Saturday, May 31, 2014

Strangers on a Train

Year 6, Day 151 - 5/31/14 - Movie #1,750

BEFORE: I've reached the mid-point of Movie Year 6, just in time for the last day of May, and for one of Hitchcock's most iconic films, I think.  It's a little embarrassing to admit that I've seen "Throw Momma From the Train", but not the film that it riffed off of, at least not all the way through.  Alfie carries over from his cameo in "Stage Fright", and his daughter Patricia Hitchcock carries over as well, she had a small role in yesterday's film and a larger one tonight.

THE PLOT:  A psychotic socialite confronts a pro tennis star with a theory on how two complete strangers can get away with murder.

AFTER: You've heard the theory before - if you take away the motive in a murder case, then they can't prosecute you.  Because why would anyone kill another person without a reason?  I'm sorry to say, but as recent events have shown, there are plenty of unbalanced people who generate their own.  Besides, if the police have enough evidence, like someone's fingerprints on the gun, or security camera footage of someone shooting it, yeah, they're going to prosecute you and they'll figure out the motive later.

But remember, this was made in 1951, and for the third time in a Hitchcock film, we see people playing the "How Would You Kill Someone?" game. (I think Parker Brothers released this as a board game, but they were beaten to the marketplace by "Clue")  At the time, however, this was (apparently) more of a party game, like "The Minister's Cat", used to spark conversation at parties.  "Really, you'd use poison?  How droll..."  

These days, you can share a train car or sit next to someone on a plane, and the topic of committing murder for each other rarely comes up.  (On an airplane trip in 2002, I once convinced a Hollywood star to NOT be in a superhero movie, and I'm still not sure if I did him a favor or not...)  

Tonight's lead character, Guy Haines, is a tennis pro who gets chatted up on board a train (exactly how many of Hitchcock's films take place on trains?  I must remember to count...) by Bruno, who offers to do him a favor - he'll kill Guy's wife, who won't grant him a divorce, if Guy will in turn kill Bruno's father.  Both men will be sure to be someplace else at the appropriate times, in order to have solid alibis, and the police will just shrug their shoulders and give up in both cases.  It looks great on paper, but when the time comes to actually put one's hand around someone's throat, well, that's when you find out whether someone's being serious about this or not.

I've mentioned before how Hitchcock seemed to have little respect for law enforcement - not only does he assume that they won't proceed with murder investigations once the most likely suspect has been accounted for, but he also shows them keeping an eye on Guy Haines by assigning officers to be no less than three feet from him at all times.  What's the opposite of "undercover"?  The whole point of watching a suspect is to see if they do anything wrong, and he's certainly not going to do anything wrong if he's got a cop in his face all day long.  Later in the film, the police conduct a stakeout by pulling up to an amusement park with sirens blaring and they park right in front of the entrance, blocking it.  Way to be discreet, guys.  

About the only people Hitchcock seems to have less regard for is women.  (Except for clever women who solve crimes, those he seems to admire...)  Guy's wife, Miriam has apparently been catting around behind his back, with several men, and she's gotten herself pregnant.  Still, she won't grant him a divorce, even after shaking him down for legal fees, instead offering to move back in with him and forcing him to raise another man's baby.  Geez, it's almost like Hitchcock is saying she deserves to be killed.  

As for the ending, this film feels like it's building to a logical conclusion, through typical parallel editing we know we're heading for a showdown, but then once again there's something of a nonsensical chase scene, though I'll reveal no more details about it.  Again, though, I feel like Hitch called an audible at the last moment regarding the staging, maybe he just wanted to make sure that everyone in the audience was still paying attention. 

You might be confused by the scene that takes place in New York's Penn Station - it looks absolutely gorgeous, and nothing like the place you might catch an Amtrak train today, which is on the same block as Madison Square Garden.  That's because Penn Station used to be an enormous Beaux Arts structure that took up two whole city blocks, but when train travel declined, it was demolished in 1963 and moved underground, with MSG and Penn Plaza erected on top. The same architecture still exists across 8th Avenue, though, in the building that houses the James Farley post office, which for years was the only 24-hour post office in the city.  You can still go in there and see some of the high ceilings, ornate arches and grand staircases that were seen in this film.  But perhaps not for much longer, as they're working now on the new Daniel Moynihan station, which will take up part of the Farley building.

Also starring Farley Granger (last seen in "Rope"), Robert Walker, Ruth Roman, Leo G. Carroll (last seen in "The Paradine Case"), Kasey Rogers, Marion Lorne, Jonathan Hale.

RATING: 7 out of 10 carousel horses

Friday, May 30, 2014

Stage Fright

Year 6, Day 150 - 5/30/14 - Movie #1,749

BEFORE: I'm going to relate what's been on my mind this week here, because I'm not quite sure where else to do it.  I've been flooded with a wave of nostalgia after listening to a few albums on YouTube that I used to own on cassette - specifically Boston's "Third Stage", and two albums from Mike Oldfield, "Discovery" and "Islands".  What they have in common is that when I was in film school, my mind had concocted very specific cinematic stories to go with them, and the thought that I might get to make them into movies someday was what spurred me on.  

For "Third Stage", I suppose my idea was pretty pedantic - since the band Boston favored graphics of spaceships and flying saucers (which were really guitars viewed on end, though I didn't notice that) seen in orbit around strange planets, my idea naturally sprung from that suggestion.  An astronaut would be seen saying goodbye to his wife ("Amanda"), then prepping for space travel ("We're Ready"), then there would be some sort of trouble during the journey ("Cool the Engines"), but they would eventually reach an alien world ("A New World"). By track 8 the ship would be travelling back to Earth ("I Think I Like It") and our hero would be looking forward to seeing his wife again ("Cantcha Say/Still in Love") only to find that due to his traveling for years at near light-speed, he would be only a few years older (due to the theory of relativity), and his wife would be much, much older since he had been away for decades.  But he would then meet the daughter that he didn't even know he had ("Holly Ann").  (I've never seen time dilation used as a plot point, not in any film...)

I had something similar in mind for Oldfield's album "Discovery" - I happened to be listening to it while reading Carl Sagan's novel "Contact", and I found that the track listing synched up fairly well with the turns in that plot - "Poison Arrows" could be played when the spacecraft was being sabotaged, the title track symbolized the role of science in making discoveries, and "To France" could accompany the various scientific meetings that took place in, yep, Paris.  Other songs on the album like "Tricks of the Light" and "Saved by a Bell" seemed to echo the book's debate between beliefs in religion and science.  And the 12-minute New Age instrumental "The Lake" seemed like a natural for the scenes of space travel, using black holes to travel to another galaxy.  I had the whole thing practically storyboarded out in my head, and would listen to the album frequently with headphones on just to keep it all fresh.  

For Oldfield's "Islands" album, I found many tracks appropriate for a film I wanted to make, based on the novel "Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah", by Richard Bach.  Again, I felt there was enough religious iconography in those songs to perfectly accompany the ideas set forward in that book. So I had my end goal, I would become a famous Hollywood director, and then option the rights to one of these books or albums, and everyone would marvel at the way I told a story with the amazing confluence of film imagery and soundtrack.  

The trouble was, I didn't know how to get from where I was, in film school, to where I wanted to be, as a famous director.  The path between those two things was quite murky, to say the least.  And then I got busy with school work, and then I got busy with real work, where people paid me money to work as a production assistant, then a production manager, then an office manager.  Plus life happened, I got married, divorced and married again, and I got caught up in various hobbies like crossword puzzles and beer festivals, and before long twenty years have passed and I never found the time or money to option the rights to my favorite books and turn them into movies.  Hollywood went ahead and made a film out of the book "Contact" anyway, and they did all right without my help. 

I wish I could say that's the end of the story, but I'm left wondering if I never followed up on these ideas because I got so busy, or if I was just too afraid to stick my neck out and make my own films - in many ways it's been easier helping other people make their movies instead of spending my time and money on my own pet projects.  Plus, I don't have to risk making a bad film this way - these days I get paid whether the films I work on are successful or not.  But was I too afraid of failure, or have I been afraid of success?  Those three films are still locked away in my brain, so I can't really claim I've had no ideas, I just haven't had the nerve to let them run free.  Who knows, maybe my ideas all suck and they're better kept where they are.

Linking from "Under Capricorn", Michael Wilding carries over.  Hitchcock also makes another cameo, as a man on the street who turns to look.

THE PLOT:  A struggling actress tries to help a friend prove his innocence when he's accused of murdering the husband of a high society entertainer.

AFTER: This is just another "man framed for murder" story - or is it?  Another "wanted fugitive on the lam" story - or is it?  Another film where every woman has at least two lovers - right?  Well, things are a little different tonight because the focus shifts to the women trying to clear the man's name, and she goes undercover as a reporter to find out what the police know, and then as a servant to get close to the woman that may have framed him.  In the meantime, she's getting courted by the detective who (wouldn't ya know) is in charge of finding the man she's trying to clear.  What are the odds on that?  

She pulls a Clark Kent (or is it a reverse "She's All That"?) by donning some thick glasses to play the maid.  Good thing that putting on glasses makes a woman look completely different...  But she also adopts an accent and a submissive demeanor, to get close to the ice queen.  Then she's got to deftly dodge her detective boyfriend when he comes to the house to ask more questions.  There are some nimble gymnastics performed in this plot to keep people from finding out about her deception, until it becomes important that they do.

Marlene Dietrich plays a stage performer here who sings a song called "The Lazyiest Girl in Town", and this simply MUST be what Mel Brooks was riffing on when he made "Blazing Saddles" and had Madeline Kahn's character on stage, seductively crooning a similar song titled "I'm Tired".  Right? 

I might have scored this one higher if Hitchcock hadn't pulled a fast one, plot-wise, in the last quarter of the film.  Some might say he changed things up in order to justify a twist ending, but to me it seems more like he painted himself into a corner, and had no choice but to tunnel out through a wall. 

NITPICK POINT: Hitchcock cut to Eve's mother, about to answer the phone, just a bit too soon.  Plus we never hear the phone ring, she just picks it up.  The implication here is that little old ladies have nothing to do all day except stand next to the phone, picking it up every few seconds just in case someone happens to be calling just then.

Also starring Jane Wyman (last seen in "The Lost Weekend"), Marlene Dietrich (last seen in "Witness for the Prosecution"), Richard Todd, Alistair Sim, Sybil Thorndike, Kay Walsh.

RATING:  5 out of 10 programs

Under Capricorn

Year 6, Day 149 - 5/29/14 - Movie #1,748

BEFORE:  Linking from "Rope", James Stewart was also in "Airport '77" with Joseph Cotten (last seen in "Shadow of a Doubt").  Yes, Hitchcock makes a cameo tonight as a party guest, but I'm all for doing things the hard way.

THE PLOT:  A gentleman goes to Australia where he reunites with his now married childhood sweetheart, only to find out she has become an alcoholic and harbors dark secrets.

AFTER:  This is one of Hitchcock's most obscure and least popular films - I don't know why he got bogged down in costumed melodrama, just when he was hitting his stride on murder and intrigue.  But there's some mystery to this one, if you're willing to wait through 90 minutes of information about Australia and how people ran their households there back in Colonial times.  The film informs us over and over that Australia started as a prison colony, a place where British ex-cons could go for a fresh start, which had the added benefit of getting them out of Great Britain.  

Probably the most interesting thing about this film (and yesterday's film "Rope" did this as well) was the use of long takes, some as long as ten minutes (this would be the theoretical maximum, due to the necessity of changing the film in the camera every so often.)  For "Rope" it created drawn-out, tension-filled moments that heightened the viewers'  reactions to a crime, and here it just makes the film seem 18 hours long.

It's sort of akin to that particular paragraph that has an odd quirk to it, though you may not pick up on it at first - you may scan and scan it, and not grok what its distinguishing oddity is.  It's known as a lipogram, and if you work at it a bit, you might find out what is so unusual about it.  And soon you may find out that it is not an ordinary composition, though you may not know why.  It is lacking a most common thing - a particular thing, that is an "E".  (Damn, I almost made it...) 

The film manages to kick into high gear in its last half hour, when things actually start to happen - but it spends a long time idling in low gear before it gets there - the story of how Charles gets Henrietta to come out of her shell and start experiencing life and parties again is a relatively low-key one.  This sets up sort of a love triangle, and jealousy and deceit.  It just takes way too long to get there.

Also starring Ingrid Bergman (last seen in "Notorious"), Michael Wilding, Margaret Leighton, Cecil Parker,

RATING: 3 out of 10 stablehands

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Year 6, Day 148 - 5/28/14 - Movie #1,747

BEFORE:  Linking from "The Paradine Case", Hitchcock once again had a cameo in both films - tonight he plays a man seen walking across the street.  What can I say, the guy had range.  Also, Gregory Peck was also in the film "How the West Was Won" with James Stewart (last seen in "Anatomy of a Murder")

THE PLOT:  Two young men strangle their classmate, hide his body in their apartment, and invite his friends and family to a dinner party as a means to challenge the "perfection" of their crime.

AFTER: By starting the film with a murder, and not showing any of the events leading up to it, Hitchcock is cheating a bit here - it's a way to grab the audience's attention, sure, but what about motive, opportunity, character development?  Forget it, let's go straight to the strangulation.  But since there is no motive, other than committing the "perfect" crime, we're not missing out on anything anyway, right?

But, unfortunately, no murder is ever "perfect" - not unless you can remove all fingerprints, carpet fibers, rope fibers, bruises on the body - and then there's the body itself.  You're going to have to deal with it sooner or later, and if you don't, it's going to start stinking up the apartment. 

What kind of a person commits murder out of the blue, anyway?  Sick, deranged people?  Nope, just college boys who want to feel superior, and prove something to their professor (apparently).  What you have to remember is that this movie was set in 1948, and people had a lot of weird hobbies back then.  As we saw in "Shadow of a Doubt", some people not only read murder mysteries, they spent a lot of time discussing what poisons don't leave traces and which blunt instruments would best be used to bash someone in the head.  (I don't know if this was really a valid topic of conversation back then, but that's what Hitchcock would have us believe...)

I will point out that back then they didn't have the internet, or Playboy magazine, or even rock and roll.  So, how did they pass the time?  Talking about murder, planning murder, and committing murder?  Those should really count as only one hobby, not three.   Who knows, maybe this is what people did before anyone invented Spider-Man comics and YouTube.  (But if that's the case, why are people still committing murder today?  Don't they all have better things to do, like watching videos of cats?)

Our murderers tonight live together in a New York apartment - and oddly, neither has a girlfriend.  What are you saying, Hitch, gay men are prone to murder?  And they strangled a third man - are you sure this wasn't a sex thing?  Auto-erotic asphyxiation?   Curse the production code...

But pride goeth before a fall, and our murderers can't resist hosting a dinner party while their friend lies hidden inside a piece of furniture.  Because what's more hilarious than seeing a man take food from a platter on top of that furniture, while his son's body is inside!  Nah, I'm not seeing the humor either.  What good is a joke (which this isn't, really) if you can't share it with everyone? 

There's plenty of that camera-related intrigue I talked about the other night, where the camera lingers on that piece of furniture, or the rope around those books, to remind the audience that we know something that most of the characters don't, and we're looking at the murder weapon in plain sight - how long will this go on before someone else figures it all out?

Also starring Farley Granger, John Dall (last seen in "Spartacus"), Cedric Hardwicke (last seen in "Suspicion"), Douglas Dick, Joan Chandler, Constance Collier (last seen in "Stage Door").

RATING: 5 out of 10 chickens

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Paradine Case

Year 6, Day 147 - 5/27/14 - Movie #1,746

BEFORE:  We didn't do much on Memorial Day itself - I just tried to get both of my DVRs cleared, as much as possible anyway, and I came 10% closer to finishing the Lego-based "Pirates of the Caribbean" video-game.  That's respectful, right?

Linking from "Notorious", Alfred Hitchcock carries over in another cameo (tonight he's carrying a cello case across the screen), but also Ingrid Bergman was in "Spellbound" with Gregory Peck, just the other night.

THE PLOT:  A happily married London barrister falls in love with the accused poisoner he is defending.

AFTER: Viewing a director's entire filmography from start to finish is akin to listening to all of a band's albums, earliest to latest.  I've been doing a lot of that too, recently, thanks to YouTube - I'll pick a band from the 80's that I liked back in the day, whose albums I never got around to buying on CD because I owned them on cassette, and I'll just have a band's whole career playing in audio form while I work. 

But what makes one album "better" than another?  Some were more popular than others, for sure, and some had more #1 hits, which tend to make us think they're better, but at heart some songs are just catchier than others.  Of course, I may like an obscure album from a band once in a while, but generally speaking, their most popular album tends to also be my favorite.  Some examples: ZZTop's "Eliminator", Huey Lewis & The News' "Sports", and The Outfield's "Play Deep".  Solid albums all, and they also have the added effect of making it hard for later albums from the same acts to measure up.  (See for yourself - listen to any ZZ Top album after 1989, I guarantee it's shitty).

How does this relate to Hitchcock?  I think those first 15 films were like a band's first albums, made on tiny labels and heard by only a few people.  "Rebecca" was his first Hollywood film and won Best Picture, so that's like a band's first release on a major label, and a huge hit.  It's Hitchcock's "Meet the Beatles".  Maybe you've heard of the "second album" trap that some bands fall into, releasing a follow-up album too soon that isn't ready, or was made without the same care, and that about sums up films like "Foreign Correspondent" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith". 

Continuing the analogy, Hitch started to hit his stride with "Suspicion" and "Lifeboat", sort of the "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" period, and then "Spellbound" and "Notorious" had some bold, wild creative choices, like the "White Album".  So, tonight's film is sort of like the "Magical Mystery Tour" of Hitchcock films - a weird creative left-turn that doesn't seem to fit at first into his oeuvre at all. 

Seriously, there's not much here that you can't see in your average episode of "Law & Order" - OK, maybe the attraction between the barrister and his client, but honestly I think that felt a little tacked-on just to give the wife something to worry about.  Hitch forgot the rule about "Show, don't tell" and when the majority of the action is happening inside a courtroom, you're telling and not showing.

Also starring Alida Valli, Louis Jourdan (last seen in "Octopussy"), Charles Laughton (last seen in "Jamaica Inn"), Charles Coburn, Ann Todd, Leo G. Carroll (last seen in "Spellbound"), Ethel Barrymore.

RATING: 4 out of 10 objections

Monday, May 26, 2014


Year 6, Day 146 - 5/26/14 - Movie #1,745

BEFORE: Ah, I'm back to World War II-related material for Memorial Day, nice.  And Ingrid Bergman carries over from "Spellbound", which is even nicer.

THE PLOT:  A woman is asked to spy on a group of Nazi friends in South America.

AFTER: This is where I'm starting to see Hitchcock's visual language really starting to develop.  Oh, he toyed with overlapping images and dream sequences in previous films, but what really works better than anything else is directing the viewers' eyes where they need to go, by use of camera zooms and close-ups.  But I'm betting this wasn't possible until he had built up something of a reputation for films with intrigue.  In "Notorious", when the camera zooms in on a small key, you better believe that it's important in some way.  If he zooms in on a drink and lingers just a bit longer than usual, we start to wonder, "What's in that drink?" and thus we've got a visual shorthand - a non-verbal communication directly from the director to the audience, bypassing the main characters. 

In much the same way, there's a shorthand he established over several films by always having a male lead and a female lead falling in love, despite their circumstances.  They could be on the run, accused of murder, surrounded by pirates, but you just know that in the end, male lead's going to fall for female lead, or vice versa.  In tonight's film, we know that they're falling in love even though Alicia is the daughter of a Nazi and T.R. Devlin is the U.S. agent who wants to send her in undercover in Brazil.  

What's complicating matters is that we're back to the typical Hitchcock woman - she's had a lot of relationships before, so Devlin's put off by her promiscuity - plus his job forces him to put her into harm's way, so he either resists his feelings, or buries them deep as a safety measure.  Sure enough, one of the top Germans in Brazil is one of her ex-lovers, so her orders are to get close to him, and form a relationship with him if the opportunity arises.  Devlin is probably proud of her, repulsed by her, and falling madly in love with her, all at the same time.  It's complicated.

Wikipedia informs me that Hitchcock's mother died in 1942, and this is his first use of a strong mother figure, as the mother of Alicia's Nazi husband lives with them, is a constant presence, and seems to be running the show.  According to at least one interpretation, Hitchcock had mother issues, and that becomes a running theme in his later films.  "Psycho", of course, but which others?

Also starring Cary Grant (last seen in "Suspicion"), Claude Rains (last seen in "Casablanca"), Louis Calhern, Leopoldine Konstantin.

RATING: 6 out of 10 bottles of Champagne

Sunday, May 25, 2014


Year 6, Day 145 - 5/25/14 - Movie #1,744

BEFORE: Well, it rained on Friday and Saturday, that's the third weekend in a row that we've had to postpone the work on our roof, but since we expected to be homebound for roof repairs, we didn't schedule any place to go this weekend.  So we drove out to Coney Island so we could at least get some sun and some summertime eats at Nathan's.  I saw the parachute jump that was featured in Hitchcock's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith", though it's not functioning any more but the iron structure is still standing. 

Linking from "Lifeboat", Hume Cronyn was in several films with Norman Lloyd (last seen in "Saboteur"), including "The Green Years" and "The Beginning or the End".   Hitchcock's cameo in "Lifeboat" didn't really count, since it was just his picture in a newspaper ad.

THE PLOT:  A psychiatrist protects the identity of an amnesia patient accused of murder while attempting to recover his memory.

AFTER: I've got a huge problem with the premise of this film, since the amnesiac in question first appears as the new head of a mental asylum, and then over time it's discovered that he is not who he's pretending to be, or rather that he's not who he believes himself to be.  Didn't the asylum conduct interviews when they were hiring a new chief of staff?  How can an impostor show up as the new hire, and everyone just takes him at his word that he's the new man in charge?  Wouldn't whoever interviewed him for the job realize that THAT's not the guy they hired?  Forget that, wouldn't he have to produce some form of I.D. for the W-4 form, or whatever hiring paperwork they had back then? 

There's also a lot of stuff here about psychoanalysis, the hidden meaning of dreams, spontaneous amnesia, guilt complexes, etc.  But I wish that Hitchcock would have taken the time to learn a bit about how these things work before just shoehorning them all into his murder mystery.  What a shame that the human psyche may not work in the ways that make your screenplay possible - no, by all means just go ahead with it and maybe no one will notice.  Why couldn't you build your screenplay around the way that human mental illness really works, rather than just assume that it works the way you want it to? 

OK, so we don't know exactly how human memory works, or the loss thereof.  But I just doubt that seeing a fork make lines on a tablecloth would evoke the hidden memory that you want it to, just because you want it to.  It's like that through the whole picture, leads to the man's missing memory are found in the most unlikely of ways - and when that doesn't work, simply saying "well, just TRY to remember..." seems to do the trick.  Sure, if he can't remember something, just ask him again more forcefully, that'll get it.  Why not just smack him in the head to jar the memory loose? 

This film has perhaps the fakest skiing scene ever, even worse than that one James Bond film with Roger Moore replaced by a stuntman.  In this case the two lead characters pretend to ski with a rear-projection of a mountain slope behind them, neither one is wearing any cold-weather gear at all, and it's quite clear that a fan is blowing their hair to simulate their movement.  They move in completely different ways, but remain a consistent distance from each other, and it's just ridiculous.  But it also has dream sequences designed by Salvador Dali, so there's that.

Also starring Ingrid Bergman (last seen in "Cactus Flower"), Gregory Peck (last seen in "To Kill a Mockingbird"), Leo G. Carroll (last seen in "Suspicion"), Michael Chekhov, Bill Goodwin.

RATING: 5 out of 10 opening doors