Friday, July 19, 2013

The HFA's Complete Alfred Hitchcock: The Lodger, Frenzy, To Catch a Thief, Foreign Correspondant, and The Ring

If my wallet ever got stolen, well, let me tell you, the culprits might not get away with a lot of cash, but they could see some cheap movies: He would find membership cards for AMC Stubs, the Regal Crown Club, the Brattle Theatre, the Coolidge Corner Theatre, the Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film, ArtsEmerson's film program, the most recent Talk Cinema series, and MoviePass. I think the only local movie discount card I didn't have was the Harvard Film Archive, because as much as I have lived near the place for the past fifteen years and am often intrigued by their programming, I don't actually go there often enough to make it a good investment.

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What's this? A summer-long program featuring Hitchcock's entire oeuvre on 35mm, including the newly-restored nine (existing) silent films he made?

Fine, take my money.

The way I figure it, the break-even point on an $55 HFA membership for non-students is about 12 movies (3x$9 for the free movies + 9x$3 for each discount), and, yeah, I'll be getting my money's worth during the Hitchcock series alone, even if I miss three and a half weeks' worth at Fantasia, and I also figure that once I have a card, I might be more willing to drop $6 on an interesting movie outside my regular comfort zone than $9.

Anyway, there are still a few holes in this "Complete Alfred Hitchcock" series. Programmer David Pendleton mentioned in the introduction that they were trying to book Mary, a German-language remake of Murder!, although that one is very hard to get hold of. It says something about the various film industries of the time that an English-language filmmaker would be pulled toward Germany, when it's rather the opposite these days.

Of course, in Hitchcock's case it would be a case of being pulled back to Germany, as he made his first two films there. The English film industry was a tiny thing then, while Germany was an artistic and commercial powerhouse. Sadly, one of these first two films is lost, and while Hitchcock would say that this was for the best, The Mountain Eagle sounds gloriously peculiar: An English guy making a movie about Kentucky mountain people with a British/German/international crew. Nobody has seen this thing since the 1920s. If anybody ever invents a time machine but doesn't want to let on what they've created lest it be used for evil, I strongly suggest "finding" lost films as a way to profit from it.

So, because that doesn't exist, we have "The Hitchcock Nine" rather than "The Hitchcock Ten", but the world is better for having nine: These are some highly-enjoyable movies, obviously significant, and the British Film Institute has done what appears to be pretty great work making them spiffy before putting them on tour. The HFA is one of the few places that is running them on 35mm - other venues are getting DCP - and they've got a nice group of accompanists providing live music. One of the venue's regulars, Martin Marks, did the music for The Lodger and Blackmail, saying he hadn't really been as familiar with the 1927 version as the 1944 adaptation with Merle Oberon and George Sanders (there's also a 1932 version, again with Ivor Novello, and a 2009 one with Alfred Molina) but now loved it. I missed Blackmail, although I did find it odd that Pendleton mentioned it as the "rarely seen" silent version, as opposed to the converted talkie for which Hitchcock shot a great deal of new footage - I've only seen it as a silent, twice, with Alloy Orchestra playing to it.

Monday night was a special treat, with Stephen Horne playing to The Ring. He's one of the leading accompanists in the UK, and actually got to compose the "official" soundtrack that was debuted at Cannes with the series and will likely appear on the DVD/BD when those are released (though he made it sound like an "if", not having heard anything about it). I didn't get a picture of him, but did snap one of his setup before the movie started:

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That's a pretty interesting group of instruments compared to the usual "one guy at a piano" that the HFA tends to favor. Now, it was actually one guy at a piano, although I did sneak a peak or two at how he was getting on sitting at a piano bench, an accordion strapped to his his chest, playing a flute. It's an odd image that I'll let you imagine. Also: The HFA keeps phone books inside the bench, in case it's too short for someone to play comfortably.

Anyway, I'm kind of sad that I won't get to see the rest of the nine and will miss a good chunk of the program, but I am getting to see a whole bunch of movies at Fantasia instead. Folks in Boston should definitely take advantage of this program, though.

The Lodger (1927)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2013 in the Harvard Film Archive (The Complete Alfred Hitchcock, 35mm w/ live accompaniment)

Alfred Hitchcock had an astonishingly long career, stretching from the silents to the seventies, and his penchant for crime and suspense certainly developed early: The Lodger first hit British screens in 1927, and already he was having blondes and serial killers cross paths. Practice would later make perfect, but this at least shows that he had natural talent.

The killer stalking London is keeping a regular schedule, murdering a new golden-haired girl every Tuesday, which at least lets young women like Daisy Bunting (June) know when they should be extra careful when walking home from a job modeling clothing at a fashion boutique. And while she flirts shamelessly with Joe Chandler (Malcolm Keen), the cop who lives in the next house, her family has just taken in a handsome lodger (Ivor Novello) - who immediately starts taking the paintings of fair-haired girls hanging in his room down, as he can't bear to look at them.

Daisy's parents (Marie Ault & Arthur Chesney) don't catch on quite as fast as the audience, but this is not the only way that the new resident is acting quite ridiculously suspicious. It's not quite the sort of pitch-black comedy that Hitchcock would later become known for, but there's certainly a theatricality to it, with Novello gesticulating and contorting his face with mad emotion throughout, while the filmmakers do everything but hang a neon sign over him saying "Suspect Me!" from his very first appearance. Novello gives exactly the performance he's asked for, piling on the sexy charm and obvious danger in large, equal helpings.

Full review at EFC.

Frenzy

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2013 in the Harvard Film Archive (The Complete Alfred Hitchcock, 35mm)

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of change and upheaval in the world of film; the naturalistic style and grittier realism that emerged seeming to render the old Hollywood of just a few years earlier instantly dated. Alfred Hitchcock was undeniably a part of that earlier mode of filmmaking, but Frenzy provides a tantalizing glimpse at him working in the new reality without missing much of a step.

This movie focuses on Richard Blaney (Jon Finch), once a great pilot in the RAF, now a barman getting fired for drinking the merchandise. Though he's got a nice thing going with his co-worker Babs (Anna Massey) and a good friend in Robert Rusk (Barry Foster) at the nearby produce warehouse, he's often a wellspring of anger just waiting to be tapped, as happens when he pays a visit to his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt). Sounds like a likely suspect to be the "necktie murderer" who is killing London women, doesn't he?

It's not him, as it turns out, but the circumstances surrounding the latest victim to be found make him the prime suspect, and the police pursuing the wrong man in a series of sexually-charged crimes certainly puts this story right in Hitchcock's wheelhouse. Frenzy is an engrossing little thriller in that mode, set up so that all manner of terrible things can happen at any time even as the basic structure of the story comes across as fairly familiar. It's cleverly-built enough that it doesn't seem overly reliant on coincidence or a needlessly complicated master plan, although - whether by the design of Hitchcock, screenwriter Anthony Shaffer, or original novelist Arthur La Bern - it allows for the audience to see either cruelly blind fate or diabolically directed evil as fits their preferences. It's a neat trick to not explain everything but feel like nothing has gone unexplained.

Full review at EFC.

To Catch a Thief

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2013 in the Harvard Film Archive (The Complete Alfred Hitchcock, 35mm)

To Catch a Thief is almost certainly the sunniest move Alfred Hitchcock ever made, both literally and figuratively. And while his reputation is built on stories of overt or hidden bleakness, this pure caper with Cary Grant Grace Kelly is just as much a joy to watch as any movie.

It takes place on the French Riviera, where all is wonderful - except that someone is breaking into wealthy tourists' hotel rooms and stealing their jewels, leaving no trace behind. Suspicion immediately falls on John "The Cat" Robie (Grant), an American who committed a similar series of crimes before the war, but was let out of jail for his heroic activities in the underground. He proclaims his innocence but sneaks past the police to investigate things himself and assure the other members of his old gang that he hasn't broken their parole. He convinces insurance agent H.H. Hughson (John Williams) to give him some leads on who has jewelry worth stealing, settling on nouveau riche Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis) as the most likely target - although her most precious jewel is beautiful daughter Frances (Kelly).

Jessie despairs about her daughter's propriety - "I'm sorry I ever sent her to finishing school. I think they finished her there", she says. Part of the joy of the movie, and perhaps the very best thing about it, comes from how this may not actually be the case, as Frances is soon showing herself to be much more forward than the polite society girl she appears to be, easily a match for Robie or Danielle (Brigitte Auber), the young and aggressive daughter of one of his old partners in crime (Jean Martinelli). It's a welcome and somewhat surprising take on the character based on the actress - for all the completely accurate words that many people have written over the past sixty-odd years about how astonishingly beautiful Grace Kelly is/was, she was seldom as sexy as she is here, owning her status as an object of men's desire and working it, whether via double entendres or a series of Edith Head outfits. She banters quicker than usual, with a sharper wit, and that the film is never heavy-handed about whether the buttoned-up or mischievous Frances is the disguise for the other gives Kelly the chance to make her wonderful for being both.

Full review at EFC.

Foreign Correspondent

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2013 in the Harvard Film Archive (The Complete Alfred Hitchcock, 35mm)

"I don't want correspondence, I want news!" bellows an editor toward the start of Foreign Correspondent, and to a certain extent, the movie takes that to heart. It's not necessarily well-thought-out or prettily told, but it is exciting and full of action, and as up-to-date as a fictional movie made while history is happening can be.

The reporter dispatched from New York to London as a result of that outburst in 1940 is Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), a crime reporter of the wisecracking and muckraking variety. He's pointed in the direction of Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) and Peace Party leader Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), although he must admit to finding Fisher's daughter Carol (Laraine Day) more interesting than the attempt to prevent war in Europe. But when Van Meer is assassinated while attending a summit right before Johnny's eyes and something seems out of place as they chase down the killers, he knows he's got a story, at the very least.

Foreign Correspondent doesn't quite hit the ground running - Johnny's attempts to get into Carol's good graces have a bit of the feeling of stall tactics while director Alfred Hitchcock and four credited writers (along with another dozen feverishly working to update the script to match the news coming out of Europe) lay out the situation and some of the players, getting the audience familiar enough to have a personal stake in what's going on. Large chunks of the actual plot are actually sort of nonsensical - I'm not sure what good a secret treaty is if only two people know its contents, for instance. The romance between Johnny and Carol is maybe an even bigger mess, even if it does give the movie one of its best exchanges.

Full review at EFC.

The Ring (1927)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2013 in the Harvard Film Archive (The Complete Alfred Hitchcock, 35mm)

Before Alfred Hitchcock was a world-renowned auteur, he was just a guy who made movies, cranking them out relatively quickly for studios that demanded new product at a fairly regular clip. Sometimes that pressure to produce leads to surprising gems, and sometimes it gets you The Ring, an adequate silent drama that works well enough to not be an embarrassment eighty-five years later.

"One-Round" Jack Sander (Carl Brisson) is a boxer at an English carnival - anybody who buys a ticket an try and last a round with him to win a pound for their sixpence. One day he meets his match, only to find out that the person who beat him is Bob Corby (Ian Hunter), the Australian champion. Bob and his agent are actually looking for a sparring partner, although Bob also has his eye on the pretty ticket taker (Lillian Hall Davis). Well, she's Jack's girl, but will that last with the new guy in the picture - even if this new job means she and Jack can finally get married?

Love triangles are a tricky thing to pull off, especially when they feature an existing relationship and an interloper as The Ring does. In fact, I almost think Hitchcock does it a little too well: The audience isn't told that Mabel (as a letter written to her reads; she is just "the Girl" in the credits) and Jack are together until after we've seen her and Bob flirting, so it's not necessarily a given that they'll root for things to work out there. And yet, as the film shifts more toward Jack's point of view, that's the route it takes, that the existing relationship should take precedence even though Mabel & Bob seem well-suited and it's never really clear just what she is to Jack.

Full review at EFC.

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