LIFEBOAT (1944): “Aren’t you going to kill me?”

LIFEBOAT (1944) – 20th Century Fox – ★★★1/2

B&W – 97 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Tallulah Bankhead (Constance Porter), William Bendix (Gus Smith), John Hodiak (John Kovak),  Mary Anderson (Alice MacKenzie), Hume Cronyn (Stanley Garrett), Henry Hull (Charles Rittenhouse, Jr.), Walter Slezak (Captain Willi), Canada Lee (Joe Spencer), Heather Angel (Mrs. Higley).

Screenplay by Jo Swerling based on a treatment by John Steinbeck

Cinematography by Glen MacWilliams

Edited by Dorothy Spencer

Music by Hugo W. Friedhofer

Origins:   Although signed to a contract with David O. Selznick, Lifeboat would be the sixth consecutive film that Alfred Hitchcock would make on a loan-out to another studio.  This is the only film that Hitchcock ever made for 20th Century Fox.  It would run over schedule, over budget, and actually lost money on its initial run.   It has been an often overlooked film in the Hitchcock oeuvre that has finally begun to receive the acclaim it deserves in recent years.

The movie has a typical Hitchcock opening, a wordless montage of images that sets the scene perfectly.  First we see smoke emanating from a smokestack.  We then see that the smokestack belongs to a sinking ship.  Finally, various objects from the shipwreck drift through the screen.  First the objects are innocuous:  playing cards, a magazine, etc.  But finally a dead body drifts into screen.  The dead body is face down, and wearing a life vest that identifies him as the crewman of a German U-boat.  Eventually we see a woman alone on a lifeboat.   The woman is Constance Porter, played to perfection by Tallulah Bankhead.  It is no accident that she is introduced alone in the boat.  Constance is the central character in the film, as is the journey her character undertakes.

Eventually we end up with nine survivors on the boat.  They represent different types.  The boat is a microcosm of the world during wartime:  the industrialist, the socialist, the German U-boat survivor, etc.  The main plot line of the movie involves the way the survivors of the shipwreck will treat the German sailor.  Do they keep him alive?  Do they trust his navigational skills?  After all, it was his U-boat that sank their ship in the first place.   As is typical of a Hitchcock film, the audience is given information about the German (Captain Willi, played by Walter Slezak) before the other characters in the film.   When the others finally have this knowledge, what course will they take?  This is the ultimate point that Hitchcock wished to make with Lifeboat.  The Germans were implacable;  they had a sense of purpose, and the only way the Allies would beat them is to put all differences aside and unite with the same sense of purpose.   Lifeboat is more about characterization than it is plot, so I won’t dwell too much on plot specifics.

Each of the characters must undergo a transformation to reach the place where all can work together in unity.  By the film’s final act, the crew have survived a vicious storm together, and the population of the boat has decreased somewhat.  It is Constance that has to discard the most trappings.  This is achieved visually, as her personal belongings are stripped from her one by one throughout the film.  First her camera, her suitcase, her mink coat, her typewriter and ultimately her treasured bracelet are all lost overboard.  Finally stripped of these physical accoutrements representative of her place in society, Constance is left with the only things that really matter, and gives a rallying speech, uniting the members of the boat to work together.

Framing the image:  One of the technical aspects of the movie which most appealed to Hitchcock was the idea of filming an entire movie in a limited setting, and developing different camera set-ups and methods of framing to tell the story.  Throughout this article I have included a few examples of the many ingenious ways that Hitchcock framed the characters on the boat.   He used just about every conceivable set-up possible, without ever leaving the confines of the boat, and not once does the camera work seem artificial, or contrived.  This is a testament to Hitchcock’s brilliance as a technician.  I would venture to say that Hitchcock’s technical achievements on this film surpass the story itself.

Performance:  Although this movie is an ensemble piece, featuring nine people in one small space, Tallulah Bankhead is clearly the focal character.  As Hitchcock said:  The characterization by Tallulah Bankhead dominated the whole film.”   Bankhead was known more as a stage actress, and hadn’t been in any films for a decade when Hitchcock sought her out to be his leading lady.  She is the exact opposite of the “typical” Hitchcock leading lady, the blond, ethereal beauties such as Grace Kelly and Ingrid Bergman.  Bankhead is dark haired, passionate and sultry.  And she is absolutely perfect in this movie.  This is far and away the greatest performance of her career on film.

The actor Murray Alper was originally cast in the role of the injured sailor Gus.  Alper had appeared in the small but memorable role of a truck driver in Hitchcock’s Saboteur, and Hitch was so pleased with his performance that he offered him this very substantial role.  Unfortunately, Alper could not overcome his seasickness.   The boat was attached to a mechanism that kept it constantly rocking, and after three days of filming Alper was released.  His loss was William Bendix’s gain.   Bendix, an underrated character actor who had a prolific career until his early demise,  gives a career performance as Gus.  Bendix’s Gus is so likable, his portrayal so heartfelt.  He represents every American who didn’t make it home.

John Hodiak also gives the performance of a lifetime as Kovak.  Hodiak died at only 41 years of age, and never had another performance of this magnitude.  All of the other cast members give solid performances.   Walter Slezak is fantastic in the role of the German.  Hume Cronyn, an always dependable character actor,  is solid, even if his English accent is questionable.

This may be the most beautifully framed scene in the movie. Mary Anderson and Hume Cronyn are placed at different depths from the camera for this moment of emotional honesty, where they appear to be facing each other, even as they gaze past each other into the distance.

Source material:  Alfred Hitchcock hired John Steinbeck to pen an original treatment that would become the basis for the film.  Hitchcock had just had great luck working with a couple of established American authors (Dorothy Parker had helped pen the screenplay for Saboteur, and Thornton Wilder had co-written Shadow of a Doubt.)  His relationship with Steinbeck would not be so rosy.   Hitchcock describes the writing process for this film as follows:  I had assigned John Steinbeck to the screenplay, but his treatment was incomplete and so I brought in MacKinlay Kantor, who worked on it for two weeks.  I didn’t care for what he had written at all….I thanked him for his efforts and hired another writer, Jo Swerling, who had worked on several films for Frank Capra.  When the screenplay was completed and I was ready to shoot, I discovered that the narrative was rather shapeless.  So I went over it again.

Steinbeck’s original treatment, or novella, has never been published, despite many entreaties to the Steinbeck estate to do so.  Steinbeck was so disgusted with the final product that he asked for his name to be removed from the film.  That was not to be.  20th Century Fox felt that his name might add some prestige, and refused to remove it.  Funnily enough, Steinbeck would receive an Oscar nomination for best original story.  One of the things that most troubled Steinbeck was Joe Spencer, whose characterization in the film was a far cry from the way Steinbeck had written him.

Canada Lee, actor:  When this film was released, there were virtually no significant roles given to people of color in Hollywood. If one looks at the roles of African American actors in Hitchcock movies, one sees the repeated stereotypes typical of the time:  railroad porters and servants.   There is even an unfortunate use of blackface in one of Hitchcock’s otherwise great British thrillers, Young and Innocent. Canada Lee’s character Joe Spencer is the first person of color to have a major speaking role in a Hitchcock movie.  And almost the only one, ever.  We would have to wait another quarter century (!), until Topaz and the amazing Harlem sequence featuring Roscoe Lee Browne.

Canada Lee was a pioneer for people of color on the screen.  He was a brilliant actor, whose talent transcended the stereotypes that he was often handed to play. Lee began his professional life as a boxer, but a detached retina forced him to seek out a new career.  Lee became a stage actor, who achieved acclaim on Broadway in the role of  Banquo in the Orson Welles’ directed all-black MacBeth in 1936.  Welles and Lee would reunite in 1941, to even further acclaim, in a stage adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son.  

 

Canada Lee as Banquo, in Orson Welles’ and John Houseman’s production of MacBeth

Lee’s character Joe, as written in Lifeboat, is just another stereotype, beginning with his name.  Henry Hull’s wealthy industrial capitalist Rittenhouse keeps calling him “George.”  This was a term in common use at the time for railroad porters, no different than “boy” or “son”, and just as demeaning.  Joe finally corrects him, letting Rittenhouse and the audience know that he has a name, and an identity.  The screenplay pens Joe as a reformed pickpocket.  Why does the only person of color need to have a criminal background?  He is also the only one who espouses any spirituality, and he has a recorder tied around his neck, upon which he plays plaintive tunes in appropriate moments.  Lee elevates this character far above the written word, however.  He consciously made sure that there was never an element of the subservient black man in his roles.  He speaks with brilliant, restrained elocution, and a calm dignity that propels his character to a moral high ground.  In many ways, Joe is the only person on the lifeboat who maintains a moral equanimity throughout the movie.  Sidney Poitier would later cite Canada Lee as a major influence on him, someone who helped blaze a trail that would ultimately lead Poitier to the podium as a recipient of the first Best Acting Oscar for a man of color.

Academy Awards:  Lifeboat received three Oscar nominations:  Alfred Hitchcock for best director, John Steinbeck for best original story, and Glen MacWilliams for best black and white cinematography.  It lost in all categories.

Recurring players:  Heather Angel had appeared as Ethel the maid in Suspicion.  And Hume Cronyn had played neighbor Herbie Hawkins in Shadow of a Doubt.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s ingenious cameo comes just after the 25-minute mark.  Here is Hitch’s description:  That’s my favorite role and I must admit that I had an awful time thinking it up.  Usually I play a passer-by, but you can’t have a passer-by out on the ocean.  I thought of being a dead body floating past the lifeboat, but I was afraid I’d sink…Finally, I hit on a good idea.  At the time, I was on a strenuous diet, painfully working my way from three hundred to two hundred pounds.  So I decided to immortalize my loss and get my bit part by posing for “before” and “after” pictures.  These photographs were used in a newspaper ad for an imaginary drug, Reduco, and the viewers saw them – and me- when William Bendix opened an old newspaper we had put in the boat.  The role was a great hit.  I was literally submerged by letters from fat people who wanted to know where and how the could get Reduco.

What Hume said:  In A Terrible Liar, Hume Cronyn’s memoir, he has some harsh words for co-star Tallulah Bankhead:  She was famous as a young woman for her looks, her scandalous behavior and above all for that low-pitched, throaty voice.  One of my reservations about the lady was that the voice was heard all too often.  She was a compulsive talker with a reputation for wit.  My own estimation was that this was based on the law of averages:  anyone who talked as much as Tallulah did was bound eventually to say something witty.  Unfortunately, I saw more of the termigant than the wit.

Ouch!  Then, three pages later, perhaps feeling guilty, Cronyn praises Bankhead’s professionalism:  She was on time, she knew her lines, she took Hitch’s direction beautifully, she always turned up to play a scene with the rest of us even though she herself might be off camera, and I never heard her complain about the working conditions.  These were pretty rough…we were frequently wet, cold, and covered with diesel oil.

About the film in general, Hume said it was an uncomfortable one to make, physically uncomfortable, because of its nature.  Nine of us huddled together in a lifeboat on frequently stormy seas for the best part of three months.  To call it close quarters would be an understatement.  No part of the film was actually shot at sea.  It was made either in the studio or in a tank on the back lot at Fox…The film posed technical difficulties that were meat and drink to Hitch.  He rejoiced in solving them.

Another fantastic framing of the lifeboat survivors.

What Hitch said:  In conversation with Truffaut, Hitchcock said:  We wanted to show that at that moment there were two world forces confronting each other, the democracies and the Nazis, and while the democracies were completely disorganized, all of the Germans were clearly headed in the same direction.  So here was a statement telling the democracies to put their differences aside temporarily and to gather their forces to concentrate on the common enemy, whose strength was precisely derived from a spirit of unity and of determination…Anyway, though it wasn’t a commercial hit elsewhere, the picture had a good run in New York, perhaps because the technical challenge was enormous.  I never let that camera get outside the boat, and there was no music at all; it was very rigorous.  

Definitive edition:  Kino Lorber released a blu-ray edition in March of 2017 as part of their Studio Classics line.  The blu-ray has very solid picture and sound;  not perfect, but definitely the best it has looked and sounded in a long time.  It includes two audio commentaries:  one with film historian Tim Lucas,  the other with Drew Casper, who holds the title of Hitchcock professor for the study of American film at USC.  Lucas’ commentary is full of interesting story about the making of the film.  I must confess that Drew Casper’s dry professorial air, and very distinct locution get on my nerves, although one can definitely learn from listening to his commentary.  Also included is a twenty minute making-of documentary, an eleven minute audio clip from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews, and a blu-ray re-release trailer.

Advertisements

SUSPICION (1941): “If you’re going to kill somebody, do it simply.”

SUSPICION (1941) – RKO Radio Pictures – ★★★

B&W – 99 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Joan Fontaine (Lina McLaidlaw Aysgarth), Cary Grant (Johnnie Aysgarth), Nigel Bruce (‘Beaky’ Thwaite), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (General McLaidlaw), Dame May Whitty (Mrs. Martha McLaidlaw), Leo G. Carroll (Captain Melbeck).

Screenplay by Samson Raphaelson, Joan Harrison and Alma Reville based on the novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles

Cinematography by Harry Stradling, Sr.

Edited by William Hamilton

Music by Franz Waxman

A promising premise:  In 1941, while under contract to David O. Selznick, Hitchcock made back-to-back films on loan-out to RKO.  The first was the screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which Hitchcock claimed he made only as a favor to star Carol Lombard.  The follow-up film was a project he had his eye on for some time,  based on the work of an author (Anthony Berkeley Cox) he really admired.  That film would become Suspicion.  It was actually another A.B. Cox novel that first caught Hitchcock’s eye, a book called Malice Aforethought. Hitchcock wanted to make a film version, but never acquired the rights.  So he settled on Cox’s follow-up novel, Before the Fact. 

The subject of the film is a young woman named Lina, played with impressive restraint by Joan Fontaine.  She is in many ways a continuation of the character that Fontaine had played a year earlier in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.   Lina is one of Hitchcock’s sexually repressed women,  a character type that would surface in several Hitchcock films (Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound, Tippi Hedren in Marnie).  She has a couple of chance encounters with a man named Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant) who is the exact opposite of her:  an extrovert of the highest order, charming and rakish.  She finds herself drawn to him.   When she overhears her parents commenting on her spinsterish condition, she practically throws herself at Johnnie.  She runs off to the justice of the peace, and they are married.

Academy Award winner Joan Fontaine, flanked by two stalwart British character actors, Dame May Whitty and Sir Cedric Hardwicke.

It does not take long for Lina to realize that her new husband has a few character flaws.  She learns that he is broke.  Then she learns that he had a gambling problem.  She also discovers that he is a thief, an embezzler, and a compulsive liar.  Despite all of this, she remains loyal to him.  The film follows a pattern of Lina being hurt by Johnnie’s behavior, then being won over by his “naughty schoolboy” attitude.    But will Lina also stand by Johnnie if he is a murderer?

Shortly after Lina and Johnnie are married we are introduced to Johnnie’s old school chum “Beaky” Thwaite, played to perfection by Nigel Bruce.  Nigel is a rather simple but likable chap.  At one point, Johnnie proposes a business scheme in which Beaky will put up all of the money.  Lina suspects that Johnnie plans to take the money for personal use.  Shortly thereafter, Beaky ends up dead, under suspicious circumstances.  Lina begins to suspect that Johnnie may have been guilty.  She then begins to suspect that he plans to murder her as well, for life insurance money.    She believes this right up to the last scene, when events take a surprising turn.

Performance:   Let’s begin with the good.  Joan Fontaine won an Academy Award for her performance in this movie, the only Oscar in an acting category ever bestowed in a Hitchcock film.  Many people have said it was a “make up” Oscar for not winning the previous year, for Hitchcock’s Rebecca.  It is not a typical Oscar-winning role for the time, being understated, rather than melodramatic.   Fontaine’s performance is entirely appropriate for the character, and deserving of the award.  British film royalty Dame May Whitty and Sir Cedric Hardwicke are splendid as Lina’s parents.   Nigel Bruce (best known for playing Doctor Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes) is wonderful as Beaky Thwaite.  He is completely endearing, to both Lina and the viewer, which is important so we will feel his loss all the more.  Surprisingly, the problem with this movie is Cary Grant.  It is not that he acts poorly.  It is rather that it is impossible to like his character as written.  It is hard to feel fondness for this lying, stealing cad, no matter how much he tries to charm everyone.  I fault the screenplay more so than I do Cary Grant.

Would you like a glass of milk?  In the most well-known scene in this movie, Johnnie Aysgarth brings a glass of milk to his wife, Lina.  The audience is not sure at this point if that glass contains poison.  Hitchcock wanted to be sure that every viewer’s eyes were on that glass.  So he used a simple, but ingenious method to shoot it.  In this sequence he employs two of his signature motifs:  the overhead shot, and the staircase.  He begins with a shot from above, as a square of light floods the tiled floor from the kitchen.  Suddenly, that light goes out, and Cary Grant walks out, with a glass of milk on a tray.  Then the camera pans with him as he walks up the stairs in shadow, with tray in hand.   Hitchcock explained how he made sure that glass stood out:  “I put a light right inside the glass because I wanted it to be luminous.  Cary Grant’s walking up the stairs and everyone’s attention had to be focused on that glass.”

It is interesting that Hitchcock criticized his cinematographer for this film being “too glossy”, when scenes like this show a perfect marriage of light and shadow.

Academy Awards:  Suspicion was nominated for three Academy Awards.  Joan Fontaine won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance.   The movie also received a Best Picture nomination, and Franz Waxman’s musical score was nominated as well.

Source material:  The movie is based on the 1932 novel Before the Fact by Anthony Berkeley Cox, written under the pseudonym Francis Iles.  The book is an entertaining, if frustrating read.  It is a first-person narrative told from the point of view of Lina McLaidlaw.  The book begins much as the movie does.  Lina is a spinsterish 28-year old,  who is swept off her feet by the charming and impetuous Johnnie Aysgarth.   Lina marries Johnnie, and then he begins to show his true colors.  Only the Johnnie Aysgarth of the book is a much more vile character.   He does share a few traits with Cary Grant’s character in the film;  both are liars, thieves and embezzlers.  But the Aysgarth of the novel is also an adulterer, who has a child with the family maid.   This much darker Johnnie Aysgarth also is responsible for the deaths of both General McLaidlaw, and Beaky Thwaite.  And at the end of the novel, he murders Lina as well.  So we have a novel that is narrated by the murder victim herself.  It is frustrating to see this woman who continues to stick with this reprehensible man, as she learns more and more about his behavior, eventually allowing herself to be poisoned by him, because she can’t live without him.  Hence the title of the book, because Lina is an accessory before the fact to her own murder.

The ending that could have been:  Initially, Alfred Hitchcock wanted an ending to his film that was truer to the original novel.  He explained why he had to change the ending in an interview he gave to the New York Herald Tribune shortly after the film’s release:  “I knew as soon as I read Before the Fact that there’d have to be a different ending…It is axiomatic in Hollywood that unhappy endings breed commercial failures…In Suspicion we had a story that led naturally to an unhappy finale…Cary Grant is familiar as a light comedian, and Joan Fontaine is remembered mainly as the heroine of the happily ending Rebecca.  It is doubtful that those two would be accepted as figures in a tragedy.   But supposing we had forgotten all that and made the husband a murderer – then we’d have had the Hays office to deal with.  The code demands that a murderer face punishment by law…Toward the end of the film Grant brings Miss Fontaine a glass of milk which she believes to be poisoned.  It seemed logical to me that she should drink it and put him to the test…We shot that finish.  She drained the glass and waited for death.  Nothing happened, except an unavoidable and dull exposition of her spouses’s innocence.  Trial audiences booed it, and I don’t blame them.”

Hitchcock’s preferred ending, which was written but never filmed, had Grant truly poisoning Fontaine.  She pens a letter to her mother, writing of her suspicions that Johnnie may kill her.  She seals the envelope and affixes a stamp, just as Cary Grant brings in the milk.  She drinks it, and slumps over, dead.  The last scene of the film would have shown Grant, whistling, posting the letter in mail box, inadvertently sealing his own fate in the process.  This ending would have been far more satisfactory than the one chosen for the film.  This movie’s greatest flaw lies in the building up of Grant’s character as a possible murderer, then showing us that he is not.   But are we to forget all of his other significant character flaws?  And who killed Beaky?  This is left unexplained, as if insignificant.  This movie parallels Hitchcock’s earlier silent film The Lodger, in which we spend most of the film asking “Is he, or isn’t he a killer?”   In both cases the films are based on novels in which the man in question really is a killer.  And in both cases, Hitchcock had to compromise on his preferred choice of ending, because one simply could not have a matinee star be a killer in those days.  Of the two, this movie suffers more because of this choice

Themes and motifs:    Hitchcock’s favorite concept, that of guilt, real or assumed, is on full display.  Lina feels the guilt for Johnnie’s actions that he apparently does not.   I previously mentioned the trademark Hitchcock overhead shot, and the staircase, both employed in this movie’s most effective scene.  There are a couple of other nice Hitchcock touches.  One involves a dinner scene in which a pathologist is discussing a corpse while cutting into his game hen.  Hitchcock loved to mix macabre details into dining scenes (Rear Window, Frenzy). There is also a comic scene which involves a policeman staring in puzzlement at an abstract painting.  Hitchcock loved to place works of art in his films, and he also loved to portray policemen as ineffective simpletons, so this is in effect a two-for-one scene, as the provincial county policeman struggles in vain to “get” an abstract painting.

There is also a painfully misogynist scene, in which Cary Grant and Nigel Bruce attempt to cheer up Joan Fontaine by making faces and tickling her chin.  So Cary Grant has pawned her family heirlooms for gambling money, and she is supposed to accept this because a couple of men are treating her like a baby?

Where’s Hitch?  Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 46:56 mark in the film.  He is seen posting a letter in the village mailbox.

Recurring players:  Cary Grant would later appear in Notorious, To Catch A Thief, and North by Northwest.  Joan Fontaine, Nigel Bruce and Billy Bevan (ticket taker on train) were in Rebecca just one year earlier.  Sir Cedric Hardwicke would later appear in Rope.  Dame May Whitty had appeared in The Lady Vanishes.  Isabel Jeans had appeared in two Hitchcock silent films, Downhill and Easy Virtue.  Heather Angel, who played the maid Ethel, would later appear in Lifeboat.  Hitchcock favorite Leo G. Carroll was also in Rebecca, Spellbound, The Paradine Case, Strangers on a Train, and North by Northwest.   Leonard Carey (McLaidlaw’s butler) also had small roles in Rebecca, The Paradine Case and Strangers on a Train.   Alec Craig (desk clerk) also played a desk clerk in Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Edward Fielding (antique shop proprietor) also had small roles in Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, and Spellbound.  Gavin Gordon would later appear in Notorious.  Lumsden Hare (Inspector Hodgson) was also in Rebecca and The Paradine Case.  Gertrude Hoffman and Hilda Plowright had also appeared in Foreign Correspondent.  Aubrey Mather (executor of will) was also in Sabotage and Jamaica Inn.  Ben Webster had earlier appeared in Downhill.

What Hitch said:   When Truffaut asked Hitchcock if he was satisfied with Suspicion, he replied:  “Up to a point.  The elegant sitting rooms, the grand staircases, the lavish bedrooms, and so forth, those were the elements that displeased me.  We came up against the same problem we had with Rebecca, an English setting laid in America.  For a story of that kind, I wanted authentic location shots.  Another weakness is that the photography was too glossy.”

Definitive edition:  Warner Brothers released this film on blu-ray in 2016, as part of their Warner Archives collection.  The print of the movie is very solid, highlighting cinematographer Harry Stradling Sr.’s excellent play of light and shadow.  Also included are a 20-minute featurette which includes interview snippets with the usual cast of characters:  Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, Peter Bogdanovich, Richard Schickel,  Robert Osborne and Bill Krohn.  John Waxman (son of composer Franz Waxman) also provides some comments about his father’s work with Hitchcock.  The blu-ray also includes the original theatrical trailer.

 

CROOK’S TOUR (1941): “Sign says bathroom.” “That’s ridiculous. It should say Bosporous.”

CROOK’S TOUR (1941) – Anglo-Amalgamated Films – ★★1/2

B&W – 80 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by John Baxter

Principal cast:  Basil Radford (Charters), Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), Greta Gynt (La Palermo), Noel Hood (Edith Charters).

Everyone who has seen Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes is familiar with the characters of Charters and Caldicott.  They appeared together again in Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich, which I have also reviewed on this site.  I thought I would at least provide a brief summary of this movie here.  Even though it has nothing to do with Alfred Hitchcock, the characters did originate in a Hitchcock movie, and they have quite a few fans.  This movie elevates Charters and Caldicott from the role of supporting characters to stars of the movie.  One would think that having more of this pair on screen could only be a good thing.  However, there is one main difference between this film and the earlier ones in which they appeared:  the writers.  The team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat gave birth to Charters and Caldicott, and wrote their subsequent parts as well.  The writers on this film do not have the original wit and storytelling capabilities of Launder and Gilliat.

This movie plays very much like one of the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby “Road” pictures, with our starring couple in an exotic locale, being chased by spies.   Charters and Caldicott are mistakenly given an album which contains Nazi plans for sabotage, and the Germans spend the bulk of the movie trying to recover the album, and assassinate our unwitting heroes.  Unfortunately most of the jokes don’t land.  There are some funny moments that involve Caldicott and his fiancee Edith Charters (yes, she is Charter’s sister).  There should have been more moments with the sister.  Also, in their other appearances Charters and Caldicott are very likable.  While we might chuckle at their boyish fondness for cricket, we know they will answer the call when there is trouble.  In this movie they are written as just one level above buffoonery.    Did the writers not see the earlier films?  Charters and Caldicott deserve better.

For all that, it is worthy of at least one viewing for anyone who is a fan of these characters.  Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, so very different in style and appearance, made for a perfect pairing on the screen, and their names should be better known today.  God bless them both! They would spend the rest of their professional lives paired together, appearing side-by-side onscreen at least ten times. They also did several radio programs together.   Rumor has it that Basil Radford suffered the heart attack that would take his life at the young age of 55, while on break from rehearsing a radio show with Naunton Wayne.  This movie can be found in its entirety on the Criterion blu-ray for The Lady Vanishes.  There are no extra features for the movie.

 

THE LADY VANISHES (1938): “Bolt must have jammed.”

THE LADY VANISHES (1938) – Gaumont British – ★★★★★

B&W – 97 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Margaret Lockwood (Iris Henderson), Michael Redgrave (Gilbert Redman), Paul Lukas (Dr. Egon Hartz), Dame May Whitty (Miss Froy), Basil Radford (Charters), Naunton Wayne (Caldicott), Cecil Parker (Mr. Todhunter), Linden Travers (“Mrs.” Todhunter).

Screenplay by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, based on the novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White

Cinematography by Jack E. Cox

Edited by R.E. Dearing

Music by Louis Levy and Charles Williams

Farewell, London:  The Lady Vanishes is often thought to be the movie that made Hollywood take notice of Hitchcock, and precipitated his departure for the States.  Actually, the deal was already done when Hitchcock was still working on this film.  A handful of Hollywood studios had already been courting him for over a year.  When Hitchcock finally signed with David O. Selznick in July of 1938, The Lady Vanishes was still in post production, its release date four months away.  This film does work as a farewell for the British period of Alfred Hitchcock.  He would make one more movie (Jamaica Inn) before his departure for Hollywood,  but that was just done to occupy his time for a few months, and as a favor to producer/star Charles Laughton.  The Lady Vanishes is a culmination of everything that Hitchcock had learned and accomplished in his 15-plus years in the British film industry.  And while The 39 Steps is often cited as Hitch’s best British film, I have to give the nod to The Lady Vanishes.  Both films are superbly directed and perfectly cast.  What gives the later film the edge, to me, is the masterful screenplay by the duo of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat.

Act One, a Hitchcock comedy?  The film opens in a hotel in the fictional European country of Bandrika.  The opening scene, in the hotel lobby, introduces almost all of the central characters.  Most of them are departing on the train, which has been snowed in for the evening.  They will have to stay in the hotel overnight, and catch the train in the morning.  The tone of this opening segment is lighthearted and comical; there is not a hint of menace for a quarter of the film’s running time.  We meet Charters and Caldicott, two cricket-obsessed Englishmen (more on them later); Mr. and “Mrs.” Todhunter, a couple that is married, just not to one another; and Iris Henderson, a young, well-off British woman and her two travelling companions.  Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, in the roles of Charters and Caldicott, get most of the good lines, and also some visual gags that are worthy of Laurel and Hardy. When they go down to dinner they meet an older, slightly dotty English governess named Miss Froy.   We don’t know it yet, but this is the lady who will vanish.  Later, Miss Froy and Iris, who are in adjoining rooms, are disturbed by a cacophony of noise coming from the room above.  The noise is caused by the (comically bad) performance of a Bandrikan folk dance being documented by Gilbert (Michael Redgrave).  Iris bribes the hotel manager to toss him from his room, which sets up one of the best “meet cutes” in cinematic history.

Gilbert enters Iris’s room and begins laying his things out, preparing to sleep in her bed, since she was the cause of his eviction.  This sequence is full of delightful dialogue, such as when Gilbert says “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a toothbrush” as he is placing his toothbrush in a glass in the bathroom, while discarding her own.  He begins to hum Colonel Bogey’s march at the top of his voice, finally convincing Iris to have him restored to his room.  It is apparent from the first moment these two share on screen that even as they are trading barbs, they really like one another.  Redgrave and Lockwood have that indelible something, a chemistry that is hard to pin down, but undeniable when it’s there.

Now we cut to Miss Froy, listening to a man on the street below her window sing a tune.  If you’ve been paying attention, this is not the first time this tune has been played.  It is actually the opening title music for the movie, and can be heard in the background a couple of times before this final scene.   Now the tone of the movie changes dramatcially, as a shadow of hands closes in on the singer’s neck.

The singer is strangled to death, his body falling to the ground.  Miss Froy tosses down a coin, unaware that it will never be claimed by its intended recipient.  Prior to this, the viewer is already engrossed in the movie, thanks to the wonderful dialogue and acting.  We have almost forgotten that this is supposed to be a “Hitchcock” movie.  Now he reminds the viewer that things are not what they seem, and we had better be on our toes.

All aboard:  Act Two begins the following morning at the train station.  Iris, while helping Miss Froy look for her glasses, is hit on the head by a flower box that seems to be pushed from an upper window.  She boards the train just as it is leaving, and Miss Froy accompanies her to a carriage that is occupied by some eccentric looking people:  the Baroness, and Signor Doppo with his wife and child.  Shortly after this, Miss Froy and Iris head to the dining car.  This scene is important for a number of reasons.  In this section of the movie, Miss Froy is seen by several people, all of whom will later deny that she exists.  And it gives Miss Froy the opportunity to plant a clue:

When Iris can’t hear Miss Froy pronounce her name over the train noise, she writes it on the window.  It is wise to remember that nothing ever happens by accident in a Hitchcock movie.   Later, back in their carriage, Iris falls asleep.  When she awakes, Miss Froy is gone, and everybody claims not have seen her.  We come to understand why Charters and Caldicott and the Todhunters deny her existence;  they have their own personal reasons.  But what of the four other people in the carriage?  What of the steward that served her tea in the dining car?  Iris, searching for Miss Froy, discovers Gilbert on the train, and he assists her in her quest.  Their dialogue together is delightful, with so many delicious lines that they some are almost throwaways.  Gilbert tells Iris “My father always taught me, never desert a lady in trouble. He even carried that as far as marrying Mother.”  When Iris tells Gilbert that something fell on her head, he replies “When, infancy?”  There are dozens of such lines, which makes it almost a necessity to see this movie more than once to pick up on it all.  It takes more than one time to catch all the dialogue, and all the little details that fill almost every frame of this movie.

They soon meet brain surgeon named Dr. Hartz, who is riding with a patient to a nearby hospital to perform surgery.  Harts is interested in Iris’s story, and offers his assistance.  He hints that the knock on the head Iris sustained at the train station caused her to imagine Miss Froy’s appearance on the train.  She almost begins to believe him, until a new woman appears in the carriage, another woman with a strange and memorable countenance called Madame Kummer, who claims that she helped Iris on the train after her accident.

This shot has wonderful framing;  shooting 3/4 of his movie on a set only 90 feet long, Hitchcock had to get creative with his camera work.  The constant rattling of the carriage and solid back projection footage sell the viewer on the idea that the train is constantly moving.

After Gilbert realizes that Iris is telling the truth about Miss Froy, the final act of the film deals with attempting to find her, and discover why she was taken.  Hitchcock and his screenwriters create another humorous section in the baggage car, which ends with our leading couple scuffling with a magician named Signor Doppo,

Miss Froy is eventually discovered, wrapped in the bandages of Dr. Hartz’s supposed patient.  We discover that Miss Froy is not the innocent governess that she appears to be, but is a British spy, trying to get a secret, in the form of a tune, back to the Foreign Office in London.  There is a dramatic shootout, and an even more dramatic escape, with Miss Froy running into the woods, entrusting Gilbert with the tune.

Charters and Caldicott:  Screenwriters Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat created the characters Charters and Caldicott to represent typical Englishmen abroad.  They are obsessed with cricket, seemingly knowing every detail of every significant match ever played, which makes them seem boyish.  And yet, they dress in formal dinner wear in a provincial hotel!  They are meant to be laughed at, a little bit, but they are also very likable.  When Miss Froy appears  after being gone for most of the movie, Charters says “The old girl has turned up,” with Caldicott replying “Bolt must have jammed,”  implying that she has been locked in the lavatory all this time!  Yet when the going gets tough, they risk their lives for Miss Froy and the other passengers.

These two characters became so popular that Launder and Gilliat would writer parts for them in several other movies.   Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne would spend the rest of their professional lives paired together, leaving a memorable mark on British popular culture.

Hitchcock and propaganda:  This film was released in 1938, so England was not at war with Germany yet, but certainly there were hints of things to come.  The antagonists in this film are Bandrikan, but are clearly meant to be German sympathizers.  The character of Mr. Todhunter is meant to play the role of the appeaser, who refuses to believe that any harm can befell them because “After all, we’re British!”   He has a gun but refuses to fire it. Caldicott tries to tell him that the time for talking is over, now is the time for shooting.  When Todhunter steps off the train, literally waving a white handkerchief, Hitchcock shows us what happens to appeasers in wartime.  This rather obvious symbolism might seem heavy handed, but perhaps wartime is not the time for subtlety.  Hitchcock would employ elements of propaganda in a handful of other films during the war years.

Happily ever after?   Hitchcock had ended his earlier British classic The 39 Steps with a hint of ambiguity, something he would employ a few times in his career.  This film, however, ends with Iris and Gilbert discussing their wedding, shortly before being reunited with Miss Froy in the final scene.   Why the happy ending?  If any Hitchcock film deserves it, it is this one.  Iris and Gilbert seem absolutely made for each other, and any other ending would seem a false note. It is the perfect ending.  This movie does not have as many signature visual shots as The 39 Steps, or even Young and Innocent for that matter, but I consider it the most perfectly made film of Hitchcock’s British period.

Themes:  Almost every Hitchcock film deals with the concept of guilt, often assumed or transferred.  This film is different.  Iris feels no guilt.  Rather, she questions her own sanity.  But the way the film moves the audience emotionally is similar to  Hitchcock movies that deal with guilt.  Precisely because Hitchcock gives us as much information as the protagonist has, (and oftentimes more), we are aligned with their feelings.  When we see an innocent man being chased for a crime we know he didn’t commit, we are outraged.  We cheer him on all the more.  The same is true here.  When a woman is called a liar and we know her to be telling the truth, we feel the same emotions.

So long, Jack Cox:  Cinematographer Jack Cox had worked on eleven of Hitchcock’s previous pictures, including The Ring, Blackmail, and Murder!  This would mark their twelfth and final collaboration.  Cox is arguably the most important collaborator of Hitchcock’s British period.  He was a technical wizard, a master at early effects shots, who was always able to give Hitchcock exactly what he wanted.  He was a true original who inspired Hitchcock to be more visually innovative in his films.

Performance:  Along with The 39 Steps, this film has solid performances from top to bottom.  Not only are Michael Redgrave and Margaret Lockwood perfect as the leading couple, but they have a real, undeniable chemistry.  May Whitty is the perfect Miss Froy, who looks very much the part of the English governess, but shows her pluck when the time comes.  Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford are so extraordinary in the roles of Caldicott and Charters that they reprised the roles in several other films and radio shows.  Paul Lukas is one of the early models for Hitchcock’s charming villain.  Even the smaller roles are cast perfectly.  Who can forget the faces of the Baroness, Madame Kummer, Signor Doppo and the nun?

Source material:  The movie is based upon the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White.  The best thing about the novel is the premise.  The book is simply not very engaging, nor are the characters that interesting.  The main plot of the film is lifted from the novel:   Iris is travelling home to London on the train, befriends Miss Froy, then Miss Froy vanishes, and everybody says she was never there, leaving Iris to doubt her own sanity.  In the novel Miss Froy really is an English governess, not a spy.  She just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Namely, she saw a high government official at a time and place when he claimed to be elsewhere, blowing his cover story for a murder.  This is the reason for her abduction.  In the novel Iris is not hit on the head, but suffers sunstroke.  The other passengers on the train are not nearly as interesting.  There are no Todhunters, no Charters and Caldicott.  Instead we have an English vicar and his wife, and an older pair of sisters.  The doctor is the mastermind, as in the movie, and a young man does come to Iris’s aid.   The screenplay of Launder and Gilliat is a vast improvement over the novel, demonstrating how adept they were at taking a solid premise and fleshing it out with original characters and memorable dialogue.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes very late in the proceedings.  Just after the 1 hour 29 minute mark, in the train station,  Hitchcock passes right to left, smoking a cigarette, shrugging his shoulders, and carrying a small odd-shaped case.

Recurring players:  Leading man Michael Redgrave had appeared in a small uncredited role in Secret Agent.  Dame May Whitty would later appear as Joan Fontaine’s mother in Suspicion.   Cecil Parker would appear in Under Capricorn a decade later.  Basil Radford had already appeared in Young and Innocent, and would later appear in Jamaica Inn.  And Mary Clare, who plays the Baroness, had appeared in Young and Innocent.

What Hitch said:  When talking to Truffaut, Hitchcock was particularly proud of a sequence where we are led to believe that Dr. Hartz is going to put drugs in the drinks of Gilbert and Iris:  “…there was the traditional scene of a drink being doped up.  As a rule, that sort of a thing is covered by the dialogue…I said, ‘Let’s not do it that way.  We’ll try something else.’  I had two king-sized glasses made, and we photographed part of that scene through the glasses, so that the audience might see the couple all the time, although they didn’t touch their drinks until the very end of the scene…It’s a good gimmick, isn’t it?”  

Definitive edition:  Criterion released a blu-ray edition in 2011.  The picture and sound are not perfect, but as good as they’ve ever been on a home video format.  Included with the movie are a wonderful commentary track by film historian Bruce Eder,  the 1941 feature-length film Crook’s Tour (which stars Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, characters that originated in The Lady Vanishes), excerpts from Truffaut’s audio interview with Hitchcock, a video essay about Hitchcock and The Lady Vanishes by Leonard Leff, and a stills gallery of behind-the-scenes photos and promotional art.

THE 39 STEPS (1935): “Don’t bother about me, I’m nobody.”

THE 39 STEPS (1935) – Gaumont British – ★★★★★

B&W – 86 mins. – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Robert Donat (Richard Hannay), Madeleine Carroll (Pamela), Lucie Mannheim (Miss Annabella Smith), Godfrey Tearle (Professor Jordan), Peggy Ashcroft (Margaret Crofter), John Laurie (John Crofter), Wylie Watson (Mr. Memory).

Screenplay by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, based on the novel by John Buchan

Cinematography by Bernard Knowles

Edited by Derek N. Twist

Music by Jack Beaver and Louis Levy

The picaresque steps:  As Alfred Hitchcock himself described The 39 Steps it is a “film of episodes.”  He and Charles Bennett constructed a picaresque narrative, with a reluctant hero moving from one scene and one locale to the next, getting into (and out of) scrape after scrape, until the climax.  The influence of this film on Hitchcock’s later works cannot be overstated.  Without this film, there is no Foreign Correspondent, no Saboteur, and certainly no North by Northwest.  So let’s look at this film in the same manner in which it was constructed:  one episode at a time.

Step one, The Music Hall:  Hitchcock opens with a close up pan of a neon sign that says “MUSIC HALL.”   (Neon signs feature in several early Hitchcock movies.)  We are introduced to our hero through a series of shots that show him only from the back.  His light brown coat serves as a marker as he purchases a ticket, enters and finds a seat.   The house band begins to play, and on stage comes Mr. Memory, a man who memorizes 50 facts a day, and never forgets one.  Various patrons begin to ask questions.  The overall tone of this opening is light and humorous.  Finally, our hero asks a question.  Look at the framing of this shot:

Whose pov is this?  We are standing behind Mr. Memory, looking over his shoulder as it were.  But look at the perfect framing of Robert Donat (in the role of Richard Hannay).  He sits up a bit taller than those around him, the light reflects on his face;  Hitchcock made sure our eye would automatically be drawn to him.  Hannay’s question (How far is Winnipeg from Montreal?) establishes that he is from Canada.   Shortly the humorous tone takes a turn as shots are fired, and the packed music hall empties into the street.  Hannay is pressed together with a woman with a vaguely Germanic accent, who asks if she can come home with Hannay.   Certainly we are meant to suspect that she is a prostitute?  Rather bold, for a mid 1930’s film.

Step Two, Hannay’s Apartment:  Once inside Hannay’s flat, we discover that this foreign woman’s motives are very different than those we at first suspected.   She tells Hannay that her name is Annabella Smith, clearly a false name.  Annabella (played by Lucie Mannheim) asks Hannay if he’s ever heard of the 39 Steps, then tells Hannay a fantastic story:  she fired the shots in the theater, she is an agent trying to protect a British military secret from falling into the hands of spies, two of those spies were in the music hall, and are outside Hannay’s apartment right this minute.  The leader of these spies is a man missing the first joint of his little finger.  At first Hannay is incredulous, but upon seeing two men standing under a streetlight, he begins to wonder.  He agrees to let Annabella spend the night, giving her his bed while he takes the couch.   We then get this fantastic shot:

This shot is unlike any other in the film.  It shows the German expressionist influence on Hitchcock.  The play of light and shadow is wonderful, as well as the way the statue appears to be pointing at the open window and billowing curtains,  announcing to the audience that someone else has entered the apartment, there is trouble brewing.  Annabella wakes up Hannay, warning him to get out, then falls over him with a knife plunged in her back.  Clutched in her hand is a map of Scotland with the village of Alt-Na-Shellac circled.  So the spies broke into the house, stabbed her in the back, and yet left Hannay alive?  We don’t have time to question this in the moment, the narrative moves far too swiftly.

Step three, the milkman:  Hannay is unable to leave his building, because the two spies are waiting outside.  When the milkman comes in, he convinces him to switch clothing, and leaves in the milkman’s coat and hat.  Interestingly, Hannay tries to tell the milkman the truth, but he doesn’t buy this story of spies and a murdered woman.  Only when Hannay tells a lie, about seeing a married woman, does the milkman take him at his word.  This will not be the last time that Hannay has to lie to be believed.

Step four, the train:  The next sequence has one of the most clever (and most copied) editorial cuts in Hitchcock’s career.  We see Hannay’s cleaning lady opening his flat, seeing the murdered woman, and turning to scream.  She opens her mouth, and out comes the screech of a train whistle.  Then we cut to the visual of the train.  Hannay is on board the train, heading up to Scotland to the village that Annabella had circled on the map.  He is a wanted man, believed to be guilty of killing the woman found in his flat.  There is a humorous section here involving the men that he shares a carriage with, who are reading a newspaper that details the murder of Annabella, and the hunt for Hannay.  The police eventually find him on the train, and he flees, into the carriage of Pamela (Madeleine Carroll).  He tells her his story and begs for help.

When Hitchcock had Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint meet on a train in North by Northwest 25 years later, under similar circumstances, it was a meet cute.  There is nothing cute about the way Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll meet.  She believes him guilty, and immediately turns him over to the police.  Once again he makes an escape, hiding on the Forth Bridge as seen in this shot.

Step five, the Crofter’s cottage:  The next sequence is so well structured and acted, it is almost like a mini-movie right in the middle of the longer movie.   Richard Hannay comes to a crofter’s cottage, and learns that there is a new Englishman, “a kind of professor” living in Alt-Na-Shellac.  It’s too late in the day to walk the 14 miles, so the crofter agrees to put him up for the night, for a fee.  Hannay meets the crofter’s wife, at first mistaking her for a daughter.   The young wife is taken with Hannay.  He is attractive, charming, and he’s been to London, which might as well be another planet to this girl.   As she prepares the supper, he glances at the paper, and sees yet another article about the manhunt for himself, the supposed killer of Annabella.  Seeing him glance at it, the young woman realizes who this dashing man really is.  This leads to some very urgent glances between the two at supper, which do not go unnoticed by her husband.  He, of course, thinks these glances mean something else entirely.  Later, when the wife sneaks out of bed to help Hannay escape, the husband confronts them, believing it is the beginning of an amorous tryst.  As Hannay declares his innocence, Hitchcock has this interesting shot composition.

The characters are seen through a chair, much like the bars of a prison.  As the police arrive at the front door, the wife helps Hannay escape out the back door, giving him Crofter’s dark coat to wear.  So rich this little tale, so honest the characters, Hitchcock could have made an entire movie out of this episode.

Step six, the “Professor’s” house:  Hannay next goes to the house of the “Professor”, the man he believes Annabelle was going to visit in Scotland.  The Professor lives on a lovely estate, and is hosting a small gathering.  Hannay is welcomed into the group.  A very nice, and subtle touch here, is to watch how many hands featured in the scene.  Keeping in mind that the leader of the evil spies is missing half a finger.  Hands enter and exit the frame rapidly, shaking Hannay’s hand, handing him a cigarette, a drink, offering a light.  A subtle way prepare us for the significance of hands.  Finally the Professor and Hannay are alone, and Hannay discovers that the Professor is not an ally, but the enemy.  Annabella wasn’t coming here to get the Professor’s help, she was coming to thwart him.

The Professor explains that he can’t let Hannay live, and proceeds to shoot him.  He falls down, dead.  Or is he?

Step seven, the lecture hall:  This section is comprised of two short sequences leading into a longer one.  Hannay is in a policeman’s office, showing how the crofter’s book of prayer in the coat pocket stopped the bullet aimed for his heart.  Unfortunately for Hannay, the policeman is another ally of the Professor, leading to another escape, by jumping through a window.  He falls in step with a Salvation Army parade passing by, then slips into an alley and an inviting doorway.  This doorway turns out to be the back of a lecture hall, and Hannay is rushed to the stage.  He quickly realizes that he has been mistaken for the guest speaker!  He begins to speak off the cuff, when who should walk in but Pamela, the woman from the train.  The police also gather in the wings.  His speech becomes more impassioned, and he inspires the crowd to leap to their feet in an excited state, but is pushed into the hands of the waiting police.  Hitchcock would re-use this sequence, the idea of being trapped in a crowded room, in both Saboteur and North by Northwest.

Step eight, the car and the countryside:  The police arrest Hannay for the murder of Annabella, and ask Pamela to come along too, as she saw him on the train.  Only it turns out these policemen are actually more of the Professor’s men.  Hannay and Pamela, handcuffed together, escape with the help of a flock of sheep blocking a bridge.  He forces her to hide under a waterfall, and later they make their escape.  Pamela still believes Hannay is guilty of murder.  This is yet another person that won’t believe Hannay when he tells the truth, but will accept what he says when he lies.

Step nine, the hotel:  Hannay and Pamela end up in a hotel room, and this is where their relationship takes a turn.  We have a humorous (and risque for the 30’s) scene in which Pamela, still handcuffed, removes her stockings, and then they discuss the sleeping arrangements on the bed.

Hannay falls asleep,  and Pamela is able to work her hand out of the cuffs.  She is going to sneak away, but when she opens the door, she sees the two men who had taken them earlier, and realizes through their overheard conversation that Hannay has been speaking the truth.  She goes back to the room, staying with him, sleeping at the foot of the bed. When he wakes up, we see Pamela look at him in a very important close-up shot, which shows us that not only does she believe in him, she also loves him.  Many years later, Hitch will use a similar close-up of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, when he is admiring Grace Kelly for her pluck.  Pamela overheard the two men mentioning the London Palladium, and so off our new couple goes.

Step ten, the Music Hall again:  And so Hitchcock ends where he began, this time in the London Palladium.   Hannay has been whistling a tune for much of the latter half of the movie.  He can’t remember where he heard it, until the band strikes up the same tune at the Palladium.  Of course!  It is the theme of Mr. Memory!  And now it all comes together.  The secret that the spies are after is not on a piece of paper or microfilm.  It is in the mind of Mr. Memory.  The police (real ones, this time) recognize Hannay and try to arrest him, when he shouts out “What are the 39 Steps?” to Mr. Memory on stage.  Being Mr. Memory, he begins to answer and ends up shot.  Hannay convinces Mr. Memory to recite the secret plans that he had remembered, which vindicates Hannay in the eyes of the authorities.

And poor Mr. Memory, after unburdening his mind of the plans he had memorized, slumps down dead.  A sad ending for him, indeed, and a touching, almost Shakespearean moment for a minor character in a thriller.   Some movies might cut to a coda at this point, with Hannay and Pamela locked in each other’s arms.  Such a scene was shot, but Hitchcock was against it.  Although he would use just such a scene at the end of North by Northwest.  This film has a much more tentative, and somehow more poignant, ending. Hannay and Pamela reach their hands out, and clasp each other, ever so gently, Hannay’s still attached handcuff dangling between them.  This is symbolic of the way Hitchcock usually portrayed relationships.  The future is uncertain, and things may get in the way.  Yet they will maintain that clasp, as long as they can.

Performance:  One could make the argument that this is the most perfectly cast movie of Hitchcock’s entire British period.  The only films that come close in this regard are The Lady Vanishes, and possibly The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Robert Donat is the quintessential Hitchcock male lead.  He is seemingly insouciant, and yet doggedly determined when pressed, and he absolutely oozes charm.  Without Donat’s exquisite performance in this movie, we would not have the later performances that we do from Michael Redgrave, Joel McCrea, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and John Forsythe.  Donat created the template for the perfect Hitchcock hero.  Equally good as the leading lady is Madeleine Carroll, who does a wonderful job playing a strong-willed woman who intensely dislikes Donat’s character, then gradually softens as she comes to believe in him.  Godfrey Tearle makes the most of his brief screen time as the antagonist, an early prototype of the kind of sophisticated and debonair bad guy that Hitchcock preferred.  Watch out for a young Peggy Ashcroft in the role of the farmer’s wife.  Ashcroft would go on to have a long and celebrated career on the stage, and would win an Oscar for David Lean’s A Passage to India almost 50 years after she appeared in The 39 Steps.  

Source material:  The original novel, written by John Buchan and published in 1915, is set just before the outset of World War 1.  The movie advances the setting to the time it was made, the mid 30’s.  In the book there is no music hall opening.  Hannay is accosted by a man who says he is a spy, and claims to be following a ring of German spies who are out to steal Britain’s plans for war.  Hitchcock made the wise decision to change this character to a woman.  The episode of Hannay escaping his building in the milkman’s uniform is present in the book, as is his journey to Scotland, and a night spent in a shepherd’s cottage, minus the young lovelorn wife.  Also absent from the book is any love interest for Hannay.  In the book, the 39 steps are actual steps, down which the German spies will go to rendezvous with a ship off the coast.  The overall picaresque structure, and the concept of the double chase are intact in both book and film.  While the book is engaging, the movie actually has a better structured plot.  The book also suffers from its lack of female characters.  Even author John Buchan told Hitchcock that giving Hannay a love interest in the film was an improvement over the novel.

This novel was very popular in Britain, and ultimately around the world, resulting in four more books being penned by Buchan which featured Richard Hannay as protagonist.

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes early in this one, at around the 6:50 mark.  As Robert Donat and Lucie Mannheim are preparing to board the bus that is pulling up, Hitch crosses from left to right, in the foreground, casually littering as he passes!

Recurring players:  Starring actress Madeleine Carroll would appear in Secret Agent a year after this film.  John Laurie had earlier appeared in Juno and the Paycock.  Helen Haye (not to be mistaken with Helen Hayes) and Ivor Barnard had been in The Skin Game.   Wylie Watson, the memorable Mr. Memory, would later have a small part in Jamaica Inn.  Gus McNaughton had an earlier uncredited role in Murder!  Jerry Verno and Peggy Simpson would later appear in Young and Innocent.  James Knight had been in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Miles Malleson would appear 15 years later in Stage Fright.  Frederick Piper, who played the milkman, also had bit parts in The Man Who Knew Too Much, Sabotage, Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.  And S.J. Warmington had bit parts in Murder! The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Sabotage.

What Hitch said:  In his conversations with Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock was clearly proud of his work on this film.  He said “Buchan was a strong influence a long time before I undertook The Thirty-nine Steps…What I find appealing in Buchan’s work is his understatement of highly dramatic ideas…Understatement is important to meI worked on the scenario with Charles Bennett, and the method I used in those days was to make a treatment complete in every detail, except for the dialogue.  I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes…I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself…What I like in The Thirty-nine Steps are the swift transitions…The rapidity of those transitions heightens the excitement.  It takes a lot of work to get that kind of effect, but it’s well worth the effort.  You use one idea after another and eliminate anything that interferes with the swift pace.”

Definitive edition:  The 2012 Criterion Collection blu-ray has the nicest print of the film currently available.   Included along with the film are a commentary track by scholar Marian Keane, a British documentary titled Hitchcock:  The Early Years which covers Hitch’s British period, footage from a 1966 Mike Scott television interview of Alfred Hitchcock, a visual essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff, the complete 1937 Lux Radio Theater broadcast version, excerpts from the Truffaut/Hitchcock interviews, and original production design drawings.

DOWNHILL (1927): “My poor boy, how did you come down to — this?”

DOWNHILL (1927) – Gainsborough Pictures – ★★

B&W – Silent – 105 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Ivor Novello (Roddy Berwick), Robin Irvine (Tim Wakely), Isabel Jeans (Julia Fotheringale), Norman McKinnel (Sir Thomas Berwick), Lillian Braithwaite (Lady Berwick).

Screenplay by Eliot Stannard based on the play by Constance Collier and Ivor Novello

Cinematography by Claude L. McDonnell

Edited by Ivor Montagu and Lionel Rich

The follow-up to Hitch’s first hit:  Downhill was Alfred Hitchcock’s follow-up to The Lodger, which was Hitchcock’s third directorial effort, and first box office hit.  This follow-up is very different in subject matter and tone.  The story is divided into three sections.  In the first, “the world of youth”, we are introduced to two college companions, Roddy Berwick (played by matinee idol Ivor Novello) and Tim Wakely (Robin Irvine).  Roddy is on top of the world.  He is a good student, a star player for the school rugby team, and comes from a wealthy family.  His friend Tim is at school on scholarship.  We see the two friends at play, and soon we are introduced to Tim’s girlfriend.  Shortly after this, the two boys are summoned to the headmaster’s office.  There, Tim’s girlfriend alleges that Roddy has taken advantage of her.  It is never spelled out, but the implication is that she is pregnant, and that Roddy is the father.  Tim is the true father, but she accuses Roddy because she knows he comes from wealth.  Rather than speak the truth, Roddy takes the blame for his friend.  He is then kicked out of school, and kicked out his home.

The second section “the world of make believe” finds Roddy a chorus line actor in a music hall.  He becomes smitten by the lead actress, who is currently dating her co-star.  She is amused by his attention, but does nothing about it.  Shortly after this, Roddy inherits some money from an aunt, and upon hearing this the actress leaves the man she is with, to be with Roddy.   They end up getting married, and she shortly spends every last penny of his inheritance, while seeing her old beau on the side the whole time.  He gets kicked out of his own house, because he signed it over to her!

In the final section “the world of lost illusions”, Roddy is in Paris, dancing with unpartnered women.  He is essentially a gigolo, and his lady boss encourages him to do more than just dance with the women.  Ultimately he is sick, upon the verge of death, and ends up back in England.  He returns home, only to be welcomed by his parents.  He even gets to play in the school rugby game.

If the story sounds trite, that’s because it is.  This movie has many problems, chief among them the overlong running time.   One hour and 45 minutes is a bit much for a silent melodrama.  It is also hard to feel any real sympathy for Roddy.  Is it admirable for him to keep his mouth shut when he is accused of doing something he didn’t?  It costs him everything he has.  And later, when he throws all his money away on the actress, we can all see she is only interested in the cash.  Why can’t he? The only thing that makes this movie worthy of at least one viewing is to watch Hitchcock continue to grow in confidence and skill as a filmmaker.

 

The Hitchcock touch continues:  While the story is not great, there are many wonderful visual touches.  In the first section, when Roddy is called to the school headmaster’s office, there is a great POV tracking shot, as Roddy slowly approaches the older man’s desk.  It feels as if he is slowly, inexorably moving to meet his fate.  We don’t even know why he has  been called in, but the camera work fills us with a sense of dread.

The second section of the film begins with a wonderful touch, where Hitchcock subverts our expectations.  We first see Roddy serving a couple at a table, leading us to believe he is a waiter.  When the couple leaves the table, the woman forgets her cigarette case, which Roddy quickly pockets.  Oh no, so he’a a thief too.  The as the camera pulls back farther, we see that all this action has taken place on a stage, and he in an actor.

The last section also has a wonderful visual touch.  Hitchcock describes it this way:  “I showed a woman seducing a younger man.  She is a lady of a certain age, but very elegant, and he finds her very attractive until daybreak.  Then he opens the window and the sun comes in, lighting up the woman’s face.  In that moment she looks dreadful.”    Finally, when Roddy is on a boat returning him to England, he is delirious, and has visions of all the women who have taken advantage of him, sitting together, laughing at him.   Hitchcock shoots Roddy’s visions as if they were real, not with blurred or fading images as would normally be done to indicate we are watching a hallucination.

There are also many visual cues that highlight the film’s title.  We see Roddy going down stairs and down escalators.   Hitchcock called this “…another naive touch that I wouldn’t do today.”

One of many visual representations of the film’s title.

 

Source material:  Eliot Stannard’s screenplay is based upon a stage play co-written by Constance Collier and the film’s star Ivor Novello, under the combined pseudonym David L’Estrange.  I have been unable to find a copy of the play in any form, for purposes of comparison.  There aren’t even that many references to the play at all, other than that it provided the source material for the movie.  I was beginning to doubt this play was ever written, let alone performed, but I was finally able to confirm that it debuted at the Queens Theatre in London on June 16, 1926.  Hitchcock does say of it that “…it was done as a series of sketches.  It was a rather poor play.”  Constance Collier would appear in Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope as Mrs. Atwater.

Performance:  It is hard to judge these performances, when the standards of acting were different in the silent era.  Ivor Novello was too earnest, and far too old be playing a college student.  The other performances are all adequate, considering the material.

Recurring players:  Ivor Novello had just starred in The Lodger.  Robin Irvine would next appear in Easy Virtue,  Isabel Jeans would also be in Easy Virtue and Suspicion, Ian Hunter would also be in both The Ring and Easy Virtue, Violet Farebrother would later be in Easy Virtue and Murder! Ben Webster would later have an uncredited part in Suspicion, Hannah Jones would later appear in Champagne, Blackmail, Murder! and Rich and Strange.

Where’s Hitch?  He isn’t.  Hitchcock made only a couple of cameos in his silent films, it was not yet a tradition this early in his career.

What Hitch said:  Alfred Hitchcock had very little to say about this film over the course of his life.  The discussion of Downhill in the Truffaut book is less than one page in length.  He described a couple scenes that he was proud of (see above) and then moved on.

Definitive edition:  The 2017 Criterion blu-ray release of Hitchcock’s The Lodger contains Downhill in its entirety.  This is the 2012 version restored by the BFI.  The restoration is good, considering the film is 90 years old.  It is accompanied by a new piano score from British film composer Neil Brand.  There are no extra features associated with the movie;  it is itself an extra feature on the Lodger blu-ray.

THE LODGER: A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (1927): “Be careful, I’ll get you yet.”

THE LODGER:  A STORY OF THE LONDON FOG (1927) – Gainsborough Pictures – ★★★

B&W – Silent – 91 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Ivor Novello (The Lodger), June Tripp (Daisy Bunting), Malcolm Keen (Joe Chandler), Marie Ault (the Landlady), Arthur Chesney (Her Husband).

Screenplay by Eliot Stannard, from the novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Cinematography by Gaetano di Ventimiglia

Edited by Ivor Montagu

The birth of the Hitchcock story:  Alfred Hitchcock had directed two movies by the time he took on The Lodger, but they were movies that were assigned to him, and rather pedestrian affairs by his own admission.  This movie would be different; the subject matter piqued his interest, and inspired his creativity.  As he told Francois Truffaut,  “The Lodger was the first true Hitchcock movie.”

The movie opens on a woman’s scream, in close-up, followed by a flash of neon signs advertising “TO-NIGHT GOLDEN CURLS.”  And we soon discover that this golden-haired woman has been murdered, and she is not the first. This particular killer favors fair-haired women.  He also leaves a calling card of sorts, pinning a slip of paper on his victims which says “The Avenger.” A woman who saw the murderer describes him as having his lower face covered with a scarf.  We then meet a young woman named Daisy who is described as a “mannequin” in the credits;  today we would call her a fashion model.   Her home will be the center of the movie’s action.  In that home we meet her aging parents, and a family friend named Joe, who is a policeman, and very fond of Daisy.  Daisy’s parents are advertising a room to let, and soon enough a knock comes on the door, and we meet Ivor Novello in the title role.  His entrance, appearing out of the London fog, lower face covered with a scarf, is unnerving to say the least.   His offer of cash up front for the room is too much to pass up, but his strange behavior begins to manifest itself soon enough.

The arrival of the lodger. The expressionistic visuals show the influence of Hitchcock’s time at Germany’s UFA studio.

One way this film differs from most later Hitchcock films is the manner in which he keeps the motives of the lodger hidden from the viewer for most of the film.  We are left to ask the question:  Is he the Avenger or isn’t he?  To a point, this is more in the style of a “whodunit”, a type of film that Hitchcock wasn’t fond of.  In future films he would clue us into his protagonist’s innocence from the beginning, which makes the viewer both sympathize and root for him.  In this film, we do eventually learn that the lodger is not the Avenger, but rather the brother of one of the Avenger’s victims, seeking him out to exact revenge.  Joe, Daisy’s policeman beau, does not believe it however, and attempts to arrest the lodger as the murderer. The lodger, handcuffed, flees into the night.  Does Joe really believe the lodger is guilty, or is he simply jealous because the lodger is now receiving the attention, and affection of Daisy?

The birth of the Hitchcock style:  Alfred Hitchcock employed a few visual flourishes in this movie;  we can see him beginning to flex his creative muscle.  One of the most innovative shots features the lodger upstairs pacing in his room, while the family are downstairs.  Hitchcock shot a POV shot looking up at the ceiling, and has Ivor Novello pacing on a sheet of glass, so we can see his feet going back and forth.  As Hitchcock himself explains, the shot was born of necessity;  in the sound era, he could have used the noise of footfalls to achieve the same effect.

In this shot, we can see through the ceiling as the lodger paces.

Later on Hitchcock employs a very creative shot on a stairwell.  Hitchcock employs stairs in a majority of his films; as a matter of fact, his directorial debut opens with young women going down a spiral staircase.   In The Lodger, as Ivor Novello’s character is slowly sneaking out of the house in the night, we get an overhead shot of his hand slowly sliding along the banister as he descends.  This shot foreshadows overhead POV stair shots that will feature prominently in both Vertigo and Psycho.

Hitchcock’s visual fascination with stairs is on display in this overhead shot of the lodger’s hand sliding down the banister.

Another nice visual touch involves the use of religious imagery.  At one point as the lodger is staring out a window, the windowpanes cast a cross-like shadow right onto the lodger’s face.  At the film’s climax the lodger is being chased by a mob, who all believe him to be the Avenger.  The police learn that the lodger is innocent, and rush to save him from the mob.  The lodger attempts to climb a fence, and his handcuffs get hung up on one of the wrought-iron fenceposts.  As he hangs there by his handcuffs, while being assailed by the mob from above and below, he is reminiscent of Christ on the cross.  When he is finally delivered into the hands of his rescuers, who include the adoring Daisy, the pose resembles that of a Pieta.   Truffaut asks Hitchcock if his evocation of Christ was deliberate, and Hitchcock replies “Naturally, that thought did occur to me.”

You can see in these images how Hitchcock’s staging and framing of Ivor Novello at the end of The Lodger resemble the Pieta.   So this is the first of a handful of films in which the Catholic Hitchcock  will deliberately use religious imagery.

Hitchcock in the silent era:  For those who haven’t watched a lot of silent films, it can feel a bit strange at first.  First of all, one has to read title cards, although you will notice that Hitchcock is so adept at telling the story visually, he utilizes a bare minimum of cards.  Second, there is the idea of a musical score.  When people went to see this movie in the theater in 1927, there was no written musical score.  So either a pianist would improvise live accompaniment, or there would have been no music at all.  There are a number of different scores that have been written to accompany this movie, but they have no connection to Alfred Hitchcock’s original concept of the movie.  An interesting experiment is to watch the movie with two different scores, to see how the music can change your perception of what you are viewing.   Or to watch the movie with no score at all.  Finally, there is the idea of film tinting.  In the silent era, color could be added to movies by adding dye to the negative, producing a colored tint.   You will notice on the restored version of this film, that the exterior night scenes have a bluish tint, and the interior scenes have an amber or yellowish tint.  This is part of Hitchcock’s original visual concept of the film, something he may have first seen in the films of D.W. Griffith, who Hitch claims as a major influence.

The “birth” of Hitchcock?  Since Alfred Hitchcock himself says that this is his first movie to have a clearly defined Hitchcock style, it is worth recounting all of the Hitchcock touches that are seen here for the first time.  The Lodger has: the first Hitchcock cameo, the first German expressionistic imagery, the first innocent man falsely accused of a crime, the first handcuffs, the first sinister staircase, and the first religious imagery.

Source material:  The screenplay for this movie is based upon the novel of the same name, by Marie Belloc Lowndes.  This novel is still a suspenseful read today, although laced with the occasional archaic or obsolete turn of phrase (after all, it is over 100 years old).  The novel differs in some significant ways from the film.  In the novel. the titular lodger has a form of religious mania.  He is frequently sequestered in his room, “studying” the Bible, and reading aloud from it.  But he seems to favor passages that refer to women as sinners, who will have God’s vengeance visited on them.  In the novel, it turns out that the lodger is indeed the murderer of the women, and ultimately he flees the house, and is not caught.  His backstory does come out however, and we learn that he is an escaped mental patient, who murdered several people many years before.  Perhaps more interestingly, the landlady has suspicions about the lodger from very early on, and yet tells no one, making her complicit in his guilt.  The concept of inherited or shared guilt is one that fascinated Hitchcock, and was an idea he would employ frequently.

Hitchcock wanted the lodger to be guilty in the film version, as well.  But the studio would not allow that.  Ivor Novello was arguably the most popular matinee idol in England at the time, and it was inconceivable that he could be a serial killer!  The the screenplay was adapted to make him an innocent man accused of the crimes.

Performance:  It is challenging to discuss performance in silent films.  Acting requirements were very different.  I can see why Ivor Novello was so popular, he does have a commanding screen presence.  But he overdoes it in the early scenes when the audience does not yet know whether he is or is not the Avenger.  He is playing it a little too sinister.  Yet at the climax, when his life is at stake, his vulnerability and fear are very real.  The other performances are all fine, nobody particularly stands out for reasons good or bad.  It is worth pointing out that the Landlady’s husband, played by Arthur Chesney, is the brother of Edmund Gwenn, who Hitchcock would work with a few times.  See if you can spot the similarity.

Recurring players:  Ivor Novello would also star in Hitchcock’s next film, Downhill.   Malcolm Keen had earlier appeared in the lost Hitchcock film The Mountain Eagle, and would later appear in The Manxman.

Where’s Hitch?  This is the movie that gives birth to the Hitchcock cameo.  And Hitchcock claims that it was born of necessity, not any desire to be on screen.  He needed somebody to sit at a desk with back to camera, for one brief scene, and decided to do so himself.   He can be seen just after the 5:30 mark, as a newspaper editor, with his back to the camera.  Some people believe he can be seen in the mob that assails the Lodger at the end of the film, but I don’t think it’s him.

Where’s Mrs. Hitch?  That’s right, Hitchcock’s soon-to-be wife and greatest adviser, Alma Reville, has a cameo in The Lodger.  Her cameo appears in the opening sequence, very close to her husband’s.  She is shown in close-up, with a wireless headset on.

What Hitch said:   Alfred Hitchcock speaks well of this movie, and stresses that it did play a significant role in his development as a director.  He said to Truffaut:

The Lodger is the first picture possibly influenced by my period in Germany.  The whole approach to this film was instinctive with me.  It was the first time I exercised my style.  In truth, you might almost say that The Lodger was my first picture…I took a pure narrative and, for the first time, presented ideas in purely visual terms.”    

This movie gives birth to Hitchcock’s favorite theme, the innocent man falsely accused.  On this topic he said:

“…the theme of the innocent man being accused, I feel, provides the audience with a greater sense of danger.  It’s easier for them to identify with him than with a guilty man on the run.  I always take the audience into account.”

Definitive edition:  The 2017 Criterion blu-ray features the 2012 BFI restoration of the film.  It looks as good as it is ever going to look, especially considering that it is now ninety years old!  Criterion commissioned a brand new musical score for this release by composer Neil Brand.  The blu-ray also features the restored 1927 Hitchcock feature Downhill, an interview with film scholar William Rothman, a video essay by art historian Steven Jacobs, excerpts from audio interviews with Hitchcock by filmmakers Francois Truffaut and Peter Bogdanovich, a radio adaption from 1940, and an interview with Neil Brand on composing for silent film.

MGM released a DVD version in 2009, and while the print of the film is not nearly as good as the one on the Criterion version, it does contain two different musical scores, and some interesting extra features.