Archive for Number 17

The Man from Atlantis

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2009 by dcairns

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John Stuart expresses surprise in Hitchcock’s NUMBER 17, in a suitably subtle fashion. And today, in the Forgotten, over at the Auteurs’ Notebook, you can find Stuart in the Sahara for GW Pabst, making MISTRESS OF ATLANTIS. The Edinburgh-born actor also worked for Hitchcock in BON VOYAGE, where I seem to recall his Scottish accent is strongest when he speaks French, and he finished his career in SUPERMAN, as part of the council condemning Terence Stamp’s Zod to eternity in the Phantom Zone. From Atlantis to Krypton, the Lost Continent to the Lost Planet. Quite a journey.

Leave your comments over at the Auteurs’, but by special dispensation you can leave Maria Montez videos here, where her perfect cinematic appositeness will always be celebrated.

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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…

Full Steam Ahead

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 7, 2009 by dcairns

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THE LAST JOURNEY is a classic quota quickie — maybe the best ever — directed by Bernard “Mad” Vorhaus, about an engine driver on the brink of retirement who cracks up and attempts to crash his own train. It’s a precursor of the ’70s disaster movie, or more accurately, group jeopardy movie (since in this particular version of the genre, actual disaster must be averted) — stick a bunch of amusing stereotypes together in a perilous situation and watch them sweat. Or “perspire,” if they’re first class ticket holders.

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The reliably oily Hugh Williams in a typical cad/dirtbag role.

The story is by J. Jefferson Farjeon, a man who is suddenly all over my mind like a pox. He’s not only the author of Michael Powell’s lighthouse mystery THE PHANTOM LIGHT, which I wrote about already, but of THE GHOST CAMERA, written up for The Forgotten over at The Auteurs’ Notebook. This seems to be a style of title Farjeon favoured: I wonder if he had trunks full of unsold screenplays with titles like The Haunted Tripod, The Zombie Microphone, The Spook Boom or The Spectral Dolly.

He’s also responsible for the play which Hitchcock’s NUMBER 17. is based on, the subject of this Wednesday’s entry in Hitchcock Year, and a little number called TWO CROWDED HOURS, which in the manner of quota quickies, crammed both hours into a 45 minute running time. This was Michael Powell’s first directorial outing, and is apparently a lost film. Do check you’re not sitting on it, please.

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At last, a good hypnotist! Tearle’s suave doctor begins the film with a hokey demonstration of his mesmeric arts, and wishes that he could use the technique to save lives. Will he, before the film is finished? He will!

THE LAST JOURNEY is one of the most exciting films I’ve ever seen! Not for cinematic brilliance, although there’s a certain amount of that: Vorhaus does silly things like putting the camera inside the locomotive’s burner, and uses crazy canted angles to film the fraught railway employees trying to prevent a collision. What generates the real energy is the furious pace of the storytelling and cutting, and what makes it fun is the shameless comedy relief and boldly overplayed melodrama ~

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The lunatic engine driver keeps yelling “We’re overdue! We’re overdue! The crash! The crash!” with increasing fervour, like he thinks he’s in a Tod Slaughter movie.

~ while the comic relief characters are highly reminiscent of the one-note caricatures populating the later Hitchcock THE LADY VANISHES, or a Hollywood comedy like TWENTIETH CENTURY.

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“The Frenchman” spends the entire flick trying and failing to go to the lavatory — OK, so it’s not a great character arc — while Goddard is a boozy Yorkshireman, and not the director of A BOUT DE SOUFFLE.

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The stutterer is another one-note running gag, trying to order something in the dining car but being abandoned by waiters before he can ram a syllable from between his palsied lips. Ah, the truly th ’30s were a golden age of mocking the afflicted! Miss Smith is a hypochondriac bore whom Tearle, our hero, disposes of by letting her read his medical textbook, which convinces her she has motor ataxia. He prescribes dry toast, and she leaves for the dining car.

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Most amusing are the wildly dishonest pickpockets, fleeing the law and swiping everything that’s not nailed down as they go. They’re like cockney versions of characters from a pre-code Warners movie.

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The hero type on the left spends the whole movie chasing the train, desperate to rescue the girl he loves from the clutches of the oleaginous Hugh. Sidney Fairbrother is the temperance campaigner, butt of the film’s best and meanest joke. After making a pest of herself campaigning against strong drink throughout the action, she faints at the climax and has to be revived with a bottle of brandy. Waking up, she sees what she’s been drinking, and faints again. So they start pouring more into her, as we ~

FADE TO BLACK.