Archive for Percy Marmont

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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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…