Archive for Percy Marmont

The Pentecostal McIntertitle

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2017 by dcairns

Tartan intertitles never really caught on. Tartan intertitles that rhyme are basically a one-off, confined to the forty-one minutes and thirty-four seconds of THE LADY OF THE LAKE, adapted from Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem.

The opening shot is a spectacular vista of a loch, with a gentleman in period dress in the foreground. The gent turns out to be Percy Marmont, who was in Hitchcock’s RICH AND STRANGE and Hitchcock’s YOUNG AND INNOCENT and here looks about ready for Hitchcock’s COLD AND UNCOMFORTABLE. In attempting to make his way out of the foreground, he stumbles rather badly, and limps from view looking embarrassed and cross. That memorable phrase from Brownlow’s Cinema Europe doc, referring to another Brit epic, comes to mind — well, I can’t remember it exactly, but bits of it come to mind, and form something like the phrase, “a re-take was evidently considered altogether too ambitious.”

I stress, this is the leading man tripping over in the opening shot.

Percy Marmont gave his name to the Chateau Marmont, by the way. Indirectly, but still.

But the film improves a fair bit, seeming at least professional. The poetry is bloody awful, though. I found myself wondering why Scott has a giant monument on Edinburgh’s main street when his verse is so crappy. Then I did my due diligence on Project Gutenberg and established that the doggerel intertitles have nothing to do with Scott at all… except for those that do (above). Elsewhere, the language has been made less archaic, lines of text have been repurposed as dialogue, and the desired effect of terseness combined with windiness has been achieved with all the inelegance one could wish for.

I remember when Demi Moore appeared in THE SCARLET LETTER she got a lot of stick for saying that it was based on a book (by Nathaniel Hawthorne) nobody ever read nowadays. And the criticism was justified, mainly because who promotes their movie by saying it’s based on something unreadable and worthless? (She should have pointed out that the classic Lillian Gish movie took just as many liberties — some books offer cinematic possibilities without, in their fundamentals, being suited to faithful adaptation…) If the cast and crew had been forced to  read the book, which would have taken some of them just as long as filming it, they would have learned more, and we would have been spared seeing the film. But still, there are some important old literary works that nobody reads for pleasure. Carl Hiassen’s Striptease, for example…

I have read precisely one short story by Scott, which I found turgid. In fairness, he was a pretty early adopter of the novel form. His verse is a lot better than the chopped-up intertitular fragments here suggest, because it’s partly in the excess wordiness of his raptures over highland scenery that he gets his effects over. And the film just deletes all that in favour of photography.

Percy seems rather effete for his role as a bold Scottish hero. I don’t think Benita Hume was Scottish either, though maybe she was descended from David Hume?

LIFE IN A SCOTCH SITTING ROOM

Note the spare intertitles hung up here and there to cover cracks in the walls.

Also, the sheep gathered around the dining table for guests to sit on. Sheep are so plentiful in the highlands that furniture is rarely bothered with. These ovine dining chairs have the added advantage that, if your plate is emptied, you can simply carve off some mutton from under you and add it to your “tatties.” After a heavy meal, you might find yourself sitting on the floor.

The legs of the table are made from barber’s poles, a typical Scottish economy measure. “If they didnae want us to hae them, they shouldnae leave them oot in the street!”

 

How to Seduce Joan Fontaine, #4782 of 848,000,000,982

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2009 by dcairns

reb2

Father talk.

I wonder if the celebrated scene in the funfair train ride of LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN was influenced, in its dialogue, by REBECCA, the first film where Joan made a major impression upon the public (apart from their rude dismissal of her dancing in DAMSEL IN DISTRESS). In both scenes she discusses her father. In LETTER it’s the speech about how he used to take the family on exotic holidays — imaginary ones, reciting from the travel brochures he’d take home from work. A speech about imaginary journeys, delivered in a fake train carriage. 

In REBECCA the father is an unsuccessful artist who always painted the same tree. Maxim de Winter, still faithful to the memory of his dead wife, can relate to this tendency to stick with one thing. The fact that Joan is attracted to the older man who admits to sharing this trait with her recently deceased father suggests that in a way she’s looking for a replacement dad. (Some awkward dialogue about this can be heard in the screen tests included in the Criterion DVD of REBECCA — I’m glad the clunky lines were cut, but they do suggest the Elektra complex was on somebody’s mind). 

reb3

Joan’s hilariously bad drawing is used as shorthand for her gaucherie and ordinariness.

The conversation in REBECCA takes place over a plate of eggs — a dish Hitchcock loathed. Perhaps his way of prefiguring the troubles ahead.

vlcsnap-6940

Many of Hitchcock’s characters draw, and use the skill in mating rituals. BLACKMAIL offers a vivid example, in the picture painted by Anny Ondra — a crude smiley face, to which randy artist Cyril Ritchard appends a slinky torso. In RICH AND STRANGE, Joan Barry sketches a stick figure companion into Percy Marmont’s photograph, suggesting his need of a wife. Later, she will imagine herself in the place of that outline.

rich10

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY will give us a professional painter as hero, and it’s worth remembering Hitchcock’s origins as a graphic artist. His own most famous illustration is his signature outline ~

name

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.