Archive for John Buchan

Lions in the Scottish Highlands

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2009 by dcairns

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THE 39 STEPS, we all agree, is where Hitchcock’s thrillers really catch fire. He’d been making films since 1922, scoring considerable success, and many people, including Hitch himself, may have thought he had already shown what he could do — but this film raises the bar still further. It pleases me inanely that this is Hitchcock’s Scottish film, with Scottish settings, characters, and a source novel by Scotsman John Buchan (pronounced “buckin”). In Hitchcock’s movie, as in Buchan’s book, man of action Richard Hannay must follow the trail of a spy ring from London to the Highlands.

Hitch and collaborator Charles Bennett (who shares Hitch’s cameo in this one, a unique honour) famously abandoned or greatly altered large parts of the source novel, so that even the title became something of an irrelevance, to be explained away as brusquely as possible, but if you read the book (I did, years ago) it’s fun to see how elements are reconfigured: a throwaway line about a trip to the music hall is expanded by Hitchcock into a hilarious opening sequence, introducing hero Hannay, Mr. Memory the mnemonic genius, and a female spy calling herself Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), whose murder sets things in motion.

Inspired by a surge of national spirit, I hopped on the train to retrace Hannay’s steps, but since I’m perennially cash-strapped, I only went from Edinburgh’s to the Forth Bridge. Hannay, fleeing the scene of a murder for which he’s automatically blamed, boards the Flying Scotsman locomotive, sharing a compartment with a traveller in ladies’ undergarments and another loudmouth, who seem to keep up a non-stop barrage of double entendres and man-of-the-world smut for the entire journey.

The train pulls into Waverley Station, Edinburgh, and one of the men flags down a news vendor. “Speak-a da English?” he asks. I wouldn’t try this in Scotland if I were you. The newspaper purchased carries news of Hannay’s pursuit, and the suspense is ramped up. 

I don’t see any newsboys in the station when I’m there, but they have an entire newsagents shop, and a Burger King, which I feel gives me the edge on old Hannay. I hop in the train, with a ticket for North Queensferry, which means I’m crossing the bridge but no more. As Hannay is evading capture in his train, I’m snapping pictures out the window of mine. No knicker salesman, no compartment, no steam engine, no Madeleine Carroll…

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There are actually two bridges now, the Road Bridge and the Rail Bridge, but the Road, a common suspension job, is regarded with contempt by locals, so when we say “the Forth Bridge” it’s always certain which we mean. A massive Victorian construction, it’s constantly being painted with a special paint, known as Forth Bridge Red. The Victorian engineers who constructed it said that as long as you kept painting it, the bridge would last forever. They start at one end, work there way to the other, then start again. It’s become the perfect metaphor for any unending, Sisyphean task.

Of course, when the bridge was privatized, the management idiots announced that they would no longer paint the bridge, since it was “too costly and dangerous,” which is an amazing bit of half-wittedness. MORE costly and dangerous than allowing it to rust? Sure enough, soon bits of corroded bridge were dropping onto North and South Queensferry, and a lot of money had to be spent repairing the structure. Painting has resumed.

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The Forth Bridge, by Cairns.

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The Forth Bridge, by Hitchcock.

One of the things that’s so outrageous about THE 39 STEPS is the use of narrative ellipsis to get around tricky plot problems. The first major cheat is near the start, when a woman is killed in Hannay’s flat, knifed to death, without any explanation of how the killers got in, or why they didn’t then kill Hannay. Hitchcock at this point apparently had little fear of those annoying folks he called “the plausiblists” — although the list of Hannay’s neighbours includes a “Porlock”, suggesting that he was aware of the various ways in which ordinary persons can hinder the artist at work.

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The second massive cheat comes after Hannay eludes his pursuers on the bridge — we not only don’t see how he gets down from the bridge, the next time we see him he’s strolling through Glen Coe, about a hundred miles away. Hitch gets away with this kind of barefaced cheek in part because he’s so good at transitions. A cut from a screaming woman, discovering a corpse, to a train blowing it’s whistle, is a particular classic. But the movie abounds with inventiveness in sound design — when the female spy is murdered in his flat, Hannay remembers her words, and we hear them, as if filtered through a long-distance telephone connection.

Then there’s the famous crofter scene, a touching and atmospheric vignette, featuring John Laurie (previously seen playing Irish in JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK) and Peggy Ashcroft, which deliberately slows the pace and alters the tone: Hitch was fond of tonal shifts and his movie really unfolds like a piece of music. A terrible shame that the mesmerising Peggy didn’t make more films — we otherwise see her mainly in old lady stuff like A PASSAGE TO INDIA. Laurie was a real-life crofter’s son, although in the lowlands rather than the highlands. The accents all through the Scottish section are wildly variable — the bad guy’s maid is hilarious, although she gives it her best shot.

Such is Hitch’s verve and cheek that he can get away with things that really make no sense — Hannay travels to Scotland in search of the fiendish master-spy with the missing finger. Once in the right neighbourhood, he asks around about newcomers, and determines that there’s only one. Visiting the fellow, he finds him hosting a party, and is lulled into a state of relaxation. And soon he is shocked — shocked! — to discover that this is none other than the man he has been looking for. Well, duh — and yet it’s an effective shock moment, don’t ask me how.

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(Note the bad guy’s bespectacled daughter, named as Patricia, just like Hitch and Alma’s only child. It’s not our Pat, though, since she was only a little nipper at the time.)

Another great trick, when Hannay survives being shot at close range due to a hymn book in his pocket, its presence established afterwards in an impudent cutaway back to the crofter, whose coat Hannay has taken.

This being a typical Hitchcock nightmare, the police are useless and don’t believe our hero, so now he’s on the run again, and worse still, he has no clues left to follow. Never passing up the chance to take the mickey out of public speakers and large gatherings, Hitch bundles Hannay onto the stand at a political rally, where he bungles the candidates name, so that McCorquindale becomes McCrocodile, but otherwise scores a rousing success with an extemporised speech which not only serves as a potted story-so-far autobiography, but sets out the film’s woolly but sincere vision for the world’s future, after the current threats to peace and freedom have been eliminated. But this grants Hannay only a temporary respite, and he’s soon in the hands of the police — or are they? — again.

Fate throws him a blonde, Madeleine Carroll, and soon the two are famously handcuffed together. Up to now I’ve been calling him Hannay, because up until now he’s been more of a plot function than a character, but Robert Donat gets to do some proper acting once the girl is in the picture, and she’s very good too — Hitchcock called her the first proper Hitchcock blonde. 

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Hitchcock and Hannay treat her rather harshly, seemingly as punishment for her giving him up to the police on the Flying Scotsman (quite reasonably, under the circumstances). Ivor Montagu recalled that the writing team quite deliberately invented as many miseries as possible for the character — this seems to have been the beginning of Hitch’s odd reputation as a misogynist (I can understand it, totally, in FRENZY, but not earlier), and Hitch added to the theme by inflicting constant practical jokes on poor Madeleine Carroll — more on this in another post.

It struck me in the past that Carroll enters the story rather late, after her earlier appearance on the train. This time, it seemed perfect. Hannay begins as a nobody, his flat undecorated, his face unglimpsed until long into his first scene, and we are able to accept him as our substitute because, although he’s vague and unformed as a piece of writing, he’s embodied by the appealing Donat. Only halfway through the story does Hannay really start to dominate his own story, and he does it by dominating Carroll, though he, like his audience, can’t help but admire her pluck. In obstreperously resisting everything Hannay does and says, Carroll becomes a useful foil, and also a winning character — she confounds cliche more thoroughly than previous Hitchcock heroines.

(In NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Hitch completely reverses the blonde’s introduction, to further avoid cliche: when Eva Marie Saint recognises Cary Grant, on another train, as another wanted murderer, she not only doesn’t give him up to the cops, she blatantly comes on to him.)

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An overheard phone call, implausible but not wildly so, enables our protags to make it to the climax, back at the music hall where the film began — in another of Hitchcock’s musical MacGuffins, Hannay recognises a tune that’s been running through his head as the one from Mr. Memory’s act, and the entertainer becomes the key figure in the whole plot. I’m not sure if Memory’s punchline — answering a question asked during his act, even though it gets him shot — is totally clear. Bennett and Hitch were proud of the idea that Mr. Memory cannot bear to let a question go unanswered: it’s a matter of professional pride. But the idea isn’t, perhaps, as fully expressed as it could be. But his death scene is properly moving and absurd (the secret formula he’s memorized is sheerest crap – a MacGuffin of a MacGuffin) and we’re also graced by a cameo by a positively nubile Miles Malleson. And what do we say when we see Miles Malleson, remembering his scene as the dirty-books buyer in PEEPING TOM?

Altogether now — “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight!”

Who Knew?

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2009 by dcairns

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I went into THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, Hitch’s comeback film after the “lowest ebb” of WALTZES FROM VIENNA (Hitch also used the ebb-slam to dismiss his earlier CHAMPAGNE, which like WFV is not without its pleasures regardless) thinking I knew it fairly well and wasn’t too keen on it. Certainly THE 39 STEPS is a more ambitious and confident work. But it’s amazing how seeing MAN WHO KNEW in sequence, after experiencing all Hitchcock’s extant previous work, crystallizes the film’s merits, making clear that it was indeed a leap forward in his development as (cliche ahoy!) the Master of Suspense.

Let me simply enumerate a few of the film’s many points of interest.

1) Settings. St Moritz. This was the Hitchcocks’ favourite holiday destination in real life, so they begin the film there, making this the first thriller Hitchcock made with an element of globe-trotting to it. Glamorous and exotic locations became a standby of Hitchcock’s films, and indeed he had exploited foreign shooting in his very first film, THE PLEASURE GARDEN, as well as in EASY VIRTUE and especially RICH AND STRANGE, which is the story of an exotic holiday. THE MAN WHO begins with a pair of hands leafing through holiday brochures — Hitchcock’s first pre-credits sequence! — and continues to an Alpine skiing resort recreated largely in the studio (the film was a fairly low-budget affair).

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London. Hitch told Truffaut that the contrast between the open spaces of Switzerland and the dense streets of London was central to his conception of the film. For the first time since the opening of BLACKMAIL, Hitchcock’s camera invades the mean streets of working class areas, in this case, darkest Wapping.

The Albert Hall. Returning to this landmark last seen at the climax of THE RING, Hitch repeats the trope of BLACKMAIL of staging a climax in a familiar landmark, but improves on the idea by building the setting into the story, rather than having it appear in an arbitrary fashion. He also uses this sequence to weave the soundtrack into the plot, with an assassination attempt timed to coincide with a cymbal clash in the orchestral piece being performed at the hall. The idea of integrating music in this way, touched on in earlier films such as MURDER!, reached its first full flowering in the otherwise atypical WALTZES FROM VIENNA, and here is applied to the thriller genre for the first time. It won’t be the last.

2) Autobiography. Charles Barr, author of the terrific English Hitchcock, likes to think of MAN WHO as a quasi-sequel to RICH AND STRANGE, and I can see what he means. That film saw the suburban couple reaffirming their ailing marriage by determining to produce a child. The couple played by Leslie Banks and Edna Best in MAN have a young daughter, a little older than Patricia Hitchcock was at the time, but the family is once again in danger of tedium or splintering. The crisis of the plot rescues the nuclear family.

Barr perhaps makes too much of the hints of friction or instability in his book, but he’s onto something: every line exchanged between Banks and Best stresses their alienation, albeit in a lighthearted way. There’s much joking about Best’s infatuation with Pierre Fresnay, for instance. And between Best and her daughter, Nova Pilbeam, there’s likewise a lot of playful sniping. The performances make it clear that none of these lines (“Never have children,”) are meant seriously, but they’re so insistent that they’re clearly more than an ironic build-up to the daughter’s kidnapping.

3) Successive drafts. Knowing a bit about the project’s history sheds a fascinating light on what’s onscreen. Reuniting with Charles Bennett, whose play had provided the source for BLACKMAIL and who would be the key collaborator in all of Hitchcock’s British thrillers until THE LADY VANISHES, Hitchcock produced a treatment entitled Bulldog Drummond’s Child, but was unable to get it produced. When Michael Balcon visited Hitch on the set of WALTZES, he asked if Hitch had anything lined up, and the director took the opportunity to resurrect the project, but ditched the familiar character of Drummond. A cross between the stiff-upper-lip stoicism of Biggles, and the globetrotting adventurism of James Bond, Drummond was a pulp favourite who had already been played by Rod la Roq and Ronald Colman. The year of MAN, 1934, saw him embodied by both Colman and Ralph Richardson.

Abandoning the traditional hero leaves a somewhat weakened character for Banks to play. I wondered if Hitchcock and Bennett took the protagonist’s heroic reputation for granted, so that they forgot to give him anything daring or manly to do, but then I suspected that Hitch had deliberately moved the character away from the professional adventurer type he always affected to dislike. Banks’s character becomes a rather ordinary, albeit prosperous, husband and father. We never learn his profession, but we have no reason to assume it’s in any way glamorous. Making the hero an ordinary man is a key step in manufacturing the template for future Hitchcock adventures in the NORTH BY NORTHWEST mould.

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THE MANWHOKNEWRIAN CANDIDATE.

Another pair of plot points that mutated during the script’s development are Edna Best’s status as an outstanding markswoman, and the villains’ use of hypnotism. The first version had the bad guys brainwashing the heroine and using her as their assassin. But Hitchcock balked at what he saw as the implausibility of this, and declined the opportunity to make the original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Instead the hypnotism gag was reduced to a side-show to the main event (it could easily have been eliminated altogether) and Frank Vosper is introduced as a rival sharp-shooter. Best’s dead-eye skills are introduced as a means of having our English holidaymakers encounter the foreign assassin, and the secret agent who is spying on him, and they pay off at the climax when Best rescues her daughter with a policeman’s rifle (I like how the cop casually yields his firearm to a bystander!).

Actually, the most economical solution would have been to eliminate hypnotism altogether and use the threat to Best’s kidnapped daughter to motivate her to carry out the terrorists’ plan, but perhaps that would be too simple.

4) Influences. Barr astutely identifies John Buchan as the key inspiring force here. The cryptic message than must be decoded in MAN (“WAPPING G. BARBOR MAKE CONTACT A. HALL MARCH 21ST”) strikingly resembles that in Buchan’s Greenmantle (“Kasredin. cancer. v.I.”), and another of Buchan’s sequels to The 39 Steps, The Three Hostages, features hypnotism, a child-kidnapping, and hero Richard Hannay and his wife making separate excursions into the districts of London to thwart a threat to world peace, all plot elements used in MAN. To this I would add Berthold Viertel’s LITTLE FRIEND, which introduced child star Nova Pilbeam to the world. The story here, of a poor little rich girl whose mummy is being lured away from her stodgy dad by an exotic Lothario, seems to be spoofed in the opening sequences of MAN.

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5) Cast. What an interesting bunch they are.

The scar-faced Leslie Banks would never have been granted a leading man role in Hollywood, where he was unhesitatingly cast as the psychotic Count Zaroff in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. It seems a harsh treatment of a man who got his facial injury fighting for his country in World War I. He’s a little stiff here, but his ineffectiveness is partially the result of a script so keen to deprive him of Bulldog Drummond superheroics that it allows him to miss out on the climax altogether.

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Edna Best is fine, but one has to prefer the actors in Hitchcock’s own remake. Nova Pilbeam is pretty extraordinary, though, with her savage, wide-spaced, electro-magnetic eyes, porcelain overhang of brow, and sharp little nose lips and chin (she is a living rebuke to anyone who suggests lips can’t be sharp). She’s an incredibly compelling performer, quite apart from her wonderful mad face.

The presence of Pierre Fresnay, moonlighting from a West End stage production, adds a welcome lightness to the opening scenes, and an intriguing foretaste of the actor’s work in two movies by Clouzot, “the French Hitchcock.”

Frank Vosper is a good sleazoid bad guy (the only obvious thing Hitch took from WALTZES), but obviously Peter Lorre is the important character here. Although the plot throws out a whole gallery of malefactors, including an old lady with a revolver, a threatening dentist, and an evil hypnotist, Lorre dominates effortlessly, just by constantly making strange. Still sporting the carnival-float head of solid fat he modeled in Lang’s M, and decorated with a skunk-like white stripe and a dueling scar to match Banks’, Lorre as “Abbott” drools cigarette-smoke and apologises to the hero after striking him. He’s good-naturedly contemptuous of his own hired hitman, devoted to his nurse, and prefers to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, but his goal is to plunge the world into war. 

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6) Politics. “Tell me, in June 1914 had you ever heard of a place called Sarajevo?” While taking advantage of global instability to build a scenario based on international intrigue in a contemporary setting (films of Buchan novels had stuck to the build-up to WWI for their settings), Hitchcock uses the assassination scheme as almost a pure MacGuffin — we never learn what countries are involved, or who Lorre is working for. Perhaps the name “Abbott” is intended to defuse the actor’s foreignness somewhat, since Lorre would undoubtedly have been perceived as German by a British audience.

Nevertheless, the alliance of British characters and a French one against a gang led by a teutonic one, is suggestive.

Hitchcock ran afoul of the censors by modeling his climactic shoot-out on the real-life siege of Sidney Street, an east End gun battle he recalled from his youth, which was regarded as a blot on the British police force (and upon then home secretary Winston Churchill, who was criticised for using the mayhem as a photo opportunity) and had been banned by the censor’s office from any screen adaptation. The sticking point turned out to be the idea of policemen turning up with rifles, so Hitch had them requisition firearms from a convenient gunsmith’s, and apparently the force’s honour was saved. It’s fascinating how openly political British censorship was, although no doubt the establishment regarded criticism of the police as outwith the scope of mere politics.

7) Psychology. Barr again — he points out that with the light-hearted but somewhat barbed romantic triangle introduced at the film’s start, there’s something funny about Pierre Fresnay’s death. He’s dancing with Edna Best, who has just teased her unromantic husband, so Banks attaches her knitting to Fresnay, causing it to unravel and entrap the waltzing couples. A shot rings out, and Fresnay slowly collapses (a magnificent effect: “I’m sorry,” whispers Fresnay, dying). 

Barr suggests that this is almost as if Banks planned it, fixing his rival in position for the sniper’s bullet. That’s not literally true, of course, but the idea that the bullet comes as if willed by Banks is a fascinating one, especially as it connects the scene to the opening of Bunuel’s THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ. In that film, once again a bullet SPINGS through a window pane, leaving a neat hole, and kills a character as if at the wish of an onlooker. It’s tempting to suppose that Bunuel may have been inspired by Hitchcock, but if so, he never admitted it, being content to receive Hitch’s praise for TRISTANA: “That leg!” Hitch exclaimed, admiringly.

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Despite all Hitchcock’s efforts, and the public’s enthusiasm, his enemy at Gaumont, distributor C.M. Woolf, released the film on the second half of a double feature, with the result that the film’s colossal box office takings were officially credited to the “A” picture. Made cheaply, and attracting a massive audience, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH went down on the company’s books as a flop.

But Hitch had shown what he could do, and his producer ally Michael Balcon encouraged him to continue down this path with his next project… so it’s off to Scotland next week!

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