Archive for James Stewart

Scottie Ferguson Investigates

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2018 by dcairns

To Edinburgh Filmhouse, to investigate Park Circus’s release of Universal’s new 4K restoration of Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, a dazzling sight. Not only does the painstaking work turn back the clock on the wear and tear the film suffered before its previous restoration, but it undoes some of the less thoughtful decisions of that controversial face-lift — gone are the shockingly modern-sounding, ricochet-heavy gunshots from the opening chase scene, replaced with more period-appropriate BLAM-BLAM FX I don’t know if they’re the ones Hitchcock originally used (whereas the Robert A. Harris/James C. Katz job junked all the original FX and added all-new foley, this one was reportedly able to salvage about half the original footsteps, doors, guns, etc).

When Hitch walks by with his horn, and Scottie (James Stewart) turns in at the entrance to visit his shady friend, you can actually read the headlines on the news-stand here. I don’t have the film on Blu-Ray, nor do I own a massive TV or projector, but I’m uncertain anyone ever saw these before. There’s a story along the lines of COMPANY DIRECTOR AND SECRETARY FOUND MURDERED. The secretary might be Marion Crane, from Hitchcock’s next again feature, I guess. The company boss might be Brenda Blaney, director of the marital agency in FRENZY. Fanciful, I know. But the headline sounds a note of warning right before Scottie meets Elster, and the warning includes a company director, a woman, and murder.

That’s the kind of thing that’s so on-the-nose it SHOULD be small, otherwise you get the hilarious LUCKY TO BE ALIVE headline in EYES WIDE SHUT, the dumbest thing I’ve ever read off the screen.

A little over halfway through the film, when Scottie is reduced to wandering the streets (like sad, mad Carlotta in the story), he keeps thinking he sees the departed Madeleine. And he does: even in this giant longshot, in 4K you can see that it’s genuinely Kim Novak coming out of the building and chatting to the doorman. But, after a brief reaction shot of Scottie, the figure appears subtly different — Novak has been replaced by Lee Patrick (associated with another San Francisco detective — she was Sam Spade’s secretary, the estimable Effie, in THE MALTESE FALCON). On my DVD I can kind of see this, but I could never be sure.

(I’m told that the tiny Novak in this shot, hovering above the hedgerow on the right, is also quite identifiable if you have the 2014 Blu-Ray and a biggish screen.)

This substitution trick was first played by Hitch in SABOTAGE, when Sylvia Sidney thinks she sees her slain little brother in the street — cutting quickly, Hitch first shows the boy we know, then replaces him with a stranger. A heartbreaking and uncanny moment in a film Hitch was never really satisfied with. So he replays the effect, multiple times, here.

VERTIGO is constantly mirroring itself — replaying scenes from earlier. Scottie revisits the places he associates with Madeleine, and each time he thinks he sees her, and Hitch pulls the same gag. Returning to Ernie’s, where he first saw Madeleine, he sees her again, and it’s definitely Novak. One reaction-shot later, and she’s been switched for a pod person.

Only in the gallery scene does Hitchcock resist the temptation to slip a Novak in: the young woman studying the Portrait of Carlotta remains stubbornly herself.

But, obedient to the Rule of Three, Hitch has another spectral walk-on by Novak later, AFTER Scottie has met up with Judy, who really is (sort-of) Madeleine ~

Fiona: “Her arms are MASSIVE.” (Not criticising, just impressed.)

Back at Ernie’s, Scottie looks past Judy and sees Madeleine — two Kim Novaks in the same shot. The fact that Hitchcock routinely uses rear projection stops this effects shot seeming that out of the ordinary. But though Scottie clearly registers surprise, I’m not sure I’d ever seen what was surprising him before. If I had, I’d forgotten it, and seeing the film so much sharper made me feel I was seeing it anew. Madeleine, in that familiar grey suit, enters Ernie’s (in the distance, to the left of Judy)

There’s a reaction shot of Scottie — he notices Judy has noticed him looking — and he furtively looks at his plate. Judy looks over her shoulder, and in Scottie’s POV we see that her doppelganger has been replaced by the shiny-faced intruder from the previous Ernie’s manifestation.

So, Scottie, having found Judy, is still satisfied. His subconscious is still seeking Madeleine as she was. And he knows these visions are hallucinatory, he knows he’s still crazy, but he knows he has to act sane and not admit to them…

Maybe I never caught this moment because I was too fascinated by the sight of Novak eating.

And then he starts the creepy makeover thing with Judy. And this time, I formulated a new theory (or so I thought) about what he’s up to. I call it the second murder plot.

You see, according to this theory, Scottie is not just trying to make Judy look just like Madeleine so he can have sex with her and pretend Madeleine’s alive. That’s part of it, the part he can admit to himself but not to her. But I think there’s another scheme, that he can’t even consciously recognize.

In the first half of the film, Scottie, a natural sceptic (a Scot, like the hero of MARY ROSE, Hitch’s unmade ghost story), has become convinced that the dead can possess the living. And the way this happens is when the living first become obsessed by the dead. When Madeleine wears Carlotta’s jewellery, gazes at her portrait, styles her hair with that vertiginous whorl, visits Carlotta’s home and her grave, she gradually gives herself up to Carlotta’s spirit.

So it would make sense that, styling Judy after Madeleine, Scottie is preparing a new body for Madeleine’s spirit to inhabit. Judy, who doesn’t matter to him, can be replaced by the departed loved one, an inversion of Elster’s replacing wife Madeleine with lover Judy (everything in VERTIGO seems to get replaced, repeated, mirror-flipped at some point).

It’s a frightful scheme, perhaps worse than Elster’s. But maybe we’d all do it, if we thought it could work.

NB: Novak is brilliant as Judy. If we study her performance as she walks through the green fog effect, we can see that she’s definitely still Judy as she emerges.

Counter-arguments: if this interpretation is wrong, it’s because of two things. One (1), there isn’t an obvious moment where we can see Scottie hatching this plan. It’s more like a series of increments, with Scottie fixating on Judy’s clothes, then her hair, etc. I would normally expect Hitchcock to crystallise the moment the scheme comes into focus, but here it kind of doesn’t, because Scottie never admits it to himself. Two (2), after the big motel room special effects love scene, Scottie seems content to be with Judy, even though she’s still talking like Judy, evidently hasn’t been taken over by Madeleine’s spirit. He seems content with his makeover. But something hallucinatory/supernatural happened to him in that green fog. Like he thinks Madeleine took over just for the sex (Judy was smart enough to keep her mouth shut) and he can get her back anytime.

And now that I reread my piece from Hitchcock Year, I find that I was onto Scottie’s scheme back then, and that it’s spelled out in the novel. I forget many things. But this one was worth rediscovering and spending some more time on, I think.

 

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See II: Second Sight

Posted in FILM with tags , , on August 30, 2017 by dcairns

   

It just occurred to me that they missed a trick when they omitted to call their BASIC INSTINCT sequel BASIC INSTINCT II: BASER INSTINCT. Just as SPEED II should have been subtitled THE QUICKENING (HIGHLANDER II could have been called HIGHERLANDER) and RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD should simply have been called SECOND BLOOD. There’s an argument that RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES should have been followed by APEX OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. It is perhaps to be regretted that TRAINSPOTTING II didn’t go with BACK IN THE HABIT.

After DIE HARDER we should have had DIE HARDEST, which might have stopped the series cold, and not before time — subsequent installments would have had to go with titles like DIE EVEN HARDESTER which would have served as a kind of health warning.

Corking Screwballs

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2017 by dcairns

We’re deep in screwball country. Has it been a week already?

Not everything rates a post of its own though. Here’s some I don’t quite have enough to say about.

You can’t launch into BRINGING UP BABY unless you’re bringing something new to the party, and I don’t think I am. I thought I might be able to until I saw it again — some insight into why it flopped in 1939.

You see, as a youngster I had an abortive viewing experience with this one, tuning out after the golf course and restaurant scenes, finding the whole thing annoying. But I’d since viewed most of the later stuff and, correctly, found it very funny. So my theory was that Hepburn’s character is too irritating in the first scenes, which seemed interminable as a result. Audiences, naturally starting at the beginning, may have become irate before the fun really started.

But this time, I felt no annoyance at all. So the opening scenes, less that twenty minutes in reality, sailed by, and also made me laugh a lot. It’s true that we haven’t met the amazing supporting cast yet, who enhance it so much (I’m coming to a new appreciation of Charles Ruggles — along with his brother, Wesley), and MAYBE the ripping of Hepburn’s skirt isn’t quite the right gag for her particular character? But really, quibbles.

Two things are really hard to frame-grab, and for the same reason — Grant-Hepburn by-play, and George playing with Baby. Too fast!

(This thing of getting annoyed by comedy — a friend had it with Laurel & Hardy, where he would get frustrated that they couldn’t solve their simple problems, the solutions were so easy and the accidents so inevitable. As a kid I also got it with the Mr. Muckle scene in IT’S A GIFT, too. The thing that has in common with Grant & Hepburn, I guess, is a character too timid to really forcefully point out what’s wrong with the situation he’s stuck in. Though Grant really tries, bless him.)

So I had a great time with BRINGING UP BABY, but not much to say about it. Apart from the above.

FORSAKING ALL OTHERS is a good W.S. Van Dyke minor screwball with Joan Crawford (who made a surprising number of these) and a trio of wacky male friends, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable and the excellent Charles Butterworth (like Ruggles, a stand-out in LOVE ME TONIGHT). No prizes for guessing who gets the girl.

A risky plot — Montgomery has to behave like a cad without quite becoming the heavy — Gable spends the whole film not confessing his love — Butterworth is just light relief, droning helpless irrelevancies. Someone mentions a fan dance: “Oh, I saw a girl do that once with electric fans — it was horrible.” It begins with a wedding so there’s a reason for everyone to be drinking and in tuxedos and gowns and ELATED — James Harvey’s favourite word. Montgomery stands Joan up at the altar and runs off with another girl, but realizes it’s a mistake. He’s stuck with Frances Drake, who is a Gail Patrick type Other Girl — worse, she’s the one character in the film who doesn’t know she’s in a screwball comedy. She can’t understand why everyone is so bloody silly — it’s most annoying.

Her sullen effect is magical — she does kind of make you want Montgomery to have a chance with Joan again, even though you want, really, for him to wind up with egg on his face and for Joan to get Clark. Guess what?

A great screwball encapsulation — Gable, back from Spain, embraces Billie Burke and they cry each others’ names in joy. Then he crosses the room without her, throws open his arms — and they do it again. Why not, if it was good the first time?

I LOVE YOU AGAIN is the dream team of William Powell and Myrna Loy. (We also rewatched THE THIN MAN — nothing fresh to report but see here.) This one is an amnesia caper — boring skinflint Powell gets a knock on the head and realizes he’s actually a daring con artist. During his previous fugue state (result of a previous occiputal clonk) he’s married Loy, and she’s had time to become thoroughly bored with the man he previously was. Powell falls in love with her at (sort of) first sight, and has to convince her he’s changed — in the right way. A weird kind of plot — hardboiled comedy hand Maurine Dallas Watkins (author of the original play Chicago, a key work in the tough comedy genre) was involved. Frank McHugh and Edmund Lowe are along for the ride.

DOUBLE WEDDING, from grumpy old Richard Thorpe, is equally good, if less emotional. Businesswoman Loy is attracted to Bohemian Powell but can’t admit it. VERY funny supporting perf from reluctant Boho John Beal, clearly the squarest thing on two legs. “Aw, why do Bohemians have to stay up all night?” he grouches, a petulant child. A shame his talent for ridiculousness wasn’t exploited elsewhere.

THE EX-MRS. BRADFORD pairs William Powell with Jean Arthur, which would work great if what they were given to do suited them. He’s fine, giving a great line reading — “INT-olerable!” — but in this THIN MAN knock-off mystery, she’s required to be manipulative, klutzy, dizzy — all things we don’t really want from the sensible Miss Arthur, whether she can do them or not.

You notice, with the MANY imitations of THE THIN MAN, any variation from the standard pairing tends to be a let-down. Inexplicable, Nick & Nora never fight, never misunderstand each other, and while she’s an heiress not a professional sleuth and so isn’t some improbably detecting genius, there aren’t really any jokes about her being out of her depth, either. Though fights, misunderstandings and struggles with unfamiliar problems are all perfectly sound dramatic fodder, they’re simply surplus to requirements when you have Powell & Loy or this kind of teaming. That, ultimately, is why TEMB disappoints, and why it’s hard to even remember who Powell’s partner is — and she’s only one of the greatest screwball stars of all time.

(All three of the above rely a bit too much on clonking Powell on the head multiple times, but at least in ILYA it’s central to the plot.)

Bingeing on Bill Powell, we rewatched MY MAN GODFREY, which of course we love but which bothered Fiona for the same reason as last time — the screwy family all get redemptive arcs, ESPECIALLY Gail Patrick who you go from despising to kind of loving in one scene. But Lombard is the same spoilt child she was at the beginning. I decided not to let it bother me, because she’s still Lombard. And La Cava films always have some irritation or discomfort at the end — it’s not a flaw, it’s a TRAIT. Rough with the smooth.

If you know La Cava you probably know this and BED OF ROSES, STAGE DOOR, THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH. I recommend FIFTH AVENUE GIRL, SHE MARRIED HER BOSS, UNFINISHED BUSINESS. I still have lots to see, but they’re outside the screwball domain.

THE AMAZING MR WILLIAMS has crime-solver Melvyn Douglas forever standing up Joan Blondell (so he’s a sap). It’s a little annoying but has plenty of invention — not one case to solve but a succession. Near the end, Blondell goes on the case herself and it gives the film just the boost it’s needed, a little like when Theodora actually goes wild in THEODORA GOES WILD. Old movies get virtue points for their moments of feminism — but screwball seems to DEMAND to have a woman throw off the shackles of society and blow a few male minds.

The ultimate glamour shot — Joan’s Deputy Sheriff badge, which she can’t keep from admiring, distracting her from Melvyn on their wedding night.

MURDER IN THE PRIVATE CAR stars Charles Ruggles, that central screwball supporting player, as a “deflector” — rather than detecting crimes after they happen, he deflects them before they happen. It’s nice to see a second banana promoted to a kind of superhero role, schtick intact.

This utter B-picture has charm galore, with the patented Ruggles dither partnered by the more abrasive but still cute Una Merkel, and Mary Carlisle, who is the last surviving Wampas Baby Star (Hello, Mary, you centenarian auto-Googler, you! Who else has spoken Preston Sturges’ words — in HOTEL HAYWIRE — and still walks the earth? Good work!).

Good flakey lines — when a cab driver wants to bail on Ruggles, our hero protests, “No, stick around. I like you. You’re refreshing.”

THE MOON’S OUR HOME is full of eccentricity and invention and disrespectfulness, but maybe because of Dorothy Parker’s input, lacking in charm — Parker was not sufficiently a romantic to really get us to invest in the central couple, who are pretty horrible — bratty writer Henry Fonda and bratty actress Margaret Sullavan (her regular tantrums in the movie don’t suit her style, though they seem to have been a major part of her real-life temperament and her real-life marriage to Hank). But there’s clever stuff including a faux-split-screen where we can see into the couple’s adjoining railway compartments before they’ve met, their dialogue with respective traveling companions bouncing off each other to form a revealing fold-in conversation. Also, as in THE LADY EVE, Fonda is tormented by perfume…

Fiona, a dedicated fumehead, was impressed by the tracking shot following the scent’s progress towards the Fonda nostrils, like something from OUTBREAK.

CAFÉ METROPOLE has skilled farceurs Adolphe Menjou and Gregory Ratoff (who also wrote) but it stars Tyrone Power and Loretta Young — consequently it never quite takes flight. The two, lovely to look at, don’t have the speed, bite or lightness to let the comedy take flight, and together they’re in nearly every scene. Veteran director Edward H. Griffith seems to be encouraging even Menjou to play it slack. There’s one scene, near the end, where suddenly Loretta is in a hysterical rage, and the very funny Helen Westley is involved, and it’s too much, but it’s much closer to the pitch the whole film should have been at. There’s no sensible reason for the sudden frenzy, so it just seems like a lack of control. James Harvey seems to be right about Twentieth Century Fox — they didn’t have the right stars, and so the good films Gregory Ratoff might have made in the screwball style never came together. A shame, because this one has a very nice plot, and Power’s entrance, drunk at his table in the posh restaurant, demanding to be brought a roast eagle, is the right kind of business.

 

IT’S A WONDERFUL WORLD is entertaining if unoriginal — I liked it better than Fiona did. It’s a Hitchcockian chase thriller done in screwball mode, with detective Jimmy Stewart reluctantly paired with poetess Claudette Colbert (and at one point handcuffed together, as in THE 39 STEPS). There’s some quite inventive situations, but somehow they don’t reach critical mass and convince you that you’re watching something you haven’t seen before, and the central relationship doesn’t quite warm up enough, though Ben Hecht restrains his sexism, channeling it into Stewart’s character and then forcing him to overcome it. Which is nice.

 

THE GILDED LILY from the TRUE CONFESSION team of director Wesley Ruggles and writer Claude “Buttercake” Binyon. Curiously likable and engaging despite an almost total absence of funny lines or situations. A good part of this is down to Claudette Colbert being supported by Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland, who give you a nice variety of lightweight, breezy charm. A funny drink-ordering scene, and Colbert’s night-club act, where she simply walks around narrating her inability to remember her song, and her inability to really sing the bits she does remember. As often with Hollywood comedies, this is marred by the fact that the night club audience is supposed to find it implausibly hilarious, and their laughter is so far ahead of ours that it becomes grating and unbelievable. But Colbert — whose appeal Harvey equates to her straightforwardness and honesty — is the right person to do this, for sure.

The same writer-director team brought us TOO MANY HUSBANDS, from a play by that, er, master of screwball, Somerset Maugham. Jean Arthur marries Melvyn Douglas while Fred MacMurray is lost at sea, and the return of husband no. 1 provokes comic chaos. Or at least discomfort. The trio all prove wonderful at evoking different levels of embarrassment, confusion, anger… and then Arthur starts looking like the cat who’s got the cream.

LOTS of gay stuff, along with the expected troilism gags, when the husbands are forced to spend the night together in the frilly spare room (the only decent solution, until this can be straightened out), most of it MacMurray taunting Douglas, but it all gets surprisingly near the knuckle — and what a knuckle! Too bad they can’t sort it out in a satisfactory way — having enjoyed the upsetting of societal norms, we don’t WANT a conventional resolution, but as a comic “problem play” we still require a resolution of some kind. The ending feels like it goes on a scene too long, even though it deserves points for spectacularly doing what the Hays Code specifically prohibits — rendering marriage ridiculous.

Buttercake Binyon, quoted in The Screwball Comedy Films  by Duane Byrge & Robert Milton Miller ~

“Writing for motion pictures is so simple, and the reward is so great, that one wonders why no more than several hundred persons have chosen it over cab-driving as a career. Of course, it is admitted that a cab driver meets more interesting people, but a motion picture writer may work for good pay during the day and pretend to meet interesting people at night.

Everyone knows that in the average picture a boy will meet a girl, and they will fall in love, have a dilly of a spat, then become reconciled. Why doesn’t everybody write it? Is it simply laziness on their part? The weekly pay ranges from over $100 a week to thousands. Just for that: just for putting on paper about the boy and the girl.”