Archive for Rope

Noirathon

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2010 by dcairns

A new Spurious Project for me – because you can never really have too many, can you? I pass my shelves every day, and from those shelves the plaintive cases of DVDs I have bought look out at me, pleading to be watched. I also have stacks and stacks of unwatched discs in folders and drums and drawers, but I didn’t pay for those, so I feel less guilty/stupid. The fact that I shelled out good money for nice pre-recorded DVDs in nice packaging, and then allow them to sit unwatched, for years in many instances, is clearly unsustainably crap. So my new project is to watch all the unwatched movies on the big shelving unit by the kitchen.

MURDER MY SWEET (known in the UK, with our mania for source fidelity, as FAREWELL MY LOVELY) is one that I felt I’d sort of seen, just not all at once or in the right order. It was to correct this that I picked up the Region 1 DVD secondhand when I stumbled upon it. Not having properly watched one of Edward Dmytryk’s top films and one of the key films noir of screen history was too shameful even to admit until now, when I’ve done it at last. Here are my impressions –

I remember a piece about Raymond Chandler where essayist Clive James said part of Chandler’s self-selected authorial problem was to stop Philip Marlowe coming across like too good a writer. The guy’s meant to be a private eye, not Henry James, after all. If Chandler were the terse kind of writer like Hammett, he could no doubt have pulled this off more easily – Hammett is actually the better writer, I’d say, but his terse, no-nonsense prose appears to sound more like a regular Joe yapping. By contrast, Chandler is nearly all nonsense, the wacky similes and figures of speech flying forth in a decidedly non-naturalistic way. So it’s a slight mistake for screenwriter John Paxton to frame their story as a flashback with Marlowe (Dick Powell) throwing out one-liners to an unsympathetic copper — “My bank account was trying to crawl under a duck,” that kind of thing. As Jack Lemmon argues in SOME LIKE IT HOT, “Nobody talks like that.” What just about scrapes by as the character’s thoughts or reflections suddenly seems rather florid when recycled as dialogue.

But once you get over the initial awkwardness, and the wit of the lines certainly helps, the story carries you along, with Powell surprisingly effective. When he was being tough or suave I sometimes felt I’d like to see someone else have a crack at it (Chandler’s own preference, Cary Grant, would be interesting – I can’t quite see it, which makes me want to), but where he scores is in the moments of horror and violence. He makes you feel the pain, especially since his tough-guy exterior is allowed to get much more shredded and distressed than would be the case with Bogart, say.

That spooky opening with Marlowe’s eyes bandaged, and the glowing-white tabletop, feels like a seance, calling the rest of the story out of the night. And then comes the great neon-lit scene in Marlowe’s office, with Moose Malloy appearing like a spectre, reflected in the window.

Is this Mike Mazurki’s best ever role? I like to think he got the part of Moose Malloy at least partly for alliterative reasons, and not just because he’s a hulking bruiser, looking something like an Easter Island statue who’s managed to dig himself free after being buried in the sand up to the neck. Moose was the main thing I recalled from the novel, which I read years back, and I have a feeling I almost liked him better in the film. Chandler paints Moose as an innocent giant, and while that’s part of the Mazurki characterisation, he’s also more than a touch psycho, and less appealing but more real because of it. Despite this glaze of psychology, he’s also a lumbering, two-fisted plot function, turning up wherever he’s need to provide some aggro, and oddly able to appear in a room without being noticed by anybody, like Mrs Danvers.  A sort of Moose Ex Machina, if you will.

His first appearance of this kind, revealed in a reflection in Marlowe’s office by a blinking neon sign, is one of his best. Dmytryk apparently found a problem when cutting this scene, though: when he cut back and forth between his two leads, the need to preserve the rhythm of the blinking sign was killing the drama. He was forced to linger on the speaker in order to make the sign stay off or on at a consistent rate, when he really wanted to be cutting to the listener’s reaction. Finally, on a chance, he cut the scene purely for dramatic values, ignoring the continuity issues created. He found the scene played so well that nobody noticed that the sign was now on for two seconds, off for four, on for three, off for two… Now you understand why Scorsese seems to care so little for continuity gaffes.

Dmytryk’s Sixth Rule of film editing:  “Cut for proper values rather than proper ‘matches’.”

Nice scene driving at night, with spooky reflections! And then a weirdly lit scene in the woods with massive light sources beaming through the fog in all directions? A sky-full of moons, or an arboreal disco? Dmytryk’s method at this time was forego niceties and shoot what looked nice and could be achieved quickly. He sought to concentrate his time on rehearsing the actors, not waiting for the lighting to be ready. So this system is a mixture of “simple to achieve” — turn on a few big lights on the rig — and “looks pretty”. The low-key chiaroscuro style came from a similar need for speed.

Along for the ride are the equally euphonious Miles Mander, England’s thinnest thespian, a quavery-voiced monofilament in a suit*, and the smarmy chin that is Otto Kruger, on particularly fine despicable form. Anne Shirley is one of those somewhat interchangeable, sweet young actresses of the era whom I’m always a little sweet on (ah, Joan Leslie!), and the iconic Claire Trevor is hands-down the most fascinating person on view. Sleazy, brazen, mysterious, wicked, aloof, needy, lusty and reeking of nicotine (like everyone else in the show), CT dominates, effortlessly. It helps that she can look cheap as well as beautiful.

What a fine film this is — as is often the case when one watches a classic which had somehow eluded viewing for years, the prevailing feeling is one of silliness: how could I not have seen this before? The secondary feeling is an appreciation of the film’s Gothic attributes, that unspoken air of eeriness, predominant in the nightmare hallucination sequence, but really present throughout.

The goofy nightmare, which kind of sets the tone for 90% of Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI, looks to be under the influence of WAXWORKS (Jack the Ripper segment) and somehow finds its way into the dayglo eighties pulp of I, MADMAN! (stalker with syringe) and CRIMEWAVE (line of free-standing doors). The more location-set noir movies would become, the less possibility there would be for this kind of hopped-up carnival atmosphere.

I liked the ending! Up to the moment when the blinded Marlow finishes his story and Ann Shirley mouths a warning to the cops not to reveal her presence, things are looking pretty grim. And indeed, I would have loved that ending, with the bereaved leading lady slipping quietly off and abandoning our poor trodden-on flatfoot. But then a happy romcom ending is gleefully pasted on, and it somehow works. Shirley looks way too happy for someone who’s just lost most of her family, but it’s played with enough wit that, like all the other dicey moments, it winds up an unlikely triumph.

*So thin was Mander that he had a problem registering on celluloid. You’ve heard no doubt, of persons so thin they disappear when they turn sideways. Mander disappeared from all angles and never reappeared, making it necessary for two burly stagehands to grip him by the head and feet while the director strummed the actor’s midriff, causing him to oscillate violently and thereby temporarily occupy enough space to allow him to be captured by photochemical means. The effect was short-lasting, and after three minutes or so, Mander would revert to passing between the raindrops in his usual manner. This affliction resulted in Mander losing a role to Sir Cedric Hardwicke in Hitchcock’s ROPE, after Hitch realised that the actor would simply fade from view one-third of the way through each of the long takes he was planning to use. “Mander was too slender even for the title role,” Hitch quipped.

Buy MURDER MY SWEET from US Amazon –

Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 1 (The Asphalt Jungle / Gun Crazy / Murder My Sweet / Out of the Past / The Set-Up)

Time Gentlemen Please

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 23, 2009 by dcairns

FRENZY represents at least three things –

1) A return from the flaccidity of TORN CURTAIN and TOPAZ to a more taut, controlled, satisfying thriller story.

2) A return to England for migrant Hitch, an England he found painfully changed in some ways, but whose progress he could eradicate in the film he was making, erasing all traces of the recent Swinging London and recreating the city of his youth.

3) A return of the repressed, a vicious explosion of curdled sexuality and incipient violence, the legacy of decades of celibacy and censorship.

If I were a woman viewing new releases in the early seventies, I think I would have been a bit worried by all the aggression on display, I must say. It’s surprising from Hitchcock, but even Mankiewicz (who used Hitch’s writer from FRENZY, Anthony Shaffer, on SLEUTH) became decidedly flippant about sexual violence in the distasteful THERE WAS A CROOKED MAN. And British cinema seemed even more sleazy than Hollywood (although a couple of the nastiest films came from visiting or émigré directors like Peckinpah and Kubrick).

FRENZY, of course, revives some of the ideas from the defunct KALEIDOSCOPE / FRENZY project developed before TOPAZ, and applies them to Arthur LaBern’s novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square. The earlier film had been influenced by two of Hitchcock’s favourite real-life English serial killers, Neville Heath and John Haigh, the acid-bath murderer. Patrick McGilligan (in his definitive Hitchcock bio) tells us that Hitch took actor Barry Foster under his wing and loaned him books on these two murderers — he doesn’t say if the books were by Arthur La Bern, who wrote about both cases, but it seems more than likely.

La Bern, alas, didn’t care for Hitchcock’s adaptation of his book, writing a strongly-worded condemnation of the film in a letter to The Times. He was particularly dismissive of the dialogue, which in truth often lacks Shaffer’s customary sharpness, and circles around rather aimlessly at times as if unsure whether the point of the scene had been made yet. And there’s an over-reliance on clichés. Sadly, much real-life speech is cliche-ridden, but I think there has to be a way to reflect that in art without simply being flat and unoriginal.

On the other hand, Shaffer does contribute some good stuff — it’s a shame his career diminished into Agatha Christie adaptations for Michael Winner, his early seventies work is pretty distinguished, if we throw in THE WICKER MAN and even the agreeable MR FORBUSH AND THE PENGUINS with John Hurt. Afterwards, only ABSOLUTION really stands out, with its unconventional pairing of Richard Burton and Billy Connolly (and “the Big Yin’s” DELIVERANCE-like banjo score). Shaffer reported that Hitch started their relationship by telling him that his films never contained any plot holes, a very odd claim indeed from a filmmaker whose films often more closely resemble nightmares than case histories. Shaffer promptly screened NORTH BY NORTHWEST and asked how James mason knew what train Cary Grant would be catching? Hitch shrugged.

Oddly, FRENZY behaves like a film very much concerned that the audience should understand every step of the narrative journey, and every iota of character motivation. For some reason, Hitch was evidently more worried than usual about the potential objections of the fun-hating “plausiblists.” One scene in particular, when detective Alec McCowen retrospectively explains the fact that Jon Finch deliberately injured himself to get out of prison and into hospital, is hilarious in its redundancy.

And yet, such ropey exposition is mostly amusing and rarely vexatious. The only really serious issue with the film is tonal, and has to do with the charge of misogyny often leveled at Hitch, but really courted, it often seems, in this movie. As is often the case, it’s a cumulative thing, and the comic scenes, which are often very funny in themselves, generally poke fun at female characters and rebound uncomfortably off the horror content, which likewise targets exclusively female victims. But when I showed the film to a class (well, part of a class) of my students, none of them seemed offended, judging the dramatic and comic scenes purely on their effectiveness.

Having fired Bernard Herrmann on TORN CURTAIN, Hitch repeated the act here with Henry Mancini, who he hired for his lightness of touch, and fired for delivering a solemn and scary score. Mancini of course was quite capable of delivering lightness (for his other side, check out his spine-tingling score for EXPERIMENT IN TERROR, which gives us the David Lynch Sound some decades avant la lettre), and protested that Hitch hadn’t told him what he wanted. Hitch obviously assumed that by hiring Mancini, he was making it clear he wanted a typical Mancini score, as when he hired Cary Grant and expected a Cary Grant performance. Pressing on, he provided detailed notes for Ron Goodwin, a British composer with a similar reputation for lightness, and Goodwin was able to satisfy the master.

Nice helicopter shot of “The City of London,” with helpful map-style caption in the top corner, Goodwin’s patriotic theme, and a glide through the tower bridge, before a dissolve brings us floating towards the pompous political speech about pollution in the Thames, rudely interrupted by the arrival of a naked, strangled female corpse. (Hitchcock cameos here, apparently unimpressed by the speech, going by his doleful expression.) The comedy is a little off-putting already — does she have to be naked? Is Hitch equating the female body with pollution?

Hitch is not amused.

A Langian cut to Jon Finch tying his necktie starts the film’s first feint, in which we’re to be led to suspect Finch. I forgot to ask my students if they were taken in, but my feeling now is that the film perhaps succeeds better today, when Finch is less famous, than it would have at the time. And in any case, the film gets by even if we’re not fooled (it would get by better if the narrative moved faster, but I’ll come to that).

Right from the off, Finch’s Blaney is preposterously surly and dislikable, quite the most unappealing Hitchcock lead. It’s a shame for Finch, a genuinely charismatic player when he can let rip with his inherent flounce and swagger (neither FRENZY nor Polanski’s MACBETH show his real flair: try THE FINAL PROGRAMME for the full-on Finch strut). The actor got off to a bad start with Hitch, after giving a foolish interview in which he announced that the script was old-fashioned and the actors might need to improvise a bit to bring it up to date. Throughout the shoot, Hitch short-changed Finch on closeups, we are told (although this isn’t obviously detectable in the final cut) and belittled him on set.

Hitch seems to have had some affection for Anna Massey, whom he taught to make batter, and Barry Foster, as well as the older stage actors. We are not told what he thought of Bernard Cribbins, who relishes his role as the nasty publican who fires Finch at the start. Cribbins is a revered UK comedy actor, particularly well-liked for his narration of The Wombles, an eco-friendly animated puppet show for kids, so it’s blasphemously thrilling to hear him making nasty remarks about Anna Massey’s tits. It’s like seeing Mr Rogers shoot up.

Then we get the odd, forced exposition scene in another pub, where a couple of city gents discuss the murders, make off-colour jokes, and paint a psychological portrait of the likely killer, all while Blaney drinks in the background (FRENZY would make an excellent drinking game: drink everything Finch imbibes and you will end the film seeing double and needing stereoscopic glasses to put the film back into 2D). We could probably do without this scene, although the hideous jokes about rape have a sort of nostalgic horror — people doubtless were this insensitive, if not in 1971, then probably in 1931.

While Shaffer was concerned, and a little amused, that Hitchcock seemed to want to reverse time and make his characters talk and behave as they would in a 1930s movie, he seems to have taken his eye off the ball when Blaney meets his ex-wife at her office. This scene sets up the tensions between the two, which are overheard by Blaney’s secretary. The scene could logically end with Blaney leaving and Rusk arriving, proceeding directly to the horrible rape-murder, which will then be pinned on Blaney due to a mountain of circumstantial evidence.

Instead, 24 hrs of screen time go by, with Blaney going on a date with his wife, spending the night in a Salvation Army hostel, discovering she’s slipped him some money, picking up Anna Massey and taking her to a hotel, and then learning of the murder, which happens that day.

The whole date could have been deleted — intended, presumably, to deepen our understanding of the hero, it just allows him to act peevish and self-pitying some more, with Barbara Leigh-Hunt continuing to show him more sympathy than he deserves. I do like the fact that one of his failed business ventures was a roadhouse, scuppered by the closing of a motorway. The Bates Motel?

Lovely Barry.

This fat in the first half hour delays the start of the thriller proper, but once it does get going we’re rapidly thrown off balance. Barry Foster’s mere arrival at the Blaney Bureau (Friendship and Marriage) signals instantly that he’s the killer, so the lengthy exchange between him and BL-H is fraught with tension and near-nausea. Hitch abandons his dictum that if you scare the audience with the prospect of a Bad Thing, you must let them off the hook by not having it happen. Here, the Bad Thing happens, graphically, lengthily, and observed with a somewhat leering closeness. And the tone is unsettlingly off.

(Fiona and I both saw this film at around the same time, as young teenagers, on Grampian TV. We hadn’t met. I like to think it was the same screening. Fiona was in Dundee, where Grampian is the ITV regional broadcaster. I was in Edinburgh, where the portable b&w TV in my bedroom could pick up a very fuzzy signal from Grampian, way up north. There’s a passage in the wildly offensive Philip Larkin / Kingsley Amis letters where one complains to the other that all the Hammer films are on TV in another region, and “We’re starved of tits and fangs here.” That’s kind of what Scotland was like: all the horror films and sexy stuff seemed to get broadcast in Grampian. Although sometimes I would have the choice of two bad films, one on STV and one of Grampian, and would spin the dial back and forth between them, creating a mix n match bad movie.

Anyhow, that scene in FRENZY disturbed us both at a vulnerable age. Anything to do with sex was interesting then — has that changed? — but this was freaky and horrible. I guess it plays a similar game to the PSYCHO shower scene, the come-on of nudity and the slap on the face of bloody murder, but updated to 1970s levels of nastiness. And it’s menacing from the start, so the guilty desire to see is highlighted in red.)

Could do without the close-ups of breasts, I must say, but they’re largely a function of Hitch’s use of a body double: he never allowed an actress to go nude. I wish I could find the source of a quote about nudity, where Hitch says “Never in my films!” and complains that it’s already a cliche. But in fact he’d planned to undress ladies in KALEIDOSCOPE and again in TOPAZ, where Karin Dor resisted owing to some unsightly scars, and Hitch shot the scene from the shoulders up.

Some have issues with Barry Foster’s performance here — the leering barrow-boy look, I think Anne Billson called it. One of my students, Kestrel, said it was like “Family Guy does English porn.” And Shaffer, primarily a humorous writer, creates this weird orgasmic rhythm out of Leigh-Hunt’s prayers and Foster’s repeated grunts of “Lovely.” When I’ve said this strikes me as an essentially comic device, people haven’t always understood me. The prayer is moving, and the juxtaposition of the scared and the profane no doubt meaningful to Hitch, and potentially powerful. But the repetition and rhythmic alteration always struck me as theatrical and nastily humorous, and I can’t explain it better than that.

Do we need to see all of this? If this is, essentially, a black comedy, what’s this scene doing in the film?

Foster, in interview, said the scene was arduous and painful to shoot — several days of rape and homicide, presided over by Hitch in a chair positioned millimetres from the action, directing the actors in his deliberate, lugubrious tones, like a silent filmmaker, or like Fellini: recording no sound, and talking them through the scene as the camera’s rolled. And then in the edit he had to be talked out of a loving ECU of drool running from the murdered woman’s lolling tongue.

My students were curious as to whether the tongue was forensically accurate. I suspect it might not be: I gather the strangulation victim’s tongue swells and blackens (nice), but I think this might take a bit of time. But I don’t know, I’m no Quincey.

If you feel I’m overstating the air of grubbiness and sexual malaise here, let me regale you with a story passed on to Fiona from director Mike Hodges, who worked with FRENZY’s cinematographer Gilbert Taylor when he made FLASH GORDON. Taylor’s operator reported that when he took the shot of Foster tripping Leigh-Hunt as she tries to escape, Hitch’s direction to him was “Make sure you get a shot of her knickers.” Brrr.

Another operator story: a character passes the lens, and Hitch says afterwards, “We should be down to the third button on his jacket.” He knows exactly how the shot should be framed, and he’s right, to the very button. The operator is astounded, never having heard of a director who could visualize that precisely what a given lens would see from a given position. (Orson Welles also claimed this rare gift.) After almost fifty years directing, Hitchcock IS a camera.

Elsie is the one on the right.

At the hotel where Finch is shacked up with Massey, there’s a familiar face. After enjoying her work in RICH AND STRANGE, back in 1931 (playing an old maid at age 27), he’d promised Else Randolph that he’d work with her again. Forty years later, he got his chance, and cast her as the hotel receptionist here.

Elsie plays one of the film’s many comic females, not all of whom are negative stereotypes, but like I’ve said, the cumulative effect is a bit overpowering. Elsie’s character is kind of dumb, as is the barmaid who laughs at the off-colour jokes, and Barry Foster’s mum is just a bit grotesque and frothy. At the Blaney Agency we meet one bullying woman and her soon-to-be hen-pecked man, and the starched secretary. Anna Massey seems to be conceived in busty barmaid terms, so it’s nice that they’ve cast an actress with such odd, birdlike features, taking the role into less conventional territory. Vivien Merchant, as the detective’s wife, is a sort of domestic monster, but we rather like her — she’s amusing, and she’s a better detective than her husband. Billie Whitelaw is the only real monster.

The scenes with Clive Swift as Finch’s old friend (they apparently fought together in the Suez crisis, a clear anachronism given Finch’s age) and Billie Whitelaw as his wife are among the weakest. Swift turns up in a blazing bit of coincidence, and shelters the fugitive in defiance of his dragon-lady wife. But a few scenes later he’s suddenly cowed, and dumps his pal in it. We’re meant to believe that because this horrid couple are off to run a pub in France, they will be impossible to reach and Blaney’s cast-iron alibi will be destroyed. It seems implausible in both logical and character consistency terms. (Always nice to see Billie though.)

This sequence, in which Finch is required to hide out and dynamically do nothing, is another pace-killer, although it does give us the valuable information about the Blaney divorce, in which he pled guilty to cruelty to get a quickie divorce — another fact that will count against him in court.

Meanwhile, detective Alec McCowen has been introduced, one of the film’s best characters. My students thoroughly enjoyed the byplay with his nouvelle cuisine obsessed wife, and his championing of the correct diet as “Breakfast, three times a day.” The film is indeed focussed on food to an extraordinary extent. When Hitch was asked if his father was a greengrocer, he demurred, specifying that Hitchcock pere was a fruit and vegetable wholesaler. In other words, he wasn’t like John Loder in SABOTAGE, he was like Barry Foster in FRENZY…

McCowen underplays beautifully in his quiet desperation to get out of the line of fire of his wife’s awful meals (served up with a kind of gentle sadism). Merchant has very odd delivery, which is a consistent pleasure of the head-scratching variety. What’s with her? I especially love her delivery of “tequilla”, where she pronounces the Q as if it were an English word.

Blaney’s safehouse having moved from under him (allowing Finch more opportunity for petulance — he seizes every chance to roll his Rs as if auditioning for a Restoration comedy — it’s not appropriate to 1971, but anything to give the drab and unappealing character a bit of colour) he pitches up on Foster’s doorstep, and the trap is sprung.

Foster’s murder of Massey gives the film several of its high points. The way the sound drops out just before he introduces himself to her is very effective, and quite radical for the period. Hitch earlier uses a radical diminution of the soundtrack when Blaney disappears rather than talk to a copper, right at the start: all the market hubbub falls away, leaving just the sparse sound of footsteps. The murder behind locked doors is chilling, and still a welcome relief from the snuff-porn sexploitation of the first onscreen murder. As with PSYCHO the principle holds that restraint is most effective when it follows explicitness: give the audience’s imaginations plenty to work with. The extremely difficult camera move where we first follow the couple upstairs, then retreat backwards in silent horror, is also treated experimentally on the soundtrack: silence, with a slow build-up of street noises, building to a roar that will drown out any screams. The scene also has an absolutely perfect concealed cut, taking us from the studio to location. Hitch’s special effects only have the reputation of being clunky because so many of them don’t work. When they do work, hardly anybody is aware of them.

Then there’s the sequence where Foster misses his tie-pin, and we get the flashback of the murder — a sort of imaginary flashback, since Foster literally reconstructs (out of fragmentary close-ups) what must have happened, even though he didn’t actually SEE the tie-pin get grabbed by his victim. These excessive, ecstatic detail shots, cut at breakneck speed to Goodwin’s pounding score (all talk of lightness laid aside for now), are one of the film’s  best moments, but rarely discussed. Having switched to Foster’s pyschological POV, Hitch now delights in making the audience root for his sexual psychopath anti-hero. he’d talked about this when planning KALEIDOSCOPE (“For some inexplicable reason, the audience is on the side of the criminal at this point.”)

So now we come to the famous potato truck sequence, extended to breaking point, you might think, but it really works with an audience. Something Jan Svankmajeresque about the strange image of the bare foot amid the spuds, the toes like tiny baby (pota)toes. Good use of artifice to create the impression that Foster is at work in a truck on the motorway: practically all his shots are studio. Gilbert Taylor had also shot REPULSION, which is the other great rape-and-potatoes Brit horror film.

The hideous protraction of the business of dealing with Massey’s (or her body double’s) rigor mortis grasp on the tell-tale tie-pin recalls the killing of dear old Gromek in TORN CURTAIN. And then we wind up here ~

Not really, of course, we wind up at Wally’s New Cafe, which still feels like it was built on the site of the 1930s “trucker’s pull-in” (odd that the term used is a cinematic one). Which suddenly brings home to me the resemblance between YOUNG AND INNOCENT and FRENZY. There’s an essay somewhere suggesting that the stained dress of STAGE FRIGHT and the raincoat belt of YOUNG AND INNOCENT suggest numerous formal connections between the early British thriller (one of the least-known of the 30s thriller cycle) and the film marking Hitchcock’s return to England in 1950. But this much later return seems to have far more in common with the Nova Pilbeam vehicle. Consider:

Story: in both films, a woman goes on the run to attempt to clear a man of the murder of his (ex)wife.

Locations: in both films — a truck stop cafe, a doss house, a grand hotel, a detective’s home (scenes around the dinner table).

Murder: in both films, of a woman, by stragulation, using a garment, body washed up on the shore at the beginning.

Oh, the tie-pin doesn’t come from YOUNG AND INNOCENT though, that comes from the play Rope. In his film, Hitchcock used a different clue, but the pin must have stuck in the back of his mind (ouch!) — or else it’s from the novel, in which case maybe La Bern was influenced by his fellow Londoner Patrick Hamilton.

Foster now proceeds to neatly frame Finch for his crimes, even packing his last victim’s clothes into Finch’s luggage and, after inviting him to shelter from the authorities at his trendily decorated bachelor pad (complete with the same commercial art visible on Alex’s parents’ walls in CLOCKWORK ORANGE), he snitches to his copper friend and before we know it (well, after a few more plodding expository scenes), Hitchcock does another of his tentative courtroom scenes. Here we stay outside the doors, only getting snippets of sound when the doors are opened. Then Finch is shoved into a holding cell and we get ~

(1) A classic Hitchcockian God shot, from directly overhead, as if peeking into a doll’s house.

(2) Another version of the Hitchcockian primal scene, his five minutes of imprisonment at the local police station, his father’s punishment for some long-forgotten infraction. Interesting that both Hitch in real life and Finch in fiction have been sent to the stripy hole due to the machinations of a wholesale greengrocer. Interesting that this scene obsessed Hitch to the very end.

This overhead view is followed by a matching one of McCowen as the first doubts descend in the courtroom, which prompts him, like John Williams in DIAL M FOR MURDER, to privately re-investigate a crime which he’s already “solved.” (“Unconventional, yes, but my blood was up!”) And McCowen is in fact a virtual clone of the Williams detective. FRENZY can be seen as a last visitation of Hitchcock’s British themes and characters. Some of them may seem a little dog-eared and anachronistic, but it’s nostalgically pleasing to find them trotted out one last time.

Now McCowen’s investigations move in parallel with Finch’s escape attempt — but why do his fellow prisoners help him escape, since he’s the convicted necktie strangler, the sort of “nonsense case” who might be expected to receive little sympathy from your serious professional criminal? The only possible answer is that criminals are somehow capable of recognizing an innocent man in a way that policemen aren’t. I don’t believe that to be true, but you could probably convey the idea in a scene — but you would have to write such a scene.

On to the smashing finish. For some reason Foster leaves his door unlocked, admitting the desperate escapee. Good laughs from my students at Finch’s plight — it works that he’s not exactly sympathetic — and I’m impressed by the beat-by-beat revelation of the facts. The tension is, can McCowen arrest Foster before Finch kills him? When Finch batters the blond-locked figure in Foster’s bed, we fear he’ll be convicted of another murder. Then the female arm falls loose and we fear he’s murdered an innocent. Then he whips back the sheet and — whew! — she was dead already. Then McCowen appears in the doorway, leaving Finch to stutter the abortive beginnings of some kind of truly weak, “I can explain” or “This isn’t what it looks like” explanation. Then McCowen, finally revealed as a smart copper, motions him to wait.

McGilligan gives us some nice insights into the filming, and how Hitchcock’s interventions turned some obvious playing into more interesting choices. Foster initially hung his head in defeat upon realizing he was captured. Hitch suggested a hopeful smile. And when McCowen declaimed the closing line, Hitch asked for a lighter approach (as he told composer John Williams, “Murder can be fun.”)

“Alec, if I was playing your part … which I’m not … but if I was playing your part I wouldn’t say the line like that. It’s the end of the movie. You’ve got your man. There’s nothing else to worry about. If I was playing your part, I’d just lean against the door, and I’d sigh, I might smile, even … and I’d say very quietly, “You’re not wearing your tie.”

But it’s up to you — you’re playing the part.”

A final tableau, almost like the end frame of ROPE.

Film Club: End of the Line

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2009 by dcairns

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So, Film Club ends its weekly tyranny of our schedules and goes monthly after this…

A psychopath proposes an exchange of murders with a tennis champ he meets by chance on a train. In exchange for strangling the tennis player’s wife, the psycho wants his father done away with…

Picked up a copy of Raymond Chandler Speaking at a library sale. Here he is on STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, a note intended either for Hitchcock or himself ~

“I nearly went crazy myself  trying to block out this scene. I hate to say how many times I did it. It’s darn near impossible to write, because consider what you have to put over:

(1) A perfectly decent young man agrees to murder a man he doesn’t know, has never seen, in order to keep a maniac from giving himself away and from tormenting the nice young man.

(2) From a character point of view, the audience will not believe the nice young man is going to kill anybody, nor has any idea of killing anybody.

(3) Nevertheless, the nice young man has to convince Bruno and a reasonable percentage of the audience that what he is about to do is logical and inevitable. This conviction may not outlast the scene, but it has to be there, or else what the hell are the boys talking about.

(4) While convincing Bruno of all this, he has yet to fail to convince him so utterly so that some suspicion remains in Bruno’s mind that Guy intends some kind of trick, rather than to go through with it in a literal sense.

(5) All through this scene (supposing it can be written this way) we are flirting with the ludicrous. If it is not written and played exactly right, it will be absurd. The reason for this is that the situation actually is ludicrous in its essence, and this can only be overcome by developing a sort of superficial menace, which really has nothing to do with the business in hand.

(6) Or am I still crazy?”

Remarkable, reading Chandler’s  cogently argued deconstruction of the inherent implausibility of the scene, that in the finished film it plays out so smoothly that you can’t imagine it was even difficult.

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After the titles, the opening montage cross-cutting two pairs of feet on a collision course. I’d misremembered this as a title sequence, and I suspect a few years later that’s how they’d have done it. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin — Bernard Herrmann could have done wonders with this one, but then again, nearly all the great moments are accompanied by that scarifying wurlitzer version of The Band Played On, so there wouldn’t have been much for him to do. Amazing how often Hitch does weave the music into the plotline — it’s almost a constant technique.

Farley Granger as the nice young man — perhaps too nice? The more violent Guy feels towards his estranged wife, the better the story works. But I never had any real problem with Farley in the role (this movie is difficult to see, in  a way — what I see is myself as a kid watching it for the first time). Robert Walker is truly impressive. The camp mannerisms are just the right side of overdone, and balanced by the surprising physical strength, and weird flights of fancy to create a believable and unpredictable psychopath. Like Joseph Cotten in SHADOW OF A DOUBT, it’s clinically quite a shrewd portrayal, matching what we know of such types, but the two characters are nevertheless entirely distinct people. While Uncle Charlie occupied his mind with philosophy, charting his separation from and superiority over the world he moved through, Bruno Anthony’s restless brain flits from one crazy scheme to another. It’s not clear how many of them are japes and how many he entertains seriously: he seems to enjoy springing them on the unwary, just to get a reaction.

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Hitching a ride.

As with ROPE, an idea which seems like a gag is taken too seriously by one party… in fact, ROPE, STRANGERS and DIAL M FOR MURDER form a sort of informal Perfect Murder Trilogy. Lots of Hitchcock films feature careful killers, but these three films hinge upon murder schemes that aim for artistry, and which must be explained to an appreciative audience. Brandon in ROPE has his accomplice, and also seems to hope that Jimmy Stewart’s going to catch on to the plot and come to respect its fiendish brilliance; Bruno needs a partner who shares his enthusiasm for the idea of swapping murders (which is where his plan miscarries); and Ray Milland will need to enlist a patsy to do his killing for him, which allows him to enjoy explaining just how clever he is.

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The movie is a noir symphony of lampshades. Cinematographers take note — the solution is to have lots of lamps, with fairly opaque shades, so not too much light gets through.

The first act of STRANGERS plays out entirely in a criss-cross pattern, intercutting Guy and Bruno’s storylines, barely introducing Ruth Roman as Guy’s romantic interest, and leaving her family for later. To put over the jumps from character to character, Hitch has fun linking scenes with audio-visual connections, as when Bruno finishes his first encounter with Guy by murmuring “Criss-cross…” and Hitch cuts to the Metcalf station, the big X of a crossing sign in the centre of frame. Later, he’ll cut from Bruno”s watch, after the killing, to Guy looking at his own watch, fixing the time of the murder and Guy’s potential alibi.

(In counterpoint to this back-and-forth rhythm, Hitch favours long takes in the early scenes, playing a number of them in single sequence shots, which raises no ROPE-style difficulties since he doesn’t make a fetish of it. But there are some beautiful long takes here, marvelously played by Granger in particular, who of course has had practice.)

In fact, Bruno’s plan goes wrong from the start, when Guy can’t establish his whereabouts beyond a doubt. But it’s not a fatal flaw, since the authorities can’t place Guy at the crime scene. This makes the whole story possible. It’s quite ingeniously worked out, although Chandler complained that the story was inane.

“The question I should really like to have answered, although I don’t expect an answer to it in this lifetime, is why in the course of nailing the frame of a film together so much energy and thought are invariably expended, and have to be expended, in exactly this sort of contest between a superficial reasonableness and a fundamental idiocy. Why do film stories always have to have this element of the grotesque? Whose fault is it? Is it anybody’s fault? Or is it something inseparable from the making of motion pictures? Is it the price you pay for making a dream look as if it really happened? I think possibly it is.”

I think possibly it is in the case of Hitchcock…

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Bruno’s murder of Guy’s wife (the viciously effective Kasey Rogers) is one of the more DePalmaesque sequences in Hitchcock, depending on a seedy conjunction of sexuality and violence, and upon an exploitation of the audience’s baser instincts. We’ve been led to dislike Rogers. Bruno is a fun character. And his stalking of his prey is mistaken by his prey for sexual interest. Hitch spoke often about how, in a suspense sequence, the filmmaker should not have the terrible, threatened thing, actually happen, yet here it does. The implication is that it’s not so terrible. Only Guy and Leo G Carroll, the boring moral voice character, think it is. And Guy is pretty conflicted/compromised.

Of course, Hitchcock is always morally aware, and so even the bravura, baroque reflected murder shot is played with an eye to discretion and a kind of restraint. And the aftermath is a slow come-down, designed to slowly calm the audience from their murder-lust and start them thinking about the consequences of Bruno’s indefensible act.

Czenzi Ormonde, a Ben Hecht assistant, tidied the script up when Chandler departed the project, leaving a bit of a mess behind him, and reports seeing first-hand Hitchcock’s fear of the police. And, like STAGE FRIGHT before it and I CONFESS after, much of the action here is based on an apparently innocent character’s persecution by the authorities. Here, as in the early spy movies, the hero is in fact caught between the police and the real villains, leading to those superbly dreamlike shots: the zoom onto Bruno in the stands at a tennis match, staring fixedly at Guy as everybody else swivels their heads left and right to follow the ball; the little figure standing on the steps of the Capitol Building, who somehow we KNOW is Bruno.

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Maybe my favourite Monument Moment in all Hitchcock.

Pat Hitchcock! Her finest hour, maybe? “He spent six hours trapped in the meat locker with the left leg.” Sharing with dad a fondness for the macabre, Pat’s character is a delicious piece of comic relief, while adding value as a trigger for Bruno’s psychotic breakdowns. The track into ECU on her face, with wurlitzer music fading up and superimposed reflections of a lit cigarette lighter reflected in her glasses is the most outrageous moment in the film.

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Daffy old ladies! There are so many of them in this film — why? Bruno’s mom is deeply pleasurable, of course, but there’s also the lady who effects his introduction to Guy’s party at the tennis pavilion, and Mrs Cunningham, the lady he throttles at the drinks soiree, and the woman in the commandeered car at the end — “How exciting!” This movie is like the Revenge of the Old Dears.

By the way, has anybody seen THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN? This is one of many Hitchcocks to throw up not a straight remake but a kind of echo. I have seen THE DESIGNATED VICTIM, with Pierre Clementi even more flamboyant than Robert Walker in the bad guy role. This Venice-set giallo follows the Highsmith plot all too closely, although it has a humdinger of a plot twist stored up for its ending.

Hitchcock, I surmise, has just seen THE THIRD MAN, because his canted angles, not heavily featured elsewhere in his oeuvre, suddenly come to the fore, and are often associated with doorways — like the one Harry Lime stands in in Carol Reed’s 1949 classic. Dutch tilts continue to feature in I CONFESS, also shot by Robert Burks, whom Hitchcock discovered on this film, and with whom he continued to work until Burks’ untimely death in a fire. The cameraman helps make STRANGERS Hitch’s most noirish film — his b&w work is every bit as beautiful as his later lush Technicolor films for Hitch.

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Now we approach the scene that gave Chandler conniptions. In fact, the problem is solved partly by having Guy and Bruno communicate by letters and a phone call. He hangs up before we can question whether Bruno is convinced or not. Since Guy brings his gun along, the expectation that he may be going to kill Bruno’s father, as planned, is planted. The fact that he’s been so reluctant in the past is enough to make Bruno suspicious. The extraneous element of menace is provided by the Anthony family dog: we find ourselves worrying that Guy will not be able to kill Bruno’s dad. The thing works.

Having incurred Bruno’s wrath by trying to warn the designated victim, Guy sets in motion the events of act 3 (from Bruno’s point of view, it’s Guy who causes everything in the story to happen) where Bruno will try to plant incriminating evidence at the crime scene. Guy must finish his tennis match in record time (perhaps it would have been easier for him to deliberately lose, but that would be dishonest), escape the police, and physically stop the incredibly strong psychopath from leaving his cigarette lighter on Lovers’ Island. A very good set of seemingly impossible problems.

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(Meanwhile — as if that weren’t enough — Hitch throws in the gratuitous / absurd / delightful / wicked suspense sequence where Bruno drops the lighter down a drain and must retrieve it by extending his arm, Mr. Fantastic-style, through the narrow grille and into the bowels of the earth. And we’re shocked to find ourselves rooting for the bastard.)

Hitchcock’s deft touch allows us to know part of Guy’s plan but not all of it, so there’s a perfect balance between surprise and clarity. Pat pulls off her part of the plot with aplomb, lunging for Detective Hennessy’s crotch like a bull at a gate, and Guy is OFF — already incriminating himself by running from the cops. We suspect that his plan doesn’t really extend as far as dealing with Bruno, and every step he takes is adding to the authorities’ suspicions, so it’s an excellent set-up for a climax which, when Hitch started shooting, did not exist.

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In some ways, using the merry-go-round for an action climax is an act of desperation, since the whole thing smacks of that element of the grotesque Chandler complained about. Having Hennessy’s partner shoot the carny in charge is a bit cold-blooded, and anyhow, is this ride fitted with an engine from Lockheed? Do fairground hurdy-gurdies really have the ability to accelerate to 90 mph? I’d like to think so, but I suspect the true answer is “Don’t be silly.”

But the sequence is justifiable on every level other than plausibility. The fairground is a key location already established and the return there is central to the plot. The wurlitzer has played during the first murder, and has been fixed in both Bruno’s and the audience’s minds. And the very public nature of Guy and Bruno’s death-brawl signals the moment when the secrets are dragged from the closet and the truth is outed, so to speak.

Surprising that Hitch jeopardizes all these kids and then never really reassures us that they’re all OK. It seems unlikely that Bruno is the only one hurt. I recall as a kid that the extra I was really worried about was the old Manny Farber lookalike who crawls under the spinning attraction to pull the off lever. I wasn’t alone — Hitchcock himself was in an agony of suspense filming the dangerous stunt.

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The single action of Bruno’s hand opening in death to reveal the lighter is maybe the single neatest narrative wrap-up in Hitchcock’s career, considering the number of things it accomplishes all at once. To return to Chandler’s numerical system, it

(1) Shows Bruno’s death.

(2) Clears Guy.

(3) Forces into the open the secret true story.

(4) By extension, frees Guy to marry.

The inscription “From A to G,” originally meaning “From Anne to Guy”, now stands for “From (Bruno) Anthony to Guy,” as he gets it back (except the police  need it for evidence — well, after all this fuss, we kind of hate that lighter, I bet Guy never wants to see it again).

Isn’t Guy still an accessory after the fact? Aren’t they going to hold him partly to blame for the destruction of a funfair? Is Hennessy’s partner, kicked out of the force for shooting an innocent carny (if such a phrase isn’t a contradiction in terms), going to come gunning after Guy? Find out in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN II: MONORAIL OF MADNESS!

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