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Dick Cavett was a unique talk-show host, the best of a breed that no longer exists on television.  Today a star appears on a talk show  for a few minutes to promote a new project.  Cavett would devote  an entire show, or a majority of the  show, to one star.   And the talk was not limited to hawking a new movie, along with a couple of  previously agreed-upon anecdotes, as we see today.   The conversation was free-flowing.  Cavett has his  critics.  Some say he was too fawning of his guests.  Some say his questions were too simplistic.  For me,  it is the results that matter, and there is no denying that Cavett had the ability to charm and disarm his  most reticent guests.

This 4-DVD set compiles some of the most memorable episodes from The Dick Cavett Show, all of them featuring stars from the golden age of Hollywood (including, of course, Alfred Hitchcock).   I will provide a brief synopsis of each episode, along with my overall impression.

Katherine Hepburn (original air date October 2 and 3, 1973) – Kate Hepburn avoided the talk-show circuit for most of her career, making her appearance on Cavett unique.   Before she agreed to appear, she went to tour the studio where the show was recorded.  While there, she suggested that they tape the interview on the spot, with no studio audience.  Cavett agreed, and the result is unforgettable.  They talked for so long, there was enough material for two shows.  Hepburn is charming, witty, honest.  And she keeps Cavett en pointe,  eliciting several laughs from the crew, who gathered on the set to watch.  At one point Cavett asks if she regrets never working with Laurence Olivier, to which Hepburn replies “We’re not dead yet!”  This is arguably the highlight of this fantastic DVD set, and a must-see for all fans of the great Katherine Hepburn.

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Fred Astaire (original air date November 10, 1970) – Fred Astaire was the epitome of charm, and he didn’t disappoint when he appeared with Dick Cavett.  Much of the show is dedicated to Astaire singing, and even dancing (at age 71!).   Apparently he was more comfortable performing than he was talking about his life.  For that reason, this episode feels somewhat lacking.   I personally would have preferred more conversation, but fans of Astaire will certainly enjoy watching.

Bette Davis (original air date November 17, 1971) – Davis made more than one appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, and the two have a natural rapport.  It is clear that Bette Davis really enjoyed talking with Cavett.  This particular episode created a bit of a scandal when it first aired, because Cavett jokingly asked Ms. Davis how old she was when she lost her virginiy.  Little did he know that she would answer the question!  This episode was entertaining from start to finish, and exceeded my expectations. (Here is a brief clip from the Bette Davis episode. Sony/BMG owns all distribution rights.)

Groucho Marx and Debbie Reynolds (with Dan Rowan and Erin Fleming) (original air date December 16, 1971) – This episode is a disappointment.  Groucho is clearly past his prime here, and he just can’t unleash the zingers and one-liners with the comic timing that he could as a younger man, although he tries.   Granted, he is 81 years old here, but it is a little sad to see him at the twilight of his life.  Debbie Reynolds seems rather subdued, and unsure how to take Groucho at times.  One sad footnote to this episode is the inclusion of actress Erin Fleming, who was in a relationship with Groucho at the time of taping the episode.   Groucho’s family disapproved of the relationship, and after his death, they successfully sued Erin Fleming for almost half a million dollars that she had acquired from Groucho while he was alive.  Fleming would later spend time in a mental hospital before taking her own life in 2003.

Kirk Douglas (original air date June 29, 1971) – This episode is pleasant, if slightly forgettable.   Douglas relates several anecdotes from his film career.  He is entertaining, and often funny, but somehow Cavett doesn’t seem to engage Douglas as much as he does many of his other guests.  The episode feels more superficial than others, although I am sure Kirk Douglas fans would enjoy it.

Mel Brooks, Frank Capra, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich (original air date January 21, 1972) – Bringing four directors together was a good idea.  Capra, retired by this point, was the elder statesman.  Brooks was at the peak of his craft, and Altman and Bogdanovich were early in their careers.   It is a shame that Cavett didn’t have more shows like this one, bringing directors from different eras of Hollywood together.

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John Huston (original air date February 21, 1972) – John Huston’s voice was instantly recognizable.  It was somehow both gravelly and mellifluous at the same time.  Personally, I could listen to him talk all day long.  Of course, he has dozens of interesting anecdotes to share, many of them involving his favorite actor Humphrey Bogart.  This episode is very solid.

Marlon Brando (June 12, 1973) – This is one of the most famous episodes of The Dick Cavett Show, for a variety of reasons.   Brando is another actor who did not do the talk-show circuit.  He liked Dick Cavett, and agreed to come on the show if he could bring some prominent Native American advocates, to talk about the plight of the American Indian.  Early on, Cavett tries to draw Brando into conversation about his films, but Brando resists.  He makes Cavett uncomfortable more than once, and it is clear that Brando knows exactly what he is saying, and the effect he is having.  He flashes that million-dollar smile more than once as Cavett squirms in his chair.  Personally, I enjoy this episode very much.   (After the taping of this episode, Brando and Cavett went to dinner.  They were followed through Chinatown by paparazzo Ron Galella.  Brando punched Galella in the face, breaking his jaw and knocking out five teeth.  How can you not love Brando?)

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Robert Mitchum (April 29, 1971) – This is another episode that exceeded my expectations.  Mitchum had a reputation for being difficult, of occasionally sparring verbally with the media.  He is an absolute delight here.  His speech is almost poetic as he recounts several delightful anecdotes from throughout his career.   Fans of Mitchum will go crazy over this episode, and it will probably make a lot of film fans see him in a different light.

Orson Welles (July 27, 1970) – Welles was perhaps Hollywood’s greatest raconteur, even if most of his tales were somewhat spurious.  But he was endlessly entertaining.  A man of great intelligence and seemingly endless wit, he charmed Cavett and his audience.   This may be my favorite episode in the entire collection.  In the brief new introduction to the episode that Cavett recorded in 2005, he gets a little teary-eyed.  It is clear that Welles was a favorite of his, too.  Must-see.

Alfred Hitchcock (June 8, 1972) – Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to television at this point in his career.  He had hosted every episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents for seven seasons, and made numerous appearance on various talk shows.  Although his health had begun to decline a bit by this point, he was as charming as ever.  Several films from throughout Hitchcock’s career are discussed, including Sabotage, Foreign Correspondent, Lifeboat,  Rear Window, and Psycho.  He also discusses the importance of montage in film, as well as the difference between mystery and suspense.   This episode is an absolute must-see for fans and scholars of Alfred Hitchcock, just for the opportunity to hear the master discuss his own films, and film theory in general.  (Below is a brief clip from the episode.)

Overall, this is a very solid collection.  Fans of the golden age of Hollywood are certain to enjoy many of these episodes.  They also provide a glimpse of a type of talk show that doesn’t really exist anymore, when two people just sat down, without props or gimmicks, and conversed.

NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH (1940) – 20th Century Fox – Rating:  ★★nighttrain1

B&W – 95 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Carol Reed

Principal cast:  Margaret Lockwood (Anna Bomasch), Rex Harrison (Dickie Randall), Paul Henreid (Karl Marsen), Basil Radford (Charters), Naunton Wayne (Caldicott).

Screenplay by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat

Film Editing by R.E. Dearing

Cinematography by Otto Kanturek

Music by Louis Levy and Charles Williams

Night Train to Munich is often overlooked in discussions of Hitchcockian films, most likely because the film is not well known today.  But the connections to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 classic The Lady Vanishes are numerous.  The two films share the same screenwriters (Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat), the same leading actress (Margaret Lockwood),  the same editor (R. E. Dearing), and the same musical composer (Louis Levy).  They even share two characters, Charters and Caldicott (played by Basis Radford and Naunton Wayne).  One review refers to this movie as an “unofficial sequel” to The Lady Vanishes, and while that is a stretch, there is no doubt that Night Train to Munich owes its existence to the success of Hitchcock’s earlier film.

In that earlier film, the screenwriters had hinted at the threat of war looming over Europe without naming the enemy.   By the time work began on Night Train to Munich war had begun, and the enemy (Nazi Germany) could be named and shown.   The movie opens with the Nazi invasion of Prague.   Axel Bomasch (played by James Harcourt) is a Czech scientist working on a new type of armor.  He is secreted away to London before the Nazis can get their hands on him.  His daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood) is not so fortunate;  she is taken by the Nazis to a concentration camp, where she befriends another prisoner named Karl Marsen (Paul Henreid).   Karl concocts an escape plan, and the two make their way to England.  Anna establishes contact with Dickie Randall, a British intelligence agent played by Rex Harrison.  After a nice “meet cute”, Harrison reunites Anna with her father.   Without giving away too much,  the Bomasch’s are captured by Nazi agents and taken to Germany, leaving it up to Dickie Randall to attempt a rescue operation.

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The final act of the movie, which takes place on a train in Germany, is by far the best portion of the film.  The screenwriting duo of Launder and Gilliat were adept at mixing tone, combining suspense, action and humor to very good effect.  This portion of the film is very redolent of The Lady Vanishes,  and just about makes up for the slow build.  The climax of the film finds the protagonists literally hanging by a wire, as they attempt to escape to Switzerland in an aerial tram.   While this film is not as consistently engaging as The Lady Vanishes, it is entertaining, and recommended to fans of Hitchcock, Rex Harrison, and Margaret Lockwood.

Carol Reed:   Night Train to Munich was directed by a young Carol Reed.   At this time Reed was already established in the British film industry, but he would not achieve worldwide acclaim until the late 40’s, with movies like The Fallen Idol and The Third Man.  Reed would eventually win a Best Director Oscar for Oliver! in 1968.

Performance:  Margaret Lockwood is solid as always in the lead actress role, adept at mixing vulnerability and strength.  Rex Harrison also brings his unique vivacity and humor to a role that was probably a bit droll on the page.   While Harrison and Lockwood are both good, unfortunately they do not have a strong chemistry together, certainly nowhere near as strong as the chemistry shared between Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in The Lady Vanishes.    I’ve never been a big fan of Paul Henreid, but I would say he was well cast in this movie. The real scene stealers in this movie, however, are two minor characters, who over time would become two of the most beloved characters in British film history.

Charters and Caldicott:   Everyone who has seen Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes remembers Charters and Caldicott, the two Englishmen who were more concerned with cricket matches than with a missing lady and political intrigue.  Screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat had created the two characters to represent typical Englishmen abroad.   Many of their lines are played for laughs, but when the going gets tough, they courageously defend their fellow countrymen.  In Night Train to Munich, actors Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprise their roles as Charters and Caldicott.   They have such a strong rapport together, it is easy to believe these two vagabonds have been travelling the globe for many years, getting into one adventure after another.  Honestly, these characters are so enjoyable that I would recommend this movie on the strength of their performances.   Charters and Caldicott would appear in two more movies, and two BBC radio serials, after Night Train to Munich.  They were also set to appear in the 1945 Launder and Gilliat film I See A Dark Stranger, but Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne demanded larger roles, which they felt were deserved due to their increased popularity.   When Frank Launder refused to increase the size of their roles, Radford and Wayne walked away from the project.    They would appear together in several more films, but with different character names.  They were still playing Charters and Caldicott in all but name;  the rights to those names were held by Launder and Gilliat.

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Charters and Caldicott would get their own BBC television series in the 1980’s, with different actors in the roles.  To this day, the characters, and the actors most associated with them, are beloved in England.

Hitchcock connections:  I’ve already mentioned the many links between this movie and Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.  In addition, Austin Trevor (Captain Prada in this movie) also appeared in Hitchcock’s Sabotage as Vladimir.  C. V. France (Admiral Hassinger) was previously in Hitchcock’s The Skin Game.  And Morland Graham, who had a minor role in this movie, had also appeared in Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn.  

Definitive edition:  The only version of this movie currently available on DVD is the 2010 Criterion release.  As is always the case with Criterion, the print is quite good.   There is an unusual dearth of bonus materials, for a Criterion DVD.   The only bonus is a “video conversation” between film scholars Peter Evans and Bruce Babington, which focuses primarily on the careers of Launder and Gilliat.

 

 

This blogblochpsycho has already explored the long legacy of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho in movies and television.  Now let’s take a brief look at the legacy of Psycho in print.

Robert Bloch’s novel first appeared in 1959.  All of the major elements of the movie were already firmly in place in the book, including the surprise ending.  Bloch’s prose style was very straighforward, it was his plotting and structure that made his books memorable.

Alfred Hitchcock put in a “blind bid” for the rights to Psycho, meaning that Bloch did not know the identity of the bidder.  This was fairly common practice at the time, for if an author knew that Alfred Hitchcock wanted the rights to his work, he would have demanded more money.   Bloch reportedly received $9,500 for the rights to his novel, which is a decent amount of money by the standards of 1960, but still far less than he could have received from a high-profile director at a major studio.  There are some unconfirmed stories that Robert Bloch was upset by being “duped” into selling his book rights on the cheap, but there it little evidence to support this.  Bloch would go on to write ten episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show and another seven episodes for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which would suggest that Hitchcock and Bloch had a good relationship.

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Robert Bloch initially wrote the novel Psycho II as a treatment of sorts for Universal Studios, who had announced plans to produce a movie sequel.  Universal rejected Bloch’s work, and reputedly the studio suggested to the author that he abandon any plans to publish it.  Bloch did publish the novel in 1982, to solid reviews and decent sales.   Many people must have assumed that the movie Psycho II was inspired by the book, as both sequels shared the same title.  The truth is that they have nothing in common, except of course for the character of Norman Bates.  Psycho II is a good read, equally engrossing and unsettling, and a worthy followup to the original novel.   It begins with Norman Bates escaping from the mental institution where he has lived for 20 years.  At the same time, a Hollywood movie studio is planning to make a film about the original Bates murders.  The novel’s greatest failure is in the “gotcha” plot device, similar to the one used in the original novel, where we learn at the end that Norman was actually becoming his mother.  Bloch must have felt a need to create a similar ending here, which was quite unnecessary.

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Robert Bloch revisited his most famous creation one last time in 1990, with the release of Psycho House.  This novel focuses on an attempt to create a Bates Motel “theme park” of sorts, a macabre attraction for paying tourists.  An investigative journalist is in town to learn about the opening of the Bates themed property, and bodies once again begin to accumulate.  This is the weakest of the three Psycho novels, but fans of the earlier two will most likely enjoy it.   In Booklist’s review of this novel, they celebrated Bloch’s “marvelous bargain-basement prose, full of well-turned cliches and wry cracks.”  Bargain basement?  That’s a backhanded compliment at best.  Bloch does love alliteration and assonance, and occasionally uses them in a self-conscious manner.   He is also fond of morbid puns, which occasionally work, and other times fall flat.  In one early scene, a character is in a diner, “gazing at the glass-coffined slices of embalmed pies and pastries,” a fairly typical Bloch description.

Bloch was an incredibly prolific writer, publishing over 20 novels and 500 short stories, as well as dozens of television screenplays.  He has been cited as a major influence by many writers in the horror genre, most notably Stephen King.  And yet, were it not for his creation of Psycho, and Norman Bates, he would be virtually unknown today.   Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho are encouraged to give Bloch’s novels a try, particularly the first two.

Today as weevamarie1 celebrate our nation’s independence, I would like to take a moment to wish a happy  birthday to the amazing Eva Marie Saint.  Eva Marie was “born on the 4th of July” in the year 1924.    She had a variety of acting roles on television, beginning in the late 1940’s.  Her first film role was in Elia Kazan’s 1954 classic On The Waterfront.   Her performance in this movie is superb.  Her  character, Edie Doyle, is the only significant female role in the movie, and she was surrounded by  several male actors, all of whom were a sheer powerhouse of performance.   Eva Marie does not just  hold her own with Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, and Lee J. Cobb; she stands out.

It is hard to believe she was 30 when On The Waterfront was released, for she looks closer to 19.  Her  beauty could best be described as angelic, or otherworldly, which was precisely what the role called  for.  Edie Doyle was not only angelic physically, but morally as well.  Her meekness, her restraint, her  modesty represent the moral center of this amazing film.  Eva Marie won the Oscar for Best  Supporting Actress, one of eight Academy Awards bestowed on this American classic.

Eva Marie Saint only made one film with Alfred Hitchcock, and it just happens to be one of his best films, and a film that routinely ranks on “all time best” movie lists.  That movie is North by Northwest.   Eva Marie gives one of the strongest female performances in the entire Hitchcock canon.  Once again, she is a woman surrounded by men, who all desire her for different reasons.   The government wishes for her to fulfill her duty.  James Mason’s character also has a role for her to play.  And Cary Grant’s character is in love with her, but also using her to achieve his goal.  Eva Marie is brilliant from her first appearance on screen, and gets to show off her range.  Of course she is incredibly attractive, and her opening banter with Carey Grant has more than its share of sexual innuendo. evamarie2Both James Mason and Cary Grant believe they are using Eva Marie Saint; meanwhile, she is in complete control of the situation, and of them.  What her character didn’t plan on, of course, was falling in love with Cary Grant.    When Grant’s and Mason’s characters confront each other in the auction gallery, as Eva Marie sits forlornly in the chair, as if she is another piece to be sold to the highest bidder, her emotional turmoil is palpable.  She is smart, sexy, strong, a model of femininity;  the quintessential Hitchcock heroine.   She is also an ultra-modern woman, certainly by the standards of 1959, when the movie was released.

If On the Waterfront and North by Northwest were the only two films she ever made, her place in film history would be secured.   But of course she has continued to act, and act well.   She was good in the cold war comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.  She was memorably sweet and touching as Tom Hanks’ mother in the underrated Nothing In Common.   She was surprisingly well cast as Martha Kent in the 2006 Superman reboot Superman Returns.  And she continues to act to this day;  she can be seen in the 2014 film Winter’s Tale, starring Colin Farrell. So here is wishing a very happy 90th Birthday to a wonderful woman.  Thank you Eva Marie Saint, for all of the memorable performances.  May you have many more happy and healthy years.

CHARADE (1963) – Ucharade1niversal Pictures – Rating:  ★★★½

Color – 113 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect rato

Produced and directed by Stanley Donen

Principal cast:  Cary Grant (Peter Joshua), Audrey Hepburn (Regina Lampert), Walter Matthau (Hamilton Bartholomew), James Coburn (Tex Penthollow), George Kennedy (Herman Scobie), Ned Glass (Leopold Gideon).

Screenplay by Peter Stone

Director of Photography:  Charles Lang, Jr.

Music:  Henry Mancini

The word “Hitchcockian”  appears in movie reviews and synopses from time to time.  It means (perhaps self-evidently):  to evoke the themes and/or styles employed by Alfred Hitchcock in his films.  If you google the phrase “Hitchcockian  movies” you will find  many different lists of films that supposedly fit this description.   I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of these movies, and see if they are deserving of the moniker.  One film that appears frequently on such lists is Stanley Donen’s Charade.  One review calls it “the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made,” and while the diction might be questionable, the sentiment is not.

The movie opens in the French Alps, where Regina Lampert (played by Audrey Hepburn) is vacationing.   Regina tells a friend that she is planning to divorce her husband.  Then, in an awkwardly staged scene, she meets a man named Peter Joshua (Cary Grant).  The scene  is edited in a very standard back-and-forth style, cutting between the two constantly.  It is very unlike Hitchcock (and unlike Donen, for that matter).  Here are two very accomplished stars of the screen, both of whom Donen had worked with before.  Clearly they could hold their own in a longer-take two shot.  Maybe the cutting was dictated by technical issues.   Fortunately this is the only scene in the movie that stands out for the wrong reasons.

When Regina returns to Paris, she discovers that the planned divorce is unnecessary because her husband has been murdered.  Several men are introduced in the next segment of the movie:  a French policeman, a man who works for the CIA (Walter Matthau), and three men who are all thugs to a varying degree (James Coburn, George Kennedy, Ned Glass).  And Cary Grant’s character turns up again, offering to help Regina.   Apparently Regina’s husband stole some money ($250,000 to be precise) and these men all want it.  The movie title is apt, because many of these people are not who they first appear to be.  Deception is the name of the game, all in an attempt to acquire the missing money.   Of course the money is eventually found, in a surprising manner, and of course Grant and Hepburn fall for each other along the way (how could they not?).

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Performance:  Cary Grant was 60 when he made this movie, and already contemplating retirement.  He was definitely conscious of his age, and conscious of the quarter century separating his age from Audrey Hepburn’s.   And yet he does things in this movie that it is hard to imagine him doing for any other director, including Hitchcock.  Clearly Grant and Stanley Donen had a good working relationship.   Above you can see an image of Grant playing the “pass the orange” game with a rather buxom, stony-faced woman.   The scene could have been brief, but Donen lets it play out to great effect.  Cary Grant makes this scene work because he fully commits to it;  the look on his face here says it all.   There is a later scene in which Grant steps into a shower fully clothed.   It is hard to imagine Hollywood’s best-dressed man ruining a good suit for laughs, but again the scene works wonderfully.  Audrey Hepburn was no longer the gamine of her early films by this time;  she is glamorous, cosmopolitan, every bit a woman.  Grant and Hepburn have a palpable on-screen chemistry, something that  can’t be faked.  It’s a pity this is the only time they worked together.  Matthau, Coburn and Kennedy are all solid in roles that came very early in their film careers.

Hitchcock connections:  Cary Grant starred in Suspicion, Notorious, To Catch a Thief, and North by Northwest.  Ned Glass (who plays Leopold the sneezer in this movie) shared a memorable scene with Cary Grant in North by Northwest.   (Grant’s character attempts to buy a train ticket, and Glass is the suspicious ticket vendor.  He asks Cary Grant’s sunglasses-wearing character “Something wrong with your eyes?” To which Grant replies “They are sensitive to questions.”)  Paul Bonifas, the stamp collector who buys the valuable stamps, then gallantly returns them to Audrey Hepburn, was in Hitchcock’s World War II propaganda short Aventure Malgache. 

Academy awards:  This movie received one Oscar nomination, for best original song, “Charade”, by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer.

Hitchcockian?  So why is this movie compared to the films of Alfred Hitchcock?  The blending of suspense and humor would be a primary reason.  Stanley Donen once said that he screened three Hitchcock movies during pre-production of this film, so clearly there was a conscious attempt to emulate Hitchcock on some level.   The appearance of Cary Grant in the leading role is enough to remind one of Hitchcock.  They had collaborated on four films together, the most recent (North by Northwest) just 4 years prior to this movie.   Charles Lang, Jr.’s gorgeous color cinematography is also redolent of Bob Burks cinematography for Hitchcock on movies like To Catch a Thief.   Which is not to say that Lang was an imitator;  he was a genius in his own right.  Lang and Burks were both adept at making a foreign city look dazzling on the screen, making the locale a co-star in the movie.   Some have said that Peter Stone’s script is Hitchcockian.  I think rather it could be called “Grantian.”  Stone’s witty screenplay is full of repartee that was tailor-made for Cary Grant, and which Grant loved to utter, regardless of the film or director.

In what ways does Charade differ from a Hitchcock movie?  There is a strong romantic current in this film, which is much more in the style of Stanley Donen than Hitchcock.  Romance was often understated in Hitchcock’s movies.   The tone of this movie is light;  even though several dead bodies are seen (some quite graphic by 1963 standards), the tone never becomes too ominous or threatening.

And the verdict is…yes, this film is Hitchcockian, but most importantly, it is a Stanley Donen film, and a delightful one at that.  Just imagine Donen’s Singin in the Rain or Funny Face, and substitute murders and mayhem for the song and dance numbers, and you’ve got a good idea of this movie’s tone.  Stanley Donen’s name is not known and revered as much as the “auteur” directors of his time,  but his body of work is incredibly strong. This movie has a broad appeal.  It is a feast for the eyes, with Audrey Hepburn looking gorgeous in her Givenchy clothes,Cary  Grant dapper as always, and fantastic art decoration, all photographed by the great Charles Lang, Jr.  The story is well-paced, balanced and entertaining.   What more can you ask for?

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Definitive edition:  Universal released a bare-bones blu-ray in 2013, and while it has no extra features the price is definitely right.  Criterion’s blu-ray edition from 2010 has an above average commentary track with director Stanley Donen and screenwriter Peter Stone, and a very nice looking print.

THE RING (1927) – Brithering1tish International Pictures – Rating:  ★★★

B&W (silent) – 90 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Carl Brisson (“One Round Jack” Sander), Lillian Hall-    Davis (Mabel), Ian Hunter (Bob Corby), Forrester Harvery (James Ware), Harry  Terry (Showman), Gordon Harker (Jack’s Trainer), Clare Greet (Fortune Teller).

Written by Alfred Hitchcock

Photographed by John Cox

Produced by John Maxwell

 

In 1927 Alfred Hitchcock signed with the newly-formed British International Pictures, becoming the highest paid director in England in the process.  Over the course of the next six years, Hitchcock would be involved with 11 different movies at British International, a period that bridged the end of the silent film era and the first years of sound films.   His output was uneven, and his relationship with studio head John Maxwell was occasionally rocky.   There are only two films from this period that are considered “classics” in the Hitchcock canon:  Blackmail  (Britain’s first movie with sound) and Murder!  The Ring, Hitchcock’s first movie for British International (the first movie ever released by the studio, for that matter) is also quite good, with an engaging story line,  groundbreaking visuals and flashes of humor.

Trivia buffs might be interested to know that this is the only film in Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work as a director for which he also received a writing credit; “WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY ALFRED HITCHCOCK” reads a title card at the beginning.  The story is a classic love triangle, certainly not the kind of story that is generally associated with Hitchcock.  The film’s title, The Ring, refers to the boxing ring, as both male leads are boxers.  But it can also refers to a wedding ring, as well as a serpentine bracelet which features heavily in the plot.

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The movie opens with Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis) working as a ticket girl at a carnival attraction, where her boyfriend is an amateur boxer.  The boxer (played by Danish actor Carl Brisson), is known as “One Round Jack” because nobody makes it to the second round with him.  Until a man named Bob Corby (Ian Hunter) shows up and soundly beats him.  It turns out that Corby is the heavyweight champion of Australia.  Corby invites Jack to be his sparring partner, ostensibly to help him, but in reality to be closer to his girlfriend.  Corby gives Mabel a bracelet, in the shape of a serpent, which becomes the symbol of infidelity.   Mabel marries Jack anyway, even though she clearly has feelings for Corby.

The wedding sequence shows all of the carnival performers entering the church;  we see the Siamese twins, the dwarf and giant, in a comic scene which clearly prefigures a similar sequence in Hitchcock’s later film Saboteur.  Hitchcock loved images of the incongruous, which he indulged in frequently in his British period.  After the wedding, the movie shows Jack becoming a better boxer, getting bigger matches, while all the while his new wife Mabel gets closer to Bob Corby.  Eventually Jack confronts Mabel about her infidelity and she leaves.  Of course the movie will end with the two men settling their differences in the boxing ring, and of course Mabel will realize that Corby is a cad and return to her husband’s side.

The silent film aspect:   Most modern-day film goers have never seen a silent film;  even many fans of Hitchcock have probably not delved into his early silent period.  It certainly is a different experience, but in the case of Hitchcock the adjustment is not too difficult.  Throughout his career, Hitchcock was always a believer in telling a story through visual means;  he never forgot the things he learned in the silent era.  If you watch this movie, you will notice there are not a lot of title cards.  This is because the visuals clearly tell us what is happening on screen.

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John Cox, cameraman:  In the late 1920’s, there were not a lot of “special effects” techniques available to filmmakers, particularly in post filming.  So Hitchcock wanted to find a cameraman who was adept at filming effects “in camera”, as it was often done then.  He found just the man he was looking for in John Cox (or Jack Cox, or J.J. Cox, as he was also credited on some films).   Cox would end up acting as Hitchcock’s cameraman/cinematographer on a dozen movies, including every film he directed at British International.  They would also reunite one last time on Hitchcock’s 1938 masterpiece The Lady Vanishes.   From a technical standpoint, this is the most important collaborative partnership in Hitchcock’s entire British period.   (And also mirrors Hitchcock’s later partnership with American cinematographer Bob Burks, who would also work with Hitchcock on 12 movies.)

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In the image above, you can see how Cox was able to superimpose the image of Ian Hunter’s head onto the punching bag.  Even a seemingly simple shot like this took some doing in the 1920’s.   But Cox’s (and Hitchcock’s) innovations went far beyond this.  Later in the film there is a party sequence, in which the party goers  become out of control.  Hitchcock wanted to recreate the feel of the drunken revelry for his movie goers.  So into a montage of people singing and dancing are intercut images like this one to the right:  an eerily elongated piano, with a spinning turntable superimposed upon it.  Nothing quite like this had ever been seen in British cinema.

But perhaps the most important effect technique that Hitchcock wished to employ in this movie, (and would use again in a few later films) is called the Schufftan process.

Schufftan process:  This process is named after its inventor, Eugen Schufftan, who first used the process on Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis.  The process involves placing a mirror at an angle in front of the camera, with a painted or photographed image to the side, which will be reflected in the mirror, and captured on camera.  Then, scraping away part of the reflective mirror, leaving only clear glass, and filming live action through the newly scraped area.  The two images (the live portion filmed through the clear glass, and the reflected painted portion) will then appear to be one image.  Hitchcock wished to use this technique in the movie’s final sequence:  the boxing match in the Royal Albert Hall.   (Hitchcock staged scenes from three of his movies in the Albert Hall:  this one, and both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much.)   The following diagram shows how the Schufftan process worked.

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Performance:  All of the performances in this movie are solid.  There is perhaps no real “standout” performance but everyone holds their own.  Gordon Harker plays his role as Jack’s trainer for great comedic effect.  And Carl Brisson is very solid as the male lead.  He has to generate sympathy from the audience for the story to succeed, and he does so, admirably.

Recurring players:  Carl Brisson would later star in The Manxman.  Lillian Hall-Davis also appeared in The Farmer’s Wife.  Ian Hunter was in both Downhill and Easy Virtue.  Forrester Harvey would later appear in Rebecca.  Harry Terry was in The Manxman.  Gordon Harker was in The Farmer’s Wife and Champagne.  Clare Greet, one of Hitchcock’s favorite character actresses in his British period, also appeared in Number 13, The Manxman, Murder!, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage and Jamaica Inn.  Tom Helmore would later appear in The Secret Agent, and would also play the role of Gavin Elster in Vertigo.  

Where’s Hitch?   There is no credible evidence to suggest that Hitchcock made a cameo appearance in this movie.

What Hitch said:  When talking to Truffaut, Hitchcock said of this movie “…that was really an interesting movie.  You might say that after The Lodger, The Ring was the next Hitchcock picture.  There were all kinds of innovations in it, and I remember that at the premiere an elaborate montage got a round of applause.  It was the first time that had ever happened to me.”

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A shot from the climactic fight sequence, which employs the Schufftan process. Most of the spectators are a painted image.

Definitive edition:  There are numerous versions of this movie available on DVD in various box sets and “collections”, but the best print available is to be found on the three disc Alfred Hitchcock Box Set from Lions Gate Studios.  This set contains 5 of Hitchcock’s films from the British International Pictures period.  This print is far from pristine, but keeping in mind that the movie is almost 90 years old, it is definitely watchable, and relatively clean.  There are no extra features on this disc at all.

THE Mman1956sevenAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) – Paramount – Rating:  ★★★

Color – 120 mins. – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  James Stewart (Dr. Ben McKenna), Doris Day (Jo McKenna), Christopher  Olsen (Hank McKenna), Bernard Miles (Edward Drayton), Brenda De Banzie (Lucy  Drayton), Daniel Gelin (Louis Bernard), Reggie Nalder (Rien).

Associate Producer:  Herbert Coleman

Written by John Michael Hayes, from a story by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis

Cinematography by Robert Burks

Edited by George Tomasini

Original Music by Bernard Herrmann

Costume Designer:  Edith Head

Art Direction by Hal Pereira and Henry Bumstead

Why would an A-list director like Alfred Hitchcock choose to remake one of his own films?  He certainly wasn’t the only high-profile director in the “golden age” of film to do so:  Frank Capra, Cecil B. DeMille, Howard Hawks and John Ford all directed remakes of earlier films in their catalogs.  It may have been producer David O. Selznick who first planted the seed in Hitchcock’s mind.   As early as 1941, Selznick told Hitchcock that he thought The Man Who Knew Too Much would be a good film to remake.  Hitchcock (who was under contract to Selznick at the time), actually began writing a new treatment of the story with John Houseman, but nothing ever came of it.

Fast-forward about 13 years.  Hitchcock was in the midst of his prolific run at Paramount Pictures in the mid 50’s.  He had cranked out 3 films in less than two years, all penned by screenwriter John Michael Hayes.   He owed Paramount one more movie, after which he had to fulfill a contractual obligation to Warner Brothers for a movie.  Hitchcock already knew what movie he was going to make for Warner Brothers:  The Wrong Man.  But what movie would he first make for Paramount?  A remake of  The Man Who Knew Too Much, also written by Hayes.

The basic plot of this remake is the same as in the original film.  The McKenna family, on vacation in an exotic locale, witness a murder, and the dying victim imparts vague knowledge of an upcoming assassination attempt.  The child in this family is kidnapped, to prevent the parents from disclosing what they know to the police.   So the parents set out to find their missing child on their own.

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This film can be divided neatly into two parts:  the first 49 or so minutes, which take place in Marrakesh, Morocco, and set up the murder and kidnapping; and the latter 71 minutes, which take place in London.  The first section is by far the weaker of the two;  the pace is at times drearily slow.  Consider that Hitchcock’s original version of this movie took less than 15 minutes to shift the action to London, and this version takes over three times as long.   There are two separate story threads at work in this first section of the movie.  The overlying one introduces us to Ben and Jo McKenna (played by Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day), and their son Hank (Christopher Olsen), travelling in Marrakesh.   The McKennas have several mysterious encounters, first with a man on a bus named Louis Bernard;  later outside their hotel where a woman appears to be staring at Jo; and finally with a rather odd-looking man who “accidentally” knocks on their hotel room door.   The attempt to slowly build up suspense has some nice touches, but overall it takes far too long to get going.  Even attempts at humor don’t always work;  much is made of Ben McKenna’s ignorance of (and annoyance with) eating customs in a traditional Moroccan restaurant.  Yet he has earlier stated that he was in Morocco during the war.  Certainly he would have observed some of the local customs?   The underlying storyline is far more interesting, and this focuses on the state of the McKennas’ marriage.

John Michael Hayes often focused in his screenplays on the difficulties in relationships, how sacrifices must be made for any relationship to succeed.   His screenplays often have men and women from different worlds, who have seemingly irreconcilable differences in career and hobbies.  The best example of this is in Rear Window, in which Jimmy Stewart’s character deflects all talk of marriage with the incredibly sublime Grace Kelly, because of their different jobs and social standing.  The movie ending hints at a possible compromise.  One could  argue that the McKennas in The Man Who Knew Too Much are a logical progression of the couple from Rear Window.  Ben McKenna is a successful doctor in Indianapolis, Jo is an accomplished singer on the Broadway stage, who gave up her career for her husband.    And thus is established a theme of patriarchal dominance (as pointed out by Steven DeRosa in his informative book “Writing with Hitchcock”) which is rather on point for mid-1950’s America, and might have made more than a few movie-going couples squirm in their seats a little.

There are a dozen examples of dialogue in the opening section of the movie that point to the frayed edges in the McKennas’ marriage, and most of them are written with the subtlety and humor that were Hayes’ trademark as a writer.   Jo questions why Ben couldn’t be a doctor in New York, so she could appear on Broadway.  She asks him when they will have another child, which clearly blindsides him.  When their son Hank is getting ready for bed and sings the line “When I was just a little boy, I asked my mother what would I be?” the McKennas exchange a knowing glance.  Clearly Ben wants his son to follow in his footsteps as a doctor, while Jo, by encouraging Hank’s singing, has other ideas.

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The male dominance established in the film’s early sequence is not always so subtle.  In the movies most disturbing scene, (and one of the most disturbing scenes in all of Hitchcock), Ben McKenna forces his wife to take a sedative before he tells her that their son has been kidnapped.   By modern sensibilities this goes beyond patronizing.  But I find it hard to believe that a 1950’s audience would have been any less disturbed.  Doris Day’s performance in this scene is gut-wrenching and unforgettable.   But as is usually the case with Hitchcock scripts, the male lead will be emasculated later on, and it is the female who will save the day.

As soon as the story transitions to London, the pace quickens, and this latter half of the movie is far better.  The McKennas work (first separately, then together) to locate their kidnapped child, with the major set piece of the film being the assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall, just as in the original version.  ( I will focus on a comparison between the Royal Albert Hall sequences in a later entry.)  It is Doris Day who prevents the assassination, by screaming to throw off the shooter’s aim.  And again it is Doris Day who uses her singing to attract the attention of her child in the movie’s final sequence.

Six minutes of self-indulgence:  In one of the movies better sequences, Jimmy Stewart’s character goes in search of a man named Ambrose Chapell, not realizing that the name refers to a place, not a person.  After a brilliant set-up, and escalation of tension, the sequence moves into a taxidermy shop (which seems to specialize in exotic animals),  where we quickly realize that Ben McKenna is not in the right place.  Further, his rather bizarre and disturbing dialogue alarms the shopkeepers (it sounds as if McKenna is proposing that they stuff a dead person!)  Clearly they think McKenna is a madman.   There is much jostling around, before McKenna flees.  This sequence ultimately serves no purpose in advancing the plot;  it exists only for it’s own sake.  The sole purpose is some comic relief, to deflate the building tension.  Hitchcock enjoyed sequences like this.  He once likened movies to riding a roller coaster, in that you have to give the audience ups and downs.

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Performance:  Jimmy Stewart is adequate in this film, but not nearly as strong as he was in both Rear Window and Vertigo.  He does have several good moments.  Doris Day, who is a polar opposite of the typical Hitchcock heroine, was astounding in this role.  She gives an outstanding performance.   Christopher Olsen has little to do in his role as Hank, and what he does is mostly forgettable.  In Hitchcock movies, it is female children that are given interesting and memorable roles.  Male children, as in this movie,  are used for comic relief more than anything.  Bernard Miles does a decent job as Drayton, the leader of the gang, but he is no Peter Lorre.   Brenda De Banzie does a very good job as Mrs. Drayton, especially as her maternal feelings begin to show in the later portion of the film.

Recurring players:  Jimmy Stewart appeared also in Rope, Rear Window and Vertigo.  Patrick Aherne was in The Paradine Case.  For trivia buffs, Frank Atkinson appeared in both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much (in the first he is the policeman shot behind the mattress, in this one he works in the taxidermy shop) as well as Young and Innocent.   Betty Bascomb is the only other person to appear in both versions (in the original she gives up her room for the two policemen, in this one she is Edna, the glasses-wearing kidnapper).  I think Betty Bascomb is also in Sabotage;  she is not credited on imdb, but I am almost certain that the girl in the aquarium is her.   And of course Bess Flowers, the Queen of the Hollywood extras (who appeared in more movies than anyone in film history), was also in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Notorious, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch  a Thief, Vertigo, and North by Northwest.   Gladys Holland, Louis Mercier and Edward Manouk were also in To Catch a Thief.  Anthony Warde also had an uncredited role in Rear Window.

Where’s Hitch?  At the 25:40 mark, Alfred Hitchcock can be seen in the crowd of people in the marketplace, watching the performers.  He is to the left of the screen, seen from the rear.

Academy awards:  This movie was the winner of one Oscar in 1957, for best Original Song:  “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)”.   This was the only nomination the movie received.  Hitchcock was at first opposed to the use of a song, but the studio felt that it would be a missed opportunity to cast Doris Day in the lead and not have her sing.  Alfred Hitchcock was pleasantly surprised with the song penned by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, which became a hit record after the release of the movie.

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What Hitch said:  In comparing this remake to his original film, Hitchcock said “Let’s say the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.”

Definitive edition:   The 2012 Universal blu-ray is by far the best-looking print of this movie available.   That being said, it is not a fantastic print.  There are some problem areas with the movie, where some colors will shift over the course of a scene (particularly skin tone).  On the other hand, some scenes are absolutely gorgeous.  The VistaVision process allowed for amazing image clarity and color separation.    Perhaps a true restoration will be done at some point, but in the meantime, this is as good as it gets.  The soundtrack is a two-track mono, and sounds very good.  Also included is a 34-minute making-of documentary, production photographs, and two trailers.

 

 

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THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934) – Gaumont-British – Rating:  ★★★½

B&W – 76 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Leslie Banks (Bob Lawrence), Edna Best (Jill Lawrence), Nova Pilbeam (Betty Lawrence), Peter Lorre (Abbott), Frank Vosper (Ramon), Hugh Wakefield (Clive), Pierre Fresnay (Louis Bernard).

Written by Charles Bennett & DB Wyndham-Lewis

Photography:  Curt Courant

Edited by Hugh Stewart

Music by Arthur Benjamin

In 1933 Alfred Hitchcock was shooting a movie called Waltzes From Vienna, and he was bored.   He called the picture a “low ebb of my career,” a type of film (the period costume drama) that he personally loathed.  But it was the only directing job he could get at the time.  Even as he directed it, going through the motions, he was already planning and plotting the movie that he really wanted to make, if only he got the chance.  That chance came in the form of studio head Michael Balcon, who had already worked with Hitchcock in the 1920’s silent film era.  Balcon paid Hitchcock a visit on the set of Waltzes, and asked him what his next picture was going to be.  Hitchcock, seeing a golden opportunity, told Balcon that he had a gem of a screenplay tucked away “in a drawer, somewhere.”   Balcon asked him to bring it in to the office.  When Hitchcock did so, Balcon bought the story on the spot, also offering to sign Alfred Hitchcock to a multi-picture directing deal.

The thriller sextet:  Michael Balcon signed Alfred Hitchcock to a six-picture deal at the newly-formed Gaumont-British films company.  These six movies would completely change the course of Hitchcock’s career, establishing him as the master of the thriller.   The film industry in Britain, and the movie-going public, already recognized Hitchcock as one of their best directors, if not the best.  After the release of these six movies it was apparent that Hollywood, and the world, had taken notice as well.

These movies, which have come to be known as the “thriller sextet” prefigured the successful run that Hitchcock would have at Paramount Studios in Hollywood in the 1950’s.  In both cases, he had complete artistic control over his films.  He directed only the stories that he wanted to direct, and surrounded himself with cast and crew that he trusted, and wanted to work with.   The films in the thriller sextet have much in common:  economical storytelling, a brisk pace (the average running time is about 84 minutes), and a tone that mixes suspense and humor.  (Sabotage lacks the humor of the other 5 releases, due in part to the darker storyline.)

The Man Who Knew Too Much is the first film of the sextet; some say that this film marks the birth of the “real” Alfred Hitchcock on film.  The movie opens in St. Moritz, Switzerland because, as Hitchcock explained “that’s where I spent my honeymoon with my wife.”   The film introduces us to a dashing, cosmopolitan couple, Bob and Jill Lawrence, and their daughter Betty.  The couple (played by Leslie Banks and Edna Best) have an easy repartee that is believable, and enjoyable to watch.  Jill is a sharpshooter, and if we know anything about Hitchcock, when he sets up a detail like this early in a film, it is sure to pay off later.    The humor of the first few minutes turns dark quickly, as a man they have befriended is shot and killed.

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Here is the first of several trademark Hitchcock images in this movie, as several fingers point to the bullet hole in the glass.   The image appears quickly, then disappears before we can question it’s logic:  how could seven people arrange themselves next to a window, and contort their hands in this configuration?   The dying man imparts the location of a secret of national security to the Lawrences, whose daughter is then kidnapped by the baddies, so they will not disclose the information.  Now the story moves to London.  As Hitchcock said “from the very outset the contrast between the snowy Alps and the congested streets of London was a decisive factor.”

The Lawrences know that a certain foreign statesman is to be assassinated.  the Foreign Office knows that they know, but the Lawrences cannot disclose the details, because  if they do their kidnapped daughter will be killed.  The moral dilemma is outlined very succinctly by a man from the Foreign Office, who compares their situation to the outset of World War I.  “A man you never heard of was killed by another man you never heard of, and a month later we were at war.”  What is a parent to do?  Risk the life of your child to possibly prevent the outset of a global conflict?   Bob Lawrence sets out to find his daughter, with family friend Clive (played by Hugh Wakefield).  Clive is essentially a comic foil,  a stereotype of the tried-and-true stalwart British companion.

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As in many Hitchcock films, this movie is a series of set pieces, with the action constantly shifting, ensuring the viewer is never bored.  It is interesting to watch how Hitchcock combines humor and action in the same scenes, something he did often in the thriller sextet, but would not do as frequently in his Hollywood films.

There are two such sequences here, as Bob and Clive try to interpret the clue  left them by the dying man in St. Moritz, (a scrap of paper with the words “WAPPING, G. BARBOR, MAKE CONTACT A. HALL, MARCH 21ST”).   It turns out that G. Barbor is a dentist, who is part of the assassination plan, as his office is used as a meeting place.  The tone of this section of the movie is laid out by the very first shot, a close-up of a giant set of teeth which hang outside the dentist’s office.  The comic tone continues inside, as Bob and the dentist try to out-guess, then out-gas, each other.

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The action (and humor) then move to a church, where Bob and Clive have traced the gang.    They are recognized and locked in the church.  Thus begins a bizarre sequence, during which Clive escapes, and the interior of the church is demolished as the men inside throw chairs at each other, not wanting to use a gun as it could be heard outside.  An old lady plays the church organ to mask the sound of furniture being hurled every which way.

Mrs. Lawrence goes to the Royal Albert Hall, where the assassination is to take place, and anguishes over what to do.  If she attempts to prevent the shooting, she may risk her daughter’s life.   She screams as the gunman is taking aim, throwing off his shot.  The foreign statesman has received only a flesh wound.   But what of her daughter and husband?  They are locked up with the gang in a flat adjacent to the church.   The climactic shoot-out is based on a historical incident that occured in 1910, called the Sidney Street siege.  While such scenes have become commonplace in cinema, this is one of the first such sequences to appear in a British film, and the film censors were not happy with it initially.   After the film’s earlier visual stylization, and often comic tone, this final sequence almost has the tone of cinema verite in comparison, which certainly heightens the tension.  Remeber Jill’s sharpshooter skills?  Care to guess who shoots the assassin from the rooftop?

Performance:  All the performances are strong in this movie;  every character is believable.  But the standout performance is that of Peter Lorre as Abbott, the leader of the assassins.  This was Lorre’s first English language picture (coming just after his breakout performance in Fritz Lang’s M),  and his grasp of the English language was so frail at this time that he had to memorize his dialogue phonetically, without understanding all that he was saying.  Hitchcock said “I did insist on working with Peter Lorre…He had a very sharp sense of humor.”  Hitchcock really enjoyed working with Lorre.  He would use him again in the film Secret Agent, and they remained friends for a long time.

Recurring players:  Leslie Banks would later appear in Jamaica Inn.  Peter Lorre starred in Secret Agent.  Frank Vosper had just appeared in Waltzes From Vienna.  Nova Pilbeam would later star in Young and Innocent.  George Curzon would also have small roles in Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.  Frank Atkinson would also have uncredited roles in Young and Innocent and the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Hitchcock used Clare Greet many times; she was also in Number 13, The Ring, The Manxman, Murder!, Sabotage and Jamaica Inn.   James Knight would appear a year later in The 39 Steps.  Charles Paton had been in Blackmail.  Frederick Piper also had uncredited roles in The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Young and Innocent, and Jamaica Inn.  Jack Vyvian would appear in Sabotage and Young and Innocent.  S.J. Warmington was in Murder!, The 39 Steps, and Sabotage.  

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Where’s Hitch?   He isn’t!  As in the later film Sabotage, there is no credible evidence that Hitchcock makes a cameo in this film.  About 33:25 into the film, a man can be seen crossing the road in a trench coat, as a bus passes.  Some have said that this is Hitchcock, but neither the silhouette nor the body type are quite right.  I think it highly unlikely that this is Hitchcock.

Legacy:  Hitchcock remade this movie 22 years later, in a technicolor film starring James Stewart and Doris Day.  While the remake is enjoyable, and the Royal Albert Hall sequence far superior,  the later film suffers when both versions are viewed back to back.  The pacing, and two-hour running time of the remake is almost languorous compared to the brisk clip at which the earlier version runs.   ( I will soon do a comparison of the Royal Albert Hall sequence in both versions.)

What Hitch said:   Talking to Truffaut about the importance of this film in his career, Hitchcock said “…whatever happens in the course of your career, your talent is always there.  To all appearances, I seemed to have gone into a creative decline in 1933 when I made Waltzes from Vienna, which was very bad.  And yet the talent must have been there all along since I had already conceived the project for The Man Who Knew Too Much, the picture that re-established my creative prestige.”

Definitive edition:  As is the case with most of Hitchcock’s British films, this movie has been part of the public domain for some time, which means there are many different versions available, most taken from sub-standard prints.  The Criterion Collection released a blu-ray version in 2013, which is light years ahead of any other available version.   Criterion used a true restoration print, with exceptional picture clarity.  The mono soundtrack is astonishing;  every syllable of dialogue is clear.  The extra features are also impressive:  there is a very informative commentary track by film historian Philip Kemp, an 18-minute appreciation by Guillermo del Toro,  The Illustrated Hitchcock (a 50-minute TV program in which Hitchcock is interviewed by Pia Lindstrom), 23 minutes of audio excerpts from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews, and a restoration demonstration.

 

  As promised in my previous coverage of Dial M for Murder, here is a more detailed look at one specific sequence in the film.  This is the sequence involving Tony Wendice’s conversation with Swan.  This portion of the film corresponds to Act I, Scene ii in Frederick Knott’s original play.  In Hitchcock’s movie, it is just over 22 minutes in length, comprising slightly more than 20% of the film’s total running time.  So how does Alfred Hitchcock manage to sustain interest and suspense,  for such a long period of time, with only 2 actors in one room?  There are approximately 121 editorial cuts in this 22 minute sequence, averaging one cut every 11 seconds.  This seems like a lot of editing for Alfred Hitchcock, but of course the specifics are much more interesting than mere mathematics.

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First off, Tony Wendice (played by Ray Milland) opens the door for Swan (Anthony Dawson), and they engage in introductory remarks.  Wendice pours Swan a drink.  This happens in one unbroken two-shot, lasting just under a minute.  Both actors then take a seat, facing each other.  Then Hitchcock goes into a very “standard” back and forth as Wendice and Swan converse.  The camera is on Wendice, then Swan, then back to Wendice, etc.  This back-and-forth cutting happens over 20 times in a couple of minutes.  The camera is usually trained on the actor who is speaking, but not always.  Occasionally the camera will cut to the listener, so we can read his reaction to what the other person is saying.  This is one way of breaking the monotony of the standard “two-shot conversation” sequence.   Then, just as the conversation is starting to take a turn, Hitchcock does something unique with the camera:

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As Wendice joins Swan on the sofa, the camera pans left so that we are behind the sofa, and the actors, with a lamp in between the two actors.  The camera has moved almost 90 degrees clockwise, and rather than cut to the new set-up, we observe the camera movement.  This is slightly off-putting.  Every time the viewer might start to get complacent, Hitchcock quickly changes the setup, keeping us off guard, and hopefully ensuring that we are paying attention to the very important dialogue.   After this dramatic camera movement, the scene continues in one uninterrupted take for about a 1 minute and 45 seconds.  During this time, Tony Wendice will get up and sit down twice, all without cutting.

DialM4Wendice ends up where he began, opposite Swan, and after an establishing two-shot Hitchcock goes back to the standard “back-and-forth”, cutting between the two men as Wendice slowly reels in Swan.   It is worth noting the Asian porcelain figurine behind Tony Wendice in this photo.   This figurine appears in various camera angles, and in a couple of instances appears to be staring directly at the camera, almost as if she is listening in on the conversation.   (I never noticed this detail myself, even after multiple viewings, but read about it on the wonderful site alfredhitchcockgeek.com.)  After almost 3 minutes of  rather standard back-and-forth cutting, Tony gets up and moves to the desk.

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Look at him sitting on the edge of the desk, arms crossed, both confident and comfortable.  He exudes power.  By this time he knows that he has Swan, and he is charming as ever.  Now when the camera cuts to Tony, it is on the opposite side of the room, near the fireplace.  Our view has moved 180 degrees from where we were when the two men sat on the sofa together, with the lamp between them.  Now the lamp is to the left of the frame, providing counterbalance to the figure of Wendice.  Tony Wendice will move back to the other side of the room, sitting now in the deep chair to the right of the one he sat in previously.

dialMtonychairThis is an interesting camera angle;  before we were looking at eye level, more or less.  But now the camera is in a lower position, looking up at Wendice, whose body fills the frame.  His position of strength has grown.  His tennis trophies can be seen just above his head on the mantel.  Now Tony stands up, and we are presented with an entirely new camera angle:

DialM5Now we can see bookshelves behind Tony.  These shelves are opposite the door.  Once again the camera has swung around the room.  We are seeing furnishings that we haven’t seen before.   But there is our familiar anchor, that green lamp, more or less dead center in the room.  We’ve seen it center frame, left of frame, and now it is right of frame, providing balance in the scene’s composition.   Tony walks back to the desk, to get Swan’s “carrot”, his money.  As he walks, we see the only part of the living room that we have not yet seen:

dialMfloralprint

DialMchinacabinet

There behind Tony’s head is a framed work of art, in between two bookshelves.  As he walks to the right, we see the second bookshelf, as well as some sort of china cabinet in the corner of the room.   Now we see the smaller, more ornate yellow lamp on the desk.  It enters this scene frame right.  Tony tosses the money across the room to Swan.  This is as far apart physically as they will ever get in this 22 minute sequence.  There is a gulf between them, as Swan appears to hesitate.

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We can now see another ornate piece of furniture, and another art print on the wall.   Alfred Hitchcock has made a complete circuit of the room, in a span of about 15 minutes, showing us every wall, every door, every unique furnishing.  Most viewers will make no notice of this, because they will be focused on the dialogue between Wendice and Swan, but it is the shifting camera angles that keep the dialogue interesting.   Some fans of this film have said that Hitchcock has done away with the “fourth wall” in this scene, through his constantly shifting camera.    This isn’t strictly true;  unlike the staged version of this play, Alfred Hitchcock has the luxury of shifting the location of the “fourth wall”, not only moving the players around the “fixed point” of the green lamp, but moving the audience as well!  But he is not done yet.

Swan moves to join Wendice at the desk, and at this point is is clear that they have reached an agreement.

dialMswandesk

Look at the perfect framing of this shot.  The two men are not directly facing one another, but look at each other at a slightly oblique angle.  The telephone, which is to be the instrument of murder, is dead center frame, and directly between the men.  And the “new” lamp, which appears to be of Asian design as well, is now frame left.

Alfred Hitchcock leaves his best camera work for the end of the sequence.  All of a sudden, as Wendice begins to give the specifics of the murder to Swan, the camera cuts to a high overhead angle.

dialMoverhead

I call this Hitchcock’s “God’s-eye view” shot.  He employed it in a majority of his films, usually only for a matter of seconds, and usually at a moment of extremely heightened tension.  (In Shadow of a Doubt, the camera pulls upward at the moment when niece Charlie discovers that her uncle’s gift of a ring came from a murdered woman.  In the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, the camera moves overhead when the McKennas are talking to their kidnapped child on the phone.)  Removing the viewer from the action in this way is startling, because unexpected.  It also makes the characters, and the viewers as well, feel more helpless.   Hitchcock uses this angle a little differently here.  We stay in this overhead shot for two-and-a-half minutes, as we observe the plotting of a murder.   So why did Hitchcock employ this high angle here?   Could it be as simple as the fact that he had already shown us the room from every other conceivable angle?  Possibly.  It also serves to ensure that the viewer is aware of the layout of the room, and exactly where everything is, so that when the murder comes we know exactly what is supposed to happen.

After this the camera returns to an eye-level two shot, and finally we fade to black over 22 minutes after the sequence began.  The success of the film hangs on this sequence;  not only is Wendice hooking Swan, but Hitchcock is hooking the audience, and his innovative camera movements make this sequence wonderful, and a prime example of his masterful directorial eye.

 

 

 

saulbassGraphic designer Saul Bass was born on May 8, 1920, making this year the 94th anniversary of his birth (Bass died in 1996).   Before we look at the Bass/Hitchcock connection,  let’s take a look at what made Bass’s career so memorable.

You may have never heard the name Saul Bass before, but you are definitely familiar with his work.  Bass designed dozens of corporate logos, many of which became iconic over time.   Everything from the AT&T “bell” logo, to the Warner Brothers’ “W” logo, and many others that you would instantly recognize, all were created by Saul Bass.

Take a look at the following corporate logos, all designed by Saul Bass.  How many do you recognize?  This is just a small portion of his total output over a 40 year career.

Saul-Bass-Logo-Design

Saul Bass was so good at marrying a logo to a brand, creating “brand recognition”, that it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling, asking Bass to design movie posters.  Saul Bass designed dozens of iconic movie posters over a span of 4 decades.  Let’s take a look at just a few of his many memorable posters, including three that he designed for Alfred Hitchcock.

SaulBassVertigoSaulBassPsychoSaulBassBirds

 

 

saulbassStalagsaulbassSeven

 

Saul Bass’ most significant contribution to movies was not his iconic posters, however, but his title sequences.  Movie directors began approaching Bass in the 1950’s to create innovative and memorable opening title sequences for films.  Bass’ first title sequence was for the 1954 movie “Carmen Jones”, and his last was for Martin Scorsese’s 1990 release “Casino.”   Within that 36-year span Saul Bass created many ground-breaking title sequences.  It is not an understatement to say that Bass single-handedly changed movie title sequences.

This is what Saul Bass had to say about creating a title sequence:  “My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story in some metaphorical way.  I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.”

Saul Bass created three title sequences for Alfred Hitchcock:  for Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho.  All three of his sequences are pitch-perfect; all succeed in “setting the audience up”, as Bass once put it.  It is worth noting that all three of these films were scored by Bernard Herrmann, and in each instance Saul Bass’ title sequence works in unison with Herrmann’s score to put the audience in a particular frame of mind, a particular emotional state, before seeing one image of Hitchcock’s movie, or hearing one line of dialogue.

Saul Bass’ legacy lives on beyond his death.  Not only are many of his corporate logos still used today, but his movie posters are collectors’ items,  and the title sequences he designed are seen every time somebody watches one of the classic films he was involved with.  Below you can watch Bass’s unforgettable title sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  Note how in sync Bass’ title sequence is with Bernard Herrmann’s beautiful score.  (All rights to the movie Vertigo are owned by Universal Pictures.)

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