Archive for The Passing of the Third Floor Back

The Pattern is Complete

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2009 by dcairns

Here it is — the end of Hitchcock Year, as far as the films go. What an odyssey it has been. From THE PLEASURE GARDEN (1925) to FAMILY PLOT (1976) — exactly fifty-two films in fifty-two years, watched and reviewed by me in fifty-two weeks. And yet I can’t think that Mr Hitchcock’s achievement in making the films is a bit more substantial than my achievement of watching them. And the numbers stack up so nicely one might almost have think he’d planned it.

A lot of facts conspired to make FAMILY PLOT an unlikely film to actually happen. Hitch was unwell. He had arthritis in his knees, which made walking agony, and he was treating the pain with vodka, among other things. His weight, more or less stable since LIFEBOAT (the wonders of Reduce-O!) was ballooning again. He was fitted with a pacemaker, which he delighted in showing to all and sundry (well, the scar and the bulge where it was embedded). I also recall Karen Black saying he showed her that he didn’t have a belly button. Or did I dream this? If true, it suggests that either Hitch was a clone, not of woman born (perhaps in some way explaining his dislike of eggs?) or that he’d had part of his gut taken away. At the time, I assumed this was some kind of primitive tummy-tuck op, but no — it seems more likely that his navel hernia, corrected by surgery around the time of VERTIGO, might have resulted in his buttonless condition. I remember an Oliver Reed interview in which the legendary wild man talked about his belly button turned inside out one day when he was lifting something or someone he shouldn’t have lifted. It hung down his front, a long flesh-tube, and he just left it there. For years. The only inconvenience he said was he couldn’t wear tight tops. But eventually he had it taken away because he was worried it was upstaging his penis.

Yeeuuuuch!

Meanwhile (if we’ve all recovered), Alma’s condition was still more depleted. A stroke around the time of FRENZY had temporarily disabled her. She seems to have had good days and bad days. Hitch had to start cooking for her. He seems to have delayed the end of filming of FRENZY, taking his time over the trailer (the night shots of which show him clearly flagging), perhaps afraid to return home. Although she recovered well enough to join Hitch on location, bringing the dog, a further stroke after FAMILY PLOT was in the can disabled her permanently and affected her mind.

Vincent Canning’s The Rainbird Pattern attracted Hitchcock with its symmetry, the flow of the fake medium and her boyfriend searching for the long-lost nephew, while the nephew is engaged in a kidnapping spree with his girlfriend. Canning’s dark tone and downbeat ending was jettisoned, while Hitch aimed for “a Noel Coward flavour,” aided by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who had scripted NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Hitch found Lehman’s demands for plot logic and character beats rather a trial, and shut him out of the production once filming began — but then he returned to him to collaborate on THE SHORT NIGHT, his final, never-filmed, project.

FAMILY PLOT is as light and charming as FRENZY is dark and distasteful. If it lacks the tense moments that make FRENZY ultimately worthwhile, it adds sweetness and charm, making it a far nicer note for Hitch to end on than the sick psycho-thriller. There are two actual loving couples here, a reverse of the universal castration/homicide on display in FRENZY. True, Barbara Harris and Bruce Dern bicker about food and sex and seances, and William Devane pushes Karen Black towards murder, but they are nevertheless good teams, happy together. And death is almost pushed offscreen altogether in this film, unusually for any thriller.

After the pleasingly old-fashioned titles, which could have come from a 1940s movie, and which are blessed with lovely SNOW WHITE witch colour schemes, the opening scene is Hitch’s miniature version of JM Barrie’s MARY ROSE, his pet unmade project. Cathleen Nesbitt, the actress playing the old Mrs Rainbird, had appeared in THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK, co-written by Alma, back in the 30s, and Hitchcock likely saw her on stage in London in another Barrie play.

Shimmering within their green matte-lines (against his better judgement, Hitch had been talked out of using rear projection), Bruce Dern and Barbara Harris bicker lovably. Everybody warned Hitch that Harris was method and difficult and he wouldn’t like her. He didn’t — he loved her. She found his direction “Brechtian,” which was fine with him, as long as she followed it.  Dern, of course, played a small but key role in MARNIE, and though he didn’t get very close to the Master on that occasion, he’d played several roles in Hitch’s TV show. “I never know what you’re going to do next,” said Hitch, admiringly — as long as Dern stayed within Hitch’s predesigned frame, that was fine.

A word about pre-planning. Bill Krohn tells us that, just this once, after a few days following the storyboards, Hitch threw them aside and improvised his direction. Authorized biographer John Russell Taylor, who was present on location for some of the filming, reports a very orderly shoot with Hitch following his plans as usual. But he does report a couple of additional shots being taken, such as a very effective angle of Harris’s legs dancing in panic as she’s attacked in the garage near the film’s climax. So perhaps the truth is that Hitch followed his plan like a map, making little side-trips as inspirations truck? At any rate, it would be interesting to learn more, perhaps via a direct script/storyboard-to-screen comparison.

In Ken Mogg’s The Alfred Hitchcock Story, he writes, “Frenzy had a central character for whom love had gone absent; and in the subjective nature of Hitchcock’s films, the whole of London was shown as blighted. The central couple of Family Plot do love each other, and, despite obstacles, they muddle through.”

Furthermore, kidnappers William Devane and Karen Black have a rather successful relationship too, although he’s led her into a life of crime and will eventually persuade her to attempted murder. Black angled for the Barbara Harris part, but was put in her place by Hitch “You are going to be bad in this film,” and she becomes the movie’s one real iconic image in her sunglasses, hat and blond wig, an eye-less, bra-less criminal android. (Truffaut, rather comically, said that Kim Novak’s bra-free look in VERTIGO gave her “an animal quality” — I guess the same could be said for Black, whose tight white sweater is only revealed after she’s stripped off her kidnapper’s drag.

Devane was apparently Hitchcock’s first choice, but Roy Thinnes was cast due to his unavailability. Then, Devane became available and either Thinnes had displeased Hitch or he simply chose to reshoot a few days with his preferred choice. I’m reminded of Bunuel kicking Maria Schneider off THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, and Kurosawa firing his original leading man from RAN (or was it KAGEMUSHA?) — these septuagenarian filmmakers have limited stores of patience.

Devane proves himself a master of what Hitch called “negative acting,” where an expression slowly drains from an actor’s face. Check his grin in this shot:

Hitch’s cinematographer, Leonard South, had been Robert Burks’ operator, so he was around not for his style and talent, but for his competence and the fact that he made Hitchcock feel comfortable. FAMILY PLOT contains virtually no beautiful images, either because Hitchcock winged it or because he’d lost interest in that, or because South wasn’t capable of it. So the movie gets by on sweetness and a little intrigue.

John Williams contributes a nice score, occasionally perhaps too big for the film, but then the film does occasionally need lifting — it too often looks like a piece of Universal TV fodder. Unlike so many Hitchcock thrillers of the past, FAMILY PLOT does not seek to interweave music into its narrative, so that Williams was assigned the job after the film was already shot.

Henry Bumstead, a long-term collaborator, did the production design: a spiral staircase made in plaster added to the cathedral seems like a nod to the fictitious church tower in VERTIGO, and the outside of Devane’s house, reconstructed entirely on the soundstage so Hitch wouldn’t have to brave the cold, is impossible to distinguish from reality.

After the cisterns and toilet paper and full-frontal toilets of NUMBER 17, SECRET AGENT and PSYCHO, it’s nice to see Hitchcock getting up to date with a chemical toilet. Did Lehman add all the toilet banter between Devane and Black to please the smutty-minded Master, or did Hitch simply get fascinated by the practicalities of long-term kidnapping and insist on its inclusion?

(Pause to reflect on Hitchcock’s unmade “documentary” about food, beginning with the livestock and produce entering the city by train, ending with the excreta of the populace departing by sewer…)

Hats off to Katherine Helmond and to Ed Lauter, a most useful bad guy actor, audibly a New Yorker even though the film is set in and around San Francisco. Hitch tried to rob the film of obvious geographic signifiers, for some reason, although those Frisco hills are rather unmistakable. We do know that Hitch had tired of seeing car chases going up and down those hills, in the wake of BULLITT I guess. I wonder if Hitch was responsible for the street sign reading “Bates Ave,” or if he’d have preferred to avoid the reference?

FAMILY PLOT’s plot isn’t actually especially complex, with two procedural yarns — a kidnapping and a missing person search — interwoven loosely so they collide at the end. Character detail along the way is at least as important as narrative: my favourite moment was added by Devane, when he picks a piece of lint off a detective’s jacket, none-too-subtly asserting his mastery of the situation. Dern improvised a couple of lines, notably during the runaway car scene — after they whizz through a pack of Hell’s Angels, he gulps, “I gotta get off this road!” which cracked Hitch up.

While Hitch filmed Dern and Harris’s reaction shots in the studio, all forward-looking POV stuff was shot on location by the second unit. But this sequence was thoroughly planned by Hitch, who knew it needed basically two angles: Dern and Harris, shrieking in terror, and the road, zooming past them. The POV excluded all details of dashboard and windscreen to give an unimpeded view of the rushing road. It’s a classic example of Hitch’s use of the Kuleshov effect: high-speed version.

The car scene in some ways is old-fashioned or tame, compared to the colossal motorway mayhem being dished out elsewhere in the 70s, and the “sexy” banter between the two couples is likewise rather mild, though explicit for a Hitchcock film. But at least it’s in no way embarrassing, unlike the vulgarities of Billy Wilder’s unfortunate BUDDY, BUDDY. By contrast with that regrettable late work, FAMILY PLOT showcases a group of actors who are very comfortable with their roles, their colleagues and their story.

Of all the pleasing things in the film, I think the closing wink is my favourite — what a great way to go out! Of course, it was thought about long and hard. Lehman objected to the idea of Harris having real psychic powers (although the script establishes that she thinks she does, ergo she’s not a real con artist), so an overdubbed line allows her to just possibly overhear Devane telling Black where the diamonds are hidden. The overdub is a dicey moment, especially as he’s seemed reluctant to tell Black his hiding place earlier. But it passes OK. So now the wink seems to mean “I’ve convinced Bruce Dern that I have psychic powers, but me and my chums the audience know it’s all nonsense.” As Ken Mogg suggests, the film’s trailer (and poster) imply a sort of kinship between Harris and Hitch, so it’s really him winking at us.

Sitting halfway down the stairs, Harris resembles a cute little kid, and this return to childhood thing is important to Hitch, who in some ways remained childlike throughout his life. A slave to his appetites and anxieties, demanding to be in control, and playing with Welles’s “biggest toy train set,” he made of his life, as best he could, an extended playtime.

If the Devane overdub wasn’t in place, the meaning of the wink would be altered, but only slightly. Since Harris has apparently always believed in her powers, the ability to locate the diamond shouldn’t be a surprise to her, so she’s really stepping out of character to tell us not to take any of this too seriously. In a single movement of a single eyelid, she’s saying –

“It’s only a movie.”

“You have a saboteur’s disposition.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 8, 2009 by dcairns

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So says Priscilla Lane to Robert Cummings in SABOTEUR, another retread of the 39 STEPS idea, complete with handcuffs, disbelieving blonde, embarrassment versus peril at a social gathering, and adding in the climax on a monument idea which Hitchcock had first developed, aided by the young Michael Powell, in BLACKMAIL.

Digression: watching THE BEAST OF THE CITY, a great pre-code cops and gangsters drama with Walter Huston, we got fascinated by Huston’s family. This being an MGM movie, it dispenses somewhat with the hard-edged proletarian qualities of Warners gangster films, instead endorsing shady and brutal police methods with fascistic relish, and part of the strategy is to celebrate the police chief’s family and home life. First off, a foetal Mickey Rooney plays Huston’s youngest kid, which is distracting enough, but when his twin daughters enter, side by side and carrying a single platter between them, and talking in unison, we wondered for a moment if they weren’t the Hilton sisters, the conjoined twins who appeared in FREAKS (and one other movie, CHAINED BOUND FOR LIFE). But then they exited separately, which pretty much proved that they weren’t. No doubt we were influenced by the fact that it was an MGM movie, like FREAKS, and Huston’s younger brother was played by the guy who played Phroso the clown in that Tod Browning masterpiece.

0417Another thin man.

This pointless anecdote connects to the fact that SABOTEUR also features Siamese twins, but these are fake (real twins, though), and that it’s also the source of a similar case of mistaken identity. When I first saw SABOTEUR as a teenager, I formed the mistaken impression that the actor playing the living skeleton in the same freakshow scene was John Carradine. That mistake stayed in my memory, and I was surprised to find out I was wrong (it’s Pedro de Cordoba, who has a similar seedy elegance and Shakespearian delivery), just as I was about Mel Blanc being in MR AND MRS SMITH. De Cordoba is very good, but I’m still disappointed he’s not Carradine and he’s not a real living skeleton (what, was Miles Mander unavailable?)

Movie begins with the silhouette of the saboteur (Norman Lloyd, later Hitch’s TV producer) leaving the scene of his crime, an image echoed at the end with his tiny figure silhouetted against a movie screen at Radio City Music Hall, smoke from his gun mirroring the black cloud that issues earlier from his act of arson.

The opening scenes are fairly sombre, as Cummings’ pal (a crewmember recruited by Hitchcock for his blue-collar appearance) is killed in the fire. Cummings, a popular whipping-boy among classic film fans, is actually pretty good at the emotional scenes after the death (although it seems to me that it’s this film, and not FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, that’s undercast in its star roles — I’ll take McCrea over Cummings any day. According to Bill Krohn, Hitchcock originally envisaged Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck for this one, but was forced to accept Cummings and Priscilla Lane who had been paired for another project that collapsed).  But the script (Peter Viertel and Joan Harrison and Dorothy Parker) surprisingly squanders a few opportunities for suspense as Cummings is suspected of the crime and forced to go on the run.

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They drive by night.

The film repeatedly pulls off a neat trick though, sending Cummings from one scrape or dead end to another, and always managing to provide some slight clue to motivate the next part of the chase. And through the episodic narrative, a romance is nurtured and several themes develop.

One theme connects to Cummings proletarian side: a factory worker, he often finds himself disadvantaged by his lowly social status, although he receives the help of a truck driver who recognises him as a brother, and a blind hermit who seems to have wandered in from THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, spouting philosophy like Rock Hudson’s pal in MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION. Cummings’ greatest enemies are the rancher Toban (a wonderfully oily Otto Kruger) and society lady Mrs Sutton (Alma Kruger, no relation).

Another motif is the presentation of the bad guys: Hitchcock gives Tobin a cute little granddaughter, has another speak of his long-haired baby son (a genuinely weird scene — what are they saying here?), while another talks about taking his kid sister out. And a whole coterie of thugs sings Tonight We Love while taking Cummings for a ride. All of which, perversely, doesn’t humanize them in any positive way, it makes their evil all the more chilling. Observing that the enemy love their families too does not mean we shouldn’t hate them: the ability to feel love for a child and then commit acts of murder against strangers is a particularly insidious kind of evil, Hitch seems to be saying.

Hitchcock’s reaction to an air raid warden’s announcement of the bombing of Pearl Harbor — “Why was he wearing that funny hat?” — does not suggest a man particularly attuned to world affairs, yet such was the script’s topicality that the declaration of war did not substantially alter it. Perhaps the freakshow scene, in which a bunch of typically atypical Americans have to decide whether to get involved, would have played out more urgently if America were still sitting on the fence, but it’s still an intriguing scene, even if the little fascist is the only guy in it who could have made a living in a real sideshow.

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“What do they have in America?” seems to have been the question asked as Cummings and lane traverse the nation, taking in the Hoover Dam, deserts, a ghost town, Radio City and finally the Empire State Building, a fairly wide range of US signifiers. Krohn calls this the first American Hitchcock to take place in America, which is true if we discount MR AND MRS SMITH (but should we?) — so Hitch is busy trying to make the landscape his own. It’s essential preparation for SHADOW OF A DOUBT, a real masterpiece and possibly Hitchcock’s most American film of all.

Script: Joan Harrison turned Hitch’s ideas into a long outline, what we’d call a “scriptment” today, with Viertel (whose father had collaborated with Alma Reville on THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK) filling that out into a first draft and Dorothy Parker providing dialogue sparkle. Parker’s work really enlivens the truck driver scenes, the blind philosopher, the sideshow artists scene and those colourful bad guys. Arguably the construction is even more artificial than usual, with Cummings escaping from a locked room simply by setting off a fire alarm. Panic ensues throughout the building — cut to Cummings outside, an all-too-typical smug look on his face. “How did he get out?” wondered Viertel. “They’ll never ask,” smiled Hitchcock.

That interlude within the swank Manhattan hotel is probably the weakest part. The explanation of why Cummings can’t simply walk out isn’t too compelling, and his attempts to enlist the help of party guests lack conviction too. the whole scene is a series of partial escapes from no clearly defined peril: simply exposing Cummings to the bad guys and cutting to him locked in the cupboard would have saved a lot of time (which might have been expended on a more interesting escape) and cost the film little in the way of real suspense. But I do like the way Lane keeps saying “This is like a nightmare!” and “It all seems so unreal!” She’s not wrong. And maybe this is another scene with a pre-war undercurrent, the serene society people waltzing away with the city about to explode around them.

There are two more problematic bits: the Radio City scene has an audience laughing uproariously at a film which doesn’t seem to be even trying to be funny. This can also be chalked up to the dreamlike atmosphere, I guess. Hitch also indulges in his propensity for killing innocent bystanders (see the unfortunate Dutch cyclist of FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT), which I always find a little upsetting.

Then, the grand finale atop Lady Liberty (and I like the synchronicity of the statue being reopened to the public this week to coincide with my posting this). Ben Hecht reportedly watched the scene where Norman Lloyd’s sleeve ripped off and he falls to his death and dryly remarked, “Should’ve gone to a better tailor.” I suspect this anecdote inspired the scene in THE HUDSUCKER PROXY where Paul Newman dangles from a skyscraper, his fate decided by a series of flashbacks exploring the strength of the stitching in his jacket. “My sleeve…”

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Of course, if Norman Lloyd had grabbed the cuff before his arm slid free, he’d have been fine. He seems to have had plenty of time to do so.

I also like the cops shouting “Get a rope!” I’d like to see a short about the cop who runs all the way downstairs and scours Liberty Island for a good length of hemp, finds it, desperately negotiates its purchase, then runs all the way back up to find everybody gone.

But the problem here, as Hitchcock described it, is that it’s the villain who’s in jeopardy, not the hero. Paul Schrader uses the same ending in AMERICAN GIGOLO, in a way, but boosts the drama by having the suspended bad guy be essential to clear the hero. Hitchcock makes a faint stab at this, but Cummings has effectively already been cleared, so it doesn’t really amp up the tension. However, the sequence is so brilliantly put together, including some of the best special effects of the period (by INVISIBLE MAN genius John P Fulton), that considerable suspense, and even terror, is created.

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Norman Lloyd’s death fall was photographed from above by a rising crane, with the actor spinning on a rotating saddle.

I always enjoy SABOTEUR, but I prefer FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, which has George Sanders and Herbert Marshall and a giant budget. But this later film shows tons of creativity, especially as it was achieved at much lower cost, necessitating many cost-saving devices. Here, Hitchcock’s meticulous preparation was essential, and assistant art director Robert Boyle, who storyboarded the movie, would become an important collaborator on future projects. Hitch was starting to build his team.

Exposition

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2009 by dcairns

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Looking at Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES reminded me that there was another version of the story idea — SO LONG AT THE FAIR, directed by Antony Darnorough and Terence Fisher.

Terrific thriller! It’s based on a sort of urban legend, about a couple (in the story it’s a mother and daughter, in the film it’s a brother and sister) who travel to the World’s Fair (but which one? the filmmakers wisely plump for the Paris Explosition of 1896, with the Eiffel Tower), where one of them promptly vanishes. Everybody at the hotel denies that the vanished relative ever existed.

This is one case where I’m not going to get into spoilers, although if you’ve read Hitchcock-Truffaut, you’ve read the solution. It works pretty well in the movie, and Hitchcock later recycled it for a TV episode.

Two things are striking about the film –

1) It’s successfully starry: Jean Simmons as the frightened heroine, who feels she’s losing her mind as reality is rewritten by conspiracy around her; Dirk Bogarde as the artist/swain who eventually comes to her aid; also, as if that weren’t enough, Honor Blackman; and David Tomlinson as the vanishee.

2) It’s from that period where British cinema was apparently bent on suicide, eradicating anything of interest domestically (Powell & Pressburger), while hemorrhaging talent abroad, and yet it’s a convincing film, compelling and exciting and stylish — but the talents were instantly dispersed to prevent the experiment being repeated.

Fisher of course boomeranged off to Hammer films, where he was productive and successful within that niche/ghetto of the genre sausage-factory. Darnorough, who had just collaborated with Fisher on a Noel Coward adaptation, THE ASTONISHED HEART, plunged into producing for a few years, before abandoning the industry. Jean fled to America and the waiting fingernails of Howard Hughes, Dirk fled to Europe and an amazing reinvention as art-house star. Honor became the first woman to do King-Fu in leather on telly in The Avengers, and Tomlinson was scooped up by Disney. And the writers, Hugh Mills and Anthony Thorne, who did an incredible job escalating the suspense and creating endearing protags, were allowed to slip out of the industry, despite a collaboration with Rene Clement on MONSIEUR RIPOIS for Mills.

For this one brief moment, they’re all together, producing a great entertainment. Simmons and Bogarde are great together. When he volunteers to rob a hotel safe to verify her story, she gasps, “Will it be dangerous?” “Goodness, I hope not, why?” asks Dirk, genuinely surprised. What a lovable chap!

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I don’t know how the co-directing worked. Fisher had already helmed a few little movies at this point, so presumably didn’t need help. A few suspense sequences have real panache, popping out from the rest — Fisher’s work? The production design is impressive, with flags waving from special-effects towers at the Exposition, and a fatal balloon ascension, and madly cluttered Victorian rooms. Cathleen Nesbitt (THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK begins to seem like a central hub of British film), as the steely hotel-keeper, is so convincingly French she convinced the French. The wrapping-up at the end is satisfactory, especially as the film is a new romance, weaving an elaborate thriller plot just to bring together a charming young couple.

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