Archive for Inspector Hornleigh

The Sunday Supertitles: The Yellowface Peril

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2018 by dcairns

I was mildly impressed by director Walter Forde when I first saw some of his thirties comedy-thrillers. None of these are at a Hitchcock level, although the comedy sometimes approaches the irksomeness of the worst bits of British Hitch. But his two INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH sequels (the original, confusingly, was directed by Eugene Forde) are witty and stylish — Forde could bring noirish atmospherics to his music-hall romps. ROME EXPRESS has some very inventive cutting and comes close to being a legit precursor to THE LADY VANISHES (Forde often worked with that film’s writers, Launder & Gilliatt, as well as other talents like Val Guest).

   

THE SILENT HOUSE is probably Forde’s most elegant piece of filmmaking, from an early tracking shot that passes ghostlike through the latticework of a window (surely Hitchcock was watching and nodding his chins in approval) to the use of big, frontal close-ups as shock punctuation. The plot lets it down — it starts as a simple but fun spooky house mystery, complete with will-reading, then plunges into a lengthy, hypnosis-induced flashback, then hits us with a flurry of reversals and suspense-menace involving hidden panels, apparent deaths that aren’t, and an actual snake pit. Yes, the villain has constructed a snake pit off his own living room, just in case he should need one.

The other thing that lets the movie down, or at least problematizes its simple pleasures, is the race angle. The movie is a colonial fantasy/nightmare, a bit like Hammer’s later ventures into this arena. Racism performs a queer sort of dance — at first, it looks like it won’t be as vicious as you feared, then it turns out to be much worse, then it unexpectedly backtracks, then lunges forward, and so on. We end up in a complicated place that does actually soften some of the most horrible aspects of the film. But they’re still there.

(Forde also directed CHU CHIN CHOW with Anna May Wong as an Arab along with George Robey and Fritz Kortner.)

The first hint of this angle is the appearance of Kiyoshi Tanase, an actual Japanese actor playing a Chinese manservant. The moody opening sequence, in which his master is flattened by a falling stone balustrade (a favourite country house assassination technique — see AND THEN THERE WERE NONE — probably never attempted in reality) seems to set him up as a villain. Still, it’s unusual and sort of cheering to see an actor who isn’t white given a substantial part in a Brit flick of this era.

Then Arthur Pusey, heir to the depleted estate, arrives, accompanied by his comedy relief chum Gerald Rawlinson. They learn that valuable bonds and a certain rare gem are hidden somewhere in the house. By curious chance, this is the exact set-up of The Fascinating Problem of Uncle Meleager’s Will by Dorothy L. Sayers, a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery I had just read. This movie really is a mash-up of every mystery meme in the air at the time. Will the gem turn out to have been plundered from an eastern idol, like The Moonstone or The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God? It will!

Rawlinson’s effete pal, a sort of Cecil Vyse figure, reacts with superstitious horror whenever he sees a Chinese character — and it seems we’re supposed to share his anxiety. The next sinister orientals we meet DO provoke discomfort, as they’re played by white folks in wouldn’t-it-be-rubbery? false eyelids and yellowface. There are a couple of Portuegese-Chinese “half-castes” lurking about, and the respectable-seeming but obviously villainous Chang Fu, played by Gibb McGloughlin, a name which gives you some idea of how convincingly Asian he’s going to look, but that won’t stop me from inflicting his rotten face on you ~

Then we learn that Fu Manchu Chang Fu has an innocent white girl (Mabel Poulton, looking very innocent and positively pasty) under his hypnotic spell, the fiend! No suggestion of where he learned mesmerism, despite the lengthy flashback to the Mystic East — it just seems to be an inherent genetic trait he’s got along with the rubber eyelids and loose sleeves. And snake pit.

It is obligatory to mention that Mabel is one silent film star whose career really was derailed by sound — or, rather, by the class system. Cockney accent, you see.

Genuinely exciting climax, with the snake pit, a retracting floor, heroes in danger, and Tanase-san to the rescue. The one actual Asian turns out to be a good guy! And Chang Fu Manchu turns out to be motivated by religious passion — he’s relocated an entire Chinese temple (with a statue of some unidentifiable god, definitely not Buddha, but hey, at least he doesn’t have eight arms) to his English country house just so he can replace the stolen gem on its bosom as his dying act. A noble motive for all his perfidy, presented by the filmmakers with some awe and approval. But we have to think the whole kit-and-kaboodle’s now going to wind up in the British Museum, so was it worth his trouble?

And I guess the snakes will find a happy home in London Zoo, but the charming coda doesn’t tell us. Pusey and Poulton are married, Tanase is rocking the baby, and THE SILENT HOUSE is silent no more ~

I love a happy ending!

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Curtains

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2009 by dcairns

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So, after Hitchcock’s independent venture, Transatlantic Pictures, went into receivership after the belly-up box-office demise of UNDER CAPRICORN, he ran for cover with a British crime story for Warner Bros. STAGE FRIGHT is generally rated as lightly likable or less, with a disproportionate amount of attention wasted on the non-issue of whether a dishonest flashback is permissible. I think THE USUAL SUSPECTS has taken care of that question.

The movie has more than that going for it — there’s a surprising shift from whimsical Miss Marple investigation to dark psychosis and horrible death at the end, for one thing. The other most interesting element (apart from Frau Dietrich, of course) is the Britishness. The movie sees Hitchcock working with a lovely array of Brit actors of the era, giving us a little alternate-reality glimpse of what Hitchcock might have been doing if he hadn’t left for America. Given the film’s minor nature, we might feel particularly grateful that he did go to Hollywood, but then the lack of ambition is partly due to Hitch treading water in order to gain confidence (both personal and industry) after UNDER CAPRICORN’s poor reception.

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Alistair Sim had been in UK films since the ’30s, supporting Jessie Matthews with comedy relief, and co-starring with Hitchcock regular Gordon Harker in a series of rather jolly crime comedies about Inspector Hornleigh, so he could easily have acted for Hitchcock a decade and a half earlier, but he didn’t. His 1948 turn as Inspector Cockrill in Launder and Gilliat’s stylish GREEN FOR DANGER (dissed by Truffaut, but don’t listen to him) showed the actor on Hitchcockian terrain (in fact, the slick murder scene halfway through feels almost giallo-like). In fact, James Bridie suggested Sim for this movie, having worked with him extensively in the theatre (there’s a disappointing TV version of Bridie’s The Anatomist starring Sim as Burke and Hare’s paymaster, Dr Knox, produced by the late Harry Allan Towers).

The cast also features grande dame Sybil Thorndyke, David Lean favourite Kay Walsh (quite brilliant), Miles “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight” Malleson, Joyce Grenfell (a celebrated English comedienne and co-star with Sim in the ST TRINIANS films), Andre Morell, a Hammer horror stalwart, and comedy turns Irene Handl, Lionel Jeffries and Alfie Bass. So the supporting cast neatly ties Hitchcock in to Ealing, Lean, Powell & Pressburger, Hammer, Launder & Gilliat. The only thing missing is a Carry On films star — although Hitch had used Charles Hawtrey in SABOTAGE and would make memorably against-type use of Bernard Cribbins in FRENZY.

From the opening titles, in which a safety curtain (ironically named, as it turns out) rises to reveal the London skyline, it’s clear that this film will explore the conjunction of real life with theatrical artifice, a favourite Hitchcock theme. Like MURDER, the film is based on a novel but deal with theatre (lots of sources suggest that MURDER was originally a play, but it wasn’t — it just feels like one). If there’s a study left to be written on Hitchcock’s oeuvre it might be on this theme.

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Jane Wyman plays a drama student in London — where Patricia Hitchcock was actually studying. Pat turns up as a friend, with the unflattering name of “Chubby Bannister.” So it’s tempting to see Hitchcock family biography at work, but our heroine’s parents don’t seem a match for Hitch and Alma, and have more to do with the source novel and with the plot’s requirements. That plot has interesting connections with the thriller Hitch had planned for Nova Pilbeam to star in after YOUNG AND INNOCENT, since it deals with a respectable young girl with a slightly crooked dad, and it also calls to mind the father-daughter dynamic of NO BAIL FOR THE JUDGE, another unmade movie which got put on the back burner because Audrey Hepburn didn’t wish to do a rape scene for Hitch. Looking at FRENZY, I can’t say I blame her.

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The movie begins in media res with Jane Wyman and Richard Todd (an up-and-coming British — in fact Irish — star of the day, still working now, best known for DAMBUSTERS, which Peter Jackson now plans to remake) fleeing, and then we go into the flashback, which is uncomfortable not because we later learn it’s inaccurate, but because it comes so soon in the story it feels broadly expository. We’re being told a lot of stuff before we have reason to care. But this headlong dive into plot is part of a strategy to put one over on us, so the discomfort is probably necessary, and anyhow things will soon settle down.

The key to the plot’s success in this movie (apart from that flashback deceiving us) is that what seems to be happening — Todd covers up a killing for Marlene and gets implicated, turning to lovestruck Jane Wyman for help — is an effective romantic triangle, enlisting lots of sympathy for poor Jane, wrapped up in a thriller plot (with echoes of Hamlet’s “the play’s the thing”) — which is pretty effective as drama long before we realise that it’s not what’s happening at all.

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This dodgy matte shot, an attempt at CITIZEN KANE faux deep focus, is a bit glaring, but it’s an interesting attempt at something. I once used that phrase to describe an odd moment in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, and a friend suggested they should put it on his tombstone.

“Here we have a plot, an interesting cast, even a costume,” suggests Sim, pointing up the theatrical nature of the story. And so Jane must use her acting skills (and a comical cock-er-nee accent) to wile her way into Marlene’s confidence and secure evidence to clear the man she loves. Complications, as they say, ensue.

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“My great aunt died over a glass of brandy… but it was her fifteenth that day.”

The most appealing complication is Michael Wilding (“an English Jimmy Stewart,” decided Dietrich, inaccurately perhaps, but it does point towards his lightness and charm) as Wilfred O Smith, that “O” being the first of Hitch’s jokes at David O Selznick’s expense. Here we learn it stands for “Ordinary.” Ordinary is certainly the most lovable policemen in the cop-phobic Hitchcock’s oeuvre. For a director of crime films, he hardly ever featured policemen as heroes (James Stewart spectacularly loses his job in Scene 1.  of VERTIGO; and then you have to go back to John Longden in BLACKMAIL I think…) Wilding’s easy appeal makes up for the fact that Todd isn’t that likable, which is unavoidable given the role he’s assigned.

“I love strange men. I mean… I’m very fond of them.”

Wyman is very sweet. It’s not at all clear where her American accent came from, what with her father being Scottish and her mother English… as welcome as Dame Sybil is, perhaps her role should have been taken by an American? But the stuffy mother and unconventional dad dynamic might have been harder to sustain that way: American women are always portrayed as free-spirited in British films. Which is a tiresome cliche, come to think of it.

Wyman apparently suffered the same affliction as Jean Arthur did, working opposite Dietrich in A FOREIGN AFFAIR: galloping jealousy. While Arthur’s insecurity manifested itself in paranoia, Wyman covertly tried to glam up her girl-next-door character to compete with Dietrich, a tendency Hitchcock had to gently suppress.

Sim always makes me want more Sim: but apart from the three HORNLEIGH films, he shunned sequelitis, doing only a cameo in the second ST TRINIAN’S film and refusing point blank to play Inspector Cockrill again. I’d welcome a whole series about Sim and Wyman, father-and-daughter crime solvers, even without Hitchcock directing.

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Marlene of course is profoundly underrated as an actress, even if she’s not “real” — she can be funny (check out her cleaning woman impersonation in DISHONORED) as well as alluring, sad (TOUCH OF EVIL is a study in fatalist melancholy whenever she’s about) as well as vivacious. Her way with a dramatic scene is as unconventional and unique as her way with a song, and like her singing it foregrounds a lack of obvious “ability.” This is a pretty interesting role: in A FOREIGN AFFAIR she’s completely sympathetic despite being a Nazi, whereas here she’s totally unsympathetic, despite being only an accessory. Then Hitchcock complicates matters with the scene where she’s unexpectedly nice to Wyman, and then she has her chilling chat with the policeman at the end which is pretty much the opposite of her exit in the Wilder film: a heart of ice is revealed.

(STAGE FRIGHT makes a very nice double feature with Billy Wilder’s “Hitchcock film,” WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, Marlene’s other London murder romp.)

That safety curtain returns, executing Todd in a rather French fashion, all the more grisly for being off-screen, and then Wilding leads Wyman away down a dimly lit backstage corridor that looks like the path from the execution cell: but the recurrence of the love theme, played earlier by Wilding on the piano, tells us what fate she’s heading for. A future as an actress seems a bit unlikely, but she’ll be a very happy Mrs Ordinary Smith.

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It’s nice to have another musical through-line (Wilding, like Farley Granger in ROPE, plays an accomplished party entertainer with his ivory-tickling), since that’s a mainstay of the Hitchcock style, and it plays out again in Dietrich’s two songs, La Vie en Rose and The Laziest Gal in Town, which are not staged by Hitchcock as musical interludes but as intricate by-plays between onstage and offstage action, external performance and internal psychology.

stagvChubby Bannister, right.

It occurs to me that Pat Hitchcock is so good in this — her very funny sheer lust at the sight of Michael Wilding is a comic high point — and she does an English accent far better and more consistently than Wyman — that it’s rather a shame she didn’t get the leading role (as enjoyable as Wyman is)… But that would be taking a big risk, and Hitchcock wasn’t about to do that with this film. I think also the responsible father didn’t want to expose his daughter to criticism in such a way. Nevertheless, we can see this as a film for and about Pat.

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

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Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on February 4, 2009 by dcairns

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Cocktails for Six… the many heads of Carl Brisson. The Fritz Lang influence is much to the fore in early Hitch.

I only got twenty minutes into THE RING before fate intervened, and so I’m a bit behind viewing it — I’m just jotting some notes on the first twenty minutes so I can post something for Hitchcock Wednesday.

Lots of joy in this one already. Carl Brisson works well in a silent leading man role — it stops him singing, for one thing, and stops him talking like the Swedish Chef for another (see MURDER AT THE VANITIES for an unforgettable lesson in the camp value of a thick Danish accent). Plus he’s handsome, sensitive, and at the same time convincing as a boxer, no easy feat.

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And then there’s Gordon Harker (above), professional reanimated monkeycorpse and comic scene-stealer. Identical to his later INSPECTOR HORNLEIGH roles, except for the addition of a little hair on his head, he dominates the screen simply by walking like a constipated mantis, while his hands bobble up and down like toggles on the end of the loose strings of his arms. Apart from his physiognomic edge (lower lip seems to have been permanently distended by one of those plates affected by some African tribesmen), he snares our unwary eyes with nose-picking and other bits of business — nothing is too low for the man.

Generally rich and seedy fairground atmosphere, which Harker focusses like a magnifiying glass made of skin. Black extras used to literally “add colour”, but it doesn’t get offensively stereotyped*. It’s good to see them, actually: there are only a couple of significant black characters in later Hitch, and virtually all background artists are white.

*I’ve now watched the whole film. In one intertitle, a boxing promoter actually uses the “n” word. This struck me as startling, but defensible in the name of realism, and as part of the film’s slightly jaundiced view of the world of professional face-pummelling (the promoter’s not a very appealing character) in exactly the same way Joe Pesci’s racist language in RAGING BULL is part of the film’s milieu and his character. Brisson’s five boxing friends, an interchangeable array of plugs, include one black character — Hitch doesn’t caricature him any more than the others. I think we have to wait until LIFEBOAT for another black character in Hitchcock, and then until TOPAZ.