Category: Classic films (not Hitchcock)


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.”

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.

 

 

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

Color – 113 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect rato

Produced and directed by Stanley Donen

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

Screenplay by Peter Stone

Director of Photography:  Charles Lang, Jr.

Music:  Henry Mancini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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