But at the end, he shoots his wife, who was the reason he committed robbery in the first place. Worse, he shoots her to stop he denouncing him, which makes very little sense since he does it in the middle of a crowd. And then, rather than recognizing that the gig is up, he takes everyone on a protracted chase through an irrelevant hotel, wounding or killing someone else (RFK-style, in the hotel kitchen) solely to generate some kind of suspense sequence. We don’t really believe that Clift is still in the frame as a murder suspect (he’s been cleared by the court, and Hasse’s homicidal behaviour is sure to change the tide of public sympathy) and so the only tension is whether Clift will get himself killed. Worse, Anne Baxter leaves with her husband while that question is still unanswered, which seems frankly incredible.

I think I CONFESS deserves to be held to a higher standard of probability than NORTH BY NORTHWEST or even PSYCHO, because the whole narrative problem is a social and psychological one. It’s a good little film, but not quite the triumph Clift’s performance deserves.

I’ll be away most of today — teaching, and then a film translation by Mr Wingrove — but I’ll reply to any comments this evening. Meanwhile, dust off your red-and-blue glasses for next week’s 3D extravaganza…


Heavy symbolism. Earlier, Clift stares balefully at a lobby card for Warner Bros’ THE ENFORCER…

Hey Moondog

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2008 by dcairns

Secret Passage

SECRET CEREMONY is a film maudit if ever there was one. Even many hardcore Loseyites find it hard to defend.

“Anyway, to go back to SECRET CEREMONY, here is how it was finally set up. I was sitting in Rome; I had just been doing the dubbing of BOOM!, Burton was going off to do WHERE EAGLES DARE, or whatever they do — shit — WHERE EAGLES SHIT — and we were all in the Grand Hotel. Elizabeth said ‘Why don’t we do something again?’ I remembered this script and thought she would be ideal for it. I got her the script a few days later from London, and she said ‘I’ll do it’, and we did it, at once. Now, of course, I brought [writer George] Tabori back in and we did a great deal of re-working, mostly out of that particular house.”

~ from Conversations With Losey by Michel Ciment.

(I like Ciment, he has a particular enthusiasm for the mad and visionary strains of British cinema that are at least as big a part of our culture — the valuable part of it — as social observation and all that muck.)

Justify My Love

So, having finished Tennessee Williams’ BOOM! (which is John Waters’ favourite movie for reasons that are evident if you can manage to see it ), while Burton is off where the eagles shit, Liz Taylor is parading around in various Christian Dior outfits in this deeply weird art movie in this weird house in Addison Road, London. The house had been a rest home for the mentally ill, run by some kind of religious organisation who had fallen on hard times — Losey’s regular collaborator Richard MacDonald ran amok in it and created one of the very best London houses in cinema — it stands alongside Asshetton Gorton’s work in THE KNACK and BLOW-UP, and John Clark’s in PERFORMANCE. The great London house films of the period.

Sausage, M'lady?

Munch chomp gnosh

Early on Liz, grieving her lost child, is adopted as mother by orphaned loony Mia Farrow, who cooks her a splendid sausage breakfast. And the film slams on the brakes and simply observes, with Farrow, as Liz wolfs down the lot. A whole breakfast consumed, in silence… It seems like a dreadful mistake at screenplay stage: The script must have said, “She eats the sausages,” and nobody thought anything of it, but it’s one of those sentences, like “The Indians capture the fort,” that really entails much more than it seems to. Yet somehow the film knows we want this. We want to see Liz eat those sausages. All of them. It’s pornographic, but we can’t look away. The fact that Liz is carrying, shall we say, a few extra pounds and Farrow, who does not eat, still has the emaciated spidery limbs she sports in ROSEMARY’S BABY, adds to the pervasive and enticing wrongness of it all. This is a terrible thing we are witnessing.

Later, Liz will pat her jowls reflectively and complain, “Christ, I’m so f=a=t,” her voice rising to a hoarse beep on the final word.

My Last Breath

What’s going on? All the characters are insane, as Losey admitted. This makes things pretty alienating for any audience member with a grasp of reality. And while Losey announced that Farrow’s character was “in every detail thought out as a hysterical schizophrenic,” I get the impression that his sense of those words may be rather loose. Jean-Pierre Melville also described Delon’s character in LE SAMOURAI as schizophrenic, and I have no idea what he meant by that. Autistic might be closer in that case. I think Farrow’s schizophrenia, like protagonist George Harvey Bone’s in Hangover Square, may be a plot device as much as a condition.


(Damnit, I now have private information regarding Farrow’s mental state at the time, but I don’t think I can repeat it. Never mind, Losey loved her, and she’s very good in his film.)

I think that by making Liz’s character so nutty, the film kind of disables itself, since if she functioned as a vaguely reliable guide to the labyrinth, she could get away with being distraught, maybe a bit irrational, but not this totally random screwball she is.

Moon Age Day Dream

Screenwriter George Tabori, who is no Pinter, obviously has no shortage of ideas, but his organisation is lacking. David Caute’s Losey book criticises the dialogue for muddling American and British idioms, but I got the impression that’s Liz’s character — a yank who fakes a Brit accent when she’s pretending to be the mother. It’s just about the one thing I was clear on. But it’s a throw-away film full of throw-away notions, like Farrow’s fear of “Moondog”, the God figure in a William Blake illustration on the bedroom mantel. It probably relates to her incestuous stepfather, and maybe when Robert Mitchum turns up (“C’mon, you know I’m harmless before lunch!” with an Irish beard and a bunch of flowers, we’re meant to be reminded of the sinister figure. But why “Moondog”?

Calypso is... like so

ALTHOUGH — the environments of the film are beautiful and the various performers do fascinating things. Mia Farrow essays her note-perfect English accent, also displayed in Anthony Mann’s swan-song, A DANDY IN ASPIC, and her physical acting is likewise remarkable, all flailing arms and manic grin so wide it threatens to crack the outline of her face and break out on its own. Liz is just Liz, she stomps about, giving her all, seizing on anything she can emote at. Robert Mitchum turns up and shows his bravery again, playing loathsomeness without apology. Decorative eccentricity is provided by Peggy Ashcroft and Pamela Brown, who are always welcome round my place, but Losey’s use of the phrase “sort of comedy relief” in describing them is a clue to the fact that they’re not actually funny, just more neurotic whimsy.

Give it the grin

Richard Rodney Bennett did some fantastic music for Losey, and his stuff here is absolutely right for the film, a messed-up music box tinkle that helps make us feel as crazy as the characters. When Liz and Mia go to the seaside, a stunning resort filmed in Holland, the design and score lift us into a wonderful dream state. Then Mia Farrow shoves a stuffed frog up her dress and pretends she’s pregnant. Put this on a double bill with William Cameron Menzies’ THE MAZE, a 3D mystery in which the lord of a Scottish castle is secretly a giant frog, having never evolved out of the amphibian stage we all supposedly go through in the womb.

What makes you think I want a stain-proof dress?

Better yet, you know what this would make a great Fever Dream Double Featurewith? BOOM! is obviously a good choice, which might prove fatal if you didn’t have strong drink to hand, but try it with Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s THE DRIVER’S SEAT, also known as IDENTIKIT, which has lots of equally barking mad Lizwork in it, and an even louder frock. Liz gets very irate at the suggestion that she might want a stain-proof dress, at one point: a fine Liz moment. It’s from a book by Muriel Spark, apparently reasonably faithful in its adaptation. Ian Bannen is around to supply, what? Himself, I suppose.