Archive for Nova Pilbeam

“Looks like I picked the wrong week to give up sniffing glue…”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , on September 30, 2010 by dcairns

Lloyd Bridges in THIRD PARTY RISK.

A very middling thriller: two-fisted lyricist Lloyd is distracted from recording Spanish folk tunes by a plot involving compromising showgirl letters, industrial secrets, and Finlay Currie as the world’s least convincing Hungarian. The whole thing is goofily enjoyable like an episode of The Saint accidentally inflated to feature length. Ferdy Mayne and Roger Delgado add swarthiness and suavity.

Director Daniel Birt seems quite bored with it all, adding to my half-baked theory about British cinema — there were periods, notably the late forties and mid-sixties, when the quality produced by the best filmmakers was so high, it raised the overall standard. Moderately gifted directors couldn’t help but be inspired by the startling stuff around them, and raised their game accordingly. Birt’s films in 1948 (the climactic year of that boom), co-written by Dylan Thomas, are almost startlingly good. THE THREE WEIRD SISTERS (his first film, Nova Pilbeam’s last) and NO ROOM AT THE INN have Gothic panache and very modern flourishes, as well as controversial church-bashing and subversive morbidity, but just six years later he’s directing with one eye on oblivion. What happened to him, or rather, what happened to British filmmaking?

The question is raised over at The Daily Notebook in this week’s The Forgotten.

Advertisements

The Blackface Strangler

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 20, 2009 by dcairns

yai17

And so to the delightful bonbon that is Hitchcock’s YOUNG AND INNOCENT, penultimate film in the classic thriller sextet that closed out Hitchcock’s British period (with the afterthought that is JAMAICA INN following on behind) and maybe the most underrated and underscreened movie in that sequence. With the exception of one scene, the justly famed crane shot through the Grand Hotel ballroom, leading into an extreme close-up of a killer’s twitching eyes, which is often quoted in Hitch documentaries, this movie is relatively little-discussed, and the discussions rarely acknowledge how charming it is. Maybe because charm is hard to analyse.

In Rohmer and Chabrol’s Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films, the authors observe that Hitchcock is not excited by his leading lady, Nova Pilbeam, but I certainly am. Having been moved by her intense performances as a child in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH and especially Berthold Viertel’s LITTLE FRIEND, it was pleasing for me to find her here in near-adult form. She’s grown into her extraordinary face, which always made her look like some kind of mildly sinister elf, without losing any of her naturalness and appeal. She has the best, most convincing smile of any actress in early Hitchcock, and he wisely ends the film on it. It should be noted that not only was Hitch giving Nova her first grown-up role, but he developed a follow-up project for her, so my impression is that he was quite pleased with her as a leading lady. (Don’t know why the follow-up fell through, but remind me to tell you about it.)

yai7

As the hero, Derrick DeMarney is perhaps slightly less satisfactory, seeing as he looks a bit drippy and sounds as if he’s fighting a heavy head cold, but he’s nevertheless likeable and understated. (I have to dismiss memories of him being pervy and sinister in UNCLE SILAS though.) It could be argued that this is a rare Hitchcock with normal people instead of stars in the lead roles. Of course, numerous among Hitch’s Brit flicks didn’t have true stars, but usually that was a problem. Here it feels like a refreshing novelty, and makes the title work all the better.

A struggling screenwriter is implicated in the murder of a Hollywood star, and sets out to prove his innocence with the aid of the chief constable’s teenage daughter. Tracked by the police, he seeks the raincoat whose belt was used to strangle the victim — a raincoat last seen in the possession of an elderly tramp.

From the opening strains of “Nobody Can But the Drummer Man” over the credits, this film comes on with gusto, an effect maintained by the first scene, in which the soon-to-be killer and his soon-to-be victim argue savagely, filmed by Hitchcock in an elaborate single take, with the characters twisting around each other like fighting cats, hissing insults at each other. It’s a complex piece of blocking and focus-pulling, with the choice of focus often rather interesting —

yai1

After the woman turns up dead on the beach, young Derrick finds himself caught in a (rather flimsy) web of circumstantial evidence. One might think that, given the body’s location, the issue of footprints in the sand might be a key one, but nobody shows any interest in that sort of nicety. I suspect that Josephine Tey’s source novel, from which the writing team led by Charles Bennett borrowed only the initial set-up, may have made play with this kind of investigative stuff, but Hitchcock is interested more in the chase and the set-piece obstacles along the way. In other words, he intends to copy THE 39 STEPS, and not for the last time.

Boy meets girl at the police station, where Derrick faints and Nova, happening by, offers first aid. This leads to two delicious moments, the first being a bit of period slang, as Nova vigorously rubs the unconscious man’s ears: “Brings them round like fun!”

yai4

The second is the moment where young Derrick awakens with his head resting on the 17-year-old Nova’s modest bosom, and Hitch smirkingly cuts to a close-up of him for the exact moment he becomes aware of this, then back to medium shot to show nova becoming all to conscious of it too. A saucy moment worth any number of Megan Foxes.

Then we have a very funny scene with Derrick’s court-appointed lawyer (“We mustn’t despair. Not actually despair.”). JH Roberts is terrific here. Well, he ought to be: looking at his credits, it seems he played nothing but doctors and lawyers his whole career. The  useless solicitor strikes such a glum note that Derrick instantly resolves to flee justice and prove his own innocence in the best comedy-thriller tradition. Meeting up with Nova en route, Derrick slowly entangles the lass in his schemes, as she reluctantly offers succour, first out of guilt, then a sense of adventure, then love.

yai5jpg

“I’m absolutely terrified of policemen.”

The first part of Nova’s seduction into crime is particularly nice. Accepting some change from Derrick to pay for petrol, she dumps him at an old mill-house and drives home in her decomposing jalopy, resolved to have no more to do with the  business. But when dining with her family (dad is the reliably sweet Percy Marmont, recovered from his Alpine tumble in SECRET AGENT) she learns from the array of little brothers that Derrick had given her his last few pennies, and now may be starved into surrender — or death! The child actors are all excellent (none are credited, although the youngest has the Pilbeam brow, and may be a genuine sibling), and it’s another suspenseful meal, of the kind Hitchcock had already exploited in BLACKMAIL (altogether now: “Knife!”) and THE 39 STEPS and would perfect in SHADOW OF A DOUBT. I’ll say it again: food is important in Hitchcock.

Dogs, too: while Nova’s pooch, Towser, is the only real featured player among the assorted hounds in British Hitchcock, every damn one of them features a dog of one kind or another, making the canine walk-on a more constant signature than Hitchcock’s own cameos. Again, this insight comes to you courtesy of Charles Barr’s English Hitchcock.

And this is a very English Hitchcock, reprising the dynamics of THE 39 STEPS, but with the rolling hills of England instead of the more rugged Highland landscape of the earlier film. As a result, the adventure is a bit more gentle — there’s only one killing in the film, off-screen, and the jeopardy is what the censors would call “mild”. It feels like Hitch wanted a light-hearted, even light-weight story after the heavy tragedy of SABOTAGE.

The escape from the mill-house is perhaps a little tame, in fact, and it’s not helped by the implausibility of Nova escaping unrecognised, despite the cops spotting her very distinctive doggie and car. The trail then leads to a transport cafe (is that a young Anthony Asquith washing dishes in the background, hoping to meet some rough truckers?) where a brawl breaks out, but Nova obtains the information Derrick needs, and thence to Nova’s aunt’s place, so Nova can alibi her absence from home with a quick visit. This leads to another favourite Hitchcock device, the tense scene played out during a family gathering. In THE 39 STEPS and SABOTEUR, the master-criminal is surrounded by his wife and kid/s, creating a surreal disconnection between the sinister plotting and the outward innocence. Here, it’s the protagonists who are the furtive ones, trying to allay the suspicions of the nosey aunt (Mary Clare, THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, THE LADY VANISHES) and make their exit as swiftly as possible. They are aided in this by the timely arrival of Basil Radford, not yet associated with the role of his life, playing Charters opposite Naunton Wayne’s Caldicott: Hitchcock’s next film, THE LADY VANISHES, would cement that relationship.

Finally identified by a policeman, and thus incriminated, Nova takes shelter with Derrick at a railway yard, where the lovers part for the night (Nova: “I’m tebbly, tebbly tired.”), she to sleep in the car, he to seek shelter at the flophouse, where he also hopes to find the tramp who nicked his raincoat.

yai10

The railway yard is a classic Hitchcock miniature, impressive in scale and detail, and almost entirely convincing until the camera captures two miniature protagonists, a little replica Derrick and Nova, with car. It’s like Trumpton! I sure wish I had a pose-able Derrick DeMarney action figure when I was growing up. I wish I had a Nova Pilbeam right now.

Derrick in the flophouse recalls Jon Finch, decades later, bedding down at the Sally Army Hostel in FRENZY. Finding his prey, Old Will (Edward Rigby), Derrick practically abducts the old boy and there’s a daring escape (miniature and life-size trains and cars), leading on to the action sequence in the abandoned mine, where they drive to shelter from the law. The car promptly crashes through the mine floor, in a smashing bit of FX engineering, and Nova gets some cliffhanging in ~

yai14

Caught going back for her dog, Nova is sent home to daddy, who feels forced to resign his post because of the disgrace his eldest has brought upon the family. Suddenly I’m reminded of the TV show Veronica Mars, a favourite in this household, where detective daughter was always getting into scrapes and compromising her detective/sheriff dad. There’s something quite powerful and moving about the idea of the independent and highly capable teen who, through youthful exuberance, oversteps the mark and brings disgrace upon the normally proud parent. 

A clew! The recovered raincoat, which was missing its belt and therefore more incriminating than exculpating, turns out to have contained a matchbook from the Grand Hotel (ah! the old matchbook clue! always a favourite), a place Derrick’s never been. The person who stole the coat and gave it to the tramp can be assumed to have strangled the woman with the belt, and may be a habitué of the hotel. The trio of fugitive, cop’s daughter and tramp unite to trap the killer in his (possible) lair.  

(Why did the killer give the incriminating raincoat away? That’s the kind of question it’s maybe not too profitable to ask, except to explore the dream-logic and daring of Hitch’s storytelling.)

yai15

yai16

This leads to the spectacular crane shot, moving across the dance floor to pick out the twitching eyes of the murderer, as he sits blacked-up, playing the drums. And at the last moment, a musical motif enters the movie, by way of the song “Nobody Can Like the Drummer Man,” directing our attention towards the culprit even as Hitch’s camera alights upon him like the eye of God. It’s even better because the guy’s eyes twitch in time to the music.

The killer’s freaking out and confessing is somewhat pat, but I’ll forgive that for the lovely shot of Nova, looking from dad to Derrick and smiling her smile — the thriller has served as new romance once more, creating a little family unit.

Hitch was aided on this outing by a regular team of collaborators with whom he had built up secure working relationships: cinematographer Bernard Knowles and editor Charles Frend, both of whom would go onto directing careers of their own; production designer Alfred Junge, who would go on to design A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH; and writer Charles Bennett, as usual complimented by a team of associates.

But the movie marked a break for Hitchcock from his partnership with Michael Balcon and Ivor Montagu, with whom he had quarrelled on SABOTAGE. And since Balcon had been acting as Hitchcock’s unofficial (and unasked-for) agent, rejecting all offers from America, Hitch now started to receive approaches from across the Atlantic. It was not inevitable that the risk-averse homebody would seek adventure in the west, but the allure of big budgets and high technical standards was powerful… but first, a project intended for the American director Roy William Neill would fall into Hitch’s chubby lap, and prove highly suitable.

yai18

The author is anxious to contact anyone who can furnish him with a Nova Pilbeam action figure. No questions asked. The Tippi Hedren one just isn’t doing it.

Who Knew?

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2009 by dcairns

vlcsnap-277296

I went into THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, Hitch’s comeback film after the “lowest ebb” of WALTZES FROM VIENNA (Hitch also used the ebb-slam to dismiss his earlier CHAMPAGNE, which like WFV is not without its pleasures regardless) thinking I knew it fairly well and wasn’t too keen on it. Certainly THE 39 STEPS is a more ambitious and confident work. But it’s amazing how seeing MAN WHO KNEW in sequence, after experiencing all Hitchcock’s extant previous work, crystallizes the film’s merits, making clear that it was indeed a leap forward in his development as (cliche ahoy!) the Master of Suspense.

Let me simply enumerate a few of the film’s many points of interest.

1) Settings. St Moritz. This was the Hitchcocks’ favourite holiday destination in real life, so they begin the film there, making this the first thriller Hitchcock made with an element of globe-trotting to it. Glamorous and exotic locations became a standby of Hitchcock’s films, and indeed he had exploited foreign shooting in his very first film, THE PLEASURE GARDEN, as well as in EASY VIRTUE and especially RICH AND STRANGE, which is the story of an exotic holiday. THE MAN WHO begins with a pair of hands leafing through holiday brochures — Hitchcock’s first pre-credits sequence! — and continues to an Alpine skiing resort recreated largely in the studio (the film was a fairly low-budget affair).

vlcsnap-276467

London. Hitch told Truffaut that the contrast between the open spaces of Switzerland and the dense streets of London was central to his conception of the film. For the first time since the opening of BLACKMAIL, Hitchcock’s camera invades the mean streets of working class areas, in this case, darkest Wapping.

The Albert Hall. Returning to this landmark last seen at the climax of THE RING, Hitch repeats the trope of BLACKMAIL of staging a climax in a familiar landmark, but improves on the idea by building the setting into the story, rather than having it appear in an arbitrary fashion. He also uses this sequence to weave the soundtrack into the plot, with an assassination attempt timed to coincide with a cymbal clash in the orchestral piece being performed at the hall. The idea of integrating music in this way, touched on in earlier films such as MURDER!, reached its first full flowering in the otherwise atypical WALTZES FROM VIENNA, and here is applied to the thriller genre for the first time. It won’t be the last.

2) Autobiography. Charles Barr, author of the terrific English Hitchcock, likes to think of MAN WHO as a quasi-sequel to RICH AND STRANGE, and I can see what he means. That film saw the suburban couple reaffirming their ailing marriage by determining to produce a child. The couple played by Leslie Banks and Edna Best in MAN have a young daughter, a little older than Patricia Hitchcock was at the time, but the family is once again in danger of tedium or splintering. The crisis of the plot rescues the nuclear family.

Barr perhaps makes too much of the hints of friction or instability in his book, but he’s onto something: every line exchanged between Banks and Best stresses their alienation, albeit in a lighthearted way. There’s much joking about Best’s infatuation with Pierre Fresnay, for instance. And between Best and her daughter, Nova Pilbeam, there’s likewise a lot of playful sniping. The performances make it clear that none of these lines (“Never have children,”) are meant seriously, but they’re so insistent that they’re clearly more than an ironic build-up to the daughter’s kidnapping.

3) Successive drafts. Knowing a bit about the project’s history sheds a fascinating light on what’s onscreen. Reuniting with Charles Bennett, whose play had provided the source for BLACKMAIL and who would be the key collaborator in all of Hitchcock’s British thrillers until THE LADY VANISHES, Hitchcock produced a treatment entitled Bulldog Drummond’s Child, but was unable to get it produced. When Michael Balcon visited Hitch on the set of WALTZES, he asked if Hitch had anything lined up, and the director took the opportunity to resurrect the project, but ditched the familiar character of Drummond. A cross between the stiff-upper-lip stoicism of Biggles, and the globetrotting adventurism of James Bond, Drummond was a pulp favourite who had already been played by Rod la Roq and Ronald Colman. The year of MAN, 1934, saw him embodied by both Colman and Ralph Richardson.

Abandoning the traditional hero leaves a somewhat weakened character for Banks to play. I wondered if Hitchcock and Bennett took the protagonist’s heroic reputation for granted, so that they forgot to give him anything daring or manly to do, but then I suspected that Hitch had deliberately moved the character away from the professional adventurer type he always affected to dislike. Banks’s character becomes a rather ordinary, albeit prosperous, husband and father. We never learn his profession, but we have no reason to assume it’s in any way glamorous. Making the hero an ordinary man is a key step in manufacturing the template for future Hitchcock adventures in the NORTH BY NORTHWEST mould.

vlcsnap-280761

THE MANWHOKNEWRIAN CANDIDATE.

Another pair of plot points that mutated during the script’s development are Edna Best’s status as an outstanding markswoman, and the villains’ use of hypnotism. The first version had the bad guys brainwashing the heroine and using her as their assassin. But Hitchcock balked at what he saw as the implausibility of this, and declined the opportunity to make the original MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. Instead the hypnotism gag was reduced to a side-show to the main event (it could easily have been eliminated altogether) and Frank Vosper is introduced as a rival sharp-shooter. Best’s dead-eye skills are introduced as a means of having our English holidaymakers encounter the foreign assassin, and the secret agent who is spying on him, and they pay off at the climax when Best rescues her daughter with a policeman’s rifle (I like how the cop casually yields his firearm to a bystander!).

Actually, the most economical solution would have been to eliminate hypnotism altogether and use the threat to Best’s kidnapped daughter to motivate her to carry out the terrorists’ plan, but perhaps that would be too simple.

4) Influences. Barr astutely identifies John Buchan as the key inspiring force here. The cryptic message than must be decoded in MAN (“WAPPING G. BARBOR MAKE CONTACT A. HALL MARCH 21ST”) strikingly resembles that in Buchan’s Greenmantle (“Kasredin. cancer. v.I.”), and another of Buchan’s sequels to The 39 Steps, The Three Hostages, features hypnotism, a child-kidnapping, and hero Richard Hannay and his wife making separate excursions into the districts of London to thwart a threat to world peace, all plot elements used in MAN. To this I would add Berthold Viertel’s LITTLE FRIEND, which introduced child star Nova Pilbeam to the world. The story here, of a poor little rich girl whose mummy is being lured away from her stodgy dad by an exotic Lothario, seems to be spoofed in the opening sequences of MAN.

vlcsnap-277217

5) Cast. What an interesting bunch they are.

The scar-faced Leslie Banks would never have been granted a leading man role in Hollywood, where he was unhesitatingly cast as the psychotic Count Zaroff in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. It seems a harsh treatment of a man who got his facial injury fighting for his country in World War I. He’s a little stiff here, but his ineffectiveness is partially the result of a script so keen to deprive him of Bulldog Drummond superheroics that it allows him to miss out on the climax altogether.

vlcsnap-282910

Edna Best is fine, but one has to prefer the actors in Hitchcock’s own remake. Nova Pilbeam is pretty extraordinary, though, with her savage, wide-spaced, electro-magnetic eyes, porcelain overhang of brow, and sharp little nose lips and chin (she is a living rebuke to anyone who suggests lips can’t be sharp). She’s an incredibly compelling performer, quite apart from her wonderful mad face.

The presence of Pierre Fresnay, moonlighting from a West End stage production, adds a welcome lightness to the opening scenes, and an intriguing foretaste of the actor’s work in two movies by Clouzot, “the French Hitchcock.”

Frank Vosper is a good sleazoid bad guy (the only obvious thing Hitch took from WALTZES), but obviously Peter Lorre is the important character here. Although the plot throws out a whole gallery of malefactors, including an old lady with a revolver, a threatening dentist, and an evil hypnotist, Lorre dominates effortlessly, just by constantly making strange. Still sporting the carnival-float head of solid fat he modeled in Lang’s M, and decorated with a skunk-like white stripe and a dueling scar to match Banks’, Lorre as “Abbott” drools cigarette-smoke and apologises to the hero after striking him. He’s good-naturedly contemptuous of his own hired hitman, devoted to his nurse, and prefers to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, but his goal is to plunge the world into war. 

vlcsnap-279197

6) Politics. “Tell me, in June 1914 had you ever heard of a place called Sarajevo?” While taking advantage of global instability to build a scenario based on international intrigue in a contemporary setting (films of Buchan novels had stuck to the build-up to WWI for their settings), Hitchcock uses the assassination scheme as almost a pure MacGuffin — we never learn what countries are involved, or who Lorre is working for. Perhaps the name “Abbott” is intended to defuse the actor’s foreignness somewhat, since Lorre would undoubtedly have been perceived as German by a British audience.

Nevertheless, the alliance of British characters and a French one against a gang led by a teutonic one, is suggestive.

Hitchcock ran afoul of the censors by modeling his climactic shoot-out on the real-life siege of Sidney Street, an east End gun battle he recalled from his youth, which was regarded as a blot on the British police force (and upon then home secretary Winston Churchill, who was criticised for using the mayhem as a photo opportunity) and had been banned by the censor’s office from any screen adaptation. The sticking point turned out to be the idea of policemen turning up with rifles, so Hitch had them requisition firearms from a convenient gunsmith’s, and apparently the force’s honour was saved. It’s fascinating how openly political British censorship was, although no doubt the establishment regarded criticism of the police as outwith the scope of mere politics.

7) Psychology. Barr again — he points out that with the light-hearted but somewhat barbed romantic triangle introduced at the film’s start, there’s something funny about Pierre Fresnay’s death. He’s dancing with Edna Best, who has just teased her unromantic husband, so Banks attaches her knitting to Fresnay, causing it to unravel and entrap the waltzing couples. A shot rings out, and Fresnay slowly collapses (a magnificent effect: “I’m sorry,” whispers Fresnay, dying). 

Barr suggests that this is almost as if Banks planned it, fixing his rival in position for the sniper’s bullet. That’s not literally true, of course, but the idea that the bullet comes as if willed by Banks is a fascinating one, especially as it connects the scene to the opening of Bunuel’s THE CRIMINAL LIFE OF ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ. In that film, once again a bullet SPINGS through a window pane, leaving a neat hole, and kills a character as if at the wish of an onlooker. It’s tempting to suppose that Bunuel may have been inspired by Hitchcock, but if so, he never admitted it, being content to receive Hitch’s praise for TRISTANA: “That leg!” Hitch exclaimed, admiringly.

vlcsnap-278800

Despite all Hitchcock’s efforts, and the public’s enthusiasm, his enemy at Gaumont, distributor C.M. Woolf, released the film on the second half of a double feature, with the result that the film’s colossal box office takings were officially credited to the “A” picture. Made cheaply, and attracting a massive audience, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH went down on the company’s books as a flop.

But Hitch had shown what he could do, and his producer ally Michael Balcon encouraged him to continue down this path with his next project… so it’s off to Scotland next week!