Tuesday, November 30, 2021

In a Lonely Place (1950)

In a Lonely Place, released by Columbia in 1950, is a much-praised film noir directed by Nicholas Ray.

Now I have to put my cards on the table upfront. I am not a Nicholas Ray fan. I was however very impressed by In a Lonely Place when I first saw it sixteen years ago. How well does it stand up to a repeat viewing? We shall see.

Dixon “Dix” Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a screenwriter. He’s also a self-pitying loser with a short temper and a bad attitude. His career as a screenwriter has been slowly going down the toilet. He thinks he’s far too important a writer to be sullying his hands on hack work, even though hack work is now all he can get. Now he has a chance to get his career back on track. All he has to do is to turn the latest bestseller potboiler into a usable script.

Being a writer with such a high opinion of his own talents he doesn’t want to demean himself by actually reading the novel he has to adapt. So he persuades hat check girl Mildred Atkinson (Martha Stewart), who has just read the book, to go back to his place and tell him the story of the book. It naturally crosses her mind that he has simply lured her back to his apartment in order to make an attempt on her virtue but in fact he really does just want her to explain the plot of the novel to him. His intentions are entirely innocent. The book sounds like the sort of thing that would make a hit movie so naturally Dix hates it. He then sends Mildred home in a cab.

At five o’clock next morning the police come knocking and Dixon Steele finds himself a potential suspect in a murder investigation.

His neighbour Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame) provides him with an alibi of sorts but the police still see Steele as their prime suspect. Captain Lochner thinks Dix did it because Dixon has a history of getting into bar fights. The fact that the kinds of guys who get into bar fights are not really the kinds of guys who commit this type of murder doesn’t seem to occur to him.

Dix and Laurel didn’t know each other at all. They were just neighbours who knew each other by sight. Now they find themselves thrown together and they fall in love, and Dix suddenly discovers he can write again. Everything would be going great, except that Dix has a murder rap hanging over his head and he keeps losing his temper.

Dix and Laurel become more and more romantically involved and the question of marriage arises. The police still think Dix is guilty. And Laurel has her doubts. It’s just a very vague suspicion at first but it keeps gnawing at her.

First things first. This is not a film noir. It has no film noir elements at all. Dix is not a classic noir protagonist. He’s just a pig and a jerk at the beginning of the picture and he doesn’t change. There’s no femme fatale. There are no flashbacks. There’s no noir visual style. There are a few night scenes but there’s nothing noirish about them. This is a melodrama. Usually I like melodramas so that’s not necessarily a problem, but a film noir it ain’t. It’s more Hitchcockian than film noir, with some thematic similarities to Suspicion.

The main problem is the character of Dixon Steele. He’s not just a pig and a jerk, he’s a whiny, self-pitying violent pig and a jerk. His friends keep making excuses for him but there’s nothing likeable or admirable about him. He’s selfish and self-centred. I suppose that because he’s a writer we’re supposed to see him as a tortured creative soul but really he doesn’t have enough redeeming qualities to make the viewer care very much what happens to him. Bogart makes Dix intermittently amusing but never sympathetic.

This means the movie has to rely entirely on Laurel - on her motivations, emotions and suspicions. It’s a complex part because Laurel is a woman who really doesn’t know herself what her true feelings are. She loves Dix and she should trust him, but she just can’t trust him no matter how hard she tries. Gloria Grahame’s performance is enough to save the film, but it’s still a film with some serious problems.

The movie is based on a novel of the same name by Dorothy B. Hughes but it had to go through a massive program of censoring and sanitising before Hollywood would touch it - ironically this practice of tearing the guts out of a story to make it safe and innocuous and cosy is just the sort of thing that would have driven Dixon Steele to start breaking heads and putting his fists through walls. So once again there are parallels to Hitchcock’s Suspicion, with Hollywood pusillanimity giving us soda pop instead of the raw Scotch of the original story. The response of the screenwriters of both Suspicion and In a Lonely Place was to abandon the original story entirely and instead offer quite different stories focused on ambiguity and suspicion. In both cases the central character is a woman in love with a man but she can’t love him fully because no matter how much she wants to believe he is innocent she has that nagging suspicion that he might be a killer. And in both cases the audience has the same nagging suspicions.

In Suspicion the central female character was in love with a man who had enough good qualities to make it entirely understandable that she would want to believe in his innocence. In a Lonely Place offers us no clue at all as to why Laurel would waste her time on a jerk like Dix.

And once again we find ourselves back with the problem of Hollywood’s determination to treat its audience like small children. There is one crucial factor missing that would make the film’s plot and the characters’ motivations make sense and that factor is sex. But this was Hollywood in 1950 and movies had to pretend that female sexuality did not exist. Dix’s motivations and Laurel’s motivations could have been made perfectly plausible had the movie been able to confront the question of sex honestly and openly. The only possible explanation for Laurel’s obsessive attraction to Dix is that his rebelliousness and in particular his violence excites her sexually, but of course the movie cannot even hint at such a thing.

The movie is also stymied in any attempt to explain Dix’s personal problems. Is there a sexual element? Or is the key to his personality the war? If you give a man a gun and teach him to be a killer will he revert to normality once the war is over? There is one tantalising scene that suggests that Dix’s problem is that the war taught him to automatically respond to any crisis with violence.

So what we have is definitely not a film noir but a Hitchcockian psychological suspense thriller that almost works but is only a partial success because the keys to the story, the motivations of the two lead characters, are just not quite convincing enough. It does however almost work and the ending does work extremely well. It’s an attempt to make a complex film dealing with complex emotions but Hollywood was still not prepared to treat its audience as grown-ups.

The ending of the film (which was not the original intended ending) provides more parallels to Hitchcock’s Suspicion and in both cases I’m inclined to think that the ending finally chosen was the best compromise possible at the time. The script went through drastic changes before filming began, in fact the earlier versions would have made a totally different film. It’s a worrying indication that nobody involved in the project had any clear idea of what kind of film they wanted to make or how they wanted to make it or what the characters were supposed to be all about. It’s likely that studio timidity and worries about the Production Code were responsible for the script chaos and for the fact that the finished film feels like an uneasy compromise.

A lot of the ambiguity which is admired in this movie may be nothing more than plot incoherence, an inevitable result with a script that was radically recast several times. There are important elements that just go nowhere. Early on it is made clear that much of Dix’s bitterness and violence are consequence of his Creative Struggle. He wants to be a Real Writer but his employers at the studio want him to churn out commercial pap. His latest assignment is to churn out a popular potboiler and this causes him intense Artistic Suffering. Dix’s friends justify his bad behaviour on this basis (as does Dix himself). He does complete the screenplay. But did he compromise his Artistic Principles or did he sell out? It seems vital that we know, but we’re not told. It’s as if this element has simply been forgotten, even though in the early stages it was established as one of the major themes of the film.

The Criterion DVD (they’ve released it on Blu-Ray as well) includes lots of extras. There’s an audio commentary by Dana Polan which is definitely best avoided. He’s obsessed with over-analysing every single frame of the movie, to the extent that he misses the big picture. Occasionally he’ll thrown in a snippet that is genuinely important and worth discussing but he doesn’t discuss it. He just goes back to his trite over-analysis of individual shots. The extras are bizarre

In a Lonely Place strikes me as a potentially great psycho-sexual thriller that was watered down into a reasonably competent suspense thriller. It’s an example of the same commercial compromises that Dix spends the whole movie wailing about. It’s still an interesting movie but I’m much less impressed the second time around and my opinion of Nicholas Ray as a film-maker declines with every Ray film that I see.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

Dial M for Murder (1954) - Hitchcock Friday #5

In the 1940s Hitchcock became obsessed by the idea of making a movie on a single set. I have no idea why since it involved the extreme danger that the resulting movie would be excessively stagey and excessively talky. And would be the complete antithesis of the pure cinema that Hitchcock wanted to create. I can only assume that he wanted to emphasise the artificiality of the medium. He made two attempt to put the idea into practice in the 40s with Lifeboat and Rope. Both were complete failures. In 1954 he tried again, with Dial M for Murder.

The result is, as you might expect, excessively stagey and excessively talky.

Hitchcock was also persuaded to make this movie in 3D. It only ever had a limited release in that format.

Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) is a recently retired tennis star who married Margot (Grace Kelly) for her money. The arrangement suited him perfectly. Until one day he discovered that she no longer loved him. More seriously, she had dealt with this situation by taking a lover. Her affair with American Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) started to look rather serious and Tony realised that if she left him he’d be faced with the worst nightmare he could possibly imagine - he might have to get a job. The obvious solution from Tony’s point of view is to kill Margot. Then he’ll get her money. Problem solved.

All he has to do is to find a fool-proof way of carrying out the murder and he comes up with an ingenious plan. He will blackmail an old college chum named Swan into carrying out the murder for him.

It all goes wrong. Rather than Swan killing Margot it ends with Margot killing Swan but the quick-thinking Tony comes up with a Plan B that is even more clever and ingenious - if Margot is hanged for Swan’s murder he will still inherit her money. She killed Swan in self-defence but he thinks he can make it look like murder.

So it’s a variation on one of Hitchcock’s favourite themes, the wrong man accused of a murder. In this case it’s a woman wrongly accused of murder. And since the woman is played by the glamorous and beautiful Grace Kelly the audience’s emotions are going to be fully engaged. No viewer of the movie wants to see Grace Kelly hanged.

There’s plenty of suspense as time is running out for poor Margot.

The staginess of the movie means that, unusually for a Hitchcock movie, absolutely everything depends on the performance. In fact everything depends on one performance - Ray Milland’s. He more or less has to carry the entire movie single handed. Fortunately he’s equal to the challenge. Milland is sometimes dismissed as a kind of poor man’s Cary Grant but for my money Milland had by far the more interesting career, largely because (unlike Cary Grant) he was prepared to play both sympathetic and unsympathetic characters. He’s in superb form here. He really is quite chilling and at the same time charming and amusing. Milland was much much too old to be convincing as a recently retired tennis star but this is a detail we can overlook.

Grace Kelly doesn’t get all that much to do, apart from looking fabulous. It’s really more of a supporting part than a leading lady part. What she does she does well.

Anthony Dawson (as Swan) is fun as a stereotypical public schoolboy gone bad. John Williams is a delight as Chief Inspector Hubbard and Robert Cummings is dull as Mark Halliday.

But the movie belongs entirely to Ray Milland.

The setup of the movie doesn’t allow Hitchcock to indulge in any of his famous spectacular visual set-pieces. It’s the acting and the script that matter. This is one of the rare cases when we can say that given the script and the actors any competent director could have made this movie quite successfully. Of course they wouldn’t have made it quite as well. It doesn’t quite feel like a Hitchcock movie. If movies like Strangers on a Train and Rear Window and Vertigo were Hitchcock’s symphonies, full-blooded Hitchcock guaranteed to knock the audience’s collective sicks off, Dial M for Murder is like a piece of chamber music. It’s like a string quartet. It’s low-key and unassuming and it’s not a big movie but it’s perfectly constructed and it works.

It’s possibly also fair to say that after I Confess in 1953 Hitchcock wanted a surefire hit that would put him back at the top of the hit parade, especially given that he was intending to make more ambitious movies (and his next picture, Rear Window, was very ambitious indeed). It doesn’t hurt to remind the studios of your ability to make solid commercial movies.

While Lifeboat and Rope failed Dial M for Murder succeeds because it’s not so extreme. It doesn’t use gimmickry to distract the audience. Hitchcock had a great story and he was content to focus on the plot.

And the plot really is very neat. With the kind of sting in the tail that Hitchcock enjoyed so much.

Dial M for Murder is just a very entertaining movie that you can just sit back and enjoy for pure pleasure. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Black Memory (1947)

Black Memory is a very low-budget 1947 British crime movie.

Danny Cruff (Michael Atkinson) has a rough start in life, in a provincial town in the north of England. His father is hanged for murder. Then his mother dies. Danny is shipped off to school. The school is a kind of combination of a reform school and a school for orphans, run on the thoroughly misguided principle that it’s a good idea to mix all the boys together even though some of them are little thugs in the making and some are perfectly decent.

The bane of Danny’s life is bully Johnnie Fletcher (Michael Medwin).

After his schooling is completed Danny returns to his home town and is taken in as a lodger by the kindly Mrs Davidson. Mrs Davidson and her husband Alf (who has an obsession with crime stories) have two grown-up adopted daughters, Joan and Sally.

The bad news for Danny is that Johnnie Fletcher is back in town as well.

Johnnie Fletcher is now an up-and-coming hoodlum. And Sally has been running with him. Sally is whiny and self-pitying and imagines that Johnnie will soon have lots of money and that he’ll take her away from her boring life and they’ll have an exciting life together. Sally is not the brightest of girls.

Joan is the good sister and she takes quite a shine to Danny.

Danny soon has lots of problems. A year earlier there’d been a robbery in a neighbouring town and Danny, although completely innocent, came under suspicion. Johnnie knows all about this and it gives him something to hold over Danny’s head. Johnnie has a factory robbery planned and he intends to force Danny to help him. Sally is going to be involved as well. Another man involved in this upcoming robbery is Rutford, and Rutford is linked to Danny’s past.

Because the past is what this movie is all about. Danny is trapped by his past. He’s trapped by a promise he made to his mother before she died and he’s haunted by the fear that he’ll end up like his old man, on the end of the hangman’s rope. And it looks like Johnnie is going to make sure that Danny’s past destroys him. But nobody can escape the past.

Danny isn’t completely stupid but getting out of this mess is going to be quite a challenge. Maybe he can find a way to escape the trap of his past, or maybe he can’t.

Michael Atkinson and Michael Medwin are both effective in their roles. Medwin is suitably menacing as Johnnie.

The most interesting thing about this movie is that it was scripted by John Gilling who went on to have a pretty good career as a writer and director (including directing some excellent horror films for Hammer in the 60s, films such as The Plague of the Zombies and the very underrated The Reptile). He also directed the extremely good film noir The Challenge in 1960 (which features a remarkably good performance by Jayne Mansfield as a lady gangster). He also directed the excellent spy noir Deadly Nightshade. Gilling also acted as assistant director on Black Memory.

Production values are very very low. This was obviously a quota quickie made on a shoestring budget and it shows.

This very obscure movie is readily available on DVD, being one of the films in the Renown Pictures Crime Collection Volume 1 boxed set. The transfer is acceptable but not great. Picture quality is mostly OK but there is intermittent print damage and the sound is a bit fuzzy. It’s quite watchable though.

Black Memory does have some slight claims to being a film noir (in fact it has better claims than a lot of other movies marketed as noir). It’s just a bit too cheap and a bit creaky in parts but it has some interest. If you’re going to buy the boxed set anyway it’s worth giving it a spin.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Young and Innocent (1937) - Hitchcock Friday #4

Young and Innocent was one of the series of great suspense films that Alfred Hitchcock made in Britain in the mid to late 1930s in which he established himself as one of the major creative talents in the world of motion pictures. The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are recognised as masterpieces but Young and Innocent is still often, very unfairly, dismissed as Hitchcock Lite. In fact it’s one of the key movies of his career. All the classic Hitchcockian features are there and he’s in complete control of his craft.

A young man named Robert Tisdall (Derrick de Marney) finds a dead woman washed up on a beach. He runs off. Moments later two young women see the body, and they see Robert running off. The police arrive and decide that Robert is the obvious suspect. They don’t believe his story that he thought the woman might still be alive and was running to get help.

We can see how a not very competent policeman inclined to jump to conclusions would see Robert as the prime suspect. We have strong reason to believe that Robert is innocent. We also have strong reason to believe we’ve seen the actual murderer. And we’ve seen the first clue.

The dead woman is movie star Christine Clay. And Robert knew her. That will count against him.

This is an early example of Hitchcock’s dislike of the police. In this instance the police are not malevolent. They are merely stupid, incompetent and lazy. With an obvious suspect in custody they are not interested in investigating the case properly.

The whole criminal justice system is farcically incompetent. Robert escapes from custody with contemptuous ease. Now he sets off to find a vital piece of evidence. On the road he encounters Erica Burgoyne (Nova Pilbeam) in her little motor car. She’s the Chief Constable’s daughter and he had already made her acquaintance while being questioned by the police. Now Erica has to decide whether to turn him in or help him. For various reasons she decides not to turn him in. Erica considers herself to be very good at identifying criminal types and she doesn’t think he looks like a murderer. She’s also kindhearted, the sort of girl likely to have more sympathy for the fox than for the hounds. Robert is also a good-looking charming young man which might have influenced her decision.

You also need to bear in mind the word young in the title. This is not just an attractive likeable couple on the run, they’re also young and rather naïve. Which of course makes us more sympathetic to them. Nova Pilbeam was just eighteen when this movie was made and we assume that her character is about that age. Her behaviour in the movie becomes completely plausible when we realise she’s a teenaged girl. Her whimsical romantic decision to help Robert becomes believable. She’s really not much more than a kid. We assume she’s probably never had a serious love affair before. When she finds that she’s rather attracted to Robert we can believe that she’s been carried away by a romantic fantasy. It’s the sort of adventure the heroine of a romance novel might have. Falling in love with an innocent man on the run!

While Robert is a little older he’s only slightly more mature, or perhaps even just as immature. But we forgive them both.

It might sound like I’m dismissing Erica as a silly child but what makes her so engaging as a character is that she’s simultaneously intelligent and experienced, resourceful and naïve, sensible and impulsive.

I like the relationship between Robert and Erica. It’s playful and affectionate and rather tender but without being sentimental or insipid.

I like Nova Pilbeam a lot in this movie. She’s definitely not a Hitchcock Ice Blonde. She’s too warmhearted for that but she’s lively and amusing.

Maybe de Marney and Pilbeam don’t have the star quality of Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps but they both have charm and they have extraordinary chemistry. You feel that Robert and Erica are just destined to fall in love. And this is a different type of couple on the run movie, it’s a more lighthearted movie with the emphasis more on the romance.

It could be objected that a weakness in the film is that there’s no initial antagonism between the two lead characters. It’s pretty much love at first sight. But that’s the sort of film this is. They’re like two children united against the adult world represented by Erica’s father. It’s not that her father is a bad man. He seems to be a loving and indulgent father but he represents the system of police and courts and laws that can destroy the lives of innocent people. He’s an authority figure and to Hitchcock authority figures are inherently suspect. Both Robert and Erica are somewhat child-like. They both have a childish faith that they will win out in the end because they’re young and in love.

Erica never wavers in her belief in Robert’s innocence. Again it could be objected that it would add dramatic tension if she had a few doubts but much of the enjoyment in this movie comes from the fact that it’s Erica and Robert vs the grown-up world.

The bond between Erica and Robert makes perfect sense. It’s established early on that she’s a sensitive girl who is horrified by violence. Her ideal man is clearly going to be Robert, who is unfailingly gentle towards her. And Robert wants a woman on whom he can shower affection, and he doesn’t mind at all that sometimes she mothers him.

Hitchcock was already ware that he had to appeal to female audiences and this is to a considerable extent a women’s picture. It’s a female coming-of-age movie. At the start Erica is just a girl. She’s had a safe and comfortable but very narrow and very sheltered upbringing. She unquestioningly accepts her father’s view of the world - that the innocent have nothing to fear from the police, that she should accept her father’s authority, that she should obey all the social rules. She believes her father is always right. By the end of the movie she is a woman. She now knows that life is much more complicated, that the innocent do have reason to fear the police, that social rules don’t have to accepted without question, that life is full of shades of grey, that her father can be wrong, that she has to choose the man she wants. And she chooses a man very different from her father. She has, in a couple of days, grown up.

The alternative title, The Girl Was Young, makes it quite clear that the film is all about Erica. She is indeed young but she’s about to enter the adult world.

Young and Innocent was based on Josephine Tey’s novel A Shilling for Candles. Tey was a second-tier mystery novelist who is now quite highly thought of although personally I can’t imagine why. In any case, as with most Hitchcock adaptations, the movie differs markedly from the novel. Charles Bennett and Edwin Greenwood wrote the screenplay.

Network’s DVD offers a reasonable transfer and includes a short documentary on Hitchcock’s British films.

This is also both a “wrong man accused of a crime” story and “couple on the run” movie but, as I said earlier, it’s very much a coming-of-age movie.

The famous visual set-piece in this movie is the wonderful crane shot at the end but the slightly earlier set-piece in the old mine is in its own way just as dazzling and it’s refreshingly original. Hitchcock was already very confident of his ability to pull off these moments of visual brilliance. This is a movie made by a man who had already achieved an extraordinary mastery of the art of film-making. Everything works the way it should and everything works the way Hitchcock knew it would work.

Young and Innocent is a wonderful romantic adventure thriller. This is a genuine feelgood Hitchcock movie. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Time Lock (1957)

I have absolutely no idea how Time Lock came to be included in a film noir boxed set (it’s in Kino Lorber’s British Noir II set). This 1957 British thriller has no conceivable connection with film noir. It’s not even a crime thriller. The film noir label gets attached to all sorts of movies that have nothing to do with film noir but this may be the most spectacular case of mislabelling that I’ve ever come across.

That’s not to say that Time Lock is a bad movie. It’s just not a crime movie. It’s a “rescuers racing against time” thriller.

It’s Friday afternoon and the manager and chief accountant of the South York branch of the Crown Canada Bank in Toronto are closing up the vault. The accountant, Colin Walker (Lee Patterson) has just set the vault’s time lock. Just as they’re about to swing the door closed there is a car accident. While everybody is distracted Walker’s six-year-old son Stephen sneaks into the vault unnoticed. The door is swung shut before anybody realises the boy is inside.

The time lock means that the vault cannot be opened until 9 o’clock Monday morning - that means the boy will be locked in the vault for sixty-three hours. But there’s nowhere near enough air in the vault to last sixty-three hours. The air might last ten hours. It might last a little longer than that, there’s no way of being sure.

And there’s no way to open the time lock. As Colin Walker explains, that’s the reason banks use time locks. They’re fool-proof.

The time lock cannot be opened but if the boy is to be saved they’re going to have to open it.

The main hope lies in contacting Pete Dawson. He’s the bank’s vault expert. If anyone can find a way to defeat the time lock it’s Pete Dawson. That’s if they can find a way to contact him on the weekend, which means they’d have to know where he is and that’s exactly what they don’t know.

The police have been called but they have no way to open the time lock either.

Until Pete Dawson can be found the only thing to do is to try to cut through the vault door with acetylene torches. The problem is that the vault was specifically designed to make it impossible to cut through the door. The door isn’t just steel, it’s steel backed by layers of other metals which apparently makes it all but impossible to burn though.

The other option is to go through the walls of the vault but the walls are composed of fourteen inches of reinforced concrete interspersed with four layers of steel bars. Again, the walls were designed to be impossible to break through. The vault is in fact impregnable.

There doesn’t seem to be any weakness in the design of the vault but if there is a weakness Pete Dawson will find it. But Pete Dawson has not yet been found.

This movie puts the parents of the boy, and the audience, through the emotional wringer. The people working feverishly to rescue young Stephen Walker have no idea if he is still alive, and the audience doesn’t know either.

The drama has become a huge news story, with a huge crows gathered outside the bank and with countless people following the drama on the radio. That proves to be an advantage - the radio station is able to broadcast messages which makes it possible to assemble the equipment needed for the rescue bid, and volunteers are recruited from the crowd to work on breaking through the vault.

The acting reaches no great heights. Lee Patterson was a fine actor who could play villains or heroes or simply men caught up in nightmarish situations but he simply isn’t given anything to work with here. The characters are undeveloped. Which may perhaps have been intentional - it’s the race against time that matters here and too much focus on the characters would have been a distraction. Look out for Sean Connery in a small part.

The setup for this movie is vaguely reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole but the tone couldn’t be more different. Ace in the Hole is a deeply cynical misanthropic movie. The characters in Time Lock by contrast are all decent people doing their best. Even the radio reporter is genuinely anxious to help. The mood might be grim and tense as time runs out for the boy but Time Lock has a certain optimism about human nature. Whether the boy will be saved or not we don’t know but in this crisis people work together to at least try to save him.

Director Gerald Thomas was best known for the Carry On movies but he was actually quite versatile. In the same year he directed Time Lock he directed the extremely good crime thriller The Vicious Circle (also included in this Kino Lorber set). In Time Lock he certain shows that he knew how to build tension. His brother Peter Thomas wrote the script, based on a play by Arthur Hailey (better known for his novels Airport and Hotel).

Kino Lorber’s transfer is excellent. The movie was shot in black-and-white in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Time Lock is a very effective emotional suspense thriller with no crimes and no villains. It’s a low budget movie with only a couple of sets. It works because it’s so basic - the central idea is excellent and the movie is tightly focused on that one central idea. There’s no characterisation and no bravura acting performances to distract from what is a very simple but very effective plot. This is movie-making stripped down to the bare essentials. And it just works. All it has going for it is a good story, and that’s enough.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Hitchcock Friday #3: Marnie (1964)

Hitchcock was well and truly on a roll at the time he made Marnie. North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds - not just major successes but movies that to some extent redefined their genres. North by Northwest took the spy film out of the shadows and the fog and sleazy back alleys and brought it out into the bright sunshine and added lots of style and wit. This was a world of rich sophisticated spies. It upped the ante for action-adventure spy movies. Psycho was a sensation, a 1960 feature film not merely made in black-and-white and in the old Academy aspect ratio but made in the style of his successful TV series. And it upped the ante in screen violence. The Birds challenged genre definitions - is it a science fiction movie or a horror movie? And Hitchcock dared to make such a movie without providing the audience with any explanations. The events depicted in the movie are as enigmatic at the end as they were at the start.

And then came Marnie. To some it’s the last truly great Hitchcock film. And it was also something of a sensation. It’s a psycho-sexual thriller with the emphasis on the sex. The whole movie is about sex.

Marnie (Tippi Hedren) is a thief and a liar. Having just stolen $10,000 from one employer she gets a job with the Rutland publishing company. She’s intending to rob them as well. She has however reckoned without Mark Rutland (Sean Connery). Her previous victims had been easy. They’d been entranced by her beauty and had no idea she was setting them up to rob them. Mark Rutland is certainly not indifferent to her feminine charms but he has Marnie’s game figured out more or less from the beginning. He’s playing a game with her. It amuses him and it excites him.

The key scene in the movie is the one in which Marnie sees a photo of a cat on Mark’s desk. He tells her the cat is a jaguarundi and that he’s trained her. When he tells her that the only thing he has trained her to do is to trust him Marnie is unimpressed. Mark points out that learning to trust is a very big thing if you’re a jaguarundi. He clearly intends to train Marnie the same way. He intends to train her to trust him.

It all sounds vaguely sinister but in fact, in both cases, Mark’s intentions are not sinister at all. It is in the best interests of the jaguarundi to learn to trust him. His feelings for the cat are entirely tender. He likes caring for frightened wild animals. And it’s in Marnie’s best interests to learn to trust him. She is a frightened wild animal and he genuinely cares for her.

As you may have gathered the political incorrectness levels of this movie are off the scale. These days you would hardly get away with a movie in which the hero trains a woman the way he trains an animal.

Marnie feels the way the cat felt at first - trapped and bewildered.

Training Marnie proves to be quite a challenge. It’s obvious from the start that she is terrified of men and that the reason for this is that she is terrified of sex.

They end up marrying, possibly a bad decision for both of them. The marriage is, predictably, a disaster. Marnie refuses to have sex with him. Mark is determined not to give up, he is convinced that her problems can be solved, but he soon finds he has even bigger problems to deal with as Marnie’s past catches up with her.

Casting Sean Connery was a masterstroke. Mark has to be incredibly charming and sexy. We have to believe that he is so charming and masculine and sexy that Marnie, in spite of her fears, cannot help being attracted to him, and that in spite of her terror of sex she does feel some physical attraction towards him. In 1964 there weren’t too many women who could have resisted Sean Connery. But Mark also has to be fundamentally kind. He really does not want to hurt Marnie. Connery gets this across very effectively.

Tippi Hedren has a tricky rôle which she handles extremely well. Marnie has to be convincingly sexually repressed, a woman who never lets her guard down around men. At the same time we have to believe that under the repressed exterior she has a woman’s normal emotional and sexual feelings. She is the iciest of Hitchcock’s Ice Blondes but she has to convince us that there’s fire beneath the ice. Marnie is also a very unsympathetic character. The root cause of her problems is not her fault but she won’t let anyone help her and she reacts nastily and aggressively when someone does try to help her. And she just goes on lying. It’s probably a realistic portrayal of such a disturbed woman and you have to give Hedren credit for being prepared to let us see Marnie’s unpleasant side.

Marnie fits into a sub-genre of which I’m strangely fond - the psychoanalytic mystery thriller. The delicious thing about Hollywood psychoanalytic mystery thrillers is that they always get the psychoanalytic stuff hopelessly garbled and throw a lot of delightfully nonsensical psychobabble at us. In Marnie the psychological motivations are at least plausible. Sexual dysfunction resulting from some shocking event in the person’s past is plausible enough.

At the time audiences would also have been quite willing to see Marnie’s kleptomania as sexual in origin.

Marnie changed the rules of this genre by putting the focus squarely on sex. Marnie is not mad. The only thing wrong with her is her sexual problem, but it’s a problem that is blighting her life. She does love Mark but their marriage is not going to work until she learns to embrace the sexual side of marriage.

The film was based on Winston Graham’s novel Marnie which gives a lot more of Marnie’s backstory. The novel is worth reading.

My theory on Hitchcock is that he made his 60s movies at the wrong time. Torn Curtain was made in 1966 at the height of Bond Fever but it feels like a 1950s spy movie. Marnie should perhaps have been made a couple of years later. In 1964 the Production Code was crumbling but Hitchcock still had to pull his punches a little when dealing with the sexual aspects which are the core of the movie. A couple of years later he could have given it just a bit more of a sexual charge.

The extras on the DVD include fascinating interviews with Joseph Stefano, who wrote the original treatment, and Evan Hunter who was hired to write the screenplay and subsequently fired by Hitchcock. Both writers disliked changes that Hitchcock made to the story. When you watch the movie it’s obvious that they were dead wrong and Hitchcock was right. Hunter disliked the scene in which Mark rapes Marnie. Hitchcock, correctly, saw it as crucial. Stefano was unhappy that the psychiatrist character was eliminated for the movie. Personally I’m thankful that Hitchcock again made the correct decision and eliminated a character who could only have been tedious, unnecessary and annoying.

Marnie basically works because Hitchcock knew how to make the story work. His instincts were correct, and the movie had quite an impact at the time. It’s one of Hitch’s most interesting films and it’s highly recommended.

Other great psychoanalytic mystery thrillers are of course Hitchcock’s own Spellbound and (to a lesser extent) Psycho, the obscure but interesting Bewitched (1945), Shock (1946, with Vincent Price) and Otto Preminger’s criminally underrated Whirlpool (1949).

Monday, November 8, 2021

Lisbon (1956)

Lisbon was Ray Milland’s second picture as producer and director and he starred in the film as well. It was made by Republic Pictures and was shot in Republic’s budget version of Cinemascope and in colour. With an impressive cast and a lot of location shooting in Portugal this was a fairy ambitious production.

Aristides Mavros (Claude Rains) is a very rich and very successful businessman operating entirely on the wrong side of the law in Lisbon. In a clever opening sequence we learn everything we need to know about him - he is smooth, manipulative, ruthless and totally lacking in any sense of morality. He is also charming and intelligent.

Mavros is concerned about the activities of a rival smuggler, Captain Jack Evans (Ray Milland). He decides that he needs to find out a great deal more about Jack Evans so he offers him $10,000 to carry out a simple errand.

All Jack has to do is collect a package from an American woman when she arrives in Portugal. The woman is Sylvia Merrill (Maureen O’Hara). We discover that Mrs Merrill is in Portugal to try to get her husband back. Mr Merrill is a very wealthy businessman who is currently in prison in an Eastern Bloc country. Sylvia Merrill has tried to get the US State Department to help her but she has become impatient with their unsuccessful efforts. She has decided to pay Mavros a quarter of a million dollars to arrange for her husband’s escape.

Mavros proudly tells Sylvia that his family have been thieves for six generations. He is a thief, but he is a reliable thief.

Mrs Merrill really does want her husband back. Of course Mavros points out that if Mr Merrill were to meet with a fatal accident Mrs Merrill would then be a beautiful and very very rich widow. Sylvia Merrill is horrified by the suggestion. Such an idea had never occurred to her.

This movie proceeds in a somewhat leisurely manner but that’s necessary in order to make us aware of the conflicting motivations of the characters and the complicated situation in the Mavros household. Mavros has a secretary named Selwyn who carries out all the duties such a post requires. Mavros also has four other secretaries, all young and female. They don’t appear to have any actual duties at all. At least, no secretarial duties.

Mavros treats his employees with a mixture of generosity and whimsicality with some dashes of emotional manipulation and cruelty. He buys the four girls gorgeous dresses but if they misbehave he burns their favourite dresses.

One of these secretaries, Maria Madalena (Yvonne Furneaux) misbehaves frequently. The situation quickly becomes more complicated. Mavros’s very dangerous bodyguard/henchman Serafim (Francis Lederer) is obsessed with Maria Madalena but Maria Madalena is becoming obsessed with Captain Jack Evans. And there’s a bit of a mutual obsession developing between Evans and Mrs Merrill. There’s plenty of potential here for trouble.

Captain Evans has the job of picking up Sylvia Merrill’s husband, having been chosen for this task because his boat, the Orca, is fast enough to outrun any official vessels that might try to interfere. And at this stage we’re not quite sure which way any of the key characters is going to jump.

The exotic settings (the movie was shot entirely in Portugal) help a good deal. Milland handles the directing duties very capably although the pacing is just a little slow at times.

The acting is a major plus. Claude Rains has the plum rôle as the charmingly immoral Mavros and he makes the most of it. Ray Milland is an effective hero as Evans, a man who is a bit of a villain himself but who is not quite sure just how villainous he’s prepared to be. Maureen O’Hara is nicely ambiguous as Mrs Merrill. Yvonne Furneaux is, as usual, extremely good as the feisty eccentric and totally unpredictable Maria Madalena.

Kino Lorber’s DVD release (they’re released this one on Blu-Ray as well) looks pretty good and this is apparently the first time the movie has been available in a decent transfer in the correct aspect ratio. There’s an informative audio commentary by Toby Roan.

Lisbon is not a great movie by any means but it’s an entertaining low-key thriller with some very fine performances. It’s definitely recommended, especially for those who like their thrillers set in exotic locations.

Another pretty favourable view of this movie can be found at Riding the High Country.

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Hitchcock Friday #2 Rear Window (1954)

There aren’t too many films more daunting to review than Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, released by Paramount in 1954. It is almost universally regarded as one of Hitchcock’s best films (there are those who rate it as his best) and apart from Vertigo it’s unlikely that any Hitchcock movie has had so much written about it.

The plot is simple and since there are very few people who haven’t seen this movie it can be disposed of quickly. L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is a news photographer recuperating from a broken leg. He’s basically immobile and he’s bored and grumpy. His only amusement is watching the neighbours in the apartment building opposite. He thinks he sees a murder and the question then is what to do about it and how to convince the police that there really has been a murder. His girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) gets caught up in the drama that then unfolds.

That this is a movie about voyeurism is of course perfectly obvious, and it’s equally obvious that not only is Jeff a voyeur, we in the audience become voyeurs as well. As does Hitchcock. But then movie-making and movie-viewing are essentially voyeuristic. This movie does go a bit beyond that - what matters is that voyeurs often misunderstand what they see.

It has to be emphasised that Jeff is not just a guy who happens to notice the goings-on in the apartments opposite. He watches his neighbours obsessively. And given that several of those neighbours are attractive young women who are often unaware that they are being observed while they wander about their apartments half-naked (and we assume that at times they’re probably completely naked) it’s fair to say that there is an element of sexual voyeurism in Jeff’s apartment-watching activities. Hitchcock emphasises this right at the start by including what is as close as you’ll get in a 1954 Hollywood movie to a nude scene. Although the woman (Jeff refers to her as Miss Torso) has her back to the camera she is clearly topless. It’s an important moment because Hitchcock is making it quite clear that one of the attractions of this voyeurism hobby for Jeff is seeing young ladies naked.

The 50s was the decade in which Jimmy Stewart shed his wholesome homespun image and started taking darker rôles for directors such as Hitchcock and Anthony Mann. Often very dark rôles. This change of image started badly with Stewart being horribly miscast in Hitchcock’s Rope and making a complete hash of his performance. By 1954 Stewart had however discovered how to really burrow into the darkest recesses of the souls of his characters.

Let’s be honest. Jeff is not a nice guy. Given his frustration at his immobility we can perhaps excuse his being bad-tempered but he is frequently cruel to Lisa. She is a woman whose feelings are easily hurt and Jeff seems to delight in hurting her. OK, we get it that he is worried about being trapped into marriage (he hates the idea of giving up his globe-trotting lifestyle as a roving press photographer) but he’s obviously keen to continue the relationship without marrying her. This was 1954, when married couples in Hollywood movies still slept in separate beds, so we can’t be given any indication that Jeff and Lisa might be sleeping together. Even if we forgive him for stringing her along it’s hard to forgive him for being rather nasty about it.

One thing you have to do with Hollywood movies made during the days of the Production Code is read between the lines when it comes to personal relationships. The relationship between Jeff and Lisa had to be portrayed, on the surface, in a way that would not upset the moral busybodies of the time. So, on the surface, Jess has been too busy with his career to be distracted by sex and Lisa is a virgin who is saving herself for her wedding night. Given the social milieus that Jeff and Lisa inhabit we might be inclined to be very sceptical that their relationship has remained non-sexual. There is one tantalising hint. When Lisa makes her first appearance in the movie she just suddenly appears in Jeff’s apartment while he’s dozing. The most logical explanation is that she has a key and she let herself in, which would imply that their relationship is more intimate than it appears to be on the surface.

Hitchcock teases us about their relationship. Lisa decides to stay the night in Jeff’s apartment and we’re obviously meant to doubt whether they’re going to be able to keep their hands off each other. Hitchcock wasn’t allowed to be overt about sex but he sure knew how to tease.

Jeff is a middle-aged man who wants the carefree irresponsible lifestyle of youth. And of course he’s a Peeping Tom. So not a very sympathetic character at all, although he does soften as the film progresses. Maybe he starts to grow up, or maybe his feelings towards Lisa become a bit more protective.

Rear Window resembles Suspicion in being a movie about the obsessive nature of suspicion and the way it grows, often based on very thin evidence. If we could all see glimpses into other people’s private lives we would probably misinterpret everything we saw and construct wild fantasies about those people’s lives. Jumping to conclusions is human nature.

Rear Window is also about relationships and the difficulty of finding a relationship that satisfies both parties. In those apartment that Jeff watches there are failed marriages, stormy marriages, lonely people who wish they were married and happy marriages. Jeff’s conclusions about the lives of the people he watches are usually wrong. He likes watching people but he doesn’t understand them too well. He certainly doesn’t understand women. He will have to learn to understand Lisa.

And maybe Lisa needs to learn a bit more about Jeff. At the end we’re left thinking that maybe they’ll learn to compromise, and maybe they won’t. Their love has been strengthened but we can’t help feeling that they’re still wildly incompatible.

Rear Window is of course a technical triumph. That huge amazing set was built was knocking out the floor of a sound stage - they needed the basement as well to accommodate the set. What really matters is the way Hitchcock uses that set. He uses it to give us information but the information is sometimes deliberately misleading. Like Jeff we can watch these people but we’re likely to misinterpret what we see.

One of the things that I find really intriguing is that at the end of the movie we don’t know much more about Jeff’s neighbours than we knew at the beginning. We’re still only seeing them through Jeff’s eyes and he’s been wrong before. We get what appears to be a resolution of Miss Torso’s story but it’s actually very very ambiguous. We never hear Thorvald’s side of the story. And most crucially we don’t even know if Jeff and Lisa are going to get married or whether their relationship has a future. We don’t get a neat Hollywood resolution for anything.

This is a movie about murder, sex and love. Three things that Hitchcock was extremely interested in (and of course he knew that audiences shared these interests). And it’s just about perfect.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Barnacle Bill (1957)

Barnacle Bill (AKA All At Sea) is a very late Ealing comedy starring Alec Guinness. It was directed by Charles Frend with a script by T.E.B. Clarke. Guinness apparently wasn’t pleased with it but it’s actually quite charming.

Guinness plays Captain William Horatio Ambrose, a man whose ancestors all had distinguished careers in the Royal Navy. Ambrose naturally joined the navy himself but then made an appalling discovery. He suffered from seasickness. He suffered so severely from seasickness that he was unable to go to sea at all. He spent the war in a shore posting (testing seasickness remedies for the Navy). He remained in the Navy after the war, reaching the rather high rank of Captain. But due to his disability he naturally never held a seagoing command. Having now retired from the service he has decided it is finally time for him to have his own command and he invests his life savings in his new ship. Only it isn’t a ship, it’s a rundown seaside amusement pier. But he can at least derive some vicarious enjoyment from the presence of the sea all around him.

Captain Ambrose naturally decides to run the pier on strictly naval lines, much to the amusement of most of his employees (apart from Tommy, an ex-Navy man who is delighted to be appointed as First Officer).

Ambrose decides he’s going to live aboard the pier and he takes up residence in the Crazy Cottage.

Ambrose has plans to revitalise the pier but he runs into strong opposition from the corrupt and petty authoritarian local council. Ambrose is not dismayed. He has the Nelson spirit. He presses ahead with his plans, which lead to increasingly zany situations including an epic bloodless naval battle.

The town of Sandcastle is a rather dull place, mainly due to the fact that the council is as moralistic as it is corrupt. Fun is hard to find in Sandcastle. Ambrose intends to change that. He has plans for a dance hall and a bar. The young people of the town seem at first to be juvenile delinquents but actually they’re just bored. Captain Ambrose converts them from enemies into friends and allies.

Amrose could have been merely a ridiculous figure but he’s not played that way. He is actually a man of firm resolve and steely determination. Britannia did not rule the waves by surrendering to tyrants. Guinness manages to make Ambrose a very amusing figure but with genuine dignity. We laugh with Captain Ambrose, not at him.

The supporting cast is more than adequate.

The pier itself is a star attraction, being gradually transformed from a seedy run-down semi-ruin to a kind of luxury cruise liner, albeit a stationary one.

This is in fact a very good-natured movie. Apart from the local councillors, who are a cowardly, pettifogging and money-grubbing lot, the characters are all played in much the same way - they are humorous but very likeable.

There’s a mix of verbal and physical humour and while it’s not always laugh-out-loud funny it is is consistently chuckle-inducing. It even has a message - never back down to petty tyrants and never give up. But the message is never laboured and the emphasis is on lighthearted amusement.

The problem with this movie is that you’re likely to be tempted to compare it to the truly great Ealing comedies. It isn’t quite in that league. It has a certain charm, it’s an amusing feelgood movie, it has some fine visual moments and it has Alec Guinness in fine fettle.

Kino Lorber have released this one on DVD paired with another nautical-themes Alec Guinness comedy, The Captain’s Paradise. There are no extras but for a reasonable price you get two movies and you get excellent transfers.

If you enjoy the 1950s style of British comedy then you’ll want to buy this set. And you’ll find Barnacle Bill rather delightful in its own low-key way. Recommended.