Archive for Percy Marmont

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

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

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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). 

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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.

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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.

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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 ~

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The Blackface Strangler

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

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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.)

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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 –

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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!”

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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.

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“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.

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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 ~

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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.)

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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.

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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.

Secret Agent Man

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2009 by dcairns

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I had strange, dual memories of Hitchcock’s SECRET AGENT, the third film in what we may call his classic thriller sextet. I remembered it as both good and not good. Watching it again with analysis in mind, I saw it as largely good, with a not-so-good ending. It’s probably the most neglected of the sextet, along with maybe YOUNG AND INNOCENT, which can probably be blamed on John Gielgud’s performance.

To read most modern accounts, Gielgud makes an unsuitable hero, an unsuitable Hitchcock hero, and an unsuitable spy. Most people writing about the film would rather see anyone else in the role. Franklin D. Roosevelt. Not an actor, not British, and kind of busy at the time, but still likely to be better than Gielgud. Chubby Checker. He was only five in 1936, but still had more sex appeal than Gielgud. Robinson Crusoe. Fictional, but that could be an advantage: by training the camera on an absent, nonexistent leading man, and tracking and panning with that absence’s “movements”, Hitch could have allowed us to imagine our own ideal Hitchcock hero. We could have imagined Cary Grant. But we can’t do that with John Gielgud standing in the way.

But actually, I like Gielgud. It’s true, he doesn’t do sexy. He’s a bit of a dry stick. It’s hard to imagine Madeleine Carroll having any interaction with him, physically, except maybe to use him as a back-scratcher. We can note that Gielgud came into his own as a film actor when he was off an age to be cast in roles which didn’t involve romance. It’s not because Gielgud was gay — Hitchcock successfully worked with leading men of varying sexuality. It’s because Gielgud was Gielgud.

Nevertheless, I accept Gielgud as Ashenden, Somerset Maugham’s secret agent with a touch of Hamlet. For most of the story he’s standoffish to his leading lady, and nobody stands off like Sir John. In one scene he intercepts a flirtatious phone call, intended for Madeleine, from Robert Young, and the frisson of naughtiness as Young blows him a kiss is delicious. And he convincingly portrays Ashenden’s moral anxiety at the things he’s required to do for national security.

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Young love.

This is the first of Hitchcock’s espionage/terror thrillers to have a professional spy as protagonist (and a period setting in WWI), although it’s important that Ashenden, real name Brody, is a novelist recruited for national security work at the film’s opening, rather than a trained expert. Still, for all his Hamlet dithering, he’s not as reluctant a hero as Hannay in THE 39 STEPS: duty calls, and he promptly answers, without having to be forced by circumstance.

Joining Ashenden is the General, played by Peter Lorre, a bald Mexican who isn’t bald, isn’t Mexican and isn’t a general. We first meet him molesting a maid, played by Rene Ray, future baroness and sci-fi author, and star of THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, which Alma co-scripted. I guess this is meant to be amusing, but Ray is such an attractive character in PASSING, I felt rather protective towards her. Lorre, by now in the grip of morphine addiction, was apparently quite a handful on set, but I can’t see his erratic, eccentric performance as anything other than deliberate. The General is fascinating because he’s a comedy relief character who’s also a cold-blooded killer. Absurd, stupid, childish, and deadly. A useful, disposable person to aim at an opponent.

Hitchcock shamelessly exploits the idea of secrecy in counter-espionage to throw in plot twists at every turn. When we first meet Brody he’s dead, and then we learn the death is a fake to allow Gielgud to travel unsuspected under a new identity. Arriving in Switzerland (the Hitchcocks’ favourite holiday destination again) he finds his wife already in the hotel — a wife he doesn’t have as Brody, but apparently does as Ashenden. Mrs Ashenden (Carroll) is in the bath, while entertaining a strange man, Robert Young, in her rooms.

This seems not only indiscreet for somebody pretending to be married, but unprofessional for a spy. But Carroll’s character is quickly established as something of an adventuress, in it for the thrills. Gielgud’s angular, horsey face puckers with distaste. Lorre arrives and is outraged that Gielgud has been supplied with a concubine while he is expected to fend for himself. In one of several funny bits of business allowed Lorre, he furiously rips up a roll of toilet paper (hanging above the bath — an odd bit of art direction). Gielgud complained that Hitch was too fond of dirty jokes — you can imagine his pleasure at showing T.P. in a movie, even if he couldn’t show a toilet.

The first set-piece occurs soon after: informed by coded telegram from spymaster “R” (a precursor of James Bond’s “M” — British secret service bosses really did use single-letter code-names) that the local church organist knows the identity of the man they are after (MacGuffin: unspecified defense secrets), Gielgud and Lorre go to church. The General pauses outside by a big crucifix, apparently about to cross himself, then, seemingly unable to remember the correct movements, he just gives it a little wave and goes in.

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The organist fails to acknowledge the candles Gielgud lights as a signal, instead playing a single, sustained note on his instrument. This should alert the secret agents to what’s happened, but as Comrade K reminds me, nightmare-logic reigns in Hitchcock’s world. Eventually approaching their contact, they find him strangled. Somebody approaches — they hide in the belfry (why do they go all the way up? They’re more hidden on the stairs) and are deafened by the bells, rung to alert the village. Very good sound-work here, with a track in to extreme close-up as Gielgud yells in Lorre’s ear, “We’ll have to stay here for hours.” And that’s it: the police will be called, the body will be taken away, but we have to accept that nobody will think to search the belfry, and Gielgud and Lorre will eventually be able to sneak out — purely because Gielgud has told us so.

Hours later, we rejoin our anti-heroes, with Lorre whining that he’s “still blind in one ear” from all that enforced campanology. Joining Madeleine Carroll in the casino, they are able to identify lovely old Percy Marmont (Joan Barry’s suitor in RICH AND STRANGE) as the organist’s strangler, due to his missing button. Plans are laid to lure him up an alp and do him in.

My favourite bit. Charles Barr, in English Hitchcock, is pretty down on this film, regarding it as the weak sister of the sextet, and he finds the alpine homicide rather strained, but I love it. It could be the most oneiric moment in any of the six thrillers. As Percy is pushed to his death, providing the punchline to the ancient joke, “How do you make a Swiss roll?”, and Gielgud watches from afar by telescope, having ruled himself out of the assassination game (but he’s still just as guilty because he doesn’t act decisively to stop Lorre), back at the hotel, Percy’s pooch somehow knows what’s up, and lets out a keening yodel, a long declining note which coincides with the passage of a great wad of cotton-wool cloud across the miniature alp-scape standing in for a Swiss long-shot, and Percy’s wife somehow knows that the dog’s howl signifies her husband’s death, and Madeleine Carroll knows she knows…

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Afterwards, Gielgud and Carroll are depressed, even more so when they learn (by telegram from “R”, who somehow knows) that they’ve set up THE WRONG MAN. Gielgud actually says, “The wrong man,” which ought to be a gift to documentarists. One of Hitch’s most baroque subjective effects shows the incriminating button, a transparent phantasm of guilt, miraculously expanded to the size of an individual chicken pie, spinning around inside a roulette wheel at the casino.

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Just as Gielgud renounces the spy biz and falls limply into Madeleine’s arms, the game is once more afoot as Lorre’s girlfriend produces a fresh lead — a chocolate factory with a sideline in espionage. The duo (fireball Lorre and tree-limb Gielgud) investigate, leading to a sequence where Hitch errs by making Lorre the POV character, diffusing the subjective power of the film slightly, and then we’re rushing to the climax as Robert Young is unmasked as the enemy agent (well, he IS the only other character) and the plot hurries everybody onto a train bound for Turkey by way of Bulgaria.

Face to face with his opposite number, our undercover Hamlet is once more unable to bring himself to act: killing one man may save thousands in the war, but can it be justified? Unfortunately, Hitch cuts this Gordian knot with a virtual deus ex machina (though he’s set up the bombing raid with a scene of “R” in the Turkish baths, prefiguring similar stuff in THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP). As the model train is blow to blazes by English bombs, Hitch edits in rapid, aggressive Russian fashion. Originally the scene was supposed to include tinted red flames (anticipating the single frame of crimson at the close of SPELLBOUND) and images of a torn-sprocketed film strip flapping loose, animated by experimental filmmaker Len Lye, but all this was cut out minutes before the press show, after the projectionist threatened to punch Hitch on the nose.

I love everything about the film, including dear, rigid Sir John, but the climax proves a damp squib. As everyone lolls around in the train wreck, variously injured, it looks like Young and Gielgud might try to kill each other. Then Lorre staggers up, sits down by Young, carelessly laying his gun down. Young grabs the pistol and plugs Lorre, before expiring himself.

It seems weak. Clearly Young has to die, and clearly Hitch was reluctant to make his hero a killer — the lighter British thrillers rarely allow their protagonists to get blood on their hands. The murderous Lorre, though an agent of British interests, must also be sacrificed, like a weapon to be discarded after a fight. But the solution seems lazy, and in fact bloodying Gielgud’s conscience would provide a stronger ending. He needs to get off the damn fence.

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“Made it, ma — top of the world!”

The sappy conclusion seems to spoil the film for many, but we shouldn’t overlook the skill and zestfulness of most of the action, which shows Hitch’s increased confidence after the massive success of THE 39 STEPS. And one thing is established here which will be a constant in Hitchcock’s later espionage films: spying is a dirty, corrupting business. From the cold-blooded realpolitik of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, where Leo G Carroll is happy to accept Cary Grant as a sacrificial lamb, to the grim murders of TORN CURTAIN and TOPAZ, democracy is protected at a terrible moral cost to those who do the protecting.

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