Archive for The Stranger

Mondo Kane #6: The Huntington Memorial Hospital on 180th St.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2013 by dcairns

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And so to Joseph Cotten, who nearly walked off the film because his old age makeup cracked every time he raised his eyebrows. My suspicion is that Cotten’s thick, slightly wavy hair was putting to great a strain on his Maurice Seiderman bald cap. So in the finished film he wears a sun cap to conceal the join.

Establisher — Thompson looks up at the tall hospital, dwarfed by an even taller bridge. OK, so this is rear-projection, I think — the background was shot previously as a tilt up, and William Alland as Thompson must be on a little elevator being lowered out of view while the camera stays statically filming the rear-pro screen. At least that’s how I guess it was done. It looks unreal yet perfectly real.

Cotten is shot against a strange, abstract, soft-focus background — I think this was shot during the week of tests, so they couldn’t build any really detailed sets. This one looks almost like a backdrop, or a slide. Arguably the shallow depth , unique for the film, has something to do with old Jed Leland’s senility (though he’s really quite lucid — but everybody says the slow dissolves here are due to his rusty memory so let’s go with this).

Cotten’s old age performance is good — he’s trying to suggest weakness without doing exaggerated slow movements — there are bits where his hand drops back into his lap as if it’s quite a weight, which are very fine work indeed. This is another star-making shot, with Welles simply holding on his pal, pushing in very gently now and then, and letting Herrmann underscore with a beautifully elegiac theme. Cotten is utterly magnetic.

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Gainsborougfh girl Ruth Warwick.

The dissolve, aided by fading down the background on Cotten, so we seem to teleport with him into the past — and then we’re in that wonderful snappy compressed marriage seen at the breakfast table, which Welles admitted to pinching from Thornton Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner — but applying such narrative devices to a film was still an innovation.

Of course, Leland is apparently describing scenes he didn’t personally witness, and would be unlikely to have been told of in detail — a common movie device. I imagined Welles and Mankiewicz must have considered having Thompson interview the first Mrs. Kane, then decided to kill her off. Emily is so damn shallow here (though perfectly right to protest against her husband’s ignoring her) that we don’t really want to spend a whole chapter of the film in her company, but the breakfast montage HAD to stay in.

But according to Bill Krohn’s Orson Welles at Work (a book I prize), the first draft (by Mankiewicz and John Houseman) had Emily alive but refusing to speak to Thompson. Welles inserted the breakfast montage into draft 6, after killing Emily off. His conscious strategy was to largely ignore the logic of who knew what and organize the flashbacks so they make a kind of narrative sense that’s sometimes chronological, sometimes emotional. Thus, Thatcher is disposed of via his own memoir, which supplies the bookends to Kane’s career, Bernstein supplies the bright and lively early days, perhaps because those are what he chooses to recall, and Leland provides the bitter aftertaste, also setting up Susie Kane so that her narrative will make sense.

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But then Leland’s next memory is about Kane and Susan Alexander, and again he’s not present. He claims Kane told him about it (later, Susie Kane will remember some of Leland’s memories).

Welles cut a bordello scene from the script at the censor’s insistence, and performs some fancy footwork to establish Kane’s extra-marital affair without giving offense. Still, Susan’s invitation to Kane, a well-dressed (if muddy) stranger she has just met, to come back to her room plays a little disreputable, Kane slamming the door in the camera’s face once they’re inside seems VERY suggestive (and very different from the door slam at the Thatcher Memorial Library) but Susie makes him open it again for the landlady’s sake. Still, next time we visit this location, Susie and Charlie will have become lovers and the landlady’s objections are never heard. Possibly Kane has bought the building in the interim.

VERY nice dissolve from the street door to the bedroom door, occupying the same screen space.

Kane/Welles wiggles both ears at the same time, but the joke is his face is so wide and massive we can’t SEE both ears at the same time — he has to turn from side to side. Welles’ ears are on the back of his head.

Giggling at the shadow-puppets — wonderfully naturalistic! The real benefit of the overlapping dialogue, which isn’t just a trick — but also the mis-hearings and repetitions and crack-ups create a real sense of spontaneity and intimacy and make the laughter somewhat infectious, which it rarely is in movies. Like Welles, Comingore is at her very best here, better I think than the later screeching scenes.

“You’re not a professional magician, are you?”

As far as the audience’s sympathies are concerned, I find Kane at his sweetest in the scene where he befriends Susie, and though both Mr and Mrs Kane come across pretty badly in the breakfast montage, Emily’s hint of anti-Semitism tells against her. And Kane seems genuinely touched to meet someone who doesn’t know who he is and still likes him. The reference to his planned expedition to the warehouse prepares the ground for Rosebud’s screen debut — Susie interrupts Kane on his way to the end of the movie —  but also allows Welles to film more conventionally than usual — a two-shot and two close-ups (Fiona noted the very bright light Toland imparts to Dorothy COmingore’s eyes here) — and to simplify his performance. “My mother died…a long time ago,” sounds like Welles. And it’s tempting to imagine the little autobiographical touches here explaining why he’s so good in this scene. He may have been the greatest anti-Stanislavskian of the century, but can any actor say a line like that, if it happens to be the truth, and not feel something? Am I getting sentimental? And Herrmann’s underscoring… I actually blinked pretty hard during this scene. Don’t let anyone say KANE is a cold film — it’s just that the moments of emotion mainly involve a not particularly admirable character.

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“Let’s go to the parlor,” — Fiona is in hysterics at the suggestiveness with which Welles imbues this line.

Electioneering montage, with brief cameo by Joseph Cotten, the guy who’s supposedly our eyewitness. Great special effects at Kane’s rally — not particularly real, but real enough and beautiful enough. The high angle looking past Boss Jim W. Geddes (Ray Collins, so avuncular in AMBERSONS) is pretty Caligariesque in its spatial distortion — the theatre seems to be pitching forward in on itself — but the lopsided poster on the wall behind Geddes somehow balances its expressionistic slanting.

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I think the maid at Kane’s “love nest” kind of misses a beat — she smiles intimately at his arrival, which incriminates him in his wife’s eyes as it proves he’s a regular at this establishment, but she doesn’t betray enough surprise at noticing that CFK has brought another woman to the nest. The maid is cute, though — Louise Franklin was a nightclub dancer and chorus girl, and one could get into trouble imagining how Welles came to cast her.

Confronted by Geddes with the threat of exposure, Kane evinces the kind of self-defeating pride Welles may have sneakingly admired — certainly he said that Macbeth’s decision to fight on, even when he realizes the prophecy which seemed to protect him actually foredooms him, was the single moment of greatness the character shows. Here, Kane has the choice of saving his wife, son and mistress from shame and possibly salvaging his marriage, but he chooses to battle on — apparently under the delusion that he can win, though, which makes him less noble or romantic than the Scottish king, And his words confirm Leland’s belief that Kane was in politics for love “Apparently we weren’t enough, he wanted all the voters to love him too.” The paralysed moment when Kane realises he’s really trapped seems to be the beginning of the tycoon’s stiff-legged robot walk. In middle-aged, he’s already part-monument, but throughout his marriage to Susie he’s seen as this lumbering Frankensteinian somnambulist, a bit like the Colossus of New York.

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Defeat at the polls, and the excellent gag with the two choices of headline.

And finally the narrative crashes into something Jed Leland was an actual participant in. With Gregg Toland filming from a hole dug in the studio floor, he drunkenly harangues his old pal for letting the cause down (but apparently Leland knew about the affair from the start?). Of course it’s strongly hinted that Kane’s political affiliations, such as they are, were chosen solely to piss off his foster father, the bank, and its human surrogate, Walter Parks Thatcher. I’ve tended to feel that writers who focus on the politics and history of KANE are missing the point, the fun and the cinema — I never could get on with the Laura Mulvey BFI Classics book for that reason, and there’s a moment in Leslie Megahey’s BBC documentary on KANE where Pauline Kael says something about the film’s real pleasure being the way it calls up the 1940s, which makes me want to punch the screen. Admittedly, Kael seems kind of vague and doddery.

Mind you, the alternative is perhaps to reduce the movie to a bag of tricks, which I could be in danger of doing here. But it seems to me that shrinking it to a political message reduces it more. I guess the parallel is TOUCH OF EVIL, where the “monster” embodies negative political attitudes but still compels the audience’s sympathies, against our better judgement.

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Anyway, Leland moves to the Chicago paper in time to cover Susan Alexander Kane’s debit in Salammbo. Famous crane shot up through a wipe into a model shot depicting hanging flats of renaissance Venice, reminders of Othello or The Merchant of Venice, two future Welles movie projects, and ending on the unimpressed stagehands. Salammbo itself is set in ancient Carthage, subject of a Wellesian epigram in THE STRANGER.

Susie’s performance is lousy enough to drive Jed back to drink, so then there’s another grand gesture from Kane, finishing his old friend’s bad review, “to prove he was an honest man.” My favourite moment is the awful tragi-comedy of Mr. Bernstein reading the bad notice but faltering at the title of the opera: “I’m afraid I still can’t pronounce that name, Mr Kane.”

And slow fade/dissolve back to Mr Leland, the one Kane acquaintance so far who really has insight to offer into C.F.K.’s mind (Bernstein nails Thatcher, though). The others only tell stories, and their stories are illuminating, but Leland can actually interpret the stories for us.

Leland, like Kane and Macbeth, is indomitable in the face of certain defeat: “You know that young doctor I was telling you about… well, he’s got an idea he wants to keep me alive.”

Orson Welles at Work

Citizen Kane (BFI Film Classics)

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.

Shots of Scots 1: You Naztee Spy

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2009 by dcairns

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That’s Alec Craig on the left, a stock Scot-for-hire in Hollywood films of the late ’30s and 40′s. I think I first noticed him in Mitchell Leisen’s KITTY, a film unusually blessed with Celtic types. On the right is sly ladycorpse Eily Malyon, who played various sinister domestics and cadaverous matriarchs during the same period. Here she’s a Scottish nazi, and she seems to have acquired her accent by mimicking Alec’s — she’s very convincing, despite being a native Londoner.

The film is –

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– from Warner Brothers, and after a riproaring catchpenny title like that it thrilled me to find the first scene taking place in my own fatherland, where Mrs McLaughlin (Malyon) is acting as a postal forwarding address for espionage-related correspondence. Further thrills are supplied by the movie’s place in history: released in 1939, it provoked an international incident with its unabashedly anti-Nazi rhetoric (although it’s not anti-German, being directed by Anatole Litvak and padded with provisos to make it clear that this evil is political rather than national or racial). CONFESSIONS  nearly propelled America into the war two years early, and thus tends to disprove the still-prevalent fallacy that studio bosses chose to ignore the threat of fascism in Europe.

The film is one of those hard-hitting, torn-from-the-headlines Warners dramas, complete with a stentorian narrator, or maybe ANNOUNCER would be a better word, and it exploits the Hollywood convention of hitting you, hard, with the same information in a number of ways, just in case you’re very very stupid ~

Dissolve to a sign reading “Fort Wentworth 2nd Army Corps Base Hospital”, then to a clerk at a phone, beneath a sign reading “Dispensary, sick calls”.

Announcer: “A few days later, the sick-clerk at Fort Wentworth Station Hospital receives a call.”

Sick-clerk: “Hello, Fort Wentworth Station Hospital, sick-clerk speaking.”

Despite such thick-eared, thick-headed moments, there are many pleasures on offer — George Sanders as an arrogant Gestapo creep, his head shaved to a tuft, making him look halfway between a Japanese baby and a deformed novelty potato — Lya Lys from L’AGE D’OR, who’s always welcome in a Hollywood film, just for the bizarre resonance she brings (this was probably her best Ho’wood role) — Eddie G Robinson as a prototype of the Nazi-hunter he plays in Welles’ THE STRANGER — Paul Lukas, sleazy as the philandering Bund demagogue — best of all, handsome Francis Lederer as the main spy, an underachieving, egotistical fantasist motivated only by self-aggrandizement, a brilliant study in narcissism.

Francis went on to be Jodie Foster’s drama coach when she was a kid. Hooray for him!

The title CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY may tempt some of you to picture Robin Askwith in an S.S. uniform.

DO NOT.

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