Archive for The Wrong Man

The System

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2009 by dcairns

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The official story is that Hitchcock, under contract to Paramount, somehow felt that he hadn’t given Warner Bros full satisfaction during his time there, and made THE WRONG MAN for them for free as a sort of parting gift. I have a hard time swallowing that. If Hitch worked for nothing, it must have been because he really wanted to make the film, and he made it at Warners because the story, a true crime narrative “torn from the headlines,” was their property. Fortunately, he was able to take his team with him, including Bernard Herrmann and Robert Burks, as well as Vera Miles, whom he had used on TV and was grooming for stardom.

Sidebar — the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents starring Miles, a grim little number called Revenge, also featuring the mighty Ralph Meeker, is a plainly-told little masterpiece of horror, serving as an illustration of the old adage, “He who seeks revenge should first dig two graves.” In both Revenge and THE WRONG MAN, Vera Miles suffers a breakdown, presented in a harrowing but realistic and un-showy fashion. But ultimately Revenge is a yarn, what Hitch called “an old-fashioned plot,” even if it ends in such a dark place that Hitch, appearing at the end to sum up, is forced to drop all his lugubrious jocularity and more or less apologise for subjecting us to this ordeal.

Hitch shot, but did not use, a cameo appearance for THE WRONG MAN, electing instead to introduce it personally, something he had just started doing on TV. But the High Expressionism of Robert Burks opening frame prepares us for a very different kind of Hitch — the shadow that elongates towards us is quite different from the chubby profile on NBC — and this has a more powerful effect than what Hitch is telling us: his lines about this being a very different kind of suspense thriller seem more like a showman’s come-on than adequate warning of the Bressonian blackjack we’re about to get slugged with.

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In THE WRONG MAN, Miles’s depression is triggered by her husband’s arrest for a series of neighbourhood stick-ups (he bears a chance resemblance to the real criminal). Fate conspires to rob him of a demonstrable alibi, and a chain of circumstantial evidence sends him clanking through the machinery of the justice system like an animal on its way to slaughter. The narrative proceeds with the deliberate, chilling pace of a conveyor belt. When Hitch films the police van conveying Fonda to court, it’s under a vast iron bridge, the world cut into mechanical pieces by the shadows of the girders. It suggests prison bars, but even more it calls to mind some vast unfeeling apparatus — and this is the film’s subject.

Fonda’s arrest is notably Kafkaesque: the cops drive him from one neighbourhood store to another, instructing him to enter, alone, walk the length of the store, and then exit. He does so, his perplexity and fear stamping him as suspicious from the moment he appears.

The cops are at once decent, unsensationalized professionals, and immensely cruel. Hitch does not criticize the authorities in anything anyone says, but we notice that Fonda doesn’t get his phone call, isn’t read his rights, and is deliberately thrown off-balance by the detectives, who obviously hope to make him crack. Fonda is such a good citizen that he goes meekly with them from his own doorstep, rather than insisting on telling his wife what’s happened (he hasn’t been formally arrested yet, so there’s nothing official to stop him doing as he pleases).

Hitch apparently found the real-life Manny Balestrero rather undramatic as a character — the man could not express to Hitch what his experiences felt like. I can see how in reality this would have made Balestrero’s plight worse: an inexpressive, emotionally inarticulate man would have had trouble both convincing the cops of his innocence, and reassuring his worried wife. It hardly matters in the movie — Hitch is recreating his own primal scene in its purest form — the terror of inexplicable arrest by the authorities. (Supermodel Jinks Falkenberg and her husband once pranked Hitch by sending a cop to ask for him — never mess with peoples’ phobias! This shit is serious.)

To solve the problem of dramatizing an undramatic man, Hitch worked with semi-regular collaborator Angus MacPhail (perhaps the originator of the term “MacGuffin”) and famed playwright Maxwell Anderson. The low-key but quietly passionate character devised for Fonda suits his performance style perfectly. And Hitch had always wanted to work with Fonda, I think he’s one of the few stars mentioned in Hitch’s 1930s essay, written upon his departure for Hollywood, that he actually got to direct. Gary Cooper and William Powell always eluded him.

bmailFirst arrest: 1929.

We’ve seen the arrest procedure before, in BLACKMAIL. But there, the hero was a cop and the suspect a thuggish career criminal, well-used to imprisonment. In Hitch’s original ending, we would have seen the process repeated with heroine Anny Ondra, which would have been powerful stuff. But being thrown into the strange rituals of confinement and judgement, seeing it through the eyes of our blameless hero (loving husband, brilliant father), with the most insistent use of extreme POV shots in all Hitchcock, that’s something else.

A witness places her hand on Fonda’s shoulder to identify him, and we see the shoulder as if from Fonda’s own eyes.

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As the cops drive Fonda around, we see his POV looking past each of them in turn, left, right, straight ahead, as the free world speeds past, unreachable, outside. Amusingly, this sequence was ripped off with perfect precision by Freddie Francis in THE SKULL: substitute Peter Cushing for Henry Fonda. Of course the effect is different: context is everything in the Hitchcock. The fear we feel (and this film is more genuinely uncomfortable and frightening than anything Hitch had made to date) is all to do with where we are in the story and how we feel about the characters.

In his little cell, Fonda looks around, and we get a succession of banal objects: a wash-basin; the corner of the ceiling — and the simplicity and solidity of everything is hellishly oppressive. Hitch then produces one of his few outright flourishes, a spinning camera that causes Fonda’s head to gyrate giddily about the frame: things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

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Some, like official biographer John Russell Taylor, have remarked on the incongruity of Hitch, who declared “Some make slices of life; I make slices of cake,” doing a substantially location-set (the real Stork Club), documentarist piece of social realism. But there’s nothing incongruous about the experience of watching the film, since it all works so well. The few obvious directorial flourishes are well-chosen and are complimented by a wealth of intelligent detail that doesn’t draw attention to itself. And the whole thing aims at a psychological effect rather than a social one. If Hitch uses a real place or a convincing replica, he does it not to show us what something looks like, but to inflict upon us the emotional impact of the real thing. And it’s all focussed through the central character, who acts as a kind of lens for Hitch’s personal terror, which is thus beamed into the viewer at concentrated strength.

Balestrero’s job as bull fiddle player motivates the jazz-inflected score, which uses sparse instrumentation to create memorable soundscapes of slow anxiety. As always with Hitch, there’s some kind of motif at work, something woven into the narrative, although here it’s a lot more elusive than the two compositions that play key plot roles in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. When we first see Vera Miles with her husband, she says, “Sometimes I’m so frightened waiting for you to come home at night,” — and this is the first hint we get that she is more than normally insecure. The moment is underscored by a series of soft chimes, played on a triangle, which come out of nowhere and initially suggest a carriage clock or a musical doorbell, something diegetic, but are then joined by the double bass and sax. The chimes return later, only once, when Miles loses her mind and strikes her husband with a hairbrush. She retreats to a distant chair and murmurs, “It’s true, Manny, there is something wrong with me. You’ll have to let them put me somewhere.”

Ting. Ting. Ting. Ting.

The effect is chilling because it happens so utterly on cue and thus suddenly seems mechanical — this happens, so you hear this sound — part of the overall impersonal forces pushing Manny towards imprisonment and destruction.

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Fiona: “Was this film a terrible flop?”

Me: “It sure was.”

Nevertheless it’s profoundly impressive.

As hairy script guru Phil Parker is always saying, injustice is such a powerful event in our lives from childhood on (“When a child says, ‘This isn’t fair!’ the child can be trusted.” ~ A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS) that it makes a powerful narrative hook. Hitch’s previous nightmare scenarios don’t exploit this as fully as TWM, because in the chase film the unjust suspicions of the authorities are mainly a spur for the character and plot, driving us along to the next situation and preventing the interference of reinforcements. In THE WRONG MAN we get Hitchcock with the mask of entertainer removed, and the story is this: even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayer at night may be crushed by the impersonal forces of the world he lives in.

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When Fonda prays, and the real culprit appears before us and is apprehended by heroic storekeepers (how we cheer these plucky citizens!), Hitch pulls off a remarkable coup, foregrounding his Catholicism via a magnificent lengthy dissolve that literally supplants Fonda’s face with that of the actual stick-up artist (this is Hitch’s most Bergmanesque movie!) It’s presented as a miracle, and the beauty of the transition reinforces that. but, unbearably, when Fonda goes to tell Miles that he’s finally a free man, she’s too sunk in depression for it to mean anything. “I was hoping for a miracle,” admits Fonda, ruefully. He’s already had one.

Mental illness, by the way, is something movies nearly always get wrong, if what you’re looking for is either clinical accuracy or emotional insight. There are valid approaches to any subject that are not realistic ones, but most movies have a hard time being even truthful here, and too often demonize the mentally ill in a way that would be considered unacceptable with any other minority. So I applaud THE WRONG MAN’s portrayal of a mostly quiet, desperate slide into confusion and misery, which feels absolutely authentic and beautifully observed. Hitchcock filmed in a real psychiatric hospital with real staff (a rather nice-looking one) and, although the doctor’s description of Miles’ complaint is overly poetic and general, it’s not the dollar-book Freud of PSYCHO.

THE WRONG MAN is a tough watch — maybe the only Hitchcock film to attain this status through strengths rather than weaknesses. It’s intended to be hard on the viewer. All that stuff about it being Hitchcock’s most Catholic film — possibly true, but not an observation that’s necessary to in some way justify the film’s existence, which it sometimes seems to be used for. All that stuff about the oddness of Hitch doing realism — this is psychological realism. This is pure Hitchcock. And it’s a stone-cold masterpiece.

wrong8Mr Right Meets Mr Wrong.

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

US buyers: TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Hitchcock Thrillers (Suspicion / Strangers on a Train / The Wrong Man / I Confess)

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En Route

Posted in FILM with tags , , on October 28, 2009 by dcairns

strange1wrongxRomance with a double bass: Hitch in STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, Fonda in THE WRONG MAN.

My Hitchcock Year entry is on it’s way, don’t worry. THE WRONG MAN is number ten in the countdown to the end — think of that as you plan your Christmas shopping. And from here on, the gaps between Hitchcock films start to get longer. Speculations as to an overall reason for this are welcome, but the answer likely lies as much in the contingencies of Hollywood production in the crisis times of the sixties, as it does in Hitch’s advancing years.

Breaking The Sound Barrier: Hitchcock’s Blackmail(s)

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 4, 2009 by dcairns

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I watched the silent version of BLACKMAIL for the first time this week (it’s been ridiculously hard to see for most of my life). It ended just in time for me to catch Paul Merton Looks at Alfred Hitchcock on the telly (it was OK, very good in places, critically weak in others). Then I watched the talkie version of BLACKMAIL. Because I am hardcore.

I’m inclined to view BLACKMAIL (silent version) as Hitch’s second masterpiece, after THE LODGER, and it’s actually a more accomplished film than the earlier thriller. While the Ripperesque thrills in Hitchcock’s third movie were beautifully rendered shot by shot, the movie has bigger problems in plot terms, mainly caused by the need for Ivor Novello’s mysterious tenant to be found innocent at the end. BLACKMAIL also was supposed to have a very downbeat ending, and Hitch was forced to compromise once more, but the ambiguous and rather queasy conclusion he created with playwright Benn Levy (THE OLD DARK HOUSE) and, reportedly, an uncredited Michael Powell, is far more successful that THE LODGER’s fatuous story-book finish.

For what seems like the first time, Hitch has a story with both solid structure and a firm control of point-of-view. Basically, the story begins with plodding detective John Longden on a case, running to ground a hilariously stereotyped criminal degenerate, with the kind of Boris Karloff mug that would have been a gift to Lombroso. Then we shift from police procedural to social comedy as Hitchcock details the difficulty of getting a good table in a Lion’s Corner House with the same forensic attention he devoted to the interrogation and identification of a felon. This scene allows the POV to shift to Longden’s girl, Anny Ondra from THE MANXMAN.

Anny has covertly arranged to meet an artist, who lures her to his garret, plies her with drink and lewd song (in the sound version, at least), makes off with her dress and tries to –

“He tried to -” says Anny in the talkie version, proving that there are some places dialogue cannot yet go.

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In a set-piece sequence, Anny stabs her assailant to death and flees the scene, having retrieved her dress but left behind a glove. Now the POV can shift back to Longden, called in to investigate the case. Recognising both the glove and the victim, he conceals evidence and confronts Anny, only to find himself in thrall to a sleazy blackmailer, played by Donald Calthrop (a good all-rounder with a special propensity for seediness — in SECRETS OF FP1 he plays a grubby reporter, a role taken by Peter Lorre in the German version). The scenes of blackmail take place in Anny’s home, resulting in a return of the domestic/criminal confluence Hitchcock had mined so successfully in THE LODGER, and which he would return to throughout his career, perhaps most notably in SHADOW OF A DOUBT.

Adding to the tension and tautness of the narration, Anny’s family run a newsagents, and they live a short distance from the crime scene, so that the murder is on everyone’s lips. The proximity of shop and kitchen also denies the family privacy, so that an annoying neighbour can natter on at them while they try to eat breakfast — a stand-out scene in the talking version (“Knife!”).

Still believing his girlfriend to be innocent (this essential character point is a little unclear, especially in the silent), Longden tries to shift the blame to Calthrop, who flees police by smashing through the newsagent window in a very strange manner, pressing his body up against the glass until it yields and he can slip through. It’s the least dynamic window-smashing I’ve ever seen, certainly compared to Lionel Stander’s very animated flying exit in HANGMEN ALSO DIE:

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Lionel checks out.

Ducking into the British Museum, Calthrop is pursued through a range of extremely impressive special effects shots (the museum refused entry to Hitch and his crew) and falls to his death. The blame safely laid at the dead man’s door, Ondra is saved, but retains a haunted expression. Hitch had wanted to convict her, and end the film in a manner symmetrical with its beginning, but British International Pictures thought that was too depressing. The ending chosen is pretty unsettling though — without a confession, there can be no expiation of guilt.

Watching the silent version first, I was blown away by how good it is. Adapting a play by his future collaborator Charles Bennett, Hitch finds all manner of suspense-generating devices and visual tropes. Then, when I watched the talkie, my appreciation of it was raised. My most recent viewing of it had been rather unsatisfactory. My awareness that Anny Ondra was being dubbed by Joan Barry, sat just off-camera with her own microphone while Ondra moved her lips soundlessly, (see SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN for a good demonstration of this technique) was rather distracting. And Barry’s voice is not as appealing as Ondra’s — as impressive as Hitch’s invention of dubbing is — and done live! — Barry’s strange, over-enunciated version of cockney is unconvincing, and her voice rather grating. The effect is to rob Ondra of much of her innate eroticism (although in the talkie version, Hitch obligingly shows her stripping down to her slip while the lecherous artist serenades her on his grand piano — I did feel for the piano-movers who must have heaved it up the many floors to his attic suite).

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This graphic image IN NO WAY matches the wide shot of a speeding truck that follows it.

Starting with a spinning wheel — the wheel of justice! — Hitch shows a police van racing through London streets (with some very poor matte shots of the interior) and stopping in what must be the East End to make an arrest. We meet Longden and his superior, and glimpse a little black boy playing in the street. While making ethnic minorities visible is a good thing, his inclusion feels uncomfortably like a signifier that this is a bad area.

This sequence is identical in both versions of the film, with more or less constant music (by Hubert Bath of THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK) to fill in the silence, and only the most minimal sonorization: there’s a footstep sound when the cops get out of their “black Maria” van, and then they continue noiselessly on their way, even making little comments to each other which we don’t hear. It’s not a problem, but it’s kind of strange and interesting.

When the cops enter the room where the degenerate old crim lies reading his paper in bed, there’s a beautiful pan from his face as he scans the room, spotting the cops reflected in a mirror, which leads him to reach for a gun. The cops nab him, and we follow his processing through the police station: fingerprinting, interrogation, identification (no messing about with one way glass here — the witness has to walk right up to him and lay a hand on his shoulder.

Enter Anny Ondra, voiced by Joan Barry in the talkie version. As Longden and Ondra go on their date (with Barry tagging along off-camera), the scene plays out more or less the same, even down to camera angles. The dialogue script contains a few more lines, however, and Hitch finds ways to make Ondra more sympathetic than in the silent — she nags her boyfriend and is dismissive of his job at Scotland Yard (“If it wasn’t for Edgar Wallace, nobody would ever have heard of you.”), but he’s grumpy too, and Hitch lessens the implication that she’s arranged to meet another man, as well as suggesting that she thinks better of the idea. But Longen walks out on her, and her fate is sealed.

Lured up to the artist’s studio, Ondra is followed up the stairs by an elegant crane shot, in a scene perhaps influenced by Borzage’s SEVENTH HEAVEN (or Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN). In both versions, Hitch shows the artist with curling shadows falling on his face, apparently to mimic the curly moustaches of a villain in an old stage melodrama. The effect isn’t absolutely clear, but it is eerie and sort of disfiguring, so it works.

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The shadow of that moustache would haunt actor Cyril Ritchard throughout his life — his most celebrated stage role was as Captain Hook, opposite Mary Martin in Peter Pan.

When the nasty artist attempts to subject Ondra to his depraved appetites, Hitch stages a simple but dramatic set-piece: the struggle behind the curtain. Ondra’s hand reaches out and grabs the convenient knife, the curtain flutters some more, and then the artist’s hand drops into view, lifeless. Ondra emerges, a look of madness in her face. But she’s sane enough to at least try to remove all evidence of her presence in the flat. As she flees into the night, we get this great shot of the blackmailer’s arrival, echoing Ivor Novello’s appearance in THE LODGER a few years earlier.

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Ondra wanders the streets, distraught, allowing Hitch to play with a variety of subjective effects, some slightly crazy, like the neon sign that transforms into a memory of murder, some very elegant: a shot of the Big Ben clock tower, telling us the time, is followed by an extreme high angle looking down at London from the sky — the God’s-eye-view that returns, strikingly, in THE BIRDS, more than 30 years later. Other ideas, like the neon sign that mutates into a nightmare image, don’t do much beyond showing off the fertility of Hitch’s imagination.

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A Hitchcocktail?

In the silent version, oblivious passers-by flit past Ondra in a lateral tracking shot, while in the talkie, their numbers are augmented by double-exposed transparent shades, suggesting a much longer and more mentally confused walk. A shot of a traffic policeman’s hand triggers a quick cut back in time to the slain man’s hand, which is very effective, but even more impressive is the moment when a shot of the corpsefingers is inserted BEFORE a shot of a sleeping tramp’s hand. It’s an odd, counter-intuitive way of making the connection, but it works, and is much more startling.

Now comes the central sequence at Anny’s home, above a newsagent’s. Dublin-born Sara Allgood, who would get a major role in Hitch’s next talkie, plays Annie’s mum. I guess her Irish accent would have been irrelevant in the silent version, but it becomes an interesting detail in the talkie. Here, as in SABOTAGE, we get a strong sense of the pressure of running a business that’s attached to your own home. The family are deprived of pivacy as they attempt to have breakfast, being bothered both by a nosy neighbour and by the constant ringing of the shop door-bell, calling them to serve customers. Hitch again finds he can use ordinary domestic life to heighten the suspense of a thriller situation.

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Silent “knife.”

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Talkie “knife”. Presumably, the young lady in the first version couldn’t do a cockney accent, and Hitch must have had second thoughts about her costume. She’s the biggest change in the sound “remake”. Apart from the sound.

This is of course a major sequence in the talkie, the “knife” dialogue, in which the moaning neighbour’s monologue slowly fades to a murmur, except for the repeated word “knife”, which gets louder and louder. It also seems to turn up in the conversation an awful lot. Sound man Dallas Bower recorded the wild track upon the producer’s request, unsure if Hitch really knew what was going on, but I bet it was Hitch’s idea in the first place — it’s an audio version of the kind of subjective effects he was attempting in all of his silent films. Perhaps he didn’t understand the technical details of recording it, but he must have known what the aim was.

Meanwhile, the body has been discovered, via a beautiful sound link (Ondra looks startled at home, and we cut to the landlady screaming), and Longden has answered the call to the crime scene, where he finds Ondra’s glove. He’s about to report it when he recognises the murder victim — via a very fast track-in of the kind Hitch had already deployed in CHAMPAGNE, for example — as the man he saw with Ondra. He pockets the glove and goes to see her.

Now Donald Calthrop comes into his own as the blackmailer, with another of those odd posh cockney accents of the kind frequently spoofed by comedian Harry Enfield. But he’s very effective, and the sound version even manages to make him sympathetic when the tables are turned, deepening the film’s moral ambiguity. Hitchcock was already learning that in a talkie, the primitive power of visual storytelling can be given an additional layer of sophistication by the dialogue. While stressing the primacy of the image, Hitch would always seek to enhance his films with witty and literate writing.

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Calthrop’s flight into the British Museum was apparently the suggestion of Michael Powell, a habitue of the library. Years later, Charles Bennett, author of the original source play, would have Dana Andrews visit the same reading room in NIGHT OF THE DEMON. But the climax is slightly unsatisfactory — the museum has no connection to the story, or to Calthrop’s character, and he has no particular reason to go there. This kind of arbitrary climax is a common occurrence in British Hitchcock movies, which are looser in construction and more likely to throw in gratuitous action sequences than the later American productions, which are more structured (exceptions will be noted). But I liked the constant cutaways to Ondra at home, more or less praying for release, with the window shadows behind her not quite creating a crucifix shape. It prefigures Henry Fonda’s answered prayer in THE WRONG MAN.

Of course, Ondra’s prayer is answered by Calthrop falling to his death, which allows the police to close the case, blaming him for the killing she committed. The Production Code would never have allowed such an immoral ending, but Hitch is almost happy to allow Ondra off the hook — she was only defending herself, after all. But as she confesses her guilt to Longden, and they agree to keep it their secret, Hitch shows the dead artist’s mutilated painting being carried into the station house. Ondra’s expression upon seeing it is one of horror. There’s no hint that the painting is a clue that will unmask her as the killer, but it is a reminder of what she’s done, and the fact that she can never escape that.

While the silent BLACKMAIL is more accomplished than the hastily repurposed talkie, the sound version does add several memorable effects, and is a model example of how a film can use sound intelligently without being overtaken by dialogue. It basically plays as an audio-visual experience with a few talking scenes. It would take Hitchcock some time to get back to that kind of purity, because his next films are theatrically derived, dialogue-driven, and in many ways quite uncharacteristic…

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