Archive for To Catch a Thief

For people who don’t like yacht clubs

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2018 by dcairns

LOVE AFFAIRS TO REMEMBER

Wild speculation and biography department.

I feel like I’m on the verge of outing Leo McCarey. Always a questionable activity, especially when it’s based on textual readings of an artist’s work. Still, it seemed harmless in this case to throw some mad theories out there.

I got interested in some odd parallels between Hitchcock and McCarey, two utterly different artists — one who emphasised above all else the careful preparation of every element of his filmmaking practice, the other who stressed the value of improvisation. McCarey apparently forced a reluctant Cary Grant to improvise on THE AWFUL TRUTH, and Hitchcock for once allowed him to on TO CATCH A THIEF. Although I always wondered if that was just Hitchcock trying to throw shade on his scriptwriter, John Michael Hayes, who had been getting too much attention in the press. Biographers’ attempts to ascribe Hitch’s liberation to the effects of the breezy location founder in the face of obvious process photography.

But here are the connections: both men were Catholic, McCarey more stridently, Hitchcock in a more subtle and interesting way. Both men only had one wife all their lives, and one child, a daughter. The one wife fits well with Catholicism, the one child not so much. In Hitchcock’ case, we pretty much know the explanation: after successfully procreating and giving us the essential Patricia, he and Alma packed the whole sex thing in and concentrated on making pictures, with the occasional foray into harassment and assault of lading ladies for Hitch. With McCarey, there might have been some trouble having children: he got married young, at seventeen or eighteen in 1914, but Mrs. Stella Martin McCarey did not present an heir, Virginia (some sources say Mary), until around 1927. And then there’s all that sexual frustration in the films: Ann Sheridan in GOOD SAM and Paul Newman in RALLY ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS! are sex-starved because of their spouse’s obsessions.

Meanwhile, according to what we would have to call gossip, McCarey was frequently unfaithful. He hinted at this himself when he said that THE AWFUL TRUTH was inspired by events in his own life, but he was always quick to say “but not the adultery part,” with a quip like, “don’t print this, my wife will kill me,” sometimes thrown in.

But almost in the same emphysemic breath, he would tell Peter Bogdanovich about trying to pick up Vina Delmar before discovering she was the author of a story he admired, MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW. But then it turns out that Vina Delmar (like McCarey?) was two people: she wrote with her husband, Eugene (real name Albert Otto Zimmerman), under her name. So which one was McCarey trying to pick up? Admittedly, Vina was pretty cute. But anyhow, when McCarey admits to a “very close” collaboration with Vina on MWFT and THE AWFUL TRUTH, he was in reality collaborating with two people. “Nice man, that Mr. McCarey,” said Vina, describing a charming and laid-back writing process in which McCarey would apologise if they didn’t like his ideas, and apologise again if he didn’t like theirs.

(I mentioned to our friend Nicola that McCarey’s womanizing caused him great Catholic guilt, and Nicola, who knows whereof she speaks, corrected me: “He had Catholic guilt because he was Catholic.)

McCarey had just lost his father, whom he loved. But McCarey Sr. was also the man who forced Leo to become a lawyer against his will, so the relationship may have been a bit more complicated than is admitted. It’s striking that, while dad made his fortune as a boxing promoter, McCarey learned how to box from a nun at his school (see THE BELLS OF ST MARY’S). Capra tells us that the elder McCarey would stage massive newsboy fights, in which dozens of scrappy kids would throw their shoes into the ring and then battle to retrieve a matching pair, the winner being chosen by crowd popularity rather than actual success. Rewarded with a gold coin, he would then walk home wearing two left shoes. But little Leo was banned from these exhibitions — he would sneak in without dad’s permission. And of course the mass shoe fights are transformed into the escalating street battles of the Laurel & Hardy silents McCarey supervised, starting with PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP.

McCarey determined, on his father’s death, to never again make a film he wasn’t dead set on making. He had just had the great success of RUGGLES OF RED GAP and the less happy experience of THE MILKY WAY, in which he couldn’t get the results he wanted from Harold Lloyd. Also, on that picture, the accident-prone Leo drank milk from a contaminated cow and nearly died. His brother Ray finished the picture in his place. More about Ray, who is hardly ever mentioned, later.

Critically acclaimed, MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW underperformed and basically got McCarey fired from Paramount (he held a lifelong grudge: “Every time I work for Paramount, it costs them a half million more than it should”), whereas THE AWFUL TRUTH at Columbia was a massive hit and won him the Oscar.

YACHT RUNS WILD

McCarey was a member or at least associate of the Emerald Bay Yachting Association, “the yacht club for people who don’t like yacht clubs,” originally “the Young Men’s Purity, Total Abstinence and Snooker Pool Association,” in essence a debauched drinking club with John Ford as a prominent member. Devotion to drink was not enough to gain admission, you had to be an “ambulance drunkard.” Alcohol may have been the real cause of McCarey’s “bone disease” after his Oscar win, and of the near-fatal car crash that stopped him directing M FAVORITE WIFE. When he made LOVE AFFAIR, where you begin to see religion forcing its way in — I think the film is uneven, the delicate balance of McCarey’s best work already beginning to skew. And on the night of the preview, he drunkenly drove his car onto and along the railway tracks, pretending he was in charge of the Super Chief, while editor Edward Dmytryk, in the passenger seat, tried to recall if the Santa Fe ran a night train.

Here, McCarey seems guilty not of recycling his life into his films, but his films into his life — the story recalls the conclusion of TWO TARS, a Laurel & Hardy short he supervised in 1928.

Then McCarey made the even bigger mistake of going into business with Howard Hughes, which ate up the next few years of his life and produced nothing. McCarey, forever recycling his life in pictures, wanted to make a movie about moviemaking, under the title (wait for it) QUEER PEOPLE. The project fizzled when Hughes became obsessed with making THE OUTLAW and McCarey couldn’t even get him on the phone: the men ended up suing each other.

Then we have the ragged, bizarre ONCE UPON A HONEYMOON, the wildly successful priest films, and the ragged GOOD SAM, whose release in 1948 coincides with Ray McCarey’s suicide. He was found kneeling by his bedside like a praying child, with a bottle of pills beside him. McCarey merely said his brother had been ill for some time. Depression, alcoholism, or unrelated physical suffering that made life unbearable? This is the other Hitchcock connection, the less successful, suicidal brother. An even bigger trauma if you throw in dedicated Catholicism. Ray had been a fellow director at Roach Studios, but had mainly made B-pictures. Following in big brother’s footsteps.

Ray McCarey, occluded.

 

You still find people calling McCarey a nice man socially, at this time, but John Huston calls him macchiavellian, and his writer on MY SON JOHN, a fellow commie-hater, came to believe he had lost his mind. Red-hating dominates the McCarey of MSJ and SATAN NEVER SLEEPS, with RALLY ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS! offering a satire of jingoism which, along with the burlesquing of the father in MSJ that complicates things a bit. But, as David Ehrenstein has commented right here, MSJ doubles as a homosexual panic picture, red terror as pink terror. McCarey comments that a big theme of the film is the college-educated son being embarrassed by his plebeian father. But it’s also the elegant, well-mannered son embarrassing the macho dad. It’s easy to see that the class elements here derive from McCarey’s own “loving” relationship with his father, but where does the sexual subtext originate? (The film is never able to address WHY Robert Walker’s character has strayed into the arms of the commies: we get no politics at all, merely a sort of pop-Freudian reading based on his domineering father and over-protective mother, the classic psychologist’s set-up for the dread sexual inversion.)

(Incidentally, Frank McHugh reprises his role of Father O’Dowd from GOING MY WAY in MY SON JOHN, making this the third panel in McCarey’s triptych of cosy religious movies, which just makes things weirder.)

Everyone seems to agree, without there really being a definite source, that McCarey was a serial cheater. Maybe trying to prove his masculinity to himself. Maybe he had no sex life at home. Maybe he was just compulsively charming and highly sexed. Did he just go with women or did homosexual flings enhance his stockpile of Catholic guilt? This is the man credited with creating Cary Grant. The floundering deceit that forms much of the comedy in MY FAVORITE WIFE does seem to support the idea of McCarey the philanderer…

A BRIEF DISCOURSE ON NAMES

McCarey says he and his wife called each other Tom & Jerry (two inseparable comic strip friends, long before the cat & mouse double act used the names ironically). Tom & Jerry is the name of an episode of Screen Director’s Playhouse McCarey wrote and directed. Jerry is a name which recurs obsessively in Leo’s work. Skeets Gallagher in LET’S GO NATIVE  Gloria Swanson in INDISCREET, Cary Grant in THE AWFUL TRUTH, all play Jerries. So who was Lucy? Beulah Bondi in MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW, Irene Dunne in THE AWFUL TRUTH, Ann Sheridan in GOOD SAM and Helen Hayes in MY SON JOHN play variants on this name. And Anita? Joyce Compton in WILD COMPANY, Ruth Hall in THE KID FROM SPAIN and Fay Bainter in MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW all play Anitas. Leo was named after his French mother, Leora. (My friend Lawrie once claimed that John Guillermin’s peculiar temperament derived from his Franco-Irish parentage. Leo had the same problem.) There are several Pats and Michaels too, of both sexes, and several Joes and Marys, but I don’t attach much significance to these commonplace names. Tuesday Weld is the only Comfort Goodpasture you’ll find in Leo’s filmography.

Dotting one’s mistresses names through one’s dramatis personae would fit well with Leo’s telling interviewers how THE AWFUL TRUTH was based on his own marriage, except the adultery part (then why include it? It barely makes sense in the film) and then hinting that maybe that too was an inspiration.

THE OLD SEX THING AGAIN

McCarey told Charles Laughton that he regretted his philandering, “But here I am sitting next to a pretty girl in the commissary, and I find myself saying to her, ‘You eat your lettuce so pretty.’ I’m love and I can’t help it.”

He also told Bogdanovich that the phone booth scene in MY FAVORITE WIFE in which Cary Grant calls Gail Patrick and says he’s at the airport, then exits his booth and collides with her, really happened to him — but he declined to describe the circumstances.

I guess the sexual ambiguity in MY FAVORITE WIFE is probably just a result of the screwball genre’s burlesquing of societal norms, and a natural response to certain qualities in the Cary Grant persona. MY SON JOHN is harder to account for, and it’s hard to see why the Catholic and avowedly straight Leo would be drawn to such a theme if it had no personal resonance for him. Unless… his brother?

These stories are drawn mainly from Jerome McKeever’s excellent essay cited yesterday. The lurid speculations are my own.

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Fantomas Contre le Phantom

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 5, 2014 by dcairns

fantomas_contre_fantomas

In Part Four of the original FANTOMAS, Inspector Juve, that hard-working plodder, is arrested under suspicion of being his arch-enemy Fantomas. And at a masked ball, several characters appear dressed as the super-villain, in black leggings, shirt, cape, and executioner’s hood.

What strikes me as funny here is the similarity with Blake Edwards’ first PINK PANTHER film, which ends with Clouseau arrested as the Phantom, legendary jewel thief, after a climax at a masquerade where both David Niven and Robert Wagner have disguised themselves as gorillas.

gorillas

Now, Edwards was certainly influenced by TO CATCH A THIEF, which features a famous cat burglar as hero and includes a costume ball as setting for the finale, with undercover cops patrolling the premises in various impractical disguises. But the Fantomas connection seems awfully strong. The clutching hand of Fantomas reaches clean through the twentieth century…

After the Cat

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2009 by dcairns

vlcsnap-614526If you have enjoyed this image, may I recommend Chickens in the Movies by Jon Stephen Fink.

TO CATCH A THIEF is, at times, more than lightly likable. Hitch was on a roll, and if this movie sets him fewer technical and conceptual challenges than his most ambitious works, it nevertheless shows him at such a peak of skill that he and his team can’t go five minutes without achieving a beautiful effect.

Hitch had bought David Dodge’s book for Transatlantic — I wrote here of a precursor to the story — to make as an independent movie, but finally made it as part of his Paramount deal. Cary Grant, a one-time acrobat himself, must have been the first and only choice to play John Robie, acrobat turned cat-burglar turned resistance fighter, now very comfortably retired. And Grace Kelly to play opposite him, naturally.

Fiona hadn’t seen this one in a while, so we watched together. Just as we were enjoying the way the opening titles slant off on the diagonal, following the angle of the shop window, Hitch pulls a fast one, tracking in on the tourist slogan — and we well remember those Cote d’Azur landscapes, so the gesture seems quite unironic — and then he cuts to a screaming woman slathered in expensive face cream, and thence to the subject of her distress, an empty jewelry case — and we’re OFF.

2catch12catch2Fiona couldn’t stop laughing at this Eisensteinian joke for at least a minute afterwards.

Cary Grant, who’s brown as a nut, which makes sense given his choice of retirement home, but is perhaps a bit extreme for Technicolor to cope with in night scenes, is scarcely required to perform any activity more athletic than pouring a brandy, but convinces us of his gymnastic prowess just by the way he crosses a room, Cary Grant, I say, pulls a fast one and eludes the police in a cross-country chase (filmed by helicopter, still a fresh and surprising approach at the time) actually performed by his housekeeper — in the first of a few trick substitutions in John Michael Hayes’ script — Cary Grant, I say again, is rather wonderful here. The plot requires him to catch the real jewel thief plaguing the South of France, in order to avoid arrest himself, which is excuse enough for some light comedy and glamour. It’s odd that any excuse at all should be needed, but somehow it is.

2catch4The caged bird on the bus recalls those love birds leaning into the curves as Tippi speeds along in THE BIRDS… but that’s later. Cary seems to almost notice his director…

Shoring up the comedy is John Williams, sometimes cited as the actor who worked for Hitchcock more than anyone else, although I really must do the math sometime and compare him to John Longden or one of the other forgotten British players from the early days, and then Jessie Royce Landis and Grace Kelly, but first there’s the slight hiccup of the French contingent.

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I have no problem with Brigit Auber, whose French accent is just thick enough to be cute — any thicker and we’d be struggling to maker her out and she’d be struggling to act through it. Her gamine look is tres charmant, although that hairdo only looks really good when she’s wet, as Fiona pointed out. The rest of the time it has an unfortunate air of the tonsure. I wonder Hitchcock didn’t snap up Bardot, but Auber, fresh from Duvivier’s SOUS LE CIEL DE PARIS, is very good. But poor Charles Vanel couldn’t speak English to save his life, so apart from the pleasing Clouzot connection (he made LES DIABOLIQUES the same year), he kind of wrecks his bits. A more dynamic physical presence might have helped too, to serve as a convincing suspect for the Cat. Another odd thing — when Vanel speaks French, he uses his own voice, which means both his timbre and acoustics change whenever he shifts to English.

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It’s the Cary Grant – Grace Kelly chemistry that carries this one, and if you’re immune then the movie will certainly have its longeurs. Hayes writes terrific chat, but sees no reason to have his characters shut up, so the talk goes on a bit. The carnival chase Hitch sliced from the story to save the budget is a loss that’s somewhat missed, I feel. Instead we get what seems like ten minutes of Cary Grant and John Williams discussing the plot over quiche lorraine — a dish which has rather lost its aura of exotic romance, I fear.

But some of the dialogue is very good indeed, especially in the celebrated picnic scene. Grace, having stolen a kiss from Cary at her hotel room door (Fiona reckons this was probably Grace’s real-life technique: pounce, but with class), and helped him escape the police in a high-speed chase along winding mountain roads (basically rehearsing her own death, you can’t help but feel) in a fake car that swivels back and forth as the rear-projected scenery unspools behind them, has now rumbled that he’s Robie the Cat and not Mr Burns, the Oregon logger (Grant: “I must remember to yell ‘Timber!’ occasionally.”) and they spar stylishly over chicken legs in what’s largely a single take, interrupted only by the closer view for the embrace at the end.

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I’d like to lay to rest the idea that the actors improvised this scene — Hitchcock seems to have put this about, explaining that he was so relaxed on the Riviera with familiar actors, that he allowed them to go off the script, contrary to his usual practice. Well, the scene looks to me like a studio insert, for one thing, and for another, the dialogue is extremely tight. I like improvisation as much as the next man, as long as the next man isn’t actually John Cassavetes, but generally it needs to be edited down, and that clearly hasn’t happened here. And we know from elsewhere in Grant’s career that he’s a rather brilliant improv comic, but I still harbour grave doubts that he could pull this one off. And I’m even less inclined to believe Grace could. I think the reason they’re both excellent in this scene is that they have a very fine, very precise script to work off, and that they may have added the odd line, but scarcely enough to make a fuss about, except that it’s Hitchcock and so that’s unusual.

I very much fear that the improvisation story was put about by Hitch to downplay Hayes’ contribution. Hayes would begin to think of himself as an essential part of the team, and reported that when Variety referred to “the next Hitchcock-Hayes project” Hitch couldn’t stand it, and broke off their successful collaboration.

Still, we can all agree it’s a fun scene. Along with the catty battle in the sea at Cannes, it looks like the most fun Cary’s had in a Hitchcock film since the light comedy opening of SUSPICION.

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The big love scene — again using the emerald green light he’s used to signify nights when the Cat is about (movie nights are usually blue, but moonlight is colourless, so green seems just as good a choice) — Hitch intercuts Hayes’s racy dialogue with a fireworks display erupting into orgasm. This displeased the censors, so Hitch placated them by toning down Lyn Murray’s score (Murray would introduce Hitchcock to Bernard Herrmann, thereby making an immeasurable contribution to cinema, and doing himself out of a job, although as a busy TV composer he scored thirty episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including I Saw the Whole Thing, the only episode directed by Hitch). The use of colour, lighting (with Grace’s head fading into shadow, the better to illuminate her jewels and decolletage), special effects, music, dialogue and performance, and that green glow, makes this almost a precursor to VERTIGO’s famous hotel-room tryst, although the emotions are not nearly as dark and complex. If you simply say “fireworks-orgasm,” it sounds a bit silly, but it’s sublime.

And then Jessie’s jewels are stolen and Grace goes off Cary — not for being a thief, but for sleeping with her and betraying her. It’s the closest the film gets to actual emotional darkness, but Hitch and Hayes play it for laughs. Incidentally, I had to keep reminding myself that Grace is supposed to be a spoiled heiress with emotional problems. Her eagerness to join Cary in his supposed career as international mystery burglar is pretty reprehensible, I guess, but she’s so charming and self-possessed, I couldn’t see her as a brat. Fiona thought she was delightful too. Fiona has quite a male brain in some respects (she had it measured once, her brain’s maleness, I mean) so she could totally see the appeal: rich, classy, elegant, beautiful, funny and an easy lay. Aspirations to a life of banditry are easy to overlook when you have all that going for you.

Hayes, a wizard with the verbiage, admitted to being less strong on construction, and it’s possible there’s a flaw in this one. After the one-legged waiter gets offed by cops — the only killing in the film — Cary is exonerated, which effectively lets him out of the story altogether, if he wants. Only a desire for the truth keeps him around. According to the “rules” of classical screenwriting, this is exactly what one doesn’t want to happen. At the second act curtain, the protag and anatag are, strictly speaking, supposed to be locked into their oppositional courses, with no way out possible. This primes the audience to expect an exciting climax in which stuff will get settled, once and for all. Here, the tension is lifted considerably, since Cary is no longer a wanted man, just when it should be intensified. But the effects of Hayes’ violating this gimmick are somewhat interesting.

If we see the film as a romantic comedy, the situation is more tense than if it were a thriller. Cary falls out with both leading ladies, and Hitch switches the focus to Grace Kelly’s character more overtly than he has done so far. The fact that Grant no longer needs to solve the case means he also no longer needs to hang out with the hot rich girl (such demands Hitch places upon his leading men!) and so the love story could end badly. The second benefit Hitch gets from lifting the cops’ suspicions off Cary is that at the end, when he’s picked out by a spotlight on the roof of the villa, he’s suddenly the prime suspect again and his jeopardy is intensified by being a sudden and extreme worsening of the situation.

This sequence, in the aftermath of a fancy dress ball, is not the only thing that makes me think that the movie directly inspired THE PINK PANTHER. The whole plot motor is essentially the same, with a famous and glamorous cat burglar whose inimitable style is copied by an impostor. So Hitchcock has a lot to answer for. If the action climax is a little flat, the movie still gets by on charm and accumulated goodwill, and the return to Cary’s hilltop villa is welcome because it’s one of the loveliest locations in cinema. This movie is as refreshing as a holiday… is supposed to be.

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I don’t generally hold with altering and mutilating old movies, but can I suggest adding a title at the end of this one: “Jessie Royce Landis Will Return In — NORTH BY NORTHWEST!” She deserves the build-up.