Archive for The Magnificent Ambersons

May 6th

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 6, 2013 by dcairns

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Without any particular plan, we watched THE HINDENBURG on Friday. We were supposed to be getting married, but we watched THE HINDENBURG instead. I can’t actually tell you whether this was a wise choice, because I haven’t had the experience of getting married, but now that I have watched THE HINDENBURG I can say that married life doesn’t have a great deal to live up to. It ought to be able to knock Robert Wise’s 1975 disaster movie into a cocked hat.

The interesting bit is that we were watching on May 3rd, and part of the film takes place on May 3rd. And then the Hindenburg blows up today, May 6th, only in 1937, giving me plenty of time to write about it.

Basically, most of the film is a snooze. Nelson (THE HAUNTING) Gidding’s screenplay doesn’t manage to make all these sympathetic Nazis very sympathetic, and the unsympathetic ones don’t get to do any real Nazi stuff — Charles Durning in particular is terribly wasted — and there just isn’t a lot of human emotion to it. Oh the humanity! What humanity?

Edward Carfagno’s meticulous production design, apparently extremely accurate, could serve as an analog for the whole project — the Hindenburg’s gondola resembles a 1970s conference centre. It’s pretty small, and doesn’t offer the epic opulence of a Titanic. Against this accuracy, there’s the fact that the film’s sabotage plot is bullshit, but at least it gives William Atherton a chance to be twitchy, and George C. Scott something to brood about. Most watchable of all is Anne Bancroft, even though she has little to do.

We can see the cunning of James Cameron, who made a banal little drama the focus of TITANIC, with all the spectacle simply as dynamic backdrop. Whereas HINDENBURG really is about the Hindenburg, and nothing but the Hindenburg. As boring as the first 90 mins of TITANIC are — and admit it, they’re awesomely boring — at least the romance gives the characters something to do, something which would matter dramatically even if the ship were not sinking. All the action of the airship movie is about stopping a bomb from going off — a bomb which we know IS going to go off. We even know when.

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“Jesus–not Hitler!” I guess a lot of people were thinking that same thought.

I like a lot of Robert Wise films, though I’ve never quite forgiven him for screwing with MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. Perfect for him to make a film about a sympathetic Nazi who’s only following orders. That’s harsh, I know. But it’s brought to mind by the film’s deliberate quoting of CITIZEN KANE, with a newsreel (above) at the beginning and the burning sign at the end…

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Ah yes, the end. My favourite bit, because suddenly this staid non-thriller goes batshit crazy. A weird optical effect has the bomb go off like something from a James Bond title sequence, and the movie goes into b&w — purely so as to incorporate the actual newsreel footage of the disaster. Now, it seems unfair to make a disaster movie called THE HINDENBURG and then not stage the climactic destruction yourself. Possibly poor taste, too. But even if you’ve got Albert Whitlock, which they have, I guess it was impossible to create anything as impressive as the reality using 1970s technology. Still, for a colour movie to go into monochrome the second a towering inferno breaks out seems perverse. But the madness has just begun.

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Bottom centre — the burning sign –” Hindenbud!”

Determined to get some sense of urgency into his cinematic dirible, Wise starts zooming randomly, in the modern manner. The newsreel footage freeze-frames for no apparent reason, repeatedly. I guess to try to say, Yes, we know this is stock footage. Look how we’re making it stop and start. There’s one really great high angle where everybody on the ground suddenly grows a long shadow — magnificent stuff. Atherton, mortally wounded, frees a dalmatian from the baggage car — and we spend the whole climax wondering if it got out OK. We don’t care about Burgess Meredith. We don’t care about Rene Auberjonois. Even Anne Bancroft takes a back seat to the dog.

People leap from high places, some of them on fire. The guy from Hogan’s Heroes seems to drop thirty feet without the aid of a stunt double. Small children are flung similar distances, amid flaming debris. Charles Durning smolders, and not in a good way.

Then we get the roll call of the dead. A narrator reads character names, and says “Dead. Dead. Survived. Dead.” as little pictures of the cast appear. After a while he stops bothering to name the minor players. “Dead. Dead. Dead.” Finally, we get the dog. “Survived.” Hooray! The movie ends on a high note.

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Dog — bottom left.

Then it gets better — against Michael Shire’s lovely, elegiac theme music, we get the special effects departments miniature Hindenburg drifting majestically against matted-in blue skies, while the famous real-life news reporter totally loses his shit on the soundtrack. It was a mistake to hire Franklin Pangborn to narrate an air disaster, I feel. False economy.

It’s a really nice and interesting sequence, and probably it should have gone at the start, thus admitting what we already know about the story. But that would have left the movie even less to impress with at the end.

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The Strange Affair of Uncle Charlie

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2009 by dcairns

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“Are they?”

Maybe Hitchcock’s first perfect film? Maybe his most perfect, too? Oh yeah, you can’t have degrees of perfection, can you? But maybe Hitchcock can. Absolutes become relative…

SHADOW OF A DOUBT begins with the Universal globe, since like SABOTEUR this is a project made on loan-out to the free and easy Jack Skirball from the rigorous Selznick, and its brilliance should be enough to gainsay the suggestion that Hitchcock needed Selznick’s supervision to make mature films. In its light-hearted way, FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT is just as mature as REBECCA, and this one goes much, much deeper than either.

The Merry Widow Waltz — the return of the musical plot point — which was lightly touched upon in SABOTEUR, actually, but is much more fully developed here. The music and images of waltzing couples, slowly dissolving to skid row docklands in Newark, a striking incongruity that sets things in motion with a kind of lopsided unease.

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Joseph Cotten, as Uncle Charlie, is introduced as one of those serial killers who lie in bed and brood — see also David Wayne in Losey’s M. It’s the ’40s equivalent of the  trophy gallery, where news cuttings and other, weirder images attest to the resident’s disturbed state — see THE HOWLING for what Fiona reckons is the earliest version of this, and ANTICHRIST for the latest. I like Constance Purdy as the sympathetic landlady: one of these bit-part players who eked out a living playing landladies, society ladies, fat ladies.

Dream logic: two detectives have appeared at Cotten’s building, asking for an interview, yet when he leaves, rather than simply approaching him, they let him walk right past, then start following him. Why? Genre conventions seem to excuse this quite adequately. Cutting to high-angle “God shots,” Hitch seems to show us the whole chase, from a privileged position, but then Charlie vanishes behind a building, the cops emerge, looking baffled, and we pan around and discover Charlie watching from on high, right here with us, enjoying a triumphant cigar.

Charlie sends a telegram to his family, and when he mentions the address (Santa Rosa, California, not so far from the Bodega Bay of THE BIRDS) the next dissolve obligingly takes us there. Now we meet the Newtons, starting with little Ann, Edna May Wonacott, a sort of Pat Hitchcock substitute, and one of Hitchcock’s many fine local discoveries (Another is the heroine’s best friend Cath, played by Estelle Jewell in a wonderful one-note characterisation of quasi-lustful grinning). I adore everything about the family characters in this film, often credited to screenwriter Thornton Wilder (whose participation is loudly trumpeted in the opening titles) but also partly the work of Hitch, Alma, and especially Sally Benson and an uncredited Patricia Collinge, who plays Mom.

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Collinge’s Emma Newton is the most loving portrait of a mother in all Hitchcock’s work. He’s often accused of focussing exclusively on negative maternal figures, and while there are certainly plenty of these in his work, one could point to SHADOW as a refutation of all the charges of misogyny. Hitch’s own mother was called Emma. She was dying during the shoot. It’s a testimony to Collinge that she makes Emma more than a series of dopey/endearing characteristics — the character successfully stands for something far greater than that. And somehow we accept Emma’s vulnerability, so that when people start saying “This would kill your mother,” we totally accept it, even though there’s really nothing to hint at ill health in the script or performance. Collinge just has that quality of emotional fragility. It seems to be tied up with Emma’s desire for everything to be nice — if something shattered her cosy picture of the world, where would she be left? See also THE LITTLE FOXES for Teresa Wright and Patricia Collinge together again. Collinge is devastating.

Charles Bates, as little Roger, is the least heavily featured Newton, but he’s very good, and an interesting contrast with Ann. Both are rather intellectual kids, but Roger is more into statistics and hard facts: Ann has a romantic side in her literary choices, and insists that her books are “all true.” Hitch I think is slightly less interested in little boys, but he does craft a memorable little nutcase in THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, the chronologically-challenged Arnie.

Henry Travers, as Mr Newton, is an endearing sort of stick, sufficiently mundane and simple to be baffled by his eldest daughter’s moods (which is important for keeping him in the dark later, when the plot thickens), but enlivened by his non-practicing enthusiasm for the murderous arts. And my God, Hume Cronyn is a joy as his best friend Herbie Hawkins, with whom he shares his half-baked plots. The shot of Herbie entering as the family have dinner always cracks me up:

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Proof that Hitchcock, like Keaton, could enlist the space around an actor for comic effect.

This homicidal hobby serves several purposes: it adds a believable quirk to the staid banker father, it’s a connection with Hitch himself, whom one can imagine having similar conversations at the dinner table, and it’s another way of building pressure on daughter Charlie, once she learns that there’s a real-life murderer in their midst.

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Ah, Charlie. Had the great pleasure of seeing Teresa Wright talk about her work at the Edinburgh Film Festival one year. A fine lady. She was quite defensive of Hitch, whom she found charming and well-mannered. She assumed any later bad behaviour on his part must have been down to age and ill-health.

We first meet young Charlie lying in bed brooding — exactly like her Uncle. It’s one of numerous connections drawn between them, and it’s fascinating to consider the similarities and differences in their characters. Also the telepathic link they seem to share, which hovers just below the level of narrative reality, tantalisingly refusing to declare itself as either real or imaginary: just like most real-life instances of “mental telepathy.”

Like her uncle, Charlie is intelligent, strong-willed, and restless — dissatisfied with her immediate circumstances, and yearning for something greater. Unlike him, she has a strong moral compass, not just by being well brought up, but also by having an inherent inner goodness. When she’s torn between helping Charlie and turning him in to the police, it’s two sides of her good nature that are at war within her, the desire to protect society versus the desire to protect her mother and a natural repugnance at the idea of betraying a family member. Charlie is a rare example of a fascinating character who is almost wholly good.

Uncle Charlie, by contrast, is one of the screen’s most convincing psychopaths. Hitch’s research allows for a portrait of a serial killer which is extremely accurate, without delving into spurious psychological portraiture. All of Charlie’s mistakes — and for an intelligent man he makes almost nothing but mistakes — can be put down to his psychopathic condition. Putting $40,000 into Mr Newton’s bank is rather a foolish move, since if he comes under suspicion he won’t be able to get at it, but it’s typical grandiloquence. Giving Charlie a ring with a previous victim’s initials etched in it is a bad blunder, but consistent with the true serial killer’s habit of trophy-taking. (The fact that the victim was a retired music-hall artiste makes me think of LADIES IN RETIREMENT.) And an incident from Uncle Charlie’s history is rich in suggestion: his bicycle crash, which nearly killed him, and resulted in a change of personality. Possible brain damage is a characteristic of many psychopathic case histories, but one of the film’s strengths is that it doesn’t seek to explain Uncle Charlie. It’s possible that his near-death experience simply changed his philosophy of life, rather than damaging him neurologically. For Charles Oakley is certainly a philosopher.

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The opening montage of Santa Rosa seems like the most obvious source for the opening of BLUE VELVET. And in this sleazy bar, we find an element of TWIN PEAKS, with an excellent Janet Shaw as waitress Louise Finch, the Ronette Pulawski of her day: “Yes sir, I’d just about die for a ring like that…”

Like his niece, Charlie has a good deal of family feeling, but unlike her, his only goes so deep: when the chips are down, he’s quite willing to sacrifice Charlie, the one person he cares about most in the world, in order to protect Number One. He kids himself when he suggests that only unimportant, useless people have anything to fear from him. His view of the world as a cesspit fully justifies his own ghastly behaviour in his eyes, but while Charlie is disgusted by the low dive he drags her to (Santa Rosa is part Bedford Falls, part Pottertown, and all Lumberton), there’s no indication that she’s going to be seduced by his view of the world.

Another bit of telepathy: Charlie discovers he’s no longer suspected by the police, and bounds up the stairs. But then he senses something that makes him stop. He turns and sees —

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The one person who knows his guilt.

I’m neglecting a character, and it’s one I always neglect: MacDonald Carey as detective Jack Graham. As a deliberately undeveloped potential romantic interest, he doesn’t really have any chance to flower into anything interesting, and Carey isn’t the most interesting actor, although he’s perfectly competent. It might help if he were pretty. But what really works about this figure is that he’s effectively the antagonist — Hitchcock’s much-vaunted fear of policemen neatly coincides with the thrust of the plot. Uncle Charlie isn’t, under normal circumstances, a threat to his family, and while the town does boast a flirtatious “merry widow” whom he may have his eye on, nothing is done to push this subplot forward to the point where we have to imminently fear for her life. No, it’s the presence of the police that creates jeopardy, and what young Charlie most fears is that her uncle will be caught and exposed and her mother will be destroyed.

Bill Krohn, in Hitchcock at Work, devotes an extra-large section to consideration if this film, and apart from his invaluable historical and contextual analysis (including the fact that wartime restrictions on set construction influenced Hitchcock’s decision to shoot on location, giving the film an unusual air of outward realism), he provides a fascinating reading of the film as political allegory. Since, of all the wartime Hitchcocks, SHADOW OF A DOUBT features the least propagandistic elements, apart from SUSPICION (which at one time in its development was going to have a flag-waving ending), this may seem perverse, but Krohn argues his case persuasively, and by the time we reach the film’s last lines, about the world “You have to watch it. It seems to go crazy sometimes, like your Uncle Charlie,” it seems inescapably right. To avoid dating the film, Hitchcock avoided overt references to the war, but Santa Rosa is full of soldiers, the bank is full of ads for war bonds, and the movie shares so much with Welles’s later film THE STRANGER that some of Welles’s anti-fascism seems to seep back in time into the Hitchcock.

Krohn is very strong on the Welles influence on Hitchcock here, suggesting that, since Welles had absorbed the same Germanic principles as Hitchcock, he was the perfect influence to guide Hitch towards making his first truly American movies. He gives several examples of the connections, from those Ambersonian waltzers, to the film’s use of overlapping dialogue, to the sentences which fade out in mid-stream. One powerful example of the last, which Krohn doesn’t cite, is when Patricia Collinge is sitting in the back of a car puzzling over the two accidents her daughter has recently suffered. Before she can reach any conclusion, the car bears her away. In some odd way, this seems to me terribly reminiscent of Major Amberson’s musings about the nature of life and afterlife, which are similarly interrupted by the intervention of a fade-out.

Krohn is also very good on the film’s relationship with Dracula… which sounds surprising when you first hear it, but believe me, he sells the idea. The vampire, of course, cannot enter your home unless invited…

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“You don’t look too well either.” Possibly the only Hitchcock cameo where another character addresses him with a spoken line? Hitch may not have a winning hand in this scene, but he’s holding aces with SHADOW OF A DOUBT.

Side-note: unhappy with his weight (“My ankles hung over my socks,” — possible water retention?), Hitch started dieting around this time, with results which can be seen in his next movie, LIFEBOAT.

Family Viewing Time

Posted in Comics, FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2009 by dcairns

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How are we getting on with our teen-supervision activities, you ask?

Films watched with Louis this week include THE WRESTLER (which I didn’t see, but which Fiona found pretty old-fashioned, like a marginally more disfigured version of King Vidor’s THE CHAMP — “I like his scary fridge film better,” says Fiona, referring to REQUIEM FOR A DREAM), HEAVENLY CREATURES, and THE PUMAMAN, a bizarrely homoerotic Italian superhero movie about ancient Incan space technology which gives the hero the powers of a puma: sensing danger, achieving a death-lke trance, flying — you know, just like a puma. “I always seem to end up watching something really weird with you guys,” Louis observed affably.

Best of all, we watched George Pal’s THE TIME MACHINE, which gives new pleasures every time I see it.

While Pal’s best pal couldn’t argue that he’s particularly sophisticated as a director, he has a very smart script to work with here, and has obviously been looking around and drawing inspiration from some pretty cool sources. When intrepid chrononaut Rod Taylor (marvellous perf!) goes for a walk in the Eden-like future forest, Pal throws in a variety of tracking shots suggesting that he’s been impressed by Kurosawa’s RASHOMON. The giveaway shot is the one looking up at the sunlight blinking through the branches.

Later, when Taylor discovers that the savage Morlocks (paunchy blue guys with unsightly body hair — the Scots of the future?) have a Gremlin-like aversion to bright light, he dazzles them for a moment by lighting a match, and Pal steals from the Master, with an orange glare of POV dazzle filched from REAR WINDOW. This struck Louis as implausible: “Just how bright IS a match, anyway?” Since the Morlock’s have Jawa-style glowing eyes, do they not get equally blinded whenever they look at each other?

As a fan of TV’s The Mighty Boosh, Louis has a fine eye for absurdity, and enjoyed such moments while still appreciating the beauty and craft of Pal’s special effects sequences and the sweep of the story, which must have made some impression: when I loaned him my battered copy of the Watchmen graphic novel later in the week, warning him that it might crumble to dust, he sagely remarked, “Like the books in THE TIME MACHINE.”

Yvette Mimieux: a bit too Paris Hilton for Louis’ taste.

Another weird coincidence: on Monday morning I was lecturing on Orson Welles, doing his whole film career only in reverse, and mentioned the amazing moment in the MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS screenplay, deleted from RKO’s edit of the film, where the voice-over suggests a future time when George Amberson Minafer’s shade might be seen, kneeling, its head and shoulders disappearing through a partition wall that wasn’t there in his era (you really have to read it to make sense of this). That evening, as Rod Taylor fired up his elegant steam-punk time-sled, Louis speculated about what would happen if he materialised halfway through a yet-to-be-constructed wall…