HITCHCOCK AND SELZNICK by Leonard J. Leff

HITCHCOCK and SELZNICK by Leonard J. Leff

1987 – University of California Press – 383 pages

In retrospect, Alfred Hitchcock’s triumphant arrival in the United States in 1939 seems like a fait accompli, something destined by the movie gods many years before.  Behind the scenes there was a considerable period of indecision by Hitchcock.  He certainly knew he wanted to come to the States, but he had offers from multiple studios to consider.   Ultimately he decided to sign with David O. Selznick, at the time the most powerful independent producer in Hollywood.

For the next eight years, the lives and careers of these two men would be linked together, in a relationship that was was often tumultuous.    Author Leonard J. Leff chose this intersecting period in the lives of Hitchcock and Selznick as the subject for his book.

Leff gives us some brief introductory material, setting the scene of precisely where these two men were in their careers at this time.  Hitchcock was a big fish in a small pond, and he knew he would have to sacrifice a little creative control, at least at first, in coming to Hollywood.  Selznick was riding high, a celebrated producer who was making what would become his greatest triumph, Gone With the Wind.

The meat of this book is the four chapters that focus on the collaborative projects between the two men:  Rebecca, Spellbound, Notorious and The Paradine Case.    Leff has researched his subjects meticulously, and provides in-depth descriptions of how these films were made, from inception to release.  The reader gets a strong feel for the working relationship between Hitchcock and Selznick, the give and take that resulted in some high-quality films.

Leff also provides a chapter titled “Between Engagements” that covers all of the films Hitchcock made on loan-out for other studios while under contract to Selznick.  Finally, the book closes with a summation of the immediate aftermath of the partnership.

In most biographies of Alfred Hitchcock, Selznick is cast as an antagonist of sorts, the meddlesome mogul who won’t give Hitchcock the creative freedom he desires.  This book, providing an impartial view of both men, shows us a different side of Selznick.   At his best, Selznick had wonderful ideas to contribute to a film’s story and structure.  He was often indulgent of Hitchcock, even when Selznick felt that Hitch might be taking advantage of him.   And yes, he could be overbearing and controlling, but there is no doubt that he cared passionately about the product being released by his studio.

Leff’s narrative is smart, insightful and a pleasure to read, and this book comes highly recommended.

 

 

 

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SABOTEUR Deconstruction of a scene: The Statue of Liberty finale

Alfred Hitchcock had a penchant for staging his film climaxes in high places, with a risk of falling posed to one or more of the central characters.  We see it in his early British films like The Man Who Knew Too Much and Jamaica Inn, as well as later classics like Vertigo and North By Northwest.

One of the most striking early examples is the climax of Sabotuer, which takes place atop the Statue of Liberty.   Our hero Barry Kane (played by Robert Cummings) has finally cornered saboteur Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd), a man he has tracked from coast to coast.  Kane follows Fry out onto the arm of Liberty’s torch, which is where the sequence begins.

The sequence runs roughly 2 minutes and 38 seconds, with 47 editorial cuts.   This averages out to approximately one cut per 3.4 seconds.  One thing that makes this sequence unique is the amount of special effects work.  There is a life-size reproduction of the statue’s hand with the torch, a smaller mock-up of the statue, as well as matte painting effects and live action film.  For a black and white sequence shot in 1942, it holds up admirably.

 

Hitchcock opens on Barry Kane in a medium shot, opening the door and walking out onto the torch walkway.  He then pulls back to give the audience this establishing long shot.

 

After about 3 seconds, Hitchcock cuts to a standard medium two-shot, with Barry Kane holding a gun on Fry.

 

Hitchcock continues to hold this shot for about 9 seconds, as Kane backs Fry up to the railing, which Fry then flips over and falls.  Hitchcock wanted Norman Lloyd to do his own stunt here, so it could be done without a cut.  Of course when Lloyd flipped backwards over the railing, he was only a few feet from the floor, with a nice soft cushioned landing.  An impressive stunt for the young actor, nonetheless.

Hitchcock then cuts to a long shot as Fry (now played by a stuntman) falls, grabbing on between the thumb and index finger on Lady Liberty’s hand.  Hitch then cuts to a medium shot of Barry Kane looking down, followed by this shot from Kane’s POV, looking at Fry (Lloyd again) holding on precariously. This scene was shot with the hand resting on its side, so the actor could rest against it without having to literally hang on.  The lower portion and base of the statue are matted in here.

 

Hitchcock next cuts back to Barry Kane, first in a medium shot, then a long in quick succession.  Then we get this shot, which holds for about five seconds.  This is what I call the God’s eye view shot.   Hitchcock loved to sneak one of these shots in to most of his films.  This type of shot can break camera logic (whose point of view are we supposed to be seeing?) but add to the viewer’s sense of helplessness and awe.   The composite pieces of film here all blend very well together.

 

Hitchcock then cuts to a long shot of Barry Kane climbing over the railing in an attempt to get to Fry.

 

As Kane lowers himself down, the pace of the cutting begins to pick up a bit.  Hitchcock also does something interesting here.  After showing us Fry from Kane’s point of view, he all of a sudden shifts to Fry’s point of view.  We are looking up at Fry’s hands holding on.

 

There are a few short shots here cutting between the two men, until Kane finally lowers himself closer to Fry.  “I’ll get your sleeve” Kane says, and we see his hand stretching down.

 

After shifting the point of view from Kane to Fry, Hitchcock is going to shift it back to Kane again.  But first he is going to “reset” the POV by giving us a neutral two-shot, which lasts a brief two seconds but serves its purpose.

 

Finally we are back to Kane’s POV for this shot, which lasts about 3 seconds.  Kane has grabbed a hold of Fry’s sleeve.

 

Hitchcock cuts back briefly to a medium of Kane, then back to Fry in close up.

 

Now we get the first close up of the shoulder seam in Fry’s suit starting to pull apart.  From here the cutting will become even more rapid.

 

Hitchcock will cut away from Fry’s suit, then back to it in a series of shots.  Every time he cuts away, he gives us a completely different view of the Statue, all of them emphasizing the height, as Fry’s situation becomes more precarious.

 

Finally we go back to a  POV shot, as Kane looks down at Fry.

 

Hitchcock then cuts to a close-up of the hands,which allows us to see the sleeve as it finally tears completely.

 

Next comes the incredibly dramatic fall, a shot of about 4 seconds, as Fry falls away from us crying “Kaaaaaaaane!”  This shot was done with Norman Lloyd sitting on a custom saddle-like chair, on the floor of the studio sound stage, against a black screen (the precursor of today’s green screen).  The camera pulled up from the floor to the ceiling rapidly, as Lloyd flailed his limbs, pantomiming falling.  Then the shot was run in reverse with the background matted in.  It holds up very well over 75 years later.

 

Hitchcock then cuts to a close up of Barry Kane’s reaction to Fry’s plummet to his death.

 

And finally, Barry Kane climbs back up to the torch where Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) is waiting for him.  The film ends here, rather abruptly, almost before Kane can climb into her waiting arms.

 

This sequence is relatively short, at just over two-and-a-half minutes, and it is thrilling from start to finish.  When you break it down, you can see that each of the 47 distinct pieces of film serves a very specific purpose.  Hitchcock knew exactly how to represent visually what he wanted his viewers to experience emotionally, a skill at which he would only improve over time.

Hitchcock on Hitchcock – Edited by Sidney Gottlieb

 

HITCHCOCK ON HITCHCOCK:  SELECTED WRITINGS AND INTERVIEWS, Edited by Sidney Gottlieb

1995 – University of California Press – 339 pages

There is certainly no dearth of written material on the the life and films of Alfred Hitchcock.  In the mid-1990’s, Professor Sidney Gottlieb had the bright idea of publishing a book by Alfred Hitchcock.  Gottlieb gathered together a collection of magazine articles, interviews, and speeches given by Hitchcock over the course of his career.  The end result is very rewarding, if occasionally uneven or repetitious.

In his introduction Sidney Gottlieb addresses the question of authorship.  These articles were all published under Hitchcock’s byline, but that does not mean he is responsible for writing every word.  It was very common in the days of the studio system for pieces to be written for the director and submitted to the press in order to generate publicity.   It is also a well-known fact that for several years in the late 50’s through mid-60’s James Allerdice wrote almost all of Hitchcock’s speeches for him.  The end result is that some of these pieces might not have been penned by Alfred Hitchcock, although he would certainly have endorsed them.

Sidney Gottlieb curates the pieces by subject, with sections on actors, film production, technique, etc.   The pieces are chronological within each individual section, with short introductions to each section penned by Gottlieb.   It is certainly possible to find a distinct Hitchcock voice running through most of these pieces.   In a piece written while he was still a young director working in Britain in the 1930’s he talks about his desire to obtain major stars for his leading roles.  He describes movie stars as “the jam around the pill” which will help the audience swallow his plot.

One can also see how he tailors his voice to his audience.  At one end of the spectrum are one-off pieces written  for British film magazines, injected with his typical wry humor.   But we also get pieces like a 1966 interview for American Cinematographer magazine, in which Hitchcock delves into very specific technical detail about the lighting and design of Torn Curtain.

One minor drawback to this material is that it is front-loaded.  There are far more pieces from the 1930’s than there are from the 50’s and 60’s.  There is also some repetition, as he narrates various versions of the same stories or ideas.  One recurring theme which he mentions in three different articles written in the 30’s is the desire for an all-powerful producer-director, who would have total control of a film.  He actually cites David O. Selznick as an example of an ideal candidate for such a person.  Rather ironic, considering that Selznick’s very control would be giving Hitchcock major headaches in a few short years.

Sidney Gottlieb went to great length to find and assemble this collection, and while it may be a bit much for the casual fan, for any scholar of Hitchcock this is an essential work, and comes highly recommended.

 

 

The Dark Side of Genius: The Life of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto

THE DARK SIDE OF GENIUS:  THE LIFE OF ALFRED HITCHCOCK by Donald Spoto

1983 – Ballantine Books – 665 pages

Coming just three years after Hitchcock’s death, Donald Spoto’s biography was at the time the heftiest tome (both in size and scope) to focus on the life and career of Alfred Hitchcock.

John Russell Taylor’s 1978 book was the only authorized biography of Hitchcock.   Donald Spoto did approach the Hitchcock family in 1980 asking for their blessing, but was told by daughter Patricia that the family would not actively cooperate with any authors after her father’s death.

That may be the best thing that could have happened to Spoto, for it freed him to explore some territory (the “dark side” of the title) that the family almost certainly would have objected to.

Donald Spoto met Alfred Hitchcock in 1975, during the making of Family Plot.  He had the opportunity to interview Hitchcock, as he prepared a book about Hitch’s films.  The seed for the ultimate Hitchcock biography was almost certainly planted at this time.

The one thing this book shares with the Taylor biography is a chronological narrative structure.    Spoto’s book doubles the earlier bio in length, and much of that extra detail is focused on the themes of Hitchcock’s films, and how they relate to his personal life.

Spoto is definitely a student of the auteur theory, believing that Hitchcock imbued his works with a personal, signature style.  As Spoto says in his preface:

…it became clear that Hitchcock’s films were indeed his notebooks and journals and that his almost maniacal secrecy was a deliberate means of defelecting attention away from what those films really are:  astonishingly personal documents.

While there is considerable merit in Spoto’s auteur theory analysis of Hitchcock’s films, there is a danger in reading too much of the personal into the films’ narratives.  This book reminded me at times of Stephen Greenblatt’s William Shakespeare biography Will in the World, which is at the forefront of the “new historicism” movement, an attempt to understand intellectual history through an interpretation of literary and artistic works.  Many of the connections here are speculative;  no matter how brilliant they may seem on paper, one can never know how much an artist is projecting his personal life upon his works, unless he expressly describes it.

Keeping that caveat in mind, this book is a delightful read, for a couple of reasons.  First of all, Spoto is a master wordsmith, who does not just compile chronological narrative in a dry style, but adds a distinctive personal touch that enriches his material.  To give just one example, here is Spoto talking about Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo:

In Bernard Herrmann’s musical score…the lost world of California’s Spanish past is everywhere evoked.  Memories and fragments of forgotten hopes float like lily pads in the score…The music and the sound effects are elusive and lonely, fragile and ghostly.

What a perfect description of Herrmann’s brilliant contribution to this film.  Spoto provided many details that had never been disclosed about Hitchcock’s movies.  Such as the fact the the painting Anthony Perkins’ character Norman Bates pulls from the wall in Psycho, in order to spy on Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane, is a painting of Susanna and the elders, a biblical story detailing men spying on a woman as she prepares to bathe.

Donald Spoto was also the first to expose the depth’s of Hitchcock’s obsession with his leading ladies, describing the times he crossed the line with Tippi Hedren.  Spoto also describes a Hitchcock who descended into alcoholism and depression in his later years.  While some found these episodes to be scandalous, they are an essential part of Hitchcock’s life and narrative.   Spoto is not muckraking;  clearly he has a fondness for his titular subject.

While I do not consider this the definitive documentary on Alfred Hitchcock, it is an important work, both well-written and enlightening.   It is a much deeper dive that the earlier authorized biography of Taylor, and therefore is highly recommended to fans of the master of suspense.

 

 

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK (1930): “What can God do against stupidity of men?”

JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK – 1930 – British International Pictures –  ★★1/2

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

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Edward Chapman (“Captain” Boyle), Sara Allgood (Mrs. “Juno” Boyle), John Laurie (Johnny Boyle), Kathleen O’Regan (Mary Boyle), Sidney Morgan (“Joxer” Daly), Maire O’Neill (Maisie Madigan). 

Screenplay by Alfred Hitchcock, based on the play by Sean O’Casey

Cinematography by Jack E. Cox

Edited by Emile de Ruelle

“Opening up” a stage play:  In the years and decades after making this film, Alfred Hitchcock would express some regret in not finding ways to make the film more cinematic.  The truth is that he imbued several scenes with his unique style, without at all sacrificing the tone or dialogue of the original stage play.

The entire three-act play was all set inside the apartment of the Boyle family.  Hitchcock convinced playwright Sean O’Casey that the film should begin outside the Boyle flat, then move into the flat after the opening scenes.  O’Casey was ultimately sold on Hitchcock’s idea, and wrote a new original scene for the film’s opening.  The movie opens with a very Hitchcockian shot.  The camera begins on an orator (played by Barry Fitzgerald) surrounded by a crowd.  The camera then pulls back and up, to reveal the alleyway where the men are gathered.

The dialogue and the visual combine to set the scene.  We are in Dublin, during “the troubles.”  The Civil War of the early 1920’s, when many in Ireland were clamoring for independence.   From here we cut to the interior of a bar.  We meet the patriarch of the Boyle family here, with his drinking companion Joxer.

Soon the two men head to Boyle’s tenement flat, where most of the movie will be set.  Here we meet the family.   Boyle does not work, and hasn’t for some time.  He is capable of working, but feigns a leg injury, spending his days drinking and pontificating.  His son (played hauntingly by John Laurie) lost an arm in the war, and is now a shell of himself, frightened of the very shadows.   Boyle’s wife Juno is the clear leader of the family, doing her best to hold them all together, although they are one step from being homeless.   The Boyle’s bicker back and forth, with an easy banter that leads one to believe they have gone on like this for years.

The Boyle’s daughter Mary comes home with a solicitor named Bentham.  Mary is clearly enamored of this man, and he brings good news from the family.  A distant relative of Mr. Boyle’s has died, leaving him an inheritance of 2,000 pounds.  When we next cut to the Boyle flat, things have changed mightily.  Although they have not yet received the bequeathed money, they have borrowed heavily against its eventual arrival, with new furniture, new clothes and extravagances like a phonograph.

The challenges of sound:   Although things are looking up for the Boyle family, we are soon reminded that the sorrows of war continue, and we receive a foreshadowing of events to come.  The son of an older lady who lives upstairs is murdered, and she goes off to the funeral.

Hitchcock wanted to do something very original and inventive with sound here.  One has to keep in mind that this is only Hitchcock’s second sound film.  He pushes in on son Johnny in a close up, while a multitude of sounds occur.  Hitchcock explained the structure of the scene to Peter Bogdanovich:

It was interesting the trouble one went to for sound at that time.  You see, you couldn’t add it later–it had to be done at the same time and balanced on the stage.  I remember one shot in this very tiny studio–a close-up of the son huddled beside the fire–and I wanted to dolly in.  The camera was encased in what looked like a telephone booth in those days, for reasons of soundproofing.  So I had this booth on a dolly.  The offstage sounds were the family talking in the room–they’d bought a phonograph and they were playing a tune called “If You’re Irish, Come into the Parlor.”  Suddenly they stopped because the funeral was going by and then there was a rattle of machine-gun fire.  All those sounds had to be recorded at the same time, so the studio was packed.  There was a small orchestra, and i had the prop man sing the song holding his nose so that you got a tinny effect as on an old phonography record.  There were the actors with their lines.  Then, on the other side, I had a choir of about twenty people for the funeral, and another man with the machine-gun effect.  We could barely move in that little studio for all those off-scene sound effects on just one close-up.

One would never know from watching this scene the incredible planning that went into pulling it off, but is demonstrates Hitchcock’s ability to innovate, to use the new sound medium to the fullest.  Johnny becomes very distraught, and is concerned that the light in front of his Virgin Mary icon does not go out.

A Hitchcock tragedy:  This movie may have the most purely tragic ending of all of Hitchcock’s films.  The final act involves three blows that strike the Boyle family render the family ties forever.  The first is the discovery that the inheritance is not to be.  The will was not filled out properly, and all of the things the family had borrowed on credit are repossessed.  We then learn that Mary is pregnant by Bentham, who has fled the scene and left her alone.  Despite Hitchcock’s insistence that he did not add cinematic touches to this film, there are several in the final act.  Mary meets her old beau Jerry, who is willing to forgive her dalliance and take her back.  Until he learns that she is pregnant;  at that point he sheepishly beats a retreat.  Hitchcock chose to shoot this scene in an uninterrupted close-up two shot, which heightens the emotion of the very touching scene.

The finally tragedy is the greatest to befall the family, as Johnny is taken by force from the flat by a couple of old associates, who believe he left a comrade to die.  Johnny himself is soon killed, and Hitchcock shows the moment in a very cinematic (and very Catholic) way;  as the votive candle in front of Johnny’s statue is extinguished, we know he is dead.

Finally Juno tells Mary that they will depart together;  she is finished with “Captain” Boyle and will leave him for good.  Whereas the play ends with a short scene of Boyle and Joxer, Hitchcock chose quite rightly to end on Juno.

Juno, left alone at the end, leaves the audience with a final, moving soliloquy.  First she goes to the statue of Mary on the hearth, asking “Where were you when my son was riddled with bullets?”  Finally she offers a prayer that hearts of stone may become hearts of flesh, and the movie ends with this elegy on her son’s passing, and the futility of conflict in general.

Performance:  Most of the actors in this film were from the Irish Players theatre company, and many had appeared in the play on stage.  So clearly they were familiar with the material.  However, this was made at the beginning of the sound era, so speaking on camera was a novelty for all involved.  The performances are all solid throughout.  It really has the feel of a “filmed play” with the exception of a couple of sequences, and is acted accordingly.  Special mention goes to Sara Allgood as Mrs. Boyle; she is the heart and soul of the picture, and she is unforgettable in her role.

Source material:  Hitchcock’s movie is based on the 1924 play by Sean O’Casey.  The play is almost identical to the movie.  Hitchcock changed almost nothing, probably because O’Casey got to approve any changes or alterations to his original dialogue.  Hitchcock did excise a very small exchange between Boyle and Joxer which ends the original play.  After Mrs. Boyle and Mary have left the home  for good, a very drunk Boyle and Joxer enter.  Boyle has the last word, lamenting the terrible state of affairs in the world.  Hitchcock chose to end on Mrs. Boyle’s final monologue, which I find more fitting.

Recurring players:  Edward Chapman would later appear in Murder! (as Ted Markham) and The Skin Game (as Dawker).   Sara Allgood had earlier appeared in Blackmail (Mrs. White.  John Laurie would later play the part of the crofter in The 39 Steps.  John Longden (Charles Bentham) had several other small supporting roles in Blackmail, The Skin Game, Young and Innocent and Jamaica Inn.  Fred Schwartz (Mr. Kelly) would later play an uncredited role of a tailor in Sabotage.  And Donald Calthrop (Needle Nugent) also played several other small roles in Blackmail, Murder! and Number Seventeen. 

Where’s Hitch?  There is no Hitchcock cameo in this film.   The Lodger is the only Hitchcock silent film with a known cameo.

What Hitch said:  Hitchcock was a bit more talkative about this film in later years than many of his other early “talkies” for British International Pictures.  He mentioned it in a 1968 article on Rear Window in Take One:  “I think that an audience will accept any ending as long as it’s reasonable.  Years ago I made a film of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock.  It has a tragic ending, a very grim ending, but there was no other way around it.”

When Peter Bogdanovich asked Hitchcock why he made this film, he replied

Because I liked the play very much.  I think the picture’s all right, though personally it wasn’t my meat.  But it was one of my favorite plays, so I thought I had to do it.  It was just a photograph of a stage play.  I wish I could have done something with it, but I truly believe that a theater piece is a theater piece–it’s designed and written with the proscenium arch in mind, and I think that opening it up becomes another thing.

And to Truffaut, Hitchcock said

The film got very good notices, but I was actually ashamed, because it had nothing to do with cinema.  The critics praised the picture, and I had the feeling I was dishonest, that I had stolen something.

Definitive edition:  I am hesitant to call any home version of this movie “definitive.”  It has been in the public domain for a long time, and there are several different DVD versions available.  The DVD I own was released by FilmRise in 2014.  It is bare bones, no extra features whatsoever, with a (barely) watchable print.  There is one section of the film where the print framing is a mess;  the tops of the actors’ heads are cut off.  The soundtrack is difficult to understand at times.  My fingers are crossed that this movie will get a nice release some day.

 

THE FARMER’S WIFE (1928): “There’s something magical in the married state.”

THE FARMER’S WIFE – 1928 – British International Pictures – ★★

B&W – 129 minutes – 1.33:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Jameson Thomas (Samuel Sweetland), Lilian Hall-Davis (Araminta Dench), Gordon Harker (Churdles Ash), Maud Gill (Thirza Tapper), Olga Slade (Mary Hearn), Louie Pounds (Widow Louisa Windeatt).

Screenplay by Eliot Stannard, based on the play by Eden Phillpotts.

Cinematography by Jack Cox

Edited by Alfred Booth

Just another assignment:  When Alfred Hitchcock first signed with British International Pictures, he was allowed to make a film of his own choosing, which was an original story called The Ring.  After this first success, he was primarily assigned projects by the studio.  Although several of his BIP films were forced on him, Hitchcock still found ways to make certain scenes his own.

This movie does not have too many of the signature Hitchcock touches in it.  He was assigned a play, and he shot it as such.   But of course, he still found a few scenes which he could imbue with his own signature style.

The story, much adapted from the original play, is very straightforward.  The film opens with the wedding of farmer Samuel Sweetland’s daughter.  Sweetland is a widower, and seeing his daughter married off makes him long for a return to married life.

So Sweetland (played very well by Jameson Thomas, in his only role for Hitchcock) makes a list of the women that he plans to court, for the purpose of proposing marriage.

As Sweetland makes his way down the list, one comic episode follows another as all of the women reject his advances.

The centerpiece of the film is a party at the home of Thirza Tapper.  This film has the most comic tone of all of Hitchcock’s silent films.  Gorden Harker is fantastic in the role of Churdles Ash, Sweetland’s handyman.  He is “loaned” to Ms. Tapper to be her doorman for her party, with comic results.

The tone of this section of the movie is very comic indeed.  Being a silent film, everything depends upon the visual.  And some of the visual gags are a bit over the top.

There is a bit of lovely location photography, rare in an early Hitchcock film.

The Hitchcock moment:  After being rejected by all of his intended wives-to-be, Sweetland returns home dejected.  Here is one of the only moments where Hitchcock was able to inject his unique style into the film.  And he did so through his favorite technique:  the subjective point of view.  Mr. Sweetland had earlier sat and gazed at an empty chair, the chair in which his now-dead wife used to sit.  He imagined all of his intended brides sitting there.  Now, his housekeeper sits in the same chair, and he realizes that she is the woman he has been seeking all along.  Even in a “by-the-numbers” movie like this, Hitchcock still found a way to imprint his own personal style on a handful of scenes in the film.

Tragedy strikes for this film’s stars:   Hitchcock co-wrote a five-part series that appeared in Film Weekly in 1936.  He had a few comments about The Farmer’s Wife.  After starting with some praise for Gordon Harker, he shares some tragedies that befell the co-stars.

He (Gordon Harker) is a brilliant character actor, and perhaps you’ll remember that I gave him the role of a Devon farmhand…He made a very good job of it.  This was in certain respects a tragic film, for tragedy came to two of the leading players in it.  

The star of the picture was Jameson Thomas.  He had, of course, been in numerous films before this, and he was undoubtedly one of England’s most popular players…He left England to take his wife to California.  She was very ill.  The Californian sunshine seemed to offer the only hopes of a cure…His wife died in spite of the sacrifice.

Thomas’s leading lady in The Farmer’s Wife was Lillian Hall-Davis.  She was an amazing girl.  On the set she suffered from acute self-consciousness.  She had an acute inferiority complex in regard to her ability to play certain parts, and I remember that she turned down an extremely good role because she wasn’t sure she could do it well enough.  Actually, she could have played it with ease.  Yet, in private life she was an altogether different person.  She possessed a terrific personality, and amazing vivacity.  It was with the deepest regret that, two or three years ago, I read of her death in tragic circumstances.

The “tragic circumstances” to which Hitchcock alludes was the suicide of Hall-Davis on October 25, 1933.  She was found with her head in her oven, and a knife in her hand.  An inquest determined that she had first slit her throat, then placed her head in the oven.  It was the wound to the throat that caused her demise.  The inquest ruled the death suicide while of unsound mind.

Lillian Hall-Davis and Jameson Thomas, who both suffered personal tragedies.

Performance:  I often find it difficult to judge performance in silent films.  The film medium was very different then.  What I can say is that Jameson Thomas is very commanding in the lead role.  He combines moments of tenderness with some lighter comic touches.  And Lillian Hall-Davis, who had played a more substantial leading role in The Ring,  is very believable in her smaller role here as Araminta.  The best role in the film however belongs to Gorden Harker in the role of Churdles Ash.  Harker was one of Hitchcock’s favorite actors from his silent period, and he steals every scene he is in, just as he did in The Ring.

Source material:  The film is is based on a stage play of the same name by Eden Phillpotts, which was first performed to some acclaim in 1916.  The play is very different in plotting from the filmed version.  Where Hitchcock chose to focus his film exclusively on the titular farmer, the play focuses on his daughters as well.  That’s daughters, plural.  In the movie Mr. Sweetland has one unnamed daughter who is married off at the very beginning.  In the play he has two daughters, Petronell and Sibley.  A man named George Smerdon proposes to Petronell.  She declines the offer, because she is in love with Richard Coaker.  Richard however, is in love with Sibley.  Sibley is blinded to this love, because she knows her elder sister has feelings for him.

All of these interwoven strands play out as the Farmer is going down his list of eligible women, just as in the film.  And the resolution is the same, only that there are three marriage proposals accepted at the play’s climax;  Sibley and Dick Coaker, and Petronell and George Smerdon will join their father and Araminta in matrimony.

I can imagine the play being entertaining on the stage, but it’s a bit difficult to read.  The amount of stage direction (particularly in Act II) is overwhelming.  Just to provide one example:

MISS TAPPER goes to SIBLEY, thanks her and goes to R. of MRS. TUDOR.  DR. RUNDLE joins SIBLEY R.C.  SOPHIE gets up and goes to ARAMINTA at table.  PETRONELL moves to sofa shakes hands with LOUISA and MRS. SMERDON and sits top end of sofa.  MARY moves down to RICHARD’S place on ottoman.  MARY tries to talk to GEORGE, but he only has eyes for PETRONELL.  RICHARD goes up to R.C. of window and talks to DR. RUNDLE, and SIBLEY, handing her her teacup from small table.  DUNNYBRIG gets up and stands R. of ottoman just above and facing the VICAR and HENRY.  MRS. RUNDLE rises and goes and stands L. of MRS. TUDOR on the verandah.  

Whew!  There are many such directions to be found.  I’m sure they pulled it off splendidly on the stage, but it’s a bit much to read.

Recurring players:  Lillian Hall-Davis had previously played the female lead in The Ring.  Gordon Harker, one of Hitchcock’s favorite actors from the silent period, also appeared in The Ring as Jack’s trainer, and in Champagne as the Father.

Where’s Hitch?  There is no Hitchcock cameo in The Farmer’s Wife.

What Hitch said:   Hitchcock had very little to say about this film over the years.  He told Truffaut “I don’t remember too much about The Farmer’s Wife, but I know that filming that play stimulated my wish to express myself in purely cinematic terms.”

Hitchcock did share one anecdote with Peter Bogdanovich:

…it was a routine job–merely a photograph of a stage play with lots of titles instead of dialogue.  One day on it, Cox, the photographer, went sick, so I lit the whole day’s work myself.  I said, “Right.  Let’s go.”  Someone said, “You’ve lit it, but you haven’t rehearsed it.”  “Oh, I forgot.”  So I’d rehearse it and light it, and I kept sending over pieces of film to the lab.  I was no idiot.  I didn’t think I could do it all that well, and I had the lab hand-test every shot before I’d print it.  It turned out all right.

In a November 16, 1927 article in the London Evening News, Hitchcock said “I had to film a little scene in “The Farmer’s Wife” six times the other day because the players took it too slowly to fit in with the mood of the picture.”  Unfortunately, he does not state which scene he is talking about.

Definitive edition:  I am reluctant to call any of the public domain versions currently available in the US definitive.  I currently own the Laserlight DVD, which features a decent print.  It has instances where the image goes very dark, particularly in the first ten minutes.  This makes it hard to see the image, and nearly impossible to read a title card.  Fortunately this clears up soon enough.  I have my fingers crossed that the restored BFI print will get a home video release at some point.  There are no extra features on this DVD.

 

TOPAZ (1969): “Now that I have given you this information, what are you going to do with it?”

TOPAZ – 1969 – Universal Pictures  – ★★1/2

Color – 143 minutes – 1.85:1 aspect ratio

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Principal cast:  Frederick Stafford (Andre Devereaux), Dany Robin (Nicole Devereaux), John Vernon (Rico Parra), Karin Dor (Juanita de Cordoba), John Forsythe (Michael Nordstrom), Michel Piccoli (Jacques Granville), Roscoe Lee Browne (Philippe Dubois), Philippe Noiret (Henri Jarre). 

Screenplay by Samuel Taylor from the novel by Leon Uris

Cinematography by  Jack Hildyard

Edited by William H. Ziegler

Original music by Maurice Jarre

A desperate choice:  Hitchcock began work on this film after the longest dry spell of his career,  his previous film coming in 1966.  Hitch had immediately begun work on another film (now referred to as Kaleidoscope), developing a screenplay and shooting some test footage.  However, the studio execs nixed this film as soon as Hitchcock pitched it to them.  After this rejection, he seemingly did nothing for about a year.  Finally, with no projects in sight, he went to the studio and asked if they owned any properties that might work for him.  And Universal suggested Topaz.  

This movie completes what I call the “frustrating Hitchcock” trilogy, following Marnie and Torn Curtain.  All three films mix scenes that showcase Hitchcock’s technical brilliance, with scenes that are utterly banal.   First off, let’s take a look at some of the elements of the film that did work.  Then we will take a look at some of the things that were lacking.

Defection, Hitchcock style:  The film opens with a classic Hitchcock sequence.  After the title sequence, Hitchcock opens on the Russian embassy in Copenhagen.  A single camera shot goes from eye level, to a bird’s eye view as we watch a family exit the embassy, then goes to eye level again.

This man is a Russian named Kusenov, who wishes to defect to the United States with his wife and daughter.  The opening sequence of the film details the Kusenov family’s attempt to defect as they are trailed by three KGB agents.  First they wander through a ceramics factory, then end up in a department store.  It is outside this store that they barely make their escape.

The American who aids in the defection and brings the Kusenov’s back to the US is Michael Nordstrom, played efficiently by John Forsythe.  Ultimately, a film that begins with Russians and Americans deals more with French and Cubans.  There is a spy in the French government who is in the employ of the Soviets.  Michael Nordstrom’s French counterpart Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) tries to ferret out who the spy is, as well as figure out what the Russians are up to in Cuba (the movie is set in the days prior to the Cuban missile crisis).

The Harlem sequence, a film-within-a-film:   Devereaux learns that one of a group of Cuban soldiers staying in New York may be willing to share information, so he goes to Harlem to one of his contacts (played to perfection by Roscoe Lee Browne).  This Harlem sequence is far and away the best section of the movie.  It is full of vibrancy and life, and equals Hitchcock’s many other trademark sequences.   Here are Hitchcock’s comments on the sequence:

The best sequence in Topaz was the one outside the Hotel Teresa in Harlem, with Roscoe Lee Browne.  There, you see, was a genuine use of the long-focus lens.  Because, strangely enough, in real life, if you stand across a very wide street, you are able to single out two individuals and watch them and exclude everyone else.  But if you were to do that on film, the eyes of the audience would never go where you wanted them to go.  So I used a long-focus lens to single out the two principals to the exclusion of all else.

The sequence begins with Devereaux meeting Dubois in his Harlem flower shop.  They go inside a refrigerated room to speak, but the camera stays outside.  Here is a technique Hitchcock used many times.  We don’t need to hear the conversation because we already know what Devereaux is asking Dubois; to obtain infomation from a Cuban named Luis Uribe.

Later, the two men go to the Harlem Hotel where the Cuban delegation is staying.  Devereaux stays across the street, and the camera stays with him.  This is the telephoto lens Hitchcock was speaking about in the quotation above.  Again, for several moments, we do not hear Browne’s dialogue.  The audience along with Devereaux, is watching a silent movie.  First Dubois enters the lobby and asks the clerk to call Uribe, who comes down on the elevator.  We watch Dubois make a proposition, which Uribe refuses.

Finally Dubois convinces Uribe to come outside, where he sweetens the pot, offering cash.  This time, Uribe accepts, and the men go inside.  Now the point of view shifts from Devereaux, as we join Dubois and Uribe in the hotel.

The documents that Dubois wishes to see are in a briefcase in the room of a Cuban revolutionary named Rico Parra (John Vernon).  First Dubois and Uribe discuss the matter in Uribe’s bathroom.  Here Hitchcock cuts to a high camera angle, an angle he used at least once in almost every film, usually to heighten the tension.

It is agreed that Dubois will talk to (and distract) Rico Parra while Uribe grabs the briefcase.  They succeed in their plan, but soon Parra notices the briefcase is missing.   Dubois makes a daring escape jumping out the window onto the awning below, and running down the street.

After this fantastic sequence, the movie begins to slow down considerably in pacing, with the next section taking place in Cuba, and an even slower (and duller) section in Paris.

A bleeding dress and a Pieta:   Devereaux ends up in Cuba, where he makes contact with another spy, who he is also having an affair with.  The affair was a large part of the book, and it features prominently in the film as well.  The woman is named Juanita de Cordoba (Karin Dor) and Rico Parra loves her just as much as Devereaux does.  Juanita’s network of spies get photos of the Russian missiles in Cuba, and Devereaux escapes with them, but things don’t go so well for Juanita and her spies.  In the film’s most famous image, Juanita meets her end at Parra’s hand, and as she falls to the floor, her dress spreads out around her, simulating a pool of blood.

And the spying couple that captured the photos meet a tragic end, after being tortured by Parra’s men.  Here, Hitchcock returns to an image he used several times, that of the Pieta.   This is his most deliberate, and most touching reference to the dead Christ in Mary’s lap.

Hildyard and Jarre:  Two men who were most closely associated with director David Lean worked on Topaz, and their solid contributions often go unmentioned.  Cinematographer Jack Hildard was a master of color cinematography, who had won the Academy Award for David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.  His interior lighting on this film is splendid, with several memorable images.

Where Hildyard really shone, however, was on exterior shots.  What might have been “throwaway” transitional shots for other DP’s became magical for Hildyard.

And Maurice Jarre composed the musical score for this film.  Jarre had won two Academy Awards scoring movies for David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.  His score on this film is very engaging, sometimes even more so than the visuals.  The score was one of the few things about this film that Hitchcock was happy about, and he hoped to work with Jarre again.  Unfortunately that never happened.

Topaz, for all its flaws, does have arguably the best post-Bob Burks cinematography, and the best post-Bernard Herrmann musical score of any of Hitchcock’s final four films.

Languorous pacing:  The final hour of this film is marred by slow pacing.  Devereaux’s attempt to uncover the French spy simply drags on.  There are a couple of good moments, but overall this stretch is overlong and unrewarding.  Philippe Noiret was an interesting choice to play one of the French spies, but most of the other Frenchmen are forgettable.

Alternate endings:  Hitchcock shot an ending which involved Devereaux and the Russian mole engaging in a duel  (yes, a duel!) but this ending was rejected after test audiences hated it.  Here is Hitchcock talking about the sequence:

     The company took that out – they didn’t like that.  Put in an ending with Piccoli committing suicide.  It was a compromise.  I actually saw pictures of a duel in a very early edition of Paris-Match, I think, in which two men did meet in a football stadium.  I thought that was a rather fascinating setting, instead of the usual dawn-in-the-woods with the low fog and the black-coated men with their top hats.  That’s the cliche, you know.  But to do a duel up against a sign which says “Dubonnet” or “Perrier Water” or whatever, I though was more amusing.  I suppose it was a bit of self-indulgence.

A second ending involved the Russian agent departing on a plane to Moscow, with a smug look on his face.

The final choice, mentioned above by Hitchcock, involved a suicide.  Unfortunately by this time the actors were all discharged.  So a piece of footage of a different actor entering the Russian mole’s door was used, followed by a freeze-frame and the sound of a gunshot to imply a suicide.  None of the endings work very well, but this is probably the worst of the lot.

Performance:  Most of the performances fall flat in this one.  Frederick Stafford is a solid and capable actor, but he comes across as very wooden in this film, as do most of his compatriots.  John Forsythe is solid in a supporting role, but he has little to do.  There are two standout performances in the film however, both in smaller supporting roles.  First of all,  Roscoe Lee Browne as Dubois, the French spy working as a Harlem florist, gives a spectacular performance.  And John Vernon, as Rico Parra, gives humanity to a role that was very thinly written.

Source material:  The film was based on the bestseller by Leon Uris.  Uris was best known for Exodus, which had been a phenomenal hit in the late 50’s.  This was a more modest success.  The film maintains much of the story from the novel.  One can imagine that a book involving both Cold Way spy intrigue and the Cuban missile crisis would have been popular in 1967;  now, it all feels very dated.  Uris struggles to balance the romantic interludes and arguments of infidelity with the moments of spy craft. The book suffers from the same problem as the film;  some sections are engaging while others lag.  Deveraux’s departure from Cuba is more fraught with danger in the novel, which creates great tension for the reader.  And Juanita’s demise is not nearly as poetic as the billowy dress of the film; she dies a bloody, violent death.

Recurring players:  John Forsythe had earlier starred in The Trouble With Harry.  Lewis Charles (Pablo Mendoza, the man who takes the photos with his wife, is captured and tortured) had a small uncredited role in To Catch A Thief (he is the man who pours the bowl of milk and offers it up to John Robie in the early kitchen restaurant scene).  Hal Taggart (ambassador) had earlier appeared briefly in Marnie (man at racetrack).

Where’s Hitch?  Hitchcock’s cameo comes at about the 34 minute mark.  In the airport scene, he is seen being pushed in a wheelchair by a nurse.  The wheelchair comes to a stop, and Hitchcock stands up, seemingly in fine health, and shakes the hand of a man approaching from the right.

What Hitch said:  Peter Bogdanovich asked Hitchcock how he felt about Topaz in a May, 1972 interview.  Hitchcock said “It was a film which had great drawbacks, I feel, because of the problem of foreigners speaking English.  For example, you had a Frenchman talking to a Cuban.  Now, there’s no truth there because you don’t know really what language they represent.”

When Bogdanovich asked if Hitchcock chose to do this film, he replied “No, it was owned by the company.  I was desperate for a subject and they asked me to do it, so we took it on.  It was done under pressure to a great extent…You can correctly say, Why did you do it?”

Definitive edition:  The Universal blu ray released in 2013 is the best version available.  This print is not fantastic;  a handful of Hitch’s later films could do with a clean-up.  That being said, Jack Hildyard’s cinematography looks great in several sequences.  The extra features include a half-hour documentary hosted by Leonard Maltin, which functions as a sort of apologist’s view of the film.  Also included are all three alternate endings, a storyboard comparison, production photographs, and the original theatrical trailer.