The Man Who Knew Too Much (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.

A couple’s young son is kidnapped to prevent them from revealing some dangerous information…

Alfred Hitchcock once said he wasn’t ‘audience conscious’ when, in 1934, he first made a film called The Man Who Knew Too Much. But 22 years and 25 movies later, he directed a loose remake. It was produced at the height of his Hollywood popularity and power, and as well as the many cosmetic or production differences from the original – colour! Widescreen! Americans! – there was also a significantly different script.

Writer John Michael Hayes was told not to view the 1930s movie or read its script, so instead he worked off an outline told to him verbally by Hitchcock. The result is the same vague storyline: an innocent couple on holiday stumble across some dangerous information and their child is kidnapped to stop them from talking. But the plot has been rejigged and the trappings moved around. One reason for this was to give the father character more action – Hitch argued that if you’ve cast James Stewart, you can’t lock him up for as long as Leslie Banks was in the original.

This was Stewart’s third role for Alfred Hitchcock, after a key supporting character in Rope and the lead in Rear Window. A charismatic powerhouse, Stewart was perhaps the best ‘everyman’ Hollywood’s ever had. He possessed an amazing ability to play decent, likeable men who wear their intelligence lightly. Here, he’s Ben McKenna, a successful doctor on holiday in north Africa with his family. Ben’s wife, Jo, is played by Doris Day. Hitch cast her against the wishes of colleagues who wanted a more ‘serious’ actress – someone like Lana Turner, Grace Kelly or Jane Russell – but he knew Day was more than just a singer. And he was right. She’s fantastic in this film.

In the early scenes of Ben, Jo and son Hank (an irritating Christopher Olsen), the movie has a travelogue feel. Unlike the 1934 film, which began in the Swiss Alps, we’re in Morocco. We see markets and traders and street exhibitionists and bustling buses; we learn about why Muslim women wear veils and all about Moroccan restaurant etiquette. The sequence is a combination of location work in Marrakesh, and shots taken of Stewart and Day back in Hollywood acting against massive rear-projection plates. It’s also a more leisurely opening than in 1934 – but that allows us to get to know Ben and Jo much more than Bob and Jill, their equivalents in that first movie. The couple meet a Frenchman called Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin), then an English couple called Lucy and Edward Drayton (Brenda De Banzie and Bernard Miles). Ben is jovial towards them all, but Jo is suspicious of Louis.

The situation is preparing the ground for a suspense plot, but as ever with Hitchcock there’s also time for human moments or humour. In their hotel room, Jo and Hank enjoy singing Que Sera, Sera together – being played by Doris Day, Jo has quite a nice voice and the scene is adorably sweet. There’s also some fun business when Ben can’t settle on a low, soft chair and struggles to eat with one hand.

Then comes a crisis… The next day, Bernard is stabbed in the street. Just before he dies he whispers a message to Ben. There’s to be as assassination in London! This is a nice simplification of the 1934 film, which only got to this information after some silliness about a secret message hidden in a shaving brush. Then Ben receives a phone call while at the local police station – Hank has been kidnapped and Ben better keep quiet about what he’s heard. To make matters even more harrowing, Ben twigs that the kidnappers are the friendly English couple from the hotel.

A big problem with the 1930s movie is that the parents’ reaction to their child being taken hasn’t dated very well. In that film, the Lawrences are too reserved, too pent-up, for us to have much sympathy. This version, though, solves that issue with more heartfelt writing and acting. Ben doesn’t tell Jo straightaway, and James Stewart plays his character’s isolated terror very well indeed. You really feel for him as he tries to maintain an appearance of calmness when he’s clearly going through hell inside. Then when he finally breaks the news to Jo, she balls and cries with anguish. It’s very affecting.

Bernard’s message mentioned ‘Ambrose Chappell’ in London, so the couple head there now. Ben tries to find Mr Chappell, but his quest is a red herring that involves a comedic brawl in a taxidermists’ workshop, the various animals staring down impassively. Jo, meanwhile, deduces that Ambrose Chapel is a place – an actual chapel which turns out to be run by the English couple from Morocco. Ben confronts them but is knocked out and locked up – he later escapes by climbing up the church’s bell rope – while Jo heads to the Albert Hall. That’s where the police chief is because he’s attending a concert with a foreign dignitary. It also turns out to be the location of the assassination…

At the Albert Hall, we get a nine-minute scene with no dialogue as Hitch cuts between the orchestra, Jo looking nervous, Ben arriving, Jo explaining she’s spotted the assassin… The intensity rises with the orchestral music (which is the same Arthur Benjamin piece as used in 1934). Then Jo screams at the key moment, the assassination is avoided, and the shooter dies after a fall from the balcony. It’s a wonderful sequence, staged and edited with real skill.

But Hank is still being held hostage, and Ben and Jo deduce he’s at the embassy of the foreign dignitary. Ben and Jo blag their way in, and a nearly tearful Jo sings a heartfelt performance of Que Sera, Sera to distract everyone while Ben searches the building. It’s a happy reunion for the family, unlike the cursory moment in 1934. And that’s the key reason why this version is the better film. Times change, of course, as do moviegoing tastes. But whereas both films contain suspense, action, intrigue and Hitchcock-style flamboyance, the British-made, pre-war movie now comes off as quite shallow. In 1956, thanks to actors as good as James Stewart and Doris Day, there’s emotion alongside the excitement.

Eight men in the market out of 10

 

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The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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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 couple’s young daughter is kidnapped to prevent them from revealing some dangerous information…

Alfred Hitchcock made two movies with the same title, but while they share the same basic storyline, they’re told in extremely different ways. In fact, the more you watch the more the contrasts pile up: British vs American… pre-war vs post-war… black-and-white vs colour… the nearly square Academy aspect ratio vs widescreen VistaVision… mostly forgotten actors vs Hollywood star power… a bombastic orchestra vs Que Sera, Sera. In this blog post and the next, I’ll be watching these two films and seeing how they compare.

The 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much – produced when Alfred Hitchcock was the star director of the UK film industry – came about after an aborted attempt at filming a Bulldog Drummond story. Tickled by the subject matter but unable to get the project going, Hitch concocted an original plotline about international intrigue and topped it off with a title taken from an unrelated GK Chesterton book.

The action begins in Switzerland. Married English couple Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks – who later grimed himself down to play a bad guy in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn – and Edna Best) are on holiday with their precocious young daughter, Betty (Nova Pilbeam). They’re a frightfully clipped and proper family, one where the mother tells her nagging daughter that she’ll be with her presently. They watch the ski-jumping and Jill enjoys taking part in a clay-pigeon shoot. But the lightness ends when, later that night, fellow hotel guest Louis (Pierre Fresnay) is shot by a sniper. Before he expires he has just enough time to tell Jill to collect a shaving brush from his room and take it to the British consulate. In its handle, the brush contains a secret note: ‘Make contact A. Hall 21st March’.

The Lawrences then learn the shock news that Betty has been kidnapped, and are warned by the bad guys to keep quiet about the note. Jill is so overcome she faints, dramatised by Hitch cutting to some jarring, spinning camera shots to convey her dizziness. The notion of innocent characters getting caught up in dangerous, criminal or espionage-related events was a favourite of Hitch’s, appearing in various movies and reaching its zenith in 1959’s North By Northwest. The idea drives The Man Who Knew Too Much, with the gag being that the man didn’t *want* to know too much; he’s just lumbered with it. (The title’s misleading, by the way: both parents know too much.)

The Lawrences return to London – what else can they do? – and pretend that nothing’s amiss. Jill lingers round Betty’s room holding her toys and drinking, while Bob glibly pretends to the police that Betty has gone to stay with friends. Then a man from the Foreign Office shows up. He knows what’s really going on, in the way that silky spymasters from Whitehall always do, and tells them that a man called Ropa is about to be assassinated. Louis had uncovered this so was killed by the bad guys. Bob asks why the death of an obscure foreign dignitary should matter, so the mandarin makes a direct analogy to the assassination of Serbia’s Archduke Ferdinand (an event then just 20 years in the past).

To modern eyes, the biggest problem with the story is the parents’ calmness. The emotion’s not strong enough; the situation lacks punch. Bob and Jill should be devastated with worry yet seem to be coping reasonably well. Lawrence and his friend Clive (Hugh Wakefield) start to investigate, but it’s not driven by a father’s desperate need to find his daughter. It feels more like a mild curiosity. Their quest takes them to Wapping in east London and into contact with a peculiar man called Abbott, who we recognise as a guest from the ski resort. They tail him to the Tabernacle of the Sun, a religious order in a ramshackle building, and now the film picks up intensity thanks to a scene-stealing performance.

Abbott is played by Hungarian-born Peter Lorre. Hitchcock knew the actor from Fritz Lang’s German classic M (1931), in which he had played an oddly sympathetic child murderer. Initially cast here as another character – the assassin Ramon – Lorre was soon promoted to the main villain role after impressing Hitchcock in person. He reportedly didn’t speak English at the time of filming, but this is a well-trodden anecdote that we should take with a pinch of salt. Not only does Abbott have *reams* of dialogue in uninterrupted takes, which would be near impossible to learn rote, but Lorre had actually already performed a movie role in English – the English-language version of M, which had been filmed alongside the original.

In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Lorre’s unforgettable bearing – that smirk, that bulk, those eyes that seem both evil and lovable at the same time – is used to create the first truly great bad guy in Hitchcock’s cinema. Abbott is a clever man with charm, a calm confidence and a gaggle of grotesque underlings. In fact, he’s more or less a precursor of a James Bond villain. Aptly, Lorre later played a Bond villain – the first ever seen on screen – in a 1950s TV adaptation of Casino Royale. After moving to Hollywood he also gave enjoyably baroque performances in films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). It’s a real shame that he only worked for Hitchcock once more, in 1936’s Secret Agent. Actor and director feel made for each other.

The religious order turns out to be a front for Abbott’s criminal operation: he is arranging the assassination of Ropa, for unspecified reasons, during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. (That’s what A. Hall meant in the note.) Bob manages to get word to Jill and she attends the concert. As well as hearing Arthur Benjamin’s Storm Clouds Cantata, which was specifically written for the film, she manages to distract the would-be killer by screaming at the apposite moment. It’s one of the film’s best scenes: tense and edgy.

But it’s not the end of the story. Betty and Bob are still being held prisoner by Abbott and his cronies, so armed police surround the Tabernacle of the Sun and an epic, Wild West-style shootout develops. The 15-minute sequence was influenced by the Siege of Sidney Street, a violent confrontation between police and Latvian revolutionaries that took place in east London in January 1911. Alfred Hitchcock had been 11 years old at the time and lived nearby, so would have remembered it well. The harum-scarum scale doesn’t especially match the rest of the film, which mostly takes place in paranoid shadows, but at least Jill’s sharpshooting skills come in handy.

Ultimately, though, you get the feeling that the film’s not as good as it could be. It’s a story about the assassination of a man we don’t care about; about a couple who don’t seem unduly worried about their missing daughter. Thirty years after the release of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Hitchcock said it had been the ‘work of a talented amateur’. The 1956 movie with the same title, he said, ‘was made by a professional.’ In the next blog, let’s see if he was right…

Six men in trenchcoats out of 10


Blake’s 7: Deliverance (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When the Liberator spots a spaceship crashing onto a planet, they look for survivors – but the search leads to some crewmembers being taken hostage and others making a shock discovery…

Series A, episode 12. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 20 March 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* From her clinical, cold office aboard a spinning space station, Servalan (3) is keeping tabs on a spaceship. She seems pleased when it begins to break up above a planet – and we later learn why. One of its occupants, Ensor, had offered to sell her a technological marvel called Orac for 100 million credits; rather than pay up, Servalan has plotted to kill him. She then tasks Travis with recovering Orac in secret.
* When Blake (12) and his team spot a ship crashing, they find a badly injured survivor – Ensor. He has some energy cells with him, which must be rushed to his dying father. He also says the Federation are going to pay him a fortune for something called Orac. But when Blake refuses to travel to Ensor’s home because some of his colleagues are still down on the nearby planet, Ensor blackmails him into leaving. Ensor dies from his wounds before they get there.
* Avon (11) leads what another sci-fi show might call the away team who look for crash survivors. They locate Ensor and take him back to the Liberator. But Jenna has gone missing, so Avon, Gan and Vila return to the planet to search for her. When attacked by caveman-like natives, the trio take refuge behind a metal door in a hillside. Inside they find a beautiful but naïve women who thinks Avon is a long-prophecised god…
* Jenna (12) also goes on the search team. She and Gan find an escape capsule with a dead body in it, then she’s accidentally left behind on the planet and attacked by the savage locals. They tie her up in a tent, in the way that generic savage locals often do in adventure stories.
* Cally (9) gets to operate the teleport controls this week. In one of Blake’s 7’s more off-the-wall moments, she also puts on a pair of VR goggles and listens to some jaunty piano jazz! Later, Ensor points a gun at her head to make Blake set course for his home planet.
* Zen (10) is acting much more helpfully these days. He seems to have shrugged off the petulant streak he had in earlier episodes. It’s almost as if he can sense that his role in the drama is about to be usurped by another computer…
* Gan (11) ain’t gonna win any friend-of-the-year awards after losing track of where Jenna is. When he later takes part in the mission to rescue her, he has to remind Avon and Vila that his limiter means he can’t kill any of the natives.
* Vila (12) spots a large footprint when it’s clear Jenna has gone missing. You’d think that’d be an important plot point, wouldn’t you?
* Travis (4) has – since we last saw him – gone through an enquiry due to his failure to catch Blake. He desperately wants his command back and tells Servalan he’s willing to do anything to get it.

Best bit: The episode takes a pleasingly bizarre turn when Avon, Gan and Vila are being chased by the natives. They attempt to break into the metallic door Gan found earlier – then it’s opened from inside by a woman called Meegat. She’s beaming with joy because Avon has finally arrived; she believes him to be her Lord, whose arrival was foretold in a prophecy. Our heroes soon deduce that Meegat’s home is actually a long-abandoned control room; they find a rocket ready to take banks of genetic material to a far-off world. (No phallic symbolism there at all!) Not only are there plenty of comedy looks between the regular characters – Vila and Gan can’t believe that Avon is humouring the poor woman – but the subplot has a nice beginning, middle and end. It’s also another chance for Paul Darrow to *shine* as Avon. You wouldn’t call it a naturalistic performance but it’s so, so watchable. (The number of times that Meegat genuflects by ducking down in front of Avon’s crotch is probably an unintentional gag, though, right?)

Worst bit: Not for the first time, the Liberator crew fail to notice when one of their number doesn’t teleport back from a mission. There are only six of you, guys!

Review: An uneven watch, in part because it’s doing two things. Deliverance is the first half of a two-parter to end the season, so the main plot can’t shake off the feeling that it’s just set-up for next week. But the episode is also trying to tell its own story, so some scenes form a self-contained little scenario. The latter strand is more enjoyable. (Note: I’m writing this blog on 6 February 2018, the 100th anniversary of women being able to vote in the UK. I can’t help noticing that this episode’s main action features three female characters. Two are taken hostage and one is a childlike simpleton.)

Seven micro power cells out of 10

Next episode: Orac

Spellbound (1945)

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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 psychiatrist falls in love with her colleague but then discovers he’s not who he says he is…

The enjoyable but rather far-fetched Spellbound is one of three films Hitchcock made for legendary Hollywood producer David O Selznick. Selznick wanted a movie that explored psychoanalysis, which had recently helped him in his private life, but Hitch was too cynical, too impatient or maybe just too British and instead delivered a film where the psychology shouldn’t be considered too closely. It’s more about the thrills and the suspense.

We start in Green Manors, a psychiatric hospital somewhere in America. Dr Constance Petersen – all sterile and aloof in a white coat and glasses – is dealing with a succession of patients and colleagues needing her attention. In the book on which the movie was based, the character is called Sedgwick. However, that surname was changed once an actress with a light Swedish accent was cast. Ingrid Bergman was then a big star thanks to cultured performances in Casablanca (1942), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) and Gaslight (1944). Hitchcock had found his latest leading lady, one with a natural, Nordic freshness. They went on to make two more films together.

The plot kicks into gear when Dr Anthony Edwardes shows up to take over running Green Manors. (Presumably he’s recently had a stint in an ER.) He’s played by Gregory Peck, and straightaway you know something isn’t right. The character is nervous and feels out of place, like a teenager wearing his dad’s suit. But as he meets Constance, the music swells, the camera lens fills with Bergman’s rapturous face, and we’re into a melodramatic romance. This is a relationship with a difference, though. These characters are psychiatrists; they notice each other’s tells and subtexts; they can see through the flirts. Perhaps that’s why they fall in love implausibly quickly.

Things then turn Hitchcockian when it’s revealed that Anthony is not the real Dr Edwardes. He actually has amnesia. He *thinks* he killed Edwardes and took his place. Constance wants to help and doesn’t tell anyone what she’s learnt, but during the night he leaves, not wanting to cause her more worry. He writes her a note, pausing over which name to sign it. And it’s a fantastic scene the following morning when Constance spots the piece of paper on the floor but her colleagues walk in before she can collect it. It gets trodden on by Green Manors’ former boss, Dr Murchison (Leo G Carrol), and others. Constance is terrified of someone spotting the note and realising Edwardes wasn’t Edwardes… then Murchison simply picks it up and hands it to her unread.

The scene works so well because the movie does such a good job of putting us in Constance’s shoes. Point of view is always an important factor in cinema (or at least it should be), and Hitchcock was the best there’s ever been at showing us events from a certain character’s perspective. Here, we feel Constance’s turmoil because it’s *her* story. Even if melodramatic, we understand that she’s in love and is willing to do anything to help the man who’s now calling himself John. So she follows him to New York and tracks him down at a hotel. Both are now on the run – his secret has been rumbled and he’s wanted for murder.

The couple then visit Constance’s old mentor, Alex Brulov (played by Michael Chekhov, Anton’s nephew). He’s a happy-go-lucky, professorial type. ‘Happy dreams,’ he jokes as they go to bed, ‘which we will analyse over breakfast.’ In fact, Constance is now overseeing a rolling therapy session as she and John try to piece together the clues of what’s happened: John has a burnt hand, medical knowledge, a vague memory of Rome, and a pathological fear of dark lines on white backgrounds. What does it all mean? Did he really kill Dr Edwardes?

Later, a tortured John does recount a dream, one full of symbolism and significance. The strikingly odd sequence was masterminded by Salvador Dalí (no, really) and is a glorious burst of surrealism unmatched in the Golden Age of Hollywood. It was reportedly 20 minutes long as filmed, though we only get to see a couple of minutes. It’s a trippy, dislocating experience: there are huge eyes painted onto drapes, a gambling den, a man with no face, expressionistic sets that could be from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Fantastic stuff.

Eventually, John remembers: he was at a ski resort when the real Edwardes died in an accident. The pair head to the resort, which unfortunately means we get some very naff shots of Bergman and Peck ‘skiing’ while standing in a studio against some unconvincing backgrounds. (Hitchcock never seemed to be embarrassed by obviously artificial shots like this.) But then the truths start to tumble out – John has a flashback to his childhood, when he accidentally killed his brother. His inherent guilt complex meant that, when he witnessed Dr Edwardes’s death while skiing, he compensated by taking Edwardes’s place and therefore keeping him ‘alive’. We even get a pat explanation scene where Peck details the plot for us.

However, then the cops show up to reveal that Edwardes’s body has been found… and it contains a bullet. John is charged with murder and the movie then positively races through a trail sequence (it takes just five shots and 30 seconds for him to be found guilty on no actual evidence whatsoever). Hitchcock just isn’t interested in the legality. He wants the emotion. And the speedy conviction does set us up for a grandstanding finish.

Constance returns to Green Manors, distraught over what’s happened to her innocent boyfriend, and is supported by her kindly colleague Dr Murchison, who’s now back in change of the institution. But she has Leo G Carroll over a barrel when she catches him in a small lie: despite earlier claiming that they’d never met, he now says he knew the real Edwardes…

It’s a terrific showdown scene as Murchison maintains his silky, calm, avuncular charm, despite the fact Constance (and the viewer) has worked out that he murdered Edwardes to get his job. The two characters discuss and unpack the meaning of John’s elaborate dream, and eventually Murchison admits he shot Edwardes – it’s gripping because Carroll plays it so controlled and icy. Then the scene ends with an image of real invention. We cut to Murchison’s point of view – his actual, first-person POV, seeing the room through his eyes. He’s pulled a gun and it’s large in the frame pointing at Constance. But she gambles that he’s not prepared to kill her and slowly walks away. The gun then slowly turns round to face the camera. Murchison pulls the trigger and there’s a FLASH of red: the only sight of colour in an otherwise black-and-white movie.

Seven men carrying a violin case out of 10

Blake’s 7: Bounty (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Blake visits an exiled former president and tries to convince him to return to public life. But then the Liberator crew are taken prisoner by smugglers…

Series A, episode 11. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Pennant Roberts. Originally broadcast: 13 March 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Cally (8) is sneaking round some woods with Blake as the episode begins. As they break into a building to find its inhabitant she uses her telepathic skills to silently warn Blake that guards are near. (This episode feels like Terry Nation has suddenly remembered he has a character who can talk to her colleagues without being heard.)
* Blake (11) has come to Quex Park in Kent (or whatever planet it’s standing in for) to find ex-President Sarkoff, who has been living in exile since he was voted out of office seven years ago. Well, it’s not exile really: his defeat was rigged, and he’s actually a prisoner being watched by a whole garrison of Federation troops. But Blake wants him to return and rally his people against the fascist overlords. Later in the episode, the Liberator crew, Sarkoff and his daughter are taken hostage by some smugglers. Like his friends, Blake is made to wear a metal ring round his neck; if he misbehaves, his head will be blown off. (Similar devices feature in the 1987 film The Running Man. Being a movie with an 18 certificate, rather than a BBC1 drama on at 7.15pm, we actually see what happens when they activate.)
* Vila (11) isn’t happy when an unidentified ship approaches the Liberator while Blake and Cally are down on the planet. He’s told to shut up, but says he’s entitled to his opinion. “It is your assumption that we are entitled to it as well that is irritating,” quips Avon. Later, Vila’s lock-picking skills come in useful again when he’s given the tense job of deactivating Blake’s explosive-neck-thingy.
* Jenna (11) runs point when the Liberator encounters what claims to be a civilian cruiser in distress. However, its occupants – Arab-like smugglers led by an old acquaintance of Jenna’s – trick their way aboard and take everyone prisoner. Well, not everyone: Jenna seems to switch sides and even tells Blake that their friends have been killed in order to trap him. But – and this is quite plain for all to see – Jenna is just conning Tarvin the smuggler.
* Avon (10) is against helping the ‘cruiser’, assuming (accurately) that it’s a trap. When Gan teleports over to see what’s what but doesn’t return, Avon even advocates destroying the craft with his friend aboard. Meanwhile, his sibling-like bickering with Vila continues to be a highlight of the series.
* Gan (10) starts off the episode as the Liberator’s Uhura – he has headphones on and is futilely trying to contact a nearby UFO. He then volunteers to teleport across to it to investigate, even though he knows it’s dangerous.
* Zen (9) has a few bits of exposition to impart – the most important is when he tells Vila that a message from Gan is not actually Gan’s voice.

Best bit: The first time we see Sarkoff, he’s being driven along in an Edwardian car – he has a big hat and a blonde chauffeur (who we eventually learn is his daughter, Tryce). It’s the start of an interesting theme. Sarkoff is obsessed with antiques from old Earth, such as a gramophone and a revolver. For a show set in a nebulously far-off future it’s a nice link to the past. It also gives us a surreal moment when Blake is bemused by the sound of 1950s rock’n’roll hit Singing the Blues.

Worst bit: Sarkoff is a verbose, flamboyant man. He should be memorable and interesting, but while the script is clearly reaching for something with this character – a certain melancholy, a lamenting for a ‘more civilised age’ – it just doesn’t come off. He’s more irritating than anything and it’s hard to imagine how he was that influential in the first place. Poignant moments, such as his touching anguish when Blake threatens to destroy his antique collection, are nice in themselves but don’t add up to much.

Review: Disappointing. The overly long scenes and dull storyline would be bad enough, but then we have to excuse some awful racial stereotyping when the smugglers show up.

Five microwave transmitters out of 10

Next episode: Deliverance

Blake’s 7: Breakdown (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When Gan suffers from debilitating headaches and attacks his colleagues, they must find a way of fixing his malfunctioning implant…

Series A, episode 10. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Vere Lorrimer. Originally broadcast: 6 March 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Gan (9) is stricken by crushing headaches, then flips out and becomes violent. The implant in his brain has gone on the wonk, you see, and Jenna is knocked unconscious before the others subdue him. Later, he awakens but writhes about like a werewolf then goes on another Incredible Hulk rampage. Eventually an operation is performed. The implant remains but he’s back to normal. Phew!
* Zen (8) acts very obstructively this week, refusing to answer standard questions and then switching off when the crew need his help.
* Jenna (10) is the first to find Gan is his dangerous state, and suffers as a consequence. Later, she has to flirt with a scientist to distract him (‘Hello, hello, hello,’ he says appreciatively as they meet).
* Blake (10) tries to talk Gan down from his initial fury – then has to fight with him. Once Gan is knocked out, and it becomes clear his ‘limiter’ implant has gone wrong, Blake moots operating on him themselves. Avon points out that’s slightly risky and suggests another idea: take Gan to XK-72, an independent space station that carries out research into weaponry and medicine. (Well, it’s obvious now he says it.) Blake agrees. When they reach the station, Blake teleports aboard and finds a doctor called Professor Kayn (Julian Glover, providing plenty of knows-what-he’s-doing-ness). Kayn, however, twigs who Blake is and secretly informs the Federation…
* En route to XK-72, Avon (9) tells Blake he wants to leave the crew – Blake’s zealous streak, he says, leads to too many risks being taken. So when they reach the space station, Avon offers its leader his services and knowledge – in exchange for a guarantee that his colleagues will be allowed to leave unmolested. However, when he realises that the Federation are on the way, guilt takes over and Avon warns his friends.
* When Blake, Avon and Jenna agree to take the Liberator through a dangerous area of space to reach XK-72, Vila (10) says, ‘Don’t I get asked?’ They just ignore him. Later, he tells Avon that he stays with Blake because he likes him… and has nowhere else to go. During the climax, Vila gets a nice moment where he rumbles the duplicitous Kayn.
* Cally (7) acts as a nurse, tending to the unconscious Gan, but doesn’t spot when he wakes up with an evil look on his face. She’s also later tricked into removing his restraints. #FlorenceNightingFAIL.

Best bit: A nifty, never-seen-before stellar map on a sheet of Plexiglas – shot from behind, of course, as is the cinematic cliché. (Quite how useful a *two-dimension* map of fucking space can be, however, is another matter.)

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Worst bit: The ‘dangerous bit of space’ subplot feels terribly artificial. Zen builds up a big mystery about the area for no reason, then the Liberator travels through it unscathed. It’s just padding, which is a real shame because if this enjoyable episode has a major flaw it’s the fact it’s so lopsided. The first 32 minutes are set aboard the Liberator and feature just the regulars, then we race through *a lot* of plotting in the last two-fifths of the episode.

Review: After being in the background for so long, at last Gan is the focus of a storyline! And he spends almost all of the episode unconscious. So instead of a character study on a character who doesn’t really have a character, we get plenty of good, inter-team drama with the other regulars and guest stars. Blake, Avon and Jenna have believable, plausible opinions about what to do with Gan and this creates some engaging conflict. They all want to help their friend, but not at any cost, and crucially none of the characters is a moron so you can see their points of view. The inhabitants of XK-72 are an interesting bunch too and the story develops and twists when we meet them.

Eight unstable magnetic fields out of 10

Next episode: Bounty

Champagne (1928)

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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 hedonistic heiress has to make her way in the world when her father says he’s financially ruined…

An odd Hitchcock film, this. Almost entirely lacking in tension, and featuring a lead character whose biggest problem in life is that she has to have a job, Champagne may be frothy and occasionally fun. It features some nice humour and the contemporary 1920s fashions are a treat. But it ultimately falls flat. There’s no fizz.

Betty (Betty Balfour) is a young, rich socialite who angers her father by using his Charles Lindbergh-style biplane to fly out to the middle of the Atlantic and board an ocean liner. The plane is sunk in the process, but she fares better: on the rowboat sent out by the liner’s crew, she removes her hat, goggles and coat to reveal an immaculate flapper frock. She’s made the journey to be with her boyfriend (French actor Jean Bradin), but he’s suffering from seasickness. The boat, you see, is rocking violently with the Atlantic swell – a motion that’s conveyed charmingly well by the Star Trek trick of having actors stagger from side to side. There’s also a creepy-looking passenger (Ferdinand von Alten) who eyes Betty up at any opportunity…

Eventually, Betty and the unnamed boyfriend reach Paris and she throws herself into the lifestyle of a bright young thing. When her fella visits her apartment she says to him, ‘Come on in – I’ve met some lively people – invented a new cocktail – and bought a lot of snappy gowns.’ Being a silent film, of course, the dialogue is relayed via a title card. There are remarkably few of them in the movie: we’re told just 70 lines of dialogue in 93 minutes.

However, back in America, Betty’s millionaire father (played by Gordon Harker, who was the son of the man Bram Stoker named the character of Jonathan Harker after in Dracula) is fuming. His mouth twitches comically as he reads about his daughter’s rebelliousness in the newspaper, while a phalanx of employees nervously fuss around him. He makes the journey to France and when he arrives he says he has grave news: his fortune – earned in the champagne business – has been wiped out after a bad day on the stock market. They’re now skint. (A prescient plot point, this: the Wall Street crash was the year after this movie’s release.) This distressing news doesn’t seem to affect either father or daughter too badly, though, and soon the two are making a fist of it. They share a cramped bedsit and she sets about finding a job.

Finding one at a high-class restaurant, Betty goes off the rails – or at least by 1920s standards. She drinks! She smokes! She dances! She enjoys herself – the slut! Both her boyfriend and her father disapprove, while the creepy guy from the ocean liner is still sniffing around. She then gets an almighty shock when her father confesses that he’s not penniless after all. It was all a lie – a ruse to see how she’d cope without capital. Justifiably angry, Betty turns to the creepy guy and asks for help in getting out of the country. He agrees to take her home to America, but then aboard the boat he locks her in their cabin…

But don’t worry! He’s not a dangerous, sinister type – turns out, he’s a detective hired by Betty’s father to keep an eye on her and make sure she doesn’t come to any harm. So that’s all right, then. I guess. The dad and the boyfriend show up, relationships are mended, lies are forgiven and everyone gets a happy and disgustingly rich ending.

With such a drab, lifeless story, you have to look elsewhere for Champagne’s pleasures. As ever with Hitchcock, it’s a visual treasure trove. The director is regularly experimenting or innovating with point-of-view shots (including a few through champagne glasses), crowd scenes, dissolves to suggest time passages and character’s thoughts, and other tricks such as moving footage becoming a still photo. There are also a few decent gags, like when Betty embraces her boyfriend while cooking and leaves flour handprints on his back. But overall this is a rare thing indeed: a *boring* Hitchcock movie.

Four cocktails out of 10

NOTE: An interesting quirk of film restoration means that the footage in Champagne is now probably *entirely different* from that seen in cinemas in 1928. When archivists at the BFI studied the surviving negative it soon became apparent that it was actually a version of the movie assembled from ‘second-best’ takes. It’s assumed this was compiled as a kind of safety copy. Sadly, no print of the theatrical cut has been found, so this ‘echo’ version of Champagne is now the default.

Blake’s 7: Project Avalon (1978)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When resistance leader Avalon is captured by the Federation, Blake and his colleagues mount a rescue attempt…

Series A, episode 9. Written by: Terry Nation. Directed by: Michael E Briant. Originally broadcast: 27 February 1978, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Travis (3) has a new second-in-command: a dead-eyed, cold-blooded and undeniably sexy mutoid played by Glynis Barber. As the story begins, the two of them are on a cold planet looking for a rebel leader called Avalon, who Travis knows has been in contact with Blake. After tracking her down and imprisoning her, Travis uses Avalon as bait to catch Blake – but the plan goes wrong and Travis is relieved of his command.
* Blake (9) tells us that Avalon has started resistance movements on a dozen worlds, and he plans to transport her to a new planet. He arrives too late, though: the Federation have captured her. So Blake and co break into a command base to rescue her. When they return to the Liberator, however, they realise ‘Avalon’ is a robotic imposter.
* Zen (7).
* Jenna (9) is the only member of the team who has seen Avalon before, so she accompanies Blake on his mission.
* Gan (8) spends the episode on the Liberator flight deck. Sadly, all too often he feels like one regular character too many – it seems as if writer Terry Nation has no idea what to do with him. The pull of the number seven is admittedly strong in popular culture: seven deadly sins, the movie Seven, Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, 007, the Seven Dwarves, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The Seven Year Itch, 7-inch singles… But in this case it’s more of a hindrance.
* Vila (9) has to teleport down to the planet and join Blake and Jenna when they need his breaking-and-entering skills.
* Cally (6) is now adept at piloting the Liberator. Jenna jokes that she’s taught her too well.
* Avon (8) says, sarcastically, that while he’s eager to meet the famous Avalon it doesn’t mean he wants to travel down to a snow-covered planet where the temperature is 180 below. While Blake and the others are on the planet, the Liberator is found by some Federation pursuit ships. So Avon convinces the others to flee, lose the ships, and hopefully return in time to pick up their colleagues.
* Servalan (2) wafts into the planet’s command bunker in an all-white outfit with furry wrap. She’s come to oversee the captured Avalon’s interrogation, and also to remind Travis that she wants the Liberator as well as Blake. In the episode’s final scene, she actually meets Blake for the first time.

Best bit: Blake tells a reluctant Vila to teleport down to the planet. “It’s cold out there,” moans Vila, “and I’m very susceptible to low temperatures. I’ve got a weak chest.” Avon: “The rest of you’s not very impressive.”

Worst bit: Blake needs to demostrate to his colleagues that a gun is firing less-than-lethal shots. He does this by shooting at a cup on a nearby table. Sadly, actor Gareth Thomas puts the cup down so deliberately and so specifically that it’s obvious he’s placing it on a special-effects lever that’ll flip it into the air at the required moment.

Review: Great stuff. This is a very well-structured script, the storytelling has good energy and pace, and there’s even a nicely disguised plot twist. It’s Blake’s 7 doing an action movie in 50 minutes and everything is impressively staged by director Michael E Briant. Locations are used to their fullest, for example, while a busy fight scene is shot with a handheld camera. There’s also an inventive use of the greenscreen technique to make a phial containing a virus seem strangely alive. Well… *nearly* everything is impressively staged. Sadly we get another glimpse of the shaky, cheap-looking patrol robot last seen in Seek-Locate-Destroy. As well as being beyond naff, it also begs the question why are the Federation using a mechanical sentry that shuffles along at two miles an hour? Elsewhere in the episode is a dextrous, lifelike android who can be programmed to do anything.

Nine Phobon plagues out of 10

Next episode: Breakdown

To Catch a Thief (1955)

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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.

When a former jewel thief is accused of a new spate of robberies in the south of France, he sets out to discover who’s really responsible…

There’s huge star power in this film. In fact, the wattage created by its leading actors outshines everything else to such a degree that when it’s finally revealed who’s been stealing some jewels from well-to-do socialites it’s very difficult to care. Much more interesting is the flirtation, romance, sex appeal and chemistry of Cary Grant and Grace Kelly.

In an early Hitchcockian image, a domestic cat trotting over some rooftops is used a funny metaphor for a cat burglar. Someone is purloining valuables in the beautiful, sunny, stress-free French Riviera and suspicion soon falls on American ex-pat John Robie (Grant). He has form for this kind of thing, but swears blind he put his criminal habit behind him 15 years previously – around the time he became a hero in the French Resistance. (He blithely says that he killed 72 people during the war.) However, with the police breathing down his neck, Robie reckons the best way to prove his innocence is to catch the actual thief…

This was Cary Grant’s third Hitchcock role (of four) and actually came at a point when, at 50, he was considering retiring from acting. Here, as in so many movies, he shows off world-class charisma, effortless panache and wonderful comic timing. He also *moves* so well, with a gentleman’s grace but great, masculine power too. It’s no surprise that, just seven years after this, he was sounded out about playing James Bond in the first 007 film. (Grant had been the best man at Bond producer Cubby Broccoli’s wedding, but the actor’s reluctance to sign up to multiple movies ultimately put him out of the running.)

Robie gets help in his plan from Lloyd’s of London insurance investigator HH Hughson (John Williams, who’d sparkled in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder a couple of years earlier). Together, they identify a likely target for the cat burglar – a rich American widow called Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis, terrific), who’s holidaying in the area with her grown-up daughter, Frances (Grace Kelly). In order to keep an eye on them, Robie engineers an introduction in a hotel casino (another instance of Cary Grant seeming James Bond-ish). To attract the Stevenses’ attentions, he accidentally-on-purpose drops a casino chip down a French woman’s cleavage then embarrasses her into paying him what it was worth. It’s a bizarre moment that must have had Hitchcock giggling like a schoolboy, and it gets Robie talking to the Americans. He charms them and, as a cover story, claims to be a lumber man from Oregon.

Here, at the half-hour mark, as Grace Kelly enters the story, is when the film really comes alive. At first, Frances seems sullen and uninterested in Robie. He doesn’t pay her too much attention either, preferring to cosy up to her jewel-flaunting mother. When Jessie brazenly asks him if he likes her daughter, all he can muster is that she’s ‘quietly attractive’, which might very well be the greatest understatement in 20th-century cinema. But Robie and Frances’s romantic subplot is kicked into the stratosphere when she then surprises him with an exceedingly sensual goodnight kiss. The flirtation is on.

Frances was Kelly’s third and final role for Alfred Hitchcock. Given its impact and success, it was a remarkably short collaboration: all three movies were filmed between July 1953 and September 1954. In each, she’s pure class: stunningly beautiful, of course, and effortlessly sexy; but more importantly every character has a wonderful spirit and charm. Frances Stevens is no exception – she’s smart, funny, adorable and you can’t take your eyes off her. She was also one of Grace Kelly’s final roles for any director. In April 1955, at the Cannes film festival, she met Prince Rainier III of Monaco; they married a year later and she quit Hollywood to become the principality’s princess.

As they grow closer, Robie and Frances look at a villa that he claims he needs to rent (and he can’t resist scoping out its windows and entry points: old habits die hard!). Frances then drives them very fast down mountain roads – a tremendous sequence achieved via rear projection, wind machines and the loud throb of the car engine. All the while, the two actors are having a ball with their flirtatious dialogue. So are we – the whodunit plot has been all but forgotten. There are a couple of suspects, one of whom is a flighty teenage girl played by Brigitte Auber, but Grant and Kelly steal the show.

Frances is convinced that she’s rumbled Robie’s cover and says he just doesn’t seem like a lumber man from Oregon. Over a picnic high above the coast, she tells him he’s out of place: more like “an American in an English movie”, which is surely a multi-level in-joke from Hitchcock and his writers about Cary Grant (who was an English star in Hollywood) and Grace Kelly (who’d played an English woman in Dial M for Murder). The two actors are endlessly watchable in their two-handed scenes, which Hitch allows to play out in natural, uninterrupted long takes.

Their sexually charged banter also contains some shameless innuendo. At their picnic, Frances offers him Robie some chicken and asks, “You want a leg or a breast?” He knowingly replies, “You make the choice.” Later, she says, “I have a feeling that tonight you’re going to see one of the Riviera’s most fascinating sights.” When Robie doesn’t reply, she adds, “I was talking about the fireworks,” and he quips, “I never doubted it.”

But there’s genuine romance to match the badinages. Eventually the pair sleep together – dramatized by a cheeky Hitch cutting away to a nearby fireworks display. When the film later reveals who the jewel thief actually is – after an elaborate sting planned by Robie, Frances, Jessie and Hughson – it’s rather underwhelming. We’ve already had the climax.

Eight men on a bus out of 10