Archive for I Saw the Whole Thing

“I’m not going to fail in your bathroom.”

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by dcairns

As we hear, Hitchcock was already planning THE SHORT NIGHT in 1968 while making TOPAZ. That unmade film was preceded by two others, MARY ROSE, nixed by Universal, after which Hitch made TORN CURTAIN, and KALEIDOSCOPE, AKA FRENZY, which was likewise vetoed by Lew Wasserman, leading to the production of TOPAZ in its place. But while KALEIDOSCOPE would have been an experiment in modern film-making techniques, heavily inspired by Antonioni, whose work had impressed Hitchcock enormously, TOPAZ turned into a much more conventional thriller, somewhat influenced by mainstream European cinema, but by no means revolutionary.

Wasserman had objected to the graphic nudity and bloodshed Hitch seemed to be planning for his serial killer movie, and although Leon Uris also had some sex and violence in his doorstop of a political thriller, he seemed a safer bet for Universal, who didn’t want to jeopardize the successful Hitchcock “brand.” In the event, TOPAZ would be a costly flop, and it’s hard to imagine a sexy, gory psycho-thriller from Hitchcock failing in 1969. A case of the major studios lagging behind the times. A case also of Hitchcock not fighting for his artistic freedom, partly because his enemy in this case was a good friend.

I like the idea of Hitchcock as the leading man here, morosely doing his duty without passion or enthusiasm, but in fact the character who seems most like Hitch is Philippe Noiret’s spy — he has Hitch’s heavy lower lip and watery eyes, and his crutch hints at the arthritis which was starting to give the director trouble. His death, a defenestration artfully staged to look like suicide, recalls the time when Alma was ill after the production of VERTIGO, when Hitch talked openly of ending it all. His daughter Pat opened the hotel window and left the room — an odd thing to do, but she was quite clear that this was necessary to convince him to leave thoughts of suicide behind. It seems to have worked.

The cameo — Hitch is wheeled on, then springs to his feet. Unfortunately, as director, it feels more like he trots onto the set, then collapses into a coma.

TOPAZ is such a film maudit that it’s naturally tempting to find things to like about it, which I find easy to do, but I should say up-front that it is indeed an unsuccessful film, in terms of script, casting, and style. Carrying on the ambition of TORN CURTAIN to produce a “realistic Bond,” Hitch runs up against his own counter-realistic vision, struggles with the convoluted source novel, and was basically defeated by lack of time — lack of time to adapt the novel properly, to cast, and for his crew to design the film around his requirements. Designer Henry Bumstead got high blood pressure trying to keep up with the production’s demands, and Edith Head had to costume stars who often had only been cast a couple of days before they were to appear.

Ah, that cast! Hitch was often inspired by his leads in the writing process, and certainly found it useful to know who they would be, which proved impossible here. John Forsythe is absolutely welcome back, but instead of being surrounded by kooks as he was in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, he’s here surrounded with knitwear models. The TV episode I Saw the Whole Thing which Forsythe starred in shows how he’s not really suited to sustaining interest in a void (which is no slam: very few actors could have made TOPAZ more compelling).

Frederick Stafford, our real lead, is more of a problem. It’s not that he’s bad, he’s simply boring in a boring part. If Hitchcock had been able to get a young French Cary Grant, he would have been fine, but obviously such a thing wasn’t going to happen. They don’t make them. If he’d cast a really interesting French actor who didn’t fit his conception of the part, things might also have been fine — an actor with intriguing qualities would have brought something to the thinly-written role. But Hitchcock always liked to fill a pre-conceived outline with a matching actor, which is achievable if you have a large talent pool to draw from. If you don’t, it’s far better to abandon your plans and go with what works.

Stafford is the worst of all possible worlds, because he isn’t interesting and isn’t French. He’s a decent enough actor, but ability is secondary to intrigue. He doesn’t intrigue. And he’s German. His role isn’t a particularly hard one to play: all it needed, really, was a Frenchman. With the bland impression he tends to create, Stafford’s looks count against him.

Playing opposite Stafford is Dany Robin, who seems as dull as him, but isn’t — watch how she comes to life whenever she has someone else to act with. Poor Fred does inestimable damage to this film just by being in it, just by standing there and eating up screen space which could more profitably be granted to wallpaper or sky.

Everyone else is basically a cameo, given the story’s globe-trotting action (essentially the secret backstory of the Cuban missile crisis, and a French spy ring reporting to Moscow). Some of the cameos are interesting (John Vernon and Karin Dor), some are actually fascinating (Roscoe Lee Browne), but none are around long enough to hurt or help the film too much. Of course, everybody plays the wrong nationality: German Dor and Canadian Vernon play Cubans, Browne plays Martinican, the very Swedish Per-Axel Arosenius plays a defecting Russian (I feel I should say “defective”)…  And the weakest stuff is at the end, where everybody’s French. French actors acting with each other in English shouldn’t present a colossal problem, as long as they all speak good English. If they don’t, one starts to wonder: why don’t they just speak French? And then one thinks, ah, they are speaking French, it’s just being decoded by the cinematic BabelFish Translator. So why are some better at it than others? The whole artifice crumbles.

Here, Dany Robin is less fluent than her husband, and while the lovely Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret are always welcome, their scenes tend to sound a little uncertain. It gives everything a quality of awkwardness.

But, there are virtues throughout: after the disappointing stock footage titles, buoyed up by Maurice Jarre’s score (which sounds exactly as a Euro-thriller ought to sound), there’s a terrific crane shot at the Russian embassy. A slight nervous tremor makes this shot seem impossibly difficult, as I imagine it was. Cameraman Jack Hildyard, who’d worked for David Lean on his last British shoots, had been doing big international films for years now, and does a good job with TOPAZ — but Hitch never found another Robert Burks.

Arosenius, though ethnically miscast, does a fine job with the Russian ambassador, and Samuel Taylor, who scripted VERTIGO, manages a pleasing character touch for Forsythe when he has him order new stockings for the ambassador’s daughter after she tears them during the defection.

The plane touches down in Washington — seemingly shot at 16 fps — ground crew scurry about like Keystone Kops. Why was this shot used? The flaw is trivial, but easily corrected simply by deleting the unnecessary, rote airport establishing shot.

We’re already in trouble, and it thickens — such is the convoluted narrative that everything seems to take a long time, and things are set up which don’t seem to be necessary: they pay off two hours later, but by then you’re bored. It’s really a sophisticated and clever piece of plotting, disguised perfectly as a bloated and tedious one.

Another Hitchcock character who draws (see also: BLACKMAIL, REBECCA, VERTIGO — people either draw or they don’t, and since Hitchcock did, he was always keen to feature his half of humanity in his films, it seems), Stafford’s son-in-law, Michel Subor (the narrator of JULES ET JIM), leads us to Roscoe Lee Browne, who fascinates me. I wanted a film about this character. Alternatively, I couldn’t see why his action couldn’t have been given to Stafford, who hasn’t had anything interesting to do. But Stafford is so dull, I’m glad Browne gets the job.

Although much of TOPAZ looks flat and studio-airless, like a TV movie (seeing it in widescreen does help) the recreated hotel exterior is an impressive build (the real place where the Cuban UN delegates stayed and parties had been demolished) and Hitch’s filming of much of the action with a long lens makes this his most convincing faux-documentary moment. In the 70s, telephoto shots like this would almost become a cliché, but Hitch is somewhat ahead of the game for 1969. Perhaps the European influence.

Top-secret meeting in the loo with John Vernon’s male secretary. Later, Stafford will find hidden evidence in a book in an aeroplane lavatory. Toilets are very important to Hitchcock, almost as vital as food. Maybe some Freudian should write a thesis on this.

After a genuinely tense sequence where Browne photographs stolen Cuban documents (the filmmakers’ portrayal of the Cuban delegates as drunken near-savages, while rather crude, does enhance the sense of jeopardy), he leaps from a fire escape into an awning, a dodge last used by George Sanders in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT — another character who rather usurped the hero’s role.

Roscoe Lee Browne is utterly cool, but not in an obvious, “urban” or “secret agent” way. He is, after all, a florist. But the way he eludes pursuit by ducking into the back of his shop, donning a hat, and finishing the preparation of a funeral wreath — that’s suave. I guess the whole reason his character is necessary is because Stafford can’t run into John Vernon at this point, but does Vernon really need to be here? Still, given a choice between Browne and Stafford having screen time, we can count ourselves lucky the better man won.

Off to Cuba, where again Stafford won’t do anything exciting, leaving the work and risks to his agents. His single tense moment, departing through customs, happens offscreen. Defenders of the film may argue that it’s unusual and therefor interesting to have a hero who delegates all the exciting jobs, but I would respond by quoting ALIEN screenwriter Dan O’Bannon: “many things are interesting. Not many things are dramatic.” Clichés become clichés often because they’re useful dramatically — it’s no trick to avoid a cliché and provide a dull alternative, the skill lies in dodging both the obvious and the unsatisfying.

Cuba lacks any character as interesting as Browne (maybe he fascinates so because we learn so little about him) so it more or less drifts past me, enlivened by some bravura moments — the Pieta (above) and the death of Karin Dor (a former Bond girl playing a character loosely based on Castro’s daughter, but the fact that she dies shows just how far the filmmakers are willing to depart from the established facts, even if TOPAZ was really SAPPHIRE and most of the incidents have real-life counterparts). Asides from these highlights — and Dor’s purple dress spreading on the tiled floor like a pool of blood (pulled by five stagehands with monofilament wires) is truly a coup de theatre — we mainly get different ways of concealing cameras in food: two of Hitchcock’s favourite things, presented in surreal conjunction. It seems like Stafford should have discovered the secret film strips not in a book, but in a biscuit, just for the sake of symmetry.

If Cuba was a little dull and misshapen, France seems even more listless, although at last we start to feel loose characters like Stafford’s son-in-law, and even his wife, have some real reason for being in the film. (If, as some have suggested, Stafford represents Hitchcock, a European working for the Americans, pulling off a thankless mission that takes him around the world — a married man with one married daughter — a political realist with a naive belief in justice and honesty, caught up in a dirty business, then casting a quirky character actor would surely have been better than this plywood Cary Grant, and would have served as an alibi for the fact that he never does anything heroic. And even if Stafford is in some ways Hitch-like, it’s Forsythe who has an assistant named Peggy, a nice homage to Hitch’s faithful Peggy Robertson.) And now we come to the romantic triangle — Stafford’s lover being safely dead, we can focus on Michel Piccoli as the head of Topaz and his covert relationship with Dany Robin. Romantic triangles go way back in Hitchcock (THE LODGER, THE MANXMAN, BLACKMAIL), although we are unable to find any definite autobiographical reason why they seem to obsess him so.

The narrative is nicely woven to allow Robin to recognize her lover as the ringleader, but doesn’t seem to unfold in an interesting way. Uris and Taylor have been technically skillful, but nobody’s looking out for real sources of dramatic tension, it seems. And then come the three endings. It’s a shame the stadium duel isn’t attached to the most widely available and complete version of the film, but only included as an extra — I’d far rather watch the film through and at least get rewarded with a climax of sorts for my trouble, even if again Stafford is cheated of the chance to be an action hero. The airport ending satisfied Hitchcock’s sense that big spies never really get punished, but it feels very hollow and unconvincing when Stafford smiles back at Piccoli. Why would he? But I like the line “Anyhow, that’s the end of Topaz,” because it reminds me of “The Trouble with Harry is Over.” The only truly putrid ending is the one cobbled together from stray odds and ends. Samuel Taylor, who suggested it, had a decent idea, but it can’t be executed by hauling out off-cuts from elsewhere in the movie, by freeze-framing on a door, by slinging newspapers around. And earlier in the film Hitch has attempted to prepare for this sequence by inserting a few headlines, including one bizarre superimposed newspaper…

Maybe Stafford should have said, “That’s the end of Topaz, thank Christ!” since that’s how the viewer is apt to feel after two and a half hours. And yet, study of the film is far more interesting than casual viewing of it, making it a nice illustration of the auteurist principle that a bad film by Hitchcock is more rewarding of study than a good film by just about anybody else.

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After the Cat

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2009 by dcairns

vlcsnap-614526If you have enjoyed this image, may I recommend Chickens in the Movies by Jon Stephen Fink.

TO CATCH A THIEF is, at times, more than lightly likable. Hitch was on a roll, and if this movie sets him fewer technical and conceptual challenges than his most ambitious works, it nevertheless shows him at such a peak of skill that he and his team can’t go five minutes without achieving a beautiful effect.

Hitch had bought David Dodge’s book for Transatlantic — I wrote here of a precursor to the story — to make as an independent movie, but finally made it as part of his Paramount deal. Cary Grant, a one-time acrobat himself, must have been the first and only choice to play John Robie, acrobat turned cat-burglar turned resistance fighter, now very comfortably retired. And Grace Kelly to play opposite him, naturally.

Fiona hadn’t seen this one in a while, so we watched together. Just as we were enjoying the way the opening titles slant off on the diagonal, following the angle of the shop window, Hitch pulls a fast one, tracking in on the tourist slogan — and we well remember those Cote d’Azur landscapes, so the gesture seems quite unironic — and then he cuts to a screaming woman slathered in expensive face cream, and thence to the subject of her distress, an empty jewelry case — and we’re OFF.

2catch12catch2Fiona couldn’t stop laughing at this Eisensteinian joke for at least a minute afterwards.

Cary Grant, who’s brown as a nut, which makes sense given his choice of retirement home, but is perhaps a bit extreme for Technicolor to cope with in night scenes, is scarcely required to perform any activity more athletic than pouring a brandy, but convinces us of his gymnastic prowess just by the way he crosses a room, Cary Grant, I say, pulls a fast one and eludes the police in a cross-country chase (filmed by helicopter, still a fresh and surprising approach at the time) actually performed by his housekeeper — in the first of a few trick substitutions in John Michael Hayes’ script — Cary Grant, I say again, is rather wonderful here. The plot requires him to catch the real jewel thief plaguing the South of France, in order to avoid arrest himself, which is excuse enough for some light comedy and glamour. It’s odd that any excuse at all should be needed, but somehow it is.

2catch4The caged bird on the bus recalls those love birds leaning into the curves as Tippi speeds along in THE BIRDS… but that’s later. Cary seems to almost notice his director…

Shoring up the comedy is John Williams, sometimes cited as the actor who worked for Hitchcock more than anyone else, although I really must do the math sometime and compare him to John Longden or one of the other forgotten British players from the early days, and then Jessie Royce Landis and Grace Kelly, but first there’s the slight hiccup of the French contingent.

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I have no problem with Brigit Auber, whose French accent is just thick enough to be cute — any thicker and we’d be struggling to maker her out and she’d be struggling to act through it. Her gamine look is tres charmant, although that hairdo only looks really good when she’s wet, as Fiona pointed out. The rest of the time it has an unfortunate air of the tonsure. I wonder Hitchcock didn’t snap up Bardot, but Auber, fresh from Duvivier’s SOUS LE CIEL DE PARIS, is very good. But poor Charles Vanel couldn’t speak English to save his life, so apart from the pleasing Clouzot connection (he made LES DIABOLIQUES the same year), he kind of wrecks his bits. A more dynamic physical presence might have helped too, to serve as a convincing suspect for the Cat. Another odd thing — when Vanel speaks French, he uses his own voice, which means both his timbre and acoustics change whenever he shifts to English.

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It’s the Cary Grant – Grace Kelly chemistry that carries this one, and if you’re immune then the movie will certainly have its longeurs. Hayes writes terrific chat, but sees no reason to have his characters shut up, so the talk goes on a bit. The carnival chase Hitch sliced from the story to save the budget is a loss that’s somewhat missed, I feel. Instead we get what seems like ten minutes of Cary Grant and John Williams discussing the plot over quiche lorraine — a dish which has rather lost its aura of exotic romance, I fear.

But some of the dialogue is very good indeed, especially in the celebrated picnic scene. Grace, having stolen a kiss from Cary at her hotel room door (Fiona reckons this was probably Grace’s real-life technique: pounce, but with class), and helped him escape the police in a high-speed chase along winding mountain roads (basically rehearsing her own death, you can’t help but feel) in a fake car that swivels back and forth as the rear-projected scenery unspools behind them, has now rumbled that he’s Robie the Cat and not Mr Burns, the Oregon logger (Grant: “I must remember to yell ‘Timber!’ occasionally.”) and they spar stylishly over chicken legs in what’s largely a single take, interrupted only by the closer view for the embrace at the end.

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I’d like to lay to rest the idea that the actors improvised this scene — Hitchcock seems to have put this about, explaining that he was so relaxed on the Riviera with familiar actors, that he allowed them to go off the script, contrary to his usual practice. Well, the scene looks to me like a studio insert, for one thing, and for another, the dialogue is extremely tight. I like improvisation as much as the next man, as long as the next man isn’t actually John Cassavetes, but generally it needs to be edited down, and that clearly hasn’t happened here. And we know from elsewhere in Grant’s career that he’s a rather brilliant improv comic, but I still harbour grave doubts that he could pull this one off. And I’m even less inclined to believe Grace could. I think the reason they’re both excellent in this scene is that they have a very fine, very precise script to work off, and that they may have added the odd line, but scarcely enough to make a fuss about, except that it’s Hitchcock and so that’s unusual.

I very much fear that the improvisation story was put about by Hitch to downplay Hayes’ contribution. Hayes would begin to think of himself as an essential part of the team, and reported that when Variety referred to “the next Hitchcock-Hayes project” Hitch couldn’t stand it, and broke off their successful collaboration.

Still, we can all agree it’s a fun scene. Along with the catty battle in the sea at Cannes, it looks like the most fun Cary’s had in a Hitchcock film since the light comedy opening of SUSPICION.

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The big love scene — again using the emerald green light he’s used to signify nights when the Cat is about (movie nights are usually blue, but moonlight is colourless, so green seems just as good a choice) — Hitch intercuts Hayes’s racy dialogue with a fireworks display erupting into orgasm. This displeased the censors, so Hitch placated them by toning down Lyn Murray’s score (Murray would introduce Hitchcock to Bernard Herrmann, thereby making an immeasurable contribution to cinema, and doing himself out of a job, although as a busy TV composer he scored thirty episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including I Saw the Whole Thing, the only episode directed by Hitch). The use of colour, lighting (with Grace’s head fading into shadow, the better to illuminate her jewels and decolletage), special effects, music, dialogue and performance, and that green glow, makes this almost a precursor to VERTIGO’s famous hotel-room tryst, although the emotions are not nearly as dark and complex. If you simply say “fireworks-orgasm,” it sounds a bit silly, but it’s sublime.

And then Jessie’s jewels are stolen and Grace goes off Cary — not for being a thief, but for sleeping with her and betraying her. It’s the closest the film gets to actual emotional darkness, but Hitch and Hayes play it for laughs. Incidentally, I had to keep reminding myself that Grace is supposed to be a spoiled heiress with emotional problems. Her eagerness to join Cary in his supposed career as international mystery burglar is pretty reprehensible, I guess, but she’s so charming and self-possessed, I couldn’t see her as a brat. Fiona thought she was delightful too. Fiona has quite a male brain in some respects (she had it measured once, her brain’s maleness, I mean) so she could totally see the appeal: rich, classy, elegant, beautiful, funny and an easy lay. Aspirations to a life of banditry are easy to overlook when you have all that going for you.

Hayes, a wizard with the verbiage, admitted to being less strong on construction, and it’s possible there’s a flaw in this one. After the one-legged waiter gets offed by cops — the only killing in the film — Cary is exonerated, which effectively lets him out of the story altogether, if he wants. Only a desire for the truth keeps him around. According to the “rules” of classical screenwriting, this is exactly what one doesn’t want to happen. At the second act curtain, the protag and anatag are, strictly speaking, supposed to be locked into their oppositional courses, with no way out possible. This primes the audience to expect an exciting climax in which stuff will get settled, once and for all. Here, the tension is lifted considerably, since Cary is no longer a wanted man, just when it should be intensified. But the effects of Hayes’ violating this gimmick are somewhat interesting.

If we see the film as a romantic comedy, the situation is more tense than if it were a thriller. Cary falls out with both leading ladies, and Hitch switches the focus to Grace Kelly’s character more overtly than he has done so far. The fact that Grant no longer needs to solve the case means he also no longer needs to hang out with the hot rich girl (such demands Hitch places upon his leading men!) and so the love story could end badly. The second benefit Hitch gets from lifting the cops’ suspicions off Cary is that at the end, when he’s picked out by a spotlight on the roof of the villa, he’s suddenly the prime suspect again and his jeopardy is intensified by being a sudden and extreme worsening of the situation.

This sequence, in the aftermath of a fancy dress ball, is not the only thing that makes me think that the movie directly inspired THE PINK PANTHER. The whole plot motor is essentially the same, with a famous and glamorous cat burglar whose inimitable style is copied by an impostor. So Hitchcock has a lot to answer for. If the action climax is a little flat, the movie still gets by on charm and accumulated goodwill, and the return to Cary’s hilltop villa is welcome because it’s one of the loveliest locations in cinema. This movie is as refreshing as a holiday… is supposed to be.

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I don’t generally hold with altering and mutilating old movies, but can I suggest adding a title at the end of this one: “Jessie Royce Landis Will Return In — NORTH BY NORTHWEST!” She deserves the build-up.