Archive for John Michael Hayes

Tickling the Rivalries

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2017 by dcairns

Really not impressed with Feud, Ryan Murphy’s miniseries about the Bette and Joan conflict on and around WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? One expects the thing to be camp and trashy, and that’s fine, I guess, but does it have to be so tone-deaf, so inaccurate? It was inevitable it would seize on every rumoured ruction from the set of that film, but the weirdly OFF stuff just keeps striking me — the young actress who asks for an autograph from Joan (Jessica Lange) and then says, “It’s for my grandmother. She’s been a fan of yours since she was a little girl.” Joan Crawford was in her mid-fifties. I think, in a show about actresses battling industry ageism, keeping the actual ages of the participants clear is important, and shouldn’t be thrown into confusion for the sake of, basically, a mean joke.

Also, it’s one of those shows that’s wall-to-wall exposition — writers of fact-based stuff today seem to struggle with delivering information convincingly.

I should say that Fiona quite enjoys the show, and is reading Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud. But this led to us running TORCH SONG, in search of some real Crawford kitsch, and my Christ it delivers.

We see THIS a few minutes in. Admittedly, we’ve already seen Crawford herself, who is scary-looking already at this pre-horror-movie point in her life, with what Fiona called “apricot hair” and pretty much an apricot face too. Still, the cardboard version is so startling it should have really come with a warning. A Horror Horn or something to let you know it’s coming. With usherettes dispensing laudanum.

Of course, what the misbegotten venture is best remembered for is something else, but I’ll be more considerate than the movie and give you due notice that a truly alarming image is coming your way.

Meanwhile — script is co-written by John Michael Hayes who wrote some of Hitchcock’s best, but had a regrettable tendency to archness. He’s joined by Jan Lustig, who has distinguished credits too, and by I.A.R. Wylie, who seems more of a Pat Hobby type — except the I. stands for Ida. “I’m going to give them the best that’s in me, no matter who, what or when tries to stop me.” That’s a tricky line to account for. Unless Crawford garbled it and they just left it in, whichever scribe was responsible must have known it was gibberish, but presumably they thought it was clever gibberish. It ain’t.

Crawford’s character is a complete bitch, a showbiz diva who fires a blind man and browbeats and insults everyone in (her) sight. (Or almost: she’s civil with her super-efficient secretary/PA, Maidie Norman, who’s black. The racial insult comes by separate post…) The fact that she’s apparently lonely and cries herself to sleep at night doesn’t redeem her. The movie seems to believe that we’re somehow going to root for her to find love, even though evidently her search for it will involve just being mean to people for ninety minutes. They haven’t quite worked out how to make nastiness a compelling trait, by revelling in it unapologetically.

People we do like in the film — Michael Wilding, the blind pianist, who just does his usual unassuming chap act; Marjorie Rambeau, who is magnificent as Joan’s lovely, boozy mom (“I didn’t know you was comin’ or I’d a gotten some high-class beer”); Harry Morgan, also mild and unassuming. Despite these laid-back performers around her, Joan keeps giving it both knees, as the Germans say. Which is appropriate to the role she’s been given

Her dancing here is better than her mad auntie gyrations in DANCING LADY — maybe she just couldn’t tap, or maybe skilled dance director Charles Walters has restrained her dancing in a way he couldn’t do for her acting. But he does allow her to perform “Two-Faced Woman” in blackface, so we can’t give him too much credit. Of all the mystifying errors of taste in this movie, this one… well, is that sufficient warning?

I’m trying and failing to imagine ways this could be worse. After Joan rips off her black wig to reveal her rigid apricot tresses, she could rip those off and reveal a bald cap, like Constance Towers in THE NAKED KISS, and then she could rip her whole face off and reveal one of the skull-aliens from THEY LIVE, and then she could rip that off and reveal Don Knotts. Nope. Still not worse than what the movie gives us.

Robert Aldrich eventually came to feel — rightly — that casting ageing actresses in horror roles was “kind of cruel.” SUNSET BOULEVARD and BABY JANE and their imitators play remorselessly on a legitimately disturbing theme, the point where the age-inappropriate goes so far as to surpass embarrassment, comedy, and pity, and break through into nightmare. TORCH SONG’s problems only very indirectly relate to Crawford’s age — only insofar as she’s no longer got the clout at the studio to get the best roles in the best movies. It’s true that she doesn’t look really attractive in it, and reviewers pointed this out, but that’s a flaw but not a fatal problem — the performance and the character are far more unattractive than her hard, unnatural look.

Still, it could’ve been worse. Joan recorded the songs herself, and was very unhappy when the studio replaced her singing. but she and we dodged a bullet. This YouTube clip compares the two vocal performances, but is far more interesting because it lets us hear Joan’s speaking voice — when she’s not acting or doing interviews (ie. acting). The feeling that emerges — which is a chilling one — is that she could have made an even more frightening Baby Jane Hudson than Bette Davis did.

It also opens up new and alarming possibilities for Faye Dunaway in MOMMIE DEAREST. Imagine if the regal tone dropped away whenever the media weren’t around… Maybe something as strange and extreme as that would have pushed Dunaway’s perf clean out the other side of camp and into the psychotic-uncanny?

Laughing at fading stars is a cruel spectator sport, whether it’s in BABY JANE or Feud — the horrible thing about TORCH SONG is that it’s useless for any other purpose.

Advertisements

After the Cat

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2009 by dcairns

vlcsnap-614526If you have enjoyed this image, may I recommend Chickens in the Movies by Jon Stephen Fink.

TO CATCH A THIEF is, at times, more than lightly likable. Hitch was on a roll, and if this movie sets him fewer technical and conceptual challenges than his most ambitious works, it nevertheless shows him at such a peak of skill that he and his team can’t go five minutes without achieving a beautiful effect.

Hitch had bought David Dodge’s book for Transatlantic — I wrote here of a precursor to the story — to make as an independent movie, but finally made it as part of his Paramount deal. Cary Grant, a one-time acrobat himself, must have been the first and only choice to play John Robie, acrobat turned cat-burglar turned resistance fighter, now very comfortably retired. And Grace Kelly to play opposite him, naturally.

Fiona hadn’t seen this one in a while, so we watched together. Just as we were enjoying the way the opening titles slant off on the diagonal, following the angle of the shop window, Hitch pulls a fast one, tracking in on the tourist slogan — and we well remember those Cote d’Azur landscapes, so the gesture seems quite unironic — and then he cuts to a screaming woman slathered in expensive face cream, and thence to the subject of her distress, an empty jewelry case — and we’re OFF.

2catch12catch2Fiona couldn’t stop laughing at this Eisensteinian joke for at least a minute afterwards.

Cary Grant, who’s brown as a nut, which makes sense given his choice of retirement home, but is perhaps a bit extreme for Technicolor to cope with in night scenes, is scarcely required to perform any activity more athletic than pouring a brandy, but convinces us of his gymnastic prowess just by the way he crosses a room, Cary Grant, I say, pulls a fast one and eludes the police in a cross-country chase (filmed by helicopter, still a fresh and surprising approach at the time) actually performed by his housekeeper — in the first of a few trick substitutions in John Michael Hayes’ script — Cary Grant, I say again, is rather wonderful here. The plot requires him to catch the real jewel thief plaguing the South of France, in order to avoid arrest himself, which is excuse enough for some light comedy and glamour. It’s odd that any excuse at all should be needed, but somehow it is.

2catch4The caged bird on the bus recalls those love birds leaning into the curves as Tippi speeds along in THE BIRDS… but that’s later. Cary seems to almost notice his director…

Shoring up the comedy is John Williams, sometimes cited as the actor who worked for Hitchcock more than anyone else, although I really must do the math sometime and compare him to John Longden or one of the other forgotten British players from the early days, and then Jessie Royce Landis and Grace Kelly, but first there’s the slight hiccup of the French contingent.

2catch9

I have no problem with Brigit Auber, whose French accent is just thick enough to be cute — any thicker and we’d be struggling to maker her out and she’d be struggling to act through it. Her gamine look is tres charmant, although that hairdo only looks really good when she’s wet, as Fiona pointed out. The rest of the time it has an unfortunate air of the tonsure. I wonder Hitchcock didn’t snap up Bardot, but Auber, fresh from Duvivier’s SOUS LE CIEL DE PARIS, is very good. But poor Charles Vanel couldn’t speak English to save his life, so apart from the pleasing Clouzot connection (he made LES DIABOLIQUES the same year), he kind of wrecks his bits. A more dynamic physical presence might have helped too, to serve as a convincing suspect for the Cat. Another odd thing — when Vanel speaks French, he uses his own voice, which means both his timbre and acoustics change whenever he shifts to English.

2catch8

It’s the Cary Grant – Grace Kelly chemistry that carries this one, and if you’re immune then the movie will certainly have its longeurs. Hayes writes terrific chat, but sees no reason to have his characters shut up, so the talk goes on a bit. The carnival chase Hitch sliced from the story to save the budget is a loss that’s somewhat missed, I feel. Instead we get what seems like ten minutes of Cary Grant and John Williams discussing the plot over quiche lorraine — a dish which has rather lost its aura of exotic romance, I fear.

But some of the dialogue is very good indeed, especially in the celebrated picnic scene. Grace, having stolen a kiss from Cary at her hotel room door (Fiona reckons this was probably Grace’s real-life technique: pounce, but with class), and helped him escape the police in a high-speed chase along winding mountain roads (basically rehearsing her own death, you can’t help but feel) in a fake car that swivels back and forth as the rear-projected scenery unspools behind them, has now rumbled that he’s Robie the Cat and not Mr Burns, the Oregon logger (Grant: “I must remember to yell ‘Timber!’ occasionally.”) and they spar stylishly over chicken legs in what’s largely a single take, interrupted only by the closer view for the embrace at the end.

2catch11

I’d like to lay to rest the idea that the actors improvised this scene — Hitchcock seems to have put this about, explaining that he was so relaxed on the Riviera with familiar actors, that he allowed them to go off the script, contrary to his usual practice. Well, the scene looks to me like a studio insert, for one thing, and for another, the dialogue is extremely tight. I like improvisation as much as the next man, as long as the next man isn’t actually John Cassavetes, but generally it needs to be edited down, and that clearly hasn’t happened here. And we know from elsewhere in Grant’s career that he’s a rather brilliant improv comic, but I still harbour grave doubts that he could pull this one off. And I’m even less inclined to believe Grace could. I think the reason they’re both excellent in this scene is that they have a very fine, very precise script to work off, and that they may have added the odd line, but scarcely enough to make a fuss about, except that it’s Hitchcock and so that’s unusual.

I very much fear that the improvisation story was put about by Hitch to downplay Hayes’ contribution. Hayes would begin to think of himself as an essential part of the team, and reported that when Variety referred to “the next Hitchcock-Hayes project” Hitch couldn’t stand it, and broke off their successful collaboration.

Still, we can all agree it’s a fun scene. Along with the catty battle in the sea at Cannes, it looks like the most fun Cary’s had in a Hitchcock film since the light comedy opening of SUSPICION.

2catch12

The big love scene — again using the emerald green light he’s used to signify nights when the Cat is about (movie nights are usually blue, but moonlight is colourless, so green seems just as good a choice) — Hitch intercuts Hayes’s racy dialogue with a fireworks display erupting into orgasm. This displeased the censors, so Hitch placated them by toning down Lyn Murray’s score (Murray would introduce Hitchcock to Bernard Herrmann, thereby making an immeasurable contribution to cinema, and doing himself out of a job, although as a busy TV composer he scored thirty episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including I Saw the Whole Thing, the only episode directed by Hitch). The use of colour, lighting (with Grace’s head fading into shadow, the better to illuminate her jewels and decolletage), special effects, music, dialogue and performance, and that green glow, makes this almost a precursor to VERTIGO’s famous hotel-room tryst, although the emotions are not nearly as dark and complex. If you simply say “fireworks-orgasm,” it sounds a bit silly, but it’s sublime.

And then Jessie’s jewels are stolen and Grace goes off Cary — not for being a thief, but for sleeping with her and betraying her. It’s the closest the film gets to actual emotional darkness, but Hitch and Hayes play it for laughs. Incidentally, I had to keep reminding myself that Grace is supposed to be a spoiled heiress with emotional problems. Her eagerness to join Cary in his supposed career as international mystery burglar is pretty reprehensible, I guess, but she’s so charming and self-possessed, I couldn’t see her as a brat. Fiona thought she was delightful too. Fiona has quite a male brain in some respects (she had it measured once, her brain’s maleness, I mean) so she could totally see the appeal: rich, classy, elegant, beautiful, funny and an easy lay. Aspirations to a life of banditry are easy to overlook when you have all that going for you.

Hayes, a wizard with the verbiage, admitted to being less strong on construction, and it’s possible there’s a flaw in this one. After the one-legged waiter gets offed by cops — the only killing in the film — Cary is exonerated, which effectively lets him out of the story altogether, if he wants. Only a desire for the truth keeps him around. According to the “rules” of classical screenwriting, this is exactly what one doesn’t want to happen. At the second act curtain, the protag and anatag are, strictly speaking, supposed to be locked into their oppositional courses, with no way out possible. This primes the audience to expect an exciting climax in which stuff will get settled, once and for all. Here, the tension is lifted considerably, since Cary is no longer a wanted man, just when it should be intensified. But the effects of Hayes’ violating this gimmick are somewhat interesting.

If we see the film as a romantic comedy, the situation is more tense than if it were a thriller. Cary falls out with both leading ladies, and Hitch switches the focus to Grace Kelly’s character more overtly than he has done so far. The fact that Grant no longer needs to solve the case means he also no longer needs to hang out with the hot rich girl (such demands Hitch places upon his leading men!) and so the love story could end badly. The second benefit Hitch gets from lifting the cops’ suspicions off Cary is that at the end, when he’s picked out by a spotlight on the roof of the villa, he’s suddenly the prime suspect again and his jeopardy is intensified by being a sudden and extreme worsening of the situation.

This sequence, in the aftermath of a fancy dress ball, is not the only thing that makes me think that the movie directly inspired THE PINK PANTHER. The whole plot motor is essentially the same, with a famous and glamorous cat burglar whose inimitable style is copied by an impostor. So Hitchcock has a lot to answer for. If the action climax is a little flat, the movie still gets by on charm and accumulated goodwill, and the return to Cary’s hilltop villa is welcome because it’s one of the loveliest locations in cinema. This movie is as refreshing as a holiday… is supposed to be.

2catch7

I don’t generally hold with altering and mutilating old movies, but can I suggest adding a title at the end of this one: “Jessie Royce Landis Will Return In — NORTH BY NORTHWEST!” She deserves the build-up.

The Dog Who Knew Too Much

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2009 by dcairns

Thanks to Comrade K for drawing my attention to the above.

“Reading from top to bottom…”

REAR WINDOW is maybe the Hitchcock film I love most. I saw it at the cinema on its 80s rerelease when I guess I was a teenager. Reaching this point in Hitchcock Year feels like a turning point. Hitch begins his deal at Paramount, where he basically worked for the rest of his career, with side-trips to MGM and Universal and Warners. He begins working with John Michael Hayes as screenwriter, the last regular writer Hitch would have (after Elliot Stannard, Charles Bennett, Ben Hecht, and of course Alma). He resumes working with James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Robert Burks shoots, Franz Waxman scores, and George Tomasini joins the team as editor. It feels like a seminal moment.

rear2

The story derives from Cornell Woolrich’s short story It Had to be Murder. Woolrich himself had a bad leg and maybe spent a lot of time looking out the window, like Jimmy Stewart. Three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, by various directors, derive from Woolrich stories, and Hitchcock himself directed a TV play, Four O’Clock, based on another Woolrich source. Woolrich was a lousy prose stylist, whose delirious fictions sometimes reach a kind of addled poetry where his vices become virtues and he looks like a good writer reflected in a funhouse mirror. Even when that doesn’t happen, he’s a lot of fun, and creates heaps of suspense. Like Hitchcock, he doesn’t always seem to care about logic or plausibility — Woolrich actually maybe doesn’t know what such things are — but he is attuned to nightmare. I’d love to film Rendezvous in Black, in which a girl on a street corner is randomly killed by a beer bottle slung from an aeroplane, and her traumatized boyfriend goes on a revenge spree, tracking down the men who were on that plane (rented for a drunken hunting trip) and killing the person each of them loves most… “A nutty kind of a book,” as Jean Harlow might say.

In John Michael Hayes’ hands, the story of It Had to be Murder becomes more sophisticated, with a cast of New York window inhabitants, each with their own little narratives, and the central character is more developed via his relationships with Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter and Wendell Corey. Reading from top to bottom —

rear6

“Who are you?”

Grace Kelly gets that great, dreamlike entrance, with the Edith Head fashions and strange step-printed kiss (Hitchcock tries to explain how it’s done in the Truffaut interview, but makes no sense: “Those are little pulsations I give the camera…”) Note how the Gershwinesque city, less salubrious than in ROPE but with the same sodium-orange sunset, participates in her introduction, a little car horn parp sounding distantly after each of her names. “Lisa…” Peep! “Carol…” Toot! “Fremont.” Meep! (The last so quiet I may be imagining it.)

Lisa is a real woman who only seems like a dream, which is her big problem with James Stewart’s LB Jeffries. He can’t imagine this dream will last, he has to spoil the relationship before it evaporates on him. Screwy, but plausible. My teenaged self was fascinated by all this. I think I also grasped that all Jeff’s reasoning was specious and basically he was afraid of commitment. When you have Thelma Ritter to explain these things, all is clear.

rear3

Ritter is of course wonderful — it was probably years before I saw her in anything else, but what a career she had. PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (“Anyway I tried,”) A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (“Soup’s on!”), even Leisen’s THE MATING SEASON (“Eventually a snapped and hit her. With a banana.” — a funny line that’s approximately 10,000 times funnier the way she says it) and all this not despite her walnut face, raspy voice, plebeian demeanor, but triumphantly because of it.

Wendell Corey would be the weak link in any film except that here we don’t really need to like him. He’s a good actor, when he doesn’t sound like a slowed-down tape of a drunk man hanging by his ankles, but he exudes a kind of anti-charisma. It’s a bit like the legendary minus factor — when an actor has this, they become much sought-after, because you can bring them into any scene that’s in danger of becoming too exciting. It’s always a shock to find Corey in a leading man role, as it would be if you turned on your TV one night and found Barbara Stanwyck co-starring with a wardrobe. I don’t mean he’s wooden. I just mean he’s square, hollow, stiff, creaky and reverberant. He works perfectly here.

“Here lie the broken bones of LB Jeffries.”

The opening sequence, displaying “Hitchcock’s dollhouse,” is a beaut, cramming in so much visual and aural exposition (location, time of year, temperature, hero’s name, profession, cause of accident…) that it becomes positively funny. As a teenaged viewer I assumed the woman on the magazine cover was Grace Kelly, but she’s not. She is wearing a black top slightly like Grace’s though, so I assume she’s a sort of surrogate. And Stewart has framed a negative image of the portrait, suggesting his negative feelings about the relationship, and maybe about this kind of fashion photography. The society lady/action photographer romance was apparently suggested by Ingrid Bergman’s fling with Robert Capa.

rear4

“…rear window ethics…”

Hayes’ dialogue not only surpasses what Woolrich might have produced, but Hayes created all the supporting characters, a considerable embellishment of the original yarn. This movie is pretty much a Swiss watch, with multiple narrative uses made of Stewart’s profession, an unhurried development of the story, with convincing reversals and character development cunningly woven into the central crime plot. The biggest cheat is probably the question of how and why Lars Thorwald, our murderer next door, buried his wife’s head in the garden without being spotted.

For those who prefer VERTIGO and other more mysterious Hitchcocks, there are one or two unresolved mysteries in REAR WINDOW to test our negative capabilities. Thorwald’s mistress is a shadowy figure — to what extent is she in on the crime? What is the attraction the paunchy killer holds for her? And why did Thorwald kill his wife anyway? True, he wasn’t happy with her, and he might not have been able to divorce her, but he didn’t have to live with her, did he? Maybe he did. His little world starts to look awfully grim.

“…the hundred knives you’ve probably owned in your life…”

But I don’t find this movie, with its voyeur hero and dismembered victim, excessively morbid. On my first viewing, I remember being transported to this foreign world of 1950s New York, meeting these rather appealing people, and being blown away by the juggling of the central storyline with the subsidiary characters in all those windows. I liked how they all had their own stories.

I also struggled to see how the film consisted only of Stewart’s POV and his reactions, as several critics remarked. Although the camera stays in the apartment with Stewart until he falls out the window, apart from a couple of God’s-eye high angles when the dog is found dead, and all the shots of the courtyard seem as if they could legitimately be from Stewart’s POV, it isn’t all POV / reaction within the apartment. There’s a very nice high angle view when Stewart writes the sinister letter to Thorwald, for instance. Hitchcock restrains himself, but not THAT much.

He also moves the camera independently of Stewart’s consciousness, as at the start, when we prowl around Stewart’s room as he snoozes. This kind of overt cine-narration drops off markedly in the main body of the film, as we come closer to Stewart’s consciousness, returning at the end, when Stewart is asleep again, completing the film’s loop-like structure.

(I seem to recall that Stewart ends more films unconscious than one would expect for a leading man — he never recovers consciousness to discover his victory in MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. But now I can’t think of any other examples.)

The scene where Grace boldly investigates the killer’s apartment taught me a whole new sensation of suspense. I was emotionally quite caught up with Grace’s loveliness, so I felt protective, and also the film seems to amp up the tension by using Stewart as a mirror of the audience — the helpless viewer unable to intervene.

rear13jpg

A little radio play — screenwriter Hayes was from radio — as Thorwald mounts the stairs to Stewart’s apartment, and Stewart listens in the dark. Something very frightening about suddenly having this man in the same room with us, instead of separated by all that comfortable space. As one of my students remarked at a screening: “Shit!” Raymond Burr does a very good job subduing his Raymond Burrness (his principle quality as an actor).

Defenestration! Having set up the suspense idea of Stewart going out the window (the way this movie uses and re-uses all the narrative elements — flashbulbs for self-defense, window as murder weapon — is extraordinary and worthy of the imitation it’s inspired) Hitchcock isn’t expected to have it actually happen. But he does. Stewart isn’t very lucky with heights in Hitchcock’s films. The cleverness of the construction is that the thing that seems to preclude a happy ending — chucking the hero from a great height — actually inspires it, leading to the fine joke of the happy man with the two plaster casts.

The plunge itself looks to me like a nifty John P Fulton (THE INVISIBLE MAN) special effect — he did the helicopter and the flashbulb retinal afterimages — but I’ve heard accounts suggesting it’s an exponential zoom with the camera shooting straight up in the air while zooming in on Stewart. Looking at it again I’m convinced it’s a matte shot, a pretty good one that works partly because it takes us by surprise. The window ledge in the foreground, which wobbles very slightly in relation to the ground below, suggests that there’s more than one optical layer here.

“I don’t want any part of it!”

Perhaps the tightness of REAR WINDOW provoked a reaction in Hitchcock, since he began preparing his next production while still shooting this one — the location-set, apparently loose and freewheeling TO CATCH A THIEF would exercise a different set of directorial muscles than those deployed to machine-tool REAR WINDOW.

Hitchcock 14 Disc Box Set – Vertigo/ The Birds/ Rear Window/ Marnie/ Frenzy/ Topaz/ The Trouble With Harry/ Torn Curtain/ Psycho/ Family Plot/ Saboteur/ Shadow Of A Doubt/ Man Who Knew Too Much/ Rope [DVD]