Monday, February 21, 2011

Two More by Hitchcock

Over the weekend I saw two more early Hitchcock films...

On Saturday it was the 1934 version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, which is the only film that Hitch remade on his own. In some ways I prefer the original, as it lacks the presence of Doris Day, who I find grating, but the remake did flesh out the plot a bit more at the beginning.

Opening in snowy St. Moritz, we're shown the vacationing Lawrences, Bob (Leslie Banks), Jill (Edna Best), and daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam), and family friend Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay). Jill is a crack shot, which comes into play later. One evening, Jill and Louis are dancing when he's shot through the window. Dying, he manages to gasp out a message to Jill, and while Bob is finding a message hidden in the handle of Louis' shaving brush, Betty is kidnapped and the Lawrences are sternly informed to stay quiet or she will die.

Returning to London, they're contacted by a government official...the guy's from the Foreign Office, and Louis was One Of Our Men (I just LOOOOVVVVE these old days of gentlemen spies working for the Foreign Office...). While the Lawrences are at first reluctant to get involved, he impresses on them that the scheme is afoot to assassinate a foreign leader, and it could very well lead to another war.

Bill eventually sets off on his own with a friend, finding a clue at a dentist's office, and finally spotting gang leader Abbott (Peter Lorre, in his English-language film debut), and eventually following them to a crackpot church of sun worshipers.

Both films have the famous Albert Hall scene, with the same music (the "Storm Clouds Cantata" from the film's composer Arthur Benjamin, which Bernard Herrmann lovingly recycled for the remake). However, the aftermath is different; in this version, there's a savage police siege and shoot-out at the villain's church lair. This scene was inspired by the 1911 "Siege of Sidney Street" that was a shootout between police and criminals on the streets of London (with all sorts of political undertones). And Jill's expertise with firearms comes in very handy...a parallel with the remake, because in both films it's the wife's talents that save the child's life. (The remake makes more of a point that the wife's talents and career have been subsumed by her marriage and not allowed to come into play, something not really played up by the original.)

It was a lot of fun; I enjoyed it, especially the St. Moritz scenes (I'm a sucker for snowy alpine scenery). This was from a time when Hitch's recognizable style was truly beginning to come together.

Sunday was NUMBER 17, from 1932. It's technically cruder than MAN, by leaps and bounds, and has undeniable story problems, but there's quite a bit about it that I like. It opens with a man standing outside a vacant house (the "number 17" of the title) and seeing a light moving, and going in to investigate. The light is from a sailor who's seeking a place to crash for the night, but the presence of a seeming corpse on the top landing creates tension between them. More people show up...the daughter of a policeman who had snuck into the house earlier, and a trio of suspicious characters who seem to be having some sort of rendezvous there. It seems there was a daring robbery of a famous necklace, and it's hidden somewhere in the house. The gang plans to recover the necklace and hop a nearby train to start over on the Continent (implicitly, Germany, which must have seemed unpatriotic at the time).

The scenes in the house are fabulous; Hitch was having fun with the play of light and shadow, and I just loved that set. It made me want to skulk about with a candle, in a vast empty house, on a bleak windy day. But the characters are underdeveloped; we never know exactly who or what these people are. Were they ALL involved in the theft of the necklace? Were only a few of them? Why is the hero so determined to save the life of the deaf/mute woman who isn't really deaf/mute?

In the second half, it suddenly shifts tone and becomes a frenzied chase thriller. The criminals hop on a train, which races across the countryside and eventually is out of control after the villains knock out the engineer (why would they do that?). Amusingly, the hero hijacks a tour bus and races after them (the reactions of the passengers is beyond precious). It all ends in a big conflagration that's a bit out of synch with the beginning of the movie, but oh well.

A big problem is the speeded-up nature of the fight scenes and the train chase; it looks clunky and dated. The atmosphere of the early scenes in the old house are great, though, and I found myself relishing them immensely.

Interestingly, it's based on a play. And I found that it's a film Hitchcock didn't want to make and later in life actively hated. His reluctance shines through, but his skill with some parts is undeniable. Maybe that's why it's so technically crude?

It's fairly obscure Hitchcock, not shown often. Catch it if you can and see what you think.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Livin' la Vie de Boheme

So I took a break in my new breakneck pace of posting (not sure why I've cranked it up, I just have), mainly because I was madly scrambling from one thing to another. I went out Wednesday night with the local skeptic's group, Thursday night was a gallery opening for my friend Todd, and Friday night was a concert at the Red Palace. (By the way, Hellblinki rocks.) Saturday I slept in and did some used-book shopping, but when evening rolled around I was too exhausted to do anything. And today was a total schlumpfest.

In the last few years I've managed to make friends with a lot of people in the arts and performance worlds around here, and it's made life a lot more interesting. And I've been happy for that; there were many nights I used to sit around feeling lonely and sorry for myself, and I barely have time for that these days. There are times when I'm almost grateful for a Friday or Saturday night at home alone.

Wait, someone's asking if I got anything good used-book shopping yesterday. Well, some decent stuff. A handful of paperbacks, including THE GHOST STORIES OF EDITH WHARTON and FAMOUS GHOST STORIES edited by Bennett Cerf. And a small stack of hardcovers, including Bill Pronzini's GUN IN CHEEK, a literary anthology called THE BACHELOR'S COMPANION (which I found out is a sort of "best-of" grouping from a defunct magazine called THE SMART SET), and my best find, another anthology, AND THE DARKNESS FALLS, edited by Boris Karloff! I got it for $2, and the cheapest copy I could find on abebooks is just over $40.

(Alas, the copy I found is missing its dust jacket...)

And tomorrow is Valentine's Day. Feh. More often than not, I'm single on V-day, and will be again this year (although I'm starting to get out a bit every now and then, meeting guys here and there, and had quite a bit of luck last month with a chap from Chicago...). However, I'm not torn up about it; I've actually got to a point where I no longer care if I'm single for the rest of my life or not, which is quite a change from years when V-day meant week-long spells of depression and self-loathing and crying jags and all that. seems that a lot of people I know are dealing with divorces, or reeling from recent breakups, and one acquaintance is coping with how today would have been her late husband's 52nd birthday. One friend has a double dose of V-day and his own birthday tomorrow, and his wife moved out Friday, getting the divorce proceedings started. So instead of wallowing in my own pain, I worry about them. I wish I could bring them all together for a nice dinner or something, but the best I can do is let them know I'm thinking of them and hope the best for them, and raise a glass in their honor.

OK, just to end on a slightly goofy note, for some reason I looked up Wikipedia's entry on Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock, and have fallen in lust with his photo. If you look like this, drop me a message.

And be prepared to mix a mean martini.

OK, enough personal stuff...more fun on the way!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

At the Cinema: Hitch's MURDER!

Coming the year after BLACKMAIL, MURDER! is Hitchcock in experimental mode. He indulges in several visual tricks that are reminiscent of Bunuel. The story and action aren't as satisfactory, though, and one gets the impression that now that he'd more or less mastered sound, he didn't have to communicate as much through action and instead could play around with the visual aspects of the film.

Diana Baring, an actress in a traveling troupe, is arrested for the bludgeoning death of a fellow actress. She's quickly tried and convicted, although a member of the jury, Sir John Menier (Herbert Marshall), harbors doubts and, as we later learn, once met the defendant and harbors feelings for her. (Naturally, that should have prevented him from being on the jury, but oh well.) There is a great scene as the rest of the jury pressures him to convict; it's actually closer to musical theater.

And, in fact, theater plays a huge role in this. Not only is there backstage intrigue and dressing room evidence, but visual tricks, such as a curtain raising only to reveal Diana sitting in her cell, not to mention the final visual of a closing curtain.

Sir John, tormented by his doubts, hires a member of the troupe who, with his wife, witnessed an odd scene at the initial discovery, and with their help tracks down clues that lead to the identity of the real murderer.

The visual tricks get a little weird at times. When a man walks into Sir John's apartment, intimidated by everything he sees, we're shown his feet sinking into the carpet, as if they put the rug over a mattress. There's also occasional cuts, like at one point when Sir John wonders about going to an inn to spend the night, and there's a quick cut to a nicely laid table.

But there's also bits where Hitch seems unsure of himself. There's a lot of awkward pauses and scenes that go on for waaaaay too long. There is a great bit where Sir John stands by a theater talking to a compatriot, and in the background is a poster for a play called "Nothing But the Truth." One significant bit is when Sir John is shaving and you hear his thoughts in voice-over format; nothing new to us today, but that was actually a radical notion and the first time that sort of narrative device was ever used.

Spoilers in this paragraph....the worst part of the film is how very badly dated it is, because the murder was motivated by the murderer seeking to prevent a woman from telling the truth about him, that he's mixed race. (Or, as they put it in the film, a "half-caste.") And just to make him even more unsavory, we're shown how he performs a circus act in drag. It's a sort of thing I'm not crazy about, when a villain is shown or hinted to be gay or bi for no other reason than to make them seem even more twisted and disgusting. Ick.

MURDER! isn't one of Hitch's best, but it's interesting as a stepping-stone in the development of his style.

Monday, February 7, 2011

INFECTED by Scott Sigler

This isn't normally the kind of thing I review here, but what the hell, I enjoyed it, and there's some interesting issues raised by it, so here I go.

So some folks are getting a skin problem, itching like crazy and unable to control it. And it seems as it progresses, they become paranoid and violent, lashing out at those close to them. And when they die, they decompose quickly.

Germ warfare story? Not when author Scott Sigler zooms in on former football player Perry Dawsey, who's stuck in a stultifying cubicle job after a career-ending knee injury. Perry starts itching, then starts finding blue triangular growths on his skin. Then, horrifyingly, he starts hearing voices in his head, voices that appear to come from the growths...but just you wait for when their eyes open...

Dawsey's story is interspersed with the story of the CDC doctor and her entourage who are investigating the disease...and the conclusions they come to are bone-chilling.

It's great fun. One the surface, it starts off as a story of disease and possible bioterrorism (and is obviously inspired by Morgellons syndrome), but ends up in a tale of alien invasion. And it's cool because I've read about how Sigler sought to make the creatures as biologically plausible as possible.

Deeper down, it may be a bit eyebrow-raising for some. Dawsey is a fountain of unresolved rage; he survived an abusive childhood, was known for his savagery on the gridiron, and now has a hairtrigger temper. But ultimately, instead of conquering that rage, it's that very rage that enables him to deal with what's happening to him...even though he does steadily slide into insanity.

And here's something different; I didn't read this, I listened to it. Sigler is super-cool as he makes his books available for free as audio books at the same time they're available in hardcover. At first blush, you'd think this would be self-defeating, but his books are hot sellers, so it works. You can get his books at his site or through iTunes.

I'm only just starting to get into audiobooks in the last year or so, and Sigler's sets a high mark. One of the great things about it is that it's read by the author, and you get the sarcasm when it's intended, you get all the inflections and emphasis when they need to be placed, everything. You're not getting someone else's interpretation of it, you're getting it straight from the fiend's mouth. And it's also surprisingly old-fashioned when you think about it, the experience of hearing the author read his own work in toto. In some ways, it breaks down some of the usual barriers and lets the reader/listener connect with the author in ways that aren't always possible today. Ironically, it's one of those ways in which technology is working to bring things full circle; the primitive, primal experience of having a story communicated orally, bypassing books and written language, is something so lost to modern generations that it seems exciting and new.

It's violent and gory, but also very, very interesting, and there's a sequel, CONTAGIOUS, that I'm just starting on. Look into it, if you can stomach it. I think you can.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

At the Cinema: Hitch's BLACKMAIL (1929)

The AFI Silver is doing a Hitchcock series and I've already bought tickets for about seven shows. Today's was 1929's BLACKMAIL.

They're actually showing two different versions of was shot in silent format but in the middle of filming sound technology became available and Hitch quickly reshot most of it in sound. So now there's silent and sound versions available, and they'll be showing the silent version with an orchestra next month.

The sound version of BLACKMAIL plays with the audience at first. It opens with a scene of London police nabbing a criminal in his apartment, and the only thing you hear is music and occasional sound effects. People speak but no dialogue is heard. It's as if Hitch was slowly getting the audience used to the fact that this was a sound movie...before you hear any dialogue.

BLACKMAIL is the story of Alice (Anny Ondra), a shopkeeper's daughter who's dating policeman Frank (John Longden). They go out one evening but Alice is difficult and keeps changing her mind; it turns out that she's already arranged to meet someone else, an artist played by Cyril Ritchard. Frank gets fed up with her and storms out, but then turns back to see her leaving with another man.

Alice is coaxed up to the artist's apartment, where they indulge in a series of flirtations. Alice dresses up in one of his model's costumes, and he makes a play for her, which has her suddenly thinking twice about what she's doing. He tries to rape her...and she stabs him in self-defense. She runs out, traumatized and numb, but is seen by a shadowy figure.

The next day, Frank is at the scene and not only recognizes the man but finds one of Alice's gloves. He goes to Alice and tries to get her to talk, when in strolls Tracy, a petty criminal who was in the apartment as well and has Alice's other glove, and now proposes blackmail...

BLACKMAIL was apparently adapted from a play and it shows for the first three quarters. The action is bound to a couple of sets and at times seems almost claustrophobic. It's not until toward the end when Tracy panics and leads the coppers on a merry chase through the British Museum that things really pick up. And here you can see the start of Hitch's use of large-scale landmarks in his chase scenes.

It has its debits, though. Anny Ondra's performance is rather awkward, and there's a good story behind that...turns out she had a heavy Czech accent and rather than recast the role, Hitch hired another actress to stand off camera and read the lines while Ondra lip-synched. The stagebound feel of a number of scenes gets a little dull after a while.

But overall, it's worth seeing for Hitchcock fans, especially with the odd and ambiguous ending. (If you're spoiler sensitive, stop reading now.) The police all believe that Tracy is responsible, and during the chase he is killed when he climbs to the top of the dome at the British Museum and falls through a window. Alice, unaware of this, goes into Scotland Yard, determined to confess. However, she never manages to tell anyone other than Frank, and nobody takes her seriously. As far as they're concerned, Tracy was the killer and now is dead, and the case is closed. She and Frank laugh with another officer...but Alice's laugh becomes forced and hollow as she sees one of the artist's paintings, of a clown looking out at the viewer and pointing, which works on her guilt. She glances uncomfortably at Frank. You get the feeling that she will never be free of her guilt, and that she and Frank are now trapped together, and will not have a happy life. End of movie.

Yipes! But given some thought, this is a movie where few people are truly innocent.

It's out there on DVD, and it's worth viewing on a lazy afternoon or evening.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Phantom Cabaret: Debussy and Baudelaire

We lounge about at our tables, sipping our cocktails or absinthe, conversing by candlelight. The dimly lit chandeliers illuminate, slightly, the red flocked wallpaper and dark woodwork. You smile at friends at the next table, while you spot someone else flipping through an old, tattered book, squinting in the dim light. Everyone is dressed for the occasion, in eccentric yet elegant garb, looted from thrift shops, vintage stores, and our parents' and grandparents' closets.

Then we hear a few riffs on the piano, and then the performer enters, and begins to sing...

This is part one of Debussy's setting of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal to music. Relax and enjoy....

Claude Debussy himself, one of the few composers with the guts and talent to take on Baudelaire. He was working on an opera based on Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" when he died....oh, if only.