Archive for Joan Harrison

“You have a saboteur’s disposition.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2009 by dcairns

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So says Priscilla Lane to Robert Cummings in SABOTEUR, another retread of the 39 STEPS idea, complete with handcuffs, disbelieving blonde, embarrassment versus peril at a social gathering, and adding in the climax on a monument idea which Hitchcock had first developed, aided by the young Michael Powell, in BLACKMAIL.

Digression: watching THE BEAST OF THE CITY, a great pre-code cops and gangsters drama with Walter Huston, we got fascinated by Huston’s family. This being an MGM movie, it dispenses somewhat with the hard-edged proletarian qualities of Warners gangster films, instead endorsing shady and brutal police methods with fascistic relish, and part of the strategy is to celebrate the police chief’s family and home life. First off, a foetal Mickey Rooney plays Huston’s youngest kid, which is distracting enough, but when his twin daughters enter, side by side and carrying a single platter between them, and talking in unison, we wondered for a moment if they weren’t the Hilton sisters, the conjoined twins who appeared in FREAKS (and one other movie, CHAINED BOUND FOR LIFE). But then they exited separately, which pretty much proved that they weren’t. No doubt we were influenced by the fact that it was an MGM movie, like FREAKS, and Huston’s younger brother was played by the guy who played Phroso the clown in that Tod Browning masterpiece.

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This pointless anecdote connects to the fact that SABOTEUR also features Siamese twins, but these are fake (real twins, though), and that it’s also the source of a similar case of mistaken identity. When I first saw SABOTEUR as a teenager, I formed the mistaken impression that the actor playing the living skeleton in the same freakshow scene was John Carradine. That mistake stayed in my memory, and I was surprised to find out I was wrong (it’s Pedro de Cordoba, who has a similar seedy elegance and Shakespearian delivery), just as I was about Mel Blanc being in MR AND MRS SMITH. De Cordoba is very good, but I’m still disappointed he’s not Carradine and he’s not a real living skeleton (what, was Miles Mander unavailable?)

Movie begins with the silhouette of the saboteur (Norman Lloyd, later Hitch’s TV producer) leaving the scene of his crime, an image echoed at the end with his tiny figure silhouetted against a movie screen at Radio City Music Hall, smoke from his gun mirroring the black cloud that issues earlier from his act of arson.

The opening scenes are fairly sombre, as Cummings’ pal (a crewmember recruited by Hitchcock for his blue-collar appearance) is killed in the fire. Cummings, a popular whipping-boy among classic film fans, is actually pretty good at the emotional scenes after the death (although it seems to me that it’s this film, and not FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, that’s undercast in its star roles — I’ll take McCrea over Cummings any day. According to Bill Krohn, Hitchcock originally envisaged Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck for this one, but was forced to accept Cummings and Priscilla Lane who had been paired for another project that collapsed).  But the script (Peter Viertel and Joan Harrison and Dorothy Parker) surprisingly squanders a few opportunities for suspense as Cummings is suspected of the crime and forced to go on the run.

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They drive by night.

The film repeatedly pulls off a neat trick though, sending Cummings from one scrape or dead end to another, and always managing to provide some slight clue to motivate the next part of the chase. And through the episodic narrative, a romance is nurtured and several themes develop.

One theme connects to Cummings proletarian side: a factory worker, he often finds himself disadvantaged by his lowly social status, although he receives the help of a truck driver who recognises him as a brother, and a blind hermit who seems to have wandered in from THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, spouting philosophy like Rock Hudson’s pal in MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION. Cummings’ greatest enemies are the rancher Toban (a wonderfully oily Otto Kruger) and society lady Mrs Sutton (Alma Kruger, no relation).

Another motif is the presentation of the bad guys: Hitchcock gives Tobin a cute little granddaughter, has another speak of his long-haired baby son (a genuinely weird scene — what are they saying here?), while another talks about taking his kid sister out. And a whole coterie of thugs sings Tonight We Love while taking Cummings for a ride. All of which, perversely, doesn’t humanize them in any positive way, it makes their evil all the more chilling. Observing that the enemy love their families too does not mean we shouldn’t hate them: the ability to feel love for a child and then commit acts of murder against strangers is a particularly insidious kind of evil, Hitch seems to be saying.

Hitchcock’s reaction to an air raid warden’s announcement of the bombing of Pearl Harbor — “Why was he wearing that funny hat?” — does not suggest a man particularly attuned to world affairs, yet such was the script’s topicality that the declaration of war did not substantially alter it. Perhaps the freakshow scene, in which a bunch of typically atypical Americans have to decide whether to get involved, would have played out more urgently if America were still sitting on the fence, but it’s still an intriguing scene, even if the little fascist is the only guy in it who could have made a living in a real sideshow.

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“What do they have in America?” seems to have been the question asked as Cummings and lane traverse the nation, taking in the Hoover Dam, deserts, a ghost town, Radio City and finally the Empire State Building, a fairly wide range of US signifiers. Krohn calls this the first American Hitchcock to take place in America, which is true if we discount MR AND MRS SMITH (but should we?) — so Hitch is busy trying to make the landscape his own. It’s essential preparation for SHADOW OF A DOUBT, a real masterpiece and possibly Hitchcock’s most American film of all.

Script: Joan Harrison turned Hitch’s ideas into a long outline, what we’d call a “scriptment” today, with Viertel (whose father had collaborated with Alma Reville on THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK) filling that out into a first draft and Dorothy Parker providing dialogue sparkle. Parker’s work really enlivens the truck driver scenes, the blind philosopher, the sideshow artists scene and those colourful bad guys. Arguably the construction is even more artificial than usual, with Cummings escaping from a locked room simply by setting off a fire alarm. Panic ensues throughout the building — cut to Cummings outside, an all-too-typical smug look on his face. “How did he get out?” wondered Viertel. “They’ll never ask,” smiled Hitchcock.

That interlude within the swank Manhattan hotel is probably the weakest part. The explanation of why Cummings can’t simply walk out isn’t too compelling, and his attempts to enlist the help of party guests lack conviction too. the whole scene is a series of partial escapes from no clearly defined peril: simply exposing Cummings to the bad guys and cutting to him locked in the cupboard would have saved a lot of time (which might have been expended on a more interesting escape) and cost the film little in the way of real suspense. But I do like the way Lane keeps saying “This is like a nightmare!” and “It all seems so unreal!” She’s not wrong. And maybe this is another scene with a pre-war undercurrent, the serene society people waltzing away with the city about to explode around them.

There are two more problematic bits: the Radio City scene has an audience laughing uproariously at a film which doesn’t seem to be even trying to be funny. This can also be chalked up to the dreamlike atmosphere, I guess. Hitch also indulges in his propensity for killing innocent bystanders (see the unfortunate Dutch cyclist of FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT), which I always find a little upsetting.

Then, the grand finale atop Lady Liberty (and I like the synchronicity of the statue being reopened to the public this week to coincide with my posting this). Ben Hecht reportedly watched the scene where Norman Lloyd’s sleeve ripped off and he falls to his death and dryly remarked, “Should’ve gone to a better tailor.” I suspect this anecdote inspired the scene in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY where Paul Newman dangles from a skyscraper, his fate decided by a series of flashbacks exploring the strength of the stitching in his jacket. “My sleeve…”

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Of course, if Norman Lloyd had grabbed the cuff before his arm slid free, he’d have been fine. He seems to have had plenty of time to do so.

I also like the cops shouting “Get a rope!” I’d like to see a short about the cop who runs all the way downstairs and scours Liberty Island for a good length of hemp, finds it, desperately negotiates its purchase, then runs all the way back up to find everybody gone.

But the problem here, as Hitchcock described it, is that it’s the villain who’s in jeopardy, not the hero. Paul Schrader uses the same ending in AMERICAN GIGOLO, in a way, but boosts the drama by having the suspended bad guy be essential to clear the hero. Hitchcock makes a faint stab at this, but Cummings has effectively already been cleared, so it doesn’t really amp up the tension. However, the sequence is so brilliantly put together, including some of the best special effects of the period (by INVISIBLE MAN genius John P Fulton), that considerable suspense, and even terror, is created.

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Norman Lloyd’s death fall was photographed from above by a rising crane, with the actor spinning on a rotating saddle.

I always enjoy SABOTEUR, but I prefer FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, which has George Sanders and Herbert Marshall and a giant budget. But this later film shows tons of creativity, especially as it was achieved at much lower cost, necessitating many cost-saving devices. Here, Hitchcock’s meticulous preparation was essential, and assistant art director Robert Boyle, who storyboarded the movie, would become an important collaborator on future projects. Hitch was starting to build his team.

HOT EUROPE

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2009 by dcairns

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“Fat, Forty and Full of Fire.”

That was producer Walter Wanger’s verdict on Hitchcock, producing FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, his second American film and his first made out from under the thumb of David O Selznick. “I’ve seen him climb a ladder with unbelievable agility,” he added — a startling image. This is all from Bill Krohn’s excellent book Hitchcock at Work.

Star Joel McCrea had a different impression, as he saw Hitchcock slumbering between, and even during takes. “Cut!” he cried, as his director snored. Hitch awoke. “How was it?” “Best in the picture!” declared McCrea. “Print it!” said Hitch, quite satisfied.

Hitch was a little snooty about McCrea when talking to Truffaut. The French auteur remarked that, compared to the gloss of REBECCA, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT was very much in the B movie mold, and Hitch blamed the casting. He had tried to secure the services of Gary Cooper, who considered the thriller romp beneath him and turned it down (Hitch had written an article for the English press about the American stars he’d like to work with, and Coop was one of them. William Powell was another. Carole Lombard was the only one named whom he got to direct, and that in a rather unsatisfactory film — see next week for details). Really, I think Truffaut was referring to the movie’s helter-skelter plotting and structure. In reality, it cost more than REBECCA, what with its extremely elaborate production design and effects work by William Cameron Menzies (who also designed GONE WITH THE WIND).

McCrea, an actor of true modesty, once expressed himself amazed when Preston Sturges wanted to hire him. “I want you,” said Sturges. “People don’t want me,” protested McCrea. “They want Gary Cooper and they get me.” I think Hitchcock should have been damned grateful to have a generous and warm player like McCrea on his team.

The film arose because Selznick, with whom Hitch had signed an exclusive contract, did not have a property for him to direct, and anyway he was occupied dealing with the unprecedented profits rolling in from GONE WITH THE WIND, his bloated and racist epic, and to some extent REBECCA too. Liquidating an important capital-gains transaction (I have no idea what that means) he took three years away from active film production and loaned Hitch out at a considerable profit: Hitch was paid $2,500 from Selznick, while Wanger paid Selznick $7,500 for Hitch’s services. This inequity added to Hitch’s resentment of the controlling producer, whom he personally quite liked. (All this business stuff from John Russell Taylor’s Hitch.)

Starting from the memoirs of a real-life foreign correspondent in Europe, Hitch roped in British collaborator Charles Bennett for one more screenplay, working with Joan Harrison, who had worked her way up from secretary to the most important part of the Hitchcock support group next to Alma. The writing credits are complex: Robert Benchley contributed to dialogue as well as co-starring, with James Hilton and, for the stirring final speech, Ben Hecht, a writer who would loom large in Hitch’s future work.

Part of the impulse was certainly propagandist, to encourage America to enter the war in support of Britain, and the other goal was to create a true Hitchcock vehicle, a chase film like THE 39 STEPS, the sub-genre Charles Bennett had helped invent. Once Holland was fixed upon as a setting, Hitch asked the familiar question: “What do they have in Holland?” and set-pieces immediately began to take place.

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We begin in a miniature New York, moving from the general to the specific in classic Hitch mode, into a newspaper office, where the editor is looking for news from Europe, and is sick of the guff he’s getting from political correspondents. He decides a straight crime reporter would be better: “There’s a crime happening on that bedeviled continent!” This is a classic Hitchcockian ruse, since the director hated to have an expert hero. In all his best espionage films, the protagonist is a naif thrust unwittingly into trouble. If he must be a professional, let him be inexperienced. John Gielgud in SECRET AGENT was an author newly recruited to the service. Robert Donat in THE 39 STEPS was a complete outsider. The cop heroes of BLACKMAIL and SABOTAGE are marginalised next to the heroines. So McCrea’s John Jones is a man who knows nothing of politics and is armed only with common sense and an athletic build. Starting with his head in the ground, he will undergo a political awakening commensurate with that Hitchcock hopes for from his audience.

The ed sends McCrea to get the inside dope from a statesman called Van Meer. “How about Hitler? Don’t you think it’d be a good idea to pump him? He must have something on his mind.” For no very credible reason, John Jones is rechristened Huntley Haverstock and introduced to peacemonger Herbert Marshall.

A brief scene of McCrea saying goodbye to his relatives before sailing adds comparatively little, except to suggest what Hitchcock’s emigration to America might have been like, with a bossy mother becoming emotional at the last moment… In reality, the poor cameraman dispatched by Hitch to shoot second unit in England and Holland was torpedoed on his way home, and had to make a return trip for retakes.

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In London, McCrea meets complacent comedy relief journalist Robert Benchley, who’s on the wagon, since “I can’t afford a new set of organs.” Benchley presses McCrea to a scotch and soda, while he has a glass of milk. “Doesn’t taste like it did when I was a baby, that’s got poison in it,” he mutters. Poisoned glasses of milk have not finished with Hitchcock…

McCrea makes contact with Van Meer (Albert Basserman), which is a plot point rather than a chance for discourse: Hitch and Bennett’s political thrillers always avoid any real discussion of politics — the trick is to express politics in movement. McCrea tries to talk war, but Basserman rambles on about feeding the birds. “Don’t you think that right now the birds are the least of our worries?” asks the frustrated reporter. Hitch seems to be trying to prefigure all his later movies.

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At a peace reception conference thing, we meet Herbert Marshall’s screen daughter, leading lady Laraine Day, whom Hitch was equally sniffy about. While she may add to the air of B-movie, not being terribly famous, she does a fine English accent for a gal from Utah, and is personable enough. McCrea and Day meet and spar, and there’s a comedy Latvian and a comedy Scotsman and a comedy society matron, &c. McCrea endears himself to us by putting his foot in it with Laraine.

Off to Holland, spurred on by a convenient telegram from the editor. The cast are reunited in a gigantic town square constructed at vast expense. Michael Balcon had refused to let Hitchcock build (and blow up) a tram for SABOTAGE, so Hitch makes sure he has several here. Some idea that Holland is perpetually rainy leads to the upcoming set-piece with umbrellas, for 25 minutes in the film is suddenly going to become a thriller. First, Van Meer doesn’t recognise McCrea — THE LADY VANISHES moment when reality assumes the mask of nightmare — and then VM’s bloodily done in by a fake news photographer, who hides a revolver alongside his camera in a visualised pun on the verb “to shoot.” The flowing moves of the scene are interrupted by the quick, unnaturally static shots of the gun-blast and camera-flash (POV Van Meer) and the slain man’s face, frozen pain/death (POV killer). A classic Hitchcock “God shot” shows McCrea chasing the culprit through a forest of brollies, and then dodging through traffic as every stray shot from the gunman seems to fell an innocent bloke on a bike.

I haven’t seen so many Dutch cyclists abused since SPETTERS.

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Jumping into a passing car, Our Joel finds himself in a high-speed chase with Laraine Day and George Sanders. George frickin’ Sanders! Nobody’s that lucky. George quickly offers up the best line of dialogue ever delivered in a high-speed chase: “I say old girl, would you mind shoving your knees out of the way?” Sanders is Scott ffolliott, a delightful Charles Bennett creation. I’m not sure why ffolliott’s needed in this story, but I’m of course overjoyed to have him. He seems designed to soak up bits of action and adventure that should rightfully belong to the hero or heroine, but since the sight of George Sanders leaping out of windows and crashing through awnings has a whimsical incongruity to it that Joel McCrea could never attain, I can’t regret the substitution.

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A geographically implausible chase takes us swiftly into the countryside, nearly running over immortal Scots comic James Finlayson (“Doh!”) with the second unit scenic shots put to good use, until it turns out that the Dutch countryside is another model, like New York. Here we get one of the Big Ideas which make Little Sense: a windmill turning against the wind, as a signal to the enemy agents. That’s quite an elaborate, and easily detected signal. But we embrace such madness in  Hitchcock’s miniature dream landscape. Better still is the preceding moment when George rounds a corner in his car and the vehicle he was chasing has just vanished — in an entirely flat landscape. It’s kind of the flip-side of NORTH BY NORTHWEST’s crop-duster attack: instead of asking “Where could danger come from in this flat plain?” we are to ask “Where has it gone?” 

“Inside the sinister windmill,” is the answer, and the real Van Meer is there too — that’s why the assassinated statesman didn’t recognise Joel, he was a looky-likey. But — but — but — why didn’t he, as a professional impersonator, simply pretend to recognise McCrea? Why would the enemy shoot their own man? Wouldn’t somebody notice such a substitution, especially the coroner?

Dream logic reigns.

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Really great suspense stuff with McCrea hiding from the bad guys. Van Meer has been conveniently drugged so he can’t explain the plot (I would think drugs might help). The windmill, tiny on the outside, is cavernous on the inside, and then McCrea has to dangle from the roof to avoid capture, it’s suddenly very tall also. The birds come to his rescue by providing an alibi for his noises. The bad guys then have to manhandle a drugged old man down narrow stairs without banisters — their plans look sure to go awry in absurd fashion. 

Fetching the authorities (with the help of the world’s least convincing Dutch schoolgirl) McCrea finds all evidence has vanished, and he’s left looking like a chump. It’s a familiar thriller twist, of the kind Hitchcock pioneered in THE LADY VANISHES, but it means the plot needs kick-starting out of this cul-de-sac. An attack on McCrea in his hotel provides the necessary impetus, forcing our hero out the window in his dressing gown, where he must clamber over a giant “H” in the hotel’s sign (Hitch’s signature?). McCrea is often to be found in his bedclothes: an earlier scene shows him fetishistically garbed in PJs and bowler hat, while sharp-eyed observers of THE PALM BEACH STORY claim to be able to spot, er, Little Joel briefly escaping from the actor’s pyjama flies, if pyjamas can be said to have flies. McCrea’s interference with the neon converts the sign from HOTEL EUROPE to HOT EUROPE, a fitting summation of the political mood. 

Emerging in Laraine’s room in a state of dishabille, McC causes scandal and offence, but soon wins her over and battles the (very slow-witted) thugs waiting in his suite by calling room service. Laraine even send the valet to collect McC’s clothes by telling him “You see, my husband’s waiting in that room,” a re-use of the adultery story deployed by Robert Donat in THE 39 STEPS. Soon the would-be assassins are knee-deep in hotel services in a slight reprise of the stateroom scene in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. International espionage has been mated with bedroom farce.

London! Why? Doesn’t seem to matter. I think there is a reason but we’re going too fast to ask questions. Edmund Gwenn, one of the few stars of English Hitchcock to migrate into American Hitchcock (he will return as late as THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, to wonderful effect) makes an unlikely assassin, and quite an ineffective one, as it turns out. Hitchcock is onto something cute with the idea of the mild-mannered old boy who’s really a deadly hitman, but to pay the gag off correctly we would need to see him do something successfully nasty. But we now know that the heroine’s dad, Herbert Marshall, is in league with the baddies, so there’s a more compelling source of suspense. The conflict of family and faction make some form of tragedy inevitable.

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“By an ironic chance a Requiem Mass was in progress at the time.”

Leading Joel up a Roman Catholic cathedral tower, ostensibly to avoid the liturgy (“The dead are alright… in their place,”) Gwenn threatens to get Hitchcock in trouble again by jeopardising a schoolboy, but soon turns his lethal attentions to McC, with results that Hitch cheekily conceals from us for a few moments. Then we have a few moments of reporters McCrea, Sanders and Benchley in an office that makes me long for a sitcom about the three of them. Benchley answers the phone: “No, tell him it’s ridiculous!” He hangs up. Presumably that was Charles Bennett on the other end.

The need to expose Herbert Marshall leads McCrea to take part in a fake kidnapping of Laraine Day, getting us into more ethically and emotionally murky waters than would generally be the case in the British comedy-thrillers. Fortunately for Hitch, McCrea’s sweetness is more than enough to keep us on his side. When McCrea hears that the plan requires him to keep Day busy all night, his honourable distress is more heartwarming than amusing. At the country hotel where he attempts to put this plan into action, the receptionist is the creepy-looking  Eily Malyon, who played a Nazi agent in CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY. Joel could be in trouble here!

When Sanders tells Marshall his daughter’s been kidnapped, cinematographer Rudolph Maté pulls off his best, moodiest work in the picture so far, which is starker and simpler in its lighting than the baroque REBECCA. Hitch even has Marshall look almost directly into the lens, Ozu-style, a technique he had played with as early as THE MANXMAN, and which Selznick would object to when he did it in THE PARADINE CASE. As a protective father with a young daughter, Hitchcock no doubt identified with his villain here.

Laraine Day, returning after romantic difficulties with McCrea, scuppers the fake kidnapping, but Sanders follows Herbert Marshall to darkest Tottenham Court Road where the kidnapped Van Meer is being tortured with bright lights and jazz music. Even better darkly modulated lighting from Maté, and then a brilliantly peculiar special effect from William Cameron Menzies as Sanders leaps from the window: a manikin ffolliott descends the front wall on some kind of hidden rail, hits an awning, which tears, and a felsh-and-blood ffolliott emerges, dripping wet, onto the street. Marvelous.

“Ring up the Curzon Dancing Academy and cancel my rhumba lesson!” Great as McCrea is, I’m beginning to wish Sanders was the lead.

Van Meer is rescued so that Albert Basserman can go on to appear in THE RED SHOES, but Scotland Yard is unable to arrest Herbert Marshall, so as war is declared, “weather permitting,” he takes off for America with his unsuspecting daughter. Hitch was very proud of his one-shot plane crash effect (in reality devised by Menzies, I suspect), but never talked about the astounding shot that creeps through the stratosphere towards the Transoceanic flying boat, sidles up to a window, eases itself through the glass without breaking it, and explores the first class cabin at its leisure. A remarkable thing.

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Of course, McCrea is aboard too, and just when the emotions are getting truly entangled, Hitch and Bennett pull the same stunt they tried in SECRET AGENT, only the deus is even more ex machina this time: a gunship blows everybody out of the sky and Hitch gets some aquatic practice in for LIFEBOAT, with a spectacular apparatus built by Menzies: a floating aeroplane with a wing that breaks off and drifts away, all built on underwater tracks like one of the toy trains Hitch loves.

All the disaster movie stuff is terribly well done, and resonant to myself, since I recently flew the Atlantic by Air France shortly before one of their flights took a nose-dive into the drink. Disconcerting. rescue comes, but not before Herbert Marshall has sacrificed himself to save the others, providing redemption and a reunion for the lovers. Then it’s swiftly on to McCrea’s rousing propaganda speech, and end titles.

So impressed was Walter Wanger with Hitch’s aeroplane work that he got him in to helm reshoots on Archie Mayo’s HOUSE ACROSS THE BAY, which had a passenger plane scene in it. I’ll try to see that one soon. FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT is a worthy climax to Charles Bennett’s work with Hitch, and would be the unsurpassed comedy-chase-thriller until NORTH BY NORTHWEST (SABOTEUR looks a little pallid by comparison). Bennett’s tendency towards bagginess in construction works as an effective disguise for some genuinely tight plotting — it’s not wholly consistent but it’s almost wholly enjoyable.

Leonard Leff, author of Hitchcock & Selznick, wants us to believe that Hitchcock needed Selznick in order to make more mature films, and that FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT proves this. On the contrary, I think SHADOW OF A DOUBT disproves it, and FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT is too sophisticated an entertainment to argue for Hitch’s dependence on anybody. A pity Hitch didn’t work with Wanger, a really talented and supportive producer, some more.

Mr and Mrs de Winter

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2009 by dcairns

Laying aside Charles Barr’s excellent English Hitchcock, I pick up Bill Krohn’s Hitchcock At Work and Leonard Leff’s Hitchcock and Selznick, as we enter the second half of Hitchcock Year.

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The casting notes for REBECCA, Hitchcock’s first US production, are pretty funny, in a cruel sort of way. Hitch could be blithely dismissive of the talent arrayed to seduce him. As Selznick wheeled countless actresses past the plump director for his approval, Hitch wrote pocket-sized character assassinations of each: “Too much Dresden china,” “Too much gangster’s moll,” “”Too ordinary — too chocolate-box,” “No quality of gentility at all,” “”Too big and sugary,” “Good reading and test, but unattractive to look at,” “Too Russian looking,” “Homely,” “Read with a faint whiff of old lavender — very pale and uninteresting,” “Too matronly,” “Questionable personality and very snooty,” “Grotesque.”

Hitchcock even dismissed Rene Ray, who had popped up as a maid in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, and Nova Pilbeam, whom he’d directed twice, even though Selznick was very keen on her.

Criterion have very helpfully supplied their splendid DVD of REBECCA with screen tests showing Vivian Leigh, Loretta Young, Margaret Sullavan, Anne Baxter and Joan Fontaine. The deal-breaker seems to be the line “I’m shy,” which sounds very odd coming from Loretta and especially Vivian. Laurence Olivier, already cast as Maxim de Winter, helped his wife by reading with her, but that accentuated the problem: she looks like she wants to leap out of shot and tear his trousers off. It’s strange to hear the same dialogue, which seemed inherently imbued with meaning and nuance when read by all the others, utterly flattened and robbed of all dramatic point.

Alma and Joan Harrison, Hitch’s assistant, seem to have preferred Baxter and Sullavan, who are both good — Sullavan isn’t so shy but she’s, as always, fascinating — but somehow Joan Fontaine emerged as the winner despite all sorts of anxieties being raised. Hitchcock would labour fantastically to get the required performance from her, and even in post-production the work continued, with many of her lines being dubbed on afterwards (this sometimes results in noticeable “lip-flap”).

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Hitchcock had come to Hollywood, with English producer Michael Balcon spluttering “Deserters!” in his wake, before war seemed certain, and signed with David O Selznick (the O stands for nothing) as producer and brother Myron Selznick as agent, unmindful of the obvious potential for conflict of interest in such an arrangement. Plans to make THE TITANIC were soon laid aside and it was decided that Hitch’s first American film would be a story set largely in England, Daphne du Maurier’s best-seller, which Hitch had tried to buy for himself. With JAMAICA INN and later THE BIRDS, Hitch would, shall we say, “freely adapt” DdM’s stories, but Selznick would stand for no liberties, pronouncing himself “shocked beyond words” at Hitch’s first treatment.

The documentary HITCHCOCK, SELZNICK AND THE DEATH OF HOLLYWOOD seems to suggest that Hitch had in mind turning Rebecca into one of his British chase thrillers, but in his book Leff suggests that the alterations were not that great. But the first credit of the film calls it a “picturization” of the novel, and that’s exactly what Selznick had in mind — translating the words to the screen as faithfully as possible. Censorship issues and length were the only factors that would convince him to alter anything.

This leads us to a central question — whose film is REBECCA? In later years Hitch was happy to ascribe the movie mainly to Selznick, who certainly oversaw the whole thing and approved every major decision. But you can’t direct by remote control, so a considerable amount of Hitchcock also seeps through. The major stylistic tropes are all Hitchcock’s, such as the confession scene, in which Hitch brilliantly avoids the need for flashback by moving the camera through space as if following the action of a scene that happened a year ago. Selznick was careful not to force casting decisions on Hitch, and given his obsessive nature, seems to have behaved as considerately as he could. Those lengthy memos are actually masterpieces of tact, slapping Hitchcock down when Selznick felt he’d missed a vital point or misplayed a moment, but always being careful to include praise and enthusiasm also.

Leff praises Selznick for introducing a new depth to Hitchcock’s work. I think he perhaps overstates this, given the emotional intensity of SABOTAGE, for instance, but REBECCA certainly unites this emotional maturity with an unusually sound structure, excellent casting, and of course enormous production values which Hitch could never have dreamed of in Britain. The miniatures of Manderlay, unlike the toy trains and houses of the Gainsborough pictures, are obviously massive and finely detailed, often looking entirely convincing, or else so madly elaborate as to make one doubt they could be specially constructed.

Titles: the Selznick logo, a sign hanging before a lavish mansion marked “Selznick International Studios” — is his studio his house? How cosy! Then another mansion, the ruins of Manderlay, visible after the camera has floated, ghostlike, through the front gate (a breakaway prop allows the camera’s passage) accompanied by Joan Fontaine’s VO. This is how the Second Mrs deWinter begins her narration of the novel, but given that the film features no other voice-over, a new interpretation can be placed on this passage: it could be interpreted as the voice of the First Mrs dW, Rebecca herself. Her faithful servant Mrs Danvers will later suggest that Rebecca returns to walk through the rooms of her former home…

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We begin afresh in dear old Monte, where Joan Fontaine as mousy lady’s companion “I” meets brooding widower Maxim DeWinter, played by Lawrence Olivier. Joan Fontaine, in her inadvertently funny score-settling autobiography No Bed of Roses (which could be subtitled The Complete Story of How Everyone I Ever Met Was perfectly Beastly To Me – sample sentence: “Vivien [Leigh] and I were to cross swords again in 1965.”) does seem to have good reason for resenting him. He of course, resented his wife not getting the part. When he used a rude word after blowing a take (“Though I’d seen it … written on walls and fences, I’d never heard it spoken aloud.”) Hitch cautioned the actor: “Joan is just a new bride.”

“Who’s the chap you married?” asked Larry.

“Brian Aherne,” said Joan with pride.

“Couldn’t you do better than that?” sneered Olivier.

Although Joan is actually quite well disposed towards Hitch (compared to just about everyone else, anyway) she did suspect him of a “divide and conquer” approach to the cast. It’s been suggested that Hitch coached the other actors into snubbing and slighting Joan the way “I” is snubbed and slighted by just about everybody in the film. On the other hand, it’s a pattern which repeated itself on plenty of films Hitchcock did NOT direct…

A cigarette in the cold cream.

Maxim — conceived by both du Maurier and Hitch as something of a boor, although Selznick seems not to have accepted this — rescues “I” from a life of indentured servitude to the monstrous Mrs Van Hopper (Florence Bates, the driving force behind the early scenes) with a brilliantly unromantic proposition: “I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.” Not only is his wording questionable, he’s not even in the room with her when he says it. I’m not the most romantic guy, but I flatter myself that I wouldn’t shout a proposition like that through from the bathroom.

These early scenes are terrifically effective, with Hitch generating suspense from a romantic peril rather than a physical danger — will Joan get Larry and escape Florence? Of course she does, and then her troubles really start. REBECCA works as a romantic melodrama because it plucks its heroine from a humdrum, oppressive existence, and deposits her in an excitingly terrifying one. 

At his ancestral home, where he really shouldn’t have returned, Max introduces “I” to the servants, who proceed to make her as uncomfortable as they know how, particularly Mrs Danvers, inimitably played by Judith Anderson with mad staring eyes and fish-faced froideur. The script, credited to Joan Harrison and Robert E Sherwood (WATERLOO BRIDGE — Hitchcock later gave him the lion’s share of credit), with original “adaptation” by Michael Hogan and Philip MacDonald (a prolific Scot who also contributed to THE BODY SNATCHER, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE DARK PAST) does a fine job of balancing Joan’s struggle to reach her distant husband, to master the running of the house and establish her own personality in place of Rebecca’s, and her tentative investigation into Rebecca’s death.

“It’s the first one of your pictures that evokes a fairy tale.”

Filming was unusually fraught for Hitchcock, unused as he was to the kind of obsessively close supervision Selznick favoured. He would complain of having to summon the producer to the set to get approval of the last rehearsal before shooting it. Labouring with cinematographer George Barnes to create intricate shadows and lighting effects within the imposing sets, Hitchcock took his time, worrying Selznick. Hitchcock had boasted of the efficiency of his “cutting in the camera” approach, so Selznick couldn’t understand why things were taking so long. Of course, Hitchcock may have shot less coverage than average, but he used more angles, and he was dealing with an inexperienced star, and supporting players like Gladys Cooper and C Aubrey Smith had trouble with their lines.

One of the many pleasures of REBECCA is its finely calibrated use of humour — Hitchcock found it lacking in this regard, but he managed to incorporate some wit anyway. After Mrs Van Hooper is left at the wayside, the film darkens and deals with the travails of “I” as wife of Maxim and mistress of Manderlay, then gets a blast of comic energy from the entrance of George Sanders, through a window.

“A fellow comes in the door, you got nothing,” lectured Billy Wilder. “He comes in the window, you got a situation.”

Sanders, as unspeakable cad Jack Favell, has such fun being a rotter that he could easily derail the film’s Gothic earnestness (a friend of Kurt Vonnegut’s once defined the Gothic formula as “A young girl moves into an old house and gets the pants scared off her,”), but in fact he provides just the right amount of relief, and as the story progresses his blackmail scam, unveiled with much purring smarminess, becomes so vicious and offensive that he’s subsumed into the more serious drama.

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A word about George — one of those uber-English actors (he was actually Russian) for whom the word “yes” begins with several “m”s.  I love him deeply, and regret that he’s only in two Hitchcocks (he’s great fun in next week’s), so it was a pleasure to pick up Brian Aherne’s biography of him, A Dreadful Man. His autobiography, Memoirs of a Professional Cad, is also good value. But it doesn’t give the details, as Aherne does, of the unfortunate financial venture which nearly landed Sanders in trouble with the real authorities, a shady business in which Sanders was a senior partner, although he denied being aware of any of the details when the sorry affair came to court. The name of the company? Cadco.

Now, George’s casting in REBECCA, as a car salesman, invites one to ponder who would buy a used car from George Sanders, but really, who would buy shares in a company run by George Sanders, especially one called Cadco?

You can see your hand through it.

George’s entrance lifts the mood and injects fresh intrigue, providing contrast with Mrs Danvers’ big scene in Rebecca’s bedroom, where she shows “I” around, waxing lyrical over the translucent nightie. Hitchcock introduced the brilliant and scary idea of the mimed hair-brushing, the kind of touch Selznick was able to accept. This is a tough scene to write about because it’s all been said, really. But I think DOS’s addition of a freeze-frame on Danvers at the end is a very productorial kind of mistake. Hands-on guys like Selznick love to make the material do things it wasn’t designed to do, and in extreme cases you get something like the infamous “Love Conquers All” cut of Terry Gilliam’s BRAZIL, assembled by Universal boss Sid Scheinberg. Selznick obviously wanted to extend the shot, whereas Hitch intended to end the scene as soon as Joan leaves, obeying the rule that she’s our eyes and ears at this point of the film and we can’t be anywhere without her. Danvers’s famous trick of entering and leaving a scene unseen — like Wodehouse’s Jeeves, who “sort of shimmered, and was gone,” — is really a result of Hitchcock’s adherence to POV. He abandons the dramatic tension of showing Danvers enter, unnoticed by “I,” in favour of making us share the heroine’s shock at the sudden arrival.

Truffaut: “It’s an interesting approach that is sometimes used in animated cartoons.

Droopy: “I do this to him all through the picture.”

Selznick’s freeze-frame is very obvious, but this wasn’t a period when such things were done for effect. Hitchcock would have dismissed the freeze as distracting, whereas Selznick, having seized upon it as a way to make the footage do what he wanted, was blind to its technical inadequacy. This might also account for some of the bad dubbing.

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Enjoying the film with me, Fiona nevertheless asked, with some justification, how it was that Mrs Danvers (“Danny” to her friends) managed to keep her job after going all weird here, then tricking Joan into wearing the upsetting dress, and then trying to talk her into defenestrating herself to death. Narrative pace is the filmmakers’ best defense against such plausibilist arguments.

You thought that I loved Rebecca? You thought that? I hated her!

Hitchcock talking nonsense: “Of course, there’s a terrible flaw in the story, which our friends, the plausibles, never picked up. On the night when the boat with Rebecca’s body in it is found, a rather unlikely coincidence is revealed: on the very evening she is supposed to have drowned, another woman’s body is picked up two miles down the beach. And this enables the hero to identify that second body as his wife’s. Why wasn’t there an  inquest at the time the unknown woman’s body was discovered?”

Wrong and wrong: the body was discovered two months later, not two miles away, making it less of a coincidence. And the script is quite clear that there was an inquest. Maxim and Rebecca had presented such a convincing sham of a happy marriage that no awkward questions were asked.

Stiff and, as David Mamet has said, “grudging” in his performance, Olivier is nevertheless quite effective here. Maxim is a romantic, tortured hero in the Mr Rochester mold, but without the humour — this plays to Olivier’s weaknesses, turning them into strengths. The confession scene gives him something to really get his teeth into: you need a stage-trained actor for sustained scenes like this.

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Maxim confesses all to “I” in the boathouse, Hitchcock’s strongest bit of personalized storytelling. As a sop to the censor, Maxim is no longer guilty of murder, as in the novel, but of concealing a death. Provoked horribly by his sinful wife (his hyperbolic descriptions of how wicked she was seem unreliable, but we’ll later find out he’s quite right) he hits her, and then she trips and bangs her head and dies. Not his fault at all. For any alert viewer, Maxim is actually more guilty in the film than the book, since at least in the book he admits everything.

Still, Selznick and Hitch evidently want us to accept his version of events, since from his confession onwards, Maxim becomes co-protagonist, meaning that Hitchcock can shoot scenes in which Olivier is present and Fontaine is not. This allows him to accelerate the pace, cutting back and forth between Larry and Joan’s separate adventures, with Joan in jeopardy from a now-clearly-barmy Mrs D (I wonder what the deal is with Mister Danvers?) as Larry clears up his blackmail/legal difficulties by speaking to Rebecca’s secret London physician, played by Leo G Carroll, from now on a Hitchcock favourite. Hitchcock’s most successful films must always find a way to exploit the subjective effects which are his speciality. Here we have Fontaine as the audience’s eyes and ears for two-thirds of the story, with that role divided between her and Olivier at the end. There is one scene, involving Australian character actor and former silent comic Billy Bevan as a police constable, which is purely expository and involves neither one of them, and I feel it’s a bit of a miscalculation, although it’s brief and I always welcome Bevan in faux-cockney mode.

I’m afraid there’ll have to be another inquest.

At this point Fiona identified a curious inconsistency: Mrs Danvers tells us that she served Rebecca since she was a bride, and then that Rebecca had a doctor in London whom she had seen secretly even before her wedding. Yet the pseudonym used by Rebecca deWinter at the doctor’s was “Mrs Danvers.” This is odd since, at the start of her visits, when she was single, she presumably had never met Mrs Danvers. Presumably… Perhaps it’s just an intriguing inconsistency to hint at further, unrevealed truths, perhaps involving “Danny” and Rebecca having been acquainted in secret at an earlier date than officially admitted. That du Maurier lesbian subtext is looming larger.

“I knew the character was meant to be something of a lesbian,” says Dame Judith in interview, “Not that I knew very much about lesbians then. Indeed, I still don’t.” As if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

According to Hitchcock, his battles with Selznick extended even to the closing shot. The producer purportedly wanted smoke from the blazing Manderlay to form a letter “R” in the sky. “Can you imagine?” Hitch asked Peter Bogdanovitch, wide-eyed in mock-horror. Hitch’s solution, the burning of the monogrammed negligee-case on Rebecca’s pillow, is of course more tasteful, (and anticipates CITIZEN KANE) but it’s also planted by that object’s inclusion in the dialogue earlier. Author Leonard Leff is very big on Hitch’s use of objects to express emotion. He also believes that Hitch learned a lot from Selznick, which is a more debatable point. I think having a producer challenge his ideas was useful to Hitch. I’m not sure Selznick’s power of total veto was so positive. But the creative tension undoubtedly produced something memorable with REBECCA.

Selznick allowed some slight departure from the novel (which Fiona’s read) in sparing Maxim a blinding (Mr Rochester-style) in the fire. I guess since he’s no longer guilty of murder he’s no longer deserving of such punishment. The unscathed lovers embrace, having gone through a psychological opening-up that looks forward to the analytical drama of SPELLBOUND and MARNIE. The past cleansed by fire.

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