Archive for Noel Simsolo

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…

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Hitch and Strange

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2009 by dcairns

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Crumbs, I think RICH AND STRANGE might be the third Hitchcock film I’d be willing to call a masterpiece. THE LODGER is certainly flawed, but has a real zing to its expressionist set-pieces, and it’s so inspiring to see Hitchcock discovering what he’s fundamentally about. And BLACKMAIL has far greater unity and control, in both the talkie and especially the silent version, and really hits some high notes, as well as containing a few hints of Catholic mystery which add richness.

But R&S is something else again. Rather than aim for the tightness we associate with the later thrillers, it explodes all over the place in a messy but jubilant fireworks display, anticipating the harum-scarumapproach of the early chase films, but going far further. Tonal shifts are wild and unpredictable. There isn’t even a consistent genre. A principle character who starts off sympathetic becomes horrible, then sympathetic again, then a bit horrible, then we lose track. And Hitch’s use of the intertitle, a device he presumably missed from his silent days, becomes positively avant-garde, with text breaking into the middle of scenes in a wilfully disruptive fashion — self-conscious fracturings of narrative, pre-Godardian japes.

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Brilliantly, the movie starts as a silent, with a montage of our hero leaving work (a Caligariesque hallucination of an office), braving the British weather with a malfunctioningumbrella, and struggling home on the tube. Even though there are moments when characters speak, Hitch keeps it mute, and rather than using the naturalistic excuse of the racket of the subway train, he plays music throughout. Charles Barr, in English Hitchcock, a splendid tome I should really have been consulting since January, smartly identifies Vidor’s THE CROWD, German expressionist sets and the unchained camera, and the contemporary satires of Rene Clair as probable influences.

Arriving home, our hero finds his wife at the sewing machine, and starts to bemoan his lot. He longs for an escape from his suburban existence. An uncle obligingly offers him an early inheritance, and our couple are off to see the world. The film takes the form of a travelogue of misadventures, much of it patterned on Hitch and his wife’s own travels — they liked to see the world, and as early as Hitch’s first film as director, THE PLEASURE GARDEN, his work had taken them abroad.

So the main characters seem like substitutes for the screenwriters (a novel by Dale Collins is cited as source, but this appears not to exist*; Val Valentine, a later collaborator with Launder & Gilliat, also helped out on script). The Hitchcocksbecome the Hills. Alfred becomes Fred. Alma becomes Emily. The biggest difference, apart from occupation, is that this couple is childless — but the adventure will fix that. Noel Simsolo, who introduces the DVD, is very good on this theme. I sometimes disagree with him or find he has his facts wrong, but he won me over a bit this time.

The other difference is that Henry Kendall, despite his floppy fringe and voluminously flared nostrils, is quite a bit more handsome than Hitch (although, being a British star of the ’30s, he’s not ACTUALLY handsome), and Joan Barry (who re-voiced Anny Ondra in BLACKMAIL) is quite a lot more glamorous than Alma Reville. Sorry, Alma, but she is. She’s also much better now that I can see her. Her voicing of Ondra rubbed me the wrong way, but in the flesh she’s a sensitive, vulnerable and surprisingly erotic “Hitchcock blonde.”

The film’s strangeness (and richness) is apparent early on — after the silent opening, and a domestic scene where Fred’s radio seems to be mocking him with tedious broadcasts about accountancy (prefiguring the insulting radio ad that bugs the composer character in REAR WINDOW — the media often provide an ironic commentary in Hitchock’s oeuvre, almost making him a precursor to Joe Dante), we get a channel crossing, with seasickness jokes, and then a fast montage of touring Paris. Hitch actually jump-cuts from Kendall and Barry looking screen left, to Kendall and Barry looking screen right, and then splices in different Parisian landmarks, in what’s almost a parody of Russian montage theory. The jump cuts also strongly reminded me of this, from THE BIRDS:

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The peculiarity of this sequence is down to Hitch’s wild decision not to show Tippi Hedren’s head turning: her gaze moves in a series of stationary jumps, interspersed with shots of what she’s looking at (a blazing stream of petrol moving FAST).

From Paris it’s on to the Far East, and Joan Barry starts to fall in love with another man as her husband lies seasick. Seasickness jokes, and jokes about nauseating food, abound in Hitch’s work. He actually proposed to Alma as she was suffering mal de mer, on a sea voyage en route to shoot THE PLEASURE GARDEN, figuring her resistance might be lowered. Opinions differ on whether she actually managed to reply to him, but in the end they were wed, so the technique is clearly a good one.

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Percy Marmont, king of the world!

As has been consistently the case in Hitch’s films to date, the Other Man character is actually less romantic-looking than the lead. Here, Percy Marmont (YOUNG AND INNOCENT, THE SECRET AGENT) is older, plainer, but rather wistful and sympathetic as a colonial bachelor very much smitten with Barry. She draws a stick figure into the empty chair next to his in a photograph, recalling Anny Ondra (with Barry’s voice) in BLACKMAIL:

As this romance deepens, Henry Kendall’s Fred recovers from his nausea and meets “the Princess”, Betty Amann, actually a “common adventuress” after his money. Fred, thinking himself far more sophisticated than he is, falls for her, and this drives Barry even more into Marmont’s arms. Hitchcock gets positively Lesterish with his intertitles, inserting “Fred has met a princess!” into the first encounter, and then breaking up the second encounter with a title reading “Fred” and a title reading “The Princess”, even though we’ve already met both characters.

(Also along for the ride is a comedy relief spinster, Elsie Randolph, whom Hitch enjoyed greatly, promising they’d work together again. They did, in FRENZY, 41 years later.)

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And the Ship Sails On.

The romantic entanglements reach a climax in the East, when Marmont misplays his hand by criticising Fred. Emily rushes to rescue him from the Princess’s clutches, and we get a storming face-off between man and wife, demonstrating that Hitch has truly found his feet as a dialogue director. He’s no longer taking photographs of people talking, but blocking, framing and cutting the action to express emotion

Charles Barr finds Joan Barry stilted but affecting, her limitations as a performer conveying “the doll-like, inhibited life she has unthinkingly slotted into.” I find her rather adorable. Barr dislikes Kendall, but I enjoy his performance, and think it may be the characters unappealing qualities that Barr is reacting to. Fred is pretty unpleasant when his wife tries to win him back, and once he realises he’s been duped he accepts his wife back will ill-grace.

Robbed of a thousand pounds, the couple take a cheap ship home, but it crashes in the night, and suddenly we’re in an actual suspense film. As water laps at the porthole and flows under the bedroom door, the couple embrace and Fred regresses to infancy, revealing Emily as the stronger partner. I find Kendall quite touching here. His comeuppance is so in excess of his sins, and he can’t understand it. Of course, in the morning, since it turns out the ship hasn’t sunk, he’s back to sniping at her.

“The drifting derelict,” declares another rogue intertitle, as the couple explore the deserted vessel in their jim-jams. Emily wonders if it’s alright to use the gents’ toilet: “Ours’ is underwater.” Fred agrees that she may, under the circumstances: “No sense being suburban about it.”

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Not a thing to wear.

Rescue! A Chinese junk appears, and now life and death come thick and fast, rich and strange. A “Chinaman” drowns, entangled in ropes, as his fellows look on impassively (the Chinese characters are uniformly depicted, in the fashion of the day, as subhuman morons). A black cat, following Fred and Emily from their liner, is cooked and eaten by the Chinese. Our English protagsare happily chowing down when they realise what’s in their meal. Cinema’s first gross-out gag? And then — a child is born. “They breed like rabbits,” grumbles Henry (I told you he was unsympathetic), but a seed has been planted. While their adventure has not brought them closer together, the couple now return home, realising what will. The quote from The Tempest is justified by the transformation wrought, and as Simsolo suggests, Hitchcock’s belief in the contribution of children to a marriage gets its strongest airing to date.

In a way, this strange affirmation of monogamy almost counts as Hitchcock’s version of EYES WIDE SHUT. “There’s something we’ve got to do as soon as we get home…” But Hitchcock clearly discounts the importance of sex, per se. For him, procreation and child-rearing is the necessary glue to hold a couple together. For such an effective creator of celluloid romance, Hitch nevertheless is a believer in domesticity.

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 *As regards the source novel, Simsolo leads me astray and Charles Barr corrects me. The novel, published the year before Hitch shot the film, is in fact rendered with supreme faithfulness. Collins in fact was a friend of the Hitchcocks’, and Barr speculates that the book may have been plotted with screen adaptation in mind, hence the character names and other features. Some evidence for this is suggested by the fact that Hitchcock, describing the film in interviews, twice mentioned scenes which appear in the book but not the film. One of these unfilmed sequences is particularly suggestive: Hitch claimed the film ended with the characters meeting him, and telling him their story. “No, I don’t think it’ll make a movie,” Hitch replies.

In the novel, it’s Dale Collins (described as a chubby fellow) who rejects the story as unsuitable for novelisation. As Barr points out, Hitch had only made a few uncelebrated cameo appearances up to this date — it’s actually possible that Collins’s literary walk-on suggested to him making a policy of appearing in his own movies…

The Skinny

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2009 by dcairns

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Yes, I am watching all Hitchcock’s theatrical features one a week, all year. No, I am not crazy. Yet.

How do we feel about Hitchcock’s filmed plays? So far, only BLACKMAIL and THE LODGER, of his theatrically derived works, strike me as successes, but they do strike me as his GREATEST successes thus far too. But those are adaptations where Hitchcock adapted most freely. His usual approach to plays, except in the case of EASY VIRTUE, was to stick faithfully to the text, whereas in filming novels he felt compelled to restructure and rewrite almost everything.

The reason for this probably lies in the greater structural rigor of theatre as a medium. Since a play is typically absorbed at one sitting, the structure has to feel right as the piece is experienced, and has to flow. A novel is consumed over several sessions, and so may have more freedom to explore byways and even cul-de-sacs. Tampering with the structure of a novel is pretty much essential in adapting it, since there’s often too much incident to present in a film or normal duration. Tampering with the structure or even the stagecraft of a play may destroy the very artistic unity that makes it worthwhile.

Of THE SKIN GAME, Hitch said that he was compelled to make it, which doesn’t stop Noel Simsolo on the DVD wondering why Hitchcock was “attracted to the project”. He wasn’t, Noel. Opening the play out a bit, Hitchcock nevertheless is defeated, not by its theatrical qualities, but by its lack of Hitchcockian ones — there is no strong character to identify with.

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Phyllis Konstam can heave bosom with the best of them.

The film does tackle a theme of considerable interest to Hitchcock, the class battles of England. Rich pottery magnate Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn, whom Hitch would cast repeatedly over the years) wants to build on a piece of idyllic land next door to the aristocratic Hillcrists’ property, and they don’t want to have their view spoiled. Mrs Hillcrist is quite prepared to stoop to blackmail against those she considers her social inferiors, threatening to ruin Hornblower’s daughter-on-law by exposing her shady past.

It’s a filmed play, and it’s mostly talk, and Hitchcock at this stage in his career has not found a brilliant solution to the filming of talk. BLACKMAIL is still his best talkie, because most of the scenes are conceived as images, visual relationships between characters which can be augmented with dialogue but which pre-exist it in the film-maker’s mind. JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK used mostly master-shots, in which the positioning of the actors could sometimes be expressive, but the movement and posing was rooted in the stage. MURDER! and THE SKIN GAME suffer from the idea of photographing talk, as if all a dialogue scene consisted of was the speech. “Photographs of people talking,” as Hitchcock put it.

Here, the technical side seems to way heavy. Gone are the sweeping locations of THE MANXMANor the pastoral views of THE FARMER’S WIFE — sound demands that Hitch confine himself to a studio, so the beauty of the landscape upon which the plot depends is presented by still photographs and effects shots. The difficulty of editing sound and impossibility of mixing it require Hitch to use as few cuts as possible, so he tries to dolly from wide to close and back again, and pan from one character to another, as much as he humanly can. The strain on his operators is clearly visible.

Despite being based on a “well-made play,” THE SKIN GAME suffers from a lack of clear point-of-view. The Hornblowers and Hillcrists are all pretty unsympathetic, with only Hornblower’s daughter-in-law as an appealing innocent, despite her dubious past (to provide evidence of adultery in divorce cases, she “went with men to hotels” for money). But she enters the plot far too late. Phyllis Konstam, a stage actress recruited to films by the theatre-going Hitch, she’s glamorous and pretty good, although touches of artificiality keep creeping in. Edmund Gwenn is of course excellent, although incapable of the abrasiveness that would make Hornblower a strong motivating force for the snobbish Hillcrists. Regular leading man John Longden turns up too, but gets little screen time. Jill Esmond, first wife of Laurence Olivier, is sexless and uninvolved as the Hillcrist’s horsey daughter.

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As with any early Hitchcock that’s a bit lacking, compensation comes in the subjective effects. When Konstam recognises a face from her past in the crowd, it zooms out at her like a Floating Head of Death. When Gwenn looks out his window at the threatened meadowland, he sees it replaced by factories, an imaginary transition that anticipates the splendid melting London shot in SABOTAGE.

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And the auction scene is a tour-de-force, with a long take from the auctioneer’s POV, darting around the room to spot the various bids, followed by a dramatic montage of close-ups as things get really fraught.

As far as John Galsworthy adaptations go, I’m not sure I think they’re a good idea, but James Whale’s ONE MORE RIVER, which benefits from being made later, with more advanced technical facilities, is greatly superior to THE SKIN GAME. Hitchcock’s film does not have Colin Clive as a sexual sadist, nor any line as good as this: “I don’t know if it’s flatulence or the hand of God.”