Saturday, May 17, 2014

Jamaica Inn

Year 6, Day 137 - 5/17/14 - Movie #1,735

BEFORE: Another huge day for rain yesterday, which meant another week of canceling getting the roof fixed.  That's two weeks we've had the roofer on hold, and it also means we'll be spending Memorial Day weekend at home listening to hammering, or whatever noises he'll need to make to fix things up there.  Instead we had Roto-Rooter come out today and snake the main sewer line, which turned out to be great timing, since we had a bit of water in the basement from the sudden storm.  If rain comes down too fast it fills the stairwell in the backyard, and it can't drain quickly enough, so under the door it comes.  So snaking the line came just one day too late - it's all part of the fun of being a homeowner. 

Linking's a cinch again tonight, because it's the third film in a row for Basil Radford.

THE PLOT:  In Cornwall, around 1800, a young woman discovers that she's living near a gang of criminals who arrange shipwrecks for profit.

AFTER: I thought Hitchcock was on something of a roll, with 4 or 5  relatively modern (for the time, obviously) films about spies, espionage, and intrigue right in a row.  Then to turn around and direct a costumed period piece?  It seems like a strange left turn in his filmography.  But it is about crime in a larger sense, a gang of renegades who cover up lighthouse-like beacons on stormy nights, and then after ships crash on the rocks, they kill any survivors and keep the cargo.

I had trouble staying awake for this one, I was out cold after the first 20 minutes.  But then after going to sleep for real, I tackled the last hour of the film again this afternoon.  Sure, I could have just read the plot summary on Wikipedia, but I made a pledge to try and finish each film whenever possible, even if it's boring or distasteful in some way.  I'm glad I persevered, because this one got real intricate about halfway through.

It comes down to that Hitchcockian way of letting the audience know certain details, but keeping this valuable information from some of his characters.  In this case Mary arrives in Cornwall to stay with her aunt and uncle, not knowing that they're involved in this cargo ship scheme.  When she finds out they're not very nice people, she seeks solace with the local magistrate (who she happened to encounter on the way into town), not knowing that he's also the criminal mastermind behind the whole thing.  According to the IMDB, this fact was revealed in the film much earlier than Hitchcock would have liked, in order to give Charles Laughton more screen time - but I think it went a long way toward establishing more dramatic tension.

The gang suspects Trehearne, one of their members, of skimming off the top, and try to hang him - but Mary takes pity on him and sets him free.  They run off together like so many Hitchcock couples do, which indicates that they're meant for each other down the road.  But then we learn that he may not be who he claims to be, either. 

Oddly enough, this called to mind more modern crime films, such as "The Departed".  Two characters who are essentially opposite sides of the same coin - one a member of law enforcement who's really a criminal, and the other an assumed criminal who might be an undercover officer.  What's going to happen when they have to work together (or at least pretend to) to take down the gang? 

This film also marked the end of Hitchcock's "British" films, after this he signed a contract with David O. Selznick and began making films in Hollywood.
Also starring Charles Laughton (last seen in "Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd"), Maureen O'Hara, Robert Newton (last seen in "Around the World in 80 Days"), Leslie Banks (last seen in "The Man Who Knew Too Much"), Marie Ney, with cameos from John Longden (last seen in "The Girl Was Young"), Clare Greet (last seen in "Sabotage")

RATING: 3 out of 10 rowboats

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Lady Vanishes

Year 6, Day 136 - 5/16/14 - Movie #1,734

BEFORE: Hey, great news, I'm finally getting to some Alfred Hitchcock films that I've heard about!  Linking from "The Girl Was Young", two actors carry over, Basil Radford and Mary Clare.  As does Hitchcock himself, who makes a cameo in a railway station in this one.

THE PLOT:  While traveling in continental Europe, a rich young playgirl realizes that an elderly lady seems to have disappeared from the train.

AFTER: There's a comparatively long set-up on this one, unlike "Murder!", where the murder happened quite early in the film, and the same goes for "Sabotage".  This must have driven audiences crazy back in the day, wondering when the lady in question was indeed going to vanish.  But the set-up serves an important purpose, introducing us to all of the various characters who are staying at a crowded European hotel while waiting for the train tracks to be cleared after an avalanche.

Their lives are so mundane, so normal - the bickering couple, the two men obsessed with cricket (who don't seem to mind the fact that they have to share a bed...hmmm...) - but this also serves a purpose once the aforementioned vanishing takes place.  Surely there must be some kind of conspiracy taking place, but if that's the case, which of these terribly normal people are in on it, and therefore not really who they claim to be? 

Adding to the confusion is the fact that our lead actress gets a box dropped on her head, just before boarding the train, which causes double-vision and some blurriness as well.  Is it possible that the knock on the head caused her to imagine her conversation with the old lady?  Or are we looking at some sort of Tyler Durden-type situation, where she was never real to begin with? 

From everything I can tell, this was Hitchcock's first real attempt at shocking the audience - presenting a situation to the audience that is seemingly impossible, which just CAN'T be true.  Up until this point, his films have focused on simple murders, blackmail, false accusations - all very real, possible situations.  Even a package that's secretly a bomb, that's a situation that's all too real. 

It's alleged that Hitchcock based this plot on a real-life situation, in which a woman was sick at a Paris hotel during the Great Exposition in the 1880's.  She sent her daughter across town to fetch some medicine, a trip which took several hours, and then died during the interim.  The woman had been ill with bubonic plague, and the hotel employees did not want to cause a panic, which would have ruined their business and even potentially emptied the whole city - so when the daughter returned, the entire staff pretended to have never seen the woman, and even redecorated the room to make the daughter's story appear to be nonsensical.

All that aside, Hitchcock had some nerve, looking 70 years into the future, accurately predicting and then stealing the plot of the 2005 Jodie Foster film "Flightplan".  I'm not quite sure how he did that, but perhaps he was just that good.

It's still a long way to go for a little pay-off, if you ask me, but at least it's all well executed.

Also starring Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave (last seen in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips"), Paul Lukas, Dame May Whitty, Cecil Parker (last seen in "The Ladykillers"), Naunton Wayne, Linden Travers.

RATING:  6 out of 10 white doves

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Girl Was Young

Year 6, Day 135 - 5/15/14 - Movie #1,733

BEFORE:  Another Hitchcock film with multiple names - in the U.S. it was released as "The Girl Was Young", but in the U.K. it was titled "Young and Innocent".  Why couldn't they just pick one name and stick with it?  Anyway, I'm about 1/3 of the way through the Hitchcock chain, and we're somehow halfway through May.  I've got to stick to the schedule, because in a couple weeks I'm going to start taking some weekend trips and losing viewing days.

Linking from "Sabotage", Jack Vyvian, who played a detective in that film, also played a policeman in "The Man Who Knew Too Much", with Nova Pilbeam, who re-appears tonight.

THE PLOT: Man on the run from a murder charge enlists a beautiful stranger who must put herself at risk for his cause.

AFTER: It feels like a little backslide in quality tonight, because there's no connection to international espionage, just a man wrongly accused.  And if it feels like I've seen this before, it's only because Hitchcock was starting to repeat himself.  How is this not just a rehash of "The 39 Steps", minus the spy angle? 

The film starts with a couple of major contrivances - namely that when a woman is strangled and/or drowned, and her body washes up on the beach, the first person to find her is Robert, her younger boyfriend, and after running to get help, he is instead accused of fleeing the scene.  I suppose you could make the argument that she wanted to keep her secret lover near her, but he later states that he was living in a flophouse, so couldn't she have arranged for him to stay in a nearby inn or something? 

Then it's revealed that she left money to him in her will - another major coincidence, one that happens to give the police a motive, so they charge him with her murder.  Since he knows (as does the audience) that he's innocent, and his lawyer appears to be railroading him to prison, every act he then commits to get free, however extreme, is therefore justified.  Sort of like Harrison Ford in "The Fugitive". 

Meanwhile, the woman's husband (??) has disappeared after the murder, but the police don't seem to have any desire to follow up on this particular angle.  So it's up to Robert, with some help from the police chief's daughter, to prove his own innocence.  This means that he's got to get back to the flophouse to find his old raincoat, since the belt was used to strangle the victim.

In the climactic scene, there is a band performing in a hotel ballroom, and they're all men in blackface make-up.  As detestable as it seems today, I can sort of justify a singer like Al Jolson wearing this make-up in the 1920's, since he was performing in the style of Southern Negro music - but I just can't understand why a jazz band would appear this way.

Also starring Derrick De Marney, Percy Marmont (last seen in "Secret Agent"), Edward Rigby, George Curzon (also last seen in "The Man Who Knew Too Much"), Basil Radford, Mary Clare, John Longden (last seen in "The Skin Game").

RATING: 4 out of 10 party games

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


Year 6, Day 134 - 5/14/14 - Movie #1,732

BEFORE: Let me see if I've got this straight: Hitchcock made a film based on a novel titled "Ashenden", written by Somerset Maugham, and he re-titled it "Secret Agent".  For his next film, he adapted a Joseph Conrad novel titled "The Secret Agent", which he titled "Sabotage".  Is that clear?  (And then he later made another film called "Saboteur", which I'll watch next week.) Seems to me there should have been a better way to handle such things - unless, of course, he planned to make the Conrad adaptation first, then lost the rights, but then gained them back after committing the title to the other film.

Then, as if that weren't confusing enough, this film was also released in the U.S. as "The Woman Alone" and later as a re-issue under the title "I Married a Murderer".  Jeesh!

Linking from "Secret Agent", Peter Lorre was also in the 1944 film "Passage to Marseille" with John Loder.

THE PLOT:  A Scotland Yard undercover detective is on the trail of a saboteur who is part of a plot to set off a bomb in London. But when the detective's cover is blown, the plot begins to unravel.

AFTER: Long before it was a Beastie Boys song, sabotage was an act of destruction or interference designed to weaken a company or corporation.  Some believe that the word derives from the name of a wooden shoe, a sabot, which could be thrown by workers into a machine at a factory in order to gum up the works, especially if the workers feared that the machines would render them obsolete.  At some point the word was synonymous with what we now call terrorism.

Although it's not stated, this seems to take place in pre-WWII London, so the unnamed enemy would seem to be Nazis.  But since this is not stated either, the film ends up with more of a timeless quality.  A similar story could take place in NYC, or any city, today. 

But what I'm most interested in is Hitchcock's growth as a storyteller.  Did the pieces come together a little better with each film that he made?  More or less, that seems to be the case.  I don't know if he peaked at some point, like Woody Allen did with "Hannah and Her Sisters", and then took a long slow decline into barely relevant films, but that's what I aim to find out.

Yesterday's film starred Robert Young, and I made reference to the latter part of his career, appearing in decaf coffee commercials - well, tonight's film stars Oscar Homolka, who I only know as a punchline to jokes from "The Tonight Show."  Johnny Carson would play a smarmy TV host, speaking to the audience during a commercial break during the (fake) broadcast of "Tea Time Movies", and he'd say something like, "And now, back to tonight's film, which stars Doris Day, Alice Faye, Turhan Bey, Michael O'Shea, Aldo Ray and Oscar Ho-MUL-ka in "Felix the Cat Gets a Tapeworm"". 

A very notable scene here, where the audience knows that there is a bomb, and what time the bomb is scheduled to explode.  But the character carrying the bomb, though aware of the deadline for delivery, is not aware of the resulting circumstances should he fail - in fact, he is unaware that he is even carrying a bomb at all.  This is the first true "Hitchcock suspense" moment that I've encountered so far.  I remember Hitchcock discussing suspense in general terms, like the audience knowing something that some or all of the characters are unaware of, and thus tension is created while we wonder if they're going to figure it out or not.

Strangely, Hitchcock appears to have apologized for the sequence in question, apparently regretting his decision to create tension in this film in this way.  I'm not quite sure why he felt the need to apologize - I honestly don't see any other way this sequence could have played out.  Was he apologizing for the manipulation of tension, or the fact that the tension did not get defused (pardon the pun) in the proper way?  It's kind of maddening.

After the events portrayed in "Number 17", "Secret Agent" and now this one, let's have a moment of silence for all of the model trains, boats and buses that so dramatically gave up their lives in service to their country.  Never forget their sacrifices...

Also starring Sylvia Sidney (last seen in "Damien: Omen II"), Oscar Homolka (last seen in "The Seven Year Itch"), Desmond Tester, William Dewhurst, Matthew Boulton.

RATING: 5 out of 10 canaries

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Secret Agent

Year 6, Day 133 - 5/13/14 - Movie #1,731

BEFORE:  Hmm, Hitchcock does not make a cameo appearance in this film, so I have to do this the hard way.  Fortunately, Madeleine Carroll carries over from "The 39 Steps". 

THE PLOT: Three British agents are assigned to assassinate a mysterious German spy during World War I, but two of them become ambivalent when their duty to the mission conflicts with their consciences.

AFTER: It's the third spy caper in a row, and it feels like Hitchcock was hitting his stride with this topic.  This film was released in 1936, but set during World War I - this is interesting because war in Europe was on the horizon again, so the topic possibly felt quite timely.  In much the same way, the movie "M*A*S*H" was set during the Korean War, but many took it as an allegory for war in Vietnam, which was taking place when it was released in 1970. 

This really could have been titled "Secret Agents" instead of having a singular title.  I guess the focus is on tonight's everyman hero, drafted into the spy service after they fake his death (umm, I think?).  I'm assuming this was Hitchcock's way of making spies accessible to the audience (he's the spy who could be you!) and once again, he's not above making mistakes.  Not in a bumbling way, like Johnny English, but in a human way, working in a business that seems to be not an exact science.  Hey, sometimes you kill the wrong guy, it happens...

It's a little strange to see John Gielgud as a young man - to my generation he was the old butler in "Arthur" - and same goes for Robert Young, who to my generation was an old man in Sanka commercials who would appear on scene and say things like, "Jim, why so tense?  Have you tried switching to decaf?"  Sometimes we forget that even older actors were young and virile once.  Yes, folks older than me probably remember him more for being in "Father Knows Best" and "Marcus Welby, M.D.", but for me, it's Sanka ads.

There's a lot in this film that seems to prophesy the James Bond films - the exotic Swiss setting, time spent playing roulette in the casino, a love triangle with opposing agents, and a weird teammate - strange to see Peter Lorre cast as something other than a villain.  His character is more than a little unhinged here, but at least he's on our side.  Umm, I think.

Also starring John Gielgud (last seen in "Around the World in 80 Days"), Peter Lorre (last seen in "The Man Who Knew Too Much"), Robert Young, Percy Marmont (last seen in "East of Shanghai"), Florence Kahn.

RATING:  5 out of 10 casino chips

Monday, May 12, 2014

The 39 Steps

Year 6, Day 132 - 5/12/14 - Movie #1,730

BEFORE: At last, we're getting into some Hitchcock films that I've at least HEARD of.  It was really touch-and-go for a while there with those silent films, I tell you.  Linking from "The Man Who Knew Too Much", Charles Paton, Hitchcock's stock shopkeeper actor, was also in "The Young Mr. Pitt" with Robert Donat.  After this, I don't really have to worry about linking for a while, because Hitchcock made a cameo in most of the rest of his films, usually playing a bus passenger or a man walking dogs or something.

THE PLOT: A man in London tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and the man stands accused, he must go on the run to save himself and also stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information.

AFTER: Still more improvement in the artistry here - this is another film about espionage, slightly more elegantly put together than last night's film.  However, it's still quite vague on some of the details.  We know there's some information stolen, we're told that it's some kind of important national secret, but darned if we're given the privilege of knowing exactly what it entails.  I guess we don't need to know, in a way it's more intriguing if we don't, we can imagine it to be whatever we want.  It's sort of like the contents of the briefcase in "Pulp Fiction".

What is important is that our hero is a regular guy who falls in with an agent, and is framed for her murder.  So he goes on the run, and he heads for the next place that she said he was headed to - but he doesn't exactly know what to do, or who to look for when he gets there.  So, (and I think this is key) he makes mistakes.  It makes sense - any regular person thrust into a situation he doesn't understand is bound to make a slip-up or two. 

That all went a long way towards making this one feel more realistic.  Then there's a part in the middle where he's forced to go on the run again, but this time handcuffed to a woman.  (In a rather large contrivance, he happened to meet her earlier in the film while on a train...)  This middle part was quite reminiscent of "It Happened One Night", a very popular film released just one year prior, so I can't imagine that's a coincidence.  Yes, the "two people forced to work together to survive" premise is a common one, but I see a lot of that Gable/Colbert relationship reflected here.

Another contrivance is the Memory Man, the man who's taken in all of the sports and geography and political facts, and is able to regurgitate them on command.  He was sort of the Ken Jennings of the 1930's, I suppose.  But his presence is still a little odd - does he absolutely HAVE to tell the truth about every question he is asked?  If he were to tell a fib in response to a question that very few people knew the answer to, who would know?  I'm also betting that Hitchcock regretting using the title of "The Man Who Knew Too Much" on that last film, because it seems to apply better here...

Also starring Madeleine Carroll, Godfrey Tearle, John Laurie (last seen in "The Shame of Mary Boyle"), Peggy Ashcroft (last seen in "A Passage to India"), Lucie Mannheim, Frank Cellier, Wylie Watson.

RATING: 5 out of 10 sheep

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

Year 6, Day 131 - 5/11/14 - Movie #1,729

BEFORE:  Well, this is a Mother's Day film if I SAY it's a Mother's Day film.  A girl is kidnapped, and her mother wants her back, of course.  Seems about right.

Linking from "Number 17", Barry Jones was also in the 1950 film "Madeleine" with Leslie Banks.  Other linkings are possible, but that one's the most prominent.

THE PLOT:  A man and his wife receive a clue to an imminent assassination attempt, only to learn that their daughter has been kidnapped to keep them quiet.

AFTER:  This feels like another leap forward in plot and technique for Hitchcock, but the storyline still has some massive holes in it.  Finally I'm getting into some international intrigue, so I'm thinking that my interest in Hitchcock's career is going to start paying off.

I would say that there appear to be too many coincidences - people at the end who just HAPPENED to be seen at the beginning of the film?  I find that most unlikely - it's a big world, after all. But then I have to just shrug my shoulders and say, "Well, that was the plan, as unlikely as it seems."

The father does pretty well facing off against international spies, with no training whatsoever.  I think if I set out to track down some spies myself, I wouldn't know where to begin.  This is sort of similar to what was seen in "Blackmail", where a regular-guy juror sets out to investigate a crime, and do a better job of solving it than the police did.

NITPICK POINT: I have a feeling that trap-shooting and long-range sniper shooting are two very different things, but I'm no gun expert.  However, if I were making a film about such things, I'd probably look into it to be sure.

Also starring Edna Best, Peter Lorre (last seen in "The Raven"), Frank Vosper, Hugh Wakefield, Pierre Fresnay, with a cameo from Hitchcock himself.

RATING: 5 out of 10 broken chairs