Hitchcock-a-thon: Strangers on a Train (1951)

Strangers

With the exception of Rope, the last five years hadn’t been kind to Hitchcock either financially or critically. But Hitch had a habit of popping out a big hit just as he reached a rut. Strangers on a Train was a box office smash and, though it received mixed reviews at the time, has since been remembered as one of his All Time Greats. Rightly so.

Renowned tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger) means a flamboyant young man, Bruno (Robert Walker), a on a train. Over a couple of drinks Bruno outlines a *cough* totally hypothetical scheme in which Guy murders Bruno’s hated father and in exchange Bruno murders Guy’s gold-digging wife (Kasey Rogers, credited as Laura Elliott). “Criss-cross.” The deaths would appear motiveless.

su1

Guy dismisses Bruno as a harmless loon, but it quickly becomes clear that his hypothetical scheme isn’t hypothetical at all…

After Hitchcock’s first attempt at a blackmail story, he’d learned that the suspense works best if the pressure from villain piles over time. The tension becomes so thick you could scoop it into ice-cream cones. It’s hard not to shiver at the sight of Bruno’s stationary head staring out from the middle of nodding tennis crowd or his ominous shadow as he stalks Guy’s wife through a fairground.

su1

 Hitchcock was famed for his eye for his obsessive perfectionism and Strangers on a Train is perhaps one of clearest example of this. He oversaw every detail from Bruno’s tacky lobster tie to the food he orders in the train restaurant. Combined with the pitch-perfect casting of Granger and Walker, Hitchcock believed these details saved “a reel of storytelling time” since they conveyed key character qualities that would otherwise need to be spelled out to the audience.

There’s a dapper, homoerotic subtext to Bruno that gives him a menacing charm. In a way, he represents Guy’s own darkest desires which he will not (or cannot) act upon. “I like a guy who does things,” schmoozes Bruno. So do we. But we also fear them.

su1

Much like Shadow of Doubt, Hitchcock packed Strangers on a Train full of visual references to this sense of good/evil duality. In the film’s opening moments we see two sets of feet, matching each other in movements, but they establish the contrast between the two men: one pair garish and the other sensible. From the off we know to expect contrast.

But, really, there’s far too many great moments to mention in a short blog post. Go and see it for yourselves. Or, if you’ve already seen it, watch it again. It only gets better with repeat screenings.

Advertisements

Hitchcock-a-thon: Rich and Strange (1931)

rich1

At least the title’s accurate. Rich and Strange is a weird, weird movie. A failure upon release, both critically and commercially, Rich and Strange can’t be called a “good” film, but it has a bizarre allure to it.

Meet the perpetually disgruntled Fred (Henry Kendall) and his mundane, suburban life. He and wife Emily (Joan Barry) unexpectedly inherit a large legacy and use it to escape their frustrations with a luxury cruise around the world.

shadow1

The first half of the film plays out like a Noël Coward comedy as both of them begin to simultaneously form adulterous romances aboard the ship. Emily is swept up by a seemingly gentlemanly Englishman (Percy Marmont), while Fred falls for an exotic “Princess” (Betty Amann) who he struggles to kiss through an inconveniently positioned veil.

shadow1

You gotta practice safe kissing

The second half of the movie is more serious as Fred and Emily have the nasty realisation that their romantic entanglements aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They end up penniless and trapped on a rickety old cargo-boat. Their difficult journey home becomes the focus of the film’s second half and results in an extremely disjointed tone.

There are a few highlights in the first half such as the opening slapstick sequence in the London rush hour, an amusing portrayal of sick-sickness and a disorientating montage of Paris where Fred and Emily’s heads flick wildly from left to right in a sight-seeing mania. Other than that, there’s not much fun to be had.

As for the more serious bits in second half, they’re often just WTF moments. There’s one scene where Fred and Emily watch in passive silence as a poor Chinese sailor drowns to death. After it’s over, it’s never mentioned again. Um…What? Where did this come from? What was the point of it?

shadow1

Just haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanging around

But the main problem is Fred and Emily aren’t interesting enough to hold up the movie in either half. This can’t be blamed on the actors (Joan Barry proved her acting capabilities with her vocals performance in Blackmail), it’s the script that gives them nothing to worth with. They’re bitter, unpleasant buffoons.

In many respects Rich and Strange is a mess. But it’s an atypical kind of mess that it kept my interest along the way.

Hitchcock-a-thon: Murder! (1930)

mur1

Blackmail was a peculiar mixture of silent montages and long talking scenes. Juno and the Paycock was not much more than a filmed stage play. In his third talkie, Murder!, we see Hitchcock begin to master editing in the talkie age. Flowing dialogue overlaps his short, speedy cuts and there’s a well-implemented early example of a voiceover. It’s a shame Hitchcock’s lively editing struggles against a flat and uninventive script.

Acclaimed stage actor Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall) sits on a jury for a murder case. The lead suspect is a fellow thespian, a young actresses called Diana (Norah Baring) who was found in a daze by the bludgeoned corpse of a colleague. Although Sir John initially believes she’s innocent, he’s peer-pressured into a “guilty” verdict by his fellow jurors. Soon afterwards, he starts having second thoughts and sets out on an investigation of his own with the help of the stage manager Ted Markham (Edward Chapman). Who killed Edna Druce? Can Sir John save an innocent woman from the gallows? And what the hell does Hamlet have to do with anything?

mur2

Just haaaanging around

The script, adapted from the whodunnit Enter Sir John by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson, tries to address some heavy subject matter such as the fallibility of the legal system and questioning the line between acting and reality. Where it stumbles is in its clunky execution. The story moves along at a snail’s pace (despite Hitchcock’s slick camerawork) and there are some absurdly theatrical moments. In the scene where Sir John is bullied into changing his verdict by the rest of jury every objection he raises is drowned out by a repeated chorus chant: “Any answer to that Sir John?” It’s rather silly.

mur4

They also stand behind him when he pees

As mystery it doesn’t really work either. A key plot-point is based around a racial issue that doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s not an offensive portrayal, but it sure is baffling.

That’s not to say the film is without its merits. Herbert Marshall is a sound lead; Hitchcock shows off some decent camerawork; and the intense final climax at a circus ends on such a dark note it freaks the shit out of a clown. But even down to its title, Murder! is almost the dictionary definition of an average Hitchcock.

mur3

Though I do always like it when clowns are scared

Hitchcock-a-thon: Blackmail (1929)

bmail1

“See and hear it – our Mother Tongue as it should be…Spoken!”

So declared the posters for Blackmail, the first ever British talkie. However, it began life as a silent film. Half-way through production the studio asked Hitchcock to re-shoot key scenes to include sound. The finished product is a landmark collision of the silent and talkie eras.

Hitchcock included many scenes with fast edits and atmospheric montages to accommodate for silent screenings, while other scenes are designed to show off the capabilities of recorded sound. Cars honk, glass shatters, pianos are played, characters whistle and there’s even some singing.  It’s like the early RealD 3D movies of mid 2000s that took every opportunity throw something towards the screen. If you were a moviegoer in 1929 this was fucking awesome.

Mail1

But not as awesome as this shot

Straight off the back of The Manxman, Czech actress Anny Ondra stars as Alice, the bubbly girlfriend of police detective Frank (John Longden). She ditches him at a restaurant to secretly liaise with a suave artist (Cyril Ritchard). Things take a horrific turn as he tries to force himself on her and, in the heat of the moment, she stabs him to death.

Her boyfriend, refreshingly unjudgemental of Alice’s previously flirtatious relationship with the artist, now protects her from a cigar-puffing ex-convict (Donald Calthrop) who suspects her of murder and wants to exploit it to his advantage.

Mail3

The knife gives it away

Although Ondra is the only actress officially credited, the character of Alice was actually voiced by Joan Barry who dubbed in all of the lines live on set, since Hitchcock feared audiences would find Ondra’s accent difficult to understand and sound technology was still too primitive for non-diegetic editing. This leads to a few disjointed moments, but in general both actresses do a superb job.

Their collective talents are most impressive during the attempted rape scene. Alice’s terror is frighteningly well expressed, both through the visuals and audio, as he grasps her repeating “Don’t be silly, don’t be silly.” Once her attacker lies dead she becomes quiet, slow and quivering – devastated by what she did and what was nearly done to her. It’s intense and deeply unsettling.

Mail2

I never liked clowns

The film drags for the last half hour as the blackmailer tries to have his wicked way. Hitchcock would later realise with Strangers on a Train that a this kind of story works best if the threat builds over a long time. Blackmail takes place over only 24 hours. Regardless, it’s one of Hitchcock more morally complex films with enough intensity to it to forgive the clumsier moments.

Hitchcock-a-thon: The Manxman (1929)

manx1

Another silent Hitchcock, another love triangle. Once again starring Carl Brisson. Hitchcock later dismissed it as “a very banal picture.” I’m not going to call him wrong about his own movie but…he’s wrong. In my opinion, it’s actually one of his strongest films from the silent era.

Set in a small village on the Isle of Man, Kate (Anny Ondra) promises her love to a chipper fisherman called Pete (Brisson) shortly before he leaves for Africa to make his fortune. While he’s gone he asks his best friend Philip (Malcolm Keen) to take care of her. But a forbidden love starts to blossom and when Pete returns to ask Kate for her hand in marriage, it’s only a matter of time before it all blows up in their faces.

manx3

Until then, she has something else in her face

In many ways, The Manxman feels like a cross between two Hitchcock films: the love triangle story from The Ring mixed with the theme of regretting promises from The Pleasure Garden. But The Manxman is better than both of them.

While, in terms of cinematography, The Ring is still Hitchcock’s greatest ’20s achievement – the characters and story are stronger here. In The Ring the audience were clearly intended to sympathise with ‘One-Round’ Jack; Bob Corby was his obstacle to overcome and Mabel was his prize to be won.

But the lead characters in The Manxman are more nuanced than that. All three of them are likeable and we don’t want anyone to come away hurt, even though it’s almost unavoidable. Ondra is enthralling as Kate, making it impossible not to side with her on any decision she makes. Keen gives an entirely convincing portrayal of a man falling in love despite himself and poor old Pete is so naïve and trusting that he can’t see what’s happening right under his nose.

manx2

Like…RIGHT under his damn nose

The film ends on a beautifully melancholic note and it’s hard to know exactly how we’re meant to feel. As well as these gripping character dynamics we’re also treated to some gorgeous craggy scenery and some niffy love-triangle imagery. My personal favourite is the opening shot of the three-legged Isle of Man flag, setting the location but also introducing the thematic symbolism.

The Manxman is an emotionally engaging film. Compelling, suspenseful and a fitting swansong for Hitchcock’s silent classics.

manx4

Farewell