Archive for murder

Paradine Syndrome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2009 by dcairns

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A virtual clone of a short from REBECCA.

I must have tried to watch Hitchcock’s THE PARADINE CASE a half-dozen times. Now I can say that I’ve actually seen it, but I can’t say much more (proceeds to write several hundred words). The movie seems to slide off me.

Despite specialising more or less in crime thrillers, Hitch stayed out of the courtroom as much as he could (I can recall the divorce court in EASY VIRTUE, the inquest in REBECCA, but note how Hitch keeps the camera in the jury room in MURDER while the verdict is read out offscreen, and how he spies on the trial at the opening of NOTORIOUS, peeking through the door as if superstitious about entering. Hitch also, famously, avoided whodunnits, except here and in MURDER. I accept most of his arguments against them (the whodunnit us an intellectual game, like the crossword), and also observe one more uncomfortable fact — he’s not very good at them.

Gregory Peck is Anthony Keane, counsel for the defense, a notoriously passionate lawyer who falls in love with accused murderess Mrs Paradine ([Alida] Valli), jeopardizing his marriage and his career, while trying to pin the guilt on either her murdered husband (suicide), or the groom (Louis Jourdan0 with whom she may have been having an affair.

Hitchcock himself reckoned THE PARADINE CASE was miscast, with Louis Jourdan too suave to be a horny handyman (yet LJ is the most compelling figure in the film by a country mile) and certainly David O Selznick’s screenplay, written during the shoot, is a big problem, verbose and lumbering and devoid of sympathetic characters or dynamic momentum. Fascinating players like Charles Coburn and Charles Laughton are somewhat wasted, while less-than-fascinating players like Gregory Peck and Ann Todd are spread thin, and at their least appealing. And Selznick’s dialogue keeps on about how fascinating Valli is supposed to be, but the screenwriter doth protest too much. And when did Selznick decide he was a WRITER?

The dispiriting shoot consisted of Selznick’s new pages coming in sometime in the morning, so nothing could be shot until afternoon, and still Selznick would moan that the filming was going too slowly. Hitch had large, expensive sets built, and was marooned on them for ages, as the bloated production sweated money from every pore.

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Clone of shot from YOUNG AND INNOCENT.

On the plus side, there’s Lee Garmes’ lustrous and lambent lighting, moody and noirish and serving up numerous striking shots, especially of Valli and Jourdan. I quite liked the tetchy, affectionate relationship between Coburn and his daughter, Joan Tetzel, which has a bit of energy, but they mainly discuss what everybody else is up to, until the trial, when JT sits in the public gallery explaining the events to Ann Todd, and to us in the audience, like some kind of benshi film describer. Actually, a huge amount of the film consists of descriptions of thing it might be nice to see. Nobody investigates the murder. When the trial finally starts, all at once we get a lot of plot information, which kind of adds up to a realization that the prosecution doesn’t really have any case at all.

Where was I? Oh yes, the positive side. Well, if Coburn and Tetzel = Hitch and Pat, then Peck and Todd could be Hitch and Alma. Their introductory scene does actually do a fair job of portraying a happily married couple approaching the danger zone where they take things for granted, and making us care about the relationship. But once the case begins, Peck’s baffling amour fou for the glum and uninteresting Valli robs him of all sympathy, and since he’s pretty inactive as a character, we can’t replace sympathy with intrigue.

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I heard that a friend had postulated a gay subtext, in the form of a relationship between Peck and Jourdan, but I can’t see any narrative evidence for this — nothing makes sense unless we accept that Peck is smitten with Valli. But there is some hilarity in this theory, since every line exchanged between Peck and Jourdan becomes an obscene double entendre — “What was your object in entering by the back way?” “But you intended to come on me!”

Laughton is a (bitter) joy — Hitchcock complained that “Every picture with Laughton is a war,” but he must have realized that the actor enhanced any film he touched. But if you took out the scene where Laughton is rebuffed by Todd, then his character would be reduced to a standard high court judge, and he could still behave in mostly the same way in the courtroom: he’s showing bias, it’s true, but Peck is such a dick it’s hardly surprising. I’d favour Leo G Carroll too.

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Clone of a shot from EASY VIRTUE.

But since we have Laughton’s unnecessary character, we get Ethel Barrymore as his wife, and their miserable relationship is one of the film’s most effective elements. I guess it’s a film about couples. Oddly, I’d just seen Ethel in MOSS ROSE, her previous production. Must write a little piece about that one. It has Peggy Cummins.

Hitch tried to film in long takes but Selznick objected, insisting on close-ups to break things up. No wonder Hitch indulged himself with ten-minute-takes as soon as he was free from his contract. Falling behind schedule, Hitch managed to save time by shooting the court scenes with multiple cameras, which upset the actors, who couldn’t see each other for equipment.

I always find Ann Todd rather cold and brittle, which isn’t bad per se, but I also get the impression that she’s an inherently savage actress who’s being held back by her directors. David Lean certainly held her down. I’d like to see her allowed to let rip.

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Clone of a shot from NOTORIOUS, itself cloned from SUSPICION.

But nobody lets rip here. The movie is interesting for its resemblance to two of Hitch’s earliest, least successful talkies — MURDER, in which a woman accused of murder is defended by a high-class gent. In both films, the gent travels to the countryside and stays in a cottage overnight, although MURDER exploits this for humour. And Peck’s arrival at the country house made me think of THE SKIN GAME, in which a woman with a shady past is threatened with exposure. It’s not too promising that those are the films one is reminded of.

Hitch, diplomatically, was still negotiating for a possible renewal of his contract with Selznick, even as he attempted to set up his own production company with Sidney Bernstein. The desire for artistic control warred with a need for financial security, but the experience of THE PARADINE CASE must surely have decided him that his future lay elsewhere.

para6Clone of a shot from NO. 13.

Shadowplay Shadows #1

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 17, 2009 by dcairns

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Beautiful shot from MURDER!, absent from the German version, MARY. Hitchcock seems to have executed his contractual duties on that one as hurriedly as possible.

What’s most gorgeous about the shot is that the shadow moves up the wall as we watch, signifying the approaching hour of execution. Hitch must have had a big light on a crane, or else let it slight down its lighting stand, to create the time-lapse sunset effect. More on MURDER! tomorrow.

Intertitle of the Week: Death of the Intertitle

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

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The silent movie foresees its own end — from A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR. I watched this again because I wanted to compare the silent Hitchcocks I’ve been screening with a state-of-the-art British silent movie by other hands, to assess Hitchcock’s artistry in comparison with something else.

Anthony Asquith’s film certainly beats all of Hitch’s silents into a (Hitch)cocked hat — but then, it’s possibly the supreme masterpiece of British silent cinema, and better than most films from most places at most times. To enumerate just a few of its virtues will take a while —

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It’s simpler in story terms than Hitchcock’s films, but the simplicity pays off. Asquith knows exactly who his main character is, and how to maintain sympathy for him through some fairly disastrous personal choices. The melodrama is beautifully integrated into the story and style of the film. The movie combines naturalistic settings (although the titular cottage appears as a model shot at one point) with expressionistic framing, striking a thrilling balance between artifice and stark conviction.

The German influence is clearly massive — this is Dartmoor as Caspar David Friedrich might have painted it. Perhaps, as Kevin Brownlow has argued, everything valuable in British silent film of the ’20s derived from Germany, but I don’t see this as a cause for shame — we stole from the best. Perhaps if we’d stolen from France, our apparently in-built obsession with realism could have been expressed more, but I’m glad we kept things Teutonic. Actually, when Asquith’s characters do go to the cinema, things get quite French, with an accelerating montage of orchestra (the first film screened is a silent) and audience that builds to a Gance-like frenzy of inter-cutting. (Elsewhere in British cinema, Hitchcock was being influenced by the Russian montage school, which he sought to combine with German expressionist effects.)

The cinema scene is a brilliant, gratuitous set-piece, designed so that Asquith can compare talking and silent films, somewhat to the detriment of the former, without directly showing what the audience is watching — the talkie is evoked purely by the idleness of the band, who start smoking and playing cards. While Asquith allows the talkie to score a few points — some of the punters are held rapt in the flickering half-light, it’s the silent film which produces laughter and elation. Meanwhile, the stalker hero gazes at his love and her beau, and a paroxysm of inter-cutting whips all the flying emotion up into a stroboscopic explosion.

Asquith’s cast is terrific, with Uno Henning, fresh from Pabst’s LOVE OF JEANNE NEY, at times reminiscent of Buster Keaton on his minimalist expressions of despair or awkwardness. Norah Baring, as the object of his affection, is a unique and quirky screen presence, far more appealing in her slightly gawky oddness than some glamourpuss would be. I’m looking forward to seeing Baring in Hitchcock’s MURDER!, made the following year, although I’m a little wary in case her voice disappoints me.

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Without getting into the sticky grounds of symbolism, we can say that Asquith packs a lot in to his images — tree branches spread out like black fractures in the sky, sometimes spreading from a dark human smudge, as if this were the source of the damage. And it would be tempting to put some kind of queer interpretation on the unrequited love plot (which sees the hero packed off to prison), given Asquith’s rumoured predilections — my friend Lawrie told me “Puffin” would moonlight in greasty spoon transport cafes to pick up truckers, and persistent rumours identify the director (and prime minister’s son) as the notorious “man in the mask”, attending the sex parties exposed by the Profumoaffair in the ’60s, wandering around shoving his meat ‘n’ two veg into a jar containing an angry wasp. Whatever, I guess — although when masochism reaches such levels, I do wonder, “Wouldn’t you be happier if you didn’t have to do that?”

(Irrelevant movie connection: Profumo, the Tory politician ruined by the scandal, was married to the fragrant Valerie Hobson, of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN and GREAT EXPECTATIONS fame. When the story broke, she did what Tory wives do, and stood by her man.)

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But most of all, A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR makes one want to fall guilty to the lowest of critical misdemeanours and simply assert its brilliance. If by doing so I tempt others to watch it, perhaps my crime will have mitigating circumstances.