Archive for Juno and the Paycock

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 Waverley Station 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!”

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Paycox

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

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Hitchcock’s cameraman, Jack Cox, seems almost as fond of cameo appearances as the Master himself. In THE MANXMAN his name appears as signatory on a sailors’ petition, and here in JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK, he’s apparently a partner in the law firm that provides the plot’s, well, “MacGuffin” might be too dismissive a word for it.

Here’s Ronald Neame, quoted in Charlotte Chandler’s It’s Only a Movie: Alfred Hitchcock, a Personal Biography (personal? is there another kind?) ~

“I was just starting out, and I was terribly overeager. Someone sent me to fetch the ‘sky hook,’ which I was told was a terribly valuable piece of equipment. I looked all over until I got to THE FARMER’S WIFE set. A rather plump twenty-seven-year-old director named Alfred Hitchcock was rehearsing the actors.

“For several minutes, I forgot all about the sky hook and watched the great director at work. Then I approached Hitchcock’s cameraman, Jack Cox.

“This kind man said, ‘You have been given a sort of initiation, because the sky-hook is a leg-pull. Why don’t you go back and tell them it was sold last week because it wasn’t being used.’

“Because of that nonexistent sky hook, I was able to watch Hitchcock directing, and I met Jack Cox, with whom I would be working.”

Later, Chandler quotes Roy Ward Baker ~

“Cox was very tall, a man of very few words, with a complete lack of pretense, and a sardonic wit. He didn’t chatter, you know. He just got on with his lighting.”

I suspect most cinematographers are a bit like that. My friend Scott Ward is, even down to being very tall. And Hitchcock wouldn’t be attracted to the “rock star” kind of cinematographer who puts his personal style first. I saw Nestor Almendros talk once, a charming, gentle man, and somebody from the audience asked him if he’d like to have worked with Hitchcock. A strange question, really, but Almendros graciously replied, saying that he’d have loved the chance, and that it could have happened. But I wonder if their styles would have fused or clashed?

Hitch Year, week 10: Juno and the Hitchcock

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2009 by dcairns

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“Of no interest whatsoever,” — Hitchcock’s peremptory summation of ELSTREE CALLING seems rather harsh. And in fact, what he really means is, “A bunch of crap,” since the film is basically without merit, but very far from being without interest. I mean, how could you say THIS is of no interest ~

Rubbish, possibly, but it’s eye-poppingly interesting. And then there’s the Friese-Greene colour process, with its shimmering tones (much faded now, I fear) which seem to be fighting to escape the outlines of the figures and blaze across the screen and out into the auditorium ~

But Hitch didn’t direct this stuff. He shot the framing bits, in which Gordon Harker (THE RING, THE FARMER’S WIFE) returns for his last Hitchcock performance, struggling to get his anachronistic television to work. Hitchcock is terrible at slapstick here (there were some fine bits with Harker in THE FARMER’S WIFE, though) — something about early sound, in conjunction with Hitchcock’s use of closeups, and some woeful writing, contrives to make it all seem painful and upsetting.

And who was broadcasting TV in 1930? The Nazis, possibly, but nobody else. If someone asks you to name a Hitchcock musical, you could stretch a point and maybe offer a few possibilities (the second MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, WALTZES FROM VIENNA), but this seems to me the only true Hitchcock sci-fi film.

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A terrifying vision of the future.

The film also features BLACKMAIL’s Donald Calthrop and John Longden and, in a sequence that could conceivably have been directed by Hitch but probably wasn’t, Anna May Wong in a Flash Gordon costume kicking a hen:

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I mention all this, even though ELSTREE CALLING isn’t part of the canonical 52 Hitchcocks I’m duty bound to watch and write about this year, purely because it’s a lot more fun than JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK. I “studied” Sean O’Casey’s play in school, which aversion therapy may have prejudiced me against it, but coming back to the thing did give me a sinking feeling. It’s one of very few Hitchcock films I wouldn’t watch for pleasure. But it is pretty interesting as early talking cinema, and as an example of a direction Hitch could have gone off in. Thankfully, he didn’t.

Look at Anthony Asquith. After the blazingly cinematic, expressionistic UNDERGROUND (haven’t seen it, but the clips look spiffy) and A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR, Asquith approached sound cinema in a completely different way, abandoning his powerful visuals and simply photographing actors reciting dialogue by Shaw, Wilde and Rattigan. Apart from some exciting montage sequences (sometimes the work of a young David Lean), there’s little of filmic interest, and the choice of writers is suspect: I’m not sure Shaw and Rattigan CAN be cinematic, and while Wilde clearly can be adapted into cinematic language (look at any version of Salome), Asquith carefully avoided doing so.

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Cinematographer John Cox seems to have been almost as fond of cameo appearances as Hitch.

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK is a step towards Hitchcock’s metamorphosis into Asquith, a transformation that was thankfully never completed. While Hitch was a theatre-lover, and believed in fidelity to the source when transferring plays to the screen (quite the opposite of his approach to literature), his later filmed plays all have cinematic energy and dramatic tension. That tension is something I find missing in most of this play. True, it does build to a conclusion in which tragedy piles up on top of tragedy, but in a way that depends upon theatrical compression to appear remotely plausible. In screen terms, for the daughter to fall pregnant and be abandoned, the legacy to prove false, the son to be murdered, all at the same time, stretches credibility more seriously than the murder plot in VERTIGO.

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Representative Types of Irishman.

Hitch begins with an opening-out sequence, according to a scheme he often promulgated: start with something exterior and dynamic, telling the audience they’re getting a film; then give them the play. I’ve already blogged about this opening sequence here, but note the cutaways of grizzled and degenerate Irishmen as Barry Fitzgerald is talking about the nobility of the Celtic race. Hitchcock is always rather mean to public speakers, but this heavy-handed irony almost smacks of racism, which is not the overall point of the film or the play. As a Catholic, Hitchcock has some connection to the characters in the play, but the Hitchcock family appear to have been long-standing English Catholics*, so the connection is not ethnic. I don’t think Hitchcock regards the Irish as inferior (why would he make the film if he did?), in fact he relates to working-class life in Dublin as similar to working-class life in London (Hitchcock’s family was never as poor as the Boyles, but he must have known poorer families), but I guess he couldn’t resist the “joke”. I think he probably should have.

(I remember a TV interview with Cyril Cusack, saying he thought at the time that JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK was the worst film ever made. I wonder why? I don’t think it’s too brilliant, but that’s a very strong reaction. Possibly the situation of an English director tackling an Irish play, and making the kind of possible misjudgement cited above, is part of it.)

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Icon of Grief.

Hitch’s most impressive moment in the film, and one worthy of Bunuel: a shot of a plaster Virgin Mary, accompanied by a burst of machine-gun fire.

The cast is worth commenting upon: Sara Allgood returns from BLACKMAIL, and from the original stage production. she would soon head for Hollywood, but her path did not professionally cross Hitchcock’s again once there. Too bad. John Laurie makes his first appearance in a Hitchcock. A Scot by both race and inclination, he attempts a vaguely recognisable Irish accent, and swings between conviction and pose-striking drama-queenery. It’s a shock to see him young and somewhat handsome though — within a few years he would be cast as an elderly crofter in THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS (his father was a crofter for real), and would never play young again.

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“We’re all doomed!”

All in all, the acting here smacks of the stage, with over-precise enunciation through the accents, and very deliberate, self-conscious moving about from everybody. Plod from Position A to Position B, declaim line, await response. The compositions are generally very nice, and it would be unfair of me to slam the thing too hard, since I just looked at Peter Hall’s film of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Now there’s theatrical acting. Vanessa Redgrave’s lips move like copulating serpents.

O’Casey’s comedy always struck me as totally unfunny. I know that’s the kind of purely personal response that isn’t much help to anybody else, but isn’t it all just either paddywhackery or reverse-paddywhackery? It feels like a series of responses to the concept of Irishness, rather than to actual life, but maybe the production’s to blame. What does feel true is my original objection to the thing back in school: the comedy is just a bunch of eejits saying stupid things — nothing happens for most of the play, and nothing much is expected to happen. The Master of Suspense has nothing to be master of.

But — I welcome more informed, enthusiastic or insightful comments. Let’s see what we can make of this thing.

*This is according to John Russell Taylor’s authorized biography, but Patrick McGilligan dug deeper. It appears that Hitch’s mum was London Irish, and there was some Irish blood on his father’s side. I was also interested to learn that Hitch’s maternal grandfather was a policeman, which seems significant in the light of the director’s oft-expressed fear of cops.