Captain Marvel (2019, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A female soldier from a far-off world crash-lands on Earth in the 1990s and soon begins to piece together her mysterious past…

‘So Captain Marvel zaps him right between the eyes,’ John Lennon once sang. That was in 1968, more than half a century ago. But the Beatle could have been psychically predicting the impact of this 2019 superhero film, because the character of Captain Marvel is slick, fun and focused. She aims, shoots and hits her target. (Yeah, yeah, when Lennon made that throwaway reference in the lyrics to his song The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, he actually meant a different comic-book character altogether. *That* Captain Marvel now goes by the name Shazam and, coincidentally, also had a solo superhero movie in 2019.)

But the fact that, for some of us, the film’s title brings to mind a track from the Beatles’ White Album is more than just vague thought association. Captain Marvel is dominated by a theme of nostalgia, of longing for a bygone time, of revelling in reminiscing. It even begins with a unique production-company logo that pays tribute to the Marvel universe’s founding father, the late Stan Lee. Whether you were alive to experience the Beatles first hand or have come to them after the fact, they cast an enormous shadow over pop culture. For most of us, they are one of the pillars of what we think of as ‘the 1960s’; for many, they’ve played a huge role in our lives. But they spilt up 50 years ago. We all have to *remember* them in order to enjoy their music.

Captain Marvel’s lead character, however, can’t indulge this kind of nostalgia because she can’t remember her past. In Hala, the capital of the Kree civilisation – which is another of those skyscraper-heavy alien cities realised via CGI that we always get in these types of films – a young woman called Vers (Brie Larson) is being trained by a mentor-type called Yon-Rogg (Jude ‘Does anyone not guess that he’ll turn out to be a bad guy?’ Law). She’s spunky, sassy and headstrong, has superpowers, and works as part of a gang of military commandos. She’s also sexy, but not in the usual superhero-film way. This character’s allure comes from self-assuredness and arch lines of dialogue delivered in heroic close-ups. She may wear a figure-hugging uniform, but she feels quite different – more confident, more independent, less fanboy-baiting – from Wonder Woman’s cosplay costume or Harley Quinn’s Lolita act. This film doesn’t succumb to ‘male gaze’ objectifying.

Early on, Vers has a one-on-one chat with a mystical deity, the Supreme Intelligence, which seems to run the Kree civilisation. Everyone sees this spirit as someone unique, and Vers’s vision is of a middle-aged American woman played by Annette Bening. Sadly, it’s a fairly clunky opening act, inelegantly full of setup rather than storytelling. In fact, it’s not so much storytelling as ‘storytold’: we have to take in a lot of information, which isn’t always elucidated very clearly.

The upshot is that Vers is struggling to remember her past. When some bad guys later rifle through the deep folds of her consciousness (it’s that type of film), she sees glimpsed flashbacks to what we recognise as a Top Gun-style life on Earth (‘Higher, faster, further, baby!’ being the Marvel equivalent of ‘I feel the need: the need for speed!’). The villains are looking inside her mind because they’re hunting for a faster-than-light engine, which Vers was somehow involved with. But inconveniently for both her and them, she has amnesia.

Thankfully, after 22 minutes, Vers is flung across space and crash lands onto Earth – specifically into a LA branch of Blockbusters in 1995. Our theme of nostalgia really kicks into gear now, whether you’re old enough to remember the 1990s or not. If you are, there’s a whole level of pleasure-through-recognition to be had: we see a poster for True Lies, a VHS copy of The Right Stuff, a GameBoy, cyber-cafes. We hear tracks by Smashing Pumpkins and Elastica. We smirk at the now-dated technology and cars and fashions. It’s all joyful nostalgia, well deployed to get both laughs and to set the scene. (The later use of the No Doubt track I’m Just a Girl in a fight scene, however, may be a contender for the most literal-minded use of a song in any movie ever.)

The film is also wallowing in its own history. The character of Nick Fury – who arrives on the scene after Vers’s crash-landing into the video store – has been an MCU stalwart since the first entry in the series in 2008. Now we have the joy of seeing him at an earlier stage of his life – before the Avengers, before his ‘death’, before he was the leader of SHIELD. The role is still played by Samuel L Jackson, but he’s been de-aged digitally. The special-effects work is utterly magnificent. Seriously, it is a seamless piece of artifice. Fury looks to be about 40 and you very quickly forget that he’s being played by a 69-year-old. All this wizardry also means that we get an additional level of Proustian recollection: Sam Jackson was already a huge Hollywood star in the mid-90s, and another chance to see the actor who played Jules from Pulp Fiction or Zeus from Die Hard with a Vengeance running around on the cinema screen is a real thrill.

Soon, Fury and Vers are thrown together by the plot and they make such an entertaining buddy-cop team-up that you’re left wondering whether we needed all that boring setup on Halo. The actors’ chemistry and comic timing are wonderful and the film comes alive any time they’re in the same scene. How much more elegant and more instantly fun would it have been to *start* with Vers’s arrival on Earth, and for us to learn about her as she and Fury discover things together?

But, a bit regrettably, there’s a plot to service. At least we have Ben Mendelsohn as Talos, a leader of the antagonistic Skrull race who’s seemingly the bad guy of the story but who actually turns out to have a more noble intent. The actor is developing a nice career of playing entertaining foes in genre films (cf Rogue One, Ready Player One), and is great value here. But as the film develops, there are two strands going on at the same time: a story in the present with Talos and his plans, and a story in the past. It’s the story in the past that’s the more resonant.

Via an impressive variety of means – snatched memories, secret military files, exposition from other characters, photos, audio recordings – Vers pieces together her backstory. She was, as we suspected, originally from Earth and was a hotshot test pilot called Carol Danvers. (When taken away from Earth by the selfish Ron-Yogg, his only clue to her identity was a damaged military identity badge showing just the final four letters of her name.) This mixture of tools to tell the story keeps things fresh and interesting, and we feel like we’re discovering information along with our central character. The quest to find out what’s going on – who exactly Vers is, who Annette Bening’s Supreme Intelligence was based on – leads Vers and Fury to a old fighter-pilot colleague of Carol’s called Maria (Lashana Lynch) and her young daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar). The latter can remember Carol from six years previously, despite only being about eight years old – another instance of this film playing with how memories work.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has now reached 21. Captain Marvel is the 21st film in the megalithic series that shows no signs of slowing down now it can buy alcohol in America and adopt children in the UK. Whether this entry becomes as memorable as some of the big-hitters that have come before is debatable. But it’s enjoyable, entertaining and well made. It’s also very funny. A scene where characters need to wait several, silent seconds for an audio file to load on Maria’s 1990s PC is a mini-masterpiece of humour and deserves to be remembered for a long time.

Eight Stan Lees on a bus reading the script for Mallrats in preparation for his real-life cameo in that 1996 comedy movie out of 10

StanLeeCaptainMarvel

Creed (2015, Ryan Coogler)

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A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

The illegitimate son of Apollo Creed asks for Rocky’s help in training to be a professional boxer…

What does Stallone do? For the first time with a movie featuring the character of Rocky Balboa, its star didn’t work on the script. He didn’t direct either, but takes a producing credit. Playing the Italian Stallion for a seventh time, Stallone is pretty impressive in this film; the performance reminds you that, for all the clichés about his slurring and mumbling, he’s not talentless. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Creed, and it’s easy to see why… Rocky is now the same age his mentor Mickey was in the first movie and is still running the restaurant he had in 2006’s Rocky Balboa. One day, a young man comes to visit him and reveals he’s the son of Rocky’s old foe/friend Apollo Creed. Adonis is an aspiring boxer and wants Rocky to train him. Rock resists, but is then swayed by the younger man’s hunger and spirit. He trains Adonis at Mickey’s old gym from the previous movies and the sequences neatly echo Rocky’s old regimes. But then Rocky collapses suddenly, and the doctors discover he has non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At first, he refuses treatment because he doesn’t have much to live for – his wife has died, his best friend Paulie has died, his son has moved to Canada – but Adonis manages to talk him round. The bond between the two men grows stronger: it’s father/surrogate son, mentor/pupil, friend/friend. The two then prepare for Adonis’s big shot: a fight against the world champion…

Other main characters:
* We first meet Adonis Johnson as an 11-year-old in a juvenile detention centre. Having recently lost his mother, he’s angry and fights with the other boys a lot. He then learns that his biological father was champion boxer Apollo Creed, who died before Adonis was born. Eighteen years later, and now played by Michael B Jordan, he’s got a boring office job in LA but is also earning cash from boxing in Mexico. Unable to ignore his paternal heritage, he quits his job and moves to Philadelphia to seek out his father’s old pal Rocky Balboa. Rocky agrees to train him, and even becomes his landlord. After Rocky falls ill, their relationship becomes moving: Adonis looks after the older man; Rocky encourages and supports him. They then fly to England for a title fight with champion boxer ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan, which takes place at football stadium Goodison Park in Liverpool… Jordan is terrific as Adonis, taking a character with anger issues and daddy issues and either too much or too little confidence and making him someone real and sympathetic.
* In 1998, Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) seeks out Adonis and tells him he’s the son of her late husband – the famous boxer Apollo Creed. She offers the troubled lad a home, and – in an 18-year period skipped over by the movie – they begin to see each other as mother and son.
* ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan (real-life boxer Tony Bellew) is an Everton-supporting fighter from Merseyside and is the current world light heavyweight champion. His reign is due to come to an end because of an upcoming prison sentence. So when he reads in the local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo, that an American upstart called Adonis Johnson is actually the son of the revered Apollo Creed, he wants him to be his final challenger.
* Bianca (Tessa Thompson) is Adonis’s neighbour when he moves into an apartment in Philly. She’s a reasonably successful singer and musician – in fact, Adonis only meets her because he bangs on her door to complain about the loud music. They soon become involved romantically. She’s not happy, however, when the news breaks that Adonis is Apollo’s son. He’d been keeping it under wraps, wanting to prove himself rather than rely on a surname, but she feels betrayed. Thankfully she gets over it.
* Tommy Holiday (Graham McTavish, who Stallone had worked with on 2008’s Rambo) is Conlan’s manager. He flies to Pennsylvania to pitch a Conlan/Adonis fight to Rocky, which would no doubt earn everyone involved a huge amount of cash. His one big condition? Adonis needs to adopt the Creed surname. Adonis reluctantly agrees.

Key scene: Adonis’s first bout under Rocky’s tutelage is against a Philly brawler called Leo Sporino (Gabriel Rosado). Before he enters the ring, there’s the comedy beat of Adonis having to have his taped-up gloves cut off because he needs to take a last-minute shit. Then the entire fight is filmed in one, fluid Steadicam shot that lasts for an astonishing 260 seconds. Beautifully choregraphed, lit and played, it’s the kind of baroque cinema that would have us all swooning if Scorsese or Tarantino had made it. (The next scene has an exhausted Adonis falling asleep on the sofa while watching Skyfall.)

Review: There’s a lovely clash going on here, between Adonis (young, gifted and black, full of attitude and hunger) and Rocky (in his 60s, white, sedate, whimsical and a rather lonely older man who doesn’t understand how the Cloud works). On the face of it, the two characters have nothing in common save for their connections to a man who’s been dead since 1987. And yet, thanks to good, solid writing and two really good performances, there’s a largely unspoken yet intensely strong bond between them. Rather than the kind of schmaltz sloshed all over the similar storyline in Rocky V, Creed makes you care about the characters. The storyline doesn’t rewrite the Marquess of Queensberry rulebook – it’s not far off a remake of the original Rocky from 1976 – but the film punches above its weight. A fine continuation of the Rocky series.

Eight toughest opponents you’re ever going to have to face out of 10

Next: Creed II

Waltzes from Vienna (1934, Alfred Hitchcock)

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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.

The composer Johann Strauss develops his masterpiece while courting a young woman…

At the time of writing, the Alfred Hitchcock film Waltzes from Vienna is 85 years old – and when it was made the era it depicts was 68 years in the past. Every period drama ever produced has these kinds of multilevel time-lags and each one gives extra layers of meaning. In Waltzes from Vienna’s case, for example, we’re watching actors who have all long gone play people who would have lived 150 years ago. This means that while we’re bringing expectations and biases that wouldn’t have existed when the film was produced, the 1860s are also being seen through the prism of the 1930s. No wonder Waltzes from Vienna sometimes reminds you of the light-on-their-feet musicals of Hollywood’s Golden Age; but it’s doubtful that this is a true reflection of mid-19th-century Austria.

Hitchcock didn’t make many period films, preferring the immediacy of contemporary stories. Jamaica Inn was released in 1939, but set in 1819; Under Capricorn, set 1851, came out in 1949; while movies like Juno and the Paycock (1930), Secret Agent (1936), Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Topaz (1969) are set a few years in the past. But Waltzes from Vienna is a rare foray into a style the director wasn’t famed for. It’s also his only musical film. Not a fan of the genre, he took the project on simply because no others were available and he later called it the lowest ebb of his career.

Nevertheless, and appropriately, music dominates. The first sound after the opening titles is the coarse honk of a fire-brigade horn as a crew of firefighters rush to an emergency. Meanwhile, above a café that’s ablaze, a man called Schani is playing a new piano composition to a young woman, Resi (Jessie Matthews). Schani, we soon learn, is Johann Strauss the Younger (Esmond Knight), so he knows his musical onions. As their romantic storyline plays out, the stage-by-stage composition of Strauss’s masterpiece The Blue Danube is a recurring motif, and there’s actually a lovely twist on expectation when it’s the fictional Resi who provides the key inspiration for the tune. Meanwhile, the movie’s incidental score is often punctuating the on-screen action with real wit. The marriage of image and sound is generally terrific.

The plot sees Schani and Resi’s relationship constantly checked by interruptions and distractions, such as a local noblewomen called Countess Helga von Stahl (Fay Compton), who takes a shine to Schani; Resi’s father objecting to his daughter wedding a man who lacks independence; a rival suiter for her affections called Leopard; and Schani’s pompous father, the famous composer Johann Strauss the Elder (played by Hitchcock semi-regular Edmund Gwynn).

It’s a surprisingly lively and eccentric film, with plenty of humour and charm. When Resi climbs out of the window of the opening sequence’s burning building, for example, the act accidentally removes her dress – so she’s forced to stroll into a nearby shop and ask for a replacement. Moments later, a bystander sees smoke billowing out of an upstairs window and warns that the fire is spreading. Then a fireman appears at the window, with a lit pipe in his chops, and says, ‘The fire is out.’ There are also fun trivial moments such as the von Stahls’ two servants relaying a conversation between their employers as they, the servants, canoodle. It may have been made by a director who felt he was going through the motions, but there’s still his visual invention, wit and flamboyance.

Eight loafs of bread out of 10

The Pleasure Garden (1925, Alfred Hitchcock)

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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 pair of chorus-line dancers experience conflicting fortunes in their careers and in their love lives…

The 19th-century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said that while life must be lived forwards, it can only be understood backwards. On that basis, let’s see if we can understand how Alfred Hitchcock’s debut feature film as a director – The Pleasure Garden, shot in 1925 – came into being and how it began a career that has had such a lasting impact. We’ll get to the movie itself in due course, but first a diversion…

In June 2019, almost 120 years after Hitchcock’s birth, I set out to explore the area he will have known as a child. However, when I arrived in east London I was confronted by something that can’t have been there in 1899. Leytonstone Underground Station (opened 1856) is decorated with 17 bold, colourful and rather delightful murals celebrating the movies of Alfred Hitchcock. They adorn the walls of the sloping tunnels that lead from the street level to the ticket office, and are made up of a total of 80,000 tiny coloured tiles. Everyone but me was ignoring them now, being more concerned with their commute and perhaps numbed to them by overfamiliarity, but to a newcomer these mosaics are incredibly striking pieces of art.

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They were commissioned by the local authorities and produced by an arts company called Greenwich Mural Workshop, then unveiled on 3 May 2001 to rather belatedly mark the centenary of Hitch’s birth. Fourteen of them represent specific films from throughout his career, so one by one I admired imaginatively dramatic scenes from The Pleasure Garden (pictured above), The Skin Game, Number Seventeen, Rebecca, Suspicion, Saboteur, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds.

The remaining three murals are especially apt for our purposes here. In one, for example, Hitchcock’s childhood connection to Leytonstone is represented by a young Alfred outside his family’s shop in around 1906, dressed as a soldier for Empire Day celebrations. This image seems to have been based on a rare surviving photograph of Hitchcock’s father and older brother (both called William) taken circa 1900.

The other two mosaics, meanwhile, see Hitch later in life working on his films – in one he’s with Marlene Dietrich, who starred in his 1950 thriller Stage Fright; in another he’s calling action on the set of The Skin Game (pictured below). Stretching from his childhood to the peak of his Hollywood powers, these murals raise an obvious question. How did a working-class London lad born just 140 days before the end of the 19th century develop into the most famed moviemaker in history?

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‘I had no intention of becoming a film director, you know,’ Alfred Hitchcock said in the 1960s. ‘It was quite a surprise to me.’ For one thing, cinema was still a new concept when he was born in 1899. The world’s first film studio, inventor Thomas Edison’s Black Maria in New Jersey, had only opened six years earlier – and that was to produce motion pictures that could only be viewed on a Kinetoscope (a ‘peephole’ device used by one person at a time). French visionaries the Lumière brothers were the first people to put on public screenings of films – a set-up recognisable as modem cinema – from December 1895. Edison began similar showings in New York four months later, while the US’s first dedicated cinema, on Canal Street in New Orleans, opened in July 1896. Another Frenchman, George Méliès, may have passed a career total of 200 short films in 1899, producing ground-breaking material that dabbled with special effects and tricks, but the art form was still astonishingly young and something of a novelty.

Alfred Joseph Hitchcock was born on a Sunday 13 August, in a flat above the Leytonstone greengrocers run by his parents, Emma Jane and William Hitchcock (the same shop depicted in the Leytonstone Station mural mentioned above). William Hitchcock didn’t live long enough to see his son succeed in the film industry but Emma survived until 1942, dying while Alfred was making the brilliantly seedy Shadow of a Doubt. She seems to have had a harsh side. When Alfred was young, she had a habit of making him stand at the foot of her bed for hours on end as a punishment, and she later stubbornly refused to leave England during the bombing of the Second World War. Perhaps this maternal steel explains why so many Hitchcock films feature strong, domineering, eccentric or vital-to-the-plot mothers. Think of the sinister Anna Sebastian in Notorious, the ambitious Jessie Stevens in To Catch a Thief, the kooky Clara Thornhill in North by Northwest, the distant Bernice Edgar in Marnie, the haughty Lydia Brenner in The Birds, or of course the ghostly presence of Mrs Bates in Psycho – characters who all appeared after Hitch’s own mother had died.

Alfred had siblings while growing up but still felt isolated, later describing his childhood as a lonely experience – in part because of his strict Catholic parents, in part because of his obesity. (He was never a slim chap. His mother, it seems, was a feeder.) In 1910, he began attending a Jesuit school in north London. He excelled academically and, he later said, developed a long-lasting fear of authority – a fear that had been seeded by an infamous incident earlier in life when his father arranged for Alfred to be locked up by the police as a punishment for misbehaving. ‘I don’t think the religious side of the Jesuit education impressed itself so much upon me as the strict discipline one endured at the time,’ he later told film critic Peter Bogdanovich.

An early ambition to be an engineer led to the teenage Alfred studying mechanics and electricity. But after his father’s death in 1914, he needed to earn some money so got a job as a technical clerk at the Henley Telegraph and Cable Company near London Wall, where he also wrote some short stories for its in-house magazine. (The stories often contained themes and plot devices he would revisit in his movies, such as innocent people being accused of crimes.) Away from his day job, he also developed passions for art history, painting and the cinema, especially films starring comedians such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. This provides us with a nice connection: as the cultural commentator Kim Newman has pointed out, Hitchcock and Chaplin are the only genuine contenders for the title as the most influential Englishman in cinema history.

This enthusiasm for film was then given a release when Hitchcock speculatively sent some title-card designs to a new London-based film studio called Famous Players-Lasky and was hired in 1919. He was soon mentioned by name in The Times thanks to his impressive work with title cards, but in these hazy, embryonic days of the industry, being a jack of all trades was encouraged and Hitchcock – only just into his 20s – was quickly gaining experience in various production roles…

During my exploration of Hitchcock’s childhood stomping ground in June 2019, I left the station after admiring the murals and headed up to High Road Leytonstone, a busy main road that has changed a great deal since the 1890s. On the short walk there, I unexpectantly happened upon a large piece of graffiti on a wall on Harrington Road, which contains an image of Alfred Hitchcock smoking a cigar. Birds can be seen in the margins too.

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After a few minutes’ walk south, I found 517 High Road Leytonstone. William Hitchcock’s greengrocers once stood here but was long ago demolished, and there’s now a gaudy Jet petrol station in its place. It was busy as I wandered across the small forecourt, with cars fighting for space and a gang of car-washers at work.

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An ignored blue plaque on the modern wall to the side of the petrol station’s shop is the only acknowledgment of the site’s link to Leytonstone’s most famous son.

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I then had a neat piece of happenstance. I was standing on the pavement outside the petrol station, checking over the photographs I’d taken, when I became aware of a woman calling out to me from a passing car. It was a colleague of mine from my day job: a lovely woman called Ellen, who lives in the area. She pulled into the petrol station and we had a chat. We had both unexpectedly been given the afternoon off (IT issues: don’t ask), so talked about how we were spending our sudden free time. I said I was doing research for a blog, and it turned out she knew her Hitchcock history. She told me about Hitchcock’s Home, an annual event held at the nearby St John’s Church. Over two evenings in the church’s graveyard, Hitchcock films are played onto big screens. At the most recent edition, in July 2018, they showed Rebecca and Notorious.

After parting from Ellen, I next turned my attention to a building a few metres away from the petrol station. In 2014, as part of a £9m renovation project by the local council, its outer walls were covered with large paintings of birds – an obvious reference to Hitchcock’s 1963 film. A bird motif is also evident on the nearby pavement, while I clocked that a building further up the adjacent Lynn Road is called Hitchcock Place. The building in which he was born may be long gone, but Alfred’s presence, it seems, is everywhere.

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Ensconced at Famous Players-Lasky and working on a succession of silent movies, Hitch was first given the chance to direct in 1921. However, the production of social drama Number 13 was chaotic and was abandoned after just a handful of scenes had been shot. Hitchcock later called it a ‘chastening experience’, but he never forgot the generosity of its star Clare Greet who had pumped her own money into the project: Hitch cast her a further six times before her death in 1939. Around this time he also stepped in at the last minute to co-direct a frivolous short called Always Tell Your Wife (1923) and had a stint working at Babelsberg Studios in Potsdam. He was in his element in Germany, already being a fan of Weimar Republic cinema. One of his favourite recent films had been Fritz Lang’s fantasy drama Der müde Tod (1921), and now he got the chance to watch close up as another great German director, FW Murnau (he of 1922’s vampire classic Nosferatu), directed The Last Laugh (1924). Hitchcock was gaining knowledge and experiences, and soaking up influences from all around him.

Then came two enormous developments in his life – one professional, one personal. Hitchcock moved across to a new company, later to be known as Gainsborough Pictures, which was run by the producer Michael Balcon. Balcon was only three years older than Hitch, and had a glittering career ahead of him that would include such classic British movies as Whisky Galore! (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Passport to Pimlico (1949), The Blue Lamp (1950), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and Hitchcock’s own The 39 Steps (1935). At Gainsborough, Hitchcock designed sets, wrote scripts, and acted as a producer. He also met his future wife: the editor and screenwriter Alma Revile. As well as a romantic partner, she soon became his de facto first officer, working in a variety of roles (often uncredited) on many of his films. One witness who saw Hitchcock direct during the 1920s said that he had a habit of turning to Alma after a take and asking, ‘Was that all right?’ The couple had been born within a few hours of each other, and married in December 1926. Their only child, Patricia, followed in 1928 and she went on to appear in a few of her father’s movies. Towards the end of his life, at a celebratory dinner thrown by the American Film Institute on 7 March 1979, Hitchcock said that he wished to pay special tribute to four people who had given him affection, appreciation, encouragement and constant collaboration: an editor, a writer, a mother and a cook. Then came the punchline: ‘And their names are Alma Revile.’

After seeing the area where Hitchcock had been born, I doubled back north, past the turnoff for the underground station and past St John’s Church and into Leytonstone’s shopping area, all the way up to 692 Leytonstone High Road. The pub here on the corner with Aylmer Road has had several names over the years, but was renamed The Birds in Hitch’s honour in May 2017.

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The bar was virtually empty as I walked in, being mid-afternoon on a weekday, but it was an eccentric, cool-looking place. I had a poor-tasting beef burger and a very nice beer while I had a rest and considered Hitchcock’s legacy. It depends of course how you define it – does compilation Elstree Calling count? What about the German-language version of Murder!? – but it’s reasonable to claim he made 53 feature films in a 51-year directorial career. In Western cinema, he stands at the most famous and arguably most revered movie director of all time. But how did it begin? What was the spark of life in the primordial soup?

‘Sir Michael Balcon is really the man responsible for Hitchcock,’ Alfred once said, referring to his time at Gainsborough. ‘One day Balcon said that the director – I worked with the same director all the time – didn’t want me any more. I don’t know what the reason was, some political reason. And it was then that Balcon said, “How would you like to become a director?” I had been quite content at the time, writing scripts and designing. I enjoyed it very much.’ The project Balcon had in mind for his protégé was a co-production between Gainsborough and the German studio Emelka. It was an adaptation of a novel by Oliver Sandys (one of several pseudonyms used by the writer Marguerite Florence Laura Jarvis).

Filming on The Pleasure Garden got underway in March 1925 on location in Italy. The cast featured two American stars brought over to Europe by Balcon, Virginia Valli and Carmelita Geraghty, but it wasn’t an easy shoot. The budget ran low, forcing Hitchcock to borrow cash from several people – including his cast and Alma. He had to pay a fine before Italian customs officials would allow the precious film stock into the country. And there was reportedly an awkward incident when an actress refused to film a scene in water because it was her time of the month (the innocent Hitchcock had to have this problem explained to him). Some filming was carried out in at Villa d’Este on Lake Como, where Hitchcock and Alma would later have their honeymoon and several subsequent holidays. The production then wrapped in August at Geiselgasteig Studios in Munich.

The resulting film shows all the exuberance and enthusiasm of a debut – despite its melodramatic and simplistic storyline, The Pleasure Garden is full of Hitchcockian energy and invention. It’s often been tagged as a ‘backstage’ drama, and it’s true that early scenes are set in the sometimes harsh world of a West End theatre. But we soon move away from that into torrid, and even lurid, romantic entanglements.

A woman with little dance experience, Jill Cheyne (Carmelita Geraghty), wants to be a showgirl so is given a try-out by a haughty producer called Oscar Hamilton (Georg H Schnell, who had appeared in Murnau’s Nosferatu). She attempts the Charleston and impresses, so is offered a gig at five pounds a week. ‘You know I’m better than that,’ she replies. ‘I’ll take 20.’ She quickly becomes the star of the show, but her new friend and fellow dancer Patsy Brand (Virginia Valli) grows concerned that fame is going to her head – especially when Jill moves out of their shared flat, begins socialising with an aristo called Prince Ivan (Karl Falkenberg) and cheats on her abroad-on-business fiancé, Hugh (John Stuart, an actor with a career long enough to take in 1978’s Superman: The Movie). At the same time, Patsy grows close to Hugh’s colleague, the lonely bachelor Levet (Miles Mander); they later marry and take their honeymoon on – that’s right – Lake Como.

However, Levet then also goes overseas for his job and falls ill. When word reaches Patsy, she wants to go and see him but Jill refuses to loan her the cash for a boat ticket (‘Can’t do, Patsy – I’m spending everything on my trousseau. The Prince and I will be married soon.’) Eventually getting the funds from her kindly landlords, Patsy arrives in unnamed foreign climes and discovers that Levet has been sleeping with a local girl. She flees, and an embarrassed and angered Levet reacts by drowning his new girlfriend. Patsy and the jilted Hugh then find solace with each other and fall in love, but Levet suffers ghostly visions of his murdered girlfriend so resolves to kill Patsy too…

Hitch later called The Pleasure Garden ‘just an assignment’ and dismissed it by implication when he claimed his third feature, The Lodger, was the first true Hitchcock film. But it’s fascinating to us now for more reasons than it just being a famous director’s debut movie. The most obvious is simply that it’s a very watchable and charming piece of work in its own right: engaging, visually ambitious and – thanks to the soap-opera plotting – never dull. But it also comes so fully formed. The Pleasure Garden is no rough-and-ready, first-draft version of the Hitchcock brand. The term auteur – which denotes a director being the ‘author’ of a movie – wouldn’t come into mass usage in film criticism until the 1950s, but here is a 25-year-old Alfred Hitchcock showcasing so many of his personal concerns and favourite techniques that would run throughout the next half-century of his career.

Hitchcock would one day be the benchmark for how to tell a story through specific points of view, for example – Rear Window is the classic instance, presenting its entire world through the perspective of James Stewart’s housebound photographer. In The Pleasure Garden, we get a taster of that formal device early on: as rows of chorus girls dance on stage, we see enraptured men on the front row and are invited to watch the girls through their lustful eyes. There’s more risqué-ness later on too, such as when the young and attractive Jill and Patsy unselfconsciously undress while getting ready for bed barely minutes after meeting. Hitchcock would never be too far away from potentially saucy moments like this – see Madeleine Carroll taking her tights off in The 39 Steps, or the famously Freudian gag that sees a train entering a tunnel just as two characters become amorous in North by Northwest.

And the seeds that will grow into later obsessions continue sprouting. Perhaps we can detect the director’s strict Jesuit schooling in a moment when he both presents and mocks religion in The Pleasure Garden: Jill prays before going to bed, while the more earthy Patsy watches on bemused. Faith and its implications would play a major role in I Confess, while you can detect Catholic guilt in many other films. But this theme rarely if ever dominated story. A few diversions into realism aside – The Wrong Man, Frenzy – Hitchcock was always a keen proponent of the idea that movies are escapism. They can be dramatic, they can be meaningful, but they should always be first and foremost entertaining. Later in his career, he and his collaborators excelled at Hollywood sheen and a vibrant, Vistavision veneer – think of the sunny To Catch a Thief, which positively radiates with beauty and luxury, or the 3D sophistication of Dial M for Murder. But this wasn’t an idea that had to evolve. His first film has a glamour all of its own, whether it’s the Art Deco decadence of the West End fantasies being created by Oscar Hamilton or the exotic Mediterranean locations. (Of course, viewers in the 21st century also get a thrill akin to opening a time-capsule. The Pleasure Garden is not only a film set in the mid-1920s. It was *made* in the mid-1920s. Those cloche hats are genuine, not postmodern costume design.)

All that’s missing from the Alfred Hitchcock collection of motifs is perhaps his most remarkable: a troubled, enigmatic, sexy yet icy-cool blonde with a dark past. But that aside, brilliantly, The Pleasure Garden sees the director’s personality and preferences splashed across every set-up, every frame, like a master painter with his own unique brushwork.

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The final destination of my exploration of Leytonstone came after a 20-minute walk further north, via a footpath under the busy A12. On Whipps Cross Road, opposite a section of the ancient Epping Forest, I found the reasonably grand façade of the Sir Alfred Hitchcock Hotel. The establishment has no authentic connection to the great man himself, but it’s another example of east London commemorating his achievements. According to lettering painted onto a mirror in its small hallway, the hotel was opened on 27 August 1980 – just four months after Hitchcock’s death. Its bar is open to the public and has many photographs of Hitchcock and his leading actors on the walls. There’s also a framed copy of Alfred and Alma’s marriage certificate from 1928.

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I bought a beer from a pretty barmaid who was clearly bored out of her skull with the laddish regulars gathered around the small bar, then I sat at an outside table, resting my weary feet and enjoying the breeze coming off the Leyton Flats section of the nearby forest. It had been a good day.

The term ‘silent film’ is a retronyn, only coming into parlance once we had films that *weren’t* silent. (A similar process has happened with ‘analogue watch’, ’steam train’ and ‘hardback book’.) But, very sadly, a lot of silent films are silent in more ways than just having no soundtrack. Three out of every four British movies made in the silent era can’t communicate to us at all because they are now lost. And not even the revered Alfred Hitchcock has evaded this cultural cull. The footage shot for Number 13 is long since gone. Only a couple of reels of Always Tell Your Wife exist. Hitch’s second feature, 1926’s The Mountain Eagle, is one of the most sought-after missing films in cinema history.

But, wonderfully, The Pleasure Garden is still here. And if you look hard enough, so is Alfred Hitchcock – in spirit at least.

Eight lovely curls of hair out of 10

Notes and acknowledgements:

A new restoration of The Pleasure Garden was carried out by the BFI in 2012. Judging by the trailer, it’s an amazing piece of renovation and reconstruction – but inconviently for me it’s not available commercially. As research for this review, I therefore resorted to watching a poor-quality copy of a 1981 rerelease on YouTube. Produced by the film collector Raymond Rohauer, this version of The Pleasure Garden is the work of a hack: it’s missing many scenes (which have since been added back for the BFI version), while the attractive title cards have been ‘updated’ with drab plain-text replacements.

My walk around east London took place on Friday 21 June 2019. Photos © Ian Farrington 2019.

I drew on many different sources for the factual information contained in this essay, but a few online articles are worth mentioning specifically.

The Hitchcock Zone’s pages on The Pleasure Garden helped with some important details, especially the section that lists all the original title cards.

Hitchcock’s 1963 interview with Peter Bogdanovich has been endlessly helpful throughout this blogging project.

This post (from a fascinating website that’s well worth exploring in full) is especially strong on The Pleasure Garden’s production and archive history.

This website helped with local information about Leytonstone.

The full set of Leytonstone Underground Station murals can be viewed at Greenwich Mural Workshop‘s official site and at this walking-tours page.

First Blood (1982, Ted Kotcheff)

First Blood

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A former Special Forces soldier is harassed by a small-town police sheriff so decides to fight back…

What does Stallone do? When offered the lead in a new film based on a novel by David Morrell, Sylvester Stallone agreed if he could also work on the script. Sly’s contribution was largely to make Vietnam veteran John Rambo a more sympathetic man. In Stallone’s draft, for example, unlike in the book, the character avoids directly killing people… Rambo is a former Green Beret and a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Like Stallone’s other key character, Rocky Balboa, he’s also fundamentally a decent guy. But as the story begins, he’s depressed that so many of his old army buddies have died. He wanders into a small town looking for somewhere to eat, but his rough appearance and long(ish) hair rile the local sheriff, who promptly arrests him. Then, during a humiliating booking procedure, John suffers flashbacks to his time in ’Nam. (He was tortured by the Viet Cong and now clearly has post-traumatic stress as well as physical scars.) He snaps, attacks several cops, and flees into the massive woods outside the town. Fashioning improvised weapons and traps, John then evades a manhunt and defends himself when the police get too close… Stallone gives a stoic and largely silent performance based on stillness and stealth (at least until an over-the-top emotional scene towards the end of the film).

Other main characters:
* Sheriff Will Teasle (Brian Dennehy) knows everyone in his small town. But his affable manner with the locals hides the fact he’s a wannabe Dirty Harry. He sees himself as the law incarnate, a man who can dish out summary justice. So when he spots a glum stranger looking slightly unkempt, and fears he might be a troublemaker, Teasle tries to shepherd the guy out of town. A defiant John Rambo ignores the advice – so a pissed-off Teasle arrests him for vagrancy. After Rambo beats up several policemen and escapes custody, Teasle leads the chase into the forests. He thinks he can hunt his prey down, but John is far too well trained – and even sneaks up on the sheriff at one point (with a knife to his throat, he asks him to ‘let it go’). Dennehy – a bear of a man with steel in his eye – is terrific in the role. Teasle’s not a nice man, but neither is he a moron, and the actor plays both elements.
* One of Teasle’s officers is a twatty brute called Art Galt (Jack Starrett). He’s the ringleader who treats John so appallingly when he’s arrested – beating him, blasting him with cold water, generally treating him like scum – then later falls fatally from a helicopter while trying to shoot his nemesis in the woods. A young David Caruso is one of the other cops.
* Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) shows up when the manhunt gets underway. He’s John’s former Special Forces CO and knows full well how dangerous he can be. ‘I didn’t come here to rescue Rambo from you,’ he tells Teasle when the two men butt heads. ‘I came here to rescue you from him.’ He can’t at first convince his protégé to come in, but later confronts him when John returns to the town… (Kirk Douglas was initially hired to play Trautman, but then quit soon into filming: creative differences, it seems.)

Key scene: After hiding in the woods for more than 24 hours, Rambo is eventually flushed out and returns to the town of Hope, Washington (or ‘Jerkwater, USA’ as Trautman sarcastically calls it). Before this point, First Blood has been a grungy, down-and-dirty drama; now it takes on an expressionistic, mythical feel. The town has become a hellish reflection of Rambo’s state of mind: it’s night-time, it’s deserted, and thanks to John’s covert diversion tactics, there are fires rages at several locations. The stage is set for a showdown…

Review: This efficiently directed movie – no fuss, no fat – takes place in the Pacific Northwest of America, so there’s plenty of low cloud, mountains, mud, rain, woodland and mist. But despite this setting, which obviously echoes the kind of terrain John Rambo will have crossed in Vietnam, the plot is straight out of a Western. John is the iconoclastic stranger of few words who wanders into a new town and clashes with a powerful figure – akin to Clint Eastwood in, say, A Fistful of Dollars (1964) or High Plains Drifter (1973). Teasle is obviously the corrupt sheriff. (Additionally, like many Westerns, First Blood has no interest in female characters.) Barrelling along, with both action and a bit of subtext about how society treats its ‘heroes’, this is an entertaining and well-made film. Whether the brave, emotional finale hits home will depend on personal taste, however. Perhaps Stallone’s manic, garbled delivery when Trautman elicits a cathartic breakdown from Rambo is appropriate for a man so traumatised by a savage war. Or maybe it’s just bad acting.

Eight water hoses out of 10

Next: Rambo: First Blood Part II

Rocky (1976, John G Avildsen)

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A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Small-time boxer Rocky Balboa is offered the chance to take on the world champion…

What does Stallone do? Wanting to give his career a kick-start, struggling actor Sylvester Stallone wrote a script inspired by a no-hoper boxer who nearly lasted the distance with Muhammad Ali in March 1975. Selling the project to United Artists, he insisted that he play the lead role himself and this was the start of Stallone the movie star. Nevertheless, his persona in this film is quieter and far more downtrodden than he later became; it’s actually a decent job of acting. Rocky Balboa (aka the Italian Stallion) is a young guy from Philadelphia, scraping a living from fighting in poorly paid boxing bouts and carrying out strongarm work for a puffed-up gangster. Crucially, he’s not an out-and-out crook – early on, we see him defy his boss and *not* break someone’s thumb. We also feel for Rocky when he’s given just $40 for a bruising fight or when he loses his locker at the local gym or when he sweetly flirts with a woman he fancies. He’s a nice guy, if rough round the edges. The character is then offered the chance of a lifetime: to fight the world heavyweight champion in a title bout. (Unbeknownst to Rocky, the champ has picked him from obscurity simply because he likes his nickname.)

Other main characters:
* Rocky’s love interest, Adrianna ‘Adrian’ Pennino, is played by Talia Shire (then most notable for her role in The Godfather series). When we meet her, she’s a meek, nervous, glasses-wearing singleton in a cardi who works at a pet shop. Rocky flirts with her and their slow-burn, underplayed romance takes up a big section of the movie’s middle third.
* Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) runs Rocky’s local gym and has a 50-year career in boxing. He’s rude and mean towards Rocky – but we eventually realise it’s down to frustration. Mickey thinks Rocky has the talent to be successful but wastes his time working for a loan shark. When Rocky is offered a chance to fight the world champion, the gravelly-voiced and lopsided-faced Mickey offers to be his manager/trainer. He’s one of the great mentors in cinema, and Meredith brings plenty of soul to the part.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) is Rocky’s pal and Adrian’s brother. A drunk and a dullard, he tries matchmaking Rocky with Adrian because she’s nearly 30 and he worries about her ending up alone.
* World heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) – a charismatic, verbose character fairly obviously based on Muhammad Ali – is preparing for a boxing bout to celebrate America’s bicentennial. But his opponent pulls out due to injury, so Apollo hits upon the PR-friendly idea of taking on a local unknown instead. Weathers is terrific, taking a thinly written character who doesn’t get much screentime and giving him so much pizzazz.

Key scene: The title bout, as Rocky goes 15 rounds with Apollo. There’s a remorseless volley of punches, sweat flying everywhere, the macabre moment when Rocky needs to have his bruised eyelid sliced open, and the euphoric ending that pulls an amazing trick of giving our lead character an emotional win despite him losing the fight on points. After the final bell, as Rocky calls out for his girlfriend – ‘Adrian! Adrian!’ – he doesn’t even listen to the result being announced. It was never about winning. Creed was just too good. It was about *not falling down*.

Review: At the Academy Awards ceremony on 28 March 1977, Rocky beat All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver to the Best Picture Oscar – that’s some company, and to be honest it’s difficult to argue that the conventional Rocky deserved the win. The narrative structure of a lowly hero who overcomes obstacles is as old as the hills and has a familiar Hollywood chime. But perhaps what appealed to the Academy voters the most was the grimy, cynical sense of realism. This story takes place in a cold, inner-city, working-class world of litter-strewn streets and flaking wallpaper and money problems. It’s shot in real locations and is not lit very prettily. Aside from the pointedly flashy Carl Weathers, the film is also stocked with characterful and ‘unattractive’ faces. All this makes the slightly implausible story – an unknown being given a shot at the big time – feel like something that could actually happen, while the script and Stallone’s unshowy performance really make you root for Rocky. Then once we enter the training scenes and especially the climactic bout, Bill Conti’s incidental music becomes more and more stirring and rousing and anthemic and you’re throwing and ducking every punch. It’s melodramatic, but you can’t take your eyes off it.

Eight raw eggs out of 10

Next time: Rocky II

Strangers on a Train (1951, Alfred Hitchcock)

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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 tennis pro’s life takes a dark turn when he bumps into someone who suggests they each commit a murder on behalf of the other…

Flicking past at the imperceptible rate of 24 per second, there are something like 140,000 individual frames in Alfred Hitchcock’s classy thriller Strangers on a Train. But let’s focus on just 20 of them to illustrate, in a minor way, just why the director was such a master at visual storytelling.

1-3: The footsteps

We’re introduced to the film’s two strangers in an unusual way. To dramatise amiable tennis professional Guy Haines (Farley Granger) encountering the unsettling playboy Bruno Antony (Robert Walker), Hitchcock at first only shows us the two men’s shoes as they march independently – and in opposite screen directions – through a train station. We sense that these two men are about to collide, and when they do it’s an underplayed moment as their feet accidentally touch under a table aboard the train. This gets Guy and Bruno talking, and after learning that Guy has a troublesome wife called Miriam who won’t divorce him, Bruno suggests a dark plan: *he’ll* kill the wife, if Guy murders Bruno’s rich father… Guy rejects Bruno’s plan, thinking at least in part that he’s not being serious, and exits their train compartment. Unknowingly, he leaves behind a distinctive monogrammed cigarette lighter, which Bruno realises might be useful…

4-6: The hands

Later Hitchcock uses thought-association cutting to suggest that Guy might be considering the macabre idea. After a row with his truculent wife, he’s on the phone to the new woman in his life and – raising his voice to be heard over a nearby train – says that he’d like to kill Miriam. He’s only speaking figuratively, but we then dissolve to Bruno’s hands held in a strangulation pose. The connection between problem and potential solution is clear. There’s then a undercut of a punchline: Bruno’s holding his hands like that because he’s having a manicure from his mother.

7 & 8: The stalking

Not waiting for Guy to agree formally to his plan, the psychopathic Bruno tracks down Miriam at a funfair. He sits behind her on a carousel, and from the way Hitchcock frames the actors and the way actress Laura Elliott looks over her shoulder we can tell that she enjoys the attentions of this stranger…

9: The murder

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Following her to a secluded spot, Bruno attacks Miriam and strangles her – we see the killing reflected in her glasses, which have been knocked off in the struggle. This arch way of filming the death is a typical Hitchcock flourish: he knows we watch these films for the ‘thrill’ of things such as murder, so how better to present it than in the lens of a pair of spectacles?

10 & 11: Film noir

Alfred Hitchcock made several films that employ film-noir conventions such as black-and-white photography, great use of shadows, morally ambiguous characters, a mystery plot, a mood of cynicism and an atmosphere thick with menace. The most notable uses include Shadow of a Doubt, Spellbound, Notorious, I Confess and The Wrong Man, but Strangers on a Train has its fair share of noir imagery. After Miriam’s murder, Guy realises that Bruno is waiting for him outside his home. We see Guy in an off-kilter camera angle that could be straight out of The Third Man, the 1949 British film that stands as one of the genre’s most beautiful examples, while Bruno stands hidden in the shadows.

12 & 13: Symbolism

When Guy then walks over to talk to Bruno – and is shocked by the lengths this man has gone to – Hitchcock uses one of the neatest tricks in cinematography. Bruno doesn’t want anyone to see the two men chatting, so stands back from the pavement, hiding behind a metal gate. Hitchcock frames him *behind bars*, implying where his criminal activities will lead him. Then, later in the same scene, as Guy gets sucked into Bruno’s plan more and more, it becomes his turn for the symbolism…

14-16: The tennis match

Guy wants nothing to do with Bruno, but can’t shake him. The murderer even shows up when Guy is taking part in a professional tennis tournament – and we spot him in the crowd because, while everyone else turns their head to watch the ball going back and forth, Bruno stares at his co-conspirator…

17: The memory

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As Guy resists, Bruno becomes more desperate and anxious – after all, he killed a woman he didn’t know expressly so Guy would then kill his father for him, but Guy hasn’t  followed through with his side of the ‘bargain’. We see something of the Bruno’s turmoil when he encounters Barbara, the sister of Guy’s current girlfriend. She wears glasses coincidentally similar to Miriam’s, and they trigger in Bruno a flashback to the murder – he also remembers Guy’s cigarette lighter, so to dramatise the idea Hitchcock superimposes the item onto the lenses of Barbara’s glasses. (By the way, Barbara is played by Pat Hitchcock, Alfred’s daughter.)

18 & 19: The fight

Guy soon realises that Bruno plans to plant the lighter at the crime scene, as revenge for Guy’s failure to go through with murdering Bruno’s father. The climax of the film is set, and we return to the amusement park, where Guy and Bruno fight on the carousel. Hitchcock has great fun with fast cutting and dramatic angles, while the fake horses of the ride appear alive as the two men fall onto the floor and the ‘hooves’ pound up and down near their heads…

20: The finale

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After an accident sends the carousel spinning out of control, Bruno is killed. The final image of the film is then Guy’s all-important cigarette lighter – Strangers on a Train’s MacGuffin – being held limply in Bruno’s dead hand.

Eight men with a double bass out of 10

 

Drácula (1931, George Melford)

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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: Castle Dracula in Transylvania; aboard a ship on the open seas; London. Renfield mentions that he was called to the bar in 1928, so we’re in the 1930s.

Faithful to the novel? The story of the production of this Universal Pictures film is both famous and fascinating. It’s a Spanish-language movie produced at the same time and on the same sets as the more famous English-language version starring Bela Lugosi, with this movie’s crew working at night while the main unit slept. Doubling up like this was an occasional practise in the days before post-dubbing dialogue was possible and it allowed the studio to release the same title in different territories. Using the same script and sets, therefore, the Spanish film Drácula has the same storyline as the English version; both were adaptations of the Dracula stage play so the plot only loosely follows Stoker’s book. See my earlier blog here for more details.

Best performance: Eva Seward (played by Lupita Tovar, an actress who lived to be 106 years old, dying only in 2016) is a noticeably more spirited and charismatic character than her counterpart in the Lugosi movie.

Best bit: During production, the Spanish version’s crew kept a keen eye on what the other team were doing and often saw ways of improving the action. One example comes when Van Helsing realises the mysterious foreigner newly arrived in London is a vampire. In both films, the doctor spots that Dracula has no reflection, but look at how the two shots work compositionally. In Tod Browning’s English-language version (left), the debt owed to the stage play is obvious: we’re looking at flatly arranged actors, the mirror is small in the shot and actor Edward Van Sloane has to turn away from the camera to look at it. However, when the same beat was filmed for the Spanish film (right), we can see the shock on the face of Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) and at the same time the mirror is large and significant in the frame.

Review: If you know the Bela Lugosi movie, it’s an uncanny experience to see different actors performing the same actions on familiar sets. And in some ways the comparison does the more famous film no favours. This lesser-seen Dracula is visually more competent and ‘modern’; the action flows a bit more smoothly and the creepy scenes get under your skin (often by using silence to generate tension). But while director George Melford was popular with his cast, the fact he himself didn’t speak Spanish can’t have helped with the performances, which to this non-Spanish-speaking reviewer sometimes seem stilted and uncertain. One exception is Carlos Villasias, who is effective as Conde Drácula. Uniquely among the cast he was allowed to watch footage of the other film because producers wished him to imitate Bela Lugosi. In the end, he maybe gives the better performance.

Eight London newspapers that apparently print their front-page stories in Spanish out of 10

Downhill (1927, Alfred Hitchcock)

Downhill

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A young man faces a series of hardships when he gallantly agrees to take the blame for a friend’s indiscretion…

Ivor Novello – who also co-wrote the stage play on which this film is based – plays Roddy Berwick, a high-achieving pupil at the kind of English public school later spoofed in the TV comedy Ripping Yarns. He’s the star rugger player and school hottie and an all-round good egg.

We see him larking about. We see him hanging out and listening to music with his pal Tim (Robin Irvine) and local waitress Mabel (Annette Benson). He seems a decent soul. But Roddy encounters problems when Mabel announces to the school’s headmaster that she’s pregnant – and Roddy is the father. He isn’t; it’s actually Tim, but she’s named Roddy because his family are rich. At first Roddy thinks it’s a joke, then the dread dawns on him. He’s faced with expulsion. But he knows that if he points the finger towards Tim, he’d be kicked out instead – and that would prevent the lower-class Tim getting into Oxford. So Roddy takes the blame…

Beautifully restored by the BFI, the print of Downhill now available to view positively gleans with clarity and smooth motion. It’s also been colour-tinted to reflect how audiences in 1927 would have seen it. All this French polishing allows us to appreciate the performances, which while obviously mannered and overly expressive in the style of silent cinema still contain warmth and charm. (There are very few title cards, the visual-minded Hitchcock preferring to let the actors’ expressions and postures tell the story.)

We can also bask in the brilliant mise-en-scene – the sets are very well designed and excellently dressed – as well as Hitchcock’s striking camera angles and lighting. For example, there are long lingering shots of a dejected Roddy standing forlornly on the escalator of a London Underground station or in an elevator. It’s not a coincidence that he’s moving downwards in both images; it’s a reflection of his state of mind. Elsewhere, an actress in a Paris nightclub has different levels of make-up depending on how Roddy sees her. Later, a discombobulated Roddy’s woozy point-of-view shots are achieved by crossfading different takes. His surroundings are often his emotions writ large. It’s German Expressionism transported into a minor British melodrama.

Having been expelled from the school and ostracised by his father, who believes Mabel’s lie, Roddy is left all alone in the world. He gets a job at a theatre, only to fall for a woman (Isabel Jeans in the first of her three Hitchcock roles) who cheats on him and spends all his money. He goes to France and works as a gigolo, but the disappointments keep coming and soon even his health fails him. Eventually – because the moral of this story is that things will come right in the end – an ill and mixed-up Roddy is taken home by some sailors who hope to get a reward. Thankfully, his father has since learnt the truth about Mabel and Tim, and welcomes him back with open arms. The last scene of the film has Roddy back on the rugby pitch of his old school. It’s an unconvincing and perhaps unsatisfyingly happy ending, but the ‘down’ journey there has been be so impressive you don’t begrudge Roddy his moment of ‘up’.

Eight sweetshops out of 10

Sabotage (1936, Alfred Hitchcock)

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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.

The police have a terrorist under surveillance as he and his cohorts plan an attack…

A young boy called Stevie (Desmond Tester) has been given an important errand. He’s been asked by his elder sister’s foreign husband, Karl Verloc (Oskar Homolka), to deliver a package to Piccadilly Circus. Stevie thinks the bundle is made up of just film cans – the family run a cinema, after all – but what he doesn’t know is that Karl has included a bomb. Mr Verloc is a terrorist, under orders from a shadowy network of foreign agents.

It’s a shame Homolka gives such a limp, unsure performance as Karl. The character should dominate the film: he’s the threat, he’s the danger. But the actor is so poor he sucks the life and tension out of his scenes. Around the time this film was made, Hitchcock worked twice with another actor from central Europe, Peter Lorre – and it’s difficult not to imagine him in the part, making Karl both scarier and more sympathetic.

As he travels across London, Stevie realises he’s running late. It’s the day of the Lord Mayor’s Show and the city is buzzing with crowds and the streets are choc-a-bloc with traffic. So he jumps on bus, using his cheek to get past the conductor who points out that celluloid is flammable and isn’t allowed on public transport. But the bus moves slowly, struggling through the throngs and past the shops and markets and parade. Stevie nervously taps his leg and repeatedly glances out of the window. We see his point of view as the bus crawls past various clocks hanging above shop fronts, emphasising how time is getting on.

He’s jittery because he’s going to be late – Verlock insisted that the cans are delivered by a specific time. We’re frantic with worry, meanwhile, because we know the bomb is set to go off at 1.45pm.

The editing gets quicker and more urgent and more intense. And then… boom. The bus is ripped apart by an explosion. All the passengers are surely killed, including innocent Stevie. It’s one of the more shocking moments in Hitchcock’s canon. In a morbid joke, the director then cuts to a scene of Stevie’s sister, oblivious as to what’s happened and laughing with her husband…

Hitchcock later said that he regretting killing Stevie – though not from any moralistic motive. It was because, he believed, that he’d fumbled the film’s sense of suspense. ‘That was a big error,’ he said 30 years after making the movie. ‘The bomb should never have gone off. If you build an audience up to that point, the explosion becomes strangely anti-climactic. You work the audience up to such a degree that they need the relief. One should have done the killing a different way, off the screen or something. I shouldn’t have made a suspense thing of it.’

However, it’s worth emphasising that Sabotage works so well precisely because a sympathetic character dies so horribly and in such a way that defies expectation. There are countless movies that set up a tragic death like this and then cop out at the last minute, allowing the kid to survive. Sabotage goes for the jugular. The explosion also motivates the remainder of the story: the character arc of Stevie’s sister, an American ex-pat played well by Sylvia Sidney, wouldn’t make sense without her devastated grief. As Hitchcock himself said, ‘The boy had to be killed for the sake of the story.’

The bomb sequence is also one of Hitchcock’s most stunning moments on a technical level. The director had recently been introduced to the wonders of Soviet montage – a revolutionary editing technique that had developed in Russia in the 1920s – by Ivor Montague, a communist writer who worked on several Hitchcock films as a kind of associate producer. It puts meaning not only into individual shots but, crucially, into the relationship and connection between them. Cutting to a new camera angle or a new scene or a new location is not just a matter of seeing something new: the edit also gives viewers extra information. In its simplest terms, if a movie cuts from one character looking longingly off-camera to an image of another character, we understand that the former is looking at the latter and is in love. We don’t need to see both at the same time nor we do we need to be told what’s happening. (Montage has become so mainstream it’s one of the bases of Western narrative cinema. But we must remember that the art form didn’t *need* to develop in this way.)

The cutting between innocent Stevie, the film cans, the bus, the crowds, the clocks, the traffic lights and all the rest leaves us in no doubt what’s about to happen – the sequence has real power. The technique appears elsewhere in the film too. After learning of Stevie’s death, his devastated sister sees taunting visions of him alive and well – a palpable and effective dramatisation of grief made possibly by cutting together different shots with real skill.

This awareness of cinema also extended to the film’s setting. The Verlocs live above an urban cinema, which allows Hitchcock to have some self-referential fun. One scene takes place behind the screen while a film is being projected; as discussed, the plot’s most shocking moment involves a boy carrying the film cans of a two-reeler called Bartholomew the Strangler. A clip from Sabotage was even reused 73 years later in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds: the moment when a bus conductor tells Stevie that carrying film cans in public is a fire risk features in an explanatory montage. 

Eight men crossing the road out of 10