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THE SKIN GAME (1931) – British International Pictures – Rating: ★★

Black and White – 83 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Edmund Gwenn (Mr. Hornblower), C.V. France (Squire John Hillcrest), Helen Haye (Mrs. Amy Hillcrest), Jill Esmond (Jill Hillcrest), Phyllis Konstam (Chloe Hornblower), John Longden (Charles Hornblower), Frank Lawton (Rolf Hornblower), Edward Chapman (Dawker).

Directed and adapted by Alfred Hitchcock

Scenario by Alma Reville, based on the play by John Galsworthy

Photographed by Jack Cox

Edited by Rene Marrison and A.R. Gobbett

In late 1930, Alfred Hitchcock was celebrating the release of Murder!  While only a modest financial success, it did receive good notices in the press.  More importantly to Hitchcock, he had enjoyed considerable creative freedom making the movie, which meant he was able to imbue it with his personal style; his fingerprint is on virtually every frame.  His next announced film was ThSkin Game.  

This film may have been Hitchcock’s choice, but more likely it was thrust upon him by British International Pictures, who considered adaptations of stage plays a safe bet.   Whether Hitchcock chose it or not, he was an admirer of the author, John Galsworthy, and had even seen the original London stage production in 1920.   When Galsworthy sold the rights to his play to British International Pictures he had absolute control over the final screenplay;  not one word of his dialogue could be changed without his permission.  This meant that Alfred Hitchcock would have to use visual means to express his creativity, to leave his imprint on the film.

The film begins with a nice montage of images and sounds;  bleating sheep, a barking dog, a shouting man, a honking horn.skin8  This is only the fourth movie Hitchcock made with sound, so he was just beginning to experiment with the many ways he could mix sound with visuals. skin9

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Shortly after this opening montage we learn that this movie concerns two families.  The first is the Hillcrist family, who are landed gentry, having resided on the same land for many generations.  They represent gentility and tradition.  The other family are the Hornblowers, newly arrived in the area.  They are nouveaux riches, and represent progress.  The Hillcrists have sold a parcel of land to Mr. Hornblower, with the verbal understanding that the tenants who live on the property would be allowed to stay.  Now, however, an older couple who live in a cottage on the property inform the Hillcrists that they have been told to vacate.  This sets up a confrontation between the Hillcrists and Mr. Hornblower.

Mr. Hownblower is played to perfection by Edmund Gwenn, who had originated the role on the London stage a decade earlier.  He arrives at the Hillcrest estate.  Squire Hillcrest (played by C.V. France) and his wife Amy (Helen Haye) ask Hornblower to reconsider evicting the tenants.  He refuses to change his position;  in addition he mentions that he is going to try to buy another parcel of land adjacent to the Hillcrist estate, and build a factory there, which will blight the view the Hillcrists have enjoyed for a long time.  The majority of this sequence is filmed in one take.  For about four-and-a-half minutes the camera follows Edmund Gwenn as he addresses Squire Hillcrist, then Mrs. Hillcrist.  Hitchcock also makes good use of off-camera dialogue here, another technique new to the sound era.

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The centerpiece of the movie is an auction sequence, at which the parcel of land is to be sold.  Hillcrist and Hornblower attempt to outbid and outwit one another over several tense minutes.   Hitchcock makes the most of his talent in this sequence.  He begins with an establishing shot on a poster, then pulls back and tracks through a narrow street scene, including pedestrians and all manner of transportation.   It is done deftly, in one take.  When the auction begins, much of it is shot from the point of view of the auctioneer, as he gazes out at the potential bidders.  Rather than cut back and forth from Mr. Hornblower to Mr. Hillcrist’s agent, Dawker, as they try to outbid each other, Hitchcock employs a whip pan.  The camera pans back and forth in a blur, from one man to the other.  This camerawork is expertly done by Jack Cox, who was the cameraman on eleven Hitchcock movies.

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In the above series of images you can get a sense of how Hitchcock and Cox employed the whip pan, to great effect.

In the end Mr. Hornblower uses both his clever business tactics and his seemingly endless reserves of money to win the land.   Mrs. Hillcrist however hints to Mr. Hornblower that if he does not relent he will regret it.  It turns out that Mrs. Hillcrist has acquired some rather salacious information about Mr. Hornblower’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Hornblower’s elder son.   She threatens to expose this information unless Mr. Hornblower sells his newly-acquired land and leaves at once.   While the story is all John Galsworthy’s, the theme is one that Hitchcock would often employ; that of a woman having the strength and determination to solve a problem, where the man has failed.  There is a resolution of sorts, although the ending  can be seen as tragic.

The film has a reputation as being a minor work in Hitchcock’s British period, and that may be true, but fans and scholars of Hitchcock will enjoy watching a film in which the young director employs several visual techniques to tell the story without compromising the author’s text.

Performance:  Edmund Gwenn gives a marvelous performance.  Of course, having originated the role on the stage, he was very familiar with it.  Hitchcock became rather fond of Gwenn; he would use him in three later films.  Helen Haye is good as Mrs. Hillcrist.  The other performances are adequate, but nobody else really stands out.  Jill Esmond, who plays the Hillcrist’s daughter, has a friendship with the Hornblower’s youngest son Rolf, played by Frank Lawton.  There is a hint of a possible romance in the text, but their performances don’t bring much to the roles.  Phyllis Konstam, as Chloe Hornblower, has perhaps the most difficult part to play, and she definitely generates sympathy.

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Source material:  As I previously mentioned, the playwright John Galsworthy had final say over the screenplay, so the movie does not differ in any significant way from the play.  A couple of scenes were moved around, but the dialogue is all retained intact from the play.   The only significant difference is that in the play, it is made quite clear at the end that Chloe will survive.  In the movie that is left uncertain at best.

Recurring players:  Edmund Gwenn would later appear in Waltzes from Vienna, Foreign Correspondent, and The Trouble With Harry.  Helen Haye and Ivor Barnard would later turn up in The 39 Steps.  Phyllis Konstam had earlier appeared in Champagne, Blackmail and Murder!  John Longden had appeared in Blackmail and Juno and the Paycock, and would later appear in Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.  Edward Chapman had been in Juno and the Paycock and Murder!   R.E. Jeffrey was also in Murder!

Where’s Hitch?  Alas, there is no Hitchcock cameo in this movie.   He has at least three confirmed cameo appearances in earlier films, but it was not yet a tradition in 1931.

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What Hitch said:   When Hitchcock mentioned the film in an article published in Film Weekly in 1936, he spoke with some fondness of the movie, saying:  “The Skin Game was one of the most successful of the pictures I made during this time.  It gave both Edmund Gwenn and Phyllis Konstam very good parts.  I can remember very distinctly Miss Konstam’s woebegone expression when I told her that we should have to have a tenth take on a scene in which she had to be rescued from a lily pond.”    When Hitchcock sat down with Truffaut over thirty years later, he was much more dismissive, saying only “I didn’t make it by choice, and there isn’t much to be said about it.”

Definitive edition:  Beware the many public domain or bootlegged copies of this movie floating around.  The only decent quality version currently available in the United States, is to be found on the three-DVD box set released by Lionsgate.  The print is far from pristine;  the image is not always clear, and the audio is worse.  This is a movie that needs to be restored.   There are no extra features included with this movie, although the box set does include a far-too-brief featurette about Hitchcock’s early British period.

JAMAICA INN (1939) – Mayflower Pictures – Rating: ★★

Black and White – 99 mins. – 1.37:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Charles Laughton (Sir Humphrey Pengallan), Maureen O’Hara (Mary Yellan), Leslie Banks (Joss Merlyn), Robert Newton (Jem Trehearne), Marie Ney (Aunt Patience Merlyn), Horace Hodges (Chadwick), Emlyn Williams (Harry the Pedlar).

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Produced by Erich Pommer and Charles Laughton

Cinematography by Bernard Knowles and Harry Stradling, Sr.

Film Editing by Robert Hamer

Written by Sidney Gilliat and Joan Harrison, additional dialogue J.B. Priestly, based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier

Original Music by Eric Fenby

Dialogue Coach:  J. Lee Thompson

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In the summer of 1938, Alfred Hitchcock was in the United States,courting Hollywood in the hope of signing a contract.  Hitchcock had been thinking about a move to the States for a few years;  now, riding the success of The Lady Vanishes, he was a hot commodity.  He finally signed with David O. Selznick in July.  His contract would not take effect until spring of 1939, which meant he had time to make one final film in England before making the move to America.  That final British film would be Jamaica Inn.  

Hitchcock had very little interest in the movie;  his mind was already on Hollywood and Selznick.  He directed it essentially as a favor to star Charles Laughton.  Over the course of his life Hitchcock was very dismissive of the movie, and it has a bad reputation in the Hitchcock canon.   Many contemporary reviews refer to it as one of the worst movies Hitchcock ever made.   Perhaps it is time for a reevaluation of this movie, particularly in light of the newly restored version released by Cohen Films in conjunction with the BFI.

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Maureen O’Hara as Mary Yellan (center) greets her Aunt Patience (Marie Ney) as Uncle Joss (Leslie Banks) looks on.

As a first-time viewer of Jamaica Inn, I was surprised to discover that it is not nearly as bad as its reputation.  It does not have the feel of a Hitchcock movie at all;  anyone who subscribes to the auteur theory of film making may have a hard time seeing Hitchcock’s direct influence on this movie.  But he certainly did leave small touches here and there.  It is also not a traditional Hitchcock suspense movie;  it is at times over-the-top and downright bizarre.  But it mixes tone nicely, and never ceases to entertain.

The plot centers around Mary Yellan (played by a young Maureen O’Hara), a girl from Ireland who has travelled to England to live with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss Merlyn (Marie Ney and Leslie Banks).  Her uncle is the proprietor of the Jamaica Inn, which is a front for a smuggling operation.  Her uncle runs a crew of ship wreckers; men who intentionally ground ships, kill the sailors and steal the cargo.  Early in the film Mary befriends Sir Humphrey Pengallan, the local magistrate, played by Charles Laughton in his usual scene-chewing fashion.  What Mary does not realize (but the audience does) is that Laughton’s character is the real mastermind behind the shipwrecking crew.   Mary also does not realize that Jem (played by Robert Newton), a member of the gang who she rescues from a hanging, is an undercover police officer, sent to infiltrate the gang to gather evidence.  So in typical Hitchcock fashion, the audience has significant information that the protagonist lacks.

Mary and Jem escape from Jamaica Inn, only to be trapped in a cave by the rather odd members of the wrecking crew.  Eventually they will escape, only to unwittingly place themselves in more danger, as they go to Sir Humphrey’s estate, asking for assistance.

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One of the few true “Hitchcockian” shots in the movie, as the ragtag members of the gang gaze down on the protagonists.

Sir Humphrey, as played by Laughton, is an oddball character from the beginning, but it appears that he is overtaken by madness as the story progresses.   By the time that Mary Yellan knows the true nature of all the characters in the story, she is caught in the clutches of Sir Humphrey, who attempts to flee with her aboard a parting ship.  In the end Sir Humphrey will meet his downfall, quite literally, in a closing sequence that is trademark Hitchcock.

Source material:  The screenplay is based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier.  Hitchcock adapted three of his movies from Du Maurier stories (Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and The Birds).  Of the three, only Rebecca remained true to the source material.  The novel Jamaica Inn is a gothic novel with a suspenseful build to a surprise ending.  The action takes place over several months, unlike the movie, which is condensed into a couple of days.  In the novel, the mastermind of the gang is actually a local vicar, named Francis Davy.  The movie could not employ a vicar as the antagonist, because film censors would not permit a priest to be a bad guy.  In the novel, the character of Jem is actually not an undercover policeman, but is the brother of Uncle Joss Merlyn.  The screenplay does a very good job of condensing action and characters, and keeping the pace moving along at a nice clip.  In the novel, the reader does not learn the true nature of the vicar until the last few pages.  In the movie, we learn very early on that Charles Laughton is the mastermind of the wreckers.  Alfred Hitchcock explains why this change was necessary:

“The problem there was…one would have to have a very important actor to play this character…The question was, how could one possibly have an important actor playing in an apparently unimportant part in the first two-thirds, when the characters are talking about a mysterious and influential figure?  Naturally, then, the story had to be changed…We had to let the audience in on the secret about that figure and change the whole middle of the story, so that you saw this figure behind the scenes and how he manipulates the wreckers.  We had to invent new situations.”

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An image from a fantastic tracking shot of Maureen O’Hara sneaking behind the wreckers.

Hitchcock touches:  As previously mentioned, there are few genuine “Hitchcock” moments in this film.   Because Charles Laughton was both producer and lead actor, Hitchcock was often at his whim.  Alfred Hitchcock may have been content to shoot two or three takes of a scene for instance, but if Laughton wanted ten takes, or fifteen, Hitchcock had to acquiesce.  Even if Hitchcock was making a by-the-numbers movie to please his producer/actor, he still managed to leave his imprint on a few scenes.  The opening sequence, showing the wreckers leading a ship onto the rocks, then plundering it, is a fantastic sequence;  a couple of the ship shots are clearly models, but regardless the sequence holds up well today.   A sequence that takes place in a cave by the sea has some nice Hitchcock touches.  There is one fantastic tracking shot of Maureen O’Hara as Mary, sneaking among the rocks behind the wreckers, which cuts to a close-up of several of the wreckers peering over the rocks.  This shot is pure Hitchcock, leaving no doubt as to who directed it.  And finally, the last sequence of the film, which also takes place on a ship, finds Charles Laughton leaping to his death from the top of the main mast.  This sequence is very well put together.  Hitchcock would later end several of his movies in this way, with a major character falling to their death  (Saboteur, Vertigo, North by Northwest).  Another Hitchcock touch is the absence of a musical score.  There is original music for the opening and closing credits, but no music during the actual movie.  This is the first of three films which would have no music (Lifeboat, The Birds).

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Basil Radford provides the film’s biggest laugh.

A Hitchcock comedy?  I guess it’s a bit of a stretch to call this a comedy, but for a movie that involves ship wreckers, smugglers and murderers, there are a lot of genuine laughs;  some intentional, some not.   Laughton’s character is bizarre from the opening sequence, in which he leads a horse into the dining room.  The way Laughton is always yelling for his butler “Chadwick!” also supplies some humor.  The last shot of the movie, after Laughton has fallen to his death, is a shot of Horace Hodges as Chadwick, who still hears Laughton’s cries of “Chadwick” echoing in his mind.  This final shot is both genuinely wistful and slightly comic, a pure Hitchcock moment, and indicative of the way the entire movie mixes tone.  The members of the wrecking crew also add some humor to the movie.  And Basil Radford, appearing in his third movie for Alfred Hitchcock, makes the most of his limited screen time by providing some genuine laughs.

Performance:  The title sequence of this movie proclaims “Introducing Maureen O’Hara”.   This was not her first movie, but was her first leading role, and her first under the exclusive five-year contract she signed with Charles Laughton.  Maureen is charming and convincing in her role.   Some feel that Laughton’s performance is way over the top, but his character is supposed to be going mad, so while he might walk the line, I think he pulls it off.   Leslie Banks is wonderful as Joss Merlyn;  he is almost unrecognizable as the same actor who played the father in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Many of the actors in the smaller supporting roles are great.  Hitchcock used many of his favorite character actors in this movie, perhaps because he was leaving for America and didn’t know if he would have the chance to work with them again.

Recurring players:  Charles Laughton would later appear in The Paradine Case.  Frederick Piper had small parts in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps, Sabotage, and Young and Innocent.  Hitchcock favorite Clare Greet had appeared in The Ring, The Manxman, Murder!, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and Sabotage.  George Curzon had been in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Young and Innocent.  The great Basil Radford was also in Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes.   Leslie Banks had starred in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).  Wylie Watson had played Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps.  Robert Adair would later have a bit part in Stage Fright.  Marie Ault had appeared in The Lodger.  William Fazan also had bit parts in Murder! and Young and Innocent.   Hitchcock regular John Longden had appeared in Blackmail, Juno and the Paycock, The Skin Game, and Young and Innocent.  Aubrey Mather was also in Sabotage and Suspicion.

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Clare Greet, one of Hitchcock’s favorite character actresses. She would die shortly after filming was complete.

Hitchcock legacy:  Robert Hamer, the editor of this movie, would become a popular British director in the 1940’s and 50’s.  He made his most memorable films at Ealing Studios, including Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Alec Guiness.  J. Lee Thompson, the dialogue coach on this film, would become a very successful director, making many well-known movies, including The Guns of Navarone and the original Cape Fear.  

Where’s Hitch?  He isn’t!  Alfred Hitchcock had made cameos in several movies by this point, and he would make one in every subsequent movie, but he chose not to in Jamaica Inn.  Perhaps this is an indication of how little regard Hitchcock had for this movie, that he chose not to appear in it.

What Hitch said:  Despite the fact that this film was a huge hit, grossing over $3 million in 1939, Hitchcock never had a kind word to say about it.  He said “It was completely absurd…it made no sense to cast Charles Laughton in the key role of the justice of the peace.  Realizing how incongruous it was, I was truly discouraged, but the contract had been signed.  Finally, I made the picture, and although it became a box-office hit, I’m still unhappy over it.”   Hitchcock also said of his leading man “You can’t direct a Laughton picture.  The best you can hope for is to referee”, and “He wasn’t really a professional film man.”  Harsh words, indeed.

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Definitive edition:  This movie has languished in the public domain for a long time, the result being several DVD releases of varying poor quality, some with almost unintelligible dialogue, and some even missing ten minutes of footage, which is integral to the plot!  There is only one version of this movie that you should see, and that is the brand new blu ray from Cohen films.  Their print, which is a full restoration released in conjunction with the BFI, is breathtaking.  The picture quality is startlingly good, the audio track is solid, and most importantly, the footage missing from many earlier prints has been restored.   Perhaps the excellent quality of this blu ray will help to give this movie a new life.  While it is not a great film, and not quintessential Hitchcock, it is certainly a well-constructed and entertaining film.  The blu ray includes a very informative (without being dry) commentary track by film historian Jeremy Arnold,  a 13-minute video essay featuring Donald Spoto, and a 2014 re-release trailer.

TORN CURTAIN (1966) – Universal Pictures – Rating:  ★★ 1/2

Color – 128 mins. – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Paul Newman (Professor Michael Armstrong), Julie Andrews (Sarah Sherman), Lila Kedrova (Countess Kuchinska), Hansjorg Felmy (Heinrich Gerhard), Tamara Toumanova (Ballerina), Wolfgang Kieling (Hermann Gromek), Ludwig Donath (Professor Gustav Lindt), Mort Mills (Farmer/Pi).

 Directed Torn1and produced by Alfred  Hitchcock

 Written by Brian Moore

 Cinematographer:  John F. Warren

 Editor:  Bud Hoffman

 Original Music:  John Addison

 

 

Torn Curtain begins with one Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite techniques:  a brief montage of images, with no dialogue, that perfectly sets the scene.  Hitchcock used this type of wordless opening montage in numerous films, including Sabotage, Dial M For Murder, and Rear Window.  So three minutes into the movie, we know we are on a ship that is hosting an assembly of scientists;  we know the ship is freezing cold;  and we know a certain pair are missing from breakfast, because they are in bed together.  And these of course are the stars, Professor Michael Sherman (Paul Newman), and his assistant and fiancee Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews).   This set-up is quite good;  Hitchcock is on familiar ground.  Unfortunately, the movie soon begins to labor under the weight of its own plot.

Of the film’s structure, Hitchcock said  “…the first third of the film is more or less from a woman’s point of view…”, meaning that the audience is seeing things as Julie Andrews’ character sees them.  This is perhaps the weakest part of the movie.  After a solid set-up, we learn that Michael is keeping something from Sarah.   Michael receives a mysterious telegram on the ship.  Later, in Copenhagen, he receives a book that contains a coded message.  He then tells Sarah that he must leave Copenhagen that night, alone.  He is terse, uncommunicative, and dismissive.  Later Sarah learns that he has a plane ticket to East Berlin, to which she utters the almost laughingly trite line “But – that’s behind the Iron Curtain.”  Oh, brother!   Screenwriter Keith Waterhouse later called this “an immortally bad line” and despite his and his partner’s pleading “…Hitchcock steadfastly refused to modify the line, not even to the extent of getting rid of the superfluous ‘but’ and its hesitant dash.”

Julie Andrews utters the worst line of dialogue in the movie.

Julie Andrews utters the worst line of dialogue in the movie.

She buys a ticket on the same plane, without Michael knowing about it, and follows him to East Berlin, where he announces his intentions to defect to the communist bloc and share his knowledge of American rocketry.  It is abundantly clear to the audience at this point that Newman’s character can’t be a real defector.  I’m not sure which is more implausible:  that his fiancee and confidante would not be able to see this, or that he would keep such a secret from the most important person in his life, especially now that she is in jeopardy.   This lapse in logic causes the whole early portion of the film to suffer.  Fortunately though, the middle third of the movie is the strongest portion by far.  It shifts to Paul Newman’s point of view.  Now the viewer will see the action from his point of view.

First, the couple has a discussion in an East Berlin hotel room.  This is shot from a distance, all in one take;  the staging is rather like that of a play, and makes the viewer feel like an interloper in the characters’ private lives.  It is gorgeously shot, as described by Hitchcock:

“There was one very effective sequence in the film that I purposely played entirely in long shot.  It took place in that East Berlin hotel room where we had the evening sun shining in – just a faint yellow shaft of warm sunlight; the rest was that awful heavy brown, a mood effect.  That sequence represents very close coordination between the visual conceptions of the production designer and the cameraman.  The lighting, and the color of the light, work in relationship to the somber tones of the room.”

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A shot from a masterfully constructed sequence. The beautiful lighting makes this look almost like a painting.

Professor Armstrong has been assigned a security detail named Gromek, played by the German actor Wolfgang Kieling.  Gromek is the most interesting character in the movie;  he makes the most of every moment he is on screen.  Armstrong wants to give Gromek the slip; he leaves his hotel with the German agent in pursuit.  Armstrong goes to an art museum, where we see a silent chase through vast rooms displaying works of art, the only sound the clopping of shoes on the tiled floor.    These scenes were filmed by shooting the actors walking, while most of the walls and works of art were added in later as a matte painting done by the masterful Albert Whitlock.  These shots hold up very well today;  overall the sequence is quite good.

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Armstrong exits out a side door and takes a taxi to a farm in the countryside, where he meets with an American agent (played by Mort Mills) nicknamed Pi.  Unfortunately, he was followed by Gromek, and is trapped in the small farmhouse with Gromek and the wife of the agent.  Here follows the best sequence in the movie.  Now Gromek knows that Armstrong is a double agent, so Gromek must be killed.  But it must be done quietly, because the taxi driver is outside the window.  Hitchcock describes the sequence:

“In doing that long killing scene, my first thought again was to avoid the cliche.  In every picture somebody gets killed and it goes very quickly.  They are stabbed or shot, and the killer never even stops to look and see whether the victim is really dead or not.  And I thought it was time to show that it was very difficult, very painful, and it takes a long time to kill a man.”

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The killing of Gromek, the best sequence in the movie.

 

After Gromek is killed, Armstrong knows is time is limited.  The final third of the film focuses on Armstrong meeing with a German scientist in Leipzig to pry some information from him;  then on his and Sarah’s attempt to escape East Germany and get to Sweden and safety.  This last section of the film is inconsistent.  While the first third of the film was marred by implausible plot points, it is technical details that help to weaken the final third.  There is a scene in which Armstrong finally tells Sarah that he is not really defecting, that he is a double agent working for America.  This scene is shot on a hilltop, and we don’t hear the dialogue.  Hitchcock used this effective technique in a few movies;  when the audience already has the knowledge that the character doesn’t, he lets the expository dialogue play out of earshot;  we more or less know what is being said.   Unfortunately, this otherwise well-constructed sequence is marred by set design.  It is painfully obvious that this “hillside” was shot on a soundstage.  Had he chosen to shoot this scene at an exterior location, it would have been one of the most powerful, moving scenes in the movie.  Julie Andrews is quite good here. For most of his career Hitchcock was the master of special effects and trick shots;  he was an innovator even in the silent film days.  How could he let a shot like this stand?  Did the artificiality not bother him?  It tends to take the audience out of the film.

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The artificial setting detracts from an otherwise well-constructed scene.

 

After this the couple are secreted away on a bus to meet a contact in East Berlin.  The bus is a fake city bus, running just moments ahead of the real bus, and the passengers all Germans with anti-communist sentiment, risking their lives.  This sequence should have been one of the highlights of the movie;  it is certainly written and structured in a way designed to build tension over several minutes.  Unfortunately, the tension is lessened again for a technical reason.  The bus is so obviously on a soundstage, with screens outside the windows projecting images of passing countryside and vehicles.  Hitchcock explains:  “I’m not happy with the technical quality of the transparencies for that scene.  For economy reasons I had the background plates shot by German cameramen, but we should have sent an American crew over.”

Again, how did Hitchcock let this slip by?  Shouldn’t he have looked at the footage sooner, while there was time to shoot replacement film?  The clearly artificial quality of these shots deflates the tension from what would have been a great sequence.

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Later the couple meet a bizarre lady who calls herself Countess Kuchinska (played by Lila Kedrova, who had recently won an Oscar for her role in Zorba the Greek).   Hitchcock really enjoyed working with Kedrova, and the sequence is somewhat effective but longer than it needed to be.  Eventually our couple are sent to a ballet, from which they will be secreted out of the country on a ship bound for Sweden.  They find themselves trapped in a crowded room, another favorite Hitchcock motif used in several movies, from The 39 Steps to Saboteur to North by Northwest.  They just manage to evade capture and make it to Sweden.  We leave them as we found them, snuggled under a blanket.

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Lila Kedrova as the Countess Kuchinska, with our hero and heroine.

Performance:  Paul Newman and Julie Andrews are both solid in their own way, but lack a strong screen chemistry.  At times they seem to be characters visiting one another from different movies.  Early in production, Newman sent Alfred Hitchcock a three-page memo outlining some ideas and concerns he had about the script.  This was really off-putting to Hitchcock, who never replied to the memo, and had a very reserved relationship with the actor.  Many of the supporting characters, most of them European actors, were quite good, adding some needed life and vibrancy to the movie.

A lost scene (Gromek’s brother):  Alfred Hitchcock shot a sequence for the movie which would have occured shortly after the killing of Gromek.  Professor Armstrong stops at a German canteen and meets a man who looks a lot like the man he just killed.  This man is Gromek’s brother, and the part is played by Wolfgang Kieling, the same actor who played Gromek.  He asks Armstrong to deliver some sausage to his brother, which he proceeds to cut with a knife very like the one that Gromek was stabbed with.    This scene, rife with Hitchcock’s typical dark humor, sounds fantastic.  Hitchcock said of it:  “It’s quite effective.  In fact, very good.  I dropped it from the final film because the film was too long…the actor who played Gromek was very good.  I had him completely transformed for the brother’s role.”  Once again, Hitchcock’s judgment went awry;  he cut a scene which by his own admission was “very good” because the film was “too long”?  Why not cut a sequence that was not “very good”?  The Countess Kuchinska sequence definitely could have been trimmed.

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A shot from the deleted scene featuring Paul Newman as Professor Armstrong, and Wolfgang Kieling as Gromek’s brother.

Farewell, Bernard Herrmann:  Hitchcock began this movie having lost two of his most important collaborators,  editor George Tomasini and cinematographer Bob Burks.  He would lose another one during post production.   Bernard Herrmann, who had composed the film score for seven Hitchcock movies, was hired to score this film as well.  Hitchcock told Herrmann he wanted something different, explaining in a telegram “This audience is very different from the one to which we used to cater it is young vigorous and demanding.”  It seems to me that Hitchcock should have heeded his own advice;  nonetheless, Herrmann promised to deliver the type of score that Hitchcock was asking for.  But when it came time to hear it, Hitchcock didn’t like it at all.  Herrmann stormed off;  he later claimed he quit, while Hitchcock claimed he was fired.  Whatever the reason, one of the greatest parternships between film composer and director was ended;  they would never speak again.

Recurring players:  Because Hitchcock recruited many European actors for this movie, he did not employ many people that he had previously worked with.  William Yetter, Sr. had also been an extra in Foreign Correspondent.  And Mort Mills, who plays the agent named Pi, had earlier appeared in Psycho as the highway patrolman who follows Marion Crane early in the movie.

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock wrote a memo detailing his cameo for this movie:  “I should be seen sitting in an armchair in the lounge with a nine month old baby on my knee and I’m looking around rather impatiently for the mother to come back.  This impatience could be underscored by shifting the baby from one knee to the other, and then with the free hand, surreptitiously wiping the thigh.”  This is exactly how the cameo was shot, and begins at about the 8:18 mark, early in the movie.

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Hitchcock on the set, providing direction during the Gromek killing.

The resolution:  Alfred Hitchcock began shooting this film with a screenplay that was not up to his usual standards.   Everybody recognized this (Paul Newman later said “We all knew we had a loser on our hands”), but they all soldiered on.  Despite the flaws in the screenplay, the film could have been better than it is.   Hitchcock could have recognized and corrected some of the technical faults in the picture.  He could have trimmed a couple of overlong sequences, and left intact a scene that by his own admission was “very good.”   How could Hitchcock be so right in some instances, and so very wrong in others?  It would make more sense if the whole film was a disaster;  it most certainly is not.   This film is ultimately a mix of a few very good moments, and many forgettable ones.   Losing so many important collaborators had to impact him; he was reeling from numerous losses.  The film made a meager profit of $1.5 million, which was a bona fide flop, especially considering the director and the two stars.  The reviews were harsh;  some suggested that Hitchcock had lost his touch.  Unfortunately for Hitch, things would get worse before they got better.

Definitive edition:  Universal’s 2012 blu-ray is the best looking and sounding version of this movie available.  John Warren’s cinematography looks quite good.  The blu-ray contains a 32 minute documentary called “Torn Curtain Rising”, which is rather poor.  Unlike most of the other documentaries on the Universal Hitchcock movies, this one features no interviews with cast or crew members.  I have heard Julie Andrews discuss this movie many times, as recently as last year;  surely she would have participated if asked?  Instead we get some bland narrator taking us through the film and offering an apologist’s view of its faults and strengths.  Also included are 14 minutes of Bernard Herrmann’s musical cues, which he wrote before leaving the project to be replaced by John Addison.  Again, Universal dropped the ball here.  Herrmann scored much more of the movie than 14 minutes.  Why not include all of his cues, which I personally feel are better suited to the material than Addison’s.  Also included are production photographs and the theatrical trailer.

 

 

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The three-act structure is a basic tenet of screenwriting.  Most films generally follow the template:  setup, confrontation, and resolution.     Torn Curtain is a movie where the three acts are clearly delineated through a shifting narrative focus.  As Hitchcock himself said “…the picture is clearly divided into three sections.  The story worked out very naturally in that way…”

So our examination of this problematic Hitchcock movie will attempt to follow the same structure.  This blog entry will be the setup:  how did this movie come to be?  It will also introduce the confrontation:  what went wrong in preproduction.  A second entry will continue with the confrontation and onto the resolution, with a focus on the film itself and its aftermath.

After the release of Marnie in July of 1964, Alfred Hitchcock took some time choosing his next project.  For the majority of his directing career, Hitchcock had worked on multiple projects at one time;  while completing the filming of one movie he would already be involved in the writing of his next movie, and was often looking beyond that.  Those days were over.  Hitchcock, now sixty-five years old, was increasingly conscious of his health.  He also seemed unsure of his next step.  Several months passed, during which time Hitch screened some movies at home, read some books, but seemed no closer to choosing a prospective film.   Two of the films he had screened and enjoyed were The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, and he actually talked to Richard Condon (the author of The Manchurian Candidate) and Rod Serling (who penned the screenplay for Seven Days in May). Whether Hitchcock hoped to work with these writers, or just wished to share his admiration is unknown, but nothing came of the discussions.   One of the books Hitchcock read during this period was John Buchan’s The Three Hostages, one of Buchan’s sequels to The 39 Steps.  Several times since the success of Hitchcock’s film version of The 39 Steps he had planned to  film one of Buchan’s sequels, but it never happened.

Then suddenly, in November, he tried to start three different projects, almost simultaneously.  This sudden creative burst could be interpreted in a couple of ways.  In the first place, it is clear that he was firing on all cylinders, creatively speaking.  But it also appears that the master of suspense was casting about, not sure which direction to proceed.   The younger Hitchcock of the 1940’s and 50’s never vacillated to this degree.

One of Hitch’s three ideas was for a movie that could function as a sort of prequel to Shadow of a Doubt, detailing the exploits of a man who murders several wealthy widows.  He brought in Robert Bloch, the author of the novel Psycho, and asked him to write a novel that Hitch could then turn into a movie.  Bloch was intrigued, but the project was short lived, in part because of monetary disputes,  also because Hitchcock simply felt no rapport with Bloch.

Hitchcock’s next idea involved a family of crooks that run a hotel as a cover for their criminal activities.  This was a premise that Hitchcock had first thought of decades before.

His third idea involved an American spy.  Hitchcock envisaged a movie as far removed from James Bond as possible; he felt that the new spy movies were outlandish, and also borrowed a little too freely from his own North by Northwest.  He thought it was time to make a very realistic, down-to-earth story about a spy who defects to the Communist bloc.

Hitchcock jettisoned the first idea after the talks with Robert Bloch went nowhere, and proceeded with the other two ideas simultaneously.  He actually approached famed writer Vladimir Nabokov about writing a treatment for these two ideas.  Apparently they met in person, and had phone conversations as well.   The specifics of these talks are unknown, but their correspondence by letter has survived.  On November 19,  1964, Hitchcock wrote to Nabokov at his residence in Switzerland, sharing his two ideas for movies:

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Hitchcock and Nabokov? An intriguing partnership that never came to fruition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Now the first idea I have been thinking about for some time is based upon a question that I do not think I have seen dealt with in motion picture or, as far as I know, in literature.  It is the problem of the woman who is associated, either by marriage or engagement, to a defector…the type of story I’m looking for is an emotional, psychological one, expressed in terms of action and movement…”

Hitchcock then outlined his second idea:  “I wondered what would happen if a young girl, having spent her life in a convent in Switzerland due to the fact that she had no home to go to and only had a widowed father, was suddenly released from college at the end of her term.  She would be returned to her father, who would be the general manager of a large international hotel.  The [father’s] family are a gang of crooks, using the hotel as a base of operations.  Now into this setting comes our 19-year-old girl.”

Nabokov responded in a letter dated November 28, 1964.  He said in part:

“I find both your ideas very interesting.  The first would present many difficulties for me because I do not know enough about American security matters and methods…Your second idea is quite acceptable to me.”  It’s interesting that Nabokov rejected the first idea, which would become Torn Curtain, in favor of the second.

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George Tomasini, superb film editor.

Before Hitchcock received Nabokov’s reply, however, he was faced with a  personal and professional tragedy.  On the 22nd of November, George  Tomasini,  who had edited Hitchcock’s last nine movies, died suddenly of a  heart attack while on a camping trip.  Tomasini, an avid outdoorsman, was  only 55 years old, and in apparent good health.    Tomasini was a very  important part of Hitchcock’s team, one of the most important collaborators  of his entire career, and someone whose company he enjoyed.  As Tomasini’s  wife, actress Mary Brian explained many years after his death “Mr. Hitchcock  wanted George to go with him on every location…because he liked his  company, aside from any input that George could give him.  Mr. Hitchcock  always gave George first cut.  He wanted to see his interpretation.  Then they  got down to the fine work.”

This was the first of many losses and setbacks that Hitchcock would face during the preparation and filming of Torn Curtain.   In my next blog entry, we’ll take a look at how all of this loss impacted the final product.

 

By the end of the year, Hitchcock was in a bit of disarray.  His creative spark had been briefly muted.  After losing George Tomasini, he also lost Nabokov, who had backed out of both projects by Christmas.  But in the first week of the new year Hitchcock forged ahead on both projects.  He hired the Italian screenwriting duo of Age and Scarpelli to write the hotel story, tentatively titled “RRRR”.  This project would eventually be scrapped, because, as Hitchcock rather bluntly stated “…Italians are very slipshod in matters of story construction.  They just ramble on.”

Hitchcock brough novelist Brian Moore to Hollywood, to try and entice him into writing Torn Curtain.   Moore had no interest in writing a screenplay, but was convinced by his lawyer to accept, because the money offered was too good to pass up.   After Tomasini’s death, this was the second indication that Hitchcock was in trouble.   Reluctant screenwriters do not make great movies.  But Hitchcock forged ahead.

In the matter of casting,  Universal wanted him to use Paul Newman and Julie Andrews.  Hitchcock admired Newman’s early work, and thought he would do well.  He pushed back a little on Andrews, but the studio, and Hitchcock’s agent, said she was “great box-office.”   Hitchcock agreed to both actors well before the first draft of the screenplay was ready.   Their combined salaries (around $1.5 million) was more than the rest of the film’s budget.  And this for a screenplay that had yet to be completed.

Brian Moore’s initial draft was submitted in April of 1965.   Hitchcock cajoled him into writing a second and third draft, with additional rewrites, all done by the first week of August.  Hitchcock asked Moore to do an additional “polish” on the screenplay. By this time, Moore was exhausted, and frustrated with the screenwriting process.  He dropped out of the project, preferring to return to his novels.  Further, he told Hitchcock that the screenplay needed a complete rewrite, not just a polish.   At this point, Hitchcock’s production schedule was already locked in.  Julie Andrews was only available for a limited window in the fall, so he had to proceed.   So Hitchcock hired the British writing team of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, who stayed on during production, often rewriting scenes only hours before they were shot.  

Now Hitchcock would suffer another devastating loss.  Julie Andrews was scheduled to shoot some test footage at Universal in September of 1965, with Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks.  The following is a production memo from Hitchcock’s assistant Peggy Roberts:

Friday September 17, Bob Burks “was terribly sick with nerves…and could not shoot the tests with Julie Andrews.”

“On Saturday Sep. 18, in the morning [Burks] called Mr. Hitchcock and it was decided that it would be too risky for him to do the film.”

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Alfred Hitchcock and Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Burks prepare a shot on the set of “North by Northwest.”

Bob Burks had been the cinematographer on twelve Alfred Hitchcock movies, dating back to 1951’s Strangers on a Train.  He was arguably the most important technical collaborator in Hitchcock’s entire career.  And now he would be unable to shoot Torn Curtain, due to “nerves”.  Apparently the last decade and a half of nearly non-stop filmmaking had caught up with him.  Hitchcock was disappointed, but certainly did not express any ill will towards his long-time friend.  Hitchcock merely hoped that after taking a breather, they could work together again on future Hitchcock movies.  Unfortunately, they would never have that opportunity, because Burks and his wife would die in a house fire in 1968.

  What had happened to Alfred Hitchcock?  The man who had always been so sure of himself; the man who had worked with almost complete autonomy in the waning days of the studio system; the man who, as recently as 1959, could stand up to the studio heads at MGM and refuse to cut a scene from North by Northwest?  Three years earlier, he could do no wrong.  Now nothing seemed to be going right.

So, the setup:  Alfred Hitchcock can’t decide on a topic for his movie.  He devolops several ideas simultaneously, hoping to find one that sticks.  And he proceeds with the last idea standing.

The beginning of the confrontation:  He had leading actors he wasn’t altogether pleased with; a screenplay that was not ready to be shot;  a shooting schedule that was locked in; and was missing two vital members of his collaborative team in Tomasini and Burks.

This is where we leave Hitchcock as he steps before the cameras on October 18, 1965 to begin principle photography on Torn Curtain.  To be continued…

 

 

The crop duster sequence in North by Northwest is not only one of the most memorable scenes in Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work (second only to the shower sequence in Psycho);  it is arguably one of the most iconic sequences in all of American film.  Even people who have not seen the film recognize the image of Cary Grant sprinting across a dusty field with the plane closing in from behind.download (1)What is it that makes this scene so memorable?  It is edited in a way that is not typical for Hitchcock, with many short, quick cuts.  But more about that in a minute.  First, lets let Hitchcock himself set the scene, explaining why he chose this particular setting to shoot the scene:

“Now in movies…the cliche of the man being put on the spot is usually a place of assignation and it takes the form of a figure under a street lamp at the corner of the street with the rain-washed cobbles shining in the night…this is the cliche atmosphere in which you put a man who has been deliberately placed in danger.  Somebody is going to come along and bump him off.  Well of course, this is such a cliche thing, you see, that one has to fight shy of it and run as far away from it as one possibly can because it’s all predictable.  Now I decide to do something quite different…therefore, I take the loneliest, emptiest spot I can so that there is no place to run for cover, no place to hide, and no place for the enemy to hide.”

This sequence is 9 minutes and 45 seconds long, and contains 133 editorial cuts, which means the average shot length is only 4.4 seconds.  This is very atypical for Hitchcock and editor George Tomasini, who often employed long takes, and avoided standard cutting whenever possible.  (It is worth noting that  Tomasini edited nine films for Alfred Hitchcock, including the classics Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds.  Tomasini edited 23 feature films in total, inexplicably never winning an Academy Award, before his life was cut short prematurely at the age of 55, by a massive heart attack.  His only Oscar nomination was for this movie, North by Northwest.)

This sequence opens with a dissolve, from a close-up of Eva Marie Saint’s concerned face, to an overhead shot of  a desolate, empty field, flat to the horizon.  A bus approaches and discharges one person, then continues on its way.

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This opening establishing shot lasts about 56 seconds.  Here is Hitchcock again:

“Now we get him off the bus and we stand him, a little tiny figure, showing, establishing very clearly the complete wasteland everywhere…the mind of the audience says ‘Well.  This is a strange place to put a man.’  Now we go down and we go close on him, and this is where the design comes in.”

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Now Hitchcock begins a series of shots that establish a POV style of shooting and editing.  First, we see Cary Grant looking at something, as in the above shot.

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Next, we see what Cary Grant sees, from his point of view.   The next shot returns to Cary Grant.

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This pattern of cutting from Cary Grant looking, to a point-of-view shot, back to him reacting to what he sees, continues for the first 34 shots, which take just over two and a half minutes.  This puts  the viewer in Cary Grants place.  We have seen what he sees.   And the bright, flat expanse fills us with dread.  Every passing car could be a potential killer.  Hitchcock continues to ratchet up the tension.  He explains:

“Motion picture mood is often thought of as almost exclusively a matter of lighting, dark lighting.  It isn’t.  Mood is apprehension.  That’s what you’ve got in that crop duster scene.”

“…he looks around him and cars go by.  So now we start a train of thought in the audience.  ‘Ah, he’s going to be shot at from a car.’  And even deliberately, with tongue in cheek, I let a black limousine go by…Now, the car.  We’ve dispensed with the menace of possible cars or automobiles.”

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“Now a jalopy comes from another direction, stops across the roadway, deposits a man, the jalopy turns and goes back.  Now he’s left alone with the man.  this is the second phase of the design.  Is this going to be the man?  Well, they stand looking at each other across the roadway.”

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This is a fantastic shot composition, breaking the back and forth between Cary Grant and his point of view.   This is the 49th shot of the sequence, occurring about three and a half minutes in.

Here is Hitchcock again:

“Grant, our hero, decides to investigate, and casually walks across and talks to the man.”

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Up to this point in the sequence, the camera has remained static.  But now, as Grant walks across the road to the man in the brown suit, the camera tracks towards him, again in the form of a point of view shot.  The tension has continued to escalate, all this time.

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When Grant first addresses the man (played by veteran character actor Malcolm Atterbury, who appeared in well over a hundred movies and TV shows) the sequence has gone on for 4 minutes and 10 seconds with no music and no dialogue.  But it feels like much less time, because of the manner in which the sequence has been edited together.  When is the last time you saw a movie that had no dialogue or music for over 4 minutes?  Let’s hear from Hitchcock again:

“…obviously nothing is going to emerge from this man…Now the local bus comes and just as it pulls up – and this is a matter of timing – just before it gets to the stop, the man says to Grant ‘That’s funny.’  And Grant says ‘What’s funny?’  He says ‘That plane’s dustin’ crops where there ain’t no crops.’  Before this can be gone into in any way at all he’s on the bus and gone.  So now you’ve got the third phase.  The audience says ‘Ah, the airplane.'”

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Again the sequence returns to the earlier format of showing Cary Grant, showing us what he sees from his point of view, then showing us Grant again as he reacts to what he sees, which in this case is the crop duster plane running him down and shooting at him.  Up to this point in the sequence, everything has been shot on location.  In the movie, it is an Indiana highway, but in reality the sequence was shot on California Highway 155, near the town of Delano (north of Bakersfield.)North-By-Northwest-on-Google-Maps

This is what it looks like today, according to Google Maps.  As you can see, it really hasn’t changed much at all.  The scene is improved by being shot on location.  There is no question that you are really seeing Cary Grant, running at full speed, sweat on his brow, his tailored suit getting dusty and his tie flapping over his shoulder.  There are a few inserts though, that were shot in the studio.   These occur when Cary Grant dives to the ground and the plane passes, and shoots at him.  The first of these is the 73rd shot of the sequence.

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So this is a process shot, filmed back at MGM studios.   There is a screen behind Cary Grant, projecting footage of the plane passing.

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You can see how this was achieved in this rare behind-the-scenes photo taken during filming at MGM.  Watching this sequence on blu ray, these basic process shots hold up very well.  One of the keys to this is again in the quick cutting.   The cutting between the studio shots and the location shots is fluid and seamless.  The back-and-forth cutting between Cary and his point of view continues, but now the shot length is getting shorter; many of the shots now are averaging less than 3 seconds in length.  He ends up in a field of dried cornhusks, and again the close-ups of Cary in the corn were shot in the studio.

nxnwdecon11Time to hear from Alfred Hitchcock again:

“There is no cover until he gets into the cornfield.  Now, you do in the design a very important thing.  You smoke him out with the very instrument that you’re using, a crop duster.  Theory being, don’t have a crop duster without your using it, otherwise you could have any airplane…It must be used according to its function.  All backgrounds must function.”

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After Cary Grant gets smoked out of the corn he runs towards the road, and there is a shot of him from behind, running.  This shot breaks the point of view pattern that has been established up to this point.  Grant runs into the road and tries to flag down a truck.  Again we return to the previous pattern, cutting from Grant waving his hands, to the truck getting closer and closer, until the truck is right on the camera, and the viewer.

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The truck stops, almost running Grant over in the process, and the plane, out of control, crashes into the truck.  There is a quick sequence here of the plane striking the truck and bursting into flames which appears to be a model shot.  These two model shots last literally less than a second, almost subliminal, and then Hitchcock cuts back to location, and the full-size plane already engulfed in flames.  Again this section works because of the rapid and seamless cutting.

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As soon as the plane crashes, a Bernard Herrmann musical cue begins.  This is the first music to appear in almost nine minutes of screen time.  The sequence ends with Cary Grant stealing the pick-up truck of an onlooker, and finishes as it began with another dissolve, this time to the abandoned truck on the streets of Chicago.

So what Alfred Hitchcock (and George Tomasini) have managed to do in this sequence is build tension and menace first and foremost by confounding the viewers’ expectations, putting us in a bright, shiny place where nobody could hide; then shifting our focus from one element to another.  This was accomplished using almost no dialogue and even less music, all through the brilliant and seamless editing.  Let’s let the master have the final word:

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Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant on location, shooting the famous crop duster sequence.

“Oh, well a cut is nothing.  One cut of film is like a piece of mosaic.  To me, pure film, pure cinema is pieces of film assembled.  Any individual piece is nothing.  But a combination of them creates an idea.”

NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) – MGM – Rating: ★★★★★

Color – 136 mins. – 1.66:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Cary Grant (Roger Thornhill), Eva Marie Saint (Eve Kendall), James Mason (Philip VanDamm), Martin Landau (Leonard),  Jessie Royce Landis (Clara Thornhill), Leo G Carroll (The Professor), Edward Platt (Victor Larrabee), Edward Binns (Captain Junket).

Produced by Alfred Hitchcock, Associate Producer Herbert Coleman

Screenplay by Ernest Lehman

Director of Photography:  Robert Burks

Editor:  George Tomasini

Original musical score:  Bernard Herrmann

Production Design:  Robert Boyle

Title sequence designed by Saul Bass

Alfred Hitchcock’s film output during his first two decades in America is astonishing, especially by today’s standards.  Between 1940 and 1959, Hitchcock directed 23 feature-length films, an average of one film every 11 months.  If that is not impressive enough, during this same time period he still found time to direct 14 episodes of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, 2 TV shows for other anthology programs, and several short propaganda pieces during World War II.  He also recorded his personal opening and closing remarks for 167 episodes of his television program, as well as doing extensive pre-production on several film projects that never came to fruition.   Whew!   I’m exhausted just listing his accomplishments.

So at any given time during this period, it was not uncommon for Hitch to be working on up to three different projects simultaneously.  In the summer of 1956, he was going on a promotional tour for The Wrong Man, which he had just finished filming.  His next planned film was to be Flamingo Feather, but this movie was scrapped after already being announced in the trades as a Hitchcock feature to star James Stewart.   This meant that Vertigo, which was in the screenwriting phase, was moved up to be Hitch’s next feature.  And what would follow Vertigo?

MGM was in turmoil at this time.  At one time Hollywood’s most prestigious studio, MGM had just fired Dore Schary as studio head and stockholders were in a panic.  MGM began courting Hitchcock; if the studio could announce a future Hitchcock film, shareholders would be pacified.  So Hitchcock was hired to direct The Wreck of the Mary Deare for MGM upon completion of Vertigo at Paramount.

Hitchcock hired Ernest Lehman to write a screenplay for Mary Deare, but Lehman was struggling with the adaptation.  He wanted to quit the project, but Hitchcock told him they would just shelve that screenplay and create something original together.  And that original screenplay, which was born out of Hitchcock’s desire to stage a chase scene atop Mt. Rushmore, would become North by Northwest.  

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An image from the iconic Saul Bass title sequence.

North by Northwest begins with a burst of kinetic energy;  Saul Bass’ title sequence, a series of intersecting diagonal lines which become the side of a Madison Avenue skyscraper, meld with Bernard Herrmann’s driving music.  The skyscraper image is followed by a montage of people in motion, and the title sequence ends with Hitchcock himself missing a bus.  The message is clear;  the viewer had better keep up, or be left behind.  When we first see Cary Grant as Roger Thornhill he is stepping out of an elevator, walking and talking.  This film begins as if we are joining a movie already in progress.  There is no slow build, no exposition to set the scene;  that will come later.  Just a few short minutes into the movie Thornhill (Grant) has been kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity.  A group of spies have mistaken him for George Kaplan, a government agent.   The ringleader of the spies is Philip VanDamm, played by the impeccable James Mason.   Mason questions Roger Thornhill at a large Long Island estate, then has his henchmen (led by a young Martin Landau in the role of Leonard) get him drunk and put him behind the wheel of a car, planning to drive the car off of a cliff.

 

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Cary Grant is interrogated by Martin Landau and an amused James Mason.

Roger Thornhill manages to escape his would-be assassins and ends up in the hands of the police.  We soon meet Roger’s mother, played by Jessie Royce Landis.   Landis had played Grace Kelly’s mother in the Hitchcock film To Catch A Thief, and she and Cary Grant established a great rapport in that movie, so it was natural to pair them together again.   (Many sources have cited that Landis does a great job in this movie, despite the fact that the actress is too young to be Grant’s mother.   Many people have even said they are the same age, or that Landis is younger than Grant.  Let’s put this spurious tale to rest now.  Jessie Royce Landis was born on November 25, 1896, while Grant was born on January 18, 1904.  So while it is true that Landis is not old enough to be Grant’s biological mother, she is over seven years older).

Thornhill begins a search for the man he was mistaken for, George Kaplan, believing that he will hold the answers to this mystery, and his mother accompanies him as he begins his search.  Soon enough the spies are hot on his tail again, and he is framed for a murder.  Now public enemy number one, he sneaks aboard the 20th Century Limited train en route to Chicago, and meets Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint.  It is interesting to note that Saint, the leading lady, does not make her entrance until the 44th minute of the film.  And once she makes an appearance, Jessie Royce Landis does not appear in the film anymore, nor is she referenced.   So Cary Grant’s character is under the thumb of his mother in the beginning section, and that female control transfers to Eva Marie Saint for the duration of the film.

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Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant are essentially having sex with their clothes on; this is about as sexually charged a scene as Hitchcock ever shot.

This next section of the movie, as Grant and Saint converse in the train’s dining car, then later rendezvous in Saint’s sleeping compartment, are some of the most sexually charged scenes in 1950’s cinema.  Screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s dialogue walks a subtle line, but there is nothing subtle in the way that Eva Marie Saint looks at Cary Grant; it is a bold and brazen seduction.  By the end of the train sequence, the audience knows a few things that Roger Thornhill does not.  Hitchcock typically liked to give the viewer information that the protagonist lacks.  So by this point the viewer knows that George Kaplan does not exist, and that Eve Kendall is somehow associated with James Mason and the spies.  Things are looking rather hopeless for Roger Thornhill.

Eve Kendall sends Thornhill to a supposed meeting with Kaplan on a deserted Indiana highway, where he faces another assassination attempt.  The crop duster sequence is not only one of Hitchcock’s greatest triumphs, but one of the most memorable scenes in film history.  Couldn’t these spies think of less elaborate ways to kill someone?  It certainly seems like a lot of trouble to go to, sending a man to the middle of nowhere, so he can be gunned down by a crop dusting plane.  Of course, within the confines of the movie, the viewer does not question the logic of the scene, in part because of the movie’s frenetic pace.  Every scene seems a logical follow up to the preceding scene.  ( I will do a deconstruction of the crop duster sequence in my next blog entry.)

download (1)This sequence marks a pivotal change in the movie; up to now Roger Thornhill has been a victim of circumstances beyond his control.   He has been emasculated and manipulated like a pawn.  He does not yet understand how all the pieces fit together, but he does know that he can only rely on himself if he wishes to survive.  This sets up another fantastic sequence which takes place in a Chicago auction hall, where Roger Thornhill confronts Eve Kendall, VanDamm, and Leonard.    VanDamm is standing behind Eve, with a hand on her shoulder, as if he is clutching a possession.  At one point in conversation, VanDamm asks Eve if Thornhill was in her hotel room, to which Thornhill replies “Sure, isn’t everyone?”  Hitchcock then cuts to a close up of VanDamm slowly removing his hand from Eve, which is as telling as any dialogue could be.  Once again it seems that Roger Thornhill will be captured and killed, and once again he uses his wits to escape.

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Cary Grant’s character is beginning to assert himself, and now it is Eva Marie Saint who feels like a pawn as the two men tower over her, discussing her as if she were an object.

 

Finally Roger Thornhill meets an American intelligence officer known as the Professor, (Leo G. Carroll), who fills in the blanks for Thornhill.  He now realizes that Eve is working for the Americans, and he realizes that he has put her at risk.  This sets up the final sequence of events at Mount Rushmore, which involves much duplicity amongst the leading characters, until finally Thornhill and Grant are fleeing for their lives on the monument itself.  Hitchcock was not allowed to film on the monument, so this sequence was made with some gorgeous process shots that combine matte painting with a scale model of the Rushmore faces that was build at MGM.  The film ends as it began, in motion, and finally the audience can catch its collective breath.

Themes:  One of the reasons that North by Northwest is such an iconic film is because it contains all of Hitchcock’s major themes.  First and foremost is the innocent man falsely accused of a crime, who is trying to find the real conspirators while staying one step ahead of the police.   He had already filmed variations of this theme several times (The 39 Steps, Young and Innocent, Saboteur), and while those are all good films, this movie can be seen as the culmination of his life’s work.  Other prominent Hitchcock themes present in this movie include the icy blonde leading lady;  the domineering mother; and the debonair gentleman antagonist.   There are a handful of Hitchcock films that feature a hint of homosexuality, and there is a slight element of that here in Martin Landau’s character Leonard.  Late in the film he utters the line “Call it my woman’s intuition.”  And James Mason’s character accuses him of being jealous.  There is certainly a suggestion here that Leonard’s feelings for his boss went beyond the professional.

Hitchcock and the censors:  Alfred Hitchcock delighted in sneaking sexual subtext past the film censors, and he succeeded many times in his career.  There is one line of dialogue in this movie that the censors would not approve, however.  When Eva Marie Saint is talking to Cary Grant in the dining car, the original line of dialogue was “I never make love on an empty stomach.”  This was unacceptable to the censors, so the line was looped to say “I never discuss love on an empty stomach.”  If you watch Eva Marie’s lips, you can clearly see the dialogue does not sync up.  It doesn’t really matter what she said, though, because the tone of her voice, the way she looks at Cary Grant, the way she pulls his hand towards her to light her cigarette, are as blatantly sexual as a major movie scene could be shot at the time.

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Hitchcock also delighted in the final shot of the movie, which did not appear in the screenplay;  it was Hitch’s own invention.  As Cary Grant pulls Eva Marie Saint into the upper berth bed on the train, Hitchcock cuts outside, to a shot of a train entering a tunnel, which was a not-too-subtle mimicking of the act of sexual penetration.  Hitchcock was very proud of this shot, telling the story many times.

Hitchcock and final cut:  At two hours and sixteen minutes, this is the longest film of Hitchcock’s entire career.  But it certainly doesn’t seem like it;  the fast pace, the constant shift in location, and the witty dialogue ensure that the movie never lags.  A couple of Hitchcock’s later pictures certainly feel longer (I’m talking about you, Torn Curtain and Topaz).   But MGM had reservations about the movie’s length at the time.  They wanted him to cut one sequence in particular:  when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint meet in the woods after she has pretended to kill him, and they say their goodbyes.  Hitchcock believed the scene was necessary, and after getting reassurances from his lawyer that the “final cut” clause of his contract was ironclad, he respecfully told the studio that he would not cut a frame.  In the end, North by Northwest was the highest-grossing film of Hitchcock’s career to date, a massive hit with critics and audiences.  This is one time where the master was right to stand his ground.

Performance:  Every single performance in this film is spot-on, from the leads to the minor supporting characters.  Cary Grant would remain very proud of this film until he died, and justifiably so.  James Mason was so good as the bad guy, it has been suggested that his character was the prototype for a generation of James Bond villians to follow. Eva Marie Saint showed as much range as any female lead in the Hitchcock canon.

Academy awards:  North by Northwest received three Oscar nominations:  best original screenplay, Ernest Lehman;  best film editing, George Tomasini; and best Art Direction – Color.   It was another MGM picture that was the big winner at the 1960 Academy Awards – Ben-Hur.  That film would dominate the night, winning 11 total Oscars.  While it is hard to argue with Ben-Hur  in the editing category, I honestly feel like North by Northwest got robbed in the Color Art Direction category.  The sets in this movie are simply sublime, to the extent that they influenced many films that followed.

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Recurring players:  Cary Grant had also appeared in Suspicion, Notorious and To Catch A Thief.  Jessie Royce Landis had worked with Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief.  Leo G. Carroll appeared in more Hitchcock movies than any other actor, including Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, The Paradine Case, and Strangers on a Train.  Malcolm Atterbury would later appear in The Birds.  Sara Berner, Len Hendry and Jesslyn Fax had been in Rear Window.  Tommy Farrell and Robert Williams were in Strangers on a Train.   Kenner G. Kemp had appeared in The Paradine Case, and would later be in Marnie.  Doreen Lang was also in The Wrong Man and The Birds.  Alexander Lockwood was in Saboteur and Family Plot.  Frank Marlow had also been in Saboteur and Notorious.  Howard Negley and Frank Wilcox were also in Notorious.  Jeffrey Sayre was also an extra in Saboteur, Notorious, and Vertigo.  Bert Stevens was in The Paradine Case and Marnie.  Harry Strang and Dale Van Sickel were in Saboteur. 

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo in this movie is impossible to miss, coming at the end of the title sequence.  At about the 2:09 mark, just as his director’s credit disappears from the screen, Hitchcock attempts to board a bus, which closes the door in his face and pulls away without him.

What the actors said:  Eva Marie Saint said that Hitchcock only gave her three simple instructions for her character:  “Lower my voice; don’t use my hands; and look directly at Cary Grant in my scenes with him, look right into his eyes.  From that, I conjured up in my mind the kind of lady he saw this woman as.”

Cary Grant, speaking of his relationship with Hitchcock, said that “Hitch and I had a rapport and understanding deeper than words.”

James Mason admitted that he enjoyed Hitchcock’s movies and found him a charming man, but admitted that he thought Hitch as a director used actors like “animated props.”

What Hitch said:  I’ll include some in-depth comments from Hitchcock in my next entry, about the crop-duster sequence.

Definitive edition:  Warner Brothers blu-ray, released in 2009, is the best version available.  First of all, the VistaVision transfer is breathtaking.   This may be the best looking of all of Hitchcock’s films on blu-ray.  The soundtrack is high quality as well.  The blu-ray includes a feature-length (1 hr. 27 min.) documentary about the leading man called Cary Grant:  A Class Apart, as well as three other documentaries:  The Master’s Touch:  Hitchcock’s Signature Style (57 mins.), Destination Hitchcock:  The Making of North by Northwest (39 mins.) and North by Northwest:  One For the Ages (25 mins.)   Also included is a stills gallery, two theatrical trailers, one hosted by Hitchcock, and a TV spot.

 

 

ROPE (1948) – Transatlantic Pictures – Rating:  ★★★ 1/2

Color – 80 mins. – 1.37:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  James Stewart (Rupert Cadell), Farley Granger (Phillip Morgan), John Dall (Brandon Shaw), Cedric Hardwicke (Mr. Kentley), Constance Collier (Mrs. Atwater), Joan Chandler (Janet Walker), Edith Evanson (Mrs. Wilson), Douglas Dick (Kenneth Lawrence).

Written by Hume Cronyn (treatment), Arthur Laurents (screenplay)

Cinematography:   Joseph A. Valentine

Edited by:  William H. Ziegler

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On May 7, 1947, Alfred Hitchcock wrapped production on The  Paradine Case, bringing to a close his nearly decade-long affiliation with David O. Selznick.  Although the Selznick/Hitchcock  period began rather auspiciously with Rebecca in 1940, it was drawing to an  unsatisfying close.  Cast and crew alike seemed to sense  that The Paradine Case was doomed to failure.   But  Hitchcock himself seemed little phased.  As at other points of  his career when he was making what he felt to be a  substandard picture (e.g. Waltzes From Vienna, Jamaica Inn)  his mind was already on his next project.

And that project was titled Rope, and would be the first film made by Transatlantic Picures, a production company founded by Hitchcock and partner Sidney Bernstein.   Transatlantic Pictures made a deal with Warner Brothers for distribution, beginning an association between Hitchcock and Warners that would last for several years.

Rope was an unconventional film, both in story and in structure.  It begins with two young men murdering their friend, just for the thrill of it.  They then place his body in a trunk, and proceed to host a dinner party, serving the food from the very trunk which holds the body.  The party guests are all intimately related to the young victim as well, including his father, his aunt, his girlfriend, and his best friend.    The most interesting guest however is Rupert Cadell, former prep-school housemaster of the murderers and the victim.  Over the course of the evening, he suspects that something is awry,  and will ultimately figure out exactly what happened.

Continuous action:   Perhaps it is best to let Hitchcock himself describe the manner in which Rope was filmed:

“I wanted to do a picture with no time lapses – a picture in which the camera never stops… As I see it, there’s nothing like continuous action to sustain the mood of actors, particularly in a suspense story.  In Rope the entire action takes place between the setting of the sun and the hour of darkness.  There are a murder, a party, mounting tension, detailed psychological characterizations, the gradual discovery of the crime and the solution.  Yet all this consumes less than two hours of real life as well as ‘reel’ life.”

So Rope is meant to play out in real time, with the 80-minute running time equaling 80 minutes of story time.  There are 10 editorial cuts in the movie, meaning that the takes average 8 minutes in length.  That is a long period of time to film without cutting.  Imagine an actor flubbing his line, or a technical mistake, at the seven-minute mark.  That meant resetting to the beginning of the sequence and starting over.  Here is Hitch again:

Rope was a miracle of cueing.  Everybody; actors, cameramen, the prop crew, the electricians, the script supervisors, spent two solid weeks of rehearsals before a camera turned.  Even before the set was built I worked out each movement on a blackboard in my home…Whole walls of the apartment had to slide away to allow the camera to follow the actors through narrow doors, then swing back noiselessly to show a solid room…Tables and chairs had to be pulled away by prop men, then set in place again by the time the camera returned to its original position…But the most magical of all the devices was the cyclorama – an exact miniature reproduction of nearly 35 miles of New York skyline lighted by 8,000 incandescent bulbs and 200 neon signs…On film the miniature looks exactly like Manhattan at night as it would appear from the window of an apartment at 54th Street and First Avenue.”

rope5In the above picture, you can view the cyclorama in the background.  The clouds, made of spun glass, would “move” across the cyclorama as the action progressed.  And as the late afternoon turned to evening, the sky would darken, and the lights in the buildings would turn on.

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Now here is the same cyclorama seen from a more close-up angle, and later in the evening.

Source material:  The movie is based upon the 1929 play by Patrick Hamilton, which in turn was inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case.  (Leopold and Loeb were two University of Chicago students who murdered a fourteen year old boy to demonstrate their “intellectual superiority” in pulling off the perfect crime.  They were caught and sentenced to life in prison.)   Arthur Laurents’ screenplay follows the structure of the play fairly closely, with a couple of minor changes.  The setting is moved from London to New York.  In the play, it is a blue theatre ticket that provides the final clue for Rupert Cadell to solve the crime;  in the movie it is the victim’s hat, which is given to Rupert by accident, that serves as a clue.

Overall the dialogue of Laurents’ screenplay is better than the original play, but there is some delicious dialogue in the play that didn’t make it to the movie including a great self-referential moment, as the denouement approaches, when the character of Rupert says “It is the hour when jaded London theatre audiences are settling down in the darkness to the last acts of plays” which is of course exactly what the very audience listening to this dialogue was doing!  But Arthur Laurents creates his own referential joke in his screenplay.  When Mrs. Atwater and Janet (played by Constance Collier and Joan Chandler) are discussing movies, Mrs. Atwater is swooning over Cary Grant.   She says “He was thrilling in that new thing with Bergman.  What was it called now?  The ‘something of the something’?  No, it was just plain ‘something'”.  This is, of course, a reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s own film Notorious, which had been a hit two years earlier, in 1946.   Hitchcock must have apprecited the in-joke.

Hitchcock and homosexuality:  There are several Hitchcock films that have homosexual undertones, but nowhere is the theme more prevalent than in Rope.   Leopold and Loeb, the actual killers that inspired the story, were in a gay relationship.   And that relationship remains intact in the Patrick Hamilton play.  So it is only natural that it would be carried over to the screen version as well.  Of course gay themes were strictly taboo in 1948 Hollywood, so they had to be implied through subtleties of screenplay and acting.  It probably helped that the movie’s screenwriter, Arthur Laurents, was gay.  The two actors who played the homosexual killers, Farley Granger and John Dall, were gay as well.  As a matter of fact, Laurents and Granger were in a relationship at the time the movie was in production.   Granger had this to say in his autobiography:  “John Dall and I discussed the subtext of our scenes together.  We knew that Hitch knew what he was doing and had built sexual ambiguity into his presentation of the material.”  Watch the early scenes between Dall and Granger, watch how close they get to one another, listen to the tone of Granger’s voice.  The gay relationship is hiding in plain sight.  When Phillip asks Brandon “How did you feel, during it?”  He is asking about the murder, but the viewer can imagine that same query in an entirely different scenario.  Later, when Brandon (played by John Dall), is describing Phillip (Farley Granger) strangling chickens,  Phillip vehemently denies ever strangling a chicken.    There are layers to the guilt here.  Phillip feels guilty because he has recently strangled a person, but the phrase “choking the chicken” also has another entirely different connotation.   This entwining of guilt that Phillip feels, his double secret, ( he is a murderer, and he is gay), continues throughout the film.

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The entire cast of the film sit with Alfred Hitchcock (far right) in front of the beautiful New York City backdrop.

Performance:   There are only eight characters in the film (nine if you count David Kentley, but he is killed in the first minute).   I’ve already discussed the good performances of John Dall and Farley Granger.  Everyone else is solid in this as well.  Cedrick Hardwicke and Constance Collier, two veterans of the stage, are clearly in their element in this film involving long takes.  Joan Chandler, Douglas Dick, and Edith Evanson are well cast too.  But the biggest surprise here is Jimmy Stewart.  Stewart later admitted that he was miscast in this role, but his performance is very good.  In the original stage play, the character of Rupert Cadell was the boys’ housemaster at school, and he exposed them to the idea of intellectually superior beings, who could kill “lesser” people with impunity.  But he also “taught” them something else as well;  for in the play, Rupert is gay as well, and probably was involved with both young men at some point.   Well there was no way Jimmy Stewart was going to play a gay character; even an implied homosexual element was out of the question.  So Jimmy played it straight.  His character works like a detective, sensing something strange about this dinner party from the very beginning. then gathering evidence until the final scene, when he uncovers the truth and summons the police.

Hitchcock and color:  Rope was shot in Technicolor, the first color movie in Hitchcock’s career.   Hitchcock had some very interesting thoughts on color which are worth sharing.  He said:

“I never wanted to make a Tecnicolor picture merely for the sake of using color.  I waited until I could find a story in which color could play a dramatic role, and still be muted to a low key…The key role played by color in this film is in the background.  I insisted that color be used purely as the eye received it.”

“We must bear in mind that, fundamentally, there’s no such thing as color; in fact, there’s no such thing as a face, because until the light hits it, it is nonexistent.  After all, one of the first things I learned in the School of Art was that there is no such thing as a line; there’s only the light and the shade.”

Theatrical trailer:  Throughout the course of his career, Alfred Hitchcock had many unique and innovative trailers made for his movies.  The trailer for Rope is one of the most interesting.  It begins with a scene featuring the characters David Kentley and Janet Walker, sitting on a bench in Central Park.   David is killed in the very first moment of the film, and has no dialogue (other than a scream).  And yet here he is, conversing with Janet in a scene that could function as a prologue to the film!  The trailer is narrated by Jimmy Stewart, and can be viewed here.   (Please note:  All rights to this film are owned by Universal Pictures.)


Recurring players:  James Stewart would later appear in Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much remake, and Vertigo.  Farley Granger would reunite with Hitchcock in Strangers on a Train.  Cedric Hardwicke also appeared in Suspicion.  And Edith Evanson would appear in Marnie almost 20 years later.

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Where’s Hitch?  One could say that Hitchcock has two cameos in this movie.   Since the action all takes place in one apartment, he first decided to insert himself by creating a neon sign of his famous profile, which is visible out the window at about the 55 minute mark.  The profile is difficult to recognize on a small screen, and the word that appears underneath it in neon is pretty much impossible to see.  And that word is “Reduco”, the weight-loss aid that was the basis of Hitchcock’s cameo in Lifeboat.  (So the neon sign is an advertisement, justifying its appearance on the New York skyline.)  Perhaps because it was so hard to spot, or so unconventional, Hitchcock shot a more straightforward cameo;  he can be seen walking down the street from left to right with an unknown woman at about 1:58, just after his director credit fades.

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Look closely!  There is Hitch’s profile, over the word “Reduco”.

What the actors said:  In his autobiography, Farley Granger said that “Rope was an interesting technical experiment that I was lucky and happy to be a part of, but I don’t think it was one of Hitchcock’s better films.”

Jimmy Stewart said that “Rope wasn’t my favorite picture”, and observed that the film was “nothing more than an experiment.”  However, he followed that by saying “I’m glad I did it, and I’ll go on record as saying I’ll make a picture for Alfred Hitchcock anytime.”

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock had the same reservations about this film as his actors did, saying “I undertook Rope as a stunt, that’s the only way I can describe it…As an experiment, Rope may be forgiven.”  Not a very ringing endorsement.  Perhaps the most significant thing he said is in reference to the technical aspects of the production:  “…technique is merely a means to an end and the audience must never be aware the the camera, the director, or the photographer is performing miracles.  Everything must flow smoothly and naturally.”

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Alfred Hitchcock clowning around with his three leading men, in a publicity photo for “Rope.”

Definitive edition:  The 2012 blu-ray release of Rope, from Universal, is the best available sound and picture quality for this movie.  The print is very clean, the color sharp and balanced.  Extra features include a 32-minute documentary titled Rope Unleashed, which features interviews with Farley Granger and screenwriter Arthur Laurents.  Also included are production photos, and the original theatrical trailer.

FOforeigntopREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940) – Walter Wanger        Productions – Rating:  ★★★★

B&W – 120 minutes – 1.37:1 aspect ratio

Principal cast:  Joel McCrea (Johnny Jones/Huntley Haverstock), Laraine Day (Carol Fisher), Herbert Marshall (Stephen Fisher), George Sanders (scott ffolliott), Albert Bassermann (Van Meer), Robert Benchley (Stebbins), Edmund Gwenn (Rowley).

Produced by Walter Wanger Cinematography by Rudolph Mate Film Editing by Dorothy Spencer Screenplay by Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison; additional dialogue James Hilton and Robert Benchley Music by Alfred Newman

In the spring of 1939 Alfred Hitchcock left England for America, having signed an exclusive contract with producer David O. Selznick.   Hitchcock knew he was going to be under Selznick’s thumb for a time, but he also knew that the loan-out clause in his contract would be mutually beneficial to himself and Selznick.  Hitchcock’s services as director could be “loaned” to other film studios and producers, which would allow him to choose films that he wanted to make.  At the same time, Selznick paid Hitchcock’s salary of $2,500 a week, while charging a loan-out fee of $7,500 a week, meaning that Selznick pocketed a cool five grand a week when Hitch was making movies for someone else. Thus began a pattern in Alfred Hitchcock’s early American period, where he made a film that he had to make, in order to make a film that he wanted to make.  His first American film for Selznick productions, the film he had to make, was Rebecca.  Upon completion of that movie, he was loaned to producer Walter Wanger, to make the film he wanted to make:  Foreign Correspondent.

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The stars of “Foreign Correspondent”: the incomparable George Sanders, the underrated Joel McCrea, and the lovely Laraine Day.

In many ways, Foreign Correspondent is the first American Hitchcock film.   Certainly it was preceded by Rebecca, which is a very well-made movie.  But Rebecca is more Selznick’s picture than it is Hitchcock’s;  it lacks many of the elements of suspense and humor which fans of Hitch’s British films had come to expect.  Foreign Correspondent picks up right where The Lady Vanishes left off, full of spies and political intrigue.   In The Lady Vanishes (1938) the enemy was only alluded to, but in Foreign Correspondent he is given a name.  The movie is set in ’39, by which time the Nazis were on the march.  Joel McCrea plays a crime reporter for a New York newspaper who is sent to Europe to get the “real story”.  McCrea somewhat flippantly asks his boss if he should interview Hitler! Once McCrea gets to Europe he is introduced to several key players in the European peace movement, including the charming Albert Basserman as the elderly Van Meer, who may hold the key to European peace.  Also involved are Stephen Fisher and his daughter Carol, played by Herbert Marshall and Laraine Day, and a couple of other reporters, played by George Sanders and Robert Benchley.  The story structure is Hitchcock’s favorite; a spy story with several set pieces, moving from locale to locale (e.g. The 39 Steps, Saboteur, North by Northwest).  The MacGuffin is the clause to a peace treaty which has been memorized by Van Meer.  A group of spies that is secretly fomenting war in Europe fake Van Meer’s assassination, then secret him away to try and get him to dislose the secret clause.  All the while Joel McCrea is searching for Van Meer, leaping from one adventure to another. 0227       Signature set pieces:   The first breathtaking sequence in the film    takes  place at Van Meer’s assassination, set in Amsterdam.  Hitchcock  shot the  sequence on the backlot at Fox.  The establishing shot  is  phenomenal;  there are trolleys, cars, bicycles, horses, dozens of pedestrians, all in a pouring rain.   This is the kind of shot that Hitchcock had wanted to make for years;  now that he was in America he finally had the budget to do it.  And he certainly got his money’s worth.  The sequence finishes with the assassin fleeing into a crowd of umbrella-holding spectators, and Hitchcock’s signature overhead shot of the umbrellas being jostled as the assassin runs through.

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A sea of umbrellas hides an assassin in one of Hitchcock’s signature shots.

Joel McCrea and company chase the assassin into the windmill strewn countryside, and once again the exterior and interior shots of the windmills are magnificent.  The exterior shots combined a painted background with live foreground action and hold up very well today.  The interior is beautifully designed and lit, with a look redolent of the German Expressionists that influenced Hitchcock early in his career.

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The windmill interior highlights the Oscar-nominated art direction and cinematography.

After many further adventures, the film culminates in a sequence involving a plane over the ocean, a sequence that Hitchcock was clearly very proud of, for he spoke of it with great pride over thiry years later, sounding like a doting father. The sequence involves a full scale model of a plane, rear projection, and thousands of gallons of water.  It is arguably one of the greatest technical feats captured on film at that time.  Even more impressive is the fact that it is just as exciting to watch 75 years later.

Performance:  Hitchcock originally wanted Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck for the leads, and thirty years later when he talked to Truffaut, Hitch was still disappointed that he didn’t get them.  He didn’t entirely disparage Joel McCrea’s performance, but he had little positive to say.  He called him the “next best thing” to Gary Cooper, and said  McCrea “was too easygoing.”  Hitch said of McCrea and Laraine Day that “I would have liked to have bigger star names.”  This is one instance where I think the master got it wrong.  Joel McCrea is pitch perfect in the role of the roving reporter who becomes involved in political intrigue.  His easygoing nature is essential at the beginning of the film; by the end his experiences have toughened him, and prepared him for the inevitable conflict to come.  McCrea and Day play off of each other very well.  George Sanders is excellent, as always, as reporter Scott ffolliott.  Herbert Marshall’s character could almost be a prototype for the James Mason character in North by Northwest.  Albert Basserman brought genuine humanity to his character, Van Meer.  And let’s not forget Edmund Gwynn, one of Hitchcock’s favorite actors, who plays a small but juicy role as an assassin.  All in all, a superb cast, with no missteps.

Recurring players:  Herbert Marshall had earlier appeared in Murder!  George Sanders had just appeared in Rebecca.   Edmund Gwynn was also in The Skin Game, Waltzes from Vienna, and The Trouble with Harry.  Frances Carson would have brief roles in Saboteur and Shadow of a Doubt.  Ian Wolfe played a very similar role in Saboteur.   Charles Halton and Emory Parnell would have small parts in Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Saboteur.  Gerturde Hoffman, Donald Stuart and Hilda Plowright would appear in Suspicion.  Gino Corrado also had a bit part in Rebecca.  Elspeth Dudgeon would appear in The Paradine Case.  Herbert Evans would have a bit part in Strangers on a Train.  Sam Harris had several other uncredited roles for Hitch in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Saboteur, The Paradine Case and Dial M For Murder.  Colin Kenny would appear in The Paradine Case and North by Northwest.  Eily Malyon would appear briefly in Shadow of a Doubt.  Henry Norton and George Offerman, Jr. also had bit parts in Saboteur.  Ronald R. Rondell was in Rebecca and Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Loulette Sablon would appear in To Catch a Thief.  And William Yetter, Sr.  would show up in Torn Curtain.

Where’s Hitch?  This Hitchcock cameo is easy to spot, as Hitchcock, holding a newspaper, passes Joel McCrea on the street at about the 12:40 mark.

Academy Awards:  Foreign Correspondent received 6 Oscar nominations:  Best Picture, Supporting Actor (Albert Basserman), Cinematography,  Art Direction, Original Screenplay, Special Effects.  It lost in all categories.  (Hitchcock’s Rebecca  won Best Picture this same year.)

0688 Screenplay:  Producer Walter Wanger owned the rights to a book  called Personal History by Vincent Sheehan, which was the starting point for this screenplay.  By the time the screenplay was finished, it bore no resemblance to the book at all, so the book was not listed in the film’s credits.   Hitchcock regulars Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison were the principal writers, but Robert Benchley (who also acts in the film) added some of his incomparable wit,  just as his Algonquin cohort Dorothy Parker would later add her unique wit to the screenplay for Hitch’s Saboteur.  Benchley contributed what has to be one of the wittiest lines in any Hitchcock film.  At a peace conference, a man has just finished giving a speech;  he then introduces a woman, who begins to talk.  A man leans over to Joel McCrea and says “The female of the speeches is deadlier than the male”, a clever play on the word species, and trademark Benchley.  Another Hitchcock regular,  Ben Hecht, wrote the speech that ends the movie, a moment of pure propaganda.

Hitchcock and propaganda:  Alfred Hitchcock was unfairly criticized in his home country of England when World War II broke out.   He was accused of fleeing the impending conflict, which was an unfair accusation.  He made his deal to come to the States long before Great Britain entered the conflict.  And during the war, Hitchcock made several contributions to the war effort.  Foreign Correspondent, in addition to being a very entertaining movie, also has elements of propaganda, designed to awaken the sympathies of the American people.   Joel McCrea’s final speech begins “Hello, America”  and after describing the bombs falling on London, McCrea encourages America to keep it’s lights burning.  The movie then dissolves to patriotic images of US flag and eagle, while the final line of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung in the background.   Not very subtle, but certainly effective.

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock was prticularly proud of the final airplane sequence in this film, something he described numerous times over the years.  Beyond that, he didn’t have much to say, telling Truffaut “there were lots of ideas in that picture.”

Definitive edition:  The 2014 Criterion blu-ray release of Foreign Correspondent is superb.  Certainly the film has never looked this good on home video before. Not even close.  There are also some great extra features, including short documentaries on the propaganda, and on the special effects.  Also included are a radio adaptation of the movie, starring Joseph Cotten, and the complete Dick Cavett Show episode from 1972 that featured Alfred Hitchcock.  While the Criterion blu-ray is by far the definitive edition, it is worth pointing out that the 2004 Warner Bros. DVD release does have a nice documentary, which includes interview footage with Laraine Day, Patricia Hitchcock O’Connell, and Robert Osborne among others. 0937

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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.

 

 

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