Young and Innocent (1937)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Accused of murder, a man escapes custody intent on clearing his name – and his only help comes from the daughter of the local police chief…

No one – well, no one who expects to be taken seriously – is going to pretend that every Beatles song is a classic or that Agatha Christie never had an off-day. However, with these cultural geniuses, even ‘lesser’ works are interesting, sometimes engaging and often entertaining. The same is true of Alfred Hitchcock. He may have been the film director who made more great films than any other, but that doesn’t mean they’re all venerated in the same way.

Young and Innocent, for example, is an enjoyable, diverting and likeable film. Yet it’s rather fallen through the cracks of popular culture, becoming so relatively obscure and forgotten that the DVD used for this blog review gets its title wrong on the menu screen.

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The story is a Hitchcock standard: a man is accused of a crime he didn’t commit so goes on the run. The director rehashed this core idea several times during his career, and for audiences in 1937 this movie must have felt oddly reminiscent of the classic The 39 Steps from just a couple of years earlier. But Young and Innocent is done with enough fun and pace to distract you from the similarities.

The young and innocent man of the title is Robert Tisdall (Derrick De Marney), who discovers a murder victim on a beach but is then suspected by the police when it’s revealed she was killed using his belt. Fearing that circumstantial evidence may convict him, Robert goes on the lam. He hopes to track down the real murderer and soon forms a partnership with the daughter of the local chief constable. At first Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam) helps unwillingly, but then – as is the way with these types of stories – a romance starts to develop…

The pair have chemistry, but if the film has a failing it’s the same one that coincidentally blighted Nova Pilbeam’s previous Hitchcock picture, 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. In that film, she’d played the kidnapped child of a married couple who never seem overly concerned that she’s missing. Now 17 years old and playing an adult, the actress must perform opposite a colleague who similarly underplays the danger and threat. Robert has been accused of a capital crime, but Derrick De Marney is too flippant, too light. 

Nevertheless, Robert and Erica chase down leads to prove that someone else is the killer, and along the way there’s a lot of fun: encounters with ruffians, relatives and a kids’ party, really cute model shots of a train yard and an action scene of a car falling into a collapsing mineshaft. Unlike the source novel, which is whodunit, Hitchcock’s film reveals the killer in the first scene – and it does this because he’s not important. The film isn’t about him or why he strangled the woman. It’s about Robert and Erica and the ‘fun’ of the chase. It’s a shaggy-dog story – the enjoyment is in the telling, not the substance. 

In fact, murderer Guy (George Curzon) doesn’t reappear until near the end of the story when we get the movie’s most famous moment – a dazzling piece of storytelling. Erica and a witness called Old Will (Edward Rigby) are in a posh hotel, keeping their eyes peeled for the man Will saw near the scene of the crime. Their only clue is that the man has a noticeable twitch.

Then in a shot that predates a similar moment in Hitch’s film Notorious by nine years, the camera swoops high above the busy hotel ballroom. It’s a God’s-eye view as we take in the huge space and see the dozens of people dancing and enjoying themselves – is the murderer among them? The camera drifts and drifts and we eventually catch sight of the band playing on the stage – how are they involved? We don’t stop moving. Slowly, methodically, Hitchcock picks out the drummer at the back of the stage – is he the killer? We push in and in and in, and the shot ends with the man’s eyes *filling* the frame. He twitches – we’ve found our man.

Eight guys with a camera out of 10

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The Wrong Man (1956)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

January 1953. A struggling musician is accused of being a criminal…

The Wrong Man is a rare thing indeed: an Alfred Hitchcock film based on a real-life incident. The tale of a man accused of a crime he didn’t commit must have appealed to the director for at least two reasons. Firstly, it gave him a chance to retell his favourite plot: an innocent man being caught up in events beyond his control. But perhaps this movie is also Hitch exorcising a peculiar episode from his childhood.

In the first decade of the 20th century, when Hitchcock was a small boy, he misbehaved. So, wanting to teach him a lesson, his father sent him to the local police station with a note asking the coppers to lock young Alfred up in a prison cell for a few minutes. The scary experience had a long-lasting affect. Even in his advancing years, Hitch was recounting the story in interviews, saying it had given him a healthy fear of the police and of being deprived of his freedom. It’s this fear that powers The Wrong Man.

In need of some cash to help his wife pay a dentists’ bill, jazz bassist Manny Balestrero (Henry Fonda) visits an insurance company’s office to enquire about taking out a loan against her policy. Unfortunately, the women who work there are convinced – incorrectly – that he’s actually a man who robbed them a few weeks previously. It’s simply a matter of mistaken identity, but soon the police pick Manny up off the street and take him in for questioning…

Henry Fonda plays an excellent everyman and elicits a huge amount of sympathy out of Manny’s plight. Early on, we see him flirt with his wife and spend time with his two sons. We quickly, economically see that he’s a good, unpretentious guy. (There is never any suggestion, by the way, that the film is setting up a switcharoo twist. You never doubt Manny’s story.) It’s all the more effective, then, when one evening he’s suddenly arrested and dragged away from his family. Manny helps the police and is accommodating and calm, but he becomes increasingly numb as he’s shuffled through all the legal protocols – being interviewed, being charged, being searched, being locked up, attending a bail hearing, being transferred to a prison, being tried. His sense of hopelessness and fear is enormous.

Crucially, there’s a kind of grim realism going on here that you don’t often get in the razzle-dazzle world of Hitchcock. Rather than rant and rave, or act flippantly, or leap over a barrier and go on the run, Manny does what most innocent people would do when accused with a serious crime: he freezes, he goes pale, he becomes consumed with the dread of what might happen next. Also, the lead police detective (Harold J Stone, excellent) is not a movie-thriller dullard or a ‘bad guy’; he’s a smart, fair man doing a decent job. It’s not his fault that several (misleading) pieces of evidence suggest Manny is guilty. Likewise, Manny’s lawyer – the real-life Frank O’Connor played by Anthony Quayle – feels like a person who exists on his own terms rather than a theatrical character.

The plot also has a very affecting impact on Manny’s family. In the second half of the film, as he prepares for the defence at his trial, his wife suffers a breakdown. Rose is played by Vera Miles, who had most recently been spirited and likeable in John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers (1956). She is the film’s secret weapon, providing a subplot you don’t see coming and which ratchets up the stakes without any melodrama. Hitchcock was so impressed with her turn in The Wrong Man – especially her haunted performance once Rose can’t cope with the pressure and starts to shut down – that he gave her a five-year contract and cast her as the lead in his next movie, Vertigo (which she didn’t end up doing, but that’s another story).

All these cliché-avoiding choices give the film a depth and a breadth that the genre doesn’t usually demand. We also get a lot of real locations, rather than the artificial world created on Hollywood sound stages. Doubly real, in fact: not only are they not movie sets, but several places – the Stork Club, a prison, a sanatorium – are where the actual events really took place.

The movie’s refusal to glam up the story even extends to the resolution, which comes suddenly and fortuitously. A shot of Manny crossfades slowly to a shot of character haven’t seen before. As the man walks towards the camera, his face lines up with the fading image of Manny’s – and we realise that this lookalike is the real crook. When he attempts another robbery, he’s apprehended and arrested and Manny is off the hook. Maybe it’s fate; maybe it’s his Catholic prayers being answered. But he finally has his freedom back.

Nine Alfred Hitchcocks actually appearing on screen at the start of the film to tell you that The Wrong Man is based on a true story out of 10

Son of Dracula (1943, Robert Siodmak)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Contemporary America.

Faithful to the novel? This is the third movie in Universal Pictures’ Dracula series, following the Bela Lugosi original and its 1936 sequel. So we’re a way past the plot of Bram Stoker’s book (which actually exists in this story). The enigmatic foreigner Count Alucard (Lon Chaney Jr) has been wooing an American heiress called Kay (Louise Allbritton) and arrives at her New Orleans plantation just before her father dies. Suspicion obviously falls on the mysterious visitor, with Kay’s sister (Evelyn Ankers) and local doctor Harry Brewster (Frank Craven) especially keen to work out what happened. (Brewster had already clocked the oddity that Alucard’s name spelt backwards reads Dracula. The film presents conflicting evidence on whether the character is meant to be the Dracula from the original film resurrected or – as the title suggests – his descendant.) Before they can crack the case, however, Alucard marries Kay and takes over as master of the plantation. Then, in a rage, her ex-boyfriend Frank (Robert Paige) attempts to shoot Alucard but accidentally hits Kay – and seemingly kills her. When she later turns up, we realise that she’s been turned into a vampire…

Best performance: When Universal first put a Dracula movie into production, horror icon Lon Chaney was their first choice to play the vampire. However, he died of cancer in August 1930 and Bela Lugosi was cast in his place. Now, Chaney’s son – who was then well known as The Wolf Man in another Universal series – takes over the role. Sadly it’s a pretty neutral performance, lacking either menace or romance. He wears a cape but doesn’t attempt an eastern European accent. Much better is Frank Craven as Dr Brewster. He’s the story’s Van Helsing equivalent, the man who takes up the challenge of investigating and defeating the vampire threat. As he doesn’t have Van Helsing’s prior knowledge of the undead, he calls in a Transylvanian called Professor Lazlo (J Edward Bromberg) to provide the plot exposition.

Best bit: There are several instances of Dracula or Kay morphing into or from the form of a bat or a cloud of smoke. The special effects are very impressive.

Review: The functional direction and under-rehearsed performances are a shame, as the story has the potential for Gothic grandeur. A mysterious outsider enthralling a vulnerable young woman and taking over her family’s rambling estate could be straight out of a Victorian melodrama. But rather than tension or drama, most of the movie’s atmosphere comes from Hans J Salter’s stirring incidental music. In the film’s favour, a nice twist comes when we learn that, rather than a meek, naïve victim, Kay has been manipulating Alucard. She pretended to fall under his spell so he would turn her and grant her immortality, then her plan was to dispose of the Count and live forever with her true love, Frank.

Six earthbound spirits whose bodies comes to life at night and scour the countryside, satisfying a ravenous appetite for the blood of the living out of 10

Marnie (1964)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A con artist is rumbled by a businessman who then tries to help her with her psychological issues…

Much like its lead character, the movie Marnie is complex, fascinating and often admirable – but there’s also something very wrong. It’s the story of a damaged woman who’s a thief and a liar and has many deep-rooted problems stemming from a childhood trauma. But sadly it’s also the story of the man who attempts to ‘fix her’ via simplistic therapy and misogyny.

This project had a long gestation. Initially, Alfred Hitchcock planned it as his next production after Psycho (1960), but the script took a while to come into focus and eventually went through three writers. For the all-important title character, the director hoped for a huge casting coup: his former muse Grace Kelly, who’d retired from acting in 1955, was keen on a Hollywood comeback. It would have been an interesting role for her, one very different from her three previous Hitchcock characters. However, she then pulled out of the project, worried about how such a provocative movie would be taken in her new home of Monaco. Various other names were considered for the part – Marilyn Monroe, Eva Marie Saint, Lee Remick, Vera Miles and others – until, while filming The Birds in 1962, Hitchcock decided to cast its leading lady for a second time.

Tippi Hedren has always maintained that Marnie is her favourite of all her films – despite the fact she and Hitchcock fell out during filming – and it’s easy to see why. She gives a sensational performance, which is both dynamic and dangerous. She plays the eponymous Marnie Edgar, who drifts from town to town, gets jobs at high-flying firms, rips them off and does a runner. But when she shows up at a new company in Philadelphia, boss Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) recognises her from a previous encounter and twigs that she’s hiding something…

Connery was then two films into his original stint as James Bond, and he looks the part of a dashing movie star. But for some reason he doesn’t quite gel in this role. Maybe it’s the incongruous accent (to try to explain it away, the character is given a British father played by Alfred from the 1960s Batman TV show), maybe it’s his age (Connery was only 33), but he’s rather miscast as a Pennsylvanian widower from the American aristocracy. It also doesn’t help that the character is lumbered with a storyline that is at best naïve and at worst exceedingly sinister.

Marnie the movie is an attempt at some rigorous psychology. Its lead character has turned to crime in order to compensate for something lacking her life. She has a troubled, seemingly hollow relationship with her mother; she has a pathological hatred of men touching her; and she suffers from panic attacks when confronted with the colour red. The script holds back the reason for these issues until the final act when we learn that, as a child, she killed a pervert (Bruce Dern) who was attacking her prostitute mother.

But when Mark Rutland takes a shine to new employee Marnie, even though he’s worked out that she’s stolen from his company safe, he decides to help her. It’s presented mostly as curiosity and affection, but there’s more than a hint that he’s sexually attracted by the danger. And in 21st-century terms his help amounts to nothing less than abuse. He essentially blackmails her into starting a relationship with him and even marrying him. Then, on their honeymoon, while she cowers and shakes with fear, he rips off her nightdress and rapes her.

The first person to work Marnie up into a screenplay – Evan Hunter, who also wrote The Birds – was fired from the project when he left the rape scene out of his draft. It appears in the source material, a novel by the British writer Winston Graham, but Hunter argued that there’d be no way back for Mark as a character if he did something so despicable. Hitchcock disagreed. So did Hunter’s replacement, Jay Presson Allen, who gladly included it in her rewrite. (Disturbingly, given some of the accusations made about Hitchcock down the years, Hunter later said the rape scene had been the primary reason why the director had wanted to make the film. ‘When he sticks it in her,’ Hitch had told him, ‘I want that camera right on her face.’)

If that wasn’t bad enough – which it is – the film also has a ham-fisted approach to trauma therapy. Marnie is forced into a cathartic remembrance of what happened when she was a child… and then all is fine and she and Mark walk off into the sunset. Psychoanalysts scoff at this moment. So should we. Most Hitchcock films might get away with this kind of simplicity, but that’s because we understand the popcorn context. Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest is a cartoon character, a precursor of James Bond, so we don’t especially fret when his life is threatened or when he’s framed for murder. Margot Wendice is put through a horrifying time in Dial M for Murder – attacked in her home, forced to kill a man in self-defence, jailed despite her innocence – but she’s essentially a character in a Cluedo-style parlour game. She only exists for the 100 minutes she’s on screen.

Marnie Edgar, however, is a woman with a life, with baggage, and we feel for her desperately. She’s been severely damaged by the actions of one sexual pest and is now being groomed by another. Tippi Hedron deserved huge credit for making her so watchable and both strong and vulnerable at the same time.

But while its treatment of its lead character is antiquated and objectionable, much more impressive is the movie’s style. Early in his career, Alfred Hitchcock worked in the German film industry, where he directed his first full-length film, The Pleasure Garden (1925), and the buzz and innovation of Weimar Republic cinema had a lasting impression. ‘I worked there for many months,’ Hitch said in a 1960s interview. ‘And I was able to absorb a lot of the methods and style.’

In Marnie, as in many Hitchcock films, you can see the influence of German Expressionism, a style that dramatises stories, characters and settings in non-realistic ways. It uses lighting, set design, editing, costumes and all the other tools of filmmaking to turn subjective emotion into something that can be *seen* and which has a physical affect on the world of the fiction. (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), for example, takes place on off-kilter, out-of-proportion sets in order to reflect the twisted story and the unbalanced characters.)

The most obvious piece of Expressionism in the present movie is the use of the colour red. Whenever she sees it, Marnie has a physical reaction. She pulls away, scared, at the sight of ink spilt on her blouse, for example, or the polka dots of a jockey’s silk. But it’s not just the acting that tells us she’s suffering: the screen becomes infused with a crimson wash. It’s not ‘literal’; it’s not actually happening in the diegetic world of the story. It’s Hitchcock using a cinematic device to *show* us her emotional state. (Not that every visual in Marnie is for art’s sake. The indoor sets for exterior scenes and the painfully dated backscreen projection for car journeys are most likely just down to Hitchcock’s dislike of location filming.)

There are other more trad, yet still tremendous, sequences in the film too. Marnie stealing from the Rutland & Co safe is a tension-sustainer of the highest order – complete with the absurd detail of her nearly being rumbled by a deaf cleaner – while the death of a beloved horse is genuinely moving and sees Hedren’s acting reach a fever pitch of emotion. The climactic flashback, which shows us Marnie’s violent experience as a child, is also very impressive – not least the fact that the scene begins with a disorientating zoom-in-and-track-out shot that seems to place the events inside a nightmare.

It’s an odd mixture of genres, this film – part psycho-drama, part perverted romance, part heist movie. The central storyline has many troubling issues, especially when viewed today in the era of #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein, but Tippi Hedren’s superb performance and the general flair of the filmmaking means it’s still worth seeing.

Eight men in a corridor out of 10

The Skin Game (1931)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A rivalry between two families leads to a dangerous secret being revealed…

When this movie was made, audible dialogue was still something of a novelty. The opening title cards, in fact, advertise that it’s ‘a talking film’. But to modern ears, you sometimes wish it were silent: the first scene is an awful clipped and stilted chat between two young people from rival families. You half expect Miles Cholmondley-Warner to wander in.

The plot concerns some farming land, which has been sold on the proviso that the existing tenants are allowed to stay. When the new owners renege on the deal, however, it causes tensions. And this leads to the murky past of the new owner’s daughter, Chloe (Phyllis Konstam), being revealed: she once earnt money by pretending to be the ‘other woman’ in divorce cases.

The obvious theme hanging over the film is a fear of progress, of industry, of change. A bucolic landscape could soon be eaten up by new smoky, mucky, dirty factories; ‘scandal’ could soon destroy a family’s all-important reputation. But it’s fairly run-of-the-mill stuff. Some interest comes from the casting of Edmund Gwenn – later Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – as the nouveau riche Mr Hornblower. He’s reprising the role from a silent 1921 version of the same story.

Four trees in Longmeadow out of 10

Rope (1948)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After committing murder, two men stash the body in a trunk and then invite the victim’s loved ones round for a party…

The most striking aspect of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope is not that it’s the director’s first Technicolor film after 35 made in black and white, or the fact that the story is based on a real-life case of two young men who murdered someone as an intellectual exercise, but that the movie is in real time and is mostly presented as if it were one long unedited take – kind of like a sentence without a full stop – as the camera roves ceaselessly around a Manhattan apartment while its occupants host a dinner party with the corpse of a recent murder victim lying in a nearby chest, and also that this technique works so well you soon forget that a conventional movie would be cutting between different shots and between different rooms of the apartment rather than everything having the appearance and flow of a stage play (incidentally, the script was based on a 1929 stage production), but instead of a hindrance, this stylistic gimmick gives the film an extra level of tension – the longer the continuous shot goes on, the more vividly we fret that the crime committed by Brandon (John Dall, superbly smarmy) and Phillip (Farley Grainger, nervy and guilty) will be discovered – as well as a chance for us to appreciate what a monumental effort this movie must have been to rehearse and stage, though when you do pay attention to the craft of the filmmaking it soon becomes clear that Rope *isn’t* one long take with no edits at all because every 10 minutes or so Hitchcock needed to disguise a change of shot (the timing was dictated by how much film could fit into a 35mm camera), so in most of these instances the camera closes in on a character’s back or some other material that will black out the whole frame for a beat and allow editor William H Ziegler to subtly cut to the next section, but there are additionally a few key moments when Hitchcock simply switches conventionally to a new camera angle. These unexpected hard cuts were positioned strategically to help cinema projectionists change reels, but they have enormous dramatic weight because, of course, by the time they come along we’ve fallen into the rhythm of the film, which is fluid and real-time and dictated by actors’ performances and camera movement rather than editing, and to jolt us out of that mind-set really highlights an important line or reaction, such as when Brandon and Phillip’s old tutor Rupert Cadell (James Stewart, slightly miscast but reliably watchable) first suspects that something is amiss after Phillip becomes increasingly nervous and drunk and angrily denies that he once strangled a chicken on a farm, and then we cut suddenly to a reaction shot of an intrigued Rupert, though the character’s sense of curiosity soon morphs into dread as he begins to put the clues together and work out what’s happened, and this is where the gentle façade of the film and its fun, parlour-game conceit of ‘Will they get rumbled?’ – and, of course, the entertaining gimmick of the long takes – is superseded by an extra level of suspense and we watch closely as Rupert probes and questions like a classic detective, eking out the sordid truth of what Brandon and Phillip have done, which is to say strangle an innocent man with a piece of rope and then ghoulishly invite his friend, his father, his aunt and his girlfriend round to have drinks served over his hidden corpse – all done as an ‘intellectual’ exercise, to see whether it could be done, which is about as perverted and immoral as any crime in Hitchcock’s canon (at least Norman Bates is ill; at least the killer in Dial M for Murder wants money) so when Brandon attempts to justify his action academically – arguing with Rupert and the victim’s poor, unsuspecting father that murder can be an art form if carried out by ‘superior men’ and if the victim is an ‘inferior’ – we the audience are placed in a tricky position because the usual effect of a movie such as Rope, where we see events from the bad guys’ point of view, is to turn us into accomplices and encourage us to side with the villains and hope they get away with whatever they’re doing, but here Brandon and Phillip – especially Brandon – are openly espousing fascism, so something smart happens at the midway point of the story and that’s that our sympathies and empathies switch across to Rupert (the other party guests, meanwhile, drift away and never learn what’s happened) and he acts like a detective in a mystery story and he questions Brandon and Phillip and he challenges their story and he finds the victim’s hat in the apartment and he leaves the party then returns later in order to talk to Brandon and Phillip alone and the tension in the air is immense and Rupert drops hints that he knows what they’ve done and Brandon can’t resist betraying his perverted, perhaps sexual excitement at being caught and Phillip is a broken man and Rupert walks to the chest and he opens it and he sees the body and the noise of the city outside gets louder and the neon lights across the street pulse through the windows and he finds the rope used to kill and he shoots a gun to attract attention and we hear police sirens approaching – 

Ten silhouettes out of 10

Scooby-Doo! and the Reluctant Werewolf (1988, Ray Patterson)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Modern-day America, then Castle Dracula and its surroundings in Transylvania.

Faithful to the novel? Nah, course not. The character of Scooby-Doo – a semi-anthropomorphised Great Dane – was created for American kids’ TV in the late 1960s. Initially conceived as a sidekick for a human gang of amateur crime-solvers who investigated spooky goings-on, he became the star of the 1969/70 animated series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and then appeared in a plethora of further series, one-offs, direct-to-video specials and live-action movies. This special was produced in 1988. As usual, Scooby (voiced by Don Messick) is hanging out with his owner/old buddy/old friend/old pal Shaggy (Casey Kasem), a stoned slacker who never seems in total command of his surroundings. The pair are accompanied by Scrappy-Doo (also Messick), Scooby’s puppy nephew who had been added to the format in 1979 but proved controversial so tended not to be used after this special. (The other famous members of the gang – Fred, Daphne and Velma – aren’t involved.) In his spooky, Gothic castle in Transylvania, Count Dracula needs a werewolf to take part in a motor race where all the drivers are monsters. Voiced by Hamilton Camp, Dracula is green-skinned like a corpse, has a Bela Lugosi accent and a cape, and can transform into a bat. Sunblock 500 also means he can be out in the daylight. Luckily, a prophecy has predicted that a man in America – who we recognise as Shaggy – is about to be transformed into a werewolf so the Count order two sidekicks called Brunch and Crunch to kidnap him. Meanwhile, Shaggy and Scooby are competing in a car race of their own; they’re cheered on by Shaggy’s ‘adoring but liberated’ girlfriend, Googie (BJ Ward), who’s then on a date with him when that night’s moonshine ‘turns’ him. Eventually, after Brunch and Crunch have nabbed the trio and taken them to Castle Dracula, Shaggy is convinced to take part in the Monster Rally, racing against various other monsters. However, Dracula wants him to lose, so starts to sabotage his attempt…

Best performance: As well as Dracula, there are some other stereotypical monsters involved in the story – Frankenstein’s monster and his bride, Swamp Thing, some witches, a skeleton called Mr Bonejangles, a Mummy, a version of Jekyll/Hyde. But the most entertaining character is Brunch, a hunchbacked dwarf who wears a monocle, has a thin moustache and speaks like David Niven. He’s voiced entertainingly by Rob Paulsen.

Best bit: Dracula’s sexy assistant, Vanna Pira (Pat Musick), acts like a game-show dollybird when she talks about the prizes available to the Monster Rally drivers.

Review: Draculas – whether the actual Count, his relatives, or people using his image as a disguise – have cropped up a lot in Scooby-Doo stories over the years. A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts – the 11th episode of original series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? – saw the regular characters visit a spooky castle and encounter the famous vampire (or so they think). Later, in an episode of The New Scooby and Scrappy Doo Show (1983) called Who’s Minding the Monster?, Scooby and his pals are hired to babysit the Dracula family’s children in Frankenstein Castle. The following year, A Halloween Hassle at Dracula’s Castle – the eighth episode of The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries (1984) – has the gang invited to a party hosted by monsters who need help because they’re being haunted (or so they think) by the ghost of Dr Van Helsing. Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School is a 1988 TV movie that sees Scooby, Shaggy and Scrappy work at a school for the children of various monsters, including Dracula. An episode of A Pup Named Scooby-Doo (1988-91) called Dog Gone Scooby features a cameo from the Count. And Music of the Vampire, a 2012 direct-to-video film, is set at a vampire museum run by a guy called Vincent van Helsing (as well as having another character called Bram). So The Reluctant Werewolf is not doing anything stonkingly original. It’s a very silly and very throwaway animation that, while passable fun, sadly outstays its welcome. A very thin story is stretched out to 90 minutes, and the Wacky Races-style Monster Rally really does seem like it’s never going to end. But there are some funny moments along the way.

Six bat burgers (a little undercooked) out of 10

My 10 favourite John Carpenter films

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To celebrate the 71st birthday of film director John Carpenter, here’s a list of what I think are his 10 best films.

10. Prince of Darkness (1987)
A group of post-grad students spend the night in an old church to investigate a mysterious cylinder which may contain the essence of Satan. As you’d imagine, things soon start to go wrong… It’s a film full of fascinating ideas and themes – real science, empiricism, religious mythology, dreams, time-travel, a cameo from Alice Cooper – but sadly not enough storytelling focus. The second half of the film gets quite intense and features some really out-there horror, but none of the characters is compelling enough for us to care.

9. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Carpenter’s love letter to kung-fu movies is a breathlessly directed comedy. It gets quite samey in the middle, but it’s often fun and is worth seeing for the amazing sets and Kurt Russell’s subversively inept action hero.

8. The Thing (1982)
A remake of a famous 50s B-movie, this has brilliantly bizarre monster make-up and special effects. It’s also tense and claustrophobic. Shame we don’t care more about the large cast of all-male characters, though.

7. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Carpenter’s first mainstream film. (He’d previously directed Dark Star (1975), a low-budget sci-fi comedy that spoofs 2001: A Space Odyssey but replaces the awe and wonder with mundanity.) It’s a Western-style siege plot, but the story plays out in a grimy, gritty, modern-day inner city. There’s bad dialogue and flat performances all over the place, but you’re pulled through by the amazing incidental music, the bursts of ultraviolence and the general sense of menace.

6. They Live (1988)
A sci-fi actioner about a man who uncovers an alien conspiracy in modern-day LA. The social satire is very good, as is the visual device of sunglasses allowing you to see the truth. Again, it’s a shame about the lacklustre characters. There’s also a punch-up that seems to last about half an hour.

5. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
A sweet if overly lightweight Chevy Chase comedy-thriller. The story’s slight and predictable, but the special effects are wonderful. The film was made slightly before the digital revolution, so we get a fun mixture of practical and optical tricks – all inventive. (Sadly, nothing Carpenter’s done since this film is worth seeing. Especially bad are the cheesy Vampires (1998) and the dunderheaded Ghosts of Mars (2001).)

4. Starman (1984)
A very charming film about an alien (an endearingly childlike Jeff Bridges) stranded on Earth. It’s not just the story’s similarity to ET that makes you think of Steven Spielberg; it’s the sense of wonder too (and the presence of Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s Karen Allen, excellent as the widow who helps the alien get home).

3. Escape From New York (1981)
A brilliantly cynical sci-fi thriller set in a dystopian 1997. Kurt Russell plays former special forces soldier Snake Plissken (‘I heard you were dead…’), who’s coerced into a mission to rescue the US President (Donald Pleasance) when he crash-lands in a city-wide, lawless prison. Dark, twisted and a lot of fun. (Avoid the belated sequel, though.)

2. The Fog (1980)
A gorgeously atmospheric ghost story about a coastal town being terrorised by a century-old secret. There’s an ensemble cast of interesting characters and everything is so eerily evocative. Despite very little explicit horror – there’s almost no gore – it’s extremely scary and tense. Beautifully filmed too.

1. Halloween (1978)
This is a stripped-down, economical movie: trim, taut and terrifically constructed. For a film about a violent killer, there’s actually little gore on display; Halloween is more about tension and scares. In her first ever movie, Jamie Lee Curtis is very good as virginal lead character Laurie Strode; Donald Pleasance adds a bit of class as Michael’s manic psychiatrist, Dr Loomis; and the excellent incidental music (written by the director) is both creepy and catchy.

Rear Window (1954)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

While recuperating after breaking his leg, photographer LB Jefferies spends his days watching his neighbours… But then he starts to suspect that one of them is a murderer…

Rear Window is cinema’s most insightful use of point of view, so much so that it’s pretty much become the textbook example of how the form can tell stories through its characters’ eyes. The story concerns a housebound photographer called LB Jefferies (James Stewart, excellent), who idles away his boring days during a New York heat wave by watching his neighbours from his apartment window. He acts as our proxy as we watch them too: the lonely spinster, the kooky married couple with a dog, the wannabe musician, the flirtatious party girl. The camera never leaves the apartment once during the entire film, so we’re stuck there with Jefferies and his broken leg. He’s a voyeur and so are we.

We experience the story with him, see what he sees, hear what he hears – and crucially we *don’t* see or hear anything he doesn’t. So when Jefferies fears that one of his neighbours – a burly, sour man played by Raymond Burr – has killed his wife and hidden the body, he’s basing his suspicion on evidence that we’ve been privy to. No more, no less. He shares his theory with his housekeeper and his society girlfriend, but neither Stella (Thelma Ritter, sly and fun) nor Lisa (Grace Kelly, *radiant*) is convinced. 

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Nevertheless, the two women agree to investigate. And as Jefferies watches them cross the communal compound to scout out the neighbour’s home, we’re watching them too – from the same vantage point, with the same perspective on events, with the same blend of curiosity and helplessness…

This film is patently magnificent. It has a terrific cast. It’s suspenseful and a huge amount of fun. It’s easily one of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterworks. And it takes place on perhaps the greatest set ever built for a Hollywood movie. A large and complex Manhattan courtyard surrounded by multi-storey buildings was constructed at Paramount’s studios in LA. Designed by J MacMillian Johnson, it cost around a quarter of the entire production budget.

The space acts like an inverted theatre where there’s only audience member (Jefferies/us) but a panoramic stage filling a 180-degree view. There’s an amazing amount of depth and texture – just check out the busy street you occasionally glimpse between buildings. There’s real verticality too. The set of Jefferies’s apartment was actually built at ground level: the impression of it being on an upper storey was achieved by digging a hole in the studio floor for the courtyard.

But for all the detail and scale on show, the camera never visits the courtyard or the other buildings. We never leave Jefferies and the inside of the apartment, so we only see the bulk of the set and all of its dramas through Jefferies’s living-room window. He’s a passive viewer, an observer who can’t directly influence what‘s going on through the window. He can only watch and experience events vicariously. Sound familiar? Well, as many people have pointed out, it can’t be a coincidence that Jefferies’s window resembles the ratio of a cinema film.

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Hitchcock is deliberately equating his lead character with a film audience. After all, the whole point of cinema is to watch people who don’t know they’re being watched, and to get pleasure and excitement from this act of voyeurism. Indeed, at certain points of the film, photographer Jefferies gets out his telephoto lens in order to see events in close-up: it’s not just a pragmatic decision; it feels like he *needs* to see more. 

So let’s go off on a minor tangent to talk about the size of the screen in Hitchcock’s work in general.

Every single movie Hitchcock ever made was shot onto 35mm negative film, and for the first thirty years of his career he used what was then an orthodox aspect ratio. Early films were projected at 1.33:1, which is to say the width of the image was a third more than its height, or occasionally 1.20:1 (the width being 20 per cent more than the height). In 1934, Hitchcock switched to the slightly wider 1.37:1. This ratio is called Academy, and was the standard American film format from its inception in 1932. Hitch used it for every movie from Waltzes From Vienna until 1953’s I Confess.

But then, like Hollywood in general, Hitchcock went widescreen in the 1950s. American studios became increasingly keen on visually dynamic movies. The primary reason was as a way of competing with the threat of television, a medium that was eating into movie studios’ profits. Widescreen images and colour were the things TV couldn’t provide, so naturally more and more widescreen and colour films were released. There was actually a short-lived vogue in the 1950s for bombastically wide formats such as Cinerama or 70mm, which tested audiences’ neck muscles and peripheral vision to the limit. Just look at this ridiculous composition from the 1962 Cinerama film How the West Was Won. (The man in the centre of the frame is Rear Window star James Stewart.)

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Hitchcock resisted these extremes, perhaps because he knew that – while great for landscapes and action – they were less good on close-ups, tension and claustrophobia. But that didn’t mean that he didn’t evolve. For 1954’s Dial M for Murder, the director used Warner Brothers’ 3-D cameras. The 3-D aspect of the image was largely a gimmick, however, and precious little is lost when you view the movie today without it.

But while stereoscopy was a passing fad (‘It’s a nine-day wonder,’ quipped Hitch, ‘and I came in on the ninth day…’), Dial M was significant because it was designed to be projected at a whopping aspect ratio of 1.85:1. In other words, the image on the cinema screen was nearly twice as wide as it was high – certainly something audiences weren’t getting at home on TV. Later that year, Rear Window was a still impressively wide 1.66:1, but Hitch then went all-in with 1.85:1 and stuck with these dimensions for the rest of his career. He also began to use VistaVision, a film process that shot images with normal lenses onto 35mm film but gained a high level of detail by orientating the negative horizontally and therefore exposing a larger area. The format lasted for just seven years, but in that time Hitchcock used its rich lustre and glamorous sparkle for To Catch a Thief, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo and North by Northwest.

So Rear Window came on the cusp of the widescreen revolution, a period of Hollywood history that shifted the default cinema image from nearly square to nearly rectangular. But does it make a difference? Would the film have still worked just as well if shot in the Academy aspect ratio?

Yes, it would still be enthralling, addictive, effective and fascinating. But the widescreen image gives the film an extra level of magnificence. One reason is basic aesthetic taste: it just looks better. But another is more primal. A human being’s typical field of vision is 135 degrees along the vertical axis and 200 degrees from side to side. Or to put it in a cinematographically relevant term, we see in 1.48:1.

Rear Window, at 1.66:1, pushes the image wider, meaning we can’t take all the information in at once – our curiosity is never sated, we never feel in total control, and we can’t stop *looking*.

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Ten men adjusting a clock out of 10

Acknowledgment: I recommend this lecture, given by Thea Marshall-Behrendt in 2015, which helped me clarify some opinions and from which I drew some factual information: https://ksamaarchvis.wordpress.com/2015/12/08/the-importance-of-set-design-in-hitchcocks-rear-window/

 

30 Years of Agatha Christie’s Poirot

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In early 1989, I was nearly 10 years old. My mother was – and still is – an Agatha Christie fan, so when she spotted that a new TV series based on Christie’s work was starting on ITV, she suggested we watch it together. Agatha Christie’s Poirot was first shown on Sunday 8 January. It was a detective show with ingenious scripts, a brilliant regular cast, and wonderful production values. Each episode was a self-contained mystery plot (usually a murder mystery) adapted from an Agatha Christie short story or novel and featuring one of her greatest creations, the private detective Hercule Poirot. I loved it immediately.

Initially, the creative forces behind the scenes were producer Brian Eastman and writer Clive Exton, who between them set the tone and format and look for the show. Exton wrote many early episodes himself and also script-edited other writers, including David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave, Jonathan Creek) and Anthony Horowitz (Crime Traveller, Foyle’s War). When setting up the series, the two men made several masterstroke decisions. One was to move every story to a mid-1930s setting. Agatha Christie’s original stories take place across a half-century spread, but here the writers set almost every episode in 1936 or 1937. (An adaptation of the first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was kept in 1917 as a kind of flashback special. There was also an episode telling us about Poirot’s pre-war life as a Belgian policeman.)

If this created a rather head-scratching timeline – in just a couple of years, Hercule Poirot solves more than 60 complex cases, has a temporary retirement to the country, and makes several lengthy overseas trips – it was really worth it, because it meant the show could take place in a gorgeous Art Deco world. Episodes glisten with beautiful sets, costumes and locations that evoke a fantasyland Britain of ornate architecture, sleek 1930s cars, trains and powerboats, post-flapper fashions and modernist art. (Eastman and Exton later pulled the same trick with Jeeves & Wooster, ITV’s hootful adaptation of PG Wodehouse.)

Another insightful and cheerishable decision by the creative team was to establish three other regular characters, creating a team of sidekicks around the central detective character of Poirot. This trio came from Christie’s work, for sure, but Eastman and Exton chose to insert them into stories in which they didn’t originally appear. A radical decision, but an immensely wise one, as it created not only continuity across the episodes but a loveable gang of friends we enjoy hanging out with.

And casting of those four regular characters was absolutely perfect.

There have been many great fictional crime-solvers on television – Columbo, both incarnations of Morse, the recent Sherlock, Christopher Foyle – but the finest and the most entertaining is the fastidious, pedantic, perceptive, idiosyncratic, iconoclastic, kind, generous, insightful, arrogant, vain, Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot as played by David Suchet.

The character had debuted in Christie’s first ever novel and went on to appear in 32 more, as well as a few dozen short stories and a stage play. When he was cast in the role in 1988, Suchet read all of these stories and noted down 93 specific details about the detective gleaned from Christie’s text. The first one was ‘Belgian! NOT French.’ The actor quickly gained a reputation for fiercely protecting the all-important specifics of Poirot: the way he walked, the way he spoke, the look of his moustaches and suits. Therefore the TV version of the character stayed reasonably close to his prose origins. Even so, Suchet added a huge amount of depth, texture and enjoyable humour too. He took a character who’s compelling enough to read in a novel or short story, and brought him to life and made him feel real. In each and every scene, you can’t take your eyes off Poirot. It’s one of the *the* great performances in British TV history.

As mentioned, in most episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot made in the 20th century, there’s also a recurring group of allies. Hugh Fraser played the stoic, brave and affable Captain Arthur Hastings, a man invalided out of the First World War who became Poirot’s right-hand man, confidant and sounding board. (He’s often the audience’s proxy, asking the obvious questions and jumping to the wrong conclusions. But you always love him for his naivety.) Cast as Miss Felicity Lemon, Poirot’s endlessly efficient secretary, was Pauline Moran, who added withering sarcasm to the character’s primness and poise. Scotland Yard’s Detective Chief Inspector James Japp, meanwhile, was played with gruffness, guile and ramshackle charm by Philip Jackson. None of these sidekicks appears in every episode, but you always miss them when they’re not involved. They’re absolutely brilliant.

Yet another masterful decision made early on concerned the adaptations. The scripts were faithful to Agatha Christie’s originals… to a point. They retained the spirit and essence of Christie – the perfectly engineered plots, the mysteries, the clues, the vivid guest characters, the drama, the wit – but often made *numerous* changes. Almost every episode in the show’s first five years, for example, was based on a short story – and some of Agatha’s short stories were very short indeed. The episodes clearly needed expanding. Sometimes these extra subplots came organically out of what Christie had written. Or they could be period colour – scenes at a 1930s film studio, for example, or in the nightclubs of Chinatown. Often they were just unashamedly comedic. Whether it was Japp misunderstanding what a bidet is, or Miss Lemon spending an entire episode looking for some lost keys, these embellishments are just as important as the murders and the suspects and the country houses.

There were, however, changes as the series developed. Occasional feature-length specials were added to the mix, then became the norm when the well of short stories had dried up. A new regime at ITV insisted that Hastings, Japp and Lemon were dropped – unceremoniously and regrettably – after the 2002 special Murder in Mesopotamia. The episodes became more filmic and more ostentatiously star-studded. And two new occasional characters were introduced: Zoe Wanamaker’s Ariadne Oliver (a mystery-story writer who Agatha Christie fairly obviously styled on herself) and Poirot’s unflappable valet, George (David Yelland). The quality remained, but in a different way. There were still many fine and enjoyable episodes, but they were a touch more earnest and perhaps less charming.

For quarter of a century, the show adapted Hercule Poirot’s entire canon. (Well, nearly. A short story or two slipped through the net. The stageplay was ignored.) Then it came to an end on 13 November 2013 with Curtain, an episode based on the novel that details Poirot’s final case…

Agatha Christie is the single most successful author in history. The fact usually trotted out in these circumstances is that her catalogue has been outsold by only the Bible and William Shakespeare. It’s such a well-quoted detail that maybe we’re numbed to its power, so let’s emphasise: that is a *monumental* achievement. Of every novelist there’s ever been, in any language you care to mention, at any point in history, Agatha Christie is the best-selling. And she didn’t publish anything until Shakespeare had been dead for three centuries.

Her work has been adapted into films and television shows countless times. Some of them are good, some of them are bad. But the David Suchet series Agatha Christie’s Poirot is easily the best.