Archive for Stage Fright

Curtains

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2009 by dcairns

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So, after Hitchcock’s independent venture, Transatlantic Pictures, went into receivership after the belly-up box-office demise of UNDER CAPRICORN, he ran for cover with a British crime story for Warner Bros. STAGE FRIGHT is generally rated as lightly likable or less, with a disproportionate amount of attention wasted on the non-issue of whether a dishonest flashback is permissible. I think THE USUAL SUSPECTS has taken care of that question.

The movie has more than that going for it — there’s a surprising shift from whimsical Miss Marple investigation to dark psychosis and horrible death at the end, for one thing. The other most interesting element (apart from Frau Dietrich, of course) is the Britishness. The movie sees Hitchcock working with a lovely array of Brit actors of the era, giving us a little alternate-reality glimpse of what Hitchcock might have been doing if he hadn’t left for America. Given the film’s minor nature, we might feel particularly grateful that he did go to Hollywood, but then the lack of ambition is partly due to Hitch treading water in order to gain confidence (both personal and industry) after UNDER CAPRICORN’s poor reception.

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Alistair Sim had been in UK films since the ’30s, supporting Jessie Matthews with comedy relief, and co-starring with Hitchcock regular Gordon Harker in a series of rather jolly crime comedies about Inspector Hornleigh, so he could easily have acted for Hitchcock a decade and a half earlier, but he didn’t. His 1948 turn as Inspector Cockrill in Launder and Gilliat’s stylish GREEN FOR DANGER (dissed by Truffaut, but don’t listen to him) showed the actor on Hitchcockian terrain (in fact, the slick murder scene halfway through feels almost giallo-like). In fact, James Bridie suggested Sim for this movie, having worked with him extensively in the theatre (there’s a disappointing TV version of Bridie’s The Anatomist starring Sim as Burke and Hare’s paymaster, Dr Knox, produced by the late Harry Allan Towers).

The cast also features grande dame Sybil Thorndyke, David Lean favourite Kay Walsh (quite brilliant), Miles “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight” Malleson, Joyce Grenfell (a celebrated English comedienne and co-star with Sim in the ST TRINIANS films), Andre Morell, a Hammer horror stalwart, and comedy turns Irene Handl, Lionel Jeffries and Alfie Bass. So the supporting cast neatly ties Hitchcock in to Ealing, Lean, Powell & Pressburger, Hammer, Launder & Gilliat. The only thing missing is a Carry On films star — although Hitch had used Charles Hawtrey in SABOTAGE and would make memorably against-type use of Bernard Cribbins in FRENZY.

From the opening titles, in which a safety curtain (ironically named, as it turns out) rises to reveal the London skyline, it’s clear that this film will explore the conjunction of real life with theatrical artifice, a favourite Hitchcock theme. Like MURDER, the film is based on a novel but deal with theatre (lots of sources suggest that MURDER was originally a play, but it wasn’t — it just feels like one). If there’s a study left to be written on Hitchcock’s oeuvre it might be on this theme.

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Jane Wyman plays a drama student in London — where Patricia Hitchcock was actually studying. Pat turns up as a friend, with the unflattering name of “Chubby Bannister.” So it’s tempting to see Hitchcock family biography at work, but our heroine’s parents don’t seem a match for Hitch and Alma, and have more to do with the source novel and with the plot’s requirements. That plot has interesting connections with the thriller Hitch had planned for Nova Pilbeam to star in after YOUNG AND INNOCENT, since it deals with a respectable young girl with a slightly crooked dad, and it also calls to mind the father-daughter dynamic of NO BAIL FOR THE JUDGE, another unmade movie which got put on the back burner because Audrey Hepburn didn’t wish to do a rape scene for Hitch. Looking at FRENZY, I can’t say I blame her.

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The movie begins in media res with Jane Wyman and Richard Todd (an up-and-coming British — in fact Irish — star of the day, still working now, best known for DAMBUSTERS, which Peter Jackson now plans to remake) fleeing, and then we go into the flashback, which is uncomfortable not because we later learn it’s inaccurate, but because it comes so soon in the story it feels broadly expository. We’re being told a lot of stuff before we have reason to care. But this headlong dive into plot is part of a strategy to put one over on us, so the discomfort is probably necessary, and anyhow things will soon settle down.

The key to the plot’s success in this movie (apart from that flashback deceiving us) is that what seems to be happening — Todd covers up a killing for Marlene and gets implicated, turning to lovestruck Jane Wyman for help — is an effective romantic triangle, enlisting lots of sympathy for poor Jane, wrapped up in a thriller plot (with echoes of Hamlet’s “the play’s the thing”) — which is pretty effective as drama long before we realise that it’s not what’s happening at all.

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This dodgy matte shot, an attempt at CITIZEN KANE faux deep focus, is a bit glaring, but it’s an interesting attempt at something. I once used that phrase to describe an odd moment in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, and a friend suggested they should put it on his tombstone.

“Here we have a plot, an interesting cast, even a costume,” suggests Sim, pointing up the theatrical nature of the story. And so Jane must use her acting skills (and a comical cock-er-nee accent) to wile her way into Marlene’s confidence and secure evidence to clear the man she loves. Complications, as they say, ensue.

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“My great aunt died over a glass of brandy… but it was her fifteenth that day.”

The most appealing complication is Michael Wilding (“an English Jimmy Stewart,” decided Dietrich, inaccurately perhaps, but it does point towards his lightness and charm) as Wilfred O Smith, that “O” being the first of Hitch’s jokes at David O Selznick’s expense. Here we learn it stands for “Ordinary.” Ordinary is certainly the most lovable policemen in the cop-phobic Hitchcock’s oeuvre. For a director of crime films, he hardly ever featured policemen as heroes (James Stewart spectacularly loses his job in Scene 1.  of VERTIGO; and then you have to go back to John Longden in BLACKMAIL I think…) Wilding’s easy appeal makes up for the fact that Todd isn’t that likable, which is unavoidable given the role he’s assigned.

“I love strange men. I mean… I’m very fond of them.”

Wyman is very sweet. It’s not at all clear where her American accent came from, what with her father being Scottish and her mother English… as welcome as Dame Sybil is, perhaps her role should have been taken by an American? But the stuffy mother and unconventional dad dynamic might have been harder to sustain that way: American women are always portrayed as free-spirited in British films. Which is a tiresome cliche, come to think of it.

Wyman apparently suffered the same affliction as Jean Arthur did, working opposite Dietrich in A FOREIGN AFFAIR: galloping jealousy. While Arthur’s insecurity manifested itself in paranoia, Wyman covertly tried to glam up her girl-next-door character to compete with Dietrich, a tendency Hitchcock had to gently suppress.

Sim always makes me want more Sim: but apart from the three HORNLEIGH films, he shunned sequelitis, doing only a cameo in the second ST TRINIAN’S film and refusing point blank to play Inspector Cockrill again. I’d welcome a whole series about Sim and Wyman, father-and-daughter crime solvers, even without Hitchcock directing.

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Marlene of course is profoundly underrated as an actress, even if she’s not “real” — she can be funny (check out her cleaning woman impersonation in DISHONORED) as well as alluring, sad (TOUCH OF EVIL is a study in fatalist melancholy whenever she’s about) as well as vivacious. Her way with a dramatic scene is as unconventional and unique as her way with a song, and like her singing it foregrounds a lack of obvious “ability.” This is a pretty interesting role: in A FOREIGN AFFAIR she’s completely sympathetic despite being a Nazi, whereas here she’s totally unsympathetic, despite being only an accessory. Then Hitchcock complicates matters with the scene where she’s unexpectedly nice to Wyman, and then she has her chilling chat with the policeman at the end which is pretty much the opposite of her exit in the Wilder film: a heart of ice is revealed.

(STAGE FRIGHT makes a very nice double feature with Billy Wilder’s “Hitchcock film,” WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, Marlene’s other London murder romp.)

That safety curtain returns, executing Todd in a rather French fashion, all the more grisly for being off-screen, and then Wilding leads Wyman away down a dimly lit backstage corridor that looks like the path from the execution cell: but the recurrence of the love theme, played earlier by Wilding on the piano, tells us what fate she’s heading for. A future as an actress seems a bit unlikely, but she’ll be a very happy Mrs Ordinary Smith.

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It’s nice to have another musical through-line (Wilding, like Farley Granger in ROPE, plays an accomplished party entertainer with his ivory-tickling), since that’s a mainstay of the Hitchcock style, and it plays out again in Dietrich’s two songs, La Vie en Rose and The Laziest Gal in Town, which are not staged by Hitchcock as musical interludes but as intricate by-plays between onstage and offstage action, external performance and internal psychology.

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It occurs to me that Pat Hitchcock is so good in this — her very funny sheer lust at the sight of Michael Wilding is a comic high point — and she does an English accent far better and more consistently than Wyman — that it’s rather a shame she didn’t get the leading role (as enjoyable as Wyman is)… But that would be taking a big risk, and Hitchcock wasn’t about to do that with this film. I think also the responsible father didn’t want to expose his daughter to criticism in such a way. Nevertheless, we can see this as a film for and about Pat.

Hitchcock DVD Collection – Dial M For Murder / I Confess / Stage Fright / The Wrong Man / Strangers On A Train / North By Northwest

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Hitchcock Year, Week 3, Things I Read off the Screen in Downhill

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2009 by dcairns

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Hitchcock’s follow-up to THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG, again starring composer and matinee idol Ivor Novello, doesn’t have much of a reputation. Peter Conrad’s The Hitchcock Murders, for instance, doesn’t even mention it — maybe because it doesn’t feature any murders.

(Incidentally, if you follow the IMDb, we should be discussing THE RING this week, but overviews of Hitch’s career confirm that DOWNHILL was in fact his fourth production.)

The tale of a public schoolboy who faces disgrace and expulsion for buying sexual favours with money filched from the tuck shop, whose name takes on an amusingly double entendre ~

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This seems to me a very useful Hitch film, since the world of the English public school was one he knew well. His parents, aspiring to better him, had packed him off to St. Ignatius, a Catholic boarding school, where the young A.H. began to learn all about suspense from the masters, who would cane you on Friday for something you did on Monday. And indeed, Hitch does manage to create some dramatic tension from a visit to the headmaster’s office in DOWNHILL, tracking slowly towards the scowling head from Novello’s POV.

Following this, we get a track-in on Novello and his chum, from the POV of the accusing flapper, and a dishonest flashback of the kind Hitch later disavowed in STAGE FRIGHT, as she accuses Ivor of knocking her up. (She apparently intends his family to pay child support, but we never find out if this happens — she walks out of the film and is never so much as mentioned again.)

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Years later, Hitch would recall with horror the bathos of this scene — ” Does this mean I won’t be able to play in the Old Boy’s match, sir?” asks the heartbroken Ivor. Actually, if this part of the film is less effective than some others, it’s more to do with the impossibility of Ivor Novello, aged 34, playing a schoolboy.

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Sliding into depravity by way of a symbolic subway escalator, our hero first takes to the music hall (it’s a slippery slope!). Hitchcock was more familiar with London’s theatre world than many film people, but the main value he derives from this sequence is the elaborate set of false impressions he engineers at the start of the sequence. At first Novello stands, looking rather dashing and well kitted-out in dinner jacket and bow tie. Then Hitch pulls back to reveal that his star is waiting tables at a swank restaurant. Crime rears it’s ugly head as the lad pockets a stray cigarette-case, but then Hitch pans right and reveals a theatre audience watching the scene, which is constructed for their benefit upon the stage.

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Inheriting wealth, Novello is able to marry the star of the show, but her expensive tastes soon bankrupt him, a development amusingly presented with the aid of two intertitles. The first reading “£30, 000” in Large Impressive Letters, the second repeating the same sum in much smaller ones.

Next comes the seedy life of the gigolo/taxi-dancer, evoked with lip-smacking relish by Hitchcock, aided by some ladies made up to look rather ghastly when a shaft of pure sunlight illuminates the ballroom and exposes the decadence therein. (Several of the dramatic high points of the film have to do with setting Ivor at the mercy of predatory women: he manages to look properly intimidated.) How Ivor gets from here to a Marseille dive, strung out on drink or drugs or something, is not quite as clear as I’d like — this film would fail as a How-To guide to achieving full social depravity.

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But, while commentators applaud the inverted POV shot of Novello, which anticipates a similar one of Cary Grant in NOTORIOUS (and from there is picked up by Nick Ray for REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and HOT BLOOD) and the shadowplay with bamboo curtains in the Bunne Shoppe, I was most impressed by the oneiric climax, where the addled and raddled Novello is packed on a ship to England and hallucinates a mad jumble of events from his life, by virtue both of double-exposures and surreal staging — a sailor on the ship literally becomes Novello’s stern father. Maybe this part of the film seemed to be kicking in because I had just changed the music (my highly fizzy-facky VHS of the film had none) from Mendelssohn to Ellington (I highly recommend Ellington for this movie, it has more of a jazz spirit than you’d think). But this sequence is very experimental and strange, and makes DOWNHILL probably the first Hitchcock film whose happy ending could be read as a dream, or the vision of a dying man.

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(It’s been argued, not so much convincingly but very intriguingly, that Hitch films such as SUSPICION and VERTIGO actually become dreams partway through — the second half of VERTIGO, from shortly after Kim Novak’s first death plunge, is all playing in Jimmy Stewart’s grief-deranged head as he vegetates in the asylum, undergoing music therapy, while SUSPICION really ends with the poisoned milk, as Hitch intended, and the big make-up scene with the involved explanation is Joan Fontaine’s fantasy. I don’t believe either of these interpretations, but I love them. Chris Marker posits the VERTIGO hypothesis, Bill Krohn offers the SUSPICION one.)

The happy family reunion and Old Boy’s match which end DOWNHILL come hard on the heels of the dissipated Novello’s hallucinatory sea voyage, which in itself might not be happening (it has some of the same zonked feverishness as Dorothy’s trip to Oz by tornado), so it’s not a huge stretch to see them as imaginary. This probably wasn’t Hitch’s intention, and certainly not the primary interpretation he wanted us to leap to, but it connects DOWNHILL to some very interesting later Hitchcockian conundrums… when a director’s work strays this close to dream, and regularly incorporates dreams, hallucinations, flashbacks and other subjective effects into its narration, it’s easy to imagine it sliding all the way into mirage.

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“I have a competition in me…”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on February 18, 2008 by dcairns

I had three thrilling entries for the Shadowplay First Freaky Friday Free Prize Give-away Spectacular.

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Question (1): I asked, of Cary Grant’s character name in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, ‘If the “O” in “Roger O Thornhill” didn’t stand for “Nothing,” what would it stand for?’

First to write in was David Ehrenstein, with the topical “Obama”. That sounds pretty nice — Roger Obama Thornhill. It also sounds kind of like an INSTRUCTION. My first thought is that the “O” would STILL stand for nothing.

(BUT — apparently Obama voted in favour of banning cluster-bombs and land mines, while Hilary voted against. It’s only one issue, I know, but when there’s so little useful information and distinction between the candidates…)

Alex Livingston volunteered that the “O” didn’t stand for anything because it’s really a zero. But I think that gag’s already intended by the movie, so I can’t accept it. On the other hand, it suggests that Alex really needs a copy of this film.

Blake Buesnel suggests “Orville”, like the Wright brother, and cites Thornhill’s affinity, if we can call it that, with prop aeroplanes. It’s a good answer, and shows both film knowledge and lateral thinking.

prop, or wings?

Question (2): ‘If you met a stranger on a train, what would you ask him? Say he came from Peoria, Illinois, what then? Suppose he had a magic pencil?’

Now Alex comes into his own:

“if i met a stranger from peoria, illinois on a train, i would probably ask him to use his magic pencil to draw a new set of tracks to divert the train from crashing into the downtown chicago railway station. then i would ask to borrow the pencil to dig out my liver, which i would send to roger thornhill. he could staple the liver to his meaningless “o” and this would give him an acceptable middle name”

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A question (2) answer which morphs into a question (1) answer with all the graceful  ease of Robert Patrick. Outstanding, if grisly.

Blake counters with:

“If i met a stranger from Peoria, Illinois on a train, i would ask her (think of a sharp-witted, blond) to tell me a little bit about her hometown of Peoria. After a minute, I’d ask her about that dreadful fire that took the high school library. She’d agree at the unfortunate nature of the accident. I’d agree and add that it was especially unfortunate, because Peoria lost it’s greatest treasure in the most bizarre occurrence the town had seen in years: an imaginary library being swallowed up by a fictitious 3 alarm fire. Having been found out, I’d reassure her I was just being keen, as my job as an insurance investigator allows me to be, and her secret, whatever it is, is safe with me.”

Eva's no saint 

While performing a sex change on the stranger, Blake manages to evoke Eva Maria Saint in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and also Fred MacMurray’s train-based activities in DOUBLE INDEMNITY.

The judge’s decision is final, but confusing. I say that EVERYBODY has won. The two prizes will be divided among the three of you, in a manner of my choosing. I’ll be in touch to consult with you all on this.

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Incidentally, the CORRECT answer to (1) is “Ordinary”, as in Wilfred “Ordinary” Smith from STAGE FRIGHT.

No Ordinary Detective