Archive for Spellbound

He Doesn’t Bark Like a Dog, And He Knows the Secrets of the Deep

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 18, 2014 by dcairns

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Dana Andrews and Lilli Palmer adopt a lobster.

Pauline Kael admired it. Its own director dismissed it. But neither of these facts need unduly influence us — like it or love it or hate it or be indifferent, NO MINOR VICES (1948) is a very odd, original little film.

I say “original,” but it should first be admitted that Lewis Milestone’s film shares a central set-up with Lubitsch’s THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING, in which Merle Oberon is tempted away from her bourgeois married existence with Melyvn Douglas by a romance with neurotic New York artist Burgess Meredith. Well, in NO MINOR VICES, substitute Lilli Palmer, Dana Andrews and Louis Jourdan and the rest can stay as it is. But it doesn’t, exactly. Whereas Lubitsch did what Lubitsch does, hampered by the fact that his leading man and leading lady were capable but not fiery, and his comic antagonist is very funny but not quite appealing enough, Milestone has perfect leads and still amps things up furiously with expressionist tricks, cartoon sound effects, imaginary sequences, hallucinatory POV shots and various other shenanigans supplied by Arnold Manoff’s script.

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Lilli Palmer is charming and beautiful as usual, Dana Andrews is wonderfully understated as usual, and both demonstrate how to turn their dramatic gifts to the services of outrageous screwball comedy. The real surprise, though, is Jourdan, who supplies the outrageous screwball element, flamboyant and wild-eyed, a little camp, and very intense, like the light comedy version of Bruno in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.

Milestone happily serves up the required japes, but we never forget he’s a proper director: he’s able to send up the tricks of dramatic filmmaking by pushing them too far or by applying them to goofy situations, and some of his compositions are just beautiful.

Strong support from Norman Lloyd as a milquetoast pediatrician. It seemed odd, hearing the familiar velvet voice of the man who pronounced Fiona and I man and wife, issuing from this boyish fellow.

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Cinematographer George Barnes also worked on SPELLBOUND, so the modern art elements must have been up his street. Funny how in high-class Hollywood movies modern art is always represented by Dali knockoffs and modern music by ersatz Gershwin. Here, Franz Waxman delivers suitable variations on Rhapsody in Blue so we get both at once — a rich pudding indeed.

I’d love to know who did the drawings Jourdan tosses off — perhaps somebody out there will recognize the style?

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Norman has a fine collection of newspaper cartoons of himself, but he doesn’t seem to have this one. I hope the original was preserved.

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Mogo on the Gogo

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2009 by dcairns

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“You have mogo on the gogo!” diagnoses Gregory Peck, mysteriously. Ingrid Bergman just laughs fetchingly. I’d have smacked him in the face. And then asked him what the hell that means.

There’s quite a bit of odd dialogue in SPELLBOUND, scripted by Ben Hecht from an Angus MacPhail adaptation of a novel by the pseudonymous Francis Beeding (in reality two different blokes), The House of Dr Edwardes. MacPhail, a drunken Scotsman, is no doubt responsible for the plethora of Scots names infecting the movie’s population: Gregory Peck is Ballantine, Leo G Carroll is Murchison, and Rhonda Fleming is Carmichael, Regis Toomey is Gillespie.

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My VHS copy of BON VOYAGE has some tracking problems, giving the titles an odd PSYCHO-like flavour.

MacPhail also worked on BON VOYAGE and AVENTURE MALGACHE, Hitchcock’s two war propaganda shorts, made in French in England. Both feature prolonged takes (AVENTURE is nearly all filmed in master-shots) of the kind Hitchcock was increasingly interested in, and which Selznick would try his best to discourage, since they interfered with his ability to tamper. Safely away from Selznick, Hitchcock indulged his interest in the sequence-shot. His producer on these shorts, Sidney Bernstein, would later collaborate with him on the production of ROPE and UNDER CAPRICORN, which pushed the technique to its limits.

BON VOYAGE strikes me as the superior of the two, for its fluidity, twisty story, and charming dope of a hero, played by John Blythe, a handsome young fellow who went on to a long but defiantly minor career. Though he was born in London, his character is a Scot, complete with throwaway drinking jokes. He’s also very concerned with eating — for a French Resistance drama, the movie focuses to a surprising extent on the need for quality sustenance. Very Hitchcock.

Like BON VOYAGE, SPELLBOUND features a couple on the run, fleeing from hotels, traveling by train, aided by colleagues and sought by the police. But there are differences.

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Dr Edwardes, taking over a swank psych clinic, is not really Dr Edwardes at all, but an amnesiac who may have killed the man he’s replaced. Dr Petersen falls in love with him and seeks to prove his innocence…

“Beeding’s” novel was a potboiler disdained by Selznick, but offering Hitchcock some interesting narrative possibilities. Unfortunately, Selznick had started undergoing psychoanalysis himself, and brought his doctor on as advisor to the film. (“Selznick’s shrink? She must have done a great job!” exclaimed Fiona) This meant that Hitchcock once again faced considerable interference from his producer, compromising many of the film’s most promising sequences — especially the famous dream. In the end, though it utilizes Dali’s designs, the sequence was largely directed by design genius William Cameron Menzies (responsible for the look of GONE WITH THE WIND, although his work here calls to mind the magnificent THE LOVE OF ZERO), with Peck’s voice-over rather ruining the uncanny atmosphere with a prosaic description of everything we see.

I also have issues with the dialogue. Hecht is a very important screenwriter, but his psychiatrists are rather clunky creations — and nearly all the characters are psychiatrists. It’s a similar problem to the priests in I CONFESS, they don’t talk like people, and the more Hecht tries to give them a jovial approach to their profession, the less convincing they are. Everything they say has some kind of psychoanalytic slant: “And may you have babies, not phobias,” says Professor Littleoldman Dr Brulov.

And then there’s all the stuff about Ingrid Bergman being a woman, as if we needed to have it continually pointed out to us. And always in such insulting ways. “As a doctor, you’re a genius, but as a woman… I hate smug women… Women make the best psychiatrists, until they fall in love, then they make the best patients… Nothing is so stupid as a woman in love… stupid… woman… stupid woman… stupid woman!!! Alright, most of those lines aren’t actually in the film, but many others just like them are.

Am I alone in thinking there’s a strange resemblance between Green Manors Psychiatric Hospital for the Very Very Nervous and the Selznick Studios?

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Both institutions are bursting with neurotics, of course. Guilt-complex nut-job Norman Lloyd and mustache-biting weird-ball Rhonda Fleming (both happily still with us today) haunt the halls of Green Manors, while cop-phobic Hitchcock, speed-freak gambling addict Selznick and alurophobe Val Lewton, who couldn’t bring himself to shake hands, were all inmates of the studio. The film’s opening info-screed, explaining that psychiatry treats “the emotional problems of the sane” is rather baffling. Don’t insane people need treatment too? And what are Lloyd and Fleming? Their keels don’t seem entirely even to me. The additional information, that exposing the roots of the neurosis automatically cures it, is highly questionable: Hitchcock said he could never really believe in analysis, since he was quite aware of the source of his own fear of policemen, but knowing that did him no good whatsoever.

The other thing that beats me in Freud is the idea that the mind suppresses damaging, traumatic information, to protect itself. Of course, observation tells us this is not true: the traumatized are signally incapable of forgetting their traumas. But more than that, the idea seems inherently contradictory. The mind protects itself by suppressing the trauma, but un-suppressing it results in a cure? Surely exposing the root of the trauma would cause exactly the greater damage the mind was trying to protect itself from?

Hitchcock nevertheless realized that the “dream detective” was a fascinating narrative notion, one which he would invert in VERTIGO and return to in MARNIE. SPELLBOUND, his first go at the idea, is perhaps the clumsiest, since the script’s concern with clarity for an audience unused to psychiatric lingo tends to battle against credibility, subtlety and pace.

But there are many compensations. The wordless scene where Peck, “spellbound,” wanders Brulov’s home with a straight razor in his hand, is a classic suspense scene with superb blocking and framing —

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Peck is a good new leading man, although his discomfort with the film and Hitchcock shows a little in the early scenes, where he seems unsure how to play a man unconsciously pretending to be something he’s not. Bergman, of course, is a fine Hitchcock heroine, with a winning smile in which the corners of her mouth sometimes go up, sometimes down. Sometimes one goes up and the other goes down. I could watch it for hours. Hitch face Leo G Carroll is welcome again, and the man from Pittsburgh who bugs Bergman in the hotel lobby, and the hotel detective, are probably the best characters in the film. It’s a relief to find somebody who’s not either a psychiatrist or somebody who thinks they’re a psychiatrist.

There’s also the music, by Miklos Rosza, with its gorgeous love theme (overused, Hitch felt) and eerie/camp theremin. If only the Dali/Menzies dream dispensed with VO and relied on the power of music and image, it would be a bracingly vulgar fantasia. Mr. Theremin himself, the inventor of the electronic marvel, suffered a fate common enough in Stalin’s Russia, he was disappeared. Conventional wisdom has it that he perished, unrecorded, in Siberia, but I like to imagine him abducted by UFOs and delighted to find they’re playing his song.

And then there’s the climax, with the real murderer shooting himself in the face from an impossible angle. Two Hitchcockian tropes return here — the outsized prop, first seen in the form of EASY VIRTUE’s giant magnifying glass —

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— and the flash of red, an avant-garde device harking back to the deleted train wreck sequence in SECRET AGENT, in which Hitch had wanted to animate the effect of the film itself tearing in the projector and catching fire.

Incidentally, Leo G Carroll must have extraordinary, Mr Fantastic arms to be able to point a gun straight into his own face like this. I reckon if you turn your head sideways you can do it, but you’d definitely be able to see your arm as well as your hand. But this in no way harms the shot for me, in fact, it enhances it. Like all the daft stuff in the movie, it’s in keeping with the general delirious tone. I’d say that SPELLBOUND is quite a bit sillier than most of Hitch’s American thrillers — it’s not tongue-in-cheek, so it doesn’t have humour as an alibi — but it’s nevertheless a sophisticated entertainment.

Sidebar: as I think I mentioned before, sci-fi author David Gerrold (father of the Star Trek tribble) once suggested that a traditional story has three climaxes: emotional, physical and intellectual. SPELLBOUND conforms to this, and goes one better: it has two sets of three.

In the skiing sequence, Gregory Peck must figure out the guilt-causing episode from his past, emotionally overcome it, and avoid going into a crevasse with Ingrid. The Freudian investigation naturally combines the intellectual and emotional parts of a good climax, so that all Hitchcock and MacPhail needed to do was get the protags off the couch and onto the piste.

This is followed by a dramatic revelation that lands Peck in the slammer, so that Ingrid must take part in a second set of three challenges. Intellectual: figure out who the killer is. Emotional: force him into a confession but talk him out of killing again. Physical: get out without being shot.

I suspect the three parts of a climax usually come in this sequence, for inescapable narrative reasons. One, figure out the solution. Two, make the emotional leap needed to achieve it, sometimes involving sacrifice, generally involving the change required by the “character arc” of convention. Three, act upon this new understanding. But there are other ways to order it, especially if the climaxes occur in three separate scenes. Hitchcock felt that villains needed to combine three distinct traits: brains, brawns and wickedness. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST he divided these qualities between three characters, the mastermind, the thug and the sadist. He doesn’t dispose of each baddie in a separate climax, but he could have. Richard Lester and George MacDonald Fraser do at the end of THE FOUR MUSKETEERS.

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BANG! A few frames of red. Since the gun firing into the audience recalls Edwin S Porter’s THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, I’m also reminded that that movie features hand-tinted red flames during the safe-blowing sequence, and I wonder if Hitch was inspired, directly or indirectly, by this venerable movie?

Next: NOTORIOUS, probably the most famous Hitchcock film I’ve never actually seen all the way through. I know, you’re shocked. I’m shocked. Time to rectify the situation.

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.