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.

Hitchcock Posters

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:

Ready to play!

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.

Fortunately, he's not the only appealing part of the cast. Malcolm Keen is Novello's exact opposite as Joe - kind of funny-looking, and likely to be described as a terrible flirt not so much because he's incorrigible but because he's really awful at it, giving a mistakenly satisfied grin after something cringe-worthy shows up on the intertitles. Keen doesn't just work as a comic relief doofus, though; he's able to give Joe a nice spurned-nerd edge as he grows a little more sinister in his obsession as the film goes along. Both he and Novello are lucky to have June to play off; she makes Daisy playful but not childish or stupid; she never feels passive even when it's the men who are driving the movie. She's good enough that I'm kind of surprised to see that she appeared in less than a handful of movies per IMDB; she's good enough to have done more (of course, she may have had a lucrative theater/music hall career, or been in projects that were subsequently lost, or credited with a last name that nobody has thought to connect to this actress).

Hitchcock puts the cast through their paces quite nicely, working from a "scenario" by Eliot Stannard and a novel by Marie Belloc Lowndes that would eventually have other adaptations. It's not a particularly great script - the surprises toward the end are all well and good, but the playing them out goes on a bit long, kind of leaving certain elements afterthoughts. The style is fairly impressive, though: Hitchcock was not long returned from Germany, and certain recurring elements like a recurrent neon sign that seems both threatening and accusing show that as an influence. His morbid sense of humor is already in evidence with the blonde dance-hall girl who makes sure she has dark hair extensions peeking out from under her cap.

So while The Lodger is early Hitchcock, it certainly shows a man who was already on the track to becoming the celebrated Master of Suspense. Even better, the new prints produced as part of the BFI's "Hitchcock Nine" project (restoring the nine still-existing silent films Hitchcock directed) looks great. Hopefully a Blu-ray box set is on the horizon; in the meantime, this one is definitely worth checking out if the series shows up in one's neck of the woods.

(Dead) link to the review at EFC.


* * * 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.

While the story is classically Hitchcock, it's also a surprisingly modern-feeling film, both in terms of reflecting what was going on in cinema in 1972 and how serial-killer moves play today. While it wasn't long before that he was implying things much worse than the audience could actually be allowed to see, he's able to use nudity, rape, and other graphic violence without dancing around it here, along with some nasty business with the corpses that feel like they wouldn't make the jump from exploitation to the mainstream for another few years (so, perhaps, he was still pushing the boundaries as with Psycho).

On top of that, Richard, Robert, and Babs especially are rather working-class folks played by relatively unknown internationally British stage actors compared to the movie stars in the roles of well-to-do people that Hitchcock had utilized over much of the previous twenty years or so. The way they talk feels more realistic and less exaggerated for comic or dramatic effect, and they do it rather well: Jon Finch essays a protagonist whose angry, surly nature has no problem with encouraging the audience to turn on him even when he's in the right, while Barry Foster makes Robert's jovial, impossibly-smooth persona quite appealing even after the viewer can see that it's but a mere part of the man - and Foster's even better when the mask comes down. The women don't quite get that sort of complexity - although Leigh-Hunt does demonstrate that Brenda's feelings for Richard are believably conflicted, Massey has a fairly uncomplicated but strong-willed girlfriend to play.

Some of the supporting parts are rather a mixed bag, and they come in pairs. Alec McCowen makes a pleasantly capable detective investigating the case, but is often paired with an absurdly broad Vivien Merchant as his one-joke wife (although that one joke can work; I'm still laughing at the way she says "ta-kwee-la" a few days later). That's flipped a bit for Clive Swift and Billie Whitelaw as an old comrade-in-arms of Blaney's and his wife - he's offhandedly dismissive of the charges against his friend while she's angrily sensible. It's a pairing that seems like it should be a little funnier than it is.

Humor is where Hitchcock falters a bit in Frenzy; while the script occasionally has structural problems, especially in the last act, they don't grind things to an awkward stop the way misplaced broad comic relief does. That's especially noticeable because the pitch-black bits of comedy work so well, from a politician talking about ridding the Thames of contamination as a body floats in to the killer's suspenseful and desperate but also absurd attempt to retrieve a damning piece of evidence. The finale has a couple of the most horribly hilarious gags in Hitchcock's career, making the audience feel terrible for laughing.

It's well worth a few flaws to get to that moment, which would still feel a bit edgy if dropped into a movie today. That is, if it were executed so well, which is no guarantee - Hitchcock may have had to change with the times, but he still made this sort of movie as well as anybody.

(Dead) link to the 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.

Kelly doesn't have all the fun, of course - Cary Grant gets to be nearly as witty even when playing the role of the straight man, casually deadpan when explaining Robie's past and somehow never allowing the character's nonchalant confidence to become annoying smugness or boring perfection. Jessie Royce Landis and John Williams give enjoyable spark to their takes on the brash American woman and the measured Englishman, basic character types with far more life than usual here. Charles Vanel, Jean Martinelli, and especially Brigitte Auber - along with a host of pantomiming background players - are nonchalantly delightful as the crooks-cum-caterers/restauranteurs who mostly ignore Robie's protestations of innocence whether because they've registered their displeasure and made their threats and don't need to get worked up about it or because they figure a man who steals diamonds is far more romantic than one who grows grapes.

That's part of what makes this more like a typical Alfred Hitchcock movie than it may otherwise appear, a "wrong man" story where the relatively low stakes (nobody has accused John of anything violent or stealing from those who cannot afford it) means folks are more or less willing to let things happen at a leisurely pace, so Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes can just occasionally give things the occasional push forward to get to the next fun set of scenes, until things become just urgent enough to lead to a climax. It's a playful picture, with cheerful cuts to a black cat walking along a roof between burglaries and a cheeky use of fireworks to indicate that at the moment, Robie's thoughts aren't on crime at all.

It's also just fun to look at - people would come to this sort of movie in the mid-1950s in part to see far-off places come to life more than they would in a magazine, and To Catch a Thief is a pretty great movie to live in vicariously. It's a visit to a beautiful place with beautiful people, and just enough adventure and danger to make it exciting.

(Dead) link to the 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.

That bit - supposedly taken from Hitchcock and wife Alma Reville's own romance - is a demonstration of why plot is far from the most important thing in a movie such as this. It's a thing to hang moments on, and this is a movie filled with snappy banter, whether it be Jones playing clever with his editor or Robert Benchley typifying the sort of layabout that the editor wants to get away from (Benchley wrote his own lines, though foreign correspondent was not a post he held during his journalism career, preventing an irony overload). Some of the best bits come courtesy of George Sanders as Scott ffolliott, an English journalist and friend of Carol's who livens up every scene he's in.

One almost wishes there had been a series of Jones & ffolliott movies - the pairing of the wisecracking American with a dryly sardonic Englishman to seek the truth is that much fun. McCrea and Sanders aren't playing complex characters, but they nail what they need to: McCrea a guy who doesn't so much affect immaturity as use the impression of it to his advantage and Sanders as someone a lot more driven than the public-school facade indicates. Laraine Day is quite a likable love interest, although she's never really given the chance to really dig into what could be a meaty role. Herbert Marshall handles the role of her father quite well, though, especially as it grows in size and importance over the course of the film with some tricky bits to navigate.

This is Hitchcock's second American picture and while it's not one of his classics, he acquits himself quite well. He doesn't so much de-emphasize the silly parts in favor of the smarter ones as much as he allows the latter to work quietly while making sure to find a laugh or two in the former. While not wall-to-wall action, it's got its share of chases and standoffs and an impressive plane crash at the climax. He does all this better enough than most that one notices, such as a sequence where Johnny sneaks through a windmill filled with spies, where Hitchcock uses the openness of the structure both to increase the tension and let the audience see that he's not cheating anywhere.

It's not perfect - the ending is obviously tacked on to try to keep up with actual events - but it's a fun story that likely gave the audience facing the imminent outbreak of war a good time without dismissing what was going on around them.

(Dead) link to the 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.

At least the cast has what it takes to communicate what's going on. Brisson does a fine job as the working-class man whose excitement at his new life turns to wariness; no matter what we think of Mabel or Bob, we do recognize that this guy loves that girl, possibly against reason, and he's someone we can root for. Ian Hunter doesn't make a villain out of Bob, particularly; he's quite charming in his introduction, even if the story does reveal it to be false modesty, and as much as he's mainly there as an obstacle, he isn't lacking in personality. Mabel may be somewhat mercenary and self-serving, but Lillian Hall Davis does make her interestingly human in how she enjoys attention and feels backed into situations, even if she doesn't respond to them well.

One impressive way that Hitchcock and the cast bring this characterization out is in the inevitable match between Jack and Bob that serves as the movie's climax. It's a great early example of storytelling through action, as we see Bob as powerful without much effort, never seeming to exert himself unduly to get effect, while Jack scraps, taking a lot of effort to try and wear down Bob only to find himself on the mat, wondering what just happened but getting back up. It's almost surprisingly good, as a lot of the boxing scenes from earlier in the picture were not that great. That may be deliberate - Hitchcock isn't going to waste something powerful on preliminaries. He is showing examples of how he can communicate ideas symbolically, as the ring of the title refers not only to a boxing ring but to a wedding ring as well as the bracelet Bob gives Mabel early on (whose snake motif is clearly meant to communicate betrayal). Hitchcock and cinematographer John Cox get some great carnival imagery, and there are some pretty salacious moments for a film made in 1927.

In fact, there's a reasonable argument that The Ring is one of those gems that gets produced when an unusual talent takes on a seemingly unremarkable project. I don't quite think that Hitchcock elevates this story to something great, but he certainly makes an eminently watchable movie.

(Dead) link to the review at EFC.

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