Archive for The Skin Game

Paradine Syndrome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 12, 2009 by dcairns

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A virtual clone of a short from REBECCA.

I must have tried to watch Hitchcock’s THE PARADINE CASE a half-dozen times. Now I can say that I’ve actually seen it, but I can’t say much more (proceeds to write several hundred words). The movie seems to slide off me.

Despite specialising more or less in crime thrillers, Hitch stayed out of the courtroom as much as he could (I can recall the divorce court in EASY VIRTUE, the inquest in REBECCA, but note how Hitch keeps the camera in the jury room in MURDER while the verdict is read out offscreen, and how he spies on the trial at the opening of NOTORIOUS, peeking through the door as if superstitious about entering. Hitch also, famously, avoided whodunnits, except here and in MURDER. I accept most of his arguments against them (the whodunnit us an intellectual game, like the crossword), and also observe one more uncomfortable fact — he’s not very good at them.

Gregory Peck is Anthony Keane, counsel for the defense, a notoriously passionate lawyer who falls in love with accused murderess Mrs Paradine ([Alida] Valli), jeopardizing his marriage and his career, while trying to pin the guilt on either her murdered husband (suicide), or the groom (Louis Jourdan0 with whom she may have been having an affair.

Hitchcock himself reckoned THE PARADINE CASE was miscast, with Louis Jourdan too suave to be a horny handyman (yet LJ is the most compelling figure in the film by a country mile) and certainly David O Selznick’s screenplay, written during the shoot, is a big problem, verbose and lumbering and devoid of sympathetic characters or dynamic momentum. Fascinating players like Charles Coburn and Charles Laughton are somewhat wasted, while less-than-fascinating players like Gregory Peck and Ann Todd are spread thin, and at their least appealing. And Selznick’s dialogue keeps on about how fascinating Valli is supposed to be, but the screenwriter doth protest too much. And when did Selznick decide he was a WRITER?

The dispiriting shoot consisted of Selznick’s new pages coming in sometime in the morning, so nothing could be shot until afternoon, and still Selznick would moan that the filming was going too slowly. Hitch had large, expensive sets built, and was marooned on them for ages, as the bloated production sweated money from every pore.

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Clone of shot from YOUNG AND INNOCENT.

On the plus side, there’s Lee Garmes’ lustrous and lambent lighting, moody and noirish and serving up numerous striking shots, especially of Valli and Jourdan. I quite liked the tetchy, affectionate relationship between Coburn and his daughter, Joan Tetzel, which has a bit of energy, but they mainly discuss what everybody else is up to, until the trial, when JT sits in the public gallery explaining the events to Ann Todd, and to us in the audience, like some kind of benshi film describer. Actually, a huge amount of the film consists of descriptions of thing it might be nice to see. Nobody investigates the murder. When the trial finally starts, all at once we get a lot of plot information, which kind of adds up to a realization that the prosecution doesn’t really have any case at all.

Where was I? Oh yes, the positive side. Well, if Coburn and Tetzel = Hitch and Pat, then Peck and Todd could be Hitch and Alma. Their introductory scene does actually do a fair job of portraying a happily married couple approaching the danger zone where they take things for granted, and making us care about the relationship. But once the case begins, Peck’s baffling amour fou for the glum and uninteresting Valli robs him of all sympathy, and since he’s pretty inactive as a character, we can’t replace sympathy with intrigue.

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I heard that a friend had postulated a gay subtext, in the form of a relationship between Peck and Jourdan, but I can’t see any narrative evidence for this — nothing makes sense unless we accept that Peck is smitten with Valli. But there is some hilarity in this theory, since every line exchanged between Peck and Jourdan becomes an obscene double entendre — “What was your object in entering by the back way?” “But you intended to come on me!”

Laughton is a (bitter) joy — Hitchcock complained that “Every picture with Laughton is a war,” but he must have realized that the actor enhanced any film he touched. But if you took out the scene where Laughton is rebuffed by Todd, then his character would be reduced to a standard high court judge, and he could still behave in mostly the same way in the courtroom: he’s showing bias, it’s true, but Peck is such a dick it’s hardly surprising. I’d favour Leo G Carroll too.

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Clone of a shot from EASY VIRTUE.

But since we have Laughton’s unnecessary character, we get Ethel Barrymore as his wife, and their miserable relationship is one of the film’s most effective elements. I guess it’s a film about couples. Oddly, I’d just seen Ethel in MOSS ROSE, her previous production. Must write a little piece about that one. It has Peggy Cummins.

Hitch tried to film in long takes but Selznick objected, insisting on close-ups to break things up. No wonder Hitch indulged himself with ten-minute-takes as soon as he was free from his contract. Falling behind schedule, Hitch managed to save time by shooting the court scenes with multiple cameras, which upset the actors, who couldn’t see each other for equipment.

I always find Ann Todd rather cold and brittle, which isn’t bad per se, but I also get the impression that she’s an inherently savage actress who’s being held back by her directors. David Lean certainly held her down. I’d like to see her allowed to let rip.

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Clone of a shot from NOTORIOUS, itself cloned from SUSPICION.

But nobody lets rip here. The movie is interesting for its resemblance to two of Hitch’s earliest, least successful talkies — MURDER, in which a woman accused of murder is defended by a high-class gent. In both films, the gent travels to the countryside and stays in a cottage overnight, although MURDER exploits this for humour. And Peck’s arrival at the country house made me think of THE SKIN GAME, in which a woman with a shady past is threatened with exposure. It’s not too promising that those are the films one is reminded of.

Hitch, diplomatically, was still negotiating for a possible renewal of his contract with Selznick, even as he attempted to set up his own production company with Sidney Bernstein. The desire for artistic control warred with a need for financial security, but the experience of THE PARADINE CASE must surely have decided him that his future lay elsewhere.

para6Clone of a shot from NO. 13.

The Skinny

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2009 by dcairns

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Yes, I am watching all Hitchcock’s theatrical features one a week, all year. No, I am not crazy. Yet.

How do we feel about Hitchcock’s filmed plays? So far, only BLACKMAIL and THE LODGER, of his theatrically derived works, strike me as successes, but they do strike me as his GREATEST successes thus far too. But those are adaptations where Hitchcock adapted most freely. His usual approach to plays, except in the case of EASY VIRTUE, was to stick faithfully to the text, whereas in filming novels he felt compelled to restructure and rewrite almost everything.

The reason for this probably lies in the greater structural rigor of theatre as a medium. Since a play is typically absorbed at one sitting, the structure has to feel right as the piece is experienced, and has to flow. A novel is consumed over several sessions, and so may have more freedom to explore byways and even cul-de-sacs. Tampering with the structure of a novel is pretty much essential in adapting it, since there’s often too much incident to present in a film or normal duration. Tampering with the structure or even the stagecraft of a play may destroy the very artistic unity that makes it worthwhile.

Of THE SKIN GAME, Hitch said that he was compelled to make it, which doesn’t stop Noel Simsolo on the DVD wondering why Hitchcock was “attracted to the project”. He wasn’t, Noel. Opening the play out a bit, Hitchcock nevertheless is defeated, not by its theatrical qualities, but by its lack of Hitchcockian ones — there is no strong character to identify with.

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Phyllis Konstam can heave bosom with the best of them.

The film does tackle a theme of considerable interest to Hitchcock, the class battles of England. Rich pottery magnate Hornblower (Edmund Gwenn, whom Hitch would cast repeatedly over the years) wants to build on a piece of idyllic land next door to the aristocratic Hillcrists’ property, and they don’t want to have their view spoiled. Mrs Hillcrist is quite prepared to stoop to blackmail against those she considers her social inferiors, threatening to ruin Hornblower’s daughter-on-law by exposing her shady past.

It’s a filmed play, and it’s mostly talk, and Hitchcock at this stage in his career has not found a brilliant solution to the filming of talk. BLACKMAIL is still his best talkie, because most of the scenes are conceived as images, visual relationships between characters which can be augmented with dialogue but which pre-exist it in the film-maker’s mind. JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK used mostly master-shots, in which the positioning of the actors could sometimes be expressive, but the movement and posing was rooted in the stage. MURDER! and THE SKIN GAME suffer from the idea of photographing talk, as if all a dialogue scene consisted of was the speech. “Photographs of people talking,” as Hitchcock put it.

Here, the technical side seems to way heavy. Gone are the sweeping locations of THE MANXMANor the pastoral views of THE FARMER’S WIFE — sound demands that Hitch confine himself to a studio, so the beauty of the landscape upon which the plot depends is presented by still photographs and effects shots. The difficulty of editing sound and impossibility of mixing it require Hitch to use as few cuts as possible, so he tries to dolly from wide to close and back again, and pan from one character to another, as much as he humanly can. The strain on his operators is clearly visible.

Despite being based on a “well-made play,” THE SKIN GAME suffers from a lack of clear point-of-view. The Hornblowers and Hillcrists are all pretty unsympathetic, with only Hornblower’s daughter-in-law as an appealing innocent, despite her dubious past (to provide evidence of adultery in divorce cases, she “went with men to hotels” for money). But she enters the plot far too late. Phyllis Konstam, a stage actress recruited to films by the theatre-going Hitch, she’s glamorous and pretty good, although touches of artificiality keep creeping in. Edmund Gwenn is of course excellent, although incapable of the abrasiveness that would make Hornblower a strong motivating force for the snobbish Hillcrists. Regular leading man John Longden turns up too, but gets little screen time. Jill Esmond, first wife of Laurence Olivier, is sexless and uninvolved as the Hillcrist’s horsey daughter.

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As with any early Hitchcock that’s a bit lacking, compensation comes in the subjective effects. When Konstam recognises a face from her past in the crowd, it zooms out at her like a Floating Head of Death. When Gwenn looks out his window at the threatened meadowland, he sees it replaced by factories, an imaginary transition that anticipates the splendid melting London shot in SABOTAGE.

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And the auction scene is a tour-de-force, with a long take from the auctioneer’s POV, darting around the room to spot the various bids, followed by a dramatic montage of close-ups as things get really fraught.

As far as John Galsworthy adaptations go, I’m not sure I think they’re a good idea, but James Whale’s ONE MORE RIVER, which benefits from being made later, with more advanced technical facilities, is greatly superior to THE SKIN GAME. Hitchcock’s film does not have Colin Clive as a sexual sadist, nor any line as good as this: “I don’t know if it’s flatulence or the hand of God.”