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.

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Juno and the Paycock (1930, 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 Boyle family come into a large amount of money during the Irish Civil War, but does it make them happier?

Alfred Hitchcock once called Juno and the Paycock ‘a photographed stage play’ – and no other film he directed feels less cinematic. At times, as the am-dram cast drone on, you wonder whether he’s nodded off and forgotten to call cut. (Of course, this is unlikely for more than the obvious reason of professionalism: Hitchcock made the film expressly because he liked the play it’s based on so much.)

Set during the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, the story follows a family of meagre means headed by drunkard husband Captain Boyle (Edward Chapman). His wife, Juno (Sara Allgood), calls him a paycock – a pun on peacock because he poses but has little fight. The family also features invalid son Johnny (John Laurie, much later of Dad’s Army fame) and daughter Mary (Kathleen O’Regan), who’s on strike from her job.

There are money worries, failed romances, religious satire, a few songs, murder and a political edge thanks to the context of 1920s Ireland and the disagreement over how to form a new independent country. But nevertheless the drab, depressing substance combined with no discernible style in either the playing or the staging means that this film becomes very boring very quickly.

Three real Dublin people out of 10

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

The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)

TheLadyVanishes

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

On a train journey across Europe, a young woman begins to panic when a fellow passenger goes missing without a trace…

Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes is an adaptation of the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White – and it’s breezy, confident and a lot of fun. Four decades later, there was another film adaptation of the same book, this time directed by Anthony Page and made by Hammer Films. Inevitably it’s tempting to view the two movies in direct comparison, so let’s do just that and see how they match up.

Story

Both films follow largely the same plot. A motley gang of passengers – a beautiful fiancée, an eccentric older woman, a couple having an affair, two cricket-obsessed men and others – board a train in central Europe, heading west. The young fiancée befriends the older woman, but is shocked when the latter goes missing… and her anxiety only increases when no one else on board seems to remember ever seeing the woman. The fiancée’s only ally is a charming young man who helps her search (perhaps more because he fancies her than he believes her story). After they spot a bandaged patient being brought aboard the train at the next station, the fiancée suspects that the older woman has been switched for the patient – and it turns out she’s right! A group of bad guys have been hunting the older woman because she’s actually a secret agent carrying a coded message back to London. Eventually, the train is surrounded by gunmen and the fiancée, her male friend and others passengers are besieged – they must hold off the bad guys until the older woman can sneak away to continue her quest…

Time

1938: Hitchcock’s film is set contemporaneously to when it was made, so the story takes place in the late 1930s.

1979: We’re in the late 1930s in the Hammer version too – an on-screen caption tells us it’s August 1939. But because these filmmakers had the perspective of 40 years, their movie has an extra level of political context. It’s the month before Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War, and Nazis have taken over the picturesque town where the story begins.

Place

1938: Hitchcock’s film gets underway in the fictional central-European state of Bandrika (‘one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners’), starting at an alpine inn and then following the train as it crosses the countryside. One of the stops the trains makes is at the similarly made-up town of Morshkan.

1979: The action begins in the landlocked German state of Bavaria. The passengers then board a train for Basel in Switzerland.

Heroine

1938: The lead character is Iris Henderson, who we first meet in the inn staying with two friends. One night she complains about noise coming from the floor above and has the man creating the racket kicked out of his room. Brazenly, he then walks into her room while she’s in bed and attempts to share it. The next day Iris leaves for London to get married, but we suspect that her heart is not really in it. She soon bonds with another guest from the inn, a kindly older woman. But after Iris wakes from a nap, the woman has disappeared – and Iris gets increasingly manic when no one else on the train remembers seeing her… Iris is played by Margaret Lockwood, who is a British take on the idea of a ‘Hawksian woman’: a type of female character popularised by director Howard Hawks who is both movie-star beautiful and sassy-smart. Or as Hitchcock put it when discussing Lockwood: ‘She photographs more than normally easily and has an extraordinary insight in getting the feel of her lines, to live within them.’

1979: In the later film, Iris’s equivalent is ‘madcap’ heiress Amanda Metcalf-Midvani-Von Hoffsteader-Kelly, whose introduction into the story comes when she does a daring impression of Hitler… while drunk… and wearing a slinky and revealing evening gown… in front of dozens of Nazi shits in a hotel bar. She’s nearly 30, enjoys marrying people for money, and is American rather than English, but like Iris is on her way to London for a wedding she’s not too enthusiastic about… Cybill Shepherd plays her character with a fast-talking energy and the air of someone who’s used to getting her own way. The actress had burst onto the scene with an amazing performance in drama film The Last Picture Show (1971), then starred in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976.

Hero

1938: The man causing the noise above Iris’s hotel room is musicologist Gilbert Redman, who spends the whole film with a carefree, cheerful attutide. He’s a cocky individual, but as he’s the only passenger on the train willing to help Iris she’s forced to spend some time with him. He’s deflated when he learns Iris is returning to London to marry, then like so many of Hitchcock’s mismatched partnerships of the 1930s – The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Young and Innocent – they almost imperceptibly start to fall for each other. Gilbert is played by Michael Redgrave, a member of the famous Redgrave acting dynasty (he was the son of stage actor Roy Redgrave; the father of Vanessa Redgrave, Corin Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave; and the grandfather of Natasha Richardson, Joely Richardson and Jemma Redgrave). The Lady Vanishes was his first big film role, but he was an established theatre actor and brings a knowing wit to the part.

1979: Gilbert’s equivalent in the second adaptation has also has his nationality switched to American. Robert Condon is a photojournalist rather than a music expert, so we get a more subdued meet-cute than in 1938. There’s no ruckus in the bedroom above; instead the two characters simply get chatting outside their hotel. But, like Gilbert, Robert soon falls for the film’s leading lady – the fact Amanda spends the entire story in a flimsy dress and no bra is probably part of the reason. Elliott Gould, an actor who’d had a very good 1970s thanks to films such as M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, A Bridge Too Far and Capricorn One, gives Robert a different kind of light touch from Redgrave; less smug, more affable. His Jewish heritage also adds another level of meaning to the film, of course.

Lady

1938: The eponymous character of the story is the kind-hearted and inoffensive Miss Froy, a woman in her 70s. She claims to be a governess who’s lived and worked in Bandrika for six years; she says she loves the place. But we later learn that she’s an intelligence agent who’s been tasked with delivering a message to London – the information has been coded in the form of a musical tune, which she heard from an undercover spy in Bandrika. (As Hitchcock himself later chuckled, why don’t they just send the message via carrier pigeon?) Miss Froy is played with old-woman twinkle by May Whitty, a woman who was born in the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

1979: When we first glimpse Angela Lansbury’s Miss Froy in the 1979 film, she’s whistling a tune as she tramps down an alpine valley (so therefore already has the coded message as the film begins). She doesn’t meet Amanda until they take their seats on the train; the former helps the latter wash off her Hitler moustache, which she hasn’t had time to deal with since her drunken night in the bar. Lansbury was only in her early 50s when making this movie and plays Froy with a more lively eccentricity than Whitty.

Charters & Caldicott

1938: Two of the other passengers on the train are a pair of unflappable, unruffled Englishmen called Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne). They’re the story’s comic relief, and an early gag has you wonder if they’re secret agents – they say they need to race home because England is ‘on the brink’. Is this a comment on the rising threat from Nazi Germany? No, the two men are actually cricket obsessives and are talking about a Test match at Old Trafford. The characters are all the more amusing because the actors never go for ‘funny’ – they play everything dry, calmly; with a straight bat. (One comedic scene has them sharing a bed, Morecambe & Wise-style.) Radford and Wayne were so successful as supporting characters in this movie that they reprised Charters and Caldicott in three further unrelated films – Night Train to Munich (1940), which also co-starred Margaret Lockwood, Crook’s Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943). They also played suspiciously similar double acts in eight other films of the 1940s and various BBC Radio comedies.

1979: The 1979 versions of Charters and Caldicott are also entertaining and are played by Arthur Lowe, who’d spent the previous decade playing the self-important Captain Mainwaring in BBC sitcom Dad’s Army, and Ian Carmichael. In their opening scene, the men ask a German officer when a train is due to leave and are rather affronted that he doesn’t speak English. Later, the 1938 gag about needing to race home because ‘England is on the brink’ is repeated, but has added weight here because we know war really is imminent. After this film, Charters and Caldicott featured in their own TV spin-off, produced by the BBC in 1985 and starring Michael Aldridge and Robin Bailey. The characters were missing, however, when the Beeb made their own version of The Lady Vanishes in 2013. In that adaptation of the novel, their role in the story was given to female characters played by Stephanie Cole and Gemma Jones.

Production

1938: Hitchcock made his film entirely in London studios, but opened up the fictional world via rear-projection screens for the train windows, stock footage of moving locomotives, and – most appealingly – some beautiful model shots. The best of the latter is the film’s opening image: the camera pans across a charming, train-set model village covered in snow, tracking in towards the window of the inn. The film is in black and white, like all Hitchcock movies before 1948, and was made before the advent of widescreen cinema.

1979: Shot attractively in Panavision’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio and in colour by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Italian Job, Raiders of the Lost Ark), Hammer’s version contains plenty of location filming in Austria. Scenes aboard the train were recorded at Pinewood Studios, but the scenery passing by the windows is faked very well.

Review

Cinema was born with short films made by French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière and projected to paying audiences in the 1890s. One of their earliest works, first screened in January 1896, was a 50-second single take called L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. It showed – at a daringly oblique angle – a train pulling into a station, and the probably apocryphal story goes that audiences fled in terror, assuming the train would burst through the screen and into the room. So trains have been a part of the movies since the very beginning, and as the art form developed into complex narratives, they were soon being used as both plot devices and settings. Think of silent-movie clichés and you’ll probably list a scene where a woman lies on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. (It did happen, of course: in a 1905 film called The Train Wreckers, for example, or in 1911’s The Attempt on the Special. But the cliché actually predated cinema, and the few silent films that featured such a moment usually did so as a spoof.) Elsewhere, trains cropped up in some vastly significant films: DW Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1911), one of the earliest movies to cut between different locations rather than stick to a single setting; Buster Keaton’s innovatively filmed Civil War comedy The General (1926); the British action thriller The Flying Scotsman in 1929, which featured actors risking their lives by hanging off the side of the speeding locomotive; and Shanghai Express, the seductively noir-ish thriller directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1932. (And it wasn’t just cinema, of course. Agatha Christie published her novel Murder on the Orient Express – a masterpiece of a mystery story set almost entirely on a train – in 1934, just two years before Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins.) Hitchcock had got on board with the idea too, featuring trains in films such as The 39 Steps and Secret Agent. But his adaptation of The Lady Vanishes takes things to a whole new level. The dialogue sparkles like a screwball comedy, but the director never forgets that this is a thriller and he keeps the plot speeding along with such confidence, such aplomb. Things take a dark turn when Miss Froy disappears and an added element of pleasure comes from the sophistication of the script: the characters who claim they never saw the old woman each have a plausible reason for lying. This gives us, the audience, more information than Iris, allowing us to both enjoy and sympathise with her plight. The 1979 version, meanwhile, is an efficient film in its own right, if flatter and more conventional. Shepherd, Gould and Lansbury are all good value. Nevertheless, it was made with a certain disdain for the first adaptation. ‘Hitchcock’s film had some brilliant things in it,’ intoned writer George Axelrod. ‘But as a whole picture you’d have to admit it’s pretty creaky. The four or five things people remember from the original receive a homage in our version.’ What a strange thing to say: aside from the new political context, almost every good idea in the Hammer remake is a direct lift from 1938.

1938: Nine men at Waterloo station out of 10
1979: Seven poker games with Karl Marx and Jean Harlow out of 10

Acknowledgment: This blog post was helpful with details about trains in silent cinema.

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

Lifeboat (1944, Alfred Hitchcock)

Tallulah Bankhead In 'Lifeboat'

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After a ship is torpedoed by a U-boat, a group of survivors find shelter in a lifeboat – but they also take aboard a German…

Soon after its launch in 1944, Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat began to sink. Influential film critics objected to the even-handed depiction of a German character – a U-boat caption no less – and Twentieth Century Fox responded by limiting the number of prints in circulation and soft-pedalling the advertising. The movie actually ended up losing money at the box office.

It was released before the Normandy landings, so perhaps this reaction is understandable in the heightened context of the Second World War (even if, at the time, star Tallulah Bankhead called the critics moronic). But today it’s an unfair critique of a mostly excellent film. The first of Hitch’s single-location experiments (cf Rope, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window), Lifeboat presents an intriguing situation then populates it with memorable characters, plenty of drama and reversals of fortune. It’s a buoyant film, with themes that bubble to the surface. But there are also choppy waters along the way, as well as some dangerous undercurrents…

After an attack by a German U-boat, a passenger ship goes down in the Atlantic Ocean. A small group of survivors – a famous journalist, a couple of seaman, a nurse, a wealthy industrialist, a mother with her baby, a British radioman and a ship steward – find refuge in a lifeboat. They’re adrift, isolated and helpless. Their supplies are low and they have no means of contacting anyone.

The overall tone of the film is gallows humour mixed with a Blitz spirit. Despite the subtext of fear, there’s a real can-do attitude amongst this group. Whether it’s proactively fixing the boat’s damage or cataloguing supplies or playing cards – or working as a team to amputate a gangrenous leg! – these characters come together despite their differences. Every person in the story makes a contribution, even the character with the shortest screentime (Heather Angel’s Mrs Higley, whose baby dies but she’s too catatonic with shock to notice).

The nominal lead is journalist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), who appears at first to be a thoroughly awful woman, one so selfish that she boasts of the photographs she’s taken of the disaster rather than helping the victims. She starts off as an immaculately turned-out lady of society, but as she sheds clothes and accessories due to the heat and dehydration we get to know more and like her more. She even develops a cross-class flirtation with the rugged John Kovac (John Hodiak), a man who takes his shirt off at the earliest opportunity and flaunts his tattoos.

Elsewhere, there’s the affable but badly injured Gus Smith (William Bendix), the sweet and stoic Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), eccentric, cigar-chewing millionaire Charles J Rittenhouse Jr (Henry Hull), the friendly and resourceful Stanley ‘Sparks’ Garrett (Hume Cronyn, sadly putting on a pretty dire English accent) and the calming presence of ship steward Joe (Canada Lee). But thrown into this mix is an additional survivor, one who threatens to scuttle the sprightly group.

Floating through the wreckage of the passenger ship, they pull a stranger aboard. ‘Danke schoen,’ he says as he regains his breath, and the implication is immediately obvious. He’s from the U-boat, which itself has now sunk. But should our characters help stricken Willi (Walter Slezak)? Or should they just throw him overboard? He’s not an outwardly evil man, even offering help with poor Gus’s busted leg and suggesting the correct way to Bermuda. But he’s still the enemy. The dilemma of what to do with him drives much of the story, creates divisions within the lifeboat survivors, and has a shocking climax…

Based on an original idea by Hitchcock, the script was initially written by playwright John Steinbeck. (Ernest Hemingway had also been sounded out.) However, it was later tinkered with by a number of hands and Steinbeck disowned the project. In many ways, it’s a marvel. The dialogue is punchy yet meaningful and has a pleasing rhythm. The story never flags, despite the single setting. And you always want to know what’s going to happen next. But there is a problem. It’s one of the reasons Steinbeck turned his back on the movie. Lifeboat, regrettably, is lazily racist in its depiction of the story’s only black character.

Given the eras in which he produced movies it’s not surprising that Hitchcock’s diversity record is, by today’s standards, rather appalling. Other than Lifeboat’s Joe, his only other significant non-white character is charismatic spy Philippe Dubois (Roscoe Lee Brown) in Topaz. When black men (never women) are otherwise spotted in Hitchcock movies, they tend to be servile or docile. The plot resolution of Young and Innocent, meanwhile, has a white character hiding under blackface.

At least Joe is played by a conscientious actor who tweaked his dialogue to remove the worst of the clichés he’d been given to say (the yessirs and all the rest). But, sadly, the character still comes across like a second-class citizen who’s there to entertain the others with his flute and sort out their food supplies. He rarely has a voice of his own, he has to ask not to be called by the generic black servant name of Charlie, and other characters initially use the nickname Charcoal.

But if this blemish needs us to turn a blind eye, in its physical staging Lifeboat *excels*. The studio recreation of the rough desolation of the mid Atlantic Ocean is a wonder of filmmaking and gives the story so much texture. It was achieved via a number of methods. Four different boats were built for the production; two were complete, while two were cut in half so the camera could get closer to the actors. A water tank was used for certain shots where a boat could be held in place by wires; another vessel was on rollers to better control its pitch and yaw. Dump tanks and chutes allowed thousands of gallons of water to be sloshed around. Dry ice created hazes of ocean mist and fog. Footage of endless, barren seas off California and Florida was played behind the actors on enormous rear-projection screens. In the final cut, everything is then accompanied by smartly chosen and edited sound effects. It all creates a tremendous sense of place.

Filming might have come at a price. The cast were repeatedly soaked with water and had to contend with motion sickness; Tallulah Bankhead caught pneumonia twice; Mary Anderson fell ill; Hume Cronyn suffered broken ribs and nearly drowned. But their sacrifices were worth it. Lifeboat is worth clinging to.

Nine before and after pictures in a newspaper ad for Reduco weight-loss drug out of 10

NOTE: I cut the following paragraph from the above review because it didn’t really fit into the flow, but the gags are so good I thought I’d add it here as a kind of ‘deleted scene’ extra:

There were moments of levity along the way too. When actress Mary Anderson asked Hitchcock what he thought was her ‘best side’, he said, ‘You’re sitting on it, my dear.’ After being told that Tallulah Bankhead had a habit of not wearing underwear, and this may cause an issue if caught on camera, Hitch is said to have joked, ‘I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, make-up or hairdressing.’ And when the director argued that he didn’t want the film to have a score because the audience would be asking where the music is coming from, a caustic composer commented, ‘Ask Mr Hitchcock to explain where the camera came from and I’ll tell him where the music comes from.’

I Confess (1953, Alfred Hitchcock)

untitled

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Will a priest break his sacred vow when he’s accused of a murder committed by one of his flock?

Filmed in black-and-white, often on real locations in Canada, I Confess has a low-key feel. Lauded at the time of its release by New Wave critics in France, who swooned over its film-noir aesthetic, it now comes off as a bit artificial. This is an undemonstrative film, which lacks the usual Hitchcock X factor.

The incident that ignites the slow-burn plot is the death of a dodgy lawyer called Villette. Soon afterwards, the German immigrant who tends to his garden, Otto Keller, asks to speak to the local Catholic priest. Father Michael Logan takes Keller’s confession and is shaken when the man admits that he’s accidentally killed his employer. Due to the priestly oath of the confessional box, however, Logan cannot reveal this information to anyone. And that becomes a major problem when, due to circumstantial evidence, the police suspect that Logan may be a murderer. He’s eventually put on trial but still refuses to speak, even though it may lead to his conviction…

The priest is played by Montgomery Clift, who gives a decidedly un-Hitchcockian performance. Introverted and quiet, he underplays everything to such a degree that it’s questionable whether it still counts as acting. Clift was a pioneer of the Method school, an acting technique that’s been called the ‘art of experiencing’ (rather than pretending to experience something), and he employed it in Hollywood before the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean. When Hitchcock cuts to a close-up of Clift, you do get a sense of the character’s turmoil. But he mostly remains a distant figure. Compared with the emotional weight on the shoulders of, say, James Stewart in Vertigo or Tippi Hedren in Marnie, and Logan seems bland and unsympathetic. Hitchcock certainly didn’t enjoy working with an actor, who didn’t respond well to direction and required multiple takes. ‘Too obscure,’ was his pithy assessment.

The director also objected to having to use Anne Baxter as Father Logan’s old squeeze, Ruth, who’s now married to a politician and was being blackmailed by Villette. (The backstory of Logan and Ruth’s relationship is revealed in a long, overly romantic flashback – one of the odder sequences in Hitchcock’s canon.) Swedish actress Anita Björk was initially cast in the role but then let go due to a minor scandal, so Baxter was a last-minute, studio-suggested replacement and Hitchcock thought she was miscast. (Perhaps he got on better with Keller actor OE Hasse, who began his career with a small role in the German classic The Last Laugh (1924) – a film that the young Alfred Hitchcock had witnessed being made while working at a studio in Potsdam.)

But whatever the respective merits of the actors, they’re fighting a losing battle in I Confess. All great Hitchcock films are told from specific points of view. In Psycho, for example, we follow Marion Crane; in Dial M for Murder, we spend the bulk of the story with would-be killer Tony Wendice; in Rebecca, the unnamed female lead is our eyes and ears. Movies don’t have to stick to just one character – Psycho, of course, switches perspective after its most famous scene – but I Confess goes too far in the other direction. We flit about all over the place, at various points experiencing the story via Logan, Keller, Keller’s wife, Ruth and Karl Malden’s classily played Inspector Larrue. There’s no fluidity to these switches and therefore we never really empathise with anyone too deeply.

Another issue is the key fact that the movie is built on a theological quandary, which obviously will have differing levels of resonance for different viewers. Hitchcock himself summed up the issue when he said, ‘We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists and the agnostics all say, “Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.”’ Perhaps. However, the script and its treatment seem to *assume* the viewer will care about Logan’s plight, rather than justifying it. After all, stripped of its religious implications, this is a story of man protecting a selfish killer.

The plot then concludes with a tacked-on chase scene and a convenient climax as Keller’s guilt is revealed. But the resolution lacks any punch or grace. At least lessons were learnt: almost every aspect of the movie – the noir-ist photography, the vérité locations, a decent man being accused of a crime and reacting stoically, the stroke-of-fate ending – would be repeated by Hitchcock three years later, in the much more interesting, entertaining and powerful The Wrong Man.

Five men walking down the street out of 10

Sabotage (1936, Alfred Hitchcock)

poster-780

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

Easy Virtue (1928, 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 woman tries to move on from a disastrous relationship, but her past catches up with her…

A silent film based on a play by Noel Coward is obviously going to be missing the rather important element of his witty dialogue. So while Easy Virtue may have title cards, it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock’s visual invention where the real interest lies. An early courtroom scene, for example, features the joyfully brilliant moment when a judge raises a monocle to his eye to look at one of the barristers. The shot is from the judge’s point of view, so we see the monocle rise in the frame, magnifying what’s behind it. There are a few other clever shots dotted around too; later, we also get some location filming in the South of France.   

The plot follows Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans), who divorces her boorish husband after a tragic incident in which a painter was killed over a misunderstanding. Fleeing to the French Riviera and changing her name, she meets a man called John Whittaker (Robin Irvine), falls in love and returns with him to England. But Larita constantly fears that her murky past will be discovered – especially when she meets John’s frosty mother, who recognises her from *somewhere*.

In many ways, all this is a strange precursor of Hitchcock’s later film Rebecca. That 1940 gem also features a nervous woman in the south of France who meets and falls for an Englishmen but then faces resentment when she goes home with him. Both movies also change tack when there’s a key revelation. In Easy Virtue, the shift comes when Larita’s secret is rumbled – an old photo of her appears in a newspaper and John’s friends and family learn who she is. But sadly the drama is nowhere near as gripping.

The marriage quickly peters out, as does the film. Larita leaves, but not before telling John’s ex-girlfriend Sarah (Enid Stamp Taylor) that *she* should have married him instead. The moment is tender and almost Sapphic but also – like a lot of this film – quite melodramatic.

Five men walking past a tennis court (possibly: there’s doubt over whether it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock) out of 10

NOTE: Easy Virtue was lost was about half a century before a print was discovered in Austria in the 1970s. Nevertheless, it’s still not in a great shape archivally speaking. The copy I watched for this review was a terribly damaged, shaky and tatty video on YouTube. When the BFI attempted to resurrect the movie as part of a restoration project in 2012, they hit several problems – as detailed in the following press release: ‘[The film] survives only in a number of more or less identical 16mm projection prints, all in very poor quality and considerably abridged. The original running time of the film at 7390 feet – amounted to approximately 94 minutes depending on running speed. What survives is equivalent to 5434 feet a mere 69 minutes. We don’t know if a major section is missing or if (more likely) there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of little trims. We hoped at the beginning of the project that more or better material would turn up, but this has proved elusive. We will of course continue to search. The international search for this Easy Virtue has brought in prints from the US, Australia and the Netherlands as well as the UK. Unfortunately, all the existing copies are 16mm prints that have been much projected, resulting in surface wear and tear. All the copies derive from the same source and contain the same printed-in damage. The biggest problem is the underlying picture quality which, thanks to much duplication, is lacking in resolution. Working from such limited material, the best that we can do is to minimise scratches and damage and remake the intertitles. We have chosen the best source and replaced several shots from a second print where they helped to improve quality. All the main titles and intertitles were reconstructed using the original fonts, as in the other Hitchcock restorations.’