Archive for Sara Allgood

The Mythomaniac

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2010 by dcairns

So, a sometime correspondent self-combusts, and we must ask “Why?” Some of the speculation surrounding the death of F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre has viewed him as a delightful eccentric, which is a little odd since his chosen exit seems to have been calculated to assassinate his neighbours, and since in 2001 he was charged with a horrifying, yet deeply bizarre, assault on a neighbour, strapping her to a chair, shaving her head, and spray-painting her black from head to toe.

As if this weren’t weird enough, it chimes oddly with FGM’s sole novel, The Woman Between the Worlds, where the hero, a tattooist, is approached by an invisible woman demanding he tattoo her all over to render her visible. It’s all… very strange.

Here’s the second email I received from the late “Froggy” MacIntyre. Alas, I don’t seem to have preserved any more, and I think there were others. Author’s interjections/annonations in grey.

Ahoy, Dave:

In case any of you didn’t know, calling a David “Dave” without being invited to do so is bad form.

Eily Malyon was distinctly Victorian in appearance. Very small and thin, with very sharp hatchet-faced features. A wide range of English and Scottish accents, less successful with Yank accents. In terms of character type, much like Margaret Hamilton but far more distinctive in appearance. Her best roles were as the scheming aunt in ‘On Borrowed Time’ and the wife of butler John Carradine (and sister of the escaped convict) in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’.

She was perfectly cast as the Victorian orphanage-mistress in ‘Jane Eyre’. She bullied Shirley Temple in ‘A Little Princess’. She briefly appeared (with no lines) as the nurse in ‘Dracula’s Daughter’. She was the priests’ housekeeper in ‘Going My Way’. She was the prim librarian (chastising Teresa Wright for coming to the library at closing time) in ‘Shadow of a Doubt’. She was the owner of the laundry, tormenting Maureen O’Sullivan in ‘Devil Doll’. She was the dairymaid who shared a touching moment with Garbo in ‘Camille’, the nun who aided Fredric March in ‘Les Miserables’. She had a very brief appearance (head and voice only, body never seen) in ‘Confessions of a Nazi Spy’, instantly memorable as a Scotswoman loyal to the Reich. She was an hotelier, sceptical of Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray in ‘Beyond Suspicion’. She played weeping bullied wives in ‘The Wet Parade’ and ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. She was the minister’s dutiful wife in ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’. She appeared in the opening scene of ‘I Married a Witch’, circa 1690, wearing Pilgrim garb as a woman named Tabitha … who looked very hag-like indeed, yet who was NOT the witch in this movie. If memory serves, I believe Eily Malyon was in ‘She-Wolf of London’, sharing scenes with Sara Haden: not a good idea, this, as she and Haden were similar in type and physical appearance.

We were talking about our favourite character actresses and I wasn’t sure, at the time, who Malyon was.

In REAL life, Sara Allgood was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the cult that featured so prominently in my novel ‘The Woman Between the Worlds’. She was a member of the London chapter, alongside Yeats, Machen, Crowley and Florence Farr. Noted for her fine speaking voice, it often fell to Allgood to read out the texts during their rituals. Allgood worked with Hitchcock but she had a very low opinion of him as a director. Begorrah!

Una O’Connor. Oh, dear. I despise that shriek of hers. Still, I would like to have seen the Broadway production of J B Priestley’s play ‘The Linden Tree’, in which O’Connor played the housekeeper of an elderly professor. The professor was played by Boris Karloff. When Priestley learnt that Karloff had been cast, he objected on the grounds that audiences would think it was a play about an axe-murderer. After reading Karloff’s favourable notices, Priestley apologised.

I quoted Richard Lester’s statement that Ralph Richardson said he always started off with the walk, a baffling assertion, since all RR’s characters walk the same way. I still believe Lester was telling the truth, and Ralph was probably indulging a flight of whimsy.

Ralph Richardson ‘always started with the walk’? Erm, I think you’re thinking of Alec Guinness.

Which reminds me: it’s been a while since I’ve seen ‘Heavenly Creatures’ but I guess you’re correct that I’ve got the two girls swapped.

This was in regard to the question of which actress played the woman who grew up to be crime writer Anne Perry. FGM said he’d often used the argument that “write what you know” is a fallacy, since murder mysteries are not written by murderers, and he resented Perry for blowing a hole in this argument.

I like to pretend that any given director’s film oeuvre all takes place in the same universe. This explains why, during the murder scene in Peter Jackson’s ‘Heavenly Creatures’, you can see Gollum lurking in the shrubbery.

I mentioned Olivia DeHavilland’s claim that she had a special scent made to symbolize each character she played. Wearing the perfume would instantly get her “into character.” I presumed she wore two different scents to play twins in THE DARK MIRROR.

The DeHavilland story about her scents is a new one to me. I admire her for her bravery in bucking the studio system’s repressive contract suspensions. A lot of big-name actors (including Bogart) gave lip service to her cause, but didn’t have the guts to stand with her.

I still don’t know how they did the twin sequences in ‘The Dark Mirror’. The usual lurk for a double exposure is to mask one side of the frame whilst filming the other, then switch. Apparently DeHavilland filmed all of her twin scenes in one take, with another actress on-camera playing the second twin, facing the camera … and then, afterwards, DeHavilland’s head (facing the camera) was superimposed over this woman’s head in the print lab. I don’t understand how this was done. Unless the other woman was a microcephalic, surely her own head would stick out in places where DeHavilland’s head was narrower.

I suggested that this story originated from DeHavilland, who had not fully understood the technical processes involved. From her point of view, she had acted both roles against another actress, and then somehow replaced her, but the exact mechanism escaped her grasp.

I’m surprised, looking back, that all this didn’t lead FGM to repeat his claim of having a twin brother, for which there is no evidence…

‘The Corsican Brothers’, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jnr as twins, features one astonishing fight scene in which the brothers circle each other in the same shot, with no discernible cut nor masking. When I saw this, circa 1974, I resolved that if I ever met Fairbanks I would ask him how it was done. I *did* meet him years later, but quite forgot to ask this question.

I’m now determined to check this out.

In ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’, Mary Pickford played the title role (a small boy) AND his mother, both onscreen at the same go. For decades, I kept hearing that the double-exposure sequences in this film were so incredibly sophisticated that to this day nobody knows how they were done … most notably a scene in which the boy jumps into his mother’s arms. When I finally saw this movie, I found the special effects very crude by modern standards. I quite accept that they were advanced for the time. In the arm-jumping scene, the boy is clearly a double with his back to the camera.

Did DeHavilland have any input into the creation of her scents, or did she just trust someone to create a scent appropriate to the character?

My favourite detail in the novel ‘Camille’ never got into the movie: the prostitute wore a white camellia corsage every day … except three days each month, when she wore a red camellia. I can’t imagine what this symbolises. (Not half!)

The musical ‘Annie’ (by John Huston, of all people) and the Rodgers&Hart bio ‘Words and Music’ both contain the same bizarre anachronism: both feature a scene in which the main characters go to a cinema and watch ‘Camille’. In both cases, this scene takes place BEFORE ‘Camille’ was filmed! In the case of ‘Words and Music’, ‘Camille’ is actually re-edited as a SILENT film so that Richard Rodgers can see it in the 1920s. Feel free to run this past your friend Wingrove Melville, or whatever alias he’s using.

I forgot to do so.

I knew about Patrick MacNee’s lezzy mum and her ‘wife’: they dressed him in a kilt and kept his hair long, and told him he’d make an excellent girl, but they didn’t quite go so far as putting him into girls’ clothes. I hadn’t known about Peter Cushing being given that treatment, nor Wyler. Ernest Hemingway and his older sister had a mother who delighted in treating them as same-sex twins: sometimes dressing both as girls, sometimes as boys. (Joan Crawford adopted two unrelated girls, and insisted on raising them as twins.) Another boy raised as a girl was Charles Beaumont, author of ‘Twilight Zone’ scripts. In fact, this wasn’t his real name; I suspect he took this name from Charles Beaumont, Chevalier d’Eon, real-life cross-dresser and namesake of Britain’s Beaumont Society.

The oddest such case known to me is that of the father of Walter D Edmonds, a best-selling Yank novelist of the 1930s, several of whose novels were filmed. Edmonds’s paternal grandmother decided to enrol her son (Edmonds’s father) in the school she had attended. Unfortunately, it was an all-girl school. She was afraid her son would be conspicuous as the only boy in an all-girl school, so her ‘solution’ was to send him to school dressed like all the other students: in the schoolgirl uniform! Apparently he didn’t mind this but he *did* mind the ordeal of walking to and from school, jeered by the local boys (one of whom broke his nose with a stone).

The reason why the above cases lodge in my memory is because I too spent part of my boyhood as a girl. I was one of the ‘child migrants’ who were forcibly expatriated from postwar Britain to Australia; in my case, I was sent to a ‘work farm’ in Queensland, and used as slave labour by Anglican priests and their matrons. When I was 11 years old I escaped, and the local authorities went to considerable trouble to find me. I was fortunate to receive some protection from an expat Scotswoman: a former gynaecological nurse who — shades of the recent ‘Vera Drake — had been struck off the register for doing abortions. (Illegal at the time, circa 1959.) She had performed an abortion on a teenage girl who had died on the table, and had been quietly disposed of, with no death certificate issued. The authorities were looking for me, so the ex-nurse hid me in plain sight by disguising me as a girl and equipping me with the dead girl’s identity for a few weeks until the search went cold … she also had me make a few public appearances as the dead girl, so that this girl’s disappearance could not be traced to her visit to the nurse’s address. After a few weeks, and a relocation of several hundred miles, it was safe for me to reclaim my male identity. A good job it was, too, as I was not very passable as a girl. I know for a fact that at least one person rumbled me. In all, I likely spent far less time in skirts than Hemingway did.

All of which brings me full circle to Eily Malyon. I shan’t divulge the name of the nurse who saved me, but physically and vocally she was a dead ringer for Eily Malyon. (I think they may have been related.) To this day, whenever I see Malyon onscreen, I have to fight off a momentary belief that I’m seeing the woman whom I knew. But I am indeed genuinely impressed with Eily Malyon as an actress, and I believe that I would still hold her talents in high regard without this coincidence.

Up until WW1, it was fairly common to raise boys in skirts, but this was for practical reasons: it made them less likely to climb trees and get up to other dangerous stunts, and it made it easier to change their nappies. The first stage on the path to manhood was the ritual of the ‘breeching’, in which a boy was deemed sufficiently mature to give up his skirts in favour of trousers… usually short ones.

I’ve encountered a couple of remote seacoast villages in the Hebrides and Orkneys in which the boys were raised in skirts, allegedly so that the sea (being animist and sentient) would mistake them for girls (less valued) and not carry them off on a wave.

I mentioned the young William Wyler’s stunt of driving his motorcycle off a diving board at parties.

Wyler rode his OWN motorcycle into swimming pools? I should think this would cost him considerable money. When Wyler directed the Ben-Hur remake, the studio publicity made much of the fact that he had been assistant director on the original. Wyler modestly pointed out that his duties as ‘assistant director’ were largely a matter of crowd control. From what little I know of him, he was a genuinely modest man in an industry run by egomaniacs.

I’m gobsmacked by what you tell me about Wyler’s daughter being abducted by a paedo, and more gobsmacked that she wasn’t harmed. Did the bastard have a pang of conscience and let her go, or was she rescued before he could do anything? This reminds me of how Forrest Ackerman’s wife Wendayne (translator of ‘Perry Rhodan’) was assaulted by two Italian thugs on a Vespa. Those damned things are illegal but the Eyeties don’t care.

A touch of racism here. MacIntyre was a rabid right-winger. In fact, I believe Wyler’s poor daughter was harmed, in the sense of being molested, but not otherwise physically injured. In a fashion which seems almost impossible to credit now, everybody simply got on with their lives and didn’t make a big fuss about it. Glad to have her back alive.

The movie ‘Hammett’ (filmed in London) features a scene in which he stops at a newsagent’s kiosk in San Francisco which carries an advert for the News of the World.

One of Hammett’s novels (I forget which) mentions a case about a man named Flitcraft. I believe that this was an actual case that Hammett worked on for Pinkerton, although the name Flitcraft was probably made up. Flitcraft was a respectable family man, went to his job every day, went home every night. No scandal. One day he left for work and simply never showed up. No corpse found, no ransom note. Detectives encounter such cases; usually the guy had a double life for a long time, involving a mistress, and spent months or years crafting a second identity for himself before scarpering. But the Flitcraft case showed no such pattern. Eventually, Flitcraft was located hundreds of miles away, living a very undistinguished life under a new name. Here’s what happened. One his way to work, he passed a building site. A steel beam fell off the site and struck the pavement quite near where he was standing. A sherd of concrete struck his face, shocking him more than actually injuring him. But for the vagary of a few inches, he would have been killed instantly. The emotional shock of this ‘death’ was so powerful that, purely on the spur of the moment, Flitcraft effectively ‘died’ and started over as somebody else, with no prior preparation. I find this very spooky.

The Flitcraft case is alluded to in The Maltese Falcon.

A similar case (which I’ve mentioned on IMDb) is that of 1930s comedian Paul McCullough, who was in a horrible auto accident: he emerged unscathed, but became firmly convinced he had died. A few days later, he was in a car that stopped outside a barbershop in which the barber was stropping one of those Sweeney Todd razors. McCullough rushed in, grabbed the razor and slit his own throat. Shockingly, he took a considerable time to die of this.

Cornell Woolrich. For some reason, I keep thinking he wrote ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’. It was Dahl, of course. I think Woolrich wrote the one about the kidnapped boy who is hidden in plain sight at a fairgrounds. The kidnapper drugs him, sews him into a chimpanzee skin, and leaves him asleep in a monkey cage.

I’ve only ever seen the Victorian cylinder case in one article (not story) by ES Gardner. He may have made it up, but it doesn’t sound like his yarns.

This is Erle Stanley Gardner, but I have quite forgotten what the Victorian cylinder case WAS.

I’ve heard of William Roughead but never read him.

I referenced Groucho’s line, a reported outtake from his game show You Bet Your Life, in response to a man with many kids who claimed to love his wife: “I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth occasionally.”

That Groucho line is an urban legend. It never happened. Groucho DID sometimes unloose a wisecrack with such alacrity and acerbity that even he was shocked, but this one didn’t happen. Of similar provenance are two others that (never) occurred on the Stateside chat-show compered by Johnny Carson. Allegedly, an actress strode onto his set, carrying a moggie. She then sat down with the moggie in her lap and asked Carson: ‘Would you like to pet my pussy?’ to which he ostensibly replied: ‘Move the cat and I will’. No way an actress would voluntarily appear on a live show with an animal that might upstage her, and no way Carson would have approved it if she had. The other dodgy one: allegedly Carson interviewed the wife of a pro golfer, and asked if her husband had any good-luck rituals. She replied that, before a big match, she kissed her husband’s balls … prompting Carson to rejoin: ‘I bet that makes his putter stand up.’ Why would Carson interview the wife of a celebrity, rather than the celebrity himself?

I can think of several explanations: maybe the woman was famous in her own right? Maybe the incident took place in private life, not on TV? Either way, neither story is very funny.

The ‘League of [Extraordinary] Gentlemen’ comic books featured a young woman as the leader of the 19th-century League: very 21st-century PC, you know. (I well and truly dislike period pieces in which the characters have a modern-day ethos.) The film version of ‘League of Gentlemen’ made Connery the boss. This was intended as a ‘lad’ flick, and the lads don’t want to see a movie where a lassie gives the orders.

Straight on till mourning,

Froggy MacIntyre

The part of my discussion with MacIntyre which isn’t preserved, but which I remember, is his expressed resentment at the actress Margaret Sullivan’s suicide. She became depressed after losing her hearing, and MacIntrye claimed that his former wife had coped so bravely with her own deafness, that he was made angry thinking of Sullivan yielding to despair. All tragically ironic since “Froggy” apparently took his own life.

Startlingly, FGM has a letter published in this month’s Fortean Times: as was his wont, he uses the opportunity of a FT article to drop in some piece of obscure lore, and then link this to a plug for one of bis publications. A boost from beyond.

Hitch Year, week 10: Juno and the Hitchcock

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 11, 2009 by dcairns

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“Of no interest whatsoever,” — Hitchcock’s peremptory summation of ELSTREE CALLING seems rather harsh. And in fact, what he really means is, “A bunch of crap,” since the film is basically without merit, but very far from being without interest. I mean, how could you say THIS is of no interest ~

Rubbish, possibly, but it’s eye-poppingly interesting. And then there’s the Friese-Greene colour process, with its shimmering tones (much faded now, I fear) which seem to be fighting to escape the outlines of the figures and blaze across the screen and out into the auditorium ~

But Hitch didn’t direct this stuff. He shot the framing bits, in which Gordon Harker (THE RING, THE FARMER’S WIFE) returns for his last Hitchcock performance, struggling to get his anachronistic television to work. Hitchcock is terrible at slapstick here (there were some fine bits with Harker in THE FARMER’S WIFE, though) — something about early sound, in conjunction with Hitchcock’s use of closeups, and some woeful writing, contrives to make it all seem painful and upsetting.

And who was broadcasting TV in 1930? The Nazis, possibly, but nobody else. If someone asks you to name a Hitchcock musical, you could stretch a point and maybe offer a few possibilities (the second MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, WALTZES FROM VIENNA), but this seems to me the only true Hitchcock sci-fi film.

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A terrifying vision of the future.

The film also features BLACKMAIL’s Donald Calthrop and John Longden and, in a sequence that could conceivably have been directed by Hitch but probably wasn’t, Anna May Wong in a Flash Gordon costume kicking a hen:

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I mention all this, even though ELSTREE CALLING isn’t part of the canonical 52 Hitchcocks I’m duty bound to watch and write about this year, purely because it’s a lot more fun than JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK. I “studied” Sean O’Casey’s play in school, which aversion therapy may have prejudiced me against it, but coming back to the thing did give me a sinking feeling. It’s one of very few Hitchcock films I wouldn’t watch for pleasure. But it is pretty interesting as early talking cinema, and as an example of a direction Hitch could have gone off in. Thankfully, he didn’t.

Look at Anthony Asquith. After the blazingly cinematic, expressionistic UNDERGROUND (haven’t seen it, but the clips look spiffy) and A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR, Asquith approached sound cinema in a completely different way, abandoning his powerful visuals and simply photographing actors reciting dialogue by Shaw, Wilde and Rattigan. Apart from some exciting montage sequences (sometimes the work of a young David Lean), there’s little of filmic interest, and the choice of writers is suspect: I’m not sure Shaw and Rattigan CAN be cinematic, and while Wilde clearly can be adapted into cinematic language (look at any version of Salome), Asquith carefully avoided doing so.

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Cinematographer John Cox seems to have been almost as fond of cameo appearances as Hitch.

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK is a step towards Hitchcock’s metamorphosis into Asquith, a transformation that was thankfully never completed. While Hitch was a theatre-lover, and believed in fidelity to the source when transferring plays to the screen (quite the opposite of his approach to literature), his later filmed plays all have cinematic energy and dramatic tension. That tension is something I find missing in most of this play. True, it does build to a conclusion in which tragedy piles up on top of tragedy, but in a way that depends upon theatrical compression to appear remotely plausible. In screen terms, for the daughter to fall pregnant and be abandoned, the legacy to prove false, the son to be murdered, all at the same time, stretches credibility more seriously than the murder plot in VERTIGO.

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Representative Types of Irishman.

Hitch begins with an opening-out sequence, according to a scheme he often promulgated: start with something exterior and dynamic, telling the audience they’re getting a film; then give them the play. I’ve already blogged about this opening sequence here, but note the cutaways of grizzled and degenerate Irishmen as Barry Fitzgerald is talking about the nobility of the Celtic race. Hitchcock is always rather mean to public speakers, but this heavy-handed irony almost smacks of racism, which is not the overall point of the film or the play. As a Catholic, Hitchcock has some connection to the characters in the play, but the Hitchcock family appear to have been long-standing English Catholics*, so the connection is not ethnic. I don’t think Hitchcock regards the Irish as inferior (why would he make the film if he did?), in fact he relates to working-class life in Dublin as similar to working-class life in London (Hitchcock’s family was never as poor as the Boyles, but he must have known poorer families), but I guess he couldn’t resist the “joke”. I think he probably should have.

(I remember a TV interview with Cyril Cusack, saying he thought at the time that JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK was the worst film ever made. I wonder why? I don’t think it’s too brilliant, but that’s a very strong reaction. Possibly the situation of an English director tackling an Irish play, and making the kind of possible misjudgement cited above, is part of it.)

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Icon of Grief.

Hitch’s most impressive moment in the film, and one worthy of Bunuel: a shot of a plaster Virgin Mary, accompanied by a burst of machine-gun fire.

The cast is worth commenting upon: Sara Allgood returns from BLACKMAIL, and from the original stage production. she would soon head for Hollywood, but her path did not professionally cross Hitchcock’s again once there. Too bad. John Laurie makes his first appearance in a Hitchcock. A Scot by both race and inclination, he attempts a vaguely recognisable Irish accent, and swings between conviction and pose-striking drama-queenery. It’s a shock to see him young and somewhat handsome though — within a few years he would be cast as an elderly crofter in THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS (his father was a crofter for real), and would never play young again.

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“We’re all doomed!”

All in all, the acting here smacks of the stage, with over-precise enunciation through the accents, and very deliberate, self-conscious moving about from everybody. Plod from Position A to Position B, declaim line, await response. The compositions are generally very nice, and it would be unfair of me to slam the thing too hard, since I just looked at Peter Hall’s film of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Now there’s theatrical acting. Vanessa Redgrave’s lips move like copulating serpents.

O’Casey’s comedy always struck me as totally unfunny. I know that’s the kind of purely personal response that isn’t much help to anybody else, but isn’t it all just either paddywhackery or reverse-paddywhackery? It feels like a series of responses to the concept of Irishness, rather than to actual life, but maybe the production’s to blame. What does feel true is my original objection to the thing back in school: the comedy is just a bunch of eejits saying stupid things — nothing happens for most of the play, and nothing much is expected to happen. The Master of Suspense has nothing to be master of.

But — I welcome more informed, enthusiastic or insightful comments. Let’s see what we can make of this thing.

*This is according to John Russell Taylor’s authorized biography, but Patrick McGilligan dug deeper. It appears that Hitch’s mum was London Irish, and there was some Irish blood on his father’s side. I was also interested to learn that Hitch’s maternal grandfather was a policeman, which seems significant in the light of the director’s oft-expressed fear of cops.

Breaking The Sound Barrier: Hitchcock’s Blackmail(s)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2009 by dcairns

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I watched the silent version of BLACKMAIL for the first time this week (it’s been ridiculously hard to see for most of my life). It ended just in time for me to catch Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock on the telly (it was OK, very good in places, critically weak in others). Then I watched the talkie version of BLACKMAIL. Because I am hardcore.

I’m inclined to view BLACKMAIL (silent version) as Hitch’s second masterpiece, after THE LODGER, and it’s actually a more accomplished film than the earlier thriller. While the Ripperesque thrills in Hitchcock’s third movie were beautifully rendered shot by shot, the movie has bigger problems in plot terms, mainly caused by the need for Ivor Novello’s mysterious tenant to be found innocent at the end. BLACKMAIL also was supposed to have a very downbeat ending, and Hitch was forced to compromise once more, but the ambiguous and rather queasy conclusion he created with playwright Benn Levy (THE OLD DARK HOUSE) and, reportedly, an uncredited Michael Powell, is far more successful that THE LODGER’s fatuous story-book finish.

For what seems like the first time, Hitch has a story with both solid structure and a firm control of point-of-view. Basically, the story begins with plodding detective John Longden on a case, running to ground a hilariously stereotyped criminal degenerate, with the kind of Boris Karloff mug that would have been a gift to Lombroso. Then we shift from police procedural to social comedy as Hitchcock details the difficulty of getting a good table in a Lion’s Corner House with the same forensic attention he devoted to the interrogation and identification of a felon. This scene allows the POV to shift to Longden’s girl, Anny Ondra from THE MANXMAN.

Anny has covertly arranged to meet an artist, who lures her to his garret, plies her with drink and lewd song (in the sound version, at least), makes off with her dress and tries to –

“He tried to -” says Anny in the talkie version, proving that there are some places dialogue cannot yet go.

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In a set-piece sequence, Anny stabs her assailant to death and flees the scene, having retrieved her dress but left behind a glove. Now the POV can shift back to Longden, called in to investigate the case. Recognising both the glove and the victim, he conceals evidence and confronts Anny, only to find himself in thrall to a sleazy blackmailer, played by Donald Calthrop (a good all-rounder with a special propensity for seediness — in SECRETS OF FP1 he plays a grubby reporter, a role taken by Peter Lorre in the German version). The scenes of blackmail take place in Anny’s home, resulting in a return of the domestic/criminal confluence Hitchcock had mined so successfully in THE LODGER, and which he would return to throughout his career, perhaps most notably in SHADOW OF A DOUBT.

Adding to the tension and tautness of the narration, Anny’s family run a newsagents, and they live a short distance from the crime scene, so that the murder is on everyone’s lips. The proximity of shop and kitchen also denies the family privacy, so that an annoying neighbour can natter on at them while they try to eat breakfast — a stand-out scene in the talking version (“Knife!”).

Still believing his girlfriend to be innocent (this essential character point is a little unclear, especially in the silent), Longden tries to shift the blame to Calthrop, who flees police by smashing through the newsagent window in a very strange manner, pressing his body up against the glass until it yields and he can slip through. It’s the least dynamic window-smashing I’ve ever seen, certainly compared to Lionel Stander’s very animated flying exit in HANGMEN ALSO DIE:

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Lionel checks out.

Ducking into the British Museum, Calthrop is pursued through a range of extremely impressive special effects shots (the museum refused entry to Hitch and his crew) and falls to his death. The blame safely laid at the dead man’s door, Ondra is saved, but retains a haunted expression. Hitch had wanted to convict her, and end the film in a manner symmetrical with its beginning, but British International Pictures thought that was too depressing. The ending chosen is pretty unsettling though — without a confession, there can be no expiation of guilt.

Watching the silent version first, I was blown away by how good it is. Adapting a play by his future collaborator Charles Bennett, Hitch finds all manner of suspense-generating devices and visual tropes. Then, when I watched the talkie, my appreciation of it was raised. My most recent viewing of it had been rather unsatisfactory. My awareness that Anny Ondra was being dubbed by Joan Barry, sat just off-camera with her own microphone while Ondra moved her lips soundlessly, (see SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN for a good demonstration of this technique) was rather distracting. And Barry’s voice is not as appealing as Ondra’s — as impressive as Hitch’s invention of dubbing is — and done live! — Barry’s strange, over-enunciated version of cockney is unconvincing, and her voice rather grating. The effect is to rob Ondra of much of her innate eroticism (although in the talkie version, Hitch obligingly shows her stripping down to her slip while the lecherous artist serenades her on his grand piano — I did feel for the piano-movers who must have heaved it up the many floors to his attic suite).

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This graphic image IN NO WAY matches the wide shot of a speeding truck that follows it.

Starting with a spinning wheel — the wheel of justice! — Hitch shows a police van racing through London streets (with some very poor matte shots of the interior) and stopping in what must be the East End to make an arrest. We meet Longden and his superior, and glimpse a little black boy playing in the street. While making ethnic minorities visible is a good thing, his inclusion feels uncomfortably like a signifier that this is a bad area.

This sequence is identical in both versions of the film, with more or less constant music (by Hubert Bath of THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK) to fill in the silence, and only the most minimal sonorization: there’s a footstep sound when the cops get out of their “black Maria” van, and then they continue noiselessly on their way, even making little comments to each other which we don’t hear. It’s not a problem, but it’s kind of strange and interesting.

When the cops enter the room where the degenerate old crim lies reading his paper in bed, there’s a beautiful pan from his face as he scans the room, spotting the cops reflected in a mirror, which leads him to reach for a gun. The cops nab him, and we follow his processing through the police station: fingerprinting, interrogation, identification (no messing about with one way glass here — the witness has to walk right up to him and lay a hand on his shoulder.

Enter Anny Ondra, voiced by Joan Barry in the talkie version. As Longden and Ondra go on their date (with Barry tagging along off-camera), the scene plays out more or less the same, even down to camera angles. The dialogue script contains a few more lines, however, and Hitch finds ways to make Ondra more sympathetic than in the silent — she nags her boyfriend and is dismissive of his job at Scotland Yard (“If it wasn’t for Edgar Wallace, nobody would ever have heard of you.”), but he’s grumpy too, and Hitch lessens the implication that she’s arranged to meet another man, as well as suggesting that she thinks better of the idea. But Longen walks out on her, and her fate is sealed.

Lured up to the artist’s studio, Ondra is followed up the stairs by an elegant crane shot, in a scene perhaps influenced by Borzage’s SEVENTH HEAVEN (or Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN). In both versions, Hitch shows the artist with curling shadows falling on his face, apparently to mimic the curly moustaches of a villain in an old stage melodrama. The effect isn’t absolutely clear, but it is eerie and sort of disfiguring, so it works.

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The shadow of that moustache would haunt actor Cyril Ritchard throughout his life — his most celebrated stage role was as Captain Hook, opposite Mary Martin in Peter Pan.

When the nasty artist attempts to subject Ondra to his depraved appetites, Hitch stages a simple but dramatic set-piece: the struggle behind the curtain. Ondra’s hand reaches out and grabs the convenient knife, the curtain flutters some more, and then the artist’s hand drops into view, lifeless. Ondra emerges, a look of madness in her face. But she’s sane enough to at least try to remove all evidence of her presence in the flat. As she flees into the night, we get this great shot of the blackmailer’s arrival, echoing Ivor Novello’s appearance in THE LODGER a few years earlier.

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Ondra wanders the streets, distraught, allowing Hitch to play with a variety of subjective effects, some slightly crazy, like the neon sign that transforms into a memory of murder, some very elegant: a shot of the Big Ben clock tower, telling us the time, is followed by an extreme high angle looking down at London from the sky — the God’s-eye-view that returns, strikingly, in THE BIRDS, more than 30 years later. Other ideas, like the neon sign that mutates into a nightmare image, don’t do much beyond showing off the fertility of Hitch’s imagination.

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A Hitchcocktail?

In the silent version, oblivious passers-by flit past Ondra in a lateral tracking shot, while in the talkie, their numbers are augmented by double-exposed transparent shades, suggesting a much longer and more mentally confused walk. A shot of a traffic policeman’s hand triggers a quick cut back in time to the slain man’s hand, which is very effective, but even more impressive is the moment when a shot of the corpsefingers is inserted BEFORE a shot of a sleeping tramp’s hand. It’s an odd, counter-intuitive way of making the connection, but it works, and is much more startling.

Now comes the central sequence at Anny’s home, above a newsagent’s. Dublin-born Sara Allgood, who would get a major role in Hitch’s next talkie, plays Annie’s mum. I guess her Irish accent would have been irrelevant in the silent version, but it becomes an interesting detail in the talkie. Here, as in SABOTAGE, we get a strong sense of the pressure of running a business that’s attached to your own home. The family are deprived of pivacy as they attempt to have breakfast, being bothered both by a nosy neighbour and by the constant ringing of the shop door-bell, calling them to serve customers. Hitch again finds he can use ordinary domestic life to heighten the suspense of a thriller situation.

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Silent “knife.”

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Talkie “knife”. Presumably, the young lady in the first version couldn’t do a cockney accent, and Hitch must have had second thoughts about her costume. She’s the biggest change in the sound “remake”. Apart from the sound.

This is of course a major sequence in the talkie, the “knife” dialogue, in which the moaning neighbour’s monologue slowly fades to a murmur, except for the repeated word “knife”, which gets louder and louder. It also seems to turn up in the conversation an awful lot. Sound man Dallas Bower recorded the wild track upon the producer’s request, unsure if Hitch really knew what was going on, but I bet it was Hitch’s idea in the first place — it’s an audio version of the kind of subjective effects he was attempting in all of his silent films. Perhaps he didn’t understand the technical details of recording it, but he must have known what the aim was.

Meanwhile, the body has been discovered, via a beautiful sound link (Ondra looks startled at home, and we cut to the landlady screaming), and Longden has answered the call to the crime scene, where he finds Ondra’s glove. He’s about to report it when he recognises the murder victim — via a very fast track-in of the kind Hitch had already deployed in CHAMPAGNE, for example — as the man he saw with Ondra. He pockets the glove and goes to see her.

Now Donald Calthrop comes into his own as the blackmailer, with another of those odd posh cockney accents of the kind frequently spoofed by comedian Harry Enfield. But he’s very effective, and the sound version even manages to make him sympathetic when the tables are turned, deepening the film’s moral ambiguity. Hitchcock was already learning that in a talkie, the primitive power of visual storytelling can be given an additional layer of sophistication by the dialogue. While stressing the primacy of the image, Hitch would always seek to enhance his films with witty and literate writing.

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Calthrop’s flight into the British Museum was apparently the suggestion of Michael Powell, a habitue of the library. Years later, Charles Bennett, author of the original source play, would have Dana Andrews visit the same reading room in NIGHT OF THE DEMON. But the climax is slightly unsatisfactory — the museum has no connection to the story, or to Calthrop’s character, and he has no particular reason to go there. This kind of arbitrary climax is a common occurrence in British Hitchcock movies, which are looser in construction and more likely to throw in gratuitous action sequences than the later American productions, which are more structured (exceptions will be noted). But I liked the constant cutaways to Ondra at home, more or less praying for release, with the window shadows behind her not quite creating a crucifix shape. It prefigures Henry Fonda’s answered prayer in THE WRONG MAN.

Of course, Ondra’s prayer is answered by Calthrop falling to his death, which allows the police to close the case, blaming him for the killing she committed. The Production Code would never have allowed such an immoral ending, but Hitch is almost happy to allow Ondra off the hook — she was only defending herself, after all. But as she confesses her guilt to Longden, and they agree to keep it their secret, Hitch shows the dead artist’s mutilated painting being carried into the station house. Ondra’s expression upon seeing it is one of horror. There’s no hint that the painting is a clue that will unmask her as the killer, but it is a reminder of what she’s done, and the fact that she can never escape that.

While the silent BLACKMAIL is more accomplished than the hastily repurposed talkie, the sound version does add several memorable effects, and is a model example of how a film can use sound intelligently without being overtaken by dialogue. It basically plays as an audio-visual experience with a few talking scenes. It would take Hitchcock some time to get back to that kind of purity, because his next films are theatrically derived, dialogue-driven, and in many ways quite uncharacteristic…

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