Archive for John Maxwell

Talkie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2012 by dcairns

Britain really lucked out with its first talkie — what made Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL great was that he’d made it first as a superior silent. Shooting sound scenes and dubbing Anny Ondra made it less great in most ways, but it was so good to begin with it survived the conversion. It took Hitch several more films before he could repeat the trick, internalizing the balance between dialogue and purely visual storytelling.

LES TROIS MASQUES is your Pathe-Natan film for this week. It’s officially the first French talkie, but because no sound stage was ready in France, it was shot in England, at the studio of John Maxwell, the Scottish barrister turned movie mogul who also produced many early Hitchcocks. Although already filmed in 1921 as a silent, this version is every inch the early talkie, with all the longeurs that implies. The camera never seems to be in entirely the right place, as if it’s shunted sideways to make way for a microphone, or maybe another camera. Scenes trundle on, mere records of time passing, and though pleasing design (by future director Christian Jacque) means there are some attracting images, nothing catches dramatic fire. Use of sound is generally for novelty value rather than really creative, with some background music and a storm scene no doubt adding interest, and the novelty of hearing their own language spoken probably wearing off for French audiences before the film ends.

Still, this was a throwing down of the gauntlet. While other producers in France saw sound as a death-blow, Bernard Natan seized it as an opportunity — films that spoke French in their original form would have an edge in the marketplace over dubbed American films. That might not be enough to conquer Hollywood, but it could allow the national cinema to carve out its own personal space — and it did. And this after MGM’s vice-president Arthur Loew had declared that, thanks to talking pictures, in ten years time English would be the only language spoken in the world. Against this background, the decision to make French talkies looks momentous.

Director Andre Hugon would make several films for the company, and to his credit he does throw in a few close-ups here, saved for moments of maximum dramatic impact. The film is in fairly wretched condition, with no good elements known to exist, and my copy comes from a VHS off-air recording which is likewise showing its age, so the movie may have other virtues obscured by the poor resolution.

Still, this was just the beginning, and the studio’s very next production, filmed on French soil, would be fluid and even dynamic, and creatively intermingled visual and auditory rhythms. It’s a slight piece, but I think it’s worth posting in its entirety…

Waltz and All

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by dcairns

‘When I mentioned to Hitchcock that I’d never seen WALTZES FROM VIENNA, he said, “That’s a good girl. Don’t.”‘

~ Charlotte Chandler, It’s Only a Movie, Alfred Hitchcock, A Personal Biography.

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It’s tempting to regard WALTZES FROM VIENNA, directed by Hitchcock after his relationship with producer John Maxwell at British International Pictures had gone into a decline. According to John Russell Taylor’s authorised bio, Hitch, Maxwell had passed on a screenplay called Bulldog Drummond’s Baby, which Hitchcock had developed with BLACKMAIL’s original author Charles Bennett, with the words, “It’s a masterpiece of cinematics, dear boy, but I’d rather have the £10,000.” The screenplay would be revamped, losing the familiar character of Drummond, and become THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, the film which sparked Hitch’s renaissance.

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Meanwhile, the only offer on the table was a musical-comedy life of Strauss the younger, produced by an independent but umbrellaed by the sizable Gaumont-British. Hitch would always dismiss the film in later years, and was heard to vocally denounce it even while it was in production: “I hate this sort of stuff. Melodrama is the only thing I can do,” a remark overheard and recorded by the film’s star, Esmond Knight.

Yet as Charles Barr points out, melodrama is exactly what WFV is, in the literal sense of being a musical drama. It introduces the idea of a musical leitmotif woven into the story (in this case, the writing of The Blue Danube) which became a favourite Hitchcock device, deployed in both versions of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, as well as THE LADY VANISHES and REAR WINDOW, a film which can be viewed as the story of the composition of its own theme song.

In addition to the composition story, there’s romance, with Knight’s Strauss torn between romance with baker’s daughter Jessie Matthews, who wants him to get a straight job, and an affair with countess Fay Compton, who wishes to nurture his talent and also to cheat on her husband. A further layer of complication is added by Strauss’s fraught relationship with his father, Edmund Gwenn, who feels threatened by his son’s talent.

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Cries and Vosper.

Does any of the film work? Yes, any of it does. But certainly not all of it. The early parts of the film attempt Lubitschian comedy, and despite Hitch’s well-known puckish sense of humour, much of this falls flat. Frank Vosper as the cuckolded husband gets the only laughs, with some beautifully timed physical playing. There’s a heaviness to the story and characterisation that tends to crush the attempts at gaiety. Esmond Knight would be blinded in the war and make a heroic come-back as a character player (riding a donkey through a forest in BLACK NARCISSUS, he declined the use of a stunt double: “The donkey doesn’t want to run into a tree any more than I do!”) but he’s not quite a light comedian yet. Jessie Matthews certainly could be, but her contemporary musicals kept her informal, to counterbalance her highly coached vocal delivery. Here, the costumes and pomp seem to stiffen her, and she gets little comedy to play and surprisingly little to sing. Fay Compton, so moving and natural in Welles’s OTHELLO, years later, is somewhat floaty and somnambular as the Countess, who ought to be a bit flightier, one would have thought.

The pleasure of the film is in little flourishes concocted by Hitchcock, like the naive but fun scene where Strauss conceives his waltz by watching the work in a bakery, and a couple of bold jump-cuts:

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In this one, Hitch achieves an impossible rack-focus into a close-up on the fleeing Jessie Matthews, by the expedient of cutting sharply from blurred to focused.

In another scene change, Hitch tracks in on a rolled-up score clutched by one character, then cuts directly to an identically composed shot of a matching score held in the same way by someone else — then he tracks back, mirroring the earlier track in.

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Hitchcock was without his usual cinematographer, John Cox, on this movie, which may have added to his sense of alienation from the project. Cox wouldn’t return to the fold until THE LADY VANISHES, but Hitch would soon forge a productive collaboration with cameraman Bernard Knowles.

My favourite moment was the ending, which is not intended as a glib dig: I genuinely like the ending. After a rousing performance of his new composition (Hitch’s low-budget version is like a rough sketch for Duvivier’s delirious THE GREAT WALTZ, with both filmmakers cutting to the beat to create visual music), Strauss’s personal problems are wrapped up with a certain amount of effort and contrivance, but Hitchcock leaves the oedipal drama unresolved until the last moment.

Strauss the elder walks disconsolately through the beergarden, scene of his son’s triumph, as the lights are turned out one by one around him. A little girl asks for his autograph. He signs it, “Strauss”, then calls her back and amends it. “Strauss Snr.” He walks on, reconciled to his place, and his son’s place, in history. Not only is it a good piece of Hitchcockian (and Lubitschian) indirect storytelling, it unleashes the wealth of sweetness which Gwenn possesses as an actor, and which his director will not allow him to use fully until THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, twenty years later.

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Sweet 17

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2009 by dcairns

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Noel Simsolo demonstrates that of all the instruments of death available to the modern man, the cigarette is without doubt the coolest. Nevertheless, despite his savoire fair and sang-froid and je ne sais quoi, I’ve been getting progressively more irked by NS as he pops up introducing all the films in my Early Hitchcock DVD box set (so it’s a good job this is the last in the set), mainly because of his tendency to pull historical “facts” out of his ass. According to Simsolo, Hitchcock looked back at those of his films which had been most commercially and artistically successful — THE LODGER, BLACKMAIL, MURDER — and decided to replicate that success with another melodrama, NUMBER 17.

Whereas, according to Hitch, quoted in numerous sources including his authorised biography, the film he wanted to make was an adaptation of John Van Druten’s play London Wall, while a fellow director at British International Pictures, Thomas Bentley, had his heart set on NUMBER 17. So naturally, producer John Maxwell ordered Hitchcock to make NUMBER 17 and Bentley to make LONDON WALL. “Typical producer,” Hitch grumbled in later years.

(There is, I think, a breed of producer who sees their job, in relation the director’s, as the task Denholm Elliott gives Michael Palin in THE MISSIONARY: “Find out why they do what they do, and stop them from doing it.” But I don’t want to tar them all with that brush: the producer who helps the director achieve their best is an incredible boon, and being helpful is also a smart strategy for keeping a director focussed and on the right course.)

But there’s yet a third view of NUMBER 17, by Charles Barr, in his book English Hitchcock, which I’ve come to trust implicitly, because Barr has really done his research, and is a smart fellow to boot. Barr dismisses traditional accounts of J. Jefferson Farjeon’s play being a ponderous and dull mystery, and he’s actually read it. In fact, the Hitchcock film is quite faithful to its source, merely condensing and intensifying the play’s rapid flow of dramatic entrances, mysterious strangers, impersonations, reverses and reveals (which are typical of Farjeon’s other work, as exemplified in THE PHANTOM LIGHT, THE GHOST CAMERA and THE LAST JOURNEY). The film’s parodic and even self-referential qualities also have their origins in Farjeon — the play was a vehicle for actor Leon M. Lion (!) who reprises his role here as a cockney sailor, looking like Lon Chaney in the lost film BLIND BARGAIN, a sort of subnormal neanderthal Fred West figure, yet apparently intended to be lovable. Hitch also finds another part for BLACKMAIL’s blackmailer, the perennially seedy Donald Calthrop.

I was pleased to see that Charles Barr draws connections with James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE, connections which struck me independantly as I watched the movie for the first time a few years back. The shadowplay, vast dark spaces, and rogue’s gallery of grotesques forge a clear link with the Hollywood film, written by Hitch’s friend Benn Levy, whom he had recently collaborated with on BLACKMAIL, and whose directorial debut, LORD CAMBER’S LADIES, Hitchcock would produce (Hitch’s only effort as producer for another filmmaker — it kills me that I can’t get a copy). Hitch even throws in a gratuitous but lovely funhouse mirror shot, echoing Whale’s use of distortions during Eva Moore’s religious tirade.

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The frustrating thing is that both movies were 1932 productions, so it’s hard to work out if one directly influenced the other.

The plot is actually too gnarled and spaghettied to summarise, with everyone wearijng someone else’s hat, but the eponymous 17 is a spooky vacant house used as a meeting point for thieves taking a secret escape route to the continent.

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Various oddballs congregate here one dark and blustery night, and stuff happens. Barr again proves useful, pointing out that the stolen jewels in this film are the first MacGuffin on record — everybody is, or might be after these precious baubles, but they are of no real concern to the audience. So, although Hitchcock disparaged this film, it marks another definitive step in his evolution. The placement of WALTZES FROM VIENNA, an atypical film and a low ebb in Hitch’s view, between this movie and THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH in Hitchcock’s oeuvre, allowed him to draw an imaginary line, with NUMBER 17 on the wrong side of it, and TMWKTM as the moment of reinvention when Hitchcock discovered his metier. In fact, all the evidence is already on display here. I’ll see what I think of TMWKTM when I watch it again in a fortnight, but right now my feeling is that 17 is a better film.

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It’s also, amusingly, Hitchcock’s sevnteenth feature, in the same way that 8 1/2 is Fellini’s eight and halfth: ie, by a process of contorted arithmetic and goal-post-moving. We have to include THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE, which is lost (fair enough), MARY, the German version of MURDER! (also reasonable: it IS a discretely filmed entity) and also the whole of ELSTREE CALLING, which Hitchcock would certainly object to. Or else, Fellini-style, we count ELSTREE as a half and include THE ELASTIC AGE, a 1930 short film which absolutely nobody seems to have seen, as the second half.

At any rate, obviously this kind of thing appeals to the mind that would arbitrarily decide that Hitch made 52 films, so we can watch one a week for a year…