Archive for the 'classics' Category

A long time ago, in February, it was Hitchcock month

I really must apologize for bringing up February while we’re now almost mid-way through March (I personally like to forget November through February ever happened as soon as the calendar switches to March 1st.) But I’m just catching up on other things to the point where I can sum up Hitchcock month…so here we go!

1. Films I’d Already Seen:

The 39 Steps
The Lady Vanishes
Rebecca
Foreign Correspondent
Suspicion
Shadow of a Doubt
Spellbound
Notorious
Rope
Strangers on a Train
Dial M for Murder
Rear Window
The Trouble With Harry
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Vertigo
North by Northwest
Psycho
The Birds

2. Films I Watched This Month

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927) — pretty good

There are certain shots in The Lodger, a serial killer mystery, where one can definitely see Alfred Hitchcock becoming Alfred Hitchcock. He plays with the literal visual perspective of the viewer and of the characters with great skill, taking advantage of every shadow and staircase he can. I was also impressed with one particular special effects shot, where the viewer sees through the ceiling of a room to where the suspicious suspected killer paces the floor in the room above. I love those early trick photography moments, from when directors really were still making it all up. The film comes in the middle of Hitchcock’s streak of British films before his Hollywood career began, many of which were made during the end of the silent era, and the plot and tone don’t reach the level of brilliant suspense his work of later years would. Still, the film is good enough that I’d definitely like to see it again, on a better print (the one I watched was not in good shape).

Frenzy (1972) — also pretty good

I watched Frenzy just a couple of days after watching The Lodger, and a particular thing is clear: 45 years really changes the way someone approaches serial killer material. Frenzy is in some ways very much a Hitchcock movie, with its you’ve-got-the-wrong-man set-up and very suspenseful set pieces. But after watching a silent film where all violence takes place with a scream in the dark followed by a newspaper clipping—hell, even reflecting on Hitchcock moments like the infamous shower scene in Psycho—the in-your-face assault of the rape and murder that take place in Frenzy was startling and disconcerting. I don’t think the new level of what one could get away with on screen in the 1970s meshed well with Hitchcock’s sensibilities.

Still, Frenzy is a fairly enjoyable film, helped along massively by skillful central performances. We know the identity of the real killer early on, and Barry Foster is undeniably creepy in the role. As the man accused—who, while innocent of these offenses, is still a bit of a scoundrel—Jon Finch hits the balance between charming and infuriating. I also adore Anna Massey (who also finds herself embroiled in a serial killer plot in the great Peeping Tom), and she is easily the highlight of this film.

Marnie (1964) — I think I really liked it?

(Spoilers.) I think I will have to watch Marnie again and write something proper about it. What a complex film. Tippi Hedren masterfully plays the damaged and complicated title character, with fascinating layers beneath a defensive, smooth surface that takes a serious trauma to rock. The perpetrator of that trauma is a man who seems to actually love her, but only in a dominating and almost obsessive way, which demonstrates that he is just as unhealthy as she is. Sean Connery’s control in that role makes him both magnetic and repulsive, and the film does not shy away from examining how repugnant it is that his character actually rapes the woman he seems to love, when she cannot be open to him because of her past trauma. I was engrossed by this film—brutal in its storytelling, beautiful in its construction—and I am still contemplating its themes and messages, without having reached a final conclusion in that regard.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) — again…pretty good

Though this earlier version moves at a faster clip than the occasionally-slow remake Hitchcock did with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day 22 years later, and it’s very fun to watch Peter Lorre in full gangster mode, I do prefer the later version. It does a much better job of character development, which means the audience is more invested in the trauma of these parents whose child has been kidnapped after they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and learned the wrong bit of information. This film is definitely worth watching—both because of its significance as the film Hitchcock chose to remake, and because of the performances—but no scenes from it stuck with me the way the “Que Sera, Sera” scene does in the later version.

Rope (1948, re-watch) — good, but still not as good as I wish it was

The main reason I like Rope is because of my love for the actor John Dall, whom I became enamored of the first time I saw the faaaaantastic B-noir Gun Crazy. He’s a slight bit cheesy here as the ringleader of a plot to murder a classmate just for the hell of it—just to prove they can get away with it—but the man’s acting career was far too sparse, and I’ll take him where I can get him. I also obviously love Jimmy Stewart, but he’s miscast here as the eccentric, philosophical professor whose theories the murderers take a bit too literally. Still, I can be a sucker for a confining gimmick, and the whole “only ten shots in the whole film” thing here definitely gets me. If it had been on a more elaborate set (in many ways, Rope might as well still be the stage play it’s based on), it really would have gotten me, and I’d probably be praising the film much more.

The Lady Vanishes (1938, re-watch) — ummm…

I told a couple of people I would give The Lady Vanishes another chance, because I hadn’t liked it much the first time around. I rented the brand new Criterion Blu-ray release. I was truly prepared to concede that I just hadn’t quite gotten it the first time around. Unfortunately, I still didn’t get it on the second time around. Why is this film such a revered classic? Its lead actors are reasonably charming, but the plot is ridiculously slow. Never has a final shootout been so lacking in urgency. And wasn’t anyone else just kind of pissed at the old lady for putting these people in so much danger without any explanation? Oh, well; I guess this one is just not for me. Some of the shots on the train are wonderful, though.

Dial M for Murder (1954, re-watch) — very good

I would really like to see this film in 3-D. I said I could be a sucker for a gimmick, and one of the things I like about Hitchcock is how he did try out gimmicks, within his life as a “serious filmmaker.” Imagine how much grief he might have gotten if the internet had been a thing in his day! Oh, the ridiculing tweets! But I adore the way quality storytelling and visual art and sheer fun experimentation can come together in the right kind of film, and this is an example of a success in that regard. Throw in some double-crossing and some Grace Kelly, and I am definitely a happy camper.

To Catch a Thief (1955) — great

Grace Kelly again. She charms me, she really does. But as much as I cherish Cary Grant—I shall never say a bad word about him—the age gap between the romantic leads here is a bit distracting from an otherwise very enjoyable romp in luxurious, mad-cap fun. (Maybe it’s also to do with how startling it always is to see just how very tan Cary Grant was, when he’s in a color film?) I do sometimes wish that in the 1950s and ’60s, Hitchcock had been able to find reliable leading men he liked who were a bit younger, to go with the new blondes he always managed to find. That aside, this is just a fun film. Jewel thieving and French speaking and rooftop scampering and costume wearing and fast car driving…it has all of that loveliness, plus Grace Kelly’s gowns. Come on. Delightful.

3. Films Still to Watch

There remain quite a few of Hitchcock’s silent films I haven’t seen, plus some from his strongest years that I wanted to make time for, but didn’t get to—Jamaica Inn (I love the book) and Lifeboat, especially. For the sake of being able to accurately compare the different eras of his career, I also still plan to watch Topaz and Family Plot as soon as I can get to them. The man made a lot of movies.

As for my March assignment…I’m so busy that I’m going to have to cheat this month (already!) and pick a director who is less prolific. In fact, he’s basically the opposite of prolific. With his new film Damsels in Distress coming out next month, I want to fill in the gaps for my knowledge of Whit Stillman. I’ve only seen his first film, Metropolitan, but not Barcelona or The Last Days of Disco. Hopefully I can handle two extra films on my viewing load before the month is out! Oy.

In the DVD player this evening…

I’ve always gone in spurts as far as updating this blog, but I have never let an entire calendar month go by without posting something. Since August 2007, every month has had at least one little random post, if for no other reason than so my mild OCD-esque sensibilities won’t be offended by a gap in my drop-down archive menu. I have a long list of in-depth posts I want to write here when I find the magical time, but since it’s the last day of the month and I’m scrambling, this is all you get: the trailer for the film I’m going to watch with a friend this evening. I’m ashamed that I’ve not seen it already. He hasn’t either, but I’ll leave his name out of it, to protect the guilty.

Kiss Me Deadly
!!

I shall report back with some thoughts in the comments. What do you think of this film? (Or, do you belong to the same shameful club* that I will until shortly from now?!)

*Jokes, friends. I don’t actually think it’s shameful for anyone to have never seen a film, no matter what film it is**. There’s not enough time in the world for all the good stuff out there, and we’ve all got other things we have/want to do. Some films will fall through the cracks. It’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Don’t beat each other up over it. Peace, love, and understanding.

**Except Casablanca. DUH.

Because Script Frenzy is about to take off…

…please enjoy this lovely little moment from a great, great film about a screenwriter (Sunset Blvd.), making fun of the sort of overwrought dialogue we all know NEVER sneaks its way into first drafts:

May everyone participating in the challenge make it through the month without ending up floating face down in a pool.

Sidenote: party scenes in films just ain’t what they used to be, amirite?

Genius dialogue of the day #5

Genius absolutely everything.

The Shop Around the Corner, 1940. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Screenplay by Samson Raphaelson, from the play by Miklós László.

Genius dialogue of the day #3

A lesson in lechery. (Also interesting: evidence that concerns over technology and communication haven’t changed much over time.)

Bunny Lake is Missing, 1965. Directed by Otto Preminger. Screenplay by John Mortimer & Penelope Mortimer, from the novel by Marryam Modell.

I love you, Edward G. Robinson

The great actor Edward G. Robinson was born on this day in 1893, in Bucharest, Romania. He lived to be 89, dying January 26, 1973 in Hollywood. Just before his death, he had been chosen to receive an Honorary Academy Award at the upcoming Oscars; his widow accepted it on his behalf. Though he never won or was even nominated for an acting Oscar throughout his career, I am of the opinion that his brilliance cannot be denied. With a voice and face teetering on giving the impression of a claymation figure, he somehow embodied characters so that their depth, their undertones, and their motivations were subtle.

My two favorite roles of his could not be more different characters, yet I can hardly pin down what magic Robinson uses to depict them each so convincingly, hardly changing his expressions or the pitch of his voice. In 1944’s Double Indemnity (a brilliant noir from Billy Wilder that has been on my mind lately since discussing it with Allen for an as-yet-unaired MacGuffin piece: stay tuned), Robinson is Barton Keyes, a curmudgeon of an insurance man with a heart of gold and a deep affection for his friend and employee Walter Neff, who has unfortunately committed insurance fraud. We meet Keyes as he’s confronting a man who he simply knows has lied on his insurance claim.

Later in the film, Keyes will struggle as suspicions he wishes he didn’t have tell him again and again that his friend has done something terribly wrong. Another actor might have let Keyes’ pain over this situation be something much bigger and flashier, but Robinson keeps everything just under the surface.

Four years after Double Indemnity, Robinson played gangster Johnny Rocco in another great noir, John Huston’s Key Largo. Rocco and his gang take shelter in a hotel during a hurricane, harassing the owners in a truly bizarre hostage-type situation. As they pass the time, he heaps abuse upon his girlfriend-of-sorts, an alcoholic former stage singer.

In each of these incredible scenes, Robinson plays a man using his power in the situation to get the better of someone for whom he has contempt. But the scenes, and the impression he leaves in each of them, end similarities there.

If you are unfamiliar with Robinson, or with these films, I highly recommend a double feature. It will leave you wanting much more of him.

Tony Curtis, 1925-2010

There are a lot of beautiful Tony Curtis performances to appreciate, and he was quite a knockout personality. But what is most indisputable is that he turned in the flat-out funniest impression of another celebrity that has ever been, or will ever be.

“I heard a very sad story about a girl who went to Bryn Mawr…she squealed on her roommate, and they found her strangled with her own brassiere!”

Nothing better.


Other projects:


Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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